Literature (and Curling) is Not Meaningless: A Conversation between Derek Maine & Grant Maierhofer on The Compleat LungfishBy Derek Maine
April 09, 2022
Click here to purchase a copy of Grant Maierhofer’s The Compleat Lungfish.
Derek Maine: I’m writing from the train. I am taking the train up to DC, from North Carolina where I live, with my eight-year-old daughter. I am taking her to visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I like reading & writing on a train. I like watching the landscapes pass by, some slow, others more quickly, and I like seeing my daughter with her headphones on, watching her shows while I read and write. Both of us together, but also consciously connected to our entertainments – – – our own distractions. I think about the connection of our lonely consciousnesses a lot, and something of your work stirs me toward these thoughts every time. There’s a line in Gass’s The Tunnel where our despicable narrator says something about his literature being a container for his consciousness. Do you feel any connection to this in your own work? Are you intentional about representing something of the experience of living in your literature? Where do you think these urges come from? Sometimes I worry that I don’t exist without a record of it and creating literature is leaving clues, for someone further along, at some distant, inconceivable date, to decipher, and that my reading is deciphering those clues left for me. Your work gives me a sense of trying to come to terms with having to exist. Peripatet (Inside the Castle, 2019) seemed to me to answer at least some of these questions of how to endure by pointing to literature, art, film, and entertainments generally – – – both the consumption and creation as salvation. I feel a subtle shift with The Compleat Lungfish (Apocalypse Party, 2022), where something more primal (or base, I guess, in Bataille language) is perhaps more than simply a drive to endure but there may actually be a construct of meaning to be found within it, satisfactory enough to contain the possibility of enjoying the struggle (and yet further along the philosophical track than tricking ourselves into imagining Sisyphus happy). Do these two constructs for enduring build off each other, or exist separately, or do you think you have experienced a shift in your thinking?
My questions might all be like this. And I want you to feel comfortable ignoring every aspect of my bullshit and talking about whatever you would like to talk about, for as little or as long as you like, if you do not connect in any way to my babbling. There exists, I think, these beautiful moments (almost like sparks, and just as fleeting, bright, & explosive – charged with an energy we cannot bottle or contain) where two consciousnesses are in synch, where one idea flows to the next and our thoughts are like radio waves floating through the air on a journey to locate that other consciousness and create that spark. You use repetition in this work (and across your works) and nod to it, sometimes in a self-deprecating way. I love it. There is one image in particular of the narrator in a bathtub, in Chicago I think, reading Bolaño or Exley (or both). It shows up in both Peripatet and The Compleat Lungfish. When I read about this moment in time, I feel less alone. I feel like I was there, with the narrator, because I was once, and because the moment that I was there I felt lonely, and then reading your description of the moment, a personal, private moment, I feel less alone as a reader. I think great literature can do that for the reader, but what about for the other end of that exchange – does a connection with the reader complete a work for you or is a reader incidental (or a burden). Do you think of a reader when you are working? How so or why not?
I promise this whole exchange won’t be like this. I am like this today. I don’t know why. I get older, though, and I let it happen however it happens.
Grant Maierhofer: Thank you for this. One of the things I miss most about living in Chicago is the trains. I used to think I read more because I have just kind of gotten dumber with time, and probably there’s some truth to that, but part of it too was living in Chicago and having that guaranteed thirty or so minutes between locations. I hope to take more Amtrak trips in time because I do feel there’s something really literary about that kind of travel–Mathias Enard’s Zone is probably my favorite illustrations of this, though there’s that Evenson story–I think it’s called Munich but that doesn’t seem right, it’s more fucked up than Zone–that I think’s in Altmann’s Tongue.
I do tend to think of writing in terms of containing consciousnesses, though it’s probably less direct than it was when I was starting out. I started writing because of this feeling of a kind of overflow when I was in rehab in my mid-to-late teens. I liked and still have fondness for AA and NA, and I’ve had very positive experiences with therapy, and medication, and being in treatment. When I was in there, though, the second time, it became clear that there were thoughts I was thinking, and feelings I was having, that wouldn’t be addressed in meetings. Maybe this isn’t exactly correct, but it’s how I felt. I started to think about writing, and music, and art more generally, as things that could address the discomfort, and ugliness, and anger and just directionless energy, and I think if nothing else time has proven this to be true, for me.
