Saludos de la Tierra

The first time Tookar drank Earth wine, he was on his third mission to monitor increases in the planet’s carbon dioxide. His spacecraft landed in the northern Rioja region of what Earthlings called Spain, in a valley surrounded by white-peaked mountains faded blue in the sunlight. Rows of vegetation bearing bunches of tiny, globular fruit stretched as far as he could see. It was a peculiar site, but it provided the research his superiors needed to determine a course of action against the planet.

Climbing down from his craft, he stood upright on two of his six tentacles and began scanning the air and soil with his instrument. As he slithered up the road, taking samples along the way, he came across a large, stone domicile with peaked roofs and a tower.

He slitted his eyes in amazement. He’d never seen an Earth dwelling before. He was usually assigned the most icy, desolate regions of the planet. Though it was against regulations to contact Earthlings, he was curious to meet them. What type of creatures could readily destroy their home? he wondered.

Cautiously Tookar entered the domicile through an archway covered in leafy vegetation. Inside was a courtyard. The courtyard was empty but there were signs of intelligent life. A table was set with an odd array of provisions––round, red fruits of some sort, edible cultures with yellowish rinds, dried meats, small, green ovoid objects; and slices of a white, spongy substance with a crusty outer shell. Nearby were cutting instruments and flat, white disks and a glass container filled with native plants. There was also another tall glass with markings around it and a strange red liquid inside. A sample of this liquid was in a thin glass.

Tookar scanned the liquid. It had an odd composition of native fruits, spices, and alcohol. He sniffed it. Fruity, sweet like native blossoms. Strange. He wondered how it would taste.

Purely out of scientific curiosity, he began sipping the liquid with his long, brown tongue. Immediately his palate picked up a rich combination of flavors, many of them new to his senses. There was a sweetness to it, but an acidity as well, with a bit of refreshing coolness that reminded him of a plant he had studied on a previous mission. The combinations were odd, but they blended well in the most pleasing way.

A warmth radiated from the tips of his tentacles. The pleasure centers of his brains glowed brightly. An interesting response, he thought giddily. It had the same intoxicating effect as his tranquilizing capsules, but far more delicious and gratifying.

Tookar drained the glass, then poured some more liquid from the container. He drank and consumed all the food. Most delicious, and reminiscent of the ritual feasts on his planet.

He was licking the dregs at the bottom of the glass when he heard voices coming from the structure. The Earthlings were returning. Why not stay, he thought, and offer them his salutations?

The Art of Giving Up

Invisible_ManAfter the publication of his classic novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison spent over forty years working on his sophomore effort, Juneteenth. When asked by an interviewer to explain the delay, he blamed it on a fire which destroyed his manuscript during the early 1970s. But now, nearly twenty years after his death in 1994, scholars believe Ellison was stricken with self-doubt and insecurities from the pressure of being the token voice of Black America during the pre-Civil Rights era following his celebrated debut. Ellison suffered from the strains of creative paralysis, a condition that, for whatever the reasons, can strike any writer. I ought to know; it happened to me. It took me twenty years to finish my novel.

Now I’m certainly not in the same league as Ellison; I’m not even a published novelist. Yet I know how easy it is to get caught in that trap. I experienced everything that could possibly go wrong and suffered the confusion, fear, and self-doubt that Ellison might have felt all those years. A more experienced writer, recognizing she was fighting a losing battle, might have given up. Yet nothing frightened me more.

I was ambitious. I was also young and still discovering my voice. And though I lived in the San Francisco bay area, a place so rich with its own literary traditions, I didn’t seek out a writing community. I had only my books. So I struggled alone because I thought that was the proper way to write.

