Category Archives: Writing

Dévastation Garanti

.

Ecstatic.

Wrung-out.

Longing for more.

This is how you feel when you shuffle-float your way out of Blue Is the Warmest Color – suffused with a little of that warmth but a little afraid that the world outside is a little colder and a little grayer than the one you’re leaving behind.

It’s one of those rare movies that you find yourself shaking your head over for days afterwards, wondering about, wishing you could somehow get back to. Its protagonists are so well acted and so irresistible that it strikes you as one of life’s great disappointments that you’ll never meet them, never have them over for dinner, never run into them on the street and a grab a spontaneous cup of coffee.

I usually only feel this way about characters in novels, and only the very best of them at that – Eva Sanderson, Sissy Hankshaw, Edna Pontellier, Anna Karenina – but Adèle is that magnetic, and Blue is that grand. Not that epic (at least as AK) but definitely that grand.

Heroine lineup

The compensation for not being able to take Adèle home with us (besides the fact that she doesn’t throw herself under a train, thank god) is that we got to see her at all. That, as A.O. Scott puts it, “For a while, her life is [ours].”

À la Tennyson, it’s better to have been with Adèle for a few hours in a movie and lost her than never to have had her at all.

Blue Is the Warmest Color might not change my life in any momentous way, but it’s certainly had an effect the last few days, and I imagine that Adèle and her relationship with Emma and with life will continue to surface from time to time, as with the best of my literary heroines, and make me grateful for the fact that despite terrorists and the Tea Party, we still live in a world where such beautiful characters are made.

Part of the reason you love Adèle so much is because you see so much of her.

I don’t mean that crassly, though there is enough skin in the movie to justify such an assumption. Yet, in addition to her emotional breadth and depth, I do intend a physical, visceral meaning of “so much of her.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/movies/the-trouble-with-blue-is-the-warmest-color.html

Pic: NYTimes

We see Adèle in almost every shot of the film, and even when she’s not doing anything there’s a potency to her. Whether she’s waiting on a park bench or riding the bus or watching her kindergarten students nap, she communicates a stirring vibrancy. Every one of her pauses is pregnant. The shots of her sleeping, and there are quite a few, are extreme closeups of her feet, her hips, her neck, her lips. She’s positioned athletically, as if caught mid-motion, and she’s breathing heavily, almost snoring, her mouth agape, drool all but dribbling out. Point being, Adèle doesn’t simply rest at night. Sleeping for her is an activity, evidenced in another way by her dreams – vivid as anything else in the picture, and as real to her as she is to us.

And if there’s that much vitality when’s she’s not doing anything, you can imagine how much energy she brings to what she does. She’s an unapologetic gourmand and the gusto with which she eats is often on display, especially early in the film, and leaks over into everything else. She smokes and writes and drinks and laughs and dances and reads and cries with an urgency that transcends the desperation of her teenage years and early twenties, and you find yourself wanting desperately to be a part of it, highs and lows, triumph and heartache alike.

The rough storyline: Adèle, a junior in high school when we first meet her, is trying to navigate the world of her blossoming sexuality and her deeply romantic character. She tries with boys and it doesn’t fit, so she throws her lot in with Emma, a grad student in painting at the Beaux Arts. Laughter and love and sex and soul-bearing and betrayal and tears and snot and pain ensue.

The intensity of Adèle’s engagement with life creates in the half-dozen or so years we’re with her some extraordinary moments of contentedness and connectedness and bliss. It’s also, of course, her undoing. The specifics of this I won’t get into, though by the time you’re halfway in you’re pretty sure what’s going to happen, and you immediately start praying it won’t. I will say, though, that the yes-we’re-really-done-for-good scene was the most heartbreaking I’ve ever seen.

Hell, it was more heartbreaking than all but one of my own real-life yes-we’re-really-done-for-good scenes (which, luckily, really wasn’t).

Since superlatives seem to be the rule in Blue, the scene in which Adèle’s school friends try to shame and taunt her into outing herself at a public bus stop after they witness one casual encounter between Adèle and Emma is the best approximation I’ve seen of the rage, shame, frustration and fear such a situation must entail. I’m not gay and nothing like that has ever happened to me, so maybe I’m off the mark, but it was devastating.

Which is probably the phrase I’d make the sub-subtitle of the movie, if it were up to me: Devastation guaranteed.

There are a ton of other things to talk about in the movie: the class implications, the representation of art and artists, the sexual politics (is it self-conscious or is it prurient male fantasy?), whether it can transcend its NC-17 rating (it deserves to), that bullying/outing scene, and most interestingly, original author Julie Maroh’s reaction to the whole thing. 

I’m not that worked up about the sex itself – the scenes were long, they were intense, they could break through anyone’s hungover Puritan prudeness or world-weary coolness (well, anyone but NYC film critics, of course) – but it was only part of the whole emotional banquet that director Abdellatif Kechiche lays out for us. And that – the experience of being briefly but wholly integrated into a fully conceived world – was the most interesting part of the movie for me. Adèle Exarchopoulos, who played Adèle, said in an interview, “We [Léa Seydoux, who played Emma] had to show how making love to someone is visceral. We had to convey how much of yourself you give over,” and they did that, in the meta- sense of imbuing the fictional story with their own real-life courage and trust in one another, as actresses.

What’s more, whose sexual politics are pure and correct and unburdened by the myriad issues and hangups of modern society and our own irrational desires and fantasies? We don’t write off Anna Karenina, or Anna Karenina, because Anna and Tolstoy had questionable morals and worldviews. Instead, we love Anna because she dared to love and live her life in ways that most of us aren’t capable of, precisely because she didn’t care about the strictures that society and/or anyone else tried to put on her passions.

Devastation is commensurate with the bliss it succeeds.

We all know this to some degree or other, and we live our lives accordingly. The vast majority of us hedge our bets, sacrificing what we assume or suspect or even downright know will be blissful for fear of the devastation that may come of it. Anna Karenina wasn’t willing to bridle her passions or curb her excesses, which actions amount to the willingness to risk their cost ahead of time, without knowing or caring what those costs may be.

We love Adèle because she dares to do the same.

And I aspire to demonstrate half her courage.

Anyway, look at the preview, and then tell me you don’t want to see it.

If you have seen it, what’d you think?

If not, go! and then come back and tell me.

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You can take the boy out of the skepticism…

“What happens when a hesitant Buddhist of little faith and great doubt joins an eminent guru and a group of devotees on a pilgrimage to the holiest sites in Buddhism?”

DoubtStrip

Such was the first line of a pitch letter I wrote to an American Buddhist magazine about a month before leaving for India and Nepal. I got a cautiously encouraging reply – “Send it along,” an editor said, “but I should tell you that we don’t usually publish unsolicited personal accounts.”

That was two years ago. I never did send anything along, because I could never finish any of the now several versions that are scattered about my desk and hard drive in various stages of assembly and disrepair. There was no shortage of things to say about the pilgrimage, but I could never find a satisfying ending to any of the tracks I started down.

Reason being, I had no idea what happened over there in northern India. I still don’t.

In fact, I’m not sure anything happened at all.

Which I thought for a while could be a story in and of itself, though I didn’t know for whom. Probably not the magazine I’d originally queried, for while many of their stories describe staggering, radical shifts in perspective, they still want things to land back on a certain affirmation that “Buddhism” – an established lineage is best, but even some New Age/”spiritual” derivative thereof will work – is the ultimate destination of existential wanderings and crises of faith.

I didn’t spell it out in the original pitch letter (I knew better than to sound too earnest-gee-willikers), but it was just this kind of internal alignment that I was hoping for. Multiple moments of transcendence culminating in a fundamental shift in consciousness that answered my questions, resolved my doubts and banished my hesitancy.

I know, I know – expectations schmeckschmeckschmations. But I felt too green and too unsure to approach the pilgrimage as an “aimless” devotional exercise, as pure homage.

I went hoping to bolster my faith, and that didn’t happen.

Instead, it was simply a great trip. A fascinating trip. A beautiful, educational, laughter-filled trip.

The endless Gangetic Plain, with its patchwork of agriculture fields and hardwood forests and fruit trees, was as moving a sight as I saw. Houses built to Stone Age specs with a pit latrine out back, no running water and buffalo patties drying on their sides sported satellite dishes and wi-fi antennae. I watched funeral pyres consume corpse after corpse one night down the ghats in Varanasi, and then, five hours later, rowed past men going for their morning swim as I headed out to see the sunrise from the river. I rode along a precariously-cliffed and pencil-thin highway into the foothills of the world’s tallest mountains (in what was apparently a gravity-defying omnibus). I sat in caves where men have lived, been enlightened (and not), and died meditating for five millennia. I could fill a week’s worth of blog posts raving about the food I ate – the momos, the thukpa, the curries, the samosas, the fruit, the fruit, the fruit.

IndiaStrip

But as for the holy sites themselves, I was underwhelmed. And not just by the juxtaposition of the largest assemblage of the most pathetic, pitiful examples of malnutrition, poverty and sickness you have ever seen with silk-robed monks and camera-wielding tourists, myself included, seeking Serenity and Inner Peace at a cost that could radically transform the lives of a good portion of the former. (That, like the food, is another few posts altogether.) And I don’t mean the ordinariness of the ruins, either – I can find ghosts in a parking lot, and these sites, with their overgrown decay and exotic surroundings, are certainly conducive to summoning specters. Don’t get me wrong – it was nice enough to be in Deer Park where Siddhartha first “turned the wheel of  the Dharma,” to see a descendant of the Bodhi tree under which he realized all that Dharma, to take in the views from Vulture Peak where he talked about the emptiness of all that Dharma. But I did not feel anything approaching the kind of inspiration I was hoping for – and that some on our trip were quite obviously and vocally experiencing.

SiteStrip

Above all, it was my traveling companions that interested me the most. The Estonian developers who recalled Soviet food shortages and the long lines for bread, the Peruvian’s last ditch effort to find love before getting her to a nunnery, the surveilled Chinese who slipped his “documentarian” minders for a night on the town in Western gear (pearl snaps and cowboy boots, no shit), the Salinger-worthy German…triad?…family?, the Russian merchant marine, the Swedish ex-con. I was equally fascinated by the life stories of our Tibetan monk guides – the humble meditation master, the vainglorious steward, the reluctant tulku, the gregarious, obsequious, aloof, worldly, kind, naive, austere and elfin others. What brought them to Buddhism was interesting (what it did for them less so – and, surprisingly at first, we rarely talked about it), but more than anything I wanted to know about their lives, about their routines and their foibles and their loved ones and what they were reading and where they liked to go in the fall, on winter mornings, on the first day of spring.

