1. Try revising your draft as if someone who wasn’t a totally worthless, talentless hack was writing it.
2. Relax, remind yourself that no one who ever wrote anything worth a damn ever got blocked, and start researching trade schools in your area.
3. Find a work of literature that really inspires you and throw it in the garbage because you don’t deserve the pleasure of reading and all that inspiration was clearly some kind of illusion.
4. Go back to something you wrote previously, re-read it and take some time to contemplate how the rigors of aging have ruined your brain and deprived you of any promise you once had.
5. Catch the next flight to the Williamsburg-Newport News airport. When you land rent a car. Leaving the airport, take a right onto Denbigh Blvd, then another right onto Old Denbigh. Keep straight as Old Denbigh becomes Oriana Rd, continue on as Oriana Rd become Lakeside drive. Take a left on Victory Rd, then a right on Pond View. Park at the corner of Pond View and Wind Forest Ln, and walk to the end of the block. You’ll see a tan house, second from the end of the block. Go around back and look under the west corner of the deck, you’ll find a plastic goat mask and a parka. Remove your clothes and put these on, then come up onto the deck and wait for me, I’ll come to you, I’ll take care of everything.
6. Relieve some stress by screaming at your kids for laughing too loud (make sure you explain you’re just trying to break through a block, they’ll understand).
7. Try shaking up your routine by developing an addiction to a Schedule II narcotic.
8. Try urinating out into the yard through the mail slot in your front door (it’s not as easy as you’d think!)
9. Search the internet for advice on getting past a block. Search and search. See how many pages of results there are? So many. You know what all these pages, all these pages and pages have in common? You don’t? Better read them all, then.
10. Take a moment to reflect on the fact that being blocked while trying to write is a minor problem in the scope of the full human experience. Think of all the people starving, freezing, without shelter. Think of the refugees, think of all the people all over the world dying from easily treated diseases. All this, and you’re spending your day worried you can’t figure out what some imaginary character should say to some other imaginary character. Doesn’t that seem so meaningless, really? Isn’t that kind of a decadent problem? I mean, how unbelievably lucky you are, that writer’s block is your biggest problem. Did anyone ever throw acid in your face for the crime of trying to go to school? Isn’t that awful? And has anyone written a story about that kind of thing yet, or a poem? Maybe worth thinking about…maybe write something about that.
1. Try revising your draft as if someone who wasn’t a totally worthless, talentless hack was writing it.
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, due in the Fall, will miss its release date after Franzen becomes addicted to the PS Vita he got for Christmas and fails to finish the thing.
Kanye West will win the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, not for his lyrics but for the way he moves through the world.
Jonathan Lethem will be imprisoned after hijacking a city bus and forcing the terrified passengers to endure a nine-hour lecture on Philip K Dick’s use of the word ‘the’ in Valis.
Heather will dump that dickweed and we’ll get back together after she reads this super fucking sensitive poem I wrote for her.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Book Club initiative will result in Michiko Kakutani’s suicide.
Scientists will discover that if you get Joyce Carol Oates wet and feed her after midnight she transforms into TC Boyle.
Poetry that rhymes is coming back in a big way.
A team of researchers will finally discover how Infinite Jest ends.
30,000 BP (Before Present)—The first recorded Author Bio is created by a caveman in the Chauvet Caverns who, upon realizing that taking credit for a recently completed tableau depicting a successful hunting expedition might increase his sexual prospects amongst the female members of his tribe, mashes his paint-stained palm against a cave wall.
30,001 BP—The first irreverent Author Bio is created when that same caveman, disparaging of the fact that other members of his tribe are now marking their drawings with palm prints, some bigger and bolder than his own, breaks his pinky finger before ‘signing’ a sketch of a bison.
1952 – Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is published in Life magazine, accompanied by a biography that eerily predicts the date and time of Hemingway’s death down to the very minute.
1966—Reader’s of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood are shocked when in place of a traditional bio, the back cover of the first edition features a photograph of Capote standing over the grave of Perry Smith, totally nude, with a stack of one-hundred dollar bills balanced on his erect penis.
1979—Sprightly science fiction author Harlan Ellison makes history by crafting a 10,000 word Author Bio to accompany his 3,000 word short story Verily, the Calligrapher Cried.
1984 – The Iowa Writers’ Workshop offers the first ever 12-week course devoted to crafting the perfect Author Bio. The class is cancelled after twenty minutes into its first meeting when everyone in attendance simultaneously realizes they have accomplished absolutely nothing.
