…Changing Mugs and Turning Over New Leaves

Posted on November 24, 2008. Filed under: The Writing Life | Tags: , , , , , |



As both a Roman Catholic and an ex-ice hockey player, I have serious superstition issues. (Ask my wife—she’ll tell you straight.) For years, one of my most beloved superstitions has involved the coffee mug I drink from while I write. When Jen and I first got together nigh on a decade ago, she gave me a fabulous gift in honor of our mutual appreciation of Austin Powers: the black Dr. Evil mug pictured above on the right. It instantly replaced my previous writing mug, a slim white one that I had pilfered from some workplace back in my starving post-grad school days, when pilfering from The Man was a source of pride. 

The Dr. Evil mug proved incredibly dependable and lucky, partially because I maintained its sanctity and never polluted its aura by grading student papers while I drank from it. I whipped my first book into shape while under its auspices; I wrote things that got published and won prizes; I tried things on the page that I had never imagined before. I filled that cup every morning for nigh on a decade and went about my creative work, certain that my dedication and attachment to this material object would somehow enhance my ability to make aesthetic decisions and allow me to create works of lasting literary value. 

Like I said: serious superstition issues.

The golden days of the Dr. Evil mug did not have to end; I could have sipped from it in perpetuity with no change to how I felt about the words I put on the page or the writing life that I had chosen (despite its pecuniary impracticalities) to lead. But since my last posting to this blog—way back in July, which feels like ancient history now—was about my first book as an end to things, rather than a beginning to things, a part of my soul has lately felt keenly open to fresh starts. And it just so happened that the next fresh start I jumped on involved the red coffee mug that stands next to Dr. Evil in the photo above. 

Here’s how I met it: I stood in the gift shop at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston looking for souvenirs to buy for my family. In my search I happened upon a simple, sleek red mug with perhaps the sexiest handle I had ever encountered in almost three decades of coffee drinking. It called to me, begging to be touched, and I instantly felt ashamed of “cheating” on Dr. Evil by lusting after another mug. But MFA Boston, with its sultrily sloping contours, felt too good to walk away from. I caressed it with both hands, imagining the warmth my fingers would feel once I filled that mug with freshly brewed Sumatra Mandheling. I closed my eyes and imagined my lips against its rim, which no doubt imagined my lips as well. 

By the time I left the museum store I had already forsaken Dr. Evil. It was time to grow up, I told myself. Time to gradate from the old superstitions and embrace new ones. (God forbid I should drop them altogether. What would happen to my world?!?) So now when I write in the morning I drink from my ravishing, bright red MFA Boston mug, which has had no discernible impact on my work but does, at least, feel like a new beginning.   

And what of Dr. Evil? The mug served me so well that I can’t possibly throw it away. It will not become a repository for pencils or shaving soap, as have so many other mugs that I used, only half-lovingly, in the past. In order to prevent it from turning against me like some spurned lover or voodoo charm, I have given it a new purpose in my life: henceforward it will be reserved for ceremonies and celebrations. For egg nog, for birthday coffee drinks that contain a shot of Bailey’s or Amaretto, for mulled wine, for hot apple cider. Beloved friends will occasionally be allowed to sip from its insouciant lip. It will live forever, having served me so well, in my Pantheon of superstitious objects. If it ever breaks, at least one shard will go into the relic box with my father’s black gloves, my first dog’s collar, the hood emblem from my 1973 Buick Centurion. 

I can only hope that MFA Boston can live up to Dr. Evil’s example. Check back with me in ten years. Check back with me when the next book comes out. 

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…Drinking Absinthe on Your Pub Date

Posted on July 7, 2008. Filed under: The Writing Life | Tags: , , , , |

When I was sixteen and first started pining for the literary life, I idolized Charles Baudelaire. This led to my lifelong interest in absinthe, since Baudelaire consumed legendary amounts of it. Oh, how I wished for the “Green Fairy” to descend on me and give me visions! Oh, how I wished that I had been born in another time and place (19th-century France, to be specific) so I could embrace that chemical muse!

Well thanks to some heavy lobbying, absinthe became legal in the U.S. in late 2007. I’ve been waiting for my excuse to try some, but the price (steep!) and the presence of my children (young and probably not wishing to see their father go crazy) held me back. Finally the perfect opportunity presented itself: the July 1, 2008 publication date of my very first book, Wifeshopping. I busted out the credit card, spent more for a bottle of liquor than I care to mention, and grabbed the bottle after my kids had gone to sleep. 

After my wife had gone to sleep, too. “I don’t want to see my husband to go crazy,” she said as I slunk downstairs with the absinthe like some degenerate thief. I had looked up absinthe recipes online, so I made an absinthe frappé and put my lips to the glass expecting the terrible taste that everyone had warned me about. Instead it tasted like ouzo or pastis—lots of licorice, a taste I love. A little tasted okay, so I drank more. And more. No Green Fairy? Try a little more!

I kept drinking alone until I felt sort of drunk and sort of pathetic. The Green Fairy never did arrive, but after awhile I could smell licorice on my skin. The absinthe experience proved entirely non-hallucinatory and a bit anti-climactic, and as I finished off my last sip for the night I felt the same about my pub date. I’m a published author! Whoop-de-do! July 1 felt no different from any other day, because I had the same old problems, the same old mental blocks, the same old self-defeating psychic mechanisms. 

It took a couple days for the significance of July 1st to sink in; perhaps the absinthe had to work its way through my system before I could feel good about being published. But by July 3rd, I had gotten enough congratulatory emails and hugs from family and friends to feel that getting my first book officially published was an accomplishment to feel proud of. But in the run-up to July, I hadn’t allowed myself to feel that at all. For the whole month of June I’d been crossing out days as I went to bed, which I told myself was supposed to help me tell one day from the next. (I’m not teaching right now, and the days blend together in a whirl of screaming children). But in truth I had actually been counting down the days to my pub date, in exactly the way that you count down to your last day on a job you’re tired of. 

Why was I counting down—and therefore focusing on the past—instead of looking forward to my future as a published author? Looking at the moment with a few days of perspective, I’d have to say that I turned the absinthe/pub date experience into a purgative one—a celebration of something ending rather than something beginning. The day (and the crappy month that preceded it) represented an end to the “old job” of being a writer without a book, which I’ve been dreadfully tired of for years. My life up until July 1st had been all about the desire to get a book published, and parallel to it ran the desire to have the Green Fairy of absinthe descend upon me and give me visions. Both desires ended on July 1st—a nice, neat ceremony that I didn’t understand at all while I was performing it.

What’s on the other side? Who the heck knows? But at least it’s nice to feel that one aspect of my life makes sense to me for a moment, that it all adds up into a nice, neat formula. No doubt the next breath I take after I blog post this will screw up my formula completely, and with it all sense of self-understanding. I can only hope that this screwing-up is in a fertile and new direction.

“Onward!” shouts the captain of the pirate ship, sword pointing at the sun. “To… wherever!!!”

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…Considering Andre Dubus, père and fils

Posted on June 25, 2008. Filed under: The Writing Life | Tags: , |

The other night I went to a reading at my venerable hometown Boulder Bookstore, where I heard Andre Dubus III talking about his new novel The Garden of Last Days. I went not only because I wanted to know his secret—how a guy about my age has been building his literary name for over a decade while I’ve been stumbling along, trying to figure out who I am—but because I had seen his father read in a bookstore about twenty years before. There’s something profound about the literary life to be drawn from the comparison, so I’ll draw it here. 

I met Andre Dubus père only once, in Boston, in about 1987 or 1988. By then he was already in a wheelchair, more bloated than his pictures suggested, and missing a leg. (He had lost it in 1986 while trying to help some motorists whose car had broken down; it is discussed in his New York Times obituary and elsewhere.) I had read his stories, respected them, wished I had written them myself. His reading at a bookstore in Kenmore Square was a chance to get near a living fiction master, so I took it. 

The sad fact is, I have no memory of what Dubus read that night. It might have been just after his Selected Stories came out, but I’m not certain—I don’t remember any of the promotions and kerfluffle that accompany a new book. It’s equally possible that literary friends of his had coaxed him out to pull him from the shell he had fallen into after the accident. All I truly remember of the experience is the following thought, which repeated itself in my mind throughout the short reading and the long, beautiful, Q & A that followed: 

Man, that guy is happy for somebody who just lost a leg and almost died. 

I couldn’t stop thinking that while he answered question after question from maybe a dozen young writers, all as eager to pick up his vibe as I was. I suspect there were two reasons for his happiness. The first was a certain generosity of soul that he possessed, the same kind of big-hearted magnanimity that led him to almost lose his life helping strangers. People who met him far more than once have reported the same sense. The second reason I suspect was something more literary: communion with his readers. I use that word communion with all its Catholic weight, since it is a sacred aspect of the literary endeavor. (Dubus père was Catholic and I am too, so you’ll have to live with the metaphor whether you like it or not.) As he talked with us until well past the bookstore’s closing time, he made us feel that We are all in this together. That readers and writers are part of a single activity called literature regardless of whose name is in the book and whose thumbs are rifling through the pages. 

So I went to see Dubus fils at the Boulder Bookstore wondering if that same vibe would manifest itself, and lo and behold it did. Throughout the event, a public interview with Dan Drayer of KCFR Presents, he put himself out there the way his dad had two decades before. One gesture—a swordlike chop of his arm across his chest as he mock-dismissed a question—gave me an immediate and visceral memory of his father, and the longer he talked the more of a similarity I saw. The younger Dubus has had every opportunity in the world to disconnect from his readers and just be a star: big book deals, the imprimatur of Oprah, a successful film adaptation of House of Sand and Fog, etc. If he wanted to mail the interview in, he could have; instead, he was the most engaging, engaged author I’ve seen on tour in years. Instead of hiding behind his big new book he asked questions of nearly everyone in the book signing line—something I’d never seen from an author before.  

In short, Dubus fils showed curiosity not only for his characters—which he discussed in his interview—but for his own readers. To me, this is a sign of the very same respect for the reader-writer relationship that his father had. I can’t speak for the man, but I doubt he would disagree that we are all in this literary endeavor together, writers and readers dead and living and yet to be born. I can’t say how refreshing it felt to see someone who could easily have been seduced by literary fame put himself out there and be an open human being who doesn’t hide behind the label AUTHOR.

I’ve seen that spirit now from two writers named Andre Dubus, and this second iteration makes the first sink deeper. Twenty years ago, I simply knew that I wanted to be a writer; now I have a clearer idea about kind of the writer I am, as well a tiny glimmer of how deep the reader-writer interface runs and what it means to the literary endavor. Sometimes—whatever phase of the pursuit of literature you’re in—you see somebody and say That’s how I want to be. I feel lucky to have seen Dubus père and Dubus fils, twenty years apart, and take away the same lesson from their presence. It’s a lesson I’ll have to live up to. 

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…Procrastinating (and Not Feeling Guilty Because You’re Doing it on a Computer)

Posted on June 2, 2008. Filed under: The Writing Life | Tags: , , , |

Writers by the dozen have complained online that blogging and social networking have prevented many a project from getting started, let alone finished; it seems to be part of our lament these days. But isn’t procrastination an inevitable, valuable, and much maligned part of the writing process? Didn’t writers long before the dawn of the computer age hem and haw just as much as we do now before finally getting on with it? Did James Joyce ever stall? Did Baudelaire? Or are previous writers of previous ages so great that they never went down to their favorite cafe to have a glass of absinthe and daydream instead of putting the pen to the page. 

The tools of procrastination have changed, true; but the fact of the habit has not. Today, we have Facebook, YouTube, Second Life, and our beloved WordPress. Back in the 19th century writers had letters written by hand, and instead of popping onto Skype to see long-lost friends in other lands they had to get on steam ships and travel for days or weeks at a time. While on those steamships they had to write postcards about the journey to all their friends back home—no doubt wonderful sources of procrastination from the work of writing one’s books!    

I’m not going to pretend that the computer doesn’t present us with the most colossal time-wasting opportunities ever known. But I do want to point out that time-wasting is an oft-forgotten part of the writers’ arsenal. If you didn’t procrastinate and avoid your writing work, think how many projects you might leap into wholeheartedly before you’re truly ready for them? If you jump on every single project bandwagon that comes along, and didn’t ever take the time to look away and gauge how you genuinely feel about it, how would you really know if it’s worth the umpteen drafts it will take to finish it? Would your completion rate for projects would be any higher if you didn’t procrastinate?

I’m not sure it would. I suspect that it would remain about the same, and that the completion rate for serious writers across the board has probably been about the same in modern times. I suspect that the percentage of writing that is pure crap has remained about the same, too. Steinbeck wrote crap. Austen wrote crap, although I revere her too much to admit that I just said so. Hemingway started things he didn’t finish. It’s the nature of the craft for us to throw away projects that aren’t working, and it’s the nature of the craft for us to avoid projects until we either find the right angle to enter into them (for that particular draft, at least) or absolutely have to write them because keeping our souls together depends on it. 

Yes, avoidance behaviors are bad if taken too far. But when you indulge in them, are you truly different from writers before the computer age who went to bullfights, cried in their rented rooms listening to opera, had public dalliances with the most disreputable elements of their society, etc.?—and who did it all in the name of procrastination?

We can’t pretend that there was some Golden Age when writers didn’t stall, because  every writer (save for the most saintly of us) does, has, and always will. I’d like to acknowledge that procrastination has a creative purpose we should understand and value. We need procrastination like would-be lovers need time between a first and second date, like runners need a break between marathons. The question is not whether we stall, but whether—when we declare an end to our stalling—we have the tenacity to get the words on the page right, one sentence at a time. 

And if we do, then who cares whether we stalled writing postcards on a 19th century steamship or in front of our computers, trying to learn Finnish in Second Life? The proof is in our work, not in the tools we use to procrastinate until we’re ready to do that work. 

Nobody, when you finally win that Nobel Prize, is going to give a rat’s bottom about how much time you spent on eBay. 

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…Re-Assessing the Adage “Write What You Know”

Posted on May 31, 2008. Filed under: The Craft of Fiction | Tags: , , , |

I’ve had a quote on my mind all day, and it comes an interview between George Saunders and Israeli author Etgar Keret in PEN America, Issue #8.

Keret: The first thing they tell you when they teach you about the Holocaust is that if you were not there, then you are never going to understand…. But I have parents who went through the Holocaust and I know that you can communicate with it. When I was a young kid, my father said to me, “Of course you can understand what the Holocaust was like. You know what it means to be afraid, and you know what it means to be cold, and you know what it means to be hungry. I was much more afraid than you are, you ever were, you ever will be. And I was much hungrier and I was much colder. But I didn’t experience any emotion during those years that you do not know.” [emphasis mine]

To me, this quote gives breath and flesh to a great deal of what I’ve been thinking about the imaginative act of telling stories. Most fiction writers, at some point, have been told “write what you know.” But this often gets interpreted as a (self-) limitation, rather than an invitation to imagine the lives of others. The approach of Keret’s father allows us to “write what we know” by viewing our own emotions through a truly limitless kaleidoscope of the imagination. If we all know hunger, fear, and cold—if we all experience the fundamental human emotions—then we can, theoretically at least, imagine and render the experiences of any character that we imagine. 

Too often in the world of fiction, we are given the same line Keret was given about the Holocaust: “If you weren’t there, you can never understand.” It has become a kind of Political Correctness that prevents writers from rendering something that they can’t claim to know firsthand. Not Cuban? Then you can never understand a Cuban character, and therefore (implicitly) can’t write one. Not a woman? Then you can’t write a woman, either. But this approach does not serve The Muse, who wants us to imagine what is beyond ourselves. If we just write what we know in the limited sense of our sociocultural identities and our professions, then the world will end up with far too many novels about out-of-shape middle-aged people who stare at their computers too much for their own good. 

This limitation, I believe, is partially responsible for fiction being eclipsed by memoir in the public eye over the past decade. If fiction becomes limited to considerations of the self, then why bother reading it? Why not go with the genre that is all about considerations of the self? Thinking of “write what you know” not as a constraint, but as an invitation to explore the fundamental human emotions through the lives of imagined others, completely liberates that hackneyed piece of advice. Envy, love, hope and hopelessness—this is what we know. Allowing these things to play out in the lives of our characters is our craft. 

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