Tag Archives: writing

Dude, this is what the inside of my head looks like.

While I was making the bed, Dragos Popescu, one of Andrei’s business associates, suddenly spoke to me.  He is even more unbelievably tactless than Andrei is; those bastards won’t lie to me, even when I may want them to.  Today Dragos came up behind me while I was noticing that some of the stains on the new sheets hadn’t come out in the wash, and snapped my garters (he is the kind of man who can snap your garters even when you’re not wearing any).  “That’s nice, the pink underthings,” he said, “did Andrei suggest them?”

“Why are you here?  You’re just a bit character.”

“You were asking why men like young women so much, I’m going to tell you.”

I don’t know where he got that from, I did no such thing.  I was going about my housewifely business.  But I let him go on anyway, it gave me something to do while I was trying to figure out which way the fitted sheet was supposed to go.  “It not so much the smooth skin and the taut flesh, though that is nice too.  What is so lovely about them is that they will take the shape of whatever you choose to put them in, like water.  A woman who has been around, who may have pushed people out of herself, who may have realized that the world does not end when there is no man in the house, that woman with lines on her face and hip bones that have been pushed apart by growing life will not go breathless with need to give me what I want.  The young ones are so good, my dear, because they will say: do you like me in this dress? Would you think me prettier blonde?  Shall I put bags of silicone in my breasts?  Shall I give you what little power I might have had?  Would this please you?  There is no limit to how much they will cut themselves to please you.  How grateful I am to all their papas for not loving them.”

“Dragos, seriously?  This is what the old come stains on the bed make you think of?”

“Yes, how soft they are, how much you can hurt them, those sweet girls.  You simply cannot hurt an older woman like that.  And yes, my dear, you ought to get a stain remover for those.”

Je suis derrière la porte.

My big achievement for today was hiding a picture of myself behind the door on my “about me” page.  Trust me, considering my technological ineptitude, this is indeed an achievement.  I also made a little icon of my book cover for my sidebar that links directly to my novel’s Amazon page.  If I were truly virtuous, it would link to a page that read “be good and buy me from a struggling independent bookstore!”  But, I am not that virtuous.

Oh–I almost forgot: I also added my twitter feed to my sidebar.  Yes, I signed up for twitter.  My editor told me to, and because I am a befuddled virgin author, I acquiesced.  140 characters is bloody short.  It’s an interesting exercise in editing though.  So far I’ve managed to avoid using “2” for “to” or other internety abbreviations that raise my old, obsolete hackles.  I’ve also managed to avoid steering the horseless carriage as it frightens me and I do not enjoy it.  (Dude, I’m totally serious.  I don’t drive.  I’m sure at some point I will have to remedy this situation.  At some point.  But I am very gifted at procrastination.)

I continue on with my new novel, In the Red.  Although it appears that for every page I produce, I must delete two.  I have a plot, but I do not have a structure.  I also have a taciturn protagonist, who is a rather stark contrast from my dear, voluble Trevor.  It appears she will not disclose anything unless I ask her directly.  So, progress is slow.

I am also in the thick of reviewing typeset pages for 13 rue Thérèse.  They look really pretty, although in a lot of places the typesetter misunderstood my instructions so extravagantly that it makes me want to lie down and whimper softly to myself.  Sigh.  The galleys will contain the errors as there will not be enough time to correct them before they are printed.  Double sigh.

Typeset pages are a much different animal than manuscript pages.  For one thing, I must limit my editing as much as I can in order to make as little extra work as possible for the typesetter.  I’ve only changed one word here or there; the time for extensive edits is over.  I’m having a lot of conversations with myself that look like this:

“Oh that paragraph is terrible! We must delete it immediately.”

“Ssssshh calm yourself. Maybe no one will notice.”

“Well, I hope to God nobody quotes it in a review.”

A typeset text is literally set.  It’s like lava that’s solidified into rock.  If you want to change it you have to whip out a chisel, because the stage of flux has ended.  It’s hard to describe the transformation.  It’s not my manuscript anymore; it’s now part of the collective record.  Everything that went into the text is subsumed within it.  The people who inspired the characters are now gone from inside them; only the characters remain.  The sources are immortalized; the sources are expunged.  The text is dead; long live the text.

