I Left My Heart in Dimension X

This Saturday I attended the fabulous Rutgers One-to-One mentoring conference. It was a great opportunity to meet with writers, discuss their work, and shoot the breeze with my peers– fifty-or-so of whom turned up to volunteer their time and expertise.

The highlight though,  for me, was Bruce Coville’s keynote address.

I was obsessed with the Rod Albright books in grade school. Aliens Ate My Homework, I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X, etc. I even fashioned tiny aliens out of Play-Doh and converted one of my mother’s ex-makeup packages into a vaguely disc-shaped spacecraft. I used to run around the yard making laser noises and essentially embarrassing myself and having a wonderful time. And yet, I’d only noted Bruce’s presence at the conference with passing interest. I was here to work, network, and drop some truth bombs about conflict and character arcs. Not swoon over childhood idols.

My afternoon session went long, so I arrived at the makeshift auditorium late. I’m embarrassed to admit I had no idea what Bruce Coville looks like, and when I entered I saw a bald, bearded man in a brilliant white shirt standing before an enormous crimson curtain. It looked like God was giving the keynote.

I found a seat at the back. All my peers, the mentees, everyone had their backs to me. Though the space was packed, I suddenly felt pleasantly alone, private, as if it was just me and Bruce, one of the first authors who’d ever captured my imagination. Suddenly I didn’t feel like a professional book-sligner, Mr. Big Bad Agent Man. Instead, I felt like my fifth-grade self, John Michael, a total geek, total cheese-ball, utterly vulnerable.

Now, I’ve heard a few keynotes in my day, the majority of which have the same subtext: “Being Me [Bestselling Genius Author of the Week] is Absolutely Amazing.” Bruce was different. He spoke about “lengthening the chain,” how making life just a little easier for others can ripple out in unpredictable, positive ways. He read letters from fans (to other writers) about the positive effect of books in their lives.

It suddenly struck me (how had I forgotten?), that we are in the business of communicating… something to young people. What we choose to show kids effects and even shapes their world. We are not just here to tell compelling stories, but to share meaning. I don’t mean preachiness, littering the narrative road with moral cow pies for kids to step in. I mean taking whatever it is that moves us, cuts us to the bone, makes us sing, laugh, or totally lose it, and giving it away in our writing.

Then Bruce said something that absolutely killed me.

“We all want to be numb. Don’t be.”

There’s something to be said for building up your armor, especially in a world that is not always beautiful, meaningful, or easy. It’s easy to grow callouses around your tenderest feelings, especially when the work-a-day existence of surviving demands so much force and bullheadedness. But that’s what I love about writing novels. It is a chance to not be numb. It is permission to weep.

And I’ll tell ya, maybe it was exhaustion, or relief, or hearing it straight from a childhood hero, but I teared up right then. I’m glad as hell I was in the back where no one could see me. (It doesn’t look good for an agent to get misty-eyed.) But I’m happier still that for the second time in my life, Bruce Coville reminded me to be happily vulnerable.

To be a total geek, an absolute cheese-ball.

Whatever You’re Calling About, the Answer is Yes

There are only a few people to thank (/blame) for me become a writer. Same goes for me being a relatively happy guy. Only a handful occupy the center of that Venn diagram. And it’s not a round table, either. There are definitely two portly, stately gentlemen at either side of the long table. And one of them is Stephen Sondheim.

I stumbled into Sondheim obsession without knowing it when I was eight years old. My parents had recently re-finished the basement and I was romping around on the new carpet with a brand new Power Rangers toy (arguably the only corny television institution of its era that hasn’t gotten cooler with age). I was zooming around the basement, making laser and rocket sounds, when the television, which was tuned to PBS, began running the original cast production of Into the Woods,  a terribly funny and dark musical about nursery rhymes and fairy tales. These bleaker, funnier, more adult versions- which I was young enough to think of as kids territory, my territory absolutely blew my mind. By the time the opening number was over, the Power Ranger toys had been forgotten. I was hooked, and on far headier, more addictive stuff.

Jump ahead oh twenty years or so and I am entirely obsessed with (to list them in the chronological order I discovered them), Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night MusicAssassins, and most recently, Company. I fell in love with the first two on this list having no idea their scores were composed by the same amazing person. Since then I’ve paced my exploration of his oeuvre because I want spend as much of my life discovering new Sondheim musicals as possible. Better critics than I have described the SHEER AMAZINGNESS of Sondheim’s music and lyrics, so I won’t try and tackle that task. Instead I’ll say that like all my favorite artists, Sondheim explores the very fine gray lines between the big blaring poles that rule most stories. He explores grays within grays, shades within shades, and seems to understand (and believe me, for my high school and even college years I really, especially, needed someone to understand this) the beauty and poignancy of loneliness, disappointment, and misunderstanding.

