He remembered me from a brief email correspondence we had a couple years ago, because he's just that kind of person. His sincerity almost makes me weepy. He talked about ghosts, Trump, Huckleberry Finn, elevating the energy of a story, how "imagination" is a technical response to a technical problem, and how important/difficult it is to ensure all the "boxes" you've opened in your story are thoroughly explored, lest your reader notice you haven't explored one and "lose a bit of respect" for you.
Heather O'Neill's work always has this dreamy, fable-like quality. And They Danced by the Light of the Moon is no exception. Jules is desperate to believe he can escape the collective fate of the town. Manon is the girl of his dreams. For Manon, Jules is something altogether different:
Manon, however, only decided that Jules would do when she saw him roller-skating at the Récréathèque. Jules was skating backwards and doing figure eights with his feet. He did this gesture with his hands as if he were dealing cards onto a card table. Everyone else ignored Jules’s grandiose performance that night. But Manon knew suddenly that Jules was different than anybody else in Val des Loups. That’s what young people look for: someone who will open strange doors for them.
Go figure George Saunders' thoughts on revising are the opposite of boring and unfeeling. Instead he went and made me cry.
But why did I make those changes? On what basis?
On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.
This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead.
Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.
Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion.
We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”
1) Kiss your partner goodbye before they leave town for work for 10 days.
2) Think about how long 10 days is, and how much you'll wish you had accomplished something significant. Fish around for that mystery story you've had kicking around in you for at least a year. The one your brain juices have really been marinating.
3) Ask yourself: Have I watched an acceptable amount of Euro-noir mystery shows on Netflix?
If yes, proceed to 4).
4) Buy so many index cards. No, more than that. Still more than that.
Consider writing an email to Sharpie about why none of their black markers seem to work when you need them to, decide to focus on story instead. Use crappy Sharpie.
5) However strange and broken your protagonist is, make sure you give them an even stranger, even more broken sidekick. Also, put them in the strangest, most broken town imaginable.
6) Drink a lot of coffee. So much so that it feels like you have eleven brains, not one, and they're all speaking at the same time and the same volume.
7) Don't worry if everyone in the story has horrible names like 'Randall' and 'Dickie'. Or if all the roads are "Side Road 7". You just need to name them so the details can be included in your poorly crafted scenes that barely move the plot forward.
8) Write poorly crafted scenes as though it is your specialty. It's okay if you're stage directing too much (e.g.: "He walked across the kitchen floor and looked out the window."). Or if you're running out of non-verbal gestures that convey confusion or discomfort (e.g.: rubbing at chin, twisting hair on finger, furrowing brow, etc.) You will fix all this later. Probably. Maybe.
9) Absolutely have five red herrings— why not 50?
10) Go ahead, lean too much on coincidence and your protagonist’s uncanny ability to keep poking around when any other reasonable person would have given up.
There you have it!
Oh - and when you're finished, ensure you give your manuscript as moody a title as possible. For example, mine is currently titled Before the Flooding Dawn. Don't name it after anything too banal or on the nose (e.g.: The Knife Murderer).
I devoured Amy Jones' debut novel earlier this summer and have been enjoying all the well-earned praise it's receiving. I was delighted to see that the winter issue of Taddle Creek magazine (No. 38 to be exact) features, Aurora Borealis, a pretty, little story by Jones in it. I say 'pretty' because it's just that: filled with beautiful verbal "landscape shots" of the epic drive from south to north, and I say 'little' because it's short. But not too short. Just right. There was one line in particular that stood out as a Literary Gut Punch:
There's something about the way the air up here feels in your lungs, as though you are the only person breathing it —unlike Toronto, where the air has already been breathed hundreds of thousands of times.
Perv Jungle was chosen by Sam Lipsyte as this year's winner of the Lit Pop awards (by Matrix Magazine.) I wrote this story as a way of "conversing with" Forever Overhead, a gorgeous coming-of-age story by David Foster Wallace. It took me years to figure out why I couldn't let this little story of mine go, despite draft after draft that just languished. But I think I just figured it out: while I love coming-of-age stories, my unconscious wanted to talk about the double burden felt by girls at this time. We're feeling the shifts in our biology the way boys are, but that same biology puts us at risk. Our bodies start to become the object of male fixation, even grown men. Therefore, our coming-of-age automatically includes an element of danger. I couldn't give up on this story, and I think it's because I needed to say something about this.
