Sunday, March 30, 2008

These Books are the Bomb

Reading other works of fiction, especially novels, is often neither easy nor enjoyable for me. In three years, my top three remains unchanged. I've read each twice, and thank God, in every case, they're just as good the second time around. They are:

Straight Man by Richard Russo

My next pet, regardless of species, will be named William Henry Devereux, Jr. (aka Professor Hank Devereux; aka "Lucky Hank") after the most incorrigible ballbuster in the world of fiction. The challenges of middle age and of navigating the petty politics at a failing university English department collide in this serious and poignant novel, which also happens to be the funniest book I've ever read.

If anyone were ever to read my book and this book, there would be no question who my mentor and soulmate in irreverence is. What Russo taught me in Straight Man is that the more humorous you can be as a writer, the more serious you can be. In truth, the only way I know how to take a serious topic seriously is to look at it first, if only for a moment, through a pair of Groucho Marx gag glasses. Humor gives Russo, and gives me, the freedom to get emotionally charged.

Lucky Hank's dealings with colleagues obnoxious, inept, and devious will inspire you, and leave you in stitches. There's laugh-out-loud moments every couple of pages. But in the end he's a vulnerable man, just like the best of us. I've recommended this book dozens of times, and always make a hard sell. In fact, you may want to wait until you've slogged through a run of books that have done nothing for you, when you're salivating for a guaranteed home run to renew your faith in the magic of narrative. Then read this book, and feel good, both during and afterward.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Welcome to the dark side of the 21st century male. This is what happens when empowered young men have no wars to fight. Voyeurism and role play at support groups. Amateur bare-knuckle boxing as catharsis therapy. Elaborate pranks upon corporate and government institutions that grow increasingly out of control. And lo, these events tap into some unexpected and deep undercurrent, attracting first dozens and then hundreds of aggressive malcontents, propelled by a desperate need to be significant.

Don't let the Hollywood appeal fool you. Palahniuk is a skilled literary author. I don't generally enjoy a style this minimalistic, though I often find myself mimicking his short, punchy sentences because it agrees with my attentional difficulties. It's not for everybody, nor are his dark themes and humor, but if you're into it, you'll be really into it.

His real genius is in story construction. There's nothing predictable about where this underground fantasy goes, but it all makes perfect sense in retrospect. Palahniuk cherry picks from the impossibly weird experiences and details of his own somewhat normal life (sometimes the lives of friends) then adjusts and weaves them together so deftly that I spent years thinking his inventiveness existed miles beyond my own reach as a writer --- very intimidating! What Fight Club taught me is that even the most compelling, original story is not created out of thin air. The skill exists in identifying the pieces, from life, from memory, even from other creative works, and then in assembling those pieces.

But for me this book's even more important than that. Had I never seen the film adaptation eight years ago, I would never have thought I could possibly have a great American novel in me. I haven't traveled cross-country sampling drugs and jazz clubs, never lived in cabin along the frontier, never fired a musket in the Civil War, so what could I have to offer? How about a privileged man's identity crisis? How about Godlessness? How about self-destructive, existential angst? I believe these are important themes for my generation, and though Chuck may have busted the field wide open, he doesn't have a monopoly (wink).

First Light by Charles Baxter

This is the story about imperfect love. Witness the relationship between two siblings told backwards through time, beginning in their middle aged lives, accelerating back through to the day when the brother first lays eyes upon his newborn sister.

I can see several advantages to telling a story this way. But it's how the style lends itself to character development that fascinates me most. Why these two are who they are, do what they do, comes increasingly into focus, and just when you think you're seeing 20/20, something new is revealed, and the subtle "a-ha" moments continue to stack up.

In contemporary literary fashion, Baxter enjoys delving into the mundane, but he also injects (again subtly) a little bit of the surreal and supernatural into each story he writes. In First Light, the brother possesses a certain telepathy, inherited from his mother, that gives him keen insights about people, but which he can't seem to leverage into anything more than a good sales record at a Buick dealership. His brother-in-law and rival Simon (who has inspired one of my own characters) is also a keen observer, and dissects the brother with such uncanny precision one wonders if he's not some watchful demon.

Baxter's willingness to bend reality in his literary fiction has given me license to do the same as a writer --- a huge relief, because I want to be literary, but not boring. Too often it takes more than beautiful prose to make the ordinary extraordinary.

The obsession with the romantic variety overlooks the many complicated and powerful faces of love. I don't cry reading books (that I can ever remember), but not since moving past Young Adult fiction have I had to take short emotional breaks from a novel, so that I could sigh a deep breath and fan myself off.

