Tag Archives: Writing

What My Degree Taught Me About Writing Fiction

When I was a student of Creative Writing at the University of Winchester, there was one seminar in particular that stood out to me. It was the final semester before graduation, and we were all packed into this airy room on the top floor of an old stone building that reminded me of Hogwarts. I realized when I was there that it was the first room I remembered being in when I arrived at Winchester as a freshman in 2011. I hadn’t been in it since, and I guess the cyclical feeling it gave me got me thinking about my degree as a whole. I had mixed feelings about the whole experience. I knew I wasn’t one of those people that celebrated it as the best time of their lives, probably going out for drinks with the professors, and forever remembering “Winchy-Winch” as their home away from home. No. I was a quiet face that no one would remember. But I was sure about one thing: the degree had made me a better writer. Even though I don’t think you need a degree in Creative Writing in order to write fiction, doing one certainly improves your technique and introduces you to a lot of ideas.

I thought about this during the seminar- what I had learned and what the whole thing was worth. My conclusion was that the true value of the program was in the way it brought together a lot of interesting- but imperfect- ideas. There are no secrets to Creative Writing. There’s no formula that, once cracked, explains everything. Professors, guest speakers, and peers contribute their experiences and what works for them. But every writer is different, and no one nugget holds universally true. The best usage of the degree, in my opinion, was in taking what everyone had to say and forming your own conclusion. I think one thing that new writers underestimate is the worth of their own opinion. A Creative Writing degree is not a passive process, and I don’t think the budding writer will become successful if he or she only ever tries to follow the mantra of others. If you want to write, you need to be confident, and you need to back your own ideas.

The two most famous tips handed down by professors and novelists are “Show, don’t tell” and “Get rid of those adverbs and adjectives”. They are useful guidelines, but if you look in any book, you will find passages that don’t adhere to them at all. A lot of good writing comes from pure instinct, when you stop thinking and just let your fingers type freely. If your noun has a flowery adjective or adverb attached to it that you feel is critical to the rhythm of the sentence, feel free to keep it. One such instance of it won’t kill your manuscript. If you look at some of the top authors today- I’m talking the Liane Moriartys, the Cormac McCarthys, the Rupi Kaurs- then you’ll find plenty of sentences that tell instead of show, and include nouns laced with adverbs. And these folks are the best in the business.

During my time at university I got conflicting advice from different professors. I also came to realize that editors don’t necessarily think the way writers do. One time we had a class where a professional editor from a publishing house came in to speak to us, and her perspective on what makes a good story was completely different to that of our professor. My professor disliked my story about a high school basketball player from rural Wisconsin, saying I was trying to be something I’m not, writing about an experience not my own. However the editor liked my story, and even said that it was perfectly fine that I was writing it in American English. The story later got published as a winning entry of a competition. And that’s what brings me to the heart of this post, and my realization during that seminar in my third year.

One of our professors was discussing the value of “write what you know” and told us about a novel she wrote. I think it was a love story or something like that. Anyway, she said she originally set the novel in Paris, but was advised to change it to London, and the story became better for it because she was more familiar with the latter. I’m not doubting the wisdom for that decision as it relates to that story. But I do think the mantra of “write what you know” can be misleading and limiting for new writers. Every story is different and every story approaches the concept of place in a different way. To me, a novel set in Paris has a completely different tone to one set in London. One of my favorite short stories is the American fairy tale “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving. It’s a classic tale of a guy taking a massive nap in the Catskill Mountains. However, at the time of writing, Irving had never actually visited the Catskills. As a writer, you are entitled to go beyond your personal experience, if that’s where the narrative is taking you. You just have to get it right. If you look at George R. R. Martin’s background, he ought to be writing stories about dockworkers getting into fistfights with corrupt union bosses, saying “I coulda been somebody”. Instead he takes what he needs from the history of a country halfway across the Earth and creates a world based on that history that feels vivid and believable. People often take issue with someone trying to write about cultures not their own, or men writing stories about women. But if you can write well, then nothing is denied you. Philip Pullman wrote a badass novel from the perspective of a young girl, and Lois Lowry wrote an equally badass novel from the perspective of a young boy. If you want to write about Bhutan, but you live in Escanaba, MI, then go book a flight! Learn from the place- get a hold of its pulse, listen to the people, and add your own unique perspective. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot write about. So many powerful, mesmerizing books and films have been made about the Holocaust from people that didn’t live through it; what those creators did is be respectful of its history and listen to those that were there.

The mantra that always resonated the most with me is as follows: write what you want to learn about. The key to finishing a novel is being passionate about your subject. So write the kind of book you would want to read.

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My Year in Review: 2017

I’m not sure what I expected from 2017, except more of the same. The same half-hearted attempts at being productive; moments of inspiration that disappeared as quickly as they came- little flashes in the great gray amorphous cloud of boredom and lethargy. The same desperate attempts to recapture isolated instances of joy, which similarly flashed briefly out of a default state of depression. I was in the mindset that nothing would ever change, for better or for worse. That I was being railroaded from one year to the next, that life existed only for me to watch- and not to create. Every year I make a resolution, but there’s always an underlying belief that I don’t have the strength, knowledge, or willpower to follow through. Each year seemed like running the same race over and over again, that I was a greyhound bolting after a rabbit that I would never attain. I’d never read all the awesome novels of the world, I’d never finally finish writing my own, I’d never meet that perfect, “wife-material” lady (somewhere between Emilia Clarke and Hannah Witton), I’d never achieve a more balanced, contented mood.

