Fish Tank

Yesterday I saw the movie “Fish Tank,” which I initially thought of as just very good, with one fierce burning performance at its center. Now I’ve come to realize it’s even better—there are several sequences that will stay in my mind for some time—and that the movie has something to teach writers.

I went into it hopeful (everyone has raved about newcomer Katie Jarvis’s performance), but a little skeptical (often these “gritty low-budget” films have their own kind of pose, just as calculated and false as standard Hollywood fare). But what this movie does well, and at times brilliantly, is offer pure dramatic action: without explanation, justification, resolution. This is in general a strength of stage & screen over fiction—there is not such easy recourse to internal commentary, or extended exposition. But they, too, can fall prey to their own easy outs, such as clunky expository dialogue, the sudden flashback that neatly explains the present.

“Fish Tank” wants nothing to do with any of that. There are scenes here, constructed of the humblest materials, that—because of the carefully established dramatic context, and the patience to hold a moment of slow-burning tension to the breaking point—are as gripping and harrowing as you could ever hope for. Check it out. (Director Andrea Arnold’s previous film, “Red Road,” has one major flaw, but is otherwise tense, compelling stuff.)

Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 9:07 pm  Comments (2)  
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A reader of this blog recently asked me to send cite ten examples of a novel-in-stories. And, somewhat to my surprise, Google searches along the lines of “novel-in-stories examples” are the number one way people who don’t know me have found this blog. In fact, if you do that Google search, my site is usually listed first. Who knew?

See my sidebar and click the page Claudia: a Novel-in-Stories for my own definition of the form–in particular, how it differs from a collection of linked stories. There is a Barnes & Noble listing that combines the two, and includes some books (like Annie Proulx’s Accordian Crimes) that don’t seem to belong. There are also multiple listings for a number of titles, and some significant exclusions, but it’s worth a look. And at his fine blog Perpetual Folly, Cliff Garstang has a series of Missing Links posts where he, too, throws the two forms in together. (He posted eight short reviews late last year and hasn’t added one for a couple of months–but he’s teaching and writing and promoting his own story collection, In an Uncharted Country.) The two forms certainly belong on the same continuum, though in my mind there’s a clear aesthetic distinction to be made.

All that said, here’s a not entirely unbiased list of mostly recent examples:

  • Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout (which won the 2009 Pulitzer)
  • Stones for Ibarra, Harriet Doerr (a National Book Award winner, published before the term was in vogue, but very much with that feel)
  • Up the Junction, Nell Dunn (also pre-dates the term)
  • A Brief History of the Flood, Jean Harfenist (who used to belong to a writers group I’m in)
  • Normal People Don’t Live Like This, Dylan Landis
  • More of This World or Maybe Another, Barb Johnson (which I’m reading and will later review for The Short Review)
  • Our Kind, Kate Walbert
  • Monkeys, Susan Minot
  • How to Hold a Woman, Billy Lombardo
  • O Street, Corrina Wycoff
Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 2:30 pm  Comments (7)  
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Writing Resolutions 2010

  • The aim this year is to develop a sturdier, deeper writing practice. A big part of that is combating distraction–and, not having a TV, a lot of my distraction lives in my computer. Much more on this later, but the basic plan is: begin the writing day with paper & pen, not at the computer; no e-mail till at least noon; no internet till somewhat later; no social networking like Facebook till late afternoon; and, crucially, a “computer Sabbath” from Sat PM to Mon AM.
  • Another element will be to develop a more focused, regular routine. The above will, I think, go a long way towards that. Much more on this later as well: but I’ve come to believe that a writing practice can be buoyed greatly by a spiritual practice. Writing is very much a form of meditation–and a deep and difficult one at that. One can simply thrown oneself into it (which may work for some); or one can consciously develop the various ‘muscles’ (physical, emotional, spiritual) that go into sustaining a writing practice. I’m opting for the latter.
  • Helping to ground that daily routine is a rough yearly plan. Basically what I’ve done is break up the year into thirds (I was tempted to go with quarters, but that makes for a lot of goals, and three months is a time period, it seems, that can really get away from you) and sketch out not only writing but reading goals for each. I’ve allowed myself to become far too unfocused and undisciplined a reader.
  • One reason for the importance of a better routine this year is I’m going solo–withdrawing for the time being from writing groups and workshops. This is not to dismiss all I’ve gained (and may yet) from such group learning and collaboration. But there comes a point in a writer’s life where you’ve accumulated both some solid instincts on what makes a story work, and a critical mass of story ideas and ongoing projects–and where it may make sense to lean on those instincts, largely alone, and see how far you can take them. As a wonderful teacher once cautioned me: there are distances in a writer’s life, and in each individual story, that must be traveled alone. More on this, too, in a future post.
  • But writing entirely in a bubble doesn’t sound like much fun, and so community will play an ongoing, if different, role in my writing life. I will continue to read for a small group of fellow writers: having a circle of trusted readers is essential for most of us. And when I make a commitment to read I will do so promptly (I was prompt for a couple of people last year, but not for others)–sharing work is a kind of sacred trust. I’m also hoping that limiting my time on the internet will generate greater focus and purpose for that time. The distractions of Facebook and other sites have caused me to neglect the deeper writerly connections offered at places like the Zoetrope Virtual Studio and the Poets & Writers Speakeasy.
  • No definite goal when it comes to submissions (though if you are someone who hasn’t made submitting a regular part of your writing practice, that may be a good idea). At this point, 100 seems a minimal goal, and I expect to hit that. I have ten stories (a couple done, a few needing a polish, the rest a significant rewrite) I expect to send out in the first few months of the year: I’d like to have a bunch of stories in the till when I get to AWP in April. And I hope for another big run of submissions in the fall.
Published in: on January 5, 2010 at 8:29 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Ecstatic Gap

