Mix Stories

So after The Odyssey, I wasn’t kidding about reading something less epic. Instead of launching into another novel, I’ve been reading short stories, selections from various books, dipping in and out as I please. It’s a bit of a refresher course: sometimes I just need to be reminded how stories work. I’ve been revisiting many of my stories and I sometimes get lost in them, wondering, does this need to be longer? Or shorter? Is this interesting? This is SO not interesting. How do I make it better? One evening I stood in front of my bookshelf and pulled some of my favourite collections off the shelf. Curiously, in the pile of books I had selected the authors were overwhelmingly female. I love the dudes of course (those classic C-men: Chekhov, Cheever, Carver), but when I think about the stories I am most influenced by, they happen to be written by women.

Sometimes I think it would be fun to make a mix tape-like list of some of my favourite stories. If you could amass a series of stories to give to a friend, what would you include? When I’m working on my own stories, I’m inspired by the following:
“Heaven” Mary Gaitskill (from “Bad Behaviour”)
“Terrific Mother” Lorrie Moore (from “Birds of America”)
“Sister Crazy” Emma Richler (from “Sister Crazy”)
“Diegesis (World of a Fiction)” Masha Tupitsyn (from “Beauty Talk & Monsters”) “When We Were Nearly Young” Mavis Gallant (from “In Transit”)**
“Bread” Rebecca Brown (from “What Keeps Me Here”)
“Nipple of Paradise” Lisa Moore (from “Degrees of Nakedness”)
These are from books that are sitting next to my computer – I’m leaving out a lot. But, still, seeing these stories in a list makes me realize that they all have the same kind of themes (motherhood, sisterhood, coming-of-age-girl-style). It’s no surprise that these are the ones I’m gravitating to most these days since many of my stories deal with the same themes.

** After writing the list above, I got to thinking about this particular Gallant story and why I liked it so much. At first it seems like a wisp of a story, a short collection of musings about the narrator’s life at a specific point in her life. It’s personal, but detached. But it’s the kind of story that sticks with you – maybe it’s the way it ends abruptly? The way the narrator and her “friends” seem so gripped with fear?

Wanting to find some analysis, I stumbled upon The Journal of the Short Story in English. It’s an academic journal that discusses the short story and it appears that they’ve put the full text of their back issues online. This appeals to my thwarted English major side. This essay, “Genre transgression and auto/biography in Mavis Gallant’s “When we were nearly young”", confirms why this story is so weighty. There’s a lot going on.

How To

I started this entry a few months ago when I was thinking about how much I enjoyed reading books about writing. I tend to eat them up, almost guiltily, like I’m cheating or something, like I should be learning about writing by actually writing or by reading the classics, not by reading these silly books that often amount to nothing more than self-help. Obviously the craft of writing cannot be condensed into a how-to manual, but listen – I didn’t take English literature in school. I work a regular 9-5 day job, and I’ve been doing so for the past eight years. So, I sometimes feel a little starved of the act of thinking analytically about writing. Writing books help my brain engage in a way I’m not accustomed to. So, here are a few of my favourites:

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead: Your Words in Print and Your Name in Lights – Ariel Gore: This book is cheeky and practical-helpful and doesn’t shy away from zines and DIY as a way to get your writing out there. It’s because Ariel understands the purpose and limitations of zines – she founded Hip Mama, after all. She also sagely advises beginning writers to submit to anthologies. She was so right about this. My “real book” publication credits are all thanks to anthologies.

A Writers Journal – Virginia Woolf: I love diaries, and I especially love diaries about writing. I couldn’t imagine analyzing my writing the same way Woolf does (How could I? My story about a teenaged girl kissing a boy for the first time does not have the same richness as “The Waves”, unfortunately).

The Narrative Craft – Madison Smart Bell: This book is great because Madison takes an entire short story and then describes why it works, usually within the context of a particular subject (narrative arc, character, etc). The best part is that he chose fantastic stories. It was through this book that I read Mary Gaitskill’s “Daisy’s Valentine” from her collection “Bad Behaviour” (which includes the story “Secretary” is based on).

The Elements of Style – Strunk and White: There’s been some Strunk & White backlash recently, but I find this slim tome reassuring. It might not have the right answers, but it has answers, and sometimes that’s all I need to get going. Plus, I have the gorgeous illustrated version – red hardcover, silky pages, whimsical watercolour photos by Maira Kalman – which makes it even more of a pleasure to read.

As for the “famous” writing books: I liked “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott enough, and really liked the advice about the importance of shitty first drafts. I remind myself of that a lot when I’m writing, and it helps me get over the fear that what I’m writing is crappy because why shouldn’t it be? It’s a first draft! “Writing Down the Bones” was good when I first read it (at the time, her advice that writing should be something that you practice, like exercise, really struck a chord), but sometimes feels a little too new age-y or something when I reread it now. I think it’s best for very beginning writers. And I liked Stephen King’s “On Writing” for the same reasons everyone else likes it: good, no-nonsense advice, comforting because he says that good writers can be made into great writers with practice, and it’s Stephen King and he rules.