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In fact, the year started on a rather uninspiring note. I went to a New Year’s party and whilst the party itself was fun, I got pretty drunk and whenever that happens my anxiety levels really spike. I tend to peak ahead of everyone else, before suffering some kind of anxiety attack that snowballs into the morning and the rest of the week. I don’t get hangovers or anything like that, but I have a tendency whenever I drink a lot to get depressed and strangely paranoid. For the first two months of the year I didn’t do anything at all- I couldn’t sleep, I was tired all the time, and I hardly moved. But beginning with March, things seemed to get better, and the year presented me with a few surprises and a decent number of highlights to look back upon. So here’s my Year in Review for 2017:

 

  • I finally got around to passing my driving test after stopping and starting my lessons over a two and a half year period. It was a huge relief because I was close to the point where it had been two years since I passed my theory test, and if I were to fail my road test on my fourth attempt back in February, then I would have had to retake the theory exam, and I can’t think of anything more disheartening than sitting through that piece of shit again. I may have given up on the whole idea of driving altogether and waited instead for those fancy self-driving hovercrafts to take the market by storm.
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  • I had the honor of serving as the wedding photographer for my best friend Elizabeth as she married her soul mate in Witney, UK. It was an awesome experience, not just shooting the wedding, but being included in such an intimate way in the craziest week ever as my American family completely overwhelmed this quaint English village in the countryside.
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  • I got my first pair of glasses this year, after noticing that I couldn’t make out the score when watching Chelsea games or the subtitles when watching Downfall. It was really sudden how my long-distance eyesight deteriorated.
  • I started this very website, and so far it’s grown to be longer than The Hobbit. I’m real happy with myself for writing something over 100,000 words and not getting bored of it. The response from my friends and subscribers has been so encouraging, and it’s moments of kindness like those that have been the best part of the blogging experience.
  • As the year started to improve with Elizabeth’s wedding, I noticed that I was on something of a happy-streak. For once my mood seemed solid, as though I could rely on myself to be happy on a day-to-day basis. It was the first time I could actually remember feeling happy in a permanent sense. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I genuinely had never felt that sense of being happy for no reason. My mind was clear. I told Aaron and said “Maybe I don’t need the pills anymore.”
    He replied, “Don’t you think it might be that the pills are working?”
    Aaron was right. I had started out on Prozac in November 2015, before switching to Citalopram in the New Year, and doubling the dosage a few months later. It’s the kind of drug that takes an affect after a long period of use, and 2016 saw little progress except for making me ravenously hungry. So I decided to stay on the pills after my doctor told me there were no drawbacks to doing so, and that it was entirely about how comfortable I was with them in my life. 2017 has been an amazing year for my mental health; I feel happier, more productive, and I have completely stopped dwelling on mistakes, failures and depressing memories. For once I’m looking forward and I actually want myself to succeed.
  • Following up on that point, this year has seen me approach food in an entirely different way. Not just my attitude toward eating, but the very mechanics of doing so. I can now drink without looking down (something I figured was due to my fear of barfing). I don’t spend forever chewing, I eat quicker, and I eat more. Two years ago I weighed 139lbs (9.9 stone) and now I’m about 190lbs (13.5 stone). At the rate I’m going I’m gonna turn into Jabba the Hutt if I don’t swap the cheesecakes for some kale. As soon as I walked through the door to the doctor’s office this year, my doctor exclaimed “Woah, you look different!”
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  • I spent the summer in Texas with my best friends Aaron and Anne-Marie. It was my fifth period of living in the USA and the fourth summer in a row of living with the two lovebirds. It was the only summer in which I was able achieve a near-perfect balance between productivity and fun, between personal growth and social success. Highlights of my stay include tagging along to Aaron and Ann-Marie’s engagement photos, making an ass-ton of food for the NBA Draft, having the best July 4th yet poolside at a swanky apartment complex, gaining experience of sales and solar energy, making pumpkin bars with Anne-Marie, playing with our border collie Adelaide, and going to the beach on Galveston Island.
  • I started drinking coffee this year and now I don’t know how I ever managed without it. My whole schedule is built on caffeine.
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  • I have worked two jobs. Before the summer I worked as a cleaner at a bar in Nailsea. It was a pretty awful job cleaning up puke and sprayed fecal matter, but I’ll definitely carry that experience with me for life. After the summer I started working in the kitchen of a Middle-Earth-style tavern, also in Nailsea. So far I have quite enjoyed it. It’s frenetic and intense, but it’s an interesting environment. Shout out to my friend Daniel for getting me the job and going out of his way on my behalf.
  • Lastly, I have finally committed to writing an extended piece of fiction, instead of the poems and short stories I have been working on since graduation. At the moment I’m writing a novel and it’s going quite well. It’s already the longest thing I’ve written in over a decade, since that 250-page novel I wrote when I was 14 about wizards fighting sentient robots.

Thank you so much for reading and supporting my blog! It means the world to me. Let me know in the comments if you have any targets for 2018 and what you’ve learned from the year just passed.

