reading a book of brutal takedowns of left-wing intellectuals

Hello friends, it’s me again. I’ve been reading a few good books lately. On audible, I’m listening to the book Intellectuals by Paul Johnson. The author is a conservative intellectual, and the book is essentially full of malicious but (I assume) true gossip about leftist intellectuals, beginning with Rousseau, progressing through Tolstoy, Hemingway (though he wasn’t an intellectual, so one wonders why he was included), Ibsen, Brecht, Sartre, etc.

The criticisms in almost all cases were essentially the same: these men were egomaniacs who viewed other people as adjuncts to their own desires. They used and discarded people, including their own children (Marx, Ibsen, and Tolstoy all had illegitimate sons who died in poverty). They treated women badly, not just having affairs but engaging in emotional cruelty, as when Sartre adopted one of his lovers and gave all his copyrights to her instead of to Simone de Beauvoir.

More interesting are the various charges of intellectual laziness. The most prominent amongst them is that these left-wing intellectuals by and large had no real familiarity with the working class. Marx never stepped inside a factory; Tolstoy glamorized his peasants, but grumbled when they didn’t embrace top-down reform efforts that didn’t take into account their real needs; etc, etc.

And then the last and most serious set of charges concern collaboration with and apology for Stalinism. Hardly a Western intellectual didn’t support Stalin at some point or another, but some are fairly egregious, like Brecht, who allowed the East German state to subsidize his theater, in return for supporting Stalinism and suppressing works of his that might be seen as anti-communist, or Sartre, who was still defending Stalin in 1952, long after everyone knew about the Purges.

I assume the writer did not pick intellectuals who did have relatively decent personal live, so I do not see this as an indictment of the leftist intellectual elite en masse (there’s no Shaw, Wells, orwell, Woolf, for instance). And I also assume he didn’t pick conservative intellectuals (i.e. no Eliot, Pound, Celine), which seems a bit unfair, but what can you do? I’ve long been of the belief that the only function conservative intellectuals fulfill (and they fulfill it well) is calling out the hypocrisy and ludicrousness of the left. It’s an entirely destructive role, but some things need to be destroyed.

I enjoy the book as a bit of malicious literary gossip to fill the time, especially since I’ve recently gotten into essay writing myself and now view myself as a bona fide beret-wearing out-of-touch upper-class socialist intellectual.

(Please god, if I ever claim to know the hearts and minds of the working class, someone please take me aside and tell me I’m being absurd.)

Decided to give in to despair and bitterness

Hello friends, me again on my digital typewriter thing. I am pretty sure I am going to get bored of this thing and store it in a drawer in a few days and never use it again, but that has not happened yet.

Recently I managed the amazing feat of completely sublimating all my rejection anxiety, so that my mind was completely tranquil and I had no outward anxiety regarding any of the zillions of things I have on submission right now. Unfortunately, this resulted in terrible jaw pain, and then my inflamed jaw made all my teeth hurt. It was miserable!

Hence I decided that the only solution was to consciously feel my anxiety and sadness, albeit in moderation.

It was a bit annoying to discover that my task of achieving inner tranquility, which I have pursued for at least a year, was doomed to failure. I have suspected this to be the case for a while, since whenever I manage to feel at ease, my jaw always starts to hurt. Then the moment I get angry and bitter and sad, my jaw eases! It’s hateful in the extreme.

But now that I am not trying to conquer my sorrows, I am left to live with them. I have to say, the thing I do not like is when authors completely lose perspective and get consumed by self-pity.

Don’t get me wrong, I think a healthy amount of egotism is a good thing. Many authors could use more egotism. They take the opinions of the world too strongly to heart. They get discouraged easily, they follow all the advice they get from agents, editors, and teachers, and they lose sight of what they’re really trying to do. An author should believe in their own work.

And I think it’s okay to feel sad and angry when you get rejected. I just think it’s wise to keep things in perspective. Longtime blog readers might remember that I enjoy the novel THE FOUNTAINHEAD, and I remember a moment in the book when seecond-rate architect Peter Keating asks art critic, and villain, Ellsworth Toohey something like, "Why did it all end? Why am I no longer on top anymore? Why does nobody come to me with commissions? How come whenever I read about an architect in your column, it’s one of those other guys instead of being me?"

To this, Ellsworth responds, "Did you ever ask why it should have been you in the first place?"

