The Sound of My Own Voice

The best thing, maybe the only thing, about the courtly hell that is a graduate writing program, it forces you to put words on the page.

On the keyboard. Whatever. Some of us are older than others.

The weekly grind of that three-hour chum-bucket — the workshop — meant you always had something going and suffered a constant fever of it being, frankly, crap. You wrote constantly, because if you didn’t keep up, you’d sink

You’d get your ass handed to you by the moron who’d memorized all of Donald Barthelme’s greatest hits.

You’d get your ass handed to you by the professor with a habit of folding stories into paper airplanes he’d send sailing out the third floor window.

You’d get your ass handed to you and spend the rest of your weekend with either your head in a bottle or, if you were smart, back at your pencil and pad, your typewriter, or – for the more adventurous at the time – the word processor.

And, that was fine. For awhile. You graduated, you worked an internship at a moderately celebrated regional magazine, you fried whole catfish nights and weekends. You shot pool and drank beer.

And you wrote. You convinced some poor schlub at the free independent weekly they needed a poetry column, and there you were again — riding the fever train to a weekly deadline. To keep your hand in. Keep you scared. Keep you honest. Keep you writing.

Then, you landed it — a full-time gig teaching Composition at the local community college. No more fish guts under your finger nails. No more snide comments from the self-educated fiction editor about your years prostrate at the feet, or some body part, of Academia. No, it was seven-to-three, five days a week, and the most creative thing that’d happen to you is when that kid, there’s always one, would turn in the paper about how your class was a waste of his time. With twenty-three misspelled words, eight comma splices, and a whole schizophrenia of subject-verb confusion.

So, one year I climbed down the ivory tower to join the private sector, and I thought, “Sure, I’ll write; I’ll have a host of things to write about, not just school and which side of the desk I’m on. There’ll be infidelities, peccadilloes, a whole host of amusing subject matter.”

Ten years, two kids, three states and four jobs later, I’m just getting back to it. Haphazardly at best, but there are efforts.

Like this blog. Column. What-have-you. I started it between jobs a few years ago, toying with the idea of going freelance, and someone suggested I needed a website to market myself. The idea evolved into a blog, where I could post entries weekly, as a way of getting my hand back in.

I gave myself 750 words, lengthy enough to make some sort of point but short enough to rein me in when I started to go long, which has always been a sort of a problem for me. In between, I’d get in a more creative frame of mind. I started a novel-length manuscript (still not finished), had ideas for a few stories (two out of three completed), and figured I’d be good for a couple of poems a month (two out of three ain’t bad).

And, the blog collected a few thoughts on writing craft, Faulkner (my great nemesis), and technology. The idea was I wouldn’t worry too much about one topic (for that way lies the rusty shores of Crass Commercialism). I’d just go where my interests and my particular point-of-view took me, polishing what I wrote and trying not to make a stink of the whole thing. Fall in love again with putting words on the page. Fall in love again with the sound of my own voice.

Because, no matter what you hear, that’s what really gets a writer going, gets you to face down the page — the love of the sound of your own voice. And for a long time I didn’t. I turned my back on that life, developed other interests, tried to become a normal person. The kind of person who didn’t overhear scraps of dialogue and think, “Jesus, that’s how people actually sound.”

Here I am again, though, ready to push my sleeves up, get on the wagon, write a little bit every day. Because, the best part about the page? It’s right here waiting for you. Sometimes with a whip. Sometimes with bells on.

Faulkner’s Reluctant Student

William Faulkner, 1954
William Faulkner, 1954 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up, I steered clear of William Faulkner as long as I could, a major feat for a writer born and reared in Mississippi. I guess I read “The Bear”, “A Rose For Emily”, or “Old Man” during high school sophomore English class. Probably “A Rose For Emily”. It seems the most appropriate for that age, and, having discovered Edgar Allen Poe the same year, “A Rose For Emily” would have stuck in my mind for the macabre alone. I know well, though, the book which caused me to run away from William Faulkner  —  As I Lay Dying, soon to be a major motion picture release. Each student in my senior English class had a choice between one of two books as an optional reading requirement; I cannot remember the other option, but, then and now, it seems pedestrian next to the idea of Faulkner’s ode to family, death, and struggle.

The story seemed straight-forward until I reached the infamous chapter in which Vardaman, youngest member of the family, declares only, “My mother is a fish.” That’s it, the whole chapter; no explication, no exegesis. I did not yet have all the critical tools to deal with it, the three things Faulkner himself said every writer needs: experience, observation, and imagination. So, ignoring the fact he also said at times any of one of those things would suffice for the others, I flew my white flag and declared the author obfuscating for the simple expedient of appearing difficult. Besides, I had found another Master, one of complex insights housed in seemingly simple vessels  —  Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s minimalist style proved more accessible to my immature intellect, while the international settings of his novels and stories inspired a young mind seeking an escape from, not deeper into, the humid, kudzu-ridden South of its youth.

