Monday, June 9, 2008

Novel Approaches

As I mentioned in my first post, I write fiction, but by choice will not display any of it on Chicago Ex-Patriate. However, since I do my best to keep my thoughts in non-fiction essay format, I see no problem in discussing my fiction writing, even if I offer no physical proof (short stories, excerpts, etc.). For some reason, this reminds me of a wonderful line from the 2003 film Swimming Pool. At one point, a young antagonist tells a dour crime author: "You write about dirty things but never actually do them." I love writing and discussing literature, but in the interest of balance, I feel that I need to make my own contributions.

Writing as a whole has been on my mind constantly as of late, since I'm taking notes, drafting outlines, and researching a major project--writing a novel. Yes, I understand that the concept of "writing as a whole" is about as tangible as "defining love." This means a thousand different things to a thousand different people. Novels and longer narratives have been scattered around my study like windblown newspapers on a downtown street. At the moment, I'm reading three novels at once, works that couldn't be more different, works that have no bearing on my own project: Snuff, the latest book by Chuck Palahniuk; The Savage Detectives, a look at revolutionary Mexican poets by Roberto Bolano (a novel that I had planned to have finished reading for a blog review about two months ago); and Lila Heavy From the Get-Go, an unpublished manuscript by Paul Bergstraesser, given to me years ago, detailing three of my favorite subjects: love, music, and the Chicago Bulls. All of this heavy reading is both essential and slightly disheartening. The books remind me that I have a long way to go before I can consider myself a good fiction writer. On a more optimistic note, I think of how all three writers started off on the same page (pun intended), staring at a blank word processing screen or blank sheets of paper.

Other motivating factors are the two novels I started before, works that make me cringe, even though I never showed them to anyone else (or finished them, for that matter). The first one was a reflection of me at age eighteen, realizing that writing and literary studies were my calling: nearly a hundred pages of ridiculous plot lines, intentionally hip, culture-savvy references, and painfully obvious urban characters. If Dave Eggers' talent was halved and he had a concussion, even he would not be able to come up with the stereotypically "lost" city dwellers that I created. My second attempt at a novel actually has a plot that I plan to return to in the future, but at twenty-one, I was still rambling. All of this was bad enough, but as a beginning writer, I was gleefully showing people my awful short stories, thinking they were good (Jeremy, I still silently thank you for humoring me when I was a college freshman). Had my two previous "novels" been seen by anyone, I would have been laughed out of every classroom I entered.

At this point, I feel that I'm a much better non-fiction writer, and this motivates me to devote equal parts daydreaming and actually job-hunting to find work in journalism. I run the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, but I also felt disheartened when I read articles (written by paid, established writers) that were nothing but fluff and stereotype. Perhaps I should stop using Hotmail. Everytime I log out of my e-mail inbox, my browser automatically goes to, and everytime, I find myself reading bad articles and becoming despondent. For example, take relationship articles, which are usually all the same: the author lets us know that men A.) don't talk about their feelings, B.) want to watch the Big Game, and C.) leave dirty socks all around the house. Women A.) love shoes!! B.) want to talk and talk and talk and C.) are always conniving to drag men to the opera. But did I mention shoes??!! That might be a poor example, because I'm not trying to become a relationship columnist. My point is that bad writing can be the norm, and while I know my skills need some developing, I also know that I could do better if given the chance.

At one point a few weeks ago, I moved beyond "sounding like a curmudgeon" and into actually being one. As I tortured myself while reading search engine features, an author began an article with "As a writer..." I wanted to scream and create an altar to David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carol Oates. Instead, I turned the computer off and sat in bed with one of my favorite books, James Joyce's Dubliners. As I read his stories, I felt happier. My mind immediately began returning to the readings and projects that I've been planning on doing, and as I started my research, I realized that it's healthier to focus on good writing instead of complaining about bad writing. As I continue my work, I'll keep in mind that all writers are connected, and the ones I've complained about were very much in the same position I was, trying to make their way in a very crowded field.

But a final message to relationship columnists: very few of us live in a world that resembles a romantic comedy. Can you try to move beyond cliches? Please?

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