Tuesday, December 20, 2022

On Lars von Trier and Leviathan

In grad school, I elected to write a literature paper about Paul Auster's Leviathan. I came to class ready to discuss the novel, certain I'd understood what Auster was getting at, only to learn of the existence of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and to hear how Auster was reflecting that pivotal work. I sat there for a while, listening, and then raised my hand and explained that I'd believed the leviathan of the title was a sea monster, i.e. the whale that swallowed Jonah, and that allegorically that monster was a national fear and despair lurking under the scrim of American life in the late 20th century. No matter how wrong the class lecture told me I was, I still thought this was a valid theory of the novel. The professor, bless her heart, encouraged me to write my final paper on this theory. And I did. 

In my reading, the leviathan is a societal force. It resembles a beast of the deep, in that it is invisible, massive, and dangerous. It is large enough to gulp its victims without even stretching its jaws. The leviathan, this societal force, is the loss of identity suffered by the Baby Boomers when they discovered their failure to make lasting change, and it’s their dawning realization of mortality.

(me, 2014) 

I was embarrassed that I'd missed the point Auster had built into the book, but as I researched and wrote the paper, I came to believe that my point of view - although informed by contemporary ideas and influences rather than those of a classical Western education - was valid, too. I wrote about Vietnam, the atomic bomb, and President Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech. I got an A, as I recall. 


Lars von Trier first caught my eye in the early aughts with Dancer in the Dark. Good God did I hate that movie. I was young, and obsessed with Björk, and utterly infuriated that the bad guy won and the good girl lost. And while I understood what von Trier was getting at by shooting lush, stationary musical numbers vs. stark, wobbly handheld real life, it didn't keep me from being annoyed by the handheld sections. 

Some years later, everyone went on and on about Melancholia, so I saw it. My favorite part was the tableaux that open the film: slomo textures and painterly colors, in weird scenarios, flawlessly composed. The whole wedding section, shot in handheld not-great DV, I could not make head or tail of; why would he shoot something so ugly and annoying and dragged-out when he could provably make such beautiful pictures? The third section was more comprehensible, but still puzzlingly long and odd. 

More years passed. In 2021, I noticed while browsing Kanopy that both volumes of Nymphomaniac were available, and I had a strong guess that they wouldn't be for long, so I watched them. Snap. Everything fell into place. I don't know if it's because I'd watched Funny Games (2007) and absolutely loved it, reframing my sense of what extremity in film does and how it works, or because I'd simply gotten older, but I found Nymphomaniac a profound work, and a necessary one. One of those films that stretches cinema beyond entertainment, that makes itself a text to pore over. And that it was an extreme film, a blasphemous film, was part of its intellectual intentions! Oh, this trolling Dane, how I suddenly admired him. 

Deciding to start fresh, I watched Breaking the Waves, von Trier's breakthrough and still probably his most well-regarded film. It opened up my understanding of his reputation, and confirmed what I thought he was up to, but I didn't connect to it as much. 

Yesterday I watched The House that Jack Built. This review warned me away from it, but that review is wrong, I believe, and falls exactly into the trap that von Trier has set for the viewer. 

No. No, no, no! You're constantly trying to manipulate me. 
And with children, the most sensitive subject of all.

Don't let him manipulate you! I want to shout at Richard Brody. See past your emotional reflex and turn on your brain. 

The central juxtaposition of House is violent death as an art form. Jack says this himself, repeatedly, trying to convince Verge that his project is to make art from murder. Verge insists that art springs from love. (Verge is Virgil, the greatest poet of antiquity, and Jack is a serial killer. Who would seriously believe von Trier positions Jack to win the argument?) 

I recognized that the sacred (art) is the profane (violent death) in this film. I had previously hypothesized that Nymphomaniac intended to make a saint out of the title character: a saint of sex, someone for whom sex is an all-encompassing, glorified pursuit. (She even has a wound that refuses to heal!) The conversation between Joe and Seligman is a religious debate, about fishing and sex and God and love and life itself; it's a debate between extremes - the debauched and the pure - but what's pure and what's debauched shifts over the course of the film. In Dancer in the Dark, an absolute innocent commits a brutal murder (and the most luscious visuals exist in the mind of the blind woman). In Melancholia, Justine's depression debilitates her, but she is also voluntarily in thrall to it - in love with her own sorrow. In Breaking the Waves, God gives Bess a mandate to commit sin. 

I started to see von Trier's project as crashing together two abstract ideas that it would be blasphemous (literally or culturally) to consider in the same breath. Sex and death is an old, easy collision for film, but sex and saintliness? Innocence and violence? He's doing extreme cinema, but the characters' behavior - the sex and violence, in graphic detail - is a ruse. The extremity is in putting together ideas that have traditionally remained far apart, in considering them as reflections of each other. It's sort of Hegelian, and sort of deconstructionist, but (impishly and) productively so, in a way that doesn't leave the deconstructor with a vacant lot. 


