Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Three Rs and Other Stories

I'm really proud of the two posts I wrote after my blog break in February - the one about an old friend, and the one about how I misinterpreted Lynda Barry. The first one especially got a lot of personal reactions from readers, which tells me that I wrote something well. I hoped I would have equally sharp and thoughtful things to say after this long break between May and now, but I'm not sure it's going that way. Instead, a lot of small stuff is in tow. Nothing big and thematic and relatable like before. Forgive me.

1) Reading. The past month has brought a slew of reading that I didn't really want to do and a good deal that I did. I slogged through a 1794 novel written by Mary Shelley's dad, which was just deadly boring, and worse, I kept sensing that it wasn't doing me any good. Even when I can't write, reading always feels a little bit like creative effort, because my mind is chugging away at the underside of the book: why did the author do this, is that really working, does the other seem bad to me because it's lazy or because of my taste, etc. Caleb Williams was just dull, just obsolete, and the only thing it taught me in hundreds of pages is that a very good plot can do little to jazz up mediocre writing. I did not need to learn that again.

I'm taking the second volume of Remembrance of Things Past with me on vacation next week. For reasons already explored, I decided earlier this summer to give up on my three-years-of-Proust plan (one volume each summer), which made me very sad. But I've improved such that I think I'll be able to do it after all. Now I just have to remember everything from last summer's volume.

Lovely notion, though I felt very, very alone during Caleb Williams 

2) Writing. I've been working with fair diligence on the secret project in the last couple of weeks. Not every day, but most days; not a lot of words per day, but more than none. I feel good about it, or at least about prospects for revising it. I'm not ready to share what it's about yet, because I'm still not sure if it's actually a good idea. That's an odd place to be, to have some certainty about the quality of the work I'm doing and significant uncertainty about the foundational idea of that work. Usually it's the other way around, and I'm sure the idea is good but dubious about whether I'm writing it well. Right now, I know that I'm writing well and/or I can see what I need to fix. I do not know where this critical capacity came from. (Maybe from all that reading.)

I also dreamed a really fun, interesting idea last week that, if I can write it, will wind up being a sort of low-pressure rehearsal for the wikibook. Since it was that project which triggered a giant creative crisis this year (more about that another time, perhaps), I'm goddamn ecstatic about the idea of having a legitimate practice run in the works. The wikibook is the book I need to write, but I'm still scared enough of it that I need all the help I can get. The dream idea will probably end up being another unpublishable, too-long, genre-ish-but-not-really piece of work like so many before it, but if it helps get the wikibook out, I'll accept virtually any terms.

3) 'Rithmatic. I haven't done any math lately.

There are other things, but I want to save them for other posts. Surely they'll be organized better elsewhere. Or will they? Maybe it's all just a jumble right now and I should tell you about the ah-may-zing opportunity I'm getting over Labor Day, and the podcast that made me actually literally shake my fist at the sky, and the From Me to You post I thought up this morning that's about how to revise everything from a sentence to a novel, and this book I read that was so good I ordered ten copies from the publisher to send to friends, and...no, this is just me blabbing. Never mind. I'll winnow it out and give you something logical in August.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pneumonia, or Something Like It

This story starts in my adolescence, but we haven't got all day. It starts again during my college years, but there's nothing uncommon about that part of it. Waste of words. For our purposes, it really starts in March, which, as I told you before, was a month flattened out and made pallid by inertia.

Things did not get better after that. They got worse. It took most of the spring, but eventually I had to admit that my symptoms aligned, like eclipsing planets, with those of depression.

Melencholia, Albrecht Durer, 1514

Depression is not a sexy illness. It's not rare. It's got a spectrum so wide that the noun has less meaning than it should. It's also hard to explain (to justify?) as an actual illness, but that was how it came to me this year: as a virus that would not go away, that deteriorated from a cold to the flu to pneumonia. Walking pneumonia, really. I functioned at the required levels, but something was eating me alive on the inside.

By mid-May I could not read anymore. My concentration was too spotty to be able to follow a book from chapter to chapter. I couldn't even read short stories, because I'd reach the end without understanding what had happened. I'd read a page, and then read it again, with no memory of any of the prose. Reading has been the best part of my life since I was three years old, and it was suddenly gone.

There were other things, too.

The most painful symptom was an inability to write. I don't like the term "writer's block" (that post is for another day) and anyway this did not feel like that. This was fear and uncertainty and paralysis and despair and anxiety so big and buzzing it was like trying to imagine writing while pelting headlong through a beehive. The inability to write fed the depression and vice versa. And it seemed like more people than usual (well-meaning, often beloved people) were asking me what I was working on, and it was horrible to try and form an answer to that question that wasn't just shouting "I'm sick, I've been sick, you don't want to know about it, just tell me about your life instead."

Finally, last month, I went to the doctor, and I started clearing out the accumulated bacteria. That process is slow, and ongoing. But my progress of late is so encouraging that I cannot help but share it with you, which is why this post is happening at all. I'm functioning again, and not just at the required levels; I've reclaimed my interest in the world, in art, in ideas. I've gulped half a dozen novels in the last three weeks. Music has gotten its color back.

