Thursday, May 29, 2008

So um... what's new with you guys?

This is pretty much a placeholder, since I promised myself weekly postings at a minimum. I won't be finishing the novel by Saturday as I'd planned --- in fact I haven't worked on it in a week. Busy schedule? Over-researching? Spring fever?

A subtle reluctance to finish? Who knows.

Don't got much to say besides that. Lovely weather in Boston. How about those Celtics, yeh?

Friday, May 23, 2008

If You're Looking for a Good Book about the Iraq War

Two exciting developments this week. The first is that my request to drop down to part-time hours was approved! Enough said.

The second development occurred last night. I've lately been reading a book titled What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It. Of course, it's hard to imagine a compilation of stories from veterans that would not be compelling, but really, this is a wonderful read.

The only other book I've read about the war was also good, but dealt more with the administrative failures, focusing on life in Baghdad's green zone. This book cuts a broader swath, and though the editor's misgivings about the war are apparent, she evokes a wide range of complex emotions and reactions from the soldiers she interviews. To simply call it "balanced" is too narrow. At a time when criticizing civilian leadership for pretense and mismanagement has almost become an American past time --- to the point where it might overwhelm a more complex and nuanced understanding of present circumstances --- this book was a was a stark reminder of how much is at stake, regardless of the course America takes.

During this war I’ve struggled to keep myself informed, to keep my interest in this historic sacrifice fresh, but too often I feel almost entirely insulated. Too often my interest wanes. What Was Asked of Us contains some of the first stories shared by today’s soldiers at war, stories which are sobering and inspiring. I was moved by the soldiers' depth of emotion, irrespective of their varying backgrounds, education, and opinions about the war.

Last night I wrote an email to the book's editor Trish Wood, relating these sentiments, also telling her that I took special interest in one particular story, told by a soldier who attended a renowned academic institution and was inspired, immediately after graduating, to join the marines and be trained as an officer, so he could fight among his peers who did not have the myriad opportunities that he had.

I explained to Ms. Wood that I am completing a novel and that, because it is a contemporary story, it has been vitally important for me to ground it in the events of the time, and this includes the Iraq conflict. More to the point, one of my characters will eventually join the armed forces, and my story includes a vignette of his experience there. I told her that the soldier in her book appeared to share many of the same traits and circumstances of my character, and asked if she might be able to put me in touch with him.

As you can imagine, I’m quite anxious about delving into such subject matter, especially when I myself have never served in the military. It is imperative that my fictional rendering does justice to the true events and experience.

I rely heavily on research in writing my fiction, and in What Was Asked of Us I have not only found some helpful technical details but also powerful images and impressions that I plan to borrow for the purposes of my fictional story.

The amount of information available, however, (about military life, or what have you) can quickly get overwhelming. I have learned there is absolutely no substitute for first hand experience from the mouth of a passionate and articulate expert on the subject. Off the top of my head I recall at least two interviews with friends --- one a doctor, the other an after-school program evaluator --- which turned out to be indispensable. To this purpose, to say nothing of my own personal edification, I have thought it would be an honor to talk to a veteran about his experiences in Iraq.

Trish Wood replied to my email within the hour. The reply was enthusiastic and accommodating, to say the least. She reiterated my sentiments about the soldier in question, and asked me for my contact info so that she could put me in touch with him when he returns next month from his fourth (this time voluntary) tour in Iraq. She asked me more about myself and what I do, even said she was keen on reading my novel.

In short, she rocked my world.

I don't have to tell you how excited I am at the prospect of sitting down with this man.

So instead, I will tell you that I plan to circulate my copy of this book to interested friends as soon as I am finished with it. It's an easy, gripping read. And it is a history, at least of the first two years. One of the great virtues of this book is its organization. The stories outline the transition of the War and of the country from the initial invasion, through the first months of occupation, and gradually toward the collective, discouraging revelation that the occupation was destined to become a drawn out and bloody affair. Key events that have marked this progression are described by the soldiers, who often experienced them first hand (e.g. the War's first suicide bomb).

My point is, don't be fooled into thinking that this is merely 300 pages of shock treatment and war tragedies that will leave you more confused than ever about what's happening in Iraq. In fact, as I near the end of the book I'm already wondering if there will be something akin to a "second edition" that relates the experiences of those serving during the War's later phases, such as the spike in violence after the Samarra mosque bombings, and of course the surge, etc. I humbly hinted at this question in my follow up e-mail to Trish Wood, asking her about any new projects she might be working on. If I learn anything I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Weathering a Few Rejections

I completed the epilogue to my novel about a year and a half ago. Conveniently it worked very well (I thought) as a short story. What a coup if I could manage to get it published in a top journal then! I imagined writing the line in the cover letter accompanying my book: "A portion of this novel has been published in the Hoopty Doo Review."

Unfortunately the editing teams at various top tier literary journals don't seem to share two of my opinions: (1) that only in exceptional cases does literary fiction, short or otherwise, tend to be artful in style yet avoid being overly mundane, and (2) that my story is one of those exceptions. Hmph.

I avoided the New Yorker since a writer friend informed me they don't consider stories from those without representation (not sure if that's true but it sounded reasonable), so I started by submitting to the other big commercial magazines, namely Harpers followed by Atlantic Monthly, and got a nice slice of humble pie from both.

Gathering up my resolve, I have since submitted to ten literary journals, all of which (Ploughshares, Zoetrope, One Story, etc.) have had at least a few of their stories picked for the O. Henry awards and Best American Short Stories in the past 20 years. All but two have sent me their rejections (which I keep in my copy of Confederacy of Dunces), including the Yale Review just this week.

