Post #95: Well, no Shit

Writing Advice

This report brought to you from our correspondents in The Land Where Things Are Fairly Obvious.

Last week I got to play writer in my life as a teacher, which is rare and to be treasured. One of my colleagues in the high school English department where I teach invited me to visit her three creative writing classes and talk about writing, publication, and perhaps above all, failure and rejection. I happily obliged. After all, getting to talk about myself as a writer to a rapt audience who thinks I’m pretty great and that I really know my stuff is unusual in the life of an obscure. One has to seize these moments.

My colleague had told her students in advance that a “published author” was going to visit class and when they found out it was me, they looked a little surprised. I knew many of them and had even taught some in years past. Still, once I got going, they seemed interested, even more so than I’d expected. I riffed a little on some relevant topics. Among them:

  • Writing for pleasure versus writing for publication.
  • What to do when you realize the universe is never going to thank you for the things that you created.
  • The “business” of writing.
  • The value of finding a community who can give you honest feedback on your work.
  • What to do when you realize your baby (your book) is ugly (shitty).

It was fun. I talked. They listened. I mean, they really listened. It’s not often that people listen to me like that. Then there was some Q and A. The students were impossibly sweet and asked the kind of questions that a writer often dreams of being asked, even if he would never admit he dreams about it. What’s your writing routine? Do you plot things out in advance or do you just “listen” to your characters? What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written? What was your proudest moment as a writer? The kids made me feel like Don Delillo, and I happily pretended that I was.

In the final minutes of class, as I was sneaking out, my colleague asked her students to write “exit cards” where they were to jot down some thoughts about what they learned from the conversation. Later that day and the next, she shared them with me. They were wonderful. Many were insightful and honest and quoted me directly, which made me feel more important that it should have. Many talked about things I’d said related to the personal nature of the creative process. Of how rejection is hard, but the work is everything. About how writing advice should always be heard with skepticism.

But my favorite? The one that was the pithiest and juiciest proxy for my wisdom on the subject at hand? The one that said, simply:

WRITING IS NOT GLAMOUROUS.

Now that kid was really paying attention.

Post #92: This Will Only Hurt a Lot

Shaking My Head, Writing Advice

I got a very polite rejection yesterday from The Florida Review. They apologized for the delay in responding, contextualized the long wait around some editorial and personal changes, yadda yadda yadda, told me they’d found my story “Unsayable Things” engaging, but that it didn’t meet their editorial needs at this time.

As I do when I get rejections, which I get frequently, I updated my “Short Story Submissions” database, my digital warehouse of failure and ball kicking and invisible bruising that helps me keep track of all the places that are turning down my work, when they’re turning down my work, how long it takes them to turn down my work, and with what tone they’re turning down my work. If you’re unfamiliar with the process, there are a variety of different brands of rejection. Impersonal form rejection? Impersonal polite rejection? Mildly personal encouraging rejection? Re-write suggestion rejection? What’s fucked up is that you get to the point where when the rejection even names your story, or suggests that a human being actually read it and enjoyed it, even if it’s a no, you come to love that no. The polite rejection becomes it’s own form of yes. Welcome to the twisted world of writing for publication.

And when I opened up the “Short Story Submissions” and navigated to the story in question, then to the journal in question, I noted that I’d submitted to my good friends at TFR in March of 2012. Yes, you read that right. March of 2012. A full thirteen months after I’d submitted. When I submitted to them, Obama hadn’t been reelected yet. I was a year younger. As were my children. Of course I’d long ago forgotten about the submission. TFR assured me in their rejection that they have fixed whatever was taking them so long to respond and that they are committed to honoring the 2-3 months time frame they normally take to kick people in the balls wearing blindfolds. I believe them, and in a twisted way, was still glad to hear from them. Unlike agents and publishers, who only respond to you if they’re interested, and let silence stand as the sign of rejection and lack of interest, most literary magazines, eventually, do get back to you. Provide you with that human need for closure.

