Thursday, January 11, 2018

Co-opting and Controlling

The Emotional Violence of the Words We Use 

In last week’s New Yorker Comment, Louis Menand decries the Word of the Year choices by various dictionary publishers. (Decries. Now there’s a word. Have you ever heard anyone speak that word out loud? What’s the word for “written-text-only words”? Anyway, if I ever heard anyone speak decries out loud, not only would I disagree with the sentence, that person would not be my friend. But I digress…)

Louis Menand’s point is not only that words like youthquake, feminism, and populism are lame choices for Word of the Year, but that 2017, an abysmal year for the English language, just wasn’t a year for choosing a Word of the Year. As Menand explains,
In national politics, you no longer need evidence or reason. You no longer need to make an argument. You need only to assert. If your assertion is questioned, you need only to repeat it. 
I’m optimistic enough to believe—for now, anyway—that this may be true, but not a truism (if that makes any sense); the Trump-monkeys will tire and return to their couches (there are, after all, Kardashians to keep up with), and the latest wave of American willful ignorance will recede. But it is instructive, I think, to explore some of the emotional violence, both direct and insidious, that we do to each other with the words we use. I experience this violence constantly these days, as I expect many of you do, too.

Fake News 

Menand actually touches on this term in his comment, saying “’Fake’ and ‘hoax’ are the ‘abracadabra’s of the Trump world, words recited to make inconvenient facts disappear.” Others have pointed this out, of course, but very few mention the modern origin of the term, fake news. It was Jon Stewart, of all people, who popularized the term to describe his own TV program, “The Daily Show.” Fifteen years ago, researchers discovered that millions of people, particularly young people, were getting their daily dose of news from “The Daily Show.” This prompted supposedly real-news pundits like Tucker Carlson, then on CNN, to criticize the quality and objectivity of “Daily Show” interviews and field pieces, which left Stewart understandably incensed. (He’s a comedian, after all.) He countered, most memorably in a 2004 appearance with Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN’s “Crossfire,” “We’re fake news! The lead-in to my show is puppets making crank phone calls!” And now, of course, we can only long for the innocent days when fake news referred to intentionally comedic reporting that somehow managed to deliver more truth than all the CNNs, MSNBCs, and Fox News’s on the planet. Donald Trump and his soiled minions have now co-opted a perfectly good term that encapsulated a perfectly good element of a perfectly good and pleasant era in American popular culture, and they’ve turned it into an infantile trigger warning to their willfully ignorant base—people who do not give and have never given a hoot about the actual “news” (not too many copies of the New York Times or even the Wall Street Journal flying off the racks in Podunk, Oklahoma these days), but are downright Pavlovian when it comes to juice-flowing responses to their Idiot-in-Chief, or anyone else who professes hatred of Obama, hatred of Liberals, and hatred of big government. The statement “You’re fake news” has zero credibility. The statement “We’re fake news” is overflowing with it.

Gold Star Families 

Okay, this one, strangely, does not inflict emotional violence, but is intended to capture the emotional violence of losing a family member in war. But my comment/question on this one is, has there ever been a more reductive popular term devised? “I’m here to inform you that your child/spouse/parent/sibling has been killed in the war. Here’s your gold star. Hope you feel better.”

A little Googling tells me the term dates back to World War I, when it became customary for families of deployed servicemembers to post a blue star in their front windows while their family members were overseas. These were replaced with gold stars if the family member was killed, and it is believed that Woodrow Wilson coined the term Gold Star Mother. The blue/gold star practice fell out favor during the Vietnam era, but was restored when an all-volunteer army began fighting the perpetual wars of today. And of course, the term Gold Star Family popped up everywhere in 2016 thanks to the Idiot-in-Chief’s prototypically kneejerk reaction to the Democratic Convention speech by Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed by a suicide bomb in Iraq in 2004. It’s no surprise that a family’s loss became a political football, particularly in the corrosive era we find ourselves in now, and the term Gold Star Family certainly came in handy as everyone from the VFW to John McCain were condemning the Drumpführer for his inane and insensitive tirade. But how about, instead of handing out gold stars, we make the investments truly needed to provide for the health and welfare of both veterans and active servicemembers and their families? How about we finance war out of the military budget instead of supplemental spending bills? How about we share the burden of perpetual war more broadly, instead of leaving it to the 1% of us with the courage and fortitude to actually step up and serve? Orwellian symbols that do little more than distract us aren't helping our bravest citizens recover and resume their lives. Real action and investments can.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Could Donald Trump Have Reunited the Republic?

