The Virtues of Ignoring Your Readers
April 16, 2013 – 9:42 pm
i remember the first time I wrote a sex scene. The scene involved one cousin stealing another cousin’s girlfriend, then I got into the nittygritty.
When I’d finished writing it, I thought of my mother.
It surprised me. But that’s where my head went. As I read over the scene, I thought, “What would the person who brought me into the world think about this?”
Her imagined response wasn’t pretty, so I told myself a useful lie. It’s the same one I’ve used ever since then: it doesn’t matter because no one is going to read this.
In Front Porch’s forthcoming interview with writer Amelia Gray, sheexamines the reader and writer relationship. Gray says that our ultimate goal as writers is to forge a connection with readers, but they should be far off during the creative process.
“I try not to think about readers at all,” Gray said. “It’s necessary to write something that feels real and true to me at the end of the day.”
This sounds about right, especially considering Gray’s PEN/Faulkner nominated novel THREATS, a challenging, poetic, and at times heartbreaking book, which among other things asks you to juggle a mysterious death, doppelgangers, people living among wasps, and a dose or two of mental illness. The world of THREATS is one that blends the real and the surreal with each turn of the page.
I feel that it is not a stretch for writers focused on reader reaction—i.e. not alienating people, generating more sales, being more conventional—to run away from challenging, more confrontational work. As a result of Gray keeping a healthy distance in her work from the thoughts of the traditional reader, she has succeeded in gaining a community of readers she may not have otherwise gained, and those readers greatly appreciate the risk she took.
Our interview with Amelia Gray will be published in our spring issue. But to hold you over, here’s a little Gray trivia paired with another nifty example of ignoring expectations: THREATS did not initially begin as a book, but as a performance piece. Gray wrote it as a series of individual threats ranging from creepy to confounding meant to be yelled at people. Here it is being performed by the author on a moped. Enjoy!
I, for one, Welcome our new Computer-Poet Colleagues
April 9, 2013 – 2:57 pm
Tumbling around on the Internet recently, I discovered that in 1984, a book was published—The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed—with the subtitle, “Computer Prose and Poetry by Racter.” “Racter” is a program that, according to the book, “can write original work without promptings from a human operator.”
Given that it’s been twenty-eight years since that book was published and computers still don’t have a niche market as authors in the literary world (so far as I know), I suppose computers don’t pose much of a threat to human writers. But on more philosophical terms, should I feel threatened that, theoretically, a computer program could write the poem I wrote last week? Should I become a saboteur, sticking pencils into the automated machines that may make me obsolete?
I say no—and not because I respect a computer’s poetry less than poems written by my human comrades. Does it really matter who (or what) wrote a great poem? Is the identity or mode of existence of the writer enough in itself to make a poem great? I suspect what matters most is the poem in itself. Just as I shouldn’t assume a poem is great because it was written by So-n’-so, I shouldn’t assume that a poem is useless or “meaningless” because it was written by a computer.
That said, and at the risk of digression, I do want to say that sometimes judging the poem-in-itself is not enough; some poems ask to be judged by process, especially poems that would fall into the category of Conceptual Literature: poems fashioned by constraint-based methods (such as Oulipo), poems that are written by following parameters the writer sets. Such poems call attention to the method of their making as much as what is on the page. Depending on how specific and complex the process, the writer-as-ego present in the poem’s making may vanish. If I write a poem by listing the third word on each page of a book next to me, my agency lies only in identifying each third word and placing it on the page. (If I don’t make a rule about form, then it’s up to me to decide where/if to enjamb).
A computer program, given the parameters and the material just described, could also generate this hypothetical poem. Does the method make the poem less of a poem because a computer wrote it? I think not.
Someone may point out that a computer is only as smart as its artificial intelligence allows it to be: somebody must insert those poem-making parameters in order for the computer to churn out the poem; the machine may not be able to “invent” method. The computer must know of options available to it in order to formulate procedure. But is this any different from a human writer? It’s unlikely that anyone would suddenly write a sestina without knowing the form existed. Human intelligence is artificial as well. What I mean is: human experience is the artificer of human knowledge.
