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...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Seth Reads Josh's Novel and Responds in Shock


Turns out, I just went through your novel draft in a traditional way, lightly editing in places, leaving comments. I didn't want to mess with the language too much because it's really what I love about your writing. That said, read my comments about precision and superfluity--perhaps they'll resonate. Basically, I think your rich language could be made even richer by excising some of the extras you throw in, here and there. For example, you use "that" a lot, and it doesn't always seem to be needed.

How long do you work on a sentence? In my recent story (not the one I sent you) I'd say I've given each sentence at least an hour's worth of thinking. Some of your sentences seem so carefully wrought; but then, in some places, I feel like you're drifting by on talent. It's obvious to me: you are much, much more talented than me. BUT: I think there is a but! The but is that I enjoy writing, a lot. This is a major plus. From your blog, from our correspondence, I assume writing is more tortuous for you, less fun. Why? Can it be fun? It seems like you have a blast writing Seventh Draft stuff. And e-mails. So what's different about the stories?

Actually, I think I have a sense of why you're complaining of writer's block, having gone through something similar a few years ago. I could be way, way, way off base, but perhaps it's in the work itself, the fact that you're setting up a tremendous, daunting project and that you're worried about sustaining your rigor.

Your "novel" is not really that; it's basically, a series of vignettes, loosely tied together by the presence of the narrator's voice. A few things seem to happen, but there's no sincere connections, yet. I wrote eighty pages of a novel once; something somewhat similar. Near the 80th page I found myself thinking, What the fuck am I doing? I'm not even telling any sort of story at all! Sustaining this tremendous, loose sort of prose-poetry is impossibly hard. It's just daunting. Why don't you figure out a story? Go back, edit, cut whatever you need to--make a story!

My suggestion:

Think about how your sentences work in the piece, how each sentence might deliver a reader into the scene, but also represent what’s going on in the story. Think about how a sentence might also contribute a larger meaning to the story; it should echo previous incidents; it should illuminate. I’ve been thinking about this idea in terms of the mundane: how a writer might offer a very simple, but needed expository sentence, while also contributing something else to a story, something larger. You seem to shy away from the mundane. Your sentences are all relatively spectacular. I can't recall any mundane sentences. Sometimes, to make a story, you need to write "And then I took a shit".

Anyway. Phew! Hope these comments spark something for you...


Thursday, January 31, 2008



Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary defines jealousy as:

"Suspicion of a wife’s purity, one of the strongest passions (Num. 5:14; Prov. 6:34; Cant. 8:6); also an intense interest for another’s honour or prosperity (Ps. 79:5; 1 Cor. 10:22; Zech. 1:14)."

Incidentally, the same dictionary defines the waters of jealousy as:

"Water which the suspected wife was required to drink, so that the result might prove her guilt or innocence (Num. 5:12-17, 27). We have no record of this form of trial having been actually resorted to."

No record? Of course. Why use water when "the result" could be more quickly obtained with blood. But what, I wonder, was "the result"? Easton's doesn't tell us and I for one am glad. This absence inspires me. I envision levitation, vomiting, cursing.


Nowadays I think we have a more reasonable (at least less gender specific, and clearly less misogynist) view of jealously. Wikipedia says simply:

"Jealousy typically refers to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that occur when a person believes a valued relationship is being threatened by a rival."

I prefer this modern, friend-focused version of jealousy and all that it implies: backstabbing, fist-fights, hot tears!

Both definitions, though, have one thing in common: betrayal.

The jealousy you're talking about, I think, really, is a jealousy over yourself. You're jealous of that young kid, back there, full or promise, so happy with the accomplishments of others, so un-disgusted with himself. He's betrayed you. You write:

"Of the many things I wish I could tell my younger self, the danger of jealousy is one of the most difficult to part with. I am sure there was a time when I felt that I was who I was - there must have been a time like that...But now I feel like there's no way out of certain things: self-disgust, for example; also shame, a sense of failed promise. Does this mean that I'm growing up finally?"

Perhaps your younger self, the one who betrayed you, wishes too that he could tell you many things, such as: Is that you there, sitting on the sidelines, scratching your elbows? Are you still doing that? No wonder you're disgusted! I thought growing up means growing out too...

Of course, growing up probably doesn't mean that. From what I know of growing up--which is, admittedly, not much--growing up probably means growing down, growing in--learning, somehow, to feel comfortable in your own skin, your own soul.


