Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

The Art of Suspense, or: Letting the Chips Fall Where They May

Something happened today that was so weird, so hilarious and meta, that I have to write it down now or else. It’s a quarter past 11 at night. I’ve just gotten home from my creative writing class. So I’ll keep this short.

Tonight in Tobin‘s class, we talked about the importance of suspense to a story. Your story has to introduce questions to your audience, and make them so invested in finding out the answer that they read until the end. Of course, there are varying types of questions to be asked, some of them overarching, some of them not.

Tobin broke down suspense further into two types:

  1. Will something bad happen, or will disaster be averted? (Think Armageddon.)
  2. Something bad is definitely going to happen. What happens then as a result? (Think Deep Impact.)

We discussed this in the first half of the class, and then took a break. Being the inveterate salt junkie that I am, I headed to the cafeteria to get a bag of chips from one of the vending machines.

I put in my toonie. I pressed the button for the bag of ketchup-flavoured potato chips. And as the spirals wound around the chip bag,  in theory allowing it to fall to the ground, I thought of something: What if the bag gets stuck?

And guess what. The bag actually did get stuck. Fuck.

Interestingly, it wat held in place not by the metal spirals themselves, but by the jutting-out corner of the potato chip bag immediately beside it. Did I mention that in one of the earlier classes, we talked about how to make predictable things happen through unpredictable ways? I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t expecting for standard narrative theory to be reinforced by snack food. So it goes.

At this point, one of my classmates walked up beside me, and I pointed emphatically at the suspended chip bag (the irony of that adjective itself is amazing) and said to her, “Look! Just like in class!” She laughed.

I then decided that perhaps I should try shaking the vending machine to get the chips out. However, one of the others sitting in the cafeteria saw what I was attempting and said “No, don’t do that. More people die every year from vending machine accidents than from sharks!”

So now, I was not only being taunted by gravity, but the ante had been upped to potential death.

Did I mention that earlier in this very same class, Tobin included the poster for Jaws in one of his slides as an example of suspense?

Ultimately, a janitor took notice and made the chips fall by shaking the machine himself. All was well.

A lot of the time, though, Fate likes to jab her elbow into your ribs real good, just in case you weren’t listening the first time. I had to roll my eyes a bit when I was on my way home from class and saw yet another package of snack food (some peanut butter cups) suspended in the middle of another vending machine, snagged cruelly on the last metal spiral before it was ready to fall. I put in my coins to buy another bag of chips, hoping that the speed and trajectory of the falling bag would be enough to knock the candy loose, thus allowing me two snacks for the price of one.

Alas, it was not to be. The chips fell alone, and I was left to stuff my gob in contemplative silence.

Thoughts on how a story states its theme

Today I read After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn. Although it was fun and an incredibly quick read, I’m not sure if I’ll review it here.

However, there was a passage in it that struck me and is making me ask questions about what fiction can do, or should do – or at least about what the kind of fiction I like can or should do.

First though, some background: After the Golden Age is about Celia West, the mundane daughter of Spark and Captain Olympus, the pre-eminent superheroes of Commerce City. All her life, she’s had to deal with the fact that her parents consider her a failure due to her lack of superpowers. After a very ill-advised bout of teenage rebellion, she’s grown up and tried to be as different from them as possible. Now she works as a forensic accountant, a profession so mundane it mortifies her father. Generational strife runs throughout AtGA, in fact, as various secrets come to light about the nature and origin of the superheroes and supervillains in Celia’s hometown.

And now, we get to that notable passage. Here, Celia is asking the District Attorney to give her access to some obscure but important public records:

“Couldn’t you just… let me into the records office? Give me a key and no one would ever have to know I’d been there.”

“That’s crazy. I can’t let you do that.”

“I didn’t say it was an easy favour.”

“You think being a hero gives you carte blanche? You think you can run all over town bending all the rules, like your parents and their pals?”

“I’m not anything like my parents.”

“I hate to break it to you, but we all turn into our parents.”

That pronouncement held a tone of finality that Celia didn’t much like.

Look at that last line of dialogue and savour it. That, right there, is what gave me pause. To me, this line is the heart of the book – it gets to the various ways both the protagonists and antagonists (knowingly or unknowingly) fulfill generational patterns.

This makes me wonder: is it a sign of strong writing for a book to have such an explicit statement of theme? Should all stories have a passage like this that wraps everything up in a nice package for extraction?

I remember being struck by a similarly all-encompassing bit of text in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina. In that scene, Seraphina, slightly drunk, reveals to her father that she’s in love, and that the person she loves is a symbol of everything that’s been thwarted in her life. It crystallizes the book’s theme of wanting something you can’t have – the humans can’t have peace with the dragons, and Seraphina’s been forbidden from finding peace and happiness as an individual.

God, I sound like a university student spelling it all out like this. What I wonder is this: it’s interesting when an author states their theme so overtly, but is it a good idea? Does it make things too easy or obvious?

I’m curious about what you, my readers, have to say about this. Can you think of books you’ve read that contain similar lines where the theme is right out there in the open?

Thoughts about “Life of Pi” and book-to-film adaptations

life_of_pi_coverI just saw Life of Pi in the theatres last night with my fiancé and loved it.

I loved the visuals – the colours were bright and lush without being cloying. The score (which I’m listening to as I write this) was absolutely delightful, and provided the perfect accompaniment to the images on the screen; where those were grand and sweeping, the music was intimate and tender. I love movie scores, but the only one I can think of that so enhanced the in-theatre experience was the one for The Fountain – another movie that asks big questions and has trippy visuals.

I also appreciated how faithful it remained to the book. Unlike Les Mis, which was hampered by slavishly following the musical, or The Hobbit, which made the Tolkien purist in me cringe, Life of Pi preserved the integrity of its source material while still adhering to the rules of film narrative. The only divergence I found jarring was the addition of the Obligatory Love Interest to Pi’s life before he leaves India.

Instead, the biggest difference between the two versions is one of tone. The novel had a deep vein of playfulness and meta-humour. In many cases in the book, you could see author Yann Martel winking at the reader between the lines, like when Pi says he can tell his story in 100 chapters – precisely the number of chapters in the book.

In contrast, Ang Lee plays it straight. Gone are the playful pokes at choosing between reason (Satish Kumar the Communist science teacher) and faith (Satish Kumar the religious baker). In the movie, these two poles of belief are predictably but sincerely replaced by Pi’s parents.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that sincerity is the hallmark of Ang Lee’s directorial style. His movies contain a lot of artifice, but they don’t wink at you. They don’t try to make you think that he’s being clever by inserting references to other movies, or encourage you to engage with him in a mutual feeling of superiority over the film’s protagonists. Instead, his films say “this happened, take it or leave it.”

Life of Pi is a film I’ll gladly take.

Many others have commented about the cutesy nature of the ending, in which Pi gives another, more brutal explanation for what happened after the ship sunk, and asks his audience to state which version they prefer. Most dismiss it as a stereotypical attempt to validate the Power of Storytelling. However, this ending is native to the book.

More importantly, I think it’s necessary because of the nature of the book’s framing device: Pi is telling this story to the author, and has told it in the past to the representatives of the Japanese shipping company – of course they aren’t going to believe him! But if it were told completely straight, without these people acting as surrogates for us, something would be lost. It is because we see Pi as an adult, and see how well he has adjusted to the world despite the horrors he has faced, that we are willing to accept the whimsy of a tiger in a lifeboat.

I think my enjoyment of book-to-film adaptations depends on which version I encounter first. As I mentioned in my review of the first Hunger Games movie, I was disappointed by its shallow exploration of some of the book’s most important themes. In contrast, while I like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, I absolutely love the movie version, which I saw before I read the book.