I also, and I don’t know why this is, but I also hated the notion of dying without leaving something behind. I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation since I was seven or so, when I was put into an outpatient program for a kind of generalized misery my family and teachers were concerned about. The flipside I guess, of thinking often about killing yourself, is an amplified sense that you might soon die, and with that there was a panic that I hadn’t done anything to leave a mark, and writing, and art came in as a possible solution to this problem.
Part of the trouble with thinking like this, though, and arriving at writing because of personal emotional and mental health concerns, is that I’m operating from that space first and foremost rather than one of simply loving literature. Because of that I enjoy Gass’ estimation and writing in Gass’ vein because although it was probably split down the middle for Gass between motivation via aesthetics and motivation via frustration and emotion, whereas for me it’s probably closer to 20/80. Books as containers, then, of documents of recording, of experiential things, tend to appeal to me far more than novels or memoirs or collections that succeed really well at being great novels, great memoirs, or great collections. An actual container of consciousness looks far more like Daniel Aaron’s Commonplace Book than it does A Little Life. I can appreciate the latter but I’m always going to get far more from the former.
I do think a transmission of experience in writing is very important to me. I was talking to my wife about the Lungfish book and she would ask me about something in it and I struggled to recall exactly what she was talking about. I wrote the book fast, based on a prompt I’d submitted and been rejected for where I’d decided to align my interest in writing something like Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler–and, honestly, to enter my only work with a title utilizing “Compleat,” which I’d always intended–and art, and the band Lungfish. Ben at Apocalypse Party was encouraging based on that short section, and over the next three weeks or so I wrote the book, in a manner that’s served me relatively well for most of my recent writing. My wife asked me that and I felt bad, like I was a fraud for not remembering something in this book I’d worked on. Then I said maybe that’s why I think of writing as performative. You begin a project, and you do what you need to do to find the end of that project, and then you move on. Scott Walker talked about how listening back over his music was a nightmare, and that always stuck with me even when it was just an excuse for me hating writing because my early writing really sucked and was cringey to work through. Now it resonates with me in this experiential sense. I can’t imagine Vito Acconci could’ve recounted every single thing he did underneath that wooden stage as audience members milled in and out, but that doesn’t mean his efforts were a charade or something. So the book becomes a record of that process of making it.
I do like the idea of some movement between the two books, and I think it’s in line with my own thinking. I think of Peripatet as a very open work, in large part because of the brilliant design stuff John at Inside the Castle did. It embraces disparity, and various readings, and doesn’t necessarily do much to give the effect of one stable text, but rather a bunch of pieces sort of orbiting one another–I love the Lawrence Weiner thing at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, bits and pieces put together to create the semblance of a whole, however it goes. This Lungfish book, then, feels more contained, and more I guess yawpy, where a few different elements are pushed into one another more closely, and rolled between hands until the thing is compressed. I’m very interested in the philosophical novel as a tradition lately, which also builds off of a recent preference for shorter books, both to read and to write. DeLillo’s newer stuff, especially The Silence and Point Omega, and then a book like Sartre’s Nausea, which feels like a book compressed from the Céline impulse and the Camus impulse. The Compleat Lungfish is in response to that, to an idea that literature can have an application closer to research, and recording, and documentation, and can be used for effects that a reader might willingly enter into to welcome change, because of the promise by the writer of only bending their ear for a short time. Dennis Cooper’s books, too, tend toward the short, and seem made of certain recursive interests and preoccupations that aren’t made to billow out into a traditional narrative, but are picked at and reworked in various textual ways to heighten the experience.
I’m very glad the repetition registered in a positive way. I’ve been scared, sometimes, that I’d unknowingly do it and there’d be no effect and it would just be an indicator of my being out of notions for the work. Being intentional about it has helped that, definitely. I remember reading Jarett Kobek talking about recurring characters, which for authors is maybe perceived as old-fashioned at this point, but I really like it. Repetition, then, is a way of giving a reader some sense of connectivity if they’re going to read more than one of my books, and a way of revisiting things personally that I might feel differently about from time to time. I loved talking with Lucy Corin on that FC2 podcast Brian Conn has put together because right away she hit me with these sort of talismans that stood out when she was reading the story we discussed. Gas stations were on there, and bathrooms, and mirrors, and some others I can’t remember. I felt so honored to be read that way, that these preoccupations that I hold on a very micro level could register with someone. I think the repetition ties to this as well.
