Seth Sawyers

Writer

Some novel-writing thoughts

I’m getting close to finishing. I think. You know, I hope. This is my first try at this, and so what do I know, but I can’t help but think that:

  • The reader, when he or she turns the page, for the most part is turning the page to see what happens next. And, at least for this writer, that what-happens-next part of the craft is not the most interesting part. The most interest parts are the Jesusmoments (sometimes the long moments) that happen when the character is done getting to where he or she needs to go and has a realization or when the story itself

    has a moment of realization. When there’s the ka-pow of beauty or wisdom. (I’ve just read Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son and his best moments are those ka-pow moments but the what-happens-next stuff happens to be more than compelling also.) It’s almost as if the writer slips in the parts he or she cares about like a parent slips in a bunch of spinach in with the otherwise sweet stuff. I realize this is a

    gross oversimplification and that the best writers will make all of this seamless and so that you maybe don’t know why you’re turning the page at all. In the masters’ hands, you’re just turning the page, and it’s more or less all ka-pow.

  • That said, I do often wrestle with how and when to do the ka-pow (if I even can). How much do you move your characters around? How much do you get them into danger? When and how do you “lift off” with your smarts and your insight and your beauty? I often wrestle with this balance. (I’ve been reading Emma Cline’s The Girlscline
    and she particularly is adept at doing just this in a very balanced, time-release way. Her character will do something dumb and then she’ll be very smart ab
    out something or at least beautifully dumb. And then she’ll do something else stupid and then be beautiful about it. And it all comes through that first-person filter, which is consistent and level. The close third-person I’m doing does allow you to step back now and then and rhapsodize from, say, the corner of the room as opposed to doing it from someone’s shoulder. At least I think so. I hope so.)
  • I’m trying, in this third try at an ending, to follow the feels and not the brains. I’ve done so much brain-ing this time around, trying to make it all go up and down in the right way, trying, essentially, to deliver and to not fuck it up. But now I’m trying to get a little less analytical and to try to let the soft, squishy parts take over. The brain, I think (I hope) got me to this point, and now that I think the ups and downs are in place, I’m trying to let it take itself all the way home.
Desk

What Your Favorite Former Secretary of the Interior Says about Your Favorite Cocktail

 

Thomas Ewing (the first Secretary, 1849-50); gin and tonic

  • “Pedestrian. Like drinking a sheaf of unlined paper.”

Alexander H.H. Stewart (1850-53); Manhattan

  • “A business Venture once demanded I visit the namesake Island in the great Harbor and there I witnessed a most stirring Sermon.”

Orville H. Browning (1866-69); Campari and soda

  • “We did not have this libation during the Black Hawk War.”

Zachariah Chandler (1875-77); dry martini

  • “Fucking tight, son.”

Lucius Q.C. Lamar II (1885-88); Moscow mule

  • “Dear Sirs. I hasten to proclaim that I possess insufficient time to attend to the addressing of such matters. Sincerely, Lucius Q.C. Lamar II, Secretary of the Interior.”

Hubert Work (1923-28); whiskey and soda

  • “Never touch the stuff. To relax, I prefer The Evening News-Courier, a fire in the hearth, and a glass of warm milk with a dash of Sullivan’s Head Ache & Deep Sleeping & All-over Discomforts Tonic.”

Douglas McKay (1953-56); amaretto sour

  • “I got zany on these one weekend on the Oregon coast. I think I made love with a man.”

Thomas S. Kleppe (1975-77); Jägerbomb

  • “I had one of these. It was about two minutes ago. I’d now like to fight or vomit.”

Manuel Lujan, Jr. (1989-93); screwdriver

  • “One part vodka, two parts orange juice, eight hundred fourteen parts go fuck yourself.”

Sally Jewel (2013-2017); old fashioned

  • “I like these after a long day of masturbating to my favorite national parks. Lately what’s been doing it for me is Wrangell-St. Elias. If I’m in a rush I go with the usual: Big Bend.”

Ryan Zinke (2017-present); rum and Coke

  • “Fake drink with a mixer from a failing company. SAD.”

The Food Market

I try to write funny things now and then. It’s a way to take a break, to finish something short (sense of accomplishment and finality), and to try to make someone laugh. This one got rejected, and so leaving this here. (One of these just opened behind our house).

Something Has Gone Awry with the Vendor-selection Process at The Food Market

Seth Sawyers

Welcome to The Food Market, the hottest thing in town, a former auto-body shop that’s been transformed into a dining destination where top local chefs have brought their adventurous ideas together under one roof. This is Chet Reynolds from the WTZX City Team and I’m excited to take you on a behind-the-scenes tour. Let’s start with this gentleman right here. What inventive culinary ideas do you have up your sleeve?

Vendor 1: I make bologna sandwiches.

Chet Reynolds: That’s so interesting! So, these sandwiches are a nod to the school cafeteria lunches of your youth?

Vendor 1: It’s bologna on white bread.

Chet: How nostalgic!

Vendor 1: And there’s some mayonnaise on there.

Chet: Fantastic. Moving right along. What do we have here? A nice young woman offering up what I’m guessing is hibiscus tea, perhaps with some agave syrup over ice?

Vendor 2: It’s red drink.

Chet: How delightfully simple! On a hot day like today, this must really hit the spot! Can we try some?

Vendor 2: That’ll be a dollar. If you just want a cup of ice that’s 10 cents.

Chet: Well, I don’t seem to have any—

Vendor 2: Beat it, dickjob.

Chet: OK. What do we have over here?

Vendor 3: I got some boiled carrots.

Chet: OK. And you, right over here, ma’am?

Vendor 4: Microwaved hot dogs.

Chet: Goodness. Let’s try you, sir.

Vendor 5: Instant mashed potato mix.

Chet: I was not expecting that. And you, sir.

Vendor 6: Loose Fritos that you grab with your hands out of this plastic tub.

Chet: My! I was not expecting any of this. Let’s move over to the other side of the building, shall we? Oh, oysters! Wonderful. Ma’am, where are these farmed?

Vendor: My cousin gets them down by the pier by the old battery plant.

Chet: Oh, my. And you, sir. What are you selling?

Man: I don’t work here but I could get you a phone charger.

Chet: Hey, that’s my phone charger!

Man: Two bucks.

Chet: I will not be paying for my own—

Man: I got some VHS tapes in my car. They’re not blank but they still work.

Chet: Well, this is turning into something, isn’t it. No, wait. I think I finally see what all the fuss is about, right over there. Ma’am, what is it you’re offering up today?

Vendor 6: These are locally sourced—

Chet: Good!

Vendor 7: —artisinally packaged—

Chet: Wonderful!

Vendor 7: —Ziploc bags of hand soap from the waiting room at the hospital.

Chet: Oh, boy. We’re done here.

Vendor 7: It smells like Jolly Ranchers.

It never goes away

A lot of writers, actors, directors, in interviews you’ll hear them say something along the lines of: “I’m just waiting for everyone to find out that I’m a fraud.” Last night’s dream was especially this, for any writer. It’s a high-level fiction workshop. The teacher, a writer of highly literary novels that have never sold well (and maybe he hadn’t published on in a while), goes through his critiques of two other writers’ work. The critiques are pointed but not devastating. And then he gets to me.

It is devastating. He asks where I grew up. I say “western Maryland” and on the chalkboard, he writes “Rural concerns.” Then he asks, not really me but instead the class, “Mr. Sawyers, do you have any concrete plans to actually step away from the bus stop and answer any real questions?”

So it’s always there, the doubt. I’ve got to assume it won’t ever go away.

Writing a novel, part 437

I have been lax in writing little things here and there about this novel that’s now in its fourth year. For many reasons, but mostly because it’s all I can do to try to write the thing itself and also because I’m so new to it and am sf2750425601eb4b5d8317efec99159ddo unsure about so many things that who am I to profess about this sweet, difficult sport?

But I can say one thing for sure, and that is that I’m almost certainly getting better at it. I’m basically teaching myself how to do it, making tons of mistakes, some of them huge mistakes, and am learning mostly by reading books as I go and by trial and error writ large.

I’ll try to write more about it, but I can say a few things.

  1. It’s hard, and it takes a lot of words and sentences and paragraphs to make a novel.
  2. The kind of story I’m trying to write–half literary, half story about two people fucking up and meeting each other and fucking up some more before giving it a final go–seems to want to be all about deeply felt characters moving through a series of actions driven by their own characters.
  3. My urge as a writer is to let my characters be happy, and feel stuff, and sort of transcend. But I’ve found that fiction requires difficulties. I have to constantly remind myself to throw difficulties at them. New characters and bad choices can help in this regard.
  4. I didn’t set out at all to write a book that required much in the way of research–rather I wanted to try to write about the stuff I already knew and loved and cared something about–but I have found it necessary to research the following: the 1994 World Cup, mid-90s hip hop, the 1988 Orioles (false start that won’t wind up in the novel), very tall people and their medical problems, 1994 Baltimore, 1994 Norfolk, Virginia, and 1994 Cumberland, Maryland, balsa wood, hang gliders (another false start), and the making of pants.

I’m in the throes of a third draft. I feel better about this one. It’s harder work than the first two but it is, I hope, because I’m getting in there and doing the heavy work of figuring out my characters and figuring out effective plots and figuring out how to make these three people in my head come alive, both beautifully and whatever it is opposite.

Doing drugs on the beach in the winter

A new one, a short one, up at Full Grown People, an online creative nonfiction magazine that consistently puts out great writing.

A sports-talk show spirals quickly out of control

This one was especially satisfying. I’ve been trying McSweeney’s Internet Tendency for, and this is a little embarrassing, 10 years. I finally made them laugh. If there are any other writers out there who’ve been trying the same publication for a long time and who finally break through, I’d love to hear from you. Keep at it. Eventually you’ll hit it just right.

Maybe America

Maybe America’s like a really great treehouse you build way out in the woods away from the parents where the kids can try to be their best selves. And despite some pretty bad mistakes, they mostly try to make it so that everyone gets a turn sleeping in the treehouse. Or at least they try to try, or try to try to try. And then a bully, because he wants the treehouse, he comes along and tells them the treehouse is on fire, and that he’s the only one with a garden hose, and half the kids believe him. But the treehouse isn’t on fire, and in fact it’s doing pretty good. (I’ve had one beer, though it was a big one.)

Writing advice

Sometimes it seems like there’s as much good writing advice out there as actual good writing, but that’s OK. Here’s a good one: novelist and short story writer Jim Shepard says: “Follow your weird.”

From Ramona Ausubel’s terrific essay about her path to becoming a writer, up at LitHub: http://lithub.com/how-to-be-a-writer-the-map-is-the-territory/