Saturday 28 February
Continuations in the Search for an Authentic Self

Filed under Announcements

The other night my friend Jim Gavin came to talk to my students about his book—the very funny and moving Middle Men I quoted from in the last post. On our way from my office to the classroom, I had to piss. This is what I said to him, out loud: “I have to piss.” I went into the men’s room and urinated.

Then, last night, Neal and I were talking in bed before falling asleep, and during the conversation I had to use the restroom. This is what I said to him, out loud, in our bedroom: “I have to use the restroom.” I went into our bathroom and urinated.

I’ve been stuck all day on the question of which guy is the one I’m supposed to trust. Who was posing, and why? And Jesus: what the hell am I supposed to do if they both were?

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2015-02-28  ::  dave

Monday 23 February
Very Good Paragraphs – Friend Edition

Filed under Comedy + Very Good Paragraphs

This one’s from Jim Gavin’s incredible story “Elephant Doors” in his debut collection, Middle Men. I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories that continually run the border between funny and sad. “Elephant Doors” is about a PA on a Jeopardy-like quiz show who also does standup open mics around LA. If there’s ever been a story written for me, it’s this one. Here’s the protagonist, Adam, after bombing at a mic:

Driving home, he couldn’t see the city. he could only see himself, from the perspective of the audience, witnessing his every weak-minded pause, his every false gesture. He had been putting himself through this for almost two years and he had nothing to show for it. No agent, no booked gigs, nothing. He thought of all the people who had been regulars at El Goof when he first started going, how he would suddenly notice, after a few weeks, that they were no longer there. At some point they had vanished, melting back into the general population. He felt sorry for these people, especially the ones who actually had talent, but after a bad night onstage he often wondered if there wasn’t something deeply satisfying in their decisions. At times he craved the sweet tantalizing oblivion of giving up. His favorite word in the English language was “stick-to-it-iveness,” but the longer he hung around, the more he felt the enormity of his delusion. A voice in his head kept taunting him with the old gambling adage—if you can’t spot the sucker at the table, it’s you—which seemed like an intensely American piece of wisdom. He always figured that being aware of his own suckerhood would somehow redeem him from it, but now he wasn’t so sure. He was waiting for something to click. In books and interviews all of his comic heroes had described a moment onstage when, after stumbling for may years, they suddenly, and oftentimes inadvertently, became themselves. Now and then he touched the contours of his own personality, the one that seemed to entertain his family and friends, but most of the time he felt totally disembodied. The words coming out of his mouth seemed like they could’ve been coming out of anyone’s mouth. He was desperate to become who he was, to not care what others were thinking, to dissolve the world around him. He decided that this elusive state of being demanded either total humility or total narcissism. Right now Adam existed in a no-man’s-land between the two.

I did standup just once (or thrice in one week at one venue) and I hated it, and though I subsequently wtote about what I felt and went through, it didn’t come near as accurate and moving as this bit. But here’s the thing: this paragraph gets at not only why I was bad at doing standup, it gets at why I’m bad at doing life. Why we all are, maybe.

Jim’s coming to talk to my students Wednesday about the uses of humor in writing. At this point I’m just bragging. One last thing I’ll say is that there are so many places in this paragraph where a lesser writer would end and let the sentence echo in the whitespace between this graf and the next one. This one sprawls in ways that totally pay off.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-02-23  ::  dave

Tuesday 17 February
Really Bad Ultimate Lines

Filed under NF

The other night I was listening to some journeyman reporter eulogize a dead NCAA coach on NPR. Here was his last line:

We talk about a gentleman and a scholar, well he was a gentleman and a coach.

This is such garbage writing, but it looks and sounds so good doesn’t it? Audiences get such comfort and delight from parallel structures. It’s why callbacks in standup sets can get big laughs despite not being great jokes on their own.

This sentence doesn’t say a single thing other than “This coach was whatever a gentleman is.” But it has the whiff of profundity. All it takes is speaking a cliche, and then “correcting” or “specifying” that cliche by altering one word.

It’s my job in a sense to look for this stuff and I’m amazed at how often I find it. Or no: I don’t find it.

It finds me.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-02-17  ::  dave

Monday 19 January
When You Look Up X in the Dictionary, There’s a Picture of You

Filed under Grammar/Usage Nerdery

This used to be a pretty good burn, although tempered by the fact that not every dictionary has pictures, and so there’s always been a bit of the unreal and, thus, the dismissible.

When you look up basic bitch on Wikipedia there’s a picture of Ugg Boots.

