Category Archives: advice

wise words from Francisco Goldman

Original text in Spanish here, poorly attempted translation by me below:

I have never felt compelled to give up fiction. Like you, despite that times like these in Mexico aren’t easy, I remain faithful. I’ve dedicated my life to this fucking art that I love and that is in reality a very marginal trade, as it perhaps should be–I hate the solemnity and pomp of certain kinds of “novelists”–and it’s also what I live on. I don’t think that the novel is in itself something useful, that it has or should have a political use. It is the reader who decides what has value. What is the novel for me? A search for something that can only be expressed through writing a novel, and that something includes the search for its own structure, its style, pattern, rhythm and so on. You follow the whispers of intuition and memory, and many times you have no idea what will happen on the next page. I believe the novel turns out better when it’s like that. Of course in some way or another it’s an encounter with yourself, with your most intimate self. There’s a high risk of embarrassment, of failure. Perhaps breaking the silence is always a danger. Pain is fundamental. But maybe, as speculated as much by W.H. Auden in some essay, the first pronunciation by a human was “Ow!” Some caveman stumbled, his foot struck against a stone, hard and sharp, and yelled “Ow”; later another did the same, and so on. Human language began here, the song of experience. Pain is perhaps the seed or start; others have said it’s death and loss. Finally, the wish or desire to search, to understand, to dramatize the pain of others. That is the art of the novel, and one of the few things that the novel has in common with certain types of journalism.

When I don’t write I feel like a useless weakling, I’m good for nothing. When I do write, I know what I’m doing with all my being, with everything I think or believe: in one way or another, that’s where I’ll be… Then came Ayotzinapa and things changed. I’m still working on a novel that has nothing to do with it, a very intimate novel, which is practically the only thing that’s mine in the world, and I don’t regret it. But I am a citizen too. I admit that now my concentration is fragmented and that I have to discipline myself. I need to go out in search of what is happening. I like to observe, ask, listen. It is a privilege to share what I learn.

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Still Writing

What a lovely, inspirational book! I really appreciated its honesty, and its gentle, helpful tone. The way it’s divided in readable, short segments. The non-sentimental way it blends memoir with advice. Its direct confrontation of relevant 21st-century struggles (the internet! Self-hatred! Monday mornings! Self-scheduling! How to make routines, form habits!). It’s definitely something I’m going to pass from hand to hand among my graduate school cohorts. I love writing-themed non-fiction, I love self-help written in incredibly kind, compassionate voices, and this book combines the best of both worlds.

Here are some of my favorite passages:

Here’s a short list of what not to do when you sit down to write. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go to the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination. Do you need to know, right this minute, the exact make and year of the car your character is driving? … Can it wait? It can almost always wait. 

Sit down. Stay there. It’s hard–I know just how hard–and I hate to tell you this, but it doesn’t get any easier. Ever. Get used to the discomfort. Make some kind of peace with it. (10-11)

What I do know–what I’ve spent the past couple of decades learning about myself–is that if I’m not writing, I’m not well. If I’m not writing, the world around me is slowly leached of its color. My senses are dulled. I am crabby with my husband, short-tempered with my kid, and more inclined to see small things wrong with my house… If I’m not writing, my heart hardens, rather than lifts. (13-14)

We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. What we’re doing isn’t easy. We have chosen to spend the better parts of our lives in solitude, wrestling with our deepest thoughts and obsessions and concerns… And so, when the day turns against us, we might do well to follow the advice of the Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein, who talks to herself as if she’s a child she loves very much. Sweetheart, she’ll say. Darling. Honey. That’s all right. There, there. Go take a walk. Take a bath. Take a drive. Bake a cake. Nap a little. You’ll try again tomorrow. (81)

This may be the most important piece of advice I can give you: The Internet is nothing like a cigarette break. If anything, it’s the opposite. One of the most difficult practical challenges facing writers in this age of connectivity is the fact that the very instrument on which most of us write is also a portal to the outside world. I once heard Ron Carlson say that composing on a computer was like writing in an amusement park. Stuck for a nanosecond? Why feel it? With the single click of a key we can remove ourselves and take a ride on a log flume instead. (159)

