For My First Post: I’m going to cheat

Hey guys, I’ve posted this piece a couple of places, but I wanted to see what reaction it would get from a different audience. Originally I posted this at my blog and over at Crimespace, so if you’ve seen this post there, my apologies for the cross post. More original work to follow in the coming days.

There’s a conversation going on on Crimespace about pet peeves of incorrect grammar. Everybody has one. Mine is people saying “I could care less” when they mean “I couldn’t care less.” But I have another argument as well.

Grammar is not important.

Well, I’ll back off of that… simple grammar is something everyone should learn young and grasp. But after that, who really cares?

What is important, and what I stress when I teach, is meaning. A student has to be able to put together an argument or a storyline or a sentence that has meaning. They have to learn how to put together a logical progression and THEN you can go back and fix grammar.

Hell, look at a lot of writing in books these days. People break grammar rules all the time, whether to sound colloquial or to create effect. I understand that you have to understand grammar to break the rules, but grammar should still not be the end all be all of writing.

It should be the least important thing.

National tests these days do not grade on grammar and spelling. They let most errors go as long as it does not affect meaning. Hence, meaning is where we should focus. That’s what I work on.

If a story starts:

“Me and you went to the store. Your a giraffe and heads spilld across the road.”

I am not going to sit there and help fix the “me and you” and the correct “your” first. I’m going to ask why is there a giraffe in this story, why were there head’s spilling across the road, and what does that have to do with the store you went to.

I want to get to the point where someone will write “Me and you went to the store. You bought skittles and I bought a soda.”

Then we can go back and fix grammar.

I think people worry about grammar because it’s easy to fix. You can–when you edit someone’s piece–say well this is wrong and this is wrong and it’s easier than saying, but there’s a plot hole here on page 202 and I don’t know how you can fix it. That involves a back and forth and a conversation.

I’m always willing to talk about writing, be it with students or with other writers. I’m always willing to brainstorm plot ideas and why a paragraph works as a thought. But folks, what it comes down to is this: Whether you are in 8th grade or writing for ten years, most grammatical errors can be fixed by just reading your sentence out loud.

Meaning, however, takes work.

What do you think?

FOR THE RECORD: This is in no way an attempt to trash teachers. I am a teacher and I believe in teachers. All teachers want to make students smarter and more well rounded young men and woman.

However, I think there is an old fashioned thinking vs. a new type of thinking among all citizens of the United States on whether or not grammar should be the key to good writing.

The Dangers of Confessional Writing: Two Case Studies

There was a point in my life when I revealed damn near everything about myself on the Web. I ended up attracting a stalker who tracked down my home address. This ostensible “fan” knocked on my door and announced that she was going to “help” me. I was baffled by this. I was just some guy on the Internet. And as far as I’m concerned, to this day, I remain “some guy on the Internet” lucky enough to talk with authors and get paid for his writing every so often.

This stalker and I talked. It was creepy enough that this stalker discovered where I lived. But she also divined aspects of my personality that I had unintentionally revealed through my words and that she, a troubled soul herself, related to. This, she explained, motivated her trek to San Francisco. (I was somewhat relieved to learn that she lived in the East Bay, as opposed to some Midwestern town halfway across the country. It was as if this shorter distance somehow undermined her troubled temperament or partially justified her stalking.)

We chatted for about twenty minutes. I felt extremely exposed, but I somehow steered the conversation away from my personal life. I listened to her tell me about her life and, when she claimed that honest writing was the existential answer, I suggested that she keep a journal. A safe place for her to record her thoughts and tell the truth. I never heard from her again. I hope she turned out okay.

This incident made me acutely aware of what I revealed every time I wrote a personal essay. I eventually decided to reveal aspects of myself only when I felt sufficiently informed or wise enough to translate my character into essays. I began seeing a therapist, who helped me to overcome many lingering demons, and I got out my often feral personal confessions in a more constructive manner. (I stopped seeing the therapist a few years ago, save for one visit after last year’s skirmish with the police because I was terrified that I would slip back into territory that I had thought long conquered. But I do keep a journal and take long brisk walks whenever I come up against my neuroses. And I am prepared to go back again if I ever fall off the wagon.)

I also decided to take down my earlier incarnation of, although I kept and adapted many of the styles I employ to this day. There’s a marked disparity between the various voices I adopt on this blog and the person who I really am, just as there are certain crossover qualities. While I do my best to remain as humble as I can, even I must confess amusement when some of my more outrageous posts are taken seriously. I’m also immensely entertained when people are absolutely convinced that they know me exclusively from my writing and form the most amazing impressions. I respond to this game by fabricating additional details to throw them off further. (By the way, did I ever tell you about the time when I was terrified of walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, or the time I entered a hot dog-eating contest, or the time I jumped naked into the Pacific Ocean? Only one of those anecdotes is true. Believe at your own peril.)

* * *

Which brings me to John Freeman.

