Themes

In the next few months I’m going to have to write brilliant essays for a few universities and explain to them exactly what my writing is all about. I’m a little overwhelmed with the idea of doing that, so before I sit down and express myself brilliantly I’m going to lay it out on this blog in whatever dim, plodding, grasping words I can drag out of myself.

Here’s something I absolutely, positively know about my writing: the one subject that I cannot write about is MYSELF. You would think I would be better at writing about this subject than oh,-say,-for-example black jazz musicians in World War I. You would be wrong. Why? It probably has to do with the fact that I think black jazz musicians in World War I are really, really interesting. On the other hand, I think I am really, really boring. I don’t find myself that interesting so I have difficulty believing that other people would think that I’m interesting. That’s why you don’t often find me sitting down to write a memoir or an autobiographical short story that’s thinly disguised as fiction.

Don’t get me wrong! I explore parts of myself with my writing. (Okay, maybe not with the jazz musicians, but with practically everything else I’m working on at the moment.) I once hiked across Norway to find the birthplace of my great-grandmother and then I wrote a short story called “Norwegian Blues” about a character who does that. But in “Norwegian Blues” the character (Nick) is a hipster musician whose mother is dying and is trying to figure out how to live his life in a way that’s true to himself and not what everyone else expects him to be. And at the point in this journey where I caught a bus, Nick meets an androgynous bisexual girl who he sort of starts to fall in love with, and repairs her motorcycle. We’re talking about the most autobiographical story I’ve ever written and I think you’ll agree that it barely qualifies.

A few years ago, after a stint writing a lot of political theater, I sat down to try to figure out what it is I really want to do with my writing. I came up with a list of main themes for my body of work.

1. Sex! : I’m fascinated with writing about characters whose sex lives are non-traditional by most people’s standards. A lot of my characters are gay, sadomasochists, swingers, polyamorists or fetishists. I don’t identify to all of these things (actually, I’m not even going to say I identify with any of them) but they’re fascinating.

In a way, I see this as a niche for my writing. Sex was legislated out of literature long ago. The obscenity laws were lifted fifty years ago giving literary writers the freedom to write about whatever they want, and yet you never see more than the most vanilla sex scenes in literary fictions. Censorship has been replaced by self-censorship, you could say. Perhaps it’s just a matter of upholding a literary tradition that was created when these things were out-of-bounds. Well, fuck that! In my experience, everybody has an interesting kink or two and I’m tired of the implicit agreement that only erotica will talk about it.

Occasionally, the sexuality is the point of the story. More often, it is in the background. Sometimes it isn’t strictly necessary and you only catch a glimpse of it. About half of my writing is in the present day and about half is in the past. I actually feel more strongly about including alternative sexuality in stories with an historical setting because I feel like we forget that our grandparents and great-grandparents were just as wild and freaky as we were.

As I said, representing sex accurately in literary fiction is a major niche I’m trying to fill. Potentially, it’s a major selling point of my work. On the other hand, I think that it is a liability to me as well. The thought has crossed my mind that the reason I’ve had no luck publishing my short story “Trio” is that the editors of academic literary reviews at small, New England liberal arts colleges don’t want a story about a group of high school kids in a three-way relationship. While I consider the story tamer than its sequel “Misbehaving” some people might object. (On the other hand, maybe they just don’t like the story and the sex has nothing to do with it.)

2. Sincerity Verses Irony: I feel like we live in a very ironic time. So much of today’s entertainment just references something else: Iron Man 2 is the sequel to Iron Man 1 which is the adaptation of a comic book which was created based on the superhero trope which was based on pulp adventure stories, etc., etc., etc. And, yes, nothing can be completely new and everything comes from someplace but I feel like people are much more concerned about doing something that other people will think is clever than something that really comes from their hearts.

Things that come from the heart are seldom clever. They’re often rather unassuming. When they get into the hands of a critic (professional, amateur or troll) with whom they don’t resonate the results can be ugly. And that hurts. You can brush away a bad review of your cleverly subversive re-imagining of the zombie horror trope but when a project that comes from your heart gets torn apart it feels like your heart is being torn apart. And nowadays any idiot with a modem can and will tear your heart out, which may be why everyone is opting for being ironic rather than sincere.

Speaking of modems, that brings me to my next topic…

3. Technology: This theme is more minor than the other two. It certainly doesn’t come up in every story and when it does show up it’s sort of a supporting theme to “Sincerity Vs. Irony.” But I think the question of technology and its effects — negative and positive — are a key concern of my generation.

Yes, yes, I’m an old fuddy-duddy. On Facebook, my friend Carsen just told me that my resistance to new technology is “charming,” which is a much more positive adjective than most people use. For the record, I don’t think technology is the end of the world. But I am worried that the costs of using a lot of the new technology being introduced outweighs the benefits. Perhaps I will go into my reasoning in a separate post but for now I’ll be brief. I believe technology is elevating efficiency to the highest virtue of our society, where it has no business being. It is narrowing our access to information in the guise of expanding it because it only gives us what we’re looking for. The habits it hardwires into our brains inhibit creativity and logic. And, finally, I believe that everyone gives technology a pass because it’s shiny and new and so darned convenient. Basically, it’s a fad.

My friend Alana has tried to tell me that I’m a hypocrite because I use new technology (blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) while expressing misgivings about it. I don’t believe that’s true. If that were true, I would also be a hypocrite for trying to make money while expressing misgivings about capitalism; or for eating things with corn syrup in them while expressing misgivings about processed food. Money and corn syrup are a part of our culture and so is fad technology, unfortunately. They can’t be avoided it completely unless you reject the whole culture, which has other consequences. When I gave up the Internet for a month many people took it as a personal insult to them. Same thing when I tried to stop using voicemail, which I hate. You have to go along with some of this stuff just to exist.

4. Different Stories, Same Characters: This is more a style decision than a theme. For the last three years, every story and novel that I’ve written or planned has taken place in a common world. The characters from one story are libel to show up in another story.

At first glance this seems like kind of a needlessly complicated thing to do, maybe even a pretentious writer conceit. But I’m not just doing it because Faulkner and Balzac did it and I love them (which I do). There are two stylistic reasons why I chose to do it, and a third reason with is practical.

One of the things I have always hated about short stories is that I feel the characters frequently lack complexity. The old writing adage about how the gun in the beginning of the story must go off before the end is at fault. The entire identity of a short story character must be relevant to the situation he finds himself in. This is, to say the least, unrealistic. Real people have far greater depth than can be expressed in one particular event of situation. My solution to this situation is to have the same character appear in multiple stories. In each story, you get to see a different side of him. He may appear in still more stories as a supporting character. The makes each individual story better because the reader can hopefully sense that the character has some depth. And when you read all of the stories together the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Secondly, the shared characters are a stylistic nod to the fact that a lot of my writing explores similar topics. The whole comes across more like a body of work and less like a bunch of random stories. The people who only read one don’t feel like anything is missing but the people who read more than one get a more in-depth look at the themes.

The third reason is the practical one: it’s easier. When I write a story, I don’t have to make it up whole cloth. In fact, once I started to get a feel for the characters all sorts of new ideas started to come to me. One story sort of grows out of the others. One result is that I get stories like “Misbehaving” — which I essentially wrote because the main character from “Trio” appears again in “Finistere,” which is set about four years later, which forced me to think about how she got from Point A to Point B. A third story was born. Or a story like “Crescent Street,” which essentially came about because I realized my “cast” didn’t have a certain kind of character and I wanted to add one for variety.

***

In the past three years I have finished five stories and started a novel and a sixth story that are part of this series. The novel is called The Jazz Man and the stories are “Trio,” “The Royal Flush Saga,” “Norwegian Blues,” “Misbehaving,” “Crescent Street” and “Finistere.” A second novel, Obscenity, and seven more stories (“Heartland,” “Grant Park in November,” “Nick Skylark Unplugged” and four untitled stories) are in the planning stage.

Leave a comment! Since I’m going to be writing college essays on some of these topics, I would love to hear your ideas about all of this.

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2 thoughts on “Themes

  1. Having read it, I think you’r underestimating how autobigographical “Norwegian Blues” is. Aside from the Norway trip, which you did take for similar reasons to your character, there’s the mother’s death which, while you weren’t experiencing that first-hand, your mother certainly was. And then there’s the androgynous bisexual girl. Do you mean to say that that had nothing to do with any actual, real-life androgynous bisexual girls we know? πŸ™‚ You may have never fixed a motorcycle for her, but I find it hard to believe that the feelings expressed in the story weren’t entirely true to life.

    The point is, “autobiographical” doesn’t mean everything in the story happened exactly as written. When a writer’s work is autobiographical, or semi-autobiographical, it generally points to an emotional truth, rather than a factual truth. Eugene O’Neill’s family was very like the family he portrays in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” but that doesn’t mean that every conversation or every circumstance in that work happened. It’s a play, not a transcript.

    And as you so intelligently put it in your current novel-in-progress, “whether or not it happened, this story is true.” πŸ™‚

  2. Well, I’d accept you to my Grad School for Thoughtful People with Talent, where I am the Dean of Students, but only if you wrote that “The characters from one story are LI-A-BLE to show up in another story.”

    πŸ™‚

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