Monday, May 16, 2011

Hell is a Slush Pile

Every week Owl receives a parcel of essays. As part of her slush reader duties she’s supposed to read them, and write a short synopsis and evaluation, as well as determine if they should be rejected or forwarded to the board. (This is actually less power than it sounds, according to the magazine rules Owl is supposed to forward everything written in coherent sentences.)

When it comes, Owl gets a happy glowing feeling. Like, someone’s just handed her a treasure chest and keys and said—Go on now. Have a look. Like she’s going to plunge in face first and resurface with sentences that shine like ropes of brilliant gemstones, paragraphs that contain pearls of wisdom, like when she’s done reading, she’ll be looking at a richer and brighter world.

And then Owl reads her slush.

Most weeks the pieces are solidly constructed but a little off, the ending is a whimper instead of a bang, the essay is too interior to the writer to be understood by a stranger, attempts to describe raw emotion are well, boiled. Boiled potatoes. Without salt.

Those pieces make Owl a little sad. They are gallant attempts that well, weren’t quite good enough.

But sometimes, sometimes it’s—oh hell, see for yourself. Here are Owl’s evaluations from this week’s round of essays.

(Note: Actual evaluations were somewhat more civilized. These are the uncensored versions.)

Essay 1

Synopsis: Young girl goes to the beach.

Evaluation: This is a four paged essay. The second page is a wall of text listing all the songs she listens to at the beach. While the descriptions of the ocean are gorgeous, and supplemented by photographs the author thoughtfully included, there is nothing different or unique about this beach trip. She and her brother are at the beach. They ate ice cream and listened to a lot of music. At the very least, the essay needs to include a jellyfish attack, but preferably a nasty shark encounter, to justify its existence,

Essay 2

Synopsis: The narrator describes all of her teachers K-12 in a series of thirteen anecdotes.

Evaluation: The anecdotes are engaging but heavy of the fart jokes. (I think fart jokes are funny and even this was too much for me.) There was no cohesive thread that connected the anecdotes to each other, and while that may not be strictly necessary, it would have given the essay a broader appeal. As it is, it's a humorous read, but narrow in scope—hardly of interest to anyone who doesn’t know the writer personally. Also the end is marred by a multiple choice quiz asking the reader what the point of the essay is. Author listed eight possibilities but forgot to include (I) there is no point.

Essay 3

Synopsis: Woman explains her connection to her dead husband while going through her Tupperware collection.

Evaluation: The prose is here is beautiful and fluid, the images are very vivid, very clear. I will never look at Tupperware the same way again. However, there are five pages of Tupperware descriptions and one paragraph devoted to her husband’s death. Then she goes right back to describing Tupperware. Telling the truth slant is good, but there's such a thing as telling it too slant.

Essay 4

Synopsis: Woman discusses how hearing children cry "Mama" in Spanish during her spring break trip  lead to a life long love affair with Latin American culture and people. Literally. She spends the next twenty years trying to get impregnated by Latin men. Her goal in life is to have children who call her "Mama" with Spanish accents.

Evaluation: The style was simple which was good, because I had no sense of where the piece is going and why. The structure is as haphazard as the narrator’s approach to finding a partner. While her tangents are interesting they do not contribute to the overall development of the narrative. Five pages are spent describing a conversation with a priest, one paragraph is spent mourning her dead boyfriend, and one sentence at the end explains that yes, she eventually did marry and get herself Spanish speaking babies.

Essay 5

Synopsis: Two, um, beings eat delicious Mexican mole stew together.

Evaluation: Commendable effort at attempting to use language creatively in order to capture sensation. Unfortunately the result was so confused, after three reads, I still don't know if the narrator is a human or a cricket. Where are the characters? What are they are doing besides eating? Why does it matter? All mysteries the author does not bother to answer. As a side note, eating a sublime mole stew should never be compared to being infected by "a delicious hairworm." This is a direct quote.

After finishing her slush Owl took her red pen and stabbed herself repeatedly in the chest in an attempt to commit hara-kiri.

She should have listened to her mother and majored in economics.

To be or not to be?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Art of Titling is Hard to Master

Writing is a brutal business. At its worst it involves staring at the computer screen for hours hitting the “k” button repeatedly as a coping mechanism for dealing with the blank idiocy of your mind. At its best it means refusing to shower for days because you’ll lose the ideas if you don’t get them out now.

If you do manage to finish something (usually at an ungodly hour the day before an important meeting), it’s like pulling a squalling baby from the womb. The story is wet and wrinkly. It smells. It’s covered in blood. It’s perilously close to ejecting blood/urine/fecal matter all over you.

And the worst part has yet to come.

It needs a name. A title.

