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.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Big Data on Genius

In my single class for this semester, we just finished a unit on Ulysses, one of the great confounders of the 20th century. We did not read the whole book, just portions of it, and it was the second time I'd been through it. I was sort of surprised at how well I remembered the material. I think I've read at least a hundred other books since October of 2013.

Anyway, studying Ulysses reminded me that Joyce's output was actually not that large, comparatively. I mean, Updike and Roth kept/keep cranking out book after book, dozens of them across decades, but the towering talent of Joyce only expressed itself in three novels (one of them largely incomprehensible), a book of short stories, a play, and a smattering of poetry.

I connected this with DFW (because really, what doesn't connect to DFW?), whose stack of books is similarly not-very-tall. Three novels (one unfinished), three books of short stories, three books of essays (one posthumous), two brief nonfiction books that a reader like me, for instance, has no interest in whatsoever, and miscellaneous other work that one day will be collected into an overpriced volume, I guarantee it. This is not a very very small oeuvre (and it's dense as hell, like Joyce's), but again - Philip Roth has written twenty-seven novels. Updike wrote twenty-one, and eighteen books of short stories.

I decided to go exclusively with pictures of Kanye for this post, because, for a post of this theme, who else?

Neither Joyce nor DFW was particularly long-lived, and Updike and Roth were/are certainly that. So that might have something to do with it. But the word that kept appearing in my head as I considered this is genius. Because one of the other guys on my mind was Wagner, who did live a fairly long life but wrote only 13 operas, not nearly as many as Verdi (25+) or Rossini (39). What he did write was the Ring Cycle, which does not need my endorsement to be associated with the word "genius".

In the course of thinking about this, I had a conversation with Matt (get out your Fictator bingo card), and I wish I could remember his exact words, but he said something like: Next Level-genius cannot be sustained; it flares out quickly after giving what it has to give. Look at Mozart, he said. Yeah. Exactly. Large oeuvre in that case, but what a paltry set of years he was granted. Yet even figures like Wagner who lived longer lives evidently only have so much of their genius to give before they've given it all.

I've tried before to set up an argument about the category of genius vs. the everybody-else category, for which I never had a name, and failed. Because there are touches of genius in plenty of art that is not wrought by geniuses. My favorite opera is Les Contes d'Hoffman, which has some genius in it, but isn't Götterdämmerung. The score for Star Wars is a remarkable piece of music, a stirring and spectacular object of art, but is John Williams a genius? I mean, no, I don't think so. He's not Wagner. No one is. No one is James Joyce but James Joyce, and no one ever shall be.

This other category, people who create often-glorious art that makes the world a more profound and fascinating place - but is not Next Level - Matt finally put a name to: craftsmen. Alice Munro is a craftsman. Hitchcock was a craftsman. Verdi was an amazing craftsman. These people don't come and go in too short a season; they crank out work year upon year, melodies you'll hum for the rest of your life, books you’ll buy for half the people you know. There's an enormous spectrum of craftsmen, from the extremely good to the wholly mediocre, but there's only a tiny handful of figures, a one-tenth of one percent, who qualify as geniuses.

At least, that’s my conclusion. The more I think about artists and try to decide whether they fit into one category or the other, the more murky things get. Virginia Woolf? Dave Chappelle? Terrence Malick? I'm not qualified to make these decisions. 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.

One of the beloved books of my library is The Secret Language of Birthdays, a very silly horoscopey book that offers a two-page spread of insights on each of the 366 possible days to be born. The way the book's writers determined what your personality is like per your birthday is by aggregating the traits of famous people born on each of the days and looking for trends, and then writing a personality profile based on those trends. Like I said, silly. But eerily accurate, most of the time that I've looked people up in it.

This region of mumbo-jumbo is about where I arrive at the genius conclusion. If all these figures have in common is the few vague things I mentioned above - small output, etc. - that's...kinda bullshit. But it nevertheless made sense to me as I was thinking about it last month.

To be clear, it is honorable and fine to be a craftsman. And, I suspect, a lot less risky and unfulfilling. As I said, my favorite opera is Hoffman, not the Ring Cycle. The latter is too much an undertaking, spiritual, emotional, physical, to count as a favorite. The Ring Cycle and Infinite Jest sit outside that category for me, in a special place where I acknowledge the stunning experience of consuming this art, but it just doesn't fit into my conception of "favorite". I think that's part of how I arrived at this genius thing - in making a top ten list of my favorite operas, where do I put the Ring? It doesn't belong in that list. It's somewhere else. It's Next Level.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Unscary Maybe

So here's a juicy bit of news: I got to writing some things by the end of February. I played all kinds of mental games with myself to try and get going on the wikibook, but it didn't work, so instead I went back to the secret project. I'd planned to write it all longhand and then type/revise only when I was finished, but my intentions for it have changed in the new year, so I typed and revised the first two chapters (previously written) and then wrote about half of the third. I wish I could explain in more detail what this project is, but it feels like a fragile clay carafe full of magic - like the bottom will fall out if I pick it up and try to describe it, and all the magic will escape, and there will be sad trombone.

It felt good to be doing the act of writing after what has been a vexed dry spell, but it was a mixed good: I wanted to be writing the wikibook instead, and this project is weird. I set out to write it for myself, but now I'm starting to look at it with a more critical exterior eye.

