Monday, October 31, 2011

A Halloween Poem

Before they go out for trick or treat,
This is what straw-colored fruit bats eat.

This straw-colored fruit bat lives at the zoo.

And this one is frightfully scary, too!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Too-Tender Hearts Upon Our Sleeves, Or Skin As Thick As Thieves

I recently read, I think in an e-mail from Indianapolis Monthly, that there was a new local food magazine called Edible Indy; and I thought I saw some people walking around with copies at the Irvington Fall Festival this afternoon, so I was on the lookout for whichever booth had sample copies that they were giving away. This was after we had been there for a little bit and eaten already and done one pass around all of the booths. Amy and Jackson were waiting in line for one of several bounce houses, and I was doing yet another pass to see if I could find the place where they were giving out that magazine*, and at one point I found myself looking at a dude wearing sunglasses and pushing a stroller…and sort of looking at me liked he recognized me, the way I was sort of looking at him like I recognized him.

For a second, I thought that he looked vaguely like Ana’s husband, Damien; but they are in Australia, so there’s no way that I would run into either one of them randomly like that at the Irvington Fall Festival. I almost kept walking, but then decided that there was no way that the person could have made me think of Damien, and been looking at me like he recognized me, and not actually be Damien. So I turned around and stopped and took another look, and sure enough, there was Ana, and in the stroller was their little girl, Nara Elgin; and of course, it was Damien. How I recognized him behind sunglasses on a street full of people when it had been years since I had seen him? No idea. No idea whatsoever. But there you go.

And I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say, despite the fact that I am super fired up about National Novel Writing Month starting here in a couple of days and the fact that I have just recently submitted three different stories—one of which I think is quite good—to three different writing contests, which constitutes as much real effort put into getting my work out there and published (and maybe paid for) as I have ever done. That didn’t come out right. What I meant to say was that I’ve only ever sent stories to about three other contests before, in all of the years that I have been writing and that I should have been sending things in to contests.

(And of course, I had to go back and figure out exactly how many contests I had entered since I started writing. I wouldn’t be moderately OCD if I could mention something like that, not be 100% sure of the exact number, and then let the thing pass. No…that would be semi-normal—none of that nonsense for me. And the answer, if you’re interested, is that I had previously entered four contests—two in late 2002, one in late 2003, and one in late 2009. I did not win any of them, but got subscriptions to [or prize issues of] the journals in question, and received a form rejection letter from two of them. I never read the copies of the journals that I got from the first three contests—until I cracked open the copy of Mississippi Review mostly by accident earlier this fall—but I did read most of the two issues that constituted the subscription to the journal for the contest I entered in 2009. I don’t have any record, near to hand anyway, of entering a fifth contest, but I have a copy of the Missouri Review on my shelf, and I can’t imagine that I would have just come across that at a bokstore and picked it up—especially since the date on it places it within the time frame when I was entering contests the first time. And of course, being moderately OCD [though undiagnosed], I will have to go back through some of my writing folders later tonight to see if I can turn up any record of having submitted a story to the Missouri Review.)

But boy, do I digress. The point was that I could not think of anything interesting to say to these two friends of mine—at least I hope that’s what they are—whom I had not seen in years, even though there were at least a few interesting—if minor—things going on in my life at the moment. I’m proud of those things, even if they’re not much, and I talk about them ad nasueum in this blog space—so why am I reluctant to talk about them out loud, to actual in-the-flesh human beings?

That, friends and neighbors, is a hell of a good question; and I don’t know that I have a good answer for it. It’s possible that I am not as proud of these little half-accomplishments as it feels like I am when I write about them at home, alone, in front of the computer. If it were not for the Stats that you can check on Google, I would not even be sure that anyone reads this blog anymore; and while that is fine—I have long maintained that what I am up to here is now mostly writing exercises for my own edification, and that if others find such material to be interesting, then that’s cool, but it’s not what motivates me to write or to post these musings—it may be creating some kind of false bravado, an artificial sense that I am doing anything more than writing in a vacuum.

I might also be blowing it way out of proportion, too. I hadn’t any coffee at that point, and I was heading in the direction of the coffee shop when I ran into them. Yes, I was keeping an eye out for that magazine, but I was also heading for coffee. It’s a dodgy business getting coffee at Lazy Daze on the day of the Fall Festival. I don’t know for sure if it’s their busiest day of the year or not, but I would be willing to bet that it is—and that means you can lose a lot of your day waiting in line. There is a Starbucks in Irvington, but I have no idea if it is their busiest day of the year, too. I have literally never set foot inside that store. I can’t really think of a valid to go into Starbucks at all, given how many great indie coffee shops we have in Indianapolis; and I certainly can’t of a valid reason to go into a Starbucks when one of those great indie coffee shops—maybe the greatest of them—is literally two blocks away.

The truth of the matter, though, is probably that I am just socially awkward—or that I have become socially awkward over the years. I tend to avoid that kind of social interaction, but once I realized that it was, in fact, Damien I had seen, I wanted to turn around and say hi to those guys. In fact, it felt like I wheeled around so fast that there might have been a collision if someone had been walking too close behind me. And then when I got turned around and said hi, I didn’t know what else to say, nor how to say it. Looking back on it now, with the benefit of a few hours, I probably looked and sounded like an idiot.

I have trained myself to avoid running into people like that, because I am not proud of the fact that I am still doing the same stupid shit I was doing thirteen years ago when I got out of college. I’m still working at a movie theatre (and even if it’s a little bit better than the movie theatres I have worked at in the past, and even if I spend more time now thinking about cost of goods and payroll dollars than I do popping popcorn and sweeping floors, it’s still a movie theatre, one that, I’m sorry to say, is getting more and more like the ones it used to be better than as each day goes by); and I still haven’t published any writing. I haven’t really even written anything for anyone to reject, other than those aforementioned stories—and the ones from those first few contests were not very good. It’s so rare for me to want to see anyone from back before I hadn’t done anything with my life that I literally have no idea what to do or what to say when that does happen. My brain cannot compute what is going on in front of its thin candy shell.

But oddly enough, for all of that looking and sounding like an idiot, if that was indeed how I came off, and with the benefit of being able to think about it in the hours since—I have figured out something important about myself; and that is that, though I have over the last couple of years made progress with my writing and am proud of that, I still experience the reflexive emotion of not being proud of what I have done with my life since college. (And that lack of pride has nothing to do with Amy and Jackson. They’re awesome. I’m talking about work here. Things I have done—or in this case, not done.) I am extremely happy with and proud of what I have accomplished over the last couple of years, including two very short stories published in Ichabod’s Sketchbook, winning National Novel Writing Month last year, submitting three stories to contests this year, mostly completing a draft of a novel within the time frame I set for myself earlier this year, writing in my journal every day, and focusing the things I write in this blog in a way that I hope is helping me to always improve and sharpen my writing. It’s not enough just to have done those things that I feel good about, and to feel good about having done them. I also have to feel good about sharing the things I have done and how having done those things makes me feel with the people that I care about.

* Yes, I know that that seems like a lot of work to go to for a magazine. I could easily afford to subscribe to the magazine, which is $32 a year for four issues; but that’s not the point. The point is that it would be foolish to throw down any amount of money on an unknown when you can get a sample for nothing. I can hope for something that is as good as Lucky Peach, but I probably won’t be that…ahem…lucky. (And yes, given my occasionally vocal disdain of Dave Eggers, I’m a little bit surprised to hear myself express appreciation for Lucky Peach—but you have to give credit where credit is due, and Lucky Peach, or the first issue anyway, is a great magazine.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Monster Season

I was all set to start writing another warm-up exercise today before I went to work, and it was going to be about Steve Jobs and Apple, a piece that I had started writing shortly after Jobs passed away, but which I stopped working on because there was already so much out there. I basically had what I have already written here, and then I checked my e-mail and got an IU basketball newsletter from the Star.

