These People Are Us is a fantastic collection. Loved everything about it. Found it brilliant in voice, humor and poignancy. The stories are mostly relationship stories (man and woman), covering all the bases from a man who ends up with his wife’s sister to a man who caulks his entire house (my favorite story in the collection, “Caulk”) because his wife is such a pain in the ass about having the house caulked. The great thing is that none of the characters comes off as great–sure there is a male narrator and he’s more often than not bitching about the woman in his life, but he is no angel and by telling his story, you get the feeling he kind of knows it. That sort of honesty is rare both in storytelling and life.
I don’t know if you know this or not but Pamela Anderson has a new “novel” out entitled Star: A Novel. Best as I can tell, it’s a thinly veiled autobiography that doesn’t really tell all.
“Thank you, you darling man,” Star said, stroking his face. “My heart’s desire. I don’t know how you knew, but you knew.”
“You see,” he said quietly. “I told you I got far more out of giving little gifts than it ever cost me. I’m just glad I got the chance to see you this happy. Thank you.”
I guess I don’t really have to say anything else.
Sven Birkerts‘ “Submission Guidelines” (from AGNI #59) is an honest and revealing look at Birkerts’ process of deciding what stays (and gets further reading) and what goes (into the reject bin)from AGNI‘s slush pile.
It would be easy to take Birkerts to task for “making editorial judgments based in many cases on a reading of a paragraph or two of prose, sometimes less”, but what’s the sense in being angry? He’s being honest. He’s letting all the poor, disillusioned and yet hopeful writers out there know how it really works in his world and for this, I am grateful.
The point is that EVERY WORD COUNTS. Every word matters. There are no throw aways. And to ask yourself what he is looking for is almost pointless because in the end it is about an ethereal and personal aesthetic. Birkerts says:
As for the qualities, the attributes, the instancings of vision I find myself searching for—how can I compose a coherent list? They are intangible, as variable as the plastic expressions of the face. But these selections, I believe, share something in common: They all go after the density and complication of inwardness, avoiding the feint of posed simplicity or the postmodern defensiveness of ironic self-consciousness. They offer up—from the floundering Jew to the foundering Finn to the prism of poetry and beyond—a sense of the irrational thrust of living, its comedy and its horror, and in this they honor, implicitly, the carrying power of the word.
Great essay and well worth the read.
Just back from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop. It was an intense week of daily three hour workshop and then panels, readings and conferences, which lasted from 9am-9pm (+). I am exhausted and invigorated.
Along with the focus on one’s own writing, there was the generous sharing of the work of published authors. We were treated to so many readings that my head is still spinning.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the readings/talks I attended:
Amy Tan: on the first day, Amy Tan gave an inspired talk on “The Muse, Research, Serendipity & Intervention.” The gist of this talk was how one should pay attention to signs in one’s life as they often lead to the core of what is written. One of the funniest moments was when she referenced one of her little ones (or babies or something like that) and those of us in the back didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about until we stood on tiptoes and saw that she had two Yorkshire Terriers in her lap.
Janet Fitch: “Writing the Landscape” was Janet Fitch’s talk on how to use sensory perception to write about what one sees, hears, tastes, etc.—her thesis is that these details bring the reader into the story, let the reader live the story, ground the reader in time and place, and make it all more believable. While this seems an obvious concept, it was one of the talks that was somewhat groundbreaking for me and caused an epiphany of sorts. I’m still processing what I feel—more on this later. Later in the week, Fitch also read from her (not yet published) new novel. It was a lyrical, ethereal piece that has stayed with me (I don’t want to go into too much detail about it as it is not yet pubbed).
Richard Ford: I admire his writing as it makes me laugh, makes me feel sad—essentially causes some sort of catharsis even though it is so finely crafted and subtle it would be easy to miss that one is being moved. Ford spoke on a “publishing short stories” panel—and spoke with such honesty and compassion that those of us (struggling) writers in the audience were moved, felt understood, regained hope. (On a side note: Ford and Tan had both attended the Squaw workshop as participants and talked about how it renewed their hope or increased their vision for their writing—hearing this was mind blowing, to say the least. And then, later in the week, experiencing an epiphany myself—only served to reinforce how special this experience is). Later in the week, Ford read a BRILLIANT story (I think it was a novel excerpt actually but it was so perfectly self-contained that it read as a story)—I believe he, too, was reading from an unpublished work so I will refrain from speaking about the details of the story, other than to say it was delicious.
