Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Small Press Part One: The Varieties and the Responsibilities

In our discussion of small presses and literary magazines, I think it is appropriate to discuss a few of the varieties. There are as many flavors of small presses and magazines as there are people and organizations.

Literature in the larger circulations have a big impact. Consider this: J.D. Salinger got his start in Harper's Magazine and The New Yorker, the last time Kurt Vonnegut Jr. appeared in Playboy was early 2008, shortly after he died, and let us not forget Ray Bradbury's “The Fireman” which later became Fahrenheit 451 also appeared in Playboy. Harper's, The New Yorker, and Playboy are huge publications. They have money, they have advertisers, they have great content. Playboy even has girls. The point being, these are not small presses, nor are they strictly literary magazines. They are widely distributed, widely read and highly recognizable publications. And, I think they're all great. As we begin our discussion, we first need to set a few parameters. These magazines, which we are all familiar with, are now our definition of the large press. These publications need to drive business in order to survive. Their advertisers as well as their distribution network need the sales of units and subscriptions to keep going. Thankfully so, right? Can you imagine The New Yorker without ads? Each issue would cost $1,000.

The next type of magazine up for discussion is that of the academic journal. There are journals to cover everything from the old stuff archeologists dig up to the latest advancements in medicine. But since it's literature and writing we discuss here, let's focus on the literary journal. The academic journal is not independent at all. Although the staff of one of these journals may be free thinking and independently minded, these journals are ultimately the property of an educational institution. There are pitfalls to both readers and writers of these types of journals. Their main purpose is as a tool to teach students how to become magazine editors, whether it's content, layout or graphics. A reader of an academic journal only needs to read a few issues to see how the culture of that staff changes with each class, each editor in chief or each managing faculty member. For writers, a college or university journal can be a tough sale. There are normal concerns of representing good writers, and there are concerns of content left up to the institution's discretion. And above all else these journals are not for profit and ultimately they are for the experience of student editors and staff.

Before we get too far away it, I must say, I love college and university journals. I love them mostly because of they content and the layout which has such a youthful sensibility.

It is absurd to compare something like The New Yorker with an undergraduate school magazine, like say mine, The Metroshpere. They are both great publications, and they both have a niche. Most of all, they are press in America.

The next facet, of course, is the independent magazine. I say independent because these are publications that are not dependent on advertisers and the associated politics. For sake of argument here, I'd like to use Umbrella Factory Magazine. As many of you know, I am a proud worker of Umbrella Factory. We are independent in the essence of true independence. We have no advertisers, we have no association with a school or any other organization. We don't have any money either. We are who we are. To pull it together even more: we have one mission and that is to connect well developed readers to the best writing available. I say this because we really want readers, without readers we have no reason to put forth the effort in representing our writers.

I tend not to leave off with a sad note. Here it is. Most of these literary magazines, whether they are an institution's magazine or one from an independent press, the market is almost exclusively for writers. Writers are the readers, they are the contributors and they are the only ones to keep a magazine going. This is a sad prospect only because it is such a small market. My sincerest desire as a reader first, as a writer second and as an editor is that there are more readers available.

I don't know where the readers are. They are somewhere I suspect. We have libraries everywhere. We have bookstores. We now have the technology of the electronic readers. And yet, how many people really read a literary magazine? How many of your friends, for instance, can say: “I know this best selling author, I read a short story in Small Mag XYZ years ago. I knew this writer when they were still young.” A potent thought, isn't it?

Sometimes I think about it in grave ways. I figure reading is out and reality TV is in. Fuck being a free thinker, I want SOMA. Who needs to be pedestrian when we can have that huge car and why bother? I always felt that we should, as a modern people be more progressive with our thoughts, more thoughtful with our free time. But what do I know? When it comes down to it, who really cares, right?

