Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Seconds on pie

Hi everyone,
You may or may not know that the distinguished Jennifer Zobair is hosting a “Best Short Story I Have Ever Read (Asterisk)” Smackdown with pie over at her blog. One of the rules of this smackdown is that you can only offer up one story as the "best (asterisk)." But, because we recognize that most writers are also gluttons (asterisk), we are using this post for all of your short story seconds (asterisk)...those stories that you still want to rave about even though you really are only supposed to rave about one. Feel free to post as many short story titles as you like here!



What's Peanut eating? The right arm of a Christmas polar bear doll. He's after all of the other decorations too.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Frlinkcipe

Short story smackdown with pie

Total time: 12 days


Ingredients:

your favorite pie crust recipe

your favorite pie filling

your favorite short story


Directions:

Bake the pie and pick your favorite short story and join the smackdown.

For a more coherent explanation, go here.



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Four soups

Here is the original opening of Cyberlama followed by some new possible openings that I'm considering. Thanks, Michelle, for reminding me to write!

Original

I begin this volume of my memoirs—my sixth—a few years early. Originally, I had planned to write a new one every fifty years, but I sense that something unusual is going on. What that something is, I don’t know yet. I write this based on nothing more than a vague impression I got from some members of the staff as they were working in our room, a sense of tension, or secrecy, perhaps. Well, I can be certain of one thing at least—I know that I am not a genius. Having lived for so long, my insight into human nature still can’t rival that of Shakespeare or Tolstoy, Proust or Woolf, Cotter or Bailey. But it is serviceable, and when I’m at my best, it is honest. Usually that’s good enough.

To start at the beginning, my name is Diana Foster. In the year 2010, at the age of twenty-six, I was invited to take part in an experiment to sustain my life indefinitely. My spinal cord was fused to an ion activator that would allow my brain to continue functioning long after it would traditionally have given out. My circulatory and respiratory systems were integrated into nanovalve hydraulic pump systems—state-of-the-art technology at the time. I was fed through a tube. My UV exposure was reduced. My cardiovascular fitness was controlled. In short, everything possible was done to make sure that my body would endure for as long as the program continued. I am three hundred thirty-four years old now, and I feel as fit and alert as I ever did.



Option 3647

I opened my eyes to find Dr. Schultz and Dr. Russo whispering to one other. They stood by the biorhythm station, their shoulders almost touching. Dr. Schultz traced his finger down a list of numbers on the screen that were too small for me to read myself. Though I tried to stay quiet, Dr. Russo glanced over his shoulder and caught me watching them. He tapped Schultz on the shoulder. They logged off of the computer and left the room.


Option 4561 

The uniformed man cleared his throat as Diana stepped into the cobblestone courtyard. He waited underneath the lamppost beside the building entrance.

“Ms. Foster?”

She continued walking, her night’s groceries in a canvas bag in her hand. The light in the Guardienne’s apartment was already off.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to scare you. I just need to deliver a letter to you.”

“Oh, you’re an American,” Diana said.

“I’m from Washington.” The man straightened. “I just need to give you this letter.”

“It must say something important if you had to fly all the way over here to give it to me.”

“I wouldn’t know.” He offered up a thin envelope. The shadow from his fingers kept her from seeing whom it was from. “Apparently, they tried to mail you the first one, but you didn’t respond.”


Option 6678

I begin writing this five years early. We learned today that Volker sneezed. The event was recorded by the electroencephalogram, electrocardiogram, and the eye movement sensors. We contacted Dr. Schultz about it, and he has confirmed that it is indeed true.



Why am I playing around with this? I'm not really sure. Part of it has resulted from me thinking more about the big picture story. I think if the thing I'm trying to record is about my protagonist, Diana, joining this experiment and then coming to terms with whether or not it was a good idea, then the chronological presentation might work. It seems the most logical and the least distracting. But the reason I started jumping around in the first place was because such a long timespan is covered, and I liked the idea of mixing and splicing memories, which is a consequence of life. I'm not sure if I like Volker's sneeze as the frame for the story. It feels a little predictable. I'm also seeing if I like the story more when I write in scenes as opposed to a more conversation telling that I originally began with.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday Frirthdaycipes

Baby

Total time: 38 weeks

Ingredients:

1 ex-dancer, daughter of mother unable to walk after giving birth to her last son, daughter of mother lost to strangers in a gambling game who became a servant girl, daughter of father abused by uncle, daughter of father who ran away from home to become a servant boy, daughter of servants in the same house who fell in love and bought their freedom, pediatric intensive care unit nurse for some 40 years, maker of Ritz cracker sandwiches lined on a red plastic tray on Saturday mornings

1 ex-fight rooster raiser, ex-kick boxer, ex-smoker!, steel worker whose hands are covered with tiny blisters from having to work with acid for 40 years, maker of cool wooden toys that little boys liked to throw at each other, eater of Cup O' Noodles in the middle of the night with the kids woken up so that all three could fight for noodles in the same pot


Directions:

Import both ingredients from Thailand, marry them and hold a reception afterwards for a total of $100. Take a picture of them looking young and happy and so much in love in front of a gold curtain (It was the 70's). Ahem--shuffle their DNA around Valentine's Day of 1978. Take the bun out of the oven at 11:06 pm in White Memorial Medical Center.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Canned Peaches

Here's where I am: I spent a few days brainstorming about the big picture concepts behind Cyberlama. The end result was something like: 6 people stuck together for a really long time. In other words, my understanding is still evolving.

I'm trying to write the book in chronological order just to see if that will work for me. I'm also cutting out the telling, which was a lot of the book. So, potentially, that will be a big transformation. I may not like it at all, in which case I will go back to an older draft.

I'm also reading Kent Haruf's Plainsong right now. Have you folks heard of it? When I started it, I kept comparing it to Cormac McCarthy, mainly due to the technical approach (all straightforward showing, no quotations marks, stuff like that). But now that I'm about 200 pages into it I'm really enjoying it. Some moments make me laugh. Some make me cheer. Some make me almost tear up. It's a sweet little book, and one of the few that I feel reflects what I'm also trying to do with my stories. It's a very quiet book, like Mrs. Bridge or like Yasunari Kawabata's books. These are my peeps!

I often think about literary lineages--how an author is influenced by the books that came before her or him. My lineage includes Homer and Tolstoy and Faulkner and Woolf and Delillo and the books I mentioned above. My lineage has not so far included writers like Philip Roth and Dostoevsky and Dickens--writers who I keep trying to like but don't ever fully connect with (even if I respect them). Haruf feels like someone I should include in this lineage.

What's Peanut eating? A manilla folder and lemon juice. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sprinkles

I don't really have anything to share except that I feel excited to work on Cyberlama again after a loooo-o-ooo--oo-ong break. I want to start from the beginning and structure the beast into a form that is mouthwatering. I'm toying with the idea of doing it all in chronological order, starting with Diana in Paris and ending with Diana at...the end. Maybe. I'm at least going to try that first. If that doesn't get me anywhere, then the revision will be more about making it as dramatic as possible by putting things in better places. The book is shuffleable like that. I'm into the whole stories-within-stories concept (as opposed to the babies having babies concept).

The most important thing. I'm excited!

What's Peanut eating? A neon green ear plug on the elevator floor. I cleverly maneuvered him around it on the way down, but he cleverly remembered to eat it on the way back up.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday Friendcipe

Michelle

Total Prep Time: hundreds of years, if not thousands


Ingredients:

1 eye
2 eyes
3 eyes
15 ducks
3 pheasants
8 rabbits hung on a long, thick wire in a corner
1 dragon
spices
something sweet


Directions:

Mix very well until you get Bonded.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Toothpaste drippings

I don't really know if this will lead to anything, but I wrote it over the last couple of days. The narrator's name might be William or Jasper or something. I'm trying to use a voice that's different from what I've tried before, but I'm worried that this particular voice is too pedantic.

  
You know, it’s hard to say how quickly it actually happened. By the time I rolled out of bed the sky was almost gone. All I saw were these edges on the horizon, a thin colored band of orange that disappeared as my eyes were still trying to adjust. Then it was gone. All of it. But it was so early I didn’t really understand what was happening—I didn’t know what we had lost.

