Fog City Writer has undergone a makeover! It was time for a change and some updates (not to mention some posts!) so, voila! A fresh design and updates to my bio and timeline. I’ve also done a little housekeeping on my blogroll, which was overdue to say the least. Let me know if you think I’m missing a link to your blog. New posts coming soon!
I haven’t written anything new in a long time. I spent much of the 2nd half of 2011 revising and reconsidering writing that I’d begun, in some cases, years before. This was a good thing, as I am a horrible procrastinator when it comes to revisions. I would put off revising forever if I could. But alas, good stories, essays, novels, etc. don’t spring wholly formed and perfect from our brains. Or at least, from most people’s brains. I had to seize the revision momentum and go with it. I suspect that revision, while still somewhat gut-wrenching to me, has gotten easier. That more practice with revision has resulted in less time wasted, improved editing skills, and a sharper eye. It took me years – literally, years! – to understand what was involved in revision. It’s not just about cutting words or adding paragraphs or polishing sentences, though it could involve all of those. It’s about pinpointing what is working and what is not, about finding flaws of logic and blips of out of place action, writing, or characterization. It’s about seeing the parts at work in the whole.
All of this revision has paid off: I made progress with stories I had long ago declared dead. I got an acceptance for a story I have been shopping around for more than three years and writing and revising for five. The story was a finalist in a contest at a major magazine two years ago. After that milestone, I submitted it with a confidence and fervor that I had not applied to any other piece of writing. And still it took two years to find a home for it.
If this sounds discouraging, I do not mean it to. What I suppose I’m getting at is that this is a tough business, writing. For example, the magazine that accepted it wants another revision before publication. Good stories don’t spring wholly formed and perfect from our brains and they don’t even end up that way after 47 revisions. There is always room for more revision to be done.
The concerns about the story from the editors are valid; I have known there was something that needed to be clarified in the story, but despite the many, many revisions the piece went through (I lost count), I could never quite get at what that was. So I’m thrilled and grateful –they’ve agreed to take on a story that needs work, and they’ve agreed to help me make the needed tweaks that I couldn’t quite see. The surprise, beyond the acceptance, is how relieved I am that someone finally “gets” this story and what it needs after all this time.
And so, it begins again. And again, and again. That’s writing.
The November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine contains a motivating piece by Bay Area novelist Ellen Sussman about her daily writing practices. (Alas, not available online.) I’m always intrigued by the different ways in which writers approach their work — some people write at night, some in the morning, some can’t eat while writing, some must snack all the way through a writing session. Ahem. Some write longhand, some type on a computer. (One of my favorite descriptions of writing process is that of Truman Capote, who wrote lying down, sipping coffee or sherry, depending on the time of day) I was at a Litquake panel on the art of the novel last month in which author Bharati Mukherjee said she writes a first draft of her novel on a laptop, closes the file and does not refer to or open it again while she writes a second draft. She does the same thing for a third draft, essentially writing the novel from scratch three times! She did not, she said, recommend that method.
Anyway, Ellen Sussman’s piece was straightforward and made me realize, in addition to giving me some new ideas about how to structure my writing days around a 3-year-old and household chores, that I need some writerly confidence. First and foremost, Sussman recommended this:
Repeat after me: ‘I’m a writer. It’s my job. It’s what I do.’
If you embrace that statement, then you can begin to develop the practice of writing. You go to work everyday. You sit your butt in a chair … and you put in your hours just like everyone else who goes to work.
I know this, of course, but I haven’t been doing it, or acting like writing is my job, which I very much would like it to be. Even if you have a full-time job and a houseful of kids, Sussman writes, you have to commit, even if it’s only to one hour a day. “It’s your other job — your writing job — and you can’t neglect it. Do it. You’re a writer.”
Sussman goes on to describe her writing days (5-6 days a week, every week). She sets working hours (9am-noon) and a word count minimum (1,000). If she doesn’t hit her minimum, she goes back to her desk after lunch. She meditates for 5-10 minutes before she begins and blocks the Internet with Mac Freedom for the 3 hours she’s supposed to be writing.
She divides her time into units of one hour each. For the first 45 minutes of each hour:
You do nothing but write. You don’t stop writing. Then, no matter where you are at the 45-minute mark, you get up from your desk. You take a 15-minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work.
