Browsing the Black Friday sales, I saw a heavily discounted 15 inch Samsung Galaxy 2-in-1 computer. I’ve been thinking about switching from Mac to Windows, so I went ahead and got it. Since then I’ve been wrestling all of my data out of various walled-gardens. I had to say goodbye to most of my music: I took the core of my music library, acquired in college, out of iTunes and put it in MusicBee, and now I’m just selectively purchasing other tracks from Amazon Music (which sells music DRM-free) and adding them to the library. It’ll mean fewer musics than back when I exclusively listened to streaming services, but the music won’t be quite as disposable, and I won’t have to say goodbye to it every five years when I switch to a new service.
When it comes to my books, I’ve gotten everything out of Kindle and am reading now using KOReader. I still have to get new books from Amazon, since they have the widest selection, but I have a system to crack the DRM when I need to (I didn’t / couldn’t use a similar system for my music downloads on Spotify bc I hadn’t really ‘bought’ them, and it wouldn’t have been right to yank entire albums and tracks out of Spotify for just the price of a streaming subscription).
TV / movies don’t worry me bc I never buy those, really, so I’m content w/ streaming. If I lose access to some movie or show someday, that’s fine, c’est la view.
I have a lot of audiobooks stuck in the Audible system. I believe there’s a way to crack the DRM on those, but here the problem is they take up A LOT of hard disk space. I might have to use an external drive for this.
Then at some point I’ll need to get all my notes out of Apple Notes, and put them into a third-party system like Obsidian. But that’s next week’s job.
Now you might ask, does this improve my life in any way? Is the time I spend doing this at all worthwhile?
And the answer is no and no. It’s just a hobby. I mean sure, probably in 20 years I’ll be glad I still have that one song (the way I’m glad I still have songs I downloaded in high school), but would I feel particularly bad in 20 years if I _didn’t_ have the song? No, of course not. All this effort does is turn you into the kind of open-source nut who cares about computer ecosystems. But I’m fine with that. It’s my version of tinkering with a car.
I’m liking the PC though! The performance is a lot snappier than my 2019 MacBook Air. The fan noise isn’t too bad, and I can throttle it when I need to, but I never have that sluggishness I would have when typing on the mac. And although the 2-in-1 design isn’t great for most people, I like it a lot. The screen on the laptop is extremely bright and great for watching stuff. Windows 11 is a bit hard to get used to–not nearly as intuitive as the mac–and I’ve already had crashes and corrupted files. But Scrivener and Office work fine. And all my passwords are in 1password already, and that, combined with Firefox, means that 90 percent of my browsing experience is the same. But we’ll see how long it lasts!
Hello friends. I’m doing it! I busted out my little digital typewriter again, to make me sit down and actually write a blog post.
I’ve been busy lately. All my books came back to me at the same time time, so I’ve had to work on them all simultaneously. But it’s fine. The work is getting done. In terms of my reading, I’ve been re-reading Gandhi’s autobiography My Experiments in Truth. He has a marvelous voice, very warm and personable. The book is long, but one wishes it was longer–it ends in the mid 20s, well before the culmination of the freedom struggle. What you realize reading his book is how much of an oddball Gandhi was. Even his Hinduism wasn’t straightforward. He really only read the Indian holy books in England, when he was in college, and he was very influenced by Western new-age spirituality and mysticism. He was involved w/ various theosophists, for instance, and he was also involved with the British vegetarian community (vegetarianism was a major fad in Edwardian England). A lot of the way he looks at Hinduism feels very distinctly Western–for instance, his view that untouchability is meaningless, or how he looks down on ritual (at one point, he goes on pilgrimage and feels ashamed of how non-spiritual the activity seems to be). His Hinduism seems intensely personal, and rather unconnected from any established tradition. If anything, it’s a bit…Christian.
Seeing how Gandhi was a bit of an outsider made me feel more connected to India myself. Gandhi and I are from a similar caste and region of India, and if he can come at Indian society so askew, and yet be literally the most Indian person in the world, then why can’t I? Perhaps I’m not Indian in the same way as other Indians, but I am Indian enough. I mean Gandhi only spent two years of his adulthood in India before moving back permanently at around the age of 45. He lived a lifetime outside India, and in the parts where he writes about it, he sometimes seems a bit like a stranger to it–he has almost no experience of it as an adult. Made me feel excited to read other Indian books!
Have been struggling to get abreast of all the periodicals I subscribe to. At some point I thought it would be a great idea to subscribe to the four big literary reviews (NYRB, LRB, TLS and Paris Review) and a few of the others as well. Terrible idea. Each issue is as long as a novel, essentially, and who has the time to read these books every two weeks? But on the other hand I find the coverage much more interesting than the NYT Book review. So I’ve been trying to think how I can keep abreast of it all. Still not entirely sure, other than a lot of skimming. But I’ve canceled the subscriptions (which were through kindle) because the issues were piling up horribly.
Went through a phase where I read lots of Alan Watts, a popularizer of Eastern religion during the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. He too has a very warm, congenial voice. All of his books are essentially the same, but the best is probably The Wisdom of Insecurity. I’ve sort of gotten into meditating and mindfulness and stuff lately, which is going well. Many problems are solved by remaining in the moment: there is no need to have any worries about the future, for instance, because the future isn’t yet here. It also solves other problems that I wouldn’t have thought would be affected: many of my insecurities and resentments disappear when I’m more present-minded. For instance if I am envious of someone, the envy dissipates if I focus on the here-and-now, my existence in this body, doing whatever I am doing. The envy can only exist in an entirely notional world where I evaluate my worth in some abstract way, based on abstract markers and expectations, as if totaling up the score in a board game.
On the other hand, present-mindedness does open up some new problems. The main one is: what is there to thing about? Like ninety percent of what I think about is the future, so if that’s lost to me, what’s left? It means spending a lot more time contemplating, a lot more time just sitting around, a lot more time staring at the walls. A lot of my activities seem less meaningful, for instance reading the literary reviews seems a bit pointless–I read them to keep abreast of the field and see what everybody was talking about. And I have no doubt that that’s a valuable thing to do, professionally, but in the present, it feels oddly pointless and removed from my interests. I already have plenty of books to read: I’d rather be reading Gandhi than reading about all these other books.
