StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Gloomy Days Continue

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on April 26, 2010

Ain’t that an ugly shot?

But that’s what it’s been looking like outside the window lately. We’ve had days and days of rain, which is to be expected in April.

I’m not saying I’m a sunny day/summer person. Far from it. I don’t look forward to the mornings where I’ll have to take an extra 15 minutes to blanket my pasty skin in 65+ sunblock.

But I used to like rainy days. I was just saying that to Julius yesterday when he was complaining about the weather and I said rainy days give us a chance to go inside and reflect. Hours later, I found I was doing nothing but falling asleep over any of five books I’ve been trying to get myself to read. Then I got mad at myself for not accomplishing more. Now I see what he’s saying about hating rainy days.

On Saturday night, it rained too but we went and saw The Secret in Their Eyes, the Argentinian film that won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this year. It was captivating from first to last and we talked about it for hours at Fiorello’s afterwards. Julius said that the movie teetered on the brink of becoming too many things at once – a comedy, a detective story, a heartrending love story, a polemic on 1970s Argentina, where the right-wing had fabricated a government takeover by the left like the right is doing in America today – but the movie knew when to pull back to its central narrative. ┬áThese are the kinds of stories I like best: ones where there’s a specific focal point – in this case, the thwarted sentencing of a rapist/murderer – that somehow also binds in a multitude of other subjects. And the film psyched us up for our trip to Buenos Aires the week after next, where I’ll be celebrating my 36th birthday.

We also discussed Flannery O’Connor. I said I’ve had a hard time reading her these days. She was a force of nature, one of the greatest writers in American literature and her stories are so demonically possessive. Even though she was a hard-core Catholic, she grew up in the Bible belt and she peoples her stories mostly with Pentecostals, unhinged white trash and unromanticized poor black characters. She had no trouble being violent and graphic in her narration since she began from the premise that man is in an unredeemed state and she made it her mission to show just how wretched that state of being is. In an essay on O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Harold Bloom says, “We would be good, O’Connor thinks, if someone were there to shoot us every minute of our lives…[She’s] someone who can entertain us so profoundly [that she] can damn us pretty much as she pleases.”

True, but, see, this is exactly what I don’t like about her. Her talent is so seductive that we’re willing to take her scourge, much in the way people find so much fascination in Jonathan Edwards’ Calvanist sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that it’s now a central piece of the American literary canon. We should also note that O’Connor was infected with lupus and died at the age of 39. For fourteen years, she felt the Hand of God ready to pluck her from the earth at any moment. In the meantime, she left these Southern Gothic morality tales, maybe as a way of frightening us into our rightful subjugation. But what good does it do anyone to live that way? Could it be that her degenerating health had left her feeling condemned to such an extent that she, in a religious fervor, saw fit to condemn all humanity in a misery-loves-company kind of way?

And she was a racist! People don’t like to admit this about her. They say she uses the n-word as a way of satirizing the south and its limited assumptions about class and race. This is a pleasant theory and it lets a great writer off the hook, but it’s debunked when you read her correspondence, which shows that she uses these epithets without the slightest irony.

I told all this to Julius and he said I should write fiction from a Buddhist standpoint. “What would a good Buddhist do if he or she were mugged on the street?” I told him that, in theory, the ideal reaction would be to take it on the chin – get up, dust yourself off and recognize that we’ve somehow created this karma in this or another lifetime and now a karmic debt has been erased. That’s the theory anyway.

He said, “You should write a story about that!”

I said I’m afraid. I believe in the laws of attraction. If I focus on such a situation, I fear I might attract such a situation. I’ve lived in big cities all my life and, while I’ve been attacked on the streets, I’ve only had actual money stolen from me once. It was in Barcelona. It was a setup. A guy asked me for directions and, while I was explaining that I was a foreigner, his Spanish friend came up, flashed a fake police badge, went into my wallet and took out all the American dollars and Spanish pesos he could before shoving the wallet back into my chest and pushing me away. It all happened so fast, I didn’t know how to react. I tried reporting it at the hostel but they all but laughed at me for thinking you can catch a petty thief in plazas that crawl with petty thieves. It turns out I got off easy too. The next day I saw the typical American tourist walking through the Plaza del Sol in a sunhat and golf shirt with his expensive camera dangling from a strap on his shoulder. A guy ran up out of nowhere, busted his nose, grabbed the camera and tore away, leaving the tourist gushing blood while the wife screamed like she had bats in her hair.

These things can happen in Brooklyn too and I’d rather not imagine them into existence. Call me superstitious but lots of people have stories of focusing these instances into being. But Julius also told me that I seem to stay within a certain comfort zone as a writer. I don’t want to move into the terrible, lest it become the actual. And I have to admit that I’ve come to the point in my life where, if I had to choose, I’d take happiness over writing. Fortunately, I don’t have to make that choice.

