Finished And Not Finished

October 31, 2019 § 3 Comments

By Paul Skenazy

This is the story of a friend of mine, a writer, and his life in prose poems—or short nonfiction musings, call them what you will. It’s also a story about what happens when the call to writing topples all the roadblocks we put in our way.

Last fall Jory Post was diagnosed with Stage III pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is usually only discovered late, and has one of the highest mortality rates of any form of cancer. My acupuncturist died less than a month after discovering her pancreatic cancer. A friend’s ex lived a year.

Jory and his wife Karen make hand-bound books and Joseph Cornell-like boxes. He is also an accomplished gambler, three-cushion billiards player, fine art printer, and writer. He worked with a mentoring program for grammar and high school students; created an online magazine, phren-z; served on the board of another magazine and showed up at just about every reading within fifty miles. He has been at work on several manuscripts at once: a novel; a circle of tales disguised as oral history interviews; an unfinished story sequence; and I don’t know what else. He hasn’t published much and hadn’t sent out most of his writing until recently. But he wrote and wrote—started something new, added to his ongoing pieces.

Despite Jory’s incredible work ethic, the operative words to describe his writing were “working on” and “unfinished.” The works expanded as he wrote them, one riff leading to the next. Often he would complete individual sections but not quite the whole.

Cancer is its own domain. Sometimes before the diagnosis and after resemble each other, sometimes not. In Jory’s case it was both.

Chemotherapy began: three weeks on, one off, for more than six months, followed by CyberKnife treatment. There was nausea, insomnia, loss of hair, weight. Jory shaved his head, took his pills, yelled at his doctors and went back for more. Friends rallied around him: read his work, offered critiques. He wrote back emails with the chemo drip in one arm.

About three months after the cancer diagnosis, he woke in the middle of the night and wrote his first prose poem, “Cold,” about the insistent chill that haunts him. He signed up for an eight-week poetry workshop—“A nice finite number that matches my chemo treatments,” he wrote me. (Another friend said he told her that the eight-week workshop would force him to stay alive that long.) I bought him The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry; he read it and told me: “So many of the authors have talked about how writing prose poems has changed their lives…I’ve been feeling that way myself.” After three months of work he had accumulated over seventy poems, and mixed in with news about ongoing headaches and a new round of chemo was his ambition to polish and publish the poems once he had accumulated eighty.

A few of Jory’s poems are fanciful, working off images and dreams. But most are factual and meditative: ruminations on snoring, waking at one or two in the morning, the port in his chest, the fact that more than a million people die each week; on friends named and unnamed, living and dead, able to talk openly with him or tongue-tied by his cancer and his honest effort to follow its progress in blood counts, surgeon visits and drug regimens. “This is what real friends do,” he writes in one poem, “shine flashlights into the tunnels of mortality, return with artifacts and treasures and bones to inhabit fresh sentences.”

Jory had more than a hundred twenty-five poems to choose from when he sent his polished eighty to an editor for help with revisions. He found a publisher who expedites production and received his first copies of the finished book, The Extra Year, in late August, 2019, ten months from the date of his cancer diagnosis (by which time the number of poems had reached 250).

The threat of death became his prompt—the opportunity to rediscover himself; to turn his disease into his subject and willfully inspect its nooks and crannies; to stare through a wide-angle lens at his friendships, body parts, family, memories, and the material objects that surrounded him.

Jory’s experience is also a warning. He took his diagnosis as a challenge and answered it with his stern will, adventurous spirit, and imagination. We do make our own miracles sometimes, but not always, or often. The sentence is a given, whatever the doctor happens to say this week. How to make it fresh: that’s our job as writers, whatever we pretend it might be this week. It’s time.

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The Extra Year, poems by Jory Post, is available from Amazon and at Anaphora Literary Press, 1108 W 3rd St., Quanah, TX79252.

Paul Skenazy is the author of Temper CA, winner of the 2018 Miami University Press Novella Prize. The novel is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and local bookstores.