Sussman says she waters her garden or puts in a load of laundry, for example. She doesn’t check email or make calls or do other writing-related work. After the 15 minutes are up, when she’s back at her desk for the next unit of time, she sees that her unconscious mind has been working over her material and she’s full of new ideas. The 15-minute breaks allow for physical rest from the computer, too, and a way to get through your writing when you have a tough day (only 30 more minutes and I get a break!)
Because of this schedule, Sussman writes in her article, “If I have to rewrite a hundred pages of the novel, I know that I can do it in a month. I don’t despair as I would if I wrote a couple of pages one day and a couple of pages a week later.” So efficient! She says her writing practice allows her to take risks, since if it doesn’t work out, “I sit my butt down the very next day and start over.”
Do you have a writing schedule? What do you do to keep the rest of your life at bay while you getting your writing done?
I attended a liberal arts college affiliated with the Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends.
Often when I tell people I attended a Quaker school, they say, “Quaker? You mean like the oatmeal?”Or they say, “Is that like the Amish?”
Um, no, not like the oatmeal, though the logo on the Quaker Oats carton does feature a man in “Quaker dress” possibly circa the time of William Penn. And no, not like the Amish, who shun modern technology and thus use horse and buggy as their means of transport and do not have electricity in their homes, etc.
If you’re not familiar with Quakerism, you might have heard of a “Friends” school near you. (President Obama’s daughters attend a Quaker-affiliated school in Washington, for example, Sidwell Friends. There’s a Friends school here in San Francisco, and, as you might expect, quite a few in the Philadelphia area.) Or you might know that Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both Quaker. Without getting into too many details of the religion itself, Quakers, in general, believe that God exists in all of us, or at the very least can speak through all of us. Quaker services are called meetings, and traditionally, no priest or minister leads the group. Each member of the congregation sits in silence until moved to speak or sing, by God. Quakers value peace, simplicity, equality, and education. They tend to be involved in community service or social justice projects.
I was not raised Quaker, nor do I attend Quaker meeting now. But I came away from my college experience having internalized Quaker values. Everyone in my college referred to everyone else by his or her first name, whether that person was a student, professor, or the president of the college. I found some hierarchies I encountered after college foreign and hard to navigate, because I had spent four years in an institution essentially devoid of hierarchy. Problems there were solved by consensus, meaning that everyone involved in the decision making had a say, and that as a group we would reach an understanding. I found bosses, afterward, strangely dictatorial, and could not understand why my opinion was not always welcome – I had been taught that everyone’s opinion mattered, always.
Quakers have been known for being conscientious objectors in wartime. Several of my college classmates’ fathers had been jailed during the Vietnam War for their refusal to fight. Some universities offer degrees in military history, or memberships in ROTC. The school I graduated from offered a major in Peace, and courses such as “Nonviolent Responses to Conflict.” It’s hard to be surrounded by that kind of thinking for four years and come away unaffected. I was reminded, recently, of my school’s commitment to these values when I read this speech, written by my former English professor, in response to 9/11. I was flooded with relief when I read it on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. I did not realize how much I had been looking for a response that made sense to me, after all of the bellicose rhetoric and actions by our country over the past decade. That, “if someone else has decided we are at war, we nonetheless have a choice of the weapons we will use.”
I did not fully comprehend at the time how much Quakerism impacted every aspect of my college life: My studies, my friendships, my extracurricular activities.
I played field hockey during college. Our team would gather in a close circle before games and cheer, raising our sticks into the air, as if ready to attack. I did not see a disconnect between Quakerism and sports and I suppose there is not, if sports are merely games or exercise and not metaphors for conflict and aggression. We embraced the irony of the cheer we chanted before our games; we screamed it until our voices cracked, almost with a kind of Quakerly pride.
Kill, Quakers kill!
One coach made us cheer a more peaceful version, but it did not fill us with the same glee.
It came to my attention recently that my college has acquired a mascot, which does, indeed, look like the guy on the oatmeal, which I suppose I find endearing. It’s perhaps more endearing to me that the college has not had a mascot until now, some 150+ years after its founding. There’s a contest to name the mascot — the choices are Big Earl, Barnabus, Quincy, and, wait for it … Oatis.
