Thursday, March 29, 2018

When younger/Love is Colder Than Death

When younger (especially around 17-18) I was pretty caught up with coming off as insane. I was plagued by something, not a full blown anxiety, but a recurring self-questioning. In hindsight it is sort of silly, but grounded in some sort of truth. I would just look at the situation I was in (generally while at work as a bag boy at the grocery store or while out with friends, generally while I was alone) and wonder how I could know that I was not totally insane and the world around me was an illusion/delusion). It was not so intense as to paralyze me or really change my behavior much, but it was always in the back of my head.

Not only did I question my apparent sanity, I think I assumed that I probably was totally insane at points. Like I just figured that the base hypothesis had to be that the world that I lived in was an illusion and a lie and I was really a raving maniac detached from reality. Or something like that. Again, it does not really make sense now, but at the time it seemed logical.

I think it gave me a bit of an edge. It made me act 'extra sane' or at least try to, in order to compensate for my assumed insanity. In reality a lot of this stemmed from a very basic misunderstanding of what mental illness was and how it worked. I think if I had even a basic awareness of what schizophrenia looked like or expressed itself I would have lost this problem pretty quickly. If anything it probably stemmed from a movie I saw or a book I read that used this as a plot point and as I learned more about mental illness this faded pretty quickly.

But it is almost a shame. I never worry about this any more. It is a totally irrational fear or consideration but it never comes to mind. And it makes me wonder.

I saw my first Fassbinder film last night. His first, 'Love is a Thing Colder than Death'. I was a little underwhelmed at first, but then it picks up and you can see these glimmers of brilliance in it, especially considering it was his first film. Fassbinder himself is a brilliant actor, pretty understated and clever. I mean the plot itself is pretty pointless, but there are all these little things that set it aside. For instance it is amazing how the characters are so uniquely shitty. There are all these rote routes that he could have gone down to display their cruelty and brutality, but they are always sort of surprising and unique. The scene where Johanna is lying on the floor and Bruno comes over to her and tries to kiss her. What a strange scene. She just sits there with her head cocked (like a Renaissance painting, like a Madonna or something) and he comes over to her and stands over her and, he doesn't kick her but just sort of pressed his foot against her side for a moment, what is he even doing? then he lays down next to her. It is all this dance, sort of, choreographed like two animals, and then he tries to kiss here and she laughs. And here, Bruno, this guy who killed two people, who killed his own father in cold blood just does nothing, just sort of defeated by the power of this woman. And then she goes over to Franz, and when he slaps her and she asks why he says 'You laughed at Bruno...and Bruno is my friend." I mean this dude slaps his own long term girl friend because she laughed in the face of a man he men only recently while he was coming on to her. You watch this scene and your mind just gets scrambled. What kind of ass backwards world does Franz live in? What sort of bizzare rules does he even follow? This might even be the most dialogue we get out of him, and yet it says maybe more than anything in the film. This dude is just a total nut, nothing that goes on within or around him makes any sense,

The one scene holds the movie together, I think.

The scene when they are in the store that sells glasses is pretty brilliant as well. Sort of a dark take on physical comedy. It is all very serious, but has the sort of pacing and clever quick thinking activity that you would see in like some 40's comedy routine.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Strange Place

Something sort of strange has happened.

About a week ago the team I was on (at my job) was 'dissolved' (I'm not sure if this is the word they used or if I started using this, but it describes what happened). So we were told that there was still plenty of money 'in the organization' but that it had shifted around so that our team was not getting any money any more. Okay, fine. A strange choice, our team functioned really well and had some worthwhile projects, but the flawless wisdom of corporate executives is no to be questioned, so whatever.

Most of the people on my team were moved off onto other teams nearby. Figuratively, as well as literally. Most folks moved a few seats and started working with people they either already knew or had already been working with in some small capacity. I was moved to a team in New Jersey I had never really interacted with. I have essentially no understanding of what they are working on, it is all in a language that I do not know and they seem to have zero interest in having me on the team.

