Monday, March 28, 2011

The Spring Reading List

I went to the post office my last day in Denver. I had six full boxes of books. Two boxes of books I couldn't part with, two boxes of Janice's books, two boxes of notebooks. I would hardly classify myself as a hoarder, especially now that I have read every book in my collection.
Janice and I went to Forest Grove a few months back to meet a poet named Bill Alton. It was a wonderful excursion. We rolled into Forest Grove early for the appointment. We opted to kill a little time at a thrift store. It fit into our budget and for some reason, wandering through thrift stores is like window shopping in the living rooms of America. That, and it's out of the rain.
I looked through the books. I felt a strange sensation I think is funny. Here it was January and I was looking through thrift store books. Hadn't we just gone through this in reverse just last September?
The books were inexpensive. It was the hard backs for less than three dollars kind of inexpensive. As I rolled over the titles on the spines, I took a few books off the shelf and looked through them. There were plenty of first editions, at least of some of the newer books. I found Susanna Moore's In the Cut, a first edition too. I bought it. I'd heard about this book and I saw the movie.
I was very happy with the purchase.
I continued thinking about the book on the drive from Forest Grove to McMinneville where we ate at Thistle. On the way home, I made a declaration to Janice. I said: “I'm only going to buy nice books, hard backs and first editions from here on out.” She agreed. She always agrees. I love her for many, many reasons. Mostly I love her because she accepts me, no matter how silly I can be. Then I said: “I'm only buying books that I'm going to read or that I have read.”
She laughed. Then she said: “So, that means you won't buy books you haven't read or that you won't read?” I'm still not sure why that's funny.
As I write this post, I haven't purchased a single book since In the Cut. Unfortunately, it may be some time before I do buy another book.
I do, however, own a library card.
Since being in Oregon, I've been using my library card. I daresay, I've used this library more than I've used any library. I'm grateful for it and all of us should be grateful for libraries. The bulk of the books on my spring reading list will come from a public bookshelf.
So, here it is:
In the Cut – Susanna Moore
O Pioneers! – Willa Cather
The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
Factotum – Charles Bukowski
Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene
Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
The Glass Door – Dashiel Hammett
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
Howard's End – E.M. Forster
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Amiee Bender
50 Great Short Stories

The task? 50 Great Short Stories is an easy one. I plan to rethink my workshops, the Jumpstart, and The short Story for the Editor and use examples from this book. I think this book will be great for a text book. Can you imagine an instructor choosing a book with millions of copies in circulation and all costing less than six bucks as a textbook? The revised series with required reading will be June's posts, right after the end of the Novel, Guerrilla Style series.
The “crime” themed noirs of Moore and Hammett don't exactly spell out spring time, but as a writer, I'm somewhat interested in these for their theme. I've written a few coming of age novels, novels on alienation, a love story and a dystopia. Now, I may want to write noir. I'm not sure where to go after that, erotica or memoir, we'll burn that bridge when we come to it.
I hope as you get going this spring and enjoy the warming weather and sunlight, you remember to read good books. You can use your library card if times are tight, you can buy beautiful hard back first editions. Develop your list, learn something, grow (spring's the season for that anyway). Go outside and read under a tree.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Winter Reading List- The Wrap Up

