Tag Archives: writing

Post #95: Well, no Shit

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

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 #88: The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a self-interview project where writers with projects in the works or books coming out answer ten questions about what they’re working on, then tag other writers. I’m thrilled to be participating. Many hugs and hurrahs to my dear friend, and fellow Bread Loaf alum, Kara Waite, for tagging me. Read Kara’s interview here!

Now…here goes.

What is the working title of your book?

Izzy’s Intervention.

Where did the idea come from?

Honestly, the confluence of inspirations and false starts has put the multiple entry points (re: ideas) into a blender and pressed “Pulse.”

But since that’s a lame answer. Here. This sticks out.

After my grandfather died, they divided up his stuff. I got a pocket watch, and a few articles of clothing. Though I wasn’t in the room, the image of my father and his sisters going through their own dead father’s possessions has stuck around, even haunted me a bit, as have those few treasures I inherited. In my novel, the protagonist is the eldest of three children, and his deceased father’s belongings have been collecting dust in his basement for three years.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary Fiction

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m seeking representation, so hopefully, eventually, the latter.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I could see a late 90’s Ethan Hawke playing Izzy. Or maybe a long haired, + 30 pounds Paul Rudd.

Julian, the protagonist, I could see being played by someone handsome but kind of non-descript. Peter Krause maybe.

Darcy, their sister, is Gwyneth Paltrow all the way.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

How do you stage an intervention for someone when you could use one yourself?

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I write quick, so, like, six or eight months. But the rewrites? Whole different story.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve always been fascinated by stories with compressed time frames. Wonder Boys. Saturday. Mrs. Dalloway. Ulysses. Izzy’s takes place over a single weekend and I liked the challenge of drumming up enough conflict to sustain a narrative over a short time span. The movie The Big Chill was hugely instrumental, too, and the theme of a collection of people coming together in the wake of death was pinched from Kasdan’s movie.

Beyond that, I also wanted to see if I could find homes for a number of themes I’m interested in: interracial marriage, African refugees living in Vermont, and famous fathers.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Here’s a few…

There’s a lot of booze and pot (and sex) in the book, but it’s really a story about two brothers affected in very different ways by their father’s suicide. One has gone internal and remained stoic, hiding his growing list of problems. The other has turned to drugs and is coming unraveled in a very visible way. Though the novel is centered around a family coming together to rescue one of them, in truth, they both need to be saved.

It’s a novel I intended to be thoughtful, funny, and fast paced. The kind of book you might get carried away by and read in a single sitting.

Throughout the book, the protagonist carries around a perhaps magical squash ball that used to belong to his father and goes by the name Othello’s Testicle.

And here’s a final tidbit that you totally don’t need to know: in the novel, the deceased father was a famous fantasy author, and the series of books he’s famous for are books I actually wrote in my twenties when I thought I wanted to write fantasy.

Thanks for reading!

I’m tagging these fantastic writers:

Alan Stewart Carl–My great friend and former Bread Loaf & AWP Boston roommate. Alan is a phenomenal writer, has published a heap of short fiction, and is about to start seeking representation for his debut novel.

Mary Albee–Mary is a dear friend and poet from Burlington, Vermont. Mary recently released her debut collection of poems, Bewildered Obsequies.

Ron Dionne–Ron is a fellow NY Pitch and Shop alum who last year published his debut novel, Sad Jingo. It’s available on Amazon! I thought it was boss, and so will you.

Post #84: Sorry Stand-Ins

Dear Charles,

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been writing much. And when I have, it’s been in marked avoidance of my novel, Returning, which winks at me from its home on my hard drive like a growing tumor. Though I write a good deal of short fiction, I can’t deny that, even though I enjoy it and it’s good practice, it’s neither my forte nor my passion. But for strange and complex, or perhaps very obvious and embarrassing, reasons, I’ve created a life decidedly unfriendly to a person trying to revise a very long, complicated novel. What will happen is that I’ll plug in for a few days at a time, just long enough to find the thread, then life will grab me by the ankles and yank me back into the hallway. You’ve said it yourself a million times, and you’re right. Writing or revising anything of length hinges on momentum. Sweet sweet motion. A novel is too large and fragmentary an experience to work on without consistency, which just so happens to be the very thing I’m lacking. Revising this novel the way I’m doing it right now is the equivalent of trying to read a book in a pitch black room in which the lights only come on for ninety seconds out of every hour. While the lights are on, you’re frantic, trying to absorb and soak up and enjoy what’s before you, and then the lights are out again. You mark your page. You wait. At first, the routine is bearable. But before long, the ninety seconds become tainted by their own onerous repetition and every time the lights come back on you begin to wonder why you should even bother reading anything at all. At this rate, it’s going to take you forever. You grow dispirited. Consider going to sleep instead.

Or it’s like diving down to a lovely coral reef that’s thirty feet below the surface. The reef is lovely-you’ve never seen a reef like this before-and you keep pushing yourself to get there, but it’s so far and your lungs are starting to hurt and you’re starting to feel woozy and because of the effort it takes just to get down there, you start to wonder if it’s worth the effort.

I can hear you in my ear right now. Shut the fuck up! you’re saying. Stop whining, you sad sack of shit! Nobody told you to create a life that’s not conducive to writing novels. Did they? And besides, you’ll add (because you can’t help yourself) on some messed up level, you probably made the decisions you did so you wouldn’t be able to write so that you could complain about it and not have to deal with your mediocre novel instead.

And while I’ll acknowledge some truth to your brutal logic, I’ll ask you to be kind, to take the broad view, to acknowledge life’s complexities and pressures.

Would you believe that I’m not meaning to whine, but merely to observe and make sense? How can a man work out his reality if he doesn’t pull it into separate parts and create metaphors for all the little parts? Isn’t that what everyone does?

Sorry for the rant. Write back when you have time. Hope you’re well.

Best to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin