Sunday, June 29, 2008

Josh Bares Heart, Soul in Response to Seth's Callous Critique


Like a cartoon octopus at a singalong Disney barn raising, your post simultaneously hits a number of nails squarely, and impressively, on the head. Again, I am amazed at how transparent writing is, especially unsuccessful writing. So often I try to hide behind what I'm doing - images, mirrors, devices - but in the end it's all laid out there on the page, waiting for a perceptive passerby to pick it up and be like, "Wait, this isn't a quarter...?"

Nail 1: My inability to have fun while writing. Yes, this is the heart of the debilitation and something that makes me want to run to some reservation where I can sit under a smoke-filled canvas until suffocation forces me to claw my way back into the panther-colored night. The question, then, is how to bring the joy back, and I take your point about the eighty page story seriously because I think it's right on target. For a long time I've been bucking the story form (as I, barely, understand it) in the interests of being original - but by doing this, I realize, I'm forced to rely, as you say, on my talent only. It's like I've got this beautiful, incredibly comfortable sock, but for some reason I spend all my time trying to amputate the foot it should be going on. I'm at sea, in other words, which is one of the reasons, I think, that the language of these pieces feels so disconnected and straining. There's no repose in them, because they don't know what they are and therefore can't settle into themselves. They haven't got a story to fall back on.

(sub-nail 1A: Why can't I write a story? Why do I fear writing stories? Lately, I've come to realize that it has a lot to do with my fear of failure - that is, of "falling" into the normalcy that using a shared form (let alone medium) entails. In other words, instead of solving the problems that everybody's got to solve, I want to find a stretch of beach with no one on it, where I can just fuck around to my heart's content. Which is probably why so much of this shit feels like just that: fucking around. Plus, you've got the idiotic reversal of beginning with the desire to be different, as opposed to beginning with a legitimate difference and then expressing that, via the shared form of the story, in a way so true to your experience that the end construction can't help but be unique.)

Nail 2: Blog/emails vs. "Writing." I think this may be a more mundane, process-type question than it at first appears. In both the blog and emails, I have a goal, an "objective", something I want to communicate. For example, right now, I'm thinking, I want to respond to Seth's comments, and while responding, I want to use the English language as a way to think through what my actual response is (this is, I think, a weirdness of my you might share, or might not: I literally CANNOT THINK about a story outside of when I'm actually writing it. It's like the story doesn't exist outside of the words in which it's written). The solidity of a goal makes it pretty easy to write - it gives me a poise and balance (between making my point and having fun with the writing itself) that is much difficult for me to achieve in an actual story. In a story, I can never tell what's necessary and what's not. When I try to be shapely, I end up underwriting, and when I try to elaborate, the fabric becomes slack and fetid. You say you spend hours, days on sentences, and I do too - but then the sentences I spend hours and days on inevitably end up feeling stupid and overwrought: like when you're talking to someone about basketball and he suddenly starts referencing the Nichomachian Ethics. I mean, it could very well pertain, but there's a breach of manners - manners here meaning, not just surface courtesy, but the deep fabric of people communicating. Something throws the whole conversation out of whack, and the guy's embarrassed, not necessarily because he tried something different, but because he tried something different and then allowed it to sit there, out of context.

Nail 3: Fear of the mundane. This is very true, and I wonder if, again, I'm not just trying to make prose do something it's not supposed to do: exist as language before it exists dramatically. As D'Ambrosio says, poetry is inspiration, but prose is work. You've got to sweat it out. But I fear sweat as a sign of my own imperfection as a writer and human being. You know what it is? I want to be Mozart. And I'm not Mozart, and I realize that, but even realizing that, I find myself secretly wanting to believe that I'm secretly secretly Mozart, and that all the demands that art makes on me are really just affronts to my genius, and what Writing should really be doing is bowing before me, its lord and master. Immature, right? A sure fire way to never write anything worthwhile. Ever. Unless you're Mozart. Which I'm not. But I could be. No, I couldn't. It's so fucking WASP/Puritan/Calvinist, Seth: I recognize the lineaments of my sick and wasted ancestors in each of my sentences, their faces and anxieties. The desire to be a member of the Elect, which used to mean God's Children, but now means An Artist - proven by faith, though, rather than actual work. Ugh. It's embarrassing, sometimes, how persistently I seem to be trying to destroy myself as a writer.

But, there's always hope... After all, this is what we're all going through, right? One thing that Warren Wilson has convinced me of is that, though we each have our variation, the spectacle of another writer's struggle to become something real is valuable, maybe even heartening. And yes, one thing the Puritans got right is that life really is an allegory. My story (I have the arrogance to believe) is your story in the same way that my fork is your fork, or my car is your car.

Anyway, I wanted to answer your generosity with generosity, and I will. I've been trying to decide how to take on your story. Before I got to that, though, I had to try to communicate all this to you, because I was really pleased and happy that you took the time to read my stuff and give me comments on it. As I've said before I think, I admire and envy your joy. If we're similar in general, we're certainly different species, and it's bracing and important for me to get your point of view on this stuff. I certainly think we should keep swapping stuff.

Anyway, 'nuff said for now. Let me know if any of this hits home, resonates, works for you. Again, for all my obsession with my version, what I really want and need to hear is your version.

And then I took a shit...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Seth Reads Josh's Novel and Responds in Shock


Turns out, I just went through your novel draft in a traditional way, lightly editing in places, leaving comments. I didn't want to mess with the language too much because it's really what I love about your writing. That said, read my comments about precision and superfluity--perhaps they'll resonate. Basically, I think your rich language could be made even richer by excising some of the extras you throw in, here and there. For example, you use "that" a lot, and it doesn't always seem to be needed.

How long do you work on a sentence? In my recent story (not the one I sent you) I'd say I've given each sentence at least an hour's worth of thinking. Some of your sentences seem so carefully wrought; but then, in some places, I feel like you're drifting by on talent. It's obvious to me: you are much, much more talented than me. BUT: I think there is a but! The but is that I enjoy writing, a lot. This is a major plus. From your blog, from our correspondence, I assume writing is more tortuous for you, less fun. Why? Can it be fun? It seems like you have a blast writing Seventh Draft stuff. And e-mails. So what's different about the stories?

Actually, I think I have a sense of why you're complaining of writer's block, having gone through something similar a few years ago. I could be way, way, way off base, but perhaps it's in the work itself, the fact that you're setting up a tremendous, daunting project and that you're worried about sustaining your rigor.

Your "novel" is not really that; it's basically, a series of vignettes, loosely tied together by the presence of the narrator's voice. A few things seem to happen, but there's no sincere connections, yet. I wrote eighty pages of a novel once; something somewhat similar. Near the 80th page I found myself thinking, What the fuck am I doing? I'm not even telling any sort of story at all! Sustaining this tremendous, loose sort of prose-poetry is impossibly hard. It's just daunting. Why don't you figure out a story? Go back, edit, cut whatever you need to--make a story!

My suggestion:

Think about how your sentences work in the piece, how each sentence might deliver a reader into the scene, but also represent what’s going on in the story. Think about how a sentence might also contribute a larger meaning to the story; it should echo previous incidents; it should illuminate. I’ve been thinking about this idea in terms of the mundane: how a writer might offer a very simple, but needed expository sentence, while also contributing something else to a story, something larger. You seem to shy away from the mundane. Your sentences are all relatively spectacular. I can't recall any mundane sentences. Sometimes, to make a story, you need to write "And then I took a shit".

Anyway. Phew! Hope these comments spark something for you...