A Slightly Longer Report

What I Have Been Doing

Finished a draft of my second novel, turned it in. Began revising it.

Took out third novel draft, re-read it. Read from it twice.

I did this because I went to San Francisco twice, to give readings and talks.

Slightly related: spent Valentine’s in SF with my boyfriend. We rode back on a flight seated coincidentally in front of our friend Justin Bond, who was learning this song for his concert with Yoko Ono:

Wolverine Is On Top of the White Book Case

While in SF I took my 6-year-old nephew to the comics shop and bought him a Wolverine figure he wanted desperately, this one in a different costume from the last Wolverine figure I bought him the last time we went to the comics shop. This will probably go on for a few years.

The first night he had it home, he made his mother, my sister, write a post-it for his door telling him where she’d left the figure, so he could find it “right when I wake up.” The post-it read “Wolverine Is On Top of the White Book Case.”

Back At the Farm…

I am taking whacks at an essay and a story, and finishing the 100 Things About A Novel series. Revising 2nd novel.


I go to The Hermitage for spring break, next week, a writers colony in the Florida Keys.

What I Ate

Lately, it has been a great deal of dal. Which digests easily. Also kimchi rice. Which may not. Also: sweet potato hash, deep fried stuffed jalapenos, a beautiful chicken pot pie prepared by friends. In Mill Valley, Dustin, my boyfriend, takes me to meet old friends of his who prepare a feast for us. I learn about blood orange infused olive oil on fresh arugula.

What I Am Reading

The new issue of OUT and The New Yorker. The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee, and James Wood’s somewhat unnerving review of it here (perhaps not good to read if you write fiction: Wood suggests all of the ordinary ways of writing are suspect even if they are also valid, and I feel as if he says the problem with The Surrendered is that it… is a novel, though of course I am teasing a little bit and will reread the review). Also reading: Adam Haslett’s Union Pacific, which I love. And then over the weekend, One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds and Pablo Neruda’s Residence on Earth made their way into my bag, where they were greeted with rejoicing.

Some Questions I Have Answered From Students

  • “I’ve just got a quick question. It came up as I was reading James Wood’s piece about tired fiction conventions–and that piece he had on the money books a few weeks back, where he said something along the lines of, “Doesn’t Adam Haslett know that you never start a story with someone waking up?” I remember you saying that back in workshop, too, and I was wondering if you had three seconds to tell me why. I’m writing this chronological story, all in one day, and where can I start if not there?”

AC: Yes, that is something I said to avoid, except when it is necessary to begin that way. Many people begin there automatically when they begin writing fiction. This is usually a mistake. Besides, Haslett’s novel doesn’t begin that way—the chapter does. And it works for that chapter. You should read the novel and decide for yourself though. Besides, I did remark when I said this that Ulysses begins with someone waking up. You can do it.

  • “I think it may just be difficult to write on command. I also liked my first assignment so much that all following assignments have seemed mediocre. Do you have any advice for getting past this feeling? Or being better able to write on command? I think you said before how “waiting for inspiration” just means you never write but I definitely feel like my assignments have lacked passion. Any suggestions for creating said passion?”

AC: “Learning to write when you don’t want to write is what takes you from being a talented young writer to an accomplished one. Without this, no one gets better, much less published. Annie Dillard had some very basic advice about it: A schedule defeats whimsy. Which is to say, think of it like a job that you show up to, not something you feel like doing. I remember as an undergrad my professor Kit Reed told us never to call her before noon as that was her writing time.  Not even her husband was allowed to interrupt her.

Of course, your question was about passion, and writing on command.

To write well ‘on command’, I think you can approach from a variety of angles. One is to write about something you’re afraid of writing, or something you are moved by but have never described, or something you believe could happen but that hasn’t happened. This is part of why I read the news. This story, for example, about the unfolding sexual abuse scandal in the choir once led by the pope’s brother, Monsignor Ratzinger, is one I still cannot close on my browser.

And so one thing to do if you’re stuck is to ask yourself, “What are 5 news stories from the last few weeks or months that I keep thinking about?” Those are messages from your unconscious, if you want them. It’s likely a story you’ll write is packed inside one of them.”

Something Mary Gaitskill Said At A Reading Last Fall That Keeps Coming To Mind

“The memoir craze is about loneliness.”


  1. Really enjoyed this update, Alex. Nice to know what you’re reading (and eating!). Also enjoyed the questions and answers. Your Annie Dillard quote reminded me of a Gordon Lish one: “Stay open for business.”

  2. Loved the update. I missed you in my blog feed. Congrats on turning in your draft!! Kimchi rice, nomnomnom. Also, I had a friend who is at CCA who told me you were coming and I was super excited when I found out and he was like, “Yes, I remember last year when you finished his book and you told me you were going to stalk him on his blog because you thought it was so awesome. And yes, I finally read his book and I can see why.”


    Btw, the wolverine thing – SO CUTE.

    1. Thanks, Karissa, for all of this. I appreciate you spreading the word. And yes, the nephew thing was way too cute not to put up.

  3. I read the James Woods review this morning and had a similar reaction.

    Annie Dillard’s “Living By Fiction” is the antidote.

    Dillard fills the balloon while Woods sucks the air out of it.

  4. I remember you reiterating the ‘don’t start with a character waking up usually’ in a NY workshop you led several years ago (and me blushing inside because that was exactly how my submission started.) Then you recommended Octavia Butler’s Fledgling in reference to my work and then I discovered from that book (and several others of hers) “oh, so that’s how and why you can begin with an awakening!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s