Rough Trade

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Perfectionism is a massive hurdle to creative work. The same impulse that is essential to editing, that moves you to check each line, fix up your prose, cut out every junky, nonsensical, messy bit, is the same drive that erases everything thorny and difficult.

In the impulse to perfect, smooth out and tidy up is a very seductive illusion of control. It’s an illusion, that you can control how anyone might read your work, how they might perceive you, or what your words will even say to them. Perfectionism throttles bravery.

The risk of all this effort at control is, of course, that your work can come off, at least to yourself, as a bit phony. You, the maker, know that you’re not saying what you want to say. I can read old work and see where I’ve turned away, where I didn’t push hard enough or at all. Coasted.

People can tell when you’re phony. They smell phoniness on a person like dogs smell fear. Sometimes you are so cloaked in layers of protection that you can’t discern your own truth. You can’t describe your struggle because you can’t look at it in the face, because so much seems to hinge on keeping yourself protected and protecting others. You walk around the truth in endless circles.

I used to avoid writing on here, and limited the blog to putting up posts that introduced articles and linked elsewhere. I felt everything that goes up with my name attached needed to be polished to the point of being unassailable, researched and fact-checked to death.

I erased old writing because it wasn’t good enough, or didn’t reflect what I thought I was capable of. I had the same bad habit on social media – posting and erasing, writing comments that really expressed how I felt, then erasing them. I was applying the same kind of thinking I’d taken to academic work and school to creative writing,

A fellow writer told me a story yesterday about filling out his thesis defense form:

The form asked for a list of influences, and it said “Texts Only.” So of course, half my list was other media. [My advisor] was perplexed at why I put the Velvet Underground as an influence. He asked what about them had influenced my work, and I said that they taught me you didn’t have to know how to play your instrument properly to make visionary music.

In other words, they are great because there is no polish whatsoever. There is something else.

I really love this. The “something else,” I think, is what everyone creating is trying to get at either obliquely or directly. The stumbling, falling, scraping and failing doesn’t need to be hidden. It’s better if it is in plain sight, printed, up online, up for you to see. I added some work from 2004 – 2009 up under the Archives section of the site yesterday, which is O.K. work, but doesn’t represent “me.” But that was me, then, and though not perfect, represents efforts and attempts.

I’d like to push where I usually would take out the eraser, and keep building on the gravelly, uneven foundation. Researching hypergraphia (the compulsive need to write) yesterday, I learned that some people feel compelled write after severe trauma and difficult childhoods, because it made them “feel like they had a soul.” And the soul is rough and uneven and breaking itself ever over, so true work would reflect that roughness and mess.

Telling the truth about yourself – that you might struggle daily, that you are afraid of the future, that you are lost in the past – is much harder than saying, I am fine. Everything is great, and I’m doing so well. The page is the one place you might feel safe telling the truth.

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Nostalgia Mining

Certain songs take on colossal, completely disproportionate significance for me, giving me an inordinate amount of happiness no matter how many times played, no matter the time of day. The Borderlands opening theme song, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” is one of them. I’m playing it right now.

It isn’t a particularly great song, not one I’d glom onto if I heard it at random on the radio. The song is important for me because it is associated with an experience, a time, and a certain group of people. That potent combination must have activated some neon green and blue switches in my brain; each time this song is played, I’m instantly, deeply elated on a cell level.

I’m taken back to a blissful summer four years ago, when I was in the best touch with what were then some very dear friends around the world. I had no responsibility save playing Borderlands, digging through reminiscences of a few horror titles, and reviewing them in a massive 10,000-word essay. I still wore a black Interpol sweatshirt and I was still vegan, so I was filled with an abundance of truly suspect, nervous energy. The friends were in Australia, California, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, and the Netherlands. We talked about everything under the sun, synced up our sleep schedules for competition and completion.

In retrospect, the model wasn’t sustainable if you have real responsibilities and a real job and on and yawn. But the fantasy of having that free space was enough, once-filled. And the prospect of finding payment, and stellar editors, to write about what I love, was the joyous part. I remember feeling that it really is this easy and it could always be this easy. Just write about what you love! Just do what you love. Platitudes on platitudes, made real for the first time in my working life. Just find what makes you feel all the sharp, crystalline, deep and heartbreaking feels. Describe this to other people. This came easily. This didn’t feel tortured.

What the world of Pandora meant would be covered diligently on every tech and industry website, from its style to its mechanics to its characters. But what the feeling of being in Pandora meant for a person and what it felt like to be with others in that world: this was another set of concerns altogether.

There was a brick ton of significance in those sensations, which drive a gazillion-dollar industry. The affective elements of play, the feeling and memory of sharing a third place with others: yes, all these tenuous, impossible-to-pin emotions make for serious experience and serious capital.

Nostalgia for the virtual is created quickly, almost instantly. You know intuitively, from the opening sequence, whether the experience of a title will change you in some fundamental way. Trying to explain this nostalgia has pushed my explication abilities to the limit. Articulating why the maligned medium can move one as much as Anna Karenina or a Tarkovsky film, has been the best kind of challenge, to think very carefully on why we spend our free time in the ways we do.

To that end, last fall, I published some more pieces on feeling and not feeling for Kill Screen, including this review of Grant Theft Auto V, without a doubt one of the pieces I’ve worked hardest on to date. I was excited to find it highly circulated, and the feedback, from reviewers, industry professionals and fans, the most intense and personally fruitful. I was thrilled to hear the essay was included by the talented poet, writer and language lecturer R.A. Villanueva in his syllabus for his classes taught at NYU Polytechnic: Writing the Essay: Poly and The Advanced College Essay: Poly. I wrote a short follow-up piece on the process of taking selfies within games, a piece that was named a Voices feature on All Things Digital.

