Being A Writer

A few months ago, I wrote a post about language, which was inspired by the fact that I was, at the time, applying to a summer language program. I never did any follow up to that post, but yes, I did make it into that program, and so I have been a student of the Arabic language for a week and a half. And what a week and a half it has been. Other than the fact that I've been out of school for six years, so having to retrain myself to think academically has been a bit of a challenge. (What do you mean, I have homework?) Nevermind the fact that Arabic? Yeah, it doesn't really have vowels. Vowel sounds, yes. But actual letters dedicated to the work of vowels? Not so much. Except for the one, unless Y is a vowel, which is debatable.

Anyway, these days I am in class for 20 hours a week and so far, I have learned to read and write an entirely new alphabet, along with a few hundred words, and how to string those words together into rudimentary sentences. Reading is a laborious task, and I try to remember back to my early childhood, to see if I can recall if it was this difficult before. Probably yes, though now, glossed over by years, it seems like that couldn't be possible.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the challenge, this has been a fascinating experience. As I said in my previous post on the subject, I have a thing for language. And I am enjoying getting all these tiny pieces and figuring out how they all fit together. Finished with the alphabet, we've moved into the thrilling world of grammar (no, really), which is the best part, since it is through learning the grammar that I get to learn how the language thinks. This is the part that I love.

By the end of the summer, I will have completed the equivalent of a year of Arabic study. It's an exciting thing, and I'm glad I'm getting to do it. I don't have anything particularly literary to add at this point, but I thought I'd just follow up what I wrote before with a little something on how nice it's been to get out of the repetitive simplicity of my usual everyday life and do something difficult, just for the sake of pushing myself. A good way to spend my summer vacation indeed.
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Wednesday, June 13, 2007 09:02 pm
Story
Jamelah Earle
I've been reminiscing a bunch lately. And, since I keep seeing top literary agent Deborah Schneider's name showing up in GalleyCat, I figure, why not? It's time to break into the Levi Asher memory vault and tell the story of the year Deborah Schneider was my agent.

I bet she'll remember me, though she won't remember my name because I went by a different name back then (that's a whole nother story). Anyway, the year was 1989 (yeah, I am that old), and I had just written a novel called My Dark Ages, which my writing teacher at the New School, the wonderful late Richard P. Brickner, thought highly enough of that he introduced me to one agent after another. I never really felt comfortable with the whole meet-the-agent routine. This was a time when Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were the two hottest names in town, and I knew I didn't have the right clothes. I knew my novel was a damn good one, though (and I still think it is).

I had one awkward meeting with an agent Brickner recommended me to, but she was a super-top agent with many celebrity clients and I didn't feel like she understood why Brickner had sent me to her and our conversation just didn't click. Another agent said she liked my writing but couldn't stand my use of present tense, so I switched to past tense, and then she never sent out my book anyway. I was finding the whole get-an-agent routine very unpleasant.

But then I met Deborah Schneider, who simply liked me. She was a junior agent at the John Farquharson agency, and I felt more comfortable with her than most of the other agents I met because she had a more casual and street-smart style. I guess I'd had my fill of "haughty" and of pearl necklaces. Deborah liked My Dark Ages and signed me on as her client, and I felt absolutely great.

Before Deborah sent the book out we had several conversations in her office and on the phone, and she told me a lot of inside info on the "biz". At this time she was just starting to make her name in literary fiction, and her hottest author was Carolyn Chute, whose book The Beans of Egypt Maine I liked a lot. Deborah also represented Madison Smartt Bell, who I didn't like as much since he was the kind of writer who tried to look smart by naming his books after Talking Heads and Elvis Costello songs. But I pretended to like him, because I wanted Deborah Schneider to keep liking me.

And she did. She sent My Dark Ages to Ticknor and Fields, where it got a very nice rejection letter of the "we can't wait to see his next manuscript and he's a promising young" whatever-whatever type of variety. She then sent it to Viking Penguin, where it got yet another nice letter asking about my next manuscript, which apparently they were all itching to see even though I thought this current manuscript was just fine. Then she sent it to, I think, Simon and Schuster, and this time the letter wasn't even that nice. She called me up and told me the bad news. Three strikes and I was out. She wanted to see my next novel too.

