Friday, December 1, 2017

A List of Values and Beliefs

Really great literature acts as a sort of societal hormone. It can be noticed or even defined by this trait. That is, it exerts societal (and I purposely do not use the term political) change in a manner that is slow, steady and long lasting. Yes, literature can be political (and I have read the argument that all fiction is political, I don't disagree, but I think this situation is more nuanced than that) but it can affect more than politics.

Really great literature is about ideas. Character, plot, event, language are all tools, important tools, but these are most powerful when used to explore, explain, and synthesize ideas. Fiction that is just about plot or character is nice, but there is only so much ground you can cover before struggling through minutiae.

Really great fiction has flaws. Just as a formally complete system must contain contradictions a great enough piece of fiction must, by its nature, contain spots. Flawless fiction has not gone far enough.

We innately make assumptions about what literature is and is not based off of the literature that has been written up to our time. We must always remember that there is literature that has not been written yet which will inevitably change the way we understand what fiction is capable of doing, what it is capable of expressing and what it is capable of changing.

We must always be reaching to create that literature that will change the way we understand literature.

The ultimate goal of fiction and literature is to approach truth. By doing this it should easily achieve some kind of beauty. All of fiction's strengths lie in its ability to uncover or create truth.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The reader's imagination

As writers we should foremost acknowledge, bow down even, before the fact that the reader's imagination is far more powerful than anything that we can put down on the page.

There is a spectrum: on one end is the blank page, where anything is possible, where every potential exists, a place of zero entropy. But on the blank page every thought spins out into nothingness. The reader approaches and has nothing to hold onto. In a perfect world the writer would be able to forever place a blank page before the reader as a sort of koan of literature and the reader would gasp at the sheer weight of the brilliance and literature would end as it started.

One day maybe.

So as we write, we constrain the possibilities. Entropy begins to increase. We form the reader's imagination into first order facts like sense, motion and event then second order facts like character and place then third order facts like plot then higher order facts, emotions, ideas, and so on. Possibilities begin to decrease but something begins to happen.

At a certain point a story can constrain the reader's imagination to the point that the possibilities decrease radically. There are no degrees of freedom left to the reader, entropy decreases often times approaching zero. I see this decrease to zero typified by so much contemporary short fiction. Near the end there is nothing left to chance, there is nothing left to the reader's imagination. The writer wields their influence like a crazed god, setting everything into place, building a perfect world, but in the process utterly binding their subjects.

There is room between readers to discuss form and structure but little else. It is beautiful perhaps but suffocating. At the other end of the spectrum (just to the right of the blank page) exist strains of surrealist fiction, some minimalist fiction, absurdism and a handful of other styles. There is so little to hold onto, it can be frustrating. It takes a top notch imagination to pull much out of this kind of work, which is fine, but at this point the reader is doing so much of the work the writer may or may not every be necessary.

The greatest work is that which sort of builds a window, which directs the reader's imagination, focuses it. It builds a room and a window and allow's the reader's imagination to reverberate and amplify within then concentrates it like a laser until it bursts forth from this aperture.

We as fiction writers should see ourselves as shapers of the imagination, sculptors in a way. With too heavy a hand we stand to break the medium, we risk whittling it down to nothing. With only light glancing strokes we are left with a formless block. But with a combination of the two our own art makes art. We stand to take human consciousness and direct it to places it has never been, we stand to send it off to places it did not realize it could go.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

On the role of the writer and our place in fiction

There is this sort of myopia. Fiction is considered by some to have arisen and found its most eminent form within the United States withing the past forty years. Story telling is considered to be at its most important (or to only be important) when it regards the lives of certain people doing certain things, mostly domestic things among the wealthy or gritty sad things among the dispossessed. These stories in many ways mimic television: they are concerned primarily with an emotional undercurrent, one that is generally stark and palatable. They tend to avoid challenging the reader, avoid any tactics or tricks that might cause difficulty for some readers. But perhaps most importantly they tend to shy away from ideas.

