"All is well that ends well"
What was supposed to be a walk to increase my daily steps turned into a journey. People pop out. Restaurants offer outside seating. The night is crisp. Saturn and Jupiter are still visible in the sky — on the way to convergence. I wanted to get more faces in my photographs. But the moments passed by too quickly. I saw a masked guy in a cab. He was balefully looking out a window. The Q49 bus runs along 74th Street. Wear your mask.
Today in class an adolescent pupil couldn’t answer a question — so she said to me, “This question makes me feel unsafe.” I was taken aback by her statement. It’s the Covid. I imagined her shrieking out of class. By an unsafe question. I’m teaching a course on mythology. And one characteristic of myth is the unknown. So I get it, girl. Stuff gets real. From chaos to calm. From the womb to the tomb.
In this book, Journal of a Novel,
Steinbeck talks about how he overcame writer's
block to write his epic novel East of Eden.
I am not that bad, but I think every writer worth his salt battles with writer's block.
The problem is not WHAT to write but HOW to write what you want to write. The writer is not usually void of ideas, but once settled on one idea, there comes the conundrum of infinite ways to approach the topic. What's the title? Do I write in the first person? Who is my audience - middle age blue-bloods, or pimply adolescents? Do I use accents or write in plain English prose?
Then, there is the security factor. Do I think the piece is gonna be good or not? Will people read this?
Then, when the work has started, and your pen is moving at a well-clipped pace, eventually, at some point, there comes a stall. The great lull, I call it. Or just boredom. I think this is why most Master theses and Doctoral dissertations go unfinished.
"It seemed like a good idea," the grad student laments. What's left: piles of research, jotted notes, emails to directors, and an unfinished manuscript.
|Connecting thought to idea to word|
to sentence to a paragraph . . . can be daunting.
Sometimes, it is the ending that gets ya.
Virginia Woolf famously dreaded ending her novels because it felt like a death. I can relate to the visceral, human connection to a work in progress. The writer feeds his work, his blood, tears, ambition, and time. Ink. Pencil graphite. To finish the opus seems too much like divorce - or even worse, death.
Woolf finished Between the Acts and sometime later stepped into the stream behind her house, heavy stones sewn into the lining of her blouse.
Now, I don't think I am that bad. But, I can relate to Woolf's decision. Perhaps she was tired of dying. She had written through many deaths.
I can relate to John Steinbeck, better.
It wasn't that he felt like he couldn't create an epic American Genesis, but the task was so monumental maybe he thought he would get bored or give up. Woolf killed herself, by contrast, not because she completed a great piece of work but just because it was completed.
Once the publisher tidies up the manuscript, the text is no longer yours. Once I press submit, it is as if the narrative births itself and leaves the cage of the author.
One way I helped alleviate writer's block was to start actively contributing to my blog. Writing a blog entry is a way to floss my writer's teeth. To write and publish automatically is a way to remind myself I can create something that is not monumental but, at the same time, hopefully not trite. I try to aim for funny, pertinent - or just plain good, dammit.
When I am really feeling it, I go to Twitter and microblog.
Wow. What a catharsis. I am energized that Roger Ebert feels the same way. He recently wrote a blog piece on why he tweets. I think he writes his blog and tweets a helluva lot because it lubricates his gears so he can step up to the plate for the big stuff.
Now, you may say, all this is the same thing as carving that wondrous wooden box to put your pencils because you don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of writing. There's a blog post about this, by the way.
But, I instead write something every day rather than nothing.
So, here's my something.
Maybe, you can relate? Lemme know, dammit. Why do you write? When do you not write?
|Even unintelligible text scribbled on a wall can be an idea.|
|image source: videotron|
You have to think differently when you're finding ways to carve out a life through words. For a long time, I wrote so that I could discover myself. Once I discovered myself, I wrote so that I could discover other people. Then my writing became something I did when I was not teaching. Now that I am not teaching, it is as if I have been catapulted back to that original locus of creativity.