As an interesting hybrid of seeing the movie before reading the book or vice versa, I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in the theatres, and then read the entire trilogy before The Two Towers was released. That, in addition to watching all of the special features on the LoTR DVDs, makes me understand and respect the changes that Jackson & co. made on the way to the big screen. However, I read The Hobbit when I was 10, and the idea of the same group of people turning it into a goddamned trilogy horrifies me.

Does this mean I’m unimaginative? I don’t know. But I do think that the rules of narrative are different between book and screen. The Hobbit is very conventional and film-friendly in comparison to The Lord of The Rings, so it made sense to drastically alter the latter books to make them fit on screen. Life of Pi was already a very visual book with a clear throughline (I’m confused by the idea that so many people thought it unfilmable), so I’m happy with its transition from one medium to another.

What about you? What did or didn’t work about this movie? What book-to-film adaptations do you love or hate?

A Quick Update

It appears that without the promise to write book reviews, I’ve dropped off the face of the earth. Never fear though – I’m still here, and still planning things.

What I’m most excited about right now is the start of my upcoming creative writing course taught by fellow WCDR member Tobin Elliott, which starts tonight. My past attempts to write fiction fizzled out because although I could see the stories clearly in my head, I didn’t know how to get them out without sounding stilted and mannered. In other words, I still write like a university student, and I can’t stand it.

I’m really hoping that Tobin’s course will claw the polite skin off of things and let me show the blood and guts underneath.

Other than that, I’m still trucking along and still reading. I’ve got a guest post coming up on Reading as Writers: I’m also mulling over a few topics for future posts here:

  • The increasing prevalence of second-person POV in fiction
  • How science fiction and fantasy criticism made me a better feminist
  • Stuart McLean, The Vinyl Cafe, and oral storytelling
  • My nominees for this year’s Hugo awards

That’s about all I can think of right now. The blush of New Year’s has worn off – now it’s time to get to work!

I failed NaNoWriMo 2012

A month ago, I proudly announced that I was going to attempt NaNoWriMo for a second time.

Then I wrote something, dumped my story idea a few days in because it wasn’t working, and tried starting another story from scratch. The new story lasted through only a single day-long writing jag of 5,000 words before I sputtered out and didn’t put pen to paper again for the rest of the month.

So yeah, NaNoWriMo 2012 has been a dud.

There are 2 major reasons why this year’s attempt made a huge belly flop.

  1. The World Fantasy Convention really threw me off-schedule. On November 1st, I wrote 500 words of my first story before heading off to the convention, and promised myself that I’d write 500 each day until the 4th. I vowed that after that I would ramp back up to the daily goal of 1,667. Then I realized on the 2nd that keeping my promise was going to be impossible because WFC was so frickin’ awesome, and I wanted to spend as much time as possible at the hotel. So, yeah, the huge funtastic convergence of figures from the publishing world won out over plugging away in front of my laptop. Whodathunkit?
  2. My daily routine has changed drastically. As I’ve mentioned before, earlier this summer my employment status changed and I decided to become a freelancer as a result. However, this month, my employment status changed again. I’m now doing a short-term project on a contract basis with a new company. My daily routine has been in a lot of flux this month, and if there’s one thing that NaNoWriMo requires, it’s the opposite of flux (for me at least). In addition, the job I had before allowed me to compartmentalize.  Last year, the act of returning home from work made it easy to switch gears. Now, though, I’ve been at home a lot more, so the mental divide between being “at work” and “at home” has become a lot fuzzier.

There were a few other factors that led to me not reaching 50,000 words this year. For one, I still haven’t gotten last year’s story out of my head, and I think I’m coming to the realization that although I want to let go of it, it doesn’t want to let go of me. I’ll need to sit back down with my old story and rebuild it.

For another thing, the first story that I attempted in 2012 didn’t gel properly when I wrote. I had these lovely images in my head, but had no idea what to do to make them come to life – it seemed like they didn’t want to flow down my fingers onto the page at all. That experience was worlds away from what happened in 2011, so I abandoned that story. The second story I began felt a lot more natural, but my attempt to catch up by writing 5,000 words in one day left me so tired that I didn’t feel like trying anymore.

