Tag Archives: writing

Shards of a Broken Sublime

22 Mar

I have been a writer, in some sense of the word, for over a decade now. On paper, this development was no great surprise. I’m the son of an academic and a librarian, and one side of my family has a strong literary strain to it. I read voraciously as a kid, and had snobby tastes even then. I invented worlds throughout my childhood, some of which endure in recesses of my brain like long-lost friends or fondly remembered vacations. Sometimes I wrote these worlds down, and sometimes they lived only in my mind, but never did I imagine myself a writer as an adult. I was just a somewhat creative kid who grew up in a literary milieu.

That all changed during my freshman year at Georgetown. One night, in the dark of a New South dorm room long after my roommate had passed out, I began to pound out a few lines of a novel. For the next year and a half, I continued to chip away at it every day. While I finished that draft and made some halfhearted efforts to edit it, I immediately undertook additional writing projects as well. My fictional universes grew. I invented people, towns, races, even full-blown theologies, all of which fed on themselves and grew outward even as I went about my daily life as a student. I quietly churned out hundreds of thousands of words that I shared with no one.

My writing birth came at a time when I had no shortage of material. I was astute enough to recognize that, decades later, I might look back on my eighteenth year as the most dramatic of my own life. (I had an older fictional character share this possibility with a teenage protagonist.) From my own journey out of high school to the East Coast to family upheaval to broader a political drama in which I was a bit player, I careened across a full range of emotion, and I had to write about it, both to process what it all meant and to capture it all for my memory. My twentieth year, which included four months in Mexico, brought forth a similar sense of urgency. The intensity of life demanded an outlet, and I’m not sure I would have found it if I hadn’t gone through or done some of the things I did in those handful of years where ambition became reality.

In retrospect, I am in awe of how naturally all of that came. While I still finish most of my nights writing or rereading some of my past writing, my output is a fraction of what it was in those prolific early years. For a long time, I had no concept of writer’s block, no sense of what it was like to ever sit down to write and fail to produce. It was absolutely uninhibited, which may have been the source of its ease. While there were vague pretensions of publication floating around in my mind, I was writing strictly for myself. Not a soul knew about my little project, and there were no expectations.

Maybe some unconscious awareness that I’d lose that freedom was the reason I told no one of my writing life for years. When I finally did start my halting explanations of my efforts, that ease came crashing down, and I began suffering from the aggravating blocks that still plague me to this day. I’d gone from a person who wrote in secret to someone who aspired to the title of writer, and I had to perform. There was no turning back, though: it had become too much a part of my life to hide, and if my writing had half the insight within it that I thought it had, it deserved more than one reader. My writing life aged out of carefree childhood and found its teenage angst.

Recently, as I transferred files from an old laptop to a new one, I took some time to revisit some of those old musings. They had their moments of insight and their moments that don’t deserve to ever be read by anyone else, but above all I was struck by the intensity of the emotion of that teenage author. At that point I was still entranced by the possibility of everything that Georgetown represented to me, still had a sense of unquestioned destiny and a certainty that I would write history. In time I came to doubt this sense, but it never truly left me. That captivation with the power of words and with my youthful dreams has, with distance, returned with renewed strength, albeit through a world-weary recognition of how ephemeral it can all be.

As I looked for an easier outlet for my writing than unmanageably large works of fiction, I started to blog. Or, more accurately, I became an essayist, and had the good fortune to come of age as an essayist when it became the easiest it’s ever been to do so, thanks to a platform that allows for easy dissemination. I wrote my earliest essays from the perspectives of my various fictional characters, an attempt to respond to developments in the 2010 elections from a number of different angles. In time, the stronger of those writing voices emerged as my own, and I decided I had enough material to share on a semi-regular basis. On to a WordPress platform it all went, and has stayed ever since.

As I’ve shared before, blogging comes with its challenges, but is a welcome outlet. Essays allow for much more precise reflection on specific topics, which did a lot of good for the writing development of someone whose fiction tends toward the all-encompassing. (I write novels that look to explore a full swath of society! That plumb the depths of the human psyche! And meta-allegories! And coming-of-age stories! And…you get the idea.) Essays were a valuable bridge between the academic writing I’d honed in school and the fiction I’d honed in isolation. They taught me to be far more precise and concise, two qualities that I have since sought to infuse into both my fiction and my research-related writing in my work life (and really just into life in general). All those styles come with distinct voices, but the fundamentals beneath them never change.