Reading also takes on a different complexion. For one thing, reading for pleasure seems much more important. If I’m not enjoying a book in the moment, then why am I reading it? There’s no way a person can know everything–so there’s no need to read just to meet some abstract idea of being cultured or educated. At the same time, even pleasure can feel empty. Ideally, I think, I want to be reading the book because it’s necessary: something about it is essential for me at this moment. I’ve been reading to listen to and follow that voice.
Lately (bc of the Alan Watts), I’ve been thinking about the ideal of effortless action–the Taoist principle that you should be like water and follow the path of least resistance, do what is easy. It makes intuitive sense to me. Like today I was thinking, shoot I need to make a dentist appointment, so I just pulled out my phone and did it. Normally I would’ve made a note about it in my to-do list and just worried about it. Similarly, if something is out of place, I’ve been picking it up, instead of just thinking, man I should do something about that.
In the midst of all this, writing has been extremely easy for me. I can’t overstate how great the writing has been lately. I just sit down at the computer and type for an hour, and then I walk away. Sometimes I think about the book when I’m not working on it, but msot of the time I don’t. There’s no anxiety, because, you know what, I’m doing the best job I can. And what’s there to be anxious about? That it’ll someday get a bad review? Who cares? No, what really used to make me anxious was the fear that I really wasn’t a good writer, but now I feel like the term just isn’t very meaningful in day to day life. Like when does me being a good or bad writer actually matter to me, in the present? It only matters when I’m thinking, "Wow I am so great" or "Wow, I suck." But if I stay focused on the present, those thoughts don’t come up. Normally I get into these thought spirals where I try to reassure myself that it’s okay to not be a genius. But if I’m present-minded, then the notion of ‘genius’ has no meaning (at least as applied to myself). Genius only matters when I think, wow, Proust is a genius. But how can anyone else call me a genius? When would that happen? How would I hear about it? Me calling Proust a genius is an expression of wonderment at his work. Me calling myself a genius is something different–it’s just an attempt to find some further, greater significance in my daily life. Because meaning is kind of like a drug. You start off feeling good after a day of writing, and you think, "Wow, this book is really great. It’s gonna change everything." And that makes you feel even better! But you get hooked on the drug, and you start to tell yourself things that you know aren’t true, and then a part of yourself pushes back "Maybe the book won’t change anything." But you want to hold onto the good feeling so you argue, "No, it will!" But if you just give up on that good feeling, the whole exercise becomes moot. The lesson I guess is that some mental pleasures really aren’t worth the accompanying costs.
Anyway I’ve gotten pretty far at breaking my addiction to meaning! Because if you’re present-minded there’s no meaning either. It’s kind of like an acid trip. You’re just in a place, doing things, and that’s it. There’s nothing more. Actually, the feeling reminds me quite a bit of being on LSD. It turns out that LSD is just the experience of existing (but also stuff moves and is really pretty).
All of this stuff seems so obvious that it seems impossible I didn’t know it before, but I think the problem is that it needs to be paired with a practice of staying in the present, and that practice has to be continuous. To the extent I succumb to that desire for meaning, I lose that equanimity, and that’s something that happens roughly 100 times a day.
Anyway, I feel like I’m starting to sound like one of those New Agey people I’ve always felt tempted to make fun of. But it’s kind of astounding that all this stuff is real. It works. It really can provide you with peace and contentment. Of course, my present-mindedness will probably wear off in a few weeks, and I’ll be embarrassed by this post, but so what. For now it’s great.
And, finally, my reaction to the Twitter imbroglio is that I’ve gotten very annoyed, all of a sudden, at being inside so many walled gardens online. I want to own my own data again! My first step in breaking out was to break the DRM on all my kindle books and start using a non-Kindle e-reader. I’ve been using this guy: the Inkpalm 5. It’s essentially a tiny e-ink Android tablet. SUPER convenient. I can keep it in my pocket and pull it out whenever I need to read. The volume buttons on the side work as page turn buttons. And I’ve been using KO Reader, which has a lot more functionality than Kindle–I’ve been able to put my entire Kindle library onto the device.
Of course, it’s complicated, and in some ways not as easy to use, and I might end up switching back at some point. I go through phases w/ non-Kindle readers: I used a Sony PRS-350 for a while, and then a Kobo, interspersed w/ virtually every kind of Kindle. It’s a bit of a sickness.
But lately I’ve just accepted that I like tinkering with gadgets! It doesn’t actually make me more productive, and I don’t read any more or faster–if anything, it’s the opposite. But so what? It’s a hobby.
To jailbreak the Kindle I needed to bring out my Windows laptop, which has been gathering dusk on a shelf for a while. Took a while to update everything, but you know what? Windows is pretty good! If anything, it’s useful to not have iMessages distracting me constantly. I downloaded Scrivener 3 for Windows and started working on my novel on the PC, and I’m finishing up this blog entry on it too. It’s nowhere near as convenient or easy to use, but the freedom has started to mean more to me than it did. I like to know where all my files are–I like to get at them and be able to port them over to other services. I’m thinking that next I might try and free all my music too.
Hello friendly people. I’m doing it! I’m writing a blog post! Feels like it’s been months. I’ve had a lot going on. My literary book sold to Feminist Press, which has made me really happy. They’re a great press, and it’s exciting that the book will be out there for people to read, but mostly I’m just happy to not be on submission anymore, as I was for most of 2022. I’ve worked on The Default World for at least four years at this point (the file says I started January 2018), and I’ll be happy to move on to something else. Not yet though, as I have at least six months of edits to do.
A major thank you is due to my agent, Christopher Schelling, who’s been great throughout this process—very receptive to my input and just a wonderful communicator and energetic agent. I always hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend an agent before they’ve sold a book for me, but now I can wholeheartedly recommend Christopher! He never ever lost faith in me or in the book.
I’m also about to sign a contract for another book—a nonfiction book—but details about that will pend the negotiation of a few details.
So it’s been a big year. I am pleased. Of course I’m stressed out and for the first time in my life I’m feeling imposter syndrome, but I’m definitely pleased.
For the last few years, I have (like most people) noticed that I’ve been having trouble focusing while reading books. I’ve covered this up by reading a lot of audiobooks, which don’t care if you’re focused or not, but some things don’t work well in audio. So recently I picked up a really cheesy self-help book called Hyperfocus, by a productivity expert. It contains tips and tricks on how to get you into “Hyperfocus” mode (minimize distractions before you sit down, set a timer, etc). Nothing revolutionary.
Anyway the book inspired me to adapt the Pomodoro technique for reading. What I decided was that I’d hide all my devices and set a 25 minute timer and just read. However I noticed very soon into attempting this that, while reading, I’d think of things that I needed to do, or notes I wanted to make. So instead of writing them in my phone, I started logging my stray thoughts in a journal and then going back to reading.
An unexpected outgrowth of this was that I noticed a lot of mental discomfort while I was reading my current book (which happened to be Chelsea Martin’s Tell Me I’m An Artist). This is a coming-of-age story about a working-class girl going to art school in SF, so it bears some resemblance to my literary novel. And, like most books these days, it was represented by an agent and acquired by an editor who’d both rejected my book. So it was natural that I’d feel envy and that I’d compare my book to this book.
But by logging these thoughts and moving past them, I realized how artificial these feelings are. There is quite literally no relationship between me and this book beyond the fact that I am enjoying reading it. Everything else is just a story I’m making up.
Over the course of a few days of this kind of logging, I started to learn how to put down all this weight I’d been carrying. For a while, it seemed almost too easy. All I needed was, poof, to not compare myself to people, and suddenly I could enjoy reading again! I tore through a dozen books over the course of a few days (many were recommendations, other literary books I’d steered clear of over the years because I envied their authors too much).
Then, as I started to revise my literary book, I noticed the catch. Suddenly I was overcome with a terrible anxiety. All I saw were its flaws and its failures.
And I suddenly realized, ahh, here’s why I compare myself: it’s a defense mechanism. I want to reassure myself that I’m better than these other writers, so my book is sure to succeed, etc. Or at least that it deserves to succeed—because the alternative, maybe it’s not good enough, means maybe I am not good enough. Maybe I don’t have enough worth.
So I was satisfied that re-learning how to read would be a complicated process—it wasn’t nearly as easy as it seemed. Nonetheless, what’s true is that no story I tell myself about other writers is going to improve my work’s quality or its chances in the marketplace. My chance of success is totally separate from other peoples’. So all I get from this comparison is a temporary emotional relief. But the cost is that I can’t really enjoy reading my contemporary’s books. Recently, doing all this reading, I’ve seen how much fun reading can be!
I think ultimately I’ll just learn how to feel bad and anxious in a more measured way, but in the short term it’ll probably be a rocky transition as I lose that habitual defense mechanism. We’ll see!
Hello friends, I haven’t been updating often, I’m the worst, I know. Absolutely nothing to report here. I finished reading William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which was brilliant and it’s one of my favorite books now. I liked the first two third better than the last part, and some of the ending seemed a bit pat, but all in all it was extremely funny and very humane, had a strong moral core. People say it’s bitter or cynical or satirical, and they insist that it’s somehow against modernity. I don’t think any of that is true. It’s a book about how to live. The hero, Wyatt, becomes a forger of Old Masters because, for him, that is the truest and most authentic art-style. The book is about how we have a cult of the individual, and how the search for individuality can undercut a person’s sense of self. To be individual, to be original, you need to be unlike anyone who exists or has ever existed, but that’s not what it means to have a self. Having a self, having a true inner life, means not defining yourself by the opinion of people outside yourself. It means having your own values, your own sense of right and wrong. And it’s impossible to develop those values if you’re atomized and disconnected both from other people and from your own history. If you don’t have a place in the world, then nothing you do matters–even worse, if you have no place, then everything you do ends up being a shout for attention, and you end up defining yourself entirely in accordance with how much attention you get. A personality, in order to develop, needs demands to be placed upon it, so it can figure out its own ethic and respond in its own way.
The book is about how art and literature can misdirect people, make them focus on the glittery and ersatz, instead of what is truly timeless, and so I think that, while much of the commentary focuses on the counterfeiting and plagiarism within the book, really the book ends up being a criticism of its opposite, of the way people are so lacking in their own values that they need someone to tell them if something is good or bad. They need something to be a Van Eyck, they need something to be canonized, because without those external markers, they can’t have an authentic response to it. And that, to those people, plagiarism and originality are all the same: there is nothing in them that can really respond to art.
SO I REALLY ENJOYED THE BOOK. The first half is pretty straightforward, narratively, but eventually it gets harder to read: about two hundred pages in, the author stops saying the protagonist’s name, so you need to start intuiting his presence as a speaker on the page. Most of the book is told in dialogue, and sometimes it can be difficult to figure out who’s speaking. I found this reader’s guide VERY helpful. I would read the summary of a section when I started that section, and I would consult with the character index as needed. But I think the book is pretty doable. The comparisons to Ulysses are overstated: this is a much easier read.
My dad’s been visiting, and I talked with him about writing literary criticism, one of my sidelines, and I said, you know, I used to really admire all these critics who were full of literary references and quotes, until I realized so much of it was faking. Each critic has a handful of authors they return to again and again, deploying endlessly to support their arguments.
When writing a critical piece, there’s a tendency to want to do a lot of research, but you can’t read everything! So where’s the end-point? In an NYRB-style review, you generally read an author’s entire ouevre (if it’s less than five books), but for other outlets you don’t even do that. I have a few big authors I’ve never read, and I always feel like I shouldn’t write anything until I’ve corrected those gaps. For instance, aside from The Poetics, I’ve never really read Aristotle. I have a lot of Plato, but no Aristotle. That’s not uncommon, unlike in medieval times, Plato is read much more widely than Aristotle, but still, it’s a gap.
For me, there’s also the auto-didact’s curse. When you’ve been conventionally educated, you don’t know everything, but you do know everything you’re supposed to know. And this can make you seem extremely well-read if you encounter other people who had conventional educations. For instance, when I was teaching undergrads, I used to ask their favorite book, and I’d almost always read it, not because I’ve read every book, but because I’ve read every book an undergrad is likely to read. And our professors were the same: they’d read every poet or story-writer a grad student is likely to know.
But when you’re an autodidact, you’ve often read far more broadly than a conventionally-educated person (hardly an English PhDs have read as many Chinese and Japanese classics as I have), but you also have basic gaps that can make you look very uneducated.
Often these gaps are in the realm of books about books. When you’re an autodidact, you see little need to mess around with the secondary writing that grows up around literature. You just read the books, and that’s it! But for an English PhD or professor, that writing constitutes the majority of their reading. So they’re more familiar with, for instance, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, and Foucault. Personally, I think Derrida, in particular, is a bit of a fraud. But I haven’t read Of Grammatology. So I’m in a position where I’ve read Hegel and Kant and Marx (which most English PhDs would not have), but not some of these far more (in today’s terms) influential writers that, often, even a grad student would know. This leaves you quite vulnerable, and it’s a difficult gap to cover.
C’est la vie. Anyway as I was telling my dad, when writing a piece of literary criticism, I just sit down and write it out. Whenever I get to the part where I’d put a quote, I write, Plato said something like, “this is the quote, it’s not the real quote, I’m making it up.” Then later on I go and look to see if I can find the real quote.
My dad said, “But how do you know the author really did support your point?”
And I was like, “Because the author helped form your thoughts! You’re not going into this with an axe to grind or a prearranged thought process, you’re taking the chain of associations wherever it will go. You developed your thesis precisely because of your own knowledge, which in turn comes from the books you’ve read.”
I’ve actually never had the problem where I just couldn’t find support for my points, because why would I make a point that couldn’t be supported? Now my points might still be risible, and the support might be scanty, but there’s usually enough there that I can at least make a case.
The more difficult part is when you make historical claims. For instance, if I say, “Chaucer’s output was a result of England’s victories in the Hundred Year’s War” then I’ve got to think…is that actually true? When did Chaucer do his writings? When was Britain on top in the war? When was the Battle of Crecy?” It’s very easy to say historical things that are just plainly, on their face, untrue. And I’m pretty sure that’s something I’ve done more than once. On the other hand, that’s why I don’t write about, say, climate change policy. When it comes to writing about writing, the stakes are rather low. And anyway, at least I attempt to make coherent sense, unlike Derrida.
I’ve started the third volume of Marx’s Capital. It’s going. Am already looking forward to what I’ll read next. My plan was to read Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Freud, Heidegger, Adorno, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas in a project that undoubtedly would take several years. But already there have been sidetracks. I decided to read Adam Smith before Marx, which was invaluable. But now I’m tempted to read political and economic theory instead of philosophy. And I’ve already read volumes by Husserl and Habermas. Now am thinking too of Schopenhauer before Nietzsche. So we’ll see. There’s plenty of time. Will undoubtedly still be making my way through these books in ten year’s time. And then I’ll have the Anglo-American tradition to work through as well. And the Renaissance and Enlightenment: I should reread Descarte, and I’ve never read John Hobbes or Locke. I’ve read Hume, which was excellent. Hume is really all you need, honestly. That guy figured it out all out however-many-hundred years ago. You can’t know moral truth the same way you know scientific truth–Hume proved it quite satisfactorily. But still those crafty Germans and French, not sensible like the Scottish Hume, have tried for two hundred years to wiggle their way out of the conundrum, and they’ve succeeded sort of (not really).
Hello friends, I had this vision at one point a month ago that I was going to post here every single working day. That vision unfortunately didn’t come to fruition. But I’m still around. Just turned in probably the last big revision for my YA novel. I always think revisions are going to be relatively small, but with this revision I cut 35k words and wrote another 28k. All within a month! Feel kind of proud of myself. I feel good about this novel. I really do. Definitely worth the pipe-bomb that some right-winger will send me over it! Today I was talking to another author, and they were like our child’s school does this conference for writers, do you want to come. I was like sure, then I was like wait a second, you live in Florida, right? No, I do not want to be around children in the state of Florida.
Anyway, I don’t want to do that thing queer / PoC writers do where we adopt a pose that we’re under a state of siege or whatever. I’m fine. I never actually get hate or harassment. The current climate is a bit like terrorism, I guess? It’s meant to scare all trans people, and it most certainly does. It scares me. But it hasn’t actually, literally hit me in any concrete way yet. And I am very, very lucky to be getting published! Makes me sad to think of all the trans women and girls out there who never got to publish books. Also kind of weird, because I am not at all political (in my writing) and am so new in transition and wasn’t a trans kid, but now I feel all this weight to do something, to be there for the kiddies, to represent or something.
Well, whatever, good problems to have.
I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately, largely in single-author collections. I’ve been reading a lot of Wislawa Szymborska and a lot of Osip Mandelstam. Most of Szymborska is translated into English by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, and they do an excellent job. The poetry is so rhythmic, even in English, and it contains subtle, irregular, but frequent rhymes. It sounds great. She’s a very playful poet, and she reminds me quite a bit of some of the posts in the Beat tradition, with her refusal to become overly erudite and poetical on us. Osip Mandelstam is, of course, the opposite. All of his poems are about Biblical times or Renaissance Italy, and they contain exalted, very Christian images, and powerful feelings of despair and triumph.
Anyway reading these books of poetry has made me realize: you don’t necessarily read poetry so you can remember it later, or so you can talk about it. You just read it for the emotions you get. I think it was the Nadezhdha Mandelstam book that gave me permission to read poets in a less-educated less-expectant way. She said something like, “What you get from a poet is their world-view.” And you can’t boil it down to one thing or another, but yes, you’re in touch with a particular consciousness and way of seeing the world. It’s also a much more emotional experience, in some ways, than reading prose. But the emotions, at least for me, are finer, more fleeting.
