Finding craft when you're not looking, books of May 2 of 2

Ah, part two is upon us. I began writing this literally four minutes after finishing part one, aka I'm really just separating the giant blocks of text. As I said, for the future I will just post about my reading life more frequently to avoid challenges like trying to remember and discuss nine books in one blog post.

I've been embarking on a long term project of reading books about writing and craft, taking notes and acting as though I'm still in school for creative writing, which obviously, I wish I was. I take notes in a special notebook and then later I will look at them and pick out the best pearls of wisdom. This month I read On Writing by Stephen King. Let's take this moment to note that I am not as pretentious as I may seem, because I have a great deal of respect for Stephen King as a writer even though I personally do not usually choose to read genre fiction. I really have respect for the kings (or queens, you know, ungendered royalty) of any genre, especially ones who show as much dedication as King.

I wrote 'shut up' on the first page of the book, not because he said something I disagree with, but more like a 'that's so awesome' version of shut up, because listen to this: Stephen King is/was in a band with Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, and Barbara Kingsolver! What! As I said, shut up! Amazing!

I don't think it's entirely necessary for me to transfer every note I took in my writing notebook into this blog post, rather I'll pick the choiciest pieces of advice and my general feelings about the book as a writing craft guide: less obnoxious than Francine Prose, more useful than Anne Lamott, not as nitty gritty as Tracy Kidder. But also, Stephen King had to struggle a lot and didn't have a fancy time at The Atlantic, so points for him.

This is less a piece of writing advice than just a fact that a lot of people should have pounded into their heads, but: “The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

This one recalls Cheryl Strayed's now famous 'write like a motherfucker': “You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”

“Writing is refined thinking,” reminds me of why I write in general. I enjoy thinking, the paths it takes, the narration my brain places on the world. Writing is a way to enforce these meanderings, and every day I think that I need to do it more, to get down all the thoughts.

This one made me laugh while thinking about all the times that I disclaim my rudeness: “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

Speaking of rude, I've been known to say lately: “I''m so over plot.” I say this because after the cocktail of studying theory and reading a good amount of fiction, a heavy handed novel is so easy to spot and so unpleasant to read. Guess who agrees? Stephen King!

“You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer – my answer, anyway – is nowhere. I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible.”

Also, Stephen King is funny. I wrote lol (one of my favored annotations) at least twelve times in the margins.

Although not a book about writing craft specifically, The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits is in a similar vein because it follows the thought maps of an artist, which is another great form of reading creativity. The Folded Clock is a (non-linear) collection of diary entries that Julavits wrote over a period of two years, shortly after she had a presumed to be life threatening stint with pelvic floor syndrome. She doesn't recount this in the book, rather she discussed it on my very favorite podcast Lit Up, with Emily Gould and Angela Ledgerwood. Anyway, each entry follows a thought that develops into a greater observation of the world, an idea of Julavits past and present as an artist, characterizations of her marriage and awesome life, and, you know, lots of other things.

Let's just quickly note here that I don't hate marriage and children categorically, I love hearing about married people with children who still live interesting awesome lives, just as I love hearing about anyone who has an interesting life. And boy does Heidi Julavits have an interesting life, possibly one of my dream lives minus the children. Except when she takes her kids to the cemetery to visit the graves of dead authors, I was like that is exactly the type of parenting I'd do.

What this book is, at the core, is some collected observations of the world from a unique thinker, so I will quote some of my favorite of those observations:

“Still, the tradition with landmark birthdays is to give a gift that presumes the receiver needs reminding that they are beloved and alive.” I never thought of birthdays that way before, but I love it!

“Fame basically prohibits casual conversation. What's your opening gambit with George Clooney? It's all so fucking awkward.”

“As he must do in these situations – What else is there to do save divorce me? I really did pick a fight with him the other day about military time – he approached me calmly.”

“No one was around to publicly shame me, but I am perfectly able to shame myself.”

Her descriptions are just too good: on describing some artists who threw a super bowl party: “These were sporty-spirited bohemians.”

Julavits intertwines her experience as a woman with many of her entries, most poignantly as a female artist married to male artist: “I am highly sensitive to the insensitivity of people who treat my husband and a writer in my presence while failing to treat me as one, even if they do consider him to be the better/more valuable/deserving of eternal renown. I never do this to other writer couples, no matter if I think one is superior to the other.”