Even on a day when I feel so grim, I realize how much more important the small press is. So what? Umbrella Factory, like so many others is only for writers. Writers are the readers and the promoters and as much as I wish for the vastest of markets, it just isn't the case. Please, please, please, try this on for size. The small press is free. It is free to think its own thoughts. It's free to represent any writer or any voice it wants to represent. When a magazine has no rules imposed by an institution or by a board of directors, or the whim of advertisers, that magazine can do anything. The beautiful thing about the internet is that any magazine can do it too. The advent of the internet has made the production and the distribution free or close to it. The poet Mathias Svalina of Octopus Books, said one of the most amazing things I've ever heard concerning the small press and technology. He said, anyone who can use a blog can develop their own magazine. How true.

We have so many wonderful rights in this country. I suppose when I get right to the point of it, our country and me, I am a devout patriot. How many other countries have the freedom of speech the way we do? And how many Americans are really exercising that right?

Next time: The Small Press part II

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reading as Writers

Reading came to me much later, I think, than it should have. When I order the events of my early life, it's odd because I was writing long before I was reading. Even now, that makes no sense.
During the war and especially the long months of the occupation, I was lead to books by some of my buddies. This was 1990 and 1991 and the world for the most part was still analog. Thank goodness. Knowing who I was then, I can't imagine who I would have become should there have been other distractions and diversions than books.
So there you have it, I was an 18 year old Desert Storm soldier when I read my first books.
The first book? John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. I read for hours a day and Steinbeck's thin volume took me weeks to read. After completing the book, I remember feeling a tremendous sense of accomplishment and a real sense of Doc and Mac and the Boys and Dora and the Girls and Lee Chong. I felt like I knew these characters. Who knows? Maybe when I consider where I was and what I was doing at that time, Steinbeck's cast of characters were every bit as real as my life.
After Cannery Row, more Steinbeck followed: Cup of Gold, The Pastures of Heaven, The Grapes of Wrath to remember a few. In the course of 1991, my departure from the war and my return to Germany, I began to read everyday. When I traveled through Europe, I did so with a pen, a small notebook, a toothbrush and a paperback. Now that's traveling light, isn't it?
I wrote mostly character sketches in those days. I spent some time puzzling out how to write poetry. I wrote strange situational vignettes. In short, I spent those early days writing down combinations of words and sentences.
A change was filtering in, and I didn't know it. As I traveled around Europe and most specifically Germany, I started writing everyday. As I was doing these two activities, reading and writing, my habits and my style changed. I began to ape John Steinbeck in my stories, and in my word choices. I was a young man then and a young writer. Sure, I had plenty of life experiences, and those are great resources, but I had no experience with the written word.
Over the next few years, and especially after I got home and started college, I never missed an opportunity to talk books with anyone. The recommendations lead me to Mark Twain, E.M. Forester and James M. Cain, to name a few I who I remember. I got in the habit of reading several books by each author in quick order. I began to read faster and comprehend more. I would think that's the truth with just about everything-practice and improve. During each stint with each writer, some language or style crept into my own work. I don't think it was a straight imitation as I had a few years prior with Steinbeck, but it was now noticeable to me. Read and write, read and write, read and write. Seems easy enough. I believe a voracious reader would probably make a good writer. Conversely, a good writer is a voracious reader.
As writers we must read. As we read, we must see the story for what it is: a careful construction of the fiction elements of plot, character development and language. Then, we must deconstruct it, reduce it all down to those elements. We know how the plot moves forward, we know how the characters construct their conflicts and how they resolve them. We must take note and analyze the language. We must do all of these things to gain a better understanding of how that writer constructed that story and how what we read will enhance our own work. Think about it like this: reading is an investment in time and professional development.
Last time, we talked about the autumn reading list. Autumn feels closer to us now here in Denver than last week, but it's not arrived just yet. I chose those books for more than just seasonal reading. I chose those books because I know a thing or two about each of them and some of them I've been meaning to read for a long time. Yet the real reason why I chose those books is because I hope to learn something from each one. I've been making a practice of choosing books with the goal of learning something for years. I think it's a good habit to get into. For anyone who hasn't had this thought before, remember all the reading lists we had in school. They were all designed to teach us something, whether or not we chose to read them or learn anything. Also, two things I do: first, I choose books that are difficult to read but not difficult to understand. Second, I read books people I respect are reading. Recommendations can go a long way.
To belabor the point of reading one moment longer, the launch of Umbrella Factory Magazine has brought me more reading than I'd care to admit. As I read all sorts of fiction submissions, I can tell many things about the writer. I can tell if the writer is a reader, if you can believe that.

