StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

85A Log: Joshua Furst, Salieri Complex, Virginia Woolf, Humility, and the White Horse Tavern

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 19, 2008

This is how Virginia Woolf agonized over Marcel Proust’s talent in a letter to a friend:

Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures–there’s something sexual in it–that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that. . . . How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped–and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp.

Then, even after writing Mrs. Dalloway (1925), she continued to give herself the short end of the stick in relation to Proust:

I wonder if this time I have achieved something? . . . Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust, in whom I am embedded now. The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom. And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.

It’s good to know that a writer of Woolf’s stature had these feelings toward a contemporary too.

It’s exactly how I’ve been feeling – diffident, self-loathing – while reading Joshua Furst’s The Sabotage Cafe. It’s how I felt yesterday, reading him on the subway on my way to see Mike at White Horse Tavern. It seemed like I was underlining every other line of well-turned phrases, wishing I had it in me to write them. Take this one, for example, about 15-year-old, punk-rock runaway Cheryl getting it on with her new boyfriend Trent:

It was oceanic, a salt-heavy weight roiling under her skin, lapping at her pelvis, dampening everything, condensing on the surface in filmy layers. She imagined taking him whole into her system – like that weird spiny fish she and Jarod had seen on the Discovery Channel – and holding him there, soaking him in her juices, until the two of them became a single organism, sharing veins and arteries and internal organs, never to be parted again.

Mind you, these are just two sentences. Most of the sentences I’ve read so far approach this level of brilliance. Furst’s narration is both documentary – capturing all sides of these kids’ interactions – and unfathomably deep, probing each character’s unconscious. Every sentence is so exacting and panoramic. Also, Furst knows his hardcore, he knows the punk scene, he’s not just guessing at it. It’s like D.H. Lawrence meets Lester Bangs.

To make matters worse, he’s writing about the same subject I am in 85A. I mean, Seamus is totally different from Cheryl and Trent, but Seamus is dabbling in the same subculture and, just like Cheryl, dreams of freedom from teenage confinement. Reading Furst, I think much the same thoughts that Woolf thought about Proust: “I can’t write like that”; “And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.”

I got a big ole Salieri complex. According to Peter Shaffer at least, Salieri felt cursed with a lethal combination of mediocrity and burning ambition. I think it’d make my life a lot easier if I’d just accept that there are many people – maybe many, many – who are better writers than I am.

When I was flunking out of high school, I consoled myself by thinking, “I will grow up to be among the greatest writers.” It’s embarrassing to admit that, but that’s what got me through each day. I did my best to walk like a writer, talk like a writer, master all the books that writers master, and even write like a writer. I felt like an impostor, but still I persevered, thinking that I’d have to fake it until I made it – all the way up to the summit; I had to redeem myself for not being a prodigy sooner.

Plus, it’s also true that many had told me, “You have a gift.” Not only that, but I also had so much sorrow, disillusionment and angst that I felt I was a shoo-in for greatness.

The years went by. I wrote my ass off. A lot of people were still giving me a lot of credit for my writing, but I still wasn’t producing major works. In my twenties, this bothered me. But I took solace in the belief that, in my thirties, I’d wake up one morning, possessed by some spirit of genius and my hand would move across the pages of my notebook – or the keys on my keyboard – without my will or effort. I wouldn’t have to depend on a limited human brain. I could rely solely on the muse. I could produce canonical works and then sit pretty on my laurels.

Here I am, though, in my thirties, wishing I had the talent of Joshua Furst and many other 30-something (or even twenty-something) authors. It’s one of the most humbling experiences I know. I mean, Jonathan Saffron Foer is literally my backyard neighbor. Sometimes, I catch myself resenting that whole tribe of elites, shaking my fist at the heavens, saying, “I’ve done my time on the bottom! I’ve suffered! I’ve worked myself into exhaustion! Won’t you please move me up!”

As Salieri learned, though, these things are beyond our will. The gods have given some people drive and other people talent and still other people genius. Yet we’re left with a choice. We can either train ourselves to honor and learn from geniuses (whether or not they’re humble about their genius) or we can let our envy and self-hatred eat us up for the rest of our lives. It’s a wretched ultimatum, but what other choice do we have?

In the final chapters of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes how he predicated his whole form of psychotherapy, which he called Logotherapy, on the following idea that he evolved while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.