The agony! The nagging sense of what might have been! There is always someone who, at this very moment, has more. More acclaim, more money, more access, more respect… I see this even when I watch my son with his middle school friends. There are girls in full bloom–girls who are the envy of their classmates, girls who are at this moment as pretty and popular as they will ever be. Boys who’ve had growth spurts and are practically shaving, who are envied by the smaller boys and wonder when–and if–they will ever grow. Observing them, from the sidelines of ball games and dances, I want to jump up and shout: This isn’t it! You think this is it, but it isn’t! your whole lives are ahead of you with ten thousand joys and sorrows. Of course I say nothing. My son would kill me. But I think about this–about myself and every adult, writer or not, who makes the all-too-human mistake of comparing one life to another. (216-217)

When I first learned of Buddhism’s eight vissictudes–pain and pleasure, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute–I was taught that it is unskillful–that gentle Buddhist word for fucked up–to compare. We will never know what’s coming. We cannot peer around the bend. It is our job to pursue our own dharma and covet no one else’s. (217)

I also liked this list by the poet Jane Kenyon that she quotes at one point (207-208):

Be a good steward to your gifts.

Protect your time.

Feed your inner life.

Avoid too much noise.

Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.

Be by yourself as often as you can.

Walk.

Take the phone off the hook.

Work regular hours.

Disable the Internet [Shapiro’s addition]

I also liked her quotes from the Gnostic Gospels (If we bring forth what is within us, it will save us. If we do not bring forth what is within us, it will destroy us) and the Bhagavad Gita (Better is one’s own dharma through imperfectly carried out than the dharma of another carried out perfectly). (201)

Oh, and this oft-quoted quote by Martha Graham also makes a lovely appearance (118):

It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even need to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. 

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Writerly Advice

From Junot Diaz’s essay on what made him become a writer:

It wasn’t that I couldn’t write. I wrote every day. I actually worked really hard at writing. At my desk by 7 A.M., would work a full eight and more. Scribbled at the dinner table, in bed, on the toilet, on the No. 6 train, at Shea Stadium. I did everything I could. But none of it worked… It was like I had somehow slipped into a No-Writing Twilight Zone and I couldn’t find an exit. Like I’d been chained to the sinking ship of those 75 pages and there was no key and no patching the hole in the hull. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, but nothing I produced was worth a damn.

Want to talk about stubborn? I kept at it for five straight years. Five damn years. Every day failing for five years? I’m a pretty stubborn, pretty hard-hearted character, but those five years of fail did a number on my psyche. On me. Five years, 60 months? It just about wiped me out. By the end of that fifth year, perhaps in an attempt to save myself, to escape my despair, I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write, that I was a minor league Ralph Ellison, a Pop Warner Edward Rivera, that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future…well, great. But I knew I couldn’t go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn’t. I was living with my fiancée at the time (over now, another terrible story) and was so depressed and self-loathing I could barely function…

You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. Wasn’t until that night when I was faced with all those lousy pages that I realized, really realized, what it was exactly that I am. 

How to write like a motherfucker, from the Rumpus advice column:

At the time, I believed that I’d wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book and I bitterly lambasted myself for that. I thought a lot of the same things about myself that you do… That I was lazy and lame. That even though I had the story in me, I didn’t have it in me to see it to fruition, to actually get it out of my body and onto the page, to write, as you say, with “intelligence and heart and lengthiness.” But I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked. And so at last, I got to serious work on the book.

When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. [“The final product of self-knowledge is humility.”] And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

The best possible thing you can do is get your ass down onto the floor. Write so blazingly good that you can’t be framed. Nobody is going to give you permission to write about your vagina, hon. Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.

So write… Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

facing down fears!!!

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The Wanderer Chapter

“The self is not one thing, be it evil, good, sinful, or joyful.  The self has no inherent bottom.  What we do becomes what we are.” (from Michael Stone’s Awake in the World, Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged life)

I haven’t been reading much lately. If what we do becomes what we are, does this make me a non-reader?

