Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Big Book Sale

On Friday I went to the Friends of the SF Public Library Annual Big Book Sale at Fort Mason. It was incredible! Every book was under 5 bucks, and most of them were $1-$2. These were no crappy sidewalk throw-aways; they were books you'd buy brand new at full price. It was like winning a thousand dollar shoping spree to Barnes & Noble. The whole thing seemed too good to be true. I could've stayed there a week, I was so excited. I felt like my black lab, Chester, being let loose in a tennis ball factory.

The only downside was that the books were in no particular order other than general categories like "Fiction" or "Writing." So it took a lot of searching, but that was part of the fun. You never knew what treasure you'd find. I only wish I could've gone back on Sunday, when everything that hadn't sold by then was reduced to $1 or less.

They had everything, from cookbooks to genre fiction. I bought 30 books for around $65. I found a bunch of writing books I'd been looking for, including a textbook for which I was about to pay $70 on Amazon. I found a copy for $3. I cringed at seeing some hardcovers that my family or I had spent $25 on, selling for a dollar. The book I blogged about last week, If You Want to Write, I'd bought at a used bookstore for 7 bucks; at Fort Mason there were about 20 copies selling for a dollar. It did make me worry a bit. It's one thing to have 48 copies of The Da Vinci Code lying around, but why were there so many discarded writing books? If one were still writing, it seems like one would want to keep these books around for reference. Do we all give up so easily?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It is only in walks that are a little too long, that one has any new ideas

I just finished the book If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. It's a classic on writing and the creative process, first published in 1938. I'd picked the book up a few times but could never get myself to start it. Although I love classic literature, I try to avoid any how-to books that were written before World War II. And this lady was old. According to her bio, Ueland lived a long and active life, but the picture of her on the book's jacket looks like it was taken after she died. Plus, the summary on the back cover throws out terms things like True Conscience, True Self, and our Center. So forgive me if I didn't think I could get a fresh take on writing from this dated book.

But yes, to save you the suspense: I was wrong about the book. Very wrong. As you'll see, I got a lot out of it.

The book starts by saying that everyone is creative and talented in some way. This sounds hokey but it's true. Whether or not you consider yourself creative now, you no doubt did something creative as a child. You lost yourself and produced something imaginative and original, not worrying all along if it was art or it was good. And, consequently, it was good. Do you think we lose this ability? No, it should only grow.

We don't lose this creative power, but it often gets beaten down early in life by criticism, and by the creeping anxiety over whether one's work is "good." Ueland contends that if you write from your true self and not from the self you think you should be, you cannot help but be original and interesting. Focus not on whether your work sounds like Shakespeare, but on what you see, what you feel -- the picture and depth of the story in your mind. If you can truly see it, you can write it. Let's say you find that your description of a character is cliche and uninteresting. Don't strive to find better words; try instead to conjure a clearer image of the character in your head, and the words will follow. If you've ever kept a journal, you know what I mean. Whenever I look back at one of my travel journals with cold objectivity, as if was written by someone else, I've been pleasantly surprised at some insight, some passionate statement I'd made. And I know that at that point, I was only writing what I wanted to, what burned most incandescently in my mind, an idea that was formed not as I sat down to write, but during another time, a quiet time, while waiting for a train perhaps. These thoughts are always a joy to read, because they are true and truly felt.

So screw those books on what NOT to write (and I've read several of them -- one of them, in fact, was called How Not to Write a Novel). Holding these books in your head while trying to write is like stepping up to a golf tee with a huge water hazard on one side. You're aiming to hit the ball down the fairway, but what you're really focusing on is not hitting the ball into the water. I've lost a lot of balls this way.

The best part of Ueland's book, the part that struck me the hardest, is her theme that the imagination works slowly and quietly, and we have to be idle and open to channel it. The problem is that most of us don't sit still long enough to be creative. Even when we have a spare moment, we fill it with something, whether it's TV or the Internet or drinking or exercise. I'm particularly guilty of this. I can't eat a meal by myself without something to read. If I'm stuck somewhere more than two minutes without a distraction, I get anxious. Can we not just sit idle and take in the scenery? Ueland argues that it is in these quiet times that we form the ideas we'll draw from later -- to create something.