I went into the project well-armed, or at least that’s what I thought. I knew what I wanted to write about. The novel was to explore suicide and denial within the black community through the eyes of a young girl who struggles to get to the bottom of her parents’ tragic and inexplicable deaths in a house fire several years earlier. She, along with her grandmother, her father’s best friend, an aunt and cousin, and her mother’s former lover formed the backbone of the story’s narrative. I kept a list of character names and bios and wrote a timeline of the community’s history. I included references to characters who were long dead and the gothic specter of ghosts and dream worlds. I wanted to write a serious novel and tossed in everything I thought would make it so. Confident that it was all going to come together somehow, I began writing. I wrote the prologue and the first few chapters with ease, but soon got stuck. My head crawled with so many ideas I had trouble organizing them all. I didn’t know what I was doing. In the end, I wound up writing by trial and error.

Realizing I needed help, I turned to books. I reread Toni Morrison’s novels––The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved––to study exposition, multiple character points of view, voice. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping taught me the power of observation, particularly of the natural world. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch, for better and worse, taught me about magic realism. I read books about writing like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a collection of Reader’s Digest books on craft. I researched the Vietnam war, as well as the history of African Americans in California.

The books were instructive, but they didn’t help me confront my main problem: How do I juggle plot and all 41KYQst9aILthese different voices and make them gel? That was something I was going to have to work out on my own. My main problem was that I was too generous and too desperate to be democratic. The novel had nine main characters, tons of exposition, a rigidly structured plot, enough stories to fill three novels, and my lame attempts at magic realism. I refused to make tough choices. As the problems multiplied, I became more frustrated and indecisive. Crippled with self-doubt, I’d write two or three pages only to delete them along with whatever confidence I had left.

While I struggled to fix the problems in my novel, I faced numerous setbacks that ground its progress to a halt. Like a lot of people in the 1990s, I was relying more on technology. Before I got a computer, I used a small laptop word processor and saved all my files on a floppy disc (remember those old relics?). It was a primitive machine but it performed all the necessary functions. Back then I was strangely confident in technology. I foolishly thought it was more reliable than a good old-fashioned hard copy manuscript ripped straight from a typewriter. You can’t destroy a floppy disc as easily as you can paper. It was all there, stored in a single file on a hard piece of plastic.

God, was I ever stupid!

One night before dinner I decided to work on my novel. I slid the floppy disc into the slot of my WP and clicked on my file. As it came up on screen, I realized something was wrong. My novel had been replaced by strings of squares and alphabetical and numerical gibberish. I frowned and scrolled down the entire page, growing more panicked. I exited the file and ejected the disc. After confirming that it was still in rewritable mode, I slid the disc back in again. Still the same problem. The disc was corrupted. My entire manuscript was gone. All those days, weeks, and months of hard work gone.

907781I wanted to toss the WP across the room. Instead I cried. I was frustrated and angry at myself, at technology, and the world in general. I had spent years conceiving, dreaming, planning, researching and writing this novel and now it all came to nothing.

Yet the more bad luck pushed at me, the more I pushed back. In an interview, Ellison, regarding his second novel, stated that “I managed to keep going with it, I guess, because there was nothing else to do.” I found myself in a similar dilemma. I wanted to write this novel so badly that I was determined to see it through to the end because I really had no other choice.

Needing space and clarity, I decided to put my novel aside and work on other writing projects. I had even begun submitting a few stories to magazines and journals. None of them were accepted, but I kept writing and developing my craft. I also started to read more. I bought an eclectic mix of novels and short story anthologies, learning as much from them as I could.

Still my thoughts drifted back to my novel. It rattled around in my head while I browsed in a bookstore, walked down the street, or rode the train to work. I’d jot down a few lines in my journal, knowing that I was going to start climbing that mountain again.

This time I tried a different strategy. I shared my short stories and fragments of my novel with coworkers and later joined a workshop. After I started attending school, I felt confident enough to workshop my work-in-progress. In a class of nearly forty, I read aloud the prologue to my novel. The response was encouraging. People loved the rich details and the humor.

