Postcard from Tucson #3: Orgy Edition


Fragonard "The Reader"
"The Reader" by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806)


Since I’ve been here in Tucson, my work ethic has flown out the window. I had grand ideas of doing tons of revisions on my novel, finishing my line-edits on a friend’s novel, and possibly writing the first draft of a short nonfiction essay.


Instead I’ve given myself over to what I do best in the lazy atmosphere of vacation life here at my parents’ house: an orgy of reading and watching movies. Here’s what I’ve gotten through so far.


This turned out, surprisingly, to capture and keep my attention pretty handily, which I wasn’t expecting at all. I thought it would be one of those plodding, depressing dirge novels, but no. Instead it starts out a bit like chick-lit, with the heroine doing an internship at a Vogue. 

One thing I didn’t like was that the heroine comes across as kind of a cold, self-absorbed, unsympathetic person, so the book suffered on the character-likeability measure. Also, the part where she goes full-on crazy seems to come out of the blue and is never really made comprehensible. One minute, the character seems sane, and the next minute she’s clearly got something very, very wrong with her. It seems some sort of development or transition is missing. Maybe that reflects the real experience of this type of mental illness, but from a literary standpoint, it felt like a flaw in the narrative.

This was really good. Beautifully written, with lots of philosophy and thoughtfulness, which I loved. On the negative side, I thought there were some plotting and timing problems. There are three major characters, and the third (Ozu) comes in very late in the book; I’d have liked to see him make his entrance earlier. Also, the first two characters (the concierge and the little girl) don’t become acquainted with each other until the book is two-thirds of the way through or more; I wanted more interaction between them, and sooner.

Other issues for me: the ending seemed a bit contrived and, I’ll admit, too sad. I’m not against sad endings per se, but if they come across as having been contrived especially to elicit sadness, that’s bad. It felt a bit manipulative to me. And lastly, I don’t think the assessment of phenomenology was very fair. In the book it’s characterized as “a fraud.” Sadly, I can’t say I understand phenomenology myself, but my impression from reading bits of it here and there is that it has to do with much more than just losing interest in the real reality behind appearances. It strikes me more as a method of almost zen-like attentivenss to phenomena, a kind of worshipfulness even. Which could actually have tied in well with other themes in the book, so it was sort of a missed opportunity in my view.

I haven’t seen the movie, but wanted to read the book ever since I found out Kirn was an ex-Mormon, which I learned when the people over at Main Street Plaza gave him an X-Mormon of the year award. So, the book. I didn’t like it all that much. Again, there was the character-likeability problem. The guy was so self-absorbed, shallow, and materialistic, that it took a fair bit of effort to care what happened to him. And then the ending was very vague and literary (in the pejorative sense) so that it left me all confused as to what actually happened.

After that, I was ready for something lighter. I’d been wanting to check out Maeve Binchy’s writing for a while already. First off, she’s Irish, and I like Ireland (my ex-husband and I spent two weeks in Connemara and Kerry on our honeymoon, and I still have fond mem0ries of that trip). Also, any author whose books take up a whole shelf in the library and bookstore must be doing something right, you’d think. The sheer volume of her writing was intriguing. And third, I’d seen this movie Circle of Friends a while back and wondered if the book was better than the movie (the movie was somewhat eh, but the plot seemed to have a lot of potential).

Anyway, the book was a lot of fun. As expected, it was light and full o’ Irishness. Beyond that, it was funny and hard to put down. (I feel like books generally ought to be hard to put down, regardless of how literary they’re intended to be. It’s a lot to ask of someone, to read a long book you’ve written, so writing a page-turner seems the least an author can do.) The characters were likeable, too. The only negatives that bear mentioning are that in spots the prose is a bit “telly” rather than “showy” (writers of fiction are constantly, constantly being told to “show, don’t tell”), and that the last quarter of the book does drag a bit.

The funniness was a happy surprise. I’d been promised Roddy Doyle would be hilarious, and in my opinion the books I read by him (The Commitmentsand The Snapper) did not live up to that hype, so it was all the nicer to approach this book with no particular hype in mind and yet find myself giggling and laughing through whole pages.


