As is obvious to anyone who visits or receives this little blog of mine, posts fell off a bit last year.
Two years ago, I made a New Year’s Resolution to start a blog, and I posted more than thirty times. Last year, the res (not the one I talked about—that was out the window by March) was to write one short story a month, and I did that through August, which put a damper on the time I had for the blog. Five of those stories I thought worth trying to clean up and sell, bringing the total I was sending round to magazines last year to ten. Early on in 2014, I picked up a pretty steady side job, editing copy for a suite of magazines. I pitched, I don’t know, half a dozen articles that were either too offbeat for the mags I pitched or I don’t know what because I never heard back; three others did get published, two of which I got paid for, which was rad. Between all that, I (finally) finished my first novel. Oh, and I got married.
This year, my plan was to do all of that again, except maybe a little more of that pay stuff, and starting instead of finishing a novel, and having a baby instead of getting married (we’re having a baby! in June!). I’ve officially started querying agents for Cleo, so we’ll see how that goes, and I’ve unofficially started the novel, which I’m fairly confident will go better than the first one. I mean, I can see the end already, so. I have a few other stories in various stages of fits, starts, and disrepair that I think might be okay stories, and more draft blog posts that I even want to count this point. And I’ve been thinking about a new screenplay (it’s basically a requisite of my residence) in addition to the two or three that I’ve always been not working on and meaning to get back to, with and without collaborators. And I’ve started talking to people about how to get a job writing for television. Mostly out of curiosity, and idle commutedreaming of working on a show like True Detective or Mad Men. (OR PEAKY BLINDERS, AMIRITE?!) I don’t even know how which shows work which way, which have a group of people working week to week while shooting goes on and which just go off one dude’s 450-page script. Which is what I’m trying to learn.
Anyway, that’s what my mind wants to do this year. But my brain—that annoying, rational, unimaginative gray blob that has a tendency to break down without sleep or human interaction and that can actually count hours on clocks and maintain some sense of perspective—my brain sets up this continuous, drawn-out scoff, like the drone in Indian music, if you can imagine, that kind of oscillates in pitch to match the varying outlandishness of my mind’s designs and that does not go away, no matter how loud I blast the ’90s punk of my youth or Colin Firth reading The End of the Affair, so that eventually, after I just cannot take it anymore, I say, “All right! Enough!” and listen to my brain.
And what my brain had to say was that these activities and milestones I require of myself are completely arbitrary and my adherence to them is borderline neurotic.
* * *
“Really, Prichard?” I can hear you thinking. “That‘s your big revelation? After 500 freaking words of your plans and fantasies and stream-of-uninteresting-consciousness? That?”
But before you switch channels on me, ask yourself how often you get wrapped up in your own nine-million-branched Tree of Possibilities and forget under the mounting pressure that the tree doesn’t really exist, and it takes some time or some random occurrence or the slightest elevation of a trusted friend’s eyebrow to break the spell and make you go, “Oh, right, that’s a lil crazy”?
Right. That’s what I thought.
It was at this “Gaahh!” breaking point that I stumbled across this bit of, I don’t know if it’s advice, but it’s something, from Chris Parris-Lamb, a literary agent in New York:
and I thought, “Yeah! Ima be a non-platform hermit writer! Yeah!” because basically that’s all I’ve ever wanted and I’m drawn to cosigners of my bullshit like mosquitoes are to my sister’s blood—and you can hear them winging in over the engine’s roar as she’s touching down in any city where there’s been even a single warm puddle of standing water somewhere in the last forty-eight hours. First thing to go would be what is typically thought of as “platform”—this blog, commenting on other people’s blogs, commenting on articles, strategically engaging with Facebook, growing my Twitterscape or -space or whatever the hell it’s called, generally curating a social media “presence”—but I’d also ditch the short stories and essays and articles I’ve been writing not so much to be published for their own sake and stand on their own merits, but rather as a way to “get noticed” and draw the attention of fans, agents and editors just dying for an as-yet-unheard-of debut novel as good as Cleo. Dying, I like to imagine them, like junkies for a fix.
Before I stopped interacting with anyone ever again, though, I had the briefest impulse to talk with some writer friends. You know, that “why don’t you run this little idea past someone who’s maybe dealt with the same thing?” type of gut-check.
The friends I talked to are overachievers like me and just couldn’t bring themselves to jump on my be-like-Walden/Franzen/Nietzsche! train, and they hedged their grudging approval with statements like “Yeah, okay, sure, take a break on the blog till March.”
The way time’s been working in my life lately, March was already yesterday, so thanks for all the breathing room, guys, y’all are great.
Another thing they all said was that the blog is a way to “keep your chops up.” I dismissed that each time with a wave of my “I write fiction every day—my chops, thanks very much, are up” hand. But then I thought about it some more, and they have a point—a point that connects why I got into this whole blog thing in the first place to why you’re reading this now.
It’s one thing to write and write and write away in solitude and obscurity, tinkering and retinkering, putting in and taking out commas, but it’s quite another thing to write for consumption.
I don’t love Stephen King’s novels, and I think his short stories are all right, but his essays are great and his reflections on writing, both the inspiration and the process, are among my favorite. One of the things he talks about among the latter is “the door”:
Nice thought, but not everyone’s stuff “goes out.” In fact, except for the handful of friends who I’ve imposed my fiction on and the editorial interns at whatever magazines I’ve sent it to, my stuff hasn’t really gone out at all. Knowing one’s audience may take time, but firstly it takes exposure. And without that exposure, how does one know who or what is looking in through that open door?
People have been wondering this for a long time, of course, and there are plenty of ways to approximate public reaction: Swap with friends. Do open mics. Join a writing group. Publish on the Internet. I’ve done these things (minus the last, and there’s no way my stories are going up here, so don’t get your hopes up), with varying degrees of success.
Besides paying money for a class full of wannabe romance writers or trekking to some carefully-curated-to-be-shitty coffee shack in Silverlake on a Tuesday night or wrenching criticism from your friends that they don’t really want to give, a person might be able to trick his brain into objectively judging his own writing with The Page 40 Test, a little trick I stumbled across somewhere in the system of tubes. In a piece a couple weeks ago, Michael Bourne, an essayist, short story writer and poet whose work I’ve enjoyed for some time, used a single sentence—the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40—chosen somewhat at random from Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See to demonstrate the author’s “mastery of narrative prose.” This got Bourne thinking, and he started going to that same point in a stack of books.
“Stripping away setting, narrative, and character development,” Bourne writes,
He goes on to share some of his more interesting and revealing discoveries, which in turn got me thinking, and I’ve been starting my days off applying an approximation of this test to my own stuff. I open up a story, pick a random page and line, and then read the sentence that started or ended or was contained within that line. It allows me to see sentences just like Bourne says: out of context. Pinholed. Excised and held up to the light.
We’ve all done close readings of others’ work, and edited our own line by line, but I’ve never done it at random before, and it seems effective—if a little painful. I ran into a couple good sentences and a few good phrases, but mostly what I saw was this nauseating mixture of functional language (“She walked across the room”) and pretentious, overwrought, even, to risk the very thing again, meretricious slop (“the infinite cacophony of his guilt-fevered brain” is something I wrote in what I only wish I could claim was a blackout, but alas was last April). At so many points in these stories, the language is so obviously trying to be something it simply isn’t—meaning I’m so obviously trying to be something I’m not. Or somebody. Or something like that.
So then I’d read around the sentence, the paragraph or the page, and ask myself, “What is this doing here?” After which, mostly, I’d wonder, “What am I doing here?”
The general feeling about writing is that it can take many pages, or even books, worth of it to differentiate between degrees of greatness, but that it only takes a few sentences to know that something’s not any good at all. While I’m hardly saying I’m hanging up my pen based on these kind of out-of-body glimpses into the gears of a handful of my stories—stories that I kind of a hate a little bit right now, because they’re not getting me the attention I think I deserve—I do have a pretty good sense that several of them are pretty much beyond repair. They were written just to be written—hence the uninspired functional language—and/or written to impress—and hence the pretension. They weren’t written, like Cleo was, or like this book I’m starting now, to please me, or to work some somethings out I have no idea how to work out otherwise.
And if I can see that, then anyone looking in at it through some metaphorical door certainly can too.
So I’m not going to waste any more time with them. I’ve been meaning to go back to the drawing board for some time anyway, and I’ve got some ideas for a kind of autodidactical short-story-writing course (anyone interested?), so I mean, why not?
Another way to do this gauging-an-audience’s-response thing is, of course, to do this, what I’m doing now, writing something and hitting publish. And then hoping people come, and hoping they respond, with Facebook thumbs or Twitter stars or comments down below. A lot of times, responses come offline, in texts or emails or conversations sometimes months after the fact.
So the obvious response to the hermit-revelation I bounced off my writer friends is “don’t stop blogging,” even just till March. Yes, I may want to write fiction more than anything else in the world, and yes, any other writing I do, including blogging, takes time away from that. But also—and this was striking when I did the Page 40 exercise—for reasons I think I’ll get into in another post but can be summed up as “I take myself too seriously when writing fiction,” I like my blogging voice better. It feels more natural. And the more I can practice natural, whatever the format or venue, the better, right?
And then maybe, if I’m lucky and I keep at both the things, or all three, or all however many I enumerated above, some of that natural will seep over into the story about a transvestite arguing with Joseph Conrad’s ghost, or the one about a hipster tailor’s broken dreams, or the long one I’m just starting, about a Buddhist pilgrim finding love among the stupas.