Thursday, June 21, 2012

I like this review.  It's completely right, I'm sure, about its lackings as a novel.  It is, I find, perfect.  It speaks of the work's amateur quality and tedious reading conditions.  The author is, admittedly, too much of an asshole to go to enough writer workshops and learn the necessary craft.

One small issue here is the nuance of understanding suggested by Jamie's father's suggestion 'that a college can be a place for vocational training.'  This is not, I think, the same as the full passage's emphasis as it is in the original text.  The discussion is more about emphasizing the dreams, the callings a liberal arts education reveal, which only in turn point to a vocation later on.  It's curious to me that the reviewer, paid for his or her services, saw it this way, or rather, chose to ignore the import of what's being addressed here.  Maybe it's too wild and offbeat a point to even register in such circles.  (If the passage is pontification, I apologize.)

Well, perhaps I am splitting hairs here puzzling over this.  Or maybe the reviewer is offering a psychological interpretation the author was not consciously aware of in rendering, actually remembering, original dialogue of real life.  Anyway, makes me wonder whether someone may have missed the gist of it.  To that person, it may well have seemed to lack a plot, but that's not really how I see it.

Could the review come from a certain bias toward the place of art in the economy?  Looking at the Kirkus website, and a subsequent email from them pitching their marketing services, it becomes clearer that this is about advertising (well, duh), advertising that which is sellable.  The book here is regarded as a service, a product like soap is a product, a service of entertainment or a certain kind of easy erudition.  Well, that is publishing for you, a business, not a charity, these days.

Though we really do not question the market, but rather try to get along with it and hopefully please it so that it rewards us, I wonder if, perhaps, we should.  We could take a step back from it, even if that seems at first like a futile and fruitless endeavor.  It is, of course, thoroughly pervasive, its reach everywhere, as now everything has an authoritative value placed upon it.  The beast which we fed because it facilitated the all-important movement and exchange of goods, has overgrown us, become a kind of Big Brother, all of us falling in.

I tried to write a book about a rare place where that hadn't completely happened yet, a place where thought was independent, suited more toward higher purposes.  I put this place as a college campus, not a bad place after all.  The stakes involved matters of the heart, and so I do see a plot.  Sure, maybe I was a fool to set my flagpole there, for being not in the slightest bit practical, which is of course always helpful to a cause.  But, as JFK said once, 'art establishes the basic human truths,' (though in our time we are a bit too nervously deconstructionist to allow ourselves embracing that.)  Yes, it would have been smarter to play along with the forces that be, and then once comfortably situated then go about it, but, such is life.

A work is a piece of fiction, by the way, as any remembering of actual events is a recreation, a reimagining, an act of interpretation and also poetry.  The author is merely trying to portray actual events (while changing the names to protect the innocent and those whose privacy must be respected) in such a way as to make some sense of them, selfish as that may be.  The effort was not to make a book for the marketplace, not at all, really.  The creation of it had its own reasons.

Yes, I'm for questioning that which runs roughshod over humanity, which paves over the town it has killed to build roads to endless malls with the same big players everywhere, which pollutes the air and water, which takes habitat and makes endless sub-divisions which then sit there to rot, unoccupied.  Yes, it may seem like Quixotic tilting at windmills (an oddly prescient understanding about how we would all one day become slaves to energy needs), but the marketplace cannot factor in everything as much as it might claim to.  The cost of corporate pollution is passed on and on, for example.  McDonalds makes their money, kids health suffers, diabetes becomes pandemic, hobbling a work force, disposable containers pile up in dumps...

The same market place attaches value on people.  I, for instance, from market standpoint, and simply a bartender, true, a bit of wine knowledge thrown in, but paid basically the same as a dishwasher.  Dick Cheney, near the other end of the scale, deep into energy concerns, has a completely different, and larger, value.  Some question the market, others go straight to figuring out how to make it work for them and oftentimes 'the hell with everyone else, grab what you can and then retreat behind high walls.'  It's just a matter of attitude, of values, of the way the soul bids one to be 'a better person' however you might define it.

I don't know.  Sometimes, I feel like I'm missing something in life.  End of the week, down to the Whole Foods, too poor to eat out, the usual routine.  Logan Circle buzzing with Thursday night, bars and restaurants full, everyone dressed well, and I'm headed back to the quiet little street above Dupont Circle to cook dinner.  Up late unwinding after work the night before, I got up around 1, and don't feel like joining in quite yet.  The day had its stuff:  Took the cat in for her steroid shot, then the groceries, but aside from yoga I haven't gotten in the exercise I need.  And a weird aloneness, the kind you can't get out of, has quickly set in, now that I am back.  It's been so long since I've been a part of dating life, I don't think I even want to bother with it anymore anyway, such has been my experience.  I don't feel good enough about my own place in life anyway to be very entertaining.  And I am too poor anyway.  Stay home, cook my piece of fish, do some house cleaning, take the recycling out, get rid of some newspaper piles.  Have I become a nihilist, or a sort of anarchist, not caring about anything?  Am I just beat from the week?  Maybe it's the staying in, bad for the energy levels.  And all of this does indeed come across as being written by someone who seems to be outside the market, outside at least the market that dating in modern times is, as one small example.

I think we get down as a way of looking within, to find that meaning, that higher meaning we intuitively sense ourselves grasping for.  One has a need of a transformative understanding of what he does in life.  A barman, presiding over only the happiest of times?  Or a kind of non-denominational theosophical sort of priest, maybe despite the serving, and over serving, of wine.  My father understood my book to be the story of a fledgling theosophist, of one who cares and thinks deeply, probably a bit way too self-conscious to be part of the fun all of the time.  I think that makes sense.

Grasping to find, looking for, our real selves, we might naturally feel a little depressed.  As we've let down people for not being fully and firmly that which we would like to be.  And it is sad to realize that the pleasure-seeking self is not what makes us content.  And, contrary to the societal image, maybe happiness is not found so much in the smiling joyous crowd, but alone, sifting through things that might even be a little painful.  Ouch.  I need that time to go off by myself and ride a bike by a stream.  Is that just a pose?  Are you looking in the wrong place for happiness?  After all, the story goes, we are social animals.  Just go out and be social and you should be able to find some kind of happiness, no?

Hmm, I don't so often think so.  Things are more horrid than that.  But in realism, one finds peace.

To amplify on thoughts below, yes, I can see why any writer, a poster child type like Ernest Hemingway, not to belittle him at all, would mention getting "the Black Dog" in conjunction with his creative efforts, particularly after the completion of bringing something out of the ether into being in the form of writing.  And it also makes perfect sense that he would need an everyday project exactly like his boat, The Pilar (written about well recently) just not to go crazy with emptiness.  Something to keep one's hands, mind and body busy.  Hand in hand with the realization that "I am a writer," or that "I have to be now, because I have much at stake here," is the encounter with a great emptiness.  No doubt, part of that emptiness is all the time spent alone with thoughts in the creative sanctuary.  The blank piece of paper doesn't help that.  The rest of the world is doing something, and you've made a bad choice, no matter how instinctive it might have seemed.  And how to get out of it, you ask yourself.  Kerouac, not without a sense of humor, created the self-portrait of the fire lookout post alone in a cabin atop a mountain in the Eastern Cascades, Desolation Angels.

Yoga strikes me as a practice helpful for the writer.  The pose begins with the same facing of emptiness,  followed by the same realization of there be something within, flowing energy inside the stretching form of the body's frame.  The meditation that follows can only be good.  Yoga is one of those very supportive human activities that help us face the emptiness that we all must face, that we do face on a daily basis.  Yoga gives you something to hold on to, and it happens to be good for your health, a major plus.  (Otherwise, it's at least somewhat true that idle hands to the work of the devil.)  For the grand adventurist getting into yoga might not seem so thrilling or worthy of story-lines.  Yoga isn't big game hunting in Africa or fishing for marlin in the Gulf Stream.  But it is something that will keep you, something that will put you into great shape and help you live a long life in good health.  What better thing could there be, actually, for a writer who must go and face that lonely nothingness?  Also helps you deal with the cravings and distracting things.

But, the more you do yoga, the less you feel the urge to write what you might call a sellable book.  Man finds yoga, defeats cravings, doesn't make the pop charts.  The perspective he comes to draw upon is simply too big, too philosophical in nature (of course leading, if not very careful, to pontification.)  Well, as much as anyone, a writer must be careful about his own health.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Somewhere in the mental space that occurs within the act of sprinkling a bit of Metamucil (and a tiny bit of turmeric--why not?) on the cat's food to help things along, and the digestion of the assessment of the professionals at Kirkus Review "plotless, repetitive, dialogue bordering on pontification, clogged with small talk and too many characters, etc." (not to quote directly, and not to disagree), and buoyed up by the lovely music of the DC area's own Irish Breakfast Band (awesome), episodes of Stephan Hawking on The Discovery Channel explaining stuff, big stuff, fall in, anchoring one again, and one says to himself, "them Buddhists are basically right."  The Buddhists have, from what I can tell, a pretty good grasp on big numbers.  They have a pretty good sense of how large the stuff in space is, how far it goes on.  And they know too, how many lives you generally have to go through before achieving enlightenment and highest state of mind and that sort of thing.

Boom.  Where before there was nothing, wham!, there is a Big Bang, and all the known stuff comes into creation, out of... something very tiny? something sort of like nothing?  The main thing is that in this great "Viola"the basic law of nature, there is always the preservation of balance, the economy, the equal and opposite reaction to that which happens.  Professor Hawking is good at explaining.  When matter and energy, both positive, are brought into being, there is a corresponding creation of that which perfectly balances it, dark matter, dark energy.  If there is a lot of the visible stuff created, there is a lot of the opposite created.

Which can bring you back to the poetic concept of the Buddha's, that basically it's all like a dream.  And that is a calming thought, as naturally it should be.  No need to work yourself up into a tizzy, or down into a funk over some perceived need.  Life is all part of the great unfolding, a part of that little tiny conscious thing that had a sort of dream to expand and expand.

So is it with our own acts of creativity.  We call forth things out of the void, bringing things into being.  And maybe we know that as we do that we are participating in the great balance, doing our job in being that which is, as The Book of Genesis rightly has it, good.

(And one might postulate, or poetically conjecture, or wonder if it is so that when an artist creates something there tends to be some sort of reaction in nature in the opposite direction.  Maybe it is that the artist is reacting positively to something negative, the beauty of a war poem coming out of the horror.  The setting forth of an ideal out from the fog of the human condition may well meet its forms of opposites, in skepticisms, in real world practices (such as slavery), in ridicule, in firm-footed desires not to understand that ideal.  This sounds like a sophomoric thought, and maybe it is.  Love itself is thought of often in the most cynical of terms, along with the lot of higher things.  "Beethoven, yeah, yeah, nice piano concerto, but what good does it do the economy;  we need more and better widgets, and enough of this 'beauty is truth' crap," one secretly thinks.  Enough to make him not want to leave the house almost.  No wonder something truly great, like Moby Dick, was a big flop, an invitation to authorial obscurity.  We might wonder, too, that so 'connected' we are all the time, that everything will eventually be trivial to us, and that our thoughts will be correspondingly shallow by our attentions being spread so thin.   Yes, when the individual participates in the energy of the Big Bang by creating something, he may be surprised that the reaction is not so much in the same direction, 'wow, that's cool and correct in a deep way,' but in the completely opposite direction, 'you are a big creepy idiot who has no clue about how to comport himself in society.'  Until time comes along eventually and sorts things out, if he was in fact 'correct.'  He may be waiting a long time.  Or, maybe, like Einstein the blackboard scribbles turn out to be so obvious and beautiful and sound as theory they can not be overlooked.  Twain himself did the math: "no good deed ever goes unpunished."  So with groundbreaking art.  What is an artist more aware of on a daily basis then the basic vacuum he or she must operate in?  To the whole thing, you shrug, and say, 'well, that's just nature, the way things are.'  But it is very sobering, if you've ever pretended that you are a writer, to sit down and wonder, 'what am I going to write now, what am I doing, how is this different from doing a whole lot of absolutely nothing?' as I say to myself now.  And it is an oddly similar and corresponding experience to, I would imagine, that grandiose ideally thought of romantic love a juvenile is so certain about, a practical man certain, from experience, of the opposite.  It's about the fish you catch, though it is also perfectly fine to be a naturalist, leaving things be in the wild, I suppose, from an ecological standpoint.  So with writing:  it's not the philosophical tangents, like this one, but about whether you can write compelling dialogue set within a discernible tension-filled plot.)

Our own acts, well, they often seem so small, so trifling, so insignificant.  How could one little action toward the positive amount to much, we ask ourselves.  And yet, when we move in the right direction (toward a basic kindness I won't bother to irritate anyone with description of), we find ourselves buoyed on, uplifted, carried and supported, moving forward with the dream of the Universe itself.  I suppose that is what the Buddha's smile is about.

And if that is true, or if that occurs to you to be something supportive or intuitively sensical, you see more the 'brotherhood,' and 'sisterhood,' (the sexes themselves indication of the great polarity/duality of all things that exist) of all things and all people, all of us born of the seed of our fathers out of our mothers in the same raw awkward beautiful act, all of us carrying forward that beautiful light energy of Big Bangs and smaller bangs each with his or her own grace.  Each of us, a miracle.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I think writing is a genetic trait of the human being.  The habit seems to preexist the marketplace.  Writing is thinking, and thinkers find it necessary to put some things down, orally, on a rock, on the invention of paper.  Scientists scribble pictures, formulas, and it's the same thing.

Now and then you get some one who's either a sort of writing pure-bred, or one who is allowed the necessary focus, probably by demanding it.  Like a Robert Frost, who says things so clearly in a writer sort of way.  "And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep."  A depth of meaning invested in recognizable words.

Each week I would make a strange migration, back from the bar, the place of misery and empathy and pretended happiness and escape, difficultly back to the realm of words and books and poetry.  In so doing I would have to, to at least an extent, turn away from the world, from the city, from friend and personal life, to sit down, miserably enough, and do what felt to be my thing, slowly watching myself in the meanwhile turn into an older middle-aged man, yet without ever seemingly growing up.  The phone, the clock, the email, the appointment would be distressing.  I allowed myself grocery shopping, would avoid going out because it was too sad for me to see so many people at ease enjoying themselves in company, having fewer and fewer friends.  I took long bike rides in the most natural settings I could find to keep my mood up, not wanting to fall out of shape, and to clear my head.  I was out of synch with everyone anyway.  It cost too much to go out anyway, and who would have talked with me anyway?  It would have been nice if there was indeed some 'clean, well-lit place' where I could bring a book, a pen and notepad and sit amongst people, but they don't make such places as that anymore.  And what could I do but be unhappy with myself for letting my life come down to this, the sort of lonely unwanted bachelor one was always afraid of turning into.  I tried to keep my mind alive, curious, absorbent.  I tried to find the place and time to read, though often I didn't.

And then after one day, gritting through the misery of writing and retreating into a sort of stunned silence, not wishing to talk to many anyway, I would have to drag myself back to the place of friendships that left me behind, holding the bag of loneliness as people went off in their little units, leaving me high and dry.  And by that day when I had to go back, having placed my foot somewhere, as if to climb higher, I had to leave it all behind, and it was against many instincts and with a great sadness that I would go back to the old shop.  Oh well, maybe such is a place for a writer anyway.  He just has to maintain his honesty about what he does every week, and the uselessness of things.

Back to the place to be reminded of all my mistakes and character flaws, back to the curse of Ahab, back to the bar.

Friday, June 8, 2012

I guess if you've ever tried your hand at writing, you realize it's a bit like fishin'.  There's often no rhyme nor reason to it, you just stand there and sometimes something happens.  You may not even have any idea what you are fishing for, or what it will look like when you do catch something, or even what it is when you catch it, nor what to do with it now that you have caught it.

It can cause you to end up feeling a bit displaced sometimes, like it almost doesn't involve you.  You see yourself as, as they say, just a vehicle.  That can come off sounding like some sort of holy mumbo-jumbo, so neither is that anything to go around crowing about.  Were it not for someone respectable like Joseph Campbell, saying that he felt that more and more, being the vehicle of something, as he got older and older, it would be too embarrassing to mention, too much of a claim.

Well, if you realize that it's not you so much, more a matter of just being there and letting things come to you as haphazardly as they do, it's a bit humbling.  And maybe some days, as much as anything else, in realizing your own personal insignificance, you see yourself pretty much as a bit of a degenerate scumbag.  (Were it not for the fact that you are capable of keeping yourself in check, and actually being fairly polite, a member of society, as much as you can be, as much as you can feign it.)  If you are 'just the vehicle,' you end up being so humble, in a way, you paint yourself into a corner accepting simplicity over respectability.  And you wind up feeling very awkward, either because of setting aside the time to write, or for all the things you accept in order to do it, like the job you work or the exercise program you subscribe to.

Thus, the awkwardness of being a writer.  You're almost obliged to be a bit different, a bit removed.  Perhaps that's why many gravitate toward odd jobs, jobs at the fringes of society like being a musician, or an actor or a bartender.  In it, but not of it.  Removed, in order to observe.  Scattered evenly throughout writing we find an unmistakeable geologic record of the embrace of outsider life.  We see it, of course, in Twain.  We see it in the poet Dickinson.  We see it in Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, the embrace of the outsider.  We can see it in Shakespeare's familiarity with the range of humanity, the isolation of everyone from clown to king.  Conrad, Melville, David Foster Wallace, Ray Bradbury, you name it.  (Call it the human condition.)  Add to that the lifestyle choices, Shane MacGowan, for example, who does indeed bring us a certain kind of world that exists all too readily.

Let's face it, no one respectable, except for the odd moment of curiosity, really wants that much to personally engage with a writer, as being a writer is almost a matter of not being there when of course everyone else is trying to be there, engaged with making life happen.  (Unless of course it is a considered act, this engagement.)  This, "I'm just a writer, I'm just the vehicle," really, the logical mind must ask, 'what is this bullshit?'

Okay, some of it is honest sitting around questioning things to the extent that they can be questioned.  It's not complete lunacy, at least if you come up with something every now and then.  But in the search for inspirations from within, you do come to see your own faults, even as you miss some of them.  Writing itself is a fault, maybe, once you have made the initial mistake of becoming a writer.  It's easy to see why evangelical types, who must come up with something to say once a week, are obsessed with sin, though they won't admit it about themselves unless in some usually grandiose self-serving way.  Sin is plain as day on the landscape, ever-present, when you sit down to catch a few thoughts.

But still, but still, you know enough of the mother ship to sense some form of dissatisfaction, some basic issue with either existence, personality, society, perpetuated understandings, etc.  You know enough to instinctively go snooping around Emily Dickinson's house, though you don't know what it means.  Nature must be remembered;  things must be analyzed and observed.

Still though, writing is something to stay away from.  People may read something good a writer has come up with, but my guess is they won't feel like getting more intimate or friendly with the writer, not unless they themselves are writers and know what it's like.