My experience was not that of the typical American undergraduate, obviously.
Our campus did not support fraternities or sororities, since membership in exclusive clubs creates inequality. Ours was a dry campus — Quakers were, historically, against the use of alcohol. Of course, like college students everywhere, we drank, we smoked and we debated. We grew up. But we called our professors Bob, Jun, and Chuck, because those were their names. We joined the college’s president at his home for dinner. We studied world religions, not just Quakerism. We learned how to serve others, and a great many of us went on to become teachers, aid workers, and counselors. A disproportionate number of us studied abroad, because the world is small and only through communication and understanding can there be peace. We lived and studied together in a small, respectful community that I miss. My nostalgia reaches beyond the place, however, and beyond the people who inhabited that place those four years I spent there; it infuses my thinking and my actions in ways I am still, nearly two decades later, noticing.
Some previous posts:
Apparently it has been two months since I last posted here. Yikes. Hello, dear patient reader.
The summary version is this:
– In early October, I wrapped up a six-month editing gig at the newspaper where I have been employed on and off for years. I vastly underestimated the impact working there part-time would have on my writing and parenting, as well as, let’s face it, on how clean the house is and the likelihood we would all be eating frozen pizza for dinner. So the past months have been more hectic and unpredictable than months already are with an energetic toddler in the house. I’m in catch-up mode now.
– Somehow, during the past six months, I have revised, finished or polished 3 short stories and two sections of two different novels. I am enrolled in a short story workshop right now, which has been instrumental in pushing me to get a move on with two of those short stories. The workshop has been reminding me how much I like to be involved in workshops, and how I would like to teach one someday soon. And how much I really need to get a writing group going.
– My brother- and sister-in-law and their twin girls recently moved to Australia, and as a result I picked up Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country. I had forgotten how much I enjoy Bryson’s writing, his humor, and his masterful way of meshing information with experience. So I picked up A Walk in the Woods, which I also liked (though I didn’t think it was as strong a book as Sunburned Country, which is interesting, since Walk appears on numerous lists of top 100 nonfiction books, but I suppose that has more to do with some kind of American self-centered-ness. Ahem.) Anyway, the point is, Bryson has inspired me to think about writing more nonfiction, which as you may recall, was the focus of my MFA degree, and for a long time, the only genre I wrote in. So, I’ve been reading, for research, and making some notes on a potential book idea which I am quite excited about. If I could grab enough uninterrupted time to get going on it in earnest, that would be, well, great, but something that is unlikely to happen until after the New Year.*
-I have been trying to put my writing before social media and blogging, which I suppose is the biggest reason why I haven’t been posting here. I am easily distracted, especially, I find, by Twitter. So I’ve been trying to lay low(er) and devote what little time I have for writing-related tasks to actual writing. (What a crazy idea!) This doesn’t mean I’m off social media, or that I will stop blogging, but if I disappear for a while, that is one reason** why.
-I’m currently wading through David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas which is good, overwhelming, hard, six books in one, and brilliant, if a tiny bit gimmicky.
-Two days ago, I returned from a weekend in Denver, where it was beautiful and 80 degrees and the trees were in full fall colors. Today Denver is expected to get a foot of snow.
So there you have it. Hello again.
*See also, upcoming travel, visitors, holidays, spouse business trips, toddler tantrums, toddler birthdays, etc. Whew.
**For other reasons, see above.
We lived, in the mid-1970s, in a suburban development where the moms did not work and they hosted Tupperware parties and sleepovers instead. The houses, a repeating pattern of five different Colonial styles coated in aluminum siding and fake brick panels, were each allocated a fraction of an acre. Tiny lots and tiny yards, each family’s grassy lawn right up against the next. But I could walk a few houses down the street to visit my friends; we could ride our bikes over the uneven panels of the sidewalk; our neighbors knew us and we knew them. I remember our neighbors on one side well: an older couple whose kids were in college or about to be. They had a grandparental air; perhaps they found my grade-school girl antics a relief in their mostly empty nest. I remember marching up to their front door, alone, visiting whenever I felt the need. I was fed cookies and milk. The couple’s son sometimes walked me home from the bus stop, though it was only about a block from my house — there was an old-fashioned neighborliness about the place we lived. Our house had dark blue aluminum siding, wall-to-wall shag carpet and a brick fireplace. The kitchen was olive green and coated in linoleum. It was strangely comforting to know my way around friends’ homes, even if I hadn’t visited before, because they were in layout and décor very similar to mine.
