Thursday, September 30, 2010

I come home after a long night at the Bistrot. I'm pretty dead. The TV is sitting there. Feed the cat. Okay, what's on. Answer: crap. Well, there's Comcast on Demand. No decent free movies, of course, so let's check in with Mad Men. Someone to drink with.

This must be quite obvious. We watch our shows basically because we feel emotionally invested in them. They become our virtual friends in our lonely situations. (Even Ken Burns' Baseball series is rooted in this manipulation. We grow to care about Lou Gehrig. And I don't really have a problem with that, as Gehrig was an interesting guy.) I find myself feeling for Don Draper. It's a success of the show, and this is why people say of whatever it is, 'that's my show.' As if they owned it.

Then there's me, the barman, who shows up regularly every week, waiting for people to come. He talks with regulars, has a laugh, maybe shares a drink, gets updates, reports on his own affairs. And at the end of the night, after everyone's gone home and long since in bed, he goes home, pours himself a glass of wine and finds something for himself to do. Year in, year out.

I guess if you're capable of emotional investment in created characters, it's a good thing, a practice of empathy. Not like you wear it out using it. But it says something, we have to turn sometimes to fake people, not the potential real friendships we might make.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Anna Karenina belongs to eternity for the light it sheds on brain circuitry and function. (The Buddhist will continue to study it, if no one else.) Intersections, shared pathways, the basic similarity or cooperation between different outward functions, shown in the two principal characters, present the brain in action, as good a portrait as had been produced in the form of fiction. And it seems there is a message here, that erotic considerations and romantic depth of thought are both excellent for the health of intellectual activity, perhaps as physical action is to the body. Anna's clarity is Levin's clarity, both revealing a fine brain. For some reason, the author saw fit that she falls to tragedy, which strikes us as a departure from the art. Perhaps Tolstoy felt conflicted for underscoring the good health of 'adulterous' thinking, as it contradicted church teachings. He wanes then into his own moralizing, and the reader feels left short.

The intelligent and the accurate have always been bawdy, earthy, 'perverted' around the edges. It's much the same circuitry, part of a finely tuned versatile brain. The nobly romantic and engaged are rooted and wired in all the brain's wide considerations, high and low. And this is why being hypocritical doesn't lead to the highest kind of thinking.

Only the sort of Jesus who drives a Bentley would try to 'cure' certain modes of human sexuality.
In the context of the excellent new book The Shallows, What the Internet is doing to our brains, by Nicholas Carr, a barman's life is not over-stimulated. Well, maybe he is, in the sense of his coping with a busy night, full of drink orders, full of people, full of movement, full of interchanges monetary, verbal, etc. But his job is not involved with any communications outside of his immediate environment. Take it or leave it. Furthermore, those people he talks to, most likely, he has talked with before, if his spot is a neighborhood joint.

My generation, we had a chance to grow up before we were proliferated. We had radio, we had TV, we had record players. And we read books. And I grew up out in the country, in some form of special circumstances, in that I got not just new music, but the long natural spaces and time of being out there. And, again, I had the opportunity to grow up surrounded by books.

When I went away to college, when I sat down and watched my classmates interact, I had a subconscious sense of some form of shallowness to their worldly sophistication, to their abilities to express themselves quite confidently. I sensed that these people, my same age, had an early form of adulthood upon them. They had egos. They liked to hear themselves talk. They liked to argue. They didn't seem to need to think much in order to hold the floor. And their minds seemed to me to work awfully quickly. And they were from a world of the city. And where I grew up sort of unwittingly, the child of liberal arts, surrounded by books and art and architecture, modest, imaginative, broad without that air of sophistication of being a 'know it all,' here I was, with perfect know-it-alls. Again, they liked to talk. And I did not particularly like being around their conversations, which struck me with the feeling that I had been dropped into a support group for divorcees.

I found some mates, definitely, in those days, and they were contrarians like me, even if I was the hick of the whole bunch, prone to being, as they put it, a wild man. I thought that's how you learned, by testing your limits, and following your instincts. And I did learn some things. While they were more controlled than I, and had a prep school sophistication I would never have.

My generation stood at a crossroads, at a point in time. We grew up, when we were little, in quiet days, way before the internet, when going to a movie even was a huge deal. We grew up with long spaces of silence in which to go explore a stream or a wood, a swamp, country roads.

And for my generation some had already been exposed to the seeds of what was coming, a globally connected world of mass and instant communication. Some already smelled it, and sensed that life is adaptation, so adapt.

And then there were those of us who in some ways chose to be left behind, not as conscious ignoramuses or idiots wanting nothing to do with society, but because we had some form of values, ones we sensed but couldn't express beyond a form of art. It was as if some of us chose to be part of an arcane oral culture of winks and nods and eye contact and song. We had a sense of vitality.

And this is my fascination with the music of Shane MacGowan, born Christmas Day, 1959. He grew up, in summers at least, on a farm in Tipperary. He grew up in an oral culture on a real farm where everyone played a musical instrument. At that particular time, he had a chance to live in a way that soon was to disappear. Here he learned, placed up upon a table at age 3, how to sing, traditional songs. It's obvious that he was well-taught, learning from talented singers and musicians. His music reflects a sensibility, a lack of distraction hard to find now.