And then Bob Kravitz goes and drops a question in today’s column that is impossible for me to resist, so now there will be two things for me to write today, and an even bigger challenge. Can you do two 1700-word posts, thereby potentially getting two day’s worth of work done in the span of one? I have to return to the idea that it’s much easier to write when you are channeling things onto (virtual) paper that you already have in your head, which is what I have been doing with these long posts over the course of the last week or so; and I sort of wish that I could start in on my NaNoWriMo project, just to see if I really can get 1700 words on that as easily and quickly as I have been getting 1700 words on all of these other things. That would be cheating, though, and there’s no point in doing National Novel Writing Month if you don’t want to do it the right way, because the whole point of it is to be the kind of exercise that helps you to find out if you can do that kind of work in that amount of time.

So then, to Mr. Kravitz’s question. First we link to his column for today, and then we speak briefly about it. He makes twelve observations about the Big Ten (in honor of the twelve teams in the conference*), one of which is that, “If Purdue’s Rob Hummel can stay healthy and have the kind of season most expect him to have, it will be one of the best college basketball stories of the year. Even IU fans have to feel like rooting for this guy. (Right?)”

It’s sometimes hard for me to tell where the friendly nature of a rivalry ends for some people, and where it turns into outright dislike. I have talked about this once before, and it still puzzles me. Unless there’s a silly little trophy involved—which, in and of itself, has no more meaning than the game over which it is being played—how is it any sweeter for Indiana to beat Purdue than it is for them to beat anyone else? (Hell, anymore, it’s nice when Indiana can manage to beat anybody, regardless of whether or not it’s Purdue—and regardless of whether it’s in football or basketball) I can understand the concept of rivalry a little bit more with respect to the Colts and the Patriots, because there is often—though most assuredly not this year—something big at stake when those two teams play each other. Plus, for a long time it was the Patriots that the Colts could not beat—neither in the regular season, nor in the playoffs, when it really counted; and the Colts-Patriots rivalry is a relatively recent thing—maybe going back ten years, but probably less than that. Indiana and Purdue have been playing each in everything for like a million years or something.

Some years Indiana is better, and some years Purdue is better. I just don’t get the point of hating another school just because they are your rival. I know I’m not a very good sports fan anymore, but I just don’t get it—haven’t really understood it for a long time. I hope Robbie Hummel comes back fully healed and has a great season, even if it seems like the odds are against him. For those who don’t know, Hummel was a standout at Purdue through most of three seasons, before he tore his ACL and missed the end of his junior season. He was expected to return for his senior season, but then re-tore the ACL during a practice and missed that season as well. After surgery and rehab, he is on track to return (again) for his senior season this year.

And Indiana fans have sort of been in the same boat. Though not of the same caliber as Hummel, Maurice Creek has missed parts of the last two seasons at Indiana because of injury; and he, too, is on track to return to the floor this year—for what should be a much-improved Indiana team, with the addition of high school phenom Cody Zeller. So Indiana fans, especially, should understand what their Purdue counterparts are going through, and they should be rooting almost as loud for Hummel to come back and have a monster senior season as the Purdue fans are. I don’t imagine many of them are, but they should be. Purdue’s head coach, Matt Painter—who is going into his seventh year as the head coach at Purdue, and I can barely believe that that many years have gone by since he took over for Gene Keady—is doing a great job with that program, developing talent in much the same way that his predecessor did.

Tom Crean is slowly but surely getting the Indiana program back on its feet, after it was demolished by Kelvin Sampson. Crean has the aforementioned Zeller in this year, and he currently has the #1 recruiting class in the country coming in for 2012. Painter and his crew will have to be on their toes if they want to be able to compete with Indiana in the next couple of years—and that seems like the logical end to the concept of rivalry to me, a friendly kind of excitement when you think about the idea of playing a particular team. You want to beat your in-state rival for bragging rights, or whatever, but it should never get beyond fun and games, and there should be handshakes all around when the game is over. There’s always next year!

I just don’t get how it develops into the kind of thing where you hate the other team or wish any kind of ill upon their players or coaches. I felt those kinds of things when I was a kid—especially for the Duke teams after 1992, the year that Duke beat Indiana in the Final Four; but college basketball was more important to me back then than it is now, and the fact remains that I was, in fact, a kid then. I grew up, and then grew out of it, because there was no reason for me to continue to bear any ill will toward Duke. I’m not going to say that it wasn’t pretty sweet, ten years later, when Indiana improbably knocked off a much better Duke team in the Sweet Sixteen. Was it a little bit sweeter because it was Duke that Indiana beat? Sure it was—but that’s all it was, just a little bit sweeter. There’s nothing wrong with Duke because they beat Indiana in 1992.

In fact, it should be something of a point of pride to Indiana fans that Duke is as good a program as it is. Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke head coach, broke into coaching as an assistant at Indiana, under the tutelage of Bob Knight. He only spent one year at Indiana, but he went on to coach at Army, where Knight started, and then took the head coaching job at Duke in 1980. This past season, Coach K won his 900th game as a head coach, becoming only the second coach in Division I history to win 900 games. The first coach to 900 was Bob Knight.

Okay. That’s all I’ve got. My writing time is just about up for tonight, and this has not been as good a post as some of the others that I have been writing as warm-ups for National Novel Writing Month. In fact, I’m using this especially lame last paragraph pretty much just as filler to get to 1700 words; but that’s also part of National Novel Writing Month—forcing yourself to keep going even when the writing isn’t very good or isn’t pouring out of you quite as well as you would like. What you have at the end of the month is going to be crap. The time for revision starts on December 1st. Before that, all you’re doing is writing, and trying to get as much down as you can. If this were actual NaNoWriMo work, it would be a prime target for revision after November 30th; but since this is only a warm-up, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is keeping it going, and getting through to the end.

Oh, and the answer to whether or not you can get two 1700-word posts done in one day? No. Not at this point, anyway. That would have been a lot of writing, and would have required way more time in front of the computer than I had at my disposal today.

* Yes, there are 12 teams in the Big Ten. For years, it actually made sense, and there were only 10 teams in the Big Ten. But don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you that college sports is about anything other than money, because college sports is all about money. The Big Ten added Penn State to the mix in 1990, largely because Penn State was a football powerhouse in a conference that—up to that time, and apart from Michigan and Ohio State—was mostly thought of as a basketball conference. I believe the theory was that adding Penn State would make the Big Ten slightly more competitive in the Rose Bowl, a New Year’s Day game that traditionally matches the champions of the Pac-10 and the Big Ten against one another, and which has mostly been dominated by the Pac-10. Penn State has appeared in all of two Rose Bowls since they entered the league, but I guess maybe it might have been more if not for that whole Bowl Championship Series thing, which is the worst idea ever in the history of sports, other than Myles Brand.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Feedback Loop

It’s possible that I have not made a go of the writing yet because I failed to take college seriously enough. I got through five years of college (one of those years was only part-time, nine hours each semester) without taking a single 400-level course. The requirements for the degree (back then) stated only that you had to have X number of hours at the 300- or 400-level; it never said anything about taking a certain number of 300-level classes and a certain number of 400-level classes. I was always afraid of the 400-level classes because they sounded hard in the course catalog. They were probably supposed to sound hard, but I never developed the right set of tools for working as hard in college as I should have done. The problem was that I got along for far too many years getting pretty good grades without really putting in a whole lot of effort.

See, I skipped second grade, and I was in the academically-advanced class in elementary school for grades four through six. Then I was in the X classes—what we called the academically-advanced classes when we moved up to the big bad world of Creston Junior High—in grades seven through nine (back then, only sophomores, juniors, and seniors attended Warren Central). By ninth grade, my grades were starting to flag in some of those X classes, and my first year at Warren Central, as a sophomore, would be my last in X classes. X English was the last one, and at the end of the semester, the teacher interviewed each student individually and made a recommendation for the next level in English. Most of the X kids were going on to the two-course Great Books series, with the caveat that the courses would be difficult and rigorous. She recommended that I not pursue this course, and I wound up taking 20th Century American Fiction.

She was marginally notorious, among the students at the time, for having supposedly had a nervous breakdown. I don’t recall if this alleged breakdown occurred at school or elsewhere—though I’m sure I knew how the rumor had it back then—but the result was that people thought she was a little goofy. I don’t recall a strong opinion of her either way, though I remember that she talked very quickly and sometimes had to repeat words. She also introduced the whole bunch of us in that sophomore X English class, albeit inadvertently, to author Bret Easton Ellis. His most recent novel at the time, American Psycho, was creating something of a stir for its strong, graphic descriptions of sex and violence. Though a number of men met gruesome ends at the hands of Patrick Bateman, he was particularly awful towards women—first by having sometimes violent sex with them, and then by, you know, cutting them.