Sweep away the ash and lay your hand on rock that was once liquid and hot enough to burn you away into the barest wisp of nothing.  From red to black, the flow froze into these furrows and whorls you can follow with your finger.  Yes, if you like you can follow them up all the way to the dark gash whence they came.  If you like you can make yourself dizzy looking down into the fathomless deep, but be careful.  If the earth starts to tremble, you won’t have much time.

Humanist SMASH

So, this simplistic, poorly written tripe by David Brooks has been making the rounds among humanists lately.  The humanities are rightfully concerned about being waning relics in our modern world; academics who study all forms of art constantly have to defend their existence, have to convince the funding forces that be that they are not obsolete.  This is sad.  Sadder still would be to read the column linked above and propagate it as an endorsement of the humanities.  It’s awful.  Get off my side, Brooks!

First, there is that cringe-worthy “Big Shaggy” thing.  Clearly, his knowledge of Herodotus has not endowed him with a “wealth of analogies,” at least none that aren’t laughable.   Plus we already have a word for this thing he’s trying to get at, it’s called the Id.  Plus stating that no discipline outside the humanities tries to explain human drives is patently ridiculous, as is his observation that the humanities have no “system of thought.”  Plus his assertion that the humanities are useful because they help us be more effective corporate whores makes me want to eat his smug face.  Personally, I think there is no better way to live than “removed from the market.”  It makes it easier to sleep at night.

Brooks’s blather is not an endorsement.  Rather it is symptomatic of the pervasive devaluation of the arts & humanities in our hypercapitalist society–a society so bloody afraid of anything that cannot be handily productized.  The tone of his whole column made me feel as if I were being offered a pity fuck by the most repellent douche bag imaginable.   Yuck–no thank you, sir, I do not need your validation, and your advances make me need to take a shower.  But, before I go crouch weeping in a hissing blast of scalding water, gently rocking and mumbling to myself that I must get clean–when will I ever get clean?–I will tell you what the arts & humanities are for, and why we need them.  It’s very simple:

The arts & humanities give us the inner resources not to get swept up by the unremitting shitstorm of lies inflicted on us by all forms of media and advertising.  They remind us that life is not money, and life is not products.  When the arts & humanities die, so will we.  That is all.

nice and insecure

I write an elder writer the following e-mail with the subject line I am an arrogant asshole, but I am really bad at it:

When I write I pretty much labor under a giant neon sign that reads YOU SUCK.  I spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy fretting about how awful my work is. Then I have a bunch of people read it and basically say, “it’s fine,” and I wonder, how can that be?  When I was a young spark, I thought that if I ever got good at this writing thing, the YOU SUCK sign would go away, yet here it remains unchanged.  Today I realized why that is: I am not holding up what I write against the work of my peers in workshops.  I am not even holding it up against most of the stuff that’s out on the market today.  I am holding it up against Gustave fucking Flaubert.  No wonder I always feel like crap!  Immediately I also realized what a hilariously arrogant thing that is to do, and then I thought–wait, don’t arrogant people think that they are awesome?  Yet I somehow figured out how to be arrogant while also feeling like shit all the time.  You have to admit that is a display of ineptitude bordering on the magnificent.

She replies:

“If there is an alarming object in this world it is a writer delighted with something he has just written.  There is no worse sign.”
–William Maxwell
I am puzzled:
But, does such a writer exist?  Trying to understand such a person is like trying to visualize Peace on Earth.  My brain just shuts down.
She tells it like it is:
Oh, I encounter plenty of them.  Except, of course, they’re not real writers.  I’ve seldom met a real writer delighted with anything to do with his work.  In other words, don’t stop comparing yourself to Flaubert.  That’s the goal; not acing it in a workshop.  And it’ll keep you nice and insecure.
I love her:
!!!

You are my new mommy.

Exeunt.

Who loves a kitty?

Writing is palimpsest.  Oftentimes I will reuse pieces of old pieces for new pieces.  I will write a story.  Years later I will write it again, reusing elements of a different story.  Or, I will pick up some neat thing in someone else’s work and try to play with it, transmute it into my own thing.  It’s all part of a continuous churn.  For instance, last year I was doing translations of Valéry prose poems.  I became inhabited by this dude and his voice, then created the best approximation I could manage of his voice in English.  That approximation was its own entity, and when I was done translating, I wrote a couple of my own prose poems in that voice.  Here is one:

Knowing is unknowing when the page is so covered in scribbles that it is necessary to erase in order to write. At the apex of the day, the sun’s heat whites out my thoughts; if there was a wind I might let it scatter the paper but all is stillness and languor. The weather mirrors my torpor; the words appear and disappear too quickly for me to catch them, only leaving behind a faint disturbance in my body like the radiating wave that is the only evidence of an object having been dropped in a pond. A pebble, an acorn, a thought. A thought light enough might float, like a feather, drifting soundless on the glittering opacity of the surface. But I am weak at such thoughts, I am all weight and slow sinking. I am the remnant bubble that hurries where the water meets air only to vanish—an inaudible pop then nothingness.