I have nothing but good things to say about the way she treated me, and I'm very happy that her career has blossomed. I'm sure I'll run into her at a book party someday, and I'm sure she'll be confused about why I'm going by a completely different name. The last time I talked to her was in 1993. I was now married with two kids and working a high-stress Wall Street job, and my follow-up novels weren't working out. I had written a coming-of-age story called Summer of the Mets that I knew had great potential, but I was still figuring out the formula. Then, perhaps under the influence of too much David Lynch and Paul Auster, I tried to write a mystery, though unfortunately I couldn't take the genre completely seriously and was only able to write a comedy-mystery (a combination that really doesn't mix).

Like the first draft of Summer of the Mets, The Grisly Game was a baseball novel, this time about a fictional major league baseball team called the Buffalo Captains. It featured an insecure local with a painfully short stature and youthful looks who was forced to infiltrate the team as a batboy (despite the fact that he was in his late twenties) to help solve a murder. If I just made this novel sound good, I promise you that's an illusion. My heart wasn't in it, and my mind was on other things. But even though I knew it was a bad book, I sent the completed manuscript to Deborah Schneider. About a week later it came back in the mail with a "sorry" letter.

But I still remember how welcoming she always was when she picked up the phone before I sent the manuscript -- "Hi! Is this my old friend?" This kind of agent makes a writer feel good, even when the sale doesn't get made. And I didn't care by now, because in 1993 I had a short story accepted by a very innovative internet publication called Intertext and I had plans for a little project called Literary Kicks. I made a decision to dwell in the electronic underground and never send another manuscript out again, and years later I don't regret that decision one bit.

On September 25 2001, still bleary from the September 11 attacks, I made an impulsive decision to publish a finished version of Summer of the Mets as a free e-book on LitKicks. It was pretty much a family-and-friends kind of offering. But I got some nice comments about it, so I put the book out in paperback under the LitKicks imprint. I did no publicity for it and pretty much blew it as far as marketing goes, but I still think someday somebody's going to open up this book and appreciate it.

Then maybe someday I'll publish My Dark Ages, which (truth be told) is a hell of a book. Well, hey, Deborah Schneider liked it. Even though none of those other stiffs figured it out.
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view /DeborahSchneider
Thursday, May 3, 2007 10:08 pm
Story
Levi Asher
I have started writing this post five times now, and each time, I have erased it, and stared at my screen, I guess hoping that the more I erased and the longer I stared, the closer I'd come to knowing what to write. It turns out that I still don't know, but since I can't sit here forever, I will go ahead and do my best. As you know by now, a student at Virginia Tech opened fire in a residence hall and in a classroom, killing 32 people, wounding 15 others, and finally killing himself. It's an act of brutality so distinctly horrible that it's nearly impossible to process it into words, and more impossible still to understand. Yet in the hours and days afterward, all media outlets, from the television to newspapers to the internet have been inundated with stories and thoughts and feelings, all of it in an attempt to get a handle on what happened. And while several facts have come to the surface -- the shooter's name was Cho Seung-Hui, he was 23 years old, he was an English major, he was a quiet loner described by his roommate as "weird", he produced some dark writing -- I don't think anyone is any closer to understanding how a person can reach a point where killing that many people is the answer. I've been reading the news almost all day, and I certainly don't.

Earlier today, I emailed back and forth with Levi about the fact that Cho Seung-Hui was a writer, and what that might mean in the face of this, and so I dutifully read things about his writing: Nikki Giovanni expressed concern about his behavior and writing in her class, Cho left behind a manifesto, Cho's writing was disturbing. I even read his script called "Richard McBeef". His script reads like something written by an angry boy, but does it indicate what he would later come to do? In light of what's happened, it might be easier for some to say yes, but to look at it honestly as a piece of writing, I can't help but think that many, many people write things that are dark and angry and violent. They write about murder, about rape, torture, abuse, war, greed, blood, pain. They may be quiet, antisocial, angry, occasionally belligerent, labeled as weird. They might make other people uncomfortable. They don't take guns into a classroom and start shooting. So what's the difference? In the wake of Monday's massacre, experts have come out and said that Cho perfectly fit the profile of someone who would do such a thing, but the fact that the experts know this now seems to be too little, too late.