I should note from the onset that, despite all of my criticisms of the man, I happen to believe that John Freeman is a good guy.

The two of us went to high school together. I can tell you that he was one of the only middle-class jock types who didn’t tease me mercilessly because of my comparative poverty, my hair in recurrent need of a barber’s scissors, the dark trenchcoat I wore to hide my wiry and hungry frame, my Looney Tunes tees (acquired not so much because of cultural loyalty, but because they were extremely cheap at Marshall’s and there wasn’t a lot of money to go around), and pockmarked jeans.

I talked with John Freeman on the phone last year and I can tell you that he’s still a good guy. And it is because I believe him to be a good guy that I must write this.

I was prepared to say nothing, but a few months ago, Freeman began turning out a series of essays that were overly confessional, much as my personal writing had been many years ago. I figured that, after many hard years freelancing as a book critic, John Freeman was entering a transition phase, searching for a more ambitious voice. But in Freeman’s ambition, I recognized the voice of a man who doesn’t know himself nearly as well as he thinks or, to be more equitable, a man who didn’t seem to be aware how much he was really confessing. And I grew concerned. I had once walked down the same road.

I didn’t want to embarrass him. So I didn’t link to this Babble essay about being childless, which, unlike other Freeman bylines, didn’t list Freeman as NBCC President. It was the kind of personal essay written without hard introspective insight, much like the essays I once wrote. It was the kind of writing you never want to reveal to the public because you’re still too immersed in the turmoil to see it clearly.

(I must pause here and point out that, with enough hard thinking, one can write about an ongoing personal dilemma. As evidence, I refer to Tim O’Brien’s infamous 1994 essay. Despite some shocking revelations, such as O’Brien revealing his suicidal impulses, it doesn’t come across as embarrassing. O’Brien has clearly mulled over his predicament, demonstrating in compelling and lucid language the development and continuing existence of a twenty-five year old problem. Additional examples of such essays include nearly anything written by Joan Didion and, more recently, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Beards,” which can be found in his essay collection, The Disappointment Artist.)

Then I stumbled upon this essay in The Believer (to be found in the current issue) and became even more uncomfortable by what Freeman was revealing about himself. It was very much like Ayelet Waldman’s troubling 2005 essays for Salon or Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone, where the writing serves as a surrogate for therapy (or, for those who disbelieve in therapy, a reasonably healthy method of confronting personal trauma). Freeman’s essay likewise featured brazen revelations, embarrassing for all parties, thrown into a thesis (in this case, how John Updike’s writing serves as a personal crutch, not dissimilar from Jonathan Franzen’s extraordinary revelation that he wanted to learn how to live by continuously reading Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters) and didn’t feature a resolution, or at least a conclusive cognizance, after a linear progression of events, but a man making the same mistakes over and over again and possibly not seeing this.

Then there was this outburst on the Critical Mass site, which was picked up yesterday by The New York Times. While I didn’t entirely disagree with Freeman’s comment, as NBCC President, I was surprised by Freeman’s decidedly undiplomatic tone, particularly this sentence:

I’d be curious to know how many of my fellow NBCC board members who voted for this book have been inside a Muslim household, let alone a Muslim country?

This led fellow NBCC member Jennifer Reese to remark that she had lived in a Muslim household for two years and had voted for the book, despite its controversial content. And it led me to wonder if Freeman’s personal confessions were creating more rancor than resolution.

I don’t know what’s going on with John Freeman, and I can’t profess to know. I’m not a mental health professional. I write here as an observer and a humanist who hopes that John Freeman is aware of what he is doing, or I hope that he becomes aware by way of this essay, assuming he doesn’t take offense at my speculations.

I must observe that writing, in and of itself, is not a panacea for personal problems. Writing is certainly a starting point for half-formed visceral or intellectual reactions to the world around us that we writers often discover later, if we’re smart enough (and often we’re not), or we have pointed out to us.

But it is not the manner in which one goes about finding an identity. That takes much more. To begin with, it takes a remarkable degree of confidence, discipline and/or drive to carry on as a writer. (Even those working writers who view themselves as sacks of shit have some ability to continue writing and not let anything stand in their way. Whether this is compulsion or confidence, who can say?) It is certainly not a profession for the weak of heart. It is an often absurd vocation. Every writer, no matter how good, is greeted with continuous rejection, with an acceptance accompanied by a paycheck of varying dollar value. A writer often never knows when her next paycheck is going to come from. A writer never knows if an editor who shoots her steady work will decide if her work just doesn’t fit the publication’s needs anymore, with even the most steeled writers often contemplating whether this might in some way be personal.

Given these circumstances, why would any writer turn to professional writing as a catholicon, essentially prostituting his personal experience in lieu of therapy? Why would a writer turn to a medium he knows damn well is devoid of the stability and nurture one should experience when dealing with an alarming undulation in this crazy little thing called life?