A Guilty Conscience
March 21, 2013 – 7:12 pm
I can admit, I’m an incredibly slow writer, not a poetry machine able to pump out polished masterpieces or volumes of work. Many times the Kafka-bug hits, and I feel the urge to crumple up my work, adding to that towering mountain in the corner. Somewhere in that pile is a bit of my voice. Not the voice so many of us try–and often fail–to define as the voice of a poem, but the voice within that says, “you can do this, this is who you are.” To lose a part of oneself is terrifying. Recently, a friend professed that she believed our ability to criticize and evaluate has perhaps far surpassed our ability to write, creating a gap between what we have learned about writing and what we are actually capable of producing. But even if she’s right, this isn’t my only problem. So often I feel distracted by the daily callings in my life whether it’s taking care of my animals, cleaning the house, grading student essays, or even that itch to watch brain-numbing TV. The guilt trip my writing conscience gives me for yielding to these distractions is never-ending.
It wasn’t until I attended an Olga Broumas Q&A that I was finally able to sooth my neuroses and silence that irritating tap on the shoulder reminding me, “hey, you should be writing.” When a fellow poet asked how she felt about writers pouring themselves into another form of art when searching for inspiration–in a sense, turning away from their work and becoming diverted, not just by the arts, but also by daily distractions and routines–Broumas responded with the statement “trust what you know and cling to it.” The sense of relief that filled me after hearing this profession was essential for my well-being. At that moment, Broumas was giving me permission to relax, to be satisfied with the work that I was doing, as dismal or as little as it may be, and to embrace the distractions. She asked, and I paraphrase, that as long as you are passionate about what you are doing, whether it is the laundry or walking the dogs, as long as you pour yourself and your dedication into something, how can it be considered a distraction? It’s the amount of dedication that defines something as a distraction, not the act itself.
It’s quite possible that Broumas was trying to reach us on a different level than what I interpreted from this explanation, but it allowed me to finally breathe. I like to think there are others on this same beam with me, balancing a life of writing with daily expectations and routines. Choosing to make dinner for my family is not detrimental to my writing, even if it interferes with the time I have established as “writing time.” After all, not all of us “receive” poetry as Lorca did, but wouldn’t that be nice? It’s okay to have to “force” yourself to write or to simply give in to the day’s callings. That guilty conscience will inevitably pop up again, and that irritable tap will certainly return from time to time. This time when it starts to tap, I’ll tap back, smile, and say I know, I know.
Store-bought Essays Versus Homegrown Stories
February 21, 2013 – 8:04 pm
about a month ago, I had an epiphany: creative non-fiction may be slightly easier to write than fiction because the creative non-fiction process doesn’t include a creation stage. When we write fiction there’s no getting around the act of creation: we have to imagine people, places, or details we’ve never actually seen or experienced. This imagining is so difficult that I think it is why we compare the act of writing fiction to the act of giving birth. My epiphany came when I found what seemed like good material for a memoir piece or a personal essay. I went to a small town Texas municipal court to appeal a citation I’d received for an expired vehicle inspection sticker. Within seconds of entering the courtroom, I recognized a story-perfect tension happening in almost every set of details and events I observed. For instance, the man in the judge’s robe didn’t sit behind the type of judge’s desk you’ve probably seen in Law and Order, but behind a plastic foldout table. The pomp of the
robe and the ad hoc ethos demonstrated by the foldout table were a curious contradiction. And during the judge’s obviously rehearsed opening remarks, an old man beside me whispered to a young woman that he had two sixty-inch television sets for sale. Once again, I was witnessing pure ceremony (the formal language of the judge’s speech) placed beside pure functionality (the practicality of an old man who sees an opportunity to advertise his TV). For the next hour in which I sat waiting to appeal my citation, I scribbled onto an envelope these strange conversations and details. After I went home and typed up my scribbles, I began to try and manipulate the presentation of these conversations and details so that my report might become not just a report, but an investigation: what insight does this ceremony/functionality tension reveal about this small town and its municipal court? And, ultimately, what does this small town’s tension say about life? I didn’t have to “birth” any material for my essay. Once I’d merely observed and reported, I could immediately begin to manipulate the presentation of what I’d reported.