Here in this post, I'm supposed to be analyzing Cho's writing and coming to conclusions about why he did what he did, but I think it's fair to say it's a task that's completely beyond me. I don't know why, more than anyone else does, but the thing that strikes me -- as a writer, as a reader -- is that in the age we live in, this age of paranoia and fear and finger-pointing, it's going to be very important for people to remember that artists are still going to need room to create art. Do I think Cho's writing was good enough to be called art? No, but as it turns out, that point is moot. Even though I absolutely believe that if people have valid safety concerns after reading something they should tell someone, it is also my hope that the fact that Cho chose to express himself in writing doesn't restrict the freedom of other people to create, even if what they're moved to create might make other people uncomfortable.

In the end, I am sorry for what happened and I am sad, and my heart goes out to the families and friends of those who were killed this week. It doesn't make any sense that something this horrible should happen, and I think that no matter how many facts come out and how much analysis is done in the coming days and weeks, it never truly will. I have quoted this poem before on LitKicks, and I debated with myself about quoting it again, but when it comes down to it, this is the only thing left to say:

We Are Waiting

There are days that haven't arrived yet,
that are being made
like bread or chairs or a product
from the pharmacies or the woodshops:
there are factories of days to come:
they exist, craftsmen of the soul
who raise and weigh and prepare
certain bitter or beautiful days
that arrive suddenly at the door
to reward us with an orange
or to instantly murder us.

--Pablo Neruda
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view /VirginiaTech
Wednesday, April 18, 2007 08:58 pm
Story
Jamelah Earle
This week, I'm working frantically to get my application finished for this summer language program I want to get into, so I am incapable of thinking about anything other than this. As such, I thought I'd write about language. We all love language, right? Okay then.

Provided I get into this program, I'll be spending my summer studying Arabic. This will be the third foreign language I've studied (the other two being Spanish and Italian), and I'm looking forward to it. I've probably been fascinated by words my entire life, but I became especially fascinated when I was in 10th grade English and the class did a unit on the history of the language. Learning that English is an Indo-European language and therefore has things in common with Hindi was a revelation to me. (Trivia: the English word "igneous" which describes rock formed from magma is similar to the name for the Hindu fire god, Agni.)

The thing about learning a new language is that it makes it impossible not to learn something about your own. In both of my previous language-study experiences, I learned so much -- not just how to order dinner or ask for directions or read a newspaper, but how a language is structured. Sure, just like most people, I learned the parts of speech and how to diagram sentences when I was a kid in school, but these things never became practical, living ideas for me until I had to apply them something completely foreign. (Italian prepositions? Confusing and seemingly illogical.) A language is more than a series of words to describe things; it's a culture, a way of understanding the world. And for me, at least, understanding that about other languages has helped me understand that about my own.

I have a thing for English. It was always my favorite subject in school, then I went on to major in it in college, and maybe someday I'll end up teaching it. I love literature, of course -- it's magic, creating things from words, isn't it? -- but I love the fundamentals, too. I love the way the language works. The weird way we conjugate verbs. The morphemes that are the building blocks of our words. The syntax. The semantics. I really really love language, and most people who know me have been treated to me geeking out about it at one time or another. Words! Words are the greatest things of all.

Of course this love translates into writing. I wouldn't write if I didn't love words like I do. But I also like talking and listening, the way things sound, the way it feels to say certain words (it's not a fancy one, but I have adored the word "zipper" all my life).

Perhaps this is a silly question to ask a bunch of people who read a literary website, but how much do you love words? What are some of your favorites? What do you love about language (and do you speak more than one)?
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view /Multilingual
Wednesday, March 21, 2007 08:01 pm
Story
Jamelah Earle
Garth Risk Hallberg of The Millions has written an impassioned consideration of an unsigned n+1 article, "The Blog Reflex", that mocks literary bloggers as unschooled and attention-hungry publicity lapdogs. As Hallberg quotes:

In addition to free advance copies, the blogger gets some recognition: from the big houses, and from fellow bloggers. Recognition is also measured in the number of hits -- by their clicks you shall know them -- and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses -- fillips of contempt, wet kisses -- aren't criticism.

Garth Hallberg ultimately disagrees with this essayist, but he concedes a few points:

Not least among the problems with this premature obituary for the blog is that it is, in many small ways, accurate. Anyone looking for an Ebert-style thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Dante will no doubt find one on the internet. Google will even tell you how long the search took. Blogs both reiterate and catalyze the coarsening of the culture ... the dumbing-down, the, uh ... whatever.