In December, two weeks before his inauguration as our 45th president, Donald Trump was briefed by U.S. Intelligence chiefs on conclusive evidence that Russian hackers had attempted to influence the U.S. Presidential election. The sitting president at the time, Barack Obama, had received a similar briefing, but there was very little Obama could do about it. He would be out of office in a matter of weeks, and it was his party's candidate, Hillary Clinton, who the Russian hackers had attempted to sabotage. Any action on Obama's part would have been futile, both practically and politically. Trump, on the other hand, as the newly elected President of the United States, had a choice to make that day—a choice that, despite the fact that no official or commentator has written or said much about it since, is worth considering. 

That choice, in fact, invokes another choice made by another presidential candidate some years prior: In November 2000, Vice President Al Gore conceded a hotly contested election to George W. Bush after having won the popular vote by more than half a million votes. When the Supreme Court halted a recount in Florida that might have given Gore the election, the sitting Vice President, in a remarkable act of grace and integrity, ceased all challenges and said that while he was deeply disappointed and sharply disagreed with the Supreme Court verdict, ”partisan rancor must now be put aside.” With all that has happened in the intervening years—9/11, two seemingly endless wars, the near collapse of the global economy, the election of our first black president, the rise of the Tea Party and with it a level of "partisan rancor" beyond anything either Gore or Bush could have imagined—Gore's concession has been all but forgotten. But in reality, it was a great act of patriotism that returned calm and order to Washington, and with it, the rest of the country.

Contrast this with the choice made by Donald Trump at an equally consequential time for the republic: After receiving his briefing, Trump at first did nothing. He dismissed the Intelligence chiefs and simply allowed the wheels of investigation, analysis, and essential justice to continue churning. In short order, of course, there was his pre-dawn, pre-adolescent Twitter-vomit impugning the Intelligence community's integrity, his Attorney General's bungling lies to Congress and eventual recusal, his firing of FBI Director James Comey, and ultimately, our current state: a special investigator appointed, a White House in turmoil, allegations and suspicion running rampant in Washington, and an entire federal government locked in stasis by the twin shackles of a disastrous Republican Congress and an even more disastrous Republican president.

But even with this bizarre new normal that has settled on Washington, it still behooves us, I think, to consider the question, What if Trump had made a different choice?  

What if he had decided that the prospect of Russians tampering in a U.S. presidential election was unacceptable and 
therefore must be thoroughly investigated and understood before the country could move on? What if he had requested a meeting with President Obama and called for a fast-track investigation into the Russian tampering, to be completed before he would take the mantle of the presidency? What if he had insisted that the federal government reduce or eliminate doubt and suspicion about the Russian tampering to a level acceptable to all parties before a transition of power could take place? 

He could have requested that President Obama remain in office—much as New York Mayor-Elect Mike Bloomberg did with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the wake of 9/11—until the fast-track investigation was completed. Obviously, this course of action would have required other changes, such as refusing to hire Michael Flynn the minute his ties to the Russians were uncovered, and firing Jeff Sessions the minute his Senate Confirmation hearing lie was revealed. But these actions would have only worked to Trump's advantage, leading men and women of integrity to relish the opportunity to serve in his administration, in stark contrast to the current state, where anyone with any qualifications whatsoever seems to be avoiding eye contact.

And, indeed, this is just one example of the changes in the country and the world we could have seen had Trump made a different choice. Both detractors and supporters would have admired his courage. Zealous supporters who criticized the move would have been immediately branded as overzealous. Intelligence agencies would have been on the spot to reach some level of conclusion quickly for the good of the country—which they would have done to the best of their abilities. And all parties would have been similarly compelled to cooperate with, if not collaborate in, the effort to reach a swift resolution.

But of course, one thing pretty much everyone will agree on—from the ardent Trump supporter to the Impeach Trump activist—is that what I'm suggesting here is completely absurd, bordering on the insane. The idea that Donald Trump, of all people, would have even the slightest understanding of both the gravity of the moment and the historical significance of the intelligence briefing he received is beyond imagining. A man who believes that the CIA Memorial Wall is the right place to crow on about the size of his inauguration crowd, that the dignity of the office does not preclude early morning adolescent tweetstorms, that U.S. foreign relations are a plaything, and on and on and on, is never going to demonstrate the grace and integrity needed to adroitly manage a pivotal presidential moment.