I still think this experience was instructive because I had the strength to realize my first story wasn’t working – and the moxie to try and attempt a second one instead. However, I need to give serious thought to what writing schedule works best for me, and then figure out how to foster that kind of schedule.

Thoughts After the 2012 World Fantasy Convention

The 2012 World Fantasy Convention is over, and I feel deflated. I met so many people, and bought (And got for free!) so many books when I was there that I now feel like Cinderella after the ball – kind of ragged, slightly in disbelief that there was so much fun to be had, and sad that it passed by so quickly.

I think a full accounting of all 4 days will be too long to write, but I do want to provide summaries of certain aspects of attending, so here we go.

The Panels

I only attended about half a dozen panels in all. Some of them were unmemorable or downright frustrating, but the two panels I attended on Sunday, one about maps in fantasy fiction and the other about the intersection between the real and the fantastic, were fabulous.

In particular, I was surprised by how forceful and eloquent a speaker Jo Walton was, and I think that I may need to reassess my opinion of her book Among Others. I was also impressed by Gregory A. Wilson, who gave an extremely cogent explanation on the difference between fantasy fiction and magical realism. I wish I could quote him verbatim here but, in essence, he said magical realism takes the fantastic at such face value that no one feels awe or wonder when encountering it. Because the fantastic is so accepted, it becomes normal, then boring – and he finds that this eventual acceptance and contempt makes magical realism the most depressing genre in speculative fiction.

My biggest regret about the convention is that I didn’t attend the Friday afternoon session on e-publishing, as both Mark Leslie (who works for Kobo) and Michael J. Deluca (who helps run Weightless Books) were on the panel. However, it was on at the same time as a reading by Cat Rambo, which brings me to the next part of the convention experience…

The Readings

I attended half a dozen readings and they were almost uniformly excellent. It all started off on Thursday afternoon with Patrick Rothfuss reading a new (as-yet-unpublished) short story and a funny poem about Cyranos de Bergerac. Immediately after that was a reading by Aliette de Bodard.

Friday afternoon was Cat Rambo‘s reading, and when you consider that she made her audience collectively gasp at a key point in her story, you could say that she knocked it out of the park. The second one on Friday was by Gabrielle Harbowy of Dragon Moon Press – she and I had had a lovely conversation together earlier that day, so I was happy to support her as she read a story about a fortune teller, two lovers, and intricate tattoos.

Then, on Saturday afternoon there was a group reading between C.S.E. Cooney, Caitlyn Paxson, Amal El-Mohtar, and Patty Templeton that included music. Amal El-Mohtar played a miniature harp, which I watched with great interest. However, of the four authors, I think C.S.E. Cooney’s reading was the most memorable – indeed, it was the best one I saw in all 4 days. I wish I had the presence of mind to record her story; her voice flooded the room like a storm, so forceful was her reading.

The final one I attended was later on the same day, and the one that i looked forward to the most: Garth Nix. He entertained us all with a sneak peek of his upcoming book Clariel, the long-awaited prequel to the Old Kingdom trilogy. In fact, I have a funny story about that, which I’ll share in my next post.

The Books

Never mind the huge dealers’ room where publishers of all shapes and sizes set up shop. Those books you pay for, like any other. Instead, imagine a giant canvas bag nearly the size of a pillowcase stuffed to the brim with free books and other goodies.

That’s what I’m talking about. Every single person who showed up at WFC got one, and there was even a table set up where people could swap out books they got in their bag but didn’t want with books from other attendants that they actually did want. My fiance, who also attended, and I made off like bandits with a huge stash of free books.

Seriously, this is the pile of books that we managed to score from WFC. Even within that pile, I can still think of 1 or 2 books that are missing.

Of course, beyond that stash, we also bought a number of books from the dealers’ room. Never let it be said that I don’t support the publishing industry!

