Seven Under One Hundred

Baby with a Goat CartThere are a lot of age-based lists of writers out there. A lot. Of. Lists. Here’s another one.

Jake Strand, 34, after twelve years in the corporate world, recently found the courage to apply to MFA programs. He didn’t think he’d get in, but he did. His writing is extraordinary. In six years, when his first novel, Lick the Toad, is published, it will tear your heart to little pieces. It will be your favorite book. Right now, he and his wife are figuring out if they can both afford to move to Iowa. If she stays behind to work, it would strain their marriage. He’s not sure this is worth it.

Gladys Hollinghurst, 82, was an English major until she met her husband. That was a different era, and although she’ll never regret the time she spent raising her children, she does wish she’d done something sooner with the novel manuscript she’s been writing and rewriting for the past few decades. Her husband would have been scandalized, of course. He died three years ago, and that’s when she decided to make a go of it. The publisher who finally took a chance on a debut by an eighty-two-year-old is, rather than hiding Josie’s age, making a bit of a fuss about it. She finds this slightly embarrassing.

Emma Lopez, 13, has just written her first poems, her first real poems, in purple pen in a Moleskine notebook, starting on the last page and working her way forward. She mostly writes in study hall. She will spend the next twelve years working on her craft, and will almost have a book-length manuscript ready before the MS diagnosis. Ten years later, she’ll be well enough to revisit the manuscript and submit it to a few contests. She will be runner-up in two of them. Her first collection will appear when she is 40 years old. It will, unfortunately, be her only collection. But my God, those poems.Continue Reading

You’re So Vain, You Probably Think this Post is About You

mirror 1A friend once asked if I’d based the guinea pig (mentioned, but offstage) in my first novel on his daughter’s imaginary friend (of whom I’d never heard tell). In his defense: they had the same, unusual name. In my defense: ?!@&?#*%?

Maybe people want novels to be true. Maybe they want to be in those novels. Or maybe they’re terrified of this same thing—of having their secrets exposed. But all authors get asked if we’ve “based the characters on real people”—something that in my experience is actually extremely rare. So w­hat happens when friends and family convince themselves that they’re the ones you’ve written about? I asked a few friends to weigh in with their juiciest stories of supposed identity theft.

Continue Reading

Drunken Acknowledgments, 2 A.M.

Fred Allen as a ClownA book is a labor of love, and this novel would not have been possible without the help of several people, and several bottles of wine—the last of which I’m enjoying right now.

Infinite thanks to my editor, X, who talked me out of six bad titles, seven ill-advised plot twists, a really stupid dream sequence, and every shade of self-indulgence. You are the one thing standing between me and the abyss. I raise my glass to you. Wait. I refill my glass, and now I raise it to you.

Thanks also to my agent, Z, for not dropping me after I called her crying at four A.M. because the pages of my book were the wrong texture.

Continue Reading

An MFA for the Rest of Us

mfa 2

Needless to say, we will all dress like this

I’m in that small and shrinking group of writers who don’t have MFAs. Which I think makes me uniquely qualified to start my own MFA program. Haven’t most education reformers come from outside the system? My program will, for starters, involve napping and swimming pools. And the course offerings will be much more practical than “Problems in Modern Fiction.” We’ll cover the things you need to know. (The writing part you can figure out on your own.) I herewith present my 2015-2016 course catalog.Continue Reading

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Fiction: Let’s Get Out of the Restaurant

rest 5“I need to tell you something,” he said. He twirled his spaghetti around his fork.

She sipped her wine. “What is it?”

“Well.” He shoved the tangle of spaghetti in his mouth and chewed.

She fiddled with her spoon.

Suddenly, the waitress appeared. She had a grease stain on her apron. Her nametag read Renee. She symbolized harsh reality. “Can I get you somethin’ more, hon?”

He smiled and shook his head. He returned to his spaghetti. The waitress walked off, probably thinking about her ex-husband.

“What is it?” she asked him, tearing off a hunk of bread.

“I think,” he said, stirring his spaghetti in its blood-red sauce, “that we should stop perfunctorily setting fictional scenes in restaurants.”

Continue Reading

Writer Nightmares

Georges Méliès - First Wizard of Cinema vol.1 - Star Films 001-386 (1896-1901) 018You give a reading and only one person shows up. It is your ex.