Once I gave up the idea of making a living as a writer, certain things grew easier again. While I still sought to perform for an audience, it was a slightly less existential push, though existential it remained. I also just got older, and developed some maturity as I moved from a passionate sharer of all emotions toward a craftsman trying to perfect his art. Such a claim comes with a certain pretension, clearly, but so, too, does any attempt at authorship. The privilege of writing is accessible to all with a certain level of comfort with the ideas they seek to share; the privilege of being read comes to those who have found some way to consistently craft something memorable.

My writing life was made possible by good fortune and support from parents willing to put up with literary experimentation, and I’ve put in my ten thousand hours since. I wish I could say it gets easier over time, but it doesn’t. Standards rise, the critical eye grows ever more discerning, and when it becomes an expectation, failure to write is a burden. I suspect many writers must first learn how to over-write and over-share, and only with time come to learn how to cut out the excess and hone in on the core message with a deliberate precision.

Good writing, I think, benefits from a natural reticence. There’s a reason we writers have chosen the written word to express our thoughts instead of saying it all aloud to anyone around us. I don’t like to over-share, and while I think stream-of-consciousness has its virtues, the good stuff isn’t something I’d idly write on a lazy Tuesday night. At our best, we find ways to cut through the clutter and form coherent story arcs, and impose order on a world that otherwise can so often lack it. One of my first posts on this blog quoted Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize lecture, and I can’t think of any truer words on the function of good written storytelling.

My writing life, after some time out in the working world, is now at a crossroads. I’m perfectly content to write for myself, and will probably continue to do so on some level for as long as I am able. It’s a method of processing, a method of exploration, a cathartic release. But if I am going to write for an audience beyond my hockey work (where I’ve got my little cult following) or the occasional reaction to a life event (which gets reliably read by people who know me), it needs to evoke a reaction.

Writers may respond differently to the array of responses their work inspires, but for me, nothing is more aggravating than silence. Straight praise, while welcome, also often feels incomplete. My writing has never been a claim to perfection but instead a struggle toward it, a struggle that demands engagement and criticism, and without it, writers are left guessing, or worse, looking at view counts and turning their output into a crass popularity contest. Did we make you think? What about our writing draws you in, or puts you to sleep? On which topics are we at our best or worst? Where to next? If we didn’t want people to engage with us, we would have left our writings in those vast unpublished archives of our minds.

This rambling setup is all a way of saying that I’m going to invest some time over the next few months to see if my writing life can progress beyond the state it’s inhabited for several years now. I don’t know quite what this means yet beyond a certain level of time commitment. I have no shortage of material that is probably a good editor away from publication, from things I could adapt from past essays to a novel draft I finished before grad school to the episodic story collection that I put out on this blog. I need to explore the worlds of writing submissions and publishing, which is foreign to me, and apparently requires one to be comfortable with rejection, which has never been one of my strong suits. I also need to do all of this while keeping up my day job and a couple of other pursuits that will still be central to my life.

No matter where this little experiment goes, though, I will go on writing. The title of this post comes from the New Yorker review of one of my favorite films, Y tu mamá también: the protagonists, writes Anthony Lane, “may spill over with sauce and silliness, but that is the privilege of the young; and it is the job of the adult artist to dig back into that time, and to unearth, from the ridiculous, the shards of a broken sublime.”

Aside from capturing the theme of so much of my writing, that sentiment sums up my writing itself. If I have a task, perhaps even a calling, well, that’s it. Unreason and entropy threaten to drag down lives into despair or apathy, but we have the power to take those downward spirals and turn them to insight, to humor, and to those glimmers of revelation that allow us to reclaim that sublime. It’s time for me to try to share that, such as I can.

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Ouch.

30 Oct

The New Yorker accurately skewers my writing life:

ouch

So excuse me while I stay true to form and go drown my sorrows in a wine bottle.

Anyway, I took the past week off from writing after finishing my marginally autobiographical plot-lite exploration of driven-yet-wandering teens who later become twenty-somethings who express their wants and needs in fits and starts. (See? I’m not totally typecast!) It was strange, and somehow resulted in me having no more free time than I normally do. I couldn’t see it when in the middle of that week, but I was directionless.

I think I can officially declare myself an addict. I write to make sense of the world, but for all of the sense-making I do, I’m not happy unless I continue to write and continue to make more sense of my world. Except in rare spurts of stream of consciousness, or when I write about topics that require less mental exertion like hockey or horse race politics, I’m an exacting writer. My process is slow, choppy, and full of long tunnels of frustration punctuated by very rare spurts of certainty and inspiration. (Somewhere in here is yet another obnoxious metaphor for life.) Rarely would I call myself happy as I write, but one of my characters did have a pretty good quote about happiness in that last installment in my story, so maybe he has some wisdom for me there.