I am not against unfettered expression and I’m certainly not suggesting that today’s personal writers shy away from explicit personal writing. I am only asking for today’s confessional writers, who often lack the measured hands of O’Brien, Didion, and Lethem, to consider that spilling it all onto the page simply isn’t enough. This seems, in my mind, to be the motivation behind all the recent daddy memoir writing and it seems to be the m.o. behind Freeman’s recent essays. These writers should know better. A good writer simply doesn’t write an essay about a subject he knows very little about. A good writer knows how to organize his thoughts. Should not these same principles apply to confessional writing?

The Myths Behind Slow Writing

Justine Larbalestier: “I keep coming across two assumptions about writers who publish a lot of books per year. The first is that if a book takes less than a year to write then it can’t be any good. So if a writer can produce two or more books a year they are total hacks. It ain’t necessarily so. People write at different paces and in different circumstances. Some so-called slow writers are slow because they also have a full or part-time job, because they have a family, because they’re running the household, and their writing is snatched in the time between waking and going to work. Or before the kids come home from school. Or on their lunch hours.”

The Myth of “Stealing” Ideas

Tayari Jones notes an exchange she had with a young writer who was terrified of sending her work to an agent because this writer believed that her work would be “stolen.” I think Tayari is right to suggest that this is a crisis of confidence. Literary agents simply do not have the time to “steal” anyone’s work. And think about it. Why would they open themselves up to an expensive legal battle when they are already drowning in manuscripts and strapped for time and money? Further, even if a writer can make the case that the work was “stolen,” do you honestly think that this is the only idea a writer’s ever going to come up with?

I once met a temp who was convinced that the producers of the movie Michael had “stolen” her screenplay about an angel fond of debauchery.

“Did you register your screenplay with the WGA?” I asked.

She hadn’t. And, in fact, upon close examination of her story, I realized it was bullshit. She mentioned Pete Dexter, but could not convince me that she had met with any producers, much less signed any contract. I pointed out to her that sometimes ideas come in patterns, pointing to all of the Freaky Friday-like movies of 1988 (Big, Vice Versa and Like Father, Like Son). But she was unfazed. She was convinced that the producers had “stolen” the idea from her.

What’s more, this woman was extremely miserable about it. And this was the excuse she had made to stop writing.

When I was a younger and more foolish man, I was pissed at Tab Murphy in 1995 because of a movie called Last of the Dogmen. Shortly after high school, I had written a screenplay about some teenagers stumbling upon a forgotten tribe of Native Americans. But this Tab Murphy guy managed to get the movie made before I could attract any interest. And what’s more, it starred the insufferable Tom Berenger. The bastard! Still, I didn’t let it faze me and I kept writing.

I’ve seen posts and associations I’ve made on this website seemingly pilfered by newspaper columnists. Or were they? Really, why should I be so self-important to think that they got the ideas from me?

The point of all this is that if you’re a writer clinging to the stubborn notion that someone is out there to “steal” your work, and if you are letting this get in the way of writing, submitting, or pitching, then I ask you for the good of humanity to step out of the way. Take up something else. All good writers are idea machines. All good writers have distinct and original voices in which an “idea” is just one component of an equation as intricate and inexplicable as love.

Perhaps this fundamental misunderstanding of the writing process is what causes so many people to ask the question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Would these same people ask a bookkeeper, “How do you keep focus when you’re inundated with so many numbers?” It’s just the way writers are wired. For a writer, ideas flow through the noggin like a barely controllable fire and trying to manage all this is a bit like a good head rush during a run. There’s really nothing writers can do about this other than set it down on paper and do the best they can to convey this frenzy in coherent terms. If they’re lucky, they can make a living at this.

Miss Snark, Brave Soul

Over at Miss Snark’s, the Crapometer festivities have begun. Some of the entries are truly astonishing in their mediocrity (“The candle on the adjacent nightstand beckoned the shadows, and brought them to life” is one sentence for a novel set in “Medieval 18th Century Scotland.”). But Miss Snark doesn’t shy away from telling these folks what’s wrong with them. If this is an accurate examplar of what’s in the slush pile, then I have greater sympathy for agents and editors.

Lamarck Would Be Ashamed, But the Matter Must Be Settled

Over at Michelle’s, some interesting questions have been raised: Is sex better than writing? Is writing better than masturbation? And, seeing as how writing and masturbation serve practically the same purpose, why is one valued over the other?

This is a grand philosophical question. The beginnings of an elaborate taxonomy finally putting variants of sex in line with variants of writing! The ultimate crossover, or existential mash-up! If one must style a list, I would argue that the order of things goes something like this:

1. Sex
2. Writing
3. Masturbation
4. Reading
5. Blogging

What are your thoughts, dear readers?

Chime in at Michelle’s or here, whatever your pleasure.

Julia Scheeres: Freygate II or Troubling Trend?

