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.

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.