I remember scratching my head while Agnes went about her business. Then, we went inside, I took a shower, and I was getting dressed for work before my brain said, “Wait a minute.” So, I looked out the window again, and all I saw was the white curtain stretching over the entire place. I made a cup of coffee, hooked Agnes back up, and we went and sat on the porch. I thought about everything. I thought about my grandmother. I thought about going to church. I thought about my life and how everything I ever went through led me to where I was at that moment. It was sort of a peaceful feeling, like a quiet inside my soul. That was maybe the quietest moment in my whole entire life.

Marvash screamed. It was blood curdling. I looked up and saw her head sticking out of the window. She dropped something from her mouth—I think it was a toothbrush, but I don’t remember. I saw the thing fall down against the white backdrop. I heard her husband ask what the hell was going on, and then Marvash’s high-pitched voice started to describe it all quickly. I couldn’t really make out what she was saying, but she used a lot of words, and I remember wondering how she could take so many words to describe a white sky.


So, there you go.

What's Peanut eating? Seed pods, I think.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Frecipe!

A childhood (serves 1)

Total prep and cooking time: 23 years


Ingredients:

1 video cassette of Staying Alive starring John Travolta, Cynthia Rhodes, and Finola Hughes
1 pale green baby blanket
1 straw hat
3,650 Ziploc bags with the yellow-and-blue-make-green seal
25,550 cans of Budweiser


Directions:

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl and slowly add in Budweiser until dough starts to pull away from the sides. Let rest for ~15 minutes under a crocheted tablecloth topped with burning paper girl (optional). Bake at 425 degrees F until the inside is tender.






Thursday, October 25, 2012

Tea

I've been rereading Yasunari Kawabata's book Thousand Cranes. It's about a man and his relationship with his father's two mistresses after his father dies. And, there's a birthmark involved.

Tea ceremonies are also involved, and the book references some Shino wares. So I looked them up, and they are quite beautiful...



I've always had a thing for ceramics. That's really all I wanted to say. But, really, what I wanted to say is that I am unveiling a new weekly blog feature tomorrow because I miss Scott G. F. Bailey's Friday Fillers. Don't get too excited. 

And for those of you who think that you can't eat tea, you should try my Grandma Sophie's tea. Bring your extra pair of teeth.*

*Okay, I really don't have a Grandma Sophie.

What's Peanut eating? If you're familiar with Miyazaki's animated feature Spirited Away (one of the DVDs I used to play over and over and over again when I wrote), then you may remember this disgusting-looking black blob that the river spirit gave to Chihiro after she pulled a bicycle out of his side. Well, Peanut ate something that looked like that this morning.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Breakfast

Hey, I started writing again after far too many weeks!

Here's another section of "1, 3, 2, 4." If you've forgotten what that is, I can't say I blame you. If no one sees this because my blog is far too inactive, I can't say I blame you. I'm not sure if I will finish this story, since I (at least partially) blame it for putting me into a funk in the first place. Damn art! Damn emotions! Damn soul that I don't really believe in!


The building used to be a toy factory. That’s what everyone still called it, especially the hipsters in their V-necks and plaid shorts and thick-rimmed, turtle shell glasses. Benjamin wondered how those young kids could afford to live here—he and Leo barely could afford it themselves, and both of them had decent jobs, jobs earned after years of dedicated servitude.

The floors were polished concrete, something Leo had loved in the pictures online. They showed the old cracks and stains from the 1920s when the place was first erected. Wide pillars stood near the Eastern wall, supporting even more concrete above them. The building was officially designated an earthquake shelter in the eighties, and the inspector had assured them that a place like this would never collapse unless a nuclear bomb were to land directly on top of it. At the time this had given Benjamin a sense of security, but later, after Leo arrived, the weight of the building seemed to sit on his chest, making it hard to breathe sometimes as they lay together, side by side, in bed. When they were considering places to live in the U.S., Benjamin had suggested they move back to this neighborhood, but Leo was the one who finally told their real estate agent they were ready to make an offer. He had been fed up with Benjamin’s wishy-washiness.


And, AND, I should also say that my buds Scott and Michelle are both offering up their books to the world soon. Scott. Michelle. And, I've been reading Robynne Rand's Who Are You?, which you should check out. There's also J.B. Chicoine's Uncharted and February Grace's Godspeed on my list!

What's Peanut eating? Pumpkin, after a rather festive carving party that included spider web decorations, a pie, and only one injury.

Can you guess which one I did?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lignin

Peanut has been reading a lot of books lately. For a while, he was reading a book a day. It started with Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy, which sort of makes sense, doesn't it? I mean, the book was just sitting there on the table, declaring itself as the bad guy, why wouldn't Peanut read it? But then, it was a Florence travel book, A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill, Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness, James Joyce's Dubliners, and even a second copy of My Mortal Enemy. I'd come home from work to find them on the ground, sometimes open, sometimes closed, always looking worn out.


Interview interlude with David Hasselhoff:

DH: Really? Peanut is reading books?

Me: Oh, did I say "reading"? I meant "eating."



Hi everyone,

I haven't been posting! I'm in a bit of a funk, partly to do with layoffs in my office, partly to do with loved ones trying to figure out the balance between love and life. But I took a long weekend in Joshua Tree and the loft has had some cosmetic surgery, so I'll post pictures up soon. And, no, none of this has anything to do with writing.



Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Strange Fruit

I caught the tail end of this story on NPR this morning and then got it sent to me by a friend. It describes the life of Abel Meeropol, the man who wrote "Strange Fruit," including why he used the pen name Lewis Allen. I've always found "Strange Fruit" to be an incredibly powerful song, but I never visually read the lyrics before. Here they are. And the article has a video of Lady Day singing it too.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.


Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!


Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.


What's Peanut eating? He found some sort of hard little ball this morning that I couldn't force out of his mouth. He swallowed it whole. I'm a little freaked that it will be another thousand dollar bite.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cake and Champagne

Happy Birthday to Scott G. F. Bailey! Cake and champagne for breakfast!

What's Peanut eating? Cake and champagne, of course. It's Scott G. F. Bailey's birthday!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Chinese takeout

More from "1, 3, 2, 4." I've changed Toph's name to Benjamin based on <ahem> popular demand.


Benjamin came home from work on a Saturday to learn that Leo and Jimmy had gone to lunch together. Two white takeout boxes with red pagodas stood side by side on the top shelf of the refrigerator. Leo offered a list of the things they had talked about: jobs, vacations, childhoods, ex-boyfriends--

"And what did you have to say about ex-boyfriends?" Benjamin asked.

"Nothing really." Leo shrugged and turned his attention back to the television.

It had been three weeks since Benjamin last had a day off. He hung up his shirt and slacks and yawned his way to the bed. He napped frequently these days, covering his eyes with a pillow to block out the afternoon light that streamed in through their bare window. Leo always complained that this made him look headless, but Benjamin couldn't help it--maybe his eyelids were too thin. Only a few minutes seemed to have passed when he sat up to find himself alone. He dressed, peed, ate some yoghurt using a spoon he found on the counter. A short while later, Leo returned panting and glistening with sweat. He had gone for a jog. He had decided it was time to get back into shape again.

and

In his first life, Benjamin had been more sensible. Though he didn't finish his degree, he fell into a well-paying job as a corporate speech writer. He found that he had the innate talent to write words in other people's voices. Then, in his thirties, life suddenly felt as if it was chugging along faster than he had realized. He noticed more missed opportunities, more lack of discoveries, more things that were almost done, but not quite. He saved up a good deal of money, and, upon the invitation of his friend Marissa, he sold his house in Silver Lake and flew to London on a one-way ticket, sleeping on a couch, and living out of a single, over-sized suitcase.

Men in London--at least the ones he paid attention to--were young and trim and well-groomed. He loved seeing them pass by in their little gray suits and narrow black ties, their sleekness balanced by unkempt hair that only the young can really get away with. Not once did he approach any of them--he didn't need to. He was content just to see them and to be among them. In London, he felt as if he was on an expressway, making up for lost time. Each morning he would walk the streets for hours, snapping photographs, eavesdropping on English conversations, not returning to Marissa's until the late afternoon, when he would finally take some time to plan his return to the States as he waited for her to finish her work.


What's Peanut eating? Chicken bits fed to him under the table. Shhh.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Metaldehyde

Today is a special episode of What's Peanut Eating. Unfortunately.

