Dipping Your Toes in Social Media

Social media is here and it’s likely that using it will increase your chances of being read. You don’t have to do it. No one will hold a gun to your head. However, at the very least put your toe in the water and try it before eschewing it.

First, learn what you like in social media. When speaking with other authors we often hear: “I hate Twitter.” “Facebook is stupid.” “I don’t want to blog.” “I don’t have time for this.” Try a different approach. What can you enjoy doing in the world of social media? Who do you want to be online? Who do you want your potential readers to see? How can you craft that person? (For instance, Randy likes giving advice, researching, and being a know-it-all. Voila, her social media persona.

By the fall of 2010, my mother had been sick for a year and a half, already outliving the parameters of her terminal diagnosis. I had been living with my parents for a year by then, and my days were overflowing with her illness, creating a heartbreaking, beautiful, heightened, stressful and joyful existence, if an insular one. To cope and try to make sense of things, I attempted to write about it, but  it wasn’t really working.  This was the most important thing I’d ever experienced in my life, and I felt it should be my next book.  But nothing was taking shape. Aside from a few inspired blog posts, I was failing miserably.

The really great thing about finishing a book is that you go to write your to-do list and ‘book’ is not there. Neither are any number of book-related entries.

Manuscript? Nope. Chapter 3 rewrite? Hell no. Research ‘anal retentive’ for Chapter 40? Ask that guy on Level 6 about formatting? Get the Czech word from Grandma Zuzi for a person-whose-hungry-heart-has-become-a-stomach-that-is-eating-them-alive. Update Evernote. Download that cool mind-mapping app… buy a new pencil sharpener/laptop-case/ring binder/more colored pens (or notebooks, butcher’s paper, chocolate, Merlot, beta blockers, cold medicine, miso soup packs…).  None of that’s there.

My sister-in-law is a neurolinguist and my wife is a lawyer. I’m a writer and college professor of writing and literature. To say that we don’t bump heads when it comes to what constitutes “good” or “bad” writing is like saying that clichés aren’t the repetitive iterations of the indoctrinated. Better yet: we don’t “bump heads”; we smash each others’ brains into metaphorical food processors and whip up some semantic taters.

The discussion is not new. We’ve talked about it over the years. In particular, it’s an ongoing fight between me and my wife. Our most recent battle took place one night while my sister-in-law was visiting with us.  Afterwards, I talked to one of my writer-friends. This pal brought up what seemed at first a good point: since it is our profession to be writers, can we not “own” that craft? Are we not able to determine what is and is not good writing? As an analogy, my friend offered, “It’s not like you’re telling your wife that what she practices is ‘bad law,’ or that what your sister-in-law does is ‘bad science’; but they’re telling you what they think is ‘good’ writing.”

At first, this sounded right on. But the next morning, after I resumed the intellectual battle with my wife, armed with this new analogy, my advance proved short, and was ultimately repelled. I didn’t stump my wife, even if the analogy made her think for a moment. I had to consider her counter-argument: just because “writing” is not the main component of her profession (since, as a lawyer, the intellectual understanding of the law and its processes is her foremost skill), in almost every instance at her job she cannot articulate her ideas without writing them. The same goes for my sister-in-law. So writing is central to both their occupations, yet neither would consider herself a “writer.”

This all comes after teaching David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present,” or, as it appears in his collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, “Authority and American Usage,” in which he laments, among other things, Academic English and other abominations, like legalese. Wallace, I feel confident in arguing, cannot stand Academic English (he calls it “a cancer”) or legalese, and I admit his point of view was enticing, especially since, like me, he was a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction.

In his essay, both of the above-mentioned uses of the English language come up as asides–mentions in an essay that concerns itself with the “Usage Wars” between Descriptivist and Prescriptivist linguists and other language nerds. Think of these as the Democrats and Republicans of how people use English. Descriptivists might say that “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” is perfectly valid English, not unlike a Democrat might argue that everyone equally deserves the same basic human rights, whether black or white, man or woman, straight or homosexual, etcetera. Obviously, people do speak this way; and if people speak this way, how can we ignore that this is one way that the English language is used? Descriptivists can explain what’s happening in the language as Standard Black English dialect with elided vowels and dropped consonant endings. They would also claim that Arnold’s now-famous Diff’rent Strokes (note the spelling as appropriate to the show’s characters’ dialect) punchline is just as valid English as the Standard Written English equivalent of “Whatever might you mean, Willis?”