Thirteen Thoughts On Writing

March 12, 2019 § 100 Comments

By Paul Skenazy

  1. Writing is an invitation to humility—you realize you’re on the wrong track, you’ve lost connection with a scene, an emotion, a voice. The return on that humility is when your imagination lets you slip into someone else’s skin. The tales you come up with tell the story you are trying to tell when you sit down to write and also the story of the years you spend working on the book. Rendering a/your life into art changes you.
  2. Trust your intuitions but trust (admit) that you don’t understand what your intuitions are telling you. They have their own truth and direction; your job is to follow where they lead. This doesn’t mean you don’t exert control, but you don’t exert as much control as you think you do. And you are often at your best when you don’t.
  3. Defend your story; don’t give up on it. At the same time, accept that you actually don’t know what the story is that you can tell. It’s likely that what you thought is your story is not your story but a way to discover your story. The poet Richard Hugo talks about what he calls the ‘triggering town’—the place where everything starts, that lets you fly off on the next leap of the heart.
  4. Trust your dissatisfactions with what you’re doing. The more you trust them, the more chance you have to make changes.
  5. Don’t be afraid of mistakes; they tell you what you are trying that you don’t have control over. They suggest that you are venturing into new territory where you’re not yet sure what you are doing. They’re a sign that you are stretching yourself.
  6. Learn about and trust your own rhythms as a writer. That means not only when you write best in the day or week but where, how often, and in what ways. Do you work from outlines? Write the end and then figure out how to get there? Or do you write with no idea where you are going or why? (And if you’re stuck, then your system isn’t working for you anymore; give it up.)
  7. Write the first draft so you can get to the second and third and fourth because you can’t get to them except through the awkward and ugly and insufferable and embarrassing and seemingly useless first, second and third.
  8. It’s nice to think that art develops organically, from seed to sprout to leaf to narrative. Yes and no. Keep asking yourself, “What work is this moment/scene/word doing?” Answering requires calculation. You manipulate characters, alter lines of dialogue, make up narrative moves. You strategize, reorder, play God. You keep returning to the truth.
  9. Tangents can turn out to be the heart of your book. It might take you months or years to figure out what to do with those seeming throwaways—how to put them where they belong, at the center of the story you didn’t know you were after.
  10. Make someone else read your work. Forgive them for not loving it or you and for the things they tell you. You asked, remember?
  11. Send your manuscript out when you think it is ready and be pretty sure you’re wrong—it most likely is not yet ready. But send it anyway. Then send it again. In between, ask yourself why others don’t think it is ready. Pretend you believe they know better than you. Pretend they are wrong. Pretend there is something to learn or do next.
  12. Don’t waste too much time with the Imposter Syndrome and Fraud Police: that inner voice of doubt that says you have no talent, that everyone knows this but is too polite to tell you. The voice that screams that you are and always have been a fake; that your comeuppance is coming. It might be true. But it might not. And no one knows, even you.
  13. Maybe my favorite quote about being an artist or human being, and the one I’ve found the most difficult to live by, comes from a Chinese art manual:

Never lose your awkwardness. Awkwardness once lost can never be regained.

If you’ve got anything to add to this world of ours it won’t come from pretending to be someone else. Trip, stumble, admit that you’re an awkward oaf like all the rest of us awkward oafs. Write as you fall, why you fall, how you live with the bruised ego, why it’s worth getting up.

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Paul Skenazy won the 2018 Miami University Press Novella Prize for Temper, CA. The book is available from your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Miami University Press.

The Stories We Tell the Agents We Tell Them To

December 27, 2018 § 8 Comments

By Paul Skenazy

Literary agents: can’t find one, wish you had one, wonder if yours is the right one. The web is full of complaints about agents, but fuller of questions about how to get one.

Anyone have experience with agent X, Y, Z? Is he/she trustworthy? Will they get behind my book and pitch it to publishers?

Then there’s the followup:

She loves my memoir but wants me to revise it.

He says my childhood needs tear-filled nights and more drugs.

They want Dad to swear and yell but he didn’t.

Those are harder changes for a memoirist than a novelist, who at least has latitude to invent. But how far should one go to meet an agent’s vision when it defies your own sense of the story you have to tell?

