This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey

podX2927book by Steve Almond

annotation by Liz Prato

 

As a species, we are squandering the exalted gifts of consciousness, losing our capacity to pay attention, to imagine the suffering of others. You are a part of all this. It involves you. This is the hard labor we’re trying to perform: convincing strangers to translate our specks of ink into stories capable of generating rescue.

Steve Almond’s “This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey,” is a self-published chapbook containing 30 flash fiction pieces, and 30 essays on craft. It’s printed on the Espresso Book Machine, this large contraption found in select bookstores that looks partly like a time machine conceived of by some mad scientist, and partly like the Xerox machine found in the most mundane office. The chapbook is bought and sold primarily through what Almond calls the drug dealer model: He carries several in his backpack, says, “Pssst, kid, over here,” gives you a taste of his goods, and takes your cash.

The IRS loves Steve Almond, by the way.

I’m going to talk solely about the craft essays in “This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey,” because I’m a teacher and a craft junkie and I’m always looking for a fix for my vice. Like I said, there are 30 essays/chapters in this book, the shortest being one sentence long, and the longest spanning a vast page and a third. Just to be contrary, I’m going to talk about the last one first, titled: “This Is Just My Bullshit.” I wish more craft authors admitted that whatever thing they’re writing about is the thing that has stuck in their particular craw and may, or may not, be of value to others. It may or may not be advisable. You may or may not agree with it.

People – fans, critics, bloggers, readers – love to either vehemently agree or disagree with Almond (to witness a sampling of the latter, acquire another one of his self-published chapbooks, “Letters From People Who Hate Me.”). In this concise collection of essays, there isn’t much to hate. Almond isn’t saying anything incredibly controversial. He’s just saying, “Here are a few things I think lead to good writing, stated in an incredibly simple way.”

Whereas other craft books spend pages upon pages spinning different definitions of plot, Almond does it in one sentence – and then goes on to suggest the various reasons why your plot is probably fucked up. He writes about voice and POV and metaphors and attributives, and all those other terms we fling about in workshops to sound like we know what the hell we’re talking about. Almond writes most passionately about the need for an independent narrator in contemporary literature, and tells you why “My character is alienated/depressed/crazy is not a valid argument for distancing or confusing your reader.

Based on his time editing a literary journal and reading hundreds of student stories, Almond sets forth a Hippocratic Oath of Writing in Chapter 6: Never Confuse the Reader. I’m considering having this tattooed on my forehead, so I don’t have to keep repeating it to my own students (and then I will stand in front of a mirror to remind myself). Because isn’t that the basis of almost every problem we see in early drafts of literature? We don’t know what’s at stake. We don’t know who to care about. We don’t know who’s talking. We don’t know where we are. In one way or another, we don’t know what the hell is going on.

You know, it might be easy to dismiss these 30 short essays as too basic, too prosaic. I can just hear the more accomplished writer (who looks and sounds alarmingly like me) saying, “Well, this is fine for beginners, but I already know all this.” Listen, if I slammed a shot of tequila every time I was dazzled by some writer’s prose but couldn’t get a grasp on the basic story, I’d have started my own version of AA by now.

Perhaps my favorite feature of Almond’s craft essays is they don’t make you feel dumb or illiterate or like you need to do homework to understand what he’s talking about. There are some really good craft books out there that frequently reference other texts. Long texts, classic texts, ones printed before the twentieth century and often in other countries and originally in other languages. The fact that I haven’t read the referenced works often leaves me feeling poorly read (okay, which I am), and that I should stop writing right this second and go catch up on the more obscure works of Proust. Understanding Almond’s craft advice requires one prevailing criterion: that you care about your characters. That’s it. Because, as he sets out in Chapter 18, “Excessive Emotional Involvement is the Whole Point” of this thing we do called writing. If you don’t give a shit about your characters, that will be conveyed on the page and no reader will give a shit, either. But if you care deeply and passionately for them, you will keep rendering them on the page, again and again, until you make the reader care as much as you do.

That’s what this chapbook is all about.

Yes, I use it in teaching, mostly to back up myself up, so my students don’t think I’m totally winging it in class. But it’s more than that: it’s what I think of every time I sit down to write. Whether I’m working on a novel or an essay or a story or my memoir, I ask myself Almond’s essential question: what do my characters care about? And then I write until I find out.

So next time you see Steve Almond at a conference or a reading or in a dark alley, say, “Pssst. I hear you’ve got the goods,” and score “This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey” off of him. Tell him Prato sent you. Then go write.

 

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American Dream Machine

9781935639442_p0_v1_s114x166book by Matthew Specktor

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I dove right into American Dream Machine from its first pages, which open at the Beverly Hills Hamburger Hamlet on Doheny Drive, where I did about a year of waitressing in 1992 before heading into the film industry. But while this book was thrilling as it rang all of the familiar bells and whistles of Hollywood for me (After Doheny, I worked at WMA and a few production companies–all of the tertiary characters based in life were names I recognized), there were larger things afoot that made this a terrific book.

