Friday, July 25, 2014

A few meandering thoughts about writer's block

We've all heard way too much about this mythical ailment, mostly from the movies, because 1.) people who write movie scripts are writers and are writing what they know, and 2.) as has been pointed out repeatedly, writers actually writing aren't very interesting to watch; the "block" is the only way to get them out of the house.

That said, I don't think "writer's block" is much different from any kind of procrastination brought on by doubt or fear. In my case, anyway, my reasons for not writing usually boil down to thinking it's not going to work. I don't want to spend two or four or eighty or ten thousand hours on something that's going to be bad, do I? In the same way, I don't want to cut back on carbs because it probably won't make me feel better; I don't want to see a movie because I might not like it; I don't want to go grocery shopping because I'm afraid of the parking lot; I don't want to work because I'm lazy ... or, I mean, it might not be satisfying.

Still, in most of these cases, I do the thing anyway. Sometimes, as with work, there's a concrete financial incentive. But other times I'm able to get past my objections relatively easily. How do you know it won't work if you don't try it? I ask myself, and then away go the carbs--at least for a little while. But with writing the resistance seems greater, and I can only think that, unlike these other issues, my ability to write says something fundamental about me. Writing something bad means I'm not really a writer after all, which means the only certain way to preserve the illusion that I am a writer is not to write.

So how to combat this? Maybe by remembering that writer's block is the ultimate absurd condition--and just writing any goddamn thing you can.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Five things I miss about grad school

It occurs to me that I have said some negative things about grad school of late. Also of early. And yet I read an article just today that made me nostalgic for the kinds of issues that used to dominate my consciousness on a regular basis.

Have I gone soft? Am I forgiving, or simply forgetting? Who knows. Herewith, a gradschoolisticle of stuff I miss about those glory/gory days.

1. Heated debates about Freud in particular. (I'm mostly in the "against" camp, but I get the appeal, especially for literary folk.)

2. The sense that one's primary purpose, for the next 5-7 years, was to learn. OK, that probably sounds even more naive now than it did then. In reality, one's primary purpose was--or probably should have been, if one had any kind of instinct for material success, which I most certainly did not--building one's career. You mean it's your second semester and you haven't published anything yet? Aren't you going to MLACLAHASA? Still, living in an environment explicitly dedicated to intensive learning and intellectual discovery was quite a privilege. And being identified primarily by my ideas, while not always beneficial, was an interesting experience.

3. A very nice (for me) balance between responsibility and freedom. Papers had to be written, classes (at first) had to be attended. Still, I had a lot of unstructured time, and could get things done mostly in my own way.

4. The intense focus. Sometimes that got a little too much for me. But the ability to spend days or weeks on the meaning of a single sentence, maybe even a single word (yes, I was a New Critic at heart) seems exceedingly refreshing to me now--when often any act of reading, as opposed to skimming, feels like a chore.

5. Many of the people.

Monday, July 07, 2014

The poet's brain in a jar

Here's a little coda to my piece in the LA Review of Books on Yuri Olesha's memoir-in-fragments, No Day without a Line. I tried so hard to get this into the piece, but it just wouldn't go ... So here it is.

In the section of No Day called Moscow, Olesha writes about several famous Russian writers he befriended in the early twentieth century. He was particularly close with the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who committed suicide ... leading to this amazing memory:

When the evening after his death we had gathered on Gendrikov Lane in ... the Briks' apartment [where Mayakovsky had been living], we suddenly heard loud noises coming from Mayakovsky's room--very loud noises, unceremoniously loud, as if somebody were chopping wood. It was the opening of Mayakovsky's cranium to allow the removal of his brain. We listened in horror-struck silence. Then a man in a white gown and boots came out of the room--either an attendant or a medical assistant, but a stranger to us--and in his hands he held a basin covered with a white cloth raised in the middle almost like a pyramid, indeed, just as if that soldier in boots had been carrying a paschal cream-cheese pudding. In the basin was Mayakovsky's brain.

This scene, surreal even by Olesha's standards, defies belief. And yet, recently, an intrepid reporter from Vice Magazine, Joy Neumeyer, paid a visit to the Moscow Brain Institute. There she found Mayakovsky's brain, residing in a jar alongside those of many other luminaries. She even quotes Olesha to explain how the brain got there.

So Olesha was not making this up. As Neumeyer explains, "When a Soviet celebrity died, the brain-collection process worked in one of two ways. Sometimes, the family or the deceased had already agreed to give their brains to the Institute. Or—as in the case of Mayakovsky—they came without asking."

Thursday, July 10: Reading at Folio Books, San Francisco

Join us at Folio Books, the wonderful Noe Valley bookstore, on Thursday, July 10, at 7 p.m. to celebrate Bigfoot and the Baby. We'll have wine, a reading, Q and A, and ... possibly a Special Guest!

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Writer in Pieces

My essay on Yuri Olesha's No Day without a Line, which records his struggle to relearn how to write, is up at The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

What do you want from an author reading? (updated)

This issue has been on my mind, since, you know, I'm now doing readings somewhat regularly. Having attended many bad author events that resemble ritual obeisances akin to church--from which the bored audience members, like bored parishioners, feel ecstatic to be freed--I promise to try my damnedest not to let this happen at my readings.

On the other hand, certain ritualistic behaviors are expected. At some point, the author reads from her work--presumably to entice audience members who don't know the book to buy it, as well as to offer some deeper interpretation to readers who may already know the story. The author then takes questions and signs books. Schmoozing, perhaps with alcoholic beverages, may occur before, during, or after.

Given this general format, what can an author do to not only limit the pain she inflicts on the audience, but actually turn the evening into an enjoyable event? First, as I've said before, it probably wouldn't kill you to take some acting lessons. Second, read and consider everything in this post. Third--well, maybe this is obvious, but I honestly didn't reflect on it until just now--think of what you'd enjoy most from an author reading, and do that--because your audience is probably made up of people much like you.

So what do I especially enjoy at a reading?
1. A good performance (see above).
2. Interesting information, particularly about the writing process. The audience is probably full of aspiring as well as successful writers. And we all love to find out how others do it.
3. A sense that the author is genuinely glad to be there and excited to share her work. For the introverts among us, this can be a tad difficult to pull off. I can say that my acting lessons helped with this aspect, too--not least in building my confidence, which (I hope) translates into greater ease in public.
4. A sense that the writer is not only there to promote her particular book, but to take part in a larger conversation. In other words, believing that the author cares about writing and her subject in general, and that she sees the audience as contributing to her understanding. In still other words, I want to feel like part of a spontaneously formed community around a topic of common interest--not like a vessel receiving 40 minutes of promo.

I'm sure there's more.

Of course, for all of this to happen, you also need a good audience. Not necessarily a large one--though a tiny one can certainly feel dispiriting--but one that's rooting for you and your event to succeed. Which, fortunately, is usually the case, given that they showed up in the first place.

UPDATE: But read this post by Jennifer Margulis, which describes what can happen, all too often, and what we can do to fix it.