Category Archives: books

“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.”

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.

Being a Writer Is Easy! (If You Have Nothing Else to Do)

In the past week, I have written 12,000 words. 1,000 of those words have been fiction, 0 words poetry, and the rest devoted to various academic projects. With the publication of my first novel fast approaching, I must consider myself more and more a writer, and yet such a title demands attention and effort. A writer, after all, must write. Not just blog posts like this one. Or Tweets, a form of which I am particularly fond. But rather, stories. Novels. Poems. Essays for lofty literary journals. And in the past few months, I have done little of this. Moored to the workload of senior year, I have neglected my holy and dreadful duties as a writer.

So what to do? What is a writer who does not write? Recently, my laptop crashed—kaput! The latest draft of my second novel, on which I’ve been working since my Freshman year at College of Charleston, was lost within a fried hard drive. The loss eliminated any motivation to continue working on the novel, and for the past four months, the story has languished in the purgatory of forgotten manuscripts. Where novels-in-progress go to die. Of course I still have the second draft for reference, and I can jump right back in with a new draft.

After all, my inspiration in writing has been replenished. This year I am taking my first ever fiction-writing course with Professor Brett Lott at the College of Charleston. What I expected to be a course crammed with trite advice and undergraduate pandering has actually been quite helpful. Several of the most basic lessons of fiction have eluded me until now, and I must return with a critical eye to my new material. Like all young writers, I am already terrified of my first novel (I wrote the novel when I was seventeen and eighteen), and yet I still have such pride in it. It is, after all, a fine work, especially for someone as young as I. But nevertheless, I intend to do even better next time, applying the lessons I have learned in the course.

But what of time? How does one grapple with the lack of time one receives in university? Some college students participate in Nanowrimo, and I long for the days I could spend hours in a coffee shop furiously typing. But no, that won’t do. It’s not that I don’t have the energy to write nor the ideas, but rather that other obligations have wrestled me away from the stories. Too often I wish to scribble ideas into a notebook and abandon whatever essay, presentation, or op-ed I am working on. Too often I find myself at the end of the day exhausted by the sheer effort of living, of academic rigor, of the expectations of professors and parents, of the black hole of social media that promises either publication success or ruin. Too often I find myself discussing writing with friends rather than writing. But I am finding my groove. I am writing on the toilet, on planes, in cars, in class, between classes, and in the library while I am supposed to be working on the two essays, three group projects, and poster presentation due in two days (as I am doing now).

So I must work without ceasing. I must work even when not writing. Always, a tiny elf sits in my head, scribbling down experiences, filing away gestures and odd phrases, and composing grand scenes. When I am in class, I am working: who needs to listen to a lecture on Benedictine monks when one has read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? When I am exercising (which means here riding my bike aimlessly through the decrepit and ruinous parts of my city), I am working. During sex, I am working. While eating lunch, I am working. While taking a shower, I am working. When I am out drinking with my friends, dancing a wild gig of youthful merriment, I am working. I am cataloging my life for the sake of my art. My mind is alive with stories.

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Me, Working

I have taken a semester to step away from my second novel, hoping to return with renewed vigor during winter break. For now, I am perfecting my storytelling. I have written six short stories so far since August and I intend to write another two before winter crashes into South Carolina and forces me inside. And when it does, I will pour a hot coffee and keep writing.

Author Spotlight: David Mitchell

“Writers can sound rather mystical when they talk about these things. Words like inspiration and creativity I’m really rather suspicious of, though I can’t talk about my work for more than thirty seconds without deploying them myself. Sometimes I think that creativity is a matter of seeing, or stumbling over, unobvious similarities between things—like composing a fresh metaphor, but on a more complex scale. One night in Hiroshima it occurred to me that the moon behind a certain cloud formation looked very like a painkiller dissolving in a glass of water. I didn’t work toward that simile, it was simply there: I was mugged, as it were, by the similarity between these two very different things. Literary composition can be a similar process. The writer’s real world and the writer’s fictional world are compared, and these comparisons turned into text. But other times literary composition can be a plain old slog, and nothing to do with zones or inspiration. It’s world making and the peopling of those worlds, complete with time lines and heartache.” – David Mitchell, Paris Review Interview Summer 2010

Read the entire interview here.