The Prescriptivists, on the other hand, do not ignore the multiple uses of language, but prioritize the Standard Written English dialect over others as the language of commerce and discourse, kind of like the Republican economics of the “trickle-down” philosophy that favors the fiscally-privileged. Consider another example that compares Standard Written English and California English (my own native dialect): “Dude, this is hella good guacamole,” as opposed to its Standard Written English equivalent: “My friend, this guacamole is exceptional.” Thus, Prescriptivists care about Standard Written English and argue its supremacy in socio-economic discourse (i.e., talking or writing to one another, especially when it comes to the finer points of advancing one’s business goals, or “winning friends and influencing people”). Of course, realistically, there exist rhetorical situations in which the use of such a dialect as Standard Black English, California English, and/or others specific to particular groups of speakers remains preferable to SWE, which Wallace likewise admits.

So, a problem in my claim that AE and legalese are both examples of “bad” writing is my wife and her sister’s central argument: that within those professions there exist both “good” and “bad” writers. There are writers who take AE and legalese to their extremes, and there are writers who employ academic and legal terms but who, for the most part, use SWE to convey their ideas. Compare the following

“I am herewith returning the stipulation to dismiss in the above entitled matter; the same being duly executed by me”

To–while on the same Google search of “bad legalese”–this from The Wall Street Journal.

Or consider the most esoteric of articles written for the journal Discourse and Disclosure, such as the recently published “HILDA: A Discourse Parser Using Support Vector Machine Classification,” by Hugo Hernault, Helmut Prendinger, and David A. duVerle.

But just because these experts do not write the kind of prose that I think makes “good” writing, it’s preposterous of me to think that all members of these professions ought to write in the clear but flowery language of the literary ilk.

I confess my inclination to argue that the academies which have produced the linguistic ticks of prose in the scientific and legal worlds (not to mention a thousand other jargon-laden professions) ought to revise their strategies and take classes on writing clear and deliberate prose. But such a thesis is impractical and asinine. To argue such only serves to piss off my wife and sister-in-law–and others in their respective professions–and in the interests of maintaining decent familial and romantic relations it’s best for me to consider alternatives.

This is, ironically, what DFW argues in his review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: that rhetoric is an element that traditional linguists have failed to consider in the majority of their arguments, either for or against prescriptivism. Language itself is, after all, something all humans use, either speaking, in sign-language, or in writing, and just because my artistic medium is the language itself does not give me leeway to judge all uses thereof. That would be like Picasso telling a house painter he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

In hindsight, now that I’ve taken the time to think through these thoughts and write them here, and after revising said thoughts and the writing thereof on numerous occasions, and after the badly planned morning assault on my wife’s position in this argument–the result of which was said wife, in her bathrobe, picking up her laptop and stalking out of the living room where we’d previously sat together, peacefully enjoying our coffee and checking our email accounts–I have decided that when considering the immediate audience of my lawyer wife, and, by extension, my scientist sister-in-law, it is best to agree: lawyers and scientists can be pretty good writers.

 

Here is what a book looks like when it lives on a web site. It’s not ideal. But it’s a book[esque] book, and I made it as close to book-ness as I could without handing you an actual book.

If your eyes, like mine, are tired, you can clink on the pages and they will zoom to a much more reader-friendly size.

 

 

 

 

Soul Work

By Cila Warncke

Writing

Describing her mother, Alice Walker writes: “She is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have.” The final phrase chimes in my head. Despite the urgency (“her soul must“) it alludes to a peace concomitant with understanding that creative work is the purest form of pleasure.

I arrived at this understanding roundabout, by a process of elimination. After years of diligently, assiduously failing to profit from the wisdom of others; stubbornly running down alleys and pursuing phantoms, I now recognise the two things my soul needs: running and writing. Running, first, because it is obvious, though the less important of the two. Like good grammar, it is essential to my sense of order and well-being, but I only make a fuss in its absence. A nagging pain in my foot warns me to leave my trainers under the bed, unlaced. My brain knows better than to aggravate an injury but the rest of my body is twitchily uninformed. There is nothing wrong with me apart from a sense of abstraction and discontent. Without the discipline of running and long breaths of cold, cleansing air I am inefficient, fretful, soft in a bruised-fruit kind of way. The sky is linty and the wind whips past the shop-fronts and pebbledash terraces as if they aren’t there, yet my run-hungry body longs to be outside.

It took me a long time to notice my unequivocal parallel reaction to not writing. For a week I have been producing rather than creating. Anyone else might think a few thousand words of research here; an article there; a column; a sales pitch; a dozen cover letters; the hundredth iteration of my CV, count as writing—but my soul knows it doesn’t. Job seeking has temporarily, if necessarily, invaded my life and distracted me from work. Without creative activity my brain fidgets and stews. As with running, the longer I go not writing the more I yearn to and, paradoxically, the more difficult it becomes. After a few days off I feel both dread and pleasure at the prospect of a run. Similarly, when I don’t write the idea of writing fills my head, swells to such vast importance that the process grows alien and terrifying. My fractious mind elides twenty-odd years of devotion and discipline and whispers “you can’t,” or “you can, but it won’t be any good.” Absence opens the door and Doubt saunters in carrying a funhouse mirror where past and future crush unbearably against the present. Anxiety ripples through me like a tiny earthquake, shimmying books off shelves and setting my internal crockery a-rattle. The Fear descends: my book will remain unwritten; questions scribbled in notebook margins will remain unexplored; I will tell no stories; never again will I craft a beautiful essay or forget time as I play a private game with my twenty-six favourite toys.

