Monthly Archives: January 2013

Some Kind of Monster

“Just because you thought of it, doesn’t mean it has to go in the story.”

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Such was the advice I got, on several occasions in various forms, from Mark Axelrod when he was reading chapters out of my thesis.

I started this blog in December with the idea that I’d post once a week, that I’d write for no more than two hours at a time on each entry, that I’d keep the subject material light, and that I’d leave the posts “raw” or unedited.

Then Sandy Hook happened, my second week out of the gate, and I couldn’t let it go by without at least a couple words, and those couple turned into to quite a few rather weighty words, and since then I haven’t been able to get back to the speedy, lighthearted blog I originally hoped I’d be writing, despite a couple attempts to do so.

Another reason for this – the more immediate reason, probably, than that I have oh-so-much weighty stuff to say – is that I wanted to finish this short story I’m working on first, before I “get back” (after four posts) to blogging.

The problem is, I’m now about eighteen-thousand words deep.

For those of you who don’t do word counts, that’s about 50 pages. For those of you who haven’t spent much time with the nuanced definitions of fictional forms, that’s already twice
(and approaching thrice) as long as the upper range of what most journals or magazines will publish as a ‘short story.’ It’s already a novelette, maybe a novella, and probably has enough going on in it to be fleshed out into a novel.  It definitely has enough characters. Thirteen, if you want to know. Which is a LOT for a short story.

This – the characters, the complexity, the ceaselessness – is an example of what They mean when They talk about overwriting, and it’s a problem I have all the time. An anecdotal example:

My thesis advisor – the abovementioned Axelrod – counted the number of characters in the draft of my unfinished novel thesis and said (I paraphrase), “You have 33 characters in 198 pages. Dostoyevsky had 47 characters in Crime and Punishment, which was 475 pages. At the rate you’re going, you’d have 79 characters in a book as long as Crime and Punishment, which I believe is the length you’re going for. So, you’ve outdone Dostoyevsky. Congratulations.”

The very obvious fact that so many characters might be tough to handle hadn’t occurred to me, until I heard it put in such simple terms. After all, I was having no problem keeping them all straight…

In addition to posting regular blog posts, I also resolved (in a rare conformity to new year’s tradition) to finish one short story a month, in the hopes of having three or four decent new ones by the end of 2013 to start shopping around alongside the three I have in rotation now. This will require that I write a little differently than I usually do – or always have, really – and practice writing more quickly to practice writing less. The result of which will (hopefully) be a streamlining of my writing process.

And by writing differently, quickly, and less, I mean like this:

Ray Bradbury, in his Art of Fiction interview in The Paris Review, said, “I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard.”

Raymond Carver – one of my all-time favorites – defined a short story as something that “can be written and read in one sitting.”

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Now, Carver was known to rework a story into as many as 30 drafts before considering it finished, and Bradbury would put stories in his filing cabinets to marinate for weeks or years or decades before pulling them back out to finish them.* And as my girlfriend reminded me last weekend, these guys were pros by the time they said these things, and pros have a tendency to say things as if they’d never learned them and never done otherwise. And maybe I still need to get all that backstory out and down on paper before I can shrink it down and suck it back up and put it behind the words and between the lines.

“I’m just trying to learn everything,” as Erin would say (in the little-British-boy accent of the lad she’d be quoting).

Oddly enough, some of the stuff I’ve already learned doesn’t do much for me. Remembering that Hemingway wrote around 400 words a day and would break off mid-story, mid-paragraph, mid-sentence if he needed a swim (or a drink), or that Burgess wrote and rewrote and worked on one page at a time until it was done – which could take him an hour or could take him days – doesn’t help right now. For whatever reasons (well, I know them, but they’re boring internal-struggle/insecurity type reasons), I’m focused on prolificacy right now. I want to produce, to generate, to FINISH things – and then I’ll worry about separating wheat from chaff later.

Or so I think. But when I sit down to start-and-finish expeditiously, I keep adding things in or adding them on, and I end up with a story Lucille-Ball-bread-loaf of a story. Which I usually “save for later” (read: abandon). I’m beginning to suspect I might be wasting time. Maybe this whole tactic of tacking things on when I catch what time I can catch at the keyboard isn’t working out as well as I like to think it is.

I’m beginning to suspect that this is a kind of procrastination. A weird kind, because I’m working, I’m writing, I’m actually getting stuff out and down on paper. But I’m not completing anything. And this is stupid because I no longer think that I’m putting the ending off to avoid rejection. This was more than likely the primary reason I procrastinated SO bad for SO long on SO many things – if it’s done, someone has to see it. And judge it. And likely find it wanting.

But I’ve gotten over that, and have the growing stack of rejection letters to prove it – a rejection-letter-stack that’s like that loaf of bread… So, I think this ceaselessness is really just a bad habit that I need to break. And I’m hoping that the new year’s resolution and the making it public (to what limited few might read this declaration) will help.

It’s interesting to me to hear about the different ways we get in our own way, the tricks, the bs we come up with for not doing things. I see this in myself, and it makes me think how many people this happens to – how many it’s happening to right now, this very moment – how many writers/artists/filmmakers/entrepreneurs/inventors/people do this to themselves in any and every aspect of their lives. Which makes me realize how special simply doing something is, just doing anything, really, anything at all that requires follow-through.