But shouldn't there should be a more humble approach when writing fiction? What hubris to speak endlessly about the writers of the last forty years as if they stand out in any significant way. We can only stand to benefit from the understanding that we are all, as writers, coming into a tradition that is at least sixty thousand years old, which has arisen naturally in every human society in a multitude of forms and will continue on long after we have died. That we have in a sense a duty to perform. We should see ourselves in the stream of history and consider deeply and learn from our place in it. We should understand that while there are various styles of writing, there are likely to be styles that have not even been created yet, that the greatest novels to be written have not been written yet, that we are all mere blips in this process. We are in a certain sense obligated to the future and indebted to the past.

Maybe this is just a difference in taste, but I think these choices also have an impact on longevity as well as on importance. There is a quote about Borges, something like the man being 'The Heresiarch of the information age.' The story 'The Library of Babel' alone essentially presaged the rise of information theory and while it may not have directly caused or influenced the material progress it is astounding to think that this idea existed first in the mind of a short story writer. Kafka too, presaging in many ways the bureaucratic and political insanity of the twentieth century. There are so many examples of this kind of work, to varying degrees. There are writers of ideas, people who observed the world and worked in silence and allowed their minds to work in those dark places and created fiction that did not just tell a story or cause a rise of emotions but acted to augur or even shape the course of humanity.

Where do you stand in relation to these writers when you put out one more story about the plight of a middle class American family? What is the value of your work when compared to this?

This should be the role of the writer, not just to entertain, nor just to play games with form or trope or emotion. It is the writers role to stand at the forefront of the wave of the collective understanding and to turn around and call out what is seen. It is to be a scout ahead of the flock, to witness the path of the world and to act like an oracle. Surely most of these predictions will fail, but what about those that do not?




Sunday, November 5, 2017

On watching Tarkovsky's Stalker for the second time

Trylon cinema is having this Tarkovsky festival right now so we decided to go see Stalker today.

I think I saw it for the first time five or six years ago, just at home. Since then I have considered it one of my favorite movies.

Memories from the first viewing were mainly that it was very slow and it involved three men mostly just walking through fields. And there was the guy throwing the nuts before they walked.

This time I noticed a lot more and got a lot more out of it.

I was surprised at how much more dialogue there was.

The strongest part of the movie was the scenery and the shots. The ruins and the tanks and how everything is taken over by nature is spectacular.

After that (and as cheesy and embarassing as it is) I found that I identified with the 'writer' a lot, his reasons for writing, et c.

I found that the ideas of the movie stuck out to me more and everything in the movie, the meager plot, the scenery, everything seems to be a scaffold for the ideas that the movie presents.

I like how the movie doesn't have so much of an agenda or attempts to direct any answers, rather it just ask a lot of questions: how do we approach our desires, are our desires and goals genuine or illusory, what do we sacrifice for our desires, when we come to what we have desired what do we really find?

Then there are more pointed questions about the role of science and art in society: is it society's job to enable the artistic or scientific pursuits of those who want to explore them even if those pursuits do not directly benefit society.

And whether it is intentional or not there is a sort of elegance in the long shots: they are really sort of meditative. These questions sort of arise and then Tarkovsky leaves you staring at these guys sitting in this room and you just sort of have to mull things over, at the conscious level or otherwise.

It's a great film, challenging and imperfect but with a weight and a resilience that is mighty to behold. Its got a bit of the iceberg to it, you watch it and can only take in a bit of what if provides, but over time it opens up and continues to open up.

Repurcussions of a decision made in desperation

The sense of literary isolation was getting to me, so I signed up for a short fiction class at this writing center near my house. It seemed like a good idea at the time but as it came closer I got this sort of anxious feeling. I had participated in writing groups before, and liked them somewhat, but there was often this sort of disconnect between myself and the other writers. Once time there was this weird thing where one of the administrators came to our writing group and had a talk with us about 'what measures we need to take to avoid offending people' which apparently the talk was instigated by something I said, though no one would tell me exactly what it was I said.

