Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

Category: Reading

“Getting Good” as a Writer

I recently read Richard Russo’s essay collection The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life, and really liked it. Russo had previously existed in a literary blind spot for me, where I certainly recognized the name and knew the titles of his biggest books, but had never read a word he’s written. An uncle of mine recommended the essay collection to me recently by saying that a lot of the essays, where Russo talks about being a young writer starting out as a university teacher, reminded him of me. With an introduction like that, of course I eventually checked it out.

A couple of essays in particular really spoke not just to my current career situation but to writerly concerns that I don’t see addressed very often. The title essay discusses a telephone exchange Russo has with a former writing-workshop classmate who seemed destined for literary stardom, and who, discovering that the less-talented writer he remembers from classes 40 years earlier has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, more or less accuses Russo of having stolen his destiny. It’s a thrillingly, almost nauseatingly vivid evocation of the fear and uncertainty a lot of writers have of doing everything they can to succeed, trying hard, and just . . . never making it. “The Destiny Thief” is the first essay in the book and going through it, I was a bit wary of accepting advice or sympathy on this issue from a writer as well-published and celebrated as Russo. But he handles it with a lot of sympathy and empathy, and I found I was pretty much in for the rest of the collection.

The centerpiece essay, for me anyway, was “Getting Good,” a long, sometimes wandering meditation on failure and rejection, self-publishing versus traditional publishing, democracy versus egalitarianism, art vs. craft, and, yes, getting good as a writer. (Note: I’ve linked to the essay, over at The Sewanee Review, but only the first page or so is available there and the rest is behind a subscription paywall.)

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Fantastic fiction

No, not one of my stories. I wanted to point everyone to an amazing short story published in June in The New Yorker: “Fungus” by David Gilbert.

I’ve only read it through once so I have nothing very earth-shattering to say about the craft, but I found much of Gilbert has to say in this interview with fiction editor Cressida Leyshon interesting and insightful. He talks about writing versions of the story in which the key fact or incident of the story (I won’t say what it is here) was only implied, never actually mentioned, and calls it “Subarus like white elephants,” a wry reference to Ernest Hemingway’s classic story “Hills Like White Elephants,” a masterpiece of indirection and implication.

Anyway, although like many fiction writers I have numerous strong opinions about The New Yorker and its fiction selections, this is a stellar story and I highly recommend it.

On Rejection

For anyone who writes and seeks to publish their work, rejection is just a fact of life. Many times I’ve started entries like this one decrying how hard it is to get anything published, from a short short story to a novel. Thankfully, I’ve deleted most of them.

Being in a sunnier mood at the moment, I thought I’d offer some more positive thoughts on rejection, trying to put it into perspective.

A reality check, though: being “positive” really just means better coming to grips with what is a very grim reality. Two object lessons that will quantify that grimness:

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 11.06.26 AM

This is a screen shot from my Duotrope account, which (among other things) tracks submissions. It indicates that of the 31 submissions I’ve sent out over the past 12 months, I have a 4.2% acceptance rate.

Terrible, right? My work must be pretty bad, right? Actually, if you check out the note at the very bottom of this image, you will see that that pathetic 4.2% represents a better than average response rate (from the journals to which I submitted). So much so, Duotrope is congratulating me!

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Favorite Books of 2017

I keep a running list of the books I read, with stars beside the books I really like.

I read fewer books than usual this year, for a wonderful reason: my wife and I had a baby at the end of April and she has taken up a lot of my time. (And she is welcome to it.) While she is napping, I thought I’d jot down a list of the books that I read in 2017 that I liked best.

Anyway, here are my favorite books from this year, separated into novels, story collections, and “other” (which in actual practice means graphic novels and an autobiography).

Novels:

To Walk the Night by William Sloane (one of two novels in The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror, put out by NYRB Classics.)

Jernigan by David Gates

The Hunter by Richard Stark

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Inverted World by Christopher Priest

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Norwood by Charles Portis

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr (I have read this one every summer for the last three or four years)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

Story Collections:

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett

Battle Born by Claire Vaye Watkins

Sweet Talk by Stephanie Vaughn

People Like You by Margaret Malone

If I Loved You I Would Tell You This by Robin Black

All That Man Is by David Szalay (arguably a novel in stories)

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander

 

“Other”:

From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (graphic novel)

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris (also a graphic novel)

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

*

Looking over this list, I’d give special attention and recommendation to My Favorite Thing Is Monsters and All That Man Is. I mean, they’re all great, but these were two that amazed me and inspired me as a fiction writer, respectively.

Honorable mention, because I started it around Christmas and will be working on it another week or so, and because it is both amazing and inspiring, is Annie Proulx’s Barkskins.

New, tiny fiction

Here is something new for me: I wrote a tweet-length story and it has been published by Tiny Text (@Tiny_Text), a Twitter-based literary magazine that publishes writing of 140 characters or fewer.

My story, “Spoiler Alert,” boils down all stories to a single, tweet-length formula (really).

You can check out the story here, then dive into Tiny Text’s many fine, super-compressed pieces here.

