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You call your book “An Absorbing Errand.” How come?

Isn’t it a great title? I stole it from Henry James. But the concept is wonderful. One of James’s characters claims that the only way to have true happiness is to have an absorbing errand – something that takes you outside of yourself and keeps you there. I think James means that your life is made much better if you’re engaged in something purposeful – like an art form or serious craft –  that gives you a lens through which to approach the world. So, if you’re a wood worker, you have a reason to look closely at the work of all the other wood workers who came before you. You might decide you need to visit lots of houses, or workshops, or other countries, just to see different pieces of furniture. And you’ll need to learn about and acquire various tools, and you might have to take classes or apprentice yourself, and befriend other woodworkers. Before long, trees will have huge new meaning to you. You suddenly have a rich way to enjoy life. And more than that, you have a reason to engage the world – to go outside yourself.

Artists seek to express deep emotions, and to capture what feels alive and vivid to them. And even without mania, much of art’s energy is sexual. Or, as the quotation attributed to Renoir succinctly put it, “I paint with my penis”.  One rarely hears women exclaiming anatomical equivalencies, but there’s little doubt that the silence does not negate the sensation. Aroused sexuality may stimulate creativity; intellectual and creative excitement may expand into seductive excitement, and both may boil over in messy ways. Furthermore, highly energetic, ambitious artists may possess large egos and large sexual appetites that want feeding.

“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to”
–Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

In 2005 Austin Kleon experienced a bad case of writer’s block. Right out of college, after having studied creative writing, he was struggling to write a short story. To break out of the rut he took a Sharpie to nearby newspapers and started crossing out sentences, leaving only a few words and large swaths of black ink in his wake. Unknowingly, he created something he calls Newspaper Blackout Poems.

Like many a-holes in New York, I do most of my writing in coffee shops.   My husband is one of those who finds this behavior reprehensible, although naturally being his faultless mate I am exempt from such damning judgment (I think).  And I do understand how silly it seems to a civilian – “Let me get this straight – you need to ‘concentrate’ on your ‘writing’ so you go to a public place where there will be Belle and Sebastian blasting, cheesedicks flirting with baristas, and dozens of other ‘writers’ working on their own laptops?”  The implication being that of course if you were really serious about the work, and not just with showing off to the world that you’re “writing” a “novel,” you would be sequestered at home, occasionally crumpling up pieces of paper and hurling them into the trash the way tortured writers always do in their generously cast biopics.  But who has paper anymore?  And for that matter, who in New York has a decent workspace at home?

Charles Bukowski

Over the years, I’ve been proud to have my fiction appear alongside writers I greatly admire (William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Margaret Atwood). The first poems I ever published came out in an issue of The Hudson Review that contained James Wright’s last-from his wonderful final book, This Journey. It meant a lot to me.

I’ve recently been doing a big clean out…and in staggering down memory lane, one name keeps appearing with baffling frequency…LYN LIFSHIN. She is everywhere. And of course, my humble publication record doesn’t even give the slightest hint of just how truly ubiquitous she is.

If there’s ever been a journal that has published poetry, the Vegas odds are she’s been in it. It’s astounding. Over 120 books she’s published–I think. Thousands of mag publications. Literally.

I’m torn between admiring such prolific output…and wondering about all the postage. I imagine all the cover letters…the envelopes laid out in long hallways (like M.C. Escher winding stairs). What must the machine behind that enterprise look like? Simply to keep so much material out in the mail is a logistical feat.

And keeping track. Last week I got a “thanks but no thanks” letter from the Indiana Review–for work submitted three years ago! I’d forgotten I’d written the piece, let alone sent it. Maybe Lyn’s just really well organized.

I think too of the loneliness of some poor editor of what will end up being a two issue journal or webzine…and they don’t get a submission from Lyn. How would you feel? Lyn, we’re waiting…

I’ve occasionally considered the possibility that Lyn isn’t actually an individual, but a code name for a cooperative.