The Authors

One of the best things about WFC is how it concentrates the fantasy publishing world into one small place. In a space of days, I got to talk to luminaries like Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran, and up-and-comers like Ian Rogers and Rio Youers.

My favourite author moment was a conversation I had on Saturday morning with author Karen Lord (the one behind my personal favourite Redemption in Indigo), famed illustrator Charles Vess, and Stonecoast MFA graduate Jennifer Brissett. We talked about the value that autographs bring to books, and how hard it is to write good characters. Not good as in successfully-drawn, but as in honest and decent. It’s hard to write someone who has integrity, but is well-rounded and not a boring cardboard cutout like Superman. That’s part of why I love Lord’s character Paama so much.

The Hotel

This was probably the most frustrating aspect of the convention, as the convention hotel technically wasn’t located in Toronto, but in Richmond Hill, one of its suburbs. I wanted to save money and stay at home during the convention, but this meant that I would have to commute an hour and a half each morning using public transit and rely on someone to pick me and my fiance up each evening.

It also meant that I couldn’t attend any of the cool after-hours impromptu happenings, like Charles de Lint’s jam session with other authors on the top floor. My fellow WCDR member Jenny Madore stayed at the hotel and got to see this happen, the lucky duck.

While I understand why they chose to have the convention in Richmond Hill – Toronto isn’t exactly cheap – getting there was a pain. It would have made a lot more sense, I think, to host it in downtown Toronto, especially considering the WFC website and official program pamphlet talked about all of the wonderful world-class restaurants that the downtown core had.

What I Learned

Those I spoke to at the event told me that the way the World Fantasy Convention handles things is unusual. For example, it’s a con focused on the professionals within the industry, so there was a higher proportion of editors, agents, and publishing houses than normal – this also meant that there were absolutely no people in costume. However, WFC sets itself apart from other cons in a few more ways:

  • Almost no other con gives out the humongous bag of free books to its attendants that WFC does.
  • WFC’s massive autograph session is also unusual – most other cons have authors signing at different times in different locations, instead of the single huge free-for-all in the same room that WFC does.
  • WFC also offers free meals to attendants, though the quantities are limited. The quality and variety of the food was quite good, though, and word of mouth spread through the hotel about it within a day.

Future Plans

Several people I spoke to at the convention talked about how wonderful Ad Astra (an annual fantasy convention hosted in Toronto) is. Because of this, I’m pretty sure that I’ll register for it and attend next April. The World Fantasy committee also announced which cities will be hosting the event in 2014 and 2015: 2014 will be in Washington DC and 2015 will be in Saratoga Springs, New York. I’m about 90% sure I will attend one or both of those events, though time will tell about my availability.

So, there we go! I said I wouldn’t write an exhaustive account of WFC 2012, but I did anyway!

World Fantasy Convention, and an Announcement

The 2012 World Fantasy Convention starts today! I have been waiting for this day for months. I don’t know if I can describe to you the relief and trepidation I feel this morning now that there’s the prospect of meeting some of my favourite authors in person. Then there’s the temptation of the dealers’ room, filled with books, books, books, and readings and panels to attend.

This will be my first con ever, so I have no idea what to expect, but I can imagine that by the end, I will be satisfied and exhausted. Whenever I go to events like this, I consciously turn on my “be social” light switch; I’m sure I’ll have no trouble meeting people, but I bet that at the end my switch will be burnt out and I’ll need a few days to recharge.

Aww, who are we kidding – I’ll probably squee like a fangirl the whole time.

Anyways, on to my announcement: last weekend, I was accepted as a slush reader for Electric Velocipede magazine! I’ve been reading slush for a few days now, and the experience has been exciting and enlightening – I get to get my story fix, and have some input on what stories I think others will enjoy reading. Even better, I can now go to WFC today with a small shred of publishing credibility on my side.

My only concern is that they’re hosting the damn thing in Richmond Hill, instead of in the downtown core proper. I don’t know how to drive (yet) which means that I still rely on using public transit – getting to Richmond Hill via the local network of trains and buses will be a… protracted process, to put it gently.

