Monday, May 24, 2010

This Won't Take But A Minute, Honey by Steve Almond

This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey
by Steve Almond

When I handed Steve Almond this book to sign, I said, “I read about this from your bit in Poets & Writers.” In the article, he talked about self-publishing the slim volume via the Espresso Book Machine in the Harvard library. Powell’s was selling them the day of his reading. The covers still felt freshly printed.

“Are you a writer?” he said. I nodded. “Well, Portland is a great city for writers.”

“Actually, I live in Spokane,” I said, though that’s not entirely accurate. I live about fifteen minutes south of Spokane Valley.

“Oh.” His eyebrows ticked slightly upwards.

“And I’m moving to Montana soon.” Compulsive honesty is often my specialty.

Oh.” He paused. “Are you going for your MFA?”

University of Montana is somewhat known for its creative writing program, one I once attended. Again, I confess, “Well, one would have to finish the first four years of school to do that.”

His “Oh . . . ” was so far italicized, the letters laid on their sides. “You really should consider it,” he said. “It’s important to surround yourself with other writers.”

“Sure, yeah.” My face flushed, I thanked him for signing my books and let the next person in line approach. I couldn’t fault him for the comment — he comes from an MFA teaching background, after all — but it never eases the voice inside my head. How do I explain? I think. Expectation and happiness did not meet in those classes.

What I could have said was: This is my education. These books. These moments I stand before you and know how I will do better. I can always do better than what I’ve done.

The great irony of the Bullshit Detector is this: as yours gets bigger and stronger, your own prose seems smaller and weaker. If you look at a draft you wrote three months ago and all you can see is a mess of bad decisions, congratulations! You are making progress.

Half essays on writing, half micro fiction, This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey can be read entirely in an afternoon, or like the title says, for a moment here and there. It is designed to fit in a back pocket and does away with dense ruminations on inspiration and style. “Writing is decision making,” Almond says. “Nothing more and nothing less.”

Part of that decision-making involves the writer’s personal history. With chapters titled “Slow Down Where It Hurts” and “Excessive Emotional Involvement is the Whole Point,” I could wholeheartedly agree that fantastic, beautiful prose doesn’t mean anything if it’s not honest.

If the story is any good, it’s only because we’ve colored it with the dark ink of our own freakish secrets.

What are my secrets? They are peppered throughout everything I write. Read enough and you will eventually see the larger picture of myself. Every person I have ever loved, every song, every smell I’ve burned into my brain — they are forever trying to work their way out. Still, “it takes a long time to come clean [ . . . ] We’ve all got work to do.”

Almond’s stories hover between the beautiful past and the potential of a glowing future, all filtered through melancholy. Love and regret both reach their peaks at one crucial moment, and “These are the minutes he wishes were a thousand years” (“Chibás Speaks”). When else do we learn?

His borrowed edict that every word should receive scrutiny is true, and his descriptions are perfect. Even in stories I did not enjoy as much compared with others, I could pluck out at least one sentence that made me say, Yes.

She was drinking — we were all drinking — and the wine made me want to soap her breasts.

Best of all — as one prone to indexing would say — there are recommended reading and listening lists at the end of each section. Some I’ve heard, some I’ve read, but I like seeing the influences all laid out on the page. No hiding. No pretense of divine imagination. This is my past, this is what makes my heart howl. Show me yours.

To buy, check out the Harvard Book Store, or just get yourself to a Steve Almond reading. You won't be sorry.

Book #28/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Practical Writer edited by Therese Eiben and Mary Gannon

The Practical Writer
edited by Therese Eiben and Mary Gannon with the staff of Poets & Writers Magazine

After the studying of craft, the acceptance or rejection of rules, and the first flickers of imagination, comes the writing question, “What next?” From finding a title, to agents and contracts, grants, readings and beyond, The Practical Writer is a useful, realistic guide.

Four years and over five drafts later, I’ve written a novel called Show Me How to Shine Now. Set in early 90s London, it’s about one woman’s relationship to a band trying to succeed, despite their struggle to define success in their personal lives. Above anything, it’s about love and rock n roll, and I’d like to do something with my manuscript. While completing a novel certainly takes work — only the bad writers are convinced of their first draft’s brilliance — getting that story into the world takes a different set of skills, skills I’m still trying to learn. Salesmanship does not come naturally to me, and apart from that, every writer who wants to publish needs to know the small things that make a difference.