This should have been a clue, right, that I’m still more interested in people than in imagined states of mind. But it didn’t sink in right away.

The thing is, I’m a Western, post-Christian secular humanist (that’s less a label than a string of adjectives), and while some of the time I want to give into the magical thinking that dominates our cultural ethos – because hey, who doesn’t love a good fairy tale, and it’s the easy way out of a lot of tricky situations – I’m consciously against the kind of fantasticality that has precipitated both the endless cycles of fad New Age spirituality and 2,000+ years of self-serving interpretations of our mythical Judeo-Christian-Muslim heritage.

And the problem is, Buddhism is built on the same thing. Exceedingly ritualistic Tibetan Buddhism especially, but every lineage to some extent relies on a dogmatic origin story replete with mystical and magical beings, goings-on, reincarnations and transmissions. (Don’t let’s get started on karma this week…)

When it’s first explained to you – really, until you go looking into it for yourself – it’s easy to believe the American dismissal that Buddhism is “more a philosophy than a religion.” I thought so for many years, and I thought it was a philosophy with benefits – the kind I was getting from/supporting with the metaphysics and pseudo-philosophy of Tim Leary and Terence McKenna.

That is, I was looking for a trip.

I was seeking out a mystical experience without, as a teenager, the perspective to know that a) it was along the same spectrum of what I found so objectionable in the J-C-M model, and b) mysticism is not an end in and of itself.

I chased that Truth-Through-Altered-States model for about a decade, until there was only alteration, and decidedly little insight. In the wake of all that, I’ve redoubled my commitment to a kind of applied humanism. Rediscovered it, would perhaps be a better way to say it, for it’s the one idea that makes sense to me, that, to borrow a phrase, arises spontaneously both during meditation and throughout the day.

My ability to relate to other people is the sole metric by which I measure the state of my soul.

It’s easy to get seduced by magical thinking, and it happens to me all the time. I mean, it spurred a trip halfway across the globe. I wouldn’t trade having taken that trip for any exotic luxurious tropical vacation in the world (though I might trade a second trip to northern India for any of those), but nonetheless, that’s a big spur. But when push comes to shove, I don’t have the stomach for it. No matter how I try, or what I try, when it comes to the ritual and the theogony and the cosmology of dogmatic Buddhist lineages, and the process of advancing along their (Middle, yes, but also strict and narrow) Path, I can never seem to shake the wariness, to suspend that last ounce of disbelief necessary to really believe in, say, the Pure Land. Some say I’m simply unwilling to give up my “intellectualism,” that my “skeptical pride” stands between me and truth/true freedom, that my refusal to accept magical interpretations of the universe is simply another regrettable, nefarious manifestation of ego.

Perhaps it is, I don’t know. And I never will – and “there,” as sayeth the Dane, “is the rub.”

However, I do know that I no longer believe in the intrinsic value of mystical experiences. I know people have them, and I think they can be useful, but they’re simply phenomena and it’s what we do in their wake that imbues them with meaning.

In the same way, I don’t eschew ritual, or even prayer. I think they’re important aspects of any discipline. I just have a different idea of how they function than the standard “religious” line. That I try to look at Buddhism – the practice of a set of meditative techniques and the application of a certain philosophy of life and mind described by a man called Siddhartha – through a distinctly humanistic lens strikes many people as an arrogant and convenient adaptation of something far wiser and greater than I, that really I have no business monkeying with. And hey, maybe – but that’s the privilege and prerogative of the convert, now isn’t it?

Pic:  Theoi Greek Mythologygreat site, btw

Pic: Theoi Greek Mythology
great site, btw

What I get out of meditating and lopping off the various Hydra heads of my ego is an increased ability to communicate, to interact, to participate in The Web of Life. That’s part of the reason I can’t go in for a seven-hour meditation session of tantric commingling with a wrathful yidam. I mean, if that’s important to you, go ahead. But what happens when I do it, is I disappear into myself. It’s wholly narcissistic. My teachers would say I’m doing it wrong, or more likely that I still have too much karmic baggage and am yet mired in too much confusion to engage in such involved practices. Whatever the explanation, I get wrapped up in how cool it is that I’m able to transport myself to some other mind-dimension, and I lose sight of the goal, the reason, the purpose of the practice.

Which is training this deluded mind and opening up this hard hard heart. Or UN-training the mind, if you believe that the essence of mind is pure and that it is the experiences we blindly carry out before living intentionally and in a state of awareness that do the initial, decades-long, lifelong training, which is in confusion.

And to do that, I need to make sorties into the enemy territory of my ego. Quick, precision strikes that get me back into the real world before my ego catches on to what I’m up to and sends in the quicksand. Twenty minutes a day on the cushion is just right these days – give me too much more than half an hour inside my own mind, and I’ll start redecorating the place. With DayGlo paint.

Amongst the living and the real, I can see whether or not what I’m doing has any effect on or in reality. Because ultimately, that’s my aim – to affect reality. To contribute positively to the lived experience of others. Some days – most days – that may mean not affecting things very much at all. Which laissez-faire-itude, if you’re an egomaniac like I am, can require serious amounts of self-control. The honing of which in turn demands a disciplined practice. Which brings us back to sitting. Purposefully. And living intentionally.

Neither of which necessitates magic.

A lot of the conviction that’s on display here comes, I wouldn’t say directly out of the pilgrimage I made two years ago, but certainly by way of it. Which is the ironic thing about it, right? I went to the holiest sites in the Buddhist religion under the assumption that doing so would strengthen my faith, deepen my appreciation for a certain ontology and clear away some of the obstacles I was facing to a better understanding of myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It turns out that’s exactly what happened, just not at all in the way I wanted or expected. Which goes to show that what I think I want, or what I want at a certain point, isn’t always what I need.

Which makes it sound like the answer to that question way back there at the top is a line from a Stones song.

Which I’m perfectly okay with. 

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Better Than A Haymarket Riot

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haymarket_affair“Another Labor Day post?” you wonder.

“Why’s it so late?” you ask.

Being as I wasn’t working on Monday, you’d think I could’ve gotten it together to write a few hundred words about the work I wasn’t doing, right?

Well, I had better things to do.

That’s not to disparage this blog or your reading of it, by any means, because I like this blog, and I love that people read it. After ten months and a couple dozen posts, to have a bunch of people “following” At The Wellhead and writing back via comments and emails is pretty rad.

But, it’s not my first love. My first love is Erin (awwww, I know, I know, but she really is) and yeah, I spent a lot of Labor Day lounging around with her, which in and of itself is always a treat. It’s extra nice these days because we don’t actually get that much time together. Some of you know how that is – Erin’s a management consultant, so she travels all the time, and when she is home, I’m writing, she’s yogaing, I’m running, she’s taking care of all the bs you can’t take care of from the road, we’re both housekeeping and we’re planning a wedding together. (And messing with the cats, of course.) We’re also fortunate enough to have a ton of really good friends that we love spending weekends with, together and separate, here in the Valley and up in Ventura and down in LA and all over god’s green amuhrica, really, so a ton of our time is taken up doing that.

E.g., I’ll see Erin for a few hours one Sunday evening between now and September 19th. So kickin it when we can is très important.

As most of you know, my second love, and the one I was laboring over on Monday, is writing fiction. As I’ve written about before (and here, too), writing’s a labor of love that’s much heavier on the labor part than the love. Or it’s more like a slow-burn, high-elevation, macro-type love, as opposed to pure-joy-every-minute type love, and it requires a LOT of labor.

MurakamiRunningBook(Though at the same time I don’t mean to overstate how “hard” it is – even ultra-marathon-running Haruki Murakami says that writing is physically challenging, but I’ve never understood that. But I also haven’t written eight hours a day for nine months to start and finish a novel, so what do I really know? If you’re interested in this idea, you should read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Great book on running and writing – on doing anything that requires discipline and the long view, actually.)

Anyway, as often happens after I spend large chunks of time writing several days in a row, I was wondering while setting my alarm Monday night what the hell I’m doing with my life in this job.

It’s a day job. I like it well enough, I work with good people, it’s relatively interesting, and it affords me plenty of time to write. Well, more time than a lot of the jobs my college friends and ambitious peers have, but it’s not even really enough, let alone “plenty.”

I was wondering at what point what we spend most of our time doing becomes what we’re really doing. I insist that writing isn’t a hobby, but that’s because it sounds and feels reductionist to call it a hobby, like building model airplanes or collecting stamps (though true philatelists would take serious umbrage at that comparison). Luckily, society has deemed writing an art, and elevated it to the status of a higher pursuit that many human civilizations for the past 5,000+ years have considered sacred to varying degrees – a conduit to the divine, even – so I feel relatively comfortable saying it’s more important than my day job.

http://www.allartclassic.com/pictures_zoom.php?p_number=25&p=&number=CAM025

Yep, this is pretty much how seriously I take myself.
Pic: AllArtClassic.com

This even though my job is practical in the extreme – we make sure water comes out of faucets in 10,000 homes and is sprayed on 2,000+ acres of some of the most fertile ag land in California (nbd). And, it’s my only source of income, which is important because we live in a money-based world (to employ a technical term).

Most of the people I work with didn’t go to college. Burdened with neither debt nor this weirdly destabilizing and neuroticizing ambition, they’re pretty content in their jobs and the various hobbies they have outside work – lots of fishermen, lots of hunters, dirt-bikers, RVers, campers, gamblers, barbequers, movie buffs, cigar aficionados, concertgoers, a couple musicians. And they just do what they do because they like doing it and don’t worry too much about the implications of their actions or their “sociopolitical non-action” or whether or not they’re making or leaving their mark.

icebergDon’t get me wrong – they’re not simpletons or noble savages. They have their shit to deal with, and their interests are wide and their understandings of the world deep and some of them are dedicated to a lot of things outside of work, but to a certain degree, they’re parking in the shade. It’s a pretty cush gig – at least, not a whole lotta what you call whip-cracking. Plenty of people would love to have this job, and most everyone here is to proud to, and most of them are grateful for it, “especially in this economy” and all that. So it seems kind of reductionist of me to say, “Meh, it’s just my day job, whatever, it’s not even a big deal.” That’s where my self-confidence and goals (daydreams) and discontent tip into arrogance. And I find myself there quite often.