To me, the difference between writing fiction and writing creative non-fiction is a little like the difference between baking with store-bought ingredients and baking with home-grown ingredients—making brownies by buying a carton of milk and a box of cocoa, or making brownies by milking the cow you raised and crushing into powder the cocoa beans you grew.
I don’t mean to denigrate creative non-fiction writers, and I don’t think I am: I have a hunch that most good creative non-fiction writers are good because either they have previously endured, or are enduring, the labor pains of fiction. Neither do I wish to imply that writing creative non-fiction is easy. Even after being handed what was to me a fascinating courtroom drama, I’ve spent two weeks trying to shape those scribbled notes into a coherent essay that engages readers not just through its tension but through its voice, syntax, and pacing. Thirteen pages in, I feel no guarantee the essay will be worth keeping.
Literary Affairs with the Pool Boy
January 22, 2013 – 9:21 pm
around the holidays, I always find myself having secret affairs. They are not the kinds that end up on TV; they’re in my reading life. A friend once said that the Twilight series was her, “literary affair with the pool boy,” and to this day, I can’t shake the idea.
Last year during Christmas, I found my self stranded in the Little Rock airport with nothing to read. Too cheap to pay for Wi-Fi, I found myself in the airport bookstore. Now I won’t go against my southern roots and say that the Little Rock Airport bookstore lacks in literary taste, but I will say that every airport bookstore carries exactly what it needs to carry: pool boys.
By pool boys, I mean that these are the books people feel guilty for loving, and I am not sure why. Most people in academe will be quick to say our favorite books are War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, or Moby Dick because they are great works of literature. Why aren’t we supposed to love books marketed to the masses?
In the bookstore I picked up Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, and couldn’t put it down. On my flight to Austin, three different people asked me about it (as opposed to the one person who asked me about The Poems of Akhmatova on my previous flight, and then went, “Oh.”). Instead of entering a lengthy discussion about the language and form, I went with my gut and told them: “It’s hilarious and insightful!” And it was. I found myself both considering and quoting Fey on feminism and gay rights for the next month. Take this section for example: “A coworker at SNL dropped an angry c-bomb on me and I had the weirdest reaction. To my surprise, I blurted, “No. You don’t get to call me that. My parents love me. I’m not some Adult Child of an Alcoholic that’s going to take that shit.” Something in the way she blends real issues with her own personal life makes the story just come alive.
So yes, a mainstream book stuck with me. I’ll admit it: I had a literary affair. I can feel Chaucer’s eyes burning in my neck as we speak. But as my friend said, “It just felt so right.” Fey says “It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.” Sure, it might feel wrong to pick up a book that seems mainstream and popular at the time, but it’s worth it for the sheer pleasure alone. So when you’re at the airport or in line at Wal-Mart, stranded far away from the library or internet, seeing all the books with bright stickers on them, don’t brush them off. They might be your next secret lover.
The Places We’ll Go
November 20, 2012 – 11:11 am
as we pulled into Houston’s Theater District, I could feel the pace of my breathing trying to match my heartbeat and I dizzied; in a few moments, I would be watching Junot Diaz, a full week before he won the MacArthur Grant, read from his new short story collection, This is How You Lose Her. It’s funny because the following day Diaz would read in Austin (a 30 minute drive as opposed to the three hour trek we had just completed to sit in a seat at the Alley Theater). But this was about far more than just seeing Junot Diaz read; this was about the city itself, for the raised cracks flowing through the streets of Houston are the Braille to my soul.