What's Peanut Eating? Snail poison.


So, I've been rather distracted the last couple of days. The poor little dude was having bad muscle spasms and was drooling excessively when the dog walker went to visit him. The vet said it was common for dogs to eat snail poison because it's mixed with molasses. He's back at home now and filled with charcoal.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Trail Mix

I've been working on a short story. I keep wondering if it's a mental vacation, because the plot is fairly straightforward. But I'm hoping deeper emotions come through as a result of the fewer technical acrobatics.

I wasn't trying to take a new approach to writing, but with this piece I found myself gravitating to pen and paper, and I'm also writing in fragments instead of moving from beginning to end. This comes down, I'm sure, to me feeling more able to focus on smaller details as opposed to simply worrying about the story being coherent as a whole. I feel as if I've graduated from something!

Here are a few paragraphs (not necessarily in order), just because. I find that I'm still revising a lot, even with the pen and paper, so each of these paragraphs have been handwritten multiple times and are changing very quickly.

The story's called "1, 3, 2, 4."

The other couple lived on the same floor, only two doors away. During Toph’s early weeks alone in the new building, he occasionally passed them in the hall without eliciting so much as a smile from either one of them. They had a child, a blond-haired boy of four or five who trailed behind them with one hand gripping onto the pant leg of the father he most matched to physically. Toph figured it was parenthood that kept them so reclusive; then, of course, Leo arrived from London, and, as a couple, they became visible. The other men introduced themselves as Jimmy and Marcos, a carpenter and an accountant. Leo wasn’t even over his jetlag yet when Jimmy invited them over for dinner.

and

Leo tended to have that effect on people. In the first month of their relationship, Toph had introduced him to all of his close friends. They liked that Leo had a Ph.D. They liked his smile. They universally agreed that Leo was good for Toph—at forty-five he had played the field long enough.

and

Leo stormed out of their apartment the first time Toph insisted on watching a playoff game. He said that he wasn't mad, that he simply wanted to get away from the sound of the television. He was gone until well past dinnertime, claiming that he didn't know how long the games lasted. Toph pretended to read the newspaper while he listened to Leo rummaging around in the kitchen, finally deciding on a fried egg sandwich. The apartment filled with the smell of grease, and it was Toph who wordlessly stepped over to the window and opened it.

and

In London, Leo often befriended other couples, saying they made him feel more at ease in the foreign country. On any day of the week, Toph would return home from work and find a note on the door telling him to meet at a local pub, or at a new restaurant, or, occasionally, at an apartment, where Toph would find himself stepping into the home of someone he had never met before and awkwardly introducing himself. Leo was thoughtful enough never to bring anyone home without advanced warning. So, on the days when Toph wasn't feeling very social, he could easily stay in, take a bath, and tell Leo that his meetings had run so late that he didn't think he would be able to catch up with them when all was said and done.

What's Peanut eating? Feta cheese

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Teacher's Apple

Hi Kids!

Today, I have a problem for you to take on or ignore. Write a sentence that ends with the following, including its beautiful concluding punctuation:


...I eat what I see”!’ ” 


And, yes, I have been looking at the Chicago Manual of Style. Thank you for asking. 

What's Peanut eating? A wad of paper that I worried would choke him. That troublesome rascal.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sea Salt

I have a new conceptualization of how my stories should end. I used to view my story endings as opportunities to wrap up a series of events. In a sense, it was an "external" process: get my character down the tree, that sort of thing. But as my stories got more complicated, I found that this strategy wasn't working for me. My attempts to wrap up multiple story lines resulted in me feeling like I had to end my stories multiple times, and each of those endings diluted the impact of all of the others.

Now I'm seeing my endings as more "internal." They will be focused on the mental state and emotional state of a character, rather than the outcome of events. Moreoever, that ending snapshot of the final mental and emotional state needs to carry the resonance of all of the storylines I was developing with any sort of depth. The ending should touch on how the character has concluded on each of these storylines--not necessarily how she is going to act on them, but how she will internally process them. She could be obsessed with some elements, she could freely discard some elements, but I feel like a reader should feel that emotional response accompanied by some sense of forward projection. If a character is changing in some specific way throughout the story, then the ending should handle how that change finishes and reaches some sort of equilibrium, even if the equilibrium is oscillating somehow.

A long time ago, some writing teacher used a wave as a metaphor for an ending. I don't remember much more than that, but now the wave comes in handy for me again. I imagine a character walking out of the ocean, and all of that character's baggage from the story is the ocean itself. A wave builds behind the character--this is the shape of the journey. Then, in the end, the character can stop moving, but the wave will continue and crash past the character and spread along the sand. The water will be blocked by where the character is standing, but the rest of the water will move forward and spread and interact with the sand and sink into the earth.

What's Peanut eating? Rotisserie chicken. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Free Shrooms

Remember when we were kids and those sketchy guys would hang out at the playground and offer us shrooms in little baggies for free? Remember when they would push their stuff to us through the chain link fence with their smudged fingers and how cool our sand castles got after we ate some of it?

The goal of the drug dealer was to turn these little appetizers into big addictions. They believed that a small drug problem would grow into a bigger drug problem and that the bigger drug problem would control our lives and make them rich.

Well, life doesn't always work out that smoothly, does it? We would grow up to create our own problems. We'd let them diverge and overlap. And rarely would rehab fix everything.

I realized today that I was viewing my protagonist's life trajectory as simplistically as a drug dealer. I was mapping out her journey as an escalation of a single problem--maybe a misunderstanding of love; honestly, I hadn't quite decided--instead of a conglomeration of mismatched problems and partial solutions. (For the B-meister, I think this was the sort of simplifying that I was warned by you to avoid.)

To put it another way, I saw Diana as having a problem, and this problem could be represented by a 1 in the beginning of the story, and maybe a 2 at the end of the first quarter, and a 3 at the end of the first half. By the end of this story, Diana's problem would be a 6, and her solution would have to be something that was -6 to take away the problem.

But now I'm seeing Diana as someone who has a set of incompatible life experiences that can't really be added together. It's apples and oranges. She has to handle each one on its own terms, and the ending will have to be a best attempt at reaching multiple good-enough solutions at once in a constrained amount of time, like the way the drug addict has to deal with his own unemployment and lack of car and sock-eating dog in the same week that he has to raise $5,000 to pay the dealer before that dealer cuts him from ear to ear. (I know, this drug metaphor is really convincing, isn't it?)

What's Peanut eating? Nothing. He had to fast for his dental cleaning. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Deconstructed Apple Pie

Okay, I admit it, the apple pie isn't really an appropriate jumping off point for this post. But, hey, I baked a pie, and, hey, it didn't suck! I think the art of pie making (and by pie, I mean pie crust) requires gentle guiding, the way one might hold a butterfly in one's hand, rather than strong steering, the way one might hold a Killer Terminator Razor-Wing Butterfly in one's hand. I also think my hands are too warm, and they melt the butter. At any rate, I was given a fool-proof recipe*, and I stopped working the dough when the butter chunks were pea-sized, and it came out well. And, I used two kinds of apples. TWO! Martha Stewart, eat your heart out.

I wasn't really cutting like that. This is a pose.

The skillet was all I had. We make do.


Speaking of apple pies, I'm working on a book called The Pagani Project, and I'm continuing to analyze it as a pre-step toward more drastic revisions in the hopes that I'll make a better book. At the moment, I'm dealing with big picture stuff, and I feel like I have to try and articulate the main "life perspective" behind the book, even if my answer will possibly change later.

I don't completely know what I mean by life perspective except that I think it has something to do with whether or not a book is character driven, or plot driven, or chaos driven--which I've talked about before and will talk about again.

There aren't, of course, any clear cut lines between these different types of books. I'm sure it's fairly arbitrary. But, for me, it comes down to the question of what makes a book "work." And, often, a great character can make a book work, just as a great plot can, and just as a broader view of life can. I'll not talk about plot-driven books here, only because I can't think of any that I'm familiar with. For me, I can think of plenty of books that have great characters. Whenever I stumble upon one, I'm so delighted. There's Brod from Everything is Illuminated, Joachim Mahlke from Cat and Mouse, and Patience Quince from The Last Guest. There's all the characters from Anna Karenina! For me, part of what makes these jump-off-the-page characters so impressive is that I've never managed to construct anyone like this. (I'll say I came close with a character called King in my first novel.) Whenever I write a story, rarely do I remember to construct a great character. Maybe that sounds stupid, but!

