Thursday, November 19, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett Guest Post: Advice for Writers

Last month, at Wordstock, Portland’s marvelous gathering for writers and readers, I taught a class on “The True Business of Writing.” I took about 30 class participants through the thorny parts of my career, trying to show them how—creativity aside—I got to the point now where I have a book. I told them that there were plenty of other places where they could go to discuss craft, and the art of writing. I wanted to talk practicalities, the things that no one really wants to discuss.

I showed them my original query letter.

I had asked my agent for query letters she'd rejected from her slush pile and shared these with my class, asking them to try to point out the predictable errors the rejected had made. (In this I guess I drew upon my experience as an SAT tutor, when I would teach kids to look for "predictable errors." It's not a bad skill to have.)

I let them read my own rejection letters from editors, then asked them what they would do if they were in my shoes.

I showed them my submission stats for a short story that ultimately did pretty well (it generated two readings, one of which had an audience of something like 150 people, and a Pushcart nomination). The stats weren’t pretty: I’d been rejected 29 times before someone took the story. Six of those rejections came from editors who said they wanted the story but didn’t have enough room in their journals, which at the time, rather felt like the people I knew in high school who told me they would love to have taken me to the party with them, except there hadn't been enough room in the car . . .

In other words, I tried to share with these writers all the things that I had learned, and wished I’d known before embarking on a real career.

Some problems you can’t foresee. And sometimes it isn’t helpful to arm yourself with a lot of information; it can make a writer neurotic and skittish, unable to write because he’s so worried about what might go wrong. I sympathize. I’m sensitive. But still, if you want to write, then you will and you will find a way out of the problems that you face. It's important to be prepared and to be proactive.

So here is some advice and here are some thoughts I wish I’d known when I had started writing.

1. No, you do not need an MFA.

I don’t have one. I wondered if I needed one for a long time. What you need-in addition to good writing skills-are: 1) persistence, 2) a vision and 3) really great teammates. You will need to be persistent when, as I said above, you are rejected because a journal doesn’t have “enough room” for you. You will need vision when an editor wants you to change your work to fit what “he” sees as important in your writing. That will also make it easier for you when you do meet the editor of your dreams—as I did—who seriously gets you and wants you to be a better you. You will need teammates who tell you when your writing needs work—and who are right. Some of these things you can find in school, and some you can’t. I will always wonder if I might have gotten my act together sooner had I gone into an MFA program. But I know now that it’s not necessary.

2. Write as much as you can.

I had a job for about a year, working for a literary agent. This was back when I had published some short stories, but was always worried about whether or not I had a “real career.” It didn’t take me long to realize that the writers who were doing the best at the agency—aside from the ones who were just lucky and who had managed to develop a large following early on in their careers—were the ones who were constantly writing. They wrote poems, articles, essays, opinions, stories and, of course, books. They never stopped. If the agent was not able to place a piece, they placed the piece themselves. Their names were constantly being circulated and talked about because they constantly had opinions.

And actually, this is a good habit to get into now, wherever you are in your career, even if you have no book. There's a practical benefit to this way of working. If you are feeling low about your writing, it does help if you constantly have at least one pieces circulating. If you always have a short story out there somewhere in the ether, then there’s always the chance that it might be accepted. You are always hopeful about something. You've created your own reason to maintain faith.

Because basically, writers write. They don’t wish they had written. They don’t like the idea of being writers. They treat writing as work and they write. All the time. And one reason they do it is because they are persistent (point number 1).

3. Everyone struggles.

I never thought I’d have anything in common with a model or an actress. But writing is a subjective business and someone will find a reason to discriminate against you. If you are white, you might have written something that is too similar to someone else, and the marketing department can’t figure out how to sell you (I mean, of course, sell your book, but for those of us who write-what's the difference between our books and ourselves?). If you are a girl, maybe you’ve written a thriller and men are supposed to write thrillers. If you are black, maybe the independent bookstore you visited to try to book a reading assumes you have self-published and aren’t a “real” writer (true story—happened to a friend of mine). If you are gay, maybe your story isn’t “mainstream enough” and the field is currently considered too crowded for "gay" writers. If you are from Jamaica but live in the US, maybe the marketers don't know what to do with you because you aren't acting like a Caribbean writer, but like an expat, and that's confusing since only English people get to write "international literature." Maybe you feel that if you were a minority, your work would be taken more seriously, since minority writers look so “hot” to you right now—in a marketing sense. (Again, all of these are true stories).

You might, for example, feel disheartened by the National Book Award news. To which I say, I told you so.

But this is when you have to go back to point 1, and be persistent, hone your own particular vision and find strength from your believers and supporters. And always, always write.