1991— Brett Easton Ellis expands an Author Bio originally written to accompany The Rules of Attraction and publishes it under the title American Psycho.
1996 – The Author Bio for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest features the last part of a cipher that, when combined with material in the novel, reveals the location of a vast fortune hidden somewhere in the continental United States. To this day the fortune remains undiscovered, although some claim that they’ll really get around to finishing the book soon, maybe over the holidays.
2005 – James Frey courts controversy when his novel My Friend Leonard, a sequel to his hit A Million Little Pieces, features an Author Bio claiming his birthdate as September 12, when in reality he was born right at midnight and technically should probably celebrate his birthday on the 13th.
2014 – The Author Bio for Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage features a long description of a cat eating a bowl of cold spaghetti and the complete track listing for Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s 1950 collaboration Bird and Diz, but no information at all about the author.
The storySouth Million Writers Award is now open for reader and editor nominations! So failbetter fans, give our writers a little love by nominating their deserving stories at:
Nominations will be accepted through 15 August 2014.
Where once the poetic community bemoaned a lack of readership, recently the problem has shifted—too many Americans are now endeavoring to produce poetry of their own. In a world where everyone considers themselves capable poets, artists with actual merit risk finding themselves subsumed in static, or worse, demonized as being no better than these poseurs. The poetry community hasn’t experienced such crisis since Frost came across a fork in the road (forgive the joke, I simply can’t help myself) and it is clear that a solution must be found, as this sudden zeal on the part of amateurs has already proven to be at best a nuisance, and actually dangerous in the most extreme cases.
For example, just the other day I was forced to endure an interminable wait in the check-out line at my local grocery store while the clerk, inspired by the image of two cantaloupes in a plastic sack, attempted to extemporize in free verse about the commodification of female flesh. All that his insipid mutterings accomplished was backing up the line so that by the time it was my turn to pay the ice cream in my cart had melted, Rocky Road reduced to debris strewn pond. And of course this example pales in comparison to the fact that the US Department of Labor has recently announced surges in both the jobless rate and the number of unemployment benefit applications arriving in Pantoum form, and especially in regards to the tragic tale of Flight 160, which ended abruptly in an Illinois cornfield after its pilot was suddenly overcome by the urge to compose a sestina describing the buttons on a first-class passengers overcoat, the scrap of paper containing these six clumsy lines being the only survivor of the crash.
Last month, in response to the crash of Flight 160 and the ensuing public outcry, the Institute for Higher Poetics released their list of approved poetic topics in an attempt to codify actual poetry and differentiate from amateur work, and while this was a valiant attempt I must agree with those who found the list sorely lacking. For example, the IHP lists ‘faded polaroid pictures of your former lover as a child’ and ‘sunlight breaking against a windowpane in your grandfather’s cabin’ on their approved list, but make no mention of ‘rusted combine tractors in an overgrown field’ or ‘inclement weather as metaphor for failed love.’ There are other major omissions as well, the most boggling perhaps being a complete dearth of entries regarding orchards of any kind. Can you imagine American poetry without any orchards? Would you want to? Perhaps this omission might be credited to the difficulty of the task and the limited amount of time they were given to complete it (the IHP was under some pressure from the White House, after all) but nevertheless many believe that the IHP’s attempt was ultimately futile, a glancing blow in place of the necessary total evisceration.
Luckily, I am prepared to offer what I believe will be a much more successful fix. The first phase of my plan calls for all currently practicing American poets of true merit to be quickly and quietly plucked from society and moved to a fortified compound deep in the Appalachian Mountains. According to my calculations, there are only twenty-seven American poets currently worthy of the title, so their sudden disappearance should go relatively unreported. It is likely that some poets will resist being uprooted and transplanted to a fortified compound far from their family and friends, but my hope is that once they become aware of the full scope of my proposal they will acquiesce.
Simultaneously, a group of carefully vetted academics will be tasked with sifting through the masses, searching for students who show actual poetic potential. Their findings will be forwarded to the mountain compound, where the twenty-seven poets in residence will select a single student from each of the fifty states (and possibly one from Puerto Rico, should a suitable candidate be found there) to invite to join them as students in the worlds most secretive and exclusive academy. The chosen twenty-seven will serve as their faculty, and I their headmaster.
Once the academy is established, phase two of my plan begins. This phase concerns the public perception and knowledge of poetry in American culture and calls for the immediate end of poetry education in every American school (save ours) at every level. Dedicate this class time instead to instruction in the maintenance of air conditioners, or tips for removing various stains from linen. In addition, the poetry section of every American bookstore must be removed, replaced with, perhaps, books on child rearing or how to carve intricate sculptures of exotic birds from driftwood. Bonfires will be held to destroy privately held volumes of poetry, these events festive in nature, with copious amounts of alcohol at discount prices available to participants and perhaps presided over by popular musical acts. I have already taken the liberty of reaching out to The Foo Fighter’s management inquiring as to their interest and am currently awaiting reply.
Those stubborn in their insistence on practicing amateur poetry will be discouraged and discredited by a series of television commercials in the style of the successful anti-smoking ads currently prevalent in prime time. Perhaps one commercial might depict a hip teenage boy attempting to exchange a chapbook of Haiku for condoms only to be rebuffed due to his lack of actual funds, then cut to the boy’s future when his failure to procure the prophylactics has resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, and him forced to work inserting the eyelets into sneakers in order to support his burdensome family. Another of the ads might show a chic female poet enduring a harsh critique from a group of peers and turning to crystal meth in order to dull the pain, ending with her alone in a filthy alleyway, spitting her moldering teeth into her hands and wiping the blood from her chin with the very manuscript that led her to this sad state.
Phase two will be complete once poetry is either forgotten, unknown, or reviled by the masses. I expect that those of you still enthralled with the idea of some nation-wide poetic renaissance might balk at this point. I myself would once have been repulsed by the idea, save for previously mentioned events opening my eyes to the reality that the mainstream’s embrace will only cause poetry to asphyxiate and expire.
Rest assured, poetry will indeed survive. The elite students in the proposed mountain compound, guided by their twenty-seven tutors, will be immersed in the great works denied the rest of society, free from the feeble misinterpretations of boorish adjunct instructors, sheltered from shabby sonnets produced by drunken co-eds attempting to approximate hidden depths of intellectual ability. Here, poetry will thrive, taught as it was always meant to be—stringently—at the feet of established masters sharing inalienable truths. In addition, the work produced by our students will be carefully cultivated to conform to approved topics and forms. A part of each instructional day will also be devoted to rigorous instruction in the martial arts and small arms combat.
I expect at this point many of you might suspect me of planning to build a sort of heavily armed cult in the mountains, especially since I slipped in earlier that I will take the role of headmaster at the school. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, I believe that I am uniquely qualified for the position. I am the author of thirty-nine chapbooks of verse, the most recent of which has been celebrated as ‘unexpected’ and ‘lively’ by online commentators. I am also an educator of note, and have been narrowly edged out of winning ‘teacher of the year’ in my district no less than three times.
Next, allow me to assure you that the compound will not be heavily armed, I specifically stated that the students will be trained in small arms, meaning handguns, rifles, submachine guns and some light machine guns. Hardly the armory of a crazed doomsday militia. Weapons training will be necessary in order to defend the compound should it be discovered and fall under attack. There is every chance that despite our best efforts to dissuade the America people away from poetry, some of them might resist, and should they discover the school there is every chance they will become enraged with jealousy.
I may as well state here also, in a show of complete transparency, even though this part of the plan is still hazy at best, that I do anticipate the implementation of a tightly controlled eugenics program within the compound. Not immediately, we’ll give everyone six weeks to settle in. Poets will be paired based on a variety of characteristics in hopes of spawning offspring with optimum physical beauty, intelligence, and poetic capability. Will I be joining in the breeding? Possibly. Twenty-seven poets plus fifty students equals seventy-seven total persons, a very odd number, and if the breeding program is to be successful there must be complete participation. Unless a suitable student is to be found in Puerto Rico, I will have no choice but to take the hand of a specially selected female and enter the breeding chamber (there will be a special breeding chamber located on the top floor of the compound, down the corridor from my quarters and directly above the brig). How else will our new world—a world of pure poetry—survive? To forgo mating will ensure the demise of poetry within decades
Phase two of this plan should take around thirty years to complete. In that time, the original students will have grown to take the place of their tutors, their offspring will have replaced them as students, and the first grandchildren should be emerging. At that point we will rejoin American life, beings of pure poetry, having elevated the form so far above the heads of the masses that they would not dare imagine themselves capable of even the most innocent dabbling. Finally, poetry will be known as a precise art, suitable for the smallest percent of the most elevated humans. I cannot say with a certainty that the people of the future will fall to their knees in worship of our great society once it is revealed, but I suspect that is a strong possibility. If they should fail to do so, their subjugation through more traditional means should prove a simple task.
If you’re anything like us (and you are, we checked) you wait all year for June 16th, better known as Bloomsday, the day that everyone everywhere celebrates all things James Joyce and Ulysses. It’s like St. Patrick’s Day, except with staged readings, scenic tours, and pretension instead of binge drinking. This year we thought it’d be fun to do a sort of informal survey to see how people around town celebrate in their own way. Enjoy.
Justine Castaneda, Barista: Excuse me? What day? Look, are you going to order something or what? You’re holding up the line. I don’t know what that is, I’ve never heard of that holiday. Listen, you’re going to get me in trouble. I’ve gone to bat for you, you know that. When Claudia wanted to ban you, you know I stood up to her. Just order—I don’t know what Bloomsday is, okay? Okay, listen. Grande Ice Coffee, okay? On the house. Just, just go.
Ava Gains, College Student: That sounds neat, I’ll have to look that up when I get home!
William Hudson, Postal Worker: I go down to the beach and rub one out. Best day of the year.
Bryce Hubbler, Bookstore clerk: Well, me and all my friends get together and dress up in period costumes and we do a little pub crawl and read our favorite passages aloud to one another as we go. My friends? Yes, they’re real. That’s a rude question. They—uh, they—no, I can’t give out their numbers or anything. They’re, uh, very private people. They’re names? Why do you—uh, hey, my break is over so I’d better—where do we meet? We’re, uh, well I can’t really say. It’s, uh, it’s kind of…look, I have to go, okay?
Helen Parker, Pharmacist: I don’t read for pleasure, sorry.
Shel Burroughs, Prof. of American Studies: I’m sorry, this isn’t a good time. No, sorry, I’m really very busy right now. What am I doing? What—what business is that of yours? I’m sorry I—because I’m, I’m busy dealing with family business right now, and you’re being very rude. No, no you give those back, right now. How dare you, how dare you. Give those—those are very expensive glasses and I’m quite blind without them now return them immediately or I’ll be forced to call—no, no wait. Okay, okay. Listen, lets be reasonable. No one has to get hurt, now why don’t you just put the knife away and I’ll do whatever you say. No, please, I want to. I want to, I want to help you. No one needs to get hurt, do they? We’re all reasonab—
Sgt. Peter Barnwood, Arresting Officer: You have the right to—sorry? Shit, is that today? I totally forgot to run down to the beach and rub one out. Damn it. Well, I’ll get ot next year. Where were we…yeah, the right to remain silent.
One of the most frequent questions we get here at Failbetter HQ is ‘How do I write something funny?’ Since we’re a journal and not an advice column, we’ve never responded…until now.
Why now? I don’t know. Why anything? Why do people have two arms instead of four? Why bother getting up in the morning?
Writing humor is a bit like getting a date for Friday night…unpleasant when forced, but if coaxed with the proper tools, feasible at least. We’ve worked up a list of what we call THE FOUR LAWS OF HUMOR that we absolutely 100% guarantee will put you on the path to eliciting giggles if not guffaws from your readers in no time at all.
THE FIRST LAW: Observe and Report
Observational humor is maybe the easiest type to master. Learn to key into the mundane and commonplace. Can you find a new angle on some shared experience that each and every one of your readers will be familiar with? Can you expose a truth about daily life that’ll have them howling? Here’s an example. I’m looking around the room I’m sitting in right now, and across from me is this big old recliner that I’ve had since college. You’ve probably got one just like it, that you hardly think about, right? I’m looking at this recliner, and I’m thinking, here’s a chair that leans way back and has a footrest…so maybe you might say something like, Hey, make up your mind! Do you wanna sit or lay down? Or maybe you might say something like, why does a chair seem so small when you’re sitting in it and your wife is nagging you to lose weight and so huge when she’s gone and you’re sitting there thinking you should turn the lights on because it’s depressing to sit in the dark but you’re too tired to get up and then you do get up to turn the light on only to realize that it’s been on the whole time, that the darkness is coming from inside of you?
THE SECOND LAW: Use Metaphor and Simile
A snappy metaphor or simile can brighten up a sentence faster than Paxil brightens my mood.
Instead of writing, ‘The room was empty’ try something like ‘the room was as empty as he felt inside.’ Instead of writing, ‘He was tall,’ try ‘He was tall as the Rocky Mountains that my wife and her new lover had a nice view of from their fancy cabin.’
