I use Grammarly for online proofreading now that my 11th-grade English teacher, Ms. Hines, unfriended me on Facebook.
Last night I taught this book, which is a collection of Contributor’s Notes that Martone published in various journals. All begin the same way: Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. From there, anything can happen. Sometimes he goes to enroll at Indiana University, which is true. Martone did go there. Sometimes he gets work as a ditchdigger, or turns into a giant insect. As far as I know Martone didn’t do these things. I taught the book in my Narrating Nonfiction course. Students initially found the book annoying. One student’s library copy has “rambling, annoying” marked in the margins. My students were also confused by what the book was doing in a nonfiction class. FC2, the publisher, event labels the book “fiction” on its back cover.
This post is going to try to explain how, even in the thick of wildest fabrication, Martone’s book is a work of nonfiction. (more…)
From Lauren Collins’s piece on chilis in last month’s New Yorker food issue, which piece I wasn’t going to read because I’m not historically interested in capsaicin, but it’s been writing like this that’s kept me going. Look at how this graf moves!
Chiliheads are mostly American, British, and Australian guys. (There is also a valiant Scandinavian contingent.) Chili growing is to gardening as grilling is to cooking, allowing men to enter, and dominate, a domestic sphere without sacrificing their bluster. “I can’t remember eating anything spicy before the parrot came along,” Fowler, a big man with a brushy mustache, told me, in July. The chili world is full of garrulous, confiding, erratic narrators who say things like “before the parrot came along.” In Fowler’s case, the parrot belonged to his father’s brother. “Uncle Jim wanted another parrot, and his wife said, ‘Nope, you’ve got a parrot, and that’s it.’ So he made up this story that my dad wanted a parrot, and next time he visited us he brought one.” The parrot, named Murphy, came with a chili plant. (Birds can’t taste capsaicin.) Fowler quit fishing and started growing habaneros in his bedroom. Soon, he had left his job as a Web designer and founded the Chili Pepper Company, through which he sells seeds, sauces, powders, and products such as Kiss the Devil, a mouth spray made with chili-infused alcohol. “You can have just a little bit before you go to the gym, to get your endorphins up,” Fowler told me.
Two things about this reading from our visiting writer I feel so lucky to have scored my first year here:
“There’s no such thing as formlessness.” — This as a kind of refrain toward the end of his reading “No Easy Task”. TSE (fortunate poetic initials; I’ve heard Thomas now twice make Prufrock jokes) read with James Middlename Louis/Lewis, a saxophonist, who played along. It was great, a performance more than a reading, esp. for this poem about performance. At any rate, I found it useful advice, particularly at a time when I’m wanting less control in my paragraphs, or I’m wanting to exert less control over my paragraphs.
Poems don’t have a lock on poetry. — This in response to a person’s question about the pressures Ellis feels to progress as a poet, or with his poems. Poems are something we exchange or talk about in workshops, but poetry is something harder to grasp and something larger. Something regarding imagination, invention, and so on. I, self-absorbedly, tried to see if there’s a nonfiction equivalent. I think some would argue that essays don’t have a lock on essaying, and that’s true in a way I can’t do much with. It’s true that poets and fiction writers essay. I often like to say that memoirs don’t have a lock on nonfiction, but again—Ellis’s statement isn’t quibbling over subgenres’ ownership of the genre. I see it as a project: what art of nonfiction can the nonfictioneer practice beyond the page. What, that is, other than winning at pub trivia night, which I hope to do again this Thursday with my stellar team: Panda Express?
Perhaps what’s most exciting about Thomas being here this year at USF is that his latest book, Skin Inc., has a section titled “The Judges of Craft”. Here’s its epigraph:
Thanks for your note. We’re actually very interested in poems that address issues of race and racism and wish we could run more of them. Most of what we get in that regard is mere subject matter; that is, there’s not enough craft to carry to content (though this is certainly not the case with “Spike Lee at Harvard,” which I am sure you’ll place somewhere very good).
There’s enough to be said about “craft” as a concept and as a law in the instruction and proliferation of writing, but that’s another post. This one’s about this: yearlong visiting writers are such a valuable resource (potentially) to writing programs they should be granted a kind of tenure. It’s an incredible thing to have a well published, well respected member on the full faculty who’s leaving at the end of the year. Every program needs such a shake up.
MFA-app season is coming up. In search of other documents, I found the personal statement I wrote in 2002 the first time (of three total times) I applied to graduate writing programs. It’s complicatedly awful. As a kind of aid for others, it’s posted here, word-for-word:
On a trip across the country in a car with a lifelong friend, I dreamt mostly of homes. Not home, mind you, but homes: three-story, five-bedroom houses decorated everywhere in robin’s-egg blue; sleek and modern apartments seemingly ripped from the pages of the IKEA catalogue; brightly colored houses filled with passageways and compartments, much like the ones I dreamt of as a kid. Dreaming about homes while living as a transient made some pop-psychological sense, but something else about this recurring dream-setting struck me. Even though I had never seen these homes before—awake or asleep—I knew immediately and intuitively that they were mine. In the logic of these dreams, I was always home.
This is in no way a dream-practice particular to me; everyone’s dreams distort his or her life’s realities. We all get a kick out of our minds’ abilities to create this sensual familiarity out of our own visual innovation, it’s one of the greatest yet most common powers we feel as dreamers. In other words, when we tell each other, “I dreamt about you last night, but it wasn’t you. Y’know?” our response is always: “Yeah, sure…so what did I look like?”
The dreams I love the most are these where I dupe myself, making it all up but staying honest, showing myself some possible life I could lead. Similarly, the writing I love the most has these same qualities, presenting the fake and fabricated as plausible and true-to-life. Only fiction—set in the arena of possibilities—can do this. Nonfiction—set in the arena of actualities—abhors the fake and the fabricated. It loves facts and things that have been done. And thus, while nonfiction can only let us know everything that has happened or is happening, fiction tells us everything that could happen. It’s a much sexier arena to work in.
I’ve seen this make-it-all up approach to fiction in the writers I’ve been reading fervently in the past few years. It’s in the more recent fiction of David Foster Wallace and almost all of George Saunders’ work. It’s also, perhaps most comprehensively, in Ben Katchor’s comic strip, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. Knipl lives in an unnamed metropolis of ointment experts, travelogue theaters, and nail-biting salons that is very clearly the New York City of Katchor’s wildest dreams. The strip is a weekly absurdist tableau underneath which lie the subtle human truths of salesmen’s ambitions, unbreakable routines, and lonely urbanites. It’s the strangest of fictions, and it affects you in the strangest of ways.
Because of this affection I feel for my finest dreams and my favorite novels, it’s clear to me that fiction can create a relationship between writer and reader more intimate and direct than nonfiction can. It’s this reason that I want to learn to write fiction. At this stage in my career, I’m a wholly untrained fiction writer, working on instinct, feeling out the medium. What I need now is study, practice, and guidance. What I crave is the opportunity to learn something new, while also developing my current talents.
This is why graduate study in fiction writing at Emerson—with its courses in publishing and its possibilities for multidisciplinary study—is an ideal choice for me. I’m ready to work; Emerson’s high credit requirements aren’t daunting, they’re exciting. Plus, I’m looking forward to studying at Emerson for its feeling of community, letting me take intimate workshops to develop alongside my peers—all of us, hopefully, with a thing or two to teach each other.
I did not get into Emerson. I didn’t get in anywhere, if I recall. Or maybe this is the one that got me into Nebraska? I didn’t get in anywhere else, and this statement, it goes without saying, would not have landed me the jobs I’ve got since graduate school. Take that, nonfiction!
The Schadchen[†] was defending the girl he had proposed against the young man’s protests. “I don’t care for the mother-in-law,” said the latter. “She’s a disagreeable, stupid person.” — “But after all you’re not marrying the mother-in-law. What you want is her daughter.” — “Yes, but she’s not young any longer, and she’s not precisely a beauty.” — “No matter. If she’s neither young nor beautiful she’ll be all the more faithful to you.” — “And she hasn’t much money.” — “Who’s talking about money? Are you marrying money then? After all it’s a wife that you want.” — “But she’s got a hunchback too.” — “Well, what do you want? Isn’t she to have a single fault?”
It’s not without tedium, the book, but not an unwelcome one to read alongside Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking (for teaching) and Barbara Walters’s How to Talk with Practically Anybody about Practically Anything (for before bed, and for learning much about how to be a considerate person).
That this is the weirdest photo I’ve ever seen of Bill Callahan in the fifteen years I’ve been a fan of his says more than I ever could about how Bill Callahan is a very weird guy.
He’s also probably my favorite working musician, and now he’ll be my first San Francisco concert. At what’s called The Great American Music Hall. Nov 16. I’m excited, but I just realized I’ve made dinner plans I now need to break.
The point of this post is to share that pic with the one reader of this blog I know cares. Also, did you know we live two blocks away from “the Airplane house“? 1992′s Dave Madden would’ve just about shit.
I include “The Cupboard” as a post category and really rarely ever use it.
The Cupboard is a quarterly pamphlet of creative prose I put together with two friends in different cities. It used to be an anonymous pamphlet stapled together by clumsy hands and left in places around Lincoln, Nebraska. Now it’s basically a series of prose chapbooks. Still printed in Lincoln, but distributed through the mail. It’s often a lot of work but it’s rarely thankless. I’m proud of it.
Here’s the cover for our latest volume, out last week:
It’s an examination of the monstrous and the human and how they might intersect. Christopher Higgs is the right kind of person to be thinking about this. Not because he’s a monster but because he’s a great thinker. A stand-up guy.
The great thing about The Cupboard is that books only cost $5, which is what a beer costs in this town when you go macrobrew or local. Plus you can keep our books in your pocket much longer. Head over to our Web site to order a copy, or subscribe maybe and get four mailed to you over the course of a year(-ish).
How did I miss this incredible bit of James Adomian doing an dead-on impression of Louis CK? (Check ca. 00:30, 00:50, et al.) I’m reminded of the rise of “What is the deal with X?” mock-Seinfeld jokes back in the mid-90s, except CK is so much harder to pin down vocally. “I want Kleenex and … cake. That’s all I want.”
Even more telling is Lake Bell’s response: “Oh my god, he gets me. He gets me!”