Humility in anyone is comforting, and in Julavits case, hilarious, as in this quote from when her and her husband were for some reason at a summit with political theorists: “Here is a good example of why we are worried. Last night my husband and I, in bed, googled WW1 why did it happen.”

Just to show that I am not averse to relationships in general, just averse to the traditional narratives, I'll share this line that encapsulates the type of relationship I would like to have with a life partner: “Our inability to understand makes her a regular character in our couple narratives, the ones we tell about the weirdness we've weathered together.” Weathering weirdness! Isn't that the dream? Or when she describes her husband as a “unique thinker.” That is maybe the dream trait in other humans, not just in relationships, but in friendship, coworkership, roommateship, any type of ongoing contact.

As always, it's refreshing to read about the daily lives of people who have aspects of the life that you one day desire, because it's a reminder that they are just normal people who have managed to find their way through the hedge maze of absurdity that is trying to live as an artist. Such as the fact that Julavits frequently discusses how often she loses things – this is such a small thing, but it truly is refreshing. I have, no joke, had the thought: how can anyone who is as forgetful as me make a real life work? But people do it all the time, successful people aren't perfect. Also, I will (at this age) never get tired of hearing about how artists struggled in their youth. Especially if they spent time waiting tables, which Julavits did, holler.

“I thought instead: I must remember to do this when I am seventy. I must remember to find a rock that feels exactly like my son's four year old back. I must remember to close my eyes and imagine that I am me again, a tired mother trying to teach herself how to miss what is not gone.”

Who are we once we pass ourselves? Is the question I wrote in the margin. I don't feel particularly apt to speak to this passage or this question since I am 24 and not yet arrived at a life that I will consider to be my life life, although some aspects of it have already arrived: my friends, my love of reading, and my artistic self is at least developing toward where I want it to be. But though I can't imagine much about the future, I am thinking very abstractly about the passage of time and the most vital way to live a life. I think that the dream is probably to always be conjuring aspects of a life that you are happy to inhabit, so it never truly passes (until you die, that is) but what do I know? Literally, nothing.

On a less existential note, since I love games, I was stoked to see Julavits describe what I will make into a great party game:

“We mused for a while on the topic of “Were They Funny?” Shakespeare, was he funny in person? Was Rilke? All of these dead people, were they funny or not? You couldn't tell by their work what it would have been like to hang out with them in person.”

Sometimes I read things that I think may help me understand people, but they also make me morose at the things that life can do to a person. Julavits is referencing a writer she meets whose wife has recently died - “I'd heard that he'd been bereft since his wife had died. That it was a 'matter of time' before he joined her. I told him that we'd put flowers on his wife's grave, but didn't tell him that he had not yet qualified. Sometimes, I figured, people don't need reminding that they are still alive.”

Le cry.

With that note (what note? The thing that is tragic to no one but me, because of how it in my head relates to something it might not actually relate to at all? Whatever) I move on to Changing My Mind, by Zadie Smith, a collection of her essays from various publications on various topics over a some year period. Zadie is up there with literary god status in my book, as well as goddess of aesthetic perfection. Like how can a person have such perfect bone structure? Anyway...

Zadie is one of those rare writers who is clearly as much of an academic theory genius as she is an excellent literary stylist. AKA, sometimes she casually references things that I have no knowledge of and I'm like there is so far to go in learning that I will perish. But one must go on and just try to keep learning and understanding more, instead of perishing.

It's always a joy to find things in books that you're reading from random years (Changing My Mind was published in 2009, but the essays themselves were first published in a variety of years, obviously preceding 2009) that speak directly to the current cultural climate. Of course, this usually means that the ideas were always discussed and important but the dunce caps of the majority are only catching on now, but it's nonetheless a great way to intersect reading and life. The first essay in the book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What does Soulful Mean?” speaks directly to the broad cultural questions currently circulating about diversity, authorship, and identification, as well as what it means to promote diversity in literature without stealing voice. This quote shows Smith's nuanced reaction to reading Their Eyes Were Watching God as a teenager.

“And though it is, to me, a mistake to say, 'Unless you are a black woman, you will never fully comprehend this novel,' it is also disingenuous to claim that many black women do not respond to this book in a particularly powerful manner that would seem 'extraliterary.'”

Smith speaks here to finding a bridge between exclusionary language (“you will never understand my experience”) and the importance of featuring diverse voices in literature. Diversity in literature benefits everyone, both the people who are reading a published voice that gives levity to their unique experiences and those who will learn from understanding the difference of the looking at the world through subjugated eyes.