Finally, this past spring, I took on Matt and Trey’s critique of the whole ridiculous culture of nostalgia, perfectly sent up in the South Park game.

As a nice close here, I’ll offer up Leigh Alexander, one of my absolute favorite thinkers on interactive media. She wrote a devastating and lovely short fiction piece, The Unearthing, on the Atari Dig, obsessive fandom and the predictable commodification of this nostalgia.

No game experience has quite come close to that summer with friends in the rocky byways and underpasses of Borderlands. Chasing that nostalgia down for an even more meaningful and sense-whole experience may just be the point of continuing to play. I know I’m always hoping the next world will light up my brain’s switchboard in the same way.

Arcane Process

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Many writers I know wonder most of the time about what other writers, both young and experienced, are doing. The whole process can seem arcane and magical, like you need to find a key locked in a silver box to master it. One day, you will find it. The reality seems closer to a vertical wall that you have to clamber up with a death grip on each hold.

Every writer has a different process. I’ve been hearing advice about how to “really engage” in the process for some time now. Wake at dawn; work after you return from work; clear all distractions; start nothing without getting your junk pages out. No: work at a normal job for six months, then take six months to indulge your creative work, so you don’t go completely mad. Or: it either comes to you or it doesn’t, and you just need to wait. It turns out to be grotesquely  hard to do what you do well.

One writer I know stays up until five or six in the morning, sleeps until three, wakes, drinks an entire pot of coffee, then works in a manic frenzy until he has to sleep. Another writes a diligent two pages a day, every day. You have to put on your clothes; you have to write. One very successful lady I know can’t go to sleep without writing. Another, I’ve heard, lives alone in a house on an island and doesn’t see people for days and days and talks to the postmaster once a week. She Skypes with her parents on Fridays, if at all.

The rule seems to be is that there is no singular formula, because there are no rules. That’s a gem from one of my favorite fiction writers, who told our class, “Art has no rules.” (That mantra still gives me courage to write what I’m not ready yet to write).

She also told us that she was the slowest writer with the worst process, and that we shouldn’t listen to any of her advice.

Depictions of writers don’t help clarify the mystery at all. The solipsism of writers writing about writing aside, who better to get insight about the dark arts from? The unwilling heroes are usually suffering writers’ block and trapped in Los Angeles, a nightmare of a city for writers, who, if we’re trading on stereotypes, tend to avoid sunlight, surface, and people.

In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman is a sweaty trainwreck of a screenwriter, flopping backwards onto his bed, in thrall to his terrible internal voice telling him he can’t do anything right. Barton Fink’s Fink, a lauded playwright, holes up in a creepy hotel room where the wallpaper is peeling to finish his script, and is in real danger of becoming a permanent Looney Tune:

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When they finally break through the eighteenth wall of suffering, they both produce works of genius in long stretches of manic creation. This sequence is pulled off with gusto: they sweat over their typewriters, then emerge triumphant. They slam down two hundred pages, bound by a binder clip, on their agents’ desks. Their eyes start out happily from pink-grey concentric rings.

Today’s depictions of writers are no different. Take Hank Moody, the rock-star novelist in the sordid Californication, who lives the life he thinks artists lead: completely miserable, soaked in  booze, acting out violently. When not wallowing, he looks like this:

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In season one’s end, sick of himself, he sits and produces a novel in under a couple of weeks.

The process is torture, but nothing else feels better once you are all in. I feel most like myself when writing. When I feel the worst, it makes me feel the best. And it is both a constant trap and a flight out of here to better, truer places.

Last fall, I got to overcome my nerves about public speaking by reading a story I spent the previous summer on. The story, “Cardinal,” was for the fall issue of Conjunctions, one of my favorite magazines. The theme was “A Menagerie,” and the editors sought out writing about animals of all kinds, along with our relationships to animals.

I got to read “Cardinal” at a salon hosted by the lovely and most talented Christine An – an artist, writer, and comedian based in Cambridge. There was a question and answer session, and people seemed interested in how I got the idea for the story, which is about a little boy with attention deficit disorder, his teacher, and a cardinal. One lady asked how long it had taken to write, and I told her, technically, five years.

But the core image it hinged on – a bright red cardinal in the trees above snow – was actually from my childhood in Virginia. So, the material was from a lifetime. I spent a lot of summers bird-watching from a kitchen window and I befriended a few cardinals by imitating their chirp. It was as weird as it sounds. The boy was loosely based on a student in the Presbyterian school my mom worked at in Washington, D.C., in the early Aughts, and on another troublemaker from middle school.

Ten years later, living in New Haven across from a shuttered arts charter, I saw a cardinal in the snow. I also saw two mounted cardinals, male and female at the natural history museum on Whitney Avenue. They’re in the photo up top. I wrote a rough draft.

The story didn’t take took root, though, until I saw a friend’s eerie Facebook cover picture, of an Emergency sign at a hospital. The metaphor of a cardinal as emergency, and a final sentence for the story, came through. The image of brilliant red against snow, of an animal in unabashed color, without camouflage, stayed with me, and I held that in my head and resolved to build around it somehow.

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Each of the images in the story took from some singular experience in the years after: listening to tapes of birds from Cornell’s Ornithology Lab; watching a documentary about attention deficit disorders; talking to someone with anxiety and depression issues and hearing about their roller coaster experience with medication; going to a Tom Sachs exhibit based on the Mars landing; my own experience of teaching.

And then there was the cobbling: I wrote four other stories in between that year and now, toggling back and forth between their different drafts, taking scenes from one and dropping them in another. This all made for twenty or so single-spaced pages that needed to be broken apart, line by line, last summer.