As ever when I have ideas like this, where I think I've figured out what makes challenging art hang together, I remember Leviathan. Someone else has probably figured out the metronome of this art, and it's probably a more classical rhythm than I could recognize. Not knowing Hobbes, that day, will haunt me forever. 

Then again, I found support in the text and in other scholarly articles for my theory of Auster's novel. I argued that theory successfully, in my own small context. 

Photoshopped pic of Lars von Trier in a contorted position, his F U C K knuckle tattoo clearly visible
Lars von Trier in a promo photo for The House that Jack Built. Knuckle tattoo is not pshopped

At the end of all this thinking and developing, I don't want to look up the prevailing theory of von Trier's cinema. I don't want to learn that I'm either parroting an established idea or that I'm dead wrong. I'd rather hang out here, where I semi-privately think I have a good idea that helps me understand a challenging group of artworks. I don't want to be Pauline Kael, so idiosyncratic that she can't really be trusted. As a critic I try never to lead with my ego or my unique reactions - otherwise I'd gush about Gothic literature and melodramas, insist that Shutter Island is better than Goodfellas. I know better than to confuse those preferences with informed criticism. 

On whose authority am I right or wrong about Lars von Trier, anyway? Yours? His? Richard Brody's? Please. A consensus about art is fragile and temporary. I'd like to know about that consensus, and perhaps be informed by it, but being part of it doesn't sound appealing. 

So I shall declare that I loved The House that Jack Built, and that I think von Trier is much less of a troll than he is creating art via unusual variants on thesis/antithesis. There's some trolling, sure, but not the malignant kind. Around 2005, he said a film should be like a stone in your shoe, and no matter how hard I squint, I can't find a way to disagree with that sentiment. 

Friday, September 9, 2022

Desire Paths

Recently, I spent about a week writing a short story set in the imagined West. It integrated Lovecraft mythos (or, so as not to invoke the name of a hilariously antisemitic and inadequate prose stylist, cosmic horror). This mix of genres is known as "weird West." 

I've been wanting to write a Western for some years now. I'm (increasingly) in love with the genre, particularly with how its environment is quite precise but its manifestations are nigh infinite. That is, the imagined West is a desert place, usually but not always in America in the late 19th century, with saloons and fast guns and horses and leather. Within that, you have certain character types: villain, antihero, innocent, Othered enemy. You have big, vague forces: the Law, modernity, temptation, Mother Nature, money, grief, the shadowy past. But you can mix and match any number of other elements. Gender and race can be whatever. Technology can be anachronistic, if you want. (Neo-Westerns have an even more flexible set of characteristics!) Because no one really believes the imagined West is factual, it can be molded to the story you want to tell. That's why the weird West is such a fertile blend: Cthulhu slides into the setting with ease. 

While trying to overcome anxiety about the Casablanca novel (I have added a decent number of words to it over the past month, but I might have bitten off more than I'd like to chew with the historicity), I wrote this story, based on an idea of Matt's about two opposing characters who both accept supernatural favors on one particular night in a silver mining town. I had so much fun writing it, and I broke a bunch of my own rules of revision, including reading today's words today (you gotta let 'em sit!) and submitting the day after I finished a draft (YOU GOTTA LET IT SIT!). 

The submission was rejected almost immediately. This was part of the feedback, edited to keep from spoiling the story: 

"...the opening scenes lacked a bit of tension. I think if I had more insight earlier on into the narrative stakes (such as what [x] in first scene could mean, or what [y] could signal), there would have been a bit more of the urgency I needed." 

Let's be clear. I'm quoting and unpacking this NOT because I'm wounded about a rejection. It was such fun to write this story that I felt rewarded as soon as I finished the draft, and I submitted it with a higher proportion than usual of I-want-someone-else-to-love-reading-this and less than usual of I-want-to-be-published. And, by now, I virtually never care about story rejections, because that's a numbers/persistence game, not personal or meaningful. 

I'm unpacking this feedback because I find it remarkably self-contradictory. In writing this story, I surrounded x and y with enigma so as to keep the reader reading, which, as Donald Maass taught me, is what tension is. How can a scene lack tension when it has enigma? If I'd explained what x and y meant on the first two pages, why on earth would you keep reading? 

It's possible that the first few pages didn't move quickly enough. It's possible that the rejecter misspoke, and meant "lacked a bit of clarity," not tension. But, based on my experience of rejections over the past five years, I think it's more likely that the rejecter didn't know what they meant. I think it's likely that the rejecter didn't like or even notice the sentences (which is part of what I enjoyed most about the first two pages: polishing the sentences until they rambled and rolled like a bowlegged sheriff), and wanted the story to move faster, to jam plot in immediately. 

Sentences matter more than plot to me, but that's exactly why I haven't done very well with my genre fiction. It might not be the root of this rejection - I am not stupid enough to think this story is perfect, nor single-minded enough to think it's perfect for this market - but I suspect it is. 

This rejection is the latest in a whole catalog of occurrences that are making me rethink, altogether, what I want out of a writing career. It bookends the first item in the catalog: an agent rejection for my bad-film book, which I got sometime in 2021. The agent didn't think the book had major-press possibilities. The way she explained this to me, I got the message: she is an agent who makes big deals, not little deals, and she didn't think she could sell the book as a big enough package to make it worth her time. I respected this, but it also surprised me, because I know how many copies make a bestseller and I know the size of the bad film/cult film audience. But I'm not a major critic, I'm not cruel, and the book doesn't have little bite-sized essays, so you'd have to market it pretty carefully. 

Hmm. Okay. So, I used this feedback to rejigger my expectations and I queried smaller or specialty presses for the book. A year & many rejections later, I've finally contracted the book to a terrific indie press, Castle Bridge Media, and I'm thrilled to be working with them. But I really did think this book was going to go to a big press. The result isn't a disappointment, but it's a different path, an alteration in the trajectory I thought I was creating with my first two books. 

I thought the idea was to step up and step up until I had an agent and a comfortable contract/series of contracts. I thought I'd edit and write reviews until I had a book or film column. I never thought I'd make a living wage by writing alone, but I did think I'd be able to stop hustling, stop hanging my own slate and instead have people or objects (publicists, agents, my own recognizable name) to do that work for me. 

These are the ideas I'm rethinking altogether: the ladder, the progression, the comfort, the reliance on others. None of them have come to pass, even though I've jumped through many of the necessary hoops. 

My friend Dave Housley has been running Barrelhouse for many years, and he has published seven books. I don't think he has an agent at the moment, and he's never brought a book out with a major press (although he has with big indies). Writers of many types and sizes know and respect him as a community-builder and a good dude. He's held a day job unrelated to writing all this time, and I doubt anything about his life or work is going to change. I don't even know if he wants it to. He keeps writing and making what he wants, and plunging himself up to his elbows into writerly community and working, and he doesn't have to be a hotshot to do those things. 

I'm wondering if this is a preferable model for my writing. Should I stop thinking about remuneration more completely than I already have? Should I make things and trust that readers will show up somewhere along the line? Should I stop trying to build this thing like a city planner, and instead let my interests make desire paths wherever they want to go? 

I'm considering making my weird West story into a Kindle single type thing for 99 cents. That's where I'm at. I tried self-publishing in my 20s, with a (deliberate) ripoff of VC Andrews that I couldn't figure out how else to sell, and I failed at it and swore never to do it again. Now that I've got 15 years of experience on that writer, I'm thinking about breaking her oath. I don't want to submit this story for two years only to hear feedback that doesn't make sense, I don't want to trunk it until I finally have enough genre stories for a collection (...it'll be a while), I don't want to rely on others who don't understand my work to promote a story I can damn well promote myself. 

I want to put stuff into the world that I love, and help people discover it who will love it too. Doing that has been the goal all along, but it's always been complicated and ritualized and tediously reliant on gatekeepers. Now, it seems possible that I'm at a stage where for some parts of my work, I don't need or want to trade gatekeeping for greater prominence. I've watched a handful of acquaintances go through this and never thought it would be me. And, let's be clear, I could not have published Ceremonials or Plan 9 on my own, nor can I publish Junk Film or most of the manuscripts I'm shopping on my own. But this little weird West story? I think I can. And I think I might. 

I just need to let it sit a little longer. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

A Research Report

For the last six or seven weeks, I've been researching my next novel. I have not been quiet about the paths I've taken; on Twitter and Facebook I've been complaining, screenshotting paragraphs from books, and posting brief reviews of movies. I've also written about a few things I've learned. The actual book I'm writing isn't much of a secret among my writer friends, but I will be unspecific in this post. 

What I can be specific about is the time and place: Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Sweden, North Africa, London, and a bit of Lisbon and the former Czechoslovakia. This means I needed to learn a basic outline of events in World War II - more than I learned in high school, anyway - and, in much more detail, what daily life was like. What people wore, ate, read, listened to, talked about, did in those regions during those years. Were there refrigerators? Cars? Deodorant? Fashion magazines? The war impacts all this, of course, but even establishing a baseline for daily life, before any crisis began, was a challenge. 

(In this post, I am going to use not-the-obvious terms for the German government during the mid-twentieth century, for search engine reasons. I'm not denying or soft-pedaling anything; I am not a supporter of that government or its ideals!!!; I just don't want certain audiences who Google horrible shit for the wrong reasons to find this post.) 

I'm a poor researcher, I'll be the first to admit, but I did not want to commit anachronisms or be caught flat-footed, partway through a draft, without an activity for my characters to do or the right kind of food for them to eat. So I started finding books to read. 