A man came to him in enormous grief over the sudden passing of his wife. Frankl asked the man (this is not word-perfect): “What if it had been the other way around? What if you had died and your wife was left to mourn?” The man said, “That would have been terrible. She would have suffered horribly.” Frankl then pointed out to the man that, by dying before him, his wife had been spared the suffering of having to bear his death. Now it was up to him to bear that suffering for her. The man nodded. He didn’t walk away happy, but he had at least found a reasonable and meaningful explanation for why he had to endure this struggle.

Maybe my struggle is to accept my Salieri complex for what it is, a test, and other people’s genius for what it is, a gift. Actually, Virginia Woolf elucidates this struggle extremely well in To The Lighthouse (1927) when she describes Mr. Ramsay’s Salieri complex over his shortfalls of intelligence and artfulness:

It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q…But after Q? What comes next? After Q, there are a number of letters, the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached by one man in a generation…

He stood stock-still, by the urn, with the geranium flowing over it. How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reached Z after all? Surely the leader of a forlorn hope may ask himself that, and answer, without treachery to the expedition behind him, “One perhaps.” One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one?…Who shall blame him? Who will not secretly rejoice when the hero puts his armour off, and halts by the window and gazes at his wife and son, who, very distant at first, gradually come closer and closer, till lips and book and head are clearly before him, though still lovely and unfamiliar from the intensity of his isolation and the waste of ages and the perishing of the stars, and finally putting his pipe in his pocket and bending his magnificent head before her – who will blame him if he does homage to the beauty of the world?

Last night, all those thoughts had run through my mind on my way to see Mike at the White Horse Tavern. He had lost his debit card yesterday morning, so he got there late after having to haggle another debit card out of his bank. That was fine. I had a lot of journaling to do.

He got there eventually. We sat at one of the outside tables. We celebrated a great new job he just got, managing the website of the 92nd Street Y. Like a lot of people, he has had to manage through a lot of twists and turns and flotsam and jetsam in this economy. It’s good to see him safe and secure in such an excellent institution as that. He likes it a lot. He got the job partly because of all that he learned creating my website! I’m glad this was a win-win.

We talked for hours about everything under the sun. Then he asked me how the book was going. He hasn’t been reading my blog, so he didn’t know the rundown of my lunch with Shell. I told him that Shell’s suggestions were excellent and now I’m back to Square One with 85A.

Then I pulled The Sabotage Cafe out of my bag. I raved about it. Then I said, “I have to face it. I could never write a book this good. It’s hard as hell, but I just have to face the fact that some people are better writers than I am.”

He listened, but he didn’t nod or shake his head. All he said was, “Well, that guy has one thing to say with one voice. You have another thing to say with another voice. Don’t let that stop you.”

Simple words, simple idea, but it was enough to silence the monsters in my head.

Then I told him that I wrote a new opening sentence to 85A. This was after I read an essay by a writing teacher who said that the first sentence of a book should promise not only the beginning of the story, but also the end. So, this is the working opening sentence for 85A:

“Every detention, every spear of glass swimming up through my forearm, every minute the 85A is late brings me one step closer to London.”

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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: http://www.shellfischer.com.

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

85A Log: “What We Do Is Secret,” Joshua Furst and James Frey

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 8, 2008
Johnny Rotten - Patron Saint of 85A

Johnny Rotten - Patron Saint of 85A (from now on, I'll use his picture at the top of every 85A Log)

So, I will be meeting with Shell next Thursday, August 14th to go over the first draft of 85A. I can’t wait to hear her feedback, though, I must say, I have enjoyed my little vacation from the book.

In my sophomore year at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, we had Career Day. I went to all the career workshops that had anything to do with careers in the arts – Photographer, Actor, Musician, Arts Critic, and Writer. For a school that had little to no respect for the right brain, it’s no surprise that – instead of flying Hanif Kureishi or Kurt Vonnegut in with the mint the school raked in from its alumni association – some crusty old Jesuit got some crusty old alum, whose name I forget and whose writing was equally forgettable, to conduct the Writer’s workshop.

It was about as interesting as watching roadkill rot. The Fuddy-Duddy stood before us, crushed every bone in his feet with the names he dropped and then rattled off the titles of every award any writer worth his or her salt should vie to win. I wanted to be a writer precisely to get away from all that systemic bullshit he touted. Unmentioned went the opioid orgies that the freaks among us were dying to have with the muses.