"The truth is, you leap into something and then for (in this case) five years, you keep leaping, making tens of thousands of intuitive choices, but you’re not really sure why you’re making those choices, except that they seem, in the moment, to produce more beauty – and then, at the end, you look up and you’ve made something that is the sum total of all those choices, made over those many years. The wonderful thing, and the thing that keeps me writing, is the hope that the result is somehow better than you, the writer: more alert, kinder, funnier, more big-hearted, more big-minded, and that working on it has enlarged your view of things – made the world seem wilder and more confusing than before, albeit lovelier."
I'm a lucky duck who got to see+hear Zadie Smith in person tonight. She was every bit as charming as I expected. She and Eleanor Wachtel had a great chat, but the part that really stood out to me was the role that Smith said 'found objects' play in her work, whether it's a real person who ends up an influential force in her novel (Jeni LeGon in Swing Time) or a peculiar name, borrowed from a real person. It was liberating to hear her say this, as someone who often feels ashamed by my own hidden stash of "objects", garnered throughout my quest to create "lies that tell a deeper truth".
I'm two-thirds of the way through Zadie Smith's new novel Swing Time, which may be the best exploration of female friendship and motherhood I've ever read. In typical Smith fashion, there are shimmery jewels of prose and dialogue glinting from every page. One of my favourite characters in the book is the unnamed protagonist's father, a man who cannot help but love a woman who does not respect his mind, and who adores the duties imposed on a good parent. This statement, made by the protagonist about her father, felt like a knee to the heart:
The thing I feared was no longer my parents' authority over me but that they might haul out into the open their own intimate fears, their melancholy and regrets.
Then I realized who's infected our collective unconscious..
I learned what 80,000 handwritten words look like. My brain is tired, but my left arm has never been stronger. Now, I'm putting this baby in a drawer for a few weeks. Then the real work begins.
I've written about Lindsey Smith before. She's my literary soulmate. The PB to my J. We met while we were students in Sarah Selecky's Intensive, and have been pals ever since. Lindsey's writing is brave and unapologetic. It takes up space in your heart. Recently, her story Experience™ was selected by Lisa Moore as one of two runner ups in the Little Bird story contest. I was not at all surprised. Moore said it better than I ever could, describing the piece as "a canny, lyrical, post-modern, and clever story about romantic love" and the prose as "tight, crisp, and affecting". Without further ado, here's a pretty little punch that clobbers you right in the kisser.
That first time, do you remember? When you said, “Hey,” and leaned into the tilt of the café table to make sure I didn’t walk past? In that instant, I remembered the imperfect whiteness of my mother’s milk. How it looked and how it felt swishing around in my wanting baby mouth. I remembered it even as I knew there was no way I could possibly know anything about the imperfect whiteness of my mother’s milk. You said, “Hey,” and I regressed. Your voice made me do it.
I can't believe it!
Sam Lipsyte— the Sam Lipsyte— chose my story as the winner of this year's Lit POP Award. I'm honoured and ecstatic and can't think of smaller words right now. My stomach feels like it's hosting a mariachi band.
I know it's not about the accolades or the recognition, but hot damn, sometimes it's a nice feeling to know that something you wrote resonated with someone.
To celebrate: burritos for dinner, and a Jays game.
Lorrie Moore is a treasure. She's the kind of writer whose stories make me want to write. To try to create something even half as universal and vibrant and potent.
In How To Be an Other Woman, she puts the reader in the driver's seat by using second-person POV.
When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.
My babe's out of town this week, and it's hotter than the 9th circle of hell, so I spent tonight eating popsicles every colour of the rainbow and watching A League of Their Own. (I remember watching it as a girl and being in awe of how beautiful Madonna was.)
Anyway, this has also been a week full of revising, which, for me, means the volumes gets turned up on those bitchy inner voices that love to chime in when you haven't asked them a goddamn thing, you're just sitting at your desk, being a good little writer and they just have to diarrhea all over everything.
There's a scene in A League of Their Own, and I sat up as soon as it started. Tom Hanks is the coach and he's trying to convince his MVP (Geena Davis) not to quit the team. She says, "It just got too hard." His response:
It's supposed to be hard.
If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.
The hard is what makes it great.
Thank you, Tom Hanks. You're a gentleman, and a scholar.
I've read Díaz' collection (This Is How You Lose Her) several times over the years. It doesn't matter how many times I've walked the streets in his stories, I still round a corner and get cold-cocked by a universally stunning coupling of sentences.
You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That's what happened with your girlfriend, Paloma—she stooped to pick up her purse and your heart flew out of you.