Keating never deserved the acclaim he got; he’s correct that he hasn’t changed, he’s just the same as always, but since the acclaim always came at random, it’s no surprise it should leave randomly.

It’s easy to think, "Why me? Why am I not hitting? My work is better than all this other work." But ultimately one must always remember, "Why should it be you?" It’s true that your work is good, but a lot of work is good, and a lot of good artists are being ignored. Why should you be one of the lucky ones that succeeds?

Moreover, we forget that the success we have achieved was also random. Our books didn’t have to sell to publishers. Indeed, we could’ve been born in ill-health. We could’ve died before writing a world. Ultimately, fate has a much greater effect on ours lives than does talent or skill or even effort.

I recently read a book by an economist at Cornell, Robert Frank. His book Success and Luck makes most of these points much better than I could. You cannot succeed without luck. Everyone needs it. Moreover, after a certain level of achievement, luck matters much more than skill. So what can you do? Even if you did succeed, it wouldn’t be because of your finer qualities, it would be due to luck.

Today as I was sitting at the counter, with our baby asleep, I said to Rachel, "I would be happy even if I never achieved more success than I have today, so long as I had you and the baby and our comfortable life, and I could keep writing and trying….so long as you’re willing to listen to me complain about rejection for a certain, not excessively long, amount of time each day."

This made her happy. I’m glad that my complaining isn’t tiresome to her yet. I do complain about rejection. Can’t help it. But I also try to keep perspective. That’s my compromise.

Writing has been going fantastically well for me lately. Had a third literary journal email me today and say they wanted the same story West Branch and Gulf Coast wanted, and they were sad it was already taken. LOL. At least they read my withdrawal notice before emailing me. Astute readers may also have noticed I’ve added a "poetry and essays" section to my bibliography up top. I have poems forthcoming in several journals! Yes I got into poetry, which I am sure will horrify Mary jo Salter, the head of the poetry department at Hopkins, who said (very nicely) that I had absolutely no ear for meter (she was right). But I’ve just been feeling inspired. I’ve also been writing essays, book reviews, all kinds of stuff. I’m working now on a short novel that I want to try to pitch to small and experimental presses. It’s called I DID NOT CONNECT WITH THIS PROTAGONIST. I call it a novel, but it’s half essay too. Is autofiction the word? Basically it’s a collage novel, heavily inspired by David Markson and Kate Zambreno. What’s funny is I don’t consider this a particularly avant-garde form anymore. Like most things, it has ossified into simply another form: a way of telling certain sorts of stories. Since my protagonists are often too cruel and/or pathetic to work at length, I thought maybe this sort of otherworldly direct address slash recitation would work better. Whatever, I will probably abandon it by tomorrow morning.

In my approach to essays and really any form of nonfiction, by the way, I’ve learned that it’s much more fun to play things fast and loose. An example is the quote I gave above from THE FOUNTAINHEAD: I could hunt down the direct quote, but why bother? I might as well accurately transmit the form the quote takes in my head, rather than pretending to a phony completeness, as if I’m the sort of person who memorizes exact quotes.

The only time this doesn’t work well, I’ve found is when deals with issues that are in any way important. I tried playing fast and loose in an essay on call-out culture, and I was like whoops better not submit this: it’d get torn to shreds.

But all in all, life is very good, despite the rejection and attendant despair.

I told you I was going to put more work into this blog, and I have now done it

Well it took me at least four hours, but I went through the last four years of posting on this blog, and I did two things: first, I found some more posts to put in the ‘top posts’ widget on the left-hand side of the page; second, I updated the “all the books I have written about” listing at the top, so it’s current up to today.

The reason for both these things is the same: I think the writing on this blog has improved considerably in the last few years, but the bulk of the content is from 2010 through 2013. As such, if you just follow links as you find them, you’re probably gonna end up at some terrible blog post I wrote when I was 25! So I thought I’d even things out a little by adding some more links to the recent years. Of course only about ten percent of the posts on the blog were put up in the last four years, so the index of books only increased by about ten percent, but I was at least able to weight the ‘top posts’ list on the left so the uppermost links are to better and more recent entries.

That was a lot of work! And my blog isn’t even popular. No wonder people get tired of maintaining their blogs and just quit after a while.

Realized that motive is the core of every mystery novel

Finished reading The Moonflower Murders and immediately started reading Death on the Nile. I liked the first book, but I LOVE the second one. My stereotype of Agatha Christie is that she was one of the world’s most inventive storytellers, but her characters were cardboard (I’ve only read Murder on the Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). But that’s not this book at all. The murder doesn’t even happen until halfway through the book. The first half introduces the characters–an heiress and the fiance she stole from the woman who’s now stalking them–and puts them on a cruise ship down the Nile, then throws Hercule Poirot into the mix. The Belgian detective spends much of his time trying to talk people down and sympathize with them and get them to not act so crazy.

Then a murder happens of course. Not sure how it ends so don’t spoil it!

However I realized something while reading the last book, which is that most detective stories come down to motive. Once you can figure out which of the characters has a secret motive for killing which of the other characters, the story is solved. And usually the only reason you didn’t get there right away is that the murderer seemed to have no ostensible motive for the killing.

To me, this makes total sense. All the other whodunit stuff is just words on a page. Like who cares about who was where, or about parsing tiny clues. But motive comes down to the very essence of story: what were the lives of these people like before the detective came on the scene? How were they entangled? What’s going on in their secret heart?

Now that I know this, I kinda want to write a detective story!

For Your Awards Consideration (And also Story Notes for Everquest)

Nebula awards nominations opened yesterday! If you’re a full or associate member of the Science Fiction Writer’s Association of America, you can make nominations. It takes absurdly few nominations to make the ballot: word on the street is many years only around ten nominations is enough. So if any of you people want to nominate one of my stories for a Nebula PLEASE FEEL FREE.

I have a number of eligible stories this year:

  • In a year when Elon Musk was at the Elon Musk-iest he’s ever been, my short story “The Leader Principle” (my take on the classic Heinlein short story “The Man Who Sold The Moon”) was particularly apropos. It came out in the January / February 2020. It’s about a charismatic billionaire who tries to sell the public on going to Mars and about the weird and off-putting way his personal life appeals to his followers’ misogyny.
  • My short story “I Didn’t Buy It” is coming out this month in Asimov’s. It be good short story, but it’s not gonna win any awards, let’s be real. It’s just a fun tale about a woman who falls in love with another woman’s robot.
  • I had two short-shorts published. One “I am here in, some sense, to destroy you” in Daily Science Fiction. This story is pure fever dream that I wrote five years ago as an exercise for an MFA workshop. And another, “One of the less horrible of the many dystopian futures visited by the Time Traveler” appeared in Nature. Neither of those are gonna win awards either!
  • And finally, “Everquest” appeared in October’s issue of Lightspeed. It’s about a boy-appearing person who exclusively plays as a girl-appearing person in a video game, and how he grows up, puts aside the video game, and is miserable! Then magic happens.

I think “Everquest” is the one you should nominate, if you’re gonna nominate one of mine. “The Leader Principle” is a great story, but it just doesn’t have the juice. So I thought I’d also put down some story notes here for Everquest. I’ve only done these features irregularly over the last ten years, but I currently have up story notes for the following stories:

Story Notes

  • “Everquest” was published in Lightspeed #127 (October 2020)
  • Read it
  • Listen to it
  • 5000 words
  • Science Fiction but also maybe Fantasy
  • Rejected twice before selling
  • According to my notes I started it on May 1, 2019 and finished on Feb 1, 2020. God knows what I was doing for all that time! Feels like a long time to write a story
  • Accepted on April 1st, 2020
  • If it’d been rejected that would’ve been my 1715 short story rejection

First Lines

Gopal knew before he booted up the game—a Christmas present from his dad—that his character would be some form of elf or human, because the other races were all ugly, and he didn’t play games to be ugly. And he knew too, although he didn’t say it, that his character would be a girl. He always played girls online, although he’d be ashamed if anyone knew it, precisely because it played into the online belief that most girls in most games were “really” men, fat and acne-ridden, sitting in their underwear, hands down their pants, leering at that wood elf ass in those hot little leather shorts their avatars wore, and “catfishing” dudes online, pretending to be women to get some sick pleasure.

Other Notes

Clearly, the story comes from a very personal place. I played Everquest, which was a first-generation massively multiplayer online RPG, for about four or five years, starting from the day it came out, when I was about 12. After a year or two, I started playing exclusively female characters. From the beginning, I always pretended that I was a girl in real life too. It was never a conscious decision, just something that I did, and it wasn’t something I really even thought about. I guess I possessed shame over it, but really it existed in a wholly separate walled-off part of my life.

