Sunday, February 27, 2022

Dispatch from Kitty Hawk

Short post this week. I've spent the last few days in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for work, where we arrived during the off-season. There are about 20,000 people here now, a local informed us, but that number will swell to 300,000 visitors per week when things hit their peak.

For now, it feels like we mostly have the place to ourselves, aside from a Baptist Couples Retreat that took place on Saturday night. It was easy to tell who was who. The Baptists wore their Sunday best and walked around carrying bibles, while my crew slunk around in our t-shirts and jeans and our two-day beard stubble. Think "unkempt," not "ruffian."

I did finish reading Matt Haig's Notes on a Nervous Planet, which included this quote from James Baldwin's Nobody Knows My Name:

...this collision between one's image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.

This idea is more or less the same one I found in Soren Kierkegaard and Bonnie Friedman, which was the point of last week's post. And as you've probably guessed, I picked up Haig's book in the first place because I'm still working my way toward some set of tools to help blunt the sharp edges of creative despair. Where Friedman tends to put an emphasis on getting back to doing the work, Haig's approach to the problem is to simplify, unplug, and be mindful. These aren't really that different. To do creative work in the way that Friedman describes essentially requires mindfulness and full attention of the kind that Haig also endorses.

Simple, but not easy.

(What does Kierkegaard have to say for himself? The Sickness Unto Death is an incredibly detailed description of the experience of despair, but it's short on solutions. This may be because Kierkegaard's grand conclusion is that the opposite of despair is faith. For someone of his theological background, maybe he thought the solution was obvious. Knowing Kierkegaard, though, I'm going to guess the answer is actually in some 500-page tome I haven't gotten to yet.)

Now, a few quick pictures from Kitty Hawk:

The weather was remarkably unpredictable, considering we were only in town a short while. Our second day there we lucked out with sunshine and a high in the upper sixties, I think? A couple folks in my party even managed to spot a few dolphins. I saw some pigeons, but that's hardly braggable.

A trip to Kitty Hawk sort of requires a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, in the wonderfully named town of Kill Devil Hills. I have to say, for a small exhibit it really does drive home what an incredible achievement flight actually was. It's still hard to wrap my head around the fact that it took human beings about sixty years to go from this to the moon landing.

Things got a lot more gray, rainy, and cold on day two. That didn't stop me from taking a long chilly walk on the beach. Especially once I realized I had the whole place to myself.

After a while, you start to realize that 99% of the sand you're walking on is just the ground up shells and carapaces of bivalves and crabs. In the first photo is a crab shell that struck me as pretty. In the second are a few carapaces, which I suspect were probably molted? Compared to other shells, these were much thinner and lighter. I'm wearing gloves in the second photo because it's raining and thirty-seven degrees. Fortunately, like the good Midwesterner that I am, I packed for miserable weather.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

On Creative Despair

There's been a lot of discussion these last few months about “The Great Resignation.” Which, of course there has. It's a highly visible phenomenon with economic and social implications, and the metrics are easy to track. That makes it great fodder for news stories and discussions about the possible causes, one of which seems to be a job market that favors workers at a moment when people are reevaluating their relationships to their careers.

Lately, I'm seeing something similar happen in the creative arts. It may not be as visible as The Great Resignation, but I think many writers and artists are also reevaluating the role of art of their lives. Here's just one example, from a recent interview with Michael J. Seidlinger:
I used to be the type of person and writer that was always thinking about the next move. All my worth was put into the writing. I didn't realize until, literally, last year but it started to kind of push back on me, in the sense that writing is only one aspect, the publishing aspect is only one side of the writing. And writing itself should be a component of your life. But it shouldn't be the only thing you're living for.
Seidlinger isn't alone in recognizing that something is out of alignment. I'm right there with him. In the course of looking for guidance, I read two books last year that seemed to describe the thing I was feeling, Bonnie Friedman's Writing Past Dark and Søren Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death. At the heart of both books is despair.