Anyways, there’s no time to lose – first, I need to read some slush, then I need to get started on NaNoWriMo, and then, I need to head out to meet the fantasy fiction pantheon. Wish me luck!

NaNoWriMo: Taking the Plunge – Again!

Image from Morguefile.

Well, it’s officially late October, and you know what that means: a frantic ramp-up to NaNoWriMo. Well, perhaps not frantic, but it’s definitely a more informed mess of activity than it was in 2011. Last year was my first time writing for NaNoWrimo, and I think I learned a lot from the experience. Unfortunately, the story I started then remains unfinished, but I have a good idea of what its problems are.

Unfortunately, I have no idea how to end it, and so it’s been helplessly stewing and fermenting in my head for a year, awaiting some key insight that will make it reach critical mass and become complete. Ah, one can wish, right?

Anyway, with one successful NaNo under my belt (that is, I reached the wordcount goal even if I didn’t technically finish the story), I feel better about how to approach it this time around. Last year I was writing by the seat of my pants. This year, I have a much clearer idea of what I want to write about, and have even started doing some supporting research about the time period it’s set in, as well as other important elements of the setting.

Does this mean that I’ve abandoned my pantsing ways and become a full-on outliner? Not by a long shot. It just means that last year I blundered through the forest without anything to clear the way – this year, in contrast, I have a machete ready.

The only kink in my plans is that the World Fantasy Convention is happening from Nov 1st to 4th. I can pretty well guarantee that I won’t keep up the writing pace during those 4 days – the question is how long it will take me to get back on track from the 5th onwards.

Anyway, long story short: I’ve committed to NaNoWriMo again, and I’m excited about it! What about you, O faithful readers?

One thing I can’t stand to see in writing

One of the pitfalls of being an editor is that I tend to notice patterns in whatever I read. Eventually, if I notice a trait or pattern often enough, it will stick out like a sore thumb, and I focus on finding new instances of the pattern instead of enjoying what I’m reading.

Sometimes, though, something I read will stick out to me so noticeably that a pattern isn’t necessary. And when that happens, it invariably lodges in my throat and prevents me from enjoying the work at all. So here I’m going to talk about one of the things that will tear me away from a person’s writing – factual errors.

I don’t notice a lot of factual errors when I read – if what I’m reading does contain errors, I probably don’t know enough about the topic to recognize them – but when I do, they irritate the living daylights out of me. I understand that fact-checking is hard, and that some information is difficult to confirm, but…it’s 2012 for Pete’s sake! We’ve got Google. We’ve got Wikipedia. Hell, with my library card, I can download articles from peer-reviewed journals

It has now become ridiculously easy to verify information, which is why I positively screamed when I read a short story that Daily Science Fiction distributed to its mailing list a few months ago. The story in question was called “The Mind of Allah” by Stephen Gaskell. I’ve linked to it here. Take a minute to read it over. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Read it? Good.

It’s a story that takes place in Moorish Spain and involves a Christian mathematician trying to understand a Muslim mathematician’s method for determining the digits of Pi. The conflict between both cultures and religions is shown plainly enough, but the course of the story mentions 2 things (at my count) that just don’t fit.

The story mentions both vanilla and tobacco in passing – at one point, the Christian mathematician thinks to himself that he must be “as sweet as vanilla pods” to curry the favour of his rival, and at another point, both men smoke tobacco from hookah pipes. The problem is that both plants came from the New World – they weren’t brought to Spain until at least a few centuries after the Moors were driven out, not while they were still there.

The upshot is that these errors have caused me to question everything else about the story – should I trust the author’s description of the city? Would a mathematician really be rich enough to afford a robe of pure silk, considering the length of the trade routes between Spain and China?

I know this is a small quibble, but it’s illustrative. Lack of research engenders a lack of confidence in your audience.

What about you? Can you think of  factual error in a book that makes you want to tear your hair out?

On Writing vs. Bird by Bird: Franzenfreude? Gender bias?

