The House of Write

The House of Write

My partner is currently writing on the couch, while I type at the dining room table.

The dog doesn’t like this. It’s okay for us to watch TV together while she disengages, but two people staring at computers in the same area calls for whining/moaning/crying. Usually at me. I am the head of household and decision-maker, and thus I am the problem.

My partner and I are both writers who don’t get paid to write, or only occasionally. We both have full-time jobs. He has depression, anxiety, and ADD, and thus a real need to create low-pressure environments for himself. In other words, he plays video games in his remaining free time. I have a half-dozen volunteer commitments, and my spiritual practice. (He’s working on the latter.)

I would love to post here or on my other blog once a week. I would love to commit to that. But I have this weird thing about keeping promises, one that doesn’t necessarily jibe with my spiritual beliefs. I know I have no control over the future. I know that the means is the end. I know that I would approach any commitment with the best of intentions, and even if I did fail, who would I be hurting? You, dear readers? Part of my evil self would really love to think that your lives would be noticeably worse if you were denied a piece for even a single week, but we know that’s not true. The only one hurt would be my ego, my high-achieving self, my judging little voice.

But I do want to write. I think about writing all the time – I have thoughts scrawled all over the place, including in the 70+ “drafts” sitting here on WordPress, with titles like The Weight of the World, Sour Grapes Make Fine Wine, and Sucker, and no further content. Did I think I could actually figure out what overwhelming force compelled me to make those notes, and did I think I would actually remember well enough to complete them? Or was I so spiritually advanced that I tossed these prompts out there knowing I could never get back to the place I was when I wrote them, and preemptively accepting the ultimate work as equally valid? Presuming these drafts are all worth pursuing, or reconstructing, I have more than enough content to get me through a writing year, but that’s a big presumption. And even with my anti-perfectionist commitment to not spend too much time editing anything, it’s nearly impossible for me to finish a post in less than 3 sittings. The Didion piece was a rare exception, but it was also written in the middle of a 5-day holiday weekend. Sitting in front of a computer makes me feel gross, and I have to do it all day for work. I’ve gotten much better at caring for myself since working from home – taking breaks to meditate, exercise, go outside – but the last thing I want to do at the end of a work day is sit at a computer and write. Which makes this all … hard.

I’ve relocated to the couch now, next to the guy. Dog then started moaning at us again, so we yelled at her until she joined us. We don’t want to yell at her: this is one of her rules. She will not join us on a piece of furniture unless we demand she does it in an aggressive tone. Then – maybe – she’ll cuddle up. She wants to come up, mind you, she just doesn’t want to show that she wants to come up, so she insists that we verbally abuse her. Fucking freak. And she doesn’t have the excuse of an abusive childhood.

She is now lying all the way across my guy so he can only type with one hand. Mission nearly accomplished.

What if I just commit to posting something every week? Does a Goodreads book review count? What about some fluffy day-in-the-life-of tidbit? What’s the purpose of posting, anyway? To spread ideas? Give of myself? Get attention? WHO AM I ASKING?

My ego, of course. But that’s not all of it. Those of us who write, overwhelmingly, feel compelled to write. As hard as it is to start, and infinitely harder to finish, I feel better when I write. I understand myself more, my emotions are softened, and I take the time to process in a way I don’t always do in the course of a regular day. It does me good.

All of that could happen without a blog, and even without a computer, but I’ve chosen to put writings out into the world on a semi-regular basis. It’s a mixed bag. The occasional feedback is great, but the pressure to publish frequently is sometimes counterproductive. I sometimes envy my partner, who has stopped blogging and is only working on pieces by himself or with an editor. But something drew me to this, and something tells me it might be helpful for others, so I keep going.

I guess that’s my 2022 commitment: to keep going. And lookee here – I’ve finished a post in one sitting (two locations; with canine assistance). Wishing you all joy & wisdom. Until next time.

The Death of Didion

Joan Didion was my favorite writer. That “was” may go back to a time before her death. It may have ended when I read Blue Nights, but I have yet to choose a replacement. Her style was extraordinary in its simultaneous originality and simplicity, and I followed her with devotion, while knowing I could never write like her. Perhaps because I knew I could never write like her: terse, incisive, stark, and stripped of emotion, while effectively evoking it from the reader. She is one of only two big writers who I have gone out of my way to see speak, and meet.

