The Mark Blog

WRITERS' REEL: David Foster Wallace on Ambition

"If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything." - David Foster Wallace

Here's an interview with David Foster Wallace by Leonard Lopate recorded on March 4, 1996. In it, Wallace discusses perfectionism, receiving (and neglecting) constructive lessons, and ambition.

In Honor of Mother's Day

When I was in middle school, my mom and I were part of a mother-daughter book club. I haven't thought of this club for years and I don't remember a ton of details, except that we gathered on Saturday afternoons and talked about books like The Golden Compass and Farewell to Manzanar with other girls my age and their mothers. We always had trouble settling on what book to read next and I remember feeling, for the first time, surprised at how differently people could interpret the same book.

In high school, I took a literature course at UC Berkeley which covered the history of the novel from its inception to present day. Some of the texts were dry and difficult to get through. But from this experience my mom taught me to take a step back and appreciate what it is that I'm getting to do. She has taught me to recognize the fact that, even when reading or writing feels like work--when it's stressful, or not going well, or I'm late for a deadline--it's a wonderful thing to pour one's time and energy into endeavors one loves.

Through their examples, both my parents have taught me a good deal of things related to reading. They've taught me not to worry if a book gets tattered, that it's preferable that a book be well-read rather than pristine. They've taught me to give and accept recommendations. They've taught me that the best sort of vacation involves a suitcase filled with at least five novels. And, through shared experiences, they've taught me that it's strangely fun to be around other people, reading.

In the spirit of Mother's Day, I am especially grateful to my mother for showing me, through her example, that reading is a pleasure and a privilege. Now that is the ultimate way to show, don't tell.

MOMENTUM: Writing Flow Exercises

This has been a busy year. Life is like that: you can’t schedule the unforeseeable. Bathrooms will flood, new bosses will pop up, people will die, and loved ones will need help.

In the past, all of the above have derailed me from writing for days, weeks, even months. Being in The Mark Program has helped me maintain an intense focus. Getting sidetracked, even if by a very real issue, isn’t feasible. I figured out ways to get writing done even if a different part of my life was presenting time and energy demands. Enter the value of momentum.

I’ve heard people speak of momentum, even had glimpses of the power of momentum in the past. However, being in The Mark Program is sort of like being in a pressure cooker. It never lets up; there’s always a piece of the manuscript that needs to be written, revised, organized, revised, pondered, revised, or researched. After all, it is a manuscript-polishing program. What has worked during this process is coming back to the project on a nightly basis, no matter what is happening.

Momentum is a special energy that can’t be found, it just builds, day after day, until it takes on a life of its own. Since I’m constantly in contact with the characters, my mind continues to work on the book even after I have left the notebook or computer screen. Ideas or solutions to challenges I’m facing on the page come to me at odd times like when I’m inching along Interstate 110 or slicing up a tomato for a salad.

Here are a couple of momentum-builders that I’ve found helpful:

--Same bat time, same bat channel: setting a block of writing time aside at or around the same time each day allows the act of writing to become a habit. Even if an emergency cuts into the time, get in as much time as possible. Even thirty minutes, if done daily, helps.

--Small goals, to-do list style: make a list of writing goals that need to be done before the end of the week, or by end of the month. Examples: Write a new scene for a story, find a new title, rewrite the ending of a story, or check dialogue tags on pages X through Y. Some sort of immediate target date is essential. Crossing out the accomplished goals is also motivating.

--If it’s late in the day and you’re ready to call it a writing-free day, don’t. Set the timer for ten or fifteen minutes, then write while standing. Make yourself write towards your project, even if you think it’s shit and you’re exhausted. Sometimes good things will still come. Regardless, at least you’re connecting with your creative flow.

--When stuck, think of the story’s issues while going through the nighttime routine. Right before going to sleep, invite the mind to solve the problem while sleeping. In the morning, an inkling of how to proceed might be present.

Writing, like life, can be unpredictable. Trial and error is usually the rule instead of the exception when trying to build momentum. Each person is unique. And in the end, we are all human, doing the best that we can, under the circumstances we face. Allow that effort to count.

