They say that golfers’ games go to hell when they lose confidence, which is an elusive thing. But when you have confidence, they say, the hole looks as big as a basketball hoop. Confidence, notoriously, comes and goes. Over the last decade I have written probably fifty poems, or drafts of poems, that I have never quite managed to finish or send out to editors. I lacked confidence in them. My game was off. But over the last year or so I have been going back to those poems and finishing some of them and sending them out and they are beginning to get published. I blame the avant garde. I blame flarf and conceptual poetry and Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman and all the Language Poets from sea to shining sea. I have always, temperamentally and politically, identified with the cutting edge, with the most progressive policy, with the new. Make it NEW, Pound told me when I was but an impressionable boy. I tried to be like those guys. I kept tinkering with my swing. The result was that I was always hooking or slicing of digging the club into the fairway. Jim Furyk has a swing you would never teach to a beginner, but he has been ranked as high as number two in the world — it’s a funny-looking loopy thing, but it’s his swing and he has made it work. I think I’m maybe finding my swing.
Lots happening here in HCMC. Toady my friend Lan and I met with two different publishers and we now have two book projects in hand, a collection of short stories by Son Lam and an anthology of younger women poets from the souther half of Vietnam. I couldn’t be more pleased. Tomorrow morning I meet with some of the women who will have poems in the anthology.
Update: This was an odd meeting. I showed up at nine and waited around for half an hour, but no one came. I was just going back to the hotel when Lan arrived and asked if anybody else was there. Nope, I said. So we sat and had coffee for another forty five minutes and were getting ready to leave when the first poet arrived. Now, this had been a casual invitation delivered by email to meet for coffee, but it certainly pushed the usual southern Vietnamese disregard for time about as far as it would go. After another half an hour and a couple of text messages, another poet arrived. Apparently, Lan told me later, they organize via text message and for a meeting to occur, one or two people have to show up and text their friends, We’re here; then others begin arriving. It’s an odd effect of cell phones being utterly ubiqutous in Vietnam — so much so that it appears to be changing the way people organize their social lived. But it’s only people in their thirties or younger: the poets I met with the day before were there waiting for me, though a few showed up later. Most of these were older guys, some my age. My own students probably organize their lives this way and I’m just not aware of it.
So that’s one social principle that was new to me. There was another that come out of this meeting that I didn’t pick up on until Lan explained it to me. Lan had used email to “introduce” me to several poets online, asking them to send me work for translation. (This was before the meeting described above.) I followed up with an email of my own and a few of the poets responded. Apparently, because I did not respond immediately when people wrote me (I’m traveling, with sketchy internet), that was taken as a sign that I was not interested. I find this baffling, especially given the experiences outlined in the previous paragraph. I chalk it up to an ambivilent post-colonial posture on the part of Vietnamese poets. If you don’t like me then to hell with you. It’s understandable, but something I have to internalize for the work I’m doing. I’d be defensive too, I guess. It just occurs to me as I write that the line between the personal and the professional is much more blurry in Vietnamese letters than in the US. So that when I respond in a “professional” mode it is taken as a lack of friendship. It bothers me, I want to work within the social structures of the people whose poems I’m reading, but these experiences demonstrate the perils of even the best-willed attempts at cross-cultural understanding.
Following a link from A Practical Policy, I read this story, “Segundo’s Revenge,” by Joe Emersberger, a writer unknown to me. I had read some other things at Liberation Lit, but nothing that carried out the LL mission to combine the political and the artistic quite so deftly. It’s a terrific story, though I wish it were not quite reticent — I could do with a bit more characterization and description, but I kind of see why Emersberger keeps it simple, with a powerful through-line. I’ll be keeping this piece in mind as I work out how to make poems and stories of my own out of “political” material. When I was beginning as a writer many hears ago there was a strong bias in the classroom against the didactic and the political in literature and I absorbed that vibe even while having strong political convictions. I mean, I’ve already written plenty of political poems, but I don’t really know how to do it — I have no systematic understanding, though the frank admission in the Liberation Lit writers’ guidelines that there is some strongly perceived division between the political and the aesthetic is a healthy admission, I think. Perhaps at this moment in the West we are without a synthesis of the political and the aesthetic with the result that we have to make up a new method for each piece of work.
I’m trying to gather material impressions while I’m here in Vietnam that I’ll be able to turn into poems and stories — the story ideas I’ve had so far each take on the political situation of the sympathetic foreigner encountering the people and places and institutions of Vietnam. Nothing has gelled, but then I haven’t taken time to sit down and fill out my brief notes, which is how things usually begin for me.
