Shaved for the first time in a week and half. The electric razor blades are very dull. Takes quite a while. I am scared of sharp things so I have never shaved with a real razor. I don't want to spend the money to get a better electric one that comes with the cleaning unit, too, but I should. I tried to save money by getting this one without the cleaning unit and you can't ever really get it clean and the cleaning unit itself is almost the cost of a new razor. My sneakers are starting to rip again and I only have one pair. They're disgusting because they are my climbing sneakers and I can't wear them for anything else. You actually see the ribbons of salt on them from my sweat.
A couple days ago on Downtown with Rich Kimball Rich had a question left over from the segment the week before which he asked me. It was a straightforward question of do I do drafts with my stories. I'm not sure how good my answer was, considering how complicated the answer is and I thought I'd address it here.
What I said on the air was no, I don't do drafts, which is technically true as other writers think of drafts. What that is going to say to other writers and editors is that the work cannot possibly be that good, let alone, time and again, the best work ever produced, because they project what they do onto their expectations of what you can do.
They might write a single story--and it's usually a bad one--each year, and this story will be vetted and critiqued by their writing workshop/community buddies, and it will go through thirty drafts. What they won't allow for is that someone might have infinitely more talent than they do--I am using that word with care, because I don't think "a lot more talent" covers it or is accurate--and it is not that person's fault (that same person who also works an imponderable amount harder as well). But they not going to adapt their thinking to incorporate who you are, what you possess, what you do, in their thought processes or sense of what is possible. They are going to judge you negatively and/or enviously. They are going to shun you. They also see you as a threat. Not just to their system, but to their sense of self. On some level, they see you as the mirror, the revealer of truth, the dissembler of their illusions.
I might write a story in my head. I'll have it in my head for a while. I'll work on it. I'll come to feelings about it, feelings which I will write from inside of. When I have the feeling, and I'm inside of it, the words exist, they are written, I just don't know what they are exactly yet. But they exist in my mind, under, let's say, a blanket. I can leave them there. As long as I want. I have all of these storehouses and museums in my mind like that. I have one story that began this run, last summer, of whatever amount of stories have been composed since, whether that's eighty or eighty-five. I need to count again.
I have a page of phrases for that story, words, indications, written out in pen, in addition to what I have in a Word document as the developing story proper. I have not finished that story. I have not touched it again. But even though it's only a page of prose, it was the starter of all of these other stories, and it does exist even though it does not exist yet. I just have to do it. Now, if you looked at my page of phrases, they'd mean nothing to you. They don't look like they comprise an outline. But what you would see and what I would see in the phrases is very different. I'm seeing a world. This might be my shorthand for the world, but if I see the world, why would I waste time and energy spelling it out on the page, or in outlines, with more words when I already have those words, shapes, sizes, in my eyes and mind?
A lot of times a story just comes to me. The idea or the characters or both. Then what I'm going to do is let the rest come. That can take a fraction of a second while I brush my teeth. Or, I might walk twenty miles--actually twenty miles--and think about nothing but the story, figure it all out. Those are very intense walks. I can only begin to tell you--right now--how draining they are. I don't do bullshit. I do truth, reality, beauty. And what I know is I cannot go wrong with what I write. I am not going to have something that is less good than something else, and if I play my game, to use a hockey phrase, what I end up with will be better than what anyone else could write. I don't have anxiety or doubt about that. I know I can beat Chekhov and Tolstoy every time out. So I accept the time, I accept the non-specifics of how each story might play out in its development, and I let the characters, often, tell me the story. They are real. I sort of represent them. But they do a lot of the work. They can do a lot of the work because of what I already have in place, because I have mastered my ability.
How do you get to be this way? You're born this way. And then, for almost literally every waking moment of your life, you work at it. That's a lot more than doing drafts. But what is a draft? It's a form of groping. People are trying to get something down on the page. To start. Then, to go from there. Let's say I'm going to sit down and write a story. One I am going to make up on the spot. I have nothing planned. I can do this whenever I want. It's another way I write stories. When I type that first sentence, you have to realize it's not some off-the-cuff thing. It's not careless. Now, it might be four seconds' of writing, but that is in the external world. Because you see, in my mind, where my thoughts can move far faster than the speed of light in the external world--and they can all be superimposed; you can have a billion thoughts in a fraction of a second; time is very different in my head--that sentence has been through 500 permutations and all of the repercussions have been considered, not just for the sentence but for the sentences that are to follow, which are now all taking shape, too.
