Archive for the ‘novel, toil & sound, creative writing, short fiction, writing life’ Category

still feeling my way through this whole quarantine thing.

quarantine mug

there are all the comforts and vices around me but I work from home so I must keep them at bay so I can be productive and creative in the mornings and in this hour of seven o’clock and I keep this 717 project on path for the last 3 days and there is much that can derail it but not really because I don’t sleep in but I have found myself sleeping in more each day and as I usually write here on these dumb fucking pages that I will get better that I will do more that I will not drink as much that I will read more and that I will take this time to focus on me and I have stopped reading the news and listen to only about 15 minutes of NPR in the morning.

I have started to think about what I can do after this insidious monster has passed us by. there will be so many who are without work, it will be time to read The Grapes of Wrath again or perhaps a re-imagining of that tale put in modern times and starting with the end of the quarantine; this idea just came out of this whole mass of words and tiptoeing around self-loathing and self-affirmation; but what else do I have now? a lot more than many, I will admit. it even seems that now I have more in regards to punctuation as this note goes along; there is more form, more function, more purpose after the opening paragraph that is full of nonsense like “full of nothing” and there is Cobain singing in my ears, “I’m anemic royalty” and “distill the life that’s inside of me” and the meaning of lyrics and music changes with such times as does the meaning of literature; in my self-absorbed moments of isolation, I think about how my novel may need some more tweaks because the world has changed as such that there is far more unity than there was in any other time over the last two decades; but I think that is only because all we hear is that people are dying and everyone has a similar chance at death or knowing someone who has died or knowing someone who is at high risk of getting infected and dying; as such, we are on our phones…what the fuck do I know about “we”? I am on my phone to my parents 3 times a week, I call my sibs a couple times a week, just the other day I talked for fifteen minutes with a colleague I haven’t seen in five years; maybe there is something in the recreation she chose in the before-times: camping. how about all of us who take this isolation thing seriously take turns going to national parks with our co-quarantined people for a week to re-set, to commune with nature, to get us away from this nightmare that we cannot wake up from; here’s the thing: there likely wouldn’t be too many people who would take this opportunity, such is the mania about places where other possibly infected people have been.

“Somewhere I have heard this before
In a dream my memory has stored
As defense I’m neutered and spayed
What the hell am I trying to say?”

                                                   (Kurt Cobain, “I’m On A Plain”)

 

Friday, May 25, 2018

I know. This is a lazy, alliterative title, many of which you may find in the archives on this blog. But I have re-writes and revisions to do. The ideas and notes that started last October are turning into actual sentences and paragraphs that have been missing from the manuscript for years; and I didn’t know how or where to put these words until this week.

As of late, I’ve been corresponding with a handful of people for some historical and musical context in my novel. In discussing music with Donny Olewinski and Dan Knewitz (two 90s grunge nerds I am fortunate to have in my orbit), I shared with them a theory (to be discussed elsewhere on this blog) that I am playing with about the subliminal influence that Alice in Chains’ 1992 EP Sap may have had on some of the images and themes in the novel:

The correspondence with Donny and Dan got me thinking about the role music has played in my writing rituals and how I listen to music while writing.

I listened to Recipe for Hate on the way to work today because in my mind it’s associated with the Friday writing ritual I had in undergrad (namely 1998-1999). I would listen to this album on my Discman Fridays as I walked to Café Matisse to write longhand. Its slashing punk riffs acted collectively as some sort of fight song:

By the time I actually sat down to write, though, I would play these classical and jazz albums, or something very similar:

Why? you might ask. Maybe because the lack of lyrics in these albums allowed me mental space to write a little better. I was, after all, writing in longhand; when I put pen to paper, it was only after several minutes of serious consideration. This isn’t to say that what I put down was perfection. Not by a damn sight. But the music itself allowed for meditation and access to the muse.