So, without the five years of wandering, picking out images from experiences I had no control over, I would have no story to tell. So I’ve come to this being my process: living and observing, and hoping it all comes together, somehow, on the page. This is not very encouraging as there are no magic key solutions; but, it is also, very good, because it means life is long and full of gifts, the arcane process being the best gift.

Work and Dignity

Yesterday was one of those blessed days, with a happy confluence of themes that kept echoing and redoubling in every image, video, and show I ran into and through.

I first caught the cloying James Gray film The Immigrant, starring Marion Cotillard as Ewa Cybulskia, a Polish immigrant who tumbles off at Ellis Island in 1921. The gold and bronze baroque set-pieces back a desperate but not uncommon story of that time. Ewa is doomed upon landing, marked as a woman “of low morals” by the island gatekeepers. She is then gently, almost naturally pushed into burlesque dancing, then prostitution, by Joaquin Phoenix, who ham-fistedly builds on his portrait of neurosis in Her.

The film is perfectly shot by Darius Khondji in muted, jeweled, dream-like tones, rich gaslight against the dark hustle and foment of the streets. In one scene, Phoenix and Cotillard are tiny figures in a wooded patch between two Lower East Side blocks, lit by the moon, and you feel a deep longing for an old New York you never had to begin with.

Ewa is frustratingly passive. The men closest to her are obsessed with protecting her perceived innocence, with defining and setting her apart. They perversely elevate her even as they degrade her and drag her through the underworld.

Her own uncle, a respected businessman in Greenpoint, casts her out, unable to deal with the shame of keeping her in. Her aunt touches her hair and says, “The song of the nightingale is sweetest in times of great darkness.”

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But Ewa ultimately determines her own value. The first thing she says when she gets off the boat: “I want to work.” Cotillard strives to give Ewa a steely dignity, and dignity is found in work, no matter what kind. She carefully counts each bill, demanding half of each dollar, so she can save her sister stuck in the Ellis Island hospital.

She has wishes of her own – to be happy, to live in California, to feel the sun on her. She will do whatever work it takes. Work is salvation. Work is really the heart of the American Dream. Work helps one keep one’s sanity.

Later in the day, I watched a documentary, Cartoneros, tracing the people of the same name, who sort through the trash of Buenos Aires for paper to be recycled. It was astounding. The cartoneros travel at night on the “Ghost Train” from the shantytowns and slums, sort through the city’s trash, and board before dawn before most people can see them. In the warehouses, workers record the hundreds of pounds of paper and plastic brought in. They wash, grind, compact the paper.

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The insights from the workers were extraordinary: “Only with wealth is there waste.” One worker closed a scene with, “People look at it as begging. You aren’t begging. You are asking for work.” Another said this:

“To really know a person, you have to go through his garbage.”

More than anything, the cartoneros wanted respect and dignity. They seemed happy on camera, defiant. For strength and protection, they formed co-operatives, knocking door to door to get the help of citizens.

After the film, I wandered around the area, long winding stretches hedged by monolithic pharmaceutical labs with their clean futuristic lines: Amgen, Pfizer, Biogen Idec, Millenium. Even the smoke piling up from their stacks looks nice and clean. This city is full of all kinds of legitimate, glossy work, easy to write down on paper.

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But this city also has, like Buenos Aires and New York, its own hidden work. On Sunday nights you can hear the clink and clatter of people – usually very old, usually Chinese immigrants who speak no English – sorting through trash for bottles, glass and plastic. You see them carrying massive bags to the local Stop & Shop for recycling – the bottles all washed, cleaned and sorted. Last week I was standing, absorbed in my phone, and was jolted out of my reverie by an old man plunging his whole head and torso into a trash bin, then emerging triumphant with a Coke bottle.

I thought on other kinds of hidden work – like knowledge work – after reading Nikil Saval’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, on white collar culture and the monolithic bureaucracies that create them. The piece pointed out a dark fact: the work that adjuncts do in institutions of higher learning – the thankless, difficult work of teaching, grading and mentoring students – is now “simply accepted as the new normal.”

I can’t count how many PhDs I know doing extremely very hard, underpaid work, stressed to the point of break. I have countless horror stories from the many researchers, teaching assistants and adjuncts doing what is considered the drudge work that keeps institutions running.

Hidden work, especially knowledge work, surely must have its dignity. But that dignity is more difficult to locate and see in the context of our exposure-based culture, in which the “good neoliberal knowledge worker” is expected to fight for her wage, set her own rate, and tirelessly (without rest, without pause) make and do and create and think until she is her perfect self. This Rhizome piece sums this knowledge worker’s quandary up perfectly:

“In an accelerated economy that runs at digital speed, no corner of existence is outside the realm of private engineering. What kind of governmentality persists when we are impelled into pursuits of productivity and happiness wherein private entities stand to directly profit from our (self-)discipline?

Perhaps in part due to this general collapse of community, institutions, and traditional norms of sociality under networked capitalism, we’re increasingly enjoined into competition, engaging in data entry as a natural correlate of ‘living.'”

In this ethos, we compete as knowledge workers. If we don’t achieve our personal goals, it’s our own darn fault. If we don’t pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, it’s again, our fault. The other side of this kind of bind – of avoiding stillness, of avoiding inactivity – is that the demands of creativity don’t always involve visible work. (There’s a ton of excellent Bartleby-inspired art that challenges this ethic of constantly working, that stills it, that refuses to work).

Recent controversies over paying creative freelancers and knowledge workers already had me thinking about these questions of worth, value and utility. Seeing the “work” of Ewa and the cartoneros crystallized them.

Who defines your value? A brief scan of inspirational quotes on Pinterest will leave you with the conviction that only we define our own worth. That we have to dismiss external indications of value.