Although readers know David Mitchell best for his experiments in form, one must remain open to his indelible knack for telling a consciously-conflicted story. In his first novel Ghostwritten, Mitchell frog-leaps between different minds—auditioning different voices—to tell a story of causality in the aftermath of the Tokyo subway Sarin attacks. While the formal ingenuity of the novel is impressive, what might be more startling is Mitchell’s ability to embody humanity in each unique voice, whether the character be a financial lawyer or a doomsday cult member.

David Mitchell replicates this success in characterization in his later novels, including Cloud Atlas, which later became a film starring Tom Hanks and Halley Berry. The structure of Cloud Atlas resembles that of a Russian doll—once knee-deep in the first narrative, one leaps to the next and the next and the next, only to return to each narrative in the latter half of the book. While this sort of choice may easily come off as a gimic, Mitchell writes in such a way that one cares more about the greater story being told. One cares also about the smaller stories. Even in his 2011 novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (linearly straight-forward), one is overwhelmed by the smaller stories spinning like gears within the grander machinery of the book.

David Mitchell author of Cloud Atlas and listed for the 2006 Man Booker prize before speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2006. Scotland, United Kingdom 27th August 2006

David Mitchell author of Cloud Atlas and listed for the 2006 Man Booker prize before speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2006. Scotland, United Kingdom 27th August 2006

There are two things I want to emphasize about David Mitchell: his marrying of cultural narratives and marrying of formality with humanity.

In the first strain, one must look at the regional focus of his novels. Most of the stories take place either in the United Kingdoms or in Japan. Many of the novels leap back and forth from Japan to England, and this is not surprising when one understands Mitchell’s relationship with Japan. After meeting a Japanese woman (now his wife) in London, he travelled back to the island with her, where he lived for the next eight years.

I always carry the questions raised by Edward Said when reading a novel about Asia written by a white, European author—in what ways might he be appropriating these stories, in what ways is he dishonoring the culture? But Mitchell weaves Japanese history and cultural nuance into each narrative, and as little as my opinion on the subject holds, I think he is attempting to tell stories on Japanese terms rather than his own.

Mitchell’s second startling quality is the formalistic experiments he undertakes with each novel. A quick overview:

Ghostwritten: A globe-trotting tale in ten parts, each central character interlinked by seemingly coincidental events.

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Number9dream: A nineteen-year-old jazz enthusiast searches for his father in Tokyo. The novel is in eight parts, the promised ninth part never appearing, though the story ends in abrupt calamity.

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Cloud Atlas: Six narratives nested within one another, each ending halfway through and beginning again in the later half of the book.

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Black Swam Green: Each chapter tells a story of a month in the life of teenaged stammering Jason, who dreams of becoming a writer and avoids his bullies. A Bildungsroman that is partly auto-biographical. This is a personal favorite of mine, because though the story is simple, the book is incredible.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Stylistically simple, though the story leaps through the minds of many characters, especially toward the end of the novel. The focus remains de Zoet, a Dutch transplant in the mysterious city of Dejima (in the harbor of Nagasaki). Historical fiction.

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The Bone Clocks: A time-warping, mind-jumping tale of two immortal races, battling beyond the realm of time in order to save the souls of humans on Earth. The story, in fact, follows the same themes and situations introduced in Jacob de Zoet, though one might not need to read the book beforehand. All in all, probably the craziest and possibly the best David Mitchell work to-date.

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Mitchell’s ability to warp stories, to do as hardly any other author can do without a wrist-slap—mainly, forgo the protagonist and tell a truly sprawling story—is what makes him one of my favorite authors. Not only is he stylistically adventurous, he pulls off great stories again and again with aplomb. His virtuosity is astounding.

