How Writing a Novel is like Managing a Warehouse

by Phil Lemos

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I’m writing a novel.  Occasionally I get asked what that’s like.  I tell them it’s exactly like managing a warehouse.  

I work graveyard shift four nights a week as an assistant shift manager at a warehouse near where I live.  Running a warehouse involves unlocking the doors every night, plotting out a game plan for how to tackle the expected volume, and putting all the associates in the right places to maximize flow and efficiency.  Then you record all this information on your laptop so you don’t lose any critical information.  This all happens before the rank and file enter the building.  Once everyone arrives, you make a few announcements, turn on the conveyor belt and the shift begins.

No matter how meticulously you plan in advance, it’s inevitable that the night descends into chaos.  A handful of people won’t show up for their shifts (this number climbs to considerably more than a handful if the Patriots played earlier that evening), leaving gaps that you have to fill.  It’s inevitable that a giant box containing laundry detergent, paint or chlorine will fall off the belt and spill all over one of the aisles.  Twice a week the conveyor belt jams or breaks down.  Sometimes it’s an easy fix.  But conveyor belts can be temperamental, and often you find yourself calling the warehouse engineer at 2am to get him in and troubleshoot it. 

From their first couple of shifts, every employee thinks that they, too, can run the warehouse.  They spend all their time complaining about what the managers do wrong – how we push the volume too fast, too slow, run one line faster than the other, purposely give them shitty scanners that always crap out on them (even though they themselves hit the wrong button and caused it to crap out), screw them over by putting them in the hard aisles or making them work with the shitty employees.  While they do this belly-aching, all the packages that they’re supposed to be picking up slide past them on the belt. 

The three days a week that I’m not working at the warehouse, I cram in as much time as possible working on my novel.  Writing a novel involves unlocking your imagination, mapping out a skeletal version of your manuscript’s structure, and organizing the chapters properly to maximize flow and readability.  Then you record all this information in your laptop, before you forget all the ideas you came up with.  Once you’re properly situated in front of the screen, you pump yourself up, turn on the creative portion of your brain, and start tapping at the keys.

No matter how hard you try to motivate yourself, it’s inevitable that your writing session descends into chaos.  Your creative side won’t come up with enough ideas to advance your story or develop character (or you’re just not in a writing mood because the Patriots are playing), leaving plot holes that you have to fill.  You’ll spill your drink, forcing you to put your ideas aside and grab some paper towels before your laptop electrocutes you.  Or your file will become infected with a virus.  Sometimes you can shut down and restart, but laptops can be temperamental, so you find yourself running over to Best Buy to see if the Geek Squad can save your work.    

From the moment they hear me talk about my manuscript, everyone thinks they, too, can write a novel.  They’ll come up to me and say, “Oh yeah I’m gonna write a novel one of these days,” as if all you have to do is spend a weekend typing a bunch of words and voila, it’ll be in stores the following Tuesday at midnight.  They’ll spend this coming weekend doing exactly that, until they realize that it takes hard work and determination, and they don’t have the patience to devote an insane amount of time to writing 300 pages of prose in a coherent, engaging format.

So, there you have it.  Managing a warehouse and writing a novel couldn’t be more similar.  And explaining this to would be novelists and managers tends to scare both off the task.  Which is probably a good thing.


Last Week/This Week: Shitstorms, Race, and Slime

by Ashley Bales

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We’ve made it to another week without being blown into the ocean or blasted into a radiated hell-scape, though philosopher Byung-Chul Han thinks our values are being swallowed up in a social media “shitstorm.”  Adrian Nathan West’s piece in the LARB reminded me to finish Han’s treatise, In the Swarm, a critique of the effects of the digital age on our lives, sociality and power structures.  It has me glad my foundational worldview is biological not philosophical.  How depressing to always be thinking about the degradation of humanistic values, much better to reject the concept of humanistic values all together.  Ok, ok, our value systems are ecologically and evolutionarily embedded.  They will not get sucked into Han’s “shitstorm” and go poof as easily as our disintegrating civil liberties.  I didn’t say there weren’t consequences, but our humanity isn’t at stake.  I had an up-side when I started this paragraph: grateful to be slaving away at self-production, about to pour over Han’s book.

In other depressing, internet-related news: Amazon ‘pays 11 times less corporation tax than traditional booksellers.’

Toni Morrison discusses her career-long exploration of writing race without color as a means to “…defang racism, annihilate and discredit the routine, easy, available color fetish, which is reminiscent of slavery itself;” Thrity Umrigar is pressured to write only characters belonging to her race; and Mountainview Alumna Nadia Owusu explores the complexity of blackness and her experience as the lighter skinned black girl at her boarding school. Owusu writes: “I used to look to literature to help me understand how to exist in an often racist world.  I sought to understand the unjust rules, and admittedly, how to make them bend in my favor.  Now, I read to understand how to reject them, how to rewrite them.”

