Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Cleanest, Ripest, Prettiest Banana

I wrote part of a post about precision, and part of a potpourri post, but what's really foremost in my mind right now is Virginia Woolf, so please allow me to write about that and let's see what happens.

My class this semester is British Modernism, so we're studying Woolf and Joyce and Eliot and a couple others. A few years before World War I, right in the middle of the Modernist period, an Italian artist named Marinetti introduced an idea called Futurism (which bears no relation to futurists you hear about giving TED talks or working for Google). Immediately before the war, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound introduced an idea called Vorticism. These two strains of Modernism are sort of opposed to each other, and in order to learn about them more thoroughly, our professor has set up a role-playing game to take place over the next week and a half, a literary salon in which various points of view will make themselves known. Real individuals - Eliot, Pound, Marinetti, etc. - are portrayed by students in this game, and more general groups of people are represented as well: New Women, book publishers, Welsh miners. The salon takes place in mid-1914 in London and is hosted by Virginia Woolf (who, in life, spent much of 1914 in the grip of a terrible mental breakdown, but anachronisms abound in this game).

I think this is wonderful. I think this is the best idea for helping us learn that I've encountered in a long while. I don't care much for either Futurism or Vorticism, but I'm really looking forward to the game, which starts today.

But did I mention I was given the role of Virginia Woolf?

I don't exactly know what my responsibilities entail, but I can tell from the game materials that they're different than those of the other personalities in the game. I can also tell that the other students think I've been singled out, somehow. I feel singled out. I feel like the professor publicly named me the smartest person in the class. (It may not seem that way out there in radioland, but the context of the class is largely what gives me this impression.) It makes me feel two sensations in equal measure: strutting peacocky pride and enormous discomfort.

This mix of emotions is not unfamiliar. It's how I feel about the upcoming magazine release and reading, and it's often how I feel (in smaller measures) when I get compliments. When I work hard, I'm aware that I worked hard, and I take pride in people recognizing it. But I also feel squirmy about the idea that other people are noticing that I did something good, or - as in this case - that other people are noticing that I've been picked, like a banana from the bunch, for something good. I'm proud that I was the cleanest or ripest or prettiest banana, but I also wonder if maybe some of the other bananas weren't going to be better for the job. What if I'm not so ripe after all?

The metaphor's going south a bit, but the point is, if more people than just me are aware of something I did that was worthy of recognition, I'm going to look all the stupider if I fail or fuck up. Impostor syndrome is only sometimes a problem for me, but fear of failure is powerful bad juju. The voice in my head as I've been preparing for this game over the last couple of weeks is straight-up Tweek from South Park, "Agh! Too much pressure!"

I think my brain is Cartman in this scenario

And I know it isn't, that it's all going to be over in like two weeks and no one will remember or care what went on and I'll get a B at worst and everything will be fine. But I still feel like something big is expected from me because the professor's put me in the shoes of one of the great writers of the 20th century, one of the great feminist thinkers of all time, a writer she fairly gushed about when we were reading To the Lighthouse last month. The pride kicks in and I feel like being Woolf (for three days) suits me, and then I feel like an inadequate, arrogant jerk for even thinking that she suits me because see the last sentence, and then I feel like, well, I didn't trick the professor into thinking I'm something I'm not, and then I feel like, oh God, how am I going to be Woolf for three whole days without doing something dumb or off-key? And simultaneously I'm kind of shifting in my seat because everybody knows that I (probably) didn't trick her.

All of this seesawing, I'm feeling it all keenly this morning, getting ready to dress up in my Woolf costume and head off to school with my fountain pen and reasonably period-appropriate notebook. It's comforting that Woolf herself was sort of an emotional mess, no matter how controlled and crystalline her writing was.

Oh, I guess I forgot to add that we get extra points for cosplaying. Yes, this game is serious fun. Wish me luck.

If you, too, want a beautiful handmade wood pen for a remarkably low price, visit PennTexPens on Etsy.
The notebook I can't help you with; it was a gift. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Potential Reading and Polanski

Today I have for you 1) a bit of writing news with some uncertainty attached to it, and 2) a piece of actual writing with dubious merit attached to it.

My essay "This Is Not a Safe World" will appear in the 2015 issue of the Southern California Review, which is the litmag for the University of Southern California. I've known this since January and have woken up remembering it on about half the days since I found out, because it still blows my mind that they wanted this essay, because nobody wanted this essay, it got more than a dozen completely perfunctory rejections. Sending it to SCR was an arrow into the air, and I continue to be astonished that it hit its target.