4. Your connections matter.

And it will matter if you have none. So, make some.

Lest that sound mercenary to you—I know it does and did to me—try thinking of the whole “connections” thing another way.

Lots of people don’t care about books and writing. They care more about reality TV or sports or video games (and I write this as someone who cares about some of these things too!). Find people who care about books and writing. It only makes sense. You have this thing that you love to do, and it’s nice to be able to share it with people. There will be days when you'll think about that jerk in high school who is making more money than you because he took over his family’s car dealership and then you'll wonder why you committed yourself to this higher calling that isn’t getting you ahead in life. Your friends, the ones who think that there is nothing more wonderful than a good book, will remind you of why you’ve decided to do what you do (see point number 1 and number 3).

Then, when you have a book or a reading or something to promote, you’ll have people who want to help you.

The important thing about this, though, is to also be helpful yourself. See point number 3, also above. Because everyone at some point has something very unfair happen to them. Yes, some groups are more marginalized than others, but believe me, I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t have battle scars. Hence, the important of point number 1, where you remember to be persistent.

Being a good friend also means being a good reader. It means supporting your local independent bookstores, which is most likely full of people who love books. It means buying the books that your friends write, even if you are super jealous they published before you did. Remember point number 3—your friends still need your help. Publishing a book isn’t the end game.

And on that note, a huge thanks to Aggie at the Well Read Donkey for asking me to guest blog. It's been a pleasure. And thanks to all of you for reading!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett Guest Post: Japanese Fairy Tales

Fairy tales cast a spell on the mind. And not just because they often feature magic cauldrons or evil witches. We imprint on fairy tales when we are young. We learn about brave men on dragon-battling-quests and women yearning to get out of towers. Over time, the predicaments of these princes and princesses don’t seem too far from the psychological reality of the real world.

Something else happens too—we learn to expect certain things from stories. They will unfold in a certain manner. We will encounter danger, but this tension will resolve. And even though the modern novel has come a long way from ending either in a wedding or a funeral, I think there’s still something in our culture that looks for and yearns for this kind of conclusion: the prince and princess end up together, or we will find redemption despite loss, or even death.

My mother, who is from Japan, tried to teach me her language. I resisted, but she had a powerful arsenal: Japanese fairy tales. Seductively, she’d pull out the story of “Kaguyahime: The Bamboo Princess,” who was discovered by a poor bamboo cutter inside a fat bamboo stalk. The baby grew up to be the most beautiful and accomplished woman in Japan. Men came from all the corners of the island to try to woo and win her love. Except, unlike a western fairy tale where someone would eventually succeed, no prince ever managed to capture the bamboo princess’ heart. The story takes an unexpected and dramatic turn when Kaguyahime reveals her true identity—she is from the kingdom of the moon—and flies away, leaving everyone broken-hearted. Something about this accomplished but unattainable woman always captivated me. My mother and I would sit together and she would read a line in Japanese. Then I would read a line. Then I would read a page. On we would go until we were finished, and then we would begin again.

A couple of things happened as a result. I have a crude but efficient ability to read Japanese; I speak it much more fluently. This means I’m lucky enough to go to Japan and to be able to converse with friends and family and, more recently, interview people for stories and essays. On a practical level, it also means I’m never hungry in a restaurant, and never completely lost. It means I’m not afraid to travel and certainly not scared to try out new languages. But something else happened too. As much as my brain was programmed by the western fairy tales I read with my father, I know I’m also wired to feel comfortable with stories from Japan. And by this, I don’t mean novels written by westerners about Japan, or how they think Japan might be, but stories that actually originate from the culture itself.

If you are at all familiar with Hayao Miyazaki, or anime and manga, or even Haruki Murakami, then you too know that Japanese stories develop in unexpected ways. Inanimate bjects spring to life. An apparently linear narrative will veer in another direction.

Evil things don’t necessarily stay evil; fans of the movie Spirited Away can recall the moment when Zeniba, the big nosed sorceress whom the audience thinks is responsible for turning the parents of Sen, our heroine, into pigs, invites the little girl to sit down for tea . . . and becomes benevolent.

Recently, a friend who had read and loved my novel, Picking Bones from Ash, asked me to come visit her college class. She’s teaching a course on fairy tales, and she thought it would be fun if I discussed the first chapter of my book with her class. And then I thought: why not also teach her students something about Japanese fairy tales?

