Taking Off The Mask

There is a part of me that I don’t think anyone will ever like. I don’t only think it, actually. I know it. Because I’ve played that part in public before. I’ve acted it out, cloaked myself in it, and let people know that was who I was. No one liked it. Or almost no one. Most likely it was because of who I am and who I’m not. That part of me that I used to play was someone I’m not particularly fond of now, especially after I’ve spent years covering him up, seeing how people react to him and how he could have thought about things differently. When I was a teenager, I listened to all the depressing music that people association with not unintelligent, independent, non-conformist teenagers. The works. I said and read and posted and lived really depressing mantras. And you know what? No one really much liked me when I did that.  I’ve heard it said that moody introspection only works if you’re considerably taller and are able to play the guitar. And that pretty much hit the nail on the head for how well people responded to the person I was purporting myself to be. It was somewhat an act, because there were other facets to my personality, too. But the glaring thing was that part of me. So I changed it. Not quickly and not easily, but I realized that people liked being around me when I would laugh and joke and keep away from really depressing statements. I made that who I was. And for the most part, I’m still that person. But the mask I wear to appear appealing to others has that part removed from it.

Here’s the part where I actually talk about writing and not just myself. Ask any writer how it feels to have someone read their work. Go ahead, ask them. You will probably get an answer somewhere along the lines of a feeling of mingled shame and hope and somewhere around there, embarrassment–with maybe a dash of pride mixed in. More emotions than that are combined in that experience, but to go any farther into that rabbit hole would risk a loss of focus on my part. It is hard to ask anyone to read one’s work and even harder to actually get anyone to read one’s work. For after you’ve gotten the person to say the word “Yes” they still have to sit down and actually read the damn thing.

But now after beating around the bush for a while, I come to the point I want to make. Have you ever had someone read your writing in front of you? Like while you’re standing/sitting still while they actually read the words you put down in a private place somewhere, unsure anyone in the world would ever actually see it? It is nothing short of horrifying. The simple act of watching someone run their eyes over something from inside you is almost painful it’s so embarrassing. That’s an interesting word, by the way, isn’t it? “Embarrassing.” Em-bare-ass-ing. That’s like saying something goes through the process of making you bareassed. But why is this so embarrassing? Why does it make us feel like we’re back in that dream where we show up to school naked? I have a theory and it relates to that part of me that I know no one will ever like. That part I’ve tried so hard to hide, that part of me that is expressed and given a voice in my dreams where I show up to school naked. And it relates to that part of me that I put down on paper when I write.

My writing, my stuff, my work, whatever I happen to be calling it at the moment is a direct result of putting that part of myself that no one likes on paper. It’s the time where I’m able to take off that mask that I’ve been putting on for necessity of survival and to avoid looking like a huge fucking tool. From my other essay about writing as looking inward to reach out, it’s a bit obvious and hopefully you maybe read that one before reading this one. If not, that’s fine; if so, wonderful. And but so when putting down on paper that part of yourself that has not been given any air, any light, any say for so long except maybe from time to time in the music you listen to, in the books you read, the films you watch, you are giving voice to something that has long been ignored and left on its own–more importantly, you recognize how important and integral this part of you is, even if no one ever seems to respond to it in person. But these ways to get it out are passive, not the same as bringing that part out actively. That is where writing comes in for me. Writing is an act of taking off the mask. You finally free yourself from that wall that you put up between yourself and the world around you. The cruel irony is that often the part of yourself you put down in your work that no one responds to in real life is the very part that people respond to the most in your work. How does this happen, where when you bare your soul in person someone feels like you’re being indecent, but then when you are completely maskless in your work you are praised? Does honesty hold no weight in person? Because it definitely does in art. Art is your moment for honesty. And so isn’t it a little nerve-wracking when someone witnesses that part of yourself that you had vowed to relegate to the dungeons of your soul? At least when in the presence of others, lest you completely turn them off with your honesty and self-obsession? It is as if you went around your whole life with a mask on your face and then one day took a picture of yourself without the mask on, and then you proceeded to show that picture to someone while standing in front of them wearing your mask. Can you imagine what kind of horrors and embarassments and wild possibilities would run through you at that point? It’s probably one of the most conflicting and uncomfortable positions I’ve ever been in, to be honest.   And isn’t that both a little sad and a little admirable that people have this kind of conflict about showing that part of themselves? It’s a little sad in that we are told never to give a shit what people think about us and to do what we want because we want to and so it’s an acknowledgement of the outside world’s effect on us. But it’s also admirable in the sense that we know this part of ourselves has never been well-liked and we may even be ridiculed for it–but at least we are facing that fear in order to say something about ourselves and about everything and anything on this big spinning ball of rock. For all I know lawyers might relate everything in the world to law and doctors to medicine–what I know about is writing and so the filter that all information goes through first is the filter of writing. And it’s this filter that has allowed me to take off the mask that I oblige myself to wear every day. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked it!