Reading Other Novels as a Novelist

I used to get lost in books. In the backseat on long car trips , or on Sunday afternoons, lengthwise on the couch inside a sunny deck porch, I could exist in other worlds for hours at a time. It was magic.

Those days seem to have long passed for me. I start reading novels all the time, but rarely finish any of them. My pace is painfully slow, often ten pages per hour, and sometimes less. In part, my biochemistry may have changed. I took a battery of tests for attention deficit disorder some time ago, one of which required connecting an numbered sequence of alternating pink and yellow dots on a sheet of paper. I bombed, which suggested I had particular difficulty with visual attention.

Also, for the past four years I've been neck-deep in the writing process, which I suspect to be a factor as well. Indeed, I've noticed that my progress with non-fiction books, though similarly slow, is also more consistent. I've labored a thousand hours to craft a story that's both compelling and well-written, so yeah, I get frustrated when the literary novels I start quickly become too slow, mundane, overly intellectual, rife with long, complicated sentences. Genre novels, if the plots manage to be wholly original, annoy me with their bland language, their ultra-noble and -modest heroes, their over villainous villains. Can't we have both?

I know the problem exists mostly within me, that rich treasures in fiction abound and I have much to learn from all of them. To all the Pulitzer winners who I've cursed, who I've ground through fifty pages and then thrown to my bedroom floor, I pledge to you with utter sincerity: "It's not you. It's me."

Still, for now, I find myself stumbling, halting, slogging, as I question every decision an author makes. How poorly read I am, though not for lack of effort, may be my biggest embarrassment as an aspiring novelist. I hope this difficulty is only a phase, and that it passes soon. Regardless, this makes the novels I can still lose myself in all the more special. Here are my top three.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Returning to Writing After a Long Break

Between vacation and this new blog, I've worked on my near-finished novel maybe once in the last three weeks. Coming back to it sucked --- it usually does. I started reading what I'd written for the chapter so far, just to get my mind back into it. This inevitably led to me editing what I'd written already, an unconscious stall. After two hours of that, minimally improving what was already there, I finally started writing new material at the point where I'd left off.

Another two hours, barely 400 words, and every one of them felt uninspired. In a few days these paragraphs may read better. They may not. But on a satisfaction scale of 1 to 10 --- 10 being ultimate fulfillment and 1 being self-flagellation --- the writing process was at best, today, a 3.

I'm grateful that, lately, it only takes me one sitting of actual writing (editing doesn't count) to get back in the swing of things after a short break, so I'm hopeful that tomorrow will be better, but... nyeghh.

The worst is how pervasive the experience is, because soon it's not merely the words I just wrote down that are blah. It's the whole book. If I really think about it, the very concept is laughably bland. A recent college grad looks for meaning in all the wrong places??? Who the hell am I kidding? I'm insulting my own intelligence.

I know from experience this feeling is only temporary, that soon I will again like my own writing better than anyone else's, that I'll be convinced it deserves to at least get published. But I'm horrified anew, every time this feeling sets in, that my perception of myself can vary so extremely. Is it possible that this wounded sense of myself is closer to reality, and that the other 90 percent of the time I'm deluding myself? Is that delusion the only thing that's allowed me get this far?

People delude themselves about their talents all the time. Just think of singing. Most people don't realize how bad they sound singing. American Idol, karaoke, my roommates in a good mood, any recorded performance of mine that I've yet to destroy --- the evidence is everywhere. What if my ability to write is like some people's ability to sing - an embarassing sham?

Of course I exaggerate, but when you consider what's at stake, even the average of "I'm awesome" and "I suck" is scary. After such an investment of time and emotional energy, I don't want to merely be perfectly decent, or even pretty good. I want to be good enough that I get printed and that lots of people read me. Doesn't have to be a million. A couple thousand would be nice.

Sad to say, if I knew I would never be published, I wouldn't bother writing... at least not a novel. I love my art, but not that much. I need heavy reinforcement to keep going, and for now the prospect of publication seems to be enough. It might even be enough to spur a second novel if --- God, let it be otherwise --- the first doesn't go anywhere.

Ego! Find me again!!!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

French Kissed by a Giraffe

So, wait... you went to South Beach and West Palm, and this was the highlight of your Florida trip?

Well, shucks, yes it was.

Let me begin by saying there are volumes I could write about what a uniquely American cultural experience my stay in South Beach was, but it's probably all been said before, and I promised myself one post, one photo only when I returned from vacation. So before I take you on Safari, let me sum up my South Beach impressions. It was not nearly the meat market I was expecting --- steroids, silicon, etc. Ethnically very diverse, mostly Hispanics (I assume from Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands), African-Americans (I assume from both the islands and mainland U.S.) and a lot of European whites. A lot of obese black men on motor scooters. I was definitely part of the smallest minority, and in better shape than the average pedestrian (YES!). There were hundreds of restaurants, all outdoor dining, excellent food and people watching, and they (the restaurants) compete intensely --- every host and hostess makes a hard sell the second they see you even glance at their menu, always displayed prominently. The art deco, neon lights and palm trees made me feel like I was on a movie set. The mannequins had abnormally large breasts. And the ocean had virtually no waves (though the water temperature was sublime).

