December 19, 2008

2008 Minnesota Writer’s Career Initiative Grant Winners

There weren’t as many people as I had thought there was going to be. I was surprised to see so many empty chairs. I didn’t get to stay the whole time but I stayed long enough to hear all four authors read an excerpt from their book. I found all of their work to be rather interesting. Each author talked about different subjects that concerned different matters conveying different emotions, thoughts. They were Patricia Cumbie, Pamela Cater Joern, John Resengren, and Kao Kalia Yang. The one that I found to be most interesting was Kao Kalia Yang’s The Place Where We Were Born. The Latehomecome: A Hmong Family Memoir.

She was the last to read but I felt it was the most emotion filled readings compared to the rest. Maybe it was because I could relate the topic at a more intimate level. When she was reading, I felt like she was going to cry any moment. She spoke softly and from the way she read, from what she read about, it was very sad and emotional. She read about her father; the main topic being what it meant to be a refugee. She mentioned the reason why she wrote this book. She said it was because of her baby brother and grandmother. She wanted to capture all the stories her grandmother had on paper so that when her brother grew up, he would remember her.

She read about her father, who was punched to the ground onto his knees. He got up again because he didn’t want his family to see him on the ground being treated like an animal. When she was reading this, I envisioned myself as a daughter behind the father; envisioned the father as my dad; envisioned me in that situation. It was very sad. I probably would have been crying for my father. Family relations are very important in the Hmong culture. Therefore, to see a loved one, not to mention your father, get beat to the floor not being able to do anything about it is especially heart wrenching.

I really wished I could have stayed for the questioning afterwards. At least that’s what I think was suppose to happen after all the authors had finished reading. In general, I enjoyed this rather much. It’s just interesting to have the reader read their works. By the way they read it says a lot about a person.

Wondrous: An Evening with Junot Diaz

There's something fascinating about celebrity.

A month ago, I met celebrated author Junot Diaz. I was quickly struck by what a sharp, opinionated man he was. I had heard the stories. I knew that the public conceived of him as a quiet, introverted man and I knew not to expect a bombastic stagemonger. The man in person was something I can hardly put into words.

A famous person - for all their inward normality - is difficult to place on the same plane of life as a "normal" person. Everything around a celebrity feels somehow elevated, as if the acknowledgment of the exalted person makes events more legitimate or more tangible. Events around a celebrity are certainly more likely to be recorded.

Because of this, I was startled by Diaz's normalcy. Thinking back to his words, Diaz merely said what perhaps a dozen other writers in my life had said (though perhaps with just a bit more confidence in his own ability). His concepts: 'Write Hardest through the Hard Times' and 'Take Emotions from your Own Life', rang bewilderingly familiar. It was strange to hear this man, a man celebrated for achievement in a creative art, retreading ideas I was taught in middle school.

Even still, enough about the night was interesting. Diaz has a penetrating - if not engaging - wit, and spoke pointedly about certain topics. On revision, in particular, the scenarios he described made the night worthwhile. Diaz said that he has worked hard to accumulate a circle of friends - a special type of friend that knows he/she can be critical - to inform him if his "shit is whack." If even ten percent of each draft works, he says, he sees it as a surprise and an accomplishment.

More than anything, the night with Junot Diaz reminded me that merely sitting in the presence of greatness does not make one great. However much I love the Great American Novel, I am no closer to writing one. As Diaz said, it is up to the writer to persevere, and that can come only from within.

December 18, 2008

Junot Diaz

First off, i am glad to see I am not the only one posting this on the last day. I appreciate my fellow procrastinators.