THE THIRD LAW: Be Incongruous and Use Juxtapositions
Incongruity and juxtapositions make your reader’s brain go ‘say whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?’ Examples include a tiny baby lifting a huge boulder, a turtle smoking a pipe, or someone vowing ‘till death do us part’ and then taking off with another man long before either you or she is dead.
THE FOURTH LAW: Go There
Humor works best when breaking the rules, blasting taboos and boundaries. I’m not sure why this is, though. I mean, I’m someone who played by the rules. Always did well in school, and after school I got a job and met a woman and asked her to marry me and we bought a house with a yard and planned on starting a family. All the American dream stuff, step-by-step, towing the line. But what’s it got me? Nothing. A house I can’t afford without Jen around to share the mortgage and bills. Maybe if I’d been more cutthroat at the office I could have moved up the ranks a little faster, made a little more money. More money would mean stability. But I thought, tow the line, work hard, they’ll notice. The bosses will see you’re someone they can depend on, and it’ll all pay off. Jen, when she left, she said it wasn’t about the money. Yeah, that’s what she said, but who’d she ditch me to shack up with? Some guy who got rich designing apps, has a place in San Diego, has a place in the mountains…that’s kind of funny, I guess. Yeah, Jen went there. Went all the way. Broke a vow, went outside our marriage by sleeping with whats-his-name while we were still together. That counts as blasting a taboo, I suppose. Yeah, I see how that’s funny. Makes me want to laugh. I will. I’ll laugh. As soon as I remember how.
Two years after announcing that he would stop writing fiction, author Philip Roth announced this week that he would no longer be eating pizza bagels.
Roth, 81, made the announcement on the steps of the 92nd St Y in Manhattan following a public reading Thursday night.
“I’ve never really liked them all that much to begin with, but they’re convenient—pop them in the microwave and they’re done in just a couple minutes—so I’ve continued on and on,” Roth told reporters. “I’ve eaten them for breakfast, lunch, as a snack. But I’m done. I think I have a box in the freezer, still. I’ll toss it when I get home.”
Roth’s agent, Andrew Wylie, says that Roth is becoming steadily more health conscious as he ages. “Years pass, we’d get together on a Friday night and eat a large pizza each—each of us, our own large pizza—then head out for ice cream after. That kind of living loses its thrill after a while, it’s only natural.”
Roth scholar and Professor of American Studies at the Bosley Institute for Learning John Tucker points out that Roth’s affair with pizza bagels was hinted at in 1998, when “an early draft of Portnoy’s Complain surfaced, featuring several scenes where the title character could not achieve sexual gratification without a plate of the snack, fresh from the microwave, cooling somewhere in the room.” According to Tucker, Roth moving past pizza bagels “is just another monumental moment in the life of a man whose life story consists of a long chain of monumental moments.”
When asked what snack might replace pizza bagels in Roth’s diet, the author replied that he’d heard good thing about Pop Tarts, but wasn’t ready to commit just yet. “This is all so new to me,” Roth said. “I think I’d like to try a couple things out and see what I’ve been missing.”
AWP 2014 kicks off tomorrow, and as a courtesy to our readers we’ve put together a selection of the conference’s can’t-miss events.
Why are you not famous yet?
Wednesday, 7:45pm Hall C
A group of authors younger than you flaunt their bank accounts and discuss their various awards.
Thursday 2pm Hall F
Published authors and experienced editors give advice on monetizing your terrible upbringing.
The art of the erotic novella
Friday 9am Conference Room 2
Obese shut-ins who make millions of dollars self-publishing pornography discuss artistic integrity and laugh like they’re hiding something. Towels will not be provided, so plan ahead.
An evening with Claudia Haines
Friday 7pm Hall 1
Claudia Haynes published a single poem in The Paris Review 28 years ago. Join her as she discusses her process and grouses bitterly about missed opportunities.
The value of an MFA
Saturday 1pm Hall C
Teams of MFA faculty and bloggers compete in a pie-eating contest to decide once and for all whether academic writing programs actually have merit.
20 years of Zenix!
Saturday 8pm Hall C
The publishers of Zenix! join a group of authors associated with the magazine in a frantic conversation that assumes you are familiar with the publication and exaggerates its importance in cultural history.
The world needs ditch diggers too: giving up the dream
Sunday, Noon Conference Room 3
Anyone ready to give up the dream is invited to meet with military recruiters and career counselors to discuss potential opportunities as either cannon fodder or substitute teachers.