Sunday, October 16, 2011

Now I get it...

So, first, getting clipped by a car stinks. It hurts, too. Last Thursday I was trying to cross the street (in the crosswalk, with the light), when a driver started to make a left turn onto the street I was crossing. Since she nicely yielded to the two other pedestrians who were not three steps ahead of me, I (foolishly?) assumed that she was yielding to all pedestrians, and not just a lucky few. Wrong assumption. At any rate, my left side, especially the arm I landed on when the car's bumper knocked my legs out from under me, has been smarting a bit. Typing has been a challenge. But things are better today, and I feel like I can get through a post pretty well.

I haven't been idle while recuperating, though. In fact, I think I've really gotten some good solid work done. I just had to do that work with paper and pen and my good arm.

A few years ago, while I was doing an independent study, my instructor mentioned that the larger piece I was working on was very "Sebaldian" (referring to a writer I've mentioned here before, WG Sebald). I was flattered, of course, but kind of bewildered as well. I didn't understand what he meant. I think part of my confusion was due to the fact that the manuscript I was working on was heavily influenced by Michael Ondaajte's Coming Through Slaughter. I must've been too consumed with that novel to see anything else.

Fast forward a few years. I've read more Sebald. More importantly,--I think-- I started reading Teju Cole's Open City, a novel that feels very Sebaldian in its own right, and Cole has pretty much fessed up to the fact that he's influenced by Sebald. Cole's novel is slightly more accessible than, say, Austerlitz, or Rings of Saturn, and perhaps that's why I recently had a wonderful little epiphany regarding my manuscript.

I realized that my protagonist is wanderer (or a flaneur if you're James Wood), just like Cole's Julian, just like almost all of Sebald's protagonists. She's walking around a city trying to sort things out. Just like the main characters in The Emigrants, or Vertigo. That's what she's doing and I didn't even realize it. And suddenly, I have a focus (and trust me, focus is kind of what I've been lacking with this manuscript for an embarrassingly long time). It makes so much sense to me now and I feel as if there's direction and shape to it. I'm excited about the story again, which is a huge relief. I was getting worried that I would never finish it. I was getting worried that I would never want to finish it. Now I'm excited. Now I'm consumed again. I'm waking up in the middle of the night and scribbling down ideas. Pieces of the story are coming faster than I can get the words on the paper sometimes.

And that's the real reward of writing. This kind of I'm-not-in-control-of-this feeling. The way the story is just emerging, whether I'm ready for it or not. Not all of it is Pulitzer-worthy. Some of the ideas and storylines and scenes are going to be crap. But, boy, does it feel great to feel like the well is full again.


Okay, off to rest my pitching arm.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Borne back ceaselessly into the past

"Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an ├Žsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Nothing really profound or interesting to say tonight. But I do wonder how many contemporary writers have the above, the last page of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in their minds every time they sit down to write. I know it creeps into mine all the time.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

With best wishes, Sasha Hemon

I believe I've mentioned I'm kind of a fan on Aleksandar Hemon, no? And that I was headed to a book festival in Scranton where he was to be a panelist, right? I was hoping, since I knew one of the festival's organizers, that I might manage to get a special introduction, either right before or right after the book-signing part of the panel. Or something. Anything, really, would've been great. Exciting. Blog-worthy.

But Bill, the aforementioned organizer, my former instructor, and the person who got me reading Hemon in the first place, did me and my friend Betsy, who made the epic journey with me (Side tip: Don't travel I 81 N through Pennsylvania on a Friday evening.) one better. Bill actually palmed Hemon and his co-panelist, Teju Cole (another amazing writer. Open City. Read it), off on us. We were in charge of getting them lunch.

So off we went, while my brain sang with terror, anticipation, excitement, to a little cafe down the street. Just the four of us (by the way, I think I've previously described Hemon as a polar bear of a man. I'm kind of happy to say I was dead-on accurate in my description. Cole, on the other hand, looks like Mos Def's little brother. Which is actually meant as a compliment).

We spent the next two hours steeped in a remarkably deep and philosophical conversation, mostly about religion. We talked about Mennonites and Pentecostals and miracle working. We talked about the absence of faith and the strange ways we justify it when we have it, the way some of us cherry pick to concentrate on the beautiful parts and conveniently ignore the ugly bits. We talked about how some people can derive great and pure joy from organized religion, and how sometimes, you should get your kid baptized, just in case. Someone mentioned Kierkegaard. Then Dawkins. Hitchens made an appearance, I think, and Catholic priests. Miles Davis came up a few times (certainly a holy man in some circles). We talked about Bosnia and Nigeria, the intimate act of sharing a cup of coffee and the way war ruptures not only physical life, but psychological life, too. We talked about the motivation to write, the ways in which that motivation manifests itself. And I couldn't help but wonder if these two men thought like this all of the time. I couldn't help but wonder if either of them ever did or said anything mundane, or stupid. Or if they ever shut their big big brains off for a second and just watched Glee or something.

And yes, I told Hemon (who I think I am now able to call "Sasha") that I'd named my dog Bruno, after his first book. He seemed strangely pleased.

To characterize it as an incredible experience is to fall laughably short. I'm still processing the whole thing. I feel fantastically lucky to have spent a few hours with a dear friend and two literary powerhouses who seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves, too (perhaps they are good actors?). I suspect I'll have more to say as time goes on.

Post Script:

The most delightful moment of the conversation came, ironically enough (for me, at least), when Hemon had excused himself to the restroom. While he was away from the table, I asked Cole if he'd grown up speaking English, or if he'd learned it later. He replied that he began learning/speaking English at about six.  Then he said, deadpan, "I think our friend Sasha is coming along beautifully with his English language skills, don't you? I'm sure one day he'll master it."

Thanks, Betsy, for snapping this great photo!