My younger self mistook this Fear for ordinary dissatisfaction. I blamed jobs, boyfriends, poverty and hangovers for wretchedness and sought them as relief. If anyone told me what I needed was “work my soul must have” I wasn’t listening. Words alone gradually won me back. The thrill of recognition on reading Orwell’s Why I Write: “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” The way Fitzgerald’s evocation of: “an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” burns my eyes like the sun. Piecemeal, I discovered that when I write—really create—nothing else matters.

Valerie Solanas wrote that “self-forgetfulness should be one’s goal, not self-absorption.”  This is the delicious secret of creativity: what looks like self-absorption (missed appointments, ignored phone calls, banished partners, skipped meals) is an intensely satisfying act of self-forgetting. If, while writing, I have the slightest impulse to make tea, check Facebook or go to the toilet then I’m not creating, I’m producing.

According to Natalia Ginzburg: “To the extent that the writing is valid and worthy of life, every other feeling will become dormant. You cannot expect to preserve your precious happiness fresh and intact, nor your precious unhappiness; everything recedes, disappears… you possess nothing, you belong to no one.”

There is a word for possessing nothing and belonging to no one: freedom. When Walker eulogises her mother’s creativity she isn’t praising an act of production, however aesthetically pleasing. She is paying homage to the radical wisdom that doing the work our souls must have is a way to claim ourselves and free us from what we are not.

 

Hi, I’m Stacie and I might need professional help. Sometimes I get really bored and end up writing fake excerpts from fake books written by authors I’m not overly fond of to a hopefully humorous effect. Like so:

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Ayn Rand could have written –

Tawnie Fipplestein surveyed the vast grey parking lot in front of him. It takes a man, a real man, to look at an empty lot and say “I’m going to put a horse-meat factory there!” And that’s exactly what Tawnie intended on doing.

He kicked at a small pebble on the ground. Insignificant stone! With its feminine curves and weak nature. He stepped on the stone and it crumbled under his Sperry loafers with an exciting pop. “I’ll crush all the stones,” Tawnie thought to himself, “I’ll leave no stone unturned.”

Behind him was Christabelle, sitting on a park bench and admiring Tawnie’s round yet manly buttocks. “It’s takes a real man to look at an empty lot and say ‘I’m going to put a horse-meat factory there!” she thought to herself. As though he read her mind, Tawnie set his arms akimbo and flexed his cheeks. Christabelle sighed lustily and fanned herself with her kerchief.

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Stephenie Meyer could have written –

I rose from my bed and groaned groggily, the night before still sour on my mind as I trudged towards my pink perfect bathroom. Mother insisted.

“All girls love pink!” she’d said, making my eyes roll so far back in my head I thought they might get lost. I raised my tooth brush, also pink, to my white, straight teeth and thought of Elton. Laurie introduced us the night before. Everyone knew of him, but no one really knew him, as evidenced by Laurie’s halting introduction.

“He lives in the old Manor house. Now, I always thought that place was condemned?”

“No, it’s…beautiful,” he replied, his blue eyes, the color of freshly cleaned toilet water, trained on my face.

Raining again, of course, I thought to myself as I regarded my foamy-mouthed reflection. It always rains here in Spooner, Washington, where I was born and where I still lived. No one ever left Spooner. It was an inescapable place.

I piled my luxurious raven hair atop my head and pulled on my favorite pair of size two jeans. “Sardonica, breakfast!” my mother shouted up the carpeted stairs. I gulped a breath and padded down to the kitchen.

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Dan Brown could have written –

Dr. Bone Inquisitor, Esq. surveyed the scene; one dead woman, covered in cornbread dust, a hanged Pomeranian, and a door stop. What could it mean, he thought moodily.

Chief Inspector Hannibal C. Blount entered the room. He looked around quickly, summing up events, as was his way.

“What we have here,” he started, picking an errant blond hair off his impeccable suit, “is one dead woman covered in cornbread dust, a hanged Pomeranian, and a door stop. What do you think it means?”

Bone knelt over the woman and took a whiff, waving his hand upwards to drum up more of the scent. “Smells like…”

“Maple syrup,” Inspector Blount offered with a snap of his fingers. Bone nodded perilously.

