Monday, July 10, 2017

If I wrote blog posts modeled off glam rock ballads, this is what I'd write

The other day, Mrs. Heretic and I, nostalgic for Korea, went to the get some 잡채 and 콩나물 for a late lunch, then followed it up when we got home by drinking soju on the back porch. After a while, we moved from the porch to the kitchen table, where we passed the time watching music videos from the era we regard as our childhood, more or less the 80s. Unlike my feelings for Korea, I'm not at all nostalgic about the 80s. I regard it as the time in my life when I realized I was not good enough at sports to become a pro athlete. I dislike almost all of the music I grew up listening to. For some reason, though, with enough soju, it became fun for a while to listen to these songs as Youtube chose them for us and be reminded why I dislike almost all of them.

At some point, Youtube moved us back to 1977 and Meatball's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," which we listened to, even though I was too young when the song came out to remember it from back then. I don't think I even knew who Meatball was until my late teens. I have no strong opinion on whether "Paradise" is a good song. I'm nearly serious opinion-free on music in general. It's never been a huge part of my self-identity. As a kid, I mostly listened to what was on the radio so I could keep up with conversations at school. (Edit: Mrs. Heretic says people will not get that "Meatball" was a joke. Fine. He's the other staple ground beef meal in American homes.)

I'll say this for the song, though: it's long and it's several things at once and it's self-assured and indulgent and there's a certain joy in that. The song would never get made now; it's too unwieldy and hard to program. It's a vestige of a time when rock stars made the fucking songs they wanted to make and people could play their songs or not. (I guess. I don't know anything about rock and roll history.)

It reminded me of Lydia Davis's "After Reading Peter Bichsell," which I blogged about recently. I said that if I'd seen the story come in to my literary journal as an editor, I'd almost certainly have voted no on it, but reading it gave me a strange pleasure, in part because it took certain liberties I don't think writers take much anymore.

I seem to be doing the same thing with this blog post. I've already spent over 200 words just introducing the concept of the structure of this post. And now here's where the song changes.

Today was one of those "hit a great shot" kind of days

Golfers often talk about how they spend most of the time hating golf, but then once in a while, they hit a great shot, and it keeps them coming back and suffering through a terrible game for a while longer. That was me today. I was really giving thought (again) to pitching it all, mostly because of how unhappy the whole publication struggle makes me sometimes.

Then, today, I had two things happen that were encouraging enough that I'm probably still in it for a while longer.

One was actually a rejection. But it was an encouraging rejection, and it was from The New Ohio Review, which is a really good journal. I have a friend to whom I've tried to explain what writing is like for me, and his reaction to the notion that an "encouraging rejection" is actually a thing was an incredulous "Fuck's a rejection encouraging?" but it really can be. It means that something about the story made them at least take notice. It means there really was something in that story.

The second thing that happened was another agent asked to look at the manuscript for my novel. This could very well just end in disappointment again in a few days or weeks, but at least I'm getting some movement with it.

Those don't sound like very impressive things now that I've written them down. But that's what happened, and now I'm back to grinding some more.

Fucking Anis Shivani

I've quoted this lightning rod critic/poet/novelist several times on this blog. I find much of what he says instantly compelling, because his critique of the academy, of M.F.A. programs, and of modern writing in general seems to match conclusions I'd arrived at on my own. He's suspicious of M.F.A. programs because they're really just socialization of writers, a socialization that teaches us all to be nice, to say nice things about our betters, and that if we do, we'll be rewarded with occasional publications and maybe writing jobs. He says this has led to an insular type of academy-proctored writing, one that is divorced from the public, who largely ignore everything this system produces.

Last year, Shivani was giving an interview. He was talking about his rather ascetic personal training as a writer, in which he turned away from family or even sex, and more or less locked himself away and read. He started to talk about how much reading a writer should do, and said this:

So my question to you, if you want to be a writer, is: Are you willing to shut yourself down and read, read like a writer, the ten or twenty thousand books you need to read before you can know anything about writing? Are you willing to give the best years of your life to reading and writing, are you willing to make writing the first and only priority in life, more than your family and the people you love or money or health or security or anything else? And all by yourself, in solitude? If yes, you can be a writer, if not, you can’t. Community is optional and dispensable. It’s something you do, perhaps, after you’ve established your identity as a writer, not before. But today the cart comes before the horse, it’s the opposite of what it should be.