Then I'm reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri or Cormac McCarthy, both of who have written beautiful books with characters I can't recall for the life of me. I'd argue that, for them, the characters take a back seat to a perspective that's more fixated on what I called before HTU, or How Things Unfold. Lahiri's stories like "Nobody's Perfect" (which, okay, has a decent character) and "Hell-Heaven" and "Only Goodness," for me, don't transfer themselves into brilliant works until near the last paragraph or the last line, when the story I've been reading is suddenly elevated from something singular to something universal. I remember being quite disappointed by "Only Goodness" until I read the very last line. That last line somehow multiplied the story by 6.8 billion for me.

I'm not making a value judgement here. I end up writing more of this HTU stuff instead of character driven stuff, I think, based on how I view the world. Mostly, I see people as the same. We all have similar biochemical components. I don't believe in a soul, so I attribute most emotion of chemistry--which is kind of depressing! So, what makes us individual has a lot to do with the environment, or life, the impact of How Things Unfold all around us. Yes, this is completely simplistic. I'm not saying there's anything right about this; it's just my mindset. And, I wonder if it explains my general shyness. I like to sit off to the side and watch instead of participate. Maybe the participators write plot-drive work, and maybe the people who like to make good friends write character driven work. And, maybe, people look like their dogs. That would explain why I'm so cute.

So, enough about that. All I'm saying is that it rarely occurs to me to write a good character or a good plot. Whenever I try to do that (and I do) it takes force. My more natural tendency is to write about more universal things, somehow. And, to take it one step forward, something I'm realizing, partly as a result of finishing The Pagani Project, is that I believe the world to be completely random. If ever there is a message in my work, I think that message should be that the world is random. I'm not sure I've ever understood that until a few weeks ago. That's where I am now in my life. It's nihilist.

I do see a problem with my nihilist fiction. I think, in general, nihilists aren't that fun to hang out with. So, for me, I need to bring in other components to complicate this attitude. I try to tap into what perplexes me. Because I want to live. Some force is making me want to live. Lonesome George spent a hundred years walking around and eating stuff because of something. That's a fascinating thing to me, and I think if I communicate that clearly it would be fascinating for other people. So, that's probably where I need to get. I need to be clear on this conflict between the nothingness and the driving force to live. That's something that I didn't get until after I finished TPP, and I'm wondering if that's better left for my next book or if I should work to make that clearer in this one.

And how does this affect the end of a book? If things really are random, then the story should be able to end anywhere, right? And, yet, I tell myself that there must be more of a shape, a build up leading to a climax. To me, my most successful endings are those for my short stories "Red Man, Blue Man" and "The Wild Grass." In both of those, somehow, I feel like I hit a balance between stopping anywhere and creating the sense of meaning and completeness.

Okay, I'll stop now, because it's my blog.

What's Peanut eating? The cardboard booties that were protecting our new fan.

*Fool proof pie crust from finecooking.com. It's even easy to memorize!

1 cup butter
2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt



Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Jawbreakers

A moment of vagueness to protect the innocent: A while ago, I applied for a writer's program that I was hoping would really push me to be a better writer. I didn't get in.

So, here's where I am now. I have a book written, The Pagani Project, and I'm going to try and work through my own program of intense self-investigation in an attempt to make my book as meaningful to me as I can make it. I am going to do my best, but I know that I could learn more from others. So, anyone reading this should feel free to jump in at any time to criticize or to confirm. I want a better book, not a bigger ego.

Step 1: I'm going to stop belittling my book. I always say how random and actionless it is, how incoherent and pointless it is. No more. If I really feel that way by the end of this, then I'm just wasting paper.

Step 2: My starting point - I want to remind myself (and others?) of what the original inspiration of this book is. Why? Well, for two reasons. (A) Quite possibly when I'm done with this investigation I'll be reminded that the starting point was a good one and where I should have stayed. (B) Quite possibly when I'm done with this investigation I'll learn that the starting point was a bad one and I should work to erase all traces of the original intent that aren't actually serving the new intent.

So, where did I start? Well, a big part of my inspiration comes from a book called Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. The book is about a group of kids who are being raised as organ gardens. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I pretty much hated this book as I was reading through it. It annoyed me. Then, months after I finished it, I was walking down the aisle of a book store, and I saw the book there on the shelf. It filled me with this immense sadness as the point of the book, the fragility of life and the meager possessions anyone actually needs to find happiness suddenly hit me. That weight was something I will never forget, and I realized that it came out of a holistic accomplishment that was bigger than the sum of its parts. In writing my book, I wanted to try and do the same thing. I wanted the pieces to add up to a bigger whole. I haven't accomplished that yet. I also wanted to use the mundane components of life to emphasize how magical the world truly is. I think I was more successful at that. The other consideration is that my book explores the "opposite" of Never Let Me Go.  My book is about people who live a long time, people who are able to take their life for granted. I didn't explore that part very well. For now I'm not sure I have to.

The other inspiration for me was my past work. As I was "trying to find myself" as a writer, my first belief was that I needed to depend on my Thai-ness. I thought that was the thing that made me unique. But, really, I was born in East L.A. I'm Thai, but I'm also many things that aren't Thai. So, this book was my attempt to write about my life in a broader sense. One way this came out was through the six main characters, five of whom are intended to be some form of me.

First, I decided to narrate the book from the POV of a woman as an exploration of my sexuality.

Second, I decided to make the narrator's love interest an Asian man to explore my own physical judgments of myself.

Third, I included a kid to explore that fragile time in my life.

Fourth and fifth, I decided to include two scientists representing my analytical view of the world, divided by a transition between classical techniques and new technology.

Sixth, I decided to include another female character loosely based on a friend of mine who I admire and who made me question society's self-abuses.

These six characters are sitting in a circle, and I view this set up as the light of me passing through a prism and refracting into individual components that can be independently examined. Personally, I think this is a wonderful set up. I managed to make it work for me for some of the characters, but not others. I need to strengthen and explore my scientist characters especially, including that division in technology and, thus, the changing world, which I ended up neglecting completely.

So, that's that for day 1.

What's Peanut eating? A Milkbone after he successfully closed both cupboard doors at my command. Go, Peanut!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Cashews entwined

On Saturday I had the supreme pleasure of going to visit my good friend and ex-co-Lit Lab-blogger, Michelle Davidson Argyle. She was doing a book signing in Layton, Utah, and--thanks to an extraordinarily helpful friend at Southwest Airlines--I was able to fly out there to surprise her.

This was something I have wanted to do for some time. I've been able to meet a few blogger friends in person, including Tara Maya, then Scott G. F. Bailey, then C.N. Nevets, in that order. Meeting Michelle in-person finishes off the set, in a way, although of course there are others I'd still love to meet.

I showed up at the B&N where Michelle was sitting at a table behind her stacks of beautiful books. She flashed me a nice smile, but I don't think she recognized me right away. I just kept walking towards her, trying and failing to come up with something clever to say, until the recognition hit and she gave me a big hug.

Of course, Michelle was working, so I didn't want to interrupt. (It had occurred to me that I should tell her ahead of time that I was coming so that we could plan more time together, but Mr. Bailey insisted that I do the surprise, and it sure was fun!) And, Michelle and her hubby were able to reorganize their schedule so that we could all go out for dinner together. We didn't have cashews, even though that's what I always had in mind whenever I thought about meeting Michelle. Cashews and tomato and peanut butter sandwiches and curry, maybe. Instead, we went to a nice seafood restaurant and chatted for a good amount of time.

Then, we said our goodbyes. Then she called me to say we forgot to take a picture, so we met up again and took this:



Then, we said our goodbyes. Then, I remembered that I left my signed copy of The Breakaway in her car. (She's kindly mailing it to me. (I blame the heat and excitement.))

What's Peanut eating? Aged cheddar.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Olives on the branch

Dog ownership and bus riding have proven to be excellent stages for examples of domination or failed attempts at it. I have noticed, for example, that Peanut often acts aggressively toward "teenage" dogs, especially ones that will soon be much larger than he is. I figure this is his way of instilling fear into an opponent who will likely be able to kick his butt soon.