Sherry Early over at Semicolon notes of Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land:

The most appalling abuse that Ms. Scheeres documents in her book is spiritual abuse. Counselors and house parents force teens to mouth words of repentance and faith in Christ in order to earn “points” toward release from the school. Even though the James Frey debacle has placed a pall of suspicion over the memoir genre, and even though I have grown up around evangelical, fundamentalist, and Calvinist Christians and have never witnessed anything like the kind of abuse that Ms. Scheeres tells about in her book, I am forced to believe that New Horizons Youth Ministries has been guilty of a serious betrayal of the trust placed in its program by parents and their children.

In the ongoing debate over whether memoirs are “true” or not, this is certainly a good point. When one’s experience is translated and reconfigured upon the page and the words, in turn, become shocking or even run counter to conventional wisdom, at what point must we send in the journalists to corroborate or disclaim a person’s experience? Part of me tends to think that, at least in Jesus Land‘s case, there might be a tad too much scrutiny being applied here, which is an understandable impulse after the James Frey scandal.

But I think Early unearths a far more substantial issue in her questioning. Have today’s memoirs become too subjective? (And by “subjective,” I mean to suggest centered almost exclusively around the memoirist’s redemption. Perhaps “solipsistic” is a better word, although this is, in my judgment, a mite too harsh a modifier.) Part of me suspects that most memoirs published today are near-Pavlovian experiences. The memoirist tells his tale of abuse and the reader is then obliged to feel pity and/or moved for the memoirist, until the inevitable film adaptation, in which the reader transmutes into a filmgoer and is obliged to sit through a five-hankie Hollywood tearjerker of the same experience, the contents further divested of integrity.

This might be oversimplifying the problem, but one need only look at the pre-scandal marketing of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces to see this wholesale celebration of bathos. Consider the sentiment expressed by Oprah in which she declared to Frey that, while reading the book, she flipped back to the cover to see if he was all right. Is this really the stuff that makes memoirs so rewarding?

Allow me to put forth the following hypothesis: Is the memoir so locked in the personal experience of one that it is now impossible or less likely, due to current market conditions or what is currently expected from contemporary memoirs, for the memoirist to even get inside the head of her abusers or those who she would decry as evil, much less herself?

What, for example, makes Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story or Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind good memoirs? I would argue that it isn’t the personal salvation component, although the aftermaths of both women are certainly comforting to hear about, but that it’s the humility and candor that Knapp and Jamison contribute when describing their respective experiences. Both writers are self-critical and both are unafraid to reveal their behavior, warts and all. But simultaneously, they don’t completely demonize themselves or others, nor do they paint themselves as total victims. They are respectful enough to allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. Indeed, it is the very lack of solipsism that makes these two memoirs striking.

So what happened to the memoir in the past ten years? Was it Dave Eggers sullying the memoir genre with his endless pop cultural references? Was it Angela’s Ashes demanding that all memoirists up the existential ante if they earned the right to chart their experiences?

Whatever it was, I think some sincere component was lost along the way. The memoirists forgot that their purpose was to paint important portraits of human behavior, rather than cater to a specific marketing niche or impress the crowd with stylistic pyrotechnics. Which is a pity, because before all this nonsense (and even after), I always thought that the memoir was one of the most promising places to read about the human experience. And so did William Zinsser in On Writing Well.

(Major hat tip to Brandywine Books)

Bay Area Writers Group Forming

Like damn near every litblogger, we too have a novel that we’ve been working on that is progressing at a slow but steady clip. (Yes, we never sleep around here.) While we’re loath to announce anything that isn’t particularly finished*, the whole point of this post is to seek fairly serious (serious about the art, but not humorless!) writers based in the Bay Area for a fiction writers group that is being put together right now with a few other nice and passionate people.

We hope that this group will be brutally honest, but encouraging. Ideally, candidates should have steady bullshit detectors, a working knowledge of literature (meaning you read at least a book every two weeks and know what omniscient voice is), and passion to boot. Good grammar and basic storytelling skills are musts.

We should point out that this will be the first writers group we’ve been involved with in a while. Our last foray into the writers group world proved catastrophic, with nearly all of the short stories being written in second person and one unnamed person going in detail about all the coke she sent up her nose the previous night. This person then explained to us in great detail about the drug-related debauchery she was planning on engaging in that very night and responded to our story with the observation “Cool, I guess, but what’s a panegyric?” She failed to elaborate beyond this.

We should point out that all this was many years after the publication of Bright Lights, Big City.

We later came home and sobbed over how we were seduced by this seemingly credentialed coterie (a few were MFAs) and how this (again unnamed!) writers group took us in for saps.

But we have faith in this new writers group. These people are on the level. So if you’re interested, do drop us a line. Email address is to the right.

* — To wit, the novel is so loosey-goosey and unhoned right now that one character has been temporarily named “Bill Dungsroman.” Hardy har har!

Choose Your Own Adventure from a Freelance Writer’s Perspective

1. It’s close to seven o’clock. You’ve spent most of the day doing everything in your power to put off deadlines. Now the phone won’t stop ringing as you pound away on the computer trying to finish some bland copy for a nonprofit foundation. Nevertheless, you’re curious. Who could be calling at this hour? If you pick up the phone, go to 22. If you keep writing, go to 5.