The Abuse of Realism

Any writer- whether you’re penning a swashbuckling, steampunk romp through the clouds with Victorian gentlemen poking poison-tipped canes at zeppelin-hungry dragons, or simply a meditative portrait of an unraveling sexless lesbian marriage in Bucharest- needs to have a good handle on that eternally disrespected noun “realism”. Before I continue writing my current novel today, I wanted first to do a short piece on how you can still have a story that’s “realistic”, even as it throws the laws of physics out the window and into a river of magma teeming with hammerhead sharks that breathe radioactive lasers.

Let me ask you, have you ever been watching a show set in a fantastical world like Game of Thrones and thought to yourself “That’s just not realistic”, or better yet “How did she know where to find Jon Snow?”. Of course you have. I was watching one of my favorite shows recently- The Walking Dead– and as the season concluded I found that I and almost everyone I know uttered an audible groan. Has this show started consciously making fun of itself? I wondered. One moment that stood out was the episode where our heroes kept reiterating how they only needed to kill the main antagonist, that nothing else mattered. In the next scene said antagonist brazenly opens a door onto a balcony with about twenty assault rifles aimed squarely on his big brass gonads, only for the heroes to sit there and listen to him mock them. But take that or any of the increasingly ridiculous moments from this once gritty drama and lament its approach to realism and you’ll often be met with the response “You’re going to complain about realism in a show with brain-chomping zambers?”

I personally find the word “believability” to be more helpful than “realism” when swatting aside such retorts. Audiences and readers will accept zombies, dragons, and what have you, because their existence makes sense within the context of the world. Applying realism to your story is not some kind of creative shackle; you can add as many fantastical elements as you like. You, as the creator, can have fun with creating your own set of physical laws in the process of world-building. You just have to be consistent, and not break your own laws. In the Star Wars universe, Jedi can’t teleport themselves, but in Harry Potter, wizards “apparate”. If Luke Skywalker suddenly started hopping from planet to planet like a great big interdimensional space bunny, then the audience would start to feel disconnected from the story. At that moment, you’ve yanked them out of their immersion.

The most important thing about creating “believability” in a story is to carefully craft the relationships between people and institutions. That’s where real life and fiction from other genres can help you with your story. To write fiction that resonates, your characters and the dynamics between them have to resemble believable human behavior. I’ve seen countless authors describe the same thing- that same, all-important element of a story- when giving advice to young writers. I was watching an interview where author Shelby Foote reflects on the novels of William Faulkner. How much truth is in them? Do they reflect life in the Deep South during the early 20th century? Foote answered that the stories don’t strive to be truthful in the journalistic sense; they just have convey something that is “basically real”. I think what Foote means by that is that a good story will communicate something about the human experience that resonates with people. As readers, we can imagine the angry Jason Compson; the way he and his brothers are so profoundly affected by their sister’s free-spirited sexuality. We find their inner conflicts compelling because we can imagine them each reacting the way they do to the events of the novel.

Another author I was listening to recently was Salman Rushdie, who echoed these sentiments. Using an example of a flying carpet, he said that a writer must approach writing about such a thing in a realistic way in order to make it compelling. To make a scene about riding on a flying carpet interesting and to make it resonate, you have to think about little things such as how the rider keeps his or her balance, or the way the surface of the carpet might become uneven as it ripples in the wind. Rushdie goes on to say that the truth of fiction is not literal truth, since the premise of fiction is that it is unreal. Truth in fiction refers to the way it acts as a mirror to the human condition, and tells us something about the way we interact with each other.

At the moment I’m writing a coming-of-age novel in which the protagonist starts working in a kitchen. I’ve recently started working at a pub in my hometown of Nailsea (in the UK) and I’m trying to absorb everything I can. I go out of my way to know the source of every smell, the name of every item, and I pay special attention to the way my new coworkers talk with each other. I make a note of every phone call, every order, every supplier that shakes hands with the head chef. Even if I weren’t writing a book that features a kitchen in it, I think a kitchen is such a visceral and interesting environment to be in as a writer. It’s like a prison or a circus or a whorehouse; so alive with energy, where everything titillates the senses, where every day is different. As I came towards the end of my shift the other day, a friend asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my day.

“Probably more writing,” I said bashfully.

At that moment the head chef came past and quipped “Whatchya gonna write about tonight? Confessions of a Dishwasher?”

I laughed, and thought to myself: not too far off, actually. But the kitchen I write in my book doesn’t have to be a real kitchen, it just has to seem real. And I think the same is true for whatever environment you want to create; don’t worry about recreating your inspiration in exact detail- just include enough interesting observations to make it a place that could exist. Then, hopefully, you have achieved that much desired quality of believability.

3 Experimental Novels That Inspired Me!

Today I’d like to highlight three novels I read that challenged the accepted definitions of what exactly a novel is. During my life I’ve gone through several reading phases. I had my Star Wars phase, my Science Fiction & Fantasy phase, my Bohemian phase, my Gothic phase and my American phase, but during my early college years I became interested in Experimental Fiction. I was drawn to Modernism and the Avant-Garde, because these books focused not so much on the story itself than on the way it was told. I was also excited by the challenge of reading novels that were considered difficult to read.

Each of the three novels I’m going to list today helped both my reading and my writing. I think every writer can benefit from reading experimental fiction- even if it is not their chosen genre- because what experimental fiction does is it examines the craft of storytelling- the techniques of how a story is told. It takes a step back and investigates the basic workings of narrative exposition, and finds new ways to tell a story. I picked the novels listed below because each one innovates in a way that relates to the theme its narrative explores. Enjoy!

 

La Jalousie

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Author: Alain Robbe-Grillet

First Published: 1957, Les Éditions de Minuit

Opening Line: “Now the shadow of the column- the column which supports the south-west corner of the roof- divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts.”

Synopsis: On a tropical banana plantation, a jealous husband spies on his wife through Venetian blinds, convinced that she is having an affair.

How It Innovates: According to Vladimir Nabokov, Jealousy is “the finest novel about love since Proust,” and far be it my place to criticize one of 20th century’s most iconic literary figures, but I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with “love” as such. I can’t get his comment out of my head, because I want to see what he saw when he was reading it. I remember there being a lot of jealousy- and plenty of connotations of lust and sexual tension- but not too much love. More so than anything else, the dominant theme of this short novel is the nature of reality- which is Robbe-Grillet’s favorite theme to work with (see Les Gommes and Le Voyeur). I remember being confused while reading this novel- because it seemed like I was reading the same events over and over again. I then learned that what was happening was that the narrator was constantly replaying the same moments over and over again in his mind to the point that it becomes impossible to distinguish between his observations and his suspicions. It’s this aspect of the novel that reminds me of A Sport and a Pastime; both feature jealous narrators and it’s never revealed whether the events of the book actually happened or if they are the creations of those jealous narrators. The difference Jealousy has with A Sport and a Pastime however, is that unlike the latter it is not a conventional novel, and cannot be approached as such. Robbe-Grillet wrote Jealousy as a novel with what he referred to as an “absent third-person narrator”. The husband is never once referred to in the book, never speaks, never acts, never named. The idea of the jealous husband is one that is inferred by the reader, once they realize that the events of the book are framed as though being observed by someone. There are subtle clues as to the narrator’s existence- such as the number of deck chairs on the veranda or the number of places at the table. This is a book that will make you a creative reader, because a creative reader is what the book requires. On the surface it is merely a sequence of repeated scenes, each of them written with a meticulous and exact sense of geometry. There’s something very mathematical about the book. The smallest angles and dimensions create a sense of perspective, and provide evidence that there is indeed a narrator. And the green landscape of banana trees that enclose the house represent the jealousy of this view, since green is the color of jealousy.

 

The Sound and the Fury

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Author: William Faulkner

First Published: 1929, Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith

Opening Line: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

Synopsis: The fall from grace of a Southern aristocratic family is chronicled over 30 years through the memories of three brothers obsessed with their sister.

How It Innovates: The novel is divided into four parts. The first three sections detail the memories and thoughts of the three brothers Benjy, Quentin, and Jason- each of whom has a different relationship with their sister Caddy that consumes them in various ways. The fourth section of the novel is written from a third-person omniscient point of view, and Caddy- the heroine, the central figure of the book- has no narrative voice at all. And yet this only makes her presence seem all the more powerful, as our image of her is filtered through the views of her brothers. And ultimately that is what the book is about; not Caddy herself so much as what she means to her brothers. It is the first two sections of the novel that are the most interesting to scholars because they are unlike anything else in fiction. Benjy, the voice of the first section, is cognitively disabled and non-verbal. His passage is so interesting because he is trapped in the past, going over various events in his life linked by visceral sensations. It makes for challenging reading, because the time shifts abruptly every couple paragraphs or so, and we are presented with this splintered, kaleidoscopic mélange of scenes. I got the hang of it when I realized that the temporal shifts are indicated by italicized lines (Faulkner originally wanted to have different colors of font to mark the alternating time periods) but it still makes for very challenging reading. It’s not the sort of book you wanna rush, or take to the beach and unwind with in the sun. It’s the sort of thing you have to methodically work through and re-read again and again. The second section though, is even more difficult. It’s narrated by Quentin as he slowly loses his mind. He is tortured by his father’s nihilistic world view and his sister’s sexual promiscuity. Benjy’s section, when you get used to the temporal shifts, is more or less a series of physical sensations and images. He’s non-verbal, so there is no voice to speak of. Whereas with Quentin, we are given a rush of pained emotions and neuroticisms. I honestly marvel at Faulkner’s genius here, because the psychology of the narrators are as interesting as you will find- it is as though he wants to get to the very heart of the human soul and its agonies. As Quentin’s mental state rapidly deteriorates, all sense of grammatical structure and punctuation is thrown out the window. And that’s what I meant in my opening paragraph about experimental fiction reinventing narrative techniques to reflect the themes of a story. Faulkner does not subvert convention for its own sake, but because it serves the book’s themes. Quentin is one of the most fascinating characters in American literature- in some way representing the chivalric, “white knight” psyche of all Southern men- and Faulkner’s abandonment of form makes for an unforgettable account of the man’s depressive state. I’m not sure if I have a favorite novel, but The Sound and the Fury is definitely a contender for the title. Although it’s ball-bustingly difficult, it’s actually a very entertaining story with plenty of cinematic scenes in its more straightforward final two sections.

