Posts in Reading & Writing
Jane Smiley, Narrative, and a Healthy Dose of Self-Doubt

For a few months now, I’ve been picking up and putting down Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel. Yesterday, after ruminating on this list of what I read in 2018, and after filling many, many journal pages about this week’s revision goals, I returned again to Thirteen Ways and clicked with something Smiley says in the second chapter, in response to E. M. Forster’s disdain for readers who read for suspense, for “what he seems to think is the lowest common denominator of art”—i.e., “what happened then?”

Narratives are as common as prose; they are the way humans have chosen to pack together events and emotions, happenings in the world and how they make us feel…. Because narrative is so natural, efficient, and ubiquitous, it, like prose, can be used in myriad ways. The time sequence can be abused however the writer wishes to abuse it, because the human tendency, at least in the West, to think in sequence is so strong that the reader will keep track of beginning, middle, and end on her own…. and because the novel requires narrative for organization, it will also be a more or less popular form. It…is, therefore, depending on one’s political and social views, either perennially compromised or perennially inclusive.

It’s that last line that got me. I texted it to a handful of friends who, like me and with me, have been struggling with and debating the merits of so-called “experimental” fiction. A few of us had been lured to the University of Utah’s Ph.D. program by the idea that, finally, we could write how we write and our peers would know how to read our work on its own terms, analyze it, and workshop it productively. A consequence, for instance, of being a verse novelist in a poetry M.F.A. program—which I loved, to be clear—was that I only ever got to workshop up to a few pages/poems at a time. Imagine being in a fiction workshop and needing to pick 1-3 pages from your story or novel to bring in. This is not to say, though, that my lines didn’t get sharper as a result of those same poetry workshops. So anyway, when I was accepted and came to Utah to visit and sat in on a workshop, I knew I’d finally be able to feel like a writer at home in the world among like-beaked friends. A weirdo among weirdos. But then I got here and dove into a comprehensive education on literary history that helped me to bigger-picture contextualize all those seemingly one-off topical literature courses I’d taken in my B.A. and M.A., and by the time my comprehensive exams were behind me I confirmed for myself my long-building suspicion that my definition of “experimental” had been limited, that, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the Classics taught earned the honorific for being, in their own historical moments, wonderfully experimental in their own ways, breaking from traditions and conventions of their day. And some of us, I won’t name names, fell in love with some of those so-called “conventional” novels. Questioned our own writing and began to think less of our own “experiments,” realizing how derivative and egotistical we could seem in a single swoop. As I said above, we are struggling—all still committed to being weirdos, but far less assuredly. And so I texted:

I’m reading Jane Smiley and she argues that popular novels don’t insist on a hierarchy of readership, don’t exclude any kinds of readers (people who just want a good story, etc) and depending on who you are, you either view such novels as “perennially compromised or perennially inclusive.” I like that.

And the responses I got were: “Same!” and “Me too!” and “I like it a lot,” etc.

As someone with six-figure student-loan debt, who is just a few months shy of holding four college degrees (which feel as if they are the minimum qualifications to be eligible for employment), I am at this moment living on a fellowship that I’m grateful for even though it’s not enough to cover basic living expenses and daily it seems I’m watching my credit card debt rise while my credit score falls. This fellowship relieves me from teaching, which really means it just frees me up to take on more side hustles (one of which is teaching), all of which are necessary for future employment and over half of which are non-paying—coaching veterans, reading scholarship applications and serving on other campus committees, reading for and judging literary contests, blurbing books, reviewing books, selecting and editing and publishing others’ books while trying to write my own, traveling to other cities for readings and talks and conferences, assistant editing for a peer-reviewed academic journal, tutoring in the community, teaching in the community, and even flipping clothes online (which is the most lucrative of the above but can be the most time-consuming). It’s not the service I mind. I want to do it. But I’m also not rolling my eyes when I read about “millennial burnout” or nonwhite burnout or “dead black batteries,” or another young writer out there who says she just wanted to try to write the kind of novel that could lead to a living writing books—the kind of novel that sells. Which, now that I’ve found Smiley’s language for it, seems slightly less shameful. The kind of novel that sells because it does not willfully exclude.

James Patterson and Alan Watt on Outlines

Yesterday, I called Rachel and at some point we started talking about Ottessa Moshfegh, which led me to search online for the name of the how-to book she used to start writing Eileen, and I found it: Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel. Impulsively, I bought it and The 90-Day Rewrite. Today, I’m scrolling through Rewrite and thinking about a few of the suggested questions to keep in mind during this first week of revision: (1) What do I want to express through this story? (2) What is the most effective order of events to tell it? (3) Do I have a worthy antagonist? There are eleven questions total, but I’m happily stuck on these three. By the end of the week, I really do hope to have answers.