One of my pet writing peeves (one that I continually guard against, not always successfully) is the overly self-aware character–especially, but not always, as narrator. The character who appears to know exactly what they’re feeling, and is able to articulate that, either in narration or dialogue.

This simply doesn’t ring true to me. And it makes for one- or two-dimensional writing, absent the fascinating gaps between thoughts and words, reality and perception. I’ve always argued that, for the most part, a character’s actions should be two steps ahead of their awareness; and that writers should seek to inhabit their characters’ flesh & blood selves, not just their thoughts.

A recent feature in the New Yorker about playwright Richard Foreman (and I think playwrights are generally better at avoiding the overly self-aware character) had a great quote from Foreman’s introduction to one of his earlier plays:

There are writers who despair that a gap exists between the self and the words that come, but for me that gap is the field of all creativity–it’s an ecstatic field rather than a field of despair.

Published in: on December 13, 2009 at 4:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Inside the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop

I’ve raved here before about the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop (I just attended my fourth). This video gives you a glimpse of what goes on at the conference–and at Aimee Bender‘s mean croquet form.

Published in: on August 11, 2009 at 5:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Jen Trynin & ‘Rocks Against My Window’

As a writer I’m hardly alone in sometimes turning to song lyrics for inspiration. In part because the words are married to music and thus able to sneak past the logical mind, a lyric can attach itself like a burr without your realizing it. I’ve launched a number of stories on the energy of a song lyric, and just published one, Rocks Against My Window,’ at the new online zine Metazen.

The story started with a phrase, bouncing around in my head for years, from the song ‘Writing Notes’ by Boston rocker/writer Jen Trynin. In the mid 90’s, Jen’s first CD, Cockamamie, produced a modest indie hit, ‘Better Than Nothing’ (one of the best songs of the 90s), and a good deal of industry buzz. There was a bidding war for rights to her next record, and some insiders declared her The Next Big Thing. It didn’t happen–for a tangle of reasons Jen details in her terrific rock ‘n’ roll memoir, Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be.

It’s not surprising Jen’s a fine lyricist. She studied creative writing at Oberlin, and the Boston Phoenix printed an excerpt from one of her stories. Maybe we’ll all get lucky and she’ll start publishing some. In the meantime, check out her book and CDs at her website.

Live from Tin House

The week-long Tin House Summer Writers Workshop is wrapping up, and I wanted to file a brief report before heading out on a hiking trip. It’s my fourth year here, each more than well worth it.

At the online discussion board established so students can download each other’s work and introduce themselves, the conference coordinator dubs each workshop leader with a title. I studied this year with Dorothy Allison. Her title, the Shepard, could not have been more fitting. She is tough, but it’s out of love: love for you, for the characters, for story. She’s a keen reader with an eye both for detail and for what I can only call a larger cosmic vision of where writing fits in the larger scheme.

The week juggles morning workshops with afternoon seminars and evening readings–and then all the informal stuff that makes such a conference so valuable. Highlights included, as in past years, Charles D’Ambrosio packing more challenging thoughts into one hour than many teachers might in a whole week (more on this later, sometime); Bret Anthony Johnston introducing writing exercises from his fine book Naming the World; a very good panel on beginnings (“the beginning is a question for which everything that follows is some kind of answer”); a talk by Aimee Bender on “fructification”; and a party marking the magazine’s 10th anniversary (a lifetime in litmag years) where, among other things, Steve Almond treated us to a tour-de-force deconstruction of the Toto song “Africa.”

