I didn’t know what to write about so I thought of a line people say to each other now and then, which is “Write what you know.” I like to re-write this sentence into “Don’t be a poser,” and here we are, in a first person confessional essay. The decade is ending, so I figured I’d touch on one of the greatest inventions of the last ten years, which is of course, Youtube. Within this essay you will find links to various videos posted with copyright permission on Youtube which I enjoy, or am sliding in to work on my argument, here. My argument, by the by, is being made from Boston, Massachusetts which is the place of my birth (in a blizzard I was born, mind you), where I have returned for a stint to finish my book told in shorts, mostly centered around a few people who love the sea air up here as much as I do.
One of my favorite parts of coming home, and I’m sure the same is for you, wherever your home is and whenever you find yourself there needing a nap, in “A Clean Well-Lit Place,” is that friends like to toss books at me which I might have missed reading while I was out gallivanting in the places I’ve been these past three years. Which was mostly New York, where my mother, the first American-born child of our immigrant family was birthed. (Our birthdays are two days apart, I should ask her if there was a snowstorm then too, actually). In this essay you will also find me waxing and waning between New York and Boston references, but there will be Youtubes to illustrate so I’m hoping it won’t be hard to go with the flow in my circular logic. Just earlier my landlord knocked on the door to inform me that in order to properly work our washer/dryer, there is a water switch jutting out of the piping I have to flip and she said to me, “It wants to run but can’t.” Apropos, given that I am trying to write an essay probably sharing the same sentiment, but I digress.
One of the first friends I ran to upon returning to Boston was Steve Shea. Steve Shea is the lead “shouter” of a punk band in Boston called General Interest. General Interest has just been named one of the Best Bands in 2009 in one of our local papers called the Boston Phoenix. What the award cites specifically for the band is Steve Shea’s lyric writing, which was quoted in the article and I re-quote here: “Capricious youth/Oh, I don’t know/Capricious youth/Life is confusing.” You can read the rest of the article later, I’m talking, don’t click yet HERE. Steve Shea is a fiction writer, and so I ran to him, I mean aside from the fact that I was excited to see his grimy, punk rock face, I was equally excited that we could do what we do together often, which is talk about writing. One of the facts I get a true lift out of is that though Steve Shea is the angry, yelling, loud, frontman of a band which generally plays in under-permitted, under-ground venues around Boston, is the fact that he unequivocally loves Katherine Mansfield. Here is the Wikipedia page on Katherine Mansfield. I think Wikipedia, which launched in 2001, is also one of the greatest inventions of the decade, though I get a little sad when I think about all those Encyclopedia Britannica salesmen out of work. It should also be noted that anyone can sign up and write what their definition of the truth is on Wikipedia before a moderator swoops in to admonish and edit it. I once hacked the Wikipedia article on Pomegranates to leave a lover a note within the text, for example. So Katherine Mansfield, one of the more prominent Modernists of her time, writes some straight up good old realism short stories and a hundred years later two kids sit and talk about her. Why Steve Shea feels she’s so awesome, he tells me, simply, perfectly stated, is because she was the model for how to write a good story. This then has me thinking about essays on writing, which I should probably include here.
One of my favorite essays on writing is called, “Sympathy for the Devil: What to Do About Difficult Characters” by Robin Hemley. Here is a Youtube of the Rolling Stones performing their song “Sympathy for the Devil” from their 1968 album version. Click on that if you’d like some reading music to go along with this story. Jean-Luc Godard, French film maker did a documentary of the Stones in 1969, by the by, which you should check out if you’re into awesome film. While you’re at it, take a look at a little film he directed called “Breathless.” Here is the Wikipedia on Godard –he, like, founded New Wave film. Not to be confused with New Wave music, which would be bands like the Clash, for example. Which was a cross-over between punk and a move toward possibly a more melodic and experimental sound, take this Youtube of the Clash’s song “Straight to Hell” which was an anti-racism anthem, for example. Sri-Lankan female rapper M.I.A. would later sample this song for her single “Paper Planes,” which would similarly sound as an anti-racism and feminist anthem and find it’s way into an Independent film called “Slum Dog Millionaire” which I am certain there must be a Wikipedia article about. But let’s get back to Milton’s Satan.
In his essay, “Sympathy for the Devil: What to Do About Difficult Characters,” Hemley talks about what we writers have to do to get our readers to care about our characters. In a section from the essay “Making the Reader Care,” apparently, I took a pen and turned the R in the title to a V. It reads, “Making the Reader Cave” now. I think I did this because I am melodramatic and because I love Cher. One of the most magnificent lines of any movie ever written comes from the movie “Moonstruck” in which Cher shouts repeatedly throughout the work: “Pop don’t like Johnny.” In four words, we are given the following information: Cher’s character cares about the opinions her father has about a certain man. Cher’s character is a good daughter. Add it to every aspect of your life, in every situation. Everyone should go around shouting, “Pop don’t like Johnny.” Later in the movie “choice” lines such as, “Love is not like snowflakes, we are here to break our hearts,” are equally shouted. Here is a Youtube of Wilco’s single from their documentary, similarly titled, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” I think when we’re writing, if we’re trying to anything at all, (and some of us are not) is trying to break a heart. Our own, our characters, yours.
