Saturday, June 12, 2010



When I was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, during my honeymoon in Barcelona, I spent three days in the ER, hooked up to a tube of insulin the size of a bomb. It was called la bomba. My blood sugar was so high the bomb needed replenishment every few hours, and this need was announced with a shrill alarm. If I had been sleeping, I'm sure that dramatic alarm would have jolted me awake. But I couldn't sleep. I was in the ER. I was laying on a thin, awful mattress. A plastic mattress. I was hooked to tubes and bombs.

After three days, I was unhooked and transferred to a room with a slightly more comfortable bed. Hallelujah! I'll never forget the delight of my first meal: roasted potatoes and cod with spinach. I ate slowly, savoring each bite. I sat, cross-legged on my bed, reading and re-reading the USA Today's Olympic coverage (this was the 2004 Games, in Athens). After eating, feeling finally relaxed, I closed my eyes. Ahh, sleep...

Did I mention my roommate?

He was an elderly man, a Catalan, who hardly spoke Spanish, let alone English. He introduced himself. I had just eaten. I had just closed my eyes, in fact.

"Señor," he cried. "Lo Siento!"

He pumped two shots of cologne in the air. The smell, floral and nauseating, hit me all at once, and it arrived with a surprise: another, deeply human, smell. Shit. The man had pumped his cologne, thinking it might disguise his accident; it only amplified the smell, brightened it, really, as lemon zest brightens cooked mushrooms.

"Lo Siento," he said, again, his voice full of shame.

Within minutes, two orderlies--two slim, cheery guys--arrived to wash the man and change his bedsheets. Closing a blue curtain that seemed, to me, to divide my beginning from the old man's ending, the first orderly smiled and repeated the old man's sentiments, "Lo Siento!"

I heard, and smelled, the routine through the blue curtain, as the man's cries modulated, from shame to thankfulness, as the smell evolved from a floral funk to an equally nauseating soapiness.

I stayed in that room, with the old Catalan, for four days. I spent my time looking out the window, to a strip of pavement below, where patients in blue outfits roamed. Some patients smoked and talked, and some simply smoked as they moved, tediously, across the pavement. To me, though, these walking patients embodied the most powerful urge that had yet occurred in my life—the urge to get the fuck out of the hospital. I felt terrible--reduced to a bed! And the man--I felt terrible for him, too. It seemed unfair! How did we end up in this place? How do we get out?

And that's how I came to think about the orderlies. These guys, the same two guys, willingly came here, to this hospital, day after day, merely to work. To clean. To comfort. To wipe.

It's the wiping that got me. After a few days, these guys seemed like saints to me. I mean, their life's work, at least at that time, included the necessary task of wiping an old man's soiled ass. Laying there in bed, I lost all sense of self-pity. How could I feel bad for myself? These orderlies were much more pitiable. Clearly, they had the worst job in the world.

And, Josh, this is what you do, right?

For most writers, especially young writers, writing is a notoriously low-paying job. I'm always comforted when I hear about writer's "real" jobs--the jobs they take to satisfy life's financial needs. It reminds me, as I trudge out the door for another shift, that we're in this together, all of us, equals in ambition and needs. The goal, of course, is to make a living writing. Or, as Kenneth Koch so beautifully states it in his poem "Some General Instructions":

"If you do not have money, you must probably earn some
But do it in a way that is pleasant and does
Not take too much time."

After a failed romance drove him to Europe in 1977, The Great Bolaño, "began a long, itinerant tour of the Mediterranean coast, taking on an absurd variety of jobs: grape harvester, dockworker, campground watchman, trinket-shop proprietor. In his spare time, he wrote lush, sentimental poems about his Mexican friends."

William Carlos Williams was, awesomely, a doctor. Wallace Stevens, shockingly, was an insurance executive. Frank Kafka, the Chief Legal Executive of the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute, spent his working life writing reports such as "Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines."

T.S. Eliot was a banker. Douglas Adams was "moonlighting as a hotel security guard" in London when he began The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And Kurt Vonnegut owned a Saab dealership in the late 50s.

From the improbable website

I've been (relatively) lucky: since I was 24, I've managed to make money in a way that is pleasant and does not take too much time. Before that, I worked almost exclusively in kitchens, except for the year after college, when I worked at my father's consulting company. I was the lowest paid executive in the entire place. (Karen, my future wife, also worked there, and made about 30% more than me.) I didn't read or write a lick for an entire year. Faced with the very real prospect of assuming eventual control of the company, I left for Barcelona. My father, finally fatigued by the business, sold his share five months later.

In Barcelona, living entirely off my savings, I wrote every single day, longhand in a journal, sometimes for 8 or more hours a day. Since then, my shining goal has always been a return to this momentous opportunity: to write every day, without concern for cash.

At 25, my money depleted, I came home and started a new consulting "company" with my father. We got a few contracts, which required about two weeks of work each. For that work, I made $1500/month for two years. During that time, I lived with my father, writing my first, second, and third novels--all failures. At the end of that period, I finally moved in with Karen, and my financial situation complicated. Still, via a patchwork of freelance work, I managed to successfully stay away from a real job for years.

