Category Archives: author

“Banging at the Gates of American Literature”: I’m an Idiot, But Please Take Me Seriously

On Monday I wrote an essay about writing and acted as if I knew what I was doing. I don’t. But I wrote a book. That’s the good news. I wrote a book, but I’m not sure that necessarily means I know anything about writing books. Maybe ask me after the sixth book comes out. Maybe ask me in ten years, and I’ll have adopted a more seraphic ability to disperse writerly wisdom. Until then, I’m an idiot. I’m a very serious idiot who takes writing very seriously, if not many other things in life.

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Imagine I’m the proverbial monkey at the typewriter, and I’ve written enough that something I’ve written is rather good. Perhaps this is an accident, perhaps not. If you do anything for long enough, you get good at it. That’s old wisdom, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I would not know. I’m an idiot who got really lucky.

This afternoon (morning in my mind) I sat in my fiction writing professor’s office and listened to his criticisms of a new story I gave over to him. Too long, he said– he compared the plot to a dog escaping the yard and running into traffic. Keep the dog in the yard, he advised. And then he asked me to cut the story (over 8,000 words) almost in half (he is allowing me only 5,000 words). I nod, I nod. I am in this moment terribly inadequate at expressing what I want to say about the story. Or mention what the story’s about.

On paper, I can write sentences clean as a disinterred dinosaur bone. But I open my mouth, and the slugs of incomprehensible babble spill forth.

What I mean to say is this: I am a writer, but that does not necessarily mean I’m someone worth listening to. I’ve got a few stories to tell, and I hope you think they’re good. God, please like me. Please, just give me a chance.

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People keep asking, “Hey Derek, how do you feel now that the book is coming out?”

“It’s terrifying,” I tell them.

Of course I’m excited, practically electric with anticipation. But also I am struck with the terror that other people will finally read my work. And no, I cannot take back and book and rewrite it. I cannot, as I did this morning the office of my fiction writing professor, get back the story with comments. It’s done, cement, finito.

But no worries. I am proud of what I’ve produced. I’ve put several years of thought into the book. It reminds me of this idea I’ve been playing with lately. Whenever I speak to creative people, particularly those educated in universities, they tend to look upon “normal people” as boring. As robots pressing on and on, shackled by their pointless labor. These people are un-human, incapable of the higher thought available to those set free by the creative spirit. And that, to me, is such a stupid thought. So I claim not to be an intellectual, not to be interesting at the sake of others. I am an idiot. Just like you. We’re in this together, this trying to be better, this learning to be human. Our communal idiocy in the pursuit of meaning gives our lives meaning.

I think we too often dismiss the possibility that the inner lives of strangers are as fascinating and multi-faceted as our own. Often, I fall into the trap when writing of assuming that readers won’t get it. But I get it, and I’m an idiot! So please take me seriously. The plea falls from my mouth, limp and strange, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Richard Brautigan once wrote a story called ⅓ ⅓ ⅓ about three idiots attempting to write a shoddy novel. The last lines remain with me because they remind artists of the silly truth. And the silly truth is that no one cares what we do. I don’t mean that as a criticism, necessarily. I mean that the writer, the artist, the sculptor, he or she must care very deeply for the art he or she makes. Brautigan’s story ends like this…

 

“Howdi ther Rins said Maybell blushed like a flower flouar while we were all sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.”

 

And that’s what I’m doing, who I am. Another idiot, drunk on words and muse-juice, “pounding at the gates of American literature.”

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The Process of Writing Fiction Is Actually Just Describing Tiny Moments and Then Some More Tiny Moments

After a first draft, written in a fever of creative spirit, I begin to finally ask myself what the story is actually about. From writing, I learn what I actually intend to write about. Because of this, the final draft of a story appears very little like the first draft. Now and then, a singular phrase or description will remain, a simple description or inspired aphorism. I record everything that happens in a matter-of-a-fact way, first with the entire story and then scene by scene.

If Character A steps through the door, Character B must first open the door. Will Character B gesture or embrace Character A? What does this say about their relationship? Will Character B walk inside, or will Character A lead them further into the house? Will Character A offer a drink, a snack? What kind of niceties would be exchanged and how would they interact, given their personalities? Where would Character B sit? On the sofa, chair, on the floor maybe? Would Character B sit at all? Would they look at Character A as they talked or at the floor? Would they study the new environment? If I’m writing from Character A’s POV, should I describe the room? Or should I…

On goes the process. I ask myself every inane question possible, sketch out each movement and gesture in a massive narrative architecture. On one hand, I wish for the story to flow smoothly, to make sense. Most of the “work” of writing involves writing small moments. Someone blows their nose. Someone places their thumb in a book to keep their place. Someone unlocks a bike from a street post. Someone cracks their knuckles. Each movement translates an emotion, the vocabulary of theatrical gestures offering context to lines of dialogue. Each movement is calculated and makes anatomical sense, at least to the best of my abilities. I recall a particular critique from a fiction writing professor about a story I wrote, which involved a window. Several times in the story, an elderly and yet stalwart woman climbs in and out of a window, and throughout the story, the window changes heights. At times, she struggles to enter the window and later on she leaps out the window and lands below without any trouble. Because I had not paid enough attention to little moments, I created a tiny seam in the narrative, a warp in the vision. The tenuous dream film reel projected on the reader’s skull tweaks out, and the audience is temporarily thrown into darkness. And when that happens, the film or story is partly ruined. One remembers that one is consuming a story rather than living inside the story.