Then the truly disturbing notion occurred that perhaps she’s doing a Joyce Carol Oates on us (one of the funniest articles I’ve ever read was on Oates, in the Atlantic Monthly, called “Stop Me Before I Write Again”)…not only publishing endlessly under her own name, but under a range of pseudonyms. Lyn might be sitting back and thinking, “Hmm, I’ve got 200 poems I wrote yesterday, how am I going to get them all out?” Yes, a ticklish question arises for Lyn Lifshin scholars-just how much contemporary poetry is she responsible for?

Questions fill my mind in the case of writers like Lifshin and Oates. Do they lick all the stamps themselves? Have they ever lost a piece of writing? I just found a whole book I’d forgotten about and am resurrecting. A BOOK-not one poem or story. Admittedly, one of the reasons I’d forgotten about the book is that it was written in a period of deep alcoholic and narcotic confusion in Tonga, where it actually seemed like a reasonable proposition to shoot a speargun at a government official trying to protect himself with a giant tortoiseshell (I got the bastard, don’t you worry–right in the thigh-and then I got my passport back).

I watched 200 handwritten pages blow out the window of a twin engine Otter over Papua New Guinea and seriously considered going after them (I was skydiving then and figured the jungle canopy would be kind to me). Then I thought they looked rather lovely floating down. They reminded me of a great moment at an old Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference concerning the soon to die John Gardner–his angry ex-wife had hired a plane to drop leaflets all over sunny green Middlebury, exposing his cadlike behavior. My friend Stanley Elkin, who had to walk with a cane because of MS, insisted I scurry after some. Tim O’Brien and I laughed ourselves sick.

I wonder too if Lyn and Joyce are now diligent about backing up. They’d be good backers up. Press Save. Press Send. I only recently lost 150 pages in a computer crash. Bang. Gone. Imagine how Lyn and Joyce would feel.

I’m very suspicious of people who are well organized and save everything. Hunter S. Thompson (someone you’d think I’d be pretty supportive of) worried me with his neatly mimeographed letters.

As Miles Davis once said…and I happened to hear because I was the only one with him…he wasn’t exactly talking to me…”Not all music has to be heard to be listened to.” It was kind of a Bruce Lee insight.

Some writers are so prolific you wonder how they have time to even proofread their work, let alone actually read it back and consider. William T. Vollman is a good example. You can skip not just pages, but whole sections. Hell, you can skip books.

What’s my point? Well, I don’t apologize for that speargun incident one bit. That dill hole had it coming and I nailed him. I tracked him down and I hit the target. It happened in the lobby of the Dateline Hotel. I pressure packed him and reassured the guests who witnessed it. “Just a personal matter,” I said.

It’s easy to forget words-and let’s face it, most of them should be forgotten. I couldn’t quote a Lyn Lifshin poem to save my balls. You remember people you wound-and help.

The strategy of trying to put out as much as you can into the fossil record of culture is fair. Just as long as it has the thzing. That’s what the speargun sounded like.

Saknussemm on the Beach

It was beautiful. I took a pompous little civil servant down, on the run, at 10 feet, missing a major artery. I got my passport back and legal clearance to leave the country. I left behind the book I was writing then. Cost of doing business. It’s taken me a long time to learn just what business I’m in.

It’s called Thzing. Our mission statement is “Wounding and helping.” We choose our shots-and when to extend a hand. Let others crank shit out.

Tante Nan made ragdolls by hand. She lived on a family farm in the country, near sugar cane fields. She once had been busy outdoors, a self-sufficient wife and mother with eggs to gather, animals to slaughter, and crops to tend. My great-great aunt was elderly when she sat down with fabric and thread to create the toys.

It has come to my attention, and perhaps yours as well, that virtually everyone in the digital age considers him- or herself an artist. A glance at Facebook is like a trek through the Casbah, with so many people hawking their photos, their music, their writings, and so on.

How can a seasoned artist make a buck in such a climate? It was never easy, and it’s getting harder all the time, as the competition expands. Soon aspiring creative types will outnumber regular folk, who can only spend but so much money on things that—let’s face it—are almost always headed for permanent obscurity. Then, too, a lot of “artists” give their stuff away for free, leading audiences to think all creative output should be free, unless, for instance, it’s written by Jonathan Franzen, whose wealth must approach Illuminati levels if he charges by the metaphor.

