Sunday, April 17, 2011

In other words, be human

An unshaven man approached the podium, nervously shuffled his papers and took a deep breath. He looked out at us and admitted he had never given a keynote address before. "So, in other words, you're all busting my cherry."

Yesterday's Conversations and Connections literary conference yesterday was rather like Steve Almond's hilarious yet depressing keynote address -- filled with enthusiasm for writing and yet a little disheartening in the reminder of how hard it is to be human, particularly the weird humans that writers tend to be. A strange but ultimately inspiring combination, for if we weren't so strange and conflicted, there wouldn't be much to write about! And it was certainly exciting to discuss writing with some talented, charming people. I figured I'd share a few highlights:

- A 79-year old Greek immigrant who is a retired engineer and has written a fictionalized memoir asked me if I worked aside from writing. I said yes and he replied, "Good. You have to go out and live." I thought that was a nice reminder, if not universally applicable.

- Give yourself a break and be kind to yourself. As Steve Almond put it, "Set the bar a little lower." You don't have to be a superstar to be a success - making good decisions about your writing is hard enough.

- With regard to point of view in a story, once you as the author have established it, get out of the way. No need to say, "she thought" or "she remembered" because the reader is already with that character.

- A quote from Steve Almond's book, "This Won't Take But a Minute Honey," which is really cool and he only sells in person:

... Readers are drawn to stories not because of your dazzling prose, but because they wish to immerse themselves in a world of danger. More precisely, in the heart of a particular character on the brink of emotional tumult. It doesn't especially matter what your heroine cares about, as long as she cares a lot.

- Oh, and for goodness sake, follow directions when submitting to literary magazines. Editors are human too and with all the demands on their time they can use all the kindness we can give, starting with accomodating their individual submission systems.

I bought The Calligrapher's Daughter at the conference yesterday because the author, Eugenia Kim, is a local and was participating in a panel. I'm excited to read it!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Good news!

First bit of good news - I'm going to have a story published! The kind people at the Silk Road Review have accepted my bribe, er, story and I expect it'll be in their Summer/Autumn issue. I learned about this just a week or so before one of my writing partners found out a poem of hers will be published, so I think there's something in the air! (By the way, the Silk Road Review is having a Flash Fiction Contest so anyone interested in winning $500, check it out!)

Second bit of good news - tomorrow is the Conversations and Connections literary conference here in DC. I've heard that it's a fun group of people and I'm really looking forward to mingling with writers and learning!

Anyone else have good or exciting news?

Monday, April 11, 2011

On wanting to like the narrator

To label someone an "unreliable narrator" is, in a certain sense, to understand that the narrator is human and neither omniscent nor objective. Unreliable narrators run the gamut - from the charming but mischevious Huck Finn to any number of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's old, lacivious men. Often unreliable narrators display a crucial human flaw in their unreliability, be it pride or shame or incurable optimism. I love how fiction shows humanity in its rich complexity and so I like narrators that aren't afraid to show their bias.

But it gets complicated when the person narrating is completely despicable or utterly detached from reality. Hubert Hubert in Lolita was pretty appalling but he works hard to make us like him, or at least understand. The books I've been reading lately, however, don't even try. One is about a rat who reads literature and loves books more than food. Sounds like a good premise, right? Except that he's so insecure about being a rat that he is constantly whining and completely pretentious. Not someone I want to spend 200 pages with. So I put that book down and tried another, one I had high hopes for. But that narrator turned out to be completely, off-the-wall insane, without the advantage of realizing it. Why should I want to read the narrative of a crazy person, why spend my time sifting through his madness to find what's relevant and what's not? I know some people think we should be able to learn from narrators we can't stand and I'm willing to admit that that's true. I am certain I could learn something about humanity by spending time listening to the unhinged rants of the mentally ill. But neither exercise sounds pleasant so I'm going to pass.

Which means that I am in a really dry spell for books! I'm dying for a sink-right-in-and-immerse-yourself-so-you-never-want-to-take-a-breath book. Any suggestions?? A historical epic would be wonderful, for example.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds

In the mid-19th century a middle-aged poet was consigned to a progressive mental institute just outside London. The man, known as The Peasant Poet, believed he had two wives and alternated his delusions of having other identities (like Byron and Shakespeare) with moments of piercing, brutal clarity. John Clare suffered greatly in an era when mental health treatment had progressed little beyond the releasing of "humors," even in Matthew Allen's relatively progressive institue.

This institute, nestled in a forest shimmering with Midsummer Night's Dream dew, is home to a number of other tortured souls, a count soon increased by the arrival of Alfred Tennyson, who stays on the property to support his depresssed brother. Clare, Tennyson, Dr. Allen, his daughters, and the other inmates struggle to reconcile their inner worlds with the harsh reality of a changing, modern life, one that lies both beyond and within their enchanted forest.

The Quickening Maze does not have a plot, so to speak, but draws its strength from the trials of its fascinating characters and the questions about life that they raise. It is a book in which very little is explicit, even the settings and the characters, but it manages to be quite haunting. This would be an excellent choice for a book club -- it raises questions about poetry, love, mental health, modernity, craftmanship, and, most poignantly, the constant tragedy that comes from human yearning. I wouldn't say I loved it, as the writing was too impressionistic for the book to seize onto me, but it was definitely interesting. Has anyone else read it?

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma