Mar 252012

It often seems easier to spot problems and the solutions to those problems in other peoples work. This is one of those annoying truisms that I repeat like a mantra when running fiction workshops. But I’ve been working at this writing thing for a few years now, and I expect to see the ‘big’ issues and know how to respond to them on my own. So when I have spent over a month revising a very short piece, I end up thoroughly frustrated that I should have spotted a major flaw much earlier in the process. To compound my frustration, I ‘like’ the piece as it stands, but can’t be certain of anything at this point.

I just don’t want to be “that guy.”

There are two general ‘types’ of writer that I do not wish to emulate: those who, for whatever reason, walk away from a piece convinced it is a masterpiece when it’s clearly shit, and those who dither polishing a manuscript when their efforts have ceased to accomplish anything significant that will change or improve it.

While I seem to be stuck with endless revisions, what I’m dealing with is different; or at least it seems different, from poking at polished prose. I wrote a piece for a Florida-themed flash contest where submissions were constrained to 305 words. It was loads of fun meeting the challenge. I was forced to compress and distill language, and the result was a piece that is much more lyrical than what I usually produce. After reading an early draft at a function, someone commented that they liked the poem. At odd times, I seem to lack basic social skills, and I replied it was fiction a tad more harshly than I meant to sound. Honestly, I couldn’t tell them it wasn’t a poem with a straight face: I think that got under my skin.

The genre nomenclature game is for suckers. That said, any piece I’m working on needs to succeed on my terms. Generally speaking, my fiction contains narrative tension with clearly evident stakes. In contrast, I’m comfortable with creating poetry that sends up an image that can then interpreted by the reader to be meaningful in X, Y, and Z ways or is just resonant and effective for other reasons.

The piece I’m referring to, this annoying piece, whose shortcut icon mocks me from the desktop even as I compose this entry, has no explicit narrative tension. Last night, I spent several hours trying to add context, back-story, and characterization, but everything I write seems tacked on. The image works for me: it resonates. I think I shall affix a tiny scrap of paper to the piece and scrawl ‘poem’ on it before firing it off to be judged.

At some point in the future, I should say some things about choosing a PoV because this piece was a good lesson in the significance of that choice. But I have a poem to finish…at least I think it’s a damn poem.

Mar 242012

Khushwant Singh is a renowned journalist, historian, novelist, and translator; he is a savvy writer who weaves the historic past and a fictional present together with wit, intelligence, and authority. That is, Singh is renowned in India and to literary minded people the world over who are not doomed to be as parochial as I am. I should know because I almost tossed his novel Delhi aside after growing bored with it. This would have been a great error in judgment. Whether you chalk it up to a lack of patience, my ignorance, or the novel’s flaws, I was  unimpressed with the first forty-nine pages of the book; happily, I made it to page fifty because, after that, I became unwilling to put it down for food or nature.

My own discovery of the author’s work was a lucky accident. I ran across a Wikipedia entry on Khushwant Singh while looking up information about Sikhs. I can’t remember why the hell I was looking any of this up, but I recall doing a search for Sikh intellectuals and finding the article. The entry sparked enough interest that I took a two-dollar chance on a worn copy of Delhi. A few weeks later, I found myself plodding through the beginning of a raunchy – seemingly gratuitous – novel that had a few literary gestures thrown in as asides. Written in first person, the literary character Khushwant Singh seems to have constructed inhabits Delhi, with the protagonist clearly a stand-in for the author à la Bukowski. The novel opens with Singh’s arrival from afar, and then follows him as he putters about Delhi: he describes the city, his haunts, and his position as man of letters with powerful government connections; a lonely lecher in the late summer of his life, the protagonist is primarily concerned with wringing out the last of his hedonistic juices one bitter drop at a time.

Looking back, the reason I was bored by the early chapters was the apparent story is of a jaded playboy’s declining years. There were fart jokes, and some cultural color was described while I fought to stay awake. In the second chapter, Singh has an awkward and unpleasant sexual encounter with a middle-aged English aristocrat, and then goes on to describe his relationship with a hermaphrodite prostitute named Bhagmati. But – the stakes seem low. Yes, the prose is well written, and the setting is interesting; however, I was uncertain the story was going anywhere significant. Of course, had I known more about this author, I would have been reassured that I was in good hands: all of this was leading up to something remarkable.

In the third chapter, the novel jumps backward to significant periods in Delhi’s History. Here Singh takes full command of the narrative as he evokes the rich, bawdy, and brutal history of the city.  And while the contemporary sections weren’t nearly as interesting as the historical bits, they do become more resonant as history characterizes the modern setting and contextualizes Singh’s position within Indian culture. Of course, I have to consider the fact that I was reading as someone who is effectively ignorant of this historical context the author gestures to from page one. Hunter S. Thompson quips about the futility of showing card tricks to a dog: my lack of knowledge regarding Indian history when beginning to read Delhi is a good example of this metaphor.