Then, I came home from my honeymoon, at 29, in September 2004, broke and sick and fearful that I might have to move back in with my father, wife in tow. That spring, I found a job at a grocery store. Whole Foods Market. I've worked at the grocery store, happily and sometimes unhappily, since then. I wear an apron to work. I make the equivalent of about $40K/year. My title is: Demo Coordinator & Healthy Eating Specialist. Yes, you can be a "specialist" in healthy eating; you merely need to be hired for the job, and complete an online course from eCornell. Now I have an Ivy League education, a "Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition."

And yet, I actually enjoy the work. I cook. I teach. I guide others through the rigors of kale. Most importantly, though, I make my own schedule. I work only 30 hours. It all comes down to this: I took the job because it allows me the time, and freedom, to write.

I basically live paycheck to paycheck.


Sometimes people ask me, "What will you do with your MFA?"

As if what I'm doing, trying each day to write a worthwhile novel, is not the real thing. The real thing, of course, is money.

"I'm applying for teaching jobs next fall," I say.

And I mean it.

But even as I say it, I start to feel a constrictive life of no-writing, or less-writing, tightening around me like a hospital tube. The truth is, for my entire adult life, I've stubbornly and selfishly chosen jobs that accommodated my writing lifestyle, and not the other way around. I know this can't last--unless something changes: unless I publish my current novel; unless I find some way to have my writing make money for me.

My wife makes nearly double my salary. Soon, we'll try to have kids. At that moment, when my wife stops working, my current lifestyle will become immediately untenable.

Now, each day when I sit to write, I feel the weight of this upcoming challenge. Of course, I don't expect my writing to take me anywhere, to do anything for me, to make a career for me. But I am a writer, for better or worse. The difference, of course, the main difference between being a writer and not, is writing. Without undue expectation and with wild abandon.

I suppose one thing that motivates me, then, is to hear about all the others. My friends, Kurt Vonnegut, any writer, who has done something like wipe another's ass, or run a Saab dealership, merely to sustain a writer's lifestyle. But there's something in these jobs, too. These jobs are not always merely means to an end. They say something about us, don't they? I suppose my hope is that writing will eventually say the most about me.

Until then, I'll continue to specialize in healthy eating.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Watery Parts of the World


Your generous, starwalking last post reminded me of the great final third of Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrook's (panoptical harmonium of German middle-class life - written when he was 26!), in which the young scion of a prosperous German family wakes up one morning and decides that he doesn't want to get out of bed. So he says he's sick. Is he really sick? Even he isn't totally sure; but from that point on, his day is full of pampering and delight. Cordials! Presents! People feeling sorry for him! Needless to say, the boy realizes quickly that being sick is vastly underrated - perhaps even the best thing in the world. He resolves then and there to be sick for the rest of his life. And he is, for the most part, with a variety of real and imagined illnesses - the most debilitating and (for our purposes at least) interesting of which is not a biological condition at all, but the great chronic disease of art.

Yes, young Hanno Buddenbrooks is an artist. And he is sick. Paraphrased like this, the connection sounds forced and naive; but no matter how much I reject its pedantic and pseudo-Christian Scientist overtones, I find it hard to read the moment in which Hanno "decides" to be sick without at least a tiny shock of recognition. I feel exposed: as if Mann has caught me stealing cookies or sneaking into my mother's closet to play a game of Zelda II, which I am not supposed to even know about until Christmas morning. But, uncomfortable though they may be, I have learned to trust such neurological twitches as symptoms of some larger truth. And I do think Mann has it right here, if only in part. Art, though it may not be an actual physical illness, is certainly an effective way to stay in bed.

Artists need beds - if not real ones, then at least the metaphorical rectangles of imagination and repose that Australian poet Les Murray sung in his beautiful "Homage to the Launching Place", which ends like this:

"I loved you from the first, bed,
doorway out of this world;
above your inner springs
I learned to dig my own.

Primly dressed, linen-collared one,
you look so still, for all your speed,
shield that carries us to the flight,
and bears us from it."

Who, reading this, does not feel a twang of tenderness for that "kindest of quadrapeds"? Just writing the lines out, I find myself gazing at least twice towards the shadowed bedroom, where my faithful mattress lies resting after a hard night's sleep. How gluttonous I have been with her! And how neglectful! But then, like Hanno, I have perhaps come to rely a little too much on the "doorway out of this world" part of the equation - have begun, in other words, to glut myself on that mulch of interspace from which art arises like mushrooms on a compost heap.

That's the tricky thing about beds: they grow. They overflow and spread, to the point that soon you're falling asleep wherever you please. The whole world has transformed, from an unforgivable and dangerous surface to a sort of gigantic moonbounce, on which we desire to sink at a moment's notice. And why shouldn't we? Aren't we weary? Haven't we spent the vast majority of our day doing things that we wish to escape - that we would opt out of completely if we could, like a frail little German by deciding to roll away from work, responsibility, and duty, and towards tubercular infection?

