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Scott Lax Blog

Should Writers Have a Sense of Justice?

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, at some point you'll face the question of whether you should have a sense of justice about the world in which you write.

Since you possibly come here for advice I'll give it: Yes, you should.

Twain, Dickens, Toni Morrison, Milan Kundera, Ernest Gaines... they and many others have a sense of justice in their writing. You can tell a great story and still have a moral center -- even if the story is raw and violent. You can tell it through poetry; through children's, middle grade or young adult fiction; through essay and nonfiction; through short story or novel. Whether from a religious or secular point of view, that's your business. Even if you're simply out to entertain, at the heart of your work there should be conviction...in something. (Even existentialism.)

The world isn't always a pretty place. Writers should have the courage to speak out and up against injustice, in whatever form they choose. And if you are serious about writing with heart and conviction, you'll need courage.  Read More 

On Phillip Roth and Devotion to Writing

I'm reading Phillip Roth lately - one of his novels I somehow missed over the years, PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT - as well as a chronology of Mr. Roth's work and life, and various interviews with him.

What emerges isn't a surprise, but is perhaps worth noting here. Mr. Roth doesn't boast; he doesn't lecture; he doesn't rant. He talks eloquently about his books, and a few other subjects. He has a humility that is, I think, borne of the life-long suffering and achievement and hard work. Hard work. Writing...nearly always writing. Yes, it’s true that he hit it big when he was young and gained a foothold in a different age - one that better supported literature; but he worked hard.

His generation of authors - the recently departed Mailer and Updike and Bellow; and the still with us Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates and Doctorow and others... what a great generation of writers of which he's a part.

I’m concerned about the distractions that younger, modern authors face. From the excesses and inanities of social media - how many millions of short stories and novels have been twittered away? and how many potential audiences don’t have the patience or inclination toward anything longer than 140 characters? - to the difficulty of surviving as an author in today's market, where there are fewer vehicles in which to publish and earn a living, to the harshness of modern America that doesn’t hold literature in the esteem it once did, to the MFA factory produced literary fiction, to the "entertainers" (as Roth calls them; he won't call them writers, but does credit them with a certain magic) like Nora Roberts and James Patterson on the other end of the spectrum... how will authors produce pure, original, non-formulaic voices like Roth's?

No answer here. I just write about it. And write in general. That’s all anyone can do. Oh, and may Roth continue his great work for as long as possible. Read More 

You're a Writer - Protect Your Rights and Your Career

Every time I give a workshop or class, some student invariably asks me about how to submit to journals (including e-journals); how to copyright his or her material; about contracts, payments, marketing and all the things associated with writing...other than writing.

I understand the confusion, because we live in a society where writing, especially freelance writing, is thought of as something other than a real business. Some think its glamorous (it's not, except in rare cases, and then only for a minute); some think it's easy (it's not); some think it's impossible (it's not, it just takes a huge amount of effort and sacrifice and learning).

Once in a while, some think that it is what it is -- an art, a craft, and, for some, a business. Fortunately, some smart people have published books about it.

Rather than rephrasing what is already available, I'm going to answer some basic questions with what may seem like an easy answer, but the truth is that this is the best way for you to learn to do this right.

Don't pay to learn these things at a workshop. You can make a few modest investments and learn them on your own time.

The first thing you need to do is purchase, new or used, or borrow, from a friend or the library, WRITER'S MARKET. Read it. It will teach you how to query, how to find an agent, how to submit you materials, etc. Do what it says to do. Don't get cute or clever or use gimmicks to get noticed by an agent or editor, such as sending flowers or an e-card. Just do what WM says to do, and you can't go too far wrong.

As for the legal issues, unless you have a good agent, consider buying the THE WRITER'S LEGAL GUIDE, published by the Authors Guild. Be wary of advice from the Internet, which may or may not be accurate.

So there you are: two books, two investments. I can tell you first-hand that if you don't have an adequate contract in place, regarding rights, or publication, or whatever, the chances of you getting shafted are decent.

Protect yourself, and your writing. It's a product, and you are the producer. If it's also excellent art, or art at all, so much the better.  Read More 

Fiction's Possibilities

As the literary world and many others celebrate or acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the death of Mark Twain, here's one of my favorite of his quotes: "Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't."

What this means to me: For right now, I'm wondering how many people I actually reach through op/ed pieces or personal essays. People have their opinions and rarely give thought to other, conflicting opinions.

Yet fiction can go through, into, around a subject. It can go deep, using the sensibility -- another word for soul -- of the author to gain insight into the world.

Maybe that's why I'm writing almost nothing but fiction these days. What I have to say for now I can say best with fiction. I believe in essays and memoirs; it's just that to every writer there is a season. This is mine for fiction.

I've have a new short story published online within a couple of weeks. You can check back here for a link to it.  Read More 

How Reading Can Make You Thinner and Healthier: Or, The Emperor's New Clothes are Filled with Fat, Salt and Sugar

The blogosphere, like the country, is saturated with fat. And there’s an odd paradox happening, as well. It goes something like this:

Some sophisticated writers, bloggers, hipsters, etc., are doing two conflicting things: they’re bemoaning (correctly) the widening girth of a McDonald's culture, they’re watching, and are horrified by (understandably), “Food Inc.,” and they’re ripping on (also correctly) processed foods. At the same time, though, they’re promoting and extolling the virtues of excessive salt, refined sugars, and lots and lots of fat by turning the restaurant scene into a new kind of rock show, with chefs as rock stars. At its worst, it’s a kind of in-your-face-I’ll-eat-what-I-want mentality, a rebelliousness against a baby boomer movement that unfortunately became known as “health food.” Those words, “health food,” have become the disco balls of the culinary world. So let’s banish them. Goodbye “health food,” and hello “good food.”

Months ago, because of the ridiculous fetishizing of bacon, of all things, and the retro-swooning over sugar bombs like cupcakes, I made a joke on this blog about a bacon-wrapped cupcake, which, at the time, didn’t exist. Little did I know that one of the rages in Cleveland, and I suppose, elsewhere, would become…a bacon milkshake.

This monstrosity was created by an old friendly acquaintance of mine. He’s a great guy, and recognized as one of America’s finest and most successful chefs. But, I mean… a bacon milkshake? Organic or not, it’s an arterial nightmare.

And that’s one, small example. I don’t want to take on other friends who write about the wonders of dining out and eating large, because dining out is one of life’s nice things, and there are wonderful restaurants, and Cleveland is becoming a respected food town. But I do want to make a counter-point to certain trends.

Food is out of control in much of America, partly because people simply don’t understand what’s happening to their bodies after food enters their mouths. I’m one who responds to words, but the 2006 book, YOU: ON A DIET, by Michael F. Roizen, M.D., and Mehmet C. Oz, M.D., is a book I resisted until this year. I’m terribly glad I bought it and read it, though.

As corny as the writing is, and as obvious as much of it may be to many of you, it’s nonetheless a very important book. Because for someone like me, someone who, out of stress or hurry or stupidity, packed on pounds now and again, and here and there over the decades – someone like me needed to read about what that food actually does to the human system…scientifically. It’s not written pseudo-scientifically or faddishly. It’s science. It’s about molecules, and enzymes, and our hearts and our livers and our arteries and our brains and things we don’t really want to think about when it comes to food.

I already know what bacon and milkshakes (much less bacon milkshakes) do to taste buds. They excite them; they gratify them, and our brains. Of course they do: because our systems have a built-in craving for salt and sugar and fat – these are the things we need to live, and our systems were adapted to store them as a defense against famine. But we’re not in a famine in the U.S. (Unfortunately, too many places in the world can't say that.) So too much of them – and a little goes a long, long way – can be deadly.

Yet when we get too much of these foods our bodies go into overdrive, and desperately try to process this excess. Enter metabolic syndrome. Which kills as surely as smoking, and sometimes more quickly.

I’m glad people are interested in cooking. I’m grateful to writers like my old friend Michael Ruhlman, who has inspired so many to cook at home. He, too, has done a service to eaters and readers.

But readers and eaters (I assume we're all both) should understand that moderation matters, and that we need to eat plants, and fruits, and healthy fats, like nuts and fish, and whole grains – all in larger quantities, and food that’s hard on our systems in much smaller quantities. Or no quantities.

