Sunday, April 24, 2022

"The Questionnaires" published in Litro

I'm excited to share that I have a new story out this week, published by the lovely people at Litro. In some ways it's kind of a companion piece to "Mr. Sentimentality," which was published earlier this month. Besides sharing some similar moods and themes, both were written around the same time in 2019, and the two have tagged along one another ever since -- I began sending them out around the same time, they were accepted within a month of each other last year, and now here they've both been published over the space of a couple of weeks.

I don't know that there's any useful lesson here, either in terms of writing or publishing or anything else. Probably the most valuable takeaway is the reminder of just how long everything takes. The world has changed an awful lot in the last three years, but I'm pleased that these stories still found a home.

Here's a short excerpt from the beginning of "The Questionnaires:"

The ushers at Clowes Hall were making this fucking impossible. Every entrance to the theater had a team of them, with more just milling around in the lobby. This squadron of geriatric volunteers was hellbent on being helpful, and any time Chris stopped moving he could feel their eyes turn toward him as they wondered if he was lost, if he needed help, if he would like to show his ticket. These weren’t senior citizens. They were wolves wearing cardigans, and they could smell the stink of his desperation from halfway across the hall. Here came one now, white haired and deadly, dentures exposed in a smile.

“Do you need any help?” the usher asked, and Chris tucked his tablet a little tighter beneath his arm. So far tonight he hadn’t used the app once, hadn’t dared to even wake up his device. It took fifteen minutes to administer a survey, and the only time he’d got any privacy was when he’d been in the bathroom. And he knew, from experience, that no one wants to answer questions in the bathroom.

“No, thank you,” Chris said, and he stood up a little straighter and tried to look friendly. He felt very aware of the scuffs on his shoes, and that his button-down shirt was not as crisp or as clean as he’d thought. “I’m waiting for someone.”

The usher checked her watch, a tiny gold face on a tiny gold band, and she frowned. “The performance starts in five minutes. Once the doors close, no one’s allowed in or out until the intermission.”

They stood outside the east balcony. Chris hoped this spot was enough out of the way he might find some privacy here. But no such luck.

“I’ll go see if I can find my friend,” Chris said. “We don’t want to be late.”

The usher was close enough now Chris could smell the lavender of her hand lotion, which he’d seen her use after touching each ticket. Chris did not have a ticket. He was not here for the show.

There was a shout from downstairs. Chris looked past the edge of the veranda to see a security guard pulling Thatcher through the lobby by his elbow. When Thatcher spotted Chris he yanked free.

“They got us!” Thatcher yelled. “Run for it!”

The usher took a step back, eyes wide. “May I see your ticket, please?”

There was a second guard down in the lobby, and now he made a break for the stairwell. Chris pulled out his tablet, opened the survey app, and threw a hail mary.

“Sure,” Chris said, “but maybe I could ask you a few questions first?”


Read the rest here.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Exercise

Photo of George Saunders
Whenever Twitter is consumed by drama and spectacle, inevitably someone will joke, “I can't believe this website is free.” But I'm not kidding when I say I can't believe what George Saunders's Story Club shares without charging a dime.

It's a great guide for writers, and it seems to get better each week. Lately I've been taking my time about slowly working through his latest series, a deep dive on the very short story “My First Goose.” The story itself is only five pages long, but Saunders has broken it down into six different “pulses,” dedicating an entire post to each one. In his analysis of the opening pulse of “My First Goose,” he identifies four key elements:
  1. First, there's the basic premise of this opening pulse which can be boiled down to “the narrator receives an assignment.”

  2. Second, there is a surprising description of something mundane, what Saunders calls “celebratory” and “excessive” language that provides an interesting image.

  3. Third, there is a raising of stakes. The apparently simple assignment is revealed to be a question of life or death for the narrator.

  4. And finally, the narrator has a reaction to this news that complicates our view of him. He is revealed, in that moment, to have some hidden dimension that makes us want to keep reading. 
You can probably see where this is going. Once Saunders identified these components, I wanted to try them out for myself, using them as a writing prompt. Here's what that looks like in practice:

Paper Route

Mr. Henderson held me back at distribution that morning. I figured it was the Murphys again. They had probably complained they weren't getting their paper, and now I'd have to explain. It wasn't my fault: The Murphys had a pair of chihuahuas they let fly every morning right about the time I rode by. These dogs were fearless, making suicide runs at my pedals in hopes of taking a chunk from my ankle. They were usually pretty successful.

