Sunday, January 16, 2022

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed by Kurt Vonnegut's grandfather, and which was attractive because it was quiet, and other people were sparse. 

I got there early, being paranoid about the prospects of parking, and so I ordered a tea and took a seat by the window to wait. The view overlooked a six-way intersection of popular streets, full of dog walkers and joggers and people carrying small bags of groceries. The window itself sat about ten feet up from ground level, which is apparently all it takes for me to gaze down with godlike impunity. Look at them all, I said to myself, running around like ants in the cold!

But unlike a god, I knew nothing about the people who scurried below. The best I could do was guess, which is the same kind of impulse that leads a person to try writing fiction, and also what makes a good book so satisfying to read. The pleasure of something like A Visit from the Goon Squad is the all-knowing writer, who looks deep in the future and who twists the perspective, making a minor character from one chapter central to the plot of the next. It all adds up to the happily woozy feeling that you're careening from one mind to another, that you have, for three-hundred pages at least, achieved a certain kind of omniscience.

That kind of knowing isn't possible in real life, and so in the absence of answers you find yourself looking for types. From my perch in the window I would see echoes of old friends, exes, and coworkers in the faces of strangers, and this made them seem more familiar. One person, a young guy walking by with his groceries, reminded me of a friend from my twenties who used to live downtown over a jazz club.

Dan was a classical musician, and the kind of charmingly directionless person you meet in your twenties while you're also wandering lost. I met him not long after I finished student teaching with the realization I wasn't cut out for it, and so took a job working in retail. Dan and a whole cadre of other aimless twenty-somethings at the store became both my coworkers and my post-college friends.

It was an uneasy time in my life. I felt like I should be doing something, but I didn't know what, and the result of this was that I tried to put some distance between my twenty-three-year-old self and the life that preceded him. I'd already drifted away from most of my high school pals, and college was quickly receding. Dan and these other new friends seemed to offer some kind of alternative, even if it wasn't clear what.

I drifted like that for a while. Then, three years after I met Dan, I got married. Finding my best man was easy – I had one close friend I'd been smart enough to hold onto – but I had no idea how to fill out the rest of my groomsmen. Dan seemed like an obvious choice: After three years of hanging out, getting drinks, going to parties, and bullshitting about our plans for the future, it seemed like inviting him in as a groomsman would be a nice way to acknowledge our friendship (and keep the wedding party symmetrical).

But this was a miscalculation. Dan declined and the friendship cooled, our once easy rapport becoming stilted and awkward. Maybe I had asked him too earnestly. Maybe I just misread the friendship. I didn't know, but I was pretty sure that the best way to compound the mistake was by asking those kinds of questions, and so I didn't, to try and save face.

We lost touch not long after that. Dan moved, I got divorced, and eventually I got a new job. It seemed like none of it was bound to add up to anything, yet the memory of my misstep calcified into a permanent embarrassment. It became one of those things you remember at three o'clock in the morning, wincing so hard you can feel your spine buckle. Why didn't I just ask somebody else? What on earth was I thinking?

We are mysteries to ourselves, and others are mysteries to us, and so you can rarely get certain answers. Fiction can be a great teacher of empathy, but I don't think that's why I read it. I read it because fiction goes further. It can give you a taste of omniscience, telling you not just why people do what they do but also how they behave, the full range of options you may not have considered. And in this way it can start to sate at least some of your curiosity: The questions you don't think you can ask, the direction you don't think you can find, could be out there in a book, so you keep on reading and searching.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

No Slower Than This

I loved watching magicians when I was a kid. On TV, I watched David Copperfield vanish the Statue of Liberty and Penn cut off Teller's head with a chainsaw. I loved these big, spectacular tricks, but the ones that left me most awed were almost always the simplest.

There was one trick I remember where the magician snapped cards down on a green felt table. The camera stayed perfectly still as he revealed the Ten through Ace of Hearts, then turned each card upside down again while only ever using one hand. Finally, he tapped the last card with a finger and flipped them back right-side up. Their order had somehow reversed.

“I can't go any slower than this,” he intoned, flipping the cards yet again. This time the finger tap changed their suits, so that now the cards were all Clubs. It made me feel insane. I sat inches from the television screen, desperate to catch some flick of the wrist that might hint at how it was done. But there was nothing to give him away.

Magic abounds. This week I traveled to Tulsa for work and spent two nights in the city's Blue Dome district. That's not enough time to say anything meaningful about the city. The people were nice. The food was good. Facial coverings were few and far between, but there never seemed to be many other people around. My group, decked out in our masks, stood out clearly as tourists. We might as well have bought "I HEART TULSA" t-shirts at the airport.

The short stay meant little time for sight-seeing, but we did manage to visit Black Moth, a boutique that specializes in natural history artifacts by way of Dr. Caligari and Severus Snape. There were skulls and fossils and porcupine quills; stuffed antelope heads and a skeletonized bat mounted under glass; bundles of sage and antelope horn and small bags of black sand. I considered buying a scorpion, but wasn't sure how well it would travel.

Throughout the shop hung signs reassuring customers that all these relics were ethically sourced, in line with regulations imposed by the State of Oklahoma. Each item was carefully tagged, not just with a price but also a note about the item's provenance. Toward the front of the shop, sitting a shelf above a line of alligator heads, were two human bones up for sale, a femur and tibia. The source was a “Private Collection,” according to the tag, but they could be added to yours for five hundred dollars. (Maybe a good price – I couldn't find any listed on Amazon.)

Only one person in our group made an actual purchase, a polished slice of ammonite and a lucky sea bean the size of a golf ball on which was drawn a white eyeball surrounded by rays. As charms go, this seemed like a kinder purchase than one of the rabbit's feet that were also for sale. A sea bean could still have some life in it.

But we could not approach Tulsa directly. Instead, in the span of three days we ended up on four different flights. I don't like to fly very much, especially on those tiny little planes they reserve for connecting flights to Midwestern cities. One of our group, a photographer who travels a lot more than I do, reassured me once about planes. He told me that turbulence has never taken one down; that in fact these same planes can fly through a hurricane.

I don't know if that's true, but I refuse to look it up. I'd rather keep it handy as a mantra for when the plane hits a cloud and starts bucking around side to side. “We could fly this thing through a hurricane,” I'll mutter, while bolts fly loose from the wings. “These little bumps are nothing at all.”

My other trick is to read as hard as I can. I know that sounds stupid, but take-offs and landings make me especially nervous, and I've learned the best way to ignore them is to stare at a sentence and force myself to read it one word after the next. Sometimes I'll even mouth them out loud just to make sure I pay close attention.

The book I took with me to Tulsa was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. The book is a novel told in interconnected stories, each one complete on its own but adding up to a much larger whole. I first tried reading it years ago, but stopped after the first story, “Found Objects.” I stopped for the same reason I stopped watching Dexter after the first season: It too good to keep going.

I couldn't imagine how the rest of the novel might live up to what I just read. How could anything that followed be as satisfying as how it began? I wanted to give that first story room, to let it unfold in my mind without interference. So I set the book aside for twelve years, and finally, this week, I came back.

It was around halfway through the book that I counted up the words on the page, then multiplied that by the number of pages in the chapter. It came out to five or six thousand, which didn't seem possible, so I counted again. Same answer. 

It was baffling. How could a writer put so much depth into so little space? It felt like there must be a secret, that the chapters only felt like short stories but were actually very much longer. But no matter how closely I looked, I couldn't seem to work out the trick.

There's a story about Hunter S. Thompson typing out The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms as a way to learn how to write. It might be apocryphal; there are similar stories about other writers doing the same thing. Regardless, I get the idea. There is a level of performance at which you can't quite believe your own eyes. There you are on a plane, reading as hard as you can to ignore the steel death trap you're in, when the novel does the impossible. You read it again, trying to pick at each word to see how it's done, mouthing them to see how they feel. But you cannot dissect the magic, the tap of the finger that changes the cards.

Read me as slow as you like, Egan invites. You'll never see how it's done.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Faith and Fortuna

Ignatius J. Reilly: A Man for These Troubled Times
There's nothing more demoralizing than failing at something you didn't want to do in the first place. I thought about this as the neighbor's duck slapped across my face and fled into the night.

I don't normally mind duck-sitting, but all week it has been cold and dark and rainy. And while the ducks never like going to bed, one in particular was especially determined not to cooperate. This duck couldn't fly, but he'd figured out that by flapping hard enough he could glide a few feet, which gave him three dimensions of possible escape. One of these being upside my head.

Eventually we caught the duck and got it safely inside of its coop, but by that point our shoes were soaked through with mud and my wife was covered in duck poop. A pyrrhic victory at best.

I didn't read a whole lot of fiction this year. Not because I didn't want to, but during most of 2021 I felt pulled toward other things, such as a certain Danish philosopher who wrote a lot about meaning and despair. These have been a good couple years for thinking about meaning and despair, and Kierkegaard helped me get my head around some things I couldn't figure out how else to articulate.

One of those things was something he wrote at the end of The Sickness Unto Death, where he lands at the conclusion that the opposite of sin and despair isn't virtue. Instead, he argues, it's faith. That doesn't sound like much of a revelation, maybe, but it's the same kind of move the Buddhists make when they warn against trapping yourself in cycles of pain and pleasure, praise and blame, etc. You can't escape the cycle by trying to stick to one side of the wheel, because the wheel just keeps on turning. You have to look for the option outside the system to pull yourself up and out of it.

