Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How to Enjoy Climbing the Mountain

School! Started! Yesterday! Everything seems cool. Cool enough that I was too keyed up to get to sleep and this post was largely written around midnight. But ask me again in a month.

Also, I finished the first draft of the dreadful story on Friday. Yay! (I think I'll just keep calling it that, because calling it the Medjugorje story, while more accurate, is cumbersome.) I have another one in mind on which I'm hoping to get started this week, if the roofers stay over on that other part of the building and school doesn't swallow me up too quickly. Meanwhile, I'm plugging cautiously at the secret project, willing to give it up at any time if the spirit stops moving me.

I'm also about 200 pages from the end of the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past. I told Matt last night that I don't want it to be over. I've read 800 pages and I don't want it to be over. That there is a good book. Everything I try to say about why I'm enjoying it sounds very stupid, like I'm stoned or 15 years old or both. "It's...like...it's like reading life." But it is.

Matt always helps me to see my reading habits in new and interesting ways. After someone we know deemed me "well-read," a couple years back, I told him I felt uncomfortable with that term being applied to me. In an obscure 80s movie I like a lot, Theresa Russell says "Rich is hard. You never figure you're quite there." That's how I feel about well-read. I haven't read Tolstoy or Rushdie or Bill Bryson. It doesn't really matter whom I have read; all I'll ever see are the holes that keep me from being a complete reader. So Matt gave me a different term that I think is far more fair: experienced. I'm an experienced reader. Much better.

Last night he did it again. I was trying to figure out why I often like books I don't understand, when so many people don't, and he said that I don't read books in order to conquer. Some people read a book, especially a famous or hard book, in order to conquer the mountain, he said, but...then what? Did they see anything on the way up? He said that instead I climb the mountain to see the view on the way up. (This idea is apparently indebted to Robert Pirsig.) But I preferred his first sentence: I do not read to conquer. Sometimes, I told him, the books conquer me, in the best way. Those are the books I've loved most in the last few years - the ones that had totally overwhelmed me by the final page.


Just to derail this post back almost to where we began, I don't know who chooses the Proust quotes that are going to get framed and prettified like the above, but man are they ever not the same quotes I would choose. This is a sentence from Swann's Way about a snotty butler: 
"But the harshness of his steely glare was compensated by the softness of his cotton gloves, so effectively that, as he approached Swann, he seemed to be exhibiting at once an utter contempt for his person and the most tender regard for his hat." 
^ This Proust never gets enough attention. He is wickedly funny, and it's not a once-in-a-while thing. 

I won't have time for the second volume until December. I know I won't. But I will be so sorry to leave this world behind for a few months, even though I'm going to be hanging out with some pretty amazing literary company between now and then. Still. It's not the same mountain. Not the same view. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

I'm Just Not a Fudger

All this week I've been writing. Yesterday I typed and did a sort of partial revision. The dreadful story is starting to come into focus, and indeed I think it's going to be all right, although right now it's fragmented and inconsistent and has a crummy ending. The story requires research, because I'm writing about real events at a real location that I've never visited, so I spent some time yesterday afternoon watching a documentary and reading. Today I'm hoping to rework the beginning, the end, and factual aspects, and then I'll set it aside for a few weeks. Unless reworking drags into the weekend. I think I'll end up with something under 5,000 words, which will be very very nice.

It would not be crazy for me to fudge details of the events and the location, because I'm not exactly describing the Louvre. I thought of doing so as I was typing yesterday, thought about just making things up instead of researching as carefully as I could, because then a whole lot of my work would be done and I wouldn't have to shape my fiction around the truth of the matter. But really, I just can't. It's not in me to fictionalize if I'm writing about a real place.

Meanwhile, I'm still plugging through Proust. I love it. Like Moby Dick, it would be untrue to say that it's not irritating and hard to push through in places, but it's a perspective-changing book with so much beauty and wisdom in it. School starts on Monday, so I hope to make it through the final 300 pages before then, but I'm not giving up on the book - or, more factually, the first volume of the book - until I'm finished with it, either way.

These are the books for one of the classes I'm taking:


How cool is that?

