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What drives someone to sit and write "literary fiction" for hours on end, monotonously proofreading and editing and rewriting and blah blah blah, just so he or she can reach an ever-dwindling literary-fiction readership? Or, more concisely, what motivates someone to go through the arduous task of writing something they believe others will find worthwhile?
Do you believe there is a singular, central motivation that almost all writers have? Is there a few? Is there a whole variety of motivations, with none really being predominant over the others?
Usually, I'd put a little joke here, for levity's sake, but I don't want to become too predictable.
Sincerely yours (whoever I may be),
I had a long answer going in my head that was all about biology and anthropology and brain science and consciousness and dreams and shit, but now I just think I want to say: because it's fun. Yay, yay, proofreading! Yay, editing! Yay, yay, yay, yay! That's why I do it now, though when I started I did it because I was very, very angry. Also I thought it would somehow get me laid (?). The weird thing is that people are driven to do all sorts of extremely difficult, mostly unappreciated things that fall into the general category of "art." Just be glad you're not a musician. What could be more arduous than practicing the violin for five hours a day, from childhood, no kidding--like age five--just so you can get a poorly-paid job in an orchestra playing concerts for very, very old people who have hearing difficulties? But art compels us. Maybe it's a quest for truth and beauty, maybe it's the monkey-impulse to put things together, or a Freudian impulse to surpass our parents/get laid/transcend death, or a Jungian impulse to glimpse the divine. It's probably some combination of those; I'm not sure. Fun seems like as good an answer as any, even though most of the time, it's not really that fun.
My favorite writers are you, Angela Carter, and Aimee Bender. What should I read next? Where are the other rad females writing fantastical, funny, eloquent, quirky stories? I mean you and Aimee are slow, and Angela Carter is dead since the eighties, I think.
Books! I think you'll love anything by Kelly Link (though I should tip you off that Pretty Monsters contains many stories published in her other books). Aimee Bender has a new novel that I haven't read yet, though I dreamed I read it and loved it. Definitely try There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya--that one's wonderful, read that first--and while you're at it you'll also like the new anthology of modern fairy tales edited by Kate Bernheimer, irresistably entitled, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. That one is full of rad fantastical female authors--you can look up your favorites and zip off from there. And in honor of the cookie, I think you must read the strange, dreamy novel Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynun. For we must always honor the cookie.
Hey, Stacey. Do you follow any sports, professional or otherwise?
If yes, which one(s) and why?
If no, why not? If you were forced to follow/regularly watch a sport, which one(s) would you go with?
I hope you're well!
Your most valuable lickspittle,
No! Just, no no fucking no. I do sort of like professional ice skating though because it's pretty.
Are you one of those people who tapes their rejection letters to the bathroom wall? Do you advocate burning them? Do you keep them in a drawer? Do you throw them away?
Hi Lady. As it turns out, I wrote a piece about rejection letters for the Mississippi Review. I'll put a link to the reprint of it in Fictionaut. Please click up above on "Stories on the Web," then look for the piece called "The Chair of Rejection."
Do you think there were liberal and conservative cavemen?
Sort of, yeah, but actually probably not. I'm sure there were different philosophies of life among prehistoric humans, but as far as I can tell dualism is a more recent way of thinking. Modern people have gotten very into right and wrong, black and white, good and evil, all that. We started to have more rules once we started to live together in towns, and have culture, and grow food, though Eastern cultures aren't as dualistic as Western ones so maybe it's not inevitable, or even logical.
Probably, back in the days of hunter gatherers, people conceived of time and life as being cyclical, and that doesn't lend itself as easily to dualism. If you look at very early narratives, like The Epic of Gilgamesh, you can see the more cyclical notion of time in action. (Also, it's just a great boys' adventure story that's fun to read). And since hunter-gatherers didn't live in towns, they probably didn't really need as many ideas about how other people should live--since liberal and conservative is really about that in the end--not how one lives oneself, but how other people are supposed to live.
I'm just guessing! Well, duh.
Fantastic. Since I have entered a blog on here, I have read several of your pieces. I have made connections and found interesting ties into similar focuses you write about (piano, men singing). I look forward to reading more of your work. I've decided to focus on the relationship you make with your readers, your characters, and the relationship you have with your dual self (both as a reader and a writer).