I don't blame them, I was sort of dropped in. I doubt they had any say in this either. But it puts me in this strange situation, where all the work from my old team has been either cancelled or wrapped up, but I am not being given any new work from my new team. I suppose a real proactive go getter would jump in and start asking where they could be helpful, would strive to learn the new language and products in order to be a productive member of the team and drive innovation (ah they love this phrase 'drive innovation') but I just have to be totally honest, I don't care. I just have no interest in doing this. At all. Being treated like an asset is so distateful. I feel like I owe nothing, least of all my exertion and striving. I liked my job, I liked my team, I felt like I was being productive. And I did not change this. They did. Too, It's sort of like jumping into a busy, high-end kitchen at dinner time. Everything is so busy and so well planned out that even trying to do something like chopping vegetables would probably just get in the way (plus the vegetables are not chopped here, they are all julienned, so I would need someone to show me how to julienne vegetables, which would take time away from more pressing tasks).

Regardless, I find myself in this strange situation where I really have no work assigned to me and no one looking to assign me work. I am tinkering with one projects which is wrapping up now, but it is small and there is only so much work that I can do there before it is totally finished. So then what? How do I spend my time? How long until someone really notices that I am still around? It is sort of kafkaesque, or a reverse Bartleby. Or like something out of office space. This just sort of strange lacuna in the corporate world, the sort of forgotten person floating around with nothing to do. Honestly, I don't mind. It means I get to apply for jobs and read whatever I want. Stress is low (naturally). Expectations are low. The one concerning this is how long it is going to last.

More than anything I am not bitter or really even disappointed. Just sort of amused. Of course everything is going to work out, I'll either get moved again or maybe assimilated further into the team, though probably not. Hopefully just get a higher paying job closer to home. But it is just sort of amazing that these things can happen, that a person (and this must happen all over the time, all over this company) can just sort of get shuffled off to the side, fall into a crack and just sort of stay there for a little while. It must happen in cases far worse than my own.

I have not drummed up the courage to just start writing full time during work. There are still to many obligations and meetings and distractions to keep that from becoming a reality. Though it would be funny, to just have my computer open all day, no messages coming in, no work assigned to me, just over in the corner knocking away at the novel or whatever. I would feel a little guilty but not too guilty. They would fire me eventually but I'd still be getting paid, have health insurance and so one.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Failure

I just turned thirty a few days ago.

I'm not terribly sentimental for those sorts of things. In this case though I set a goal a number of years ago: I wanted to publish my first novel before I turned thirty.

I made three attempts and all attempts have failed.

It feels significant.

I am not sure what to make of it.

I am going to push through, but I cannot just ignore it.

I am not totally sure what to do with it. I can't feel bad about it for too long, but I did fail to meet this goal.

I guess I just sort of have to analyze why this is. Did I not work hard enough? Was I not dedicated enough? Did I not network enough? It feels like I tried all of those things, I pushed myself in all of those things, but I guess I just did not try hard enough or push hard enough?

I researched and submitted. They all came back rejections. I networked and went to conferences and readings. I met some nice people but nothing really significant has come out of that. No mentors, no collaborations, no offers. I can't say I am bitter for the people I have met, but these are supposed to be the things that come of this expenditure of energy, right?

I submitted a piece to maybe fifteen venues, starting last April and until about last September. A lot of these were venues that I had received encouraging feedback from. No one took the piece. I have not published a piece since 2014. This is four years. I don't understand how time got away from me like this. I mean I have been working on novels through that time, but still, it is pretty incredible. And I would have expected that with all the work I have been doing it would have increased my chances of getting published?

I'm not sure what to make of this.

I'm not sure what is causing this, whether I am not editing my work enough or if it is just inherently shoddy or if I am submitting to the wrong places?

I am not sure what to do with my work when I am done with it. Should I just sit on it?

I guess I am not supposed to be focused on publishing. I guess I am supposed to forget about it. But I did that. I have done that. And four years disappeared. Why should I forget about publishing if I have done it in the past? Why have I been published in the past but should just forget about it now? I have this four year hole in my publication credits.

I am ruminating on this, I understand. And ruminating is not good and it makes for boring writing. But I am trying to understand this situation so that I can get better. I feel like the only way to get past this is to analyze it at least a little bit, to try and figure out what the problem is so that I can address it.

And I am also tying my worth as a writing to my publication, which I also understand is not good. You always see the advice that you should only think about writing and not about publishing. But this advice always seems to come from writers who have been published pretty extensively. I can't swallow that I can just totally forget about publishing and it will just magically come to me. Again, I have been trying this for five years and it had not happened. I have not been writing to get published either. That is, I have not altered my writing in order to make it more 'publishable'. I have edited my writing with the aim of making it better, but never as an attempt to get inside an editor's head and figure out what they want to see and provide that.

