Friday, February 26, 2016

Rejecting Heartattack & Vine

What follows is a response I wrote to this piece, Manny Farber's "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art". My words originally appeared on a private blog related to one of my CSUN courses. I am a little in love with what I wrote, so I can't leave it there all alone.


In 2015, I lost all interest in contemporary film. It was an abrupt falling-off, from running through two or three Netflix discs a week to having the same three on our shelf for months on end. Part of the reason for this was how stubbornly film seemed to be turning into spectacle, like the circus, rather than crafted narrative, like the novel. I came to feel that aside from balletic new car stunts and Bruce Willis's gradual transformation into his Unbreakable character, few elements remained in new movie releases that could surprise me. Someone was going to save the cat. Someone was going to get the girl, despite the girl's being given a few token gestures toward a personality. Someone was going to crack wise and someone was going to say "Let's get out of here" and someone was going to run away from an explosion in slo-mo. This predictability made me ashamed of American film, and I retreated deeper into opera, literature, and bad films (which are always surprising). Though I miss the rapture of sitting in the darkened dream-room, I don't miss the spectacle.

It's all white elephant art at this point. Sometimes Tarantino will release a film, or the Coens, and I will go see it and be reminded that termite art exists. But usually not. Usually someone will say "Let's get out of here" and I will obey. We have returned, artistically, to classical Hollywood, "the past of heavily insured, enclosed film art" (to quote Farber), in the early millennium. I do not know why.

I don't know why television has become the new frontier, either. Breaking Bad is termite art. (It is not Antonioni, but it doesn't need to be difficult to be subversive.) A character arcing downward eats holes in what you think you know about narrative.

But what's going on in television is not new. Unpredictable, but not new. Serials were popular a hundred years ago, in early cinema. Podcasts are radio (Allen and Burns, Little Orphan Annie, The Shadow) rejiggered for new media. Everything old is new again.

This itself is termitesque. The moment you think there's something new about One Direction, an old fart comes along and shows you a NKOTB video. Or a Monkees clip. Art's repetition and remixing eats holes all through our culture, weakens our foundations - what we think we know about architecture - such that a single realization can collapse the whole structure. (So that we may rebuild again. Grind it up into sawdust and pack it into particleboard and rebuild again.) The structure is illusive, allusive, elusive. It's wood, not steel. Something organic and fragrant and noisy beneath our feet.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance undermines every single film John Ford had made about the West, every beautiful frame of Monument Valley he ever put to celluloid. It's as stunning a disillusionment now as it was in 1962, and I'm going to disagree with Farber and say that's not John Wayne's achievement at all. Wayne is the man he always was, with his passions and his derangements buried under swagger and drawl. It's Ford, showing his hand. Showing that he knows his life has been in service of illusion. That he knows, full well, that the dreams he made manifest on a nine-foot screen are white elephants, but that too much termite art would have broken him. Would break us. Would eat at us until we were mere sawdust and insect shit.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Done, But Nowhere Near Done

Oh yes, it's true, TMZ told you right. I finished the draft of the secret project. On Tuesday in the late afternoon. There are now twelve stories.


There's miles to go before I sleep, to be sure. All the stories need revising, and I think some or even half need wholesale rewriting. But now that I've finished them all, I can type them, and have a better look at what kind of animal I'm dealing with.

Meanwhile, I'm doing good work in my creative classes. The exercises are loosening up my muscles nicely, and are helping me write more often and get more accustomed to the feeling of doing it a little bit at a time. Yet I'm still in a pickle-brine of indecision about my final story for each class. I have only one idea at the moment (and what it entails intimidates me), along with a whole lot of fragments that don't go together or are more suitable for essays. There need to be two stories, so I'll have to come up with another idea soon.

If you're wondering why I don't just put these two hands together and bring in one of the secret project stories to one of the classes, I might. One class doesn't allow novel excerpts, per the syllabus, and the other class's content has nothing at all to do with what the secret project's up to, and it's required that the final story engage with the class content. So I may not have a choice.

