Be Your Best Writing Self

After attending several readings of authors (among them Bonnie Jo Campbell and other award winners), I’ve learned that the majority of writers in my life are hungry for the answer to an elusive question: when is the most productive time to write?

The answer is usually: it depends!

If I were answering this question, I’d say the exact same thing. But it was one man who gave myself and my colleagues a real answer, a solid, tangible thing to grasp onto. His name was Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son and winner of the Nation Book Award. After an outstanding verbal performance of his short fiction, Johnson was asked what habits make the most productive writer.

He paused. He thought. And then he descended over a group of eager minds like a fabled savior.

Johnson said something the effect that when he was first writing, he would log the times, dates, and words that he’d write. He’d note everything in order to discover a pattern – all collected in a document as simple as Microsoft Excel. We were in awe, having expected the same answer we’d gotten many times – it just depends. In a way, this was the same answer, but told in a way that had opened our eyes.

It really does depend. But Adam Johnson’s advice is to find your own pattern and then to exploit the moments where you are most productive.

As we sat, staring at the mighty words of a mighty man hanging in the air, he continued. He said that when he tracks his word count every day – particularly the amount of words that he writes and that actually make it into a final draft – the days of missing writing are like missing teeth. They’re unsightly and leave you feeling bereft.

Motivation drives the success. There is no other way but to finish. Finishing needs productivity. After so many years of haphazard, thoughtless advice, Johnson has awakened us all.

Perhaps this is something we could have thought of on our own. But with all the ideas swirling inside us, wrapping up into our daily functions until are we nothing but decaying artists, it’s difficult to always know the way.

The Art of the Deal

Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.

 

This week I’m taking a different approach with the kind of book I read. The next novel in my alphabetical list is a real clunker, and I’ve been busy moving and getting married, so I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like to lately. So, when the opportunity to read something ridiculous and/or amazing came along, I took it. I was at the Poland Library Used Book Store when I found it—Donald Trump’s (ghostwritten) The Art of the Deal, original paperback edition from ’87 or ’88. Perfect condition. 50 cents.

Side note about the Poland, Ohio Library Used Book Store—it’s much better than the library itself. “Travesty! Sacrilege!” you’re saying. I hear you. You’re about to tell me how beautiful the Poland Library is. You’re about to tell me what a marvel of architecture it is. You’re about to tell me that it’s one of the few things the greater Youngstown metropolitan statistical area has going for it (now that Mill Creek Park is essentially a toxic waste dump). Okay, got it, and I don’t disagree with you. Now, I’m about to tell you that the Poland Library is all about appearances. Have you ever been to the actual library part? I could fit their entire book collection in my apartment (slight exaggeration, but not really). It’s a beautiful building that they spent a lot of money on, and it shouldn’t be a library. But their book store is still amazing; it has a decent, if erratic, selection, it has trade paperbacks in brand new condition for a dollar, and it has off-the-wall finds like Mr. Trump’s book for much less.

Now, back to Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump is a professional idiot by many accounts. Those same accounts always talk about his idiocy being connected to his politics and his brash mannerisms and his hatred of immigrants and women. I have no arguments with those criticisms. But a man or woman can be completely hopeless in one area and be amazing in another area. Such is the case with Mr. Trump. Say what you will about the man, but he has a brilliant business mind, and what he says in this book might possibly change your mind about business. It probably won’t change your mind about him, and it probably won’t change your life, but it will make you say, “Huh, I’ve never thought about business in that particular way.”

Most of the book is told through stories of his business dealings and how he outwitted former mayor of New York, Ed “You’re Pronouncing it Wrong” Koch. Did you know Trump made his first big property deal on a crappy apartment complex in Cincinnati? You do now. (I know—which crappy apartment complex in Cincinnati, right? Because there are so many to choose from!) But even in the business dealings we still get smatterings of the Donald’s wisdom. A lot of the time he uses the lessons he learned in his business deals to illustrate points he made earlier, in Chapter Two: “Trump Cards.” These Trump Cards (get it?) are sound, solid pieces of advice that will affect your thinking, especially if you have some of the entrepreneurial spirit about you. Take for instance, on page 48, when he tells you to protect the downside of your deal and the upside will take care of itself… Hey! What am I telling you this?

If I give you all this wisdom you’re just going to try and compete with me and make my life harder, and that’s the last thing I need. You’re going to take all of these useful things I’ve learned about business and you’re going to use them to make your own businesses, and then the banks will give you all loans and won’t have enough left for little old me.