You have to think differently to make money as a writer. You can't think, OK, I make this much money a month, and I need to budget accordingly. No, you have to think, how much do I have to work this month? It's a paradigm shift for me. I feel both exhilarated and terrified.
The first time I made money as a writer was when I was twenty-seven years old. I won one hundred dollars in a poetry contest. I never cashed the cheque. I lost it in a gay bar in New Orleans.
A steely resolve to write more came in the form of a Brother SX-4000 typewriter I bought for $115 from Amazon. Yes, Brother makes typewriters, from lower-end models that help office workers address envelopes, to high-end models equipped with a floppy drive.
Of course, I did not write this blog post on the Brother machine but I have been writing more. Lately. The typewriter sits on a plain wooden desk. A sheet of paper is loaded into the slot. The last sentence I forged still lies there. The machine is still. It is not asleep. It awaits.
Jonathan Franzen once said he wrote on a laptop with the Internet disabled so he could write focused. The idea is the same — reduce distraction — commit yourself to write, and write only with a dedicated tool. Heidegger is right - we are the tools we use. If I had two computers I would dub one the writing machine and the other the youtube machine.
I use the Brother to write seriously. It is my writing machine. It is not the clackety-clack of the keys that helps to fashion a story, but rather the material immediacy of ink struck on paper -- voila -- it is there on a page as if chiseled from rock. I turn to the Brother to write what I know I want to create. A blog post is ephemera — in a way — I am more playful — and less prone to think of what I write on the internet as serious writing. Maybe this is a false dichotomy — but my view on writing blogs on the Internet is for writers to experiment and show off writing. It is instantaneous. With a manuscript created on a typewriter, it may take months to produce a piece whereas a blog post — at the most — takes three hours from start to finish.
A typewriter will not help you become a better writer. But I do find the typewriter focuses me. Every word is a decision. I find myself planning ahead with a typewriter. How do I want to write this paragraph? And if make a mistake — sure I can use auto-correct — but the roll does not last forever and I have a budget. Every mistake is a penny out of pocket!
Creativity and Typewriters
For some reason on a computer, the art of organizing prose is lost. Writing on a computer presents endless possibilities. No work ever seems finished. I can always edit, delete, move around -- to the point that sometimes I forget where I began. Especially when it comes to long essays, fifteen pages or more, writing on a computer turns a project into mush.
On a computer, correction is free but endless. I have used Google Docs for years. In this format, my writing seems to be in an endless draft stage. I can share a draft with a colleague and she reads it and corrects my errors then I read it and revise. I can track changes and look at previous revisions. A 1200 word essay can quickly morph and grow, bloat and go off into zillions of tangents. I write myself out of writing. I lose what I intentionally hoped to create.
Maybe it is nostalgia. I owned an IBM Wheelwriter I bought for ten dollars at a garage sale. I wrote a short story in sixth grade on that thing.
A typewriter is designed to write stuff. That is what you do when you sit in front of it. You don't check anything else; you don't do anything but put thoughts onto paper.
Recently programmers have attempted to make applications for writers that help to focus attention on the act of writing. The idea is to write in full screen and to eliminate any unnecessary distractions. Those programs work and act as clean alternatives to the clunky Microsoft Word approach to word processing.
If I have to use footnotes — hell, no — I won't use a typewriter.
My fantasy -- or shall I say my motivation — in a typewriter is that it will unleash my creative energy.
Nostalgia for Typewriters
Sitting in front of the new Brother SX-4000 I felt the familiar rush of energy I remember having when I sat down at the IBM Wheelwriter. I typed a test page and remembered the old features I loved with the Wheelwriter work on the Brother. I can set tabs; the typewriter easily loads my sheet of paper; it beeps when a word is spelled incorrectly. Bold, underlining, superscript, subscript — all those fun typewriter additions — are there.
A typewriter is great for a party. Turn it on, type a sentence and people will ineluctably clack away -- collective party art.
