A Tom Waits Story….

This story was told to me by a friend who heard it from another friend who may or may not have heard it from someone else or may/may not have been the person in the story to which the story happened. Make sense? That’s a long winded way of saying, it’s probably an apocryphal story, but it seems like it could have been true and I so want it to be true. I tell this story a lot, so I thought I’d shoot it out into the lively intertubes for posterity:

So, a guy goes to interview Tom Waits at Waits’ house. He gets to the door and rings the bell and Tom Waits’ wife answers the door and invites the interviewer inside. She tells him that Tom is upstairs and to make himself at home because it’ll be a few moments before he can come down. Then she leaves the interviewer alone in the living room. Along one wall is Tom Waits’ record collection. The interviewer thinks, I can’t pass up a chance to look at Tom Waits’ record collection, so he goes over to the wall and starts flipping through some of the thousands of LP’s.

As he’s flipping, he notices an entire pizza tucked into the shelf, in-between two records. Not a pizza in a box, just a big round pizza propped in there. When Tom Waits finally comes down into the room and they start their interview, this guy says, Mr. Waits, I couldn’t help but notice that you had a pizza in with your records. And Tom Waits replied (and here you have to imagine Tom Waits saying these words in his scratchy growl):

Sometimes you just have to file things by shape.

Maybe I Should Write About Rejection More Often?

So, a couple of days after I write about rejection, an old story of mine called “Trephine” is accepted at Nimrod, a very fine literary review that I’ve been sending stuff to for years. They called today to let me know. Last summer, I reworked “Trephine” and really tried to shape the character’s experiences into a cohesive piece–cut a ton from the story–made it far more spare and concise. I ended up really liking the story and am grateful that someone else liked it too.

Whenever I write about rejection, people feel the need to pat me on the back and tell me things are going to be okay. My tone must be off. That’s not the reaction I’m going for. Rejection is a process. I don’t hate being rejected nor look forward to it. It’s just part of the writing business. What annoys me is inconsistency in the nature of rejection. Here are the types of rejection, rated from best to worst.

  1. I really like your story but a few people on our staff don’t feel as strongly as I do. I’m sorry because I think it’s very nice. (This rejection will often come with proof that someone has actually read the story and will often come in an official envelope rather than the standard SASE.
  2. Your story does not suit our current needs. (Love it, simple and to the point.)
  3. Your story is awesome and super great and we all love it. Unfortunately, we won’t be using it. We encourage you to send it to our contest, though, or to subscribe to our magazine.
  4. What did you send us? The file is corrupt. We don’t want it. Who are you?
  5. You can’t write your way out of a paper bag. What in the world are you thinking?
  6. The “three-day” turnaround. So I sent a story to Harpers. No real hope of getting into Harpers, mind you, just for the hell of it. Three days later I get my rejection. That means that someone in the mailroom opened the envelope, fished around for my SASE, and stuffed a rejection in there without even looking. There’s just no way that story got even a cursory glance.
  7. No response. (Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more common, especially among agents and even a number of independent publishers. They are understandably busy and receive all sorts of queries and submissions, but it still seems shabby to not respond at all and think that it is somehow okay. It’s as if I decided to just not grade some papers because I wasn’t interested. It’s my job to grade papers and an agent or editor’s job to say yes or no. Since so many places routinely take six months to a year to respond to queries, is it really unreasonable to expect someone to write and say no? Less than a decade ago, those same agents and publishers requested a SASE stamped envelope and would at least, usually, take the time to stuff a form letter in there and send it back to you. Now, in the digital age, sending a form email is too much work? I don’t buy it. It’s the decline of civility. I’d rather get the most nasty email rejection than no response at all. I might as well ball up my story and throw it outside to see if it’ll get to someone by catching a ride on a tumbleweed.

But this isn’t about rejection today. It’s about that illusive feeling of acceptance. It feels good, sure. But it doesn’t make me any different as a person than I was yesterday. And although I did revise the story, it’s essentially the same story that was rejected at least thirty times. At least. So I know not to get too high on acceptance or too low on rejection. As Chuck D. once rapped: “Don’t let a win go to your head or a loss to your heart.”

So if you aren’t too bummed by rejection nor uber-elated by acceptance, what is left? For me, the answer is simply: the work. That’s all there really is. Each day I’m trying to make the work the focus. Being in the creative moment is what changes my outlook on the world. By attempting to create, I become a better, more perceptive husband/father/ friend/teacher/citizen. By attempting to find my path in the paths of my characters, I access things in my own experience that are far more valuable to me than acceptance or rejection.