Now then. On the way back to my parents in Vero Beach, from Miami, I stopped in West Palm Beach, and more specifically checked out the Lion Country Safari. It was fun but on the whole, I didn't find it to have any advantage over a regular zoo. With one big, tall, exception.

After the car trip the park features a walk-around area with additional animal pens, a petting zoo, some kid shit, etc. There's also a path that leads you back, on foot, to the giraffe grounds. After ascending a set of stairs to a "booster deck" (my term), you find yourself at head level with these creatures. For five dollars, you can buy two specially-formulated giraffe biscuits, which the giraffe inhales as if they were M&M's.

Still, you get to feed the giraffe, which seemed cool, so I made the investment. When I gently extended the first biscuit half, I was astounded, a bit nauseated, by the length and dexterity of his massive tongue --- it protruded easily a foot out of his mouth, and grabbed at the biscuit, in near reach, like a "come hither" finger.

"Wow. You're pretty gross for a such a beautiful animal," I chuckled nervously, feeling like Sigourney Weaver, with the inner mandible of the Alien hissing in her face.

I paced myself, wishing to make my biscuits last. When I had only one half left, the attendant who kept watch whispered to me:

"If you hold the biscuit in your mouth he'll take it."

I had mixed feelings about this prospect. But then I turned around and saw that a small group of spectators had formed behind me, staring expectantly. Where had they come from? How had they heard the attendant's quiet tip (which I thought was meant only for me)? It's as if they intuitively knew that I was about to be violated by the African Savannah, and by God, they were going to witness the spectacle.

What was I to do? I pushed my doubts aside, and placed the biscuit between my teeth. I'd barely released my hand when my face was wrapped, from chin to forehead, by a warm, slimy eel of a tongue.

Perhaps to avoid dropping it, the giraffe conducted a rapid but excruciating full face sweep --- eyes, ears, nose, cheeks, lips, teeth --- in order to ensure the biscuit's safe arrival into his mouth.

I don't believe I've ever experienced such revulsion and joy, in perfect synchrony, before.

If you dare (if you care), I put together this brief and hopefully funny slideshow in Shutterfly, highlighting both South Beach and Lion Country Safari. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Top Five Worst Reasons to Start Writing a Novel

5. You're convinced that the relationship ending in a recent breakup is an epic tale of tribulation and triumph that must be shared with the world.

4. Your staggering insight and beautiful uniqueness of thought --- which faithfully reemerges every time you smoke a bowl --- has led you to a concept for a story that is like On the Road, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings rolled into one, but deeper, more intricate, better. It's so deep, in fact, that it's far better articulated to your friends on the couch than on paper. They're the only ones who would really appreciate its genius anyway.

3. You think girls will be more inclined to have sex with you.
(Author acknowledges this was a "Best Reason." Depends on the night.)

2. You will make millions of dollars off book sales, movie deals and, eventually, action figures, theme parks, commencement addresses and appearances at nightclub openings.

1. You know the exact person who will play your main character (or your main character's love interest) in the film adaptation, and said actor will undoubtedly thank you, repeatedly... over a series of dinners that lead to enduring friendship... for conceiving the landmark role of their career.

Top Five Best Reasons to Start Writing a Novel

The first of what is bound to be an excruciating number of Top Five lists.

5. Girls will be more inclined to have sex with you.

4. You want at least a part of you to live forever.

3. You dislike so much of what you read and want to show these other schmunkeys how it's done.

2. You write constantly anyway, so you might as well focus your energy on one mega-project.

1. You want to see if you can.


Saturday, March 8, 2008

So Hillary Clinton is the Black Boxer?

As a self-imposed rule I avoid certain topics on this blog to maintain theme and focus. Moreover, I shun politics out of humility and sports out of disinterest. But a podcast from my favorite source of news and irreverent commentary, Slate magazine, has issued a challenge that got my gears turning: Is there an apt sports metaphor to describe the current state of the Democratic primary, i.e. a scenario that is akin to superdelegates trumping (a) a majority of pledged delegates and/or (b) the popular vote?

It occurred to me that the democratic nomination has some fun parallels with boxing, and even though I can already think of twenty holes to poke through a boxing metaphor generally, I’m still having fun exploring these few analogues. So fuck my rules.

