Saturday, December 29, 2007

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 41

The List is Life

The above has nothing to do with the novel I am writing, but that's kind of on hiatus at the moment (see below). Since I know Duke's the only one who's gonna read this anyway, I thought I would make a few quick overdue observations about his Top Ten Books list this year. Notice how drastically different it is from mine, which I always find very interesting about these lists when we post them annually. They really reflect the differences in our reading, while at the same time many of the books on his list could have been books I would have enjoyed as much or nearly as much, and vice versa. I lean heavily on fiction titles, always have; but Duke reads more widely than I do, in poetry, general nonfiction, and religion, so his list frequently reflects those interests. I am interested to some extent in all of those things, and probably should read more of them, but I don't always seem to prioritize them over the fiction I am (at times) irrepressibly interested in checking out. There's one exception for me, which is my annual Spiritual Reading challenge during the 40-day period of Lent, when I generally try to read exclusively religious titles. It's my way of taking time to focus on those concepts and realities, which I think is helpful in some ways. But anyway, I just wanted to comment on how much I can appreciate the diversity of Duke's list, with a poetry collection, two short-story volumes, a 19th century classic, a spiritual classic, a pair of memoirs, a play, and three contemporary novels. Now THAT'S a diverse best-of list. Furthermore, I defy anyone who sees this to find a single other person who, if they would even make a best books of the year list, include a Papal encyclical on that list. Only a Duke Altum list would contain that, which is why they're so enjoyable to check out every year.

Holiday Hiatus

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make any progress on starting into Chapter V of my novel. After finishing the draft of Chapter IV back on November 6, I thought for sure I would be able to start Chapter V before the end of 2007, but it hasn't happened. I guess you can chalk that up to a lot of things, not the least of which is the holiday madness around Christmas and visiting relatives, which makes getting anything done difficult. But the real problem is that I have a concept of how I want to open up the chapter but don't have a sufficient amount of research information to start writing, and I have not had time to go to a library and try to track down what I need. Unfortunately what I do need is not going to be easy to find so it may take some time. Time to spend at a library doing research is not something I can usually attain unless I do a certain amount of prior planning and make arrangements. Not so easy during this time of year. Not to mention the fact that I'm not really sure how to go about getting what I need in the first place. So I guess it's natural that I might fall behind this time of year but I don't much like it, it gives me concerns about whether I will be able to sustain overall momentum on the project. It occurs to me that I have had concerns of a similar nature before during the writing of this novel, and have been able to overcome them. Overcoming past obstacles doesn't guarantee you will be able to overcome future ones, but it does give you some confidence that you might not have had before. At least I do have a general idea of what I want to do in the chapter, with plenty of open spaces to fill in as well, but filling in those spaces is the least of my concerns, because I know that happens when you get into the actual writing. What I need to worry about for now is finding time to gather information and actually get started on the chapter. But I think it will still be a little while before I can get to it; we're still in the holiday season. In the meantime, I get really antsy if i am not writing at all, so I have taken a couple steps to try to stay active in the middle of this break in the novel action. Hope it doesn't derail me permanently......

Two New Writings

As I mentioned, even when I am having problems in the novel, I don't like to be completely inert when it comes to writing. I like to keep working. This was borne out last year when I was having so much trouble writing Chapter III in the middle of my family's house hunting and move to Pennsylvania. I was really stuck in the middle of the chapter, but I wanted to keep working, so I took some time to write a short story (the only one I wrote last year) called "In the Throes". Now, during this hiatus, I wanted to do the same thing, so the first thing I took on was a short essay on a topic I've been meaning to write on for about 4-5 years, and it's a departure for me. The subject is the Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, and the essay is called "Sling It: Brett Favre as Literary Inspiration". As I said, I wanted to write a piece on Favre for some time, but I could never find the angle on it that I wanted. I even started several different Favre-related essays but they all fizzled out. This time I ran into a contest run by a magazine called Sport Literate that asked for "Football Essays" and hopes to run a winning piece by the start of the '08 football season. Since the magazine seemed to aspire to bridge the gap between literature and sports (who knew that gap needed to be bridged?), I thought I would take a literary sort of angle on my being a fan of Favre, and the essay is what I came up with. I think it turned out pretty well and that I said most of what I have been wanting to say in writing about this great player, and I plan to ship it in for the contest after this football season is over (how far Favre goes in the post-season may have some bearing on the essay!). Stay tuned here to see what happens with the piece. The odds are long but that never stopped a champion like Favre so I don't see why it should stop me.