The world will work hard to convince you otherwise, especially as a creative worker. It will hustle to monetize, frame, and tell you what you are worth, to try and convince you to work for free. Swindlin’ is huge in the arts. If you run across a tetchy creative, I’d say, just know it’s probably not about you. They’re likely on the defense from being brain- and energy-drained by editors and others in power who don’t truly value their work but also really, really need it.

Your work is worth it. Your talent is worth it. Never sell yourself short. And make sure to gather your accomplishments relentlessly across all social media platforms, because if you don’t expose your thinking work, how can you capitalize on it?

Watching

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Last night, right at 10:45, I tripped and nearly broke my teeth in the train station as I skipped down the stairs. I hadn’t been looking down, and saw the woman lying on the bottom stair a second too late. My boot caught on her jacket; I caught the rail; I stopped my face from hitting the ground with my right arm.

I barely missed stepping on her hand, which was resting on the edge of the bottom stair. Landing in a puddle, I flung around, I think mostly to defend myself. I thought she’d rise up angrily, maybe yell at me.

She didn’t move. To the right, a group of exhausted-looking people, clutching their bags, were waiting for the bus home. I was exhausted, too. I’d spent a good twelve hours at work that day mostly in concentration, writing. I just didn’t want to deal with whatever was happening on that bottom stair. It seemed that I felt exactly what everyone else was feeling. No one has energy at that hour, save the few bright-eyed men in uniform starting the night shift, their lunch pails looking strange and out of place.

I watched the people waiting for a cue. They’d look back at her, on the ground, squint, frown, then look out again at the road. From the way they waited, I assumed that someone had already asked her how she is doing, that someone had called the police. I also thought, she might just want to be there, slumped over on the stairs. Why should I bother her?

The more minutes passed, the more oppressive the silence and inaction became for me. I looked at her back to see if it was rising, and it was. She was wearing white, crushed velvet sweatpants and white Reeboks, and a navy men’s Carhart jacket. I had the same jacket. I couldn’t see her face, which was covered with her thick, matted brown hair and her right hand.

In the tramping of thousands of people’s feet from the snow, the floor of the subway station is disgusting by that time of day. It is covered with all sorts of things you don’t want ever want to imagine, let alone see. She was sinking face down in its filth.

I started to feel panic. I felt embarrassed to even look at her and be doing nothing. The first thought that rose up was, what if I was sick, and on the ground in this muck and no one stopped to help me? That didn’t do anything for my heart. What if my mother was sick and had a blood pressure issue, and no one stopped? And I could see my mother on the ground and then I started to dance around in place, convinced that this woman was having a stroke and everyone, including me, was doing jack all about it. This could not be happening.

A janitorial employee walked by her with a shovel, looked at her, then looked at me and shook his head. That confused me further. Why wasn’t he stopping to ask her what she was doing?  He had to have called someone. He had to. There was no way this woman was lying on the ground and no one had done anything. People entered the train station, saw her, then took the stairs around her.

I edged closer to her, whispered hello. I didn’t know whether to touch her arm; I felt paralyzed, shut out of my own instincts. I locked eyes with a man who looked up at me from his phone. I ran up the stairs past her to him and asked him if he saw anyone call the police, and he said, no, she was there like that when he came. I ran down and locked eyes with another young man, who had stopped in front of her, taken out his earbuds, and was asking the air above her head, “What is this? What is happening? Why is she here?”

Hearing his voice, and hearing him acknowledge her, was like a release. I knelt next to her and put my hand on her arm and shook it gently, asking, “Hello? Hello?” The boy with the headphones knelt as well and said, more loudly, “Hey, lady! You can’t be here on the ground. Lady! Hey!” I shook her arm again and felt a sickening clutch at my chest as there was no sound from her.

She then said, “Yeah, yeah,” into the few-inch space between her face and the stair. I couldn’t move her because she was too heavy. The boy gestured at  me to step away. We found another man with a phone and asked him to call the police, at which point more people gathered around.

I know her, a man said. Her name is Elaine. “Honey,” he said. “You’re going to have to sit up or they’re going to call.” From his even, calm tone, he’d seen her this way before. This happened often. “What’s happening,” someone asked, and he said, in the same voice, that she was probably overdosing. He crossed his arms and shook his head. Even in a goose down jacket you could see how thin he was.

A wiry woman entirely dressed in black, with two hoops in her ear, dropped her work bag into the dirtiest snow water puddle and sat on the stair, and put both her arms on Elaine’s shoulders and rolled her back from the ground. I was afraid of what we’d see. Elaine’s face was marked with the scabs of an addict, red flecks scattered across her forehead. Her eyes were closed and she was no longer saying anything, her lips parted and a line of drool slipping from a corner. The woman in black shook her, leant down near her ear and talked, took her pulse.

Elaine’s eyes parted slightly and the hazy blacks swam around in milky clots in opposite directions, and I felt sick, and covered my mouth. The boy with the headphones said, matter of factly, “This is how people die. No one stops to check.” I wanted to slap him.

At this point, everyone in the station was turned to watch us kneeling around her. The next train arrived and hundreds of people pounded down from the platform and engulfed our small group, splitting right at the top of the stairs and closing again behind us. I saw the lights from the ambulance through the doors and felt its chirps and call as it swept around the station, a firetruck in close tow behind. The paramedics came in and we all stepped back and they got Elaine to stand up.

They started to check her arms, and I couldn’t watch anymore, and ran outside into the snow. I started walking, and, then, running, until the station was out of sight. The snow was lovely and my street, quiet, and the words from The Dead about the snow all over Ireland came to mind.

I started weeping, largely with exhaustion, thinking of the woman’s eyes looking at opposite corners of the train station ceiling. I was angry with myself and with everyone else, tired as I had been, for standing there in the station doing nothing as long as we did. I wept thinking of all the people outside on that night in this immense and complex and terrifying city, suffering horribly with no one to stop to ask them how they were and if they needed help. I wept thinking about what a hard day I’d had and how its difficulty was nothing compared to what that woman was suffering right then in the back of an ambulance. I wept with gratitude over my warm house, over the warm shower that I was lucky enough to get to take when I stepped inside.

The night before I’d been walking with my friend Elizabeth back home from a party at three in the morning. The streets of Cambridge were empty, and I said, isn’t this amazing, that we can walk like this, and we never have to really think about whether anyone is behind us, and we can go get delicious snacks right now and then watch a movie if we want. And we were just at a party where everyone was singing songs together. This is so America, and there’s no war.

This morning, the entire station floor was swept and gleaming, the steps power-blasted with boiling water. The steps were so pristine, clean enough to eat off of.

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Imagining the Pain You Cause

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It’s rare I get a couple of hours to do some pleasure reading outside of class, work and my own writing. But today I found and read “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” by Junot Díaz, published in The New Yorker in July of 2012. I loved The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and remember, vividly, feeling my heart contract and expand through its last fifty pages, and thinking, this, this is what writing can do. I know plenty have their opinions on Díaz, but there’s no denying certain books come to you at the right time, for a reason.

I can’t seem to find my copy of Oscar Wao anywhere. While moving earlier this year, I noticed that quite a few of my favorite books are missing. In its place, for now, I was curious to read a story from Díaz’s new collection, This is How You Lose Her. Apparently the stories in this group took him 16 years to write. Sixteen years! And look at this dope art that comes with the new edition:

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“The Cheater’s Guide to Love” features Wao’s brutal, sensual, self-destructive and eloquent Yunior. He is with a great Dominican woman for six years. He lapses, cheats throughout their relationship with about fifty (!) women. The story opens with the girlfriend finding about all his indiscretions through his e-mail archives. The fact that Yunior calls the women he cheats with sucias obviously doesn’t endear him to us. He is pretty crisply, mercilessly depicted as a rotten, weak and pathetic liar whose suffering is deserved.

In the five years following her leaving him, Yunior crawls, literally, from the basement of his soul back up to some semblance of air and light. He doesn’t get, at first, why his lost woman won’t speak to him, shutting him down at every turn. The transition, from not understanding why, to truly understanding that she will never speak to him again – this is a huge leap for Yunior’s limited imagination.

What I found compelling in “The Cheater’s Guide” was the honest, ugly truth at its core: it takes a really long time to understand the pain we cause other people. Sometimes it takes, as for Yunior, years. But we only change for the better, Díaz seems to suggest, when we make the leap of imagination and empathy into understanding how the other person suffers and has suffered at our hands. It isn’t enough to know that lying is wrong if you can’t imagine how those choices affect the people you betray.

Díaz also touches on the difficulty, for some men (not all) of imagining the inner lives of women. In an interview with NPR, Díaz talked about how he was raised to view women:

“I grew up in a world, [a] very New Jersey, American, Dominican, immigrant, African-American, Latino world…I went to college; it was basically the same, where largely I wasn’t really encouraged to imagine women as fully human. I was in fact pretty much — by the larger culture, by the local culture, by people around me, by people on TV — encouraged to imagine women as something slightly inferior to men.

And so I think that a lot of guys, part of our journey is wrestling with, coming to face, our limited imagina[tion] and growing in a way that allows us not only to imagine women as fully human, but to imagine the things that we do to women — that we often do blithely, without thinking, we just sort of shrug off — as actually deeply troubling and as hurting another human being. And this seems like the simplest thing. A lot of people are like, ‘Really, that’s like a huge leap of knowledge, of the imagination?’ But for a lot of guys, that is.”

This is fascinating to me – that men may have to take a leap of imagination to not just get to the consciousness and emotions of a woman, but to acknowledge their inner lives as real, full, human and present as their own. Wow. This makes redemption for a man like Yunior, a man who doesn’t know loyalty, look a bit different from what we’re used to.

It’s less interesting if we watched him suddenly transform into superb husband-material, committed to God, country and the Cylon-prototype woman who was “worthy enough” to make him finally become loyal. Though that ending is satisfying on some level, it takes a lot of magical thinking for it to be believable.

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Instead, Díaz has painted a man who doesn’t have the imagination to be better for the person he loves, no matter how spectacular the woman was or how much he thinks he loved her. So his victories have to be internal. A discerning reader wouldn’t be satisfied by seeing him get happily married, because he’s so ruthlessly shown to lack the heart, the tools, the capacity, the character to be that kind of man. Instead, his redemption involves learning to imagine. And to imagine we need heart, and space in that heart to imagine the pain we cause others.

In five brutally clipped years, Yunior deals with his intimate crimes and claws through his regret. Díaz pulls no punches, writing about his shame and weakness and loss. We peek at Yunior go to yoga to work on his body; we see him flounder in each relationship; we see him bested by a man who is “nine feet tall and put together like an anatomy primer.”

In one amusing scene, he starts to get wedding invitations from the women he stepped out on his old love with:

“Wedding invitations from the ex-sucias start to arrive in the mail. You have no idea how to explain this berserkeria…Arlenny turns over the cards, quotes Oates: Revenge is living well, without you.”

Somewhere in his depression, Yunior takes up running:

“You used to run in the old days and you figure you need something to get you out of your head. You must have needed it bad, because once you get into the swing of it you start running four, five, six times a week. It’s your new addiction. You run in the morning and you run late at night, when there’s no one on the paths next to the Charles. You run so hard that your heart feels like it’s going to seize. When winter rolls in, a part of you fears that you’ll fold…but you need the activity more than anything, so you keep at it even as the trees are stripped of their foliage and the paths empty out and the frost reaches into your bones. Soon it’s only you and a couple of other lunatics. Your body changes, of course. You lose all that drinking and smoking chub, and your legs look like they belong to someone else. Every time you think about the ex, every time the loneliness rears up in you like a seething, burning continent, you tic on your shoes and hit the paths and that helps; it really does.”