The intersection of writing workshops and Okkervil River

I’m having a bit of a music crisis these days (hence the embarrassingly unupdated music blog). I shuffle through songs on my Ipod and hardly anything feels right except for the following: Okkervil River’s “The Stand Ins”, anything by the Pixies and “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”. It’s weird. I wasn’t into the Pixies as a teenager or even an early twenty-something. But then Andrew and I listened to them a lot over Christmas holidays and I guess something clicked. And I don’t know why that Bob Dylan album is the one that’s doing it for me, but it is. I suppose the Okkervil River fascination is the least strange, although I’ve overdosed on their other albums and can only stand to listen to this one. Particularly the song “Starry Stairs”, mainly for the way Will Sheff sings the phrase “I’m alive/ but a different kind of alive/ than the way I used to be”. I don’t know, there’s something about it. I like it.

The first creative writing workshop I took was in my second year at the University of Toronto, and it was an awkward little class. We weren’t very chatty and we never really bonded with each other. I can imagine that our professor felt like he was pulling teeth; we were so tentative. The stories I wrote for the class weren’t very good, but they were the first “serious” stories I wrote, so I was defensive about them. The class was kind (or at least, not very verbose) and I escaped unscathed, but I do remember the really sweet girl who wrote a story about the death of a pet. It was maybe the only time we banded together to tear something apart. She started crying, and we realized that it was autobiographical. Shit. My childhood pet Snowball had also recently died and I felt awful – I knew how she was feeling! I lent her a Red House Painters CD, the one where Mark Kozelek has a song about his cat. I’m sure she thought I was weird when I pressed it upon her. Anyway, the point is that, other than the cat incident, the thing I remember most clearly about the class is that the professor distributed “Okkervil River” to us to read together, the short story by Tatyana Tolstaya and it was one of my favourite things I read that year. So years later, when I learned about the band Okkervil River, I figured they could only be good. And they are.

Here’s a live version of “Starry Stairs”

And, how wonderful, a clip of Will Sheff reading Tatyana Tolstaya’s story: http://daytrotter.com/bookery/1471/okkervil-river-bookery

What I Talk About When I Talk About Not Writing

Just came home with a bushy cherry tomato plant that I hope I won’t kill and my first pint of Quebec strawberries. It’s summertime and my wintertime discipline is melting slowly away, kind of like the pile of snow sitting in Turcot Yard. My preoccupations have been more of the practical kind: trying to find a place to live in the fall, eating fresh produce, etc, etc.

All signs point towards writing, though. I was in Calgary over the weekend (for a fellow writer and dear friend’s wedding) and was struck by the beauty and hugeness of a big, blue prairie sky. It’s the kind of majestic thing that makes you feel all reflective and, for lack of something less cheesy, “infinite”. I was describing the feeling to a friend of mine and, not quite getting the feeling she said, “that must be really helpful for writing.” Huh. I was sort of thinking that it was better for living, but sure, writing too.

One of my favourite things about taking planes is going to the airport bookstore and buying an issue of The New Yorker. When it’s an especially good issue I take it as a good omen for the trip. The issue I read didn’t let me down at all: summer fiction issue! Including fun things like the first unreleased Nabokov short story (honestly? I didn’t love it), the most depressing story ever by Annie Proulx (dead babies, abandoned children, loss of limbs via bombs, massive brain damage… and more!), and, the most fascinating piece for me, Haruki Murukami discussing running and writing. Murukami will soon release “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running“, a memoir about running and starting a jazz club and writing books. The essay in the New Yorker concentrates on his early days, when he just started taking up running and becoming a novelist. He breaks down each process into satisfying, manageable pieces. He sits down and writes and writes. He puts on running shoes and runs and runs. Eventually the writing becomes a novel and the running becomes a marathon. It’s so simple! Thank you, Haruki.

This week I also read Zadie Smith’s lecture in the latest issue of The Believer about the craft of writing. I am such a sucker for these “how to do what I do” essays, and hers is funny and non-pretentious and helpful. The biggest piece of advice she gives (which she acknowledges she never follows and doesn’t believe anyone else actually will) is to put your writing away when you’re done. Hide the manuscript in a drawer for a few months, and then pull it out for editing. The distance will make you a better, more objective editor. Very good advice, but very hard to follow, although perhaps I can take my own writing dry spell as a good excuse to gain some of that distance from the writing I started when it was a little colder.

Some notes on a literary festival

The Blue Metropolis literary festival was held in Montreal between Wednesday April 30- Sunday May 4. I attended at least one event every day, usually with my literary outing date, Lesley, and it was fun, inspiring, overwhelming, etc.

