Sunday, July 29, 2007

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 35

Spring Forward

I am now at work on Chapter 4 of my novel. It comes as a bit of a surprise that it feels a little different than working on the Prologue or the first three chapters. There are a few reasons why this might be the case, as I think about it more. One is that for some reason I have always thought of the first three chapters as a kind of personal watershed and that if I got past them, I would be more or less on my way to completing the novel. I don’t know if I would say that I feel that way now that I am past Chapter 3 of the draft, but it does feel like a solid beginning. Which is definitely something to hold on to. But I have to admit I don’t feel quite as sure of myself as I thought I might after getting this far. For me, this is nothing new. Insecurity is a long-time companion, and my writing life is no exception. However, I try very hard to overcome it and will continue to do so with this novel.

Another reason why things feel different now that I am writing Chapter 4 is that the story has finally moved on in time. The first three chapters were set in 1924 between the summer and the fall; this chapter skips forward three years to September 1927. This is very significant. A lot has happened in between that is important to my story and my characters. For one thing, the Ku Klux Klan, which is at the absolute zenith of its power in Indiana when my third chapter ends, is all but finished when Chapter 4 picks up. The entire structure has imploded following the arrest, trial and conviction of its leader, D.C. Stephenson, for rape and murder in 1925. As for my characters, Peter Heinricks, Greta’s brother in law, has moved from Oklahoma to Texas with the oil man Pops Wheeler, who is prospecting for the one big dig that will make them all rich. He has wandered even further astray, one might be tempted to comment. Meanwhile, a young attorney named Myron Devreaux, who was a recent Valparaiso Law grad looking for a start in the world in Chapter 2, has moved back to his hometown of Bentonville in Chapter 4, and soon encounters his old flame, Greta Heinricks, in a grocery.

As for Walter Brogan, he is beginning to find out that having outlasted one threat to his happiness and security, i.e. the Klan, he only faces more difficulties. As we move into Chapter 4, we find out that Brogan is actually doing pretty well in his job running the gas station his father-in-law owns. He has hired a second man to work with him and he has formed good relationships with many men of the town and some important business contacts. He does not have a formal education nor is he a practied businessman, but he has charm and a natural gift that makes common folk like him. The problem is that his job takes a lot out of him, and his home life is a harder thing to maintain than he anticipated. He feels pressure to get his wife situated in a house of their own, instead of living at her father's; three years in he has still not been able to make this happen. At the same time Greta is naturally impatient to start a family, and Brogan feels pressure in this sense as well even though his wife tries to minimize it. This leads to difficulties in their relationship, and as well as he relates to other men, Brogan does not do well when it comes to communicating his true feelings to women, including his own wife.

This situation is leading me straight into a place I was not sure I wanted to go, but I feel like I must to make this story authentic: the Brogan's bedroom. I have no plans to be explicit or unnecessarily descriptive, but I feel like I have drawn up for myself the largest challenge of this novel so far. I have to demonstrate that the pressures of their situation and the inability to talk about it easily has made it difficult for them to conceive a child. Talk about painting oneself into a corner! I have absolutely no idea how the intimate relationship of my paternal grandparents must have looked, sounded like, or felt like. But it seems to me that the difficulties they have at this stage of their lives are essential to describe in some way in order to establish a pattern for the rest of the story. So I must, in the modern parlance, 'go there'.

That is the crux of this new chapter. It will in some way describe the demise of the Ku Klux Klan and perhaps briefly touch base with Peter Heinricks' life. Myron Devreaux will come back into play, not necessarily as a 'temptation' element but more of a standing reminder of an alternate life, a sort of 'what if' figure for Greta Heinricks. Time and the rest of the story will let us know if Greta made the right choice in ignoring one man's attentions in favor of another's.

Nonetheless, the main element of this part of the story is the Brogans, their relationship, and their desire to bring someone else into the world. This will eventually lead to their son, Luke Brogan, who ends up becoming a Jesuit priest.