2. John Grisham’s dull prose has you pondering why you never became a multi-millionaire. Tanenhaus repeatedly calls. Due to unexpected pressure from Times brass (they can’t justify paying an excessive word rate for a freelancer hanging on by the skin of his teeth and demand answers), Tanenhaus asks you to cut your 30-word profile down to 25 words. If you accommodate Tanenhaus, go to 4. If you stick to your artistic guns and stick with the 30 words you promised, go to 8.

3. The midnight oil has burned brightly like Kipling’s tiger. Savor this moment. The hapless drones who must march off to a nine-to-five job can’t possibly compete with this wonderful luxury of walking around the flat in jammies. Just as you revel in your superiority, your spouse, who has spent the day working for a state-funded planning department for scant pay and thankless distinction, arrives through the door. The spouse, suffering from a minor depression, wants sex. If you go through with this, go to 12. If you don’t, go to 14.

4. You can’t give the copy editors an answer. The ten cent words you’ve crammed into the slightly tightened blurb, the idea being that they would make you appear genteel and smart, don’t cut the mustard. You try negotiating with Tanenhaus for an additional sentence or two. But with the NYTBR going to press, there’s no time. Tanenhaus hires an intern to perform your work at one quarter the price. Meanwhile, with the kill fee long forgotten, you’ve had to suffer through another Grisham novel. You burn your entire library and decide that a screenwriting career might be in the cards.

5. Damn the Fleet Street hacks. Damn the amateurs. You’ve spent years working yourself up to this magnificent level of professionalism and poverty. Why stop now? You compose some 600 words on how John O’Hara, Richard Yates, or another dead white male hankering for a 21st century comeback has been unfairly neglected by the cognoscenti, little realizing that Alex, that smug trust fund kid you keep running into at cocktail parties, has already pitched Lewis Lapham on the same subject. But the piece is done. And you’re not exactly one to shun a dead horse. If you write a query letter for the piece you’ve just written, go to 3. If you decide to sleep off your energy, go to 18.

6. Sara Nelson is so impressed by your full-fledged attack piece that she appoints you an associate editor, which involves correcting atrocious copy when you’re not surfing the Internet. But it does mean free ARCs, even if the novel you had hoped to write before the age of 35 falls by the wayside. You eat well when you can afford it. And now that you have an actual job title, the spouse has some tangible vocational position that she can announce to her parents without fear of shame. You contemplate purchasing Connecticut real estate.

7. You bone up on M.F.K. Fisher. But it’s not enough. Tanenhaus watches the way you salivate over your shrimp salad. When the main course arrives, a waiter offers pepper. If you accept the pepper, go to 11. If not, go to 27.

8. Tanenhaus is satisfied and never calls you again. You don’t exactly have Rachel Donadio’s legs. But he does invite you to dinner, assuming of course that you’ll cover him. If you go to dinner with Tanenhaus, go to 7. If you prefer a home-cooked meal with the spouse, go to 13.

9. Sam Tanenhaus bemoans the lack of confrontational writing within your 25-word blurb. Where’s the Wieseltier or the Clive James feel? You have no answer. You meet with Tanenhaus at an upscale restaurant on the west side and he slaps you on the wrist with his portable ruler, which was specially constructed for him as a tchotchke from the good folks at McGraw Hill, who had hoped to ingratiate him. He dons a yarmulke, shouts to you that “He hef no son” and has two men throw you out of the building. You spend years in a padded cell, clutching onto a toy manatee named Simon given to you by Jungians to free you mind. It takes 27 years for you to fully recover. But that’s okay. By the time you’re sane, the flying cars have arrived.

10. You decide that if Top Ramen and Stove Top are the fruits of hard labor, then this freelance gambit really isn’t worth it. You open a co-op in Seattle and specialize in organic vegetables. Two of your friends regularly give you hugs.

11. The pepper makes you sneeze. And you let loose a booger that makes Tanenhaus slightly uncomfortable. If you tell Tanenhaus that the booger was the result of a childhood trauma that you’re too embarassed to go into the details over, go to 21. If you offer Tanenhaus a napkin, go to 23.

12. You’re intimately familiar with your spouse’s contours and genitalia What a dependable port in a storm! Unfortunately, you should have listened to your high school gym coach. Don’t let it all loose before the game. There’s the 2,000 words you have to bang out tomorrow for Elizabeth Spiers. But sore from the previous evening’s gymnastics, you sleep in untll 2 PM and find yourself distracted by daytime soaps. Your editors don’t forgive you and you go back to grad school to get a master’s in zoology. Your freelance career is over.

13. The spouse points to the copious collection of Top Ramen in the cupboard. The spouse points out that the check from the Iowa Herald Press, the “shitstorm piece” you spent several days celebrating over, has yet to clear. If you dine on Top Ramen, go to 10. If you decide that Allah is on your side and you take the spouse to a nice restaurant, go to 19.

