Writer’s Corner: The Humiliations of Writing

Writing and publishing any piece of work, from novel to Facebook post to letter to the editor complaining about your neighbor’s cats, is a way of putting yourself out there for the world to see. So it stands to reason that there’s a large potential downside. Sure, there’s the (remote) possibility of fame and wealth, or even the occasional social media like. But more likely, and certainly more frightening, is the chance for embarrassment.

(Library of Congress, c.1872)

(Library of Congress, c.1872)

In his essay, “Writing is a Risky, Humiliating, Endeavor,” novelist David Gordon describes many of the ways in which the act of putting your name on a packet of words for sale is one of the most harrowing experiences one could endure:

Let’s face it: just writing something, anything, and showing it to the world, is to risk ridicule and shame. What if it is bad? What if no one wants to read it, publish it? What if I can’t even finish the thing? Every time I begin a book, a story, even a fresh page, I have a sense that it might go horribly wrong. And for a professional writer, working on multiyear projects, that would be more than an emotional humiliation. It would involve awkward letters from the student loan people and the credit card company…

But as logical as it might be—after all, there are critics just waiting out there with sharpened knives and killer instincts ready to slice into just about anything you might want to publish—to get anywhere, the writer obviously needs to just get on with it and damn the consequences. And yes, it can take a kind of bravery. Gordon again:

Writing then, must feel risky in order to feel like life. I used to cringe when people talked about “brave” writing. I’d think, calm down, it’s not like you’re a fireman or a Special Forces commando. If the mission fails, just toss it in the wastebasket. But I do think, upon reflection, that there is a need to generate emotional risk, a sense of imminence, of danger, in order to transmit that aliveness to the page. This needn’t mean personal revelation or offensive language. Sometimes quiet, dense writing is the most deeply and complexly honest. Sometimes intellectual discourse is brave in our Twitter culture. Genuine and sincere emotion can be risky in a world of snark and irony. So can making silly jokes about matters our society regards with sanctimonious seriousness. Sometimes it is just a matter of a writer doing what she does not yet know how to do, speaking about something he does not yet understand. The risk of ambitious failure…

So get on with that werewolf detective novel, historical exegesis of your family’s immigrant past, memoir about your mental breakdown, or enraged photo essay about your neighbor’s cats.

Writing means risk, no matter what form it takes. And in pretty much every instance, it’s worth it.

Department of Weekend Reading: August 15, 2014

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Now Playing: ‘The Trip to Italy’ is Highly Unnecessary Comedy, But Not in a Bad Way

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in 'The Trip to Italy' (IFC Films)

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in ‘The Trip to Italy’ (IFC Films)

Two comics playing slightly tweaked versions of themselves, ravishing Italian scenery, phenomenal food, recitations of Shelley’s poetry, Tom Hardy impressions. That’s about all one needs to know about Michael Winterbottom’s nervy, gadabout sequel to the 2010 road comedy The Trip.

The Trip to Italy is playing now in highly limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

The Trip to Italy’s total lack of necessity has little bearing on its enjoyability. There’s nothing wrong with watching a pair of lyrical, spry, and acid-tongued comics lashing each other with barbed commentary while enjoying the operatic grandeur of a foodie junket through Italy’s more salubrious and sun-splashed districts. Does it matter that they’re not bringing much new to the party?…

You can see the trailer here:

Also, here you can check out one of the better clips: Coogan and Brydon on The Dark Knight Rises:

Now Playing: A Johnny Cash of the Soul in ‘Calvary’

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in 'Calvary' (Fox Searchlight)

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in ‘Calvary’ (Fox Searchlight)

Back in 2011, Brendan Gleeson played a cynical, caustic cop on the remote western coast of Ireland for John Michael McDonagh’s crackling black comedy The Guard. In Calvary, the two reteam for another dark-hued story about violence, morality, and modern depravity. There’s gags aplenty, but this is no comedy.

Calvary is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

In Calvary, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) begins the worst and possibly last week of his life when he’s threatened in the confessional. An anonymous penitent tells James that he was repeatedly raped by a priest starting at the age of seven. That priest is now dead, but the man wants to a kill a priest anyway. He prefers his victim be a good and innocent priest, like Father James, because that would make people pay attention. James has a week to live. “Killing a priest on a Sunday,” the voice muses with the jangled amusement of the insane. “Now that’d be something.”…

You can see the trailer here:

New Books: In ‘California’ the World Has Gone to Hell for No Good Reason

Earlier this summer, first-time novelist Edan Lepucki caught a lucky break. Just as her debut book California was due to come out, her publisher and Amazon got into a pricing dispute that caught the eye of Stephen Colbert. In an attempt to help out authors caught in the crossfire, Colbert chose Lepucki’s book as a title to champion. In his show’s appeal, he asked viewers to buy the book in droves—from anywhere but Amazon.

Now we can appreciate the novel itself, and not the furor around it.

California-cover1My review of the post-apocalyptic California is at PopMatters:

The setting is almost a generation after a slow-motion apocalypse has ground the modern age into dust. Lepucki’s two narrators, a young couple who unhurriedly trade off chapters, remember some of the earlier age’s technological glories. They’re of the last generation that experienced things like broadband and daily showers and refrigeration. By their childhoods, the world was already collapsing. They just managed to be there for civilization’s dying embers.

A more naïve writer might have made us think that they were unlucky to have these memories, that the ones who follow them would be happier without that knowledge. But that’s not the way Lepucki plays it: There is a Dark Age on the wing, and it will be savage and bleak, not a return to some pre-modern Edenic state…

You can read an excerpt here.

Writer’s Corner: Publish Your Poetry

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

If you’re a poet, you’ve already most likely resigned yourself to a career filled with penury and frustration. Fortunately, every now and again, there comes a rare chance to make some money as a poet and (quelle surprise) actually get published in a format that ensures people who aren’t family and friends will read you.

According to Poets & Writers, The Academy of American Poets is making a couple changes to their Walt Whitman Award, which “is given to an emerging poet who has not yet published a book.” It’s now “the most valuable first-book award for poetry in the United States.”

Check it out:

In addition to a $5,000 cash prize, the winner of the 2015 award will receive publication of his or her manuscript by Graywolf Press, and a six-week all-expenses-paid residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy.

So get your pencils and poetic sensibilities sharpened. Submission guidelines are here.

By the way, this is what the Civitella Ranieri looks like. Good luck.

Department of Weekend Reading: August 8, 2014

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