It’s a question I struggle with daily, this idea of being “stuck” in a certain way that I think of myself. I don’t like feeling like someone who doesn’t read regularly.  Excuses, excuses. They’re always there.

It’s not like I haven’t been reading anything, though–I did read the Wanderer chapter in Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World.  The book is divided into sections, with each one discussing a different phase in a person’s life. Some of the chapter names are admittedly a little twee: The Wanderer in the Cocoon, The Artisan in the Wild Orchard, the Master in the Grove of Elders. Still, I think I can deal. I don’t know yet if I’ll read the other chapters–I’ll probably read the early adolescence one (excuse me, I mean the Thespian at the Oasis).

The Wanderer chapter is Plotkin’s term for late adolescence. A lot of the topics that Plotkin touches upon in Nature sound very familiar to me from SoulcraftI feel like Soulcraft is the book-length version of the Wanderer chapter and discusses a lot of the same ideas. Still, it was nice to absorb it all in a more condensed fashion, and I still feel like he brought up some new points of interest for me. Here are the biggest lessons or main points I took from it:

– The world is constantly shifting. We would like everything to be stable and definited all the time, but it’s not. It’s kind of like tectonic plates moving underneath our feet. Our world is constantly remaking itself; it’s a process that literally never ends.

–  To grow up you need to vacate your psychological home, i.e. your adolescent, or first-adulthood identity (I definitely still feel like I live here at times).

– It will be a painful process. You will feel immense loneliness and hear a lot of scolding, inner voices.

– One of the most important things you can do during this difficult time is learn SURVIVAL SKILLS. Think of yourself like one of the participants in The Hunger Games, learning archery and camouflage skills to save your life. You need to become a hunter, trapper, scavenger. RESILIENT. You have to think of yourself like a warrior: Luke Skywaker with a lightsaber, Katniss from The Hunger Games with a bow and arrow, Buffy the mother****ing vampire slayer. Because nobody is going to save you but yourself. “You have to surrender the cherished belief that someone is going to protect you, save you, do the work of growing for you, or show you the way.” (236)

– Another thing you can do that will help: radically simplify your life.

– What is the ultimate goal? To LIVE, not just survive, and be in love with the world, your life and others, as opposed to just a “responsible” adult that pleases everyone.

– Plotkin also talks a lot about the importance of rituals. It makes me want to take a hike all by myself and, I don’t know, burn a bunch of shit and throw it off the side of the mountain into the gorge.

– He also talks a lot about this idea of a survival dance vs. a sacred dance. Getting a little twee there, I know, but bear with me a little. A survival dance is something you have to do to be self-reliant, to survive: support yourself physically and economically. For most of us, this equals a paid job. Once this has been established, you can spend time on your sacred dance, which he defines as “the work you were born to do. Your sacred dance sparks your greatest fufillment and extends your truest service to the world… You know you’ve found it when there’s little else you’d rather be doing. Getting paid for it is superflous. You would gladly pay others, if necesarry, for the opportunity.” (258) (Wow, has there ever been a better argument for taking out a ton of loans to go to grad school for creative writing? Goodbye potential guilt!!) Plotkin also encouragingly says that gradually your sacred and survival dance become one and the same (thus meaning that you survive by doing what you find most fufilling), but you have to work on creating a foundation of self-reliance first. How nice to imagine so.

– He also discusses how in adolescence, the main lesson you’re learning is how to be a part of society. That’s why your peers’ opinions are so important and will make or break you, why you so desperately want to be loved and to belong, etc. But then you reach the Wanderer stage, and it’s like you no longer really care that much about society. You’re kind of like, **** this, the things that society is telling me I should want–I don’t really want them. Well, what do I want then? Where do I fit in? It’s not that Plotkin is encouraging you to totally reject and shun your community: the best part is, if you really want to be a part of and contribute to a community, the best possible thing you can do for yourself is find out the gift you have and want to give to the world, and share it!

