Besides Growing Roses

Since I last posted here, I finished writing a novel. It's called Fuckboys, and I'm very happy with how it's shaping up. What I've written so far is only a first draft, so it'll still be a minute before the book's ready for an audience, but keep your eyes peeled. I give you this assurance: whatever the book's shortcomings, being boring is not one of them.

While Fuckboys is a small novel, in size and scope, the overall quality of its writing gives me some hope for my future.

Though recent birthdays may indicate otherwise, I am still in many respects a young writer. For most of my life I was barely writing; I was just living the shit out of the day-to-day. When I write now, I constantly bump up against the limits of my own skill. Often I know precisely the effect I want to achieve but find myself fumbling, unable to land the rapier-strike. I have to settle for making repeated crude charges in the direction of the effect, hoping that somewhere in the bull-rushes I can at least wing my target. After I've trampled the snow down sufficiently it becomes difficult to see where I was going in the first place, at which point I pause, stare angrily at the window and wish for a cigarette.

I'm always trying to improve my writing. My literary daydreams once centered on being published and accepting prizes. I'd daydream about how great my published books would look and the anguish they would cause my detractors. I've slightly matured: my daydreams these days are of writing something wonderful. I still aspire to have my books published, but the quality of my work honestly matters more to me than anything else. I want to write the best novels I possibly can, and determination to improve my craft is a huge piece of what drives me to write.

The feedback I get from those around me, especially other writers, is part of how I improve my work. I enjoy reading and responding to the early drafts of what my colleagues produce (especially when it's good), and I likewise get a lot out of their responses to my own writing.

This wasn't always the case. I used to clutch my work to me, in part because I was afraid of criticism, in part because my work wasn't as good as I wanted it to be, and in part out of a misguided sense that other writers were my foes on a battlefield.

When you're immersed in a milieu, its terminology and outlook inevitably shape your own; its customs and culture become the lens through which you understand the world. Although I've never been accused of entrepreneurial ambition or even a work ethic, I spent years making a living in relatively cutthroat fields, mostly because the people in those fields were better company than the oatmeal-dull drones infesting so much of what's called "work."

Hip-hop was on fire in early 2000s Atlanta. Living there, I felt myself at the center of the universe, a universe expanding at the speed of light. All the songs on the radio were about Atlanta, all the artists on the radio were from Atlanta, all the money and excitement were in Atlanta.

Just as the stupendous, terrifying highways criss-crossed the metastasizing metro, everything I did in Atlanta was culturally interconnected-- in the same strip clubs where pro boxers came to celebrate or unwind, aspiring rappers tried to convince the DJ to play their demos.

My fiction writing, a personal and for decades very private part of my life, wasn't something I thought about in grand philosophical terms. My nebulous, largely unformed attitudes towards my writing were, over the course of years spent in the promotional aspects of sex work, boxing and hip-hop, gradually supplanted by the glittering conceptual frameworks of early-twenty-first-century Atlanta hustle.

These frameworks were mostly negative: extravagant, hypermaterialistic notions of what should or could constitute "success," an allergy to any appearance of weakness, and most perniciously a paranoid, individualistic mindset in which all criticism is hate and all who challenge your choices are haters.

Getting rich began to seem like an attractive goal, or at least a way to pass the time. Increasingly, my entire value system reflected an outlook of aggressive individual striving for dominance. I recall back then matter-of-factly warning a friend whom I'd just begun dating that my response to sexual infidelity would be murder. I meant it, too; I've always been a man of my word. This absolute insanity-- threatening one's lover, the person with whom one should be tenderest-- didn't at the time seem unreasonable or problematic. Every relationship has its ground rules, right? As long as both parties know what they're getting into...

It's not comfortable for me to dwell on the person I was. I own that shit-- I certainly don't blame it, Congress-like, on the music-- but I do lay it at the feet of capitalism and patriarchy, the ways patriarchy and its brutal mores of control and mistrust will infect even supposedly "alternative" lives. I wasn't really political back then; I didn't have any understanding or analyses of these systems.

To an extent I wasn't aware of until years later, it was in Atlanta that I began to consider other writers my rivals, adversaries in a dog-eat-dog marketplace. Too many MCs, not enough mics. Too many writers, not enough book deals. I never kidded myself that the publishing world was a meritocracy-- unpublished novelists are quite clear on that-- but it was a competition, with only room for a few to succeed.