  • Bright Star(on DVD) – This is the Jane Campion pic about the Romantic poet John Keats and his all-engulfing love for obscure seamstress Fanny Brawne. I had high hopes for it, as I’d read some very positive reviews. Sadly, I found it kind of boring. My favorite parts were Fanny’s clothes, and the way she compares fashion design to writing poetry in the beginning.
  • Where the Wild Things Are(on DVD) – I had no high hopes for this, having read some negative reviews, but I did want to give it a shot. I liked maybe the first third of it, and then it started to seem a lot like this spoof I’d seen where the monster are equated to a bunch of bored, unconventionaler-than-thou hipsters. But I did think the beginning part did a good job of capturing how hard it can be to be a kid, the fact that it’s not all sunshine and light and goofing around.
  • Crazy Heart – I loved this. Loved the music, loved the characters, loved the dialogue, loved the emotional complexity, the refusal to oversimplify, really just loved it top to bottom. The ending could have been cheesy and cliche, and maybe was a bit cliche (we come back years later and find that everyone is doing much better), but not enough to spoil the overall wonderfulness of it.  I guess it helps that I’ve had a soft spot for country music ever since I had a college roommate who was into it. We always used to belt out Garth Brooks‘ “I Got Friends in Low Places” together and another song about this farmer who comes home to find his wife with “nothing but her apron on” … ah, those were the days.

Postcard from Tucson #2

Tucson Sunset
Tucson Sunset, by Saghuaro Pictures, via Wikimedia Commons

Amandine and I are in Tucson on vacation again. We left on Tuesday and it was kind of an eventful day. Shortly before getting in the car to head for the airport, I got an e-mail from a literary agent I’d queried about the new novel, requesting the full manscript. That was exciting, because I’ve only sent a handful of queries out. And since I’m still working on making the book better, mainly the only reason I was querying so early was to get a jumpstart on refining my query letter, and also to keep me motivated through the editing process. Knowing you might get a partial or full manuscript request at any moment makes it pretty urgent to get the book in good shape quickly.

So, the agent still might not like my full manuscript, but at least this says positive things about my query letter and the overarching concept of the book. And meanwhile, I’ll keep looking for ways to improve it.

Not long after that bit of excitement, I fell down some stairs and sprained my ankle pretty badly.  I howled in pain at the top of my lungs. My two-and-a-half-year-old Amandine was the only one else home, and she was playing up stairs. She came down and said, “Mommy … you … okaaaay?”

Regaining some of my composure, I said, “Yes, sweetie, Mommy’s okay, she just got an ouchie on her foot.” Amandine gave me a big consoling hug. It was very cute.

We rode to the airport and I was walking on the injured foot just fine, but during the 5 1/2 hour flight to Phoenix, my ankle started to swell up and ache and throb. I got some ice to put on it, but by the time the flight got in, I couldn’t put any weight on it at all. The airplane staff put me into a wheelchair and with Amandine sitting on my lap I got wheeled to the baggage claim.

We were supposed to stay overnight with my sister in Phoenix before going on to Tucson in the morning. But through a weird coincidence, my sister had also sprained her right ankle, about half an hour before I sprained mine. It was like we were both on the same telepathic sisterly-klutziness wavelength. So, since neither of us could drive or walk, my mom had to drive up from Tucson to pick Amandine and me up at the airport.

Back at my sister’s house in Phoenix, we spent the next day with our injuries iced and elevated, with my poor, sweet, long-suffering mom chasing all the kids around. Then we left for Tucson.

Yesterday the big event was getting Amandine’s hair cut at the mall. We opted for the Christopher Robin style, and she is now even more unbearably cute than before (she was starting to bear a startling resemblance to Cousin Itt from the Addams Family).


Cousin Itt
Before: Note similarity to Cousin Itt


Christopher Robin
After: A Christopher Robin coiffure

That is about as exciting as life gets around here, which is probably a good thing.

Before I close, a quick shout-out to a writer friend of mine who just had a great story published in Word Riot. There’s even a podcast! Give it a listen, it’s good stuff.

Songs of Humanism and Experience

Illustration from William Blake's "Songs of Experience"
Illustration from William Blake's "Songs of Experience"

(With apologies to William Blake, this is a post I’m writing specifically to submit to this Humanist Symposium thingie for bloggers I just learned about—the next one will be hosted April 4th by Letters from a Broad, a blog whose author is also a novelist.)