14. Sure, let the spouse suffer. You’re an artist, dammit, and the last thing you want to feel is relaxed. It’s that dependable edginess that’s kept the checks coming in. But your spouse has tired of these excuses. The spouse forces you to sleep on the couch. You wake up the next day and shuffle around the refrigerator for a bite to eat. But your spouse decided to move back to the parents and take all of the food. Your credit cards are maxed. There isn’t a single sou in your wallet. And collecting unemployment would be a detriment to your pride. But since there’s none of Cheever’s bread and buttermilk, you die of starvation inside of two weeks. But at least there’s the work to stand the test of time.

15. Despite three years of Spanish in high school, they don’t want to talk. You meet Jorge, the guy who runs the place. You don’t entirely hit it off and find yourself sleeping with the fishes. So much for journalistic credibility.

16. The new Sunday book review format has made this a lot easier than you initially thought. Hell, you might even get a MacArthur Genius Grant out of this. Just when you’re about to submit your blurb to Tanenahus, however, you get a call from Sara Nelson. Nelson has observed your bouncing around. Hell, she’s an expert at it. She offers the magic carrot of writing a Grisham review for Publisher’s Weekly. 800 words. Time to tear that onerous attorney-turned-author a new one. If you accept Nelson’s offer, go to 6. If you stick with Tanenhaus, go to 9.

17. You promise Reichl that you’ll find an angle. Mad with glee, you shake on it over the phone. $500 for 2,000 words. A so-so sum, but a veritable miracle. But you don’t know anyone other than the Puerto Ricans who run the donut shop down the street. And Reichl and her fact checkers demand sources. If you talk with the donut shop owners, go to 15. If you make up your sources, go to 20.

18. You fall upon the dumpy futon. You haven’t eaten since noon. And with no spouse around to second-guess your appetite and your need for sleep, you find yourself pinned to the futon for several days. The spouse, viewing you as a responsible adult, doesn’t count on the last-minute rescue call from Sam Tanenhaus, who expects you to write a 30-word review of the latest Grisham as a dare. You accept. If you write the 30 words without reading the novel, go to 16. If you’re an ethical type who must read the novel before writing the review, go to 2.

19. You enjoy a prix fixe menu at an upscale bistro. You declare bankruptcy, but thanks to recent lax legislation, your debtors are able to incarcerate you. Your spouse divorces you and gets booked on a daytime talk show with the theme, “My Spouse Thought He Was a Freelance Writer and Didn’t Know When to Quit.” Years later, you win first prize in a public access version of American Idol, but you’re not nearly as successful as Jonah Moananu. You found a leper colony in Carmel, California, but have difficulty finding bona-fide lepers.

20. When the blogosphere reveals what a liar you are, you declare yourself Jayson Blair’s illegitimate cousin. You appear on Larry King, sobbing like Jerry Falwell. Hayden Christensen plays you in the biopic.

21. Tanenhaus replies, “If pain’s your game, write a memoir, kid.” You send a proposal to Random House and, to your surprise, they agree to publish 5,000 Boogers of the Soul, your childhood memoir. You win the National Book Critics Circle Award and get tenured at a prominent Eastern university.

22. You’re not really one for discipline, are you? Your spouse has taken on two full-time jobs to support your artistic temperament and this is the thanks she gets?

Well, never mind. You bang out about 500 words, most of it rubbish. You look to the empty bottle of whiskey, the telltale flask you put on your desk in honor of Faulkner but never bothered to replace. Nothing to drink, but the phone’s still ringing.

Bored out of your gourd, you decided to pick up.

It’s Ruth Reichl. She was amused by one of your essays that appeared in the Voice and now she’s interested in having you write something about donuts. You hate donuts. You’re a bagel person. In fact, you don’t see what’s so gastronomic about those sugary monstrosities that have long been the dinner of choice for the fuzz. And you’ve already got five things to finish by Saturday. But the liquor cabinet is empty and you could use a pick-me-up. And this is Ruth Reichl. If you accept the assignment, go to 17. If you say no, go to 25.

23. Tanenhaus accepts the napkin and replies that you have guts. He’s willing to give you the cover essay if you can get published in the New Yorker before the winter. If you accept his offer, go to 24. If not, go to 26.

24. You throw yourself on the knees of David Remnick at a philanthropic function. You offer to draw cartoons. Remnick hires you as a human model. You spend an evening in a frozen and recumbent position, observing various millionaires eating canap鳠off your naked back. Remnick, however, to his credit agrees to put an essay you’ve written in the “Talk of the Town” section. Tanenhaus gives you the cover essay. Real health insurance isn’t far behind.

