Salvatore Pane

Tag: Breece DJ Pancake

Tom Bailey and the Perfect Writing Pedagogy: In Which I Discuss Abortions, Rilo Kiley and Jar Jar Binks

I attended my first workshop eight years ago (eight years! how did this happen?). We sat around a conference table in the basement of an academic building, the type from a trillion frat movies, all brick with ivy growing up and down the sides. And in came this man wearing denim, cowboy boots, and sporting the type of facial hair that could frighten Tom Selleck. The guy sat down, didn’t say a word of introduction, and opened up an anthology he edited (on the cover is a picture of him scowling alongside portraits of JCO, Hemingway, Dubus and others). He cleared his throat, said, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” and read us the entirety of John Updike’s A&P.

Needless to say, my friends and I all lived in worship of this man, novelist Tom Bailey, a southern good old boy who openly told us, “I’m not interested in experimentation. My reading list’s mostly dead white men.” And we all hurried home after that first class and poured our hearts out into Microsoft Word, producing lackluster, predictable stories about break ups, losing your virginity, the death of a grandparent, or whatever other bullshit teenagers come up with (my story was about how much the Catholic Church blows and how awesome Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is; so in some respects, my unfortunate themes haven’t changed much over the years).

But then a funny thing happened over the course of that first semester: people started talking shit about Bailey behind his back. I couldn’t understand. We read the man’s stories, and it was obvious he had chops. But more importantly he had swagger. He was a living illustration of what we all wanted to become, a real life writer we could imitate. If he did it, so could we. Right?

(Check out this creepy video where Tom Bailey cries and a younger, more vulnerable Sal gives a reading in a Rilo Kiley t-shirt and awkward sports jacket.)

I didn’t figure out why all my friends got so sick of Bailey all of the sudden until I was about to go up for workshop. I printed out my masterpiece about the anointing of the May Queen and a twelve-year-old obsessed with Playstation and left it in Tom’s mailbox. A day or two later I went to talk with him about it. His office was lined with books, most of which I had never heard of (up until that point, I’d only read comic books, sci-fi, and the respective catalogs of J.D Salinger and Chuck Palahniuk).

Tom told me that he really liked one specific line (it took me awhile to track it down, but it’s “The nuns were supposed to pick the purest girl in the school, but they didn’t want any trouble, so they decided to pick a name out of a hat.”). I nodded, took notes in my little notebook and asked him about the rest of the story. He said he didn’t like it and thought I should cut it (all 22 pages) and start again with that line. He handed me a book by Breece D’J Pancake (a writer who blew his brains out in graduate school; great encouragement, Tom) and told me to get cracking.

I’m bringing this up because (years later) now that I’ve finished grad school and eight continuous years of workshops, I’m trying to figure out what kind of criticism I got the most out of. I remember how so many of my fellow students in Bailey’s class were completely shut down by his tell it like it is method which is designed to teach you the value in cutting your work and never being attached to anything you write. And that skill’s proven absolutely invaluable to me (especially in ’08 when I threw away a completed novel I now refer to as The Abortion). But some writers are absolutely crushed by this level of criticism.

This is a CGI representation of what my first attempt at a novel was like.

Justin Taylor recently posted a critique he received from an undergrad poetry teacher. To me, it seemed perfectly in line with something a writer might say to an undergrad. But in the comments section, people were split on whether the commentary was actually helpful or just cliche-ridden and destructive. I have to admit, this kind of reaction always surprises me.  Are writers so thin skinned that honest criticism is too much for them to deal with? And if so, is this really what they want to be doing with their lives? Submitting to hundreds of journals only to get a handful of acceptances? Because, let’s be honest, any criticism in the real world is inevitably a trillion times harsher than what people receive in workshop.

There’s something to be said for the, “This is good; keep going” route of writing pedagogy. But I think it’s more appropriate when workshopping novels than short stories. If someone writes a flawed short story, isn’t it the duty of instructors and fellow workshop students to make the author aware of said flaws and point out potential solutions? On the flip side, I’ve seen writers a third of the way into a promising novel put up a first chapter and become completely debilitated by the laundry list of suggestions.