What do I mean by that? Well, listen, I'm not dumb enough to think I'm going to do a better job of describing despair than Friedman or Kierkegaard, so let me turn it over to them. In the introduction to her book, Friedman explains why she wrote it:
In every writing class I've been in there was a brilliant student, a student whose words flung out in morning glories and birds-of-paradise on the page, and who left the rest of us gaping when he or she was done reading, inspired and even thankful. Almost every single one of those writers has disappeared! Devoured by the world, or by their own psyches. Devoured perhaps by their resolute blindness to their own beauty.
It's that “devouring” that is maybe the most essential quality of despair, whether it manifests as anger, sadness, or in some other form. Friedman uses that image again in her essay on envy:
When I think of envy, I think of Pharaoh's lean cows. They eat up the healthy ones—cannibals, those cows!—yet they remain as skinny as ever, so that, the Bible tells us, “when they had eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them; but they were still ill favored, as at the beginning.” I've always felt sorry for those cows. We're told they're poor and lean-fleshed, emaciated and ugly. They feet, but cannot digest. They are unhealthy desire incarnate.
And later:
Envy has projection at its core. One becomes two: you give away part of yourself, then feel lean and hungry, and you long for what you've given away. If praise comes, it satisfies only briefly. How could it be otherwise? The praise comes from outside you; the prize is given by a man or woman who is not you. You long for something—a sign, an unequivocal sign—that you are a good writer, that what you write is worthwhile. Signs come, sometimes many, sometimes few. But how can there be enough? Like Pharaoh's cows, we eat and starve. What one longs to take into oneself is what one has just given away: the power to say yes.
Kierkegaard, too, describes despair as a kind of hopeless, helpless devouring. For him, it manifests as a kind of endless cycle of self-consumption:
Despair is veritably a self-consuming, but an impotent self-consuming that cannot do what it wants to do. What it wants to do is to consume itself, something it cannot do, and this impotence is a new form of self-consuming, in which despair is once again unable to do what it wants to do …. This is the provocativeness, or the cold fire in despair, this gnawing that burrows deeper and deeper in impotent self-consuming.
While it may seem at first that this cold fire is sparked a particular problem—usually a failure of one kind or another—Kierkegaard believes it runs deeper.
An individual despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment the true despair or despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to be rid of himself.
Or, to be a finer point on it:
To be forced to be the self he does not want to be, that is his torment—that he can not get rid of himself.
Despair, in Kierkegaard's view, is the result of a misalignment between who you are and who you wish that you were. That can manifest in many different ways; both Friedman and Kierkegaard spend a lot of time unpacking how it can show up in your life, and the different ways despair leads you toward self-devouring. 

But experiencing despair may yet have value. As Kierkegaard points out, most people live in that state of misalignment, and most of them work hard not to notice. There are plenty of distractions out there, plenty of joys and sorrows to take part in that can distract you from your own feelings. To the outside world, you might even seem well-adjusted:
Just by losing himself this way, such a man has gained an increasing capacity for going along superbly in business and social life, indeed, for making a great success in the world. Here there is no delay, no difficulty with his self and its infinitizing, he is smooth as a rolling stone, as passable as a circulating coin. He is so far from being regarded as a person in despair that he is just what a human being is supposed to be.
For this kind of person, despair is all the more deadly because it isn't recognized as such. The experience of despair, then, can serve to awaken. It is an awareness, a consciousness of the misalignment of the soul to itself. And as miserable as that feeling can be, what Kierkegaard and Friedman both tell us is that this awareness is the first step to a solution. When we know that there is something wrong, we can start our work to address it.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

A Story That's Fifty Years Old

I finished reading A Man Named Doll last week. Despite everything I said about it, and despite an ending that felt like a cop out and a final chapter that seemed way too short, I can't escape the fact I enjoyed it.

I don't know, man. Some books are like that. You would be hesitant to recommend them without a whole slew of caveats, but that doesn't mean you didn't end up devouring them.

Other books are easier to recommend. I started reading Ottessa Moshfegh's debut Eileen this week, which has been sitting on my shelf since it first came out. I loved her collection Homesick for Another World, but had waited to pick up her novel. I knew I'd want to swallow it whole, the same way I did with A Visit from the Goon Squad and A Confederacy of Dunces these last couple months, and so I think I've been saving it for the right moment. Which, apparently, arrived Monday.

Eileen does not disappoint. The narrator of the book, Eileen Dunlop, will seem familiar to anyone who read Homesick. We're in similar territory here, the pathology of deep alienation. As the book begins, Eileen's world revolves around her alcoholic father and the boys' prison where she's employed. She is barely visible to anyone else in her life, and she turns all that frustration and loneliness inward. You can feel the pressure rise as this simmering anger is brought closer and closer to boil.

But one of the interesting things here is that the narrator is telling the story several decades after it happened. Eileen the narrator is a woman in her seventies, telling the story of how she escaped her life of fifty years before.

