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Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat

Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat
April 16, 1976

Outside of a bimonthly find, I can’t read books. Three hundred pages in two weeks usually means pick up book, page 30 stop, pick up next book, page 40 stop, next book, etc. for 10 books, dropping off into People magazine and lethargically thumbing back issues of National Lampoon. This anorexia nervosa around the printed page has been a life-long affliction. I don’t know how to prove this statistically, but empirically I’ve discovered that what I go through around books is a common dyspepsia among my generation (b. circa 1950) — which is to say, not many of us pleasure-­read anymore. And friends, what’s coming up after us is worse. I’ve taught, lectured, and read at roughly two-dozen colleges, and the amount of ignorance of, and indifference to, both fiction and nonfiction is devastating except for an occasional cult book, the leaders of tomorrow couldn’t read their way out of a Glad Bag. What’s more, they wouldn’t want to.

Consider: Every American born since 1947 cut his teeth on the tube seven days a week, with Saturday afternoons off to go to the movies. TV and cine are faster than Wonder Books, My Weekly Reader, Landmark Books, The Red Pony, and whatever’s on the cover of the NYTBR next week. TV is easier. It’s multisensory. Mov­ies, (on top of) being easier and multisensory, are also bigger and on top of bigger they happen to be group experiences. Relatively, books are hard work, static, one­-dimensional. Reading is an isolat­ed activity. We’re lazy — we seek the easiest information source, the most entertainment for the least effort. One picture is worth a thousand words.

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Whenever I do a talk or a reading at a college, I always ask how many people have seen the film Dracula or one of its offspring, usually 90 to 100 per cent. Solid. Now how many here have heard of Bram Stoker? On a good day, five to 10 per cent. And for the preschoolers it’s Count Chocula, a Chocolate Marshmallow breakfast atrocity… Do you know who Bram Stoker was? And so it goes. In other words, I would guess that most eight-year-old kids faced with a choice of watching an animated version of Treasure Island on Home Box or reading Robert Louis Stevenson will go for the Box. And once you start out that way, it’s all over. TV and movies are like Wonder Bread in reverse for the book-loving part of the brain.

Now, all this upsets the shit out of me. I’m a novelist. I’m a good novelist and I’ll get better. I’ve found my calling and if I have my way I’ll be turning out books for the next half-century, books that will blow people away. But right now all I want is to be read and not just by critics and grad students. I’ve got things to say to everybody. I won’t reduce my books to “Popcorn Lit” (whatever one critic called an addicting page-turner with no nutritional value) to get my audience, but I am gunning for that kid who hates to read but can memorize every cereal jingle in a four-hour sitdown with the tube. Because I’m on his case. I’ve been there, mainlining TV ever since I could say “Clarabell.” I’ve been bored by as many books as he and when I started writing I automatically screened out whatever bored me in others’ books. What you can’t read, you can’t write. My writing is a product of being a tube child and is geared towards other tube children, at least stylistically. In other words, even though that jingle-drenched kid might not care a rat’s ass about books right now, I’ll hook the little booger before I’m through. Ex-junkies can make good drug counselors.

Storytellers who will be writing for this generation and for genera­tions to follow and who care about being read by more than a select few thousand will have to acknowl­edge that they are walking around in a world where people’s brains are being wired for holograms and sensurround and the competition is not whatever was reviewed in the Sunday Times but what’s playing down the block and whatever’s on CBS (or WNET) tonight.

This doesn’t mean writers should take a workshop with Peter Lemongello, or that they should start churning out Popcorn and go “commercial” (who me? whata you, serious?). What it does mean, in storytelling fiction at least, is that there has to be a great streamlining, a stripping, a clean-to-the-bone eloquence projected. The writer has to go for the throat from page one, word one.

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To nail this generation coming up, there will be a need to be direct as a heart attack; there will be a need for passion and integrity, an immediacy and urgency as if the writer were sitting naked on a hot stove and couldn’t jump off until the story was finished.

Spit has got to fly.

