The Belly of the Beast

The new Poets & Writers. Page 125. (This is way back in the “recent winners” listings; past the eternally optimistic “deadlines,” heading in the direction of the slightly tawdry “contests,” the suspect “personals” and “rentals,” the downright unsavory “services.”) The bottom half of the page is an advertisement for a graduate program in creative writing; no great surprise there, the pages of this magazine are filled with them, and it’s not that the ads shock me with their quantity, I’m well aware that this country is multitudinous with writing programs, it’s just that seeing all their disciplines, all their addresses, all their distinguished faculty and recent distinguished guests, it’s like putting a face to a name, names to a number. This one, the ad I’m looking at on page 125, has a quote from Flaubert: “Writing is a dog’s life, but it’s the only one worth living.” This is not surprising either; many of these ads are appended with quotes that seem to attempt to summarize a theory, a sensibility, a philosophy; NYU‘s ad, for example, has E.L. Doctorow, “A book begins as a private excitement of the mind” (an onanistic approach to writing if ever there was one!). But this, the Flaubert’s dog one, this one features a photograph of a dog, or, rather, either the right half of a photograph of a dog, or a complete photograph of only the hindquarters of a dog that is lying on some sort of white sheet, as if it’s participating in a tasteful erotica shoot, a languid dog, all stretchy leg and lazy tail, perhaps reminiscent of the ubiquitous anonymous women’s bodies, all skirts and boots, that have been haunting the jackets of every work of fiction by a young woman about the travails of young women since flying earflap girl ran away from us on the cover of Melissa Bank. And someone—the photographer springs to mind first, or perhaps the dog’s owner (Whose dog is this? Is this stock photography, or was this shot especially for the James A. Michener Center for Writers?)—has tossed the manuscript of a novel onto the animal’s left side. The words on the manuscript pages are difficult to read in the photograph, but, squinting, the title page appears to read A Blessing on the Moon, by Joseph Skibell, who graduated from Austin in 1996 (so it was not stock?). The printed sheets have fallen apart loosely, some limning the dog’s belly, some pushing down toward the darkness between its legs; the top right corner of what looks like it might be page 11 has gotten itself tucked inside the dog’s left knee, seeking fur, and warmth, and crotch. A pencil has been placed on the manuscript’s cover page, so we are certain that this is a static shot, not one of action, but still, I wonder, is this what Updike was talking about? Must we lie down with the books we want to write like this, like a love between animals and objects, the tasteful pornography of the domesticated and the inanimate, dogs and pages quietly searching out comfort from each other amid the cold air, the bright lights, the ice cubes, the satin sheets?

One-Shots

I wrote an article about a New York-based poet named Ryan Murphy and his chapbook publishing operation. It’s in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers, in the magazine’s annual look at independent presses. (The article will not be available online, but the print edition appears to have shipped.) I’m hoping that the piece inspires at least one reader to visit the marvelous table of handmade books in the basement of McNally Robinson.

The current issue also has a letter from Kerry Jones written in response to the second article I wrote about Zoo Press, which ran in the May/June issue of the magazine; I believe I have not mentioned yet on this site that my editor at P&W posted a brief follow-up to that article back in May, in the magazine’s online “Industry Shorts” section, here.

So It Begins

At a coffee shop not far from my house, to the right of the cash register, a small clipping from, I believe, The New York Post has been taped to the back of the espresso machine. It’s not an original article, but rather a wire service feed from Reuters; the headline reads: “KILLER CHIMPS ATTACK TOURISTS.” Someone—the coffee shop employee who must have originally cut out and taped up the article, perhaps, or a coffee shop customer?—has scrawled on the clipping with what appears to have been a ballpoint pen, to the left of the headline, the following words—which, like the headline, are all in capital letters:

SO
IT
BEGINS

On the bottom edge of the clipping, also in all caps, and in what appears to be a different hand, someone has also written these words, all forced together as if it might be a domain name rather than the title of a film:

BATTLEFORTHEPLANETOFTHEAPES

Further complicating the understanding of this marginalia, this palimpsest, is the matter of punctuation. To the left of the letter “B” there are symbols that look like two exclamation marks, bending to the right in the wind, with two additional symmetrical vertical lines shooting down from the double periods, a mirror of the lines above them, twin masts reflected in a lake; to the right of the letter “S” are similar figures, except these look like two bars leaning to the left off the tops of two right-angled exclamation marks, or like two bangs, twice the usual length, that have been cleanly shot by an invisible bullet right through their middles. Perhaps these glyphs are meant to indicate exploding French quotation marks? Maybe they’re intended to be a fusion of Spanish and English and French, indicating exclamation, quotation, and bracketing all at once? I don’t know the answer to this, nor can I fully explain why the former graffito is so funny, but the latter is so completely not, other than to wonder if perhaps it is a matter of becoming something, rather than just pointing at something, which seems to be a more interesting variation of the old writing-workshop saw to show and not tell, a useless piece of advice if ever there was one; and it also might have to do with voice, perhaps specifically the commonplace of the ominous Lord of the Rings or Star Wars voice, intersecting culturally here with another Hollywood cliché, the random smattering of strange and foreboding isolated incidents seen occurring all over the world that always opens those wonderful movies about the apolcalypse; but even more than these, maybe that great little three-word tag wins because of punctuation, or lack thereof, because it could have so easily been followed by an ellipsis—such an abused mark!—one that ought to be reserved for a trailing off, a “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther” trailing off, or an actual elision, but all too often seems to be an incompetent conveyor of sense, of seriousness, or an inadequate stand-in for a full stop?

Neighborly Knots

Has anyone ever heard [N.B. Link removed; no longer extant],” Laurel asked, “of an artists’ colony or retreat that will allow a writer with children to bring her children?”

I wrote her in an e-mail: “The new edition of the Artists Communities guidebook has a handy chart on p. 264, in the indices section, showing you which colonies allow partners and/or children and/or pets for visits or for the full stay.

“Hope that helps!” I said.

“It totally does,” she replied. “I didn’t know there was such a guidebook.”

Not just a guidebook, but a Web site, I wrote her back, which has detailed, and presumably up-to-date, information on all the communities listed in the book—although as far as I can tell, the indices, which cross-reference all one hundred or so entries by discipline, region, seasons of operation, stipends and fellowships that are available (or fees that are charged), and so on, are only available in the print version.

I bought the book right around when I graduated from NYU last year. I went through it systematically, entry by entry, eliminating any place that would not accept 1) applications (as opposed to a nomination-only process); 2) writers; 3) people at the beginnings of their careers; and 4) men. I also eliminated any colony that charged a residency fee of any kind, or that had an application deadline over a year and a half in advance of any proposed residency.

This left me, out of the original one hundred or so, with six places. (I might be missing one or two, because of the sometimes convoluted language communities use to describe themselves; I’m glad, of course, to hear that a particular colony honors and nurtures the exploring child within without obligation in the gift of the passionate and unfettered journey, but does it take writers who haven’t published a book?) Since then, I’ve applied to, and have been rejected from, four of those six. But on the positive side, I’ve had residencies at the other two. And during both those stays, I got more work done than I ever would have if I hadn’t gone.

Laurel’s post reminded me of what I believe is one of the most valuable things writers can find at a good MFA program, if they’re lucky: small and amicable groups of artists working in the same discipline, networks of peers (or, maybe more accurately, networks of networks of peers), and the aggregations of practical knowledge that only exists in, and can only be conveyed through, such networks. There are some things you can find on the Web, or stumble across on the Web, like this post on the blog of a writer named Claire Light, which is the most comprehensive single list of residencies and fellowships that a fiction writer at the start of her career is eligible for that I’ve ever found. But I never would have ended up on that page if I hadn’t already known the names of half the places she lists—many of which I would never have known about if it hadn’t been for conversations with other writers.

This is an insane pursuit. It helps to have colleagues in insanity.

The Art(lessness) of Fiction

A number of years ago, I read a novel in manuscript form, one that had begun life as a screenplay. The novel had been written by a sibling of a celebrity, and it was, I believe, the worst thing I have ever read. The writing was abysmal at every level, from spelling to sentence construction, theme to stage directions, subject-verb agreement to plot—which, with names and details changed, went something like this:

The story opens with two men driving around the desert, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes. The weather is lousy. The desert appears to be rather near New York City. One of the men, called Pigeon, is rather feminine; his companion, Hambone, is masculine. Pigeon and Hambone drive and drive and drive. While they are driving, they talk, for the most part—with occasional digressions regarding vegetarianism, hermaphroditism, and the apocalypse—about how they hate women, as women are all either lesbians or deceitful, if not both; the men also discuss how much they would like to have sex with numerous women, both simultaneously and also cumulatively. This dialogue is interspersed with flashbacks to episodes from their shared past of colorful, complex sexual escapades and drug use. After a while, Pigeon and Hambone find what appears, at first, to be an abandoned farm; they are then surprised to discover that the farm is actually inhabited by an ancient prophet, who tells them, angrily, that Hambone is the Antichrist. He begins to chase them. Pigeon and Hambone drive away from the prophet in haste. A rabid bunny appears in the front seat of their car; the bunny bites Hambone, who blacks out.