 

Rayuela (Hopscotch)

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Author: Julio Cortázar

First Published: 1963, Editorial Sudamericana Sociedad Anonima

Opening Line: “Would I find La Maga?” or “Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire, the colorless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette, emerging from the crumbling doorways, from the little entranceways, of the imageless fire that licks the stones and lies in wait in doorways, how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes.” (depending on where you start the novel)

Synopsis: An Argentine writer living in Paris searches for his mistress La Maga, before going home to his native Buenos Aires and seeing her everywhere he looks.

How It Innovates: Hopscotch is described by its author as a “counter-novel”. As you may have noticed above, I put two opening lines for the book. How can a book have two opening lines, you ask? Well that’s because it was written as being “many books”, although it is two above all. If you want you can read it from the first page in a straightforward manner like you would any other novel, and the book ends at chapter 56. There are 155 chapters in total, but the last 99 are considered “expendable”. Thinking that I would not read this again for many years, if at all, I decided to read it the second way, where you “hopscotch” from chapter to chapter using a code indicated at the front of the book. This way, you read all of the chapters, starting with chapter 73, and using the code to figure out which chapter comes next. It was super-interesting and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The expendable chapters provide deeper insights into the characters as well as random musings that serve to fill in the gaps of the main narrative that runs through chapters 1-56. It’s been a few years since I read the novel, but it’s an interesting read and the protagonist makes for an intriguing, isolated tumbleweed that goes from place to place without really finding a sense of belonging.

 

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3 Short Stories I Can’t Get Out Of My Head

Today I’m doing a little short story roundup. I’ve recently submitted a few short stories to magazines and competitions, and I thought it might be interesting to share with you three of my favorite stories that I’ve been reading of late. In no particular order, here are three different short stories by three different authors, all of which have inspired my recent writing.


#1 “Hoeing the Beet” – Endre Ady

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Publication Date: 1907

Collected in: Neighbors of the Night (1994, Corvina Books, Ltd)

Summary: On an estate in rural Hungary, a group of women work for 30 krajcárs a day (a paltry amount of money) hoeing beet. Two of the girls are gypsies (magyar cigányok) and all of them are desperately impoverished, living off of “bread and a slice of stale bacon”. Despite their economic equality, the Magyar women cling to a strong sense of racial superiority and refuse to drink from the same jug of water as the Roma women. The owner of the estate tries to resolve the issue by giving the Roma their own jug. However, the Roma women refuse to drink it, believing that they are entitled to the same water as the Magyar. This results in them nearly dying of thirst and the other women laughing at them. One night, however, as all the women sleep in the field, the two Roma women get up and search for the jug of water the Magyar women have hidden in a nearby grove. They find it and drink all of it in long, hearty gulps. In the morning, all the women get back to work and the Roma women are happy for once. Ady ends the story with the ironic line “This, then, is the way beet is hoed in our glorious Hungary”.

Why I LOVE this story: Endre Ady is one of the most respected figures in Hungarian literature, and considered the country’s most important and most-imitated poet of the 20th century. I’m going to resolve to read some of his poetry- for which he is primarily known- since I loved this short story of his. I like to think of Ady as being to poetry what Thomas Wolfe was to fiction, Kurt Cobain was to music, and Pistol Pete was to basketball; a brilliant comet of pure genius and raw talent, an indomitable soul whose legacy we can’t separate from his tragic end. When we look back on their creative fire we almost assume it was fated to happen. Ady passed away on January 27th 1919 after complications from Syphilis. I think his story “Hoeing the Beet” is a real testament to his character as a sensitive, fearless progressive. In many ways, the owner of the estate in the story, who is sympathetic to the Roma girls, represents the government of Hungary over the years and how it has approached what was once known as “The Gypsy Problem”. He is well-meaning but ineffectual. In the story we see a Hungary in which a certain amount of integration has been reached between the Magyar and the Romani, in that they are both equally exploited in an economic sense- and yet the lingering racism of centuries past still lives in the hearts of the women our protagonists work with. The sad conclusion from the story is that the racial hatred does persist- but that’s kind of why it strikes a chord with me. I don’t want stories that cheer me up and make me comfortable. As Debra Wilson, the actress of Wolfenstein 2’s Grace Walker, recently said “We don’t learn by being comfortable”.


#2 “The Half-Skinned Steer” – Annie Proulx

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Publication Date: November 1997 (Atlantic Monthly)

Collected in: Close Range: Wyoming Stories (May 10th 1999, Scribner)

Summary: In Massachusetts, an 83-year old Mero gets a call from a woman saying that his brother Rollo has died. Mero, who left his family’s Wyoming ranch at the age of 23, and who has attempted in a variety of ways to bury the past, finally decides to head home and attend Rollo’s funeral. The story sees his physical and psychological deterioration as he drives across the country to Wyoming, in which many repressed memories from his childhood and why he left the ranch come back to him. Chief among them is a story his father’s girlfriend once told about a rancher named Tin Head, who has a galvanized metal plate sewn in his cranium that severely affects his brain functions. Supposedly, Tin Head was butchering a steer outside when he decided to take a break, eating lunch and taking a nap. When he comes back outside, he finds the steer gone. It then comes back, half-skinned and mutilated, fixing him with a hateful stare that he believes is the steer setting a curse on him. This story gives Mero a nightmare and he leaves home. After a problematic journey across country, Mero finds the Wyoming landscape much the way he remembers it- despite all his years trying to forget it. It’s night and snowing hard, and thinking he knows the way to the ranch, Mero ends up crashing the car and wrecking the engine. He attempts to find another ranch on foot he believes is nearby, before ultimately perishing in the cold. As he dies, he thinks he sees the half-skinned steer from the story glaring at him with a red eye.

