Monday, December 27, 2010

The Winter Reading List

His name was Kenny. He was no friend of mine, and I was certainly no friend of his. We had the random occasion for a random conversation, the kind of conversation that two men who don't particularly like or respect the other would have. One afternoon he asked: “Hey Anthony, have you ever seen a whale in the wild?” It was a hell of a question. “Yeah I have,” I said. “Why do you ask?” He opened the newspaper in front of him. “I never have,” he said and that was the end of it. Strange, right? Those were my conversations with him. Sometimes we'd have a laugh, but generally not. I bring it up today only because I'm thinking about whales.

I have seen whales in the wild. It's quite a sight to see. I've never heard them sing in the wild, nor do I think you can. But I have heard their songs on a record. That's right, a record. Considering people began to record whale songs in the late 1960s, and I was born in the early 1970s, I've never know life without whale songs. I make the comment because I do hope that Kenny gets to see a whale in the wild, I hope everyone does. Also, I hope everyone has had an opportunity to hear their songs. Both of these things are still a possibility. These things would, and should make people feel differently.

Now, imagine how different Herman Melville would have been had he heard a whale sing. Do you think the entire course of Moby Dick would have been different? Perhaps the book would not have been written at all, or perhaps he would have written a book to make him rich. For those of you who don't know, Melville was a popular writer and wrote commercially successful stories and novels until Moby Dick. We remember Moby Dick today over everything else, but that book killed his commercial success and his career.

So? Well, I'm in Oregon now and the ocean borders our state. The last time I saw a whale was here, maybe about ten years ago. It was on a rather gray but rainless day in winter, I think. Perhaps an excursion is in order again this winter.

This is winter. Stillness is what winter is here. Rain. Short days. A good season for reading.

My approach for the winter reading list is not nearly as elegant nor as premeditated as the autumn reading list. This reading list is still inspired by Mark Dragotta like the last one was. He and I discussed the parameters of a good seasonal reading list last August, as you may know.

Mark once told me about the year he spent writing and developing his vast computer skill set and his web design business. He'd left full time work. He wrote a few articles a week for rent money. He didn't have much money left over. He, like me and most writers I know, had dozen of books on his bookshelf that he was yet to read. He said he read those books because he couldn't afford to buy new books. Makes sense to me. Are we writers and we readers destined to buy more books than we can ever read for fear of an underemployed year when we can't afford to buy books? I don't know. The way Mark describes the year is with a mixture of amazement and gratitude.

The second consideration of the autumn reading list was that awful day when Janice and I gave all of our books away. Many of them I had read, but many of them I hadn't. That's the past. Now, we're here, Portland and during her short days of winter. And I have my reading list. But before I tell you the list, let me tell you about the parameters:
a)like Mark and his year of personal development-I will not buy any new books. It's partly the money and my lack of it, and it's mostly because Janice and I have at least one more move in the coming weeks and books are heavy.
b)it's a strange prospect to have read every book on the shelf. I've never been that way, but at the end of this reading list I will have read every book I own. The next step, of course, is to unpack all these boxes and shelf the books. And:
c)this list is rather small and I doubt I'll stray from it.

1)Moby Dick: Herman Melville
2)Dance Dance Dance: Haruki Murakami
3)Wind Up Bird Chronicle: Haruki Murakami
4)Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: Haruki Murakami
5)The Meat and Spirit Plan: Selah Saterstrom
6)Born on a Train: John McManus
7)The Savage Detectives: Roberto Bolano

These are all the books in my collection I'm yet to read. The Murakami books ought to be interesting since I was introduced to his work by way of The Elephant Vanishes here in Portland about ten years ago. I'm of course very excited about John's book and Selah's book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the other books by both of these writers. They are both colleagues, friends and in the case of John, a former instructor. They are both mentors. And Moby Dick? It shall be a great wintertime read. I hope after all these years I can finish it.