Today, of course, a random mention of a novel like that would surely not take place inside a public school classroom, but things were different then—or at any rate, frivolous lawsuits and class actions, brought by the kind of shady lawyers who by rights should meet their own ends at the hands of Patrick Bateman, were not remotely as prevalent as they are today. I was deeply into horror fiction and horror movies back then, so I immediately checked the book out of the library—I would have been, let’s see, 14 or 15 at the time, and there was no self-checkout at the library back then, so the staff at the Warren Library must have thought nothing of letting me check out such a book at that age. I didn’t understand the novel at all, of course, but I liked reading it, because the sex and violence parts were titillating, which was part of the point—though the wild excesses of 1980s Wall Street that led Bateman to commit such horrific acts were lost on me; but Ellis would remain on my radar, and I would go back years later and read the novel again (several times), and I also saw the film, with Christian Bale, and once I got the satire Ellis employed—Bateman at one point introduces himself to a couple of girls at a bar by saying that he’s into “murders and executions,” instead of saying “mergers and acquisitions”—I liked the novel even more. Ellis has become one of my favorite writers, and I actually like an earlier novel, The Rules of Attraction, better than American Psycho.

But that’s not the best thing that she did for me. Though I wasn’t happy about it at the time, the best thing she did for me was to recommend that I not go into the Great Books courses. She steered me toward 20th Century American Fiction, as I said, and it was in that class that I got to know Mr. Neal Shortz. He would go on to have more of an influence on the writer I was to become than any other person I have ever known. But in 20th Century American Fiction, he mostly just gave reading assignments and then left us to read quietly to ourselves in class. There was some class discussion, but I don’t remember if there were papers or tests. It was in that class that I discovered A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath, and Winesburg, Ohio. I also had the misfortune of reading All the King’s Men, which at the time was one of the most boring novels I had ever read not having to do with adultery and red letters. I should probably have another go at it, though, because I am much more interested in its subject matter of political corruption than I was in those days.

The class might well have helped to shape my interest in literature, but the main thing it did was get me acclimated to the personality and teaching style of Mr. Shortz, who would be my teacher for College Research and Review (commonly known as College Comp), the following year; and it would be in that class that I would learn—sometimes the hard way—how to master the building blocks of grammar to craft solid, persusaive pieces of writing. I don’t remember what all of the specific class assignments were—the things we wrote about—but each week would start with…actually, I don’t remember exactly how the assignments started, either. Maybe we got the reading assignment on Friday and had to have it done by Monday, and then we wrote the composition in class on Monday. Either way, Mr. Shortz would set some sort of reading assignment, and then we would spend one full class period writing a composition on that reading assignment. We would get the papers back the next day and then have the opportunity to revise them in class and also to take them home that night to complete the revisions. However, if you turned in a composition that contained even one sentence fragment or run-on sentence, you got an automatic 65 and could not hand in a revised composition.

I turned in one composition that semester that had either a fragment or a run-on, but only one. I sort of wish I still had those papers, but I imagine that they got lost in the shuffle between high school and now and got discarded at some point. I do still have the big research paper that was the equivalent of a final exam for that class, though. We all had to choose a subject or person from the Harlem Renaissance and write a paper on that subject or person. I wound up with Langston Hughes, and it was not just an opportunity to put everything I had learned about writing that semester to use; it was also a chance to learn about one of the most interesting periods of art and literature and music in American history. That introduction paved the way for me to enjoy a number of different works by black writers in several different classes I took in college, including one whole class on black literature at IUPUI; and I wound up getting a 95 on that paper, which was an A-, from a teacher who very rarely gave A grades.

When I started college, I thought that I wanted to major in business management, because I had spent part of the summer between high school and college “working” at a comic book shop inside a flea market near our house. That last summer, the guy who owned the shop was going through a rough patch in his marriage, and pretty much let me run the show in his absence. I opened the shop, worked all day, and then closed the shop—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, every weekend. The owner even had me make the rent payment for him a time or two. I enjoyed the autonomy and the work, and thought that I had a knack for it. What I did not have was a knack for the prerequisite classes that you needed to get into the business school. Unfortunately, I kept at it until sometime during my sophomore year, when I finally decided to dump the B-school—after having completed so much of the prerequisite work that I was actually admitted to the business school—and take on an English major.

The seeds of not working hard enough in classes had been sown all throughout junior high and high school, as the work got harder and I was no longer able to get by on natural ability; and it didn’t help that I spent the first several semesters of my college career taking mostly classes that I didn’t care about at all. I was a solid C student the whole time I was taking business classes, and even into the semesters after I quit the business school; but I had moved up a whole letter grade by the time I graduated, finishing as a solid B student with a lit major—quite a ways from the yo-yo who couldn’t get into Great Books in high school. But if I had gotten into Great Books, I might not have had Mr. Shortz for College Comp, and the writing bug might not have bitten me as hard as it did.

The whole idea of a feedback loop seemed to work better in my head while I was thinking about it this morning at work. Now that I am at the end of this NaNoWriMo warm-up piece, the idea no longer seems so clear. By not working hard enough in high school, I managed to Plinko my way into a class with a teacher whose rigorous grading forced me to become a better writer in a very short amount of time; and yet in spite of how much better I got by working hard in College Comp, I coasted through college without working very hard and without speaking up much in class. I dropped really hard classes, and avoided the 400-level completely; and even after college, I still wasn’t working very hard, and it took me way too long to realize that I didn’t really know myself at all, that I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about, what I wanted to say. That, in some ways, goes back to family, what I wrote about in the previous post—and maybe that’s the real feedback loop. I don’t know if my lack of closeness to anyone in my family is because I didn’t express an interest in family, or because my parents never talked about it much, or because I wasn’t listening when they did. It’s probably a bit of each of those things, and it’s maybe too late in the game to try to pin down exactly what went wrong and why.

I am working hard now, though; and even if the writing doesn’t bear fruit—and by fruit, of course, I mean piles and piles of money—I sleep well knowing that it is good work, that it addresses themes that are important to me, and that the time I spend on it is time well spent, time spent learning more and more about myself and the world around me—and then, hopefully, expressing well with words those things that I have learned and that I am still learning.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Perfect Free Shipping for Large Price

After Shane M. White

So the thing I’m going to write about tonight is whether or not I should be a hypocrite when it comes to buying books on the magic Internets. Except, yeah, I’m not really buying books. I’d be buying two magazines, though both are girthy enough that they could pass for books. But you know what I did when I got online tonight? I looked them both up on Amazon, found them both for less money than I had expected to pay, and was nearly ready to check out when I thought that maybe I should at least call the Barnes & Noble at Clearwater Crossing to see if they were going to carry the one that is a current issue. Then I decided to call the other “nearby” Barnes & Noble stores to see if they were going to carry it. (I would not have had to call around if Borders still existed. River Crossing always carried Granta, and I would have just gone over between sets on Friday night and picked it up, no worries. But no—now I have to make calls, and check the Internet and whatnot.)

And just real quick, so you know what I’m talking about, the two magazines are Granta, issue 117, and The Comics Journal, issue 290. Granta is a quarterly literary journal—117 is the next one—with a different theme for each issue. The theme for issue 117 is Horror, and the issue features a new short story by Stephen King. I came by this information in a Stephen King Newsletter e-mail, but that e-mail also said that Granta 117 is available for sale on October 27th—that’s tomorrow to you and me, kids (or today, depending on when I get this finished and post it)—but the folks I talked to at Barnes & Noble tonight said that the current issue stays on sale until November 13th. Maybe it takes awhile for these things to get across the pond. (Granta is published out of the U.K.)