One finds his music inclusive, broad, covering expanses of life. In a world of specialists, he is a generalist, as all artists should be, sprung from nature, depicting nature.

One senses it as his own form of dirty secret, that he can't ever be fully engaged, at the pace and scale required, with the world wrought by the economic reality of bowing to the technology of the internet. And here, it seems, no one can find a separate peace.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A writer is attempting to describe in the course of his work that beautiful yet often imprisoned thing, the human brain. It's perhaps a similar function to the mating ritual a bird performs, showing off his brain, but with a broader less selfish reaching, an attempt to find 'like minds' through a higher form of communication.

Whereas other work shows off products of the brain--the kind of 'here, look at this,' kind of stuff we find in shallower media--the writer's quiet work reveals how and what we think on an intimate level, as if to instruct the reader that he or she also can think big thoughts in big ways.

That's why people like to read love stories (Anna Karenina), for showing the finest and most courageous acts of the mind, even when they may seem ostensibly misdirected (A Tale of Two Cities). Or it could be a tale of some form of patriotism, the acknowledgment of an ideal to be protected, the endurance of oppression, the magical vitality of an art form taken up.

The brain is its own thing, to be perpetually discovered and rediscovered, a resilient organ of marvels of ingenuity. We mortals live our lives as partner to our brains, instinctive caretakers, defenders of the brain's style of work. Shy and enigmatic, we court it, allowing for its own quiet ways.

That is the source of bravery, that we know we have such a fine instrument within, a secret in the modern world which the modern world still needs to come to terms with, never being able to escape the brain's reality.

I think it's fair for the artist and the writer to say, 'it was not my choice, not my will, but something I was obliged to do out of some real sense of honor and duty.' So is the writer always looking for 'his country, his people.' That is his politics, which, by the way, happens to coincide with the protections of freedom and liberty nations make constitutions out of.

The writer will endure a lot. Even treated like a dog, he will have within a secret source of perfect dignity.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Some people are writers. They get the effort. They see the beauty of it. And some people are not writers, and if you were to ask them about something literary, they might shrug and say, 'eh, it's not so important to me, the latest of Milan Kundera's thoughts on the history of the novel; I'm too busy reading things more pertinent to economic survival, and besides, I get more from non-fiction.'

If you are a writer you'll do yourself the favor of writing a novel and discover a great silence. It's a feeling you might get from having done something inappropriate. No one wants to mention it, for they know that they must upbraid you one way or another.

But there are, you may discover, a few people who do respond with depth and interest, making it clear that their reaction is positive, that they see you've actually accomplished something. The more a writer they are, the more positive they will be. For it is so that anyone who cares seriously enough to write, just by physical laws of machines and the appropriate instrument for a task, will do a darn good job at it. Yes, there might be some minor issues to sweep aside to get at the book's accomplishment, but that is small stuff in comparison to opening the door to experience a book's simple resounding greatness.

In contrast to the certain light-filled people who get books, the lack of response makes one think of a dullard world. A world on Fox, etc.

I find it interesting that I found work that allowed for a very old technology. I was a cog in a tool that allowed for public conversation. I was, in other words, a bar man. It's as old as the hills. People come down to eat, have a drink and relax, listen to some piped-in music that doesn't offend but rather eases, and break into, as awkward as it is, a conversation.

In fact, one of the first stories I ever wrote, inspired as I was by Tolkien, was of a kid who works for a public house pitted, along with his respected wizardly elder, against the stark blighting force of an evil sorcerer (who'd gut forests just for kicks.) We met the kid delivering what sounded like very interesting libations, ale and mead. Funny how things go.

Now I grant, or warrant, that manning the pouring end of a restaurant bar, besides being work, did not lead to the most glorious of conversations. And indeed, the conversations that happened within the establishments I worked maintained a separate reality from the busy work and strivings and no-nonsense practicality of the modern city blossoming as a great crossroads of international relations and domestic politics. But, in speaking, memories, more than anything came up, and I must believe that memories are hugely important--in fact, that it all a great understatement. No, they were not maudlin memories, they were in fact very healthy ones that showed active brains and vivid interaction and trust for the venue. And I could sit back and enjoy, sort of impersonally, that fine thing that was going on, a person and their memories, their footing in the modern world.

The book now, come to hear, from wise circles, is too becoming something of an old 'historic' technology. Do we have time for them? Have our neural pathways gone to mirror the hyper linking bits of information found on the computer, no longer a habit of ours to sit down and take that long slow time with a book that's 'not that interesting'?

What will happen of our brains and our thoughts, our sympathies for our fellows?

It's interesting to me at least that my work brings me to a place where people meet to enjoy a very old and natural technological achievement, wine. (To Hemingway, 'the most civilized thing.') Wine brings mellowness and memory; it eases the blows and self-inflicted wounds of the day; it opens us up to memory and song; even if we might get a little silly, a little maudlin, wine will snap us out of it.

And a great book, say Moby Dick, is told with the ease of a brain on a moment of good wine.

I hop around too much. I think I can tell my brain has been affected (or infected) by the medium of the times, the information super highway that takes us hurtling, for a ride, not sure of which exit to get off, of if we take one, not sure we shouldn't be somewhere else and thereby end up at that which is simple easy pleasure narcotic.

Like the grape that is the most essential part of the wine, we, human being, writer, character, person, are the most essential thing in any intelligent consideration. Let's remember not to forget ourselves in all this.

I say that because when I go out at night in a city I see a lack of attention, a lack of curiosity, sympathy, empathy, and in place of all that--this is nothing new perhaps--highlight on the shallow and the surface, meaning that there is less interplay with an inner world of sensitivity taken seriously, places within that have nothing to do with show.

Oh, well. Hamlet himself said it, not so long ago, but enough to be trustworthy, "man delights not me." The inner workings, yes, the memories, yes, the tale-telling... but the rest... just dull, expected. Try blending in with a Friday night crowd these days (though I'm not completely pessimistic.)

So, really, am I crazy for writing a book, for channelling my prose to the mind's memory banks in hope of some enlightenment? The enlightenment is not in the answers, but in the activity itself.

The internet, the general shapes of our lives, it seems to me, require a lot of downtime, a lot of time to digest, a lot of time to sleep and dream.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Something scary

Technology spokespeople tend to emphasize the good about stuff.

"Wiring the Classroom," Sunday NY Times Magazine Section, by Maggie Jones, p. 62. September 19, 2010. "Technology is redefining what it means to be a student--or a teacher."

Here the emphasis is on the cyber math tutor Isabel. She's watching you work through a set of problems, and through her silicon board of zeros and ones, yeses and nos, she is diagnosing your problems.

This is about such "internet tutors," who are not real people, but programs.

"Some will be assigned to tutors who match their sex and races. Others will be given tutors who do not match. Students will be hooked up to sensors monitoring sweat (which indicate excitement or anxiety), the pressure they place on their mice (frustration) and how much they fidget in their seat cushions. A tiny camera atop the computer will register the slight furrow of the brow, the smile, the tilt of the head and the eye movements that indicate attention, nervousness, satisfaction. The resulting information will be used to tailer the tutors' encouragements to achieve the maximum education outcome."

I am getting a really bad vibe here, about these 'affective pedagogical agents.' LIsten to the tone here. Is this writer someone you want to talk to?

Next, and final paragraph continues: "'Computer tutors are never going to completely replace human teachers or be 100 percent accurate,' Picard warns. But if Isabel keeps students engaged in math with her emotion-friendly style, she will have done plenty."

Jesus, I guess we've all been replaced by machines. Including the faculties of the New York Times. Is this what it's come to?

Oh, no, really, 'it's all good.' Yeah. Get me out of here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Spirituality is depth, and we live, may be, in shallow times.

We are afraid of goodness. We take it to be a little creepy. It doesn't fit in. How to achieve good anyway these days? Where is its refuge? Where does it gather strength? A church, as it is there too as everywhere else, just highlighted.

Maybe we take goodness too lightly, by habit, thoughtlessly. Kindness and a $1.50 gets you on the bus.

I wonder if drinking wine is an attempt to ease the pain of being spiritual, of having the huge reservoirs of good that are natural in anyone but which leave you feeling baffled to do anything about. What do you do with all that excess? Conviviality seems one outlet, but then that has a way of going too far.

I wrote a book about a kid who's trying to be decent in the modern world. He's trying to take things very seriously. He wants to know why we really read Paradise Lost or Shakespeare, etc. He tries to represent some vague sense of spirituality, a sense of meaning, of being here for a reason. He gets bad grades, gets taken for being a weirdo.

Do you come to loathe your own goodness? Is that what the world does to you? Make you want to disown it for its lack of popularity and caché, leave you mystified and tired?

I was out on a bike ride out past the Beltway, near the Mormon Temple, and my bike chain breaks. Never happened to me before. Not a dollar in my pocket. I'm near a Metro. I walk there, my hand covered in chain oil. I ended up calling a cab. But I wondered, maybe I could ask someone, 'hey, could you loan me two bucks for the metro?' I couldn't find the words to do it. I lacked, I guess, faith.

When I am feeling as if imprisoned by my life, I am reminded of the thought that people come into our lives, for good reason, to highlight certain elements of existence, each serving ultimately to strengthen our faith and help us endure, living in the right as best we are given to.
Writing is a basic freedom. A most fundamental one. One very indicative, as a litmus test, of the health of a society's mental state. It's protected by the Constitution, which is of course itself a written document, the model of one. Writing separates us from beasts and extremism and overbearing religious power and unjust laws. Writing is the vehicle by which we criticize society. Where books are burned, watch out. They burn some other guy's book, they'll burn yours. And whatever it is is not the book's fault, it's in the way people read it.