The news part of this news is that the release party for SCR is taking place on April 24th at The Last Bookstore - two weeks from tomorrow. I got an email a couple of weeks ago announcing this and asking all the contributors whether they wanted to read. I emailed back right away that I wanted to read - I have daydreamed over the idea of reading at The Last Bookstore, genuinely one of my favorite places of all the places I've been in my life - and I have not gotten a reply as of yet. So I don't know if I'll get to read, but maybe I will. Come anyway, on April 24th at 7 PM, to The Last Bookstore to mingle and browse and listen to everyone who does get to read.

I'm proud of the essay (otherwise I wouldn't have kept sending it out after getting no encouragement), but it is quite a personal personal essay. It reveals things about me that, if you know me in life, you may not be comfortable knowing. I hope, if you attain access to the 2015 SCR, or if my essay is chosen to be readable by the journal's website's proprietors, that you read it and enjoy it, or at least that it makes you think. But if you decide to steer clear because you'd prefer some elements of my history to remain unknown to you, I'm OK with that.

That's the news, so here's the writing. I composed this as an exercise about a year ago, and Matt made me think of it the other night, and I'm posting it in part because I have no real idea of its worth. It was an experiment in organized thought. See what you think.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Little Sorrows, Wrought by Disinclination to Move

The theme of my March has been inertia: the inability to rouse from bed, to get up from the chair, to leave the apartment. The quality of being loath to move from where I have settled. Uncharacteristically for adult-me, I've put the bare minimum into my schoolwork (and done more on the fun bits than otherwise), and have allowed general responsibilities to slide in a way that only makes life less convenient for me and doesn't really grant benefits in return. Other than the dubious benefit of not having to move.

Sculpture (underwater, in Mexico) by Jason deCaires Taylor. More here.

The hummingbirds on the balcony have built a nest on one of my strings of lights. How this delighted me when I discovered it in February! But for weeks I didn't refill their feeder, because I didn't feel like cooking up the simple syrup that goes in it. Now, post-refill, even though they've returned to hanging out on my balcony and perching on my lights, the nest has remained empty.

That's a sorrow. That's the kind of thing I've lost in March because of inertia. Little happinesses that in the scheme of things don't matter much - the birds certainly found other places to hang out, and they may return to using the nest once I diligently refill the feeder a few times in a row - but that do subtract from life in small increments.

I hope April moves me. I've never been a do-bee personality, but a month is an unusually long stretch of unproductive stillness. Good things are coming next month, and I want to stand the hell up and meet them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Getting Underwater

This is the truth: I'm not really enjoying the single class I'm taking this semester.

I've tried on several different explanations for size and have settled on two unrelated reasons. 1) The material is not engaging me really at all, in ways that are not the professor's or anyone else's fault. I liked studying Ulysses closely - the sensation was a series of reliefs (relieves?), an experience I might unpack in a later post - but it didn't really light up my brain. Our most recent read, To the Lighthouse, I found impenetrable (probably my own duncery there) and thus I did not enjoy studying it. It was like I'd come to class having read a completely different book than the one the professor discussed. Although I loved the first book we read, The Good Soldier, we really used it as an example for wider literary issues rather than reading deeply into the book itself, which disappointed me.

Merrily we roll along into The Waste Land, which I've read, and I liked the actual poem but found myself bored by what seems to be the point, which is all the allusions and notes and etc. And the latter is, I'm sure, what we're going to focus on in class.

I think we can all agree this is beautiful, but pretty weird

2), just as crucially, I'm itchy to write and I want to be doing that instead. Between work and recovering from work and school and recovering from school and doing so many social things lately and keeping us in groceries and clean laundry, though, I'm having a hard time finding space for it. It's making me disgruntled and that's bleeding over into my experience of school.

I need to do better at elephant-eating. A hundred words a day, or something. But when I think about working that way, I think about my mom, and virtual reality.

When my mom is working, there's this effect of a satellite delay between when you speak to her and when she responds. "Hey, Mom?" [one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six Mississippi] "Yes, honey?" She doesn't even necessarily look at you or stop typing when she responds; it just takes her that amount of time to come out of the fifteenth century and back into the present moment to recognize that someone has spoken and she's bound to reply. She's explained to me - although it didn't really need to be explained, because I've watched it happen - that she has to go through a definite process of disengaging to answer whatever it is that you need from her, and then it takes time to re-engage with the work before she's back where she was. Even an interruption like "Where's the extra soap?" or "Want another cup of coffee?" will lose many precious minutes for her.