Much of the truly great art comes from people with time to spare. For example, Ueland says that some of the greatest literature was written by prisoners, because "prisoners suffer, think and are alone, so they have very much to say. Their relative yearning and power is shown by the fact that there is much more demand for great literature in prisons than outside. A librarian told me this."

To really observe, to be inspired, we have to be in the present. In our future-focused culture, we have a horrible time being in the present. Again, I am worse than most at this. Even if I am enjoying myself in the present, say, staring out at nature, I have to take myself out of the moment and validate it. I'll send a text message to let someone know I'm enjoying myself: "90 degrees. beach. beer. sucks to be you in the office;" or, "On top of Mt. Tam, no fog. view is amazing."

Another quote I identify with, given my current situation:

"We northerners are too much driven by the idea that in twenty years we will live, not now: because by that time our savings and the accrued interest will make it possible. To live now would be idleness. And because of our fear we have come to think of all idleness as hoggish, not as creative and radiant."

And finally, I could write on this topic forever, but Ueland puts it so well:

"Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong... that is why these smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people so often say: 'I am not creative.' They are, but they should be idle, limp and alone for much of the time, lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination; it is letting in ideas. Willing is doing something you know already, something you have been told by somebody else; there is no new imaginative understanding in it. And presently your soul gets frightfully sterile and dry because you are so quick, snappy and efficient about doing one thing after another that you have not time for your own ideas to come in and develop and gently shine."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Race for Hannah

This weekend, Amy and I are running in the Komen Race for the Cure. It's only a 5K, but we're talking about it as if it were a marathon. It's not really about the run itself. Were doing it in honor of, among others, our cat Hannah. She recently underwent surgery to remove a host of tumors spanning her breast area. We haven't gotten the results back, but the vet is fairly certain the tumors are malignant. The surgery was quite extensive, and Hannah was a sad sight in her post-operative state. Consequently, in the past week she has won some newfound affection from me. 

Always the queen of her domain, Hannah hates nothing more than being vulnerable. Hannah the heliophile has spent much of the last week lying in the dark. Hannah of the strident meow actually lost her ability to speak for 48 hours (the best sleep I've had in a year). Hannah of the infamous ennui actually appeared, for the first time, unsure of herself. Chester, of course, took advantage of this moment of vulnerability to prance around Hannah and sniff her butt, something that would've gotten his nose taken off in the past.

Hannah had a plastic cone put around her neck so she couldn't lick her wound or pull at the staples. When she first got home from surgery she wandered around the house bumping into everything -- without whiskers, you see, cats are nearly blind. She quickly adapted to the cone, though, and we soon realized she was exaggerating its effects in order to evoke sympathy. For a while, for example, she pretended like she couldn't reach her food. She kept bumping the cone into her bowl, spilling her food on the floor, and then looking up at us with those pathetic eyes. So we'd take the cone off -- and she'd promptly lick her wound. Later, when she thought no one was looking, she would eat just fine with her cone on. Next, she took to ramming her cone against the side of her cat bed until we'd pick her up, place her on the bed, and pet her. Then she'd miraculously jump the three feet onto our bed.

All these shenanigans give us hope that Hannah will be back in full force in no time. I wasn't really worried, though. She'll live forever, out of shear will, just to spite us all.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Since I last wrote here, I:

Got a knew MacBook computer. I love it. It's like I was using a hammer before and I've just been handed a nail gun; it won't help me create anything better but it will ameliorate the process.

Read three books, two amazing ones (Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Joshua Ferris's Then we Came to the End) and a sub-mediocre one (Robin Cook's Critical).

Received feedback on my first 15 pages. I'm reluctant to write too much about my Writing Salon class because some of my classmates may end up reading my blog. But I will say that it was a fantastic experience, and overall the feedback was positive. Of course, we're instructed to focus mainly on the things we like about each others' work. But it was still reassuring to get good feedback on some of the aspects I'd been worried about, such as whether my dialog seemed natural, and whether my characters had distinct voices. It's nice to know that my writing makes sense to outsiders who haven't been living and breathing the story for the past few months. In the writer's head it always makes sense, so it's hard to be objective. It was weird though to hear them talk knowingly about my characters. It was as if people who'd never met my family were talking intimately about my mother. If I ever get published, I assume I'll get used to that.

