Friday, June 23, 2017

Ten Books That Mattered: Part Five (Humblings)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anaïs Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
A few years ago, my mentor, giving one of her lovely, lazy-Susan-like lectures, explained that when she first read Moby-Dick at a young age, she decided she would never write another word. She despaired of ever writing anything as good as Moby-Dick and thought it would be better not to write at all. Of course, she went back on this decision, and - having read her work - I can tell you that we're all richer for her change of heart.

Some time later, in another class, she re-told this story, and I told her that I'd read Moby-Dick since the last time I heard it, almost entirely because of this story: I didn't want to miss a book so extraordinary that it made her feel incapable of writing well.

"And what'd you think?" she said. "Pretty good, right?"

"Yeah, pretty good," I answered. We chuckled over the understatement.

Her despair about Moby-Dick was exactly what happened to me when I read The Light of Evening. I had never read such prose before, and I don't expect to ever again. I've read a handful of O'Brien's other books, after being so totally bitch-slapped by this one, and for reasons I can't explain, none of them did much for me. Her Country Girls books are probably her most famous work, because they were utterly scandalous in Ireland when they came out, but I read the first book and cared almost nothing for the characters so I didn't read the rest.

The Light of Evening is exceptional foremost because of its gorgeous, twisty sentences, but also because it is remarkably honest (and therefore terrifying) about the relationships between daughters and mothers. It takes an unusual kind of concentration to read it, and the only thing I can compare it to is the concentration I expend on remembering dreams long enough to write them down. Here's a review by Claire Dederer that explains how the sentences confuse and then captivate.

At the time - 2007 or thereabouts - I understood film extremely well, where to look for its load-bearing structures and how to determine if it's hollow inside. However, I didn't really understand prose, or the novel. I'd read plenty of them, and I'd written probably a short collection's worth of stories (mostly bad) and at least one novel (fairly bad, though fun). But I didn't understand them. I couldn't see under the hood, much less take apart the engine and put it back together again.

I didn't make a resolution not to write after I read The Light of Evening, but I did stop writing for a while in embarrassment. And the book made my mind spin off into a dozen directions of thought about why I wrote, whether I actually liked writing, why I thought I could make a go of being a writer, what I wanted out of the vocation, et cetera. I thought about writing a lot. And I despaired a lot, because I had no idea how O'Brien made the book, where she stitched things together, how she even began to pile words on top of each other to make such loveliness.

I understood correct and incorrect grammar, and I knew how to spell almost anything, but I didn't understand sentences. That is to say: of course I couldn't see the seams in O'Brien. I was a wee bairn. It was she, among others, who made me grow. Without The Light of Evening, I wouldn't understand so well a story told by Annie Dillard and retold by my mentor:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ''Do you think I could be a writer?''

''Well,'' the writer said, ''I don't know...Do you like sentences?''
It is an absolute requirement.


Once you learn how a garment is constructed, the seams are obvious, and seamless garments seem that much more awe-inspiring. So it is for books. There are writers whose work's seams remain stubbornly invisible to me: Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, poets in general. And David Foster Wallace, about whom I've written on this blog many times. (You can click on the tag at the bottom of this post to see them all.)

Even though it wasn't even ten years ago, I don't know how I started reading DFW. I don't know which book I started with, nor what made me finally pick it up, whether it was a recommendation or an impulse or a short story in isolation somewhere or "This Is Water" or what. But I know that a story in Oblivion, "Good Old Neon", made me feel like reality was bending around me. Like I'd always called the sky "blue" without knowing there was a distinct, specially reserved word for the color of the sky. Like I'd thought I had seen all the paintings in the gallery, and then I stepped through an unmarked door into an exhibit room four times the size of the old one.

It wasn't really the book or story that showed me how to hybridize my own work (that was I am not Jackson Pollock.), but it, and Infinite Jest, showed me that Victorian realism and its descendants were not the only way to write. This seems disingenuous, because I'd read Modernist writers like Woolf and Faulkner, and I'd read some experimental work, but it's the truth. The experimental writers failed to spark anything in me (because I'd read the wrong ones, I learned later), and the Modernist writers felt like kissing cousins to realism. They wrote in recognizable ways. What Wallace was doing, especially in "Good Old Neon", felt divorced from all the fiction I'd ever read, and made it all look like a goddamn puppet show.


I still haven't found anything that feels like Wallace, and I still haven't read a story that I consider better than "Good Old Neon". I've looked, hard, but writers who sound like him sound like tinny, risible imitations of him. Or I think I've found something like him, and then I go back and reread portions of IJ and go oh, right, no. This is the only thing that sounds like this. Oh, well.

But here's the thing: Wallace didn't teach me how [I wanted] to be a writer. O'Brien didn't, either. They both showed me that I was never going to be the best writer, which is always helpful when you're heading into a new pursuit. And they both made me think hard about how books and stories are made, and what constitutes them, and how to juggle the multiple concerns inherent in them. In Oblivion, Wallace demonstrated with great facility that a writer can choose to emphasize this or that building block to make a story look or sound a particular way - characterization in one story, description in another, patient misdirection in a third, Freytag or the undermining thereof in a fourth. O'Brien showed me what devotion to language looks like, and that writing splendid, multidimensional prose should be a lot of work; every last word must be carefully chosen. Wallace showed me technical tricks, which of course one cannot imitate without it being obvious that one is imitating Wallace, but which do inspire one's own technical tricks. (I mess around with punctuation a lot, which I wouldn't do without him.) O'Brien showed me how much I had to learn about sentences in the English language.

They both told me to shoot for the moon. Language simply cannot be composed more beautifully than it is in The Light of Evening. Meanwhile, Infinite Jest is nothing if not a very long series of writerly risks, and that's one of the reasons it's so exciting (...in parts). Without taking risks, without making every word collide in a meaningful way with the next, writing is just not worthwhile.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Seven Things

1. Wanna see something interesting?

Behold, my statistics on Duotrope:

Click to embiggen because Blogger's photo UI is still very, very stupid

In the past year, 10 short stories have been rejected and 0 accepted (0%). Two essays have been rejected and two accepted (50%). I attribute some of this to the market for short fiction being fierce and oversaturated and in general, far harder to make headway in than the market for nonfiction - the general stats on Duotrope, not just mine, tell the tale. But also...maybe I should cut my losses on short fiction altogether. Maybe it's not where my future is.

2. I've been slogging away for a couple of weeks on a book proposal. Man, do I ever not want to do this ever again. There's no better way to lose excitement about your work than to explain it over and over in slightly different ways each time. Feedback about it has been positive, though.

3. On a single day last week, I had a publication, a rejection that amounted to a huge disappointment, and an acceptance that amounted to a big deal. And my friend won an award. And I spent all afternoon at work with high nerves waiting for a meeting, only to be told nah. And then my period started. It was a weird day.

Contemporary proof. 

4. Last week I paid for a writing retreat in Santa Fe for October. I have never been to Santa Fe, although it's been recommended to me by a variety of people with good taste. I'm going to drive, which I'm really, really looking forward to; it's 12-14 hours, and if I was younger, I'd power through it in one day, WOOOOOO, but I will turn 36 that very week, so I am old and crusty and I'm going to take two days instead. I'll stop overnight in Phoenix on the way there and in Flagstaff on the way back, so I'll see two different paths through Arizona. My apologies to Tucson friends, but it's extremely not on the way.

For some reason my heart is yearning toward a particular retreat in Spain in April of next year. I don't know the people leading it, and I have never met anyone less interested in international travel than myself, but since I read of this retreat I can't stop thinking about it.

5. Eating less is hard.

6. Over the weekend, I wrote a little and read a lot. Lately I've been reading 250-350 page books almost exclusively, instead of a mix of long books, shorter small-press books, poetry, etc. Mixing it up is nicer than what I've been doing, because even if it's short, finishing a book always feels like an accomplishment. Reading half or a third of a book in an afternoon just isn't the same. I seem to have run through a great many of the poetry books on my TBR list, so now I'm stuck with short stories if I want to read short books. (No offense to the writers of those books of short stories. They're just not my favorite thing to read.)

Also over the weekend, I saw this remarkable film, which gave me the same impatience I always have when watching documentaries but which hit me in all my sweet spots: film, human lifespans, historical loss, palimpsests. I adored it. I really needed it, too, because it's become my habit to play Montana solitaire on my phone when almost anything is on the television, and it's not a habit I like having picked up. Dawson City: Frozen Time is pretty slow, but I had no choice but to watch only it. Having to expend my full concentration on it reminded me how much more pleasurable it is to expend full concentration on something rather than part here and part there. The following evening's reading was interrupted far less often than usual by Facebook checks.

7. There is so much bad news in the world that I want to fall out of it altogether. Every day, recently, something has happened that's either tragic or epically disappointing. Is it my duty to be a good citizen and notice these things, or is it my duty to protect myself from nervous breakdowns by letting go of noticing? The latter has been my strategy for some years now, but the bad news encroaches, crushes, and I feel more lost than usual.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Next Up: Bricolage?

Right now, as I write this, you can read a written collage I assembled at the Collagist. I am thrilled about this publication, for so many reasons that I need a list:
  • I ever want to cast more light on Mega-City Redux 
  • My friend Julie wants everyone on earth to read Other Powers 
  • This is the first written collage piece I've ever made, and it found a home in a (terrific) magazine called the **Collagist**, too cool 
  • The Ride of the Valkyries is about female power, and it's commonly associated with male power, and that is dumb and annoying and I want to reverse it 
  • I managed to say something important and interesting about feminism in a way that looked new to me 
I assembled the piece without much method, except for trying to shift from source to source with a fairly regular rhythm, and stretching out with my feelings, as Obi-Wan exhorts me to do. I chose these three sources because they seemed to have something to do with each other in my head - no greater or lesser intention than that. I plucked out portions I'd marked as I was reading, but I had many more than are in the finished piece. I trimmed based on what felt right. 

My favorite part is "[blank sentence]." It's so very Magritte. 

Earlier this week, Entropy published my most recent interview in the Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like) series, with the redoubtable Lynn K. Hall. I had fun putting this interview together, and I assuaged my guilt about not having read her book at the time I started the interview with gulping it nearly whole when I sent her my follow-up questions, and then confessing to my failure, and then salving the guilt with a positive Amazon review. 

I highly recommend her book, and not just for people who commonly read this kind of memoir. It's a tightly written piece of work, a model of structure and efficiency. Beyond the book's craft, Lynn's story is phenomenal and necessary.

Lately I've been brewing ideas without executing them, and submitting work all over, which is my favorite phase to be in. Brewing feels so necessary and correct, and submitting work reminds me that I have indeed written things, which makes me feel accomplished. Actual writing phases are filled with uncertainty and the feeling that I'm floating through life without really living it, which sucks. Brewing and leaning on finished work is nicer. Of course, I risk treading water too long in the red section of this handy diagram.



Now that school's out (for summer / for ever) (?) I'm reading a lot. But the pile never seems to get smaller. I've started a sub-pile beyond the "to be read" pile: the "READ THESE NOW YOU JERK" pile, composed of friends' books. It's also pretty tall. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I am tired of this

I have a vision of each shooting incident like a flame, a small deep whoosh like when the paper in the back ignites, before you can feel the heat or see anything; the soundless eating lip against the newspaper more blue than orange, blackening, hot but not dangerous until it reaches your fingers; spurts on this side and that side and in the middle and at the south and north and east and west until sparks fly from sea to shining sea and it all alights, combustion unstoppable then, even wet wood will catch and sizzle and dead matter will fly up the chimney and then nothing will remain, cinders, smoke, no living leaping flame, no spark, soot and ash waiting to be cleaned until spring comes and birds nest in the flue.

I have a vision of this place in flames.

McDonald's signs cracked and half-fallen. Starved Calvin Klein models graffitied and torn. Statues muscling each other out of city blocks, until their foundations decay and they topple.

Topple, Rome. Burn. All cities burn, eventually. I wrote that once.

Yesterday's heroes tomorrow's enemies today's talking heads. Flap flap flap flap flap. Birds nest in the flue.

Put your hands over your face before the camera snaps a picture. Open your mouth in a wail. Learn to do this before you are seventeen. Later, but not too much later, look for your open mouth on CNN. Look for it every two or three days. Look for it on routine anniversaries. Silver and gold. Carbon steel, the anniversary metal for these occasions. A common amalgam. Melted together and left to set in a mold, which is then shattered to create a death-object.

I have a vision.

It is kinder than the truth.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Notes from Here to the Ocean

If you have ever pulled the car over to set down an idea, you are a writer.

Blew a kiss to a jacaranda in bloom.

Perfectly tilled dirt. A machine has been here, farming.

The word arroyo untranslatable.

Hand to my own throat, fingers spread. The fragility there. Breakable breath.

"Table Song" : pious brother to your vices / You were shunned and burned your cradle



A decapitated palm tree looking like a violation. Unusual violence. Shaggy beneath its headlessness. The trimline ladder-high.

The shape of a woman with a latte, gazing.

I missed when it rolled over to 10,000 miles because of "Mary" and the scenery : the sugar rush / the constant hush / the pushing of the water gush



Precious water.

Driving, really driving, moving across the land at speed, as liminal: between waking and sleeping, between here and the ocean, the minutes after waking from a nap on the sofa, when the entire body glows with contentment.

Recognizing this feeling. Oh, it's love, I am in love. The voice murmuring to me over waves, dripping, that voice. Not that kind of love. Like poetry. Like music: the guitar rising in my heart, the piano rippling across my ribcage. I had forgotten falling in love could be nonsexual, nonromantic.

See myself as a streak of light blazing down the highway. Colors of the dawn.

Come around the last curve and there she is, spread out, stretched out, burning a thousand candles.

C'est vous, Los Angeles. Every love song is for you.

Shake my hair back, a happy animal. Take, take me home.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Ten Books That Mattered: Part Four (The Span of Everything)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anaïs Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
If you've looked at this list and been curious about why a biography of Helen Keller inspired me so, today's post is for you. This book doesn't really go with any of the others. I mean, of course it does, because a life lived in books is a tapestry wherein every last thread depends on all the others. But this book is a straight biography, carefully researched in fact and detail, which puts it alone on the list; the language of it had nothing to do with what it meant to me; and its inspiration and influence weren't about a young, developing mind (#s 1-5) or an early, developing writer (#s 7-9).

Everybody learns about Helen Keller at some point before high school, I think. She's a part of American mythology: a girl who was born with every reason to feel sorry for herself, but who persevered beyond the pale in order to connect with other people. I don't remember why I chose to read a full-length biography of her, because I never had any significant interest in her aside from the natural awe and curiosity anyone might feel when they first learn of her existence. But for whatever reason, I picked up Herrmann's book at the Bowie Public Library at some point in my mid-20s, and won from it a new perspective.

I've been trying to talk and write about this for a number of years. I drafted this post for weeks. I'm not sure I've got it down satisfactorily, but this represents my best effort.