There are three ways to lose in boxing: by Knockout, by Technical Knockout (TKO), and by Decision.

Knockout: This is easy. The losing boxer (or candidate) gets pummeled to the point that his battered body and brain decide he can take no more, and he falls down (bows out) and stays down. By dropping out of the race by his own accord after South Carolina, John Edwards lost by Knockout. Ding, ding!

TKO: The losing boxer refuses to go down and stay down, despite his obvious defeat and increasing likelihood of permanent injury and death. So the referee (a significant majority of pledged delegates) makes the decision for him. “You’re done, son, good fight.” On the Republican side (they have no superdelegates but they do have pledged delegates), Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee would have lost by TKO. Ding, ding, ding!

Decision: If a fight ends before either boxer falls or the referee calls it (i.e. by the Convention), the decision goes to the judges (superdelegates). Obama is on track to win the popular vote, which istechnically meaningless, and an insufficient majority of pledged delegates; Clinton is on track to lead in superdelegates. Will this trend hold by the Convention? Will the decision go to the judges?

Because I rarely watch sports, I’m forced to borrow from the only boxing match to end in decision that I know well: Rocky Balboa v. Apollo Creed, I. At fights’ end the judges determine, by a split vote, that Creed (Clinton) has connected more punches and, in their over-honed expert opinion, has generally demonstrated himself to be the more skilled boxer (she's been vetted and allegedly possesses a proven track record). But Balboa (Obama) has landed the most devastating blows (he has a music video and is just so freakin’ cool), evidenced in the final seconds when Creed was spitting up blood. The referee knows Creed was the loser by almost any standard except professional boxing, and so do the people, evidenced by the hate mail Creed receives in Part II which provokes him to rematch.

You see where this is going, yes? Obama ultimately wins but he and Clinton remain friends, and she coaches him through some difficult times. In 2016 she decides to run again, this time with the support of the incumbent, but Arnold Schwarzenegger (Ivan Drago) is allowed to enter the race and kills her during a Las Vegas debate. Obama trains in the frozen mountains of Russia, preparing to avenge her death. He defeats Arnold, and serves out a third term.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Jim Finds a Friend

...My first blogosphere friend, to be exact. Figuring that "donating blood" was something other bloggers might have written about, I Googled to find out, in the hopes that I could post in their comments and add a link to my own blog. This is the shameless, self-promotional part of blogging:

"Hey this id Amber, neat blog, check out my naked pics that crazy girlfriend took ofme!"

Turns out my search did not overwhelm me with blood letting blog posts, but I did find Manic Mommy, an adorable little lady who got just a little woozy after one particular donation... aaaaaand, wouldn't you know, is in the process of getting her first novel published!

She's been blogging for several years and it shows. Every post has dozens of comments stringing after it, and I'm finding "Manic Mommy" references all over the web. She's humble, warm and witty; a real hoot. And she's clearly doing something right.

Naturally, I thought if I hung out on the cool kid's site, maybe I'd become cool too. I posted a comment referring to my own donation experience. Wasn't I tickled to find a comment on my own post, from the Mommy herself, within just a few hours! First-time bloggers: There is life out there, after all. I found my first virtual buddy.

Incidentally, this site may be the next place I mine for other good writers' blogs, where I can be a bother. Not sure how up-to-date it is --- it has a web address for Manic Mom that she left in 2005.

P.S. How many of you tried clicking on my fake link to "naked pics?" Don't be embarrassed. So did I.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

There Will Be (My) Blood

To commemorate the possible departure of one of my novel's characters, I donated blood, one of my favorite acts of altruism.

My blood is type O negative, which means I can donate to anybody, regardless of their blood type, but cannot take from anyone except another Type O negative. They call me a universal donor, but I think "martyr" is more accurate. When donating I avoid, as best I can, fretting that only six and half percent share my blood type, or the reality of national blood shortages, or the myriad catastrophes --- hurricanes, floods, terrorist attacks --- that have plagued our country this decade.

Take it. Just take it.

Emblazoned across my breast shirt pocket my red heart sticker says, I'm a Super Blood Donor. I display it proudly, regarding non-sticker wearers with my eyebrow arched, as if to inquire, "What did you do today, hmm?"

Before I donated I also guzzled a huge cup of coffee. True, I was a little sleepy and needed the caffeine myself, but I also like to give my recipients the top shelf; the gift of life, but also something a little something extra. I know, I know, as if low cholesterol and high iron content weren't enough, but hey, I aim to please. Somewhere I'm sure there's a jonesing hemophiliac who wonders if there's any more Cooney in the ice box. "You got any more of that good stuff you gave me last time, Doc? I need a pick-me-up, Homes."