As a graduating class, we decided to have Rebecca Brown as the master of ceremony during our commencement. During my time at Goddard College I never spent much time getting to know Rebecca, but over the course the program I became a bit of a wallflower groupie. What's a wallflower groupie? Good question. Of course, I was drawn to Rebecca. I don't know anyone who isn't. Even my parents, who came to my graduation ceremony and only knew her for her speech, were drawn to her. But during all my Goddard residencies, I went to any workshop she gave. I still think about her Coming Through Slaughter workshop. For those of you who don't know Michael Ondaatje's book, Coming Through Slaughter, perhaps you'll be inclined to put it on your reading list. I loved the book which is about Billy Bolden and the beginnings of jazz. The subject matter aside, Rebecca Brown was riveting. A short conversation with her, you know there's at least 10,000 books you have to read in order to see the world through proper eyes. The eyes of a reader, a writer and a thinker for our times. I digress.
At the graduation ceremony, she spoke of failure. Yeah, failure. She dared an entire class of graduating writers in front of their peers and families to go out into the world and fail. She used Herman Melville as an example. Moby Dick was an enigma in Melville's time that utter destroyed his career as a writer. I'm paraphrasing here, but in many ways, how true it was. Moby Dick. Can you believe it? We, as Americans, and I suspect we as writers the world over hold that book in incredibly high regard. I hold it in high regard. Why? Because I read it. And reading it, the tactile motion of rolling my eyes over the text and turning the pages really was a wonderful thing. I read it slowly, how could I not? It's dense. It's strange. I was right there with Ishmael, and Stubbs, and Starbuck and of course, Captain Ahab. I tell you this, it was a very rewarding process. There are classes and professors and literary criticism the planet over that will tell you the worth of this text. So, I'll spare you that. Suffice it to say, it was well worth putting the book on my list and reading it. I don't know how influential the book will be on my writing style, not yet anyway. As far as Rebecca's call to arms, her call to failure, I have no exact response. I'm still evolving as a writer, as I hope all of you are doing too. I'm also developing, constantly, as a reader.
Of all the books on my winter reading list, I read them all.
Murakami? The three that I read this season are three of the eleven of his novels I've read over the years. I love that his stories develop the way they do, the insights into the Tokyo psyche are intense. It makes me think about the American psyche, if that makes any sense. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, for instance, has so many stories from Japan's Manchurian campaign in WWII to the mystics seeking refuge in dried up wells and as outlandish as it all is, it makes sense in the confines of the story. Dance Dance Dance made me appreciate the narrative of an entire portfolio of work. I love that Murakami will often times have a detached middle-aged man, a teenage girl as a guide through the supernatural, the famous figures and an object of desire who vanishes. Startling, yes. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World has a similar dual storyline. The higher praises of Murakami's work: you can learn to cook great meals just by following the recipes of the narrator as he cooks dinner. His work proves to be an excellent primer into music: classical, American Jazz, Blues and Pop. What I really gain from these novels is a sense of space and place. After some time with these novels you know the streets of Harajuku and hidden nooks of Sapporo as if you lived there your whole life.
He's very attracted to islands of the Mediterranean: Greece, Malta and Crete.
John McManus's book of short stories, Born on a Train? They're still with me. In my wanderings as a fiction editor at a literary magazine, I only wish that every short story I read feels like his stories do. It's great insight into the modern day south. He really has nailed the southern vernacular. He's got the child narrator down too. On top of the thematic aspects, John really is one hell of a writer. I am blessed to have studied under him at Goddard.
Selah Saterstrom's book, The Meat and Spirit Plan? Again, I'm blessed to have her in my life too. Her writing is so far away from anything I've ever read. Her work is lyrical, challenging and somehow simple in it's delivery. I found her words to haunt me days later, and of anything else, it's time for her to produce another book. I know she has the next installment of her canon. It will be a red letter day when I get my hands on it.
The reading list: all the selections I made were seasonally appropriate too, I think. The long nights and short gray days of Portland's winter really made reading necessary. Although most people do not have the benefit of unemployment, poverty and Portland as reading scenery, I did. It was a truly wonder way to pass the winter.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Novel, Guerrilla Style Part 6: The Role of Secondary Characters

When I was in my 20s, I still thought I could change the world. Aren't we all predisposed to such thinking at that age? I worked for the Boy Scouts, mostly because I believed in it, but part of the reason was that the Boy Scouts provided me with roam and board at summer camp. I feel like I could have stayed in the woods forever. Josh Zeigler and I used to pass the late hours laughing at our great fortune of Camp Dietler. If for no other reason than we always had a home from late May until mid-August. Josh spent his autumns in school and his winters on the ski slopes. We would concoct ways of living outside forever.
Camp Dietler made way for Camp Morrison and later Camp Cooper. Camp Cooper became wildly populated with old friends: Josh and David Jones from Camp Dietler, Roland ad Rachel and Jen from my neighborhood in Northwest Portland. The latter group were the people I spent days, or rather, nights with, walking the lights of bars along NW 21st Avenue. Roland, for a long spell was my only friend. He was a great friend to have, being the biggest, and often times, the gentlest creature I have ever known. A deep-voiced man formerly of Vermont, he was the bouncer at my favorite club. Rachel and Jen came to me during the haunts of places like the Gypsy and Anna Banana's. Rachel and I would often drink beer from brown paper bags clad cans along the railroad tracks talking literature, Haruki Murakami namely.
The wild progress of people in and out of my like, like the idea of changing the world, was very age appropriate. For that, the people, the times, I dearly loved the work I did with the Boy Scouts of America.
At the end of the century, I was preparing for a long and rainy winter. I spent Tuesday evenings with Emily, my dear friend who got out of work early on Tuesday nights. She worked the front of the house bistro called Blue Tango, since defunct, on NW 23rd. I spent Wednesdays with Roland, and Thursdays I was with Chris Otto. Otto and I drove the quiet streets of downtown Portland after dark theorizing the state of affairs in America. At the time it was the issue of gays in leadership roles within the Boy Scout system and the impending doom of Y2K. Obviously, we thought the issues of the day were nonsense. Plenty of gay people have children, and those children can benefit from the Boy Scout program too. There are only two sides of the issue as far as I was concerned: a person is either a good role model for a child, or they are not, and it has nothing to do with being gay. And Y2K? It seems even less stupid no than it was then.
Otto and I talked a lot about the future. Sadly, I was still hung up on the past. I was toying with the notion that I was selling out on my life as a writer by becoming a young executive. Otto was convinced I could be both. Years later, my attorney, Eric Driskill, would tell me the same thing. Reoccurring theme?
But back in the fall of 1999, I was certain the world would change. Y2K, no. The new century? Maybe, who knew?
At Thanksgiving, a whole group of us decided to spend the weekend in Vancouver, BC. One by one the group dwindled. Otto, decided to relax at home with his wife for the long weekend. He was the first one out. He had been working to grow his numbers at work since October. He was tired, and I knew it. Chris Howk was the second one out. We all worked together, and he was feeling a bit like Otto, I suspected. I mean, really, when we worked sixty plus hours a week, who wanted to run like wild banshees all weekend?
I went to Vancouver alone.
In the rainy drive up, I called Ellie in San Francisco. She was riding the failing wave of the dotcom debacle at the time. As I drove over the international border separating Washington State from British Columbia, she gave me real time directions to hotels she thought might appeal to me.
I found myself at a bar shortly thereafter and I was engaged in The Writer, and in particular, an article making a rather compelling argument about the use of secondary characters as a tool to push the plot along.
Like the bible, right? Each one of those soandso begot soandso is nothing more than secondary characters. True enough. Like Balzac too. Although all of Balzac's secondary characters eventually got their own book. Like Steinbeck, one character after another in Cannery Row. Like the vast interviews in part 2 of Roberto BolaƱo's Savage Detectives.
All right, I remember thinking, I'll bite.
So, in the Guerrilla Novel, where does that leave us?
In my own experience, particularly with Dysphoric Notions, and a rather pathetic account of the Thanksgiving trip called 24 Hours in Vancouver, I used hundreds of secondary characters. Many of these characters get a paragraph or two for no other reason than to illustrate a point.
As the novel process progresses, ask yourself about your secondary characters. Do you have any? Too often we get so centered on the action at hand and it becomes too focused, too mechanical. Write out a little vignette involving a character not directly involved and then embed them in the story. For instance, if your central character had a fireman fetish, or a librarian fetish, you may want to write in the circumstance that developed that. Like a childhood thing. Now, this may function as a back story exposition, but it is a secondary character to do it for you.
Also, in your narrative, there may arise a situation when a secondary character does something, says something in order to change the idea or direction of events. How often in life do we have a brush encounter with a stranger that makes us think differently?
This week, your task: write a few vignettes with these secondary characters and apply it to your work.

