Tag Archives: my writing

Cloud Atlas

In 2001 I didn’t remember what it was like to be six years old in 1991, but in 2011 I do remember what it was like being sixteen. When I was six, I was in my second year in kindergarten (we had two years, K4 and K5, before first grade) and I didn’t care about much, other than lying stomach-down on the bed reading book after book and playing let’s-pretend games in the garden. When I was sixteen I was trying to write short stories; after September 11th, I wrote one called “Judy Powell is an Immaculate Heroine.” It was a story about a girl called Mary Fran who makes up a story about a survivor of the Pennsylvania plane crash, the titular Judy Powell, writes fake news stories about her survival and brings them to her English class so her teacher can post them on the bulletin board, fooling everybody into thinking that the story is real. I never finished it but what a vaguely Borgesian plot, no? I even submitted it to a journal; it wasn’t published due to its “violent and intense content” but I think the editors complimented it for its “intense imagery” and “strong writing style.” Go 16-year-old me!

After listening to NPR September 11th-themed broadcasts all…week…long (my weekday commute now has me going out to Vancouver, which means I’m going to be VERY in touch with the news on!) out of curiosity I dug the dusty story out of the archives (i.e. the bowels of my yahoo email inbox—I emailed all my high-school era stories there shortly before going to college in 2004, and I’m really glad I did, because otherwise they would basically be lost as an undiscovered copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls). I’m not going to, like, testify to the quality of a story written by a 16-year-old, but it was a nostalgic walk down memory lane nonetheless. Here’s the first paragraph:

 Mary Fran had a masterplan that rivaled that of the terrorists who’d flown a hijacked plane into the World Trade Center (the Twin Towers in New York City) the other day and knocked them to the ground. Except that her plan was going to make people feel good instead of bad. She was going to create an imaginary character in her head, bring it to life, and use it to reassure people that Nostradamus had left one of the glass frames of his spectacles behind in his bedroom that morning, so his view of the fortune telling stars through his telescope that day were a little blurred and thus his predictions for World Doom and Apocalypse were a little off track.

LOL, gotta love my long sentences. I also like the part where I refer to “google.com, an Internet search engine,” as if that wasn’t clear, as well as all my references to CDs and Discmen, and the part where they talk about how in 2012, they’ll be 27 (“the same age as Kurt Cobain”), “the beginning of the end.” Ha Ha Ha! Gotta love it.

So yeah, 9/11 everywhere. Even the daily poem on 3quarksdaily was the lyrics to a Bruce Springsteen song.  I don’t really have much to say the day itself, quite frankly. This recent letter by an Iraq War vet in my favorite advice column pretty much sums up my feelings about it—that it really, really sucks to live in a world where a violent society and culture can cause that level of suffering, not just to Iraq war veterans or World Trade Center office workers and janitors but to Afghani and Iraqi suicide bombers. That letter has really affected me, to be honest. I can’t stop thinking about it. In yoga class this morning the teacher said “if you have any feelings about September 11th, or whatever, maybe think about dedicated your practice this morning to someone from that day,” and the only person I could think about was that Iraq veteran, wanting to die, and the others like him all over the world. I dunno, I am NOT a fan of soapbox preaching, but I just think it really sucks to live in a society where violence can make people so numb and damaged. It’s HORRIBLE. In this veteran’s letter, he reminds me of these Mexican/Colombian narcos, their brains blasted by bazuco, killing people mercilessly because they’re so numb and dead inside themselves that they’re barely human anymore. I think maybe one of the things that freaked so many Americans out about September 11th is that people just weren’t used to violence happening here. In Colombia, there’s a much bigger culture of people being more unshocked and unsurprised by these horrible atrocities, simply because it happens so much more that people are used to it, numb to it.

One of my favorite books, Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (from which the name of this blog comes from), asks the question of whether or not humans can live together in peace, without resorting to conflict or violence. Spoiler alert: the answer is “no.” Or to be more precise, “maybe for a brief period of time, but it can’t last.” On my flight back to the U.S. from Colombia (a Medellin-Miami-Dallas-Portland whammy) I finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in one sitting, a book with an interestingly similar message.