After sixteen workshops, I’ve gone through a lot of feedback. And what I remember most are the harsh critiques, the honest critiques. Those made me a better writer. What I never remember is the false flattery, the praise, and all the unearned bullshit writers sometimes feel compelled to give apprentices. Case in point, a few years back when I was really wrestling with The Abortion (the aforementioned novel, not a reincarnated Chuck Palahniuk creation), Cathy Day took me aside and gently (maybe not in so many words) told me I should put it away for awhile. At the time, I wasn’t ready to hear this and sulked for a few days, but the key here (just like in the Bailey example where he plucked out a new first line from the wreckage) was that Cathy gave me something to build on. I was spending a lot of time back then creating Facebook photo albums with long, elaborate captions that went on for entire paragraphs. And Cathy told me how much she liked that voice and how little she saw of it in my novel writing. Why not write in that voice?

Well why not? So I aborted The Abortion and began writing something completely different, all the while imagining myself captioning pictures on Facebook. Is that an absolutely bizarre method? Yes. But it worked for me, and Cathy helped me find that. She didn’t worry about my feelings. Just like Tom and a gazillion other amazing mentors I’ve had, they were honest. They weren’t afraid to tell me something I wrote was terrible.

Advertisements

Why Super Mario Bros. Will Affect the New Generation of Writers

A few years ago I came across a story of Tom Bissell’s in Best American Short Stories 2005. I can’t remember everything about “Death Defiers”, but I’m pretty sure it involved an American photojournalist in the Middle East who gets swept up in some sort of bizarre, familial poison plot. The details are fuzzy, but what I recall quite clearly is the final paragraph: a beautiful piece of prose describing the protagonist stepping on a mine and flipping through the air. I’m not doing this story any justice whatsoever, but I liked the piece enough at the time to add Bissell’s name to my “To Read” list.

I’m sure all writers/readers have similar lists. Mine’s in the back of whatever moleskin notepad I’m keeping my writing notes in at the time. The list comprises every book or writer that I need to read. Sometimes I make it through these lists in their entirety, but most of the time I do not. In the intervening years between first reading Bissell’s short story and now, I’ve seen essays of his from time to time but little else. Then yesterday, over on HTML Giant, I read that he was publishing a collection of essays about his addiction to video games (and flirtations with cocaine) called Extra Lives. They linked to an excerpt at The Guardian.

HOLY SHIT!

Finally, someone is looking at gamer culture with a literary (and serious) sensibility. Interestingly enough, the same Best American with Bissell’s piece also contained a short story about a World of Warcraft-esque human slave labor camp. But outside of that and Justin Taylor’s fantastic flash fiction Tetris/End of the World mash-up, I haven’t really read much that looks at gaming with a seriousness of intent. I was particularly drawn to this section in The Guardian excerpt:

What have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that pointed not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough….

It turns narrative into an active experience, which film is simply unable to do in the same way. And it is moments like this that remind me why I love video games and what they give me that nothing else can…

Niko [the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV] was not my friend, but I felt for him, deeply. He was clearly having a hard go of it and did not always understand why. He was in a new place that did not make a lot of sense. He was trying, he was doing his best, but he was falling into habits and ways of being that did not reflect his best self. By the end of his long journey, Niko and I had been through a lot together. (Bissell)

What I love about this essay is that it recognizes that video games offer a textual experience wholly unique. Literature and film require active participation to a certain extent, but no matter how much you contextualize movies or visualize the scenes in books, you can never have a  literal direct effect on the chain of narrative events in the way you can with video games. Even comic books, which require more active participation than film or books by having white space segmenting the action which forces readers to play out the missing moments of time in their minds, cannot match the interactivity of a video game.