As always, good luck and keep writing.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Novel, Guerrilla Style Part 5: Anthony's three in one system

So, we've sat through some great topics: the novel descriptions and plot and that sort of thing. I would venture to guess that a few inspirational statements would go a long way after the interlude last week. I'm sure. But my biggest inspirational statement is: go and do it, you can do it and if you don't, then who will?
As we've discussed the whole guerrilla nature of this, we'll continue on with my method.
I suppose many books in the how-to section of the novel-writing department are nothing more than a writer's disclosure, so here's mine.
I made the claim that I can write a novel in anywhere between eight and fifteen weeks. The average being around twelve weeks. So, in that 12 weeks, I will draft a novel, create a second draft and work on and complete a third draft.
At this point in your project, I hope that you have started to figure out your mode of work. I hope you have learned to set the time aside and actually work, for this is the only way it gets completed.
So, I'm sure you can elegantly explain your process now. The best thing to do is to explain your process. Write your process down, and now you'll have a basis for your work as a guerrilla novel writer.

Here's my process:
I get up and tidy the kitchen and brew the coffee. The kitchen is always clean, but a few minutes putting dishes away gets my mind settled. The reason I do this is because I work at the kitchen table. Once the coffee's ready, I settle in and make a list. The list has a few notes, directions, or minutia on it.
From there, I turn on the computer and I start working on the second draft where I left off from the day before. As some of you know, I write everything long hand. The stupid cursive words, almost five words per line of the wide ruled 9 3/4 x 7 1/2 composition notebook pages are draft number one. We'll get back to that.
As I said, the second draft is typed in a transcription, after all, a word document is so much more workable than the pen and ink page. At this stage, I will rework things, add to and subtract from the initial draft. I will type on average 20-40 handwritten pages. That becomes 7 to 14 double spaced courier 12 pt font pages. Once I'm done with the daily second draft, I go back to where I left off on the third draft.
In the third draft, I'm generally dozens of pages back. I'll set hooks, rework things that comprise future events, stuff like that. This part of the drafting process takes the longest.
I try to get both of these drafts down before work (the place I go for paycheck earnings).
In the afternoon I retreat to the composition notebook. This is the original laptop, right?
Then with quick speed I begin to tell the story again from where I left off the first draft. The first draft is the best, of course. I love this step of the process. You should too, because here it doesn't have to make sense. You can diagram, use funny forms or sloppy structure. For me, I'll write for almost an hour. Once that's completed, I'm off to do other things. I have several hours to think about what I've written before the second draft begins again the next day.
And quite simply this is how I write three drafts in the prescribed time.
Whatever system works for you, learn it, define it, understand it and employ it.

Good luck and happy writing.