Unreal. Loneliness like a “seething, burning continent” rising up inside. I have to stop and meditate on what a brilliant image that is. It’s an instance of the gem-like moments Díaz steps up in his writing, and shows us what he can really do. The macho swagger of Yunior, the graphic descriptions and slang may not be for all readers – but this lyric heartbreak staggers. The sacred and the profane slick together in a whirlpool.

Some insights I gained from this remarkable story: You don’t really escape the harm you’ve done to other people. You can sink yourself in your passions and your work; you can numb the pain; you can convince yourself you did the best you could; you can try to pretend you didn’t really hurt them that much, as it wasn’t the worst thing you’ve done; you can talk about their faults and how they deserved it until blue in the face. You can Yolo and On To the Next One as far as it gets you. Until you think you’ve finally forgotten.

Maybe there isn’t anything like karma, but one thing is for sure: life will teach you the same harsh lesson over and over again. It will grind your nose into the dirt and mud until you are forced to learn. And you might come out, if you’re lucky, with a second beginning.

Greatest Changes, Invisible

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I had a short but remarkable conversation recently with a lady I haven’t spoken to in a few years. We had only met once or twice before, in Iowa City. I remembered our conversations were unlike any I had ever had before. She is a writer and actress and she is full of life. We got right to the heart of it each time. We talked about the kinds of stories we wanted to write, and, naturally, the kind of women we wanted to be.

In this last conversation, she asked me the kind of impossible question I love: “Do you feel like your brain takes up more space as time goes on?”

Not bigger, not more capacious, I answered, but deeper. I do feel like my brain is a little bit deeper, in that I care more about what I say I care for, but my heart is really the organ taking up the most significant real estate. Doors and windows have been opened, if only halfway at the moment, and the wind is flooding in, and there’s a too bright moon.

Her question spurred me to do some more reflection on the past years. Nearly three years ago, I moved from an uncertain but incredibly exciting life of freelance writing in New Haven to a full-time, professional grind in Cambridge. Nearly three years ago, I couldn’t imagine that I would be where I am now, that I’ve had met the people I have or become the person I am.

Fall! Fall is here. The leaves are dry and dance all frantic in the sun. So much has happened in these past nine months of laborious redirecting and reinventing. I have moved to a big, beautiful space on the first floor of a very New England-worthy house; I edited, finished and placed a short story, “Cardinal,” that had been lying dormant for a few years; I sorted through my half-passions to combine them into one big passion. I’ve made unexpected and delightful friends who have great loyalty and share my perspective on grown livin’ and bein’ in the world. I am starting classes this very week in the field – digital humanities and innovation – that I think I want to make a real space for myself in. I’ve started two major projects outside of my job: one a collaboration with my best old friend, and the other a website, an idea that came to me this past April and spurred me to consider returning to school.

There is a marvelous T.D. Jakes sermon on your passion, versus your purpose. For the past seven or eight years, I’ve run on the belief that creative writing is my passion, and my purpose, and my main reason for being in the world. More recently, I’ve dealt with the fact that fiction writing is too fickle, too elusive and difficult a profession to be the only source of one’s meaning and identity. I used to feel like I was in free fall if my creative work was at an impasse or if I was suffering writer’s block. Now, I throw myself into other work until the dæmon dances back into view.

But these are circumstantial changes. Changes to write to your friends about and tell your colleagues about and use as a bit of a shield, to assure everyone that yes, you’re moving, you’re on the right path, you haven’t lost your way. You still are relentlessly pursuing your dreams! You haven’t become someone altogether different or unrecognizable!

But all the changes I can’t show anybody, these are the changes that will matter most in the long haul. There is so much internal metamorphosis going down that I can feel, that others can’t see, that can’t be summed up in an e-mail. Your circumstances may be changing, but you can stand still, trapped in the same habits, the same obsessive need for perfection, the same views that keep you spinning your wheels.

Right now, I can see and think more clearly. My eyes aren’t clouded by a fog of nonsense. More seems to happen in a single day now than did in a month before. Last Friday, I walked around by the river with some friends, and we sat and watched the boats slip by and this simple act felt full and rich and more than any one person should need.

When you’ve been in one too many situations that compromise your values over the years, you have to do a canvass, tune-up, and reboot. I had to seriously assess my values this year. I had to make sure I still had them all in place. I recognized that conflict, drama and upheaval, and the people who love them, have been my normal for a long time. But I did the assay. Loyalty, honesty, ambition, drive, perseverance, self-respect: all checked out – but in various levels, with lots of room for improvement. We’re all works in progress.

I did learn that I’m far more self-reliant and strong than I ever gave myself credit for. I opted out of a few rides that would compromise me, my core, my better self, further. And I feel this is an incredibly difficult lesson to not just understand in the abstract, but to live out, each day.

“If only I had time, to talk about time.” I feel my distance from my past experiences; I can see the ground between me and the past. I am on a chair on a beach, watching my life projected on a screen. Staying still in the silence, not struggling, not responding, having restraint, just watching the reel unwind. I see all the people in my life, walking on the beach around me, as in this famous scene in 8 ½:

ImageI watch nights out in New York at age twenty, feeling invincible, like queen of the world. I see the many drives through the Maryland countryside with my parents. I see all the sessions of uncontrollable laughter in college, sitting on the floor drawing obscene comics with friends. I see the people that I used to love. I remember conversations, their faces, their urgency, their hopes for themselves, their youth, their impossible energy, their talent and basic goodness like badges sewn on their jackets.