In this way, I spent my upperclassmen and undergraduate years devouring The Sun Also Rises, For Whom The Bell Tolls, A Movable Feast, and whatever other Hemingway I ran across. I also wasted a major opportunity to penetrate the works of Faulkner. Noel Polk, one of the foremost Faulkner scholars of his time, taught classes at the university I attended and, though I knew him, I avoided his classes concerning the most famous novelist of my home state, due in some part to my accepted difficulty with Faulkner’s work, and perhaps due, in some part, to my roommate being an ardent Faulkner scholar. We would have vehement arguments  —  my roommate and I, not Professor Polk and myself; that would’ve been ridiculous  —  wild, adolescent, undergraduate debates of “Who’s the Better Writer”, he always defending Faulkner and me Hemingway. His defense consisted of Faulkner’s complexity versus Hemingway’s simplicity, while contending that Hemingway could not write a Woman. I, meanwhile, argued Hemingway wrote symbols, not women, Faulkner’s complexity made his work impenetrable and that, anyway, he could not punctuate his way out of a paper bag. Oh, the hubris of youth.


So, with one of the finest, kindest educators in my experience, not to mention one of the most renowned Faulknerians, at my disposal, I steadfastly refused to engage the author and retreated further and further into Minimalism, mistakenly assuming that it owed some allegiance to Hemingway. Ultimately, though, I had to admit Faulkner intimidated me. The first book of his I read contained this alien and quixotic sentiment, meaning one thing or another, depending to whom you listened, and my undergraduate roommate gave me to understand what I had read in high school represented the easy stuff. There were others  —  The Sound and The Fury, Absalom Absalom, for instance (confession: I still have not read that last one)  —  which to the uninitiated remained as impenetrable as Calculus.

A funny thing happened, though. The year after taking my Master’s, I moved to Oxford, MS. Faulkner fairly floated, like pollen, on the air. Most importantly, I walked his landscape, his terrain. I picked up pieces of him here or there, scraps of his letters, telegrams back and forth between himself and his Hollywood employers, his thoughts on various employments, or lack thereof, on his little “postage stamp of soil.” Then, I picked up The Hamlet, the first of his Snopes trilogy. Here, then, lay a story I could understand, the Have-not on his way to becoming a Have, being generally sneakier, slicker, and downright meaner than anyone standing in his way and, ultimately, losing. Through Flem Snopes, I came to appreciate Faulkner’s themes and language. I’m sure my own critical tools matured in the ensuing years, also, but the Snopes Trilogy gave me a backdoor into Faulkner’s more experimental work. I came to appreciate his legacy and his place in Literature’s Pantheon (as much as I hate the idea of a canon). Though I’ll never use language as dense as Faulkner’s, or as deceptive, I understand the larger point behind the books set in his Yoknapatawpha County, that great themes can be played out on small stages, that there are no new stories, only telling them well, and that what a writer must do more than anything else is care, deeply care, about the characters who embody his or her stories, regardless of their ultimate outcome.

Indie/Trad Publishing

Lake Side Publishing House, by Lovejoy & Foster
Lake Side Publishing House, by Lovejoy & Foster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, Salon published an article in which Rob W. Hart opined on the situation between traditional and independent publishing. No neophyte in this debate, Hart self-published his novella, The Last Safe Place. He also serves as Associate Publisher for Mysterious Press, a digital publisher for classic and out-of-print crime and mystery novels. Given these credentials, and the supposed subject of his article, you would think Hart sits on the same sunny side of the self-publishing street with the likes of J. A. Konrath and Barry Eisler. And you’d be wrong.

For Hart specifies the reasons he self-published his work: a novella is too short to sell in a traditional deal, and, being on the one side of the eBook counter, he wanted the experience offered by the other side. Mostly, though, curiosity appears to have motivated Hart; he did not expect to get rich, find The New York Times Sunday Book Review breaking down his door, or have the world hail him as the Prophet of a New Digital Publishing Age. Instead, many, particularly those in the independent-publishing world (let’s dispense with the connotations of “self-publishing” right about here, okay?), hailed him as a pariah.

Hart can maybe blame himself for some of this keening. Calling anything a cult in the title of the article in which you examine said thing can cause that kind of a reaction. But, those readers going along with this gut reaction blind themselves with their own myopic view, and attempts to vilify him in the Comments section of the article pretty much just prove his point. And, anyway, shouldn’t authors worry about more pressing matters, like making sure the dog gets its flea medicine, or some other important activity, like writing?

Konrath himself is pretty clear about his position; if there’s to be any Prophet of The New Digital Publishing Age, he wants that title (if the proclamation doesn’t already hang from his wall). Weekly, he proclaims the efficacy of indie publishing, quoting his own considerable sales figures, inviting guest posts by indie authors or converts, all of whom have glowing things to say about either leaving the Big Bad Wolves behind in the dark forest of traditional publishing, or about how they found themselves listed among their heroes in the bestseller lists of traditional reporting media. Among his other proselytizing, Konrath makes clear that having success in independent publishing takes a lot of work and self-promotion, all of which he claims his traditional publishing deals left him responsible for in the first place, at least nominally. So, if he does the work, he should get all the dough. A hard position to argue.