But imagining that a newly elected president would do such a thing isn't so insane, is it? Is it so crazy for us to expect grace and integrity from our nation's leader? This is one of many questions we Americans are now forced to ask ourselves in these tumultuous days, and while it is hugely frustrating that our expectations have slipped to such earthen-core depths, we must never let our imaginations falter. We must continue to imagine the best in our leaders, because this is only way we'll recognize the truly transformative leader when he or she arrives, and it's the only way we'll be able to keep our highest ideals alive.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“I Thought They Said Obamacare Was Evil”

Affirmation for the Affordable Care Act from an Unexpected Source

Republicans, predictably, have failed abysmally in their efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and the usual media hand-wringing can be expected to go on for at least a few more days. The New York Times covers both the public and private sides of the inevitable blame game, Reuters focuses on the Great Dealmaker’s inability to close his first big deal as president, and the Guardian actually finds a possible bright side for the president at the other end of all this. But the media report I found most interesting was this Anderson Cooper interview with Ohio Governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich, which appeared a few days before the failure of the repeal effort.

Fast-forward to 3:50 in the video to hear Kasich say this:
“If Republicans jam this through…we will be right back where we were…before we started with Obamacare.”
Now, Kasich certainly engages, throughout this interview, in the wild intellectual gymnastics all Republicans engage in when criticizing the ACA. But in the end, here is a prominent Republican leader, a governor of a swing state, saying out loud that in the days before Obamacare, the country was worse off. That is, Obamacare has actually made things better for Americans.

This is just one Republican, perhaps unwittingly, making this statement out loud on national television, but the reality is, the entire American Health Care Act debacle perpetrated by the president, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and all of their fellow Republicans, whether it be the governors, the Freedom Caucus, or the Tuesday Group, has, more than anything else, served to solidly affirm the importance of the Obamacare law and the sweat, toil, and political mastery that were required to get it enacted in the first place. Here are three reasons why:
  1. Obamacare is a compromise. Despite the false narrative long pushed by Republicans that Obamacare was a shady deal negotiated in secret in back rooms, it was in fact a huge compromise. As moderate conservative thinker David Frum explains in a recent piece in the Atlantic, Obamacare constituted the “adoption of  ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s and then enacted into state law in Massachusetts by Governor Mitt Romney.” Recall that President Obama and Democrats didn’t have to do this. They had the votes to pass a single-payer system of the kind Bernie Sanders still advocates, which would have been truer to liberal principles and in the end, I believe, much less expensive. But they knew there would be a huge political backlash, and that Republicans would be able to repeal and replace a single-payer law, probably with something that looked a lot like Obamacare, so they compromised.

  2. Obamacare is a success. An analysis by Margot Sanger-Katz in a February piece in the New York Times clearly details the fact that, despite mixed results overall for the ACA, it has had some remarkable successes that would have been unthinkable before Barack Obama became president. Millions of Americans now have health care coverage and are now more financially secure, health insurance overall is now more comprehensive, and both income inequality and the federal budget deficit have been reduced. And one must always remember that these successes occurred despite a constant drumbeat of invective, hyperbole, and irrational resistance to the law by Republicans nationwide. Tweaks are certainly needed to address weaknesses, but total repeal is no longer even important to most Americans, and that’s because the law has delivered on its most important promises.
  3. Obamacare has reframed the debate. As Sanger-Katz points out, “The Affordable Care Act has shifted the nation’s baseline expectations for how health care should work. Its successes have pushed Republican politicians, like Mr. Trump, into making expansive promises to provide insurance to all Americans.” And it’s not just government accountability that is discussed differently now; it’s health insurance and health provider services as well. As Sanger-Katz writes, “[Obamacare’s] failures have become focal points, too, leading to calls for lower insurance deductibles and for more choices in doctors and hospitals.” 

All of this indirectly led the president and Congressional Republicans to do something very strange over the past few weeks: after seven years of pledging to cheering crowds that they would totally repeal Obamacare immediately after taking power, they instead entered into a debate about how to modify the law: which provisions to keep and which to cast away, and what timing would be most advantageous politically. This tacit admission seems to have gone unnoticed, but that’s just what it was: a tacit admission that Obamacare had improved the lives of so many Americans, many of them Republicans, that it simply could not be repealed without massive political ramifications.

It’s hard to imagine in this weird aftermath of a bizarre, three-week Republican fire drill that the Obamacare law was debated in Congress for the better part of a year, that Republicans proposed dozens of amendments, many of which were accepted, and that many Democrats voted for the law despite serious misgivings. Even Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of the more conservative Republicans in the Senate, has now admitted that the Democrats followed a more deliberative process in 2009 than the Republicans have with the AHCA. That’s called compromise, and it’s the necessary evil at the core of democratic governance.

As history judges this turbulent period in American politics, it could well be that Obamacare, whatever Republicans do in the coming months to try and push it over the cliff, just might go down as the last great legislative achievement of this democracy for a very long time.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Craft and Inspiration – Third Installment

Dispatches from Poets & Writers Live San Francisco, January 2017, Part 3

In the first two installments of notes from Poets & Writers Live San Francisco, which I attended the weekend of January 14th and 15th, and which carried the theme Inspiration, we shared inspirational and practical advice from the likes of U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, author Benjamin Percy, and a team of top literary agents.

