Sure is dusty around here…

Sooooo, what happens to a writing blog when the writer stops writing on it for months and months?

Nothing, apparently.

It doesn’t spontaneously combust or disappear.

Little writing elves don’t come along and do all the work for you.

Previous posts don’t disappear in anger and resentment.

It just sits there. Silently mocking you. And the longer you go without writing or updating it, the harder it is to get back to it.

So, you find yourself writing a weird second person post about this poor neglected website in the hopes that it will get you back into posting, like you had so optimistically planned for this year.

Fingers crossed, it will work…

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’…

To give you an indication of how my 2015 is going so far, I just tore off January from the little fridge calendar we have.

February ends this weekend.

So, yeah. Things have been busy.

I went to the Tin House Winter Workshop at the end of January. It was amazing. I am still trying to find the time to write a proper blog post about it.

I also found out I wasn’t accepted into the PhD program at UNL for English/Creative Writing. I was really disappointed at first, but I’m a big believer in things happening the way they should. Surprisingly, I’m totally over it and have started refocusing my efforts in a different direction. Thank goodness for a supportive husband and good friends.

Some work things have been picking up, and I’m hoping some others will slow  down so things can even out. I’ve been pretty much drowning in a constant to-do list that keeps growing longer before I get any traction on marking things off. In the meantime, I’m trying to make some solid decisions about where I’m going from here.

I’ve been writing. Not as much as I’d like, but I’m doing it. I’ve committed to at least 30 minutes a day, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but for me it’s huge to develop some consistency. And, more often than not, that 30 minutes turns into an hour.

I STILL need to write a post about the short story collections I read in 2014 because there were some awesome collections that I didn’t get a chance to review and I want to spread the word.

And I STILL need to pull together my goals for the year and post about them as well.

I need to get this blog back on track and start making some real postings and get some more Monday Quoteday and Go Read Something posts out there.

I realize this is just a rambling list, but I need to hold myself accountable. I publicly say I’m going to do something, there’s a far greater chance I will.

But, it’s just now February, right? I have plenty of time. At least if I go by what my refrigerator is telling me…

Good-bye to 2014

Near the end of 2013, I created a list of goals for 2014. They were all professional goals related to my career (writing goals, editing goals, teaching goals). Early in 2014, I check in on that list periodically, but somewhere along the line, I lost track of checking in on the items listed there in favor of actually pursuing them. A very good thing.

Of the fifteen items on the list, I accomplished eight. Of the remaining seven, four fell by the wayside because of some new professional opportunities that arose (thereby making the ones on the list moot). So, I consider those a wash. Another was something I made the conscious decision not to pursue in favor of something else on the list (they were really competing goals), and another was something that I decided to hold off until 2015 because of some other more time-sensitive commitments in 2014. That leaves one goal that was missed, and there’s no excuses on it. It was a simple one that I should have stayed on top of, but I just didn’t. Nonetheless, I’d say I did pretty damn good for the year.

A goal that I discussed here, and that wasn’t on the list, had to do with my reading: My Year of the Short Story, which I wrote about back in March. I’d say this one was a success; of the ~47 books I read in 2014, 28 were short story collections (and four others were writing/craft books). That means about 60% of what I read were short stories. And, back in March, I said that my tentative goal “was to just make sure I’m reading more short stories than non-short stories for the year overall.” Boom. Another goal accomplished in 2014.

In addition, the experience of reading more short stories in 2014 also exposed me to several authors I wouldn’t have likely found otherwise (because they have only published in the short form). In fact, I ended up reading multiple collections by a few authors because I loved their work so much. I also found myself identifying with what I was reading in ways I haven’t before. In the past, most of my reading left me saying to myself, “Why do I think I can do this?” But the books I was reading this year—at least the short story collections—left me thinking, “I think I just might be able to do this.” In what I was reading, I found similar perceptions. Similar language use. Similar ideas and concepts. It was inspiring and, surprisingly, empowering.

The experience also let me reclaim my love for short stories. Through “forcing” myself to read more short stories, I remembered why I loved them so much. It’s such an amazing form of writing. So compact. So powerful. It left me feeling really good about writing (exclusively) in the short form at this time, and it has even spurned me to push myself to write even “shorter” going into 2015 (more on that later).

