Hey there, campers! Have you found yourself wandering the dark recesses of your streaming video service of choice, looking for something to watch and coming up short every time? All caught up on Breaking Thrones and Boardwalks & Recreation? Perfect, then we’ve got something you’re going to want to watch; Superstition Review contributors David Shields and Caleb Powell co-wrote a book called “I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel,” which has been turned in to a feature-length film, directed by none other than the proverbial Renaissance Man himself, James Franco. Here’s the trailer:
“I Think You’re Totally Wrong” is currently available in select cities across the U.S.A., but we here Superstition Review got our hands on an advance copy of the film, so we can tell you with some authority: it’s good. The film combines the simmering tension and wit of two writers at the height of their argumentative powers, with the all the introspection and sincerity that one finds in conversations with their closest friends. Shields and Powell muse on the what it means to be engaged with a life well-lived and how that relates to craft and creation, the responsibilities of an artist with respect to honesty and vulnerability, and whether or not it’s possible, or even advisable, to stay out of trouble while being an artist. Raw, funny, and tender as all-get-out, this one is a “must-watch” for anyone who has ever found themselves wondering about the importance of art as it relates to the life of an artist, and conversely, what is the importance of the life of an artist as it relates to an artist’s life.
Covered by everybody from Elle Magazine to the Boston Globe, “I Think You’re Totally Wrong” is by any metric, a burgeoning critical hit. Do yourself the immense kindness of finding a screening near you (details can be found here), and as always, drop us a line in the comments section below.
To admit to keeping a journal might smack of a twee sensibility, but I’ve kept one for years, and find them rather to be a necessity. These journals have long given way from their original, possibly naval gazing intent, which was to chronicle the days, and have become more useful for literary digressions, and a regular and deliberate writing about writing.
After the intense work of my MFA in 2006, I was writing a lot about process in my journal. While pursuing my degree I was writing in multiple directions creatively, and these experiments led to inquiries and writings on craft. Perhaps because in its normal guise this writing is known as criticism, it has a negative connotation for creative writers. But writing about writing seems to jiggle synapses, opening up my creativity. The beauty of writing about process is that the writing itself is often the process.
A journal, it seems, is the perfect vehicle for exploring topics in a blog. Thus, I naturally turned to writing a blog.
I’ve now written my blog for the last seven years–eleven years, if you count the one that preceded it but which I quit a few years in to go to grad school–and I’ve kept journals for much longer than that. In that time, I’ve written over 100 blog posts, most having to do with some aspect of writing and craft. Much like the critical work of my MFA, writing my blog has kept me within arm’s reach of that academic world–or at least, feeling as if I am still in the conversation.
During the AWP Conference in Minneapolis this year, Charles Baxter led a panel, “The Art of the Art of Writing,” for a discussion based on his Graywolf Press series, and it was the first seminar where I found myself writing down much of what was said. As Baxter said, “Criticism is/can be, an art.” To further make this type of writing palatable, Stacey D’Erasmo, one of the panelists, offered, “Criticism is thought, not judgment.” I was also pleasantly surprised to see this wasn’t a jam packed seminar–it was late afternoon when blood sugar levels drop–which gave me solace in that it’s one area where I don’t have to feel competitive. Writing fiction, sometimes, can feel like a competition; whereas writing criticism can be an opportunity to slow down, and to ruminate.
Maintaining a blog about writing is a great habit for writing fiction no less, and I can’t complain about writer’s block; I simply have to find the time to put in some writing, and invariably the ideas begin to flow. I actually don’t believe in writer’s block; Flaubert’s marinating is the occasion for me to write something different.
It may at first seem an odd preoccupation for a self described fiction writer to always return to writing about writing. But as I also review books, which is another form of writing about writing, the end result is a deeper appreciation and understanding–and excitement about–the process of writing. Blog writing occupies the logical part of my brain, leaving the dreamy and surreal side to flourish for my fiction.
Aware of the social network savvy-ness of blog culture, I have infrequently written a blog post hoping to garner hits. I long ago gave up trying to second guess that algorithm and instead have focused on pieces that have interested me, mainly. It’s a surprise usually to see which posts get the most hits. I would be curious to discover the site linked to my piece about short story openings–my single most read post.
