Republishing an Old Story

The wonderful Marie-Helene Bertino suggested my story “Bar Joke, Arizona,” which originally appeared in One Story, for Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. I wrote the piece around eight years ago, it was my first published story, and this is my first experience with looking back on my own work with anything like this level of hindsight. Reading it again, I’m struck by a couple of things. Firstly, it has a real manic energy to it, which might be accounted for by the fact that it was written in a series of long sessions in coffeeshops, back when I was twenty-two and had really nothing else to do with my time except drink endless cups of coffee in coffee shops and crank out sentences. Secondly, it does a pretty admirable job pushing to the very end of its premise – once again, this might be because it was written in a few marathon sessions, which meant that I didn’t have much time to question what I was doing, and you trust the process better when you don’t have time to think. Finally, it strikes me as really quite a sad little piece, despite its preoccupation with jokes. Certainly loneliness is one of its primary preoccupations, too, and I like how its final statements are a kind of indictment of its earlier verbal ingenuity.

I read the piece at a reading last weekend, and that was interesting too. After all this time, it feels a little as if I’m reading a piece by a person I used to know intimately, and who I enjoy spending time with, but who isn’t quite me anymore. Not to say that I don’t think the story holds up – I actually really enjoyed re-reading it, in a way I don’t always enjoy re-reading my work and I think you will too – only that it’s inevitable (and maybe good!) that the work we create ends up existing separately from us, growing stranger as the years go by, a separate world. Maybe an old story is like a room you used to live in, and which you now look at like any other passer-by, through the open window.

You can read Bar Joke, Arizona here.

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I Do Not Understand Novels

This year my wife and I bought a house, which meant we had the license, for the first time, to arrange our living situation exactly as we wanted. Naturally, struggles ensued. But a notable point of mutual satisfaction and pride were the two sets of bookshelves we installed in our dining room, next to the round, wooden dining room table. We made them ourselves, and although they are by no means perfect – not particularly level, for one thing, and made of cheap wood – they’re certainly functional. Best of all, they display our books in a spot where we can always see them: making coffee, on our way to work, during meals, headed to bed. It makes me feel as if we’re sharing the same living space.

This feeling may seem odd. Books, after all, are inanimate objects. You can live with them, but they can’t live with you – not in the strictest sense of the word, anyway.

And yet, as I look over the bookshelf now, it makes me feel as if the experience of reading is a kind of expansion of living. Just running my gaze across the spines, I remember whole scenes: the opening murder in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock; the terrifying Nazi-era home which the narrator shares with Glenn Gould in Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser; the final ghoulish car ride in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I remember them the way you remember memories, or maybe even clearer, since text has a way of adhering in my mind, whereas images get unfixed, float free, become unreliable.

To spend a great deal of one’s time in literature is to experience a peculiar and pleasant fragmentation of the self. Scenes which were designed by another mind take on form in your consciousness. They colonize your life. So maybe it’s not fair to say that you can live with books, in the strictest sense of the word, but they certainly live within you. I suppose that if you were feeling lyrical you could think of them as repositories for the dreams someone else gave to you, and which you are in the process of forgetting.

*

The critical language we use when discussing novels is painfully inadequate. John Gardner’s oft-repeated dictum that a novel should be a “vivid and continuous dream” is all well and good, until you realize that the dream is a collaboration between the reader and the writer, and that there is nothing continuous about it, especially if you, like most people, read primarily in ten-minute stretches before going to bed.

(George Perec’s investigation of bedrooms and the physical aspects of reading are particularly instructive on this topic.)

It’s unfair to single Gardner out; most structural investigations into the workings of novel are noble failures. E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel is strongest when it complains that the novel, as a form, is so elastic that it seems ridiculous to try to categorize it in terms of technique – and yet that is exactly what Forster tries to do, alongside legions of creative writing programs and traditional English departments.

Or, in the absence of structural critique, we view the novel pseudo-historically. We speak of the novel as if it exists on a progressive timeline, so that even a perceptive critic like Scott Esposito can use phrases like “pushing the novel forward,” as if the novel as a form were a rock we were all hoisting collectively up a hill, metaphor which is both weirdly positive (since we’re moving up) and depressing (since it requires a great deal of back-breaking labor).

But isn’t our embrace of this “progressive” sense of the novel really just a regurgitation of Modernism, Pound’s exhortation to “make it new?” In fact, much of what we consider new isn’t new at all. There’s nothing innovative about the sort of meta-autobiography upheld by somebody like David Shields; Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights is a good entry into the genre, as is much of the work of Jean Genet, or Proust, or – if you want to go way far back – the so-called “memoirs” of Casanova. Or, if you prefer a work that actually mimics the sort of insubstantiality of consciousness which Shields feels is the central tenet of worthwhile writing, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

Consider – speaking of Proust – our current collective obsession with Knausgaard, and with the long, self-exploratory sentence. Doesn’t this awe at the minute investigation of life owe a great deal to our favorite convoluted Frenchman, who elevated the plane of the banal to a place of rumination and exalted suffering?