Diaz read the first part of “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” and followed up with “Alma.” Both stories are chock-full of his delightful comedy culled from the idiosyncratic sadness of processed memories (“Fifty fucking girls? Goddamn.”). But the thing that always gets me in Diaz’s stories is his use of place, the way he takes full advantage of the safety, hostility, and detail that comes with location. Yunior takes his fiancée to the beach where The Piano was filmed, a locale that she always wanted to visit, in hopes of an intimate reconcile; instead, the space only serves as a trap door for his fiancée to realize she does not want him. In “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” Yunior returns to his beloved Dominican Republic, is held above a hole in the earth, witnesses his first encounter with Magda on George Street near Rutgers, and knows that it’s all over for them. In “Alma,”Yunior describes the eponymous Alma as having “a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans,” which comes to be unreachable. For Yunior to fully realize how he lost these women, he must remember where and the sting inhabits those deep huecos he finds himself in time and time again.
And isn’t this something we all do? In memories, the surrounding is just as pertinent to the feeling itself. In the held breath of contemplation, you try and locate yourself in a place to try and find something you hadn’t noticed before, and whether you succeed or not, that nook can at least provide the warmth of familiarity. For writers, it could mean revisiting a certain place in numerous incarnations to make sense of it all (John Berryman and Henry’s dreams, William Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha county, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, or, dare I say it, Kanye West’s Chicago in “Homecoming”) or sitting down at a tiny desk where bleeding onto the page is least painful.
After his reading, someone asks Diaz what he’ll do next. He says he will disappear for the next five or so years to face the pain and toil of writing his next masterpiece. Disappear where? I imagine it to be a place of both winces and glad humming.
As I walk out of the Alley Theater and soon find myself cruising down Montrose, I look to the corner where I answered my phone and tried to talk her into keeping us together. She hung up and I remember walking out into the street and at the impact between my foot and the pavement, I realized I lost her. There are so many spaces like this in Houston for me that the city holds my story just as much as I hold its story. I imagine a similar reason exists for Diaz when he places his characters in the Dominican Republic or New Jersey: for a writer to revisit a space in their work is to interpret the love or hate or ambivalence it embraces them in so that the place becomes just as much a character as living, breathing human beings. I imagine Diaz will revisit several places for Yunior, or any character, to inhabit so that we, the reader, may understand Yunior.
The Importance of Alchemy
October 23, 2012 – 12:17 pm
for a writer, the blur between real life and fiction sometimes becomes so hazy that, when critiquing a fellow writer’s story, I’ll recognize fragments of a conversation we had last week. Or I’ll notice a character with a penchant for collecting wrestling memorabilia, who reminds me a great deal of a mutual friend (dangerous work, being friends with a writer). Sometimes, on a Tuesday bar-night, the conversation will get riotous and someone will share a great anecdote or describe someone they know. “Oh,” will say the others, “you have to write about that.” And if that author doesn’t stake their claim right there—yes, you’re right, I will do that—someone else will use it in some way. It’s not competitive; rather it’s economical, or green: let no good thing go to waste.
I love this tendency for the real to emerge in the imagined, particularly when I can have the fun of recognizing the wellspring, because it is part of the creative act. In Kevin Brockmeier’s brilliant novel The Illumination, he shows this at work. Each chapter is about a different character, their unique stories connected by two recurring elements: a book of collected love notes and a tendency for people’s pain to literally glow. One chapter follows an author, Nina Poggione, who keeps the book of love notes in her library. As pieces of the story she is working on weave their way into the chapter, sly riffs on the love notes emerge in her writing. Oh, the layering; the imaginary writer borrowing from an imaginary book. Add another layer: at a reading about The Illumination, Brockmeier mentioned that he gave the author-character one of his own characteristics. Brockmeier borrowed from the real to create an imagined author, who in turn would borrow from the imagined-real herself.