Sometimes, when I'm playing with him, I'll get on my hands and knees and puff out my chest and stand shoulder to shoulder with him--something I've seen him do outside with other dogs just before bark fests. It always catches him a bit off guard, and he often hops away and stops playing for a second. (See, I'm slowly learning to speak dog.)

This morning, on the bus, a man stood and headed for the door because he was getting off at the next stop. A woman was standing in his way, and when he asked her to move, she refused, saying something like, "I'm getting off at this stop too." The man asked again, to make sure he could get close to the door. The woman refused, saying he could damn well wait or something like that. The man nudged her. The woman screamed at him. The man pushed her harder. The woman started slapping. The two got into a fight. And then a third man--tall and dirty--came up between them, faced the man, and administered one single blow of the forearm. Everyone stopped. Then, the first man who has asked to get to the door got a glazed expression on his face, and crumpled. When he was finally able to sit up, blood ran out of his nose and mouth and puddled on the floor. The bus stopped. We made room, all except for one other guy who decided to walk through the blood and get red footprints everywhere. Did he do that to show that he was unimpressed by everything? That a little blood didn't scare him? That the fight wasn't going to affect his own path in any way?

The idea of domination, or defending what's ours, or maintaining pride, or whatever you want to call it is interesting me this morning. The gestures we do to assert ourselves, directly or indirectly, are fascinating. How do we defend our turf? What are our boundaries? In all honestly, much of it seems arbitrary to me, which makes it all the more exciting to explore.

...

I'm working my way through Madame Bovary. A new character just stepped on the scene, M. Boulanger, and he is fascinating me more than anyone else so far. Luckily or unluckily for me, I have no recollection of the book's plot, so I have no idea if he's major or minor, but I sense he will be important.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tin roof sundae ice cream

Last time I talked about how I think my writing lately has been all about trying to set up a situation and then watching How Things Unfold. I used a dice metaphor, but today it occurred to me more like this: supposing you had a artist's canvas and it was leanin' against a wall. Then, supposing you formed a little dam at the top of the canvas with your hands and asked your assistant to fill your dam hands with paint. The assistant pours while you keep the paint from a-drippin' down onto the canvas, and when you can't hold it anymore, you finally release your hands and the paint just pours down the canvas in some random way that's only partially affected by where the dam was and how long you held the paint. That's what I'm trying to do. That's HTU.

And I've been thinking that a large reason for why I write this can be traced back to my Buddhist upbringing. I'm not religious anymore, but when I was younger I spent a lot of time meditating and trying to understand the concept of enlightenment. For a long time, I thought it was associated with not caring about anything. But, over time, I came to see it as having enough trust in nature to let things take its course.

There is part of the picture that's very hard for me to work with. That has to do with detachment. Did you know that the orange color of a Buddhist monk's robe is symbolic of autumn leaves? The idea is that the monk detaches from the world the way these leaves detach from the trees. It's very calming to be this way. But, here's the hard part for me personally. I feel like I carry this sense of nature and detachment into my stories in the beginning. Then, later on, I start to get all freaked out because my characters don't want anything. There's no compelling mechanism underlying what I write. So, I start to generate one. I come up with things my characters desperately want. Sometimes it makes for an engaging story, but really it's hardly ever sincere, and so I always feel like there's a major element in my stories that isn't really a true reflection of me. It's frustrating because I feel like I need it, but I'm not at all excited by it. (I also think this often ruins the end of my books as I try to make sure that artificial desire is felt.)

With Cyberlama, that character motivation is there, but I'd say it's light. I didn't feel as insecure about it, even if it wasn't a sincere construct on my part. I let myself fill much of the book with more of the detached things I wanted to fill it with. In the end, it's a bit of a hybrid like everything else I've done, but it has brought me closer to what I think I want to write, and that is fantastic. My idea for my next book, the tea kettle inventing god idea, is a result of what I learned from Cyberlama, and I think it's a step closer to (A) being compelling while (B) being that detached observer of nature. This is the combination I've been looking for, and I think maybe I've figured how to approach it.

P.S. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, well, it's just like Scott trying to explain what the hell he's trying to do with his "everything is story" discussions. I feel like I'm on a good track!

And, look:



What's Peanut eating? I don't know, because I was hanging out with Nevets! He's such a good guy, y'all. (And I'm talking like this because of Tess Hilmo's book. )

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tea of the gods

What happened is that I was overwhelmed with ideas to talk about and didn't have time to do any of it. Then, somehow, the thoughts abandoned me and all I had was a recipe for potatoes*.

I'm currently reading With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo. Tess' book is blowing me away, not just because I know her. It's truly good. Good enough to have me sitting on a bus reading a book with that title and font that's incredibly big. Tess has somehow reminded me of what is was like when I was a thirteen-year-old girl living out of a trailer.

Here's where I am in my writing. I've gotten a couple of reviews in on Cyberlama, including from the incomparable Scott G.F. Bailey, and I'm doing some reorganization as a result. It's reorganization I thought I might want to do, and the reviews are confirming it. I'm going to take pages 200-230 and sprinkle them throughout pages 1-100. It will be fun, and I will probably pull my hair out.

Mostly, I have been spending my time reflecting on things like, "Hey, what am I actually writing about?" After much thinking, mostly as I fall asleep, I realize I'm not trying to capture an exciting plot or exciting people. My intellectual and emotional makeup is simply not pushing me in that direction. Instead, I seem to be trying to record How Things Unfold, or HTU. HTU brings me back to me waiting for my dogs to die and me staring up at the sky at a stupid balloon floating up and up. I think HTU probably relates to me trying to understand how a new born baby can grow up to be a wife- and son-beating alcoholic (the subject of my first novel Rooster) and how I will die. (Yes, I think about that a lot, not so much because I'm afraid, but because I'm just curious how one goes from thinking "I'm alive! I'm alive!" to "     "!

The problem with writing HTU is that I end up with a book that I'd say is neither character driven or plot driven. It ends up being a bit random, which is only because randomness jives with my view of the world. So, when one writes about randomness, the unfolding of life in an arbitrary way, is that compelling fiction? Really, what the hell is it? My feeling about Cyberlama is that it ends up being a collection of interesting pieces that don't necessarily add up to anything more compelling on the large scale. Is that okay? Well, yeah, I suppose anything is okay. And, I suppose to other people who are as obsessed with HTU as I am, it will be okay to them too.

I am likely going to junk the fragments of Everybody! I have posted up here. I've decided to take the story away from the university and put it in a desert. And instead of it being about science, it's going to be about religion. And instead of me basing the story on these really interesting scientists I've been thinking about for the last few years, I'm playing with the idea of basing the characters somehow on inanimate objects like tea kettles and chairs. The sum would be something like, "How would a tea kettle create her own god?" Or something like that. It makes more sense in my head.

What's Peanut eating? A to-do list.

"Now all you have to do is snooze with me."

*You take golf ball-size potatoes and peel them and boil them. Then, you drain the water and let them get fairly dry (wait 45 minutes or so). Then, you toss them around so that their surfaces get all scratched up--this is called "chuffing" them. Then, you put them in a baking pan with salt, pepper, rosemary, and garlic and oil and bake them at 375 ˚F for about 45 minutes. The outside will be crispy and delicious and the inside will be soft and fluffy!



Monday, June 11, 2012

Historical Strawberries

Last week I fell into a pit of writerly confusion, due mostly to a few different things I have been reading. 

I read a blog post from my friend Shanna Mahin here, where she raved about writer Cheryl Strayed and her The Sun essay "The Love Of My Life." Both Shanna and Cheryl Strayed are memoirists, and if you read the essay you'll get a taste of the powerful and complex emotions each of them are able to capture, along with the raw honesty of their lives. (See also Sam Dunn's book Failing Paris.)

I also recent read Julie Otsuka's PEN/Faulkner Award winning book The Buddha In The Attic, which is a beautifully written book, told in first person plural, that describes the Japanese immigrant experience in way that was far more educational to me than other accounts I've read in the past.

So, why the confusion? 

