Thursday, October 30, 2008

2 ITEMS FROM THE WRITER'S DESK:

I was recently talked into signing up at www.facebook.com. I’d resisted doing this for some time now due to an incorrect presumption that it was a site for, well…dorks. In all actuality, Facebook is possibly the greatest networking tool I’ve seen online.

Within 24 hours I had located a fellow writer and one of my mentors not to mention a former co-worker and an acquaintance from middle school.

Interestingly enough, no one from high school shows up online. It is as if they never existed. Perhaps it’s the high school I attended, a so-called private school populated with public school rejects who sold each other weapons in the parking lot and pulled guns on teachers because they didn’t like their grades. Although most of that happened during my tenth grade year, its resonating effect was felt ever after. My point is, most of the people I knew then would hardly be interested in technology today that didn’t involve pirating DVD’s and making windows rattle with high decibels,

Fortunately, I’m not one of those people for whom all sense of self is associated with my high school years. If the great Al Bundy taught me nothing else, he taught me to move on while not moving on at all.

Still, it’s nice to locate people you liked before and get them to buy your book out of a sense of obligation.
***
For the past few days I have been dreading the eventual deadline date for submission to a certain dark-themed magazine. But my dread did noting to halt that day’s advance and here I am faced with sitting on, as Kelly Bundy would say, the horns of an enema. That’s dilemma for the rest of us.

I have been working on a new collection of short-short stories to be collected into a single volume. I wont share the working title with you yet, but when I mentioned it at my writers’ workshop, it received exactly the reaction I was hoping for.

Two of these stories I believe are sufficiently dark for this magazine’s requirements, but as to which one would be the better choice I cannot say. Without giving away too much, one concerns a man who blames his mother’s doctor for her death and the extremes to which he’ll go to get revenge, and the other centers around a coffee shop and the ideological battle being waged between a neo-con and a leftist that turns decidedly ugly.

Both stories inspired me to write them and both came disturbingly easy (always a catch-22 for any writer). One is written in a more standard format and the other is more experimental. I have more faith in the dead mom story, but I think the ending needs work. The coffee shop story just needs a tweak or two. It is also shorter by a good seven pages, although somehow the word counts are nearly the same.

My only other choice would be simultaneous submissions. The last time I did that was in the days of my failed ontest submission strategy. The only drawback is the possibility of not being able to send the second story elsewhere until it has been rejected. So I need to decide by Halloween what I’m going to do.

I’ll let you know what I decide because you care so much that if I don’t all your working parts will harden, your muscles will atrophy and your skin will get really, really dry and itchy~

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A LIST JUST BECAUSE

I was recently praised on my “other” blog for my ability to create lists out of seemingly nowhere. I found that amusing not because this particular reader was in awe but because the lists are things I generally create when I have nothing else to write about.

They’ve always come easy to me. In fact, I enjoy writing them most of the time. The irony of codifying and categorizing human behavior is enjoyable to me because I don’t believe it can be done in any significant way. However, this blog is different. Since it isn’t based on random acts of chaos, any lists presented here need to have some literary merit to them.

I am always challenging myself although I don’t always accept. This time I did and the list is presented below:

- Not everyone has a story to tell and not everyone has the talent to tell it.
- Stop thinking every book would make a good movie.
- You are not a writer because you took a creative writing course.
- Criticism is an occupational hazard; if you can’t handle it, you have no business writing.
- The book is not always better than the movie. Repeat: The book is not always better than the movie.
- Never rely exclusively on self-editing.
- It is okay to write what you don’t know as long as you have researched it well enough to sound like someone who knows.
- Those short stories & novels on your hard drive or in your closet are not going to publish themselves no matter how hard you pray.
- Using your writing talent to take cheap shots at people you know is reprehensible & should only be done by me.
- If you go through life thinking all your ideas are original and afraid that others will “steal them,” you are and always will be an amateur.


