Tuesday, March 31, 2015

How to give advice about how to become a writer

My second novel is being launched this Saturday, a year and a half after the first. I launched the first book at an art gallery; there was wine and cheese; I read a few stories and then held a Q&A session. This book launch, we’re having at a bar. There will be pizza. There will not be Q&A. I guess it’s kind of like some people with children: the first child is the precious little baby and the second child—the second child is the really, really fun one. (Guess which one I am.)

Part of the reason I’m eschewing the Q&A session is nobody really enjoys the Q&A session, not the writer nor the audience (and probably not the people serving pizza). The questions are all the same, not because people are so unoriginal but because there just isn’t all that much you can ask at these things. I used to dread the inevitable “what advice do you have for aspiring writers” question until I realized that the person asking was usually just being nice, trying to fill the awkward silence that follows the announcement of “Q&A.” Nobody who has ever been asked that question has anything truly useful to say. Half the time they say things aspiring writers pretty much already know, and the other half they don’t really answer the question at all but simply go on a cranky rant which often begins the same way as Lorrie Moore’s popular short story “How to Become a Writer”: “First try to be something, anything, else.”

This is supposed to make aspiring writers understand just how much suffering the experienced writers have endured in their quest for authorship, you see. Except … that’s crap. Yeah, you suffer as a writer, just like you suffer as a marathon runner, but it’s a suffering you bring upon yourself, willingly, because you like it and because you can. Ergo, this is not truly suffering, nor is it “crazy,” as writers and runners often like to call it in the secretly self-congratulatory manner of people who want to be thought of as bold and daring and extreme. It’s the pursuit of something that gives you pleasure. I call that privilege, not pain.

After the initial dire warning about how becoming a writer is synonymous with becoming an embittered alcoholic debt-ridden misanthrope, the cranky ranter then takes on The Ultimate Evil, a.k.a. the MFA. My goodness, it’s hard to believe how much people despise MFA programs. It’s a little like hating, oh, I don’t know, say, the little “26.2” stickers marathon runners put on their cars. Yeah, sure, I suppose it’s irksome, but really, how much damage is it doing in the grand scope of things? A diploma with “MFA in Creative Writing” on it is just about as impressive as a 26.2 sticker, which is to say not really much at all, and what’s more, the people who have these things already know this. I can’t speak for other runners, but I took up running because the place where I live has almost no elevation change whatsoever. I didn’t do it to impress people, and indeed anyone who has ever seen me running probably feels more pity than awe. As for my creative writing degree, well, at one point in my life I hated my job so much I actually tried to get picked for jury duty. That was the point when I realized I might as well go back to school.

I do understand why some writers go on these cranky rants, why they reject pep-rally chants of “You can do it! Don’t give up! It’ll happen, just you wait!” In writing, as with many things, it isn’t the most talented people who succeed; it’s the most persistent. That’s good in some ways, but it’s also a little dismaying because it means a lot of brilliant writing will never be read by anyone while heaps of dreck will hit best sellers’ lists just because the dreck writers didn’t give up. At the same time, is this really something to wring hands over? The truth is the number of bad writers who will become household names is about the same as the number of good writers who will do so—that is, almost none of them. Encouraging writers who don’t care about “craft” or don’t read “great books” or blindly join the herds in the MFA corrals is not likely to unleash any more “shiterature” (made that up myself, I did) on the world than has already gone off leash. After all, cranky-rant writer, do you really imagine your encouragement or disparagement is going to make a difference?

But of course you do. That’s why you write.

Since I’m not doing Q&A at my reading, I won’t be able to give my advice on this topic, and while I could do it here, I won’t. For anyone out there who really wants to know how to become a writer, I’ll let you find out yourself. Then maybe someday we can all compare notes over wine and cheese—or pizza. It’ll be fun.


Friday, March 13, 2015

How to make fun of runners

Remember The Dress? Yeah, I know, so last month, but since you are currently online I’m guessing you know exactly what I’m talking about. Before that thing went viral, nobody could have predicted that there would be such madness over a pretty but otherwise not particularly noteworthy frock. One thing that would have been easy to predict, however, is the fact that for every person who posted about it, there’d be someone who would post something roughly along the lines of I don’t give a fuck about The Dress. Which, I suppose, is supposed to mark the poster as being unfathomably cool and astoundingly intelligent, or something, or at least supposed to make the rest of us feel like big stupid losers because we follow, like big stupid loser sheep, any foolish little virality that hits the interwebs.