I’ve sort of run the gamut in terms of my sense of a reader when it comes to my stuff. I started out very desiring of as many eyes as possible, I think, or with this feeling that publishing and being read meant that I made it, whatever that means. Attending a grad program I think I got a little resentful of audiences, and a book like Gag or Clog definitely came out of that. Then I felt a bit weird because most of the people who read me seemed to be writers themselves, and I got really cynical and figured it just meant my work had no application outside of the minds of people who weren’t also doing what I was doing. I realize now how wrongheaded that last one is, in particular. I guess the idea of a “writer’s writer” seemed potentially negative to me, like why wouldn’t anybody want to read your stuff if you tried to make it interesting and worthwhile and tried to take risks. Now I see that giving another writer permission through your work to do what they feel they need to do is one of the highest honors I’ll ever reach, if I ever do reach it. I read to find out whether I could do X in my work and pull it off, and opening books that undid my sense of what writing could be felt like entering a warm cabin filled with people who would hold me, and tell me to persist, and encourage me. I think the depressive side of me reduces this kind of thing in the most cynical possible light, but a reader is an honor I can’t afford to take lightly at this point, even if it’s one person, and even then if it’s for one part of one book. I used to love going to punk shows because sitting there and knowing I was in that room with people connecting over this very visceral, awkward, emotive stuff felt incredible, like an impossibility or something. That’s basically how I feel now about any potential reader. When I’m working, it’s to attempt to accomplish this thing I’ve conceived of but won’t fully articulate until it’s finished, but the sustenance throughout is attempting to offer a vulnerability, a presence to someone who might feel better having went through it too.
Derek Maine: This was an incredible letter to open up, read, re-read, and just a lovely gift of your time, attention, & talents. I’m sorry I didn’t write back sooner with the next couple of questions. It feels strange to receive something so eloquent & considered, so intimate in its way, & then let it sit on a machine without a reply. At the same time, it feels tacky somehow to reply with a “hey, great stuff, holler back soon!” Or however it is we’re supposed to communicate. It’s very difficult to switch between modes of communicating. I always feel like I need a warm-up period. I can’t be interesting on demand. Most of the time I am eating chips and grunting. Maybe there is just no way to do anything without feeling stupid about it. I liked the “dumb” and “stupid” refrains in The Compleat Lungfish, and the awareness of our human state. I think a lot about how we sit at the top of a food chain and is the price of not having to worry too much about something eating you really worth the price of knowing you will die and not exist one day forever and so too for everyone you will ever love? I think three-quarters up the way of the food chain seems nicer. There were definitely elements of thinking of our selves compared to the Lungfish that rang those chords for me. I wonder if most readers will feel the stronger connection with the music and the band and the juxtaposition between our ‘selves’ and the band or the Lungfish and the band. Music, like a lot of entertainments (including, often, even literature) acts, for me at least, like a kind of drowning out of my consciousness – like my thoughts are too scary & occasionally even possibly harmful and I need, just to muddle through the string of hours and days making up a life, a complete immersion into a piece of art. Sound does this so well because you can turn it up really fucking loud. It’s hard to think bad thoughts about yourself when you can’t hear over the guitars and drums and screaming. God, I loved your descriptions of those rooms. We went to house shows a lot. I played in a lot too. The energy was exactly what I needed at that time in my life. That kind of collective release. The Compleat Lungfish is a much more personal and precise way for one artist (the writer) to interact and respond to another (the band). I have read a few of the 33 1/3 series books. Have you read any? Any you like? Did you feel any connection to that project while working on this? The one’s I’ve read are much more focused on telling the history of an album and have an archivist role and philosophy. That’s good. I am glad that exists. But I do wish we built on each other’s creations more, across different artistic disciplines, and that we used creative work, at least at times, as a kind of call and response. What was your impetus for approaching the music this way? Did you get in touch with any members of the band?