Anne Lamott: Anne gave a hilarious, off the cuff talk on writing. At this point, I can’t even remember what the talk was specifically about but I remember we all laughed our heads off. She is FUNNY. On a side note: had a weird encounter when Anne Lamott came rushing up to me where I was sitting at a table with Steph. She shoved her hand at me and said, “Hi. I’m Annie.” And I said (like the fucking IDIOT I am), “I know who you are. I think you’re amazing.” She kind of stopped short and then shook Steph’s (who had the good sense to introduce herself instead of acting like a fool like I did) hand and rushed off. Afterwards, I was feeling like such an asshole, but I was really caught of guard. So later in the week we learned that Anne was selling her sister-in-law’s jewelry so we figured maybe that was why she came over to us. The quirkiness of it made me like her even more even though I feel like an idiot (and am still blushing).
Mark Childress: He is absolutely hilarious and brilliant. Loved his reading about a group of friends in Alabama (not sure if that is the right state) who go to a Sonny and Cher concert (and the two boys end up meeting Cher) and encounter some disapproving adults. GREAT stuff. Go out right now and buy his books–you won’t regret it.
Alan Cheuse: He was my workshop leader on day one. He set the whole thing off on a nice tone. He is absolutely brilliant (and seems to have some sort of freakish photographic memory). He gave a talk on the history of dialogue, which I found fascinating.
Varley O’Connor: What a lovely person. She was the leader of my group when my story was workshopped and she was very kind and supportive. She gave a reading one night of her novel (which is about three actors in NYC)—very funny and interesting, just what we all needed after so much heavy material.
Louis B. Jones: He was our workshop leader on Tuesday and brought a really interesting dimension to our group. The stories we had that day were really spectacular and I thought Louis did an excellent job of helping us to see them in a new light.
Sands Hall: Sands was my group’s workshop leader on Wednesday. I found her absolutely lovely: funny, honest, open, interesting. She was a great leader and brought such a wonderful knowledge into our discussion of POV. I would love to have her as a teacher.
Martin J. Smith: He was also a leader of our workshop one day. I enjoyed him very much. His reading was about a puppy that had sort of adopted his family one night (and then had some sort of yucky anal gland issue)—VERY funny.
Michael Jaime-Becerra: This guy writes beautifully—so heartfelt, funny, poignant. He read a short story (from a collection, I believe) from the point of view of a boy whose sister is getting married.
There was just so much more but I can’t even think of anything else… wait… there’s more: Diane Johnson read a funny CNF piece. Lynn Freed read a moving and funny piece from her memoir. Gill Dennis gave his brilliant talk on “Finding the Story.”
I had a one-on-one session with Andrew Tonkovich who is the EIC at Santa Monica Review. Andrew was generous and extremely helpful. I’m looking forward to revising my story with the insight he provided me.
On top of all of these well-known folks, were all the people (like me) who were there to learn. I was treated to so many moments of brilliance from these folks that it makes my head feel like it is going disintegrate.
What a week. Can’t wait to go back again.
Working Men, Michael Dorris: Loved it (most of it. I think I skipped one story). It was haunting and familiar. Regardless of the mystique around Dorris’ personal life, the guy could write.
The Little Disturbances of Man, Grace Paley: Wow. Her sense of voice is unparalleled. There was one story in particular that had me bawling my eyes out. It was the one of the single mother with the two boys (one named Tonto).
The Lifeguard, Mary Morris: It took me a while to warm up to this collection. Some stories were better than others. My two favorites were the last: “Moon Garden” and “Glass Bottom Boat.” I think Morris might be one of those writers who crafts such simplicity that she makes it look easy, when it’s obviously not.
Body, Harry Crews: Ouch. Not for the overly PC, this book jumps right into the thick of a caricature of Southern Fried culture and those who worship the body beautiful and does not let up until the explosive ending. It is funny (often to the point of being offensive and downright cruel), clever, weird and oddly touching. I know I’m late to the game in reading it nearly 15 years after it came out but I found it as relevant today as I’m sure it was then. It is not soon that I will forget the tragic Shereel, the loyal to a fault Nail, the hirsute Motor and the obese Earline (with her Associates degree in Problems of Living). What a cast of characters.
“Sub,” by Robert Kurson, Esquire, July 2004: intriguing story of deep-sea treasure hunters and their attempt to uncover the wreck of a German U-boat. (by the way, did you know that Lance Armstrong is dating Cheryl Crow? I found out in Esquire. Why is it I find that strange?)