When I started reading YOU: ON A DIET, my attitude toward food began to become more mindful – and more realistic. I’m dropping fat easily (and walking a lot, and working out, so as not to lose muscle), and plan on dropping a good deal more. (Including where you can't see it -- the subcutaneous kind). There’s nothing romantic about over-indulging. I see it everywhere; and I’ve been part of it. I want to be part of the solution now, not the problem. For me, reading was a key ingredient to nudging and changing my thinking: it helped me to understand the science behind food and what it does to us. I know…we all know these things already. But, for me, to read it…it helped. It made sense.

If you allow your taste buds to settle down and take a break from chemicals and refined sugar and loads of fat and salt, you might be surprised at how delicious certain foods can taste. Nuts, fruit, whole grains and vegetables, for example. Going a while without refined sugar or fat and salt bombs (hot dogs, bacon, cupcakes) turns an apple into the sweetest treat you can imagine, and a handful of nuts into a true pleasure.

As for the writing in YOU: ON A DIET…It’s not great literature. But that’s okay; it’s accessible to the layperson, but most important, for someone like me, the authors really explain how important, how medicinal, how vital healthy food is – and how damaging overly fatty, salty, sugary food can be. They’ve done a great service to those who read it. We need to reverse this societal trend. I’m reversing my own. No self-righteousness here: I’m in the same boat as many of you.

Now back to reading good fiction and literary nonfiction. And watching one of my new favorite shows with Lydia: “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” on ABC.

And when I get hungry while watching it, I reach for an apple or some almonds. Real food – one ingredient each- can taste great. Talk about your comfort food. Have you tried a single, fresh, juicy pear lately? Sometimes I stick I walnut or almond in each slice. It’s not boring – it’s delicious. Honest. I’ll take that over a bacon milkshake any day, and I can almost hear my arteries sigh in relief.

I don’t mean to offend my old compadres; I’m sure you’ll still have lines down the block at your restaurants. I’m likely yelling into the wind, but some Cleveland blogger has to say it: The emperor has no clothes; or rather, the emperor’s clothes are coated in fat, salt and sugar.

Have an apple, take a walk, read about how your body and food work together, and happy writing, happy eating, and happy health to you and yours.  Read More 

Another Type of Conflict You Can Use

When you want to insert conflict into your stories, you're not limited to conflict between people, or between man or woman and nature. You can use internal conflict, which is, simply put, "a character's struggle against himself or herself." (NTC's DICTIONARY OF LITERARY TERMS.)

A good example of this is Holden Caulfield's internal conflict in CATCHER IN THE RYE. Read More 

"Discovering" Janet Frame

I've just "discovered" Janet Frame (1924-2004). I recommend her short story in the April 5 New Yorker, "Gavin Highly." Magical,charming, heart-breaking; I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.  Read More 

So How Good is Jay McInerney?

I've just completed Jay McInerney's new and collected story collection, HOW IT ENDED. While I've been reading nonfiction and some other books during my reading of it, I nonetheless read it pretty much straight through.

I think McInerney should be considered one of the best American story writers. You can dislike his subject matter (often rich, entitled New Yorkers from one place or another, and their sometimes annoying first-world problems), but it's awfully hard to dispute his heartfelt telling, and his deep respect for and command of the English language. He's usually compared (somewhat unfavorably) to Fitzgerald -- though any comparison is a compliment, something akin to playing in the NFL and losing…after all, you're still good enough to play in the NFL -- because of their themes. I think that misses the point.

While both authors story material dwells on the desire for wealth, glamour, sophistication, romance (and loss of same), and while both have characters that, while flawed, are nonetheless privileged beyond what most can ever imagine, that's not what makes them comparable. (It does make them interesting, and at least McInerney stays true to what he calls his “obsessions.”)

No, not that…rather, it's their ability to tell stories with deceptively simple, hard-won wisdom and a languid, terrified grace.

While McInerney constructs breathtakingly good sentences on occasion, his short-storytelling on whole isn't as perfect as Fitzgerald's, at his best. Yet. But he's still healthy, at least I hope he is, and his recent stories are moving in a different direction, deeper instead of wider, perhaps, and he has time to move into Philip Roth and Tobias Wolff territory. Maybe. Who knows? Fitzgerald drove a dagger into the heart of some of his endings, McInerney uses a pen-knife, and sometimes a pin. His endings are often good... they just don't destroy you like Fitzgerald's. But some come close.