I’m glad you mentioned the work John from Inside the Castle did on Peripatet because it gives me a good excuse to get into some of the textual stuff going on in your work. I have to say up front that I am not really inclined towards the typography, typesetting, and design as component of the text typically. Twice now you’ve released books, in Peripatet and The Compleat Lungfish where I had to shed any preconceived notions (or biases against) I have about design and its relationship to the work. The way the design works here is incredible, from the justification to the beautiful small block of text on each page that asks of the reader a kind of sustained, but brief, focus which really pays off when you give into it. I know Mike Corrao did the design. How was that process? Did you write knowing what the design would ultimately be? There seem too many happy accidents where meaning marries form for you to have written it all totally oblivious to the way the work would be presented. Did you have the idea for the interior design of the book, or a general idea, or is that something Mike came to you with? I could go on, basically anything of interest to you related to the design is going to be incredibly interesting to me.
Grant Maierhofer: I do feel compelled to think of our position within the sort of food chain on earth or in a larger sense. I feel like certain more distant future utopian sci-fi projects offer a sense of harmony that probably won’t take place. Even I think the fourth Star Trek film with the whales communicating implies a level of human appreciation for the remaining creatures on earth we might never see on a larger scale. I guess I’m more frequently concerned with what you talked about and the level of comfort we seem to be in and what that’s done to do the human being. I know that we’re lucky, but so many aspects of living have only existed for the very recent present and it’s tough to gauge the ways in which we might be better off.
I like the Lungfish as an animal because it does something we don’t hardly talk about, with its sort of hibernation process, slowing its bodily functions to an almost complete stop. I got similarly interested in the Tardigrade whenever I first heard of it, because I find both space and the deeper parts of the ocean terrifying and can get caught up thinking about that sort of thing. Lately my conception about most of this stuff has been around the Nietzsche passages about “amor fati,” this very intentional way of looking at life and trying to do away with things we’d want changed, instead trying to embrace our lives as they are so that things like beauty can have more ample room to present themselves. I think especially in the early years of trying to write everything is desire, and that’s good, but I think this book and this point in my life are much more interested in a returning to things as they are, and pushing toward that rather than assuming some external device or notion for a project deserves the most attention.
I’ve read a number of the 33 1/3 books, definitely. I tried for I think three years running to get a proposal accepted on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. I made it to the finals one year but that was it. Chris Ott’s Joy Division book is pretty great. I’ve decided that if they ever do another open call I’m gonna propose one on Lil Ugly Mane’s Mista Thug Isolation. I got so fixated that I wrote so much on the Iggy Pop thing and it was always such a blow not to be accepted. I love the book on Bowie’s Low, and can’t wait for Jarett Kobek’s on ODB. I really love the sort of cross-pollinating going on in various fields. I’ll never be able to read enough books to rival the amount of TV and film or music I’ve consumed, so I’m always kind of extra paying attention to artists and artworks and whatnot I might write from or about. I think there are some dud examples too, like books that tried to capitalize on what TV does well, or the constant chatter about TV series that are novelistic. That interests me far less than the genuine article in either pursuit, and a writer who’s just writing from their relationship to all this stuff rather than trying to plug TV into literature are important to me. I think Tan Lin is that, as is Jeffrey DeShell, especially with In Heaven Everything Is Fine and Arthouse. Jean-Phillipe Toussaint Television too, and then Wallace of course. The music parallel is maybe most important for me because music has always been the first thing I went to if I wanted to go to a mood, a feeling, or some mode of expression in art/entertainment. I love to walk, and think of walking as a literary thing, and think of walks in terms of either music or recorded speech. I tried to write in a way that honored the band Lungfish, and my appreciation for them, and sort of rendered my feelings about their work in writing via repetition and the like. I think a lot about how Proust was largely inspired by an art critic, by John Ruskin, and I’m often really drawn to critics and criticism because they’re engaging with writing in a way I find really sustaining and compelling. I like Dave Hickey, for instance, and that he started as a fiction writer but moved to criticism because he wanted to talk about objects, and Travis Jeppesen has done a lot with criticism that I think informs his other work in turn, and there are people like yourself or Mike Corrao who are constantly engaging with writing and art online. I don’t necessarily know what the equation is in terms of what to embrace when or whether music offers certain writers more than others, but writers who open themselves to the kind of sprawling textual environment surrounding us always are so much more interesting and vibrant than those who remove themselves from it. They’ve got their pluses too, but I’m drawn to the work of artists who don’t seem like exceptions to what I understand to be the state of the human being in this world.