I wonder, if you try to target a specific audience, our it just comes naturally.
That sounds good, Samantha. I don't think you'll be surprised to hear that most writers don't think of their relationship with readers in the same pointed way as academics. I'm really just trying to do the best I can--just like you do when you make things, even if you haven't made art since fourth grade. My ideas about audience seem to come after I write, not during, and have the distinct tinge of fantasy--so that now my ideal audience is 200,000 cute, smart boys. Though I really write for women. See? It makes no sense.
I'm writing a research paper on you, after reading "The First Men". If you could say one thing about yourself you'd want a reader to know about yourself, what would it be. And if you don't mind I would like to quote you. You're a wonderfully talented and crafty writer.
Hi Samantha. Thanks for writing a paper on me, and yes, quote away. There actually is a Time-Life book called The First Men, by the way, and it was co-written by the great, pioneering gay writer Edmund White, who was my teacher once. I got the book in a thrift store and was shocked to see his name there, though I knew he once worked at Time.
As for the thing I'd want readers to know (and this isn't a jab at Edmund White), I'd say that even though I did take writing classes, I basically consider myself self-taught as a writer. I'm not sure why I want people to know that, except that everything I know about writing has been hard-won, and is probably mostly wrong.
I'm not a writer or good with grammar and punctuation, so this is hard for me to explain, about the way i feel about music, because i have favorites, i have things i tolerate, and then even things i don't know very well but I am still open to. But what if I get in my date's car for the first time, and he puts on some music I don't like "yet." I say yet, because often I don't like something or someone, until I "learn to." anyway, can you help me to not be so judgemental right off the bat or tell me your thoughts on first impressions, and if they really do mean anything besides shape our attitude/acceptance of others. l don't know how much of my standards are justified and valid, or if I am just a jerk sometimes.
All your standards are justified and valid, Not Sure, and somewhere deep inside, I think you already know this. Your taste is your taste! Music is full of emotion, it's important to people, your emotions are important to you. Making out to Dave Matthews Band music is only going to end in heartbreak. You don't want to end up like Latchkey's parents do you? (see below). You don't want to try and try to convince yourself that you're agreeable, and nice, and it's okay, and you like the things you don't, until one day you realize that you are so fucking angry about trying to fit yourself into the desires of others that you just have to just GET OUT. And what for? For Dave Matthews and his stupid band. Don't do it. Speak up now.
I don't mean you have to ditch the boy. If the boy likes you, he'll change the music. If the boy likes you, he won't care if you like things that he doesn't, or maybe he'll think it's interesting. And if not, you can just drop kick him. Because do you want to date a boy who needs you to like all the same things he likes? No. No. No. Are you getting this? No. Besides, he probably doesn't care. It's only girls who care about everyone liking the same thing at the same time. And remember, not liking things is not the same as being judgmental. It's just having a self. And there are lots of things you can say besides "I fucking hate this music." Like, "Let's turn off the music for a while." Or, "I made this CD for you!" Or, "I'm sorry, I have a weird aversion to the banjo. Can we change it?" Or, "I never could get into Dave Matthews. How about some smooth jazz?"
Hours after reading your recent response to Latchkey, my mind is still reeling with variations and extensions to your light bulb riff: How do you do it?
I meant overcoming denial and seeing what’s there. I used the light metaphor because I didn’t want to hound poor Latchkey with psychobabble, though I consider denial a brain function on par with memory or planning, even if it was named by psychologists. In this I’m influenced by V.S. Ramachandran’s incredible Phantoms in the Brain, especially the mind-blowing chapter “The Sound of One Hand Clapping,” which discusses a stroke-induced denial called anosognosia. Anosognosia patients will deny the effects of their stroke (paralysis), despite ample evidence to the contrary (a wheelchair). Ramachandran does all sorts of clever experiments with these patients to bolster the idea that denial is something our brains evolved to do, whether we encourage them or not. I love this book! Before I read it, I didn’t think of myself as a Big Denier. “I know plenty of deniers, I am not one of them”; like that. But after Ramachandran, I knew I had to be a denier, and saw a lot. I could recalled denying specific things, and remembered how I did it. The lights went up. It was weird, and it made me sad, but that’s how I know it’s possible.
