Tag Archives: fiction

The Writing Life

With this blog entry, I do a turn — not 180º but perhaps 120º, devoting this blog, and this website in its entirety, to the writing life — the life of a writer, that is, and everything he or she might be interested in, including readers.

Young Zeck or, more fully, Young Zeck Image Communications, was the name of the little corporate communications consultancy I operated for about 25 years. It was, every now and then, successful in producing corporate jobs like company brochures, annual reports, and websites — and the income that goes along with such jobs.

The consultancy was not as successful as it might have been because I never fully devoted myself to the corporate life or corporate lie, if that’s not too extreme. Let’s put it this way, rather: the institution (corporate, governmental, academic) has a belief system that prefers money or a consistent code of values above all else. As someone trained in the humanities, and from the earliest age, how could I give myself to this kind of groupthink? The focus on money, and system, mean truth was an easy prey and beauty not far behind.

Gay Talese Writer's Life
Gay Talese’s Writer’s Life is said to be “a cracking good read.” So let’s get cracking, readers and writers.

Yes, companies will hire you to produce plausible representations of their business and business methods, and you can write and design attractive products that both you and the client can be proud of. But when I did so, I would always think, what now? What new job must I be hunting for? What new values in life?

Since the mid-1980s at least, I’ve been writing stories and poems, and they’ve been accumulating in my drawers (computer drawers or folders). I’ve published a few, but not many. There’s very little  money in publishing in little literary magazines, and, yes, money is a consideration if not the main consideration. There’s very little ego confirmation when the stuff you’ve sweated over so hard is rejected by these magazines.

Most literary writers, I think, publish for exposure. They want their names out, their creativity on display. They want to be read and, yes, admired. They don’t quit their day jobs, most of them, and they shouldn’t. But always in the back of the mind the idea lurks that they could make it someday as a writer.

Make it, as in making a living. Make it, as in getting a life. Make it, as in doing just what they’ve always dreamed of doing but were afraid to ask or try.

I retired from college teaching and corporate communications about six years ago when my wife Jennifer and I moved from Minnesota to Northwest Arkansas. Since then, I’ve tutored kids and done a little webmastering, but have continued to write stories and poems … and now and again the beginnings of a novel.

About four months ago I joined a weekly writers’ group, the Dickson Street Writers. We meet every Monday afternoon at Nightbird Books, an indie book shop in Fayetteville that accommodates us and other groups. Our facilitator, Linda, is writing a group biography about Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and that gang. Most of  us are writing fiction, a few poetry.

We bring a printed copy of what we’re working on to the store and shop it around among ourselves. We read our own piece, that is, and the others mark and muse the typescript, then comment on it orally. More than the specific comments and directives, which are often helpful, it’s the mere example of others who are doing the same kind of thing and honoring the same direction, that is invaluable.

Yes, I’ve been in other writers’ group before, but somehow they didn’t last long. They were beset by divisions, competitions, lack of interest, ennui, lack of comprehension (I have no idea what you’re trying to say, or why you’re trying to say it). The Dickson Street Writers are older, for one thing, and more mature. (No spring chickens peck this barnyard.) They’re more tolerant of differences — one of which is that I am the only male member! (Sometimes in jest I call the group 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) Linda has remarked, on more than one occasion, that I’m brave to read what I do — a man’s fiction, perhaps, among so many women. Or fractious fiction, could be, among more conventional MOs. (I’ll take up this topic of courage in writing in more detail later.)

So here, at last, to the writer’s life. Raise your glasses high. To something of a meaning and purpose for your later years, if that’s what they’ve come down to.


My Struggle

KO Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose struggle mirrors our own.

You’ve heard of Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writing sensation? I’ve read several reviews of his six-part memoir, My Struggle (Min Kamp, in Norwegian, which itself caused great controversy, sounding so much like Hitler’s Mein Kampf), and have finally got round to start reading his work.

It’s mesmerizing, really, his day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour account of his youth in rural Norway, his erotic coming of age, his marriage and vocation as writer in Stockholm, Sweden.

It’s hard to account for the pull and power of this work in some ways, as it’s not (quite) fiction and not (quite) narrative. Rather, it’s a memoir comprising meditation and narrative, a melange of forms that seems to derive power from the minute details of the day and how the author reacts to these stimuli. Things that most of us would not notice, or bother reporting, Knausgaard dwells on and develops. His father’s tics and temper, for example. The details of the rocky, wooded topography near his boyhood home. The subterfuges he and his best friend employed, at age 16, to get out of the house and drink beer.

Things that we would repress, too, he hauls up and examines. Indeed, the first volume begins with a macabre meditation on death, the physiology and anatomy of death, the pooling of blood in the nether regions, the “dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin,” the smuggling of the corpse into the morgue, the hiding away of this dark, dirty secret, “the collective act of repression symbolized by the concealment of our dead.”

After the account of his youth in rural Norway, Knausgaard tells of his struggles as an emerging writer. How he gets up, sleepless, in the middle of the night, in Stockholm, while his wife Linda is pregnant and about to have their first child, and sees the police raid the porno store below him. Knausgaard describes how furtive men, attempting to appear normal both coming and going, file into the basement store and then file out. He thinks of the strange communal ritual, though the men don’t seem to acknowledge each other, of plunging down into this underground, selecting a film and a booth, watching the porno, jerking off, using Kleenex to mop up. This too, it seems, is part of the ritual of repression, of avoiding mentioning or publicizing our drives — and our drives’ end(s).

And all the while he’s recounting his struggle to become a writer, Knausgaard is using details of struggles, others’ and his own, as part of his material. There’s some sort of odd parallel between these struggles, in fact. Perhaps he’s saying masturbation for most men is some kind of equivalent of writing for him, or vice versa? Or, more accurately, the longings and dissatisfactions that most of us may take out on our penis, he takes out on, or with, his pen.

Knausgaard has an office 20 minutes from home and, even when Linda is expecting any time, reports dutifully to his office, unpacks his laptop, keeps chugging along on the novel he’s been writing for five years without success.

Is this novel something that he finally abandoned? Did it give way at last to this dreamy, fiction-like memoir we’re reading now? Is that K’s struggle? While others are pounding their puds or their dismal, vain, unpublishable novels, Knausgaard is pounding his head against the wall trying to find the subject that will make him? And discovers only after years of futility that his subject is, after all, immediately at hand? Is himself, the details of his own life?

Of course, all of us have these details at hand. But how many of us make anything of them? We’re not all gifted writers, or painters, or thinkers. We can’t grasp these fleeting moments, before the blood pools, and make sense of them. We’re ordinary mortals, that’s all, with ordinary lives. If only we knew how to tell these lives, not just dart into porno stores, not just scribble nonsense that who would want to read? Who in his right mind? In his busy, dismal, unpublishable life? Who? Who?