The second piece during this break is the one I am working on now - a new short story tentatively titled "I Will Be Out of the Office". I just started working on it and I am not sure if it's going to fly, but we'll see. I have never had any publishing success with stories so I always go into a new story hoping that 'this will be the one'. At the same time I enter into a new story with some trepidation because I don't feel very adept at the form, never seem to be able to keep my stories as short as they probably need to be (I need a kind of Gordon Lish, not that I'm any Ray Carver), and usually feel that they don't quite reach my original ambition. These are the same qualities that keep me trying on stories, though; I feel like I want to stick at it until I get one right. I don't want to say too much now about the one I am working on, because I don't know if it will make it past the sputtering stage, but I can reveal that it is about grief, something that I don't have a lot of first hand experience with. This, in an odd way, is why I wanted to write the story now, since it relates to losing a direct family member. I haven't lost one myself, aside from a grandparent, and in a strange way I kind of feel like for me to write a story on the subject after this inevitably occurs would just be a way for me to channel my own grief, and would end up being a kind of memoir-disguised-as-a-story. It would be therapy, and I don't want to write this particular story that way. Doing it now for me is an exercise in trying to enter into the emotions of someone else, which I think is a valuable enterprise. I can't rely on my own experience because I haven't had it yet. So the literary challenge for me is to make it a believable story in spite of the fact that I haven't experienced it myself yet. That to me is what a fiction writer has to be able to do and I may very well bungle it, but the challenge itself is a motivator to me. We'll see if I get this one done.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Well, here we go again friends... another year has gone by (almost), and I have had the opportunity to read many great and interesting books. And some not so great. But here are the ten that have made the most lasting impact on me this year, in no particular order... and some honorable mentions thrown in as well. Enjoy!


A Christmas Memory/One Christmas/The Thanksgiving Visitor, Truman Capote - The book in this list that was read the earliest (January 2007) has stuck with me ever since. Each of these exquisitely written memoir pieces is embued with enough innocence, poignancy and sheer beauty to break your heart.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy - So much has already been said about this one that it seems absurd to try and capture it in a smattering of cheap words... an absolutely riveting and deeply haunting tale of good and evil, the end of the world, and the love between a father and son. It's strange that a book so cold and seemingly devoid of hope can feel, by the time you get to end, so uplifting.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Tobias Wolff - This debut collection of stories set mostly in the American Northwest examine the foibles, pitfalls and consequences of human infidelities, both marital and otherwise. But they are written with enough originality, attention to detail, human insight and razor-sharp wit to remind of writers as good as O'Connor and Carver.

Middlemarch, George Eliot - As argued in an earlier post on this blog (see Archives -> November 2007), Eliot's masterpiece of English provincial life is really a book about vocation, and the profound significance and impact seemingly inconsequential lives can have on other lives around them, and on the world as a whole.

The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis - The only re-read on this year's list, Lewis' brilliant attempt to answer one of the world's oldest questions -- "Why do we have to suffer?" -- is one of the most lucid, insightful, and ultimately helpful theodicies I've ever read. More than just a philosophical treatise, this book is a manual to help us to live in a profoundly fallen world, even while hoping and and preparing for a greater one. Somehow, it manages to challenge the intellect and rejuvenate the spirit at the same time.