I cut out all of the middle man stuff. But in a sense, there is a process. It's not, "get ball, throw ball." Things just happen very fast. And then when the sentence exists, I know all of the levels on which it works at once, I know what it is does and also will do; it's never just, "this is a good opening sentence, it's a hook." My sentences never do just one thing. You might think a sentence does just one thing, and that's fine, that's not a problem. But it has many jobs and responsibilities, its identity is manifold, not singular. It's doing things sonically, too, with an arrangement of internal vowel sounds, for instance, that are in a certain key, that I know, later, will make another combination of internal vowel sounds in a different key--so a modulation--feel pleasurable in your head. You know how when you read what I write it flows so easily? That's a lot of that, the sonic quality of how words are arranged, it's like musical puzzle pieces. You can't teach it, and it's not just ear. It's something more.
Now, I might have a story, as I recently did, that is 4000 words long, that ends up being 500 words long. That took quite a while. But I worked off of the marble that was there, and I found the sculpture within. But I didn't have a piece of paper label draft #4, another draft #7, etc. Then when I am writing a story I am going to discover its operating principle. Each story runs a certain way. I will tend not to know that going in. Think of it like you have this endlessly versatile defense in football. You can play in any formation, any kind of coverage, be a blitz defense, a coverage-oriented defense, what have you, maybe nobody even has their hand in the dirt.
Each week your style changes depending upon the match-up. I write stories that way. In "Fitty," for instance--and this is the kind of thing I should be saying in a New Yorker interview because it's actually fucking interesting, it's not some boring ass person talking out of their ass about how they "birthed" some garbage at Yaddo--everything happens on diagonal planes, frequently ascending diagonal planes.
The shape of the story is a diagonal plane, the metaphors feature diagonal planes. A lot occurs with stairs, the way Fitty leans forward to hug her father--she's short--happens on a diagonal plane. It's the geometry of that story and its motor, and it happens in the language, in simile (there's this idea that runs throughout the story that when a building is gutted, and all of the rooms move around, you know what stays the same? The stairs; the stairs are always in the same place; if you go back to a building from years ago, that you haven't been in in a long time, which was renovated, you'll find that there are different rooms and configurations, but the stairs remain where they were; that became a crucial element of the story, on multiple levels, in multiple temporal modes and times, and even, I might say, multiple dimensions), in plot, in structuring, in actual architectural forms, in person-to-person contact, and ultimately in emotional payoff.
Did I know it would be that way going in? No. But did it take me long to discover it? Definitely not. I'm writing, I'm a few paragraphs in, and this is made known to me. It's always like being let in on a secret that I always know is going to come. It's just how it is. That's between me and God or whom or whatever. And I say, "Oh, that's it. So that is part of the build of this one."
Somebody asked me recently when I would run out of metaphors or what not, that no one else could come up with. I don't really like to look at what I write in terms of parts like that, like the metaphor part--because a metaphor grammatically is often not a metaphor reality-wise, and metaphors as I think of them are built into so much in life without being grammatical metaphors, and that's a crucial focus, a mode of perception which the art I do brings out and fosters in others, both in the story, in their own lives, in how they retroactively look at certain things they have experienced.
I'm going to bring your past into your present and you'll be seeing what will become your future differently. This MFA crap that is about all that gets published for fiction and awful stories by the likes of T.C. Boyle doesn't do that. It's beyond the ken of those people and their ability. They want hollow commendation, their manufactured identity reinforced/enabled. They don't want to truly connect. They want to faux-connect so they can nurse this thing they feel is crucial to who they are, but they mostly feel that way because they have nothing else, not because they are this thing. You can fake it endlessly here. You can't fake being a good basketball player. They've built an entire system about enabling and faking it endlessly.
They're doing something entirely self-serving--trying to get plaudits from their little community, from each other, because the work itself doesn't actually have legitimate value, it's not connective. They just want it to be called certain things. They want rubber-stamped reviews. It doesn't actually do consequential things, can't. For all of the plaudits and awards, a T.C. Boyle story is utterly meaningless. Anyone can be taught to do it, too. And a lot of honest people from outside of this system could do it better.
But I write a sentence, and that sets up things I react to. Play of words; it's association, but very controlled, it's a challenge to think and invent in response to that which is created. So what I've written, what is there, is going to lead me to what is next. I don't know, going in, necessarily, that such and such a word or person or entity or concept will be referenced, because it's a series of reactions that are definitively honed.
Let me just put in a sentence from a story I wrote yesterday. It's called "Room Dark." A young woman--she's thirteen in the story's timeline (older when she is telling the story)--is at a wake for a dead uncle. He overdosed. Seems like she comes from money going by a few of the remarks she says. And her cousin, who is a few years older, he's not handling it well in even worse ways than you'd expect. And she wants to be his shepherd for this event. She wants to be guidance. She wants to be safety. She wants to be certainty.
He's drunk and a lot of his family is drunk and they go off together to this room you're not supposed to be in, some passage of the funeral parlor. Behind-the-scenes. And it's dark in this room. A backstory makes itself plain. You find out that the kid discovered his dad in the kitchen. He took photos. He has them on his phone. And the body has been moved the girl sees by the fifth or sixth photo. And the kid also took something that no one could find after. He took this syringe. And he has it now. Every sentence is like this, but different--it's doing something like this, it's building within its own content. Every word is serving a purpose. I don't give words away. T.C. Boyle gives almost every word of his bad stories away. They could be any other words, more or less (someone I know likened the start of a T.C. Boyle story to some boring father at a party or a PTA event coming over to you and just randomly nattering on about his garden or the drive he took upstate or the game two days ago), and eh, it's going to be the same story in the end. There are empty calorie words, sentences, sections, pages. There's no precision and artful precision, there's no ingenious engineering. And if you're going to have ingenious engineering, every single word, every syllable, has to play a major role. You can't give away a single letter. So look at this sentence:
"It fell out, clattered on the floor louder than I would have expected, as if it was part silverware."
We're talking about a syringe here. That's the "it." I don't want to put up the bit before that and give too much of the story away, because even though I share excerpts on here, these stories are supposed to be in venues where they are backed and seen by a million people, and in books that a million people buy. I have to have faith that that's what is coming, somehow, and not just give it all away on here. I can show some, because there's so much, and also the excerpts play a part in this journal, and they also back up any claim I might wish to make about my work, which is less a claim and more a statement of reality.
They're in this room, covertly, as we know. The word "clattered" is an onomatopoeic word. You need a word to signify volume, the dramatic effect of a quiet time and place getting auditorially disturbed, but you also need the additional meaning and boost so that we have a sense that plastic can be loud against tile or whatever the floor is made of. The word needs the sense, the word also needs the sonic character. Get it? But then we are going up a third level, with the association with silverware. There's a lot happening here. Silverware, as most of us think of it, represents finery, class. Even in poor homes, it's thought of as nice, even if it's not expensive. Special occasions.
This is a special occasion. Not just because of the wake. In the story, something is happening between these two. I've mentioned the economic differences between the families. As it were, the syringe came out of the kid's arm. In that way, with the silverware bit, it transitions, she's putting it more in her terms, maybe, and there's a form of connection. She's telling us this story, she's using her words. Right? They're not my words. They're not a third person narrator's words. With the silverware idea, you have volume a third time. We're in a place of death. With a wake you're dealing in threes, in terms of religious iconography and dogma. Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Now you have these two kids in a back room. You have a missing father. Which is why they are there. She's trying to play shepherd, a verb she uses earlier. There's a ghost element. There is a grouping of three. But note the phrase "as if it was part silverware." No one else would put it that way. A dog is part beagle, part pug. The construction is suggestive of the flesh, of generations, of that which came before us. That idea has been subtly extrapolated to include silverware now, something which itself is often passed down, so it's a pun on heirlooms, in a way, via the body.
Silverware also associates with communion, repast, shared time at table. And this is a form of that. Something is now going to transpire in this story that one could never guess, which will seem natural, even inevitable, but never foreseeable. That's what I mean about not giving words away, what I mean about how the sentence is going to build itself with the challenge it poses to me with each word, because each word is an honest reaction to the challenged of creation posed by the preceding words. The words are going to take me there, the story is going to take me there, the characters are going to take me there, because I have a mind--and also a heart and a soul--that is going to meet every challenge with maximum creativity and performance and understanding. And invention. That's how I can just sit down and write a story. You're not going to read it that way. You're going to read it as something that comes together and hits you hard, sounds really great, and I'm just providing insight into some of what is behind that, why it happens that way.