 Cloud Atlas is a pretty great book and the theme throughout is that humans just plain can’t get along, due to their inherently violent and power-craving nature. I really admired the ambition of this book, but there were definitely some sections that I liked more than others. Basically, the book consists of six different stories, all interconnected (it reminded me a bit of A Visit From the Goon Squad). When one story ends (usually on a killer cliffhanger), another begins. You move through time and space, starting with 1) a 19th-century journal of an American notary in the Pacific Islands, to letters written by a British composer to his lover, 3) a 1970’s thriller of a journalist trying to uncover an environmental disaster secret, 4) a picaresque adventure in which an elderly publisher becomes trapped in a retirement home, 5) a futuristic society in which human clones work in fast food restaurants before organizing a revolution, and 6) a post-apocalyptic “Avatar”-like world in which people have resorted to a more simple, primitive way of life but humanity’s basic tendency to destroy and kill anything that’s good and worthwhile remains.


So yeah, for a huge literature lover-nerd such as myself, this book was a complete and utter joy to read. Each section is narrated in a different style: we have a journal, letters, airport thriller, picaresque, interview and Cormac McCarthy/Faulkner-like monologue. Basically, Mitchell is a wicked talented author, and considering how radically different and ambitious each section is, he really comes off as a writer who could write pretty much ANYTHING if he wanted to. (Right now I’m reading his Black Swan Green, which is equally astonishing in how simple and straightforward the narrative is!)

One problem I had with the book is that I wish that the characters didn’t have that comet-shaped scar (thus implying that they’re connected through reincarnation, that they’re all the same soul). I feel like I would have still gotten the whole “connected” theme through the literary works that the main characters read in each section. I guess I like the idea of people being connected through ART, rather than a mystical construct. That being said, that’s really more like my own personal beef as opposed to a hardcore critique.

I’m really glad that books like this are still being written in this day and age. It’s a small drop of water in an otherwise very big ocean of war, deformed orphaned children, bombs, widowed wives, traumatized soldiers and mutilated bodies. I guess that ocean also contains things that I find heartening and hopeful, for whatever bizarre and senseless reasons. Like the fact that there’s a documentary coming out about Pearl Jam’s now 20-year career, PJ Harvey winning the Mercury prize for her anti-war album 20 years into her own career, the recent photos of Frances Bean Cobain, now tattooed and modeling, and that I’m still writing short stories with too-long opening sentences ten years later. “Yet what,” Mitchell writes in the book’s last sentence, “is an ocean but a multitude of drops?

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Filed under books, fiction, really deep thoughts, violence, writing

Mad Scientists

I just finished The Invention of Morel, an Argentinean novella. I was very happy and pleased to learn that the author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was a very close friend of Borges’. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Borges was a huge Bioy fanboy: he writes the introduction to Morel, and Bioy is the friend who appears in Borges’ wonderful story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Now that I’ve finished it (only 103 pages, yay) I think more highly of it than I did when I was actually reading it, if that makes any sense. While I was reading it I was just kind of impatient to find out what would happen next, and now that I’ve finished I’m like “wow, OK, lots o’ layers to unpack here.” The plot concerns a fugitive, pursued by police for reasons that are never specified, who flees to a deserted island with an abandoned museum rumored to be inhabited by ghosts. A random mysterious group of tourists arrive, and while hiding from them he falls in love with a woman in the group. While trying to win her affections he discovers that the reality on the island is not as it seems, and that’s when things start getting trippy.  The wikipedia article claims that Morel was an inspiration for the computer game Myst, which I unfortunately remember finding very boring and tedious–ha ha!

Morel is neither boring or tedious, though I did feel like the protagonist was a little thick-headed at times (that feeds into one of his many theories though, that he is an inmate in a psychiatric hospital imagining the whole thing!). Morel reminded me a lot of Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference, in the sense that while reading it you are just carried away by the sheer inventiveness of the author. You are completely immersed in a carefully constructed, perfectly logical world, logical in all its surreality and absurdity. I got the same feeling reading this book as I did when reading Kafka, all the way back in sixth grade (OH! How I was inspired and moved by Kafka!), or more recently by a collection of short stories (none longer than 4 pages) that a friend gave me for Christmas, The Girl on the Fridge. I like it when authors remind me of mad scientists in laboratories, furiously mixing up potions of plots and stirring mysterious ingredients and flights and fancy together. There are certain authors who are just great at this: Cesar Aira, Phillip K. Dick, Vonnegut, Borges even… I’ve come to (re)discover that I really like fiction that’s wildly imaginative and inventive. It’s fun to read, and I imagine that it’s fun to write as well. There’s just something very liberating about it: it is a “story” in the very best sense of the word. Like Gary Shteyngart says in this interview (I also recently read his Super Sad True Love Story, another good example of an author-as-mad scientist book!), it is necesarry for literature to be entertaining just as much as intellectual.