I wouldn't even go that far. Dumbing down? I hope we have the opposite effect, and I can think of a few public debates we've managed to smarten up recently. Michael Orthofer and Ed Champion and I don't always agree when we critique the New York Times Book Review, but the one serious point the three of us have all worked hard to establish is that the publication has been regrettably dumbed down in recent years. Coarse? Maybe. But we're not stupid over here.

I think it's hilarious that an n+1 editor should feel so superior to literary bloggers. That's not the way I add things up. Personally, I know without a doubt that I'm a good enough writer to be published in n+1, if I were to put any effort into it at all. But I wouldn't, because I don't have time and it's not worth the trouble. I have enough magazine-writer friends to know that getting published in hipster magazines is an overrated experience. I've got better ways to pursue my dreams.

I love the way blogging feels. I love it that it's 8:12 pm and I'm pounding these words into Notepad and by 9:00 it'll be up for the world to read (and by 9:20 pm I'll have corrected all the broken links, and most of the sloppy sentences). By this time tomorrow evening, over 4000 people will have read the article. Try that, magazine boy ...

What about n+1's charge that litbloggers all too hungrily lap up the publicity book publishers serve to us? Well, every blogger has his or her own way of dealing with the publishing industry, and I guess I agree that it's disappointing how many book bloggers simply skim off the publishing industry news of the day. But the best bloggers dig deeper. Maud Newton writes about Mark Twain, Bud Parr about William Gaddis, Mark Sarvas about writers of the Hungarian Revolution. Myself, I'm most proud of posts where I've explored my own private interests, like the depression-era Pal Joey short stories of John O'Hara, or the great Pragmatic philosophy of William James (a three-part series). That's when this all means the most to me, and I think many bloggers (and magazine writers) would agree with me that being able to write about personally meaningful material (and have people read it, and care about it) gives us more satisfaction than anything else.

Oh well ... in the end, I find this n+1 article amusing and irrelevant. If n+1 thinks bloggers like me are a step below them on the evolutionary scale, they may want to take another look at the straight odds here. Remember, it's survival of the fittest in this literary game, and we've got computers.
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Monday, March 12, 2007 06:15 pm
Story
Levi Asher
Here's some more good books and chapbooks you might enjoy:

1. A Return to Mother's Love is a fanciful surprise by Daniel Patrick Helmstetter. What looks at first like a regular illustrated poetry chapbook turns out to be a "concept piece", a photographic/poetic record of a private art project involving children's balloons. Daniel Patrick Helmstetter seems to like balloons a lot, and he seems to have a lot of friends who like balloons a lot too. We see photos of the author carrying a balloon around various cities. We learn factoids about balloons, which (we are told) can rise up to 5 miles in the atmosphere, at which point they shred into tiny spaghetti-like pieces that float back to earth. Damn. My only complaint with this beautiful poetry chapbook is that some of the poetry itself is rather trite. As an objet d'art, though, this is one of the better chapbooks I've ever seen, and there's nothing wrong with objets d'art.

Mother's Love has its own website. Or you could just go to Daniel Patrick Helmstetter's myspace page and become his friend, because he seems like a friendly guy.

2. I have very mixed feelings about The American Dream by Mike Palecek. This is a fast-moving, hard-hitting political satire about a controlled suburb called Homeland. It's Orwellian in a funny kind of way, as when we hear wacky modern echoes of Big Brother's slogans:

Hats Are Caps
Work Is Play
Goodbye Is Seeya
Kinda Is Sorta
Streets Are Roads
Wrestling Is Rasslin'
Lunch Is Dinner


This is funny stuff, and I love the epigrams that litter the book, from Sally, Dick and Jane to Stephen Colbert, Kurt Vonnegut and Harold Pinter. All good, but does it work as a novel? Mike Palecek, who has written a whole bunch of underground-press novels, does not have a strong command of the reading experience he is providing. There are good bits, but I can't find the glue holding it together. The American Dream kicks off with a whole bunch of material about Robert Kennedy, and yet nothing on the book's back cover text or cover image indicates that this is a book about Robert Kennedy. As we read on, I can't get a grip on who the narrator is or what's going on. Am I confused? Is the novelist confused? The narrative veers and crashes, and soon the only Kennedy I'm reminded of is Ted -- specifically Ted at the wheel of a big car on a dark night. I am truly sure that there is a good novel inside The American Dream but this is just too chaotic, the presentation is too sloppy, the printing quality is amateurish, and the whole thing has the potential to be much better than it is.