In reality there is no such thing as a timeline of novelistic progress. In order for the novel as a form to be “pushed forward,” we would have to shape it into a form, which is only possible by excluding great swathes of literature which do not conform to our ideas of what that form should be – which is why so much “progressive” criticism is actually aesthetically conservative. What do we do with contemporary writers who seem so singular as to exist outside the timeline, like Eudora Welty, Penelope Fitzgerald, or Guy Davenport? What do we do with older writers who still seem so strange that they feel contemporary, like Kleist, Melville, or Emily Bronte?

When we pretend to understand novels, or “the novel” – as opposed to when we try to understand a novel, singular – we force literature into a series of taxonomies, so that we can better expound upon it. At first glance, this makes us seem intelligent. It’s only when we consider the actual experience of reading that we realize how stupid it is. When we read a novel, we don’t understand it. It lives in us, or else we live in it – I’m not sure which. We exist together.

*

Today I decided to take a quick tour through my bookshelf, to reinforce to myself how little our critical categories have to do with the experience of living inside a novel. I didn’t reread any of these titles, to better show the way a book can slosh around in the brain. I relied on my own recollection.

Under the “C”s I found Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino and the Collected Stories of John Cheever. Cheever is supposed to be the exemplary architect of American realism: the consummate New Yorker writer. Calvino, on the other hand, is a famous postmodernist trickster, an ancillary member of the OuLiPo, beloved by self-styled experimentalists. But I remember the titular Housebreaker of Shady Hill, speaking to me, naked in the dark, explaining the perils of his suburban – and, frankly, somewhat surreal – life situation, and I remember a similar desire to confess and explain in the narrator of Calvino’s “All At One Point,” trying to help us understand what life was like before the Big Bang, and how it made social interaction both difficult and unbearably intimate.

Nestled next to one another, at the end of “K” and the beginning of “L,” respectively, I found Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick and Ben Lerner’s On Leaving the Atocha Station, two books you would think would be easily clumped together, aesthetically: autobiographical novels that concern themselves with the relation between art and life, aesthetic and lived experience. But when I think of Lerner’s book I remember the way the narrator’s malaise faded away whenever he began discussing poetry, exposing his preference for ecstasy, giving the lie to the all-too-easy irony that seemed to choke the rest of the narrative – it was powerful, but also odd, like having an indifferent cat suddenly nuzzle your hand, expecting friendship. But when Kraus talked about an art instillation she was clear, insightful, analytical; she wrote about it not as an ecstatic experience but a kind of clear window, a place for looking, and her enthusiasm was the enthusiasm of discovery, the way someone might take you to a particular spot on a cliff, to show you a momentous view.

There are other ways of looking at these four books, of course. You could see Calvino as a spot in the history of Post-Modernism when the fable was re-introduced as a literary form. You could see Cheever as a point in America society when realism started to examine itself, and find itself stranger than expected. You could call Chris Kraus a ground-breaking feminist writer (and she is!), or Ben Lerner an example of what happens when someone with a poet’s understanding of the limitations of representation in language tries to write a roman à clef. But none of these ways of looking do much to illustrate the actual act of reading and remembering, all of which have to do with living inside the language world of a text, of recreating it later, of dreaming it.

There are lots of reasons to distrust large-scale readings of literature. For one, they tend to replicate existing structures of power, privileging white male voices at the expense of others. For another, they tend to reiterate themselves, sticking on particular writers out of habitual agreement, canon-building, directing our collective reading habits in ways that end up not being fruitful.

But the one I’m most concerned with here is the way macro readings of “the novel” reduce the complexity of literature to a kind of short-hand, a making of meaning and understanding. In my experience, novels resist understanding and reduction. They aren’t consumed into discourse or broken down into their constituent parts. They’re lived with.

*

I was part of a panel discussion about writing at Arcadia University’s MFA program a while back, when a student asked the question: “what keeps you writing?”

The other two panelists gave thoughtful answers, and by the time it got to me most of the obvious and helpful responses had been exhausted.

I shrugged. I said that with the possible exception of music I thought that literature was the best thing humans were capable of producing, and I said that every time I walked into a used bookstore I felt as if I were part of an extremely long conversation which had been going on since the advent of narrative, and that I was very humbled and also very excited to be a part of it.

I think I stand by that answer, although I wouldn’t characterize it as a conversation. Conversation implies clear exchange, comprehension, a traffic of ideas. Criticism is a conversation, and sometimes a very fruitful one – but literature is something much more interesting. The expansion and fragmentation of consciousness through language is a powerful process that I do not fully understand, and do not expect to. I consider it a good thing that I do not understand novels, as is so often the case with the things we love.

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Why Bother?

Today I gave a presentation to my students about submitting to literary magazines. My students asked for it, and so I tried to keep things light – they’re undergrads, there’s no use emphasizing the sobering parts of the process – but as I was explaining the submission process for fiction journals we got to the issue of simultaneous submissions, and as a lark I asked students how long they thought it would take for a literary magazine to respond to their work.

“A week?”

“Two weeks?”

“A month?”

I laughed (good-naturedly, I hope), and suggested that it was more likely to be three to six months, depending on how overloaded and understaffed the magazine was, with the caveat that every magazine is overloaded, understaffed, and underfunded.