Here’s my theory: we’ve evolved brains that are good at ignoring information detrimental to our survival. Most of this information has to do with belonging to a group, despite the non-group promoting behavior of other people: lying, stealing, screwing, raging, sundry destroying. That’s why most denial is social and pertains to people you need to be close to, like family and lovers and close friends, and why sometimes the things you deny they do are pretty fucking unacceptable.
So if you want to turn on the lights in your own life, look at your family and friends. Consider: lying, drinking, adultery, boy/girlfriend-stealing, betrayal, and crime. Have they done any? Sometimes little instances come to mind but the bigger ones have receded, or you may have made light of them, or said everybody does it, or decided that a certain thing (Dad drinking fourteen drinks and singing funny songs) is charming in its own way, or just sort of not thought about it for a long time. If you can remember a little lie, try to think: what else have they lied about? If they acted odd, when else did they act like that? Was there a first time? The first time is the most upsetting, and it could be the time you first decide to let it slip into the dark.
But wait: why would you even want to look at your family and friends like this? Good question. You probably don’t. That’s why it works—you have a good reason for not wanting to dwell on this shit. Shit is shitty. Knowing that your best friend is a criminal and your father is an adulterer is repulsive; knowing that your mother is unhappy (like Latchkey’s) is also horrible, or that your boyfriend is a dork or less interesting than you (like Not Sure, above), or that your yourself are a dork or are too accommodating to boys or are lonely, is also awful. Or thinking about how we’re all going to die (I forgot to mention the subset of sickness-death denial), or how someone you know is very ill and miserable, and young, and will die, but not for a long time, and it can happen to you, is crushing. Why would you want to know? You don’t have to. It might not do anything for you. But I believe skepticism is a healthy habit. Whole groups ignore the truth too, societies—if you look at the history of the 20th century, there are plenty of instances where seeing others clearly was the best way to survive. At the very least, it can tell you when to run.
If you decide you want to look, here are some of the ways people reveal the nasty truth about themselves. 1) They clearly state the facts, hoping you’ll tell them they’re wrong or accept them anyway. But they’re not wrong (e.g.: “I am a pathetic drunk,” “I’m incapable of a relationship,”). 2) They express themselves in wishes that are the opposite of the truth. People in unhappy relationships trumpet their happiness; insecure people list their accomplishments, liars protest their innocence. Very common. 3) They criticize others for the having the same faults they have themselves: people who cheat say how much they hate cheaters, liars hate lying, etc. 4) They continually and emphatically state the truth of something about themselves—intelligence, prowess—despite ample evidence to the contrary. My favorite!
This nice story is a combination of #’s 1 and 4. At a private high school where my friend worked, one of the English teachers was always going on about his PhD in literature, making his students call him Doctor, and driving everyone crazy with his pretentiousness. He had done this for years. One day my friend taught for him and was stunned by the stupidity of his lesson plan, which involved memorizing the titles of books rather than reading them. But it took a new hire, a gay guy—who probably had experience with guys who said they were straight but dated him anyway—to realize that something was off. He was so certain that he checked the teacher’s credentials and found that he did not have a PhD. He’d been lying for years!
The part I love most about that story when the new guy decides to check the doctor's credentials. Because a lot of our lives can be verified now; you don't have to rely on pure acumen. In Latchkey's case, she could talk to family members or her parents’ friends—that would probably turn up a lot. She could play Second Life with her mother. She could read her mother’s email, or her father’s—I don’t mean secretly, I mean she could ask, and they might say yes; I’m not sure why, but people do that. Or she could snoop. Or she could just ask her parents flat out, in the most direct, mature way she could think of, which might work. Or it might not. All these ways, it seems to me, provide ample opportunity for disappointment. Not to mention disillusionment. But in a way, that’s the point.
discuss the usage of metaphor in Eva Sallis' novel The Marsh Birds
In Eva Sallis' novel The Marsh Birds, metaphor is used as it is in every novel, which is to say that since everything is made up, everything is a metaphor: every image, every detail, every character. The house is not a house. The character is not a person. It's like a dream: everything is spun from the mind of the dreamer--or if you're a Jungian, you might say everything is spun from the collective experience of mankind. That's what literature is, a narrative made up of metaphors. I haven't read The Marsh Birds, but I'm pretty sure this applies.
Now go do your homework.