In Part Two of the Nonfiction Pizza Party Rest in Peace Pizza Party (NPPRIPPP), Barnstorm Editor-in-Chief Erin Somers and I talk books I need to read, novel writing, and how it feels to finish an MFA. In the end, it gets a little inspiring. Catch up on Part One of our conversation if you haven’t read it.
Thank you again, everyone, for stopping by. Take leftovers. Read books. Don’t be pretentious. Follow me @DavidBersell.
We should all do this again sometime.
NPP: Some questions in response to your wonderful fiction nerd enthusiasm:
Can you give me an example of a great periodic sentence? [“Saving your very best word for the last word of the sentence.” See Part One.]
Beside authors already mentioned, which fiction writers do I need to read?
Like me, you've spent the past year or so writing a collection focused around a specific subject and tone. I know you want to keep working on those stories, but are you also interested in doing something completely different?
ES: How about the opening of The Pale King for a periodic sentence: "Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek."
Holy crap, right? So, yeah, periodic sentences. They were also Cicero's big thing. Weirdly, not the only thing I have in common with Cicero (we were both Roman consuls circa 60 B.C.).
To answer your second question, read your guys—you know, the fiction writers you instantly love. And then read your guys' guys (i.e. the writers your favorite writers love). If you love Saunders, read Barthelme (start with "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby," it's super short). Read DFW's Girl with Curious Hair, and if you love that, read DeLillo and Barth. Also, read Airships by Barry Hannah. Read The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards by Robert Boswell. Read Kissing in Manhattan by David Schickler ("The Smoker" is a perfect story). Read Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower. In fact, read that before you read any of the other stuff mentioned here, it is very, very good.
And finally, yes, I am interested in doing some different things. I want to write a novel, son. But you know what's scary? The idea of writing a novel! With my last project, which was twelve linked short stories, one of my secret aims was to practice some novel skills because I feel so ill-prepared. I got to try out long, novelistic plot arcs and following characters through a few stories. Those things were hard.
Here's an analogy: I have this joke I do with my friend called "the line leader drunk on power." And the concept is that this elementary school kid is made the line leader and instantly becomes a crazed megalomaniac who just leads the line wherever. At this point, I'm getting more or less comfortable with the short story. I can get us there, kind of. I can resist my worst impulses and keep the thing focused enough to take us effectively to the end. But with attempting a novel, I guess I'm worried that I'll become the line leader drunk on power. Like, if we're just going to the art room, no sweat. But, if I have to take us all the way to the gym? Forget it, we're never going to get there. We're going to end up down the road at Advanced Auto Parts looking at each other like, "How did we get here again?" One other tiny issue: I do not have an idea for a novel.
What about you? Other than fiction, anything you want to try?
NPP: So I’ve read Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned…didn’t love it. Expected to love it. Wanted to love it. Liked it. Between this and The Calling Jesus’ Son Overrated of 2012, I hope I don’t get kicked out of Club Fiction. Seriously. It’s like an episode of Entourage in there.
Besides revising personal essays and experimenting with fiction, I want to practice a few different forms. This summer, I’ll be spending some time in Nashville, so I hope to write a travel piece or two, regular guy in a new place type stuff, maybe involving food and drink or loitering around Third Man Records, Jack White’s store/performance space/studio. (If you didn’t read his profile in the NYT Magazine a while back, I recommend it. Supposedly, his kids have a two-piece band named Coke.) I also want to keep writing literary and cultural commentary online when I have time. And lyric essays. This year, my writing has been getting more and more collage-based, and I want to keep pushing that style, see how fractured I can make a piece and still have it function. Besides The Problem Solving Idea, I think it’s because sometimes it feels like there’s a higher level of realism in being spare, disjointed, cyclical. Kind of a variation of how DFW reflected modern reality by writing these maximalist novels. (This might not be true. You’re the DFW expert here.)
It’s going to take years to cover all this ground, of course, and I won’t succeed in every sub-genre, but after focusing on narrative nonfiction for the past three years, I’m ready to throw some crap on the wall, because it’s fun, and because I want to expand what I can do.
I’ve been worn down a few times this year with the thesis and whatnot, but now, I’m feeling more excited about writing than I ever have. It’s not just the taking writing seriously thing, which I’ve felt for a while. Knowing writing is something, a hobby let’s say, that I can (hopefully) always do for pleasure or distraction or education is like a really weak superpower.
Am I supposed to be exhausted and questioning my future? How are you feeling about finishing up the MFA?
ES: Hm, didn't like the Wells Tower, eh? Remind me to get my fiction goons to rough you up about that.
I keep telling people I have bittersweet feelings about finishing the program, but really I'm pretty ecstatic. I think I had a typical MFA experience in that it was mixed. Sometimes it was amazing (for instance, I got to write tons of words that a captive audience was forced to read and think about). Other times I was disappointed. That's cool, too. Maybe an important part of it is learning to manage disappointment. But I'm ready to get out there. I've been living monastically for the past two years. I live alone in this tiny studio apartment and all I do is write. Just this morning driving to school I caught myself saying the phrase "any cat" out loud. Any cat? What was I even thinking about and, more importantly, could this be a possible indicator that I spend too much time alone? (Yes.)
The next part (somehow finding some success) is going to be hard. But so what? Everything is hard. Everything is the hardest, shittiest thing you've ever done. That's never held me back before. I guess what I'm saying is: bring on the major leagues. If there's going to be a struggle, if there's going to be heartbreak and embarrassment and self-doubt and success so slow and incremental as to be laughable, let's get on with it already, you know? Let's just do the thing.