I can easily understand why the attempted writer would go about in a sort of hang-dog way.  I can understand why he would be slowly relegated to a down sort of life, shoulders stooped by the weight of his burdens, a kind of life Orwell wrote about in Down and Out in Paris and London.  And if it isn't directly the circumstances fallen into, it would be within his range of attitudes.  Being silent, superficially agreeable, passive, aloof, all makes him feel he is essentially strange to normal people, and this feeds on itself.  It is not that hard to imagine the sort of storm that might blow up to someone predisposed toward psychic and mental illnesses, depression and the like.  (Depression itself, hopefully of the kind combatted and ultimately conquered, is the part of many a story.)  In the writer's isolation it is easy to imagine the sort of paranoia that might arise over his work, making critique a very complicated and loaded issue indeed.

And yet, there is something natural and necessary, vital even, to the process and the work.  Writing is something that must be done, that we cannot live without.  There is of course a correspondingly fine feeling when you get something down right.  "Lonesome people of the world, unite."

You find yourself doing it a long time after it ceased to be comfortable and enjoyable, long after it had become difficult and painful and personally trying.  And so indeed there is at least a faint ring of the heroism inherent in writing in a multitude of works.  The eye gets Crispin Crispian's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth,

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother;

because it sees the heroism deeply embedded in the writer.  The eye gets Emily Dickinson's "not one of all the purple host who took the flag today can tell the meaning, so clear, of victory..." because it speaks so clearly of the writer's turmoil and ultimate bravery, to go on when it is nothing but deeply painful.  It shows some integrity, even if the ship is taking water.  The Gettysburg Address derives its tone from the suffering and bravery of the man left to make sense of it all in words.  And one need not even be very productive ostensibly to garner such feelings--it can happen without writing a word, leading one to think that writing is the only way to exorcise it.  Not by coincidence is writing one of the places we steadily find wisdom herself.

I would gather it might be hard to pick up such a weight in the morning, to not want to run away and hide from its burdens.

What sort of a decent life is there out there for a writer?  What sort of work allows him to stay in the zone?   What allows him a healthy distance from it, so that he might go and pursue living a normal life?  How can he promote the respect and understanding that people should direct toward a writer?  What help can be provided to alleviate his pain?  No wonder writers seek refuge in the spiritual, as Kerouac did in both Buddhism and Christianity.    One supposes recognition (as a writer) would help matters.

Maybe now in particular do we need to bring forward the kind of writing that is real in its depth, more than the blip about 'what's hot.'  Something that has faced the withering fire of the dragon and proven to aid survival.  Something that acknowledges the great and greatly unpopular dismal quality of our existence that no act of materialism can assuage, things we don't want to face but which the writer, in effect, has to, meeting it head on and hopefully not consumed by it.

Such is life:  some people instinctively embrace the experience of the outsider, the loneliness, the misery, and some people run away from it.  Some chose to be writers.  Some chose not to be.  Some like deep stuff.  Some like ad copy.

Monday, June 4, 2012

We attend at a talk at college reunion about the future of publishing.  A word is bandied about, referring to writers as 'content providers.'  Fairly boring, sitting through these panel discussions, led by professionals.  Some facts and figures, some speculation, some talk.

Hmm.  Content Providers.  Not much of a ring to it, except perhaps to an ear perfectly happy with mass production and market economies.

I slip away from the Frost Library and head up a quiet side street, toward the Evergreens, toward the Emily Dickinson House.  The mind needs to process.  Emily Dickinson, content provider.  Or let's try, T.S. Eliot, content provider.

I get home from work last night, and I'm glad there is an open but basically full bottle of Corbieres in the fridge.  Being open two days in the cold has not been unkind to it.  I might rather avoid wine altogether, but, you know, it helps you process things, as my mother with her infallible sense of morality tells me, and I must say the next day goes a good deal better as far as capturing thoughts and a sense of things when you allow yourself that.

I always liked those courtly A Boy's King Arthur kind of stories, like when Sir Lancelot, the greatest knight of all would go out into the world incognito, as if he, too were a content provider, an unknown writer.