After the spring semester was over I took a look at the available classes for the fall, and I found that one of the professors I had in the spring was teaching a graduate seminar on Faulkner and Morrison. These are both writers I love but hardly understand. Exploring them in dialogue, in a class, sounds gleefully fun to me, but I wasn't sure if I'd be able to take a class that was meant for grad students (actually second-year grad students, at that), because I'm sort of technically an undergrad. But I asked the professor and another decision-maker in the department who'd had me for a class, and they both said that if the administrative aspects of enrolling in the class lined up, they thought I'd be more than fine, so I am SO THERE. On Monday. I'm not gonna lie to you, Marge, I'm excited.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

An Audience of One

One of the bits of writing advice I have heard over and over, and at which I chafe like crazy, is that you should write for you, not for anyone else. That is, don't write with an idea of the audience in mind, or with an idea of selling the piece in mind, or whatever. Write for yoooou, not for the outside world. I have trouble with this for so many reasons. At the moment I'll just say that on the one hand, there's art, and on the other hand, there's commerce. People who want to be career authors have to find a way to balance between the two; yet this advice falls so squarely in the hand of art.

Let it never be said that Warhol didn't understand art/commerce

But yesterday...man. I started to believe for the first time that there's something to that advice, and not just that it can be taken if it's qualified with, like, "until you learn what your voice is like," or "when you have a serious writing toolbox," or "once you have markets interested in your work anyway."

I managed to write for a few hours yesterday (yes, yes, thank you, thank you, I appreciate your applause, no need to throw your panties at me), and at first I worked on a dreadful story that's had me stalled for months. I looked at the pages I'd emitted so far and decided to just start over in the middle of the story, and so I wrote a few thousand words. They seemed okay. Ultimately I got through the climax and wrote a brief plan for what I'll do next. I'm coming around a little bit to the idea that this story might be all right, but I'm also fine with the idea that it's just practice and will end up trunked.

I was tired, but didn't feel done, and I still had a couple of hours to go before I could really feel good about quitting, so I turned to my secret project. This is a book of short stories that I am planning to write only for me, because I don't think anyone but me will want it or care about it. When I came up with the idea, I tried to reject it as a project, because see the prior sentence. But it wouldn't let me alone, so I accepted both that I had to write it and that it might not ever find an audience outside of my notebook. In working on the project, I hope to feel a lot freer to try weird shit and get some practice with techniques like repetition and lyricism, which I admire but don't really know how to do.

:( 

I'd kind of burped up a single page of the first story in the middle of the night last month, and when I looked at it yesterday I was pretty pleased, so I thought, hell, why not, and got going on the second page. And then there was a third, and a fourth. And then I was done drafting the first story (of twelve).

I think I'll flesh it out a lot (like a LOT, like maybe this will be 1/4 of its eventual length) in the future, but maybe I won't, maybe it'll stay like this, and that'll be fine. And it felt better than much of what I've written in the past two years, coming out. It felt better than any of the exercises I've done for classes, better than pretty much all of the 8,000-word hot springs story, better than most of the 7,000-word journalist story, and better than the grueling revisions on the 4,000-word bread story. Better than the eh revisions on Highbinder. And it was completely different than any of those things - to its audience of one (me), it felt fresher and newer and much more beautiful.

Plus, I wasn't doing this thing, making it more yours and less mine. I was writing it in my own private language, for my own understanding. It was like poetry. I write terrible poetry, because I don't know a damn thing about how to write poetry, and generally I'm writing to express something rather than to create something. I have gathered that in writing poetry you have to make the language as beautiful and as dense as possible, but I don't have a toolbox for doing that and thence creating an object of art rather than creating shoddy, adolescent bullshit. In writing on the secret project yesterday, I threw out my toolbox and let the language lead me, which is what I do when I write my terrible poetry. It was the most instinctual writing I've done in a long time, and it felt amazing, and yet what I came out with looked pretty darn good to me.

So I started to wonder, once I was done with this draft of whatever this thing is, chapter, story, thing, whether it was going to be worthwhile to an audience, too, or whether it was still going to be just for me. (It honestly does not matter to me; it was sheer curiosity.) If it's good work, and it's work that's worthwhile to an audience, then the advice I've squirmed under for so long is absolutely correct, and the best way to write is to write without a thought to the audience. Because then I'll feel good while writing and I'll create something fine.