So forget it. I’m buying up all the copies of this book I can find. If I see you reading it, I’ll snatch it out of your hands and run like someone fleeing from the ICE. The only way you’re going to get to read this book is if you find some anti-immigrationist/birther/tea-partier with a copy, and then you’re going to have to fight him (because, let’s be honest, they’re usually men) for it. And you know what? I’m kind of okay with that.

Cool. Now just forget you ever read this.

Should I Have Read These Books by Now?

the stacks

So, after reading this column for a few weeks, you might be asking yourself, “Why is this Drew fellow doing this? Why would a full-grown man be taking up his valuable time reading and reviewing books that have already been published? He’s not trying to convince me to buy them, is he?” True, the books I’m reading are (mostly) not new, and it’s not like publishers have me on their book-sending contacts list (though a full-grown man can dream!). So why am I doing this?

The answer is complicated. One reason is that I’ve just graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree, and I’m fighting the urge to veg out on the couch for the next few months (most of the time doing it unsuccessfully, thank you), which means I need to keep sharp through reading and writing. Reading a book a week is very doable, and writing a few hundred words a week is still writing something, so this column is a way of me getting my mental exercise. I’m trying to prevent my brain from atrophying. (I learned that last word from a book.)

Another reason is that I need to get out of my literary bubble. I’m not bragging when I say that my novel collection is extensive (and growing, if you ever want to get me a gift; I hear Nick Hornby has a new book out), but I always seem to gravitate toward the same set of writers. I have hundreds of writers on my shelves that I’ve never read, and maybe I’ve become a bit stunted in my habits. Who wants to be stunted? There’s nothing worse than people who limit themselves, whether that’s in the genres of books they read, or the foods they eat, or the places they go on vacation. Okay, I’m sure there are worse things, but not any that I can think of at the moment.

Do you want another reason? Okay, I’ll give you one. Reading these books, and jotting down notes about them, is making me more careful and observant. Not all of you know me, but those of you who do know that writing is a huge part of my life. What’s more important to a writer than being observant? I don’t know. Okay, maybe grammar is more important, but that’s what editors are for, and you can pay people to do that job. If you can find someone who is paid good money to observe things for other people, give me that person’s number and I’ll call him or her and make them feel really strange with how much I beg them to give me a job.

One more reason? Fine. What about the sheer joy of introducing other people to books they haven’t read yet? What if I find a book that has gone unnoticed for a long time, and I just have to tell you about it, and it ends up changing your life?

Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’ve been avoiding these books for a reason: mainly that they’re either boring or awful. But at least I will be able to say that I’ve read them, which should count for something in conversations at cocktail parties. Not that I ever actually get invited to cocktail parties.

So here are the rules. I’ll start in the A section of my shelves and work my way alphabetically through my books, reading a representative book by each author I’ve never read. Along the way I’ll pass books that I’ve already read, and I’ll mention them to you, either for good or bad. If I have other information about any of the authors I pass—what the heck, I’ll throw that in, too. I’ll view this as a quest, the object of which will be to find whether I actually should have read these books by now or not.

And there have to be worse quests than the one to become well read. Right?

The Disappearance of Seth

This week in my literary quest to become a better person, or at least a better-read person, I’m visiting an author by the name of Kazim Ali.

On my bookshelves, Mr. Ali comes after one of the better modern authors, Sherman Alexie. I have a few of Alexie’s books, and I particularly recommend his short story collection Ten Little Indians. One of Alexie’s biggest strengths is his wide range of interests—he doesn’t just stick with short stories or adult novels; he has written screenplays and young adult fiction as well. Also, his technique is brilliant. He’s a writer who will make you laugh and care and think about the world—how unfair and how beautiful it can be. Yes, I recommend Sherman Alexie.https://www.flickr.com/photos/cuppini/522966079/in/photolist-NdkAx-py3r7n-go63Mg-4invaw-nVM9y5-ioVvTi-7oB47Y-3kGuk8-rb6u2t-i5uQt2-4G2RCt-5WDAmR-9L6oEF-9ZGBTo-dyPy9e-5UNJAW-gt4kTn-yLHgN-jyvi7p-wQuSJ-q3fBgd-fSGnXm-eJDgek-9XJxiL-ew5YuR-3Td2yS-rPy3MY-ezmJBR-r9Qr3L-4bLr7L-fSTii8-aqVmdS-pUG1nn-e989VL-2gALk-6PXp85-nEVaB8-48uECw-dR7hg-2c8JE-4r9DNc-ouFQBd-8CXt3q-JgGGQ-kyC9t1-d3Tj9E-6vZ7kR-4siW5H-ecah1D-s782T6

Another thing I should explain up front is why I’m reviewing a second book by Etruscan Press within two weeks (yes, the infamous Zarathustra Must Die was put out by them, too). Trust me, Etruscan Press is not paying me to review their books (I don’t know if they have the budget for things like that). The explanation is: a few years ago, when I was still an undergraduate, I won a one-page story contest for a great journal called the Penguin Review (shout out to their former editor, Tom Pugh), and part of the prize was the near-complete collection of Etruscan Press books published up until that point. Most of what EP puts out is poetry, but they’ve done quite a few novels, too. My whole point is, this is not the last time I will be reviewing one of their books.

