Levi Asher

I once spent a lot of time trying to turn into a hip young novelist.

It was the 80's, the age of Reagan, and also the age of Ann Beattie, Jay McInerney, Raymond Carver and Tama Janowitz. I wanted to be one of them. I was in my early 20's, just out of college, and living in my parent's house on Long Island, working a mundane job as a software developer at a robotics company. In an effort to save my disastrous life, I signed up for a writing workshop at Barnard (a snooty college in uptown Manhattan near Columbia) taught by a semi-famous literary novelist who lived on the Upper West Side -- a thin and wiry woman with frizzy hair and owl glasses (but she wasn't Joyce Carol Oates).

The workshops consisted mostly of critiques; three students would read a story or poem each night, and then the rest of the class would invariably tear it apart. I didn't even mind the sheer violence of this as much as I minded the fact that the attacks tended to be cowardly and ineffective. Nobody would say straight out whether they liked a piece or not; it was all indirect and implied and insinuational. I remember one time a woman read a prospective magazine article about her experience raising a retarded daughter, and somebody objected to her use of the word "lemon yellow" to describe a banana, because it would be more correct to describe it as "banana yellow." Then the entire class erupted into an argument about this, and we never recovered from the argument, and the woman never found out if her piece was any good (it was).

A few times I tried to raise a hand to insert myself into the maelstrom, but I didn't exactly feel comfortable speaking up in this crowd, and every time I tried to say something the other writers squinted nastily at me because they could tell by my clothes and my voice that I was just a bridge-and-tunnel Long Island kid, not a hip Manhattanite like them. I didn't feel comfortable in general with most of the students there, and when it came my turn to read I was expecting the worst.

I was workshopping a novel I'd been working on for years, a fictional piece about a lonely depressed kid who lives with his parents on Long Island. I began reading the latest draft of my first chapter, and as I read it a strange thing started to happen. Looking down at the paper as I stutteringly recited, I somehow sensed from an ambient feeling in the room that the class was getting what I was saying, and I looked up from my paper and I could see from their faces that they actually were. They were looking sad at the sad parts, nodding their heads in recognition at the poignant parts, and not even getting all bent out of shape when I said "fuck" or quoted the Ramones. I reached the end of the piece and the class erupted in applause (which virtually never happened in this workshop, there was usually no applause at all) and then afterwards people gathered around me saying "How do you write so well?" and "I love the part where ...!" I was in a pretty happy mood that night.

A few weeks later the teacher told me she'd like her agent to read my novel. Her agent was a high-powered top literary name who also represented, weirdly enough, Michael Jackson and Jackie O. The agent read my novel, and guess what? She hated it. Or not exactly hated it -- in fact she called me into her office for a private meeting and said she liked it, except that my use of present tense was distracting, my main character was a cipher, and the whole thing needed a lot of cutting. On the plus side, she said she'd liked the part where the couple finally had sex, and she also said she thought I had talent and would like to read my next work. "Would you read this one again if I changed the present tense to past?" I said, totally pushing my luck. She told me we'd do lunch.

I tried to apply her suggestions. I changed the present tense to past, and worked hard to fix the problem of the main character being a cipher (much of the hard work here involved figuring out what the hell "cipher" meant, since I had no idea, and in fact I never even really found out). I cut the novel from 365 pages to 273, and gave it a new title which I didn't even like as much as the old title, except it sounded catchier, and then I decided to try out the new version at a different writing workshop, this one at the New School on 12th Street in the Village, taught by a male novelist in a wheelchair who lived on the Upper West Side. When my turn came I read the latest version of my first chapter to the class, and they liked it and said nice things, but somehow I sensed that they didn't even like it as much as the earlier class had liked it, which meant my improvements had made it worse instead of better. I was furious when I got home.