Given the phase of music enthusiasm I’ve been going through lately, I thought I’d link to and discuss a few songs I like that deal with the experience of being an unbeliever in a believing world:

First Song: The Virginian, by Neko Case


When I was young, I knew a girl
Who wouldn’t love God as a test
Or gamble with her happiness
And so led astray
So she did turn
Her father would say,
‘You’re only a guest of the master’
But passion was her Sunday best
And she fell away

She fell away
She fell away
She fell away from the side of the Lord
And she was free to do what she wanted
With clouds of her own
Na na na na

When she grew up, she fell in love
She thought it was all that she wanted
She knew how it felt to be haunted
And he ran away
Picked herself up
And said through her tears
Don’t waste anymore of your time
You’ll spend it all standing in line
They’ll turn you away


Oh but superstition
And your heart’s permission
‘Cause you’re good enough, good enough, good enough
To make it alone
Then when she died
She didn’t ask God
To take her back into his graces
She’d taken on to many shapes
And too many were strange
And as they lay her in to the ground
Her spirits, they all flew all away
The sun shone so bright on that day
You thought it was spring


One of the many interesting things about this song is the connection it draws between the spiritual and the romantic. It seems to me that in many cases, part of what draws people to religion is a longing for intimacy. The relationship with God is a love-relationship—no one knows you so intimately and loves you so unconditionally as God. Psychologists and occasionally philosophers talk about romantic love as an impulse to submit one’s will to another, to have the self subsumed in another self, to have the borders between self and other fall and merge into one another—it’s a means of transcending one’s solitary, solipsistic existence. At the same time, it’s a flight from freedom and independence, from the necessity of having to choose for yourself and take sole responsibility for your existence.

Of course, the trouble with God as a substitute for human intimacy is that God seems to have intimacy issues. He tends to resemble a guy (or girl) who’s just not that into you. He never calls, doesn’t send a card on your birthday … and when was the last time you had a two-way conversation with Him? If He does appear to communicate, it’s always indirectly, by way of other people, sort of like when one of the Sex and the City girls is dating a rich business mogul who has his secretary send flowers instead of calling.

The girl in the song sees that human passion and intimacy are what she really wants. She’s not going to gamble with her happiness by waiting around for God to call; instead she leaves Him and moves on to fall in love with a real person. But then she realizes human love isn’t dependable either—ultimately she learns not to flee freedom either through God or through romance. The moral of the story for freethinkers is that leaving dogmatism behind may not necessarily open up new doors to happiness. It’s something that ultimately has to be done out of integrity and honesty and love for these things in themselves, rather than with the expectation that greater happiness will result. If a person can manage that, they’ll have no regrets even if they turn out to have been wrong on Judgment Day.

Second Song: One Man’s Shame, by William Elliott Whitmore


Don’t alter my altar
don’t desecrate my shrine
My church is the water
and my home is underneath the shady pines
Don’t underestimate the spine in a poor man’s back
when it’s against the wall and his future’s black
One man’s story is another man’s shame
I ain’t bound for glory, I’m bound for flames
Take to the woods boy, and cover up your tracks
Go away child and don’t look back
Sad is the lullaby from a mother’s heart and soul
when she knows her child has strayed from the fold
The parish will perish
by death’s cruel hand
and finish the job that fate began
All that static in the attic,
that’s just an old drunk ghost
His chains are rattlin’ but his end is close
Ain’t no hell below and ain’t no heaven above
I came for the drinks but I stayed for the love


Here the unbeliever is prepared to defend his own concepts of altar, shrine, church, and home, and warns others not to underestimate his strength—he’ll stand up for himself; he’s a poor man with nothing to lose. He realizes and accepts that what to him is simply his story will be viewed as a shame to others; they’ll see him as someone who’s strayed from the fold and is bound for the flames of hell. But his advice to anyone in doubt is to leave and not look back. (Presumably, to leave dogmatism behind, that is.) Ultimately, the “ghost” of religion rattling in the “attic” (our subconscious? the collective unconscious?) will be fade away … And there’ll still be drinks and love.