Matthew Specktor gives a crap about sentences. In a major way. There is an elegance that comes to his simple descriptions of the city and city dwelling that stopped me:

“A hot wind kicked up around us, one of those sinus-rattling Santa Anas that meddle with the mood of the city.”(85)

“The sky was lilac, the soft-brushed color of six o’clock. By the time they reached the lot it was proper twilight, all of them stumbling out of the car in a daze of wind and travel.” (130)

Even character moments are embedded with rhythm. Our narrator, Nate notices the subtle, but important moments that reveal so much:

“Right before he ducked back out to go retrieve the first aid kit that rattled around in the trunk, Bactine and Band-Aids in a white plastic box, right before I burst into tears, I saw it. Williams’s eyes flashed green, his pale lips tugged down at the corners. A wince or a grimace that was nothing like Beau, the fat man I automatically, if not yet consciously, associated with him. It was a terrible expression, small and involuntary: in it were fear and hunger, and some private pain that must’ve mirrored my own, else I would never have noticed it.”(136)

 This line about Hollywood in the eighties sings:

“They went to Charmer’s Market, to Jimmy’s, to Orlando Orsini’s and L’Orangerie; later, to Tony Bill’s place in Venice. They were fed and fat and fucked and fortunate: for a while, at least, they were happy indeed.” (208)

Even a scene of junior high kids at a skate park in the early eighties has its own poetry:

“His knees, which were white from ceaseless battering, came up tight to his chest as he grabbed his skate and flashed back into the air. This was more eloquent than anything any one of us could say: the clop and clatter of the skateboard, as stately in its way as a horse’s hooves.” (231)

But the writing is not twee, nor precious. The story pulls you along chapter by chapter with a careful weaving that lays not only a larger tension, but the tension from different moods of different scenes matched up against each other. We can be left breathless from one scene and are suddenly plunged into the past or the future to pick up a scene we had left before.

Specktor is terrific at keeping a large number of interconnected characters afloat over a fifty-year span, weaving the past with the present and creating an overall movement and pacing akin to a broad opera about Hollywood and three interlinked families. Things are not divided, like movies, into three simple acts. The book’s sections are balanced against each other by something a bit more ineffable and yet extremely satisfying.

The story is told by a Hollywood son, Nate, an observer of Nick Carraway distance and intimacy. The book is so engrossing, we often forget who is narrating, but Specktor pulls us back with a stray, “My father said,” –little reminders that this is from Nate’s perspective, years later. Nate is privy to a number of intimate scenes from his father’s life and he speaks from such authority and such distance of space that we believe it. While I figured (because I always have to figure) that Nate’s character had gone around and interviewed everyone with questions about his father in order to be telling us this story, there is really no need to establish the whys and wheretofores when the voice is grounded in such authority. We are given an explanation for Nate’s queries in the end that serves the larger story as well, but even had that not been supplied, the voice would have worked.

It is a good lesson when taking on a larger novel in remembering to think about how old your narrator is when he/she is relating the story, how long after the story happened, WHY, he or she is relating the story and to whom. While you need reveal none of these to your reader, the knowledge in the writer creates that narrator’s authority, which owns the page. It took me until draft three of my novel Alterations to figure that one out and once my character found her age, voice and distance, the whole story came together despite its three different points of view.

Nate’s narration has a tendency frequented by magical realists, to jump out into omniscient observations, which gives the novel a lovely dreamy feeling:

“His sensibilities were too vulgar, too crassly in line, really, with Waxmorton and Sam and even Davis, who by the end of the decade would be playing rascally rum runners and smug Southern cops.”(131)

“Picture three boys gathered over one comic book, the Spanish-style schoolhouse dissolved in Santa Monica fog, its milk-colored interior walls covered in construction paper, time lines, dinosaur dioramas, silver foil.”(169)

As a reader, I felt I was in good hands, that although I didn’t know where the journey was going every minute, the writer did and I could sit back and enjoy the ride. A few of these omniscient stingers also put Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” in otherwise peaceful scenes. A bucolic camping trip, where the Hollywood boys finally get out of their stoned skateboard city life and into the country becomes fraught with worry with one line:  “These were ten days of heaven, the last of a childhood that died hard in stages.” (281)

Through the various characters’ stories, Specktor gives us an intimate view of Hollywood, but also of how people’s interwoven lives, especially in an industry where business and personal are so perilously mixed, can, over a long period of time, have repercussions throughout a number of families. There is remarkable contrast in the fact that when catastrophic life-changing things befall our characters, Hollywood ticks on, same as it ever was. Beau, our central study who covers those fifty years, learns that when you give your life to the hustle, to that business, and the phone stops ringing, it is its own kind of death.

In a panel on books about Hollywood at April’s LA Times Festival Of Books, Matthew Specktor said that after seeing so many stereotypes, he wanted to write about Hollywood as “a real place, where real people live.” He succeeded by bringing a number of multi-layered characters to the page and braiding their lives thoroughly. The son of a talent agent, he grew up in the industry and later worked in it for a while. He could probably have written a scathing expose, or avoided the topic entirely for fear of offending. Instead, he took a world he knew well and wove a story with fictional characters into it.

This book is a strong reminder that any world we grow up in–a small town, a big city, an intricate extended family, a trailer park or an apartment building–is rife with a network of people living complex lives. People within a community have stories that are all interwoven, have an affect on each other and might seem too close for us to want to write about. But if we step back, without betraying specific stories of friends and family, we have a rich knowledge of relationships, a functioning society and an intimate knowledge of the gears that keep a place ticking. And that is narrative gold. That is a place you can take completely fictional characters and set them loose, see how they function and bump into each other. And most important, that is a place that no one knows better than you and is therefore a place you can share completely.

It is the specificity of the manner in which people’s lives rub up against each other in certain cultures that makes human stories so rich and interesting. We should all take another look at our upbringings and relationships–the ones we aren’t writing about because no one would find it interesting–and write.

As Nate puts it so well:

“We were all the custodians of each other’s catastrophes, after all.” (436)