As autumn comes to these northern climes, I hope the autumn reading lists do too. As always, keep writing and now, happy reading.

Next time: The Small Press.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Autumn Reading List

The path home is not lengthy. The distance is short and I make this commute so often. I'm surprised I haven't got the steps counted, I am a counter after all. If not the steps then the blocks. For those of you familiar with Denver, you'll know what I mean by a short distance. In the afternoon, I begin at the Kittredge Building on Glenarm Street and Sixteenth Street and I end at 9th Avenue and Sherman Street.

The first leg of this commute crosses over a few streets: Tremont, Court, Cleveland Place, then Broadway. I walk the stairs that separate the old Denver Post Building from Civic Center Station. This route avoids the Colfax and Broadway intersection which is suspect not to mention incredibly busy in the afternoons. When I emerge from the far side of the bus station I cross both Colfax and Lincoln, and this is somehow better than the aforementioned intersection.

I then climb the stairs on the grounds of the Colorado State Capital. This part of the journey I always figure is the funniest. Someone has painted 2+2=5 on the cement sidewalk there and I love it because it reminds me of 1984. As for me, we've all heard the saying about the whore in church, but what about the anarchist on the grassy grounds of the state capital? I love this part of the walk because of the dichotomy: me and this environment. Alas, just as we learned in geometry the most direct way from one point to another is a straight line. When I leave the capital grounds I'm on 14th Avenue and Sherman Street. From there I cross 13th, 12th, 11th and 10th. Then I'm home. You see, not a very long walk. It takes about 20 minutes. I make this walk twenty or more times in the course of a week. I'm well accustomed to it.

On this walk, I know the time of day by the activity level and by the amount, if not types, of people out. For instance: early in the morning on the 1300 block of Sherman all you see are the government workers heading for offices or pigeon holes. Conversely, late in the evening on Poet's Row (Between 10th and 11th Streets on Sherman) there is a dude on the stoop of every building strumming a guitar in a wait and strike position serenading any opportunity for an ear or a love affair.

In short, I love it here and I do my best to notice it, it's life, it's the city, it's the canvas for my mind's portraits and landscapes. But the times of day are one thing. The time of day, as we know from activity, happens most everyday, and on any day of the year.

The other day as I wandered up the hill to the capital there was a very strange change. The quality of light and the air had a shift in them. It's August. It's August and it suddenly felt like autumn. Once the thought occurred to me, I snapped forward—I looked at the still green trees, I felt the summer comfort of cicadas in their song, I felt secure that construction workers at the defunct Colorado Judicial Building were still sweating while dismantling the ugly, old building. I reassured myself that it was still August and the autumn feeling was the premonition of days to come and that I had not lost my way home through downtown Denver or lost my way through time.

Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that it was a hot afternoon, summer like, and it was eerily like the first day of school.

I paid attention to the shadows. I paid attention to the small urban currents of air making eddies in between buildings and city blocks. Then I thought of Jerzy Kosinski. Mark Dragotta and I had been talking about books. I told him that The Painted Bird was the kind of book to read on a sunny day. Then we talked about All Quiet on the Western Front which I had finished reading that very morning when we realized through the course of conversation that books as such are best in summer during the warm and sunny days. Why should we wait until the short and cold days of winter for such dark books? Hell, the two of us read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides last January. Although every line of every paragraph of The Virgin Suicides is wonderfully quotable, the most pertinent line for our conversation goes like this: “Winter is the time for alcoholism and depression.” Both Mark and I agreed, this is exactly what winter is good for... But winter isn't here yet, not in any way. As we talked about books though, we talked about books appropriate to a mood or a time.

Whew! That was such along preamble. Let's think about a reading list again, and let's think about the autumn coming on again. A seasonal reading list is something I've never done before. I suppose I did have a reading list broken down by semester during graduate school, but it's not the same thing. I won't go so far as to say I was forced to read in grad school, but I was forced to commit to a list. As far as a season goes, Autumn, Winter, Spring or Summer, none of these reading lists corresponded to a specific season. In fact, during a semester the weeks moved through several seasons: “fall” ran from June until November and “spring” ran from January until May.

