Tag Archives: fiction

Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Reading What’s Not On The Page

 

Mt-Holyoke-Science-wide-Ext-web

I arrived at Mt. Holyoke College last night right in the middle of dinner after a long day of traveling. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning in order to get to the Portland airport by 5 to catch a plan by 6 to arrive in Chicago to hang out for a couple of hours and have lunch with my friend Annie, then to get on a plane to Hartford and from there to share a shuttle with Annie to Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass, to arrive just in time for dinner and to enjoy the first readings of the conference and afterwards a drink with Wally buddies. We call ourselves Wallies. I’m not sure why we do that. My guess has always been that Wally must be short or a nickname for the fellow our writing college was named after: Warren Wilson. I cannot, however, at this time, verify the truth or accuracy of my guess. I’ll look into this and get back to you.

Today’s schedule is light. Workshops are the only thing happening during the day. Nothing else formally scheduled until this evening’s readings. So if attendees are not workshopping, they are freee with an extra e. I have been choosing not to workshop so that I can spend my energies writing writing writing. Today, I have not been writing, but rather, I’ve been reading my writing, which is all part of the same thing, ultimately. As I am working on a longer piece, time spent reading my writing is necessary in order for me to immerse myself, to get back into that other world, that world that I left behind many, many months ago now. There’s always a fear that when I come back to something I haven’t worked on for awhile that I will be unhappy with it, that I won’t like it, that I will no longer be interested. That rarely happens to me, happily, but that doesn’t prevent me from worrying about it, nevertheless. I read to myself and I rediscover usually what it was that hooked me to begin with.

I read to myself out loud—so I have to be alone in a room, not in a library or a bookshop or a coffee house–people would think I was nuts—I can’t write in public places because I can’t read out loud. So I’m here in this conference room all alone in the science building reading out loud to myself and I’ve stumbled upon a problem or a dilemma. An opportunity.

I am writing a first person narrative that is set in Oregon—Portland to be exact, my hometown, and on the coast of Oregon—Newport precisely.

For some reason I cannot explain, my narrator has a southern accent. Ultimately, I know I have to understand why that is. Right now, I can’t do it. I only know that this is how he speaks or how I hear him speaking. I have not written in dialect. In fact, I think that if I were to give pages of this thing to someone to read out loud or to themselves, there is no reason to suspect that this reader could discern or would interpret this speaker as being a southerner. And the narrator does not identify himself that way, at least not explicitly, not yet anyway. So when I read it, I am reading something that is not on the page. This interests me.

And so I have this burning question. Must it be on the page? My gut tells me that it should. If I understand the voice of my narrator correctly, his southern-ness is an important trait, something that I cannot leave up to the fates to help my reader understand. My gut tells me that I have to know how he came to be in the Northwest, and that somehow in his narration he must reveal his origins to the reader. But there is a counter-gut feeling telling me that maybe after all the fates should decide. I hear his southern drawl. Someone else may not. Is the story he tells dependent upon his regional identity? Could it be that he just doesn’t identify himself that way, at least consciously or overtly? Unless the character believes his southern-ness is central to his identity or to the story he is trying to tell, why should he mention it? If I read the piece in a particular voice, and somebody reads the piece in a distinctly different voice, is the second voice less valid because it is different from the one I hear? And does the piece suffer with this kind of ambiguity or openness to interpretation? Here’s the question—or the real problem. The problem of how the piece is read out loud, by the writer or anyone else, is moot. It matters little or not at all. What matters is this: Does the thing work on the page? Is it engaging? Is it good? Is the character in question believable, interesting, sufficiently complex? This other stuff is a question of ORAL interpretation, which is a different animal altogether from the writing of effective, meaningful, artful fiction—and that’s what I am hoping to do.

But I still wonder. I’m waffling. I want to understand, still, why I’m reading what’s not on the page and what it says about this character and this book, and what it says about the writer.