A haphazard reading list for winter?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Autumn Reading list: The Wrap-up

It's a sunny day. Yes, strange, I know. There's not a cloud in the sky, and this is rare for Portland in December. I feel like there should be at least one cloud. Mount Hood rises into the thinning atmosphere to the east of here. It's stunning. It's brilliant white against a brilliant blue sky. To the north St. Helen's, which once resembled Mount Hood, looms in much the same way, she's white against blue, but she's not as tall as she used to be, nor as pointy. They both look like wintertime to me. It's like seeing winter from a distance, like seeing it on a postcard. It's not officially wintertime yet, that happens tomorrow. Today it the last day of autumn. What a crazy autumn this one has been.

It's been marked with loss and gain, change of space and change of pace and change of place. We went from downtown Denver to the bright open space of Jefferson County to the wet primeval forests of Wood Village, Oregon on the banks of the mighty Colombia River. We shed the past, old jobs, old material items, old clothes and old thoughts. Here now, at the end of autumn, I finally understand why people claim it is the season for change. Change it is.

The value of a good book suddenly becomes a striking and lovely thing to me. After all this change, the relationship with a good book did do much for me this fall. Even when one of these books lasted a day or two, they took me away from myself. I went to Tennessee in Bitter milk, and New York City in The Midnight Examiner, and Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. In a way, I went more places rather than those places where I slept during the great fall relocation of 2010.

As I look over the Autumn reading list, I did not follow it much at all. The lists:
What I said I would read this fall:
Beyond the Wall: Edward Abbey
The Sound and the Fury: William Faulkner
In the Penal Colony: Franz Kafka
Pinball: Jerzy Kosinski
The Joke: Milan Kundera
Love in the Time of Cholera: Garbriel Garcia Marquez
After Dark: Haruki Murakami
In the Lake of the Woods: Tim O'Brien
Johnny Got His Gun: Dalton Trumbo
Around the World in Eighty Days: Jules Verne
The Waves: Virgina Woolf

And there's the list of What I actually read:
Johnny Got His Gun: Dalton Trumbo
Disquiet: Julia Leigh
My Last Breath: Luis Brunel (Autobiography)
Never Let Me Go: Kazuo Ishiguro
The Midnight Examiner: William Kotzwinkle
To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee
After Dark: Haruki Murakami
The Pink Institution: Selah Saterstrom
The 1995 Schocken Collection of Franz Kafka with foreword by Anne Rice
Dead Soul: Nikolay Gogol
Bitter Milk: John McManus

We've talked about reading in this blog, we've discussed the importance of reading as writers. Taking a critical view of what we read and put in motion our ideas of writing and then challenging them as we read and work is the best thing we can do.

I keep a “literary” journal. I've kept one for years. As I read, I keep track of each book, I write down passages, or quotes that mean something to me. I also write a very informal criticism of each book. In graduate school we called them annotations. I'm not really annotating these books, as I've said it's more of an informal criticism. This act helps me to remember what I read, it helps me to think about the reader-writer relationship and it helps me to keep up on critical writing skills. Critical writing skills, funny thing for a writer of fiction, right? It's a good exercise. I think everyone should read, and I think everyone should write.

If you keep a literary journal, keep it up. If you do not, perhaps you should start.

Hopefully, as you wrap up your autumn reading season, your reflections will help your thought, and help your writing.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Three: the Plot

At times it was the smart of a whip, and at other times it was the blunt trauma of being struck with a club. It's been beaten into me. And now, I can feel how great it is, and now that I'm with it, I think everyone else should be too. I'm a believer, and perhaps I should stand on a hilltop and shout it out. “I believe in plot. I believe plot will save us all.”

Plot.

Otherwise, what's the point?

I wanted to be a botanist. It's true. I spent my youth in plant filled places and I liked that. After the war, I moved to Germany and in my rural town, everyone had beautiful gardens. I admired these gardens with a level of envy I'd care not to explain. One day, while on a run by a long line of gardens, I saw a woman, a naked woman, tending her grapes. When I saw her, that was it, all I wanted was a grape arbor and a naked woman to tend to it.