You can hear “Trephine” on this website. Just look under the Stories Out Loud tab above.

Who’s a Guy Gotta Sleep With to Get a Decent Read from a Publisher?

That’s the ten dollar question, I suspect.

Sure, maybe it’s just sour grapes. No one wants my book and I’m throwing a temper-tantrum. Boo-hoo and all that.

But c’mon. There must be a secret handshake, right? Some back room that I can get ushered into at some point? Look at all those books out there on the shelves. Do all of them have something no other book has? Are they all arriving published on their own merits?

Maybe. Maybe.

But you can’t convince me that all those books–literary, serious books–manage to find their way into attentive agent or publisher hands without a little grease. I’m a pretty serious reader and there are hundreds of contemporary writers doing good work. I’m not talking about them. Jennifer Egan, Bradford Morrow, Sarah Braunstein, Paul Harding–fantastic writers with excellent books to their names. But what about the massive mid-list of writers most people haven’t heard of? What about those books that you pick up in the bookstore and wonder how in the world it happened. How in the world did these words get through the gatekeeper? How in the world did this project/novel/hullabaloo get picked over something else?

I’ve written about rejection before. Why again? Well, today I recieved, in the mail, what many writers dream of: a real rejection letter from a good-sized publishing house. NOT a form letter. How wonderful! The editorial assistant at Boink&Boff actually sat down to write a rejection instead of just stuffing my self-addressed-stamped-envelope with a note from the form-letter-bin. Here’s what it says (italics mine):

“Dear Mr. Knowles (nice way to start…a little formal, but that’s okay),

Thank you for sending along your novel¬†(little glitch, I only sent a sample section, but I’m still on board), THE AURORA PROJECT. You have an ambitious, provocative idea here (Wahoo! Lovely! I agree! Should I keep reading? I think I should!). I was particularly impressed with the structure and wide scope of your book (Sweet! It’s a complex book and I’m so glad you saw the big picture!); your attempt to capture the essence of humanity as it evolves through time is inspired (fucking-A! Inspired! Looks like I’m sitting in the front row!).

However (oh, man…I knew it was too good to be true. Like a cheap vacation rental scam on Craig’s list), I feel that the execution of your idea fell a bit short (strange, because this is a novel, not a thesis-driven research paper, so there was no idea, only fiction, and because I sent along only about a sixth of the whole book); the descriptions and setting were somewhat underdeveloped (wait, wasn’t it just a couple sentences ago that this thing was inspired? Or was that just blowing smoke up my ass to prep me for the rejection? I’m a big boy. You’re allowed to tell me it isn’t a good fit for you and leave it at that…) and as a result, I did not feel rooted in the fantastical scenes (What fantastical scenes? Can you be specific? At this point, I’m starting to wonder if the sample pages were even read. And if they were read, did the reader realize that it wasn’t the whole novel? That it was samples from several different sections of the book? How could anyone feel rooted in a sample? Aren’t the samples, in this case, ‘inspired’, supposed to whet your appetite for more?). For these reasons, I’m afraid [your manuscript] isn’t quite right for us. Best of luck finding… yadda yadda.

So what’s the big deal, right? A rejection, just another one. I didn’t even expect an answer from this particular publisher. Just sent it along because, what the hell, worst they can say is no, right? I guess the big deal is that it’s hard to hear, as I have, over and over and over, that your manuscript is inspired or amazing or thought-provoking…only to be told “sorry, try somewhere else.”

I pick up books all the time that are not “inspired” or “thought-provoking.” I guess I’m just wondering what the magic word is? Does anyone know? Is it all blind luck? To be fair, perhaps this assistant just didn’t connect with the material. This isn’t really about her or one particular letter, but she’s the one who sparked the post, so I thought I’d see if I could find out who she was. It’s easy to find people these days. I did a little cyber-stalking (or, “a search on facebook”) and found my letter writer in under fifteen seconds. She seems to be quite nice, relatively young (I’d say mid-twenties, closer to twenty than thirty) went to a more prestigious school than I, probably got better grades, no doubt is smarter than me in many ways, and is most likely someone who loves books and has good friends and a fulfilling life. I don’t mean this to sound like I’m angry in any way, not at her at least. I’m sure we’d get along famously if we met each other at a writing conference.