I also, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, blog at a snail’s pace. I’ve never seen my blog merely as a place to post bite-sized morsels every week, though expediency has led me to these occasionally. If anything, the blog has become a practice for writing longer pieces. I’ve written a few posts that cracked 2000 words, but for the most part I’ve managed to keep them within 1000 words. I’m sure every writer has their sweet spot in a blog post, and I find 1000 words to be the perfect capsule for many of the topics I’ve written on–it almost subconsciously works out this way. Of course, these topics can be explored in longer essays, but the blog has an immediacy that lends itself to trying a subject out. I’m especially fond of E. M. Forster’s statement, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
There’s no shortage of topics to consider, either, with the irreversible and remarkable changes in publishing over the past decade, or wide-ranging discussions of industry trends, or reviewing un-put-downable fiction. There are a number of think piece type blogs which have been resources for me, and have been models for posts I might write. The more involved with literary matters the better. (The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tim Parks’s blog at the New York Review of Books, The Smart Set, and Arts and Letters Daily are several I check regularly.) In fact, when I first began my blog, I was always surprised–and pleased–to find blogs with a similar sensibility. I couldn’t imagine this bounty if the internet didn’t exist.
In reading other writer’s blogs, I have discovered a diasporic community. So I have reached out–and been reached out to–by a number of interesting bloggers, who are all fascinating to me in their unique approaches to the medium (So many have come and gone over the years, I resist naming any here). This has led to requests for guest blog postings, and one for a serial interview when I published my novel last autumn. Though I may never meet these fellow bloggers in person, it’s been great to know we are connected in a kindred medium and subject.
Finally, one of the great rewards of this practice is that it has given me a log of my thinking over the years, a timeline in a body of work that parallels my creative output, since I’ve also been publishing fiction and reviews regularly when I can. It’s surprising to look back over the years and re-read a piece I wrote about daily writing habits, or a deconstruction on David Shields’s death warrant for the novel, or an essay attempting to describe Gary Lutz’s sentences. Having become something more than the sum of its parts, I often think that my blog is a book. One day it may very well become that.
I believe we are all storytellers. This hardly needs explanation—as people and as writers, we continually craft narratives to explain how and why things happen. From flippant anecdotes to sweeping epics, we use the power of narrative to give meaning to events, dates, and people by giving them context . As readers and listeners we feel empathy, understanding, even disgust and revulsion for the people and institutions contained in these narratives. We love to be immersed in story, sometimes as a reflection of the real-time occurrences (it feels like an overstatement to call them events) of our lives, sometimes as an escape from them.
But what of all those real-time occurrences? How do we take them in, before we’ve expended the time and creative energy to convert them into story? And just importantly, how do we take all those stories contained in a life, a mind, a world, and get them to behave enough to hold them all in our arms at the same time? And then, once we have them gathered, how do we figure out how they all work together in the larger fabric of a poem, or an essay, or a book? This is where the other side of our minds asserts itself. If we all fancy ourselves storytellers, we must also embrace that other, less glamorous side of ourselves: we all also compulsive listers. Here is a short list of the lists that I keep and read:
To-do lists – I even categorize them into Writing/Reading/Music, Teaching, Cleaning/Organization/Finances, and Fitness/Recreation.
Shopping lists – My wife and I even have synchronized our shopping lists via a handy smartphone app. Collaborative listing!
Listicles – Go ahead, google it. I would guess, if not guarantee, you’ve read at least one online in the last week. There are probably a few on your Facebook feed right now.
Outlines – I really hate this term actually, as it just makes me think of Roman numerals. But I do outline pieces I’m writing, especially in the early stages of their development. This has been my own way of forcing myself out of the immediate environment of the narratives I’m juggling—a global perspective, if you will. Speaking of process…
I’ve organized my own writing into “Stages”: 1) Development, 2) Drafting, 3) Editing, 4) Submission, and 5) Publication. Ironically, the list gives my own process a narrative energy, moving the pieces I write sequentially along the list. Of course, many pieces swap back and forth between stages 2 and 3, and there’s always the logjam between stages 4 and 5.
Timelines – I’ve been obsessed with timelines for some time now. I would even go so far as to say they represent the convergence of the list and the story. When I was at college in Kentucky, my first time to live away from my home in Kansas, I began creating a timeline of my life. I plugged into this timeline every memory, every event in my life, in chronological order by year, month, and if possible even the day. This was my first literary framing device, giving my life a sense of linearity and narrative progression.
