January 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
December 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
“I sat there with my eyes on a flower in the carpet, or I looked up at her and then again at the flower, and her own glance strayed about the room in that abstracted way a good housewife has of looking around to surprise a speck of dust in the act. We were saying things to each other all the while, but they were strained and difficult things, completely empty.
You meet somebody at the seashore on a vacation and have a wonderful time together. Or in a corner at a party, while the glasses clink and somebody beats on a piano, you talk with a stranger whose mind seems to whet and sharpen your own and with whom a wonderful new vista of ideas is spied.. Or you share some intense or painful experience with somebody, and discover a deep communion. Then afterward you are sure that when you meet again, the gay companion will give you the old gaiety, the brilliant stranger will stir your mind from its torpor, the sympathetic friend will solace you with the old communion of spirit. But something happens, or almost always happens, to the gaiety, the brilliance, the communion. You remember the individual words from the old language you spoke together, but you have forgotten the grammar. You remember the steps of the dance, but the music isn’t playing any more. So there you are.
So there we sat for a while, and the minutes sifted and wavered down around us, one by one, like leaves dropping in still autumn air. Then, after a space of silence, she excused herself and I was left alone to watch the leaves drift down.”
— Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
(Got this from the 10th edition of my Norton Reader. Pretty deadly stuff, wouldn’t you say? The passage was followed by a battery of questions related to the essay’s style, word choice, grammatical construction, and how exactly those combine to create the essay’s effect (this being a reader that aims to teach writing). The short answer to that would probably go something like “LOTS OF PARENTHETICALS” + “judicious usage of laser-pointer second person POV” + “drawling, biting undertone smuggled in under the aegis of some nicey-nice phraseology” = “blood-drawing contempt”. On reconsideration it’s obvious that Kincaid’s larger target is the privilege/economic stratification that underwrites and enables the functioning of all tourism industries. But her takedown is so resentful and belligerently pitched that it’s also somewhat troubling, and not in the way she intends. For example, it leaves no room for the existence of a more benign tourism – the obvious response being that not all tourism takes place in poor countries. For another – for another?
If a person wanted to escape the banality of their life and go somewhere else, does that make them “ugly”? Kincaid says yes. But I think an interesting thing to notice here is her usage of the word “ugly”. Notice that she doesn’t use another word in its place – “bad”. So it seems to me that the essay is a summary judgment of the system rather than a judgment of the tourist’s character, since everyone everywhere suffers the same everyday banality. After all, it’s not ugly that you want to escape your life and go on vacation – it’s ugly that you have the wherewithall – the economic means – to do so.)
The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being. You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily; you are not an ugly person day to day. From day to day, you are a nice person. From day to day, all the people who are supposed to love you on the whole do. From day to day, as you walk down a busy street in the large and modern and prosperous city in which you work and live, dismayed, puzzled (a cliché, but only a cliché can explain you) at how alone you feel in this crowd, how awful it is to go unnoticed, how awful it is to go unloved, even as you are surrounded by more people than you could possibly get to know in a lifetime that lasted for millennia, and then out of the corner of your eye you see someone looking at you and absolute pleasure is written all over that person’s face, and then you realize that you are not as revolting a presence as you think you are (for that look just told you so). « Read the rest of this entry »
December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
Sarajevo, 1914. Shortly before he is assassinated, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand finds the reception hall he is standing in crammed with the half-million beasts he has killed in his career as a hunter:
“One can conceive the space of this room stuffed all the way up to the crimson and gold vaults and stalactites with the furred and feathered ghosts, set close, because there were so many of them: stags with the air between their antlers stuffed with woodcock, quail, pheasant, partridge, capercaillie, and the like; boars standing bristling flank to flank, the breadth under their broad bellies packed with layer upon layer of hares and rabbits. Their animal eyes, clear and dark as water, would brightly watch the approach of their slayer to an end that exactly resembled their own.”
Extract from Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (with an assist from Geoff Dyer’s Guardian UK review of the same).
“… One can see that, far from enacting an easy ironic resignation, Dyer is really a late Romantic, a flâneur out of Rilke (but with a vinegary English dash of Kingsley Amis), eager to experience as much as possible, to travel and fall in love and meet new people, and wary of writing and reading, because, although they preserve such experience, they do so at a mimetic remove. The problem for the Romantic is that, in order to have anything to write about, he has to live—i.e., not be writing. Not for nothing is D. H. Lawrence, the savage pilgrim, Dyer’s great model.
So Dyer has spent much of his life on the move—London, Paris, Rome, Oxford, New Orleans, New York—and much of his best writing has been prompted by travel. He approaches this humorously in “Out of Sheer Rage,” but the English larkiness cannot obscure the intensity of the feeling. Once, he writes there, he found himself walking on a North London street, the road where Julian Barnes lived: “I didn’t see him but I knew that in one of these large, comfortable houses Julian Barnes was sitting at his desk, working, as he did every day. It seemed an intolerable waste of a life, of a writer’s life especially, to sit at a desk in this nice, dull street in north London. It seemed, curiously, a betrayal of the idea of the writer.” To spend one’s life writing is a betrayal of the writer’s life: Dyer knows this is a lunatic paradox, that even Romantics have to sit at boring desks and write, but he would rather have his battered paradox than Barnes’s clean coherence.
… This religious self-emptying might seem an unexpected turn in Dyer’s usually hilarious and worldly work. But in fact the metaphysics of boredom lead naturally to the metaphysics of shanti. In the earlier books, Dyer’s characters failed to write not because they were indifferent to writing but because they wanted too much to write. Negative liberty expresses a fear of completion; if you never start a work, then at least there is no chance of your having finished it. To complete something is in some ways to make it disappear; not starting it is a preëmptive strike against loss, a way of elegizing what has not yet disappeared. … Time is what completes us, and time is what forces us into the endless repetition that is boredom and the tyranny of habit. Travel, sex, and drugs—Dyer’s recurrent interests—are ways to cheat time, are moments out of time.”
Wait! There’s more!
“I am always on the edge of what I am doing. I do everything badly, sloppily, to get it over with so that I can get on to the next thing that I will do badly and sloppily so that I can then do nothing — which I do anxiously, distractedly, wondering all the time if there isn’t something else I should be getting on with. … When I’m working, I’m wishing I was doing nothing and when I’m doing nothing I’m wondering if I should be working. I hurry through what I’ve got to do and then, when I’ve got nothing to do, I keep glancing at the clock, wishing it was time to go out. Then, when I’m out, I’m wondering how long it will be before I’m back home.”
Geoff Dyer, in Out of Sheer Rage.
November 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’m too wrung out today to write anything at length — there’s a fledgling headache rattling around behind my eyes and in my sinus cavities that is going to metastasize into a full-on brain-clamp the moment I leave work, I just know it — but here’s some scrumptious travel writing that I don’t want to lose if I can help it.
“In Cantonese cooking, nothing edible is sacred. It reflects an old Chinese mercilessness towards their surroundings. Every part of every animal- pig stomach, lynx breast, whole bamboo rats and salamanders – is consumed. No Hindu cows or Muslim pigs escape into immunity by taboo. It is the cuisine of the very poor, driven to tortuous invention. Most Chinese still eat only fourteen pounds of meat a year, and many survive at little above subsistence level. In the rowdy, proletarian Wild Game Restaurant, I interrogated the waitress for anything I could bear to eat. But she incanted remorselessly from the menu: Steamed Cat, Braised Guinea Pig (whole) with Mashed Shrimps, Grainy Dog Meat with Chilli and Scallion in Soya Sauce, Shredded Cat Thick Soup, Fried Grainy Mud-puppy (‘It’s a fish,’ she said) with Olive Kernels, Braised Python with Mushrooms …. If I wanted the Steamed Mountain Turtle, she said, I’d have to wait an hour. And Bear’s Paws, she regretted, were off. I had turned suddenly vegetarian. I played for time by ordering python broth, then glanced furtively round at the main courses on nearby tables, hoping for escape; but their occupants were bent over opaque stews where dappled fragments floated anonymously. Around us the windows were glazed with pretty pictures of the animals concerned : deer and cats wearing necklaces. The waitress tried to be helpful. ‘What about Dog Meat Ready to be Cooked Earthen Pot over Charcoal Stove on Table?’ I guessed in desperation: ‘It’s too expensive.’ ‘Then I recommend Braised Wildcat.’ ‘Well…’ I glanced at a domestic tabby squatting on the veranda beside me. The waitress followed my gaze. ‘It’s not that.’ She tried to explain it. It had nothing to do with real cats, she said. She wrote down the Chinese character for it, which I couldn’t read. In the end, hoping that it was a fancy name for something innocuous, I heard myself say: ‘One braised wildcat, please.’