The working title for Chapter 4 I can now say is "A Chance Encounter, Overdue". But this is subject to change, and probably will.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #53

**Happy 4th birthday to C. E. L. tomorrow -- 7/22/07!**

I recently read a famous short story from Delmore Schwartz called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," and was very struck by it (highly recommended!!)... this got me reading up a little bit on him, and I found that he is most highly regarded for his short stories and, equally, his poems.

Schwartz, a lifelong New Yorker, used to hang out in the famous White Horse Tavern in Greenwich village, drinking with other dream-addled writers like Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac. Not bad drinking company there (well, perhaps they were actually, in retrospect!). Mutt and I, along with our two other brothers, shared a beer there once "among the living and the dead" (apologies to James Joyce).

Anyway, I read a few of his poems online and this one in particular -- a sonnet about New York City -- struck me as powerful and interesting. I thought it would make an interesting entry in the series. I especially like the first stanza -- that's evocative stuff!


Sonnet: O City, City

To live between terms, to live where death
has his loud picture in the subway ride,
Being amid six million souls, their breath
An empty song suppressed on every side,
Where the sliding auto's catastrophe
Is a gust past the curb, where numb and high
The office building rises to its tyranny,
Is our anguished diminution until we die.

Whence, if ever, shall come the actuality
Of a voice speaking the mind's knowing,
The sunlight bright on the green windowshade,
And the self articulate, affectionate, and flowing,
Ease, warmth, light, the utter showing,
When in the white bed all things are made.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

What Has Happened to the Short Story?: A Brief Response from Duke

After reading Mutt's interesting and provacative post from a week or so ago ("What Has Happened to the Short Story," 7/6/07) I was moved to post a comment or two of my own, but then I thought it might be worth responding more thoroughly, with a few short reflections along the same vein.

First off, I should say that I agree with Mutt's basic premise that something in fact has happened to the short story -- that is to say, to paraphrase an old cliche, "they don't make 'em like they used to anymore." Of course this is a generalization, but I know that Mutt does a better job than anyone I know of keeping up with contemporary fiction, and he's digested quite a few new stories in the past several months, as well as read thousands of them from authors both long gone and very much alive. He is an avid student of the craft, you might say. And he and I have discussed this very topic on many occasions, after he's told me about yet another story from the New Yorker that has left him cold and wanting.

It hit me after reading his post that a reading experience I have recently had confirms his bleak but truthful diagnosis. Several months ago I picked up for $1 a beat-up hardback, jacketless book called "Great American Short Stories," something that might have been cobbled together and published by Reader's Digest 20 or 30 years ago. I didn't read the entire thing by any stretch, but I did read many of them, and was stunned by the power and originality of almost every single story I chose. The names are familiar, and the ones you would expect to find in any collection of writings by great American authors -- Fitzgerald, London, Wharton, Hemingway, Bret Harte, O. Henry, Ambrose Bierce, Hawthorne, Walter van Tilburgh Clark. But each story seemed to be more impressive, and surprising, than the next. These were stories that gleamed and glinted, with the beauty and precision of cut jewels. But even more importantly, they struck me, and with force. Either in the sheer artistry of their prose or the seriousness of their themes (and very often, both), they lingered in my mind and rang in my imagination like fire alarms. Who can ever forget the vivid description of slow freezing and palpable desperation depicted in Jack London's "To Build a Fire" once they have read it??

Stories today just don't seem to have an impact like that, by and large. They seem to be smaller somehow, or more mundane. Less concerned with the most important questions and more concerned with everyday minutiae. I mean, recently the New Yorker ran a story by a woman writer (whose name I can't now recall) called "Playdate," and it was about exactly that -- two cosmopolitan, New York women get their kids together after school, and have a playdate. The end. There was nothing remarkable at all about the prose, nothing really compelling about the story. No illumination at the end that might cast the entire narrative into a different and more revealing light. Maybe I'm just unhip and ignorant, but... who cares?? But to reiterate Mutt's dumbfounded question: this is what makes it into the New Yorker these days? This is the best stuff America has to offer? It seems very hard to believe.