My friend Pierre over there at has got it. Do check it out.
What a horror show she was, a grizzly bear raging invisibly. I never wanted to admit that to myself, much less say it in public. Yes, I get why Stephen King paints meaning with his palette. I know why some women like to go to horror movies, to exorcise the horror and atrocities that they themselves are capable of, not out of any real fear of a creepy guy with an axe coming out of the woods. (They're stronger than him anyway.) What they do, the harsh cuts they are capable of, sneaks up on them, out of the blue, and they can't control themselves. Creepiness is just an excuse they use when they don't care to understand someone else, to accept them into the realm of humanity. It's an argument one can never win. All that is blasphemy, garnering more vengeance.

Back away, climb a tree. No, run. Fight back? No, curl up like a fetal ball, and hope the anger isn't total, wait for it to blow over, your arms still attached. The hapless victim blamed, blows rained down upon his head, the flame-thrower charring his sorry ass, his stupid mawkish face.

Placidness just means another attack. Stay away. Mourn your loss of finger, the opening below the rib cage, and move on.
I wonder, you know, sometimes. Is writing a dead art? Has it been usurped by FinalCut Pro? Has its relevance been reduced to the kind of necessary information we need simply to sustain ourselves and be responsible?

No, writing, and novels, and poetry are not dead arts. They live to this day, and will continue to do so, remarkably enough. Is it as if the cave painters of Lascaux were to say, 'whatever we do, whoever follows us will always work this form, and so we do it, knowing its potential, (rather innocently, or not).' They were the same fools who, like many greats, thought they could, and did, somewhat like children, in good spirit.

Reading books we are touched and awed. We don't know what to say. And this is the foundation of education, an attempt to explain why the creature did that, and of what the ochre meant, well, you don't need to think, just have a look!

The only problem may be/is that We all can do it, just like we all can enjoy wine, beer, alcohol. We all have memories worth writing down.

I think sometimes that we are just the same as dogs. We sit waiting and happy for some positive thing, shiver when it's cold and we're not getting any praise, while all the time keeping a respectful sort of neediness, an appreciation for that potential of being allowed to be ourselves in our grace, fine ear, and jumping beauty. The dog, yes, was heaven-sent, so that we could 'get' something.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Doesn't one always feel,
as is the official censor is about to come,
the neighbor to call, or pound
on a wall,
and tell you you're playing
your music too loud,
or that, you shouldn't write that,
no. It's true but you can't say that.
There'll be
some repercussion
some job you don't get,
because of it.

another of Madam Korbonski's stories

Crossing 57th Street, she finds herself next to Gary Cooper. (Was he fresh from High Noon?)
She stops and looks up at him, looks up, and she smiles telling the story.
Oh, Gary Cooper! Oh! She laughs happily.
Did they cross the street together?
She acts the pause, the 'oh, my god, I'm standing next to Gary Cooper, waiting with him, furthermore, for a traffic light," as if to look around and wonder about such a day to bring such an event.

I, to this day, wonder his reaction. How could he have resisted smiling to her, in some way, small or large.

JFK she met too. He had a grey suit on, and moved like a panther, she said.

She escaped a DC mugging by running.

So funny with her stories.

My Imagination

Do you ever feel this way?

"Bah, I am on a losing streak. I made a miscalculation somewhere along the line as far as my career as a writer. Maybe it was entering the restaurant business in the first place, which doomed me to a life where it is impossible not to drink, impossible not to have odd hours and so many things that make me undesirable as a mate. I'll never push a conversation with a woman, I'm too old for it.

"And yet the great Chekhov was a bachelor, and wanted the wife he finally took to be, like the moon, not in his sky all the time, as he put it.

"And if you don't settle down at a young age, well, past a certain point, it just seems strange and too much to deal with. Who in their right female mind would be interested in the quirks of a writer any way?

"And so I sink in the quicksand of bachelordom. Life becomes a routine. Groceries. Cooking at home, out of financial reasons."


A pretty young woman is in the line behind me, Friday at the Whole Foods. I've got my meats, my frozen breads, my greens, a bottle of wine, fruit/nut bars for work. I've had to go to the Bistrot for a meeting, which has thrown off my writing. My pile, spread out on the little conveyor belt, separated from the elder woman in front of me, the cold things grouped together, some apples for good measure, a tomato. Bachelor life, type O diet. Pretty gal has forgotten something, comes back a minute later with a pomegranate, which she places down on the belt after my stuff. "Don't forget your pomegranate," I say. "No, gotta have your pomegranate," she replies friendly. "It's not too much work, is it," I offer, after pondering it a moment, its pretty skin neatly coming to a top. "I enjoy it, actually. And anyway, I find it hard to distinguish between hunger and boredom." Now that's pretty funny. "Yeah, and it's not boozing either," I offer. Typical degenerate Irishman's line. Well, an honesty with respect to boredom, anyway. Then back to the mode of paying, taking my bags, then the business of arranging what I got into my bicycle courier bag to eventually hoist over my shoulder and ride home looking like a mushroom or some kind of bug riding a bike. I wish I saw her on my way out. Someone that bright shouldn't be bored, but, you know, it happens. It happens to me too, and that's why I like to cook and find it satisfying.

I ride home, back to my bachelor life, feeling as if I were some sort of immigrant, unable to grasp how the present culture socializes, grumpy enough so that I can tell I need to go for a bike ride. Before it gets dark.