There is an interesting distinction, though, in what Brockmeier did—lending a piece of himself to the character—and in what Nina does in The Illumination—using a piece of someone else. Borrowing from outside the self is complicated territory, though the truth is all writers do it, both consciously and unconsciously. Some do it in ways that instinctively make one squirm, like F. Scott Fitzgerald plundering Zelda’s diaries and letters, lifting whole passages. Other times the borrowing feels gentle, a nod to a portion of common knowledge that might otherwise be lost. Louise Erdrich, pulling inspiration from newspaper articles and cultural legends, speaks to this way of writing.
Ultimately, though, it’s not the method of collection or the source of information that matters. Whether the writer is working with fragments of conversation picked up in a coffee shop or the words of a former lover lifted from a birthday card, what matters is how these pieces of life appear in the work. If they are simply thrown into a vat of imagination, or cobbled onto other pieces of life, either will do well enough for a disguise. But I am not sure it justifies the borrowing. Instead, these slivers of life should be alchemized and made greater by their new home. What makes Nina’s writing so beautiful, for me, is that it’s clear in the imagined-author’s work that she not only borrowed from the real: she transformed it. I would say the same for Brockmeier’s portrayal of Nina, who is clearly not Kevin Brockmeier, but who was born from a piece of Brockmeier himself.
This sort of transformation isn’t about hiding the seams or caulking the tile or whatever metaphor we might use for obscuring the telltale signs of a writer at work. It isn’t about protecting the sources of inspiration. It is true, though, that when the transformation takes place, the people who inspired the borrowed moments—even the writer who lent a piece of themselves—won’t recognize themselves. Instead, they’ll recognize something greater: some truth that all of us hold.
When a Text Chooses Its Reader
September 30, 2012 – 11:00 am
a good friend recently shared with me his favorite book, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I bumped it to the top of my pleasure-reading list. I have always been fascinated by the texts chosen by sporadic readers. My friend told me he has read the novel six times since he first discovered it. Though he works in the tech industry, his passion in life is as a painter and sculptor. He explained to me that, unlike protagonist Lionel Essrog, he does not have Tourette syndrome, but he absolutely identifies with the idea of a brain driven beyond society’s boundaries by creative connections of words and images.
Similarly, my cousin, a metal spinner by trade, is of a mechanically minded intelligence that rarely found its outlet in literature or formal schooling. He once confessed that his favorite book is The Catcher in the Rye, and he claimed to have read it two dozen times. Granted, the blood that runs between us contains a notorious tendency toward exaggeration, but I believed my cousin. He spoke gravely of his identification with Holden Caulfield’s sense of alienation and his belief that the world is full of “phonies.” How could my cousin, a man who grew up in the country and who knows what it is to struggle so deeply relate to the prep-school cynicism of a disillusioned rich kid? It seems that the importance of any book lies in its ability to leave a lasting mark on the reader’s psyche. Salinger’s text, polarizing though it may be, is a successful novel, but the paper I wrote on it in high school did not convince me of this; my hardened, logically minded cousin’s moment of vulnerability, wherein he expressed a true love for the character and story, did.
Make no mistake, I am grateful to count myself among the people who pursue literature and writing in an academic and professional setting. And, the goal for me is not just to write a beautiful or commercially successful book but to write one with which readers can connect. Studying and mastering a craft is a means to this connection, not an end.
Ultimately, an author does not have control over her audience, and sometimes the relationship between a reader and text can seem downright serendipitous. When I expressed my fascination with this to a fellow student and friend, I was treated to his story of a workshop in which he endured an hour of the confused and irritated criticisms of his classmates. They felt that his story about a fishing trip deviated too far from a traditional narrative structure. They didn’t “get it” they said. Finally, an older man raised his hand and he said, “This is a story about a boy going fishing with his father.” My friend felt a rush of gratitude and validation that he had gotten through to someone. The message was simple. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it must be sincere.
This is the kind of book I want to write.
