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Matt Bell’s Best of 2009

Best Of What I Learned About Writing from Interviews Written by Michael Kimball, Ordered to Make a Collage About Sound


It’s no secret that Michael Kimball is one of my favorite fiction writers. What I haven’t yet declared—except perhaps to the people who see my Google Reader shared items—is that he’s also my favorite interview writer as well. Every single time I see a new interview by him, I immediately stop what I’m doing and read it, whether I know who the subject of the interview is or not. Every interview is free of the fluff that fills so many others, instead focusing on the nuts and bolts of the writer’s work and the process that created that work. Below are six of my favorite paragraphs from interviews Kimball did for publications such as The Faster Times and Unsaid, arranged into a short collage essay on sound and language in fiction. The paragraphs themselves are linked, and will take you to the interviews they’ve been taken from, all of which are absolutely essential reading for anyone planning to write words of their own in 2010:

The world and the people in the world have always baffled me and I imagine that comes through in the work. It seems as though the narrators I’ve spent time with have a difficult time understanding what has happened to them and why it has happened… I guess this reminds me of an argument between Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost. One insulted the other saying something like, “The trouble with you is you write about things.” The other replied, “Your trouble is you write about bric-a-brac.” Of course, they were both right and both wrong and both full of shit. So, some things interest me and others not so much.

I try to stay focused on the dynamics of the writing itself, to think a lot about the hydraulics of the sentences and the rhythms and sounds. When I do that, I think it allows for things to be sorted out on a more visceral and unconscious level, one in which they still can end up surprising me. I do end up thinking ahead a little bit-I don’t think you can completely help doing that-but it’s less a kind of thinking my way down one narrative path and more an attempt to keep several different possibilities at once simultaneously in the air until the last possible moment. When I do that, often what happens is that I end up suddenly reaching a possibility I hadn’t been juggling, even if it quickly starts to feel necessary or inevitable, as if it were the only really satisfying solution.

Mostly I have found that the phrases I think the least about before I let myself sit down and begin to open from them are the ones that cause me to open from them the most other words, or at least words I like. Usually, when I think of words I like, often as if by assaulting, as in, they simply appear inside my head or mouth when I am alone and I say them again inside my head or sometimes again out loud, after I have said them that first time, followed by the repetition or the acknowledgement that I have thought of something that I would like to keep my mind around, I try not to think past it any further in that minute. I try to hold it, as if holding onto body fluids. I make myself hold that phrase or word or words there in my head in a placeholder, repeating if I need, and keep them there, on pause, recircling, until I can get somewhere where I can write them down, and further on. This is both a function of me not wanting to forget the words (as I often fear that I will lose them without focus, though I tend to remember a lot even in my fear of lack of doting) and a function of my wanting to wait until I have freer access (as in I am at the desk where I write, or at least have paper and pen) to continue to let the onslaught of the other words keep coming, in association, or in lighting up. If I let myself think too far past the impulse, I find I either will think more things than I can hold (my short term memory, I fear, is blippy, though this is also an extension of obsession, i.e. fear of loss), or that I will think too far into the idea before I get the chance to let it come out of me as wanted and then will overthink it and begin in orchestration. I spent many years trying to orchestrate beforehand before the actual sitting and writing and for this I have a hard drive full of guff, which I have not yet had the heart to delete because I am a holder-on of things. Ultimately, I find that the less I can know about something, and the less I try to interfere with the signal coming off that first illuminating impulse by inserting my dumb head, the more successful I am in actually saying something new.

I went through a phase of writing single paragraphs that massed themselves out over several pages, and it one day dawned on me that letting a paragraph assume such hulking proportions had become little more than a sneaky expedient allowing me to conceal underworked or unforgivably imperfect phrasing in a dense paginary surround. The much shorter paragraphs I have been writing of late seem uncloaked, exposed. Everything in them seems more available, visible, riskful. The neighboring sentences aren’t neighborly: they don’t mix with each other; they don’t honor the niceties of discursive narration. They provoke and protrude. The mistakes, the flubs, the ineptitudes of wording-they’re all right out in the open. (And, true, I do try to give a sequence of sentences a unifying, stabilizing pattern of sound or syntax; I believe that acoustical intrigue alone can hold a paragraph together.) Anyway, the longer paragraphs seemed not only counter to how my narrators apprehend experience, which is through unbidden glimmers and inklings (none of my narrators are blessed with a voice in the head that furnishes a running interpretation of human incident; they live outside psychology; the world comes through to them only in bursts, in blurts) but also counter to the rhythms of the narrators’ lives, lives that motion brokenly this way and that, lapsing a lot. And limiting myself to short paragraphs frees me to do away with much of the obligation to report or render the bustle and ruck of daily, weekly, monthly life: all the stage business, all the entrances and exits and wayside scenery, the pointless turnabouts between turning points. I am not a camera.

I interpret those words as a call for a heightened awareness of language and what that language is communicating to the reader, a call for all the story’s elements to be in service of the larger enterprise. And I would like to think that I could, if pressed, talk about how most lines in my stories are contributing to that larger enterprise, but I know there are some lines that I feel are important, but would struggle to articulate why. For me, it’s not a bad thing to have a strand of the work elude me slightly, to sense that it is contributing something even if I couldn’t say exactly what.

I have always liked the way the word “sentence” refers to a grammatical grouping, but also has a definition related to judgment and punishment of criminals: something which indicates verdict, as well as duration. This is how I think about sentences.

Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, a fiction collection forthcoming in Fall 2010 from Keyhole Press, as well as The Collectors, a novella, and How the Broken Lead the Blind, a chapbook of short fiction. His fiction has been published or is upcoming in magazines such as Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, Willow Springs, and Gulf Coast. He is also the editor of The Collagist and of Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web anthology series. He can be found online HERE.

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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