The Comics Journal stopped putting out a print magazine when they got to issue 300 in November 2009, but apparently came back with an even bigger issue 301 this past August. That’s what I’ve been able to gather from the Internet, anyway. Comics Journal 290 had a lengthy roundtable discussion with a handful of comics professionals and Monte Schulz, son of Charles, wherein they discussed the merits (or lack thereof) of the recently published biography of Charles Schulz, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, by David Michaelis. I read this biography and liked it very much, but the Schulz family, Monte in particular, has been very outspoken in their disappointment with it. Monte says that Michaelis cherry-picked his sources in order to support a pre-ordained agenda. Reviews of the biography, including one in the Wall Street Journal by Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, were positive, and I’ve been curious to read this roundtable, but I just never got around to getting online to get a copy of the issue in question. I happened to be thinking about it earlier tonight and realized that the cover prices of the issues would be more than $25, which would qualify for free shipping on Amazon—that’s mostly why I checked Amazon first. As will be made clear if you elect to keep reading, I looked into it further after I had that first inspiration.

I got a definitive “no” from the guy at the Clearwater Crossing Barnes & Noble. He told me about the re-evaluation they did with their magazines earlier this year—it’s all based on sales, he said…go figure, right?—but he also said that it looked like Granta had been dropped earlier than that. The folks at the Carmel and Greenwood Park Mall stores were less certain of themselves, but each eventually managed to conclude that the current issue doesn’t go off sale until November 13th. The Carmel store has that issue—I know because I have been to the store recently and seen the issue on the rack—but the guy at Greenwood said that they had not received any copies of the current issue, despite the fact that they usually carry the magazine.

I’ve been dropping money on literary magazines a little more than usual this year, partly because you need to know what kind of work journals are publishing if you want to submit to them, but also because I just like to read them, and I think that you ought to support the things you enjoy, to the extent that you are able. I don’t buy Granta very often, though, because it’s pretty expensive—cover price is $16.99—but the one or two issues I have bought I have thoroughly enjoyed. I know that the Stephen King story will just wind up being collected into his next book of stories that comes out, but I’ve always enjoyed horror writing in general, and I’m interested in the work of some of the other authors listed in the issue’s contents, including Don DeLillo and Roberto Bolaño. I’ve never read DeLillo, but have heard good things about him, especially a big novel he wrote called Underworld, which is set in New York, among other places. The late Bolaño has a pretty solid cult thing going on right now, mostly, I think, on the strength of his novel 2666, which I read last year and enjoyed very much. There’s also a story by Paul Auster, whose interview with The Believer I read not too long ago (and whose wife, Siri Hustvedt, was featured in a recent issue of Poets & Writers) and really enjoyed—one of the more enjoyable interviews in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers; and one by Daniel Alarcón, who read a Bolaño story called “Gómez Palacio” for a New Yorker podcast.

And now to procuring copies of both of these magazines. The library actually has a copy of Comics Journal 290, but it’s bound up in their archival magazines, and not available for checkout. I don’t recall exactly how long the Peanuts roundtable is, but it’s very long, and would take far too long to read for me to just sit there at a table in the library and knock it out. I called a few comics shops when I first heard about it, but none of them had back issues of the magazine, so that pretty much leaves just the Internet. I could probably come up with an excuse to go up to Carmel sometime and get a copy of Granta at Barnes & Noble, but it’s an awfully long way to go just for a magazine—and unless it’s a weekend trip, the traffic is bound to be bad

So the first place I looked was Amazon, where I found a used copy of Comics Journal 290 for $0.37, listed in “very good” condition from a third-party seller listed as “bargainbookstores”; but for $0.37, it could just about be falling apart at the seams, and I’d take it. They also had Granta 117 for $10.95, six dollars less than cover. The two together did not qualify for free shipping, but even with shipping at about four bucks for each item, the grand total would be less than if I had bought both at cover price and got the free shipping. The problem, of course, is that buying from an outfit like Amazon is part of the reason that bricks-and-mortar stores like Borders are going away. So I fired up Barnes & Noble to see what I could find there, and I found pretty much the same thing—used copy of Comics Journal 290 (it was even from the same third-party vendor, though here it’s $1.99) and new copy of Granta 117 at $10.95. The shipping was even the same, about four bucks each.

Not a whole lot of difference between the two, except that going with the Barnes & Noble website would at least be supporting a company that operates bricks-and-mortar bookstores. The online model might be cutting into actual sales at those bookstores that they operate, but getting my dollars that way instead of losing them to Amazon would at least help them to be able to continue to operate those bookstores. In the long run, of course, the few dollars that I am going to spend on this transaction are a drop in the bucket for either company, and will make no real difference in the grand scheme of things. Buying online will also push a tiny bit of business to the U.S. Postal Service, because I’m not about to spend any extra money to have it shipped in a day or two by one of those overnight couriers. The post office needs more help than Barnes & Noble, though, so in the end it’s probably a push. I help the post office by buying online, and I maybe help Barnes & Noble a little bit more by going out of my way to pick up the issue of Granta at their actual store in Carmel. (Of course, the sales tax would go to Hamilton County, which I’m not in favor of supporting, but what the hell? It's a buck and change. That won’t buy much in Brainardville.)

And then in the end I wound up not pulling the trigger on either transaction, the Barnes & Noble one or the Amazon one. No help from me for the postal service or the bookstore today. I’ll wind up doing it tomorrow, or making some excuse to go up to Carmel here in a week or two. There’s a new Stephen King book coming out on November 8th, and I’ll have to go by a Barnes & Noble to get that, and that might well be the excuse I need to go up to Carmel to see if they have Granta. I’ll have to go the Internet route at some point to get the issue of Comics Journal 290, and if that’s the only thing I’m going online for, it really won’t matter if I use Amazon or Barnes & Noble—except that in some small way it will matter, even though the fact that it matters won’t matter to anyone but me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Just When I Thought I Was Out...They Pull Me Back In

I’ve been on vacation for the last six days, and that’s part of why I have been able to pound out the last three fairly length blog posts (which have doubled as warm-up exercises for National Novel Writing Month, all of them containing more than the necessary daily word count to stay on pace for 50,000 words by November 30th); but another part of it is that getting that many words, in one writing sitting (which can encompass several hours and overlap the doing of other things unrelated to writing, such as cleaning the bathroom or organizing photos from the pumpkin patch), seems to have gotten easier since I have started actively working on it over the last few days. Intuitively, this makes sense, given the old adage that practice makes perfect; but there have been many nights where I have struggled mightily to get even a fraction of the 1700 words I have surpassed in each of the last three posts. (And it remains to be seen how well it will work when it comes to fiction. Most of what I wanted to write in these last few posts has already been in my head. Once I start in with National Novel Writing Month, I’ll be making most of it up as I go along. That’s where I’m afraid that I will run into trouble with pacing.)

Now that I’m back to work, there is much less time for writing, either fiction or blog posts. I started on a little story this afternoon, though, and had nearly 1300 words almost before I knew what was happening. Like much of my writing, it’s a fiction piece that started out with little nuggets of things that actually happened—and then it went off in directions I had not begun to imagine. One of the things that I find myself struggling with in real life is the issue of family. Other than the people living in my house with me—my wife and my son—I do not have a close relationship with anyone in my family, either on my side or on Amy’s side. Other than Amy and Jackson, there are only two people—again, on either side—that I even see on what could be considered a regular basis. That would be my mom and dad, who still live where they have lived since not long after I arrived on earth. Amy and Jackson and I live in the same zip code they do, though we could not live much father apart and still be in the same zip code. We live about half a block east of Emerson, where 46219 becomes 46201; and they live two blocks west of Post Road, where 46219 becomes 46229.

And that’s pretty much it. My brother lives in Kansas City, and we see him maybe once a year when he comes home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I have four cousins, only one of whom lives in Indianapolis—at the moment…I think—and I never see him or his mom. The other one lives in Chicago, and I can’t remember the last time I saw him, although it must have been at Grump’s funeral. One of the others still lives in Jersey, I think, but I have no idea about the fourth—she’s in the theatre business and travels a lot. Their parents still live in Jersey, but I haven’t seen them since my grandmother’s funeral, going on eight years ago. I could probably find some or all of them on Facebook, but I have no interest in Facebook. I’m not close to anyone on Amy’s side of the family; the likeliest contestant there is her youngest brother, but we only really ever get together for holidays or the occasional Kings Island or Cedar Point trip, and even when he agrees to get together on holidays (not always a sure thing), I miss those events a lot of the time because of my job. Amy’s middle brother is only slightly less isolated from the rest of his family than North Korea is from the rest of the world; and he keeps reptiles.