My students are smart. They did the math in their heads, and they frowned. Three rounds of submissions takes a year – so what do you do when you’ve spent a year writing and have nothing to show for it?

You spend another year, I told them, and hope for the best: eventual publication, or an encouraging rejection. I explained the difference between a form rejection and the more personal kind.

Hands went up.

“You mean most of the time editors don’t even respond?”

Not personally, I explained – they just don’t have the time. If you get an encouraging response, I explain, it’s something you definitely want to seize on, to follow up. It means someone noticed you in a pile of submissions, and cared enough to write a reply. It means you should submit more work.

I can see how after a semester in which their professors and classmates were obligated to respond to their work – and, in some cases, actually enjoyed responding – this might seem like cold comfort. Certainly I saw a lot of glum faces.

But perhaps the most sobering thing of all happened when I asked them whether they’ve read any literary magazines. Some of them have; some of them even work for Temple’s litmag, so they know the deal. But the vast majority, despite having written fiction for my class, and having requested a tutorial on the process, didn’t know any.

That’s okay, I said – and I meant it. The fact that they haven’t heard of any litmags doesn’t bother me. I explained that by my estimation litmags are sort of like minor league baseball teams. Most people don’t watch minor league baseball; it’s more of a staging ground, an incubator of talent, a place for people to grow and develop. In the same manner, most people don’t read litmags; they wait until the best people in these magazine publish books, and then they read those.

(I save the real truth about the reading habits of the average American for another day.)

My students made more mental calculations. So you struggle through rejection, knowing that less than one percent of stories get accepted by these magazines, and even if you do get accepted, nobody will read your stories?

That’s when the sobering part began.

Well, not nobody, i pointed out. Editors will read it. Agents read litmags. Maybe one of them will contact you, and then you start up the hill of trying to publish a book, which is even more arduous than trying to publish a story, with a whole different cycle of rejection.

After I finished my presentation, most of my students presented me with a face that read, unmistakably: why bother? Why expose yourself to so much rejection, for so many years, with, at most, only incremental appreciation? It makes the process of writing and publishing fiction seem like an unending, unappreciated, uncompensated slog.

My presentation depressed them. It also depressed me. I began to feel as if the list of helpful links to literary magazines was really an invitation to join me for a life-long journey of unending human misery.

And yet I also think it’s a necessary presentation. The students wanted it; they even asked me for it, specifically – many of them, independently of one another. It’s not as if they’re unaware of the larger literary world, even if they don’t know much about its specifics.

I think that creative writing instructors overemphasize the idea that a workshop is a bubble; for many students it feels like a terrifying open plain, free of landmarks, in which people they don’t know very well are trying to throw arrows at them, and they spend most of their time trying desperately to find shelter. I’m not in favor, personally, of trying to make the workshop “tougher,” or “more like the real world”; the real world is tough enough, thank you. To me, the workshop only becomes a bubble if you do your job right, and if the students produce a nurturing, thoughtful community.

That’s why I don’t give this presentation – what I’ve nicknamed the Why Bother? presentation – to students unless I feel as if the class in question (this semester’s class begin a good example) has actually created a supportive community, one which feels as if their work over the semester has mattered. Otherwise it only exacerbates the difficulty, and increases the alienation.

Of course, there will always be students who hear the presentation and throw up their hands. What a ludicrous way to live one’s life, they’ll think, to spend so much time waiting for someone (anyone!) to notice your hard work, to expose oneself to criticism and rejection, seemingly on a whim, and to know that the best case scenario is producing work that only a tiny sliver of the population will ever read, much less care about.

But there are other students for whom the semester has presented a unique and exciting opportunity. Maybe, like me, ten years ago, they’ve been seized with the joy of writing fiction, which suddenly presents itself as a thrilling vessel for mental energy. Maybe, despite the obviously ludicrous set of hurdles set up before them – not to mention the archers hidden in the bushes, the snipers hidden in the bleachers, and the gargantuan cave troll waiting at the finish line, thirsty for human blood – the race seems worth running.

Basically, I only give the Why Bother presentation when there are students in the audience who I think can confidently answer because the experience of writing is a strange combination of compulsion and real enjoyment, and when I finish the process I feel proud enough of the work that I think other people would actually enjoy reading it. 

Which, if you think about it, is the best answer to the question that any of us can provide.

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Fan Fiction and the Writing Workshop

Let me describe for you something that happens every semester I teach creative writing. Sometimes it happens openly; a smart, inquisitive student will raise their hand and ask what my policy is on fan fiction. Other times students don’t ask about my policy, and why should they, really? They have no reason to assume I have a policy – no reason to assume that there’s anything inherently wrong with fan fiction.

If they ask, I always say the same thing. You’re free to write whatever you like for this course, but I’ll be honest: I have limited experience with fan fiction, and I’m not always the best judge of its merits. 

I also tend to poll the class: how many of you are interested in writing fan fiction? The answer, usually, is quite a few. This surprised me a little, at first, which seems odd, in retrospect. It isn’t as if I was ignorant of the existence of fanfic before I started teaching – far from it. And I’m happy, anyway, when there’s a critical mass that understands the genre, because otherwise workshop can get very odd, very quickly.