In 2000, around the time I got my first reliable laptop computer and started typing my journals, the music ritual changed. And it would entrench itself over the next decade or so. A session of writing was almost always begun with this album:

It is so loud and raw that you may wonder how any writing could come from listening to this. But the music (not necessarily the lyrics) reflected the point of freewrites for me: loud and raw. This isn’t to say that the music itself  is raw, as it seems extremely proficient to me; but it is to say that it evokes some pretty raw emotion and thought. Perfect for freewriting. Besides, it sure as shit drowned out any distracting chatter in the places I wrote. Other albums that came into the mix over time were:

STP Core

(1992)

(1993)

(1996)

Tool Lateralus

(2001)

(2006)

Tool’s music was the only of the set listed above that powerfully resonated with me in both musical and lyrical ways. With the exception of how AEnima and Lateralus may have affected the images and themes I was trying to conjure, the hard nature of all this music must have been a way for me to drown out the nagging self-doubt that often leads a person not to even write in the first place. This self-doubt is commonly referred to as “writer’s block.”

I was late to the Chris Cornell scene, but the albums below (and other albums from these bands) entered the rotation ~2007 and helped drown out the self-doubt (and certainly inspired me with their arresting lyrics):

(1991)

(2006)

As the book began to take shape in 2004, my writing ritual evolved: I began to divide my time between freewrites and more conscious edits, though the circular-reflexive nature of writing (writing and revising and then revising and writing) made a distinct line quite impossible to delineate. In later stages of drafting a need arose for me to access that meditative quality from my Café Matisse days. Since that was the case, my editing sessions included some of the finest music I could get my hands on:

Most of what I do these days has to do with careful rewrites and edits. I lean a little more toward the meditative side. Maybe that’s because I am getting old. Whatever the case may be, I have discovered a happy medium between the well-worn paths of rule-breaking freewrites and the more meditative qualities of crafting, molding, shaping words and sentences and ideas: a string quartet rendering some of my favorite hard sounds:

Rarely in life do we have time to sit and read a book in one sitting. If you have the time to do so–which I did not–I recommend doing so with George McCormick’s 2015 Inland Empire (IE). It is an artist’s novel that challenges standards and makes bold structural decisions not unlike great jazz. But I believe that any person who trusts that the artist is taking you somewhere meaningful, that the artist is acting on that trust in good faith, then the reader will be rewarded. Not unlike great jazz.

inland empire

Before I go on, it should be known that I was just coming to know John Coltrane’s (JC) music when I met and got to know McCormick a little; it was 1998 and I was bartending in a shitty little bar like the ones McCormick often describes in his stories; I was 22. I was a runt of a literature student at SJSU and a pupa of a writer. McCormick is only a few years older than me, and it was long before he had published his short stories in Salton Sea. Yet I had a sense back then that behind the mirth and mild manners that scotch-soda brings to some people, he was observing, collecting, listening: doing what writers do when they’re not writing. He had a seriousness and commitment of mind needed to be an artist. Not unlike JC.

From the descriptions of JC’s music to those of modern wastelands in IE, McCormick has captured what it is to give meaning to something without forcing it on you. In spite of the bold structural choice–no paragraph breaks (only section and chapter breaks) until pages 113-141 & 170-173 which, at first, make one think density, giving an initial sense of suffocation–, the narrative keeps you reading on, wanting to mull the next image or scene that comes flowing into view almost without notice. And that is exactly the point.

The risky structural choice also forces the reader to constantly ask the question: Why? Why did the writer make this choice?  It’s the same question one must ask of any stylistic/structural choice made in (good) fiction, but the question is asked by the reader about so many other elements of this particular novel: why are we shown snippets of seemingly trivial actions in the desolate Oklahoma-Texas biome: a boy who crawls into a pipe below a daily train that rumbles over his head after receiving its load of undefined gray dust? why are we privy to the narrator’s conversation with a woman and her child while the husband is away doing soldier things? why are we given a scene of a boy with a bunny in the basket on a bike in which he does his tricks and terrifies the little girl who owns the bunny? why do we care about the narrator who took pictures of smog? how (and why) do we end up listening to a Vietnam vet (Pettibone) tell about his experience in Huế City, 1968? The answer to many of these questions may be in the somewhat obscure imagistic reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness upon Pettibone’s arrival in South Vietnam. But I’ll leave that for you to determine.