In terms of the design stuff with this book, at the outset I’m not certain of the aspects that went into its final state were because of things I’d talked about, as I only talked to Ben about that, but my sense of it was similar to Letters to Wendy’s. Both Ben and I loved the idea of it being a sort of short and stout book like that, and although we weren’t able to do that size in the end I think because of the printer, the choice to square the text does seem in line with that. I’m very interested lately in short books, both reading them and writing them, and I’m very interested in the writing being concise, and satisfying to digest in either large or small amounts. So I wrote the book as fragments, meant to be ingested at any pace, and the squaring does seem in line with that mode of reading. Andrew Weatherhead’s $50,000 is one of my favorite recent books in terms of its relationship between author and reader. It’s a fairly forgiving work, I think, in that it’s not asking of its readers the same thing that Pynchon asks. There have been a couple examples of writers favoring the Pynchon method in offering contemporary readers something exciting and captivating, but to at least a small extent they seem to imply that literature ought to remain of a piece with nineteenth century tomes, and in a moment wherein even a two hour film registers as a bit long, I’m skeptical of that mindset. That whole notion of being like fuck the reader, history will prove me right, and then putting out another 1200-page book about New York City, I don’t know, it seems bizarre to me. Exceptions would be sort of endurance projects, like Robert Shields’ journals, or Rising Up and Rising Down, or others, but with those I might read seventy pages and then think about them two years later and spend the night looking into them, so I’m not exactly interested in reading them so much as living on the same planet as them for a time. Sorry, I’m veering off. My sense was a book of fragments, with these sectional breaks to differentiate pieces as I was putting the manuscript together, modeled on a short and squat little book like Letters to Wendy’s. In terms of my input on design that’s the majority of what I’d talked to Ben about, and I’m not sure whether this was mentioned to Mike or he was encouraged to have at it. Either way that’s what came back to me and I loved it and that’s what the final book is. Part of me hopes that someday that little square version is doable, with the same extremely minimal cover as Letters to Wendy’s, but who knows. With Peripatet I struggle to remember what input I gave. That manuscript was definitely messier than Lungfish, with long strands of links and whatnot and photographs and lots of other things. I’ve done very weird books with John since Gag, and my experience is usually frontloaded with lots of writers and books and hopes, with maybe 10k words of the manuscript written, and then corresponding and adding to them and talking with John until the manuscript exists in full, and then it’s been my experience that if I let go, having given my input of pictures and texts and other book covers and passages and that end manuscript, that John seems to enjoy stepping in them and fucking with things freely, in the best sense. I don’t know why but I’m forgetting the end process of Peripatet, but the same way John or Ben encouraged me during the writing process, it’s exciting to step back then and see what happens. I remember a moment in Dodie Bellamy—I think it’s in When the Sick Rule the World—where she’s talking about attending this Kathy Acker reading, and someone telling her (it might be Bellamy herself) that they’d enjoyed it, and Acker saying she’d stolen it from the writer complimenting her. I love that idea so much, of writers working with one another’s stuff to accomplish different things. I guess it’s like the “here’s a chord, here’s another, now go start a band” mindset. My time with various editors thus far has very much felt like that. I feel lucky to work with editors who seem largely as excited by that work as they are their own writing.
I did wind up sending the band and Ian Mackaye some copies of the book. I hope they enjoy it. This was the first time I’ve leaned into this process of writing through the work of others, both in prose fragments and mentions of the band and their performances. It was exhilarating to work in this manner. For me it does seem like short projects provide a sustenance and excitement you only get in glimpses in longer work.
Derek Maine: It’s so nice to sit down, without any distractions, and think only about literature and art and write to you again. My vacation went well. It was a success, as family vacations go. But I do get back and feel pulled in all sorts of directions. Work, of course. The kids still being out of school another week and so entertaining them. That kind of thing. I then get these brief windows of time for myself. Then I put a lot of pressure on myself to do something productive with them. I can kind of cycle into negative thought patterns this way, thinking of time lost or time slipping away. I’m 40 in a few weeks. I sense my age, but more than that I can sense, quite clearly, where I am on this ride. And that is if I’m lucky. So why spend this one precious, wild life on literature? Do you think about it? I find it strange how I’ve been drawn, my entire life, to this artform that has had seemingly less and less cultural value & essentially no value (or even a negative value, I suppose, when considering anything else we could be doing with our time) financially. And yet what else is there? When I’m lost in it there’s nothing else to the world. It is just endless pages and pages. I carry around whole worlds, countless identities, in a cheap paperback in my hand. A panic attack on a plane. In an uncomfortable hospital chair while my wife and newborn sleep. In a holding cell waiting to hear when I could leave (or if). Outside a funeral. In the waiting room. I was never truly there. I was always somewhere else. It happened as easily as opening up this object in my hands and there was an instant escape. But that’s not it either. It’s a part of it, certainly. And it’s the easiest explanation. But it isn’t right, somehow. There were times, before children, where living seemed harder than not, and I remember reading other writers (Algren, Exley, Brautigan back then) who also seemed to suggest living was harder than not for them too and yet they pushed through – they put it down on the page and left it, like a guide, like a warning, like a piece of driftwood all alone in the ocean, nowhere near the crash site, and I remember thinking what a goddamn gift that was. How much grace and effort that took on their part. And I felt less alone. So, it’s something to do with that too, but, of course, not exactly either. I steal these moments though, for myself, and yet I still question why. It’s an extremely difficult thing to do, to write. And it seems to matter to fewer and fewer (though maybe it matters more and more to those of us left). I’m not so ridiculous as to ask you why you write. Can literature exist as salvation? Can it replace a belief system? I’m not sure if these are questions.
I thought we might talk some about this though. You mentioned having a fairly productive period during COVID. You don’t seem to fuck with social media at all (I do, it’s an addiction like anything else). I remember listening to an interview with Rodrigo Fresán pretty early on during lockdown and he was in Spain, of course, and things were pretty scary there at that point and he talked about not writing at all or working on anything because of the arrested nature of life at that moment (and the fear and uncertainty). I suddenly became very interested in sharing my work, trying to meet other people with the same affliction and wanting to shed my inhibitions. It seems like you were extremely productive (or at least it appears that way from the outside). What was it like for you? How did you react? Were you surprised with your output? Did your creative working habits change at all?
Grant Maierhofer: I probably spend the majority of time I think about writing thinking about whether or not it’s worth it, and I think now that I’ve had some books out and feel relatively certain I won’t be a big name author in my lifetime, I wonder at the value of this stuff. For a while I thought about it related to the sport of curling. Like I imagined going to a local ice rink one day and seeing people practicing curling there, and they’re not remotely close to being on the winter Olympics or anything like that. Would I go to them and try to convince them this thing they were doing was useless? Would they spend their time worrying that they were doing something entirely meaningless? It’s sort of a silly thought exercise, but it does seem valid to a degree, and compared with curling I have a way easier time justifying the endeavor of writing. It’s odd because for most of us it won’t ever qualify as a “career,” i.e. be the thing that sustains us financially based on our output, but to call it a hobby or something on that order feels like a massive insult. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that I guess I don’t read as naturally as a lot of writers. I read, but it’s piecemeal and scattered across books and screens and whatever else on a daily basis. If I were content to read bestselling fiction or even relatively bestselling fiction as it came out each year I might have less questions about whether literature matters. I have zero interest in reading the majority of that stuff but its authors seem pretty well-compensated and their audiences seem fairly large. I’m very grateful for the indie scene that exists. I think it’s tough for writers in the scene though because we’re not musicians touring to one another’s cities and engaging in a more concrete capacity consistently. There are readings and whatnot but I don’t think there’s the same shared catharsis at a reading as there is at a show. Looking through small press book lists though I do find so much of what I want from writing, and I have such strong feelings about the writers in this scene and wanting us to be supported and lifted up and if I could run my own version of like Dennis Cooper’s blog I probably would–the line on Lil Ugly Mane’s “Uneven Compromise” always stands out to me when I get thinking about it: “All I wanna do is see my people live large/I always try to see my people better than they are.”