Of course I don't have any answers to why this might be the case either, but I can say this, based on recent and past reading -- if this is, in fact, the best we got, we have certainly fallen a long, long way in a relatively short time. The glory days of O'Connor, Cheever, Updike in his younger years, Welty and Faulkner seem like an age long since hardened into layers buried deep under the accumulated crap of American culture.

Naturally I realize how this all sounds, and I realize too that I am not really qualified to judge these things -- but here's the real test. Go to the New Yorker web site and download a bunch of their short stories, and then, find an anthology of classic American short stories (by such as the authors I have cited above). Read them all, and then, you tell me if anything has "Happened to the Short Story."

Friday, July 13, 2007

Journal of a “Novel”-Entry 34

Chapter 3 Finished, Tough Road Ahead Gets Even Tougher

It took almost seven months, but I finally completed Chapter 3 of my novel, “The Fiery Cross, Revelations”, at least as complete as it is going to get, for now. It was a hard chapter and it was made a lot tougher by the move of my whole family and life in those months. It’s hard to tell if I lost a lot of critical momentum or not; surely I did for a while but I don’t know if it has long-term consequences. Time will tell. But I would say generally that the more I work on this manuscript the harder it gets to write and research and ‘get right’, and I have no idea if I am even getting it right.

Do I enjoy trying to write this novel? I do and I don’t. On the whole, I do, otherwise there wouldn’t be much point, but it’s very, very difficult, and there’s nothing like your own experience to teach you that I suppose. Everything I’ve ever read that was written by successful writers about writing novels has said that it is a hard thing to do, so I can’t say it’s a big surprise that it is hard. But I would call writing a novel something that falls into that clichéd category of ‘If it’s not hard it’s not worth doing’ or something to that effect. In other words, it’s good that it takes a lot of effort, and you hope that the effort is worth the time and stress that it costs. Therein lies the problem of course.

Here I am about sixteen months in to the writing of this novel with four chapter-length sections (a Prologue and Chapters 1-3) to show for it and about 180 pages of double-spaced prose. That’s not too bad of a show of progress, especially considering my track record of writing novels, which is nonexistent because I haven’t written any. I did write about 325 pages of an attempt at one in 2000 called The Faith and Fire Within that I used as a thesis to obtain my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, but it was a miserable attempt, overwrought and directionless and fizzled out quickly like a tracer round from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that fails to strike the target downrange (Duke will appreciate the lame simile).

The problem is the longer the story goes the more I feel like I have to write, the less time I have to write it in (it seems), and the more difficult it seems to be able to make a reasonable commitment to getting the book written. If it took me 16 months to write 4 chapters, and I see it as at least a 15-chapter book with an Epilogue, we’re looking at 5 years of writing. That’s a long time. I will be somewhere around 41 when it’s done if I work at that rate and keep it up. On the surface, I don’t mind if it takes 5 years to write my first novel, it takes many writers as long or longer to do so. It took Gustave Flaubert 5 years to write Madame Bovary, his first novel. My problem is that I wonder if I will have the will to keep it up, the discipline to work on it that hard for that long, or even the means to. My family grows, work increases along with extracurricular stuff, and the financial burden is heavier all the time, so it’s hard to devote time or resources into getting this done. If I do pull it off, it will be without question the most impressive thing I have ever accomplished - even if no one but me knows the effort, time and discipline that it required.