Best of all, I wrote some prose yesterday. I hadn't written anything since the end of February, and had built terrifying structures born of illness around the process of writing. It wasn't much, just 250 words or thereabouts. And it came largely out of boredom rather than inspiration (though, hey, boredom is a long-endorsed wellspring of creativity). And I don't know that it will be of use for the project to which it belongs. Except that it already has been of use, because it was the first prose I'd written in over four months. I wanted to pop open champagne.

I hope it's okay that I posted this, out of nowhere, and that there may be more radio silence for the near future. I've missed this space and I wanted to explain, even if it's oversharing. I want to resume commentary here on a regular basis, but I'm wary of doing too much too soon. I'm still recovering from pneumonia, after all.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Odd Trapezoid

Today, the online arm of The Normal School is running a flash fiction piece of mine, "MicroDry." Hooray! I wrote this piece as an exercise for my workshop class last semester, and then I tinkered with it until it was send-out-able, and then The Normal School said "Yeah, we like that," and now I'm directing you to it here.

Warning! It uses dialect. I love writing in dialect, but this acceptance is nearly the first positive reaction I've gotten for it from anyone, so if you (along with many others) hate dialect, don't click. The original exercise derived from a series of photographs, but it mutated a bit. I meant to experiment with tone; I think/hope that "MicroDry" can read as comedy or as existentially troubling, depending on your general worldview and specific mood.

I was not thinking of George Saunders, who writes about the blackest existential trouble with a tone as light and frothy as a mousse made by Jane Austen. No, not that. I think I was partially thinking of those utter weirdos who ruined Lawrence of Arabia for us by laughing at every line in the film. Asking myself, and the reader: what's the result when you inelegantly slap one mood on top of a completely different mood? Mostly, though, I was thinking of these two particular characters, and the odd trapezoid of space and time where they meet for 1,500 words. A trapezoid I found neither funny nor tragic but something else.

If you came here from there, thank you for paying me that compliment. You've come just at the wrong time, because this is my last blog post for a while, I think. (The previous post was about that.) But there's plenty here to read, and I'd like to invite you to subscribe to my blog via email, which, if you're reading this in a web browser, you can do by entering your email address in the box in the frame to the right that is labeled "Follow by Email". That way, when I do post again, you'll know - you won't have to keep checking. You can also "join" the site by clicking on the eponymous button, although I really wish Blogger would use a different word than "join", because you're not joining it in any typical sense of that word, you're just adding it to the list of blogs you follow through your Google account. This joining business is helpful to me, because I can see how many people are interested in reading my blog. I don't know how to find out how many people follow it via email.

Anyway. I hope you enjoy/ed "MicroDry" and I hope to see you again sooner or later.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Let's Call It a Vacation for Now

In two weeks, a flash fiction piece of mine is slated to be published. If it goes forward as planned (you never know), on that day I'll post a meditation on what I wrote. In the meantime, and potentially for a while after that post, there will be nothing. 

I don't want to get personal - that is not the point of this space - but this blog is one of a handful of things that aren't working for me right now. Things that are subtracting instead of adding. 

I hope to be back later in the year with enthusiastic and worthwhile things to say about writing. I read this a few days ago and it gave me comfort, but not enough to find something to write about here. 

Don't worry! This post looks naked and scary, and I don't mean it to be that way. I'm having trouble, but it's not dire, nor is it interesting, nor is it new. I don't want to bore you or myself. 

So...smell you later. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

How to Write Soporific Prose

Just incidentally one day during our To the Lighthouse unit, the professor mentioned that Virginia Woolf's second novel, Night and Day, was aawwwful, a thudding interminable Victorian thing. It's not that I didn't believe her when she said this (I gather that she's something of a Woolfian, so she'd know), but I wondered if "aawwwful" was a relative term when it came to Woolf and/or if the book's Victorian attributes made it much more awful to someone who prefers Modernism. I was dancing through Middlemarch at the time, so I thought Night and Day would make an interesting middle ground between Eliot and what I was reading for class.

Turns out she was right. Night and Day is awful. Aawwwful. It's one of the dullest, most joyless books I've ever read. But man, is it ever an interesting awful. I'm learning so much from reading it.

The scenes are very bad, with all the rhythm of an oompah band at its first rehearsal. The narrated paragraphs are better, but largely descriptive - a lot of telling, much of which never pays off. We are deep inside the characters' heads, reading every last thought and emotional reaction to each gesture of every little finger, but the characters themselves are still remarkably inconsistent and difficult to grasp. Through all of this, I can feel the author trying and trying and trying to get something on the page that matters to her. In a chapter I just finished, I could feel her fever at the theoretical high emotional point of the scene, but I felt no fever in myself. The scene was an endless, stilted conversation between two characters in whom I have amazingly little investment after 300 pages, and I had no idea why it was such a big deal that they were talking to each other about who was in love with whom. Between the lines, it felt as though she was trying to write the scene when Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth. It fell flatter than a cheap stage set.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).
Apropos of nothing in this post, here's five minutes of stunts from The Great Stone Face.

