How much work is enough

One perennial topic on this blog is “How much is enough?” When have you written enough, when have you worked hard enough, when can you stop pushing yourself and leave the rest to get done some other day? My strong belief is that enough is enough: there’s only a limited amount of creative work you can do in a day.

But on the other hand, the idea does exist of capitalizing on hot streaks. Maybe when the writing is going really well, you should keep writing. This is exactly the opposite of what most people do. They force themselves to write when they’re not feeling it, but then when the writing IS going well, they give up after doing an hour of work, because that’s all they needed to hit their wordcount goal.

On the third hand, I also think the words you get while pushing yourself through a hot streak aren’t always the best. After all, sometimes you wake up the next day and realize you’ve found an entirely new direction and need to throw out the old stuff. I can’t count the number of times I was thankful I stopped when I did, because in the morning I realized that although what I’d written yesterday was fine, I now had an entirely new conception of what needed to come next.

I believe in letting the unconscious mind do most of my work! Which is just to say, I feel like one or two solid hours of writing is enough. But then what to do with the rest of the time? I find it hard, personally, to formally give up on the writing day and start reading, so I often fritter my time away watching TV and browsing the internet after my writing is done. One reason I’m liking the Cynical Guide project is that I can basically write infinite words in the Cynical voice without any effort. Yesterday after finishing the day’s main writing, I wrote three thousand words on The Cynical Writer’s Guide To Literary Fiction! Now this one is gonna be smoking hot. There is essentially nothing like it on the market: a book that looks at how the marketplace finds and elevates all these wunderkind literary sensations. It’s gonna be great! Probably be out in six months? Hard to say how long this stuff takes or will take.

Cynical Guide To The Publishing Industry Coming May 6th!

Hello friends. I broke out the old electric type-writer for this one. My major news is that I’ve uploaded the complete draft of the Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry and it’s been accepted by the Amazon censors (they had initially objected to my title, for arcane reasons). Am very excited to be sharing it with the world soon! I think it’s all-in-all just an entertaining reading experience, and it’s my hope people can read it in the spirit in which it’s offered: as a salve, a balm, and a work of entertainment. It’s not gonna give you the secret to getting published, but it will tell you a whole bunch of stuff you haven’t heard elsewhere. And some of that stuff will even be true!

I’m not gonna do the cover reveal. Figure I’ll just share the Amazon link when it’s available. But the cover is beautiful! It’s priced at 5.99, and I’m hoping to get some reviews in from favorable reviewers and fans before it gets subjected to the hordes.

As I’ve mentioned before, I reread the book with an eye to "What would an unfriendly reader think of this?" And there is a considerable amount to object to! If the book becomes popular, it might provoke hot takes. I think the book is really fair to everyone: it goes deeply into the incentives that make the industry how it is. But people aren’t great readers, and they’re not interested in being fair (this is one of the themes of the book!)

We will see though! It’s really really exciting. I mean this is an entire book-length work that I made! Like, I made this. All by myself! It’s kind of a rush. I totally get why people self-publish.

I’m already thinking about upcoming volumes in the series. I am thinking of two: a guide to the world of literary fiction, and a guide to structuring a book so that people will feel compelled to read it even if they don’t like it.

But I don’t know if I can write them in less than a year. As a stopgap, I’m thinking of taking some of my more cynical columns from thirteen years of blogging and putting those out as a Cynical Pamphlet. We will see!

Other than this, I’ve nothing going on. I’ve been proofing the Cynical Guide for days, and I had a childcare interruption, so I was also taking care of our baby. This means I haven’t done any original writing in a while. I need to get back to it today. This blog post is really just a way of procrastinating on that. It’s always scary to go back to writing. You just wonder if anything will happen. Sometimes it doesn’t! But I have high hopes.

I continue to only read my work email once per day. It is very hard. I am frequently tempted to break my fast. But it’s been so good for my mental health to concentrate all that worry and rejection.