But the weather forecast says it’s going to be gray all day. Half an hour ago, Mom gave me a call and told me a lot of news about a lot of funerals that are either taking place or are about to take place any month now back home – one of them being of a girl my age whom I went to school with and who caught a lupus-like disease years ago and now has only five months to live. My father, whom my mother has been married to for 52 years and whom I have no real relationship with anymore, has a melanoma now that looks to be advancing. One of my sisters and my brother-in-law have been living together in hate for over a decade but haven’t divorced for fear that the other would get the sons and the property – and one fallout of this has been that one of my nephews, a former straight-A student, has been acting out and has been kicked out of school. And I read Flannery O’Connor’s “The Geranium” today and liked it…

And I can’t wait to head to my meditation cushion and come back to a peaceful center.

85A Log: My Miracle Lunch with Shell

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 15, 2008

So, yesterday, I had my fateful lunch with Shell at Miracle Grill, where we went over the first draft of 85A. I had the Blue-Corn Fried Chicken Tacos with chips and salsa and an iced tea. She had a quesadilla and a few glasses of water.

Before we got started, we celebrated her most recent freelance breakthrough. AARP, circulation 38 million, has accepted Shell’s pitch to write a profile on the graphic novelist who created the Joker. A career salvo, indeed. Way to go, Shell!

Her feedback on 85A was entirely constructive. She began by praising both the writing and the concept. Still, as I already knew, there’s a lot more work left for me to do on the book. An entire rewrite, actually.

Here’s what she had to say:

1. Start with An Action Scene: As it reads right now, the books starts with Seamus standing at the 85A bus stop, ruminating on the racism and violence in his pure-white middle class neighborhood. This is not as compelling as beginning with an action sequence.

(notice the Icarus wings)

(notice the Icarus wings)

I knew just what she meant. What leaped to mind immediately were the first lines of Toni Morrison’s Paradise:

“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest, they can take their time.”

Boom! Sucks you right in. Then, by and by, Morrison weaves in the history of Ruby, Oklahoma. Doesn’t spell it all out at once. She takes her time.

Similarly, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon begins with the North Carolina Mutual Insurance agent, Robert Smith (a black Icarus), leaping off the Mercy Hospital roof with a pair of homemade wings on the morning that Morrison’s protagonist, Milkman, is born.

So, yes, golden advice: start with a memorable action sequence.

2. Cut down on the F word: It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, in the first draft, every second to third word out of Seamus’ mouth is fuck. I wanted to show how dead-set he is on recreating the Johnny Rotten/Sid & Nancy experience in his barely pubescent Chicago life. Even I feared the fuck-repetitions were excessive. My fears proved true. I fully agree with Shell that it became more pesky than revealing after a while. As a matter of fact, she rightly discerned that, when the story really got moving, she saw that I wrote less and less fuck’s. Now, that’s not to say the fuck’s don’t have their place. In fact, they have a time-honored place. It’s just that the fuck’s are more effective when they’re more strategically positioned.

3. Imagery: Shell told me that I do a great job of vivifying the characters. What I need to do, once again, is to slow it down and include more sights, sounds, smells, and bodily sensations. Right now, it reads like I’m trying to get my main points down on paper – rushing to get to the point (a symptom of our ADD culture). But there needs to be more sensory input if I’m going to form a complete picture.

4. You See: There are times when Seamus will say things like “But, see, the thing is…” as if he’s speaking directly to the camera instead of soul searching.

A big challenge for me is that, while I want there to be action, I also want to show how Seamus is mostly solitary, idle and given to grandiose fantasies that have little basis in reality. How do you balance that with the kind of dynamism that keeps your reader reading?

I even picked up The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel for help. A sci-fi, fantasy writer named Tom Monteleone wrote it. Somewhere toward the middle of the book, he said something about how, every year, a glut of novels about alienated individuals trying to make sense of the big-bad world take up space on publishers’ desks, mostly before being shoved into the recycling bin. Monteleone then says, “If you’re planning to write that kind of novel, do yourself a favor. Don’t.”

I can sort of see the wisdom in that. Only, I feel like I have to write 85A, which fits the very description of the books he condemns. Plus, I have a long history of starting and stopping novels. Dammit, I’m gonna finish this one! Sorry, Mr. Monteleone.

The MFA Question

Enough ink has been spilled on the topic of whether an MFA in creative writing is absolutely necessary for someone who would like to write and publish novels. Still, I felt the need to ask Shell her thoughts on the matter since she got an MFA at Naropa University.

I never went to grad school. Some of our greatest writers never did either. On the other hand, many of our greatest writers – Flannery O’Connor, Michael Cunningham, Junot Diaz, and my newly discovered hero Joshua Furst – did come out of MFA programs.

Shell came down on the side of it not being necessary. You can learn some good things in MFA programs, she said. You can learn the art of the short story. No one is ever prepared for the novel, though. You just gotta go balls-out.

Some years ago, I picked up a book called The Portable MFA. I liked it when I worked with it, but it’s now sitting in one of my dusty book boxes. I should dig it out again. I’ve always been the kind who has learned best outside of confining environments like classrooms and offices. That’s not to say I’ve learned nothing in those settings, but I’ve learned far less in them than I have by doing my own reading, conducting my own dialogues, and following my own interests.

I’m extremely fortunate to have someone like Shell to give me this kind of feedback. With that, let me give Shell Fischer’s services another plug and send you to her website, where you can contact her:

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got a novel to write.