What I'm writingI haven't done one of these updates in a long time, what with all the flurry of activity around Wheatyard. But I've been making slow progress on my story collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. The hand edits of the fourth draft are now done, and I'm gradually typing them up. (Maddie and I have been sharing my Macbook ever since her HP laptop crapped out, and since she needs that for school during the week, I've only been able to type up edits on weekends.) I have six stories updated so far, most of which involved just changing stray words here and there. But the next story, "Regular" (set in the Morgan Park neighborhood), will take a lot longer to update. After getting some great feedback from Ben Tanzer, I junked the entire first half of the story and rewrote it from scratch. The junked scene was previously way too obvious and blunt in delivering its message, and while the setting remains the same (an Irish corner bar on the southwest side of Chicago), the dialogue and action has been completely rewritten, and is now (I think) much more subtle and natural.
This fourth draft is about a month away from being finished, after which I might send it out to one more reader. Meanwhile, I'm starting to scout out potential publishers. I just hope getting Wheatyard in print will open up more doors, and Marshland won't be as difficult a sell as the novella was. I'd rather be writing than selling, and I'm already mentally sketching out my next book (actually, "books").
I've long wondered why the Chicago "community area" that includes the famous Bronzeville neighborhood is called Grand Boulevard, when there is no street by that name in the area. (The name has nothing to do with Grand Avenue, on the North and Northwest Sides.) Now I know: Martin Luther King Drive was formerly known as South Parkway (this I already knew), which was formerly known as Grand Boulevard (this I did not know). One of my Marshland stories, "Singing for the Here and Now", is set in Grand Boulevard, at 48th and King Drive.
Technology and literary fiction
Last week The Millions ran an interesting piece by Allison K. Gibson on technology's place in literary fiction.
I wonder about works of fiction that take place in a world identical to that which you and I inhabit, except for one thing: technology is all but ignored. I’m not referring to Luddite authors here — to Jonathan Franzen’s rejection of e-books and Twitter. I’m talking about whether a character in a literary novel set in the year 2012 need even be aware of Twitter, or at the very least, email.
This got me thinking about my current project, the story collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. (Admittedly, its status wavers daily between "in progress" and "about to be abandoned." I hope it's still the former, but I can't say for sure.) Without diving into the manuscript for reference, it occurs to me that the technology in the stories (which occur in roughly the 2003-08 timeframe) probably isn't any more advanced than cable TV and compact discs. I'm not sure there's even a cellphone or pager anywhere. The lack of modern technology was not at all intentional - in fact, I wasn't even aware of it before reading Gibson's essay - and I'm not sure the presence of smartphones and social media would change the stories very much. And in fact, most of my characters are older people (sixties and up) who are not likely to embrace technology.
But just off the top of my head I can also think of three or four younger characters (teens and twenty-somethings) for whom walking around with their noses buried in their iPhones, or regularly updating their Facebook status, would be perfectly normal (and even expected) behavior. As I revisit the manuscript (or if I revisit), I'll be on the lookout for logical points where technology could subtly be added. I'm not sure it will change the plot at all, but at least it can make the narrative more true to life.
Last night I finished the second draft of my story collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. After making steady progress with the edits, I had a mechanical setback in November when my older laptop suddenly died (broken hard drive, from the sound of it) and left me without a portable machine. I also lost the second draft of the book's first four stories, which were on the hard drive when it went down. At that point my pace slowed dramatically as I had to edit at home on another laptop (the battery on this one is dead, thus rendering it not-portable) whenever I could. Then in mid-December Julie bailed me out when she got a "new" (factory-refurbished) MacBook and gave me her old one. (Not that my MacBook is at all as inferior or a hand-me-down - it's a big upgrade over the Dell and HP laptops I had been using.) With the MacBook, I was able to write on the train again and whipped quickly through the edits, and I now have a decent manuscript.
I'm sending it to the printer today and soon will hand it off to a few trusted readers. I anticipate two more rounds of revisions before it's ready to send to publishers, which I'm targeting to happen by the end of 2012 at the latest. I'm pretty happy with what I have so far, and have found writing this book to be much easier than Wheatyard was.
Yesterday I finished the second draft of my new story collection, Where Once the Marshland Came to Flower. Though the title is a nod to a line to Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make (each story is set in a different Chicago neighborhood), the impetus to my collection was a single line ("and some crack team from Washington Heights") from Lou Reed's "Halloween Parade." That line came to mind one morning five years ago as my train approached the Washington Heights station on Chicago's South Side, and as it stuck with me I began to imagine a collection of Chicago stories, with each inspired by a song from Reed's New York album. The book would never have existed without Lou, and particularly that great album, and even more particularly that memorable song. So in Lou's honor, here's the song:
Lou Reed, "Halloween Parade"
"...it isn’t so much a city as it is a vasty way station..."
Perhaps the most frequently quoted passage in Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make is this one:
Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.