On the sprawled papers a cat sleeps, her dark fur warmed by the sun’s caress. Her whiskers twitch; her animal dreams emanate from her like a vapor: blurry images without words, inscrutable to a plodding consciousness that burdens itself with language. I put my hand on her side, on the serene rhythm of her breath, and she rolls, trilling gently, to expose her soft belly for a pet. Loved by both my hand and the noonday kiss of the sun’s beams, she purrs without even opening her eyes to see who reaches for her through her dreams. Her eyes, yellow as a lick of flame, closed in trust and pleasure.

Today I was writing a scene in which the protagonist of my novel finally makes contact with the cat she has adopted, a cat who has been slinking around her apartment like a prisoner for days and whom she has been unable to name.  I remembered the above prose poem from last year and the scene became the following:

I find her asleep in the middle of the living room carpet, soaking in beams from the noon sun.  Her whiskers twitch; I can almost see her animal dreams emanating from her like a vapor—blurry images without words, all movement and feeling.  Up until now I have only seen her sleep as a neat little ball tucked in a corner that can only be approached from one direction—floating just beneath consciousness, her eyes popping open at the slightest noise, the white film beneath her lids pulling back fast.  But here she is sprawled luxuriously, all slack limbs and serene breathing.  Her dark fur looks so soft.  I crouch next to her as quietly as I can, not wanting to break her peace but not wanting to leave it alone either.  I put my hand on her side, lightly, and feel her heave a deep sigh.  Gently I pet her tiny sun-warm body and then—she rolls over, trilling faintly, to expose the white fur on her belly.  The surrender is so sweet and so simple, she purrs without even opening her eyes to see who reaches her through her dreams.  For a long time we are this way; it is my first love touch since the last time Andrei had me in his arms.  So sweet and so simple—why are we not always this way?

After a while, her eyes slowly open; I see her recognize me.  I hear the final yes in her uninterrupted purr.  As the tears pour down my face I decide that she is called, of all things, Miorita.

Repetition yet not, such is all speech.

Now that I have outed myself as an unabashed cat lover, I might as well include a photo of my own two little house lions.

a malcontent wearing new shoes

Today I wrote a flash of sex in my novel, just a bitty 200-word scene.  Yet I am completely drained, I think I may have to step away from the book for today.  I don’t know why this story–especially the sexy parts–is taking so much out of me, like my brain has to make this incandescent effort to extrude a mere paragraph and then it is done.  It needs a glass of warm milk and a nap.  And a hug.

The novel features a bad, bad man from Romania.  Why are evil Eastern European dudes so extremely hot?  I must have watched too much Cold War agitprop growing up.  Or maybe it’s the accent.  Nom nom nom that accent.  Anyway, I can tell this guy is going to be great fun to write because I find myself wondering aaaaaah why doesn’t he exist so that I can have sex with him?!  (Of course if he existed I would never have sex with him; I always wind up with soft-spoken intellectual types.)

So, like most of America I filed my taxes yesterday and I must say SELF-EMPLOYED TAXES = OW.  So much for all the bullshit about how our pioneer nation favors a spirit of independent entrepreneurship.  What pisses me off isn’t so much the amount, though the amount is substantial.  I wouldn’t be nearly this irritated if my money didn’t go towards bank bailouts and troup surges.  I wish I could earmark my tax contribution for our crumbling social safety net and educational systems.  And goddamn universal health care, but what kind of crack am I smoking?

Also: if I were some trust fund baby who’d “earned” that money from interest and dividends, I would have gotten to keep a lot more of it.  This gets my goat like nobody’s business: our nation likes to pretend that there’s no such thing as social class while ridiculously favoring the idle rich and blatantly screwing the working poor.  Seriously, I would walk around humming L’Internationale for a few days except my fury has been soothed by the arrival of the festive purple sneakers I ordered (even though with all the money I coughed up yesterday, I could have purchased about 250 pairs of those suckers).  I’m sure Marx would chide me about the weakness of my convictions, but I am no revolutionary.  Merely a malcontent wearing new shoes.