I will be left with the unhappy mystery of encountering someone somehow desirable to me who I shall never see ever again, wondering about a chance meeting, over a few words, over missing words and where they would have gone. "It was the mood I was in," I'll attempt to excuse myself. "I am, like Johnny Carson off screen, a shy man." I am a sick man, an ill man... I am an artist. Until the memory of her wears off safely, the taste of the physical proximity of a grocery check out line, forgotten in the atoms. "I drink to forget," observes the drunkard in Petit Prince. Which starts him on a whole new path to repeat what just happened, perhaps.

It's a feeling brought across by the movie "Groundhog Day," the repetitions of life, part routine, work, of course, but also of the basic condition of life. Like for instance, the loneliness, and that vague sense that follows after it of being, well, maybe a little creepy. Hmm, maybe I do creepy things, maybe I truly am a creep, I really don't mean to be, I really try to behave and be polite, friendly but not step beyond the Heismann Trophy boundaries of polite and respectable society. Feeling chagrin, one has a Buddhist moment, which is perhaps somewhat logical (if you buy into it) but not so satisfying. Is it good health psychologically to say, 'oh well, that's life.'? Do you say the AA mantra to yourself, of changing what you can?

Ironic. I wanted to be a writer to be the best possible person I could be. As far back as I can remember, at least after I put drawing aside. I happened to write a book about a kid who, even though he's just trying to be benevolent, even though he tries absolutely to leave her alone when she expresses some coldness in his direction, enters that strange place where he can't redeem himself. Maybe it's a story like Chekhov's "Ward No. 6," where a doctor, exposed to a madman patient, begins his own slide into madness, thanks in part to accusations against him. And, well, if you have to deny that you are a creep or that you are crazy, well, it's like politics, trying to get the stain from your reputation, ("Jesus, Lyndon, we can't call him a pig fucker." LBJ: "Make him deny it!") or worse, you start to feel that maybe you really are that which you are charged with, which isn't good for your self-confidence.

As Chekhov says, a book should ask questions, not answer them. That's in its very nature. I don't have answers.

Be careful who you pick to be nice to. And maybe the greater part of socially acceptable nice is politely faked anyway. You want to be good, go join a church congregation. Volunteer at Boys and Girls Club.

What happens after the delivery of the self-fulfilling prophecy? Not completely, but your life takes a certain shape after something like that. You withdraw. Or, maybe, you know, you always wanted to be a writer, felt it a strong calling, shaped very much by meaningful events in your life, and maybe that alone is enough to make you a deviant.

It doesn't surprise me Stephen King, a real writer, writes the kind of crazy spooky stories he does, and I'm glad this sort of 'admission of weirdness' strikes a chord in people, as if to say, you know, I'm weird too, Mr. King. "Look around, and you will see," Lyle Lovett sings, "the world is full of creeps like me."

I can't help it. I wasn't raised a church-goer (maybe why I'm bad at fiction and a lousy storyteller), nor by members of the local Chamber of Commerce. No, I was raised by professors, exposed to literature and art, architecture and music and cultural events at a young age. A print-rich environment. And back then kids had really good toys, like the basic Lego building blocks (before they got so specific and fancy), didn't have to worry about computers and the only video game was Pong, a beeping dot that allowed you to play a back and forth game like ping pong. Life has led me, semi-professionally, to wine at least, and wine is civilized, a part of culture. I seem to have fallen down as far as making myself useful as any form of teacher beyond that.

Maybe the one thing attractive about writing is that it might serve as a free form of (self-)psychotherapy, I've often wondered. You get some painful issues out into the open, and at least you feel somewhat better for having done so.

Chekhov, you could say, began his serious career with "The Steppe," which is a story of a little boy traveling with a priest and a trader on a long journey to be dropped off at a distant relative's for his schooling. (My copy's out on loan at the moment.) From there, Chekhov takes us (amongst other places) to "Ward No. 6," as if to take that sensitive little boy and show him what life is like as a grown-up in society, in particular how a little charge, an insinuation, can grow from incipient form to something that ruins lives. His imagination is inherited, of course, by Kafka, and later to Kundera, take The Joke for example. And or course history, Hitler and the Nazi, Stalinist purges and the like, would prove the point, quite beyond anyone's wildest imagination. "The Lady with the Pet Dog," would make a similar point, here about the broader judgments of society against say, 'adultery.' It's interesting how a writer's stories develop.

One doesn't himself know what effect a charge will have upon him. He doesn't realize the effect it will have upon his attitude, the teacher who didn't say 'good paper, kid,' no reaction to it at all, just another bad grade on his record. He'll shrug it off at first, like any painful thing, an embarrassment he doesn't want to talk about. He'll be brave about it. "Oh, it was nothing." Little does he realize, at least in conscious thought, the deep effect a few words might have upon him, how such a thing will truly shape his life, leaving him, amongst other things, scared to say more than a few kindly intended words to a pretty girl in a grocery checkout line, unwilling to enter, fine and holy thing it should be, a classroom. Lord, how regrettable things snowball.

