Guest Post, David Klose: On Falling In & Out of Love with Writing

I start out wanting to write a Blog Post for Superstition Review. I want to make it funny. Knowledgeable. Relate-able. The reader should laugh and think “I would like to talk with this writer.” All great writing is getting people to think they know you, that they would want to talk with you.

But I have no idea what to write about. I just graduated from college and that is about as boring and overdone a topic as any. I might as well write about golfing, or about the time I played flag football at a local park and discovered I am not the sort of person who should be playing flag football at a local park.

I like to write, but have written nothing of tremendous value. That isn’t fishing for compliments, just speaking objectively. Therefore I can’t offer advice to writers, though I have in the past done this very thing and, to this day, I still feel guilty about it. My writing is not terrible and has made some money in academic contests but I know, what everyone knows, but no one likes to say, that undergrad academic contests aren’t worth anything except the prize money. So I can’t write about being a professional writer, because I am not a professional writer.

I’ve had great experiences through my time as a Blogger/Non-Fiction Editor/Student Editor in Chief at Superstition Review, but others, in ways I cannot top, have written about those very experiences for this very Blog. Others, in ways I have yet to mimic, have taken those experiences and grown because of them. I have been to a writing conference but already have, in a previous post, beaten that horse to death with a very small club. I have been to AWP but spent more time touring the city than touring the Book Fair (shameful, I know, but who could have guessed I was to fall in love with cold beautiful grey Minneapolis?).

Hiking TrailBloggers tell you to write what you know, to relate to your audience through what you know. Good with dogs? Write about dogs. Write about how finishing a short story is similar to teaching a new puppy how to piss outside. It’s all about consistency. Go on a lot of hikes? Write something about the writing process and compare it to hiking a new trail, a harder trail than usual. It’s all about persistence. But my dog still sometimes pees on the living room rug, and the last trail I hiked ended with a whimper, not a bang. I thought maybe I could write about how to make the world’s best macaroni and cheese, but then I remembered, halfway through that ill fated blog post, that the best mac and cheese I ever had was made by a girl named Beth one drunken night six years ago at a friend’s house where we were all drinking wine out of plastic red cups and that recipe, like my connection to Beth, was completely lost after that night.

Telling me to write about what I know has always been a sort of cruel task; because I want to write about what I don’t know, and about that which makes me question my sense of authority. I am reminded of a writing professor who, in a soft rant against ‘trigger warnings’, asked our small workshop circle “Isn’t getting triggered the point?” For me, it goes like this: isn’t admitting you don’t know the point?

Here’s what I don’t know: the value of writing and whether or not I am a writer. I have loved books from a young age and can point to moments in my life that were shaped directly by the works of Salinger (specifically his collection of short stories revolving around the Glass family), to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (one of the first books that genuinely made me want to be a better person) to Dubliners by James Joyce which made me first think about becoming a writer. There are more recent examples, as well. In Matt Bell’s Scrapper there is a scene, where our protagonist finds a stolen boy and the snow is falling overhead, and where I, the reader, was so completely transported into that scene that my heart skipped a beat. But the more I work on Social Media for my job, the more I interact with other readers, with other writers, the more new books and new styles of writing I read, the more the doubt inside me grows. As valuable as stories have been to me, how can we properly value them? There have been blog posts in the past about how writers should be paid, for their stories, their poems, and that magazines shouldn’t expect writers to be content with just getting published. But can we really make that case? I would argue the opposite. That now in this sea of media, where everyone, through so many mediums, has the ability to share their voice, the value in stories is dropping or, at the very least, leveling off in an over saturated market.

This makes me doubt my writing. Do I really just want to be another voice in the market? Is there anything I can say that someone couldn’t say better? I honestly don’t know. That’s why I wanted to write this blog post, because I have no idea. What I see, through Social Media, are countless writers celebrating the fact that they are just writing. And this gets me a little depressed. It isn’t enough that we are just writing. It isn’t enough that we can take photos of our notebooks next to coffee cups and filter the image to look antique and post it. Perhaps this is the result of working in a book store and seeing just how many books get published and how few new writers actually get read. It isn’t enough that you have a story to tell. But now I am giving advice to writers, which is something I already said I wasn’t going to do. So let me stop while I am ahead.

Here’s where the title of my blog comes from: I saw Ira Glass perform at the Mesa Arts Center a few years ago in the show “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.” It was one of my favorite things I have ever seen and in that performance, Ira Glass quoted a friend who said “when we choose to be with one person for the rest of our lives, we are choosing the person we will spend the rest of our lives falling in and out of love with.”