The adage among writers is that you’re not supposed to take rejection personally. Don’t let it get you down. Build a thick skin. It’s so frequent, rejection I mean, and the odds of sneaking a good, or even perhaps excellent, piece of writing through to a respected journal, are so slim that lit mags spend most of their time saying no. With such terrible odds and so frequently hearing “no,” it’s better to protect your heart, not take it personally, and keep submitting, knowing that they’re saying no to great stories all the time, and that half of it is kismet, luck, or some nepotism that you can’t even control. So, don’t take it personally. And I don’t. I don’t let it hurt me.

Except…that’s bullshit.

It hurts like a motherfucker. Not every time, mind you. But the entirety of it hurts, I mean. A deep aching something that you pretend isn’t there because if you acknowledge it too much, it becomes hard to do good work.

Mostly, I don’t take it personally in the way that traditional people take traditional things personally. Like most writers who want to publish, I’ve gotten pretty good at being rejected. Repetition does help make you numb. I see the brief form response, thanking me for the opportunity to read my work, telling me how many submissions they get and how many worthy stories they pass on, etc. Sometimes they say something nice about the story. Mostly they don’t. Sometimes they tell me to submit again soon. Sometimes they don’t. And, even though it all adds up to the same thing, mostly I believe them. It must be mind numbing to receive so much work, a lot of it shit, but a lot of it totally fine, and even some of it rather fantastic, but to have only so many feet for all those shoes. I update my database like a good soldier, may submit the story to another five or ten places, then begin waiting again. Rinse, wash, repeat. But this idea that it’s not supposed to hurt you to be rejected over and over is hilarious. And totally unrealistic.

Of course it hurts. Last time I checked there was blood pumping through my veins. So…what to do?

Day to day, you play dumb. You don’t let it hurt you. Every no can’t be the end of the world or you’d never have the courage to write another word. That’s no strategy. But pretending you don’t feel is insane too. I’d rather accept the hurt as part of the journey and teach myself how to manage it, rather than to become a robot who doesn’t feel. Robots don’t write very good fiction.

Post #66: Speaking Truth to Tired

Writing Advice

Though I’m a writer in my heart, and supporting myself through my craft (whatever that looks like) is my ultimate goal, I’m a high school English teacher by day and have been for seven years.  I love my work.  I do.  But as I sit here on an average Tuesday evening, eyes crossed with tiredness, blood stream trilling with copious quantities of coping caffeine, trying to muster up the focus, or even the energy, let alone the courage to go back to revising my dauntingly long and unwieldy novel in progress, I think of the great writer and writing teacher John Gardner who in On Becoming a Novelist said this:

“While one is learning one’s craft, then practicing it and hunting for an agent, then waiting for mail with the agent’s return address, one must somehow make a living…the writer will have to find a job.  Almost all full time jobs are hard on writing…also, I cannot work on a novel if I do not have long time blocks for writing–fifteen hours straight is for me ideal.  Trying to nickel and dime your way through a five hundred page novel can drive you crazy.  Some writers, in hopes of solving such problems, take work as fire watchers and sit alone in high lookout posts, occasionally glancing at the horizon.  Theoretically that ought to be an ideal situation, but in practice it’s a pain because the CB never quits.  Jobs as  night watchman or night hotel clerk are not much butter, and trying to earn a living by teaching high school is much worse–nothing is more draining.”

You ever have that feeling when you read something that the writer is not only talking to you directly, but that he’s right beside you whispering in your ear?

Me neither.

And he’s wrong.  It’s seven-hundred pages.

Post #59: False Finish Lines

Dear Charles, Writing Advice

Dear Charles,

My writing goal for the summer was to finish the rough draft of my new novel Returning, and I’m happy to say that a few days ago, I did just that.  Hit the “final” key stroke on a book that, at this point, is 715 pages (222,500 words) long.  It’s longer and more ambitious, and therefore more of a mess, than anything I’ve ever written.  And when I say it’s a mess, I’m not going for charmingly self-depricating here.  It’s a mess.  A shifting POV, big-themed beast of a novel that would probably freak me out if I just picked it up randomly.  It’s a sprawling book that spans roughly thirty years in the lives of two main characters and is broken up into five “Sets,” a nod to the subject matter (much of which centers around Tennis).  The Sets move around in time and space and Point of View.  It’s not deliberately experimental or anything.  I couldn’t be experimental with a gun to my head.  But it’s a culmination of many  whims and literary curiosities that I’ve been building towards for a while now.