3. I'm sorry I'm not my usually cheerful self, but I'm also having problems with The Red Book by Ben Barton, a chapbook of plain-speaking, innocent poems, many of them only half a page or so long. The book is attractive and well-designed (especially if you like the color "red"), and all of the poems win points for clarity and simplicity. But I'm missing the depth of long, difficult words, the fascination of tough themes and cross-matched rhymes, the intensity of conflicted emotion. At their best, though, these poems are enjoyable to spend time with:

It's taking its toll, I'm beginning to feel
That life is too short, too nose to the wheel
And I feel like Winona strolling the mall
But I wear the brightest smile of them all


4. Aaron Howard, who occasionally shows up here on LitKicks as a poet named mindbum, has launched a new publishing operation called Oilcan Press. I can't find a web page for this low-tech underground outfit, but I hope you can find a way to get a copy of A Portrait Of New York By A Wanderer There by Edgar Oliver, who has been a significant and haunting presence in New York poetry and theater for many years. Edgar Oliver specializes in surreal washes of emotion:

I was made from the muck inside my mother somehow,
My father opened a door in an old house
and saw a staircase.


Oliver's typewriter-typed and ink-splattered (or is it blood splattered) texts are well-matched with patchy collage backdrops featuring newspaper articles, photos, remnants and sheet music. I wish there were an Amazon page for this chapbook, but for now the only way to get a copy is to send an email to oilcanpress@gmail.com pledging to snail-mail 10 bucks. While we wait for the website to get built, here's something about Edgar Oliver.

5. Holding Hands With Reality, a poetry chapbook by Curran Jeffery, offers straightforward free verse mostly about the struggle to keep one's head together in the modern world. We hear about political aggravations, family tragedies, and we observe an old man in a restaurant whose mind is slowly slipping away. One poem describes a playground full of blind children, and the next instructs the reader in how to talk to trees. But reading these poems, I regretted not being given any information at all about the poet. Whether this was an intentional omission or not, I think it forced me to squelch my interest at a point when I was just becoming curious enough to wonder who the human being behind these aphoristic verses was.

That's it for the Indie Grab Bag, people. You know I'll be back with more stuff soon. If you want to send me your own review copies, check the info on the right nav panel. Please be forewarned that I'm way backed up and I may not be able to write about what you send me at all. But I'm always worth a try.
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view /IndiesTwoMarch2007
Tuesday, March 6, 2007 09:51 pm
Story
Levi Asher
Reviewing independent, small press and self-published books is kind of like judging the first round of American Idol. You never know what to expect next, but everybody's trying really hard, and when somebody is actually truly good it's an occasion worthy of applause. Luckily, I have a few writers to applaud below.

1. Lance Tooks is a veteran cartoonist, and the Lucifer's Garden of Verses series of graphic novels represents only one fraction of his life's work. Tooks' comix offer an interesting merger between apocalyptic fantasy and hiphop street humor. It helps that he draws people with such warmth and affection. I find his books very pleasing, even though my literary antenna has never really been tuned to graphic novels. I find his thoughtful blog even better, even though he only seems to update it once a month.

2. I'll say it over and over again: if you're a small publisher, appearance counts. Ken Waldman's poetry chapbook Conditions and Cures looks great (the cover seems to evoke for me an old 70's country-folk record album), and this helps me look upon the poems inside with favor. Ken Waldman writes with taste, humor and expert rhythm. The author is a bluegrass musician, and you can hear the banjo rhythms in moving sequences like this:

Most evenings, she practices martial arts,
the slow process a physical cleansing
after speedy freeway days. A tensing
and an untensing. Sometimes, as she starts
a kick, she's in the dirt bikes and go-carts
of junior high. Or flashed forward, dancing
a dance she's not supposed to know. Sensing
the future, she remembers to breathe. Hearts
are like hands, she thinks, as she makes fists,
then releases, clasps thing fingers as if
in prayer. She almost feels her right hand insist
a man awaits -- this man dreams her -- as her left
demands she continue. All night, she fists
and unfists, fists and unfists, fists and unfists ...