If you enjoyed these, I can pull more from the dark confines of mine arse. They came so easily that I am reasonably certain I can summon more should the need arise. In the meantime, discuss, dissect, dismember~

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: "SNUFF"



Chuck Palahniuk has been one of my favorite writers for nearly a decade now. His books are an event for me. When they are released, I usually run to the bookstore to purchase a copy, most times in hardcover.

Through no fault of his own, I often feel a tad ripped off when I buy a Palahniuk novel in hardcover. After all, they’re not the thickest books on the shelves, generally clocking in at fewer than 300 pages with a few exceptions. In this crappy economy, I have sometimes had to wait until the trade paperback is released a year later. However, thanks to my hard work at my employer, I recently won hundreds of dollars in gift certificates. I didn’t even know he had a book out until I visited a Borders Books and Music and Coffee and Knick-knacks and Chocolates and Movies and Beyond.

I was excited, I ran home and grabbed my gift card and went back and got it! Ok, maybe it didn’t quite happen that way. Truthfully, it was at least a week before I went and got it because I was in the middle of another book at the time.

Palahniuk’s previous novel, “Rant,” was a masterpiece, firmly establishing him in the pantheon of literary greats. The book before that, “Haunted,” was equally great.

His latest, “Snuff,” is another in a series of sleight of hand tales invooving emotionally damaged characters in unusual situations. In this case, the situation is a gang-bang porno production.
Centering on four people in the midst of what will be the gang-bang event of all time, 600 guys and one woman, Pahlaniuk ping-pongs from character to character, devoting a chapter to each one individually. true to more recent Pahlaniuk offerings, each chapter is narrated by whatever character is being spotlighted so they may tell their story of emotional dysfunction.
Pahalaniuk's world is one built on falsehoods where people pretend to be OK on the surface and are utterly fucked up underneath. Within this world, the struggle for meaning and to determine what it is that makes us human are recurring elements.
For those unfamilair with snuff films, they are quite literally films during which sexual abuse of someone, usually female, is killed on screen. Some insist these films are an urban legend, while others say they are all too real. The fading porn star in "Snuff" plans to die through having sex with so many people, hopefully by a blod clot to the brain, and leave all her money to her illegitemate child whom she abandoned years ago.
The true mystery at the heart of "Snuff" is the idenitity of that kid. Sadly, the tiny cast of characters makes it rather easy to figure out.
"Snuff" is not Pahlaniuk's best work, but that's not really a negative. Anyone whose career is as ground-breaking as his has earned the right to submit a less than spectacular story from time to time. On a purely technical level, Pahlaniuk handles his characters with expert ease and deft craftsmanship. By the middle of the novel, we no longer need the chapter designations telling us who is who. It becomes obvious from the speech pattern being used.
The twist ending is effective and a great shell game trick. We spend so much time focusing on what we think is the mystery that we miss the one that was there all along.
A quick and enjoyable read with an unbelievable amount of research done into the porno industry. Not to mention, Pahlaniuk gives us more new expressions for masturbators than anyone could have ever hoped for!
For example: Pud-pullers, ham-whammers, jerk jockeys, jizz-juicers, bone-beaters & my personal favorite, sock-soakers.
For that reason alone, this is the book of the year!
A-

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

IDEAS ARE WELCOME

Unlike my other blogs, this one is designed to deal with a specific topic: Writing. It takes an entire editorial staff to churn out the magazine Writer's Digest, and they've been recycling articles for a decade or more.

So, in the interest of not descending into repetetiveness so early on, I would love some ideas. What would you like to read about? What haven't I done yet? Share, hold hands, leave money...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

Acotor/Comedian/Author/Philosopher/Tiny Voice of Common Sense in the Distance Bill Maher on reality TV from his book, "New Rules":

"Stop being shocked when reality TV contestants turn out to be wife beaters, drug addicts, shoplifters, and porn stars. They're letting us marry them to strangers and make them eat eel shit. They don't have the gene for shame - that's why they're on reality shows."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

ON "WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW"

Anyone who has ever taken a writing class has most likely received the same exact sage advise from the instructor: “Write what you know.”