About the reading. I loved it. I know some of peers expressed their opinions about the political statements at the reading. I know some of you guys felt uncomfortable about the blatant liberal agenda. It was a bit inappropriate, but being a liberal gal I really appreciated it. I was glad Diaz felt comfortable enough to express his political opinions. Minneapolis is a liberal city, and although the University itself isn't entirely, many of the people that attended this reading weren't U of M students. He talked about this in the beginning of the reading, because it was a way to connect with the crowd. I am sure Diaz assumed that the majority of the audience would appreciate his liberal comments ( the majority did. the majority was clapping) and this was a way to really connect with the audience so the reading would be more intimate.
Going into the reading I wasn't really sure what to expect. The only time I had ever seen Diaz before was when one of my peers showed a clip from the Colbert Report in their class presentation. In that interview he seemed incredibly nervous, but who wouldn't be? Being interviewed by Stephen Colbert and knowing this interview would be seen by millions is intimidating. When he started to speak to the audience at Coffman he was much more relaxed. When he dropped his first f-bomb I didn't know how to react. He kept up the casual language which made me more relaxed and more connected to what he was saying. He tore down the wall between the audience and himself which in turn made him seem more approachable and making his writings more relatable to the reader/audience.
One thing that is really hard for me sometimes is to take people's criticism, especially when they are right. Diaz talked about how in his early days he didn't like the criticism his peers gave him. They would question his female characters. He didn't accept their ideas and believed his female characters were fine as they were. In the "Brief and Wonderous life of Oscar Wao" his female characterized were based on the qualities his sisters expressed. Diaz learned how to take criticism and he says if he gets even close to a good representation of a female character, he considers that character a success.
What Diaz said about the unconscious really inspired me. We should let go our hangups and just write. What DIaz said about being an artist made me consider myself more artistic than I had previously thought. He said that when you are stressed out, and backed up into a corner it is our reaction that defines what we are. If we move on, keep going and trudge through the bullshit we are an artist. He really made an emphasis on the idea of time. It is impossible to make a masterpiece in seconds. It is okay to take your time on something. Revisions and criticism are key into making a story better. I loved the excerpt we read in class from "A Brief and Wonderous life of Oscar Wao", and was excited that he chose to read from that chapter. Hearing him reading it gave the writing a different tone. He was more relaxed, and the way he spoke was more conversational and sarcastic than I got from reading the story on paper. Even though I don't write that much, I really was inspired by his reading and took away a lot of material that can be applied into my everyday life.

Ethan Canin

There isn’t really much to tell about Ethan Canin’s reading. He started off with a couple jokes about the most recent elections and such. He joked that “readings are to Democrats as NASCAR is to Republicans. He then went on to read excerpts from his recent novel “Across the River?.

He described his novel as a story about a working class fellow who falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy industrial family. Ethan Canin stated that he gave up on the novel for about three years, but the events that took place on 9/11 gave him a renewed interest in politics. “Across the River? took its current form from that point on.

After the reading Ethan took a few questions from the audience. Someone asked him if he considers himself a fox or a hedgehog. Of course, this question derives from a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing?. Many have argued about the correct interpretation of these words, which may mean no more than that the fox, despite all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defense. Ethan stated that he likes to consider himself a bit of both fox and hedgehog. I guess that would make him a hedge-fox, but we all know such a creature just doesn’t exist.

Overall I was a little disappointed by the reading. Ethan Canin didn’t offer anything much outside of a few quips here and there. Based on blog entries I have read about the Junot Diaz reading, I feel I missed out on a valuable experience and equally valuable advice for emerging writers by opting to attend the Canin reading instead.

- Marvin Medina

Chuch (Peaches) Klosterman

All right last thing of the semester!

When we were told that we had to go to a literary event, I was worried. I have gone to readings before and find them mercilessly boring. So, I set out to find an out-of-the-ordinary writer. I found Chuck Klosterman.

Chuck Klosterman is a journalist who usually writes short nonfiction pieces criticizing culture. However, he was at the Triple Rock promoting his new book, Downtown Owl when I saw him. His history as a nonfiction writer gave him a unique outlook on creative writing.

He stressed the differences between fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction, he said, was all reactions. You see something, and react to it (in words). Fiction, conversely, is more of a creative process (or as he said “you have to make up every word.?) He estimated that, on average, for every one fiction word written, he could write ten nonfiction words in the same amount of time.

He also talked a lot about his dialogue. He mentioned that one of the best ways to create dialogue is to actually act out what the characters are doing. He said that sometimes he would reenact parts of his story with his friends (only sometimes with them aware that he was doing so). He would record their whole conversation and listen to it later, looking for good conversations. Sometimes they would just spark an idea. This seems like a useful and somewhat amusing approach to writing.

Sadly, what he read from his book seemed sort of trite and unimaginative, but his advice was very fruitful. I tried to record my conversations, but I found that I tried too hard to be creative in my discussions. Eventually, I did manage to forget about the recorder. But listening back, the only knowledge gained was that I have very boring conversations. It was worth a go though.