UPDATE: Sadly, Tiny Text is closing its doors, so I’ve captured this screen shot of my story for posterity.

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 3.10.10 PM

New fiction at Euphony

I am very pleased and proud to have a short story, “Cruelty,” in the Spring 2016 issue of Euphony, out of the University of Chicago. You can read the story online here.

A little background on this piece. This is all that remains of a novel I wrote during graduate school, then drastically rewrote several times after graduation. That novel (working title: “Isolation Drills”), after lots of reworking, featured a narrator who was making an academic study of pornographic films and who met and began to date a woman. It was a classic first attempt at a novel, with lots of stuff pulled from my life (NOT the porn thing!), not much plot, and some not-very-well-drawn scenes and characters. The whole drafting process was an invaluable study in what’s required for a novel and how to write one (plan! Revise!), but I’m grateful I don’t have to look at or think about those pages anymore.

Even so, the central conflict of the novel and the relationship between the two main characters stuck with me, and at some point last summer I had two related thoughts: “Is there any way I can salvage anything from those multiple drafts and hundreds of pages?” and “What if the perspective shifted from his to hers?”

And so “Cruelty” came to be.

Fiction’s power to explain the world, using Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example

Not a new or penetrating insight here, but I recently came across a striking and somewhat unexpected example of the power that good fiction has to show us something of the world we live in.

I recently read Frank Herbert’s Dune. I couldn’t tell you why. I’m not a huge science fiction fan. I just saw it in a bookstore while traveling last month, and thought, “Yes. I am going to read that right now.”

I knew the basics of the story from having seen David Lynch’s film version, and more recently from having seen the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which I’d recommend far more than the Lynch film. I knew about sandworms, the spice melange, and a villain so disgustingly fat he had to use little rocket-powered suspensors to keep from smothering in his own girth.

The novel surprised me in a couple ways. First was a massive amount of heavy ecological stuff, featuring a lot of well-developed explanations of the desert landscape and how certain groups were working to cultivate it with the long-term goal of creating a lush, liveable planet, plus lots of great details about the lengths people go to to conserve water (including, most fascinatingly/disgustingly, suits that capture sweat, urine, and feces and wring all the moisture out of them and essentially dumping that moisture into a kind of Camelbak reservoir that allows the wearer to drink it). Second was the heavy, heavy attention to intrapersonal and non-verbal communications in the book.

Item #2 really surprised me because I figured most of the book’s 800 or so pages would be filled with descriptions of sandworm battles, palace intrigues, and so on. That stuff is there, but on nearly every page there is an incisive description of a character using a certain kind of special training—I’ll just call it witchcraft, which is how it’s sometimes referred to in the novel, though it’s (often) less magical than that and more a situation of recognizing intonations of voice, body language, and so on, to read people deeply and accurately—to see through hidden motivations and anticipate another character’s next move.

Here’s a case in point, and the example I wanted so share. It’s a scene where Baron Harkonnen, the fat villain mentioned above, speaks with the Count, an extremely devious court hanger-on, and the Baron’s nephew, Feyd-Rautha, whom the Baron is grooming to eventually take over the desert planet, Dune. The Count has just said something insincere and kind of belittling to the Baron. Feyd-Rautha is standing by, watching and learning. (Note: the weird “mm-m-m” seen below is a quirk of Herbert’s, a verbal filler that a number of characters use for reasons that don’t seem worth the weird typographical experience of reading this stuff.)

“You are too kind,” the Baron said. He bowed, but Feyd-Rautha noted that his uncle’s eyes did not agree with the courtesy.

“When you’re mm-m-m ironic, that ah-h-h suggests you’re hm-mm-m thinking deep thoughts,” the Count said.

There he goes again, Feyd-Rautha thought. It sounds like he’s being insulting, but there’s nothing you can call out for satisfaction.

You can see all this non-verbal communication: Feyd-Rautha reading his uncle’s eyes, and the Count also reading the discrepancy between the Baron’s words and expression, and then responding by saying something kind of catty and ironic about the Baron “thinking deep thoughts.”

But what I really want to point out here is that what Feyd-Rautha notes is basically the very definition of “micro-aggression.” I was immediately struck by a sense of recognition upon first reading this passage. (From looking around for a quick definition, I see that “micro-aggression” is often linked to race and to white privilege, but I’m using it here more broadly, the way Feyd-Rautha defines it: This guy is being passive aggressive, going right up to the line but holding back enough so that if I said something, I’d be the crazy one, and he’d be able to back up and say, “Whoa, buddy, you’re putting words in my mouth.”)

The idea of micro-aggression, so far as I can tell, is relatively recent. Here, Herbert is using Feyd-Rautha to call out something that simply didn’t have a name back in 1965, when Dune was first published. In some ways it’s an incredible insight, and it suggests a remarkable depth of character that Herbert accomplishes in Dune.

I love finding stuff like this, recognizing the real world in fiction and, in doing so, seeing the world a bit more clearly. That’s a trite observation, I know, but it’s such a difficult thing to achieve in fiction that I find these instances worth recording and sharing.

Writing Studio: Slightly shameless plug of an upcoming writing class

Later this summer, I am going to be teaching a class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts that I think/hope may be of interest to some of my readers (local ones, anyway).