This is not, however a forum for airing the family’s dirty laundry—which I have no desire to do—so that’s about as far as my theorizing about why I’m not close to anyone is going to go; but I’m beginning to feel the compulsion to explore these things in my writing, especially the Jersey connections on my side of the family. And just like the little story started to erupt from within me this afternoon, so too has this blog post, such as it is so far, erupted from within me in the thirty-odd minutes that I’ve been sitting at the computer since I got home from work. That thirty-odd minutes has yielded about 500 words (to go with the 200-odd I got on this before I went to work), but I don’t think I’m going to get anywhere near 1700. That means I probably won’t post this, since I’ve only been posting the ones that make it to 1700 words in one day’s worth of writing. (Note: I started this on Tuesday and finished it on Wednesday, though I had most of the words down Tuesday night. I had to cut some things and edit a couple of paragraphs to make the main points clearer, but it was mostly done Tuesday night, and so counts as a postable NaNoWriMo exercise. The point is to work on finding the time and inspiration to get out enough words each day to stay on pace. This exercise took longer than the ones I have posted previously, but it accomplished the same end.)

I’m not averse to airing my own personal dirty laundry, however. Whatever responsibility I bear for not being close to anyone in my family hinges on two things: the first is my job, and the second is my failure (so far) to make a living as a writer. I started doing the movie theatre grind when I was eighteen years old, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college; and back then, I loved it, because that was where my friends worked, and the hours were agreeable to someone who had never (so far as I can recall, at any rate) been a morning person. Those were also the first heady days of being able to say “no” to my parents when they said that it was time to do something or go somewhere. Whether I wanted to or not, I often had to work when they had planned some kind of family function, and I have no doubt that there was a part of me that reveled in being able to do this thing—go to work at a place I loved and being with people I loved (or at least really liked a lot)—instead of doing whatever it was that my parents thought I should be doing. I gave myself to it wholeheartedly, and the result was that I worked really hard at the job and became very good at it—and managed to distance myself from my family in the process. This was not intentional, but it was a consequence of what I was doing at work.

(One of the worst work-related decisions I might ever have made was when I quit a job one of my professors at IUPUI had offered me in order to take an hourly management job at the theatre. The professor had asked me to help her in the very early stages of creating an online Shakespeare course, and I had accepted the job and begun the work—which started with scanning into a computer images from an illustrated screenplay of Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour, 70mm epic version of Hamlet, from 1996—before I got the offer to move up into management at the theatre. If memory serves, I actually tossed the idea around for awhile and thought about what I would be leaving behind, because there was no way that I would be able to do both things; but I thought I wanted the management job more than anything else in the world at that point in time, and I took it. I don’t remember if I called the professor or told her of my decision during class or while I was doing some work for her one afternoon; but I did tell her that I could no longer do the work that she had offered because I had accepted a job doing something that I had wanted very much to do almost since I started working at the theatre. I had a chance to get in on the ground floor of creating online college courses, and I passed, for a fucking hourly management job at a movie theatre. I don’t know what else there is to say about that.)

The other thing is my failure to make a living at writing. I could use parentheses at this point to say that I have only “so far” failed to make a living at writing, but that ain’t the truth. I have failed at it. I have failed at something that I am very, very good at. Writing, in fact, might be the thing that I do better than anything else. But it doesn’t pay the bills, and I had always sort of thought that by this point in my life, it would. From here to the end of this paragraph is second-draft material, because what I started to get off on was why I have failed at writing; but that’s not why the fact of it has contributed to my not being close to people in my family (and this applies to people other than family, too). What makes it an issue with me and family is that, quite frankly, it’s embarrassing to answer the questions about writing the same way, year after year—“I’m still working on that novel that I’ve been working on since college.” Look at me, what have I done with my life in the—yes—thirteen years since I graduated from college? Not a goddamn thing. This is not a pity party, however. This is an exercise, part of an attempt to understand how family and writing are related and how the fact of one influences the fact of the other. I think that part of the answer might be that I need to write about family in some way in order to come to terms with those issues and move past them in order to get down into whatever deeper themes I really want to write about. I think one needs to understand one’s place in one’s family—not just be aware of it, but really understand it—in order to truly know oneself. That’s a hurdle I need to clear.

Another one is finding out why my dad thinks he “can’t” tell me any more about his uncles and the Jersey mob than he has already done. But that’s another story entirely.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Writing Update

I have spent much of 2011 continuing with the progress on writing that I started to make in 2010, and I have managed so far to achieve two of the goals that I set for this year. The first was to complete a draft of a novel by the end of June. I was well on the way toward this goal when we left for Kansas City at the end of April for my brother’s wedding, but I spent longer getting toward the end than I would have liked, once we got back. I did manage to get to the end, but there were some hiccups along the way, and—as usual—I’m not entirely happy with what I have. I plan to pick up where I left off at the beginning of 2012, with one of my already-planned goals for the new year being to have a second draft of the same novel completed—using the Scrivener software to help with organization—by the end of March. This is half the time I allotted myself to complete a first draft this year, but I should not be writing the second draft completely from scratch (though with my track record, this is a distinct possibility).

I hope that using Literature and Latté’s Scrivener software will help me to stay focused on my primary theme and keep things moving along. Ever since Apple decided to pull the plug on AppleWorks, my word processor of choice, I have been using Bean, a free application that is a stripped-down word processor that just gives you space to write. The upside, apart from cost, is simplicity—you have to tweak a few things in the preferences to get the program looking the way you want it to look, but there isn’t a whole manual’s worth of things to learn, like there would be with Word or, say…Scrivener. The downside is that organization is left entirely up to you. I’ve never been one to outline, because I have always been afraid that doing so would destroy some element of the spontaneity of writing—those “accidents” I have been talking about in recent posts, the irrelevant things that I referenced from the Joanna Scott essay in Black Clock. Having said that, though, it has become abundantly clear that I need to have some kind of organizational system in place—not an outline that tells me where to go with each new section or chapter or part, but rather a system that gives me the tools to gently steer me in the right direction when I start to go astray—when those irrelevant things invade my thought process and take the writing off in a direction that I don’t want for it to go.

Scrivener’s project templates provide just this type of system, and the bonus is that the software was designed specifically for Macs. The days of total incompatibility between Macintosh and Windows machines are long gone, thanks to the advent of an open, Unix-based Mac OS, and the switch to Intel processors; but even though that is the case, I am still a little bit isolationist when it comes to software. I generally find that software designed for the Mac works better than other software, although the most recent version of the Safari browser is a notable exception (and one of the very few annoying Apple software products that I have ever encountered). I have only begun to scratch the surface of everything that Scrivener can do, but part of the goal of completing the second draft is to get myself familiarized with Scrivener in a crash-course kind of way. I like what I have seen so far: when you fire up the program, you select from a menu of templates, like Blank, Fiction, or Scriptwriting; then you get an interface that is reminiscent of the Mail interface, with a Binder (where the sections and parts and whatnot are stored in a hierarchical manner, like file folders in a list view) on the left, toolbars at the top, and a writing space in the middle; and from there you can add new “files” to the Binder, as you move from section to section, as well as view your writing spaces in a corkboard view or an outline view. The preferences are no less daunting than those in Word, and you have to spend some time getting things set up just the way you want them; but Scrivener is designed for creative writers, unlike Word. It’s also cheaper, and updates are generally free of charge. They’re on version 2.1, and the only time they have ever charged for an upgrade is when they released 2.0—and that upgrade was only $25. I plan to get to know Scrivener at the same time that Scrivener helps me to get a better handle on the novel and make the second draft a much better piece of writing than what I have right now.