Chuck did manage to do something that most writers don’t. He kept the audience’s attention. Readings are a performing art. The writing can’t just speak for itself. Chuck had the charisma and stage presence to keep me interested. It is too bad that his writing wasn’t worth it. He should really stick to short blurbs about culture.

- Nathan

Kao Kalia Yang

Woot, late but not exactly late!

I arrived with fellow classmate Mai, and saw Paul sitting at a table and chillin’ with a cup of coffee in the shop area. We knew immediately that we were in the right place if someone else from class was here. We ended up seeing Jillian too! We must definitely be at the right place. Wrong. It turned out that we actually went to the wrong event in the right place.

So, I also went to the 2008 Minnesota Writers Career Initiative Grant Winners reading that was held at the Loft the same night as that Dislocate reading that Laura told us all about. I realized that it wasn't the Dislocate reading immediately, but there were so few people there that it would have been rude to leave, and a reading is a reading right? So, I stayed.

The lights dimmed, and the four writers were presented: They were Patricia Cumbie, Pamela Carter Joern, John Rosengrnen and Kao Kalia Yang.

I thought that I was going to be so bored, but I was relieved that wasn’t the case. I tried putting myself in their shoes—I would definitely never be able to read aloud my own works like they did. They really had the desire to spread their works out there.

I’ll talk about Kao Kalia Yang’s reading because her reading managed to move me. Her voice was awkward and wavered throughout the entire reading, as if trying not to cry, as she read her family’s story aloud to us. It was very touching—she told us about how the Hmong people were treated in Asia after the Vietnam War. The situation that the Hmong people found themselves in is way too long to describe, so I think it would be easier to Wiki than to have me poorly explain it to you all. Actually, here’s a link to save you all the trouble:

She dedicated her book to her Grandmother, who she loved dearly. Since the book she wrote is a memoir, I think it was great to be able to actually hear her actual speaking voice. If I had actually read the book, I think that this would have been a great experience as a reader, but since I didn’t actually the read the book…

Though, to be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever attend another reading during my own personal time, (aka against my will) the time spent at the event wasn’t all that bad, and I enjoyed it.

Patricia Cumbie Reading

I went to a reading where four different authors read, but I guess I want to focus on the one that I liked best: the Patricia Cumbie Reading. She read an excerpt from her novel, "Where People Like Us Live." I guess what I found so striking about it was how much her voice effected the experience of attending the reading. When I read things to myself, I usually let my imagination do a lot of work. If I am interested by the characters, I will get mental images of them in my head and picture the scenes as they go down. I will also assign voices to the characters so that I can really hear them talking as I read dialog. Upon reflection, I think the primary difference between reading a book and listening to a book get read is probably the amount of work that is required for readers/listeners. When I read a book, I have to do a lot of work to actually read the text and to create that mental image of the action. But when Cumbie read, I found that her interpretation of the story was automatically forced into my mind. She had an extremely strong voice and tone, which changed how I viewed the story. Her voice added a lot of drama to the story, I guess, and also made the plot seem more dark and screwed-up than I think I would have read it as being. Her tone was so serious that I was actually quite alarmed by the story; however, I don't think I would have felt that way on my own. I don’t actually think that the events in the passage were particularly alarming, but her voice gave it a feel that was very dark and twisted.

I guess this begs the question of, so what? How should the discrepancy between your intended tone and the tone readers will get on their own influence your choices when writing? I am not totally sure. I guess as a writer, we always want people to interpret the story as we have in mind—we are, after all, crafting a story and choosing to share it with our audience. We decide everything else about the story, so we want control over how it is received by our readers. However, I must stay that after listening to the reading, I was almost put off by how much control Cumbie had over my interpretation of the story. When I love a book, one of my favorite parts of reading it is actually crafting that mental image and voice for the story—I get attached to my interpretation of it, and I like that. Although I had never actually read the except before listening to Cumbie read, I sort of disliked my lack of control over my perception of the story as she read. I think perhaps one of the virtues of writing as a means of communication is that it is somewhat ambiguous, making it fulfilling to read. I guess this blog post won’t come to any decisive conclusion. But what I learned from the reading was that it’s at least important to consider the tone in which you write with and the way your readers will receive it.