To discover more about David Mitchell, read here.

and here.

and here.

David Mitchell’s next novel will be released on October 17, 2015. Entitled, Slade House.

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Author Spotlight: Chuck Wendig

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When reading modern literature, one often becomes inundated by a familiar voice, perhaps the one pre-approved by the MFA stamp and proliferated by university professors throughout the United States, and so to find a voice as rare and startling as that of Chuck Wendig is much like being sucker-punched in the face soon after waking. His stories surprise the reader, carrying the narrative aloft a tumulus sea of acerbic wit.

To date, Chuck Wendig has penned eleven novels including the Miriam Black series, the Atlanta Burns series, the Tomes of Dead, Coburn series, and many more. He has also written a number of no-BS writing books, of which I have found to be not only tremendously helpful but also hilarious as a bear on a unicycle (editor’s note: we do not condone forcing bears to ride unicycles). Besides churning out an impressive number of books, Chuck Wendig is a fresh father of a toddler, of whom he speaks often on the Interwebs.

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Here’s the bio from his website:

Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. This is his blog. He talks a lot about writing. And food. And pop culture. And his kid. He uses lots of naughty language. NSFW. Probably NSFL. Be advised.

I want to highlight Chuck Wendig today for his ability to social-network with humor and consistency of which other writers must be envious. When scrolling through my Twitter feed, I find that Chuck Wendig single-handedly elevates the writing-craft-conversation beyond quoting dead authors but instead kick other writers in the pants. Go out, go write, drink whiskey maybe, explode Jupiter: such is the motto of Wendig.

Wendig also operates a helpful and intriguing blog at http://terribleminds.com. Check out his advice there and also on Twitter; if you like the advice, pick up one of his books on writing.

Now that we’ve blustered over the man’s accomplishments, why should you read his books? What sets this bearded author apart from the rest?

I would venture—his prose comes to life like a downed high-voltage telephone wire. Reading Chuck Wendig is like sloughing across the semen-sticky floor of a sex theater, which is to say, both disgusting and brimming with anticipatory joy. His writing is dirty, voyeuristic, and whiplash-paced. Although I have yet to read many of his novels, I remember clearly consuming the Miriam Black series in a ravenous word-feast: after each book dropped, no sooner had the sun set that I had finished the novels. One might wonder whether Wendig has discovered a method of distilling heroin into the pages of his manuscripts (which is not such a bad idea).

Meanwhile, I might be capable of heaping further praise upon the author, but best go see the magic for yourself. Find his blog, his Twitter, his books, then bend your knees slightly, push back the curtains, slip a two-euro piece into a slot, and gaze through the peephole. What you see will not be pretty, but you won’t be able to look away.

“Proletariat Love” – Derek Berry

Check out this love poem recorded for National Poetry Month.

 

 

Filmed in front of the glorious Cologne Cathedral. Leave your thoughts below.

 

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Pilgrimage: Restroom Graffiti Culture

Sitting upon a toilet at a German university—a toilet much cleaner than the typical American university toilet—one reads also superior graffiti. No paltry gang warfare. No jokes about sex with your mother. No homophobic or racist slurs. Instead, radical social and political commentary.

In broad red font: The American dollar is the origin of modern imperialism.

Below this, an argument over the comparable importance of revolutionary theory against revolutionary action (after much back-and-forth, the proponent of theory convinces the proponent of action that both are equally dependent on the other).

An Obey sticker featuring Rachel Carson cuddling with a pug instead of Andre the Giant’s fearsome face.

Below this, a sage quote: When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.

I stand up from my throne and depart from this quiet kingdom.

