Thank You, Ariana Grande: The Necessity of Writing About Hometowns

Up in the hills facing Lake Elsinore, dramatic mansions look outward onto Lakeshore Drive. The homes are relics of the early 1900s, when the city was a hidden hotspot for celebrities trying to get away from the Hollywood scene. Before July 4th, whenever I drove down Lakeshore, I would stare up at the domed rooftops of immaculate quasi-castles and wonder why celebrities would want to come here, escaping to this smudge of a city that people only really knew by its position along one of the routes to wine country and San Diego.

Then, of course, Ariana Grande licked some donuts in my hometown, and now nothing is the same.

One of the big revelations of my undergraduate career was that it is perfectly acceptable to write about home. Initially, something about that act felt cheap and, somehow, inauthentic; so many of the books we studied and talked about were set in huge, amorphous cities with names that end up on t-shirts (New York, London, Paris). These larger cities dominate the bestseller lists. They’re the places that get demolished in superhero movies as the villain battles our protagonist across the screen. I think major cities have always functioned as imaginative settings because they are inherently immersive; we see a character surrounded by that grid of buildings and we are easily transported out of less cinematic cities — like my hometown, Lake Elsinore, where the our version of a skyscraper is the Holiday Inn off Diamond Drive.

Lake Elsinore’s uniqueness is in its quirks that seem to characterize the forgotten cities within the Inland Empire, the surprisingly large area of Southern California bordering Los Angeles County; consider, for instance, the cemetery that entombs most of Elsinore Valley. It is located immediately next to an IHOP, which I never thought was weird until I travelled through areas of Los Angeles and found large expanses of isolated graveyard spread along hillsides like theme parks of sadness.

Or, alternately, consider the landmark importance of Wolfee, the donut shop at which Ariana Grande tongued some countertop pastries. One, it is an independent shop, which is difficult to pull off in franchise-ridden areas like Lake Elsinore; and two, it is open 24 hours a day, which is, in and of itself, a rarity in this city beyond gas stations and the Del Taco drive-thru on Central Ave. These qualities completely explained why many residents of Lake Elsinore (Elsinoreans? Lake Elsinords? Demonyms are lost here) were quick to defend the shop, despite its quick descent to a B health rating for keeping its donuts within licking distance; Wolfee should not be defined by its mistakes, for it is a part of the Lake Elsinore landscape, and therefore we shall defend it with glazed fingers.

And really, this is why borrowing from hometowns matter — they come with an inherent set of experiences, people, and places that serve as sample sizes of an entire nation’s complexities. When Storm Stadium, home of Lake Elsinore’s minor league baseball team, partnered with Wolfee, they posted a 26-second video to Facebook to promote July 15th’s game as anti-Ariana Grande night. Storm’s general manager, the owner of Wolfee, and the baseball team’s mascot (a gigantic, neon-green dog named Thunder, naturally) called for Grande to come to the game and “publically apologize for all of the Americans, Joe from Wolfee, and the lovely Lake Elsinore community.” The resulting comments from area-dwellers were as diverse as Lake Elsinore itself, and it felt fitting that such a weird event would generate so much conversation about and around and among the city’s people. After all — just like any number of the pockets of thriving humanity living off innocuous freeway exits — my hometown is weird, and that is wonderful in every sense of the word.

There will always be room in fiction for big cities, especially for the authors that are shaped by those places. I can literally track the movements of the characters in Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude as they walk through Brooklyn, which makes the story feel even more authentic — not necessarily because it’s true to Google maps, but because it is true to the unique landscape as Lethem understood it — and through my reading, I can get a sense of the author’s personal landscape. And, after all, that’s the beauty of fiction: it lets us share glimpses into our lives so that others may live in our shoes, too.

There are dialogues currently forming about the shifting representation of characters in the media; we are experiencing the entrance of marginalized individuals into the mainstream, which is both historically significant and personally exciting. But Ariana Grande’s Donutgate incident reminded me of the importance of marginalized places, too — those corners of existence that can capture a microcosm of America in something as simple as a series of Facebook comments. I know many of the people responding to Donutgate, of course. I went to school with them, worked with them, and even visited Wolfee with them. But what struck me most about these comments was neither the mixed responses nor the fact that people were aware of the businesses’ obvious publicity grabs — really, it was the fact that we were talking about this at all, pushing forth a series of conflicting opinions that were rooted in as much absurdity as the action that had caused everything in the first place. We were speaking from the deeper, more complex layers of the people that live in this not-so-small city; we were a sample size of America, brought together because our little-big city hit the national scale.

I think, at the end of the day, that writing about hometowns — writing about the places that have shaped us — is a necessary exercise because it informs writers that their hometown humanity can weird, troubling, beautiful, and complex: everything we could hope to capture in the written word. Through an honest portrayal of home, readers from outside our spheres of experience can start to understand the way others live, too. I believe in Lake Elsinore’s ability to showcase the diversified livelihood of striated, middle-class life, and I believe in its ability to represent something larger than myself.

I won’t write about Lake Elsinore forever, of course — oftentimes, I just borrow from it, catching glimmers of my hometown show up in the ways I write about mountainsides. But what matters is this: for writers who come from the places that barely have a Wikipedia entry, we should recognize that our homes — our small cities — can have just as much appeal and character as the larger ones.

Big-city celebrities once fled to the forgotten hills of distant pockets of civilization off the 15 Freeway. When I drive down Lakeshore today, I can start to understand why — everything is a little different in Lake Elsinore, my home.