I’m not saying that Etruscan Press puts out poor-quality books; I like their books, for the most part (last week’s selection aside). They are small and relatively obscure, but I think we need more publishers like them. Why? They don’t compromise. I get the sense that most of EP’s authors are full-time professors who, because of the fickle nature of modern universities, have to keep publishing, or else they perish. These writers don’t care about sales, but they do care about putting out a good product, according to their exacting, sometimes quirky standards. That’s honorable. I would love to have that option someday. EP realizes that literature is about more than entertainment—sometimes it’s about trying to wrap your mind around the things in life that are hard to understand.

Speaking about things that are hard to understand, let’s get down to this week’s book. The Disappearance of Seth is everything I was just talking about—uncompromising, hard to follow, daring you to try to understand it. And it still manages to be successful, being easy to read at the same time as being hard to follow. How does that happen? I have a theory: Ali is a poet, first and foremost—he writes like a poet, in clipped, beautiful phrases that sometimes don’t even make it to the level of sentences. He uses odd punctuation and weird tense shifts, and they actually work, most of the time. My theory is that Ali’s book is easy to read because he uses small, beautiful sentences and his section breaks push the momentum—this book is designed to keep pushing you forward, even if what you’re reading doesn’t become clear all at once, or at all.

unnamedMomentum is key in this book, because the plot is not linear, and it’s also key because of the subject. Seth is about 9/11. For something so heavy and humorless as 9/11, we need the pace to be quick, otherwise we bog down in our own sorrow and personal memories. Ali does a good job of keeping us moving, even though it’s tough for anyone to read a book about something as politically loaded as 9/11 in the way it was intended. And are we too far away from that day to remember it in all its rawness? I guess what I’m asking is, can this still be an effective book? If this were just a book about something as broad as 9/11, I don’t think it could, but it is about more than that—it is personal. The “Seth” of the book’s title makes it personal.

Our main character, Seth, has died in the Twin Towers, or so the other characters think. Seth is the thread that connects all of the book’s characters together, and really the only thread that connects the book together. The other characters reflect on how he has touched their lives, and what he meant to them, and how he has changed them. The book becomes a meditation on loss and how trauma affects us, and it becomes a meditation on the things we cannot say—how we handle grief. As such, it’s a beautiful story, if unclear at times, and the way that the death is only indirectly approached echoes how we try to avoid coming to terms with loss in our own lives.

Seth is thoughtful, deep, and potent, and Ali writes his characters’ thoughts so well that their reflections become the biggest emphasis of the book. These are thoroughly developed characters, never feeling anything less than real.

That is not to say that this book does not have flaws, because it does. Ali’s use of odd punctuation and tense changes mostly work, but sometimes this technique just comes across as though he needs an editor. Need an example? “He stops by a dusty car parked at the curb and fumbled with his map, trying to unfold it” (p. 175). Most of the time I try to leave technical issues like this alone, but in Seth it happens too frequently to ignore. Trying to figure out Ali’s reasoning in these cases distracts from the rest of the book, especially when these slip-ups do not look like artistic decisions as much as they do mistakes.

Another flaw in the book is the “twist” at the end, which I won’t reveal, in case you decide to read it. Good literature, I’ve found, does not need twists to make it interesting—the writing is interesting enough. This twist is not deep enough to change the meaning of the story, and it feels a bit tacked on.

Other than those problems, however, I gladly recommend The Disappearance of Seth. It’s for you if you enjoy difficult texts that reward your effort. It’s also for you if you want beautiful, koan-like paragraphs that you can really sink your mental teeth into.


 

Ali, Kazim. The Disappearance of Seth. Etruscan Press, 2009. 197 pages.

Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.

Zarathustra Must Die

Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.

This week in my alphabetical quest to read all kinds of books I haven’t gotten around to yet, I’m reviewing Zarathustra Must Die, by Dorian Alexander (more on Mr. Alexander later). To get from Edwin Abbot (who I reviewed last week) to Mr. Alexander, I had to pass through a few authors I’ve already read. The first of these was Chinua Achebe. I read Things Fall Apart four years ago and loved it; it has everything I want in a good book—mainly brevity and scenes where people eat locusts. I’ve since collected a few more of his novels, and I will read them someday, but since this column isn’t about authors I’ve already read, that day will not be today.