But the soup was a meal in itself. It came in a python-sized bowl, and beneath its brown liquid lurked sediment of what appeared to be white chicken meat. It tasted fishy. The darker flecks might been skin. I excused myself by reflecting that pythons (although I had never known one) were less endearing than lambs, which I had eaten often. The tabby had squirmed under my table. It looked scrawny but dangerously edible. In fact I had the impression that almost everything bere was in peril. When somebody brought a warm flannel for my I was half prepared to munch it. What else was nutritional, I wondered? The mosquitoes? The curtains? It occurred to me that should I fall from the fourth-floor stair-well. The cat was still under my table when its braised compatriot arrived. I lifted the lid to reveal a mahogany-coloured flotsam of mushrooms and indistinguishable flesh. A pair of fragile ribs floated accusingly on the surface. I ate the mushrooms first, with relief, but even they were suffused by the dark, gamey tang of whatever-it-was. The meat was full of delicate, friable bones. I did not know if my faint nausea arose from the thing’s richness or from my mind. Several times my chopsticks hit rounded, meat- encircled fragments, like miniature rolling-pins, which resembled legs. I smuggled them to the cat under the table, as a melancholy atonement. “You don’t like your wildcat?’ The waitress was peering into the bowl, disappointed. ‘I’m rather full.’ I smiled feebly, picking the python out of my teeth. But she seemed to understand my diffidence, and stooped down to sketch me an exonerating picture of the whatever-it-was. She drew what looked like the illustration of an Edward lear Limerick : a lugubrious, four-legged ellipse, with a face either cross or upset. But it was too late : I had already eaten it. And when later I showed an English-speaking Cantonese the word she had written, he translated it “elephant-cat” or “cat-fox”, and shook his head, nonplussed.”
— Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron
October 12, 2011 § Leave a comment
This is a reread from a few years ago. (June 11 2008 – wow! More than three years!) You know, back in undergrad, I didn’t do prose writing on any kind of regular basis. This, despite the fact that I a) wrote for the university paper, b) interned for a Bay Area weekly, c) was in and out of fiction workshops for several years, d) co-taught a writing class in the English department, e) was briefly an editor with a campus literary review, f) wrote a bi-monthly newsletter for my job, and g) developed close relationships with crazy writer people (and imagine me saying this in the most affectionate way possible). These people were hardcore. They had penned fantasy trilogies as adolescents. Every November they stockpiled white bread and nutella, shoved a chair under the doorknob, and ran through a few relaxing yoga poses, such as standing on their heads, to keep their bodies limber and their minds prepared. Then they got right down to it. By this I mean they put ass to chair and banged away at their keyboards, every day for the next thirty days.
Anyway, that’s all to say that my friends were amazing, strong-willed, and driven. They were Possessed by their Art. I wasn’t. I was just pretending to be so that I could hang out with them.
Three years later, I’m trying to do it every day, and for the most part succeeding. While working full-time can be draining, it also allows me to clear away the brainspace for what’s important. I’ve been doing this for coming on three and a half months now, and while there’s still not a respectable story in all the rubbish that’s accumulated in the dragnet, and certainly nothing to rival the efforts of some of my former peers, I have gotten a little bit better. So I decided to read this book again, thinking it might have something new to offer me. You know, like scintillating insights, or horribly embittered jokes.