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Writing to Become the Iron Horse: Writing as Streak

Disclaimer: This is meant to be an illumination of one way I have found to make writing work. For me. I do not recommend this as a fail-safe measure of writing.

On September 6, 1995, something happened that no one in the world of baseball ever thought possible. A player surpassed Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 baseball games consecutively spent on the starting lineup. The Iron Horse’s (Lou Gehrig’s) record had stood for 56 years. The night Cal Ripken Jr. broke the consecutive started games record, there came a new standard in the universe of baseball. Though it was one game difference, it still meant that a new requisite level of commitment and work was instilled that night. 2130 was no longer enough. After that day, Ripken played 502 more games in a row beyond that. Finally, at 2632 games played consecutively, Cal Ripken Jr. voluntarily ended his streak. This is sometimes referred to as the streak that saved baseball.  At the time of the record-breaking, there was a Sports Illustrated cover with Ripken on the front. The legend in big, block letters read: The New Iron Horse. Ripken had become the new symbol for hard work and determination in the collective baseball memory. This anecdote will serve as the central concept and in a way, metaphor of my essay.

The summer after eighth grade, I was wondering what sports or extracurricular activities I would be able to do well. At that time, I was 5’3 or 5’4 and about 115 pounds, if you can believe that, so football (American) was pretty much out and since I was from a town in Washington state that was a dead ringer for a 50 years advanced Yoknapatawpha setting, soccer was out as well. So one morning before it got really hot, my dad suggested we go out for a run together. I said okay. Though I had never run before except in quick bursts, I realized that I liked it–it was something I could do and it felt like a kind of perverse pleasure to put yourself through that when the only prize you might get was a blister or beating someone in a race who you had lost to in the previous one. In a best-case scenario, you simply found out how much pain you could take before you cracked. So I started running. I took weekends off and during the summer I slept in. Running was painful, almost a punishment, but I kept doing it. Dragging myself out of bed or off the couch to go run seemed like a chore. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I should.  But then Cross-Country season came. At that point, I became sucked into the culture–suddenly you were talking about people like Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter and Billy Mills as if they were Jesus or the Dali Lama or (as crazy as we seemed) maybe even Jeremiah Smith or L. Ron Hubbard. And eventually, I stopped taking days off. It got to the point where I was proud of my streak and hated the thought of giving it up and every day I almost didn’t run and the sun had gone down and it was a couple hours away from bed-time, I’d get an itch I couldn’t scratch. I kept thinking about how I hadn’t run that day. How I would lose something, even if just a little, if I didn’t run. So I’d get up and run, both because I wanted to and because I needed to. Though I’m not saying that my streak was anywhere comparable to Cal Ripken Jr.’s. But I am saying that there seems to be a link between the length of time doing something and pride and thus a renewed urge and drive to keep that streak going. I’m sure you’ve heard of insufferable people celebrating their year’s worth of relationship or marriage. The same basic principle applies, only to run or write every day is even more easy to accomplish, as the only person you have to contend with is yourself and the only needs and wants you have to accommodate are your own. Do you want to write? Do you need to write? Then write.

I seem to have been obsessed with the idea of work as of late. I think it’s because after fighting for so long with the notion of work and writing every day, I’ve had a minor breakthrough with finishing my novel. In the last two weeks or so, I made a promise to myself that I would not go to bed every day until I wrote at least 2,000 words. I kept that promise. Then I did the math. My book is 105,000 words long. If I had wrote 2,000 words a day for the entirety of the time I was writing my book, it would have taken me less than two months to write the entirety of that book instead of the eight months it ended up taking me. Though that’s the straight math, there is no way I would have been able to write 2,000 words every day at the beginning of the book, simply because I was still figuring the characters out as I wrote the first part of the story. As I learned about the characters and realized what they would do in a certain situation and began thinking ahead of the story itself, I was able to write more words in less time. Though I was able to figure out my characters by taking my time, I still believe I would have been able to do it sooner if I had at least committed to writing something every day at the beginning of my book. The simple act of sitting down and writing put me in a place where I could think about what I was to do with the book even after I had stopped writing. I wrote in short bursts, inspiration-driven hazes most of the time. Which is okay, but it’s not a substitute for work, sitting down each day to do it. One of my friends, who is a poet, responded when I said these things with this quote. “Yeah, but you finished it. Everyone starts a book. Writers finish books.”

This quote both made me feel good and made me commit myself once again to my streak. Now that I have a novel to edit, I put it in the drawer for a while—I’m not sure yet about how long it will sit there. Until I no longer feel tied to it, I suppose, so that I can objectively gauge the work of it. While the book sits there I have devoted myself to continuing the streak, so while my book sits, I have decided to work on story after story until I start editing my book. And even while I edit, I’ll still be working on more stories. Because I’ve come to realize that with every single day of work I put in, my gauge of talent goes up just a little bit and I’m able to sustain a higher level of good writing the more I do it. I am more conscious of what I’m doing with every word I write. It’s a little like juggling. First, as a beginning writer, I could only juggle with one ball and sometimes I’d drop that. Then I’d be able to work sometimes with two juggling sacks—now I feel like I’ve progressed to sometimes being able to be conscious of doing three things at once with my writing. I feel like my writing is branching out and reaching in directions I didn’t know it could. Only one word can really describe it: exhilaration.

So, as a final word, I guess I’ll say that I know how hard it is to work on your writing day in and day out. And I know how easy it sounds coming from someone who has finally seemingly broken through that barrier of needing to remind myself to write everything and becoming the person who has made writing every day a habit. I hope there were some posts made on here previously that showed my difficulty in writing every day. I’m not sure if there are, but I know I had those difficulties. Everyone does when they begin to write. And some people may never get over those difficulties and must find different methods of writing in order to get over this. But for the most part, if you can, I encourage you to start trying to write every day. Even if at the beginning it becomes a sentence or two. If you can’t get farther than that, don’t force it. But the longer you do it, the more accustomed you should become to having to be prepared to write that day. And hopefully after long enough your streak will then evolve from something you have to remind yourself to do, like an errand or chore and into something like a habit, something that if you haven’t done it, actually gnaws at you and you are coerced to write in order to soothe your conscience. You actually feel better about writing because it alleviates a strange sort of guilt. This probably sounds a bit fucked up, and right you are. But ask yourself if you’d rather feel worse about writing or worse about not writing. This is the method I’ve found that helps me most with my writing. Hopefully it made sense and will help you out with your writing.

Attention!

Hey guys, for those of you who follow my blog semi-closely, I just thought I’d let you know that last night I finished the first draft of my novel. 105,000 words later and I have no more to write on the actual story line. From here on out it’s all revision and editing and debates with my best friends about what goes and what stays in the text. Cheers! Thanks for reading the blog. It’s been a crazy struggle, and I’ve let this blog kind of go as I delved further and further into my book. But the way out is through and here I am, standing with a finished book in my hand. Fuck, this feels good.

The Two Faces of Post-Modernism

Defining Post-Modernism is a bit of a shaky subject these days, seeing as how its inception was way back around 1950 (dates of this sort are shaky as well) and some even argue that writers are still toiling in that pigeon-hole today. My opinions on that tend to differ from the popular view of schools of literature, but I’ll save that for another post. The issue that concerns us today is one of the validity/worth of the entire school of Post-Modernism. Now, one would be foolish to try and deem an entire literary movement as completely useless and then move on to more important matters like coming up with a name for the new school of up and coming authors. I am no fan of the Post-Modernists in general, but my view of the Post-Modernists (in general) comes down to a very simple duality. On one hand, one school of the Post-Modernists uses black humor and the knowledge and recognition of the story as a man-made construct to identify more closely with the reader and get the reader to feel something unfelt before. The second school of Post-Modernists are a bunch of smug, intelligent, and purposefully confusing and/or obscure writers who enjoy leading their readers from pillar to post in a hunt that effectively ends nowhere except with the reader either confused or (rightfully) incredibly angry with the author. This second school of writers uses the knowledge of the story as a man made construct and flaunts it in the reader’s face in an attempt to seemingly take the reader from the story or to exemplify how empty the whole concept of the story and words themselves are. It is this second school of Post-Modernism which I aim to take issue with and argue against in the interest of fostering a better aim of the coming work that my generation will be producing–a sort of ars poetica, if I can use the term without just coming off looking like a regular arse. Not that I intend this essay to be a touchstone for authors the way that the essays of T.S. Eliot were for those of his generation. I would simply like to point a way through the thicket in which we find ourselves.