I think I do believe in literature as a sort of religious impulse, or as something that can answer the feelings people often have that lead them to an established belief system. A while ago I got very serious about just wanting a concrete explanation as to why art matters. I posted this as a question on Twitter when I had one and people took it as an opportunity to dunk on me, saying things like “quality of life, duh,” just completely missing what I was asking for. Quality of life? If you catch me reading something to improve the quality of my life please stab me in the neck. If you catch me on a walk listening to “Kersed” by Ceremony and being inappropriately angry at an old woman and her poodle, and I give you a thumbs-up, and whisper “it’s my quality of life,” then feel free to kick me in the guts. I wanted a real articulation of why these things exist. Not necessarily a purpose, but a convincing argument about their merits. My friend Sam Robertson got very into Tolstoy’s essay on art wherein he talks about art from the lower classes being the most important and vibrant stuff, and I think I can appreciate that. The thing that worked, finally, for me, was Schopenhauer’s ideas on aesthetics. It extends from his concept of the world being split between “the will,” i.e. desire, lived experience, human impulse, any of the stuff we seem to do as people aligned with notions of the ego, striving, asserting, and the like, and “representation,” which I understand to be the sort of narrative of our lives, our sense of memory, of history, of school being school and work being work and the categories we lump things into making sense of the world. That simple depiction of life, being our human presence and striving and our perception of the results of that and the like, makes pretty straightforward sense to me. For Schopenhauer, then, art, literature, entertainment, and these things served as sort of forms of representation, that quieted or entirely shut off the will, which Schopenhauer saw as a positive effect. Lots of philosophers have talked about desire as a driving element in life, while also being a largely negative thing, connected to the ego and pushing on and whatever else. For readers, then, and watchers, and listeners, art or entertainment or whatever else quiets that stuff, and puts us in a more contented position because of it, and thus is a positive force. He highlights figures like the artist, or the absent-minded professor, being sort of ideals because they tend to sidestep the will, and thus model a way of living that’s more pleasant, and pure, and appreciative. I’m hoping that I’m describing this correctly, and applying his ideas correctly. I think it explains why people have so fully gotten hooked on our phones and the like, because they provide a firmer shut down of the will and countless captivating versions of representation that we can calibrate to every whim and interest, and I like that because then our impulse to look at shit on our phones is aligned with literature, with literature maybe being a more sustaining and fulfilling representation veering from the will than the immediacy and ease of scrolling through our phones.
When the pandemic first took hold my teaching job sort of got turned on its head, where first we were taking I think two weeks off of in-person classes, and then it was a semester, and that continued I think for one and a half years, roughly. So immediately my days changed completely, and the daily anxiety typically resulting from going in and standing in front of people was moved to more of a dulled discomfort of meeting with students via Zoom, and putting as much material as possibly into an online learning environment. That big shift was the most pronounced, and came with this anxiety and desire to stay home, to be healthy, and to figure out how to navigate the day with three young kids and all of us basically together all day. I forget which thing I started writing when, but I got really into the idea of writing shorter books, probably because I’d read some really great ones by Derek McCormack, Jane Unrue, and others. I think the first project I was working on when the pandemic took hold was my next Inside the Castle book, which I refer to as Pissant since the actual title is several thousand words—one day I looked up the longest book title, and got it in my head to beat it, and laughed about it for like twenty minutes or so, and thus knew I had to try it. The book is modeled on Tom Phillips’ A Humument, which got its genesis in a challenge between Phillips and another artist, wherein they both went into a bookstore with the understanding that whatever they could find in there would be their next artistic endeavor—I think this is so but I might be making some of it up. Phillips got W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document for like five dollars, and started painting and doing erasure stuff on the pages. I’ve always known I wanted to do a book like this, but struggled to find one in the public domain in a physical edition that seemed like a good fit. First I tried Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s Bibliomania, which I got in this large hardcover edition. I’m not really a visual artist in any respect so I was spilling ink and Whiteout and smearing it around the pages, taping fragments of pictures and other materials to the pages, writing on them and doing asemic writing on them too. One day I got incredibly discouraged about the project and threw it in the trash. I’d also been trying to write a yearlong journal on pop music and art called My Poptimist Year, which I also scrapped around the same time, I think just as the pandemic was becoming a reality. After two weeks or so I decided I needed to keep trying with the Humument-inspired project, so I decided upon Journal of a Disappointed Man, by. W.N.P. Barbellion, got a physical copy of the book, and went to work. The physical book was much smaller than Bibliomania so I was able to fill pages with all kinds of things, including these pages from a travel notebook my father had kept. I got a finished draft, and talked to John Trefry about writing something that would be digitally laid over the pages, and got started on a thing called We Should Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, and after another few weeks had what I term a manifesto, that will be somehow laid over the marked-up painted-on facsimile edition of Journal of a Disappointed Man, which is actually the book I call Pissant, whose title is so long that I can’t wait to try and do readings from it—a la Beckett’s Molloy (“once you get through the first two paragraphs, it’s a breeze,” “if you can get through the title, it’s a breeze”.