In between my fourth and fifth grade school years, we moved. My parents had built a house with some inheritance they’d received, a modest Cape Cod on about two acres, some 20 minutes south of our previous home. It was a greater distance that it seemed. That short drive took us from suburban to rural, to “peace and quiet,” to open space. There were no sidewalks. Our new house was in a development with only two intersecting streets and few homes. Empty lots bordered ours on all sides. The land had once been a farm, probably tobacco, and had been carved into lots for people like my parents to invest in and build upon. There were few trees, and fewer children. I rode my bike up and down the middle of our street, back and forth, back and forth, and some days I didn’t see another soul. We grew berries and corn and peas on our new land, and I learned to dig potatoes and coax squash from Maryland clay. The fledgling community was surrounded by hilly pastures and fields of corn, soybeans, and tobacco, and occasionally a stray dog would appear. In the country, people dropped off what they no longer wanted. I came home from school one day and found an old racehorse grazing in our yard. I watched a bull trot down the street one morning while I ate breakfast. We were all displaced. Birds flew into our chimney, snakes slithered in the front door. My cat caught field mice and crickets in our basement. Our dog had a run-in with a skunk. We could hear gunfire in the spring and fall, and got to know when goose hunting season began. The Canada geese flew overhead year-round, and I found their constant barking companionable and soothing in the country silence. Rabbits nibbled on our lawn nightly.
We live on a 17 percent grade in San Francisco at the place where the fog turns to sun. The houses have been built at odd angles to accommodate the slope, and we are crammed onto this hill: wall meets wall, roof meets roof. I have met a few of our neighbors, but our relationships are guarded and suspicious. One blond woman three houses down looks me in the eye every time I say hello, but keeps her lips pursed. An older woman who lives two houses up the hill waves when she sees us and gave us a pot full of prickly succulents when our son was born, but she is not interested in conversation. The middle-aged couple who rent an apartment next door smoke so much pot we can sit on our front steps and get high on their second-hand smoke. Another neighbor meditates every morning while sitting on the wall between our houses, and I have to explain to my son why she won’t say hi. Here the land is too steep for a yard. We have a deck, and I grow flowers in pots and built-in beds. I find myself looking for my former neighbors, sometimes brought low with nostalgia for them. I watch city birds from our bay window, ravens and sparrows mostly, and wait for my once-a-year sighting of the fat raccoon who roves the neighborhood. When I notice mice darting into the bushes near the street, I stop to watch. I take the time to point out to my son the spiders in our flower beds, the hummingbirds whizzing by, a ladybug. We visit friends on weekends, city-dwelling friends who moved to the suburbs and now have grassy yards and pools, and deer that eat their landscaping; friends who know the neighbors from whom their kids beg for candy at Halloween. Our visits feel like vacation.
Some previous posts:
Someone — perhaps a professor or classmate in my MFA program, I can no longer remember — said that you have to get at least 100 rejections before you have any chance of getting an acceptance.
At the time I heard that advice/statistic I was in awe. And I was discouraged by it, since I had only a handful of rejections in my file.
These days I see a kind of truth to it, although the truth has less to do with the number 100 than it does with experience. It has been years since I heard the 100-rejection mantra, and since then I have written many new pieces, some that I actively send out, an some that I still deem Not Ready for Publication.
Last spring I created a document in which I listed all of the lit mags I would like to be published in. They are magazines I respect, that have good reputations. They are of the top-tier variety. Perhaps everyone else just goes immediately for these elite mags, but I had not. Did not.
However, I had started to feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of lit mags detailed on Duotrope and New Pages. I wanted to narrow the field. Also, I felt it was time to bring some self-confidence to the process: Instead of sending to mags that might publish me, I decided to go after mags in which I’d like to be published. I had been published in a couple of smaller, lesser-known mags, and I felt that it was time to go for it. Obviously, I knew there was greater potential for rejection with my new method, but I chose to ignore that voice in the back of my head that said failure was imminent. Instead, I sent out a few batches of targeted submissions in greater numbers than I ever have before.