A few more books for the beginning fiction writer — or for the poet long in the tooth who decides to give fiction writing a try — starting with a couple of good anthologies:
The Story Behind the Story — Andrea Barrett & Peter Turchi: This is a good anthology of short stories by many of the usual suspects in many of the usual modes. It includes fairly brief statements by each author describing the genesis of the story. These statements tend toward the personal rather than the technical, so, while they are interesting, they remain idiosyncratic and not terribly useful to the student, except insofar as a student needs to see what sorts of experiences (ulikely or ordinary) can generate a story. (Judith Grossman’s brief explanation of her story, “I’m Not Through” goes right to the heart of the fiction writer’s problem, however.)
12 Short Stories and their Making — Paul Mandelbaum: This anthology is similar in conception to the Barrett & Turchi book above, except that each author is interviewed by the editor and the interview appears after the story. Because Mandelbaum is interested in technical as well as personal matters, he pushes the writers to explain their methods, which the attentive student will find useful. Because Mandelbaum asks his various authors similar kinds of questions (while allowing the interview to find its own shape), there is much more consistency of response than in The Story Behind the Story.
Narrative Design — Madison Smart Bell: This is the most theoretical and narrowly focused of the books under discussion here, with the fewest stories. Bell divides narrative structures into “linear” and “modular” and provides several examples of each, with extensive analysis that includes an almost line by line set of notes for each story. His general discussion of each story is clear and useful; personally, I get bogged down in the detail of the notes, but others may find these useful. Again speaking personally, I liked the “linear” stories Bell selected much more than the “modular” ones, with the exception of a piece by Miriam Kuznets, “Signs of Life.”
The Half-known World: On Writing Fiction — Robert Boswell: This is a collection of essays dealing with specific issues and drawing on particular works of fiction with which the reader will need to be familiar. Not really a beginner’s book, it’s probably going to be most useful to those who have read a good deal and already written some fiction. One of the most useful things Boswell emphasizes is that in literary fiction, the writer only knows the half of things, that his / her characters and plot emerge from the unknown and must remain partly mysterious even for the reader. This was a great relief to me as a beginner, since that is how I find things in my stories.
Modern Library Writer’s Workshop — Stephen Koch: This book takes the attitude of a coach, addressing specific problems the writer will face in trying to get a story on the page. It covers the basics in a friendly and direct way, referring to many works of (mostly short) fiction to illustrate its points. It also quotes many writers — too many, sometimes — on various subjects related to the craft of fiction. Along with LaPlante’s book (see my earlier post), this is a sensible and encouraging guide.
When I first began writing poetry as a teenager, I could not get enough of books like John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? I was interested in the technical nuts and bolts of writing and at the time the Ciardi book and a couple of others were the only things available. As my competence increased, I got more interested in theory. The theory that was available in the 1960s to a suburban kid with a library card was almost exclusively the New Critics: I remember reading big swathes of Patriotic Gore and The World’s Body — even though I was reading Eliot’s poems, I didn’t get around tho the predecessor texts, Eliot’s essays, until I got to college. Such were my obsessions and fascianations as a young poet; over the last few months I have returned to my youthful state of obsession, but this time with the writing of fiction. I never thought I could do it until a few months ago, but now I have written a handful of stories and I find myself interested in technique more than in theory, though the two form a kind of moibus strip, or course. Following, then, are a few notes on some of the books I have found most useful as a beginning fiction writer (though one in the unusual position of not being a beginning writer, as such.)
The Art of Subtext — Charles Baxter: This was the first “how-to” book on fiction I read and it’s not really a how-to at all, but a meditation on what makes literary fiction literary. Fiction that has a subtext and is overdetermined operates in a different way from commercial fiction.
Method and Madness — Alice LaPlante: This is the most gracefully written textbook I’ve ever encountered in any field. LaPlante’s sensible dissection of the “show don’t tell” rule, for instance, is the essence of clarity. The choice of examples and the explanation of techniques is virtually perfect.
The Practice of Creative Writing — Heather Sellers: Another good textbook. I bought this originally on Joshua Corey’s recommendation and I probably will use the book next time I teach my introductory creative writing class. In the meantime, I’ve found it chock full of useful advice for a beginning fiction writer such as myself.
Note: Subtext is part of a very sweet little series of books on writing from Graywolf Press that also includes Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention, with which I have many disagreements but is nevertheless an elegant and useful book, as well as James Longenbach’s very useful The Art of the Poetic Line.