I’d spent some time thinking about Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, and its very animistic sensibility, and how this lingering sense that anything can be alive permeates everything from a beautifully designed toilet seat, to Hello Kitty. I put together a forty-five minute talk. I’ve given the talk twice, and what’s impressed me is how easily kids understand it. The world of anime and manga and even video games has made an aspect of contemporary Japanese culture very accessible to this new generation. As an artist, I find this flexibility, this openness to a new way of telling stories to be tremendously exciting.

Now I want to get them reading. This is a very open-minded generation. It's going to be interesting to see what they create--and what they accept as art.

Some writers shy away from anything having to do with fairy tales, seeing them as childish, obsessed with the supernatural and overly simplistic often. I see their point of view. The beauty of adult fiction is that it offers us richness and a complex and often more conscious reflection of the world than we were able to apprehend as children. Not all fairy tale/fantasy derived work can do this. However, my favorite writers are aware of the lasting impact of fairy tales on their own art, and on our culture. And I like to stand with them.

Perhaps I’ll see you on November 30th, at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, for an evening of Japanese fairy tales, and religion and storytelling and more.

PS--Obviously, the lecture isn't just for kids. It's just that, if you have a kid inside you, you might like it more.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett Guest Post: Literary Prizes Seldom Make Passes at Tits and Asses

In an early interview I did before my novel was published, I was asked: "Are there enough women in leadership positions in your field?"

I said: "Publishing is full of women. Most readers of fiction are women. Stephanie Meyers and JK Rowling are, by all accounts, millionaires. And yet don’t most men win the high literary prizes?"

Fast forward to about a week ago, when Publishers Weekly announced its best books for 2009. All were by men.

"It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male. There was kicking and screaming for a science fiction title. A literary ghost story came so close, it squeaked."

Ever since, the internet, that new hub of literary discussion, has been up in arms. Furious bloggers challenged readers to create their own alternative lists. SheWrites, a recently created online community for women who write, urged participants to take action. Twitter is aflutter. There’s a lot of digital noise.

I feel like paging Dorothy Parker who famously wrote: "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." Is it too crude, if true, if I add: "Literary prizes seldom make passes at tits and asses"? The sad thing is, I accept this as a reality of my industry. The majority of fiction published by prestige magazines—okay, I’ll name one name: The New Yorker—isn’t by women. Some have complained that male authors get more marketing dollars from publishing houses, and that’s why “the smart people” are generally men. On a practical level, I can understand why this happens. If men win prizes, and prizes are good for publishers, why wouldn’t you, the publisher, support your most likely candidates?

But I’ve got to say, it’s a little . . . curious that in November of 2009, in a fall that has been incredibly crowded with very famous (Dan Brown) and accomplished (Lorrie Moore) writers putting out books—and making it very hard, I might add, for a debut novelist to make much headway—it’s difficult to believe that Lydia Davis or Margaret Atwood or AS Byatt or Lorrie Moore or Sarah Waters aren’t on the list. What happened?

In my original interview, I answered other questions the way that I did because I'd naively assumed that I'd just written a novel—a novel, about a lot of things. I thought people would probably notice the subtle references to sexual trafficking of women, when one of my characters finds herself stuck in America with a man she barely knows, without money or community. The sexual trafficking of women—and children—is an ugly but very real problem, the result, in part, of a world that can shift around with greater ease due to air travel and the internet. The novel is full of references to Buddhism, to the ways that westerners take and reshape Eastern religions in ways that suit them, and how, frankly, Asians do the same with western culture. I was pretty sure people would notice—since the theme is stated in the very first sentence of the book—that mostly I was trying to write about what happens when a woman goes to extreme lengths to develop her talents, at the expense of her relationships, just so she can be "safe" in the world.

As it happens, I actually wrote an "Asian American novel" and a "mother daughter novel" and even "women's fiction." I didn't know this until the reviews started coming in. And then there were the complaints that I had not stuck to the standard "mother-daughter" storyline that readers expect (because of all that other stuff). And then I wondered: are men punished for failing to conform to expected narrative norms? Do men write "men's fiction"? Is there such a category?

As far as I can tell, there is no such grouping, but at least we have the books on the PW list, the ones that do all their analyzing, and observing of how things and societies operate and how things can be understood and discovered. And some of these I have read and loved and agree are among the very best books of 2009. However.

It is very rare for a female writer to be praised as having written a "novel of ideas." Google the exact phrase to yourself, along with "writer" to see who turns up. Most often, the writers who are women and who write "novels of ideas" hail from foreign countries. They don't come from the west. Women in the west write about trivialities. Translation: relationships. But, as Joanna Trollope points out in her article in The Guardian:

". . . while books about young men's lives that cover the same topics, are reviewed and debated, seen as valid and interesting contributions to the current social and media scene. Take anything from Toby Young's How To Lose Friends and Alienate People to The Contortionist's Handbook to Toby Litt or David Nicholls's One Day, or the works of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem. Often these books are far more sensationalist than those by the authors' female counterparts: about how many women the protagonists have slept with, how many drugs they've done, what a crazy nihilistic time they're having in London / New York."