I tried in this story to capture that sort of unconscious quality. The main character never thinks, hey maybe I’m trans, and that’s what’s happening. Instead it’s all about feelings. They feel something different in the game. They like that feeling. They’re drawn to it. But they don’t have a name for what it is. Even now, I’m not sure that feeling has a name, or that it’s fully encapsulated by the transgender identity. In my fiction I try in general, often unsuccessfully, to dig beneath the stories that characters tell themselves and get into the loam that nourishes identity. So much of our experience is unconscious or half-felt or repressed, and it’s only in retrospect that we understand much of it (on a sidenote, Proust’s understanding of this is part of the genius behind In Search of Lost Time). But whereas Proust felt that we can only truly live life in retrospect, I don’t agree. I think the first go-round has value too. And I think our stories and our memories don’t fully capture the things we felt on the first go-round.

Other things I tried to capture: I was a phenomenally bad Everquest player. I never got past level 24 despite spending thousands of hours in the game. Everquest was extremely punishing: you lost hours of progress each time you died, and it was possible to lose all your gear too! When I was a kid I don’t think I really understood that it was possible to have strategy and get better at game. I mean I knew that on some level, but I was just so uninterested in ‘getting good’. The whole competitive aspect of games left me cold. Now when I play games, I’m always min-maxing, looking for the best gear, learning new techniques. But this is a relatively recent development for me. Back then I just wanted to immerse myself.

As a result I’d say I was a much worse than average EQ player. A friend of mine in high school got into the game years and years after I did, and he maxed out the level cap in under a year! I was appalled.

Not captured in this story: for some insane reason I played on Everquest’s PVP server, where players could kill each other (which they couldn’t on most other servers). This meant that you’d quite frequently just get ganked by some jerk. I never enjoyed killing other players or even tried to; I just felt like the PVP server had more character than the others.

A mea culpa for my intemperate comments about the classics

Have been reading Sarah Shulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse. Great reading experience, strongly recommend. The book is about the cultural tendency to perceive opposition as abuse. It’s clearly written with the cancel culture, trigger warning crowd in mind, but it’s not limited to that. It also writes about how dominant peoples’ can perceive opposition as abuse, and how they can use that rhetoric to lock up and harm marginalized people.

Anyway, the book has given me food for thought. It argues that in a lot of online arguments people are speaking from very emotional places, rooted either in past trauma or in feelings of entitlement, and this leads them to misinterpret and mischaracterize what people are actually saying. The example Shulman gives is that during a talk when she was advocating, essentially, more due process for campus sexual offenders, a woman raised her hand and said, "So you’re saying that when I was ten years old and being beaten by my dad, someone should’ve said, oh you’re misunderstanding him, his offenses are rooted in inequality and patriarchy."

Shulman responded, "No, I was not saying that. I think someone should have stopped your father. But I don’t think that, for instance, expelling a campus sexual offender, releasing them into the crowd of women who aren’t in college and don’t have the protections afforded by privilege, is a solution either." (I’m paraphrasing).

Shulman can come off idealistic, implying that most conflicts can be worked out through better communication, but she does give examples of people who weren’t willing to engage in good faith, and of times when it’s better to just leave people alone or cut them off. I think there is an extent, which she does not underline, to which conflict can become abuse. And then calling out the resultant abuse as abuse is warranted.

But I was less interested in the societal implications of her hypotheses and more interested in the personal ones. I personally hate fighting online, but I also routinely find myself making intemperate remarks. Most recently (yesterday) there was a blow-up about the classics, again. The conversation was about overrated classics that shouldn’t be taught in school, but I instantaneously misinterpreted it as being a conversation about why the classics in general are overrated. To be fair, many people do believe in that. But there are also gradations of the point: some equate the classics with the Western Canon and can’t look past the racism and sexism of some of the works in the canon.

In general though the conversation was about high school, and to be honest I do not care what, if anything, students learn in high school. I have absolutely nothing invested in that point. So there was really no reason for me to weigh in.

However I just have complex feelings tied up in loving and not loving classic literature (which I’m essentially calling every literary work that’s not from the here and now, whether it’s The Mysteries of Udolpho or Fantomas or Tale of Genji or even obscure books that never really broke out, like Belchamber).