I was introduced to Joan Didion’s work, as I was introduced to so many of my favorite artists, by my college professor/surrogate father/friend who died last year, also of Parkinson’s, though a decade younger than her. He gave me Play It As It Lays in the midst of the drama of my depressed, self-absorbed, self-destructive sophomore year in Los Angeles, where it largely takes place; studying acting, which is the career of the protagonist; chain smoking, like he;, obsessively driving the freeways when I couldn’t sleep, as she did; routinely tearing through specific intersections highlighted in the book. I gobbled it up like it was the one essential nutrient keeping me alive. To this day, it is one of my top 5 favorite novels. That was the beginning of my obsession, which stretched over 12 books. Her memoir Where I Was From is the rare holdout on the shelf, and will now be my holiday reading. Because that’s what we do when writers die. At least I bought it while she was still alive to reap whatever profits were to be had.

I didn’t love all of her books. The political ones, in particular, were too insider-y for me. I don’t know if I’d understand them better now than I did then, and I don’t feel any need to find out. But when she was on … fuck. She had a way of making the ethereal tenable, and making the mundane revelatory. The contents of a purse (The Book of Common Prayer) could say as much as a deep psychological delve into a character. This was a revelation to me.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

I don’t think of Didion as a spiritual person, and I don’t think she did, either. But anyone who deliberately digs deeply into their own mind is bound to run up against the boundaries of things, the immaterial. Her famous quote above is right out of Buddhism 101. But rather than trying to escape the narrative and simply be, as Buddhists do, she relentlessly shoveled the shit, which might be almost the same thing, in the end.

Depression, in Didion’s works, is depicted not by talking about it: characters don’t discuss their feelings. They may not say much at all. They exhibit certain behaviors which represent certain states or weaknesses or depressive or anxious characteristics. It is the behaviors that hold their attention, not the motivation underneath. They are trapped in the idea of their own identity, or what it should be, or what they think others perceive it to be. They follow the directions drawn for them instead of being present in their own lives. They are detached to an exceptional degree, so that the protagonists may seem to be narrating their own story as they’re living it, or rather instead of living it, believing that changing the narrative will change the person herself.

She had watched them in supermarkets and she knew the signs. At seven o’clock on a Saturday evening they would be standing in the checkout line reading the horoscope in Harper’s Bazaar and in their carts would be a single lamb chop and maybe two cans of cat food and the Sunday morning paper…. To avoid giving off the signs, Maria shopped always for a household…. She knew all the indices of the idle lonely, never bought a small tube of toothpaste, never dropped a magazine in her shopping cart. The house in Beverly Hills overflowed with sugar, corn-muffin mix, frozen roasts and Spanish onions. Maria ate cottage cheese.  

…she had an uneasy sense that sleeping outside on a rattan chaise could be construed as the first step toward something unnameable …

Play It As It Lays

A journalist and sometime screenwriter herself, her characters seem to also be watching the movie from the outside, narrating the story of their lives instead of living it, moving through a kind of fog or mild narcotic state. And not just in her novels. In her essays, the commentary on her life, her thoughts, seems to her far more real than her life itself.

Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind, she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.

Play It As It Lays

You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people…. Quite often during the last several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the Moment’s high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams.

In the Islands, essay (The White Album, 1979)

Joan Didion, as you probably know, wrote a gut-wrenching book on her reaction to the death of her husband, because she didn’t know what else to do, how to act, how to Be. (I read it in one sitting because it was beautiful and because it was too painful to carry over into a second day.) She grounded herself in curiosity about her own inner workings, and also recognized that she could not hide from grief behind words. That grief was present in a way that she often was not, shrouded in her protective magical thinking. And the uber-narrator is acutely aware of that.

Perhaps the writing brought her some peace. It definitely brought thousands of readers to some understanding – of her, of themselves, of grief. The best artists make the specific universal, and the universal personal. In her analytical way, she turned herself inside out – for us? For her? No matter. We could see ourselves reflected there, in all our gory vulnerability.