I want to find more writers who publish literary criticism that is truly academic in nature, but it's pretty hard to come by. The downside of studying theory in college is that my threshold is pretty high, i.e., I'm easy to eye roll at the mediocre. But at the same time, I don't have the time to dedicate to straight theory that I did in college. (Even then, it was a struggle, and in one memorable case, tear inducing.)

In “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov”, Smith encounters one of my budding literary interests, structure, as well as the good old 'role of the author' debate. It begins with this:

“The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera. It's a fortunate reader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime.”

That's another dream, isn't it? To know your most favored literature so well that you can live inside it. Okay now I'm getting caught up in rereading this essay because it's so good. Anyway, she goes on to describe the exchange of power between the author and the reader, and the myriad of ways that people react to the idea that a reader and culture can take ownership of a novel away from an author. I found myself in between the categories she describes her students being split into: some who accept the idea of the 'death of the author' so easily that they have may have always read that way inherently, and some who take it as a 'perverse assault on the privileges of authorship.' I see it as an exchange, as a gift, as a conversation with the author who has sacrificed so much.

The next essay, about Kafka (speaking of rereading, I already want to reread all of these essays. Help me give me more like this!) contains this amazing little tongue in cheek gem: “The truth was that he wasted time! The writer's equivalent of the dater's revelation: He's just not that into you.”

Even though this was not one of my writing craft books, I still got a snippet of it in “That Crafty Feeling”, a lecture Smith gave to Columbia on craft. Has she written an actual book about writing craft? (This is where I take a break to look, and change my laundry.) Laundry is changed, and there is no book by Zadie Smith on writing. The essay was great though, and I highly recommend it to other writers. Just a few choice gems:

“I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage.”

“When building a novel you will use a lot of scaffolding. Some of this is necessary to hold the thing up, but most isn't. The majority of it is only there to make you feel secure, and in fact the building will stand without it.”

In “Speaking in Tongues,” which begins with a discussion of how Smith changed the affectation of her voice to be taken seriously and goes on to explore many facets of racial presentation and Barack Obama, she continually works towards new perspectives in the discussion of race: “In my conscious life, though, I cannot honestly say I feel proud to be white and ashamed to be black or proud to be black and ashamed to be white. I find it impossible to experience either pride or shame over accidents of genetics in which I had no active part. I understand how those words got into the racial discourse, but I can't sign up to them. I'm not proud to be female either. I am not even proud to be human – I only love to be so. As I love to be female and I love to be black, and I love that I had a white father.”

There's really something for every passion in this book of essays, Smith moves to women, celebrity, film and media presentation in “Hepburn and Garbo.” The essay begins with this relatable sentence: “And [Katharine Hepburn] appeared in a large proportion of the other movies I can stand to watch without throwing something at the screen or falling asleep. The sheer scarcity, in cinema, of women who in any way resemble those unusual creatures we meet every day (our mothers, sisters, wives, lovers, daughters) has only intensified in the twenty years since Katharine Hepburn ceased making movies, and this has served to make her legacy more precious as time has passed.” and goes on to describe how the extremely unique individuals of the title were warped by the continual commentary and gaze of the media and public.

The book ends with everyone's (okay, my and a few other select people that I've met) favorite thing, a great writer writing a sad time about David Foster Wallace. Are they going to anthologize these anytime soon? This one and Johnny Franzen's could make a novella on their own, and I'm sure there's more out there. Mary Karr? How about you?

Smith's essay, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace” was actually begun before he died, as a critical essay, so it deals heavily in analysis of Wallace's work. As the title suggests, the essay's primary theme is of the gifts of literature, but not at all in a 'ah here's the cornucopia of lessons from literature' way, a better way to describe it would be theories on what giving means in the realm of writing and literature.

“We have to recognize that a difficult gift like Brief Interviews merits the equally difficult gift of our close attention and effort. For this reason, the newspaper review was never going to be an easy fit for Wallace. He can't be read and understood and enjoyed at that speed any more than I can get the hang of the Goldberg Variations over a weekend. His reader needs to think of herself as a musician, spreading the sheet music – the gift of the work – over the music stand, electing to play. First there is practice, then competency at the instrument, then spending time with the sheet music, then playing it over and over. Of course, the arguments that might be employed w/r/t reading in this way are deeply unreasonable, entirely experiential, and impossible to objectively defend. In the end, all that can be said is that the difficult gift is its own defense, the deep rewarding pleasure of which is something you can only know by undergoing it.”

