quick review–the third policeman by flann o’brien

ThirdPolicemanSuch an odd and strange little book from O’Brien. What I liked: Definitely not a book you can easily categorize. The plot was meandering–more so than At Swim Two Birds–and completely unpredictable. A place wholly away from reality was the setting, and late in the novel we learn the “place” of the novel was a type of hell. Again, a novel reminding me of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks–an exploration of a created place parallel to reality trapping guilty souls. As multi-dimensional as a book can become–an exploration of time, place and dimension. I very much like the spirit behind the line, “A journey is an hallucination.” 


quick note–twin peaks, juan rulfo and spirit world voices

41kI1Ika+jL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_After a long semester of teaching I found some time to indulge in studying the novella Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo. I’ve been an admirer of Rulfo’s career and this book reads as a tremendous progression from his short stories I was introduced to in his book The Burning Plain. What I found in this work is a complex, surreal story of a long abandoned town, Comala, and the stories from the ghosts of the townspeople. The book masterfully shifts from third person omniscient narration to first person narration. The book is filled with ghosts and spirit guides revealing their traumatic stories to the visiting narrator, Juan Preciado. We learn all about the dead city’s heritage from the ghosts of the past. In fact the sometimes narrator and his life aren’t very important to the story and this narrator only acts as a relayer–intermediary really–of spirits and voices from Comala. It’s been a few days and after much thinking and re-thinking on some of the motifs I think the book is simply about voices associated with place and a town dealing with generations of tragedy and grief–how objects and buildings can stand as totems for past traumatic events. How pain and suffering from the most horrible of moral offenses–murder, rape and incest–can stand at the center of entire town’s spiritual demise. The ghosts I found to be eccentric and odd yet always memorable. In fact, the book reminded me of Twin Peaks–David Lynch and Mark Frost’s masterpiece from the 1990’s. The narrator travels to Comala the way Agent Cooper travels to Twin Peaks to find answers about loss and death. From passage to passage I am wondering if the voices are real or  from a spirit world.

twin_peaks_fire_walk_with_me_ver1Recently I rewatched David Lynch’s Fire Walk with Me and I am finding so many similarities between Rulfo and Lynch. We have a small town holding onto psychic pain and suffering as well as intense secrets associated with the death of several young women. The film is filled with flawed and inept investigators who though despite being clever and observant cannot seem to crack the code to the murders as well as the spirit voices guiding them. The “lodge” mythology from the film and the television show are very different but the film has a cosmic and supernatural context I find so similar in the so-called magical realism work of Rulfo.

PS: Excited to see Twin Peaks return next year.

summer reading

Summer is for reading. And I have quite a few books stacked next to my bed. I used to worry about having too many books hanging around and felt bad if I couldn’t finish them all. I’ve since changed that thought. The more books the better.

Here are a few of the books I am working through:


Starting listening to this book on tape at the gym after watching the film trailer on Youtube. I like Ridley Scott and love science fiction. The book reads almost like science writing or nonfiction. Reminds me of Arthur C Clark’s 2001 series. Each section/chapter is a new problem for the protagonist to science his way out of. Also the story of Weir self-publishing the book and then becoming published by a major press is almost as interesting as the book.

255440511.0.mThis one is by Charles L. Adams who taught a course for years on the work of Frank Waters. I loved seeing very early short stories and passages from Waters’ more obscure books. Waters is a writer I’ve admired for years because his work is primarily set in New Mexico and Colorado and I admire the themes of the individual struggling for harmony within surroundings. PS: Found it at Myopic Books in Chicago.

23365123Chameleo is the second book I’ve read from Robert Guffey. I read his book on conspiracy theory as art and found the work to be fascinating. I like conspiracies. This one feels Phillip K. Dick inspired. PS: Ordered this one from Guffey’s Cryptoscatology blog.


The year before last I read quite a few of Luis Alberto Urrea’s nonfiction and last year I finished the the Saint of Cabora and then the Queen of America. This summer I am enjoying Urrea’s border world similar to those of his historical fiction and his creative nonfiction. Also found this one at Myopic books.


I’ve been anticipating this graphic novel sequel to the popular novel. The artwork by Cameron Stewart is gritty and beautiful and the writing actually has surprised me. Set seven years following events of Fight Club Tyler Durden is very much alive and continues to create chaos. Actually he’s more of a villain than the alter-ego. I was also surprised to find Palahniuk himself within the pages of the first issue. And I am enjoying the book though I’ve read a few negative reviews–here for example. Found this one at Escape Velocity Comic Books in Colorado Springs.

film recommendation: a scanner darkly

AScannerDarkly(1stEd)Lately for many reasons I feel I’ve been living inside of a Philip K. Dick novel, so I’ve been rereading a couple of my favorite–Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly.

What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again. I’ll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too.

And Richard Linklater’s film adaptation visualizes Dick’s themes of shifting realities–internal and external–and also shifting identities so perfectly in its animation. It’s funny how today we are reading post-modern novels with shifting narration, and Dick’s work was seen as genre and a lesser form of novel writing back in the sixties and seventies. I’m looking forward to tracking down his so-called “straight” novels.

quick review of big sur feature film


Big Sur may be my least favorite Jack Kerouac novel. While On the Road and The Subterraneans captured youth and restlessness, Big Sur relates the aged, alcoholic Kerouac. And perhaps that is why I don’t enjoy the book. Kerouac’s persona is one of such a broken down writer unable to cope with fame and personal relationships. Kerouac’s obsession with death and the chaos of meeting up with Neal Cassady once again drive the energy of the book.

Michael Polish’s new adaptation is an independent film and therefore nowhere near my Midwest town and so I had to stream from Amazon to my television. Perhaps this is the future of watching smaller budgeted films. The film is so well shot though and gives so many beautiful views of the locale in recreating Lawrence Ferlinghetti‘s cabin near the beach where Kerouac would’ve stayed. The photography is so gorgeous I regret not being able to watch on the big screen.

I most admired the director’s decision to narrate the film with an abundance of Kerouac’s words. The words give the film an energy that matches the book–perhaps more so than Walter Salles’ recent On the Road adaptation.

quick review of junot díaz’ this is how you lose her


I’ve long read and admired Junot Diaz‘ style of prose. I’m almost embarrassed to say how much I’ve modeled my own work after his. This latest collection of work contains all the themes of trouble and failure at its heart. And also the redemption. I continue to admire how the work follows a consistent universe and also how his work stays composite. Overlapping. The voice here feels just as dynamic and strong as his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Drown.

stuart dybek’s the coast of chicago

9780312424251We’re discussing a few stories tomorrow from Stuart Dybek‘s collection The Coast of Chicago. I admire “The Woman Who Fainted” and “Pet Milk” (4:27) and I was happy to find this reading for my Lit 50 students. So important to hear the author’s voice.

I was lucky enough to hear him read years back at Oregon State. I remember he mentioned the stories began as failed poems. And a few years back a former student gifted me a nice hard bound version that was also signed.

the house of order indie reader review

cropped-jaramillo-front-cover.jpgGrateful for the thoughtful review at Indiereader.com:

“…the book is filled with beautiful moments, like shards of broken stained-glass window lying in the dirt. This book will open your eyes to a new way of life and will leave you with haunting images not soon forgotten. A worthy read.” –IndieReader.com

quick review of daniel chacon’s hotel juarez

51NRyxFCCNL__SY346_A few months back I wrote a quick review of Daniel Chacon’s book Unending Rooms. I admire Chacon’s aesthetic and overall writerly choices.  I look forward to picking up his novel and his other work Chicano Chicanery. His work at times is surreal and also thought provoking. I find his work here playful and intelligent. And I’ve been in the habit of reading work that is more composite in terms of plot or character lately but in his work it is also refreshing to see each story linked by idea or abstraction. So does he choose idea over characters? Perhaps, at times, yes. And I’m not sure we have a collection of complete stories. Felt more like fragments but I think that too serves the chaos that is Chacon’s style.

quick thought on the man with the golden arm


Finished reading through Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm and I’ve enjoyed the story of self-destruction. I can see why this book is such a classic. Does feel a bit overwritten at times but Algren’s Chicago is a gritty and dirty place–very naturalistic. I most enjoyed the sweeping third person narration.

a book and a labyrinth

ElJardínDeSenderosQueSeBifurcanRereading Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths this morning. And the idea of a chaotic novel or a novel with confounding paths of time consoles me as I’ve been thinking Semi-Orphaned is a mess of vignettes and scene/organization that spirals. Hopeful that I have found a plan for the chaos.

“No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.”

the house of order in sacramento book review

CoverHappy to see The House of Order featured on the cover of the August Sacramento Book Review!

the house of order writeup in the san francisco book review


Here’s a quick excerpt from the writeup in the August San Francisco Book Review:

Star Rating: 5 out of 5

“Raw and highly emotional at times, Jaramillo’s stories give a realistic look in to the lives of his characters as he presents short vignettes that hint at a deeper family saga. His style is easy to read and his concise wording retains a surprising amount of detail. All in all, The House of Order is a compelling set of stories and should Jaramillo continue to present such fantastic storytelling, there is no doubt he will gain many new readers.”

quick review: orwell’s down and out in paris and london


Drafting and revising semi-orphaned novel project but had some time to finish reading Orwell’s memoir/nonfiction/autobiographical novel about a young writer’s time in the ghettos of Paris and London. He works in restaurants and sleeps in homeless hostels. Pawns his clothes for food and also closely observes the down and out people he encounters. What strikes me most in Orwell’s work has to be his readability and the chapter movements. I’m also struck at his closely drawn character studies of those he encounters–the fat man in Paris and also Bozo in England are the stand outs. One thing that seems consistent throughout his writing is the strong sense of empathy and humanity. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

“Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then what is work? A navy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out-of-doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course – but, then many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout – in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.

“Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? — for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that is shall be profitable.”

quick review: luis alberto urrea’s the hummingbird’s daughter and queen of america

I first read the short fiction of Luis Alberto Urrea in graduate school. The discovery of a prolific Latino author whose work moves so adeptly from English to Spanish was important to my development as a writer. I enjoyed his collection of short stories Six Kinds of Sky and the keen worlds and characters drawn, his humor and surrealist edge. At the time I was struggling to capture Spanish speaking folks and the stories from the old neighborhood of my youth, struggling to make my work less obvious and overtly political. And the influence of his work stays fresh in my mind.

hummingbirds-daughterIn reading Urrea’s most recent novels, The Hummingbird’s Daughter and its sequel Queen of America, I am pleased to find these lengthier works equally representing for me what writing should aspire to be.

Over the course of two novels, set in the 1880’s to the turn of the century, the incredibly dynamic character of Teresita the Saint of Cabora, the Mexican Joan of Arc, rises from abject poverty and abandonment to her place as spiritual leader. Described as a “saint with grit” by Stacey D’Erasmo of the New York Times Book Review, Teresita survives rape, returns from the dead and learns to practice ancient magic, and travels to the United States after the Mexican-Tomochic rebellion. In the sequel Teresita survives as a celebrity of sorts travelling and experiencing the United States—St. Louis, San Francisco and New York City—and she marries and divorces. She also survives a medical industry out to exploit her healing powers. All based on historical events and Urrea’s research.


The most influential aspect of the two books for me though is the form, the lyrical and dream-like passages. The masterful use of third person limited omniscient narration. How the dreamscape that is Urrea’s writing style creates so many varied characters and experiences in an incredibly wide and brilliant spectrum. From field hand, Indian healer, to Teresita’s Mexican landowner father, Don Tomás, to the bandits, cowboys and tycoons, the cast of characters represents the complicated nature of hierarchical class structures at play in pre-turn-of-the-century and pre-revolutionary Mexico. Masterfully, Urrea immerses us in Teresita’s myth across a multitude of voices. I admire the novels’ contrast of authorial voice and character in nearly every chapter, creating this Mexican and American border world from inside and out, and more importantly, in terms of social class, from quite literally the bottom up. (Urrea’s lively and playful performance in the downloadable audiobook versions only enhanced my experience of these distinct voices.)

Ultimately, I have to admit to taking advantage of Urrea’s skill—stealing stratagems of technique once again into my own struggling work. I’m thinking of the author and critic Jim Harrison’s words: “One finds and understands his own voice finally through the voice of others.”

I tell my Midwest community college students that the key to nonfiction is in the facts and that creative nonfiction—as well as fiction—is in the telling. And the power from Urrea’s work perhaps is that he devoted twenty-years of research and study of Mexican political, cultural and religious history as well as struggled with the form. And in many other historical novels or footnoted historical books, the political thought becomes so blatant and relentless that readers stop hearing it. Yet in Urrea’s two novel saga, the insight into Mexican, American Indian and American history, I believe, along with the shifting voices create an inextricable link between human experience, political conflict and historical socioeconomic conflict. Another lesson for writer in the merging of form and content to craft a meaning greater than the sum of its parts.

ernesto galarza’s barrio boy

Reading Galarza’s book Barrio Boy I was amazed at the brilliant memoir of Galarza’s boyhood experience of the Mexican Revolution and segregation in American neighborhoods. I was interested to find a different definition of the term chicano and also I was interested to read about the struggle for work and how that struggle for work drove the family to head north to Sacramento, California. I delighted in the entirety of the literacy narrative and Galarza’s attention to detail and description of his boyhood village and the American colonia he later lived in with his family. I hope to add this book to my proposed Latino Lit course for the Spring 2013 term.

the house of order stories

available now at amazon, barnes and noble and powells

Jaramillo - Cover - Final.inddThe House of Order–stories, the first collection of composite stories by John Paul Jaramillo, presents a stark vision of American childhood and family, set in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

Continue reading “the house of order stories”

jesus’ son audiobook

Last summer I had the chance to sit in a workshop with Amy Hempel discussing minimalism and Denis Johnson, among other writers. I remember folks in the workshop were quoting lines from Johnson’s work. Mine was this: “Sunset had two minutes to live.” And Amy Hempel’s was: “Folks walk around Beverly Hills with their head’s blown off with money.”

This summer finally had some time this week to get through the audiobook version of Jesus’ Son. Yes, I am a nerd and listen with ear buds and follow along in the book. I like to listen to Will Patton–who was a character in the film version of Jesus’ Son not too long ago by the way–reading Johnson’s work. What can I say about this achingly beautiful and minimalist book. I have to reread this book every year. Every few months actually. Johnson follows in the Salinger Zen style of illuminating character and place in so few words. I chase this in everything I work on.

the witch of portabello by paulo coelho

I began reading Paulo Coelho’s 2007 novel The Witch of Portabello because of the Being Latino Book of the Month group on Facebook. This month they’re reading Junot Diaz’ The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I’ve read that book. So when I received Coelho’s book in the mail after purchasing for last months assigned reading for the group I thought why not read. The book is not on Sergio Troncoso’s suggested reading list I’ve been following but I thought I’d take a chance.

What I liked about the book had to be the risk Coelho took with the form. The book is organized around the main character of Athena—we find later they are transcripts from interviews with those closest to Athena. Nothing directly from Athena other than dialogue in other characters’ transcripts/testimony. We learn in the beginning Athena has been murdered and perhaps the interviews are to explore the death and mystery.

What I didn’t like was that the chapters and those characters speak very similarly. They have different perspectives but the language seems so similar. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the novel was translated from Portuguese. The characters were also very overly dramatic and I wonder if that too was due to translation. At any rate the tone throughout is similar and for transcripts they create some pretty detailed scenes and interactions that were hard for me not to criticize. Many of the conversation become in depth philosophical and New Age meditations rather than character studies. I also felt bogged down in exposition—the way I felt overwhelmed by story in Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. The difference being that book is a more unique character study. That has to be my second biggest complaint. My biggest complaint has to be the trick ending. I won’t give this away but the ending left me groaning. The way an episode of a poorly plotted television show makes me groan.

Next time I won’t stray from Troncoso’s suggested reading list.

quick note on the sea is my brother by jack kerouac

I remember Kerouac biographer Ann Charter arguing in the documentary King of the Beats that Kerouac could write in any form and style and that in her extensive study of the man and his work she could see the struggle for a more unique and distinct style. In the Sea is My Brother and also in Atop an Underwood, another pre-On the Road manuscript I’ve read lately, I can see what Ann Charter means. His early work, or “juvenile work” as some reviewers I’ve read have called it, contrasts sharply with his later spontaneous prose style or his more stream of consciousness writing made famous in his classic On the Road. That wasn’t much of a surprise. I was expecting text similar to Town and the City than The Subterraneans. And I wasn’t surprised to see a third person limited omniscience means of perception but I guess I was most surprised in reading the book as to find more themes of brother searching or mentor searching.

The plot shows a very young Kerouac developing themes of friendship and perhaps also themes of the individual choosing more direct experience over the academic or over the intellectual experience. I also thought it interesting that much like Sal Paradise chasing Dean Moriarty in On the Road Kerouac gives us the similar William Everhart and Wesley Martin. William is the bookish and frustrated Columbia English Professor and Martin is the more experienced seaman who entices and convinces the lesser traveled Everhart to sign up for sailor duty. Again as in On the Road we see themes of travel and romanticized world experience—also travel without amenity as romanticized by young men. We also see another trend of Kerouac’s which is to show young men choosing friends, travel and experience—also choosing liquor and excess—over marriage and more secure pursuits. Or as Leonard Gardner calls it in the novel Fat City, choosing the fraternity of men.

My critique of the book is that so many of the conversations seem unnecessarily weighted. Folks drinking and talking about philosophy, communism and socialism rather than more organic and less-telegraphed thematic notes. We see much more subtle dialogue and interaction in On the Road. Again, as in Town and the City I feel like he is trying to be Thomas Wolfe or F Scott Fitzgerald—or maybe even Jack London—by giving important themes in a heavy handed way instead of giving us more natural and spontaneous emotion and dialogue. The sea here is a heavy metaphor whereas the metaphor of the road from later work seems much more effective. Kerouac’s ear for capturing voices and dialogue was evident though. The editor’s note at the beginning of the book is quick to remind that Kerouac sailed with the Merchant Marines and quotes pages from his 1942 “Voyage to Greenland” journal reminding us of Kerouac’s keen eye and ear for observing and his deftly drawn character studies.

In his article “In the Watery Part of the World”, Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal calls The Sea is My Brother a “bad book” and shows the young Kerouac’s “inexperience” and I guess I agree. But I have to say I find the study of Kerouac’s so-called failures and inexperience important in the way I admire reading Salinger’s uncollected stories. (I’m waiting for Salinger’s estate to publish a nicely produced version of those as well as the Hapworth 16, 1924 manuscript.) Seeing a major writer’s flaws can give insight into our own process and failures as well as give a strange encouragement.

quick note on daniel chacón’s unending rooms

Working my way through Sergio Troncoso’s list of suggested Latino authors. I began with Troncoso’s novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust and moved on to Daniel Chacón’s collection of short stories Unending Rooms. This has been a long week of grading final composition and literature portfolios so finding the time to read has been difficult. I’ve been reading late at night and early in the mornings. In many ways I’ve been willing it. The professor I share office space with asked me just today, “How do you find the time?”

And I found the answer in the book itself. Chacón writes:

What if the way we read a book is the way we live our lives? If we can’t stand the reading and are always looking at the bottom of the page, toward the end of the chapter, counting how many pages until the end of the book, surely we must live life the same way, impatient with a walk in the city or with sitting in a garden, waiting only to arrive, never to be. (81)

And this week I wanted to be the person who focuses and reads to escape to explore other possibilities but also to enjoy and understand–to complete. And in many ways I wanted to escape my students’ term papers and my own grading rubrics for some fictive spaces. It’s been a long-term.

And Chacón’s book came at the right time as many of his stories in this fine collection involve fictive spaces—alternate realities of the mind and place we are awoken to and also spaces we find ourselves trapped. But also spaces we can escape.

Chacón also writes: “Reading should be like entering different rooms of a house, creating walls that rise up around you and then dissolve into a mountain range or a tree on a hill” (230). These stories are well crafted and Borges-esque. I particularly enjoyed the Epilogue: Borges and The Xican@. I felt this story or essay or whatever one wants to call it is where I felt closest to the author and empathized with the experience. I also enjoyed the Meta aspect of the story and was fascinated as the author, the character/persona of Danny and Borges himself wrangled over the aesthetic at play in the book.

the house of order stories available now

available now: amazon.com, barnes and noble.com

Jaramillo - Cover - Final.indd2013 International Latino Book Award Finalist–The Mariposa Award–Best First Book–Fiction

“If you like writing that is unpredictable and makes you think, this collection is for you.  These short stories have characters with complex, sometimes depressing, but always fascinating lives.” —Latino Stories.com 2013 Top Ten “New” Latino Authors to Watch (and Read)

“Raw and highly emotional at times, Jaramillo’s stories give a realistic look in to the lives of his characters as he presents short vignettes that hint at a deeper family saga. His style is easy to read and his concise wording retains a surprising amount of detail. All in all, The House of Order is a compelling set of stories and should Jaramillo continue to present such fantastic storytelling, there is no doubt he will gain many new readers.” —San Francisco Book Review

“Jaramillo is writing about working in Southern Colorado farm fields, driving and drinking beer and smoking pot; visiting family members in the state penitentiary; about tattooed pregnant girls, dirty kids in laundromats and their desperate mothers–and the pain-filled list goes on, back through several decades. What saves these stories is the grace in which they are written.”–Mary Jean Porter, Chieftain.com

“Each story in Jaramillo’s collection stands alone, but together they make a powerful combination, with vivid descriptions, realistic characters, and strong emotions that will make readers cry, laugh, cringe and hope.” —Latina Book Club

The House of Order is an enticing read that shouldn’t be overlooked for those looking for a down to earth short fiction collection.” —Midwest Book Review

“These stories find John Paul Jaramillo hitting his stride as an acute observer and chronicler of hard and valuable lives. The writing conveys great warmth and understanding. This is a career to watch.” —Tracy Daugherty, author of One Day the Wind Changed

“Besides the razor-sharp writing which brings even those characters whom we meet only briefly vividly and memorably to life, what compelled me was my affection and concern for the narrator, who sets out to record the stories of his elders, and through them, to understand the forces that have shaped and directed his own experience. The result is a collection of stories that holds together like a shattered vessel, whose fragments have been gathered and expertly glued. Manito himself, battered by drink and drugs and the abuses of combat, barely holds together sometimes — but even at his lowest and darkest, the impulse remains in him to comfort and assist. It’s this that saves him, and that sets this collection apart — and above, in my opinion — less forgiving depictions of people struggling to take control of their lives.” —Jennifer C. Cornell, author of Departures

quick note on troncoso’s from this wicked patch of dust

From_This_Wicked_Patch_of_DustLast week–despite mountains of grading and student conferences–I spent time with Troncoso’s sweeping novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust and found so much to admire.  I admired the form as well as the content. Told in a third person limited omniscient narration the story drops into the thoughts, feelings and questions of each member of a Mexican American family–the children and parents–working and struggling in Ysleta, Texas. The narration hovers above the family and drops from section to section into certain family members thoughts and feelings. I also admired how the story fragments and separates by jumping years in between chapters. Something I work on in my own writing. One week later and the story stays with me. Overall the narrative gave me such a realistic and positive representation of an American family and quite simply it spoke to me. And I’m happy to say I sent Troncoso a quick message on Goodreads stating that and he was prompt in responding a kindly thank you.

This week I’m spending time with Luis Alberto Urrea’s Six Kinds of Sky and hope to have some thoughts soon.

teaching week 5: jim shepard’s “i know myself real well. that is the problem.”

Teaching this essay tomorrow and decided to return to my notes on Jim Shepard’s work:

The second essay from the book Bringing the Devil to His Knees is Jim Shepard’s “I Know Myself Real Well. That is the Problem.” And I haven’t read Robert Stone’s short story Helping in years but I can perhaps see beginning the intro to creative writing fiction course with this one–also I can see assigning Helping along with the essay.

I enjoyed rereading and looking at what my younger self underlined. Back at Oregon State I seemed to be taken with the lines: “It’s not our task, though, to save our characters, however adorable we secretly find them. We should not, in other words, be afraid to withhold consolation.”
I couldn’t help think of the latest version of my story Juanita’s Boys–a story about Lolo’s Tio shunned from his mother’s funeral and how the story ends with him losing at the dog track and crying at the mexican drive in movies after realizing something about the day. A real downer. And I worry that my stories end with character’s failing or revealing delusions and maybe it was from reading Shepard’s essay and so many of Stone’s short stories. Or maybe I just know my family real well. And I’m reminded of the idea that wisdom just never seems to stick to me because I seem to make similar mistakes and Shepard reminds that this is a sign of humanity so important to fiction and believable characters. He goes on to write that what our characters want and need and what they are waiting for is not always the best thing for them. Characters, as in Stone’s Helping, are constantly undermining themselves and revealing their delusions–reaching epiphany and then forgetting which Shepard states is a truer display of humanity than learning a lesson. Shepard writes of Stone’s characters: “We get an unfolding of the mystery of self destructiveness…but not its resolution.” Great stuff.
Perhaps if I begin here with Stone and Shepard I won’t end up with such nice, neat and on-the-noise stories in workshop–and maybe fewer vampire stories–and replace them with messier and more human conflicts.

jacqueline dougan jackson interview

Jacqueline “Jackie” Dougan Jackson is the author of over a dozen books, including three about the family dairy farm in Wisconsin that her grandfather began at the turn of the 20th century. The Round Barn, volume one, is at the culmination of years of dedicated collection, research, and synthesis using family materials, historical sources, and cultural artifacts. In this interview, taped in Jackie’s home in Springfield, Illinois, the author discusses the origins of the book and history of the Dougan farm, the organizational strategies for each volume, and her decision to self-publish. Part two will continue the conversation about The Round Barn books and also delve into Jackie’s long career as novelist, poet, professor, and mentor to dozens of writers.

notes: composite novel, novel-in-stories or just plain stories

I’ve been obsessing over this question for weeks now. What to label the book? I’m putting the final touches together for my first book and after reading more and more on the subject of genre I seem to be more confused than ever. After reading The Composite Novel–The Short Story Cycle in Transition I am more and more informed on how I make fiction and how that fits into a tradition and also into a developing genre—I have a better sense of where my work fits rhetorically. Sort of. I mean I’ve always known I have a sort of disjointed sort of style. I have always wrote smaller stories following the same characters and I’ve always felt these smaller stories as “complete and autonomous” as labeled in the book. Interrelated enough yet at the same time creating a complete whole. Creating a story arc the way a novel would. And I’ve never liked fiction too on-the-nose. I like a rougher feel to the writing. Like punk music or something. But as it comes down to the wire on revisions and I get closer and closer to turning over the manuscript to the publisher I struggle with labeling the work a novel-in-stories, composite novel or just plain stories.

The one guiding organizational principle to the book is thematic but also follows the same characters and quite nearly stays in a similar place. Like Drown or Jesus’ Son and also All My Friends are Going to be Strangers, the books that have inspired and guided me, and they all have a guiding principle bringing the stories together.

The books feature what Chapter 1 from The Composite Novel classifies as the following:

Setting–(all my work takes place in the old neighborhood)

Protagonist–(I follow the Ortiz family)

Collective protagonist–(the family in different time periods and perspectives)

Pattern/patchwork—(identical or similarly themed stories focusing on trouble, problems, work etc.)

And I recognize this in my own work. The telling of a longer story as in a novel with the form of shorter and more disjointed stories making the reader work a bit harder in understanding the time and arc of the overall story. Though the stories do shift from first to third and to a mix of first and third…

More on this as I think of it and finish reading the book.

some thoughts on the rum diary

I’ve long been a fan and admirer of Hunter S. Thompson’s work. I’m also a big fan of literary adaptations and so when a new version of Thompson’s work comes out, especially in wide release, I’m always excited. It began with Where the Buffalo Roam, the Bill Murray, Peter Boyle and Art Linson/John Kaye adaptation way back in 1980. I have to admit I saw that movie before I was familiar with the writing. I remember the “Fuck the Doomed” scene with Nixon and Murray’s Thompson. Really good stuff.

Later I would find out this movie was based on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the CampaignTrail. Two great books I have on my shelf and every once in a while pull and re-read. The last Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film adaptation I saw was of course the Terry Gilliam, Benicio Del Toro and Johnny Depp version. This film was much truer to the book and showed so much of Gilliam’s imagination and wild visions—so similar to Thompson’s surreal take on journalism. And I have to say while I enjoyed that movie—especially the “Wave Speech” scene. I also enjoyed Gilliam’s direction. I mean I’ve been a fan of Brazil, Time Bandits and the Baron Von Munchausen trilogy.

And those movies are wild and surreal but I have to say I enjoy Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail much more. I think the straight story telling of those books—I guess moreso in Hell’s Angel’s reflects a younger and developing writer. And I guess that is what I liked about the novel the Rum Diary. A young writer finding a voice.

Some of the reviews  I’ve read praised Johnny Depp and a straighter, less surreal story. And the movie was much straighter, I have to admit. The novel is straighter. But still reflecting Thompson’ humor and struggle to stay straight and sober in a wildly unjust world. For this novel that surrounding was 1960’s Puerto Rico. Of course the familiar Thompson themes are there—a fight against authoritarian rule and of course fight against poverty and greedy land development. Something I know Thompson fought against his entire life living in Colorado. The most memorable scenes are of Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Paul Kemp finding the true story of Puerto Rico. The poverty and corrupt US government land development. I have to say Rango and this film show me that Depp is a dedicated performer/comedian. Hard to remember so much since he’s so famous and is in some really bad films. I’ve only seen two of the pirate movies and wasn’t that impressed. Haven’t seen the Jolie/Depp movie that critics hated and probably won’t. But Depp really entertained me as a young struggling writer learning the corruption around him. I enjoyed the struggle with debauchery and excess as in all of Thompson’s work. What I didn’t like was what I interpret as making the movie marketable to mass audiences—the female character as sex pot and as a pretty one dimensional character. I think the film cut out some other female characters but the book was written in the sixties. I didn’t like what seemed as Thompson throwing in a bit of his 1990’s knowledge into a 1960’s era book. Things like knowing Kennedy would be killed and a few others. Nitpicking I guess.

I also didn’t like the ending and the final scroll over giving us a mix of the character of Kemp and Thomspon’s life. And I know a two hour film is so different from a 25 or so chapter novel but the third act of this film was a little anti-climactic and “clean” for me despite the R-rating. I mean the book is somewhat violent in the end but this vesion was a bit tame. Not as dark as I remember of the book. I’m nitpicking too hard I guess.

And D said that she thought it would be a bit more about writing and I agree. Oh and Giovanni Ribisi steals quite a few scenes as the alcoholic reporter Moburg.

Oh and found these videos about Thompson’s struggle to get the film made:

reading the ice at the bottom of the world by mark richard

This morning I’m reading the stories from Mark Richard’s book The Ice at the Bottom of the World. I’m doing it because Amy Hempel advised us to do it in her summer workshop and because it came in the mail last week–usually I try not to read so much when I am revising. My first thought, the syntax is unique and rough to get through but the language so unique. Also I love the stories of childhood told in a present tense. Uncle Trash reminds me of Lolo and should get me through the day of sitting and revising.

compulsive ray bradbury

Over the last few weeks I’ve become a compulsive reader of Ray Bradbury. I’d done the requisite reading of Fahrenheit 451 in high school but have no memory of reading. And I’ve had Illustrated Man on my shelf for years also not picking it up since quite nearly high school. I do that quite a bit. Someone asks have you read it? or what did you think? And I give them a blank look. I like to mention to students books that I’ve read though I have only the slightest memory of plot and characters. For some reason I can remember the HG Wells novels I’ve read but not much more when it comes to sci-fi. It wasn’t until a banned book reading a year or so ago–maybe two years ago my memory is strange–that I even thought about Bradbury. And because I want to write more sci-fi or because I want the House of Two Bears manuscript I worked on years back to have more of a dystopian edge I am drawn to Bradbury and his stories. Maybe it was because as a lit teacher we become snooty about sci-fi–we become elitist or so focused on literary fiction that we lose the “genres”. And it maybe because I’ve been reading Junot Diaz’ Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao most of the interview of Diaz we’ve watched in class reveal Diaz’ love for sci-fi–and even his acknowledgement page to that back of the novel shows the many thank you’s to teachers who exposed him to sci-fi novels. Reminds me of all the comic books and sci-fi movies I drowned in as a kid. I remember vhs tapes of poor quality–time travel and futuristic films.

What draws me to Bradbury today is how damn readable he is. That’s the only way I can describe it. As intelligent and as mind-blowing the book Chomsky Year 501 the Conquest Continues, the form just bores the crap out of me. I know that it is non-fiction and it is Chomsky and political and pretty brilliant in relating US history in relations with Central and South America but it puts me right out. Which is why I have it on my table near the couch and now near the bed. The “genres” or the sci-fi from Bradbury engages me and gets me turning pages. I re-read Fahrenheit 451 in days–which is lightning fast for me. Same thing with Illustrated Man. The form is engaging and concise and so energetic. Maybe that’s what I mean by readable. From scene to summary the pace is so elliptical–more so than Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays which is another book I’ve re-read lately and was cause for me to think about what is readable. And I don’t mean it panders tot he read–bradbury never dumbs down the story. In fact the pacing and the trajectory of each story and even in the novel seem to for you to turn the page to find the next direction or trajectory. Each decision and interaction of his characters is so weighted and conveyed so quickly you can’t help but jump on to the next chapter or next section. There was never a place in Fahrenheit 451 where I felt the pace slowed or the digressions wandered too far or strayed. Nothing seemed as important to me as getting to the next plot point–in nearly all of his work I re-read.

These are all thoughts on form–characterization that happens rapidly and deeply. Theme wise the notion on the importance of books for identity instead of the electronic culture or the distractions of popular culture is so powerful and somehow has entered my life after re-reading. Devices and or technology consuming or confusing identity–destabilizing self rather than creating a stronger sense of self. Wonder what he thinks of books on devices like the kindle or iPad. My thoughts are random but I’m more and more interested in the form and meaning of Bradbury’s writing.

fictive spaces and frank waters’ otherworlds

I should be reading the sixth essay in Bringing the Devil to His Knees. I still want to get through that book but the brain of school has me and I also wanted to finish up the Frank Waters memoir I’ve had on my desk for months. Interesting that the last two books I’ve read have been memoirs of writers I admire rather than fiction. I’ve been rereading my own fiction but can’t get vested in longer narratives lately.

And this summer I became so interested in the six armed cross at La Garita this summer in Colorado.  I was so taken by the cross. So when I read about Four Corners and read about Taos and Waters’ life traveling around Colorado and New Mexico I had to finish the book. First it made me homesick for Colorado and then it gave me some ideas for another writing project—or rather an old project I’d like to return to. I thought about why I write fiction in the first place. Why anyone wants to create fictive places or imaginary worlds. I thought about how I could add a bit more of the surreal into the writing—more strange dimensions to the writing.

Here is what Waters’ has to say about the cross—and as he writes cross I can’t help but think of the cross on the map the borders make marking the Four Corners area—and the meaning of the cross to the Hopi people and their migration across the continent in their creation myth:

The cross is one of the oldest and most universal symbols known to man. The center point always has been profoundly significant. For if the four arms of the cross extending in opposite directions represent division and conflict, their point of intersection signifies reconciliation and unification. Regarded another way, the horizontal arms represent linear, secular time, the vertical arms represent durational, eternal time. At their intersection they merge into one unbroken timeless time. The center point, in effect, is the meeting point between the conscious and the unconscious.

Anyway, to the Hopi the place and the cross represents the search for spiritual unity—the outer and inner movement of all humanity. Like the Ute or the Hopi concept of space I have been reading from Frank Waters’ book Of Time and Change. A place is neither two nor three-dimensional but four. In the San Luis Valley—New Mexico and Four Corners place in the country—finite concepts of time and space seem inadequate. And of course this reminds me of fictive space…a continuum of time and space…

Anyway I’d like to return to this concept in a piece I wrote called House of Two Bears—a story that follows the Abuelito or where I follow the Abuelito through some of his crazy stories in fiction. I also like the idea in Hopi religion—the idea that if you have a great loss in one of the four worlds you can move on to the next and look for reconciliation. And only in fictive spaces can I follow the Abuelito through time and space. And like Frank Waters notes in his memoir–some people from the southwest just seem more in tune to those “otherworlds”. So maybe the Abuelito was in touch and so maybe I can in a small way get in touch with those otherworlds” via the fiction.

sixth essay: joan silber’s “weight in fiction”

Spent a few nights revising course syllabi for the upcoming spring term so I wandered away from my goal to read through Bringing the Devil to His Knees. And I did want to finish before the term but the brain of school and work is here so I’ll press on, and perhaps this will inspire me to create some new material for the new writing group I’m joining next week.

Anyway, I want to quickly recap what I’ve read: the last two essays–Steven Schwartz’ “Finding a Voice in America and Chuck Wachtel’s “Behind the Mask: Narrative Voice in Fiction”—gave some great insight into the authority within fiction of the subjective voice. Tonight I’m looking at Joan Silber’s “Weight in Fiction” and struck with the idea of appreciating work that is “miniature” and yet not “slight”. Silber gives the example of Jane Austen and how her fictive spaces are placed in “a distinctly limited sphere”—narrow range of event I think is meant by this—and yet at the same time concerned with universal truths. And according to Silber’s analysis, Austen accomplishes this with “authorial ‘telling’”. This is something we came to in workshop last term—the idea that yes showing is better than telling but at times you need to control moments of telling to control limits and pace of story. And another tool Silber credits to Austen is the idea of consequence—characters making ineradicable decisions concerning their futures. Great stuff. I won’t make fun of D for watching all those Jane Austen adaptations she’s always pulling up on Netflix.

I like this idea of mundane worlds, actions and events—as in the everyday banality of life—and then to assign rank and meaning within those worlds, action and events. I think I wrote about this Stanley Kubrick documentary where he obsesses over the mundane details in his film–mundane dialogue and mundane moments that add up to or perhaps leap to overall meaning. Contrasts Silber resolves at the end of the essay. Contrasts that become so important for the writer’s intuition with form must tackle as stories are formed.

More on this as I think of it…

salinger and chuck wachtel’s “behind the mask”

Took a few nights away from reading through Bringing the Devil to His Knees to reread Paul Alexander’s biography of Salinger. I received it as a holiday gift and wanted to reread because New Years Day is Salinger’s birthday and also because it helps me reconnect with Salinger and his material. The work means so much to me and also I admire Salinger’s progression as a fiction writer–much more than the rumors, his legal trials and personal troubles. And as I read I thought of planning a special topics course on Salinger since I have his uncollected stories from Will’s Salinger special topics course. I’d love to follow the uncollected stories again that show his growth and tries at marketable stories and then later stories that give depth of meaning and spirituality which all shows such a growth in his art. Perhaps one day soon but I do want to develop a Latino Lit course.

Tonight I focus on Chuck Wachtel’s essay called “Behind the Mask” and see so many similarities to Steven Schwartz’ essay. Maybe that is why I didn’t underline and annotate much. I was most engaged after rereading Wachtel’s opening and how his family speaking a mix of Italian and English along with the grunts and familiarity of language that comes from an old married couple and how all this helped to build his sense of voice. I couldn’t help but think of the Abuelitos and how they spoke a mix of Spanish and English. Language of intimacy is the classification I’m most focused on in Wachtel’s essay. Wachtel writes: “In fiction it is voice that transforms a series of sparse and diminutive symbols, combed into a narrative discourse, into a dynamic, ongoing reflection of experience…When we read, voice is the most immediate and authoritative presence.” He goes on to explain that this notion of voice precedes, or rather should precede, character and setting and image and ideas. He also goes on to state that this idea of voice and how it is the bare essential that famous writers such as Kafka, Gertrude Stein and Becket and exist as the persona of its speaker. The presence of the narrator but also the presence of the author/writer/artist. Then Wachtel asks how these personas or identities can affect a reader so deeply?

He then begins to throw out answers. First he writes voice is a literal and figurative expression. It is real and also a creation/metaphor. Voices then must be read and heard. Then he begins to discuss sources—quoting EL Doctorow and the idea that we must find voices from outside of fiction and also outside from ourselves to bring to fiction. Great stuff and I am thinking perhaps this might be a great place to begin in a creative writing class. I think this because so many of my students create stories but perhaps don’t see how their stories and ears for language can be dragged into their fiction. They do it in creative nonfiction but then move on to vampire and sci-fi stories and horror rather than bringing voices from Illinois into their stories as I try so hard to bring voiced from Colorado into my stories. Lived and observed life coming together within fiction is how Wachtel puts it. Great stuff.

Then he moves on to persona and the idea that the authority of the narrator’s voice is the first thing readers see and becomes so important. He says the voice/persona is “both an immediate and continuous source of meaning.” He uses Toni Cade Bambara’s narrator from “The Lesson” as an example. The world here in this story—and in her entire collection Gorilla, My Love I would argue creates the world, the fictive space and because the voice is unique and encompassing it creates unique authority.

More on this essay soon…

fourth night of notes: steven schwartz’ “finding a voice in america”

Tonight I am taking a look at the fourth essay of Bringing the Devil to His Knees–the Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. And apart from the essay I am seeing just how slow my reading process can be at times–almost as slow as my writing process. I have such a stack of books on my desk and I received another one the other day I won’t be able to look at for a while. And I still have Diaz’ Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to read over and create some study questions for next week.

Anyway what I am thinking about right now is how this is the second writer in this book to recount anecdotes from fiction workshop. Schwartz talks like so many writers I know. In workshop the language we use to classify or investigate problems becomes so fuzzy–rhetorical wrangling where we search for ways to explain our concerns and criticisms in a classroom/informal atmosphere is so funny to me. Silly. But you have to be silly to tell stories and sit in a workshop and wrangle. But Schwartz introduces ideas and concepts that came from his experience as a student writer in workshop—concepts seemingly so abstract such as ‘focus’ or ‘voice’—and it is always interesting for me to read how the workshop format confounds and yet also leads writers to think powerfully about their writing and writing in general. And again I am heartened to see the questioning of voice which is Schwartz’ focus here stemming from workshop concerns and questions. I like the idea of a student reading and perhaps relating to the author’s method and perhaps apply that to their own thought process. Especially since a major concern in many workshops I run turns out to be how do we relate what is said in workshop to powerful revision. So again I like the anecdotes showing a writer doing exactly that—relating and struggling with concerns from workshop into the formation of a precise thought to enhance aesthetic—the randomness of comments turned into self-instruction. This is something I struggle with myself after years of workshops.

Also I am struck with the sentences I was focused on years back. I seemed particularly taken with the line: “In fact, voice had less to do with style than with content.” And also a paragraph later I was taken with the sentence: “Voice to do as much with sensibility as with sound.” And again I am taken with how Schwartz struggles with these abstracts given to him as pronouncement from workshop leaders. I like the idea he struggles with how voice and the advice from workshop can help a writer work a better story. He goes on to quote Margaret Atwood and Flannery O’Connor and thoughts on their ideas concerning voice and how it transcends—how a ‘single voice’ in literature can come from listening to Americans speaking on porches and backyards. How writers mimic and observe as much as they create. I can again see another line that struck me: “The author’s single voice hides in many smaller ones, cleverly so and repeatedly…”

I also liked the contrast Schwartz gives. Listing writers such as Tom Stoppard who rarely think of voice but rather choosing to enforce “distinctions of character.” Writers who choose to express ideas and perhaps worry less about how something is said or who says it. But Schwartz notes that writers experiment with voice and words and language and this is essential in revision—not having voice but finding voice within the work. Whatever sounds good fits. Truth should conform to music perhaps Richard Hugo would say. Schwartz concludes in one section that voice “creates and perpetuates itself.”

Schwartz then goes on to reflect on writers—American writers and their distinct and successful works. He writes that a writer’s voice is their work. So he lists Salinger, Faulkner and Hemingway. He ends with a passage from Ray Carver’s “Cathedral” and how the intent of Carver’s voice comes through. And quickly I want to say I’ve been thinking about Hemingway’s hardboiled language in contrast to Salinger’s sensitive and maybe even overly sensitive voice that comes from characters and narrators. How each of these authors represent so much of what it means to be American—the idea of Marlon Brando or James Dean contrasted with Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. I think in these terms as I draft and as I revise because my Tio was tough and yet so fragile in condition and action and I want so much to portray this—men tough to friends and coworkers and yet so fragile with family and loved ones. I also am thinking how friends of mine mimic movie dialogue and funny phrasing from conversations observed/ taken from around us.

Anyway, I am tiring and losing strength in my eyes and focus in these notes but this essay seems like a great place to begin with my students in terms of introducing sensibility…a place to introduce stories from Salinger, Hemingway and Carver so as to springboard ideas from Schwartz. Oh and I did re-work “Juanita’s Boy” yet again—tweaking language and plot points—and so perhaps reading and classifying ideas from this book perhaps might be working for my revision.

where’s iago? by susan neville

Vonnegut has come up again and again to me the last couple of days–his novels at the used bookstore I decided against and the interview with his wife on cspan at 3am that made me regret–and I find him once again as one of the catalysts to Susan Neville’s essay “Where’s Iago?” I’m still trying to get through the book Bringing the Devil to His Knees the Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life–re-visiting my annotations and highlighted portions made years back at Oregon State. And in this essay Neville recounts a late night Vonnegut call where he asks her a fact check question. He also asks her how ‘her’ novel is coming and she replies “It’s a mess.” He then gives her the problem with her novel without reading a word. He says “Where’ Iago?” And with that sets her thought process regarding evil as a character in fiction and evil as a force.
I was taken by the lines: “I’ve thought a lot about Iago, about how and why Iago might be a tool that helps create structures that are level and true, buildings strong enough to hold imaginary lives.”
I was also taken with the idea she never questioned Vonnegut in the phone call and yet this essay becomes her question and resolution. I also like the idea how Vonnegut becomes a force similar to Iago in a sense.
Oh and I was also taken with how she labels Vonnegut an architect and how she labels herself as someone better with materials than the design. This heartened me in my own thought on writing as expression and not communication.
More specifically to her thesis here I also enjoyed the idea we as writers should focus on evil as ‘the lie’ in life and so in fiction that creates the illusion for characters. The Iago of the fictive space “makes the conflict real”.
It seems in my fiction and my manuscripts Lolo–and Cornbread Baca too I suppose–acts as my Iago acting and reacting in a very human way to the world around him. He’s my trigger or my tool to create urgency. She also goes on to resolve: “Something needs to cause those tensions to erupt into time. This day, this story.” And so something has to expose the illusion and the Iago character or force should do that, creating the “hard truths” that make fiction satisfying. Well, my notes are breaking down and I’m tired. I’m sure I’m not doing this fine essay justice. So I’ll stop there for now and I hope to get to the next essay soon…

richard russo’s in defense of omniscience

A few posts back I mentioned how I wanted to read through my tattered copy of Bringing the Devil to His Knees edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi and while on holiday break from school I finally have the time and energy to reread and give some sort of classification and summary to this fine collection of essays on creative writing. I also hope to switch from the Burroway text to this one soon so hopefully these notes/blog entry/random thought will be a beginning to that idea. And also I am also back to the brain of Colorado and I am experimenting with the WordPress Blackberry app. And so the first essay by Richard Russo on the subject of omniscient narration has my thoughts racing on how to apply his thoughts to my work. First, Russo mentions that omniscient narration “is a mature writer’s technique.” I am 36 and find myself worrying at the completion of this essay if I have the skill and “authority” and “knowledge” as well as the “imagination”–this is how Russo sees it. I also like the metaphor of omniscience as driving with a stick shift as opposed to an automatic he uses throughout. I like the way he describes omniscience as a way to see a character internally and externally which is something I wrote about recently on Donoso’s Hell Has No Limits. And I like the way he mentions and somewhat criticizes Catcher in the Rye as well as the Great Gatsby as work that both perhaps could have benefitted from more omniscient aspects. Specifically he writes that Catcher was richer in style than substance and he writes Gatsby strains from the first person anchor. These are books I think of in terms of form with my own work. Highland stories was my mfa thesis and though I styled it mostly after Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son I thought of Catcher and my beloved Salinger and the idea of narrator as character and in my draft of Huerfanos and Little Lolo Stories I thought of Gatsby and a first person family member or friend writing about the past family events and crash sites as the narrator in Gatsby writes about Gatsby. And I can say that my work perhaps has begun more and more to lean towards omniscience narration. I also like the idea in his worry of making hard work even harder–the idea that complex stories don’t always need complex form but we must realize as writers we must give ourselves permission to take risks. So perhaps I can now go back to my drafts and consider worrying less of showing versus telling and allow myself to tell with knowledge and authority rather considering limits. Perhaps I will also check out his novel Nobody’s Fool which is the work he mentions in his last paragraph as being his bringing of first and third person narratives together. I also want to revisit Steinbeck’s Cannery Row which is another novel he uses examples/excerpts from.
And as I type I know these notes of Russo’s essay are pretty weak and I hope to come back to Russo’s essay but for now I do want to read through the book at least reading one essay a night and posting some thoughts every night again as I have a bit of time on holiday break. So tomorrow I have Jim Shepard’s essay “I Know Myself Real Well. That is the Problem.”

on the road movie

Photos: Kristen Stewart’s ‘On the Road’ movie set in Gatineau.

A student mentioned to me this term that On the Road was being made into a movie. I think he also mentioned the movie would be directed by Francis Ford Coppola. But I have some time on my hands as I am motivating and resting myself up to grade this next week, so I’ve been reading IMDB and found that Walter Sayles is directing currently in Canada. I do remember Sayles directing Motorcycle Diaries about Che Guevara’s youth. And I thought that film was very thoughtful and filmed well when I watched it from Netflix last year.

 And I have to say the photos I found look interesting. Choked me up a bit to see Sal and Dean. I don’t recognize any of the actors which I think is a positive for the movie–using unknowns, I mean. But this book that I teach in my novels class means so much to me–not as much as Dharma Bums or Desolation Angels which are books I read in the lowest point of my life and such a nice contrast to the hard-boiled Lost Generation books I was reading in highschool. But On the Road means so much to me–Kerouac who I’ve written quite a bit on this writing blog–means so much to me I almost don’t have the words as I watch some of the photos. I do hope they handle the material with care.

maxwell’s so long, see you tomorrow

I’ve written about the achingly beautiful book by William Maxwell before but tonight my students will be concluding their Lit 111 experience with this book–the last lecture anyway. This will be our final discussion before they head off to complete their term papers and prepare for their presentations. I hope I can convey to them what a crafted and original book Maxwell wrote. And lately I’ve been revisiting Maxwell’s short stories as well as his novels and more and more I admire how keen the voice and dialogue predicate midwest life. I’ve only been in the midwest for a short time but I sense that even though New York City and Chicago played a major role in his work and development as a writer, the small town midwest was still his home.

I most admire the slow movement from first person to omniscient narration–so subtle and flowing you almost miss it. Last night I found myself choking up over the character of Trixie, Cletus’ dog in the novel and her means of perception late in the book. I also admire the metaphor of the house as memory and his allusion/reference to Giacometti’s palace at 4am. I think of this as I question a relative about the past or I imagine I’m re constructing my own character’s memories and lives. Hope to have more blog posts on this writer and this book soon.

some books to read

D and I talked about putting together a kind of reading list for one another because we are always telling each other to read this or read that. We’re finally going to have some time in a few weeks to read something beyond readings from our course syllabi. And D reads so many books I’m sure she’ll out read me very quickly. And I’ve been following the idea that I need to write more than read and I want to follow that but perhaps I can find some time to read and investigate other story telling techniques. I’m hoping to hear her suggestions soon but here are a few I’m suggesting for her:

Play it as It Lays–Joan Didion

Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao–Junot Diaz

Revolutionary Road–Richard Yates

Ceremony–Leslie Marmon Silko

Angels and/or Resuscitation of a Hanged Man–Denis Johnson

The Man Who Killed the Deer–Frank Waters

(All of these I can lend as I have them on my shelf and I hope D can do the same.)

fat city

I’ve been obsessing over the novel Fat City and the film Fat City over the last couple of days. I should be reading So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. I should be grading my Lit students’ second formal essay. But instead I am rereading scenes and watching scenes from the film. The film follows the novel so closely. And I even went so far as to copy ch 19 for my creative writing students because I believe it represents exactly what Tracy Daugherty advises in his essay “A Character’s Skin”. And I know I’ve written about this book before–many times. And I’ve written about the Denis Johnson essay about Leonard Gardner and his fine novel and his fine screen play that John Huston turned into a very understated film–understated is how Netflix describes the film and you can watch it immediately if you have a Netflix account. The film is very subtle and slight in its meanings/themes. And I’ve taught this book in a couple of my novels class and right now I regret not having it on my reading list for next Fall but perhaps next Spring.

What I love about the book is the third person narration and the very concise/brief chapters–also the very precise narration. Denis Johnson in his essay admits to obsessing over Gardner’s paragraphs and the form–something I can’t but obsess over myself. I rarely read books that I obsess over as much as ch 19 of Gardner’s book–the interactions and the shifts into omniscient narration. The achingly beautiful relationships between Billy Tully and his doomed relationship with Oma. Like Johnson, as soon as I read I picked up my notebook and drafted the Notorious Cornbread Baca and the places of my youth in Colorado–imagining the places from Baca’s youth.

Now I obsess over the film and the locations and the peripheral players–showing Huston’s keen eye.

tracy daugherty “a character’s skin”

I’m thinking about this fine essay “A Character’s Skin” by my old mentor Tracy Daugherty. I’m also sitting here wondering how my students will react to his ideas concerning characterization. I’m hoping they will also have ideas on how it relates to the selections from Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson I also gave them. And as I reread Daugherty I am reminded of how much the essay influenced me in my writing fiction. How it instructed me.

And as I think of it now I am unsure when I first read this essay–I guess the first year of graduate school–but definitely I can remember how it influenced my writing and how it made me more thoughtful on the process of writing. Now I must’ve read about filtering as explained in John Gardner’s Art of Fiction or in Burroway’s Writing Fiction and I must’ve thought of it as an error and something to avoid. But it wasn’t until this essay and some lectures from Daugherty and a couple of individual meetings in his office did I finally realize this. And this essay and the language and Daugherty’s language and his metaphors. Specifcally his metaphor of writing fiction or writing a character as utilizing language to find “the heart of the character” from “the inside out” and also the metaphor of “the skin” of the character. The line that always gets me: “Language, after all, is the only skin a fictional character has.” Just the idea that the building of meaning and theme can overlap and hurt the building of character always helps me with revision.

Again, before this essay, I thought writing was something based on detail and of course skill by the author. And I still believe it is. But I guess at that time I was just starting to understand coming back to a draft and a character again and again. At the time I thought fiction was a process of getting down the best you can and then tweaking. But if you didn’t nail it you produced an entirely another draft–perhaps I felt writing was an all or nothing process. This essay reinforced to me how revisions should not be more fuller “explanations” of characters or control of details but rather revisions were the struggle to capture more accurate “experiences” of characters. To capture better experiences for the reader. And this is very similar again to what I had read in Gardner or Burroway but it was an effective analagy and I felt it was one of the rare times in my life I feel I had an aha! moment in my work.

I remember his other lessons. I remember writing them on the draft of the essay he gave us and I can see how it is still on the drafts I give my students. The list: 1. focus on interaction; 2. focus on dialogue; 3. balance scene and summary; 4. limit qualifiers and adjectives; 5. find the character’s skin or rather find the heart of the character aka don’t filter. I put these up in my apartment on a notecard. And #4 was the key for my writing. It opened up my thesis and opened up the character of Manito in my stories. I returned to those failed drafts with more of the idea of wanting to have the reader experience Lolo as I had experienced Lolo. To lighten up on theme and even plot to some degree. To replace the focus on me as a writer and how clever and talented I was and switch to focusing on the experience of the character. A subtle difference but an important one. Also a much more daunting task for revision. As Daugherty writes: “There’s a subtle, but enormous, differnece between filtering and detaisl through a character, and actually seeing through a character’s eyes.”

More on this as I think of it…

didion’s minimalism

In my lit course we’ve been reading Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays and there is so much for the young writer to learn from this book. I have to preface this review or response or whatever you want to call it by saying I’m a writer and not a literary critic. Mostly I appreciate form and not meaning.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines literary minimalism–because I couldn’t find a good definiton in my literary handbook:

  • Literary minimalism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description. Minimalist authors eschew adverbs and prefer allowing context to dictate meaning. Readers are expected to take an active role in the creation of a story, to “choose sides” based on oblique hints and innuendo, rather than reacting to directions from the author. The characters in minimalist stories and novels tend to be unexceptional.

 And as Didion gives us in her essay “Why I Write,” I am not very good at writing in abstracts so I’ll try to explain specifically how this book is motivating me tonight after a pretty decent discussion with my students last night. Like me they found the book dark and sinister–the themes of male dominance over the main character Maria. They also enjoyed the form which is truly why I admire the book. So spare and nearly as barren as the desert Maria drives through to reach her husband, Carter. Instead of a long and drawn out narrative as in other books we’ve read–and I’ve just finished Love in the Time of Cholera this summer and that book does have an overly sense of telling rather than showing–and this book and its 83 chapter–scenes really–are so spare they are incredibly rigorous to read. Some chapter requiring a few reads to gain footing concerning plot and in some cases even dialogue tags. It is almost as if the technical is Didion’s focus here and not character or plot. In fact we learn the most of Maria and not the men running around her, which perhaps is Didion’s point.

And her is some quick research on minimalism I wanted to throw up here. According to Chuck Palahniuk in his essay “Chasing Amy” where he praises Amy Hempel for her minimalism, Tom Spanbauer classifies minimalism to four components:

  1. Metaphor: develop recurring metaphors for reader to interpret
  2. Burnt tongue: Force reader to read close, twice
  3. Recording angel: narrator without passing judgment
  4. Writing on the body: tasty, smelly and touchable details—give reader a physical reaction

This applies so completely and closely to Didion’s text it is as if Spanbeaur is speaking of Didion. In Didion’s novel the theme of evil is given to us throughout in the physical fear and finding of snakes. Maria’s existential dread comes to us in the character trait of dreading snakes. But not only snakes–snakes who the universe or mother nature has decided should be venomous but having the traits of non-venomous snakes. 

Didion writes:

  • “Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask. I never would, not anymore.” 

All giving us the problem of evil as a recurring motif in the book but in such economy. The idea that the universe is amoral and can strike at you in the everyday at any moment is another recurring theme. This the second paragraph of the book and reaches a note another writer would’ve taken pages to reach.

More on Didion to come as I finish rereading this amazing book…

gorilla, my love

Some random thoughts on Bambara: I haven’t been able to teach an ethnic lit course for a while but I am glad to have the opportunity again. After Tancredo’s ridiculous call for literacy tests this last week and also the crazy comments I hear from my students in the hallways I can’t think of anything more important at my school. Sadly we only have one ethnic lit course a term offered though I wish there were more. Also to spend three hours a week talking about Sherman Alexie and Luis Valdez is an incredible opportunity. Shared experiences I admire so much.

The demographic of my school does not quite match the demographic of the town of Springfield and so I feel the course is necessary. Crucial for more aware and well rounded students. Recently I read that only 9% of college professors are Latino and so I feel needed somehow. Like my degree is needed too. Hard to explain. I rarely feel needed in my work. But I feel I have a perspective somehow needed in the midwest.

And because of this course I have been able to return to the writing of James Alan McPherson and of course Toni Cade Bambara. I think I first read Toni Cade Bambara at Colorado State in an intro to lit course. The first time I read the short Gorilla, My Love was in that course. I’ll never forget how it reminded me of my sister and how we always felt duped by the adult world around us. The way I always distrusted adults who seem to throw us away as kids. And as I revisit Bambara’s work I am more and more impressed by the use of dialect and of course the resistance her characters have to institutional education and the seemingly false reputation of institutional education. The idea that school and college will save us somehow.

And of course the dialect and the aesthetic of presenting such a real-world language matches concerns I have of representing the spanglish or mix of english and spanish I grew up with. I obsess over this in my own work. The risk of pushing away an audience. I can’t get out of my mind an editor who wrote me the following: You can’t expect our readers to know what this means. No one I knew spoke the spanish I learned in spanish class and like Richard Hugo suggests that language means more to me than it ever could to a reader. It has to. It also reminds me of how no one spoke correct grammatical english at school or at home.

This perhaps illustrates the connection between Latino representation and the representation that occurs in African-American authors’ books. Representation and even a celebration of how people actually speak. I talk about representation that occurs within the literature more than I talk about the stories. I can’t help it I like form. The voice is so unique to me and so real. Very similar to the voice that happens in Junot Diaz’ collection Drown and of course the voice within Susan Lori Parks Top Dog Underdog. I’m talking about creative literacies that represent how language is much richer in neighborhoods than in schools. 

Also maybe I love the work because of her focus on the oppression of youth as in Salinger’s work. As in Tobias Wolff’s non-fiction work. I also like the way her characters–always young girls–don’t take shit off no one.

Dana Gioia writes that as teachers we should be honest about what we read and what we love. To be honest about what speaks to us as writers as well as readers. And I have to say her stories speak to me more than Hemingway, Woolf or even James Joyce.  The so-called classics.

joanna beth tweedy interview

Some news: D and I interviewed and filmed an interview with Joanna Beth Tweedy author of the novel The Yonder Side of Sass and Texas. She discussed her novel and finding a publisher as well as the use of dialect/patois in her fiction. Also we discussed her founding of the Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program. We should have that edited and up on the LLR website in a week or so.

Jesus’ Son and the Highland Stories

jesus-son-storiesI remember the first time I found Jesus’ Son. I was living in New York State, in Saratoga, on the campus of Skidmore University and my friend Hanvi had a box of books in the back of his Monte Carlo. It was a new car but it reminded me of my Uncles Monte Carlo. Hanvi told me to pick some books out of the back and read them so we could talk about them. He had them scattered along with tire irons and his clothes he kept with no suitcase.

He opened up the tiny book and opened it up to Steady Hands at Seattle General and recited the dialogue. He told me it was such a simple, little book and yet so subtly crafted. He told me about how the book affected him and got him writing.

Now that whole time there I had only read one ofHanvi’s stories and it was about the room he rented and the woman who rented it to him and how she wouldn’t let him drink or have women over after dark. After that we drove around that summer looking for cheap diners and bars to write about and because we didn’t have very much money. I remember we stayed until closing time at this little bar playing pool and talking about the book and how we wanted to be writers. I was on scholarship and only had a certain amount of cafeteria passes so I had to plan out my meals ahead of time and couldn’t afford too many drinks. Hanvi rented his own room instead of a dorm room and also had to plan out his meals and money as well.

One afternoon while I was waiting for Hanvi to pick me up for a trip into the city I sat and read Denis Johnson’s book from cover to cover. I remember it rained often that summer and the campus of Skidmore was large and mysterious to a young kid from Colorado so I sat and read while it rained. It’s not very long and you can read it pretty much in one sitting. I was struck by the dialogue and the terse descriptions. I was surprised how much it spoke to me and reminded me of some of the kids I went to school with.  

Later, when I lived in Oregon, I sat and tried to explain to professors and thesis advisers how much the book meant to me. I even brought it up in my thesis defense at the encouragement of Jennifer Cornell. I spoke on how the book made not only want to write but it made me feel it was okay to write–that stories like mine and my Tios could matter. That fuck-ups and problems in families could be art–could be learned from. I’ve researched Johnson and read most of his work since then. I’ve taught his stories to creative writing courses and offered up his writing to friends. D even told me today while in Barnes and Noble just how surprised she was she liked the book and the main character, Fuck Head, and how the stories affected her.

A few years back I read in Rollingstone Magazine how the book was one of the most authentic drug related books that had credibility and power. It told a story that happened to be about drugs instead of only being about drugs. And I am not sure why this book has affected me and moved me. Maybe it is because it speaks in a laconic voice the way the men in my family spoke. Or maybe the stories and their awkward realities match some of the crazyness I’ve experienced. Or maybe it’s how Keith Scribner described it at Oregon State–there is a hidden complexity and craft to each story that surprises you with the strength. Or maybe it is how Tracy Daugherty explained it. He said the narrator lies well underneath the author’s wisdom and storytelling technique. 

But today I found a new edition–a larger version of the original paperback other than what I was introduced and I was tempted to buy it. To place another version of the book next to my couch so I could pick up from time to time as I draft but I passed up the opportunity. But I guess I’m content with thesmall copy I kept from Hanvi and never returned.

Stegner’s Sense of Place

This morning I’m thinking about the essay “Finding the Place: a Migrant Childhood” by Wallace Stegner. I’ve gone on about how much I admire Stegner’s writing style focusing on nature and also his use of long, complex sentences–these remind me of Richard Hugo–and this essay was from a book of essays I bought in Colorado Springs last year I’ve just gotten around to reading. In the essay Stegner recounts how he grew to be a writer and also a writer of place. He writes on how while growing up he was unaware he was a writer of the west–that’s just where he grew up. Like anyone, he had no sense of it ‘while it was happening’, he recounts. And reading I was surprised just how many cities he’d lived in at such a young age. He writes: I was born on wheels. And he lists how he lived in twenty houses between the ages of twelve and twenty. Amazing.

And mostly I read Stegner’s fiction and mostly I read fiction in general choosing fictive places created by real events. Though it is funny how I think of my family and my own upbringing in Colorado when I write fiction. And I have this thought quite often when I think of my own work–just how much of my own life I bring to fiction even though the characters are not real. I sometimes write on this weblog how I feel imaginary voices are calling to me but they aren’t imaginary. My Tio is real and my Abuelito is real–the conversations are fake but the people and places are real. As real as I can make them anyway from my imagination.  That paradox drives the prose.

Like Stegner I feel I can’t forget where I came from. I think about this when I buy a four dollar latte and how my Grandfather would lecture me. Or even the idea of becoming a teacher or a writer was sensible and the man approved in a way I was never comfortable with. As if I was choosing job security over creativity. I think about that all the time when I feel teaching is consuming my time.

Anyway, I admire how Stegner believes he returned to the west both literally and of course he returns figuratively in his work–in the descriptions of place and the in the creation of prose spaces. I also think I return to the small places of Colorado where I grew up when I write but also the past and also to all those unfinished or perhaps non-existent conversations I should have had in my youth.

Kerouac’s Aesthetic

on-the-road2I could go on all day about my love for Kerouac–the first time I found his books but you get the idea. Anyway I’ve been reading his Belief and Technique for Modern Prose as well as his collected notebooks Penguin published last year and I am continually amazed at his obsessions. Hugo says that’s what we pick up first–we notice other writer’s obsessions and they perhaps give us insight to our own. I think Kerouac’s obsessions are for the writing itself–he is possessed with the idea of being a writer. In all of his notes there is never a hesitation to call himself a writer. His work ethic is indomitable.  

Other obsessions of course are with the country and with travel and with capturing and remembering–turning the everyday into folklore of the self–all in the daily practice of writing.

