Saw those words at Will Shetterly’s blog yesterday and thought it was sage advice. Then again, I often think Shetterly offers sage advice, among which, over the years, has been that I should throw my novel out and rewrite, which I did, and which then carried me on through both grad school and The Prodigal Hour.
He posted it as start of the New Year, which has always been a little blurry for me if only because I tend to gauge every year according to three milestones (Halloween or the Samhain, New Year’s Eve, and my birthday). The latter two come with official numbers and dates while the first has always felt in a way more spiritual, but then again, all have some meaning to me, and I track my life according to all three. This year, the time between the Samhain and yesterday was full of wrapping things up and preparing to start anew, almost as if it were preparation for the fresh start yesterday offered. And prepare I did: leaving Denver, polishing up my business plan, finalizing grades, submitting my application to NYU…
That latter came with a great deal of excitement. This year’s anniversary of September 11th hit me differently than in previous years, if only because this past September, I started to realize how much I missed Manhattan. Back when I was looking at grad schools the first time around, I had narrowed my choices to NYU and USC and chose USC solely because I hadn’t actually done LA yet, and one of the reasons Denver seemed so attractive was that I wanted to be in a new city but didn’t think I was yet ready to return to Manhattan, and home.
This year, around September, the call of Manhattan came as of a siren save the danger. It’s in my gut and makes my abs clench. I want it. I want NYU.
Wanting NYU surprises me a little; I already have a master’s, and one from USC at that. It’s not like I ended up at one of the seemingly million MFA programs in the country; as with most things in my life, when I did it, I did it hard and I did it right. At the same time, though, I earned what I think of as a very functional degree at USC. It’s in professional writing, not fine arts, and in that program I took classes in business and marketplace. I analyzed the publishing industry and wrote a business plan. I mean, don’t get me wrong; I also took workshops in fiction and screenwriting, and I wrote, of course, but then again, two of the workshops I took during my second year became what inspired me to continue.
They were workshops with John Rechy (City of Night) and Janet Fitch (White Oleander), the latter of whom was exactly half the reason USC became one of my final two choices, mainly because White Oleander had been both featured on Oprah and one of my favorite books (the other half was Marc Norman, and Shakespeare in Love). I’m not ashamed to admit I struggled with those two classes, particularly with Janet’s, though not for any reason that had to do with her; really, I struggled because I’m a stubborn and cocky sumbitch who, at the time, considered himself a genre writer who did it for entertainment. I mean, fancy language and pretty phrases are fine, but story first, man.
It’d be a great story if I could tell you I overcame my own damned self and aced both those classes while at the same time discovering new and major things about writing, but I can’t, because I didn’t; John’s class was for credit, and in Janet’s I got a B+.
My first reaction to that latter grade was to bristle. It’s true. “I’m Will Entrekin. I don’t do B+, and especially not in a writing class, thank you very much.”
What? At least I’m aware that’s how I am.
That reaction didn’t much change until several months later. Nearly a year, in fact, and when it did, it came as a result of a book review blog.
You see, I first have to admit my blush on Raych, who maintains both Books I Done Read and I Am Saved by the Buoyancy of Citrus, two of the most awesomely named blogs I’ve ever seen. I mean, that latter is one of my favorite Mitch Hedberg jokes (my favorite being: “Man, I’m through chasing my dreams. I’m just going to find out where they’re headed and catch up with them later.”). And Raych is funny and cool and flat-out random and has one of the single greatest writing styles I’ve ever seen, which is often like a suckerpunch straight to my awesome receptors, which is probably why I ended up with such a blush on her (a blush being, of course, a blog crush. You know, like when someone’s all witty and hysterical and dreamy when you read their blogs? What? It’s going to catch on, you watch).
Hanyway (that’s totally a Raych-ism). No, but seriously, the point of this story is that, after I read her other reviews, I totally wanted her to do my book. Part of me wanted her to love it, but truthfully, I didn’t care so long as she just read the damned thing. So I wrote to her, and she said, sure, she’d read it, and so I sent off to her a book I’d done wrote for her to read, and then got back to grading and studying and all that sorta stuff.
A few weeks later, I received an e-mail from Raych, in which she included her review of the book (which you can read here). Raych, you see, had liked the book but not lurved it, which is what you always hope to do with a good book, or at least one of mine. She began that review by noting that she had wanted to be punchdrunk on it (which is just awesome, and hyeah, totally), but had just really liked it, which had been, for her, a bit of a letdown. I don’t know if she thought I’d be disappointed that she hadn’t lurved it, and then again, maybe I was, a little bit, but then again, I had to be honest with her about the book, and my own feelings toward it. I think I told her that if my younger self had given my older self a copy, I would have read it with some bemusement, and I would have ruffled my younger self’s hair (because I have pretty awesome hair), and I would have said, “You know, it ain’t half bad, kid. You’ve got some talent, and Lord knows you’ve got the verve. Now why don’t you sit back down and write us a real book.”
(which I’ve done. The Prodigal Hour? Oh, hell yes. Which is why I’m looking for agents, and not self-publishing. Which is sad, in a way, because I want nothing less than to share it with you, because: boom, baby)
At some point in my response to Raych, I also mentioned something about literary aspirations versus those toward entertainment. I might have even said “I ain’t a literary writer.”
Which caught something in me. Not like a suckerpunch, but I think maybe I snagged something on that thought, because it stuck with me and started to unravel some things. I don’t think Raych meant to destroy my sweater, but that e-mail held the string as I walked away, and yeah, I’m totally busting out the Weezer to make the metaphor, but there it is, because at some point, when I was lying on the floor (lying on the floor!) and had come undone, I realized why I’d been caught:
Why aren’t I a literary writer? What’s wrong, exactly, with being literary?
And that’s when John and Janet and their classes fell on my head, basically, and made me realize that it wasn’t the B+ I had bristled at but rather the challenge of the classes. Because though I sometimes manage to talk a good game, and though I haven’t, in fact, actually ever considered myself a ‘literary’ writer (I’m not altogether certain what that even means, to be honest), I’ve never wanted solely to entertain. I’ve always wanted to tell good stories as a challenge toward elevation and enlightenment: why can’t a good story at the same time make you think and even change the way you do so?
Isn’t that, in fact, what the best ones do?
What’s funny is that, today, as I’ve been looking to 2009 as a challenge I plan to blow completely out of the water, the aforementioned Will Shetterly answered in his blog a question I’d asked several months ago, when he had mentioned he no longer felt like a writer:
Because I’m not sure why I want to write. Long before I was published, my answer would have been “To entertain myself and others.” Which is a fine answer, but it doesn’t work for me anymore. When I worked to be published, my answer was, “To make a living in a way I enjoy.” But the publishing industry is changing in ways no one understands. Those of us who were paying attention knew Black Wednesday would come, just as we know traditional publishing will keep taking hits until it transforms itself or dies.
More importantly, I’m no longer satisfied with entertainment as a goal. It was never a pure goal—I always wanted to write stories that illuminated—but now I see most entertainment as soporific propaganda, comforting people without challenging them. Organized entertainment is the successor to organized religion, another way to tell people to be quiet and trust their masters.
As wise things said goes, I think that’s up there. I’d say great minds think alike, but I think it’s more likely that there’s a good reason I don’t just look up to Will but also in fact look to him, in many ways, mainly because he’s really down to Earth and approachable.
It’s also nice the ways the universe sometimes confirms your thoughts and your ways. I welcomed 2009 as I hope it goes; working hard and well. This year, I’m going to turn my hat backwards and apply my ass to my chair and crank it up a notch. This year, I’m going to accept the challenge.
And I hope, this year, I’m going to NYU.