Memorial Day, 2007. I’ve drifted away from a Santa Monica beach party to gaze out at the Pacific Ocean, plus my navel, when an unfamiliar woman approaches. We chat a bit—she’s a literary agent based in New York, the sister of the hostess—and then she asks the dreaded question. “So…what are you working on these days?” I pause to consider before answering. You know when people say to cute, charismatic single women, “You’re so fabulous—I just can’t believe you’re single!” and they want to punch them in the face and then kill themselves? This was a work version of that.
You see, I’ve been living in Los Angeles for seven years, having left my native New York City to seek my fortune as a screenwriter with a soap opera credit and a fresh pile of TV spec scripts in my kit bag, but the steady ascent I’ve pictured, and that I’ve seen other people achieve, hasn’t happened. I’ve been working so damn hard for so long and I feel like I’m nowhere, other than crushed. How could that be, when I’ve done everything I’ve seen other people doing—and what my various agents have told me to do?
I mean: I got a driver’s license at age 30 in order to drive cross-country in a U-Haul piled with whatever possessions my husband and I didn’t sell when we left Brooklyn. I sat in a rented house in the Hollywood Dell with a vintage metal desk and a pristine view of a walled garden that gave me a squirrely Barton Fink feeling, and I cranked out material and rolled calls. I got a job on a show—the researcher on Law &Order: SVU in its first season—and I wrote two freelance episodes…but I wasn’t put on staff. I re-wrote a teen comedy feature for Paramount…but my broadly comic take was poorly received. I sold a TV dramedy pilot, a high school musical…but the executives involved walked away when I’d banked they’d burst into song. Eventually, motivated by the stretches of unemployment between these gigs, I developed a freelance sideline, writing copy for entertainment-based ad campaigns. And then, just weeks before the beach party at which I’m now a wallflower, a literary manager who’s read what I thought were my best scripts delivers a disturbing critique. “Your work is solid,” she says. “It’s well written and it proves you can do it. But I can’t do anything with it, because it’s generic. I would be interested in working with you, but first I’d need to see material that only you could write. Write some new stuff this summer and send it over after Labor Day.” Generic? New stuff? Sounds like me? Fecch. Continue reading
I’m sitting on the back porch of my temporary lodgings in Atlanta, while two spiders go at it, the smaller invading the larger’s web. (Why? Who knows. Maybe he or she is lonely.) Larger lunges at smaller, until smaller retreats, and both settle down again to await the arrival of an unsuspecting fly. Watching them, I am reminded of Charlotte’s Web, which I read when I was boy, and how caught up I became in the struggles of Charlotte and Wilbur and how I never wanted the story to end. Unfortunately, it did, yet fortunately for me I found many other stories to get tangled up in—Encyclopedia Brown, The Westing Game,The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Bridge to Terabithia.
Back then, I read only for pleasure and escape and erroneously imagined these books I so loved to be handed down through a series of magic tricks to end up in my favorite bookstore. I had no idea they were written by real people, who sat at real desks and typed them out on real typewriters, arduous page after arduous page. These books, these authors, changed the way I saw the world, but more than this they changed the way I interacted with it. I learned about sleuthing, betrayal, love, and death by falling headfirst into these created universes, which matched the reality of my own only insofar as they resembled the familiar—houses, trees, the sun and moon, stars, streets, etc. Other than this, they were as fantastical as they were absorbing; I couldn’t wait to flip the page to find out what happened next.
While working on my own novel, I had a similar experience, yet now I was in complete control (or so I thought) of what happened next. The process of writing and publishing Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence took ten years and through it, I learned many valuable lessons, the most important of which is this: we writers have little say in the fate of our characters, who ultimately dictate to us how they want the story to be told and what will happen to them. So it was that one writer after another began to appear in the pages of Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence and I had nothing to say about it. No, really. They turned up and took over and suddenly the novel became more than a novel about a fraught triangulation of widow, critic, and ingénue. It became a novel that asked where stories come from and who owns them, how we write novels and why we do. Like a fly, I was trapped in my novel’s web and the less I struggled, the more I discovered about the characters and myself and the more I discovered, the more the impossible began to occur—the characters told me what was going to happen and held me to this, refusing to let me go until they were satisfied I’d told their stories as honestly and as well as I could.
The period immediately after your book comes out is a wonderful and strange time. On the one hand, the work you’ve done—which for most of its existence just hung out on the hard drive of your computer, feeling not quite real—is now in front of you, in a very concrete form, between two covers. Your work is a book, a thing with mass and substance, an object that other folks can find and get and read—maybe even folks you don’t know! In that way it’s the joyous culmination of perhaps years of work and efforts to get the work published.
On the other hand, it’s definitely a weird time. The main weirdness is that, when your book comes out, suddenly you’re probably doing all kinds of unusual things to help the book succeed: you may be giving readings, driving from one bookstore to another, sitting on panels, Googling yourself way too much and checking your Amazon Rank (please don’t, if you can help it)—and also perhaps doing what I’m doing here, which is writing about writing. Every one of these activities is the result of very good fortune—you couldn’t be doing them if you hadn’t gotten that book into print—and they’re generally a lot of fun (aside from Googling and Amazon Ranking, the dangers of which I cannot stress enough). Yet you’ll notice that there’s one thing missing from that list of activities: aside from writing about writing, you may not be doing very much writing at all—not the kind that probably led to the actual book you’re now holding in your hands.
It can sneak up on you. If you’re anything like me, spending too much time away from writing means getting more and more irritable, and getting on your loved ones’ nerves. Often it’s my wife who, finally fed up with me, demands that I find some time to write or else. In those moments, it’s even possible to get a little resentful of your own good fortune—I would be writing if only it wasn’t for all this author stuff! But I don’t recommend embracing that resentment. These author activities are not only fun, not only the fruits of tremendous good fortune—they can also be an important part of the creative cycle.
Writing about writing (like I’m doing right now) is a great example of that. When I’m in the midst of writing short stories or poems, I’m not thinking a lot about what I’m doing. First drafts come out in a sort of unplanned, raw way, and even revision involves some specific strategizing, but not much thought about big questions, like Why do I write? or Why am I writing in this particular form? or What’s the best way to get work done? or any of a variety of other possibilities. The time after a book gets published is actually a rare and valuable time to sit back and get some perspective on what you do. It can add layers of meaning to your work, and it can make you a better and more purposeful writer.
For example, this fall, my writing about writing has helped me to: finally understand the basic difference between a novelist and a short story writer; to get clear on how a short story collection comes together successfully; to really appreciate the fact that I use writing to understand things that initially confuse me; to explore the Jewishness of my work and my process; and—right here—to value the very writing about writing that I’m doing now. It has also helped me participate in a larger conversation between writers and readers—a conversation I first encountered as a little boy learning to read. I want to be a part of that, and I’m glad that I get to be.
Of course, none of this replaces the real writing, the stuff that you’re most passionate about. And it makes sense to get a little agitated if it’s been a while since the last story or poem, and it makes sense to get back to it as soon as you can. But in the meantime it’s probably worthwhile to pay close attention to all you’re doing as an author, because, even in the middle of all the strangeness, you have an enormous opportunity to grow as a writer.
And really—just leave those Amazon rankings alone.
This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Here, Joshua responds to Justin’s post from yesterday.
This is what I’ve come to expect from you—this level trust of gut. It’s one of your best qualities—both as a writer and a friend. And it’s a quality I frankly covet for myself. When you write that it doesn’t bother you to “use the same computer to type [your] fictions as [you] do to write [me] a note about where to lunch on Sunday,” my commonsense alert goes off and I get depressed and crawl into a corner where I smoke and drink icewater and lament my preciosity. (Both you and I know I could have used the word “preciousness.”)
So I’m chastened, but still some quivering gelatinous part of me—say, my knee—wants to maintain that there’s an element of computerwriting that somehow eludes analogizing with writers of the past using the same pen to draft both a shopping list and War and Peace Redux. The computer, for me, has always had a business aspect, or, better, what the MBAs might call an opportunity cost. It seems to professionalize me in ways that disgust. It does this by insisting, by its boxy gray existence alone, the concept that my writing might, will, one day be public. Now my conscious mind knows this, my conscious mind craves this, but I’m not sure that the conscious mind is the best of all minds, for me, to be writing with. I need to fool myself to write. To tell myself nothing matters, no one cares, I don’t care. That the desk and chair I’m describing has nothing to do not only with the desk and chair I’m occupying but with all possible desks (escritoires) and all possible chairs (Aerons) I might access online.
Not that the escritoires and Aerons haven’t helped me, but the computer compels me toward that help.
So yes, yes, our conclusion might be the same: the problem “is not with the tool but with the user.” But then the very moment I agree to agree, Heidegger jumps me with his Ge-Stell, or “enframing”: the artist makes the tool until the tool makes the artist. I fantasize, whenever I make a mess of my life, that all equanimities and pragmatisms are just technological enframings of a natural frenzy.
Here, I’ve searched it up for us:
This, though, is from The Discourse on Thinking:
“Still we can act otherwise. We can use technical devices, and yet with proper use also keep ourselves so free of them, that we may let go of them any time. We can use technical devices as they ought to be used, and also let them alone as something which does not affect our inner and real core. We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature.
“But will not saying both yes and no this way to technical devices make our relation to technology ambivalent and insecure? On the contrary! Our relation to technology will become wonderfully simple and relaxed. We let technical devices enter our daily life, and at the same time leave them outside, that is, let them alone, as things which are nothing absolute but remain dependent upon something higher. I would call this comportment toward technology which expresses ‘yes’ and at the same time ‘no,’ by an old word, releasement-toward-things.”
In Heidegger’s day I would’ve been too lazy, or too dead, to have typed this out. Thank God for copy/paste.
The German for “releasement” (indeed, Heidegger/his translators, John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund, could have used “release”) is Gelassenheit.
That’s a good old word to repeat while waiting for the F Train at 4AM. Continue reading
This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. In this post, Justin responds to Josh’s initial thoughts.
Okay. You’ve thrown a lot of questions at me here, so let me describe what I’m seeing and then let’s see where we are. (I almost wrote “hearing,” because when I read your words I hear your voice in my head, but if I were having the screws put to me by the fact-checker I’d have to admit that what I hear right now is the desk fan in my office, my own keys clacking on the keyboard of my MacBook, and Nathan Salsburg’s wonderful instrumental acoustic guitar record, “Affirmed,” which I switched to just a minute ago from Hendrix at the Isle of Wight, because that was too noisy to “hear” myself think over, despite having only a minute before that having posted on my Facebook page that I intended to listen to Hendrix for “most of the afternoon.” He’s lucky if he got forty-five minutes. (So much for the honest presentation of a public self).
Like you, I compose my fictions by hand and type them up later, editing as I go, then printing out again for another read-through (often aloud) and hand-written edit. This process is repeated as many times as a given piece demands. But it doesn’t bother me that I use the same computer to type my fictions as I do to write you a note about where to lunch on Sunday, anymore than it would if I were to use the same pen I was first-drafting with to dash off your address on a postcard I was sending you. I don’t see the materials themselves as inherently sacred or profane. The computer is a nexus-point for so many different parts of our lives (public, private, interpersonal, professional, political, artistic, cultural-consumptive, &c.) that historically were experienced or pursued separately and without reference to one another—as in, when you were doing thing A, you were necessarily not doing things B and/or C and/or D.
It’s up to the individual, therefore, to decide what degree of simultaneity is appropriate at a given time. Just because you have the ability to watch a dirty movie clip in one browser window while leaving a birthday message on your grandmother’s Facebook page in another browser window doesn’t mean that you should. Similarly, just because you have the ability to make lunch plans or trade gossip or read “status updates” using the same device you use to edit your magnum opus does not mean that trading gossip and reading status updates is a good use of your designated Valuable Writing Time. So the problem—if there is a problem—in my view is not with the tool but with the user.
Do I think that non-writers struggle to find the right tone—the thing that will make them sound like the people they wish to project themselves as or perhaps even actually are? Sure. I think everyone’s always working to become or at any rate maintain their status as their best self. If anything, the writer (more generally, the artist) has an easier time of it, because we spend so much time practicing on these microcosmic people we create just to fuck with; we have (or ought to have) a more refined sense of how these things work.
You should be very honest about your attitude toward publicity. I’d be curious to hear you articulate it, perhaps in the form of a guiding policy or principle if you have one. I’ll give you mine, which is to mostly say “Yes” to things, unless there’s a compelling reason not to—time or dignity being the main ones. The work of writing has literally nothing to do with the work of publicizing that writing after it’s finished. I’ve never sought “fame” or a spotlight for their own sakes (and God knows haven’t found them) but when I make the decision to publish my work, I’m saying that I want it to have an existence beyond my own desktop, a public life, and if it’s going to have one I want it to have the biggest, best one possible. I don’t think there’s anything unseemly about that. They’re two different skill-sets, two entirely different and in certain crucial ways irreconcilable frames of mind. There are ways to have fun with it and ways to get through it when it’s not fun, but more than anything else, choosing to participate affords you the best possible chance of message control. Anything you’re willing to say “Yes” to and actually do, you can be responsible for. The more hands-off you are the more you’re at the mercy of somebody else’s press releases, tag lines, and surmises, or at risk of simply being ignored.
I hope I haven’t gotten too far off track here. I worry too that my instinct to be contrary, when applied to your deep ambivalence, causes me to play the wide-eyed Happy Guy. There are a lot of things about “publicity” that I hate—particularly the way young writers are taught to crave it above all other things—such as craft, discipline, and integrity. And of course I notice that the one question I shirked was the one I was most interested in—the question having to do with voice in fiction, this notion of convincing similarity versus convincing difference. Maybe you can expand a bit on your concept, or clarify how you see this question of aesthetics/mimetics relating to these notions of the public/private self, writerly or non?
It’s amazing how many North Londoners have taken me aside in a furtive, conspiratorial kind of manner, in order to ask me for the truth. ‘Go on,’ a new acquaintance might urge, within moments of our meeting, ‘you can tell me. Who is it based on? Who are they really? I won’t tell anyone.’ Many people share the conviction that fiction must draw its cast members, if not its story lines, from the writer’s own life, and that conviction seems to be redoubled when the fiction in question takes place in a specific, familiar world. I grew up in Golders Green, a small Jewish suburb in North London, and my novel The Innocents is set nearby, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Perhaps it was therefore inevitable.
The truth, however, is less scandalous. My fiction is just that – fiction – as are my characters. I have lived in north-west London for almost my whole life, during which I have had more than three decades to make a fond, if sometimes exasperated study of its nuances, its climate, its residents. North London and I are old, old friends. And so Adam and Rachel are truly based on no one in particular, because each is based on a hundred people – just as they are formed, like any character in fiction, from who-knows-what preoccupations dredged from the murky bottom of my psyche. Rather than simply to create portraits of people one knows in real life, the fantastic joy and liberation of writing is to spend time in the company of the new people one has invented, and to discover what will happen to them.
JT Waldman co-authored and illustrated the new graphic novel Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me with writer and frequent David Letterman guest Harvey Pekar. Read more about their relationship here.
“It is true enough to say that he was the “poet laureate of Cleveland” or to describe his American Splendor as “Homeric”, but those descriptives are still inadequate. He was the perfect man for his times, straddling…everything: the underground comic revolution of the 60′s, the creation and transformation of the graphic novel, independent film, television, music (the classic jazz he championed relentlessly throughout his life).
He was famed as a “curmudgeon”, a “crank” and a “misanthrope” yet found beauty and heroism where few others even bothered to look. In a post-ironic and post-Seinfeldian universe he was the last romantic–his work sincere, heartfelt, alternately dead serious and wryly affectionate. The last man standing to wonder out loud, “what happened here?”
- Anthony Bourdain, July 13, 2010
Before Harvey Pekar self-published American Splendor in 1976, there were no publicly distributed memoir comic books. Sure, people doodled in their journals or sketchbooks, and some super-hero artists/writers included themselves in their fantastic stories, but before American Splendor, comix were synonymous with fiction and fantasy.
With Harvey Pekar’s writing, underground comix based on mundane personal realities began to flourish. From travel journals, to anthologies about true porn, the “gonzo literary comic” style of graphic memoirs has become its own cottage industry in publishing.
Here’s a sampling of the wide range of comic book creators who make comic books about their private lives: Allison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, Josh Neufeld, Miriam Libicki, Miss Lasko Gross, Marjane Satrapi, Craig Thompson, Brian Fies, David B., Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Seth, Peter Kuper, David Small, and Guy Delisle, to name just a few.
This summer in Toronto, the Third Annual Graphic Medicine Conference will delve into the use of comix in health practices. This year, the highly focused confab will explore depictions of the Outsider or Other in the context of issues such as barriers to healthcare, the stigma of mental illness and disability, and the silent burden of caretaking.
Museums and galleries have also opened their doors to graphic memoirs. Last year, an exhibition entitled “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” toured the United States.
Graphic memoirs predate blogs, tweets, and Facebook statuses, but the essence and basic components of both media are the same. Today, nearly everyone shares snippets of himself or herself, telling stories to the masses through blurbs and images in sequences. Entire markets are now built around this data.
In the mid-seventies, Harvey Pekar was doing all this before it was ubiquitous and commercialized. He shared his perspective regardless of the number of followers or friends in his circles. Harvey was an archivist and a storyteller at the same time. He was the Paul Revere of graphic memoirs presaging a literary long tail before it was even in sight. He demonstrated that everyone had a voice AND could find an audience. All they had to do was find a pen and start pondering on paper.
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, is now available.
For a long time I wanted to be a fiction writer, but then for a long time I also wanted to be a basketball player, and at a certain point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough. That’s how I felt about fiction writing. It seemed to me a delusion, a dream. So despite dipping my toes in fiction writing, I studied mostly political theory in college and planned after I graduated to get a Ph.D. in political theory. But first I decided to take a year off, and I moved out to Berkeley and got a job at a magazine, where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction manuscripts. And I was struck by how terrible most of them were. I didn’t necessarily think I could do any better, but I was impressed by the number of people who were willing to try and risk failure. I found it oddly inspiring. I thought I should be willing to try and risk failure, too. So I started to take some workshops, ended up moving to Ann Arbor get my MFA, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But the fact of trying and risking failure hasn’t changed. Richard Ford came to Ann Arbor when I was there. This was around the time that he won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, and so he’d had a lot of success, but what he told the graduate students, and I really think this is true, is that when he sits down to write the page is just as blank as it is for anyone. Just because you’ve done it once doesn’t mean you can do it again. And it’s that fact—and the terror that accompanies it—that makes fiction writing both a challenge and a pleasure. Writing fiction is about creating something out of nothing, which is another of its pleasures. And I’m a gossip, which I believe most fiction writers are. We’re interested in people, and what better way to feed your interest in people than to make them up? My mother tells a story that when I was a toddler and she would walk with me down Broadway, she couldn’t get anywhere because I insisted on being picked up so that I could look into every store window. I wanted to see everything and everyone. To me, that’s what a fiction writer is—someone who wants to look into every store window, who’s always hoping to discover something.
My new novel, The World Without You, takes place over a single July 4th holiday. Leo Frankel was a journalist killed in Iraq, and a year later his parents, his three sisters, his widow, and his young son descend on the family’s country house in the Berkshires for his memorial. People often ask me where the idea for the book came from, and while I don’t believe in “ideas” when it comes to fiction (I start with a character, or a situation; ideas are for politicians, or sociologist, or rabbis), the book grew out of the following memory. I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. Every year on Purim my father’s side of the family gets together to read the Megillah, and one Purim, nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.
Several years ago at a writing conference, I was listening to a panel of agents and editors talk about how to get published. They had advice about query letters and first chapters and whether or not to compare yourself to Nobel Prize winning authors. A man stood up and said, “How long should a novel be? I don’t want to have to write this thing again and again, so I’d appreciate it if you just told me what you wanted right up front.” I could feel everyone in the room sigh for this man, but of course, we all knew what he meant. Why is this so hard, I’ve thought a million times. You read a great book and it feels effortless, like the writer just knew how to tell that story. All of us in that room wanted to know how to tell our stories, too.
My first novel took eight years and seventeen drafts. I wanted to believe that it would be easier the second time around, but I was wrong. It might even be harder, because I know exactly how long the road is. But I am not complaining. No one is forcing me to write — if I hated this (OK, sometimes I do hate it. A lot. But then I love it again later) I could stop. I understand that starting is hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first your fourth book, you are always in the dark. Also — a reminder to my future self—it’s not just the beginning that’s difficult. The middle, oh the middle is a test. And finishing? Dear God!
These days I am working on something new. I did the math again, tried to make a deal with myself to write a certain number of pages a day. I dreamed of having a draft by the time my son was born in November. I had a lot of pages, but I did not, by any stretch, have a draft. When people ask me what I’m working on I tell them I don’t know yet since it’s is still in the primordial slush phase and has not yet sprouted legs and crawled up onto land. I have been saying that for a year. Still no legs. And that has to be OK, because that is what’s true. I still hope that in a matter of years, and I do realize that it will be years and not months around, I will be able to walk back out of this room having showered and put on respectable clothing with a readable manuscript in my hands. But that time is not now. Now, I need to close the door and kneel down in the mud. I have to have faith that something is growing here, even if it is just a single-celled organism, slippery and legless.
Maybe there are four or five people on earth for whom writing is effortless and never heartbreaking. I don’t know those people, and I’m not sure I’d like them if we met. Writers are professional feelers—our hearts should be tender and sore at the end of the day, right?
Still, sometimes it feels as if any other vocation would be easier. I could have studied fresh-water algae, been a long-distance runner, a baby-seal feeder. But that’s exactly the thing that bring me back: writing allows me to live a hundred other lives besides my own. When I was in high school I thought I wanted to be an actress, but there was one small issue—I was shy and not interested in performing. It turned out I wanted the other job where you get to imagine your way into the heads and hearts of other people, feel the world in a new way every time you sit down to work.
Most of the day, we all tend to the usual things. We pay the gas bill, find a parking place, buy cereal, apples, chicken breasts, remember to call our mothers, take the children to the doctor, sort the stack of mail. We do what needs doing. Meanwhile, we lose friends, fall in love with people, teach our babies to talk, help our parents leave the world. Being alive is so gorgeous, so hard, so everything. Writing—and reading—is the place where I get to try to understand some of the ten zillion strange, beautiful, terrible truths. For me, it is the second half of being alive.