The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘advice’

Akhil Sharma on An Obedient Father

August 15, 2016 | by

Inspired by our famous Writers at Work interviews, “My First Time” is a series of short videos about how writers got their start. Created by the filmmakers Tom Bean, Casey Brooks, and Luke Poling, each video is a portrait of the artist as a beginner—and a look at the creative process, in all its joy, abjection, delusion, and euphoria.

Today, Akhil Sharma discusses his first novel, An Obedient Father, which he started when he was a student at Stanford: “I got [to school] about a month before classes started, and I didn’t know how to write or how to begin writing a book. And I thought, I’ll begin writing five pages a day and in two months I’ll be done with a novel. I didn’t know how to come up with plot, I didn’t know how to do anything ... Still I don’t know how you get through all those years of being lost.” Read More »

How to Get Out of Bed

March 24, 2016 | by

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1867, etching and aquatint on paper.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote,

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, If I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” 

—But it’s nicer here … 

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

—But we have to sleep sometime… 

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. 

You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort? 

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Pimped for a Part

January 11, 2016 | by

My mother makes a match.

Image via New York Public Library.

My mother was open-minded about the boys I brought home. She was, in fact, oblivious to any of their flaws. In high school, in Philadelphia, my platinum-haired boyfriend, Billy, who walked with a strut and stole cars, OD’d in our basement under my black-light poster of Jimi Hendrix; Mom was fine about my visits to him in the locked ward in the Quaker mental hospital across the street from us on Roosevelt Boulevard. My next boyfriend, Randy, a whimsical outpatient with a genius IQ at the same hospital—we met on the bus; he was coming from prep school—got permission to have dinner with us one evening and afterward played with my gerbil. Randy blurted that he hallucinated perpetually because of all the LSD he’d taken and that now he was on Thorazine, Elavil, and a third prescription I can’t recall. My mother’s only comment: he should trim his nails.

She did seem to cotton on to my Mormon suitor in college (my only vice was tea) but criticized his piano playing as “stiff.” She did not seem disturbed when four years later I had a “dancer/artist” boyfriend in sex therapy (“You’re sexually repulsive to me,” he’d confided, “but don’t take it personally, all women are”), and she said nothing disparaging about his successor, an alcoholic Columbia University student/construction worker who accidentally burned, hoping to keep warm during a cold snap, all the savings he’d hidden in his never-used oven. He once showed up drunk at four A.M. with a lipstick-swished cheek and confessed he’d kissed another woman who’d bought him a cabbage, but it was me he really loved, he said, and then punched a hole in my door. Mom remained mute when I confided I’d met, in Egypt, a much younger French Algerian paratrooper named Karim, even when I revealed that he would call me long distance from Marseilles and never talk—simply whisper my name and breathe for twenty minutes, or play a tape of music he’d written. My bass-player roommate at that time, Sara, once quipped, “Karim’s mother’s not going to be very happy when she sees that phone bill.” Read More »

Just Say Said, and Other News

December 3, 2015 | by

An illustration from Debate and Oratory, 1909.

  • Our new Winter issue features an interview with Jane and Michael Stern, “the original culinary road warriors.” A new profile in Eater captures what Norman Rush would call their “idioverse,” i.e., a “private patois made up of shared references and sayings, occasional neologisms, and common words that have taken on new meanings”: “the dyad of Jane and Michael—some four decades in, now—almost surpasses idioverse, and forms a hovering mushroom cloud of collective memory. Spending time with them, I realized that there’s a voyeuristic pleasure in finding yourself submerged in the intimacies of a couple with a complex history. Watching the deepest, strangest way two people communicate made me feel like an intellectual Peeping Tom—one who wanted to stay … They go at it tit for tat, with the rapid-fire speed of David Mamet dialogue, but they’ll linger to enjoy language more when discussing their Roadfood glory days. At times, listening to them talk, it seems that alone neither one can remember an entire story, and that together neither one can remember it the same way. There are tales about botched attempts to donate leftovers that ended in an undercover police sting, and casual references to a strange commune-like group of former Barnum & Bailey performers who live in Bethel and call themselves the ‘frog people.’ ”
  • This is a public service announcement. If you, like me, were taught growing up to deploy synonyms for said whenever you wrote dialogue, please stop immediately. To stick to said is to improve the world of prose for all of us. Gabriel Roth agrees: “Replacing the word said with ‘colorful’ or ‘lively’ synonyms is a ubiquitous symptom of bad writing. Individual instances are usually redundancies: ‘I’ll never cheat again!’ is recognizable as a promise without ‘he vowed’ after it. But a procession of she explained and he chuckled and I expostulated—the reporting verbs that clog your dialogue when you follow the ‘never say said’ rule—is worse, because they force the reader’s attention away from the content of the writing and onto the writer’s hunt for synonyms.”
  • “Nabisco. Nabisco! / Oreos! Right? / Oreos! I love Oreos! // I’ll never eat them again. OK? / I’ll never eat them again. // No … Nabisco.” This poem, a masterwork of compression and a ludic comment on commodity fetishism, comes courtesy of Donald Trump, whose speeches have been anthologized in a “treasury of oral poetry” called Bard of the Deal. Some are calling “Freedom Tower,” in particular, the most vital and intriguingly cross-disciplinary work of our young century: “Worst pile of crap / Architecture / I’ve ever seen.”
  • Hey there, young person: Do you wish to be as successful and as verbally acrobatic as bona-fide geniuses like Trump? Gay Talese has some advice for you: “I don’t think this new generation has the patience or even knowledge of how to get things … You have to get off your ass. Make something happen with your personality, with your goddamn style, your charm, your beautiful clothes, your reassurance, your salesman huckster-ist licorice. Know how to get something and not break hearts or be offensive.”
  • Before he embarked on Moby-Dick, Herman Melville paid an inspiring visit to London: “Late at night, he ‘turned flukes’ down Oxford Street as if he were being followed by a great whale, and thought he saw ‘blubber rooms’ in the butcheries of the Fleet Market … Perhaps most importantly, it was here that Melville saw the work of J M W Turner, a clear visual influence on his book-to-be. Turner had painted a series of whaling scenes for Elhanan Bicknell, whose British whaling company was based in the Elephant and Castle; parts of Moby-Dick would read like commentaries to those tempestuous, brutally poetic canvases, not least the painting that greets Ishmael at the Spouter-Inn, ‘a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture’ of ‘a black mass … floating in a nameless yeast … an exasperated whale.’ It is all the more intriguing to note how Melville’s Anglophilia was the yeast out of which this great American novel emerged.”