When I returned to the states a year or so later, I still maintained this dream of botany. I had this other compulsion that I never told anyone about, a funny habit of writing strange things that I called stories. Occasionally, I became engaged in the writing of bad poetry. It was mostly to gain perspective on my life, the war, and my loneliness and alienation, but what I was writing was not journal nor memoir. It was just strange.

What does this have to do with plot? What does it have to do with the smarts and the blunts?

Kalleen Zubick was the first to do it. She asked: “What do you think fiction is?” It was a good question to ask. She was adjunct faculty tending a freshmen composition class and I was her student. “What do I think fiction is? I don't know, it's like a scene you see when you look into a window,” I said. “Okay,” she said. “Remember, in fiction, something has to happen.”

Something has to happen? It's taken years for that to make sense. Let's consider her words as the smarting of the whip.

During my graduate studies at Goddard College, Kyle Bass was not so subtle when our conversation of plot came up. He pointed out that my manuscript lacked plot. It lacked plot. That means, that of all the pages I'd written nothing was happening. What I admire the most in Kyle Bass is his ability to think on his feet. In this discussion of plot he pulled out several examples and then changed my study plan accordingly. He was a wonderful mentor, as I've said before. Let's consider that the blunt trauma. He made me read and annotate John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, with an emphasis on “Chapter Seven: Plotting.” Kyle introduced me to Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Then came Jerzy Kosinski, and Frank Conroy. These were all writers on my reading list. These were the writers Kyle thought would solve my plot problems.

To a small degree my understanding of plot has increased, at least as a writer. As a reader, I'm unstoppable. And as an editor, plot, especially in the short story is something I look for, and if I can't find it? I discount the piece. Very often in this blog I talk about the beginning, the middle and the end. This is my way of saying plot.

As this lesson in plot revolves around the short story, let's use short stories as examples. Remember, if you have a problem understanding plot, you should see John Gardner and read his examples in Chapter Seven, or try out some of examples given to me by Kyle Bass.

“Guns Before Butter,” in Kurt Vonnegut's 2008 Armageddon in Retrospect tops my list today. All of the short stories in this collection are undated and unpublished. “Guns Before Butter,” a story of American GIs as POWs in Dresden 1945, is a very Vonnegut themed story. This piece is a great case study for both the character and conflict points we talked about in the last two lessons. But when, as an editor I say the beginning, the middle and the end, “Guns Before Butter” is just that. Here we have soldiers, both American and German and they're talking about what soldiers talk about, food. As with most of Kurt Vonnegut's work, word choice and construction are all his, but his plot? Straight forward and clear.

Another short story plot which is straight forward and clear with the whole beginning, middle and end is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even if we remember Fitzgerald for The Great Gatsby or This Side of Paradise, or even the way Hemingway portrays him in Moveable Feast, all short story writers need to put Fitzgerald at the top of their reading lists. He wrote and published something of the tune of 180 stories in his lifetime.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is funny. It's a dig on Harvard and Yale. It questions age, experience, marriage and society. And more importantly it has plot. The beginning of the story is the old man and the end of the story is the infant.

The last example is another one of my favorites. Plot in mind, let's look at Aimee Bender's “Ring” in her The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I bring this one up because like many of Aimee Bender's stories the very first sentence of “Ring” pulls us in the middle of the plot, or the middle of the story:

I fell in love with a robber and he took me on his rounds.


The whole story takes a turn for the surreal, this is true. The whole thing happens in threes, not unlike a joke or an old story. Three rings: a diamond, a ruby and an emerald. The couple moves and then takes a vacation. What's the plot here? We travel over time and space and events, we get consumed in conflict and we get to know the characters, their sensibilities and their desires. It's really a wonderful story.

