The Eagle & The Weasel

I'd prefer not to

Tag: process

Enlistment

Publishing your first book is a weird experience. You spend a year or two writing down what are quite possibly your most ridiculous, most perverted, least sound, least relatable thoughts, while convincing yourself that these thoughts are neither ridiculous nor perverted nor unsound nor unrelatable and are totally worth committing to paper. You get rejected, a lot. You are told this is good for your soul or your creative process but exactly how that works is less clear. You melt down, which even when it’s happening you recognize as being totally embarrassingly banal and clicheed. Finally you get the opposite of rejected. Whatever that is. Another year or two passes. You forget whatever it was you were trying to say in the first place in that ridiculous, perverted manuscript. You get a real job. Suddenly it’s your publication date, and it occurs to you that everyone you’re related to, everyone you’ve ever dated, slept with, unsuccessfully hit on, borrowed money from, avoided making eye contact with, lied to, been passive-aggressive with, forgotten about, and stolen french fries from can now access your most private, ridiculous, unsound, perverted thoughts in one easy-to-quote-from volume. Friends and acquaintances send you pictures of your book on vacation, by swimming pools and the ocean and majestic mountain ranges. Strangers from the internet want to meet you. Congratulations, you published a book.

Anyway, that happened, and now I’m pleased to say Sweet Affliction was shortlisted for the Quebec Writers’ Federation Concordia University First Book Prize. It’s nice to have an award that recognizes that process, and it’s nice to be nominated for it. I don’t know if it gets easier but I hope to find out.

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In residence


I spent the month of October doing a writing residency at a fairly large institution in Vermont’s Northwest Kingdom. If you’ve never done a writing residency, the theory is that, freed from the constraints of everyday life, you will be able to take your work to a new level of intensity, to really, like, hear the whisperings of your soul, catch the bigger fish, whatever your preferred metaphor is. Residencies help you do this by taking care of your daily needs and giving you a room of your own. Your only job is to write, or paint, or sculpt, or do whatever it is you think is your calling. The residency doesn’t really care. It’s like a benevolent but indifferent parent, which is a comparison that will recur with some ominousness.
This residency, like everything else in Vermont,* is fancily rustic, or rustically fancy. You sleep in a small monastic room in a house heated by a pellet stove; you eat delicious food prepared by a chef whose only job is to make food, every day, for you and forty-nine other supplicants. It’s kind of like camp and it’s kind of like Club Med and it’s kind of, very slightly, like being institutionalized. You’re free to barely dress yourself and wander around completely spaced out or clutching your head in agony, because everyone else there is doing basically the same thing.

The first night, one of the residency’s founders gave us a half-pep-talk half-lecture about the artist’s life, and how it’s important not to get too overwhelmed with self-important woe at the difficulty of our creative tasks. It was kind of a “first world problems” lecture – I believe he actually pressed a burdened hand to a furrowed brow and sighed dramatically, to illustrate the mindset we were to avoid. Because, after all, look at us! Living in the shadow of rolling copper hills; eating local organic greens and delicately prepared fish garnished with some other kind of fish; working in well-appointed studios; mashing out our kinks in a yoga studio with heated floors. No schedules, no chores, no responsibilities other than to our craft. To be anything less than constantly joyous would make us total ingrates.
I tried to take this admonition to heart, to remind myself not to be crabby or self-pitying (my two preferred mindstates), to approach my work with an open, joyous heart like some kind of literary yoga instructor. But after a while it started to feel a little fake and even a bit insulting. Because either you take your work seriously or you don’t. Given the amount of time and money and logistic coordination needed to participate in something like this, it’s safe to say we all take our work pretty seriously. And if you take your work seriously, its difficulties can’t be negated by really excellent prime rib. People who do other kinds of difficult, rewarding work that they care about are expected to have hard, frustrating times, to feel bad and useless and like they’re not achieving what they hope to. So it’s normal for us to feel that way too. If my goal was to write decorative sentences to make the world a prettier place, it would be easier, maybe, to feel light and joyous and positive about it all the time. But that’s never been the point. If art matters, and I’m saying if, then feeling bad about it sometimes is a given. (It doesn’t work the other way, though – feeling bad about your art doesn’t necessarily mean that it matters. I would know.) How depressing would it be to feel good about everything you wrote?