I've admired everything I've been reading lately. Both Otsuka's book and Strayed's essay feel weighty to me, feel valuable. At the same time, neither of these works is something I would personally want to create. I end up questioning if my own work has this same vague sense of value, and right now, unfortunately, my answer is no. I want to be able to find this value while still exploring what I want to explore. And, really, I think what this means is that I should be moving slower, planning more, thinking more deeply. I think I need to explore more inwardly as I produce words on a page.

It doesn't help that so many voices are always promoting other writing. I mean, that's really cool, but hearing all of these compliments has temporarily blinded me. I spent the weekend trying to write an essay, and then I wondered if I should go back to my novel Rooster and explore the immigrant thing again. Dumbly, I assume that the value will appear if I just explore the right topics. Um, probably not.

None of this is to say that I'm depressed or even necessarily down. I think it has been helpful to show me where I am on my journey. I'm probably dumping all of the new stuff I've written lately so that I can explore something new with these things in mind. We'll see. I refuse to make any commitments or promises!

Also, I went to Bread Lounge this weekend, and it was wunderbar! Below is a reminds-me-of-my-friend's-ex-military-father-eating-bread-in-his-chair baguette and a ciabatta loaf. Not pictured are an almond pastry (that got partially eaten before it occurred to me to take a picture) and a croissant, all of it for ten bucks.

  

What's Peanut eating? Roast chicken or nothing at all.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hipster Cool Toast

In good news, two nights ago, I and Peanut encountered Peanut's arch enemy, "the white dog," and for the first time since their vicious fight, the two didn't bark at each other! Both owners, me and European guy, smiled in surprise, and I'm hoping this is a lasting change.

In other good news, a bakery called The Bread Lounge just opened one block away from my loft! Plunk right there in the middle of industrial warehouses, I can now get some fresh baguettes, assuming they're not too hipster cool to make boring baguettes, and also assuming they don't sell their baguettes for anything over five bucks. I'm hugely excited.

I also finished reading The Buddha In The Attic, which I'll talk about soon, and I've started The Tiger's Wife, which--dammit--is as good as everyone says it is.

I'm moving forward with Everybody, still letting the premise develop in my mind and still waiting to see if I have enough love for the story to stick with it. Yesterday, I started introducing some characters:

Two lines formed. At the south entrance were the students, the postdocs, the professors, the occasional technicians and administrative assistants; they stood along the trimmed edge of the central lawn where commencement was held every year in June, between the behavioral biology building—also named after Beckman—and the Baxter building, the only building on campus where the humanities were taught. At the north entrance, leading in from the parking lot that ran along Michigan Avenue, were the friends of the campus, the wealthy alumni, the professors emeriti, President Chameau himself and his wife, who earned her Ph.D. in neurology while winning several regional beauty pageants along the way. The crowds began to mix in the lobby: the T-shirts and shorts, the sport coats and ties, the glistening gowns and diamond earrings, the hoodies and red-rimmed cat-eye glasses, the draped shawls, the overstuffed backpacks, the perfume, and the faint odor of dimethyl sulfoxide and tetramethylethylenediamine. The guests mixed and then naturally separated again under the golden drapes of the auditorium, where everyone over sixty migrated to the front rows and everyone under thirty moved toward the back. Those in between decided where they would be based on their own social graces and whether or not they planned to sneak out again if the presentations ended up being boring, and if the speakers ended up not being the stars that everyone said they were, but nothing more than the average overly ambitious researchers like they themselves had been not too long ago, the ones who had scrambled for their publication in Science, or Nature, or PNAS before applying for jobs, the ones who had taken pictures of dissected burritos or Volkswagons half-submerged in mud to serve as humorous metaphors for their research, which—when they were completely honest with themselves—was not brilliantly divergent from what they had learned from their mentors, but was simply a variation on a theme, a natural progression based on the truly brilliant ideas of their academic ancestors long since dead.

The most impatient audience members, the ones hoping to be disappointed, sat on the edges of the rows, grudgingly swinging their legs to the side when anyone asked to slip past them for one of the central seats. Among these was Dr. Raymond Bernard, thirty-nine, recently tenured and high on funding. He had earned the reputation for being a renegade during the summer biology retreat in Arrowhead, when he attended the poster session, sweat-drenched from a mountain bike ride, barefoot and with his muddy socks slung over his shoulders, as he interrogated the wide-eyed newbies on their preliminary data.

There was Dr. Wallace Ashbright, with his gray hair and his gray cashmere sweater and his gray slacks sitting with his hands in his lap in the center of the seventh row, not speaking to anyone unless he was spoken to. Possibly the most celebrated mineralogist in the world—his name assigned to a mineral he had discovered himself: Ashbrightiite—he had recently lost the wife he had proposed to over forty years ago with an onyx he cut himself. It had been a brain tumor. Wallace’s heart still bubbled and boiled over at unpredictable times, like yesterday, when he cried as he was putting his breakfast plate in the sink because he saw the crumbs from his toast slide down onto the wet, scratched basin. In her last year Anita had forgotten how faucets worked, and how buttons worked, and how to stop the car before it crashed into the garage door. Since her funeral, Wallace had thrown himself into his research, for the first time in his life working, not out of love, but out of the need to not think about love.

There was Dr. Stanley Chong, who lost seventeen pounds since he accepted the assistant professor position in chemistry last summer. President Chameau had set up no such seminar for him or either of the other hires his year. Stanley had quietly moved west from Harvard, buying a Craftsman house in Pasadena within walking distance from the campus with his wife, Lily, and eight-month-old son, Charlie, without asking for any of his colleagues’ advice. When he remembered, he ate his lunch alone in his office—usually rice and sautéed bean sprouts or pea shoots or zucchini blossoms and whatever meat Lily had decided to marinate in soy sauce and poach. More often these lunches sat forgotten in his mini refrigerator while he read and strategically planned experiments that he would be able to perform with his one and only lab member, a volunteer undergraduate with blue hair who went by the name of “Minty”.

The seats were filling. The good positions were taken, and now pairs and groups of late attendees were having to split up to get anything that was still available. President Chameau buttoned his coat with his long fingers and stepped slowly up the stairs to the stage. His smile was bright. His smile was French. He put his hands into his pockets and peered over the edge of his bifocals to the two men and one woman sitting in the front row.

“Ready, my children?”

The woman laughed and threw up her hands. “As ready as we’ll ever be.” This was Dianne Farro, the newest new recruit. She had quickly become Chameau’s favorite because he detected in her a fearlessness, a recklessness, that he believed all great scientists required...

What's Peanut eating? Chicken and strawberries.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A bowl of spaghetti interrupted by a phone call

Last week I finally got around to reading an interview by Sam Anderson of Haruki Murakami from The New York Times Magazine that I've been carrying around in my backpack for what must be months. You should be able to access it here if you like. It's very well-researched and well-written if you're interested in Murakami. I found a lot of it interesting, if not a bit redundant after my reading of Murakami's memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The article discusses his time owning a jazz club, his huge album collection, his writing, and his running. For me, the article served as an important reminder that writing that is reflective of one's personal life will likely be very unique and strange, and that's okay. Anderson discusses how Murakami's childhood and background probably influenced his strange storylines.

I needed this at the moment because I keep thinking about my recently finished novel and how odd of a book it is. On one hand, I think the oddity comes from my own limitations. I don't think this is a perfect book. It's the best book I could write at the time, but it has some weaknesses I wish weren't there. I think it's my best work based only on the simple fact that it's probably the most coherent work of long fiction that I've managed to write. Which is just to say that there's a logical story there. But that's not saying much. I'm not sure if it's at all engaging or emotional.

On the other hand, though, however, and possibly, I do think I managed to create some things that were highly successful...as long as the mark of success is my own aesthetic preferences. There's a scene with a deck of cards in it that I love. I like the balance of science and life that I struck. I like that the Dalai Lama is in it and that the first scene with him in it involves him just sitting there. I like that it deals with some darker subjects and crimes that I am always fascinated by.

But the wrestlers are in my head. One of them is the muscular and sweaty guy telling me that I should just write what I personally want. Sometimes he even goes so far as to tell me that I couldn't write anything else anyway (before spitting in my face). The other guy, unfortunately, is equally muscular and equally sweaty, and he's telling me that there's really no point in writing a book that no one else will connect with. He calls me a wimp for not considering the rest of the world. He tells me it's like inviting people over for dinner and forcing them to eat food that they hate just because I think it's good. The outcome of this wrestling match is (1) it's making me think harder about what my next novel should be, which I think is a good thing, (2) it's making me explore things like writing essays, which I think is a good thing, and (3) it's making me doubt myself and try to come up with adventures that really aren't reflective of me, which is a stressful thing.