I no longer feel any bittersweet longing to have the old times and people back. I try to feel a different kind of love for them from a distance. As a good friend once described just this feeling, you can “celebrate people from your small corner of the world,” even when their part in your story (or your part in their story) is over.

It is hard to have any kind of grace in this world. I look to all the people around me who have so much more grace and maturity than I do, and I try to learn from them.

Grace, to me, seems to be the power of letting people (or ideas or situations) go, to never enter where your presence is no longer wanted or needed. This is an act of self-preservation. You let go so you can keep your dignity and you choose yourself over any situation in which you’ll have to be less than yourself.

Moving forward, I’m more aware of my own power, my ability to choose. I remember the many times before when I have chosen myself. I see what I want now, more clearly, I see how I will make it a reality, and then, hopefully, I soldier on.

No Words For It

172_RedGiantSunI remember the first time I was frustrated by not having the right words. I was ten. I was in middle school. I was wracked in vague existential crisis. I was losing sleep and valuable Power Ranger viewing time over whether my choices were my own, or just other peoples’ choices foisted on me in their desire to control me. I had the vague sensation that doors I couldn’t even see yet were being shut to me.

I was truly afraid that the decisions I was making, or were being made for me, were closing off a million other life decisions. And it was true, then. As it is for all of us, every day.

That I actually wanted to do something about it makes me sure of one thing: that I was way wiser and smarter at ten than I am at twenty-nine.

I was in the car, trying to express this frustration to my dad, and I remember my inability to tell him what I meant. I had the image in my head and the feeling in my chest, but translating them into words? Impossible.

Sure – I had gotten over the obvious limitations. The sheer physical facts. I would never be a pharaoh or a Mayan king, as sick as that would have been. I wouldn’t discover a new barrier reef or capture the giant squid on film, because I was pretty terrified of the ocean. I knew it was too late to be an astronaut; I probably wouldn’t be a dancer. I would never be an Olympian.

I already knew I had to use my brain for the rest of my life in some way, and on top of that, had some weird obligation to generations of family to do so. Freaking sweet. I saw a future of this:

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But the real frustration wasn’t just about uniforms and crowns that I wouldn’t ever get to wear. I had a total, throat-stopping panic that there were entire worlds of experiences I wasn’t going to have access to because I was buttoned, suited up, and barreled into some tidy future of clean repute and respectability. I was too young to have the words for what those experiences were, but the sensation was real enough for me to remember, in ways, over the next twenty years.

If I could have expressed it then, I would have said the bay doors to the space shuttle to a whole neon diamond string of galaxies with endless days had been shut sealed. And the access code was in hieroglyphic mash in a language that I would never learn. O Woe! Little Me thought.

Now, it seems ridiculous and amazing that I was thinking about my celestial fate of fates instead of playing with dolls or cars or digging holes in the mud, or whatever normal kids did. I was a very lonely little person, a machine of high achievement who made everyone around her happy with her success, and their happiness ostensibly made her happy, in an endless, grotesque candy loop.

I was in six different clubs at any time. I was editing the school paper and testing the effects of gamma radiation on plants and balling with my nerd self at science fairs. I was playing the piano for four hours a day. On the weekends, I would go to the Corcoran School in the big city to take an adult nude figure drawing class with a slew of other grown adults. I’m only disturbed now by that memory.

Back in the car, a broken record, I asked my dad: “What about all the other things I want to be? That are being closed off? Because of the choices being made for me now? What things won’t I know?” I kept repeating the questions, because I was desperate to find a way to tell him about the fear I was feeling and seeing in my dumb little heart.

The ultimate question at the core was: How do I know that I’ve chosen this life for myself? And that I haven’t just been convinced these are my choices?

I don’t remember his answer, but it was probably something incredibly cryptic, as always. Today, he’ll send texts that are meant to be comforting but instead read like bad omens: “We’re just detritus, flotsam on time’s river” (an actual text) or, my favorite:

“If it’s any comfort, our sun will eventually die and Earth will cease to exist. What matters if this is going to happen in a time frame that you care about.”

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Ehl-oh-ehl: horrendous. Chew on that, little girl. So, sure. Our sun will become a red giant several thousand times its current size. Seven and something billion years from now, there will likely be no trace of our race having existed. Maybe we’ll have made it. I have some faith that we’ll make it! Sure! We might! But we probably won’t.

At most, a diamond that holds a memory card with the library of human knowledge within it will be carried within the tides of lava.

Truly, that thought doesn’t depress me. That everything will eventually disappear makes the whole drama of human existence that much more heady and incredible and ineffable enough to just weep with gratitude.

When I look at the stars I don’t feel how small we are, but how large and god-like we are. Each of us, able to create. Each of us, a creature that can think on the stars, that can think about our place in the universe…and then can talk about the stars to another creature…Incredible! That we’ve found words for the stars and ideas to describe the birth of the universe and entire systems of thought to support that idea is something to clap wildly for every day.

So, the moments that I have no words for first make me grateful to be alive. They make me grateful to be a creator in my own small way, because I can try and magic up words to express them.

When I think about what really motivates me as a writer, and why I’ve chosen this little road of the many other paths I could have taken, it is all the things (yikes) that I have no good words for. I don’t know how to describe love. I don’t know how to describe prayer. I don’t know how to describe music. I don’t know how to describe making art. The list only grows by the day.

But the joy is that you learn, slowly, how to describe things over time in your own language.

For about eight years I had a seriously insane immersion in electronic dance music. The music, the culture, being around it, consuming it, was a singular and hopeless obsession. I’d stand in line for eight hours for tickets to Timewarp, or fly by myself across the country to see Squarepusher for a single night, neglecting all responsibilities.

