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.