On the other end of the spectrum, a handful of my friends are self-employed, either they own businesses or they’re freelancers of various sorts. These men and women definitely did not take Labor Day off. One of the (few) blogs I read regularly is Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside. In her Labor Day post, she talks about the various forms of work and how many Americans hate their jobs and what a shame that is and what the costs and benefits (which are often the same thing) are of eschewing that kind of job, job-type job for a career you’re really devoted to. Much of Broadside deals with, as Caitlin put it Monday, “how to make our work-lives both more emotionally satisfying and financially useful to our needs.” I really like that concept of “financially useful” – it sums up nicely the idea that we need to work to live, rather than living to work.

It also reminds me of what a mentor of mine says whenever I carp to him about my day job:

“That’s why they call it work.”

So few people want to do what I do on a day to day basis that they have to pay me money to do it. I have to remember this when I start to bitch and moan how “everyone else’s job is so much more interesting than mine.” A) that’s probably not true, and B) who gives a shit if it is? I’m not getting paid to be interested. I’m getting paid to do excel sheets and edit documents and determine the feasibility of this or that project. And until I’m ready to do the footwork to find myself a job that’s interesting “enough” to really devote myself to (what would that be anyway?), or unless the creative work I’m doing now somehow against all odds “pays off” in one form or another, this is my reality.

And no, my dear and sundry consciences-in-the-flesh that are shaking their collective heads at this and tsking, you’re right – it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad reality to have.

Pretty much any “job,” is like this to some extent, I imagine. As fascinating as my dad finds the human body, as rewarding as it is to figure out what’s wrong with people and help them get better, he probably wouldn’t be a doctor if they didn’t pay him. And maybe that’s the ultimate difference – a hobby, or a passion, or what you define yourself by is maybe the stuff you do that no one pays you to do. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be paid for that thing, what you would do whether someone paid you or not.

Another of my mentors, this one in the water industry, does all kinds of stuff on the side – he’s as overeducated as I am, he’s a poet, a multi-instrument musician, a super-involved father, an opera-follower, a reader, a philosopher, the list goes on – but he still loves what he does at work. It’s like one big word problem that he’s spent a couple decades figuring out. What we do isn’t that different, except for the scale of things, but if you were to ask the two of us to describe our jobs, you’d think his was about a million.5 times more interesting than mine. And that’s simply a result of a very conscious decision he made a long time ago: to apply himself to the job.

I know that my not having made that full dedication is (in addition to a distaste for word problems) part of my lifelong attitude of transience, this idea that whatever I’m doing isn’t the real thing and that the next thing, or the thing after that, will be. (No, that’s nothing to do with the Buddhist idea of impermanence, if that’s where you thought I was going.) If I move to that country, or get this job, or start doing that, or get this published, or hang out with these kinds of people, or get to that level of understanding, or if this star aligns with that one over there, then I’ll be locked in to where I’m supposed to be and things’ll really start happening and then I can be fully into it. This self-perpetuating discontent seems to be part of my DNA it’s so hard to get rid of.

Well, Chuck, a guy's gotta eat.

Well, Chuck, a guy’s gotta eat.

But I’m trying. In every other aspect of my life I do my best to live in the moment, to make what I’m doing, “what I’m doing.” And I think I’m getting better. It certainly relieves a lot of pressure. But I haven’t applied this to work.

And I’m not sure I want to.

Part of me has this thing against the principle of a 9-5, this Hunter S. Thompson (thanks Jessa!) (btw, N*O is the other blog I read and you should read it, too), Charles Bukowksi antipathy to “the work week” as belonging to squares and robots and peons. But that’s putting the cart before the horse, really. Because we all have to earn our bread, and until we can do it outside the confines of a 9-5, well, why shit so hard on it?

It’s not just outsiders and artists who are down on the work week. Shitting on the 40-hour work-week is about as American as the 40-hour work-week itself. That Four-Minute-Hour-Day-Everything guy, Timothy Ferriss (whose ancestors bought too many vowels at Ellis Island), and his ilk all present the work week and “employment” in general as this limiting factor, as something to break out of, as if your full potential cannot possibly be realized within the confines of someone else’s system.

And I fully buy into that. But is it true? I don’t know. (What’s “true,” anyway, right?)

What I do know is that meaning is a choice. I wonder how many of the 70% of Americans who don’t like their jobs have other interests that give their lives lots of meaning. A lot of you probably saw this “Haters Gonna HateWaPo article last week – it was all over facebook. It basically said that people that hate one thing are super likely to hate basically everything. Following that logic, 70% of Americans are haters. Which seems about right, between facebook and the comments on articles and the items in the news and the things politicians say and the way people respond to them. So, I’m gonna go ahead and guess that most of that 70% of people who hate their jobs aren’t spending exorbitant amounts of time or energy developing meaning in other areas of their lives. (Besides family, of course, which kinda only half-counts because that’s biological n shit.)

SteinbeckSocialismI have to imagine this results in part from a very American sense of entitlement. We’re taught that self-employment is the key to happiness, or at least that it’s the full embodiment of the American ideal, and that it’ll bring us riches and a sense of self-sufficiency unrivaled by the drudgery and servitude of working for someone else. One of the more nefariously defeating Myths of America is that everyone can and should make his own way to greatness in the world, when really that’s just simply not possible, for a panoply of reasons we all know by now (right? Right).

If haters really are gonna hate, and, obversely, lovers are gonna love, and if despite our natural (or nurtured) predisposition to hating or loving we can learn to do the other, then it’d seem to follow that we should go ahead and train ourselves to love – or at least like or appreciate or apply ourselves to – something we spend 25% – 30% of our waking hours doing.

If the conscious application of this reasoning to all other aspects of my life over the last few years is any indication, then all those aspects of my life would probably benefit – too, again, more – from me going ahead and giving 100% to my job. Or at least something more than the 17% – 47% or whatever % it is I’m giving now.

If you can’t be in a job you’d love, honey, love the job you’re in.

That’s CSN, LLC, in case you were wondering.

I’ll leave you with this famous bit from Seamus Heaney‘s long poem, “From Station Island,” in remembrance of his recent passing. You might’ve seen it.*

And suddenly he hit a litter basket

With his stick, saying, ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you must do must be done on your own

So get back in harness. The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

.

And that, friends, is your (few days after) Labor Day takeaway.

http://thegazette.com/2013/08/30/iowa-city-mourns-acclaimed-poet-seamus-heaney/

Pic: Iowa City Gazette, oddly enough.

*Hat-tip LB

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Abandon All Hope

This post was born out of a response to Scott P. Carroll’s blog, Thoughkryme.  Check it out.

Thanks, but…

For the last year that I’ve been submitting stories for publication, I’ve looked at (the growing mountain of) rejection letters as proof positive that after a decade+ of talking BS, I’m actually doing the deal. I write something and send it out, they send it back, I send it somewhere else. Then I write something else. “So,” a wise man once wrote, “it goes.”

I’ve set high bars for disappointment (24 rejections per story before I’m allowed to fret), which has helped, and I do my best to put the various slush piles out of my mind as soon as I submit.

But I got a slew of rejections this past week, and there’s no denying, in the upwell of hope at seeing “Slice Magazine” in my inbox or an SASE in my mailbox, that I’ve been living in expectation and even, I’ll admit, a bit of fantasy.

I don’t mope about the “Unfortunately…” or “However…”, and I do take comfort that they aren’t employment rejections. I was out of work for a lot of 2009-2010 and it. is. horrible., so by comparison, what’s being rejected of mine is an indulgence.

But, it’s also what I want to be doing.

I’m in love with a good story and the truths a good story can tell – about an author, about a character, about life in general – and I write my own stories because I want to see if I can pull that off, if I can make something worth falling in love with.

At the same time, I don’t think I could write in a vacuum. I’m not that Emily Dickinsonian – part of me thinks that part of pulling it off is how many people are pulling it off the shelf.

I write what they call “literary fiction.” All that really means is that it doesn’t fit neatly into a genre – sci-fi, crime, romance, etc. There’s an ongoing and contentious debate over genre fiction vs. literary fiction, how the former is mere formulaic entertainment and the latter pretentious navel-gazing elitism, that the former gives audiences what they want and the latter is True Art that attracts audiences, and what that all means for writers and readers and literature and writing and blah blah blah. It’s all relative and not all that interesting.

It’s not as if Shakespeare and Dickens and Hemingway never catered to an audience. Those were different audiences, ones that appreciated a higher degree of art in their entertainment maybe than is appreciated today, but it was still just people looking for entertainment.

Anyone publishing regularly in magazines from WWI through the ’70s was making real money — by writing the kinds of stories that would sell. Fitzgerald was part of the 1% in his day, and sold single stories to the New YorkerHarpers, etc., for the modern equivalent of $10k, $20k, even $50,000, but was always hoping to get off the hamster-story-wheel and just go write what he really wanted to write. And because Hemingway was the progenitor of the kind of modernist writing that’s still successful and held up as the sine qua non of American storytelling, we sometimes forget that it was considered at the time less “literary,” influenced as it was by his journalism and influential as it was on pulp and dime.

PapaVSzombie

Be that as it may, nowadays genre audiences are the bigger audiences, and the money’s in genre fiction. Zombies, sex, and crime-fighting sell much better than do meditations on the infinite by neurotic, idiosyncratic characters.

In fact, hardly anyone writing strictly literary fiction makes a living doing it. Even Toni Morrison and Russell Banks, who’ve won awards galore and had their books turned into movies, still teach. Even Philip Roth – Philip fucking Roth – taught most of his life. And now he’s retired from everything. And thinks that within 25 years, novel reading of any kind will be “cultish.” More good news, thanks Phil.

A mentor/friend of mine is telling me all the time, “Stop writing that stuff no one reads and write a few crime novels. Then you can do whatever you want.” There is something to be said for this, of course. Cormac McCarthy started out writing his own kinds of work – Outer Dark, Child of God, Blood Meridian – that earned him much critical acclaim but a relatively small following and very little money. Then he wrote The Border Trilogy, a set of western romances that included All The Pretty Horses, and he exploded, and they put Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz in the movie, and he got even bigger, and now that he’s back to writing the macabre and weighty stuff he started out writing, it has an audience. You think those studios ever would have made and paid for No Country for Old Men or The Road without All the Pretty Horses? Even though they’re much better books? No way.

Because why not have a picture of Penélope Cruz on your blog?

Because why not have a picture of Penélope here? It worked for McCarthy.
From: fanpop.com

But, it takes me long enough to write the stories I’m currently writing, between working full time and living a halfway-social life, and it’s not as if there’s any kind of a guarantee that if I write Westerns I’ll get published – “Ah, Prichard! Horses At High Noon, huh? Finally! We’ve been waiting for you to come around here’s your check and meet your driver and there’s the key to your Upper West Side pied-à-terre!

Besides, it’s not as if it’s so easy to just go write a Western. Like Mark Axelrod told the agent who thirty years ago slapped a Bond book on the table as an example of what Mark should be writing,

“If I could write Fleming, I wouldn’t need you.”

What it comes down to is waiting, pure and simple. And working while you wait, of course, but most important for me is having the patience to wait while I’m working. I take issue with Malcolm Gladwell’s reductionism, but I think the 10,000-hours-to-master-something rule has its utility. For a guy like me, whom intrinsic literary genius obviously evades, it’s a reminder that the only path to better is practice – a whole hell of a lot of practice.

Luckily, I know that

grueling, incessant work = success

From David Collard's blog, Salvēte!

Swimming is a Beckettian endeavor: so brutal you have to laugh not to drown in your own tears.
From David Collard’s blog, Salvēte!

I know it’s not always strictly true, but as a distance swimmer, you internalize this concept to a profound degree. Swim practice wasn’t “fun,” and neither is the act of writing – the part where you “sit at your typewriter and bleed.”  But those long, hard, pre-dawn and post-dusk hours when others are in bed or laughing or relaxing, and you’re do something harder than they are, whether it’s in the pool or wherever within you that your artistic crucible resides — those hours do something to you, and for you. They’re a process, and it’s process that makes us who we are. Being a distance swimmer was about 0.05% the handful of miles I swam in meets throughout the year, and 99.95% the endless miles I swam in practice.

Same with writing – pages published comprise only a minuscule part of the work that went into making them – not only the story or book itself, but the “trunk manuscripts,” too, as Beckett called them, the horrible scribblings that should stay in at the bottom of a trunk forever.

That Beckett was ever bad is easy to forget when all you want is to be good and to be good now. But impatience breeds either freneticism or procrastination – neither of which contributes to anything positive – and staying on top of that requires work.

Thus the mantra:

I will never make a living writing.

It may sound pessimistic, but really it’s about humility instead of egoism, about realism instead of fantasy, about not putting the money-and-accolades-cart before the workhorse, about knowing my role instead of assuming I’m entitled to things that I don’t deserve (like that Alexander Maksik novel).

What’s that? Is there a Buddhist tie-in for all this, you ask?

Why, yes there is.

“Abandon any hope of fruition” is a lojong slogan, one of the Seven Points of Training the Mind. About it, Trungpa say:

…you should give up any possibilities of becoming the greatest person in the world…

…otherwise, you could become an egomaniac.

In other words, it is too early for you to collect disciples.

That is, no one’s going to read my stuff, let alone love it, until it’s worth reading and loving. And I should forget the fantasy that I’ve already earned an audience by thinking of a story, and remember that it’s some unpaid intern reader slogging through the slush pile that’s determining my fate.

My buddy Dave takes "A pastime is its own reward" to a whole new level.

My buddy Dave’s garage. Epitomizing the idea that 
“A pastime is its own reward.”

The tie-in to real life – your life – anyone-who’s-not-a-writer’s life – is that this holds true for everything.

E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

If it’s a passion, just go do the shit out of it. Practice finding out what it can make of you, not how it can make you look. Don’t tell me about how good you are at your job, or how much money you made last year, or who’s looking at your stuff, or what kind of car you drive (you know don’t care about that action), or how great your kid is, or what place you got in your triathlon. Nobody cares! Just do your thing, and do it well, and when it comes up of its own accord, what people will care about is what it’s done for you and what it’s made of you.

Because if you’re constantly talking about something, then you’re always in the fruition – the realization of a project, the fulfillment of a plan, the end of something. I get it – there’s so much pressure in our society to be accomplished, to have succeeded, to have success. To get and live in the payoff. But who really wants to be in the end of anything? What are you doing then, besides just sitting around?

Abandoning all hope of getting anything out of what you’re doing keeps you in the doing and out of the end.

But wait – if you’re always conscious of having to consciously abandon hope in order to achieve that hope, then are you really abandoning it? Is there some guy in the sky with a clipboard waiting for you to officially abandon hope so he can tick your Has Abandoned Hope check box and get the Fates to start weaving up your accomplishments?

Of course not. It’s not causal. It’s just a tactic, one part of the strategy to

get yourself out of the way.

Practicing humility along the way – a side-effect of telling yourself you’ll never amount to anything – helps develop gratitude when (if) something does happen instead of that sense of entitlement or getting what was coming to you.

Anyway, I’m wrapping this up.

Don’t hope.

Do work.

Be a badass.

The end.

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On Creativity

Earlier this week, I was honored to be featured on TreeHouse, An Exhibition of the Arts, a web site put together by my friends Erin Whittinghill and Natasha Ganes.

TreeHouseLogoSquare

Click on the logo or right here to read it on their site, or to just check the site out in general, which you should, because it’s awesome.

Or you can stay here, because I’m I’m also re-posting my TreeHouse guest post here, for my email subscribers and so it can filter down into the aquifer/archive. And cuz I’ve been busy and don’t have a new post. And you know, so you don’t miss it.

~

On Creativity

We’re driving through Hollywood when a friend asks me,

“Where do you get your ideas for stories?”

pic from Goodbye Melbourne, Hello New York

pic from Nat Ma’s rad photo blog, Goodbye Melbourne, Hello New York

His phone rings before I can answer, and while he talks, I look around. We’re headed home from a vintage LA evening: sunset dinner atop a Venice hotel, an improv variety show at the Fringe Festival, a nightcap at a French Quarter-looking joint, a dip in the Roosevelt Hotel pool. It’s past midnight and Hollywood Blvd is packed with cars. The line for the Supper Club stretches halfway down the block and it’s packed, too, with bare-backed broads shivering atop their stilettos and fat men in skinny jeans oohing and ogling. Creeping up La Brea to Franklin, I slalom concertgoers wheeling coolers down the middle of the street as they spill out of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Bowl, laughin and carryin on. A homeless man argues with the parking attendant in front of the Magic Castle. When we finally get to the 101, three cars are backing up the onramp. A shirtless man is standing on the railing of the Pilgrimage Bridge.

Finally, my friend hangs up. “So, about those story ideas,” he says, and I tell him I had about twenty while he was on the phone.

MrMiyagiThis is hardly unique – even to writers, let alone to just me. I think we all make assumptions all day long about where people come from and how we’d act in situations we come across. An image presents itself, and a backstory unfurls behind it. Most of us just immediately let them go. Most of the time, I do. But every once in a while, I pluck an image-packet out of the ether as it whizzes by, like Mr. Miyagi with his chopsticks, and write it down.

If I let it ferment for a while, the general framework takes care of itself and I can write it all out like I’m transcribing something I know. This part – the setup – is sheer fun. And it gets me writing, which is the only way I know how to come up with the rest of the story. What it’s really about. Because a story’s not really about what happens where. (Except it kind of is.)

In the stories I like to read, and the ones I try to write, there’s some ineffable something else in addition to plot and theme and setting and character – not a moral or a point or any kind of distillate you can separate out from the other elements and say this is what this story’s about, but something that, well, gets at the heart of things.

I rarely know what that ineffable something is before I write it. Or, discover it by writing, I should say. Even if the image I first glimpsed is the resolution, by the time the story’s done, it doesn’t carry the weight or meaning I initially thought it would.

Only once has a story come roaring out fully formed. For several years, I thought it was brilliant, and I tried to duplicate that process of starting with the “conclusion,” of describing the whole jigsaw puzzle just as it first appeared, of manufacturing impact. But I never had that experience again, and what’s more, I can finally see that actually, that story is predictable, pedantic, unimaginative, and cliché.

Technically speaking, all impact is manufactured. But ineffable somethings feel less conscious than that. They feel stumbled upon or written into. Uncovered, if I may.

Crushed-Stella-Artois-can-001By way of example: I heard a story on NPR last fall about a handful of people who were going to jail for a very long time for defrauding the State of California by redeeming recycling deposits on cans and bottles they collected out of state. It was irresistible, but I had to carry it around for eight months before I could figure out how to use it. Because a story about the fraud ring would be journalism, and that’d already been done. (Besides, I couldn’t be bothered with all those…facts.)

One day, I saw this great big woman in a pink sweat suit standing at a crosswalk, lighting a cigarette. On the opposite corner was a skinny priest in short sleeves, an older guy with a pretty hip haircut (this is LA, after all), polishing his Ray Bans. Looking back and forth between them, I knew I had a way in.

But still – the cans, these characters, this one strange moment…it was enough to get going, but it wasn’t anything to hang an ineffable something’s hat on. Things went here, things went there, and before I knew it, I was up to 25,000 words. I thought for a moment I’d turn it into a novella, but the vast majority of it was superfluous to the real turning point of the story – which only emerged around word 23,000, as an insight into one of the first paragraphs I wrote. Now, at 8,000 words, the fraud ring’s incidental to the main action of the story, but it’s also intrinsic to the main thrust. I couldn’t simply swap it out for cocaine runners or hedge fund managers or used car salesmen. That’s the thing with ineffable somethings – they transcend the story, but couldn’t exist without it.

Whatever ineffable somethings are made of, I’d never have any of them if I didn’t go through the process of building a story up and then whittling it down, saying, this tangled mess is where I think the story is, and then paring things away to find the kernel.

SprucesMatsAlmlof

Photo: Mats Almlöf for National Geographic 2010 photo contest

And that paring away is where the creativity required by writing overlaps with the creativity required by life; discovering what makes a story tick is the same process of discovering what makes me tick. They’re both about removing obstacles to get at something I don’t understand but that I know is right. That ineffable something near the center of things, in life as in fiction, is always already there, waiting to be brought out into the open. There’s always a thrill when I discover it, sometimes even surprise, but it’s the shock of recognizing something that was there all along.

Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and a lot of the “shit” I have to revise out of drafts isn’t just superfluities of my own devising, but also – and more importantly – attempts to sound like someone else. It’s only when I can manage to get past my ideas of what kind of writer I want to be, when I can stop trying to manufacture impact by imitating Papa or O’Connor or Bukowski or Gogol or Winton or Porter, and just try to write sentences that sound true, that the ineffable somethings happen.

PrichardInfluencesThat Papaism applies to life, too, for – at the risk of sounding trite – life itself is a process of constant revision. I certainly didn’t come out polished and blemish-free, as those who’ve had to put up with me know only too well, and all these conceptions and notions I have about myself constantly prove to be only flimsy veneers over…something else. If I try to manage my personality or “craft my image,” I come across as inauthentic, feel horrible about it, and act accordingly (that is, hostile). And then that interpersonal magic that we live for – that real-life ineffable something – becomes an impossibility.

There’s a music inside each of us that’s often drowned out by the cacophony of bullshit muzak we’re sold as models of what our real lives should be.

For me, that muzak-model is a Jack London Jack Kerouac Johnny Cash Tim Armstrong fuck-you aesthetic, mixed with a David Foster Wallace David Rakoff Christopher Hitchens edgy intellectualism, and topped off with a Tom Robbins Tom McGuane irreverent joviality.

Seriously, that’s who I think I should be.

To combat this self-propelled onslaught of ludicrous and impossibly-attainable images, I rededicate myself every day to trying to lead a life, on and off the page, that’s a process of picking out the strains that ring true and leaving behind the rest. You want a Bukowski story? I can write you a Bukowski story, believe me. Hell, I can write you a Bukowski story by three o’clock this afternoon. But I’m not Bukowski, so it’d be bullshit.

You want a Prichard story, well, that might take a little while. I gotta find it first.

strataSince we’re getting close to the end, let me try to sum up: creativity is about paring away the layers upon layers of superficial nonsense we pile on over the years, discovering what you-and-you-alone harbor in the hidden recesses where your undiluted magic resides, and making do with what is found there.

It’s creative because it’s new, it’s original and unique, and you’re exposing it to these old-old things – language, pictures, drums, design, whatever your thing is – and throwing that mass up against the newness and nowness of culture and society.

It’s scary, because we’re taught to look elsewhere for meaning and value and worth, that what’s inside is bland at best and probably corrosive.

It’ll cost you – a little torture, probably, maybe some vertigo – to go rooting around in your depths.

But I promise you, the trip down is worth the cost.

It’s exactly as rewarding as you can possibly imagine.

~

Where do you get your creativity from?

What things stand in your way?

How do you get over/past/through them?

OasisNatGeo

Photo: Nam In Geun for National Geographic 2010 photo contest

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The Perseverance of Memory

What do a sea snail and a scratch awl have in common?

Aplysia

Not much, you wouldn’t think. But, as Reb Arye-Leib would say, “You’ll find out if you listen.”

I wrote about Eric Kandel the other day in that post on spontaneity, and I’ve been thinking about him since. The thing that Kandel did to so capture my imagination was establish a neurobiological understanding of how the brain creates memory.

He did his primary research on Alypsia, that fancy-looking sea snail slug right up there. It has the simplest brain and the biggest neurons around, and he basically stuck electrodes into the neurons, poked the snail to make it ink, and recorded what happened. (I mean, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’ll leave the experimental details to him.)

InSearchOfMemoryBut the stuff about the snail isn’t (for me) the most interesting part of In Search of Memory. It was Kandel’s search for one of his own memories – his dedication to that search, and the weight that memory has – that was so compelling.

Little Eric Kandel grew up in Vienna in the 1930s. His dad owned a toy shop, and one day in late 1938, he brought nine-year-old Eric this little blue, mechanical car. Dr. Kandel remembers playing with it after dinner, zooming around under the dinner table on his knees. And it’s this – the blue car, the underside of the table – that was imprinted on his memory like a stamp. For while he was playing with that brand new car his father had brought him, there came first the sound of boots outside the door, and then of fists upon it. And then his dad was taken away.

Kristallnacht came a few days later, and a few days after that, Eric and his brother were on their long and winding way to Brooklyn.

The Kandels were spared the worst, and were all reunited in the US. But that instant with the car crystallized in Dr. Kandel’s mind, and became a locus of identity, a connection to other people, a symbol of his homeland and childhood and identity and history and the way the world works. It became something of a lens through which everything he did and experienced was filtered. He struggled to accommodate it and not hate it and not have it define him. He worried about everything that it meant — but he never had to worry about forgetting it, and its persistence became a puzzle. Not the why of it – that’s easy enough to figure out – but the how.

The how drove him through medical school and graduate school and years of research, all the way to the Nobel Prize in 2000. That image fueled his life’s work.

Which segues us into another casualty of that historical era who was interested in the persistence of memory: Bruno Schulz.

SchulzSelfie

The official Schulz web site.

I mean “casualty” literally: a Nazi officer shot him, in a tit-for-tat killing, in the back while he walked home from the baker’s with a loaf under his arm. Up until that murder, Schulz spent much of his artistic effort teasing out the metaphysical implications of certain childhood memories. Or not so much memories, per se, as images that, as he put it, he “acquired” in childhood: a horse-drawn carriage racing through the moonlit snow; his father’s enema tube looped on its hook in the bathroom; the baskets of fruits and vegetables his family’s maid, Adele, would carry on her arm as she returned home from the market. Throughout his teens and twenties and thirties and forties, before he was murdered at age 50, Schulz went over and over and over these images, in pencil drawings, in charcoal, in oils, and in fiction.

In a public letter to his friend S.I. Witkiewicz, Schulz wrote, “I don’t know how we manage to acquire certain images in childhood that carry decisive meanings for us. They function like those threads in the solution around which the significance of the world crystallizes for us.”

SchulzCarriage

This links to a great Schulz art site.

He went on to say, in one of the better descriptions I’ve seen of the motivation to write – or paint or sculpt or compose or whatever – that, “Such images amount to an agenda, establish an iron capital of the spirit, proffered to us very early in the form of forebodings and half-conscious experiences. It seems to me that all the rest of one’s life is spent interpreting these insights, breaking them down to the last fragment of meaning we can master…[Artists] do not discover anything new after that, they only learn how to understand better and better the secret entrusted to them at the outset; their creative effort goes into an unending exegesis.”

I love in particular the idea that the truth contained within certain memories is a “secret,” and that we’re entrusted these secrets in childhood. The whole thing gives this treasure-hunt mystery, this Pan’s Labyrinth feel to existence. And how nice is that? Why not cultivate a little bit of mystery? Especially those of us who weren’t raised in the church, or have grown tired of someone else’s centuries-old mysteries, or are overly logical and rational. Life’s complicated enough and impossible to figure out anyway, so why not think of it as a little bit magical, too?

InSearchOfLostTime

All six of these books are In Search of Lost Time.
All six.

The example par excellence, the author and work this post would be remiss not to mention, is Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time.

In case you hear Proust’s name and feel like maybe you should know what people are talking about but don’t, and don’t want to ask, but absolutely don’t want to read a book full of four-page sentences (seriously) to find out, here’s what you need to know about Proust’s book: when he was a kid, Proust – or his avatar – would visit his sick aunt, and she would share her madeleines, which she dipped in her tea, with him. It’s the memory of this as an adult, or more precisely the shock of the memory and the subsequent desire to tease out the ways in which his childhood prepared him for that memory and the ways in which that memory and innumerable others influenced the rest of his life, that impels the adult Proust/Proust-avatar to write his opus.

Here’s the famous passage:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

It goes on like that pretty much forever.

Now, to the scratch awl.

ScratchAwlOne thing any seven year old knows is that one thing these things are really good for is throwing into the dirt.

I don’t know if I did this regularly, or just did it once, but I remember holding that long slender pointed piece of steel in my hand and flinging it end over end to get it to stick straight up out of the grassy backyard ground. I don’t remember, however, putting it back after my final toss.

I don’t remember, because I didn’t.

Which is why I do remember the lecture I got from my dad the next day upon his discovery of the awl’s faded-blue-paint handle poking up out of the grass.

I also remember – very distinctly – the look on his face when I told him I hadn’t done it. That confused and questioning look. Not confused about who then could possibly be the culprit, but confused as to why I was lying, and questioning why in the face of such overwhelming evidence I would continue to lie.

“Anyway,” he finally said, just going past the ridiculousness of my insistence that it wasn’t me, “you can’t leave tools out like that.”

I don’t know that it was the first bald-faced lie I told, but I know it’s become something of a symbol to me, that action and the lie. I imagine my dad’s refusal to listen to anymore foolishness was supposed to be a lesson about the futility of such obvious lying. You would think that’d be enough, right? “You got caught,” I imagine myself saying in his shoes, “Don’t be an idiot.”

But I proved to be incorrigible. My proclivity to lie expressed itself in all sorts of ways – exaggeration, denial, pure invention. I once told a friend of mine in fourth grade that the girl he had a crush on lived behind me and that we’d meet under the shaggy avocado tree in between our two yards in secret and talk for hours upon hours, and sure, I’d be happy to put in a good word. She actually lived in a completely different subdivision.

I also told that same kid that I had videocassettes of Howdy Doody that my parents recorded as kids in my attic. Besides the anachronism of VCRs in the 1950s, I didn’t even have an attic.

I never felt bad about these lies – I just hated getting caught. Which to my weird little brain was motivation for one thing: becoming a better liar.

Eventually, as those who know me know, the lies kind of pretty much completely took over, and I wasn’t even aware of the extent that I was lying to myself and living in a world that was pure fantasy.

I didn’t mean for this to devolve into confession and self-analysis. Suffice it to say that one of the things I’ve had to do in recent years is learn how to restrict my fabrication-of-reality to the page, to channel that energy and creativity, that compulsion, that narcissistic, egomaniacal belief that I can bend reality and create worlds — and then to make something of what I remember, whether it happened or not.

Proust saw memory as inevitably partial. Schulz knew that memory was like beauty and was in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. Kandel was sure it could be mapped. They all proved in their various ways that the act of remembering  can be as influential on the shape one’s life takes as the memory itself.

What memories carry “decisive meaning” for you?

What is that meaning?

What do you do with the memories? With the meaning?

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True Grit and More-Whoreness

The Atlantic had a great article last week on how

American News Consumers Have Gained the World but Lost Their Backyards.

