“as empty as an unremembered heart”…reading Mervyn Peake

Ay ay ay ay ay–

I am supposed to be starting up my summer work, but all I want to do is keep reading on Titus Groan. Such amazing prose work. Amazing.

“Half-way up she was able to lift her bundle above her head and push it on to the balcony, and then to swarm after it and find herself standing with the great stage below her as empty as an unremembered heart.”

There is something so artful about the word choice here, and in particular, “unremembered” rather than simply “forgotten.” Forgotten is so many things. It suggests perhaps unintentional failure to keep somebody’s affections in your mind, or a momentary lapse, a pre-occupation with other things. Unremembered, however, suggests an act of will on the part of the memory-holder, perhaps even a rejection of the memory—a knowledge love offered, but so painful and unwanted that the person refuses to even allow the memory to enter her mind.

The hard is what makes it great…

Every year, I watch A League of Their Own when baseball season begins. It’s a remarkable film, and it is exceptionally timely for me now, with my recent struggles for meaning. Usually the part that gets me going is “There’s no crying in baseball.” But this year, this scene spoke to me:

So I have to figure out how to go forward, out of my free fall. No clue how.

But as sentimental as sports movies usually are, in this case, they are right. The hard is what makes it great.

Dear My Writing Today: I hate you

Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate 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Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate 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Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate. You.

A drenched bird, writing: Edmund White in the Paris Review

I’m in such a bad mood over both David Bowie and Alan Rickman that I can’t even. And I’ve gone and confused myself in Chapter Three, when just yesterday I was boasting to wonderful former student (now wonderful professor, Stephanie Frank) that I though I had a hold on it.

Blargh.

I’m pretty set on trying to write a little each day this semester, but I am so dysfunctional and out of it when I am really, really working on new work that I am not a particularly good teacher, friend, or wife while I do it. As a result, this comment from Edmund White during his lovely Paris Review interview always makes me feel a little better.

I wish I were more at home with writing. I can go a year or two or three without picking up my pen and I’m perfectly content. The minute I have to write I become neurotic and grouchy and ill; I become like a little wet, drenched bird, and I put a blanket over my shoulders and I try to write and I hate myself and I hate what I’m writing. Writing depends upon a fairly quiet life, whereas I am a sociable person. I think every writer goes back and forth on this question; it’s a constant struggle to find the right balance between solitude and society and I don’t think anyone ever does. I find it reassuring to read the complaints of Chekhov: “My country house is full of people, they never leave me alone; if only they would go away I could be a good writer.” He’s writing this close to the end of his life.

Comrades.

WELP….I didn’t finish *the* book, but I did finish *a* book

Ok, I am among the first people to note that I don’t always have a lot of self-control. As in, I never have a lot of self control. So let’s just get that out of the way.

I began writing a book about urban theory, and I am still very excited about that book. But that shit is hard. I started out with all sort of questions in my head about “why hasn’t anybody written about this topic in a way that works for my undergraduate class?” Well, I know now. The reason is that it’s Hard.

Midway through the summer last summer, in order to get through a writing block, I started writing, of all things, a novel. I’ve tried to write novels before, but the stories and characters I created didn’t sufficiently interest me to finish them. This time, I got interested. I would work on the manuscript during evenings and weekends when I was too tired to work on data or other things.

Earlier this month, when I looked at the story arcs, I realized that I was actually getting done. It’s a comic novel, a comedy of errors, and I have no idea about its quality. I just had fun writing it.

This weekend, I resolved the last plot point I wished to. I have an alpha draft of a novel. I have no idea what to do with it now. I am sure I have to revise it, but to what end? I have no idea how to go about publishing the thing, or whether I ought to think about that at all. After all, it was supposed to be relief valve from the very steep uphill climb of the theory work.

Keep writing, friends. There’s so much advice and scolding out there that you scarcely need me to add to it. Just keep going. Eventually, you will get somewhere, even if it’s not where you planned, if you don’t stop. If nothing else, I can say to the part of me that always felt like a loser for never finishing a novel that I have now done so.

Italo Calvino on why we should read the classics

As regular readers know, I am dubious that we book snobs influence much of anybody, let alone oppressing the legions of people who read bestsellers, both exceptional and mediocre, with our book snobbery and elitism. There simply aren’t enough of us to make a dent in all that. That said, I’m rather fed to the teeth with the backlash directed at Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate: Against YA. Her point: yeah, sure it’s fine to read young adult books as an adult, but you should want more from reading, and expect more from yourself, than simple escapism every time you open a book. This thesis prompted entirely predictable outrage and stomping of the feet and meany-meany-meanpants elitist accusations, a lot of which I strongly suspect comes from people simply affronted at a woman daring to suggest that she was better at something than they are. I’m smart! They yell and scream. I’m totally smart and what I choose to read is none of your beeswax! Stop judging, you judgey person! I’m a zillionaire I-banker and that proves I’m smarter than you! I’m a brain surgeon who can play flight of the bumblebees one-footed on the zither! Totally proves my smartness. It does it does does does DOES!!!

Among the better criticisms of the idea that edification through the classics comes from Tim Parks here. There are many fine points to his argument including this:

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.

Yes, yes, yes, fine, but 1) progressing through different difficulty levels of any type of education may not be linear; it may be a looping; you might go back and forth between books of varying quality, or sprints, or scales, or lots of other to-and-fro-ing even if your general trend is towards mastery; 2) announcing that class is the basis for advantage in any activity is a bit of no-brainer when you really think about it, and 3) there are elite practitioners of just about any activity, both pro-social and not, and status hierarchies within, both earned and unearned. I belong to vegan groups on Facebook because, for reasons of compassion and health, I am trying to eat less meat. The people who dominate in one group are among the most strident, boring, elitist people you’ll find anywhere. I am not equal to them. My foodling efforts and fatness are hardly praiseworthy compared to their dedicated and elite practice. They post in outrage about things, like Trader Joe’s vanilla-flavored coconut milk, with Puritanical zeal about how wrong and horrible and bad and calorie-laden and planet-killing the product is, and I all I can think is: I wants it, my preciousness. Sounds yum.

People who really put effort into something do have some entitlement to take pride in accomplishment–at least some, don’t you think? Education and reading are no different. If you choose to read to escape, sure, that’s your choice, but…am I really obligated to do backflips over your minimal efforts? Nobody running marathons is patting me on my head for going out for an amble. Some days, that amble is all I can bloody do. But let’s not fool ourselves. It ain’t much compared to running 190 miles to cave dive for kale smoothies.

Italo Calvino wrote a lovely essay on why we ought to read the classics. The takeaway? Reading the classics allows us to a break from the immediate pressures of the modern world without, simply staying in the shallows, the way pure escapism does. It’s a break from the quotidian, instrumental demands of everyday life, and a chance to explore big questions we may not encounter in our own experience. What is so very wrong with evangelism around that?

On handling negative criticism

Flavorwire compiles a nice listing of what writers do to deal with rejection and criticism. Me? I sulk like Achilles flopping around in his tent, whine like a swarm of gnats on Facebook, and harbor ill feelings forever while pretending not to harbor ill feelings.

But I suspect that’s not healthy.

Today I am trying to write a response to reviewers where I think the reviewer has utterly missed what we meant to do. One should always see that as a challenge to enhance clarity. Yet, let’s not be ridiculous: we know full well that sometimes, reading comprehension isn’t very good, and you find yourself in the middle of responding to reviewers thinking “Hey, I feel no need to dispute your straw man claim of what I said because I never bloody said that.”

“If your reporting is right, tell them to f#*k off.” Ben Bradlee on ire

I’m never really willing to get engaged in outrage over who has been fired from exec positions because you never really know what is going on in an organization from the outside looking in, but I have been enjoying reading through the various entries on how difficult it is to run a major newspaper as a woman. So far, two of my favorites are:

Editing while female by Susan Glasser of Politico:

And that’s the point: The leaders who succeed are the ones who are allowed to make mistakes, who have the time and space and breathing room and support from their bosses to push and prod, experiment and improvise until they get it right.

And from Kara Swisher at re/code Dear Jill: From One Pushy Media Dame to Another, an excellent summary on how you have to be pushy (duh!) to do your job, including this very nice memory about Ben Bradlee of the WashPo who nurtured along a lot of young reporters:

I actually learned that skill when I was a really young reporter at the Washington Post, when the legendary Ben Bradlee still held sway over the newsroom. He was every single fantastic thing people think of him as: Tough, smart, profane, funny, difficult and, yes, often very pushy.

He hardly knew who I was, of course, but one time when I was working in the business section covering the rapidly declining retail landscape in the Washington area, the lifeblood of the Post’s business, he did me a solid I have never forgotten. A major mogul who paid for a lot of the bills for the newspaper was haranguing me — via phone and via peckish lawyers — for being too hard on him in my coverage of the spectacular meltdown of his family business.

It was a mess through and through, and I had not backed off so far, but I had to admit I was scared when the heat from the mogul got a little stifling. Bradlee — who loved my stories of this retail version of “Dallas” and now and then came over and asked, “Whatcha got today, kid?” (he actually said “kid”) — was there when such a call came through and could see I was distressed.

After I explained the situation, he took only one second to give me a piece of advice that I have been following since: “If your reporting is right, tell them to f#*k off.”

Words to live by in scholarship as well.

“I tried to write faster, but it wasn’t any fun for me” Donna Tartt on writing

I’m less of a worshipful Donna Tartt fan than many, but I am willing to grant that she’s in the 97th percentile in terms of quality, which means way the hell better than me on her worst day. She produces a book every decade. It’s her speed. Here is talking about that with Charlie Rose. Now, there’s entirely too much Charlie Rose and not enough Donna Tartt, but she’s still very wise and very wonderful.

Like Tartt, I have to be alone to work, it’s that simple. Maybe you can only write if you have somebody willing to read your stuff. Figuring out what makes the process work for you is a lifelong challenge, but it’s important if you want to get work done.

Beer with the scribes

The New Republic has a piece up about a recent discovery about the origins of the ark myth in Genesis. There is some irritating opining going on, but the story about the relationship between an Assyrinologist and the long-ago writers of the cuneiform tablets in his care is so delightful I had to share:

Finkel has handled so many of these tablets that he’s learned to recognize individual scribes:
Finkel has been doing this for so long, and “met” so many of the same scribes over and over again, that he gets a sense of them as people. The Babylonian schools were filled with the same mix of troublemakers, bored kids and swots as modern ones, he says, which you can tell from the recovered tablets from children learning to read and write. And when you read a really learned, intelligent, experienced scribe, “you can really see a brain there, a brain that’s clever and can see meaning. They were very sharp.”

I ask him if he has any favourites, if any of the writers become almost friends. “You get cleverness and intellect, but what you don’t get, usually, is personal stuff,” he says. “You don’t get private writing, you don’t get spontaneous love poetry. So one is filled with admiration for these minds, and sometimes you wish you could bloody well talk to this guy so he could explain what he means, but not a feeling that you’d like to go for a pint with him or something.”

Occasionally, though, he finds that a scribe has missed a line in a long, copied document, and they’ve tried to squeeze it in in the margin, with an asterisk to mark the spot: “The device is familiar, that’s like us. And it’s that sense of the guy going ‘oh s—’ – that’s the moment you think you might like to buy this guy a pint and calm him down.”

Go read the whole thing.