April 30, 2008: Reading with James Meek, Nancy Huston and Donald Antrim. A good, solid reading. My favourite was Nancy Huston, who read excerpts from her recent English translation “Fault Lines”. I was unexpectedly taken by Donald Antrim, who I was not familiar with. He read from a hilarious work-in-progress. I found it surprising that he began the novel 6 years ago, but shelved it when the project became unwieldy. There’s something strangely comforting in knowing that a “real writer” can start a novel, get stuck, trash it and pick it up again after 5 years. You just sort of assume that once you have books published you write and complete things and they get made into books in neat 2 year spans or something.

May 1, 2008: An interview with Nancy Huston lead by CBC’s Michael Enright. Nancy Huston is probably my favourite “new” discovery of the festival. (“New” in brackets because she’s written dozens of books, is respected and well known, etc.) Caroline and Lesley had both glowingly recommended “Lignes de faille”, but I never got around to reading it. I was charmed at the reading the night before, but what really sealed the deal was this interview. They discussed things like the complexities of being an ex-pat in Paris (Nancy Huston was born in Calgary and lived in various parts of Canada and the Eastern United States before moving to France), the impact of childhood, the problems of language (trivia: Nancy Huston wrote her university thesis about taboo under the tutelage of Roland Barthes!) and more. The interview will be broadcast on the CBC sometime soon and would definitely be worth listening to. I would now like to read every one of her books. Okay, go. (One down – I breezed through “Losing North” this weekend; it’s similar in topic to the interview)

May 2, 2008: A panel discussion called “From manuscript to book: The publishers have their say” with Jon Paul Fiorentino, Robert J. Sawyer and Patricia Aldana. Jon was the more contemporary, indie side of things, Patricia covered children books (she works for Groundwood Press) and Robert was science fiction. It was an interesting panel and covered a lot of things I already knew, but didn’t mind hearing again i.e. submit everywhere, but know who you’re submitting to and why you’re right for them. Patricia was the only one who believed that people shouldn’t simultaneous submit, but come on, guys. We will simultaneously submit anyway, especially if you’re going to wait 6 months to give us rejection letters. Things got a little prickly when the topic of self-publishing came up. Jon valiantly defended DIY culture, much to the chagrin of Robert. Discussing it later on, Lesley made a good point that it really depends on the genre. A science fiction chapbook is probably weird, but a poetry chapbook is lovely. Anyway, it was an interesting panel.

May 3, 2008: A lecture/reading by Daniel Levitin, who wrote the book “Your Brain on Music” about the science behind listening to music. The lecture was fascinating and he talked about things like how the part of your brain responsible for movement is stimulated while listening to music, which is why in general we have to suppress the urge to dance or tap our fingers when we listen to a song we like. Admittedly, the lecture portion was too short, but he was eager to read to us an excerpt from the book that he will be releasing in the summer, which will deal more with the evolutionary side of things. After the lecture I realized that I hardly just listen to music anymore. I am always doing something – taking the bus, driving, doing the dishes – and I wonder how this has affected my relationship with music?

May 4, 2008: I spent the day at a workshop called “Pitching the Pitch” lead by Gerald Wexler. While I’ve done my fair share of research about the publishing world, the movie industry is a complete mystery to me. Over the past few months Soraya and I have written a screenplay, and now that it’s done, we’re not sure what to do with it. I was hoping this would clarify things a little. I have no experience in pitching, which was obvious when it came time for me to pitch my movie, but I got great suggestions from Gerald and the class. The respected (and um, dreamy) journalist/non-ficton writer, Adam Lebor, was in the workshop as well, hoping to get pointers on pitching his novel/movie. He had been on several panels at the festival and I didn’t expect to see someone “established” in a workshop with me. Similar to how I was surprised by Donald Antrim, I was shocked to find out that Adam’s novel is having a difficult time getting published. I assumed that, given his credentials, the book would be snapped up in a second. Oh, publishing. What a fickle beast.

Notes from a writing workshop

I’m thinking that it’s harder to write in the summer. And I say “summer” because this part of the world leaped from ridiculously towering snow drifts to flip flop and tank top weather within a one week span. But it’s so hard to write when there is green grass to walk on and bottles of white wine to drink and no one feels like burrowing anymore and even those squirrels at the park were eating potato chips out of your hand this balmy, beautiful Thursday evening in Montreal. What makes it a little more difficult is that for the past 8 weeks I’ve been taking a writing workshop lead by Mikhail Iossel and there’s nothing like a weekly workshop to get you in the habit of writing, or at least actively thinking about writing. It ended yesterday and I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll carry the habit into the sunny season. Resolution.

Anyway, during class I would half-hazardly jot down phrases or book titles that Mikhail would mention, and I thought it would be interesting to compile them in one blog post. Sometimes I’m not exactly sure what I meant by the scribble.