I must have been rejected by forty agents while querying my novel, Temper CA, about a woman, Joy, returning to the Gold Rush town where she grew up to attend her grandfather’s funeral. I wrote to agents who represented books like mine; agents recommended by a matching service (for a fee); agents I approached with recommendations from well-published friends.

Then I thought I’d found my soul mate. I sent Agent A my manuscript on a Friday and he emailed me on Monday: “Dear Paul, I read your novel through in one sitting. It’s very, very well done. My wife … thought it read like an Elizabeth Strout novel.” He sent the book out immediately to a publisher he was sure would be interested.

That was in February 2016. The publisher said no. Another publisher found the book too “quiet,” too slow out of the gate.

Agent A asked me to revise. Instead of Joy’s psychological crisis, A suggested an anti-heroine: “Everyone’s looking for literary fiction in which the heroine has an unapologetically dangerous side. Books like Gone Girl…The Girl on the Train…” His idea: Joy kills her grandfather but implicates her father. “Have the stakes build as she reveals some dark childhood story about the relationship between her, her father and grandfather… Crime novels are a much steadier market than ‘literary’ novels. If Camus were writing today, we’d no doubt market him as crime fiction.”

Keep the setting, keep the names, write a new novel.

When I got done with self-pity I set to work. I spent three months creating crimes, motives that crossed and double-crossed, secrets behind secrets behind secrets. What I didn’t do was turn Joy into a murderer. My agent’s disappointment was clear: “It’s been a long time since a novelist without a fiction-publishing track record took so little of my advice.”

I was hurt and angry, but I tried again. An alcoholic Joy killed her grandfather and implicated her bastard of a father. I felt like I was writing pornography.

To counter that self-betrayal I simultaneously wrote a second, parallel novel, closer to my original story, and sent him the thriller and the not-thriller. Maybe I could convince Agent A that my book was worth his time by letting him read it alongside his book.

The thriller grabbed him in the opening chapters, he told me, then it flagged. Too much backstory, memory, psychology. No publisher would be interested. He read twenty pages of the not-thriller and dismissed it.

I was done. A year after signing, we parted ways. I returned to earlier drafts, incorporated ideas from my year of inept revisions and rewrote once more. I made the novel mine again.

This story has a happy ending. A friend connected me with a former small-press publisher who wanted to represent a few writers. She liked my manuscript and offered suggestions about where I might slow down, dive more deeply. I had a residency at Playa, a beautiful sequestered landscape in Oregon’s high desert. I altered some stories—true and apocryphal—from oral histories of the Oregon outback and melded them into my Gold Rush town. I left Playa in September 2017 with a 60,000 word draft and spent the next month whittling to just under 40,000 words. I submitted my revised Temper CA to a novella competition—and promptly forgot I’d entered. So many years of contests and rejections: this one seemed as hopeless as the rest. In February 2018, I told a friend the book was ‘dead in the water.’

The next morning I found out Temper CA had won the Miami University Press 2018 Novella Prize. As I cried on the phone, I realized I didn’t know which version of the manuscript I’d submitted—there had been so many.

Temper CA, will be published in January 2019. Miami has been extraordinary in their editorial work and I feel lucky to have landed where I did with a book I’m proud of.

This is not the book Agent A read two years ago. The story did need more volume, though poisons and patricide weren’t the right noisemakers. I did need to get out of the gate faster but that didn’t mean a hundred-page dash. Joy isn’t always a trustworthy narrator, but that’s part of what she herself needs to learn, not a way of deceiving a reader. Temper CA is the story I hoped to tell about family and landscape, failure and forgiveness. Agent A praised the book I wrote, then told me it didn’t work. Thanks to his misguided suggestions, I produced a book he would not like.

Agents are the gatekeepers of the publishing world and as fledgling writers we’ll do almost anything to get in. But not quite everything. Learning what we can’t do teaches us about what we can, who we are, and what we want our literary worlds to be.

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Paul Skenazy taught Literature and Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published essays, stories, and book reviews in a range of newspapers and magazines, as well as critical work on James M. Cain and other noir writers. Temper CA will be available January 8, 2019. You can preorder the novella through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local indie bookstore.

Photo credit: Shelby Graham

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