The book feels like a sort of expungement. As if all the worst habits of a writer are being wrung out in print before she gets on with the business of writing well. Every paragraph is bogged down with prose that takes the longest possible route to get anywhere, and describes everything in exhaustive and unnecessary detail. Abstractions abound. We hop heads constantly, but to little benefit, which makes the book seem amateurish.
There was a brotherly kindness in his voice which seemed to her magnanimous, when she reflected that she had cut short his explanations and shown little interest in his change of plan. She gave him her reasons for thinking that she might profit by such a journey, omitting the one reason which had set all the rest in motion. He listened attentively, and made no attempt to dissuade her. In truth, he found himself curiously eager to make certain of her good sense, and accepted each fresh proof of it with satisfaction, as though it helped him to make up his mind about something. She forgot the pain he had caused her, and in place of it she became conscious of a steady tide of well-being which harmonized very aptly with the tramp of their feet upon the dry road and the support of his arm. The comfort was the more glowing in that it seemed to be the reward of her determination to behave to him simply and without attempting to be other than she was.
Are you asleep yet? Page after page of this! Every little emotional dip and soar of young love, recorded at enormous length, and then contradicted by the next minuscule emotional change, and then around again...oh my God, seriously, it's aawwwful.

Friday, May 1, 2015

That Comfort in the Kitchen

Last Saturday I was in my kitchen, preparing lunch: beet wraps from this cookbook. (A version of the recipe using European measurement standards may be found here; translating it should not be difficult for American cooks and is worthwhile, if you don't want to buy the book. Which is a good and useful book, if, oh, just a little pretentious. Now, back to our story.) I've made the recipe a number of times before. It is not a small amount of trouble, because it has so many elements that must each be prepared individually - cook the quinoa, toast the walnuts, zest the orange, blitz the beets with the goat cheese (measuring all the while), grate the apple, slice the avocado. The resulting flavor combination is so unique, though, that I enjoy making it when I can manage to get all the ingredients together.

The prior week, I'd made a strange chilled borscht from this book, and I bought and boiled too many beets for the recipe. So I had some leftover cooked beets. I also had a whole package of unused herbed goat cheese from yet another recipe; I'd bought the right amount of bell peppers to roast, but twice as much goat cheese as I needed. This is how my kitchen often operates: I get the amounts wrong when I'm shopping, or I find when I'm on the point of making the dish that I should halve the recipe or we'll be eating weird borscht for weeks. This M.O. means that the following week I need to search my cookbooks or the internet for recipes that will use up last week's excesses. Never a dull evening.

I cannot read the caption on this and I badly want to

So I had leftover beets and leftover goat cheese, but they were in different proportions than the recipe called for. I also had herbed goat cheese instead of plain. Also also, I didn't have any walnuts, nor any raisins, so I was using pecans and just going without raisins. My common practice for cooking quinoa is to use half vegetable broth (or chicken broth, whatever's on hand) and half water to cook it in, because it makes the quinoa more flavorful. When the recommended cooking time is over, I turn off the heat, drape a doubled dishtowel over the pot, and put a lid on top. I let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes or until I need to serve. This is a trick I learned from a rice pilaf recipe years ago, and it keeps the quinoa from being either soggy or undercooked. The beet wrap recipe calls for cooking the quinoa in plain water with no after-steaming.

I was considering all these changes with amusement as I was grating the apple (half an apple, I've found, is plenty), and a lightbulb went on over my head so brightly that Matt noticed, from the living room, where he was occupied with something else. I stood perfectly still and let the light penetrate every brain cell it could, and then I noticed Matt noticing me.

"You okay, there?" he said.

"Yeah," I said. "I just figured something out."

"I can see that," he said.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

TL;DR Reading in Public Is Fun But Weird

Prior to March of this year, I had read my work (aloud) in public zero times. As of Saturday, I have done so twice. Here is video of me reading from my essay, "This is Not a Safe World", at The Last Bookstore on Friday, April 24th.

I am not as short as I appear to be.

You can find the entire essay in the 2015 issue of the Southern California Review, which I know you can purchase in person at The Last Bookstore and which I'm assuming you'll soon be able to purchase at this website, although the new issue's information doesn't appear there just yet. Like I said in the last post about it, the essay's very personal, trigger warning, yadda yadda. I'm not ashamed, I just don't want to make you uncomfortable.

I can't tell you what a weird, heady, impossible experience it was to do this reading. In the car on the way home, I yelped "I'm confused!" more than once in trying to explain to Matt how I felt and thought about it.

The prior reading took place at CSUN on March 20th and was in honor of the spring Northridge Review's release. Even though I'm happy that the story appearing in that issue finally found a home (it's the oft-rejected story that guest-stars in this post), I failed to blog about that reading or promote it here. Now I wish I had, because the two experiences were quite different.