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”

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”

 

Writer’s Reading Review of “We Live in Water”

Basic information:

Jess Walter’s collection We Live in Water marks his first collection of short fiction, but not his first published book. The stories collected here were mostly published elsewhere in publications like Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Byliner, Playboy, etc. Most of the publications that have previously published his works are high quality, and this quality is reflected in the collection of stories, which mostly are located in the Pacific Northwest, where Walter resides.

Reaction/review:

I adored this collection. I enjoyed each and every story to some degree, and that is rare. The characters were realistic, the situations were interesting, but not far-fetched (well, except for the one “zombie” tale “Don’t Eat Cat,” which was surprisingly delightful despite its genre departure from all the others). Most importantly, I felt something for each of the characters that were the main focus of each story. I identified with their plight and, while I shuddered at their poor choices, I also sympathized with them. To me, this collection represents authentic American experiences, and most of them focus on the disenfranchised fringe of society.

Take away for my writing:

I need to read through some of the stories again with a “writer’s” attention to detail. Walter does a great job of creating characters who resonate with a reader. He paints vivid portraits of who they are without “telling”( i.e., excessive exposition). He also finds a nice balance between an interesting premise and something that feels too contrived or gimmicky. These are all factors I would like to showcase in my own writing.

Strengths: Strong characters, resonating descriptions, authentic plots/premises
Weaknesses: Perhaps sentimental for some readers, limited exploration of female characters (all the stories are male-based)

Favorites: “We Live in Water,” “Thief,” and “Helpless Little Things”
Least favorites: “Can a Corn,” “Please,” “Brakes” (a trio of connected flash pieces)

Writer’s Reading Review of “Battleborn”

Basic information:

Battleborn is a debut collection from writer Claire Vaye Watkins. In this collection of stories, Watkins explores the western landscape that was the home of her youth. She creates vivid pictures of life in the “desert” of Reno, Las Vegas, and nearby areas. She also considers and reinvents her own history and its (tenuous) connection to “Helter Skelter” and Charles Manson.

Reaction/review:

I struggled to finish this book. I feel horrible even admitting that, but I did. I’m going to preface this by saying that I hate (really, truly hate) writing this review because (1) who the hell am I to criticize something this renowned and well-received? and (2) I really wanted to like this book so much more than I did. I also feel particularly harsh in my criticisms because this is the author’s first book. It’s her first published collection and, as such, it shouldn’t be compared with some of the other works I’ve been reading by authors who have numerous (numerous) books under their belts. But, alas, my reaction is my reaction.

My issues with the stories is that they felt too much like writing. They felt like they’d been “workshopped” to death. Both of these are things I never thought I’d say because I never really understood what these complaints meant. I’d heard people say them, but I’d never really noticed something that “felt” like writing. (My question was always, “Shouldn’t writing always feel like writing?” But the truth is. No. No it should not.) I also got the distinct impression that the stories were trying to please too many audiences, too many readers. It left each of them with a distinctly schizophrenic and undecided flavor that ultimately fell short. I’m not sure how to explain this other than to say that there was distinct lack of unity, cohesion, and focused voice in them. I felt like I was reading a debut collection because it felt like the writer is still deciding who she is as a writer. And I think that’s why I struggle so much with my feelings. Because I have no idea who I am as a writer either.

I was reminded of a criticism I remember hearing regarding an American Idol contestant years ago (stay with me, I promise I’m going somewhere with this). The singer was technically proficient and her voice was beautiful, but the critic said that when she was on stage it was like she was saying, “Hey, listen to my beautiful voice and what it can do,” rather than her being on stage saying, “Listen to my song. Listen to the story I have to tell through music.” This book felt like that to me. It felt like a showcase of some beautiful prose that had no true, essential, unique message. The fact that the author included a reimagining of her own history and it’s connection to Charles Manson was said to be her attempt to “get it over with,” but I have no idea why that was necessary. That particular story (“Ghosts, Cowboys”) had numerous beginnings, never really deciding where it should begin and where it should focus, and that same feeling permeated the whole collection.

Some of the stories drew me in and carried me throughout, but then, as they approached their end, it felt like they went on a bit too long. Like they were attempting to make some grander proclamation or statement than was possible. Like they felt this impending pressure to be so much more than they’d intended. In actuality, they should have just continued the path they’d started and been content to simply be a good story. Like I said, it was like the attempt was to showcase writing, rather than share a solid story.

Take away for my writing:

Keep a story’s message and point in focus. Great and beautiful writing is wonderful, but only if there’s a premise that works underneath it. Otherwise, it will feel like writing.

Strengths: Beautiful prose and detailed description of a specific landscape in America
Weaknesses: Lacking in premise, unity, and focus within each individual story

Favorite(s): “The Archivist” and “Virginia City”
Least favorite(s): “Ghosts, Cowboys”

Writer’s Reading Review fo “You Know When the Men are Gone”

Basic information:

You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon was a random read. I came across it in the available e-book selections for my public library and the title caught my eye. I read the synopsis and was intrigued.

Fallon is a former military wife whose husband experienced multiple tours of duty in the Middle East, while she (and their child/children) remained stateside. Her collection of stories depicts life for the women behind the men in service (and a few dips into the experiences from the soldiers’ perspectives).