Except that publishing houses do offer authors services, besides just selling the paper on which they print them. They either hire artists to create engaging cover art (or contract it out), hire a marketing department to pimp the books (or contract that out, too), and provide editors, sometimes very good, very talented editors, to help authors hone and polish their works into the diamond that each hopes lies at the bottom of the lump of coal with which they started.

However, plenty of people line up on the virtual corners of Main Street Internet and offer their services in precisely these areas. One can easily get into a chicken-and-the-egg argument concerning whether the indie publishing push took off before or after, with or without, the cottage industries of independent publishing support. However, that argument ignores the important point: a lot of people have found a way around the gate-keeper system. Sure, a lot of indie published work should have stayed half-digested in some corner of an author’s mind. But, do we need publishers to decide that for us anymore?

Look to Amanda Hocking, look to E. L. James (okay, maybe not). Most importantly, look to Hugh Howey. Starting as an independent, he parlayed the success of his work in the Kindle Direct Publishing system into print deals with Simon & Schuster, with one caveat, however — he kept his digital rights.

Mostly, that with which authors should concern themselves is control. But, this control entails more than just dreaming up fictions and arranging words on the page. Don’t think for a minute that the best of the best got there because they let everyone else do the work (outside of the real work of writing, of course; one must have a compelling story to tell and tell it well). We must have no doubt that the best understand that publishing is a business, which entails other kinds of responsibility, as well.

But, for now, the gates begin to open, and, ooh, baby, it’s a wide world. Hugh Howey and this concept of a hybrid author (aren’t labels such a joke, by the way? — but thanks to Chuck Wendig anyway) seem to be the real future of publishing, at least if any author worth his or her salt pays any attention to the other considerations, the other responsibilities. The last thing you want is to be the most celebrated novelist of your, or indeed of any time, and have a Sotheby’s auction of your paraphernalia come up relatively empty-handed.

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In 1998, I had the opportunity to interview the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa. I had met authors before — after standing in lines to get books signed by them; as visiting writers at university, where a healthy distance and a microphone separated student from author during the Q&A; or, when I was in graduate school, at the professor-house parties, where informality ruled, fueled by friendship between the visiting writer and the professor/host. This interview, though, represented the first time I would have direct, professional interaction with a celebrated author, one whom I had studied; I could not shake the intimidation and awe in which this interview blanketed me. Also, I could not shake my fear of appearing underprepared; being a student of literature and creative writing, I did not have the journalistic chops and had never performed an interview. I feared I would appear an amateur, so I prepared my list of questions based on the reading I’d done of his work. During the interview, I did not have the gut instincts to delve into the more important of his responses; I blindly turned to the next question on my list or allowed my own interests to lead me down some patently obvious lane. In my ignorance, I missed the chance to follow his thought down an alley which has become an important one to me as a writer.

A child of the South, I found it impossible not to read and study Southern literature and one of its most exposited characteristics — Place. It lay, posed in the works of Southern authors I read, like a frog in Biology class, something to dissect and tease apart but not to manipulate for its own ends. Aware that Komunyakaa hailed from Louisiana, I posed what seemed the obvious question — had he found that images and impressions from his youth in the South had insinuated their way into his work? He answered:

Yes, I think so, especially in the book, Magic City, because that’s really about my childhood-adolescent experiences. But also I think what happens is that we, as people, internalize terrains and, consequently, those internalized terrains become psychological overlays for whatever we experience or even dream about later on.

At the time, I had been writing a series of poems, a fictional, serialized account of love gone bad, captured in snapshots of image and word, moment and action. Unconsciously, I had myself internalized the terrain of the small Mississippi town to which I had recently moved — smoky bars with peanut shells on the floor; curbsides on the town square late at night, concrete parking blocks still warm in the humid Summer air; the snake-sweet smell of woods in summer and musty leaf of winter. I had used all of these images to give the protagonist and denizens of my poems a landscape. Komunyakaa’s insight galvanized me. Place was not something in which an author planted his characters. Rather, in using the term Terrain, Komunyakaa’s response suggests to me something I had missed in my studies; the by-ways and highways in which characters lived, not merely inhabited, could tell as much about them as their own actions, could be every bit as much a character as them.

To this day, the work that speaks most clearly to me provides its characters that necessary Terrain. Billy Lafitte, the anti-hero protagonist of Anthony Neil Smith’s Yellow Medicine and Hogdogging, stomps and blazes his way across the windswept reaches of Southwestern Minnesota, Southeastern South Dakota, and any number of locales in between and beyond, in many ways every bit as barren as the landscape suggests. Likewise, in Tom Franklin’s Hell At The Breach, the claustrophobic woods and weedy creeks enliven the tensions between its characters. In this novel of chaos and feud, a bulwark of forest, known as the Bear Thicket, serves as more than the metaphorical boundary between Town and County; it swallows characters whole in its voraciousness.

Much more than simply Place, as I had misunderstood it in my youth, Terrain becomes as much a character in a story or poem as those that wander through it, feeding on the narrative force it provides, sometimes falling prey to it themselves. It is. It lives, it breathes, and it speaks volumes as I wade through it in search of the story taking place across it. For now, as a writer, the terrain that surrounds me, that exists within me, seems at once immense and rapacious. Sometimes it’s a wonder I can leave the house at all.