The busier I am in my day-to-day life, the more value I place on finding time to write. I suspect this is because a hectic life gives new value to opportunities for slow thought. The instant reaction, the hot take, the sound bite or Tweet: so many demands of contemporary punditry militate against the slow, careful reasoning necessary to parse through different arguments or reflect on the past. (For a take on why this is important, revisit this Joseph Epstein quote factory on what it takes to be cultured.) Writing, which forces me to put care into thoughts, is the perfect vehicle for working toward that pursuit of understanding.

Fiction is the most satisfying writing I do because it is in many ways the slowest. There was no timeline on any of the posts in that series, and no need to come up with my own quick response in the dialogue. Not once did I slide something into one of those stories in response to some recent development in my life; many of the thoughts had been forming for years, while many dealt with things I have never experienced. It was patient, exacting, and had no need to answer to anyone or anything other than my own curiosity over how certain debates and situations could plausibly play out. Fiction is a playground to explore realities like our own without actually living through them.

None of it happens in a vacuum, of course. This latest installment had handful of guides, including books like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Peter Matthisen’s The Snow Leopard, and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, and films like La Grande Bellezza and Y tu mamá también and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Film weighs heavily here, I suspect, due to the episodic nature of the story; curiously, I can’t name a single novel that directly influenced my efforts, though I suppose there are hints of Gatsby and Wallace Stegner lurking in there.) Deep in my memory, I can probably recollect some stray conversation about Havasu Falls and the tale of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and while only one of the eleven installments had any direct autobiographical undercurrents, my own life certainly courses through much of it in subtle ways.  Fiction can come to seem like an incoherent hodgepodge of influences, or an author’s attempt to show off a vast knowledge. My previous efforts often came across that way, so this story collection tried to rectify that.

Beginning with that first story about Evan on his surfboard, which still might be my favorite of the bunch, there was a deliberate attempt to strip away all artifice and focus only on the world inhabited by the two characters. “Less is more,” I told myself time and again, purging away useless details and chopping out aimless dialogue. I intentionally avoid most all markers of time; other than establishing their use of cell phones and perhaps some of their slang, there’s very little in the stories that can pin the characters at any point over the past fifty years. I used some descriptive language to set scenes and interrupt long runs of dialogue, but I tried to live in the characters’ minds and in the tasks immediately before them that consume their thoughts. If I haven’t put readers directly into their minds instead of some obvious extension of my own, I haven’t succeeded.

When I was fully invested and writing well, my fiction almost becomes an out of body experience. Mark and Evan have existed in some form since my undergraduate days, but they took on new life over the past year and a half, when they became two influential and sometimes warring factions in my head. As a writer of fiction, I sometimes feel like I’m living four or five parallel lives, and if I ever seem lost in some other world, it may be because I’ve wandered down one of those other paths that I’ve invented, at least for a little while. I tend to reject strict methods of categorizing people or a sense of a “true self” because I can inhabit several different, sometimes conflicting selves, and I don’t see this inherent tension as necessarily problematic. If anything, it expands horizons, and makes the rich variety of the world and human experience possible, if only in a fleeting way, to someone who otherwise can get bogged down in the lurches of emotion of day-to-day life. Fiction, in its ability to transport readers, makes us free.

So, perhaps in that spirit, this blog will now move on to some very different ways of being. I have to offer up some bread and circuses to go along with the invented worlds, so we’ll gear up for elections in my next post, and hockey season is just around the corner, too. Thanks, as always, for bearing with all of this eclectic slow thought.

A Celebration of Literature

20 Sep

PBS is currently running a series that seeks to identify Americans’ most beloved novels. I haven’t watched it, but as the son of a Duluth librarian who is coordinating several panels on the series with local literature professors, I’ve been lured into attending a couple of events. This is the sort of thing I would probably attend anyway: by my count I’ve read 35 of the 100 short-listed novels, and have also seen film or TV adaptations of another 13, and read other works by nine authors who make the list (each could make the list only once). These events, which feature good discussion with (disappointingly) small groups, pose the vital questions that surround any such effort: what does it mean to develop a literary canon, what and who gets left out of a canon, and whether these things should be popularity contests or if some cadre experts can decree what constitutes good fiction and what does not. (While there were some limitations, the PBS series is largely a popularity contest, with works like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight making the short list alongside War and Peace and Great Expectations.) Whatever the masses end up choosing, it’s a good launching point for discussion, and a chance to spill my own thoughts.