This sometimes happens when a student submits fan fiction without checking beforehand. Reading such a story before workshop, I tend to start strategizing; how is the class going to handle the piece? Will they get it? How much prior understanding of the world that it references will they need to have, in order to properly evaluate it – or even identify it? What will the other students learn from its example, especially if they aren’t interested in fan fiction at all?

I try not to be a proscriptive professor when it comes to my students’ writing. I don’t believe that there are a fixed set of literary tenets to be passed down from on high, and I try to avoid teaching fiction as if it were a set of skills: this is how you build a “round” character, this is how you set a “dynamic” scene, etc. Although it’s certainly much easier to teach a workshop if you emphasize these skills, it also has a way of flattening the work, and excluding students who write or think differently, the ones who want to experiment. All of which is to say that I’d much rather have a difficult workshop than a boring one.

But fan fiction is a particularly difficult puzzle, for two reasons. The first of these is that fan fiction, by its very nature, works against some of the general principles I teach – and even if I don’t consider these principles hard and fast rules, it’s still strange to see them challenged so directly.

For example, one of my few clear preferences when it comes to student writing is specificity: I want my students to describe the worlds they create in great detail, and not assume that the reader understands them as well as they do. But with fan fiction, prior understanding of the world is the entire point: why go to great lengths to describe what the TARDIS is, when your readers are already fully familiar with the world of Dr. Who? Or, to put it another way — as more than one of my fanfic-writing students has said to me — why waste time telling people what they already know?

(Even though a large percentage of the class often doesn’t know, which is what makes the workshop a difficult place for fanfic.)

I struggle with this whenever I get a piece of fan fiction in the classroom. It exposes the inherent prejudice beneath my oh-so-tolerant exterior. Because the second reason I find fanfic such a difficult puzzle is that I just don’t like it that much. I have my prejudices, like anyone, but I have yet to enjoy a piece of fanfic as much as I enjoy a non fanfic story or novel, even while I recognize that the genre represents, to so many of my students, a vital space for creation and feedback.

*

It would be hypocritical for me not to recognize it, considering how close it is to my own experience. Coming of age in the early years of the internet, I spent my fair share of reckless time on all manner of unmediated websites and forums, including literary ones. I posted my early poems and stories for strangers to read and comment on them, and they did – not always productively, but what did I care; I was fourteen. It was the response that mattered.

My earliest works of fiction were the kind of elves-and-orcs-and-sorcery, pulled straight from the pages of Tolkien, that anyone with a background in fantasy literature would have produced. Even if they weren’t explicitly fan fiction, they were clearly pieces of fiction written by a fan: somebody trying to figure out how to build fictional worlds from models already provided. Most of us start that way – and, I would imagine, most people who write well learned how to do so from some sort of model. The idea of a truly original work of art is a risky one. Not everybody is brave enough to venture out into the world of art and risk total incomprehensibility, so we try to copy patterns we know. We apprentice ourselves.

This apprenticeship pays dividends, if done right. It’s no coincidence that the students who write fan fiction tend to be more proficient with the basics of scene-setting and dialogue than their peers, and also more receptive to feedback. They’re used to subjecting their work to scrutiny, to trying to understand the needs of their audience, to improving.

The difficulty comes from the fact that the audience they’re writing for is so insular, that it relies on so much prior knowledge that no matter how much they improve their work it still won’t appeal to anyone who doesn’t understand Dr. Who (or, in one example from this semester, Dr. Who, Sherlock, and Supernatural, which is a common triple-crossover subject, according to my students).

I understand the absurdity in what I’m suggesting. I don’t want my students getting into fiction writing for the acclaim, and the sorts of books I tend to like probably don’t appeal to anything more than .001% of the population. And, having done my fair share of posting to forums – as well as my fair share of publishing online – I understand the thrill of immediate feedback. Using a fanfic frame helps make sure you’ll get that feedback, that your work will be immediately understandable, that it will find a sympathetic audience. In comparison, trying to publish a piece of “literary” fiction can feel like pissing in the wind. Some stories get years of rejection before being published. Others never get published at all. And it isn’t as if the audience numbers are better; in fact, there’s a high chance that more people read the work published on fanfiction.net than read the literary journals that have published my stories.

But there is one thing that sets this kind of fiction apart from fanfic, which is that these sorts of novels and stories present the possibility of appealing to a non-select audience. Yes, there are many situations in which they won’t get read at all, but if they do get read, there isn’t anything inherent in their subject holding them back, besides a certain density of language and a cash-poor marketing department.

Because despite my understanding veneer, I do have some firm principles when it comes to producing fiction. I think that fictional narratives are at their best when they teach a reader about something they didn’t know before – when they contain the possibility of changing their audience somehow, of opening them up to new perspectives, new ways of thinking about language, or ethics, or behavior. And while I think the laboratory of fan fiction helps many of my students develop their confidence with form, it also limits their ability to step outside of these forms, to take larger risks with their subjects. It sets boundaries.

*

Last semester a student of mine asked me to read his novel. As always, I said I would, once the semester was over. He warned me that it was Pokemon fan fiction, and so I gave the usual caveat, mentioned above. The student was undeterred; like a lot of students who write fanfic, he was interested in whatever feedback I could give.