There are two ways to look at the world once I’ve thought myself, or paid-attentioned-myself into this realization. I can be overwhelmed by how many other people are doing it and feel like shit for being not-one-of-them, or I can think wow, what an amazing world, look how many people are self-actualizing all over the place! Isn’t it rad to be one of them!?

{Yeah, I did just write “self-actualize.” I live in Southern California – people say that here.}

I try to choose the latter, and usually it helps.

I have three days to get to the end of this behemoth of a story. Two-thousand words, probably, to bridge the final gap and introduce the end. Then I’ll put it down and see sometime later whether it wants to be cut in thirds and bundled up as a short story, or stretched out a little bit and passed off as a novella.

In the meantime, sometime during the second week of February, I’ll start something else, and I’ll try to do a draft of it in one sitting. At the very least, I’ll try to put in only the right amount of ingredients so the oven doesn’t explode. I think I’m aiming for something close to what Ian McEwan, one of my top three favorite living authors, says on the UK’s Creative Choices web site: “…take as long as you like. It doesn’t matter if you write a short story at 200 words a day, because in eight weeks it will be done… [and] If you spend four weeks writing a short story and it’s a disaster, you’ve only wasted four weeks.”

I also have six or seven draft posts for At the Wellhead. Some, about my Thailand vacation and another post on guns, have some grist, but most of the drafts are just titles with a line or two to be riffed on… later. So I’ma try to make that LaterTime happen sooner-rather-than.

This was something to tide me over. Thanks for stopping by.

Any suggestions for or experiences in breaking this cycle – of overwriting, of procrastinating, of freaking out about not-having-anything-to-show-for-yourself, of whatever this post inspired (disgust and frustration count) – I’d love to hear ’em.

* Bradbury on finishing unfinished stories (also in that PR interview): “I do keep files of ideas and stories that didn’t quite work a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago. I come back to them later and I look through the titles. It’s like a father bird coming with a worm. You look down at all these hungry little beaks—all these stories waiting to be finished—and you say to them, Which of you needs to be fed? Which of you needs to be finished today? And the story that yells the loudest, the idea that stands up and opens its mouth, is the one that gets fed.”

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Lest History Pass Us By

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This post really has very little to do with Korea, except as an example of what I’m going to talk about and for the fact that its inspiration happened while I was there. I wasn’t even really in Korea, at that – I was layingover in Incheon Airport outside Seoul.

Plus, I like the vintagey, beat-up-cracked-paint flag image and thought it looked nice there right there at the top of the page.

Anyway, I was in Incheon Airport, wandering aimless and tired through one of the food courts when I saw a man that made me think about history and my place in it. Or lack thereof.

He was a Korean guy, probably in his late 50s, well-built, handsome and healthy-looking, wearing a nondescript, light gray military-type cap – one of those floppy things with a short bill – a long-sleeve red shirt under a quilted, gray, down vest, and squareish bifocals. His arms were crossed loosely over his chest and he was leaned back in his booth with his legs stretched out under the table in front of him, totally at ease. He was looking at me, smiling, and he looked like a man who would be at ease anywhere, under any circumstances.

Something about that imperturbability, his obvious physical strength and good posture even in his reclination, his confidence – he didn’t look away when I saw that he was watching me – and probably to a certain extent that hat, made me think he’d been a career soldier. Before my imagination could go spiraling off too far into BourneLegacyLand, historical perspective tripped a switch and my thoughts were shunted onto another line, and his life, his 30-year military career flashed before my eyes.

Imagine what this guy would’ve seen in fifty-some-odd years. When he was born in the late-1950s, a few years after the Korean war, his country was worse off financially than countries in West Africa, and today it has the 15th largest GDP in the world. And as a soldier stationed on the 38th parallel working his way up to captain, maybe even as high as colonel, he would have seen some shit, boy. Espionage, assassinations and acts of terrorism, nuclear threats, isolated clashes and full-on battles, abductions, exchanges and escapes. He’d’ve known every American and Brit that mattered, and every Russian and Cuban that he wasn’t supposed to. History would have played out at the base of his watchtower – at his very feet! – and he would have taken part in it, maybe even had a hand in steering some of it.

And now, in the aftermath of that exciting career, while grabbing a beer before heading to Sydney or LA or Monaco or wherever, he sees me, a funny-looking 30-year-old American with a traveler’s backpack looking like an overgrown kid on a field trip, and smiles.

Not a smile you’d give someone, as a greeting or a show of friendliness, and definitely not a come-on. He was smiling to himself about me, it seemed, or at me, like you do at a kid straining to help his mom carry stuff into the house that’s too heavy for him, as if I were playacting as a man, and it was amusing.

(Let’s inject a little reality at this point – he probably didn’t see me and was smiling at some pretty girl behind me.)