Now that I’m done dumping all over that poor man, I will say that he offered all of us one piece of advice, which still resonates with me today. It was: “Once you write something, put it away for a couple weeks before you decide whether it’s any good.”

I guess that, on Thursday, I’ll have more perspective on whether 85A was any good. If not, who cares? Like I’ve been saying all along, that’s what next drafts are for.

So, this morning at 11 am, I took another Artist Date (see, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) and went to see the premiere of What We Do Is Secret at The Landmark Sunshine Theater on Houston & 1st Avenue in Manhattan. At the box office, I stood behind some chick who had fresh bullet wounds, with blood spurting, tattooed on her neck. It was kind of cool.

Anyway, Secret is a biopic by Rodger Grossman about the rise and fall of Darby Crash, lead singer of the Late Seventies L.A. punk band The Germs. Shane West from E.R. plays Crash. Evidently, the old band members of The Germs liked West’s performance so much that they decided to reunite and make West their new lead singer.

They must’ve seen something in this movie that I didn’t see. I mean, Shane West is a good actor and all, but he doesn’t come close to expressing the raucous inner life that Crash must have had. (Let me admit before I go any further that I was never a Germ’s fan. Although I did see them featured in The Decline of Western Civilization, I know about as much about them as the folks in the geriatrics home up the street.) Evidently, a major Cross for Crash was that he was a closet homosexual, but the film shows one snippet of that bete noire and then drops it like a burning coal. Also, although Grossman did his best to convince us that Crash was a barroom-brawl-waiting-to-happen, West makes Crash seem more like a leather-clad Merry Prankster than a G.G. Allin-meets-Ian-Curtis malcontent. He even makes his suicide (coincidentally, on the day John Lennon was assassinated) look more like a madcap stunt than an act of total despair.

Great tracks from Bowie on Grossman’s flick, though – two in total, both off one of my Top 20 Albums, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. “Five Years” plays as an allusion to Crash’s five-year plan for the Germs, which he may or may not have fulfilled before his suicide at age 22. Grossman plugs “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” as an elegy to Crash.

In fact, Crash hails Bowie several times in the movie. He’s got Aladdin Sane and Ziggy posters on his walls. He keeps putting Bowie on the guest lists for his shows even though Bowie himself wouldn’t have even heard of The Germs at the time. He demanded that the Editor-in-Chief of Slash magazine form Slash Records and record The Germ’s only LP, GI. Then, he demanded that the Editor get Bowie to produce the album, only to later settle for Joan Jett.

But didn’t that first wave of punks think Bowie was too soft and old school?

Oh! While we’re on the subject of Bowie…last night, I found out for the first time that he’s half Irish! Why didn’t anybody tell me that before? As a kid, I was always looking for Irish heroes – even if they were only part of the Irish diaspora like me – and Bowie was one of my idols.

Back to Secret, though…I’m glad I saw it. It at least reinforced some punk themes and images that will help fuel my writing on the next draft of 85A.

Plus, I’m halfway through a novel called The Sabotage Cafe by Joshua Furst. He’s a writer who teaches right here in Brooklyn at Pratt Institute. His novel is outstanding! I came across it on a display table at some bookstore in the Village. Furst is such a gifted writer and his book seamlessly fades in and out of the Eighties punk scene and present-day street-kid culture.

I’ll blog about it more once I finish it – which might not be for a little while, given the work that’s on my plate – but I hope to meet him some day to congratulate him on his remarkable achievement.

In other news, Shinnyo-en in Tokyo has sent me a book to edit called, Turning the Wheel: Stories of the Buddha’s Disciples, so that’s keeping me busy between 85A drafts.

I’m also going to be reviewing Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey for Edge Magazine. It’s his first-ever novel and his first book since the 2006 Smoking Gun/Oprah scandal.

I know he lied a lot in A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard, but I still enjoyed reading them. I loved his propulsive, plain-spoken narration and his unpredictable syntax. It sucked me right in and I just had to finish both books in one sitting each.

I’m about 150 pages into Bright Shiny Morning, though, and I’m not sure that the same style works for him in third-person fiction, where he has to be more detached and documentary. There isn’t the same sense of compulsion. Still, it’s good to see that he’s dropped a lot of his tough-guy facade with this book, where he treats the characters with a lot more compassion and sensitivity.

That’s it for tonight. I’m heading to a party in Clinton Hill, right across the street from Pratt actually. Wonder if I’ll see Joshua Furst there. Do I have the nerve to go up and shake his hand?