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It’s April: National Poetry Writing Month!

one of William Blake's illustrations of Hell

one of William Blake’s illustrations of Hell

Wasn’t it T.S. Eliot who wrote that April is the cruelest month?  Of course it was;  it’s the first line, and perhaps the most famous line* from The Wasteland.  What’s so cruel about April, T.S. Eliot? He must have known something about National Poetry Writing Month. But there is something considerably less cruel in my estimation (I hope my poet friends are not offended) about NaPoWriMo than there is about the seemingly herculean task of National Novel Writing Month.  Again, poets, forgive me, but a poem a day for 30 days seems so much less cruel, so much more compassionate than the requirement for a novel–60,000 words in a single month, which is kind of, if you work a day job that is not writing novels, like Hell.  So I’m on.  I’m taking the plunge and/or the pledge.  I failed miserably at writing a novel in November, and failed again at revising the novel I didn’t write in January, so I’m going to write a poem a day for the next 30 days of April, and I’m going to post all of them right here.

I’m a fiction writer, primarily, and kind of a closet poet.  I’m not in the closet through any kind of shame about writing poetry, but only because I feel less “educated” about the formal and critical aspects of writing it.  I know a good poem when I see it or hear it because I think I know what good writing looks like and sounds like–but when I look at my own poetry, I have less confidence in determining whether what I have done is a good poem than I do about looking at a piece of my prose and determining its value or worth.  I’m not going to freak myself out.  I’m just going to do the best I can do in the moment and try to do one every day.  Today is April 1.  I’ll post a poem by midnight or my name isn’t Michael Jarmer–and that ain’t no April Fool’s gag.

Notes:

*(because it’s the only one anybody ever reads)**

Notes to the notes:

**I don’t mean that.

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Combustion Deconstruction: Some Musings on the Fate of a First Novel

I started writing my first novel when I was, perhaps, 28 years old, I finished it coming out of an MFA program when I was 32, revised it when I was 35, began a long, demoralizing, tedious, and ultimately unsuccessful agent search, and then, when I was 40, I put the novel in the proverbial drawer where it sits today. I’m 48 years old.

Even before my first novel went officially into that drawer, I had begun my second novel and chipped away at that, slowly, over about a decade. That novel finished, I felt like there was no way I would have the energy to do with it what I had tried to do with the first, so I made the decision to go the unconventional route (which has actually become pretty conventional) and I self-published my novel, Monster Talk, with iUniverse.

I keep peeking at that first novel where it rests inside the drawer. Actually, it’s not in a drawer. It’s in a box on my desk labeled Combustion. That was the title I gave the novel, named after the book’s central premise, that at the turn of the 21st century, the planet’s population finds itself living through an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion. That was the idea that started the ball rolling. It’s a comic novel and the germ that spawned this particular premise was indeed the great comic faux documentary called Spinal Tap. Before I knew what I was doing, the initial question was about extending the phenomena of SHC beyond the deaths of a few unfortunate heavy metal drummers to a world-wide epidemic—somewhat akin to the current Zombie apocalypse fad, perhaps. Spontaneous Human Combustion, while it literally happens over and over again throughout the plot of this thing, works as a sweet and quirky little metaphor representing a whole host of modern problems. But actually, at the heart, at the core—the novel is really about sex.

So, again, I keep peeking at this box with my first novel buried inside. I’m proud of the book. I think it deserves a life; it deserves to be read—but I’m conflicted. It’s hard to reread, not because I don’t like it, but because it’s almost twenty years old! And partly because, (this is sad) I have become in my middle aged years less of a dare-devil than I was at 35, even conservative in some ways (although not politically), and while a certain amount of mellowing is probably a good thing, in the world of writing fiction I think it’s potentially terrible. I want to be able to read those naughty bits in public. I want to be fearless like I was when I was 35—because, I think, while the Spontaneous Human Combustion element is clever, fun, effectively rendered, the sex, and the main character’s hang up and obsession with sex, is the most strikingly accomplished thing about this novel—if I’m allowed to use the word “accomplished” to describe my own writing.