I just like the attitude of defiance in this song, the stance of embracing your own story even if it looks like shame to others.

Third Song: Mercy Seat, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds*


They are long, so I’ll just put the refrain—you can see all the song’s lyrics here.

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.


This is a ballad about a man condemned to death. (Incidentally, Johnny Cash does a great cover of it also.) Again we have the attitude of defiance, and to me there’s also something very Socratic about it. The narrator is willing to accept responsibility for his own existence and choices, even if that means death. And whatever he may have done, he’s kept his integrity and told the truth. Like the girl in the first song, he doesn’t fear death or a Day of Judgment; both narrators have made their choices and will stand by them, come what may.

The religious believer is ideologically equipped to deal with death—she has comforting concepts like an afterlife and the promise of seeing loved ones again in the hereafter. To some, giving up these consolations and accepting the reality and finality of death may be one of the most difficult aspects of leaving religion behind. And even for the determined unbeliever, there’s a lingering uncertainty about what really happens at death. (Consider the strange story of atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer’s near-death experience.) In The Apology, Socrates says death is likely one of two things: either a state of unconsciousness comparable to a pleasant sleep, or a chance to continue doing exactly what he’s done all his life:

Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not.

I think of this as meaning that if my consciousness goes on, I’ll still be myself, with all my curiosity and wonder about people and things around me. I’ll continue to regard my actions and decisions as I do now: as those of a fallible person who tried to be decent, live a good life, and not hurt others. Yes, a God might emerge out of the clouds in a burst of bright light and condemn me to eternal punishment, but there’s no guarantee that couldn’t happen to me here in this life, too, five minutes from now. Such a judgmental, dictatorial, punitive God would be no less a bully there than here, and I’d be no more inclined to obey Him and follow His orders.

So while I won’t exactly say bring on the Mercy Seat and the hemlock, or that death isn’t scary, fear of divine judgment is not one of the things that makes it scary and potentially painful, and that’s one of the lessons of these songs.

I’d love to hear what others’ favorite songs are.

*Thanks to my friend Denise for making me think of this song last week in commenting on the other Nick Cave song in my last post.


Tent Revival
Tent Revival, from Rawge's Collection of Crosses, Art, and Photographs at

I had a religious upbringing. The religion I was raised in, Mormonism, was an evangelical kind, which means we were interested in converting other people to it.

In my mid-twenties I had an intellectual falling-out with my church and left.

Thanks to Facebook, I’m now in touch with a lot of old friends from my churchgoing years. Last week, I got a package in the mail from one of them. Included among the sweet, thoughtful gifts in the box was … a copy of the Book of Mormon signed and accompanied with handwritten evangelizing notes from her and several of our other friends.

Being the object of this small proselytizing effort was an interesting experience. Much as I love my friends, I felt annoyed, embarrassed, and even a bit insulted. At the same time, I understood the motivations behind it, because back when I too was religious, I used to do the exact same thing. I remember in college sending copies of the Book of Mormon to a couple of my agnostic friends from high school (I believe the author of The Post-Pessimist Association was one of the lucky recipients). I had underlined and highlighted key passages in a number of different colors, and penned earnest, heartfelt notes in them. I did this out of a sincere desire to share with them something that at the time I thought was gold, hoping it would make them as happy as it made me.

Now I have a pretty good idea of what it must have been like on their end: annoying, embarrassing, and slightly insulting. Why insulting? It sends the message that who you are is not okay, and you need to change in order to meet with others’ approval. Also, part of being treated like a grownup is the assumption on your interlocutor’s part that you’ve thought through your worldview options and know your own mind. These proselytizing efforts imply the opposite, that you’ve got it all wrong and need to be schooled.

It’s tricky though, obviously. Sometimes in life we do have it all wrong and do need to be schooled.

And of course, religious folks are not the only ones who go around trying to persuade others to see things their way. Atheists do it. Environmentalists do it. Political partisans of all stripes do it. And the subtext remains the same: You may have thought this through, but not enough. Your views are wrong and you need to change them. The status quo of who you are, as defined by what you think and the choices you make based on your opinions, is unacceptable.

So today’s question for the world at large is, when are these persuasive efforts okay and when do they cross the line? When are they unforgivable, and when are they imperative? When do we embrace humility and decide to just live and let live, and when do we set off on a crusade?