At this point, I’d love to forget what’s written on my favorite coffee mug at school.  It was a gift from a former intern of mine and it bears a Hemingway quote: “The First Draft of Everything is Shit.”  Thanks, Papa.  Of course he’s right.  But it’s important to know he wasn’t trying to be discouraging.  Hemingway respected all parts of the writing process.

Before I started Returning, I taped two quotes on the wall beside my desk where I would always see them.  Or, where I couldn’t hide from them.  The first is by Will Self, who said, “don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day.  This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get to down to the real work which is all in…the edit.”  The other is by John Steinbeck, who said “don’t think of literary form.  Let it get out as it wants to.  Overtell it in the matter of detail.  Cutting comes later.  The form will develop in the telling.  Don’t make the telling follow the form.”

These two notions were my twin mantras, and I read them each nearly every day before I set to work trying to bury them in subconscious, a scrim over everything I’d write that day.  I knew Returning would be big and complex and would benefit from letting go of my inner critic and just immersing myself in the process, as Will Self councils.  For the most part, I did that.  I resisted any editing along the way and cascaded boldly towards my goal.  Steinbeck’s advice was the harder to follow.  It was hard not to make the book form into a concept along the way.  I tried hard to let it be what it wanted to be, to overtell it, as he says, and the “Sets” concept grew organically along the way, but the master’s advice is slippery and more challenging to practice than it sounds on paper.  It requires a different kind of letting go.  But both are about preserving a writing process that is fluid, organic, quick.

The trouble with writing this way is now I’ve got a big damn mess on my hands.  I’ve written books in a different way.  For my novel Izzy’s Intervention, for example, I went through multiple outlines, tweaking the plot before writing a word.  I wrote elaborate characters studies, making maps of their personalities and how they all fit together.  For the most part, despite some minor changes, I made the book conform to the outline, believing in the decisions I’d made.  That book was fun to write, but felt far more paint by numbers.  Because I didn’t know what would happen next, Returning was a lot scarier to write and I had to battle against the feeling that I was ruining it all the time.  For this reason, it was also far more exhilarating to work on.  I don’t know which method will end up yielding better returns.  I like to believe that whatever I’m working on at the moment is the best thing I’ve ever done.  That idea sustains me.  But it may be totally false.  Who knows.  I don’t really care if it is.  I’ll believe it even if it fails me because it makes the process more joyful.

So, now what?  My heart wants to immediately go back to the beginning and start the “real work” of editing, of cutting, of honing and re-working.  But I sense this book will need major revision and that’s a scary proposition that kind of feels like jettisoning into deep space without a map of the stars.  My mind says take a break.  And by break, I mean, work on something else.  Some short stories that need work.  Some non-fiction to stimulate my writing brain in a different way.  Blog more.  Just something else.

The only thing I know for sure is that I accomplished my goal.  I made it to the finish line.  The only problem is that, once I got there, it was actually the starting line in disguise.  What I thought was the race was really a warm-up.

And, guess what?  I’m fine with that.

Best to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin

Post #54: The Path to Publication, Part 2

ebooks, Things You Should Be Reading, Writing Advice

THE GREAT FREELANCE EDITOR ROUND-UP (guest post by author Ron Dionne)

So I had accepted the offer from Delabarre Publishing to publish my novel SAD JINGO as an ebook, and had withdrawn it from consideration at Akashic Books.

I had chosen the Wild West that book publishing had suddenly become, over the gentler precincts of traditional publishing.

Did that mean I just handed over the manuscript to Delabarre for formatting and slapping on a “cover” and posting to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the iBookstore an hour later?

It could have. We’ve all seen it done. I, for one, often cringe at the results.

