Who Is . . . ?

Who is Steven Millhauser? I was first introduced to his fiction when I was 22 and in graduate school; the book was Martin Dressler, the city New York, and if you write a dreamy, magical-realist take of Manhattan a century ago, you’ve got me at the first page, even way back then.

Then, years later, I have a very visceral memory of reading Steven Millhauser’s story collection The Knife Thrower.

Then I spend my morning reading his short story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” from his new collection Dangerous Laughter. Most of my own stories are about disappearance and escape—just a reoccurring theme, don’t take it too literally… or should you? Anyway, with his story he’s taken out pieces from my own mind, and written them far better. I can’t even be jealous.

He, too, loves short stories. This is from an interview from failbetter:

My heart lies in short forms, in stories and novellas. I don’t reject novels. But I’m suspicious of them, those big noisy things that don’t know how to stop. Most novels remind me of a drunk at a party, the sort of guy who puts his arm around you, leans in close, and can’t shut up. Novels are the skyscrapers of literature, the Wal-Marts of literature. It’s a particularly American obsession: size as power. It’s as if a work of literature, in America, is supposed to be the size of the entire country.

So, who is he? Sometimes I feel like he can see into my mind.

* * *

Who is the person who propped up the naked, armless mannequin in the middle of the empty floor of the abandoned storefront that had once been Canal Jeans, pointing one detached arm at its far-off body, claws up, reaching…

No, really, who was it? I appreciated the setup and would like to know.

* * *

Who is our upstairs neighbor, she of the vacuum and the loud shoes? What does she do on the floor to make it so dirty? Does she think of the people who live below her? Does she wake up at night, after I’ve had a nightmare in the loft bed so close to the ceiling where above I imagine is her bed, because she’s heard my screams?

* * *

Who will be reading the stories I just submitted to literary journals this weekend? Will one (all I need is one) give me a shot?

* * *

Who is the mystery girl in my novel and why does she keep running away from me?

* * *

Who is my nemesis?

All I’ll say about her is that she does exist—though she may not know I exist, which makes her even more solidly my nemesis—and she once starred on TV.

* * *

Who is it I thought I was all this time? If called on to describe myself at age thirteen I would have said “painfully shy.” As I remember, I was the girl who never spoke up in class or in groups of people, spinning in my own thoughts but not saying them aloud if more than two people were in the room. I was awkward. Confused. Intensely unsure of myself. And yet—this is strange—it seems that I am remembered another way.

To this day I have one friend I still see from one of my previous lives: E.S., my best friend in junior high school who lives in Manhattan, just finished her master’s program, and just got a job teaching high school English at a school downtown, yay! Somehow we’ve stayed friends all these years, going from getting in trouble in French class for passing each other notes that experimented with awkward uses of French profanities to a shared fashion sense of all-black ensembles decorated with rows of safety pins (why? don’t ask) to reading Anne Sexton in graveyards to both going off to the strangest colleges we could find (mine was Antioch; hers was Hampshire).

She knew me at my most awkward. So I thought for sure she’d remember me as the quiet one in the corner, too shy to speak, because, after all, that’s how I was at age thirteen, right? But no. What she remembers is this one afternoon, when we were in the car with her mother and got stuck in a huge traffic jam. Apparently I somehow talked my friend into getting out of the car and going down the line of cars, stopping at each window to say hi to every driver.

Her mom remembers it, too. Every time I come up in conversation, she brings it up: “Remember when Nova got you to go say hello to everyone stuck in traffic?”

So that was me? The thirteen-year-old girl so sure of herself she went around saying hi to strangers on the highway for no reason? Is this really something I once did? I wonder if my memories of myself are completely distorted, like when you look in the mirror and see something else from what the world sees. That could be it.

Either that or the girl in the traffic jam was some other girl entirely. I wonder . . .

The Downer Post

I don’t know how many posts I’ve deleted instead of publishing them this week. I’m in the part of the downward spiral where you try to explain it to yourself, to others, and then you see there’s no real reason for what you’re feeling, any excuse pathetic, but you’ve got all this motion going and even if you wanted to stop spiraling, you sort of can’t. I’m spinning too fast to make it stop.

I’m just down. Feeling frustrated at what a slow writer I am when I’m writing something that counts. I can bang out a work-for-hire manuscript with alarming speed, but when it comes to something that matters, something of my own? Let’s just say I’m lucky to get one paragraph every hour—and I only have two hours on weekdays in which to write. And how is it possible that I am still working on my outline for my novel, still? I can’t even call it an outline. It’s more a hybrid mishmash of Stuff That Happens in an abbreviated form, but with dialogue sometimes, and with chapter titles… It’s like a rehearsal novel. I’m all dressed up, acting out the writing of it, but I’m not writing it. I just wish I could really write it.