It was the encouragement I needed to continue working on my novel. Everyday I wrote, balancing my time between classes and family, until I finally finished. When I wrote the last sentence, I leaned back in my chair and shrugged. I expected to feel something––elation, relief, joy––but instead felt nothing. In fact, it seemed rather anticlimactic. I was done, but I knew I wasn’t finished.

During my last semester at San Francisco State University, I took an independent study class with the Head11741 of the Creative Writing Department. I was to work one-on-one with her to plan and write a specific project. I chose my novel. Though I had a completed draft, I needed guidance on how to revise it. I sent her a synopsis and the first fifty pages. Her response was unequivocal. It was too long. She was right. At that point, it had tipped past a thousand pages. No publisher was going to take a chance on a debut fiction that was longer than three hundred. I’d heard this advice before, but it was the first time I took it seriously. I needed to butcher this thing.

She pointed out the repetitions in the novel, both on the plot and sentence level, and advised that I cut down word count by having characters talk to each other. I took her advice (though the one about characters talking to each other would drastically change a novel that was about the problems caused by people who don’t talk to each other). I made other serious edits. I took out the magic realism, which was quite frankly was amateurish. I dropped a few characters and truncated or excised scenes to tighten the plot. I edited the novel down to a little over five hundred pages. Not the three hundred or less I was aiming for, but still a pretty significant achievement. When I delivered another fifty pages to my instructor, she was more circumspect.

“Your characters are getting away from you,” she said. “Have you ever thought about writing this in third person?”

In other words I needed to distance myself from the text. Ironically in earlier versions the novel was written in third person, but it demanded to be written in first. Yet my instructor was right. These characters were running roughshod over me. I needed to wield more control.

After I graduated in 2009, I embarked on rewriting the entire novel in third person. I spent the next year on the revision, making more editing choices, truncating more scenes. Once completed, the story had become tighter, more focused. I had a better sense of what it was about thematically.

And yet, I was dissatisfied. I kept fiddling with the narrative, cutting scenes, adding others, or rewriting them altogether. Something wasn’t right. At first I thought I was being a perfectionist or that I was reluctant to let go after having worked on it for so long. By spring, however, I realized what happened. In trying to gain control over the narrative, I had also cut out its heart. The story needed to be in first person. It needed those clashing voices.

987799I rewrote the novel yet again, using the previous revised version as a template. Of course certain scenes and passages had to be rewritten, cut out, or added but the final version was essentially the same. All those voices I had trouble capturing now resounded beautifully, painfully, joyfully.

I set the manuscript away while I worked on other projects, but when I returned to it with fresh eyes, those fresh eyes still saw problems. As I reread the novel, my dissatisfaction with it grew. As much as I wished I had conquered all my problems, I was faced with the possibility that my novel just wasn’t any good. I continued to tinker away, adding scenes, rewriting sentences, and constantly obsessing over whether the novel was “good enough,” until one day, after toying with the idea of rewriting whole sections, I came to the conclusion that I was never going to be satisfied with it. It wasn’t because the story or characters weren’t good enough. Rather, I realized that I had changed. I was no longer the person or writer who had conceived this story over twenty years ago. My perspectives had changed. My writing style had changed as well. The only proper response to my novel was to simply let it go.

Yet I wasn’t entirely ready to let go of my characters. I still believed they deserved to have their story told. Since it was 2012, roughly twenty years after I first conceived the idea for the novel, I began to wonder what happened to these characters during that time. This gave me a whole new infusion of ideas. With very little preplanning I dove into a new novel. I had no idea what I wanted to do with this new novel or what I wanted it to be about (though a few ideas had percolated in the back of my mind). Rather, I just followed my instincts, taking it one step at a time. I wrote every day, a few pages here, a few paragraphs there, refusing to second-guess myself. I wrote down any idea that came to my head, no matter how wacky. As the novel progressed, the narrator’s voice became more humorous and snarky. I played around with structure and style, 518oQLsZroLincluding footnotes, twitter posts, and text messages (though hardly revolutionary, this was a new approach for me). By the end of that summer, I had completed over 98,000 words, which, through the revision process, I’d whittle down to nearly 96,000, a far cry from the 180,000+ behemoth that I had originally written years ago.