25. Ruth Reichl tells you that you’re making a foolish mistake and vows to smear your name at the next cocktail function. She hangs up, shortly before declaring you a rank amateur. The Voice stops taking your work. You have difficulty and, with the spouse pissed off with you about royally screwing up an opportunity, you consider a safe career as a taxidermist. Your friends remark that there’s more life in the dead birds than there ever was in your writing. You abandon your writing career and purchase a two-bedroom home in Ohio.

26. You decide to rail against the machine, becoming the editor of a new blog, Flaubert Liked Tennis. The blog gets quoted in the New York Times. You get all sorts of free books but the lacrosse lessons aren’t successful.

27. “Son, that’s the ballsiest move I’ve ever seen a freelancer make in a four-star restaurant,” says Tanenhaus. You’ve ingratiated yourself into the machine. You take Deborah Solomon’s interviewing job and prove yourself even more vicious with your questions than she did, earning the enmity of all bloggers.

A Case for Minor Larceny?

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest article chronicles how artists across several mediums are prone to sampling. While the obvious examples such as George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (taken subconsciously from “She’s So Fine”) and Tarantino’s wholesale lift of the magic marker anecdote from Scorsese’s American Boy are left out, Gladwell does make a strong case for greater sensitivity in how artists “steal.”

If Gene Wolfe hadn’t been inspired by Jack Vance, we wouldn’t have his fantastic Sun books. Nor would we have Eric Kraft without Proust, or David Foster Wallace without Borges, Coover and Gaddis. Lindsay Anderson’s cinematic masterpiece, O Lucky Man!, couldn’t have come into being, had Malcolm McDowell and Anderson not been inspired by Voltaire’s Candide. Should we damn David Mitchell from the blatant Haruki Murakami inspiration in Number9Dream?

I once interviewed Guy Ritchie and pointed out that his subtitles in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels reminded me of the jive talking from Airplane. Apparently, nobody else had pointed this out to him and the stylistic similarity had never occurred to him until that moment. But the scene in question helps to give Lock its lived-in feel.

Months after writing Wrestling an Alligator, while there were a few conscious nods (and revisions) to other influences (the argument clinic sketch from Monty Python, Daffy Duck running around like a loon in his early Warner Brothers appearances), I was shocked to learn that I had unexpectedly included a line from Superman II (a film I had watched too many times as a child): “I’ve seen a lot of sleazy moves in my time.” When Mark finishes his novel, I have no doubt that John Banville will work his way in there somewhere.

I’d hate to see a world where “stealing” becomes so rigid that it fails to account for an artist’s subconscious inspirations. The simple fact is that we are just as inspired from what we read as we are from what we experience. There’s an idea in this somewhere about the pros and cons of novelists as cultural and literary stenographers.

Whatever It Takes, Apparently

Not so many years ago a teacher of the art of writing began the advertisement of his services with the announcement that millions of people can write fiction without knowing it. He would have been safer had he said that millions of people are certain that they can write fiction a great deal better than those engaged in the profession. Even so, it is my belief that the consistent craftsman of fiction is very rare. His talent, which is in no sense admirable, is intuitive. In spite of the dictum of Stevenson on playing the sedulous ape to the great masters, it has never been my observation that education helps this talent. On the contrary, undue familiarity with other writers is too apt to sap the courage and to destroy essential self-belief, through the realization of personal inadequacy. It encourages a care and a style that confuse the subject, and the net result is nothing.

Instead, a writer of fiction is usually the happier for his ignorance, and better for having played ducks and drakes with his cultural opportunities. All that he really requires is a dramatic sense and a peculiar eye for detail which he can distort convincingly. He must be an untrustworthy mendacious fellow who can tell a good story and make it stick. It is safer for him to be a self-censored egotist than to have a broad interest in life. He must take in more than he gives out. He must never be complacent, he must never be at peace; in other words, he is a difficult individual and the divorce rate among contemporary literati tells as much.

— John P. Marquand, Wickford Point

Thoughts Between Coughs

It’s been linked several places, but this excellent thread is a must-read for any aspiring writer. Any neophyte may want to spend their time reading James D. McDonald’s advice rather than subscribing to Writer’s Digest.

Sarah has some good followup to the McCrum article about publishing changes, raising the validity of proposal/synopsis only justification for a contract. But one thing she overlooks is that the new synopsis trend may very well reflect a profit-driven industry looking to cut corners wherever possible. Short-term profits with little concern of the book’s gestalt or long-term profits based off of constant communication between author and editor? You make the call. The goal, lest we forget, is to get people to buy the books. And the longer the book, the less susceptible it is to editing. (See Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, for one.) There’s the additional financial advantage of a long book purchased and then remaining unread on most people’s bookshelves.

Tainted by Influence?

Iowablog: “I think everything I learned at Iowa is wrong.”