I am frustrated, though. Frustrated that this book I really enjoyed writing (indeed, even as I wrote it, I knew it would be a tough book to sell, I wrote it only because I was jazzed by the whole strange idea) and that people routinely describe with adjectives like “inspired” has such a hard time getting past the gatekeepers.

Perhaps it’s simply a case of people trying to be too nice. Or a case of forgetting how to us the proper adjective. Let’s make a deal, okay? Next time you want to reject my novel, just keep it simple. “Not for us, thanks” will do fine. That’s all I need.

But would you like to see my new work? I’ve been working hard on it and I’m told that it’s inspired. I’d be happy to send you some sample pages. You’ll get back to me? Great, great…looking forward to hearing from you!

A little note on Bradford Morrow’s fine new book…

I’ve just finished Bradford Morrow’s book, The Diviner’s Tale. It’s a wonderful read. Literary–mystery–supernatural–suspense thriller: it’s the rare book that can unify the sometimes very disparate elements of those genres, but The Diviner’s Tale does an excellent job. I don’t think of this as a genre work in the traditional sense, but it certainly uses conventions of different genres as it weaves its way towards its very satisfying end. Ultimately, it proves the “genre” tag to be a sham. It’s a rousing story containing a mystery, but the mystery is only a part of the whole. It isn’t “about” the mystery so much as it is about the characters that surround the mystery. The main character (Cass) has nearly supernatural intuition, and comes from a long line of “diviners”–people who dowse for water. Cass has always divined more than just water. What really elevates this book into top-notch page-turning literary quality fiction is the absolutely beautiful/spooky journey that Cass undergoes as she traverses both her past (family, loss, grief, fear, love, childhood trauma) and her present (missing children, lurking predators, sick father, single-motherhood). Ultimately, it’s a story about whether or not Cass can learn to trust her inherited intuition. Her whole life, she’s doubted herself, thought of herself as a fraud–but her visions/divinations demand attention and in some ways, her visions debunk her doubt, but it’s a tough thing for a character to admit. The book has classic spine chilling moments–I won’t tell you at what point they arise–and the eerie quality of the supernatural moments works so well because Morrow provides a concrete foundation of detail and landscape–it never spins into the abstract. Pay special attention to the way he utilizes fog and shadow and the unexpected appearance of people who may or may not be of this world. Highly recommended.

Re-evaluation/How Can Spring Break Be Over already?

I’ve been a little absent here this week. I’d expected to be going whole-hog over my spring break, recording daily blog posts and writing with Balzac-ian intensity. But that hasn’t been the case. The week away from school was cram-packed with life away from the writing table. That isn’t to say I didn’t get any writing work done, but much of it was tempered by my own responsibilities to family and home, by the events happening around the globe and the attention I devoted to them, and by the same battles I always go through when thinking about writing. Here are some writing related thoughts from the past week:

My third novel manuscript, The Aurora Project, starts with a great flood. I began the work right after the 2004 tsunami. I thought a lot about this during the week as I watched the unfolding story in Japan. As far as hopeful novels concerning the apocalypse, I still think I’ve written something I’ve not seen before. Four sections divided by two thousand years (about 200 hundred generations), each concerned with a different epoch of human renaissance. I was telling my wife about the structure of my new manuscript the other night and she asked me if “I was skipping two thousand years between any of the sections.” I said, “Apparently, people don’t like that sort of gaps in their stories, so I’m sticking to more traditional time structures.”

My first novel manuscript, Body of Water, might have salvageable sections. I was talking with Sarah Braunstein about her first novel, The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, and although I’ve long considered my first manuscript to be a failed practice novel, our conversation about her work compelled me to look again at my early attempt to write a story about a missing child. Although much of the manuscript is overwrought and abstract, I think with a good dose of scalpel work, it might be pared down to a trim, hard-hitting novella. And if that manuscript is salvageable, I think my second manuscript deserves another look, too. I’ve always believed Ghost Light is a novel that deserves a home, too.

The stories that I wrote over last summer are really coming together. They all need a bit of work, but I’m really enjoying the places those stories go. I’ve recorded some stories aloud recently and posted the videos online (both at YouTube and here on this website). I’ve recorded by older stories and the stories I wrote last summer, and I can tell the difference. My writing has improved dramatically. At this rate, by the time I’m eighty or so, I’ll really be killing it.