I had a Korean friend named, let's say J. After high-school we grew distant. Then one day, out of the blue, I wrote him an e-mail:

"I've known you for a long time and have been your friend for a long time, but I have always felt that you were never really "open" with me or anyone about how you were feeling. For example, you always used to seem to downplay the fact that you're Korean; even when we asked you to speak Korean you never did. Back then, and still to this day, I feel like a lot of the time when we speak you try to impress me with certain things, like your salary for example. It seems to me that you were always having a hard time finding your place, especially as the only Korean in the group, and perhaps you did these things to compensate for what you felt you were lacking, which in reality, WAS NOTHING.

You have always been kind, intelligent, and fun to hang out with, and I have always considered you a friend, but NOW, as we grow into adulthood I would like to be friends with you, without the added bullshit. I want to understand every part of you. Hell, I don't even care if I have to learn Korean! I always have wanted to know that part of you. But you never gave it up."

Of course, this e-mail came to J. as a shock. He wrote back a long, intense e-mail (probably the longest thing he had ever written or ever will write) basically laying it out on the line, speaking of an illuminating trip to Korea, and how, back in the states he would go to Korean bars and feel incredibly out of place, how he was now trying, trying, trying, to figure out who he was, but it was hard, so very hard. And he told me he was a bit jealous--jealous of the ease with which I walked through life, my white guy in America-ease, my popular-guy ease.


It's strange then, to me, that you write about your jealousy over Asians who were younger, smarter, and better at what you do best. Of course, most of the Asians I've known (in school mostly) have been younger, smarter, and better at what I want to do best. (I remember, specifically, two Korean girls in my ceramics class: there disturbing, exquisite talent created the most beautiful ceramics figures I have ever seen, all the more beautiful when placed near my blobs. Ceramics: one of two classes I've failed. The other one: gym.) But I can't help but think of Asians in America divorced from my impression of J. and his struggles: feeling a bit alienated, unsure of his culture, perhaps even embarrassed.

But who am I to question J. really? Who am I to demand: show yourself!

This is an easy demand, perhaps, when you speak from my viewpoint: White guy in America.

Am I so thickheaded?


Is it so easy for me though? Probably, yes. But I'm certainly not dominant. Just because I'm the majority doesn't mean I feel major. Often, I feel very minor, a tiny universe to my own, utterly different, so idiosyncratic, so in need of my strange rules, my necessities: my insulin, my three-square meals, my Noni-juice.

I don't always like to show this odd part of myself, but who am I supposed to be, if not this weirdo?

I think what we share, something that's basic, is how much the sense of betrayal really influences us. We don't feel right when we don't feel like ourselves. We feel like we've betrayed something essential and were jealous for what we could be.

For J. the situation, living in America, divorced from his heritage, only accentuates the struggle: Who the fuck am I?

But the question itself might be ridiculous. How do you answer that question, after all? Probably, you just live. I think this is what I mean by "growing in" instead of out. It seems like it has to be easy, but sometimes it's hard. I think it's hard, maybe, because we spend so much time thinking about growing into something, becoming something--a good husband, an adult. But maybe it's as easy as Not Thinking--instead of becoming, maybe just being.

But what do I know: I flunked ceramics.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

No Matter How Good You Are, There Will Always Be an Asian Man Who Is Younger, Smarter, And Better Than You At What You Do Best

Frequently, that man will be your best friend.


The history of my life is in many ways a history of the Asian friends who have been better than me at what I do best. I'm not sure how far back records go, but beyond the border of my birth-picture I'm pretty sure there's a Japanese boy eating his foot.


"Watch out!" I want to yell at my baby-self. I want to warn him to pay no attention to what is happening one dish over.


There is so much to say in these situations! For example, I want to say, in second grade you will befriend Shunsuki Eno. His house is covered in blue shag; there is a Yamaha organ with an ungodly number of sound presets in one corner of it. The bench is so tall that your feet barely reach the ground - but this is appropriate since Shun himself is at least twice as good a piano player as you. He does not look at his fingers while he plays.


In addition to the organ Shun will have a Nintendo. But it's a strange Nintendo: smaller, with bright, pastel-colored games that cause him to whack disdainfully at the controller. None of its games will work on your console.


At one point you will decide to design your own video game; so you will sit on a wall drawing the slime from Legend of Zelda until your mom comes to pick you up. Shunsuki will let you keep his drawings.


Later, Thomas Aquino will own that rare thing: a Sega Genesis. You will never get to play it. You will never want to play it: you will prefer watching him play, cross-legged on one of his tessellated floor pillows, lunging through Strider, hacking apart Golden Axe, or manipulating the gigantic four-dimensional quilt of Sonic the Hedgehog. You will watch him play these games with your heart in my stomach - you will want him to win so badly! And when he does win, you will feel a warm feeling spreading through your body like pee or the seat-heater on your family's Volvo. Even when you're outside - even when Tom's mother kicks you off the Genesis, and you go outside and tie firecrackers to small lizards, you will continue to feel this.


You will be, according to your sixth grade science teacher, "fiercely competitive." And this will be a terrible and exhilarating feeling at the same time - one that you will savor for years, that makes you more unhappy than any other friend, girl, or even parent. At this point, finally, you will begin to beware your Asian friend.


The Asian friend of your youth will occasionally be Jewish. Don't let this fool you.


He will be an only child; or he will have a sister who he worships.


Tri Vinh Van, location currently unknown. Of all the Asian friends, he will be the most mysterious. A gentle man whose generosity is at times princely, at times merely Canadian. The first one to broach, unabashedly, the Insolubility of White People. The borders of his life will be bizarre, even dangerous-sounding, but he will maintain a clear and untroubled brow. When you drop out of touch with him you will begin to doubt that he ever existed.


Boxers, Hockey Players. They will gravitate to sports and video games, both of which they will beat you at. They will be dogged and quick and above all else hungry for love and attention. They will have pity on you, but this pity will be tainted by your weakness, which will disgust them. Weakness: one of the few things that you will learn without hesitation to call your own.


There will be problem areas. Girls, for example: the time Dewi Dynoot puts paper-clips in your hair. You thought you were just playing around and in doing so proved yourself part of the Insolubility of White People. In this way you will betray, again and again, your Asian friends. They will repay you in kind through their excellence at what you do best, or by stealing girls from you. You will repay them through your excellence at what they do best.


What will it take for you to understand the serious of this? The older you get, the less you will know. Conversely, your Asian friends will get younger, more talented. They will succeed where you failed.


At which point you will have to discover their secret.


You will have to find out how to use this feeling or be destroyed. On the other hand, if you are not destroyed, you will owe one more thing to your Asian Friend.


Of the many things I wish I could tell my younger self, the danger of jealousy is one of the most difficult to part with. I am sure there was a time when I felt that I was who I was - there must have been a time like that. I remember it as if it were this morning, before some long nap I fell into. But now I feel like there's no way out of certain things: self-disgust, for example; also shame, a sense of failed promise. Does this mean that I'm growing up finally? I am convinced it must be, that I'm not alone.

How can I possibly be alone?


On the other hand, I am pretty sure that Shun would never allow himself to be this way.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Anti-Castration Epic


Writing as life seems like one of the main currents of Seventh Draft, and frankly I can't see anything more writerly than putting your all into a MySpace comment. Sure, we're all addicted to the opus - but good is good and the stank of quality rises no matter how small the stain.

I think of it in terms of energy. You've got X amount of energy and you want to make something with it - want to bend the world and feel its kiss or disgusted slap or whatever. You do this because you're inadequate, a Castrato of moon-mash, too awake for an animal but otherwise powerful sleepy. So you doodle in your margins or write notes that no one will ever find. You lavish attention on the world the way you would lavish your hand on the back of a particularly lustrous golden retriever: because hair is soft and your hand can feel it.

The no "good" reason part is why art is heroic. I mean, I'm all for taking your shot at the title, writing a three-thousand page epic on the tobacco industry or rhyming enough couplets to get you into Guinness, but that's not really the point, is it? That's the world's work, and though art is always of the world, it needs to possess multiple dimensions to be real. It needs to have velocity, to be shooting off in all directions - to be shooting especially into those dark spaces and unborn minds that whose existence it can't even begin, at the moment, to imagine. Because it can't imagine them, it has to be as generous.

Art has no good reason and needs none. It's gratuitous, unnecessary - but if performed sincerely, it manages one of the most amazing inversions of existence and ends up being the most vital and useful thing in our toolbelt. Trusting in its utility doesn't have to be a faith thing, either. Think about how many beds you wouldn't have been able to get out of if it wasn't for Anna's squint. Or how you might not have been able to look yourself in the mirror if it hadn't been for Jens Lekman singing to his hairdresser,

"Your hands are soft.
Your hands are soft, just like silk.
You're a drop of blood.
You're a drop of blood in my glass of milk."

Words like these do more than just suffuse my life with romance - they shape my thoughts, give me a pattern to run myself through. They give off sparks that seem inexhaustible to me, and I know they have real effects in the real world. For one thing, they have made me prick my finger so that I could see exactly what a drop of blood in a glass of milk looks like. I think I know the girl he's talking about.

Art is art, writing is writing, and passion/emotion well-arranged will deliver itself, no matter what. Fuck the consta-poo-poo of masterwork and genre and follow delight, perversity, what ever you want to call it like a bird-dog. Because at this very moment, whether you like it or not, you are writing your life.