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You Learn to Write With Integrity

Niah Caves, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Niah Caves, Sarawak, Malaysia.

You are an undergraduate Creative Writer without quite knowing the meaning of the term, but that’s okay, because it’s fun — fun to read innovative contemporary fiction, fun to speak with professors who have Published Things, fun to sit and write a story for homework. It’s fun except when it’s not, and then you really have to grit your teeth when workshops run terribly or when you know your story blows but you waited until the last minute because you hated it or, worst of all, when the hot-shot professor casually states that he’s not even sure Creative Writing can be taught to undergraduates and that comment stays with you for a while. You question it but keep the question to yourself, head down, words attempting to be loud. You see your friends start talking about MFAs and you know, deeply, that you are not ready for a graduate program — not mentally, not professionally (whatever that means).

You can’t even call yourself a writer without sneering the word across your tongue.

You graduate with honors because your degree was academically straightforward and you’ve always worked hard in school — you were told that was what you had to do to succeed. As you cross the graduation stage, you are handed a roll of paper meant to represent your diploma, and the empty symbolism of your reward feels somehow significant. You get a series of jobs — freelance copywriter, barista, tutor — that pay the bills if all three jobs are pursued concurrently, and you are always tired. Too tired to write, of course, or experience any of the things you should be experiencing on your gap year. That’s what this is — a gap between now and the ultimate goal, grad school. The MFA. Legitimacy. And yet you write nothing beyond some idle, half-serious bullshit that you immediately delete because it feels so grossly pointless, all of it, your waste of a degree and waste of brain-space that thinks you can make up stories and people that matter. You remind yourself that you are largely sheltered, that people in places are dying because of atrocities you have only heard about and cannot picture as part of the real, hard truth of living. In this mindset, of course you stop writing. None of it matters in the real world, where other struggles seem so much louder than you own. You remember that one professor who said writing cannot be taught. You figure you might as well remain silent.

On your endless commutes, you listen to podcasts about writing and read about writing and talk about writing to your old classmates, many of whom are in the same amorphous place as you are. You linger in the terrible space of “What now?” for what feels like too long. At some point you stop talking to your classmates, even, because at a certain point you feel you’ve reached the maximum number of complaints you can make about the ambiguities of life and your role within it.

A year passes and two very important things happen. One, you listen to a podcast interview featuring Mat Johnson. He shares things you’ve heard before, but it is the genuineness in his voice that surprises you, especially after consuming so many interviews where it seems as though the writer is in a perpetual state of mental anguish and self-hate. These qualities may be true for Johnson (they are true for many people), but you focus on his authenticity as he discusses the things that matter to him about mixed race and identity — and the difficulties he has faced finding a “place” for his fiction and experiences. Despite those difficulties, he did what you could not do — he continued writing and producing because he believed, and continues to believe, that his ambiguous background — and the thoughts that bleed through it — matters. And it does. By exploring that ambiguity, Johnson is expressing a contemporary truth. He is offering a mode of understanding to people whose lives are not clearly defined; he is speaking about the people who are composed of torn-off pieces of many different labels. He believes in this endeavor. You are jolted into awareness as you listen because you, too, have struggled with ideas of mixed identity that make you feel unqualified to discuss — but they are your struggles, and true for a growing population of people, and they carry weight. You think about your own labels — woman, Latina, Californian — and consider the fact that you’ve never felt comfortable labeling yourself a writer because you’ve never felt as though your experiences and thoughts are truly worth sharing — and even then, who would read them? Who would care? You think about these questions in terms of Johnson, and you realize his answer: he cares, so he writes.

Two, you are tasked with the responsibility of writing two letters of recommendation for a student who is receiving educational consulting at work. This is your first big task as part of the team, so you tackle it fully, ghostwriting on behalf of the professionals who have asked your student to write her own letters. So, in a sense, you pretend to be a student pretending to be her professors, and you realize halfway through the writing that you feel completely, irrevocably wrong. Even though you are assured that writing on behalf of recommenders is common, you don’t realize until after the fact that you essentially sold your skills and pushed aside personal convictions (idealistic, romantic notions of the role of recommendations) to get a job done. You feel like you did when you were copywriting freelance blog posts for faceless companies — like you produced nothingness, just worked for an hour on something that would never impact the public consciousness, never reveal the truth of a single layer of humanity to another soul beyond the admissions representative who would glance, passingly, at the effusive praise of your empty writing.

The word “integrity” enters your mind and you turn it around in the area of your brain normally reserved for existential crises. You pick the word apart and wonder why it sticks. “Integrity,” you say as you speak to your boss about your reservations. “Integrity,” you say as you stand up for yourself and your writing, thinking of Mat Johnson and his sense of purpose, thinking of that professor who said writing cannot be taught. “Integrity,” you type into the glowing keyboard of your Mac at home. This is what it tells you:




  1. Adherence to moral and ethical principals, chiefly in regards to your worth as a creator and your (presently tenuous) ability to state, loudly, that your beliefs, perspectives, and life matter; they belong in the conversation of human existence because no other person     is you, and you are able to share yourself as a person who subverts labels and lives       somewhere between woman/Latina/Californian because only parts of those labels truly             define you.
  2. Honesty, not only in your own abilities, but also in your own writing — because that vulnerable, steadily growing strength is what will remind you of your own personal      legitimacy.