In the collective imagination, typewriters are associated with creativity. In a children's library, a typewriter placed on a desk beckons children to fall in love with words. On a typewriter words are physical. Not abstract.
Digital and Analog
Two technologies combine. On the typewriter, a draft is created. I am one with the typewriter. When the manuscript is completed I do a character recognition scan so the manuscript becomes digital and searchable. What was once a unique copy becomes a meme. But it was necessary to begin with the monomaniacal relationship between myself and the machine — to craft a purposeful composition. This is my addiction.
I am unsure why I have quit you for so long, O! Typewriter!
|Joyce Carol Oates |
(image source: Jewish Week)
As far as inimitable serious novelists go, Joyce Carol Oates ranks right up there with Flannery O'Connor and James Joyce (the two that come to mind). And maybe Herman Melville. But his beard is way more stubby that Oates's wan piercing disposition.
At the New York Psychoanalytic Institute on 82nd street in the city Upper East Side, Lois Oppenheim interviewed Oates on Friday night (October 28th) as part of the Institute's conversation series.
Does Joyce Carol Oates Play?
Having paid the ten dollar student fee and considering myself interested in the intersection between literature and psychoanalysis (wherever that particular intersection will lead me — or one — I am not so sure), I sat myself down in the staid auditorium hall with a plastic glass of free cheap Cabernet Sauvignon.
Oppenheim began the conversation by commenting on how in an e-mail she had asked the author if she had wanted to "play" in Manhattan before the slated time she was supposed to speak at the Institute but then realizing that asking Joyce Carol Oates to play was probably the wrong word to use. Does Joyce Carol Oates play?
One would think not considering how much work she has produced since her first published book in 1963. She was born in 1938 (so that makes for about fifty years of literary output — about fifty books total).
I think Oates took offense to the question because she answered the question about "play" noting she loves to go to museums and view art as well as her teaching career which she considers playful (there is always laughter in the classroom). And there is the point Oppenheim missed that writing can be a form of play.
On Writing From Oates' Point of View
Oates spoke about the craft of writing, how the writer has the idea for a short story, novel, and so on, but the idea has to meet the limits of language. Writing is a process of falling short.
Oppenheim was interested in Oates's biography. Oates was molested as a girl. Her great grandparent was murdered. She spoke about the unspoken violence behind closed doors in the small town she lived in. Did the violence embedded in her background influence her writing and its emphasis on violence?
Oates seemed to resent the question. As if writing about violence, perhaps too much close attention to violence, automatically spoke about the writer's personality.
Oates seems to be a fiction writer not interested in people seeing her writing as an extension of Joyce Carol Oates. She would rather want people to see her writing as art, as an expansive testament to the human spirit.
Does Art Inspire Life Or Does Life Inspire Art?
The question of the evening was, "Is a writer's biography directly inferred by their writing, what they choose to write, what topics and themes they explore?" Does the writer write about herself or does she write about the universal stamp that makes us human, that makes us tick?
Oates made the remark that most writers write about themselves. Proust writes about himself. Phillip Roth writes about himself. Many writers write about themselves. Their stories are reflections of their own lives in some form or fashion.
Oates dismisses the idea that her writings are a mere byproduct of her own traumatic life. She wants to say, I think, that she is no different from anyone else. Most people on this planet, except maybe for the rarified individuals who inhabit the one percent of the world's first-class elite, experience suffering, and violence. She is no different. She writes about violence because it is something people experience.
The room was a bit electric. I loved hearing her speak. She spoke firmly yet not loudly. She seemed to project an aura of quite yet powerful (almost angry) intellectual power. In a certain sense, she is not the docile novelist. She would not be a good analysand, as I heard someone say after the discussion.
After the Interview, Oates Signed My Copy of Sourland
She signed my copy of Sourland. I told her I liked her short story "Dear Joyce Carol" published recently in her short story collection "Dear Husband,". Yes, the comma is included in the title.