Books must be written that are alive with people who breathe. Literary characters must cease and be replaced by human beings. Novels must become three-dimensional. The print on the paper has got to crackle with life. There has got to be a direct line between the heart and the hand. An absolute guilelessness, a terrifying hon­esty.

To me, writing is acting on paper. I try to visualize everything, limit my narration to the surface of things — what a reader can see in any moment. Exposition is spare, simple, and direct. I don’t try to transcend my people but rather, to become them. If I can trance myself into becoming my character, I can load every gesture and interaction with enough information for a book in itself. It’s a simple matter of show and tell. There is a way to “show” every “tell.” There is a physical action, a mannerism, a tone of voice, a phrase that will nail down every conceivable experience, and when the writer matches up the perfect gesture for that human moment, the results are sublime.

Both my novels took two years. The first was spent talking to my characters, the second, writing. Creating characters with any substance is an evolutionary process, and I had to live with them dawn to dusk. The first year, I was a stone lunatic. I had all these people setting up shop in my brain. But by the time I was ready to write I could take a battery of MMPI and Wonderlic personality tests for each of my people and answer hundreds of questions with as much intimate knowledge as if they were taking the test.

Plot always comes automatically once I know who my people are. The inevitability of their personali­ties makes the “story” a natural projection of what drives them from day to day. In a given scene I may know nothing more than how it’s supposed to end, most of the time not even that. Scenes are improvised. A character does or says something, and with as much spontaneity and schizophrenia as I can muster, another character responds. In this way, everything I write is spontaneous chain reac­tion and I’m running around play­ing leap frog in my brain trying to “be” all people.

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If art does imitate life, the most “authentic” fiction has to progress moment to moment in the mind of the writer. When I write, my only notes are a tentative shopping list of prospective interactions vaguely formulated in my head. They can range all over the book and be based on anything from an an­ecdote out of my past to a con­trived plot device. With this mosaic pattern of writing, I can address myself to the scene on the list which is most in tune with the mood I’m in at that moment. If I am writing a jealous rage, odds are I’m in a jealous rage at the time. In this way my writing is always “hot.”

A crucial part of that essential sparseness I strive for is keeping morals and messages out of my consciousness as fastidiously as possible. For the sake of immedia­cy, for the sake of creating a world without station breaks, the only thing that exists are my people. When I create a character, I grant that character enough respect and elbow room to dig his own grave or build his own monument. When I read, any intrusion — any editorial by the author — breaks my concen­tration, takes me out, makes me put down the book and pick up People.

As much as I dislike the majority of novels that come into my hands, there have been some that made me delirious with pleasure and hip to the fact that no matter how fantastic other art forms might seem, there is an ineffability, a sublime punch/counterpunch in the written word that can be duplicated in no other medium. And for the little that I value much of what’s in print I’d hate for a whole generation to miss out on even that small amount. And if I didn’t mean that I’d be at the damn movies right now.

At 26, Richard Price is the author of The Wanderers, a highly-­praised novel about a teenage gang in the Bronx. His new novel, Bloodbrothers, concerns a fam­ily of hardhats in Co-op City. 

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From The Archives Living NYC ARCHIVES

Travel ’86: What’s Your Trip?

What’s Your Trip?
May 27, 1986
Survey by Lois Draegin

RICHARD HELL
Poet, actor, musician
The best I’ve ever had were when I took some money up to Grand Central Station, got a train going up the Hudson, and just got off in an arbitrary town and went and stayed at a motel. Alone. For a day. Then I just wan­der around the town a little bit, have a few bucks in my pocket so I can buy a nice book. All the sightseeing spots, like a big puddle in a vacant lot, are revelations to me ’cause I’ve never seen them before and I’m a total stranger and I’m alone. Whenever I’ve gone on a vacation with anyone else where the idea was to go and have fun, get out of the tension and rat race of New York, it’s been utter horror and tedium and viciousness. I hate taking vacations because I’m out of my element. I’m only really on vacation when I’m alone in my apartment.