What did Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird say? "I felt sorry for her." For that act...

Anger, bitterness, they are not much my thing. I write. And I find myself comforted that it takes sometimes a writer's imagination to reveal such things, to flesh them out, to understand them. There is a purpose to it. Good luck to us all.

Skvorecky, 1986, Amherst

I was a senior that year, fall semester, and we had a visiting writer at Amherst, a very important and respectable one, Josef Skvorecky. He was offering a course in short fiction, something like that. One had to submit a sample piece of fiction for his personal review to gain entry in the class. There weren't too many extras, but enough, and we all met in a room one day in the old library, cut up into classrooms, if I remember correctly. I didn't have a piece of fiction. (I've never seen writing that way, anyway, and believe the conventional view of consumer 'fiction' as a delusion. Fiction comes from real life. In my book, anyway.) So, what did I have for him to express my enthusiasm? I offered my essay on the early Hemingway short story, "The End of Something," from In Our Time, that great beautiful episodic piece that revealed Hemingway's basic dictionary, philosophy and working encyclopedia and palate and all that. As important as Joyce.

I show up to that first class, first days of the working semester. And there were young people who seemed like, well, real fiction writers, I mean to say, with that imagination that is able to, like I can't, make stuff up, good liars, Steven Kings and that sort. There was a short impenetrable impervious pretty blond of two syllable first name who seemed assured that she had completed whatever was necessary and was even better than whatever the course might offer. (And she was accepted into the class.)

Okay, so the old man comes out, and his English isn't quite so hot, and a thick accent, and he says a little bit, really not much that would indicate who he is in real Kundera terms (MK bows to his efforts of making Czech lit stay alive). It was as if a plumber... well, I exaggerate. He had his gravitas, thick glasses, he knew how to handle himself, with pauses and wasn't going to be rushed. He was obviously something, but whatever it was, remained impenetrably distant, as if he had been sent by the real professor to perform the trade aspect of the classroom.

So, the second class--I can't remember him teaching anything in the first class-- he reads off a list, the ten applicants accepted, out of the 18 who applied, something like that. I heard him call the names. One almost sounded like mine, last name, but it wasn't.

And for a first assignment, we're going to read the short story, of Hemingway, "The End of Something." And speak of it critically.

No, you're kidding me. He said it with a completely straight face. Maybe he was telling me, in some deeply impersonal way, he liked what I wrote. Or that he liked what Hemingway wrote, the story of a date, a kind of 'after they've fucked, a day or 3 later,' told from his perspective and trot lines, the after you've came in a woman, or whatever it is. (I'm being crass, I'm sorry, just a voice I'm trying out.)

Wait, no, can't I participate? Was what I wrote about the story right or wrong?

I never found out. I wasn't invited.

And maybe that's a valuable lesson. You don't learn how to write in a class, meaningfully. Maybe I learned something being left out.

Mr. Skvorecky, who writes out of real life, I salute and honor you and all you've been through, far more interesting than what I go through simply by historical matters and World War II. Peace, my friend.

And indeed, I continue to believe it to this day, if you are going to be a writer, you have to define yourself what a writer is. You do it by doing. A lot of blind persistence. Your cutting out from granite a statue of what you yourself would want to be.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Kundera's voice--he's a grown up--comes wonderfully out of the blue. The topics are erudite, but immediately brought down to earth.

Here's something from Encounter amidst a discussion of 19th Century French novelists being ignored by the Académie Française, page 53:

"For the figure of a novelist did not fit the notion of a person who by his ideas, attitudes, his moral example, could represent a nation. The status of 'great man,' which the Académie quite naturally required of its members, is not what a novelist aims for; by the nature of his art, he is secretive, ambiguous, ironical (yes, ironical, the Surrealist poets in their pamphlet hit it on the head); and above all: concealed as he is behind his characters, it is difficult to reduce him to some particular conviction or attitude.

So although a few novelists have entered the collective memory as 'great men,' this is only through the play of historical coincidence, and for their books it is always a calamity."

Here he is, rehashing his side of an argument about Hrabal, page 111:

"What absurdity to speak of collaboration when the spirit of Hrabal's books, their humor, their imagination, are the absolute opposite of the mentality ruling over us, trying to strangle us with their straightjacket! A world where a person can read Hrabal is utterly different from a world where his voice could not be heard! One single book by Hrabal does more for people, for their freedom of mind, than all the rest of us with our actions, our gestures, our noisy protests!"

"... it was the disagreement between people for whom the political struggle is more important than real life, than art, than thought, and people for whom the whole meaning of politics is to serve real life, art, thought."

I think of Twain. I think of Chekhov. The writer's engine is different from that of statesman. And yet, the writer is essential to a state, the pinnacle of its offer of life and liberty, etc. When things are bad, it's good to turn to the novel.

And when a writer realizes he's not to be a so-called great man, but a human being, he stands a chance to do his work.

