Writer’s Corner: Getting to Work

train1Now that the dream of the Amtrak writers’ residency is over and done with, it’s time for the rest of us to get back to the business at hand: crafting words and pages from nowhere out of nothing. Place matters; thusly the desire for inspiring places to put fingers to keyboards.

But there’s always that unfortunate reminder that, dream though we may of the perfect place and time to do one’s writing (cabin, nice view of the lake, maybe a dog who only wants to be walked at convenient 3- to 4-hour intervals), at some point one does have to get past inspiration and put one’s tender nose on that unforgiving grindstone.

Per Doreen Carvajal, who wrote about using the TGV train ride south from Paris as a way to unblock a long-dormant book proposal:

I settled into a cushioned seat by the window, thinking of my own family’s love affair with trains and the basic writing lesson they knew better than me. There is no better way to craft a book than to toil like a railroad worker, every day, all day.

New in Theaters: Nick Cave is Still Alive in ‘20,000 Days on Earth’

Nick Cave drives to parts unknown with Kylie Minogue in '20,000 Days on Earth' (Drafthouse Films)

Nick Cave drives to parts unknown with Kylie Minogue in ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ (Drafthouse Films)

20,000 Days on Earth is a meta-fictional documentary about Nick Cave, art, life, death, and above all writing. It’s beautiful and transfixing and is opening in limited release this Wednesday.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The last thing that audiences need is another documentary about the greatness of another band or artist of the past. It’s all too easy once artists have their glory days behind them to lock all that rough chaos up into a neatly packaged movie, maybe a box set filled with B-sides and rarities. That doesn’t mean that the likes of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Finding Fela and A Band Called Death aren’t worthy films. But today’s documentary audiences could be forgiven for thinking that to be a music fan today is akin to being an archivist. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s new documentary about Australian Goth-poet Nick Cave is a long overdue reversal of that nostalgic trend…

You can see the trailer here:

Writer’s Corner: Staying Out of the Rain

Crowd at a Harvard-Princeton football game, Nov. 8, 1913. (Library of Congress)

Crowd at a Harvard-Princeton football game, Nov. 8, 1913. (Library of Congress)

There are plenty of good reasons to become a writer—excepting of course a desire for money, fame, or respectability.

In “Phi Beta Football,” a football-season essay for the New Yorker about his childhood watching Princeton football games, John McPhee identifies another superb reason to devote one’s life to the written word:

…on a November Saturday of cold, wind-driven rain—when I was about ten—I was miserable on the stadium sidelines. The rain stung my eyes, and I was shivering. Looking up at the press box, where I knew there were space heaters, I saw those people sitting dry under a roof, and decided then and there to become a writer.

Writer’s Corner: Anaïs Nin on Saying It All

Anais Nin (Elsa Dorfman, c.1970s)

Anais Nin (Elsa Dorfman, c.1970s)

As one of the twentieth century’s more celebrated and mutinous rebel authors, Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) didn’t seem to keep much back. After all, she made money for a time in the 1940s by knocking out ornately gilded pornography at a buck a page for an anonymous, wealthy collector. The stories were later prettied up under the label “erotica” and published posthumously in collections like Delta of Venus.

Although she wanted to be remembered for her knotty and abstract avant-garde fictions like Cities of the Interior, Nin gained true notoriety for her multi-volume diary. The first iterations were high-toned smutty gossip for the literary set, liberally threaded with luminous poetic musings. deltaofvenusThey detailed her lavishly busy and experimental love life—including a 12-year affair with fellow literary rule-breaker Henry Miller—but were later outdone by the release (starting last year) of the completely unexpurgated diaries. This revised series includes everything cut out earlier by request of some of her then-living lovers.

Nin’s career-long back and forth between taboo-busting and rectitude makes this piece of writerly advice even more fascinating:

The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.

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.

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.