What I’m writing (today’s version)

I started reading Ha Jin’s “A Good Fall” yesterday, and I had the same reaction as when I read the collected works of TC Boyle or Amy Hempel or Aimee Bender:  This is going to change my (writing) life. Of course, none of those did, but maybe this one will. I keep hoping.

I’m always getting mired in these dramatic, sensitive, emotional, sad, touching, heartbreaking drafts that I slave on and find out they’re crap and I still don’t know why. Then I write what I think is crap and lo and behold, everyone loves it (Harold, for example). 

So when I started reading Ha Jin, the first story, “The Bane of the Internet” was very short and I thought, hmmm, I’m not sure what this is, it’s not beautifully written, I’m annoyed with both characters, I don’t quite get the story. Aha, maybe that’s the point! Maybe I’m supposed to be as annoyed with Longsuffering Sis as I am with Catastrophe Sis. I don’t quite see the whole immigrant-experience thing going on – I see that relationship every day with different people, those who count on no-goodniks to supply them with superiority, who claim to want to be out from under the burden of their lazy spouses, diletante boyfriends, copeless relatives, but can’t quite bring themselves to say, “NO” because then they wouldn’t have anything to complain about. The glimpse into Chinese life, where a car is becoming essential and a specific kind of car more so, was interesting, but the whole thing could’ve been written about two sisters in Portland and the emotional context would’ve been the same. And maybe that’s the point.

But the more important point to me – after I read “A Composer and his Parakeet”, is that these stories are valid even though they are borderline surreal, in plain language (that is, as I understand it, his signature style), and more narrative. I love these stories. They are what I’ve been afraid of for years – just writing, what Duncan Nelson used to call “write what happened”. I have to do more of this.

Except, I will backslide, I know. I love to write moody, elegant prose. I love to wallow in doubt and second-guessing and self-obsession. I will return to my Mourning Mom story and try to figure out a way to get her to say, “I lost my son too!” in a way that makes the reader cry, because I think it is important someone feels what I felt in the days after Virginia Tech, when they kept talking about the 32 dead when there were actually 33.  And that isn’t going to be an easy sell. Maybe impossible, which is why I’m having so much trouble with the story. why I’m getting lost in plot mechanics. Because the emotional mechanics are impossible.

Anyway, I’ve embarked on something else. “I see dead people,” a flash chapbook of dead people I have known. One murdered. One suicide. One dead while breathing. Maybe a natural death. Maybe an internet death, since I seem to be accumulating them too. A church death. Deaths I feel connected to in some way, not by grief, but by coincidence, humor, guilt, surprise, whatever. I wrote the murder this morning.

Which means I wrote today. Actual writing. That makes it a good day.

3 responses to “What I’m writing (today’s version)

  1. Dear Karen/Zin, Thanks for reading my blog. I’m glad that you’ve found some great writing that you like to read. I’ve gone back and updated the 20 Questions link (Collagist, it appears, messed things up by moving their link to be within Dzanc Books).

    I’d been part of a short story reading group that went defunct. I started the blog in part with talking and sharing good stories in mind. The other part of me wanted to keep track of the reading I do and of the great stuff I’ve come across online.

    As for my own writing, thanks much for the kind comments there. Indeed, “Off the Map” and “Next Superstar” are from a collection of 24 related stories, the other 22 of which are still looking for homes. One day, I will likely try to find a publisher for the whole collection.

    Ha Jin is an interesting author. I have (and have read) his collection Under the Red Flag, but my favorite story of his that I’ve is one that showed up in Best American Short Stories some eight years ago or so now. It was a long one about folks in China working at a KFC and how American corporatism made no sense to the employees. Not heavy on plot–more a day to day thing, much like working in fast food can be.

    Read your pieces in Frigg. They have a strange dreamlike quality. The drawn wings flying off . . . neat. But I especially liked the absurd and sad quality of The Man with the Nose in His Living Room. Feel free to write me at my e-mail address.

  2. Hello, Jon, I’m always happy to meet new friends. I was in an online writing workshop that for various reasons stopped working for me, and I have been trying to find writing/reading people to talk to. I miss hearing what others think. I already know what I think.

    I do remember the Chinese KFC story – I was captivated by something in the volume introduction, which, can you believe this, I copied (I did not buy the volume but used a library copy). It was the 2001 edition, edited by Barbara Kingsolver (who I have not read at all): to quote her:
    “I once heard a writer declare from the lectern: ‘I write about the mysteries of the human heart, which is the only thing a fiction writer has any business addressing.’ And I thought to myself, Excuse me? I had recently begun thinking of myself as a fiction writer and was laboring under the illusion that I could address any mystery that piqued me, including but not limited to the human heart, human risk factors, human rights, and why some people practically have to scrape flesh from their bones to pay the rent while others have it paid for them all their merry days, and how frequently the former are women raising children by themselves even though that wasn’t the original plan. The business of fiction is to probe the tender spots of an imperfect world, which is where I live, write, and read. I want to know about the real price of fast food in China, who’s paying it, and why. I want to know what it’s like in Chernobyl all these years later. Do you? This book will tell you.”

    Alas, the story itself went by me, as much as I wanted to love it. But your comment reminded me of the introduction, which I love.

    I will email you in the future.

  3. Pingback: Ha Jin – “Choice” and “Children As Enemies” from A Good Fall « A Just Recompense

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