Sunday, January 31, 2010

Million Writers Award...

... nominations are now open until February 28.

I noticed that nominated stories must be at least 1,000 words. Is this a new rule?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Salinger...

... died today at age 91.

The New York Times obit describes him as "the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous." (Looks like Pynchon is the last of the great recluses.)

The Catcher in the Rye was a landmark book for me. I think I read it relatively late, in college. Maybe I was nineteen. I don't think I'd ever devoured a book like that before or since.

I know people have a strong attachment to Catcher. That red cover, the yellow lettering, the declarative opening line... The fact that Salinger didn't publish much after it probably has something to do with that attachment, too.

Last year the Times published an article about how kids don't relate to Holden Caulfield anymore. It made me a little sad, but I understand why the book just doesn't resonate as much today...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Few Pretty Much Random and Quick Reasons Why I Write Very Short Fiction

(This is a longer version of an essay I wrote for Laura Ellen Scott's VIPs on vsf blog a while ago...)

1. I used to write poetry

This seems surreal to me now, but it’s true, there was a time when I wrote poetry. And I have a dusty rubber-banded stack of old Mac floppy disks to prove it. All my groping attempts at verse are backed up on those disks, which reside in a box in my bedroom closet, packed away and ignored for more than a decade.

A few things got published, but I was never much of a poet. What I liked, though, and what’s stuck with me and informed my fiction writing since then, was the satisfying sense of finality and completion I experienced after finishing something short and brief (whether four lines or four stanzas). I also really liked the compressed impact that a poem can have—I wanted my short fiction to be like that too.

My future wasn’t in poetry. This was a detour and I knew it all along, having always gravitated toward fiction. But as the years went by, and I switched back to fiction (a couple of unpublished novels; “traditional” length short stories), I also started writing shorter short fiction, all the while influenced by my brief foray into poetry.

Poetry taught me about the need for language to be disciplined. The way words fit, the way they speak to each other, the way they sound, even the way they look on the page—these things were important. In a poem, you can’t, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard, include the parts that readers skip over. Every line, every comma, every line break needs to be exactly where it should be and everything needs to be just so. There should be resonance and echo. Each word should seem inevitable and haunt the reader with its inevitability.

Likewise very short fiction. A 20-page short story better be tight. But a 3-page story? That sucker better be fucking airtight. The reader should be breathless by the last sentence, simultaneously left wanting more and hungry but also fulfilled and completely satisfied. There is no room for a whimsical digression or long-winded description about the color of a leaf.

Get in, get out, leave a mark, hint at or pull back the veil of human mystery—that’s what I look for as a reader of very short fiction and it’s what I strive for as a writer too.

2. Grace Paley

During my last year of college I took a creative writing seminar. One of the assigned books was an anthology of very short fiction. It included people like Borges, Kafka, Nabokov. And it also included Grace Paley’s story “Wants.”

This was a revelation. It contained so much in just a few pages. It read more like a novel to me than a three-page story. It felt complete, whole. Nothing more needed to be said. It’s a story I go back to again and again.

David Foster Wallace has a story called “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Boundaries (VI).” It consists of three sentences. When I read it for the first time I admit I scratched my head a bit. But then it sunk in: yes, that was a story, that was all that needed to be said here. Stories could be extra large and supersized. They also could extra small and undersized.

3. The way my life is right now

So yeah, that’s a big reason why my recent writing output consists mostly of very short fiction. The form suits my life.

With three young children (including 18-month-old twins), a full-time job, and a hairy commute (I know, blah blah blah), it’s difficult to find long, uninterrupted blocks of time to devote to fiction writing. That’s my current, self-chosen reality.

For me, writing longer fiction seems to require a deeper kind of immersion, both time-wise and head-space-wise. At some point I know I need to get over this, and stop my internal worrying/rationalizing, and just work on my novel, but for now, in my present situation, it’s much easier (and satisfying) to sit down for one or two sessions (usually brief, usually interrupted) and come away with a draft of a very short story. This gets back to the satisfaction completion mentioned above.

The point here, I think, is to write what you can right now and not stress over it and just write. Any writing you can do is a victory. I’m reminded of J. Robert Lennon’s collection Pieces for the Left Hand. If I recall correctly, he wrote the 100 very short stories (mostly about a page in length) that comprise the book while his son took his afternoon naps. That kind of makes him my hero. I wish I’d been able to do something like that. Maybe one day I will.

Things My Kids Have Recently Said

"I love Tylenol." *

"Daddy's like Santa. He knows everything." *

"Fries, fries." **

"My dinosaur pillow needs more fluff." *

"I'm nothing." *

"Pan-da." **

"Can I have a parachute some day?" *

"Shoes, shoes." **

"Do you want to watch me pee?" *

"Uh-oh." **

"You need to do another film of me so I can be on TV." *

"Ooooooooooh." **

"Your booty. Your booty. Shake your booty off the dance floor." *

"Dog-gie." **

"Dead means you're dead." *

"Yuck." *

"Are we shooting the breeze?" *

"All right." **

"I'm never going to die, Mommy. I'm never going to ever die, not even today." *

* Ethan (4)

** Henry and/or Celia (21 mos.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

New Wigleaf Writers' Playlist

Scott Garson was kind enough to ask me to contribute to the latest Wigleaf writers' playlist.

The theme this time is love and sex.

My piece is about Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" and when I first moved to San Francisco. This was a long time ago.

Other contributors include:
Amelia Gray, Jen Pieroni, Kirsty Logan, Trent England, Roxane Gay, Jim Ruland, Crispin Best, Elizabeth Ellen, Angi Becker Stevens, Lauren Becker, Nicolle Elizabeth, Amanda Nazario, Ben Loory and M.T. Fallon.

And speaking of Mr. Garson, you can preorder his "American
Gymnop├ędies
" here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Most Important Thing

Recently I was wondering: What's the most important thing I've ever written?

First, I started thinking of certain stories, my unpublished novel, the novel I'm currently working on, the nonfiction/memoir-y thing I'm also working on.

Then I realized no: The most important thing I've ever written was my father's eulogy.

The second most important thing I've ever written was my aunt's eulogy, which I gave yesterday.

David Rawlings Machine


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Things I've Recently Said to My Kids

"I think you've become a Tylenol junkie."

"Do you want to wear your pimp hat?"

"Bye-bye, pee. Bye-bye, poo."

"Why don't you like Radiohead anymore?"

"It's not okay to hit. We don't hit in our house. We're pacifists here. Look at the beard. See?"

"DJ Lance is cool."

"You guys are acting all coked out like Stephen Stills."

"Please don't eat the cat food again."

"Minnie is, uh, Mickey's special lady friend."

"Bye-bye, pee-pee. Bye-bye, poo-poo."

"Elmo needs a switchblade to the head."

"Yo."

"What do you guys have against sleeping in?”

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Wake-Up Artist

George Saunders remembers David Foster Wallace:

"I don't know much about Dave's spiritual life but I see him as a great American Buddhist writer, in the lineage of Whitman and Ginsberg. He was a wake-up artist. That was his work, as I see it, both on the page and off it: he went around waking people up. He was, if this is even a word, a celebrationist, who gave us new respect for the world through his reverence for it, a reverence that manifested as attention, an attention that produced that electrifying, all-chips-in, aware-in-all-directions prose of his."

More here (keep scrolling; there are many remembrances of other writers who died in the past decade).

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Story @ Emprise Review

This one is called "Burn Rate."

It features a hot air balloon ride, classic rock and much, much more.

The rest of the issue looks great, featuring folks like Jen Michalski, Ben Loory, Steve Himmer, and much, much more.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year Linkage