Why I LOVE this story: Reading this short story gave me a classic case of “I wish I had written this”. I was just so completely in awe of it that I even felt a little jealous and disheartened. How could I possibly write anything ever again? I can’t believe Proulx’s genius has eluded me for so long as a reader. For those of you who don’t know her, the film Brokeback Mountain is an adaptation of a story from the same collection as “The Half-Skinned Steer”. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Shipping News, which I also believe was made into a film. I’m not sure “The Half-Skinned Steer” has the same cinematic potential as “Brokeback Mountain”, as it is less of a straightforward narrative and more a haze of flashbacks and stories-within-stories. I think it would probably have to be a loose adaptation, with an expanded narrative. The characters and their conflicts are great film material however, and it’s probably the reason I love this story so much. It’s a dark, psychological narrative that explores themes of memory, death and sex.


#3 “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” – Denis Johnson

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Publication Date: Spring 1989 (Issue 110, The Paris Review)

Collected in: Jesus’ Son (1992, Picador)

Summary: The story is narrated in the first person by a hitchhiker who claims to be prescient. Reporting the events of a single night as if outside of time, the hitchhiker recalls traveling with a Cherokee, a salesman, and a college student. Each of them share large quantities of drugs and alcohol with him, until eventually he falls asleep in a puddle on the side of the road. He is then picked up by a family and falls asleep in their car. The car later crashes headlong into a vehicle driven by a man who is apparently asleep at the wheel. The hitchhiker grabs the baby and tries to seek help from a reluctant truck driver. The police arrive and insist that he come with them to the hospital. There, the hitchhiker watches as it is revealed that the man in the family is dead. His wife screams, and the hitchhiker narrates “What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere”. The narrative then jumps forward a few years where the hitchhiker is now being admitted to a clinic for substance abuse. As the nurse injects him with vitamins, he hallucinates being in an idyllic, pastoral setting and claims that he cannot be of any help to anyone.

Why I LOVE this story: I was assigned Jesus’ Son in 2012 during my student exchange to the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. During a Creative Writing workshop class, we analyzed this story and Johnson’s distinctive writing style. What is so striking about this story in particular is how the fleeting, minimalist narrative is made large by the voice that underpins it. Johnson captures the altered mental state of a drug addict in such an unforgettable and fascinating way. The opening paragraph in particular made a huge impression on me, and influenced the way I wrote stories for years afterwards. I loved the crazy sentences that didn’t make logical sense, yet whose interesting word choices seemed to resonate somehow. Famed author Jeffrey Eugenides sums up the narrator (whose name is Fuckhead, by the way) thus “Fuckhead isn’t Jesus. He’s Jesus’s son, which is a different thing entirely. He’s a person graced with an intuition of heaven who still lives in hell on earth”.


Thank you so much for reading! These are the short stories that have particularly influenced me of late. What are your favorite short stories? Let me know in the comments!

How to Create a Schedule and Get Out of a Slump

A great way to get yourself out of a slump is to create a schedule- whether you’re a writer or not. But it’s not as straightforward as I once thought. The trick is to turn that schedule into a lifestyle; doing it so many times that the components become as unconscious and effortless as the day-to-day rituals of showering or brushing your teeth. I’m going to use my progress this year as an example, because the only way to learn how to improve is by looking back.

I wrote a few weeks ago how the most important quality to defeating lethargy and procrastination is your Bouncebackability. You’re gonna fail and fail until you get it right. But the key to getting it right is to examine those failures, because each one holds the secret to success. Your failures are the best resources you have.

I’ve tried so many times over the years to set a schedule for myself but they just never seemed to stick. My thinking was that inevitably each one would crumble because I’m an inherently lazy person, and that the best strategy was to just keep initiating the same schedule. Sure, there were a few tweaks here and there, but each one was hopelessly set up to fail- like a house made of garlic bread.

The first and most important rule to creating a schedule is not to set yourself up for failure. I know that might sound obvious, but what I mean is don’t be over-ambitious at the start of your journey. If the schedule is too punishing, you’ll slip back into laziness. And that brings us to the second rule- implement a schedule that feels like a lifestyle and not a list of chores. Traditionally all my schedules were based off of the Pomodoro method. I broke up the day into regimented slots of about 30 minutes each. The problem came when I wasn’t hitting my targets as effectively as I wanted. But how did I realize this?

During the three-day lifespans of these schedules, I would be happy and satisfied because my thinking was “I might not be smashing every task, but at least I’m getting something done”. My thought process was that some writing is better than none at all. When 2017 started I wasn’t optimistic. I was in a rut. I stayed up all hours of the night, and generally I felt disgusted with my life. Change was an impossible dream. So when I got around to implementing schedules, they did help me to get out of that depressive state, because by comparison they made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile.

