Bolaño on other evenings

LEOEGetting caught up on reading this week. According to Goodreads’ book counter, I’m six books behind in my goal of 100 books for the year. Gulp. (Go here if you want to see what I’ve read so far.) But I’ve finished the semester’s grading, so …

In my search for WHAT TO READ, I stumbled upon Roberto Bolaño’s short story collection: Last Evenings on Earth. (Such a good title, eh? I got the book from a fellow MFAer two years ago, stuffed it in my bookshelf, and let it grow a healthy layer of dust until now.)

What I like about the book? Much. Each story hooks you with a nose ring, leads you around for a while, and then mashes your face into the ending/nonending. HA, you thought the story would do THIS?!?

The experience is much more pleasing than it sounds.

Also: It’s interesting to see a writer’s obsessions developing. Many of the same ideas in these short stories are carried through to his magnum opus 2666: murders, movies, Santa Teresa, Sonora, unhappy writers, etc., etc.

But what I really like about the book right now? The down-on-your-luck artists/characters. They live with mothers and sisters, they sell drugs, they work odd jobs, they live poorly. As a fellow inhabitant of not-enough-funds, the characters are satisfying an itch to see other writers/artists NOT making it.

Schadenfreude, you are an unsightly beast.

(The artist shrugs. Takes another careful sip of her coffee—there isn’t much left in the pot.)

Of course Bolaño was incredibly successful. So I wonder if these explorations of less than successful artists really were explorations of his own fears of mediocrity and failure. I wouldn’t be surprised.

The Third Draft–motivation in an unlikely source

I finally started the third draft of my memoir, The Warmth of a Winter Sun. I planned to work on it all winter break, but I couldn’t get motivated. I didn’t want to think about my father anymore. I’ve moved on since his suicide, and I believe writing the first drafts played a large role in that.

Then BAM: the start of the spring semester and the Drump inauguration. The holy shitshow that has been the first days of his administration. And, suddenly, I don’t want to stop working on my memoir. I’ve been putting in 7 and 8 hour editing days when I can.

Why? Plain ol’ insecurity. As an adjunct and single person, I’m constantly walking the money-fence, never knowing if I’m going to have enough cash to pay my bills each month. It’s a frightening place to be some days. The start of the Drump administration has only ratcheted my fears. I can’t help but think: If I can get this book done and published, maybe, just maybe, my job prospects will improve.

(Did I emphasize maybe enough? I realize all the seemingly insurmountable odds in that statement.)

As for the writing: It appears this round is about cutting. The second draft bloated to 295 pages, and I’m down to 277. I like the cuts I’ve made. I had a few moments of angst over some lost passages, but right now I feel like this draft is a lot more focused.

I’d like to get some beta readers after the third draft, but I don’t know if that will actually happen. People are busy. Either way, I’m thinking one more draft at the end of the semester and then I might try and send this thing out.

Bullet on the Brain

I did make the switch back into fiction after more than a year away. (I wrote a memoir. See previous post on switching from nonfiction to fiction.) It wasn’t easy. I squirmed a lot. Then again, I always squirm a lot when I start writing—even if it’s only been a few days away from a writing project. Ultimately, I did succeed in penning four new short stories this past semester. Not bad, considering the 900 or so papers I graded while teaching 15 credits at the college level. Then again, not great, considering I’d like writing to take more of my time then say, watching TV or even reading. Neither of which was true, I’m afraid.

How did I make the switch back into fiction? By reading a lot. And writing a lot.

Yup. I know, I know, such sage and unforeseen advice. But it really was that simple.

And that hard.

The thing is, with the writing, I had to be willing to turn up every day and write crap. And LOTS and LOTS of it poured forth before my first story took off. BUT when it finally did arrive, the Muses rewarded me: I wrote the first 10 pages faster than I’d ever done before—and the last five pages of the story came pretty quickly too. I think, in all honesty, writing fiction again was just a matter of showing up and putting some words on a page UNTIL IT CAME. Whatever IT is.

The end.

Not really. Anyway. It was a busy semester. (Hence no posts.) I liked the money. I liked the teaching. But, now, I’m looking for part-time work. I’m an adjunct, and I didn’t get enough classes to pay my bills this spring. Wait. I’m sick of thinking about that. SO LET’S NOT.

What I’m thinking about instead is Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, a collection of autobiographical short stories. I’m on about p. 100, and I think it lives up to the hype so far. Her stories are disturbing in all the right ways. I love the brutal honesty. The intensity of the narrator. The collection has been compared to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, but I think that’s an unfair comparison. Because, right now, I’m saying Berlin’s is the better of the two books.

Johnson’s characters never felt real to me whereas Berlin’s do. They disturb me and make me feel alive in the fictional moment, whether the narrator is getting an abortion or just talking to a blind man on the bus.

berlinLucia Berlin, smoking hot.

For example, in the story “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977” the narrator, an emergency room nurse, notes:

“There are ‘good’ suicides. ‘Good reasons’ many times like terminal illness, pain. But I’m more impressed with good technique. Bullets through the brain, properly slashed wrists, decent barbiturates. Such people, even if they don’t succeed, seem to emanate a peace, a strength, which may have come from having made a thoughtful decision.”

The passage is what prompted me to write this blog post in the first place. Two years ago, paramedics dubbed my father’s suicide pitch-perfect: “Bullet to heart, no exit wound. He musta been good shot.”

It hurt my half-brother (who was there when Dad died) to hear those words. I mean, my father was still lying on the ground when they popped out of some dude’s mouth. But months after Dad’s suicide, while talking to my half-brother on the phone, he happened to mention that Dad looked peaceful after he was dead. At rest. It made him happy-ish to think Dad wasn’t suffering anymore.

So was it a thoughtful decision on my father’s part? Perhaps.

Art imitating life imitating art … and so it goes.

Making the Switch–writing fiction after nonfiction

I finished the second draft of my memoir (👏), which even has a new title: The Warmth of a Winter Sun. The book is currently 75,058 words. Not bad.

But now the book has officially entered the “cooling off” phase. You know, that set amount of time (in this case, the coming fall semester) where I DON’T TOUCH IT. (Book: That’s right, Lynn. In the immortal words of Michael Jackson, Just Leave Me Alone.)

The book and I need this break. I’m sick of it, and it’s sick of me. Plus, I can’t see it objectively anymore. Here’s hoping time gives me more distance and that I can complete a third draft over Winter Break … and that a fourth draft will be minimal some time after.

In the meantime, I figure I should use this fall semester to get back into fiction. Except I haven’t been writing fiction for about a year and a half. That’s a LONG time. When I sat down yesterday to write, I panicked. (Whereby I spontaneously started shouting “42!” And when that didn’t work, “ROSEBUD!” and then “ADRIAN!” Sorry, neighbors.)

I don’t know. Is this just another way of procrastinating? Like, freak out and get out of writing? Hm. My subconscious might be craftier than I thought. Even so, I’m not sure how to proceed. Should I just try out a bunch of free writes? Formal exercises? A third lovely option?

I’ll try something today and report back.




The Secret Center of Bolaño’s 2666

I finished Roberto Bolaño’s epic novel 2666 in the beginning of July, but on a recent road trip with some fellow post-MFAers, I found myself talking about it. It’s a book that stays with you after you turn the last page for a lot of reasons, not least of which is its grim depictions of the rape, torture and murder of women and girls in Mexico’s fictional border city of Santa Teresa—murders that the police and residents ignore and/or collude in. But Bolaño’s prose makes the reading journey worthwhile, even if it’s a harrowing, brutal trip at times.

The book is composed of five sections (or novels), but characters weave in and out of the text and all five sections deal with Santa Teresa in some way. Bolaño wanted the five sections published independently, but publishers decided that it made more sense for them to be together. It does. In fact, I think an important reason for reading 2666 falls away without a full read of all five parts, but I’ll get to that in a second.

One interesting thing (or perhaps annoying, depending on your outlook) about 2666 is that nowhere is the title mentioned in the actual text of the book. Rather, the end notes explain 2666 appears as a year in Bolaño’s book, Amulet. A character in Amulet describes a cemetery as “not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”

Yeah, 2666 is bleak. 

But here’s the thing. Before he died, Bolaño wrote that the book contained a “secret center.” Which, if you believe the end notes, is thought to be Santa Teresa. This idea had me scratching my head. If Bolaño was going for a secret center, Santa Teresa strikes me as too obvious, too easy to spot. The book is pretty up front about all the connections to Mexico. So not so secret for a secret.

And really? If that was the secret center, 2666 loses some of its appeal. At least to me. It risks becoming a bunch of well-written dark stories, borderline torture porn. So I’m throwing that theory out and adding my vote for the secret center. It’s a passage that stopped me, one that I underlined and starred. One that made me think, hm, yes. This might be true. 

“… that history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.”

To me, this makes sense as a center, an idea that loses its power if the sections/novels are read independently. The outlook is apocalyptic in 2666. The book is a grim examination of the meaninglessness of life. And it is an attempt at depicting meaningless without false hope.

What do you think? Find a different secret center?

Incidentally, that road trip we took? We were headed to the Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave in northwestern New Mexico. For $12, it’s probably the most costly and least impressive landscape in New Mexico. Repeat after me: Tourist. Trap.

We did, however, eat some mighty fine blue corn enchiladas in Gallup with the locals at Genaro’s Cafe.

What’s a little writing now that I’m here?

I’d been writing a section in my book about my parent’s marriage (think turbulent) when I stumbled across this old photo of a Superior diner. (Incidentally, I don’t even remember where or how I got the photo. If you want rights or know more, please tell me.)

My parents met at this diner called Kitch’s Drive-In (pronounced by locals as Kitch-ees) sometime in the early 1970s. Of course, this photo is from an earlier period—I’m bad at judging cars, 1950s, perhaps?

But it’s funny how this photo looks, at turns, dark and foreboding, or bright and folksy, depending on my mood. And when I think about my father when he met my mother, I see the photo as some kind of poster for a black and white, gritty film noir piece, and the opening scene is where me and my sister’s future began.

Not so auspicious, I tend to think.