But getting back to the topic of historical novels, this jumping back and forth between past and present is a fairly conventional structure for books of this kind. One cannot help but notice many novels utilize this structure which utilize history as a kind of ornate crutch to propel an otherwise anemic narrative forward; in other cases, it works the other way around, where historical yarns seems tacked on with the more contemporary sections holding reader interest. While I maintain the trips to Delhi’s distant past were more interesting than the novel’s present, ultimately, Singh succeeds in articulating a complex and unified novel that doesn’t spare any religious, political, or cultural group from scrutiny including his own.

In a country with such a long and complicated history, the author does a remarkable job of utilizing significant events to skewer Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike with ruthless, measured thrusts. To this ill-informed American reader, the novel seems as fair to all sides as it is rich with specifics of just how awful these groups have treated one another when they were in power; however, the reality is that I know very little about India’s history or culture. I have no illusions that I could ever surpass the most facile understanding of the repeated conquests and colonialism that Singh evokes in this remarkably slim novel with such skill. But as someone who’s invested in using historical contexts to complicate and enrich fiction, I learned a lot from this book. I look forward to returning to it for future lessons. If you know nothing of Khushwant Singh, I recommend looking at a couple of articles to whet your appetite for his writing; he’s quite a character and unapologetically so.

Finding the fiction of Khushwant Singh was indeed a happy accident, and I look forward to reading more of his work.

Mar 192012

The blogosphere is plagued with posts where the writer makes intermittent apologizes for neglecting their duties to perform like the trained monkey they signed up to be. If you have a readership, you are expected to dance. I feel little need to dance because, stealing a line from Kenny Goldsmith out of context: ‘I assume no readership.’

Really, I maintain this blog for a few very specific and selfish reasons:

1. I’m working to become a better writer.
2. I’m working to improve my grammar.
3. I’m working to have more options when I write a sentence.
4. I’m working to produce more ‘good’ writing in the first draft.

If I said that I was too busy to maintain this blog, I would be lying to myself. I was ‘busy’ doing other things. One of those things was wasting precious time. Recently, I quit Facebook because I was creeped out by their business model. Well, that and I was sick of the obsessive verbal twitching and inane outbursts that social networking both enables and encourages. Yes, my current job takes up a lot of my time, but that is a lame excuse to not be productive. In short, I need to get my ass back in gear, though I’m not really sure I capable of it.

I digress. The blog is a cool space to work because it allows me to work on the four points above with low-stakes writing. My grammar, though far from perfect, has improved, and I am getting better at generating posts in less time. But Sherman Alexie makes a good point about the dangers of blogging, when he says something like: ‘every word on a blog is a word that’s not in a novel.’ This kind of truism is annoyingly accurate. That said, here is a short defense of literary dithering.

I find that I can keep myself on-task when I have an imaginary audience. When there is a novel sitting around that I must make time to read, it is a lot more likely to happen if I imagine someone waiting on my thoughts. This same imaginary audience helps to keep my posts fairly focused and is often very noisy about stupid, sentence-level errors.

Anyway, I am going to try to get back to working on this thing. My new self-imposed rules are to try to reduce the overall post length, generate content faster, and find things of note to talk about outside of fiction.

I really have no idea if I will be successful. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it.

Mar 122012

The folks over at my alma mater’s literary blog were kind enough to allow me to share some thoughts about Lolita, one of my favorite novels, and the MacGuffin, one of my favorite plot devices.

Here is an excerpt:

What the hell is Lolita about anyway? Putting this question to ten different readers would yield a variety of responses depending on the sophistication of the reader. But let’s pretend they are all ‘good readers’ as defined by Vladamir Nabakov himself; let’s arm them with, among other things, an imagination, a memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense. Given this object and these aspects, our good readers will most assuredly tell us that Lolita is about a number of things that have less to do with pedophilia and more to do with themes far too complex to be reduced to an isolated independent clause with any accuracy.

Yet an obsession with pedophilia is clearly the motive force that propels Nabakov’s protagonist throughout this novel. Surveying the field of famous literary goals, Humbert Humbert’s quest to obtain a nymphet, a sexually aware prepubescent girl, is more than just a little creepy; it’s memorably loathsome. Nevertheless, what is both loathsome and cruel is part and parcel of a beautiful, brilliant, and sometimes tender novel: this paradox turns the knife. Humbert is witty; Humbert is self deprecating – he’s also relentless, condescending, sadistic, and awful. Humbert is all of these things and more, but most importantly for the story’s success – he is driven. That he is driven to pursue nymphets is incidental to the relentlessness of his pursuit. The light of Humbert’s life and fire of his loins could just as easily have been Helen of Sparta, Tadzio the Polish boy, or Rex the Collie . – In short, Lolita is the MacGuffin.

You can read the entire post here.