No, my publisher and I decided that we did not want to rush a sloppy product out there. Yes, we’d almost sold the book (back when I was operating fully under the traditional publishing model, with an agent, and a well-regarded editor at a big publishing house on the hook), but that did not mean it wouldn’t take some work after the sale, if that sale had occurred.  (See my previous guest post for details on how the book almost sold, once upon a time, to HarperCollins.)

One of the drawbacks of taking the bracing, inspiring plunge with an entrepreneurial new publisher operating on a shoestring budget is that you can’t pay editors with shoestrings. Delabarre had no paid editors on staff. It was up to me, if I wanted to sleep nights, to hire professional editing done.

It sort of is, in a comfortable armchair way, like setting out into the frontier in search of that one quirky gunslinger that has just the right skills to catch the bad guy who’s made your life a shambles.  In this case, I needed a wily master of plot, pacing, and taste to help me sort out which of the two versions of my book was better, which revisions were improvements and which were not.  I needed someone to help me find the best Jingo there could be. And, as it turns out, to save me from myself.

How do you find such a person? Unfortunately, you can’t put on dusty boots and a cool-looking duster and saddle up a quirky horse for a ride through gorgeous back country that would look great shot with the Libatique lens and Blanko Freedom film in the Hipstamatic app on your iPhone.  No, you need to research developmental editors, freelance editors, and book doctors, most likely on the internet. You have to talk to as many people as you can, and listen hard. Some folks you like and want to agree with. Others you’re not too crazy about but you respect their opinion and you have to guard against dismissing any wisdom they might impart because, say, they voted for the other guy in the last election.

You kind of have to drive blind, and trust your horse sense.

I talked to folks I knew who had published. I studied web pages. I queried folks with fancy web sites. I queried folks who did not seem to be all that on-line at all, ironically enough since I was embarking on an ebook-only (for starters) adventure.

And that bit about horse sense? Hey, I’m the writer who had a serviceably good book almost sold to an editor so beloved by the industry they named an award after him when he passed. I’m the writer who, despite that pinnacle of near-achievement, decided I needed to revise the thing and make major changes to it. “Update” it.  Horse sense? Not my forté.

But it was all I had to rely on.

Eventually, I narrowed down my choices of prospective plot wranglers — I mean freelance editors, to two.  I sent the book to both.

One was an eminent West Coast editor with an impressive web site and lots of videos on Youtube of presentations he had given at writers’ conferences. I sent him my revised, updated version. He told me my book had potential but wasn’t ready for submitting to publishers yet because it had some plot issues and, “you must admit, lacks a satisfying denouement.”

I consulted the ghost of Mr. Ashmead and imagined a friendly scowl. Not really. I don’t truck with ghosts, but I thought about it. And I thought about sometimes folks needing to hear what they didn’t want to hear, that strong, evil-tasting medicine can sometimes be just what you need.

The other editor had actually worked with Larry Ashmead at HarperCollins, the editor to whom my now publisher had almost sold the book in the 1990s. I found her through Publishers Marketplace, where a testimonial quote from Mr. Ashmead on her member page caught my eye.  I sent her my original version, and explained I was unable to judge the merits of the revisions in my updated version.

When she and I talked, it became clear right away that the book needed a comparative read of the two versions. The elephant in the room was the fact that I’d revised a finished work finished long enough ago that the writer I was then was a significantly different person that the writer I am now.

How to decide? One editor said the book had merit but needed significant change. The other said the book had merit but she wanted to see how I had changed it and take the measure of those changes with the original spirit of the book in mind.

The first had more novels under his belt, as displayed on his web page. The second had more nonfiction listed among her credentials, but she also had the Ashmead connection.

I went with the second editor, Alice Rosengard. And I am not sorry. She read the original carefully. She took her time, spotting some things that needed fixing. Then she read the revised version, noting a few improvements but more importantly some changes that marred the original intent of the book, and detracted from the strengths that almost got it published in the first place.

I am convinced she helped me make the book the best that it could be. For me, the editing of it was validation. Validation by a stranger with whom I developed a rapport based solely on the content of a piece of writing I sent her. That means a lot to me.

