April Reading

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


  • "Ysreal" by Junot Diaz
  • "Betrayal" by Patricia Duncker
  • "God's Goodness" by Marjorie Kemper
  • "Greasy Lake" by T. Coraghessan Boyle
  • "Material" by Alice Munro
  • Alligator Dance by Janet Peery

  • Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

Notable Nonfiction
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  • Vintage Baldwin by James Baldwin

  • Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien
  • Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I did lots of reading this month, but not all of it got finished. A word about hibernating books: I have a 50 page rule. If I'm not enjoying a book or getting something out if it in 50 pages, I give up. I used to never give up on books. I used to force myself to get through anything, but that lead to a lot of slow and unpleasant reading. Thus, the 50 page rule was born.

Book raves for the month include Alligator Dance, which I still cannot coherently talk about, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Book Rave: Alligator Dance

Monday, April 28, 2008

Remember how last week I was all, "literary stories suck... wah wah wah?" Forget I said anything.

I just finished Janet Peery's short story collection, Alligator Dance. I am in awe. It's an amazing collection of traditional short fiction. The writing is superb. The stories are superb. (You see why I don't write reviews.)

But what I find even more amazing is that almost no one seems to have read this book. It has all of four Good Reads reviews and three Amazon reviews. This officially qualifies it as the best book you aren't reading.

Go read it.

/End Whining

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Apologies for the temper tantrum in the last post. Lately a lot of the MFA stuff has come back to haunt me. That's the thing about returning being a full-time writer. You get to live the dream, but you get all the nightmares along with it.

Speaking of nightmares, I may go silent for the rest of the week as I'm working on revising the last story I wrote. There are some major overhauls ahead and I have a feeling I should be concentrating on that and not buying and selling my friends on Facebook. (Thank you, hujhax.)

In other addiction news, Hubs brought home SingStar Rocks last night. We got SingStar 80s on a whim a couple of weeks ago and I feel a new addiction being born. I can totally rock 99 Red Balloons. Maybe if the writing thing doesn't work out I can be an 80s pop star. . .

Wrestling with the Real Writers

Monday, April 21, 2008

My productivity last week centered on typing the first draft of a story I wrote last month. I write longhand. My very first writing teacher said that was a huge waste of time and thus began a long string of advice from writing teachers that I have ignored.

For me, writing longhand is soothing. There's something about putting pen to paper that allows me to shut off the editorial noises in my head and just write. Typing is for revising and editing. But most importantly, notebooks do not have the Internet and so I can't click off my story and onto Facebook or Good Reads or chat or any of the other million ways the Internet tempts me to not write.

It's probably a good thing that most of my work is taken up by mere typing because last week kind of sucked as far as creativity goes. It seems I have some demons to deal with and I've been facing them pretty much anytime I sit down to write.

My MFA program cultivated a certain amount of elitism amongst its writers. Between the 40 or so of us in the fiction program, there were unspoken guidelines about what made you a "real" writer[1] as opposed to someone who would leave their MFA and go work in technical writing for the rest of their lives. (Since I have already lost my "real" writer status by doing just that, you'd think I have nothing else to lose.) Real writers, for instance, wrote literary stories. They were usually about drugs and sex and parents and death. The stories were edgy, sometimes violent, and usually involved taking drugs at 12, midgets, monkeys, and other extraordinary elements. They read Borges and Lovecraft and nothing else published after 1975. They didn't come to readings because they were too busy writing (or thinking about writing while down at the bar). Generally, a lot of the stuff they wrote was very good.

If you didn't fall into this category, they didn't quite know what to do with you. When I started the program, I tried desperately to fit into this category. But I developed my love for reading and writing through contemporary fiction and (cough, cough) chick lit. I didn't grow up with drugs or violence and the story I most enjoyed writing was the anti-love story. In the autumn of my first year of the program, one of the "real" writers who was in her last year at the program suggested I look into romance writing. She did so after she'd sat in on one of my workshops and in a tone that left no question about how little she thought of my work.

I went home, cried for a little while, read through my New Yorkers and Best Americans and resolved to write a better workshop story. I don't think I ever earned the approval of my peers, but I improved my sentences and my characters. I became a better writer, even if what I was writing wasn't what I loved. In the end, I liked the stories I was writing and I thought I was doing a pretty good job at them.

