Friday, December 30, 2011

In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood

I'm a pretty casual reader of science fiction, and I'm sure that to those who are bigger fans of the genre, there's no new insight on it here. But from the get-go, Atwood doesn't pretend it's a comprehensive, or even scholarly, treatise on the scope of science fiction; I sense she's had a chip on her shoulder for a while about three of her novels (The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood) being (arguably) incorrectly categorized as science fiction, instead of speculative fiction, and this book strikes me as her sort of answer to that ongoing debate. Could she have simply tweeted her frustration over peoples' misunderstanding of her works? Sure. But she wrote a book on it, instead, and as someone who could never quite see the appeal of Twitter, I appreciate it.

You get three sections in the book: the first compiles Atwood's discussions on science fiction, from superhero culture to the more speculative side of the genre. The second section is an assortment of book reviews she wrote, and the third contains a few of Atwood's own science fiction shorts. I found the first part to be the most interesting, but again, it probably isn't anything new to someone who is more of a science fiction expert. Would have liked to see her own reading list of sci fi/speculative fiction titles, if only to get a further idea of how she distinguishes between the two (because lord knows I don't need any more titles on my to-read list). But also, I think there's still a lot of gray area in determining what is science fiction (stories about the impossible) and what falls more to the speculative (what is still kind of out there, but in the realm of possibility) side. Extraterrestrial life, for instance, could arguably fall into either category, whereas stuff like robots and time travel are more of a black and white issue (speculative and science fiction, respectively).

You must read this if you're at all a science fiction fan. I'm not and I found it engaging, probably because of Atwood's great (as usual) writing.

2012 Writing Projects

1. Finish at least one (ideally, two) poetry chapbook(s).

2. NaPoWriMo

3. Novella/chapbook, tentatively titled (insert title here), that has overstayed its welcome in my head.

4. Knock out a couple more short plays.

I assume I'll continue to avoid writing another novel. Just haven't had the urge/ideas/motivation, as of late, and I'd rather focus on shorter forms that seem to allow me to look more closely at language, rhythm, word choice, etc. Novel writing doesn't suit my short attention span, anyway. Not sure how I've managed to write four of them.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Rare Species

It's not too common to come across a writer who is in love with every last word they've written; most of them, published or not, detest the bulk of their work. I think it's important, not necessarily to shower your creative efforts with put-downs and mockery, but to develop an objective, realistic outlook on a draft of "that idea that sounded really awesome in my head." And while reading published work is a means of achieving that, so is reading the unpublished work of peers.

I looked over a short story for a friend a while back, which I frequently do for just about anyone who asks; I find editing and critiquing a lot more enjoyable than writing much of the time, and in any case, I think it's an important thing to do periodically if you want to gain a better perception of your own writing.

Others' opinions aside, she happened to think it was a fantastic story, and when I interrupted her from addressing an envelope to The New Yorker to explain the massive (not the word I used with her) amount of work it needed before it was ready for submission anywhere, she employed the also not-so-common "Well, You Just Don't Get How Great This Is" attitude and quite blatantly rejected my comments.

(It should go without saying, but...don't ask for constructive criticism if you're not open to it.)

I like to think I've developed a good sense of objectivity when it comes to labeling a story good, bad, or something in between, and I usually have no problem giving a writer the truth as I see it about their work, when they ask for my two cents. When I say this friend's story was was the kind of thing that would be better off rewritten completely, if not discarded in favor of working on a more promising idea (side note: I think that, too often, writers fall into the trap of writing around an idea instead of letting the idea develop around plot or character. Not to say the former never works, it's just too gimmicky for most people to pull off). So her reaction to my comments was just that much more outrageous. She genuinely thought she was sitting on some golden words (I would say paragraphs, but there weren't any, so...).

Having an obsessive love with your own writing is something I'll never understand. I'm not saying every writer needs to live up (down?) to the self-hating stereotype, but have a little perspective so you can wisely choose what projects to pursue and which ones to abandon or set aside. I've written four novels, dozens of stories, hundreds of poems, and a handful of plays; of it all, I'd maybe single out one of each that I think has any promise as a cohesive, meaningful, engaging whole (none of the plays, actually...just trust me on that one). Have the sense and objectivity to distinguish your duds from your non-duds; otherwise, you could waste a lot of time trying to publish something that's dead in the water.