 

a fallow PhD

So, I am writing my new book.  Please send help!  It’s in the house and I’m pretty sure it’s trying to kill me.

Actually, it’s not too bad.  The progress is slow but steady.  My protagonist is a pretty interesting double.  It’s been a while since I’ve been inhabited like this; it’s taking some getting used to.  It’s a little bit like being in love, except the person you’re in love with doesn’t happen to exist.

Here is a giggle-worthy tidbit on academia from a book my husband is reading:

Keynes had long been suspect among his colleagues for the clarity of his writing and thought, the two often going together.  In The General Theory he redeemed his academic reputation.  It is a work of profound obscurity, badly written and prematurely published.  All economists claim to have read it.  Only a few have.  The rest feel a secret guilt that they never will.  Some of its influence derived from its being extensively incomprehensible.  Other scholars were needed to construe its meaning, restate its propositions in intelligible form.  Those who initially performed this task–Joan Robinson in England, Alvin Hansen and Seymore Harris at Harvard–then became highly effective evangelists for the ideas.  (217; Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went; John Kenneth Gabraith)

Yes, my husband reads economics for fun.  Also obscure military histories.  The last book he read before this one was called The Collapse of Complex Societies.  I think this title captures something essential about my husband’s soul.

As for me, I have entirely stopped reading any books that have an even remotely academic flavor.  It’s been tremendous.  I have managed to read a few venerable old primary sources for my exams, which are coming up the first week of May but which make hardly a dent in my consciousness.  It’s like my brain has reallocated all its resources to my novel and doesn’t want to be bothered with this crap.  Hey, want to hear something truly scandalous?  Lately I’ve read stories by authors currently alive.  Gasp!  The decadence of it: reading a novel without trying to mentally shoehorn it into my dissertation topic.  I feel naughty, I tell you.

Speaking of breaking with academia, I had a chat this week with a novelist who has a fallow PhD.  She was a Romanticist like me; it was a little eerie as it always is when you’re speaking with somebody who embodies some part of your past and/or future self.  I have a tendency to try to read such people like oracles.  But of course, oracles always spoke in gibberish that could only be untangled once it already was too late.

bigger than a kitty cat

Remember when you were a student and you had dreams of showing up to class with no pants or being unable to answer any of the questions on the final exam?  Let me reassure you that teachers experience exactly the same thing from the other side.  Several times I had dreams of showing up to class without a lesson plan, or being unable to find the room where I was supposed to teach on the first day, or some such.  These are the standard frets of your unconscious when something is expected of you in daily life.

Last night I had the first such dream in a writerly framework: I dreamed that I kept receiving e-mails from various editors asking me to rewrite and change stuff in my forthcoming novel that wasn’t good enough.  It was in a much different tone than the dreams I used to have about writing, which were usually about heartrending failure, and sometimes spectacular success–that is when they weren’t some kind of hallucinatory peyote-type experience.  This dream was normal, low-level performance anxiety.  I woke up slightly irritated and vaguely amused: this must mean I am officially a professional novelist now.

Still, even when fiction writing becomes one of those daily things that is expected of you, it can never be quite tame.  At least not for me.  I would say teaching is kind of like having a kitty cat in your apartment: it is sweet, and you love it, and you have to maintain it and feed it.  Sometimes if you really piss it off it might scratch you or leave a turd inside your shoe.  But, barring some spectacular freak accident, it will remain unable to kill you.  Writing, on the other hand, is like having a much, much larger animal in your apartment.  You don’t know quite what that animal is because you can only see it in flashes out of the corner of your eye.  You think it sleeps in the closet under the stairs because you’ve found matted hair and the gutted carcasses of whatever it eats in there, but you’ve never been able to surprise the beast itself in its lair.  Sometimes you will glimpse a pair of yellow eyes beholding you with millennial patience, the graceful slither of a tail disappearing around a corner.  You will hear a hiss under your bed, a low rumble behind a wall.  A moist jungle smell, sweet and perhaps decaying.  You live with the knowledge that this animal can festoon the carpet with your innards whenever it feels like, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t feel like.  Maybe it likes the scent of you; maybe it likes to listen to your heartbeat while you sleep.  All things considered you rather like it too: when it’s gone you rather miss the thrill of its presence.

in the words of a girl who doesn’t exist

So, I am starting a new novel.  The hardest part at the beginning is finding a good voice, the voice in which the story needs to be told.  There will be starts and stops, lots of frustration.  Probably a good dose of gut-wrenching terror, especially since this book wants to be in the first person which I find incredibly uncomfortable.  But I don’t care if writing this whole damn thing feels like wearing an itchy sweater, as long as it works in the end.