Bollocks, I say. If you aren’t interested in The Dress, or The Ice Bucket Challenge, or The New Harper Lee Book for that matter, that’s fine. I’m not interested in the Kardashians, and to be honest I’m still not entirely sure who or what they are. That said, proclaiming one’s self not interested in something popular is a funny way of forming one’s identity. Considering its predictability, are you really unique for engaging in ridicule? Does this really mark you as original, rebellious, nonconformist, or any of those other words that we so dearly love to see attributed to us at the end of buzzfeed quizzes? Maybe, maybe not, but personally I’d rather form my identity through things that put me at risk of ridicule rather than through the ridicule of others. It is far too easy to make fun of people’s interests. After all, ridicule by definition tends to pick as its object people who take themselves very seriously in matters that are really quite trivial. And few things seem more trivial than other people’s obsessions.

But just look at that statement. An obsession, when you have one, is the antithesis of trivial. It is our reason for being. We don’t care whether anyone else shares it; it’s ours and we want it, achingly badly. Even though I sometimes cringe when I look back and think about the things I used to obsess about, I would feel sorry for anyone who never went through a similar experience. Obsessions are ridiculous, but they are also incredibly compelling.

When I first moved to Illinois, I lived in a small town and I didn’t know very many people, so I tried to get out and be a joiner for once in my life. One of the things I joined was a competitive Scrabble club. If you’re chuckling, it’s OK; the players are probably used to that. What’s more, they probably chuckle about it far more than you do—because they actually know what it’s like. Laughing at the idea of a bunch of people spending a Saturday afternoon fretting over little wooden squares may make you feel smugly superior for a moment or two, but the truth is you’re missing out on most of the fun. That’s one less human experience you’ll get to have, and if you keep it up, the only experience you’ll ever have is smugness. That’s pretty boring.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should never ridicule anything. Being able to step back and look at something from a distance is necessary and important. And come on, The Onion? Nothing can so consistently make me laugh like it does. (I’m especially partial to reportage about the Area Man.) As Elizabeth Bennet says, “I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” Feel free to mock me for quoting Jane Austen, and for the fact that I simply must mention my having read all of her books before they were bandwagonned and made into 87 movies.

See what I did there? Made fun of myself. Beat the sneerers to the punch. I know it’s silly to be the person who has to let it be known that they loved the popular phenomenon well before it was popular, before it was even thought of as a phenomenon. (I wonder if any of the other women who bought that dress are now grumping, “I didn’t know what color it was before anyone else didn’t know.”) Likewise, I know a lot of the things I find exciting and compelling may seem perplexing and absurd to outsiders. I’m still going to do them, and I’m probably going to laugh about them harder than the outsiders ever will. Sure, runners wear stupid-looking clothes, say irritating things, behave idiotically and seem to think all that makes them special. Well, it kind of does. It also makes them the butts of a lot of jokes—their own jokes, at their own expense, because that’s part of the enjoyment of it. We get our obsession, and we get perspective on our obsession. Looks like a cake-and-eat-it-too, far as I’m concerned.

So here, at last, is How To Make Fun Of Runners:

1.       Be a runner.
2.       Make fun of yourself.
3.       Laugh.
4.       Go for a run.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

The right to write

My sister called the other day to give me an update on our parents. They’re both in their 80s now and have been considering moving to an assisted living facility. This is practical but depressing; nobody likes to think of the day when we can’t be independent and autonomous any more, when we need to hire a housekeeper and a meal service not because we’re wealthy or lazy but because we’re tired and frail. Ultimately they decided against moving; the facility they had in mind charged an outrageous monthly fee (as they all seem to do, in order to assure you that this place is legit and not going to leave you eating crust crumbs and sleeping in filth). Instead, they’ll simply buy more ready-to-eat stuff from Trader Joe’s so my mother doesn’t have to cook so much, and my sister will come over to clean a couple of times a month. My sister is freakishly effective at getting a room clean; if cleaning were a Western, she’d be the gunslinging badass all the dust motes fear so much they get the hell out of Dodge the minute they hear she’s coming. Problem, at least temporarily, solved.

This is a relief to me, even though I realize it now casts her as the good daughter and me, once again, as the bad one. She cares for her elderly parents; I visit once a year to gather fodder so I can skew the extended family in Peyton Place-like tales. It seems I hit a few nerves with my first novel. Besides telling me how gross our father’s bathroom is and how thick the grease is behind the stove, my sister informed me that my aunt is still very much pissed off at me for a story included in the book. There’s a character, Rose, the protagonist’s aunt, who comes across as a wee bit shallow. The story is one of the more light-hearted and humorous of the bunch, and while I admit much of the humor is at Rose’s expense, the character is hardly up there with, say, The Governor of Walking Dead in terms of sheer unlikeability. Oh, um, also: IT’S FICTION.