The next day I decided to try an experiment. I got shit-faced on a bottle of Pina Colada mix, locked myself in my bedroom, and started rewriting the entire novel from scratch, purely from memory, and the rule was that I couldn't look at any of my previous words. It was wild. I ended up doing this for four days straight -- going to work during the day, then going home and locking myself back in my room, and I produced a completely new version of the same novel and read a section from the middle to my class the next time my turn came. But even as I began reading it, I had a scary feeling that my experiment hadn't worked, that instead of producing a miraculous spontaneous work I'd only managed to destroy the natural fiber that had held my work together in the first place, and I was right, because the class didn't get what I was trying to do at all. They didn't think the funny parts were funny or understand that the sad parts were sad. It was a horrible disaster for me. Back at work, I considered giving up my dreams of being a writer, and almost resolved to stop try and get used to the idea of living my life as an un-creative, unknown software developer on Long Island.

But I gathered together my courage, and I decided to take both versions of the novel and combine them into one super-powered version, and I changed the fucking thing back to present tense, because I still like present tense better. I wanted to preserve whatever was in the first version that that class had liked so much, even though when I looked back at those words now they seemed precious and arch. But I persevered, and I spent two and a half years working on the final version of the novel. I tried to be incredibly economical and self-critical, removing or fixing every single word and thought and characterization that I didn't think was completely true and pure and perfect, and after two and a half years I had reduced it the size of a novella, 91 pages, and then I signed up for another writing workshop, this one at NYU taught by a young guy who always wore bright red and blue striped sweaters and had furry black hair and a moustache and looked like he should have gotten a job as a TV film critic. I read the first chapter -- which in this new shorter version was the equivalent of four chapters in the first version -- and the class pretended to like it, because I think they somehow sensed that it was important to me that they liked it, and so they said it was "spare" and "economical" and "intelligent".

I knew it was a flop, an even worse flop than the one before. Anyway, it was too short to publish as a novel now anyway, and I decided after all this work I was at least going to squeeze a goddamn short story out of the fucking thing, so I cut even more out of it until it was short enough to submit to literary journals, and then I sent it out, and it got rejected everywhere I sent it.

I didn't come out of this semi-insane state of mind until I reached my early 30's, when I started getting involved with various proto-literary communities on the internet and found this environment infinitely more natural, more organic and real and satisfying. The final time I took a workshop was in 1993, and I remember by this time only getting angry at all the inane, ridiculous comments the students made when they critiqued. Once an 80-year-old man came shuffling slowly in his walker to hand his story up to the teacher, because the old man's lungs were too weak for him to read it himself, and the story was brilliant. It was a comic piece about his life as a homosexual hustler in the 1940's around Times Square, and how he used to sleep under the Williamsburg Bridge and shoot junk and steal things from stores. I was the only one who liked it. The rest of the class smothered it with stale marshmallows. Like "I thought the sentence about the sun rising over the smelly Hudson was kind of evocative." Or "It's a good first draft, but now you have to figure out what you're trying to say." Or the old lady with the knitting needles who had to pipe up with "Are you sure it's a good idea to say 'sucking his cock' if you want to get it published?" and everybody could just tell that she was only asking the question because it was her lifelong ambition to say 'sucking his cock' in front of a large group of strangers.

At least nobody said "Show, don't tell."

Looking back on my desparate years, I realize now that I was suffering from the literary equivalent of anorexia. I was trying to make my writing smaller and smaller, perfecter and perfecter, in the hope that it would finally be so small that nothing bad could possibly be left in it. My writing had become stublike and twisted and impossible to love, and I didn't even love it myself by the end.

Just what a young writer needs, a roomful of super-egos. Really ... writers don't need people spelling out the reasons they hate us. We just don't need it. It's good to know why you like us, but it doesn't help much to hear all about why you don't. Like Groucho Marx says: "Give me a rose or leave me alone."

But I'm glad to say I've recovered and I'm happier now. And just for the hell of it, here's the very final final version of the novel, the minimalist version I created a couple of workshops after the last one, after I had turned it from a novel into a novella into a short story, a very short story in fact, and not even so short that it isn't bad. But I do think I managed to cut out every word that isn't true, so here's what's left. It's called The House

Anyway ... I'm now mainly interested in exploring different ways to present literature in a technological setting, or (if I'm in a different mood) different ways to present technology in a literary setting. I think I've found my "niche" in life, and I'm having a good time. I run Literary Kicks, and this where I put most of my writing. I've also published a few pieces at other literary sites. Here are some of them:

Garbage Can Symphony
Chicken Wire Mother
The Summer Jerry Died
The History of the California Burrito
and 7 Pinoak Lane

have all appeared in Enterzone, my favorite experimental webzine.