Lately I’ve been feeling very emotional. I mean, I’ve been trying not to. I just think many things in the world aren’t as I’d want them to be. And I feel disillusioned in a lot of ways by the gap between how people act and what they say. But my life isn’t materially worse. So I don’t know how to balance that kind of galaxy-brain perspective with the fact that less has changed in my quotidian life.
Also I’ve been working a lot! I mean it still doesn’t add up to an actual day of work for a doctor or a construction worker, but this year along I completely rewrote my YA book once, and then did the latest half-revision. I also have written a few proposals, and I’ve done tens of thousands of words on other projects. Of course it’s nothing compared to last year, when I completely rewrote the literary book AND wrote a first draft of the YA book, but for some reason this year I feel more productive. Not sure why. I also wrote at least fifty thousand words, mostly in axed drafts, on a science fiction book, and I think that I’m starting to get a handle on it
For at least ten years I’ve been handicapped in my writing sci-fi books by one thing: I just don’t want to write about people fighting. Like, combat, swords, lasers, it’s just totally uninteresting to me. And I realized at some point this year, I just don’t believe in that. Like, the heroes in books should lose 99 percent of the time. But they don’t, because they’re just that good at fighting and killing. It doesn’t have anything to do with the rightness of their cause: they just win because they’re better at fighting. It makes no sense to me.
The exception is military novels, of various sorts. I still enjoy those. There I think the way the fight works and proceeds is part of the story. And there is a (slight) moral component to who wins and who loses in a war. But I don’t really know enough about war to write a novel like that myself.
So yes, I decided, there’s no need to write about swords and lasers anymore. I’m just not going to do it. Yes, I enjoyed when I was a kid reading about that stuff, but I’m not a kid anymore. So now whenever I develop a setting, I’m like, would people in this setting solve these particular problems with swords and lasers? And if the answer is yes I just don’t write that story.
Maybe the sci-fi will go somewhere, who knows, but so far good things are happening.
History of Byzantium – I’ve gotten very into Byzantine history lately, and there’s not as much out there in the English speaking world as you’d like. It’s shocking how good this is, how thoughtful, and how it mixes narrative with broader social and economic developments. Really entertaining and informative. The History of Rome is good, but this is better—one of the best history podcasts in existence.
History of Africa– There is nothing else like this out there. Popular history books (publishing in English and published in America) about Africa’s pre-colonial civilizations are pretty few and far between. As such this podcast is a major contribution—I contribute a substantial amount on Patreon every month. Start with the second season on Aksum—a civilization in the Ethiopian Highlands that rivaled Rome and Persia for size / influence and outlasted them both (it started in the pre Roman era and only fell in the 13th century). It’s stuff you can’t believe you’ve never heard before.
Don’t Go Back To School by Kio Stark— I’m always looking for books I didn’t know existed. This is a good example of one! I came across it while scanning the episode list of a literary podcast called Overdue. It’s a crowd-sourced book about ways to learn without going to school—it consists of interviews with a bunch of people who prioritized learning outside of school (and the ways their learning relates to their job and ability to earn a living).
My story isn’t really akin to anything in the book. The thing about being a writer is that virtually every writer you care about, whether it’s Virginia Woolf or W.H. Auden or James Baldwin, engaged in a long self-directed course of study as they were in the process of becoming a writer. You CANNOT learn in school the kinds of things you need to write fiction or poetry well. You can major in English, but the kind of reading you do for that degree is useless for writing: nothing in the English degree allows you to understand the well-spring of truth or beauty. Nor does majoring in creative writing really help much: you can learn a few rules of thumb, but let’s face it, writing degrees aren’t very rigorous: writing ten poems a semester or three stories a semester and reading four or five books (which is about the workload of most MFAs) won’t do anything. That’s equivalent to roughly 1/10th the work you should be doing every half-year of your writing life. And the 100 books you’d read to get an English undergrad degree or the 300 to get an English grad degree are, likewise, only a fraction of the thousands of books you’ll need to read to become a writer.
Moreover, English degrees don’t prioritize books that have the most to teach a writer. Almost every English major nowadays will read FRANKENSTEIN, for instance, but few will read MIDDLEMARCH or MOBY DICK. English degrees prioritize books that are short and teachable.
So if you’re going to be a writer, and especially one of literary fiction, you’ll at the very least need to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Dickens, Milton, Balzac, Flaubert, and a few dozen other major writers on your own. There is simply no other option.
What’s fascinating, though, is how few writers actually realize this. What’s weird is writers will be like, I love Jhumpa Lahiri or George Saunders, and not realize…both of these writers did the reading I am talking about. It’s honestly a bit perplexing. Why would you not do the same things as the people whose writing you admire?
So if you were writing a version of this book for writers, it would be: you literally cannot learn this in school.
When you’re a writer, you’re reading in order to figure out the source of the aesthetic experience: where does it come from? What provokes it? How can I replicate it? You’re basically reading for pleasure, but paying ever so slightly more attention than the average reader does. It’s not that hard!
Anyway I’ve gotten off the topic of this book. I do like the book I will say. Sometimes I’ve thought about how good it would’ve been to have skipped college and just saved the money and lived somewhere interesting and read books for eight years instead of partying for four. But I suppose you need to GO to college to learn how silly it is.
Hello friendly people. I’ve been feeling anxious lately. It’s okay. My self-medication is reading Nadezdha Mandelstam’s second memoir, Hope Abandoned. It’s basically just about everything she didn’t put into the first one. It’s hundreds of little vignettes about Soviet literary life, organized very impressionistically, with lots of jumping around in chronology. It’s one of the densest reads I’ve ever had. It’s sad and shows humanity at its worst–she’s unfailing in detailing peoples’ hypocrisy and moral cowardice. But I think it’s best when it comes to the question: what is literature for?
In America, there is so much hand-wringing about poetry. Does it matter even though nobody reads it? Can it be revitalized? Can it be made relevant to ordinary people?