The zombie book is finally taking shape. I can’t speak of it too much for fear of writing away whatever mysterious generating core that is feeding the idea. But I’m trying to write, for once, something people might want to read. So I’ve got the zombies (although no one calls them zombies in my book) and I’ve got my characters and I’ve read up on plot (always my weak point) and I set out to write this page-turner type story. So far, I think it’s working, although I can see that I’m incapable of writing something strictly for page-turner-qualities alone. The plot moves, certainly, but I’m also the writer I am. I emailed an agent that once represented me and described the manuscript as a literary-zombie-thriller, which seems to be exactly what my brain in conjuring. I’ve been taking notes on the book and trying to imagine the characters for several months now. This week, I started putting some of this down on the page. I’ve started writing. My goal is to have a handwritten draft by the end of June, when my family and I are heading to London and France for quick European vacation. That way, for the rest of the summer, I’ll be able to type and revise and sell this darn thing. This is the book that will make me famous and get me enough money that I can buy my own private island, which has been my stated goal all along.

And that’s where my spring break went.


Today, I saw this terrifying footage of the tsunami in Japan:

There really isn’t much to say after watching that water. What could one do? Nothing, I suspect, but get out of the way best as one can.

I’ve donated money. But that doesn’t seem like enough.

I’ve prayed. But that seems inadequate.

In the background of the video, people are driving. In fact, in a lot of the videos I’ve seen, people are driving and walking above the water. Taking their kids to school or to the dentist. Going to get a mortgage application. Enjoying a date, a good song on the radio. Scary how quickly it gets washed away.

In another video, the cameraman and his friends are laughing, but I’m sure they don’t think it’s funny. What else is there to do in that moment? It’s too immediate for grief and the sense of loss will only come once the water has receded and it’s too magnificent not to watch. I think they were laughing in self-defense.¬†That’s our planet happening right there, they seem to be saying, love it or leave it. It’s awful to watch, but it’s necessary, too. Necessary to know that we can be swatted away like flies.

The very frailty of our civilization makes it worth protecting.

The very brevity of our time makes our time valuable.

All thoughts and prayers and energies and goodness to the people of Japan.


Final Part of Each Other’s Business

Here ya go! The sixth and final part of my story, “Each Other’s Business.” I will collect all of the separate videos and group them under the Stories Out Loud tab at the top of the page. As usual, please tweet/link/post/email the videos anywhere. I originally started recording these movies as a way to bring these stories into the world, so if you know any folks that like short fiction and like being read to…send them my way. I’ll be reading another story soon, but I’m in the midst of creating new work and revising old work, and the video-making process is a bit time consuming so it might be a while. Until then, happy listening! And many thanks:

Julie Doxsee’s “Objects for a Fog Death”

A magical book (in the truest dark and layered and mysterious sense of the word–not in the saw-the-lady-in-half sense of the word, although that might work too). A concise book with sentences that snake surprisingly through multiple couplets and end up in unexpected places. Take this line from “Architecture” for instance:

If lightning is just more
heat, where is the cyclone

to entwine us until our
veins take down all

the trees between here
& seven days ago?

Doxsee writes in a way that feels like you are actually seeing the poems through fog–they aren’t muddy or unclear or hazy by way of craft, it’s not that sort of fog–but there always seems to be something swirling up and around the objects at the heart of her poems, or up and around the poet, or maybe the reader. The poems ask a lot of me–they required my vision, too. Or perhaps the fog is a constant and maybe the objects are swaying. Either way, there is lots of movement, and either way you end up thinking you are watching one thing before you realize that you have been looking at something different all along. In “Kitchen Tour” she writes:

Those are
old teeth marks

in the water from
when I bit

all the ice
cubes in half.

The poems are told in a sort of gloaming. That time of night when everything is floaty. It did take me a few poems to become comfortable in Doxsee’s universe–that doorway into her poems required a certain patience to open, but to me that is a good thing. There are a lot of easily opened doors. A like a door that requires a bit of focused attention, a bit of study. Because once that door is open? It doesn’t close. I can’t go back. Once I stopped trying to fan away the fog, and just dove into Doxsee’s surprising lines, vision be damned, I felt both lured further and sorry to turn the page on the last poem. Toward the end of the book, she writes, in a poem titled “Dear Sparrow”:


pretend my door
is your skyload

of leaves, a new
kind of air

you sail.

That pretty much describes it better than I ever could. I recommend the book, especially if you are looking for a new kind of air.