So last night was the first meeting. Twelve people, a reasonable range of demographics, older, young, seemed equally split between men and women. A variety of skill levels. Fine. The instructor seemed like cool guy, sort of dominated the conversation but he made it clear that this was his class so, again, fine.

We had to read Jhumpa Lahiri's short story 'A Temporary Matter' before hand, which I was excited about because I had never read Lahiri before, but I found it a tedious chore. I read it twice but it seemed like staid domestic fiction: unchallenging, risk averse and proceeding from point to point without any real soul.

We all go around and introduce ourselves and mention a story that we like. Nothing terribly unusual, some Denis Johnson, Fitzgerald, okay good. There is some author fellating which is a little tacky but again, fine, understandable.

So the instructor hands out a four page copy of the intro to this Rust Hills book about short fiction. He gives a quick into about Hills, about how he was the fiction editor at esquire and defined the contemporary short story which I find sort of strange and then we all read. And it is Hills talking about what makes a 'successful short story' the sort of stuff that is broad enough and vague enough that it is sort of meaningless but also prescriptive in the way that it seems limiting.

So he opens it up to comments and there are some tepid responses, some sort of questions with definite answers, so I speak up, I say some thing along the lines of 'I hope I'm not the only person in the room that reads this and gets a visceral feeling of revulsion at the idea that there are some rules that can be or should be followed with writing a short story' and admittedly rant, for a short while about how much of the best fiction in the world is that which flaunts or breaks rules et c. Because I genuine believe this and I feel that adhering to the other side (i.e. that if you check all the boxes you will be granted a piece of 'successful fiction') And I try to be cognizant of dominting the conversation but the instructor sort of nods along and tells me to keep going. And then there are these comments sort of like 'Well so-and-so told me that you need to know the rules before you break them.' and '(Insert semi-famous writer here who I have never heard of) told me that you can break the rules when you are famous.' there comments coming from the other students.

So we talk about it for a little bit longer but then the instructor moves to his two rules for fiction: 'The bar test' (can you tell it in a bar) which seems strange to mean but he explains that this means that there needs to be some substance to it, which is fine, and the 'Long term memory test' which is 'will the events of this story stick with the characters for a long time. So there is some talking about these rules and I suggest that the Lahiri story fails both of these, (because who would tell a story about an aborted baby and a break up in a bar, which I guess some people) but there the instructor sort of gets accusatory and starts calling me 'Bro' at the end of every sentence which I don't understand and which I point out to him so he calls me 'Dude' which again I find strange. And he asks me to lay out the structure of the story so I do (couple finds that their electricity is going to be cut off, they make dinner, tell each other things they have never told each other before...they break up) and this women says something like 'So you don't think that this is a great story?' and I say 'No, not really.' And I ask what risks these people think she is taking in the story, because she seems to take none which in my opinion makes it a safe/boring/pointless story and this one women suggests, feebly, that she is writing about feelings or sorrow which is taking a risk, to which, in my mind, 90% of contemporary fiction is about couples breaking up, so this has got to be the least risky thing the write about.

Then everyone gets it in their heads that I am some sort of avant-garde enfent terrible and start trash talking experimentation for the sake of experimentation (which I pretty much agree with them on) and the instructor starts talking about how DFW didn't start writing his experimental stuff which he must have meant as a pointed barb to my tastes, but which I found sort of oblique to the subject.

Then this one women says something like 'I don't know if I feel safe bringing my writing in here since I write traditional fiction.' to which I just have to sort of sigh out of pity.

The class went on for a short while longer, again just comments about how amazing the story was and so on.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Some thoughts

Read this article by Eileen Myles the other day and resonated with it, the second half anyways. This idea of not reading what you are expected to be reading and how writers need/should be given lots of time to just think about whatever and write about whatever. Fucking paradise. Also she talked about Bernhard which ignited this interest in him again. Need to get 'Gargoyles' and 'The Lime Works'.