– But wait, so what does this mean, to have an authentic place or identity? Does it just mean something that someone will pay you to occupy, like a job? (NO.) Is it a task that you’re talented at performing? (NO AGAIN.) Is it a social role that people accept you in and approve of and praise you for fufilling? (GUESS WHAT STILL NO.) According to Plotkin, your authentic place is “one that is in keeping with [your] vital core. It’s a place defined not by the deeds you perform but by the qualities of soul you embody; not by your physical, social, or economic achievements but by the true characer you manifest.” (251-252)

– So what are the specific things you’re supposed to do as you try to figure out your authentic place? Guess What There’s Two: 1) Say Goodbye to the Old and 2) Make Yourself Ready for the New.

– The way you Say Goodbye to the Old is through honing your skills of self-reliance. The biggest thing that sucks about this is that you are gonna need to be patient, because the only way you can learn is through experience itself. IT IS GOING TO TAKE TIME.

– Perhaps the point I love most in this chapter is Plotkin’s emphasis about leaving your past story and wounds behind. “They are no longer the major identifiers of your life but are only some defining components of the smaller story that characterized your childhood and early adolescent existence.” I LOVE this idea that you don’t always need to be continuing the same-old, same-old story. I feel like we get stuck in these identities : I’m not a morning person. It’s hard for me to write on a regular basis. It’s hard for me to focus at work. It’s hard for me to exercise every day. Plotkin is like, NO. You can always surprise yourself, you can always begin again, you can always rewrite the story anew. You don’t have to be trapped in the old story that you’ve been telling yourself. You can begin writing a new one, now. In the end, you basically have to become a loving, nurturing parent or lover to yourself.

– There are lots of practical (if somewhat obvious) suggestions he gives for Making Yourself ready for the New: give up addictions, practice meditation, practice solitude, immerse yourself in nature, contemplate death, leave the familiar, walk into the fire and confront what you are most afraid of.

Oh, also: yesterday (after I’d already started this entry) I stopped at Powell’s and bought myself a new journal and the first book of The Hunger Games, which I stayed up late to finish reading in one sitting. So much for not reading.

Everything is going to be ok.

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by / constantly greater beings. (Rilke)

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Soulcraft

At some point in your life, you begin to wonder if perhaps there is more to life than another round of success (or failure) at the Standard Game of Security Building—the pursuit of your personal selection of career, material possessions, physical safety, comfort, social and sexual relations, and economic position. (47)

This book (Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche by Bill Plotkin) was an interesting one to read at the end of the year. My sister got it for Christmas and I have been skimming through it myself these past few days. I’m really going to have to get his other book, Nature and the Human Soul, the one Cary Tennis recommended. These are some of the things that I found interesting about this book:

– I liked the book’s emphasis on myth-making (particularly of the Joseph Campbell kind), storytelling and archetypes. I loved it when he used a scene from Star Wars to illustrate an example of Jung’s Shadow (hint: it’s the scene in The Empire Strikes Back). It made me want to re-read Jung: A Brief Introduction and actually take notes this time so that way I can actually remember concrete information about his theories. I liked Plotkin’s definition of archetypes as a representation of “the patterns and possibilities of being human,” and how we will all embody each archetype (some more than others) at each point in our lives. As I’ve said before, this idea of fragmentation and many, separate selves that are somehow all cohesive really appeals to me. Case in point: Tori’s American Doll Posse album, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. I also liked how Plotkin argued for the ego to be reassigned “as an active, adult agent for soul, as opposed to its former role as an adolescent agent for itself.” (36) My ego DEFINITELY feels like an adolescent most of the time.