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RUDOLF
New York nightlife czar
I haven’t gone out of Manhattan in years.
The Hamptons? Yeah, okay, but that’s for work, so you can mention that, sure.
I don’t know the last time I took a vacation. I don’t remember. My business is the kind that you just have to do night and day. I can’t travel. Can’t you hear the telephones ringing?

KEITH HARING
Artist
Bahia, Brazil, is my favorite place in my world. It has the cleanest, most beautiful water. The food is incredible, and the people are really beautiful. It’s far enough away from New York.
I go there every year for a month or two — as long as possible. My friend Kenny Scharf has a house there, so I usually stay there half the time, then go to other cities the rest of the time. Most of the time I just swim and lay in the sun; and eat; and paint.
Travel Tips: Learn to speak Portuguese, be­cause no one speaks En­glish. Stay away from sharks. Don’t drink the water. Never trust the taxi drivers.

CHARLES BUSCH
Actor and playwright, currently starring in his own Vampire Lesbians of Sodom
Ooo, I just had a fabulous vacation. I needed to find a place to go for five days. I told the travel agent I wanted a place that was tropical, where you could lie in the sun, but that had like a triplex movie theater or something you could do at night. He came up with Key West.
So we went there and had a fabulous time. We stayed in a guest house. It was great because you sat by the pool — actually, the beaches are where all the tacky hoi polloi hang out — but the pool is so lovely. And we met all sorts of people: we met a Spanish marquis and a hair dresser from Washington, D.C. At night we went to marvelous restaurants. We saw a horrible production of As Is, which was sort of amusing, and we went to see the singing group Gotham. We toured Hemingway’s house, then we visited the cemetery in Key West, which is real fascinating.
Travel Tip: I use sunscreen 15, so I spent five days in Key West and ended up lighter than when I left. It bleached me. So that’s my travel tip — it’s also a beauty tip.

LL COOl J
Rapper extraordinaire (his name says it all: Ladies Love Cool James)
In March I went to Hawaii. We went to Honolulu, then we went to Maui, then back to Honolulu, so it was very cool. I’ve never been to such a tropical place. It was my first vacation that I paid for and went on. I’ve been on vacations before, but only in the States, like down South, the usual. But that was the first time I had went over to a place like that and chilled.
I chose Hawaii because I knew the weather would be nice. I knew the bikinis would be nice, I knew the bikinis would be nice, I knew the bikinis would be nice. They were. It was an incredible experi­ence. Plus the view in Maui — you see the ocean and the mountains and the cliffs.
I was there a whole week, so it was cool. I took one of my friends with me, E Love — he’s in my group. We laid on the beach, got a little darker, and just cooled out. Didn’t touch the Maui Wowie, but I was coolin’. Runnin’ around, havin’ fun, wasting money. Just going to different places, like Pearl Harbor and all up in the mountains, things like that; buying clothes, buying people gifts.
The best thing about Hawaii  was not having to get up early in the morning and just hangin’. Just being able to do what I want.

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MEREDITH MONK
Transcategorical choreographer/composer/performer
If I ever go on vacation I try to go to New Mexico. Usually I’ve sung a concert as a way of getting there, then I’ll stay for a while. Just being there is like a vacation, even if I’m working.
I like the expansiveness of  the land­scape, and I like the dry heat very much. I like the kind of danger that sort of terrain has. It’s a very powerful kind of thing, and you do feel that you’re slightly in danger all the time: rattlesnakes, what­ever. You feel a certain power of the landscape, and it’s a very interesting per­spective to have, coming from New York. It does interesting things for my work, too.
One of the things that’s amazing is how the terrain changes very quickly: it goes from mountainous, pine-tree sort of ter­rain to desert within half an hour. So there’s a lot of different kinds of terrain in that space. There are canyons that are beautiful and pine trees, but my favorite is the desert, those dry hills of sagebrush, where you really get that expansive sky and the quiet.

