My Summer Schedule Fucking Rocks

Now that I'm back from Beijing, it's time to get back to working on The Ninjas of My Greater Self + beginning my reading for my Field Exams--otherwise, how the fuck do I plan on reading 80 books by December? My awesome/exciting summer schedule by next week will be:

7:30 am-8 am: Wake up, check emails + glance at the Huffington Post

8 to 8:30ish: Do yoga/push-ups, meditate +/or crunches

8:30ish until 12:00 pm: Write the fuck out of my Ninjas

12:00 until 1ish: Eat lunch

1ish until 1:30ish: Walk the pooches

1:30ish until LB gets home: Read, read, read!*

6:30-7:30: Running

7:30-8:30: Yum!

8:30: More writing + revision, Xbox, watching Glee, Californication, Friday Night Lights + Buffy on Netflix, working on electronic LP, watching foreign flicks, making out with LB, reading FB, playing with the pooches + blogging!

*Except for Mondays or Friday, when I'll take weekly field trips to the post office to sent manuscripts to Granta, FSG, Milkweed et al(l the usual suspects).

My First Official Workshop with TC Boyle

I've already met, chatted with + kicked it with TC Boyle many times in the past year, but today was the first time I had an official workshop with him, which changes the dynamic a bit. Anyway, because it was the first day of workshop, we didn't workshop stories. Instead, Tom read Tobias Wolf's "Bullet in the Brain," which just happens to be one of my favorite short stories of all time + definitely my favorite story in The Night in Question. It was one of my favorite moments at SC so far, listening to TC Boyle read Tobias Wolf. Besides writing the story yourself, what could better? After he was done reading, Tom plopped down the book on the desk and said: --Yup, one of Toby's best.

Toby. Did you hear that? Toby. Later on, I'd eavesdrop on Tom talking to a first year fiction writer + listen to him say shit that just blew my mind. Shit like: --so I told Ray (as in Raymond Carver). . . and I told John (as in, John Irving) I just wanted to write short stories + he said I might change my mind later on. In Review: Tom, Toby, Ray + John. For a split second, the literary Parthenon feels so close to me somehow, like smells drifting upstairs from the kitchen.

Man in a Red Suit: Another Chat with TC Boyle

I had to stop by TC Boyle’s office today to pick up a recommendation he wrote for me (actually, he offered to write it before I could ask him) for the Princeton in Ishikawa program I’m applying to this coming summer to study Japanese. It was as good of a pretext as any to chat with him. So, we kicked it for a little while + just talked. He was wearing an Irish beret that made him look like a beat poet.

—Ça va? I asked.
—Ça va. He said.

Here are some of the highlights of our chat:

1. Perhaps the biggest deal for me: I told TCB that I had finally got one of my stories accepted in a literary journal he’s been published in.

—Oh, the Mississippi Review? He asked.
—No, I said, pausing for effect, Fiction.

—Oh, wow. Then you’ve arrived. That’s a great journal.

When TC Boyle tells you you’ve arrived as a fiction writer, you have to take that moment + stuff it down your throat + swallow it whole. It may never come again.

2. One of my favorite lines from Tom this month was the following. He said: We need to get published from time to time to be reminded of our greatness. It helps us through the tough times. Then I said: Well, I think you get reminded a little more than I do. Try all the fucking time, man.

3. For reasons that totally come from my own insecurity (which comes from a fear of obscurity), I sort of love the way that TC Boyle talks about my publishing future like it’s inevitable. It’s really encouraging, I guess. He says things like: Jackson, when you publish a collection of short stories, you’ll start to read reviews where one critic likes these stories but not those stories. And then another critic will hate the same stories the other critic loved and loved the stories that the first critic hated. And you won’t know what to think. Anyway, if he’s right—and statistics suggest TC Boyle knows what he’s talking about when he talks about writing—I will gladly take on that sort of ambivalent critical perception of my own writing. That ambivalence will be a privilege.