And I realized, right in the middle of that food court, that compared to a Korean soldier, compared to a lot of people, really, even here in the US, I’m kind of outside history. I’m swept along by it, obviously – I live in a volatile time in a country that has its hands in a whole lot of that volatility. But I’m not so much IN it as pulled along in its wake. I may report on its effects on the human condition, via fiction, and if the gods deem me worthy maybe someday a few people will read those dispatches from my literary foxhole, but they’re going to be way after the fact – I mean, Tobias Wolff said it takes him 25 years to “catch up to places I’ve been.” And I may try to stick some band-aids on some of the lighter wounds history has inflicted as it’s torn through time, by volunteering and helping out my fellow man where and when I can, but I’m not doing much to ward off history. I’m not affecting anything. I’m not really all that involved in anything, at least to the extent that a man who’s spent his life in the Korean Army is.

This wasn’t any kind of life-changing realization, whereupon I made some sort of resolution to change my ways and change my place in the world and become a global doer. It wasn’t any kind of surprise either, and I’m not upset or disappointed  – it’s not like I was under the delusion that I WAS having some impact, or even that I was aspiring to have some, or that I suddenly realized I wanted to be a mover and a shaker and a framer and a founder. I know some people who are doing such things and some who want very badly to be doing such things and hope with all their hoping power to do such things in the future. I don’t put too much value on either approach – move and shake, if that’s your thing, or don’t move and don’t shake. Go do whatever floats your long-tail boat. History and the world are big enough for all of us. 

I’d spent the previous two weeks in a few parts of Thailand, and I was feeling pretty good – about life, about the world, about myself – in that bittersweet end-of-an-adventure way, when you wish you’d planned a longer trip but since you didn’t and you’re heading home anyway, you’re pretty happy about it. Part of me wants to be a perpetual, professional adventurer, a travel journalist extraordinaire, another Paul Theroux, and these two-week adventures both get me going and set me to wondering about my life. The only problem with getting out to see bits and pieces of the world is the awareness doing so engenders of just how massive and wonderful the world really is, and how much more of it there is than the tiny corners you toil toil toil away to make the money to take the modest trip to see. You run into other travelers from all over the globe, and as one of their favorite topics of conversation is where they’ve been and where else they want to go, by the time you’re wrapping up your holiday, you have a mental list of about twelve-dozen places you need to see in the next year and no idea how you’re going to get to one of them.

I’d just finished Chuck Palanhiuk’s Invisible Monsters, and reading CP always puts me in kind of a funky mood w/r/t to the unwieldiness of modern existence, and IM is no letdown in that respect. And I’d just started Midnight’s Children ahead of the April US release of Deepa Mehta’s film version. The two books probably helped set the stage for this kind of thinking, especially Midnight’s Children, which is narrated by a guy born on the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 – the date of India’s independence from British colonial rule – and whose life both reflects and is inextricably intertwined with the development of the newly independent India. The guy’s whole life is a historical moment. He’s in it, all the time. (The movie’s been getting only so-so reviews so far, but Rushdie wrote the screenplay and apparently likes the movie. I think this is the third time in as many posts I’ve mentioned Rushdie. I’ll knock it off.)

It was on top off all this, the traveling and the reading, that I was struck by a vision or a version of a single man’s improbable but possible history. I guess it was the magnitude of it that made an impression, the surreality of this particular confrontation with the profundity of my anonymity and smallness in comparison with the immensity of history. It was a visceral feeling, like I used to have in a recurring childhood nightmare of swimming happily along underwater only to suddenly discern, rising towards me from the murkier depths, the shadowed enormity of a blue whale – the same feeling I’ve had on the dock at the base of an aircraft carrier or cargo ship, craning my neck to see some sky and keep my hyperventilation at bay.

I’ve been thinking since that encounter what to make of the whole thing, and I suppose there are some takeaways, or could be some. I could become involved in history, or at least try to get an up-closer view, find a place on a campaign or go to work for an NGO. I could employ one of the well-known tactics for fighting discontent – shrink my scale and focus on doing good, local work – and by that rubric, the argument could be made that I am doing something for some people, or am part of something being done for people, through my job at work, helping to lay the foundation for a more water-wise Ventura County. I could assume that someday, if or when I go back to teaching, that I’ll have a positive effect on the minds of the next generation, which maybe sounds kind of presumptuous but isn’t that far-fetched – there are half a dozen men and women I could name at a moment’s notice, teachers I think about really quite often, who’ve played a significant role in the placement of various yellow bricks in my life’s road. Subscribing to the Great Man Theory (I don’t), I could think about how few people really are involved in history, and take solace in being one of the innumerable, ultimately insignificant Drifters In The Wake of History – a tactic I employ pretty often for a lot of different things.

But for the most part, after these last couple days thinking about that Korean guy (or using the image of him to think about myself, I suppose), I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really want any big lessons. It put my angst and anxiety and ego in momentary check, and sometimes that’s as much as a person can ask for. Imagining that man’s life for a few moments and mulling over it since has been fun, and it gave me something to write about.

Anyway, that’s what I thought about on my way home from Thailand.

What I did in Thailand will likely be the subject of the next several posts, but I want to sort my photos first, and by doing so my thoughts. Come back soon and check it all out. Better yet, subscribe to or follow At The Wellhead and let me (or this fancy site, actually) tell you when something new is up.

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