RICHARD PRICE
Author (The Wanderers, The Breaks, Ladies Man)
I go to Italy, anywhere, from Sicily to the Italian border in the north. Italy’s main produce is style. It’s a very warm, stylish, artful country. They say France knows how to cook, Italy knows how to eat: it sounds like a cliché, but that’s the nut of it for me. When I’m in Italy, I don’t feel like I’m traveling, I feel like I’m liv­ing. But there is one place in France I would mention, the Périgord region, where all the foie gras comes from. If you go there in season, you pass all these farms where 400-pound geese waddle after your car with these desperate looks in their faces — like “Save me, save me.” Still, I’d go to the shittiest part of Italy before I’d go almost any­where else.

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VIVA
Writer
In the summer I almost always go to the Thousand Islands, which I hate to publicize because more people will come. I’ve been going there since I was 12. We. have a big family, 20 acres, and woods and boats and tennis courts, a big house, guest houses. We were big on water ski­ing, treacherous feats — 12 behind a boat going through a narrow pass type of thing. We also did a lot of exploring by boat, finding islands we didn’t know ex­isted. The river is now polluted. We still swim in it, but when I was 12 we used to dip in a glass and drink.
Now, in my old age, I sit in a former ice house at a typewriter and occasionally look out the window at the ducks and the great blue heron. I do play a little tennis, but I’ve now developed exercise-induced asthma. Five minutes on the court and I’m huffing and puffing. I’m deciding to take up golf — the geriatric delight.
In the winter I concentrate on South America and Mexico. I have family in Argentina; they live on a ranch across from La Perla, which was one of the big­gest concentration camps during the 1970s, so that’s a little, ahem, psychologi­cally tough when you realize you’re en­sconced in the nest of the oligarchy. It’s like being across the highway from Da­chau and having everybody telling you this isn’t happening.
My travels are now political. In Argen­tina I interviewed the mothers of the dis­appeared. Then I went to Uruguay and taped the Tupamaros as they exited from jails after 15 years. Then I went to Bue­nos Aires to a military trial and took notes. My basic aim in this trip was to gather details for a novel I’ve been writ­ing for five years. Then I went to Rio for that facelift I wrote about.
Travel Tips: I never follow it, but never bring any clothes. Never take a charter flight. This is the greatest travel tip I could give anybody: Stay away from plans altogether.

TAYLOR MEAD
Sui generis… poet/filmmaker
I go to Port Jervis, New York, about twice a month. I have a friend with a nice estate there. He has four dogs and six cats. I adore animals and I take all the dogs for walks three times a day. They sleep with me and everything.
I suppose Port Jervis was thriv­ing up till 1942, or something like that, when all the young men went away to war. Now the city is sort of suspended in time. It has an other­world quality, like a twilight zone. It’s kind of dairy country, with low gentle rolling hills, woods, a great pond, old stone walls. The Delaware River is not far away, and we go rafting on that, which is a terrific pastime. It’s amazingly beautiful and only 75 miles away. In fact, people are finding it out now, and my friend’s getting worried.
Of course, I could spend the rest of my life living six months in Greece and six months in Manhattan. I’m waiting for Brian McNally, who owns Indochine, to buy a restaurant in Greece. He’s promised I could have the apartment over the restaurant. Then I could come down and dance with the local Greeks.

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PATRICIA FIELD
Fashion designer
The last place I went on vacation was Italy. I took an Italian holiday for 10 days. Shopping. That’s what I did. It was for the act of it: go to Rome, go shopping.
Usually when you travel you’re sup­posed to bring the least amount neces­sary to drag. Well, this was the opposite. I went with the idea of getting dressed and turning it out on the streets of Rome. I had my whole wardrobe there, turned it out, brought hats, suits, coats. It was like theater. So I slept, got up, hung out, called room service, went out for lunch, went shopping. It was one of these mov­ies kind of trips. It was good, especially in Italy — the Italians like all that stuff. They’re very overdone, so they really re­sponded to it.