4. I told TCB something that is old news in this blog but something I’ve never told him myself. I explained how I’m just sick of the team-playing fiction writers who want to write things that are thematically safe, technically competent and basically inoffensive and apolitical, but that don’t matter in a deeper cultural sense. I’m sick of these writers, many of them with tenure (something I want very badly, as ironic/hypocritical as that is) that become domesticated by academia and department meetings. They’re just a little too comfortable in their day job, they stop suffering, their aspirations + critiques become very bourgeois + very local, many of these people, competent writers with competent novels who have learned to be likeable, all-around good guys + masters of workshop reality.

—Where do you find these guys? Tom asked.
—At AWP, I said.
—I don’t go, he said.
—I guess what I’m saying, I said, is that I want writers to take on big issues and I want them to take huge risks. I want the writing to matter. I want it to last. I don’t want the writers to worry about whether people like them or not. I want writers to write things that have significance, that make a statement about our culture, that provoke discussion.

TCB nodded a little bit. For a second, I think he was feeling me.

5. Tom confessed to me that he was a bit weary (or at least exhausted) of his insane schedule of writing, touring + teaching. I told him that some of us came to USC just to work with him. He said he knows + he likes that his teaching gig forces him out of his Frank Lloyd Wright house. Plus, he enjoys talking with smart people about writing, something he’s passionate about.

6. TCB admitted that he almost never reads reviews of his work, especially negative criticism. He said some critics really can’t stand that he’s having the time of his life writing.

Besides, he said: —Why read the bad stuff when there’s so much positive stuff out there? When you’re TC Boyle, you can say that + get away with it. But for many of us, we don’t get reviews + the bad shit might be the only stuff we can get.

7. After a pause in our conversation, I said:

—Nice NPR interview, referring to his recent interview with Tom Ashbrook.
—Which one? He asked.
That’s when you know you’ve made it, when you have too many NPR interviews to keep track of.
—And you didn't even see me in my red suit, he said.

As it turns out, TC Boyle has been wearing a red suit to his readings on his book tour for The Women. It's not a Frank Lloyd Wright cape, but it'll do I guess.

Kicking it with Jim Shepard

I met Jim Shepard yesterday. My department sponsored a three-part reading series with him over the course of two days. First he gave a craft conversation on teenage narrators. Second, yesterday he read an excerpt from "Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay" from Like You'd Understand Anyway before reading a new piece of flash fiction. Third, he lead our workshop last night. Beyond that, before his reading, I spent some time with him in the hallway just cracking jokes + fucking around.

Here are some things I learned about him:

1. No one knows how to make Aimee Bender blush more violently or more quickly than Jim Shepard. It's like a skill he has--making Aimee Bender embarrassed. I've tried it, but it's really hard. But this dude is a natural. He was joking about how he was going to tell us about her dirty sexual past + the next thing I know, her face is the same color as her V-neck (a bright, Hester Prynne burgundy). Later on:

--I've never seen you blush like that before, I said.
--Yeah, it just happens, she said.
--Wow. Crazy.
--This one time, I was being a little aggressive with one of my students + then I started blushing.
--It's like preemptive blushing.

2. Jim Shepard is really fucking funny. After my friend Lisa made a comment in class about how she wished Michael's story about alcoholic, illiterate cartoon characters didn't feel so cartoonish, Jim Shepard countered with:

--That's like having a character made of carrots who says I'm Carrot Man, and then someone says: well, I like this character but I just wish he wasn't made of carrots.

It's a strange thing to say, but in context it kinda makes sense. Only Jim Shepard would make up an example of a vegetable character announcing his name like that. Like You'd Understand Anyway is full of characters that introduce themselves to the readers in the beginning through self-intros: I'm Sparticus Andromicus, or the example I gave Jim in the hallway when I suggested he show up to his readings dressed like a trojan with a shiny sword in his hand: I'm Jimicus Shepardicus. His response: well, anything with a breastplate, really . . .