This to me is a universal. It's what makes Rainy Night in Soho, written by Shane MacGowan, fleshed out by the Pogues, such a monumental achievement of common culture, a recognition of what common people carry around with them, from lackey waiters, to lost young people, to the skeptical of the church, to drunks, to loners, to those in love with something. And who better to come up with the song. A shorthand of literature, and indeed MacGowan is well-read, much more than I, and knew when to say 'fuck off' to menial labor. The same beauty we wouldn't expect from Huck or Hrabal, somehow distasteful to those who pay attention to all the news, but miss something.

MacGowan writes music and reads literature as a way of dealing with a basic nervousness that could not be assuaged in any other way. The tangible beauty of his music shows that there's nothing else for him to do to feel satisfied.

Working as a barman has trained me to stay up late, and it doesn't really bother me. I've had many conspirators over the years, fellow restaurant people living on an edge of some sort, indulgent, but soulful and full of stories.


I know. I do it myself. All those questions... The artist doesn't like being called into question. That he is an artist is a basic bedrock assumption. An overly complex complicated modern world raises a lot of questions, a lot of strife, a lot of doubt and anxiety. Even when you write a book there will be lots of questions. Good. As Chekhov said, a piece should raise questions, not answer them.

Write a human moment. That's all. It might not be anything you would proud of, as far as a behavior, but it's something to portray.

The writer might admit a need of being nurtured. He needs to relax, to be taken care of. He need not waste time pondering whether his book has any value. Critical, i.e., negative, attention wasn't good for Kerouac, who, like we all do, had the need of feeling justified for what he was doing. (Which is largely what his work is about.)

Once upon a time, the church passed on its own great sense of validation down to the artists it employed to do its frescoes. It seems more complicated these days.

When confidence comes that you are a writer, then you can stop the self-defeating behaviors. That seems what allowed Carver to quit drinking. Generous to others, he is providing an example of what he himself needs. He has a laugh, maybe, upon people who are not so kind as he, upon those who discriminate a book by its cover with little humility, perspective or curiosity.
If writing could ever be construed as a 'holy' business, a dissertation on the nature of day to day reality, a study of "That Which Is," Chekhov, surely, would be up there, as a kind of Noah in earthy human form. His study of Sakhalin Island, along with accompanying letters to friends and family, has been brought together in form of travelog, a complete picture of going somewhere far away and alien, even bizarre, and coming back. The piece stands as a picture of a writer's reality. (Can't put my hands on it at the moment.)

It was a rugged journey for a man not well, a harsh land and sea voyage that he found strangely invigorating to the remote penal colony to document. It seems he interviewed, or at least counted, the entire population. A candor rings through the letters, perhaps heightened by confidentially and of being personal in nature, that is distinctly his in tone. Great stories like "The Steppe," and "Ward No. 6" reverberate in its open spaces and the small details of dealings with local officials.

The piece seems to suggest a kind of form, a template that fits over the life of one is a writer. Personally it reminds me of my life as a writer, which I must admit is spent largely as a barman, a life of odd hours and odd people coming and going, while offering expanses of the necessary time alone to come to terms with things. The whole of Chekhov's way of handling life makes me suspicious that a writer is a particular sort, a reincarnation of a previous life spent in similar fashion, simply all the details changed. I am reminded of the same helpless way we travel, caught in between this and that, as in, indeed on a rugged steamer somewhere far away from home. All one can do is keep a sense of humor about himself, a tolerance for the oddities and individual personalities, eccentric neighbors, strange conditions that befall all of us and to those maintaining the illusions of the writer.

Being a writer is a matter of finding the proper attitude to face life, and then to be open and honest and clear enough about getting things said. Chekhov observes without whining. He must have had a lot of energy and endurance, and for an American in the 21st Century, he is a very interesting read.

Reading the story, "The Steppe," one is struck by the autobiographical, the personal element, the direct experience, of a man becoming a writer, brought to fruition in so many places, including, Sakhalin Island.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

But any writer--what a pretentious term--must admit that he is like the physicist who can never prove anything. He may have intuitive sense, but any claim of his of some holy understanding of the world and people is ridiculous. (Fault holy men and women for establishing such a mistaken pattern.) If he, or she, comes up with anything it will be by dumb luck and coincidence, a matter of looking in the right place at the right time. He can only shrug at the worthlessness of his chosen profession, and wish he had some other sort of job by which to serve mankind more honestly.

This is akin to what Fellini is telling us in "8 1/2," that he, Guido, played so wonderfully by Mastroianni (himself a true hero of art), has been an obsessive fool in his creative mode, various women, Claudia Cardinalle's character, etc., putting up with him, and come up with nothing as far as a film, and that here, only realizing that does he 'get it.' He realizes that people are people, not roles to play. Indeed, Fellini, and Mastroianni, nail it. The modern equivalent of Adam's finger reaching out to touch God's by Michelangelo.

Thus, the squirrelly nervousness and awkwardness, lack of confidence, a pained shyness that mark the life and character of the creative type, even as he is a friendly and generous person (if a bit overly self-protective.) Treated best with yoga and aerobic exercise and some form of job to occupy himself with.