Rather than taking the academic view of plot, like John Gardner, or Kyle Bass, or even Kalleen Zubick, let's do it our way.
1)remember the beginning, the middle and the end as a map of a story. You don't always start at the beginning, or finish at the end, think about the Fitzgerald example. But if you begin a story, please follow through.
2)if you spend time with your characters and construct them in the proper way. Giving them desire, dimension and a task, they will probably carry out your plot for you. All you'll really have to do is put a shine on it.
3)read, read, read. Read the short stories written by the masters. Remember many magazine editors or curators of short stories would probably pass on “the classics” for their publications today. Read magazines and see how they're constructed, if any given piece got published, it probably has a plot you can decipher, define and study.
4)a formal approach works too. You can study the Fictean Curve John Gardner preaches. You can use the story arch we learned about in school. You can storyboard your piece like a movie. You can follow one of Aristotle's plot lines. These are all good approaches.

As we conclude today, remember that good plot must be piloted by good writing. Don't sacrifice one for the other. To make a plot fluid it cannot seem contrived. Our magazine editor is also a reader and we cannot forget that either.

In our current short story project, which is now in the third week, let's consider plot. Can it be understood? Is it working in the confines of the story? Does it need work? How do you feel about it? If you feel like you need remedial studies, do it now. Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Two: the Conflict

I suppose this first week in December ought to bring stories of wintertime or Christmas, forgiveness or even tales of the solstice. I regret that I have not read such stories at this time of the year, because I have never read them. Rather, I've taken the turn for the macabre. Before we get too involved in examples, let's just make a few points about conflict as we continue our short story for the magazine editor series. We must examine conflict, and I think it's especially pertinent after our discussion of character.

In last week's discussion, we supposed our characters needed something more than just description, vernacular and actions. We decided to give our characters desire, dimension and a task to complete. Hopefully, we were all thinking of our characters and in relation to a (or many) short story (ies). Today, we're going to add conflict.

Listed here are a few generic types conflict and a brief example:

1)Man vs God: Old Greek stuff, remember Odysseus vs Circe, and Odysseus vs cyclops. The old books of the bible have this conflict pretty often too: the ancient Hebrews vs God. Seems like a pretty fool hearty endeavor, doesn't it?
2)Man vs Nature: Most adventure stories start here. Jack London's “To Build a fire.” Farley Mowat's “Walk Well, My Brother.” The whole man vs nature theme is prevalent, yes, but each of these writers include more conflict, or at least different types.
3)Man vs Establishment: Franz Kafka's “In the Penal Colony.”
4)Man vs Supernatural: Bierce's “A Vine on a House”
5)Man vs Man: may the best man win. War stories are like this although they become ideology vs ideology.
6)Man vs Himself: Lovecraft's “The outsider,” this is a fun one.

I think you get the point.

When we think about this business of the short story, we have limited space and in that limited space we cannot hesitate to make it happen. Conflict cannot be confused with plot. Conflict certainly enhances the plot, but it is not plot itself.

Earlier when I said I'd taken a turn for the macabre, I have picked a few conflicts to illustrate our point.
For example, I've been meaning to read H.P. Lovecraft for years. His work had never come to me before. In reading “The Outsider” I have a few general impressions. For being written, or published in 1925, it had very archaic language. And second, this story of a walking corpse has some great conflict. Narrator vs nature: the trials of climbing out of the castle. Narrator vs himself: the struggle with memory. Narrator vs man: the sight of him and everyone leaves the party. Narrator vs the establishment: life and death, or the dead existing among the living. Fun stuff.

Now for Lovecraft's conflict highlights “...and at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish than to live without ever beholding day,” (317) Here we've met the physical conflict: he will scale the wall in order to see daylight, man vs nature. Even at the end of the story the conflict is not so much resolved as the narrator simply accepts his fate. “...yet in my new wildness and freedom, I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage,” (321). Man vs himself. I'm grateful, in a way, that H.P. Lovecraft came to me during the research of conflict over any other time. Gothic stories, although fun, have never really been my thing.