I'm beginning to gear up for another round of submissions, but geez, I'm feeling a little disillusioned here. I mean, I don't care how selective they are. Can't they see how totally awesomely spectacularrific my story is? Did they really read it carefully? How could they possibly reject it if they did???

It's tough, because given the number of submissions they receive I only get form responses back (sometimes with my name or the title of the story handwritten at the top). Thus, I have no sense of why the story wasn't appropriate for their journal, or (inconceivably) what in the story was lacking.

Good thing I'm in an otherwise great mood lately. I'm still on pace to finish a draft by May 31, and I think it's coming out really well.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Plan to Spend More Hours Per Day Writing

Writing the last chapter is going well, and my goal remains to finish the draft by the end of this month. Time to kick it up a notch!

So last week I met with my boss to request dropping down to part-time hours. She was very receptive --- I was guessing she would be but was still relieved. Now the request goes up the chain. Barring unforeseen administrative hurdles, I will be dropping down to 20 hours per week starting in August.

Of course, the plan is to free up more hours to dedicate to writing, editing, and promoting. To be more specific, my goals are to rewrite the early chapters, circulate the novel in pieces to my faithful editing team and work in their suggestions, learn how to shop the book around and then shop the book around, spend more time posting to and promoting this blog, and if there's any time left, dabbling in some new projects, finally.

I've actually had this plan in mind since December. The online events program I administer has been viewed as a great success, and I recently submitted an informal report demonstrating that the program has effectively doubled in size, with no additional investment of resources, every year for the last three years. My hope was that they would be eager to keep a good worker happy, and perhaps see it as an opportunity to hire additional help.

I'm also fortunate enough to work for an employer that is renowned for its flexibility. The staff at Harvard is thick with artists, who found themselves here because they could support themselves comfortably and still have time to pursue their passion. To give just one example, before I changed offices, I worked on a floor that had at least FOUR other people writing a novel. Clearly I was doing something right!

I don't have to tell you, the prospect of doing what I love for more hours of the day fills me with joy. Cross your fingers for me.

Related note: If you live in the Boston area, are capable and versatile, and need a stimulating job with flexibility and benefits to support you while you await the day when the passionate pursuit of your art pays for itself, I strongly suggest seeing what jobs Harvard has available --- great search tool (at the top right of your screen) to find suitable positions throughout the entire University. You're sure to find many like-minded people here.

Friday, May 2, 2008

John Lithgow sighting

Harvard Square seems to be a magnet for tall, slender movie and television actors over fifty. I still remember the first time I saw John Malkovich (who lives here) walking by, causing me to slip in a snow pile. I also saw James Cromwell (Six Feet Under, Babe, L.A. Confidential) outside of a popular Tex-Mex restaurant called the Border Cafe. I never did discover why he was here.

And then yesterday while walking to the subway I walked by John Lithgow. I stopped in my tracks and stared unabashedly as he passed, mostly so that I could confirm for myself it wasn't just some guy who looked like him.

Definitely it was, and I've since found out he's a Harvard alum, so it makes sense he's visiting, especially with the school year wrapping up. Big guy.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Patiently Writing Dreams

This week I started my final chapter, which opens with the main character dreaming. The novel is peppered with several dream sequences --- I might call them "semi-recurring," in that the dreams always take place in the same environment (a subway station) and he is always accompanied by, and conversing with, the same ambiguous "presence." In fact, the opening paragraphs of the novel --- those first torturous words I wrote down long ago --- describe one of these dreams

I've read plenty of fiction that depicts dreaming. Often it makes for interesting writing, but it rarely strikes me as similar to the way I experience dreams. When I set out to write my own fictional dreams, I pushed myself to articulate the characteristics that my own dreams have. Considering what an abstraction dreams are, this turned out to be very challenging, as you can imagine.

To offer just one example of the characteristics I'm talking about: I find that in my dreams a person, ability, location or object will change spontaneously, yet the functional or emotional significance of this changed thing remains exactly the same. Perhaps for that reason, I'm completely unaware of the change until I wake up (assuming I remember my dream at all). Let's say I dream that I have a magic finger, whereby touching objects causes them to float. It may happen that at some point in the dream, with no explanation or transition, the magic object is no longer my finger, but a wand. Later still, the magic of the wand is not that it makes objects float, but that it makes me invisible.

All the while in my dream the "plot" unfolds naturally, and I'm totally oblivious to any inconsistency. The significant element of this dream-story seems to be my possession of magic power; the details of said power can be adjusted without my knowing anything has changed. To suit what purpose? I rarely know. But ONLY when I wake up can I compare chronological points within the dream and realize, "Hey, when I started off I was carrying a signed baseball, not a talking frog."

Seems like I've given this a lot of thought, eh? So it should be easy enough to write... right?

Well, I've been trying to incorporate that characteristic, along with a few others, into my fictional dreams since back when I started writing the novel. Every time I wrote or re-wrote a sequence, I'd feel that I was getting a little closer, but ultimately, still missing the mark.

Then a few days ago I wrote the final dream sequence. I wrote it in one sitting, and it finally felt right. Perfect, even. It took numerous attempts and years of reflection to finally nail it. How vindicating!

The funny thing about setting these kinds of artistic goals is that no one else can tell really tell me whether I've accomplished them or not. Only I know when I've successfully depicted or expressed something in the way that I set out to. It's a unique sort of reward.

But enough gloating. Onward!