I guess I am just frustrated. Frustrated now and frustrated for years. The same frustration. The same confusion. The same confusion as to how long it takes to actually get good at this stuff. The confusion as to what it takes to get good at this stuff, as if there is some magic step that I am missing, some hallway that everyone else can see and walk down but which I am blind to.

I did something strange. I applied to an writing program. An MFA program. Only two. They are/were very competetive, but I figure I am only interested in doing a program if it is funded and in a place that I would like to live, et c. I was not sure what I was expecting. I mean on the one hand, with acceptance rates < 1% I knew intuitively, statistically, that I had no chance of getting in. But I did have this sort of deluded hope that my writing was good enough (at least better than fresh bachelors grads) that I might get an acceptance. I sort of had this fantasy of getting the acceptance letter and throwing it in their faces like 'Ha, I don't even need your paltry academic program.' No, but I did not even get the chance to do that. The rejection letter was short and sort of pitying. 'This does not reflect the quality of your work.' like they feel that they cannot hurt the applicant's feelings. There was a part of me that was glad, in all honesty it would have been a difficult choice and one that might have created a lot of stress. I would have had to think about it very seriously, and moving across the country to a city I have never lived in before to make less than minimum wage to teach freshman comp would have truly had a lot of serious pros and cons. There is still one application out, but it is an order of magnitude more selective, so I have no pretensions there.

What is also frustrating is this manuscript. It has been, or was, a two year false start. Two years, every day. Five scratch drafts. I have not counted the pages but it must be somewhere around five to six hundred pages. But it never really come together. I never gelled. I could never tell where it was going. I had high hopes for this. I always have high hopes, but I was doing things like researching. I was trying to immerse myself in this world. But it just became repetitive. I would just write the same thing over and over. I was a little bored writing it from time to time, and though I could have cut those parts I just imagine the reader would have been bored to tears. Also a week or two ago I learned that a pretty well known indie writer is coming out with a book that (without having read it, though I bought it and am excited to read it) sound very similar to the ms  have been working on. Like similar enough that if I were to submit it to an indie press I figure they would just read the synopsis and say something like 'Doesn't this just sound like Jesse Ball's 'Census'? Naw, we can't touch this.' So I put it down. I might pick it up some time in the future, but perhaps that was my real, first false start, just an idea not worth pursuing.

Right now my only hope is winning the lottery. I mean this sounds like a joke, and it pretty much is, but occasionally, like once a year I will just get obsessed with winning the lottery. I know this isn't unusual, but you would think that someone who has even a basic grasp of probability would be immune to this sort of thinking. I never actually buy any tickets, I just think about it endlessly. I plan out what I would do. In my head there is a lot of philanthropy going on but in reality i probably would not do it. But I would probably buy a couple hundred acres of land, drop a small house or a cabin on it and just write, every day. I would probably be able to sustain that for a few months or a year, who knows. I'd probably hire some editor to rip my stuff apart. But even then, I mean would that much change? Really? I guess having more time is the critical thing. It just feel so much better when I can dedicate hours every day to a piece of work.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The futility of Writing and a meditation on Meditation

When I do not write the meaninglessness of my self becomes radically clear. I not only lack any reason to exist but I am acutely aware of this. When I do write I do not suddenly gain meaning, I do not suddenly create meaning from nothing what I am writing. Instead I am less aware of this absence. But nothing changes in me and nothing changes in the world. Something in between changes. It is a way to persist.

When I do not meditate I come painfully aware of the passing of time. It appears to slip by more quickly than usual. When you are looking out a train window at the side of another train and the world begins to move but it is unclear what is moving: you are the world around you. When I sit in a sit in a chair and let my mind run more quiet I somehow become less aware of the passage of time. It passes all the same. Nothing has changed. The world stays the same and I stay the same but my awareness of it diminishes. It takes up less resources and I am freed to think about other things.

When I read a book by a writer like Cormac McCarthy all other works of fiction seem to fall away. These works are not novels but prophecies and they are aware of their status as prophecies. Fiction, which is often like a stone wall on which are written symbols becomes suddenly translucent and invisible and like a hole through which another world can be seen, and a world which is a replica of our own. Fiction is the same. Nothing has changed. These are words written on a page and bound into a book and put down there my a human hand. What has changed?


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?