Being A Writer
A novelist named E. Howard Hunt died today. Of course, E. Howard Hunt won't go down in history as a novelist, despite the fact that Amazon lists six (6!) pages of spy thrillers and non-fiction books he wrote, like Maelstrom, a potboiler from 1948. Howard Hunt will be remembered because he, along with G. Gordon Liddy, planned and executed the break-in at the Watergate national democratic headquarters in 1972 that eventually brought down the Nixon Presidency.
E. Howard Hunt, a dapper but dour CIA agent, lived an interesting life. The fight against Communism was his obsession, and in this capacity he holds the remarkable distinction of being involved in not one but two (2) major failures of American politics, having also played a leadership role in the disastrous anti-Castro Cuban invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Looking back, it's fairly clear that he should have stuck to writing novels. But history had its way with him, and today we can only reflect on his death.
How were his novels? I've looked at his later ones but none caught my interest; I'd love to look at one of his earlier pulp-style novels but you can't even find a title with a cover image on ALibris's long list of his books. The earliest one appears to be called East of Farewell, published in 1942 -- if anybody out there has read any of these books, please share your observations by posting a comment below.
Only in the ancient Hindu sense of all-universe acceptance can I say that I think E. Howard Hunt was a good man. But he did America a big favor in the summer of 1972: he got caught. As anybody who's read All The President's Men knows, he and Liddy were across the street at the Howard Johnson hotel watching with binoculars as the police burst in on the spies, and one of the men arrested had E. Howard Hunt's name and phone number at the White House listed in the phone book in his pocket. Thus did a President fall.
Coincidentally, Howard Hunt died on a day when Watergate is on many people's minds. If you haven't been paying attention, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis Libby is on trial for obstruction of justice in a case related to the pre-war search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Libby's defense is pointing a finger at President Bush's close advisor Karl Rove, and it's all starting to remind me of those good old days of John Dean, Bob Haldeman and ... E. Howard Hunt.
Farewell to a hard-working American patriot and writer, E. Howard Hunt.
Since I have this attitude toward writing, it was with great interest that I read Zadie Smith's essay "Fail Better" that appeared recently in the Guardian. (Or chunks of it, rather, since it's pretty long and lost me in places.) Smith's essay touches on what it takes to make a writer great, and argues that beyond the skill at craftsmanship that good writing takes, it also requires the personal element of the writer's own truth to give it that necessary X-Factor needed to push something above the fray. I had problems with this notion right away; I'm not such a big fan of personal truth in writing (whatever that means, anyway), though I do believe in the importance of honesty. I think there's a big difference between the two things, though this might be an issue of my own definitions and my problem could just come down to a quibble over words. I guess what I mean is that truth, this thing that colors the writer's work, has become so watered down by our postmodern inability to believe in any absolutes, and therefore makes us all unimpeachable authorities on our personal experience. While I believe that there's room to be unimpeachable authorities on our personal experience, I hope that anything I create is bigger than my personal truth, as grand or mediocre as it may be, because once it's shared with other people I lose control over it anyway. Honesty, on the other hand, means that the creation is true, whether or not it has anything to do with the truth. This is, to my thinking, what fiction is all about -- making stuff up and being honest about it. Perhaps at this point, I should say that I've never been a fan of "write what you know" because I prefer to crawl into unfamiliar spaces and make them as real as I can.
Like I said, though, my argument with Smith's use of the word "truth" might just be a problem with the word itself and not so much with Smith's point, because sometimes I'm too argumentative to move beyond my own argumentativeness. Smith writes, "Style is a writer's way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions." Does honest writing, the kind that -- for lack of a better word -- rings true, really depend on some kind of an emotional intelligence? I'll have to think about it more, but I'm inclined to believe that it has more to do with a sharp observational skill and an intelligence of human behavior, personality of the writer be damned. But maybe these two things are really the same and I'm just tangled in semantics.
In any case, Smith gets to the famous essay by T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (this was actually once the seed for an October Earth question). Eliot's much-argued point:
"The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. Consequently, we must believe that 'emotion recollected in tranquility' is an inexact formula . . . Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."
Apparently, I'm inclined to agree with Eliot, which, despite my love of "Prufrock" kind of bothers me. It's not that I don't think that writers don't sneak themselves into their work, but I also believe that at some point, if there's any maturity to be had as an artist, it's important to move beyond ourselves into something broader. Otherwise, no matter how well we craft our sentences into paragraphs or our lines into stanzas, don't we just kind of remain stuck at that "angst-filled teenager scribbling in the margins" phase? It's an important phase; it gets many of us going, but it shouldn't be the end. At least I don't think so. Obviously. Because that's what I've been going on about for some time now.