And now, to accompany all our deep thoughts on this subject, A Number of Religion-Themed Songs, With Varying Degrees of Irony and With Apologies to My Non-Secular Friends To Whom I Hope These Are Not Too Offensive

Mothers and Children

Gustav Klimt, Detail from The Three Ages of Women
Gustav Klimt, The Three Ages of Women (detail), 1905

When I have an intimidating pile of books I want to read and am not sure where to start, sometimes I’ll go through and read the just first chapter of each book in turn. Then I’ll read the second chapter of each, and so on, until I get hooked on one and drop the others. Last week, the book that hooked me was Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. I was already tipping at Chapter 2, and when Chapter 3 started it was a done deal. (First sentence: “He should just be castrated.” And that’s before you even get to the kissing and lust.)

I haven’t seen the movie, which everyone said was good, but this is was a great read. Perrotta’s writing is close to my ideal. His prose is clean and uncluttered, and he seems to follow the principle that the story takes precedence over the language, without the language suffering from its supporting role. There is very little here that’s extraneous, either in the diction or in the plot.

The magic of the book isn’t in the level of craftsmanship in the writing, although the craftsmanship is there. Rather, it’s the sympathy every character gets. Even the repugnant characters are humanized and we feel sorry for them. And the hero and heroine conversely aren’t idealized, but I still fell hard for both of them. Compassion and liking for your own characters is something no writing class or book can teach you. Tom Perrotta seems to have both, and they elevate the book from a clever, self-aware tale of modern marital malaises to something beautiful and deeply satisfying.

Also, in a bunch of places, the writing is funny. Not guffawing, thigh-slapping funny, but funny enough to make you stop mentally every now and then and say “ha!” It’s so rare to find literary writing that’s also funny, although maybe it’s just the books I pick. I can count on one hand authors of good literary fiction I’ve read in the past decade who were funny: Tom Perrotta, David Lodge (e.g., Therapy), William Kotzwinkle (The Bear Went Over the Mountain), and grudgingly I might put Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) on there too, because whatever other failings The Corrections has, I have to admit there were some funny bits. But I think Perotta is a much better author than Franzen—unlike Franzen, Perotta doesn’t come across as trying too hard, and Franzen especially suffers by comparison on the measure of character likeability. I should have been able to like a tormented bisexual female chef, for example, but Franzen made even that difficult. While on the other hand, Perrotta arouses my sympathy (to a limited extent) for a convicted pedophile, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment.

Of course, part of the problem is that I just don’t get to read nearly enough (does anyone these days?) If anyone has more suggestions for funny-but-literary authors, I’d love to hear them. A dear friend from high school who like me is an aspiring novelist recently posted on his troubles with overly serious writing. So hopefully he’ll eventually write something “allegedly funny,” as he likes to say and I can read that. But in the meantime, suggestions welcome.

Speaking of little children, last week was my daughter Amandine’s half-birthday—she’s now officially 2 and a half. So in Amandine’s honor, and in honor of all my mom friends who recently had a baby or are about to have one any minute, I thought I’d link to a few songs on the theme of mothers and children.

The Neko Case song isn’t really a mother-child song, but the refrain used to run through my head constantly when Amandine was just born and would cry all the time. I find the Madonna song simultaneously kitschy and moving, like a lot of her songs that I like. But it’s not often that pop megasuperstars sing about tender feelings for their children rather than hookups and doomed love affairs and such, so I just think it’s awesome that song exists. And the Lucinda Williams song is an amazingly good description of the ache and richness of mother-love.

Book status update: Still revising and revising and revising. Starting to trade off critiques with a few people, which is going to be helpful but involves a lot of work reciprocally critiquing others’ manuscripts. I do think the book is gradually sucking less, so that’s good. If anyone is interested in being a beta reader, give me a holler.

My Rules for Writing

Jackson Pollock
Life will descend into chaos around you while you write.