GRACE PALEY
Writer of short story collections Later the Same Day, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and The Little Distur­bances of Man; political activist
I never think about vacations. That makes me sound like a workhorse, whereas I’m the exact opposite. I live in Vermont half the time, and New York. Either of those two places is wonderful. If I think of a vacation, I’d like to be in either one of those two places without any other work than my writing.
I haven’t been near an ocean enough in my life. Here I am in New York, right next to an ocean, and I don’t even know it, right? So I’d like to live near an ocean and know that I live there, with full knowledge of where I am. It wouldn’t be a vacation, but it would be living some­where else, which is my idea of a vacation.
And I like to go someplace I haven’t been — wherever that is. Most of the world, I guess. I like everywhere I’ve been — how could you not? But being on my own street is often nice, too. Today the ginkgo leaves are sticking out their pinkies.

DAVID MURRAY
Jazz musician-saxophonist and com­poser
I go to the Caribbean, St. Croix, once a year. I like it because it’s hot and the people down there look like me.
Travel Tip: Take some time off.

MARTHA ClARKE
Choreographer/director of the imagistic hit theater piece, Vienna Lusthaus
Whenever I think, where would I most like to be in this horrible mo­ment, the answer is usually someplace in Italy, gorging my face with pasta.
There’s a wonderful town called Ra­vello. It’s on the Amalfi coast in the mountains, and it’s where Wagner wrote Parsifal. One wants to whisper there, it’s so awesome, so beautiful; you know, lem­on groves, terraced hills, a beautiful little Romanesque town square with an old church. I also adore Venice. It’s like being in a fairy tale: the light, the smell, the gondolas, the whole business.
Travel Tip: I used to be very fearful of going to a major city without a hotel res­ervation, but now I always worm my way into someplace.

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In Praise of Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight

The best new fictional character across any medium in at least a decade is a neurotic computer-hacker cat named Roast Beef who calls everyone “dogg.” That’s “dogg” with two G’s, as in “Dogg don’t piss on me, I just invented Photoshop.” As the bruised but still-beating heart of Chris Onstad’s brilliant Web comic Achewood, Roast Beef has died three times in the strip’s seven-year run (accidentally shot during a gunfight between rival Subway franchise owners; fell off a cliff in a golf cart while stoned; accidentally shot again during circumstances too convoluted to parenthetically explain). But in heaven he met Molly, another (temporarily) dead cat whom he would eventually (after they both returned to Earth) marry, in large part because she indulges his various psychoses—for example, consenting to use in their foreplay the special lamp he requires to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (“OOOH YEAH BABY SHINE THAT LAMP. SHINE THAT LAMP ON THIS SAD, SAD MAN”).

Achewood is, like any surrealist alternate universe worth exploring, difficult to explain. Onstad is a Northern California tech-industry survivor who gradually built the strip around crude computer-template drawings of his wife’s stuffed animals—several cats, a couple bears, a tiger, a naive young otter, etc.—who say outrageously crass but stupendously articulate things. Roast Beef describes one character’s rampant philandering thus: “If gonorrhea was a piano, Todd would be considered a bold and unpredictable new talent.” (Todd is a stuttering, drug-addicted squirrel.) Visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area will recognize much of the slang—when Roast Beef steals a rocket and flees to the Moon, his best friend and fellow main character Ray, a filthy-rich semi-alcoholic playboy cat whose sole consistent article of clothing is a thong, tries to coax him back via cell phone: “Roast Beef! You should get down here! We lookin’ at hella porno!” The art itself can occasionally be stupendous (a single panel of two horrified characters listening to the Grateful Dead conveys more passion than 1,000 pages of modern-rock criticism), but Onstad’s true gift is verbal, a flair for vivid dialogue rivaling that of David Mamet or Richard Price.