I’m not sure where this line of thinking will carry me, but it’s something I’ve been dwelling on a lot recently as video games factor into the novel I’m very close to completing, The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist. The protagonist is a gamer nostalgic for the 8-bit games of yore and often embeds images from those games into the text. During a trilogy of scenes which take place during the early nineties, he describes his devotion to all things Nintendo via the following:

If you’ve only casually played video games, then you can not comprehend the inner depths of their joys. You don’t know what it feels like to give yourself up so completely to an alien world of colors and sprites, of repetition and absolute safety. You are no longer yourself. You are an avatar. Super Mario, an Italian plumber tumbled through the looking-glass. Link, the boy knight on a magical crusade to rescue Princess Zelda from the terrible Ganon. Samus Aran, the intergalactic bounty hunter tracking down alien eggs on a world controlled by space pirates. This becomes more “real” than the “real” world…

And so I began my descent into the world of microchips and immateriality. And so I began to fear the natural world. Because when you are represented by an avatar, you are no longer Michael Bishop, a skinny child with a broken arm and sharp ribs that push against your polar bear t-shirt. You are not weak and loathsome and oh so frightened that some threat lurks around every corner existing only to dismember you. I lost myself in those games for hours at a time, refused to leave the safety of my house and that monolithic Nintendo. I feared forests and lakes and birds and wind and most of all people.

The digital!

My first true love!

(Pane)

What’s interesting to me about all of this is echoed in Paste Magazine’s review of the aforementioned Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. Reviewer Charles McNair writes, “Justing Taylor’s first short-story collection artfully captures the view of the 200s from the perspective of a twentysomethingSeveral of his stories bear the unmistakable, bloggy influence of the 2000s. Do we sense some sort of new fictional frontier? Time will tell.” This is the first generation to come of age raised on video games and technology more advanced than the Atari 2600 and the Apple II. Will that have an effect on the writing produced by those writers? How about blogs and Facebook and Twitter and cell phones? I say overwhelmingly yes. Our sense of narrative has been irrevocably shifted by technology and it only makes sense that not only will the platform literature is disseminated through change, but the very writing itself.

Two brief personal examples to illustrate a point:

1) This is my actual Nintendo collection.

Over the past six years, I’ve managed to track down about 150 Nintendo Entertainment System games, 50 Super Nintendo Entertainment games and 20 GameBoy games. I don’t play newer systems very much because I’d usually rather spend my free time reading, but also because I know that like Bissell I have an addictive personality and remember all too well the days in high school when I would play Japanese Role Playing Games on the original Playstation for disgusting stretches (during one horrible summer before ninth grade, I played Chrono Cross every day for three weeks for at least eight hours at a time. I became so addicted that I only stopped to hurriedly eat a sandwich in front of the pause screen). Since college, I have been content to play the games of my childhood. Super Mario Bros. Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers. Maniac Mansion. Blaster Master. Fun games with marginal narratives that only take about a half-hour to complete.

All that being said, how can I not be affected by video games? Even if I don’t play much now, so much of my life has been spent glued in front of a television screen controlling digital avatars that it wouldn’t be realistic to clam my sense of narrative hasn’t been deeply impacted by these digital worlds. And I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in this.

2) I went to college for creative writing. The program is very serious compared to other undergrad institutions and the teachers treat their pupils more like graduate students. I often bailed on the work in my other classes to work on fiction and cnf, and this was certainly not frowned upon by the real working writers who taught us. The books lifted up for us to worship were all written by the ’80’s dirty realists and their predecessors. Carver. Dubus. Wolff. Ford. Pancake. Munro. Bobbie Ann Mason. Richard Yates. And don’t get me wrong. They all still number among my favorite writers, and my devotion to Yates borders on the religious.

Unfortunately, after many years of writing each and every day, I eventually came to realize that I will never be a master of domestic realism. I don’t have it in me. My instincts naturally strive for the geeky, the nerdy, and it’s hard to hit that aesthetic in the parameters of sparse Carver minimalism. I wrote a very bad, failed novel a few years ago in the style of domestic realism. The characters were all working class, and the subject matter included decaying mines and the folly of local politics.

It was breathtakingly terrible, and after wonderful advice from a mentor of mine, I packed it away in a drawer. Since then, I have written something much more successful, and my work has begun to be published in very small publications. While working on my new novel, I found myself referencing Nintendo, putting up screen shots, using Twitter feeds, implementing blog posts, inserting web comics and even writing an entire scene in script format. People ask why I made these narrative decisions and I can only respond that it’s what felt natural and “right” to me at the time. Like Bissell, I feel incredibly affected by the prevailing technologies of my era. To deny that by reverting to a mode of writing three decades old is akin to denying myself, something Bissell and Taylor are very clearly aware of.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine