Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Do Not Like the Cone of Shame

This morning I started with "Come As You Are" and then listened to all of Thom Yorke's The Eraser. At first it was a weird juxtaposition - 14 years and a whole universe away from each other - but then the latter seduced me, utterly, as it always does.

I don't know what to tell you today. I wrote a longish post about the migraine I dealt with over the weekend, but I don't really feel good about posting it. In reading it over I'm happy with the product, but it doesn't have much to do with my purpose on this blog.

The editing that I mentioned in Saturday's post, with the darling-killings? I thought I got what killing your darlings was about, but I was ever so wrong. There were whole pieces of this story, passages of multiple paragraphs as well as one entire scene, that I wanted to leave in for the sake of saying what I wanted to say. I thought they served my point in writing the story. Not just things I was proud of having written, but things that I thought were essential to the story as I'd envisioned it.

Well, the story as I'd envisioned it wasn't working, and these passages were some of the reasons why. I had to toss them and redo the inner clockwork of the thing, and my own conception of it. It was kind of like performing amateur surgery on a beloved pet.

But now my pet is mobile and chipper and ready to play, instead of limping around inside a Cone of Shame. And having done this, I'm a lot less afraid of doing it with other stories. It'll be okay, now. More suffering transmuted into learning.

Nearly done with Dubliners, about 2/3 of the way done with Inside Scientology. I absolutely recommend the latter if you're interested in Scientology (and if you're not, I kind of want to know why; it's one of the most interesting subjects I know), but it gets quite harrowing about halfway through. As for Dubliners, I'm finding it a mixed bag. Certain stories I had to grit my teeth and keep reading through excessive boredom ("Ivy Day in the Committee Room"), and others I totally adored ("Counterparts"). I can hardly think of any books of stories that have been so varied in catching my regard.

However, I'd like to note that this is the second book of short stories I've read by a highly lauded Irish author (Edna O'Brien was the other) which portrays the Irish as a bunch of inveterate drunks. It bothers me, because I can't believe it's correct, and it's insulting and adds to a stereotype.

Happy Halloween. (Those rotten kids better not take all my mini Heath bars and Dum-Dums.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Take a Look, It's in a Book

A little reading roundup for today.

Because I'm taking a workshop involving him next year, I'm reading some Steve Almond. My reactions to his work are interesting. I finished a book of essays, (Not That You Asked), and enjoyed it in incomplete, patchy ways. Parts of it bugged the hell out of me. I look forward to his fiction next.

I also decided to try a couple of Wallace Stegner books. I read a few of his stories and enjoyed them enormously. I kind of want to read his entire book of collected stories, which is over 500 pages, but there's so much to read for me right now that I don't think I can set aside the time. He seems like an interesting mix of Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver, although with dialogue as sharp and rule-breaking as George Saunders. He's delightful. I want more.

I've never enjoyed reading poetry because I can't get beyond the sensation of drowning in a lack of understanding: a glucky and inevitable losing sensation, like struggling in a tar pit. The only poems that didn't leave me confused were much plainer stuff, like Frost, which I didn't like in a sort of exasperated way, don't pander to me, I'm not eleven years old (even though I didn't understand the stuff that was rated R for adult situations. I am nothing if not huffy about my own possibly nonexistent smarts). The only thing I can figure out when reading poetry is if I like it or not. If it gives me a feeling of "wow" and a shuffled interior, or if it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth, or if there's just nothing.*

Despite all this, I bought The Dream of a Common Language after reading Wild (an action which I understand a great many readers of Wild took, but it wasn't the first time Adrienne Rich had been recommended to me). I devoured the book in two days and still have no clue what I read. Thus, I moved on, and tried a book of Anne Sexton last week. I've nibbled at it, and my responses swing wildly between the three poles I mentioned earlier. One of the poems I adored and read thrice in a row; one of them I sincerely disliked; some of them leave me with nothing.

One of the curators of this collection also wrote a book about how to interpret modern poetry, and I decided to read it. Why not? Maybe I'll learn something about why I react like this, as if my intellect essentially no longer exists, whenever I read poetry written after about 1950.

Since a day without DFW is evidently a day without oxygen: I also bought This is Water, which is a little hardback book containing Wallace's unbelievable commencement speech to Kenyon in 2005, which I've mentioned enough times in this blog that I see no point in linking to it again. One of the reasons I bought it was to read the whole thing - fiddled with slightly after the actual giving of the address, but not abridged as some online versions are. I knew pretty much how long the essay was, and I knew how much I was paying for the book - eyes open - so I ignored the bad Amazon reviews that said it was a ripoff.

BUT. If you too want this essay to hold in your hand badly enough to buy this book, I tell you, resist the urge. The essay is formatted to be one sentence per page. I didn't care about $10 for an essay you can [mostly] get for free, because I wanted to hold it, but the formatting fucks up the rhythm of Wallace's words very badly, which I think I can get codified into an imprisonable offense if I collect enough petition signatures. And the long version adds some more content, but (I can't believe I'm about to say this) not much of importance. Print out the WSJ version and hang it over your desk instead.

On a related note, this is serious DFW fandom right'yere:

I so don't get everybody's obsession with Pemulis.

A kind soul gave me The Thinker's Thesaurus for my birthday (it was on my wish list). I thought I'd love it, and OMG I TOTALLY LOVE IT. Even if you're not a writer, if you're just a wordnerd, buy this palmary, eximious book.

Ahead of me is Edward St. Aubyn (I really hope I like the Patrick Melrose books as much as I think I will) and Alice Munro. I've read about 1/4 of Dubliners, and am not finding it life-changing or frustrating, which makes me feel like I must be missing something. And I'm careening through Inside Scientology, which is so, so awesome. Stranger than fiction by far, told absolutely straight, and damned compelling.

Finally, and randomly, more than half of the books above would not have been in my orbit without my library. Please use the library. Encourage book circulation without loss of income. Authors will exhort the hell out of you to buy as many books as possible, to support poor starving writers, and I can't disagree with this. But 70% of the books I read are just not appropriate for purchase by me, for one reason or another. And because of the library, I sacrifice nothing. Nothing! Trust and love and believe in your library.

*This is all hilariously ironic because my mom's profession, to which she's devoted, is mostly about interpreting, researching, and teaching poetry, albeit that of several centuries ago. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

All the News There Is for Now

1. After more hours of this

than I care to admit, I finished edits on a long story that I've mentioned before. I'm very pleased with the result. It's down to 7,700 words and I have a new dimension of understanding of "kill your darlings".

2. Migraines suck. That is all.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

I Refuse to Care When I Don't Care

A couple of days ago I read an article - this is embarrassing, but I don't remember what it was - that had to do with some feminist viewpoint or issue. Let's substitute the Time breastfeeding cover story and the ensuing kerfuffle, because that's a pretty prominent story and the same effect I'm going to write about below happened then, too. 

Have you ever seen a horse try to get up from the ground, and miss its mark, and then have to try a different approach and rouse itself again? Sometimes turning its legs to the other side? That's what my brain did when I read this story. I went to a women's college, and all that inculcation education, plus my own actual feminist instincts, tried to find enough purchase to get the hell up and really have an opinion about what I'd read. But gravity won. I just didn't care. 

I could probably form an opinion about whether it was bad or good to have such an image on the cover of Time, and I could form an opinion about the actions of the woman represented in the image (because it was always my bet that the pictured woman is a model, not a real mom). But I didn't really want to, because breastfeeding is simply not that important to me, and the cover turned me off for reasons I can't defend, and anyway I'm not a mother so I don't really have a dog in this fight. 

This reaction put me in mind of something I read in an interview with Caitlin Moran: 
I want to write a column next week for the Times about how I think we need to impose a world moratorium on having opinions on shit that women do for a month. Whenever something happens to a woman anywhere, everyone's gotta have a fucking opinion on it, like the new CEO of Yahoo!, and suddenly every feminist writer I know is being rung up by newspapers going "What's your opinion on this? Was she betraying the sisterhood by getting pregnant? What does this mean, what does this mean?” It's someone who got a job, if it was a man, we wouldn't be bothering about it. Every woman is seen as emblematic of like, two and a half million other women. It's horrible pressure, that's why women fuck up more than anything else. So maybe just for a month, unless it's a massive emergency, you know? Unless like, Diane Sawyer turns into a weird vampire, we should just not have opinions on anything women do for a month and let's just see if sales of Xanax and white wine have gone down by the end of the month. 
There are lots of reasons why I think Moran is a fantastic role model for women (not least her filthy mouth), but this is one of the best I can put my finger on. Why is it necessary for me to have an opinion about every little thing that happens to women in this country, just because I have a vagina? Why do I need to retrench and dig in and find my real position about all things before I can say I've done my duty as a woman for today?

It's stressful. It's really really stressful to have an opinion about everything. And sometimes I just don't.

So it occurs to me that I need to own that. Partly because I'm quite a lot happier when I'm not spouting off on my beliefs about this or that. We live in a country where it's more admirable to boldly claim a truth you don't understand than to say "I don't know" or "I don't care". But I learned the value of "I don't know" some years ago (and relearned it like how over the past week), and the value of "I don't care" is now coming clear.

This morning I spent far too much time reading about a giant firestorm in the skeptic blogging community. This Slate article got me started (do NOT read the comments DANGER DANGER WILL ROBINSON), and then I read the entire history of the thing here. After reading all that I ended up with a few opinions about what happened and what was said, many of them angry and some of them uncertain, and my brain said the word "mansplaining" more than it usually does in the course of any normal hour, but ultimately I discovered apathy in my little heart.

In the last year I've gotten very riled about the state of female-being in this country, but none of my rilement has done anyone any good, and it hasn't clarified my positions any further from what they were before the advent of mandatory ultrasounds. Mostly I felt throughout my twenties that the men I was going to come in contact with on an everyday basis were probably decent guys, some of them a bit non-maliciously clueless about how it feels to be in a female skin, and that some small percentage of them were jerks or aggressors. I felt with certainty that I live in a patriarchy, but found that it infrequently affected my life in a way that injured me. I felt that unfair things were happening to women all over the country, surely, but I knew and know that activism is not the best use of the energy I was given in this life.

I also felt, increasingly, that I wanted to be a woman-writer, not just a writer, and that I wanted to talk about women and women's issues for an audience of both women and men. I wanted this influence to appear in forms both obvious and subtle, and even if I never wrote straight-up feminist fiction, I wanted my female voice to permeate what I wrote in ways small and large.

Women's voices are tamped down in all sorts of ways, and over the past year I could feel a chip starting to materialize on my shoulder. But this week I've decided to discard it. I'm not going to presume I'll be whistled at and dismissed even before I begin; I'm going to endeavor to walk into the rest of my life with the same it's-probably-okay attitude I walked through my twenties. Everything else, I've discovered, just sends me into spirals of despair and angry self-pity. Nothing productive. Nothing positive.

I'm not going to shut up entirely. I still see the world as a feminist (a Caitlin Moran feminist, if you like, not a Dworkin feminist). But reading about feminist hair-splitting in the blogosphere from people who all essentially mean well but are now infuriated at each other just angries up the blood, and doesn't serve me. And I don't need to have an opinion. I don't need to care. I'm not flunking some big test if I just shrug and read something else.

Just before beginning this post, I listened to this song:

That's what I want to be. This artist has a feminine voice and sensitivity, but her music is just plain old lovely, nothing more or less. Even in college, I disliked political art. Time to lie back down - not as the victim, but as the horse who's comfy under a nice tree - and just be.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Next Up: The Egyptian Theatre

Got a very lovely piece of encouragement from a friend the other day that's going to get me back to my [writing] desk at last. I hope. The friend basically told me to shut up my whining and insecurity and just work. So I hope to carry out this excellent advice sometime in the near future.

When that sometime will be, I don't know. Matt's parents were in town this weekend, so I did no work, paid or un-, from Friday to Sunday. I did get to see some fabulous stuff in Los Angeles, but it's at the cost of having to buckle the hell down this week and make some Benjamins. Or, you know, Lincolns.

One of the things I got to see was Grauman's Chinese Theatre. I've been wanting to see it for, oh, 15 years? Maybe a shorter time than that, but with enormous desperation. It was pretty much just as awesome as I'd dreamed it would be; it's an elaborate palace devoted to cinema, nothing more or less. I wanted to meander around in it for hours, dreaming about the people who'd sat in those seats and the glorious things they'd seen on that screen. Yet that whole part of Hollywood [the district], I learned, is given over to tourist trappiness, and I get kind of stabby around tourists, so it wasn't all fun.

We also went to the Getty Center, which was extremely cool. That one is theoretically a palace devoted to the advancement of art, but it seemed to me that it was more devoted to ostentation of the mighty Getty fortune. Still, it's brilliantly situated, the architecture is miraculous, I saw some interesting art (and some amazing illuminated manuscripts, which are just so inspiring), and the views were incredible even despite the overcast day.

I finished Stardust yesterday, and adored it. It's just what a book should be. I'd seen the movie and really liked it, and although I wouldn't trade the experience of reading the book for watching the movie, just as in Coraline I thought the movie kind of re-upped the great stuff in the book and made it even more Gaiman. (I could be wrong about that, I'm not him.) I wonder why so many movies do the opposite to writers' work (King movies spring to mind) and yet all the Gaiman movies I've seen have been just wonderful.

I bought a subscription to The Sun a couple of months ago and finally got my first issue last week. It's good. Not 100% what I expected in a good way. I also bought copies of Tin House, The Paris Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story when I was at various B&Ns this weekend. I don't expect to love all of the stuff in all of these - and I've already seen from the tables of contents that they, too, do that male-writers thing that high-end litmags have been depressingly proven to do - but I bought them more for research than pleasure and it'll be nice to stretch outside what I like a little bit.

That's all for now, folks. I have Lincolns to pull in. Bacon to bring home. Etc.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Whatever, I'm Not Reading Fathers and Sons Again

The other day the UPS man came to our door, and when I opened it he sighed in relief and said "Thank God you have a clean apartment." I said thank you, because I guessed that was a compliment, and he went on to say that some of these people's apartments...and he shook his head. I said with a nervous laugh that I didn't want to know, which was sort of true and sort of not; exactly how messy does an apartment have to be before you say "Thank God" about a clean one? That I'd like to know.

One of the things he was delivering was a string of solar lights. Our little balcony doesn't have any plugs, so it's solar or Jesus if I want illumination out there. I really paid too much for these lights, as the string only has six globes and they're not super-duper-bright, but they're pretty and they make me happy. I also bought a short string of regular AC lights shaped like metal dragonflies, for decoration if not illumination. The internet says that with a visit to Radio Shack I can probably convert them to solar or battery. Still thinking over whether I want to do that and risk fucking them up.

Not the best-framed picture ever, but you can see both strings of lights.

Based on the wise recommendation of a friend I'm reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I started it over the weekend and fully intended not to enjoy it, since I read it when I was a teenager and didn't like it at all. I thought it was opaque and weird and pointless. In the years since, I've learned a lot more about mental illness and have read a wider variety of books, and now I honestly can't put it down. I had no idea Kesey was such a prose stylist. I thought he was just famous for his topic. I feel humbled and stupid.

I hope this doesn't mean I have to give another chance to all the classics I tried and didn't like in those years. I suffered through Madame Bovary during that time and I really don't want to read it again.

On the same trip to the library for Cuckoo's Nest I picked up Dubliners. One of those books I tried as a younger person (I think in college) was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I know a lot of writers swear by, but I couldn't get beyond the tenth page. I've been getting this feeling in my belly that I need to read Ulysses, the same kind of feeling I had before I read Infinite Jest, so I thought I'd try Dubliners first to see if the feeling dissipates on contact with actual Joyce. When I got home from the library I held up the book with a fake Colbert-ish openmouthed grin of enthusiasm on my face to Matt. He replied "Are you sure about that? You can always just take it back." Like it was an ugly blouse. Tee hee.

I really want to keep working on the KUFC book. I think it's going well and I'm going to miss my self-imposed deadline for a first draft if I don't get back to a regular schedule with it. But after reading some of that Writing Fiction book and after a couple of other buckets of cold water reminding me that I don't actually know squat about my chosen profession, I'm afraid to sit down to it again. I'm afraid I'll wind up writing another book that just needs to be rewritten from word one.

There are other excuses, too - work and home have needed a lot of attention lately, I'm in the middle of a major South Park overdose, an interesting trip is coming up in November, opera season is beginning. But mostly I'm just afraid. I don't want to turn out an inferior product, I don't know primarily what kind of writer I want to be, and for fuck's sake I don't want to have to rewrite one two THREE books after writing them the first time.

At least I have a clean apartment.

Monday, October 15, 2012

No Stock Teeth!

I'm having a hard time thinking my piddly problems are worth reading about right now, so here's a random consideration for you.

A Facebook friend of mine critiqued her own smile the other day. She has a Madonna-like gap between her front teeth, and I realized when I saw this picture of her that I'd never seen a picture in which she was smiling with her teeth showing (we have not met in person and know each other through a third party). I wanted to protest to her that she had a terrific smile, because she did, and her annoyance with this terrific smile reminded me of my tattered old fury with American dentistry.

When I lived in England for a brief period after graduating from college, I discovered that most people there didn't wear braces growing up. Yet no one was ashamed of gapping or crooked teeth; they smiled just the same. Their teeth were so varied, so individual! The different smiles were like different faces. It was so cool to see all these unique interpretations of what a smile looks like.

When I returned to the U.S., I was kind of disappointed by the smiles around me. All white and perfectly spaced and conformist. There was nothing interesting about them. It was like the difference between looking at people in a family album and looking at a collection of stock photos. There's something beloved about all the ordinary faces in a family album, and I prefer that to a clip-art version of life that involves a lot of perfectly groomed generic-looking people dressed in business suits with their arms folded.

I'm not saying that oral hygiene is bad. It's not. I might be saying that over-orthodonture is bad or that over-whitening is bad. What I'm definitely saying is that I wish it was socially acceptable in this country to have an imperfect smile. I've kept mine for this reason; I know that some people would look at me laughing and think "why hasn't she gotten those teeth fixed?", but for me it's just another detail that adds to the variety of human life.

Love your teeth! Just like you ought to love your bumpy nose or your messy hair. Be Steve Buscemi. A planet full of Kate Mosses would be pretty boring.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Hooray for Hollywood (Sign)

Today's my birthday and I've had a rip-roarin' time. I got some wonderful gifts - mostly book-based, which was excellent - and Matt and I hiked to the Hollywood sign down in...uh, Hollywood. Just like Stonehenge, you can't actually walk right up to the Hollywood sign or get close enough to touch it. In part I'm sure this is to keep vandals and souvenir-hunters out, but they say it's because the path there is too dangerous, with landslides and rattlesnakes and such.

Even getting to some cool views of the sign was (for my out-of-shape ass) quite a hike. It was a wide and well-kept trail most of the way, occasionally paved, but we were really crawling our way up and around the mountain that the sign sits on, Mount Lee, so we gained a lot of altitude in a relatively short distance. The views on the way up were goddamn incredible, though. All of central L.A. just spread out like a map.

Click to embiggen. This is the Hollywood Reservoir with the geographical district of Hollywood in the background.
Burbank is to the right and downtown to the left, neither visible. This was early on in the hike. 

I could see the smog like cotton wadding in between the buildings in downtown. If I'd known more about the area I likely would have been able to tell you the actual streets we could see down; as it was, Griffith Observatory was very easy to spot.

I want to go back again, because we went left instead of right and got this view of the sign:

No, that tower is not growing out of my head. 

Instead of this view (not my picture):

If you live in L.A. and want to do this hike, go here, where this picture came from.
We would never have found our way without that site.

I wanted to get that close, even if it was through the fence, to get an idea of how big the letters actually are. We were tired enough at elevation Tower-in-Head, though, and it was an even steeper climb around the back of the mountain. As it was, we could see that the H badly needed repainting. It was cool as hell to get even that close.

I don't know why all the other people we saw taking pictures were enthused about the sign. For me it's an emblem of an interest, a devotion, that's given me many hundreds (probably thousands) of hours of joy and intellectual stimulation. I can imagine living in sight of the sign and thinking of it at first as a symbol of what you want to achieve, what you're determined to achieve, and then, as the years wear on, seeing it bitterly or otherwise unhappily. It's sad for me to think about. At this time, I'd love to live in sight of the sign, but I can't imagine it ever being worth our while.

I scared the bejesus out of Matt when I spotted the sign through the windshield while we were on Beachwood Drive, on the way to the trailhead, exclaiming and squealing in joy. I was just about as geeky as I ever get. The geekitude of actually living in Los Angeles still hasn't faded, and it's been four months since I moved here. I still get a little thrill when I'm driving on a freeway and see a sign for, I don't know, Burbank or Santa Monica or the Hollywood Freeway. I'm actually here! goes my brain. I try to tell my brain not to be such a damn movie nerd, I live here now, just be cool. But it won't. Movies just matter too much to me.

There. Somewhat meaningless happy post = another piece of the Birthday Experience.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

When All Else Fails, Read More

Writing. Oh, the drama. Oh, the angst.

When I read Prozac Nation, I wondered how it was possible that the author could have any friends at all who retained any patience with her. I would have given up on such a drama queen long before. I'm now in a position to wonder why others aren't giving up on me.

I don't mean to be cryptic, but believe me, you don't want to hear the drama. It's so lame to be tempestuous about your writing and to see that you're doing it even as you're doing it and to press on anyway. SO lame.

Here's the news I can talk about: thanks to a recommendation I'll talk about later I ordered Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway et al., and it arrived yesterday. I flipped through it and read some bits and pieces during Balcony Time yesterday. Awesome book, y'all. It's a textbook so it was absurdly priced, but I think it'll be worth it.

I was reading about how detail interacts with the reader's perception to create character, which is a preferred and more skillful way to create character than to just set forth traits, and it dawned on me that this was the first time I had read or heard about this in a non-oblique way. Sure, I'd known that showing was preferable to telling, and I'd known that writers I liked gave me concrete reasons to like their characters rather than just saying "Lucy was brave", but no one had explicated the technique of it at length in paragraph form for me until now. And I hadn't understood that "show, don't tell" is a flexible statement that applies to more than one mechanic.

Writing suddenly seemed like carpentry. Like using a bunch of skills to build a table, rather than creating art per an unpredictable muse. There's artistry in a nice table, fo' sho, but I'd thought it was all mysterious and weird and woo-woo when you're creating something beyond The Da Vinci Code. I'm just not sure anymore that's true. Even high-literary writers and wacked-out experimental writers seem to have a grasp on such techniques, I realize, and I'd somehow thought it was stuff that couldn't be taught, at which you just had to have talent.

Later on I read about story form, plot, structure and the opposite thing happened: I just couldn't knock this shit down to size in my head. It all seemed abstract. Power? Conflict + connection? I couldn't make it into a framework; it seemed like the writer was saying many disconnected things with similar terms. This gave me cause to make noises of frustration aloud (quietly, so the neighbors wouldn't call the police), and to wish desperately that I could do my undergraduate degree over again and take half a dozen writing classes instead of anthropology and politics. I wanted a teacher to knead through this material class by class over the course of a semester and answer my questions and grade my papers.

Instead, what faces me is self-education. Weeks and weeks of reading this book and taking notes and doing exercises on my own. I'm going to really set down some effort on this, try and make it a self-taught class in writing fiction, and I expect to marvel during the process about as much as I despair.

I have been thinking lately about trying to take a couple of writing classes at Cal State Northridge, which is not the finest university in California but which is only a couple of blocks away. Not a bad place to start, at least. I'm not sure I can afford it and I have no idea what the protocol is for enrolling someone like me who already has a B.A., but I'm seriously frustrated about feeling like I'm at square one every time a question of mechanics or technique comes up. I need a better toolbox. And you know what Hermione does every time she's stuck and doesn't know what to do? She goes to the library. This is what I was taught to do, too.

That's how I got my hands on Writing Fiction, in fact. Some weeks ago, after getting a rejection, I asked an English professor I happen to know what she thought I should do about feeling inadequately educated in writing. She was very much against an MFA, but she suggested looking at syllabi for MFA programs and reading those books instead. I thought that was a terrific idea, and she did me one better by asking a colleague of hers, a writing professor whose name I know because she won an O. Henry a few years back and I read that story, whether she could recommend any books for this purpose. She did, and that led me to yesterday's grrring on the balcony.

And that brings us

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Stars in My Eyes

I saw this, in different form, shared on Facebook a couple of weeks ago and haven't been able to get it out of my mind. In a panicky way. I don't understand how it follows, exactly, and the idea that life is THAT short just freaks me out. Maybe next year it'll seem like wisdom.


Over the weekend I went to see Florence + the Machine at the Hollywood Bowl. The Bowl itself was not what I expected and was extremely cool. I look forward to going there again with a picnic basket now that I know the rules. If I can find one. There were people walking around with traditional woven baskets with flap lids, like you see in period movies, and when I said to Matt "I don't know where you even get a picnic basket like that," he replied, "Bears. Well, one bear in particular."

This is why I married him. For wit like this.

In any case, Sunday was probably the second time in my life I've been to a big stadium concert. When I was a kid, my parents wouldn't let me go to such things, and when I was in my 20s I couldn't afford it. I've only been to a handful of concerts in my life at all - probably more operas and symphony performances than popular concerts, if I think about it (unless you count shows at the VFW when I was in high school, which isn't quite the same thing). There are lots of surrounding aspects I don't like about concerts - the noise, the people, the trouble, the expense - and it just doesn't often occur to me to seek them out.

I generally go when the artist is something special to me, or when I'm curious about what the live experience will entail. I really want to see Sigur Rós, for instance. What the heck do people at their shows do? Stand and sway? Check their watches? And I want to see Beck one day; he's special. I was so, so glad to see Joanna Newsom last year - both reasons coincided with her. She's one I'd like to see again, but she does her last tour date for a while in San Fran in a few weeks. Next album, I'll definitely catch her. Florence was special, and I'm glad I got to see her, although I wished I'd been a bit closer to the stage.

When I look back, I actually feel grateful that I didn't get to go to many concerts, because now I like for it to be special, a once-in-a-great-while kind of treat. If it's an artist I just like, I would generally rather not go, because the experience of having stars in my eyes when watching someone bring their art to moving breathing life is what I prefer to just having a good time with some live music. This is probably stupid. But it's how I feel.

I set out to write this post with a plan to tie Florence and Joanna to insecurities in my writing, but the connection isn't really forming on the page, so that might be all I have to say. Oh, except: I got a baffling rejection last week. The story was something I scalpeled out of the [non-]horror novel, something that I thought stood on its own pretty well.* The stand-on-its-own thing didn't enter into the rejection, to my surprise. The editor seemed to expect an arc for the main character that I had no intention of resolving, that wasn't really the way I'd built the story. Like expecting Humbert to straighten up and stop lusting after Lolita. But now I know that the story doesn't really work as a story, which is useful information. I'd sent it out as something of an experiment rather than an expectation, anyway.

And one other thing: I signed up for a five-day writing course at the Esalen Institute next summer. It's taught by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, and I am pretty sure I signed up for it the very moment it was available. I'd been watching the website like a hawk for the sign-up link to appear. I can't wait.

*For those of you who've read the book, it was that little diary piece about the arrogant jerk Caretaker who doesn't clean the storm and who meets the Authority in the shape of his father. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Frothy Fun War Between Turks and Arabs

I'm a bit tired of all this heavy stuff, one-topic writerly posts, etc., so I'm going to take a page from my friend twinkly and do a stream-of-consciousness post.

1. I don't care about the debates. Matt's tried to explain to me why debates matter to voters, but I don't buy it.

2. I don't care about sports, either. Liveblogging football games on Facebook is the worst thing about fall.

3. Speaking of fall? There's no fall here. It took a headline on to remind me that other people are having seasons. I LOVE IT. California is the bestest.

It has been a little overly hot in the past week, but today it's quite pleasant.

4. Last night Matt and I attempted to see Lawrence of Arabia in the theater. My best buddies at Fathom Events made it happen (they also run the live RiffTrax events and the opera broadcasts). Matt and I made it to the intermission and then went home, because there were some (I can only presume) stoned loons behind us who mysteriously found nearly every bit of dialogue in the movie LOL-funny. A lot of what they laughed at was slightly witty, but some of it wasn't funny at all, was instead intended to be quite serious or even painful to appreciate. None of it was flat-out funny. (I don't know if you're aware, but Lawrence is hardly a light comedy.)

I'd seen the film years ago and failed to form an opinion of it, and this time around I found it very beautiful but not on the whole interesting. There. Boom. Admitted. I love David Lean and his instincts, but even if there hadn't been total idiots behind us ruining the experience, I'm not sure I would have stayed for another hour+. I'm glad I saw the 2/3 I saw in the theater, because it was BIG, but just because something's epic doesn't mean it's entertaining.

5. I'll be 31 next Saturday.

6. That day I was supposed to go to a class given by the UCLA Extension Writers' Program called MFA Boot Camp. It promised to give me some idea of what the experience of an MFA program was like. I can't stop wavering like mad over whether I want to go to grad school in the next few years and I hoped this would help. But the class got cancelled for lack of enrollment. So I guess I'll have to do something else for my birthday. And figure out the grad school thing on my own. (So far no amount of advice or expertise has been of any help.)

7. On Wednesday I went to the Annenberg Space for Photography to see their "Who Shot Rock & Roll?" exhibit. It was cool. Not what I expected, but cool. I've added another item to my time-machine wish-list: see Led Zeppelin live in the 1970s.

8. Frankly, being in that part of L.A. (Century City) was almost as interesting as the show. It was as clean as Duloc and full of such beautiful people that I felt like a toad. None of the cars in the parking garage looked like mine; they were all BMWs and Audis and Mercedii and such, all sparkly clean. And the streets were like a sort of chilly desert. There were people walking around and eating lunch and crossing the street and whatnot, but it felt...devoid. Heartless. Un-human. The whole place intimidated me and I was happy to get home to good old ordinary Chatsworth.

9. I never realized those little wooden people are all South Park Canadians.

8a. I wonder if I'd feel less intimidated visiting places like Century City if I had more money. I'd still be the same me, and wielding self-esteem with money seems like folly. No?

10. I really thought I wanted to get another tattoo and had all kinds of enthusiastic plans for it. Now that my artist friend has sent me initial sketches for the shoulder part of it, I suddenly find myself backing away in terror. I have no clue why. I was positive it was what I wanted and was impatient to get those sketches. ???

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


One of the books I checked out of the library on my most recent trip was Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, which, after about a third of it, I'm pretty sure I've read before. I don't remember how much of Carver's total oeuvre I've read, but I remember these stories, so if I just picked the same only book of his I've read, well, that was pretty stupid.

I checked it out to remind me of the experience of reading Carver's stories. I'd read them before and only sort of understood, kind of the way I feel when I read Hemingway. I can tell there's expertise and genius here, but it doesn't feel comfortable against my brain. I want more detail. I want more words. I don't want biting economy of language; I want the full ostrich-feather caress that I get when the writer wants to say it all.

Some would argue that Carver does say it all, but that you have to read under the words and between the lines. That he's a jazz musician: read the words he's not writing. There was a Simpsons episode where Lisa said this to a co-audience member about a jazz concert, "listen to the notes she's not playing", and the other guy scoffed and said he could do that at home. I find myself in that guy's shoes. I like jazz and I like subtext, but Carver's an iceberg: there's so much below the surface that it feels dangerous to navigate.

The thing is, I'd argue that nearly all of modern literary short story writing, all the journal stories, are Carver's offspring. Most of the stories I read on journals' pages are cold and subtextual and filled with hard emotions. They are based around seemingly ordinary incidents injected with subtle meaning, and they generally insert an event or conversation 2/3 of the way through that machetes quickly to the heart of...something, when previously it all felt benign. Or lifeless.

If it's not plain, I don't like this kind of writing. I admire Hemingway and Carver for being able to pack so much into so little, but it's the same kind of admiration I have for people who write exquisite historical nonfiction. The achievement fails to connect with me.

If Carver has a polar opposite in my reading life, it's Henry James, whom I adore. (Ironically, he was something of a radical for his time, and his straightforwardness could be compared to Carver's in context.) No one could accuse him of being brief, but his situations, turns of phrase, long and complex sentences, characterizations punch my gut far more powerfully, even though in theory I have a lot less in common with his 19th-century characters than I have with Carver's 20th-century folk. And even exhaustive detail doesn't rob James of ambiguity, you know. It just means there's more heft to him, more to see when you set sail.