3. Jim Shepard is better at shutting up the grab-the-mic people in my workshop than Aimee is because he's unattached to his students, probably less sensitive + doesn't have to live with the consequences of his workshop conduct. He also had a strange way of treating the manuscripts in workshop like they were published stories, something they clearly weren't. This was a cool approach insofar as we were forced to find our own entryways into the story + discuss the real issues at stake--something we only tend to do once we're convinced a story is important enough. This was a wack approach insofar as it became way too difficult to actually critique the two stories, something they both needed. I'm not sure if this is because he's used to working with undergrads that are often more polite + happier at getting faint praise than grad students are, or if this is just how he rolls. But it was fascinating seeing his approach to workshop, though too constraining for my tastes

4. What I relate with most in Shepard's characters is the way his stories celebrate the brutal gap between what they want to do + what they end up doing. When I asked in the Q + A if this was a deliberate motif of his stories, he said it was, which relates to my final observation:

5. One of the coolest things JS said all night was this:

It's okay for a character not to know everything. Actually, it's almost important that he not. But a story has to be smarter than the narrator + smarter than its characters. Otherwise, the author doesn't own his defects + we don't connect to the characters because we don't see their flaws. We see the writer's flaws, which is always a problem even if unavoidable

A Chat with TC Boyle

had my second real conversation with TC Boyle today. We talked for almost an hour. Some of things I learned from this transmission:

1. He's reading at the New Yorker Festival next week + he's not going to bring his laptop. In fact, he never brings his laptop with him when he's on tour or giving a reading at a festival/conference. The only thing he brings are manuscripts, books he's reading for research + lots of clean underwear. For a second I thought he was telling me he's incontinent, but then I realized he just brings the important stuff. So let me repeat: manuscripts, books + underwear. Now that's a real author

2. He doesn't watch TV. Like me, he'll watch a movie on the Movie Classics Channel, an action flick at the theater or a DVD (because movies have a beginning + an end) but he pretty much avoids TV at all costs

3. He hates his cell phone. He never answers it.
--Let them call my agent, he said.
In fact, he told me he only brings his cell phone for emergencies

4. It's impossible to say something original to him. I mean, I've tried + it's just impossible. There's nothing this guy hasn't already heard, thought of or written + that really fucks with your mind after awhile. I find myself wanting to use more and more hip-hop slang because that's one of the only areas where I'm gonna represent.

--Yo TC, I'll say, let's throw up a burner on Hollywood + Vine that disses the alphabet bois. Maybe then we'll meet a bunch of bustdowns, ballas + buttafaces!

His response: neck-scratching + some mystified silence. And then I'd say: um.

I mean, there's shit I'm just figuring out that he's known for thirty years + I'm gonna have to try very hard not to try to impress him because you know what? It's just not happening. I can bring delight + intelligence + personal charm + lots of love to a conversation, but with TC Boyle (+ Aimee Bender, for that matter), you're not going to impress these people. That's their job, that's what they do effortlessly + they do it way better than you + they do it because they're not trying to impress you. They're being real, you're not. Ah, stupid defense mechanism. . .

5. TC Boyle used to take a 2-hour bus ride to SC for a whole year (each way) where, he explained, he would ultimately be the victim of racism. I laughed so hard when he told me that. I asked him if he'd ever written about his commute + he said no, not yet

6. According to TCB, if you call yourself a writer + you spend a year not writing + it doesn't bother you, then it's over. You're fucking done man. If you feel bad however, he explains, then that's a good sign

7. He tries to avoid email + the web whenever possible + only uses them for communication + research

8. We both seemed to agree that something has happened to Rick Moody's writing. I love early Moody (Demonology, The Ice Storm, Garden State). I feel ambivalent about his memoir + I just can't get into Purple America. The Diviners I'm willing to give a chance to (maybe more than once) if + when I finally get to it.

