Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Amazing Internet

It's amazing what you can learn about yourself on the Internet.

As a cross-country runner in high school, I had placed 82nd in the state championship, in Oregon. That much I knew.

What I learned on the Internet was that I had run the race in 13 minutes and 30 seconds.

I don't think I had ever known that. I certainly didn't expect to find it on the net.

It was a long time ago. 1972.

But there it is in black and white. The winning time, I see, was 11 minutes, 54 seconds.

I also see that three of my teammates finished ahead of me, three behind. I had almost forgotten their names, but now I can picture them clearly.

Dan Aunspaugh, Ed Nelson, Randy Herman, Doug Parham, Bob Knytysch, Steve Stoyles -- great bunch of guys.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Prize-Winning Story

It was dry that summer, as it had been for several years in California. Dry and hot. I remember sitting in church the first Sunday after I returned from college. The air was still, and though it was an evening service, you never would have known it the way the sun was gleaming through the stained-glass windows of the sanctuary. The pastor wasn't there, because the congregation was going to vote on whether or not to keep him.

This was in Big Valley, near Clear Lake. The church was Conservative Baptist — a white clapboard building with a bell tower and a cross on top. A local radio station carried the morning service each Sunday. Not that I ever heard the broadcast. I was always there. At least I was until I went off to college. But I always came back in the summer, and now I was back for, well, whatever.

The story, now appearing in the Blue Mesa Review, is called "Pray for Rain." It's my fourth work of fiction to be published and the first to win a prize.

"Based on plot, complexity, character development and interesting story-lines, 'Pray For Rain' stood out from the rest," wrote judge Alexis Hurley of Inkwell Management. "Al Riske is playing with themes of religion, youth and sexuality in very adept and thoughtful ways."

If any of that sounds interesting, why not support the good folks at the Blue Mesa and order a copy of Issue 21.

(You can also order by phone at 1-800-249-7737.)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Another First

Call it sudden fiction. Call it flash fiction. Call it a short short. Call it whatever you like.

My first piece in the genre — variously defined as under 500 words or under 1000 — has just been posted by one of my favorite online journals, Pindeldyboz.

Pin´del•dy•boz (Pin' dl dë bôz), n. 1. A feeling of confusion and/or anxiety, when ingeniously anesthetized by obese amounts of levity. 2. A situation of confusion and/or anxiety, when tampered with in the same manner as above.

The story is called "Disappointed," but Web editor Nora Fussner, I'm pleased to say, was not.

"I found myself thinking about the character Petra after I put the story down," she said, "a mark of any strong story."

It should only take you a minute to read. Maybe less.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Crime Spree

My good friend Greg Bardsley is on a hot streak. The guy just keeps pumping out crime stories and the 'zines keep snapping them up:
They snap them up so fast it makes you wonder if he has some dirt on all those editors or what.

But I can tell you that's not it. It's just that the guy has style. And a wicked imagination. And nobody has more fun with a story than Greg does.

I guarantee you'll be seeing more from him soon.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Million Little Facts

I'm still reading James Frey's new book, Bright Shiny Morning -- 150 pages to go.

What keeps me going is I've always found Los Angeles fascinating, as a place and as a symbol.

The book is about L.A.

L.A. is the main character.

L.A. is the only thing holding the narrative together.

There's just enough there to keep me going, but I can't say I'd recommend the book to anyone. Unless Frey manages to pull everything together at the end. Which I still hope he can do. But I doubt it.

At times I've been tempted to throw the book through a window or tear it into a million little pieces, a million little pieces. The writing is that bad. Sometimes. Sometimes it's brilliant though. Sometimes it really works.

The book got a great review in the New York Times. Said Frey redeemed himself.

Good, I thought.

I had been waiting for Frey to come out with a novel, not a phony memoir like A Million Little Pieces (which I loved and later hated because it was all a lie).

Oddly, the book doesn't say "A Novel" on the cover or anywhere else. There's just the title and the author's name and that page at the beginning that says:

"Nothing about this book should be considered accurate or reliable."

Nice touch.

Then, between each chapter, you're treated to a historical anecdote. And whole chapters are devoted to fun facts and not fun facts about L.A. There are chapters about the highway system, about the neighborhoods, about the rockers, surfers, slaves, and stars who make up the City of Dreams.

Characters come and go and a few of them come back but not as many as you would think.

The irony is that this work of fiction has more facts in it than Frey's so-called memoir.

Not that I can vouch for their accuracy.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

No, Unmasked

Tears were streaming down my cheeks as I drove to work this morning.

It's hard to face no after no after no. Really makes a mark on your confidence, like graffiti on a building adding up to ugly.

I'm learning, though.

Whether you stare down no nine times or seventeen times or twenty-one times, all it takes is one yes to erase it all. Gone. Forgotten. Meaningless.

I'm talking about stories I've written and rejection letters I've received.

All it took was one journal to say yes to "What She Said."

One to say yes to "Don't Stop Now."

And now one to say yes to "Pray for Rain."

This time there's even prize money involved as "Pray for Rain" has just been named the winner of the Blue Mesa Review fiction contest and will be included in Issue 21, due out in May.

But more important than any prize, large or small, is knowing that someone gets your story. That they understand the nuances that others missed.

So I'd like to say thank you to the good folks at the Beloit Fiction Journal, Hobart, Blue Mesa Review, and Inkwell Management (final judges of the contest).