But it's not that simple of course, and I know this - for I am not just a user of beds: I'm a maker of them as well. Every night I wander the halls of my hospital, snuffling like a hedgehog, not just for whimpers and moans and the telltale manatee-rolls of unsound sleepers, but for the disturbances of this kind that haven't even happened yet. No one sleeps well in a hospital, they just don't, and anyone who tells you differently is or was on drugs; but between sleep and non-sleep is a state as wide as the one between health and death, and that is where I do my work. It's my country, if you will: my garden of mandrakes clenched in their various beds. And I, along with my companions, am its steward: one of the many naiads and dryads and goblins of water-replenishing and pillow fluffing and volume-lowering.

Hospital corners are difficult even for a professional, and I'd be lying if I said I always executed them with an identical amount of patience. Still, one thing that I've discovered over the course of the past year is how much these and other little featherings can help a sick patient become a sleeping one. Exactly how this works remains a mystery to me; but what I do know is that, when we look at it through the lens of illness, the story of the princess and the pea takes on a startling poignancy. As told to children, the tale lies once, but at a critical juncture - for the truth is that there was no pea, and that the woman would have tossed and turned no matter what she slept on, not because she was a princess, but because she was sick. The pea was inside her: it was her death. And though it looked like the prince was testing her, she was actually the one testing him, as she'd been testing all of her hosts over the years, tossing and turning in the pretenders' beds as she submitted to their stupid little vanities: the mountain of mattresses, the transparent secrecy, the relieved, if still strangely self-congratulatory morning embraces. But in the end there was no sleep in any of them.

Artists write about the relationship between art and illness in different ways, depending on (among other things) their own health. There is writing that wakes us up - that seizes us like a cough and leaves us bed-ridden for days, after which we emerge to a world glistening with sweat and newness. Books like this are a mini-death: an allopathy (to use a late 19th century medical term), or "other suffering", which helps us combat the disease we are by introducing a disease that we are not. We read them in order to be more awake and to feel more alive, or simply to feel less isolated by a disease that we'd thought was personal, but which is really shared (these writers suggest) by everyone.

Our age is full of great allopathic writers: lucid insomniacs like Celine and Bolano and Roth and Beckett, the uncomfortable-makers whose dreams demand that we submit to them, and which suggest that if we don't we'll wither and die of something we don't even know we have. And we need these writers, the same way that you need to be sick. NEED to, Seth - not in an exceptional way, either, but in what I would say is a deeply normal one. Because whatever health is, it is not standing still. The tepid pool breeds disease in the same way that a patient confined to a hospital bed will begin to develop bedsores, insomnia, nausea and constipation.

Books that get us moving, however, are only one half of the equation: floods are as dangerous as clots and often more so (dysentery, which growing up in Africa made me see as terrifying, was once known simply as "the flux"). So, when our bodily vacillations become too drastic, we turn to the other tradition, the homeopaths - not just the nappers, but the sleepers, the dreamers and tunnellers and divers through deep water.

What does writing like this look like, and how do we recognize it? In his essay Sleep-and-Poetry, the Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi describes a "Poetry of sleep", in which, "the connections....with the Reader are so intimate that they can share sleep with one another." So, the homeopathic writer attempts, not the famous writerly estrangement (of the brilliantly militant Shklovsky, yes, but also of many others before and after him), but the opposite: an at-home-ment, at-one-ment, (atonement?), in which the bare cave of exile gets relined with a wallpaper that not only soothes our cheeks but reminds us of a room we left a long time ago, where we were happy. Miraculously, we believe it.

Gaston Bachelard talks about something like this in his dream-manual "The Poetics of Space". Poetic images, he says, do not simply describe things for us,

"They give us back areas of being, houses in which man's certainty of being is consecrated, and we have the impression that, by living in such images as these, in images that are as stabilizing as these are, we could start a new life, a life that would be our own, that would belong to us in our very depths." (POS, p. 32)

"We have the impression that..." - and then this, I would say, is the great gift of homeopathic writing, which helps take us out of illness and into sleep, out of wine and into nap (to use counters close to both our hearts!). Is this valuable? To me, yes - more and more so the older I get, as rest becomes a rarer and rarer commodity. You don't get it in the hospital. But you have to get it. It's part of being healthy - not the only part, or even the best, but one that I think we need the most right now. At least I need it. After all, what's more untrue than the phrase "We'll sleep when we're dead"?

In reading over your post again, Seth, I found myself thinking a lot about what I want writing to do, both in me and for me. I'd like to say that every reader needs both allopathic and homeopathic types of books - but while I think this is true, I also think that many books, and writers, can be usefully placed on one or the other side of the divide. If this sounds overly simplistic to you, that's because it is; still, simple things can be helpful sometimes. You talk a lot about the difficulty you have in the amount you obsess over your illnesses - the need you seem to have to be sick. Well maybe that's just it: maybe you need to be sick to be healthy. And maybe your tiredness with illness is just a way of being sick with being sick. Allopaths live not just for, but in resistance. Take away the disease and you take away the health. Not to mention the beauty.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Saints, Sex, Hope, and a 20-sided Die


Abstain from masturbation and sex? Are you serious? I mean, how would someone with my impressive and hyperactive libido do that? We're artists, after all. We fuck anything that moves! It's in our contract! Don't be insane!