This ‘ordinary person’ has become such a fetish in literature. Because almost all writers these days have egalitarian principles, we don’t like to think we’re writing for a rarefied intelligentsia. In the Soviet Union, too, they had this worry. Writing was supposed to be proletarian in character (this is in the early part of the Soviet Union) and the intelligentsia was frequently denounced. Writers and artists tried all kinds of dodges to make their work proletarian. In the early Soviet Union, writers frequently wrote about factories, as in the classic Gladkov novel, Cement.
Mandelstam is contemptuous of this phenomenon, but she’s also contemptuous of elitism, because she sees that the intelligentsia itself is quite stupid and without taste, and that they view literature only as a way to salve their own egos. She sees that, far from prizing individuality and personality, the intelligentsia constantly lays the groundwork for its own demise, that it is wary of the power of ideas, and that it’s always looking for ways of putting down the burden of thinking. She in fact charts the early intellectual currents that led to the intelligentsia’s surrender to Stalinism, and she situates them precisely in this wrecking, and this break with the past, and this distrust of the power of literature itself. Paradoxically, by giving literature a purpose, you destroy its purpose.
In contrast, when discussing her famous husband’s attitude towards poetry, she says, “M never thought about those things.” (I’m paraphrasing). In fact that’s not true, as she describes, he routinely was frustrated with himself for not being able to appreciate the new party line and not being able to write more ‘useful’ literature. Even though he mostly wrote short lyrics, people could tell instinctively that he was a person rooted in Christianity and tradition–someone with a deep reverence for what had come before–which also in turn gave him a reverence for the meaning of individual human life. Unlike the rest of the intelligentsia, he was not so willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater ideal of social progress.
When she thinks about the purpose of literature and poetry, Mandelstam is always drawn back to one thing: the primacy and importance of private life. Under the Soviet Union there was no private life, no freedom of belief. You couldn’t write apolitical verse, because that itself was political. And without the ability to feel what they wanted, peoples’ inner lives either died off or became totally other-centered (oriented towards awards and accomplishments).
Poetry helps a person develop their inner life. Poetry, at least of Mandelstam’s sort, is the record of a person in the world, experiencing life. It’s not like meditation, it doesn’t seek to extinguish the self, instead it celebrates the self and celebrates this life on earth. The purpose of poetry is to put to music the poet’s own personal world-view, and to impart their way of seeing the world, as a guide for people to develop their own individuality.
Seen this way, poetry isn’t broccoli. It’s there for the benefit of whomever needs it. Poetry is like speech. Poetry is like sidewalk scrawls or recipes put on the internet. Poetry is like anything that’s exchanged freely, simply because people are full of joy at being alive.
I loved that, because I see my own work the same way. I know that people often find my work cynical, because I don’t idealize human nature or turn away from the darkness and confusion I see in people, but my work is also about ideals. I never write anything that doesn’t contain a hint of how people can be better and more courageous than they are. I like to think that my work appeals to the best of people–not the part that’s looking for an easy heroism, for some collective victim they can stomp into the floor in some orgy of self-righteousness. It’s for the person who has their own sense of right and wrong, and who is willing to stand up for it.
That’s why my work often doesn’t fit easily into taxonomies of left and right. It’s why even though I’m trans, it’s often ignored by people who love “transgressive” queer writers. There is nothing really transgressive about my work, but it can be very difficult for readers who don’t have principles of their own, and who’ve never thought about the difference between right and wrong–readers who don’t truly have a self.
And I think in our ongoing crisis of liberalism, it’s important to remember the self. For me it’s such a joy to know things. To know very deeply that some things are true and some are false. On a sidenote, whenever I say something like that, I always like to list one true thing I know, so that people know I’m talking about real, concrete things and not just vague feelings. So here’s one true thing I know: it’s that if you’re hiding from the truth, it will hamper the work. You can be a liar in your life, but when you sit down to work, you must be honest. If you try to write a novel about a farm-boy defeating an evil empire, but part of you know that in real life it’s impossible for one person to bring down an empire single-handedly, then your work will not come together. You might write it and sell it, and it might even win awards, but it won’t possess life, and the person who will suffer most from the lie is you yourself, because you’ll have cut yourself off from the source of lasting art.
I know that there’s a wellspring of lasting art that you can train yourself to tap into. I know there is a musical note at the core of each worthwhile piece of prose–something you can train yourself to hear.
This is an aside, but lately I’ve been thinking of something else I know, which is that there is no unconscious mind.
That’s a pretty radical idea. Ever since Freud we’ve accepted the notion that part of you is submerged, and that it doesn’t contribute to your conscious impression of thinking, but that this submerged part nonetheless does a lot of your deciding for you. Many concepts in modern life hinge upon the idea of an unconscious mind. For instance, all our notions of racism hinge on the idea of an unconscious bias: you can hate a certain kind of people without knowing that you hate them.
And yet, is that really true? Does the unconscious exist at all? While it’s true that non-conscious processes take place in our mind (all of our breathing and movement, and a lot of our sense-processing, for instance), there is no evidence that there is an unconscious mind that does our thinking for us. This bicamerality, where you have the thoughts you have access to and the unconscious thoughts that exist off on their own, in a locked room somewhere, like you’re two people sharing one body–there is no evidence for that.
Moreover, what would it mean to not believe in that? Well, it would mean that we are responsible for all of our actions. That we in some sense have chosen all of our actions. We can still make mistakes, we can still be ignorant or thoughtless, but we cannot say that we are ‘better’ than the things we’ve done. We cannot say that our conscious mind knew this was wrong, but the unconscious one did not.
Modern society, by believing in an unconscious, has come to a place where it demands an unconscious. We need a place to put all of our dangerous, unspeakable thoughts and desires. But, really, those things are just as much a part of our consciousness as are all our other thoughts and desires.
The unconscious is really just a way of trying to solve the mystery of free will. Since we cannot imagine the idea that we are truly free, we instead imagine a situation where we are two people, and one of them is mute and in control of our body, while the other can speak but is mostly powerless, and the only job of the second person is to speak to the first person and convince them to do what we think is right. But if we fail to do the right thing, it’s not the fault of our ‘real’ self, it’s because we didn’t convince our unconscious self, which is, at its core, a nasty brute.