Another Post About The Release Of My Paperback (and some other Stuff)

Hello friends. Sorry I haven’t written in a little while. Actually I might have updated earlier this week. I cannot remember. Have been so unproductive lately! Essentially my problem is that the number one thing I need to do is proof-read the cynical guide, and proof-reading is the most boring activity on earth. Also, you know you’re always missing things, which is really annoying and makes the whole activity feel pointless. Still, it must be done.

I think on May 6th I’m going to aim for a soft opening, so blog readers can check it out and it can have a friendly initial audience, and maybe people can alert me if there’s anything terrible in it.

Oh, my paperback came out! I keep forgetting about that! The paperback looks really nice. It has a blurb in it from David Levithan. Buy it, if you don’t own a copy of We Are Totally Normal already. With everything this year has held, I feel like the release of the book was a zillion years ago. I have to say, one of the things I am most proud of is being chill about my book releasing on March 31, at the beginning of the pandemic, while every bookstore in the country was closed.

I totally understand authors, especially debut authors or authors with substantial publicity campaigns behind them (authors who were supposed to have the hot book of the season) who got really worked up about the pandemic. But, at the same time…everyone suffered. Authors suffered less than most. People still bought books, after all. Whereas 500,000 people literally died. Oftentimes alone. Kids lost years of progress. Elderly people with dementia lost much of their remaining mental function. People lost their life savings, lost their businesses, lost their parents, wives, kids, spouses. I mean I am not someone who is like, well as long as one person in the world is starving to death, then you’re not allowed to complain that your book’s release got overlooked. People are allowed to complain about whatever they want.

But it’s still a useful exercise to maintain some perspective. Every person on Earth had shit they wanted to do over the last year. For almost all those people, that shit was disrupted (unless what you wanted to do was amass a fortune in bitcoins, I suppose, or teach elderly people how to use Zoom). C’est la vie. Already we’re dealing with unseasonable heat here in San Francisco, and who knows how many million acres are gonna burn this summer and fall. Who knows when next we will have a ‘normal’ year. Perhaps never.

I am a podcast Listener now! Also am halfway through a number of books

Hello friends. I haven’t posted in a week or so, for no particular reason. My reading and writing continues apace. Probably the biggest change in my life is that I’ve gotten into this whole listening to podcasts thing that everyone loves to do these days.

Essentially I was pondering rereading Plutarch, since now I have a much better understanding of the historical context for some of these figures. But then I was like, wait, maybe I ought to fill in some gaps. One of the main areas of classical history I don’t know much about is the time between the third punic war and the rise of Julius Caesar, when the Republic fell into disarray and periodic dictatorship, even as Rome conquered most of the Mediterranean. Fortunately, there is a popular book, that I just happened to own, about this period in time: Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before The Storm. The book is incredible, laying out the economic and social and political context for the fights between various Roman factions. And I learned that the author runs a well-known history podcast. Actually two, one (now concluded) on the history of Rome. And a second about famous revolutions. I’ve been listening to the first volume of the latter, which is about the English Civil War, and I have to say it’s one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve ever had. The narrator is so personable, so clear, and builds the story in just the way I like, with some focus on the events and people, but also with plenty of analysis and context. It’s excellent. So far the series has covered the American Revolution, French Revolution, Haitian Revolution, Latin American Wars of Independency, France’s July Days, France’s 1870 Revolution, The Revolutions of 1848, and is now charting a very, very, very long course through Russia’s revolutionary history.

I’ve also looked into some other podcasts. I listened to one episode of the Freakonomics podcast and also found it pleasant. Anyway, this has really cut into my TV watching, which is the other thing I’ve been doing. I recently listened to Emily Nussbaum’s essay collection. This author, who’s the TV critic for the New Yorker, just made me realize…I don’t know, there’s something to this TV thing. It got me excited about TV. So I’ve been watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy / drama that people have been recommending for ages, but which I somehow bounced off of initially. And, it’s good. I think it has a really smart and subtle portrait of friendships and relationships. The smartest thing it does is just lean into the lack of chemistry between the lead, Rebecca, and her erstwhile ex-boyfriend, Josh Chan. They’re just not really right for each other, and Rebecca always has to kind of force it. Rebecca is also just…not really emotionally stable. She makes terrible decisions, and those decisions reliably drive the plot. It’s very interesting!

Writing has more or less continued. I have been taking weekends off lately. Not that I have no time to write on weekends, but it’s an effort, and it’s much nicer to just vegetate, to read, and to take care of the baby. It’s very new for me to be taking weekends off though. Feels odd. Feels wrong. Not sure how long it will continue.

I am halfway through a lot of books right now: Don Juan, the Epigrams of Martial, an anthology of poetry about movies, an anthology of twentieth century American poetry, a translation of Aesop’s fables, and probably other books too that I am forgetting! It’s also weird for me to be so scattered! I am learning a lot, and I am improving, but I also feel a little adrift.

I do have my two projects though. The cynical guide to the publishing industry, coming out May 6th. It’s looking very nice. I can’t believe how cohesive the book is, and the degree to which it tells a comprehensive story. Generally when people like me release self-published advice guides, we just republish old essays from our blogs. I didn’t do that here. I wrote an entirely new guide, with entirely new content. The whole thing might be insane, offensive, and wrong-headed, but there is nothing else like it out there! Hard to believe it’s really coming out.

I am also working on my literary book. Am in the stage where I am pausing my rewrite to do a rewrite, except that I am now pausing that rewrite to rewrite the rewrite. That means the draft is a mess. Even though it’s only twenty thousand words, it’s got pieces in it from three different conceptions of the story. Nonetheless, it is coming along. I did some work on it this morning. I feel good about it! I think part of the reason I’ve slowed down a little is just…fear. Say what you want about the agent search, but you can always rewrite the book and send it out to new agents. You can even rewrite it and send it to agents who’ve already rejected it! If we include the draft I sent to my last agent, I now have four drafts of this book that have gone out to agents.

You don’t necessarily get that kind of chance with publishers. Yes, you can rewrite between the first and the second round of submission, but at some point it’s done. You really have to be as good as possible right from the get-go. It’s a lot of pressure!

Finally, I am enjoying having an agent again. Christopher is great. I feel lucky to have him onboard. Aaaaaaaaand, that’s probably about all I have in terms of updates. Hope you all are doing well.

Oh, Minor Feelings, by Cathy Park Hong, that’s another book I’m halfway through. Wow, maybe I ought to just sit down and read books all day until some of these are cleared off.

nativity painting of people inside a dome
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I started watching the Snyder cut of Justice League yesterday. It was…probably better than the Whedon version? I dunno, I walked out of the Whedon version, it was so bad. And I’ve sat through multiple Avengers movies! Walking out of movies is good. It feels like you’re really sticking it to the film. I also walked out of Manchester By The Sea and The Favorite (the latter might’ve just been a mood thing, because I hear it’s a good film). The Snyder cut is really humorless and kind of impersonal, with a lot of quick transitions, not of big, epic sweeping stuff. But epics need to also have the small-scale and the intimate. This is why Titanic worked so well, for instance. It’s why Lord of the Rings focused on the hobbits, instead of on Aragorn. It’s why these movies always have fellowships and bands and leagues–so people can form relationships while they’re saving the world. But I’m only an hour into Justice League and might never revisit it, so I can’t say whether it ever gets more human.

My life is great. I have absolutely no troubles. The other day I was feeling sad because I hadn’t used this first year of my baby’s life to make other mom friends, and then I was like, hold it, this is an invented, made-up problem! I cannot be sad about this! I am just holding onto this because I don’t have better things to worry about. So I let it go.

