Writer’s Desk: Practice, Practice, Practice

Do you know Sam Lipsyte? If not, then now is the time to get acquainted. Start off with his novel, The Ask. It’s very … well, just read it. Funny, profane, true; all the best qualities. No One Left to Come Looking For You is coming out later this year and it’s a knockout.

All of which is prelude to why you should listen to what he has to say about writing fiction; which he teaches at Columbia University.

In this interview, Lipsyte talks about the need to stay connected to what you are working on:

… the main thing is always to stay connected to a project. Even if today I might not get to it, I have to look at it—even if it’s 10 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes, even if I just move a comma. An old teacher of mine said, “You pray at the altar every day.” Even if it’s just for a few minutes, you have to go into the document and mess around a little bit, read it, feel it, and then you can go on and do the thing you have to do that day, but you’ll be connected for the next big writing session.

Sometimes, if you are looking for an excuse to procrastinate, not having a couple spare hours to get some pages out is a good one. But Lipsyte is right: Don’t give yourself the out.

Keep praying at the altar.

Screening Room: ‘Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC’

The monthly Sound Unseen film series is showing a cool new documentary this week at Trylon Cinema. Danny Garcia’s Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC throws down the gauntlet by arguing that punk really got its start at Max’s Kansas City and not CBGB. For a certain kind of fan, these are fighting words.

My review is at PopMatters:

Garcia’s film is predicated on the belief that Max’s Kansas City was every bit as important to the evolution of art and music as Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon or the Algonquin Round Table. While the argument gets stretched a bit thin from time to time, Nightclubbing has a preponderance of evidence on its side. Among the bands nurtured with lengthy stays at Max’s were the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers, the Stooges, and Alice Cooper. It is hard to imagine a more fertile vortex of glam, garage, avant-garde and proto-punk happening in just the right city at just the right time and place…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Leave it Loose

Who doesn’t like a tidy conclusion? Life is random. Does our art have to be? Isn’t a great part of the joy of creating and consuming art based on the possibility of finding a closure that our daily lives never offer?

Of course it is. If nobody liked neat finishes, then mystery novels would not be a thing.

But it does not always have to be that way.

In Iris Murdoch’s novel The Sea, The Sea, her playwright character has the following observation:

Then I felt too that I might take this opportunity to tie up a few loose ends, only of course loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us…

Some stories lend themselves to a snappy finish. But for others, your efforts to wrestle the elements of life into something sensical and satisfying could ruin what you are trying to build. Don’t force the conclusion.

In art, as in life, things can sometimes just end.

(h/t The Marginalian)

Writer’s Desk: Rules? What Rules?

J. K. Rowling (born on this day in 1965) has sold a few books in her career. So it is somewhat refreshing to see her resisting the urge to lay down some must-follow rules for other writers to follow. In fact, in this piece from 2019, she points out that her breakthrough came largely from going in the other direction:

I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words…

Still, she presents a few common-sense rules of thumb to follow:

  • Reading: “Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.”
  • Discipline: “Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.”
  • Independence: “By this, I mean resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.”

That does not mean if you do everything she says, success will follow. Nothing is that simple. Remember what Dumbledore said:

We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.

Nota Bene: Werner Herzog’s Novel of War and Nature

In Werner Herzog’s spectacular new novel, The Twilight World, he tells the story of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who famously continued fighting World War II on a remote island in the Philippines until finally surrendering in 1974.

Mixing the sublime, the strange, human obsession, and the implacability of nature in his usual deadpan style, Herzog is pretty much made for this story.

Here is how he uses ants to explain the passage of time:

A column of millions and millions of ants arrives overnight and marches through the trees with no beginning or end; the column marches for days and days and then one day is mysteriously and suddenly gone, and that is another year.

(h/t New Yorker)

Writer’s Desk: Stick With It

Of late Robert Heinlein’s legacy as one of the great postwar science-fiction writers has been somewhat forgotten, or overshadowed by his status as libertarian icon. But he deserves recognition not just for his great novels (Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land) but for providing us with some of the most salient writing advice ever put to paper.

In his frequently cited article, “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” Heinlein laid down five solid rules:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. You must put it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

The last is particularly helpful for writers who have a difficult time with rejection. Of which there will always be a lot.

Heinlein was also smart enough to acknowledge that he frequently broke these rules himself. But sticking to them will help instill the diligence, rigor, and stubbornness necessary to get anywhere as a writer.

Screening Room: ‘Nope’

Jordan Peele’s Nope opens this week. It’s like Get Out and Us … only not.

My review is at Slant:

In writer-director Jordan Peele’s chilling Nope, a struggling, Black-operated ranch that supplies horses for Hollywood productions faces an additional threat in the form of an extraterrestrial being that likes to suck animals and people up into the clouds. The Haywood ranch is a family-run operation, with OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) doing most of the work with a glum diligence while his upbeat sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), handles the people-interfacing duties. Though the siblings are hardly on the best of terms, when it comes time to face down the alien presence, they unsurprisingly rediscover a familial bond…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Short is Okay

It is easy to confuse length with profundity, brevity with shallowness. The reverse can also be true, of course, but readers frequently believe that an epic-length novel must have some kind of importance, even if it does not always justify its length.

Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 320 pages, give or take) noted this in an interview with The Paris Review. He praised Robert Musil’s gargantuan yet still somehow unfinished multi-volume novel about the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, The Man Without Qualities, calling it “one of the two or three novels that I love most.”

At the same time, he was overwhelmed by its size (one English translation runs over 1,700 pages):

But don’t ask me to admire its gigantic unfinished expanse! Imagine a castle so huge that the eye cannot take it all in at a glance. Imagine a string quartet that lasts nine hours. There are anthropological limits—human proportions—that should not be breached, such as the limits of memory. When you have finished reading, you should still be able to remember the beginning…

Take the time to tell your story. If you think the crucial conversation that highlights everything your characters have been going through needs to be forty pages, then forty pages it is.

But keep an eye on the overall work. Don’t make your readers slog through so much to get to the end that they forget the beginning.

Screening Room: ‘The Gray Man’

Netflix’s next big bet to produce $200 million blockbusters to stream on the small screen is the Russo brothers’ The Gray Man, an assassin-versus-assassin thriller with Chris Evans and Ryan Gosling that shows a sharp drop-off in quality and imagination from the Russos’ MCU movies.

The Gray Man streams on Netflix tomorrow. My review is at Slant:

If all you knew about the C.I.A. was what you saw in Anthony and Joe Russo’s The Gray Man, you would think it was solely devoted to assassination. The entire plot of the film revolves around the psychopathic Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) trying to take out his former colleague, Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling), a.k.a Sierra Six, after the latter uncovers unsavory secrets about the agency, which wants to eliminate every trace of Sierra, a poorly considered program that turns convicted murderers into government-sanctioned killers. If this sounds like the plot of every Jason Bourne film, that’s because it basically is…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Try Anything

Sometimes you just cannot get started. It all feels wrong. You have a story, a poem, a whole book even, inside you. But it won’t come out.

Don DeLillo was once asked by writer Kae Tempest about the accrual of a certain kind of detail:

In your novels, there is a noticing of the everyday that is so perfectly, so tunefully described that something very usual becomes eerie, oppressive. For example, there’s a line from White Noise where you write ‘On telephone poles all over town there are homemade signs concerning lost dogs and cats, often in the handwriting of a child.’ Which is such a beautiful and usual thing to see, but to suddenly be reminded of it in fiction …

DeLillo tells Tempest where that came from:

I was desperate to begin a novel at that point. I guess it was 1982 or 1983. A long time had passed and I wanted to get back to work. And I just started describing streets and signs on poles. I started noticing them, they were always there, but I not only noticed them, I looked at them, thought about them and thought about the people involved. And that’s how White Noise got started…

It can be that simple. Write whatever you can. Get it down in just the right kind of detail. Keep going. Repeat.

Eventually the story will make itself known.

Writer’s Desk: Everything is Material

Gertrude Stein tended to be more known for who she was (holder of literary salons, quotable intellectual roustabout, knower of the famous) than what she wrote. This always bothered her.

She would be irritated that today her profile remains primarily that of an expatriate rebel. But while much of her writing was high-minded experimentation, she still has a lot to teach any scrivener.

Take this aside (and note the similarities between its straightforward simplicity and that of one Ernest Hemingway, who she once mentored) from her novel Paris France:

Familiarity does not breed contempt, anything one does every day is important and imposing and anywhere one lives is interesting and beautiful. And that is all as it should be.

In other words, nothing is inherently literary. It’s all material. Tell it well.

Reader’s Corner: Of Punks, Relationships, and American Anxieties

In my latest graphic novel round-up for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, I covered three new titles which excel in very different ways:

  • Nick Drnaso’s Acting Class is another entry in his series of blank-faced, haunting, Lynchian nightmares about American anxiety.
  • James Spooner’s The High Desert is a thoughtful, cutting memoir about growing up a black punk rocker in the middle of nowhere.
  • Jordan Crane’s Keeping Two starts with everyday relationship tension before spiraling out into something far weirder and devastating.

You can read the reviews at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Screening Room: ‘The Forgiven’

The latest arch provocation from John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary), an adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s novel The Forgiven, opens in limited release tomorrow. My review is at PopMatters:

David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain), are a nightmarish pair who can barely see past their own privilege to stop complaining. “Very picturesque, I suppose, in a banal sort of way,” David notes while looking at a vast desert vista from atop a horse. He then lists the gay Westerners who famously came to Morocco since Edwardian times (Gide, Ginsberg, Burroughs), “primarily to bugger little Arab boys.” The flippancy of the remark, coming just the morning after his drunk driving killed an Arab boy, is hard to stomach but is placed there not just for discomfort. Swaddled in and bored by comfort, the Europeans seem to appreciate nothing. Until one of them has something to lose…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Secret City’

My review of Secret City, one of the summer’s most rewarding history titles, is at PopMatters:

The difference between America’s capital and its other cities, according to James Kirchick’s densely detailed, panoramic, and eye-opening new history Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, was that life in the federal seat of power during the Cold War came with an extra layer of paranoia. That fear manifested as extreme state-sponsored homophobia. Everywhere else in America, gayness was perceived as a threat to various orders (familial, religious) that lived primarily in people’s minds. But in Washington, being gay—or, more crucially, being discovered as gay—was seen as a threat to the very security of the nation….

You can hear an excerpt from the audiobook here.