The untitled masses

Ideally a title should wrap up the piece in an elegant package. More than elegant. Seductive. A good title sings out from deep within a bookshelf to passing stranger, who, without quite meaning to, will pick up the book, caress its stiff spine until it shudders open baring its pages.

It’s enough to make you want to stuff the story back in the wretched place it came from.

Yet, somehow titles like this do exist. Whenever Owl finds one she has to talk herself out of tattooing it on her wrists in 72 pt font.  

Some of her favorites:

  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami
  • Hear the Wind Sing, Haruki Murakami
  • Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
Murakami is hands down the grandmaster titler. His titles are commands to open up his books. What’s a wind-up bird? What does the wind sound like? And who doesn’t want to dance, dance, dance? It doesn’t matter that his books answer none of these questions. The titles are a promise of better things to come, and therefore, irresistible.

Owl has considered cutting out Murakami’s heart and eating it in an attempt acquire his skills.

  • The Beautiful and the Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Owl loves The Beautiful and the Damned because it’s more than an elegant phrase, it could have printed on Fitzgerald’s calling card as his M.O. All of Fitzgerald’s characters were beautiful and damned. And so was he.

  • The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
Owl’s favorite title. It conjures up images of an old man cleaning up after a party,
picking up the abandoned paper hats, turning over the discarded paper in his hands as the sun sets over his fading memories. The sadness is unbearable and exquisite, and in fact, that is the book exactly.

As the story goes Ishiguro didn’t actually come up with it, he was sitting on an Australian beach with literary greats such as Michael Ondaatje and tossing around potential titles. Ondaatje suggested something like Sirloin: A Juicy Tale and then someone (the name escapes Owl) mentioned a phrase about dreams and translated it into English as The Remains of the Day.

However, Owl is unable to attend Aussie beach parties with genius writers and has had to resort to other means. Her standard approach used to be type garbage at the top of the screen, write story, forget about title, send story to appropriately bribed relative/friend to be read and then have conversations like this:

Father: I read your story. Why did you see fit to call it Lechuga-Wooga?
Owl: Um, that’s a typo for “The Apple.”
Father: This story is about a duck who commits suicide by getting sucked into a jet engine. What apple?
Owl: Maybe I’ll change it to “The Regurgitating Apple.”
Father: …
Owl: Regurgitate is such a great verb.
Father: But the apple?!
Owl: Artistic license.

In an effort to improve, Owl has developed the following strategies.

(1)   The + Noun

Owl reads her story, identifies the most commonly occurring noun and puts it on top of the page. This leads to lots of stories with titles like “The Jam Pot.” But sometimes leads to stories with titles like “The Person.” This is when Owl just shuts her eyes, flips open a dictionary and points, so “The Person” becomes “The Vesicle.” If Owl feels really fancy she’ll sometimes add an adjective to the mix. Like, “The Sad Vesicle.”

(2)   Phrase

Owl picks out the most interesting phrase in the piece and slaps it on top of the story. Results may vary and include:

  • Reality’s Hairy Gut
  • Inviting Demons Over for Scones and Tea
  • Mushroom Porn is Exceedingly Difficult to Find
Owl is a little confused about the last one, but there is indeed a file titled “Mushroom Porn is Exceedingly Difficult to Find” in her stories file, and apparently she wrote it. She’s a little scared to open it.

(3)   Google-fu

When all else fails, Owl uses strategy (1) to pick a noun and then dumps it into Google with either: “quotes about…”, “poems about…” or “song lyrics about...”.

Owl worries about being clichéd so she skips over the most familiar part of the quote/poem/song and nab the part no one remembers. For example, instead of using “The Cruelest Month” from T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland” she settled on “Lilacs Out of the Dead Land.” Because obviously everyone will has memorized “The Wasteland” and will immediately understand the Elliot allusion Owl was going for, but simultaneously absolve her from T.S. Elliot sized expectations. Right? …Right.

(4)   Bastardization

If (3) is complete fail—for example, there is precious little quotable material on ankylosauruses—, Owl will steal someone else’s title and um, bastardize alter it so she doesn’t get slapped with plagiarism. And thus Owl has a whole host of titles like Letters from a Young Biologist, Letters by a Young Poet, Letters from a Young Owl,…Owl needs to look into stealing from different titles.

Owl is in desperate need of help. What are your favorite titles? What are favorite titles you’ve written? How do you title your stories? Tips? Tricks? Suggestions?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The History of Love

During yoga class Owl when twisted over into a warrior two with a bind—a painful and unnatural position especially if you have no thigh muscles—her instructor reached for a book.

Owl considered defenestrating herself. Owl adores yoga, and Owl adores being read to, but in her limited experience, yoga instructors have the most deplorable habit of picking out a poem about living simply or being a better person and reading it in a singsong poet’s voice eerily reminiscent of tape recorded ocean noises. Then they fold their hands and lecture on Morals. This can range from why you shouldn’t hit your dog to boycotting large corporations unless you approve of child labor.