I was asked recently to explain what I’m doing here. At first I thought the inquiry was directed at some big cosmic question, like, What are you doing here, on earth? Or, likewise, What is the meaning of your life? Assuming that to be the question, I answered honestly: I haven’t a clue. But my interlocutor was not asking the metaphysical question. The question was directed to my writing, as in, What do you write about? It is a more embarrassing question to answer, actually. Embarrassing because, again, I haven’t a clue. People really don’t expect you to be able to answer the big cosmic questions. The questions have been around too long and everyone knows there aren’t really any answers. But the more focused question, like what do you write about? or the dinner party question, What do you do? those questions are due an answer. (The dinner party question drives me crazy. What do I do? I do what everyone else does: eat, sleep, shit, work, die. The real question being asked is: Are you above or below my socio-economic caste?–a disdainful and not-so-coy method of evaluation. But, for god’s sake, just come out and ask it straight-up.) The question, again, was What are I doing here? Here being this forum, TNB, or likewise my blog, or other such efforts. What do I write about? What am I doing here? The question achingly begs the sad answer: I haven’t a clue.

Few books in recent memory have caused as much of a stir as Reality Hunger, the 219-page “manifesto” by David Shields.

It’s a book that defies easy classification.

An argument.  A clarion call.  An affront.  A life story.

An unapologetic assault on the literary status quo.

An essay-memoir-pointillistic-literary-collage-and-exercise-in-appropriation-art, one which argues that a new artistic movement is forming, a movement which prizes as its virtues things like randomness, self-reflexivity, reader/viewer participation, and the total obliteration of the line between fiction and nonfiction.

The book has been greeted as a revelation.  A game-changer.  A thunderous ars poetica.

The book has been greeted as reprehensible.  Tired.  An irresponsible attempt to subvert existing copyright law, all while generating a massive wave of cheap publicity.

Writers in particular have reacted strongly to the book.  Some with venemous anger; others, a fit of nervousness; others still with unbridled enthusiasm.

“To call something a manifesto is a brave step,” writes Luc Sante in the New York Times.  “It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship.”

Shields—as far as I can tell—is still afloat, and he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his life, his work, and his assessment of the cultural moment.

Recess

By Mary Hendrie

Writing

A couple weeks ago, I decided to try writing fiction, something I have told myself for a very long time that I simply couldn’t do. I started by putting on my headphones and opening a blank text file and typing away. Then I did it again. And again. Until a character started to emerge, and I started to learn about her life. It started out boring and difficult. It was very slow going, but it was also rewarding work. Like all writers (and perhaps all human beings), I live with some people I call my inner critics. They are noisy, rude, condescending, and generally counter-productive. But when the work is exciting enough, it’s possible to shut them up long enough to get something done.

So, for the past couple weeks, I managed to keep my inner critics hushed up long enough to write a first draft of a short story. As soon as the draft was complete, I handed it off to a couple trusted readers, and immediately the critics began chomping at the bit to get out and make some noise. Tempting as it is to stuff the critics further down into my already crowded psyche or to submit to feeling tortured and insane while they engage in a psychological prison riot, I believe that even my inner critics are part of myself, so today, I let them out to breathe.

The scene was like this.

It was the first warm day in a very long time, and the third graders at the local Catholic elementary school were going absolutely stir crazy to get outside. The first couple hours of the day felt interminable. They dragged their feet through every work sheet, math problem, and sentence diagram. Lunch gave them a glimmer of hope despite the bland so-called “spaghetti.” They ate in a hurry, guzzled down their milk, then dashed outside for recess. That’s when the screaming started, along with the face-making, booger flicking, and creative name calling. Some of them spun in circles while counting to thirty, then attempted to run full bore across the school yard. Some of them puked. But that’s all rather predictable for kids who have been cooped up too long.

But then something truly strange happened. Once the kids worked out all their unruly energy, they came back to me, formed a circle around me, and then proceeded to hold some kind of intervention. It was awful. It was like the “the cheese stands alone” verse of “The Farmer and the Dale.” And the worst part was that they all appeared to have an absurd, kind, over-protective concern for me. They said stuff like, “Sweetheart, this fiction thing you’re trying … we understand that you want to branch out and expand your creative abilities, but … maybe you should stick to poetry and nonfiction.”