You consider the stories that have sprung up from your multifaceted experiences as a second-generation, none-Spanish-speaking, Hispanic female. You think about the time you spoke in your professor’s Mixed-Race Novel class about growing up marking “Mexican” on scholarship applications but knowing, absolutely and entirely, that the truest label that can possibly describe you is “American.” You remember how openly the classroom of other mixed-race students accepted your perspectives, saying that they, too, felt shoved somewhere in the middle of two camps. You are not a writer of women’s fiction. You are not a Chicana. You are, if anything, a Californian human who has felt the seismic shifts of receiving something like a National Hispanic Scholar Award and wondering why you have to be identified by your race and not your accomplishments. You are, you are, you are — and you must write every detail you have noticed about the world around you, every person who has lingered in your mind, every experience that lends itself to story because, as you remind yourself, everything will be filtered through your unique lens as a middle class, Inland Empire, mixed-race-mixed-culture individual, and that alone means that your writing has something important to say. You write forever and don’t even begin to capture the smallest portion of your existence — and yet, that’s okay, because you have no reason to worry or doubt your ability to work. You have integrity. You believe in yourself and the stories you want to share.

You agree that writing cannot be taught. It must be felt, and that cannot be taught in a classroom or through assignments. It must come from an unshakable place of the writer’s mind that is self-sustaining, autonomous, and receptive to the surrounding world. Another professor once told you that the writer does not matter — the story matters. The reader will not know anything about the author, but the reader will know the world you create and the experiences you allow them to feel.

You believe it. And so, you write.


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This Author’s Meltdown is Everything You Shouldn’t Do With Bad Feedback

“Narcissus” by Caravaggio (Source)

The beauty of a Creative Writing workshop is that it is intended to function as a safe, constructive space to honestly assess the areas for improvement in a piece of fiction. This is the intention. There’s also a huge risk with workshops, which is that sometimes people come to class not giving a single shit, or giving one too many shits, and then the idea of “constructive” crits go out the window as everything devolves into a cacophony of victimized terror.

One of the things that I hated was when writers brought in shrunken-down portions of their novels-in-progress. Not chapters from novels — if that was the case, students were instructed to also compose a synopsis that explained the context of the chapter so we could critique it through that lens. No, what I really hated was when students felt compelled to bring in their novel, but because it clocked in at 40 pages instead of the maximum 20, they tore out sections and basically presented a heavily abridged version of the text. This was problematic because, nine times out of ten, the writer did not process any critiques the class shared. Why would they? The writer could sit and think, “You just don’t understand what I was intending. You just don’t understand the larger piece.” That line of thinking basically translates into an hour of wasted time for everyone involved — and I’m not a fan of wasting time.

Not only that, but in most of the workshops I attended, the writer of the piece being workshopped was not allowed to speak — like, at all. And that was great. Because it allowed the conversation to exist around him or her, and it allowed the author to blend into the background as the story was naturally critiqued without any interruption. When an author interrupts a critique, that’s when things get messy. And all of this, in essence, is what happened in this recent Goodreads exchange.

When a reviewer offered her honest evaluation of a novel — rating it one star because of the author’s “unnecessarily wordy and pretentious” writing style — the author committed a grand faux pas by replying to her — and then continuing to reply to her, berating her, insulting her intelligence as a human being (“Do you have empathy? Do you know what it’s like to make something for a living? Are you human?”). His justification for his comments reminded me almost exactly of the writers from my workshops who felt like the class simply didn’t understand the larger intent of the text, or even the author’s purpose in writing. Intents and purposes are noble considerations, sure, especially because the author in question believes that he is “trying to warn people what’s going on in this world so that they can protect themselves and help others.” However, choosing to freak out over negative feedback in such a defensive way — hell, even replying to it in the first place — is hugely problematic because it ignores the basic beauty of putting your work out into the world.

Writing is about discovery on a personal and communal level. Yes. That sounds artsy. But it’s true: the things that strike me as fascinating or horrific or engaging might be completely outside the realm of experience or interest of another person, and that’s completely fine. This means that we might not enjoy the same things that other people enjoy. And oh my god, that’s wonderful, because it provides an honest opportunity to learn what stimulates the interest of other people.

This also has a lot to do with the foundation of a successful discussion about writing: personal feelings have to be discarded because, at the end of the day, the only thing that truly matters is your work. Not your intent, or how much you researched the topic, or even how many hours you put into it (although those are all worthwhile) — the thing that people will see is the writing and story, and if something is causing people to lose interest or miss something you have perceived as a necessary part of the piece, it is vital to learn that through the perspectives of others.

One of my professors is fond of saying to writers, “You don’t matter.” And it’s true. The words matter, and for this reviewer, the words the author presented weren’t working for her. This is valid. Since this is a published work and not a workshop environment, though, the author should not have defended himself, as he justifies later in his comment train; instead, he should have continued working, continued getting feedback, and continued developing as an artist. Really. I understand the desire to justify your actions or defend your work, I do. But in an open review forum like Goodreads, wherein the success of its reviews rely on honest and fully formed opinions, the line of thinking is similar to the depths of a workshop: process the good and the bad and move on.

Could the reviewer have phrased her initial comment in more constructive terms? Absolutely (and she even offers to provide a more in-depth analysis of the book’s shortcomings). But that doesn’t change the issues with this author’s response, or its biggest lesson to writers: Bad reviews will happen, and you should never, ever, not ever take them personally.