This week the Guardian published a piece in which 29 writers give their rules for fiction writing. Here are mine:

1. Realize no one cares about your stupid novel. Seriously. Even if it gets published. Even if it wins the freakin Nobel Prize for Literature, most people you pass on the street are never going to read it, have never heard of you, and could care less. The exceptions are (a) your mom and possibly your sister, although they are mostly just pretending to be interested because they like you and are nice people, (b) your spouse and/or child(ren), but mainly in the sense that they wish you stop all this writing nonsense and do laundry more often, unless you happen to write a bestseller, in which case they will want a bigger allowance; and (c) people upon whom you have based a character in the book, although mainly in the sense that they are either flattered or slightly creeped out to realize you were paying that much attention.

2. Write your novel anyway. Whatever else happens, it will be an adventure.

3. Look into the motivations and fantasies that drive your writing, and try to fulfill them outside your writing. Do you write because you’re lonely? Try to make friends in real life. Want to make someone fall in love with you? Send the person that love poem you wrote. Long for excitement and travel? Go somewhere exciting. Once you do that, you might find you lose interest in writing, but if so, it’s probably a good thing. And if you still want to write, you’ll have more experiences worth writing about.

4. Struggle against entropy. While you write, life around you descends into chaos. Dishes pile up, underwear goes unwashed, your toddler paints your couch in purple lipstick, e-mails from people you care about go unresponded to. You have to emerge every now and then to put some order back into your universe. It’s an eternal Sysiphean struggle, but one you have to persevere in to keep yourself and your loved ones sane.

5. No detail is too small to sweat over getting right. Every comma, every conjunction. The smallest mistakes can ruin an otherwise good piece of writing. One “off” word choice can turn an effective paragraph into an embarrassing mass of purple sentimentality. One wrong comma placement can make a beautiful sentence into a hideous one.

That’s all I got.

A quick book review. I am picky enough about books that although I read promiscuously, it’s rare for me to find ones that I really, really like. But I was lucky and recently came across The Evening and the Morning by Virginia Sorenson, published in 1949, which was all the more surprising because so far as I can tell, it’s kind of an obscure book. I hunted it down while I was doing research on ex-Mormon authors. The author is an ex-Mormon, and the main character of the book is a women born in the last years of polygamy, who goes on to marry monogamously and have an long affair with a neighbor. The writing is gorgeous and the story compelling—this women is like an ex-Mormon Virginia Woolf, if Virginia Woolf had more interesting plots. I’d recommend it to my ex/post/alumni-Mormon friends and acquaintances as well as non-Mormon readers. Believing Mormons interested in an ex-Mormon perspective could find it interesting too.

Lastly, now that I’ve figured out how to link to songs, I thought it’d be fun to put a few at the end of each post I do. This week’s theme is Some Obscure Songs I Never Would Have Heard Of If It Hadn’t Been For Pandora, Part 1. (Of course, obscurity is always relative, but these were obscure to me.) Enjoy.

A Music Post

Carla Bruni

I know I’ve been boring, what with all the shop-talk about novel-writing and whining about how hard revisions are. So for a change of pace, today’s post is on music. I’ve been wasting a lot of time lately listening to music when I should be revising my novel instead, for a couple of reasons. One, it turns out a friend of mine writes a secret music blog (which alas, naturellement, I can’t link to, as it’s secret) that I’ve really been enjoying. It’s been a nice way for me to learn about unfamiliar music (which is most music except for pre-1950 classical and ultra-obscure things I come across on my Pandora station). And then my [now former] husband gave me an iPod for a surprise just-because present, so now I can listen on it.

So, first off, here are some songs that turn up in my novel (the links are to Lala, and you should be able to listen to them once for free).

That last song isn’t in the book per se, but the movie Wings of Desire is, so that gives a taste of it (there was a nice commemorative review of the film in Slate last month).

Also, I thought I’d link to some songs in French and German, since people might not be so familiar with them and that makes it fun to share. A German friend introduced me to the group Wir Sind Helden, so here’s a song from them called Von Hier An Blind, from their album of the same name (you can’t listen to the whole song on Lala, unfortunately). It’s a great philosophical song, because it describes a state of aporia. The refrain goes:

Ich weiß nicht weiter
War ich noch nie
Ich weiß nicht weiter
Ich weiß nicht, wo wir sind
Ich weiß nicht weiter
Von hier an blind

Meaning, “I don’t know the way forward, I was never here before, I don’t know the way forward, I don’t know where we are, from here on out I’m blind.”