Written by contributors to Poets & Writers Magazine, the book is divided into sections:

-Concepts of Craft: Imagination’s Many Forms
-Initial Contact: Getting Your Work Off Your Desk and onto Someone Else
-Building Your Team: How to Work Well with Publishing Professionals
-Meeting Your Public (and Getting Them to Buy Your Book)
-Jobs in the Field: Lots of Reward, Little Pay

For the person just beginning the writing process, I don’t know that I’d recommend this book just yet. Concentrate on finishing something before worrying about the external next steps, I’d say. Even having completed something sizable (103,500 words sizable, if you’re wondering), The Practical Writer was still a bit of an overwhelming read, however necessary the information. The publishing world isn’t getting any easier or any less crowded, and it’s important to distinguish yourself from the rest.

Unfortunately, good writing doesn’t count for much if you haven’t convinced someone to move beyond your cover letter. I’m still working the magic of that letter — and it’s a whole different magic than the book itself — but I’m hopeful that I’ll one day see something other than rejections in looking for an agent. I recognize that rejections are part of the process, and I’ve only just started trying.

Another great thing about The Practical Writer — it’s written by publishing professionals who stress not taking the process personally. Any number of factors determine whether or not a writer is published, and not everyone in the industry is a heartless drone only concerned with profit. Even if logically one knows that, I imagine that most writers need reminding every so often.

What one gets out of this book likely depends on what a writer’s specialty is. Sections on poetry did not apply to me as much (I dabble, but it’s not my focus), nor did sections about MFA programs. To be honest, I get the feeling that being in a MFA program would make me terribly cranky. That’s not to discount the usefulness of the programs, but rather the potential mix of intellectual insecurity and snobbery doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to have debates about whether or not major publishing deals will make me feel more “chosen,” or the literary merit of titles on the bestseller list. I’d rather study and improve on my own with a trusted set of readers, rather than pay money (I don’t have) to potentially be workshopped to death.

Note the use of potentially — Programs of course vary widely. MFAs have value to some writers, and some writers enjoy the atmosphere of academics in general, and that’s great. Strict deadlines and grades often force productivity. My point is that it’s not the be-all, end-all of writing, and maybe I’m just too bristly when it comes to words like “conventional.”

Do what you want, in other words. Create your own gig, if necessary. I appreciated that this book had a whole section on what it means to start your own literary journal or other similar publication. While doing so is a lot of work, and there are a million details to consider, I can see how rewarding it is. Having published an online arts and culture magazine, I’ve learned a lot about the creativity that surrounds me, and even self-made deadlines can do wonders for my productivity outside of the magazine.

Outside of industry advice, The Practical Writer begins and ends with thoughts on why one writes in the first place, and why one chooses forms that are not straight up nonfiction. In the chapter “Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Wherein Lies the Truth?” Helen Benedict talks about students who seem to think that the only “real knowledge” comes from nonfiction and are bafflingly proud of steering clear of novels. “People are driven to feel so inadequate and ignorant that they are afraid to spend time reading anything but hard fact,” she says. “They have been trained to think of books as little fact missiles, packed with Useful Information that, like vitamin pills, will make them better people.”

What they forget, however, is that fiction provides feeling, that internal, massive heart-swell a reader gets when a character’s thinking is so true to their own:

Above all, fiction gives us the chance to understand the world from the Other’s point of view – not from the distant outside, but from deep within.

In interviews, people can lie. They can present maybe only one version of themselves, they can avoid expressing certain fears, and there is only so much a writer can observe. With fiction, one can get out not only a story, but all the feelings that coalesced inside that made writing the story necessary. The specifics to my novel may be fictional, but the passion and heartbreak are as real as anything I could tell you about my life or about anyone else’s. Writers build and borrow words out of glass, forever trying to reflect all they’ve seen in the world and what it means to them.

The challenge, of course, is pointing those reflections in the right direction, to get them off the work space and into the reader’s hands. The Practical Writer makes one consider how to go about it, and how to hopefully persevere. I’ll keep trying.

Book #27/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.