Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Different Kind of Writing Block

Scott D. Parker

How often do you restart a novel you’ve set aside?

I am an obsessive saver of things when it comes to my writing. I’ve got paper and digital notes all over the place. Most of the time, I date them so that I can have a record of a novel’s progress. Perhaps it’s the historian in me who wants to catalog every step of a process.

I keep abandoned drafts as well, again, both in paper and digital. Sometimes, I return to these fragments and pick them up to see if I can use them. For the ones that get a second life, there’s generally two philosophies on new usage: edit what you wrote or write the entire thing from scratch.

It’s a safe assumption that however long the document has remained unused, you’ve become a better writer. There have been times in which I’ve returned to a piece, read it, and was shocked that my Younger Self thought it was good. Other times I’ve re-read something and nodded my head having been reminded I can string some words together in a nice manner.

I’ve been thinking about this most of this month as my first writing project in 2021 is to restart a novel I’ve set aside more than once. Back in 2013, I wrote the entire novel that summer. It was a bloated affair, but it was complete. In fact, it was the second manuscript I ever completed, but it needed work.

In the past few years, I picked it up and created a 2.0 version but it didn’t pan out either. I had an amalgamated 3.0 version consisting of about 23,000a words and that was what I started with on New Year’s Day 2021. I nipped and tucked, tweaked and expanded the story until I reached about the 19,000-word mark. That’s when things went off the rails.

What the heck had I written? Seriously, Scott, you call that good?

No, it wasn’t. It needed some serious work.

That work was not easy. I had the actual prose printed out in front of me. I had the revised story structure via notecards next to me as well. How to reconcile?

My 5am writing sessions are limited to about 60-70 minutes. I have a hard stop where I put aside the fiction writing in favor of getting ready for the day job. I also don’t return to the fiction until the next day’s 5am writing session.

This particular section tasked me for about four days. Originally, I tried to simply read and edit and add in new words in and around the old words, but that proved too slow. My 2021 brain and writing chops would start going off on tangents I didn’t expect.

That was when I realized the 2021 Writing Brain was taking over. And I let it.

In the end, I ended up rewriting most of the chapter from scratch. It is a much better chapter than before and I’m pretty jazzed about it.

This particular section was a hurdle for me. I kept banging my head on it and it wasn’t until I allowed the skill and experience I acquired in the years since I first wrote the original prose to take over that the hurdle was surpassed.

It was a wonderful relief.

Do you have experiences like this? Do you give way when your more experienced self intuitively knows what to do to fix and old piece you wrote?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Beau gets creepy


This week, Beau takes a look at CREEP from Jennifer Hillier.

Pulsing with the dark obsession of Radiohead’s song “Creep,” this taut thriller—Jennifer Hillier’s superb debut—rockets from its seductive opening to a heartpounding climax not easily forgotten.

If he can’t have her . . .

Dr. Sheila Tao is a professor of psychology. An expert in human behavior. And when she began an affair with sexy, charming graduate student Ethan Wolfe, she knew she was playing with fire. Consumed by lust when they were together, riddled with guilt when they weren’t, she knows the three-month fling with her teaching assistant has to end. After all, she’s finally engaged to a kind and loving investment banker who adores her, and she’s taking control of her life. But when she attempts to end the affair, Ethan Wolfe won’t let her walk away.

. . . no one else can.

Ethan has plans for Sheila, plans that involve posting a sex video that would surely get her fired and destroy her prestigious career. Plans to make her pay for rejecting him. And as she attempts to counter his every threatening move without her colleagues or her fiancé discovering her most intimate secrets, a shattering crime rocks Puget Sound State University: a female student, a star athlete, is found stabbed to death. Someone is raising the stakes of violence, sex, and blackmail . . . and before she knows it, Sheila is caught in a terrifying cat-and-mouse game with the lover she couldn’t resist—who is now the monster who won’t let her go.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Jerzy Kosinski's Steps

It is no exaggeration to say that I've been meaning to read Jerzy Kosinski Steps for decades. Somehow, though, I've never gotten around to it.  I read The Painted Bird (1965) many years ago and was suitably impressed, and I remember Kosinski well from the 70s and 80s.  During those years he was twice president of the American chapter of P.E.N, and his books were easy to find in bookstores.  How different those times were, when a writer like Kosinski appeared on The Tonight Show many times and later on Late Night with David Letterman, where, as I remember, he was quite amusing.  I loved the film version of his novel Being There (1979), which he did the screenplay for, and he provided a bracing, acerbic presence playing the Old Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev in Warren Beatty's Reds (1981).  

