The blues, the horror, the everyday, and the I don’t know what

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot lately and I’d like to talk about it now if you don’t mind…

The Blues:

While trying to write the other weekend, I was listening to some classic Appalachian blues and some of the lyrics were so awesome I had to write them down.

With great titles like Hesitation Blues, The Sky is Falling, and Way On the Outskirts of Town how could theses songs not be completely wonderful? There’s something so simple and true about the blues. It’s like reaching down and grabbing something straight out of your gut. What that something is exactly, I’m not so sure but that’s one of the great things about the blues, and most music for that matter–you don’t have to understand it to know it’s great.

Some of my favorite lyrics…

Put your man in your bed, put your husband down on the floor.

I was a playboy, I couldn’t be true. I couldn’t believe I really loved you. But when you left me, oh how I cried. You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.

See what you done done.

Don’t you marry no concrete man.

Look over yonder, tell me what you see. Yonder come the blues running after me.

I could tell you about my life. And keep you amused I’m sure. About all the times I’ve cried. And how I don’t want to be sad anymore. And how I wish I was in love.

The Horror:

I finished Stephen King’s On Writing a couple of weeks ago and it had some fun stories and good advice. I’ve never actually read King’s fiction (I’ve been meaning to pick up some short stories of his but haven’t gotten around to them yet) but I’ve read his essays and articles before and I’m always interested in how different types of writers approach the craft. King’s book had some good practical advice on how to live and write at the same time. I’m sure there’s some piece of literary criticism out there, or maybe just another blog, that articulates this better but there are writers and there are storytellers. I think you can be such a good writer that you can tell a story about farting (actually farting is pretty funny and entertaining so that’s a bad example) or about um… sitting in a chair, and it will be wonderful. On another note, you can be a pretty mediocre writer but if you have wonderful magic-filled stories then they’ll be wonderful as well. And I don’t just mean Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings magic. I also mean Cormac McCarthy, Jack Kerouac, or I dunno, Steve Tolz magic. (If you haven’t read A Fraction of the Whole yet, oh man, go get that book right now because it’s so much fun.)

But yes, Stephen King is a story-teller more than a writer. But he’s a great writer as well. He’s maybe not my favorite kind of writer but he is quite good.

And, as you can imagine, his writing book/biography had some great tips but it was also just a fun story about one writing man’s life. Some favorite lines…

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.

You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.

The Everyday:

This week I’ve been reading a collection by John Updike, Pigeons Feathers and other stories. I had only read a couple of Updike stories here or there in college or in The New Yorker–I had probably read more about Updike than his actual stories. But, oh man, he is everything everyone said he was. His writing is completely delightful and amazing. Some of his descriptions are simply wonderful. They remind me of why, haha, I want to write. But also why I read. Why I go on reading new things and looking for new authors and stories and words and word combinations to fall in love with. Because maybe, just maybe, in that next book I open I might find and fall in love with something like this…

A barn, in day, is a small night The splinters of light between the dry shingles pierce the high roof like stars, and the rafters and crossbeams and built-in ladders seem, until your eyes adjust, as mysterious as the branches of a haunted forest.

I know just that feeling but I could never express it so beautifully. Or what about this…

What did we say? I talked about myself. It is hard to hear, much less remember, what we ourselves say, just as it might be hard for a movie projector, given life, to see the shadows its eye of light is casting. A transcript, could I produce it, of my monologue through the wide turning point of that night, with all its word-by-word conceit, would distort the picture: this living room miles from home, the street light piercing the chinks in the curtains and erecting on the wallpaper rods of light the size of yardsticks, our hosts and companions asleep upstairs, the incessant sigh of my voice, coffee-primed Molly on the floor beside my chair, her stockinged legs stretched out on the rug; and this odd sense in the room, a tasteless and odorless aura unfamiliar to me, as of a pool of water widening.

Ahh… I love it! Or, okay, so this next passage is best read within the context of the entire story but I simply can’t help myself…

He dug the hole, in a spot where there were no strawberry plants, before he studied the pigeons. He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still plaint, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.