Nonetheless, no one is holding a gun to my head and saying I have to write a novel or perish, so I’m not complaining. I am rather just speculating openly on where this is all going, where it needs to go, and what it is going to take to get it there. If I am going to finish this novel I must look at it as my life’s work. It’s that simple. If I do finish it, somehow publish it, and go on to produce other books in the future, so much the better for me, but I can’t see future books as my life’s effort; I must think of only this one in those terms. If I don’t tell this story, nobody will, and that very well could be the final result of all this. I have innumerable doubts about the novel, whether it’s boring, or historically inaccurate, or badly written, or some combination of all of the above, and the progress on it is so slow that it seems like it’s insurmountable at times. But, there’s something that compels me to do it and the same thing has been working on me since at least 1999, and I don’t know what you call that thing, but I am trying to listen to it. Perhaps it’s a sense of calling, a belief that this is why God sent me here, to write this story and write it as well as I can.

I’m not much of a quick study, and I never have been. In high school I was a weak student but I finally learned in college how to apply myself and get good grades. At 36 going on 37 I am too old to be a phenom or a prodigy. All through my life if I have succeeded at something it has been after more time than it takes an average person. I only have a small measure of literary talent, but I believe I own that small measure. It’s all I have to work with, but it’s mine. I got it from God, and He wants me to use it. A few people have published my writing, enough for me to think that if I work hard enough at it I can put together some good sentences. The only possible way for me to finish this novel is little by little by little and by unglamorous, dogged persistence. It is a very long and difficult road and literally the only way to get down it is to drag myself there inch by inch.

Thus, on to Chapter 4. Right at the moment, whenever that moment arrives, I am conducting some additional research on ‘the Black Giant’ oil field in Texas that was discovered in 1930, and I am going to do some more reading and note-taking on the ever-thrilling subject of the history of Township Trustees in the civic Government in Indiana. For now the only hints I can give are in bullet form since the writing hasn’t even started yet, but in this chapter I am hoping to include the following:

- a jump ahead from 1924 (finally) to 1925-1927, heading toward the conception and birth of Luke Brogan
- more about Peter Heinricks’ adventures in Oklahoma and East Texas
- the fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana
- Myron Devreaux and his efforts to make his way into local politics

We’ll see how much of that actually ends up in the story. Back to the grind, as they say……

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The British (Literary) Invasion

I'm using this space to make an announcement in my upcoming reading schedule, knowing full well that this is of interest to all of two people at the most: myself, and my partner in crime, Mutt. But then again why not? We don't set many rules for ourselves posting on this blog, and as long as it's somehow related to literature and/or the spiritual life, I say it's fair game.

Recently many of the conversations about great books Mutt and I have been having (and we're having them all the time, even while living in different states -- via cell phone, e-mail, occasionally in person) have hit upon classic works of literature coming from England. These conversations have woken me up anew to something I've been surpressing for a long time and have always meant to come back to and try and address: that is, my absurd lack of familiarity with Great Britain's awesome literary tradition.

Oh, I've read some of the great stuff from England -- some Shakespeare, a few Dickens novels, Keats, Graham Greene, etc. -- but the more I thought about it, the more amazed I was at how many of the famous, endlessly quoted and referenced writers and works I am NOT familiar with.

Jane Austen? Never read her. Thomas Hardy? Never read him. George Eliot? Never read her. E. M. Forster? Never. Kipling? Never. Lawrence? Never. Pound? Never. Byron? Never. Samuel Johnson? Nope. You get the idea.

This is downright embarrassing.

Therefore, I have hereby decided that I am now going to do something about this glaring deficiency in my literary education. Beginning soon and lasting for at least a few months (and possibly longer), I have decided that every other book I read is going to be a classic work of British literature. It is time to catch up with the rest of the world and get a taste of some of the most refined and elegant prose the human race has to offer.

I have even selected the first three works I am going to read, interpersed between other books I decide upon. They are, in the following order:

Middlemarch, George Eliot

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence

I look forward to reporting back in this space at some point to share some of what I have learned and experienced.

Rule Britannia!

Friday, July 06, 2007

What Has Happened to the Short Story?