This week on the blog, Phil Lemos compares writing a novel to managing a warehouse, a new poem by Curtis Graham, and Daniel Johnson considers the sensory ecstasy of Instagram slime videos.


Ashley Bales is a current student of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction and web editor for Assignment Magazine.

Faculty Picks: Sartre, Gyasi, Kurtén

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Richard Adams Carey-- Jean-Paul Sartre’s eerie first novel, Nausea, published in 1938, could not be described as plot driven. Action? Well, protagonist Antoine Roquentin is a writer (and a loner) struggling to finish a biography of minor 18th century politician, to rekindle a romance with a former lover, and to resist the blandishments of a lonely autodidact who will be revealed to be a pedophile.

The real action is all within. Roquentin’s primary adversary is something that might be viewed as depression, but for Sartre it’s an especially clear-eyed grasp of the human condition. Trivial moments and objects are described in revelatory detail, in passages that ring with both their beauty and the hollowness glimpsed at their core. The result for Roquentin is a sense of nausea that “spreads at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time—the time of purple suspenders and broken chair seats; it is made of wide, soft instants, spreading at the edge, like an oil stain.”

The novel is written in diary form, and its final sentence—“Tomorrow it will rain in Bouville”—is life-affirming in the sense that at least there will be a tomorrow. Sartre’s hero endures, and if we could read his description of that rain, the imagery would be stunning.

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Jo Knowles-- I recently read and loved Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, 2016). It's a riveting historical novel that follows the descendants of two sisters born on the Gold Coast of Africa who were separated by slavery, and the horrors that follow for generations, both in Africa and in America. The plotting, the characterization, the deep emotional punch every chapter packs is remarkable. Each chapter reads not so much like a short-story but a novella, and by the end of each, you feel cheated by having to leave the character you've just come to care deeply about. It's a masterful novel that explores the development of institutional racism and the deep and lasting impact of slavery that much of America still has not fully grasped.

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Craig Childs-- I was asked what I’d read last. Having just finished writing two books in the past few weeks I thought, do I even read books anymore?

Then I remembered my research. Towers of it. The last book was Pleistocene Mammals of North America by the eminent, late paleontologist Björn Kurtén and his late co-author, born in Leadville, Colorado, osteologist Elaine Anderson, a dear friend who worked an Ice Age field camp with me in the 90s.

Printed in 1980, Pleistocene Mammals remains the hardcover manual on the general distribution, habitat, and fossil specifications for Ice Age animals, or anything else to live on this continent in the last couple million years. The drawings of teeth and jaws, jumping mice and mammoths, are simple, clean, and scientific. The language is often clinical, “the posterior mandibular foramen is larger than the anterior...”

But it’s a book that tells you something, a sort of time machine. You pass through pages showing ranges of sabertooth cats and Ice Age seals, and a world is reborn.

To write, you are not just in your own head, not just reading as a lark. Reading becomes solid work. You have to learn different ways stories can be told. Call it research, or world-building, this is where the good stuff is.

How to Write War: Learning from Tim O’Brien

by Eddie Dzialo

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Though it seems like a different life, I used to be an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. I deployed to Iraq in 2008, Afghanistan in 2009, and I usually don’t elaborate further. I don’t avoid talking about my service to protect myself from painful memories. Some of the proudest moments of my life happened during those years and the people that I deployed with know a side of me that no one else can. When I avoid the subject of my deployments, I do so because I know I will become the focus of the story. And I’m not the point. I’ve read too many war books, written by people who aggrandize their heroics, their condemnation or support for the political ideologies that fuel combat. I didn’t want to become one of those people. Shortly after getting out of the Marines, I stopped reading books about war altogether.

When I entered the Mountainview MFA program, I wrestled with how to write about my own experiences in a way that would overcome the trappings of war narratives that I so detested. As I struggled, my mentor recommended I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, to show me how O’Brien navigated the difficulties of writing about combat. I agreed to read it only to prove my mentor wrong, to explain why I was against such books. It would be my excuse to walk away from writing about my experience. But my mentor was right. Halfway through the first story, O’Brien had already posed and answered the questions I hadn’t even known to ask.

I understand what O’Brien was risking by writing those stories: making the book about himself.  In writing war, you are never what’s most important. Any fear that Tim O’Brien might have written this book for his own edification leaves with the story “On the Rainy River.” Tim O’Brien, the story’s protagonist, is present, but as a frightened teenager who’s been swept up in events that he was powerless to stop. It’s self-deprecating, discussing fear with a brutal integrity that does not allow ‘heroics’ to intrude on the story’s honesty. “...I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything.”  These earnest emotions allow O’Brien to downplay his role within the stories and allow them to become more powerful than himself.

 “How to Tell a True War Story” gave me the words to understand my discomfort with war narratives by explaining what a war story is, what it isn’t, and what it can achieve.