Seriously, though. For all his romantic lion-hunting, Hemingway was a pale-faced Puritan and therefore terrifically afraid of any activity that he did not have absolute control over. I understand where he was coming from, I think, though in my case, all the perfectly-wrought stories I've tried to fashion have felt less crystallized and more constipated, to pick up 7D's scatology theme (well, not pick it up: that would be gross).

In order to understand Hem's anxiety here I think it's important to imagine that he's your friend, and that he's telling you this sexual abstinence=genius plan as a friend, rather than a world-famous writer. You nod of course, because he's always been a little easy to rattle, and anyway there's no discounting the effectiveness of superstition. But when you relay the information to, say, your wife, you hear it coming out differently - especially as you watch her face, for, you see, she has encountered this kind of thing before. Won't have sex "because of his writing"? Yeah right. What she knows (and what you find yourself "knowing," too, or at least suspecting, in a way that makes the backs of your calves itch uncomfortably) is that the abstinent man abstains because he is AFRAID of sex, not because he has "overcome" it, mastered it, whatever. To pretend otherwise is to delude yourself - productively, maybe (at least, productively for a time), but in a way that must eventually be abandoned once your own private tide-pool becomes too rank.
I think your wife's right about this one - not because I agree that sex is this transcendent power capable of undermining any amount of pretty wordage, but because I think that, whatever else it is, sex is also fundamentally like any other activity, - flossing, say or icon-painting or chess - that is to say a vital human form, through which our attention moves like a man measuring the British coastline.

Bad writers - meaning writers who have no bravery, curiosity or gratitude - measure using a yardstick. They are happy with their approximate results. Better writers use a tape measure, which lets them hug closer; but the best writers are fractal and deploy words that hug the coast like wacky wall walkers descending a glass door, slowly, and with seemingly-infinite amazement. This, as St. Fwallace tells us, is a matter of commitment. A lack of assurance about which tool will work best displays an inability to see one's subject. Maybe you have to walk the entire coastline yourself, running a thin line of graphite over white cliffs and sea walls and the backs of old ladies' heads. Maybe that will take a long time and be very inconvenient to things like relationships, making a living, or your sense of who you should be. The only way to know for sure is by trying each method and then testing the results against what you can see.

My own limited experience is that this kind of commitment is scary for all the usual reasons. It makes all the usual reasons for being scared feel fresh again, freshly terrifying and freshly real. Chief among these is failure. You are going to die, and in a very literal sense, this means that your life is going to fail. I believe that, until we make the decision to explore this fact - not just in a big abstract way, but while we are lying side by side with someone whose smile has the power to *destroy* us - we will never write anything worthwhile. And no, there is no "mastering" death, or failure, or loss. There is no "coming to terms" (a hilariously business-like phrase given the unreliability of the customer here). As Eudora Welty points out, all problems, in writing and life, are singular, which means that their solutions must be the same and unrepeatable. Even the greatest trick on earth will only work once.

You brought (or rather conjured: check out those salty eye rings!) up Beckett, the patron saint of modern day literary failure. But really, isn't ours a golden age when it comes to these types of saints? Rereading and rethinking 2666 these days, I've been struck, not by its uniqueness, but by how much it shares with other novels I love. It's unfinished; but reading it, I feel like Bolano could have worked for 20 more years and still never completed his project. Its openness is part of the attraction, as is the case in The Castle, or The Man without Qualities, or Moby Dick, or Molloy, or Anna Karenina. These books contain plots the way a body contains organs, or cities contain neighborhoods. But their hidden gift to the reader is not a plot, but the capacity for plotmaking - that is, the ability to find significance in our lives and knit ourselves up into novels of meaning and passion and interest. How do we become interested, focused? By convincing ourselves that what we are doing/looking at/tasting is significant, even vital. That it connects to everything else.

It does - and here I mean this less in a fancy, faux-cynical "it's real if you believe it" sort of way way and more as someone who believes that whenever we say "there is no there there," we are lying, or at least succumbing to despair. And one thing I know is that artists cannot afford despair. Doubt, yes, failure, yes, destruction, yes. But putting pen sincerely to paper, like all true activity, is inherently hopeful, no matter what shit-assed hacks might think (and if I'm sounding like a terrible cross between Bono, Ralph Waldo Emerson and your high school football coach, you'll have to forgive me: I am what fellow recovering Dungeons and Dragons players (I know you're listening!) will recognize as Chaotic Good).

When you talk about the daily "destroying" of yourself, Seth, this is sort of how I understand it. I am not a risky person; at least, I have come over the years to see that almost every single one of my habits, be they mental or physical, is based on preservation and control. In this way, I think I am unfortunately Hem's spiritual great godson and pretty representative of writers in general. But I also know that it takes an inherently cowardly and frail individual to be brave. So I have hope. Lots of hope.

Did Hemingway have hope? I'm sure he did, at least in the great foppish bearhugging stories. But like most Americans, he couldn't take what happened when the bright world he'd seem coming towards him suddenly swerved off, leaving him alone and disappointed. At that point, I think, despair entered his writing. And so, because I know this, it is hard for me to read him now and not feel despair.

Kafka had hope too apparently. In one of his essays, the German cultural critic/hashish-connoisseur Walter Benjamin recounts a conversation between K and his friend Max "Saver of Manuscripts" Brod. Kafka rails against existence, saying that men must be dark, suicidal thoughts that have come into God's head, and our world therefore something that happened on one of the creator's off days. Brod, ever the optimist, points out that, if this is true then there must be hope, at least in other worlds. At which point Kafka smiles. "Hope?" he says. "Oh there's plenty of hope - an infinite amount even. But not for us."

These are the words of a deeply healthy man.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

I Would Like to Burn a Theme at This Forum


You're right, two years is a long time. And like a neglected lawn, apparently, old blogs can actually sprout weeds. Since we last posted, we received a slew of comments--almost all from spambots. I've just spent an hour or so deleting these comments form our old posts. Most were an illegible scramble of code and nonsense; some, though, were charmingly ridiculous. My favorite, from "Anonymous":

"Hi there! I would like to burn a theme at this forum. There is such a thing, called HYIP, or High Yield Investment Program. It reminds of ponzy-like structure, but in rare cases one may happen to meet a company that really pays up to 2% daily not on invested money, but from real profits."

So, Josh, if you do not mind, in keeping with the Eastern European theme you cultivated with your Hrabal talk, I would also like to burn a theme at this forum.

(I've been singing that quote for the past hour to the tune of "Blowing in the Wind": How many themes must we burn at this forum before we can call it a forum?)

Anyway, it's nice to be back. I had intended to work on my novel this afternoon, but keeping with another theme of the blog, I've sought diversion. Writing and not-writing. Lately, it's been hard for me to make the distinction between the two. When I'm not physically writing the novel I'm thinking about it: devising scenarios, constructing sentences in my head. I wonder if this is productive?

Hemingway, in his sometimes helpful, sometimes absurd, basic principles for writing, said: "Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it."

Good stuff? Early on, Hemingway also thought that the energy required for writing came from the same place that sexual energy came from, and so he (he said) he abstained from sex or masturbation while working on his projects.

I'm not sure.

I do know that a lot of the stuff I do besides writing--cooking healthy food, for example, or exercising--explicitly serves my writing life. I run every day because, I believe, running gives me the energy and motivation to continue writing. Without running, I can't imagine how I might sustain this energy or motivation. Of course, I might find it in the work itself, and that would be a nice thing to say, but practically, my brain and body need the fuel that good food and exercise provide. Writing, to me, is extremely bodily.

Of course, there's my soul, too. There's inspiration, which is different, I think, than energy and motivation. And what fuels my soul is sometimes oppositional to what fuels my body. I drink too much wine. I stay up all night talking. I wake up tired and hungover. My body hurts. And yet, my soul's inflamed.

I like what Hrabal says: "Not until we're totally crushed do we show what we're made of."

I spend all day getting healthy so that I might write. I spend all day destroying myself so that I might write. I wake up, and start again. This doesn't seem entirely sustainable. I need a more balanced fuel. I guess I find balance in all the other stuff that sustains me: reading, writing letters, writing blogs.

We wouldn't do this if we didn't care; if we didn't find it necessary. With or without this blog, I'm sure we've both spent plenty of time not-writing over the past two years. We tried another blog, but the forum just didn't seem to work. I never felt at home there. This forum, it seems, might be better for burning. There's energy here at Seventh Draft, even if it has been dormant for the past two years. We should tell Tommy and Alex, urge them to post, if they like.

Ever see this guy?

"All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." ~Samuel Beckett

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Size Is Not an Option

Dear Seth,

The almost two year gap separating what I hope will be this post (and not just another styrofoam cup along the modest New English interstate of my "writing life") is, I have to admit, completely unfathomable. It's like a picture of a whale shark or giant squid: I stare at it in disbelief, not horrified so much as ticked off that the blogger administrators have allowed such an obvious mistake to slip through their fingers. Time! Shout it in the dark with me. And yet here we are again, trying to figure out what happened and how the hell we got this way.

And then immediately, the thrill of writing a Seventh Draft post: like putting on an old flannel shirt, or rather the over-eager leather jacket of a man who spends hours staring at author photographs. What is it about that face? The freedom of contempt? Or a contempt of freedom? How did that person get to be who they are, and why does it seem as if they are the ones observing me - as if, in other words, the sides of the little window have been reversed, and I am the one now staring out of the red book of my life, not trapped so much as simplified, for a moment, into nose, hair, eyes, mouth?