All in all, while I don’t have a ton of publications to show for 2014 (only two, with five submissions still pending), I did do a lot of writing and reading. I accomplished the most important of the goals I had for 2014, and I feel like I’m moving in the right direction. My writing is improving, my confidence is growing, and I’m ready to make some more goals for 2015.

Writer’s Reading Review of “Chase Us”

Basic information:

Chase Us is the first collection published by author Sean Ennis. This collection of eleven short stories focuses around the same group of boys growing up in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Themes that dominate the collection are captivity, maturation, sex, friendship, loyalty, fear, and a desire for more than we have. For the most part, the narrator appears to be the same for all the stories, and as the stories in the collection progress, the characters age and (attempt to) mature. For someone like me who devoured Judy Blume and Linda Lewis, it was interesting to read about tween and teen boys; to see how they experienced some of the same fears and insecurities. (Although this collection is clearly darker and more for an adult audience than either of those two women I mentioned.)

Reaction/review:

This collection started out with great promise. I greatly enjoyed the first story in the collection and the interesting situations and details that are woven together. The voice and tone is spot on for a young pre-teen boy, and the family dynamic was heartbreakingly accurate. Stories that immediately followed this one were equally as compelling.

As the boys in the stories aged and matured, however, it felt like the stories did not. Where Ennis had such a solid grasp on the voices of the boys at ages 11, 12, and 13, when they approached manhood—high school, college, marriage, parenthood—the stories seemed to take a surreal turn to avoid confronting a failure to really grasp their growth, their adult voices. On some level, I realize that the narrator and the other characters were under the influence of drugs and alcohol in these later stories in the collection, and this did flavor their experiences and the narratives. However, the stories’ movement out of the real and into the surreal felt like a crutch to avoid showing how life really shakes out for these men. Rather than carrying on with the harsh reality that stories like “Going after Lovely,” “This is Pennypack,” and “Saint Kevin of Fox Chase” portrays, stories like “This is Recession” and “Chase Us” introduced elements of surrealism and unresolved plot points that left me scratching my head and wondering why I couldn’t see what “really” was going on. Why were the stories hiding the “good stuff”?

Take away for my writing:

I’ve accepted I’m not a novelist. I am a short story writer right now. But I think one way to move from short stories to a longer work is to connect my stories together. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a collection of interlinked stories (which I would classify this collection as). What I hope to take away from Chase Us is the importance of keeping the tone and style similar across the board. I think this can be important for all story collections, but when the stories are so closely related, it becomes of even greater importance.

The collections I have loved the most have been the ones that don’t necessarily share characters or locations or even time period. Instead, they are the ones that share tone and style. The progression of the stories feels natural as I read them and the themes are universal and valuable throughout. With this collection, however, the later stories felt significantly weaker. By tracing the growth and aging of his characters, the author didn’t do any favors for those characters or for the readers.

Strengths: well-wrought characters; strong capture of youthful voice in narration
Weaknesses: failure to grasp older characters with same strength in voice; surreal elements felt gimmicky and contrived

Favorites: “Going after Lovely,” “This is Pennypack,” “Saint Kevin of Fox Chase”
Least favorites: “Chase Us,” “This is Recession,” “Dependents,” “This is Tomorrow”

Writer’s Reading Review of “You Only Get Letters from Jail”

Basic information:

You Only Get Letters from Jail is Jodi Angel’s second short story collection. The collection follows young men between adolescence and adulthood. Angel’s characters are desperate. They are motivated by cars, women, and hope for an escape from circumstances that leave them hopeless and trapped. As noted in an online description “Angel’s gritty and heartbreaking prose leaves readers empathizing with people they wouldn’t ordinarily trust or believe in.”