This allows her to have a certain humor about her own story, telling it with equal parts compassion and embarrassment for the person that she used to be. Here's a good example of this effect in action:
“My skin has always been problematic. Even now my rosacea flares up, and I've had gin blossoms since my late twenties, although I hardly ever drank gin, as I told you. Perhaps gin blossoms are my cross to bear, some kind of marker, penance. I like how I look now. But back then, I hated my face, oh, I was truly tortured by it. I smoothed my hair back and put on a coat of Irreparable Red, blotted my lips with a paper towel, checked my teeth. They are small, childlike teeth, still, and they looked yellow in contrast to the lipstick I wore. I rarely smiled genuinely enough to forget to hold my lip down over my teeth. I think I've mentioned how my upper lip had a tendency to pull up my gums. Nothing came easily to me. Nothing.”
I love how you can feel the push and pull of time in this passage. It begins with a little more distance – the narrator seems more dispassionate, able to accept herself in a way she could not in her youth. But as the paragraph continues, you can feel the frustration creep in. “They are small, childlike teeth, still,” she says, then tells us again about her upper lip. Even in her seventies she can't quite let go of this detail, can't stop reminding us and herself about this particular flaw. Then, those final six words. Nothing came easily to her? Or nothing comes easily, even now? It's hard, as a reader, to be quite sure what to think.

What I especially like about this choice is that it's deliberate. A lot of novels are narrated in the past tense, but it's not always clear how much time has elapsed. Did the events of the novel happen a week ago? A month? Fifty years? Surely this should make a big difference to how we interpret the story, but it isn't always acknowledged.

There are also writers who side-step this question entirely. In High Fidelity, the entire book is written in the present tense. Rob, the narrator, has no idea how he will change until he reaches the end of the novel, and so he's even more surprised than the reader when he begins to outgrow his own selfishness.

Fight Club, a novel with one of the most famous twist endings in fiction, uses present tense to keep the narrator in the dark. If the narrator has to learn things along with the reader, he can't give away the ending. Instead we share his surprise as he discovers the truth of what's really going on in the book.

But with Eileen being told fifty years on, there's a sense of something more sinister. This is a story being told by an old woman, about characters who are probably long dead. It's only now she can tell us what happened. The question has to be asked: What is it that Eileen has been hiding?

Sunday, February 6, 2022


One of my favorite books is Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames. Like a lot of his novels, Wake Up, Sir! features an alcoholic young writer who may or may not be a semi-fictionalized stand-in for the author. What makes this one unique is that it's also an homage to P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster novels. The narrator of Wake Up, Sir! has a Jeeves of his own, who always seems to materialize just when the narrator needs him – only to vanish again when anyone else comes around.

The premise of a delusional alcoholic who hallucinates a valet named Jeeves sounds like a pretty miserable interpretation of Wodehouse, about as bright and joyful as Zach Snyder's Superman. And yet somehow it works – Ames hits the right notes, somehow packing the book with the same sense of fun and absurdity as the best of the Wooster novels. You can tell Ames really loves the source material he's riffing on, even as he points out that the line between the unencumbered Bertram Wooster and an unmoored alcoholic is a lot thinner than Wodehouse probably intended.

All this to say that I don't think Ames has any trouble writing pastiche. When I heard that his new book, A Man Named Doll, was a private eye novel, I was excited to read it. Yet, for the most part, Doll has been kind of a disappointment. I keep thinking I should put it down and move on to something else, but for some reason I haven't been able to. After a hundred-and-fifty pages of this, I finally got frustrated enough to ask myself, “Are you enjoying this or not?” Because the aggravating truth is that even though I don't especially like the book I can't seem to stop reading.

All of which got me thinking about what it is, exactly, that hooks a reader. Tastes are idiosyncratic, sure, but I think there may be a few universal motivators that writers can keep in mind. For me, here's what they boil down to.

1. Characters You Want to Spend Time With

Somewhere in the world, two writers are arguing about whether or not it's important to have “likable characters” in a novel. I'm not sure why this debate keeps going like it does, but it's one of those topics that's always simmering in the background until one day it boils over again across social media.

For writers, though, I think it's more useful to think about this in terms of “characters you want to spend time with.” Nobody would argue that Ebenezer Scrooge or Raskolnikov are especially likable people. But they're SUCH bastards that you want to keep reading. You want to spend time with these characters to see what they're going to do next, and how long before fate catches up with them.