I didn’t feel bad all the time, of course. It’s truly wild to live surrounded by people who are doing basically the same thing as you, where you can say things like “I’m working on a novel” and not feel, every single time, like Brian from Family Guy. Like the bumper sticker says, a bad day at a residence is still better than a good day at the rest of your life. Which is partly true and partly bullshit. In daily life you have lots of things to succeed or fail at, to feel okay or stoked or totally miserable about. In residence you have one thing, and that thing is probably the thing that’s the most important thing in the world to you. So a bad day at a writing residence is bad on a big, deep, horrifying existential level, the kind of state where you think, Okay, clearly even under these ideal circumstances I still suck at doing the one thing I care about and am supposed to be good at, so I guess I will just throw myself in this (very shallow) river right now. Which is exactly how we were told not to think. But having your every need met does actually breed a kind of hilariously infantile mindset.

David Foster Wallace writes about something like this in the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – the one where he takes a luxury cruise and finds himself turning into the sort of demanding, pucker-lipped, perpetually unsatisfied velour-swaddled person he would otherwise ridicule:

But the Infantile part of me is insatiable – in fact its whole essence or dasein or whatever lies in its a priori insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homoeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.

Where DFW charts the terrifying upward spiral of desire in an atmosphere of “total comfort,” I simply observed that, not permitted (or not able) to do anything for myself, I became totally physically and emotionally dependent on the institution’s care, to the point where I almost cried when the pot of coffee I’d been waiting for was whisked away in front of me to be taken to a board of trustees meeting. The staff guy, who has surely seen way too much of people like me, told me another one would be ready in ten minutes. “Okay,” I said. “Why don’t you come back then?” he said. “I’ll just wait here,” I said, like a huge asshole who hasn’t had any coffee.
Lest this be mistaken for some kind of veiled critique of the social welfare state or something, I should say that most of my time there was amazing, and I did actually do some really valuable work and maybe even heard the whisperings of my soul now and then. Anyway I’m back to making my own coffee and worrying about inane things and working on my novel at my desk, at home, joyously and crabbily.

*In Vermont even the things that are falling apart are doing so in a quaint, picturesque way. My friends who live in New England call it “tickety,” as in “tickety-boo”: “This organic maple ice cream shack shaped like a log cabin and festooned with bunting is so tickety.”

More on drawing

Lynda Barry’s really into the weird thing that happens between your brain and your hand, whether you’re writing or drawing. I used to write all my first drafts by hand and then type them up. I don’t do it anymore, because I feel like my laptop is the most transparent means I have to write with – I notice I’m writing the least when I use it. I know someone who writes on an electric typewriter because with it, forward is the only direction she can go. I like that idea, but I know that if I wrote on a typewriter I would get so captivated by how cute and precious and writerly I was that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. When I was a teenager I wrote on my parents’ very old Underwood, and I’m pretty sure nothing decent got written, though there are many pictures that document the occasions.

Anyway, drawing is a really good thing to do when you can’t write for a bit but you don’t want to leave your desk and you don’t want to go on the internet. Barry suggests drawing a spiral to keep your hand moving. That’s the important thing, keep your hand moving. I tried using that method when I was doing creative writing workshops with angry teenage girls, and they would draw a spiral as fast as possible and then be like “Done. Here’s your spiral, okay.”

10,000 Faces I’ve Never Seen

My dad at the opening of one of his shows, sometime in the 70s. He's the one on the left.

A few years ago I made this radio piece with my dad, who’s an abstract painter. After not painting for about ten years, my dad went into a sudden period of extreme productivity which he’s continued to this day. We’d never really talked about “art” together – not the content, but the idea of making it. It was always just something he did, and I did, and that was that. So one day in January I brought a microphone to his studio and asked him what it was all about. A lot of what he says relates to things I’ve written before and thought about regarding process, creating stuff, and speedy existential crises, so I thought I’d share it here.

The Original Wastoids of the Wild West

Last summer I interviewed Lee Henderson for Maisonneuve‘s SLS interview series.  I met Lee when I was doing a writing residency at the Banff Centre.  It killed me how he would doodle all over my manuscript, sometimes in lieu of commentary.  If he thought something was funny, he’d draw a guy laughing.  And then he showed up in Montreal to teach creative writing at the Summer Literary Seminar.  We watched Vancouver lose the Stanley Cup (on TV), and then I interviewed him with the riots and the subsequent fallout providing a sort of wastoid backdrop.  It was weirdly perfect, as his novel The Man Game deals almost entirely with masculinity, shiftless testosterone and its potential (for violence, and uh beauty?). Aside from that, he also says some things I like a lot.  So I’m reposting it here, you know, for posterity.