For the second half of 2011, my goals were to work on short stories for contests during July, August, September, and October, and then dive into National Novel Writing Month in November; and with this in mind, I took out yet another subscription to Poets & Writers. I have subscribed to Poets & Writers off and on over the years, and I have sort of a love/hate relationship with the magazine. I’d have to go back through the issues I have saved up to make a complete list of writers I might never have heard of if not for profile pieces or cover stories about them in the magazine—a short list would include Jennifer Egan, Mary Gaitskill, and Donna Tartt; there have also been illuminating articles about writers I already knew of, including Jonathan Franzen, Toni Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk, and Jay McInerney; and even when the articles are on writers who don’t do all that much for me, there is always something in there about the writing process, and I find that kind of thing endlessly fascinating. The listings for contests and prizes takes up over a third of the pages in the current issue, and all of those listings are vetted by the editors, so you can feel comfortable submitting to them without having to worry about whether or not the contest is legit.

The hate part of the relationship comes into play when there is a long article or (ick) whole issue that focuses on the business end of writing. If I have ever had a dream, it is to make a living with my writing; and I understand that to do so means that I will have to dirty my hands in the nuts and bolts of the business of writing, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like reading about it. Every three or four issues, you get one that has a group of editors or agents on the cover, and you read over and over again about how hard it is to break into publishing, or how much of an advantage it is to get an MFA and then teach at a university while you work on your writing at night; and, once again, I understand that this is information that writers need to know, that forewarned is forearmed and what not…but that kind of stuff can be very dispiriting. It’s the commodification of something that comes from the soul, damnit, and it just feels dirty. If I ever manage to find an agent, whose business is the business of writing, who feels the same way about the thing, then I’m going to be set.

Every now and then, though, I get a subscription offer in the mail from Poets & Writers, and sure enough, one showed up earlier this year, offering a year (six issues) of the magazine for $9.95. For any magazine other than weeklies (which are always cheaper to subscribe to), I look at the subscription price and try to decide how often I would buy the magazine on the newsstand over the course of the next year; and if the money I would probably spend at the newsstand is more than the subscription price, I consider subscribing—if I think I would actually read all of the issues. Poets & Writers is $5.95 on the newsstand, so the one year for $9.95 meant that I would spend more money at the newsstand if I bought only two of the next six issues. I don’t buy the magazine at the newsstand all that much, but I can’t really imagine that a calendar year would go by wherein I would only buy one issue; and since one of my goals this year was to get some stories out to some contests, it was a no-brainer to send in the subscription card.

The funny thing is…I only wound up entering one contest that I read about in that first issue of my new subscription. I knew that I wanted to submit to that contest as soon as I came to it in the listings, and I spent part of the four month period allotted to stories writing the one for that contest. (I also spent a large part of the time period working on a story for a contest I had come across before I started taking Poets & Writers again.) But the remainder of the list I made of contests from the back pages of that first issue failed to yield anything that suited me; and yet in spite of that, I managed to write three stories and submit them to contests, well before the start of National Novel Writing Month. I also had a second story published in the third issue of Ichabod’s Sketchbook, but I’m not sure that I’m going to try to come up with anything to submit for the fourth issue. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which are…um…I don’t know, not politically correct? Certainly not diplomatic, at any rate.

That gets me pretty much up to now. I don’t know for sure what I’m going to do for National Novel Writing Month just yet, although I am pretty sure that I am going to work on what will be one-fourth of what I would like to be a very long novel about Irvington. I have a couple of other ideas that I have kept set aside for November, but a series of happy accidents a couple of weeks ago while Jackson and I were out for a walk while Amy was at choir practice made me start to think more seriously about this Irvington novel, which I have had percolating in the back of my mind for some time. It would, I think, be the most challenging of the several ideas that I have had for NaNoWriMo this year—and that makes it both scary and exciting. We’ll see what happens, I guess, starting one week from today.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Elusive Borders Essay

I tried to do a second National Novel Writing Month tune-up exercise by going for 1700 words on the closing of Borders, but I only got to about 1200 words before I ran out of things to say—and yet here I am trying it again! It’s just another big corporation gone by the wayside, though in this case due at least as much to bad decisions the company made as to that whole recession thing people have been talking about; but it is just another big corporate chain, even if it was one that gave something to Indianapolis that no indie store has been able to do. There are still Barnes & Noble stores around town, but shopping there is not the same experience that it was at Borders.

I never bought much from the music or movies sections of Borders stores, even if they had something I wanted that I could not find at Best Buy*. The score to the film Revolutionary Road comes to mind. (Leaving aside the fact that the film was just a mediocre adaptation of a really fine Richard Yates novel, the Thomas Newman score was haunting and lovely.) I was not surprised that Best Buy did not have it in-store, and I was also not surprised that Borders did have it and that they were charging an arm and a leg for it (relatively speaking). It was something like $17.99 or $18.99 at Borders, and I actually had the CD in my hand at, I think, the downtown store, and was just about to grin and bear it and take it down to the checkout counter—when I decided that I would finally try the ol’ iTunes Music Store, where it was only $9.99. That’s still the only thing I’ve ever bought with iTunes (other than one song from the Vs. re-issue that just would not rip correctly off of the CD I bought at Luna), but it was totally worth it.

I don’t buy DVDs at all anymore, and that’s mostly because the movies I like enough to own are things that Amy would never want to watch with me. Other than the occasional collector’s edition, like those versions of the Lord of the Rings movies that came in a box with a collectible sculpture, or the collector’s edition of The Lion King (pre-3D re-release), I rely on Netflix and the library for any DVDs I want to watch. Borders charged an arm and a leg for DVDs, too, and are there even any indie video stores out there? I don’t know, and it doesn’t mean so much to me that I’m going to spend the time to find out.

Books, on the other hand, are tremendously important to me, and always have been. I was into books before I was into music and movies, and though I still love music and movies, my interest in them has cooled somewhat over the years. Mainstream music is hit and miss, and almost all mainstream movies are terrible. Literature is pretty healthy, even if printed material, as an aggregate medium, is in trouble. E-books were a spectacular failure the first time they turned up, because no one wanted to sit at their computer and read for very long; but this second iteration is hitting, due largely to the viability of portable devices like the Kindle and the iPad. That doesn’t mean that physical books (and the bricks and mortar establishments that trade in them) are dead, but it does mean that they have to change the way they do business.

They have to provide a means for reading e-books, which Barnes & Noble managed to do with their Nook e-reader. They developed the device themselves, married it to the Android platform, and launched it two years ago. Borders got into bed with Kobo, but didn’t launch the device until almost a year after the Nook came out. Borders was never any great shakes at the technology stuff anyway. While Barnes & Noble jumped solidly into online bookselling, Borders limped along at first on their own, then in partnership with Amazon, and then on their own again. And there was also the problem of the revolving door at the CEO position and changes in ownership.

But they got their stores right, at least. They installed bookshelves in the walls, which made the stores feel more like libraries than places of business. They still had racks and fixtures out on the open floor, but they made much better use of their wall space than Barnes & Noble, where things are packed in tight and the lighting is dim. It always seemed to me like their selection was better, too. That might just be my impression of the Indianapolis Borders stores versus the Indianapolis Barnes & Noble stores, but it always seemed like there were more copies of the books on the shelves at Borders—so that you had more to pick from, to make sure that you got a book that was in good shape.

Borders generally had a better selection of literary magazines, too, though I have only become very interested in journals in the last couple of years (and so can’t be sure that I am remembering this entirely correctly). I remember that the original Castleton store had a whole end rack in their magazine section that contained nothing but literary magazines, and that the River Crossing store had a respectable selection. They always had Film Comment and Poetry, both of which I have to actively seek out now when I want them. The Clearwater Crossing Barnes & Noble doesn’t carry Film Comment, and they only occasionally stock Poetry. I have to go to Greenwood or Carmel to get Film Comment now—which is pretty far out of the way to go just for a magazine.

I made my last visit to a Borders store on the Tuesday before they shuttered the Indianapolis stores for good, and that visit was to the south side store. Jackson was at school that day instead of at home with me (I think maybe because of Labor Day—was it that long ago?), so I had time to make my way down there before going into work; and it was nice to be able to make that store the last Borders store I visited. If I had not made time for that trip, the store at the Castleton Square Mall would have been the last one I ever visited, and that would have been sad, because that store sucked from the day it opened. The location was terrible (whoever designed the parking lot when they added those shops on the outside of the mall is an awful, awful human being), the lights were always turned up to 11, and it was the only Borders I can recall ever visiting that felt more like a place of business than it did a place to be at peace among books. By contrast, I used to stop at the south side store on my home from Amy’s, before we were married, when that store had just opened and stayed open relatively late. It was comforting and inviting, like the others of its kind in town.