Worlds of Despair, Hope, and Weirdness
August 23, 2012 – 10:59 am
i want stories that I can live in for a short time, that are micro-worlds with their own rules, stories that make me cringe, or giggle, or maybe even choke up a bit. I want stories that shake my notion of what is normal or acceptable, both in literature and the world. I want to be taken on a journey, to be ejected out of the easy chair of complacent understanding and into the sky of possibility. And I also want stories with characters I can relate to, can empathize with, even if they have questionable morals, make mistakes, or treat others and themselves poorly. I like a story that has all these qualities and has a dash of the zany, the dystopic, the post-apocalyptic and surreal. I am addicted to worlds that warp into something extraordinary.
When I was in third grade, I wrote my first story. It was called “The Space Dudes.” It was about some dudes flying through space, battling malevolent aliens, exploring unknown planets. It received harsh criticism from the teacher, who said that my use of the term “Snot Rockets” (the Space Dude’s primary weapon of defense) was crude and inappropriate. The class laughed. I was crushed and ashamed; but in me grew a taste for stories that challenged sensibilities and pushed boundaries. Later, in my twenties, while reading an article by Ben Marcus in Harper’s, I came across the name George Saunders. I had read Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String and found it delightfully jarring. I thought if this guy has read George Saunders…why not me? I bought a copy of Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella and read it straight through. It was as if my desire for terrifying and hilarious worlds had finally found a home and, in some sense, validation.
I have probably read it three times and whenever someone asks me, “What’s your favorite book?” it is this title that pops into my mind. Saunders’ worlds, while often surreal, are, when you think about it, not too much unlike this one. While I adore all the stories in this collection, “Bounty,” the novella at the end, possibly embodies all of my favorite elements of Saunders’ writing. It is post-apocalyptic, hilarious, disturbing, and lovingly crafted. The character, a man with deformed feet in a world that marginalizes deformed people, is at first so pathetic, so downtrodden by his superiors that you think, “Geeze, stand up for yourself. Loser.” But then the ride begins—a search for meaning and acceptance in a world that seeks to crush the human spirit—and you find yourself cheering for the character: “You can do it! Get out of there! Your humanity is at stake!”
Civil War Land in Bad Decline is a book that, for me, is sort of like a cure. I can read one of its stories whenever I’m feeling too serious—or that the future is bleak, or that laughter does not come as easily as it should—and I can see that yes, the future is bleak, but there is still hope.
April 28, 2012 – 12:13 am
the middle school I work at has experienced more than its fair share of tragedy. In the two years that I have worked there, I’ve watched too many of my students be taken away in handcuffs and pulled from school by deportation orders. My students are confronted daily by gang violence, teen pregnancy, domestic abuse, missing parents, sexual violence, and untimely death—all perils of a working class neighborhood.
One of my students was kidnapped and taken to Mexico. Another was banned from campus for beating an underclassman unconscious. One of my most charismatic students was arrested for organizing a student fighting ring and taking bets on the winners. Over 83% of all students qualify for the government’s discounted meal program.
This is where I teach poetry.
Once a week, for two hours, I sit in a classroom of young people and ask them to tell me their stories. I show them videos of performance poets. I read them Saul Williams, Nikki Giovanni, Raul Salinas, and Asha Bandele. I show them what poetry can do. I urge them to write.
One particular week I started class with a video of young poets from Chicago, performing a piece about gang violence. My students sat quietly at their desks and watched the video of “Lost Count: A Love Story”:
Will they ever call your death beautiful / Your life a sacrifice / Will the meeting of blood and bullet ever be called romantic / A love story to be jealous of?
Before the lights came back on, everyone was crying. The only thing I knew to do was direct the students to their notebooks. We didn’t discuss the video. We didn’t relate our stories. We wrote.
As the class continued, I slowly discovered the heartbreaking events that had preceded my visit. Earlier that week an 11th grade student—from the feeder high school and whose sister attended the middle school—had been killed by a train while crossing the tracks. A day later a student had died from an asthma attack after being left alone in her home.
One week. Two deaths. And a classroom full of poetry. This is why my students come to class every week. This is why they come to poetry. To heal. To tell their stories for the first time. To grieve. To ease private pain with public catharsis.
This is why I stay.