What's Peanut eating? He's not. He's turning his nose up to the food I'm giving him because it isn't supplemented with chicken. I'm currently trying to train him to close the cupboards, which has involved a lot of sitting and staring at one another as we try to understand why the other is being so stubborn.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A young humboldt fog

At long last this blog is the first hit I get when I google "whatsdavineating"!

Two nights ago, I was fiddling around with a start of a novel, and I came up with some details that got me excited for the first time in a few weeks. Here are the draft paragraphs:


The fountains brimmed for the event. On the south side the water shot up from saucer bases and leaped above emerald lights before tumbling down again. On the north side a long rectangular pool displayed two parallel rows of arching water, each shooting to the opposite side and rippling the double helix depicted in mosaic tiles at the bottom. The auditorium itself glowed with orange and pink lights that showcased its white cylindrical form surrounded by a dozen thin pillars and topped with a shallow cone. It was named Beckman Auditorium, but most of the campus referred to it as the “Wedding Cake,” and that was the label that was the most helpful for new students trying to orient themselves with recognizable landmarks.
They were only a week into the fall quarter. The season in Pasadena was marked by a crisp wind that shook the waxy brown leaves from the magnolia trees and the pointed brown leaves of the liquid amber trees and dragged them rattling across the pebbled walks. The jacarandas were bare, their flood of purple flowers long since bloomed and fallen and swept away. Longtime residents were recognizable because they were the only ones wearing sweaters or jackets, their shoulders shrugged, their hands shoved into their pockets. The students from out of state still wore tank tops and shorts; they saw the season as a paradise compared to their hometowns of Ann Arbor or Boston or Princeton. It took most people a couple of years before the chill reached their bones and until they would complain that their bodies had finally adjusted to the weather.
For weeks the winds had rattled the oversized posters advertising the event. President Chameau had ordered them himself, and they had enjoyed a longer life than most of the other flyers on the cork boards around campus. Unlike the purple Xeroxes promoting the ballroom dance club or the white sheets with tear-off email addresses offering used furniture, the campus had shown some respect for the posters that must have come from their pride of the new recruits themselves.  
The night’s event was novel. President Chameau was celebrating the arrival of three new assistant professors who had been heavily recruited by top universities throughout the country over the past year. They were a diverse trio that would do nothing to provide a focal point for the small university, and yet the President saw them as part of the collective whole, three bright young minds buzzing with the potential to change the world.
Two lines had formed…

Here's what I like about the paragraphs.

First, although I don't necessarily love opening the way I did it, I like the fountains because they are subtly sexual and fertile sounding, like Aphrodite rising from the froth. I want these three new professors to come off as godlike in the beginning. I'm also playing with a real setting and accurate descriptions, something I rarely do.

I'm happy with the transitions between paragraphs too. Usually I am more willing to jump around, but for now, in this initial draft, I want to play with more smoothness. (I blame SGFB.)

Lastly, the thing that actually got me excited is a little part about the posters enjoying a longer life on the cork boards. That strikes me as magical somehow, that there is some untouchable essence hovering around the characters. That little bit is enough to get me to try a few more paragraphs to see where this goes.

I haven't decided who these three stars are yet, but I have plans for what will happen while they are on stage, and I'm excited about that. Next, I want to describe the people attending. There will be the rich and old, and the young and brilliant, mixing together in the auditorium.

What's Peanut eating? Nothing but kibble so far today.



Friday, May 25, 2012

Estrogen and eggs

For an upcoming project at work I've had the pleasure of researching important scientists from World War II. I've been reading about Alan Turing, who invented the conceptual "Turing Machine" that was the foundation for the modern computer. Turing was a mathematician and cryptologist who also helped to break German codes for England. The concept of the computer seemed to emerge while he was in school. He had a crush on a classmate who suddenly died, and in an effort to find the lost soul of his friend, he started thinking about finding minds inside machines. Then, later on in his life, he was arrested for having sex with a man and was forced to take estrogen injections. He started to research morphogenesis. This really is a story of a man who kept looking to science to solve his own emotional hardships.

There's also Rita Levi-Montalcini, who was hiding from the Nazis. To be able to continue her research, she turned to eggs because they were one of the few biological samples she could get and also because she could eat them afterwards.  She did research on embryonic development in her own home.

These are amazing stories that are more exciting than anything my own mind has been able to come up with, and I am trying to figure out how I can make my work more exciting as a result. I'm also toying with the idea of using these scientists' stories to build my own narrative. A book about the scientists of World War II would be amazing if done well. It's probably already been done. I haven't checked yet.

What's Peanut eating? Aged cheddar

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Taffy


Last night my Lulu copy of The Pagani Project arrived. It's always fun for me to see the bound version because I read the manuscript in a different way as a result. I'm more critical of the flow of the prose and more sensitive to the actual emotional impact of the scenes. Even though I've revised 3 or 4 chapters since I first ordered this version, including the addition of about 3,000 words, it's still useful for me and well worth the $15 it takes to get it. And $15 is a lot right now since I'm paying a mortgage and have had to add a dog walker to my budget!

During my bus ride this morning, I read several chapters of the book. I'm responding really strangely to it because, I guess, it's different from the way I wrote before. As I was writing I experimented with different techniques, and I had forgotten about a lot of it. So now that I'm reading it, the experimental nature is coming to the forefront again.

Distance - One thing I played with is distance. This was fairly unintuitive to me because usually I think the smartest advice is to make the action feel close so that readers can experience it on a sensory level. But there are a lot of sections where I didn't do that in the book. For one, I talk a lot about habitual scenes, recurring things, rather than individual experiences. I felt that was important to make it feel like a lot of time has passed. Second, I was playing with the idea that a 300-year-old person would start to lose a lot of the smaller details. So, there are generalities throughout. Third, a lot of what the narrator reports comes from indirect information, and I really played with that idea. Some news stories are so strange as a result of the writer's attempt to reconstruct the scene. There are often jumps in logic, when a person does something that doesn't get explained. I included some of that in my scenes.

On one level, I worry that all of these devices only work to keep a reader from really getting into the story. On another level, the prose feels like it's carrying more weight behind it to me. Even though there are a lot of non-scenes, I find myself getting immersed in the prose because it feels like I'm getting information through these different layers of reporting (a story told by someone who heard the story from someone). This morning that was working for me, and I hope it works for other people too.

Reality - The premise of the book is beyond belief: Six people live for hundreds of years because they are connected to this special machine. I balanced that with a lot of things that seemed real. One of the ideas behind the book is that America has changed. It's like other dystopian books in that way, but my dystopia is far less bleak than most. But one of the things I did was move real events around the world. For example, a lot of violent crimes that took place internationally are now happening in the U.S. That way, I was able to create both the sense of reality (real crimes) with unreality (occurring much closer to home). I hope this also adds to the sense that a lot of time has passed. Think Planet of the Apes. Another way I played with reality is that I formed bridges between different past events, so that different crimes lead to other crimes in a way that didn't necessarily happen in real life. A scientists has parts of his personality that are reminiscent of Hitler. Suicide bombers have teamed up with a Jonestown-like cult leader. I didn't realize this at the time, but I think that came out of my own need to set up a bit of a "warning" about the future.

Well, I don't know if these concepts come to the forefront for people reading the book, but as I'm going over it now, I'm reminded that these were some of the mechanistic inspirations I was working with.

The other benefit of getting the Lulu book is that the manuscript feels "completed" even though I'm still working on it. As a consequence, I feel like I'm floating, and that makes me hungry to weigh myself down with a new project. I get the same feeling when I'm between reading books. I'd much rather be in the middle of stories than on either end. So, it motivates me to write something new.

What's Peanut eating? Small white crumbs on the elevator floor.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Salty Nuts

The first time I ever heard the phrase "soup to nuts" was in a graduate school seminar given by a visiting professor. The professor was very conservative and tame-looking, which became relevant as we left asking why he had suddenly said "stupid nuts" or "zipped up nuts" as he was describing his research. We all learned a little something that day.