The class is “Writing Studio” and it’s not so much a class as, well, studio time dedicated to writing (as the name may suggest).

Just as students in other disciplines at the PCA have studio options, and can drop in once or twice a week to work independently with ceramics, screen printing, sculpture, etc., students interested in writing will now have the opportunity to come in to the PCA’s education building once a week and get some writing done.

The class stems from a basic observation I’ve made throughout my courses at the PCA: most of the writers who’ve come through my classes have the most trouble not with point of view, plot, etc., but with the struggle to find time to write and to keep writing (both in terms of keeping their seats during a single writing session and coming back to the writing desk day after day). Building a healthy writing process, and the discipline to keep it up, is among the most pressing challenges for any writer, especially those just getting started. (And working a day job doesn’t make those challenges any easier.)

“Writing Studio” is meant to address these challenges by offering a dedicated chunk of time each week, as well as a space where students can come to work quietly, buoyed by the presence of others doing the same thing. Along with time to write, the course will offer a sense of community and the opportunity to discuss ongoing challenges, troubles, and triumphs. The aim is to give writers time and space to get work done during the five weeks of the course and to launch them into a productive and sustained writing routine long after.

I’ll supplement the core of the course—in-class writing—with writing exercises, craft lectures*, and availability for one-on-one feedback and discussion. But by and large, the class is about giving students a place and a time to come, sit down, and write.

The class runs five Mondays, beginning July 11 and concluding August 8. Each class will run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

If this sounds like something that may be of interest, I hope to see you in July!

*An important note: “Writing Studio” is designed to work for writers in any genre, so readers who don’t write fiction (as I do) may still find something useful in the class, even beyond writing time.

Found Poetry from the Chicago Manual of Style

At my previous position, as a copy editor, I had a fair bit of downtime and access to the Chicago Manual of Style (15th or 16th edition for you grammarphiles who might be wondering). To pass the time and to make myself a better editor, I’d read through it until I started dozing off. Along the way I wrote down some of the more notable example phrases and sentences the Manual used to illustrate various grammatical principles. These are from all over the book, representing any number of grammatical rules.

I’ve given the poem my own title, but if you’ve got a better one, suggest it in the comments.

“The Onslaught of the Word”

We the voters will decide
Children, stop misbehaving
A limo carried the band
I hoped to see many deer, but I saw only one deer

The governor delivered a speech
The shops are crowded because the holiday season has begun
The troops retreated in winter
High in the tree sat a leopard

My show dogs are Australian shepherds
The balloon carried a pilot and a passenger
Place the slide under the microscope
The queen consulted the prime minister

Everything else was returned; the medicine the villain withheld
An assembly of strangers was outside
George Washington, our first president, was born in Virginia
Robert Burns, the poet, wrote many songs about women named Mary

The husband has worked hard to produce this crop
You must husband your land thoughtfully
More school districts are mainstreaming pupils with special needs
The poor are always with us

We cannot avoid the here and now

Swimming in that lake can be dangerous

To discover the truth is our goal

What the people want is justice

The father told the father’s daughter that the father wanted the father’s daughter to do some chores
The father told his daughter that he wanted her to do some chores

Keats and Yeats Are on Your Side

I’ve got great news that is great news only to me: cleaning up my work area this afternoon, I found an index card I’d long thought lost. The card had appeared in a book (I don’t remember which book) I’d bought at a yard sale or a library book sale or in a used book store. On the index card was taped a passage cut from a photocopied page of something—a newspaper story, a magazine article, an academic paper; something. It was a note on the life of the poet John Keats. He’s one of those poets I’m sure I read in AP English, but don’t remember particularly, and so having an index card fall into my lap that told of his view on life did not at first mean much to me beyond the distinct small thrill of encountering something left by a previous reader of this book.

But the more I read the passage, the more wonderful it seemed. I thought it would make for a great blog item, something others might enjoy, and then I lost it. I hadn’t memorized the text, and so I couldn’t really Google it.

Anyway, today I found it, and here it is:

Keats

If the type is too small for you, here’s what it says:

Keats believed that life was given for him to find the right use of it, that it was a kind of continuous magical confrontation requiring to be met with the right answer. He believed that this answer was to be derived from intuition, courage, and the accumulation of experience. It was not, of course, to be a formula of any kind, not a piece of rationality, but rather a way of being and of acting. And yet it could in part be derived from taking thought, and it could be put, if not into a formula, then at least into many formulations. Keats was nothing if not a man of ideas. [Emphasis added — I.H.]

And here I’ve found the passage online. It’s from Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves, edited by John Rodden, and the passage is from a Lionel Trilling essay on Keats. The “I.H.” who adds emphasis in this passage is Irving Howe, in a New Republic piece “On Lionel Trilling: ‘Continuous Magical Confrontation,'” published in 1976.

What to say, really, about the content of the passage? You don’t need to know or like Keats, I don’t think, to find something beautiful and inspiring in Trilling’s description of how Keats lived his life.

Anyway, that’s my story. I’ll be putting the card somewhere safe this time.