Guest Post: Robert Detman, Letter From Japan

On Not Knowing

 

View of the roof in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

From the window of our Tokyo hotel, we overlook an economics college on whose balconies and roof deck congregate about a dozen students. A couple of them throw a football; some go off and stand alone on the roof to smoke cigarettes. I haven’t seen a lot of activity at the school today, compared to yesterday; it’s a Friday evening. As I scan the brick facade, in another set of windows I see a man practicing what appears to be agile karate moves. When I look again, the group is making their way down to the fifth level deck. Several in this group run around, in what appears to be an aggressive game of tag. Much good-natured yelling and hooting is going on.

It doesn’t matter that this is Japan. It could be in New York City and I still wouldn’t know what those kids are doing, although I’m culturally closer to understanding the activities of a group of American college students.

I’m writing this near the end of almost two weeks in Japan, and what has struck me about the country is how little I know about what I see around me. As well, how in the dark I am with the language, having picked up some while here. But as this is rudimentary, I struggle to communicate.

A few observations: How are the streets so clean they look like you could eat off them–yet how can there be no trash bins to be found anywhere? Why the high-tech toilets with a control panel that looks like it requires a Ph.D. in rocket science to operate? How come I can’t find any fruit and when I do, it’s outrageously pricey? Why are there only five brands of beer (all Japanese, all lager)? Why is everyone in such a hurry to get where they are going, at any time of the day (even the Metro signs read “Don’t Rush” in English)? In the Tsukiji fish market—a warehouse about the size of three football fields–where will all that fish go? And what is the obsession with baseball, and American jazz, the latter of which is like muzak, it’s everywhere. As are vending machines.

Photo of Robert Detman on the streets in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

For a Californian who is making his best effort to match the symbols on the map with the ones he sees on the street signs, this is Japan.

The people, I should add, are generally nice, even uncannily respectful. An old man shook my hand when I held the door open for him. Japan is a curiously orderly society. I’m reminded of what first intrigued me when I watched Chris Marker’s 1983 experimental film, Sans Soleil, which is only indirectly about Japan, but contains enough enigmas about the country to pique a writer’s curiosity.

Looking out my hotel window, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. I get that lazy voyeuristic survey, waiting and expecting, or not, to see something, all of which would barely register in my awareness but for the fact that I am curious.

So much of my writing practice is inward looking. To write is to imagine. Usually I write fiction, or I write about what I am reading. I often write on what I’m thinking about. The notes I make for myself are a few steps removed from my attempt to put them into a context where I might utilize them.

I’m much less versed in the task I set for myself in Japan, writing about what is happening around me. As I want to document my trip, I attempt to catch myself in the act of noticing. This could be too obvious, perhaps to the point of self-consciousness. But on the other hand, it is not, because I lose myself in the unfamiliar, the people, their mannerisms, the general conforming of a populace to local customs. Being 5500 miles removed from my usual day to day experience, I am immersed.

There’s not much practical use I have for these observations, unless of course I can apply them to a character, but it’s hard for me to see how I would extract from the general, into the particular. And to know a character, I need particulars. To inhabit an unfamiliar culture means that I can’t really know what motivates people, nor in what I’m going to find. I’m trying to do this without any Western bias of interpretation, yet the process of observation seems to get me no closer to understanding.

This dovetails with a notion I have about the writing process: writing is so generated by unknowable impulses that it cannot help but enfold a mystery. And because of this, the result itself, whether fiction or nonfiction, is often an illustration of the process.

Photo of bikes in the street

Photo by Robert Detman

On the other hand, so many writers seem to pay lip service to this notion of not knowing what it is they do—am I making the mistake of trying to demystify the process?  I’m only concerned if it takes away the motivation, or places undue expectation on what I will write.

The workings of writing are unconscious. If I know ahead of time what I’m going to write, why should I bother to write it? I let the mechanism work unimpeded. Writing is 99% not knowing what I’m going to write, and 1% knowing only that I’m going to write. The unknown for me—and I’d suspect, for a lot of writers—is in, what will I write?