“Exactly,” he said, putting his pen in his mouth. “Maple syrup.”

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Chuck Palahniuk could have written –

This dude, the one who’s blowing me in the alley, he takes my floppy dog from between his dick-sucking lips, looks up, and says,

“Did you know Houdini died from a blow to the torso?”

Keep on sucking, I tell him. He wraps his fat hairy hand around my dong and strokes it as he goes on.

“No, it’s true. Houdini challenged a strong man to punch him in the gut and the guy did it before he was ready. He had to brace himself for the blow.”

“Less talky, more sucky.”

“Marcel Proust was a mama’s boy, it’s a proven fact.”

I push the dude’s face into my crotch. The rest of his words were garbled by my dick and ratty pubic hair.

“Genghis Khan had tiny feet. Marilyn Monroe was really a guy. The colon can hold ten gallons of dung before it explodes.”

Little did I know just how right he was.

This.  Right here.  What I’m saying now.  Everything I will say.  People have said it.  People have asked the questions I’m asking and answered them, but here I am.  Pursuit of new answers is nothing but bargaining with old answers.

 

It became desperate, for me, when I was reading Jonathan Evison’s West of Here.  I enjoyed it immensely at first.  Then I had to stop reading.  I’d already read it before.  There was nothing wrong with the book.

I’ve read almost nothing since.

 

Crabwalk,” I said. “By Gunter Grass.  This is Crabwalk.”

“You think every book is Crabwalk,” said a friend whose own manuscript I had compared to Crabwalk.

“No, just the ones that are, but there are a lot of them.”

 

Crabwalk is about Nazis, kind of, old and new, not that it matters.

 

Scuttling backwards to move forward.

 

Crabwalk is also, in turn, other books and stories and movies and poems.

 

West of Here is Crabwalk and Crabwalk is the “Garden of Forking Paths” (this, too, involves Germans), and that reminds me of Yeats.

 

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

 

Which reminds me.

 

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

 

All roads lead to Eliot.

 

 

Did he say make it new, too?

 

DA DA DA...

 

Nothing is anything but a reference to something else.  And that’s whether we mean or know it to be or not.  That, too, is Eliot.

I can’t have a thought.  Not one.  Not of my own.

Either can you.

 

Trying.  Even trying.  Look at what you’re up against.  LOOK AT THEM.

 

I bought Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind because the description on the back reminded me vaguely of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and J.L. Borges’ “The Library of Babel”.

The fucking Library of Babel.

It’s almost too terrible to talk about.

 

I couldn’t finish The Shadow of the Wind.

 

 

I have a recurring dream about sitting in a study in Buenos Aires watching J.L. Borges write.

 

In the dream he can’t see me.  He keeps daguerreotypes and tiny dishes of loose change.  It is just like the study Eliot uses in my dreams, but Borges’ study is dusty and baroque.  The curtains are brocade. I leave fingerprints on everything.

Eliot’s curtains are linen, rocking in a maritime breeze, and the furniture is immaculate–dark wood and  indifferent ivory.  Surfaces are smooth and cool to the touch.  There are no shadows, no clutter.  He licks his pen.  He watches me watch him.

 

I used to believe in an embarrassing way that I was communing with them, that in the dreams, these men were the men, but they say everyone in your dreams is you.  So I return to these places to be alone with myself, I guess.  Nothing ever changes.

 

Ideas have archetypes.

Containers within which a finite number of related human thoughts rattle and stick.  Stick together, shake apart, rattle, stick again elsewhere.  Then it’s new.  But not really new.  And eventually all partnerships are exhausted.

Like matter, archetypes of ideation can’t be created or destroyed.

This very idea comes from a box labeled “Jung, et al”.

And then again, the archetypes themselves are items in other, larger containers.  Nesting dolls of human awareness.

The largest of which is…what?

 

God?

 

Temporal provincialism is intractable.


Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

 

 

On some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god.

 

Oh God.

 

 

Other echoes

Inhabit the garden; shall we follow?

 

…respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.

 

 

 

 

 “Why Do You Write?” 

I’ve gotten this one in interviews in the past. Everything I said there was a lie. Let me answer it truthfully: 

I no longer write for you, to get finger claps in Cafes or “Likes” on Facebook. I no longer write to be understood. I don’t do it for fame for fortune, because who are we kidding? It’s public, but only like flashing your genitals in a subway car is public.

I write to momentarily get rid of myself, to get a little more distance, to intellectualize the gnawing in my stomach or ringing in my ears. I like us all a little better when we’ve been turned to symbols. It’s an Other-ing that makes it all more bearable. Sometimes it can even get us a little high, though those are also the worst times, the benders where the words hurt you the next morning and you’re a stranger to yourself. Then the words are like pans crashing and clattering to the ground, lolling around like Murakami’s kittens, and even more words spill out to enclose that noise with comfortable silence. Signal and noise can flip end over end, but that’s subject for another day. That buzzing in my head is already drowning it all out–

“Memory is like fiction; or else it’s fiction that’s like memory. This really came home to me once I started writing fiction, that memory seemed a kind of fiction, or vice versa. Either way, no matter how hard you try to put everything neatly into shape, the context wanders this way and that, until finally the context isn’t even there anymore. You’re left with this pile of kittens lolling all over one another. Warm with life, hopelessly unstable. And then to put these things out as saleable items, you call them finished products – at times it’s downright embarrassing just to think of it. Honestly, it can make me blush.”
— Haruki Murakami

You’re only a writer when you don’t know why you do it anymore, eventually there’s nothing else but the lie that tells the truth. You’re a writer the way a junky is a junky. It’s got little if nothing to do with anything else. If you’re still talking about “writer’s block” and wordcounts, there might still be hope for you. Turn back. Kick the habit.

I don’t write for you to come with me. We don’t need writing for that.

But since I have your attention, I’ve started working on my new book …

Norwegian Wood (from movie)Yesterday morning, I finished reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood.

It was raining, unusually cold for an August morning, and almost coal black. I couldn’t imagine a better morning to finish this particular book. I sat in silence for a good hour after closing the cover, thinking to myself. (Who else would I think to?) Beethoven was playing in the background. It colored all my thoughts for the rest of the day.

While reading, I suggested it to several people, and one of them asked me if I could explain the ending to her. She was looking for a sort of resolution that Murakami seems typically reticent to provide.

As a result, I’ve been thinking about resolutions. Well, I’ve been thinking about many things, but one of the threads is resolution. I’ll share my notes, and hope that you aren’t offended by “spoilers,” because personally, I could give a damn—any story worth reading is worth reading. It isn’t about the ending.

The idea of “spoilers” themselves gives us a starting point. There are certain expectations that most readers put on endings. It’s an unrealistic expectation, given the nature of life—often the endings that count the most seem to come unexpectedly, out of nowhere. You’re crossing the road thinking about the complications posed by the two women you love, and wham! a truck hits you. These endings resolve nothing.

My point is, endings and resolutions are not the same, and an ending doesn’t need to resolve anything. Something can end, people can drop out of our lives as if they had instead dropped off the face of a steep cliff. But there is no resolution. Similarly something can resolve, and in the process transform into something else, which is a way whereby an end can be turned into a beginning. The Death card in the Tarot is said to be a resolution, for instance. It isn’t necessarily an ending.

Now that we’ve got that straight, I’d like to return to Murakami’s ending for Norwegian Wood, and its lack of resolution.

I phoned Midori.

“I have to talk to you,” I said. “I have a million things to talk to you  about. A million things we have to talk about. All I want in this world is you. I want to see you and talk. I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning.”

Midori responded with a long, long silence – the silence of all the  misty rain in the world falling on all the new-mown lawns of the world. Forehead pressed against the glass, I shut my eyes and waited.

At last, Midori’s quiet voice broke the silence: “Where are you now?”

Where was I now? Gripping the receiver, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the phone box. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at  all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again I  called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place.

Here the protagonist is calling Midori—the girl he has decided he wants to be with—and she is distant, but she does take his call, which reaches her as if over this great expanse. When I read it, it seemed as if the camera was pulling away at the end of a movie, and he’s just this little piece of jetsam floating in the ocean. The protagonist fades into a sea of people, no longer central, no longer even notable. Just a face, a dot, nothing at all. More notable, you never find out what Midori’s reply is. There is no resolution.

This seems to be a common element in Murakami’s stories, for instance in many short stories in The Elephant Vanishes, and it is a tendency that I personally find refreshing, given how much pressure I’ve been handed as an author to always resolve everything. When you don’t, some people accuse you of bad or sloppy plot-work, as if you simply forgot to resolve that which you intentionally left unresolved.

Another misconception that arises from this approach is that it is at all new. It has been one way of ending a piece of classical music since Beethoven, radical that he was, played games with the form. At the end of some Beethoven pieces, he ends on an unresolved chord.

Murakami is employing the same kind of ending. In fact, I could almost hear that repeated, lingering chord at the end of the Moonlight Sonata as I read those closing lines to Norwegian Wood.

This was one of the many things which in his time was considered incredibly controversial and original. We can’t hear Beethoven now, I mean, we can’t hear how revolutionary he was. We’re too used to it because he was so successful in changing Western music. Success can come along with its own form of curse, so that while he may be immortalized, the reasons that he’s been immortalized are in some ways obscured by the enormity of his success.