Seth, I admit it (two admissions already, in one post!): I feel more than just vaguely stupid writing this way. I can't help it; it's my own fault; a legacy of, among other sources, my Puritan ancestors, who held onto their election by never leaving their bedrooms. I'm afraid, basically: afraid of exposing myself in a way that puts the picture I create outside of my control. The British genius/poet/Rogaine-spokesperson Geoffrey Hill (whose author photo I find no less intimidating than Rimbaud's) writes quite a bit about this dynamic - that is, about the way that writing always forces you to take those things you value most. Your ideas, for example. Your cherished constructions and sunsets and even the chameleon you found in your backyard when you were twelve--there were dozens of them back then, hundreds even: a whole ocean of miniature gentlemen exchanging jackets with one another, and the trees and grass, and then lost somewhere, until a smell somewhere between spoiled milk and rubber lead you to a small, eerily-untwitching stain behind the radiator--and then throw them into a mess of contingency, of language, where they will be changed. And rest assured, they WILL be changed: you can count on it, if only because language, being social and a shared invention as well as a private tool, is full of things that are bigger than you are.

Language! It makes you feel less big! Or if not big, then at least concentrated.

In a religious context (contexts being, as GH points out again and again, the things we step into whenever we decide to speak), this is a Fall. But as another shared passion of ours, the beer-swilling Czech levitationist Bohumil Hrabal has not just pointed out but demonstrated, in poem after poem, falling is upside-down rising, as growing is inside-out shrinking. Do you remember? And here we go, here's a perfect example of what I've been talking about, since my attempt to googlebooks Too Loud a Solitude and quote you the beautiful concluding passage, in which, I seem to remember, although it is perfectly possible (wonderful, utterly-mysterious phrase) that I have done what all us imperfect memories must do with our favorite passages, and written it myself, within the loose ruins of a building that would look completely different were I to go back and actually reconstruct it. Do you remember when Hanta the dumpster-diving hero links the memory of a gypsy girl lying beneath him in bed to a home-made kite rising in the sky, rising and falling combining in a single juxtaposition, so that the entire book is transformed (or revealed) in an instant, into a sort of hourglass that you can watch run out and then flip over, and then do it all again?

The problem is that when I actually do look up the book, I discover I am thinking, not Hrabal's book, but a completely unrelated one by the Polish science fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, called The Futurological Congress.

Defeat - though isn't I Served the King of England on my bookshelf, only feet away, and wouldn't a single sentence serve to prove my point just as well? The phrase "single sentence" being, let's be honest, completely inadequate to describe the immense, always generous Scoobie-Snacks that Hrabal delivers on page after page?

Such as (and here, I swear, I am just opening the book and picking at random):

"And I talked in a jumbled way about how beauty had another side to it, about how this beautiful countryside, like a round loaf of bread, was all related to whether you could love even what was unpleasant and abandoned, whether you could love the landscape during all those hours and days and weeks when it rained, when it got dark early, when you sat by the stove and thought it was ten at night while it was really only half-past six, when you started talking to yourself, speaking to the horse, the dog, the cat, and the goat, but best of all to yourself, silently at first - as though showing a movie, letting images from the past flicker through your memory - and then out loud, as I had done, asking yourself questions, inquiring of yourself, interrogating yourself, wanting to know the most secret things about yourself, accusing yourself as if you were a public prosecutor and then defending yourself, and so arriving, in this back-and-forth way, at the meaning of your life." (ISTKOF, p. 128)

Oh italics, even your typographical intensity is no good when it comes to beauty like this! Pack up your bags. The war is over. Your mother is dead and your sweetheart married or marrying another, who will make her exactly as happy and unhappy as you did, though in completely different ways.

Except, of course, that if writing could be condensed into a single purpose or idea, right now, it would be, for me, "Nothing is over".

In other words, nothing is perfect, nothing is finished or done. You can pack a lot of failure, disappointment, and pain into two years; then again, you can find more than a splattering of exuberant, scalp-peeling joy, not to mention the deep happiness of good sofas, coffee, and sleep. Time doesn't care about the ratio of one quantity to the other. Quite the opposite, actually: the care in the world is something WE put there, despite time; something which we will someday take with us when we leave.

One more misreading/mishearing to close (or not close, since the unique thing about blogs, to my mind, is that, in a way that is most obviously not not only literal, they are never totally closed). In keeping with 7D's love affair with Swedish folk singers, I am listening at the moment to The Tallest Man on Earth. In a beautiful ballad ("Kids on the Run," off his new CD, The Wild Hunt), he sings "Oh meet me when I lost my part in the choir of dusk" (pure Springsteen here, only early Bruce, the one we have forgotten: "Growing Up" and piano ballads and sweated-through headbands). Except that what I hear is: "Oh meet me when I lost my part in the choir of doves". Is there a difference between these lines? I wonder. Either way, I like calls to come together, break bread, talk the talk. If they involved the dissolution of choirs, so be it. Failure is hard enough.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Dark Boquet of Doubt


Gabriel García Marquez was once asked, "Does a blank piece of paper distress you as it does other writers?"

"Yes," he answered, "It's the most distressing thing I know next to claustrophobia."

I agree with García Marquez, although the terms of my distress are distinctive. Garcia Marquez sees a blank page and possibly envisions himself trapped underwater, in an iron box; when I see a blank page I envision myself standing on the minuscule summit of a mountain peak, looking out. I'm standing on my toes, and of course, I'm naked. I have no idea how I got here, no idea how I'll get down. When I look out, I see a voluminous wall of glacial white. When I look down, I see an enormous abyss, looming under my feet.