I also passed by my handy Douglas Adams omnibus, which includes every book in the Hitchhiker’s series except for Mostly Harmless. But don’t worry—I’ve read that one, too. Probably too many times. In fact, most of my time in junior high and high school was taken up with reading his books.

Finally, I passed by a weird book called Alternative Alcott, which is a collection of some of the pulpier stuff that Louisa May Alcott published just for the cash under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. And you can tell why she published them under a pseudonym—they aren’t very good. “Behind the Mask,” a novella in the collection, is the kind of book that seems like a lot of fun to write, but not that much fun to read.

After those books, I came to Mr. Alexander. Speaking of pseudonyms, Dorian Alexander most definitely is one—the pen name of a “prominent academic,” according to the back jacket of the book. I’ve been told that the pen name is a mix of Dorian Gray and Alexander the Great. With influences like that, I’m guessing that whoever is behind Mr. Alexander is the type of person who would think of himself as a prominent academic.

Zarathustra Must Die (henceforth shortened to ZMD, because “Zarathustra” is a mouthful) takes on as its subject Friedrich Nietzsche, who “…intended to supplant Christ as the central figure of Western culture” (2). With someone as hubristic as Nietzsche for a subject, my question to Mr. Alexander is, “Why didn’t you go bigger with your pen name? Why not Elvis Apollo? Why not Sid Vishnu?” (Sid, of course, being short for Siddhartha.)

To understand this book, we have to go in a non-intuitive direction. Let’s take a quote at random: “Inspired by hash and sex, I stood erect and danced naked as their withered eyes became transfixed with longing by my vermicular writhing” (6). My first response to this is a whoop of joy—I mean, with sentences like that, we could be in line for the next Fifty Shades of Grey. Unfortunately, the book does not live up to the promise of this sentence. Sure, it may be about a doctoral student’s adventures while researching his dissertation (sounds fun to me!), but half of the time, the text is so cloudy that I can’t even tell what’s happening. Reading ZMD is not an enjoyable, picaresque romp. It isn’t even a guilty pleasure, because none of the action in the book is coherent or concrete enough to make me feel guilty, and there’s no pleasure in reading what amounts mostly to an undergraduate-level paper about nineteenth-century philosophers.

The people who blurb on the back jacket of ZMD try to convince you that it is genuinely funny. I disagree, though I do detect what I think are attempts at humor throughout. I might be wrong in my disagreement, though. You might find this book funny if you enjoy penis jokes that aren’t actually jokes, but just mentions of the word penis. A particularly awful example of Mr. Alexander’s “humor” is the therapy session on pages 78-80, where Dorian regresses to baby talk and says vulgar things to his therapist. Really hilarious. (Sarcasm.) But if you do like that kind of humor, this book is certainly for you.

Part of the book’s problem is that Alexander never sticks with one subject. The book is about everything and nothing, and it never stays in one place long enough to support any one point. ZMD is at its best when it tries to syncretize old philosophers’ ideas and make them new and real. It never succeeds in that endeavor, however, because of its thick, stew-like prose. At times it sounds like an essay (one wonders if Mr. Alexander needed new material quickly, so he raided his college philosophy notebooks and old journals), at times it sounds like a Joycean stream-of-consciousness rant, and at times it sounds like an attempt at poetry. Looking for any kind of unity in the prose, then, is a waste of time.

Mr. Alexander probably expected that criticism, however, because his book seems to offer a counter to it. While talking about Dorian’s doctoral defense, the prose takes on metanarrative-type qualities. In speaking about the dissertation, Alexander writes, “On the one hand, the work revealed philosophical talent. On the other, the bizarre inclusions suggested at best a maverick and at worst an unstable mind. Revision was initially proposed as an option, but he would not hear of it. ‘The work is an indivisible whole’ he urged…” (96) Coming very near the end of the book as that segment does (yes, ZMD is blessedly short), I am forced to admit the possibility that Mr. Alexander may have been trolling me the whole time. The ultimate joke is that I stuck with it.

So, should you read this book? Do you appreciate difficult, unenjoyable books that offer very little in the way of payoff at the end? Do you like reading books that hide their insecurity and lack of content in convoluted phrasing and impenetrable jargon? If you do, then I highly recommend this book. For everyone else, find something better to do with your time.

Alexander, Dorian. Zarathustra Must Die. Etruscan Press, 2012. 106 pages.