And on that last visit, there were still lots of gems to be had, when the discounts were up to 70-90% off the original price. I first picked up an anthology of stories that had appeared in McSweeney’s, but wound up putting it down when I came to a novel called Elizabeth Street, which I had looked at before but never purchased. It’s a fictional account of true events in the history of the author’s family, and it is concerned with life in the Little Italy section of New York City; and at 80% off, I was all in. I also got a copy of the 2009 World Almanac, from the bargain section, at 70% off its $1.00 sticker price, which put it at a whopping thirty cents. A Modern Library trade paperback edition of Henry V was all of fifty-nine cents.

I got to all of the other stores in the area before they closed, too—even the one up in Carmel, where the happy coincidence of dinner with Amy and her parents let me stop on my way at the Carmel Borders to pick up Roberto Bolaño’s excellent 2666 at 40% off and whichever issue of A Public Space was current at the time at 50% off. Two last stops at Castleton netted me Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry and another Modern Library Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I. My last stop at River Crossing saw me walk away with two volumes of interviews from The Paris Review. I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude downtown, and also a beloved book from childhood, The Cay, for Jackson. The only store I didn’t get to before it closed that I would like to have done was the one in Bloomington; but it closed before Borders went into Chapter 11, and I didn’t even know that it was going out.

I spent a lot of time and money at Borders stores over the years. I don’t remember the first time I went to one, though it might have been the original Indianapolis location at 86th and Allisonville, when I was in search of Dan Quayle’s memoir in paperback for a class I was taking in college. I remember discovering “bargain books” for the first time at a Borders in Chicago when Amy and I went up there with a friend of hers to visit someone in a hospital. My mom was the one who got me started on Borders, because she used to get the books she gave us for birthdays and Christmas there when Matt and I were younger. She always stuck the bookmarks you got at checkout into the books, so I had Borders bookmarks going back to when I was in junior high or so. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Barnes & Noble bookmark; but maybe that’s what separates the good from the great.

* When I buy CDs now, I go to Luna. It took me awhile to get around to this decision, which is sort of surprising given how much I blather on about supporting the indie outift and eschewing the corporate chains. I used to chafe at the idea of spending several extra dollars per CD at Luna, but I finally made peace with the fact that since I only buy CDs rarely anymore, it doesn’t really hurt me to drop those few extra dollars. It’s voting with your dollars, and I fully acknowledge that it’s pathetic that it took me so long to get comfortable with spending that little bit of extra money.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Accidents & Postcards #1

Okay, so here’s the explanation of the idea behind the first Accidents & Postcards post. I think this will be sort of a long post, partly because I need to see what kind of shape I’m in for National Novel Writing Month, which starts in just a few short days. In order to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month, you have to be able to kick out almost 1700 words every single day. That is a monstrous pace, one to which I have not been adhering over the course of the eleven months since the last NaNoWriMo. This particular post was probably going to go a little bit long anyway, because it’s a long way around getting to the crux of the story; and by making it a tune-up of sorts for NaNoWriMo, I may have to add more to it than I had originally planned. (By way of example, this first paragraph is around 170 words, which is one-tenth of what you need to stay on pace for NaNoWriMo. I’ll have to kick out nine more paragraphs of roughly this length in order to get to 1700 words for the post.)

I’ve started this previously on a couple of occasions, but have not finished it because I wasn’t sure exactly where I wanted to begin. Do I try to go back to the very beginning, where the idea first took shape; or do I just jump right in at the present, work my around to the beginning, and then double back to the present? The latter, non-linear form, would feel much like the first two Tarantino films, and I think it would probably feel slightly more organic, since I could bring things up out of order and then sort of fit them into the context of how I came to think about them with respect to the original idea. The former, of course, would be more organized, but I’m not entirely sure I would get everything in just the right place; and the idea of going back and forth to make sure everything is put together in just the right way is slighty maddening to me.

(Yes, I understand that this is the way in which novels get written, and that it is perhaps my inability or unwillingness to work very hard at this that has kept me from becoming an actual novelist. But it’s just not the way I work. Everything has to come out mostly the right way the first time, in mostly the right order, or I’m just not happy with it. This in contrast to John Irving, who has said that he still desperately loves the work of constructing a novel. But to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, I am not John Irving, nor was meant to be.)

Which leaves me no closer to knowing whether I want to start at the beginning or jump right in with the right now and try to get myself back to the point where I decided to start writing the story that bears the name of this post (minus the enumeration). I’m just not sure where the goddamn beginning is. But for the sake of argument (and because it’s getting late and I’d like to have this done by two in the morning so I can get some reading done before I go to bed), let’s say that the beginning was when I read a literary magazine round-up in Poets & Writers, many months now in the past. One of the articles in the magazine (I don’t remember which issue, but it’s not more than a year or two old) had agents or editors or some other group of people in the business offering little blurbs about which literary magazines they were reading or were interested in at the moment. Several of them mentioned a journal called n+1, though the reasons each of them gave for why that particular journal was interesting at the moment I no longer recall. (It’s possible that I will go back later and shore this up with some actual quotes or references from the issue of Poets & Writers in question, sort of like the way Eliot bulked up “The Waste Land” with notes.)

As I have alluded to before, going in search of literary magazines in Indianapolis is something of a fool’s errand. It was no slam dunk when Borders was still around, and is even less of a slam dunk now that they are gone and Barnes & Noble has dramatically reduced the titles they stock. Nonetheless, and this was before Borders closed and Barnes reduced their inventory, I went out looking for n+1 and found a copy of issue number 10 at the Clearwater Barnes & Noble. (I’m not going to get into what the journal is about. You can get a good idea of that by checking out their website and reading some of their online content.) It was $13.95, which is more than I like to spend on literary magazines, but I picked it up anyway, took it home, and added it to the pile of journals I have bought (few of which I have gotten around to reading, but that’s another story, too).

I read part of it at once, because one of the features was a series of four responses to Freedom, the new novel by Jonathan Franzen. And now that I think about it, I must have picked up the copy of n+1 sometime last year, because I read the responses to Freedom before I read Freedom, which I started late last December. I started the issue of n+1 from the beginning some time after that, and was close to finishing it when we left for Kansas City for my brother’s wedding, at the end of April of this year. I finished it in the car on the way to Kansas City, and one of the ads near the back of the issue was for another journal, called Black Clock. The blurb for that one listed a number of authors I admire, so I made a mental note to check out their website when we got settled at the hotel. Once we were settled, I fired up my laptop and hooked up to the Marriott’s Wi-Fi (and would you believe that the Marriott charges $10 a day to use their Wi-Fi?) and then brought up their website. Print issues of the journal cost $13, but PDF versions of those same back issues were only $3, so I ponied up for the most recent issue, which at that time was #13.

And it took me a long time to get around to reading that one, too. I still haven’t read the whole thing, but one of the pieces I did read was an essay called “The Sting of Irrelevancy,” by Joanna Scott, which had originally been published in Black Clock #7, from Fall 2007. The essay describes, among other things, how seemingly irrelevant things can in fact be very relevant, if only the writer can manage to take note of the irrelevant thing without losing focus on the matter at hand. This, at least, is the way that I interpret what I read. It struck me as interesting, so I filed it away in that part of my active mind where I keep things that I want to remember without having to think about them all the time.

In the essay, Scott writes, “If an openness to experience is maintained, then the most irrelevant experience can contribute meaning to a distant story.” This is in the same spirit that Stephen King describes the process of having an idea, in the novel Misery. The main character, Paul Sheldon, relates that he often goes out for a walk in order to clear his mind and prepare it to receive whatever ideas may come to it—as opposed to actively trying to “Have An Idea,” which he describes as somewhat akin to the idea that a watched pot never boils. It is also in the same spirit as the idea of not being able to see the forest for the trees, though in this case Scott describes it within the context of writing.