In “Making the Reader Car/ve” Hemley brings up one of the go-to greats, which is of course Flannery O’Connor. I broke my foot earlier this year and had to brave New York City winter on crutches, which I decorated with the words “Good Country People” because in Flannery O’Connor’s story with this title, one of the characters has a wooden leg, but I digress. “You must make your characters capable of change, whether they, in fact do change, or at least you should intimate that they were not always as low-down as they appear now,” Hemley says. He then goes on to discuss of course, the Grandmother in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” as an obvious example of a character changing. He quotes O’Connor’s character from the work, the Misfit, (you know the story: bad guy holds up a stranded family, shoots people, etc). “She would be a good woman if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.” So O’Connor forced change onto an old lady, and we are left with a pit in our stomache and the great Southern Gothic to look to for how to talk about morality. (IMHO In my humble opinion): It’s people shouting: “Pop don’t like Johnny.” Let’s get away from the sentimental, sentimental is out this year.
Hemley brings up one of the coldest stories of all time written by TC Boyle called, “The Hit Man.” You can find the story in the Shapard and Thomas 1986 version of “Sudden Fiction: American Short Stories.” The work is a minimal linear list which follows a young man’s life growing up as a professional hit man. A devil of a character, an unsympathetic character, a terrible boy we come to care about while he grows into manhood, a hit man we identify with. Why? Because we, as Hemley stresses, watched him change. He changes for the worse, it’s awful.
Also within the “Sudden Fiction” collection you’ll find my fourth favorite piece of Flash fiction of all time which isn’t even listed as a story. It’s Tobias Wolff’s comments in the “Afterwords: A Practicum” section. Here are all three paragraphs of it below. I figured I’d bring it out because it’s hidden within the other author’s comments on Flash and advice and lessons, and then this dude shows up and just shares a Flash piece. Doesn’t talk about the craft: he just does it, and in the does it, he talks about it. Observe:
I was on a bus to Washington, D.C. Two days I’d been traveling and I was tired, tired, tired. The woman sitting next to me, a German with a ticket good for anywhere, never stopped yakking. I understood little of what she said but what I did understand led me to believe she was utterly deranged.
She finally took a breather when we hit Richmond. It was late at night. The bus threaded its way through dismal streets toward the bus station. We rounded a corner and there beneath a streetlight stood a white man and a black woman. The woman wore a yellow dress and held a baby. Her head was thrown back in laughter. The man was red-haired, rough-looking, and naked to the waist. His skin seemed luminous. He was grinning at the woman, who watched him closely even as she laughed. Broken glass glittered at their feet.
There is something between them, something in the instant itself, that makes me sit up and stare. What is it, what’s going on here? Why can’t I ever forget them? Tell me, for God’s sake, but make it snappy – I’m tired, and the bus is picking up speed and the lunatic beside me is getting ready to say something.
I’m now going to spend this essay telling you things which I think are awesome in list form because I like to play with paint:
1. At a place I work we have a reading list called 101. Included on this list is T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” One time, after copy-editing the paper’s content until 4 a.m. we decided to take an hour-long break so some people could sleep or go home, and a friend and I went for a walk. We walked over the Polaski Bridge from Brooklyn into Long Island City reading Elliot’s essay aloud to one another, and it’s all pertinent, but the section numbered 9 I think is particularly helpful for this debocle of an essay. “What happens is a continual surrender of himself, as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”
2. For like 100 years, I quoted the sentence “Suppose you threw a love affair and nobody came,” from Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings.” So I’m thumbing through Lorrie Moore’s “Self-Help Stories” because Steve Shea tells me he’s reading her book “Birds of America” currently and I realize, people, the love-affair sentence isn’t Atwood, it’s from Moore’s “How to Become a Writer.” What else could I do but wince in shame thinking about how many times I’ve talked about this sentence, even now all I want to do is throw my hands up and shout “Pop don’t like Johnny.” The point is this: writing, as Sotaroff says, is a “The first ten years in the cold” kind of business.
3. I’m really into learning about Joe Gould right now. Joe Gould, fellow New Englander, who re-located to New York is also known as Professor Seagull. A beat poet, often homeless, often funded by private wealthy donors, attempted to catalogue “the history of the world.” Problematic for the usual reasons but mostly also because he believed he was actually, literally, a Seagull. “I have translated a number of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems into sea gull,” he is quoted as saying within Joseph Mitchell’s wonderful non-fiction work, “Up in the Old Hotel.” How many things do you believe you are at once?
4. Jim Carroll died this year. He was of course a New York-based poet and author of “The Basketball Diaries” and I am still bummed about it. That’s all I have to say about that.
5. Birds of Lace, a feminist press in San Francisco has published Bushwick Reading Series Curator and translator and poet Niina Pollari’s book, “Fabulous Essential.” Go to this Myspace link (a demon of an invention this decade) to get more info on how to read and review and revere it.