"When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you," writes Nietzsche.

This is the blank page: the abyss that looks into you.

So I stand there, looking in, being looked in. I consider my options.

I consider leaping over the abyss. (But what if I miss the other side?)

Then I consider building a bridge across the abyss. (But what if the structure of the bridge fails?)

So I peer over the ledge. Every now and then I call out some name, a few nonsense words. The words come back to me, disembodied, like intonations from a distant, unknown twin, peering from the bottom of the abyss, and calling up. Suddenly, I want to meet this man, this alluring dopplegänger. So, finally, I jump.

Of course, if you're a writer, sooner or later you jump--you jump everyday, sometimes numerous times a day. It's scary (What the fuck is down there?) You're utterly full of doubt (What if my parachute fails?!) And you're alone out there (The only echo you hear is yourself.) So it's natural to question this situation, to doubt.

But still, you jump...

It's a long fall, fraught with the silence of swift air. You engage your chute.

You hit land.

Suddenly, you're standing again, high on a dune. There above you is the blue sky, in which two or three clouds, patterned by some crafty god to look like seashells, drift. Intoxicated by the scene, you raise you hands high and exhale deeply. A light breeze amuses your skin.

You survived! The freedom is so fresh you feel utterly overjoyed.

You're so overjoyed, in fact, you fail to see the enormous abyss, looming under your feet.


In his biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Andrew Turnbull notes that before beginning The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald re-read Joseph Conrad's preface to Nigger of the Narcissus which states that a work of art should carry its own justification in each line. Then, while writing his novel, Fitzgerald kept his ambition clear: he wanted to create, line by line, a work of art. In doing so, he later wrote, he "tread slowly & carefully at times in considerable distress."

I've been working on a novel and I must admit: I've been experiencing considerable distress. I'd like to think I am making a conscious effort, like Fitzgerald, to produce, line by line, a work of "art." But this is not my ambition. In fact, my ambition seems to oppose Fitzgerald's ambition entirely: I simply want to finish the novel, quickly.


Gabriel García Márquez speaks similarly of Fitzgerald's type distress: "At the beginning, when I was learning my craft," he says, "I wrote jubilantly, almost irresponsibly. I remember, in those days, I could easily write four, five, even ten pages of a book after I'd finished work on the newspaper...Once, I wrote a whole short-story at a single sitting…Now I'm lucky if I write a good paragraph in a whole day. With the passage of time the act of writing has become very painful."

So, is writing inherently distressful? Or, is this a burden that comes only with age, with experience? I admit, for me, writing is often quite distressful. I plod, from sentence to sentence, torturing myself over each word. And yet, still, I am doubtful.

Then there are those rare moments, those titanic instances, when I feel inhabited by the muse, utterly overwhelmed and inspired. Then, I literally gush words. I am confident!


I'm a whimsical, moody guy. I change, day to day. Carried along by my changing moods, I feel exhilarated one day, mopey the next. For example: I sit down on Friday, start writing a story. I'm full of confidence. I'm certain the story will be published. It's my best yet.

Saturday morning, I wake up, hung-over, and read my story. Suddenly I see the truth: It's actually terrible! It will never be published. I'm full of uncertainty.

What do I do?

I like what Uncle Deano says (in a letter he wrote me when I was 21):

"Allow yourself to be uncertain but don't let your uncertainty turn to despair because it can be wonderful to write when you're sad and full of the dark bouquet of doubt, but misery lends itself to silence and one must get out of bed every morning and prepare for the great celebration of one's own imagination, even if it doesn't happen that day."

So I sit down, full of doubt, and write.


I suppose this is just a ridiculously convoluted way to get to this point: You have to just sit down, full of doubt, and write. Everyday.

This is the only thing you can do. You write. You write, with wild ambition; without undue expectation. This is what writers do, obviously.

And each of us is all alone on the edge, looking down, with only one parachute: me, you, Fitzgerald,
García Marquez, Uncle Deano.

Everyone feels doubt: everyone.

I think you need to make a distinction, though.

When you're on that ledge, feeling doubtful, the doubt is something, isn't it? It's a beginning. It's a challenge. Maybe you
need that doubt. After all, certainty is for the mathematician; the technician. But writers just might need uncertainty in order to work. To me, at least, writing's not fun unless it's something to figure out, a way of figuring out something. I think you'd agree. Nobody wants to write the story already written (except, of course, Pierre Menard.)

To me, doubt is a sort of wonderful, weird fuel. I suspect it's what skydivers call adrenaline. And it's pretty much what makes every single thing in life interesting.

(Will Federer beat Nadal in the Wimbledon final? Will I like Wall-E?)

The distinction you might need to make, then, is between doubt and despair.

Do you want to write? Do you believe in writing, as a life? Do you sense the celebration, looming?
Sky-diving, after all, is fun. It's risky, too. It's not fun, though, if you're sure you're going to die each time you jump. Odds are, that won't happen.