This time, let’s rise above again with some thoughts on the appearance of poet/activist Ishmael Reed.

Ishmael Reed
As a six-foot-four-inch middle-aged white dude sitting dead center in the PW Live auditorium, I’m pretty sure I caught Ishmael Reed’s eye when he took the Art Institute stage with his daughter Tennessee. He seemed to be looking straight at me, and his eyes seemed to be saying, “What’s this old white dude doing here?” I’m probably making that up—a flight of self-importance, perhaps—but if he had been looking at me, and if he had been thinking that, I certainly wouldn’t blame him. In our current divisive political climate, with levels of racism and misogyny bubbling up out of their cauldrons—cauldrons being stirred, for the most part, by old white dudes like me—I can only imagine what must be going through the mind of a man like Reed, whose long career as a novelist, poet, playwright, lyricist, essayist, and educator has been devoted to studying, illuminating, and exposing issues of racial and cultural discrimination and injustice. Thoughts like I told you so, I’ve been trying to tell you, and Haven’t you all been listening to me? come to mind, but I’m sure that’s just my own pedestrian speculation, wholly unworthy of a mind as expansive as Reed’s.

On the Art Institute stage that Sunday, Reed started with a lengthy poem excoriating Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, a poem that dispensed with traditional poetic devices like rhythm and rhyme and simply started every verse by repeating the Speaker’s name, then issuing one scathing rebuke after another. I found it interesting that Reed would choose Ryan rather than Bannon or Pence or even Trump himself as his object of poetic ire, but on reflection it’s clear the younger man, the one so many people have been led to believe is the level-headed and reasonable one, is by that misconception the most dangerous of them all.

Freed to speak his mind after the readings were over, Reed discussed the purpose and inspiration for one of his long-standing pursuits, the Before Columbus Foundation. Described as “a nonprofit educational and service organization dedicated to the promotion and dissemination of contemporary American multicultural literature,” the foundation resists the dominance of Anglo perspectives in American literature since long before the nation’s founding. But Reed dispensed with the word contemporary in that description and urged all of us to explore the literature that existed hundreds of years before Anglos came to destroy and displace the indescribably rich cultures and storytelling traditions that had existed for millennia in what is now North America.

Reed reminded us that, in fact, the first Anglos who came to New England were fundamentalist Christians, closed-minded people not unlike today's Trump voters, people who were not curious onlookers, but committed extremists bent on destruction and ethnic cleansing. The carnage wrought by these early invaders was the beginning of a great hijacking of the literature that had existed on the continent for centuries, the work of Spanish writers and Native American writers that over the 300 years has either been shoehorned into the dominant Anglo tradition or completely set aside and ignored. Reed explained that the Before Columbus Foundation and the impressive cast of authors that make up its Board of Directors are essentially issuing a plea to thoughtful readers everywhere to reach out and expose themselves to the broad range of North American literature that existed centuries before the Anglos arrived, and the foundation’s work, including the American Book Awards, is to provide resources for all of us to do just that. As the foundation’s website explains, “Everyone should know by now that Columbus did not ‘discover’ America. Rather, we are all still discovering America—and we must continue to do so.”

And if you’ve made it this far, kudos! As if it weren’t obvious, I’d encourage any writer to watch Poets & Writers magazine and for announcements about the next PW Live conference, and If you’re able to, by all means, attend. All of the sessions were captured on video, and I assume they’ll be posted somewhere eventually, so I promise to post an update to this blog when they are. Many of these will be well worth watching.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Craft and Inspiration – Second Installment

Dispatches from Poets & Writers Live San Francisco, January 2017, Part 2

In the first installment of notes from Poets & Writers Live San Francisco, which I attended the weekend of January 14th and 15th, and which carried the theme Inspiration, we talked about poems on skyscrapers and lycans in the basement. We also passed on a few notes of poetic inspiration and some practical advice to help you enrich and intensify your fiction.

This time, we’ll pass along advice from literary agents, and in a brief, final installment, we’ll share some thoughts from poet and activist Ishmael Reed.

Danielle Svetcov
Danielle Svetcov – Want the Agent? Be the Agent | The Perfect Pitch (Panel)

The millions of us with books in the can who are trying like hell to get them read, we love sessions like this, where insiders—agents in this case; sometimes editors and publishers, too—give us the inside scoop. Because the fact is, almost every published writer will tell of a path to publication that includes a session just like this one, where the connection is made with the gatekeeper face-to-face, and that few minutes of the gatekeeper’s time leads to an hour, and that hour leads to interest, passion, and the sale of a manuscript.

