This year has felt particularly overloaded, with both projects piling on to split my attention between the manuscript (and so, this header photo of the California coast, where I’ll be in a week, and was just a month ago, baking in a Los Angeles heat wave, alone at Griffith Observatory to get very tan and toasted before a writing session at House of Pies) and what has been three to four non-fiction projects at any time.
I’m happy with all these projects: there are new bylines (Art in America, The Village Voice, POSTmatter, aCCeSsions), interesting work for gallery shows, writing in an artist’s book (which I am dying to share but can’t yet until release, argh), and what I might be most excited about, a piece on acoustic hailing for the sound issue of a magazine based right in my dream state (more on that obsession in later posts). I’ve had the chance to review and work with some of my favorite artists (Harm van den Dorpel, Yuri Pattison), and attempt to fulfill the hazy outlines of old dream essays (one on rave nostalgia) and new (scaling in simulations as they encourage empathy).
I am also an artist-in-residence at Industry Lab in Cambridge, and I am organizing my first show, California Imaginary, for their gallery in September. Only a month away, and the artists are gathered, and we just need to figure out how to get all their work to this god-forsaken little corner of New England. Love you, Boston, but your old infrastructure and out of the way charm is cramping styles.
But each day, this whole while, I’ve had this niggling feeling. I’ve been torn, because I just wanted to come home, mentally, to the cold, high place, the coast, the water crashing and cliffs high, to focus on the chapters and churn them out steadily. And finish a story from 2009 (good grief). Instead, I have felt, for the most part, stretched thin, my brain feeling like cheesecloth pulled across the rocks to dry. The depth you need, the deep thinking (young people these days just aren’t deep thinkers, as a particularly terrifying boss once said), that comes with reflection and meditation just on one subject, one space, is so hard to find. It is the other, separate space, the kind of wooded, dark, hidden hollow where I can meditate on stories, plots, and characters.
To try and get there more quickly, I have been toying with changing this site into more of a daily blog or a place with a TinyLetter-like vibe. A space where writing is nourishing and quiet, and just for myself, and there isn’t too much pressure on it. It would be nice if anyone else out there stumbled on it and read my thoughts, but I have really just missed having a space to just talk about the daily trials and tribulations of writing, which is how this site started. I have noticed a lot of writers don’t even keep a web presence apart from tidy, severe sites with links to all their pieces in lists. I miss the days when people had a baroque but intimate presence on their sites, kept up assiduously, ornamented, decorated: a shrine.
I have been visiting one such online shrine, the prolific writer Warren Ellis’s newsletter, Orbital Operations, and his personal blog, Morning, Computer, with the hyper-specific hunger of someone who has starved for a long time and can only take in a specific type and amount of food. Any glut or excess might make me pass out or die. I like reading about his life; his litany of massive deadlines and projects are so overwhelming that I feel a bit less poorly about being paralyzed by mine. He writes hundreds of thousands of words in a few weeks and it sounds like he doesn’t get to go outside much. Sometimes he is quite open about how hard it is to both take good care of himself and do his best work. I can identify with all of that.
What I like most about his daily scrawls out to the world is the tenderness in them, the care, and the feeling of diligence throughout. They’re odes to process, and they are not always long posts; sometimes he’ll write small vignettes, stories about how he got up that day. They are evidence of sitting down to write, day after day. He offers up lots of ephemera in the form of links and notes on books, songs and radio stations, podcasts that keep him inspired. It’s like looking at a detailed print of someone’s inner workings. They aren’t ‘curated’ the way you might find on some sites, or presented with any preciousness or aim to impress; they feel natural, a real outcropping of a magnificent person’s day and mind, where it wanders.
I got this website together in 2011, mostly as an anchor for keeping my few short stories from floating off into the ether. I really started using the blog, then, just lightly, in 2013, after I’d moved places from one end of Boston (the south) to another (the north). The whole effort was to reclaim my voice when I felt I had lost it, filtered it, left it, in the company of people who didn’t care. The new street, this street that’s my home now, was full of sun and it felt clean on the day I moved in. So did this house. I was wearing a khaki jacket. Many things felt possible on that day.
I see now that things like this site became possible with maintenance work, the unglamorous, unsexy work of daily maintenance. It seems important to remember that we aren’t always brilliant bursts of flame cutting words in the sky, that we have to keep plugging away, heads down in the dirt. I think that’s what I’ve learned in Boston each time I’ve lived here: the virtue of chipping away at your goal, bit by bit by bit with a dogged, annoying persistence. People here do that really well. That Puritan ethic.
Looking back through those early posts and my early Twitter, I remember how both felt like necessary outlets at a time of transition. They were personal intimate spaces for expression and experimentation. They made it possible to ground myself through small rituals and thinking exercises, to try to think differently about my living here, while at a series of jobs I was phoning in until I found the perfect right gig, whatever that is. (An endless pursuit for the right vampire to let in, hopefully with some duller teeth?)