Anyway, it's an interesting essay with all kinds of things to think about contained within, and it may be one of the only things I've ever really read by Zadie Smith. I do believe that writing is an approximation, but in the end, I think this has more to do with the shortcomings of language and our inability to manipulate it fully than it does with not being able to get to the truth. But then, maybe that's why I'm not writing any novels, I don't know.
It was a lyric I loved when I was a teenager, from a song called "Gettin' In Tune", an off-track on the Who's album Who's Next:
I'm singing this note 'cause it fits in well with the cards I'm playing ...
I understood this as songwriter Pete Townshend's admission of his own guile as a creative artist. This admission is different from the common attitude of self-consciousness, often found in meta-fictional works, in which an author pins his or her self like a butterfly on the corkboard of their prose as an ironic alternative focus of narrative awareness. You can find that stuff everywhere (Auster, Eggers, Wallace), but lately I'm more interested in meta-fiction where the author's self is not passive but active, where the writer is openly plotting to attack us (the readers) as we read.
I'm talking about the endless poker match between reader and writer. This is the game we play as we read. What is the writer holding back, what is the writer bluffing, what is the writer about to lay down? And how far will the reader ride, and when will the reader fold (as I've folded many books) and how far can the writer go before the reader will catch a fatal bluff? It's in this spirit that I loved this lyric. "I'm singing this note 'cause it fits in well with the cards I'm playing". I assumed Townshend was talking about his techniques, his "power plays" as an author, which in his case seemed to include the following: emotional vulnerability (Tommy), humor (A Quick One), bluntness (My Generation), spirituality (Pure and Easy). It thrilled me to hear the artist refer to these "cards", to admit that his process of songwriting was not only an act of sincere expression but also an act of creative, manipulative guile.
2. G-Unit Books? Yes, indeedy. Considering the fact that my birthday isn't until September, it may be too early to mention the fact that I've got my eye on The Ski Mask Way, but, you know, keep it in the back of your mind until fall. Also, in other Fiddy news, 50 Cent will be introducing a line of condoms. This is literary because you have to be creative with safe sex like you have to be creative with getting kids to read. I just can't make this stuff up.
3. Literary theory vs. biology in a steel cage. Who do you think would win?
4. Feministing picks a bone with a recent Bookslut item, We Don't Need Another Anthology.
5. Remember your adolescent shame? Of course you do; you're still trying to live it down. Well, instead of that, how about submitting examples of that really earnest and intense poetry you wrote in your math notebook for publication? The Cringe book will be published next year and is accepting submissions.
It took days for me to get the truth about what exactly the problem was: the school was going out of business. What about the $1400 paycheck they owed me? After a few more days, the truth that I wasn't going to ever get paid sank in. I was now a creditor of a corporation that had filed for Chapter 11 protection, which basically means I'd worked for free the last four weeks and there was nothing I could do about it. The fact that I was depending on this money to pay overdue bills didn't mean a thing.
I managed to get by, but it was a hell of a rough patch, and I can only imagine how numerous large, medium-size and (especially) small independent publishers are reacting to the news of the impending bankruptcy of Advanced Marketing Services (AMS), the parent company of the long-running and well-managed major book distribution company Publishers Group West.
The result of this bankruptcy is that the publishers who use PGW's distribution service are not going to get paid for books that have already been sold. The publishers may also lose access to the inventory of unsold books in PGW's possession. Since Publishers Group West was pretty much the Starbucks of the independent book distribution economy, this is no minor problem for publishers who were living on the fringes of financial survival (and, given the nature of the publishing business, this describes many of them).
What's most aggravating is that Publishers Group West was not failing. They were taken down by their incompetently run parent company, AMS, despite the fact that they were a profitable operation. AMS chopped the legs right off their cash cow, and one can only hope the corporate crooks (yes, crooks, see links below) will face criminal charges. Is this the Enron of the bookselling industry? Yes, in fact, it is, and we may lose some of our most beloved small publishers as a result.
For the real scoops, here are two updates from Ed Champion and Galley Cat, who've been dogging the story the way good reporters do. I'm very eager to continue to learn more about how a fuck-up like this can happen to a profitable company.
-- Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting it Right Go on and get it for youself. Think of it as your present to us. Zing!
-- Friday Happy Hour: Writers and Their Booze -- Writers and drinking go together like The Captain and Tenille. This handy book not only dishes on what famous writers' favorite drinks were, it includes recipes! So you can get your drunk on in a literary way. Hallelujah and pass the scotch.
-- A Thunderbirds Foldz Flat Pen? I bet you could fold it right up inside your journal and never be penless when you are struck with a flash of genius again!
-- And speaking of journals, we all know that if you're going to be a real writer, you need to spend a lot of time scribbling secretly in a Moleskine, and you are in luck, because there are a variety of them available on Amazon. Only the legendary notebook of Hemingway for you!