I have little trouble naming favorite works or authors of non-fiction, but find it a much greater struggle to do so with fiction. Still, the PBS series compels me to offer up a few. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits near the top of my list for its layers of allegorical power, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World still wows for its ability to recreate a world and the full range of people within it. I reread The Great Gatsby in the past two years, and it resonated far more than I remember it doing in high school, perhaps in part because I’ve lived a slight flavor of the Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby journey, drifting from Minnesota to East Coast money and trying to find my way between those two worlds. As a literary work, though, it is near-perfect: so tightly wound, so well-constructed, and yet still so easy to access eighty years later. If anything can claim the ‘Great American Novel’ title, Gatsby is probably it. If forced to choose one book, though, I still might lurch back to the novel that began all novels, Don Quixote. It does help when one takes an entire class on a book in one’s undergraduate days from an awesome professor to get the full historical context behind a book of brilliant social commentary.

There are other works I would not put on the same pedestal as those few, but have changed how I live my life in one way or another. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a marvelous blend of people in places I have lived, all trying to make some statement on contemporary American life, and inspired my own fictional attempts. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country came to me as I contemplated a life of foreign service of some sort, while the dry iconoclasm of Graham Greene fit the mood of a more jaded, older kid. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse gave me a metaphor that still informs many of my pursuits, and at a later stage, the criminally undervalued Wallace Stegner came along with Crossing to Safety to shower some wisdom on someone wrestling with both career ambitions and a love of place. I read them all at the right time.

Before we go any further, I’ll confirm my credentials as a literary snob: my list of great novels will all fall somewhere within the realm of realism, or at least magical realism. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed both as a kid, I have some reservations at the appearance of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alongside Dostoevsky and Adichie. My literary tastes have progressed since then. I’ve done little dabbling in science fiction or fantasy as an adult, perhaps because I’m the sort of person who, upon discovering the burdens and frustrations of life, goes running for the most depressing and heavy stuff to try to find out how other insightful people have wrestled with such questions instead of looking for escapes. Some books in those genres do go in this direction: for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune downplays the tech side of science fiction and offers a rich commentary on society (and may yet inspire me to launch a Butlerian jihad), and the study of mythology and imagination behind Tolkien’s world-building has had an overwhelming influence on literature. They build complex plots, and it’s easy to fall into their worlds.

As someone who writes, however, I often find that my fondness for good writing overpowers my identification with the story. While I want to read novels that are both good stories and well-written (duh), if forced to choose, I’ll take good writing about topics that don’t fascinate me over an entertaining story. I’m not a lover of Hemingway, but he has glimmers of some of the most pristine prose I’ve ever read when he takes readers along on a fishing expedition in the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fun book, but John Irving is capable of making paint drying sound amusing, and that turns a good story into a great novel. The prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead perfectly pairs with the heartland Protestant austerity of Reverend John Ames as he writes his letters to his son, and other writers, from Wendell Berry to Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, blur language with a sense of place in our minds. Perhaps this love of well-wrought prose is at the root of my dismissal of science fiction and fantasy as great literature: so often, even when they do manage to be insightful about human nature, those novels fixate on plot over structure and artistry, or devolve into sequels and expanded universes instead of standing on their own very real power. Their worlds fall in on themselves, instead of cycling back out to the one we live in.

I enjoy fiction that inhabits worlds similar to my own, and my world is a very large, rich place. While my defense of a concept of good writing makes me broad-brush defender of some sort of literary canon, I certainly believe in an expansive version of said canon that captures the written tradition of any number of societies. The Great American Read list is fairly thin on books translated from other languages; it is confined to a couple of Russian and French giants, Don Quixote, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is a mild source of frustration for someone whose literature consumption, especially in his college days, was driven by Latin American Boom authors, and expanded from there. It started with García Márquez in high school but soon wandered over toward the delightful absurdity of Julio Cortázar, the stunning range of Vargas Llosa, the posthumously beloved Roberto Bolaño, and a number of other lesser-known masters of Spanish prose. I didn’t confine my voracious reading to writers in one language, either: my reading list has often been populated by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Orhan Pamuk, Hiroki Murakami, and Edwidge Danticat. In an era of vogue scorn for the dead white men who traditionally dominated many lists of great literature, my reaction has often just been a shrug: I’ve never had any trouble incorporating a lot of people who are not like me at all into my own expansive idea of a canon. I can learn from all of them.

Despite all of this love for different worlds, the novels that affect me most tend to be coming-of-age stories. I have a deep fondness for angst-ridden teenage boys, and this has not waned even as I move further away from that phase of my own life. Thankfully, one can get a lot of mileage out of Holden Caulfield’s search for authenticity in The Catcher in the Rye, the competitive fire that makes and breaks Finny and Gene in A Separate Peace, and the question of destiny that motivates Owen and John’s friendship in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even Harry Potter becomes a good bildungsroman when one can look beyond its magical trappings, even if it has diseased an entire generation with an overuse of adverbs.

Perhaps my favorite novel of the past ten years is The Art of Fielding, which falls into the same genre. While it bears many of the telltale signs of a debut novel in Chad Harbach’s attempts to show off his range, that flaw almost made me love it even more. It had so much in common with some of my own stumbling attempts to write fiction, and is exactly the sort of debut novel I would have been satisfied to produce. As long as they can attain some measure of distance in its perspective, youthful writings about youth resonate the best. I have little memory of reading The Outsiders in seventh grade, but suspect it would hold up well upon a second reading. (Fun aside: one of my hockey colleagues turned S.E. Hinton into a diehard St. Cloud Apollo hockey fan when he asked her for permission to play off the book while doing a story on the program’s fight for survival a few years back.) Alas, teenage boys are not a large literature market these days, which is problematic for my own stillborn writing career. If I do ever get around to publishing something, though, it will likely fall somewhere in this genre.

Speaking of which, I had a spurt of fictional inspiration this week, so I’m going to finish this blog post and stay up even later to head back to the nearly-complete story I’ve been spitting out on this blog for the past year. Long live the novel as an art form, and may all of my readers continue to read fiction for fun, even if it is trashy smut not worth the paper it’s printed on. (Actually, that sounds like it might be kinda fun. Pass along your recommendations.)

A History of Duluth?

7 Jun

A friend who recently moved to Duluth for a job in Superior posed a question to me upon her arrival: how did Duluth become Duluth and Superior become Superior, so to speak? I looked through some of the Duluth history books I have sitting around, browsed the shelves at the Zenith Bookstore, and reached out to my inside source at the Duluth Public Library’s reference department (aka my mother). I didn’t really find a satisfying answer, other than a throwaway line somewhere suggesting that the digging of the Duluth ship canal sealed the two towns’ fates. I could also speculate about the role of iron ore wealth, which came down from points north in Minnesota and had little need to cross the bay. But my friend’s question, and my inability to answer it, left me pondering another thought: where can we find a true, full history of Duluth? Because I think someone needs to write it.

Any such effort would stand on the shoulders of people who have already done a lot of good work. Thanks to people like Tony Dierckins and Maryanne Norton, we have a wealth of resources on historical Duluth details such as historical and lost buildings, and a decent account of the founding and growth of many of the city’s neighborhoods. Their book Lost Duluth does a good job of capturing Duluth’s early days and the first half of the twentieth century, though most of the things highlighted in the book are, well, lost, and by definition not part of its current urban fabric. Others have also tracked the city’s rich architectural resources, and its park system justifiably gets some good ink, too. This city is pretty photogenic, so there are some good contributions in more of a coffee table book format. We can also find books on some prominent Duluthians such as the Congdons, and the Zenith City Online people have once again done a good job collecting scattered stories here and there of prominent Duluthians and other fond tales associated with the city. Perfect Duluth Day reliably spits out some interesting tidbits; there’s clearly no shortage of people dabbling in Duluth history.

But, as someone who often writes and thinks in grand, sweeping narratives, I think there’s a gap for someone to write a true history of Duluth. I don’t really mean a definitive history—can there be any such thing?—but I would love to see an effort to weave together some of these disparate stories and colorful characters into a trajectory, something along the lines of Tony Judt’s Postwar or even The Power Broker, which is almost as much a history of New York as it is a biography of Robert Moses. The thing doesn’t need to be a thousand pages long, but it does need to make a bold effort to capture the totality of history, even as it humbly admits the impossibility of its task.

Such a history would not only need to say a lot about the past, but also feed into the present day, and even give some hints as to the future. A lot of the existing historical perspectives on Duluth end sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, perhaps only with some passing references to declining industry and a handful of urban renewal projects (Gateway, I-35 extension, Canal Park) thereafter. I recognize that some of this is because the late 20th century is still pretty recent history in the grand scheme of things; good historians usually let the dust settle some before passing too much judgment. Duluth’s economic fate over that time frame coupled with a fairly bleak architectural era leaves us with relatively little to commemorate fondly from the 60s to the 80s. As someone who carefully avoided the 1980s, however, I think the time is ripe for a history that gets us members of younger generations up to the point where we appeared on the scene. Where are the definitive accounts of Duluth-style suburbanization, of Jeno Paulucci and John Fedo, and of the lurching changes in an industrial economy?