Finding God and heaven in a pile of dead pigeons? I mean, come on, does it get any better than that? Ha, not for me I suppose. But I love the sublime in the everyday. I love it when authors do that. Find that. Create that. (OMG, it’s like so totally Virginia Woolf.) And, my goodness, there is so much beautiful and perfect in that small piece of prose I can hardly stand it. It’s enough to make me hold a hand to my heart and say things like, My goodness. Ha, like I’m some kind of old woman out of breathe from a walk through the park or a scandalous scene in a move.

So ya, I really like Updike. I recommend him. Go on, go get you some Updike. You won’t regret it.

The I Don’t Know What:

So to supplement my other reading and mix things up a bit I’ve also been reading Barry Hannah’s Airships. I’m not really sure how to describe Hannah but the word raw comes to mind. Raw and maybe dirty. Maybe it just seems authentic. I dunno, something about him and his writing reminds me of the blues lyrics I was writing down up above. Maybe some art comes from the heart and some comes from the gut. Then again, maybe it all comes from the same unknown place and I don’t know what I’m talking about. Either way, here are some passages….

She sat on the rear fender and they went off in the damned most bizarre juxtaposition you ever saw. Similar to a circus tandem but not for fun. This was loyalty and romance, brothers. I know he was leaving blood up the road, though you couldn’t see it at night. The bike was wobbling all over the place, but they were going ahead.

That was some man, that boy.

In the alleys there were sighs and derisions and the slide of dice in the brick dust.

Some of us are made to live for a long time. Others for a short time. Donna wanted what she wanted. I gave it to her.

The old man who’d told his story was calm and fixed to his place. He’d told the truth. The crowd on the pier was outraged and discomfited. He wasn’t one of them. But he stood his place. He had a distressed pride. You could see he had never recovered from the thing he’d told about.

I am her always and she is my always and that’s the whole trouble.

I’m not sure how to end this little post of mine so I’ll sum it up with one more quote from an old poetry professor of mine…

Books are great. I like books. People should get ’em.


Lovely things found online…

In addition to my usual San Francisco wanderings and adventures, I actually had time to go through all my blogs and news feeds last weekend and found some great stories and things to share. Here are a few:

Life Lessons from Roald Dahl
from Green Apple Book’s blog

Roald Dahl’s birthday was September 13th and there’s a new biography out about him so he’s gotten more attention than usual lately. Green Apple’s list is delightful and brings back some favorite moments from his books. I love, “It’s okay to make your grandmother disappear if she’s really unpleasant,” and “Never let your guard down around an adult with power and a sharp object.” Here are some additional lessons I learned:

  • Never trust a woman in square-toed shoes.
  • It’s okay to steal from rich people as long as they’re mean.
  • If you have super powers, it’s best to use them for revenge.
  • Not all giants are bad.

Fun side note: Roald Dahl’s official website farts.

The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door
Online exhibit

This particular door has been signed by 242 writers, artists, and publishers and now they have this great online exhibit where you can explore all of them. I love thinking of writers and artists gathering in the same physical space. It seems almost magic how these communities get formed. It’s like Stein’s house in Paris. And it makes me wonder if there are any of these places around right now that I just don’t know about. Are all the future masterminds at some random coffee shop signing the back of a bathroom stall? I dunno, but it’s a fun thought. I wish I could get a poster or a print of the door.

Mysterious Paper Sculptures Found in Scottish Libraries
from the Central Station Blog

This is great. Someone is leaving random, beautiful, intricate paper sculptures all over Scottish libraries. My favorite is probably the coffee cup one:

But I love the quote from the dragon:

Once upon a time there was a book and in the book was a nest and in the nest was an egg and in the egg was a dragon and in the dragon was a story…

Sigh. How lovely. I wish all mysteries were about the origin of art and words. People do nice things sometimes. It’s good to be reminded.

Of course all life is a process of breaking down…

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work — the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside —  the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.

-F. Scott Fitzgerald from The Crack-Up

Wow. Amazing. I read this the other day and it was so beautiful and sad and true that it completely depressed yet enthralled me at the same time. I have to take a moment right now and be a complete great big mushy mess of a dork but can I just say…

I. Fucking. Love. Great. Writing.

Maybe that’s not so mushy (throwing an f-bomb in there certainly helps things out) but it is me overflowing with awe.