And now? I was at a reading a few months ago for the winner of a local short story contest. As the first place winner read, I grew increasingly annoyed. There was the down-and-out protagonist. There were the drugs. There was the fantastical event that existed more in obscure imagery than in clarity. It wasn't a bad story, it was just the exact same story that I'd spent three years reading in the program. And the epiphany here is more about me than about the story I was hearing: I am simply not interested in the literary genre anymore.

The struggle comes, though, that literary writing is pretty much all I've ever known. Prior to the MFA, I had three stories in my name, one of which, I still work on from time to time. I'm having a hard time letting go of what I should be writing and focusing on what I want to write. Of course, the minute I start thinking about what I want to write, I find myself drowning in my own prejudices and elitism.

I'm starting small, but I'm changing that. Last night at the bookstore I bought a couple of books that looked good. They aren't on any literary lists. They will probably not win any major awards. But dammit, I'm going to start reading what I enjoy again. With any luck, it won't be a long path back to what I enjoy writing.

[1] For the record, I hate the term real writer. Do you write? Then you're a writer. I have no idea what qualifies you to be real.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I'm reading Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem right now. By reading, I mean I'm devouring every sentence and every word. I love her style.

On a similar note, I've been thinking a lot about reading for language and style vs. reading for story and character. I think there's value to both. My mind defaults to reading for story and character more so than language and, unless the writing really catches my attention (as Didion's does), I usually have to remind myself to look closer at the language in the prose I read.

One of the teachers in grad school suggested that we hand write passages or entire stories that we liked to get a sense for the style of the piece. It was not enough to simply read it, he said. He encouraged us to get a feel for the cadence of writing the story. In a notebook somewhere I have entire handwritten copies of "How to Talk To a Hunter," "Lust," and "Sonny's Blues." It may sound like busy work. I recall one of my classmates rolling his eyes and arguing that he barely had enough time to write his own stories, let alone someone else's. But I had enough time. And I'd argue that I became a better writer for it because it made me pay very close attention to language in a way that I didn't when I was reading.

I came across a great quote by Julie Kramer that may speak to this: "If authors have to write half a million words before they get published, I'd venture that they have to read ten million." The next time you read something really outstanding, try pulling out your notebook and copying a paragraph or two. If you're really ambitious spend some time re-writing your favorite story. See if it doesn't draw your attention to the finer details of the prose.

Tramps Like Us, Baby We Were Born to Run

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hubs and I are back from the Springsteen concert, but the fangirl in me has yet to stop squealing long enough to let me compose a coherent thought. Lowlights and highlights it is.


  • Hubs and I have the uncanny ability to attract loud people who talk about nothing. In line, we were behind the loud people bantering over the weather. In our seats, we were in front of the loud person who described every single section of the arena that he had sat in. And finally, just before the show started, we were in front of the couple discussing when their next sex night would be. Lovely.
  • I-35 between Dallas and Waxahatchie. WTH, people? Can you not pave a road?

  • Staying at the Hyatt Summerfield Suites for the win. Walked three blocks to the American Airlines center.
  • The band. The only other time I've seen Springsteen was for the acoustic Devils & Dust tour, which, while amazing, had a very somber feel. This concert was more of a party. The energy was high and it was great to see Bruce and the band having so much fun.
  • Hearing "Jungleland," "Born to Run," and "Dancing in the Dark" live.
  • The man in full cowboy regalia that rocked out to every. single. song. He was having a great time and didn't care who knew it.
  • Jon Bon Jovi joining Springsteen on stage for Glory Days. There are no words. None. Just gleeful fangirlish screaming.
More when the squealing in my head subsides.

The Springsteen Reader: Songs

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"We cut Greetings in three weeks. But Clive [Davis] handed it back and said there was nothing that could be played on the radio. I'm glad he did; I went home and wrote "Blinded by the Light" and "Spirit in the Night." With the previously missing Clarence Clemons on the saxophone, these songs were recorded, and the record was finished.

"I never wrote in that style again. Once the record was released, I heard all the "new Dylan" comparisons, so I steered away from it. But the lyrics and spirit of Greetings came from a very unselfconscious place. Your early songs come out of a moment when you're writing with no sure prospect of ever being heard. Up until then, it's just you and your music. That only happens once."

