NEWSFLASH — In solidarity with our East Coast friends, the Puget Sound area would like to announce last night’s light dusting of snow.
Back to our regularly scheduled programming… Instinct vs. intentionality: who wins? Sit down to write and words flow, ready and available, arranging themselves more or less in order for me to plop them down instantaneously on screen. Sit back later and look: the feeling is raw, but the sense makes no sense. What’s it about? So try again: start with the goal, the intention. The words are now stubborn children. They won’t come. Must use my grownup force to pry. Must also be careful to select the right ones for the job. This was so easy before? Well. Now I’m applying cool reason and Intention, the fickle bitch. Where is art on this rectum of a spectrum? Does it lean to the left or the right?
The graduate school application process has been good for me. Even if I don’t get in anywhere, it’s forced me to really focus on my intention: Why am I doing This? And it’s also made me look more carefully at What the Hell Do I Want to Be Writing? It’s been hard to keep a writing schedule during the last month or two, while writing, rewriting, and revising essays about what I write. But that’s okay: it’s ALL still writing. And this kind, though not fiction per se, has been making me consider the Big Questions. Am I an artist? Why am I writing? What is it I want to write about? Yup, questions beget questions. Some things I’ve learned:
- I like to write, okay?
- I like telling stories.
- I had been clinging to this idea that much of contemporary “literary” fiction has been filled with solipsistic navel-gazing and rarefied prose, and that its inverse—commercial “genre” fiction—was overwrought drivel.
- I had this idea that I would be the next Michael Chabon, the next Glen David Gold, smashing down barriers in bookstores, erasing categories from Ingram’s evil databases, writing fiction that was at once entertaining and also enlightening, etc.
- I still might do that.
- But if I do, it won’t be with the assumption that contemporary literature is crap, or that classics are crap, or that popular genre books are crap.
- Yes, yes: there’s plenty of crap out there, to be sure. And I’m not so Pollyanaish as to think I won’t call it out when I see it. But…
- I’ve been reading a lot more this past year.
- Since March, anyway, when I was laid off from the Visitor Bureau.
- That’s when I decided to start taking writing seriously.
- To take writing seriously, I also needed to take reading seriously.
- Which is something I haven’t done in a while,
- And for all my Big Talk about Literature, my reading muscles had really atrophied a bit since college.
- I was an English major at Berkeley! for crying out loud.
- But here I was, with decade-old assumptions about a moving target, a body of fiction that moves with the culture
- And here I was, a decade older than my snotty Berkeley self, a wee bit wiser, thinking,
- Gosh! I’ve got some catching up to do!
- I pulled down my Dostoevsky, my Faulkner, my Stegner. I dusted off my Chabon, my Gold. I picked up new copies of books by Allegra Goodman, Roberto Bolaño, John Irving, whatever I cut put my hands on.
- I read short story collections by Karen Russell, Ryan Boudinot, Aimee Bender, T. C. Boyle, Ethan Canin, Yiyun Li (who else am I forgetting), and read Best American Short Story anthologies from 2007, 2009, and 2010 (as well as wading through that magnum opus, the Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by the dearly missed John Updike), the 2010 O. Henry Prize anthology, an out-of-print hardcover anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction that my writing coach Bruce put into my hands, as well as literary journals (Tin House, McSweeney’s, Glimmer Train) and short stories in the New Yorker and Atlantic.
- Bruce also sent me a whole box of old Glimmer Trains. A whole box.
- To be honest, I haven’t gotten to them yet.
- I intend to, though.
- All I’m saying is
- Contemporary literature is like the peloton in the Tour de France: a fast-moving body of disparate cyclists, all professional, all from different parts of the world, all trained in different but similar ways, all grounded in the basics, all with many miles already under their spandex belts before they even arrive for the first time trial, all with different styles. And to win the race you need to learn to stay with the peloton. You have to ride with it, because it will break wind resistance. And, if you ever want to get sponsorship to ride another Tour de France, you ride with the peloton because that’s also where people are watching. You don’t want to be in another country, on some dirt backroad. No one will see you. If you do something amazing, few in your lifetime will notice. Sure, it’s bucolic, but you’re a cyclist for shit’s sake. And a damn fine one. Potentially one of the best. And the way you prove it is to ride with the peloton.
- Oh, you’re thinking, that’s all fine and good, but isn’t this analogy getting a bit thin? And doesn’t the analogy have more to do with ambition than any real sense of where the literary zeitgeist is?
- Eh, maybe. But I do think that part of my intent is to join the peloton: to complete my training (in this analogy, the MFA program) to qualify me to race with the big boys.
- Sure, I will always learn from them! That’s part of the excitement of being in the peloton! Sure, I won’t necessarily “win”—that’s where the analogy runs out of steam: anyone competing in my peloton is a winner: there’s room enough for all these writers to publish their works and have them admired and, indeed, to have something interesting or original to say about humanity. And ther’s really no single judge of “winner” anyway.
- Everyone gets to kiss the beautiful Tour de France ladies!
- Getting back to my original conceit (what I’ve learned during the application process)(not that this was in any way a bifurcation from the main point, as it all pertains to the intentionality of my writing and my awareness of of purpose), I think I have a much better sense now of why I’m doing this writing thing, and why I’m gunning for a MFA. It was instinctual before; now it’s more calculating.
- It’s time for me to start writing again.
- Looking back through the window of the past few months, I know that what I’ve learned in the application process will help in my writing. I’m ready to try a few new things.
- But, before I do, I still have a few more applications to finish: Iowa, Montana, Johns Hopkins, Oregon, and Wyoming.
So, to my East Coast friends, I raise a shovel, and I salute you, even if the snow I mentioned earlier as having fallen on our sleepy Northwest has now dissipated into the spongy green earth.