Summary; for discussion: There is a Behind-the-Mule path, which I call “antiquated,” to fiction writing: you do it alone and sweat like a hog. This is a demonstrative exaggeration; every writer should find isolation that fits his or her existence. (I don’t mean pornography, chuckle.)
On the other hand there is a palpable-connection sort of path, by which I mean reading aloud. The more spontaneous it is, the better the example. Think open-mic, even, remembering that the fiction world is not so separate from the poetry world any longer (I guess; or maybe it was always that way.)
I was wondering what experience people have with reading fiction to an audience and poetry too. If you have ever undertaken this course, what was it like? And if you have not, I’m interested in the appeal of it for you or what ultimately turned you away from it.
That is the end of the summary. Having read only that, feel free to comment, but here is some great stuff to read about on that subject.
A big problem for me has been motivation to write. I experience this differently from other writers. Paradoxically, for much of my career I have been willing to work absurdly hard at writing, and with rigorous regularity--but only until publication was actually within my grasp. (An edit: actually this is not so different from all others. This OP knows what I'm talkin' bout.)
Self defeat can be an artistic medium of its own. This may be especially true in the American South to include Austin, Texas and its outlying areas, where I’m from.
There was a time when I was blinded to all distraction by the desire to get published. There was a luster and a kind of coolness to the struggle and the goal that I believe only a creative, apparently untroubled liberal arts undergraduate in a major university will ever understand. This kind of individual is subject to a very specific kind of spiritual starvation and arrogance. Mostly it was the atmosphere at creative writing class and particular teachers’ ways of spinning things--for which I am unspeakably grateful. Only in retrospect can I see this blindness was a failure to realize I am mortal; life will run out. (That is all the more reason to do what you want; make your eternal circuit as Brahmin a work of art. After all, we’re going to be experiencing it again and again for millions of cycles, from what I understand.)
After working really hard in proportion to the reward I would feel, I published a story in a journal called LIT published in NYC (in which John Ashberry had published poetry a few issues earlier). Then a little later, I published another in Whiskey Island a little later. You’ve probably never heard of these but trust me that they’re reputable little literary magazines.
I saw what I would need to do to rack up those publications, and I saw that more of them lay well within my ability. What I gained in competence at this point came from a subtle but profound shift in perspective to which the second publication moved me: I had been thinking the writer in the work was not only of primary importance but of all importance. This is of course an impossibility, is the readerless writer; sort of like how youth thinks itself immortal (a stereotype about young people that we think it’s okay to wallow in, for some reason). That was the first time I really understood audience.
I yet consider myself what I call an Extreme Self-Expressivist, through and through. Back when I was in school, I was even more of a believer in Self-Expressivism; beyond "extreme," choose your superlative. The particular kind of blindness I am about to further describe--well, I wish everyone (artists or not) could have it for a period of his or her life. I'm about to talk about a guy who had a lack of self-concept. That sounds like a bad thing, but it is also good. I've learned that crazy generosity can flow from those who don't realize the rarity of their own gifts. Whereas when we get locked into an identity, it may be less natural to give certain things away. I guess you could say lack of self concept is intrinsically selfless. That is a sidetrack, though.
The shift out of this blindness (the readerless writer dilemma) was my understanding that even in the most extremely expressivist writing, the author sacrifices himself or herself for the reader. That is part of the ritual, and if you ain’t doing some sort of ritual, you ain’t writing. To understand what I learned, you only need to see that self-sacrifice is not an overly dramatic word choice for what I do, even as much as it makes me sound like a diva. It costs me something deeply to be comprehensible; to descend to a level at which you understand me. I am sorry; but there it is. My truth is that pretentiousness would hide behind my words if I put it any other way. When I say "pretentiousness," I mean a bad kind. Writing is ritual, and ritual is pretense, but somehow I sense a distinction between honest and dishonest pretense. The reader is the only one who can help me get a certain kind of stick out of my ass so I can fully engage with life. Readers can’t help me if I’m hiding in apologetic BS that politely respects their intellect more than it engages with them.
Realizing this was a piece of intellectual maturity that hit me in the head. And it daunted me that sacrifice was necessary, sort of like giving up on your own ideals, the way political compromise feels. On the other hand it empowered me that I could at will publish fiction in a fairly good magazine and work my way on up the ladder.