Sweden, the Swastika, and Stalin by John Gilmour

This was the toughest one (soooooo drrryyyyyy), and possibly the most useful. It taught me the broad outlines of the war's progression and to expect huge differences between the nations in attitudes toward the war. That has served me well. For Sweden, the safety of the people was absolutely paramount, way above worry about how history would judge the leaders' actions, shows of strength, or sticking to a particular moral certainty. That priority was hard for me to get my head around. It was good I started there, though, because this book 

And the Show Went On by Alan Riding

was even more challenging (although in its particulars, a very good read). For France, national culture was paramount, above concern about how its populace would cope, and far, far above historical judgment. America's culture is so exportable and reproducible that it took a lot of squinting to figure this out as a priority. Also notable in France was how easily the elderly leaders capitulated, how their concessions and waiting-and-seeing contradicted what younger people wanted and believed (whether they were resistance-minded or not). I think these men, many of whom served in the prior war, believed this would pass, that the German threat simply was not worth digging trenches and making shells, again. Their nearness to sunset likely had a lot to do with this perspective. Food for thought in 2022 America. 

Round Up the Usual Suspects by Aljean Harmetz

This book was helpful for a bunch of reasons, but it was also fun to read because it was full of Jack Warner stories. For those who don't know, Jack Warner, who held absolute power at Warner Bros. for nearly half a century, is legendary for his monstrousness. He was a greedy, single-minded tyrant - but an unbiased one, treating everyone on earth equally terribly. Plus, he was almost always right, which makes him a prime-cut Hollywood monster. I also learned a handful of surprising (and sad) facts about refugees in Hollywood in the 1940s. The author kept returning to the differences in American film production between the 1940s and the 1990s (when the book was written), which I found bitter and needless. 

Liberty Lady by Pat DiGeorge

I was surprised at this book, which is self-published history, but was smoothly and tensely written, carefully researched, and fascinating in its own right even though it's about the author's parents. It gave me good information about Stockholm during the war. Self-published history is like Vogon poetry in reputation, but this is a strong book that I'd acquire if I were the editor of a history imprint. Which I never, ever will be. 

The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck

In my late teens and early 20s I was a Steinbeck fiend, and I'm pretty sure I read this book during that time and retained none of it. The reread was a pleasure. It's a beautiful piece of work, if a little sketchy (in the literary sense). Fun fact: even though it was written deliberately as propaganda, the Allies didn't like it for that purpose, because it "humanized" the enemy. Citizens of occupied nations, however, loved it, and took guerilla publishing measures to get it into as many hands as possible. They knew, because they lived under occupation, that a cartoon enemy is neither accurate nor helpful. 

(To be clear: what Steinbeck does in this book is one hundred percent different than what the New York Times has done with its humanizing bullshit. Steinbeck won a Nobel, and the NYT is bothsidesing itself directly into sympathy with the devil.) 

I'm nearly out of books I should read and it's almost time to write, so while I wait for a couple of interlibrary loans, I've switched to movies, in the hope that some of them will have reasonably accurate period details. 

Poster for Taking Sides (2001)

This one is off to the side a bit in some ways, but the moral philosophy underlying it is right within my concerns. It's got some memorable scenes and situations, but it's a little tedious; Skarsgård is at full power, but Keitel is flashing a LOW BATT light. It also tugs at a thread I noticed across my reading: the punishment meted out to anyone affiliated with the former German government after 1945 was extremely inconsistent, from country to country and from person to person. Frenchmen who wrote occasional pandering articles were shot right away; Germans who did cruel, racist things to fellow human beings walked free. So it went in all nations touched by the war. It's an impossible task, of course, trying to figure out who deserves what. None of us is God. 

Poster for The King's Choice (2016)

Poster for The Last Sentence (2012)

These two were frustrating but helpful. (Both star Jesper Christensen, a Dane of great renown, but this is sheer coincidence.) The one is about the King of Norway's actions when Germans invaded in the spring of 1940, and the other is about a famous Swedish journalist who publicly, bitchily denounced the German regime from 1933-1945. The King's Choice was shot in all handheld, which annoyed me to no end, yet the acting, the personal dilemmas, and the period details were tremendous. It was clearly influenced by Downfall, but the story didn't propel itself as urgently as Downfall's did. Not a waste of time, but not as good as it thought it was. 

The Last Sentence had Bergman intentions and Dreyer austerity, but without the brilliance or flawed human core of either. Also, the DP did not understand how to make a black and white movie vs. a color movie with a black and white filter. But the content had direct bearing on the book I'm writing, more than any other save the one below, so I'm glad I watched it. 

Poster for Sami Blood (2016)

So far this is the only movie for research I can recommend without an asterisk (i.e. "if you're interested in Sweden during WWII" or similar). It was stunning, and for an American audience, it's a very unusual story. It did have major elision problems, but I credit the filmmaker for attacking them with sheer will rather than logical writing. Also, the last third of it took place in the very city/decade where a large portion of my book is set, so yay for that. 

Here are some other books and movies on my list: 

French poster for The Conspirators (1944)
not great

Prague in Black by Chad Bryant
nicer to read than expected but that only goes so far

We Are at War by Simon Garfield
totally awesome

Poster for Pimpernel Smith (1942)
sentimental, propagandistic hogwash that I enjoyed a great deal

This six or seven weeks has been quite a journey for me. I did not know I'd find World War II so fascinating, but I really, really do, in a way that will remind you of your dad or granddad if you ever set me talking about it. It seems from a distance as if it was a simple war, with binary choices and obviously divined motives, but it's not that at all; the middle ground has been far more populous than I expected. Plus I've learned so many amazing one-off facts. Like, for instance, the reason the Blitz on London was halted? Because it didn't work. The intention was to destroy the RAF, various manufacturing hotspots, and the morale of the people. It accomplished none of these things. The RAF turned out to be more skilled, with more maneuverable planes, than expected; manufacturing merely spread out to other parts of the country instead of remaining centralized and thus easily bombable; and, apparently, nothing can destroy the morale of the British people. I find that completely amazing. 

I've also learned that the "neutral" powers made a lot of collaborationist compromises; the dictator of Portugal was...kind of...unobjectionable? as a dictator?; Ingrid Bergman was a workaholic; Coco Chanel was a spy for the wrong side; and Czechoslovakia was horribly wronged, but it gave almost as good as it got in the end. And lots more. 

I hope I won't have to make another report like this, and that I can just write the damned book instead. But there's still a book on fashion, a book on interwar Britain, a book of Swedish statistics, and a giant book of James Agee reviews (570 pp) containing only one of use to me, all of which are either in my office or headed my way. So...we'll see whether I get this thing going for real by September, or not. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Slightly Popular

Somehow I've become a slightly popular movie podcast guest. The biggest shock was Dana Gould inviting me back a second time, and genuinely seeming to enjoy talking to me. We talked right up until we had to stop because he had another appointment. I will blame him forever for (indirectly) making me watch Carny, but I will also thank him forever for bumping up my Plan 9 sales significantly. 

Start around 1:23:00 if you want to hear only me. 

I was also on Monster Movie Happy Hour, which was loads of fun. We meant to talk for 45 minutes and instead talked for over an hour recorded and another hour after that unrecorded. Very occasionally I wish I had a place in the Midwest to live in during the three weeks a year the weather is nice, and folks like them are the reason why. 

If you missed it, I was also on Movies from Hell re: Death Bed and Ruby and on Castle of Horror re: Valley of the Dolls.

This week I'm recording twice more, for a local arts podcast in central Virginia (see below) and for Your Stupid Minds, which I just had to pitch, given that the name is a quote from Plan 9. We're discussing perhaps my favorite bad movie of all, so I'm looking forward to it. 

If you're reading this and you have a podcast you want me to be on, let me know! I have a fancy microphone, a good voice, and a reasonably quick wit. 

In March, I'm doing a miniature East Coast tour. On Sunday, March 20, I'll be in Richmond, Virginia, at Plan 9 Records. I'll be screening Plan 9 from Outer Space, selling the book, and talking with a local podcast host (see above). I'm not sure of the time for this event yet, but I'm hoping it'll be late afternoon, because who wants to go to a Sunday night anything? 

The following week I go to AWP in Philadelphia. I don't have any events planned, but I'll have copies of my books to sell - probably at the Barrelhouse table - and I'll be happy to step in and help in any situation where it's needed. I did this at the 2020 AWP, running an event and moderating a panel to replace absentees, and it was great. I've learned from prior AWPs that holding to a planned schedule gives me a rotten experience, while walking around with no particular plan makes me happy. I decided to go this year because I wanted to, after all, not because I needed to or had something specific to flog. 

After that I go on to New York City, where I'll be signing at Forbidden Planet on Sunday, March 27. That's in the late afternoon, and in the evening there's a TBD screening event hosted by a Forbidden Planet employee who loves Plan 9

And then that's it, I go home. I haven't been to New York in some years, which is funky because I have strong memories of it being easily accessible during my college years. In my freshman year I was involved with a guy at Columbia and drove there every other weekend. Now it feels as unreachable and cosmopolitan as it probably does for most citizens of this country. 

Anyway, none of this stuff is going to be livestreamed as far as I know. Sorry. I'm still trying to make plans to do a virtual watch-along of Plan 9, so we can all watch it together on our laptops. I haven't done this because the time hasn't seemed right, for various internal reasons that haven't borne the fruit I hoped they would. At this point I don't know what I'm waiting for. April, I think, is a good month to do it. 

In other news, I'm consulting on the launch of a new film quarterly run by an awesome, scrappy film community here in LA. There's a lot about that still up in the air, but I hope it will be as good as the work we're putting into it. Stay tuned - I'll be promoting it a lot if it works out as I hope. 

In other other news, I'm still trying very damn hard to sell three of my books, and/or get an agent to help me sell them, and to place finished essays about movies that I think are good. That isn't going very well, on the whole. It's a discouraging time for my submissions, even as the podcasting gains me some traction. Later in the year I'm gonna dive to writing depth, starting the next project, and I'm massively looking forward to doing that instead of promoting and pitching, which is several fathoms up, high visibility, lots of sun. Even if the current depth is less work, in an hours-per-day sense, it's not work I was cut out to do, so it wears me out pretty easily. 


Lately I've been wondering a little more about the future of this blog. I didn't think I'd ever be the type of person who watched her words in public, but I had no idea it would be so practically difficult to write about writing while telling the whole truth. Enemies who are friends with friends, people who don't know what they don't know, deeply unpopular opinions held for an unairable reason, etc. Also, blogging is firmly out of fashion at this point. (I'm a bit tickled that writing outflow keeps finding different places to go. It's currently in Substack-ish newsletters, which I believe is unsustainable.) 

My personal life is pretty happy, and my successes and failures in my writing life are either boring and continual (rejections, rejections, rejections) or not suitable for the public (non-scandalous ill treatment by folks with whom I'd like to stay congenial). I don't want to make this a writing craft blog, because, in brief, I am weary of writing craft on the internet. So what do I write about here? Maybe I announce things, maybe I pursue ideas that don't fit anywhere else, maybe I keep up with my reading and viewing habits. Maybe I stop. 

I'm not fussed about this choice, because my investment in this space is low. I used to feel genuine pain over its low readership but have long since detached from that. I'm staying here on my terms, and my terms are not to worry too much about consistency or content here. Plenty of other spaces for me to worry about that. 

Saturday, February 19, 2022

This Spot in the Road

The book I've been working on for two years directly, and several more years indirectly, is a collection of straightforward critical essays about bad movies. Originally I planned to write about the following media: 

  • Plan 9 from Outer Space 
  • Cop Rock 
  • The Teen Agers films (1946-48) 
  • Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) 
  • Death Bed: The Bed that Eats 
  • Ruby 
  • Showgirls/Staying Alive 

By the middle of last year, I'd written half of these and published a few. I got stuck on the Showgirls/Staying Alive essay, about which I was quite intimidated (a lot of people have written about Showgirls), and then I lost half a year to circumstances out of my control, during which I barely wrote. I also had a mini-brainwave about how I'd chosen to approach this project: I'd written criticism about these films without writing much on how the audience receives them. With this in mind, I decided to write about two other films: 

  • Girl in Gold Boots
  • After Last Season

Between November and February, I wrote the remaining essays from the first list, including 4,300 words on Showgirls & Staying Alive. I also wrote a 7,700-word essay on Quentin Tarantino, which required a ton of research and which I still can't believe I turned in on time. Since January I've written 2,000 words to order on Switchblade Sisters (which might end up in this bad-movie book), and I thought intensely about what I wanted to say in the essay on Girl in Gold Boots

For two weeks I tried to write this essay, and kept failing. I got way into the weeds, trying to sort out what it means to like a film, the difference between pleasing graphic design and actual art, and how moral value attaches to aesthetic value. It was a mess. Ultimately I splurted out 1,500 words of deep confusion about what I was trying to do, which I think is itself something, but which might also be background for the real essay. If the real essay exists, it's either going to be so methodical it's practically philosophy, or it's going to be totally bizarre. 

I was saving Season for last, because I wasn't quite sure what would happen when I saw it again, when I tried to put ideas about it together in sentences. Yesterday I watched the film in the morning, sat down to write about it in the late afternoon, and finished 3,100 words about it around 11 PM. I read these words again this morning and it's a finished essay. I'm astonished, because I really thought this essay would be impossible - the film is impossible - but it was one of the easiest things I've written in the past year. 

That means, aside from the Gold Boots essay, the book is complete. 

Which might mean the book is, in fact, complete. It's possible the Gold Boots essay won't work out. I'll give it a couple of weeks and another strong try before I really give up, but it seems ever more likely that I'm not capable of saying what I'd like to about this goddamn stupid lovable movie. 

So, as I said on Twitter, I think I might have finished my latest book today. Yay for me, I think? I'll probably write some interstitials to sculpt it into a real book and Lord knows finding a publisher hasn't gone well so far, but reaching this spot in the road means I can begin to move on from this whole period of my writing life, creatively. Move on from film crit as the only thing I do and swerve back toward the other stuff I do. Up next is a novel, my first in more than five years, so I'm looking forward to that. 

There's a lot more news, but not sharing it here means I'll have to write another post soon. 

Thursday, November 18, 2021


Here is a true story. 

Hummingbirds are fascinating to watch. Up close they're a lot more like big bugs than like birds; they're a bit louder than you expect and they hover unsettlingly, changing direction unpredictably. But through a window, there is nothing better to watch. They have weird tongues and their bodies change shape to a surprising degree when they're perching or flying and they're fast, fast, fast. 

Over the summer I started taking the trouble to hang a feeder outside my office, after years of not bothering (you end up needing to refill the feeders all the time and it can be messy and irritating to do so). In late summer, a goldfinch began visiting the hummingbird feeder, every day, mid-morning. Because hummingbirds are so tiny, it looked huge on the perching area, and I worried that it was scaring the little guys off. 