Life changes fast/ Life changes in and instant/ You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

The Year of Magical Thinking walks us, and Joan herself, through the months after her partner’s death, but it’s not that different from the rest of her writing – writing as both interpreter of and substitute for living, “both a way of keeping a distance and a way of getting close. It’s both those things, simultaneously.” (interview ~2011). Writing is both a way to connect and a way to detach. Look at the lines above – the first words she wrote after her husband died weren’t explaining her own feelings, her own experience: they pulled the lens back on the moment – declarative, conclusive, not even in the first person. It isn’t about her, it’s about LIFE, in the abstract, writ large. She struggles both with the need to write to figure out the story, and with wanting to resist creating a narrative that may not be honest.

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.

Why I Write, NY Times 12/5/76

There is something spiritual about Didion’s work, in its explicit omission. Her focus on behavior and thought and physicality recognizes its own exclusionary nature, thereby opening up the possibility for more. In Play It As It Lays, Maria’s fear of losing herself to inertia and pathos drive her to keep pursuing self-awareness.

By the end of a week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.

There is some terror in losing that distinction, because the character has no resource for dealing with it. She’s surrounded by self-serving, profit and status-driven people in a dry, manufactured, materialistic world. But the pain in living that detached narrative is palpable.

I’ll close this attempt at analysis with as much reportage as I can muster. The scene: a woman, far nearer 40 than 20, waits in line to meet her literary heroine, cradling her favorite novel and the writer’s recent memoir under her arm. As she watches the other attendees step up to the table, she cycles through reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent praise, something that hints at her own mental acuity, and with respect for the subject: that she has read more of the author’s works than anyone alive; that of the thousand novels she’s read, this is among the very best. She looks up as the distance shrinks and decides she doesn’t need to say anything at all. She can just hand over the books for signing. Then she approaches the table, and the tiny, old woman looks up, with eyes that look beyond and through what is in front of her, but stare definitively at her own, and the fan blurts out, “I love your writing SO MUCH.” The author opens the books and signs, saying nothing, and hands them back. Was there a tired sigh? The woman walks out of the theatre and goes on with her life, a new narrative to tell, with a new character under her belt: the fawning fool.

Thank you, Ms. Didion, for all of it.

Harper’s Scary

Long Live Bad Puns!

harpersI’m afraid to open this month’s Harper’s magazine, which our mail carrier crammed into my mailbox a week ago, over the objections of a squirrel-deformed jack-o-lantern, a Día de los Muertos calavera, and the dog.

I’ve subscribed to Harper’s continually for nearly a decade, and periodically before that. It was a primary source when I was writing about forgotten female horror writers of the early 20th century in grad school. The Guy & I have a monthly ritual of quizzing each other on the Harper’s Index at breakfast, and the Readings section has provided some of my favorite hilarious lists, bizarre transcripts, and brief personal narratives of all time.

But the last year has made me question my loyalty. It started with the rambling, pathetic, not-mea-culpa by John Hockenberry, entitled My Life in Exile. Continue reading “Harper’s Scary”

Imperfect Work

a minusI spent several months of last year trying to brainwash myself out of self-loathing. It was helpful, in that I learned quite a bit, and the intellectual path is the quickest way to my heart, but I don’t know that it accomplished its goal in any significant way.

The better way, probably, is to keep working on doing the opposite of what my loathing overseer demands, on a pathetically constant basis. I will (try) not to yell at myself for breaking a plate or overcooking rice, or assume everyone else’s ideas are better than mine (until I decide they’re all inferior – or vice versa), or make every moment quantifiably “useful,” or force myself to a certain level of perfection before I share anything with anyone.

That’s where you come in!

I haven’t written much lately, and haven’t blogged nearly as much as I was intending to overall. It’s hard to churn out even two posts a month when every piece has to be without errors, coherent, and cohesive. I’m not saying what I have permitted was good, it just isn’t full of bad-person-mistakes. It’s taken me a while to accept that perfectionism is a problem. To be honest, I still don’t. But I do recognize its destructiveness, and the hypercritical source of it. For some of us, if we don’t perform to a certain standard, we are unworthy of being accepted and loved. That is totally rational, as far as I’m concerned, but I know that I am fucked up and I Am Working On It.

So I am going to attempt to post once a week for the next several months. Putting out that much with work & projects & language study & volunteering & meditation & exercise & dog & guy necessarily dictates a minimal amount of edit time, but in order to head off any sleepless nights and screen blindness, I’m setting some rules around it (which I will Not Hate Myself for Breaking).

This is post number one. Discúlpame.