She says it's like being underwater, like scuba-diving: all above the surface is dull and far away, and she'll get the bends if she comes up too fast. My own metaphor for this phenomenon is like The Matrix, or some cybermovie from the 1990s where people have to plug into the New-Fangled Information Superhighway with a complex set of gear - something over your eyes, fingers into stable gloves that don't move, ears and nose plugged, something down your throat, etc. Body horror machinery that you need an assistant to get into and out of. Not just a little plug in the back of your neck, and not quite as immersive as that gross red goo with a jillion wires where you live until Morpheus wakes you up: something in between. Disengagement takes time, and re-engagement takes time. It's a process, an effort, an upsetting bother.

Pictured: my mom's metaphor mixed with mine. A.k.a. the cyber-dolphin from Johnny Mnemonic.

When I'm really, totally inside my fiction writing, my immersion is as intense as my mother's. But it takes much more time than a satellite delay to get me inside that zone - over half an hour, easy. The process of plugging in is often so laborious that I buck at the idea of doing it just to write a few hundred words before I have to stop and meet an outside responsibility. Especially for the secret project, which is such a different kind of writing than what I've done before that I need 110% of my concentration to even do it.

I must learn how to overcome this, though, and write a little at a time. I must. That's how my life looks right now, that all I have is dribs and drabs of time, not chunks of it, and I need to be using them.


In book news, I read Middlemarch over the last four weeks. I totally loved it. It was a pleasure. Beneath its old-fashioned exterior is a pen of such strength and wit and insight that it blew my mind.

Middlemarch was also my Big Book for 2015, so that's out of the way. I'm thinking of one of those huge Russian novels for 2016, Anna Karenina or War and Peace or some such book. I've heard all good things about those novels and I even read about a third of Karenina at one time, but I just don't have a lot of interest or motivation regarding them as of yet. Meanwhile, it's shaping up that I'm going to read the other two volumes of Remembrance of Things Past over the next two summers. Three years of Proust! I wish I could have read it all at once, but this is an acceptable compromise.

Wish me luck at getting underwater in April. My self-imposed deadline is starting to look unrealistic. :(

Friday, March 20, 2015

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

From a Human Larynx

I mentioned that I was taking a break from blogging for the month of February, and during that time I also took a version of a Facebook break. My general practice prior to February was to check Facebook multiple times per day when I was at work and to leave it open all the time when I was at home. I would also read it in great detail: I'd set my feed to "Most Recent" and scroll down as far as I could to read everything Facebook had to give me. I know its algorithms don't show me everything everything, but I was doing my best to be a completist.

During February, I checked it once in the morning and once at night, and I didn't scroll at all. I just looked for notifications and read what was on top of my feed. And it was the best thing ever.

I found myself with a great deal more spare time. I felt calmer. I guessed that I was missing all kinds of life events among my friends, small and large, but I found that I could live without knowing most of those things, and that I'd rather know about them from an email or a call or a coffee date anyway. I wasn't reading nearly as many meaningless or forgettable articles, and that meant I had mental space to read actual books instead.

In March, I've gone back to posting things on Facebook. Hence I feel a certain obligation to read other people's posts too instead of expecting people to react to my posts without reciprocation. And I check it several times a day again, because I want that hit of self-satisfaction when I see that someone has paid attention to something I've posted. But I no longer enjoy much of this. I like the interaction very much (my friends are scattered everywhere, geographically), but I dislike the expense of time and energy on what's going to be forgotten, by tomorrow, in favor of the next batch of content. And the attention-seeking feedback loop is just so abhorrent in all ways.

I don't know what to do about this. I'm not going to join Twitter, and I don't really know how else to a) interact with the outside world and b) keep a line of social media open for my writing. And it feels so selfish to add my own posts without reading others'. But I loved the focus that returned to me, the way my brain slowed down, the sense of not giving a damn that I was consistently missing what was going on.

Would love opinions on the issue.

Last week I held what I thought of as an open house week, where I invited a friend over to eat dinner with me each night. I did this because Matt was working a crunch week, not getting home until 8:30-9:00 and eating at work, and I hate cooking a whole dinner for just me. The idea behind this has its roots in the same place as my New Year's resolution about throwing a party: stop being ashamed of my apartment complex and just invite people the hell over. If they're grossed out by where I live, they don't have to come back a second time.

It turned out great. I loved the company. By the end of the week I was pretty tired of the sound of my own voice and I really wanted to sit in my bedroom alone for about six hours (I kind of seesaw between introvert and extrovert), but the food went over well, I had lots of fun with my friends, and everyone seemed very chill about the problems of my apartment complex.

