Serial: Why Is It So Popular?

Serial is the hottest new podcast that’s working everybody up into a lather. It’s the number one podcast not only in the United States, but also Australia, and the United Kingdom. If you haven’t started listening to it, start listening to it.

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Serial follows the conventions of sequential storytelling — conventions that came out of the Victorian era, when books were issued as installments. For instance, each chapter of Great Expectations arrived to the public simply as a link in an ongoing narrative — its own self-contained unit with elements of cliffhanger suspense built in. Only later were the bits collected and put together in book form (and this was simply to make money twice).

That’s how Serial is supposed to get you: The feeling of true waiting — something that is lost in our digital culture where all things are instantaneously present simultaneously — is a novel sensation. Pardon the pun.

I got to the show late, by then it had already been in its seventh episode and would soon release its eight. One of my old childhood friends, a successful screenwriter, had Facebook-ed that the seventh was the best (it is!). A rule breaker at heart, I leapt into that seventh episode just to see if it was worthwhile. I promptly got hooked, and proceeded to listen to every single episode in sequence. It was truly addictive.

There’s a reason why I did this that moves beyond entertainment: I was interested in craft. What makes this particular murder mystery so compelling that it has touched a nerve across the nation and around the English speaking world? Is it form? Is it craft? Is it technique? These were the questions on my mind as I listened. I wanted to take whatever I could purloin and see if I could make it my own.

Serial is basically a mystery with a murder of a young Korean American girl Hae Min Lee by her Pakistani American ex-boyfriend Adnan. The reporter is the voice that stands in as the detective figure — the creature of “ratiocination,” to borrow the term Edgar Alan Poe applied to his own stories of murder, mystery, intrigue… In other words, the narrator Sarah Koenig is the figure who thinks, ponders, puzzles, wonders.

And the story has many of the classic features of a mystery: It’s a whodunit that combines the pleasures of a police and courtroom procedural. The twist is that the crime supposedly has been solved and we get those events retold. We already know how it ends: Adnan, the ex-boyfriend, has been found guilty. He is talking to us from behind bars, where he has languished for well over a decade.

One of the big critiques that came out among my politically correct friends is that the story is racial — that it exploits certain tried and true racial stereotypes: Adnan is described in terms of Othello — a moor. In other words, he is a violent Muslim, someone who can be imagined as black. Then there’s all the exploitation of the model minority myth: the perfect Asian girl who is in every way an ideal daughter and student must die at the hands of the criminal darky. I won’t go into any other detail about this line of thinking, because it came out here.

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I can only say that it annoyed me at the time, because it was an easy argument to make. In fact, it can be applied to just about any book dealing with racialized characters. In this sense, this line of thinking is extremely limited. It still doesn’t entirely address the popularity of the show. After all, there are tons of racist things out there that never gain traction, that never make it into the spotlight.

So I began to wonder if it was about the serialized form itself… if it was the fact of sequencing that made things interesting. That one, I threw out the window. After all, I enjoyed it even though I had started in the middle. In fact, though the show is designed to be sequential, it’s not rigidly sequential in the way that comic books move from panel to panel. You can pretty much jump into any episode and bounce around that way, and not get confused. In this sense, the pretense of form — that it is a serial — is simply a pretense. This is entirely different from the serializations that happened during the Victorian era, and certainly different from the radio dramas that are its immediate predecessors.

What I came to realize is that it is the narrator — the journalist stand-in for the detective voice — that is the true element that is addictive. And in fact, it is the way that Sarah Koenig keeps asking questions, finding dead ends, following up leads that are dry. One website dwelled on the numerous times that Sarah Koenig keeps resorting to the same language — the same stock phrases — to express her confusion.

This makes her, not Adnan, the most fully developed character of the show — the stroke of genius that keeps us compelled. Adnan is in other words, just the chump in the cage. He is a voice that arrives as simple snippets for her convenience. Sarah Koenig is the voice that curates him, that displays his interesting-ness for the world’s amusement.

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I think this is the clue to unlocking the mystery: It is the befuddlement that Koenig must return to over and over again. And she is invested in this befuddlement, for if she could really resolve that befuddlement, she would not have a show at all — or at least, she would only have a fragment of a show. Even if we get to touch the holy grail — a real conclusive moment in which she figures it all out and explains all the elements of the show — it is the befuddlement that is so crucial for the story to move.

Koenig is in some senses a better detective than the classic ones — Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes — precisely because those sleuths are self-assured. We know they will prevail. In contrast, Koenig seems genuinely baffled. This is the stroke of genius: It is the elaboration of the speaker who is herself elaborating a story that really is the whole point of the show. In other words, Serial is something more ancient than a mystery novel or a Victorian serial of only a hundred odd years ago… it is a dance of the seven veils. It is a story that must be told every night in a different way to stay the hand of the executioner. It is just good storytelling.

P.D. James–Master of Detective Fiction

This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post.

P.D. James, the master of detective fiction, died recently, leaving in her wake pyrotechnic displays of masterful writing. In memory of this great technician, I’ve been reading one of her novels–Devices and Desires–which features her accomplished detective, Commander Adam Dalgliesh.

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James wanted to be a writer from a young age, but war, marriage, children, tragedy–all the bits of messiness that is life–got in the way. Her ambition was thwarted until her early forties when she was able to cash in the few hours she stole from the grind of her duties each day before work and leverage it into a real publication.

P.D. James got her start in mystery writing because she thought it would be a stepping stone: a popular form in which it would be easier to publish–then publish better, publish further. She thought she could move on to more serious work (serious in her eyes) and you can see how this orientation meant that she valued careful, crafted language in her writing.

Her most memorable creation, the Commander Adam Dalgliesh, represents a marriage of her thwarted ambition to the empyrean heights of high brow literary writing, and her realization of this important fact that every great mystery writer must come to terms with: that the vehicle that moves any detective fiction is the detective.

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Dalgliesh is not only a Commander in Scotland Yard, but also an acclaimed poet. And so his ability to see the world is suffused with beautiful descriptions. Clouds aren’t just clouds–they are something else. And a landscape is always beautifully, precisely described–with a wistful touch.

Dalgliesh also has the poet’s eye for detail–the ability to make much about somebody’s chin, face, nose. A living room–whether stodgy or common–has that richness of detail that makes for a good read. And it is in the rich descriptions, quite often descriptions of the ordinary, that the Commander is able to see, and help us see, with penetration.

If detective fiction is, at its base–a realistic form–its readers require realism for maximal enjoyment. P.D. James delivers. And there are few detective writers who achieve this level of description without becoming tedious. P.D. James’s realism is thick, filled with the kinds of meaningful details that are the delight of this form.

Beyond these facts of character, there are facts of class that make P.D. James’s greatest creation an excellent instrument of detection: Dalgliesh is well-to-do, extremely educated. And this allows him to see the world with a scope and breadth, wisdom and farsightedness that ordinary mortals just do not have at their disposal. He is not some beat detective with a baton. He drives a jaguar and takes an interest in all sorts of arcane subject matter–maters like ornithology. He is independently wealthy but is driven by the very British passion to do things properly.

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I think this is the stroke of genius on P.D. James’s part: creating a character from this cloth. Dalgliesh is the dream child of the frustrated novelist, for he can make striking observations and connections that a more down-to-earth gumshoe simply cannot make. And so he is an ideal instrument for a writer who strives towards maximal effects. After all, every word Dalgliesh utters is also a word uttered by P.D. James, and every word is a missile sent roaring into the sky, exploding into a million sparks that illuminate the darkness that bounds us, that exists all around us.

National Novel Writing Month: Will you do it?

NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—is upon us and, for the first time, I’m all in. This has not always been the case. When I was teaching Creative Writing, one of my colleagues was absolutely dead set against it.

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“It promotes diarrhea.” She was one of those neatly-combed people who was orderly in every way, and she listed all the very good reasons why she did not approve of it. “You write a lot. You never edit. You usually end up with an unwieldy mass of junk that you just don’t know what to do with.”

Needless to say, all my students loved it.  Students are visionary.

National Novel Writing Month, for those who don’t yet know, begins at the stroke of midnight on the first day of November and ends at the close of the month. During that period, aspiring writers produce 50,000 words—enough verbiage to believe that they have written a real, honest-to-goodness novel. That amounts to an average of 1,877 words a day.

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There’s a website in which to log your word count. You create a profile (my profile name is spunkymunky, my novel is Robert’s Rules) and participate in an on-line community of writers. You can earn badges along the road toward your goal. You can track your progress with charts. Outside of the website, there are meetups simply for the purpose of getting writing done.

Like my colleague, I have always been suspicious of group activities. “You’re not a joiner,” one of my friends, who would always try to get me to join things he joined, quipped. By nature, I’m extremely skeptical. I don’t fall for television preachers. I don’t ever buy the latest must-have gadget. When Christmas comes along, I have been known to book a long vacation to a Muslim country.

But recently, I have engaged in group activities that have benefited me: I started jogging with a running club, once a week, and this kept me jogging regularly and now I have lost 20 pounds. This got me to thinking that in many ways, NaNoWriMo creates the environment of an MFA program—a peer structure and accountability group that form a community: you are running with horses across a blurred landscape, you are not a mighty stallion alone, alone, alone.

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It’s so much harder to do things alone, to get off your butt. It’s easier to go back to sleep if nobody is watching. I found myself not only running consistently but, also, running further, faster. Why? Because if you run with a pack, you have to keep its pace.

So far, I’ve been doing this three days. I have two partners—the novelist, Thomas Hewlett and the poet, Nicky Schildkraut. I’m not sure if I’ll stay at the 1,877 word pace, mainly because I can’t stand diarrhea. But the NaNoWriMo website makes the point that, even if you only write a thousand words at the end of the month, that is a thousand words more than you had before.  So, I’m ready to be a joiner. It’s not too late to join with me!

Art Spiegelmann: Upon Seeing the Artist Live

I recently went to see Art Spiegelmann, the creator of the Pulitzer Prize Winning Graphic Novel Mauss. I was lucky because, right now, I am a visiting scholar at USC and could score some fantastic tickets and sit in the amazing auditorium—plush, grand, magnificent—for free. Anything that is free is good in my book!

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Mauss is the watershed book that is not only a masterpiece in its own right but, also, launched—indeed, gave legitimacy to–a whole new genre that has become its own marketing juggernaut: the graphic novel. In this age of blogs and downloads and television brainfreeze, people just don’t invest the money in books. Sure, they will buy a cookbook. But in this time of Kindle, there’s little room for something a bit more artsy that you can hold in your hand.

Before Mauss, nobody gave much mind to things packaged as words with pictures. That kind of lowbrow stuff was relegated to the book shelves of children and, also, adults whose interest in comic books potentially marked them as menaces to society. But after Mauss, the graphic novel came into its own..,so Art Spiegelmann is a pivotal figure—the great grandpappy in a family tree composed entirely of pulp.

I had a special interest in Mauss. A few years back, I’d taught the book in my freshman seminar on the graphic novel…so this meant that I’d spent a lot of time living with it—emotionally, intellectually, psychologically. I even had Mauss dreams. And if you’ve ever spent time grading student papers with a glass of merlot, you can probably guess: I also had my fair share of Mauss nightmares.

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Mauss is an incredibly edgey non-comic-booky book. If I were to put on my literary critic hat, I would describe it this way: it’s basically a beast fable—a story with animals that is supposed to teach lessons about humans. The scorpion who convinces the frog to give him a ride across the river—that creature stings the poor frog and, as they both drown, the frog cries out “why must you doom both of us by your actions”; the scorpion replies, “I am a scorpion. It is in my nature to sting.” And there unfolds a classic lesson that is less about animals and more about human nature.

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But Mauss is unlike Aesop’s fables, which teach uncomplicated lessons about the human condition using whimsical animals that are unthreathening because, well, they are animals. Instead, Mauss has elements of intense realism that run in counterpoint to the whimsical beast fable. And it allows Spiegelmann to treat the stark world of the Nazi death camps with a heightened realism that in other more realistic forms—film, for instance—would become overblown. Mauss is not Schindler’s List, which verges on sappy and sentimental and manipulative.

Art Spiegelmann is now a grand personage and he spent the evening doing a narration in his raspy voice with a jazz sextet lead by another American great, Philip Johnston. Periodically, he would puff on his cigarette vaporizer and the smoke would dissipate into the air with bits of film noir shadow. He even wore a fedora, like some detective in a hardboiled world where loose dames show up in dresses with thigh-high slits up their long, long legs.