I went to the bird store and asked what I should do. The bird guy said he'd never heard of that, a goldfinch drinking sugar water. I shrugged and said well, it's happening. He sold me an inexpensive sock feeder full of nyjer (a tiny black seed), in the hope of moving the bird's interest to that instead. He asked me to follow up with him, because he was curious what would happen. 

The sock feeder didn't work, at first. I hung it outside my husband's office window, a ways down from the hummingbird feeder. Still that big ol' finch would visit to sip sugar water every day, setting the feeder swinging with its giant tail and bright yellow breast. So I went back to the bird store, where I talked to a different guy, and he, too, had never heard of a goldfinch drinking from a hummingbird feeder. I bought a much more serious feeder, a part-metal contraption with a yellow top and a huge cylinder to fill with nyjer. Which I did, fill it with nyjer. I hammered in a new nail to hang the sock feeder outside my window, two feet or so from the little red hummingbird feeder, and hung the serious feeder outside Matt's office. I hoped to graduate to only having the serious feeder, far enough away from the hummingbirds so as not to scare them off, and not to have to use the sock feeder (much messier and harder to fill) at all. 

A few weeks went by. Nothing happened at first, and then everything happened at once. Dozens of finches and other assorted little birds started visiting my patio, first in the morning and then all day long. Eight of them at a time would cling to the sock feeder, pecking out nyjer and chirping at each other. A pair of them sometimes sat on different sides of the feeder with their tails crossed companionably. They found the serious feeder, too. I bought bigger bags of nyjer and took video. 

Now, months in, my patio is stippled with poop and covered with expended nyjer seeds. Every time we go out there, a flurry of wings and panicked twittering greets us as we (accidentally) scare off the birds that sit and feast all day. Hummingbirds still hang around my patio, some, but the finches and sparrows are the stars of the show. 

I bought some little nests in the hope of slowing the damage they're doing to my flowering bushes via occupancy. I'm in the market for a large birdhouse for the same reason. And I bought a hook to hang the sock feeder over a planter so I don't have to sweep up so much. More stuff to try and coax the patio into looking how I want it to look, to keep it from being presided over by the damn birds. 

All this started with a single goldfinch who liked sugar water. In trying to solve that problem, I created a whole constellation of problems, and trying to solve those means repeatedly adding things to my life - buying solutions. 

Weeks ago I started believing this was a metaphor. 

I don't want to stop feeding the birds. That would be the simplest solution, to just stop, let the finches find another hookup for their nyjer, go back to having just the one hummingbird feeder. But I like them; they're distracting when I'm lonely and worried about my writing. Yet they trouble me: am I making them too fat? am I somehow attracting rats to the patio (I see them crawling along the wall in the evenings, and I found one dead, half-under our grill, earlier this week)? am I lowering the property value with a plethora of tiny poops? will my star jasmine ever recover? 

The Sopranos begins with Tony obsessed with the ducks in his pool. As a metaphor, it's neat; the ducks act independently of him, and he takes few actions to change his relationship with the ducks or the way he lives alongside them. No contradictory elements or uninterpretable events. I remember my husband telling me that his family would always scare off ducks that hung out in their pool, because they were messy, and there was a river literally on the other side of the house that was better for their needs. That's less a metaphor than it is a story about wildlife colliding with suburbia. Like seagulls that mistake empty parking lots for ocean: I used to see that as sad, paving paradise to put up etc., but now I think gulls just have bad eyesight and it doesn't mean much. 

What's going on with me and these finches is something else altogether, something to do with cascades or fractals or sheer stubbornness. Unintended consequences. Soured generosity. Capitalism and the nesting instinct. 

Coincidentally or not, at present a mental health crisis is slowly unfolding inside my head, doubling in size with every unfurled edge. With that lens I see this whole situation as a seminar in failure. At each stage, I guessed about what would help, or fix, and implemented those ideas. In helping or fixing one aspect, I opened the door to other challenges, none of which is more or less tolerable than the initial one but which require new and different fixes. Each new round, through my current lens, contains failure, and failure, and more failure. 

Maybe what I've done is cause dependency in wild animals, which is always a mistake. Maybe I've made my patio a haven for exactly the wrong kinds of animals (today rats, tomorrow coyotes?!) Maybe, in not just giving up and leaving the feeders empty, in continually trying to "solve" this, I've given myself a distraction, both when I sit in my office and when I make a shopping list for the home & garden section at Lowe's, from what I really need to be doing, which is producing new work. It's what I've needed to be doing for five months. Instead, I'm mucking around with finches and pruning my bushes until they start to die. 

That might be too harsh an analysis of what's happening here. In nimbler hands, this story would be a minor plot line in a comedy, like Bridget Jones's disastrously remodeled apartment (in the books) or the adventures of Maris Crane. Everything looks like Stalag 17 to me right now, not like The Apartment. But this metaphor, if it is one, doesn't feel tidy enough to be comic. It's sloppy and strange, as wild animal encounters so often are (or should be), and I don't know what to learn from it. 