More generally, why does McCormick choose these settings, almost completely devoid of anything human except their abandoned artifacts, their hint at humanity, and a large dose of dust and heat? The narrator himself speaks of such a place: “…the name of the town had been effaced. This was a place that could no longer afford being America and had stopped being America and started being somewhere else.” What is that something else? what does that something else mean? If the land in fact has no discernible meaning, the narrator seems to wonder, why did Custer and his ilk even fight for these places, stealing the land from the natives, slaughtering them in the process, only to create such large amounts of seeming meaninglessness and absurdity…and only trace amounts of humanity?

I will stop here. I feel I have given away too much…but not really. Suffice it to say that I believe JC’s music is reflected in McCormick’s debut novel, as the narrator himself describes JC and his art, there is “a deep reverence…a reverence that was intermixed with anger and agitation…he sounded like a man teaching himself how to speak…repeating, revising…[and then] whatever [he] had been talking about before, now he was screaming it.”

The conception-and-birth story of a novel can be grotesque and all too-revealing. With little more than a college-ruled loose leaf from a well-worn notebook to cover my loins, here I go.

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Of course, I must start even before the novel was an apple in my eye.

Experiences in my youth that challenged my perspectives–and my delicate, sheltered sensibility–can be counted in a small handful. Prior to 1995, there was a Korean-American best friend and his chain-smoking, constantly-yelling mother; my first attempt at eating “sushi”–a California roll–at a Japanese-American friend’s birthday; and going to an Indian woman’s curry-scented house for tutoring in my arch-nemesis: math. Oh! And there was a rumor that a guy on my high school water polo team was gay. Imagine the scandal!

I was merely a new-formed adult by the time I went to San Jose State to study the literature of dead white guys (my favorite being Steinbeck) and a few dead white women (Edith Wharton anyone?) and a couple dead black men (Ellison and Wright blew my mind). When not grappling with writing academic essays and keeping up with my reading load, I was most often found gazing at my navel. For the first couple years, I didn’t do much to step away from that comfort that was–for all intents and purposes–the life of a privileged white kid who, incidentally, escaped arrest for being an idiot several times. More importantly, my skills learned in Spanish classes quickly devolved into the simple, macho banter I had with my Mexican colleagues at the restaurant. Most “conversations” were laced almost exclusively with jaunty Spanglish insults and curses. ¡Puta madre, Chivo! (I was the motherfucking chivo, a cocky goat with wispy hair on my chin.)

But then, the smattering of exposure got serious and voluminous. There was a solo two-month cross-country train trip done on $2k of saved waiter tips. And there was a bartending job at an underbelly dive bar next door to a Greyhound station and a by-the-hour/by-the-week hotel. It was the stuff that turned my literature study into an applied art.

Before I moved to New York City in 2003 to pursue an M.A. in literature and creative writing, I wrote my first successful short story. It was part of my application to CCNY and tested the bounds of my empathy. Someone whom I was close with at the time was attempting to figure out issues related to, among other things, her sexuality. In all honesty, I surprised myself by choosing to write from a 1st-person perspective that, in some ways, resembled hers. What I wrote for my CCNY application morphed into what now exists as part three of chapter one in volume one of toil & sound, the forthcoming the re-visionist.

If my social consciousness was still in a somewhat nascent stage when I arrived in New York City, living for a year in the Puerto Rican Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan opened my eyes. It gave me a sense (however limited) of being an outsider: I may have been the only white person in a half mile radius. This and other perspective shifts I experienced in NYC entwined fortuitously with my courses. And these factors dramatically affected creative choices I made in toil & sound. I studied in depth the work of the South American and Caribbean magic realists; beyond the early slave narratives, I dove deep into the African-American canon.

With the help from my creative thesis advisor, Salar Abdoh, I had 100 pages at the end of grad school (part 1). Then there was a divorce (yep, skipped right past that first marriage incident) and a death. Writing the novel was on hold for a year or so.

I moved to South Korea in 2006 to teach ESL—what else does a Lit major do? I was fortunate to find new experiences and people. My lifestyle also allowed me the solitude needed to write. I got a new routine, re-discovered confidence, and expanded my book ideas over the course of the first two and a half years in the ROK and completed the first draft of what stands now as my “duology” in early 2009, shortly after Nic bought me for ~300,000 KRW at a bachelor auction. It was Nic who was my first reader, followed closely by important perspectives from Jaclyn Neal, Cara Cassidy, and Jennifer Holmberg. The first few chapters were critiqued by Amanda Champany and Katie Jensen from the Friday workshops in Busan, ROK.