I did read a few novels, though, especially at the end of the year. These included A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which I finished the last day of December. It's been on my "to-read" list for a very long time, but it never felt especially urgent. I think I was worried it wouldn't live up to the hype, that it might be “literary” funny but not actually “haha” funny. But I worried for nothing. It was the kind of book where I had to stop and read passages out loud to my wife, just to get her in on the joke so I wasn't giggling alone like a maniac.

Besides being funny, the novel also has an above-average amount of Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy serves both as a running joke in the novel and the framework by which Ignatius J. Reilly denies responsibility for anything that happens. Every terrible turn, every stroke of bad luck, is the result of “that wench Fortuna” and her damned spinning wheel, rather than his own bad decisions. I'd never read Boethius before 2021, so having Consolation and Confederacy cross my path this year felt like some strange synchronicity.

The legacy of A Confederacy of Dunces is shaded by the fact that John Kennedy Toole killed himself before the book was ever published. It's tempting to paint this as a simple, tragic story; that it was the book's lack of success that drove him over the edge, and if he'd only held on he could have enjoyed its success. The actual story is a complicated one of mental illness and alcoholism in addition to failure, and there's no way to quantify which factors played what kind of role in his decision to end his own life. 

But I guess for my own sake, I want to believe some of that weight could be relieved. That the see-saw between hope and despair can be escaped by a move up into that third-dimension, whether we want to call it "faith" or something else.

Here's Kierkegaard again, this time from Purity of Heart:

“In your occupation, what is your attitude of mind? And how do you carry out your occupation? Have you made up your mind that your occupation is your real calling, so that you do not have to make explanation hinge on the result, maintaining that it was not your real calling if the results are not favorable, if your efforts do not succeed? Alas, such fickleness weakens a man immeasurably. Therefore persevere. By God's help and by your own faithfulness something good will come from the unpromising beginning.”

And here's Dani Shapiro, from her book Still Writing:

"If we are artists – hell, whether or not we're artists – it is our job, our responsibility, perhaps even our sacred calling, to take whatever life has handed us and make something new.... To hurl ourselves in an act of faith so complete that our fears, insecurities, hopelessness, and despair blur along the edges of our vision. We stop for nothing. ... It is in that leap that the future unfolds, surprising us with what can be done."

Both of them, I think, are arguing for faith as a way off the see-saw, a process of divorcing yourself from the results of your labor in order to focus on the work at hand. Otherwise, every small failure – writing a bad story, receiving a rejection slip, getting hit in the face with a duck – starts to seem a lot worse than it is. The act of doing the work becomes the act of faith; flapping your wings hard enough you can glide.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Five Ideas from 2021

Given the back-to-back holiday weekends, I thought I'd go easy on myself blog-wise and just share a few favorite quotes from books I read in 2021. As we wrap up the year, here are a five ideas that stuck with me:

"If, while writing, you must always be proving that you write well, the writing will suffer. If you must be establishing something about yourself that is not established, you will tart up the writing in some way or other, and do pyrotechnics rather than the particular work of fiction, which, because it is committedly local - about these specific characters, this particular place - runs the risk of seeming inconsequential. One must arrogate the permission to write. One must shrug before icons."

-Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark

"If you have turned your mind to higher things, there is no need of a judge to award a prize; it is you yourself who have brought yourself to a more excellent state: but if you have directed your zeal towards lower things, do not look for punishment from without; it is you yourself who have plunged yourself into the worse condition."

-Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 


"Thankfulness is a logic, a framework, a way of seeing that doesn't eliminate the bad or the awful, but frames it. A frame contains something, provides a boundary. A good frame on artwork lets you see it properly."

-Mary Coons, The Art of Noticing

"My job is to do, not to judge. It is a great piece of luck, a privilege, to spend each day leaping, stumbling, leaping again. As is true of so much of life, it isn't what I thought it would be when I was first starting out. The price is high: the tension, isolation, and lack of certitude can sometimes wear me down. But then there is the aliveness. The queer, divine dissatisfaction. The blessed unrest."

-Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

"The world considers it dangerous to venture in this way - and why? Because it is possible to lose. Not to venture is prudent. And yet, precisely by not venturing it is so terribly easy to lose what would be hard to lose, however much one lost by risking, and in any case never this way, so easily, so completely, as if it were nothing at all - namely, oneself. If I have ventured wrongly, well, then life helps me by punishing me. But if I have not ventured at all, who helps me then?"

-Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death 


Sunday, December 19, 2021

This Year in Writing, Part 2: Getting to Work

Last week, I wrote about my rejections. This week will be a little more cheerful. First, because good things happened this year – stories sold, goals achieved, lessons learned – but also because I'm sitting down to write this with a couple lines from Dani Shapiro's “Still Writing” rattling around in my head:
“I try to remember that to sit down and write is a gift. That if I do not seize this day, it will be lost. I think of writers I admire who are no longer living. I'm aware that the simple fact of being here creates a kind of responsibility, even a moral one, to get to work.”
All of this – the good, the bad, and the ugly – was a gift. With that in mind, here's what I learned.

2021: Goals and Lessons Learned

I thought I'd start by sharing my goals for 2021, including what I managed and where I fell short, and writing a little bit about what I learned from it all. Here's how this year shook out:

Goal: Write and post a weekly blog entry

Some of the most fun I had writing this year came from my weekly blog posts. This blog has served as a good way to share life updates, think out loud about books, and chew on different ideas.

On the other hand, that approach means this blog is kind of a hodgepodge, and there are probably more posts about Kierkegaard than anyone actually has an appetite for. Ah, well!

Goal: Write for 500 hours this year

I hesitated to share the actual numbers here. I thought maybe I should be more vague, just say something like “I successfully wrote on a regular schedule this year.” 500 hours just doesn't sound like that much, especially not in the age of Outliers when we all know it takes 10,000 hours (at least) of disciplined practice to approach expertise.

But then I decided, fuck it. If it takes me another 19 years at this pace, then that's what it takes. The point is I showed up every week, did what I set out to do, and I'm not going to feel bad about it now while I'm tallying things up. 

Goal: Write 100 short stories

Man, I don't know. Sometimes you just need to pick a ridiculous mountain to climb and hope you learn something in the attempt. I only ended up writing 18 stories this year, just four of which I revised to the point of being submission-ready, and only one of which was actually accepted.

I did learn how to write better first drafts, though, and how to plot a story while leaving room for surprise. I don't think it's a total coincidence that the four I chose to revise were all written in a cluster toward the end of the year. Something was starting to click, and either I was doing better work or I fully surrendered to my own self-delusions. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Goal: Query a novel while writing a new one
Kind of achieved

I spent most of 2021 querying a novel I finished last year, and wrestling with the first draft of something new that I honestly don't know what to do with. I had this idea that I could create a kind of production line – query a finished novel, revise one that was already drafted, and start writing something totally new. But the reality hasn't been quite that smooth.

That new novel isn't just rough, I'm not even sure what shape it should be. And if there's anything I've learned from querying this year, it's that fuzzy genre lines don't do you any favors in the querying process.

Now I'm working on something much more firmly in the crime and mystery genre, which is also where I've had the best luck placing short stories. Maybe this will pay off and maybe it won't, but it's where I'm putting my focus.

Goal: Earn 100 rejections

I wrote about this last week, so I won't dwell on it too much again, but it is a milestone. And while I might be a little banged up from the process, I can now definitely say I know what it's like, and that I know what it takes to get there.

Publications + Acceptances

This seems like the right note to end on for a year-in-review that began with a post about rejection. I was lucky this year to have a couple pieces published and a couple more accepted for 2022, including:

In Another Country
I don't write a lot of nonfiction, but this piece was commissioned by my local PBS station during the release of “Hemingway,” the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. I took the chance to write about a Hemingway story that I've always found haunting, and about my dad's struggle with frontotemporal degeneration.

An Indiana Grand
I've experimented the last couple of years with writing crime fiction under the name Craig Francis Coates, including this story. It's part of a series about rideshare driver Jon Cassidy and was picked up by Tough, where it got to rub shoulders with work by writers like Nick Mamatas and S. A. Cosby – very cool company to be in.

The second Jon Cassidy story I sold this year, this time to The Dark City mystery magazine. Aside from In Another Country, this was the only story I both wrote and published in 2021.

Mr. Sentimentality (Forthcoming)
The third Jon Cassidy story to be accepted this year, and the fourth one that I've published. Unlike the others, this one's less of a genre piece and more focused on Jon and his dad. It'll be released by BULL some time next year.

The Questionnaires (Forthcoming)
I spent my undergrad temping before spending several more years working in retail, which is probably why I gravitate to writing about people who work shitty jobs. This story, about a survey administrator hustling to make money for his son's birthday, will appear next year in Litro.

And with that, we put a bow on this year. I'll be back next week with our regularly scheduled programming, including the much anticipated posts Christmas Cookies That Look Like a Certain Danish Existentialist and It's the Day After New Year's, So I'm Going to Lazily Share Quotes from Better Writers Than Me.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...