Next up, a song from Louise Attaque, La Nuit from their album A Plus Tard Crocodile. I’m not too sure about the lyrics, as I don’t understand them and they’re not printed in the CD jacket, but it showcases their distinctive violin sound—apparently one of the band members is a classically trained violinist, and there is a lot of great string work on this album.

You may have heard of Carla Bruni, first lady of France. We really enjoyed her album Quelqu’un M’a Dit—my [ex]husband describes her sound as “very French.”  I was going to post the title song of that album, but apparently it was in the movie (500) Days of Summer, so you’ve probably already heard it (I haven’t had time to see the movie yet, but it’s in my Netflix queue). Here’s another song from that album, L’excessive. The lyrics are awesome, describing every writer’s inner drama queen:

Je suis excessive,
Quand tout explose,
Quand la vie s’exhibe,
C’est une transe exquise.

“I’m excessive; when everything explodes, when life exposes itself, I’m in an exquisite trance.”

And lastly, an old favorite, Kurt Weill’s Je Ne T’Aime Pas. Smoky, sultry cabaret. That’s the Ute Lemper version, which I had in my CD collection, but I was looking for more modern covers of it, and I think I like this one by Italian singer Laura Conti best: Je Ne T’Aime Pas. I really wish I knew of a contemporary indie cover. It’s a song about repressed passion and being stuck in the dreaded friend zone. Good times.

Not Sucking Is Hard

Not sucking is especially difficult if you happen to be a leech. (Photo by Chris Schuster, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before I get into the subject of this post, a couple of news items. First, I’ve had another essay accepted for publication, this time in a literary magazine called Hotel Amerika. This is a really exciting place to get published, because although they’re a relatively young journal, launched in 2002, they’ve already had something like 10 mentions in the Best American Essays series, which is a lot by my count. My piece will be in their Volume 9, Number 1, the Fall 2010 issue.

Crazy—two acceptances in two weeks. When it rains, it pours. Or should I say, when it snows, it dumps three feet on us?

Actually, I have been loving the snow. We have these eerily spiraling gothic icicles hanging off our roof, so long they go down past the bedroom windows. The kids in our neighborhood have been digging labyrinthine tunnels into the snowbanks. Amandine and I go for fun walks in snow down to the bridge over the creek. Plus, I have enjoyed all the stupid puns: Snowgeddon, the Snowpocalypse, Snoverkill, Snowverwhelming. Who comes up with these? Possibly most exciting of all, I get to keep all my library books for an extra week with no fees. That’s big for me; as a person with not much money and a large literary appetite, I’m a heavy library user and hate giving books back.

So, back to not sucking. Not sucking is hard. I am realizing this as I slog through the first pass at revising my novel. It amazes me there are writers out there whose first or even partial novel drafts are good enough to get published and be readable. David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming The Pale King, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise—I read the Nemirovsky book when it came out a few years and was blown away by how great it was, and was angry when it just stopped, right in the middle.

If you took a first draft of just about anything I’ve written and tried to read it, you’d probably want to puke. I have to revise and revise and revise before it even gets close to readable, and even then it still often sucks. If I died and some idiot decided a first draft of mine should be published, I’d be horrified and rise from my grave to seek gory zombie-style revenge. (Apparently Nabokov felt similarly about The Original of Laura, which I haven’t read but hear is for die-hard Nabokov fans and scholars only—he asked that the draft be burned after his death. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s plotting vengeance from the hereafter at this very moment.)

It’s surprising just how hard it is not to suck. The other day on the forums on Nathan Bransford’s website, someone was saying that probably 25% of novels are good enough to be published.

I do not expect to ever see my work in print. How could I, knowing the numbers and having attended a few years worth of statistics classes? It’s what, 0.1% of all completed novels that get bought by a print publishing house? Thing is, I don’t believe that only one in a thousand writers is good enough to be print-published, I think a lot more of us are producing publishable quality. My personal guess would be that a good 25% of us write quality that’s virtually indistinguishable from the average published novel. Being (not) print-published is not only a matter of working hard enough and honing your skills, it’s a simple matter of insufficient demand and waaaaaaay too much supply.