“Yeah,” another piped up. “Poetry doesn’t even require a plot. You don’t even really have to make things up. You can just play with pretty words. It’s easy.”

A grumpy one off to the side said, “Well, poetry’s not exactly easy, but at least you’re good at it … sortof. I mean, you’ve done it before. So, technically you know how to do it. You’re not that good, but …”

“Well, what about nonfiction? The story and the characters are already there, so all you have to do is write them down …”

“Yeah, but it’s hard to get that stuff right. Real, believable people on the page? I think you’re asking too much of her.”

“All we’re saying is maybe you’ve set your sights too high.”

“Maybe work more on what you know already.”

“Maybe take a break from writing for a while.”

At this, the crowd lost focus and began to murmur among themselves. First in whispers, and then in shouts. They gave contradictory advice of all kinds but they did agree on one thing: I should probably give up because I’m not really as good as I’d hoped. Finally, I spoke up.

“Um. Guys? ” They continued to talk over me. “Guys!” Finally, silence. “The draft is written. It’s out of my hands now. I’ve given it to some people who will read it, and I hope they will do so kindly. They will probably give me some suggestions. And then I can decide to go on with the piece or not.”

“You GAVE someone your DRAFT?” Someone shouted.

“Oh sweet Jesus. We’re really in for it now. I mean, I saw that draft with my own eyes, and it was not pretty.”

“The typos!”

“The awkward dialogue!”

“The plot holes!”

“They’re going to think you’re an idiot! Seriously. Who would write something like that and call it a story?”

“Of course, WE know you’re not an idiot. We know it’s just a first draft. We know it’s a work in progress. But why would you go showing anyone something in that state?”

I cringed but held my ground. The piece was out there in the world now, incomplete and flawed as it may be. It’s out there. So be it. Luckily the recess bell rang just as the kiddos were looking too exasperated to go on. They got up from where they had been seated on the grass. Some of them had little twigs stuck to the backs of their chubby thighs. Their cow licks were going wild. They smelled of people who were too young to use deodorant but old enough to start needing it. They were sticky around their mouths and fingers. Some of them gave me mournful looks and kicked the dirt as they shuffled past me and back toward their classrooms.

It’s an odd sort of victory, but it seems I won, simply by outlasting them.

Of course, a victory of this kind is also temporary. Every day, every time I sit down to write, and every time I send off a story, poem or essay, they begin to chime in. I do my best to lull them to sleep with music or lure them away with candy or otherwise shut them up long enough to write a few thousand words. Luckily, having seen them for who they really are, I find them much more bearable. They’re not the grumpy old men who used to hang out at the coffee shop where I worked, because deep down, I never cared what those assholes thought. They’re not my junior high school English teacher who shamed me to no end when she found a note I’d written containing lots of foul words regarding the boys in my class. They’re not my boss because I don’t even care if he understands my creative endeavors, and that ain’t what he pays me for anyway. They’re not even my husband because luckily, he loves me even if my first draft sucks, and even if my second, third and fourth drafts don’t get any better. They are just kids. Sticky, smelly, ignorant yet opinionated children who need a chance to scream and shout and act immature yet condescending before they have to go back to class, sit in their desk and learn something.

The perennial debate on the technological threat to the institution of the novel rages on flatmancrooked.com (and elsewhere)-see Shya Scanlon’s excellent Faster Times piece here, and Mike Shatzkin’s note on ebooks-but there’s not much on this on TNB, as far as I can see…

So, in the interests of stimulating debate, I include an email exchange between TNB contributors Kip Tobin, Megan Power, and myself which took place off the blog last month.

With the twentieth century only now starting to recede into the distance a little bit, spending a little time working out what one doesn’t believe in somehow seems to be a better use of time than deciding what one does.

For what it’s worth, here’s my five so far:

Nihi List Five

1. Boundless individual economic mobility

2. Crab sticks

3. Guy Ritchie

4. Twittering as an art form

5. Hypnotism

“It’s easy to be cynical,” people say. Does it follow then that being a nihilist is like falling off a log?