Of course spontaneous prose and the idea of not censoring one’s expression. I like the debate in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch between the Ginsberg character and the Kerouac character. Ginsberg was a relentless reviser of work nd Kerouac wanted to sit and get it down–I know some writers like that. I find myself taking on both points of view–take it as it comes or form it up constantly.

Anyway I love his ideas on his own personal aesthetic:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside your own house
  4. Be in love with your life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yrself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven  

Naked Lunch and the Addiction of Writing

Yesterday I obsessively watched David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and found the film not to be about the bookas much as entirely about Burroughs and all of his writing–it seems as if scenes were taken from every short story and novel–Naked Lunch and Queer.

I was particularly interested in the scenes witht he writing machines as bugs or focuses of addiction. I was amazed at how the dirctor–and of course Burroughs–sees language or writing as a disease or addiction. The conflict came from the lack of typing machine or loathing of particular bug-like typing machine. Now that I think of it there were kinds of writing or word machines inthe film–British and American. At one point Bill Lee trades in his gun at a pawn shop for a typewriter and so I satarted to think of all the machines I have had. I remember using the Abuelitos old type writer for high school papers and also for college papers when I went away to school. I bought an electric typewriter back in the day until I bought a clone computer the size of a dresser. Then I had a Mac laptop that was given to me at work until finally a Dell laptop. I have always been lugging something around to bang words off of.

I was interested because I have a typing machine in every room of the old apartment now and at work and in all the classrooms I work in. I wonder what Burroughs is trying to tell us about the sensuality and the viscerality of words and language and how we possibly fetishize our own complex reading and writing–to the point of self destructive addiction. The creative literacy feeding on itself.

In this scene, Bill Lee seems to be introducing drugs to author Jane Bowles and having some sort of shared experience with drugs and writing.

PS: I sent out Farmhouse in the Lanes–to TinHouse– and Rabbit Story–to Glimmer Train.

Richard Yates and Revolutionary Road

I first read Yates’ Revolutionary Road years ago–maybe back at Colorado State. I had been reading as much Richard Ford as I possibly could after reading Rock Springs and Independance Day and in one of those books–in the forward–he lists Yates as the most underappreciated writer in America and I wanted to see if this were true and so I picked up his collection of short stories and Rev Road at the bookstore. I remember I read them outside of assigned reading. I had finished reading a bunch of Salinger and also Cheever and Yates was in that post-war style yet the novel Rev Road is wider in scope and breadth. The writing is less romanticized than Salinger and perhaps more crafted and layered than Cheever. At least in my small reading view.

What struck me about the movie version I saw last week with D was how April was drawn and how the community was the focus of the book–at first I thought this different than the book and after going back to the text I see how the screen adaptation was right on target. The Wheeler’s and the neighbors and everyone in the book make up this community of the complacent–the suburban mediocrity that is safe and pleasant but also turns to kill individual identity. After the film and the book I’d like to go back to Yates’ life and see if his life was similar in dreaming and hoping for time to write instead of time with the family. I wonder if April was drawn after his own wife–as in auto-fiction.

I also want to mention how I heard in a DVD commentary of Seinfeld that the grumpy writer in Season 1 who is Elaine’s old man was based on Richard Yates after Larry David dated his daughter. –Why is this important? I don’t know but I want to get it down so I remember in this journal.

Hunter S. and Hell’s Angels

In between prep time for school and my own research of Cornbread I’ve been reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. I like to read at it slowly before I get to sleep at night–keep it close to the bed. I found the book in Barnes and Nobles, not in non-fiction, but in the special interest section–not biography–which I find odd. And I was surprised to see how Hunter S. sympathizes the subjects of the book. Seems odd because in the documntary of Hunter S. I watched a few months ago called Gonzo: the Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, Hunter S. discusses the person/mythos of the gang and the sensationalizing going on in the press at the time–this reminds me of Didion and her analysis of the youth in San Francisco of 1966. Yet unlike Didion, Thompson sees a movement and a positive note/experience.

And I also see how the writing is so much more straight than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or even Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail–those books seems like such craziness of form and analysis. So much making up of characters and observations–but in Hell’s Angels the reporting is straight-forward and dare I say objective. More of what I think of straight recording or reporting rather than creating story–more capturing than distorting. Hunter is not the story and the subjects are his story and that is odd compared to later books. I guess he learned to push the perception or the persona further.

And I was able to bring up Hunter S. in my Comp class this term. Specifically ‘the wave speech’ from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In comparison to Slouching Towards Bethlehem the wave speech is such a contrast to how Didion viewed San Francisco in 1966. I wonder if Hunter S. romanticized the experience the way he fictionalizes all of his subjects or did he just enjoy it more on drugs. I mean in Slouching, Didion repeatedly turns down weed and acid whiel I can’t imagine Hunter S. turning down anything.

Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow

Those of us without strong family ties or inspiration look for wisdom or guidance from wherever we can find it. And those who read usually find escape or motivation from texts–and that would be a success. I mean I have been writing about failure on this site quite a bit but finding a text or manuscript that motivates and kick starts our own projects can be the only success perhaps to speak of that is pure and true. And Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow has been one of those books for me. What a gem of a book. I find myself returning to it again and again for inspiration and guidance. But not just as a writer.

Not just in writing but in memory and strength in facing the past. And this is where I will be cheesy and cliche’d and state that this text is a friend. And I have only seen interviews with Maxwell–his reflections on Salinger are also very interesting to me– and I have read few of his books but I remember the day I read the book in Oregon, for Marjorie Sandor’s novella course, I thought–I want to write a book like that. I want to have visions of the past like that.

And the prose style so clear and simple and yet speculative and uncertain of the truth and of the reality of the past. So dream-like and airy. Maxwell’s work is so amazing and his death was such a loss to the literary world.

And I taught the book a term ago in a novels course and of course the students hated it. They thought it was good literature but not a good read–as one of my students put it. I always hated that phrase–it’s a good read. Like a page turner you buy at the airport that is the literary equivalent of a burger shake and fries. The fast food version of a book–just to pass the time. A book you take someting from in a short term manner instead of a meaning that grows and mul;itplies as you grow. But I do feel I am learning from this book and my understanding of it. This book I return to and return to.

And maybe if I had an Abuelito like Maxwell who had coffee with me, or listened to me or wanted to call me up and ask me about my life, I hope it would have Maxwell’s head and perspective–or at least the literary face I see when I return to the book.

Atlantic Monthly Tree of Smoke Review

I was surprised to read BR Myers review of Denis Johnsons latest novel in the Atlantic. I cannot comment on the accuracy nor can I refute any points Myers makes because I am only around a hundred or so pages in to the book.

Myers writes: “When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.”

Ouch! I mean not only is Myers attacking the book–and I didn’t think the article was that persuasive in its critique–but Myers also attacks Phillip Roth’s and Jonathon Franzen’s blurbs.

He writes: “The “application of word to thing” has been rotting for some time now, and in the very terms described. The social and political consequences are all around us. Literati who contribute to the rot—whether to preserve a writer’s reputation, to stimulate the book market, or simply to go with the flow—have no right to complain about incoherent government. The next time they want to praise a bad book, they should rave about the plot instead.”

So it seems his criticism is of those who praise Johnson and do not criticize the book’s form and plot. There is even a funny cartoon lampooning Johnson’s characters from the book like a political cartoon. Now, again, I have not read all of the book. I do think, though, that Johnson is not as strong with longer narratives than he is with sprinting but Myers admits to only reading one book from Johnson and that book is Tree of Smoke. So, since I have read all of Johnson’s 15 books–the poetry and the non-fiction as well as the fiction, I do agree with the blurbs. Johnson’s voice and sensibility is noteworthy. I read him for the craft so I guess I am saying he is a writer’s writer. But I don’t believe Roth and Franzen are bad readers; I don’t believe I am a bad reader.

And yet Myers calls Franzen a lunatic and writes Roth should “know better.”

Again, ouch! And I assume I should wait until I finish the book before going further with my defense. But so far I am engaged and entertained as the Vietnam War is something I am interested in and I am enjoying how Johnson brings Vietnamese perspectives into the story–something Tobias Wolf in his non-fiction does not do and something Nicholas Delbanco never did. But, again, I am not done and should wait and hold my judgment..

Date Fail:
I just read the correct date on this article. It was not published in the Dec 2008 issue of the Atlantic but rather the 2007 issue. I am right on the cutting edge of what’s going on, you know.

Factotum and Failure:

I am lucky because I am able to teach Factotum by Bukowski this spring–along with On the Road and Oscar Wao. Each one of these books focuses on a writer’s creative literacy and also their individaul failure and successes.

And I am always inspired by Bukowski’s words on writing as creation and failure: “If you are going to try, go all the way.” This clip from the film adaptation by director Bent Hamer shows how well done the movie was–the broken down locations and look of the film is amazing. And I worried about the choice of Dillon–especially since I did not enjoy Barfly and the choice of Mickey Rourke. And from what I read neither did Bukowski–I think that came up in the documentary Born into This.

But the poem roll the dice ends the film so eloquently.

Johnson’s Tree of Smoke

I finally have a break from the incredible work of teaching and grading. Just last week I felt the great pressure of lesson-planning and grading taking over my life. Teaching affords me the luxury of a writing life and I am so grateful but sometimes you need time to do your laundry and take your dog for a walk. I read and teach composition and literature for a living and I am allowed to create curricula and assignments with such freedom but sometimes you need a window to climb out of. (That is a line from my favorite Richard Yates short story.)

But I finally have a break for Thanksgiving and now I have a chance to read some newer books I have had on-deck for weeks. I finished the Pollock and now I can finish the daunting book Tree of Smoke by one of my favorite writers Denis Johnson. Another writer I mentioned in my own thesis defense. I have been waiting to read this book for months it seems–waiting forthe paperback because I hate to read hardback but I’ll save that discussion for another post. But I do admire his work and recently I found the book was a National Book Award winner and at the awards ceremony his wife received the award for him as he was in Iraq on assignment.

I have admired all of Johnson’s work–his creative non-fiction, poetry, plays and fiction. He is another in a list of writers who I enjoy their authorial voice and not just the genre they work in. I feel Johnson excels in many genres and thrives within his creative literacy no matter the form. Sam Shepard is another who has stated his work just comes out and he rarely forces the genre–the authorial mind and voice chooses the form.

Anyway, I remember the first Johnson book I read. It was in New York State on the 8th floor of the dorm/housing I was living in. My friend Hanvey from California lent me the book Jesus’ Son for an afternoon and I devoured it. I remember Hanvey had his books in a cardboard box in his trunk and he had just driven across country to attend the writer’s workshop. He gave it to me as if it were a treasure he was sharing with a fellow writer. It made me feel good to connect with another writer in that way.

And I have read all of Johnson’s work since then. Angels created the same tragic lives as in Jesus’ Son; Resuscitation of a Hanged Man was such a departure from what I thought his work was–a real shift in narrative; Already Dead was so funny and mysterious and showed me a real scope to his storytelling. More of a test with means of perception; Stars at Noon reminded me of Didion’s Salvador even though that was non-fiction; and his non-fiction in the book Seek showed me that he has a feel for narrative form and creativity in approaching literary journalism or creative non-fiction–whatever you want to call it. I also found his poetry so interesting and full of interesting leaping–it should be of no surprise since his prose is so poetic and imagistic at times.