I love it when you come across a piece of writing that so perfectly and adequately portrays a piece of the world or an experience of it, an emotion or a feeling, a moment in life, that you recognize and come to understand something you never had before.

For instance…

Maybe you have begun to feel this vague unnameable pain but can’t explain where it came from or what exactly it is. Maybe it is something so small and so subtle that you barely take notice of it. Maybe it is almost nothing, maybe it is the smallest of sensations like an itch or a limb that has fallen asleep. But then, ah, but then… But then this beautiful perfect horrible little passage comes along and spells it all out for you and you realize what it is you have been feeling. Suddenly your pain is not so vague. It is specific and real, it does not have a name but it has words and an explanation. It has been made personal and universal and has connected you to this great big mass of people who have experienced the same thing. Who have read the same thing or written about the same thing, talked about it and created art about it, and really it is put so beautifully and perfectly that it’s not painful at all. It’s just real. It’s just art. It’s just life and art interacting and overlapping and, fuck ya, I love that shit!

Ha, so yes, obviously I’m being excessively poetic and dramatic tonight. Sorry about that but it’s how I feel so too bad for you.

One of my favorite lines about the desperate power of writing comes from a short story, My Hustlers by Edmund White:

My writing would turn all this evil into flowers.

Writing, a certain type of great writing, can turn something evil into flowers. Or something painful into beauty. Just by putting it into words and arranging them in the right way. It’s such a simple yet completely complicated thing. And then there are other moments, other pieces of great writing, that turn flowers into evil. Or something beautiful into pain. It’s amazing to me sometimes. A great passage in a book or a great piece of art can be completely humbling in the same way the ocean or a mountain range can. There’s a power in great things like that. I haven’t quite gotten far enough in my personal development (or whatever it is you call this growing and progressing as a human being thing) to know exactly what it is I’m trying to talk about, or what exactly that power is. Ha, but I have a vague kind of feeling.

So ya, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately. It’s been good and it makes me crazy and awake and just a little bit drunk on words and writing.

But it’s getting late and I’ve probably had too much. Ha, and said too much as well. And if I read one more chapter I just may pass out.

Hmmm… that sounds kind of nice actually. I think I’ll go do that now.

Off-balance, heavy at the mouth, we are pulled forward…

Enjoying Why, How to Write from This Recording. These collections are so full of fun advice and beautiful sentiments. (And some of the photography is delightful as well. Joan Didion looks like a total movie star, smoking and drinking in front of her Stingray.)

Explore them yourself:  Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Or read some of my favorite passages:

It’s as if we feel constantly other from the person we were the day, the hour before, and this sense of flux is terrifying, we have to crystallize, fix every moment of ourselves in order not to disappear altogether, as if our very identity were constantly threatened with dissolution.

A good writer should be so simple that he has no faults, only sins.

Don’t try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she.

As Francis Ponge puts it, “Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself.” Instead it seems to be located in language, by virtue of which we negotiate our mentalities and the world; off-balance, heavy at the mouth, we are pulled forward.

I don’t believe that less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin and enough is enough.

Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

I guess something about my voice and my projection of myself meshes with the poems. That is nice, but it is also rather saddening because I can’t sit down with every potential reader and read aloud to him.

Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.

What some people find religion, a writer may find in his craft or whatever it is — absorption of the small and frightened and lonely into the whole and complete, a kind of breaking through to glory.

Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.

The Tallest Man on Earth

The tallest man on earth could see everything. He sat on mountains to get his rest and watched the oceans for a good time. Sometimes when he was feeling down (which was hard for a man as tall as he) he would lay himself out in the desert and let the sand flow over his skin until he grew warm and soft, and then he’d drift off to sleep. When he woke up he brushed the sand from his lashes, picked the grains out of his ears, and stood to stretch. Every time the tallest man on earth stretched the sky grew higher to get out of his way and the world got just a little bit bigger.