(When you work with students who have, shall we say, an emotional attachment to much of their work, this perspective can be extremely refreshing.)

So I read the book. The Pokemon stuff wasn’t all that interesting to me, and I confess that there were moments, during battle scenes involving electric robots and esoteric strategies pulled from some universe with which I have no familiarity, that I was a little bored. But the more I read, the more I realized that I was reading a skillful work of pop fantasy; the character relationships were believable, the dialogue crisp, the emotions earned. Provided I was willing to speed through some of the more Pokemon-centric aspects of the narrative I found myself really enjoying it – not analyzing it, or criticizing it, but just enjoying it. It reminded me of the time when I was a teenager, and I read fantasy purely for pleasure.

So I wrote the student back, telling him I’d enjoyed it, and asking a question which is easy to pose and difficult to consider: could he move this story out of the world of Pokemon, and into a more original setting?

In posing this question, I knew I was exposing my inherent prejudices. As many of my fanfic students make clear to me, there are plenty of excellent writers of fanfic who have strong followings on the internet, and who write extremely well. My student might very well find a devoted and committed audience, if he chose to self-publish his book as is, and maybe I was insulting his chosen genre by suggesting he change his setting, re-working his narrative to make it more understandable for people like me.

Maybe so. But I’m a person with biases, and one of them is for the ideal of general readership. Even at a time when culture seems permanently divided into tiny niches, I think good writing has the potential to transcend these niches, to cross-pollinate, and I think that my Pokemon student is too good a writer to avoid the risk of moving out of his comfort zone and attempting this sort of cross-pollination.

The student wrote me back to say that he was willing to give it a shot.

So I was pleased, a few weeks ago, to find an email from him in my inbox. He was re-working the narrative, building his original world, and he wanted me to take a look at it. And I’m excited to do so, once this semester is over, and I have some free time.

I don’t know if this student’s book will be as successful, now that he’s removing the frame. It may be that he decides, in the end, that he just likes using a frame, and connecting with a particular audience. Writing a novel requires a lot of labor; isn’t it nice to know that in the end at least someone will read it – and wouldn’t you want to do the best you can to ensure that it finds an appreciative audience?

I’m sympathetic to this. I know this kind of disappointment well, having several novels that have never been read by more than five people. But I think students grow as writers by taking risks, and trying to convince an audience that has no prior buy-in of the importance of their work. It’s an extremely difficult task, and it often leads to years of frustration, but it also strikes me as the most important goal of fiction: making a world out of nothing, and convincing an unsuspecting reader to live in it for a while.

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Write About Love!

I’ve been struggling recently with an aspect of novel-writing that I never thought I’d have to consider, which is the difficulty of writing male-female relationships with anything approaching clarity or intelligence. Part of this is structural (I’ll get to that part in a minute), but a lot of it has to do with the ways in which my understanding of gender relationships has changed in the last few years, drastically and (I hope) irrevocably. It’s just hard, knowing what we know now (and what women have always known, I think, throughout the decades, even though it’s begun to bubble to the surface of the discourse more powerfully in recent years) to write about heterosexual courtship without at least considering the seriously messed-up sexual power dynamics that come with it.

(This post will come back around to writing, but first it has to wade through some particularly difficult issues that may, at first, seem tangential to writing. I promise it’ll come around in the end. I also want to point out that my own perspective is much less complex than most of the women referenced in this post, and I urge you to read their essays and novels and stories, since I’m sure I’ll miss many of their nuances.)

For those of you who haven’t read it, I highly suggest reading Sam Cohen’s recent essay about rape culture over at Delirious Hem. It’s powerful for several reasons, but the one I want to focus on is the way Cohen is explicit about desire. Most of the time, when we talk about rape (if we talk about it at all, since most dudes I know – and I’ve been guilty about this – prefer to pass over it in silence) we frame it in terms of protection and violation, with a subtle paternalistic bias, as in: how do we protect women from the violation that comes from rape, and how do we punish the men who commit it? Or, we ask, in a slightly more progressive spin, how do we resist rape culture, as men and women who understand its pervasiveness? How do we support and fight for our friends?

There’s something eminently realistic about these stances. It’s not fair, after all, to criticize women for being on the defensive against sexual violence, considering how pervasive it is – and it isn’t wrong to ask friends and allies to adopt a similarly defensive posture, in order to provide support in times of crisis. But what Cohen so artfully points out is that the assumption of defensiveness is in and of itself a part of rape culture – part of the way it closes off spaces for female desire. As she writes:

I hold the weirdly radical belief that girls desire sexually as much as boys do. I (along with I think most humans?) had very specific and detailed sexual fantasies from the time I was a child. I was excited for college to be a time of sexual exploration and adventure. This excitement, in part, informed my willingness to kiss boys, to sit on their beds. But then there’d come a point where it didn’t feel like we were exploring or adventuring together—it felt like they were taking. Or it felt like they were tricking me into something, rather than inviting collaboration. I can only understand this as a result of the belief that girls don’t desire, they only allow or disallow, acquiesce or don’t. This is Rape Culture.