In 2013, I read two books by Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons! and What It Is. Both wonderful, both recommended. I don't remember which one of them had her "Two Questions" within, but I realized recently that I've kept a lesson from it in my head all this time in precisely the wrong way. Here's the first panel (and the link in the prior sentence will take you to the whole thing):

Octopi and sock monkeys seem to be friendly spirits in Barry's marvelous universe

For over a year, I've been looking at my work with those two questions in my head, together, as a barometer. I do not freak out over them or allow them to keep me up at night, and I don't think I consciously consider them when I'm drafting, just when I'm revising. Yet only if the answers are yes and no, respectively, do I believe the work is finished and/or ready to go out into the world. Most of the time, I think what I write doesn't suck, but it isn't always good. Some of the time, I think it's good - will be enjoyed by others - but to my own eyes, by my own measure of what I want to accomplish, it sucks. The distinction might sound ridiculous, but to me it isn't at all.

Barry's piece goes on to explain that for her, relearning how to enjoy making art involved forgetting these two questions, because all they did was torment her and keep her from working. So as much as "Two Questions" has helped me, I've been following the exact opposite of her advice.

I don't know that I could feel finished with a piece lacking some sort of yardstick, though, some question that I can ask and answer about the work that tells me whether I've properly finished it or not. I think the point of "Two Questions" is to allow "I don't know" to be an operative mode of creative work, to let "I don't know" be unscary. I can live with uncertainty (I think I meditated on that already this week), but I cannot work without finally considering whether what I make is going to be enjoyable for someone else. Even if that someone else is only Matt, or only my friend Kathleen, or only my friend Rob.

It's possible that this means I'm not a mature artist, that there's more letting go I have yet to do. I accept that as a possibility. As an unscary maybe.

I thought that the secret project was potentially a step forward, because I meant to write it altogether for me and to not really care whether anyone else liked it. But some of the experiments I tried in the second chapter have made my head scream THIS IS GOOD AND DOES NOT SUCK when I read over it. How can I ignore that, when usually what I get is eh, someone might like this someday?

I hate a little that this project is shifting into something more external. Not a lot, but a little. I wish the reasons that made me change my mind about the external/internal aspect of it had cropped up after I was finished, so I could cover my eyes and arrow it into the world once I'd really, truly written it inside the little bubble of what I alone want to do. But I certainly can't stop now. It's going, it's work that's actually going, and I've been starving for that in recent months.

So: onward. Twelve chapters. No prisoners.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What Sticks

One of the better movies I've seen in the past few years is Paprika, which, if you liked the ideas in Inception, you should see. The thing that's stuck with me the most is not, according to my Google searches, what commonly sticks from this film for people. But then it's kind of a rich film. One of the main characters is haunted by recurring dreams of a man in a white shirt falling down in a red hallway. I could not find an animated gif that shows the whole moment, but this is the best I could do:

The man in the white shirt falls, or hovers, or moves backward and forward like a special effects clip from a cheap 50s movie, multiple times in the film. His hands dangle, his shirt flutters. The mustachioed man did not see enough about this man's falling to resolve the mystery within it, so tries to steam out everything he possibly can from these few seconds that he did see. Like watching the Zapruder film. Back...and to the left. Back...and to the left.

This image, of the man in the white shirt falling in the red hallway, is the best visual representation I've come across for demonstrating "unresolved". Or for showing an entire story pivoting on a central problem. Faulkner has said about The Sound and the Fury that the whole book, for him, derived from the image of Caddy's muddy drawers, and the Compson brothers looking up at Caddy in the tree and seeing them. That was the image that made him write the book (or so he said in later years); that was his man in the white shirt falling in the red hallway.

Of late, I can't get out of my mind a friendship that had multiple stages before it finally ended ten years ago. This was a human who mattered to me significantly, but whose regard for me was, and remains, obscure. Someone who made me feel understood even as he made me feel small, someone whom I admired enormously even as I saw - could not fail to see - how self-aggrandizing and blindly privileged his behavior was. He abjectly ruined my life, and gave me reasons to keep living, at various times. God, I learned so much.

I dreamed of him just under a year ago, and when I woke up the ache of missing him was almost unbearable before I remembered everything else. Since then, he's been my man in the red hallway, falling. Of the many unresolved relationships in my life, he is the one who looms largest right now, and I haven't the foggiest idea why. Aside from seeing pictures of him with mutual friends on Facebook from time to time, he's totally out of my life, and in totting up the sums, his absence is a positive. But I feel as if I'm not finished with him. As if I have been through it, but not beyond it. In The Chronology of Water, Lidia's future husband says to her "There is more to your story than you think." It's a moment in which she's required to reimagine herself, from her bones out, and I don't think that's what I require when I think of this man I once knew. But the phrase sticks.

Like the man in the red hallway. Like the specific way my friend walked, and the texture of his hair. His huge, nasal laugh embarrassing me in a movie theater. The view of the river from his desk, where he did God knew what with the nascent internet and doled out the best music anyone will ever give me. All of the things he did not say, the pain he must have suffered under a veneer of ego. The man's hand, dangling, his slipper sliding from his foot. Have I steamed out everything I can from this relationship? Or is there still more wealth that he can give me, even in his absence?

What do I build with him as pivot point?

I don't know. I don't know the answer. There is no answer to be had right now; there is no resolution to this story, easy or ugly. If I'm ending this post in a dissatisfying way, I'm sorry, but that is how I feel about the end of this friendship. Uncertainty aches and nags, and I suspect it will even if I put it, put him, on the page one distant day. He'll stick, I'm sure, through whatever else gets resolved between now and then.