This is typical advice given to new writing students who are struggling with finding their voices. The school of thought seems to believe that only through writing about what we have experienced is there any authenticity in the work. I disagree. I wrote what I knew for years only to find that it created a situation where I was mocked mercilessly and nearly gave up writing altogether.

Depending on our life experiences, what we know may not make for very good drama. What I knew was a whole lot of TV and books and I wrote what I enjoyed. Since I had not yet honed my ability to take moments and other things from life around me and integrate them into a completely unrelated story, what I drew from tended to be rather hackneyed in nature, if not always in execution.

Vampire hunter stories, tales of waking up in strange and unfamiliar environs, melodramatic science fiction stories about post-Apocalyptic Earth, and the list goes on. My best work during those creative writing class days tended to involve quirky characters and their dialogue. For instance, I wrote one that could have been a one act play involving three very different guys who find themselves in a Third World prison cell together. Another involved two lovable losers and their plot to kill George Bush senior with a hand grenade. This wasn’t anything I knew, it was simply based on observation of people society labels as “losers.”

“Write what you know” can be good advice for people who are already established in life with careers and families and some traveling under their belts. Tell attorney-cum-author John Grisham to write what he knows and he inundates us with legal thrillers, each more preposterous than the last until he creates a cottage industry. Tell a guy who works as a security guard to write what he knows and he may come back with a story about a security guard working the midnight shift in a warehouse that will know you on your ass. But tell a kid barely out of his teens to write what he knows and you will get back exactly what you requested.

Some instructors will tell you a certain amount of hackwork and amateurishness is not only expected but also encouraged in beginning writers. After all, how can one guide a fledgling writer into becoming the next literary savior if there is no foundation of failure?

To be honest, I’m not sure college instructors are supposed to serve that function. College professors tend to place so much emphasis on the mechanics of writing that they churn out writers with the same approach and sensibility time after time. The world of literature, that pristine and rarely read field of writing that is the only one most of them take seriously, has become saturated with writers trying to be the next JD Salinger or Ernie Hemmingway.

I see the college level creative writing instructor the same way I see the training department at my employer. Their function is to provide us with all the necessary tools and information to succeed and the rest is up to us. They aren’t there to tell us what to write or how to write or even what we should write. Sadly, most in academia have an inflated sense of their role in the formation of new writers. In that regard, they remind me of film critics who think their jobs are essential to the industry they criticize.

If I ever ran a writing workshop for beginning writers, I would assign them a task similar to one that was assigned to me in a journalism class. I would tell them to go home that night and start thinking about the people they knew, the places they frequent and the thoughts they have. I would instruct them to pay special attention to things that seemed to latch onto their minds for longer than a few seconds. I would tell them to imagine that thing or that person in a different situation from the one they were used to it being. Now, write me five pages about it and tell me the consequences or benefits of the different setting into the narrative of the story.

Instead of “Write what you know,” I would urge them to “Draw from what you know.” Make what you know the basis for what you write, not the whole thing. Yes, it’s great that you’re an attorney and have had some interesting cases, but how about placing that attorney in a whole different situation where his critical thinking skills become more important than his acumen in the court room?

Draw from what you know. Anything else is dishonest. Much like someone who directs TV commercials, you may dabble in the art but you won’t be creating any~

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

IN REMEMBRANCE...

Last night my fellow writers and I drank lots of wine in remembrance of the husband of the woman that started it all for us. He died one year ago this past September and his passing symbolized the severing of our final connection to Annabelle and all she brought to our lives.

Annabelle McIlnay was an accomplished writer and editor who also taught creative writing at the college level. I first met her in a continuing education class I took as a lark to try and overcome writer’s block. Not only was I the only male in the class (tee-hee) but I was also the only one out of nearly thirty people to attend Annabelle’s workshop once the class was over.

Annabelle was a cool old chick. She sported a butterfly tattoo on her cheek and had about a thousand different pairs of reading glasses. Despite the name, she was an East Coast Jew who strongly preferred life in the Midwest. I tried not to hold that last part against her, as I would kill to live on the East Coast.

