James Barr and I have been working on some new audio pieces in his mad scientist lab, affectionately known as Tank Farm Studio. Some are too large for my Audio page, so I'll post here until I can figure that out. This short fiction piece, "The Anatolian Girl," was originally published by The Bridport Prize Anthology. Big thanks to the engineer and maker of sound sculpture! If you have fifteen minutes to spare, I hope you enjoy the listen.
Stacey D'Erasmo on the writing moment when your project falls apart:
"Your conscious plan dissolves...and the reason it is dissolving is that your subconscious is beginning to take over, and to shove your conscious out of the way...and your subconscious is certainly smarter than you are."
D'Erasmo's little book, The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between is a resource I highly recommend for writers of narrative. In it, she analyzes ways to create connection between characters, between characters and reader, between author and reader, riffing on the advice of EM Forster: "only connect." The connections she cites are familial and romantic, of course, but also the sharing of secrets, and the commitment of violence, and the culpability of standing by while others act. In other words, the intimacy she presents is not the intimacy one thinks of immediately upon hearing the word.
She addresses, among other things, the problem of cliche and stereotype in written love, in a pop-culture environment where intimacy is practically a commodity, stating, "It's all too easy to throw a little intimacy, especially damaged intimacy, at a narrative to get it to seem serious and literary. Like corn syrup, it fills stuff out and makes it tasty." The problem is one of creating distance from our faith in intimacy as it has been sold to us. In her words, "piety of any kind is never especially good for art. Characters can, and should, believe in all kinds of things, passionately and with brilliant wrongheadedness, but the book is, generally speaking, up to something else, something broader, something less sure of itself."
She uses as inspiration not only works of literature, but also visual art, most notably the photos of Nan Goldin, whose intimate gaze is always a heavy presence: "Goldin invites us to see the men and women she loves as she sees them, to occupy her position as loving eye...We feel, perhaps, closer to, or attracted to, these subjects, but we probably feel closest psychically to Goldin; we understand what her desire feels like to her."
D'Erasmo's book is part of the wonderful Graywolf Press series, The Art of, edited by Charles Baxter, each of which explores a single aspect of craft.
Speaking of Marvels is a frequently-updated blog highlighting poetry chapbooks and novellas. What I love about both is that no one can mistake them for a commercial enterprise. In the nineties I ran a chapbook imprint, Big Fat Press, publishing poetry and experimental/performance texts. In my case, it was a purely homegrown venture. I printed linoleum block covers, did all the editorial work myself, and printed the guts of the books on the sly at my Wall Street day job. Binding the books was a painstaking sewing and/or gluing project, long hours in front of the TV. The authors distributed the books at their readings, giving them a little beer money on the road. The only limitations were time and my ability to stay awake.
I'm not the only one to take on this kind of project. Now, with the advent of e-readers, the options are bigger. The power is with the people. And often, at this smaller scale, we are able to witness the early, beautifully-wrought efforts of emerging writers, before the world and the marketplace hears of their work.
Speaking of Marvels interviewed me late last year, for my novella, The Beginning of the End of the Beginning, published for Kindle by Ploughshares Solos. I was grateful that they approached me, which introduced me to an awesome resource, profiling the likes of Anders Carlson-Wee, Meg Pokrass, and Molly Gaudry.
One of the artists I mention explicitly, if not by name, in my fiction is Tehching Hsieh, a performance art hero. I am deeply moved by the Time Clock piece in particular (see video below), not for its feat of endurance, but for the poetry of the act. It is a powerful metaphor for the ways we compromise our bodies and our lives to regularize our work, our livelihoods, our accountability, etc. The time-lapse film of the year of punching the clock is mesmerizing. And strangely, he appears to mark the hours with a degree of joy. I love this piece.
About twenty years ago I was talking to a poet friend about one of my favorite fiction subjects: preacher's kids. When she found out I'm a preacher's kid, she said, "So you're like a white, straight, female James Baldwin."
After a laugh at the absurdity of her comment, I went home and started rereading Baldwin. I had encountered his fiction in undergraduate school, but under the pressure of the lit class, hadn't fully felt the work yet. Boy, did that change. Go Tell it on the Mountain is the model preacher's kid novel, and its territory on the knife edge between sacred and profane moved me deeply, as did his brimstone prose. But I found myself responding even more to another thread in his stories, that of the artist working in the artist's community, finding chosen family, battling the demons of the artist--ego, addiction, loneliness, failure to communicate. Over time, I have become more and more drawn to this subject matter in my own work as well.
Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" is often taught in creative writing workshops, with good reason. I find it technically incredible in its verbal rendering of the nonverbal beauty in art--specifically music. It also is a perfect example of showing a character, in this case the narrator, learn empathy through suffering. For readers new to Baldwin, I highly recommend this story as an entry point. Here is the narrator finally noticing the work of his musician brother, and, I believe, Baldwin's meditation on the life of the artist:
I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It's made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there's only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.
Trial and error. Isn't that everything? And risking failure?
Baldwin was a powerful speaker also, and his wisdom on the United States' deepest wound--our legacy of slavery--has been quoted much in recent months, as old pain has resurfaced and found its way to the streets. I highly recommend reading his nonfiction on this subject. It feels prescient, though it isn't really, as the wounds are hundreds of years old. I recommend The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, was published in 2010, which contains a diverse selection of his speeches, essays, and literary criticism.
I am deeply inspired by his views on the role and journey of the artist. The practice is vital, spiritual, and in service to the world, not the artist. There is a profound sense of duty in what he did. (Is it the preacher's kid?) Listen to him talk on the subject in the links below. "The poets--by which I mean all artists--are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don't. Statesmen don't. Priests don't. Union leaders don't. Only the poets."
You may already know I'm a junkie for artist's process. It's my primary muse for fiction. I have a soft spot for sculpture and the tangibility of getting up in there with one's materials. Especially if the materials are transformed by fire!
If you've never seen aluminum sand-casting, check this out. It's a concept similar to the making of sand candles on the beach. Often a one-off project can be made by carving a piece of styrofoam, embedding it in a bucket of sand (WITH proper ventilation--styrofoam vapor is no joke!) and pouring in liquid aluminum to burn away the styrofoam and take on its shape.
This little foundry can be made at home! Recycling! Fun!
And if there were a tin can on the table, she would have chowed down on that, no doubt!
My esteem for Lynda Barry is no secret--I attended her class, Writing the Unthinkable, years ago and blogged about it a couple times here and here. I also picked up her method of journaling in list format, which I shared later on in this post, Fifty Views of the Pacific Northwest, Tin House Workshops, Family, Gardens, Walks, and Critters.
Work that I started in that class (which is not a workshop), has since seen publication, though that was never the goal of the class. The class was about accessing what she calls the "image" and rendering it well. The image is a powerful thing.
What sticks with me, in addition to her flair for the concrete, is her understanding of the way writing is rooted in the body. It is an activity we do with our hands. There is a connection between the mark on the page and the composition of an image in the brain. She wrote Cruddy with a brush and ink. This shows me patience and a trust for the connection between hand and spirit. Since that class, I have very rarely composed at the keyboard. The friction of pen on paper is my preference. The words come out better without all that percussion. Yes, they're slower. But they're better.
Since I took the class, I have encountered and been inspired by the work of several people who were also changed by her tutelage. Austin Kleon, newspaper poet and encourager of creatives is one. Heather Sellers, writer of fiction, memoir, and self-help books for writers is another.
How to keep the Lynda Barry magic going after the class is over? Or if you can't squeeze your way into the class anytime soon? There are so many ways!
1. Read her Tumblr, The Near-Sighted Monkey. She uses it to share her syllabus with her comics students in Wisconsin. Pretend to be one of them! Do the exercises! In crayon! I check in frequently to improve my mood.
2. Read her books, in particular What it Is, which is as close to her class on the page as it gets. Collage, brush drawing, and awesome instruction.
3. Check out the Lynda Barry Channel on Youtube. Videos made by Barry, while she's snowed in!
4. Watch and listen below. Some of her wonderful shtick, followed by a slideshow of her collages and comics, as well as her study of drawings by children and scientists.
I write fiction about performance artists because they feel like such easy targets. When I see an easy target for ridicule and parody, I immediately want to push for more empathy. What do people think of when I say "performance artist?" Is it narcissistic monoperformers in love with the sound of their own voices? I have been deeply moved by performance art, and that is the feeling I want to convey. And it can be pretty badass, rowdy, and fun, not to mention smart. And often illegal, like the performances in my stories.
One of my early influences was Survival Research Laboratories, based in San Francisco, who have been doing machine-based performance since the 1980s. Below are a few videos. I love the titles. Enjoy!
Swans are playing Brooklyn tonight, and I'm not there! But I'll certainly blog about another one of my influences, percussionist Thor Harris. He embodies the creative resourcefulness I aspire to.