I realize this is inside shop-talk before reality hits. Now it’s up to readers to decide if they like the book. And me to promote it. More on that later.

Post #36: Bausch(ian) Wisdom

Writing Advice

For me, one of Facebook’s on-going pleasures, and this is coming from a former Facebook doubter and critic turned addict, is getting status updates by the great writer Richard Bausch, who I met at Bread Loaf.  I’m sure he doesn’t remember me, or the rather hilarious hour we spent sipping whiskey together around a campfire, but something tells me Richard has been making impressions on people who he won’t remember a hell of a lot longer than I’ve been alive.   Either way, I’m pretty sure Richard wouldn’t mind me sharing his wisdom from a recent status, in which he writes:

“One of the most endearing things about all the writers I know–and I know a lot of them of course–is that not one of them has any material ambitions. They want money of course because they need it, but when they get it they use it mostly to buy one thing: Time. That’s all any of them want. To be able to purchase a little Time from the world’s daily demands, and they want that time, all of them that I know, for one reason. To work. No material matter comes close to that for them. I think that’s a wonderful thing. And when the various kinds of wrangling and petty quarrels and vanities arise that come from being human and trying to do something very hard in a world that is mostly indifferent–well, I try to remember that. It’s something very beautiful about us that we all share: that sweet almost child-like quality of wanting from the world only a little time to keep doing this thing we love so much that even when it tortures us we long to be there in it and with it.”

You know that feeling when you hear something or read something and the sensation is that the speaker/creator has literally opened up your brain and surgically removed something you feel very deeply and then said it in a way that surpasses your own expressive capabilities and makes you understand that thing you felt even more deeply than you thought you did?  This was kind of like that for me.  I guess that’s the point of art, huh?

I figure since I’m borrowing Richard’s words, I should plug his wonderful book of short stories I read recently.  His stories will yank on your humanity.  They will humble you with their simple power.  They will clarify things you’ve been wondering about.

Post# 34: Utilitarian Description

Things You Should Be Reading, Writing Advice

I read a short passage in Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box the other night and I liked it so much, I wrote it down and am here to burden you with it.  It’s a short passage.  Here it is:

“She glared at Jude, saw he was dressed, black Doc Martens, ankle-length duster.”

Wow, you’re thinking, I’m so relieved you brought that to my attention.  But, to me, this is a great example of what I like to think of as totally utilitarian physical description.  Joe Hill is not the most concise writer I’ve ever read (I recently read Justin Torres’s We the Animals which re-defines concision in a way I’m not totally crazy about), but he’s got a great eye for the telling detail and he’s very precise and direct with physical description.  And his descriptions, like this one, work for you, consider your experience, your busy day, and your ability to think for yourself.   For me with physical description I’m always thinking, what have you done for me lately?

This description comes about a third the way into HSB in which we’ve met aging rocker Jude Coyne and learned the reasons that he’s now being haunted by a ghost who’s trying to ruin his life and drive him insane as quickly as possible.  We know Jude’s lived hard, spent a lot of time on the road.  We know he’s a rock and roller and probably dresses accordingly, and in six words (black Doc Martens, ankle length duster) Hill confirms this and then some, totally filling in the gaps for me about what Jude looks like and how he carries himself.  He looks like a bit like The Punisher, another Doc and Duster wearing bad ass kind of fellow.

Physical description should always be doing more than describing what a person looks like.  I don’t care if a guy has blue eyes, but for God’s sake, use them.  Description should be working for the character, and therefore, for the reader, dealing with characterization as well as description.  Only a select number of people leave the house in black Doc Martens and an ankle length duster and Jude is one of them.

Here’s how Hill might have written the same description if he wanted to make it a lot worse: “She glared at Jude, saw he was dressed in a pair of gleaming Doc Martens, the yellow stitching running up their sides like broken lines down an endless highway.  The shoes were old and broken in and Jude rarely wore any others because they felt so good.  Nothing fit him quite like his trusty Docs.  His duster was ankle length and also black and tickled the shoes as Jude walked.  Its leather had worn with the years and was now soft and supple and fragrant with the many years of his life.”