– My favorite part of the book was Plotkin’s discussion of specific archtypes, such as the Wanderer (seeker of adventure), the Wild Child (sensual creativity), the Nurturing Parent (does exactly what it sounds like!) or the Lone Solider. The latter particularly freaked me out because I wrote quite a few short stories this year that were about soldiers doing exactly what Plotkin says is the archtype’s purpose: an ally who protects you during childhood, but who needs to be told that the war is over, the battle is over and they can leave, they can go home. This archetype reminds me of another great mantra from Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, in which you picture walking away from your pain, sadness, anxiety, depression etc. like a soldier laying down his arms and walking away from the battlefield. Just listen to this:

Common Loyal Soldier survival strategies include harsh self-criticism (to make us—the ego—feel unworthy and thus ineligible for Wild Child actions that might bring further punishment, abandonment or criticism); placing our personal agenda last, other codependent behaviors (e.g. caretaking, rescuing, enabling) to stave off abandonment; pleasing but immature and inauthentic personas; partial or complete social withdrawal (to minimize social contacts); adopting an unpleasant or downtrodden appearance (to protect us from criticism); restricting our range of feeling by encouraging us to always be in charge, busy, angry, ruthless, withdrawn, and/or numb; and suppressing our intelligence, talent, enthusiasm, sensuality and wildness by locking up these qualities in an inaccessible corner of our psyches. (92-93)

That’s a long passage but I wanted to type it all up so that I could remember it, because it was definitely the section of the book that impacted me the most in terms of its “whoa… I learned a lot from just reading that” factor.

– I also found the book’s emphasis on the theme of descent (as in the mythological hero’s descent into the underworld, a la Innana) very interesting. I agree with Plotkin’s POV that we live in a culture that “protects us from the hardships and dangers of the descent.” One of the main reasons that I liked his discussion of descent is because I’ve been thinking a lot lately (as I’ve said before) about depression and addiction (thanks again, Infinite Jest and Shame the movie!). I read this transcript online about a depression-themed radio episode that was really fascinating and that I highly recommend, especially its discussion of depression not as something as an excess of feeling (i.e. sadness) but more like something that’s the ABSENCE of feeling. The idea of needing to stumble through the darkness in order to get to the light appeals to me. It makes me feel like it has a purpose, and that you can emerge triumphant at the end.

– I really related to the book’s criticism of contemporary culture. Not to sound like a crotchety old fart George Orwell type… but it really gave voice to a lot of things I’ve been rolling around in my mind, on and off, for the past three-four years. Such as how we live in a culture and world in which “everything is more or less predictable and where most people emulate getting the greatest socioeconomic rewards,” as opposed to meaning and mystery. He quotes a lot from a book with the pretty incredible title of My Name is Chellis, and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. Check out these gems:

“The Western worldview says, in essence, that technological progress is the highest value and that we were born to consume… The most highly prized freedom is the right to shop… Competition, taking, and hoarding are higher values than cooperation, sharing and gifting…. Western lifestyles that revolve around a constant barge of anemic distractions may be, in part, ways of self-numbing so as to minimize the pain of that loss… This way of life becomes an addiction. The more we live this way, the more alienated we become from something deeper and more meaningful, and the more we need this way of life to keep us from experiencing that alienation.” (91)

I really dug how he brought up addictions (AGAIN!) here, specifically in Plotkin’s point that we seek “distractions” to hide the feeling that something essential is missing.

–       I liked the book’s emphasis on the role of nature in healing the soul. I don’t think I’m going to undertake a “wilderness setting” anytime soon (i.e. hiking out all by myself to get lost on purpose and fast for four days…), but it was definitely good to read this around New Year’s, as I can now be more fully committed to my intention to go hiking more often. I have a car and six-seven months (?) left in Portland—it’s truly now or never! Plotkin also relates nature to adventure, another core value of mine and something I love having in my life. Case in point: I’m so excited to be heading off to L.A. tomorrow to spend New Year’s with my beloveds!

–       I liked how the book’s main message that the best way you can help yourself (and thus in turn help the world) is to find out what it is you have to offer it: “It’s not possible to save the world by trying to save it. You need to find what is genuinely yours to offer the world before you can make it a better place. Discovering your unique gift to bring to your community is your greatest opportunity and challenge. The offering of that gift—your true self—is the most you can do to love and serve the world. And it is all the world needs.” (13) Or as another anonymous quote puts it, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy, I awoke and saw that life was service, I acted and behold, service was joy.” (40) It made me feel like YES… my passion CAN be my work, eventually. They don’t have to be separate! As long as I trust my “vision with a task” I am good to go-go.

Crossing that threshold into your uncharted future is an act of great courage and self-compassion, and it changes your relationship to life in a fundamental way. It embodies your willingness to employ a new form of risk-taking, to consciously choose growth-stimulating, soul-nourishing conflicts, to live through the accompanying anxiety, and to accept your life as open-ended and unpredictable. Passing through that door commits you to living in the present in a way you never before have. (60)

– I also thought it was a nice touch in the book to have all the quotations from Rilke poems scattered throughout. God, what an intense guy. This was the best of the lot:

You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit;
now it becomes a riddle again,
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered
leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

As long as we’re posting poetry I wanted to go ahead and share the poem that I’ll most likely be transcribing in all of my friend’s Christmas cards this year. This is called “In a Tree House” by Hafiz:

Light
Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,

For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown on an ancient fertile plain
You hold the title to.

Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy

Even if your mind is now
A spoiled mule.

A life giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come –

O look again within yourself,
For I know you were once the elegant host
To all the marvels in creation.

From a sacred crevice in your body
A bow rises each night
And shoots your soul into God.

Behold the Beautiful Drunk Singing One
From the lunar vantage point of love.

He is conducting the affairs
Of the whole universe

While throwing wild parties
In a tree house – on a limb
In your heart.

Here are some reading and writing related intentions for 2012 (assuming the apocalypse is survived, of course!)

Reading – I thought about making a specific list, as in Books I Want To Read, but attempting to do so just made me feel unhappy and frenzied. I like reading in my life to be spontaneous and uncontrolled. I like reading what I want when I want to, not because I feel like I HAVE to. Nevertheless here are some intentions:

  • Read some of the science fiction books and maybe even some of the fantasy ones from this list, er I mean flow chart.
  • Read some of the Bolaño recommended books. Read more Latin American ones in general.
  • Read some more big, classic books: The Pale King, the new Murukami, Moby Dick, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow. Maybe even Philip Roth. Hell, I read Rabbit Run, why not?
  • I might even be able to finish reading all of Philip K. Dick’s novels… can I do it? Is it possible?! Time will tell!
  • Read some contemporary writers, the kind who are published in Tin House and do interviews on NPR and OPB.

Writing:

  • My main intention for 2012 is to work on cultivating a more spiritual-like devotion to the practice of writing.
  • Continue finishing pieces, submitting them, applying for residencies and grants, etc. I did this at least once a month for every month in 2011 except for November, I think (I still have three days to go in December… haha!). Go me! Mm… maybe I can bump this up to TWICE a month in 2012, minimum?
  • Go to grad school! (!!!)
  • I would also like to write more here in this space! It is really very useful! Case in point: ALL of the Philip K. Dick books I read but didn’t review; it would be a shame to have them all just fade into a blur in my mind. I’m going to try to aim for once a week, with the understanding that sometimes this means the entries won’t be super well written or coherent, but oh well, in this case it’s the intention that counts. It’s my blog and I can do what I want with it…. 8D

Goodbye 2011... otherwise known as "The Year of the Chewable Ambien Tab."

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Filed under advice, depression, nature, non-fiction, poetry, pondering

Useful Advice I’ve Liked Referring To Lately

I) First, a poem:

Berryman, by W. S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

II) From the New Yorker article “Hollywood Shadows,” about a Jungian therapist in L.A. treating screenwriters with writer’s block:

“Michels also told the writer to get an egg timer. Following Michels’s instructions, every day he set it for one minute, knelt in front of his computer in a posture of prayer, and begged the universe to help him write the worst sentence ever written. When the timer dinged, he would start typing. He told Michels that the exercise was stupid, pointless, and embarrassing, and it didn’t work. Michels told him to keep doing it.

Patients are told to visualize things going horribly wrong, a strategy of “pre-disappointment.” The tool for this, which Michels and Stutz teach to those who are hoping to win an award or who are about to submit a script for approval, involves imagining yourself falling backward into the sun, saying “I am willing to lose everything” as you are consumed in a giant fireball, after which, transformed into a sunbeam, you profess, “I am infinite.”