And then the rejections began to roll in. At first this was (and still is, sometimes) extremely discouraging. It was easy, on days in which the rejections hit me hardest, to question my work, my burst of self-confidence that had led to me submitting to these mags in the first place, and, sometimes, the whole literary endeavor. But here’s the thing: I have received a lot of “nice” rejections. By “nice rejections” I mean, not your standard form letter. I mean a letter/email addressed to me, with personalized comments, some even with specific references to things they liked in my submission. The other day I received the nicest, longest, most personal such letter in the mail that I have ever received, from a well-known magazine I highly respect, and it simultaneously gave me hope that I am so, so close and broke my heart with disappointment, because I was so, so close.
Things I have learned in the past year:
-It is not about how many rejections you receive, it is about how many submissions you send out. (Of course of your best, complete work, and of course to the appropriate magazine. Those are givens, in my mind.)
-The number 100 means little. Experience in the form of repeated action with new and different work that is improving all the time means a lot.
-Nice rejections, while they can be disappointing, can also buoy your confidence. They mean that someone, maybe even multiple people, read your work and liked it enough to personalize a response to you when it didn’t make the cut for publication. They mean that you need to keep sending that piece out. (Maybe you need to tweak it, maybe not.) Nice rejections sometimes include invitations to send other work to the same magazine, and that is an opportunity that should not be ignored.
In the future, when I have published extensively and am teaching some writing workshop somewhere, I do not plan to tell my students that they need to get 100 rejections. I am going to tell them to send out 100 submissions.* Of their best, best piece that has been revised and put away and revised again and again and again. And to see how long it takes before the rejection streak is broken by an acceptance. I suspect well before 100, if you’re doing things right. I see it this way: If you have received 100 rejections FOR ONE PIECE OF WRITING, and not one of them is anything beyond a form letter, there’s something wrong with your piece or your judgment about the appropriate magazines for your piece.
If you google 100 rejections, you’ll see that a lot of people are subscribing to this philosophy (Who started this? Who came up with the number 100?) I’ve read a number of blog posts about attempts to garner 100 rejections and all seem to be fairly positive about the experience. They are, in general, referring to multiple pieces of writing being submitted to multiple magazines simultaneously. It’s not inconceivable or even unusual, I don’t think, to rack up 100 rejections while sending out 5 different pieces of writing — that’s 20 per story or essay. After the above blog post was making the rounds on Twitter, someone at the Hayden’s Ferry Review asked how many rejections most people get in a year, and the answers ranged from 50 to 250. I don’t think that’s the salient question, though.
I have been submitting both fiction and nonfiction pieces to literary magazines off and on since 2006. If I am counting anything, I’m counting rejections per piece, rather than how many rejections I’ve received in total. If I send out 20 submissions of the same essay or story and I don’t get a “nice” rejection (or an acceptance) from one of them, I suspect the piece of writing in question needs more work. And I tweak it before sending it out again, or I put it away until I am able to see its flaws more clearly. I think in many ways this is a numbers game, but I don’t think submitting a piece that needs work to more magazines makes it more likely to be published.
The numbers game should be your own, that is, how many rejections do you feel a single piece of writing can withstand before you feel need to revise it again? How many nice rejections should you rack up before you try to figure out what it is you need to tweak in that piece of writing to gain its publication somewhere? The answers may be different for different people, and probably, most successfully, are about each author’s intuitions about a piece of writing, where she’s sent it, and the results she’s gotten, more than any particular number.
*And I don’t mean 100 submissions at once. I think submitting in batches of 10-15 is a manageable and helpful way to go. When you’ve had responses from those, then send out the next batch, if necessary.
I had to take my car into the shop the other morning and ended up riding the No. 1 bus downtown to work, instead of my usual, numbing underground train route. The crowded bus ride ( for without fail, the No. 1 bus is always crowded) over Nob Hill and through Chinatown brought me back to when I first moved to San Francisco 11 years ago. I used to live on the dodgy downward slope of Nob Hill, and I often rode that bus to work. Some days — sunny days — I walked, because I could not believe I lived in such a place. The Edwardian architecture, the glimpses of sparkling blue between the blocks, the squeals of the cable car and the calls of merchants in Chinatown selling their wares — my living here felt impossible and dreamlike.