What impressed me about the performance is that Spiegelmann spent the time narrating his own debt to other artists—other writers. He was most indebted to the German Expressionists with their black and white wood cuts. He was unashamed in naming his heroes and he quite clearly pointed out that people were mistaken by saying that he had written the first graphic novel. There were others, and he quite lovingly named them all.

I searched frantically for a pen, borrowed it from a friend, but then found I had no paper. I wrote the names down on my hand, sloppily, in the dark.

 

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This was the amazing part of the evening—the realization that within any genre, even if you appear to be the first, you are often involved in collaborations…whether that is with the brassy liveliness of a full jazz orchestra…or the overtures of past artists and writers who have provided you the template to appear original—the first, the best, the finest.

Estate Sale: Places of Detective-Work

I’ve recently gotten into going to Estate Sales. I started this recent obsession because I’m on a new health kick, one in which I haul myself out of bed and jog early every Saturday morning. This has been going on for four months and I feel fit and trim and never-better.

What I soon realized is that, once I finished my scenic run, I emerge into this dream world of Estate Sales. Pasadena—for those of you who don’t know—is a great old city that abuts Los Angeles. It has a lot of old historic homes and a charm that makes me think of the quiet, dignified grandeur of the Midwest.

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It seems like all those little old ladies from Pasadena —those little old ladies in the song of the same name–are dying.

This means that going to an Estate Sale is extremely depressing. You see the house, like a crime scene, in a state. Everything is left out, almost as if ransacked by thieves. Old depression glassware, mink coats, stained hankies—these are common items at Estate Sales, and they make the hairs on my arms stand on end.

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Going to an estate sale, you also begin to learn how to sleuth—to see patterns, to look for tell-tale signs. You begin to figure out who was an alcoholic. Who had a mistress. Who liked to wear women’s clothing, despite many years of service in the Marines.

I almost didn’t go to my first estate sale because of the sadness of seeing life at a standstill. But the nice old lady who manned the cash register put her bony hand to her chest and exclaimed. “Oh my stars, no–nobody died here.” She leaned forward. “It’s not that type of estate sale.”

The house was next to a very nice gas station and perched on the edge of a tonier neighborhood—San Marino—where the great Huntington Library, with its sprawling gardens and its archives, stood. There was a For Sale sign on the front lawn. But the house—a modest one—was definitely a fixer-upper.

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There were patches of bald on the lawn, and streaks of brown where the crabgrass had withered in the summer heat. It was obvious that the house was kept in the family for several generations. Everywhere, there were decades of junk—like the stratigraphy of rocks on a Paleolithic cliff.

Finally, I met the owner—a man in a wheel chair—who was guzzling a case of Budweiser at 9 o’clock in the morning. He had long, straggly white hair, the silvering of a grey five o’clock shadow.  A loose terry cloth bath robe fell open to expose thin, ashen legs. Around him were strewn the empties.

He thanked me for coming. Then, he regaled me about growing up in this neighborhood in Southern California when everything was nicer, simpler, and cheaper. “Back then, a twelve year old kid could walk down to the corner store and buy a beer for less than fifty cents.” He was expansive and I could tell he didn’t have many friends who talked to him. “Do you know how much I sold this shit hole for?”

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He confided that his parents had left him the house and he had crippled himself with the kind of heavy drinking that leads to diabetes. “1.7 million dollars.” I picked something out quickly from the stuff set out in the living room.  As I left with my purchase, he waved to me with his cigarette. “Now I can buy a condo in Glendale, and live the rest of my life without being a burden to society.

The irish linen I picked out still had the tags on it. The nice old lady at the cash register let me have it for a song, and I wondered out loud why nobody had ever used it. “Sometimes things just end up that way,” said the lady.  But the answer was obvious: all the ordinary things in the house had been so used, they were worn down to a nub. But the nice stuff—the nice stuff—was never used: it was too nice for everyday use.

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Halloween Exercise: Writing the Truly Scary

It’s almost Halloween—the time for ghouls and zombies, vampires and mummies. But let’s face it: those things are not really scary. In fact, the paradox of Halloween is that we are immune to zombies; ghosts do not truly frighten us; we have been weaned on the modern day horror flick, and in the process have become demanding consumers of The Truly Scary. So these creatures of the night are exactly the opposite—simply signs of glee, of socially sanctioned drinking, of the possibility of being naughty.