Aargh. This shit is confusing. Why couldn't I be a patent attorney?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Art, Defined: Any Beautiful Voice at a Suitable Volume

The other day I learned that some guy founded a religion based on The Big Lebowski. It's reasonably legitimate, according to Wikipedia and its official website, and in Ireland there appear to be more Dudeist priests than Catholic ones.

Becoming a Catholic priest is a slightly more rigorous process, I'd imagine

A wee bit of research suggests to me that merchandising might have been a not-so-small part of why this all came about, but I'm sure it brings pleasure to many and it doesn't seem to do harm. I'm not judging. Well, my first reaction was a leetle judgy, but then I went why not?

Monday, August 11, 2014

A la Recherche de la Paix et de Calme

This is not the time or place to write in detail about my struggles with and emotions about Facebook. However, in prefacing the rest of this post, I have to say that during my vacation last week, I looked at Facebook hardly at all, in contrast to the prior week and a couple of years' worth of weeks before that, when I looked at Facebook on and off all day long. In brief, I stay on FB all the time because I'm afraid of missing anything that happens on FB, and last week, I wanted to miss everything that happened on FB, the better to pay attention to what was around me.

It was a beautiful week. It was slow, it was gentle. It was warm and cool at all the right times. There were friends and music and good wine and better food. There were loud staircases and quiet fans. There was a morning jog by a lake like a mirror. There were two men fishing from a skiff on the surface of that rippling, benevolent sun. There was life.

On my first weeklong vacation to this place - almost ten years ago now - I read The Fountainhead. It was nice to rip through it in a week and know that I never had to read it again, and I kind of marked this geographical spot in my mind as a place where I can get serious reading done. Chorelike reading, if necessary. So I brought with me the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past,* which I've owned for well over a decade, not in the hope of finishing all 1,018 pages but in the hope of getting far enough into it that I wouldn't find it easy to quit once I was home. I succeeded; yesterday I got past the 1/3 mark


and I intend to finish it this month. I don't know whether I'll start on the next one right away. We'll see.

Just in terms of conversations I've had with people (i.e. not in terms of his reputation in the highfalutin literary community), I find that Proust, like Wallace, is famous more for his maximalism than for his actual content. I'm here to tell you that's a real shame for both writers. So far, Temps Perdu is not a little frustrating, because it is ridiculous how much wordage this guy can trowel onto the simplest moments, but I have no complaints about how lovely it is to read his sentences. They're long, they're teetering, they're hard to follow, and they're almost certainly nothing like what they are in French, but they're also romancing the hell out of me.

During our travel home on Saturday, I spent a lot of time looking at things. Matt mostly played an RTS game on his iPad, but I sat (or stood, or walked) and looked around. Everything was fascinating. The way people walked and sat and ate and squirmed and coped with their kids and chatted with each other and zipped their bags and sipped their lattes. I would have missed so much if I'd been scrolling through Facebook on my phone.

I don't know, but I think, that nearly 300 pages of Temps Perdu had forced me into seeing the world in greater detail. Proust describes all he sees (or saw) at such great length that he had to have looked at that tree, that river, the interior of that house long enough or often enough to see every last thing there was to see about it. He's making a project of memory, so I understand why he spends dozens of pages on the flowers that lined a certain path from his parents' house to his great-aunt's house, but I'm not going to say it's a fun or breezy read. Nevertheless, I think it's altering, for the better, the way I see the world right now, as I'm reading it. The world seems to exist in such gradual detail. I've felt for years that the wealth of stories that exist among the human race is best demonstrated at an airport, where you can personally witness hundreds of stories happening across a single day, but I took a lot more notice of Indra's net on Saturday than I did on the flight out, before I'd started Temps Perdu.