Ultimately, I’m in a quandary about what to do with this baby. It’s difficult to let it go. It’s difficult to say, “This thing here that I poured my heart and soul into over the better part of a decade, this thing I’m seriously pleased with despite the fact that it was written by a different Michael Jarmer, I’m just going to let it sit in a box.” And it’s also maddening to think about picking up that whole agent search thing anew. I’ve thought of a few things, a few possibilities, and I’ll run through them here, for my own edification, sure, but also as a list of potential opportunities for other writers still in the same boat with first novels in boxes, and maybe too, to give readers of this blog an opportunity to weigh in. I could:

1. Look for a small press to publish the novel. This is an avenue I did not fully explore when I was trying to place the book with an agent. I think small presses are likely publishing the best writing out there and are perhaps less constrained by market influences, more interested in art.
2. Self-publish, again. Whether I chose to go with iUniverse for the second time or some other vender, bookbaby or lulu.com for example, my first experience was mostly a positive one, and, with a minimal investment, I can accomplish the most personally pressing goal—to make the work available for those who want to read; it would be no longer sitting in a drawer or a box.
3. Revise, drop the artifice of the SHC hook, use the sexy material to draft a completely new animal. This sounds painful but potentially interesting and rewarding. This might be fodder for another blog later—but what is this impulse to create a hook, no matter how clever, no matter how successfully executed, as a vehicle for the real material of the novel? This, I think, is a central impulse of mine as a fiction writer, one that perhaps might be worthy of scrutiny.
4. Go all post-modern and write a piece of non-fiction about writing a first novel, the text of which would include the complete first novel, with commentary along the way about the process, non-fiction narrative connecting real life to plot devices and characters, and self critique. There’s a genre buster for you. What kind of book would that be? A weird one: Combustion Deconstructed.

So, there you have it. I’ve fleshed out the dilemma around what to do about the first novel in a box. It’s one of those things about which I feel a decision must be made. Writers with similar experiences, please chime in. Readers of the fiction and the bloggery of this particular writer, chime in. I’m interested in hearing your stories, your opinions, your thoughts, and/or your questions.

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Of Being Tired of Writing About Teaching

I think, at least for now, I’ve exhausted my brain and my “pen” regarding teaching, issues of public schooling, educational crisis, education reform. I know I will come back to it. It’s inevitable. But for the time being I feel like anything I have to say now will be a repeat of something I have said earlier and I run the risk of sounding like a broken record. To sum up: teaching hard, class-sizes too big, public schools good, underfunding public schools bad, standardized testing bad, intrinsic motivation good, extrinsic motivation not as good, cell phones bad, closing schools bad, fire bad, Frankenstein good.  See, already in my summing up I have started to drift away from the topic.

So what else is on my mind?  What’s worth blogging about? Feel free to chime in or to cast your vote.

I’m going to stop beginning every one of my blog entry titles with the word “of.” Of is so on or about yesterday. I want to write about writing.  I want to write, in particular, about what to do with my first novel, which is, in this very moment, sitting in a box. I want to write about reading.  I’m excited about the new book by David Shields called How Literature Saved My Life and I think I could write a blog entry or two about how that has been true in my life as well.  Maybe there’s a meditation on a key book or two.  Hell, I might even write a review. I want to write about music.  Maybe I’ll write about what I said I wouldn’t write about, my band and its endeavors.  Hell, I might even write a review of the new They Might Be Giants record, or the new David Bowie (which I do not yet possess), or the new Eels (which I do not yet possess)  Maybe I’ll write about records I would like to possess.

I’m afraid, but I would like to write about religion–and, being afraid, that’s probably the sign that I should write about religion.

You get the picture.  It’s time to transition.  It’s time for a change-up.  It’s time for a new conversation.  I don’t know if this is true or not, that topic consistency might be a selling point for a blog site, the thing that makes people keep coming back, but I think I’m going to risk losing a reader here and there in order to sufficiently entertain my own bad self.  I hope you all stay along for the ride.

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Monster Talk: Of a Race of Devils

Wherein Michael Jarmer reads an entire chapter from his novel in one take with only two negligible errors; wherein the author taxes the attention span and patience of his readers/watchers/listeners with a 12 minute video blog; wherein he learns never to do that again; wherein Michael Jarmer uses the natural lighting to freaky advantage; and wherein, finally, he gets his hair to look right.