But I disagree—I do think it’s more like one in a thousand novels that are good enough to be print-published by a “real” publisher. I’ve read unpublished or self-published novels by family members, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. While I wouldn’t say they sucked, I will say that in each case, I could see why they weren’t published, and could tell a clear difference between those novels and the published ones I read. I was happy to have the opportunity to read these amateur efforts. I enjoyed them, learned from them, found them interesting, memorable, and entertaining; they helped me understand the inner life of their authors better. But they weren’t at the same level of writing as published books usually are.

There are a lot of people out there who like to mock the prose of Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer, or hate on genre fiction. But the more I struggle to get my own writing not to suck, the more I’m in awe of these writers. Attaining the level of nonsuckiness they do is not easy or simple, it’s not something any random joe or jill schmoe off the streets can do, and it’s definitely not something 25% of novel-writers can do. For example, among my happily extended library loans this past week, I finally got around to reading Soulless, by Gail Carriger (which I learned about from her agent Kristin Nelson’s blog). It’s hilarious and fun vampire steampunk (who knew there was such a genre?), and I highly recommend it. Did I see flaws in the writing? Yes, but then I’ve found flaws in novels by James Joyce and Jonathan Franzen too. The point still remains: these people did it. Their novels do not suck. We should all be so lucky/hard-working/talented/endowed with that certain literary je ne sais quoi.

Snow and Settling

Holy cow, it’s snowing a lot here. The snowbanks are taller than my toddler. This is the front of our little townhouse—you can see that the snow is as tall as our trash can.

snow covered trash bin
Trash bin in snow

So I got some great news this past week. One of my nonfiction essays got accepted for publication in a literary magazine called Bayou. I’m really happy about it, because Bayou has had a number of essays get notable mentions in The Best American Essays in the past several years (I have a giant anal-retentive spreadsheet where I keep track of such things, so I know which literary magazines to submit to). The essay is slated to appear in their May 2010 issue, so I’ll post about it when it comes out. This will be my first literary publication in a print journal, too. It’s all making me feel almost legit as a writer.

When I got the acceptance e-mail from Bayou, I immediately sent off e-mails to the other literary journals that were still considering the essay to tell them the piece was no longer available. It turned out one of these other journals had actually flagged the piece for acceptance, too, which made me embarrassed and regretful (to have to tell them they couldn’t have the piece) but also pleased, because it meant the other acceptance wasn’t just a fluke instance of some editor being high on crack.

As for revisions on the novel, they are coming along sloooooowly. I’ve heard writers say they like revising better than writing the first draft, but I’m finding it not as fun—a lot more of a slog than the initial drafting was. I am giving myself this whole month just to focus on revising without starting any new projects. I think I need the time anyway to recover and reintegrate myself into society as a normal non-novel-writing person. Writing the book took a major toll on my social life and housekeeping and I’ve kind of got to dig myself out of the rubble for a while now.

By the way, I came across some entertaining articles this week about a new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. The author argues that single chicks should stop being so dang picky and just settle down with some reasonably nice guy before they get too old and ugly.

Give Up On Mr. Perfect

You Don’t Have to Settle

To some extent, I kind of sort of agree with the author, though. Settling can be a good thing. If my husband hadn’t settled for me, where would I be now? Goodness knows. But I think she could have picked a less sexist-sounding way of stating the argument. If it were me, I would have talked about it in terms of risk-taking, rather than settling. Romantic relationships are risky, no bones about it. When your partner is less than perfect, that increases your risks. But you don’t want to be too risk-averse, or you end up impoverishing yourself emotionally and spiritually.

Maybe that’s a mere semantic quibble on my part, but doesn’t it sound a whole lot more empowering and enlightened than “Hey you, stop being so picky and just settle down already”?

Still Alive, Kinda

Sorry, just a slapdash howdy this week. I’ve been down with a nasty flu bug the past several days.

Novel manuscript all typed up. Into revisions now. Woot.

Read The Backslider by Levi S. Peterson. Great, as promised. I think that was the first cowboy-themed novel I’ve ever read, and it was refreshing, a nice break from the vampires, boy wizards, Jane Austen fan fiction, and tales of neurotic city-dwellers that constitute my normal literary diet.