Archive for literature

Three Readings, One Week

Posted in Moments of Clarity with tags , , , , , on 10/20/2015 by Janet Fitch

An embarrassment of riches– three readings this week!

Wednesday night, October 21st, at the LA Lit Crawl in North Hollywood.  I’ll be reading with ‘Literary Locavore’ in celebration of Literature for Life, where I’m going to read from my YA Novel KICKS for the first time in 20 years. Reading with Andrew John Nicholls, Susan Straight, Jervey Tervalon and six others, at Skynny Kitchen, 8 p.m. Lit Crawl NoHo is an incredible evening, forty events all in walking distance–we’ll be reading after the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. 

 Saturday Night, October 24th, I’ll be reading something dramatically different, with two remarkable poets, the mysterious Beau Sia and the charismatic Derrick Brown at The Best Poetry Hour, 8 p.m., Art Share LA (801 E.4th Street, Downtown LA)

 Sunday Evening, October 25th. An extremely rare appearance with ALL the members of my own writing group!  Yes, the dashing David Francis, the ferocious Rita Williams and the elusive Julianne Cohen, and me–on stage together.  Don’t miss it!  Certain family resemblances may become evident.  at Tongue & Groove, Hotel Cafe, Hollywood.

Four Literary Questions

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , on 12/29/2014 by Janet Fitch
This question was posed for me by a reader on my Goodreads page. For me, the best questions are the ones that make me think more deeply about the issues involved. This was a good one:
 “What makes a great story/book? There are so many writers out there, but only a few get any acclaim, and some of the best posthumously. It is a herd mentality that snowballs into popularity?”
The questioner is actually asking four separate questions here.
1. What makes a great story?
2. What makes a great book?
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim?
4. Is it a herd mentality that snowballs a book into popularity.
I answered them in order–but Number 2 is the one that interests me most.
1. A great story is one which satisfies the question it raises in the beginning. It can be a very subtle question, about love, say, or loyalty, or an obvious one, ‘who killed Colonel Mustard and why,’ and satisfies it in a way that was continually surprising, that’s both suspenseful–even oddly so–and pays off along the way in terms of its central question, as well as at the end. Story is setup and payoff. A novel is a series of payoffs. But there is alignment, it doesn’t jump the rails.
2. A great book is far more than a great story. A great book, and I mean greatness–a great book deepens our understanding of the human condition. A great book moves us, it shapes us. On the technical level, a great book will have us torn between the urge to read on–to satisfy suspense, what we call ‘profluence’ ie. what’s going to happen?????–and the urge to stay and reread that sentence because its so bloody beautiful, moment to moment. The exquisite tension between beautiful writing and compelling story is the greatest of all pleasures. And then to be continually thinking more and more deeply about life and our own humanity, add that in, and you have Greatness.
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim? Because out of the 400,000 or so books published in English this year, or the 100 million books in existence today, there are only going to be a certain number who meet the criterion of #2–greatness. Of these, so much depends upon a sensitive connection between publisher and public. That’s why real book critics are so terribly important and the loss of stand-alone book review sections in newspapers–and the loss of newspapers–across the country so imperils the whole literary project. Acclaim–real acclaim, recognition of greatness and the ability of great readers to find those books and acclaim them–is a very dicey prospect, luck plays all too big a part in it. There are a lot of writers but not a lot of greatness in any generation. It’s locating the greatness and then allowing that to reach the readers that’s always the issue. Why posthumous books often get more recognition is that the often horrible event of a writer’s death calls attention to their work, and if greatness is involved, there’s the huge regret that there will be no more of their work, and that somehow we readers might have been more attentive, might have somehow saved that writer.
4. The question of popularity and the question of acclaim are two very very different ones–hard to accept, maybe, in this time of ‘ranking likes’ instead of ranking greatness. We all like a bag of Doritos from time to time, but we all know the difference between chemically treated snack food and a fine and nourishing meal. Popularity means that various aspects of reading matter, a story, a self-help or whatever, meet people’s needs in a satisfying way. They might not be literary needs–see #2–and often aren’t. They might be the need to escape some heavy-duty personal problems for a while. They might be the need to tag along on an adventure. They might be a way to vicariously live a dream life. If they perform their function successfully, people talk about it, and then their friends hear about it.
It’s not so much ‘herd mentality’ as it is the contagious excitement of something people have found entertaining, useful, pleasant, interesting or meaningful in some way–and it can be excitement of a literary nature too. Fine writers can be exceedingly popular–Tolstoy was very popular in his time, as was Dickens and Twain. In our time, we have John Irving, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, George Saunders, John Le Carre, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo, Jonathan Lethem, TC Boyle, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison. Naturally, that’s the sweet spot. To strive for greatness, to tell a great story, to have some acclaim and some popularity–what more can writer hope for?