But the schedules never lasted. I had made some progress, but now I was stagnating. And here we return to the wise words of Jabari Parker. In the Sports Illustrated video I mentioned earlier this week, he stresses the importance of giving everything 110%. When we use that phrase we tend not to think about it too much. It’s often dismissed as some kind of idiomatic, uplifting cliché. But what the concept of giving 110% refers to is what athletes call “Overload”. Jabari tells the school children that the 10% extra is absolutely crucial to making your ambitions come true. It’s about pushing yourself and not getting comfortable.

And that essentially is how I changed my schedule. I realized I wasn’t giving the 10% extra. I was living a more productive life, spiced up by three-day spurts of regimented and scheduled work- but I was resting on my laurels. Progress had slowed and I realized that if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be, I had to increase my output. I had to work harder and faster. Simply being productive was not enough anymore. Now it was about urgency, about living as if I only had a year to live at all. That was the moment I started looking back on my schedules with a view to changing them entirely.

To reach your goals and achieve real change in your life, you need to have an evolving schedule. This is where we get specific. One thing that wasn’t working for me with my Pomodoro-esque day planners were the time slots I devoted to coming up with story ideas. Sometimes ideas come tumbling out and sometimes they don’t. And setting aside time to come up with killer ideas for novels, poems, songs (or whatever it is you are working on) is inherently problematic. You can sit there and think really hard but you can’t force the lightning to strike. Deciding that it’s time to come up with ideas is a surefire way for a writer to give him or herself an overwhelming sense of anxiety, stress and self-doubt. If the 30-minute time slot ended and I hadn’t come up with anything, I’d panic because I had to continue the day-planner and the dedicated time for story ideas was lost. The whole schedule would seem tainted because one of the listed targets was not hit.

Looking back on my diaries this week I saw so many entries from 2010 that read “Sat for ages trying to come up with story ideas, and after realizing that the precious hours of the day were dwindling, I gave up and played Age of Empires 2. Day wasted”. So I looked back on these problems and thought about how to fix them. First I asked myself where ideas come from. Well they either strike at random moments, or they happen when I’m reading. The more I read fiction, the more ideas for fictional stories I get. The same holds true for movie ideas, songs, et cetera I imagine. It makes sense after all. So what I’ve been doing recently is reading with a notebook on hand. I read until I get an idea, and when I run out of ideas I resume reading instead of sitting there stressing out. So far the results have been amazing.

Another trick to living a productive lifestyle is to know the best conditions for your success and to replicate them. I do best when I get up early. If I get out of bed with the whole day ahead of me, I’m happy. I write best in the mornings. I know a lot of writers- such as Anne Tyler for instance- do their writing from about 8am-2pm. I need to be happy to write and I need to write to be happy. Simple right? Well my problem for a while has been simply getting out of bed. When the year started I was a night owl, and when I woke up I was severely depressed and lacking in motivation because half my day was gone. I was tired and groggy all the time, despite the medication I’ve been taking for over a year that’s supposed to help. So I looked back on that and thought how best to turn things around.

During my summer in Texas my roommates and I would all get up early and make coffee. I wanted to be a caffeine drinker but I knew I didn’t really like the taste. Luckily, my friends sorted me out.

“My fiancée makes a mean coffee,” Aaron said, and on the first morning of the summer Anne-Marie brought me a coffee lovingly made with almond creamer, caramel syrup and a bit of sugar. A work of art. I tried it and it was the first time coffee ever tasted good. And what ended up happening with coffee was what I always hoped would happen with alcohol- that the more I drank it, the more I’d like it. I started off trying to replicate Anne-Marie’s sweet coffees, and week by week started making them stronger. By the end of the summer I was able to drink black coffee and I didn’t even need it to be warm either.

Every morning that summer was spent waking up early, making a coffee, and eating a large apple whilst reading novels and snuggling with our pup. I’ve managed to replicate those conditions now (except for the dog, sadly) and it works. Without coffee, having a productive day was a lottery. If I woke up groggy I would find it hard to do much. So I got myself a coffee maker and now I’ve established a routine aimed at recreating the environment that saw the happiest period of my life. I wake up early every morning, make coffee, go on a brisk walk, and come back to drink it, eat my apple, and begin my strategy of reading and jotting down ideas. The great thing about coffee is that it gets rid of my grogginess, and so incorporating it into my life permanently has seen some excellent results. I’m chasing what Theodore Roosevelt called The Strenuous Life. I want to pull the moon down from the sky. I don’t want to play the game- I want to win it. I encourage you to be aggressive with your writing (or whatever it is you are pursuing). Learn from the past, and approach each day like Jabari Parker flying down the lane to crush a tomahawk dunk.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

My 2017 reading schedule has seen me go back and forth not only between genres of fiction, but between old books and new. I’ve made a sizable dent in the stack of second-hand novels I brought home from Texas this summer, but I have also committed myself to reading those books that have suffered on my shelves for years. Some of them I always intended to read but just never got around to, others I had completely abandoned, forgetting why I wanted to read them in the first place. The great Anne Tyler and her inimitable body of work most certainly occupy the former category. She’s an author that I was very much predisposed to liking; whose work I seemed to know without having ever read. I knew I’d like her but I never got around to sitting down and losing myself in Tyler’s Baltimore.