3. Darrin Duford's Is There A Hole In The Boat? is an account of a haphazard but rewarding journey across the nation of Panama (without a car). Duford is a talented travel writer, and does a good job of mixing political/social context with human observation. I'm not sure what it takes for a travel writer to break through with a book like this one, but I hope Is There A Hole In The Boat? finds a way.

4. I always want to see an independently published book succeed, and I have to complain when I see an author or small publisher use self-defeating tactics. I was initially intrigued by a gloomy gray paperback with a woebegone suburban ragamuffin on the cover called Almost Columbine, by Alexander Hutchinson. The back cover promo text promises a realistic high school story with echoes of Colombine-like violence. We're off to an okay start, but then I'm stopped dead by a bunch of frontpaper and introductory text explaining that this volume is the second volume in something called "The HAWKS Series", and that it continues the story of an earlier volume titled "The HAWKS Foundation Mission One" (this volume is apparently "Mission Two"). It's not a good idea for a publisher to alienate readers of a new book by making them feel stupid for not reading the previous installment. After this off-putting introduction, I found it difficult to get into the story. I do believe Hutchinson is working up to a heartfelt and possibly important statement with this material, so I hope he will try again.

5. I don't usually review music here, but I've done poetry shows with Baltimore's native poet (and frequent LitKicks Action Poetry contributor) Mark "Wireman" Coburn, and I'll make an exception for Play That Funky Raga White Boy by his Raga Celtic Delta Blues Band. This ensemble sounds sort of like Michael McClure and Ray Manzarek, Captain Beefheart, Ravi Shankar and Howlin' Wolf all together in a mellow elevator. I'm not sure if the Mississippi delta runs through Baltimore, Maryland or not, but this troupe makes it sound like it does.

The Indie Grab Bag ain't empty yet, folks! Come back tomorrow for some more titles worthy of checking out.
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view /IndiesMarch2007
Monday, March 5, 2007 10:07 pm
Story
Levi Asher
Def Poetry is coming back! The sixth season of this underrated cable TV show begins midnight Friday, featuring a guest appearance by DMX.

As my longtime readers now, I think Def Poetry is well worth watching, not to mention worth reviewing. It's the only television series featuring original poetry on any major TV outlet, period. The show isn't perfect, and can sometimes drag down into predictable spoken-word ruts. But there are always at least a couple of memorable performances during each half hour show, and you never know who'll show up to read a poem. Past performers have included Sharon Olds, Alicia Keys, Shappy from the Bowery Poetry Club and the TV debut, long before "Golddigger", of Kanye West.

I got a chance to meet Def Poetry mastermind Danny Simmons at a Brooklyn book festival this summer, and he was nice enough to invite me to a taping for one of this season's shows. I think I'll get in touch and see if I can interview him on LitKicks sometime soon.

I need some new literary hiphop thrills, because neither the new Jay-Z or the new Nas is pleasing me very much. But at least there's the White Rapper Show, in my opinion the best and funniest new reality show we've had in years. Literary? Hell, yeah -- the key challenge in the show involves composing spontaneous verse and reciting it from memory, usually based on a topic chosen by the show's host, MC Serch of 3rd Bass. If you've ever tried this, you know it's harder than it looks.

The inability to flow tripped up the show's best contestant, Persia of Far Rockaway, Queens, in this week's episode. She looked like a favorite to win the whole thing, and Serch clearly liked her best (I did too). But when it came time to stand and rhyme without paper, she couldn't do it. This is extra ironic because Persia's nemesis is Jon Brown, the dopey-looking "king of the burbs", who can't write anywhere near as well as Persia. But when it's time to flow he turns into Busta Rhymes, and that's why he's still on the show and Persia is gone.

Why is it so important to be able to rap or recite from memory? Well, that's the wrong question, because when you're flowing you're not going from memory at all. The purest freestyle comes when you feel comfortable enough to actually compose new verses in real time. If you can't hit that zone, reciting from memory is second best. But to "flow" is to be in a state of grace, as every rapper knows, as Jack Kerouac and James Joyce knew too.