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Pilgrimage: The Nature of Non-Direction

I ride the bus in and out of town, stopping at any cafe or bar to briefly read White Teeth or work on the new novel, but still I have no yet begun. Not yet. Begun something, I don’t know, not in any tangible way. All of this feels like a dream, and it may be when every person is a stranger. No one exists except for me, everyone else an actor or actress in the background of a silent film. I have long prided myself on this tenuous characteristic of being “out-going,” but I discover this applies only in easy circles. My domain resides in the classroom, the poetry slam, the independent coffee house, not the random bustling avenue where everyone seems to possess direction save for I. Beyond that, each interaction is a cipher: going to the bank, ordering a doener, buying a bus ticket.

You know that feeling one receives in a new places that you do not belong, that the notion of belonging might merely be a mispronouncing of “be longing,” that rather we perpetually long to be something more, some place better, some new party with new faces. We sit on a bench and feel jealous we do not sit on some other bench. We are birds envious of fish, living bodies envious of ghosts. Perhaps that’s the condition of living, to be forever misplaced, we passing tourists of the living experienced. Here quite by accident.

I sit now in the center of the old city on a bright, cool day high upon a grand stone wall overlooking a narrow street where bikes and buses speed past storefronts. Perhaps my mind is still trapped back home, a billion anxieties floating to the surface: a book, friends, parties I cannot attend. While here I am in an odd limbo: two weeks ahead with no set plans, no classes. And so the question arises– to travel, to stay, to meet students, to write– who knows? I am a ship without sails, bouyed by the sea, hoping to land on some beautiful beach, not shipwrecked but harbored by some anchor without a name.DSCN0011

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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On How To Become a Writer

Lecturing in a middle-school classroom two months ago on the finer points of poetry explication—in laymen’s terms, explaining that not all lines in poems are, in fact, literal—I fielded questions from the crowd of seventh-grade would-be writers, half of whom actually liked me (because I was young, the teacher insisted) and half of whom squirmed to be released into the wild frontiers of winter break. Hand shot up, “How do you become a writer?”

The question stumped me because—

1.) Am I writer? Do I get to call myself a writer now that my first book will be coming out soon or do I have to wait until I can pay the rent writing? Writers are mythical creatures, like unicorns, and I’m unsure whether I might call myself a unicorn just because I’ve strapped a spiraled horn to my forehead.

2.) I don’t know.

I tell the young girl the only answer that dings at the front of mind, like a mallet against a carnival strength-test. I say, “Write. Just write.”

Seems simplistic, sure, maybe a cop-out answer. I could hear already a collective groan as writers-block-guythe students perhaps anticipated an oncoming lecture on the virtues of hard work. But I could not lie: there’s only one way to become a writer, and that’s to write. Ever since beginning education at university, I have flagellated my ego for deciding not to enroll as an English major with a creative writing concentration. Makes sense, to study writing if you’re a writer.

In some sense, however, I have studied writers for years: I read books, essays, magazines, and poetry. Read, read, read, consume knowledge; write, write, write, spit that knowledge back out in a practical context. I mean not to demean the value of a good writing program, though, because if that’s what works, it works. In my experience, writing programs offer both an incentive and time to write. Studying at university as well as back in high school, I had both incentive and time: I wanted to write books and I made time to write books, stories, and poetry.

There are several paths that might help you become a better writer: taking classes, engaging in writing critique groups, or reading “On Writing” by Stephen King. Or you could read blogs like this. But none of that will matter if you never sit down to put in actual work. Morris L. West, author of The Devil’s Advocate and many other books, once said, “In a longish life as a professional writer, I have heard a thousand masterpieces talked out over bars, restaurant tables and love seats. I have never seen one of them in print. Books must be written, not talked.” (http://www.advicetowriters.com/home/2015/2/6/books-must-be-written-not-talked.html)

There ain’t no hocus pocus, no special pill, and no inspiring book: just write. All the rest’s just background noise. You could be a best-selling author or an amateur middle-school scribbler, but writing makes the writer. So you wanna be a writer? Then pick up a pen or place fingertips to keyboard and begin.