You spend five years working on a novel about Marie Antoinette’s wigmaker. The day you finish your final revisions, Margaret Atwood publishes a novel about Marie Antoinette’s wigmaker.

Remember that guy whose poem you destroyed in your sophomore writing seminar? The one who went home and cried and decided he could never be a writer? Yeah, I didn’t think so. But he totally remembers you! And guess what: He’s a reviewer now!

Continue Reading

The Things I Haven’t Read

aaaLegend had it that a famous scholar of nineteenth century American literature visited my college to lecture, and someone asked him a question about Melville. He began his answer with “While I’ve never read Moby-Dick…”

At this remove, I still question the man’s scholarship and sanity—but I do admire his honesty. For writers, there’s a lot of pressure to read (or at least to have read) everything contemporary, everyone important or promising or underrated—and that’s on top of the classics we were supposed to have conquered years ago. I doubt I’m alone in sometimes feeling like a failure as a reader. I may have read Ulysses, but if I haven’t read The Goldfinch yet I can’t take part in the conversation. (People who aren’t writers always look so disappointed in me. I imagine the thought bubble as “You haven’t read The Goldfinch yet? But I thought you were a writer!”) I imagine it’s the same for English teachers and reviewers and booksellers and librarians and copy editors.

I think it’s time we follow the lead of that crackpot anti-Melville Americanist, and embrace our own reading failures. I have some I’d like to get off my chest. To wit:

book 1

Never read it.              (Buy: book | ebook)

- I have never read a word of Willa Cather. Although I could tell you a lot about it, I have not actually read “The Metamorphosis.” I have started, but never finished, a Pynchon novel.

- It takes me at least two minutes to remember the difference between Jacques Cousteau and Jean Cocteau. I think I’ve got it straight now that one of them was a red-hatted deep-sea explorer (or possibly some kind of pirate?) and the other was a poet who might have started a restaurant. But I could not tell you, right now, which is which.

Continue Reading

Because I Could Not Stop for the Death of the Novel…

V0011676 A doctor, straddled by a skeleton, holds a full purse in hisThere was once a time when we’d all sit around reading essays on how novels are dead. We’d gather in the parlor of an evening—mother, father, daughter, son—the Victrola softly playing in the background, and each read, in our own various evening papers, about the death of the book.

But in this modern era, with all our interneting and social networking and good things on TV, are we finally past the point where we care about this classic form? Sure, there are thousands of Death of the Novel essays written and published each year. But studies show that American children read, on average, only five Death of the Novel essays by the twelfth grade. In households where parents are more sanguine about novel health, the figures are even lower.

Continue Reading

Writers You Want to Punch in the Face(book)

This is the story of Todd Manly-Krauss, the world’s most irritating writer. He’s a good enough guy in real life (holds his liquor, fun at parties, writes a hell of a short story)—but give the guy a social media account, and the most mild-mannered of his writer friends will turn to blood lust.

facebook 1

Okay, so he’s not a real writer. Except that he is. At times I fear he’s me. Continue Reading

Prepare Your Battlements: Six Ways to Survive Reviews

reviews 2If you’re putting your writing out into the world, you’re going to get reviews. Maybe not in newspapers, or even from the woman on Goodreads who’s determined to start every single review with “I wanted so much to like this book,” but from your MFA workshop, your college professor, your brother, the graduate student who came across your short story in a lit mag and decided to pick it to pieces online, and many others. And for almost everyone ever, some of those reviews are going to hurt a bit. Even if they’re “good,” and quotable, and generous. It’s a bit like standing up in front of twelve judges in your bathing suit and being given an A-. You’re still going to care more about the minus than the A. You’re still going to feel weirdly violated by the whole process.

I’ve been through reviews once, and am about to head to the gallows again in July, when my second novel appears. Well, actually—and realizing this was the existential crisis of my week—quite a lot sooner. Pre-publication reviews in places like Booklist or Publishers Weekly could either make or ruin my year at any moment, and online reviews of advance copies, though usually insignificant in the larger scheme of things, are bellwethers of a most terrifying variety.

The key to survival, as in any onslaught, is to build up your defenses first, and to choose your battle plan carefully. You basically have six options, detailed below. (Please note that none of these will defend against your cousin’s wife’s thinly veiled insults in the middle of your dinner party. But they work pretty well against Kirkus Reviews.)

Continue Reading