I think it’s safe to say I’ve fallen out of love with writing. Like any great relationship, falling out of love makes me think of our earliest moments. I remember the first real Creative Writing class I had, where the teacher wrote the words “blue boot” on the whiteboard and asked us, rhetorically, what we were thinking of in that moment. Of course the answer was: a blue boot. Wow, the teacher said quietly, isn’t that amazing? Just by putting two words together, an image was created in our mind. What if, instead of a boot, we did that with a town? Instead a town, a world? Instead of a world, an emotion? What if, through words, we could create the idea of love, of loss, of fear, inside our reader? Wow, all of us students quietly said to ourselves.

This is all to say I still love reading good work. There were two writers I met at Bread Loaf whose writing I loved. One of them had already published a book and I read it in a matter of days. The other one hadn’t published a novel yet, but was certainly almost finished with their first draft. I look up their names every now and then in the usual places. Linkedin. Twitter. Instagram. They aren’t there. They don’t exist on Social Media and this makes me so goddamn happy. Now I can tell myself that, wherever they are, they are focusing on their work. Nothing else. And that one day soon their next book, their next story, their next finished product is going to be put out into the world, and whatever they have created with their words will be stirred within me.

Intern Post, David Klose: Up on the Mountain (Writer’s Conference Series)

If you are considering attending a writing conference sometime in the future, I hope this finds you well. Maybe you have heard of Bread Loaf. Maybe not. I hadn’t heard of it until one day, two fall semesters ago, when my Creative Writing teacher at Mesa Community College told me, in that way he always expressed his opinion, as if he were open to hearing your objections, not because they were valid, but because he believed there was value in standing up for yourself, that if I wanted to be a serious writer then I should attend a writing conference and if I was going to attend a writing conference, it might as well be Bread Loaf.

The name, which stands out in that vaguely preppy sense, of something old and prestigious and yet quite silly, comes from Bread Loaf Mountain, named because it was shaped like a loaf of bread. It is 89 years old and an off-shoot of the ridiculously small (my high school had just as many students) Middlebury College in Vermont.

I had reservations about attending. First, and sadly foremost, I have never felt comfortable around other writers. I find myself secretly hating them and wishing, when they talk of things like theme and the occasion of telling, that they would shut up or, at the very least, change the topic to something less troubling like religion or politics. Second, though a very close second, attending Bread Loaf, as I was invited to attend, sans fellowship, would clear out my savings and leave me broke. Third, going would mean stepping down from my Middle Management position at the company where I’ve worked for the past 5 years, because, of course, Bread Loaf dates coincided with blacked out days on the store manager’s calendar, meaning no time-off allowed.

I am telling you this up front, so, as you read my mixed thoughts, you will still believe me when I say that, if you love to write, then you should do whatever it is you can do to attend a writing conference like Bread Loaf.

Let’s go over the facts: To attend Bread Loaf it will costs around $3000 and that will include just room and board and your tuition through Middlebury College. That’s for your workshop, whether it be in Fiction, Poetry or Nonfiction, and for your shared room up on the Mountain in one of the Houses. You can, as I did, choose to stay off campus at a nearby Inn (there are two of them, one about 8 miles away and another about 16 miles away) or even look up cabins that are listed at a discount rate for Bread Loafers. If I had inquired a little sooner, I would have been able to stay in a four bedroom house with a full kitchen for only one hundred dollars a night.

To get to Bread Loaf, I drove North out of Burlington for a little over an hour and then passed through Middlebury, almost without realizing it, then drove up to Ripton, a town with one white Lutheran Church (that hosted a play based off of Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth while I was there), an old country store that sold turkey sandwiches wrapped in plastic wrap and worms for fishing, and The Chipmann Inn, where I stayed. After Ripton, you have to just go a little further up the Mountain, past the Homer Noble Farm where Robert Frost stayed before leaving with Homer Nobel’s wife. Then you are there, where the road plateaus and the view opens up.

Bread Loaf

Every other day you go to Workshop. When you are not at Workshop, you can attend craft classes, which cover things such as The Art of the Paragraph and Using Autobiographical Elements in Your Fiction. Every morning you pick up your copy of The Crumb, the Bread Loaf Newsletter, and it tells you what readings and talks are going on that day and who is coming to the Mountain and who is leaving. I got to listen to the editors of the New England Review talk about what they most looked for when accepting a piece of writing (they have to love it). And the preferences of the publishers of the small press Graywolf (they have to love it, and it has to be something they can see other people loving). And I heard from one wise editor, from an organization whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, speak about how he is finding more and more writers who are worrying about their social media presence, their Twitter followers, the way their book cover will be designed, but not worrying half that much about the quality of their work. The work, he said repeatedly, comes first.