The Great Outdoor Fight is the strip’s big-shot debut. Onstad presides over a burgeoning empire at achewood.com, with a new strip three or four times a week, painstakingly detailed blogs in the distinct voices of a dozen characters, and a shop selling everything from collections of past strips (though they’re all still available online, including the vast majority of the stuff in this book) to pint glasses to hot sauce to T-shirts, some of which Roast Beef has worn in the strip, including the one that says “I’m the guy who sucks” on the front and “Plus I got depression” on the back. But this is Onstad’s first outside-publisher venture, and though most of Achewood‘s devoted fans will have plowed through the Great Outdoor Fight saga several times already (it unfolded over three months in early 2006), it’s worth revisiting here if only to enjoy the carnage in this new context, the transition from a workmanlike gag-a-day approach slapped on a computer screen to hardback elegance, graphic-novel reverence, and unbroken narrative flow.

The plot emerges slowly—the book begins with Ray’s business proposal regarding “Chatsacks,” which applies the “fake testicles glued to the back bumper of your truck” phenomenon to cell phones. But eventually we’re introduced to a mythical annual bare-knuckle brawl held in Southern California. Ray discovers that his mysterious absentee father won the bout (“Three days! Three acres! Three-thousand men!”) back in 1973, and vows to dominate this year’s competition to prove himself worthy of his lineage. Beef joins him as a sidekick/battle technician, running potential rivals’ credit and advising that his partner “kick rich amounts of ass.” What follows is technically violent, but the real fun here is deep in the details. When the Fight leaders are invited to dine on roast turkey and Christian Brothers brandy during Day Two, we get a close-up of the grocery-store receipt, complete with sales tax; a hapless British blogger provides periodic Fight updates for the Achewood characters gathered around a computer back home, his posts re-created complete with XML and RSS tags.

It’s unclear whether all this will entice the uninitiated or merely confuse them, but even if Onstad’s flair for idiosyncrasy freaks you out (the book’s print-only bonus material is mostly faux-encyclopedia GOF history, including past winners, recipes, and other bewildering trivia), just zone in on Roast Beef, a vividly rounded everycat capable of conjuring both deep sadness and linguistically dazzling delight. As he puts it shortly after The Great Outdoor Fight enters its gunfire-and-Molotov-cocktail phase, “Oh hell yes dogg right we gonna make the metals kiss and the fuel turn lively.” You can’t put it any better than that.

Chris Onstad will celebrate The Great Outdoor Fight‘s release with a book signing on November 7 at Rocketship, 208 Smith Street, Brooklyn, 718-797-1348

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FINAL GRADES

Well, no one’s exactly Making The Wire anymore, are they? This Museum of the Moving Image–sponsored panel discussion featuring the show’s creator, David Simon; one of its best writers, novelist Richard Price; and a handful of cast members—let’s call ’em Beadie, Carver, and Gus Haynes, because that’s who they’ll forever be—is a bittersweet prospect, to say the least. The Wire, which wrapped up its fifth and final season earlier this year, is as fine a work of narrative fiction masquerading as urban social critique in the guise of an episodic long-form television show as you will ever watch, and it’s the feeling that no one will ever surpass what Simon accomplished here that makes the postmortems so sad. One reason to go is merely to applaud in person, the TV set not being much of a two-way medium. Another is to see a room full of whip-smart people riff one more time on urban blight, the drug trade, the maddening comedy of large bureaucracies, and dudes named Cheese. It’s all in the game, right?

Wed., July 30, 7 p.m., 2008

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‘Freedomland’

Here’s one offering with a better pedigree than most of director Joe Roth’s work: the 1998 novel by Richard Price set in the same New Jersey housing project as his 1992 murder mystery set amid the world of cops and drug dealers, Clockers. And it boasts a high-caliber cast: Samuel L. Jackson as Detective Lorenzo Council, a father figure to even the no-goods living in the Gannon, New Jersey, housing projects known as Armstrong; Julianne Moore as Brenda Martin, the distraught woman who claims to have been carjacked while her four-year-old son slept in the car; and Edie Falco as Karen Collucci, the activist who fronts an organization of moms dedicated to tracking down missing kids. The book was likewise a rich, intricate, and even haunting work—a whodunit set in a messy place where black and white are always one shove away from drawing red blood. The movie, though? No such luck. And the performances all around are lousy—histrionic and turgid, a most lethal combination.