Reaction/review:

Whoa. This collection really blew me away. I became distracted and several months passed between when I read the book and when I initially set out to write this review. To refresh my memory, I went back and re-read a few stories and the reaction was the same. That I could return to the collection and react in almost the exact same way is a testament to the absolute power of the stories. I can’t wait to read her first collection, The History of Vegas. Angel’s writing is raw and brutal in its precision and heartbreaking depth. Her ability to inhabit and capture her male characters was inspiring. Every main character in the collection is male and most are from a first person perspective, which is fascinating because Jodi Angel, of course, is female. I love it when writers push boundaries in narration and writing style, but to do it so completely and successfully, and sustain it throughout, was a delight to read.

Take away for my writing:

This collection moved me to take chances. To keep writing the brutal life experiences that I write and not be afraid. To keep embracing the dark side of humanity, remembering that I can pull empathy and beauty from unexpected places. It’s my goal to try to give my readers an experience similar to the one that Angel gave me.

Strengths: Character depiction, realistic situations, emotional resonance
Weaknesses: The desperation and lack of hope in many of the stories might wear on some readers, I suppose.

Favorites: “A Good Deuce,” “Snuff,” “You Only Get Letters from Jail” (and others)
Least favorites: “Gap,” “Catch the Grey Dog”

Oh, Iowa

So, I’m kind of bummed.

Last weekend, I went to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival hosted by the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. It was my second time attending. I went last year all by myself and it was a phenomenal experience. Amazing, really. Being away from “real life” and work and kids and home gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in my writing. I had a hotel room all to myself for two and a half days. I was engaged in writing workshops for four hours a day, and those workshops were really thought-provoking and inspiring. The instructor had some excellent writing exercises and he knew how to create a solid writing community of our little group of 12. I came home with so much writing produced and felt so encouraged. Not to mention that Iowa City has a great creative atmosphere, a fantastic pedestrian mall with clever shops and tasty restaurants.

This year, I convinced my best friend to drive up from Illinois and attend with me. It was wonderful spending the entire weekend just the two of us. We got to chat, catch up, and just spend some good time decompressing from life. She writes too, and it was the first opportunity for me to read some of her work and it was really great. (Which was a relief. How awkward would it be if her stuff sucked? I kind of knew it wouldn’t though.)

So why bummed?

Because the workshop itself wasn’t so great. Our instructor seemed burned out. She’d been teaching other workshops for the previous two weeks on other topics, and her time in Iowa City was drawing to a close. Our group ended up unfocused and didn’t develop the kind of rhythm and sense of community that I remember from last year. A couple of members of the group tended toward hijacking the conversation, which ate up several chunks of our precious time. Writing time and truly generative, productive exercises were limited if not altogether nonexistent (at least on the first day) and I lacked that inspirational feeling.

Part of the problem was the subject matter of the workshop itself. It ended up leaning more toward conversation and discussion, literary analysis of sorts, than it did to writing. We talked a lot about what we read and how certain elements can work in what we read, but making the transition to what we write felt like something we barely touched. I had hoped it would challenge me and push me in my writing, but it didn’t.

So, I didn’t come away from it feeling like I generated much writing. I didn’t really challenge myself as a writer. But I did spend some great time with a friend. I did spend a late afternoon poking around a really old, and really intriguing, cemetery. I did spend an entire weekend not having to cook or clean or do anything for anybody but me. All of these are definitely positive. I just wish that the writing had been better for me.

For next year (because I do want to attend again), I plan to really focus on finding a workshop that works directly with my writing and my writing goals. I think I’ll try to have a writing plan, some material that I want to work on specifically, so that if generating new material doesn’t happen (like it had before and like I was banking on happening this time around), I have a gameplan to accomplish some solid writing tasks.

Essentially, the weekend was good, but not as good as I’d hoped. I guess it all has to do with expectations. Last year, I was new and had none. I went into it totally not knowing what to expect and was delighted. This year, I went with the expectation that it would be just as amazing as last year, which admittedly wasn’t fair. So, maybe next year–now that the bar has been lowered–I’ll have another wonderful experience.

But, no matter what, Iowa City still remains a really enjoyable town. Even the cemeteries.

Climbing aboard the Literary Blog Train

Thanks to the lovely Gordon Haber for tagging me on the “Literary Blog Train.” (And, consequently, causing me to revisit my poor neglected blog. Sigh.)

What am I working on?