This description, instead of working for the reader, throttles her with information.  Its greater sin, though, is that it doesn’t put a whole lot of faith in the reader, not nearly as much as Hill’s six words do, which allow you to fill in the gaps for yourself.

If you can deliver the effect of ten words with six, or even better, twenty words with six, keep the six.  Kill the rest.

Post #29: Revising Blue Dot

Writing Advice

Been spending my writing time the past two weeks beginning revisions on my new novel, Blue Dot, which I’ve been dubbing a horror/sci-fi mash-up.  For the uninitiated, I wrote the first draft of Blue Dot in a month during National Novel Writing Month, in which participants take on the challenge of producing a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days.

Revising a novel is a daunting and exhilarating experience.  Exhilarating because it’s hard not to be thrilled by reading over a new creation, discovering some wondrous artifact that you recognize and yet, in mellowing, has taken on its own scent.  There’s an undeniable thrill in imagining that what you’ve created is fresh and bold and impossible to put down.  Daunting because, as Stephen King puts it, I’m still writing “with the door closed.”  No one but me has seen a word of Blue Dot and so, in spite of what I might think about it, and acknowledging that I’m the most biased person in the room and the least likely to know what’s truly wrong with it, its potential as shit that nobody has smelled yet, is very very high.

I envisioned a lean, fast paced novel (Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was very much on my mind) and the book is mostly supporting this vision as I go back through it.  More than ever before, I’m trying to stay out of the way of this one, to let it take whatever form it sees fit, rather than trying to impose my will on it or throttle it until it’s the best book I want it to be.  This was one of the unknown benefits of writing something so fast.  Its creation was so immediate, so dream like in pace that in many ways it feels like it wrote itself, like I was merely court reporter doing furious transcription.  The book wasn’t victim to my prodding literary whims or insecurity.  I didn’t have time to wonder whether it was any good or not, nor to worry about whether readers would like it, and in this, the novel, at least with the door still closed, feels liberated.  I’ve been cleaning up small matters, inconsistencies in voice and plot, reconciling some over-complications, and trying to make it cohere.

But a novel nobody’s read yet has two lives, and once you’ve given it to others and solicited their feedback, danger runs high.  Kill your darlings they say.  Then kill them again.

For now, I’m keeping the door closed  a little while longer. I’m looking forward to sharing it with some trusted friends soon, and then it’ll be time to sharpen my hatchet and be cold and exacting as I come to terms with all the holes I’ve left in the plot and the characters and begin trying to make the book whole, but for now the reverie of a book that’s still taking shape, becoming its own being with only me to water and nurture it, feels like watching wonderful flowers bloom in slow motion.

Post #25: Circumstance

Writing Advice

Ask 10 random people what “Setting” is and they’ll tell you something resembling the following:

The Time and Place a story occurs.

Not so fast.

A third element of setting worth celebrating, though oft neglected, is that of Circumstance, which I humbly submit is actually its most interesting and durable attribute.

In a park at dusk is a time and a place.  But in a park at dusk the moment a war breaks out between two warring factions of squirrels known as the “Corns” and the “Oaks,” that’s another thing entirely.

In Ann Patchett’s lovely novel Bel Canto, a group of distinguished guests is held hostage at a vice president’s manor in a small South American country.   The setting (the house) is, frankly, not particularly interesting.  It’s fine–it’s a big house, lush, and a marked contrast to the roughness of the terrorists who live in the jungles surrounding the city which plays up the unjust ills of the class system in the third world–but they could have been many places and the same set of events (mostly) could have occurred.  What makes her use of setting noteworthy is the circumstance of music.

The group of people had congregated there to celebrate the birthday of a rich Japanese businessman named Mr. Hozikawa.  He’d been enticed there on the promise of his favorite opera soprano, Roxanne Koss, who’d been paid to come and sing five arias to celebrate his birthday.  The plot–a prolonged hostage/terrorist set-up–becomes infected with the presence of music and informs everything that happens.  In the presence of beautiful music, strangers declare their love for one another, friendships are formed, time drifts as hostage and terrorist alike are swept away by the universal tide of music.