Anna Leventhal: What do you think is next for Vancouver? Is the city just going to disband and relocate its population to Red Deer?

Lee Henderson: I pity the Red Deer of that scenario! Ha ha. Oh my god, Anna, it’s so true, though. One of the most insipid demonstrations of civil disobedience ever witnessed. The last time something this insipid happened on a mob level in the city was the Guns N’ Roses riot. See YouTube video: http://youtu.be/g_pP40K55Eo

I’ve been stuck here in gorgeous Montreal, as you know, because we watched game seven together at Romolo with all the great expat Vancouver fans. And so when I’m not spending time teaching and drinking with the SLS folks, I’m kind of glued to my Facebook updates as I hear from all my friends in Vancouver. Everyone has a story to tell, and the sense of collective shame, I feel it. We didn’t want a riot. We didn’t need one. A riot is a very misunderstood mentality, though, and we are afraid to recognize its power until it happens. And it can happen anywhere. What incites a riot is never political, I don’t think, but the fear of the mob to disobey the most violent individuals in their huddle.

And also I guess it’s obvious that riots are extraordinarily gender biased, and that the media talks its way around that huge issue.

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On Process

A couple of years ago I did a residency at the Roberts Street Social Centre in Halifax.  I lived in a shed (that one) and tried to write.  In the end I didn’t write a lot of fiction, but I did obsess over the process of writing itself, and why I was having such a hard time with it, and wrote mostly on that.  Not stuff like how do I get ideas or create characters or advance the plot or how do I describe the ineluctable modality of the real, but the process of creating form, or something like that.  (Though I guess that’s what describing the ineluctable modality of the real is, isn’t it.)  Here’s some of what I wrote:

“How can writing actually make you lose your mind:  there are infinite possible ways of saying anything, any one thing can be said an infinite number of ways.  Each choice is a foreclosure on another pathway and subsequent possible other cruxes/choices until you’re backed into a corner and get eaten by a cat.  (HOLY SHIT I wonder if that’s what Kafka is talking about in that parable.)  Let’s attempt to work through this.  Somewhere in between infinite possibilities of beginning and the zero-axis of no possibility/END there is something called a “flow.”  Which is generally agreed upon to be desirable, and from which the majority of art ensues.  But to reach that “flow” you have to take very careful steps, like you have to construct this kind of perfect staircase in order to get there, or else you’re fucked.  How to begin with a structure that will lead to “flow” or even the possibility of “flow” when you have no idea from whence that flow will emit?  It will emit from wherever you start, that’s the really terrible part.  So the important thing is to start and it doesn’t matter where?  I guess, but nevertheless the feeling that there is a right way to tell something persists, or just the thought that every structural and stylistic choice made early on will result in completely unforeseen results, unforeseeable results, which is a way in which writing is like weather.  People live with weather though, and people live knowingly or otherwise with this exact same kind of structure framing the conditions of living without losing their minds.  So maybe I’m just being a sucky baby.

Maybe the key is to not think of it like a linear/line but like a matrix.  That is to say that each decision leads not to one logical next step but a bunch of nodes from which it’s possible to make any number of choices.  You are never backed into a corner as long as you continue to move two-dimensionally (at least) on a plane.  Any previous decisions affect the ones to come after but not in any kind of deterministic or foreclosing way.  I.e. this whole little ramble here opens up certain possibilities which can be followed or ignored but doesn’t actually cut off the potential to like get somewhere good.  Whether or not it increases the likelihood is as yet unknown.

The problem with this is that at each node you are faced with any number of possible directions, which requires being in a near-constant state of readiness and/or cleverness and/or inspiration needed to make the right choice EACH TIME.  Which is kind of a refutation of “flow”, wherein choices proceed naturally from each other, seemingly without conscious thought or decision.  Which process is not something I want to give up or cede right now.”

Do other people get driven crazy by this kind of thing too?  How do you deal with making decisions?  Sometimes shuffling a deck of cards gives me a panic attack, because I think about how every cut is changing how the deck will come out forever, infinitely.