Rejecting all systems of belief or belonging on the basis of their existence, no matter how attractive or unattractive they might be?…

I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty difficult to me.

100% pure negativity has got to be pretty exhausting. How does the average nihilist get up in the morning? Do they have to set fire to the sheets to give themselves an impetus to get out of bed? (On the wrong side, obviously.)

Maybe the true nihilist never sleeps, just so he can pack the maximum amount of swingeing spite into the day.

Those same people who tend to profess a disbelief in everything also say, “do what you want as long as you’re happy”. It’s the ethics of the Knightsbridge Hippie:

Place yourself at the centre of the universe!

Choosing a position in the middle of opposing forces and seeking to balance their flow through the body is the first principle of the physical expression of the doctrine of Taoism: ‘Yang’ approximate to the tendency to disperse, and ‘yin’ to the tendency to gather.

The movements of Taoism’s physical mode of expression—the ancient art of Tai Chi—attempt to describe this circuit of equal and opposite intensities in physical space with as little entropy as possible. Yet, it’s still almost impossible not to regard the Self as the epicentre of the flux.

Bertrand Russell’s view of Taoist precepts was of a system describing, “production without possession, action without self-assertion, development without domination”. Especially now, in the age of ‘free’ content, producing anything without a specific, fixed place for it assured is to be subject to the same kind of Janus-faced condition:

The maintenance of a dedicated passion and zealous commitment to a piece of work and a blithe indifference to whether or not anyone might ever value experience of it at some time in the near (or distant) future.

As Captain Beefheart so sanguinely said (from his position as a professional musician),

“Music should be free, because from where I got it, I didn’t have to pay for it.”

Photo by Carl Van Vechten (CC)

Writing for Esquire in 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald mentioned the necessity of accommodating two equal and opposite ideas in the head at the same time (appoximate to Keats’ ideas of negative capability), commented on here by Allen Ginsberg in an interview with John Lofton from Harper’s in 1990:

“…the quality of a very great poet like Shakespeare was his ability to contain opposite ideas in the mind without an irritable reaching out after fact and reason. Meaning that that part of the mind which judges, and irritably insists on either black or white, is only a small part of the mind. The larger mind observes the contradiction, and contains those contradictions. The mind that notices that it contradicts itself is bigger than the smaller mind that is taking one side or the other.”

But doesn’t even that place the writer’s Ego at the centre of things?

Paying even scant attention to the media, it’s tempting to think that maybe all that any of us has ever been, or can ever aspire to be, is an acted upon product of economic propensities: Skills, qualifications, career choices; relationships and peers even start to seem like nothing more than signs and signifiers of an upset balance of payments, or the almighty Budget Deficit inscribed in human flesh.

Is there more to life than this, and more importantly, is anyone writing about it, now that Vonnegut, Deleuze, Guattari, David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson and J.G. Ballard are all dead?

The Occam’s Razor of Thatcherism/Reaganomics and is that it’s foolhardy to believe in anything other than yourself. But what happens when the individual realises he is no longer his own hero?

A lot of Chuck Palahniuk’s work is about the necessity of finding something larger than the self to believe in, and to hitch the wagon to, (especially ‘Fight Club’). As many contemporary writers and theorists have pointed out at length, the mind has a desire for belonging, if not a desire to be led (the source of and inherent attraction of fascism, and the psychological explanation of religion), but can anyone point me in the direction of any writers that have really addressed the problem of distortion by the writer’s Ego as the point of reference for everything?

Until we get past that, aren’t we all doomed to repeating the same literary mistakes of the last hundred years?

IMAGES: Screen grab from clip of ‘The Big Lebowski’ posted on youtube.com, all others used under CC Creative Commons licence.

This past February, at this year’s AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago, many of the overheard conversations did not involve the usual topics—Where’s the best place in the city to score a discount bottle of Booker’s bourbon?Do you know anyone who brought a bag of weed?Let’s get drunk/stoned, sit in a circle in someone’s hotel room and read some poetry/fiction/creative nonfiction, then seduce our former Russian Lit/Forms/Creative Writing Pedagogy professor.