When I was a teenager I was a kid who had no time for the classics. I didn’t do basically any of the assigned reading in school, from 10th grade on. I read only science fiction and fantasy, and I found it very frustrating that my teachers didn’t respect what I was interested in.

After college, when I decided I was going to seriously pursue writing, I was like, I cannot do this if there is anything about this subject that I don’t understand or am scared of. So I bought one of those self-education manuals that were so popular in the 20th century (in this case it was The New Lifetime Reading Plan) and I worked my way through a lot of its recommendations (I still occasionally refer back to it when I’m looking for a new adventure).

For a long time I felt a sense of insecurity when it came to the classics. I thought other people understood much better how to read, and that they were better educated than me. It wasn’t until I started my MFA, four years after finishing my undergrad, that I realized this was false. To get an English degree, you need to take thirteen courses (under a quarter system). Each course might involve reading ten books. That’s it. All a degree means is you’ve read 130 books and sat in a classroom for 500 to 600 hours. By the end of my first year of self-directed reading, I’d surpassed that. By the time I started my MFA, I’d read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, much of Shakespeare, Willa Cather, Euripides, a substantial amount of Nabokov and much more. I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of or insecure about.

But none of this explains why I react angrily when I perceive an attack on the canon. The uncharitable notion would be that I’ve invested quite a bit in the canon, and when someone treats it as a false god, they’re undermining my self-image. There might be some truth to that, I think. But it also doesn’t go far enough.

My relationship to the canon is a rare one, and it’s also a little old-fashioned. People don’t buy the five-foot shelf anymore and work their way through from Aeschylus to Zora Neale Hurston (okay she probably wasn’t on the five-foot shelf, but I needed a Z name). My reading has shaped my tastes, and it’s shaped my work, and my perception of what is new and worth doing. But I think because my reading is idiosyncratic, my aesthetics are also idiosyncratic.

The way I am and the way I read is the way I assumed all serious and ambitious writers were. But it’s not like that. Some immense proportion of writers stopped reading anything but contemporary literature the moment they left college. They are very au courant. Most of what they read in a given year came out in the last five years. And it just leaves me feeling very cold.

There’s no harm in reading only contemporary work, but that’s not me. That’s not what I do. I write with a knowledge of what has already been done. I don’t know if there’s a way to say that without sounding snobbish. There’s certainly a value judgement therein. I’m not sure how it’s possible to talk about fiction without making value judgements: what is interesting, what is not, what is worth doing, and what isn’t. I don’t think it’s a worthwhile project to write books that treat their subjects without nuance, that have stark, Manichean views of right and wrong, and that are often written in an ornate style that is clunky and uninteresting.

But these are views that you cannot agree with if you don’t have the (self) education that I do. If you’ve only read contemporary fantasy, then you can’t know about the complexities and ambiguities of the Mahabharata, where bonds of loyalty keep Bhishma and Drona tied to a king they hate, and where caste prejudice and transgression against the social order ultimately results in Karna’s death. If you’ve only read contemporary YA, you can’t know about the strange morality of A High Wind In Jamaica, where a group of kids is captured by pirates, adopted by them, goes native and joins their crew, and then ultimately commits murder, only to cheerfully and effortlessly reintegrate into British society when they’re found.

To me an attack on the classics, in any form, feels like an attack on everything that is timeless and complex in literature. And I know that is not how people mean it. But I also know that when people criticisms of the canon, they often conclude "I have nothing to learn from anything written before the current moment." And I deeply believe that this isn’t true, and that it’s impossible to write good literature unless you understand more than the preesent moment, because the literature of the moment (any moment) is, well, kind of shallow. It flatters modern prejudices. What survives is what has the ability to speak to a different moment, a different people.

I guess I just feel alone. The world is not what I thought it would be, and I’m left with a sense of aesthetics that isn’t really shared by most people, not even most writers, whom I encounter.

But there’s no reason for me to channel that feeling into anger at a bunch of random people on Twitter who hate The Catcher In The Rye.

Have recently read or am reading books by Anthony Horowitz, Sofia Samatar, Hamdi Abu Golayyel, and the world’s most popular author, Anonymous

Hello friends, did you guys know that I really enjoy reading? Here are some books I’ve read recently (or am currently reading).

The Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz — I was really impressed by the inventive plotting of his previous novel in this series, The Magpie Murders. The protagonist of both books is a book editor whose name I can’t remember, who is forced to investigate a murderer in which a (now-deceased) author of hers has some mysterious involvement. The fun of the books is that each has a novel inside a novel. The frame story is a contemporary detective tale, while the novel inside the novel, which was ostensibly written by the now-deceased author, is a golden age detective story about a German Poirot-style detective named Atticus Punt. If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. You read the book constantly wondering how the two novels are going to come together, and eventually they do, though for the life of me I can’t remember anything about the murder or its resolution in the first book. It’s odd how sterile this sort of cleverness can sometimes be. But I still highly recommend.

Thieves in Retirement by Hamdi Abu Golayyel – A (relatively) contemporary Egyptian novel in translation, I’m gonna pat myself on the back for finding this one because it came out from a university press, not even a mainstream indie publisher. It’s a tale, essentially: the interlocking narratives of a number of dwellers of an apartment building in Cairo. I don’t say this often, but I think it would be fair to say that there is no plot, aside from some stabs at metafiction where the first-person narrator tries to shape the story consciously. But on a page by page level, the story is interesting and detailed. Its residents hover around the demimonde or underclass of Cairo: they’re the middle of the lower, let’s say. The book is filled with crime: bribery, prostitution, drug smuggling. And it’s got a fair amount of sexual adventure and misadventure too. Its earthy style and discursive structure reminded me strongly of the Arabian Nights.

Life of Lazarillo de Tormes by Anonymous – A 16th century Spanish novel, it predates Don Quixote, and the claim is that this novel essentially invented the (picaresque). I don’t know how true that is (I am always suspicious of claims that a book invented anything). But this is an excellent example of a picaresque. A boy is given into the service of a blind beggar, and they victimize and try to cheat each other. Then the boy slips from master to master–a priest, a squire, a seller of indulgences–and the book satirizes each. Told with a lively and humor-filled first-person style. Also very short, only 120 pages. Of these three I’d probably recommend it the most strongly.

Tender: Stories by Sofia Samatar – So now that I’m writing more stories, I decided to read more too. I started with an old edition of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy that I had bought at a discount, but none of the other stories were as good as the Sofia Samatar story at the beginning (a fantastically complex and inventive story about a dystopian world where girls are pulled away from their parents and sent to a summer camp to prepare them for their future lives). So I decided what I really wanted was to read more Samatar. What gives her stories their impact is her beautiful, humane voice. Or rather, her beautiful, humane way with voice. I’m only a few stories in, but there’s one at the beginning, called The Walkdog, about a high school girl writing an essay, with footnotes, about a local myth made up by a real Nerd, a guy who really stinks of total nerd gas, who happens to be in the same class as her. Some might read the story and say the voice is off, that it feels too young for the age of the protagonists, but I actually think it’s true to life, which is that many teens do actually have young voices. Just as there are teens who are more sophisticated than their age, there are teens who are less so (and a lot of sci-fi and fantasy fans happened to be the latter). It’s that sort of fine eye that makes these stories shine. They’re not JUST inventive and full of haunting, mythic images: they’re also funny and terribly human and specific. It’s a great combination. Can’t wait to read further.

Today I am just loving being a writer

Have been feeling great about writing lately! I think getting into new areas, where I feel more allowed to fail, has been good for me. Writing can be a gloomy life. You’re alone. There’s rejection. Constant criticism. People misunderstand you, and when they do understand you they don’t appreciate you. It’s not really a craft, the way making a chair is a craft. Writing involves a lot of time being stymied. A lot of time sitting back, trying to figure things out.

But it’s also fun! I think writers often portray what we do in these very epic terms. We’re driven to get out some set of truths. Lately, writers from marginalized communities also feel driven to get their stories out there, to blaze trails for the next people of their community who come along. Personally I’ve never felt nearly so strongly about the whole business. I’ve always written more from ego than from political or aesthetic necessity. I just wanted my thoughts to be out there. Wanted to be read. Wanted to be important.

But along the way I’ve learned to enjoy the act of writing. I like figuring things out. I like developing my ideas. I like researching and exploring new areas. I like the feeling of new capacities opening inside me: a newfound ability to appreciate different parts of the word and of the sentence. And I love being in conversation with the rest of human thought. Reading and thinking and existing in the world is like standing on a mountaintop, staring out at a beautiful vista. Being a writer is as if someone granted you the power to somehow alter that vista: to erase certain things or enhance others. Putting forward your own ideas and writing work that emphasizes your own priorities is an incredible power, and it’s not something you necessarily appreciate when you’re just starting out. It’s only after fifteen or twenty years in the game when you think, you know what, these other people don’t know more than I do. They’re not better read than me, and I believe I can see things they can’t.