The idea has had a dramatic impact on the way that I look at the world, especially when I’m out on walks with Jackson on Wednesday afternoons, or when I’m at a bookstore—or even when I’m just at work. I transmuted the nebulous concept of irrelevancy into the more concrete example of accidents, making an adjective that is subjective into a noun that is objective—and in some cases, an actual object. Sometimes it’s a chance encounter, like the girl at the mall who at first was looking for the food court and then wanted to bum a cigarette. Other times, it is, as I say, an object—a postcard stuck in the pages of an issue of National Geographic in the clearance section at Half Price Books. I wove both of those things into a long story I just yesterday mailed off as a contest entry, along with fictional versions of a dominatrix Steve and I ran into once at the Chatterbox, an evening of backwoods stargazing during my freshman year in college, and the time I had to drive one of the bartenders at the Slippery Noodle home because she drank too much during her shift.

If not for a series of seemingly irrelevant episodes, maybe that story never gets written. I don’t know. But I loved the way all of those random things came together, and—like John Irving, for once—I loved working the original draft down into something that was much tighter and more coherent in its final form. It took a long time—I started it over the summer, finished the first draft just a few weeks ago, and then did two sets of revisions, both for length and for content. I worried over the ending for a long time, and finally hammered something out because I thought that where it stopped before I tacked on the ending wasn’t a good place to end; but it turned out to be just the right place for it to end. When I got to the end of the second set of revisions, I realized that my tacked-on ending was completely unnecessary. A few little tweaks turned what was originally an abrupt stopping point into a haunting little ending.

So there it is. I compressed a few things in this version—the postcard in the National Geographic for one—that took up whole paragraphs in the first version; and it’s a bit after two in the morning as I am wrapping this up. But by the time I get to the end of this, I will have put down over 1800 words, in less than an hour.

National Novel Writing Month, here I come.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My Last Word on "Civic Action"

My little experiment in civic action has failed. Tomorrow it will be three weeks since I sent e-mail to John Gregg, Mike Pence, and the Indiana Democratic Party. I got nothing back from any of them, other than the automatic acknowledgement from the Gregg website (which does not count). I knew Mike Pence was worthless, and I suspected that a southern Indiana “Democrat” like John Gregg might actually be a worthless DINO; but the lack of response from the machinery of the state party is particularly sad. Part of me wants to keep firing off the questions I set originally to John Gregg, just to see who out there might answer them; but I would only be setting myself up for disappointment. Part of me also wants to sit here and rail against how conservative and disappointing this state and its people are; but that doesn’t do any good, either. I tried to engage with some local politicians, and my efforts failed. The best thing to do is report the results—my questions were completely ignored by John Gregg, Mike Pence, and the Indiana Democratic Party—and move on. I know that I should actually be even more engaged than I am, that I should be doing more than just sending some strongly-worded e-mails; but working to correct the conservative nature of this state and its people feels more and more like a fool’s errand as each day goes by. This state and its people are happy to be conservative and ignorant. There’s a fine line between being engaged in local politics and just plain wasting your time; and I’m sure as hell not going to waste any money on it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Accidents & Postcards #2

[Note: I realize that there is no Accidents & Postcards #1, and you will note by the end of this post that I have only alluded to what the idea means. I have started Accidents & Postcards #1, complete with explanation, but I have not finished it yet. This one just poured out of me tonight, and I wanted to post it right away. The prequel, if you like, will be along soon.]

Another accident: Discovering that the Mississippi Review publishes work that seems to be relatively boundary-free. (As an aside, I am sure that there really are boundaries, and that there are certain things you simply cannot put down in print and expect to have published; but within reason, within the scope of what can be considered literature [and like people sometimes say about obscenity, it’s just the kind of thing you know when you see it or read it], there should not be boundaries.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s how it started. A couple of weeks ago, on a Tuesday morning while Jackson watched his Thomas the Tank Engine DVDs in the background and played with his Thomas the Tank Engine toys in the living room, I sat at the dining room table over the current issue of Poets & Writers and consulted the listings for contests and deadlines in the back of the magazine. I wrote down the information for contests that: were looking for short stories; were offering a subscription to the journal or a copy of the prize issue with the reading fee; and had deadlines that were far enough in the future that I felt I could come up with something to submit in the amount of time remaining.

I already had a story in the works and knew which contest I wanted to submit it to, but I wanted to get a couple more done and submitted before National Novel Writing Month started. I finalized and submitted the first story and then wrote the second one, which I finalized last night. So tonight, I picked up my list of contests and went through it and crossed out the ones whose deadlines had passed since I made the list. Then I loaded up the website of the first one on left the list and checked to see if they had posted any prize-winning stories that I could read online to see if what I had written was something along the lines of what they had published in the past. (This is a nebulous concept, but one of the big pieces of advice you run into frequently when you start investigating contests is that you should read the work of the journals you want to submit to, to make sure that what you are writing will be a good fit. Like literature and obscenity, it’s just one of those things that you know when you see it.)

They did, and I read the 2011 contest winner; and I did not think that my writing was a good fit, so I moved on down the list, but none of the contests that were left on the list felt right. None of them had samples online, and I didn’t get the right vibe from the information that was available on the websites. So, pretty much at random, I went to the websites of contests I had submitted to a number of years ago, the first time the Entering Contests Bug bit me, thinking that maybe there was an off chance that they would have contests going on that had not been listed in the issue of Poets & Writers I had looked at.

One of these was the Mississippi Review, published by the University of Southern Mississippi. They had a contest going on. The deadline had not passed. Each entrant gets a copy of the prize issue. While looking for samples to read online, I came to their back issue page, and saw the cover of the issue I had received when I entered their contest the first time. They did not have sample stories online, and I might have given up, except that one of the people whose work appeared in the issue was called Angela Williams. I used to know a girl by that name in high school, so I went over to the bookcase that holds my literary magazines, and I picked out the issue and turned to the back to check the notes on the contributors. It was not the same person I had known in high school, but since I had the issue in my hand, I started to flip through it. I found the story that had won the fiction prize, and I read the first paragraph, which consisted of two sentences. The first sentence reveals the narrator to be a sixteen-year-old girl, and the second reveals that she is about to blow a dude with a big dick.

That got my attention, and it was totally an accident that I happened to get there from where I started when I sat down to work on my submissions tonight. Is the story obscene? Based on the first two sentences, a lot of people would probably say that it is. They would cringe, put the magazine down, and probably give me a dirty look for having brought it up in the first place. I, on the other hand, have a great deal of respect for a journal that would publish something like that. It means that they are willing to publish material that might be considered objectionable, that they are not afraid to court controversy, that they are not afraid to look taboo in the eye and say that they are its equal.

I like art that challenges taboos, that challenges people to go outside of their comfort zones—that makes people think hard about themselves and the world around them. It’s how minds open up and thoughts become freer. That’s what challenging art can do for the person who consumes it. For the person who creates it, challenging art can be a way to explore new thoughts and ideas, to confront problems, to exorcise demons, to come to terms with things that have been festering inside, among so many other modes of expression. In a free-thinking, open-minded world, that kind of art can help more than just the person who created it and who was helped or healed or refreshed by that creation; but when there are limits on art, those kinds of things get put away, and they can’t help anyone else.

I read the current issue of H.O.W. Journal earlier this year and was very impressed with the stories they published; and I knew after reading just the first story that I wanted to submit a story of my own to the contest they currently have open. I only had to read the first two sentences of the prize-winning story in an issue of the Mississippi Review to know the same thing about that journal, and that’s the contest I’m going to enter with the story I finalized last night. It’s entirely by accident that I found that outlet, even though the journal has been sitting there in my bookcase—unread—for years. If I don’t win, that’s okay; but going about this in a way that feels right to me is the only way that I’m ever going to be happy with it. It may not make me rich, but it makes me happy, and it makes me proud of what I have done, proud of this mad, lonely vocation I have chosen to pursue.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Insert Rocky Joke Here

We were out and about pretty much all day today, and I actually managed to get some interesting pictures from the zoo—including a video of Jackson racing a cheetah. I think this was just my second visit to the new tiger exhibit, and it was much better than the first time. I seem to recall that the tigers were not moving around much that first time, but this time one of them was going back and forth right in front of the glass (clearly hamming it up for the people who were watching). This picture isn't all that great, but hopefully it gives you an idea of just how close you can get to tigers in the new exhibit. More to come.