So, if you don't like these odds, why are you standing at the edge, looking over?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Josh Bares Heart, Soul in Response to Seth's Callous Critique


Like a cartoon octopus at a singalong Disney barn raising, your post simultaneously hits a number of nails squarely, and impressively, on the head. Again, I am amazed at how transparent writing is, especially unsuccessful writing. So often I try to hide behind what I'm doing - images, mirrors, devices - but in the end it's all laid out there on the page, waiting for a perceptive passerby to pick it up and be like, "Wait, this isn't a quarter...?"

Nail 1: My inability to have fun while writing. Yes, this is the heart of the debilitation and something that makes me want to run to some reservation where I can sit under a smoke-filled canvas until suffocation forces me to claw my way back into the panther-colored night. The question, then, is how to bring the joy back, and I take your point about the eighty page story seriously because I think it's right on target. For a long time I've been bucking the story form (as I, barely, understand it) in the interests of being original - but by doing this, I realize, I'm forced to rely, as you say, on my talent only. It's like I've got this beautiful, incredibly comfortable sock, but for some reason I spend all my time trying to amputate the foot it should be going on. I'm at sea, in other words, which is one of the reasons, I think, that the language of these pieces feels so disconnected and straining. There's no repose in them, because they don't know what they are and therefore can't settle into themselves. They haven't got a story to fall back on.

(sub-nail 1A: Why can't I write a story? Why do I fear writing stories? Lately, I've come to realize that it has a lot to do with my fear of failure - that is, of "falling" into the normalcy that using a shared form (let alone medium) entails. In other words, instead of solving the problems that everybody's got to solve, I want to find a stretch of beach with no one on it, where I can just fuck around to my heart's content. Which is probably why so much of this shit feels like just that: fucking around. Plus, you've got the idiotic reversal of beginning with the desire to be different, as opposed to beginning with a legitimate difference and then expressing that, via the shared form of the story, in a way so true to your experience that the end construction can't help but be unique.)

Nail 2: Blog/emails vs. "Writing." I think this may be a more mundane, process-type question than it at first appears. In both the blog and emails, I have a goal, an "objective", something I want to communicate. For example, right now, I'm thinking, I want to respond to Seth's comments, and while responding, I want to use the English language as a way to think through what my actual response is (this is, I think, a weirdness of my you might share, or might not: I literally CANNOT THINK about a story outside of when I'm actually writing it. It's like the story doesn't exist outside of the words in which it's written). The solidity of a goal makes it pretty easy to write - it gives me a poise and balance (between making my point and having fun with the writing itself) that is much difficult for me to achieve in an actual story. In a story, I can never tell what's necessary and what's not. When I try to be shapely, I end up underwriting, and when I try to elaborate, the fabric becomes slack and fetid. You say you spend hours, days on sentences, and I do too - but then the sentences I spend hours and days on inevitably end up feeling stupid and overwrought: like when you're talking to someone about basketball and he suddenly starts referencing the Nichomachian Ethics. I mean, it could very well pertain, but there's a breach of manners - manners here meaning, not just surface courtesy, but the deep fabric of people communicating. Something throws the whole conversation out of whack, and the guy's embarrassed, not necessarily because he tried something different, but because he tried something different and then allowed it to sit there, out of context.

Nail 3: Fear of the mundane. This is very true, and I wonder if, again, I'm not just trying to make prose do something it's not supposed to do: exist as language before it exists dramatically. As D'Ambrosio says, poetry is inspiration, but prose is work. You've got to sweat it out. But I fear sweat as a sign of my own imperfection as a writer and human being. You know what it is? I want to be Mozart. And I'm not Mozart, and I realize that, but even realizing that, I find myself secretly wanting to believe that I'm secretly secretly Mozart, and that all the demands that art makes on me are really just affronts to my genius, and what Writing should really be doing is bowing before me, its lord and master. Immature, right? A sure fire way to never write anything worthwhile. Ever. Unless you're Mozart. Which I'm not. But I could be. No, I couldn't. It's so fucking WASP/Puritan/Calvinist, Seth: I recognize the lineaments of my sick and wasted ancestors in each of my sentences, their faces and anxieties. The desire to be a member of the Elect, which used to mean God's Children, but now means An Artist - proven by faith, though, rather than actual work. Ugh. It's embarrassing, sometimes, how persistently I seem to be trying to destroy myself as a writer.

But, there's always hope... After all, this is what we're all going through, right? One thing that Warren Wilson has convinced me of is that, though we each have our variation, the spectacle of another writer's struggle to become something real is valuable, maybe even heartening. And yes, one thing the Puritans got right is that life really is an allegory. My story (I have the arrogance to believe) is your story in the same way that my fork is your fork, or my car is your car.

Anyway, I wanted to answer your generosity with generosity, and I will. I've been trying to decide how to take on your story. Before I got to that, though, I had to try to communicate all this to you, because I was really pleased and happy that you took the time to read my stuff and give me comments on it. As I've said before I think, I admire and envy your joy. If we're similar in general, we're certainly different species, and it's bracing and important for me to get your point of view on this stuff. I certainly think we should keep swapping stuff.

Anyway, 'nuff said for now. Let me know if any of this hits home, resonates, works for you. Again, for all my obsession with my version, what I really want and need to hear is your version.

And then I took a shit...