This one, “Next to Godliness” is a flash story that came from a prompt from my Fall 2016 fiction workshop at Georgia State [Write a story that takes a saying literally and use it for the premise of a story].
I think I must have submitted at least 20 stories to this magazine before they finally took one. Writing ain’t nothing if it ain’t persistence.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I started Moby Dick three or four times before I actually finished it. That was in 2014, and since then, I’ve had this strange sort of longing for it, sort of like how, early on, Ishmael describes his longing for being on the water. I’ve never read another book that feels so much like an experience to read, and I think it’s an experience all writers can benefit from. [I would say all people, but I don’t like to take my generalizations too far–I’m a writer, so I’ll just stick to speaking for that section of the population.] I’m about 2/3 way through my second read and it’s better the second time, but you only need to read it once to be in the “Yeah, I’ve read Moby Dick,” club.
Why Read Moby Dick:
- Because it’s bold. Melville takes formulaic risks here that still read as courageous, even 160 years after it was published, even after post modernism. It’s amazing that anyone published this beast at all, and the fact that it will probably be read for all time could give writers a kind of boost to break the rules, to take readers in uncomfortable, stylistically forbidden places. No matter what we do, we probably won’t do anything as wacky as what Melville does in this book. So we might as well just try out whatever strange idea comes to us.
- Because it flopped when it came out. It’s like the “Starry Night” of literature, a reminder that you have to write honestly from your gut, write what you care about, and risk scathing criticism. It’s a 138 (including the preludes and epilogue) part reminder that fortune is not guaranteed, but we have to write what we believe in anyway.
- Because it’s a masterpiece. Now, I’m not really a big believer in “the canon,” and I get how we need to stop letting the white supremacist patriarchy tell us what’s good to read. Even so, part of why this is a masterpiece is because of its ahead-of-its-time critique of white supremacy/empire. Sure, there are some times Melville’s 1851 white male POV is showing, but for the most part, he challenges and deconstructs power a century before Derrida and Foucault ever thought to. So read this alongside your Toni Morrison novels and you might find out that they’re dialoguing more than you’d have predicted.
How to Read Moby Dick:
- Slowly. This novel is like a 500 page + Lydia Davis flash story, and every sentence needs to be savored as much as possible. Don’t pick this up and say, “I’ll give myself two weeks.” I think the best idea is to read it a chapter a day, which means, give yourself months. Read it while you’re reading other things. The faster you read, the more you’ll miss. And if you miss the wordplay and fascinating sentence construction, you’ve missed 95% of what’s good about it.
- Underline sentences that you’ll copy by hand later, and you’ll improve your ability to write a good sentence.
- Remember that it’s funny. It’s best read in a playful state of mind.
- There’s a lot of wisdom in this novel. Melville’s love and fascination for humans is apparent, and looking for it enhances the reading experience. It’s a spiritual text, delving into the deepest questions of why our lives are the way they are, who’s running things, and what motivates humans to do the things that they do.
- Trust the form. I’m not going to lie and say that this book is never tedious. It’s a book about whaling, and in many ways recreates both the boredom and excitement of being at sea. The form is useful because it makes reading the book a meditative practice. You’ll need to concentrate as hard as if you’re writing, and trust me, anything that builds concentration is handy for writers, especially writers of longer works.
For the last two weeks, I’ve had the pleasure and honor of finishing a novel draft at this arts center in Nebraska City. I wrote more in May than I’ve ever written in my life, but a huge portion of that productivity happened in my writing studio at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.
I also had a great roommate, a photographer from Montana, who was fun to talk and cook with after our work days. The residency houses five artists at a time, and so I shared the facility with three fiction writers, a composer, a painter, and that photographer I just mentioned.
The arts center gives a stipend for food and the grocery stores are real close (I like to cook as part of my creative process–there is nothing like working through a scene while chopping vegetables for a stir fry). Nebraska City is also where Arbor Day began, close to the Missouri River, and so the area around the center was green and life giving around this time of year.
Residents are allowed to check books out at the library. I was impressed at how expansive that library was–I had a specific book in mind to read (The Blood of Emmett Till), and found it in their new selection area as soon as I walked in the door. Also, it was a nice place to go jogging in the mornings.
After I finished writing the novel draft, I took day trips to Lincoln and Omaha, both of which were an hour away from Nebraska City, but really easy to get to (just one straight road from town to each city).
Follow this link for more information about how to apply to the residency.
It’s been a while since I updated this, but I have had a couple of stories published in 2017. One is in a print journal, one is online.
The print story is, “As Though She Could Actually Do Something,” which appeared in the Potomac Review, just in time for AWP in Washington DC. For a nice surprise, my friend, Kilby Allen, also had a story in there called “Everything Neatly Put Away.”
“As Though She Could Actually Do Something” is based on an experience I had in Thailand when I accompanied some American friends when they took their sons to see a movie at a fancy mall in Bangkok. The majority of the story is fabricated (that’s why it’s billed as fiction), but the strange chaos of doing something that is mostly familiar in a place where everything appears in a new language stayed with me for a long time. It seemed story-worthy to me.
You can read other online, “New Translations,” which appeared in the latest issue of Quarterly West. I wrote that one after accidentally getting sucked into browsing my Twitter feed during writing time, and I stumbled across an article that explained how we might have been reading a Bible verse from Genesis wrong all these years. That concept catapulted into a flash piece. I hope you enjoy it!
Two of my friends who happen to be amazing poets, Caroline Crew and Anne Barngrover, have some killer poems in that killer issue.
I’m honored that “Theresa Scott” was published today as one of the first two stories ever to appear in Sinking City, a sharp new online magazine put together by the MFA students at the University of Miami.
The inner itch to “just do it” is the artist’s compass.
Although as artists we make maps, we seldom find them. An artistic career does not resemble the linear step-by-step climb of a banker’s career trajectory. Art is not linear, and neither is the artist’s life. There are no certain routes. You do not become a novelist by moving from A to B to C.
Julia Cameron, Walking in this World
The reward is in the making of the thing. Do it for that.