December 7, 2008

Hedgehogs are Stupid

Ethan Canin’s writings read something like a manual on how to write fiction stories. “Emperor of the Air? feels extremely planned, and the characters are all laid out, leaving little for the reader to work at. If I could describe his writing style with one word it would be “clean.? Every word on the page plays a part in the story. A character of his will not make an unjustified decision. One of his talents is writing stories that feel crisp even while his characters are buried in introspection.

This is similar to his speaking style. Very writerlike. He is thoughtful, quiet, and liberal, and he spoke carefully, like a doctor to his patients. He brought up a metaphor he once heard about personality types. He said there are two types: a hedgehog, and a fox. The hedgehog knows one thing, but he knows it in his bones. (that’s how he said “bones?) The fox knows many things. I thought it would be better to be a fox because no one ever says “smart like a hedgehog.?

I find it mindblowing that he left his doctor job for a writing career. That sounds scary as hell. Writing is such a hit-or-miss job. Yeah, he got a movie deal and ended up picking the write career. (I know I said write instead of right, it’s a pun) Matt mentioned in class that he knew a guy who just graduated from Columbia and is now $100,000 in debt… AND he’s a writer. That is a tough situation to be in, but who am I to talk I’m an Art History Major.

The story Canin read was very different from “Emperor of The Air,? which is the only Canin story I’ve read. It is full of politics, sex and the lies that go along with those themes. “Emperor? had none of those things, but both stories did feature much introspection. The section he read aloud was from the perspective of a regretful mistress talking about the decisions she’s made. “Emperor? was similar in style, despite being about an old man.

Both characters are extremely honest with there emotions. I think this is probably a theme for Canin. The mistress honestly describes her resentment towards the Senator for the compassion shows, and the old man looks back on his life with some remorse throughout “Emperor.?

Kao Kalia Yang and Irony, In Defense of Literary Readings

Due to a minor misunderstanding, I ended up at the Literary Loft on Washington instead of the poetry reading in Lind Hall a few weeks ago. Luckily (and semi-ironically), it turned out that there was a literary reading at the same time, which meant two things: 1) I was confused when it wasn't poetry 2) It took me over an hour to be fully sure I was at the wrong place.

The event I ended up at was a reading for 2008 Minnesota Writers Career Initiative Grant Winners, an award of up to $8,000 to help cultivate the "beginning" careers of selected writers. So, we got to hear from four great semi-local writers (Patricia Cumbit, Pamela Carter Joen, John Rosengran and Kao Kalia Yang).

For the sake of brevity, I'll talk about the final winner, Kao Kalia Yang. I was actually first introduced to Yang when I was assigned to read her debut novel "The Latehomecomer," which revolves around her Hmong family's persecution and immigration to the United States. As irony would have it, I actually dropped the story because I couldn't get a timely interview with her. So, here I am at the wrong place listening to a woman read from a book I own, but I had only read the first 30 pages-ish.

Instead of detailing exactly what she read (revolving around the family structure and the disconnection of family ties during immigration), I think I'll talk about the way writing is different when it is read than when it is heard. To be honest, the reason I hadn't read "The Latehomecomer" was that I found it slow-moving and wholly inapplicable to my life (yet another point of irony, since I am now volunteering at a charter school for Hmong refugees and the perspective would have been oh-so-helpful).

This is very different from when I heard Yang speak. Her voice had that sort of squeakiness that can be wearing when it's found in a professor you see three times a week. In this context, it was moving. She sounded desperate, pained. She opens with one of the earliest memories she has, running through the thick forests (I think it is in Cambodia or Laos) and the interaction between her parents, the way they had been held apart by her grandparents.

Now, I had actually read this part of the novel. It was interesting, but in no way seemed suspenseful or thoroughly terrifying. Her voice had a different effect on me. As she meticulously poured over the words, releasing them into the air over the audiences head, they thickened the atmosphere, weighed on us. Her closing reading was from the very end of the book, a discussion of her deceased grandmother, who never spoke English. Yang claims her novel is to give words to those that can't be heard. Her intonation rose. She was a few steps below shouting in heartbreak. Of course, I immediately regretted never reading the book.

I've experienced this sort of thing before, and not in drama. I find David Sedaris only mildly entertaining (I have a weird sense of humor, according to my friends. I also find Chuck Klosterman a bore, sorry if I offend). However, his books are also available on tape (and by tape, I of course mean CD). His emphasis of certain portions of the story are hilarious. The anecdotes are so successfully dictated, when I find them lost on my overly-concentrated reading.