The thing that crystalized my issue with his replies was when he quotes David Lynch by stating:

If you have a golfball-sized consciousness, when you read a book, you’ll have a golfball-sized understanding; when you look out a window, a golfball-sized awareness, when you wake up in the morning, a golfball-sized wakefulness; and as you go about your day, a golfball-sized inner happiness. But if you can expand that consciousness, make it grow, then when you read about that book, you’ll have more understanding; when you look out, more awareness; when you wake up, more wakefulness; as you go about your day, more inner happiness.

The irony of this statement: the author himself holds a golfball-sized perspective on his work, and instead of allowing himself to consider the perspective the reviewer offered, he fought to maintain an iron hold on his own angry understanding.

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My Top 5 Necessary Follows for Reading and Writing

Source. Downtowne Books, Riverside, CA.

Source. Downtowne Bookstore, Riverside, CA.

While I was in undergrad, it felt stupid-easy to keep track of important readings, literary goings-on, and overall Creative Writing drama because I was surrounded by people who knew all the info I didn’t know. I could smile and nod as professors spoke about things like “Pushcart nominees” and “National Book Awards” and “a big reading in LA.” I was, for all intents and purposes, a literary leech, but it worked.

This leeching completely shifted once I graduated; all of a sudden, I felt like this literary conversation was still happening, but three blocks away from me and on the nicer side of town. And, as is true for most things after college, I had to figure out how to get information on my own. For the sake of entering that conversation, here’s my list of resources I’ve used over the past year to stay in the loop and learn new things about writing, reading, and publishing.

1. Literary Hub’s newsletter. Oh, blessed be this list. Aside from hosting tons of great features, Lit Hub compiles articles of note from around the web and delivers them to your inbox on the daily. The links range from interviews to articles about writing, and span the gamut of websites emerging writers should know (The Millions, LARB, and The Rumpus, among others). The best part: in case you forget to check out a link, or accidentally delete a daily as you’re frantically clearing all the potentially virus-heavy spam from your Gmail, Lit Hub sends a weekly aggregate of the biggest stories.

2. Electric Literature’s Recommended Readings. On the whole, Electric Literature is a wonderful website to have bookmarked, favorited, and frequently viewed, but its Recommended Readings Tumblr specifically features beautiful (and weekly) new stories recommended by editors and writers. Featuring both familiar and emerging authors, each story is accompanied by an in-depth editor’s note. It’s a lit journal without the commitment, and if you’re an inbox-happy person like I am, you can subscribe to get an email every time a new story is published.

3.  Short Story Thursdays. New fiction is vital, but keeping up with the classics is also a necessary part of being a well-read and decent human being. Short Story Thursdays follows a simple philosophy: email to join, and then read the classic story that is sent to you every Thursday. Each email is prefaced by a beautiful, meandering, and occasionally violent intro from founder Jacob Tomsky, which adds to the charm of each story and potential shame of not reading them.

4. The Nervous Breakdown’s Book Club. It’s super easy to fall into a rut of reading the same type of fiction, especially if you’re like me and think literary fiction is a huge and stupid label and how do I even find what’s happening from smaller presses? TNB’s book club sends its members a book every 30 days for $10 per month. It’s an endlessly easy way to read a diverse range of authors and genres (fiction/nonfiction/memoirs/everything), and you can become that cool person who lends books out to people because “It reminded me of you, yo.” As an added bonus, each featured author is later interviewed by the website’s founder on Otherppl, a literary podcast that has become a staple of my otherwise non-literary commute.

5. Twitter. Yes. Twitter. All of it. When I graduated, I went on a frenzy and found as many literary magazines/organizations I could find, and followed the hell out of them. If you lurk your Twitter feed and infrequently tweet like I do, there are so many benefits to this act of frantic lit following: not only do you get to keep track of any open submission periods, but it also exposes to you to the variety of journals available as other journals become recommended to you and, occasionally, cold-follow you. The Reject Pile is one such follow that I’m super excited to track once it gets up and running, primarily so I can submit all my future rejections in a show of “I’m okay, I’m a writer, I’m okay.”

Those are the resources I’ve grown to love since I graduated — what websites do you use to keep track of new releases and the latest lit news? And yes, it feels strange and awkward to write that as a question into a blog article. But you should tell me anyway, so I can check it out. Yes? Do it.

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5 Ways Postgrad Life is a Series of Interconnected Ironies

Photo by Bev Lloyd-Roberts LRPS

Photo by Bev Lloyd-Roberts LRPS

  1. You have the means and motivation to buy Poptarts in bulk, but exercise enough self-control to only buy small boxes at a time. You understand, on some level, that this habit is more expensive over time, but it shields you from the judging eyes of perceptive cashiers who can tell, somehow, that you are not buying that family-sized pack of pastries for a family of four.
  1. You filed taxes this year because your mom set up a Turbotax account for you, and then on April 14th when she asked how they went, you groaned sonorously from the couch. She ended up filing everything for you and getting a decent return because, as she said, you filed as an independent this year, a statement that carried such a great amount of irony that you laughed and laughed and laughed.
  1. You applied for a service industry job to get some “life experience in the trenches,” and expected to work with some high school punks slinging coffee beans like they’re hot, or whatever. Instead you were faced with mirrored images of you — other postgrads who had applied years ago, back when the largest drink size was a venti, and remained because the benefits were good and pay was decent. You also work with a few punks who are actually reasonably good kids trying to get themselves through college and out of, and then back into, this spin-cycle of minimum wage perpetuity. You actually enjoy your work until around the third month, when a kindly customer asks about your future plans and you say you’re getting ready to go to graduate school/a salaried job/the Peace Corps soon, even though you haven’t done much more than click over to and glare.
  1. You visit your college and grab a drink with friends who have yet to graduate, and when they ask about postgrad life you sip slowly from a dark beer and ponder the question. A cigarette (lit or unlit, nothing matters anymore) is in your hand. They repeat the question because you haven’t said anything for a solid minute. You sip again and cough because that sip was all foam. Instead of replying you get up, drop a number of bills on the table that may or may not have equaled your total, and consider the idea that everything is ahead of you, that you’ve studied and graduated without quite knowing what you were preparing for, that your entire life is composed of a series of choices that rest largely on your shoulders and that you either need to start choosing now or remain behind the register forever.
  1. You buy a family-size pack of Poptarts and eat them in your car because you goddamn can.

