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May 01, 2007

"Youthful Desires"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I spent some of the weekend reading Darrell Reimer's story collection "Youthful Desires." I had a very good time, and I suspect that anyone who took to (for instance) the early movies of Richard Linklater will enjoy "Youthful Desires" too. (You may know Darrell already; he blogs at WhiskyPrajer.)

Darrell's fiction is of the same general school as Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," or (in book terms) Tom Perrotta's early story collection "Bad Haircut" and Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity." This is a landscape / mindscape / writing-scape inhabited by bright young boy-men with searching brains, more mixed-up than they know, yet sweet and open, caught between adolescent lustiness, nostalgia for childhood, anxiety about entering the adult world, and amazement at the vastness of it all.

What makes Darrell's book distinctive is that his language has its own out-of-the-mainstream music, and that his young men have their own special concerns. Darrell -- who, if I remember right, is the son of a Mennonite pastor -- is amazingly unself-conscious about shifting into metaphysical-speculation mode.

Wondering about the divine is a natural part of what his young men do. Yet Darrell isn't imposing ideas, let alone using fiction as a mere vehicle for philosophizing. The stories and characters have their own life; the ideas and speculations are part of the loam that the stories grow from, alongside testosterone, confusion, grogginess, and giddiness. Darrell's young men are wondering what they might do in life, hoping to get laid, and asking themselves what God might be up to. In one story, Darrell's protagonist has thrown himself into bodybuilding as -- he hopes -- a redemptive activity, and Darrell's evocation of this kid's disordered thought processes is shrewd, funny, and brilliantly done.

Like Perrotta and Hornby, this is Lit Lite -- yet it's also Lit Very Likable, Lit Very Amusing, and Lit Very Touching. (And who says that achieving a shallow-yet-setting-off-deeper-notes tone isn't a considerable achievement?) Darrell keeps his stories very personal and informal. The collection -- which Darrell has published himself via -- never feels not-handmade; it never feels not like a labor of love.

This may be workshop-style fiction -- though indie-cinema creators should find a lot of rich material here, Jerry Bruckheimer certainly won't be buying these stories to supply plot-lines for next summer's action movies. But it isn't fiction that has been workshopped-to-death. Darrell isn't out to be the toughest, most virtuosic writer in writing class. He's using workshop techniques to show off his subject matter. This is amateur fiction in the best sense, in the sense of fiction that has been written from love.

I want to add a small thing here about the amateur-vs-professional pickle. The professional publishing process involves many stages, and it has much to recommend it. The processes tend to ensure that a certain level of gloss and professionalism is attained and sustained. While this can often be a good thing, at other times the process is destructive. What can happen is that, as professionalism is achieved, the magic seeps out of a project. The result is a product that is polished but dead.

Similarly, a writer who came to the writing-and-publishing field via a love of reading-and-writing can lose the magic. As he enters and makes his way in the pro-writing world, he becomes a pro. Yet his love for writing may evaporate; he may lose touch with the feelings that drew him to writing in the first place. All the more reason to celebrate those writers who manage to achieve professionalism yet sustain the magic, of course ...

So what's a fiction writer to do? Particularly one whose fiction-talent and fiction-interests depend on such intangibles as charm, wit, openness, and feeling -- not to mention love? And double-particularly one who -- while serious and determined about writing -- has no strong drive or need to make it in a professional sense?

If I can be forgiven a personal digression ... Over the years, I've done a fair amount of professional magazine writing. I like taking note of things, I adore pursuing my thoughts and my interests, and I have a knack for generating zippy essayish pieces of writing out of my observations and experiences. As an occasional pro writer I always received encouraging feedback for my work.

You'd have thought that I should push ahead professionally. Yet I hated the pro-writing process, I really did. (I wrote here about why I chose not to pursue a career as a movie reviewer.) I didn't like pitching stories, or networking with colleagues, or fighting for space, or being tied-down to what's newsy at a given moment. I despised having to keep up with hot trends and topics, and I detested wasting time and energy on "smart" opinion -- I shiver in horror still when I hear someone speaking of "smart opinion." The pro-writing life often seems to consist of spending 90% of your time on pro-writing matters, and 10% of your time trying to squeeze a bit of yourself into what you've written -- only, at the end of the process, to watch your boss cut those couple of sentences out.

I learned, in other words, that writing wasn't enjoyable for me unless I could go my own way. I'm no solipsist. Whatever writing energies I have come out in conversation, not in monologue (let alone in "self-expression"). And I like doing research, supplying information, explaining myself clearly, and finding out what other people think and feel -- I blossom not in solitude but when I'm able to interact with other people. Yet unless I had the freedom to conduct my writing life in my own way, I found that I couldn't be bothered putting fingers to keyboard.

