Benjamin Percy is one of my favorite writers—I just finished reading Red Moon and absolutely loved it—and now he’s laid down a great bit on the art of teaching, and what emerging writers need to focus on:
You can’t teach talent, but you can teach people how to read strenuously and mimic the moves of rock-star writers so that they eventually accumulate a toolbox of skills. No different than baseball players or ballerinas or painters or pianists. A writing teacher is a coach. I’m forcing them to watch footage of games repeatedly. I’m adjusting their form. I’m showing them the way colors mix together, the way to play with light and shadow. I’m giving them exercises to elongate a second beat or shorten a third and create a magician’s lilt to their music. I’m yelling at them when they’re being lazy and whispering soothingly when they want to give up and cry and clapping them on the back when they finally pull off a great stunt.
I hope that when I am finally able to pursue an MFA program, I can have professors like Percy. I want someone to yell at me in a voice as amazing as his and then pat me on the back, even just once. And, maybe, that would be a good enough reason to pour a little whiskey, raise our glasses in celebration.
I don’t have anything profound to say about what happened in Boston. It’s awful, and I hope those who are injured physically and emotionally are able to heal up as best they can.
What happened in the aftermath of the incident, all over the Internet, was both compelling and deeply sad. The news spread on social media almost immediately, with scattered reports coming in here and there, nothing confirmed, everything still in question. And as many offered their condolences and stopped pushing out self-promotional tweets or jokes, those who were still not aware of the situation and did so were harassed for being “crass” or “offensive.” Of course, these people simply hadn’t gotten the news yet—it had been only minutes since the bombs exploded.
And out of respect, many people simply shut down public operations, perhaps in a “moment of silence” for those who were injured or worse. I thought I’d do the same, even though almost no one is listening. The thing was, according to my to-do list, I was supposed to submit a story to a few literary magazines before the end of the day.
That brought up an interesting predicament. Was I supposed to go ahead and submit, and take the risk of editors on the other end thinking I’m callous for trying to promote my own work, in a very tangential way, during a time of tragedy? The chance of that happening was extraordinarily slim, considering my piece would probably enter a slush pile to be read some weeks or months later. Even then, there was this overwhelming sentiment that things should cool off. With that in mind, I decided to just write another few hundred words and throw in a bit of editing to make up for my lack of submission.
How long does that last? Today, the writers I follow on Twitter are back to self-promotion. Is that timeline proportional to the extent of the loss? I’ve always believed it’s never “too soon” for comedians to make jokes about tragic situations, this timeframe of respectful silence is more difficult to gauge. I think it’s passed, in part because we can’t let these kinds of attacks shake us or change the way we live. Still, there’s a strangeness in actively trying to further my writing career while others are still mourning or recuperating.
As I said, there’s nothing profound to say. And that’s all. Time to be thankful for what I still have, and keep on working.
So happy to read this interview with one of my old professors, Harold Scheub, about, in part, the nature of storytelling. Scheub says:
In Southern Africa, the storytellers did not get paid, this is not their profession. The fact is that everybody told stories. And this really fascinated me. Storytelling, I learned very early, is a means of communicating, probably the means of communicating ideas, and communicating the organization of a society. And so it seems to me it’s necessary that everybody in one way or another be a storyteller.
Storytellers are constantly in the process of taking ancient images and casting them into contemporary kinds of forms. And so there’s no such thing as an original story. I don’t care where it is, whether it’s written or oral, the fact is that every story has been heard before. Every story has been told before. So if we’re looking for originality we’re going to find it, but in unique kinds of ways. We’re not going to find it in the way the story is told, we’re not going to find it in the story itself. It’s that connection, that’s the important thing. Connections are everything. Connecting the present and the past, connecting the storyteller and the audience.
So you ask a difficult question, because my conclusion is that everybody is a storyteller. We all have stories to tell. And we take these stories from the same repertory. All of us.
I took Scheub’s ”The African Storyteller” class in my senior year of undergrad, in part because I had heard stories about Scheub himself, and because I wanted to get a new take on fiction. I had read plenty of American and British literature, and analyzed it deeply, and I was in need of something different. An injection of the “alien,” one of those words that we loved, by God, to use in those literary analyses.
I was absolutely blown away by Scheub’s sheer passion for sharing these stories. And incredible stories they were. They didn’t focus in on flowery language, in part because he couldn’t ever translate them quite perfectly. They weren’t about sentences that ripped your heart out. They were about a kind of magic, which Scheub tried to convey through his own re-tellings. It was that class, more than any of my fantastic workshops, that taught me about the sheer importance of storytelling, and the reasons for why we do it: to entertain, to shape the world we know into something new and different, to continue a legacy that was born long before us or the countries in which we live.
One of his stories:
Scheub remains an inspiration to my own writing, and what I want to continue doing as I drive along this path. I still remember the day I walked out of his lecture, at the end of the semester, having been treated to a 50-minute manifesto on tolerance, equality, and, naturally, the importance of storytelling. It was fitting that class took place in Bascom Hall’s biggest lecture hall, because that way, I could walk down the dim corridor and push through the heavy wooden doors and stand at the top of the hill, look out over the city, and wonder what my place in it all would end up being.
I’m still here, trying to figure it out, telling my own stories as I can.
This is providing ample writing inspiration for me at the moment. My recently-finished piece was re-written/edited almost entirely to this series of four songs. I’ve loved Beach House for a while, now, but there’s just something about this video that gets me.