When I read Dillard’s The Writing Life the first time around, I found it okay. It didn’t really “speak” to me. Oh, there was much to like. It was the same things that distinguished Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim Creek from shelves of other books. That style that seems both economical and wildly luxurious. Her wisdom and piercing insight. Those sentences.
“They seemed too well to be altogether good for them.”
But now that I’ve made this a habit, I understand everything. Everything. I understand the story at the end about the airpilot executing rolls and curls and pirouettes and mid-air twirls. I understand the comparisons to surgery, painting, alligator wrestling, confronting a lion with a chair for a buckler, rowing a boat against the tide. I understand, despite all those flashy images, her assertion about the reality of writing: it is unromantic, insufferably lonely and very often miserable work. I understand her slightly manic, self-berating humor (“I had written a complex and long-winded narrative essay about a moth flying into a candle flame. No one understood it except for a Yale critic and he understood it perfectly. What was I doing with my life?”). I understand how difficult it is to work yourself up to the task, how much cajoling, self-bribing, email-checking, diversionary reading, guilt-tripping, and last-ditch dish-washing needs to happen before I take a final uneasy look at the clock and click to open that cursed text document; how, if you let a WIP lapse mid-tell for more than a few days, it grows and grows and becomes this gross, struggling, unmanagably large thing. I constantly point at things on the page in stunned recognition–this! this is me!
Possibly this conveys something alarming to you about my current mental state? Well, yes. Don’t do it if you can help it. GO! LIVE! STOP BLOGGING*! SAVE A CHILD FROM A BURNING BUILDING.
(*Actually, don’t. I enjoy reading your blogs very much. Please don’t stop.)
Dillard on facing down the blank page (The Nothing, the abyss, the ravening pit of despair and futility, etc, etc):
“Every inchworm I have seen was stuck in long grasses. The wretched inchworm hangs from the side of a grassblade and throws its head around from side to side, seeming to wail. What! No further? Its back pair of nubby feet claps the grass stem; its front three pairs of nubs rear back and flail in the air, apparently in search of a footing. What! No further? What? It searches everywhere in the wide world for the rest of the grass, which is right under its nose. By dumb luck it touches the grass. Its front legs hang on; it lifts and buckles its green inch, and places its hind legs just behind its front legs. Its body makes a loop, a bight. All it has to do now is slide its front legs up the grass stem. Instead it gets lost. It throws up its head and front legs, flings its upper body out into the void, and panics again. What! No further? End of world? And so forth, until it actually reaches the grasshead’s tip. By then its wee weight may be bending the grass toward some other grass plant. Its davening, apocalyptic prayers sway the grasshead and bump it into something. I have see it many times. The blind and frantic numbskull makes it off one grassblade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours. Every step brings it to the universe’s rim. And now—What! No further? End of world? Ah, here’s ground. What! No further? Yike!”
On the fear that your story/book/poem/screenplay/nonfictional research project on the phenomenology of hermeneutics in the Austro-Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy is stupid and trivial and what are you doing you should be a fire woman or a special ed teacher or a pro-bono lawyer (can I do this last thing while still writing a book? What do you mean, I will need to toil away all the waking hours of my next ten years of living to pay off $200K of debt?):
“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”
The wonder and suspension!
“Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.
Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”
The contemplative vs. the active life:
“The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere. It appeals only to the subtlest senses–the imagination’s vision, and the imagination’s hearing–and the moral sense, and the intellect. This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks you and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader’s ear must adjust down from the loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing; it will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its up and downs and louds and softs.”
And most of all:
“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hopes for literary forms? Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. If we are reading for these things, why would anyone read books with advertising slogans and brand names in them? Why would anyone write such books? We should mass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”
I know I have a few writer people from uni friended on this account. Keep at it, you guys. And read this book if you need encouragement.