Salvatore Pane

Category: Writers

Writing Routines

One question I was surprised so many students had for me this semester was how exactly I begin writing in the morning. We talked a bit about getting on a writing routine during workshops, but I knew how hard this was to do, especially in college when there’s so much going around you at any given minute and you’re so busy anyway. I didn’t have many good answers for them. “I don’t know,” I’d say. “I get up, and then I write. That’s pretty much it.” And I know that’s a luxury afforded to me by working at a university, but I don’t think that’s what they were getting after. I think they wanted a routine.

I’ve been thinking about this more and more now that the semester’s over, and I remembered being consumed by similar questions when I was an undergrad. I thought if I could just nail the right writing routine all my prose would shine. Andre Dubus III visited Susquehanna one time and said he read a poem, or a few pages from a short story, before he sat down to write. So I tried that for awhile back in college. I’d bring Among the Missing or the Collected Stories of Richard Yates or any of the Carver collections and read a few pages, make some notes, and then get started. But that never worked for me because I’d inevitably end up reading the rest of the story.

These days, my routine is far simpler. I wake up, I make coffee, I check e-mail, I drink coffee. When I’m a third of the way through the first cup, I begin. But actually, now that I think about it, there are two videos I watch before I really get going. It’s kind of interesting to me that I would never read a poem or short story now like Dubus does (I find it’s too distracting and influences my own prose too much), but I have no problem watching YouTube. I wonder if other writers do this, especially ones around my own age.

This video. THIS VIDEO! If I could get all my writing to feel like this I’d be set for life. It has this eerie quality. A sadness to it. From the music. But also there’s this nostalgia, the hyper cliches of American children. Then the robot at the end gives it this bizarre humor followed by the apocalyptic mushroom cloud. And of course, the Japanese announcer. So you can’t really get at the true meaning, you can only scratch at it. No crying until the end. Guaranteed masterpiece. I love this video. I love everything about this video. It mostly inspired this story I wrote up at Dark Sky.  And I still watch this video before I write, still remind myself that this is the tone I’m going after: the tone of a 1980’s Japanese Nintendo commercial. I can live with that.

Then there’s this:

This one immediately brings me back to childhood, to endless potential, to singing this song in the shower. Watching it now, there’s such an amazing mix of iconic American imagery–the constitution, Mount Rushmore, Lincoln, the Twin Towers–juxtaposed with utter nonsense–Hulk Hogan doing air guitar in front of the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes I watch this one, because if I can just hit that perfect note of sincerity mixed with an oh I was just kidding please don’t take this seriously attitude, I’d be set. Plus, the song just pumps me the fuck up.

So to sum up, Earthbound Zero and Hulk motherfucking Hogan. You’re welcome, reality.

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I INTERVIEWED ONE OF MY STUDENTS AND IT WAS AWESOME

BEHOLD!

One of my Advanced Fiction students, Michael Rosenthal, and I talk Waiting for Godot: Atari Edition.

Here’s Everything I’ve Recommended to Fiction Students So Far This Semester

So, I’m running this advanced fiction workshop and it’s all like woah. One thing I like to do in a classroom setting like this is meet individually with every student after they workshop. I remember very vividly going to see Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke in undergrad and how reassuring and empowering it was to know that writers I really respected were taking my work seriously (not that the students necessarily respect me in the same way I outright worshiped Tom and Gary). In my conferences, I always bring a marked up copy of their manuscript along with a one page note with strengths and prescription. But there’s also, usually, a note at the end with some writers and journals to read, and maybe even a few places to begin submitting to. At AWP, Amy Hempel said one of her favorite parts of running a workshop is putting an emerging writer with a published one, giving a young writer the book they absolutely have to read right this second. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job too, and I’ve kept track of what I’ve recommended so far.

Keep in mind, we read a lot of stuff in class. So I rarely touch on writers we’ve discussed ad nauseam like George Saunders or Lorrie Moore or Gary Shteyngart or Amelia Gray. Also, it’s only halfway through the semester. So there’s still a lot of time. Basically, what I’m trying to convey here, is this isn’t a list of the best writers for undergrads. It’s merely the group that this particular class needed to read at this particular moment. When there’s something lacking in student work that is absolutely nailed in a story collection or novel, students need to see that–in fact, there are a few writers on here I respect without actually enjoying their work. So, without further hand-wringing, here’s what I’ve recommended so far this semester.

Writers

Andre Dubus (5)
Ray Carver (4)
Wells Tower (4)
Alissa Nutting (2)
xTx (2)
Bobbie Ann Mason (2)
Emma Straub (2)
Sean Ennis (2)
Stewart O’ Nan (2)
Adam Levin
Michael Chabon
Trey Ellis
Tobias Wolff
Matt Bell
Don Lee
Ethel Rohan
Tina May Hall
Jayne Anne Phillips
Bret Easton Ellis
Jay McInerney
Douglas Coupland
Martin Amis
Cormac McCarthy
Joshua Ferris
A.M. Homes
Rick Moody
Jonathan Lethem
James Alan McPherson
Joyce Carol Oates
Deborah Eisenberg
Cathy Day
Richard Russo
Blake Butler
Miranda July
Aleksandar Hemon
Shane Jones
Jeanette Winterson
Philip Roth
Deborah Willis
ZZ Packer

Journals

The Fourth River (4)
Flatmancrooked (4)
FRiGG (2)
PANK (2)
Bluestem Magazine (2)
Weave (2)
The Emprise Review (2)
Metazen (2)
Hot Metal Bridge
Annalemma
Barrelhouse
Dark Sky
Fairy Tale Review
The Good Men Project
Wigleaf
elimae

Comics

Fables

The Novel The Novel The Novel

I’ve been digging around through my writing notebooks recently and came upon something (relatively) interesting. A timestamp. March 11, 2009. It’s the day I started writing my novel. It was two years ago today.

I’m not Amy Whipple or Katie Coyle. They’re always running around bursting forth with their feelings. They have feelings on all sorts of subjects, and they are always insightful and intelligent. I usually try and bury most of my feelings and instead think about Kanye West or the New York Knicks or Spider-Man. But really, I think this novel has been kind of the outlet for all my thoughts and ideas and (ugh, I guess) feelings about the world and my existence for the past two years.

Cathy Day used to tell us in writing workshops that most writers are either sprinters or long distance runners (short story writers or novelists), and I’ve always felt more at home in the second camp (the only way I can even write flash fiction is to imagine a novel existing in my head and writing the four or five most interesting scenes). And it’s been so, so comforting over the last two years to be able to return to this novel, this world, these characters, over and over again. No matter what changed in my life (MFA graduation, relationship hyjinx, first year teaching anxiety, family members battling cancer, friends leaving my life, friends entering my life) the novel was always there, fluid, waiting for me to come home. Over time, the characters within started to seem more real to me than actual people I know in my everyday life. I can see these people more clearly, understand them more. I feel guilty when they have to go through pain.

For two years so much of my thinking has been wrapped up in this novel. I wrote a lot of stories during the second year while taking breaks from editing, but always in the back of my mind was the novel, the novel, the novel, even though when people asked me what it was about I would stutter and stare and cough (It’s about Facebook. No, it’s about this guy. And it’s set against the backdrop of the Obama campaign. But, it’s not really about that. It’s about digital stuff? It’s a love story? Kanye shows up? It’s a novel. I don’t know what I’m going to call it. What do you think I should call it?).

There’s just something reassuring to have that world waiting for me at the desk each and every day. And I’ve never been good at ending anything in my life, but I know this relationship’s almost over, that I have changed and the novel has changed and I’m not the same person I was when I started writing it and that’s ok and for the best and now it’s time to put this thing away even though it will always be there to be revisited. But I’m so drawn to that feeling, of world building, of having that other existence and set of people you can slip inside of that I honestly can’t imagine not having some version of this. And already, I’ve bought a new notebook, have already begun scribbling new notes, new characters, new outlines, random items that will hopefully add up to something more. And I guess that’s all I can really do.

Mostly, I’m aware of how lucky I’ve been and continue to be. My agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler, is the best. She’s so generous and smart with manuscripts and she also represents Emma Straub who I love, love, love. I turned in my revision of the book this week and will probably do another light one before all is said and done. But I think the major, all-consuming work is done. It’s done. It’s done. And it really hasn’t hit me yet, but the feelings I’m most cognizant of are relief and gratitude.

That I wrote it. That I was allowed to write.

Look What My Friend Did

Hey. So my good buddy Robert Yune just did an interview with THE KENYON REVIEW! Check it out, then buy his issue.

It’s a Literary Podcast, Bitch!

Dark Sky Magazine just posted a new lit podcast recorded by myself, Robert Yune, Steve Gillies and Chris Lee. We talk Robert’s new story “Dear Katie” from The Wascana Review, Amber Sparks’ piece in DSM, and Nick Spencer and Chris Ward’s awesome comic Infinite Vacation.

Plus, there’s a running commentary for Weekend at Bernie’s II and an endurance run through Bit.Trip Runner for Wii.

Listen To Me Get Drunk And Yell

Have you ever wanted to hear me get drunk and talk LITERATURE? No? How about get drunk and talk LITERATURE with my pals and fellow writers David James Keaton, Steve Gillies and Christopher Lee? Check out our first podcast for Dark Sky Magazine where we cover Dave’s new novella “Zee Bee and Bee (A.K.A. Propeller Hats For the Dead)”. I also get really drunk and accost Dave for stealing every good idea I’ve ever had. It also works as a running commentary for the film Night of the Living Dead.