A piece called

The Passion of Data

appeared in Meg Wise-Lawrence's Acorn Mush (and in fact one of the only good things about the time I wasted at those stupid writing workshops was that I first met Meg in one of them).

The earliest stories of mine to appear on the internet were in the long-running fiction site InterText, where I published two stories in 1994, The Thieves and Jeannie Might Know. These pieces are pretty old by now, but I think they still read okay.

Most of my other projects are listed on the main Literary Kicks page, but what the hell, let me at least count them off here ... I put together a huge poetry reading featuring web writers and other cool people this July at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, and in fact this event was a reprise of an earlier (smaller but also great) reading I co-arranged at Biblio's on Canal St. in Tribeca. I also like to perform at other people's readings when I can.

I co-edited the first anthology of internet poetry and fiction published in book form, Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web, in 1997. It didn't sell too well, but then neither did Thoreau or Van Gogh when they were alive (so there, hah).

Notes From Underground, my CD-Rom movie, sold pretty well, helped by some nice write-ups in WIRED and Entertainment Weekly and New York Press, though in the end I lost a ton of money on it. Oh well. I'm still eating at Burger King (actually, I'm eating at Taco Bell). But, you know ... I sometimes think those burgers and tacos are better for us than "society" wants us to believe.

As for where I make my money ... I work during the day at an internet content company called iVillage.com, located in the Chelsea/Flatiron neighborhood in New York City. I'm responsible for the planning and development of new community products (among other things), and I find this very exciting because we're basically trying to base an entire successful business on content and community -- words, ideas and relationships -- which is about as noble a challenge as any writer could ever want to be a part of. The site is targeted at women readers, and if you've read many articles about us you know that it's a famously crazed and tough place to work, but most of the rumors about the place aren't even true. It's actually a pretty funky and fun working environment, very fast-moving and unpredictable (which I like), and the people are nice -- most of the time.

I also love working in the Flatiron district (near the you-know-what building). You can usually spot me eating lunch around Madison Square Park on weekdays, if you're ever around New York City (but, by the way, don't call iVillage asking for Levi Asher -- I'm known by a different name, but you'll never know what it is).

Before I was at iVillage, I worked for four years at Time Warner's Pathfinder, which was a nice bunch of people but a pretty lame website. I'm not particularly proud of contributing to the Pathfinder business debacle, except to say that "I told them so" quite often, and do you think they listened? Fuck no. Anyway, that wasn't even the lamest job I ever had, by a longshot. The worst was when I put in two long years as a cubicle drone in the database architecture group at JP Morgan on Wall Street. Brooks Brothers suit and everything. I complain more about my job at JP Morgan in my Queensboro Ballads cycle of stories and essays, if you like to hear me complain (hey, I like to hear me complain).

Just for the fun of it, here's my fifteen favorite novels.

Okay, what else should I say about myself?

Here's my theory of art: once I told a friend a story about something strange that happened to me, and he said "that sounds like a movie, you should turn it into a screenplay". I thought -- well, since it already sounds like a movie, what would be gained by turning it into a screenplay? I want to write a screenplay about something that sounds nothing like a movie. That's my theory of art.

What else? I'm 37, and I have three wonderful children, ages 4, 8 and 14. But that's my private life, you don't wanna hear about that.

Okay, enough. I am outta here.

It's a mean world out there. Pray for me ...

Oh shit, you really want to send me an email? Okay, well, here's the deal. I've been in a kind of withdrawal phase lately and I sometimes need to just hide out and not be too available. Also, I used to be more open to getting to know people online but then I got hurt badly a couple of times by people I'd trusted to be true friends. Anyway. Write to me at brooklyn@litkicks.com if you want but it's nothing personal if I don't write back. I've also just created a brand new message board for comments on LitKicks or anything else here. I'll try to respond to any questions that get posted there.

Levi Asher