Her husband Tom was one of the original computer engineers who worked on the first computer in the 1950’s. He was from out west. Destiny or really bad writing on God’s part brought them both to Michigan where they met, fell in love and married sometime in the Eighties, if my information is correct.

Annabelle was my mentor. She guided me in a way no other writing instructor ever had. She was stern and full of praise all at once, refusing to allow me to do anything less than my best. She also had an uncanny ability to intuit what I was going for when even I wasn’t entirely sure. She saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there and she pushed me to find it on my own. Annabelle’s main bone of contention with me was that I tended to not complete novels that she felt were really good.

She would not live to see me complete the one she thought was my best and most commercially viable work. I finished it anyway.

When Annabelle died, Tom decided to let us keep coming to his house for our workshop meetings, now run by my publisher. I still remember how good and relatively healthy he looked at his wife’s funeral, and how emaciated and wasted away he looked in his final days. Tom was a smoker with emphysema and the loss of Annabelle seemed to keep him from caring about his health, In fact, it seemed like he wanted to hasten his departure from this mortal coil so he could be with her again.

When I think of Tom, I think of the night he walked outside to join us as we met on the gazebo with an old-fashioned tape recorder. He wanted to share something with us and we respectfully stopped the meeting to pay attention to him. What resulted was the most emotional and hauntingly beautiful song I’d ever heard as Tom sang to his departed wife and told her he’d see her again some day. The guitar work of he and his son was mesmerizing and bare bones, lending just the right melodious backup to his lamentations.

It was too dark for me to see everybody’s face, but if anyone didn’t cry, I’d be surprised. From that moment on, Tom’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was on oxygen all the time and still continued to smoke. Ironically, Tom and I grew very fond of each other during that time. We never really talked when Annabelle was alive but I found out he’d always had a genuine affection for me because she did.

I also think of how I tried to convince Tom his cat was sexually attracted to me (insert your own feline reference here). Tom offered to give us a moment alone. I knew there was a reason I liked him.

My publisher also happens to be a respiratory therapist and she made sure Tom was in the hospital in which she worked. Annabelle had asked her to watch over Tom once she was gone and she did, until the very last moment.

We met a few more times at the house after that. Naturally, it wasn’t the same. Without Tom, the spirit of “Anatoms,” their incorporated name, was officially gone from the house. The only thing that remained was that disturbingly intelligent cat Annabelle had adopted as her own, a behavior she exhibited all her life. Tom’s relatives allowed us to continue meeting for a while longer whiles we debated and discussed a new location for the workshop. Now that we were all working toward actual publication, halting the momentum could have proved dangerous.

Unlike when Annabelle died three years prior, there was no hemming or hawing about us continuing this thing. It had achieved a life separate from her now. After much discussion, it was decided that my house was the most centrally located.

The workshop has been meeting at my house ever since, usually every other Tuesday. Last night, my publisher walked in with more food than most Third World countries have and wine. Another member had already brought wine. A toast was uttered to me for my perceived graciousness in allowing them to meet at mi casa. Never mind the fact that it keeps me from having to drive somewhere.


The only other male member of the group, Bob Maier, author of Chicken Wings for the Beer Drinker's Soul, started a round of "For he's a jolly good fellow." Sufficiently uncomfortable, I poured myself more wine.

It's funny how a group of seemingly disparate personalities with differing backgrounds can be brought together for a common passion and become like unto an extended family. It's rare that someone who chooses to embark on the normally lonely road of creative expression becomes so readily surrounded by, for the most part, like-minded people. I am not immune to the awe-inspiring odds against such a thing occuring or, for that matter, continuing after the deaths of the two responsible for the situation.

It is perhaps testament to Annabelle's enduring vision that we continue to meet and write. Having our worke published is yet another step in the evolutionary process that first began with a little continuing ed class that purported to teach one how to write for publication in four short weeks.

They are missed.

They are remembered~