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Monster Talk Prologue: Of the Children of Monsters

Wherein Michael Jarmer reads the two epigraphs and the prologue from his novel, Monster Talk; wherein he struggles with the natural lighting, producing an unintentional but potentially appropriate ghostliness; wherein he informs us once again where one could procure a copy of his wonderful new novel; after which, he wonders whether or not video readings are distracting, whether or not it would be more effective if performances like these were audio only, hopes that readers, listeners, and viewers of his blog might weigh in on the issue. 

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More Reasons Why You Will Love My Novel: Adventures in Self-Publishing and Self-Promotion Part Two

Let’s recap, why don’t we. I do not have a history of being a very capable or enthusiastic self-promoter. I have difficulty asking people, cajoling people, insisting that people come to see my band play a show, for example, or buy our records.  It’s not that I don’t think we’re worthy of their patronage, but that I feel somehow like I’m imposing on people. It’s awkward.  It’s immodest.  It’s uncomfortable telling people how great you are.  But now I am turning over a new leaf. I am so pleased to be publishing a novel and feel perhaps more confident in myself as a fiction writer than I do in myself as a musician, I hereby vow to shout my barbaric yawp across the rooftops of the world, to impose a little, to tell people how great I am in order to get people interested in my new book, Monster Talk.

In part one of this two-part blog entry, I established three initial reasons why you, dear reader, will love my novel.  I gushed about the cover, the art, the artist who created it, the lovely picture of myself on the back and the flap, the effective, succinct, and tantalizing synopsis on the other flap, and the engaging sample on the back cover of the hardback.  Reader, you are too smart to believe that a cover makes a book good, but you are also wise enough to know that good cover art and compelling cover text are both important aspects of the successful marketing of a novel, that, in fact, we judge books by their covers all the time.  Okay.  Monster Talk has a nice cover.

I also insisted that if you love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you will also love this novel, as its premise comes from that beautiful and so often misrepresented English classic.  And finally, I argued that whatever your predictions or preconceptions about a novel by me about a subject like this might be, you would probably be pleasantly mistaken.  In other words, I think, dear reader, that you will be surprised.

So for what other reasons will you love my novel?

#4. You like smart children and like them as main characters in stories.  You like novels that are respectful of the wisdom, intelligence, and perspective of young people.  And you like your child-main characters to be believable.  They don’t have to have magic powers; they don’t have to be wizards in training; they don’t have to be vampires–and they don’t have to be monsters.  

#5. You may not be a huge science-fiction fan or a lover of what we call fantasy fiction, but you love stories in which the super-real crosses over or connects with the fantastic.  You might enjoy magical realism as a genre.  And why is it, exactly, that this kind of thing turns you on whereas interplanetary travel,  space aliens, dwarves, elves and schools called Hogwarts leave you feeling unsatisfied? It might be, dear reader, that you read often for a higher purpose; you distrust literature that is purely escapist.  And while you know that ALL fiction to some extent allows us to momentarily escape the confines of our daily lives, you have an expectation that the fiction you read reflects or illuminates some aspect of reality, some issue that is relevant, something that you recognize and can identify with.  And you know that real life is often fantastic–the journey you’re taking in this life on this planet is often remarkable in the way that even a fire-breathing dragon can’t equal.  So you’re totally down with the metaphoric power of magical, unnatural, supernatural elements in an otherwise realistic piece of fiction .  Monster Talk is a realistic novel with a fantastic premise–and you’ll love that.

#6. You love serious fiction that makes you laugh.

#7. And finally, you love the fact that you are supporting an independent publishing venture.  You understand that small press and independent publishing is often where our literature is richest, and you value the democratizing effect that new technology has made possible in the world of the word. So, for all these reasons, you will love my novel.  Thank you, in advance, for your support.

And here are some quick links to on-line retail channels:

http://www.amazon.com/Monster-Talk-Michael-Jarmer/dp/1475915950/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1338234633&sr=1-1

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/monster-talk-michael-jarmer/1110919984?ean=9781475915969

http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000540199/Monster-Talk.aspx

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