Then came what you might call the downfall.  There were the allegations of plagiarism in his work, the claims that editors more proficient than him in English had written or re-written substantial portions of his books. There was the charge that The Painted Bird was not autobiographical, which, at one point, he had suggested at least to the world at large.  Though he was acclaimed for The Painted Bird, which was his debut novel, and a National Book Award winner for Steps (1968), some in the literary world accused him of being a con man and literary fraudster.  In the mid to late eighties, physical infirmities set in, and depressed about these as well as the tarnishing of his reputation, Kosinski, in 1991, at his apartment in New York City, committed suicide. He took a large amount of booze and pills and tied a plastic bag over his head, and then died of suffocation.  His note: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual.  Call it Eternity."

That was all long ago now, and with the turmoil and controversy gone, things of the past, what's left are the actual books. Most people today who pick up a Kosinski novel would probably not know offhand about the charges once leveled at his work.  I've always felt that it doesn't matter one iota whether The Painted Bird is autobiographical or not; it's a highly controlled and disturbing look at one character's survival in Eastern Europe during World War II, and whether or not it happened precisely as written to Kosinski himself is immaterial. 

While Kozinski's later novels (he wrote nine in total) may not stand up as well now as his first few do, Steps has only grown in stature.  In its dark once upon a time somewhere in the world tone, it does have a timeless quality. And it got a boost years back when David Foster Wallace listed it in a Salon piece among his Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. novels > 1960.  In Wallace's words: Steps is "a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that's like nothing else anywhere ever.  Only Kafka's fragments get anywhere close to where Kosinski goes in this book..."

I'm about halfway through the novel and I find it riveting.  Wallace's description of how it is structured is accurate.  The prose is indeed spare and very precise, detached in describing a series of interrelated, dreamlike events.  The narrator (or series of narrators?) is an unnamed man in each instance, his stoicism in the face of whatever comes his way unsettling.  Power, manipulation, sexuality, human cruelty, shifting morality come under an unwavering microscopic.  I'm making my way through it slowly, savoring the tableaux, and it's a great reminder of how you can construct a novel without plot and character as they are defined in the usual sense.  If a novel has internal tension from scene to scene, a compelling vision, as Steps does, and it's as well written as this book is, I'm hooked. 

Before I end this, it's worth sharing a story about Kosinski's book, not unknown but still worth telling for those who may not know it.  Whether it's disheartening or not will depend on individual reaction, but there's no denying it's grimly funny:

In 1975, a writer named Chuck Ross set out to prove a theory he held about unknown authors and the big publishers.  He had written a mystery novel that had been rejected everywhere he sent it.  As an experiment, he sent excerpts of Steps (a 1968 National Book Award winner for fiction, don't forget) to four different publishers.  He presented the excerpts as if he had written them.  All four rejected the sample.  Two years later, he mailed the entire book, copied word for word but without a title attached to it, to ten publishers.  The publishers included Random House, which had originally published the book nine years earlier.  He also sent it to thirteen agents.  Every single one of the publishers and agents rejected the book, and none of them even recognized it as an award winner from a bestselling author.  Whether they were embarrassed or not when Ross revealed the fraud, I don't know, though I tend to doubt it.

I imagine that Kosinski (this is before the days he had to fight his own plagiarism allegations) chuckled.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

People I Wish I'd Known

By Claire Booth

This week, I happened upon another entry for my occasional feature People I Wish I’d Known. I love to read the obituaries, and every once in a while a person's personality or accomplishments come through so strongly that I wish I’d had the chance to meet them before they died. 

This time, it wasn’t an obit but a story about Hester Diamond’s dazzling success as an art collector and an upcoming auction of some of her pieces. I somehow missed her actual obituary when it ran a year ago. It, and this week’s article in the New York Times, detailed her entry into modern art collection in the 1950s with her husband Harold, a fourth-grade teacher.

This is important. They didn’t come from money. The paintings they purchased were cheap because the artists weren’t well known. They just bought what they fell in love with. They especially liked the work of two friends—Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.

Hester and Harold gradually became art dealers. Hester then rolled that into a career in interior design with art as a focal point, at a time when it wasn’t easy for a woman to do. But when her husband died in 1982, she stopped with the modern art and began to trade in that collection for works by Old Masters. Renaissance paintings and sculpture replaced the twentieth century pieces that had dominated her life for so long.

She married twice more, kept collecting, and learned Italian so she could give presentations on behalf of the Medici Archive Project, which she co-founded in order to create a digital index of the Tuscany rulers’ paper records.

“She didn’t ever want to be stagnant,” her son said in the article, “and she didn’t want these paintings to be a stagnant thing — ‘I got that 40 years ago and it’s just there.She wanted to be surrounded by things she really had passion for, and really loved.”

Now, a confession: I clicked on the article in the first place because the son was a name I did recognize. If you’re a Gen Xer like me, it’s impossible not to have heard of Mike D, one of the Beastie Boys. Turns out, and I’m ashamed not to have known this, his mom was the real bad ass in the family.