As a nonfiction writer, I’ve become more and more concerned with the convergence of listing and storytelling. In fact, when I was doing my MFA work a couple of years ago, I made it the primary focus of my studies. I got some critical perspective from various sources:
John O’Banion – In 1991, O’Banion wrote Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story in response to a shift he’d witnessed in composition and rhetoric away from narrative (“Story”) toward purely systematic thought (“List”): “List records scientific truth, with logic providing tests of a List’s accuracy and universality. Story embodies aesthetic ‘truth’ (meaning), with narration providing guidance in revealing and discovering such situationally bound meaning.” O’Banion’s work decried a shift he saw in academia away from story and toward listing as a rhetorical strategy, but I found myself approaching this dialectic from the opposite side: I was struggling not against systematic forms but against my own stories. I needed a way of containing them, of isolating them, and finally of addressing the burning question of what these stories meant to me.
Viktor Shklovsky – “The form of a work of art is determined by its relationship with other pre-existing forms. The content of a work of art is invariably manipulated, it is isolated, ‘silenced.’” Shklovsky’s method of enstrangement took awhile to sink in for me, until Douglas Glover explained it thus: “We rescue experience from conventionality by applying aesthetic techniques to it. The effect of using literary technique is to make the experience ‘strange.’…So poetry makes experience strange. Art makes experience strange and hence fresh to the observer.” Listing, for me, became the method of contextually isolating events, and artfully rendering them.
David Shields – His list-manifesto Reality Hunger has been discussed ad nauseam by now, so let me just say that it served as both instructional guide and working example of list-as-story.
A fortune cookie from Hunan Delight that read, “Digital circuits are made from analog parts.” In fact, my critical thesis, which was later published in Numero Cinq, was titled, “The Answer I Found in a Fortune Cookie: Toward a Digital Conception of Nonfiction.” This conception, in a nutshell (or fortune cookie), is this: my own challenge, in writing any piece, is to discover 1) the stories at work, and 2) the systematic circuit to contain them.
As for my own writing, especially in the early stages of gathering material, I started forcing myself to write not long narratives but short little vignettes, drawing inspiration from work like Joe Brainard’s I Remember, a “memoir” composed entirely of paragraphs starting with “I Remember…,” and Eula Biss’s The Baloonists, a collage-like collection of real-time observations and deep-seated memories. I also became (and still am) obsessed with the “list-essay” as a form, poring over work like Jonathan Lethem’s “13, 1977, 21,” Susan Allen Toth’s “Going to the Movies,” Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey” (OK, technically a poem, but let’s not split hairs here), and the myriad lists and diatribes of 11th Century Japanese courtesan Sei Shonagon.
Speaking of obsessions, I’m also a sucker for the decade-centered listicles that usually find their way onto my Facebook feed, VH1-like “Remember the [Insert Decade]?” lists of things that most people who lived through said decade will recognize. This pop-culture phenomenon has its literary antecedents. Two examples, Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My 80s” and Leonard Michaels’ “In the Fifties,” have become models for a long-term project I began in grad school and am currently publishing on my website, which I’m calling “The List and the Story.”
This project, a collection of memoir, anecdote, aphorism, cultural critique, literary/music criticism, and meta-writing in list form by decade, has functioned for roughly three years now as the dashboard for my writing, the place I begin work on longer essays, refer back when figuring out how individual essays fit together within the larger framework of my understanding, and add to when I’ve finished essays or am just bored or experiencing writer’s block. I’ve only recently, on the recommendation of friends who’ve read some or all of it, decided to publish it. I was hesitant until recently mainly because I see it as ever-changing and expanding as I write more and more into myself. For these reasons I decided to put it up on my author website, so I can let it change and expand publicly.
Being also a bit of a showman I decided to release it in pieces, one decade per month from September through December this year. I’ve begun in the Eighties this month, posting roughly one little (25-200 word) piece of the list per day on the blog and sharing each day’s post with my social networks. I thought I would share it as the podcast of my essay “The Revelator,” published in s[r] last year, was released yesterday. An advantage of having my life online in list form is that I get to hear from readers—friends, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers—who frequently share their own stories that a given section evokes in them. If you have a story or a list, do tell it—to me, or to someone else!