I digress. As I feel the emanate end of summer, I want the autumn to return to me with grace. And all said, I've decided to grace this autumn with a planned and specific reading list. This is the list I've assembled:

In the Penal Colony, Franz Kafka
Around the word in Eighty Days, Jules Verne
Beyond the Wall, Edward Abbey
Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo
After Dark, Haruki Murakami
The Joke, Milan Kundera
Pinball, Jerzy Kosinski
The Waves, Virgina Woolf
In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O'Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

Anyone out there who has an autumn reading list, please share it. I always enjoy discussing books. I can't wait to see what happens. And perhaps in the months to come while walking home I'll conceive of the winter's reading list too.

Next time:

Reading as writers.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Jumpstart VI: Place, Space and Time

Poetry. I've always held the belief that more people write poetry than who read poetry. Unfortunately, in this Jumpstart we will not write poetry. We are fiction writers for worse or for wear. Although it should not be without its place. We can learn a great deal from poetry. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of my favorites. So is Elizabeth Bishop. Both them make use of place and space and time in their poetry. The sense of place in many of Ferlinghetti's work takes to a mood, a quality of light and San Francisco. “In Golden Gate Park that Day...” (A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958) we meet a man and his wife, a meadow, and terrible depression. Sure, we know a man and his wife, and we know depression. Yet, when this poet anchors them to a beautiful place like Golden Gate Park, the situation changes. The poet here gives us a place and a space within it.

Get your composition notebooks ready:
Deconstructing Spacial dynamics of Elevators. Can you do this? I've given you a place: the elevator. The Space: maybe? You must deconstruct it. The Time: the length of eternity from the first floor to the seventh. What a task, right? Try it. If we've talked about plot, and characterization and dialogue, what can you write about now with the place, space and time?

It took me years to be able to pick up Henry Miller. And even now, it makes me feel sort of sheepish and weird afterward. I don't know if I want to run away to Paris, or fuck, or bring rise to the end of government. Some readers love the aimless meandering he gives through pages or the search for sex or a free meal. But in Quiet Days in Clichy, I found so much more. In the opening pages the writer is comparing and contrasting two cities: New York and Paris. He writes from the point of view of a man walking the streets of New York and a time of day he would normally love. His reflection, of course, is Paris. We've talked about juxtaposition before, and if there is any confusion to its meaning, it should be clarified here. Miller juxtaposes Broadway in New York to Montmartre in Paris. Here he gives one space, the city; but he gives two places. The time, a gray afternoon, which is exciting in Paris, but perhaps depressing in New York.

When we write about our favorite place, which we'll do now, what is it we write? The Baseball Park? Yeah, great place in August during a game with friends and beer. But is it still a favorite place December when it's filled with vacant seats and snow? And the next prompt, our least favorite place. I don't particularly care for hospitals, but when I was in the Army and stationed overseas, I loved our barracks which were in a World War One vintage hospital. This is an exercise in place, yes, and the space within. But it is also an exercise in time.

John Knowles in A Separate Peace has the place, space and time. In the opening pages, Gene goes back to the prep school fifteen years later. He has changed. The school which seemed one way in his past, and another in his memory is completely different when he sees it again. His space within the school changes too. And time? Come on, this is age visiting youth. Youth is uncertain, confusing. Not to mention World War II happens in the interim.

Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49 gives a wonderful description of Southern California:
San Narciso lay further south, near L.A. Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts—census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeways.

In this we definitely understand the place. After all, in 1966 when the book was published, L.A. was developing at such a rate that towns (or suburbs) were planned as a concept and the whole rest of the country followed suit. Place and time, yes.

Still in California, and to visit my favorite writer, John Steinbeck we have to look at Cannery Row. Cannery Row is not only the title, but the stage for the whole story. The preamble is a description of the place and the people. He likens the entire ordeal to the collection of sea life. Many of Steinbeck's novels are set in California. They were his modern day California which his youth is now a hundred years past. We can know the California of days of old just by reading his work which is so place heavy. Cannery Row today is shops, restaurants and tourist stalls. Very different stuff indeed. What we learn from Cannery Row is how to develop setting.