For most of the last 20 years I have had aspirations to write (and hopefully publish) fiction. I have produced numerous short stories over the last 15 of those years and have published none of them. Not virtually none of them or almost none – literally, none. And it’s not for lack of trying. I send them out routinely. I’m not complaining about this, although I wish it were different; it’s just the truth. The only reason I bring it up is to concede the point in advance that for me to write the following post is a not a little presumptuous. Fine, I do concede. But I still want to make some observations about the current ‘state’ of the short story. And I do so as a reader if not as a writer of stories.

Last Christmas my mother got me a subscription to The New Yorker, which I wasn’t sure I would like because I am not always so fond of their elitist tone/vibe or their left-leaning political slant, but as it turns out it has been a superb gift. I really enjoy reading many of the articles, and have been pleasantly surprised in general by how much I get out of the magazine. But the main thing I am interested in is their short stories, which they publish one of every week (more on rare occasions). The New Yorker is justifiably famous for their stories; for better or for worse, they represent more or less the gold standard for writers of short fiction. If you publish a story in The New Yorker, you have truly arrived. Perhaps The Paris Review and a short list of other magazines have similar heft, but for my purposes I consider stories I read in this magazine to be representative of what the people who ‘run’ the literary world think are the ‘best’ stories around today.

Which is where I find myself scratching my head. For most of the last year I have been reading The New Yorker. I make sure that I read every single story that comes my way. It’s a weekly magazine, so there have been many. I really enjoy the anticipation and the actual experience of reading these stories – but I am finding that most of the short stories I am reading leave me, in a word, flat. The more time goes by, the more New Yorker stories I read, the more I find myself asking the question, ‘THESE are the best short stories being written today? This is the best fiction in the world?’ Because the simple fact is, no matter how big the name of the writer is (and not all of them are instantly recognizable), most of them don’t seem that remarkable to me. They don’t blow me away. They strike me in most cases as better than I can do, but I expect more from The New Yorker – I think, if these guys are the very top of the tier, then each story should be a stunner. But most of them aren’t.

I realize it’s an objective thing, and tastes vary from person to person. But there should be some ineffable whiff of the very highest quality that comes through in New Yorker stories, if you consider their status and reputation, and I don’t get that from many of them. Obviously, there are exceptions. Just in the last year I have read what in my opinion are truly exceptional stories in the magazine – “A Tranquil Star” by Primo Levi (but he’s been dead for 20 years), “See The Other Side” my Tatyana Tolstaya, “Hanwell Senior” by Zadie Smith, and “Bravado” by William Trevor are some examples.

Nonetheless I have just come off of a run of reading numerous stories from the magazine – in part because I moved and missed a bunch of weeks’ worth of issues, which of course all came in one shot later on – and have been disappointed again and again by the stories, some by famous writers, some not. When I received the magazine’s annual fiction issue, I was terribly excited. They published four stories in that issue, and I figured there had to be something good in there. But I read all four, and they were all boring, terribly depressing, or generally pointless, or all three.

The best of these was Denis Johnson’s “1966”which was about a guy during the Vietnam Era in Hawaii getting involved with the wrong crowd, but the ending came up a little short, and the writing was fine but not the greatness I expected based on Johnson’s reputation from feted books like Jesus’ Son. A story by Miranda July, who has just published a book of them called No One Belongs Here More Than You, was about a woman who meets someone very, very famous on an aircraft, which I think was supposed to be some kind of riff on the celebrity-obsessed culture, but seemed to be more of that pointless and boring variety I spoke of. And anyway, the celebrity-obsessed culture is a boring thing to riff on. Nothing much happened, except the woman in the story at the end seems to regret that nothing much happened. Then there was ‘debut fiction’, a story by a young writer who had never published a story before. This must have been a big deal for him, a young man named David Hoon Kim; I laud his accomplishment, but again wasn’t impressed with the story. I was impressed with the fact that there were at least three different languages that played into the story, and evidently the young man who wrote it is of Korean descent but grew up partially in France and Denmark, lived in America, and has worked (logically) as a translator. But the story itself was very close to Haruki Murakami, another highly lauded contemporary writer whose greatness escapes me, and had a tragic ending that seemed almost like it was there because that’s the way most stories seem to end, badly.

