October 31, 2008

Done and Gone

I managed to get a short-story in fighting shape for a contest this month. If I have anything positive to say about writing groups, it's that every once in awhile you luck out and find yourself in a group where everyone is serious about what they're doing. My short fiction class at school is such a group. Different ranges in experience, but I'll take sincerity over self-love every time. They made some great comments on my piece that have changed it for the better.

Submitting work to contests or journals or magazines or bathroom stalls takes a fair amount of work. Such a crucial aspect to writing. I wonder how many people tuck their first or second drafts into an envelope and fire it into the mail? I think I went over my piece about twelve times, and found something substantial to change on each read. Not sure if that's a good sign or bad. Of course, I had some good help too. I can't speak enough about having at least one or two people whose opinions you trust when it comes to your work. You'll never catch all the problems with your story on your own. Gotta have an extra set of eyes every once in awhile. I've got my wife--who has an eye for story and writing better than most, and maybe two other people.

Here's what I wanted to write on my cover letter:

Deer Writers' Union of Canada-
My storie good is. Pleez reed fore yore pleshure and send me monie prizes.

But I didn't.

October 28, 2008

Bill Gaston; Patrick Lane; The Vancouver Writers' Festival.

I meander too much on this blog. The blame shall be placed on its pretentious title.

Most of the reading I do these days is either for class or to improve my own writing. Case in point: Bill Gaston. I read through a collection of his short stories last summer, called Mount Appetite. The man writes strange, affecting pieces, often with haunting endings. I'm now working through his latest collection, Gargoyles, and having a similar experience. When I read, I wait for oh shit moments, where the writer captures an image, or sets up a scene, or uses the right combination of words in such a way as to deny any possible improvement. I get that with Gaston, though not in every one of his stories. But it's frequent enough for me to want to read more, and often. So many lines of his prose seem to sing from the page, and he avoids the sentimental--which is huge.

This brings me to the Writers' Festival in Vancouver, which finished up this past Sunday. I attended a lecture/reading called Poets Turned Novelists with Patrick Lane, Anne Simpson, and Daphne Marlatt, all of whom have new books out. I'll give these authors credit, they're a lot more subtle about promoting their work than other authors whose readings I've attended. Lane was hilarious. He dropped the F-bomb once, got big laughs, and then decided to use it as often as possible. The laughs didn't quite sustain, but it was a typical male thing to do--and I dug that. What I really liked about the reading was the general agreement that it's a moot point to draw lines between so called literary genres. Yes, there are physical differences between poetry and fiction, but they overlap so often, and in such complicated ways, the distinction becomes unnecessary. Writers don't make the distinctions as much as critics do. It's easier to dissect something when it's contained within a box.

Each author read from their work, but only Lane stuck out to me--because he avoided being sentimental. In his opening remarks, he talked about the ever-popular phrase write what you know, something all students are bombarded with. We tend to misinterpret this statement as meaning what we know in the immediate, physical sense. He suggested it goes beyond that to every fantasy, day-dream, unfulfilled goal, failure we've ever experience. It also extends to every book we've read, every scrap of phrasing we've tried to steal and keep for our own. That's what reading is really, it's a way for us to take something not of ourselves and somehow take ownership of it. Anyways, his reading was from the perspective of an infant ghost, a wandering spirit trying to understand infanticide. Blew me away.

Have I mentioned I meander a lot?

October 24, 2008

John Scalzi

I actually yanked Scalzi's quote from another blogger but wanted to post here as well. Aside from the nasty double adverb, I agree with what he says--even if it's not exactly what I would call a cogent argument.

"The reader who believes a fiction author should keep his or her opinions to themselves is effectively (if generally unintentionally) saying “You exist only to amuse me. You are not allowed to do anything else.” To which the only rational response is: blow me. I’m not going to hesitate to add my voice to the national dialogue on any subject just because someone somewhere might not be happy with what I have to say. And more to the point, I think it is bad and dangerous thinking for people to suggest that fiction writers should have to live in a black box of opinion. The idea that writing fiction somehow obliges or even just encourages a vow of silence on any subject, politics or otherwise, that might offend someone somewhere, is flatly odious."

It pains me to admit this, but on many occasions I've re-thought a comment (not necessarily political) in fear of rubbing certain people the wrong way. I'm not as fearless as say, my friend Sam. I'm not condoning racism or any deep prejudices of any kind--though I contend their right to exist, detestable as they are. I'm saying a writer can't be afraid to write from the gut. You may have regrets, or a change of opinion down the road, but get it out anyways. Be wrong sometimes. There needs to be blood on the page; guts and the worried glance over your shoulder.

October 14, 2008

Milan Kundera revisited

A friend of mine, who lives in Czech, sent me a couple of fascinating articles re: the writer I often revere. Kundera is someone people love to hate in his home country, and these particular articles are likely fuel for the proverbial fire. At the heart of the matter: the question of whether or not he betrayed a fellow citizen to the Communist police during his youth. My opinion (for now) is that it does nothing to detract or add to the man's intelligent perspectives on the history of the novel, or the literary value of his writings. But I imagine his character as a person will not escape indictment--if the accusations are indeed true.

Article One and Article Two.

October 10, 2008

Writing Bullshit (A Rant From Four Hours Sleep)

While sitting through a peer edit session in a certain class this semester, I heard the following remark(s):

My stories just write themselves. I have to let them go where they want to go, live how they like.

Really? Not the first time I've heard people say this and the sentiment pisses me off. It reflects laziness on the part of the author, helplessness. I can't fix my story because it writes itself. I'm not to blame for the way it turned out, the plot mistakes, the flat characters. Bollocks. All you've done is grossly romanticize the effort required to write a good story. The writer is in control of everything. The story does not live on its own, does not get pulled out of ethereal realms. Ideas might, but not the story. This kind of flaky pith does nothing to further what we do.

We're already underdogs. Art in general is viewed as elitist and unnecessary in the every day, working-class world. Many don't consider it work at all. Nothing more than fancy. An instructor of mine once asked what it would mean for every artist on the face of the planet to stop working and all art, in every facet, to be removed from society. What would we be left with? Almost nothing, I think. Creative force is found in almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives. But it's not some extraneous entity. No, it is brought into fruition through the agony of the creator.

So when I sit in a classroom and hear someone spout lazy rhetoric about how their story sucks or when I read through a guild submission displaying a lack of effort or learning--the same mistakes repeated from previous submissions--I want to rifle a piece of chalk into the offender's ear. Why spend so much time and money if all you want is your friends to salivate and heap accolades on your shoulders? Why submit pieces for peer edits that are no different from the ones you submitted last year, or the year before. Why sit in a meeting and expect to be taken seriously when all you want is people to look at you?

Here's a secret: it's all your fault. Every last damn mistake. Your story doesn't have a mind of its own. The reason it sucks is because you suck. Your poems are crap because you think one-offing a first draft is all you need to do. You're lazy, disinterested. Waiting for a muse that never comes.
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October 1, 2008

Bill O'Reilly - You're Kidding Right?

Look, everyone knows the man is a gas bag. It comes part and parcel with his profession. He's inflammatory, condescending, pretentious. But I've also seen him ask the occasional good question too. I'm not saying this because I like the guy, or buy into his I-can-shout-louder-than-you-can approach to conversation. It's just plain common sense that at some point, even the most ridiculous of human beings get it right.

Or do they?

Another blogger responds to O'Reilly, who apparently claims that his own successes in America are proof enough of the existence of God. Whew.

Sometimes a person is so absurd it's impossible NOT to blog about him. I don't even have to try and posit a counter-argument here. Only in America.