Certainly a memorable quote. Yet it is immediately preceded by this:
You can live your whole life out somewhere between Goose Island and Bronzeville without once feeling that, the week after you move, the neighbors are going to miss your place. For it isn’t so much a city as it is a vasty way station where three and a half million bipeds swarm with the single cry, "One side or a leg off, I’m gettin’ mine!" It’s every man for himself in this hired air.
That attitude - of the disconnected and indifferent nature of city residents - has been with me throughout the writing of my current story collection, Marshland. Most of my characters are loners, and though I greatly admire unified story cycles like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, I didn't even try for such a thing with my book. Each story is set in a different Chicago neighborhood, from West Pullman to Rogers Park, Garfield Ridge to Austin to Dunning, and the characters in each story don't cross paths with characters in any other story, with very few of them even setting foot outside of their immediate neighborhood. And even within those tight confines, few have neighbors who will miss their place the week after they move.
"You have to have two stories to have a story."
In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Grace Paley talks (with Nell Freudenberger) about her short story "Somewhere Else", which is set in both China and the Bronx:
You know - the thing is this: if I just wrote about China, it would be a report, more or less. You have to have two stories to have a story. That's what I've been teaching my classes. You need two stories, at least. And for a novel, of course, you probably need more. I couldn't find the other story. I mean, I wasn't conscious of this; my idea that you need two stories came long after I wrote everything. I said, "Oh, that's what I was doing."
I had never thought of story-writing that way, but it makes perfect sense. You do need two stories to make a story; otherwise, it's just a sketch (or, in Paley's words, a report). Unless you have conflict, you don't really have a story. It doesn't have to be two parallel story lines with separate protagonists that ultimately collide; instead, it can be two aspects of a single protagonist: past versus present, internal versus external, work life versus family life.
Thinking about the story collection I'm working on right now (working title: Marshland), I can already recognize that the stronger stories are indeed comprised of two stories, and that the weaker ones may have an interesting premise but are flat because the conflict (those two stories) is absent.
What I'm Writing
You heard me, writing.
In the past, I occasionally posted "What I'm Writing" updates here, most of which were stories and novellas which would ultimately remain unfinished. Though at first I might have had a spark of a great fiction concept that excited me - enough so to shout it to the blogosphere - for whatever reason I saw very few of those concepts through to fruition. Getting publicly excited about ideas that would never go anywhere seemed like an increasingly pointless exercise, so I ended the updates. I decided that I'd abandon that practice until I finally had something significant to mention.
And it seems that time is now.
Last summer I revived my concept (yes, yet another concept) for a Chicago-based short story collection that used Lou Reed's New York album as a framework. I first kicked a few stories around several years ago, but like so many other writing projects I simply let the rest languish. Then just about a year ago I had a sudden inspiration - which I'll discuss explicitly in the near future - that threw me back into the collection. Suddenly it seemed like the collection had real potential, and I set a concrete goal for myself: I would write the first draft of each of the remaining twelve stories (for fourteen stories in total, one for each of the songs on New York), one per month, over the following year. With my first attempt at a story collection (circa 2005) having turned out to be a unsatisfying hodgepodge of styles, voices and themes, with the new collection I thought it would be best to create all the first drafts first, before even beginning to edit. This way, I hoped, I could polish the stories, one after the other, and create a steady tone and what I hoped would be a more unified collection. And besides getting an even tone, I knew that this method would greatly increase the likelihood of ever gaining a finished product - if I tried to write each story one at a time, from first draft through endless revisions, the challenge of doing so over and over again, fourteen times, would have been overwhelmingly daunting. I’m not a highly productive or motivated writer, and it doesn’t take much of an obstacle for me to abandon work that once seemed promising.
This week, I finished the first draft of the fourteenth and final story in the collection, and I'm quite pleased with what I've come up with so far. The next step is to transcribe the stories from longhand (written in composition books, mostly on the train to and from work) onto my laptop, and then the editing can begin. Transcribing will probably take a while, but I'm sure it will feel worthwhile and not so tedious, since I have fourteen vivid stories (or the potential for such) to work with, and I'm eager enough to see the final product that all of the labor will have real meaning.
It's been a long, drawn-out process, but one that has really excited and engaged my imagination. During the past six months I've had, for various reasons, periods of erratic sleep, and while lying awake in bed at night I've often found myself working out story ideas in my head, which not only fueled my creativity but also helped pass many long and restless hours until I finally fell asleep or it was time to get up. My current job is also fairly uninspiring and has few intrinsic rewards, and I'm grateful that I've had my writing - and this story collection concept in particular - as a critical creative outlet.
It's been a slow couple of years, but I finally feel like I'm a writer again.
What I'm Writing (Or Thinking About Writing)Wheatyard is still simmering on the back burner - the latest revisions are ebbing and flowing through my mind but remain mostly uncommitted to paper.
I'm also hoping to revive my story cycle on Chicago neighborhoods (whose previous working title Scent of Wild Onions I've grown tired of and am planning to change). When I set it aside last year, I had one full draft of a story ("Washington Heights") and a second that was about three-fourths complete ("Pilsen" then, though I'm thinking of changing it to "Canaryville" - it's an interior story, and the specific setting isn't critical), and back then held little hope for any further work.