--I keep starting Purple America over again, I confessed, but I just couldn't get into it. It has something to do with all that stuttering + the computer voice just gets to me
--Yeah, he said, I've started that book several times now.

Our conversation about Rick Moody, who he's met only a couple of times, led to another one about the role of editors + agents. TCB feels like most editors don't really do shit, they just copy-edit. I dunno. At Hachette Books, I saw some of the editing that went on there + it seemed pretty extensive. Not only did some of the editors write out 4-10 single spaced pages of global suggestions to the author, but there were also several rounds of copy-edit exchanges between editor + author over the course of several months, all of which impressed me greatly. At the same time these observations were based on commercial + genre fiction manuscripts, so it might be very different with literary fiction. Additionally, I happen to know that by the time TCB hands in a manuscripts, he's already edited it so much that it's almost ready for print--a detail he's pointed out more than once. The sick thing: I totally believe it.

Another thing: TC Boyle doesn't like editors that try to rewrite stories for an author. I pretty much agree, though I'm completely open to suggestions like simple cuts + some touching up if it makes the story tighter or cleaner in some way

9. Being a persistent fucker, I asked him months ago if I could bring something in for him to take a look at since the administration screwed up + put his graduate fiction workshop at the same time as our required cultural theory proseminar. He said, --fine, just wait until the middle of the semester. So today I gave him a story. Though this is counterintuitive, I gave him one of my worst stories to critique. "Hipster Nirvana" isn't a bad story, because I have aesthetic pride after all--I'll revise a bad story until it no longer blows, then I'll revise it some more until it's decent, then again until it's good + again until it's very good--even so, it's still one of the worst stories in PORN + LOVE (my short story collection) for the simple reason that I don't know if it really works or not. Most of my stories I know, but this one I'm not so sure. I even admitted it to him that it's a B-side story. TC Boyle being TC Boyle, said he writes every story like it's his best one. I remember thinking, you would think that, punk.

Then, out loud I said:
--Come on Tom, paraphrasing Bakhtin, --the Ancient Greeks didn't know they were ancient.
--Yes, but they knew their grandparents were ancient, he said, chuckling.
--And I didn't know this was a B-side story until I was finished writing it, I said, which is the truth.
He nodded, which was about as much as I was gonna get from him.

Anyway, I know he's gonna critique that story really fucking hard + actually, I think that's exactly what that story needs. I'm planning on giving him one of my better stories next time, just to balance things out + pick his brain. I still have a lot to learn with plot + layering novelistic landscapes + publishing, but I can also tear shit up with some of my stories too. I'd prefer to give him a wide range + have him make up his own conclusions. He's TC Boyle, so we all know that's exactly what he'll do.

As I was gazing at one of the walls in his office covered by a million TC Boyle heads, all dutifully cut out from magazines, journals + book sleeves through the years + pasted in a lifetime achievement montage, I thought:

Fuck, this guy's the real deal. And he's had one bad haircut after another since the 70's

My First Murmurs as a LA Writer

I'm not gonna lie, this was a pretty good week for me as a Chicago implant + new LA fiction writer. Among the many small things that give me little heart joy:

1. I met Howard Junker (the editor of the ever-great ZYZZYVA
) on the phone on Wednesday. Evidently, he liked one of my short stories I'd sent him only last week about a pepera that falls in love with one of her victims. It's called [ ]. He told me a bunch of things, many of them mysterious + smart, some even flattering: he wants to publish something of mine in the spring; it may be [ ], it may not be, who knows; he wants something of mine hot off the press; he feels like [ ] is good, but slightly old for my repertoire, but not wrinkled per se. He didn't tell me why he thought that though (I wrote [ ] in the spring of 2008, so in a way he's right, but maybe he's been reading my blog). Anyway, of course I'm thrilled by this because ZYZZYVA is the real deal as far as literary journals go, a fierce defender of emerging writers + Howard Junker has been fighting the good fight for 25 years, even standing up to other journals that have become too smug/slick for their own good--something I welcome frankly because it forces us to ask ourselves why writing matters. At the same time, nothing is set yet for me. So until he says yes Jackson let's do this, I look at his letter/offer as very promising for sure but not concrete. Not yet anyway. I think I'm going to send him a new chapter from my second novel that I recently started. It doesn't get fresher than that man

