Monday, August 11, 2014

TALKING OF WRITING WITH JOHN MICHAEL FLYNN


We moved the table out of the sun and under the trees
Yesterday our friend John Flynn came over for lunch. We sat underneath the trees all afternoon with my husband Ben and our good friends Helen, Steve and Connie.  John is on his way to Khabarovsk in far Eastern Russia - 500 miles from Vladivostok, where he's going to teach for a year. I met him a few years back while we were teaching at community college and the two of us, a couple of misfits, soon became as he calls it 'soul brothers and sisters'.  We talked to each other about writing and the endless slog of publication.

 I've always been amazed at John's output. This year, for instance, he has published two chapbooks States and Items (Leaf Garden Press) and Additions to our Essential Confusion (Kattywompus Press) as well as a novel A Million Miles From Tehran.  He writes under his name,  John Michael Flynn as well as under the pen name Basil Rosa.

Yesterday we talked about his new books, a little bit about my book too, about teaching and about writing to spec, and we had some good laughs.  I wanted to know what he thought about the different impulses behind writing poetry and writing fiction, and I don't think I'm overstating it here, but it seems that after you've been hard at the craft for years, the figurative writing, the celebration of language, the truly inspired  can be the writing that comes most quickly.  The less decorative, straightforward simple stuff - making all that work well almost behind the scenes - that can take years!

This is some of what John said.

"I started writing poetry when I was really young. I’ve always written poems as far as I can remember. I kept little black books of my poems and it was a private thing and when I was in college I started sending them out. They always got rejected....A lot of it was about going places - traveling, and I would just write, like taking pictures.  Maybe a poem is a little picture of a place or moment, so I’ve always done that.  And I just keep doing it.

"The poems Wave and Metronome (Pudding House Chapbook Series, 2010) a lot of those are inspired by time spent on the ocean – and time I spent as a commercial fisherman.

"But States and Items  I wrote those as a group. That’s a unique collection in that all the other poems have come out of years of my life. States and Items just happened in a very concentrated way in a short period of time, and I saw them in that way. There’s this group about states of mind and states of being and then there's this group about the material world. The synchronicity between the superficial and the material and the cerebral and the inner life. I was obsessed with that and they just came out of me in that way.

"I never even submitted those to any magazines. I put the collection together and I submitted it as a complete stranger to this publisher and he accepted it as a collection so I just felt like that was a collection that was meant to be. 

"But you know, this happened after 25 years of writing poems and sending them out  - you know what I mean?... and then that happened in a very short period of time. I mean it was a burst and I don’t mean over night… six months."

We talked about that 'blink' kind of moment - the way something that used to take hours can, after years of practice, now happen fairly quickly. But for him, John said, writing fiction was different.

"You start with writing long fiction, and as you know – it's not a sprint it’s a marathon. So you think, all right, I’m going to start this in July 2014. I’ll be lucky to have a first draft a year from now.

"But if I write a page a day, after a year I’ll have 365 pages.  A draft at least.  And the key, I’ve noticed, with writing long fiction is to get that first draft.

"What helped me a lot was working in journalism because you fall out of love with your language.

"The poetry, on the other hand, allows me to indulge a little and luxuriate in language and metaphor and experimentation.  Fiction is much more disciplined – about plot, narrative, character."

We talked about Karl Ove Knausgaard. You've all heard of him, right? He's the guy whose Proustian volumes entitled MY STRUGGLE has taken first Norway, then the rest of Europe and now the US by a storm.  I am currently reading Volume 1 - thanks to my friend  and fellow fiction writer Ananya Bhattacharyya.  There's this interview in Tin House where he says he started out trying to write about his father's life and death.  But then in order to write that he had to write this other bit, and then this other bit, and sooner or later this turned into volume after volume of the novel itself.

Yes, getting stuff down on the page, that's a lot of what it's all about. John hadn't read Knausgaard yet, and I got the sense he might not pick it up any time soon. He says he prefers to read detective novels.  "You know," he said. "Sit down and keep turning the pages, page by page, scene by scene.
That’s the stuff I like to read; that’s the stuff I like to write."

But poems? "The poems I more or less write to honor the subject matter I look at poetry as so much bigger than I am. I don’t like super personal poems although all poems are personal to a degree.

"You can play with language and language can be a part of it.  What you really have is inspiration."

We talked about work that is too carefully crafted, too in love with itself to invite the reader easily into the pages.

"I don’t know about you Amanda," John said, "but I don’t want to write that way.  Journals and automatic stuff, it was one phase after another. But if you're going to write for publication, you want an audience."

True, I said. But you also want to honor the craft - and you want the result to be something you are proud of.

"Some of this stuff happens really fast and sometimes there it is, It just feels right," he said.

"One thing I’ll do. I'll have that long project and I’ll have some short stories and a whole bunch of poems, and I’ll just switch off."

I told him how when I was writing my novel I Know Where I Am When I'm Falling, I had to let it go cold for a while. I wrote it originally in third person.  Then I realized it wasn't working. So I rewrote the whole book in first person.  But then I realized the narrator needed to be a character in her own right.  She couldn't just be a disembodied voice.  I then had to go back in and give her her own motivations and perspectives.  But what happens in this process is that after a while you almost can't bear to look at it. 

"Sometimes a long piece just feels stale to you because you’ve been working on it for so long," John said.

 I agreed.  But isn't that why, sometimes it's great when a passage, something spontaeous comes out quickly?  "One thing that’s good about not being afraid of [that spontaneity]," he said, "if you can work it into the energy of the narrative, that energy is there for the reader. But if you don't trust it, you can edit it right out." A mistake.

We talked about the way that James Joyce wrote, the way that Kerouac wrote.

"Whatever, when you’re drafting something out, you discover so much, in fiction," he said. "It's just crazy to say 'no, this is my idea,' and stick to it. It's like putting a straight jacket on it.

"Later you can go back and say I need a secondary character, another plot line. What helped me was working in the movie industry.  Even though nothing major I wrote was ever produced I did some short stuff that was produced but nothing major; it was constantly red ink. Everything I did!  I worked really hard and I'd go to see these guys at the end of the week – red lines through pages, and I'd go back and they'd say, 'why don't you try this or try that.'  All these edits.  They were never happy with anything I did, you know. But I learned. I learned that you can't fall in love with your own language. You can't fall in love with your own ideas.

"It’s a weird thing," he said. "You need to have the biggest ego in the world because when you start to put into perspective what you’re doing -  I’m devoting eight hours at the desk to this?
But at the same time you need to be humble you need to learn; you need to be listening.

"What I tell my students is the process is bigger than you are. Just take things and speak them in your own language. Try not to be decorative."

John Michael Flynn www.basilrosa.com