Archive for June, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Literary Position

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the questions I was asked when I solicited essay topics for this blog, quite a while ago now, WanderingWidget on LJ asked me for my “favourite position” for writing in. (I’m pretty sure there was a double-meaning in that…)

But it is something interesting to talk about now for a couple of reasons — first because I recently had major surgery that impacted this, second because I got a new desk at work.

Back in April of last year I started having back pain which I assumed was just “getting older”. Never assume pain is normal; unless you have chronic pain from a diagnosed cause, pain is not normal. Pain signifies a problem. But because I assumed it was, I didn’t see a doctor about it until August, when I was starting to become unable to sit for long periods of time and when it became evident that the pain increased after eating. As it turned out, I had gallstones. Not only did I have gallstones, but once the gallstones were removed and I shared around the photo of my gallbladder and the stones therein, several doctors of my acquaintance said “Well. That’s not normal.” I basically had a bag of dice rattling around in my chest cavity.

This is gross, I realise.

The upshot is, I had to relearn how to move, and specifically how to sit, without pain. Given that by the end of my quality Gallbladder time I was in chronic severe pain, basically anything other than chronic severe pain felt like no pain at all. So it was very easy, at the time, to adjust my posture when sitting to avoid pain.

I also moved locations at work, and our new location had all-new everything, including cubicles with desks on levers that you could raise or lower in order to adjust them from sit-desks to standing-desks. Standing desks CHANGED MY LIFE.

Because even aside from all the pain, here’s the thing: I hate sitting down.

I prefer to either stand up or lie down. Sitting is strange and uncomfortable even after I fixed my posture and had an organ removed. I can’t explain it; I just don’t care to sit. So for anything, but especially for writing, I prefer not to be sitting.

Standing has the advantage of giving you more room to fidget; you can shift your weight, stand on one foot, bounce on your toes, shake your ass, roll your shoulders. Lying, of course, takes less energy and is 100% easier on your entire body, but lying down is perilously close to sleeping, and I am a fellow who likes his sleep.

Sometimes, just for the hell of it, I imagine other writers doing what I do — Steinbeck standing at a typewriter set atop a couple of barrels in some shack somewhere in the wilderness, or Jane Austen trying to keep her inkwell level on her bed as she lies on her stomach with her feet in the air, scrawling along (though I know Austen, at least, had to sit while writing, in busy sitting rooms where she rarely had much time to herself). It’s fun to imagine how people wrote, and what their mannerisms might have been.

But most of the time when I write — as I was when I wrote this — I am propped on pillows in bed in front of a laptop, probably doing dreadful things to my spine, knocking my heels together as I work.

Learning From Television

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I think magical realism may be the next thing. Like how vampires and post-apocalyptic dystopias are a thing. I think maybe magical realism is next.

There have been a growing number of television shows in particular which incorporate elements of magical realism, whether intentionally or otherwise. I’m always leery of attributing magical realism to things that weren’t written that way intentionally, in part because they’re usually written by white men who already had a lot of cultural pull, but it’s hard to deny that the TV show Hannibal has a lot of visual elements of magical realism, and apparently the show True Detective, another new hit, incorporates aspects of it as well.

I get a little conflicted over it. On the one hand it would be great for the genre. Magical Realism is notoriously difficult, and difficult stories taking center stage are good for the literary development of culture. If nothing else, a story too difficult to read teaches us what not to do, and a story that people just think is too difficult to read opens a lot of dialogue about prose structure and technique. On the other hand, if it does take off, I’ll have been the loser who liked it before it was cool and still couldn’t make much money off it. I try to detach the personal, but it’s difficult.

Then again, perhaps the sheer challenge of reading magical realism will prevent the genre from ever gaining a wide audience. Not that I think people can’t cope with it, but a lot of people don’t want to, and why should they? Some days I don’t have the mental bandwidth for Jorge Luis Borges either.

But it’s not just that understanding some stories in magical realism is a struggle — it’s also that it’s difficult, in literary form, to employ it and still allow for action, for the parts that make most books interesting to read. There’s a lot of exposition that goes on in magical realism, and I’m still trying to work out why it’s so necessary, but I think in part it’s because it’s hard to have characters talking about something unusual without expressing how unusual it is. A staple of magical realism is that nobody acknowledges that what’s going on is super fucking weird.

For example, at one point in the show Hannibal, a character in prison temporarily grows antlers. We don’t know if this is meant to really be happening, if it’s a hallucination he’s having, if it’s a visual representation of what his internal feelings are, or if it’s something we’re being shown in order to indicate his state of mind without him having any thought of it. The ambiguity is intriguing and it makes you think carefully about how to read it. But it’s very difficult to write that scene in a novel — to just say, “He sat in his cell, and his antlers grew, black and twisted, towards the ceiling.”

You can do it. Obviously, because I just did. But you want to include all this other exposition about how the antlers were linked to his feelings or what his feelings were or the rest of it. And that is why magical realism often seems tedious despite being a genre essentially filled with strangeness and delight: there’s a shitload of exposition.

It’s something I’ve wrestled with a lot as I’ve tried to write more in the genre — attempting to break away from the exposition-heavy forms that it comes from and write something that is more similar in shape to popular literature. I’m still struggling with it, but perhaps if there are more stories out there like what I want to write — magical, surreal, and popular — I can learn from others who have done it better than I have.

I’m learning a lot from the television, anyway, and that’s a rare and interesting thing.