This is usually intended to lessen the pain of the pose, but Owl finds that it deepens it. You can’t run away and you can’t argue. You can only suffer in silence. But I don’t have a dog!  But what if you’re a poor child laborer and you don’t have the money to shop at indie stores?

Then her yoga instructor began in a quiet voice that focused more on enunciating each word precisely than rolling out the vowels for emotional emphasis. This is what she read:

The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists. The gestures were complex and subtle, involving a delicacy of motion that has since been lost completely…

If at large gatherings or parties, or around people with whom you feel distant, your hands sometimes hang awkwardly at the ends of your arms – if you find yourself at a loss for what to do with them, overcome with sadness that comes when you recognize the foreignness of your own body – it’s because your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body, brain and heart, what’s inside and what’s outside, was so much less.

The book was The History of Love, the author, Nicole Krauss.

Owl nearly stole it from her instructor after class. Instead she managed to wait until it arrived at the library, and then she read it in a series of delirious gulps.

The History of Love is about cranky Leo Gursky who lives alone in his New York apartment. Leo Gursky was young, was once a writer, was once head over heels in love, and once wrote a book about being in love.

Leo Gursky is still in love, still a writer at heart, but the book was destroyed in a flood before anyone could read it, he’s old, he’s retired from the business of unlocking doors for a living, and instead knocks over cups at Starbucks—that way if he dies, someone will remember him.

The History of Love is also about fourteen year old Alma Singer. Alma’s father is dead, her mother buries herself in translations to keep her love alive, and her little brother thinks he’s a holy man, and tried to jump out of a window to see if he could fly.

Krauss tangles up gloriously colorful narratives about people who seemingly have nothing to do with each other and then weaves them together in a story that twists and turns every few moments, and bursts into pages of brilliant and imaginative prose.

There are excerpts about the Age of Glass, a time when people were convinced that parts of their body were fragile and could shatter at any moment. There’s an obituary for Isaac Babel the writer who believed in the spaces between words more than words themselves, there are tips on how to survive in the wild, and notes on being a holy man.

Krauss must have laughed as she wrote, must sipped sparkling cider and hummed lullabyes. Maybe she did none of these things. Maybe she hit the dog. It doesn’t matter. Part love letter, part mystery, History of Love, is more than a love story, it’s a lesson that there are no limits to the magic of the written word.   

[Observation: Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer and The History of Love is very similar to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are dead fathers, children scrambling all over New York in search of someone, experimental prose, and both were published in 2005.  Which raised a lot of questions in Owl’s mind about influences and the intersection of marriage and writing. But Krauss is famous for being closemouthed about her marriage. Pooh.]

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Art, Artists, Artistry

Every so often Owl encounters artists like the souls who post on Thought Catalog and gets a serious attack of the vapors. Owl would very much like to declare herself an artiste, but then she reads the sculpted prose of the people who post on Thought Catalog, their descriptions of life as an artistic twenty-something, the hangovers and hangups, the breakups and breakdowns—la vie bohème.

Owl is a dull creature, fond of convention, even fonder of rules. She is capable of having a one hour conversation on knitting. She can be found at the library on weekends, and is utterly outraged that it’s closed on Friday nights. Her idea of Bacchanalian pleasure is a mug of hot chocolate and a slice of cardamom bread. She has no desire to experience la vie bohème. It sounds uncomfortable.

And Owl despairs. She cannot shake herself of the notion that the desire for a life without rules is the same spirit that goes into the creation of great art. In order to create anything you can’t look around and duplicate what has already been done. You have to stand on your own feet, see some crazy vision, nod and say—This is how it ought to be. And then do it. And then keep doing it even when people want to lock you up in a padded room.

This takes guts. A certain disregard for convention, and an unshakable madness. And perhaps this is why you get the mythology of the tormented artists. Maybe, in order to do these things, artists have to be slightly mad, completely mad, possessed by some wild beast that can not be contained in a single body so it manifests as alcoholism, angst, abuse, and at its highest and most purest form: art.

Lately Owl has been reading Roberto Bolaño’s much lauded The Savage Detectives which has added to her despair.

If anyone was possessed by this madness it is Roberto Bolaño who spent most of his life wandering through Latin America, stealing books, starving, reading and writing poetry. In Mexico he burst into poetry readings held by poets he thought were corrupt and screamed until he drowned out their words. Isabelle Allende was mediocre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez a mere socialite, and the less said about likes of Laura Esquivel and Paulo Coelho the better. He called for a literary revolution, and if he couldn’t make people get up and follow him, well then, he’d be the revolution. Ballsy, and belligerent, if that’s how a writer should live, than Bolaño the complete and utter badass, was the master of them all.