Bread Loaf

If you do go to a conference and there is off-conference housing, I do recommend taking that option. I think I would have gone crazy spending 10 days up on the Mountain, surrounded by people like me. I escaped every night with my girlfriend to Middlebury, to one of its two bars that was open past 10. Sometimes I would skip out of Bread Loaf in the middle of the day, growing tired of readings and talks by editors, and we would shop around Middlebury and walk through Middlebury College. You have to leave writing eventually, I think, in order to keep finding things to write about.

After my story was Workshopped, and it was a good Workshop, I got, like everyone else, a one-on-one with my Workshop Leaders.

I met my first Workshop Leader, a woman with long black hair and a hard face, in the Bread Loaf Barn, where the dances were held and the Bar was open every night till 10ish. Because it was cold this summer, there was always a fire in the fireplace, and the night before I had almost fallen asleep there in front of it.

She and I talked about my story briefly. I didn’t have many questions. Then we talked about MFA programs and writers I should read. This was her sixth time teaching at Bread Loaf. She looked around the barn and talked about the stories she had heard in the earlier years of its existence. There was more drinking and sleeping around. A lot of older men writers invited up younger women. She said her favorite story was about Richard Yates, who got drunk or high or both and climbed one of the buildings and had a prophetic vision which ended with him shouting out that he was God.

She smiled and said that for a long time, people joked that it should be called “Bed Loaf.”

My next Workshop Leader was less comfortable talking. He had been that way in Workshop, too. He had good things to say and he would often lead the discussion, but it took him time to find the words and then even more time to find what order to place the words in.

We met out on the front porch of the main office and enjoyed the view, sitting on an old bench that creaked beneath us.

When he spoke, his hands were out in front of his chest and his fingers were tense, as if grasping at some machine with knobs and wires.

He had held a craft class on James Joyce’s use of epiphany in Dubliners; a craft class I had very much wanted to attend, but the time didn’t fit with the rest of my schedule. I have always felt like the epiphanies of my stories are never realized, that my characters are dancing around this great realization that would shatter the lives they had been trying so hard to live. But nothing ever resolved. It was the biggest critique of my story, that I didn’t allow my characters to grow and I should allow them to do more.

He spoke to me about taking time off in between undergrad programs and grad programs, about working a little, traveling a little. The next day was the end of Bread Loaf and I’d fly out with my girlfriend around four in the afternoon. He asked if I had any questions about my story and when I said no, he said “Good. You know what you need, you just need to. . . .” and he went quiet and scrunched up his face and held his hands out in front of his chest and contorted them into something like claws.

It took me nearly an hour to rearrange my luggage to include the books I bought/was given and my carry-on bag was replaced with a broken portable typewriter I bought from a small antique shop in Middlebury. It is still waiting for me to save the sixty dollars it is going to cost to fix it.

Guest Post, Alan Cheuse: Revision

I don’t want you to take this as bragging, because it isn’t. It’s a description of what can happen if you keep on writing decade after decade for the love of the work, with a little bit of luck, that touch we all need, of course.

And I don’t want you to think this is yet another hoarse exhortation to revise, revise!

My first writing workshop instructor, the poet John Ciardi, back at Rutgers in the early 1960s, exhorted me enough for a life time.

Revise, revise!

(He said this in the same intonation that we find at the end of Frost’s wonderfully playful poem on old age, “Provide, Provide”. Yes, you’ve got it—Provide, Provide.)

Revise, revise!

“Writing is revising,” Ciardi reminded us, a wayward band of juniors and seniors, six of us in a workshop he conducted in the basement of the old Rutgers English house, a former residence on College Avenue which the university had taken over decades before.

“Writing is revising.”

I can still hear his voice in this advice, a slightly patrician-ized South End Boston accent that Ciardi must have worked on while one of the few local Italian boys attending Harvard (where he worked as a writer in residence, of sorts, supplying essays of his own devising for lunk-headed legacies who had the patrician voices but not the supreme intelligence about poetry and fiction that should have come along with it. In other words, he worked his way through college writing papers for his betters.)

I can hear that too.

“For my bet-ters.”