The point I'm trying to make is that when I was younger (aka two years-ish ago), I found literary readings tedious and inefficient. Clearly, it takes less time to read a book by yourself than having it read to you. Why would I wait around form them to finish when I'm already on the next chapter? I was wrong, horribly wrong.

Oh, and I want to also say that if all haven't picked up "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" after seeing Diaz speak, you really need to. His narrator's voice is astounding.

Junot Díaz!

Sorry this is a bit late; it took me forever to figure out how to even post this…

As Laura mentioned in one of the emails (I think, it was a long time ago), I had the chance to go not only to Junot Díaz’s reading, but also his in-class visit. At first I didn’t know what to expect—after all, he is a PULITIZER PRIZE WINNER, and that’s just freaking intimidating. But in the end, I not only respected him for his writing, but for being a writer as well. He was honest and passionate, and very unprofessional, which made him seem human. Or at least, I never felt the “academic snob? vibe from him, which you think would come with being an award-winning writer.

So my little summary is going to TRY and focus on what he said in class as compared to what he said during the reading. However, a lot of his messages carried over from class to the reading. Personally, I don’t mind the repetition, but I apologize in advance if it bothers anybody. His lessons were full of practical wisdom, not only for the aspiring writer but for any artist in general.

One of the most important pieces of advice he gave to the class was to be an artist you must learn to forgive yourself. I think everybody has problems with that; they get frustrated when a sentence doesn’t sound right or an entire piece of work just sucks. But he said that in order to call yourself an artist, you have to accept that you will make mistakes. What makes you the artist is when you’re able to get up and continue writing when your back is against the wall and you have fallen harder then you ever have in your life. I felt this was really inspiring, because he not only supported a love for the art form but encouraged believing in yourself (as cheesy as that sounds). It’s okay to be nervous about your writing, because a piece of your writing is almost like a window into your head and soul. It’s not something you want a lot of people to see, because it’s so personal and it exposes you to be critiqued, criticized, ect, and that’s something that nobody wants. But in order to grow, you have to be critiqued. Díaz mentioned the students in his MIT creative writing class; he said that he could always identify the kids who didn’t want to grow as writers. They’d come to class and sit down with their arms crossed, hearing the comments about their story but not actually listening. He said he had much more respect for the kids who came to class nervous, but still listened and were willing to accept that their writing wasn't perfect and had flaws.

It’s okay not to be a fast writer either. Díaz said that certain pieces of work can take YEARS to finish (he said he was jealous of his friend who could write an entire novel in a few months). He mentioned how painful writing was for him, even if he was only asked to write a news article or a blog post. He said that if he didn’t have the right vibe, he would write crap. But he also mentioned how important it was to write anyway, because it is still practice and helps you to find your writing voice and improve your style.

Somebody in the class asked him if he wrote with a particular audience in mind (he talked about this at the reading too). Díaz replied with, “Don’t all writers?? I think this is the first time that I’ve heard somebody say that they write not only as a selfish passion, but as a selfless passion as well. He explained it like this; when you have an idea in your head, you feel the need to get it down onto paper. Why? To show to somebody, aka, the audience. If writers didn’t feel the need to show their work and ideas to the audience, nothing would even get published!

He also told us that when we’re writing to bring our whole self to our work. We as people, develop different personalities throughout our lives to reveal to different groups of people that we interact with. For example, we have a face to show our friends, a face to show our parents, a face to show our boss. These faces are all a part of us, and when writing, it’s important to realize this. We need to bring the stupid, goofy side of our personality and introduce it to our smart, “I’m a college student? side. Language is a beautiful thing, and all sides of our personality should be able to appreciate that because each face has its own set of jargon. It gives us voice—one of the most important things as writers we need to find.