I was working on that book while holding Zoom classes in my garage, and eventually when that got finished I really loved the process of the writing of the text that will lay over Pissant, and I think in a lot of ways the next six manuscripts I wrote during the pandemic were inspired by that process. Or I guess Shame, my next FC2 book, was written a year or so before this. Then I wrote Ebb, where I challenged myself to write a 50,000-word novel without using the letter “a”. I’ve wanted to do this since I started writing, and intend to try every letter of the alphabet if I’m ever given any sort of push. I found the constraint really liberating, which is a notion I’ve always believed in, but to actually be doing it, to be writing about characters on my phone between appointments and to always know all I needed to do was push back against any word that would include an “a” was so much fun. That one took me I think fives weeks or so, then came Maintenance Art, which is being considered in a couple of places now, which focuses on an artist’s wife who’s recording him while he redoes the entirety of Chicago’s Art Institute. There I had an opening, and this concept, so it felt constrained like Ebb, and I think this helped me. It’s odd because for a long time I really wanted to have like a book contract before working, like I felt like if I had that the work would flow easier, but I fucked up that pro wrestling book idea I had and I think that freaked me out, so that when I had an idea I would try and not talk about it for as long as I could into the drafting process, even avoiding mentioning it to my wife until I felt pretty secure. All the new books except for The Compleat Lungfish were written that way. Lungfish I think was different because I had 3k words of it written, and the form was very open, blending fiction and not fiction, so reaching out to Ben at Apocalypse Party felt catalyzing rather than snuffing it all out.
I think I was surprised to find that I was making things that I’d long dreamt of making and it was one time wherein I felt about as close to a working writer as ever. Turning thirty amid all this stuff and seeing the moronic selfishness of a lot of my twenties pass by and having a family and realizing the highs from writing and submitting and publishing were only a portion of my life rather than the entire thing was definitely bound up in it all. I looked too at Jarett Kobek’s output, which has almost exclusively all been in book form, and got really into the idea that I was a writer of books first and foremost, and that it made the most sense for me to pursue projects that were book-length in personal/emotional/financial terms. I obviously don’t write for money but there’s a warmth to working on a book that’s less present in shorter pieces, which is probably why the majority of anything short I’ve published online or in print has been excerpts. All this and the aforementioned has been the past few years of my life, these realizations and efforts.
In terms of a routine I tend to work as much as possible when I’m actually in the midst of a project, but then when I’m not I might go some time without doing much writing, though there are failed moments and starts and stuff usually that I’ll abandon. When it’s going though I’m writing on my phone in emails to myself constantly, and then the end of the day is about pasting them into the document proper and finding its shape that way.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of Works (11:11 Press), Peripatet (Inside the Castle), Drain Songs (FC2), and others. His next book, Shame, is forthcoming from FC2 in 2022, alongside an experiment whose title is far too long to print here, on Inside the Castle. His shorter work is available via New Sinews, Terraform, and elsewhere. He teaches at Washington State University and lives in Moscow, Idaho, with his family.
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