So I'd avoided the Murphy house all week, and now, I thought, they'd finally complained. But while they were to feature in Mr. Henderson's special assignment, it wasn't for the reasons I thought.

After the other boys left for their routes, Mr. Henderson came back to the office where I'd been left. He wasn't any taller than I was, and I was only eleven years old, but he made up for it in his diameter. He was a rain barrel dressed in a parachute, with eyebrows that looked like sardines.

“The Murphys haven't been paying their bill. I'm sending you to collect.”

He took a triplicate form from his desk and tugged off the top sheet, handing me the two underneath.

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked.

“Go and collect,” he repeated. “You know them better than I do.”

I scowled at the form. The Murphys owed us thirty-four dollars and sixty-five cents. Their account was labeled delinquent. I didn't want to be a debt collector, but what could I do? Mr. Henderson's paper routes were the only game in town for a kid who didn't get an allowance.

“One more thing,” Mr. Henderson said, as I stood to go out the door. “The Murphys got rid of their dogs.”

My heart felt buoyed by that. Finally, a little good news.

“Well, they got rid of one,” he corrected himself. “Their new emu killed the other. Watch out for that thing,” he warned, tipping his head forward at me. There on the crown was a terrible gash, held together with staples and stitches. “It's tall and meaner than hell.”

I took another look at the form, the folded it up for my pocket. I said, “I know my way around birds,” and left Mr. Henderson's office.

I have no idea where the story would go after this, but I think that's okay. Part of what Saunders is saying is that the first pulse of a story starts to create both threads and guardrails – threads that the story will continue to follow, and guardrails that prevent it from spinning of in other directions. In that respect, if I were to write more of this story, it would have to follow the established paths that the first pulse provides. New information, characters, and plot elements would also have to follow logically. For Saunders, it's that core logical movement – this causes that – which makes a story feel like a story.

Then there's this, which I think is one of the most powerful insights from Saunders about how stories begin:

We celebrate in language to make more; to plow up elements and flavors that we will later use.

Many stories that fizzle out or can’t be finished are not detailed enough (not exuberant enough, or definitive enough) in their beginnings and middles.

I love this idea. And I've experienced the other side of it, staring at the computer screen with no idea how to finish a story. What usually happens is that I start scrolling up, looking for some element, some seed planted early on, which will help me find where it ends.

Unfortunately, though, by the time things get to that point, it usually means the seed was never there to begin with. This might be the other lesson from Saunders at this first story pulse: When in doubt as you start a new story, err on the side of more: More language, more imagery, more generosity to the reader. Plant lots of seeds, and give yourself something to prune.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Question

In 1845, a writer and wannabe academic named P. L. Møller decided it was time to make a name for himself. As founding editor of the literary journal Gæa, Møller had the perfect venue to go after a high-profile target, a man well-known (but not always well-liked) in his native city of Copenhangen. Møller published a scathing review of Stages on Life's Way by Søren Kierkegaard, which included several cruel remarks on the philosopher's pretensions and even his personal life. It was unmistakably an attack.

Kierkegaard responded in kind. Among other things, he outed Møller as an anonymous editor of The Corsair, a satirical publication that had, over the years, made quite a few powerful enemies. Kierkegaard believed that his reputation as an intellectual, combined with the public's disdain for The Corsair, would naturally make him the victor in the court of public opinion.

He was wrong. Instead, Møller and The Corsair doubled down on attacking Kierkegaard, publishing scathing articles and mocking cartoons that put a target on Kierkegaard's back. Before long he couldn't walk through the city without being jeered at and mocked, and the name “Søren” became synonymous with “pompous windbag.” Playwrights would even use the name when they wanted an easy laugh from their audience. Public opinion on Kierkegaard had plainly taken a sour turn.
Portion of the cover of "Kierkegaard: A Single Life" by Stephen Backhouse

In his book Kierkegaard: A Single Life,* Stephen Backhouse describes the Corsair Affair as a turning point in Kierkegaard's life. While few people outside of the conflict thought it was that big a deal, the effect it had on both Møller and Kierkegaard was devasting. Møller never did become a respectable academic; instead, not long after being identified as an editor of The Corsair, he left Denmark for good and faded into obscurity.

As for Kierkegaard, at best he'd become the butt of a joke. At worst, he'd become a pariah. However he might once have viewed himself — as an important citizen of Copenhagen, as a public intellectual, or as a friend to all whom he met — it all now came crashing down. The man who had published thousands of pages under a dozen different pseudonyms fell now into a long period of public silence.