But reading Charles Simmons Wrinkles (reviewed here) happened to get me thinking about the Chicago book again. Simmons' book is very fragmentary in structure, presenting scattered shards of the protagonist's life, and as I read I found myself thinking about the conceptual similarities to my Chicago book. True, Simmons' book is a novel about a single character and mine would be a collection of stories about various neighborhoods and characters, but I realized that my book would share some of that fragmentary aspect. So although my book won't be anything like Simmons', I'm hoping that it might at least serve as inspiration for working on mine again.
I have a few more neighborhoods in mind - Hermosa, Dunning, McKinley Park and the (ungentrified) South Loop - and have begun to (very vaguely) conceptualize characters and plots. As was the case with the first two stories, I will still try to have each story draw inspiration from and riff on a single line from each of the songs on Lou Reed's New York album. I'm sure the whole Reed thing probably sounds convoluted, but since the first story arose out of a single line from "Halloween Parade" that popped into my head one morning, I really want to continue with that concept unless it ultimately proves itself impractical and unworkable.
But all of this pondering and conceptualizing might be nothing more than a smokescreen. Because, to be totally honest, that "thinking about writing" clause above is an unfortunately accurate assessment of the current state of my writing. I've written very little over the past few years, as I've rarely found either the inspiration or motivation to do the necessary hard work. Sometimes I think that I'm absolutely, positively a writer, but other times it's almost as if being a writer is nothing more than how I want to think of myself. My professional career is doing nothing for me right now other than providing a regular paycheck, so maybe I think of myself as a writer to have something to identify with. Right now I'm spinning my wheels, and "thinking about writing" is, for the most part, as close as I've gotten to actual writing for quite some time. I'm thinking that I either need to get out of this funk, or else realize it's not a funk at all and that maybe I should quit pretending I'm a writer. Sorry to get all confessional on you, but it's something that's been nagging at me lately.
Writing in Progress
New to the list:
"Sweetheart Blues" is a story I started a few years ago, based on a photograph from the Chicago Sun-Times archives. Right now it's not much more than a sketch of a struggling young artist (I won't say what kind, for now) who works in Chicago's nightlife district in the early 1960s but still lives in the blue-collar Southeast Side where he grew up. I came across an old draft of the story in my files, remembered how much I liked the premise, and decided to try to revive it.
"A Son Responds" is already, technically, a finished story, although probably not a finished story that anyone would want to publish. It's already been turned down by half a dozen publications, including one of my favorites, Chicago's own Featherproof Books, whose Jonathan Messinger had some very kind suggestions that I've tried to incorporate into the newest version of the story. It's definitely a better story now than it was before - I'm just not sure if it's better enough.
Still on the list:
Wheatyard will be on the list indefinitely, until it's finally published or incinerated in a fit of artistic rage.
Scent of Wild Onions, my Lou Reed-inspired story collection, is still on the list - but just barely. I haven't touched it in a couple of months and haven't felt much like doing so either. Maybe I have to sit down and listen to New York in its entirety and see if anything transpires.
Removed from the list:
"The Copper Responds" was removed because for once, just for once, I finished the damned thing.
Writing in Progress
New to the list:
Scent of Wild Onions is a story collection based very loosely on Lou Reed's New York album, with each story inspired by a single line from each song on the album, and with the venue shifted to Chicago. However, this project could quite easily be removed from the "Writing in Progress" list very soon - the first story, "Washington Heights", materialized with little effort, but the second, "Pilsen", has been stalled for a few weeks as the initial burst of momentum faded. I think I'll get the latter story finished off and see if I find any potential for a third story - and if not, I'll probably ditch the whole thing and move on to something else. ("Washington Heights" does, however, have some salvage potential.)
"The Copper Responds" is a short story that directly responds to Cory Doctorow's story "Printcrime". I had been thinking about this one for a few months, and when I finally started writing (on the train home Wednesday night), it all quickly fell into place, and I finished the first draft early Thanksgiving morning. I'll publish it here once it's finished.
Still on the list:
My novella Wheatyard (now moving toward its third draft) is still on the list, and likely will be for another year or so. Even if I'm not actively working on it, the book will never be far from my thoughts, so in a way I'll be working on it even if I never touch a pen or computer. Julie read the whole second draft in one evening, really liked it and had a few very good suggestions for improvements which I will definitely be implementing in the next draft.
Removed from the list:
For now, I'm removing the story collection This Land Was Made for You and Me and the novella The Engine Driver. I'm sure I'll revisit the former off and on over the years, so maybe it will someday materialize in finished form, or maybe not. The latter was a concept that came to me suddenly but that I only generated a few ideas for - pretty good ones, I think, but not nearly enough to compel me to plunge headlong into serious writing. Again, this story is something I might return to if inspiration somehow strikes.