#StoryProblems #NeatTrick

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As previously stated in this blog, I belong to a book club with a local bookseller, held the second Thursday of every month. For the most part I find some kind of redeeming quality in the books that we read, even if the book isn’t a favorite; the individual sentences may be quality prose, or I enjoy a particular character, etc. The only thing that I struggle with is if the writer decides to write a work of fiction or poetry that is so experimental that it starts to lose the whole reason for fiction or poetry:  to be read. My mother pointed this out once when I first shared my poetry with her, poetry that was meant to academically show off: it must be good; I don’t get it. Even though I went to college to study literature in order to write better, that one concept has stuck with me as a writer more than any other that I placed myself in student debt to learn. When I start to grind my teeth at a book, more than likely my teeth are wearing down because the writer just decided to go whole hog academic and leave the reader behind.

I get it; after all, it’s Pulitzer season, and there are numerous other awards that are prestigious enough to try for. How to stand out and put oneself in the running for notoriety? Some of the attempts are:

  • Write a collection of short works that are thinly connected. This method worked for me with Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, but didn’t work so well for a recent work that I read by a former lover of Philip Roth’s. If the connecting thread is too thin, or if the book has to be explained by an afterword, or if I have to hunt down reviews for it online just to be “taught” what I couldn’t get from reading it, then I know I’m not the intended audience.
  • Halfway to three-quarters way through the book to possibly the end, the whole narrative shifts (same character, but different voice). Sometimes the story itself warrants this approach, but it reads more like a trick or a crutch to keep the author from having to write real-life plausibility. In the interest of not hauling an author over the coals I won’t mention the wide collection of books that try and fail at this approach, but Kate Atkinson seems to execute it well.
  • Writing highly repetitive but nearly incoherent prose as part of the protagonist’s “voice” for too long and dragging out ennui to prove a point in the story. It doesn’t take much to bore the reader; don’t abuse that good faith for a century of pages.
  • Break the fourth wall.

Ok, this one is tricky. Do I love the breaking of the fourth wall for some novels, short stories, and poems? Absolutely. There are stories I love because they break rules, because they take down a barrier and nose right up like a loyal dog. Reader, I married him. Yep, the first time I read that I didn’t see that coming, and I felt like the writer sat down next to me and allowed me to sit with something in empathy.

But the last book club selection we had, a book that I’ll throw under the bus called Same Same by Peter Mendelsund, rubbed me the wrong way with its fourth wall destruction. I know why it did; the protagonist/narrator seemed to be poking fun at what a novel is, poking fun at writers, poking fun at tenacious readers, from about two-thirds of the way through the novel to the end. I might have been fine with that, except…on the acknowledgements page the author, no longer behind the mask of the protagonist, did the same thing. It was funny that Mendelsund looped us in for 482 pages, the schmucks that we were to read this. Of course the book is based on Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, didn’t we see it? Oh, and any other references to any other works of literature? Even those directly quoted? Those are all on the reader. They may or may not have happened.

There were people who liked the book; I envied them. And to be honest, I was glad to have the opportunity to read so singular a book; I just didn’t like it. If the author would have cut the damn thing in half and made fun of me as reader, then I might have laughed along. But to have no empathy for his readers and to laugh at them in the bargain for sticking with it? Sure, it’s impressive, it’s probably great art, a neat trick…but I didn’t enjoy the ride.

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My day-job skill set (although I am currently between jobs at the moment) is workforce analytics:  the gentle art of forecasting business trend to determine staffing and scheduling needs. I started out with workforce analytics as part of my job as a manager in 2007, and then moved into the analyst role exclusively in 2013. The job requires a great deal of math, and lately, in interviews, I repeatedly get this question:

Why the literature degree?

Analytics, in my experience, has required two major components: why the math is calculated as it is to determine and execute the business need, and how to explain that reasoning to the rest of the team so that it makes sense and so there is buy-in. Analytics is the application of the math concepts, the story problem you had to solve when you were a kid. Analytics NEVER presents the formula to the analyst; analytics always gives the analyst the two trains leaving the station at midnight going in opposite directions. When I read that story in an email, or hear that story from a manager or recruiter, or see that story in the fabric of a seemingly unrelated report, then I have to understand reading/scenario comprehension enough to empathize with the problem for what is needed, solve it, and then explain it again as an easily navigational story problem, with a happy ending this time.

My communication/writing/speaking skills have to rock the world.

Has analytics made me a better mathematician? Absolutely. But mathematics has made me a better communicator. There’s no need to re-invent the story of the wheelhouse, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to explain it so that anyone can get it.

In a synonym, a good novelist is also a good analyst.