Next came a big turn. Without ever reaching resoluteness of the kind I am now articulating on this subject--that is, without ever noticeably deciding to reduce the intensity of my effort--I worked less and less on my writing over the next couple of years. Now, the expressivist potential of this game never lost its luster. My ideal still glimmered overhead somewhere among platonic ideals; from my perspective at that time I should have written a short story a month at least. Yet despite feeling some kind of passion--and it's always been passion--I never really tried to publish again. The energy loss (focus loss?) befalling me was totally beyond my control; it truly “befell” me, and yet I blamed myself. This befalling masks itself with utter totality because we think we are in total control of what we do. It was an example of Sartre’s “Bad Faith” notion. I surmise that without some spiritual growth I lucked into later, I never would have come to see it as I’m conveying it now.
A dimension of the background I’ve left out is my own care about how I seemed among literary people. Wherever the genre prejudice comes from, it is not--was not back then, either--my literary friends. None of us ever castigated alternatives we could have embraced instead of academically valid creative writing. The phrase “academically valid creative writing” sounds prejudiced in itself but of course I don't mean it that way. I will say openly that I think the best writing tends to come from “the literary establishment,” not necessarily MFA programs; but the best is certainly the kind of stuff that is widely approved of in them. You are in the right if you are having a flash of indignation, which will probably be followed by the urge to come up with counterexamples, easy enough given all the great genre writing we are blessed with. (An interesting note is that I’ve actually found genre writers to be more judgmental of the literary than the opposite, though it’s very close to being a tie. Another discussion thread lies in that.)
Part of the big turn, eventually, was that I decided to write the fun-est stuff I could alongside my "literary" stories. It was as unbelievably difficult to go outside my "literary" identity; not as difficult as quitting a religion you’ve been born into, but somewhere between that and dropping a nightly TV habit, say.
An eventual outcome was my taking on the Davidson persona. Robert Davidson is a sci-fi and fantasy writer (pseudonym) who is a bit like a sci-fi character himself among all his writerly affectations, pomp, and vim. It is not a secret, rather a branding thing. I'm pretty clear online (social networks and whatnot) that Robert Davidson is Robert David Roe.
Davidson was a step ahead that I was able to take in an innervated time. What I tell myself is that genre’s all right because I’m trying to elevate its literary capacity--and what I tell myself becomes the truth for me and my readers.
At least, it will do so . . . if I can just get this new sci-fi story up and running as Davidson, and if I can get through with the goal of creating an audiobook for my first Davidson novel.
This last sentence, the list of struggles, I hope you notice, drops me squarely within a pin I’ve occupied before. It is the same as the struggle to publish in literary mags when I first started out. My current struggle is not as bad as that pre-publication period, but it's basically the same. I see a way ahead, and yet am disconnected.
I’m prostrate, and life is truly a dance because at times I am not prostrate; but I always am. I’m not prostrate as I write this because I’m actively reaching out, connecting, expressing my truest belief about myself but also shaping it with at least some degree of skill. Then again, I don’t know how many people will ever read this, and in the end it won’t change the nothing-everything-something existence I live.
I will be dead eventually!
An even greater blessing of an insight has befallen me, "greater," I mean, than that daunting empowerment of realizing, hey, I can publish stories. Now I know if I align myself properly with respect to an audience, the struggle will dissolve. It’s like some Zen notion of struggle I once heard. Roughly restated, if you don’t want to struggle, stop struggling.
My ugly problem is not having a connection that is palpable enough. I’m a modern person recovering from an utterly antiquated idea of how a good book is made, namely slowly and in isolation from the world. I acknowledge that I could not have become the writer I am without having the two extreme situations collide as my life.
When I say I need a palpable connection, I mean the extreme opposite of that isolated, Behind-the-Mule path.
What I really wanted to get around to saying is that my next plan is to write mainly for a live audience, open-mic stuff perhaps but hopefully a scheduled gig. As soon as this idea occurred to me I knew it was the direction in which I should go. I’m more of a conversationalist than I used to be. Apologetically and with pride I say this: I’m sort of in love with the sound of my own voice (more with Robert Davidson’s voice, actually). Given how long I've practiced, can’t I just trust in that?
Another encouraging factor is the work of Louie CK, who could easily be a great novelist of our time. You can hear it in some of his stand up and in the television he writes.
I called the Behind-the-Mule path “antiquated,” but that is a demonstrative exaggeration. Every writer should find isolation that fits his or her existence. (Actually, I may mean pornography.)
I was wondering what experience people have with this more spontaneous side of fiction writing, the oral kind, but also poetry. If you have ever undertaken this course, what was it like? And if you have not, I’m interested in the appeal of it for you or what ultimately turned you away from it.