I had never written that way before and it was liberating. I trusted my instincts and took what I learned over the years to heart. I wasn’t afraid to take paths that the writer I used to be would have never had the confidence to take. There were ideas that I had included in the first draft that didn’t make it to the final rounds, but that’s okay. I learned that to get close to the results I wanted, I had to be willing to jump off a few cliffs and trust that the earth below was soft. I learned to take risks. But, more than anything, if working on this novel for twenty years has taught me anything, it was that I also had to be willing to risk failure and learn to give up. It was only by giving up on my novel that I could write the story that deserved to be told.

Variety: New Ending for David Fincher’s Adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

As chance would have it, I’m reading Gone Girl right now. So apparently the ending (no spoilers please) in David Fincher’s upcoming adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike has been changed. According to writer Gillian Flynn, Fincher asked her to change the ending for the movie’s screenplay.

“There was something thrilling about taking this piece of work that I’d spent about two years painstakingly putting together with all its 8 million Lego pieces and take a hammer to it and bash it apart and reassemble it into a movie.”

The entire article and interview can be found in Entertainment Weekly’s latest issue, including a cover of the two leads that was shot by Fincher.

Non-2013 Pop Culture I Discovered Last Year

AV Club recently asked their staff writers and regular readers an interesting question: What’s the Non-2013 pop culture you discovered this year? Well, that got me to thinking because 2013 was a pretty unique year for me in (re)discovering some great non-2013 pop cultural artifacts. I thought I’d take the time and share some of them with you.

I am Cuba (Yo Soy Cuba)

When Turner Classic Movies aired this classic piece of Soviet/Cuban agit-prop back in September, I was in awe. I’d read about how revolutionary this  film was, but I had no idea just how much, so watching it for the first time was a revelation. From the beautiful B&W cinematography to the narration, everything in this film is like a prose poem rich with imagery and music. Told in four separate stories, I Am Cuba takes place just before the Cuban Revolution, and, sparingly, though nonetheless sympathetically, tells the stories of four different people––a young kept woman living in Havana, a revolutionary student, a sugarcane farmer, and a man who joins the revolution after his family is killed. But the real star of the film, of course, is its cinematography. The scene in which a camera soars out of a window and over the city streets as it follows a funeral procession is nothing short of amazing. The dizzying camera movements bring you so fully and so completely into the film that the fourth wall breaks down and you are one with the sights, sounds, smells, and, most importantly, people of Cuba.

Forever Changes, by Love

I’d known for a while now about the 1960s rock band Love, headed by singer/songwriter Arthur Lee, a friend and contemporary of Jimi Hendrix’s, but 2013 was the year I discovered their seminal album Forever Changes. Released in 1968, Forever Changes is very much of its time––L.A. acid rock with off-beat, but deeply inspirational lyrics––yet it has a meditative allure that transcends time. I listened to this album almost non-stop over last summer, its songs, such as the majestic “You Set the Scene,” growing on me with each listen.

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

2013 was the year I first heard of Helen Oyeyemi, even though her first novel was published in 2005. Born in Nigeria but raised in Britain, this young writer has quickly made a name for herself in the literary world with novels like White is for Witching, Icarus Girl, and Mr. Fox (2011). Her stories are both literary and fantastic, emotionally resonant yet whimsical. Mr. Fox, for instance, is about a writer, St. John Fox, his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe, and his wife, Daphne. The entire novel is a storytelling competition between Fox and his muse, Mary Foxe, as they deal with the control each has over the other. Oyeyemi’s prose is deceptively simple, belying the density of thought and care in each sentence, but creates a world that is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Twin Peaks 

