The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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.”

Postcards from the Postapocalypse, and Other News

September 2, 2015 | by

Ryan Spencer, Such Mean Estate #12, unique panchromatic instant print, 2.9" x 3.7". Image via Guernica

  • So you’re writing a sex scene—congratulations! The journey ahead will be arduous, and likely totally unsexy, but there are some rules of thumb for these things. Your first major decision is what to call the penis. “Do go for the etymological dictionary for epithets that feel historical: like, membrum virile, arbor vitae (from the late eighteenth century, for a type of evergreen shrub), wrinkly (early fifteenth century) or bole (early fourteenth century, from Old Norse bolr meaning tree trunk).” From here, it’s all smooth sailing.
  • Today in creative responses to impending doom: Leslie Jamison has collaborated with the photographer Ryan Spencer on Such Mean Estate, which “interweaves photographs of episodes from apocalypse movies with what Jamison refers to as her catechism: an essay structured as a series of questions and answers pertaining to the images on the page.” “I was really drawn to the sense of aloneness that rose from so many of these images,” Jamison says, “I also like the way that apocalypse scenarios in film sometimes allow an outsider—a wacko scientist, ignored Cassandra prophet, loner—to play some crucial or necessary role, to become part of his community again.”
  • Wittgenstein’s language philosophy is surprisingly relevant to the way we interact online: “The shift to online communication, textual interactions separated from accompanying physical practices, has had a persistent and egregious warping effect on language, and one that most people don’t even understand. It has made linguistic practice more limited, more universal, and more ambiguous. More people interact with one another without even realizing they are following different rules for words’ usages. There is no time or space to clarify one’s self.”
  • Since humankind has essentially turned the planet into a mall, it’s time to refurbish our concept of nature—time to acknowledge, that is, that nature is a mall, and to maintain it as such. “No place is natural any longer, and so the entire environment has become in a certain sense a built environment … If the entire environment has become a built environment, would that not then mean that it was time to think about an environmentalism of the built environment? Indeed, one might even start to wonder whether the emphasis on the protection of nature—if nature is gone, or even if nature is simply going—might actually be an obstacle to clear environmental thinking: if most or all of the world that ‘environs’ us is not natural, shouldn’t it be the built environment, and not nature, that is the focus of our environmental concern?”
  • Jason Scott is “the guy who can save bits of history right before they disappear.” He digitizes things. Recently, for instance, he scanned about fifty thousand obsolete engineering manuals that were soon to be thrown away. “There’s value and meaning here,” he says. “Everything from the fonts and the layouts … How a company presents its brand, how it appraises things. And other times you pick one up and, wow, nobody writes with this brilliance and clarity about technical subjects. These manuals feel like they’re a project as important as the item they’re describing.”

My Mother-in-Law Is My Best Reader

August 19, 2015 | by

A mother-in-law joke twenty-eight years in the making.


Pablo Picasso, The Lesson (detail), 1934.

My first reader, best editor, and subtlest critic is my mother-in-law.

I’ve known H.—as I’ll call her to protect her privacy and preserve her from unsolicited requests for advice—for about twenty-eight years now. My girlfriend, now my wife, arranged for me to meet her parents for the first time at Veniero’s pastry shop, around the corner from my place in the East Village. When I went outside for a smoke, H. burst into tears. We have been best friends ever since. In those years, I’ve written six books, mostly novels, but I have been under her tutelage for only the last four, which is probably why the first two are not much good.

H. is one of a tiny core of first readers that includes my wife, J. (a professional editor), my sister, N., and my friend S. Before I give them a work in progress, I try to wait until I am satisfied I have done everything in my power to perfect it, but often they find such glaring structural or emotional flaws and gaps in it that a piece I’d believed to be cooked to a T reveals itself to be half-baked, at best. So implicitly do I trust my first readers, and so gratefully do I rely on them to be brutally and consistently honest, that I have abandoned entire drafts of a new novel on their recommendation. Almost invariably, I find that what they tell me about my own work is something I have known in my heart all along but have declined to admit to myself out of inertia, obtuseness, or fear. Only when I hear it from them does it become real to me, and actionable. I have permission to lie to myself—they do not. Read More »

Smoking with Lucia

August 18, 2015 | by

Remembering Lucia Berlin.

Lucia Berlin in Albuquerque, 1963. Photo: Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin was not PC. And she was not New Age. She never talked to me about “recovery” or “karma.” We never spoke of the Twelve Steps. It was understood: she was sober now. No need to talk about it. Especially when she could write about it. Her stories, populated with alcoholics and addicts, are rendered with an empathy, disgust, and ruthless wit that echo the devastating circumstances of her own life. She’d moved from isolation to affluence to detox and back again, and Boulder, Colorado—inundated with massage therapists, extreme athletes, and vegans—was an unlikely place for her to end up. Yet she spent much of the last decade of her life there. First in a clapboard Victorian beneath the red rocks of Dakota Ridge; later, when illness nearly bankrupted her, in a trailer park on the outskirts of the pristine town.

News of the trailer depressed me until I managed a visit, finding her at ease amid the shabby metal homes stacked on cinder blocks. It’s likely Lucia would have felt more comfortable watching a bull be gored in a Mexico City arena or huddling among winos on a corner in Oakland than she ever felt at her first place on posh Mapleton Hill. But that was where we spent nearly all of our time together. Usually at her kitchen table. Read More »

I Think I Would Rather Be a Painter

August 10, 2015 | by

At the Guggenheim, writers and artists cross-pollinate.

Carol Bove, Vague Pure Affection, 2012, wood and steel shelves, paper, brass, concrete, and acrylic, 85" x 35 1/2" x 16". © Carol Bove, photo courtesy Maccarone Inc., New York

Writers have always been in love with the visual arts. Just think of Frank O’Hara’s sly poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” which is actually all about the creative entanglement of the two forms—tinged with yearning and a wry bit of envy:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.

Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

And it isn’t just poets. Hemingway, that great champion of muscular prose, credited Cézanne as one of his masters—a guy who painted pictures of rooftops. More recently, Don DeLillo has haunted the outer edges of the art world in novels such as The Body Artist, Falling Man, and 2010’s Point Omega, which begins and ends with a description of Douglas Gordon’s video installation 24 Hour Psycho. Read More »

Without Need of Makeup, and Other News

August 4, 2015 | by


An 1889 poster for Sissieretta Jones, who sang opera but gave recitals, because she was never hired by opera houses.

  • Some writers take years to finish their novels. These people are fools: writing a novel takes only seventy-five minutes, if you crowdsource it effectively. This Saturday, the sci-fi author Chris Farnell will prove it at a “Geekfest” panel in Heathrow: “the fifty or so attendees of the panel will spend about forty-five minutes collaboratively hammering out a plot, characters and structure. Then, for the next half an hour, each of them will be given one chapter to write, and the results will be collected together, lightly edited, and published as a free ebook.” The book stands little chance of being good—but the same could be said of those that take years to limp their ways to the finish line.
  • Opera has a long and vexed tradition of blackface—and the Met, this season, has finally put an end to their use of “dark makeup,” prompting a reconsideration of the role of African Americans in the opera. “Too many Black artists have devoted their lives to opera, working inside and outside the establishment, sharing their insights, pleasure, and critiques, to allow their art to be sidestepped in this way. Besides more opportunities for Black singers on stage, says Dr. Gregory Hopkins, artistic director of Harlem Opera Theater, there needs to be recognition of works in which Black artists can ‘tell our own stories, without need of makeup, where we’re not being dressed up to look like someone else.’ ”
  • Why is everyone still obsessed with the Bloomsbury Group, a century later? Because it was elitist: “Paradoxically, the idea of the Bloomsbury Group as socially, intellectually and artistically exclusive is bound up with its wider appeal. Close the door and people come knocking … Establishing an explicitly exclusive and anti-populist club is, of course, a long-established route to long-term popularity.”
  • Charles Simic interviews his brother about New York’s jazz scene in the sixties: “[Jackie McLean] told me about his first time playing at Birdland. It was 1952 or something, with Miles Davis. The very first solo he took that night, he was so nervous he stopped, turned around and went back through the curtain at the back of the stage and into the dressing room behind it and threw up. Oscar Goodstein, the Birdland manager, ran in and yelled at him, ‘Get back on stage!’ Jackie goes back out, finishes his solo and gets a big round of applause from the audience. Miles turns to him and says, ‘Man, I’ve never seen that one before!’ ”
  • Today in walking metaphors: hitchBOT, a Canadian robot attempting to hitchhike to San Francisco, was found brutally dismembered in Philadelphia. “We know that many of hitchBOT’s fans will be disappointed, but we want them to be assured that this great experiment is not over,” its creators said in a statement. “For now, we will focus on the question: ‘What can be learned from this?’ and explore future adventures for robots and humans.”