And (going back to my friend's story, which was the first she'd ever written), once you write your first story, poem, even your first novel, instead of trying to publish it right away, it might serve you better to go back to your desk and write another one. I don't think writers advise that often enough. I'm grateful to have had mentors who insisted I keep writing and building a body of work, instead of trying to run with the first thing I produced. You know, the eggs all in one basket, or some such thing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

2011 Reading Roundup

I didn't read nearly as much non-fiction or as many graphic novels as I wanted to, but the bright side is that I discovered some great writers (Amelia Gray, Shane Jones, Valzhyna Mort) that are perhaps not new to the world, but new to me. And it's been a long time since I've been able to add new writers to my favorites list.

I've also enjoyed shifting over to more small/indie press work (Dancing Girl Press, Mudluscious Books, New Michigan Press), much of which has greatly helped with my own projects. All with the added benefit of supporting small presses, of course.

Stars by my favorites (that all of you must read, it goes without saying). Also, tell me what you read and liked, this year.

*AM/PM - Amelia Gray
*Light Boxes – Shane Jones
Museum of the Weird – Amelia Gray
Scorch Atlas – Blake Butler
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary – David Sedaris
House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski
Bed – Tao Lin
Point Omega – Don DeLillo
Skippy Dies – Paul Murray
The Tortilla Curtain – T.C. Boyle
The Instructions – Adam Levin
Day of the Oprichnik – Vladimir Sorokin
One Hundred Percent Lunar Boy – Stephen Tunney
Hector and the Search for Happiness – Francois Lelord
The Pale King – David Foster Wallace
There is No Year – Blake Butler
The Failure Six – Shane Jones
The Curfew – Jesse Ball
The Last Werewolf – Glen Duncan
Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami
Train Dreams: A Novella – Denis Johnson
Stone Arabia – Dana Spiotta
Someone Like You – Roald Dahl
The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides
*When All Our Days Are Numbered – Sasha Fletcher
1Q84 - Haruki Murakami

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself – David Lipsky
My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands – Chelsea Handler
Beautiful and Pointless – David Orr
Bill Moyers Journal – Bill Moyers
Bossypants – Tina Fey
The Social Animal – David Brooks
One Day It’ll All Make Sense – Common

The Best of It: New and Selected Poems – Kay Ryan
The Romantic Dogs – Roberto Bolano
Moy Sand and Gravel: Poems – Paul Muldoon
*Factory of Tears – Valzhyna Mort
Sixty Poems – Charles Simic
The Door – Margaret Atwood
Circle – Victoria Chang
Slur Ouevre – James D’Agostino
We Take Me Apart – Molly Gaudry
Of Which Anything Consists - Barbara Maloutas

The Book of Liz – David Sedaris

Graphic Novels
Black Hole – Charles Burns
*Epileptic – David B.
Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Other Other Worlds and Other Other Other Worlds

"In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writers offered the real thing; that was their task. In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the battleground so closely that the readers believe it's the real thing. But I don't. I'm not pretending it's the real thing. We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real. The situation is real, in the sense that it's a commitment, it's a true relationship. That's what I want to write about." 
- Haruki Murakami

I've been in the throes of Murakami's 1Q84 since it came out, weeks ago (family building slows your ability to plow through a thousand-page book considerably). I'm enjoying what little time I have with it, though as with all of Murakami's literary worlds, this is one you should immerse yourself in if you want to fully appreciate its rhythm and surreality.

A weird phenomenon occurs, sometimes, where I'll simultaneously take in creative works that have pretty striking parallels, and that's sort of happening now, with 1Q84 and the show Lost, which I just finished watching (oh Netflix, how you hijack my life). The alternate reality playing out in 1Q84 really reminds me of what took place on Lost, especially the triggers that eventually lead the characters to become aware they are perhaps living something other than what they've been fated to live. Whether fate and destiny play into 1Q84, I have yet to find out, but the symbols of some other world, like the dual moons and alternate versions of history, are intriguing, so far.

Something tells me I miss out on a lot of good alternate universe stuff by refusing to read most genre fiction, but then, I'm not as interested in straight-up alternate fantasy worlds that complement a real one (i.e. Through the Looking Glass). The "other reality" is more thought-provoking, the tangent universe-type thing you see in Donnie Darko, for example, where things are just off enough for the characters to take notice and journey to an understanding of where they are and where they're supposed to be. That's a bit of what's happening in 1Q84, and it's fun to see the characters' more subtle shifts in their awareness of something other than their reality as they know it going on.

I need sausage rolls.

Poem in Really System

Really System is a kick-ass journal that published me a while back, and I'm happy to be in their most recent issue again with a new poe...