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That’s half the story, the technical step-by-step process it takes to compose a scene. During the first draft comes a different sort of work, the creative part of the writing. The writer must also create new worlds, even if the places technically exist in real life (I don’t actually write fantasy). Because the reader must live within the dream. And often dreams have moments of absolute presence, of epiphany. And in the creative frenzy of the first draft, often these moments arrive.

Between the gestures and the conversation, the step-here and step-there, the said and the sighed, come moments of un-reality. Only within the context of a complete dream, a stable narrative architecture, may these moments appear as something other than trite, but rather something perfectly human.

I spend a lot of time searching for a particular moment– an ethereal moment that transcends the literal and the literary, something that lifts the reader into the air. Like when you’re on a rollercoaster at the top of the hill, and you’re not sure you’re then until you plummet. Like that. I want to capture moments of brilliant presence, when the character has become human and the words on a dead tree have become vision. The moment’s hanging there, waiting to crumble, but right now this moment is perfect, a floating light above a lake. Maybe something no one’s ever seen before.

But it’s recognizable. We become comfortable in the world the writer builds, a living hallucination that derives from looking at marks of ink on paper. And here, in these human moments, we live.

Just Write the Story: On the Anxiety of Creation

Often, I will begin writing a short story or a poem with a burst of inspired gusto, believing the idea that I’m transcribing to paper to be not only significant but transcendent. The writing comes easy, the sentences clean and pretty.

But when I return days later to continue the work, I grow sick with worry. No longer do the sentences appear organized. I have stacked them atop one another in a sloppy hysteria. I am confronted with what might be a bad story, a waste of time. I am suddenly paralyzed, unable to continue writing in fear that what I produce might be an embarrassment. Finally, everyone will know I’ve been a fraud all along, a stupid scribbler who got lucky once or twice with choice words. Or maybe before there lived some muse in my head who telegrammed better ideas from some far off place. The magic place where good ideas come from. But now I am left alone with my limp, insipid creativity. A dull pencil, my brain. Incapable of writing anything worthy of reading.

But then comes sense, clear as plastic packaging that clogs the Pacific Ocean. 

Write the story. Just write the damn story.

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Better to have written something terrible, a soup of bland words, than have written nothing at all. Better to construct some ugly statue that may be chiseled fine later on than give up on the marble block entirely. Get over yourself, Derek. You’re not writing for Heaven. You’re writing for Earth. Just finish the story.

Pilgrimage: Maybe Holy Is Just The Easiest Word to Pronounce, Maybe It’s Just The First Word That Comes to Mind

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It is 5:20am. Laura rides on a train headed in the opposite direction toward Stuttgart, and I ride home toward Tübingen. For the past week, we have been exploring Germany together. We snuck through the holy silence of a monastery, drank beer and ate Wurste in the jubilant expanse of the Botanischer Garten, walked through endless parks with an eye for mischief, sampled every piece of equipment on every playground we passed, trekked to the top of a mountain to explore a Prussian castle, pretended to understand contemporary art in Freiburg, and got lost in the Black Forest.

But she’s got a new adventure to pursue—study abroad in Russia. She will arrive in St. Petersburg this afternoon. There is pain in parting and joy in joining. There are words I am still learning to pronounce and emotions I am still learning have no words. In the week she has been here, we’ve navigated extremely frustrating situations (becoming lost on trains or in downtowns on rainy afternoons) and have come to better terms about what it means to work together, to trust one another even when we’re both fairly clueless. Now there exists an ending, a finale, a closing credits for our small and strange adventure.

But stories do not end. They just fade to black, to be continued imprinted across the screen.

The sun rises above the horizon, first its pink tentacles and then its orange halo, bathing the sky sherbet. There is sadness in parting, but have you ever seen pollution paint the sky so vivid? Have you ever gotten so much cloud stuck on your face, its candy floss sugar won’t scrub free for days? Have you ever kissed someone you love?

You should try this, at least once. It’s like walking into an abandoned church, praying among the pews of teeth, and knowing the meaning of grace. And knowing that grace is just a word for something we cannot yet say. It’s a grunt for the non-verbal secret we can never quietly tell.