To help a patient avoid freezing during a pitch—a problem that Michels attributes to trying to hide your Shadow from development executives—he’ll tell him to reassure his Shadow with the words “I love you and I care more about you than I do whether this pitch sells.” That is step one. Then he must invite the Shadow into the conference room, so that together they can address a silent scream—“Listen!”—to the assembled suits. “What it does is assert our—me and my Shadow’s—authority and right to have something to say,” Michels says. The third step takes place afterward, when, regardless of the outcome, the patient thanks the Shadow for its time, so that it knows the ego wasn’t just using it to get money. For writers, the analogy is clear: give the Shadow the respect you long for.

By far the most common problem afflicting the writers in Michels’s practice is procrastination, which he understands in terms of Jung’s Father archetype. “They procrastinate because they have no external authority figure demanding that they write,” he says. “Often I explain to the patient that there is an authority figure he’s answerable to, but it’s not human. It’s Time itself that’s passing inexorably. That’s why they call it Father Time. Every time you procrastinate or waste time, you’re defying this authority figure.” Procrastination, he says, is a “spurious form of immortality,” the ego’s way of claiming that it has all the time in the world; writing, by extension, is a kind of death.”

I also like the advice about how to deal with something unpleasant by visualizing yourself pushing your way through a cloud of pain while screaming “BRING IT ON!” and “I LOVE PAIN. PAIN SETS ME FREE.” I find the article’s discussion of Jungian archetypes fascinating. Among other things it’s really made me appreciate the Tori Amos song “Sister Janet” in a whole new way.

Master Shaman, I have come
with my dolly from the Shadow side
with a demon and an Englishman
I’m my mother, I’m my son…

With your perfect wing, a wing can cover all sorts of things. Aaaaaah so good.

III) I went to a yoga class on Wednesday where the substitute teacher talked for a little bit about her past experience as a researcher at OHSU, studying the ways that blind people “see.” She talked a lot about wave lengths that people omit, about how the metaphorical language we use to refer to it (“I got a bad vibe from her,” “He and I are on the same wavelength”) actually has some scientific basic. People emit “wavelengths” or something that we can pick up on (I can’t remember exactly how this connected to blind people), and some wavelengths from certain people can be better for us than others. The main message that stayed with me, though, was how she emphasized the importance of “staying true to your center.” As in, not always letting other people’s wavelengths throw you off all the time, and dictate to you what to do and how to feel and how to orient yourself in life. Instead, STAY TRUE TO YOUR CENTER. Good advice.

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Ema la Cautiva: Boredom and Indifference

How do you make literature out of boredom and monotony?

That was the question I found myself asking, over and over again, while reading Cesar Aira’s Ema la Cautiva (“Emma, the Captive”–there’s something about the English translation of the title that doesn’t feel quite right). Not because the book itself was boring (it’s hard to be bored when you never have any idea where the hell it’s going), but because it seemed to be about boredom more than anything else. I still have about 20 pages left to go, but I doubt that anything too earth-shattering is going to happen, which feels like a strange thing to say about a book in which a girl is kidnapped by Indians in the Argentinean pampas, after having been taken out there to live in a penal colony.

Apparently this was one of the earliest books that Aira wrote, back in 1981, and it definitely feels like a work that was produced early on in a writer’s development. At 200 pages, it’s much longer than 70-something page How I Became a Nun and The Literary Conference, and the surreal, dreamlike humor of the latter two is also distinctly missing. I definitely missed their crazy, crackling energy here; Ema reads much more like a turgid, slurpy opium-induced hallucination.

So what happens in this book? There’s a lot of marches across harsh Argentinean landscapes. Characters drift in and out (I especially liked the Indian guy named Bob, for obvious reasons). There’s a lot of smoking and playing of dice, by both Argentineans and Indians. There’s the occasional philosophical discussion about time, history and money. I liked how the Indians were depicted as bored as modern suburban families, retreating to their bougie lakeside getaways; it was definitely a fresh twist.