Otherwise, school is...discouraging. Class time is not bringing out the best in me. One of the classes is very heavily political, and I am not coping well. Two of the classes utterly contradict each other in method - one encourages literary analysis of the material, while the other insists against it - and they meet on the same day. I have made a fool of myself more than once in a third class (for instance, I mis-explained spoonerisms, because of something random I knew about Ringo Starr) and am almost resigned to just saying nothing in there for the next fourteen weeks.

It's not all bad. Part of the reason I decided to start grad school instead of fumbling along on my own is that I thought the structure of regular classes would do me good, and three years in, I seem to have been right. The structure is making me happy, and giving my life a spine.

I'll leave you with a[n unedited] bit of the twelfth story. I wanted to write like Jesmyn Ward at the end of Salvage the Bones. I don't know if I did, but I tried hard.

They sing for me.

The past, too, is slippery. Here, as it moves before me, I capitulate to its colors and textures, but nothing is how I remember it. As if what I see is someone else's story of me, and Corisande is not a real creature. As if she is a whole invention, forgotten further and further each moment, and what lingers here on the sand is the memory.

The earth moves. The tide turns. The light fades, and a thousand thousand living things surrender the capsules of flesh that carried them.

I want her to see me again. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Shortness of Breath

I enjoy smoking cigarettes. That's it. That's all there is to it. I love smoking, and I will never not want to smoke.

My Male Novelist author photo

Various factors contributed to me picking it up as a genuine habit again at the end of 2015 and in January of 2016. Usually I am a social smoker, in that I'll join in when others are smoking but am perfectly fine not doing it by myself. But I found myself smoking in the car at the start and the finish of every day, and not being able to stop myself. While running, my wind was beginning to decline. I noticed I was much more irritable than usual.

So, two weeks ago, I stopped again. It was really only two months, tops, that it was a habit this time - not a matter of years, as in the past - but I am not having an easy time with it. I miss cigarettes desperately. With my body, yes, thanks to the nicotine that dug its claws into my back again, but with my spirit much more so. The sensation of the smoke going in and coming out. The having something to do with my hands. The actual nostalgia that smoking brings me, of old times, of smoking partners long gone.

Girl, cry me a river. Smoking is a pox on our society and you're better off without it. 

Eh. I suppose. The very real health effects matter a lot less to me when I'm actually engaging in the activity. And missing it is making me maudlin. I'm sorry if that seems silly, but you try giving up a habit that brought you comfort through all your teenage and early-20s years.

What are you actually talking about here?

[Hands up] You got me. I'm talking about something other than smoking. I'm talking about Facebook, too. I know I've talked a bunch about Facebook, and about giving it up, and I can only imagine how I sound when I'm doing so and then you see me on there again two weeks later. But really this time, really now, Facebook is exhausting me.

My tolerance for political discussion and engagement is the lowest limbo bar you can imagine. Because the pace of the election talk and share and yell at each other has not let up even a little bit, I'm now at the point where I have to choose between Facebook and one of the classes I'm taking this semester, lest Matt come home one day and find me doing whatever the protagonist was doing at the end of "The Yellow Wallpaper." The class is skidding so deeply into political territory that I'm starting to get quiet and depressed instead of happy and engaged. I can't quit the class, so I think I'm going to quit the site. For a while.

Are you equating Facebook and smoking?

Yes. And I've done the same thing with the former that I've done with the latter: sorta quit and then cheat a lot, or quit for a while and come crawling back. I always end up with shortness of breath. I always end up distracted and wasteful and isolated.

I finally quit smoking when I was 25. It stopped being a just-me habit that year. I would maybe smoke on my birthday, or bum one from a friend outside a bar while keeping him company. But not until December 2015 was it again a thing I did without company, without occasion. It was like I'd never stopped, except that I was lonelier than before, older than before, had more to lose than before.

Maybe it's not a perfect metaphor. Anyway, I'm trying to work out the Facebook thing, because the cons column of staying and fighting on is groaning under its own weight, while the pros column has a mere few, exceptionally strong, entries. a) My stats on this blog dropped by half when I didn't post links on Facebook. b) It's the only way to keep up with certain friends. c) It allows me to offer support to friends who would never ask for it over email, or to keep up on rapidly changing circumstances. d) And sometimes I find things worth reading or seeing, worth saving.

But that's it. And my spirit is struggling to maintain buoyancy in the avalanche of Everything Else.

Geez, it's only Facebook. Chill out. Maybe smoke a cigarette or something.

Hmm. I suppose I could.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Stay Tuned for the Sound of Me Changing My Mind

I spent an unusual amount of time in the past week making words where there were no words before. Creative and critical, nebulous thoughts and hard detail. Exercises for this and that class, exercises on behalf of an accountabilibuddy who's pickaxing through a bad writer's block. I am tired. I'm exhilarated by the possibilities of what I've created recently, but, practically, I am tired.

Art by Annie Veitch

I sense that I'm in a kind of puberty right now. Not like a literal puberty, a writing one. Today I am hairless and divinely energetic, while tomorrow I might be growing spikes out the backs of my hands and sleeping all day, like a lizard on a hot rock. Certainties form and harden, while others crumble. But I barely want to go into it for fear that next week everything will be different.

Here are some samples of what's been coming out of my pen lately.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Juice to Spare

It's Sunday night as I'm writing this, and I've had such a productive weekend that I don't want to pack it in and watch Rifftrax in bed like usual. I want to read some more, or write some more.

I did almost all of my homework for the coming week: I read an entire prose poetry book, I read Gertrude Stein and Deleuze/Guattari and Susan Sontag (though I think I barely understood the first two), I wrote two blog posts for one class and invented a neologism for another, I read Kafka's Metamorphosis for the first time since high school, I read a chapter of a linguistics book, and I wrote one-third of a little experimental story. Woo! That's so much that I should be tired, on Sunday night, but it's only week one of the semester, so I have juice to spare

I also wrote a wee bit of the secret project, and read some of it out loud to Matt. That was pretty exciting. I have had trouble with the idea of sharing this, and with the idea of not sharing it. It feels like a lonely project, but rightfully so; I know it's very unpolished; and the segments of it I've sent to friends have been roundly ignored. This last could be coincidence (busy lives, etc.) but it's possible that it's actually that unpolished and I have kind friends who would rather say nothing. Reading this bit out to Matt felt so necessary, felt like a letting-in (that is, letting him in to the project, letting anyone have a foot in the door to it) that I needed to do in order to continue. When I was finished, he looked at me and gestured go on, but that was all I'd written so far, which I told him, and he made a sad face. I think that's a good sign. 

The little experiment is with the idea of a sestina, which is CRAZY, did you know that? 

Fitting words into such mathematically precise boxes sounds impossible to me, though I do understand how restriction can lead to a more interesting project and product. I am no poet, so I'm interpreting the form as loosely as possible, doing six prose sections with connecting narratives and repeating, at the close of each section, slight variations on a Biblical phrase that I haven't been able to get out of my mind for months now. So far it's interesting but not amazing, though I've got a ridiculously small word limit here and I look forward to trying this again elsewhere, with more room and characters who matter more to me. 

Unrelated: I think that Magnolia may be a nontraditional sestina. 

I looked through my notebook and I have a bunch of different ways to go in terms of creative writing over the next few months. Two of my classes will require a finished story. I have one idea that I think is very good, and which could probably work for either class, but I'm not quite sure how to start. I have other concept-ideas that need content. I have an essay simmering so hard that it's leaking steam and sizzling up the stove, but that won't do for either class, since it's not fiction and can't be disguised as such. One of the classes allows novel excerpts, but I don't really see how I can incorporate one of the secret project's stories with the course content, even if I do [re]write the whole story during the semester (which would only be fair). 

I also need to get on submitting. Now that "The First Snow" has failed to win a short story contest in which I entered it, I need to look at it again and get it out. (It's so generic, in a way, so suitable for a variety of markets, that I'm not sure where to go with it first.) The Kathy Ireland story has to start going out, too, though I have one market specifically in mind for it that's not open now. And I need to gussy up this really difficult thing I wrote and start sending it, because if I wait until I feel ready to send it out, I never will be, and so it has to go. The difficult thing needs a title, though, because the current title sucks. Anyone got a title they're not using? Weird suggestions considered. 

Did that read like bookkeeping, the last two paragraphs? Too dry? I'm sorry, if so. I'll get back to topics when my work gets a little more rhythmic.