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Literary Palate Cleansers and the “Brooklynite” Novel

Bibliowhat — Palate Cleanser

Courtesy of the New York Tribune.

Once, at work, my manager was cleaning the counters before opening hour. He’d accidentally added too much bleach to some cleaning solution, and was complaining that the only thing he could smell was the antiseptic tang of Clorox — and, sure enough, I felt a faint burning in my nose, too. That smell was the only thing I could focus on; I tried covering my nose with the collar of my shirt, but that bleached sharpness fought its way through the cotton like water through a filter.

Then, my manager remembered a thing he’d heard about coffee. He said the smell of coffee can get rid of even the most lingering of scents, functioning like a glass of water between bites of a very rich, very gastronomical meal; we shoved our faces into bags of whole beans, and like magic, the smell of warmth and toasty, nutty earth completely cleared our senses.

This is the way I think about reading. I recently read four stories in close succession — Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Courtney Maum’s I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, Tom Rachman’s The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, and a short story by Laura Van den Berg called “Where We Must Be.” The first three novels bummed me out, and not in a good way — I finished the books wondering the following things:

  • Why were all the major characters childlike, meta-depressive, irrationally manic pixies?
  • Why did the final 50 pages completely invalidate everything I had read prior to that point?
  • Why do I feel so unfulfilled?

All three novels contained beautiful writing, fascinating settings, and the potential for such great action. Instead, though, the authors seemed more focused on the characters’ inward dilemmas, rather than considering their progressions as people living in a world that operates despite them, not around them. And each of these novels, regardless of their collective praise, felt plagued by this lingering sensation of self-centeredness; the characters cared and thought about nobody but themselves, and that led to the brunt of their issues.

Take Richard Haddon, for instance. As the protagonist of Maum’s novel, the book begins with his affair, plenty of self-hate, and completely clouded thinking. The novel is about Richard and his wife ultimately trying to love each other again, but the factors that contribute to Richard’s actions are unfounded; why does he suddenly care about his family again? Why should we care about his struggles? And, spoiler — why does his wife suddenly decide to bring him back into her life by the book’s end?

Fans of the book will attribute all of these issues to details from the story (the special painting was sold / he doesn’t realize what he has / she misses their life), but as a reader, I missed one crucial thing: Richard’s own development. We spent so much time learning about his distastes that we never actually got to see his strengths; I wanted to see Richard work through the rationale of his decisions, not wordlessly decide to graffiti the sidewalk in front of his home to proclaim his love for his wife.

Why is this important? It shows us that Richard is a living, thinking human, not just a character sketch of an artist.

I’m not arguing morality. I know that selfish thinking is a very human trait. But reading about the same problems and seeing things magically work themselves out in the book’s finale over and over again — it gets tiring by the final page. One of my professors calls this type of novel “Brooklynite,” even when it comes from LA authors. As I’ve gathered it to mean, these are books that sacrifice the portrayal of human emotion for surface-level storytelling; logical character developments are disregarded for leaps and plenty of leeway.

Enter the palate cleanser.

I was feeling frustrated with reading about the same type of protagonist over and over again. I wanted something different — something I could sink my teeth into, and feel completely absorbed. I’m subscribed to Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading series, and clicked over to “Where We Must Be” because of its promises of Bigfoot — and, by the time I’d scrolled to the end of the story, I had finally felt what I’d been missing for months.

I’m not going to call it passion, because even I’m not cliché enough to say that, but I did feel like I had read something acutely real. The main character, Jean, became a character I could experience; I felt her pain as her boss let her go, and I felt her cautious release when she stands in the lake with Jimmy. I believed in her, and I felt her worth, and I wanted her to be alive so I could speak with her in person — and I hadn’t gotten that from any of the prior novels I’d spent weeks with. I felt more human emotion from a short story than I felt in an 800-page behemoth.

I’m not going to say that it is wrong to write characters like Richard — he’s just another part of fiction, another type of person occupying a corner of written language. But I do feel like I needed to read Van den Berg’s story, not only because it was beautiful — but also because I had to be reminded of what good characters can do. Moreover, I needed to experience what good fiction can do.

I’m moving into different reading territory now — Joyce Carol Oates is next on my list, and ZZ Packer soon after. I don’t want to wonder at the logic or sound-mindedness of protagonists; I want to feel sadness and hope and joy, and feel entrenched in a world I don’t quite want to leave. I didn’t feel that with Maum or Rachman or Tartt — but I’m still looking, and still reading, and really, that’s the most important thing.