The point is I am very happy. Everything is excellent. I experience rejection and artistic frustration, obviously. Sometimes my back hurts. Sometimes my knees hurt. The other day I ate an entire bag of M&Ms and then an entire bag of cookies and felt sick and ashamed, but these are not big problems. I am happy to live in this beautiful city, with my wonderful wife and baby and cat and dog, and to have work that I love doing and find (reasonably) meaningful.

Lately I’ve been feeling a little old. You know how the sociologists are all like there are five markers that signal a youth’s transition to adulthood: leaving the house, getting a job, marriage, having a baby, and a fifth one that I can’t remember and don’t want to look up? Well there must be something to that, because now that I have a baby I’m officially like, wow, I am an adult! I am old! My passions are extinguished! I was reading a poem earlier by…James Dickey? (Link is in the post) Anyway part of it was about how farm-boys get really horny and want to have sex with livestock, but don’t, because of their fear of creating human-animal hybrids, and I was like, wow, I remember I used to get that horny, back when I was a youth, but no longer, because I am not a youth anymore.

I’m so old that I’m starting to understand Proust, and the way you can recapture lost time. It’s only once a door is closed that you can open it again. Because childhood is so fully gone, I’m finally able to be transported back to it, and to experience it anew.

But I am not unhappy with the use I’ve made of those years. I mean, everything turned out much better than I deserved! Like…how did I write and sell these books? That’s absurd! Did twenty-five and twenty-six year old me really write entire novels? And how did I find someone and marry them? Was I really once alone? And how did we make a baby? The process seems so uncertain and long! It’s astonishing how you take tiny steps each day, and somehow it comes to something. Like…three years ago we had just gotten a cat. Now there’s a one year old baby! WTF. Looking back on the past, it seems incredible that anyone should do anything, considering how uncertain the reward and how large the effort. But you just don’t know. You have no idea.

Don Juan

Hello friends. I’m not on the social media much right now, but from what I can see, feelings are very raw due to the Atlanta shootings. I’m not sure what to say about them. I don’t have any stories of being harassed or feeling unsafe, but I believe the people who do! I wish I knew how to fix these problems. One hopes it is the dying gasp of a dying worldview, but who knows?


In my personal life, everything is going really well. Shockingly well. Like so well that I just kinda need to avoid creating problems for myself. I finally understand self-sabotage! Like I’ve been eating unhealthily lately, and I was like, ugh, why am I creating this totally artificial situation where I don’t feel good.

Writing is good. I’m making plenty of progress on the Cynical Guide. It’s looking good! Thinking of putting it up for preorder soon! I also got a copy of my paperback! It’s looking great. I thought it’d just look like the advance reader copies did, but I guess they use a slightly better cover stock. And it’s got this nice blurb from David Levithan in it. So that’s good!

I’m reading a lot of poetry. Have been making my way through Byron’s Don Juan. My MFA thesis advisor would at this point feel forced to add that you need to pronounce Juan with two syllables (so it rhymes with “Who on”) in order to make the meter and rhyme work. I find myself forgetting to do that as I read it in my head, which I’m sure is ruining the poem.

It’s great fun! What a masterwork! I love the Ottava Rima rhyme scheme, which means there are two triple rhymes in each stanza (thus encouraging fancy rhymes, as in one stanza when he rhymed ‘intellectual’ and ‘hen-pecked you all’. I also just like the story. It’s varied and quite melodramatic. There’s a part where they’re trapped at sea and they have to draw lots to see who gets eaten, and Don Juan’s tutor draws the short straw, so they eat him, but everyone who eats him dies because they wash him down with sea water and I guess you also shouldn’t eat human flesh raw.

And there are also long asides where he makes fun of other poets (most notably Southey and Wordsworth), and just generally plenty of good stuff. It’s really fun. I genuinely enjoy the book. And it’s so odd to think I’m reading it in the original language. The style and language feel so continental (it reminds me strongly of Charterhouse of Parma, The Betrothed, and The Count of Monte Cristo, amongst others) that it just feels, intuitively, like a book that’s in translation. But it’s not. An underappreciated work!