What’s so important about an argument like Cohen’s is the way it gives no out to the “nice boys.” Instead of singling out certain men as monstrous rapists (although Cohen certainly holds no sympathy for these men and boys), she points out the way in which the culture itself sets up situations in which male desire gets free reign and female desire is made subordinate. In the process, she forces all heterosexual cis men to own up to the ways in which their own actions have been complicit in this structure. Not all of us are guilty of rape – although more of us than we should ever be comfortable with – but even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as rapists ought to recognize the times in which we’ve privileged our own desires over the desires of the women we’ve been with. Maybe it was entirely our own volition, or maybe it was toxic combination of a culture which assumes a mild level of coercion in sexual situations, in which men are asked to be aggressive, to overcome some form of expected resistance – doesn’t really matter, does it, in the end. We’ve all fallen far short of equitability, of what Cohen calls (in a hopeful phrase) “collaboration.” Some of us never get there at all, whether out of ignorance or shame.

Having read Cohen’s essay, I spent last night thinking about all of the situations I’d been in my life where sexual experiences have fallen far short of “collaboration.” It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I thought about drunken parties, awkward early dates, moments of confusion in which there should have been communication and wasn’t: the slippery space between no and yes. I think all hetero cis men have experiences like this, if they’re being honest with themselves. I think all of us ought to spend a great deal of time thinking about it. We could use a few more sleepless nights.

Which brings me to the question of writing, and the responsibilities inherent in creating fictional narratives around desire. How do we write about heterosexual love, when the reality of how desire works in the world is so skewed?

The most common technique is to ignore rape culture entirely, and to act as if our fictional heterosexual couple exists outside of  it. The is the technique that most male novelists take when they write about love. It’s a very tidy method. It’s especially tidy when your protagonist is a man, and even a little realistic, since most men don’t ever consider the ways in which rape culture has affected the sexuality of the people they sleep with. But I don’t have to belabor the obvious ways this technique silences, simplifies, and ignores the woman in our fictional hetero couple, and in the process perpetuates the greater cultural silencing of female desire. In attempting to ignore rape culture, male writers ignore a crucial aspect of the way in which their female characters experience the world. To write about hetero love without writing about rape culture is to perpetuate a lie.

Cue the chorus of angry men – and I’ve spoken to a lot of them, since trying to talk about rape with your male friends is a great way to get yourself in a deep argument – who say, “well, why don’t we just leave the writing about sex entirely to women, then! If male desire so fucked up, then why don’t I just silence myself. Would that make you happy?”

Sometimes I think this would make me happy. People like Nell Zink and Chris Kraus and Sheila Heti and more women writers than I have time to list here are making courageous decisions to write about hetero female desire and female experiences of sex in all of their horrific grandeur, and that’s at least a beginning in the struggle to right a persistent imbalance in the fictional depiction of desire. Maybe if there were fewer men writing awful stories about male desire, perpetuating the idea that male desire is aggressive and female desire (when it even exists) is passive, then the world of literature would be a better place. Imagine, if you will, every Updike book in every library in America being replaced by the collected works of Jane Bowles, Mary Gaitskill, and Elfriede Jelinek? Progress!

Except — I’m a hetero cis male writer, and I’m interested in the way hetero relationships work. I’ve also seen the way in which a refusal by male writers to write about sex and desire, to relegate these issues to the (implicitly inferior) domain of “women’s fiction,” is itself a deeply misogynistic construct. It basically says, this is your problem – you worry about it. I don’t have the time. I’m thinking about bigger things. It’s the same saw, all over again: my desires are more important than your desires.

(It’s a similar argument to the way men describe being “unable” to write female characters, and so they avoid female perspectives. It’s a particular male privilege to be able to ignore large parts of existence because you’re simply “not good at it,” such as cooking, cleaning, and understanding other human beings.)

I don’t believe in a hierarchy of subject matter. I think that most male writers, like most men (and I implicate myself as much as anyone here), are extremely ignorant of the complex desires of their friends and partners, and that ignorance is no excuse. I think we lack the language to talk about such things in part because we don’t experiment with new forms, new ways of making meaning, around the literature of desire. I think hetero cis male writers have their own responsibility to write thoughtfully and incisively about the way men and women interact, sexually and otherwise. We should be able to write about love and desire just as honestly and painfully as women do, acknowledging our limitations, implicating ourselves when necessary, to reach for understanding. The fact that we persistently fail to do so, or ignore the issue altogether, is evidence of just how deeply rape culture has insinuated itself into our literature.

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(Im)personal Statements

Last week I was asked to do one of my least favorite things in the world, which is to write a personal statement.

Most of us are familiar with this struggle. The personal statement (also known as a Statement of Goals, an Artist’s Statement, or an Addendum Which the Application Board Will Only Review if the Rest of the Application Process Comes Down to a Tie and a Coinflip is Simply Too Embarrassing), which started in academia, has now become a central part of so many kinds of applications that I can only imagine that soon people who are looking to buy a car will be expected to outline not only how they first became interested in driving but what driving means to them, personally, and how ownership of a new car will help them improve their life, reach their goals, and develop as a human being.

At least — one might be forgiven for suggesting — there’s some utility in asking for a personal statement from an artist, as opposed to a prospective driver. After all, an artist should be expected to be able to converse about their chosen field, and explain how, why, and what they create — otherwise, how is anybody supposed to understand what they’re doing, considering how maddeningly obscure artistic production can be?

(In fact, now that we’re mentioning it, it might be better for artists to write their statements first, and then produce their art, so as to be sure that what they create follows the correct blueprint. But I digress.)

Can’t say I agree, but I understand where the idea comes from. People who sit on review boards can’t be expected to pay supreme close attention to every single applicant; that would take weeks, and anyway many of the applicants are clearly unhinged or otherwise unsuitable, so it’s important to find some way to weed these people out before the serious work is done. How satisfying it must be to scan a personal statement, discover a reference comparing the artist to Joan of Arc, and immediately move the applicant into the discard pile!

(Hence the preference among writers of personal statement for “safe” essays. Just prove you’re a reasonable person, and you’ll be fine – though that’s much harder than it looks, considering how fundamentally unreasonable most of us are, and how similar to Joan of Arc most of us have felt, at least once in our lives.)

So I always find myself, against my better instincts, taking the personal statement very seriously. I do my best to let the judges know my attitude towards fiction writing (friendly, but ambivalent), my personal history (relatively free of major crimes), and my goals (hazy, yet unrealistic). But the question remains in the back of my mind, even as I labor: is this really the best way to judge a fiction writer?

It seems to me that one of the fundamental tensions inherent in fiction writing is the sublimation of the ego, the construction of alternate personalities and worlds that may be based in reality but which are judged purely on their own merits. If I write a building, and you can’t see it in your mind’s eye, it doesn’t matter that I can show you a picture of my childhood home and say “there it is, you idiot: it’s real!” Except in the case of historical fiction (which is its own thorny puzzle, discussed elsewhere on this blog), literature doesn’t take on its power from being an annex onto someone’s existence; it has to function as its own reality, by its own rules. Part of what makes a book beautiful is the way, provided it’s successful, that it exists independently of the person who created it.

Which is why I’d like to present an alternate form of personal statement, only for fiction writers. Instead of writing anything about oneself, the writer is expected to compile a list of sentences from their books and stories that are drawn entirely from their own experience. Then, once they’ve extracted every sentence from every one of their works which represents a memory or example from their lived reality, they will be expected to place each of these lines in chronological order, biographically, until everything is in its proper place.

No editing for style is allowed. Humor and pathos should be mixed uncomfortably. Ideally, the document should be unwieldy, difficult to read — nearly incomprehensible, in fact. Characters should come and go at awkward times. Images should recur more often than is convenient. There should be an infuriating persistence of childish memories. Closure should be maddeningly elusive.

I can see how the length of time it would take to compile such a document might be a disadvantage, but once it’s completed the author can at least be secure in the knowledge of having produced an authentic record of the interaction between fiction and life, as well as of the impossibility of their ever being awarded another residency, fellowship, or literary prize for as long as they live.

It could also, with some modification, serve as the fiction sample, which would cut down on printing costs. These days it’s more important than ever to keep your overhead low. After all, applications cost money.

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On Keeping a Studio

I rent a studio in which to write. To me this idea seems fairly self-explanatory, but you’d be surprised at the wide variety of responses I get when I drop it into conversation. Some people express envy; they wish they could get away for a while, as if a studio were a place for a vacation, and not (another!) place of work. Other people, eminently practical, want to know the cost. The answer: surprisingly cheap, especially if you share. Some people want to know if it makes me feel like a “real writer” – whatever that means. Still others – in my estimation, the strangest of the bunch – feel confident enough in their knowledge of both literature and real estate to suggest that my writing space is a needless extravagance.

“But you’re a writer,” they say. “You can write anywhere!”

I don’t entirely disagree with this statement. Unprecedented advances in computer technology have produced a device called a laptop, which allows you to sit in a crowded coffeeshop, surrounded by bawling preschoolers and couples engaged in passive-aggressive arguments, and produce line after line of thoroughly legible prose. I’ve done this myself, from time to time – but I know from experience that this kind of prose doesn’t generally make it through to later drafts.

No, when I want to do what I call “deep writing” (especially novel-writing), I need a place that’s quiet, preferably without windows, where I can be alone.

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Reason One for keeping a studio: you don’t watch anybody, and nobody watches you.

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My first studio opportunity came when I was twenty-four. In those days I worked as a guitar teacher at a music store near Philadelphia’s (in)famous South Street, across from the coffee shop some of you might know from early episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. One day, while I was waiting by the counter, one of the baristas mentioned that she was rehabbing an old cabinet-maker’s studio in the south of town. She was looking for people to share the labor and, afterwards, the rent. I didn’t know her very well, at the time, but I was interested. I’d just gotten out of a messy relationship, and my life felt small and pointless. I was ready for anything, provided it was different from my own, empty apartment.

The studio was in terrible shape. The previous owner had died unexpectedly (so we later gathered), leaving decades’ worth of wood dust, assorted trash, and tiles that looked suspiciously like asbestos. Wearing masks, we spent weeks sweeping and shopvac-ing the floor, stairs, and rafters; the wood dust hung in the air, a brown haze, the way I imagined a Dickensian fog. Even with the masks, we complained of coughs, chest pains, and irritated eyes.