By then I had done more than half the work toward becoming something like this new hero of mine, the Southie poet now in residence at Rutgers, living in near-by Metuchen, New Jersey and also writing a weekly column for “The Saturday Review of Literature.” I had lived for nineteen years in North Jersey, where after an empty, and sometimes violent, middle school so-called education, and while keeping up a certain (small) ability at softball and an even smaller one at basketball, I threw myself into the reading of novels and stories that lighted up my present life and glowed forcefully on the horizon as well.

I read sea stories in grade school and science fiction through eighth grade and by sophomore year of high school I was trying to read Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury (about which I understood almost nothing but loved the cadences of the lines) our chemistry teacher, a big doughy white-haired man named Pat White, tore from my hands during a study hour and never returned to me.

Something like happened to Ciardi and poetry early on in his working-class life in Boston.

So now all I had to do was write, and these two halves, living and art, might come together and make me a whole person. If you’re reading this you know the feeling. You live through immense sea-storms of language in books so great you barely grasp what’s going on inside them while at the same time plodding along in school, making fun of the feeble teachers who give you Julius Caesar to read or, worse, to listen to on recordings of “great performances.”

My greatest performance until then was to live as though I were a normal kid, even though now and then I would hole up with a science-fiction novel by Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, or Dubliners (confiscated from me by my home room teacher before I could read it half way through). Oh, and also play ball, and commit an occasional small larceny (stealing cases of Coke from a delivery truck), and brawl—verbally, only, thank the gods—with my father, and attend class and sink into a vortex of forceful apathy that convinced me that there was no such thing as education in New Jersey, only place-keeping until such time as you could join the armed forces or get a job as a clerk and then a manager—or, if you were as lucky as I was, assumed like some prince of the lower-middle-classes that college was your due.

College became the intellectual equivalent for revision.

My slovenly class room habits turned more strict, my near-sightedness about life’s possible pleasures turned into long-range vision, and I began, however haphazardly, to regard my origins and my family as something interesting rather than a burden. Revise, revise! Though I hand no idea that I was doing it, I was doing it. Fiction, poetry, music, painting, architecture, dance—all art came together into a single force and wrenched open my eyes, as in the stunning moment at the end of Rilke’s great poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”.

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Years went by, nearly twenty, before I found a toe-hold on the climb up the rocky mount of revision, but the more I worked at it, the more natural it became. The sense of where you must begin a story rather than where you have first begun it. The sense of where you must expand a novel—open it up to further exploration—rather than where it now stands. The necessity to write more and more scenes to make a character’s psychology become more than mere statement. The numerous attempts to make the raw beautiful rather than pretty, and take the beautiful closer to the sublime.

To say this eventually comes to us naturally may cover over the fact that as natural as it seems it never comes easily. When I edited a collection of Bernard Malamud’s essays along with my dear old friend and fellow novelist and story writer Nicholas Delbanco I discovered Malamud’s painstaking method for making the natural seem a common occurrence. Here’s how he worked on a short story. You can draw inferences from his about how he approached novels.

First he wrote a draft in long hand and then typed it over and made corrections in the typescript. Then he wrote a second draft in long hand and typed it up to make corrections that comprised another draft. And so on, sometimes up to a dozen times, to make a finished story. In the page proofs for a magazine version of the story he made corrections with a pen. When he had enough stories for a collection he made further corrections in the galley proofs, and then again in the page proofs. When he had a finished book on hand, it was never finished. When he read a story in public he made further changes as he went along in the reading of it.

Ciardi and Malamud—not a one-two punch, more like a one-one thousand punch to help me to see how to make art better and better.

As I write these words I have just about completed one of the most fortunate endeavors a novelist can undertake. A new publisher has come along to bring out a new edition—this would be the fourth!—of a novel I wrote thirty years ago and published almost that long ago. Back then I called it The Grandmothers’ Club and this remained its title through its first three iterations, its original hard cover, and then two paperback editions. At the urging of this publisher—Frederic Price of Fig Tree Books–I took the time to revise it after all these many decades, and recast the punctuation, particularly the quotation marks. When I first wrote it I was in the throes of modernism, as if caught up in a fever that had a fever, something that’s cooled down a bit for me by now, to, say, a steady boil with now and flares of flame like sunspots. The book changed enough so that we changed its title. Now called Prayers for the Living it comes out in a new trade paperback edition in March.

Revise, revise! Have I changed my life? I don’t know, I don’t know. Have I changed my art? I invite you to come and see.