BOOKMARK THIS: Putting Rejection Into Perspective

It's easy to feel delegitimized after your manuscript gets declined by a publisher. There are, however, innumerable factors that go in to a publisher's decision on what to print and what to deny. To put it into perspective, here's a list of famous titles, compiled from Michael Larsen's book Literary Agents, that went on to exceed the foresight of a publishing house's expectations.

· The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck was returned fourteen times, but it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

· Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead was rejected twelve times.

· Twenty publishers felt that Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull was for the birds.

· The first title of Catch-22 was Catch-18, but Simon and Schuster planned to publish it during the same season that Doubleday was bringing out Mila 18 by Leon Uris. When Doubleday complained, Joseph Heller changed the title. Why 22? Because Simon and Schuster was the 22nd publisher to read it. Catch-22 has become part of the language and has sold more than 10 million copies.

· Mary Higgins Clark was rejected forty times before selling her first story. One editor wrote: "Your story is light, slight, and trite." More than 30 million copies of her books are now in print.

· Before he wrote Roots, Alex Haley had received 200 rejections.

· Robert Persig's classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, couldn't get started at 121 houses.

· John Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, was declined by fifteen publishers and some thirty agents. His novels have more than 60 million copies in print.

· Thirty-three publishers couldn't digest Chicken Soup for the Soul, compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, before it became a huge best-seller and spawned a series.

· The Baltimore Sun hailed Naked in Deccan as "a classic" after it had been rejected over seven years by 375 publishers.

· Zelda wouldn't marry F. Scott Fitzgerald until he sold a story. He papered his bedroom walls with rejection slips before he won her hand.

· Dr. Seuss's first book was rejected twenty-four times. The sales of his children's books have soared to 100 million.

· Louis L'Amour received 200 rejections before he sold his first novel. During the last forty years, Bantam has shipped nearly 200 million of his 112 books, making him their biggest selling author.

· British writer John Creasy received 774 rejections before selling his first story. He went onto write 564 books, using fourteen names.

Fantasy Vs. Reality

I fell in love with fiction via fantasy and sci-fi. The first stories I wrote were all in that realm. Judy Blume showed me there was another kind of writing possible, but it wasn’t until later, in high school, discovering Salinger and Fitzgerald and Kerouac, that I realized it was possible to write honestly about life and still tell a great story. After writing many traditional stories, I experimented and wrote one based on a day in my life, an average, unextraordinary day in which nothing at all spectacular happened. My thought was why can’t the everyday work as a story? I turned it in, and the next day, keeping me after class, my teacher asked me: “Were you stoned when you wrote this?”

I laughed. “Not at all,” I said, and tried to explain what I was going for, but she was mystified. Although I’m sure my banal story about goofing around with friends and eating a quiet dinner with my family was no masterpiece, I recall being proud that my experiment could cause such an extreme reaction, and, in that regard, I’d succeeded.

Undaunted, I kept trying to capture life on the page. During my senior year, I wrote several stories about several bizarre episodes I recalled from junior high. I also took a Latin American Literature class, and read some great stories by Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, and the classic, surrealist novella Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. Many of these stories contained elements of “magic realism,” a blending of the real and the unreal, and I saw how it was possible to be grounded in reality, but not shackled to it.

In almost every workshop I’ve been in, there have been “magic-realist” haters. Perhaps the genre has taken a few hits through the years, especially from feel-good “chick-lit” like Practical Magic, or “inspirational” parables like The Alchemist and The Celestine Prophecy that cheapen the form.

Isabel Allende, a magical realist herself who’s taken her share of criticism, has been quoted as saying: "The problem with fiction is that it must seem credible, while reality seldom is."

I’m not sure if the “problem” she’s complaining about is that people expect fiction to be credible even though they don’t expect the same of reality, or if she’s saying the problem of writing fiction is that everything, even the unreal, must seem plausible, i.e., operate according to its own set of rules. Either way, she’s probably right.

In general, this notion of realist drama is indicative of a lot of American literature, whereas some other countries tend toward a more playful, fabulist view. Perhaps our tradition stems from the practical, no-nonsense view of life that predominates our culture, whereas others still value dreams and question the very nature of reality itself.

I like it when a book transports me out of the everyday. Just as I like it when I can achieve that sensation in life. In workshops, I’ve let myself be prodded towards writing more realistic material, and part of me worries I’m trying to please others before myself. But I’m also viewing it as a experiment/good practice: to write as realistic and comprehensive as possible, to get it all down on paper, and then edit the shit out of it later.