But really, we are free. We do choose. The real mystery is that there isn’t a reason why we do most of what we do. We simply do it because we’re alive and you have to do something. People search and search for the meaning of life, without realizing that it’s something they find every single day. Most of our actions are literally without any reason, not even an unconscious one, other than that we willed them.
Hello friends, I know that I promised I’d write more frequently in the blog, and that promise held for a month, but I got distracted.
I’m working on revisions of my YA novel. The last two revisions I did of this book were page-one rewrites. This one is much smaller in scale. It’s going quite well, but it just needed a lot of reconceptualizing, so that everything would fit and make sense. And that meant a lot of sitting around doodling in my notebook, drawing boxes and then drawing lines between the boxes.
I’d love to be one of these people with a complex all-encompassing explanation of how fiction works. Sometimes I come close to that, but I can never really make myself believe in the project. Still my approach has generally been borrowed, I think, from structuralism. I think of each element of the story as a box. And the meaning of the box is determined by the elements that you put inside it. And the overall meaning of the box determines the box’s relationship to other boxes.
So if you’ve got a character, and you want them to do or say something different, then you can’t simply go the proper scene and make them do a different thing–you’ve got to chance what is inside their box. That means adding or subtracting an element, so that their overall semiotic meaning changes, and that changes their character–the way they think and act. I like to think everything about a character or a situation or an organization can be concretely manifested or symbolized. Because a book is only words, you need to think about what’s the cleanest and most evocative element I can put into this character to make them a different person. Elements aren’t necessarily back-story things. Sometimes they’re interests or constraints. Like maybe they failed out of high school. Now how does that effect the other elements inside them.
Anyway, the point is you’ve got the external story: the things and places and characters and all their desires and actions. And you’ve also got the internal story, which is their self-image, their sense of themselves, their emotions, and the meanings of their emotions, as well as the semantic freight associated with various other institutions in the book.
But what authors forget is that these two stories are really one. There isn’t an inner and an outer story, there is only one story. Some things happen inside the box, and other things happen between boxes, but ultimately it’s all the same. And you can change any part of this, but it still needs to have an overall cohesion and make sense.
If boxes were just characters, this process would be a lot cleaner. Then boxes could be characters; elements could be fixed constraints (unchangeable by the characters without great effort); actions could be relationships between characters. But boxes aren’t just characters. Because, to the author, the world of the story can also be changed. So if you have a job, for instance, you can change the nature or meaning of the job, if that makes the rest of the story come together better. So when is something a box and when is it an element? Unclear!
I tend to think that actions are really not important, because they tend to flow naturally from what is inside the various boxes. You can’t really change the actions (i.e. the relationships between boxes) if you don’t change what’s inside the boxes.
So the question then becomes, how do I choose what boxes to have? If my characters and institutions and other constraints determine the story, then how do I determine those things?
Well, I don’t know–if there was a simple answer, computers would be able to do it. But my sense is that you can’t use this method to generate the initial story–the initial story has to come from inspiration.
This method is used to refine the story though. And here you use theme. And it’s really when it comes to theme that your past reading comes in handy. The development of theme is how the overall story, the entirety of the novel, comes to have some kind of meaning. And there are numerous different ways of developing themes, and numerous relationships between various themes. But essentially you start to organize what’s inside the boxes, based on your themes, so that all the boxes resonate in different ways, producing, in the end, a well-constructed explication of a handful of linked ideas.
Of course there’s a lot of art here. Because you can’t simply throw whatever you want into each box. The internal workings of the boxes are governed by your own understanding of human nature, and by your own fears about what is and isn’t possible.
The main point I’m making is that for me revising isn’t about the words on the page. I have a strong sense of the limitations of language. You can write something down–you can write down, “And then Martians attacked”–but that doesn’t make it real, unless those Martians fit organically into the scheme of the story. And in order to determine if they fit, you have to introduce them as a box, with their own history and desires, and see how that impacts the rest of your characters and institutions. And it’s that verisimilitude–that honesty and attention to the actuality of things–that to me is the essence of good writing.
The problem with writing draft blogs ahead of time is that I look at them later and don’t want to post them anymore. Or perhaps that’s a good thing–gets out the bad stuff–I’m not sure. Anyway, here is a blog post I wrote at the beginning of the month. I’m not working on this book anymore at the moment, and I totally reconceptualized it in the interim, but I think the most is still interesting.
Blog – writing
Hello friends, hope everything is going well for you in this nightmare existence.
An editor reached out to me some time ago about writing a book based on my literary criticism, so I wrote a proposal, and now at some point in the future I’ll have a book go to the academic press version of acquisitions, which is exciting. I have no idea what publishing an academic-press type of book entails, but I imagine it’s a surefire path to fame, fortune, and influence. I’ll probably be on a presidential commission of some kind soon.
I’ve been feeling anxious and envious and unhappy, but what else is new? Lots of things I’m not doing. I usually send in short story submissions a few times a year, and then gradually collect rejections until finally I shake off my inertia, record the rejections, and send them out again. At this point I think having a lot of dangling threads is just part of my process. As long as every day I’m doing something, I feel like it’s an accomplishment.
Lately I’ve been writing a sci-fi novel, which has been fun. The big thing in sci-fi is hopepunk, about hopeful post-capitalist futures where everyone is gender-diverse and polyamorous and happy. I tried to write one of those, but obviously it didn’t work out, because I started actually thinking through some of its implications. This has also gotten me doing a lot of reading (right now I’m reading Marx’s Capital, I’m reading Errico Malatesta’s essays, and I’m reading some of Marx’s political writings). And of course when I read things I get new ideas, and then I have to rewrite what I’ve written. Some writers would just do the reading and then do the writing, but I feel like if I’m not writing, I’d have no desire to hurry up the reading, and I’d get distracted and read something else.
Anyway, the people in my book are half-educated, like most people, so if there’s some book that would apply to their situation, but which they haven’t read, then…they just haven’t read it! Their collective is jury-rigged, like most things, and full of problems, like most things.