She said I didn't look like a guy who would write her letters like the ones described in "Dear Joyce Carol." I think I agree with her. I have written letters to authors but never a series of letters like the ones described in this short story. Oates told me the story was inspired by real-life events. She said she has received letters like the one in the story many times. So maybe there is an element of biography ...
Maybe it is not so much that Oates writes about violence so she can talk about herself in a novel or story, but rather, what constitutes her as a person, as a novelist, as a serious writer, is one who attends to violence because it is immensely important. The novelist attends to the particular in the hopes of reaching for something profound. Is this not the paradox?
Her skin was chalky white, but Patrick thought she was rosy. Amelia was stretched out on the bed, beneath the mosquito netting.
Please share your own failed sentence in the comments section:
|Image source: the new yorker|
Poets House boasts 50,000 volumes of poetry in an open, eco-friendly environment that affords a view of the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty. Founded by the American poet Stanley Kunitz, the space is ideal for reading, studying, and writing. Expect books. No public computer terminals. The computer terminals are for catalog access only. You can either read your own book or a poetry book available from the shelf. There are even typewriters available for the budding writer to practice her craft. There is a room specially reserved for quiet in the back. It has couches!
I go on Saturdays sometimes. The last time I went they served free wine and beer!
Best for poets and writers or people who want to be inspired creatively. A very inviting space. The staff is especially courteous.
Where: 10 River Terrace, Lower Manhattan, Battery Park City
Hours: Tuesday–Friday, 11am–7pm, Saturday, 11am–6pm | Children's Room: Saturday, 11am–5pm
Contact: www.poetshouse.org email@example.com (212) 431-7920
Directions: Subway: 1, 2, 3, A, C, or E to Chambers St., or the R to Cortlandt St. (northbound only)
|image source: writer's block|
Upon his arrival, he was very surprised to learn from René Girard that Lacan had requested a deluxe hotel room for him. Exhausted from jet lag, he set down his bags and heard the old master say: "So, I had to come all the way here to finally meet you!" At dinner the next day, Derrida raised questions close to his heart, about the Cartesian subject, substance, and the signifier. While eating coleslaw, Lacan replied that his subject was the same as the one proposed by his interlocutor as an alternative to the theory of the subject. In itself, the remark was not false, but Lacan hastened to add: "You can't bear the fact that I have already said what you want to say." Derrida responded without missing a beat: "That is not my problem." So Lacan got nowhere. Later that evening, he approached the philosopher, putting a friendly hand on his shoulder: "Ah! Derrida, we have to talk, we have to talk!" But they were never to talk...(8) A year later, at a dinner in Paris at Jean Piel's home, Lacan took warmly Derrida's hand in his smooth palms and asked what he was working on. Plato, Socrates, the pharmakon, the letter, the concepts of origin, logos, mythos: the philosopher was preparing a text for the journal Tel Quel. Under the talented leadership of Philippe Sollers, this journal had begun to include important topics of the older structuralism together with revisions in the light of "textuality." When Of Grammatology was being published, Derrida had joined the editorial board of the journal Critique. And since the publication of his Ecrits, Lacan has become director of a collection at the publisher Seuil. Once again, he mentioned how strange it was that he had already discussed the same topics as those preoccupying Derrida. One need only ask his students. To avoid a debate, Derrida told the psychoanalyst the following anecdote. One evening, as his son Pierre was falling asleep in the presence of his mother, he asked his father why he was looking at him: "Because you are handsome." The child reacted immediately by saying that the compliment made him want to die. A little uneasy, Derrida tried to find out what he meant: "I don't like myself," the child said. "Since when?" "Since I learned to talk." Marguerite took him in her arms: "Don't worry. We love you." At which point Pierre burst out laughing: "No, it's not true at all. I am a born cheater for life."(9) Lacan said nothing. Sometime later, Derrida was stupefied to find the anecdote penned by his interlocutor in a lecture given at the French Institute in Naples in December 1967.(10) Lacan told the story like this: "'I am a born cheater for life,' said a four-year old boy while curling up in the arms of his genitrix in the presence of his father, who had just answered 'You are handsome' to his question 'Why are you looking at me?' And the father didn't recognize (even when the child in the interim pretended to have lost all taste for himself the day he learned to speak) the obstacle that he himself was foisting on the Other by playing dead. It's up to the father, who told it to me, to hear me from where I speak or not." After this second meeting, relations between Derrida and Lacan were never cordial.