Mar 5 / 08
“A Lie That Tells the Truth” – John Dufresne
“What If” Ann Bernays and Pamela Painter
axis of chronology
a writer’s interest in their own writing is contagious, i.e. if you’re bored writing, the reader will be even more bored reading
do things on purpose and make sure the reader knows this
the reader shouldn’t be smarter than the writer
Donald Barthelme – 40 Stories, 60 Stories
constraints on writing “cigarettes” – limiting choices makes writing easier and generates unintended meanings
“Every Hunter Wants to Know” – mushroom hunt story!! [Note: This is a story Mikhail wrote that stems from being a child in Russia and doing some yearly mushroom hunt; this week I was obsessed with the act of mushroom foraging after finishing "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and thought it was serendipitous]
cut, don’t add

Mar 12 / 08
Molloy vs. Godot
Boris Pasternak- Russian poet
(I guess I didn’t take many notes this class)

March 19
Make a questionnaire for a character
Consider point of view as a camera
“Fat” Raymond Carver
chiaroscuro [Note - I think I just realized I really like the sound of this word]
Annie Hall’s original title [Note - It was "Anhedonia", which is the inability to experience pleasure from normally pleasurable life events]
“Reunion”, “Angel on the Bridge” – Cheever
calibrate
atmospherics [again, just words I decided I liked]
The Magic Barrel – Malamud

March 26
My story got workshopped so most of my notes are about that, but there’s also this:
bats who keep talking to remind themselves they’re alive [I don't remember the context]
Flann O Brien [Note - Just a few days earlier my friend Molly had been telling me about him, and since then his name has been popping up everywhere]
Phillipe Algao (Logos and Chronos) [Note - I think I really butchered this guy's name because I can't seem to google the right info about him]

April 3, 2008
Borges, “The Aleph”
“Separation of Starlight” Sorentino
Amy Bender short stories
Evelyn Waugh
George Saunders

April 9, 2008
If you do something on purpose, do it twice
an unreliable narrator: when the reader knows more about the narrator than the narrator herself
movies by Tarkovsky – Mirror, Solaris (not the remake)

April 16, 2008
You need an abundance of realistic details to make magic realism work
nostalgia is sadness
Sorentino (again)
The Art of the Personal Essay
“Signs and Symbols”

April 23, 2008
I didn’t take many notes this class because one of my stories was workshopped and it was the last class, so it was mostly a lot of talking.

So, 8 weeks of class condensed into offhand scribbles.

Saturday morning snowstorm writing tip

How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will on to a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.

(Cannery Row, John Steinbeck)

Reasons

So, I don’t really know why I make zines or why I’m so obsessed with writing. For all intents and purposes, I am a logical, rational, pragmatic person. I work in accounting. Why would any logical, rational, pragmatic person be so attracted to such a cruel, cruel activity as creative writing? I mean, writing makes you so vulnerable. You are taking your thoughts and ideas – things that spring from the rawest parts of your brain and heart – and you are giving them to other people to read, dissect and judge. It’s so excruciating. Why can’t I just take up mountain climbing or tennis and be done with it? What I do know is that when I’m not in the midst of writing something, I feel awful. One of the most depressing periods for me was last winter when I was working way too many hours at an accounting firm, barely finding time to read a few paragraphs in a book, let alone trying to write one. To put it mildly, I cried a lot. So even though writing isn’t the most logical of interests, it’s a passion, an obsession, something I have to do, etc. Faulty brain wiring, talent or not, I’m stuck.

But making zines again reminded me of one good reason for being obsessed with this stuff. Admittedly, it’s pretty selfish: zines give me an excuse to connect with people I think are cool, people I admire, people I like. As I sat and handwrote little notes to old friends and new friends in faraway cities to include with the zine I was mailing to them, I realized that if it weren’t for the zine, I probably wouldn’t be writing them at all. I wanted to, but there never seemed to be a good excuse. But now I have something, a reason to say, “Hi! This is my way of saying I really like you and I’m happy to know you” or some less cheesy variant thereof. And by doing that, I get all these sweet responses in return. I love that.

Another example: Dave Eggers. He was in Montreal last night, giving a talk about the 826 Valencia project and his latest book, What Is The What. The talk was wonderful – funny and informative – and he had a sweet quietness about him that I didn’t anticipate. At the end of the night he was signing books, and because I had forgotten to bring any of the 4 books of his that I own, I got him to sign the November 28 section of my Moleskine planner. I’m not super keen on book signing stuff (although I’ve gotten some good ones recently), but it’s a nice souvenir. Mostly I wanted to say hi and thank you, and I wanted to give him a copy of my zine. It was a good feeling to see him thumb through it and ask me about it. It’s nice, you know?

So yes, writing (or at least the unshakeable desire to write) is painful, but every so often it’s worth it. I guess.