I may also be depressed because I’m having trouble with the last act. Usually middles are my poison, but this time, with this story, it’s the events just before the end. I know the end note; I just don’t know how to handle the big explosion.

(Not to mention the Stuff That’s Happening in my real life and how I want to run away to Mexico.)

But at least I have been reading. I’m in the middle of Unaccustomed Earth and while I usually get intensely turned off by hype and never want to read the books everyone tells me to read (Hi, Harry Potter), this book of short stories is really good. I’m liking it even better than her first one. Of course I can hype with the best of them… I am now texting my sister to tell her she must read Jesus’ Son… and don’t even get me started on Good Morning, Midnight.

This morning I will continue my rehearsal novel. In the blink of an eye the workday will be over. And tonight I’ll keep reading this book. Maybe talk to e about my outline—he’s my plot magician, my secret weapon; he’ll help me finesse my story. No reason to be down, hey!

HEY. Did you hear me? No reason to be down.

No reason.

None.

Submitting Stories While Blindfolded

So I wonder if I should include a little disclaimer on my cover note when I send out my next batch of story submissions:

If you’ve already seen a version of this story—or, worse, have it in your slush pile and haven’t gotten around to rejecting it yet—please forgive me. My hard-drive died and I lost all record of where I sent things. Also, I have a horrible memory. Also, I tend to stow rejection slips in weird places all over the apartment, so if you sent me one already I may have lost it forever, or destroyed it, or fed it to the mouse.

p.s. I am not as much of a flake as I may sound.

p.p.s. Fine. Maybe I am.

p.p.p.s. But would that matter if you like the story?

In reality I’m just going to avoid mention of it and hope I don’t make a fool of myself, or annoy any important people, in the process.

I also lost all my literary journal research when the hard-drive died. I had been researching good venues (print mostly) and keeping a list of journals that read during the summer. Now what?

Please, if you know of some good resources for literary journal markets, email me at the address in my left-hand sidebar or comment here.

Don’t Wanna Get Up?

Here are my Tried-and-True Tips for How to Wake Yourself Up When It’s Saturday Morning and You’re Drifting on the Couch and the Clock is Ticking and You Have Just Two Days to Write and Sleep Is Not an Option:

  • Keep a lamp on, shining down directly in your face; it’s extremely uncomfortable, and hot in the summer.
  • Set an alarm in the bedroom, an alarm in the living room, and a cell phone alarm wherever you left the thing and hope you didn’t have it on silent or else you won’t hear it anyway.
  • Leave a hard-backed book on the couch, wedged in under your hip, and don’t dare knock it to the floor to let yourself get comfortable.
  • Picture your morning coffee—mine is chocolate-flavored, but choose whatever flavor you want—and try to taste it filling up your mouth, running down your throat—what? That makes you start to choke? Good. Then maybe you’ll sit up.
  • Make yourself feel dirty (um, literally, like with mud or spilled pea soup all over you, stuck in your hair, seeping into your ears and between your toes). Grossed out? Perfect! If you feel disgusting enough you might force yourself up to get in the shower.
  • If you start to dream, use all your strength to insert awful and horrible images that make you want to desperately wake up and stop dreaming: images such as the ENORMOUS cockroach you accidentally, in a panic, crushed on the street while running from it (I must have good aim); scary movies; scary politicians; raw meat.
  • Proceed with half-asleep guilt trips that make you feel like a big nothing. “You will never make it as a writer if you don’t get up off this couch right this minute, loser” can work, but only if you don’t know you’re bluffing and only if you don’t depress yourself too much and start to cry.
  • Move one leg to the floor so you are half on the couch, half off; it might take a while, but at some point you will slip off the couch and will fall to the floor below. It could hurt, but the impact should wake you up (as well as your downstairs neighbors, but maybe they need to get up to write too?).
  • Gathering up all your strength and every ounce of faith you have inside you, pray… for a telemarketer to call.

One Day, Two Lives

I spent two hours in another life yesterday. I had a long lunch with my editor in the middle of my workday, as if I were a real author. At the restaurant, for a short time, it felt like I was. We talked about what the head of the imprint had to say about my writing. We talked about what the Barnes & Noble sales rep had to say. (I am thrilled, on both counts.) We talked about the cover and what it could be like. It occurred to me that there are these people I’ve never met, people who actually read my pages and then sat around a table talking about me and decided to take the leap and publish these pages in an actual book, even though I haven’t finished it yet. Isn’t that weird, like on so many levels? My editor and I talked for so long that a whole other lunch party came and went in the tables beside us.

My editor told me how people are responding to the voice of the first three chapters (all I’ve really written so far). Such a great response. Which means… which means… well, I really have to work hard to make the remaining chapters just as good. No pressure!

