When Bad Reviews Happen to Good Writers

An essay I wrote this morning, in reaction to a book review in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

If you’ve never read Alix Ohlin, you should.  She’s one of the good ones out there, and she’s no slouch when it comes to publishing.  Two story collections and two novels in seven years – perhaps not an impressive haul for bionic typewriters like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, but plenty impressive to me.  She may not have won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award yet, but Ohlin is someone I look up to, because she’s just a very solid writer.

So I was surprised when I read a review of her new novel (Inside) and collection (Signs and Wonders) on Friday in The New York Times Book Review (in print today).  Surprised because the review was scathingly negative.


A Letter of Apology to My First Draft

A year ago, I completed the first draft of my second novel.  I’m still rewriting it, and while doing so, I had an idea to write it a letter.

Dear Love Love,

Yesterday, you were born.  You were not an easy delivery, for the ink on my laser printer was ready to give out.  I fed thirty sheets of you at a time so I could take out the toner and shake it, to make sure the words on your pages printed solid and streak-free.  I carried you from the output tray to the stack.  I watched you grow.  I picked you up.  You were as warm as a blanket in my hands.  Bound with a long rubber band, you were my hefty, luminous bundle.

[more @ The Nervous Breakdown]

The Fast Food of Life: Terrence Malick at McDonald’s

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s latest masterpiece, is out on home video today. I’m a big fan of Malick, especially The Thin Red Line, but I was not exactly enamored with The Tree of Life. I don’t think Malick is capable of making a bad movie — film is first and foremost a visual medium, and his visual chops are off the charts. Still, once you get past the gorgeous cinematography, there’s just not much life in Life. The dinosaurs and cosmos interstitials are impressive, but ultimately, they serve as window dressing and not much more. Malick’s use of voiceover has never felt more self-conscious than in this film. I’ve read that this is his most personal work, and maybe that’s why it also comes off as his most precious. Again, it’s not a bad movie, but it’s not exactly a good one, either.

Now as for what appears below: I’m not exactly sure why I imagined Malick waiting at a McDonald’s, but it just sort of fit. Most of this pseudo-poetry is straight from the movie, with a few clusters of words rearranged and/or added.

The Fast Food of Life: Terrence Malick at McDonald’s

It was they who led me
to your Golden Arches.
And to this forsaken ordering line.

A man’s heart has heard
two ways through lunch…
the way of the Chicken McNugget
and the way of the Big Mac.

You have to choose.
The Chicken McNugget doesn’t try
to please itself.
Accepts being trimmed
fried, dunked in savory sauces.

The Big Mac only wants
to please itself.
Like this idiot
at the counter
paying entirely in change.

You can read the rest at The Nervous Breakdown.

Madness, Thy Name Is Second Novel

For the last month, I could see the end, that moment when I’d write the last sentence of my second novel. I imagined there would be exaltation, relief, a supreme sense of satisfaction rolled into that single keystroke when I’d tap the period and put an end to this work that began on August 11, 2002.


An essay for The Nervous Breakdown about the experience of writing the second book.  It’s mostly not pretty.

Self-Interview and Extra Chapter at TNB

The good folks at The Nervous Breakdown are currently featuring me on their home page and in the Fiction section for the following:

The R Word

We’re sorry to inform you…there were many strong entries…we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.

You’d think that after twenty years of writing, revising, and submitting, these responses of thankful apology, these kind-hearted notes of rejection, would be easier to take. But they hurt, every time.

An essay I wrote on rejection, at The Nervous Breakdown.