Part of what I enjoyed so much about this open house week was the chance to interact with people face-to-face. A lot of the people I've come to know in L.A. are people I see for 10 minutes in between classes or have interacted with primarily on Facebook. Having a couple of hours of uninterrupted hangout time was a warm, rich experience. It's not that I rarely do the in-person thing, but seeing people four nights out of five was a sharp contrast to my usual nightly social interaction.

Which takes the form of reading through my silent, fractal, unsatisfying, addictive Facebook feed.

I hope to hold more open house weeks in the future. I'd much rather get the news from a human larynx than from a screen with a blue border on it.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Impossible Book

Previously on The Fictator:
But what's helpful about what Joyce and DFW and Wagner definitely have in common is the data associated with them - the small output, the unlimited unpacking that can be done to their art, the difficulty in creating with which they coped.
I have more to say about DFW and Joyce, specifically about their respective final books, but as I was putting that post together I realized I was trying to express two different ideas that didn't really go together and making a monster of a post. So here's the other idea.

DFW's last, unfinished novel is called The Pale King. This is also the title of the D.T. Max biography's closing chapter, which takes the reader through Wallace's struggle to write the novel and his final illness. I think Max was nudging the reader to see Wallace himself as a pale king (a comparison that's somewhat lost on me), but it seemed he was also casting the novel as an endeavor that battered Wallace and potentially broke him. Not that Wallace's life would have ended differently if he'd succeeded in writing The Pale King. Not exactly. But that he could not surmount the difficulty of writing the novel, and this made him despair of his art.

Wow, he would have been SO uncomfortable with this image

Joyce, for his part, struggled with Finnegans Wake for seventeen fucking years. (I often joke that I think Finnegans Wake is a hoax, and that Joyce, had he lived a few years longer, would have retracted it and released the real novel instead, i.e. that he was working on two novels at the same time, one real, one fake. I don't really actually think this, because scholars would have found it out by now, but it makes a good joke, right?) I imagine he despaired frequently: in gradually losing his eyesight, in all of his friends deserting him, in trying to harness the intrinsic, animal power of language and idiom - like harnessing the sea. But he finished. His was a different temperament than Wallace's, after all.

I can't claim that these books necessarily have a lot in common, especially since I haven't read either one. But there are threads connecting Wallace's life and work with Joyce's life and work that become eerier and more interesting the more I learn about the two figures. Kind of like the coincidences between the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations. So I puzzle over their final endeavors, and wonder what analysis thereof will illuminate - about each artist, and about the nature of writing the impossible book.

I love Eyepatch Joyce. This sketch is by Djuna Barnes

Here is the question that's been nagging at me for weeks: What was it about The Pale King that Wallace could not surmount, that made him fail where Joyce (in some senses) succeeded? Why did that book [maybe] break him? Why did he spend years struggling with it, and decide to give it up, and start it again, and make himself wretched over it? Did perfectionism conquer him? Had novels become the wrong form for him? Was he working on a bad book, and should he have just trunked it and tried something else? Or was he reaching for exactly the book that needed to be written, and was he too impatient or weak or unskilled to write it?

[Not that I think any of those three adjectives apply, at all, to DFW as a writer, but this is where my mind has gone. Was The Pale King really that...big, I guess, that even this virtuoso could not manage it?]

Max says that part of Wallace's effort with his final novel was to write about boredom, which, okay, good luck making that topic into a book people will want to read. Hat: off. I'm not at all sure that the consuming humanism of his later work is a philosophy that lends itself to the same kind of maximalism epitomized by Infinite Jest. So he had a hard row to hoe, absolutely. Joyce, in writing the Wake, seemed to dive headlong into technical and linguistic experimentation, and perhaps (it seems to me, and to some but not all critics) was even reaching for postmodernism. Wallace was reaching past postmodern meaninglessness to see what lay beyond. Do these artistic approaches have anything to do with the two projects, and why one was finished and the other was not?

Maybe the connection is that The Pale King proved unwritable, while, according to a wide majority, the Wake proves unreadable. Maybe if he'd finished King, it would have suffered the same fate as the Wake. But Wallace cared so much more what people thought of his work than Joyce seemed to. Is that why he couldn't finish, and Joyce could?

Or is there actually no parallel here, and I'm analyzing Kennedy/Lincoln coincidences to no useful purpose?

More unanswerable questions, more uncertainty, at the close of a post. Like the end of Wallace's life (and, frankly, the life that came to an end yesterday): too much left unwritten. Too much to bear.