Maintaining my sanity while my children are home from school/preschool for the summer.

Materials for an application that I’ll be submitting later this year. (Don’t ask. I don’t want to talk about it.)

Revisions to a short story about a teenage girl in a mining town in the 1950s.

Revisions to a short story about a family who loses a baby and then loses their binds to each other.

Drafting a short story about a woman whose estranged husband is trapped in a mine collapse.

Being okay with the fact that I clearly do not write uplifting stories (womp womp).

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I don’t think I have a “genre.” I write literary fiction. I like to think my work contributes to the literary realm by being somewhat different from what already exists, but I also know that while my voice is unique, my stories are the stories that people live. I’m a strong believer in the theory that there is only one story to be told, and it is simply told over and over and over again. John Steinbeck kind of said it best:

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence.”

So, how’s that for a non-answer for this question?

Why do I write what I do?

To steal Gordon’s answer, “we write the kind of stories we want to read.”

For me, that’s stories that make you feel something. It’s stories that make you consider the human condition and how others minds’ and lives work. It’s stories that leave an impression on your senses. (Well, at least that’s what I try to write, anyway.)

How does my writing process work?

Ugh. My “process,” as it were, is pretty contemptible at present. Because the time I can sit down and focus and really write is so scarce, I do a lot of my writing “in my head.”

I mull over things forever and then beat the idea to death in my brain until it can’t possibly meet any of my expectations and then I give it up entirely. I sit down and end up writing something wholly different from what I’d intended.

Sometimes this is a good thing. Sometimes it leads to pages upon pages of infuriating crap. I’m told this is normal for a writer, but I still don’t like it.

Tag, You’re It!

Brianne Kohl, Amy Maddox, Sarah Turner, and Annie Noblin! Go forth and climb aboard the train! (You don’t even have to pack. I hate packing.)

Writer’s Reading Review of “Nine Inches”

Basic information:

Nine Inches is Tom Perrotta’s first official story collection. He’s published a few novels (I’ve read one, The Leftovers), some of which have been adapted as films (Election and Little Children). His stories chronicle the innate longing for more than we have and the poor choices we make, which end up solidifying that we won’t ever get what we long for. He’s been called the “Steinbeck of suburbia” by some reviewers, and the title seems appropriate. Like Steinbeck, though, I think Perrotta is a novelist more than he is a short story writer.

Reaction/review:

This is the second book of Perrotta’s that I’ve read (the first was the novel The Leftovers), and I think I’m just not a fan of his work in general. I think he has a particular reader, a particular audience, and I’m just not one of them. This isn’t meant to detract from his writing, but I think it’s just the way it is.

I can see some value in his work. He paints vivid character portraits and he creates realistic situations in this collection of short stories. His characters find themselves experiencing circumstances that are as believable as they are unfortunate, and the characters’ choices are often implicated in those circumstances. The majority of his characters make the bad choices we all consider when reacting to situations, but most of us avoid these choices, erring on the side of ethics, politeness, and appropriate behavior. This element in his collection—characters pushing the boundaries of “acceptable” behavior—is interesting; tracing the downward spiral of these characters as they come undone is intriguing and heartrending. But there’s something about it that doesn’t ring true for me.

To think of this collection in terms of a Hemingway view of stories (i.e., the “iceberg” principle), we see the entire surface, but we never really understand what’s “under the water.” Perrotta’s strong suit is creating a vivid premise with solid believable characters, but that’s where it ends. There was an element of predictability and superficiality that soured me right away with the first (and weakest) story, “A Back Rub.” The story never really satisfied. Things happen to the character. He reacts. And, at the end, we get a recap of where is life heads because of his poor choices. But we’re never given the chance to care about or root for him. The clichéd and banal nature of several stories had me feeling like I was “treading water” as I made my way through the pages (examples would be “One-Four-Five, “The Test Taker,” and “Grade My Teacher”); I never really cared about the characters or their circumstances.

Other stories that were more successful were also a bit less conventional, still keeping with the same realistic level of premise and situation. Stories like “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” and “Nine Inches,” relied on the same trite suburban themes, but rather than being formulaic, they felt more authentic. The characters made some sort of revelation or achieved at least some level of growth, which made the stories more successful than the others. I felt something for the characters because they unveiled a bit of what was beneath the surface, and as a reader, I need that “under the water” glimpse to propel me forward.