Gould's Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan - By far the most original of all books I read this year (and quite possibly, ever), Flanagan's book-within-a-book conveys the horrors and wonders of a 19th-century Tasmanian penal colony through the strangest of devices: a catalogue of local fish, painted by a lonely prisoner with a colorful and violent past. In the end, this surreal and haunting tale is a powerful treatise about the nature, and the limits, of art -- and the evils men are capable of inflicting upon one another.

A Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O'Neill - There's always one I'm fairly confident I read late in the previous year, but nevertheless want to single out for this year's list because I am unable to forget it. Long Day's Journey is definitely that one this year for me. This soul-shaking drama from the American Nobel Laureate has got to be one of the most devastating portraits of family failure ever written, in any age. Even the stage direction notes gave me goosebumps! Heartbreaking, but brilliant.

The Art of Living, John Gardner - A fascinating, eclectic collection of stories from one of America's most underappreciated writers who profoundly understood the human condition and used his art to wisely plumb its mysterious depths.

The Voice at 3:00 AM, Charles Simic - Has to be at least one poetry collection on the list. This extraordinary collection from 2007's U.S. Poet Laureate not only contains some of the most vivid and interesting poetry I've read in a long time, it also bears my favorite book title of the year. That voice is relaying some pretty strange, but fascinating, things to Simic when he can't sleep, apparently!

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ron Hansen - Well, I missed the movie version (of course) this year, but I was very glad to have read the book! Hansen's meticulously crafted historical novel is a fascinating character study and morality tale that strips away all sentimentality and explores the reasons for, and the consequences of, the titular murder. Very few novels explore the aftermath of violence as effectively as this one.

BONUS ROUND: Titles that deserve mention and would have made the list if it were longer:

The Greatest American Short Stories (anthology)

Deus Caritas Est, the encyclical on Love by Pope Benedict XVI

A New Selected Poems, Galway Kinnell

The Short Stories of Jack London, Jack London

Billy Budd, Herman Melville

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Journal of a ‘Novel’-Entry 40

My Year In Review

It’s already December, and that means it’s time for year-end assessments, if we dare to make them. The fortieth entry of a journal tracking the progress of what may become my first novel, should it ever find its way to the light, is probably an appropriate place to consider how 2007 has panned out in terms of the novel’s development and in terms of my overall progress as a writer. If that sounds like a bore to whoever is reading this, all I can say is that while it is possible that a writer’s journal may one day end up being read by others, it’s not written with that possibility in mind, so you can’t really expect it to offer thrills.

My goal for 2007 was to write three more chapters of Only the Dying (working title). In the end, I was only able to complete two. If this is a kind of failure, it’s not one that I can’t recover from; it only means I fell one chapter short of the goal. Two chapters beats one or none. The main thing is that the novel in progress can be said to still be in progress – and trust me, given my track record with starting novels I was unable to finish, that’s a good thing.

In fact, I still think I am doing pretty well overall, with an attainable goal to complete the novel by age 40 (just turned 37), and having a Prologue and four chapters of the first draft complete (save additional revisions). I wrote 3 chapters (the Prologue is a chapter, more or less) in 2006 and added two this last year. I have always envisioned the novel to be made up of a Prologue, three parts, and some kind of epilogue or postscript, and my current plan is to write one more chapter (Chapter V), after which Part I of the novel will be finished. I project that the final novel will run somewhere between 12 and 15 chapters; by that measure, you might say I am 1/3 of the way there, and that’s not at all bad. I still have three years to complete the other 2/3 of the book, and although I doubt that will be easy, it seems achievable.

Length is a problem – for me it always is – but it can also be checked later on in the process. Through the end of Chapter IV my first draft is now running at around 260 pages, double-spaced. At this rate the draft will probably be somewhere around 1000 pages, and that is obviously too long, but I am sure a lot will change before this is all over! It’s always better to have too much written than too little, something I always say to the college students I tutor. Somebody once compared writing a novel to sculpture; you start with the raw cube or block of material, and you hack away at it until you get to the work of art inside. That’s what I would liken this process to, although I’m not sure if what’s inside my block is exactly Michelangelo’s Pieta. But you get the idea.