It’s a bit like a musician practicing scales. The most out-there free jazz players learned all the rules before they were able to break them. Perhaps it’s the same with writing. I’m still getting it down, and once I’m closer, maybe I’ll find the magic in those spaces, where it’s been hiding all along.

WRITERS' REEL: Language as a Window into Human Nature

In this new RSA Animate, renowned experimental psychologist Steven Pinker shows us how the mind turns the finite building blocks of language into infinite meanings. Taken from the RSA's free public events programme


Initially, I wondered if the computer science course I'm taking would clash too much with participating in the Mark Program. I wondered if the contrasts in subject matter would be disconcerting, and if I'd have to drop the class because it'd be too hard on my writing. Happily, I've found that, though it's true that these two endeavors utilize different parts of my brain--one more objective and formulaic, the other more subjective and experimental--they are, in many ways, cohesive. They're about different types of language striving to create something out of the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet and, because of this, they are in some ways illustrative of each other.

To my relief, in computer science a few weeks ago our instructor mentioned offhand that trial and error is a fundamental part of the process of writing both HTML and CSS. When he said this, I sighed in my seat, feeling like a little bit less of a fraud. I'd thought, perhaps, that each of my classmates knew a secret I didn't, and that their web pages were turning out perfectly on their first go, whereas, on every homework assignment, I try and test, retry and retest, making adjustments to the web pages an infinite number of times until they appear precisely as I want them to. The process of constructing web pages is fun and meticulous, extremely satisfying to me when they eventually function as I imagine and, from time to time, frustrating when they don't and I can't figure out why. In many ways, it's a lot like, say, writing fiction.

Thanks to the process of learning HTML, I'm gaining greater clarity about the act of writing as a process of trial and error. Next time, when I'm fearful of an empty white screen or paralyzed by my desire to write something people will want to read, I'm going to try to remember that there is value in pushing one's self, and there is also value in giving one's self permission to try, even if the result isn't even in the realm of perfect. So, though there isn't an element for < novel tone="engaging" voice="honest" theme="moving">, I'm working on it--and I'm going to keep try, try, trying again.< /novel>


Although it would be nice, I’m not writing this from Dalmatia. However, in many ways, I may as well be. Most of my manuscript takes place on or around islands on the Dalmatian coast. Ironically, I haven’t visited this part of the world in a decade, so I’m constantly trying to conjure up the landscape to help with writing the setting.

About ten years ago I was working on a nonfiction book set in Croatia. I thought a couple of weeks spent over there would be helpful. Not only would I be able to visit family, I would also have hours of unobstructed writing time. I could immerse myself and the writing in a specific place.

Lots of writing did get done. I’d wake up in the morning and head over to the Kalilarga, Zadar’s main thoroughfare. I’d sit in a café and write fiction that had nothing to do with the project I was writing at the time. Somehow, being in the place I wanted to write about proved to be too overpowering. Too real. There was so much of it surrounding me. What to focus on?

I suppose what Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast is true: “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.”

The stories I’m currently working with are tricky from a setting point of view. Even though the places are real locations, the stories are set in the past. Times have changed, and Dalmatia has changed even more. For example, twenty years ago there weren’t any cars on the central coast islands I visited. Today there are paved roads, with all types of cars roaming about. Plus pollution and noise. Since all of the stories are set 20-60 years ago, I need to capture a place of the past.

Over the years, I’ve picked up tips in workshops or in books. Here are a couple of my favorite writing exercises that help me conjure up the Dalmatian setting when I need help:

1. Tree Map: Make a tree map with five branches or sections of a piece of paper. Label each “branch” or section with a sense (sight, touch, smell, sound, taste). Imagine the setting. Recall and chart as many details as possible under each sense.

2. Active Imagination: Close your eyes, relax, take a couple of deep breaths. Imagine you’re in the setting. Spend some time there. Take in the sights, focus in on what you feel, what is happening around you, what you see. Open your eyes and write about it. Some people prefer to quickly write as they’re imagining the place with their eyes open. I’ve never been able to coordinate all of that, but it’s worth a whirl. Warning: if one is tired and lacking caffeine, it’s possible to doze off. Be careful not to stay in your locale of choice for too long!