Jennifer March Soloway
The thrust of these two PW Live sessions, a breakout with Danielle Svetcov of Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary and a general session with Svetcov, Jennifer March Soloway of Andrea Brown Literary and Anna Ghosh of Ghosh Literary, was the pitch—the query letter the author painstakingly crafts to sell the project. The formats of both sessions were innovative: Svetcov took identifying information off of three successful query letters and had the breakout attendees rank them, leading to a fruitful discussion of what was good and what wasn’t, and ultimately a list of do’s and don’ts for all us struggling query letter authors in attendance. For the general session, the conference planners at Poets & Writers solicited query letters from early registrants, then chose three that were shown and read to the audience by their authors, then discussed by the three agents on the panel. As always, some of the guidance that came out was old news for me, given that I’ve been to a number of these industry insider sessions before. But much of it was new and illuminating, so here are the highlights, in those two categories:

Heard a million times before:
  • A good query has three essential elements, which can be thought of as answers to three questions the recipient will certainly want answered:
    1. Why this particular agent? The agent (or editor) will want to know why you’re contacting them instead of the many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of others out there in the industry. And if your answer is Because you are next in my painstakingly assembled alphabetical list, you’ve got some homework to do (see below).
    2. What is the book about? Agents and editors are human beings just like you, with specific interests and disinterests that govern the finite real estate in their brains. They will therefore want to know the essence of your story and/or the themes of your book, because they’ll want to know if they should allow it space alongside cars, kids, mortgages, and Donald Trump.
    3. Who are you? Theoretically, you’ve done something in your life that uniquely qualifies you to write the book you have written. Maybe it’s just writing—MFAs, publication credits, literary prizes, etc.—or maybe it’s other professional accomplishments specific to your book—a decades-long career as a master spy, for instance. Whatever it is, your recipient will want to know about it—and you should want to brag about it, too, so, win-win!
    Anna Ghosh
  • Pursuant to No. 1 above, the first guideline that each and every agency, publisher, and litmag places prominently on its website is Do your research and know who we are before contacting us. This means researching authors and stories and books you admire, and works that are similar to your own, finding out who the agents were who sold them, who the editors were who bought them, and who the publishers were who published them, and directing your queries accordingly. While doing this is no guarantee that most of your queries won’t still disappear into the stone-cold silence for which the literary world is infamous (most of them will), my operating assumption is, there is very good reason that agents and editors the world over are blue in the face from repeating this advice—as the agents at Poets & Writers Live did once again.
  • Advice that is sort of a logical extension to doing your research is, Don't go in cold. Wherever possible, take the time beforehand to establish or discover some sort of connection between you and the recipient of your query. My thesis advisor when I got my MFA, for instance, is a Pulitzer-Prize–winning author whose work has greatly influenced mine, meaning her agent could well be a natural fit for me. But before I contacted the agent, I first wangled an entrée from the prize-winning author. And while this didn’t end up leading to a gold strike, it did mean the agent took much more time reading and considering my work—and giving me valuable advice—than she otherwise would have. Your connection might be an author you took a workshop with, a fellow student in writing school, or, dare I say, a face-to-face meeting with the agent at a Poets & Writers Live event.
  • My old teacher Fred Leebron—who is actually a year younger than I am—used to say “writing is a game of attrition…don’t attrit.” This is the final longstanding advice one hears from agents and editors, which is, Persist. Understand that, if you get a response of any kind—even a polite rejection with a few words of encouragement tacked on—to any of your first 20 queries, you 1. Are one of the lucky ones, and 2. Have probably written something very, very good. So hang in there, go out into the world and encourage and seek encouragement from fellow writers, and figure out a way to find contentment in the process.
Never heard or expected to hear:
  • Okay, so a query has three essential elements, but which is the most important? Which should I put first? Before Poets & Writers Live, the conventional wisdom I’d heard was, lead with the story you’re selling (No. 2 in my list above) because that’s what the agent cares about the most. However, in Svetcov’s breakout, I heard different (and confirmed it with her in a follow-up e-mail): she responds more to what she called the opening gambit, the connection you have with her (essentially No. 1 above). It’s one of the many matters of personal preference you’ll be up against when querying an agent, but yet another to be aware of.
  • The highlight of the Svetcov breakout was the phrase “Nancy Drew meets Dirty Harry,” which came from the author Lisa Lutz’s pitch letter for what became The Spellman Files, the first in Lutz’s highly successful Spellman series. The surprising and eye-catching phrase described Lutz’s Spellman protagonist, Isabel, and pointed up a piece of advice from Svetcov that was roundly seconded by Ghosh and Soloway in the Pitch Panel: Illuminate your work with the glow of something familiar. It could be contrasting protagonists, Lutz’s choice, or perhaps two works with styles, stories, or plots that reflect your own, or it could just be a successful author whose style you emulate. The obvious caution, of course, is to avoid putting yourself on the same plane with a bestselling prizewinner. Best to avoid arrogance if you can manage it.
  • If you land an agent, that agent will seize the commercial possibilities of your work, find a home for it, do everything in their power to make sure it sells and sells big. But in your pitch, you’ve got to help her along, give her whatever kernel you can to get her started. In fact, you’ve got to convince the agent that your work has commercial possibilities. This, of course, is intuitive to most writers, who obviously want people to read their books, which of course requires that people buy their books. It’s also advice that feels like it runs in direct opposition to advice almost every agent will give you, which is don’t think about whether it will sell or not, just write the book you want to write. But, in fact, it’s not in opposition at all. While you’re writing, don’t think about selling; once you’re finished, start thinking about it. Do what Svetcov called “putting a tight circle around what you're doing.” Encapsulate it in words, phrases, and comparisons that will 1. spark the agent’s interest, and 2. give her something she can build on when she falls in love with your work. This is why my old teacher Fred Leebron will always tell the writer to create a logline, that one-sentence jewel you can spit into the face of an agent or producer in ten seconds in a coffee shop. This is nearly impossible to do very well, but there’s no question, it’s worth the effort.
  • And finally, a few rules of thumb that were a surprise to me but probably won’t be to many of you out there:
    • I write literary fiction, and I say that in my query letters, but I struggled with how, exactly, to say it, and I still get a little queasy feeling when I reread that line in the letters. Well, queasy no more, because there was strong advice from all the agents present to announce your genre if you have one, and do it prominently in your pitch. Is it romance, mystery, crime, horror, or literary? Say so. (And you cross-genre people, well, I just don’t know what to say to you people.)
    • We all come from somewhere, and invariably, where you’ve come from has both informed your work and inspired you to write. Agents, in turns out, want to know it, too. It not only gives them confidence in what you’ve written and your ability to write it, it also gives them yet another kernel they can use to sell you and your work to publishers. So if you have experience in writing or editing, or any experience whatsoever relevant to the content of your work, say it in your pitch.
    • And last but not least, there is the simple rule of thumb that a reasonable length for a first novel or nonfiction book is 80,000 words. (And you can imagine how I took that, being that I’ve been pitching a 160,000-word manuscript for the better part of two years now. Ugh. But of course, all that tells me is…Revise! Revise! Revise!)
Okay, enough with the practical stuff. In the next installment, we move back to inspiration with some thoughts from the second-day appearance of poet, songwriter, author, and activist Ishmael Reed.