The good news is I have a general idea of how I want to kick off the next chapter (but I haven’t started it yet, I have some more research to do), and a vision of the overall concept and structure of the book, while somewhat nebulous, exists in my head. It’s been in development there for years, not months, so it’s not something I cooked up just last March and started scribbling at pell-mell. I know in broad terms what I am trying to accomplish, and I know from my experience that the creative process works if you put in the necessary effort. Many times now in the process of writing this longer story I have not had a clear idea of how to complete the section I was engrossed in, and every time it has come together eventually by sitting down and working at it. While most of the real grunt work of this novel still lies ahead – 2/3 of the first draft and all of the revision and editing labors –, it is critical for me to understand that I am capable of overcoming obstacles.

I had a tough time on Chapter III of the novel, which I started in December 2006 and didn’t finish until June of this year. But there was also a lot happening in my personal life during the same period – I started a new job, searched for and found my first house, moved my entire family, and worked on settling in a new state. In addition, I experienced the worst period of blockage I’ve had so far in this effort in the middle of this chapter, which might have happened even without all those ‘x’ factors. A few scenes didn’t feel right to me, and I am still not sure if they are. Nonetheless, I battled through it, finished the chapter, and had a somewhat easier time with Chapter IV. Chapter V is anybody’s guess, but if I’ve written I through IV, I guess there’s no real reason why I can’t write V. I’m proud that I made it through that tough chapter and that challenging period in my life in general and can say I am still writing the novel!

I’m also proud that I didn’t just sit idly by while I struggled on the book. During the first half of the year I also managed to publish twice – a period of torrid output in light of my few-and-far-between publication successes! In June my short essay on Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch appeared in Paste magazine, published throughout the United States and Europe. Later on, in the September/October issue of St. Austin Review, an appreciation I wrote of the novelist Ron Hansen’s work appeared, which I wrote in February, while I was blocked on Chapter III of the novel. This experience was gratifying in a number of ways: a) it had been a goal of mine to some day pay tribute to Hansen’s work, as he is one of my all-time literary heroes; b) this piece in particular was rejected three times but I still found a home for it; c) my name appeared on the cover of the magazine itself, only the second time it has happened to me; and d) most significantly, I was encouraged by many people to send the article to Ron Hansen, who teaches at Santa Clara University, and when I did, Hansen wrote me back a personal card to thank me for the tribute, which I will keep forever, in which he said I had ‘made his week’. It was a generous gesture from a great writer and a fine role model for young novelists, and of course I am grateful to Ron Hansen for making it.

Finally, in my never-ending quest to become a published fiction writer, I made another attempt this year to write a short story (also during my ‘blocked’ period), which I finished, the only short story I have produced in the last two years (after writing primarily stories between 2003 and 2005). The story was called “In The Throes”, and I think it turned out pretty well; it was ambitious both in terms of subject matter (it was written as a kind of response to the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church) and in character (my protagonist was a teenage girl). I thought it had some of my best prose writing to date. Nonetheless, it failed to find a home in print (it was rejected by two magazines), and after about fifteen years of trying, I still have yet to successfully publish a work of fiction. I won’t give up on that, however, I can assure you.

So, I think that 2007 was a literary year I can be somewhat proud of in spite of falling short of my goal of writing three chapters of the novel. For 2008, I will follow the old adage of “try, try again”, and set my goal for three more new chapters, so that hopefully sometime around December one year from now I will be saying I’ve made it through to the end of Chapter VII of the book (possibly ½ through?). It won’t be easy: this year brings yet another monumental life change in the form of my third child, due in May/June 2008, and I will still be working two jobs and trying to live up to all of my responsibilities at the same time.

When does a man find time to write in those circumstances? The answer is, whenever he can. It is obvious that with regard to the giant task of writing a first novel at my stage of life, there is still a long row to hoe, as it were; however, to quote an old hymn I managed to turn up in my research, “the Lord’s blessings are in the plow”.