I first saw David Lynch’s Twin Peaks during its original run in 1990, but it wasn’t until I re-watched the entire series on Netflix over the summer that I really came to appreciate it (I was honestly surprised by what I’d forgotten and what I might have missed out on the first go-round). While fans and critics alike mention its weirdness, its cinematic quality, both in cinematography and music, as well as the murder mystery at the heart of the series––Who Killed Laura Palmer?––what struck me during this re-watch was how honestly it portrayed grief. Few TV series or films examine how absurd the bereavement period can be: One moment you’re singing and tapping dancing as if you’re on top of the world and the next you’re in a blubbering heap of tears. As someone who’s lost her sister nearly ten years ago, I can relate. After the networks pushed Lynch and producer Mark Frost to solve Laura Palmer’s murder during its second season (they had originally intended for it to remain unsolved), the show lost its way and veered wildly into territory that was both wacky (and not in a good way) and ridiculous (one storyline involved industrialist Ben Horne having a nervous breakdown and thinking he’s Jefferson Davis during the Civil War). But the series’ finale, directed by Lynch, more than redeemed itself with one of the most bizarre and freaky episodes to ever appear on TV. Twin Peaks was definitely ahead of its time!

New Releases for 2014

The new year is only five days away, which means lots of resolutions that won’t be kept and new releases from the literary press. I’ve put together a partial list of what to expect in the bookstores in the coming year.

Leaving the Sea, by Ben Marcus

Marcus, known for his experimental fiction, returns with a book of short stories that further pushes the boundaries of what prose is capable of doing. It includes the title story about the slow disintegration of a marriage told in one sentence. Expect this to be available January 7.

Haiti Noir 2: The Classics, edited by Edwidge Danticat

Akshashic Press will be releasing their second anthology of classic fiction from Haiti. Edited by author Edwidge Danticat, this new releases will appear in bookstores on January 7.

Carthage, by Joyce Carol Oates

Oates ought to be called the hardest working writer in America. After her novel The Accursed was published last year, she’s publishing a new one, Carthage, on January 21. This involves a missing girl, an Iraqi war vet who becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance, and a town that comes to grips with the horror of death and violence in its midst.

Thirty Girls, by Susan Minot

Minot’s latest book is ripped from the headlines in world events: a young girl who’s abducted by a fundamentalist faction in Uganda; a journalist covering the events there while coping with failed relationships. Their lives intersect. A touchy subject, but we’ll see how Minot handles it with her deft prose. To be published on February 14.

Bark, by Lorrie Moore

In her first collection of short stories since her masterful Birds of America fifteen years ago, Moore’s latest tackles subjects as diverse as the Iraq war, 9/11, divorce, politics, and death and mines how the personal and the political collide in the most unexpected ways. Should hit the bookstores February 25.

 All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengetsu

The author of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air returns with a new book that is a love story between an American woman and an African man in 1970s America. Yet the story delves beyond a simple love story and explores the dislocation of immigrants caused by political violence and sacrifice and the loyalty one feels to his homeland and the people who fought to liberate it. Look for it starting on March 4.

Book of Hours, by Kevin Young

Also to be published on March 4 is Kevin Young’s new book of poetry about death, grief, and the renewal of life. This collection of deeply personal poems covers the death of Young’s father and the birth of a new child with the beautiful, sharp clarity of love and wisdom.