Neighbors are interesting. We live in such close proximity to these people, especially apartment dwellers like myself, and after some time together, we start to recognize each other’s faces. We say “hello” or hold the door for each other when one of us has groceries hanging off both arms, but we don’t really know these people. They’re on the other side of the wall, or the hallway, sometimes no more than a dozen feet, and yet we’re living completely different lives.
Case in point: I wanted to do some laundry last night. My building has two sets of washers and dryers, so it’s usually not a problem. But last night, everything was at a standstill: both washers were filled with damp clothes, the dryers filled with warm ones. Usually, this is a matter of just waiting for the person to move their loads ahead one step—still, not a problem. But after you wait for 60 minutes for the neighbor to take that step, it gets a little frustrating.
I move the laundry out of the washer, put mine in, and wait 30 minutes. I come back, and nothing has changed, which means my neighbor left their clothes sitting there for at least 90 minutes. In my opinion, that’s well beyond the threshold for the golden rule of shared laundry: Your dirty shit is not holy, and it can and will be moved if you don’t hit your deadlines.
As I’m going to pull everything out of the dryer, I’m accosted by my neighbor. Just before, I saw him and his wife out in the hallway. She had fallen, being drunk, on a Sunday night, and he was trying to pick her up. When he cussed me out and threatened to call the cops on me (?!), he couldn’t keep his eyes straight. He left as soon as he came, with me understanding just about half of what he said. Of course, I never did heard from the cops.
Getting yelled at isn’t all that frustrating, and I never felt physically threatened—he could barely stand, much less do anything to me. But now, he’s dramatically altered the balance, if you will, of the place in which I live. How am I supposed to react, now, when I see him in the hallway. Give him the finger, or turn the other cheek? Should I close that door on his face, make him drop his groceries to dig out his key?
Well, enough complaining. I’m just biding my time until some literary magazine is holding a theme issue on “laundry.” I know where I’ll be going for inspiration.
What writer isn’t getting a little tired of Narrative? Between the e-mail blasts and the criminal submission fees, there isn’t much to like. Luckily, over at Bling Theory, Johannes Lichtman is doing something about it. Notably, taking hostages and demanding ransom.
Something had to change. Something had to be done.
So I kidnapped Richard Bausch.
He’s in my basement as we speak. I’ll return him to you once I’ve received assurances that my email address will be permanently removed from your list.
You have my word that Mr. Bausch is comfortable, and so far he’s been very polite. Whenever I bring him his toast and tea, he says, “Please, call me Dick.” Then he covers the side of his mouth with his bound hands, motions to Robert Olen Butler (who’s been tied to the radiator yelling “Three months free access to Narrative Backstage if you let me go!” for the last couple hours) and whispers, “Is there any way to get him to shut up?”
I’m still on the fence when it comes to submission fees. I have a few pending submissions right now that I paid for, mostly because I thought the piece was an excellent fit for the magazine. One started taking submissions for a theme that fit perfectly with a piece I’m particularly fond of. And I know that there’s an incredibly small chance that $3 will convert into an acceptance, but I just couldn’t pass up on the opportunity. I really want to see my work in those magazines.
What I still haven’t gotten over is the price to submit to contests. I understand that contests are often necessary for a litmag’s survival, even after paying out for the prizes, but when the chances are so small, is it worth the $15 or $20? I worry that places like Narrative will become more prevalent in the future, as the economics of a litmag become more and more dire. Where writers will have to pay up-front for their work to be considered anywhere.
They say it’s the dawning of a new day in publishing—I just hope that come tomorrow, we can still afford to keep all the aspiring writers (like myself) around. We’re happy to take the scraps. We’ll crawl around and eat off the floor if it means that someday we’ll evolve enough to twist our spines and shed our fur and take our place at the table. What we won’t give up are our claws, because we’ll need those to fight for whatever is left.
This piece on Buzzfeed is absolutely terrifying. The author, Joyce Cohen, suffers from a condition called hyperacusis, which causes unbearable pain due to the amplification of sound between the eardrum and the brain. It’s a complete mystery to doctors, and there is no cure. There are no good treatments. People who suffer from it have a tendency to end their own lives, if only to stop the pain.
It felt like my ears were being filled with burning acid, my ear canals were being scraped with sandpaper, and my eardrums were being poked inward with a blunt skewer. On a scale of severity from 1 to 10, I’d give the pain a 9, maybe a 9.5. One ear rang; the other chirped and cheeped. The sound of running water shot pain through my ears, as did the crackle of a newspaper. A horn on the street outside, through soundproof windows, felt like a kick in the gut. I felt like I had the flu for a year and a week.
The audiologist with the squeaky door, incredulous when I writhed in pain at a sound as soft as a whisper, discontinued the testing because I couldn’t tolerate it. “I learn something new from my patients every day,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone as bad as you.”
I found myself giving things away, like people supposedly do before they die. When I took in the mail for my neighbor, who was out of town, I paid her credit card bills. I figured I wouldn’t need money. I’d be dead soon.
I’ve written fiction stories in the past about people who have unusual or interesting medical conditions, real or not. Figuring out how a character navigates something completely unknown to me—or anyone—is a fun challenge. But hyperacusis feels like one of those anomalies that we, on the outside, simply can’t comprehend. It’s like trying to see a skyscraper through a magnifying glass. People always say, “Write what you know,” and I tend to reply, “Bullshit,” but in this case, I think I get it. And by that, I mean I really don’t get it. I hope I never do.