And he understands wine like he understands writing. Which is to say -- and I'm projecting hopefully -- that McInerney, a highly entertaining wine writer as well ( an admirable day gig) understands that what he still has to learn about both wine and storytelling is unlimited. As it should be.

Finally, his main character in the last story in his collection, "The Last Batchelor," drives sixteen hours to Bread Loaf to punch a poet in the nose. While my best friends at Bread Loaf tended to be poets, and I never wanted to punch one in the nose, I did enjoy that scene, which brought back a memory:

One night at the "Barn" at Bread Loaf, long ago, I think I broke up a potentially vicious fight. A disgruntled contributor went after a faculty member that he thought gave the contributor’s significant other short shrift at workshop. “Turn around, lower your fists, or you’ll regret what you’re about to do for the rest of your life,” I said, quite stupidly, and stood between him and the burly faculty member who looked like he was about to clean his clock. To my shock and and great relief, the contributor backed off. I heard he left the conference.

But I digress. McInerney is a very fine writer. If nothing else, you may want to read him for his elegant and brightly constructed sentences. If you enjoy his stories, so much the better.  Read More 

How Effective is Writing Under the Influence?

John Irving, interviewed in The Paris Review, once talked about how he thought of excessive drinking in regard to writing. "They [Hemingway and Faulkner] should have gotten better as they got older; I've gotten better." He then said, "You know what [D.H.] Lawrence said: 'the novel is the highest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered. I agree! And just consider for one second what drinking does to subtle interrelatedness.' Forget the 'subtle'; 'interrelatedness' is what makes novels works - without it, you have no narrative momentum; you have incoherent rambling. Drunks ramble; so do books by drunks."

Okay, look: No one is saying that if you can handle alcohol on something resembling a moderate basis (what moderation is up to you), you shouldn't write novels. But I am saying this: the 20th Century romantic image of the whisky soaked drunk writing brilliantly mid-day is a myth, and a dangerous one at that.

Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and on and on -- were taken down early by drink. Imagine what Fitzgerald could have written. Imagine what Hemingway could have written, had they stayed sober, if not moderate in their tastes.

How many artists do we have to see ruined by excess before writers -- of all thoughtful people -- realize that booze and drugs and cigarettes and the rest can eventually do you in long before your creative time is up?

I'm writing this primarily for you younger writers. If you think those double-visioned (or triple if you've broken out the tequila) words are brilliant beyond belief, just wait until you read them in the light of day. They're likely drivel.

Writing is a craft, not just an art -- it requires, as Irving said, a vigorous, invented memory. That's hard to come by on any serious level while hammered or stoned.

Some can drink more than others. Some can drink some wine or beer or whatever and write well. Some can do the same with other substances. But as a rule, don't romanticize it. John Irving said of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, "[They] really lived to write; their bodies and their brains betrayed them."

It's not much different with the brilliant young actors that seem to die too often and always too soon. So for you young writers: get a grip. If you want to write, learn to do it sober. If you imbibe, save it for your musings that no one need see, or for your book party. (And not for Facebook or Twitter, where millions can read your woozy musings.) And even then, watch what you say.

If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, take your writing seriously first. If you're young, forget about writing high - and I don't suggest using at all while your synapsis are forming. Don't fry your brain before you even have a chance to develop it. You want to get inspiration for a poem or short story? Take a walk. Feel the wind and watch the sky. Tap into honest emotions. Then go home and write. Read More 

When Conflict is a Good Thing

I agree with the great writing teacher, Sol Stein, who uses the Actor's Studio Method to teach writing. I've been incorporating this method for some time. Here are two aspects of this method that you may want to consider: What is disagreeable in life is often invaluable in writing; and conflict is the ingredient that makes action dramatic.

There has to be conflict for your fiction to work at all. It can be psychological conflict, or out-and-out fighting between or amongst people. Or the conflict with a person and the weather, say a hurricane. But conflict is essential.

Remember that the next time a reader in your workshop says, "I like the writing, but it doesn't seem to go anywhere." If you don't know where to go with it, create a conflict.  Read More