Reaction/review:

Fallon’s stories were diverse in that they explored about every imaginable scenario for a military spouse or family. There are widows (both figurative and literal). There are rebellious children. There are struggling marriages. There is infidelity. There are wounded men and women struggling to cope with a variety of challenges that this particular life path has thrown at them. While the breadth of situations was impressive, there weren’t really too many surprises. The emotions were genuine and candid, but the plots felt fairly predictable.

Take away for my writing:

The author here definitely writes what she knows. I hadn’t read the author’s bio prior to reading the stories, but by the end of the first story, I knew that she must be a military wife herself. Her depiction of the emotions and experiences (of which I admittedly have no familiarity or knowledge) were raw and authentic. She also threw in a few tiny twists here and there that I didn’t see coming (although not nearly as many as I would have liked), so that was something to remember. The stories were their strongest when the emotions were frank and straightforward. The stories became weak when they devolved into sentimentality, and often the conclusions felt canned or formulaic.

Strengths: Realistic experiences with effective emotion
Weaknesses: Predictability, sentimentality, and languid endings

Favorites: “Leave” and “Gold Star”
Least favorites: “Camp Liberty” and “Remission”

My Year of the Short Story (aka, Reading What I Write)

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been reading a lot of books on writing. Of course, every writing book you read tells you to read. It tells you to read and study what you’re reading so that you can emulate the writing that you read (still with me?). I’ve even read some writing advice that tells you to find a passage or story that you really admire, something similar to what you hope to write, and to type it out. Repeatedly. The theory is that the typing the words, the cadence and style and rhythm, will seep into your subconscious while you’re typing, teaching you how to structure and pace your writing in a similar way.

While I’ve not attempted that particular strategy, I have tried to be more of a “writer-reader” when I’m reading. Normally, I’m more of a “get lost in what I’m reading” reader. If it’s something I enjoy reading (and I try to avoid reading things that I don’t… obviously), then I end up losing myself and I don’t often think of what I’m reading as “writing.” I forget to pay attention to structure and character development and imagery. I don’t observe ideas about how to integrate similar patterns in my own writing. I just don’t read that way. But I’m trying to change that a bit.

My first step in trying to read more like a writer has been shifting a bit in what I read sometimes. My reading interests over the past couple years had shifted toward a lot of YA literature and a smattering of dystopian/science fiction works. When I started thinking of how to be a “writer-reader,” I realized that I probably needed to start reading what I want to write. And the truth of the matter is, I have zero interest in writing YA literature or dystopian/science fiction lit. I just don’t. I don’t know if I’ll always feel that way, but right now, that’s not what I write. Even more, I haven’t had any interest in writing a novel. Not at all. I used to think there was something wrong with that. That I couldn’t be a “writer” if I didn’t aspire to write a novel—to write the Great American Novel. But I’ve started to be okay with not having that desire. In fact, the summer workshop instructor last year said he was in the same boat. He’s simply a short story writer. That’s what he is, and he’s okay with that. He said that he tried to write a novel once and his agent smiled and laughed and said, “Oh, dear. This isn’t a novel.” (in a completely loving way). So, he’s a short story writer. And that is totally okay. (Case in point: Alice Munro. Period.)

I used to read short stories like crazy. I used to seek out new short story collections and the “Best of” compilations every year. I scoped out anthologies on Amazon or in Barnes and Noble like a madwoman. I loved the form so much. But then, during graduate school, I became immersed in so much novel reading that I lost touch with my short story love. Then, I taught a course on the American short story and it became so much (grueling) work teaching the form that I pulled away from it entirely. In recent years, my reading trend has leaned in the direction of “escape” (hence, the sci-fi, YA interest). I was reading to explore worlds as far removed from my own as possible, which is fun and enjoyable.

But not very helpful to my writing.

After all, I write what I know. I should also be reading what I know. Or at least reading what I want to write.

So, I vowed to start reading more short stories in 2014. Initially, I was going to pledge to read only short stories in 2014, but that felt a little too obligatory and forced. Instead, I just approached the year with the goal of reading more short stories, getting back to what I used to love. My tentative goal was to just make sure I’m reading more short stories than non-short stories for the year overall. And I’m doing it! At this point, I’ve read twelve books (yes! 12!) so far this year, and of them, seven have been short story collections. Go me!

I’ve discovered that I fly right through short story collection. Without chapters to give me a stopping point, I tend to want to finish an entire story in one sitting. Sometimes this is easily done (some short stories are short, after all), and other times, it doesn’t work out (some short stories are long, and really should be called novellas, but I digress). But, overall, the collections have only been taking me a handful of days to read, and I’m starting to enjoy a compulsion for them again. I have a stack of “to be read” books on my nightstand, and of them, I’m picking up the collections over the novels every time.

The only concern I have with this speed of reading is that I’m not going to be able to remember the collections, or individual stories, well. Which, historically, has driven me nuts. There have been times where I can vaguely recollect the plot line of a short story I read at some point in time, but I cannot, for the life of me, remember what it was called, where I read it, or who wrote it. Do you know how virtually impossible it is to locate a single short story with little-to-no information? So, I know that I’m going to have some of those struggles in the future, which is why I’m planning to try to review (in even a limited capacity) and document each collection I read. I’m hopeful that I stick with this, but we’ll see.

Here’s to my “Year of the Short Story”!