Craft and Inspiration – First Installment

Dispatches from Poets & Writers Live San Francisco, January 2017, Part 1

Ah, the writing conference. Communing over coffee and tea with writers I’ll never see or speak to again, soaring to the words of a keynote speaker who rises above the craft to spark our creative souls, gravitating between surprise and monotony during the “practical” discussions as I hear things I’ve never heard before and things I’ve heard a million times, struggling to conjure just the right opening gambit for the editor, publisher, or agent in the expo or breakout, battling through petrified emotions to give myself that one fleeting chance to at least introduce my story. And by the end, I’m typically exhausted both physically and emotionally, and I look around me to see that others are, too, moving to seats with no neighbors, sitting quietly, question-raised hands retracted for the duration.

Yes, these are difficult and inspiring things, these writing conferences, but since I’m not the type to kill myself with booze and isolation until I’m discovered by some visionary journal reader, I am consigned to go, for the benefit of my stories, to give them that one extra chance to wiggle themselves into print somewhere.

The weekend of January 14th and 15th, I engaged in this dance between cynicism and wonder at Poets & Writers Live in San Francisco. The theme of the weekend was Inspiration, and I have to admit that, despite my own skepticism and the chilling cold of this unusual San Francisco winter, the rustic and historic environs of the Art Institute, where the conference was held, provided a backdrop to some truly inspiring talks, as well as some new, useful, and usable practical advice. As I sometimes do on this blog, I’ll share some of those with my fellow writers in a short series blog posts, of which this is the first.