Anyway, the other thing I thought was funny about finishing this book is that it is an appropriate continuation of the Mad Scientist theme of my past few days. On Friday at the elementary school where I work we had Family Movie Night and showed “Despicable Me,” a craptastic animation film about a mad scientist that the kids and parents nevertheless enjoyed, so there ya go. And then at my new writing group this morning (yay writing group!) I wrote a silly little piece inspired by the film, specifically by the yellow sponge-like characters. I don’t claim that this story is particularly good, but it was fun to write, to just heedlessly charge from one thing to the next, inventing one crazed frenetic detail after another. I dunno, a lot of the fiction I’ve written since graduating from college has tried to be very realistic, when a lot of the stuff I wrote in high school or early on in college reads as very imaginative, free-wheeling and heedless to me now. I don’t know if I made a conscious decision at one point or not to stop writing that way–I think I was sick of magical realism, and of reading fantastical techniques in novels that just felt very forced and hokey to me. And that was something I didn’t want my writing to be, hokey or gimmicky, by being centered around this fantastical qualities.

But then Borges’s essay at the beginning of Morel provides some comfort, as he argues that it is fantasy novels that are more strict and rule-based than realist fiction, as opposed to the othe way around. In books such as Ulysses or War and Peace, anything can happen, while in an H.G. Wells or fantasy/adventure/science fiction story, what happens has to follow the logic of what happenned before, or the logic of the world and the narrative completely collapses. So in this way a story built around fantastical elements needs to be more adherent to logic and rigidly plotted than a realist novel (this is SO TRUE for Kafka in particular! What would The Metamorphosis be without the specific details?). As Borges puts it in Morel’s introduction:

The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example. . . . In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. . . . The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to be a transcription of reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, or the Quixote.

So all hail fanastical ridiculous nonsensical messy arbitrary fiction. It gives me lots of feelings I like. Such as: writing is fun! Creativity is good. Art is necesarry. And so forth.

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Filed under Aira, books, fiction, Phillip K. Dick

Writer’s Block: My Word

If you could have the writing ability of one author, who would you choose, and why? Would you exchange writing styles permanently?

Wow, good question. It’s interesting because as much as I admire the writing styles of some of my favorite authors (like Faulkner or Onetti), I would DEFINITELY never want to write like them. I dunno… it just feels like something very weighty and painful, to be able to write like a genius, you know?

Overall I prefer authors whose writing styles could be described as very simple, almost basic, as opposed to ornate or fancy. I’ve already said that if I could write like any author, it would be like Anne Tyler, namely for the loving and vivid characterizations in her novels. Give me Murakami for his descriptions of food, and Bolaño for his moments of insight, realization and description. Give me Tolstoy for his realism and his kindness towards his characters. Flannery O’Connor has some killer plot twists but I think I’d stop there. Give me Vonnegut for humor (a characteristic sorely lacking in most fiction). Give me Ali Smith for creativity (drawing the line at her more post-modern stories, which I enjoy but do not wish to emulate), and Melissa Banks for honesty. Give me “Mrs. Dalloway”‘s poetry and beauty. (Wow, this is turning into an ode to books and authors I love in general.) And finally for overall writing style, give me George Orwell–you can’t fail there with diction, word choice, clarity and overall “voice” of the writing.

And of course I would never exchange writing styles. What would be the point? Because then it wouldn’t be mine anymore!

Also, here’s a fascinating article on “Borges y yo,” my favorite Borges short story. The comment at the end left me wondering whether or not it was Borgesian-styled fiction–I honestly couldn’t tell. The link at the bottom to another piece by the author, Notes Towards the Memoirs of a Book Thief, is also excellent and very Arlt-esque. The idea of inscribing a book to oneself before stealing it is especially ingenious. The only book I ever remember stealing myself was “Saint Maybe,” but I might even be remembering that wrong, it could have been my sister who stole it. I definitely stole the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Sorry, Colegio Bolivar library. Guilty as charged. We were the only ones who ever checked it out anyway.

Some other interesting articles related to books and writing I’ve stumbled upon lately, via the new Glory in my life that is Google Reader:

  • Ten Rules for Writing Fiction – I like Elmore Leonard’s, Roddy Dole’s, Geoff Dyer’s and Anne Enright’s the best. I especially like this bit: writing is all about ­perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of ­going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of ­postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.
  • More good writing advice from Salon.com: A Reader’s Advice to Writers

In other news:
– Next week is technically my last at the office, because I’m leaving next Friday to fly to Cali and visit my mummy, the Princess and whatever other pets may still be lounging around.
– I took a day off from the office yesterday because of tummy troubles and it was a blissful godsend.
– Today has been blissful as well: Corey and I watched Big Fish (a better movie than I remembered, surprisingly touching and Quixote-esque) in the morning and went to the beautiful botanical garden in the afternoon, which was HUGE. There were a ton of animals like ducks (<3), geese and enough tortoises to make you slightly alarmed. At the snack stand, we got to see a squirrel steal a lollipop from the store, and a tortoise eat the runny black poo that dropped out of a gosling’s butt. Hilarious, memorable stuff.
– Now we’re going to go out to dinner to a cevicheria :) Not that many days left here in Bucaramanga… always moving, always heading out somewhere, to something

home, now
going my way
going to something
to something
to something…

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Filed under colombia, Dear Diary, silly

in order to make art

The most recent book I read, alongside a brief attempt at abstract art (painted last year) : P

I think my New Year’s Resolution has officially become Make More Art. This may be partly due to the fact that it’s easier to make new good habits than it is to break bad old ones, and also due to the fact that it’s just plain fun.

So I’ve been trying to read books and advice on How To Make Art. Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on TED remains a huge inspiration: I like thinking about creativity as a Dobby-like house-elf that pays visits to the artist’s brain. I am trying to get my house in order, then. I am trying to get everything clean and neat and tidy, and open and receptive as possible for whatever (and whoever) might pay a visit.

I skimmed through Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet, which I’ve heard praised in “inspiration for Art and Artists” pep-talks. It had a lot of Epic Quotes which I’m sure you’ll be able to pick and choose from yourself with help from the internets. My sister left behind a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing, which I’ve heard good things about as well, so I gave it a good skimming. I’ve never read a Stephen King novel, so I didn’t care to read the first half, which was basically an autobiography. I don’t see much point in reading about how authors from the 50’s and 60’s got started as published authors, either, because it doesn’t seem/feel relevant to me anymore (or maybe this feeling is completely misguided and I’m committing a horrible sin by feeling so…ha). But it seems with the internets, *EVERYTHING* has changed in the world of how to get your book “0ut there”… and is probably going to change a lot more in the next couple of years.

Anyway. My sister underlined a lot of passages with advice like “If there’s no joy in it, it’s no good,” (144) “Reading takes time, and the glass teat [referring to television] takes much of it,” (one example of how the book feels mildy outdated; if written today, “glass teat” would have to be replaced with Keyboard Cat) (143) “If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?” Why indeed, Stephen?

Isn’t the human need to make art a funny, funny thing? I mean, it’s something we’ve all done and can relate to: who among us hasn’t tried to “make” something? And yet–it’s so impractical! How does a painting, or a book, or a poem, contribute to our survival in the evolutionary sense? I’m sure there’s tons of arguments out there for and against this… and I’m not really being very eloquent right now because I’m tired and groggy from a nasty bacterial throat infection that has confined my last few days in Portland here in my room (the rain doesn’t help, either).

The most influential book on creativity I’ve read as part of my “research” might actually be a book of fiction, ironically enough. I just finished reading Ben Fountain’s collection of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. It’s a good read: eight short stories, set in Haiti, Colombia, Sierra Leone and Burma, respectively. The last short story is set in Austria and reminded me a lot of the last book in 2666, which to me seemed to deal thematically with how the decadence and imperialism of Old World Europe affected all the messed-up things that are going on in today’s ex-colonies (a topic that is feeling eerily relevant these days, what with the current events in Haiti and all…).