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Book Rant: Why I Hated The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers Tom Rachman review

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Tom Rachman’s The Rise & Fall of Great Powers delivers one of the most devastating, full-circle endings I have recently encountered. My largest issue with this story, then, doesn’t lie with Rachman’s vision of his main character, Tooly (yes, that’s her name, and no, she’s not the lead host of a children’s show), and the upheaval of her world; rather, the greatest flaw of Great Powers is this: By the time the reader begins to truly feel for the plights of the novel’s protagonist, 200 out of 384 pages have passed, which is frustrating enough to throw this slog of a book out the window.

We begin the story in a Welsh village bookstore. Tooly, the bookstore’s owner, is a complicated woman with a messy history, which we glimpse in pieces — and along three different timelines — throughout the course of the novel. In 1988, Tooly is a child living in Thailand with a socially awkward man named Paul. 1999 presents college-aged Tooly, who spends her time in the following ways: finding excuses to scout people’s homes; entertaining her elderly companion, Humphrey; and interloping with Venn, a mysterious charmer. In 2011, present-day Tooly leaves her bookstore in an attempt to decipher the details of her past life.

Rachman’s writing style is fluid and vivid, clearly capable of evoking the charm and mannerisms of Humphrey, the vividness of the book stacks that pepper the novel’s world, and the conflict between modernity and antiquity. You’ll notice the vagueness of that sentence’s final clause — stay with me. I’m writing with purpose. I feel like Great Powers suffers from something that feels, in retrospect, rather cheap. We feel the mystery and thrill as Tooly’s past life slowly unwinds, with small bits of revelation peppered into the mix; we keep reading in hopes that things begin to transform into fully formed ideas, thoughts, rewards for sticking through to the very end.

Old-world Humphrey, for instance, is the picture of antiquity; he reads volumes by “Great Thinkers” (his words) voraciously, using them to educate Tooly throughout her childhood after she leaves her home with Paul. By contrast, modern-day Tooly encounters people swamped by technology, smartphones, and computers that feel alien to her. Tooly is consistently an outsider, placed on the outskirts of society by her mannerisms and upbringing — and, as we learn, her entire posse is to blame.

Rachman’s fatal flaw was stuffing the book up with three characters — no, really, four — who are, in essence, the same person. Five of the principle staff all struggle with questions of identity and falsehoods, presenting a front that suggests one thing and really hides a deeper unknown. I can see this shtick flying with one character — hell, in modern literary circles, an existential and identity-lacking someone is almost necessary. But four wandering characters, including the protagonist, did nothing but create a total headache of circular actions. I can only suspend my disbelief so far. And in this case, the idea that Venn would be able to scam literally everyone in the story — and then completely destroy Tooly’s image of him at the book’s end — made the entire prior storylines with him feel like complete farce. And that, by extension, begs the question: Why even waste our time with him?

There’s a difference between artful withholding of information and outright cheating. By the time the story had concluded, and by the time the last 50 pages had revealed all the answers to the questions I had sought, my patience had worn thin as a reader; I wanted to see Tooly react to these world-shaking bits of information, and I wanted to see her struggle to forge a new identity in a completely new world. Instead, we see build-up without release. We see Rachman build these vague contrasts and conflicts — other points of discussion include suburban America, individual identity, the dissolution of family, an unending bashing of technology — but to what end?

An example: When present-day Tooly returns to New York City, she boards with the family of her ex-boyfriend, Duncan, while she visits and attempts to mend a much older and decrepit Humphrey. We meet Mac, Duncan’s socially awkward son (social awkwardness is a trend, if you couldn’t tell), who is the only person to actually spark an ailing Humphrey’s interest when they meet in the middle of the novel. It seems like Rachman is beginning to offer a solution to the conflict between new technology and antiquity — look, the young Millennial can bring the old geezer out of his shell! — but then, at the story’s end, Mac is completely dropped. He is a completely different person who says that kindly Humphrey “smelled gross” in a way that still makes me want to smack him.

Tooly is, at the book’s core, the victim – she was taken from her home, raised in a dysfunctional mishmash of places, and steadfastly admired one of the most despicable characters in the story. Her childlike sense of obliviousness to the world is understandable, on some level, but present-day Tooly is in her 30s. She’s trapped in her own world of mismatched socks and distant personal relationships, which might have worked for her as a college-aged kid, but doesn’t work for her as the story reaches its climactic end. Honestly, the true story is how adult-aged Tooly reacts to the upheaval of her world — not the slow unraveling of all of these plotlines revealing just how messed up her upbringing truly was. I didn’t care about that as much as I cared about this person I had just followed for over 300 pages. But, by the time we approach Tooly becoming a better person — changing into a stronger character, really having a chance to become her own person — the story ends and everyone has disappeared.

I still maintain the ending is devastating, solely because of the way Humphrey’s storyline wraps up. But I hesitate to call it a true ending — really, it feels like the story’s middle. Had Rachman spent less time taking his reader through the wild and messy world of Tooly’s past, and more time developing the Tooly of today, this might have been a truly incredible novel — but for now, it’s just a series of plotlines jerking the reader along to its conclusion, creating beautiful scenes without meaning, spinning tall tales in the air and letting them fall to dust.

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Lessons from Girlchild

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

I’ve recommended Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild to three different people for three completely different reasons. One was a classmate interested in exploring mother-daughter dynamics in her fiction; another wanted proof that poetry could function as prose. The other friend just wanted a great read, which — despite its mixed reviews on Goodreads (“It never allowed Rory to have a voice” is my most aggravating favorite) — Girlchild is definitely a good read, and doubly so if you’re studying craft.