During those next three falls and winters and summers, I wrote about Dead Space and Infamous and Grand Theft Auto, some final essays for Kill Screen. Months went by between each piece, in which I was dealing with all sorts of personal issues (and personal people) and just trying to stay healthy, together, and on top of it. But in the few precious hours I had left after work and on weekends, I found that I wanted to write not just about games, but all the questions they brought up, about belief, systems as they shape our real life interactions, and the continual, thrilling dialectic between tech- and man back to tech-, back to woman, and man.
But I didn’t know this right away. And the big project, the manuscript idea only crept on me slowly, just a series of ideas that needed to be probed and fleshed out, in the periphery of days and already occupied mental space. Who can see what they are doing clearly, ever? All I know is the whole endeavor feels a lot like, you know, dragging a ship across a rainforest mountain with many casualties along the way. “What’s your process?”
Somehow, in the way that most things happen that are Good, I found people and subjects that I was interested in peripherally, and collaborators in the weird spaces of noise and computer music. Meaning, these clashes and intersections took place without rhyme or reason. Through a slow, hook by hook grapple across the craggy rocks, I found co-writers and intellectual friends interested in reviewing and canvassing the weird and difficult to articulate. Through sheer energy and momentum, somehow maintained in a void without purchase – and like the Void it felt like here, in our deadly winters – they tried to make interesting spaces to linger in.
I feel like a mobile sponge, a lot of the times, clambering across the Internet to find sleek deep parts to hide in to cogitate. I’d be really happy as a sponge, I bet. Really, it was out of boredom that I found exciting subjects and interesting people to write about, intense and manic lights who gave me energy to download and left my head buzzing with new images and ideas and conversation. It was out of boredom – the fear that I will be trapped without food for my brain and then I will atrophy into being a bad thinker with bad taste – that I kept seeking out extreme types and extreme mental playpens so I’d stay on my cognitive toes. When you’re writing about soul-crushing things for a check, you have to be sure you have treats on the side, nourishing bits.
Projects began accumulating, and I was being pulled further and further out of my mollusk shell. This was ultimately good for me. I have to be forced out when I am really good at burrowing down. When too exposed, I start to feel the itch to hide.
I want to be able to shut a mental door and be there, whether that is on the cliffs, looking at the sea, or in the deep-set rooms an opening scene takes place in, like one I am fond of, so far, with the director, a masked wrestler, the lead, and the writer, watching a virtual version of the lead dissolve into pixels. (God, so much work left to do there). I am concerned my day job – thinking about the digital in a critical way – is compromising my impulse for fiction. They are different ways of thinking and demand different kinds of focus and attention.
But I wonder if there are ways to manipulate and shape my experience of the digital in ways that foster and help my fiction writing. I’d like to try and find out here.
What I really enjoy about Ellis’s posts, again, is how much he discusses all the digital work he does, and how much it affects him. It starts first thing, cracking open all the sites and feeds, the e-mail (god, the e-mail!), the news, the monitors, opening up in waves. He has automated posts, and keeps meticulous track of where each goes, sometimes overnight or when “in hiding.” He has lots of lovely reflections on these traces and voices around us. Through these notes, I found out about Networked Mortality which allows us to think about our archives online after we pass. I like this description of a typical morning:
I’m throwing Tweetdeck up on the big screen to see my six Twitter lists, opening Feedbin for my RSS feeds, and I am answering emails and reading more news. Usually also prepping an edition of a private newsletter I run for friends and fellow travelers. Thinking about getting a sidecar clip to put another screen, maybe a tablet, on the right edge of the big external monitor. I put on a Pebble Time Steel watch at this point – it saves phone battery life and lets me see phone-based notifications while typing if I so choose. All my messaging apps are on, at this point. They include WhatsApp, Snapchat, Messenger, Twitter and IG direct messages, Telegram, Skype. Most of them get turned off if I’m crazy busy – Skype is usually the first to go. People with my Skype number can call straight through to my phone (thanks to a Skype redirect product) if it’s important. But, honestly, most of them are pretty quiet – it’s just handy to have them.
And then I start work.
And then work starts – after every messaging app- is on and all the feeds are running. It’s a different model of concentration: downing a few espressos, then mainlining the information, then getting into a meditative writing state. I feel like all these feeds are so wired into our blood flow that it can’t be the fault of the feeds but more the content chosen to be absorbed. If you fill your head with trash, then your thoughts will be trash, after all. A friend came up to me in the co-working space we are both in and told me he felt strange; he’d been too wired in.
There is a lovely feeling about having a small corner that no one might ever read, where knotty things can be worked out. I want to come back more here, and use these pages to clear my head, come up with writing rituals to get more into my head flow, keep using sage to cleanse the bad spirits. I didn’t know I had 2,000 words when I started this post, but I always feel like I can poke and scratch, and vomit up a flood.
I had lots of plans to blog daily (ha! ha!) or at least weekly. Usually these were pretty ill-fated attempts, in part because I wanted to write and say too much each time I sat down, and burnt out. I would like to keep trying. Writing is surely 99% trying, yes?
I like thinking about the weird night in 2012 when I was on my typewriter and my Galaxy, talking to a friend in Chicago, telling her about this idea I had for a novel. I want to use the next posts for these two months before moving – August and September – to work out scenes, ideas, and side scrawling (or main scrawling?). Let’s see how it goes.