My point is this: we shouldn’t feel pressure to resolve our stories in any particular way. Our job is to find what a story wants to be and help nurture it. Some pieces may call for a classic resolution, or even an ironic twist on the classic resolution, like at the end of the 7th symphony 2nd movement, where the ending seems to be almost an ironic telegraph—“here is the ending you were expecting.”

But if the resolution to a story would require a new book, then give your reader a wall of mist, rather than that. You aren’t law-bound to provide a resolution. Midori’s answer, given across that immense expanse, is the beginning of a new story, not the ending of that one.

Not all calls are answered. Not all chords are resolved.

 

(By the way, a little bit of self-patronage: my novel Fallen Nation: Party At The World’s End was just published. I’m going to go buy myself a bottle of wine and think about beginnings, now.)

 

I was a copy writer for about eight hours this week. I was employed by a content farm. I would produce weekly blogs for clients at about $15 a pop. After I established myself as a viable content farmer I would be given larger assignments, at $50 to $75 per piece. You can see where this is going. My first assignment was sort of a test run, to see if I was up to it. I had to produce roughly 300 hundred words on hair extensions. Hair. Extensions. … Here’s how that turned out:

Most famous celebrity haircuts for men

The Bieber – I propose we start calling this one ‘The Skywalker’ because that’s really how it all started. Want yourself a Bieber? Just swear off hair cuts for about six months or so. Every man has had a Bieber, whether intentional or not.

The Clooney – Why is George Clooney famous again? Because of that one hair cut in the 90s, a period in time when we really seemed to care about fictional character’s hairstyles (see also The Aniston). Consider that Clooney hasn’t had a bona fide success since, then behold the power of stylish hair. It can even garner you cultural relevance when none should be afforded.

The Levine (aka The Smug No-Hawk) – Adam Levine is semi famous for being a judge on a talent show called (in my mind) Sing Song Ding Dong, otherwise known as The Voice. He sports a vague Mohawk, or No-hawk, thusly ensuring mass appeal. Whereas a more traditional Mohawk might frighten old ladies, Levine looks like a guy you can take home to your mother. But that doesn’t mean he’s not cool. A quick muss job and suddenly he looks like one of the kids again, albeit unduly smug for someone of his status.

The Pattinson – Robert Pattinson is known for his messy, just rolled out of the coffin hair. Women shriek in terror when he even thinks about lopping off his windswept mane. The bum down the street has the same hairstyle, yet no one seeks his autograph. Odd.

The (oil slicked) Jersey Shore – This one’s been around a lot longer than the show with which it shares its name. It’s achieved by dumping a vat of gel into one’s hair then spending hours rolling it between your fingers into little pin-like spikes. Also used as a defensive strategy, good for head butting in bar room brawls.

Now, up to that point it was pretty rough going. I almost started the blog ‘I remember when hair extensions used to be for skanky women and whores…’ After that I said fuck hair extensions, let’s go balls deep on this concept until it’s begging for mercy. Which I did, and thusly wrote myself out of a job.

To say I’m desperate for money is an understatement. When you start considering the ‘jiggling titty cam’ to make ends meet you know you have a real problem. So when I came across this content farm thing I thought, fuck, why can’t I do that? Before the ink dried I felt like a failure. I heard Bill Hicks in my head. He was saying,

By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising…kill yourself. Thank you. Just planting seeds, planting seeds is all I’m doing. No joke here, really. Seriously, kill yourself, you have no rationalization for what you do, you are Satan’s little helpers. Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now.

To think that Hicks (PBUH) was looking at me from somewhere in the cosmos, offering a stank eye, that was too much to take. But I fought it off. Hicks didn’t have my money or legal problems. So I forged ahead. I gave the best copy I could muster. I wrote the shit out of that copy.

While everyone agreed what I wrote was funny, it was not marketable, as they say. Clients would balk at my tone, my language, and just about every other variable. It was too edgy. I had to be drier, less of an individual. I’m a writer, surely I could do that? Well, apparently not. Who the fuck wants to read a hair extension blog anyway?

Truman Capote likened the finishing of a novel to taking your child into the back yard and shooting it. As a parent, I’m intrigued by the mind that could have created that sentence. Still, I take his point. I was all but undone by the completion of my previous novel, cried for days, became physically ill.  Wracked with grief for what I’d created and destroyed. But not with this one. This one felt more like letting go of a red balloon. There was that sense of loss, but also elation. I’d seen its shape from the beginning, knew from the moment I conceived it, that it wasn’t mine to keep. They never are.