The other day, when I pushed my way into the packed aisle I remembered the smell of that bus, and I suppose it was the olfactory memory that made me pensive. It took me a few moments to identify the sharp tang of ginseng. When the smell became recognizable, I longed to write the sentence: The bus smelled of ginseng. And then I had an epiphany of sorts: I should be writing about San Francisco. Why am I not writing about San Francisco?
The novel/stories I have been writing for the past year take place in the Maryland/Washington DC area. They take place in two different time periods, neither of which is the present. Why am I making things so hard on myself? is what I thought as I clutched the handstrap and the bus lurched over Nob Hill to the financial district. We passed Grace Cathedral and its maze for walking meditation. We passed the dinginess of the Stockton Tunnel, and the fruit markets along the sidewalk on the edge of Chinatown, with their makeshift cardboard signs all in Chinese. I wanted to get out and look, and to write. (Alas, I had to get to work.)
Now of all times, I thought, when I am juggling work and being a parent and on any given day who knows what other obligations, I should be writing about this place, about the present, or at least a not-so-distant past that I have lived through and remember. I should not be writing about a place that’s a 6-hour plane ride away, that I don’t get to visit freely for research because whenever I am there I am also tending to a 2-year-old who does not have any interest in long car rides and visits to libraries. I should not be writing about a time period that requires a lot of research, research that my local public library cannot help me with, because its historical collection is focused on the West Coast, not the East. I should not be writing about a place that is so small and obscure that detailed research requires buying books that are out of print or are $45 and only come in hardback.
It’s almost as if I set out to make writing a book as hard as I possibly could.
It’s almost as if I’ve set myself up to fail, on purpose.
Why am I trying to prevent myself from writing a novel? is what I thought as I watched an elderly Chinese man struggle to the door of the bus with his cane, a ball of plastic bags in his free hand that would later be filled with fresh produce and perhaps steam buns or ginseng root. Next to him sat a well-dressed blonde, texting someone named Fletcher on her iPhone, and while thoughts about writing and self-defeatist behavior rushed about in my head I was conscious of an affection for these people on the bus, for these characters I know.
A few posts back, I mentioned an article in which an LA Times TV critic offers her 10-step guide to being a working mother and writing a novel. No. 10 on her list? Realistic expectations.
10. Realistic expectations. I suppose there is someone out there who could write the Great American Novel while working full time and raising three kids, but I’m not her. My two books are Hollywood mysteries, which I didn’t have to research because I have written about the industry for years. I think they are very good books, well-written and fun to read, but they aren’t going to win a Pulitzer. That will have to wait until the kids head to college.
That is perhaps the scariest of McNamara’s suggestions. If you are a perfectionist, as many writers consider themselves to be, this is some hard advice to swallow. But there’s something to be said for being realistic, for making things easier on yourself. After all, writing a book is hard enough without putting unnecessary obstacles in your path.
Remember back in the day — and by that I mean January 26, 2011 — when I promised to write a second blog post about linked stories?
Right. Well, I didn’t either, until the other day, when I was thinking writing linked stories is so much harder than it looks, and I was reminded that I had written an “On Linked Stories Part I” blog post in which — you guessed it! — I promised to consider why writing linked stories is so much harder than it looks.
Well, here I am, six months later, and the nature of the beast (yes, beast!) is still mysterious to me. I have written 2 linked stories, along with 5 or 6 halves of other stories, all connected to the first two. By connected I mean, the characters are the same, though the point of view differs in each piece of writing. For example in the two complete stories, one is from the perspective of the mother, and one is from the point of view of the daughter. In two of the incomplete pieces, the POV is that of the grandmother. In most cases, the setting is the same, though sometimes the time period is different, depending on who’s narrating.
My intentions in writing this way, rather than, say, writing a straight-up novel:
– Short stories take less time, and have an end. I am a busy mom with a part-time job and lots of other things going on. I have trouble focusing on a longer work because I forget what the heck I am writing towards.