Juan Felipe Herrera – Keynote

He’s the Poet Laureate of the United States, but I frankly knew nothing about Herrera, or his early days in San Francisco among the Beat poets of his youth, or his passion and joy for his fellow California poets and artists, culture warriors of the 60s, or his vision. His vision spoke of big poems, poems on billboards, poems in Times Square, poems up the side of skyscrapers like the Transamerica building. He read from work that had not yet been stamped—that is, workshopped, revised, and beaten into submission—and he encouraged all of us to do the same. I’m not a poet, but I took those words to heart and sat in Calzone’s in North Beach and wrote a poem that very evening. The poems Herrera read issued and answered a challenge to incorporate the joy of life and humanity in among the tragedy and sadness of our existence, to combine the two and even find the connections between them. And he issued that challenge to us, and I would be surprised if the poets in attendance aren’t turning out some very interesting work even as I type this.

Benjamin Percy – Set Pieces | The Art of Suspense

A simple rule I live by: If Benjamin Percy is on the roster, I’m there. Percy is the writer, in my experience, who goes straight to the practical—technique, method, edict—while at the same time inspiring and entertaining. He’s a searing presence with haunting blue eyes and a voice that is positively otherworldly, but beyond that, he’s just a super fricking smart guy. In this breakout, the indelible image Percy has talked and written about for years—Charles Baxter’s widowed image, the nugget in the screenwriter’s phrase “moments make movies”—is relabeled the set piece. It’s that compressed moment, a moment from real life or a movie or a play or anywhere, that keeps coming back into your mind year after year. A moment like this is precious, Percy growls, because that place in your mind that it has carved out for itself can be the source of great writing, like the resonant scene in Percy’s story “Refresh, Refresh,” a father commanding his young son to follow him, picking up a shotgun and leading the son out into the woods, a raven-like skree echoing off the trees as they make their way to the clearing where a young deer is trapped, terminally injured, begging to live, where the father hands the boy the gun and commands him to shoot the poor creature, shoot it dead, end its misery.

This set piece in the story, this critical moment, comes from Percy’s own life, and it became the resonant scene in a story that became the title of a collection. In any story, you’ll want one of these; in a novel, at least four. (Like I said, technique, method, edict.) These are the crescendos in the story, the places where you’ll slow down—just a minute of story present might cover 2 or 3 pages—where you’ll amplify the language, where you’ll hold the reader spellbound. So search your life, and search your memory, and find the caverns of your mind that have been occupied by these set pieces, these moments, these images. They’re pure gold.

Back in the main theatre, Percy lectured on The Art of Suspense, and oh man, if you’re not scared yet, you should be. Because if Percy reads your story, and there’s a scene in there with two dudes sitting in a bar, or on a park bench, engaging in some expository dialog that’s supposed to reveal the story, Percy might just sick a lycan on you (because you know he has some of those locked up in his basement). Instead of assuming readers are stupid and need to be spoon-fed, welcome them into your enterprise by triangulating the dialog—that is, couching a spare amount of it in a goal-driven action—and revel in the experience of creation, as a writer, by revealing not only the story, but the character as well, and do it all with vivid imagery and fewer spoken words.

Now that’s suspense. You know what else is? Offstage mythology. Think of “He who shall not be named.” Before a reader ever encounters a character—a sinister antagonist or a game-changing rescuer—introduce the myth of that character in advance through the recoiling or reaction or reminiscence of others. Make readers wonder and anticipate and fret, and then spring the ghost on them just when they’re expecting it the least.

In the next dispatch from Poets & Writers Live, we’ll tell you what literary agents say about how to pitch your book to them, and in a brief, final installment, we’ll share the insights and inspirations of Bay Area author, songwriter, publisher, and activist Ishmael Reed.

Friday, December 30, 2016

How old are you and what do you want?

Elizabeth Strout’s work tells us how to establish a character’s age using something other than numbers.

When I was in writing school years ago, I had an experience I frequently recount, wherein Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge, taught me more in a 10-minute workshop introduction than I had learned in all the many writing seminars and workshops I had had up to that day. In that 10 minutes, Strout imparted on us, among other things, the importance of positioning and authority, and the notion that we writers need to take our readers by the hand and gently but confidently lead them through our stories. I recalled that day again recently when Strout gave me a bit of advice on a piece of writing I’d long ago considered completed and buttoned up. After reading the Prologue to my unpublished first novel, wherein my protagonist and his wife are introduced to the reader, Strout told me I needed to “…let us know right away, or pretty soon, how old this man is, how old is wife is…without using numbers.” This would, she said, “be helpful in positioning the reader.”