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What is actually scary is the ordinary stuff of life that hits at your deepest, darkest phobia. Freud actually gave this a name: unheimlich—that feeling of being at home, but not at home. This term is often translated as “the uncanny,” but I like this idea of being at home and not at home better, because it catches the essence of a certain kind of fear that we all experience. The fear of the ordinary is a common part of the human experience.

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So in this installment, I want to suggest an exercise that focuses on fear. This will help you develop your character (your deepest, darkest fear tells a lot about you). This will also help you develop plot (it is usually your character’s fear that will help move the story’s conflict). But the kind of fear I want you to work with is actually a little tricky.  So I’ll do this by giving you two examples of the kind of uncanny fear I am talking about—first, by using an example of one of my acquaintances; second, by making it more personal and using an example in my own life.

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I just ran into an acquaintance who has a phobia of toxins—invisible pathogens that are in everything. So she steadfastly avoids all plastics. Anything printed on a laser printer—letters, receipts, handbills—she will not touch. This means that she cannot pay her bills. Because of this irrational fear, she has developed OCD, constantly washing her hands. She wishes she could pay her bills, but she fears the toxins more: they are everywhere, invisible eels that float through the air and threaten to destroy her. For her, a letter in the mail is the sign of the corruption of society and the trap it has laid for its victims. She recently got a new apartment—to get out of this world of fear—but she finds herself irrevocably stuck. There are so many toxins in this world that she cannot even begin the overwhelming task of moving into the apartment, so she has been paying, for the last year, rent for an empty box.

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Today, I walked out of the gym, and suddenly realized that during the hour I was toning my body, a large festival had built up around me—a once-a-year event called The Cruz’n for Roses Hot Rod & Classic Car Show. It’s actually a pretty big event that the City of South Pasadena puts on to raise money for its float in the Tournament of Roses Parade. And it’s real old-timey with the old-timey downtown filled with impeccably finished cars, boosters, police officers, boy scouts, and folks dressed up like rockabillies and greasers. But this actually reminded me of one of my biggest panic attacks when I first started teaching Creative Writing in Iowa.

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I had just walked out of a breakfast where I had felt I was getting such poor service that I was sure the waitress was a racist. In the time that I had walked into the diner, a car show had suddenly popped up in the quaint downtown. To suddenly be confronted with an old-timey event called, of all things, “Happy Days,” filled me with dread. I did the math: the nostalgia for simpler times suddenly meant that I would live in a world of profound segregation. And everybody in that town—a town that loved its oldtiminess—was secretly a racist that pined for the 1950’s, a time when colored people knew their place.

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Of course, these fears—the kind I have been describing–are irrational. And as it turned out, my waitress wasn’t really a racist at all; she was just slow; and I was a newbie from the Big City where everything moves fast. Moreover, most likely people just liked old cars and were not secretly members of the KKK. But the fear that resides in the ordinary is a powerful thing. It grips you. It fills you with its toxins. It paralyzes you. It makes you feel as if you can’t hardly stand to breathe.

So here is your exercise: think of a fear that your main character has, and make it reside in the most ordinary object—a teacup, a pebble, a ring, a hair in the shower. Then, write a vignette where those fears reach out and grab the main character, refusing to be ignored, refusing to live in the margin. If you write a vignette like this, you are well on your way to getting a plot and you might just leave the exercise with a few supporting characters you never knew you needed.

Five Rules for Finding Your Community of Writers

I’m going to give some advice about building a writing community, which is one of the sure ways to build a writing practice.  But first, I will start with an anecdote that illustrates the rewards of surrounding yourself with a curio cabinet of fellow writers.  If you have no patience for anecdotes, just skip to the end and you will find a list of ways to wheedle yourself into the good graces of your peers.  Of course, if you have no patience for anecdotes, you are in all likelihood neither a reader, nor a writer.

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So recently, I had the opportunity to see another writer—Ed Lin—who came to Los Angeles to promote his book, Ghost Month. And sure enough, he was a ham who stole the show. This was to be expected. But what was more curious was that there were a lot of other writers, too, who came to support him. And these writers formed a community in and of themselves.