-Because short stories end, they can be sent out even while the longer collection of linked pieces is still underway. If some of these stories were to get published, that would be a good selling point for the book in its entirety, when that time comes. See? Practical.
You might remember (or not, since it was 6 months ago) that my previous post quoted a writer on The Millions who saw these points as benefits to the linked-story genre. It’s a practical way of producing a book, is what she seemed to be saying, and how I saw it, too. She also added that each story allowed her to hone her craft in a way that writing a novel did not.
Here’s the problem. In order to write an entire collection of stories that are interconnected, YOU NEED TO KNOW WHAT THE OVERARCHING STORY IS. If you don’t, you’re writing 10 separate short stories that happen to involve the same characters, setting, and so on, but don’t actually link in any meaningful way. You’re writing a collection of short stories.
In the end, though it sounds reasonable, practical and, let’s face it, pretty neat, to write a linked-story collection piece by piece and story by story … proceed with caution. In my opinion, you’re still writing a novel.
And by you, I mean me. I’m writing a novel. It is possible, in fact, that writing the novel as separate-but-linked stories has actually hurt my ability to construct the plot that connects the stories to make an entire book. Because I can skip from story to story I can, for example, allow myself to stop the action when it gets too hard. I can end the story I’m working on and pick up with a different one instead. And, because I am focusing on so many shorter narratives, I have neglected the umbrella narrative — that is, what is the storyline that holds all of these pieces together?
I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from writing a linked story collection. I love, love, love to read them. They are often beautiful in tone and writing style in ways that novels cannot always afford to be. The breaks in the narrative can be just as, if not more, poignant than a continuous narrative. All I’m saying is, do not allow yourself to be fooled.
What’s not obvious from the title of this book is that Howe was, at the time in which this book is set, a senior editor at The Paris Review. And thus while the memoir is ostensibly about the author, his Korean wife and mother-in-law buying and running a Brooklyn deli, there’s a subplot about the final years of the Review under its venerable editor, George Plimpton.
Howe manages to weave his life at the Review, the trials of running a small business in New York, and, perhaps most compellingly, the tangle of emotion and obligation in his wife’s family’s life vs. his extremely Puritan New England upbringing. He’s a descendant of those who came over on the Mayflower (and his family never left Plymouth, MA) and as the book progresses he finds himself learning to understand and support his immigrant mother-in-law, and to give in to his wife’s sense of family duty. It’s an interesting perspective, and as a reader you can sense the anxiety it caused him. George Plimpton and the struggling Paris Review are another source of anxiety and stress, and yet Howe has written a humorous, loving memoir that displays both his discomfort with and respect for the ways Plimpton and his mother-in-law do things.
The descriptions of the inner workings of The Paris Review are intriguing, sometimes funny. (They would, I suspect, be funnier if I wasn’t submitting my own work to lit magazines.) For example:
One of the quintessential Paris Review experiences is opening a cupboard to look for a coffee mug and having an avalanche of short fiction land on top of you. You open a closet meant for coats and there’s a stack of cardboard boxes containing unsolicited manuscripts. You sit down at your desk and stretch out your legs, and bump—there’s a whole milk crate of human creativity. There’s slush on the shelves in piles reaching up to the ceiling, slush in the basement in ice coolers and picnic baskets, slush under the toilet, slush over the sink … There’s so much slush it makes you wonder if everyone in the country, instead of watching reality TV and playing video games, is writing short stories.
The magazine lacked any employees handling the business aspects — marketing and permissions, for example, which led to mistakes by and complications for its editors, including Howe. And Plimpton’s failing health presents challenges that no one at the magazine is prepared to handle. Meanwhile Howe and his wife are living with his in-laws on Staten Island, working night shifts at the financially teetering deli and watching his mother-in-law work harder than he ever imagined possible. He must learn about her past and understand why she is the way she is. She’s a force in the book, a character that Howe presents perhaps more completely than he does his wife, a corporate attorney who works shifts in the deli after a long day in her Manhattan office. The family learns to manage employees, how to handle deliverymen who try to extort them, and they battle undercover officers trying to catch them in the act of selling cigarettes to minors. Of course, as in any convenience store, there’s also the added concerns about crime, small margins, and difficult customers. You can’t help but want to know how it turns out.