That same partner I so charmingly threatened to murder laughed about the "hip-hop mentality" I had towards my work; it took me a while to understand just how grotesque and how limiting that mentality was.

In New Orleans I began to change, I hope for the better. This city was such a profound break with every other experience I'd ever had, a sea change from my own past and therefore my past identity. Coming here was a revelatory experience, and it's no coincidence I tend to think and speak of it in religious terms.

Most writers I met before coming to New Orleans were unendurable assholes. The few I liked and respected died. Having friends who are also writers-- being part, dare I say, of a community of writers, however informal-- has been an entirely new experience.

One of the first friends I made in New Orleans was another novelist, a confident and accomplished young writer named Nick Fox. Over the course of us getting to know one another, he expressed a generous willingness to look at, and if I'd like, give his feedback on my writing.

Why not? I thought he might have some useful insights. He was in talks with an agent; maybe he'd pass my work along. I gave him a few chapters of Drought, the novel I'd worked on for years and finished just before moving to New Orleans.

He returned the pages two weeks later, absolutely dripping with red ink. I regarded my defaced manuscript with consternation. Clearly, he was threatened by my strength. This response was just boy stuff-- a dog pissing on a lamppost. All those suggested edits were just Nick marking his territory. I thanked him for his time, of course, and then in private glanced through his suggested changes, mostly to reassure myself he was off-base. All the suggestions were stupid and arbitrary; he didn't "get" the book at all.

One or two, it could be admitted, had some merit. He'd found a couple chinks in my armor: lazy word choices, typos, minor narrative inconsistencies. Nobody's perfect. Some of his criticisms-- a few-- were valid. Good! I'd get some use out of this after all.

The truth dawned slowly but inexorably. I can, I like to think, recognize good writng. As I continued looking at Nick's edits, the same way one sees a 3-dimensional image emerging from a haze of stipples I saw a superior, more mature work emerging from the red ink. I saw that his edits were all correct. I saw that he had done me a tremendous favor and that my book would be immeasurably improved by his suggestions.

Novel-writing is in most ways an inherently lonely endeavor. To achieve the deep focus I need for composition, I must have an environment free of other people, free even of other people's influences. Getting the words on paper remains a solo undertaking, but the larger project of writing, of becoming a better writer, is one that not only benefits from but I think relies on collaboration: mutual critique and feedback.

People with different formal educations from mine probably learned this early on; it took me a long time.

Even if one could write and publish a perfect book with no editing, no input from others, what would be the point? What would have been achieved? Think of those survivalist families-- husband, wife and a few kids-- stockpiling supplies for the apocalypse. What will they have won by surviving, alone, a nuclear holocaust? What sort of an existence would that be, to spend the rest of your "natural" life huddled in a basement? Is that a survival worth striving for?

The loop of feedback and critique is a valuable way to improve craft, but it's not just about what I as a writer need or want from others. It's about how I want to be relative to others: not alone, in "success" or "failure," not some alienated island unto myself, but someone engaged and alive, part of community, reinforced by and reinforcing those around me in our shared struggles.

In this collaborative building and its give and take, we come together and communicate with one another. Writing is at base a form of communication; should the process itself not be communicative?

As I prepare to rewrite Fuckboys, I am aided by my friends' notes, criticisms and responses to its early version. The result of all that feedback will be a better book; the result of this process is unquestionably a better writer.

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2 Responses to Besides Growing Roses

  1. drrDRR says:

    Just found your weblog thanks to Twitter, Where the hell did that amazing image at the top come from?
    A second comment: does the building pictured in this post have significance to you as well? It was my band's rehearsal space in the year before Katrina happened. It was barely habitable even then.

  2. Jules says:

    Hey there! The header pic for this site is a detail from graffiti along an underpass... circa Macon GA, circa 2004. It enchanted me back when I came across it & remains emblematic of the aesthetic I strive for in prose.

    The building photo is taken from Editor B's reliably beautiful flickr photostream ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/editor/ ). I just chose it as a New Orleans contrast to the Atlanta cityscape.

    Thanks for the comment. I like yer work!

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