Which brings me to another point (I don’t even remember the fourth story in the fiction issue, by the way, try as I might). As Duke and I have frequently observed in conversation, short stories in the ‘big’ magazines are almost always bleak. Why is this? Is it anyone’s experience that all stories are sad ones? Or maybe only the ones worth telling are? Why do we seem to have this fascination in contemporary literature with sadness and melancholy, as if these were the only themes? A great example again is a recent New Yorker story by Colm Toibin called “One Minus One”, which was a truly sleep-inducing tale about a guy who loses his mother and otherwise muses on how miserable his life is after some failed relationships. Not only is this depressing, but it’s everyone’s story – everyone's trash - for who hasn’t had failed relationships? THIS IS THE BEST STUFF??!!

Or again, consider the British writer Helen Simpson’s recent short story “Homework” in the magazine, in which a woman and her thirteen-year-old son sit in a kitchen together and she helps him to ‘write’ (or take down) a fabricated essay for school about one of the most important moments in his life. For reasons we’ll never know or understand, the woman, who seems resolutely dissatisfied with being married and having a son, tells him to write about the devastation of his parents’ divorce and the havoc it has wreaked in his life, even though it has never happened. The boy is confused, but he plays along; he’s thirteen and just wants it over with. I guess this is the woman’s way to play out some kind of fantasy about what she feels she might have done but didn’t have the guts to do, and maybe some women can relate to that. But whatever it is, it’s bleak, it’s depressing, and it’s boring. Another story I just read last week by a contemporary German writer named Maxim Biller was notable for its brevity and its un-American feel, but it was still about a relationship that seemed to be falling apart, which is more of the same. It ended with an inexplicable mutual decision that seemed totally incongruous with the previous events, as though the characters decided to do the opposite of what they obviously needed to for no other reason than martyrdom.

As I established in the beginning, I am certainly no expert, but it seems to me that the world of short fiction has to be better than this. My favorite story writers all seem to be dead ones, with a few exceptions like the great William Trevor. I have never seen anything in The New Yorker that comes even close to the work of Flannery O’Connor in terms of humor, details, or sheer impact. John Cheever’s stories may seem highly dated now but they were richly detailed, carefully crafted and bore the distinctive mark of one steeped in the great literature of the past. Raymond Carver’s stories were not exactly inspiring or optimistic but they were at least exquisitely crafted and seemed more concerned with being honest about humanity than trying to sound smarter or cleverer than everyone else, or more irreverent.

I can’t come up with any firm conclusion or overall diagnosis, but I will say that the above reflections have been in my head for some time and it makes me want to undergo some kind of mission to find the truly great stories in the world, from dead writers or current ones that remain undiscovered (to me). It strikes me that very few short stories really blow me away, and I want to find more stories that do that and see if I can determine why they do, and whether or not those writers achieved that level of excellence consistently or only on rare occasions. I think what I am going to try do is devote a good chunk of my reading for the rest of this year to short stories to see what I can discover.

I also think that because I have tried and failed so many times to write a legitimately good short story, right up to my most recent story “In the Throes”, I want to find more stories that are clearly of a high quality and try to examine them closely. I could take it as encouraging that so many other writers seem to be failing too, except they’re getting published in The New Yorker and I’m not. In any case, the short story is truly a difficult art form to master, and it’s obvious to me from my experience in the last year with the New Yorker that no matter how a writer goes about successfully placing one of their stories there, it by no means indicates that the story itself is a great one or even a good one. And if that is true, I guess success at writing fiction may come down to ‘who you know’ after all.