Díaz also spoke of English teachers. For those aspiring to become real writers, he said that English teachers were pretty much pointless beyond undergraduate school. He said that the best thing for students to do was to go out and work a few years in the real world (after graduate school), to know what it’s like to not be safe. School as an institution is the safest place for us. It’s predictable and full of routine. He said in order to appreciate life, we should live without a safety net. It would help with writing. However, Lane can tell you; Díaz basically told him that you don’t have to put yourself in a "fuckin’ war" to write about it. Experience can help with writing, but you don’t have to know/experience something in order to create a story about it. It does, however, help make your writing more realistic. He also mentioned that writing about universal themes was important because it appeals to people, but unless you are particular about the events or details in your work, people won’t pay attention. A piece of work should take the reader somewhere, even if it’s out of their comfort zone. The writing shouldn’t talk down to the reader, but talk with them, engage them, even if the work is in a setting (such as a fantasy one) they can’t relate to.

All of these pieces of advice made me think about my own writing, and gave me a new perspective. Writing should be a fun process. At the reading, Diaz mentioned that he writes for his “six closest friends.? When you write, have fun with it and write something that you think your friends would enjoy reading. It’ll make your writing so much more fun, and is something that you’ll (hopefully) be satisfied with in the end. Honestly, his advice was probably some of the best I've ever recieved when it comes to writing. I'm really glad that I had the opprotunity to hear him speak. :)
(Oh, and sorry if there were any grammar or spelling errors in my post...sometimes I'm not very good at catching them!)

December 2, 2008

A Response to Junot Diaz (and Ethan Canin)

A bit late...

Of the two literary events that I attended, I was most stirred by Junot Diaz.

1) It was cool to connect a face and a voice to the stories that we had read for class. His actual reading of his material made it pretty obvious that the voice that comes through in his narrators runs close to that of his own. It was also cool to hear him read the same excerpt that we read for class, as it is always nice to hear something that you have read to yourself only once, repeated with the intention of the author undeniably behind it.

2) For me the most interesting and coherent parts of the event was the dialogue that took place after the event. Two things really stuck out to me.

2.1) His breakdown of what it means to be an artist and how art is produced was really interesting and brought up some points that I hadn't thought much about in reference to my own writing.

2.1.1)The first thing that he said was that, no matter what art form one is pursuing, it is determined whether you are an artist when you are backed up against the shit. The artists push through and conquers, and the rest quit.

2.1.2)The second interesting thing about art that he mentioned was that one ought to do the things one is not good at. That art does not come easy, and in order to create art there should, and indeed is, an inherent difficulty or struggle. I like this, for me it means that the act of making art is merely an act of learning, a direct challenge of ones own boundaries.

2.1.3)The third thing was that one must allow themselves to produce bullshit and forgive oneself for it. I like this, to me it means writing is a sort of art of trial and error, we need to be comfortable taking risks and just letting things flow out, we should be able to flex our creative muscles. With this comes an assumed knowledge that not everything works, and that we can only find out what does work by playing with the things that do not. I like this a lot.

2.2) He responded to a question about politics and whether he thought it was important to be politically conscious. For me this was the best. He gave a thoughtful answer that applied to writing as well as life in general and I dug on this shit.

2.2.1) In his answer a realization of a writers privilege was evident. Because a writer is a voice, and often an uncensored one I think a writer takes on an incredible privilege and responsibility. Diaz was able to speak candidly about what he thought about the state of our world, he was able to say things that are stirring and things that if he were in another profession he would likely not say. I think through this he really illustrated the powers of writing and the capabilities of a writer. That was cool.

2.2.2) Diaz said something that was pretty amazing along the lines of "the only good use for privilege is make sure that it doesn't exist." This really struck me, as he is an extremely privileged person, and it always interests me as to how writing may serve purpose in creating equity.

I think that after hearing Junot Diaz and learning about him through him and not just his writing allowed me to appreciate his writing more, unlike the Ethan Canin reading.

Here is my last little bit: Ethan Canin sucks. I would have liked to have heard him read "emperor of the air" at the time that he wrote that, but the stuff that he read and the manner that he read it just didn't hold me. After the reading I went over to talk to him. I asked him about something that he said while he was introducing his new work. He said something to the affect of, "I don't really see the use in my writing, thats why im also a doctor." In context he was just attempting to get a few laughs from a pretty stiff audience, but i asked him about it because I feel that a writer ought to be pretty conscious of his words, particularly when speaking about their profession and its significance. So I asked him about why he said that and he didn't give much of an answer at all. So to sum up here: Ethan Canin sucks and did not live up to my expectations after reading "emperor of the air" (which i really liked.)


