Matthew Salesses runs and directs an awesome column at Pleiades about workshop craft and workshop pedagogy and I'm happy to say that my essay "The Velocity of Flying Objects" about my own workshop methodology will be published soon on the magazine's website. Stay tuned.
My Interview with the hilarious and talented fiction writer Bryan Hurt (who is both a friend and a classmate of mine from SC) was published today at Full Stop. In some ways, it's less of an interview (which tends to be stuffy, formal, and intellectually demonstrative in like an annoying way) and more of a playful conversation I could easily have had with Bryan one random night at a swanky wine bar or something in DTLA. As far as "interviews" go, this one has a great flow to it I think.
2. I just sent Sandra Dijkstra a 25-page sampler of BLANK with a query letter. Hopefully she'll be intrigued enough that she'll want to read the entire manuscript. Based on her client list, I think she'll appreciate the strong, smart, independent female characters, the multicultural crew, the ambitious + intersecting plotline + above all else, the novel's return to history + culture, the love of language + the joy of storytelling in BLANK. But if for some--tragic--reason she rejects BLANK, I'm still planning on asking her if she'd like to see $67 for My Favorite Dictator, my collection of short stories +/or whether she'd be interested in reading Ninjas once it's finally done--whenever that is.
Inside, Tom wrote:
With thanks and in appreciation of your work.
What a mensch. What a fucking mensch.
You don't need a workshop, you need a contract. This is so rich and beautiful and heartfelt that I'm won over to the project all over again. Here we can feel Hidashi as a character, vulnerable, angry + brilliantly observant, which (to my mind) wasn't necessarily the case in the earlier sections. But now you are getting to the beauty of things + dramatizing instead of posing + listing. Great stuff. Truly!
p.s. Love Hidashi's take on hipsters + the value of being hip
p.p.s. Love too how you're moving the story through these brilliant and hilarious scenes of dialogue
For a couple days, I'm gonna stand tall. Then, it's back to work.
There are a lot of writers on this planet for the simple reason that writing is a technical, redactive + analytical process--meaning, people who are skilled at conceptual organization, editing + analysis can + often do write really well. Further, these are learnable/transmittible skills.
Then there's the writer-artist, someone who can create entire worlds, characters + experiments, + direct them in the service of a storyline, conceptual framework or idea, transporting you into another, parallel, self-sustaining universe with the flash work of a single paragraph. That's what great writing can do when it's art, change the universal vibration of everything around you, whether it's literary fiction, chicklit, Stephen King or George Saunders.
The problem then, is that, the most distinguishing characteristic for a writer--i.e., your artistic, non-technical matrix--is precisely the one thing no MFA workshop can teach you. Workshops have to focus on technique because technique is technical + technical things can be taught, practiced, improved. But ultimately, while improving your technique will make you a better writer, it won't--it can't--make you a better artist. MFA programs know this. They're not delusional. In the back of most directors' mind, they know that, more than anything, their MFA program is basically a gift, a gift of community, support + time, + time, above all else, is a prerequisite to write, everyone's least common denominator, both writers + artists. But all of that writing doesn't mean you're an artist--didn't I just say this?--it means you're a fucking writer, which honestly, isn't a bad way to go at all.
My concern, though, is this: there are already way too many fucking writers in this country, in this continent, in this world. And while I'll support to the end of my life the right for MFA programs/residencies/endowments to exist + give shelter to writers who just need time--that precious commodity--to work out their potential art that's all tangled up inside, at the same time, MFA programs are also partially to blame for the proliferation of writers that haven't smelled one whiff of art in their 2-3 years of workshop-hysteria gang-rape. What the world needs, what American culture salivates for, what the brainiacs + college students + aggressive critics + tenured faculty + jaded post-homeboy Generation Me slackers all need--+ let's be honest, we always need something, nothing is more painfully human than that--is more art that is ambitious + difficult + smart + great soulful + provocative + the opposite of safe + socially-conscious + socially relevant + breathtaking + thought-provoking + timeless + insightful/generous/brutal about the human condition + above all else, profound in some existential, cultural or global way.