Owl was captivated by the first paragraph of The Savage Detectives:

I'm not really sure what visceral realism is. I'm seventeen years old, my name is Juan García Madero, and I'm in my first semester of law school. I wanted to study literature, not law, but my uncle insisted, and in the end I gave in. I'm an orphan, and someday I'll be a lawyer. That's what I told my aunt and uncle, and then I shut myself in my room and cried all night.

Owl wanted to be bff with Juan García Madero. Then he joins the visceral realist poetry movement. He stops attending class and starts going to bars to write poetry. He boozes up, gets laid, and gets high, all in proper artist form. (Here Owl sadly realized she and Juan García Madero were never meant to be. Owl is not the sort to cut classes. Or even booze it up.)

A hundred fifty pages in, Madero’s voice is replaced with a series of interviews that capture the lives of two poets as they travel from country to country. There are about fifty different people who are interviewed, the interviews span two decades, several different countries, and to make matters worse (or better) Bolaño chops up the interviews, layering them against each other so every two pages the narrative jumps from person to person.

The Savage Detectives is technically brilliant. Bolaño must have papered his walls with lists of his characters in order to keep them all straight. But the overall effect is discombobulating. It is difficult, if not impossible to keep track of all the characters, so they become indistinguishable, fifty or so angry voices, getting high, getting drunk, rolling into bed, rolling out, howling for love but managing not to love anyone, not really, not in anyway that matters, and then it just fades into noise, one continuous roar. At first it’s sordid, then it’s exhausting, and finally it’s boring.

There is very little about poetry, and when it is mentioned, like everything else, it gets lost in the roar. If there’s any lasting flavor the remains once you finish, it is about the emptiness of old age once dreams have grown sour.

The critics called the book genius. Owl wonders if this is because Bolaño lives up to the mythology of the tormented artist. Actually Owl does not like to think of Bolaño, when she does, she feels totally incapable of living up to such heights of madness. His vision of artistry seems exclusive—being an artist is like belonging to a club. Either you’re in or you’re out and if you’re out, you’re out and God help you.

Instead of God, Owl turned to Natsume Sōseki’s Kusamakura. Sōseki came of age when Japanese writers were turning towards Western literary traditions. While Bolaño raged against the conventions of Latin American writing insisted on the importance of a revolution, Sōseki turned back to traditional Japanese literature. A revolution, perhaps, but an opposite one, a desire to go back to the old structures of the past instead of rampaging ahead into unknown lands.

Kusamakura is plotless. It follows a narrator as he meanders up a mountain and around its hidden springs. There’s a lot of staring off into the distance and meditating on the nature of art. Where The Savage Detectives is noise, Kusamakura is quiet, where The Savage Detectives is long, Kusamakura is brief, and where The Savage Detectives ultimately has very little to say about the creation of poetry other than how it’s fifty odd characters mostly failed to create poetry, Kusamakura outlines an entire philosophy of art.

According to Sōseki art is more a state of mind than a product. To be an artist is to be able to create a certain emotional distance from personal experiences and view them dispassionately.

You must forget the pain of your own broken heart and simply visualize in objective terms the tender moments, the moments of empathy or unhappiness, even the moments most redolent with the pain of heartbreak. These will then become the stuff of literature and art.

Anyone can be an artist as long as they “cut [themselves] loose from the entangling strictures of gross self-interest.” It has less to do with creating than with perceiving. To be an artist is to experience life without getting consumed by emotional reactions. It is an attempt to transcend the immediate visceral reaction to realities of life and instead step back and passively regard the moment for what it is, untainted by personal interests.

Owl has no comment on which version of artistry—the wildness of Bolaño which is all about the visceral or the dispassion of Sōseki—is more true. Neither. Both mixed up and laid together side by side, after all both writers created books that are still being read today. But she knows which version she prefers.

On her birthday Owl went to the Asian art museum. It was not a particularly easy birthday, Owl was bitter—tired of her endless desire to write and how ill suited it made her for daily life, desperately afraid of her life without writing.

She stopped by a room full of ancient Chinese scrolls. In the manner of Chinese scrolls, the landscapes loomed large and the people were few and far between, a commentary on their relative importance. There were mountains surrounded by curling wisps of smoke, thick forests, riverbanks, and off in the corner a boat or a small hut where inside a scholar read a pile of books.

Owl looked at the largeness of the mountains, the smallness of the scholar reading and in that moment she broke free of all her doubts and attained a moment of clarity. She saw that her life was small, one of many, that her life was indeed good.

She came into possession of a certain serenity, a knowledge that she was one of a long chain of people who had come and gone but spent their lives reading books, that this was acceptable, unimportant even, and that regardless of what she does, the mountains will remain large, eternally beautiful.

In that moment she was absolutely sure one day she would be very happy.

This serenity lasted for days.