Writing continues apace on the literary novel. It’s popping. I’m having fun. I like the characters. Sometimes I do have lingering doubts, like…does this book really matter? Was it really worth three years of my life? But other times I’m like, no, it is an important book! Oh who knows!

Hey

Hello friends. Back in November, the fall back completely ruined our lives for a week. The baby woke up an hour early and was falling asleep really early too. In contrast, spring forward has been simple. We just wake up the baby at seven, and she’s sleepy enough to hit all her nap and night-time bed markers. But on the other hand I am also very sleepy all the time now. SIGH.

I feel as I’ve nothing special to report. Still working on the cynical guide. Revision also continuing apace on the literary novel. Have been rewriting my rewrite, which is something that often happens to me around the one quarter mark in a rewrite. Went back and decided to focus on the best-friend relationship and really get it going right. But I think something still isn’t working, so I might need to rewrite the rewrite of the rewrite. It’s a slow process! And it’s weird to not have that same fire–I need to get this out and find an agent! Now, when it’s closer to going out to publishers than it ever has been, I feel more afraid. Which isn’t that weird at all actually.

Bad ways of finding the time and space to write

Hello friends. I’ve been working hard on the Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry (out May 4th), so I decided to lead off today’s blog entry with an extract about bad wayd of finding the time and money to write:


There’s no simple way to get more money and spend less time working without accepting more risk, and it’s outside the scope of this book to solve the essential problem of modern industrial existence (working sux).

But there are a few solutions that I would not advise:

  • Waiting until you’re retired – It makes me unbelievably sad when people talk about all the books they’re going to write ‘when they’re retired.’ Which is not to say that people don’t do this! Plenty of people take up writing when they’re retired, and many of those people sell books. But…I don’t know. It makes me sad. Whatever good thing a person gets from writing a book, it comes from the actual writing of the book. Every moment you delay is a moment you’re not getting that goodness. If you’re not actually writing, all you have is the bad stuff: the longing and the sorrow and the bitterness.
  • Trying to develop a source of passive income – There’s a popular book called The Four-Hour Work Week. I haven’t read it, but my impression is that the book purports to teach you how to make money without doing any work. Well, Tim Ferriss, the author of the book, really has it figured out: he makes money passively from selling his stupid books. “A passive income” is just another way of saying “rents from ownership of capital”. It’s immaterial whether that capital is an apartment building, or the intellectual property involved in a book, or your own equity in some sort of law firm where you get a portion of what junior partners bring in. It’s all about owning valuable things. Look around you right now: do you own any valuable things? Probably not! It’s very difficult to come into ownership of valuable things. It’s also very difficult to write and sell books. It makes no sense to make one difficult thing contingent on doing another difficult thing. Even achieving one of these goals (either publishing a book, or becoming wealthy, which is essentially what ‘earning passive income’ means) is difficult. Pick the one you care most about and stick to that one.
  • Starting your own business as a means of getting rich – See above. Most of the ‘profits’ of any small business come from what’s called the ‘sweat equity’ of the business owners. To put it plainly, when someone owns their own business they tend to work longer and harder than any employee ever would. Oftentimes, they do not pay themselves nearly as much as an employee would get paid for the same work. Owning a business, whether it’s a doctor’s office or a restaurant or a side-job rehabbing and flipping houses, is almost always a bad financial decision for the owner. They’d be better off financially doing exactly the same job for someone else as an employee. Which is not to say you shouldn’t start your own business: I’m just saying you should do it for the thing itself, not because you’re expecting to make a lot of money and eventually retire and have time to write.’

I’m looking forward to releasing this book, but I am also looking forward to the release of the paperback version of We Are Totally Normal, which I feel contractually obligated to shill for. Because this week the Amazon workers in Bessemer are on strike, I’ll link to the Bookshop link to buy it.