It helps that this is the shortest novel I’ve ever written, that it’s almost pure genre, that it’s undercut by comedy and that, unlike with previous works, I have an agent waiting for it. It helps that I have the distraction of another book launch, some other big events at home. I wonder how long I should leave it to germinate. Is that the word? Ferment, foment? Will it sprout wings? A tail? Bubble and toil? Stephen King says the longer the better. Six months, a year. That makes sense when you’re juggling best sellers, movie deals and miniseries. But for the rest of us, when is ripe rotten? I won’t be the same person in a year. I may not remember what it was like to be the me of 2011, writing this novel. Why I did it may not seem so important. There may be other distractions, a new project. I may, over time, not be able to connect with the urgencies that impelled these characters at this time, in these places. And as any (speculative) fiction writer knows, timing is everything. Secret video footage of Princess Diana was central to my first novel. By the time I finished it, there WAS secret footage of Princess Diana.  An editor and I agonized recently over a short story that mentioned Osama Bin Laden. What do you do? Insert ‘the late’?  Replace Bin Laden with Al Zawahri? Who?

So, I’m thinking weeks rather than months. Catch up on TNB posts, hang up a Gone To Google+ sign on my Facebook wall; pull weeds, try to stay away from the body in the back yard. Murdered child, phooey. Get real, Truman, if finishing a book was like killing your kid, there’d be hell to pay.

Looking around for some paper to start writing down a schedule for project development and releases over the next six months, I found an old marble journal that I kept a long time ago. Flipping through it, I saw an entry that made me realize something. While in some ways we change so much from day to day, week to week, and year to year, in another kind of mysterious way, we also don’t change all that much. (Though I’ve since revised my position on metaphysics, apparently. But that’s another thing.)

This was written in 1998.

I was driving home the other day with a friend when the car jolted to a halt. Sitting in the middle of the road was a blackbird. Or maybe a raven. I don’t really know birds. It was black.

“What did that mean?” he wondered, once the bird hopped out of the way.

“What do you mean what did that mean?” I asked reluctantly, when the car didn’t move. They symbolize death, right? But why? Apparently this was an important question.

And then it hit me:

All of our everyday experience is metaphorical of a deeper, unknown substance; it points at what we really are. The dark – that is, invisible – side of our persona.

A white car passed us on the road.

What does that mean?

I decided to categorize my all my responses and observations. To make a library of metaphors. I thought about the white car, and about the emotional undertone – subtle but present – that was connected to that moment. I thought about my naive presupposition that there is an object made of synthetically re-configured materials that is a white car. White is the color that it is not, everything that the object rejects as repugnant.

We live in a world of imagined constructs, never thinking about how this perceived world affects, reflects them; never seeing the intangible level the object points at; as symbols (like the word “car” points at what hides behind “car,” it points towards it but neither contains nor describes it.)

There is no higher validity in this metaphor and metaphysical perspective (which an artist calls upon to inform their work.) There is no Jewish father figure hiding behind the world of appearance, ready to chastise his unruly children. There is only You.

If you dig deep enough into the interaction of events in your life, realizing them to be transparent, metaphysical symbols rather than opaque material reality, you will begin to find what you are. Footsteps leading backwards and forwards towards your center. (Death. Incomprehensible non-existence.)  And you will also find that you are not what you think you are.

What a cheery “young adult” I was, huh?

If you haven’t read part one, it’s here.

Now, the obvious question is: Why am I suddenly so twitchy about live audience behaviour? Apart from my stuffy middle-aged Britishness, there’s a specific reason: I’ve been invited to enter the Literary Death Match, and I’m fucking bricking it (that’s English slang, it means “I am extremely apprehensive”).

Last weekend I gave a short improvised speech to fiction, poetry and non-fiction students at the close of the first Atheneum, a new writing program run by the Attic Institute in Portland. For the last eleven months I mentored four fiction students working on novels and short story collections. The following essay is a better herded version of my thoughts.

Your Mental Dojo

The Writers’ Dojo is a writing studio and community center in North Portland. The space has an open floor plan and draws the writer in with great lighting, couches, writing tables and the requisite full bookshelves with their requisite books. Large color photographs in frames provide visual commas on each wall. There isn’t too much art so you feel it’s been over designed or curated, but enough to provide the unexpected writing prompt. I’ve given workshops at the Dojo, my writing group occasionally meets there and I pop in for readings. Several writers I know work there every day. But for me the Writers’ Dojo is unobtainable, a mirage. It’s a twenty-minute freeway drive from my home in Southeast Portland, and since I define my world by where I can easily commute by bike, the Dojo might as well be in the Yukon.

But we need spaces like this, the clean, well lighted spaces, the rooms of our own. We need quiet places to write and reflect. Those rooms must be internal, rooms that you can carry with you.