2. I gave my first public reading in LA last night at the Mountain Bar for USC's The Loudest Voice (along with my talented classmates Elise Suklje-Martin, Lisa Locascio, Jess Piazza + poet extraordinaire Mark Irwin).

Though my performance wasn't my favorite one by any stretch of the imagination (I mean, I actually messed up a few words + adlibbed more than once as I was turning the page), people seemed to like it a lot, which is always flattering

3. Mark Irwin, (who is one badass poet, not to mention a four-time Pushcart Prize-winner) came up to me afterwards + told me he really enjoyed my reading. Mark fucking Irwin,
man. This guy's huge + has been published in every major literary journal + not once mind you, but repeatedly. Anyway, when a poet of that caliber, charisma + reputation compliments you, you do one thing: you fucking take it

4. I'm entering BLANK in the Bellwether Prize this Monday, a contest founded by Barbara Kingsolver to spotlight socially conscious fiction that speaks of the greater world around us + our responsibility to that world + to each other. It's gonna be hard to win that contest because there will be many fantastic novels, many of which will come from writers with impressive resumes + even more impressive apprentisage, but I still have to try. BLANK, despite its flaws, is a beautiful + important novel + it advocates human connectivity, social protest + collective responsibility as well as offer a critique of narcissism, doing so in a way that is important, ambitious + yet also tricky too for some agents to swallow. Wish me luck peeps. In this industry, talent is not enough. You also need lucky dice + an empty seat at the High Rollers Table to strike it big

Writing + Consequences

After workshopping "Love Beepers," in Aimee Bender's class, my short story that has become a chapter in my second novel, The Ninjas of My Greater Self, she wrote about the importance of consequences in fiction, how when a character makes a decision to do something, the writer needs to exploit how that decision affects her because this helps bring the character more closely to reality + makes the reader more invested in who she is. The point isn't to just focus on the character's interaction (that may or may not affect her decisions), or even on the series of actions that leads up to the decisions she makes (though often that's important too), but to give that character a certain liability where decisions have consequences, because it's those consequences, the fact that characters--like humans--must bear the repercussions of their decision, that they must live with the things they do, it's that character ontology for lack of a better word, that connects us to characters, makes us feel that they're somehow more real + also grounds the narrative.

You know, I think she might be on to something.

Meeting The Rockstar for the First Time

I met my thesis adviser, TC Boyle, yesterday, and he looked exactly like he does in photographs. I mean, exactly: the post-punk braid in front, the earring and the funky t-shirts. In fact, I even said to him:

--You look exactly like you do in photos.
--So do you, he said, sarcastically. I mean, like this dude's ever seen a picture of me before.

My first conversation was a little less than a half an hour, but I learned a few things:

1. He's working on a collection of short stories right now and trying to promote The Women, so he's gonna be hella busy. But, he agreed to work me later in the semester to talk about my writing, which, in a way, is better than taking with workshop with him

2. He encouraged me to stop by his office and chat again, and offer I will absolutely take him up on

3. This dude is fucking smart. I mean, he really knows his shit

4. We both like the performative aspect of reading our stories, though, truth be told, he's amazing when he reads and I'm simply a novice compared to him. But, I've got my own thing, nevertheless and I'm comfortable and happy hitting the mic