These are good, honest words to hear from a young whipper-snapper who wants to write. If there’s a positive spin to this, it’s the fact that Concho is willing to question the lessons she’s learned. I’ve never been in a nuts-and-bolts creative writing class (screenwriting, nonfiction and journalism classes don’t count) and I have only a second-hand idea of what goes down in Iowa, but I do know the merciless world of rejection notices weighed against the ocassional acceptance and/or check. If anything, the pivotal lesson that any writing class or seminar should include concerns the world not giving two fucks about the writer’s circumstances, and a publishing industry that is worse than Cthulhu in its callousness. Any writer hoping to break in must have the thickest hide. Anything less than an iron carapace, a firm resolve and a dedication to the work will send out “AMATEUR” in bright neon lights.

Some folks may recall last July’s Clarion-Wolfe debacle, where an extremely sensitive gentleman mistakenly informed Gene Wolfe that the class disagreed with his hard criticisms. Wolfe bolted. An imbroglio ensued. And there was some controversy over whether Wolfe’s perceived ruthlessness was good or bad for the students. The authoritarian impulse that had gone unquestioned before was replaced by a general sense that workshopping should involve a back-patting atmosphere to foster encouragement.

Well, I cry foul. Constructive criticism is one thing. But personally, I could never trust anyone who would do nothing but praise every element of a lengthy piece I’ve written. Something I’ve observed of so-called “writer’s groups” is that their formation involves stroking egos rather than improving writers and preparing them for the harsh battlefields of Manhattan and beyond. Some of the finest criticisms I’ve received were from people who were honest enough to eviscerate every nicety that was slightly off. To do anything less is a betrayal, a celebration of monkey-clapping amateurism that’s as hypocritical as The New York Times running some bullshit story on sexual fetishes and failing to include the word “fuck.”

The rise of books about writing (and, to a similar degree, screenwriting) has unleashed a Pandora’s box where hope is more prominent than it should be. An “I can do it too!” spirit has emerged, but the hard truth is that writing is difficult work, that even if you manage to finish something, it can be torn to pieces in a New York minute. Even if you get your book published, you will face savage reviews and emerge from the fracas to convince frugal folks to lay down the twenty-five clams to buy the sucker on a book tour.

So why the contentment? Why the entitlement? Why the anti-snark movements?

The answer lies somewhere within the atavistic feel-good jungles that have permeated almost every facet of the liberal arts. The air stinks of softness. Nurture is certainly necessary, but there comes a point when the writer must understand that it’s a tough racket. If a writing instructor doesn’t have the effrontery to call a piece of shit by its true name, then he has no business instructing.

(Iowa lead via Maud)

Queen Anne, Ordinary Life and Assorted Schlepping

Lisa Allardice dares to ask a question that some people have answered, but have refrained from voicing, fearful of being labeled some rabble-rouser to be dealt a harsh blow, never again to be invited to those swank cocktail parties: Is Anne Tyler washed up? Since I value my respiratory tract (and I’ve been known to cave when wine and cheese are placed beneath my nose, but only in weak moments), I’ll only say that I’ve liked Tyler’s books in the past, but reading Ladder of Years on a whim was a very bad idea. I suspect my struggle had to do with what Tyler considered to be the ultimate revolutionary choice for a woman: running away from your husband. And this in 1996 with a rising divorce rate. I think we can all agree that this precludes Tyler from the “contemporary literature” canon.

Also in The Guardian is an amusing and forthright essay from Danny Leigh, first-time novelist of The Greatest Gift. Not only does Leigh try to wrestle with the conundrum of whether his protagonist mirrors his life, but he also confesses that, as a human being, he figures his life experience is pretty banal. But that apparently didn’t stop him from discovering things about himself that he could throw an imaginative spin on.

This article on fan fiction doesn’t nail down any conclusions, but does offer a not-bad overview of K/S and other exemplars of fan fervor. (via Graham)

Heru Ptah apparently made a killing selling his book on the subway. To the tune of $100,000 and an MTV Books deal with an advance in the mid-five figures.

Great headline with disappointing followthrough: Diet books with prose to savor? Fat chance. If only. And this fillip in the Philly. I dare a major newspaper to assess the poetic value of The Atkins Diet.

Quick Links

Apparently, self-publishing at the office pays off. Bruno Perara wrote a novel called Little Murders Among Partners. The book portrayed his co-workers for what they were. The firm fired him. But a mediation court ruled that Perara was unfairly dismissed and awarded him £50,000. So if you can’t get that lucrative advance, I suppose there’s always the unexpected rewards of the middleman.

Mao’s little red books still bear influence.

Edwin Abbott’s Flatland has been mined once again for inspiration (after Rudy Rucker’s Spaceland) — this time, for VAS: An Opera in Flatland, which takes a biogenetic approach. For those interested in the original Flatland, public domain has effected its availability. Fun stuff, if you never read it. (via The Complete Review)

B&N fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley is drunk with power, albeit unknowingly. Even worse, all thrillers are inexplicably held up to a Barbara Kingsolver litmus test.

And, apparently, writing is good for your well-being. Too bad that your life expectancy is slim if you want to be a full-time professional. Go figure. (via Moorish)