Too many writers complain about where and why they cannot write. Your apartment is too cluttered. The cafe is too loud. This is all fine when you’ve had a certain amount of success, both with the printed word and in achieving a daily practice of writing. I have a friend who will not write on the ground floor of any building: that she has several books published and writes every day grants license to her eccentricity.

The clean well-lighted place, the Dojo with its stillness and sturdy wooden tables, some of which look like they were hacked off an old fir so recently you can smell the sap, these are spaces we need to recreate in our minds.

Because we’re all busy, with families, friends, lovers and/or the procurement of love, social obligations, that yoga class that we paid too much for to focus our minds, out of town visitors and the pushy charming devils of the digital age, the barrage of email and IM and SMS: acronyms that aid and abet our ADHD.

Two months after I started writing my novel Captain Freedom my first son was born. He had colic, a form of sleep torture developed in a North Korean lab. The parenting books suggested it would last three months. An early Tiger Baby over-achiever, my son’s colic lasted for eight months. It’s not that we didn’t sleep at all. He slept sometimes, but he was more likely to sleep between seven and midnight than say, three to five. Each night on several occasions we would be jerked out of our sleep, ripped awake by inconsolable wailing. Many pre-dawn mornings found me catching up on The New Yorker, pacing around the kitchen with him in the Baby Bjorn, reading aloud at two and/or three and/or four.

Colic is not particularly good for writing or healthy living, especially when it lasts for eight months, but regular writing had always been key to my sanity. So I woke up and wrote between five and seven-thirty in the morning, because this was the one time my boy was guaranteed to sleep. It was so early that I had tricked myself: I got up, made coffee and forgot to question how much better I’d feel when I had to go to work at nine if I’d slept those two and a half hours. Each morning my dog looked up from her bed and did not stir, only cocked up one ear which asked “are you fucking kidding me?”

That small dark recess, that fringe of the clock between five and seven-thirty became my clean well-lighted place.

I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but you need to find that space that’s yours alone, free from friends and kids and wives and husbands and partners. You need to say sorry, this is my time. And then you need to defend that space and time as if it were the Holy Land.

Talismans

You are all so very brave. Brave and fierce, all for different reasons. In prose and poetry you have confronted very different dragons. You have grappled with death in your families, with coming out after a lifetime in the closet, with translating stories between Malayalam and English, with your first public readings of your work, and you have met each request from your teachers with power and grace.

But we are often not so brave, especially alone at our desks, without the fortitude of our peers and mentors. Which is why I encourage you to seek out talismans. You will know what they are when you find them. I have encouraging emails from other writers printed out and tacked on the walls of my office. Whenever I give a reading, or comedy performance or I’m about to teach new material I hide beforehand and listen to the same psych-up song. Inside my black binder, where I keep many of the comedy essays and shorts I’ve written over the years, the binder which I take to every reading and performance and workshop, I have a photo of my older son. He was three months, right in the depths of colic, but he had just learned to smile. I put the picture in my binder when I gave my very first reading, almost seven years ago.

Along with art and maps and plots scrawled on butcher paper that clutter my office walls is a print-out of a quote from Samuel Beckett. Even though I’m nearsighted the words are in a font big enough so I can make them out from any point in the room without my glasses.

Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail again.

Fail better.

Find your own talisman to keep you brave. Sometimes you need to believe in magic.

Scaffolding

I grew up in and around New York City and when you live there you have to deal with scaffolding. The scaffolding is everywhere for building repair and window washing and it’s hideous: it’s like they’ve given braces to the buildings and sometimes the braces stay on for years. In New York you don’t need anything to increase your claustrophobia, but scaffolding crowds you in because the support poles take up significant room in the sidewalk. In the summer unidentifiable drops of moisture condense on the metal and find their way to your nape and if you are very fortunate they are colorless and you can pretend they are water drops.

There are a few advantages. Sometimes there will be scaffolding connecting your apartment all the way to the subway, and if you’re lucky all the way from the subway to your job, so you don’t need an umbrella for when it rains or spits out that horrible frozen brown they call snow.

Eventually the scaffolding comes off and you don’t recognize the building anymore. You’re surprised the building doesn’t topple.

Your mentors for the past eleven months were scaffolding. You didn’t need me to teach you to write fiction, you didn’t need your other instructors to teach you non-fiction or poetry. We gave you deadlines, you gave us pages and we met and worked through them, one-on-one. But you were the ones who wrote those pages, who met our arbitrary deadlines. Never once did I sit down and type those words for you.

Now eleven months later the scaffolding comes off. You will form new writing groups, you will mentor others, you will make your own arbitrary deadlines and meet them. You will keep writing, editing and questioning your work. The building does not fall.

One final thing: we are all peers. We are all students. We are all teachers.