Other times, when he was feeling well, the tallest man on earth would pick the smallest people around (who were usually children) and take them wherever they wanted to go. The children usually picked high places like mountains, the tops of trees, or the middle of a cloud. But some would pick far away places like the middle of the ocean, the deepest parts of the rainforest, or the silent white of the Arctic tundra. The tallest man on earth had legs so long they could take you wherever you wanted to go. He could walk around the world in 15 minutes. Sometimes, if he wanted the company, he would take you with him.

Once, I met a girl who went around the world with the tallest man on earth. She told me it was like flying only safe. And later, when it was over, and the tallest man on earth put her back down on the ground where he had found her, it was like falling only safe. The girl, who was a woman when I met her, couldn’t say which part she had loved best–the flying or the falling–but she did say that she loved being completely fearless for 15 minutes and that she would always love the tallest man on earth.

A few years after I talked to the woman who was once a girl, the tallest man on earth disappeared. People wondered where he could have gone. Afterall, where would a man of his height have to go? Most think he’s dead or in a really deep sleep. Others think he found a place to hide even though they’ve already checked the bottoms of all the oceans. Some even think he may have shrunk. But I know better. I’ve seen the world getting bigger so I know he’s still around.

Like most, I wish I could see him again. I’d like to ask him why he’s so sad and I’d like to introduce him to the woman who was once a girl. I think he’d like that. He wouldn’t love her or anything, and they wouldn’t go around the world again, but they could watch the oceans together and have a good time.

Over yonder

So I have this old Believer planner that I made it to the end of recently, and before throwing it out I went through the pages and found some old notes and quotes and random thoughts. Somehow I can’t throw them away completely so I thought I’d toss them out here instead…

The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes, the richness and breath of his manners, These I used to go and visit him to see.  – Whitman, I Sing the Body Electric

His is still my favorite dialog, the dialog that rings truest, that’s at once very naturalistic and musical; it’s really remarkable how difficult it is to do what he does between quotation marks. – Dave Eggers on Salinger

Don’t you sometimes sit down with a book, pour yourself a glass of wine or a mug of tea, and just feel unbearably smug? – Deirdre Foley-Mendesohm

The incredible journey that is consciousness

How foul a creature I am. I hate my fellows. I am thin and wasted by this consuming passion, my reason is gone and I feed myself on dreams. – David Garnet

It’s a thrill, imagining his onward journey – on book-swapping

One factor that unites the literary homeless throughout the ages is libraries.

It is true we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth. – East of Eden

This is a great place to wait for Godot.

Do we brave the hazards of feeling–the whole messy spectrum of it–or play it safe, forsaking the sensitivity we possess as children to live a life that Holden famously calls “phony”?

I’ve been in my own head all day, which is kind of fine since I like it there.

“A real adventure. That’s what I want.”
“Well then you’re going to have to do something stupid. It’s the only way to make sure you’re in a real adventure. You have to smack yourself in the face with it.”

Where exactly is yonder? And why is it always way over or down over? Why not up over or diagonal over? Why not right in front of our faces?

How could one navigate in an unnarrated world?

One could learn about life from literature–one could learn to spot a confidence man–but only if one woke up from the smug, dreamlike superiority of the reader, which blinded one to the actual slippery manifestations of vice and dishonesty in the shadowy world of reality. In the novel, at least in the reassuring nineteeth-century novel, one was always privy to everyone’s well-lit motives and alerted to even the first sign of corruption. But in life–how could one navigate in an unnarrated world? Of course I was always narrating my life to myself (idea for novel), but unfortunately I had no access to the private thoughts of the other characters around me. Even my own mind was too prolific to be comprehensible. It was certainly true that I was fashioning the book of my life at all times, trying out sentences, sketching out plot lines, hoarding impressions, restaging the scenes I’d just live through. I’d already written and typed two novels in boarding school, one about me and the other about my mother or some more driven version of my mother to whom I attributed my own sexual obsessions. At every moment I convinced myself that I was gathering material for the novel of my life–all experienced from the philosophical distance of the author. Even these humiliating occasions when I was robbed could be used as material. Life was a field trip. My writing would turn all this evil into flowers.

– Edmund White,  My Hustlers