I Am What I Am
I am made like that
When I have a desire to laugh
Yes, I laugh with a burst of laughter
I like the him who likes me
And it isn't my fault
If it isn't always the same him
That I love every time
I am what I am
What do you want more
What do you want of me
I am made to please
And I can't change a thing
My heels are too high
My waist too arched
My breasts much too hard
And my eyes too dark
And then what is more
What can that be to you
I am what I am
I please who I please
What can that be to you
What has happened to me
Yes I've loved someone
Yes someone has loved me
Like children love each other
Just know how to love
Love to love
Why ask me questions
I am there to please you
I Am What I Am
Installation view, Ikon Eastside 2008
Photo: Stuart Whipps
Enter the internet age.
How is a writer supposed to mark up the World Wide Web?
While, this may not sound true - how can a word be like a bullet? - it is VERY true.
Our words matter. Like a bullet, words can DO something. Cause destruction. Words can cause a revolution. Words can shatter. Words rock.
Here we have a collection of your words, strung together to make a PORTFOLIO.
Writing has not yet deserved a funeral. But a resurgence.
It has been a quirky, productive year. Even Susie Q agrees. Bon Qui Qui also concurs. Even, Mr. Roselli, that unkempt teacher, who barely gets his grades in on time and wears mixed-match clothes, seldom shaves, and looks like he is married to a coffee cup, agrees - words matter. Keep writing.
I remember all of you:
Especially these random things:
1. Raised hands; 2. fixing my hair; 3. plushy fish dolls; 4. Au Revoir Les Enfants; 5. Oedipus at the Museum; 6. Mr. Hebert's benign interruptions; 7. Mr. Stabiler's talk on Greek Mythology; 8. big words; 9. "imitation is the best form of flattery"; 10. "familiarity breeds contempt"; 11. Google Hacks; smartboard mishaps; 12. "Y'all are hot (higher order thinkers)"; 13. "A MANNNNN?"; 14. literary rally champs; 15. "Hey, I know what hyperbole means!"; 16. "Thunk is my word!"; 17. "Does reading about Lady Gaga count?"; 18. "You're making us read this .... sophisticated newspaper ...?"; 19. "Can we read the Inferno? I like hell"; 20. "How can a guy survive on a lifeboat with a tiger? I mean come on."; 21. "Mr. Roselli, you need a hug?"; 22. "You know you love us."; 23. "OMG! I love that book!"; 24. "This may sound funny, but I wrote this paper last night. But, it's brilliant."; 25. "You guys are sick!"; 26. "You know, it reminds me of an episode from Sponge Bob ..."; 27. "Give me back the pen, buster."; 28. A severe whooshing sound; 29. pile of sweaters; 30. Free Writes!; 31. interactive notebooks; 32. scotch tape; 33. indecipherable handwriting; 34. chronic sleepers; 35. overachievers; 36. underachievers; 37. "Hitch your wagon to a star! Or, what's a heaven for?"; "Can you exterminate the lights, please? Or is it terminate? I can't remember." 38. There's a difference: To be is to do (Socrates); Yabba dabba doo (Fred Flintstone)
You may be a precious snowflake, but if you can't express your individuality in sterling prose, I don't want to read about it.
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- Maxine Hong Kingston Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (p. 159)
|Photograph of Virginia Woolf as a Child|
|Thérèse of Lisieux dressed up as Joan of Arc|