December 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
Between dining on low-fat cottage cheese for lunch for three days running, wrestling with sleep deprivation, receiving zero packages in the mail from Chicago/Columbia/NYU, trying without success to put the reigns on my emotional restlessness/overactive imagination, running myself ragged at work, and – this is the kicker – having all the emotional tumult I’ve been feeling lately dismissed by someone I care about as a load of “nothing”, this last week has been – how do I say this politely? – no fucking bueno, my friends. In fact, I reached the summit of no bueno yesterday when I opened a Doctors Without Borders mail package, read a few lines about war-ravaged refugees, and abruptly started sobbing while standing by myself in the cold, drafty kitchen of my house. (There, there, child.)
In more positive news, I read back into my files and was pleasantly surprised by well the writing for the debate teamsters piece has aged – it’s not-bad, even mildly witty. Scratch that – actually, I felt damned pleased with myself! You can never tell if it’s good when you’ve just written it and it’s too hot to touch closely. Bobby is back from Chicago, so I’ll be visiting him this weekend. I have plans to see an installment of The Moth Storyslam at the El Cid in January with friends. Housewarming party on the 23rd. Will I be my debilitatingly awkward self, or will I muster up the wherewithal to be a little brave?
Good things: Cutting a check to Doctors Without Borders. It felt good. Generally it feels good to give money away. I put the map they sent me up in my room — that felt nice too. John Updike’s incredibly luxuriant prose style – here is a dude who knew how to write a sentence, people. At the office tenant luncheon, a portly bespectacled lady playing these sexy shimmying holiday tunes on her violin. Laughing with B. on the phone about soccer players (“120′ – Robin Van Persie scores”). Porter Robinson’s Unison. Malefica. The high, coming off my 900 wds yesterday – reconnection with the material, the feeling of reacquiring your nimble fingers at the keyboard, hopeful smiles all around.
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 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction
Ursula K. Le Guin (1986)
In the temperate and tropical regions where it appears that hominids evolved into human beings, the principal food of the species was vegetable. Sixty-five to eighty percent of what human beings ate in those regions in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistoric times was gathered; only in the extreme Arctic was meat the staple food. The mammoth hunters spectacularly occupy the cave wall and the mind, but what we actually did to stay alive and fat was gather seeds, roots, sprouts, shoots, leaves, nuts, berries, fruits, and grains, adding bugs and mollusks and netting or snaring birds, fish, rats, rabbits, and other tuskless small fry to up the protein. And we didn’t even work hard at it–much less hard than peasants slaving in somebody else’s field after agriculture was invented, much less hard than paid workers since civilization was invented. The average prehistoric person could make a nice living in about a fifteen-hour work week. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
“As the Grande Dame of Canadian realism, Munro is widely and rightly admired, both nationally and internationally, for the care of her craft, the economy of her sentences and the dignified reserve of her characterizations. She’s been virtually canonized by literary institutions in Canada and the United States and has been boldly called, by the more recently canonized American realist Jonathan Franzen, among others, the best living writer in North America.
And of course, it is realism that reigns supreme, in Canada and the United States, though probably not in Europe, as the most popular and legitimate literary style. And yet — and yet — given that what Munro does, she does with immaculate precision — why always, with such a richness of skill, this insistent choice on the purely personal, the proximate world of the self and its near relations? In the cosmology of this world, the personal, social world, the individual is seen delicately negotiating a balance with friends and family: Her journey is the steady sun around which all planets revolve.
Surely the vast universe beyond the minutely personal is also of some little interest. There is, of course, often a backdrop. Munro, for instance, loves the land, loves her region within it, and comes to the land in her prose with knowledge, deliberation and devotion. Still, the land is a setting primarily for a specific subset of us, for the foibles and discoveries and preoccupations of the social self. And in the broader, dominant literary culture of realistic and personal fictions, a culture where Munro tends to lead and others to follow, the land often drops away entirely in favour of a massive foreground of people with problems.