Maybe it's not Proust, though. Maybe a week of little to no responsibility, of listening to quiet and watching leaves flutter in the wind, of strumming my uke on a porch, is what helped me slow down and look. Maybe the lack of Facebook, a week of me clamping off my brain from the dump-truck of information available there (which overwhelmed me the few times I looked at it over the week), made a much bigger difference than I can understand right now. Or maybe all three things helped me to find some peace - the intricate detail of Temps Perdu, the silenced buzz of Facebook, and the cool grass of my vacation, all combined, did the trick.

I don't really care. I just don't want it to end.


*Can I just say? The new Penguin translation of À la recherche du temps perdu translates the title as In Search of Lost Time, so the Wikipedia page and a lot of other material has been changed to reflect that, rather than Remembrance of Things Past, as it was known in English for almost a century. While In Search of Lost Time seems like a more faithful rendering of the phrase, Remembrance of Things Past is so much more evocative. And the version I own and am reading is translated that way, anyhow, so it's how I'm going to think of it. (There's other stuff to say about the translations and how I've decided to go ahead and read a translation that's quickly being rendered obsolete, but it's pretty boring.) 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Out of the Office

On Sunday, I'm going on vacation to my favorite place in the world, a sort of-town in upstate New York. It's where I got married, and it's been since I got married (three years ago) that I spent any time there, and I'm so damn happy that we can make it there this year.

I found the picture below - created and animated by Rebecca Mock - on Wil Wheaton's Tumblr a while back, and it immediately made me think of a day in my vacation spot. Just stick a ukulele in for the iPad, and that's me for the next week.

In the meantime, love each other and yourselves.



Monday, July 21, 2014

Greed Masked as Convenience

Last week I read that Amazon has put together a "Netflix for books", Kindle Unlimited, which will let you pay $10 per month for a subscription service to its entire library of e-books.

Library. Now I know that word means something outside of the context of Amazon. Hmm...

Oh, right. That free subscription service that has most of the books you could ever want to read, that has helped more lives than Mother Teresa, that (in many districts) has free and easy e-book lending, that has been around since Jeff Bezos's great-great-great-great-grandpappy was less than a twinkle in his daddy's eye.

Look, I'm an Amazon apostle, all right? I gladly pay for Prime and I order a few items a month. I use the site for everything from cooking ingredients to toys for my friends' kids. But this is ridiculous. For probably a majority of Americans, this service is a total waste of money. The timing is good, because we've all gotten so used to paying monthly fees for our entertainment that we'll likely roll over and pay this one without remembering that we can get it elsewhere for free. But we can.

I use my library for e-books with reasonable frequency, and it's great. I use it for physical books on a constant basis, and that's great, too. Sometimes I have to go on the waiting list for a given book, but I rarely have to wait longer than a week. And you know what? I think it's better for me that I have to wait a week for a book rather than getting every book I want at any time. (The virtues of waiting for pleasure are engraved in story and song.) If I desperately need it now, for whatever reason, I can pay for it. But getting everything you want instantly all the time makes you Veruca Salt, and as we all know, she was a bad egg.

[honk honk]

Do me a favor, hmm? Before you sign up for Kindle Unlimited, just try using your library, just for a month, for all the books you would normally buy for yourself from Amazon, whether physical or e. If you succeed, look at the money you've saved. Maybe divide that by your hourly rate at work, see what that money means to you.

Depending on how your library is hooked up to other regional libraries, you may find that you have access to any book you want for free. I got to choose from three or four different translations of Madame Bovary when I read it last year, and of the ten obscure experimental books I had to read for a class this spring, the LA public library failed to find only one of them. Saved me well over $100, because I didn't care for any of the books enough to want to keep them. This very week I saved $30 by borrowing a 2014 GRE guide instead of buying one. At the library, you might not have access to any book you want within ten seconds, but that's another thing you can try for a month: waiting for what you want. I find that I like that better than its alternative, most of the time.

If your library isn't awesome, if you can't use it conveniently and freely and find everything you need, then I take it all back and Kindle Unlimited is great and necessary for some people. But just try it.

It's still up for debate whether Amazon is bad for authors, so I'm not for or against it professionally. Personally, I'm for it, this service notwithstanding. Libraries are technically not as good for authors as bookstores are, but honestly I'd rather someone check out my book for free and read it than buy it and never look at it again. Libraries are good for books, not profit, and the books are the important thing.