Publication Day, No Stopping Train

Posted in Moments of Clarity, Upcoming Events with tags , , , , , on 10/14/2014 by Janet Fitch

It’s been a full year since my friend, the writer Les Plesko died. That night, I watched his YouTube station, over and over again, and wrote the poem On Watching Your YouTube Channel Late at Night.

At the time, I wrote that his magnum opus, the brilliant No Stopping Train, “set in the Hungary of his birth and circulated privately among his friends” had never been published. Now, a year later, that book is entering the world. Prospects look good. So many emotions crowd in on me tonight.  I did a long email interview yesterday with David Ulin, the book critic from the L.A. Times, which ran in short form on the Times literary blog Jacket Copy, and at full length on the Les Plesko website Pleskoism.  But the thinking, and remembering, has brought me to the place of–as a student of his posted, “very glass half full.”  I don’t know if the glass is half full or empty or completely overflowing or downright broken.  All of the above. He wanted that book to be published so much, published well, appreciated.  And here it is. And he is not.  I want to celebrate, and I know I will, but tonight I just feel bereft.

Your book born today

Into the arms of old friends

How like you it looks.

Tomorrow, an interview on KCRW, our local NPR station, with Lisa Napoli, on its ‘journey to publication.’  That torturous path. Can I get my chin off my knees? It is such a beautiful book, a rigorous book, a real barn-burner. If I think about the book and not the ‘journey to publication’, I feel so incredibly happy.  So glad such a thing has come into the world, and is being greeted properly. One of the questions Ulin asked me was whether there was a hierarchy between his books, did he value some over others.  I said that he’d worked so very hard on this novel, there was such beauty, such labor, such rigor, he really wanted to see it — as an old friend put it— “walk down the aisle in a white dress.”

Now here it is, and he’s not there.  And it’s so beautiful in that dress, its shining veil.

An excerpt was from No Stopping Train was published in The Nervous Breakdown this week.  Read it–it’s everything I teach, everything I value in prose–the lyricism, the word choice, the rhythms, the tightness of the dialogue, the moodiness and texture of the landscape, the poetic devices–assonance and alliteration and rhyme. Such music.  The bigger issues interlocked with the human ones, love and betrayal, honor and affinity.  All honed to a glinting edge.

On Sunday, October 19, 6 p.m. in the Charles Young Salon at UCLA, where he taught so many students, for so many years, we, his old friends and students, will walk his book down the aisle. If you’re in town, please come.  For more information, click here.

What is Art For? Last round…

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , , , on 08/15/2011 by Janet Fitch

I challenged the young writers on Figment to send me questions this week related to the purpose of art–What is Art For?  Not just “why I write”–ie my own personal reasons for doing this rather obsessive activity–but the value of literature as a cultural phenomenon. What art does for the human soul.

Here’s the complete post:

What is Art For?

In the past three weeks, I’ve been thinking with you about writing and writer’s issues. But when we talk about What Is Art For? we’re now turning around and asking, not just why we do this personally, how it fulfills our own creative needs and urges, but also, why we read, why we as human beings require this thing called art, this thing called literature. What is it we need here, why do we turn to literature to examine some of the deeper questions common to us as human beings?  And then how does that mesh with the needs of the artist as one individual, to create this thing called art.

Do you hate it when teens try to write/create ‘deep’ pieces of art or writing and it ends up forced and artsy fartsy?