~~from Songs by Bruce Springsteen

One Down, 121 More To Go

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Well, one of the rejection letters I was looking for finally arrived. It wasn't a surprise at all. But to ease the blow, this gem showed up in my inbox the day before the rejection letter arrived.

It might sound like dwelling on the negative if I say I received 122 short story rejections before my first acceptance. But, for writers just starting out, it's important to hear. If you know I was rejected more than a thousand times while placing fifty stories, it might be hard for you to justify giving up after five printed slips. ~~ Catharine Ryan Hyde

Even counting all the submissions I did in grad school, I still have a lot more rejection slips to accumulate before I get to 122. And that's under the optimistic assumption that I could get published after only 122 rejections.

It's my wish that more successful authors would come forward about their rejections. Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that Michael Chabon sold his first novel at 23, but I'm not 23 anymore and I'm much more inspired by writers who endured round and round of rejection and kept on putting their stories out there.

The piece also reminds me of a quote from Michael Cunningham that appeared in The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers. The quote (and I'm paraphrasing as I'm too lazy to move my butt five feet to the bookshelf to look this up) is originally attributed to Marilyn Monroe and goes, "I wasn't the prettiest or the most talented, I simply wanted it more than anyone else. " Cunningham goes on to apply it to himself and writing, to the act of sitting down at a table daily even though it's difficult and you feel brain-dead and dull. You just have to keep on. You just have to want it more than anyone else.

Sometimes I think I'd be much better suited to being the first-timer that hits it big. (Wouldn't we all?) I'm worried that I don't have enough ambition to be the one who wants it bad enough. This worry mostly hits me on days when I've come to a point where I'm stuck or when I need to start something new and the more attractive option is to throw up my hands, turn on the television, and ensconce myself in a non-writing world. But I think if I were to give into that, I wouldn't be very happy.

So in the end, the one rejection hasn't gotten me down and knowing that there are hundreds more to go is actually kind of enlightening. It may take 121 more rejections. It may take 300. Maybe closer to 500 or a thousand. Who knows? As long as I keep writing, the possibility of being published, or having my work read is still out there. The only way to fail is to give up and I'm not ready for that yet.

The Springsteen Reader: Down the Shore Everything's All Right

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Originally uploaded by Absinthe Green
Ivan first traveled to Asbury Park in 1982, soon after the release of Nebraska, three years after supposedly meeting Bruce Springsteen on a service road in San Mateo, California. He had gone to the Jersey shore with his brother, driven cross-country from San Francisco, hoping to get a glimpse of the world beyond the West Coast, and, more important, the world of Bruce. At the time, I was fourteen years old and a big fan of Madonna, and the crowd I ran with though of Bruce as some overly patriotic guy with a redneck heart and a sweaty bandana. Bruce was a Jersey thing; being from the Gulf Coast, we didn't get it.

~~ from "Down the Shore Everything's Alright" by Michelle Richmond.

The Springsteen Reader: Greasy Lake

Monday, April 7, 2008

I try to keep my fangirlish tendencies to the minimum on the blog, but today when I typed "our drive to the Springsteen show" in my head, I was actually squealing, OMG! The Bruce Springsteen concert is only 6 days away. OMG OMG OMG. You see why I'd want to suppress this side of me.

I've been a fan of the Boss since I was eight and yes, it was that damn Courtney Cox video that did it. In the years since, I've become a more sophisticated Springsteen fan. I would not have gotten through high school without my Born to Run cassette and in the months surrounding the first anniversary of 9/11, The Rising was pretty much the only CD in my car stereo.

True to the fangirl within, over the years I've hunted down pretty much anything I can read related Springsteen. In honor of this weekend's trip, I'll be sharing some of my favorite takes from the literary side of Springsteen. Enjoy!

There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste. We were all dangerous characters then. We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine. When we wheeled our parent' whining station wagons out onto the street we left a patch of rubber half a block long. We drank gin and grape juice. Tango, Thunderbird, and Bali Hai. We were nineteen. We were bad. We read Andre Gide and stuck elaborate poses to show that we didn't give a shit about anything. At night, we went up to Greasy Lake.

~from "Greasy Lake" by T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Goals, Revisited

The time has come to rethink my writing goals.

Of the goals that I came up with a few months ago, the only ones I have been particularly successful at are reading and submitting stories. But now that I've been doing this for a few months some of the goals don't seem very realistic, or very well suited to what I actually need. For instance, writing one new story a month has been great encouragement to actually finish stories, but lately I've been feeling the urge to try for a novel. And I don't feel like I'm writing a variety of things, and thus, not getting a lot of writing practice in.

As for the submissions, even though I make an effort to obey the simultaneous submissions guidelines, I get antsy when more than 10 copies of the same story are out. I should get over this, right?

I revamped my goals into something a little more manageable and specific. They'll still need some tweaking and suggestions are welcome. Writers, how do you measure your progress? Word count? Pages? Completed works?

But for the time being here are the new goals:

  • 60 minutes of writing for at least four days a week.
  • 120 minutes of revision (preferably on stories that are close to being finished) for at least four days a week.
  • Read something related to writing every day.
  • Read one short story a week.
  • Continue whittling down the to-read list.
Speaking of the to-read list, I've finished three books from it: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which was amazing, though I'm not sure how I felt about the ending), Maus (a must read for everyone), and Vintage Baldwin. I'm moving on to Going After Cacciato now, but am also caught up with two book club books, so my reading may slow a little.

And, as for the decisions in the last post, I ended up going with all three. I picked up 5:55 while at Fry's this weekend and snuck it in between the two DS games Hubs was getting. I got the other two from iTunes last night. I'll justify The Hold Steady purchase by saying that it will be a great complement to our drive to the Springsteen show next weekend. And I never could get the Shout Out Louds song out of my head, so. . .


Friday, April 4, 2008

I have a severe case of Friday-itis, a condition characterized by spending long hours staring into space and pushing sentences around without actually doing any work. This wouldn't be so bad except that I've also suffered from Thursday-itis and Wednesday-itis as well.

Also, I've been watching the mailbox like a fiend this week and (I never thought I'd hear myself say this but) when are the darn rejection letters going to come in? I'm getting anxious over two stories that I've had two stories out since November. I also mailed a batch in March and have another batch that I'd like to send off before most mags close for the summer. So in this case, getting some rejection letters wouldn't be all bad. (Except, of course, for the spirit crushing nature of rejection letters.)

And finally, on the current theme of not being productive, I'm trying to decide which of these three albums should be my next iTunes purchase:

The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America -- To indulge the part of my that loves a good rock n' roll song like "Stuck Between Stations."

Shout Out Louds, Our Ill Wills -- Happy Swedish pop group whose "You Are Dreaming" has already firmly lodged itself in my head. (Beware! That link goes to a Harry Potter fan video. I am not happy about this, but it's the best version of the song on YouTube. I'm sure spoilers abound.)

Charlotte Gainsbourg, 5:55 -- Lots of beautiful, quiet tracks like "5:55" and "Beauty Mark" that would make a nice accompaniment on days that I do actually write.

What do you think?

Sugarcat No More

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Let's start with the end of the story first: Mr.B is diabetes free. At least, that's what the tests show anyway. We had a vet appointment early this morning and after four days being off the insulin, his blood sugar was perfectly normal.

The vet was also quick to point out that is a rare case. I'm not saying this to brag on Mr.B (though he is the best cat ever), but to warn anyone who might google for feline diabetes info and think that feline diabetes is something that can come and go in a month. Seeing the blood sugar levels return to normal this soon after diagnosis is pretty rare and we are very lucky. In the meantime, we're keeping both cats on the diabetes diet management plan to make sure Mr.B is stable and because it seems to be helping his IBD. We'll go back in four weeks for more tests to see just how stable Mr.B is.

Now, this story actually begins with a less happy trip to the vet. Last Thursday Hubs woke up at two in the morning because Mr.B was pacing in circles on his leg. Now, Mr.B is a weird cat, but this kind of behavior is unheard of. So we woke up, watched him for about two minutes and then I sent Hubs to get the Karo syrup. We gave him a little and then a little more, but he kept pacing and then fell off the bed. At that point, Hubs doled out another half teaspoon of Karo and I called the emergency animal hospital.

By the time we got him in, his blood glucose numbers were back to normal and we were sent off with instructions to watch him for the night. I stayed up until 5 and most of my "observation" consisted of watching Mr.B sleep.

I'm glad this turned out for the best. As I told Hubs last night, I'd like one week, just one week, where Mr.B would stay healthy and I didn't have to call my vet. From the looks of things. I might get four of them.