Pilgrimage: The Big Sleep

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Today classes start back at Tübingen University after a one-week break after a preparatory German course. To call this course arduous would be a disservice to true labor the world over, however, though I did find the course incredibly helpful.  But now I begin tomorrow in earnest, begin a new semester of university at a new school, new country, in a new language, with a new culture to overcome. A tall order, no?

But today I would like to praise the benefit of my long break, or rather my “big sleep.” I have been in academic hibernation for some time now, though I find my time outside of the classroom just as instructional as my time inside the classroom. I have been, after all, working dilligently on a new novel and many poetic projects. Once I arrived overseas, I began helping to orchestrate poetry events back home in Charleston. I have been anything but idle.

I do enjoy my time off. It allows me to delve face-first into things I would otherwise never experience. I have been able to make tremendous progress writing not one, but two books; I have done a first edit of one book and managed and almost-complete first draft of another. In the meanwhile, I have been building a Twitter/Facebook/blog following in anticipation of the release of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County. Recently I decided to take up drawing, learning how to draw even simple things, which up until now has been beyond me.

I am feeling optimistic. Although a tidal wave of business approaches, I hope to continue writing and working with conviction, with a sense that I will accomplish much in the coming months. At the same time, I wish not to spend all my time with paper and pen in hand. I take advantage of this opportunity to live, to be free in cities I’ve never visited before, to speak with interesting people. These interactions will almost surely translate to new material in short stories and novels to come.

But today is the last day of utter freedom. I have finished writing almost 2,00 words today, though I intend perhaps to write more. Then I will take a bottle of champagne to the park and drink cheap mimosas in the warm tickle of sunlight with friends. I will speak German and look toward the sky. I will finish whatever book I’m currently reading with frantic helplessness as the plot kidnaps my consciousness. I will write, yes, but more importantly I will live. I will wake tomorrow at dawn with a new initiative, a broad, fresh band of obstacles to overcome.

Poem: “Puddle Jumpers”

New poem. Check it out.

Leave thoughts below.

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Preview: Read Chapter One of THE HEATHENS AND LIARS OF LICKSKILLET COUNTY

Welcome to Lickskillet, South Carolina.

A town of enigmatic and wild people where five teenagers will confront their futures, their friends, and the town’s dark secrets.

I’m releasing sample chapters to my debut novel which appears in bookstores and Amazon in November 2015.

Follow the link to read chapter one: https://derekberry.wordpress.com/in-lickskillet/lickskillet-preview-declin-ostrander/

Read more about the book here: https://derekberry.wordpress.com/in-lickskillet/

Enjoy and share thoughts on the page. Share the chapters and news of the upcoming book release!

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Pilgrimage: Touching Down in Munich

We cruise two thousand feet about an endless fabric of cloud, lumped below us like dried mashed potatoes a toddler has chucked to the floor in a fit of rage. In the distance, the volcanic plume of a nuclear power plant slithers into the sky, beyond that the Alps. The Alps with peaks nearly high as our plane, they tower in the distance. Monstrous craggy silhouettes with a back-light bathed the pink of sunrise.

As our plane descends toward the airport in Munich, we slip beneath the blanket of clouds. The horizon blinks and blinds us. Plane touches down and seventy middle school students on a field trip bust into cliche, which is to say, burst into applause.

Review: “Speech of the Masquerade” by Kendall Driscoll

One of my friends and fellow poet recently published her debut poetry collection. I have enjoyed reading the book and listening to Kendall’s readings. You can purchase the book here.

download (13)Kendall Driscoll’s debut poetry collection Speech of the Masquerade explores both the poet’s coming-of-age and her musings on her generation. Sometimes, she’s optimistic about the out-flowing love of her friends and peers and at other times disparaging at their attempts to craft success from empty honors. Her words glint with an honesty that embraces the beauty, rot, and oddities of the world. Many of the poems read playfully, ditties of joy and curiosity, each word a celebration of life’s strange poignancy, while others speak with a satiric bent on humorous pitfalls of our generation.

Certainly, she achieves to both criticize and praise the twenty-something audience for whom she writes. Call it a “guide to being in college and having no idea what to do with your life” and gift this book to every recent high school graduate you know. While several pieces dedicate contemplation to growing up, the power of writing, the meaning of love, and seasons changing, other poems ring with unique experiences and subtly peculiar musings. The poem focusing on how colleges value your academic achievements but not the content of one’s character pleased me very much—I imagine a resume stockpiled with small life victories to matter to us, not to corporate hegemonies. She also offers a valiant defense of live classical music, the triumph of the piccolo over the auto-tune. She explores the lives of brilliant young musicians and the pressure to conform to perfection.

Whether she’s ribbing on resume-builders, writing mock-eulogies to defunct coffee machines, or challenging others to gather the courage to live honestly, Kendall’s voice reverberates with beauty and truth, which according to some poets, are the same thing.