Right before the reading, I met Steph Cha who writes Los Angeles noir fiction. She is the author of Follow Her Home and Beware Beware, both novels that I would kill to have written.

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I also met Yumi Sakagawa—a graphic novelist who does these awesome cartoons, and who was recently nominated for some big prestigious award. She looks as quirky as her cartoons.

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The two were introduced to me by the poet Nicky Schildkraut, whose poems are published by the same press that first got Ed Lin his start. And so even before the reading, I found myself at the reading, watching my fellow writers slurping down a bowl of slippery wet noodles at a ramen joint. (I totally would have joined them, but had gone on a low sodium diet).

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Writers want desparately to be alone—an island unto themselves—but they also know this fact, a thorn on the stigmata of their existence: they want desperately to be with other people, to feel a connection, even if that connection arrives from desperation.

This is not what I imagined all my life about writers. I had a romantic vision of them—one composed of corrugated cardboard, flat and one-dimensional. I imagined that these rare creatures were hermit crabs—adrift in a world not unlike the subterranean depths described by Paul Auster, a world in which the writer emerges from his dark little New York apartment and realizes that he is such a misfit that he could very well be mistaken for a homeless person.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I learned this first when I started teaching Creative Writing at Grinnell College and running Writers At Grinnell. Suddenly, I realized that writers don’t live in a vacuum but, rather, are incredibly social creatures. Writers At Grinnell brought many famous scribblers to campus—Adrienne Rich, Ana Castillo, John Edgar Wideman, Lan Samantha Chang—and that meant I spent my time boozing and schmoozing: before the reading came dinner; after the reading, drinks; then perhaps an impromptu pizza-making session at my house; and stories followed by toasts.

Some were desparate for an ear into which they could pour conversation. Some were criss-crossing the country on manic book tours. All were generous of spirit, ready to take you into their intellectual embrace, and show you the secrets hidden under their cloak. I always gave my students extra credit to show up. I couldn’t stand to see these writers reading to an empty room. And, yes, I was the first and last person at any reading—the guy who was ready to pay for the first round and tell them how god-damn-fucking-brilliant-they-were.

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So here’s my advice, if you want to find a writing community that will help you jumpstart your own writing practice.

1)  Attend a reading.  Make sure it’s a reading for a moderately well-known writer who works in a genre that you will aspire to.

2) Buy a book, and get it signed.  Writers love to feel appreciated, even if they get almost none of the money that comes from the purchase of the book.  When you get to the front of the line, ask questions.  Better yet, tell them that you’d love to have them come do an event for your church, book club, community center.  They will become your new best friend.

3)  Stay Late.  Mill about.  Wait until there is a cluster of folks who seem to be of the event but, also, apart from it.  Those are the friends, lovers, colleagues who are waiting to whisk the writer off to an evening of fun and excitement.

4)  Talk to People.  Talk to the friends of the writer. Talk to the introducer.  Talk to the bookstore manager.  It goes a long way.

5)  Get on a Mailing List.   Then, go to the next event and complete the process, again.  And again.  And again.  You need to do this until you become a fixture.  You need to become a recognizable face that people will wave to.  Stick to a genre; If your genre is Science Fiction, try to make it to as many of these readings as possible!

Ed Lin

This weekend I decided to read through all four of Ed Lin’s books for two reasons:  he is coming out with a new book–Ghost Month–and he is coming to LA for a reading that I will be attending.  The reading will also feature my good friend, Nicky Schildkraut, who is an all-around amazing poet with a real legitimate book.

For those of you who don’t know, Ed Lin is widely considered one of the best Asian American Detective Fiction writers.  He’s been on my list for a long time.  In fact, somehow we became accidental Facebook Friends…even though we don’t know each other.  So, every time I’m on Facebook, I see his mug and feel guilty about not reading his books.

Ed Lin

I’m finishing the third one—Snakes Can’t Run–right now…and it’s totally killer… so much so, that I knew I had to put my book down and write something up.   Lin is totally awesome.  For me, the first book, Waylaid, is the best—a coming of age story that follows an extremely horny young boy, exploited by his Taiwanese parents who own an hourly rate motel on the Jersey shore.  Like all young boys, he’s obsessed with losing his virginity and obsessed with porn…which he finds all over the place in the motel rooms he cleans.  You can tell a book like this is good when you want to teach it…and then you realize it’s a little too dirty to teach.  Awesome.