 

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#SlowReader

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There’s this neat trick that some of the websites have (I’ve usually seen it on Fast Company links, but you may have seen it in other stories), where somewhere in the top mess of advertisements and notations there is a statement of how long it will take the reader to consume the piece they are about to review.  I’ve always found these estimations a bit off; is this the estimation for the regular skimmer, or the reader like myself who sits and savors?

And I do savor.  I savor to the point of rumination.  I “close read,” which is what my advisor in college used to call it, not because I knew he would test me on something obscure and ridiculous (he wasn’t that kind of professor), but because he wanted everyone involved in discussion and he wanted us to be prepared for a round of devil’s advocate.  I didn’t want to miss the devil’s advocate in the text–I wanted to be prepared for it AND I wanted to see the writer pull from both sides of the coin (neat trick!)–so I read closely.  Also, I always felt that I was less intelligent than the other students because I was an unconventional student (read, older).  And literature was my major. So…it took me a long time to get my homework done.

It still takes me a long time to read.  I feel like I’m going to miss something if I don’t sit with it, even with books that top out at 160 pages.  Things that take a long time to do try my patience.  I’m also a writer, which is a craft that takes time to get right.  In today’s attention-deficient world, time-consuming stuff can be a problem if you want to feel some sense of accomplishment.  Still, it’s a lesson I am determined to learn…even in the face of glittering reporting on social media.

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Every year on January 1st the book-related websites and apps reach out to readers:  “What are your reading goals for this year?” In most cases they are called “challenges,” a long way from the bookworms we’d construct as kids with round pieces of colored paper at the library or in our elementary classrooms.  Some challenges are just numbers (Goodreads) and some have specifics (Book Riot’s Read Harder) that force the reader to read something they normally wouldn’t.  I find the numbers thing somewhat turnstile, even though this year I’m shooting for the same number that I would have read in my college days; how is one supposed to be changed or moved by literature that is skimmed to make a quota?  For the specifics’ challenges, I’m usually challenged enough by the fact that I’m hearing about books from a wide variety of sources:

  • My local independent bookstores;
  • Podcasts;
  • The New York Times’ book section;
  • Best new lists and themed lists off of Twitter or pictured in a stack on Instagram (Facebook for some reason doesn’t provoke me to read much);
  • What people I know are reading on Goodreads.

If I went with a specifics’ challenge, I would never read anything in my TBR (to be read) pile, or…I would never find a book by pick-up in the bookstore or library.

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I have always had this nifty gift of find the book I most need at the time when I most need it (even in college this phemonenon was more or less true).  Sometimes, needing it, I keep in longer than others might, dwelling with it.  I recently did this with Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, even though I ended up gobbling it in the last 100 pages.   I think my challenge for 2019 isn’t so much how much I can read, or how varied I am, but what I can glean from my reading…getting back to close reading.  Yes, maybe it will take me two or three renewals to finish Adam Bede, or maybe I’ll need to snap out of the habit of reading six books at once.  I think the challenge lies in developing my pace and keeping it, in the face of a world rushing through accomplishment.

Here’s to spending time with books.

What I Have Been Doing Lately

Not sitting in trees, but…

Dearest Reader,

I scratch this out to you from the burnished side of a trip to San Francisco, something that I best do every three months so that I remain sane.  I go there, expel the breath that I have been holding, and then come back to the dry, desolate desert of the state and hold my breath again.  There is, nearly, nothing here that I admire; or, if there is, I forget it in the blasting of the sun and sour moods of the other people sentenced to live here.

“But there’s sun and the ocean and the weather’s so nice.”

It rained this week.  The only time it rains in Southern California is if there is so much humidity in the air that violent thoughts come to mind.  78 degrees F and rain forest humidity make for crankiness.  Pair that with my hatred of the car culture and lack of mom-and-pop businesses here and I sit in despondence.  I feel trapped.  I feel trapped one week after returning from San Francisco.

This last visit to San Francisco was the longest one to date–five days made five hours longer by an earlier flight that Virgin was trying to fill and a runway catastrophe the day before return.  I minded enough because I was going to be a burden on the folks back here (carless, I’m always a burden to them), but I didn’t mind because of all the amenities in Terminal 2 of the San Francisco airport.  I got time to write, read, sit meditation, let someone go, embrace someone else closer, develop a game plan for the next step in my writing, and breathe in a world that accepts me.

Next week I’ll be receiving a travel keyboard for my phone to write in the smallest space, a space that I try to squeeze myself into in a world here that has no problem showing me every shade of animosity.  I’m taking steps to dig my way out.  I’m sitting meditation more, walking meditation more, and trying to love the desert while the dwellers loathe me.  I pray for wind.  I chop green things, tune into new music, take the classes that everyone else calls a podcast, and watch baseball whenever I can find it in any sense.  

Onward.

Yours in transition, always–

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