I discovered Anne Tyler in the fall semester of 2013, during a meeting with my creative writing professor regarding my dissertation. I couldn’t decide what story I wanted to write for my “extended creative project” or “ECP” as it was known. At the time I was struggling with this idea I had about a high school basketball star in Western Wisconsin, and taking my influences from a variety of American male authors such as John Updike and Raymond Carver. I was interested in the mundane- American suburbia- but also drawn every now and then to the sensational, to plots involving earth-shattering revelations and high emotions. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write, and only followed a vague idea of where I wanted to go, trying to advance a plot that wasn’t quite moving all on its own. I had a meeting with a professor who was acting as the supervisor for my dissertation and tried to convey some of the difficulties I was having. It was then that he gave me a list of books I ought to read. The first items on the list were Breathing Lessons and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, both by Anne Tyler. I was intrigued by the titles alone.

My professor said that it sounded like I was trying to emulate these writers, and that if I read from them myself, I might get the help I needed to write the kinds of stories I wanted to write. I never did read them; I was far too wayward, too impatient, too anxious to simply settle down on anything- but I remembered Anne Tyler especially. I ended up buying her magnum opus- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant– for my mother. I knew she would like it even though I hadn’t read a single sentence of her work before. My mom and I share a lot of books and have a lot of the same tastes. She loves American fiction and always has. This book was supposedly the kind that I wanted to write. So I bought it for my mom and Anne Tyler became her favorite author of all time. No one else comes close, except maybe Steinbeck. Over the years she’s collected every single Anne Tyler novel and read them all. It seemed these books had the same life expectancy around my mom as Double-Stuf Oreos do around me. She tore through them, and it’s hard to discuss it and not come up with metaphors relating to thirst and hunger. I was going to say she just as quickly consumed and disposed of them as a relapsed alcoholic does the contents of a hotel minibar. I always intended to join her, but I never got around to it. However, after months of intensifying nagging on her part, I finally decided that the time was right and picked up this book whose title I had for so long been entranced by.

Like most of her novels, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is set in Tyler’s native Baltimore. In fact, I’d argue that she stands as the greatest and most iconic author of the city and perhaps the state of Maryland as a whole. Yes, I know that the Baltimore Ravens are named after that one Edgar Allen Poe poem, but honestly you’d be hard pressed to find a fitting name for a football team in an Anne Tyler book. The Baltimore Single Mothers? The fact that Tyler is so strongly associated with the city of Baltimore was a real draw for me. Maryland has always seemed like such a strange place. It’s too southern to be considered a part of the North, and yet too north to be considered truly Southern. It occupies this narrow stretch of no-man’s land between two vastly different cultural and geographic regions, and it has the strangest shape of any country subdivision you’ve ever seen. However there’s little physical description of all this in the novel. What lines are devoted to the setting are sparse and fleeting. Tyler’s Baltimore is a world of sun-splashed sidewalks and brick row houses, streets either full of children at play or no one at all, strip malls, street cats and an endless maze of roads full of parked cars, with only occasional references to the smog of the more industrial parts of town. It’s thoroughly urban, and in some ways that atmosphere comes across in the sheer lack of description of the setting. Tyler is more interested in people and their relationships. Very careful and deep attention is given to the minutiae of domestic life. Tyler’s philosophy is that through the examination of small, mundane things, larger truths are revealed.

In some ways, her obsession with the small aspects of family life reminds me of Raymond Carver, but in truth she reads a lot more like John Updike or William Maxwell. Her vibrant characterizations are much like that of Liane Moriarty, though the pace and themes of her work could not be more different. To my mind, the crowning achievement of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant– and the main aspect that I take away from the novel- is how rich and interesting the characters are. They are all so kooky and eccentric, and represent universal truths of the psychology of family life- such as sibling rivalries, the passing down of traits to descendants, and the nature of pride. The novel is about three siblings: Cody, Ezra and Jenny, and details their life after their father abandons their mother Pearl, leaving her to raise them herself. Each of the siblings fail to detach themselves from the event of their father’s leaving, allowing it to determine the rest of their lives. As the novel spans many years, we see how each of them are shaped by this one event, and how none of them- including Pearl- fully get over it.

I was especially drawn to the oldest child Cody, because in some ways he reminded me of myself during my childhood. During my school days I often caused a lot of trouble and mayhem. I was guilty of not only being a hyperactive little shit, but also being mean to other kids on a few occasions. I remember teasing a girl when I was nine years old, and the class teacher assistant came over and said icily “He doesn’t care about people’s feelings. He just doesn’t care”. I felt a little sympathy for the character of Cody, who everyone assumes is just cold-hearted and without empathy, because it reminded me of those days. I felt like I could relate on some level to his desire to cause more trouble, to accept his “devil” status to spite those that had given it to him.

To conclude, this is a wonderful book, and my reading of it was long overdue. Perhaps the most fascinating element of Tyler’s characterization is the way each sibling remembers the same childhood events differently, and how these competing memories clash throughout the book in a series of poetic repetitions of family dinners always going unfinished. I urge you all to give Anne Tyler a read. She’s one of America’s most perceptive and intelligent writers. And there’s no better place to start than the novel she herself considers her best: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant!