Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Olives on the branch

Dog ownership and bus riding have proven to be excellent stages for examples of domination or failed attempts at it. I have noticed, for example, that Peanut often acts aggressively toward "teenage" dogs, especially ones that will soon be much larger than he is. I figure this is his way of instilling fear into an opponent who will likely be able to kick his butt soon.

Sometimes, when I'm playing with him, I'll get on my hands and knees and puff out my chest and stand shoulder to shoulder with him--something I've seen him do outside with other dogs just before bark fests. It always catches him a bit off guard, and he often hops away and stops playing for a second. (See, I'm slowly learning to speak dog.)

This morning, on the bus, a man stood and headed for the door because he was getting off at the next stop. A woman was standing in his way, and when he asked her to move, she refused, saying something like, "I'm getting off at this stop too." The man asked again, to make sure he could get close to the door. The woman refused, saying he could damn well wait or something like that. The man nudged her. The woman screamed at him. The man pushed her harder. The woman started slapping. The two got into a fight. And then a third man--tall and dirty--came up between them, faced the man, and administered one single blow of the forearm. Everyone stopped. Then, the first man who has asked to get to the door got a glazed expression on his face, and crumpled. When he was finally able to sit up, blood ran out of his nose and mouth and puddled on the floor. The bus stopped. We made room, all except for one other guy who decided to walk through the blood and get red footprints everywhere. Did he do that to show that he was unimpressed by everything? That a little blood didn't scare him? That the fight wasn't going to affect his own path in any way?

The idea of domination, or defending what's ours, or maintaining pride, or whatever you want to call it is interesting me this morning. The gestures we do to assert ourselves, directly or indirectly, are fascinating. How do we defend our turf? What are our boundaries? In all honestly, much of it seems arbitrary to me, which makes it all the more exciting to explore.


I'm working my way through Madame Bovary. A new character just stepped on the scene, M. Boulanger, and he is fascinating me more than anyone else so far. Luckily or unluckily for me, I have no recollection of the book's plot, so I have no idea if he's major or minor, but I sense he will be important.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tin roof sundae ice cream

Last time I talked about how I think my writing lately has been all about trying to set up a situation and then watching How Things Unfold. I used a dice metaphor, but today it occurred to me more like this: supposing you had a artist's canvas and it was leanin' against a wall. Then, supposing you formed a little dam at the top of the canvas with your hands and asked your assistant to fill your dam hands with paint. The assistant pours while you keep the paint from a-drippin' down onto the canvas, and when you can't hold it anymore, you finally release your hands and the paint just pours down the canvas in some random way that's only partially affected by where the dam was and how long you held the paint. That's what I'm trying to do. That's HTU.

And I've been thinking that a large reason for why I write this can be traced back to my Buddhist upbringing. I'm not religious anymore, but when I was younger I spent a lot of time meditating and trying to understand the concept of enlightenment. For a long time, I thought it was associated with not caring about anything. But, over time, I came to see it as having enough trust in nature to let things take its course.

There is part of the picture that's very hard for me to work with. That has to do with detachment. Did you know that the orange color of a Buddhist monk's robe is symbolic of autumn leaves? The idea is that the monk detaches from the world the way these leaves detach from the trees. It's very calming to be this way. But, here's the hard part for me personally. I feel like I carry this sense of nature and detachment into my stories in the beginning. Then, later on, I start to get all freaked out because my characters don't want anything. There's no compelling mechanism underlying what I write. So, I start to generate one. I come up with things my characters desperately want. Sometimes it makes for an engaging story, but really it's hardly ever sincere, and so I always feel like there's a major element in my stories that isn't really a true reflection of me. It's frustrating because I feel like I need it, but I'm not at all excited by it. (I also think this often ruins the end of my books as I try to make sure that artificial desire is felt.)

With Cyberlama, that character motivation is there, but I'd say it's light. I didn't feel as insecure about it, even if it wasn't a sincere construct on my part. I let myself fill much of the book with more of the detached things I wanted to fill it with. In the end, it's a bit of a hybrid like everything else I've done, but it has brought me closer to what I think I want to write, and that is fantastic. My idea for my next book, the tea kettle inventing god idea, is a result of what I learned from Cyberlama, and I think it's a step closer to (A) being compelling while (B) being that detached observer of nature. This is the combination I've been looking for, and I think maybe I've figured how to approach it.

P.S. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, well, it's just like Scott trying to explain what the hell he's trying to do with his "everything is story" discussions. I feel like I'm on a good track!

And, look:

What's Peanut eating? I don't know, because I was hanging out with Nevets! He's such a good guy, y'all. (And I'm talking like this because of Tess Hilmo's book. )

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tea of the gods

What happened is that I was overwhelmed with ideas to talk about and didn't have time to do any of it. Then, somehow, the thoughts abandoned me and all I had was a recipe for potatoes*.

I'm currently reading With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo. Tess' book is blowing me away, not just because I know her. It's truly good. Good enough to have me sitting on a bus reading a book with that title and font that's incredibly big. Tess has somehow reminded me of what is was like when I was a thirteen-year-old girl living out of a trailer.

Here's where I am in my writing. I've gotten a couple of reviews in on Cyberlama, including from the incomparable Scott G.F. Bailey, and I'm doing some reorganization as a result. It's reorganization I thought I might want to do, and the reviews are confirming it. I'm going to take pages 200-230 and sprinkle them throughout pages 1-100. It will be fun, and I will probably pull my hair out.

Mostly, I have been spending my time reflecting on things like, "Hey, what am I actually writing about?" After much thinking, mostly as I fall asleep, I realize I'm not trying to capture an exciting plot or exciting people. My intellectual and emotional makeup is simply not pushing me in that direction. Instead, I seem to be trying to record How Things Unfold, or HTU. HTU brings me back to me waiting for my dogs to die and me staring up at the sky at a stupid balloon floating up and up. I think HTU probably relates to me trying to understand how a new born baby can grow up to be a wife- and son-beating alcoholic (the subject of my first novel Rooster) and how I will die. (Yes, I think about that a lot, not so much because I'm afraid, but because I'm just curious how one goes from thinking "I'm alive! I'm alive!" to "     "!

The problem with writing HTU is that I end up with a book that I'd say is neither character driven or plot driven. It ends up being a bit random, which is only because randomness jives with my view of the world. So, when one writes about randomness, the unfolding of life in an arbitrary way, is that compelling fiction? Really, what the hell is it? My feeling about Cyberlama is that it ends up being a collection of interesting pieces that don't necessarily add up to anything more compelling on the large scale. Is that okay? Well, yeah, I suppose anything is okay. And, I suppose to other people who are as obsessed with HTU as I am, it will be okay to them too.

I am likely going to junk the fragments of Everybody! I have posted up here. I've decided to take the story away from the university and put it in a desert. And instead of it being about science, it's going to be about religion. And instead of me basing the story on these really interesting scientists I've been thinking about for the last few years, I'm playing with the idea of basing the characters somehow on inanimate objects like tea kettles and chairs. The sum would be something like, "How would a tea kettle create her own god?" Or something like that. It makes more sense in my head.

What's Peanut eating? A to-do list.

"Now all you have to do is snooze with me."

*You take golf ball-size potatoes and peel them and boil them. Then, you drain the water and let them get fairly dry (wait 45 minutes or so). Then, you toss them around so that their surfaces get all scratched up--this is called "chuffing" them. Then, you put them in a baking pan with salt, pepper, rosemary, and garlic and oil and bake them at 375 ˚F for about 45 minutes. The outside will be crispy and delicious and the inside will be soft and fluffy!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Historical Strawberries

Last week I fell into a pit of writerly confusion, due mostly to a few different things I have been reading. 

I read a blog post from my friend Shanna Mahin here, where she raved about writer Cheryl Strayed and her The Sun essay "The Love Of My Life." Both Shanna and Cheryl Strayed are memoirists, and if you read the essay you'll get a taste of the powerful and complex emotions each of them are able to capture, along with the raw honesty of their lives. (See also Sam Dunn's book Failing Paris.)

I also recent read Julie Otsuka's PEN/Faulkner Award winning book The Buddha In The Attic, which is a beautifully written book, told in first person plural, that describes the Japanese immigrant experience in way that was far more educational to me than other accounts I've read in the past.

So, why the confusion? 

I've admired everything I've been reading lately. Both Otsuka's book and Strayed's essay feel weighty to me, feel valuable. At the same time, neither of these works is something I would personally want to create. I end up questioning if my own work has this same vague sense of value, and right now, unfortunately, my answer is no. I want to be able to find this value while still exploring what I want to explore. And, really, I think what this means is that I should be moving slower, planning more, thinking more deeply. I think I need to explore more inwardly as I produce words on a page.

It doesn't help that so many voices are always promoting other writing. I mean, that's really cool, but hearing all of these compliments has temporarily blinded me. I spent the weekend trying to write an essay, and then I wondered if I should go back to my novel Rooster and explore the immigrant thing again. Dumbly, I assume that the value will appear if I just explore the right topics. Um, probably not.

None of this is to say that I'm depressed or even necessarily down. I think it has been helpful to show me where I am on my journey. I'm probably dumping all of the new stuff I've written lately so that I can explore something new with these things in mind. We'll see. I refuse to make any commitments or promises!

Also, I went to Bread Lounge this weekend, and it was wunderbar! Below is a reminds-me-of-my-friend's-ex-military-father-eating-bread-in-his-chair baguette and a ciabatta loaf. Not pictured are an almond pastry (that got partially eaten before it occurred to me to take a picture) and a croissant, all of it for ten bucks.


What's Peanut eating? Roast chicken or nothing at all.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hipster Cool Toast

In good news, two nights ago, I and Peanut encountered Peanut's arch enemy, "the white dog," and for the first time since their vicious fight, the two didn't bark at each other! Both owners, me and European guy, smiled in surprise, and I'm hoping this is a lasting change.

In other good news, a bakery called The Bread Lounge just opened one block away from my loft! Plunk right there in the middle of industrial warehouses, I can now get some fresh baguettes, assuming they're not too hipster cool to make boring baguettes, and also assuming they don't sell their baguettes for anything over five bucks. I'm hugely excited.

I also finished reading The Buddha In The Attic, which I'll talk about soon, and I've started The Tiger's Wife, which--dammit--is as good as everyone says it is.

I'm moving forward with Everybody, still letting the premise develop in my mind and still waiting to see if I have enough love for the story to stick with it. Yesterday, I started introducing some characters:

Two lines formed. At the south entrance were the students, the postdocs, the professors, the occasional technicians and administrative assistants; they stood along the trimmed edge of the central lawn where commencement was held every year in June, between the behavioral biology building—also named after Beckman—and the Baxter building, the only building on campus where the humanities were taught. At the north entrance, leading in from the parking lot that ran along Michigan Avenue, were the friends of the campus, the wealthy alumni, the professors emeriti, President Chameau himself and his wife, who earned her Ph.D. in neurology while winning several regional beauty pageants along the way. The crowds began to mix in the lobby: the T-shirts and shorts, the sport coats and ties, the glistening gowns and diamond earrings, the hoodies and red-rimmed cat-eye glasses, the draped shawls, the overstuffed backpacks, the perfume, and the faint odor of dimethyl sulfoxide and tetramethylethylenediamine. The guests mixed and then naturally separated again under the golden drapes of the auditorium, where everyone over sixty migrated to the front rows and everyone under thirty moved toward the back. Those in between decided where they would be based on their own social graces and whether or not they planned to sneak out again if the presentations ended up being boring, and if the speakers ended up not being the stars that everyone said they were, but nothing more than the average overly ambitious researchers like they themselves had been not too long ago, the ones who had scrambled for their publication in Science, or Nature, or PNAS before applying for jobs, the ones who had taken pictures of dissected burritos or Volkswagons half-submerged in mud to serve as humorous metaphors for their research, which—when they were completely honest with themselves—was not brilliantly divergent from what they had learned from their mentors, but was simply a variation on a theme, a natural progression based on the truly brilliant ideas of their academic ancestors long since dead.

The most impatient audience members, the ones hoping to be disappointed, sat on the edges of the rows, grudgingly swinging their legs to the side when anyone asked to slip past them for one of the central seats. Among these was Dr. Raymond Bernard, thirty-nine, recently tenured and high on funding. He had earned the reputation for being a renegade during the summer biology retreat in Arrowhead, when he attended the poster session, sweat-drenched from a mountain bike ride, barefoot and with his muddy socks slung over his shoulders, as he interrogated the wide-eyed newbies on their preliminary data.

There was Dr. Wallace Ashbright, with his gray hair and his gray cashmere sweater and his gray slacks sitting with his hands in his lap in the center of the seventh row, not speaking to anyone unless he was spoken to. Possibly the most celebrated mineralogist in the world—his name assigned to a mineral he had discovered himself: Ashbrightiite—he had recently lost the wife he had proposed to over forty years ago with an onyx he cut himself. It had been a brain tumor. Wallace’s heart still bubbled and boiled over at unpredictable times, like yesterday, when he cried as he was putting his breakfast plate in the sink because he saw the crumbs from his toast slide down onto the wet, scratched basin. In her last year Anita had forgotten how faucets worked, and how buttons worked, and how to stop the car before it crashed into the garage door. Since her funeral, Wallace had thrown himself into his research, for the first time in his life working, not out of love, but out of the need to not think about love.

There was Dr. Stanley Chong, who lost seventeen pounds since he accepted the assistant professor position in chemistry last summer. President Chameau had set up no such seminar for him or either of the other hires his year. Stanley had quietly moved west from Harvard, buying a Craftsman house in Pasadena within walking distance from the campus with his wife, Lily, and eight-month-old son, Charlie, without asking for any of his colleagues’ advice. When he remembered, he ate his lunch alone in his office—usually rice and sautéed bean sprouts or pea shoots or zucchini blossoms and whatever meat Lily had decided to marinate in soy sauce and poach. More often these lunches sat forgotten in his mini refrigerator while he read and strategically planned experiments that he would be able to perform with his one and only lab member, a volunteer undergraduate with blue hair who went by the name of “Minty”.

The seats were filling. The good positions were taken, and now pairs and groups of late attendees were having to split up to get anything that was still available. President Chameau buttoned his coat with his long fingers and stepped slowly up the stairs to the stage. His smile was bright. His smile was French. He put his hands into his pockets and peered over the edge of his bifocals to the two men and one woman sitting in the front row.

“Ready, my children?”

The woman laughed and threw up her hands. “As ready as we’ll ever be.” This was Dianne Farro, the newest new recruit. She had quickly become Chameau’s favorite because he detected in her a fearlessness, a recklessness, that he believed all great scientists required...

What's Peanut eating? Chicken and strawberries.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A bowl of spaghetti interrupted by a phone call

Last week I finally got around to reading an interview by Sam Anderson of Haruki Murakami from The New York Times Magazine that I've been carrying around in my backpack for what must be months. You should be able to access it here if you like. It's very well-researched and well-written if you're interested in Murakami. I found a lot of it interesting, if not a bit redundant after my reading of Murakami's memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The article discusses his time owning a jazz club, his huge album collection, his writing, and his running. For me, the article served as an important reminder that writing that is reflective of one's personal life will likely be very unique and strange, and that's okay. Anderson discusses how Murakami's childhood and background probably influenced his strange storylines.

I needed this at the moment because I keep thinking about my recently finished novel and how odd of a book it is. On one hand, I think the oddity comes from my own limitations. I don't think this is a perfect book. It's the best book I could write at the time, but it has some weaknesses I wish weren't there. I think it's my best work based only on the simple fact that it's probably the most coherent work of long fiction that I've managed to write. Which is just to say that there's a logical story there. But that's not saying much. I'm not sure if it's at all engaging or emotional.

On the other hand, though, however, and possibly, I do think I managed to create some things that were highly successful...as long as the mark of success is my own aesthetic preferences. There's a scene with a deck of cards in it that I love. I like the balance of science and life that I struck. I like that the Dalai Lama is in it and that the first scene with him in it involves him just sitting there. I like that it deals with some darker subjects and crimes that I am always fascinated by.

But the wrestlers are in my head. One of them is the muscular and sweaty guy telling me that I should just write what I personally want. Sometimes he even goes so far as to tell me that I couldn't write anything else anyway (before spitting in my face). The other guy, unfortunately, is equally muscular and equally sweaty, and he's telling me that there's really no point in writing a book that no one else will connect with. He calls me a wimp for not considering the rest of the world. He tells me it's like inviting people over for dinner and forcing them to eat food that they hate just because I think it's good. The outcome of this wrestling match is (1) it's making me think harder about what my next novel should be, which I think is a good thing, (2) it's making me explore things like writing essays, which I think is a good thing, and (3) it's making me doubt myself and try to come up with adventures that really aren't reflective of me, which is a stressful thing.

What's Peanut eating? He's not. He's turning his nose up to the food I'm giving him because it isn't supplemented with chicken. I'm currently trying to train him to close the cupboards, which has involved a lot of sitting and staring at one another as we try to understand why the other is being so stubborn.