3. Timed Talk: Get a friendly ear to listen to you. Set a time limit (usually 5 minutes is enough). Talk about the story setting until time runs out. You can talk about anything concerning your setting. Your friend can only listen. Even if there’s a lull, you’ll eventually remember a sight or a sound and start talking again. You may even remember (or create, if it is a fictional place) a detail you had forgotten.

BOOKMARK THIS: Famous Books You Didn’t Know Were Censored

This week we have been examining banned and challenged pieces of literature that continue to face attempted censorship. Flavorwire compiled a list of famous books that most people would be surprised to find were censored. The article reads:

Most fans of literature and free speech will be well aware that censorship (or at least attempted censorship) is alive and well in the United States. Recently, a parent objected to the un-expurgated version of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, calling her descriptions of her budding sexuality “pornographic.” This person is rather behind the times — those passages were originally cut because of the chance that they might offend, but reinstated later on. But Frank isn’t the only author whose raciest passages were cut before publication.


Read the full article here.

PEN Center USA's Director of Programs and Events Michelle Meyering joined KCRW to discuss banned books and Forbidden Fruit, a showcase and reading featuring famously challenged titles. You can listen to the interview here.

For more information about Forbidden Fruit: A Banned Literature Showcase, please visit the Forbidden Fruit official event page.

To Outline or Not To Outline

I tend to cringe at formulas, probably because I was never any good at math or chemistry. If I studied hard enough before a test, I might do okay. But in due time, I’d forget everything. So it stands to reason that when it comes to writing fiction, I tend to reject anything that smacks of formula on principle.

On the one hand, this is good. No one wants his or her work to feel “formulaic.” On the other, rejecting form altogether is problematic and rarely works. For my taste, experimental writing is only engaging when done really well. And even then, you’d probably find some form if you looked hard enough.

But what about using a formula to plan a piece of work before you’ve even begun?

For some work this is totally necessary, like architecture, set design, or rocket-building. But in writing, as well as other art forms, you can begin with no idea of where the piece will be going and hope to find your way along the way.

A lot of writers swear by this. Others outline. The degree of outlining can vary. Some might do brief, broad outlines, just so they know more or less where they might be going. They might even stop the outline before the end, so that at least something can surprise them along the way. Others will outline everything, knowing exactly where they’re headed. Apparently, J.K. Rowling did this with the entire Harry Potter series.

All well and good, but I’m no J.K. Rowling, nor do I want to be– except for the number of books she has sold of course. I still have issues with the outline because I fear it would take the fun out of writing the first draft, the sense of discovery. I’m reminded of the times I wrote treatments for screenplays, an insipidly dull and dry process (which, apparently, few read anymore, anyway).

Many of my favorite writers have claimed not to outline: George Saunders and Aimee Bender come to mind, and I think it shows. Most of their stories feel intuitive and so strange that I have a hard time imagining them plotting everything out. Same with now-classic short-story writers who helped advanced the form, like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, and Denis Johnson, who authored my still-favorite linked-story collection, Jesus’ Son. Most of their work does not follow a well-worn path, and, though I’m sure they were all worked on and polished over long periods of time, the best ones retain an immediacy: the sense that the narrator is telling the story in the moment, just opening it up and letting it fly. The trick is to do the work, but not feel the work in the final product.

I’ve only vaguely considered form with some pieces, and probably wasted some time because of it. For my current collection, I’ve re-written stories several times over, without ever considering some of the basic story elements. Once I had characters and an interesting premise, I’d work more at improving the writing itself – finding the freshest language, trimming the fat, making the sentences sing. Yet, all of that time can be wasteful if the basic story falls flat, as happens if I haven’t considered some of the essential story components, like what the character thinks they want, how this may or may not be what they need, how they try to get it, the issue that holds them back, etc.

I think my ideal formula is this: write a first draft with no outline. Then once I’ve got a vague notion of where the draft could go based on that, answer some of these basic questions and, yes, even write a short outline detailing how the story might get from a to b to c.

The only aspect that troubles me, as summarized in the book Wired for Story that I’ve been reading, is the final piece of the puzzle: what does the story have to say about human nature? For me, this treads a bit too closely to a moral, or to over-simplification. That’s why I usually use several thousand words per story. Because, like most things that matter in life, it can’t be summed up in thirty or less!