What’s most intriguing about this book may be Mr. Fountain himself: according to this interesting New Yorker article about latent creativity, apparently he worked as a lawyer for years, before deciding that he wanted to write a novel about Haiti and traveling there over 30 times before scrapping it completely, and then ending up with this collection. Pretty inspiring.

Quite a few of these stories deal with the idea of art, or with the idea of trying to make something beautiful or precious out of pretty shitty situations. In “Near Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera”, the kidnapped PhD student and the Colombian general argue about the ever present tension between art and practicality: ” ‘Beauty, you know, I think it’s nice, but it’s just for pleasure. I believe that men should apply their lives to useful things.’ ‘Who says beauty and pleasure aren’t useful? Isn’t that what revolutions are ultimately about, beauty and pleasure for everyone?'” (9) In “Reve Haitian” (probably the best short story in the book), an aid-worker makes friends with a Haitian doctor who has a plan for lifting his country out of poverty by stealing and selling famous works of Haitian art. Art is also importantly linked to and dependent on money in these stories; in “Bouki and the Cocaine,” the cocaine-stealing scam is achieved through a dizzying carnivalesque dance. My favorite story is the Sierra Leone one, “The Lion’s Mouth,” which seems to be about the relationship between creativity, insantiy and commerce, and with a positively hallucinatory ending.

It was fun to read this book and interesting to think about how writing can be something that can develop later on in life through hard work and persistence, as opposed to being a “native,” God-given talent that you have from birth. Is this idea of writing an image I have for myself, lurking somewhere in the back of my mind? Maybe. There’s a character in Piglia’s Artificial respiration who says that before becoming a “great writer,” he should “have adventures”: “I thought that everything that happened to me, no matter how idiotic, was a way of accumulating that depth of experience on which I assummed great writers built their work.” The only problem with that philosophy, that of “waiting” to gather experience in order to transform into art… how do you know when to stop waiting?

So I guess in the best Pema Chödrön sense, now is a good a time to start as any. Thus I’ve been trying to play the piano and draw something every day. I’ve been trying to write creatively again as well but (un)surprisingly enough that’s been the hardest thing to do of all. I started another wordpress blog where I’ll be posting what I write every week but I don’t feel “brave” enough to directly link to it yet. Oh well, maybe I’ll make it password protected. Elizabeth Gilbert talked about this a little as well in her TED talk, the weird kind of anxiety and fear that art inspires in us, specifically regarding its creation. I mean, in what other job do you get that? I’ve NEVER heard Corey say OMG! I really can’t synthesize this protein right now, becausebecausebecause I’m just AFRAID FEARFUL ANXIOUS of what people will think judge say about me. I had a funny conversation with my sister once senior year, in which we were talking about our struggles with our creative writing classes. The reaction from  both our significant others at the time consisted of looking at us as though we were aliens, as in: It’s just a story. Why can’t you just write it? Why not, indeed. Just check out the writing-related woes in the Cary Tennis’ advice column archives and it’s easy to see that this is not an isolated problem (this column has especially good advice on how to deal).

I’m trying, though. Last year right around this time I bought a sketchbook and some art supplies. I drew a duck, and except for a James Joyce portrait during the summer and a couple of fairies, I pretty much abandoned it since then, until now. WARNING: I have NO training in drawing at all… My sister and I loved to draw when we were little and my mother saved pretty much EVERY drawing in these enormous, thick blue office binders. There’s a whole closet full of them gathering dust in Colombia (she used to joke she was keeping them to sell later when we got famous–many thanks as always for your undying support, Mother).

Anyway, here are some things I’ve drawn recently (I’m trying to draw at least one cartoon thing a day). Sometimes you just gotta put your work out there and get rid of your neuroses surrounding it… right?:

What started out as an attempt of the bird from "Up" rapidly deteriorated into the stork disguise from the Robin Hood animated Disney film. This is Corey's favorite

My attempt at Kafka. I wish I still had copies of my sister's comic from high school.

Borges turned out looking more like Nixon. I got bored of shading in his jacket so for the other half, I drew a chessboard and sea creatures

My duck from last year, LOL

James Joyce with Molly's monologue

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Filed under art, books