For me the frustration of no upon no melted away this morning in a delayed reaction of sudden tears as Bruce Springsteen sang, "It's been a long time coming, my dear. It's been a long time coming, but now it's here."

I was singing, too, at the top of my lungs.

No is an imposter.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Hot Spot

News flash ... or should I say flash news?

The master of the "flash" form of literary nonfiction, Gretchen Clark, is back this month with "A Hot Spot" on Flashquake.

Stay tuned. From what I hear, there are more stories in the publishing pipeline.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Land of Enchantment

From Albuquerque we drive north in our rented Ford Escort, playing “The Vanishing Breed” over and over.

It’s cloudy but warm and the landscape looks a lot like California at first, but as we follow the Turquoise Trail into the hills, everything changes. The ground rises, rocky and dotted with sage brush. We round a bend and everything is green. A forest of small trees spreads out before us.

All the while Robbie Robertson and the Red Road Ensemble work their magic.

The workplace is all but forgotten.

The land is an odd combination of very flat and very hilly. We stop along the roadside to retrieve some snacks from the trunk and see our first arroyo on the other side of a barbed-wire fence where three cows graze.

We’re not in any hurry. We can do whatever we want. It’s an uncommon feeling, and we like it.

That was my first impression of New Mexico, a state my wife and I have visited many times since. I'm thinking fondly of the Land of Enchantment right now because I just got word from the Blue Mesa Review that I'm one of five finalists in its annual short story contest.

Wish me luck!

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Debate Continues

Another writer I respect (who has not read Eat, Pray, Love) is of the opinion that making a book deal in advance can change your perspective.

Her guess: "What you focus on, what you write down, is not as organic, as intuitive, as just fully experiencing in the moment."

She imagines the writer would have to feel "pressure to make a 'good' or certain kind of book."

Which makes me think of Larry David's reaction when the Seinfeld series was picked up. He was, he has said, terrified. How was he going to come up with a whole season's worth of stories?

Gilbert must have felt the same sort of pressure as she traveled through Italy, India, and Indonesia. Could she really turn her experiences and her reflections into a book anyone would want to read?

Let's face it, though, deadlines and commitments are how an awful lot of writing gets done.

But I suppose the real issue here is that we're talking about a memoir.

"What then is the difference here between memoir and reportage?" Gretchen wonders.

I'd say that Gilbert was in effect reporting on herself. Kind of like writing a travel book with a unique theme and highly personal perspective.

She contrived to bare her soul and, in large part, succeeded.

She may have skipped over some things and shrouded others -- either to protect herself or please her readers -- but nobody tells the whole truth.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Anthropology, Physics, and the Memoir

A close friend started reading Eat, Pray, Love -- one of the most engaging books I've read in years -- and couldn't make it past page 87. His chief complaint: the author had secured a book deal before setting forth on her journey of self-discovery.

"After reading that, everything felt manipulated and controlled and fake. This wasn’t a personal, see-where-the-wind-takes-me journey. This was a planned-out literary event hashed out beforehand in New York," he writes in his highly entertaining blog.

I was stunned.

Every trip I've ever taken has been planned to one degree or another, and yet my experiences have always been unique, spontaneous, and real. Or so it seemed.

Why begrudge Elizabeth Gilbert her book deal? How else was she going to get to Italy, India, and Indonesia?

How did Richard Goodman find the wherewithal to write French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France? He doesn't say. Great book, though.

The problem with such books, I suppose, is that they are all a bit self-conscious. Of course that's also their greatest strength. Gilbert's strength is that she watches herself and others very closely.

Anthropologists tell us that the mere act of observing changes the thing you're observing. I gather that's even true in particle physics, where particles behave differently when you train a high-speed camera on them. (See What the Bleep!? Down the Rabbit Hole.)

If that's the case, then everything we read or say or observe has to be considered a bit unreal.

Just enjoy it, I say.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Truth

My friend's father prefers non-fiction books.

"You know why?" he said to me. "Because they're true."

I let it go.

I happen to prefer fiction. You know why? Because, in some ways at least, it's truer.

Writers of both fiction and non-fiction use a lot of the same narrative techniques and have to make a lot of the same choices as they craft their stories -- what to leave in, what to leave out; where to start, where to stop -- so that in the end the difference between a novel and, say, a memoir can be a little hazy.

One of my favorite memoirs, James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, was famously exposed as, well ... fiction. Turns out Frey had exaggerated everything that happened to him. And I could understand why. It made a better story. His defense: It was still true on an emotional level.

I can buy that. But he should have called the book what it was: a novel.

On the other hand, even the best biographies and histories and accounts of current events aren't really true. Why? Because writers have to make choices. They can't include everything, but everything they leave out makes the story a little less true.

Everything they add changes the truth of what they've already written.

Novelists make the same choices, of course, but they have more freedom. They aren't hampered by an inability to get all the facts. They can make them up. Yet the best fiction ends up being as true-to-life as the best non-fiction. More so in many cases.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Hip Mamma

My little sister has done it again.

(Okay, she's really my sister-in-law, but I think of her as the younger sister I never had.)

What she's done is publish another essay. This one in Hip Mama, "a magazine bursting with political commentary and ribald tales from the front lines of motherhood."

What I like about her latest creation, "Clear Blue (but not so) Easy," is that it's written with style and courage.

It's very personal and very real.

Check it out.