We're told that the little moments are the big moments now, that the reader shouldn't expect pay-offs (i.e. epiphanies), that beautiful writing is its own end, that any narrative, any story, any emotion, any character is worth writing about + for whatever reason if it's done well enough. Maybe, that's right. But maybe, just maybe this legitimately-constructed defense of art-for-art's-sake (one I've made a million times against people that use literature as an ideological puppet show), maybe this point of view has kept the front door open for so long that now everyone comes inside. Everything's art, therefore, nothing's art. Anyone can write a novel (especially a once drug-addicted celebrity with a ghost writer). Anyone can print a novel in a vanity or self-publishing press, therefore writing + publishing, are no longer exclusive, protected domains in this new arrangement of mass media democratization (which seems like a good thing!).
Because there is so much writing in America--more than at any point in our own cultural history--but so little art, so little genius, no wonder people don't read anymore. Maybe we've cheapened the deal for them by publishing writing but downplaying, ignoring, even cockblocking great art for fear of poor sales. Editors want to make money, agents want to sell manuscripts + writers just want readers, which might be the most dysfunctional fucking love triangle I've ever heard of.
And yet, despite this, I still can't stop writing. It's the only place I belong in this world. Whether it's art or not, I can't say. I'm not even sure that's my call. But I'm willing to double-up--whether true or not--that I'm in this for the art. Whether my writing is good enough to be art, well, I'll let you decide. I already know what I think.
After I got home from workshop, I finally read Tom's critique of my manuscript of "Girls: A Four-Part Symphony by the Beastie Boys," a self-contained chapter from my second novel, The Ninjas of My Greater Self.
Here's an abridged version of TC Boyle's critique, verbatim:
Astonishing stuff. The language sings + the sensual details, of sex, + beauty + food + all the rest, make this very rich indeed. I have no qualms whatever--this is finished work.
There are perhaps a couple of places where the language calls attention to itself + perhaps the narrator protects his hipness a little too strenuously, but who cares? This is rich + nuanced, + the smart, funny, hyperactive voice carries it all the way.
Yeah, for a couple of seconds, it felt really good to read that.
But now (a day later), it's time to get back to reality: I'm still the same person I was yesterday, just another talented, aspiring fiction writer with just a few great publications. I still have a lot to prove to myself, to my critics + to all the people that won't give BLANK a chance in an industry filled to the sky with smooth, polished writing that has no soul, no vision + makes no attempt to create original, important, socially conscious, powerful, beautiful + ambitious art.
1. He's an amazing close reader of text--you can see the old PhD student studying 19th century Brit Lit a mile away, to be honest
2. He is, to this day, the only person i've had a workshop with, who even made the suggestion that a story in workshop might end exactly where it should be ending--you never hear that. The operative assumption in all workshops is that stories are never done, + even having a story end where it's supposed to obviously doesn't mean it's finished. But still, here's a writer who can say, "i think this piece still needs work, but i think you might be ending it exactly where i think you should be ending it." Fucking unheard of
3. He reads our critiques out loud (anonymously) + then uses them to launch our discussion, which seems really smart. Not only does it encourage good written feedback but it actively involves student critique in part of the dialogue, while also stripping us of our scripts (since he's holding our critiques), which condenses the dialogue really beautifully
4. He doesn't let the workshop dwell on the same issues. Most workshops I've taken, people either fight to disagree with workshop consensus, writers are competing with each other to outcritique the manuscript, the writers are psychoanalyzing the writer through his/her manuscript or they're trying really hard to kiss the workshop leader's ass. Here, that doesn't happen. When things become redundant, he changes the focus, picks a new aspect of the manuscript to analyze + asks a new set of questions
5. As with Aimee Bender's workshop, when Tom speaks, you fucking listen because like her, he's a master of the short story + obviously all of us, no matter where we are in our own aesthetic evolution, surely are not
6. Because people can't rehash the same shit over + over again, workshop gets out 30-40 minutes early every week. It's fucking amazing!
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.