Take away for my writing:

Yes, Virginia, there is a difference between novel writers and short story writers. And, after analyzing this particular collection, I think I admire even more greatly those writers who successfully move back and forth from short stories to novels with (seemingly) effortless talent. In my opinion, Perrotta is, quite simply, a novelist and not a short story writer. Successful short stories need to be whole and unified; they need to communicate a story that has a solid beginning, middle, and end, with flash points of climax that aren’t too “big” or overwrought for their briefer length. The stories in this volume feel like they’re trying to be novels (or, really, novel summaries). Rather than having just one or two flash points of solid tension, they’re riddled with tepid points of semi-tension throughout, leaving them as summaries or synopses of a bigger tale, rather than full and complete works unto themselves. With some development and added detail, I could envision almost every short story in the collection as a novel or novella. I had the distinct impression that each of them was a novel idea that Perrotta just didn’t flesh out or finish, and that’s not the reading experience one wants with a short story collection.

Strengths: Vivid portraits, accessible and entertaining writing style
Weaknesses: Uneven plotting, failure to delve into characters’ psyches, predictability and clichés

Favorites: “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” “Nine Inches,” and “Kiddie Pool”
Least favorites: (all the rest of them)

 

Writer’s Reading Review of “Welding with Children”

Basic information:

Welding with Children is Tim Gautreaux’s second collection of short stories. It was published in 1999, but for some reason it kept appearing on my radar when I was looking for short story collections to read this year. Gautreaux is a southern writer (lives in Louisiana) and has been referred to as the “Cartographer of Louisiana back roads,” a moniker that is highly appropriate for this collection.

Reaction/review:

The stories in this collection are varied and diverse, but a tight, strong thread binds them all. The elements of similarity that run throughout the stories, however, never make them feel “one note” or repetitive. Each piece tells its own unique story, with an intriguing plot, rich characters, and an identifiable theme. The themes addressed all seemed to focus on the disconnects and barriers in life, both those that are inflicted on us and those that we create. I think that the collection, as a whole, is one of the more unified I have read.

I found that the obscurity and juxtaposition hinted at in the collection’s title (also the title of one of the stories) gave solid indication of the disparities and binary oppositions that occurred throughout the book: old/young, rich/poor, educated/uneducated, etc. Gautreaux is telling stories that are not pleasant. They are filled with individuals at the margins of “acceptable” society. But, despite this, or perhaps because of this, Gautreaux infuses each story with an affection and warmth that translates well to the reader, making us root for certain characters, even when a part of us thinks perhaps we shouldn’t.

My one complaint is the astonishing abundance of Cajun surnames. I realize the stories all take place in Louisiana, so the names, of course, make sense. However, it’s almost never necessary for a reader to know every character’s last name—especially when almost every single one ends in -eaux.

Take away for my writing:

Gautreaux is successful in one area that at times eludes me in short story collections: unity. When the connection between stories is apparent (a recurring character or specific setting, for example), that’s one thing. But sometimes, collections don’t feel cohesive. There is no apparent unification beyond the byline that they all share. But in these stories, Gautreaux fuses the stories with something that goes far deeper. He keeps the stories themselves diverse and unique, but they still all fit together as if they are pieces of a puzzle. While some stories are definitely stronger than others are, you can’t imagine the collection working as well without them all present and accounted for.

I’d like to go through the collection again at a later date (it’s a library book and has to be returned soon) and see if I can identify some more elements that connect the stories together so well. The quality is one that I’ve rarely found so effective in a collection, and I’d like to focus more on how, exactly, Gautreaux does this.

Strengths: diversity of narratives, strong characters in realistic situations, cohesive collection
Weaknesses: at times, the southern flavor can get a bit “precious” (example being the surnames)

Favorites: “Welding with Children,” “The Pine Oil Writers’ Conference,” and “Resistance” (among others)
Least favorites: “Misuse of Light” and “Sorry Blood”