This recognition is dawning more and more: that you only write well when you stop worrying about writing well, that you only do good work when you stop worrying about doing good work et c. et c. Not, that is, that it is sufficient to stop worrying to be productive, but it is necessary. Works that are concerned with their own quality just stick out like a wound.

Read a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri for this class I am going to be taking. It was in the Scripber anthology of contemporary short fiction and it was easily one of the most boring stories I've ever come across. 'A Temporary Matter' or 'A Temporary Affair'. The story comes off like writing that is attempting to be literary writing, like a simulacrum of a New Yorker story, like something a neural network trained on the New Yorker would spit out. Utterly soulless, like a shell of a story with nothing within. It should be interesting to see what other have to say about it, certainly a number of them will like it a lot.

Too, there was this sort of fear of writing here for a while, since no one reads this. But then, it isn't for others, this isn't for anyone else. This is just a place that my thoughts can go and sit for a long time and then be brought back up in the future. Its useful.

Have been finding interesting thoughts that do not get written down and then are forgotten. Need to just write them down, not that they are actually interesting, but the more that are written down the greater the chance that one of them will catch, that they will be returned to in the future. Its all just a lottery, its all just a game. Everything is just a game.

Ishiguro gets the nobel and Saunders gets the booker. Sort of not surprised by either but glad about Ishiguro. 'The Unconsoled' was so strange and challenging. Not that it matters. Saunders is the sort of writer that seems required right now, which leads to a sort of resistance. Read that he was a geotechnical engineer before becoming a writer which is interesting/heartening.

The old saying which is always lodged in my mind 'stupid people talk about other people, mediocre people talk about events and smart people talk about ideas' and the worst talk only of themselves. So, in an ignorant attempt to increase intelligence (through following the correllation the other way) all writing should be scrubbed on any personal identifiers. There we go. That makes sense.

One thing that frustrates is literary studies. This idea that writers have this grand plan laid out, that everything is meticulously ordered and filled with intention. Perhaps in some cases but really? How can you buy this? It posits that writers are these superhuman geniuses. But no, surely most of them are just doing it and just doing it for fun. Otherwise, why write?

Some time would be wonderful. Just a week to let it all go, to reconnoiter, to forget things. Then two months or so to work ever day. To just shut up and write and read and really delve into this work.

Some four or five hundred pages and it feels like it is just starting, that it is just figuring itself out. There must be something there, but where is it? What is it?

There are the things that I know it needs/ has:


  • Chekov's travel to Sakhalin island
  • The emancipation of the serfs
  • Simmering, Berhard-esque hatred of others
  • A Prisoner like mystery surrounding the traveler's flight from the capitol/society/civilization
  • An ash man
  • McCarthy like conversations with the peasants/forced wisdom
  • Cosmic horror
  • Cosmic horror of the Taiga and the Steppe
  • A succession of disconnect from society, in some ways carried by the 'primitivization' of the mode of transpost. Concretely: he goes from a train to a carriage to on foot (to stasis?)
  • The plague always: always on the edge, always east of where the traveler is, and the plague as stand in for mass panic and mass violence.
  • Wading into the plague for a reason that cannot be discrned. He may have a reason but we do not know it.
  • Wading into the plague without knowing it, without sensing it. It always seems far away until he is in it, and then, even though he knew it was coming, he cannot see it and that he is a part of it.
  • The gods of the taiga, sleeping in the depths of the woods always off in the distance. Somewhere, everywhere extending their dream influence, pulling him in to the dark of the far east.
  • Perhaps a character, either Fetsingcroix or Stellian who he comes across and see everything that he lacks, or imagines it. Then he follows him. Then this man comes to the plague and is a sort of plague messiah.
  • And it all comes together into one thing, all of these are one thing at heart.
That seems like everything, I think. And all the time this one character. And all the time it is just his view, we only get his view. And it should be punishing, really just relentless, endless. How to get this endless darkness without dragging it out, there has to be tension somewhere, and that has been the challenge. It just sags at many points.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Where I am at now

I'm feeling frustrated.