Recently, I even toyed with the idea of a Playboy subscription because of his essays out of Iraq. I’ll have to wait for the collected work for those I guess since I don’t have the time or patience or nerve to hunt those back issues down at the public library or on the Playboy website–yes, for the articles. I pretty much chickened out asking about the issues at the local newstand and Barnes and Noble.

But I am looking forward to getting away from the brain of schoolwork and the tedium of interoffice politics in exchange for the time to read this novel and follow his characters’ journeys. The book is about 600 pages so I have a chore ahead but I enjoy the task. I feel like I am learning from him as I read.

Kerouac and Visions of Cody

It would take all day and night to explain how I feel about Kerouac and his book Visions of Cody. I read this book for the first time during a very dificult time in life–and really the Dharma Bums was the first book of Kerouac I ever experienced even though critics consider it the lesser novel in comparison to On the Road. I’m not about to go on about those times here when I first picked up these books, but I can write that the legend or romanticized version of Neal Cassady is something I am more and more obsessed with. And my thoughts on Kerouac and this book go way past admiration or scholarship–the study of form or prose models which I feel is so important for the writer. But I connected with Kerouac in a way I’ve not connected with many living writers. Including my beloved Salinger and Crane.

Perhaps I feel like Kerouac at the end of On the Road and it is as simple as ‘I think of Dean Moriarty.’ Because I do think of Dean Moriarity and Cody much more than I think of Neal Cassady. In fact from Carolyn Cassady’s books Neal was a horrible role model and was perhaps a horrible person not quite living up to the persona developed by Kerouac. But I love the character Kerouac builds in the work much more than the person I research.

And as I sit and write this I think of the last time I spoke with Lolo–my unofficial obsession in fictive spaces. So perhaps I am in love with the fictionalized Lolo the way I have always been taught to love my characters. The love that is needed to follow them and create their lives in prose and narrative.

For example, here is an example of the care and eye that Kerouac has for Cassady from Visions of Cody that is my thoughts tonight: ‘Oh life, who is that? There are some young men you look at who seem completely safe, maybe just because of a Scandanavian ski sweater, angelic, saved; on a Cody Pomeray it immediately becomes a dirty stolen sweater worn in wild sweat.’

I think of this quote as I write about Lolo and his blue worn t-shirt and his sunglasses and cigarettes in the torn pocket over his big heart. How hard I try to get the detail right so people can see the Lolo I have seen and experienced. Like Tracy Daugherty writes–I want the readers to experience the character alive in the fictive space as they would the real person. I think of the love I have for Lolo and Ricardo and people gone from my immediate life who live on in fictive spaces. Who live on in the old neighborhood of my head. I get to meet them there and love them in a way the real world won’t allow me to.

But also I think Lolo and Cassady as real mean and not the fictionalized characters have so much in common. They are both legitimate psychopaths as Norman Mailer I think wrote about. They both capture the illigitimate and the failure to create a understandable life for themselves and those around but also they represent a wildness and an enviable lack of respect for authority and order that I feel is healthy in moderation. I think this because Cassady like Lolo did try and better himself at one time. The failure or toughness that comes from excessive failure caught up with them and perhaps that is what I fear and what I obsess over.

Knockemstiff Review

I finished the book Knockemstiff the other night and I wanted to write notes on these stories I am admiring more and more.

I am also interested in the story behind the story “Knockemstiff”–almost as interesting as the stories and I assume that is why this book has gotten quite a bit of press and reviews.

According to his book sleeve and this video from Ohio State’s web site, Pollock was a factory worker before quitting to attend the MFA program. He published several stories and was successful enough to quit his job. His book has received much acclaim. I first heard about it on the Chuck Palahniuk web site–one reason I go there because Palahniuk is always pointing out new writers and writers that have influenced him in some way. (That was how I found Amy Hempel.) But in fact, Palahniuk wrote “Pollock gives us the saddest people we’ll ever meet in fiction.”

This made me think of Lolo and the failure of my own writing!

What attracted me and hooked me into these stories was the sense of place and indirect communal relationships–also the peripheral relationships. Pollock writes about Ohio and the little town of Knockemstiff–and he knows place so well and I am envious. In fact, place doesn’t quite capture what I mean; I guess I mean the landscape. And I would like to know Huerfano or at least the Pueblo County and the Huerfano County I grew up in and match Pollock’s knowledge of place.

The title story “Knockemstiff” is so memorable for me. The story follows a character who has had several false starts leaving Knockemstiff, Ohio and has come to the realization he will not leave Ohio even though his highschool love is about to leave town. There is such a feel of small town blues and hurt. Pollock draws his characters failure to move forward or beyond the small town as such a loss the effect is heartbreaking.

Those are meaning thoughts though and so my thoughts on form are that he is doing something pretty complex with these first person stories. A student and I sat in my office just last week discussing the differences of third and first person stories and the advantages of different means of perceptions. Third person omniscient and even roaming third or third objective seems like such a wide scope and according to my student was the only thing he ever wrote in. I tried to convince him that first person can be ust as evocative in capturing not just thought process but also consciousness. My student was just informing me of preference but again I think there is much about first person that works so well–like in Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or in Diaz’ Drown.

We talked about the risk of being the character and also being the author and trying to interject meaning or theme instead of character rather than more subtleties. But writing from a certain pov is about practice and challenging the individual.

But Pollock seems to do that so well–he knows place and character of his small towns but he also knows when and where to direct reader to theme and meaning without being too overt as some of my first person stories become.

Once in Tracy Daugherty’s office he pointed to a moment in one of my stories and said “here it is. Right there.” I asked him “what?” And then he explained that at that moment in the story and scene where the character is disconnected from the author and being fully utilized–fully created. Meaning the voice is a character rather than just the author pretending. he said, “Your character has no idea what is going to happen or cannot see past his own nose like real life and that is good.” I have been searching for those moments in my first person stories and trying to capitlaize on them as much as possible.

And this is what Pollock is doing so well in his stories. Capturing character in first person rather than just capturing his own voice just telling stories.

Diaz’ Oscar Wao and Drown

I seem to be writing quite a bit about failure lately. Failure in drafting and failure in returning to drafts. Just recently I felt the need and urge to revise my thesis manuscript I completed for my MFA. That too is a failed document. it got me a degree and teaching gigs but i still feel that document failed. I read it and send it out trying to get it to catch on somewhere but I recognize what a fanboy I am. Junot Diaz is an author I obsessed over for years since I first read his work in New York State.

Drown and the work it represents for me is such terse and provocative prose. It is laconic and represents the way I feel at times. The characters march around in their illigetimate lives. They sense their own failures as people and the story arcs are heartbreaking. From the aged Dominican making two lives–one in Jersey and one in the Dominican Republis. I loved this book so much I even mentioned it in my thesis defense. I could have writing my book without Diaz’ book–or Denis Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son and Angels. These books helped me capture Lolo and his illigetimate world. His world of failure.

Oscar Wao in comparison is such a largely scoped book. From the Jersey shore to the Dominican shores, the book’s scope is impressive. The use of spanglish that I embraced in Drown has been enhanced to include D and D slang and comic book allusions and references. Wao swims in Oscar Wilde and legitimate texts and also more illigitimate texts. Almost in the way the characters swim with the academy and with their own personal literacies of gorwing up poor or a minority or also growing up fatherless. And in a discussion of those failures, this book is a success.

I used to joke about artist types who called failures art and joked about that with writer friends. In grad school to call your failure art meant you had prviledge and flunking out or going back home and working retail was not a fear. Without a family or without strong family ties and money and refuge. failure is tranferring to a different school. For me failure–as in Diaz’ books–has been about the difference between a life and having no life.

So in my revision of the Highland Stories–stories about Lolo’s failures and stories about my failures at relationships or with family–I sense the presence of Diaz and I try and weed it out. Trying to find where I am stealing and where I am borrowing. And maybe that is a success. To find my own voice with Diaz’ as the springboard.

More on failed manuscripts to come…

Cisneros and More Random Thoughts on Failed Writing

I had the opportunity the summer before last to attend a Sandra Cisneros reading here in Illinois at the National Women’s Studies Conference. Attending this reading also inspired me to read her latest book Caramelo and I have to say I was so inspired by her words.

As I enter Week 12 of my creative writing course here at Lincoln Land I do not feel I have been able to inspire my students. And this is nothing new–I felt this at Colorado State and at Oregon State. I used to believe and repeat the mantra in my head that writing was about inspiration. But I have to say over the last few years I have had trouble motiviating and inspiring myself. I felt this even though Stephen Minot tells us we as creative writing instructors must not only read and write but also lead our students. And Wallace Stegner wrote we must “enlarge our students.” Somehow create interest in the act of failing to create fictive spaces from draft to draft. And I again I find it dificult to lead myself at times. And it felt so good to hear Cisneros echo these words. In fact she went as far as to say internet relationships and familial relationships motivated her more than her individual drive to write on a consistent basis. I was 32 at the time I saw her speak and she related several anecdotes about being 32 and finding dead ends throughout her career–personally and professionally. Perhaps that alone was why I connected to her.

This site is my continual try to inspire myself to get words down. Now, since that ficton reading I have completed the Huerfanos novel and have begun a new project I call the Notorious Cornbread Baca project. In Cisneros’ words–you just have to get it down no matter how it comes. So maybe she has inspired me and motivated me in more powerful ways than I can easily articulate for myself.

As for my students, I continually receive emails from them regarding their trepidation and angst regarding workshop and having to sit in a room while others speak of their writing. Audiences can be so scary but for that is not as fearful as not being able to get it down as Cisnoeros stated. Everything else is just literature and not passion or life as Rimbaud would say. So perhaps my fear of failure in relation to audience is less than my fear of failure as it relates to getting my words down.

I have Ray Carver notes from reading his book Fires where he also dreads finding the time to focus and concentrate on longer projects–works of fiction and non-fiction. I have similar notes in my reading of Kerouac’s published journals. The need in both of these manuscripts to simply write beats out the need to succeed. In one letter Kerouac says no one will accept his manuscripts and he feels like the only thing that will accept him is death. And I love Kerouac so because of his undying want and need to simply become a writer of quality. Like Cisneros to get something down for an audience before inevitable breakdown or death.

Now Cisneros also went there in her lecture. She spoke of spiritual failure as it relates to failure of her art or of her aesthetic. Her depression was so profound she says like everyone in their 30’s she felt if she could not write successfully she would have to end her life. Failure in creation of art leading to a feeling of a feeling of failure in life–with no end but to terminate life. She spoke very lightly about it regarding the end of a love affair she was in and the end of a stage in her life and her fear in beginning the next stage. Expansion of consciousness like Frank Water describes.

Failure in writing perhaps then is more personal–or failure in art in general–might seem more powerful than failure in keeping a job or keeping sober. These are the things that connect me to my Tio Lolo and his consistent failures at legitimate life. I have strong fears about that. Fear of not paying rent or fear of not doing for myself and having to rely on others. Those of us who live alone or do not have strong family bonds understand that type of failure.

So am I saying that the young chicano artist feels failure more personally? Or the writer with no consistent father-figure in his or her life? No, but I am saying that failure in manuscripts feels like falure against a dominant literary tradition–a canon of more stock writing. And, yes, when I receive my failure of publication notices I do wonder if it is about the content of chicano identity I try so hard to explore. Or maybe it is the lack of quotation marks. Are there connections to Lolo’s not fitting in to a more legitimate world and to my not fitting in to publishable markets?

More on failed writing to come…