-- Or maybe you're not so pretentious. Etsy.com is absolutely one of my favorite places on all of the internets to look for fabulous items, because I love supporting independent do-it-yourselfers, and it is a neverending well of creativity and ideas. Maybe you'd like to check out something from the handmade books & zines category? Or blank books, perhaps? I really like this journal with coptic stitch binding. I'm a big fan of coptic stitch binding, because it will make your book lay flat no matter what. Plus, it's pretty. Very important.
-- And then there's this: Smoking Monkey Notebook. I want it.
-- Outside of the blank book realm, Etsy also offers a variety of other book things, like fabulous handmade bookmarks (here's a beaded one and here's one that's stylish and fun). Or, if you aren't sure, you can't go wrong with a Cthulhu coloring book, right?
-- I don't really understand these, but they're made out of marble. And they resemble great literary figures. And they have hollow bellies you can use for stashing your stash: Great Authors Pot Belly Figures.
-- Do you like t-shirts, or are you one of those people who insist on going around shirtless all the time? Do you know anybody like that? I don't either. Anyway, shirts! The pen is mightier than the sword, the monkey is finally getting around to typing Shakespeare (though I guess to wear this you'd have to be okay with the fact that the first "to" is spelled wrong -- forgive him, he's a monkey!), or, you know, keep on Tolkein. Then there's a personal favorite shirt: writing well is the best revenge. Indeed.
-- I'm not really sure why anybody would want to wear a small audio version of The DaVinci Code on a lanyard around their neck, but just in case someone does, dreams do come true.
-- Audio recordings of classic short literary works? Yes, please.
-- Power Bars are boring, but Nietzsche's Will to Power Bars? Why not? Or maybe you worry about Shakespeare-breath. (Who doesn't?) Well, the After Shakespeare Mints ought to come in handy.
But have no fear, chapbook poets, because we at LitKicks love you. Perhaps because we at LitKicks are chapbook poets ourselves. Levi has put out a collection of poetry, as has Caryn, and I've put out two (one poetry, one prose, neither available any longer, so I guess that makes them collector's items). I made my own chapbooks because I wanted to present specific pieces together in a certain way, and not because I couldn't get my work published in conventional venues. Each book is kind of like a concept album, with the writing meticulously ordered and each detail, from the fonts used to the type of stock used for the covers, carefully considered. I'm a creative type by nature and always have roughly a million different projects going on at any given time, ranging from photography to crochet to beading, so taking my words and presenting them exactly the way I wanted to was an enormously satisfying creative project, which I'd recommend any writer try at least once. (I have a shelf full of chapbooks at my house -- each is amazingly creatively executed and I love them all.)
So if you haven't already, why would you create a chapbook? Well, maybe like me, you want to challenge yourself to make something cool. Or perhaps you do live readings or other networking and want something more interesting than a business card. Could be you just have 20 poems that you'd like to print together. Or you could be out of ideas of what to give your mom for Christmas. Or perhaps something else entirely. The reasons for chapbook-making are as varied as the writers who create them, but no matter what inspires you to give it a try, making a chapbook is rewarding because it gives you a chance to jump into your writing and get your hands dirty making something that says to the world, "This is what I am as a writer." You don't need a publishing house's marketing department or a cover designed by Chip Kidd to define that for you and, in fact, it's valuable to be able to put your work together as a cohesive whole and present it to others.
Are you convinced? Good. So how do you make a chapbook? Well, it's as easy or hard as you want it to be, but the first step, naturally, is to choose the writing you'd like to present. Opinions on this matter vary widely, but I believe that a chapbook is at its most effective when it's like an EP, and not a Greatest Hits double album, if you get what I mean. Try to limit yourself to a 20-25 page maxiumum printing. If you just have to print something much longer than that, you should probably look into the perfect-bound-book category, handled by print-on-demand places like Lulu, for instance. Plus, it's important to be able to curate your own work and pick the absolute best stuff. You probably will have to make some cuts, and it might hurt a little, but it's worth it when you consider that this is going to help you make the best, most concise product you can.
After you've chosen the writing you want to present, it's time for the really fun part. Once you figure out the order or your pieces (and layout can definitely be an adventure), you need to print and bind them somehow. Kinko's is an indie writer's friend, remember, and could definitely be a big help. But you also need to consider how you want to present your books. Do you want to use regular paper for a cover, or do you want to buy heavier card stock? Are you going to print your covers, or do something fancier with them? (I cut a design out of card stock for one of my books -- a bad idea, because it was way too much work.) Are you going to staple them? Bind with thread or cord? Or will you go for the decidedly uncool spiral binding? It's entirely up to you and really comes down to how much work you want to put into it and how fancy you want the books to be.