Maybe this is why the Beastie Boys -- those other white rappers extraordinaire -- used to open every concert with this chant:

Let it flow
Let yourself go
Slow and low
That is the tempo

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view /LetItFlow
Thursday, February 15, 2007 10:27 pm
Story
Levi Asher
I learned how to play chess when I was 10 years old from a migrant farmer. I had a bit of an attention span problem so I didn't gain much from our lessons, other than the names of the pieces and how to move them. I was terrible at chess back then, and to tell the truth, I remain so, but despite my brutal competitiveness that rears its ugly head whenever I'm doing something that even remotely involves winning, I don't seem to mind that this is a game I almost always lose. For whatever reason, I really like to play chess.

Earlier this week I was writing to a friend about a story I was working on and I said "My problem is actually having something happen in the story. I thought I had all my pieces lined up, but it turns out that I have no plan of attack. Perhaps this goes back to me being a horrible chess player, I don't know." (It all ends happily; I figured out what was supposed to happen and finished writing. I don't like the story much, but then, I can't have everything, I suppose.)

Anyway, I kept thinking about my lack of chess skills and the way I write. The reason I'm not so good at chess is that I don't think ahead. When I start, I have some vague idea of how I'm going to do things, but I tend to forget these things when I'm caught up in the game, until suddenly I'm looking at the board thinking "Oh, bloody hell. Checkmate." With writing, my method seems to be rather similar: I get an idea, I have a general idea of how things should go, I get too interested in the periphery (like whether something should be two sentences or if I should just go for the semicolon), and then suddenly I'm stuck with an irrevocable mess. The difference between writing and chess is, of course, that with writing I can always go back and fix things until they work, yet I think it's a fair parallel.

It could be dangerous to say so, considering how bad I am at it, but I think chess is a writer's game. (Along with poker, of course.) Strategic, deliberate, and novelistic in scope (each game is its own story), there's something inherently writer-like about it. Many writers have used chess in their work, from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" (there's a whole section of the poem called "A Game of Chess") to Samuel Beckett, who was a fan of the game (makes sense then that one of his plays is named Endgame). Though all writers go about their craft differently (which we covered last week), I think there's something to be said for knowing where you want things to go and winding up in that exact spot. In the end, I guess writing is a lot like a game of chess, moving the words and ideas (and perhaps semicolons) around until you reach the end and there's nowhere else to go.

When you write, do you control the direction of things? Or do you follow the path that seems to be laid out for you by your writing? Do you lead it or does it lead you? And, of course, do you play chess?
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Wednesday, February 14, 2007 05:19 pm
Story
Jamelah Earle
First, it's a feeling. Then the ideas come, maybe fully-formed, or maybe in pieces, sliding ghost-like into your head and playing in front of the walls of your mind for awhile before disappearing again. You watch them, or listen to them, or watch and listen to them, thinking about how to turn them into words. Sitting at a desk chair with one knee drawn up to your chin, staring ahead at the blank document on the computer screen, waiting until you're sure you've got it before finally beginning to type.

Or maybe it's a daily practice. Sitting down at a computer or typewriter or at a table with a stack of paper and a cup full of sharpened pencils. Carving the words out of the raw blocks of space into something recognizable and -- you hope -- real.

Perhaps it's a series of stolen secret moments, notes hastily scribbled on desk calendars, scraps of paper, napkins, matchbooks, the back of your hand. The images and lines come at the strangest times, and you've learned from experience that you'd better write them down when they show up, because it's no good, trusting your memory to keep them for you to write when it's convenient.

Could be it's like this, or maybe it's entirely different, but each of us go about writing in our own ways. How do you do it? Longhand or typed? Late at night or early in the morning (or whenever you have time)? Do you write every day or just when the mood or need strikes you? Do you have any rituals for writing? Lucky writing shirt (or pants or socks or whatever) or do you write naked? Do you know what you're going to write before you start or do you start writing and hope your ideas catch up with you? Do you try your best to get everything down in one go or do you write in fits and stops? Do you edit when you're done or as you go along (or not at all)?

We talk a lot about books and what's going on with literature, and we talk some about different aspects of being a writer. But being a writer happens differently for each of us. How do you create? What's your process?
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Wednesday, February 7, 2007 07:59 pm
Story
Jamelah Earle