You may recall that late in 2010, Jonathan Franzen released his latest novel, Freedom, to widespread critical acclaim. Such acclaim, in fact, that two female authors, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, criticized the book review establishment for their adulation – or rather, the lack of such when female writers tackle the same topics. In the way typical of any sort of internet dust-up, their complaints spawned a new term: Franzenfreude.

Dismissive name aside, they have a point. Vida, an organization that promotes and analyzes the impact of women in the literary arts, does an annual survey of the prominence of female authors in the literary establishment, and the numbers don’t lie. In 2010 and 2011, men wrote the majority of both the books reviewed and the book reviews themselves in established publications like the New York Review of Books and The Atlantic.

In light of this, once I finished both On Writing and Bird by Bird and analyzed my opinions of them, I had misgivings. Was I placing more value on On Writing simply because it was written by a man? Did I dislike Bird by Bird – which I felt was plagued by new-age speak, unvarnished neuroses, and runaway metaphors – because it was written by a woman? I majored in Women’s Studies in university, and I’d like to think that I’d be a bit more self-aware of my critical responses than that.

I’m still not sure what to think. Stephen King and Anne Lamott started writing under different circumstances for different reasons. All I can say is that the difference is illuminating. Let’s take a look at some quotes:

Here’s Stephen King describing his creation of a high school newspaper satirizing his school’s staff:

As all sophomoric humorists must be, I was totally blown away by my own wit. What a funny fellow I was! A regular mill-town H.L. Mencken! I simply must take the Vomit [his satirical paper] to school and show all my friends! They would bust a collective gut!

As a matter of fact, they did bust a collective gut; I had some good ideas about what tickled the funnybones of high school kids, and most of them were showcased in The Village Vomit. Cow Man’s prize Jersey won a livestock farting contest at Topsham Fair; in another, Old Raw Diehl was fired for sticking the eyeballs of specimen fetal pigs up his nostrils. Humor in the grand Swiftian manner, you see. Pretty sophisticated, eh? (Page 52)

Here’s Anne Lamott describing her own writing attempts during middle and high school:

But I was funny. So the popular kids let me hang out with them, go to their parties, and watch them neck with each other. This, as you can imagine, did not help my self-esteem a great deal. I thought I was a total loser. But one day I took a notebook and a pen when I went to Bolinas Beach with my father (who was not, as far as I could tell, shooting drugs yet). With the writer’s equivalent of canvas and brush, I wrote a description of what I saw….My father convinced me to show it to a teacher, and it ended up being included in a real textbook. This deeply impressed my teachers and parents and a few kids, even some of the popular kids, who invited me to even more parties so I could watch them all make out even more frequently. (Pages xvi-xvii)

She also says this a few lines up from the excerpt quoted above:

All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging. (Page xvi)

There are similarities here – both authors wrote to gain approval of some sort. But when King wrote, it was to entertain his friends. He was doing this all for fun. When Lamott wrote, she used her skill to gain some sort of social standing among her peers. She wrote for herself, but used the success of that writing as leverage. Note that King mentions actually having friends, and Lamott doesn’t.

This lies at the heart of my enjoyment of On Writing on one hand, and my dislike of Bird by Bird on the other: I get the sense that Lamott is trying really hard to prove herself. Whenever she describes her writing process, it sounds like she goes through a lot of emotional turmoil to write something effective and lasting.

I get it – although writing is difficult and unpredictable, sometimes the results are breathtaking. But I’m sick and tired of hearing that writing is an act of Herculean audacity and emotional catharsis. It can be that way a lot of the time. But during the other times, I just want to yank the story idea out and put it on paper so it will leave me the f**k alone. I don’t need advice on the emotional aspects of writing – I need advice on how to transplant the sapling that’s taken root in my head into the fertile soil it needs to thrive.

So, there we have it. I liked the book written by a male author better because it was less emotional and more practical. I guess I’m just as bad as the literary establishment that Vida criticizes.