One of the things we talk about on LitKicks, especially when reviewing self-published work, is the presentation of the material. If you're published by a major publishing house then you don't have to worry about things like paper and printing and cover design, but when you're doing it yourself, you're entirely responsible for how your work looks to other people. This means that it's in your best interest to make things as professional as possible -- you don't have to spend a fortune and you don't have to be ultra-fancy, but you want to do a nice job. If done well, a chapbook can be like a calling card and can help you make an impression on others. The ultimate self-publishing labor of love, the chapbook is great because it's always as individual as the writer who creates it, so when you're working on your own, take your time, ask questions if you need to, and remember to have fun with it.
If you have a chapbook that you want to reach a wider audience, I'd love to receive a copy, and maybe I can give it a mention here on LitKicks. My contact information is in my profile or on the review info page. (If you want me to review your work, I recommend not sending it to the address listed there, but contacting me directly. Since I don't live in New York, it always takes extra time for me to receive things sent to me there.)
My favorite poets are the ones who live deep within obscure forests like gnomes in Hansel and Gretel and they hardly ever emerge because if they did they would be put away from decent society and under lock and key. Hansel and Geretel thought their nemesis was a witch. The poor dear was a poet from Mendocino whose house was made from Gingerbread.
I knew I could write, but I also knew I didn't know how to rewrite. So I joined a small writers group in St Paul's in Bristol. The truth is, I walked up to the door and walked away again, eventually plucked up the courage and went back. There were three other people in the room (one of them Andrew Miller who has since been short listed for the Booker Prize and won the IMPAC Award amongst others). For a couple of years we met every Tuesday, and there were never more than a half a dozen writers. Most of us had good things to say but did not really know how to say them in a way that could really help each other learn about the craft. This, I believe, is still the case: most participants in writers' workshops do not have a strong critical language. They might say that they like a piece but cannot specifically say why, or outline what the writer has done formally to achieve this success.
I decided shortly afterwards to give up engineering and concentrate on literature, but I knew I had to learn more and wondered if the structured environment of a university would help. In 1990 I was winging my way to Washington State where I took a two year Master of Fine Arts Degree at Eastern Washington University. And here I learned what I needed to know. Through some very fine instructors I finally found out about form and the writing and rewriting process.
Back in Ireland I stuck to it day after day, learning as I went. 1996 was a good year. My collection of poems, Digging My Own Grave, was published by Dedalus Press. I won two Sunday Tribune/Hennessy literary awards: best Emerging Fiction Writer and New Irish Writer of the Year. I began teaching writing at the Irish Writers Centre, DCU and elsewhere. I was on the other side of the table. Now I really had to know my stuff and most importantly be able to explain it to others. It took another seven years to have my novel The Eskimo in the Net published. The book was well received. It was short listed for The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and was selected as Book of the Year by the Literary Editor of the Daily Express ("scandalously ignored by the Man Booker judges ...").
Yet here I am three years later, still thinking about the writing process. In fact I've been berating myself for my 'slowness'. I am very disciplined at first drafts. Day after day churning out the pages. And as a first draft it's quite solid . The difficulty I find now with rewriting is the distance necessary. You get too close to it. My 'follow-up' to The Eskimo in the Net is currently sitting 'finished' on my desk while I have just completed a first draft of a new novel. I still need time for the 'follow-up'. I'm not sure if it is really finished or not.
When The Eskimo in the Net came out in 2003 my publisher said it would be good to get another book out within a year and then maybe wait a few years for the next. Well here we are three years later. Not a finished copy in sight.
I notice other writers I know who published around the same time as I did have their quota on the boil. I thought I worked hard, but I'm beginning to wonder if really I was just not getting down to it. You get a bit panicky. The world is passing you by.
But somewhere within I know this is just an ego thing -- publishers, marketing, sales. And so when I read a clipping from the Irish Sunday Independent in their Bookworm section I was heartened to read how Eamonn Sweeney (the next big thing in Irish literature and a fine writer to boot) withdrew his third novel from his agent because he had "written it for the wrong reason." He found himself thinking of his advance, his profile, the publishing world's demands. He says when he started out writing it "had been its own reward" and he "needed to get back to that place." Good on you, Eamonn.
And good on Catherine Bush who despite being short listed for the Trillium award for her novel substantially rewrote the paperback version because she felt rushed to finish the hardback draft.
Also from the clipping, the Observer's literary editor Robert McCrum wondered if the serious novel had lost its way amongst the demands of marketing and publishing. "In 2006," he wrote, "the novelist has become a cross between a commercial traveller and an itinerant preacher."
I couldn't agree more. For years a number of top publishers looked at Eskimo (which is a sort of existential literary mystery) and wanted more action -- murder and mayhem. I resisted, and I believe I was vindicated. I'll bide my time, write the books I want to write and not get too caught up in the celebrity nature of the business.
There are already far too many books out there, and most of them are unfinished.