Anne Rice's introduction to Schocken's 1995 edition of Franz Kafka's collection is striking. She claims Kafka showed her the way. She was not able to think of her work and her writing as being part of the Realism movement. Conversely, I love to think in terms of Realism, it makes the characters, their conflicts, more sorrowful, or great or pathetic when they're closer to life. I suppose I like the mundane, and even when I read a fantastic story, or a piece of horror or sci fi, I still see the human in it, or the what is at stake for the characters. Yet, I just put at least 99 praises to Lovecraft and his walking corpse. Why? Because climbing a tower to see daylight is a real conflict. A character who doesn't know who he is, or in the case of “The Outsider,” what he is—wow, that's conflict at work.

In this same volume, I came across an Ambrose Bierce story. He was a great writer of the short story: “Occurrence at Owl Creak Bridge,” or “Devil's Dictionary,” come to mind instantly. But Chris Baldick, Professor at Goldsmith's University and editor of The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales included “A Vine on a House.” When we talk about conflict, how often do we think of the supernatural as a formidable opponent? Furthermore, in Bierce's story, the townspeople take this conflict with the supernatural in a very real way, disbelief. The abandoned Harding house of Norton, Missouri had been “haunted” since the family with the one footed wife left years before. When the townspeople get to the house, the vines wave despite no wind. Conflict: they all want to believe it's a ghost, but they don't. Final verdict: dig up the vine. Almost a Druid thing? Well, you see what happens. Man vs supernatural. What are the outcomes of such a conflict? The ghost or devil or whatever being wins = supernatural over man. If man triumphs? Well it's science or faith or reason or whatever makes us feel better in the dark which dispels the unknown. Unlike the Lovecraft piece, “A Vine on a House” is just one conflict.

Now to speak of a masterful combination of conflicts rounding out our discussion let's meet the Officer, the Commandant, the Explorer, the Soldier and the condemned man of Kafka's “In the Penal Colony.” Anyway, the Penal Colony is ripe for conflict. Man vs man is the Officer who holds on to the capital punishment machine (the past) vs the new Commandant who does not (the future). The explorer does not believe in the method of justice or the method of punishment: man vs the establishment. The Explorer and the Officer who have a sort of chance meeting can also be a man vs man story. Their conflict becomes ideology vs ideology. The conflict is on every page, it's part of every conversation. As a reader I felt conflicted too. My cultural lens of course, tells me there should not be torture as part of punishment, unless at military prisons, right? And I am against capital punishment, except in Florida or Texas. The point is, I felt much like the Explorer, I was horrified at the very description of the apparatus. Now, if a reader feels so inclined to choose a side, that's potent. If a reader can see both sides of the conflict, well that's great.

So? Where does that lead us as writers? I said it last week, and the week before that, to write short stories, one must read short stories. At this stage of the game, we've talked about characters and we've talked about conflict, this ought to be enough to think about as we read short stories. We should be able to do that much, at least. Let's consider ourselves trained.

In the week to come, think about the conflict in two ways. First as a way to enhance your characters. Second as a way to progress the plot. Next, to keep up with the theme of writing with your magazine editor in mind, try to add in more than two conflicts in your story.

As always, happy writing, and good luck.

Baldick, Chris, Editor. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford University Press:New York, 2009.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Very Public Library

A Very Public Library
The world could be a very different place. We could be waiting for Halloween daily, the goings on of children and candy only to interrupt the goings on of ghouls and ghosts in the bedroom above. In the bed, complete in every way down to the messy hair, we wait for Halloween. My ghoul is pretty, not a ghoul in any sort of traditional way, but we're talking about a very different world. So, as I said, my ghoul is pretty. She wears glasses. She's smart as hell too.
And in this very different world, I'm not me. No, I'm something else entirely. I'm a strange mix of who I am, could be, have been or want to be. In this very different world I'm no more handsome and no more intelligent. I'm just an average fellow and I'm in a motel room, the kind where people live on the outskirts of the world above trick or treaters and fishing streams. We're waiting, me and my ghoul for the doorbell to ring. We're high on Spanish brandy. We're high on poetry. We're discovering it for the first time, we're discovering it together, my ghoul and me the ghost of possibility.
Bees enter the room and buzz a theme or two, their songs are from our youth, or someone else's youth. We're laughing at the whole thing: the impossibility of it, the way it feels, the way it sounds, this whole poetry thing.
We consider 3,859 Rolls Royces. We're thinking of mayonnaise. We're dreaming of Babylon. We're here. It's Halloween and when we start to do what we do this Halloween and the age of Aquarius, we're sure to be quiet when the goblins ring, suddenly we're waiting to cross a street in Denver.