Is this book a parody of nineteenth-century adventure novels? What to make of the paper coins that a character starts printing in an attempt to stave off boredom? Or Ema’s transformation into a prosperous zookeeper of birds?

I don’t know what to make of this book. On the back there’s a quote by Aira in which he summarizes the book’s themes, addressing the reader as  “Ameno lector ” in the best Jane Eyre fashion. He explains how he came up with the idea for the novel: paraphrased, when he was very poor and working as a translator of Gothic English novels in which English women traveled over oceans to California to drink tea, he came up with the idea of writing una ‘gótica’ simplificada, a simplified Gothic novel. Y al terminar, he writes, resultó que Ema, mi pequeña yo, había creado una pasión nueva, por la que pueden cambiarse todas las otras como el dinero se cambia por todas: la indiferencia. ¿Qué pedir? ( “And in the end it turned out that Ema, my little self, had created a new passion, which can replace all the others in the same way that money is exchanged for all: indifference. What else could you want?”)

Is this Ema’s “passion” in the story? Indifference? There certainly are a lot of moments of her raising and lowering her shoulders in response to another character’s statement or question. It’s intriguing that he calls Ema “mi pequeña yo mismo,” “my little myself,” which reminds me of Flaubert’s similar obtuse statement of Madame Bovary, c’est moi. (I just realized that Madame Bovary is also called Emma. Hmm…) Is Ema meant to represent the closest figure resembling an artist in this story, in her attempt to collect and display pheasants, for no discernable reason other than that they’re beautiful? I don’t know how to interpret Aira’s claim beyond that.

Ema's faisanes. Good to know that they're a type of animal that actually exists.

So what am I left with in the end? Well… there’s a lot of descriptions of animals and nature, zoology and geography.  I had to keep looking up the names of the animals online in Spanish-English dictionaries; I’m still not sure if the ones I couldn’t find actually exist or not.The landscapes gradually grow more and more bizarre, with Ema moving from the pampas to the small fort to the Indian settlement to an Edenic lakeside until she eventually ends up in this insane land of ice and snow.

It’s hard for me to recommend this book, namely because it was so hard for me to read, but I definitely feel like there’s quite a bit to unpack here. I probably shouldn’t have read it when I was jetlagged and sick with the flu; I think I’m going to have to give it another chance another time. Ultimately, this book will remain lumped together in my mind with Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and the movie The New World, in the sense that it’s in the same genre of Young Girl trying to make sense of the new universe she finds herself in.

Speaking of The New World, the opening and closing Wagner song from “The Ring” is one I’ve been trying to play to myself a lot in my head lately, particularly when I feel that all is bleak and lost. There’s just something about the scenes of “Rebecca” frolicking in the English countryside that fills me with hope, like maybe it’s still possible to still see the world as a beautiful place.

I don’t know. I need to start (re)cultivating that ability to marvel at the world, instead of feeling like I’m bogged in and drowing in the same-old, same-old of day in and day out of dreary sameness (or sama-sama, as they say in Bahasa in Indonesia). I don’t know how much of this feeling of mine has to do with the fact that it’s winter, and that it’s grey and cold and snowy and icy day in and day out here in England, and it’s dark every day at 4.30pm. And yet I’m not excited at ALL about heading back to Portland on Sunday, since I feel like what’s waiting for me is more of the same wetness and rain and cold and darkness until freaking March.

So… I don’t want my life to be a like a novel that’s about boredom and indifference. So to end on a more positive note, I did go to Norwich on Monday in order to meet with my old creative writing professor, who gave me some nifty points of advice, including the following (because I just love advice):
– Let self-cricicism guide you.. it is important to cultivate that ability to be critical about your work.
– Write about what you know… what is most interesting to you?
– Read Elif Batuman’s critique of US Creative Writing programs in the London Review of books.
– Don’t worry about anything. Read a lot. Read critcism as well. Read the best critics.
– What is staying with you the most? What is your material?
– Read V.S. Naipul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street.

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