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The second book—This is a Bust–is super-cool.  I love the title, which echoes the noir lingo of detective speech (you’re under arrest) and, also, street slang (this sucks).   It’s Lin’s move into the mystery genre and we follow Robert, an alcoholic beat cop—the only Chinese officer in Chinatown—who is used by the department as a tool of PR.  His work situation is kind of messed up; he’s the officer who gets paraded around like a show pony at the banquets—the token—to placate the masses.  And this only exacerbates an alcoholism that is linked to his stint in Vietnam where he killed a young boy.  Oh yeah, his father is an illegal immigrant—paper son, gambler, life-long waiter—who commits suicide.  Robert’s got a lot of issues.

I’m finding the third book a bit of a chore.  But I’m learning a lot from it.   I still love this book but there are three things that are problematic:

1)    Exposition:  the connection to the last book takes a hundred pages, as we get all the background on Robert.  This is undoubtedly necessary but often we get the same descriptions (the midget’s hair is licorice) but kind of done faster, so they lose the power of pacing.  I just wish it was shorter.

2)    Too Much History:  there’s a reason why all of his mysteries won Asian American literary awards.  There’s tons of history.  It’s like taking an Asian American Studies 101 class.  This is awesome in the first mystery because it’s well-integrated.  But the third book has even more history and sometimes the characters start talking to each other and citing laws like the Magnuson Act or the War Bride Act of 1943. 

3)    Not Enough Action:  I like action.  Tons of murders.  Gore.  Chases.  There’s little of that in an Ed Lin novel.  My wife is my ultimate guide for mystery reading.  She reads mysteries on the tread mill.  If there’s no action, if she can’t turn the pages quickly, if she isn’t filled with adrenaline, she will stop reading.  She’s merciless but also has a pretty awesome ass.

So, this is my takeaway from reading three books:  Ed Lin is a funny writer who is really great at painting a realistic portrait of Chinatown that is not too sensationalized.  You’ll get a lot of history in his books at the expense of plot.  But I’m a total fan.  I’ll be at the reading to pick up the new book and I’ll give you a run-down on my impressions!

 

Writing Exercise: Public Transportation

I recently went on a traveling jag that took me to several parts of this patchwork nation—Hawaii, Texas, Iowa—and this is why I have been a bit lackadaisical with the blog:  too much time on the road, too much jet lag.  Each time I landed in a new place, I found that I was a different person, that I assumed a new role.  It was strange—like being superman who enters not a phone booth but a plane—emerging as an entirely different person.

1940s-PhoneBooth

Part of this came from the fact that there were new people suddenly all around me.

At the Dallas airport, I met an eighty year old, a career salesman now happily retired, who was returning from his Caribbean cruise.  He was still wearing his tropical shirt and panama hat.  His face was pink, peeling from the exposure to constant sunlight.

used car dealer

Like all seniors, he had risen at the crack of dawn, getting to the Florida airport so early that the staff let him get on an earlier flight, which made him land now, with much time to spare, at his transfer point–Dallas.   Now he had a half day to spend while waiting for his connection and did not relish it.  This was a vast desert for a man whose occupation made him crave interaction, whose life had primed him for talking.

dfw-american-airlines-terminal-d-int-1_27238

“Are you going to Des Moines?” I asked.  And in minutes my attempt to read a John Grisham novel was put on ice:  he switched seats and was on me.

“No, I’m going to San Diego.  That’s where I live now.”  And thus began his life story.  By the time we parted company, I felt I knew too much about his sons, both in their sixties—one married with children; the other a confirmed bachelor, teaching community college.  I learned about his life as a used car salesman and the intricacies of making a deal.  “You can’t lie to people.  They’ll find you out and never trust you again.”  Used car sales, it turns out, makes a lot of money back in his day, but now the car business has been gutted.  “I put two boys through college with that money and once a month the owners took me and the wife to the nicest hotel in New Jersey and we could order whatever we want.”  There was a pride in his voice.  It was the pride of someone who bought IBM when it was still a small fish in a very big pond.  “Now these guys in the car racket, I feel sorry for them.  The commission is nothing.”