And the distinction here is important. These may not be people you'd want to spend time with if they crossed your path in the real world. But as characters there's a measure of safety in place, the guardrail provided by fiction. People you might despise in real life are, in fiction, like spiders inside a terrarium. You can safely watch and enjoy (or feel all squicked out) without fear you'll actually be bitten.

2. The Desire to Know What Happens Next

In a lot of ways, this is a corollary of #1. Very often when we're reading, we want to know what's going to happen next to a character. Whether they're a good person or not is beside the point. We're hooked because we want to know how they'll get through the story and how they're going to be changed.

But that sense of "what happens next?" can also be driven by plot. In A Man Called Doll, an old friend of the narrator's dies on his doorstep, but not before handing over a seven-carat diamond. Who shot the friend? Where did he get the diamond? Why did he come to the narrator?

The human brain does not like unresolved questions. They act like an irritant, an itch that needs to be scratched. What makes fiction addictive is the promise of answers.

In a way, it reminds me of how Allen Carr describes cigarette addiction. Carr's whole argument is that cigarettes don't give you pleasure, they only grant you relief from the withdrawal effects caused by your smoking. Fiction works on the same principle. If you can irritate your audience with questions, they'll want to keep reading for the sake of relief.

3. The Element of Surprise

Questions and characters can go a long way, but they may not be quite enough. If the reader is never surprised, they may still get bored and move on.

Sometimes you can accomplish surprise with a plot twist. Think of a book like Donald Westlake's The Hot Rock, in which the same emerald has to be stolen five different times. The surprise lies in both how the characters pull off these five separate heists, but also in how they keep losing their prize.

Other times, however, the surprise can be something more subtle – a surprising turn of phrase, perspective, or feeling. In A Man Named Doll, the narrator has a dog called George. That's not the part that's surprising. What is surprising is that, in the midst of some distinctly noir opening chapters, there is a long and surprisingly tender description of George and his life with the narrator.

This being Jonathan Ames, it's no surprise that his author photo features Ames and a dog that matches George's description. The surprise is in the long diversion, the infatuated description of George and all his small quirks in the midst of his hard-boiled prose.

There is a risk here, of course. What I see as a pleasant surprise might, for another reader, feel like a pointless sidebar dropped in for no reason. Nonetheless, I would rather read books that do something unexpected than books that play things too safe.

4. Cheap Tricks

You know the cup and ball trick, right? A magician places a ball under one of three cups, then slides the cups around on a table. You're supposed to keep track of the ball, then point to the cup that it's under. Yet no matter how closely you pay attention, you won't get it right. That's the whole point – the magician has misdirected you by exploiting the mechanics of perception.

In fact, this exploit is so hard-wired into our nervous systems that the cup and ball trick is older than several major world religions. Yet despite the fact that we, as a species, have been watching this trick for thousands of years, the illusion continues to work. It's not that we can't understand it; it's that we can't rewire our brains.

Likewise, one way to keep a reader reading is to use a few simple, tried-and-true tricks of our own. Tricks like:

  • Short Chapters
    Like popping Pringles, there's something about a short chapter that's irresistible. It's just a couple more pages, right? Then a couple more after that? This can't be the sole hook of your novel, but paired with a good mystery – a la James Patterson – the effect can be pretty powerful.
  • Ominous Foreshadowing
    This one shows up pretty shamelessly in A Man Named Doll, but to be fair it's a noir genre staple. This ties in with the whole “desire to know what comes next,” except in this case the hook is distilled down to a single, ominous line. Here's one example from Ames at the end of the second chapter, right after the narrator has had a fairly bland encounter with his friend Monica:

    “I didn't know any of the bad things that were going to happen to me, and, worst of all, Monica.”

    Doesn't that just drive you nuts? That teaser is about as broad as it could possibly be, and it will be at least a hundred more pages before we're anywhere close to finding out what it means. But I'll be damned if it isn't effective.
  • Good Ol' Sex and Violence
    Raymond Chandler famously said “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” But, as Louise Tondeur explains, in context that quote is more of a lament than a piece of writing advice. Chandler was expressing frustration that what the public wanted to read, and therefore what his publishers wanted him to write, were stories with more action, more violence, more gunfights and stick ups.

    Well, that hasn't changed. Although writers may sometimes feel hemmed in by certain genre conventions, it's been true since Homer recited The Odyssey that a good fight scene can go a long way. The same can be said about sex. It might feel a little bit shameless, but even Shakespeare wrote scenes for the groundlings.

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...