The fast-solving of one puzzle and moving on to the next, the interlocking byplay. Memory is also involved, and an ability to see many things at once, to be in the past, present, and future at once, even with that story. Then there is geometry, and being an architect; you have a design and it's huge, which other people can't see, but you're able to keep it all in your head at once--even as you develop it, because it was really already there, as we spoke about, under the sheet. It's film directing, shooting out of sequence, knowing how it will all fit. It's music, knowing that when you take away two syllables in the first line, you're going to change the musical balance somewhere on page five, and then accounting for that.
Is that doing drafts? No, but it's far more complicated and takes vastly more care than doing drafts. People in publishing like to make talent a democracy. Not a competition, not about actual talent. They want this "we are all equal as writers" thing, even while they partake of bigotry, discrimination, sexism, favor trading, the most blatant cronyism. Everyone can do the same thing, everyone can be taught to do things to the same level.
Which is total bullshit. You're dealing with hordes of people who possess no talent. They are not going to allow that someone else has far more. What publishing is right now is a popularity contest that has nothing to do with the work, except insofar as if you do great work that is athwart the kind of work they all do--the MFA factory work--you will be loathed. You have to realize, too, that these people all write the same way. They then teach the crap by the heroes of their community to other would-be writers. And they keep reinforcing how much they all sound like each other with their limp, boring, pretentious, lifeless prose, the stories of no value, consequence, imagination.
They kill off reading. They blame everyone but themselves and their system. What do they write about? Stories about being professors. Yawn. It's them. It's not invented. They just change the names, source their work from their boring, no-risk, imagination-free lives. All they partake of is the shit of their community.
Let's leave talent out of it, effort out of it, the time I have put in, doing nothing else, in some ways, for my entire life, save working to get better. You see everything I'm an expert on? It's a lot of things, right? Do you understand what that means for my toolbox as a fiction writer? The things I can bring in from other areas? All of that expertise in sports, literature, film, music, art, nature, dance, architecture, history, it can all go into my works. Can inform how I see the world, can inform how I view a story, structure.
These people can't dip into any of those colors. They can't do the references, the cross-references. They only know things like shitty T.C. Boyle stories. So that's what they reference in their shitty stories. Some creative writing professor, just like them, is seen sitting in his office, reading T.C. Boyle, and it's like "Oh, God, here we go again, another meaningless short story from the diseased community." They don't know anything about anything. And of course not about human nature. So how are you going to compete? I'll tell you. You're going to compete by hating me and trying to limit me and my opportunities, because I'm not that way, because when someone asks me about whether I do drafts, this is my answer, and trust me, this is the simple, scaled-back answer. And not one of these people are this way. Every single last one of them could give you a very simple answer to that question, and it would more or less be the same answer, though you could also add in that almost all of them hardly write at all. Look at them on Facebook. They boast about their project of the week--getting their novel outline down from four pages to three. I actually saw that last night. A woman posted that, and 100 other people wish her luck, say, "You got this!", etc. They're the exact same way. That person doing that meaningless exercise makes them feel better about their meaningless exercises. You think what I do makes those people feel good? Of course not. So they do what they can. They trash me, they throw up the blockades, they discriminate.
I do something universes beyond drafts. But I didn't want to make myself sound glib, like I'm some guy who tosses whatever at the page and is vainglorious and never thinks he needs to think it could be anything but the best. And I do go back into old works and I work them hard. Even the first sentence of "Fitty" changed after like six months. When I wrote "First Responder," I threw away the first page and a half and had it start at that point instead, which meant a lot of changes to other portions. I might write a story in a single sitting. I might write a second a day, if it has sections. I might start a story, know what I have, then write twenty others before I return to that other story. I might start a story, put it aside, finish it two years later. I might have a story in my head for four years before I formally compose it. I have a dozen stories in progress right now, and ideas for thirty others.
There is also this otherworldly factor at play, which is beyond the human. Maybe people don't want to hear that. But I am in cahoots with God or the fates or the universe or something with these stories. And the process of writing them. If you were me, you'd know it's not just about a dude sitting down to write a story. There's a different union at play here, a different compact. It's not a one-man show. The reality of that is part of the reality of what I am. But I'm not Jackson Pollock with a brush, twirling stuff and where the paint lands it lands. It's a lot more complicated, even if it now looks like I am a dude with a printer who just presses a button and work of art after work of art shoots out.