Which is not to say that young writers can’t have confidence or ambition, but there’s something a little foolhardy about it. They don’t know, as I do, the full contours of what is out there.

Now all of this has been very non-specific: what is it that I’m trying to impress on people? What am I trying to accomplish? I hate when people are vague in this way. But I don’t know how to be less vague! I’ve just been having so many ideas lately. There is so much to do and to say. I’ve just felt a lot freer in how I express myself. I don’t know how it all adds up to a voice or to an authorial persona, but that’s the fun of it.

For instance I’ve been having lots of ideas about how to structure stories to make them tighter, more energetic, and thematically compelling. It’s not the kind of thing you can write down, you just need to do it. My short stories, too, have started to gain a tale-like quality–lots of narrative summary, fast-moving, as I’m just relating events that happened. I’ve started to eschew the practice of ending on a heightened image: it hits too hard, like the crash of a set of cymbals. But at the same time I have lots of other things going into the stories too! It’s very pleasant to sit down and feel like you’re doing something, like something is happening. And it probably won’t shake the foundations of the world, but it’s interesting and conscious and worthwhile.

Getting back into reading books

Last year (2019) I read 290 books. That includes a number of individual plays, novellas, graphic novels, and works of poetry, but it still strikes me as rather a lot: almost one work per day. This year I have, so far, read about…ninety books. Not nearly as many. There’s been a pandemic, and we’ve had a baby. And I’ve had a tumultuous year when it came to my own writing, and I just haven’t felt as excited about reading new work as I did last year.

But hopefully that’ll change soon. I find that I can’t write for long without wanting to read again, and conversely I can’t read without wanting to write. They’re very connected. I’m a terrible egotist, the worst sort of writer, in that the moment I start reading a certain sort of thing, I think, “I want to write something like this.” Hence once I started reading poetry, I started writing it. When I started reading literary essays, I started writing them. Often my initial efforts aren’t much good, but there’s no harm in that. Why be precious and pretend that I have something to lose?

If anything, it’s nice to feel like a beginner again. When I was starting out as a fiction writer, I wrote frantically, I had so much to write, so many ideas. They dried up eventually. I got more serious, more self-critical. It’s nice to be bad again. Nice to not be so fully-formed, nice to be able to imitate a little bit.

At the same time, it’s also nice to start reading more broadly and start to develop some ideas of my own. For instance, I’ve been reading a lot of lyric poetry lately, and I came across a poem lately that had such a classic lyric poem ending. God, I should’ve made a note of it, I’m not sure I can find it again. But the poem was mostly an imagist poem, but at the end it suddenly got very grave. The effect was if you were reading a poem that as like. It was like if the Red Wheelbarrow ended by saying, “And death came for us that fall.” It was much more beautiful than that, but so clunky. Such a heavy-handed ringing of a bell.

Anyway, hope you all out there had a happy thanksgiving

Going to do an ever-so-tiny bit of Renovation To the blog

This blog has been in business for more than twelve years now, and it’s still going strong! Not a lot of blogs out there still actively detailing the writer’s life, and I am proud of that. I’m going to be tweaking some of the pages over the next few weeks, make it a little more attractive. You might’ve already seen that I’ve updating my bibliography, adding sections for my poetry and non-fiction and moving those to a separate page. I also want to revise the “About Me” page so it’s a little prettier. Maybe mess aroud with the theme and layout a bit, so people are able to delve into the archives if they want to.

I’m happy with the place! It’s not setting the internet on fire. I have no idea how many readers it’s got, but there is no way the number is higher than two thousand. Probably closer to a thousand, and most of those are on Facebook. But a thousand isn’t bad. And there’s lots of stuff out there for people to stumble upon. I know my MFA advice still strikes people as helpful. WHO KNOWS. You do your best.

Have been feeling super creative lately, and that extends to the blog. It’s been a bit fallow this year, but the posting has ramped up in the last month, and my ambition is for next year to involve a better posting schedule.

I’ve recently gotten very into writing essays. I think this is a direct result of me starting to read all the book review journals and such. I am awful–no sooner do I start reading something than I start wanting to write it as well.