Maybe nothing. Maybe we learn less often from true stories. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021


today's mood

Today I sent six queries for Plan 9 publicity and a few followups to agents as well. I've done as little of this work as I possibly can over the past year, but today, suddenly, I had the energy to do it. I also slept well two nights in a row after not sleeping well for several weeks on end. 

I'm not going to say that all of this was because I spent time with horses on three of the last five days, but that certainly made a difference. 

It's very strange to learn something fundamental about yourself well into adulthood. In my case, it's that I like animals. I didn't spend any time with animals when I was young (other than small pets like hamsters - I do not like rodents, I've learned), and only in the last few years have I discovered how much I love being with horses and dogs and, when I have access to immediate hand-washing and laundry, cats too. Time with animals has the capacity to turn my mental health around, which is a genuine surprise. 

The time with horses was spent at a ranch about an hour north of me. I'm going to try to go there once a week until I can't anymore. The difference in horsemanship between this (western/endurance riding, starting wild horses under saddle) and the stable I worked at for 18 months (dressage) is so profound that the only similarity is the existence of horses. The disparity, the feeling of starting over, led me into a bunch of panicky questions about what I'm even doing with myself and my time, what the years past 40 are going to look like for me, what this is all for. How do I do this? How do I continue it? 

My brother-in-law is a highly strategic person (on the outside - what do I know about his insides?). He planned his life really well, from college on, and now he's living it. That sounds satisfying, and yet seems impossible for me to do. I admire it but am perplexed by it. What if life changes in a way not accounted for by his plan? What if he discovers he badly wants something unstrategic? 


Today, my second book finally appeared on Amazon, even though it's not yet available to order on Amazon. Baby steps. 


Making plans for a three-city visit back east in March: central Virginia, Philadelphia, NYC. Hope I'll see you there. More details as I know them. 


EDIT TO SECTION BELOW: holy crap, I already blogged about this, five years ago. I said some of the same things then that I said below, but I was not as nice about it then. Shame on me for not looking more carefully at my own past words. 


Recently I had cause to remember and link to this essay. In reading it again, I found that I wasn't just remembering it for the reason I linked to it, which is this passage: "And I will say, too, that he was a man obsessed. While the rest of us were screwing around with our crushes and debating whether or not to use our middle initial when published, he was writing. I mean really writing, all the time, sometimes a rumored fourteen hours a day." 

The "he" is Joshua Ferris, who hit a grand slam with his debut novel, Then We Came to the End. He was lucky, but here is proof that he also worked extraordinarily hard. There is no one way to be a successful writer, especially because "success" bears such a range of meanings. But most assuredly, you are more likely to find whatever kind of success you want if you put your head down and write than if you engage with Writer Drama (which is...significant). 

The passage didn't teach me this lesson, but it did crystallize it: you can talk about writing, you can have sex about writing, you can dramaturge about writing, but the only way you will publish is by actually, literally, provably writing. 

But again, upon reread, this article opened up a bunch more avenues for me to think about. 

  • On the way things get magnified in a small, absurd environment like an MFA program: "It would be years before I realized that almost none of it, at least what had happened in workshop, mattered at all." 

  • On room at the table: "We are entirely different writers and, as such, weren’t competing at all. I would tell myself that his success had no bearing on whether or not I would have any, and dwelling on it only amounted to a shitload of wasted time." 

  • On hard truths: "I’ve been forced to come to grips with what all writers must face at some point: No one — and I mean no one — except for you, and maybe your mother, cares if you write." 

  • On what's required of a male writer vs. what's required of a female writer post-MFA: "A few years later his novel came out [...] and he was lauded as the Second Coming of Franzen. What was I doing during this time? [...] Taking care of my sister during her bout with cancer." 

  • On the toxicity of the standard MFA workshop: "It was so terrible, Geoffrey so unnecessarily unkind, that if it had happened to me, I would have been in the fetal position in the corner of the room after the first fifteen minutes." 

  • On why MFAs are a terrible idea for people who haven't developed enough integrity of self to compartmentalize work and relationships, as they're too young, with too little life experience: "...but then you hang out, you drink, you make out, you realize you are competing with one another for the prize of attention and praise and connections and publication, you have inappropriate crushes on people who are not available but act like they are, and yes, hello, all of that taints your views of other people’s work." 

I don't agree with everything Mims says in this piece. But it's an extraordinarily useful essay to dissect and consider, whether you think MFAs are good or bad, whether you think spite is a useful driver of hard work or not, whether you think it's fine to mix sex with writing workshop or not. I think this essay should be required reading for anyone applying to an MFA program. 


I'm working my way through BoJack Horseman (which is extraordinary). I do not think it's related that I've found a new horse place to spend time, but it sure is fun that they're happening together.