On the one hand I think I have more literary energy than I have had for a while. This is good. I am feeling really upbeat re: submitting, have submitted a short story that I am feeling good about to maybe 15 venues, signed up for a short story class, am finding lots of books to buy and (strangely) wrote and submitted two poems.

On the other hand it feels like I am at the lip of this unbridgeable gap: I am working on this manuscript which has been in process since Jan 2016 and I just can't find the groove. I also feel the need to dedicate myself to it fulltime, wish I could dedicate myself to it full time, but don't think I can take time off of work to do it. I really think that if I had two or three months of dedicated time I could pull it all together, do a bunch of research and have something at least worth getting edited or sending to small presses, but I really need that 24/7 time to do it.

I also feel very isolated. Looking at a lot of other writers that I admire it seems like they often have at least a few other writers around them that they can talk to, bounce ideas off of, whatever. Get feedback from. I find it really hard to find other writers. I'm not sure why this is. I also find it hard to find other people that are doing stuff that I consider to be similar to what I am doing, and that will/might be able to give me substantial feedback. I'm also not sure why this is. I guess I'm not looking hard enough, but then where do I look exactly? And I have gone to readings, writer's workshops et c. and I tend to just find them tedious. Like social circles for the socially awkward, which is fine, but I guess I am trying to get substantial feedback above anything else, and I have just not found the energy required to attend these things worth the pay off in terms of benefits to my writing. There is a part of me that thinks that when I get published or get a novel published or get just more exposure this will change, but this might be faulty thinking and I suspect that it is dead wrong. There is also a part of me that wonders if my writing is just poor enough that it can't arouse interest. I try to stay positive, but there is this falling back to the null hypothesis (my writing isn't very good or interesting) that just seems safe, so I rely on it.

I also see this gulf before me, between where I am now (dedicated amateur with no publications) to where I want to be in the short term (basically dedicated amateur/part-time professional with publications) and I have no idea what steps I need to take to close it. I signed up for this class, which feels sort of strange already. There is a part of me that suggests applying to programs, but then that makes me feel slimy and as if I would be selling a part of my soul. Like a loss of purity or something. But then what else is there? Continue on as I am and just hope that things will change? I don't feel like I am gaining much momentum, or at least enough momentum and certainly gaining no attention doing what I am doing. What other options are there?

What is also frustrating is the lack of feedback. The ms. I am working on now is pretty long and hazy. There is minimal plot, it is mostly a guy wandering around Siberian Villages just ruminating on things. It does not lend itself to being extracted for publication in mags. So there is not really even the potential to submit parts of this now. I could work on short stories, but I don't find that particularly interesting. So I just have this two years gap from when I last published a story, which just feels unfortunate.

I guess I am just not sure what to do, what actions I need to take. I want to feel like I am doing something, moving forward, making some progress.

I like to think I am the sort of person that is okay with feeling lost or unsure or whatever but it sort of takes a toll. I guess I just need to see some sort of glimmer of something to move towards, to validate within myself that I am actually doing something.

There is the constant feeling of time running out. It is acute now, but it has always been there. It has been the prime motivator in writing, and considering the momentum I gained in 2013 (first ms finished, a few stories published, helping out with tNY, chapbook printer) I guess I thought I would have moved further by this point. But here I am, it feels like I am still at square on.

I am reading 'The Cave' by Jose Saramago right now. He didn't really get recognized until he was in his 60's. I guess that is sort of comforting. I also wish I was less obsessed with getting published. I wish I could just write in peace, in solitude and just leave it as it is. I guess the whole thing feels like such a long process that I feel like I just need to move as quickly as possible. I guess I just need to remember that none of it really matters anyways and that there will be no difference between getting published now and getting published later and not getting published at all.