Short Story News (3)

  • For a lover of short stories, what better heaven than someone who deigns a single short story worthy of a review? Five Star Literary Stories has been doing this for a while: they invite an editor of a literary journal to submit a story from their archives, recent or not, and introduce it; Five Star assigns an editor, who reviews it; a link to the full story is included. The reader is introduced, quite possibly, to a new story, a new writer, a new journal, and a new reviewer–all in a few quick keystrokes.
  • Then my friend Sage Marsters (write that name down–her Pushcart Prize is just the beginning) tells me her story A Psychic, A Seizure, A Chair (how’s that for a title?) has been reviewed at The Delicate Rhino–which aims to, among other things, “record the experience of reading that story which got into your muscles.”
  • Cliff Garstang offers many things at his Perpetual Folly blog: including capsule reviews of every short story published by the New Yorker. (Cliff has his own collection, In An Uncharted Country, coming out soon on Press 53.)
  • I’ve been making a point of plugging the commitment of indies Dzanc and Press 53 to the short story–but let’s give it up as well to Harper Perennial and Fifty-Two Stories, their story-a-week site featuring selections from upcoming collections from current writers like Alex Burnett and Dennis Cooper–and rediscovered collections from Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Crane, Cather and Melville.
  • Electric Literature is a new player on the litmag scene–making a big splash with a debut edition featuring Michael Cunningham, Jim Shephard and Lydia Millet; and a serious commitment to paying writers real money. Check them out. And by taking them up on their variously affordable options (paperback, Kindle, ebook and Iphone), prove them correct on their gamble of paying good writers good money for good stories. (Thanks to Book Fox for first bringing my attention to this new venture.)
  • Perfect for summer-shortened attention spans: the August submission period for WW Norton’s projected 2010 anthology of “hint” fiction. Yes, there’s sudden fiction, quick fiction, flash fiction–and now hint fiction: stories of 25 words or less that tell a complete story, yet hint at a larger one.
  • A reminder… LA’s live introduction to the best of new West Coast short fiction: the New Short Fiction Series, which this Friday features the stories of Jill Glass.
  • Each month, The Short Review presents a new set of reviews devoted exclusively to short story collections–which this month includes my review of the anthology Visiting Hours.
  • Finally, don’t forget a number of worthy short-story blogs: from The Short Review, American Short Fiction, and One Story among others.

Random Notes

  • Sunday 6/21 7pm, writing group mate J. Ryan Stradal reads at Book Party–a reading series I’m unfamiliar with, at the Mandrake Bar (2692 La Cienega in Culver City).
  • Sunday 6/28, the New Short Fiction Series (LA’s ‘live literary magazine’) and Other Voices (formerly a top-notch literary journal, and now, as part of the Dzanc family, publisher of fine books) co-sponsor an evening of readings from Billy Lombardo’s How To Hold a Woman and Gina Frangello’s Slut Lullabies–wine & hors d’oeuvres at 7pm, readings at 7:30–at LIME Studios, 1528 20th Street, Santa Monica.
  • Theatre 68 in Hollywood rolls on with their 13 By Shanley series, an ambitious rotation of 13 plays by Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning writer John Patrick Shanley (don’t be put off if you were, as I was, disappointed with the film version of Doubt), now extended through Aug. 16: I can personally vouch for the Deborah Geffner-directed Beggars in the House of Plenty, Shanley’s most autobiographical play. Check out this don’t vote-style promo on YouTube.
  • The PEN Center Emerging Voices fellowship program is accepting applications through Aug. 14–the program provides supportive but rigorous mentoring for emerging voices from a culturally diverse background.
  • Friend and Pushcart Prize-winner Sage Marsters (a writer to watch out for) has a new story online at Open Letters (a new journal to me) called Yellow–aspiring writers would do well to observe how Sage adeptly packs her stories with telling details.
  • Long-time mentor and popular UCLA Writer’s Program instructor Lou Mathews has a new story, “At the DMV,” in the most recent issue of Short Story, one of my favorite literary journals.

Kate Milliken

Kate is a Los Angeles writer whose stories will be featured this Friday, June 12 in the New Short Fiction Series, LA’s “live literary magazine.” Beverly Hills Public Library, 444 N. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. Doors at 7:30pm, show at 8. $10 admission, free parking.

Kate has been published in a number of fine literary magazines, including Other Voices, Cream City Review, Santa Monica Review, and Meridian. I had an opportunity recently to read some of those stories and to interview her, and I am more than a little impressed: her stories are mysterious and carefully constructed, and she’s extremely thoughtful about her craft. Read the interview here.

Available online are her stories The Whole World and Man Down Below.

Published in: on June 9, 2009 at 10:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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