It’s very fun, but more work than I’d thought it would be. We’ll see how it all turns out. Every book I have to relearn the same lesson, which is that it’s much easier to write a book where people have some collective interest that binds them together. This naturally serves as an organizing principle for their desires and their actions, and it naturally allows you to organize them into antagonistic relationships, based on their differing approach to that interest.
Basically, it’s a lot easier to write a book about a member of a football team than it is to write about the member of a company, because the football team has a collective interest in winning, which binds them together, whereas the company has no collective interest, it’s merely a bunch of people who get paid to perform certain tasks–their interest is in payment, not in the overall good of the company.
If you’re writing about a company, you can try to finagle things and give them a collective interest, but ultimately the form of the relationship militates against the attempt. It’s simply very, very, very difficult to pretend that people who work together at a for-profit company are part of something larger, something that matters. You can do it, of course, by making the company small, making it a startup, giving it a social mission, etc, but it’s a lot of extra work. Whereas if you just choose some other form of social tie to bind your characters (i.e. family, road trip companions, trivia night team, apartment building neighbors) you end up doing a lot less work.
In this case, I originally had my character exist outside the collective, which meant doing a lot of work to bring her in, introduce her, make her interact w these people, and ultimately I realized, her fundamental problem is she doesn’t necessarily want to be a part of a collective. So instead I thought, why not bring her in and make her a part of it up-front. Well, instantly, everything became much, much easier.
When you’re writing, these are conscious decisions you can make–or, rather, they can instincts you can observe and then consciously develop. Nowadays when I’m writing and things feel a little difficult, like I’m forcing it, I always think, “Can I bring people together more organically?” The other thing I do is that if I’m having trouble w one part of the narrative, I think, “Maybe I need to focus more on this conflict, and turn my inability to do this thing into the core of the book”. For instance, I was writing a book recently where, through multiple drafts, I tried to make two women friends. I was like they have to become best friends, this has to happen, this is what the book is about. And eventually I realized, no, the book is about how they’re not really best friends, can’t be best friends, given their current social constraints.
Yep, I felt pretty proud of that one.
I really like that mental side of writing–the shaping and refining of the story. It’s an under-appreciated part of the process.
Hello friends. I’m not on Twitter these days but friends who know I love drama informed me that people have been arguing about whether you can be a good writer if you don’t read. And also about whether reading audiobooks ‘counts’ as reading. Both arguments have contained allegations of ableism: some people can’t read; some people used to read but can’t anymore; some people can’t read text, but can only read audio.
These arguments amuse me. It’s incredible how worked up people get over someone else denigrating their reading.
The thing I never understand is, we aren’t in elementary school anymore. You don’t have to fill up a notebook with gold stickers for every book you read. It quite literally does not matter in the slightest what other people think about the amount or modality of your reading, because it’s an activity you do for entirely voluntary reasons!
I understand these anxieties on some level I suppose. Readers tend to construct an identity around their reading (I know that I have!), and if audio ‘doesn’t count’ as reading then it’s somehow existentially threatening. Like you’re a fake, you’re not who you say you are! If you go into a crowd of readers, are you really allowed to hold up your head amongst them?
But here’s the thing, what’s the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen? You go to a convention of some kind and you’re like, “Oh I listened to that book last year” and the other person is like “hurr then you didn’t really read it, you’re not a real reader at all!”
Who cares? You know that you read the book. The point of reading books is the enjoyment you get from reading them, not all the trappings of ‘being a reader’. And if some significant portion of the population thinks your kind of reading isn’t real reading, then hopefully they’re not dicks about it (I’ve never found that people care that much, to be honest), but if they are, you can just rest assured knowing that they are wrong.
Because if you thought they were right, you wouldn’t read audio!
Like, it sounds weird to say it, but I sometimes wonder if people forget that you don’t need permission to do what you think is right? You have (probably) both read books and listened to them, and if you think the experiences are similar, then great! That’s all the permission you need. Nobody’s else opinion really matters.
The other aspect of the debate is peoples’ feeling that there is some kind of cultural cachet tied up in being a reader? That if you read 100 books a year, then other people respect you and are over-awed by you, and if they learned that you actually only LISTENED to those books then they’d think you’re somehow a fake.
I won’t deny there is cachet in being a reader. Most people watch mind-numbing television in their free time, or they browse Twitter endlessly, so they tend to respect anyone who’s capable of maintaining focus for a long time. But the level of cachet is extremely minor. In your adult life, it doesn’t really matter if people think you’re smart. It’s not school anymore. Nobody is giving out grades. You won’t get a lower rate on a mortgage because people think you’re a reader. It’s just a meaningless status competition that occurs largely in your own head.
And because it occurs in your own head, you are free to define the terms however you like! You can say, yes, the 200 books I listen to on audio are exactly like reading a book in text, and for the purposes of the meaningless status competition in my own head, those definitely count!
Now, I think one problem is that people know, in their heart of hearts, that listening to an audiobook and reading text aren’t exactly the same. I just read the first volume of Capital. I could never have listened to an audiobook of it. I wouldn’t have retained anything. So there’s clearly some comprehension difference there. But, then again, I also listen to audiobooks on 2.7x. When Rachel overhears it, she literally can’t comprehend a single word they’re saying. I’m not exactly prioritizing deep listening on audio. Nonetheless I consider audio to be ‘reading’. When I’m posting on this blog, I don’t take care to distinguish which books I listened to (eighty percent of them) and which ones I read with my eyes. To me, when it comes to the books I actually finish, the difference isn’t very important. For a while I debated whether I’d be willing to review a book that I’d ‘only’ listened to in audio. And while I don’t think I’d be willing to completely pan a book that I listened to at 2.7x, because that would leave me frighteningly exposed if anyone ever had problems later on with my review, but I’d certainly be willing to write a positive review of such a book.
When I see the vehemence of these conversations, I usually feel vague embarrassment for the people who take part, as if they’re breaking some general societal rule. It just seems unseemly for people to display so openly how much they cling to meaningless status markers. But of course it’s a societal rule that exists only in my own mind.