The last example I'll give is Willa Cather's My Antonia. The life Steinbeck brings to California, Cather brings to Nebraska. The place sets the mood of the people, it defines their lives, it molds them into the landscape. Cather's love of the prairie is her success in the writing of it. These last two examples are very specific. A reader of either book has an innate knowledge of these places which is so intimate and thorough. Much like the execution of good dialogue or character development, putting a story to a place is work. Make that reader know your place, space and time.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Jumpstart V: Dialogue in Fiction

I have a few guiding principles of dialogue. Many of you know me. Many of you know that I spent a a few months homeless, jobless and writing for the cartoons. What a life. If anything more, I can say that I once found my way into myself during that time. Writing for the screen is very different from writing fiction. For the screen, it's all dialogue. That's it, nothing more. It's an entirely different way of looking at a skill set a fiction writer already has. I am verbose. Let's return to the guiding principles. First, Dr. Tami Silver said once that we do not talk to one another; but rather, we talk through one another. Seems potent to me, and I have been thinking about that statement since 1996. We do talk through one another. I also think of Kyle Bass, a beautiful playwright-poet. Once when working with Kyle, another student presented a “play” for our group to read. After it was read, Kyle suggested she should trim the dialogue by stopping reading at the first period. It worked wonderfully. Whether he said it or not, the less said was the better. So, guiding principles? 1) we talk through one another and 2) make it brief.

Now, let me suggest a great writing exercise.

Talking through one another. You have two characters, and for one of them it is their last date.


Talking through one another. This is the Boston-Amarillo connection. If you have these two characters, both American, both speaking English (sort of) what are they talking about?

Here are a few things to think about as you work through these two exercises: writing good dialogue is every conversation you've ever heard and it's every argument gone exactly the way it should go. I, for one, have had an argument that I thought about for hours or days after and thought, “I should have said...” When writing, and rewriting, this I should have said is overcome.

Some advice? Well, read plays. I loved David Mamet's American Buffalo. I also loved Lorriane Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. I venture to guess that it took a long time for each of those playwrights to say exactly what they wanted their characters to say. It's a process, for sure.

Also, learn by doing. Write dialogue. Write more dialogue. Read it aloud and see how you feel about it.

In fiction, I have some favorites worthy of discussion. Colette's “The Other Wife,” has some great dialogue. It's Marc and his wife in a crowded restaurant. He's trying to hide his ex-wife from his current wife. So, he keeps talking and tries to keep the secret from her. Wonderful stuff. Colette says more in this short story than some novelist can say in hundreds of pages.

William Faulkner's “That Evening Sun,” and Raymond Carver's “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” are both great examples. They are both wonderful examples of dialogue attribution. With the Faulkner piece the he saids and she saids are sometimes cumbersome. Carver's dialogue attribution becomes almost hypnotic. In both cases, the attribution is effective and the dialogue is real, natural.

Recently, I revisited J. D. Salinger's “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which is the first piece in Nine Stories. The telephone conversation between Muriel and her mother is wonderful. The conversation is also brief, and they clearly talk through on another.

The last conversation about dialogue examples, strangely enough: Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On the Western Front. I read the Ballantine Books edition translated by A. W. Wheen. Sometimes, translations do make a difference. Having spent some time in Germany during my youth, I am familiar with the language, so for what it's worth I think this translation is good. The story is horrifying, it's war. The dialogue is consistent throughout the entire book. The dialogue is ever present in the narrative, and the narrative almost feels like dialogue. The voices of each soldier are like Paul Bäumer's monologue throughout. The book is not an easy read despite the elegance and simplicity of language. It is said it is the greatest war novel of all time. To me, it is the greatest anti-war novel ever written.

To become a good crafter of dialogue, it takes practice. That's all. Write some, and write some more. I don't think I'm alone in this statement: a writer learns by doing. And dialogue is important. It develops your characters, it gives meaning to their conflicts, to their desires and concerns and it helps to push the plot along. Keep at it.