But to return to the economics college roof deck. I still have no idea what those students are doing. I have seen, and will see, before the trip is out, many more things I have no clue about, and have no basis for understanding. And so I make notes.

I love the inherent mystery of not knowing. Maybe this is what keeps me writing. Maybe I never know, even after I try to convince myself of what I’m writing, what I’m writing about. This is a metaphor for my experience in Japan. It’s also a metaphor for my writing. I remind myself that the more I write, the closer I get.

#ArtLitPhx: Four Chambers Press call for full-length manuscripts

Four Chambers call for manuscriptsLocal literary publisher, Four Chambers Press is now accepting full-length manuscript submissions in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction through July 31st, 2017. Poetry should be between 60 and 160 pgs; prose should be between 30k and 80k words. For full guidelines, visit our website at http://fourchamberspress.com/submit.

From their press release: Four Chambers Press, an independent community press based in Phoenix, AZ is now accepting full-length manuscript submissions in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, hybrid, and all other forms of contemporary literature through Monday, July 31st, 2017. We also pun frequently on the idea of being a heart. Namely: that we’re lovable; somewhat cheeky; an occasional flirt. But we also take the responsibility of literature and book publishing very seriously. We will bleed for this if we have to. Our hearts beat for this. We don’t care where you come from or what you do. We’re interested in building something that’s going to outlast us. We want to feel something together. We’re interested in you. Writers of all backgrounds and skill levels are encouraged to submit. No fees.

#ArtLitPhx: Spillers Podcast now available

Spillers logoLocal Phoenix’s premiere reading event Spillers has announced their new podcast series. The new series will have a short story read by the featured author, followed by an interview with the author. You can find out more and listen here. Their full press release is below:

Spillers, Phoenix’s premier short fiction ensemble reading event since 2015, is now also a podcast, produced and hosted by local award-winning writer and podcaster Robert Hoekman Jr.

While Spillers After Show has earned a stellar reputation as winner of Best Podcast 2016 by the Phoenix New Times, the now-live Spillers podcast brings new and exciting depth and intimacy, and will juxtapose national writers with locals, and award-winners with up-andcomers, to build an audience that extends well beyond Arizona’s borders.

Episodes each feature one short fiction story and an exclusive interview on the story of the story as told by the writer who wrote it. Every episode is 30 minutes or less so that it fits comfortably into a listener’s life, and has a Song Exploder-esque format and style.

With several interviews in the bag, Hoekman says, “These interviews are intimate and revealing. The writers so far have all been ready and willing to get personal and to talk about the circumstances and struggles that compel them to create the art they give us.”

Episodes are even recorded on-location—in places relevant either to the writer or to the story. One interview took place during a drive to a uranium mine south of the Grand Canyon. Another was held inside of a planetarium while staring up at a black hole. A third found the host and guest discussing bipolar disorder while sitting in a Circle K parking lot. These settings add dimension to the interviews that no reading event could otherwise achieve.

Venita Blackburn recording for the podcast

Venita Blackburn recording for Spillers podcast

The debut episode features ASU alum Venita Blackburn. On the show, she discusses the lifelong challenges for writers of color following her workshop on the subject, and reads her story, “Chew,” which appears in her upcoming collection Black Jesus and Other Superhero Stories (University of Nebraska Press).

Spillers has previously presented seven live events, held quarterly at the Crescent Ballroom. While autobiographical storytelling events abound, Spillers was the first and is still the only event to offer a night of Arizona’s best fiction in a setting designed to turn writers into rock stars and make literature worthy of date night. Spillers events have featured major novelists, Hudson Prize and GQ Book of the Year winners, Pushcart Prize winners, and contributors to Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Ploughshares, and McSweeney’s Quarterly, among other prestigious publications.

More live Spillers events will follow as the podcast develops its audience. For podcast subscription options and to apply to become a “spiller,” visit www.Spillers.net.

Authors Talk: Kelcey Ervick

Today we are pleased to feature author Kelcey Ervick as our Authors Talk series contributor. Kelcey did a video podcast where she discusses the images that inspired her writing. She goes on to discuss the history Rene Magritte’s influence, including the hooded figure, Fantomas.