The title pretty much sums it up – the Internet gives us information on everything ever invented, said, created and done everywhere in the world throughout all of known and recorded time, and gives it to us more or less instantly, but it’s at the expense of local knowledge.

My first thought was, “who cares?” My local paper growing up wasn’t exactly known for its Pulitzer-quality journalism, and I can’t say I miss the updates on adolescent artists and mediocre athletes.  There are more important, I’ve often found myself thinking as I open up O Golbo or El Pais or Haaretz or Al Jazeera, more weighty things to worry about in this world than the installation of five-dozen parking meters in downtown Ventura.

But you have to concede Connor Friedersdorff’s point: “As a curious person who enjoys learning about the world, the rich store of readily available information about Cyprus thrills me, but it does very little to help me better fulfill my civic obligations.”

A case in this point: a good friend of mine’s mom was running for city council last year, and I asked him in September what he thought her chances were in the upcoming November election, and he looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “That election was in June. She lost.”

“Huh,” I said, and proceeded to talk about Colombian politics and the Portuguese financial crisis.

Friedersdorff’s article was about journalism and civics, but I think it points to something bigger than that, as well:

Rootlessness and more-whoreness.

Which are symptoms of the same affliction.

During a work breakfast last week, I heard John Krist, a longtime journalist and current CEO of the Farm Bureau, give an update on the state of agriculture in Ventura County. There was some milestone news, as the County dipped under 100,000 acres of farmland for the first time in agricultural history; some good news, as prices for major crops (lemons, berries, greens) rose for the third consecutive year; and a whole bunch of depressing news about drought and soil quality and labor shortages and parasites and increased regulations.

Krist brought his prodigious storytelling ability to bear on his presentation, and I was so captivated by the way he talked about “his growers” and “our agricultural history” and “our responsibility to the land” that I felt by the end like we were descendants of the Trasks and Hamiltons, engaged in an epic battle not for land but for the identity of our little corner of the world and the survival of its legacy.

My blood was stirred.

Tom McGuane said in Some Horses that he was determined not to be “one of those writers with soft hands.”

My best friend growing up moved out to an avocado and citrus ranch when we were in eighth grade, and it changed his life. He determined to become a farmer, but I mostly treated his new ranch as my big giant playground. The romance and importance of agriculture wasn’t completely lost on me, but I was much more interested in the surfing/beachtown aspects of my hometown than its agricultural history.

Still, I am a son of the West, and I’ve always been drawn to the Steinbecks and the Londons and the McGuanes of the American literary landscape, and one of the abandoned narrative strands of my novel was from the pov of an avocado farmer, so this resurgence of interest in ag during Krist’s lecture wasn’t exactly out of character.

But coupled with that Atlantic piece, it really made me think. In particular, Krist’s comments about how he spends his days talking to farmers – “that’s what I do, is talk to people,” he said – caused me to daydream about all these farmers’ lives, how interesting their challenges and failures and successes are, what great stories their lives could make. And I thought, you know, I’m missing all this. I care more about Cyprus and Panama and Myanmar and South Africa than I do about where I come from and where I live.

I’m so busy longing for the romance of St. Petersburg and the Loire Valley that I’m overlooking the real human drama of Sherman Oaks and Ventura County.

Jack London was “a better man than any of us,”
says Frank Miller in
Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From.”

And then I thought, no, that’s not entirely true. I try to care about those other, foreign places more, I pretend to care, I think it’s more important that I care about them.

That last’s the thing.

Thinking that something is more interesting simply because it’s happening somewhere else has been the story of my life. It’s led me to travel to some pretty amazing places and do some pretty fun things and meet some really great people, but it’s also been the cornerstone of my discontent.

And I think my discontent is no uncommon thing, but rather a symptom of an underlying national condition. I think our – “our” being “us Americans'” – obsession with information and preference for international news over the local stuff (except for those scensters who are überlocal) is part and parcel of our more-whoreness, our willingness to do anything, sacrifice anything, up to and including our peace of mind, for more. More info. More cool. More interest. More weight. More meaning. More beauty. More money. More history. More books. More respect (read: fame).

I’ve realized for quite some time that I can either long for something I’m unlikely to experience and that, were I to actually experience it, would very likely be far from what I’d built up and expected, or I can look for the interest and (dare I say) wonder in what’s going on in my backyard.

But that’s not always so easy to practice.

“If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”
Said Steinbeck this one time.

I’ve been fed that more-whoreness from a Matrix-like feeding tube for so many years I don’t even recognize it as contagion. Of course I want something different and more interesting and more exciting that costs more money and that’s gonna give me more satisfaction. I’m American, goddamnit, I deserve the best. I’m also hopelessly romantic and relatively privileged, which has all but done away with any semblance of the true grit that used to go along with American exceptionalism and compensate for the arrogance of that good ole I-want-it-I’ma-take-it-ism.

So what do you do?

Bring the focus in from an epic sweeping shot of the world to something a little closer. Not quite as close as the navel – though lord knows I gaze at that often enough (in these pages no less!) – but maybe down to street view.

And as in writing, so in life.

I’ve had some big life changes recently (more on it next time, les prometo) and have been able to put in a lot of hours at the writing desk and those two things remind me to quit dreaming ridiculous dreams and realize that I’m living a pretty amazing life and that I already have everything I need.

That not only am I finding the roots I have, but growing new ones.

That I AM DOING what I always wanted to do.

That it’s enough.

And that enough is the new  black.

.

What’s your local scene?

How do you balance staying-local-growing-roots and your desire for EVERYTHING-IN-THE-WORLD-AT-ONCE?  

LemonSigns

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Channel That

I was driving back to my quiet little seaside hometown the other day, and I caught myself thinking, “phew, that was a crazy six weeks,” as if they were a period in my life that had ended and I was heading back to a quiet little seaside life.

sherventuraoaks

But no, those crazy six weeks are my life now.

Two things about this:

One – it’s not that crazy.

Two – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To qualify Two: sure, if I could have book contracts instead of an 8-5 and a place in Malibu and a pied-à-terre in NYC and another in Milan with toilets made out of solid gold instead of a two-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley, I’d probably go ahead and have it that way, but let’s be reasonable.

And as far as One goes, I don’t really want to complain because I’m not working multiple jobs, I’m not broke, I’m not a single mom, I’m not at all lonely, I’m not unhealthy-and-uninsured, I’m not disenfranchised or powerless or oppressed or any of those those legitimately difficult things so many people deal with everyday – most of whom do so with much more equanimity and grace than I muster in the face of, say, two long workdays back-to-back.

That being said, this is my life and these things are my parameters and within that and those, I’m feeling a little stressed out.

I’m a (secular) Buddhist and someone who’s trying to live a quieter and more conscious life, both of which counsel gratitude and perspective, so I work on those things when and how I can – and believe me, I know how much I have to be glad about and grateful for – and I try to reverse or at least slow the entropic tendency of my life and mind and universe.

levimeditation

You should sit in meditation twenty minutes every day,
unless you’re too busy.
Then you should sit for an hour.

But I’m also a writer, and at the risk of sounding trite, I think writers thrive on neurosis and chaos and, as my friend Laura Bassett put it, “strife and uneasiness.”

This also needs a qualification – writers’ characters thrive on neurosis. And that’s a distinction many authors fail to make and/or maintain.

About a decade ago, I was talking with Stephen Railton about American authors’ propensity for debauchery, dissipation and just general bad behavior – in particular, we were talking about Faulkner’s tenure at UVa and how rumor had it that any night of the week, you could find the man drunk somewhere in Albermarle County – and Prof. Railton said, “it makes you wonder, do you have to be that fucked up to make good literature?”

He didn’t mean intoxicated-fucked-up – which they got, plenty, but with how hard those dissolute men worked and the quality of what they produced, you hardly call them lushes – so much as maladjusted-fucked-up. But I certainly equated one with the other while kind of just hoping (okay okay assuming, arrogant bastard that I was) that the quality work would come without the hard work.

But it turns out I’m not interested in staying intoxicated for forty fifty sixty years while I try to write, and now that I’m, let’s say, less concerned with intoxication than I used to be, two things have happened: I’m less interested in maladjustment, and the work is getting better.

One last qualification, this one on “less interested.” I’m less interested in being maladjusted, but more interested in investigating maladjustment and using maladjustment. Which is what brings me to the crux of this post/thought:

How do you stand close to the (ring of?chaos fire without getting burned?

It’s like that Modest Mouse song, “Bukowski,” where Isaac Brock is saying that “…every night turns out to be a little bit more like Bukowski and yeah, I know, he’s a pretty good read, but God, who’d wanna be…such an asshole?”

..

The simple answer is

CHANNEL IT

right?

Put it to good use.

See it, watch it, breathe it in, but stay on that jetty while the storm is surging.

And yeah, sure, that’s what I try to do, but how that actually works, how you take the stress of moving to a new town and commuting longer and finding new friends and maintaining old friendships and starting a blog and navigating the crazystupid world of social networking and finishing a novel and trying to sell stories and working out and reading and cooking and foodshopping and doing my taxes (jesus I need to do my taxes!) and meditating and doing the other things I do on top of generally freaking out about the state of the state nation world not to even mention my place in the fucking COSmos at large – how you take that stuff, and instead of letting it bowl you over, jiu-jistu that shit into a character and let that character do something decently productive with it, is what I’m interested in.

Which I guess is what the process is all about. Which is why it takes forever, I guess, and why there’s no guarantee it’ll work well or at all.

Which is why Faulkner said The Sound and the Fury was a failure.*

Zulfikar Ghose was talking about this the other night when I went and saw him at the Fowles Center.** Not about Faulkner, but that the main motivation to write is – HAS TO BE – the simple desire to create something that didn’t exist before, to convey some sense about the world as precisely as we can. “We simply create, and we see what happens.” All method or whatever else people read into creative work after the fact is secondary.

Like with everything, just do the work. Don’t worry about how you’re going to do it, just do it. Worry about how you did it and what it means later. If you worry about that at all.

But the question remains:

How do you separate layer upon layer of life’s crazy-ass chaff from that sweet, sweet wheat?

Yeah, I mean you.

Whether you’re creative or not, it doesn’t matter – we all de-stress and refocus somehow.