So here is the Creative Writing Exercise:  Put your character into a space of public transportation—an in-between space—where he can collide with all sorts of other folks:  salesman, data analysts, prostitutes, conventioneers, celebrities, students, confidence men, terrorists.  From there, he can pivot to a number of possibilities, a few of which I will name but many more of which I will leave you to figure out:  he can lie about his identity, he can suddenly develop a friendship or animosity, he can be caught in an intrigue, he can be forced to perform a task, he can catch somebody in a deception, he can have a confrontation.

bibi-casablanca

These are just some of the possibilities that come from a space of transit.  Transit yokes character to plot, the cart to its horse—pushing onward, pushing upward.  If your character is just lying around in bed or too lazy to get out of the house, public transit will force him to do some work for a change…so this exercise is a good remedy for the plot that has stalled.  Remember that many great novels and films both begin and end in zones of public transportation—Casablanca, to name but one—so this simple fix-all is not just an exercise that goes nowhere but a legitimate entryway to producing great art that goes somewhere.

Another Vignette Inspired by Audrey Chin: My Name is Snow

Recently, I published a review of Audrey Chin’s book As the Heart Bones Break–a novel that I found both intriguing and instructive.  In this review, I mentioned that I actually put the book down at points and found myself writing little vignettes–responses to her work– compelled by the rich subject matter.  What I ended up with was stuff that, in another liftetime, I swore to never take on–stuff that previously turned me off–but which I decided to take a stab at.  I’m glad I did it.  And I’m indebted to Audrey for opening a new world for me.  For this piece, I used the second person narration (the “you”) that Audrey made her centerpiece device. Give me your feedback.  Tell me what you think!

 

My name is Snow, but until I was thirteen, I never saw it, never touched it, never tasted it.  All I knew was that it was white, cold, distant—and at nights when I dreamed of this thing, this thing called “snow,” I envisioned a ghostly bride in a translucent veil, walking across a beach, trailing a train on sands that hold no footprints.  If you cup snow in your hand, it disappears.  It becomes something else.  It is no longer snow.

snow

An American soldier once said that in his native Alaska, the indigenous people have a thousand words for snow—all different kinds of snow.  I never met this man but I read it in a newspaper clipping from a now defunct newspaper.  And then I lost the newspaper but I kept the words with me.  The words of the newspaper were in Vietnamese but I thought he was speaking to me, only to me, in English.  There are words for slushy snow, icy snow, pure virgin snow.

I had a friend in school who shared my name.  It was a popular name and we had a choice of whether to become friends or enemies.  We became friends.  I told her of my American from Alaska.

“Is he tall?”

“He is tall, as pine trees.”

“Will you remember me when you go to him.”

“I will always remember you,” I told her.  She knew that she would never be able to go to the United States.  But me:  my papers were already in.  And it was just a matter of time.

If I close my eyes, I still think of this man—freckled shoulders, chapped thin lips—and in my dreams, he gives me an eskimo kiss, nose-to-nose, chaste.  I must have described him to my friend, Snow, so many times.

eskimo kiss

And then he instructs me about the properties of snow.  My, how he longed for his snow.  Snow is beautiful in Alaska and when it interacts with the light that bounces through the atmosphere, it forms rainbows, it forms fantastic illusions.  You have never lived until you see the Northern Lights.

It would be a long time before that would happen.  And I guess I never lived.  I cannot say that much of my life counts for much—much living, that is.  I am nothing in this country.  And I was not much of anything in the one I left behind.

northern lights

And then I saw snow for the first time at the age of thirteen when I found myself in Minnesota in the coldest winter.  The snow came down like ashes from a great fire.  It floated.  And then it came down like a curtain of finest lace.  “Don’t go out there,” said my sponsor.  “You’ll catch your death.”  But I was already out the door.

I am lying on the ground.  I am sticking out my tongue.  I am catching it in my tongue, and my tongue can taste its becoming and unbecoming, the unwinding of that spool of thread—first snow, then water—like a trick knot in a magician’s hand.  I am making a snow angel.  I do not know it.

I am making a snow angel.

snow angel