What I Learned From Survey Questions

In Uncategorized on June 13, 2014 at 10:00 am

There has been a tension for me, the last few months, between my work for my career and my writing. While it is nice to have climbed out of debt and to make a good wage — not just decent, but good — the increased pay and status from relatively recent promotions translates directly to decreased time and mental capacity for creativity.

Writing is precious and compulsive to me, so I’ve had to look at my life and try to decide what to sacrifice or at least wrap-up in order to have the resources, physical and mental, to continue writing. I sat down and basically mapped out my life on paper and it left me wondering how people have things like spouses and children.

The balancing game is hard. I could read less, but reading is an essential part of writing, an important tool. I could watch fewer television shows, but given I watch them in the evenings, when I’m already tired, would that help? Should I socialize less and be more lonely — more unhappy — just in order to write? That seems unwise. Do I drop side projects even though they sometimes lead to inspiration?

Do I sleep less? Could I sleep less?

The ultimate result of my examination of my life is that I haven’t removed anything yet. Instead I’ve developed a question based on survey questions that want you to make a subjective value judgement. When I’m doing something, I ask myself: Is what I am doing right now more-helpful or more-harmful to my overall existence? And if it is more-harmful, how do I stop, alter, or enhance it? Can I do something helpful during this harmful activity?

To answer these questions, I had to work out what I wanted from my overall existence, which was actually easier than it probably should have been. It’s very much in the vein of the hierarchy of needs:

1. Security: home, food, money to supply both, which means keeping and doing my job.

2. Creativity: being able to engage in my art, which is both pleasurable to me and contributory to my community.

3.  Joy: being able to do pleasurable things, regardless of their productivity or lack thereof.

Let’s not talk about how Joy comes in number three. Being fair to me, Maslow thinks it’s low priority too, compared to food and shelter.

I wrote this initially in a notebook during a training session last week, which illustrates the occasional difficulty of identifying an action as helpful or harmful. Attending the training demonstrates to my work community that I am engaged and enthusiastic. Which I am! I genuinely like my job. But the actual training is not really informative, and is taking an entire day to convey what information it does have to offer, which is harmful. Or at least, inefficient. I counteracted the harmful by writing this essay, at least for now.

The system is new, so I don’t know how well it will work — but I suppose it makes me happier to have it, which is ultimately helpful.

Lessons With Packing Tape

In Uncategorized on June 6, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’m writing this on a flight from California to Chicago, returning from wrapping up the last of my grandmother’s estate, a process which began seventeen years ago. Gran always was a nonconformist.

My grandmother had a fascinating life, but the portion of her existence which she imparted most strongly to me was her art. She was a painter and a lover of all the fine arts, and she gave me culture, from sketching with her in her dining room to playing trains on the floor of her painting studio (which doubled as the garage). She died when I was seventeen, but her paintings and many other belongings of hers have only just surfaced, so we had to collect them up and figure out what to do. Over the course of last weekend I documented, wrapped, packaged, and helped arrange safe transport for a hundred and two of her paintings, everything from eight-inch-square seascapes to three-foot-tall frontier towns.

She painted two for a local bank and then changed her mind and kept them; she painted three abstracts and then duct-taped them together, and when we found them I was the only one of the family members present who could point out the angels she’d subtly painted into them, much to my mother’s delight. Gran painted faceless women in white and boats that somehow look married to each other. She was stubborn and independent, and while she did sell pieces and paint pieces as gifts, her art was mainly for herself. Sometimes I think she painted a crap painting just because she didn’t want to mess around with perfection.

When I visited her, I didn’t really appreciate that she wasn’t teaching me sketching and painting as much as she was not to take any bullshit from anyone when it came to art — hers, mine, or others’. Her art isn’t always the most original or the most talented, but it is invariably honest. I know this, because I’ve seen paintings from the time when she was unhappy and suffering depression — when she was trying to be someone she wasn’t, for the sake of others — and they’re no good. They have no light, no subtlety, no depth. When she stopped taking shit from the rest of the world, she got a lot better.

It is incredibly hard to be honest to one’s art, especially when one is just starting to work. People want you to be something, and they want your art to be something, and very rarely will they agree with each other or with you about what that something is. It is necessary to take criticism and to accept it when it’s truthful, but before one can judge the quality of criticism, one has to know one’s work. Confidence in the honesty of the work, whether it’s any good or not, is vital. I don’t think I ever realized until this past weekend that she fed this to me along with cheese sandwiches and cups of apple juice.

It’s been a struggle, the past year and a half, to try and write — exhaustion, new jobs, illness, and perhaps some plain old burnout have made it difficult to hold coherent thought for the length of time it takes to write a novella, let alone a novel. I’m not sure if I’ve been honest to the work; I’m not sure if I haven’t been trying too hard to fuck around with perfection. And it’s not like spending two days lifting, wrapping, photographing, packing, and securing canvases has caused some kind of spiritual epiphany; mostly it made me tired. But it did give me perspective.

I sometimes wonder what Gran would think of me. I think mainly we’d be butting heads about the fact that I haven’t given her any great-grandchildren yet. I think she would be proud of some of my novels, at least, if she knew about them. And the rest she would at least be proud I’d completed, even if she might think they were a little ‘blue’.

Either way, I owe her a lot, for teaching me about honesty — and for the half a dozen paintings by her that were my commission for the work this weekend.