The most prominent author of what I consider to be the “soulful” Post-Modernists is none other than my favorite Post-Modernist, Kurt Vonnegut. His books are filled with Black Humor and even self-referential devices that add rather than detract from the book itself. An example of this self-reference comes in Slaughterhouse-Five where at the beginning of the book he tells the reader of how much difficulty he had writing the story about his experiences in World War II and the resistance he was met with (the wife of one of his war buddies). Rather than taking us out of the story, we instead empathize with a man whose side will eventually commit one of the worst firebombings in the history of man. And at the same time he sets up the character of Billy Pilgrim to be almost a time-traveling doppelganger for himself and rather than object to it, we allow it to go on because we are so invested with this character. Also, the knowledge of how difficult the composition of the novel was actually makes the reader more in a position to listen because of how much effort the author put forth and how important it was to the author to get it right. Self-reference in Vonnegut’s seminal work is the key to identification. The next place self-reference comes into Vonnegut’s work is in the book Breakfast of Champions–we have not gotten any mention of the author except in the preface until one of the very last scenes where Vonnegut suddenly puts himself inside the story. Before this, a reader of the main character Kilgore Trout’s books is given a book by Trout that claims that the reader is the only person in the world with individuality and free will–at this point, the reader goes home and beats his wife, son, and nine others before being taken into custody. This seems like a very important point, because after this happens, Vonnegut inserts himself into the story and gives his character Kilgore Trout the permission to be free and under his own will. What is this supposed to mean to us as observers of this bizarre turn of events? I believe that seeing the reader (Duane) react the way he did when learning of his free will should make us hope that Kilgore Trout will avoid the same pratfall that his own reader fell prey to–and that in turn we will be rooting for ourselves as readers to remember that we are free and individual beings and to remember that everyone else has free will. I believe this was what Vonnegut intended, because in addition to his being a Humanist, he as a character talks to himself in the book, saying, “This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself. “I know,” I said. “You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I told myself. “I know,” I said.” I believe that Vonnegut is attempting to rectify the damage done by Duane in Vonnegut’s writing a terrible book–and as penance, Vonnegut actually reveals something painful about himself in the very book that he seemed to think he had failed to write. Vonnegut’s mother actually had killed herself, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that Vonnegut used this deus ex machina as a way to create a meta-narrative that captures the true Humanistic empathy that he had tried (and allegedly failed) to achieve in the first place. This is admirable both because Vonnegut bares himself to us and also has the courage to admit that he has failed. This incredible ballsy action alone has my vote for the best Post-Modernist work out there. This idea of empathy is very important both in my explanation of Vonnegut’s effectiveness as well as my ultimate “division” between good and bad Post-Modernism.

Another author who has passed his prime, but who has used self-reference to very great effect is Philip Roth. Throughout most of his books Roth has used the persona of Nathan Zuckerman to speak in a fictional mode for the author himself. This method works on two fronts: first of all, the reader is given to engage with a narrator whose experiences are fictionalized, but very much a part of every day experiences of every day people. This sounds like a terribly boring way to engage with a story, but the way Roth does it is that he places his characters in situations that are able to be identified with by almost anyone. As an author, Roth does something that is not common in Post-Modernism by placing his characters in positions that are almost cliche in their familiarity, rather than the trend formed by some Post-Modernists in which characters and situations displayed are some of the most esoteric. It’s this engagement with the familiar and borderline cliche that makes Roth so different from the other members of his generation.

The second face of Post-Modernism is the writers who delight in planting red herrings and playing around with their characters to the point of frustration and desertion. The first of these authors is Thomas Pynchon, whose book The Crying of Lot 49 will be the focus of this paragraph. However, his book, V. is another one I consider to be firmly in this vein. In the former, Pynchon’s character, Oedipa tries to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Trystero, a mysterious trumpet-shaped mark appearing on envelopes that have been sent without using a stamp. She suspects some sort of conspiracy and spends the entirety of the book looking for the answer to her questions, along the way discussing entropy, Maxwell’s Hammer, and many other mathematical and scientific subjects of interest. However, by the end of the book, absolutely nothing is resolved and the reader is left to wonder why he took the time to read these 15o pages he’s holding in his hand. And if he was in a particularly bad mood to begin with before reading the end of the story, said reader might just throw the book across the room. The reason I place Pynchon in this realm of Post-Modernists who are nihilistic and desert their readers is because, though Oedipa has a clear cause to pursue and lines of questioning to follow, we are left at the end of the book with her having not an answer at all, as if saying that the quest for answers is futile, even to the point that it is futile for readers to expect answers or even coherent plot endings from the authors whose works they happen to be reading. And those authors have the option of having us draw that conclusion–but if that is so, then readers have the option of calling their plots nihilistic and devoid of real heart. These books suffer from the symptom of having too much brains and not enough heart to satisfy the reader who reads to find something out about people.

If Pynchon has a penchant for frustrating readers, he is merely a peon in that arena when it comes to the real master of these types of books, Vladimir Nabokov. I’m not sure if Nabokov ever wrote a novel that didn’t fuck around with his readers and for this reason I will never acknowledge his anointed spot at the upper echelon of American writers. Nabokov’s novels that I will focus on in my argument are: Lolita and Pale Fire. First of all, the book Lolita, though having the possibility of being a touching novel (as touching as a novel written by a pedophile can be), ends up falling short because of Nabokov’s love of verbal pyrotechnics, drawing comparisons between him and the later David Foster Wallace. However, where Wallace succeeds in tearing down walls between himself, his characters, and his reader, that is where Nabokov completely fails. Throughout the story, Nabokov uses Humbert Humbert not as a man telling his own story of how he loved a girl and ended up loving a woman as his own mouthpiece with which to spout lots of verbal effluvium and alliterative rationalizations. Though the beginning of the story begins nicely, with Humbert Humbert setting his eyes on Lolita, the plot takes a turn for the worse as soon as Lolita’s mother dies and Humbert takes Lolita on a road trip. Soon enough, seesawing begins with the narrator–suddenly we can tell his is playing with us and there is no reason for Humbert not to have skipped straight to the climax of Lolita and him sleeping together and then moving the story along. Instead we are given pages upon pages of details about the road trip and by this time the reader begins to feel Nabokov behind Humbert Humbert, sitting there stringing the reader along to see what happens next. But nothing happens–even in the climactic scene, if you don’t pay attention, you miss everything! By the end of the book, you don’t care that Humbert kills someone who slept with Lolita, though they are the same person and you don’t care that Lolita is pregnant and Humbert finds that he is still in love with her. I can think of no greater failing for an author to have missed creating a feeling in a reader when there is so much potentially there for the reader to feel.

Second, the book Pale Fire is as far as I can tell, a book about the effects of the editor on posthumous works. The book  Pale Fire is actually a book of poetry, cantos written by the poet John Shade. The editor of the book is the one who has finally procured publication for Shade’s work. The editor, in addition, has an introductory note and appendix and afterword, thus overshadowing Shade’s contribution to his own work. Though Shade’s death is suspicious and our interest is aroused by the editor at the beginning, we begin to tire because we see that there will be no actual revelation about Shade’s murder, just more talking on the editor’s part in order to be heard under the guise of “giving informative background” about Shade and the editor’s relationship to Shade. Though we begin to suspect the editor himself, we are left by the end of the book, wondering whether the book was actually a poem or a book about a poem. Either way, the book becomes so up its own ass about the idea of critical theory taking over literature that it misses the fact that a book intending to critique this phenomena only served to become the prime example of it, thus rendering the point pointless. Again, all this would be forgiven if Nabokov had ever given us a character for whom we could root and for whom we could feel. We are given neither in either of these books.

I would write more on this subject, but I’m bored of it now, because I’m sick of analyzing lack of sincerity and I’ve had this saved on my wordpress queue for ever. So, I will leave you with this: sincerity is not something to be sneered at–it’s something that the very best of authors cultivate and strive their hardest toward. Honesty and sincerity dovetail, one can rarely be found without the other. And these authors who I have give compliments to have done just that. I encourage you to avoid the influence of the others who are basically terrible and in my mind strive toward neither sincerity nor honesty.