After Nic committed to staying in the ROK with me for at least another year, it was her turn. I became her GRE coach in writing (though I don’t really think she needed me for anything more than solidarity; mi mujer inteligente can write, too) and editor for grad school application cover letters.

After a three-month barebones tour of SE Asia and Nepal in 2011, service to the careers of mine and Nic’s had to take precedence. (Spouses gotta eat.) And breathing life into this thing seemed to be slipping away. Sometimes struggling to suppress my disenchantment,  I worked three jobs (teaching ESL to international students saved my sanity in some ways, drove me batty in other ways), cooked, cleaned(?), went back to grad school for TESL, got a promotion, and last year moved across the country for Nic’s VA internship. Through all of it, I was searching for a way to get back to the novel. All I could do, though, was bide my time in a state of blind faith by reading as widely as I could and writing (sometimes online) about intercultural and social issues.

I currently live happily with Nic, our nutty dog, and the curse of (self-) critical thought. Yes, happily.

So what better time to bring toil & sound into the world?

For my novel proposal, I have written about the audience I am writing for. When I was writing the book, I was blissfully unaware of how genres were proliferating in the modern publishing industry. For the sake of the art, it was freeing. For the sake of marketing, a little more research was needed.

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The “New Adult” genre is what I came across. But I have been much more influenced by classic bildungsroman literature like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hesse’s Demian, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, and Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. But the publishing industry needed to capitalize on the emergence of a subset of modern readers and writers concerned with the emotionally-fraught time of new found independence.

So, here’s what I have written for the “Audience” section of my proposal:

While there are elements of fiction in the novel that adult readers of all ages will appreciate, the age groups (19-45) defined as my target audiences are Millennials and X-ers. These generations are defined, respectively, as the first generation never to know life without digital technology, and the generation that were in or approaching early adulthood at the dawn of the internet era.

This novel is geared toward anyone who wants to explore modern identity: perhaps it all too-determined by binary coding and algorithms. Was there a certain hapless art that went along with self-discovery that Millennials will never know? How did X-ers deal with those formative years just after high school?

In some ways, my novel most resembles “New Adult” (NA), the 19-26 year-old demographic genre that emerged in 2009. It is a genre characterized by “first-person narration, dramatic…plots, and characters with ‘issues’ ranging from history of abuse, anger management issues, and troubled family lives.” These characteristics are certainly present in my book. However, the NA label is troubling in that it is often linked to Romance and Chick Lit; the sexual content and playful tone of those genres are simply not the focal point of my book.

It is worth noting that several successful contemporary books (e.g. Ko’s The Leavers and Bulawayo’s We Need New Names) were simply designated as “Fiction” even though they share many characteristics of NA. There may be an advantage to simultaneously marketing a book in two different genres. But I believe my novel would be most appropriate if sold as “Fiction.”

 

Thanks for the comments last week, all. It was yet another reminder that literature is a great unifier. The shared experience is so important for me as a way to connect that my reading list is, in part, cued and re-cued as people talk to me about favorite writers and books–novels, histories, biographies. (Sadly, however, I will likely be left out of Tolkien and Rowling discussions forever. It may be the best of fantasy fiction, but it ain’t for me. If you knew you didn’t like peanut butter and mayo sandwiches without ever tasting one, would you change your mind if it was all-natural peanut butter and homemade mayo?)

I received several hearty endorsements after last week’s post. Though I have confidence in my ability to write–and have been grilled and had my writing dissected more than a few times in the writing workshops of grad school–, on my shoulder sits the constant nagging of Doubt. So against that little devil, the backing from readers is a great fortitude.

Some people also reminded me of books I liked in my youth that I neglected to mention. What about Hatchet? How about My Side of the Mountain? Or the Narnia books? (I only read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe but as an undergrad studied C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces; it, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, were key in helping me understand the universality of mythic themes in literature from everywhere on Earth).

Joseph Campbell

A fellow stepchild of the DeKalb, IL corn (Erin Sherrill) told me that she filled her journals with drawings instead of writing and got her grade docked. I think that’s a damned travesty, especially if it still engaged her reactions to reading and/or the world around her.