Layering

September 21, 2015 | by

Photo: Darwin Bell

 

Life is an onion—you peel it year by year and sometimes cry. ―Carl Sandburg

Here’s a practical writing tip: if you’re stuck, write “Once upon a time.” Go on, try it—I think you’ll find that even the action is soothing. It’s not just that now you have something on the page, although you do. The words themselves are calming. 

Where did I encounter this piece of advice? I don’t want to rob anyone of credit, but misattribution would be bad, too. I think it was in the cookbook The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, but I can’t swear to it. Anyway, in this book, one of the authors relates a time-honored tip passed down from her grandmother: if you don’t know what to make for dinner, just cut up an onion and put it on to cook. The action, the aroma, the fact that an onion is the basis for so many dishes—these factors will conspire to prompt a plan. And if nothing else, you’ll enjoy the savory smell of industry. Read More »

Cherish the Poop You Are Full of, and Other News

September 11, 2015 | by

Anonymous, Cabinets d'aisances des fosses inodores (detail), ca. 1830.

  • New York in the late seventies was not exactly a utopia: crime was soaring, graffiti was ubiquitous, mace was a must-have accessory. But a certain set of novels and films has made the era something to yearn for: “This was the last moment when a novelist or poet might withdraw a book that had already been accepted for publication and continue to fiddle with it for the next two or three years. This was the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status … these works express a craving for the city that, while at its worst, was also more democratic … where not even money could insulate you. They are a reaction to what feels like a safer, more burnished and efficient (but cornerless and predictable) city.”
  • Today in writing advice that isn’t total shit, even if it’s about shit: “I preach the radio. I do not preach thinking you must know what you are about. Faulkner had good drugs and a big radio. I recall having heard my own little radio at times. It is rare, yes, and it is, now, rarer. But you are young and have your juice, you’re still full of poop, which is the necessary requisite to tuning the radio. Got to be some poop out there, on the airwaves, or in there, in you, for you to tune it in. Cherish the poop you are full of, and work on excreting it with sound fundamentals.” That’s Padgett Powell, being correct.
  • On procrastination and art: might there be something heroic, or at least admirably resistant, in the idea of putting off one’s writing? “Bartleby is my hero, endlessly preferring not to, but though I find him sympathetic, he—along with all the ‘writers of the no’, writers who turned their backs on writing, Rimbaud and Walser among them—is not in the same game as me. Or if we are in the same game, I’m not playing it right. I don’t turn my back on writing. I don’t say no. I say yes and fail to follow through. I sit suspended between preferring not to and not preferring to enough—I’m hung on a peg.”
  • Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter is “a compressed, unflinching portrait of the turmoil that envelops Bird, an alcoholic, after his son’s birth.” The novel has a new champion: none but Jonathan Franzen, who adores its disturbing elements, its comic elements, its vomit elements: “I don’t know of a more compelling description of throwing up than the ones that occur in this book. He’s sweating, he looks at himself in the mirror, and there’s bad sex. It’s partly that—the really, really tight focus on Bird’s body. There’s nothing like a microscopic view of your body to evoke shame.”
  • While we’re on shame—it’s time for men to cry again. They have much to cry about, being men, and yet they shed no tears … why, when male weeping has been treated as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history? In fact, it was exalted for a while: “ancient Greeks saw it as a model for how heroic men should behave … 20,000 knights swooning from grief were considered noble, not ridiculous … there’s no mention of the men in these stories trying to restrain or hide their tears … They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their companions make fun of this public blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.”