*

We like to tell ourselves stories, but at a certain point these stories stop working. Usually it's the result of reality throwing a brick wall in your path. In the story you want to believe, you're the sort of person who can walk straight through the stone, but in truth you're stopped dead in your tracks.

As a writer, that's a feeling I'm wrestling with. I started 2021 with a plan, a list of agents, and a manuscript. I was sure it was time to sell my first novel, and I had everything I needed in place. A hundred rejections later, I've had to face the reality that nobody's buyin' whatever I'm sellin'.

But, listen: This isn't my first day as a rodeo clown. This bull has chased me before. The typical cycle of a setback is to wonder whether I'm really cut out for all this. In the past, I'd ask other people – teachers, friends, other writers. Once, when I was eighteen and having these doubts, I visited a favorite professor during her office hours. Instead of talking about class I asked her The Question: "Am I really a writer?"

Well, what could she say? At that point, she'd read maybe two of my term papers, one of which was based on the very shaky thesis that, in the near future, all Westerns would be about vampires. (My evidence came from Preacher comics and the movie From Dusk 'Til Dawn. I wasn't a very diligent researcher.) My professor explained, kindly, that she couldn't really give me an answer, and that if I wanted to be a writer then I should probably keep writing. I left her office dissatisfied.

What I really wanted, then and many times after, was an authority figure to make a Final Pronouncement. “HEAR YE, HEAR YE! ALEX HAS DEFINITELY EARNED THE TITLE 'REAL WRITER,' WHICH IS IN NO WAY A MADE UP CREDENTIAL!” When I couldn't get anybody to do that for me, I did the next best thing and got my MFA.

But still, the doubts would creep in. Credentials, publications, the rare but always appreciated paycheck for a short story – none of settled The Question. Somehow I always circled back around to it, and if anything changed it was only the fact that I learned not to ask other people.

What's different this time around, though, is that for the first time I think I understand what my choices actually are. I've always assumed that the answer to The Question is either, “Yes, you're a writer, and you should keep writing,” or “No, you were never a writer, and it's time to give up.” And there has been a certain comfort to that. No matter how many times The Question arises, I always seem to write through it. The possibility of giving up doesn't feel very real, and so it doesn't seem like much of a threat.

But those aren't the only choices on offer. When I look back over my time as a writer, I realize I'm not so much walking in circles as trying to trudge up a spiral staircase. When I reach the point where I'm hitting The Question, “Am I really a writer?” the options are not to keep writing or quit. The options are to either stay where I am or find a way to keep climbing.

Those are very different choices, but cast in that light other things make a little more sense. The credentials and publications are not a final settling of The Question so much as evidence of an effort to improve, to take writing seriously enough to keep working and learning. 

To the extent that this blog has been “about” anything, it's about writing and reading. As I start this next leg of learning, and recommit to being a student, I'll be sharing a few of the things that I find. And first up is this lecture from Barbara Oakley, “Learning How to Learn.” The strategies she describes are useful to anyone, whether you're trying to pick up a new skill or improve at one you already have. I found it very helpful in developing a plan to study and learn about writing. Maybe you'll find it helpful, too.

As for Kierkegaard? The Corsair Affair was not the end for him. Although he stopped publishing for a while, he never stopped writing in his journals. His fall from public favor was a crisis, but also an important turning point. It forced him to clarify his goals, deepen his ideas, and articulate a vision of what he hoped to accomplish. When he began to publish again, he came roaring in like a lion. His enemies only increased in number, but this time Kierkegaard was ready for them.



*If you have any interest in Kierkegaard, I really can't recommend this book highly enough. At some point I'd still like to write up a proper review, but for now I'll just plug the book and say it's a great biography of a complicated person.

Friday, April 8, 2022

"Mr. Sentimentality" published in BULL

Quick, short updated to day to share the happy news the my short story "Mr. Sentimentality" was published in BULL this week. Here's a short excerpt:
When your roof caves in, there’s not a lot of time to put together a plan. My housemates and I all scrambled and scattered. I packed up my things in a van from the U-Haul, got no reassurance from our landlord (“You can come back when you can come back.”), and I made a few calls to find help. Thank god for Mike. Not only did he drive my car back from U-Haul, he said I could stay in his garage and store whatever would fit. But, he warned me, there wasn’t much room. Fine, I said, no problem, but once I arrived I saw what I was actually in for.