I was so fortunate to get to sit in the same room as this genius a few months back when he came and spoke in Princeton. He’s still so sharp, and so reasonable. Unlike what you’d expect from a Living Legend, Sondheim isn’t a blowhard. Like his art, he is subtle, asking questions rather than handing down answers, possessed of such startling human insight and empathy.

I could go on and on and on. I won’t. It’s the man’s birthday, and I love him. Thank you, Stephen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Happy Birthday, sir. And whatever you’re thinking, the answer is yes.

Kids Like Us: Franzen, Wallace, Eugenides, and Karr

A friend forwarded me this terrific New York Books article about the young friendships of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffery Eugenides, and Mary Karr.

Mary Karr was one of the first authors I latched onto in high school. My completely awesome rebel of an English teacher assigned her memoir Liar’s Club, after which I devoured her follow-up, Cherry (for which I named the eponymous girly in CHERRY MONEY BABY).

In college I picked up The Corrections and put it down twice on the advice of two readers I respected, who claimed they “just couldn’t get through it.” Finally I decided to ignore their advice, and was enthralled. Last June I gobbled up Freedom much the same.

In July I started Eugenides Middlesex, which someone had given to me as a gift, and which I’d avoided, thinking it was an “issues book.” Now Eugenides is one of my favorite authors, and I’m loving his latest, Marriage Plot.

I was amazed that three of my heroes, each of whom I’d come to separately, were close at the same age I am now, and in the same place (Eugenides lived in Prospect Heights, just a few blocks from my apartment). It was also heartening to discover these writers struggled in their late twenties, even those who’d published already. (Yes, I felt like a smarty-pants to find Karr and Franzen shared my opinions about Wallace’s early fiction.). I know, I know: it’s corny, not to mention narcissistic, to read an article like this and see parallels to one’s own life (friends and I have already had the obligatory You’re Jeff and I’m David. No dude, if any one’s David I’m David conversations), but it is heartening to remember that even the great ones experience self-doubt, set backs, and the same tribulations as the rest of us humans. And to remember there are other people who care so much about novels.

I’d like to think if I were trying to write in Brooklyn in the ’80’s, I’d have been pals with Jeff, traded barbs with Jonathan, and cried when Mary chose David over me.

Dear Mr. Keillor: Let the Writers Whine

Confession: in college I was a closet Keillorite. Prairie Home Companion inspired me to write radio dramas for The Waterpipe TheaterThe Book of Guys had me dashing off (very bad) short stories, and cousin Kate was one of my earliest literary crushes. But today I stumbled upon Garrison’s  2006 Salon piece, “Writers, Quit Whining.” I’m not sure how I feel about this:

“OK, let me say this once and get it off my chest and never mention it again. I have had it with writers who talk about how painful and harrowing and exhausting and almost impossible it is for them to put words on paper and how they pace a hole in the carpet, anguish writ large on their marshmallow faces, and feel lucky to have written an entire sentence or two by the end of the day.

It’s the purest form of arrogance: Lest you don’t notice what a brilliant artist I am, let me tell you how I agonize over my work. To which I say: Get a job. Try teaching eighth-grade English, five classes a day, 35 kids in a class, from September to June, and then tell us about suffering.”

Fair enough.

I’m with Garrison that any job is harrowing, and compared to teaching unruly 13-year-olds, juggling Samurai swords, and cleaning the inside of sceptic tanks, writing is a cakewalk. Those of us fortunate enough to do what we love and get paid for it especially ought not bemoan our fates. I also agree that complaining in order to illustrate your brilliance is distasteful, and simply ineffective (You’re such a great writer because you can’t, um, write?).

However, the anguish of writing is particular. Writing is, of course, HARD. It requires a phenomenally complex skill set beyond correct grammar and good spelling. I don’t buy the adage “If you can speak, you can write.” If you can speak in syntactically perfect sentences shot through with triple meanings, okay, maybe. But there’s a reason the best orators write down their speeches. Speaking does not make you a writer any more than plunking Twinkle Twinkle makes you Mozart.

But I’m getting off topic (See? This stuff ain’t easy…)

Writing belongs to a category of vocations (teaching is on this list, too), that certain folks must do. Put them on a desert island, and they’ll do that one thing until they’re dry bones. Without it, they feel incomplete, inhuman, terminal as a brain deprived of oxygen. That must, combined with the grind of daily labor, the uncertainty of success, and the pervasive fear of not being good enough, warrants a little grousing, doesn’t it?

I believe in *treating* writing like a job, sitting down every day at the same time, working at it even when you don’t want to. But writing is more a religion, whose followers, no matter how devoted, often experience the sneaking suspicion they do not deserve salvation, that none of their good works will ever earn eternal bliss, and that the smart, responsible thing to do is commit apostasy and “get a real job.” That’s a special kind of torture, I think. Bearable? Sure. But not inconsequent.

So I hope y’all will tolerate occasional whining from your local writer, same as you would from an investment banker, wandering philosopher, or professional sky diver. Making money is hard- but so is passion.