You can't read a critical study of Wallace (or, of course, the words of Wallace himself) without encountering the questions of boredom. But I find as I return to both Wallace's writing and writing about him over the years, that this question of boredom only becomes more and more relevant. Not on a particularly linear path, like oh I grow more and more bored as the years go by, rather that it keeps bringing new questions of how both I and the people I regularly interact with relate with the world. The habituation of boredom, the acceptance of the dull and mediocre as an alternative to intellectual stimulation, these are the things I see happening so often and try so hard to fight against. For me, realizing how easy it is to grow bored if I live the way that society dictates, with the jobs and the television and the lame conversations and the lack of thinking.

“Wallace wanted to interrogate boredom as a deathly postmodern attitude, an attempt to bypass experience on the part of a people who have become habituated to a mediated reality.”

Smith discusses how the widespread perception of Wallace's work is so far, presumably vis-à-vis the difficult gifts, from the pulse that beats beneath it. “The popular view of Wallace was of a cooly cerebral writer who feared fiction's emotional connection. But that's not what he was afraid of. His stories have it the other way around: they are terrified of the possibility of no emotional connection. This is what his men truly have in common, far more than misogyny: they know the words for everything and the meaning of nothing. Which is a strange idea for fiction to explore, given that fiction has a vocational commitment to the idea that language is where we find truth.”

She analyzes Wallace's revolutionary sentence structure, which she considers his truest innovation, giving us a handy dictum for understanding at least the idea behind his discursive sentences: “The point is to run a procedure – the procedure of another person's thoughts! - through your own mind.”

The other thing you can't read an essay about Wallace without is TEARS. Zadie doesn't deliver on the sad quite as heavily as Johnathan did in his big ole DFW essay, which is probably for the best, because, you know, tears for years. But she does give us this:

“The story 'Suicide as a Sort of Present' now inevitably resonates beyond itself, but it is also the same story it always was: a reminder that there exist desperate souls who feel that their nonexistence, in the literal sense, would be a gift to those around them. We must assume that David was one of them.”

Not much in the world sadder than that, way to slaughter me with tears re: one sentence this month Heidi Julavits and Zadie Smith. But shortly after, Smith iterates something to bring us back to the surface: “Wallace understood better than most that for the secular among us, art has become our best hope of undergoing this experience.”

Hard to follow Zadie Smith in any sense, so my apologies to Michelle Orange, although I have for the most part great things to say about This Is Running For Your Life. I'm so happy that I got to read essay collections that satisfied me this month, instead of the previous months where I've been doing a lot of eye rolling at men writing about pet topics.

This collection, which I would (very) loosely categorize as essays on media representation, imagery, women, emotional lives...things such as that. Which is good, because any collection of essays that can be too easily pinned down is usually a disappointment. There's a long, well done critique of the representations of women on screen, culminating in the manic pixie dream girl, that pretty much everyone I know would probably like – evident from these sentences:

“The issue had moved approximately not at all: Where do a woman's intentions end and the world's indifference to them begin? Is it a statement – subversive or otherwise – if nobody's listening? Or no one can hear you above your breasts?”

Probably the one I engaged with the most on a critical thought level was “Have a Beautiful Corpse”, which I would describe (again, loosely) as some questions and discussions regarding the artist as ultimate sufferer. Orange interrogates the trope successfully, exposing the flaws over a series of both personal and cultural reflections.

“But Gilbert removes the casual connection between hard spiritual labor (call it suffering if you must) and what we instinctively recognize as its product: deeply committed, transcendent, necessary art.”

I'm working on developing my thoughts on this, ideally to be carried out more theoretically later, but something towards the thesis I hope to develop...Suffering has become far too conflated with artistry. Bad things happening doesn't make you an artist if you aren't willing to work at the craft to discuss them with eloquence rather than just saying what happened over and over. People think that they can be the next great artist by writing down their struggles, but what they don't realize is that what made the most revered 'suffering artist' figures great isn't the suffering they went through, but the intense process (which, at the end of the day, only comes down to work) post-suffering of crafting it into something different, something alive. I do think that most artists feel suffering and emotional pain more acutely than the general population, but that only goes to show that a great artist can make something beautiful out of a mundane experience of suffering, not that she who has suffered the most is the greatest artist.

In an essay about attending a psychology conference as a media representative, Orange writes something which I would like to paste all over the internet: “If the evidence of overt social biases has eased somewhat, the power of putting a name to something inconvenient, uncomfortable, or plainly fraught and calling it a sickness has only intensified in the decades since the DSM was forced to expunge its homosexuality diagnosis.”

Yeah. Not everything needs a name and a label. It's possible to learn to relate to the world and other people through being 'different' without isolating oneself under a label that shuts out the possibility for healthy resonance to the spectrum nature of the human experience. I.e. you can acknowledge that you have a weird time with the sexuality or the moods or the socializing without forcing yourself into a labeled box.

I'm hesitant about the challenges I had with Orange's essays, namely the sense that there were a lot of words and sentences that seemed to unnecessarily complicate her ideas rather than support them, because although they made the essays harder to digest, it was probably a feature of her mental narration. I love a good mental narration, and I really enjoyed Orange's willingness to wield the phrase 'I don't know,' it showed me that her words were probably used as much to reach a conclusion as to describe things. I go through a similar process myself. I guess the takeaway goal is to just try and not let it be confusing. My only actual criticism is that I don't really know how much I care about ten pages of her annoyance at people telling her that she looks like someone they know. The final theory about it was interesting, but the repeated telling of just how horrible it is to be told you look like someone fell pretty flat.

My last book of May was Hunger by Knut Hamsun, and as discussed far earlier in this month's reading times, I don't generally pick up classics of my own volition (though I will try and start soon,) so it can be gathered via logic that this book was given to me. All I will say on that front is that now that I've experienced literature as a gift from a certain type of human relationship, I know that I always want to share books with people with whom I share that type of relationship. How's that for unnecessary words?

Hunger was quite the anxiety inducing autobiographical artistic struggle. What with my recent rejection of plot (which Hamsun shares according to the notes in the book,) and interest in narration and thought process, this book was a perfect study. It's almost entirely mental process narration, and it's pleasurable to read while taking the reader on a complicated mental discourse. I mean pleasurable less like pleasant, because the anxiety the narrator goes through seeps into the reader, but taking pleasure in the act of reading as a vehicle to thinking like someone else, and seeing the ways in which that does and does not correspond to our own thoughts.

The central thing (not plot, kind of conflict? Hard to say, which is usually for the best) in the novel is the narrator not having any money for food or housing and trying to write things but struggling with making any money for food or housing. And I'm like, same, except I have food and housing because I spend the time that you spend worrying about money and food having my brain slowly wiped away by serving food and making money. What an interesting irony! We both end up pissed off about trying to be a writer in world that doesn't support it.

“The thought of God began to occupy me again. It seemed to me quite inexcusable for him to meddle every time I applied for a job and thus upset everything, since all I was asking for was my daily bread.”

I can't speak to asking god this question, seeing as I don't believe in god, but I can speak to asking these questions of life. Like why give me the drive to write and create things and think if you're also going to make it so hard to live as that person? And not even in a brain anxiety way, but in a day to day life way. Why is it so challenging to live as a thinking creator, and why is society so poor at fostering these very important things? Why does life reward people who have mundane interests and don't like to think by making it so much easier for them to find jobs and contentment? On the flip side, is that real contentment? Questions that it is very hard to find people to discuss!

Hunger was another flip side of the coin to the writing craft guides I've been reading, because of the ways the narrator describes artistic process. I think that both are so necessary to the development of a creative thinker. You need to be able to think freely about your ideas and let your brain roam to come up with cool shit, but you also need to learn the skills to harness those things. Like a horse, one might say.

Speaking to that - “If only a single scintillating thought would come, grip me utterly and put words in my mouth! It had happened before after all, it had really happened that such moments came over me, so that I could write a long piece without effort and get it wonderfully right.”

Ah, reminded me of the moment when I birthed Shame.

Will never tire of the moments in books when the author says something so normal in such a funny manner: “This wasn't really a room for me; the green curtains before the windows were rather tawdry, and there was anything but an abundance of nails on the walls for hanging one's wardrobe.”

Anything but an abundance of nails!

Also, “I started to mull over the high points of my first involvement with the police.” I'm with ya there, Knut.

Last but not least, the narrator is totally absurd. Just says the most ridiculous things but you're somehow still like, cool. Which is kind of how I am, to those who like me at least. Most people don't understand at all, but the people who do are just like, cool. They are the best ones.