Sunday, May 25, 2014

Eye Contact

These past few weeks, you've been on a new kind of book tour, where your appearance is in the form of answers to questions about you, your writing process, and the most recent publication, the collection of twelve short stories, published under the title Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay out Late at Night. 

You're not making eye contact with your audience as you were at Vroman's Books in Pasadena, where, leaning on the lectern, you faced a gathering that reminded you of times in the past, when you'd gone to book signings, hopeful for some hint of how to get yourself to the place where, that night in the past, that speaker in the past was standing.  

So your first job is to find some way to put some of yourself into the answers to the questions given you by book bloggers, individuals committed enough to books and publishing to take the time and effort to read, to maintain blogs, to reach out to other readers, most of whom want as much as they want most things to have books of their own to bring before a public.

Speak right up.  Provide answers that touch the primal sense of fear, envy, and determination you felt each time you attended a book signing or crammed into an auditorium to hear someone speak about his or her latest project.

For a moment or two, you're in a blink-off contest with the primal fear, which was, and is the fear that you've not done enough drafts, have not brought the idea you had, buzzing about like an annoying fly or mosquito, into sufficient focus.  You're well enough able to see that the books and stories you read and admire have the structure and dimension of many drafts, each word chosen with deliberation to do more than compose a sentence.  The sentences must convey action, movement, emotion, depth.  

Envy sounds in your head like a dentist's drill, even the more modern ones.  You can not only hear the whirring bite of the drill, you can feel the bits of enamel fly off against the insides of your cheeks.  When you read some of your contemporaries and the elders, looking for ways they made a word or two here and there stand for so much, then compare your own efforts, you suffer the disparity.  You wonder, will you ever capture the lightning in a bottle of nuance in the likes of a short story by Katherine Mansfield or Ray Bradbury or Philip Roth?

This leaves you only with determination, which you have to bring to work with you much the same way working persons you know bring their lunch.  There are several problems with determination, notable among them the way it diminishes humor, leaving a residue of seriousness that can turn into grimness.  You think about this from time to time because, well, who wants to read a grim writer?  Who wants to read stories where you'd need night-view or infra-red glasses to catch the slightest movement of humor.

So you answer the questions in ways you hope will make eye contact. In response to the question, What was the inspiration for these stories, you answer:

"The inspiration for the stories is every bit as varied as the stories themselves.  An inspiration for a story is like trying to eat a messy sandwich while wearing a clean shirt.  No matter how careful I am, a little dab seems to find its way off the sandwich and onto the shirt.  Sometimes a conversation heard in a coffee shop can trigger me.  Sometimes, hearing students finishing up a conversation as I sail into class will arrest me.  “What did I hear you say?” I’ll ask, and moments later, I’m scribbling something down.  When I came into class last Tuesday evening, I heard two students describing the near riot starting when the Panda Express in the UCEN (Student Union) ran out of orange chicken at lunch time.  I have been haunted by that ever since.

"A number of these stories and many others of mine take place in university settings.  Strange, weird, and wonderful things happen in university settings, where the politics, responses, and consequences seem to light up my story-telling mind as though it were a pinball machine. "

You're hoping all along for eye contact with those who read the blog where the interview takes place.  You're hoping as well to make eye contact with readers in whose presence you will never be.

Even though the process starts with you, there are enough things going on about you to keep you alert to the fact that you are at some remove from the center of the universe.  Once you remind yourself, for the unknown number of times, you are free to portray that center of the universe to the characters of your choice, then send the work out to make eye contact for you.

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