I'm not sick anymore! Well, I'm less sick anyway, and I'm back at work. And...my brain is functioning, something that wasn't happening on Tuesday and Wednesday. Fevers always make me have the weirdest dreams.

Last night, as I was skimming through Cyberlama and highlighting some key points on a storyline that I wanted to make sure I didn't drop, I thought of a new ending that I feel much more satisfied with. It better encapsulates a point I have been wanting to emphasize, and it better emphasizes a point I have been wanting to encapsulate. It even opened up a little spot where I get to talk about anaerobic bacteria and alternate electron acceptors--something that will amuse at least ten people who may eventually read the book. It's all about readership, folks!

The downside to the new ending, which hasn't actually been written yet, is that it's no longer a happy one. Damn it, I want to write a book with a happy ending that doesn't come out of nowhere! But it feels like the right ending for the first time, and now all I need to do is come up with a way to report it gracefully.

In other news, I finished reading a book called White Horse, that I consider to be McCarthy's The Road with fresher breath, and I'm now reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary, which--wow--is so much more erotic than anything I've read in a long time even though there has been hardly any nudity or sex (yet?). My vast readership might recall that it was a high school English assignment based on Madame Bovary that got me to write honest fiction for the first time in my life. I can't totally figure out why, but I'm more engaged with M.B. than I was with the last half of W.H. even though little is happening in M.B. while the whole world was destroyed and then some in W.H. I don't think it's just literary snobbishness. I think it has to do with storytelling. I'm not even loving most of Flaubert's prose, as it is coming off a bit too listy, but somehow the order with which he is delivering information makes me more excited to find out what happens next. The first half of W.H. did this very well too. Or maybe it's about continuity--This is a topic for another post.  

What's Peanut eating? Spring Mix. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Tootsie Pop

One 4th of July, I was sitting in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena waiting for the sun to set so that the fireworks display would begin. I was 25, and I was in the midst of a quarter life crisis. I had told myself that by 25 I would have made up my mind about my career and I would have finished my first novel. Neither one of those things happened. My dogs were getting old, and I was also waiting to figure out how they would die.

So, here I am at the stadium, and a kid several rows ahead of me accidentally lets go of his white balloon. It floats up into the sky while he gets comforted by his mom. I was fixated on unfolding paths. Where was I going? How would my dogs die? So, while I was wrestling with these ideas, I somehow got it into my head that I would stare at the balloon until it disappeared. I wanted to see the end of the story. I wanted to see if it just got smaller and smaller until it became nothing. That was a foreign concept to me. I had never followed anything through like that before.

I looked. I squinted. My eyes watered. I never realized how painful it actually was to look up at the sky for any extended period of time. Over and over again I was tempted to give up. The balloon kept going higher and higher, and I kept waiting for that magic moment when the something would become the nothing.

I realize now that this has been an important theme in my life. I often say that nothing ever happens in my stories. The reason that's true is because I'm fascinated by the idea of natural endings to life, the limits of nature. Thinking about Wild Grass, both the title story and "Red Man, Blue Man" deal with that issue. The original concept of The Pagani Project--six people signing up to live forever--also deals with that issue.

But, like life, I question if this is an experiment in distraction. What happens to me (and I think what happens in life) is that our attention gets pulled in different directions as we wait to see how things naturally unfold. I can't pinpoint the balloon disappearing. It probably got dark before it happened--I don't remember. In my stories, I wonder if, as I'm pulling my characters closer to the limits of nature, I'm just adding in distracting scenes that make me stray from the path of finding what I'm actually looking for. The Pagani Project has an end, but it doesn't really deal with the moment of the disappearing balloon. Instead, as I was writing, I kept adding in scenes that felt real, and those are the scenes that fill the book. Maybe my search for the limits of nature has set me up to be distracted by my own natural limits.


What's Peanut eating? A green plastic fish with red eyes. He didn't swallow.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

An old slice of toast

Today, for the first time, I'm handing out The Pagani Project to two writer's group friends to read. I've been keeping the book fairly private, but these women have already read some of it during our meetings, so it's not as much of a reveal to them.

I waited until the last minute to print it out. And, as I was scrambling to find 3-hole punch paper and binders, I accidentally discovered drafts of two of my previous novels, Rooster and The Mourning of Satellites. Seeing the second book was particularly surprising, as I wrote it back in 2001 or 2002 and haven't really thought about it since. I flipped through some pages and saw some hand written notes. The material was still familiar.

A wave of disappointment went through me. In at least twelve years I've only finished these three novels, and I'm not sure any of them are good. I tried to get an agent to represent Rooster, but I gave up after 20 or so tries. I felt mortal. I felt like I would never finish my climb up the mountain. My sadness was a calm one. In some ways, I felt like I was at the end of my life looking back and realizing all the dreams I never got around to accomplishing. It was overly dramatic, yes, but that's what I felt as I stacked up the old drafts and put them away.

Handing out The Pagani Project is helping me to move forward again. In the shower last night I got excited about my next work in progress. My friends will have at least a month to read the book. This is the third of a three-way exchange we've been doing. (I volunteered to go last to get more time.) I worry that PP is too elementary, too thin. I worry that the protagonist is dimensionless and that her motivations are unconvincing. I worry that my attempt to capture something that feels real resulted in the capture of something that feels boring.

But forward we go.

What's Peanut eating? A raisin.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Jell-o

Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at it. Then get it back down.

I remember someone teaching that to me during a lesson on plot. The idea was that your character had to face obstacles along its journey. (Yes, I'm referring to my character as "it" today. Epiphanic, I know.)

But I'm currently in the middle of a story where that very thing is happening. There aren't any trees, and there aren't any rocks per se,  but there is a character, and she is doing something, and things are getting in her way. For this particular story, though, it doesn't feel like enough. The metaphoric--metaphoric, not metamorphic--rocks aren't really big enough to leave any damage. Or at least they're not being thrown with enough speed or accuracy.

You know how in Anna Karenina, you know who does you know what? And in The Great Gatsby you know who you know whats into you know who? And in Romeo & Juliet, you know who thinks that you know who is you know what and so you know who you know whats and then you know who you know whats and sees you know who and then you know whats? That's what I'm talking about today.

I'm also talking about Aron Ralston losing his arm and Ada McGrath losing his finger and William Miller losing his virginity.

I think it's important to get your character up a tree. It's important to throw rocks at it. But I'd argue that it's also important to have one of those rocks hit the character and leave some sort of scar that can't be easily concealed by makeup or plastic surgery. The rock doesn't have to kill the character. It just needs to leave a permanent mark that ushers that character into a new stage in its life or nudges it into seeing the world through a different lens. Don't make it easy for your characters to recover from the challenges they face. Otherwise the story doesn't feel significant enough, and the drama doesn't build.

What's Peanut eating? A dry leaf. He didn't swallow.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Peanut butter and tomato sandwich

Yay for Michelle's release of her newest novel, The Breakaway! Michelle, I'm really proud of you, not just for this book, but for all of the hard work you have done recently and all of the great stories that have come from it!

What's Peanut eating? A peanut butter and tomato sandwich too! Okay, not really.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Edamame and the discarded peels


Last night I decided on the story I want to try and write. I'm focusing on three scientists in a university called the University. Hopefully tonight or sometime soon I will be able to write the first few sentences of the opening scene, which will take place in an auditorium that the students call "The Wedding Cake." There's going to be a chancellor and a weird demo. The prose will be flowery!

We'll see how this goes. If I remember correctly, I usually have to try multiple story ideas before one has legs. Right now I find myself imagining the three main characters, and I'm having a good time. One is the grandson of a Japanese fisherman, and his house is decorated with glass floats and gyotaku. (The image is taken from here.) He doesn't come from an academic family, while the other two scientists do. Ooh, conflict! Don't burn your tongue! I don't know where the story will go yet, but I think this first scene is a good launching point. And I can always revise, of course.

The hard part at the moment is that I am pushing aside my idea of announcing when everyone will die in the first chapter. I really love that idea, and I still want to do it sometime. But I'm not sure it will fit with this story. I hope it can, but I don't see it yet. Alas, I'll have to write another book after this.

What's Peanut eating? So far, just kibbles and treats. Fingers crossed.