No one writes like Henry James anymore. No short story writers, anyway. He uses adverbs, for God's sake. He explains. He doesn't hesitate to use fifteen words instead of five. He rolls around in language like a horse in a field.

I don't understand why there's only room for Carver stories in the literary market these days (unless you're a virtuoso writer), and I am frustrated by it. Yesterday I developed a story idea and thought I might, just for an experiment, try to structure and write it as if it were a Carver instead of the way I'd like to. But it's discouraging to feel the subsequent lift of "maybe that'll get an acceptance", just due to mimicking a style I don't like.

I can't even bring myself to finish his book of short stories. I just don't enjoy them. It's bad; I mean, this is my market. The very essence of it. But it's going back to the library unfinished.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Power of Three

Saturday morning I saw The Master at a matinee. I have watched P.T. Anderson's career with great interest since the turn of the century, and I hoped for more from him than was delivered to me with this one. Tempted as I am to turn this blog into a film rant outlet for me from time to time, it's not really why I write here, so I won't go into the movie in much detail. (Although I went into it at probably too much length after my friend kamper issued a perfectly innocent and general "What did you think?" on his blog. Spoilers there.)

One of the things that's still nagging at me about this movie occurred in the very last few moments. I'm definitely going to misquote this, so I'm sorry. The titular master says to his disciple, "If, in your travels, you discover a way to answer to no master, no master of any kind, will you please let us know of it? Because you will be the first man in the history of the species to do so."*

This got me thinking about the masters to which we all answer. This is more literal for some people than for others: most of us are employed by someone, some of us are tethered to manipulative or tyrannical people, some of us are devoted to a higher power. But it also reminded me of two other messages that have given me profound food for thought in the recent past.

The first chronologically is DFW's. His "This Is Water" has hardly once left my mind since I read it this spring. This link takes you to the abridged version at the WSJ, and this link takes you to the published book version, which I wish I was rich enough to buy for everyone I know. Here are part one and part two of the actual speech given by the actual DFW. It's not as polished as the final version, but it is, after all, the man himself.

I wrote about this speech a little bit previously, tying it to purpose both in life and in writing. But the echoes of his ideas - that there is no genuine atheism, that everyone chooses something to worship, and that choosing unwisely "will eat you alive" - have only gotten louder since that time, and have touched untold segments of my life. They are ideas I've mentally breathed, their essence reaching into the lowest and highest little lobes and crannies of my brain. I have decided to think hard and choose wisely, and, just as he says, it's a daily process. Minute-by-minute, even.

The second is Stephen Colbert. He gave a commencement speech to Northwestern last year, and it's pretty damn good. (I've seen better in terms of organization, but his credentials are improv, not stand-up.) He gave the speech as himself, not his character; it's still funny, but it's not high on satire. The heart of the speech is at the end, when he [mostly] sets aside jokes. If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, go to 15:25 and watch the rest; that's only five minutes.

The you-can't-win-at-life thing is so, so cool. I wish someone had properly explained to me when I was young that adults, who seem to have it all put together, are totally just making shit up from day to day and year to year. I would have been a lot less intimidated about growing up.

The point, though, is that Stephen has this to say:
In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love. Because service is love made visible. If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself. 
I watched this last week and it got me to wondering what I serve. Then, I saw The Master, where nearly the same question was set out. That was the third time this message and question have been presented to me this year. Humans like the number three, is the way Matt put it to me once when I was being highfalutin' about how I style my written sentences, and it did not escape me even as I was sitting there watching the movie that I was hearing this, that this was impacting my personal atmosphere and shaking up the dust, for the third time.

I thought about it for a while and the only proper answers I could come up with to the question of what I serve were "truth", "compassion", and "art". Those are the things I value most deeply, when I really strip away everything else.

"Art" was also the answer I gave to the question of who my master is. This answer has spun off a whole new way of thinking about why I write and what I want to achieve when writing, a way I have barely even approached before. It soothes and calms the impatience and jealousy that have dogged me when I think about what I want to accomplish. Because giving a name to what I worship/my master/what I serve seems far more permanent and less empty than the wish to tot up money and awards, the desire to check those things off the list and to breathe easy about at least I've got that settled. I can't even number the novelists who've said in interviews that publishing a book isn't nearly as satisfying as s/he expected, and that it rid her/him of virtually none of her/his uncertainty. If that's true, is there ever any certainty to be found, even when blessed with financial security and critical praise? (Martha Graham says emphatically no. And I think she'd know.)

If I'm not being too premature, I think this is how you stop writing with the monkey on your back - how you stop worrying about rejection and the whims of the market. You just serve what you love. You step back to the wider, this-is-water view and you think only about the master - in my case, the art. And when you send something out, you hope for the best; you hope that the market serves the work (the art, the master), and also, if possible, the other way around.

Wow. Let's hear it for the power of three, eh?

*(Might as well make a definite misquote artful, right?)