Harris is a survivor of depression, which I am not, but I am deeply moved by this video from the Mental Health Network in which he describes coming out on the other side. "The secrecy is so potentially lethal," he says, regarding going public about his mental health issues. His keys to survival: exercise, accepting love, and creative expression, in particular, "making things." This guy invented the freak flag and flies it all the time. And there are dogs everywhere, so he had me at hello.
He is a proponent of keeping down the overhead, like all my favorite creatives. Check out his advice for living like a king, with pragmatic morsels like "7. Learn to fix things. Tons of great books and youtube vids on fixing anything. Or ask an old dude. People used to fix things. No shit."
How can you not love this dude, especially when he says his key to success has been cold-calling the musicians he likes and asking if he can play drums for them. Amanda Palmer, and Bill Callahan (aka Smog), and of course Swans, among others. What a diverse list!
And of course, the music itself. Here's a morsel of Swans. It's religious.
Artists, writers, everyone who just wants their minds blown today--the key is the right state of mind. Try reciting this poem, "Electric Magistrate," by the amazing Emily XYZ. Stand up. Sometimes I recite this poem to myself while I walk the dogs. It's pure courage.
Emily has been a big influence on me since I first heard her perform with Myers Bartlett in a little gallery in SoHo, sometime in the early 1990's. She writes about money. Until I heard the poem below, "Matt Kahn's Email," which still gives me the chills, I hadn't realized how poetic (and important!) a meditation on money can be. Now it is one of my favorite subjects. And not because "more is better than less."
And while we're on the subject of money poems, here's a classic, "Cash." Enjoy!
My new novella, The Beginning of the End of the Beginning, has a scene in an artist's studio at the top of the Twin Towers, and some have asked me if they really had artist spaces up there. They did. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council had two residency programs in unused office spaces.
One of my inspirations was Stephen Vitiello, a sound artist whose work I found on the web. He used contact mics on the windows of his 91st floor studio to record the vibrations of the building and the wind. I found it easy to picture him, at night, next to his windows, in solitude, looking down at the small buildings, listening to the big one. Here is a sample, from a 2011 Studio 360 broadcast:
I will speak more on WTC artists in future posts.
My preference is to turn off the sound and listen to something symphonic.
For your inspiration. Two of my favorite souls interview each other for the BBC.
Patti Smith: "What's more horrifying than normalcy?"
David Lynch: "I would like to bite my paintings."
What I love about both artists is their focus, their independence, and their originality, which seems to emerge from a shamanistic approach to art. Says wise Patti, "We don't want any answers. We don't need them. We just need to do our work."
People, have you, like me, discovered the Youtube genre that surpasses captioned cats and dogs? It's GOATS! They're playful, they're vocal, they're weird, and of course cute! Plus they look like some people I know. They have crept into my fiction and they're creeping into my new blog. Or, should I say, hopping?
Since the rest of my website seems to think it is all about me, the blog is going to be about everybody else: the books, recordings, podcasts, videos, music, and works of art by others that inspire me and make me love the world.
Ever feel like you need to choose between writing/reading and exercise? I'm not big on reading books on the treadmill, so I go with audiobooks and walking outdoors. Also great for subway rides (no need to don my reading glasses!) , long drives, plane rides (no motion sickness!), gardening, and housework.
Lately I have been listening to writers reading their own works, and found a handful of real beauties. I hereby recommend:
Bark, by Lorrie Moore. Her speaking voice has a honey quality that you don't quite get on the page, and adds a vulnerability to her wit. It's worth a listen even if you have already read this classic collection. I love how her narrative voice has matured. The wit is more than a trick. It pokes deep.
Tenth of December, by George Saunders. I can't get enough of that Great Lakes accent. This book is an historic event, and it's great to hear the words in his voice, with the tonal nuance of the author. The voicey voicey Saunders touches--missing articles, equals signs, etc.--sound completely natural. My favorite story: "Escape from Spiderhead." Yours?
Townie, by Andre Dubus III. Dude is famous for the empathy he has for his fictional characters, so what happens when he turns that empathy on himself? It's a remarkable feat in memoir. A meditation on violence unlike any I've seen. And the voices! New England and Old England accents included. He's a performer.
Queen of America, by Luis Alberto Urrea. Talk about performers! This audiobook is the next best thing to hearing him read (or, more likely recite) his fiction live. All the mysticism and feisty dialogue you would expect. Any other actor would be a cheap imitation.
Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. If you're a fan of his TV shows, here's a great place to hear where it all started, with weird childhood European cuisine experiences, entry level kitchen jobs, and all the bravado you would expect. Excellent road trip listen; makes the miles fly by.