I’ve gestured in this direction with a long, data-driven post on this blog detailing some changes since 1970, and have followed up on that some, too. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, and well-used data is only ever a piece of evidence to support some broader framing. In addition to the focus on the past half century, a good history would tell Duluth’s stories both through its prominent figures and its lesser-known characters, and explain how it fits in with its surrounding communities and greater region. That way we can answer my friend’s Superior question, explore the intricate dance between Duluth and the Iron Range, and figure out what it means to be a small city on a Great Lake in the North Star State.

So, yes, I could see myself getting suckered into some sort of project here—though certainly not one I would undertake alone. Don’t expect anything overnight, or a diversion from some of my other projects. But the wheels are turning here. If you have any thoughts, or if I am blissfully unaware of someone else who is already moving in this direction, feel free to reach out.

My Life Over the Past Year in Two Articles

30 Oct

Two articles for a rainy Wednesday in Duluth:

First, a reflection on the experience of being a writer from Rod Dreher at The American Conservative. (Liberal readers, don’t be turned off by the name of that publication: TAC is the anti-Fox News, founded in opposition to the Iraq War, and has an eclectic bunch of writers who are willing to challenge just about any presupposition, conservative or liberal.) It sums up a lot of the things I have learned in my faltering efforts to write novels over the past few years, though I believe I’ve always been detached enough to avoid falling into the worst traps that can ensnare wannabe writers. (I’m careful not to make excessive drinking a crutch for my writing, and I’m readily aware, and more or less at peace knowing, that my odds of making a living off of writing are incredibly low.) But if you want to know why people write, and why those writers often act the way they do, this is an excellent piece.

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/you-dont-want-to-be-a-writer/

Second, also via Dreher, is an article that sums up a lot of the things I’ve been trying to say in recent posts about the “art of community.” The author emphasizes the need to ground oneself, narrow in, and choose something instead of an eternal life in the fascinating but rootless realm of diversity and “keeping options open.” We need both for a balanced life, but too often, people my age (especially college-educated and ambitious ones) seem to fear making commitments, lest doing so cut them off from some unseen future opportunity. I’m well-aware of the importance of living in community, yet I still have an awful lot of work to do on this front. At times, I’ve been an “in-betweener” par excellence, and in a certain way I’m proud of that. That is a fairly lonely existence, however, and my desire for this sort of community is the reason I want to make Duluth work for me, and even if I end up somewhere else, I’ll try to do many of the same things. Recognizing that is certainly one reason why writing hasn’t consumed me.

http://www.thismillenniallife.com/2013/10/rediscovering-art-of-community.html

If you would have told me five years ago that I’d be finding quality articles that spoke to me on something named “The American Conservative,” I would have wondered what you were smoking, or what my future self would be smoking. The world is a strange place.

Jonathan Franzen, Fiction, and a Novel of My Own

23 Sep

Jonathan Franzen fascinates me more than any other contemporary author, though at first glance, it’s hard to figure out why. He’s not necessarily my favorite writer, nor the most talented one out there, and not even the most insightful. His dour lifestyle doesn’t really sound all that pleasant to me, and when I had the chance to attend a book reading of his at the National Cathedral, he came across as, well, weird.

I suppose that leaves us with his fame, which I’ll admit is a bit captivating to anyone with any pretension of writing fiction. This man is guilty of making me think novel-writing can still be relevant, and sure enough, there are countless glimmers of insight in The Corrections and Freedom that really speak to “the way we live now,” that vogue phrase used to describe great contemporary literary fiction. I think those sorts of work are valuable, and while I suppose my writing makes some effort to do that, I also find it limiting in some ways. What good is a novel about “the way we live now” in forty years, other than as a historical artifact? Granted, it’s not a crisp division; no story can really be removed from the time and place it’s set in, and we can learn far broader things from even the most myopic case studies. But with Franzen there’s a serious risk of drowning in the details of the present, and it’s hard to know how relevant some of his insights might be down the line. He is so relentless in his attempts to capture the moment with his ironic, self-conscious detachment that it can grow tiresome, even to people like me, who have a certain appreciation for that sort of thing.

Franzen’s power, however, emerges in his ability to bury himself in the misery modern life for ages and ages, and then come up with a brilliant ending that transcends all the previous grumbling. He’ll go on and on making you feel utterly depressed about the state of the world, and then he’ll drop something on you at the end that makes everything seem good again. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. I really liked the premise of The Corrections, and still have an autographed copy sitting on my bookshelf, but about midway through it I was distracted by something else, and it remains unfinished. If and when I ever get through it, I suspect I’ll love the ending, but I have to be willing to go through the beginning bits again, and Franzen spends so much time making his characters so profoundly flawed that one almost has to feel a personal connection to them to see them through. I found enough of that in Freedom that I sped through it, and felt rewarded afterwards. Even so, though I was moved by the ending when I read it, later reflection led to some doubt about the sincerity of the final transcendent moment. (This incisive, if overly harsh, Ruth Franklin review explains why better than I can.)

Sometimes, I think he’s actually more effective as an essayist. My favorite thing he’s written was “Farther Away,” a New Yorker essay on human solitude (which, like every other New Yorker piece I want to link to, is not online). His manifesto on literature in the digital age, “Perchance to Dream,” is also masterful, though I have my quibbles with parts of it. And now, in The Guardian, he offers an excerpt of an upcoming work of non-fiction that modestly sets out to explain “What’s Wrong with the Modern World.” It follows the classic Franzen formula to a tee. It diagnoses many Bad Things, uses examples of varying strength to make that point, and employs a caustic wit; it all makes Franzen seem rather misanthropic, and by the end he’s snuffed out most of your hope for the future of our species. (This is especially true if you like to write and are a mediocre self-promoter.) But then he turns around and points out how the apocalypse won’t be so bad after all, and gives you a chance to find some hope for humanity again.

Franzen’s escapes from his own despair make so many readers want to believe in him as a voice of redemption. We all want to think we can do that, too. He has so much potential. And yet, for me at least, he doesn’t quite get there. He is too consumed by his misery, his fleeting glimmers too brief, and too constrained by his times. Much of my inspiration for writing fiction comes not from Franzen himself, but from the critiques of him: I want to close the deal.

So, this seems like as good a time as any to make an announcement: I have a novel draft that I am, finally, more-or-less ready to share.

I’m an unpublished 23-year-old kid who’s just finished his first draft, and who hasn’t taken a formal English class since high school. I don’t pretend to be some sort of new-and-improved Jonathan Franzen. No, quite the contrary: my stumbling efforts owe a debt to him. Art, in my mind, is not a work of genius that emerges from a vacuum. It is wedded to literature that has come before it, forever in dialogue with the past. Hence my epigraph for the novel:

Man is…essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

—Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I’ve named the thing The School of Athens, and there is a lot going on here. The basic premise—kids growing up in a small northern Minnesota town—has some things in common with my life, though I’m also pleased to say that is far less autobiographical that some of my previous attempts at fiction. None of the characters are really based on anyone from my childhood, and my fictional town of Arcadia certainly has its differences from the east side of Duluth. As the epigraph suggests, it asks what it is we’re supposed to do with our lives, and explores the tension between individual ambitions and commitments to a community. It is a coming of age story, and there is a healthy dose of teenage angst. There are clashing cultures, love stories, and of course there is some hockey. As the title suggests, there is some Greek philosophy allegory, though I hope that readers can enjoy the novel without knowing much about Plato or Aristotle.

As in many “contemporary literary fiction” novels, it confronts some problems of the modern world: the emptying of the American countryside, broken families, moral uncertainty, and an atomized society. There is plenty of skepticism about sentimental or easy solutions, and some healthy mockery of the notion that some characters have anything in common with the Greek heroes who are their namesakes or inspiration. On the other hand, though, it tries to avoid some of the pathologies that afflict Franzen and other modern novelists. While it seems to be happening sometime in the present, I never name a year. There is little to no name-dropping of brands or current events; instead, it focuses on conversation and direct contact, and the timeless traits of human interaction that haven’t changed all that much since Alexander the Great conquered the known world. All the characters are flawed, but they all have some redeeming traits as well, and contra Franzen, you won’t have to wait until the end to see glimpses of that—not that the ending will necessarily hit that note, though. You’ll have to read the thing to find out.

Still, I’m not going to measure this novel’s value by its place within some grandiose literary debate over postmodernism or literary theory or what “great” novels should talk about. (In fact, my ambivalence over that sort of theorizing is a secondary reason why I chose not to attend an MFA program that accepted me.) I’d love for this thing to succeed, but I have no illusions over making a living off of writing novels in this day in age. I just hope I’ve told an interesting story that people can relate to.