An Alternate 1985: The Neverending Quest for More Time

I now realize how much of a gift my time in grad school was. I had so much time to write, so much time to read. And I’d like to think I made the most out of my three years, but who can be sure, right? By the final year, I was writing every single day and had managed that feat on and off for much of the first two years, but that certainly isn’t the case now.

So many of us writers are led to academia after graduation, but holy fuck is it a time drain. I’m teaching a 3/3 load and, Christ, am I grateful for that opportunity, but that coupled with a kind of hyper mega doom cold has drained my writing time down to nil. I’m pretty much healthy now and have been writing maybe 4 or 5 days a week which depresses me greatly. I’ve had to go back to what I did my first year of grad school and come up with a writing schedule. During the end of my time in the Pitt MFA program, I simply made the time, would wake up at 8 or 9 and write for 3 hours. Now that I teach at 9am, I no longer have that luxury.

Another problem with the writing every day rule: I’m no longer working on a novel. I found it easiest to write every day when I had a consistent world and voice to return to. It was so easy for me to fall into the voice I used for The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist, because it was so close to my own natural writing voice. Within a few weeks of writing I fully understood that world, and what a comfort it was to inhabit it for a few hours every day for well over a year. The act of writing itself was a joy. It almost always is, but I felt a special kind of happiness working on that project.

With short stories, I just don’t have that level of comfort. You’re always coming up with new worlds, new characters, new voices. It’s such a drain. And I wish that I had the time to start a new novel now, but I really do believe you have to sit between these bigger projects and give yourself some time to replenish the well. I moved right from a very awful novel–the aforementioned ABORTION if you’ve read this blog for any length of time–into Digital Narcissist, because it took me 300 pages to find one interesting character and plot in that first book. I amputated that and started again. Otherwise, I would have probably waited.

I talk about this with my students a lot in workshop. As writers, some of us are sprinters and some of us are marathon runners. I don’t think my style or sensibilities are necessarily suited towards writing the short story in any long term sense. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever been writing a short story or novel and found yourself wishing you were writing the other form?

Richard Yates on the Supporting Cast of Amazing Spider-Man

“I’m only interested in stories that are about the crushing of the human heart.”

“Do you want to know something, Emily? I hate your body. Oh, I suppose I love it too, at least God knows I try to, but at the same time I hate it. I hate what it put me through last year–what it’s putting me through now. I hate your sensitive little tits. I hate your ass and your hips, the way they move and turn; I hate your thighs, the way they open up. I hate your waist and your belly and your great hairy mound and your clitoris and your whole slippery cunt. I’ll repeat this exact statement to Dr. Goldman tomorrow and he’ll ask me why I said it, and I’ll say ‘Because I had to say it.’ So do you see, Emily? Do you understand? I’m saying this because I have to say it. I hate your body… I hate your body.”

“Fuck art.”

“It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity.”

“Hard work, is the best medicine yet devised for all the ills of man- and of woman.”

“I don’t breathe too well. So all the oxygen doesn’t get to my brain. I used to be able to write seven or eight hours a day. Now I can manage one or two, at best.”

“And where are the windows? Where does the light come in? Bernie, old friend, forgive me, but I haven’t got the answer to that one. I’m not even sure if there are any windows in this particular house. Maybe the light is just going to have to come in as best it can, through whatever chinks and cracks have been left in the builder’s faulty craftsmanship, and if that’s the case you can be sure that nobody feels worse about it than I do. God knows there certainly ought to be a window around here somewhere, for all of us.”

“He felt sympathy for the assassin and he felt he understood the motives. Kennedy had been too rich, too young, too handsome and too lucky; he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse. His murderer had spoken for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance, and John Wilder knew those forces all too well. He almost felt he’d pulled the trigger himself, and he was grateful to be here, trembling and safe in his own kitchen, two thousand miles away.”

“I’ve tried and tried but I can’t stomach most of what’s being called ‘The Post-Realistic Fiction’ . . . I know it’s all very fashionable stuff and I know it provides an endless supply of witty little intellectual puzzles and puns and fun and games for graduate students to play with, but it’s emotionally empty. It isn’t felt.”

“‘ … Everybody’s essentially alone,’ she’d told him, and he was beginning to see a lot of truth in that. Besides: now that he was older, and now that he was home, it might not even matter how the story turned out in the end.”

Wolf Writers Talk Contra III: The Alien Wars

“The grisly parade of the spectre years trooped through his brain. Suddenly,
he saw that his life had been channelled by a series of accidents: a mad
Rebel singing of Armageddon, the sound of a bugle on the road, the
mule-hoofs of the army, the silly white face of an angel in a dusty shop, a slut’s pert wiggle of her hams as she passed by.”

-Thomas Wolfe

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

-Virginia Woolf

“In military flight training the idea here seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment–and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite–and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.”

-Tom Wolfe

“Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end. Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.”

-Tobias Wolff