 

You can read Kelcey’s piece, “After the Lovers,” in Issue 17 of Superstition Review.

#ArtLitPhx: Author’s visit with Paul Mosier

The Train I Ride book coverOn Saturday June 24th, from 2 to 3PM, the Mesquite Public Library will host local author Paul Mosier. Paul will discuss his newest book, Train I Ride. The book will be available to purchase, and he will speak about his writing process. This is a free event and you can find out more information at the Phoenix Public Library website here.

Authors Talk: James Pate

Today we are pleased to feature author James Pate as our Authors Talk series contributor. James talks about how writing poetry and fiction seem to use two different parts of the James Pate Bio Photobrain. He compares it to writing with your right hand versus your left. James takes his influence from writers that focus greatly on language and how it contributes to the narrative. In the podcast, James reads a few of his poems and discusses the inspiration behind them.

You can read James’ story “Michael Hill” in issue 17 of Superstition Review here.

Guest Post, Vytautas Malesh: Face Your Critics, Face Your Fears, Face Yourself.

Vytautas Malesh Bio PhotoSooner or later, we all have to deal with critics. The old chestnut goes something along the lines of “but my mom says I’m brilliant,” and so we’ll have to forego any maternal input on our literary efforts in favor of words less warm, but probably more honest. Whether we’re talking about a submission editor’s hasty notes, a mentor’s line-by-line markup, or an Iowa-style “dead author” workshop session, the writer’s job in the face of criticism is to learn from that criticism. It’s a herculean task, but one which you the writer must master since, well, go back and read the first sentence.

While it is tempting to rest assured of your own brilliance, know that you dismiss any piece of criticism at your own peril. You’ll get the occasional ill-informed vagary along the lines of “I dunno, I just didn’t like it” or something else equally unhelpful. You’ll often find this sort of criticism in low-level undergraduate writing workshops around midterm and finals weeks, or following a weekend of epic tailgating. No need to really pay that too much attention if you are not so inclined.

But I digress.

Assuming that the critic has indeed read your work, considered it, and wants to offer constructive and helpful notes, it’s important to humble yourself and to listen. Criticism can sting, badly. That’s not quite doing it justice:  criticism can make you want to curl up into a ball and never write again. But that’s what happens when you let your ego get in the way of your craft, and if you’re going to write – and, as a consequence, deal with critics – you must let go of your ego.

Some critics are relatively easy to endure – pedants checking your spelling and grammar, for example. Others are easy to dismiss if they are trying too hard to inject their own style matter into your work – the minimalist who insists you could chop your complex character drama down to about the length of a sonnet.

But other criticism cuts deeper. When you’ve had a gaping and irreconcilable plot hole revealed, or if someone should point out that your story so strongly echoes something else already in the world that no publisher would ever show it the light of day. Or that your characterization reveals you to be, or perhaps suggests that you are, sexist, or racist, or misogynistic, or homophobic, or otherwise holding a deep character flaw that perhaps you didn’t even know you had.

When faced with such criticism, it’s important to remember your service to the words – if you’ve been called out over questionable or even hurtful politics, take the time to think about what you’re doing and where you’re coming from. This is the sort of criticism that must not be ignored for both your own sake and, in a very real way, for the sake of the societies and cultures in which we find ourselves. If your work has struck a nerve and offended*, then observe the awesome power that words have in the world, and strive to use that power responsibly.

And of course, sometimes we just have to torch a piece. Perhaps the plot isn’t salvageable, or we realize we have plagiarized something we’ve never read (or at least that’s what our critics say). Cheer up – burn the failure and use the ashes like fertilizer to nourish the next piece. If the worst thing that happens after an encounter with hard criticism is more writing, then consider yourself lucky and get back to work.

*Disclaimer:  “You shouldn’t be offended,” “I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” and “explain it to me – how is that offensive?” are not appropriate in this circumstance. If you have offended someone, you listen to what they have to say. Similarly, “I’m being offensive on purpose” is debatable at best, and you’re probably not being as witty as you think you are – people’s failure to “get it” is more likely your failure to deliver it.