Many months ago when my sister first told me that my aunt was displeased with me because of what I wrote, I thought she was kidding or at least exaggerating. Well, turns out, she wasn’t. The aunt bought many copies of my book to give to family members before she’d read it. I don’t know what happened to those copies, but they were not distributed as originally planned. And the quote from my book that was read at my cousin’s wedding? Probably edited out of the wedding video, I’m guessing. I’m fairly stunned by this, and I’ll be honest: a small part of me is secretly pleased. I got a reaction, a strong one, from my little book of little stories. What writer wouldn’t prefer getting a punch in the face to a pat on the head over something they wrote? Yeah, it’s messed up, but so’s life, so yeah, write what you know.

At the same time, there is also a part of me that is not at all happy knowing what I’ve done. When I taught creative writing, students were always telling me that they had a lot of things they wanted to write but they were afraid of the reaction from people they knew, and my response was always the same: write it first; worry about everything else later. If you worry about the reaction you’ll get to your writing before you’ve even written it, you’ll never get anything written. Obviously I would never encourage anyone to write something malicious, but frankly most of what people write will probably never be read by anyone because it just isn’t worth the time. If it’s good—if it moves people, makes them think and feel and see the world differently—it’s worth writing, even if it ruffles feathers. I still believe that, though now I face the question of what to do about the feather-ruffling business.

I was pondering this last night at a poetry reading I went to in town. I am not a fan of most contemporary poetry, so it really says something about how much I liked the poets I heard last night when I tell you that I had been looking forward to this reading for months and that I bought both poets’ books and had them autographed. Despite my love of literature, I’ve never been one much for book readings; they can be excruciatingly awkward and tedious affairs, whether I’m the listener or even the reader myself. This was not like that; the two poets had good reading voices, chose their poems well, didn’t read every last thing they’d ever written, and most of all made me think and feel and see the world differently. And there was pizza. Poetry with pizza? In this case, win-win.

That said, their poems were not exactly cheerful homages to daffodils or skylarks. They were grim; the first poet read several pieces about her father, a schizophrenic paranoid who became homeless, while the second read a few about his sister who died in a car accident. Raw stuff, that, and to top it off, the second poet’s parents were in attendance. I have never read my fiction out loud to my parents; until the book was published they hadn’t even read anything I’d ever written as an adult (though my mother still tells me how much she enjoyed the story I wrote when I was 10 about a family who adopts a pet seal; the seal ends up saving the family from burglars, of course). I don’t like to use the word “brave” lightly because I think it’s used far too lightly these days in far too many undeserving situations, but I couldn’t help but think: that’s brave.

But is it really? If a writer “dares” to write about something that is likely to get a strong reaction, is it an act of courage or an act of selfishness? How dare we believe that our need for expression is more important than anything else? How stupid could I have been to think my aunt—and my parents, for that matter—would beam with delight and celebrate my first novel with genuine joy because regardless of what I said it in, I beat the odds, I got a book published, something I’ve dreamed of my whole life? Of course they would be upset. Of course they’d see themselves in the characters. Of course they’d believe that’s how I really felt about them all this time, and of course they’d think now everyone else would feel that about them too. It was sheer willful ignorance on my part to believe it’d be otherwise.

I hate drama, and as such I could simply shrug my shoulders, let my aunt simmer, and go on with my life. I’ve never been close to any of my extended family (though, ironically, this aunt is actually my favorite—I like her sense of humor, and her taste in movies and books is very similar to my own), so it would be easy for me to avoid them forever. Except, of course, that nothing, when it comes to family, is ever that easy. The last thing my sister told me is that she wants to plan a surprise anniversary party for my parents this September. It’ll be their 50th—who knew such a dysfunctional marriage could last that long? (Oops, there I go again, maligning the fam.) She hoped I would come out for the party, but she warned me: it would be awkward with my aunt. Really? I thought. We’re going to start a rift this late in all our lives? We’re going to celebrate the endurance of a bond while sticking crowbars in another? We really gonna be that childish? My aunt would no doubt retort You started it. And she’d be right.

I guess I’ll write my aunt with an apology, a much harder thing to do effectively than writing a funny story about some amusing—and fictional—characters. It’s hard to apologize and make it sincere because the truth is I am not sorry for what I wrote, not sorry it got published, not sorry it was read. But I am sorry that I don’t know how to balance the desire for personal expression with a conscientiousness about hurting people’s feelings. I would love to have both; I don’t know if that’s possible. Luckily, my next novel is a thousand percent fiction; not one single person in the book is even remotely based on anyone I know—at least not consciously. If you find yourself in a character, well, I hope you’ll be flattered that I thought of you. If it’s the villain, well, at least you’re famous. Nobody will ever forget The Governor, after all.