We were separated by ten years and the associated sensibilities. We knew one another when he was the age I am now, and I was ten years younger. He knew Richard Brautigan. Well, not by face, and not personally; Brautigan had died a DIY back in the early 1980s. No, he knew Brautigan by Trout Fishing in America. I remember looking at the old book and admiring it in some sort of tactile way. I admired its age and the mildew smell of it. I wasn't due to read it for a few more months when met it, Trout Fishing in America, again. This time it was someone else to introduce it to me. She read “Sea, Sea Rider.” We laughed. We were all three bartenders, the two who introduced me to Brautigan and myself. We all three had the kind of time that is conducive to reading books. Not to mention in those days we all had money, and the kind of money to hunt up old and out of print books. It was on.
I think Richard Brautigan is best known for Trout Fishing in America, maybe In Watermelon Sugar. Perhaps he's remembered from his poetry. Who knows? I suspect with the vast majority of people, he's not remembered at all.
From my second introduction to his work in early 2002, I read all his novels, his book of short stories, Revenge of the Lawn, and as many volumes of his poetry I could find.
The real turning point, for me, was when I decided to deconstruct The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 when I was in graduate school. I found an academic approach to Brautigan killed everything I found wonderful in his words. I won't bore you with this anymore. But, I will say, I got to know this book backwards and forwards.
What I love about The Abortion is the library. A very public library. Brautigan has conceived of the most democratic of libraries, a library where no one checks books out, but rather they come to deposit them. The very notion that such a library could exist, and that there would be a librarian available 24 hours a day to receive a book is amazing. It's amazing that the library is encouraged to do nothing more than receive entries and the librarian encouraged to spend their time reading them. It's a great idea, it's the freest of free speech.
The Clark County Historical Museum at 1511 Main Street Vancouver, Washington has brought home their prodigal son. Brautigan, from Tacoma, Washington then Eugene, Oregon and then San Francisco, California has left us his legacy in his work. Others have assembled new facets for us to see. The photographs curated in the museum are wonderful to see, courtesy of Erik Weber, photographer, and friend of the late Richard Brautigan. Many of Weber's photos made the covers of Brautigan's books, The Abortion and Trout Fishing in America, namely.
The small museum is a great primer for budding Brautigan fans. And the 200+ collection in “The Brautigan Library” by way of Burlington, Vermont brought tears to my eyes. Yes, there are 200 some books that were brought to a very public library which was the direct translation of Brautigan's library in The Abortion. It was a treat to sit in The Clark County Historical Museum on a trying-to-be-sunny December day in 2010 and open a volume or two written by people who came to the library to deposit their books, deposit their stories.

Items 1-4
Rainbows at night, the circles swimming around avocados and then the cork broke and we decided to drink the remnants of the brandy. Two slugs for each poem. We'd go our way through bowling trophies, wind blowing it all away, and Confederate Generals shoveling mercury with a pitchfork. Our time was our own at iDEATH, iWHISKEY or at the banks of a trout stream. We were sliding down a slope, a slope above a bookstore and that terrible year of 1959.
We were there, all we needed, my ghoul and me, was a record of it written down and bound and cataloged and proud its purpose posterity.


At any rate, as cool as this library is, it's really the coming to life of Richard Brautigan's work. And the rest of the exhibit is well worth the four dollars at the door. There it is for you to see: San Francisco, poetry broadsheets and wonderful photographs. When you're in the area please visit: http://www.cchmuseum.org/