Archive for October, 2009

The Gravity’s Rainbow meet-up last night in San Francisco was excellent. I talked Ian (who loaned me the copy I’m reading and read it himself years and years ago) into coming with me, and a couple of amusing people joined us. By amusing I mean a man who is mysteriously off to China next week but knew Gravity’s Rainbow down to the pronunciation of “Nguarorerue” without looking at the page and had read every book I mentioned, and a Swedish mathematician who had never heard of the novel but is now sold and who had conversational digressions that were consistently fascinating. The only other attendant from the first meet-up, Quinn, was also there, and she did a lovely reading of one of the best passages thus far in the book (the Herero history section on pages 315-319 in the Penguin edition).

After a good hour of wide-ranging book chat interspersed with history lessons on why one should not try to occupy Russia, Quinn pulled out the absinthe kit for the Postmodernism Support Group part of the night. I’d never had absinthe, only seen all the fuss and production in movies. Special spoons! Fire! Melting stuff! The smell of burning plastic! If you could work in tying off a limb somehow, it would be most of the way to junkieland. There were four or five brands (all imported), and I preferred the blue and the green ones. Way to pay attention on the names, self. Those two were like Good & Plenty candy that grew up, got a job as a dominatrix, and is forcing you to do shots at knifepoint. Ian made many amusing disgusted faces: my favorites were “dog who has eaten a bee” and “cat with part of a cotton ball stuck to its tongue.”

Three nice pieces on writing from the last few days, all of them linked (Twitter, I’d guess) from people/places that I didn’t think to save. I pop open a tab and get to the reading at some later time, which doesn’t lend itself to giving credit. I’ll work on that.

1. “In Praise of the Crack-Up” by Jeanette Winterson. I have disagreements with much of this article (and anything that claims that mental illness is a necessary part of creativity), but the last bit, when she veers away from craziness and towards the deep pains that even sane artists suffer, is great.

Longing is painful. Every work of art is an attempt to bring into being the object of loss. The pictures, the music, the poems and the performances are an intense engagement with loss. While one is in the act of making, one is not in loss, and one has meaning. The fierce crashes that happen to many creative people when a piece of work is done (read Hemingway on this) come out of the sense that however good the work, it has not answered the loss.

The strange thing about creative work is that it can have enormous value for others while its maker is left ravaged. . . . Encounters with the real, in particular what we really feel, are something we generally try to avoid. Art mediates the encounter, allowing us to get nearer to our longing and our loss, to risk more, to dare more. Yet for the maker, the exposure is not mediated; it is total and terrifying.

2. “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life” by Alexander Chee. A fantastic short memoir. I particularly appreciate, about 70% of the way through, his discussion of his process and what he’s conscious of while composing. At that point I became of aware of how he was putting his sentences together and wanted to start all over again, see how it worked (and it does).

Lorrie Moore calls the feeling I felt that day “the consolations of the mask,” where you make a place that doesn’t exist in your own life for the life your life has no room for, the exiles of your memory. But I didn’t know this then.

All I could tell in that moment was that I had finally made an impression on myself. And whatever it was that I did when I writing a story, I wanted to do it again.

3. “How to Become a Writer: A Memoir” by Sonya Chung. Chung is scrappy, and optimistic, and still mid-stream—this is a story of coming late to the game, and the overwhelming importance choosing to read as much as possible.

I learned that to read books with your whole self is to become a real human being, and, possibly (when reading books actually becomes more real than life to you), an artist. Over the last 13 years or so, I’ve read widely, hungrily, obsessively. When I am reading a book as deeply as one should read a book—that is, when reading a book is literally more nourishing than eating food—everything is colored by what that book is doing to me, how it is changing the way I think and feel; and everyone around me needs to brace themselves, because the book I am reading is everything about who I am and what I care about for a time. “How are you?” might as well be “What are you reading?”

When someone I am getting to know says to me, “Wow, you read a lot, you are well-read,” I have to laugh. And when a student asks me how to become a writer—not in those words, of course, but by showing up to class, they are essentially asking me this—I say: read. Read good books. Read them all. (This is the most worthwhile impossible goal you can set for yourself.) And read them with your whole self. If you do not read, and with your whole self, you will not become a writer; you will never ever ever become a writer. Not a real one. Not a good one.

Working on it.


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where I am

It’s been a while. I committed to the editing of my second terrible novel, and that is taking up some of my personal writing energy, but not enough to be a reasonable excuse. I’ve also decided to do the alphabetical memoir blog thing and have been working up a list of authors to filter it through: not so much writing on that yet either.

But I did just go pick up (through an unwelcome cloud of humidity) three books I had on hold at the library and one from the new fiction shelf. My habit when I get a stack of new books, whether from the library or the store or the amazing warehouse sale my preferred bookstore has once a year, is to stack them up on one side of me on the couch, examine the author photo and blurbs of each, and then read the first paragraph of each before it goes into my “read this next” pile. This batch:
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. I’ve been meaning to read this for as long as I’ve been keeping a booklist. It has always been checked out, or stolen, or on order and then checked out/stolen. Finally, one copy was returned and held for me. The first paragraph turned into the first page, and I had to remind myself that I can’t commit to it today. That’s a good sign. I’ll likely merge it into the mix tonight, once I’m more established with Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, which is flawless thus far (page 55).
Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers. A few pre-publication pushes by Ed Champion helped me get my request in early enough to be holding the first copy that the library has. Ooooh, I love that. So crisp and clean. Terrible author photo, as always. Undecided on the first paragraph.
Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips. The impulse check-out from the new fiction section. I think this book is up for the National Book Award (looking . . . yes, it is) and it felt like a right and proper thing to have read at least one of them. About the Korean War, which I know very little about, so interested right off in that. Blurb mania! Alice Munro comparing it to a diamond, Junot Diaz proclaiming it the best novel he’s read this year, Tim O’Brien saying it’s “the best new novel I’ve read in the last five years or so.” There is a table of contents with many small chapters, which I appreciate while reading so many books at the same time. First paragraph test went well. High hopes.
The Appointment by Herta Muller. She just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and within half an hour of it being declared, I requested the novel. Sorry, 18 people behind me. If you are sensing an unhealthy and competitive fixation on the library request process, you are correct. I can see how people get fixated on Ebay auctions now. Anyway, it’s a little book, with a nice first page, and a slightly frightening author photo (interesting: the exact photo is nowhere to be found online—the pictures that show up in Google images are much better). Again, though, blurb mania! Except just for me: it’s gushed over by Andre Aciman, who wrote one of my favorite books of last year and a personal life-changer, Call Me By Your Name.

I have no idea how I will pick where to start, especially with The Master still staring at me from the shelf, and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage begging for a read. This is how I end up reading eight books at a time.

I finished Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs yesterday, and I’m very conflicted about it. I don’t know whether to cobble together a couple of the reviews I’ve read that I agree with or take a whack at expressing my own vague issues with it. I really like Moore, and I’m not sure I liked this book by the end. Still chipping away at the monster trio of Gravity’s Rainbow (enjoyment level: up), Underworld (tolerance level: up, due to interesting J. Edgar Hoover chapter), and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (guesses-about-what-is-fucking-happening level: same). Happy and mellow with The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, my go-to fun book right now.

Good lord that’s a lot of books. Also, a lot of names with accents that I am too lazy to go copy-paste right now. Sorry, fancy-name authors.

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