This blog has been up since late 2006. It was first called “Time and Circumstance” and served as a travelogue with ex-pat observations during my four and a half years in South Korea. The second iteration was called “The Ex-Pat Repatriated.” Great title, but it was an era of sparse output, the adjustment to life back in the US wasn’t that interesting; but there was a spike in production and quality around the 2016 presidential election. Now, this blog–with all its past entries–starts a new epoch. It bears the name “a writer’s toil & sound” to document the many aspects of bringing a book–my book, Toil & Sound–to life.

——————

I started writing creatively for the same reason many others try to learn to play the guitar: to impress a girl. Suffice it to say that writing terrible poetry was not the key to this girl’s heart–or many others over the years, it should be known. Nonetheless, at the age of 16, I finally put pen to paper over endless cups of heavily-sugared coffee at Lyon’s restaurant on McHenry Blvd or J Street Café in downtown of the place I spent my youth: Modesto, CA.

The pull to write has been with me as long as I can remember. I’ve never quite figured out the origins of this pull toward producing the written word: I really didn’t read much when I was growing up. And it wasn’t for lack of a good example. Both of Mom’s parents always had half-read books on the coffee table when we visited. My parents read to me when I was a wee lad. Dad was always a big reader of histories and biographies and fiction. My brother could rarely be found without his nose in a book; throughout the fourteen years that we shared a room, I would wake up on weekends to find him in his bed reading.

Mom tried what she thought was the right way to get me to read. During summer mornings, she would tell me to read 50 pages before she got home from work; I can’t remember ever finishing one daily summer reading assignment, moving the bookmark up 50 pages in any given book. I mean, why not? I was never asked to give a summary of what I had read. Mom was probably too tired from work to follow up.

Having said that, it wasn’t like I didn’t read; it’s just that once I got beyond the Stuart Little and Superfudge phase, shit that was available was just boring to me (with the exception of The Indian in the Cupboard and The Bridge to Terabithia). Unless it was picture-heavy pages–a coffee table book on the history of America, the 28-volume Time-Life series on the Civil War that my dad had read from beginning to end, or the years and years of National Geographics my parents kept–, I would rarely crack a book without some sort of resistance. Instead, I could be found outside chasing and killing Soviets in ongoing battles fought on foot, in trees, over fences, and on bicycles. When I wasn’t eradicating commies from the neighborhood, I was playing Nerf football with friends in the street or homerun derby with a tennis ball at the high school’s tennis courts. Later, it was girls who captured my imagination rather than Great Expectations, Les Misérables, or Greek mythology (though I was taught Animal Farm in an outstanding two-week lesson my sophomore year). Oddly, I really jumped into vocab study in preparation for the SAT.

Reading became more of a necessity when I left home at the age of 18 to study literature at SJSU. With the kind of relationship I had with words up to that point, I had quite an uphill fight my first year. Not only did I not have a less-than-stellar high school academic history and a piss poor reading habit, I was also away from home for the first time. It is useful here to paraphrase Homer J. Simpson: booze, pot, and Sega Genesis are the causes of and solutions to all of life’s problems. But long, marijuana-addled treks in downtown San Jose with Alice in Chains, John Coltrane, Bad Religion, or Rachmaninov on my Discman coincided with the creative and critical thought I was somehow picking up in my literature courses. By the time I started my sophomore year, I found a balance between work and play; a routine was put in place necessitated by part-time work and a full load of classes. I saw the results of this hard work in my grades. And the more I read, the more I wrote. In downtown San Jose my need to write took firm root.

This is why I claim San Jose as my hometown: it’s the place where my Self emerged.

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Dorm rats Fall ’95

Including my first several handwritten notebooks–now transcribed, with the exception of the first, which was stolen–, the writing of love and heartbreak and selfhood and narrative experimentation are 16 volumes, (75 pages each with 10 point type) that span 1995 to present. These will not see the light of day while I live. Even then, I may ask that the funeral pyre is kindled with those pages and my hard drive.

The pathetic misery and awful writing and sheer repetition take up 90% of those volumes. I had to learn to be patient with myself over the years, as that remaining 10% has been polished to become short stories and scenes from the novel.