Something else that is likely to be a challenge is that a lot of this book is going to be about scorching sexual chemistry.  There was a bit of that in the last book and there will be more in this one.  When sexy prose works, it is really really good.  When it doesn’t, it is positively disastrous.  Sex is possibly the hardest thing there is to write, one wrong word choice can render a steamy scene totally laughable.  While polishing up the last book I had a whole exchange with my editor about the word “cunt.”  She had concerns that it would be too jarring for some readers.  I wrote back the following:

I kind of avoided naming female genitalia with circumlocutions like “inside her” and stuff like that, but eventually you just have to name the thing you’re talking about.  “Vagina” is not hot, it’s too doctor’s office.  “Pussy” has the disadvantage of being both too cute and too porny.  I decided to go all out and use “cunt,” after all this is not a shy book.  But I didn’t just throw it around willy nilly, I saved it for one or two special occasions.

The argument boiled down to: dude, sorry, but this is just a cunt kind of book.  And the argument worked, because it was.

Now that I am back at square one with a new novel, I have to ask myself: is this one a cunt kind of book?  The narrator is a very stark person, oftentimes unflinching.  But she is also very young, and sex is in many ways her softest spot.  Figuring out what language she would use, what she would say and not say, is going to tax my skills.  Everything has to match up with who she is; the silences have to be just as telling as the graphic detail.  At this point I still don’t know what word she would use to talk about her ladyflower (probably not “ladyflower” though), and if I had to guess I would say she herself would have a devil of a time choosing a word that fits her.  Part of what I may have to portray with the text is her struggle to find words for an experience so powerful and puzzling, one that is both ineffable and thoroughly embodied.  (This is part of the reason why I think first person may kick my ass: having the language still flow while also trying to render its troubles attempting to find a flow…  Christ on a cracker, this is the sort of thing that may make me chicken back out into third person!)

One thing at a time though.  Before I find out what words she would use to talk about making love, I have to find out what words she would use to talk about her morning commute, her cat, the dreams that wake her up in the middle of the night.

one

five

You first came to me one morning long ago, while I was working at the bank.  Your voice simply announced, I am not a child of America, and suddenly I felt your presence in my body like a vaporous specter.  You were standing where I was standing and performing the same mechanical tasks I was performing but you were not me.  You were superimposed over me, like a drawing of a girl overlaying a drawing of a slightly different girl.  When I was granted my lunch break I went upstairs into an empty office where I knew there was an abandoned typewriter and spilled out a paragraph or two of your voice.

That year I was the same age as my students are now.  That year I fell disastrously in love for the first time.  You had a different name then.

four

You liked to let him paint your face.  You liked the feel of the plush brush against your skin; you liked the expectation in his eyes.  You laid out your lipsticks for him in a neat row and asked, “what color do you want my mouth?”  He picked a plum shade which would shortly be smeared all over him.  You didn’t know why it made him hard for you to do this, yet you felt the blood rise to your cheeks to meet the powder blush he was applying there.  Pink on pink, impossible to tell the real arousal apart from the cosmetic mimicking it.

When he lined your eyes, your lids didn’t even quiver.  Not because you trusted him not to hurt you with the pencil–his hand was, after all, trembling slightly–but because a hurt inflicted by his hand was the best hurt of all.

three

You came to me again some years later.  I wrote a whole novel about you that time.  Unfortunately, it was no good.  At least, you met him then, the man who liked to paint your face.  And you gave me your name, Irina.  When I saw how closely it mirrored my own, I laughed, and thought, all right, we’ll go with that then.

two

My last protagonist, Louise, made mischief with the impish glee one might expect.  You are strange; you make mischief with something like grim determination.  It must be some kind of Eastern European thing.  Whenever I ask you why you do anything, you say, why not?  What else is there to do? and I have, of course, nothing to answer.

You are a violinist playing chamber music on the sinking Titanic.  You are a thief who steals even when what he pockets has no value.  You are a man who still neatly parts his hair and cleans his fingernails on the morning he is to be executed.  You are a futile gesture of humanity in the face of oblivion.