No one who has studied with Strout will be surprised by that advice, and in fact my only surprise was that I needed it at all, because I really should have known better. But no matter, I was hugely grateful for the guidance, and so I set about filling in the gap. I just needed to figure out how, and that search led me to some discoveries I thought would interest my fellow writers. It was my wife Caroline who wisely suggested that I look at Strout’s own books to see how she addressed the problem, and so here, book by book, are the solutions I discovered:
As the title implies, this is the story of two women, a mother and a daughter. Strout is therefore able to use this relationship to tell how old both characters are in one swoop. After a lengthy description of Isabelle—which, of course, contains its own clues about her age—we get the simple phrase, “…her daughter, Amy, a girl of sixteen…” Obviously, Strout chooses to use a number here, but this is unobtrusive because of the character’s formative age and the fact that we are so well positioned in the lives of both characters with this one piece of solid information that we are easily able to retain that positioning throughout the story.
The parent-child relationship is also key to establishing the age of the Reverend Tyler Caskey, the protagonist of Abide with Me. Strout accomplishes this gradually, just as she does with Isabelle, but the first clues come in the very first sentence: “Oh, it would be years ago now, but at one time a minister lived with his small daughter in a town up north near the Sabbanock River,…” Here we see that the age of the characters is just one element of positioning the reader, and that timing (“years ago now”) and setting (“a town up north”) are also important. We also see that working them in together is where the artistry comes in, that doing so with the right amount of grace and subtlety accomplishes a purely practical objective in a way that, again, takes the reader by the hand.
In this, Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner, a book that has subsequently been made into an HBO mini-series produced by and starring Frances McDourmand, the reader is positioned at the beginning, but then must be repositioned many times as the book goes on. This is because Olive Kitteridge isn’t a novel in the pure sense, but rather a collection of stories and vignettes, all taking place at different points in the lives of the characters, Olive and Henry Kitteridge. In many cases, in fact, Olive and Henry are off to the side, observers. Olive and Henry are old at the outset, Strout is able to use their stage of life to establish age, which she does, again, starting with the very first sentence. “For many years,” she writes, “Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over,…” Again weaving in setting and timeframe, she continues in the next sentence, “Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite,…” Because Olive is married to Henry, the reader will naturally assume that she is of a similar age, and only needs to be informed otherwise if their ages are far apart, which they aren’t.

Having anchored the reader in one point in time, Strout moves on to other timeframes and new protagonists, always being careful to reposition the reader as needed.

Patty Howe, a protagonist in the second chapter, “Incoming Tide,” is first positioned by her occupation, a waitress in a coffee shop, and is then set as a young wife who has recently miscarried by her reaction to newly baked muffins: “The fact that their newly baked scent did not touch off a queasiness in her, as they had two times in the past year, made her sad: a soft dismalness settled over her.”

Angie O’Meara, the protagonist in the third chapter, “The Piano Player,” is set as a lounge singer of middle age at the end of the first paragraph, “…the townspeople of Crosby, Maine, had for many years now taken into their lives the cocktail music and presence of Angie O’Meara.”
And so on. The unique structure of Olive Kitteridge makes it a veritable object lesson in positioning the reader, and in establishing age without numbers.
The protagonists of this story, the brothers Jim and Bob Burgess and their sister Susan, are introduced in an opening scene wherein an old woman gossips with her daughter about current and former residents of their town, Shirley Falls. The tenor of the scene suggests a distant past and characters—despite their being referred to as “the Burgess kids”—of a reasonably mature age. But it is the reference to their life experience, which, of course, foreshadows the dramatic events of the story to come, that sets them firmly in middle age: “The Burgess kids had a hold on her, I think,” says the daughter of the old woman, “as a result of the fact that all three had suffered publicly.”
Positioning in this and all of Strout’s books is particularly important because her stories tend to wander widely to take in broad sweeps of time. This story is anchored in a 5-day period when the protagonist, Lucy Barton, was bedridden in the hospital and attended by her mother. As Lucy recalls this time, she remembers observing the world through her hospital room window: “I would stand and look out the window at the sidewalk below and watch the young women—my age—in their spring clothes,…” By mirroring Lucy against young professional women on a New York sidewalk, Strout firmly establishes her as a woman in her late twenties, and the reader is set in a firm position from which to experience the rest of the story, including Strout’s wanderings into distant places and timeframes.

And so, without revealing which approach I decided on—we’ll all have to wait for some visionary editor to finally buy my book for you to find that out—I can confidently say that a critically important and often unseen element in the best fiction is the very practical step of positioning the reader firmly in the story. So, whether you use relationships, stage of life, occupation, life experience, mirroring, or, as is typical and most effective, some combination of these devices, it is absolutely key that you establish the ages of your characters at the outset. Furthermore, the best writers know that simply using numbers to tell the reader, and then expecting them to remember that for the rest of the story, just isn’t enough. The timeframe, the setting, the antagonists and minor characters, and all the other elements of the story need to work together to reinforce who the characters are and, most importantly, what matters to them. Because readers won’t care about your characters until they know what the characters want, and we all want different things at different stages of our lives.