Sunday, July 7, 2013

Three Moments - Stephen Graham Jones - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing

I’ve got three of those a-ha moments, just from the last year:

   I was watching that commencement speech Neil Gaiman gave (“Make Good Art”), hoping like everybody that he was going to accidentally let slip the secret to writing, but then of course I got to just listening, and it turned out maybe he did. It’s that part where he says, at a certain point in these proceedings—being successful, everybody pulling you a different direction at all hours—he became aware that he’d ceased being a writer, had become more of a professional e-mail answerer. That’s a real danger, I think, and maybe’s even especially dangerous, seeing as how, when you’re sculpting your perfect and apt reply, you’re typing, you’re sitting here, you’re probably even lying . . . it feels like writing, doesn’t it? But it’s not. I think of that a lot, lately. Every time I look at my inbox.

   Not unrelated, I was browsing some list of writer’s rules—writers’ rules, really, those lists that circulate, from Vonnegut, from Elmore Leonard, and on and on until there’s so many rules you can’t even do anything, especially as they all make such obvious and perfect and timeless sense. But Sherman Alexie had one that got to me. He said that every word you put on-line, that’s a word that’s not going into your novel. You can cheat yourself out of publication, a hundred and forty characters at a time. And of course you argue ‘exposure,’ and your publisher wants a ‘platform,’ all that. But, at the end of the day, you might just have to realize that you’re hiding in text-entry fields, instead of really facing that blank page.

   I was in the back of the room for a panel led by first-time novelists. Or first time books. Ones that had made a good splash, gotten some notice. And, at the end, when people were stabbing their hands up, asking questions, one of those questions was What’s the one piece of advice you’d give any first-time novelist, or publishee, if that can be a word; I’m paraphrasing here. At the time of this panel, I think I had twelve or thirteen books out, so I was on autopilot for this answer, thinking my jaded thoughts over on the cool side of the room. And that collective answer, from all three panelists using a single word-balloon, it was never look yourself up on Goodreads. Or Amazon. Which I of course took as a challenge: I went right there, to see what the fuss was about. And I so wished I hadn’t. Not because I didn’t agree with the positive-reviews-probably-not-from-my-mom, but because the other reviews, of which there’s always plenty, they kind of banded together into a chorus, specifically to haunt me as I write. I mean, the experience faded, and it didn’t slow me down, but it did make me aware in a new way. Specifically, in the way a woman at my very first reading, down at BookPeople in Austin, essentially changed me: she kept asking why all the vomiting in my stories? I remember kind of shrugging, giving some joke of an answer, and moving on. But her hand went up again: Why the vomiting? I apologized, moved on—she was soon to be removed from the room, as I recall—and she kept on asking it, even when I quit calling on her. So, of course I thought, ‘crazy lady, wow,’ and went about my super-important business. But that crazy lady, she still lives in my head. Each time one of my characters starts to gag, or dry heave, her hand goes up in the back of the room, and I reconsider. For better or for worse. And, as I’m starting to realize, I only have so much room in my head. I shouldn’t be inviting people in, should I?

 Bio: Stephen Graham Jones has eleven novels and three collections published. Up soon are The Least of My Scars and Flushboy and Zombie Sharks with Metal Teeth. And The Gospel of Z and States of Grace and Not for Nothing. He teaches in the MFA programs at CU Boulder and UCR—Palm Desert. More at

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