All in a Day’s Work

I wish I’d made more time for posting in January, but the truth is I’ve been under extreme pressure (self-inflicted, mostly) to push several large projects I’ve been working on into being. I’m sleeping much less these days. The most time-consuming projects were the creation of two books for Brooklyn Arts Press: Lauren Russell’s Dream-Clung, Gone and Broc Rossell’s Unpublished Poems. Having lost my Poetry Editor in November or thereabouts to job searches and a beautiful new baby boy, I’ve been running the press almost exclusively by myself (minus some thankfully present readers and Mr. Applebaum’s gracious editorial eye, when able), the duties of which include creating layouts, cover design, editing, proofreading, marketing, shipping, answering emails and all the finer aspects of publishing. January being one of our two submission months, the other June, we received well over a hundred submissions from poets and short story writers hoping to have their work picked for publication. We’ve since settled on manuscripts we wished to read in their entirety, and in February and March will narrow those down to the few we’ll choose to represent at BAP.

January also saw a foray into two separate publishing projects, one of which, after much deliberation, has been set on the back burner. For the other I’ve been acting as a publishing consultant, more or less, though it’s a hands-on job that requires lots of editing, strategizing, website building, and energy. Hanging over all this work was the recent news of my mother and my grandmother both being diagnosed with cancer. My grandmother’s was in one lung (surgery this week proved very good) and my mother’s is on her nose (surgery for the squamous, cream for the basal, thus far). Of course events like this leads one to consider one’s own mortality, and for someone like myself who experiences a constant strain of annoying aches and pains, with several real ailments ready to pop up or progress at any time to take me down, such news could see me crouching in a corner if I didn’t have other things to hold my focus. I’ve always been ambitious, but recognition of one’s mortality on a daily basis cuts two ways: either the ambition ramps up and begins breaking speed limits, or I lose all hope, and failing to see the benefit of any future plans, retreat into an unworried swarm of internet humor and news. Most days I simply fluctuate between the two modes and call it living.

That said, I’m not depressed in the slightest. Wendy and I held a Super Bowl party on Sunday and it was fantastic. Forty people in and out, some new faces, some old. Most didn’t care who won but eventually settled on rooting for the Giants. I made my standard spicy three-bean, three-meat chili and Wendy cooked up mac-n-cheese and chocolate chip cookies (some with bacon in them) and our cuisine was awarded two Michelin stars from our guests. I’m trying to eat healthier, having sworn off pork and taken up salads for at least one meal per day, although my relapsing into the occasional cigarette cuts through that dream fairly quick. Cook and I won trivia again, 4 for our last 6, with Dana and Ellen. Our last win guarantees us a spot at the semi-finals in May, which I’m looking forward to.

I’m reading Don DeLillo’s short stories and Stephen King’s It. DeLillo’s writing really lives at the tip of the nib, each set word a solid rivet in a sprawling lyric architecture, as if he believed total failure might occur with a single misplaced comma. King writes like a daydreaming tollbooth worker; you can hear the mantra in his head: “Get it down on paper. Worry about the rest later.” His output amazes me, and I understand his draw. He plays on heartstrings and fears, and his characters come off as “aw shucks” or monstrous beasts, even the human ones, spouting inanities and cliches, but his paragraphs race, and I’m often left remembering more specific images and cues in his work than DeLillo’s. DeLillo owns the moment; King the rising tension; and both are epic writers. I have come to admire King’s ability as a writer not to get to the damn point. That may sound odd, but here’s an example: the first scene in It describes a flooding storm in which a young boy is chasing a paper boat down a current of water on a street. You learn, quiet soon, that the boy is going to die. Then you are given several building scenes of recent backstory, introducing characters and events, and the fact that this young innocent is loved, so his death will be tragic, and it will come at the hands of something nightmarish. For the six pages between foretelling and execution, the reader endures the passable prose because all he really wants to know is: how does this boy die? And because it is King: what goddamned evil thing is going to get him? Why a clown of course. In a sewer drain. And he’ll coax him with balloons and rip one of his arms off. Of course with King one’s disbelief button is immediately pressed again with a scene involving cops who refuse to investigate a highly suspect event because it seems irrational to them but not the reader (an old TV trick), but it’s his formula of placing the future in the present, only to then explicate the past, which is the honest work of a master storyteller. DeLillo’s intrigue builds in markedly different ways. Small truths cling together line by line and suddenly the specter of the American Subconscious is hovering over a football field. His characters are untrustworthy; they’re slightly insane or glowing with self-interest and everyone has a plan and all the plans have major flaws. The events he describes, often historic, Pafko at the wall, let’s say, baseball’s famous Shot Heard Round the World, almost feels in collusion with another event happening alongside it, as with the soviets testing nuclear weapons, so that it seems nature itself is bent on organizing its own downfall. To build intrigue, DeLillo keeps scratching at the surface of those two events, like a man holding a globe at its two poles, and scratching and excavating until his fingers touch at the center. The intrigue lies in what DeLillo will dig up along the way. He’s a searcher, a wandering mystic that finds linkages in everything. King, by comparison, is a storyteller. I imagine him as an older brother who coaxes you out into the woods with him, pointing out plants along the way and naming them for you, playing to your interests with a soft sort of knowledge, and when you’re least expecting it, takes off at a sprint, leaving you alone and helpless. You chase after him and lose him for a while, noticing the sky grow dark, and finally find him by the river. Nothing has changed, it seems, but when he looks up and finds your eyes you realize everything has changed. You might say if you combined the two you’d get Dickens or Dostoyevsky, and you’d be close. But these two writers grew out of D & D, not the other way around; if not specifically their works, certainly from reading authors familiar with their conceits and tropes. How to reconnect them for myself? It’s probably better not to dig too deep with an expectation of discovering the key to solid writing. It’s good for a writer to understand how writers build their stories, but it’s a trap to convince yourself that formulas bring stories to life. Formulas can certainly introduce into an exoskeleton the low-grade hum of virtual life, responsible for such anemic zombies as sitcoms, but you would never ask a living human being the summary of her life’s plot, or believe a person who could readily give it to you.

I began sending out stories to journals and magazines again, after maybe six years, and landed one at the Cimarron Review, due out in the Fall. I imagine this year will see a big push to publish, having spent all this time writing and rewriting countless entities I’ve starved white for lack of getting out of the house and into something not false-light. I’ll report back on my progress. And to Aaron and Dominique, and to John Wheeler-Rappe and Leah, happy parenting.