So tell me – how do you keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs?

http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/talking_pictures/2010/05/dennis-hopper-nobodys-candycolored-clown-.html

Hopper pretty much was a pair of ragged claws
scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

*Saideth Faulkner: “[The Sound and the Fury] began with the picture of the little girl’s muddy drawers, climbing that tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers that didn’t have the courage to climb the tree waiting to see what she saw. And I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed, and I tried myself, the fourth section, to tell what happened, and I still failed.”     – from the UVA Faulkner treasure trove 

** Karen Tei Yamashita is coming! Karen Tei Yamashita is coming! April 15th. You should totally be there. (I know I know, the flyer on the site says April 22 but it’s wrong.)

Hat tip to the badass HuffPoQuill-wielding

Laura Bassett for giving me the advice, title, and general notion for this post.

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Motivate This

I had some bad news the other day.

Well, “bad” is a little dramatic, it was more like kind-of-disappointing news.

I applied to this fellowship last fall and found out last Wednesday I didn’t get it. I didn’t realize until I got the email how much I’d been looking forward to it – counting on it, really. And while it’s a good lesson in not putting too many eggs in one basket, and not counting the chickens that may hatch outta those eggs before they actually do so, and managing expectations and yadda yadda yadda, it still bummed me out.

You have two choices when faced with rejection and disappointment, right – you can bitch and moan and feel sorry for yourself, or you can dig in and redouble your efforts. And of course I sat in the former for a few hours, spiraling down into despair and what’s-the-point-anyway-I-knew-I-sucked-at-this-to-begin-with-fuckit. But then I went ahead and moved into the latter and wrote wrote wrote too far into the night too many nights in a row, and reorganized my approach to submitting stories, and tried to figure out how I can squeeze a few more hours of writing out of the week. I was determined to not be dissuaded.

But it was my girlfriend who really turned my headspace around, and talked to me about not just avoiding the blues, but actively using rejection as motivation.

Erin’s a contrarian, in the very best sense of the term.‡ While she has great faith in the basic goodness of people, she also thinks in general they’re pretty dumb, and thinks that just because something is generally held in high esteem doesn’t automatically mean it’s estimable. In fact, she’s suspicious of general renown as a sign that people aren’t thinking very clearly – that is to say, independently – about whatever it is they all think is so great. Once her mind’s made up that something’s worthy of her respect, her devotion and loyalty are second to none and she defends her tastes fiercely, but her initial response to most things is a healthy dose of skepticism.

Thus, her attitude towards said fellowship was, “You know what? Fuck those people.”

UVa after the fire.
Not where I didn’t get the fellowship from.

“Sure, everyone says that ______ is a great and fancy place, but so what? What do you actually know about that program? It could totally suck. At the very least it’s not going to automatically make you a good or a better or a successful writer. How many people who’ve gotten this fellowship go on to be famous authors? Or even writers who just make a living writing?”

When I told her I didn’t recognize more than half a dozen of the illustrious institution’s 60+ years worth of alumni, she said, “See? And think how many more amazing writers that you do know and who do make a living writing applied and didn’t go there.

“And you know what else?” she went on, “most of them were probably pissed off, too. And they probably used that as motivation, and years later were like, ‘Oh hi, remember when you didn’t like my writing? Well here’s my Booker Prize, how do you like that shit?'”

And she went on in that vein until I was fired up enough to fight Mike Tyson.*

ATWbannerThinner

A couple things that Erin brought up have stuck with me, and I wanted to write about them and maybe even get your thoughts on them.

Erin is from Long Island. She grew up on New York gangsta rap, and like the several million people who also grew up on hip-hop in and around the NY metro area (and plenty who didn’t), she loves Jay-Z.

And Jay-Z, in the off-off-off chance you didn’t know, didn’t exactly have doors thrown open to him or opportunities handed to him. He built doors and made opportunities, and built his reputation on being the kind of man that did that, and built songs on rhymes about how haters gonna hate but ain’t gonna stop him taking over the world (I paraphrase).

And now that he’s one of the baddest badasses on the planet and kind of has taken over, he raps about how fucking good it feels to show up all those doubters and haters. Because he didn’t get or need anyone’s permission and because he did it his way (he even covered that Anka song made famous by Sinatra to make his point).

That’s the kind of thing that Erin turns to for inspiration. Stuff like:

When Drake says, “thanks to all the haters / I know G4 pilots on a first name basis” and “everyone who doubted me is asking for forgiveness” and “point the biggest skeptic out, I’ll make him a believer.”

Or when Jay says, “When I was born, it was sworn, I was never gon’ be shit / Had to pull the opposite out this bitch.”

Or when Lil’Wayne says, “confidence is a stain they can’t wipe off.” (Or whenever he’s talking about being a Martian and getting back to his spaceship – Erin loves Martians.)

It’s how her parents raised her – you can do whatever you want, rules and especially ceilings (glass or otherwise) are made to be broken, “No” is not an acceptable answer, you don’t need the world’s permission or its trappings or its clubs† to succeed – and she took it to heart and applies that ethos every day.

And this was the language she used to tell me, “You don’t need them anyway.”

and “This will make you work harder.”

and “Rejection is good for the soul.”

ATWbannerThinner

I might not be quite as hardcore as Erin is (and I don’t really want to be a Martian), but I also grew up on the music of men who said – and even screamed, sometimes – a nice round “fuck you” to whoever was purporting to stand in their way: Rancid.

JayRanZid

Tim Armstrong especially embodied for me a kind of modern-day Jack Kerouac/Johnny Cash/Walt Whitman type of concrete-jungle roustabouting troubadour. I wanted his itinerant life and I wanted to experience as much as he had to and understand the world as well as he did. Rancid saw through everything that I thought was wrong with the world, and taught me about a whole slate of other wrong things I had no idea about. Bradley Nowell said that he knew what he knew “because of KRS-One,” and that’s how I felt about Rancid for a long, long time. And one of the biggest things they saw wrong with the world was this idea people had about them that they were trash because of where they came from – the broken down and abandoned East Bay.

Tim doin an acoustic ‘East Bay Night’

This doesn’t map onto my experience exactly – Ventura’s hardly the Richmond Annex – but it struck a chord. I wanted to be something more than what I saw around me, and I needed that drive to have a chip on its shoulder:

“You don’t want me? Then I don’t need you.”

I felt this way for years as a kid, and I felt that way in college, and I felt that way in New York, and I felt that way in grad school, and I still feel that way in a lot of situations. It’s a defense mechanism, obviously, and sometimes it’s detrimental, sure. But a mentor of mine said, when I told him about the fellowship, “Aw, you’re upset – how cute that you’re still not old enough to understand that life is one long succession of disappointments,” and I figure shit, maybe a little defense is necessary every once in a while.

That attitude and that feeling is what I go back to, too, and why I’ve spent the last week balling down the 101 blasting Life Won’t Wait on repeat.

But, as much as it’s important to me to bare down and go my own way, and as much as writing is a solitary pursuit, it’s important to remember that I can’t and don’t do it all on my own.

ATWbannerThinner

Jay-Z and Tim Armstrong spent their lives taking a very strong stance against a lot of things and people and groups and cultures and even society as a whole, but they also stood with people and relied on (and some would argue helped create) subcultures and local societies. I can’t really speak to the crews that Shawn Carter leaned on to survive the Marcy projects and make it out of Bed-Stuy to become the Jay-Z he is today, but I do know that the punk subculture can be a very supportive subculture indeed.

Nevermind that I didn’t have the same experiences or the same reasons to feel the way Tim Lars Matt Brett and a whole subculture of disaffected punks did. Fact is I did feel lonely, disconnected, castaway in the same way Tim wrote about, and I did connect to punk rock.

Rancid and a handful of other punk bands – Bad Religion, Bad Brains, Black Flag, to name a few at the start of the alphabet – were the soundtrack to my lonely teenage angst, and both fueled the fires of loneliness and soothed the burns from them, gave me solace for not having a crew of my choosing and perpetuated my desire to break free of those imposed upon me.

But I never joined the subculture, never did much of anything but stew in my disconnection and disaffection, blaring Let’s Go! on the tapedeck of my Dad’s pickup as I schlepped from workout to school to workout, wondering what the hell was going on in my life and in the world.

I took part in a lot of things as a kid – sports, mostly – and while I participated in those communities that I was given, internally I disdained them. On the other hand, I didn’t belong in the punk scene, or the surf scene or the stoner scene or the jock scene or whatever other scenes I danced around the edges of. I came to think of myself as an outsider, and tried to embrace that stance as a free spirit, a wild child (full of grace, savior of the human race) that couldn’t be constrained by the people and the structures imposed on me.

But in reality, I took a lot of strength from them and did really well within them, and once the structure and the communities fell away, I floundered. Big time.

So I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do now that a pre-packaged community of writers I was counting on with that fellowship won’t be handed to me. And I realized that I have no idea how to do this. I’ve never done it before. I had one friend growing up, really. Then college and a college sports team, then grad school. I never saw a group of people and, thinking “I want to be a part of that,” went and made myself a part of it. I thought that plenty of times – more times than I can count, for sure – but never did anything about it. So when I think about finding a group to be a part of, it’s sort of baffling and extremely intimidating.

“The internet, idiot!” people have said to me, as I imagine you’re thinking now.

But there’s just way too much. There are something like three dozen fiction writers meet up groups in the SFV on that one meetup-dot-com site and I haven’t even tried looking in actual LA-LA yet. So I’m going to start wandering around bookstores and going to nerdy booky writery events and do the exact opposite of what I like to do, namely stick my hand out and talk to random people and say, “Hi, I’m a writer. Let’s do something together.”

This is the story of my childhood.
I mean, it never snowed in SoCal, but still, this is it.

The whole idea makes my skin crawl. It makes me feel like a kid on the edge of the sandbox, dying to jump in and Tonka-truck it up but incapable of moving a muscle.

I’m gonna try to stop looking at life like a seven-year-old, and instead go boldly forth with the idea that if I pursue or maybe even create a version of the kind of society I think I want, then maybe I’ll actually have a crew of like-minded individuals facing the same trials and tribulations and striving to do the same kinds of things.

I oughta quit now before this descends any further into a full-blown Stuart Smalley mirror session.

Who or what inspires and motivates you?

Who do you read / listen to / turn to when you need to brush your shoulders off?

Who’s in your community? How did you find it? How do you contribute to it?

_

‡I know not everyone thinks that ‘contrarian’ has any good senses at all, let alone a ‘very best sense’ as I say about it above, but in my lexical compendium it’s a synonym for “[one who is] awake,” and like Tina Fey quotes Amy Poehler in Bossypants as saying, “I don’t fucking care if you don’t like it.”