As the book begins, we already picture the conclusion, the one Die Hard has taught us to expect.  We meet the standard cast of characters: the defiant vice president who initially stands firm, the gruff and intelligent terrorist leaders all generically called “General,” the cool headed intermediary negotiator (Swiss, no less), the intelligent Japanese translator, child terrorists with guns and hair triggers who appear ignorant, angry, and afraid.  And yet, Patchett must have planned, or decided along the way, that the circumstance of being around music, and not just any music but THE soprano of her generation was far more interesting than mere life and death, and to make that the focus of her story and the engine driving her narrative.

Half way through the book, one of the hostages, a Japanese diplomat, begins playing piano on a whim; the original accompanist has already died from lack of insulin.  Roxanne then begins practicing with him every day and they form a duo.  Soon she begins to give small concerts to which there are curtain calls and bows and applause.  She sends out for sheet music to expand her repertoire.  The terrorists assent to her whims, treat her differently because she’s famous, yes, but more so because they are completely astonished and overwhelmed by the power of her singing.  She falls in love with Mr. Hozikawa, who she was brought there to entertain, and he is snuck up to her room in the night by one of the female terrorists, who herself has fallen in love with Mr. Hozikawa’s translator, Gen, who has become the official translator for pretty much everyone.  Soon after that, on a morning Roxanne has slept in after (presumably) wild hostage sex with Mr. Hozikawa and therefore isn’t there to fill the morning with music, to compensate, one of the young male terrorists, while wielding a semi-automatic rifle, begins singing arias a capella from memory, and turns out to have a world class voice.  Roxanne then becomes, wait for it–his teacher.  During all this, vast meals are prepared.  Terrorist generals play civil games of chess with hostages.  The vice president finds a strange love of domesticity and keeps the house immaculate, dusting and sweeping and discovering the joys of weeding a garden.  Multiple men declare their love for Roxanne, not able to resist their hearts.  For four and a half months things progress in this way, the situation in the house becoming so self-sufficient, so insular, so normal that both hostage and terrorist lose complete track of time.   And reality.  No one seems to remember that half of them are holding guns and it’s all going to go tits up in the end.

The beautiful thing is that we accept it.  Believe that this is probably what must happen during every prolonged hostage situation.   The ending is harsh and fast and, to me, was very predictable.  The only failing here on Patchett’s part is that the ending undermines the glorious fantasia that’s just transpired, reminds us at the last moment of the extent to which her elaborate conceit (maybe) wasn’t all that possible after all.

Patchett’s created a fantasy that reads like realism, which is really something.  And the thing that made it all possible, was music.  The circumstance of music.   What was primed to be another story of terrorists and hostages becomes one about the miraculous power of voices in flight and fingers in motion, of love and community, how quickly these things can take over and how suddenly they can be taken away.

Post #19: Best of Lists and Middle Class White Guys

Shaking My Head, Writing Advice

Here’s a couple of articles I found thought provoking.  The first, by Roxane Gay, examines the “Best of…” lists that have become such a part of what establishes literary “excellence.”  Gay makes a compelling case regarding their legitimacy and usefulness.

http://therumpus.net/2011/12/toward-a-more-complete-measure-of-excellence/

The second is by Benjamin Hale, a writer who I was at Bread Loaf with, though never really got to know.  Mostly I saw him across the barn, or at the salad bar.  But his essay from Fortnight is edgy and though I have some issues (at times) with his tone in this piece, which tackles issues of authenticity and diversity, he’s a talented writer and shedding light on a question that I relate to whether I like it or not: do middle class white guys have anything to say in their writing?  A (mostly) closeted fear of mine has been that I’ve lived far too good and steady a life to offer anything significant to the literary sphere.   Perhaps this comes from actual insecurity about a serious issue, or perhaps it’s more a response to cultural mythology, much of which proves to be majorly suspect when you really start looking.

http://fortnightjournal.com/benjamin-hale/227-a-bourgeois-writer-in-america.html

Enough out of me.  Read.