I guess we do this not only because writing is our life, but because all of this stuff makes us feel somehow like we're just a little closer to making it--whatever making it means these days. I'm sympathetic to all of this shit + I'm guilty of all these things too. But now I'm starting to think that:
1. While the average technical ability of a fiction writer today is much higher than it was a 100 years ago, I feel like there is also very little original art being created in America's workshops, which is troubling
2. While important, networking should never replace great writing. Ditto with name-dropping, program nepotism + market saturation.
3. Great art should trump everything else, and somehow, in this age of self-publishing, bottom lines, sell-throughs, contractual fine print, cost benefit analysis, great writing isn't making it to the bookshelves enough, and I'm not just saying that because I haven't found a publishing house yet for BLANK.
4. I don't like talking about writing anymore. Let me qualify that. For years now, I've felt like I'm not talking about writing for the right reasons. By that I mean, I no longer talk about writing because it's changing my life, but because I'm examining it, which, in a way, belittles writing. When writing stops being about great ideas + powerful narratives + starts being about narratives arcs, backstory, dialogue + flashbacks, I think the battle is already lost. I don't mind technical analysis, but the point is to analyze technique in order to improve the transmission of art, not to improve the technique itself. Isn't the ultimate goal of writing to produce art? Wait, before you bark back another writing platitude, think about that. Has writing + art become separate mediums? Because to me, it feels like the goal of writing has changed from creating art that is ambitious, socially-conscious + emotionally powerful into producing technically competent writing, as if that's the goal, as if writing isn't art anymore, but a form of circular logic whose ultimate destination is itself.
Whatever writing is, for me, it is above all else, art, motherfuckers. It's supposed to provoke, speculate, create, engage, analyze, move, inspire, devastate, reify, push and pull, twirl in circles, slur, slap, arouse, infect, overwhelm, exhale, fly, imagine, dare, delight, infuriate, affect, teach, hurt, open up, give voice to + often, scare us. If it doesn't do that, some of that, any of that + so much more, then I don't want to read it, whatever it is, no matter how well written it is, I'm just not interested. Medical journals are extremely well edited + technically polished, but yo, they don't fucking have what I need.
1. Tom confessed that the only thing he felt really needed from his teachers at Iowa (+ in general) was a little encouragement now + then, and maybe a couple edit suggestions every so often.
--That's exactly what I need, I said.
2. After I asked him when his favorite time to write was, he said: I like writing from 10:00am to 2:00pm. I get a lot of writing that way.
3. When I asked him where he liked to write, he said he liked writing in the mountains. I confessed that I was surprised because his writing has such energy + his language is so creative + intense, all adjectives I associate with the city. He admitted he likes the country + the city for different reasons. I think he may be right though. I'm considering applying for a Yaddo residence fellowship next year for that reason. . .
4. I told him I was thinking of going on a mediafast soon (because I waste too much time on crappy reality television, reading the same news stories + facebook).
--What's that? He asked.
--Oh, no cell phone, no internet, no tv, no movie, just writing.
--Well, you'll probably need that for your novel, to really get into it. But short stories work great with all of that noise in the background.
5. When we talked about the LA Times Festival of Books, he told me: they put me at the end of the reading list to stop people from leaving early, but really, I think they're just taking me for granted because I do it every year.
6. I lamented that it was sad that if I'm lucky, I'll be just another author that "makes it" in America, which means going on a 10-city bookstore and reading excerpts of his/her book to three people in the audience (if it's not just canceled out right) + often, they're not even there for you, they're the leftovers from the author before you whose fifth book on the secrets of wealth just became a NYT Bestseller. Either that, or the bookstore's deli was giving away free brownie bites with purchase.
Tom looked at me, raised his eyebrow + said: --I don't see another way. I mean, you have to build your fan base, and in the beginning, you don't have that many readers.
7. I told him that I thought the publishing industry has changed a lot. Now, it seems like a lot more is asked of the author in terms of self-promotion. Writers have to be willing to market their own shit, find their own audience, maintain their own website, befriend their own fans on FB + MySpace, send out their own submissions. He said I might be right, but he wouldn't know because he's been doing the same thing since he left Iowa City.
8. I described the writing relay using literary blogs I'm doing with some other fiction writers like Andrew Whitacre, Christina Zilka + Alexander Chee, to name a few.