“You need to KonMari this fucker,” I said, after I shoved the last box in I could possibly fit. It wasn’t much. Less than a third of what I brought could be squeezed into the garage if I wanted enough space for my cot.

“I could say the same for you,” Mike said, digging through one of my boxes. “Is this your fourth grade report card?”

“So I’m a little sentimental,” I said. “Why do you have six fish tanks?”

“We had to make room for the girls,” Mike said. That wasn’t really an answer, but I wasn’t in a position to push. I was, in fact, just the latest arrival – Mike’s sister-in-law and two nieces were here after a house fire. They were why I was in the garage.

It was a strange summer. I was constantly hustling on ride shares, and every person I picked up had a story like that. Everybody’s houses were flooded or burned or blown over. It felt like everyone in Indianapolis was getting bulldozed all at once, and I never figured out if that was true or if I just paid more attention since it happened to me.

“I really do appreciate it,” I said, trying to stay in Mike’s good graces. “So, hey. Can I leave the U-Haul out front for a couple hours so I can do some driving?”

“I mean, you can,” Mike said. “But we can’t watch that van every second. I got a lot of kids inside that need my attention right now.”

Mike, who bounced nights at Clancy’s and kept me company between fares, was a human climbing gym as far as the kids were concerned. He couldn’t walk from one side of the house to the other without children clinging to his back like socks on a bath towel.

“I’ll be back before it gets dark,” I said. “I just need to make a little money so I can get this stuff in storage while my landlord gets shit figured out. Hopefully fast. Hopefully I’ll be back home in no time.”

“Yeah,” Mike said. “I’m hearing that a lot lately.”

 

I know I've done myself no favors with the way I've been using my pseudonym, but this story is actually the fourth published piece to feature Jon and Mike. The others (written as Craig Francis Coates) include Oversold, An Indiana Grandand A Christmas Story. So if you like "Mr. Sentimentality," you might like those too.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Time Underground

This week, I began reading Stephen Backhouse's "Kierkegaard: A Single Life," which has been an unexpected pleasure, maybe the best biography I've read since Sarah Bakewell's book on Montaigne. One thing both books do really well is to animate the interior lives of their subjects so that see how their ideas evolve over time.

Throughout Backhouse's book, you get the sense of Kierkegaard as a restless thinker straining to say something new. It's one thing to be a contrarian, which is a role Kierkegaard plays very well. But it's another to come up with a truly original idea, and it's this goal that seems to drive Kierkegaard forward through tremendous periods of productivity.

I learned, for instance, that Kierkegaard produced several major works -- literally thousands of pages of dense philosophical texts -- within the span of about five years. I was very surprised to find out that Fear and Trembling, maybe his most famous work, was one of a half-dozen books published in the same year. Did he have any sense of the impact Fear and Trembling would eventually have? Or was it, for Kierkegaard, just another variation on the themes he'd worked over for years?

One of the other things that really struck me was a passage from Kierkegaard's journal, which Backhouse quotes at some length. This was written several years before his explosive productivity, while Kierkegaard was still developing his ideas both as a philosopher and as the person he wanted to be. K writes:
Thus I am again standing at the point where I must begin again in another way. I shall now calmly attempt to look at myself and begin to initiate inner action; for only thus will I be able, like a child calling itself "I" in its first consciously undertaken act, be able to call myself "I" in a profounder sense. But that takes stamina, and it is not possible to harvest immediately what one has sown. ... I will hurry along the path I have found and shout to everyone I meet: Do not look back as Lot's wife did, but remember that we are struggling up a hill.
K wrote that passage in 1835. He would begin publishing his major works in 1843. Obviously he wasn't sitting on his hands in between -- he was writing and publishing and arguing all the while. But it reminds me of something else I once read by Éireann Lorsung, and which I copied in my companion journal:
No one blames a bulb flower for only flowering once. We know it needs the time underground to prepare for that. You can beat yourself up over not being productive if the only measure you have for productivity if the flower. But consider how many months of invisible work contribute to that. Invisible work is part of our work as writers, but it can be the easiest part to neglect or denigrate because its relationship to the parts of writing that are publicly valued in our culture, valued in our praise, support, payment, the finished, publishable parts, is complex and often hidden, just like the bulb.
Time underground is important. Inner action has value. It's a good reminder to keep at the work, even if the bulb hasn't bloomed.

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...