In related news, for Christmas I got a subscription to MasterClass, and I started with James Patterson’s. Actually, I started with Margaret Atwood’s, but skipped to Patterson. One thing I appreciate is that he’s transparent about not being here to make great works of literature. Instead, he’s gonna tell you about his own process—a streamlined, efficient one—for writing books that sell.

At this point, perhaps one of the largest-order challenges I could pose to myself is to write a plot-driven novel. So, because I’m open to giving it a try, I’m ready to absorb all the advice that’s out there. Like Moshfegh, I consider it an experiment and also just want “to write a novel to start a career where I could live off publishing books.” Except in my case, I just want to supplement my salary to be able to pay off Lit Pub and student loan debt in time to maybe retire if I live to be 80.

Anyway, Patterson makes writing commercial fiction seem doable. And he says to begin with an outline. Watt’s 90 Day Rewrite also says to begin with an outline. For Patterson, the real work happens in the outline—mapping the entire trajectory of the story, layering onto it the protag’s emotional journey, and writing each chapter toward what you want your reader to feel, which he says is a cat-and-mouse game readers want to play. For Watt, now that we know what we’re working with, we can reorder what we have and map these moving parts onto a traditional three-act outline. Day One’s exercise is to do this, to fill in the blanks on the outline template he provides. So. Here goes nothing. Day One.

Books I Read in 2018
  1. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

  2. Sweet Tomb by Trinie Dalton

  3. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

  4. Women and Power by Mary Beard

  5. A History of the Wife by Margaret Yalom

  6. The Faithful Servants by Margery Sharp

  7. Blud by Rachel McKibbens

  8. Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

  9. Fables by Sarah Goldstein

  10. Whereas by Layli Long Soldier

  11. When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen

  12. Bestiary by Donika Kelly

  13. A Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham

  14. Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

  15. Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing

  16. Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey

  17. Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

  18. Feathers, Claws, Fins, and Paws by Jennifer Schacker

  19. Strike A Prose: Memoirs of a Lit Diva Extraordinaire by Tim Jones-Yelvington

  20. Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sanchez

  21. Look by Solmaz Sharif

  22. Essential Shakespeare Handbook by Leslie Dunton-Downer

  23. Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland

  24. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay

  25. There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyonce by Morgan Parker

  26. The Future by Neil Hilborn

  27. MACNOLIA by A. Van Jordan

  28. Nothing Is Okay by Rachel Wiley

  29. Autopsy by Donte Collins

  30. Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora

  31. Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair

  32. Someone’s Dead Already by Tongo Eisen-Martin

  33. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar

  34. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Abdurraquib

  35. Wild Is the Wind by Carl Phillips

  36. Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

  37. Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes

  38. Betwixt-and-Between by Jenny Boully

  39. Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen

  40. No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay

  41. Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

  42. Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson

  43. The Professor Is In by Karen Kelsky

  44. The White Book by Han Kang

  45. Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith

  46. Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process edited by Joe Fassler

  47. Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy

  48. The Zurau Aphorisms by Franz Kafka

  49. Contemplation by Franz Kafka

  50. American Innovations by Rivka Galchen

  51. Margaret Atwood by Margaret Atwood

  52. Snow White by Donald Barthelme

  53. Hard Child by Natalie Shapero

  54. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz

  55. How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis

  56. A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother by Anna Prushinskaya

  57. A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk

  58. Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

  59. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

  60. The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

  61. Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

  62. Break Any Woman Down by Dana Johnson

  63. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

  64. How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs

  65. Why Art? by Eleanor Davis

  66. Here by Richard McGuire

  67. We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby

  68. Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel

  69. The Miniature Wife by Manuel Gonzales

  70. Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose

  71. Drifting House by Krys Lee

  72. We the Animals by Justin Torres

  73. The Boat by Nam Le

  74. Man V. Nature by Diane Cook

  75. One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

  76. Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine by Kevin Wilson

  77. Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith

  78. No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol

  79. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

  80. Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill

  81. If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar

  82. Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade

  83. Meeting with My Brother by Yi Mun-Yol

  84. Mundo Cruel by Luis Negron

  85. All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones

  86. The Case of Peter Pan: Or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction by Jacqueline Rose

  87. How Winter Began by Joy Castro