What it isn’t: “A true war story is never moral...if a story is moral, do not believe it.” By not attaching lessons to his war stories, O’Brien is making a conscious effort not to bend them towards a purpose. He doesn’t give the atrocities any value. A real war story has an “...absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

What it is: “In any war story...it is difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” Though the book is a work of fiction, The Things They Carried blurs the line between fiction and reality. The men named in the dedication are characters in the stories, and the opening sentence of “How to Tell a True War Story” is “This is true.” The reader cannot distinguish fact from fiction, just as O’Brien struggles to resolve his memories of war. “When a guy dies, you look away...pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot.”

What it can achieve: The most emotional scene in “How to Tell a True War Story” occurs when one of the characters tortures a baby water buffalo. The more the baby struggles, the more pain the character inflicts upon it. “It wobbled and went down sideways. Rat shot it in the nose.” As disturbing as this story is, the reader is left wondering if it really happened, if the author spliced an event that he witnessed into his fiction. To O’Brien, veracity is relative. “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

I still approach books about war with a healthy amount of skepticism, but by reading The Things They Carried, I witnessed how Tim O’Brien embraced his past and discussed it with honestly and humility. It’s a book that was selflessly written for other people, and I think that each time I reread it.


Devils at the Stateline

by David Moloney

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In a woeful attempt to find an adjunct job for the Fall, not much established itself as definite. As for outlook, I shot for hopeful, but landed on urgent, so I returned to my old job at a Stateline package store. The store’s sign stood tall overhead for passerby, announcing the tax disparity between Massachusetts and New Hampshire: Low beer/cig prices before you hit Taxachusetts. But the two states didn’t only share a difference in tax code. MAGA hats were prevalent on the northern side of the border, along with Confederate flag bumper stickers, or the actual flags waving above muddy Ford F-150’s. To me, the occupants were driving around in too close proximity to my blue state with their “Old Joe” middle fingers out the windows. But working that counter, selling Rave menthols and twenty packs of watered down beer to customers who shared different worldviews meant the job was just a job. I held no prestige. I couldn’t forbid selling to anyone when I wasn’t the owner. I merely owned tenancy in myself, but so did Wells Fargo and Great Lakes student loans.

Anyways, there was Michelle, a peculiar woman I worked nights with. She first introduced herself, about a month back, as a prophet of the Lord. She entered the store with an air of familiarity: raspy, smoker’s voice, bloodshot eyes, a pooch for a belly signaling years of Budweiser consumption and little Debbie night caps. Not as a ribs-through-robe prophet, with long, silken hair, sandals, and plaintive authenticity found in scripture. She was but of the maddening, contemporary flesh, chubby with a fondness of thirsty Thursday’s on the lake, not something dreamt up by early writers: a calm, preaching of what an all-loving God would reveal in the coming age. There was no direction in her proclamations. She told me, rather quickly into our first shift, that I had demons around me. They weren’t satisfied demons; the demons surrounding me were hungry. You never know when crazy is going to show itself, or what crazy really is. I thought I knew crazy, until I’d seen Michelle, wearing the store’s black button down, a Dunkin Donuts large coffee straw sticking out of her breast pocket, tickling her sun-burnt cheek, explained how when God decided it was the end, giant grasshoppers would be tasked with removing the sinners.

I found her seriousness comical at first. But then, it was disconcerting. Were their demons around me? I pulled packs of blue Parliament and silver Montclair out of the overhead slots, rang up make-your-own micro-beer sixer’s for the bearded (dare I say it) hipsters, exchanged empty propane tanks for fresh ones, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the hypothetical demons hovering over me.

 

Sure, we all have demons. That isn’t a fresh take on the metaphor. It had come to my attention though, that certain demons were running amuck, ostensibly as stridulating insects, swarming man-eating locusts, but visible only to the new age prophets such as Michelle. Michelle told me that her husband couldn’t see the fanged hoppers, which was a shame, because they only came to him when he slept at night, and he was a restless sleeper. She seemed to believe he would benefit from a sight or two of the demons. It would be a relief; his heavy caffeine consumption wasn’t to blame for his restlessness, nor the sleep apnea, which his fat ass (her words) could use as a crutch. He needed a manifestation of the demon to reveal itself. To him, there was no sense in her ramblings, she said. Her words, warnings, meant nothing. He needed to take sight of what she knew to be true. Because she could see the demons, she argued, she was relieved of the suffering. She could see their hunger, and welcomed it. Everyone’s hunger, she said, was worth satisfying. She could see the gluttony, the alcoholism, the neglect of oneself, the lack of faith, the ones waiting to be fed on, their destruction, as satisfying both God and the demons. God sent her, and others like her, to attempt salvation. The demons just reaped the battles she failed to win.

As she rang up her customers from behind the counter we shared, with a smile on her face, each customer walking up with their vices, paying for their demons, she held her confident smile. There was always that long straw in her pocket, and every so often she bent her face towards it, and rubbed her cheek on the paper covering. I wondered if she knew a majestic comfort in the touch, the wood pulp embrace of the straw covering, that I was missing. 


David Moloney is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University's Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  He currently teaches writing at UMASS Lowell and Southern New Hampshire University.