Those are the kinds of statements that make me think I should pack it in as a writer. I'm not that dedicated. I'm not willing to punt my family for my writing. And maybe, as a result, I'm not that good.

But something about that doesn't sit right. Shivani has himself criticized writers who have no real life experience, who know only teaching and books and the narrow things one learns from domestic life, such as having children and divorce and parents dying. They lack Melville's misery on a merchant ship, or Faulkner's experience in the factory. I've written before about how I prefer to read Carl Sagan, a scientist who writes, to Andrea Barret, a writer who sciences. It's maybe okay if I'm not a pure writer, if I'm a guy who's done some stuff, read some stuff, thought about it and is trying to learn to write well enough to share it.

I haven't read 10% of what Shivani has probably read. When he mentioned the Italian hermeticists in this essay, I had to admit that I didn't even know who the fuck the Italian hermeticists were.

But do I just give up because of that? I do have some stuff in my background that makes up for not being the most well read person out there. (And that's not litotes when I say "not the most well read." I'm not woefully under-read. But I am a slow reader, and I've spent a lot of time reading in foreign languages, books that sometimes took me months to finish. It's limited what I've been able to get through in my life.)

There is enough going on in my brain that it's worth trying to squeeze out, and I'm not just talking about the perfect .gif from a contemporary American sit-com. In any event, I'm not yet despondent enough that I'm able to overcome the compulsion to write.


  1. Forgive me for intruding. It's interesting but just today I was contemplating what to say at my book launch on Friday. A book called literary writing in the 21st century: conversations. And I was thinking today of an essay I once wrote, new rules for writers, which advocates the kind of solitude and commitment you've mentioned here. Then I thought, somebody listening to that might be tempted to give up. I have to say that I do have life experience in areas you might find surprising, even the corporate world. But I still think experience is secondary to imagination which comes from solitude.

    1. Are you who I think you are? Because that would be kind of amazing. I've been reading "Against the Workshop" over and over for a few years now.

      One of the early posts I wrote on this blog was how I had a moment in my 20s after the Marine Corps when I wrote one of those ridiculous life statements, and it included a section in it about how I'd give up family life to become a great writer. (I was married at the time, so writing that was probably not a great sign for my first marriage.) I later repented of that thinking. It seems to me now that if I weren't willing to forego writing Moby Dick for the happiness of my kids that writing the book wouldn't mean much. I think of that story of Faulkner and "nobody remembers Shakespeare's daughter." Not saying artists need to be saints, or that being a terrible person invalidates your art, but personally, now that I have a family, I can't retroactively go back to solitude now. I have to do the best I can with all the things I have a moral obligation to tend to, and try to find a way to express what's important within those limits. It might mean failure, but failure was always a strong possibility, even if I'd given my whole life to art.

      I really can't say thanks enough for commenting here. That made these many years of blogging worth it. If you're not Anis Shivani and you're just a dude messing with me, please don't tell me.

    2. Surely the notion of the writer as some shut-in is largely a modern contrivance. It takes no time at all to find so many great counterexamples, great writers who lived large, that one has to be not a little skeptical. (There's your litotes.) Something like Tom Wolfe's Painted Word lingers in the back of my mind in connection with this modern pose.

    3. I think the shut-in writer is unnecessary and possibly unhealthy, but a writer should be highly aware of the tradition in which one writes, and that takes commitment to read and read and read. Every generation has more to read than the one before. At the same time, if one is going to comment on the times in which we now live, that takes a lot more study than it once did to even understand what is known about the world we now live in. So I can understand thinking that the only way one can even hope to climb the mountain of knowledge one needs is to make it the main focus of one's life.

      I balance that, though, by thinking that even if you do dedicate yourself to climbing that mountain, you'll never climb it. So that's not the right way to deal with this mountain. Really, this is a big part of my attempt to develop my aesthetic sensibility. It's why I've asked myself if I'm really even a "literary" fiction writer. I might be more of a general fiction writer who likes to dabble in serious themes.