Happy Friday!

EDIT: In classic fashion I decided to do actual research only after writing and publishing the post and found that the workers aren’t on strike and they don’t support a boycott. Go figure.

William Stafford and William Wordsworth

Hello friends. I feel like the thing that often trips me up the most about blog entries is the title. It’s at the top, so I’m always like, I need to start with a title! But really there’s no need. I’ve decided from now on I’m just gonna leave the title field blank until the end.

Writing has been going well. No complaints. I’m making progress on two fronts. The first is my literary novel for adults (now tentatively titled The Default World). And the second is my Cynical Writer’s Guide to The Publishing Industry, which will be coming out on Thursday, May 6th!

It would be sooner, but the paperback for We Are Totally Normal is coming out on March 30th, woot woot, and I didn’t want to conflict. So…yes, buy the paperback of my book, I guess? If you read this blog regularly and do not own a copy of my book then FOR SHAME (not really, I read plenty of writers whose books I don’t own). But still, buy it. Here’s a link to buy it from Bookshop.org (and hence benefit your local bookstore).

Stuff is going well. No complaints. I’ve been reading a lot of William Stafford, whose poetry is so readable that it feels vaguely wrong, declasse, like it’s not smart enough for you to enjoy it. The one of his that I liked the best, so far, was "At The Un-National Monument Along The Canadian Border".

This is the field where the battle did not happen, where the unknown soldier did not die. This is the field where grass joined hands, where no monument stands, and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound, unfolding their wings across the open. No people killed—or were killed—on this ground hallowed by neglect and an air so tame that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

I’m starting to realize this is the kind of poetry I like best. Written in loose iambic, with simple diction and syntax (so you don’t even notice it’s iambic) and, if it can be done without drawing attention to itself, some rhyming. Kay Ryan would be the perfect poet for me, except…her poems never seem to actually be about anything besides the cleverness of their own rhymes. What I love about Stafford is that he has poetic conceits that one can easily understand, which are just complex enough that you might need a poem to describe them.

Most lyric poetry isn’t really like this nowadays. It’s free-associative, with a broader range of images, and it doesn’t make any sense on its face. Even a lot of Stafford’s poetry isn’t like this! I don’t know, call me crazy, but I don’t think it hurts a poem to, like, have a subject. It’s nice to read a poem and not immediately be thinking, "How stupid am I?"

However I’m still relatively early in my poetry reading, so maybe I’ll change my mind. I’m also reading Wordsworth (also excellent, also with a much less formal diction), and I’m already starting to get tired of the stricter adherence to meter. We’ll see!

P.S. What was up with Wordsworth and his sister? Srsly, I’ve seen poets write about their mothers before, but never so much about their sisters! And with some very complex relationships too. Like in one poem, "The Sparrow’s Nest", he seems to be saying that he channels his sister’s relationship to nature, and that this is the source of much of his own sensibility.

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maybe they were right about not spending so much time in bed

For reasons too complicated to get into, I’ve been spending a lot of time downstairs, working at the kitchen table, instead of up in my bedroom, working from bed. It’s an adjustment. Definitely less private. Don’t have all my books and my devices around me. But it’s also had good effects on my energy levels! Turns out staying upright is a good idea, just like everybody has always said.

My poetry reading continues apace. Last night I read a collection of poems by E.E. Cummings (who it turns out always capitalized his own name, even though he rarely used capital letters in his poetry). The poems are so modern! The language and sentiments seem startlingly ahead of their time. Actually most poets wouldn’t use these syntactic and typographical tricks even today. That’s true of most modernism, obviously. Contemporary authors write more like Chekhov than they do like James Joyce, which has the paradoxical effect of making Tolstoy seem modern and Chekhov seem dated.