It's not like men don't write and agonize over relationships too. Why, then, are they so smart and we are so . . . sentimental? So fluffy and hausfrauey and silly? Let's take the question even further. Let's say that most women—for argument's sake—actually do focus on more on relationships and less on abstractions. And . . . so? Why would novels about relationships be trivial in the first place?

I thought that relationships were one of the core principles of that most testosterone driven of all worlds—sales. Do we in publishing think we are above such trivial worries as sales? (Ah, but we aren't are we?) Why on earth wouldn't relationships be a sharp and focused lens through which to view the world and to draw conclusions? Why, in fact, would this not be a way for us to understand a great many complicated things—how technological speed, the abstraction of love, the exchange of spiritual practices—are in fact changing our lives on a personal level?

I like men too much to believe, however, that they’ve conspired to turn attention away from women’s work; much of publishing is run by women, after all. Instead, my suspicion—and this is a hunch and not something I can back up right away—is that we women, we who make up the majority of readers—still believe that men are smarter than we are. And we want to show you we can be as smart as you, and we want your approval, just like we did in college or graduate school when it was so exciting that you noticed us as the smart, not-silly girl student in the room. We are competing with each other, though we are often in denial about this, and the best way to successfully compete amongst ourselves, is to get your approval.

And the best way to get your approval, is to show that we get you, with all your abstracting and analyzing and warring. We can speak your language, as they say. We are, in other words, just as good as you are.

In that same early interview, I was asked: "Are you a feminist?"

I said: "I’m generally not comfortable with labels or groups. Do I think that everyone should be treated with respect, dignity and fairness? Yes. Does that make me a feminist?"

In other words: I don’t need your labels. I’m above them. But as it turns out, I’m as susceptible to being labeled as anyone else.

I’m rethinking my position on feminism.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Post Halloween Guest Post: Chuck or Treat or Welcome to My Nightmare

"Relax and have a seat, let us get you a drink. You'll need it..."

Photo and caption, by Marilyn Smith


CooKoo Charlie the Cannibal Clown is in the house.
While the witches brew, I'll cook my stew
a little pigs feet (swine or human) one brown mouse
Hey, be thankful one of the ingredients isn't you.

This is my first appearance on the well-bled, I mean Well-Read Donkey. And it truly is a horror, I mean honor.

I want to take this moment to talk to you about monsters.

Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman and that amphibious abomination, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I love how he swims in sync with the ladies. Grace with gills. Rage that kills. A perfect combination.

Anyway, these are the monsters of the past. Today we have Freddy, Michael Myers, Chucky and...Pumpkinhead!

Good or bad, monsters make an impression on all of us. There's nothing like a cool, scary as hell, monster that invades your sleep and terrorizes you until you wake up screaming with your sheets soaking in sweat.

Although, truth be told, nothing scares old CooKoo. Hell, I'd make Freddy whimper like a whipped pup.

Way before Hollywood silver-screened monsters and writers put their nightmarish visions on the printed page, humanity has gone to bed with horror stories. Frightening folklore is in every culture. It's a given, no matter where you're livin', where there are people, there are monster tales.

Which leads me to an amazing book by Jonathan Maberry, Bram Stoker award winning author of the chilling Pine Deep trilogy, and David F. Kramer. They Bite Endless Cravings of Supernatural Predators is a copious, cultural compendium of creepy creatures that should fuel your inflamed imagination. Lurking and preying in these predatory pages are vampires, werewolves, hell hounds, seducers and many more monsters of mayhem.

Point is: whether you're a budding novelist searching for inspiration or an average Joe, I prefer sloppy Joes, although they don't have to be Joes, they can be Franks, Chucks or whomever, leisurely scanning the sections for entertain and education.

Me, I'm always looking for new ways to stir up my ravenous repertoire.
Stir it up; ...Little darlin! Eh, Bob.

Oh, hey, before I vamoose, to cook livers and goose, I want to make sure you check out my video CooKoo The Clown reviews Pilo Family Circus, by Will Elliot and Maneater, by Thomas Emson.

I also want to give a shout out to John Ray whose savory directional and editorial skills made this eerie endeavor a truly appetizing artform.

Maybe I'll invite him over for dinner. Don't worry John Ray, I actually won't have you for dinner. I'll cook you up something special...but I won't tell you everything that's in the pot.


Text written by Chuck Perunko