Being down with himself for being who he is isn't much of a solution. What can he do but move forward, hoping that he has helped a few other people understand their own form of the condition, helpless as they are to completely prevent it. That's probably too tolerant a view to take for a lot of people, but... Know thyself--maybe there's enough shame in that already, when you try to become an adult--and you shall understand the Universe.

{INTERLUDE, a good long bike ride in Rock Creek Park on a beautiful day, into evening, as I don't have to tend bar tonight.}

The writer reveals himself not through holiness, but through his own faults.

And in revealing himself, his faults, his foibles, he is bastion and butress of democracy and constitutional liberty, much moreso than the clever moralizing simpleton who would claim perfect strength over his weaknesses. The writer is the first line of defense for freedom and commerce, is both guide and teacher. His is the Western disagreement with moralizing religious law and totalitarianism.

And maybe you can't be a writer until you admit to yourself the uneasy truth of your being a male, a lazy turd, a little brother more irresponsible than he should be, a libertine, etc., etc., etc.

The writer is a democrat, not for following rules so much, even though he would so much like to.

It takes a long time for him to be at peace with his state. Which doesn't get any easier with age, but by some wisdom.

How to fix things? Less Glen Beck, more Shane MacGowan. Is Joyce so far away from Jefferson and Franklin?

If I may say so, trust me, you wouldn't want to be a writer, at least as far as I can tell. However, if called, you don't have much choice, to continue revealing yourself as the awkward and confused person you are where others just know what to do and go do it. Keith Gessen, he's done a fine job with capturing that.

Maybe that's some of the meaning behind the opening of In Our Time, the Nick Adams stories, when Nick trails his hand in the water, quite certain that he would never die. There has to be some basic fallacy of assumptions, otherwise you wouldn't be a writer.

Tolstoy describes his brother, who was not a novelist: "All of the talents. None of the necessary faults."

Once you can understand that, life begins.
A bird's feather resembles a cat's claw, the same form, but in reverse.
The bird has many, a single point fanning out.
The cat has few, strength narrowed to a point.
Out the feather goes, protecting;
Inward the claw goes, holding, in its function,
both a grip on life.
One, the air, the rain, the wind.
The other, prey, a fight, a tree.
An old couch pillow,
a carpet, examining table of all.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

It's an interesting and unintended facet of being a writer that the process may well make you an outsider. Odd job to pay rent, odd hours, etc. What's interesting is the way that this unintended life style, call it what you will, offers the writer an interesting perspective. It's as if there is a law of nature that says that no great commentary on life and society can be born from the middle of it.

Let's take Updike. Great writer, no doubt about it, a fine draftsman. He is cleverly positioned within the norm. Sure, he goes through some stuff worth writing about, very much so. He goes through angst and deep stuff. But while certainly not Victorian, he strikes one sometimes as a mannerist. He's not an earth-shaker, a great challenge to the way people may generally see things. He writes from within society, and his stories don't venture from basic forms of social norm. Know what I mean? Am I crazy for saying so? Well, he can create a wild safari out of that seemingly benign trip to the grocery store, so well that whatever I am thinking here at the moment doesn't stick so perfectly. I merely offer a thought to entertain, and I needed, like all arguments do, an example.

Let's take Melville, or Kerouac, or Hemingway. Here you have more of an outsider, a traveller, someone gone somewhere different. The road took them there. And they end up writing something that offers a perspective you don't get elsewhere. They say very interesting things. They create the world a little bit differently. They offer a critique about some basic daily assumptions, and they end up making art.

Where does that art lead them? It seems it can lead such a writer further out, further outside, in a very different place, in a place that's hard to judge or figure because it is so unique, so different. Are they still human? Do they still belong? Can they fit in ever again with the kinds of relationships that people normally have? Are they tainted by their portrayal of things people consider to be avoided? Are they to be like Icarus, flying too high away and toward the sun to places where they don't belong?

As often the case, Kundera to the rescue with a new book of essays, reviewed last Sunday in the New York Times Book Review, a defense of art.

And also a timely New Yorker article from the August 30 issue by Ian Frazier, "On the Prison Highway, the Gulag's silent remains." Here we have the issue a little more clear cut, starkly so. The photo caption: ''The labor camps took citizens the Soviet Union did not need and converted their lives into gold and timber, for trade abroad." The writer, like Solzhenitsyn, outsider to 'society,' is the useless person. And unless he's making elevator music to keep the working masses shuffling forward through their productive days, well, his opinion, his take on matters, is not needed, and in fact counterproductive.

Maybe the unwillingness to conform neatly comes out of a writer's habit of keeping writing, an unintended consequence given that he wished indeed to belong very much from the start and all along, to be a pillar of society, just that things went a little differently than he might have expected. And maybe it becomes a bit of a hard thing to face, the fact that he will not find it easy to change his ways, that a die has been cast. Like the submarine captain in Das Boot, he knows the score. He would want to change a few things, he would like to belong, like the normal person seems to be able to do, but ever finds it increasingly difficult to do so.

A Hemingway, a Kerouac, a Melville can be dead-wrong both in the way they live, and in what they write. Yet, by some weird natural possibility, somehow they, through a back door, have an odd way of finding something right to say, like Ishmael observing Queequeg.