Eli Jonathan Edleson-Stein

November 14, 2008

Ethan Canin Reading

Ethan Canin's reading, and by extension what I believe to be a giant piece of his writing style, revealed the love and depth he had put into his character's... characterization. Judging from the Junot Diaz blog posts, Mr. Diaz actually had a couple things to say specifically about writing, some techniques he thought would be beneficial. None of this was imparted by Mr. Canin, so I will have to rely completely off of what I could glean from his voice as he read. Fun fact for those who did not attend: He began speaking at the correct distance from the microphone, but became so engrossed in what he was reading, he began hunching in like a vulture and the microphone would overload. Eventually, someone pointed this out (about halfway through the reading) and Mr. Canin was embarrassed for a second, and also disappointing in the crowd that we didn't tell him earlier. So, he started at the right position again, and not surprisingly, eventually stooped back down into his too-close-to-microphone reading.

This intensity with which he read, is what I'm basing most of my post about. You could tell from his near-ominous reading voice, not quite suave and a bit gravely, that he loved the air of mystery he had instilled within his book and through the dialogue he had created. Listening to his smooth-yet rocky reading, void of glottal-stops, you could easily deduce that this book was a mystery novel, which he later said it was when he spoke about it. Nearly all of the reading consisted of the strong characters he had created, all through dialogue. He had one particularly strong character, for whom he created a political philosophy to live by. It was very interesting, but a bit verbose. It wouldn't have worked in our class setting of making a short story, but you could still appreciate the character as being very plausible by the near violent stance he took on this issue.

Mr. Canin said that he likes to take a scientific approach to his writing, to change just one thing within a setting and see where it takes you. I assume his base experiment that he changes is real life, as he was making as realistic a book as he could, it seemed. Only one section of his novel based on a real-life event, but it fit seamlessly with the rest of the fabricated story.

I'm going to say a little more about his voice, then I'm done with it, I swear. It was quiet, placating like a gentle father orating a sermon, and breathy.

Quotes I took from him Include the following: "No one reads a 600 page novel twice" in reference to rewarding a second reading of his mystery novel. He tried to make his book a bit more obvious and drop a lot of clues, so no one would have to re-read. Hint to all mystery novel writers: Write extremely concisely and make your readers work for it, or make a huge book where it's obvious.

Animal symbolism hints according to Canin: Hedgehogs represent stability and single-mindedness, while foxes are the obvious counterpart of liberal interpretation.
"Watch the money." In reference to who is getting paid by whom to say something about anyone's anything.
"You feel useful as a doctor." In reference to his doctoral degree at Harvard medical school. No one asked him why he became a writer instead of being a doctor, except Eli, who could not be contacted about this point. Canin did say at one point "The unknowable interested me" as a reason he became a writer, however.

So what was it about the dialogue that made it so good? This could be the single most important part of the event as it relates to us. And, you know what, I have no idea, now that I think of it. Which in and of itself may be the answer: It all sounded so natural that I may or may not have kind of zoned out during pieces of the reading, because it actually did just sound like two people talking back and forth about something. Or maybe it was the halcyon lullaby of Mr. Canin's voice, after I got used to the rougher parts of it.

So there you have it. If you're going for realistic and it's a novel, make it kind of boring and conventional. People will love it.

November 12, 2008

The Junot Diaz Extravaganzaaaaaaa

Well, I don't know how to blog at all, so hopefully this works. I'd like to start off by saying that I went to the reading with Casi Butts and she was really not amused by the democratic ruckus. But it probably not that pertinent to my blogging thingamajig. (Side note: apparently thingamajig is a word and does not get the little red squiggly line under it.) On to Junot.

The main thing that I took away from the reading was to not get discouraged if I cannot write an amazing story in one sitting. I mean, it took him over a decade to write his book. That's dedication. I get frustrated easily when writing and I come to a standstill. That big black void in my brain where the awesomeness is supposed to be. I often think that it would be very cool if I could write a novel, but I always say that I don't have the patience for it. Well, if I can take ten years to write one, I think I could be patient enough.

I was also intrigued by his idea to have a set group of people who read his work and critique him on it. I am often too embarrassed to have someone read something I have written and then talk to me about it. I don't like strangers doing it, because they are most likely not going to be mean enough to help me. I don't like people I know to do it, because writing is so personal. I guess writing a novel and publishing it would not go so well for me if I don't get over my stage fright. But I think that if I had specific people, who know me and my writing style, to sit and read whatever I have handed them and then critique it to death, I would do better.