What I loved most was that I couldn’t really verbalize how important the sound was to me. I began writing an essay about Detroit house music and the city’s techno pioneers for a magazine, and had an impossible time describing the very sound, feelings and experience I knew so well. I tried reading music reviews. The witty, delicate descriptions of many relied more on contextual descriptions about the history, personality and influences of and on a musician than the music itself. This was interesting, but not the approach I wanted to take.

Describing the actual sound of bass underneath seventeen different alien loops of horns, gleeps and zurps that created more emotion and hope in me than a real person could was a matter of blind stabbing with the pen. I was forced to come up with metaphors and images that I couldn’t trust in fully, but had to if I wanted a byline. I kept relapsing to describing the crowd of thousands, how others acted in response to the sound, how fans struggled to explain why a certain set was so heavy or deep. All the elements around the sound, but never the sound directly. Because there were no words for it.

Every day I see something I am thrilled to recognize I have no words for. This happened on a visit last week to the Boston Ballet to see a performance of Wayne McGregor’s 2006 Chroma. On stage against stark white, five dancers in pink and nude slips were jerking, scissoring and jackknifing, their bodies in shapes of bellows, of an octopus full before pistoning away, of birds of paradise. Body, a coiled muscle to strike. Bodies wind-milling bodies in the air.

But I smiled happily throughout, even as those words came to mind. The words weren’t enough. I couldn’t describe what I was seeing.

There is nothing I want to do more than find words for the experiences that are hardest to describe.

If that fails, well, you know. Our sun will eventually die, and the Earth will cease to exist.

 

After living in Boston this past week.

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A picture of those well-worn MBTA tracks, near Sullivan Square.

My feelings about living in Boston at this particular moment become harder to articulate by the hour. My clarity of thought is impeded by little sleep. But, I hear the train starting in again, its rush from downtown, and I’ve never been happier to hear it. Along with so many others, I’ve been up since 3 this morning, contacting students and colleagues to tell them to stay home. Friends in Watertown called me to describe the sight of armored cars trawling their streets. The glut of traumatic images flood every sense channel and the very limit of emotional capacity.

I know I am not alone in having felt disenfranchised, overwhelmed and completely helpless much of this week. I’m most overwhelmed by the underlying sensation that such events that are out of my control, and such violence, beyond my scope of comprehension, will continue to warp our lives and sense of safety in coming years.

Along with many others, I’ve been thinking about Boston, its complexity and its resilience. Many have written eloquently about this city and its people in the last days. For me, to see such mindless destruction in a city that celebrates and organizes itself around the life of the mind is jarring on a number of levels. It hits viscerally, of course, as we sat inside, trembling and unsure. It hits emotionally, as we read the recounts of the injured and saw the faces of the families of the dead. The violence of the last week strikes at the heart of what this city quite literally stands for: creativity, the pursuit of knowledge and progress.

In 2001, I crowded into a little dorm room with fifteen or so other Harvard freshmen to watch the news footage of the towers falling. Then, as now, the images were difficult to process as real. In the decade that followed: we studied, we persisted, we graduated, we got more degrees, we went on to work and play in the big world. And in that time, our political process became increasingly schizophrenic. Today, entire American towns are going bankrupt. Our social and civic infrastructure is fraying. As one person pointed out, we lock down the whole city of Boston, but we won’t allow a five minute check on gun buyers.

My ambivalent relationship with Boston proper has morphed into one of begrudging respect, even love. This city is where many of us realized, as students, what we were made of. I learned what I want to do with my life – teach and write. Here is where I encountered great minds. It is where I met my dearest friends, individuals with unstoppable ambition and huge, unwieldy dreams. Friends who went on to become artists, doctors, public defenders, poets, environmental activists and financiers. Working here, now, I’m ever reminded of that ethic stretching back some three hundred years, an ethic you see in the stone and lines of libraries, museums, schools….

What is left to glean in the wake of such frenzy? For one, a deep sense of community here: the police officers, fire fighters, ambulance drivers, the doctors, nurses and selfless people who threw themselves at the problems without really thinking of themselves. They were thinking of their mission; they were thinking, as Lincoln once described this, with the better angels of their nature.

What is left, are the relationships and the act of relating, all the bonds we make and choose to invest in. What is left is all of the people who have helped us to get to where we are. I didn’t make it here by myself. None of us made it to where we are without our parents and families; without our teachers who gave us their time and insights; without our colleagues; and of course, without our friends, who sustained us in thousands of thankless, unspeakable ways with their support and their belief.

I wish I had the courage to say something grand here, like, We Will Persevere, but I’m not sure how we will. I’ll have to follow, like others, in the great steps of those with more courage. I wish I could even be sure that just living to tomorrow, that being unafraid is “enough,” and will “show them,” but I do not feel sure. The fear is very much still there.

But I do hope I can honor the city that molded me by living the best life I can, and by bringing Boston and its ethic, its striving, to the rest of the world in some way. I really do hope that is enough.

Like a Boss

“Disgust makes beauty and ugliness a matter of morals.” -William Ian Miller

Long been a fan of survival horror games, particularly titles like Silent Hill, F.E.A.R. and Manhunt. These are games made by their atmospheres and the feelings elicited throughout: disgust, fear, revulsion and terror. The game’s Boss, or final combatant, can bring all these feelings out at once, along, curiously, with joy, attraction and passion. The more repulsive these figures are – the more memorable.

I wanted to gather them all in one place, and take the old analytical microscope to them. So, I wrote this essay. At the time, I was reading a ton of theory on affect (Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, in particular). You can read the essay below, courtesy of Issuu, or here: Like a Boss.

Editing this was a great challenge, and I have to thank Chris Dahlen, first. I also thank my many friends who helped me think about this topic – and read through the countless drafts this went through.