Do you think that sometimes there should be no hidden meaning in a work? Just beauty?

Here is an interesting paradox, everyone is looking for the meaning of life, but what if there is no singular encompassing meaning of life? Do you believe that the meaning of life is different for everyone then? (Cassy blue)

I think that one arrives at deep places through a detailed consideration of the conflicts and problems of human existence. What’s cheesy and forced is to try to “be deep” without going through the work of living through something and having the characters actively moving from their own problems to the bigger issues inherent in those problems, and then coming back into the specific, the real.  A writing teacher I had once used to say, If you can have a character eat dinner and think about dinner,  or eat dinner and think about God, have them think about God.  Move to the big issues. People read literature to help them think bigger, to help them get out of just fixing dinner or drying out the basement.  Great writing has a girl and a boy breaking up, but then the character thinking more deeply about love, is it a curse or a blessing, does it exist, etc.  While dealing with the actual love and dinner and homework on the physical level.  Art is “for” thinking more deeply about what it means to be a human being on this earth. Explain it to someone from Mars.  Not in the abstract, but in terms of what really happens to us day to day.

I don’t think in terms of a hidden meaning in a work. I think the meaning, the sense of what it is to be a human, the bigger issue, is always there if a work is art–like the wood of a table. It’s an intrinsic part of what’s going on.

But I do believe in meaning, not just beauty, when we’re talking about writing.  Because you’re unpacking human experience. Words are not just colors–they’re individual capsules of meaning, like atoms, and we work them into chains, like molecules, called sentences, and they become organisms, that are called stories. There’s nothing but meaning. Or at least the potential for meaning, if the writer wants really shape a great table.

There is no single encompassing meaning of life–or let’s say, I don’t think a work of fiction is designed to carry it.  But I think each story is reflective of the writer’s sense of the world.  Do good people get screwed? Is optimism a good thing even if things don’t always work out? Each story conveys its own sense of the world, its own view of life.

Beauty is like the sugar that makes the medicine go down.

Although usually I don’t know what I think until I’ve written a story, searching always for “what the heck DO I think?”  As a writer, I come to know my own attitudes and world view by creating stories that I think are true.

I think there are some great themes in human thought and that we write, and we read other people’s work, to think about them more deeply. To become more human, more aware, more thoughtful, to expand our lives and experiences by living other people’s lives as well as our own.

Some of this week’s questions have already been answered in earlier topics. If you can’t find the answer to your question below, look at the earlier posts (and then a link to find them).

Do you think art/literature/etc is supposed to have some deep and hidden meaning or just be clear and simple in what it’s trying to express? Which do you prefer: the abstract and convoluted type that makes you think, or the clean and clear type that is easy to understand?  And thanks for answering so many questions! ^___^ (Annie)

I think things can be easily accessible or presented in a more mysterious way… it’s always the writer’s choice.

Do you see writing as an art, or just a profession? What is the difference between being an author and being a writer? (Fish Fingers and Custard)

I see it as an art.  It’s a profession for very few people (i.e. they make a living at it.)  Making a living has nothing to do with creating art.  An author is a published writer.

As an artist myself, I know that good art can mean many things for many different people. So what do you look for in art? Should it have meaning, good technique, beauty or a certain style? (Zara Olympia)

I look for all of the above.

Do you think writing is something that will always evolve? If yes, why do you think it keeps evolving? (Storm Adrian)

I think certain things keep evolving, style, formatting, attitudes, morality… but that the human being will always look to narrative to explain in some way this chaotic world we human beings live in. What’s nice about fiction, say, is that you can see the problems we all face sooner or later–but when it’s in real life, it usually happens too fast and in too overwhelming a manner to think about. Fiction is sort of our asbestos gloves, they help us handle these really hot problems before we go through them ourselves, figure out what we think.

Why do you write? (Kaitlyn Watson)

Because I don’t know what I think before I write.

Do you see your writing as a statement about yourself or a statement about the world? (Astralhaze)

Ah… aren’t I part of the world?

What makes us want to create something? Is it for us or for others? (Charlotte Jordan)

Usually it’s for ourselves–from our point of view…. but if we want to produce something more than a doodle, we’re aware that the writer only writes part of a work, the reader creates the other part in his or her head.

Why do we all keep on going? Why don’t we just stop and give up when we have writer’s block? What do you think makes us try harder? (Violet)

We don’t all keep going. Only the people who love sentences and meaning and narrative and the imagination enough to want to suffer the insecurity and doubt and sheer grunt work will keep going.  We want to try harder because we want to get it right, and because we admire writers who have gone before us.

How do you know you’re a writer? What makes us different from other artists? When do you know it’s the right time to let a story go and move on? (Caspian)

If you write, you’re a writer. Different from other artists in that we handle units of meaning. Our work really has no materials but ideas in the reader’s head.  We create a world in someone else’s mind.  I let a story go when I’ve finished it and it still doesn’t satisfy me.

Does art and writing really have a meaning or are we making up meanings? (Zara Olympia)

I don’t think there’s any difference, in the case of writing.  Not necessarily a hidden meaning, like a secret drawer, but the work itself resonates meaning.

Is a picture really worth a thousand words? (Incendio)

No. Especially not now in the age of photoshop!  (That was in the day of “I’ll believe it when i see it.”)  They do two different things. I don’t think they’re interchangeable.

I get inspired to write by my art, and I am inspired to paint by my writing. DO you feel the same way about writing and another form of art like I do? (Savannah Ettinger)

Yes, that’s why I’m always exposing myself to the other arts.  Definitely.

Art describes things with pictures whereas writing describes things with words. Which is better to you, describing things with words or pictures? Which one is more eloquent? (Zara Olympia)

I wouldn’t ordinate them.

Is the meaning of different stories easier to find then the meaning of different art pieces? (Zara Olympia)

The word, the literary arts, are nothing but meaning.  Visual art stirs us on other levels.

Should art show a story or convey emotions, or do both? (Zara Olympia)

The story is the means to create the emotion.

What is your favorite thing about art? (Zara Olympia)

It reaches into the deepest parts of our souls. It makes us more human, it helps us understand the reality of other human beings.  It creates empathy and dignity and respect.

What is your favorite medium? (Zara Olympia)

The word.

What is your favorite color? (Zara Olympia)

Depends. Like green a lot now. But have a lot of red in my house, my car is red.

What inspires you to draw and write? Is it the way something looks, an object that sparks an idea? (Zara Olympia)

The challenge. Can I describe this? Can I use words to capture that light, the way it’s falling on that tree?

If you could have any piece of art which one would you have? (Zara Olympia)

Piece of visual art?  Sigh… Van Gogh’s Arlesienne? Degas’ Red Room (lady with fan)?  Vuillard’s big garden on brown paper?

Have you ever seen any of your stories “come to life” in the real world? (Deepshikha)

I find that I write things and people say, “Oh, that exact thing happened to me.” Often. It’s a thrill.

What is your muse, what inspires you to write, and why do you write? (Emiana West)

Great writers of the past are my muses. They were the ones who made me want to write.

When you write, do you ever feel it is pointless, like no one really cares? What keeps you going? (Lucy)

No.  I never feel it’s pointless. I do it because I am curious, and I like the life of the imagination.

Have you ever written a small unpublished book about food, people eating food, nutella, or some food that has been poisoned? Those books are really interesting if you think about it… (Britt. That’s It.)

You should always put food in your work. Food, someone to worry about, some kind of battle or cause or desire, and light.

What inspires and motivates you? (Megan G)

Writing itself inspires me. I write a sentence I wasn’t intending to write.  Wow!  Where does that go?

How do you develop characters? Do you model them after someone you know, or make them up completely? And how do you decide on their names? (Megan G)

They’re usually a piece of myself that want to be expressed in the form of someone who’s not me.  I get their outer form from other people, even actors.  I just feel my way into their names.

Would you still write if you couldn’t share your work? (Hyphen Norso)


Do you understand modern art? (In general, I don’t…so just wondering.) (Holly Blackwood)

Art needs to be felt–there’s also a history, each work is in conversation with the art of the past and the times in which it’s created.

In your opinion, what defines an artist? (Holly Blackwood)

Someone who wants to express something inside using materials of art.

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. Do you agree? (Holly Blackwood)

Depends on the picture, depends on your words.

In your opinion, is a writer an artist? (Holly Blackwood)

A writer with the goal of creating art is an artist. Without – just a laborer.

What are your favorite types of art? (Holly Blackwood)


How do you think an artist differs from a writer? (Holly Blackwood)

A visual artist vs. a literary artist?  Fiction writers work with narrative which is meaning and time. Visual art can be seen all at once, and is not about meaning necessarily.

How do you feel about the smell of paint? (Holly Blackwood)

(I hate it.)  I like oil paints. My aunt was a painter, it reminds me of her.

What do you think motivated VanGogh to chop off his ear? (Holly Blackwood)

Don’t remember.  He was mentally ill at the time, I think.

Do you buy individually sliced cheese? (Holly Blackwood)


(I just had to ask) Sorry for the question overload and thanks for your time! (Holly Blackwood)

After finding inspiration, how do you go about putting it into words? (Sofie Stone)

I start in, and the words roll. Then I question the words–’it was high’–well, how high was it?

Can I think a bigger thought here?

How far out of your personal experiences do you feel you can accurately write? (Rachel H.)

As far as the imagination will take you.  But then make sure you check after you’ve written and make sure you get it right.

When you think of art, do you think of one kind of art (such as just writing, or just theater arts)? (Maria E.B. Brandt)

Love all the arts.

Some of my friends love writing, yet are afraid to show their (wonderful!) writing to the world. What would you say to them? (Maria E.B. Brandt)

Show it to someone they KNOW will love it, loves them and will love whatever they do. Never criticize or “help” someone in this position.

Art and writing is a way of describing yourself, so how do you think your art and writing describes you? (Zara Olympia)

Ah. In some ways it’s a perfect blueprint of me and my anxieties and interests. But this will have to remain mysterious.

Do you put part of yourself in your art and writing? (Zara Olympia)

Yes, absolutely. My heart, my soul, my everything.

Which do you think can hold the most meaning at a glance: a picture or the written word? (Nox Zand)

A picture. It’s experienced all at once, where fiction or even poetry, is experienced, in time, one word after another. A person with Alzheimer’s can enjoy a painting or a bit of music but cannot assemble words into a narrative in their minds.

Have you ever written about a bad experience to cope (or maybe just a conversation with your friend, you know, something like that) and then it just blows up into something bigger? Not necessarily a novel but something developed and plotted and whatnot? (ASM Michellins)

Sure, all the time. But fictionalized, happening in a heightened or clearer way.


Are you a writer that draws on events and places in your life for settings and book? (Cassy blue)

Yes, but in disguise.

Do you feel that writing about your hometown could mark you as being lazy? (Cassy blue)

Absolutely not.  Who knows it better than you? Ask Faulkner, he wasn’t lazy at all.

Have you ever considered turning your books into comics or graphic novels? (Cassy blue)

No. Though it would be fun to do one from scratch.

Do you draw your characters before you can write the book, otherwise it is futile? (Cassy blue)

No, I know some of them and as I write, I get to know them better.

“Which came first the chicken or the egg?” Do you hate questions like that? (Cassy blue)

The egg came first.  Because before the chicken there was a lizard, which also laid eggs. And before that a fish, that also had eggs.

Have you ever felt that you need to finish a story, even though another story calls you so enticingly? (Cassy blue)

Often that other story entices you because it’s hard to finish a story. Make a few notes and go back to your story.

When your computer doesn’t work, do you view this as a punishment by the universe? lol (Cassy blue)

No, I usually think it’s my fault for not backing up.

Do you visualize what your character will be like before putting pen to paper? (Marissa S.)

Yes, in a fuzzy sort of way.

Do you like Harry Potter? Why or why not? (Venatrix Captrix)

I am a big proponent of people reading books that are a little harder than what they can comfortably read. Harry Potter would be right for someone nine or so.  I have nothing against it, but I think people who are capable of reading tougher books should read ‘up’.