I really liked the Junot said he doesn't usually have a set plan on what he wants to write. I always hated in school when the teacher told us to write creatively, but made us plan it out. I can't be creative if I make a plan about how creative I am going to be. It's refreshing to hear that someone else does what I do. I like to have just a vague idea and watch it unfold as I write.

I think that I am better able to enjoy "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" after seeing Junot Diaz. It was nice to hear him talk about it and to see him proud of it. I was very impressed with him. I think he was awesome, even if I, too, am not a democrat. Or a republican. Just putting that out there.

~Kayla Boudreaux~

Junot Diaz

Like everyone else, I too was surprised (and relieved) to learn from Diaz that The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was not some story he just cranked out in a matter of weeks or months. In fact it was just the opposite; Diaz said that it actually took him four years to imagine the story and the following seven years were spent actually executing the book. I don’t really know why, but I guess I just always assumed when you’re a writer by profession story lines and ideas just come easily to you, that something like writer’s block is only experienced by people like myself, who isn’t writing fiction on a regular basis.

I know it’s been mentioned already, but I also wanted to reiterate Diaz’s point about being an artist and the fact that you don’t discover you are one when you’re doing everything right, but when everything goes wrong. That a true artist won’t give up, in spite of that fact that everything has gone wrong. This is so true and also interesting because so many artists are their own worst critics and such perfectionists when it comes to their work. Criticism, perfectionism, writer’s block, whatever you want to call it…like Diaz said, “if you’ve got a great story in your head, what’s the point of leaving it there and not sharing it with others??

While I don’t write on a regular basis, I definitely have the same issues that others in this class/blog had mentioned when it comes to letting go and allowing the writing process (and your unconscious) go where it may. I think one major thing the writing workshops have showed me is how vital it is to just let go, write, and then give it to others to see what they think. And, the end result has not been a scary as I thought it would be. While the workshops may not be as brutally honest as some of my closest friends could be with me, it has certainly given me enough direct feedback to know what direction to take my story. I only hope that I have been able to do the same for my fellow classmates during their workshops.

Heidi Stolhanske

November 10, 2008

Junot Díaz - Literary Event Report

What I took away from the Junot Díaz reading was tons of encouragement. First, Díaz didn’t even have a copy of is own book and had to borrow one from a student in the audience. So being flaky certainly does not get in the way of being a successful writer. His personality, as shown on this evening, reinforced the impression I got from reading “How to Date a Browngirl....? His presentation also encouraged me to experiment, as he did with the second person POV of that short story.

Díaz said it took four years to imagine Oscar Wao and seven more years to write it. “You don’t discover you’re an artist because you do something well,? Díaz said, “but when everything absolutely goes wrong. When you’re backed up to complete failure. That’s when you discover if you’re an artist.? I must be on the right road as a writer; it’s taken me fifty years to get where I am now – still unpublished with thee completed novels and quite a few short stories and I have filled a desk drawer with notes for stories.

Díaz commented that the only literature that truly discusses dictatorship, slavery and power is not in the best-selling books but in alternative media, such as comic books. He never said it, but I was left with the impression that he tried, with Oscar Wao, to change that. This persuaded me to get a copy of his book so I can read all of it.... And it was encouraging because the novels I’m writing examine race prejudice and the mishandling of power.

He said: “There is nothing the conscious can do to make a novel right if the unconscious doesn’t have its shit together.? So I he reinforced the idea that you must really believe in what you’re writing, whether or not you have it well planned or outlined.

We had earlier seen that he wasn’t afraid to be political when first thing he did was to put in a plug for Obama. When asked to comment on his writing about immigrants, he replied that whenever politicians were “too busy sending kids off to die somewhere, they invariably use the immigrants as a smokescreen.?

Díaz’s final observation was: “The only thing privilege is good for is to do something to make that privilege impossible.? Good ideals to live by and to write for.

Díaz presented a personality that looked at and thought about a very wide spectrum of ideas. This fits beautifully with our class discussion on characterization to examine everything for character traits. We talked about people watching, television/movies, personal ads, and our own lives. He expanded that list to immigrants, power struggles, privilege, slavery and politics.