*That’s a figure of speech. I never was in a fistfight, not once ever, I’m not that punk, okay? And besides what am I, an idiot? I wouldn’t fight Tyson.

† My friend Unk sees the world (the business world, at least) as a collection of frats being all fratty at the big gigantic frat party that is life – and has about as much respect for the whole thing as you’d expect. I’ve got a whole post waiting in the wings of my mind about this so stay tuned and follow At The Wellhead and sign up for alerts!

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Danger and Doubt

Does this look like a face that embraces danger to you, or does this look like a face that embraces danger?

MHK

I saw Maxine Hong Kingston read and speak Monday night at the John Fowles Center For Creative Writing at Chapman University. (If you’re in SoCal, check out this spring’s awesome Asian-American lineup, which includes Karen Tei Yamashita.)

Kingston was wonderful, all five-foot-nothing of her peeking out from behind the lectern, reading from The Woman Warrior, The Fifth Book of Peace, and I Love A Broad Margin to My Life.

She talked about love as a vital force, about how we may not be able to prevent a war next week or next month or next year, but if we live our lives in love today, we can “save battlefield lives a century from now.” She recalled Viet Cong and American veterans meeting teary-eyed decades after trying to kill one another, and talked about the comfort of Alice Walker’s hands and hugs during protests. She invoked Hua Mulan and Athena and the heroines of Leo Tolstoy in calling upon the strength of women to save the world from war.

All that was wonderful and inspiring and uplifting and vintage Kingston.

And then she said something surprising. In response to a question about influences on Tripmaster Monkey – His Fake Book, a trippy San Fran tale of a sixth-generation Chinese poet named Whittman Ah Sing (it’s rad, you should read it – find it at an Indie Bookstore near you), she talked about the people she grew up with and the people she went to Cal with and knew in the Bay Area then and after. She talked about how cool the men were then, in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, how the new language that was being created to talk about psychedelic experience and political experience and modern experience in general was being coined and spoken by men – they were enfranchised, they were the powerful ones, they were the leaders, they were the creators and receptacles of cool.

That might sound like the beginning of a “feminist” rant, but it wasn’t. She said that the men of the Beat generation, the men coming out of World War II and going into Korea, the half-generation after that, the boys and men facing the draft for Vietnam – during this time, these men produced more good writing than women, because, Kingston said, “[women] weren’t in danger. And you really need danger to write novels.”

No, for all you whose dander is suddenly up, in fact she did not mention the different kinds of “danger” that women endured throughout not only this epoch but for most of human history, nor did she invoke the struggles various other minority groups faced during this time. It was an impromptu response about her life forty, fifty years ago. Maybe she’s reached an age or a stage in which she’s over it, but she didn’t seem upset by the fact that that was the way things were. And we all know that Kingston’s thoughts have been with and her actions on behalf of those marginalized groups for most of her life and career as an author and public figure, so don’t get your PC panties in a knot over her saying that men wrote better novels for a few years because they were in danger. It’s interesting.

Besides, I’m not nearly as interested in the context of that sentiment as I am in the content.

Do we really need danger to write novels?

To write anything?

To DO anything?

There are those who would answer a resounding “absolutely!” but there are also those who would answer an equally emphatic “absolutely not!” I know examples of both. I took classes from Alicia Kozameh, an Argentinian writer of enormous impact who spent part of her three years’ imprisonment in the infamous El Sótano (“the basement”), who said that her mind was never more free than when she was locked up and under perpetual threat of being desaparecida. (This is not to say, by any means, that she would rather be back there, scribbling on dirty napkins in El Sótano, instead of living in LA and teaching at Chapman. I think she’s plenty fond of being out of jail and away from danger — and she’s no less productive.) And check out this story from the NY Times about Murong Xuecun,  a Chinese novelist who’s heavily censored and risking his life to criticize that censorship in his country – novel writing may never be this risky, this dangerous, or this important in the US.

But then there’s John Cheever, for instance, who was rich and wealthy and white and American and pretty much never faced any danger, besides maybe an excess of single-malt Scotch whisky. And let’s be honest, a lot of people in the US and Canada and the UK and Western Europe write from a position of security, if not downright coddled luxury, and a lot of them produce perfectly brilliant, insightful, incisive commentaries on humanity.

There are of course plenty (the majority?) of people who live somewhere in between these two extremes – minorities, immigrants, the poor, the otherwise-dispossessed – and they of course are in varying kinds of danger –  physical danger, danger of cultural extinction, existential danger, whatever – varying amounts of the time.

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But what about those of us who aren’t? I’m a middle-class white American with all my fingers and toes. I’ve never felt real discrimination. I’ve never been in danger of being erased or not-considered. I’ve never been overlooked for any other reason than my work or whatever isn’t worth looking at. Aside from a few dicey late-night situations, I’ve never been in any real physical danger, either. I’m registered for the draft, but honestly I probably would’ve found a way to bow outta that in years past if it’d come to it.  (Today would I go willingly? I don’t know.)

So how can I write novels? What danger did Professor Kingston use to write her books?

Her most well-known is Woman Warrior, so maybe you can guess where she picked her battles.

So we can pick our battles, then? Decide on what danger drives us? Well then, what do I got?

I think what it boils down to is that I’m in danger of becoming an automaton. A listless carbon copy. 

automatonWe all are, really, in our own ways. I don’t talk about it too much because it can sound (and get) a little batty, but at core I totally buy into the risks Wallace outlined in Infinite Jest, and those Huxley did in Brave New World, and Burgess in The Wanting Seed, and dozens of others in their own way.

I’m also, at core, a lazy bastard, and would just as soon lie about all day and every evening flicking through the “news” channels, flipping through the paper, watching B movies and reading Tom Clancy books and sci-fi and fantasy series, and, like water moving downhill, find the path of least resistance through life. I know the attraction of group think, of agreeing with my friends and the masses in general, of avoiding confrontation and debate.

But there’s something about that, some twinge at the back of my mind, that bugs me, that voice that says, “meeehhh, I’m not quite sure that’s how things go, how they should be, that that’s all there is.”

And mostly that’s it. That’s the extent of my insight – a twinge of skepticism.  Time was, I’d deal with that little voice in other ways besides writing – float it off down a river of Bushmills, say – but nowadays, I leave that twinge alone and see where it takes me.

I have little if any real conviction. I’m not a Man of Principle. But I am curious, and I do doubt, if either of those count for anything, which I think they do. I doubt a lot of things, most things even. Doubt is the most common feeling/emotion/reaction to life that I have. Sure, it can border on crippling if you constantly doubt and second-guess yourself or your writing or your purpose in life, but most things are crippling if they’re too intensely focused on oneself. For the most part, kept in its proper proportion, that omnipresent doubt is the greatest motivator in my life.

Doubt gets me off my lazy ass and in front of the keyboard. 

Some Buddhists say that doubt is the better part of faith, primarily because it drives investigation – of the world, of society, of culture and ego and the self and our behavior in response to all of these things – and it is only through such inquiry that we can learn and understand and see through the bullshit. Because in a lot of ways, that’s what life’s all about, right? We all know or feel – some of us all the time, others only every now and again – that there’s some serious bullshit going on, that there’s some game being played without our consent and definitely without our knowing all the rules.

I have a friend who’s going through some dating bullshit right now, and she’s been feeling kinda bad about how she’s been acting here and there, fending off but also buying into accusations that she’s “psycho” or “crazy” or whatever. But she told me yesterday that she had an epiphany and feels better because she “realized it’s not the actions themselves that make me feel bad, it’s that I place myself in this category of women who are by today’s standards, crazy.” She was growing tired of those “psycho” accusations, and in growing tired, started to doubt their validity, and that doubt created the space for this realization to squeak through that at least for the time being is making her reevaluate who she is and how she’s acting and who she listens to and how she lets what she does hear affect her – in short, in some little tiny way, it’s changing her life.

And that’s a profound thing, right? To realize that the games that are going on are not even real games but illusory ones, games created by people who don’t know any better, who don’t even know they’re creating or perpetuating these constructs and expectations that they’re foisting on anyone and everyone that comes into contact with them — to realize that, right up until the moment of realization, we were those people who didn’t know any better.

Have a couple of these types of epiphanies – or satori, as the Japanese would call it – and you begin to suspect that there are a LOT more to be had. You begin to doubt everything. If you let it, this can take over your life, and you’ll either go crazy or join a monastery. Or both.

But if you find a way to funnel the energy created by this kind of realization and doubt, then you’re really onto something. Some people go to church, some people volunteer or do some other kind of service work, some people quit their corporate jobs and start a raw-dairy co-op, some people take up painting or guitar or poetry or surfing or chess. Some people simply absorb it, knock a bit of the sharpness off their edges, act a little softer towards the world, react a little less. It’s like your skin gets thicker and your heart gets tenderer at the very same time.

If that sounds like Trungpa, that’s because it is.

trungpa

And these are the things that drive me to write. I think they drive a lot of writers to write. Investigative journalists doubt the story, doubt the press release, doubt the party line, doubt the soundbites. Sports writers doubt their ability to do what they’re writing about – okay, mostly they know all about their inability to do it – and that creates awe. (Or they doubt Mark McGwire’s ability to hit 70 home runs, and that creates a story…)

And I think writers of fiction write about their doubts about the nature of reality, about culture and society and love and friendship and history and our place in it. We doubt that our current explanations for those things are sufficient – most people know humanity in general’s explanations are woefully inadequate – and we think there may be better explanations, and we work out and test those explanations in story form.

And the danger (here’s the circle) to NOT doing that, to not investigating/interrogating/inquiring those twinges of skepticism, to not chasing down my doubts, is a slow slide into permanent and perpetual acquiescence. I’ve chosen writing as the thing, my form of not going gentle into that good night, and if I don’t write, I don’t do anything, and I probably sink into my couch watching some version of the Infinite Jest “samizdat.”

…Perhaps, though, it’s all (and I mean ALL) just a desire to not fade away, and it’s as much ego as anything, and what I’m really afraid of is being inconsequential — I want to make my mark. I want to prove that I was here, that I understand, that I see through…

Which is a doubt. Which will require some thought. Which is my point.

~~~~~~~~~~

What’s your danger?

What’s your doubt?

What drives you to do the things that you do?

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