Where I'm different than TC Boyle is that when I read in public, I'm trying to convince people that they should listen to me read whereas his audience already knows that before he says a word. He agreed. And when I told him that having an audience has made me a better writer, he was surprised. I get the impression that he writes for himself and picks the pieces he's going to read out loud based on what he thinks people will get the most out of. When you've got hundreds of stories to pick from, that's probably a little easier. Maybe I should think more about what the audience wants in my reading than what I like to read, but there's a stubborn part of me that hopes that if I'm into it, it will show, and the audience will be into too

Where I tend to think about this more is in terms of what I'm writing: ever since I accepted that I have a readership--no matter how minute but no less devoted--my writing improved because I started to make sure my sentences made sense. When I used to write just for myself, I wrote some terrible shit that could only have been written by someone trying to impress himself, literally proving to myself that I was a writer by acting writerly. But as I got older, once I'd accepted that I was a writer and that on some basic level I always write my own stories for me because I'm the only person that understands what I'm trying to do, but now, as an evolving writer, I also acknowledge the dialectical relationship my writing has with my idealized reader. Ever since then, my writing has gotten better because I've become more objective, which has helped me revise my stories. My artistic side is still crazy and ebullient, and the ideas still flow like meade in Beowulf, but my critical and editorial side is much better than it used to be, and this honed skilled has helped me learn to finish stories. I used to only know how to start the story, but now I'm learning to be a finisher, which is much harder for me. My sentences aren't less lyrical or ambitious, they just make sense on some objective level. I guess it's phenomenological in that way

The other possibility is that I still write for myself, but that my technical standards of what is good writing have gone up as I've read more and more good fiction and creative non-fiction and my revising skills have improved enough because of that. Who knows?

5. TC Boyle's work ethic is sick and it inspires me to commit to my profession in a complete and absolute way. Truthfully, I was always that committed (which is why I was sometimes a social outcast at Notre Dame), but seeing that kind of commitment in one of your favorite writers is still inspiring

6. Spending time with him is going to be difficult, but worth the effort. Fuck, I'll get in line

1st Workshop with Aimee Bender

I'm not sure what I expected (a reformed urban hippie maybe who wears lots of bead necklaces, lives on green food and pauses a lot?), but Aimee Bender in person, is even smarter, more grounded and sweeter than people told me she'd be. She's really fucking cool. There's absolutely nothing meretricious about this woman. She's not glitzy, sententious or self-absorbed. In many ways, she's the exact opposite. I sent her an email to see if we could brain storm about literary agents for a little bit, and she already wrote back and said, cool, let's do it. It's fucking amazing how accessible and kind she is, so early on in the game.

I remember the first thing she wrote on the blackboard, it went something like this: perfect execution is not the point of workshop. I had confessed to her that I kinda hate the game fiction writers play (myself included) where our first short story in workshop ends up becoming our manifesto, our place for creating first impressions. That first manuscript is almost always a declaration of talent instead of a confession of vulnerability. As writers, we hate being vulnerable, in part because we're vulnerable all the time. But there's something manipulative about trying to control what people get to see of you, especially since inevitably they will figure it out anyways. I don't have a problem with someone submitting new--and possibly kick-ass--stories for workshop they've never workshopped before. In a way, that seems to be the point, to workshop pieces you're the most excited about. But I do have a problem with people who submit stories of theirs that have already been workshopped and praised (major revisions notwithstanding), published, stories they submitted to get into the program they're now in, or more rarely, stories they know for a fact are simply radder than rad. I don't see the point of this, and that's why I really appreciated Aimee encouraging us to submit stuff that is raw but ready to be looked at (as opposed to stuff that is raw, but that hasn't been worked out yet). Workshop should be the place that you get helpful, critical suggestions for pieces that need output, not the place where you're constantly covering your ass so that people don't tear you apart. I'm glad Aimee Bender set the tone of workshop, and also glad, I guess, that she appreciated my honesty, because it embarrassed me a little bit. I'm not gonna lie.

I'm glad I'm in her workshop. Now, the question is, what do I have that's raw enough for this workshop.