So, drop me a line if you want to read it: I need all the criticism I can get. That’s the only way it’ll get better, because I know it’s far from complete. Thanks for reading.

Finding the Cyclical Life in Arendt and Vargas Llosa

15 Jul

This blog is, admittedly, rather eclectic, and I am proud of that. There are posts about high school hockey and posts about city council meetings and posts about obscure intellectual debates, and I am well-aware that a number of readers come just for one of those topics while ignoring the rest. The posts on hockey and local politics have a certain order to them, while the more theoretical ones, while united by some vague themes, are fairly disjointed.

With that in mind, I’m going impose some order and tease out some parallels between my post on Hannah Arendt’s theory on evil and another recent one highlighting Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize speech on the importance of literature. They might not seem to have much in common in subject matter or underlying theory, but they share a robust vision of human life that is not strictly individualist or collective, but one that cycles between the two and emphasizes the importance of each.

At a cursory glance, both of these outlooks can appear rather individualistic. Arendt is famous for her attacks on totalitarian governments and the mindsets they instilled in their citizens, argues for a distinct private sphere of life (albeit not a realm she celebrates much), and had no problem with Adolph Eichmann hanging for failing to exercise his own moral agency. Vargas Llosa, who once ran for president of Peru as the candidate of a right-leaning party, is a staunch defender of individual liberty.

But neither one is that simple. As I explained in the last post, Arendt was no rampant individualist. Instead, she subscribed to a different definition of freedom rooted in Aristotle that saw living in community as the very essence of being human. In fact, she rejected the label “philosopher” because she believed it referred to people who studied man (in the singular) instead of people and how they interacted, and preferred to be called a “political theorist.” She had no great love for collectivism, but she was well-aware that human flourishing does not involve autonomous humans operating in vacuums, but is forever tied up in daily interaction with other people—that is, politics. Her thinking, while not always easy to penetrate, has a clear logic.

Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, is very much a modern man, and posits the individual at the center of his philosophical outlook. In a 1992 interview in Sergio Marras’s América Latina (Marca Registrada), he celebrated the death of collectivism that he believed came along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and hoped “the death of all social utopias [will] lead us to search for utopias in activities where it’s not harmful, but actually very positive: for example, in art, in literature, and in individual life.” (Emphasis and translation mine.) Vargas Llosa’s profession also lends itself to an appreciation of individualism: as an author, his great creations emerge ostensibly from his own mind, and nowhere else. “A novelist is someone whose inner existence is as compelling as the details of his or her life,” writes Jane Smiley in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Still, even Vargas Llosa is well-aware that every person’s individuality emerges in part as a response to the collective. Storytelling is not just a means of entertainment or self-improvement, but a necessary foundation for the move from the “tautological” tribal life of prehistoric homo sapiens and is the power that “makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.” Like Arendt, Vargas Llosa sees that human flourishing emerges from the political realm, and the ability to dialogue with others and imagine a different life.

From my own experience, I can endorse Vargas Llosa’s words wholeheartedly.  I don’t know that I’d completely accept a label of “communitarian” or “localist” or “republican” (small-R republican, not the political party) but I do often emphasize themes that are associated with these words, and that comes directly from my first attempt at novel-writing. While I was an undergraduate in college, I started writing a novel late at night while my roommate was trying to sleep, and slowly put together a novel. It was about as individualistic an act as can be; it was a creative attempt to create a sort of narrative around my life, and I never shared any of it with anyone. (In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.) While it was an alright story and offered varying degrees of subtlety, the book was essentially a justification for my political views and my lifelong project of relentless academic success and achievement. But as I wrote, the book collapsed in on itself: I came to see the humanity in the ideas and people and places I’d meant to attack, and I came to love the setting that my protagonist sought to escape. Literature is, ultimately, to blame for my decision to head home after college; without it, I never would have come to embrace my own roots. I’d always been socially conscious, but at the same time, there was a manner in which my well-intentioned desire to climb the ladder and go on to save starving children in Africa came at the expense of more immediate relationships and realms in which my political activity could have an immediate, tangible impact. I don’t mean to denigrate people who commit their lives to social climbing or saving people elsewhere, but I did realize that I, at least, wasn’t going to find happiness there.

Instead, I find that it comes in cycles, with my time split between introspective writing (a la Vargas Llosa) and outward engagement in the community around me, as Arendt prescribes. While I certainly haven’t abandoned my old sense of ambition, I have recalibrated it to an entirely different sphere of life; one that situates it within a community, forever in search of dialogue. I have a lot of work to do.