A Year in Recommendations: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

51L3ktA41ZLChimamanda Ngozi Adichie is all in the news now, what with her TED talk a few years ago taking a minor role in Beyoncé’s sneak attack release of her latest album. Featured on the track, “Flawless,” Adichie calls to a better understanding of feminism for young girls today. In her latest novel, Americanah, Adichie tackles with a sharp, satirical edge, not only a feminist call for young, Nigerian women whose only ambitions are to marry rich, but also the incisive observations of immigrant life in both Britain and America. At the heart of her novel is a star-crossed love story. Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love as teens growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, but their ambitions to rise above the meager circumstances of their home country lead them to emigrate to America and Britain, creating a separation that tears them apart physically and emotionally. While Ifemelu thrives in America, navigating our obsessions with race, the language barriers, and odd customs––she is awarded fellowships, jobs, and becomes a successful blogger––she also cannot get past the sinking feeling that she is becoming something she does not want to become: an Americanah, a Nigerian who has become so successfully assimilated into American life that she has forgotten her Nigerian roots. Obinze, likewise, navigates similar paths in Britain, but when his visa runs out he is forced to turn to extralegal means to stay. Eventually he is discovered and is summarily deported back to Lagos, where ironically he benefits financially from a real estate boom. Yet, like Ifemelu, he is unhappy because the life he lives is not the one he envisioned. Years later, older and somewhat wiser, Ifemelu and Obinze cross paths again and their happiness now depends on their willingness to pursue what they both truly desire.

Americanah is a love story, but it is also a sharp, incisive attack against what Adichie also referred to as the “danger of the single story”––that one definition, one way of life, one way of living is ever enough, in our personal lives, in our politics, and especially in our stories.

The Writing Life: Writing, Rejection, and Perseverance

Rejection is a necessary hazard in writing, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. When an essay I submitted a year ago was rejected, I received a form letter along with the manuscript in my carefully folded SASE. It read as follows:

Dear Cynthia,

Thank you for sending us your article query. It was read carefully and given our full consideration. Unfortunately, it misses the mark for our pages.

The glories of a rejection form letter!

I understand that editors don’t have the time to respond to every submission that lands on their slush pile, but I’m still at a loss at the rejection. I wrote the essay specifically for that magazine. I’d bought and subscribed to it for years. I thought it fit with their general interest. But apparently I missed the mark.

How a story or article gets chosen often depends on convenience rather than quality. I’ve read that university press journals will often tip the balance toward submissions from MFA students over non-MFA students since the MFA programs are essentially the only thing funding the journals. It’s become a pay it forward system for the literary world. In another account an editorial board uses a democratic system, wherein submissions with the most votes win. Stories that are the most polarizing, and therefore the most interesting, end up being rejected for want of a clear majority. Hearing all that makes it seem as if the entire game is rigged, that even in the literary world a meritocratic system is just as equally out of reach. But even under the best of circumstances, chance and luck still win out. Having interned once at my alma mater’s campus undergraduate literary journal, I know that, among the list of possible poetry selections that went through the first round draft by students, the ones we rejected weren’t bad. It’s just that for some reason or another they didn’t wow my co-editor and me. The entire process is subjective. Another editor might have chosen our rejections and rejected the ones we accepted. It’s all a matter of getting the right work into the right hands. So I keep reminding myself not to take it personally; it wasn’t meant to be.

Yet knowing all that doesn’t sting any less when the yellow envelope reappears in my mailbox (or as the case may be a rejection email in my inbox). The entire process is maddening because I don’t know whether the actions I take will lead to satisfactory results. I’m flailing around, trying to find some soft place to land. Sure, there are rules and tips that I follow time and again, but that is no guarantee against rejection.

What would make the entire process a lot easier is if I knew why my work keeps getting rejected. However the reality of the submission process makes that next to impossible. Years ago, when the number of small literary magazines were a healthy ratio to the number of submissions they received, editors could take the time to write rejection notes, explain why each piece wasn’t accepted, or even offer criticisms. As a writer it helps to know what I’m doing right or what I could do better. But that job has been taken over by creative writing programs. As valuable as these programs can be, a jury of your peers isn’t quite the same as a judge.

Still, as soul-crushing as submission rejections can be, they aren’t the end of the world either. After the rejection, I had a good cry (I’m just sensitive that way), and renewed my sense of purpose. I doubled down, went back to work on my novel, and looked for other opportunities to place my prose. I’ve been lucky enough to get a few of my essays and reviews published and placed three of my short stories as well. Hopefully that luck will continue. All I can ever do is keep trying. Giving up is the worst rejection of all.