Once the dust was cleared, we began to make small improvements. We hung Christmas lights on the stairs, and put assorted magazines in the closet-sized bathroom. A Chinese dragon-head was scavenged from the dump and hung near the entrance. Some people built walls, some put up curtains. Some people, like me, simply pressed their desk up against a free wall and called it an office.

There were seven of us in the studio to start: two painters, a printmaker, a drone musician, a playwright, a poet, and me. Each of us paid roughly a hundred dollars a month, including utilities. There were some drawbacks: the lack of heat, for one, and also the auto body shop across the street. Their employees parked cars in front of our space, harassed the women who passed in and out of our front door, and sometimes left bottles full of pee for us to clean up.

But inside, the building was a refuge. During the week it was a place for serious work; I spent many sweaty summer nights in the company of my studio-mates, typing in my underwear, taking communal cigarette breaks. In the company of a group, the work felt purposeful, even courageous: a pair of hands in the service of group labor. The essentially lonely quality of writing was ameliorated somewhat, and in a good night, in the right company, I could work straight through until dawn. Once or twice, when conditions were perfect, I produced a complete draft in a twenty-four hour stretch.

(There was also cold, fear, self-doubt, and a great many cockroaches.)

The weekends were set aside for parties: punk shows, theater performances, dance parties, art exhibits. We were cross-disciplinary, though we wouldn’t have labelled ourselves as such; artists helped with readings, musicians helped with gallery openings, writers ran the PA. In exchange for a token fee and a cut of the proceeds we ran the door, dimmed the lights, and cleaned up after the audience went home. There was great satisfaction in drunkenly sweeping up at two in the morning, knowing we’d made enough money to lower everyone’s rent for a month. It was a feeling of intense camaraderie, of self-definition, of overcoming one’s own isolation.

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Reason Two for keeping a studio: we need spaces in which nothing permanent happens.

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For me, a communal studio was a life raft. Before I joined, I was writing almost nothing. When I left, I had an agent, a novel manuscript, and a series of published stories. But more importantly, the studio reminded me that there were other people in the world engaged in the same sort of work as me, and that mutual reinforcement can help make that work feel meaningful. In those days I would get out of bed on a Saturday, survey the solitude of my apartment, and feel real joy that I had another place to go, free of the associations of home. I knew that at the studio I could work, without being interrupted by painful ghosts.

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Reason Three for keeping a studio: a desire to be geographically removed from the rest of one’s life.

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Even now, happily married, I look forward to going to the studio. Not the same studio: I left the old place with a few other people in 2011, and set up shop in a smaller spot on Jeweler’s Row, the city’s historic diamond district. My rent is still only a hundred and fifty a month. Above us is a yoga studio, which emits occasional bangs and animal grunts. Below is an old engraver and her incontinent dog, which occasionally shits in the hall.

My new studio is just a place for work. No readings, no shows, no parties. There are only four of us now: a drummer (who practices on weekends), two writers, and a painter. I share the room with my friend Alyssa, another writer. We often work at different times, but when we do meet it gives us a chance to talk over what we’ve been working on.

I’m often struck by the way time passes in a working studio, especially when I’m alone. I’ll get up from my desk and wander around, listening to the sound of my footsteps. Across the street, through the dirty windows, jewelry workers examine gems, using loupes: cylindrical magnifiers that look like cybernetic eye enhancers. They are engaged in silent work, too.

Since it isn’t a living space, a studio maintains a certain arbitrary quality: air enclosed by walls. In a home, a table waits to bear dinner, a chair offers you comfort. In a studio, things exist only for their current function.

As studio is not a living space, or a place for living, but a place for imagination. A place that is a conduit into other places.

I like when night falls in the studio. It’s an elemental way of knowing it’s time for me to go.

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Reason Four for keeping a studio: it’s a place you can always enter, and a place you can always leave.

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When somebody tells me my studio is a needless extravagance, I feel like saying: but wouldn’t you be happier if you had one? Isn’t that the reason for the profusion of “third spaces” in recent years: the Starbucks model of a home away from home? Except, of course, that the Starbucks model is predicated on buying coffee, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, and listening in on other people’s anxious conversations.

When you rent your own studio, you’re only buying silence, which is more expensive than coffee, but probably more healthy.

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Reason Five for keeping a studio: it reminds you that you aren’t working enough.

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Tomorrow I will get up and go to the studio. I’ll get on the bus at 8:30 with the rest of the commuters, ride to 8th Street, and then walk one block from Chestnut to Jeweler’s Row. I’ll say hello to my landlord, who maintains a reserved good humor about what he obviously considers my strange work, and then I’ll climb the flight of stairs to the second floor landing, running my hands over the cracked plaster as I go. I’ll listen for Geri’s voice downstairs, and the yap of her dog. I’ll listen for the yoga people upstairs: their occasional chanting.

But once I’m in the studio, and the door is closed, I’ll stop listening. At my desk, which faces a bare wall, I have only a collection of books, a poorly maintained printer, and a series of empty coffee cups. I’ll pull on a heavy-duty pair of encircling headphones, which silences the hum of the florescent lights. I’ll slip away.

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