Hambone wakes up two years later. All women on the planet are dead, due to a viral infection that only affected women. Most men have turned gay. The world has become, as far as Hambone can determine, a nightmarish, dystopic gay sex paradise, a world full of sadness, pornography, and explosions. Many of the remaining straight men—those who, under these conditions, did not turn gay, or undergo sex changes, and subsequently become transsexual prostitutes—commit suicide. The preserved bodies of dead women are whored out by morgues.

Hambone encounters two gay men, Shakespeare and Listerine, who have hybridized Christianity and Islam into a new strain of millenarianism. The nihilistic practice of their amalgamated faith involves blowing things up. Hambone joins them in their quest; together, they blow up a number of important landmarks. During a shootout with the authorities, Listerine is killed; Hambone finds tickets to Argentina in the dead man’s shirt pocket. Hambone, alone, flies to Buenos Aires.

Later that same day, Hambone takes a bus tour of the pampas for fun. At a rest area, he leaves the bus and wanders out into the plains by himself for a while. Jetpack-clad policemen appear, hovering on the horizon; Hambone runs; the flying cops give chase. A sculptor named Rocky appears, pulling Hambone into a secret cave in the ground, saving him. Hambone and Rocky drive to New York on Rocky’s motorcycle; there they cross paths with Pigeon, who has become a transsexual prostitute. Feeling ashamed, Pigeon commits suicide. Hambone and Rocky return to Argentina. Hambone confesses to Rocky that he loves him, even though he, Hambone, is straight. The two men fight each other with spears for some time; Rocky, after both men are exhausted from their spear fight, reveals a number of things to Hambone: that he is actually a she, the last woman alive on Earth; that she loves him; and that she is the second coming of the Christ.

Off in the distance, Hambone and Rocky can hear the sound of approaching jetpacks.

(The novel, to the best of my knowledge, has never been published.)

Yes; It Can Be Learned; It’s the Wrong Question; Maybe

Almost twenty years and seven books after getting my MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine—and seventy years after the founding of the original, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—I still get questions about writing programs, as if my having come through one was a flukey detour like a hitch in a Goofy suit at Disneyland, and the institution itself a compound of rumor and scam. Somebody asked about my time at Irvine, with a hint of dubiety, at a reading just the other night. Journalists, critics, would-be students, regular people, they all have their doubts. Do writing workshops have any real value? Are they helpful to young writers? Do they impose standards of style and subject matter, perhaps unwittingly, on their graduates? And, sometimes with a prosecutorial wink: can anybody really be taught how to write? I have answers for these people. Put briefly: yes, yes, I don’t believe so but maybe, and yes.

—Michael Chabon, “Cosmodemonic” (originally published in Details, March 2006; republished by Chabon on his Web site, here [N.B. Link removed; no longer extant])

Can creative writing be taught?

It’s a reasonable question, but no matter how often I’ve been asked, I never know quite what to say. Because if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? then the answer is no. Which may be why the question is so often asked in a skeptical tone implying that, unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can’t be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.

What confuses me is not the sensibleness of the question but the fact that it’s being asked of a writer who has taught writing, on and off, for almost twenty years. What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we’d spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction was a complete waste of time?

[…] What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.

—Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Well, I think certain things can be taught. I think editing can be taught. Once you’ve written something, it’s very hard to assess what you’ve done. But the first time or the second time or the fourth time that someone says to you, “Look, you don’t need these ten words; one word will do perfectly well,” or, “This whole sentence or this whole paragraph can be cut,” that’s a learning experience, and it’s certainly the most important thing that can be taught in a writing class. I also think you can teach writing through literature. You can say, “Look, James Joyce has written the greatest party scene that has ever been written,” or “Tolstoy has written the most marvelous horse racing scene. And if it happens to be that you want to write a party scene or a horse racing scene, you might want to go look and see how geniuses have done it and take a lesson.” But can talent be taught? I don’t think so.

—Francine Prose, “Reading and Writing” (an interview with Prose), Atlantic Unbound, July 18, 2006

What would happen if we understood the workshop to be not tidy and orderly but large, unpredictable, and uncertain? What if long monologues about German metaphysics could sit right beside arguments from the stylebook of Flannery O’Connor? What if the worst story of the semester were subjected to a half hour of sentence-diagramming exercises? What if no one turned in a story for three weeks, and all you did was sit around talking about the ugliest kid you knew in childhood, or the worst job you ever had? What if all you did in class was assignments? What if you rewrote one sentence all semester? What if everyone got a chance to be the instructor, and everyone got a chance to be the student?

Then, I think, we’d be getting somewhere.

—Rick Moody, “Writers and Mentors,” The Atlantic Monthly, Fiction Issue 2005 (full article requires subscriber login)