These problems are rarely starvation or war; they tend to be adultery or career disappointment, say, which leaves us with a literary culture whose preoccupation is not meaning or beauty, not right or wrong, not our philosophies or propensity for atrocities or corrupt churches and governments, but rather our sex lives, our social mistakes, our neighbourhood failures and sibling rivalries. Enlightenment humanism finds a kind of perfect expression here: If our deliberations about our personal lives, consisting of a near-infinite scrutiny of the tiny passages through which we move in relation to friends and lovers, constitutes the best calling of art, must such self-scrutiny not also be our own highest calling and rightful task?
And if this self-scrutiny is the chief work of our lives, does the rest of existence not drop neatly away? It may be worth asking simply whether, in a culture where mainstream society is already wholly consecrated to the worship of self, literary culture should be consecrated to the same faith.”
The review, entitled Alice in Familyland, is archived here.
This is exactly how I feel about much of today’s “literary fiction”. All of those resplendent metaphors and innovative word choices and toned prose styles — but to what end? To chronicle discontent and ennui among swathes of the privileged, the bored, the middle aged? So that dude’s lonely. So that girl steals to jolt herself alive. It’s all so exasperatingly small-minded. Better to be like Dorothy Dunnett or George R. R. Martin, who inspire fanaticism in place of critical monocle-peering.
I’m addressing this to myself too. It’s like I want to do pan-sexual werewolves in Victorian-era London but all I know to do (all I’ve known to do since age 15) are quiet domestic vignettes about the ordeal of the lost fingernail clipper.
November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
1. A friend recently told me about a high school classmate of ours. When asked why he hadn’t bother to keep in contact with any of his former schoolmates, he claimed, in so many words, that they were too boring to be worth his time.
Now, this isn’t as enraging as that other time another high school classmate of mine posted a reprehensible Republican screed on her blog about how people who performed poorly in school had only themselves to blame (because obviously, her own success was not in any way influenced by the fact that she had two nurturing parents, a roof over her head, and money to spend on necessities like food and boxes of test prep manuals), but it still riles me, because in his dismissal he waves away a lot of worthy people, in preference for people who are “more cultured”, “more witty”, or “more fun”.
On one hand, who can blame him? I understand this point of view. People have limited amounts of time; best to spend what’s left of it smoking exotic herbs and fashioning post-modern sculptures out of wire hangers and laundry lint on the rooftop of your friend’s friend’s friend’s midtown chateau (read: subletted ratbox). I often feel like I don’t share similar interests with many of my high school friends. I am sure I have dismissed acquaintances in college because they seemed like shallow or boring people. I am even more sure that I have avoided people because they seemed uncool. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment
Honestly, I was much better at this when I was sixteen years old. (Comic from here.)
Other miscellaneous observations:
- Living back home means getting hit on by high schoolers who think you’re their age. Seriously not cool.
- Colima Burgers: zucchini fries? Must check out.
- I spoke to my next-door neighborhood for the first time in years and years and years. It was one of those chance encounters at the mailbox where she’s approaching and you’re approaching and you both look at the sidewalk and pretend not to have seen each other and then suddenly whump, there she is, and there you are, reaching for the mailbox for the same time. And then cries of surprise and delight are exchanged, hugs are dispensed, and the obligatory questions about boyfriends and jobs and future plans are ventured. Maybe an awkward joke is hazarded, and then she’s telling you to visit her fiancee’s Pakistani restaurant in Chino Hills (“What’s good there?” “Oh, everything“), and all the while her big black dog is going back and forth across the road, galloping the wobbles of fat on his haunches and underbelly. Suburbia is so strange. Enclosed, like its own temperate zone. I used to lie on my stomach in this woman’s living room, my chin in a big bowl of junk food, watching Grease reruns with her daughter. Then I’d spray down her backyard because it had all these ants loving on the bowls of dog chow the family set out on a place-mat. She’s gotten shorter, of course. Her make-up is much more evident about her eyes. She says her dog’s been depressed since his friend, the other dog, died.
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.