I think what makes E.E. Cummings work well is a strong sense of rhythm. The diction in his poems is quite simple, and he clearly has a good ear. His line breaks also work extremely well, even when they’re placed rather idiosyncratically.

I like all the usual of his poems, but here’s one of the less-known that I also liked.

of all the blessings which to man
kind progress doth impart
one stands supreme i mean the an
imal without a heart.

Huge this collective pseudobeast
(sans either pain or joy)
does nothing except preexist
its hoi in its polloi

and if sometimes he’s prodded forth
to exercise her vote
(or made by threats of somethings worth
than death to change their coat

-which something as you’ll never guess
in fifty thousand years
equals the quote and unquote loss
of liberty my dears-

or even is compelled to fight
itself from tame to teem)
still doth our hero contemplate
in raptures of undream

that strictly(and how)scienti
fic land of supernod
where freedom is compulsory
and only man is god.

Without a heart the animal
is very very kind
so kind it wouldn’t like a soul
and couldn’t use a mind

Copied and pasted from this site

This poem only lightly touches on those themes, but the sentiment of some of Cummings’ later poems seems, quite frankly, a bit fascistic. It’s something you become a bit attuned to in writers from the 30s and 40s. The way they rail against mechanization and science and atheism and turning men into machines. Being against the symbology of totalitarian communism doesn’t make you a fascist, but fascists often spoke in those terms. They wanted to preserve the human spirit, preserve tradition and individuality and everything that was good and great in existing society.

But I still like the poem! Because there’s a reason that sentiment is powerful. And if communism means giving up on the family, giving up on religion, giving up on tradition, turning society upside down, and using care for the collective to brutalize the individual, then it’s not worth pursuing. And it does in fact mean those things, which is why I’m not a communist and am suspicious of statism in all its forms.

Anyway, some of the poems in the collection are much more objectionable than this. One of them is, frankly, one of the most homophobic poems I’ve ever read. It was worse than Eminem song. I actually couldn’t believe I was reading it correctly, but I’m pretty sure I am. See for yourself. I read it over and over, trying to discern if it had any aesthetic value or any meaning besides “gay people are gross”, and I still can’t say it does.

That being said, I loved this collection, and I purchased a hefty copy of his Complete Poems, whose arrival I’m looking forward to!


At the complete other end of the cultural spectrum, I also watched a Disney movie the other day: The Greatest Showman, starring Zac Efron, Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, and Michelle Williams. Something you might not know about me is that I’m a huge fan of Zac Efron. He’s a very versatile talent, with great comic timing. And not a bad dancer, either.

The movie is a musical version of the life of P.T. Barnum, the circus entrepreneur. It’s excellent. I was like, “Why am I crying during this song where the bearded lady, Lettie, sings about how she refuses to be kept down and shut out? It’s totally unaccountable! No parallels here to my situation at all!”

Technically speaking, the musical is a little thin. It suffers, as do many biopics, from the lack of an antagonist or even a strong antagonistic relationship. There’s no June Cash to play against Barnum’s Johnny Cash. And the divided plotline, with Efron and Jackman having essentially the same story (where they reject mainstream society and embrace circus life) is too much. Zendaya and Michelle Williams are both short-changed, despite being excellent. Rebecca Ferguson comes in the middle and steals the show, as Swedish singer Jenny Lind, with a powerful, beautiful song about how no amount of success will ever satisfy her. On a purely technical level, they probably should’ve developed a friendship between Zendaya (a trapeze artist) and P.T. Barnum (to show his connection to the circus) and a rivalry between Lind and Lettie, and they should’ve found a little more for Michelle Williams to do. I don’t know…it moved very quickly, but none of the characters were developed: we wanted to see how they lived, we wanted more friendship, more sense that they had some sort of life. It felt simultaneously over-packaged and too-loose. Als

But the musical still made me cry, so there, and I’m happy it was a surprise hit (grossing five or six times its budget while in theaters). I watched it on Disney Plus.