--It's sort of like an exquisite corpse, I explained, but with writing blogs instead of pictures.
He paused, then said: --Alexander Chee, why do I know that name?
--He wrote Edinburgh.
--Don't know that. He looked around his crowded office overflowing with manuscripts + magazine covers, then he pushed a book towards me on the desk. I zoomed in. The book was called, Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. And sure enough, there was one of Chee's (many beautifully written) essays on Annie Dillard.
9. As our conversation came to a close, I realized--as I do so often in this industry--how far I have to go before I'll be able to say I've really made it. The distance is always greater than the longest distance I imagined it being, which is odd because I have an insane imagination, so I already imagined it being really really long. And that's the scary thing, it's even longer than that. When I got my first print publication, I thought I was on my way, slowly but surely. Before that, I remember sitting down in my boxer shorts one afternoon in Astoria, with the summer light filtering in through the windows, thinking, wow, I just got my first good online publication. In neither instance was I anywhere close to making it. The only thing I can say is that I got a few hints that my writing was really good. A few hints + nothing else.
I didn't know in either instance--and thank god I didn't because maybe I would have folded--that that it takes forever just creating momentum for yourself as a young writer + only after things start moving do you begin to realize that they move a 100 times slower than you can possibly imagine (or endure). But because writing is who you are, you persevere. You can't turn around now. You wouldn't even know where to go. I didn't know then + I try not to think about it now that failure is the rule + that publication is the exception in this industry. But even slowness is momentum + momentum is the only change you're got as an author to reach other people, so of course you take it.
10. As we said goodbye, Tom turned to me + said: --Jackson, Congratulations on everything you've done this year + everything you're going to do.
I laughed + told him I'd see him in the fall. But of course, I meant, I'll see you at the Festival of Books where I look forward to taking you for granted like everyone else.
You know, I think she might be on to something.
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.
The other reason i'm irritated, is because many of the things workshop hated most about my writing, are the VERY THINGS that have been published.
"one love" was universally rejected by my classmates because car jackers can't have political motivations or care about social justice--which is a racist thing to say i think, but ink collective picked it up and loves it, and that's a print/web journal out of boston.
"Logograms" was torn apart by my classmates and yet The Pittsburgh Quarterly picked up an older, and much less polished version of that chapter cuz they thought it was great.
"16 love songs" was pretty much obliterated by workshop and yet valerie sayers thinks it's the the most promising and publishable short story i've written in the past year.
this leads me a few conclusions:
1. workshop doesn't help writers get published, and that is our ultimate goal, and in that way it's failing writers. it DOES help with craft, to an extent. but it hasn't helped me get published at all. it's done quite the opposite.
2. young writers don't necessarily know what's publishable because none of us have really published that much.
3. the things workshop nerds get upset about are not the things alot of readers get upset about.
4. there is a crucial difference between what a journal editor wants and what a workshop wants.
5. workshop induces writers to write safely and pre-emptively so they can avoid blood orgies at their expense.
6. the point of fiction workshop HAS TO BE helping writers become better writers, which means, making suggestions that help a writer do his thing better. and yet, so much of the criticism i've been getting is telling me to be a different writer, telling me to get rid of myself in my writing, but our self is in all our writing in some way, and second, readers don't know the writers personally and noone gets mad at salinger for using his life in his stories, or rick moody for writing about connecticut, or nabokov for writing about being a russian lit prof.
7. workshop is textual psychoanalysis, and that's fucked up.
8. workshop was made for short stories, not novels. you can't single out a few chapters and made dogmatic statements about the novel, that's like picking out a few states in the west coast and telling me your opinions on America. that's absurd.
9. i'm done with workshop and i'm so stoked about that cuz i really want to spend the rest of my time working on my novel, a novel everyone seems to criticize, and yet, a novel that several literary agents are interested in. and even if they don't pick it up, that interest is a good sign.
for all these reasons, i'm wiping my hand of fiction workshop. it has its merits for sure, but i feel like i'm over it. i'll exchange my stuff with a few perceptive bright readers, that's enough.