In Girlchild, Hassman takes a handful of devastatingly big themes — alcoholism, abuse, socioeconomic struggles — and fractures them into a series of smaller parts. I wouldn’t even wholly call them chapters; some sections feel like prose poems, and others feel like mixed media selections that build and move toward their devastating conclusion. I’ve read it twice now — once for pleasure, and once to focus on the methods through which Hassman achieves her goals. One of the biggest things I’ve pulled from the story is actually one of the things people seem to complain about most frequently online — it’s a nonlinear story, and the glimpses we are given pay very little service to the reader. No, this isn’t a bad thing.

Hassman’s style toes the line between stark beauty and youthful fragility, and she does it while vividly building the Calle, a town located just outside of Reno, NV. We follow the titular girlchild, Rory Dawn, in different moments of her life. The larger story follows her turbulent childhood, but subplots detail her burgeoning friendship with a real Girl Scout, the history of her mother’s struggles, and the rugged rules of life in the Calle. The best way to describe the way these plots are presented is some combination of the words scattered, brief, and gut-kicking. And yes, sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why we need to read a chapter of notes from the social worker studying Rory’s home life, or why we need to read snippets of the letters Rory’s grandma sends to her — but I think this is one of the beauties of the book.

This story cares about Rory, and the portions of her life that matter to her. Information is withheld and misplaced and misrepresented because it is filtered through Rory’s character and the way she moves through the world in different portions of her life — and that commitment is powerful. Hassman intentionally does not hold the reader’s hand (nobody holds Rory’s hand, either). This isn’t the reader’s story — it’s Rory’s.

One chapter is almost entirely blacked out, like a page full of redacted information noted only by its title, “flicker,” and singular lines that cue the reader into the horror of what lies behind the page’s blackness. One page in this chapter is almost entirely black, save for a single line toward the bottom: “opening my fist is telling,” and the line’s lost presence on the bottom of the page packs as much punch as any bit of blackout poetry because, at that point in the story, we know the character saying that line and we know the difficulties she is going through. It’s rough. And it’s huge.

Early in the book — regarding the way Rory’s grandmother marks up her letters — our narrator says, “Mother. That’s what all Grandma’s underlines and exclamation points are for, to try to make me believe a thing I know she lost faith in a long time ago, as if extra ink can make up for using the wrong words in the first place, can turn a lie into the truth or blot out all the mistakes a Hendrix ever made in caring for her children and letting them go.” And suddenly, any correspondence we read from Rory’s grandmother changes; now, it’s almost as if her writings are an act of penance, apologizing for her faults and the faults of Rory’s mother, hidden behind upbeat ramblings and many punctuation marks. This changes things, and it brings greater emotion to the letters we’ve read and continue to read in the book — a change that comes directly from what Rory is willing to share with the reader. The letters suddenly feel even more important to her because she is aware the purpose they’re trying to serve — and suddenly, they carry more depth.

I feel like one of the concerns that pops up in a lot of writerly minds is this: “Will anyone understand what I’m saying?” It’s a legitimate concern, and it’s tied into the vulnerability of putting everything you know and feel for a character and his or her world out in the open. It’s also partially tied to the idea of marketability, and whether you need to write for the reader, or write with the reader in mind. While I do believe that writers need to at least consider who their ideal audience might be, a novel like Girlchild showcases the power of ignoring that concern. All of the book’s 289 pages revolve around Rory, because she is the person who matters in the story; this is her life, not the reader’s, and the methods Hassman uses to reveal snippets of her life serve, in my mind, to take Rory’s life to greater depths.

Goodreads reviews be damned. Read Girlchild. It’s worth your time.

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The agony of taking one step toward writing/literally anything potentially icky

"Bewitched Park" by Leonid Afremov

“Bewitched Park” by Leonid Afremov

My gig for the summer is working as a reading instructor for kids and adults. I’m teaching students how to tackle textbooks, how to improve their reading speeds, how to care about a book that seems totally outside their life experiences, and how to talk about great fiction. This job is exhausting. I never realized how draining teaching could be. Most nights, I immediately collapse on my bed in whatever I wore to work for the day, smelling like Expo markers and book glue.

Despite the general exhaustion, here’s one thing that I’ve pulled from this experience that has benefitted me entirely: the idea of taking one step forward.

In the classroom, it looks like this: If I know a student is struggling, or if I know I should speak to that student directly, or if I need to step in and talk about a behavioral issue or something else potentially icky, there are two paths I can take. One, I can avoid the situation and hope it resolves itself. Or, the better of the two, I can take one step toward the situation. I trust myself to know how to handle most classroom situations, and at bare minimum I can flub my way toward a compromise, but taking that first step is the hardest part, because it’s the first step in committing myself to trying to figure out a problem. It’s opening up the potential for failure, too, and the longer I delay that step, the longer I can delay potentially failing in my duty as a teacher.

But if I take that first step, I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into the situation at hand. Usually, I realize something like this: Oh. I didn’t need to hesitate. I do, in fact, know how to work through this situation.

This is important.

This is the part where I bring the point of my introduction into the topic of writing.

I’m experiencing a lot of false starts in my writing. I currently have three windows open to three different projects I want to work on, but they’ve been largely untouched because every time I sit down with the intent of continuing their stories, I end up freezing up in some way. I’ll write endless To Do lists, spend time “researching” (read: Facebook/Twitter/Reddit), or just write an outline of ideas instead of actually bumping up the page count of whichever story’s first draft.

But today, I took one step forward. And it has made all the difference.

It’s so easy to perpetually exist in a state of I’ll-get-this-done-eventually. And a lot of the time, once I actually, seriously, actively focus on writing, I can get work done. The difficult part, of course, is taking that first step and committing myself to a project that I’m afraid of seeing fail — or something I’m afraid won’t matter to anybody but me.

(Those are bad thoughts. They’re normal thoughts, but they’re also toxic. I have to remind myself that, when I’m writing a first draft, I’m writing it for me, not an audience.)

I have to sit down and take a step toward my goal — writing 1,000 words per day, finishing a scene, adding four more paragraphs — because, however small or large my goal may be, taking one step is just part of finishing that first draft, and getting closer to understanding what my story might be. That’s what I did today — I told myself I’d write one page in one hour, and I sat down during a free block of time and took one step toward continuing where I’d left off. I wrote a sentence. And then repeated. And repeated.

And I reached two goddamn pages. #murica

It’s a rough scene and it doesn’t totally establish what I want it to establish just yet — but it’s moving my story along, and helping me realize its larger purpose. And that’s a success.

The potential for failure is terrifying, and it’s so tempting to listen to that voice in the back of my mind telling me that I should have been literally anything but a Creative Writing major. But then I remind myself: I have a story to tell, and the only way it is going to be told is if I take one step forward.

And then I step.

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Revision, as opposed to destruction, also known as avoidance

From "The Cutting-Edge Physics of a Crumpled Paper Ball," Wired

From “The Cutting-Edge Physics of a Crumpled Paper Ball,” Wired

In one of my intro classes last year, my writing instructor had us hold up the first drafts of our stories and crumple them into paper balls. She’d told us it was representative of the power of revision, and the necessity of our willingness to recognize that the first draft is never the last. I don’t agree with the crumbling analogy, though — I feel like I would have gone with something less destructive. Because, really, beginning revision can be one of two things:

  1. Surface-level line edits, in which a few commas are placed and some sentences rearranged
  2. Total, annihilating, apocalyptic destruction of the original story

I’ve been guilty of #2 for a while. I’d bring a story into workshop, gather notes, and decide I needed to totally switch the story because I’d suddenly realized that this should be told from the supporting character’s point of view, you guys, obviously. Fitzgerald did it, why can’t I? Or I’d completely alter the character; same name, but now this guy is like, super tough and angry, when before he was too much of a pushover, you know? Or, a little more commonly, I’d dump the idea altogether because “I just lost interest in it,” moving onto another story idea and waiting until the last moment to write it for a class deadline.

I realized something, though. With some of those stories I’d written and forgotten, I hadn’t “lost interest” in the story — I was just afraid of revising it, endlessly, forever, never quite knowing when it was finally done.

It’s one thing to write a story and feel like it’s so utterly full of promise. It’s a false success; you feel like you’ve accomplished something and can set it aside. And yes, you can, and should, but the hardest thing to accept about creative writing is this: the first draft is only the beginning. It’s easy to look at something and say that it’s just rough right now, but in a few drafts, it’ll really shine.

The hurdle, of course, is actually getting revising the damn thing. And the biggest thing that has been holding me back is fear.

I experienced my first truly successful revision a few days ago. I had written the first two chapters of a novel in third-person narration, set in a place like my hometown, involving a big cast of characters reacting to a robbery. My protagonist is male, and I had decided to stick to omniscience because, as I realize now, I was afraid of writing a character whose gender is not my own. In my workshop, my classmates had told me that the narration was too distanced; it felt counterproductive, and like we were spending too much time seeing what was happening in the landscape instead of getting to know the characters.

So, on a Sunday, twenty-four hours before its deadline, I rewrote the thing. I allowed myself to enter the mind of my character and wrote it from his point of view, constantly asking myself if I was writing lines that felt like his, or just writing them because they sounded pretty. I wanted to avoid being authorial; I wanted to let my character dictate the actions, movements, and focal points of the story. And, by the time I handed it to my professor, I felt proud — I’d actually revised the story, and hadn’t demolished it entirely. I’d listened to my classmates and my gut, and had cut out the flowery prose that had initially come from my own heavy hand. I’d taken my time with the characters and world, and condensed two chapters into one introduction.

And it’s still so rough. But that’s okay.

With my earlier failures at revision, I was always drawn to scrapping my initial attempt entirely, which is absolutely a form of avoidance. I wanted to avoid the slog of having to go back into my story and really look at my weaknesses, and where I’d failed. And, really, I’d also wanted to avoid the realization that I wasn’t going to receive instant gratification with whatever project I was working on; writing, as I’ve come to understand, is a long-term thing. And to do it successfully, you have to stick with it for the long haul. You have to look at your rough drafts and maintain the willingness to polish them.

It may take twenty more drafts until I feel legitimately solid about this story I’m trying to tell. One of my professors told me that she revises projects at least one hundred times, which is terrifying, but also something that a part of me understands. After my first successful revision, I’m closer to the story I want to tell, but I’m still along way from really understanding many of the characters and what makes them tick. And really, it’s kind of like getting to know someone for the first time. Rarely do you know everything about them after you first meet; you have a first impression, but to really know someone, you have to spend time with them. Each revision is my attempt to spend time with my characters, world, and story, and right now it feels like it’s going to take forever.

But this time around, I’m not afraid.

Well, okay, I’m still terrified. But I’m writing.

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