Besides -- and this wasn't a minor point -- I already had a bearable job. With no pressing financial reason to pursue pro writing, what was my motor to do it going to be? I have an ego, god knows, but unlike many writers I've known I'm constitutionally unable to fool myself into believing that the world needs to know what I think, let alone what my opinion of anything is.

So, for me (and I imagine for many people like or semi-like me), blogging has been a godsend. I'm able to take part in the blogging thang simply, directly, and happily. As a blogger, I'm not receiving paychecks, but I'm also not subjecting tender bits of myself to the cold and harsh machinery of professional writing. Instead, I get to do what I please. If I sometimes miss the mark, or if I often create a mess, well, such is life, and it's all coming out of a spirit of playfulness and openness anyway.

Lulu strikes me as being to book-publishing what blogging is to writing articles and essays. It empowers people who are by nature do-it-yourselfers and go-it-your-own-way-ers. If you're someone who writes at book length, and if your writing comes out of personality, quirkiness, dreaminess, and inspiration -- if you follow your own muse and you don't fancy subjecting her to the gruesome process of pro publishing -- then Lulu may be for you.

It's also a godsend for fiction-writers. Let's face it: Fiction generally doesn't work as well online as nonfiction does. ("Why not?" is a mighty good question. Perhaps the on-paper, no-links-to-click book format imposes a calmness and formality that the enjoyment of fiction requires.) Fiction-writers now have a sensible, no-cost, accessible way of making their writing available while bypassing traditional publishing entirely.

Darrell's an elegant and mischievous writer, he's an imaginative inventor of characters and narrative lines, and he's an inspired evoker of young-male experience. In a pro sense he has nothing to apologize for. But by going the Lulu route he has also made a choice to protect and nourish what's really distinctive and lovely about his writing. The result is a small miracle of unpushy quirkiness and sweetness. Reading "Youthful Desires" is like hanging out -- and just for the pleasure of it -- with a longtime friend. In 2Blowhards-land, that's high praise.

My only quibbles with the book are ultra-minor. First, the title seems to me more generic than the book deserves. Why not something with more personality? Second: Dude, use one space between sentences, not two! (Small rant: While teachers instruct students to put two spaces between sentences, in the real world of writing and publishing the norm is one space -- two spaces makes for gappy-looking paragraphs. Sigh: yet another example, if a tiny one, of how teachers so often mislead us about what's expected out in the real world ...)

I'd love to see more writers and readers exploring and swapping notes about Lulu books. Lulu is YouTube for book-writing -- and I for one find poking around YouTube far more fascinating these days than keeping up with commercial movies. A couple of other Lulu books that I've loved: William Sauer's "Hip Pocket Guide to Offbeat Wisdom," a very personal quotation-collection, and Mary Scriver's impassioned "Twelve Blackfeet Stories."



posted by Michael at May 1, 2007


"In 2Blowhards-land, that's high praise." That's mighty high praise in Prajer-land, too - thank you!

I also thought your observations re: "labor of love" vs. "pro writing" were spot-on. The few times I did some pro writing, I had the distinct impression that someone higher up the food chain was having a lot more fun than I was. It's making too fine a point of it to say I "prostituted" myself, but the parallel isn't completely false, either.

As for the two spaces at the end of each sentence, that's probably the only content in my book my high school typing teacher Miss E___ (God bless her) would have approved of.

Posted by: Darrell Reimer on May 1, 2007 7:20 PM

Excellent review. I enjoyed Darrell's book very much myself and images from it are still roaming around in my mind, most notably the moment when the two young men look down into an adjoining building and see a gymnasium full of nuns doing tai kwan do -- or is it? Is it maybe a secret community of flying nuns? Why is it that women are so powerful, privileged, and somehow have a secret world? Young men want to know.

An old broad like me ain't gonna tell 'em. Let 'em figure it out. That's what these stories are mostly about -- the search.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 2, 2007 6:40 AM

Let me just pile on here as well. Darrell's collection of short stories were devine sketches of young men at various cross roads of their lives dealing both with the mundane and with the remarkable incidents that would forever form their characters. Some of the stories seemd to be sketches for novellas (hopefully). What came through especially strong for me at least, was how he was able to evoke that unique Canadian fear that when one is out in the wilderness you're not afraid of someone coming out of the darkness but, rather, that no one will come out.

He has a delicious knack for turning a phrase without hammering you with the obvious. It's a book to put in your backpocket and chew on when you need a reprieve in your day.

Posted by: DarkoV on May 2, 2007 12:01 PM

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