There was a part of me, I have to admit, as I imagine every beginning writer could, that secretly hoped the teacher would find me after class and whisper, "I couldn't say it in there because it would make the other students jealous, but that was truly brilliant. Your writing made me weep. You're dangerous, Brian. I think you're too good for this class. There's nothing more I can teach you. Please let me show your manuscript to my agent."

When I left the class, I envisioned that scene in Top Gun when Kelly McGillis chases Tom Cruise through the streets of San Diego, he on his motorcycle, she in a convertible sports car, and when she catches him they say:

MAVERICK: Jesus Christ, and you think I'm reckless? When I fly, I'll have you know that my crew and my plane come first.
CHARLIE: Well, I am going to finish my sentence, Lieutenant. My review of your flight performance was right on.
MAVERICK: Is that right?
CHARLIE: That is right, but I held something back. I see some real genius in your flying, Maverick, but I can't say that in there. I was afraid that everyone in the tax trailer would see right through me, and I just don't want anyone to know that I've fallen for you.

Well, maybe not that very last part, but you know what I mean.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


On the back cover of the book on my nightstand, it says, "If you're tired of rejection, this is the book for you." No, it's not a manual on how to pick up chicks; it's Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. The premise of the book is that an agent or editor will make up his mind about a manuscript in the first five pages -- so you'd better make them count. And for an unsolicited book by an unpublished author, he'll usually make up his mind after reading the first five sentences. Professional agents and editors read with the goal of getting through the huge pile of paper on their desks, so they'll look for any reason to dismiss a manuscript. The sooner they find this reason, the better, so they can reject it and move on to their next task.

I'm spending the week in Newport Beach, so I haven't been doing much writing, but as I prepare to submit my first 15 pages to my writing class, I've been thinking about rejection. Here are some of my favorite rejection stories, most of them blatantly lifted from Lukeman's book or from Pushcart's Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections.

Stephen King's first four novels were rejected. When King sent his first manuscript, Bill Thompson, an editor at Doubleday, sensed he had something, but he still rejected the next three. King stuck with it, and Thompson finally bought the fifth novel, despite his colleagues' lack of enthusiasm, for $2500. It was called Carrie.

John Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by 15 publishers and 30 agents. He ultimately published it himself, selling copies out of the trunk of his car.

In 1969, Jerzy Kosinski's novel, Steps, won the National Book Award. Six years later a freelance writer named Chuck Ross, to test the theory that a novel by an unknown writer doesn't have a chance, typed the first 21 pages of Steps and sent them out to four publishers as the work of "Erik Demos." All four rejected the manuscript. Two years later, he typed out the whole book and sent it to more publishers, including the original publisher of the Kosinski book, Random House. Again, all rejected it with unhelpful comments -- Random House used a form letter. Altogether, 14 publishers and 13 literary agents failed to recognize the award-winning book, and rejected it.

John Kennedy Toole wrote a comic novel about life in New Orleans called A Confederacy of Dunces. It was so relentlessly rejected that he killed himself. His mother refused to give up on the book. She sent it out and got it back, rejected, over and over again. At last she enlisted the help of writer Walker Percy, who got it accepted by the Louisiana State University Press. Eleven years after Toole's death, his book was finally published, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Ultimately, it comes down to persistence. As Lukeman writes, the answer to getting published is how much it means in your life. French novelist Jean Genet was forced to write on toilet paper, as that was all he had during his many years in prison. When the guards found and destroyed his life's work, he began again, recreating it from memory. Dostoyevsky spent many years in a prison camp in Siberia, where he wasn't allowed to read anything but the Bible and was not given any writing materials. But he continued to write when he got out, despite the fact that Russian law prohibited a former prisoner to be published. When the czar read Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead -- given to him by friends -- he cried, lifted the ban, and allowed the book to be published. Joseph Conrad, a Polish refugee, taught himself English while working on a ship. Despite the fact that he didn't speak a word of it until he was 20 years old, he became one of the greatest masters of the English language.

These stories give me hope and will surely inspire me to work harder once I get home. In the meantime, if you'll excuse me, the waves are calling.