Also there’s this: I really, really like my editor. I mean I want to be friends with her. We have so much in common. What do you do when you like your editor that much? And isn’t it a coincidence that this person I never met really is a lot like me and, of course, knowing that, of course, she responded to my writing. I got very lucky in pitching to her, very lucky.

In a way, I’m happy I went at this without an agent. The working relationship between me and my editor feels great to me; I don’t know what it would be like with an agent in the middle. Of course, we also talked about agents and when and if I’d look for one and I said not yet—too late for this particular book anyway. Maybe later… I’m just not ready to go through that again (and I also have to finish my other manuscript first).

So then, as always happens, lunch was over and it was time to return to my other life… you know, the one where I mark things up with a red pencil and I’m no one anyone would sit around talking about at a meeting. That’s the one that feels like my real life just because I spend so much time in it… but I sure do like the other one better.

p.s. The title of my book might change… Sales, or was it marketing?, may like the original title better… Not sure how I feel about this yet. I’m just going to focus on finishing my outline now and see what happens.

My Painfully Slow Progress

I am plotting out my book in great detail, scene by scene by scene, a method I’ve only really used for work-for-hire novels (because I had to, under the contract), but I guess for my own stuff it could be helpful, too. I don’t have to stick to it exactly when I’m writing… But as I go I do feel the shapes coming clearer, the people. This is the whole point, huh? Well, don’t say you told me so.

It is taking an exceptionally long time, I’m afraid. Some days it feels like I’m making no progress, but I have to be. Right, right?

As I work through the scenes I keep getting flashes of Robert McKee. He said a scene has to turn, so if you start in one direction, you can’t continue on in the same direction and end just as you were. The emotional values of your characters are energized either positive (+) or negative (-), so if you start your scene at a high point (+), don’t keep going + + + + and end on +—what’s the point of the scene then? Start + and end -. Or start – and end +. You could even start + reach a moment of – and return again to +. That’s my memory of it anyway. I realize I’m garbling the explanation, and I could look it up online but I don’t feel like it. I just sometimes, as I’m working through scenes, have these little symbols hovering over my page. I’m all + -. Or – + -. Or + + + + + + + – + – + – – – – +, but no that’s just crazy.

I’m sure I’ve talked before of that weekend I was forced to spent three days at Mr. McKee’s infamous Story Seminar. I was sent by the job I had at the time—as an assistant editor for a comic-book company; they sent about a dozen editors so we could be better with plots… this was the summer of no flashbacks (seriously; flashbacks were banned). By the third day, I was so burned out, the hard seats of the lecture hall just killing my back, that I had to stretch out on the floor where I couldn’t even see Mr. McKee (and I may have even, for a few minutes or so, napped? the people who paid their own money must have been horrified). It took me years to be able to watch Casablanca again.

But I guess that story seminar made its way into my subconscious, hearing him bark out his directives, hearing him attack people whose cell phones went off… his methods have seeped into me, as if from a dream. I think it’s just actually really helpful, as a writer, to hear people talk about writing. The mechanics. The pieces. Their methods, even if they’re not yours. Then you reinterpret them in your own mangled way, as I did this + / – thing, and make it your own. Hey, today, by the way, I woke feeling (-) for just a second but then felt (+) for many hours and now, though I have to go to work (-), I do have this outline to come home to tonight (+) and the stories I’m working on for my collection (+++) and I know I can’t accomplish everything I want to this summer—I am slow slow slow (- – -)—I will still try.

(+)!

Bug in Your Eye

I was walking east toward Broadway—a light wind, a rising sun, just minding both my own business and the occasional garden hose washing the beer off the sidewalks—when I turned the corner and had this uplifting moment of clarity. It was about writing, and not. About life, and more. A perfect moment, really, in which I knew exactly what mattered and what didn’t. And then a bug flew in my eye.

Isn’t that how it is? You’re finally content and then a bug flies in your eye.

Truth is, I’m having a hard time letting go of my recent rejection; it feels somehow symbolic. My insecurities over what people think I am and what I want to be are flaring up, like how I used to get hives. I’m anxious about that summer workshop—why did I want to go again? My roots are showing. I shouldn’t read Poets & Writers magazine—it depresses me. Where we live, what we do, what we owe… bugs, all.

So I’ll just make some summer plans. And by that I mean goals to hit, deadlines of my own. Don’t plans sometimes make it feel all better? In those watery moments when you think it really is possible to finish all those short stories by this date and send them out on submission and finish your collection and also the novel that’s due and, hey, let’s throw in a cleaned-out closet or two, you’re unstoppable. Bug in your eye? Not this time! You know, this may be why people wear sunglasses.