That’s, actually, a fact (for now). And so it’s like yet another thing Wikipedia’s taken over is the improvement of our comparison burns. If you could time it right, how great would it be to upload a picture of the basic bitch in your life, and then prompt him or her to look it up?

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-01-19  ::  dave

Thursday 15 January
Very Good Paragraphs, 2015 Memorization Edition

Filed under Books + Very Good Paragraphs

Last year I memorized some paragraphs that had for years meant a lot to me as a writer and also as a person. I thought I’d stick with this practice and find something to memorize this year. Glad I found it early in Vol 2 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I liked the first volume better, but this is worth your (surprisingly short, given the 600-page length) time.

Why read it? What’s it about? What’s with that title? Well, from p. 66 of the FSG paperback:

I returned the glass to the table and stubbed out my cigarette. There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with. The whole crowd of them could have burned in hell for all I cared. This was a rule in my life. When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them. It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not. Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.

You don’t have to believe me, but that paragraph is exactly the same number of words as the Didion passage I memorized last year: 339.

When I talk about this book I feel like my 20something self talking about Infinite Jest. Also, I might stop marking comma splices on my students’ manuscripts. Why, when the literary sensation of the decade is happily full of them?

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-01-15  ::  dave

Tuesday 13 January
Alan Turing Was Gay

Filed under Reviews

alan-turing-centenary-justiceI liked The Imitation Game. I’m wasn’t going to alert you to the spoiler of his being gay because I don’t think it should be a spoiler. And hell, I didn’t see any trailers for the movie so maybe it wasn’t, but there was some coyness early in the script about Turing’s secret, and my parents had never before this Oscar season heard of Alan Turing, so I’m glad for the movie for letting everyone know that one of the most important geniuses and war heroes of the 20th century was—to let history spoil the film’s end—a gay man whose government forced him to take hormone treatments that destroyed his mind and body so much it led him to end his own life at age 41.

Also, the movie is crafty in how it leads its characters to talk about what’s normal for human beings. Here’s the speech culled unverifiedly from IMDB. It’s the lead actress role talking to Turing after his mind has gone and he admires the normal life she’s been able to build since the war:

No one normal could have done that. Do you know, this morning… I was on a train that went through a city that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn’t for you. I read up on my work… a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you. Now, if you wish you could have been normal… I can promise you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t.

I read David Leavitt’s impressive biography of Alan Turing when it came out because I’d just come out, and I needed help. How am I supposed to be? One way we humans have answered that question is by looking to how some of us have been. The Imitation Game does everything every Hollywood biopic always does, and I’ve blathered before about my feelings on biopics. What made this one different, though, is how it presented this man’s achievements as possible not despite his being gay but because he was. And those are the kinds of heroes we need.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-01-13  ::  dave

Tuesday 30 December
Some Nascent Criticism on the Film Divergent

Filed under Reviews

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 9.53.42 PM

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-30  ::  dave

Thursday 25 December
I Hate A Christmas Story

Filed under Reviews

a_christmas_story_leg_lamp_quoteI know: “Who cares?” I’m not, as they say, a social justice warrior, even though I teach at a Jesuit university—and as they also say, never go in against a Jesuit in a Check-Your-Privilege contest when social justice is on the line. But there’s no question that A Christmas Story‘s the worst, the most white-dude het-centric holiday movie ever, yes?

But all that aside, all the Boomer nostalgia aside, all the raspy winsome narrator who talks as though guffaws you’d never think to return are about to erupt from his belly aside, here’s what I hate about A Christmas Story. Maybe you remember the leg lamp? There’s a lamp the quote-unquote old man wins in a contest that arrives in a crated box wrapped in tow.

It looks like a sexy lady’s leg stuck in a nylon stocking!

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-25  ::  dave

Thursday 11 December
Notes for a Blog Post on Minaj’s “Anaconda” Video that No One Would Care to Read

Filed under music

blg post about anaconda video. the boringest thing that a woman can be is sexy. i don’t say this as a gay man, and I don’t say it as a prude, though I’ve been accused of being both. I say it as a person who for most of his life has been shown women in entertainment being sex objects. this is what the world has been conditioned to expect of women in a video. it’s like seeing jack nicholson grin in a pair of sunglasses. whether it’s on her own terms or the terms of some male exec, the fact is that minaj in her video is giving the market what it demands. the market for female music artists demands they be sexy if they want to sell records. it doesn’t demand that they hold their own behind a mic with the likes of kanye west and jay z. but that’s what minaj can do. no it’s not all she can do but it’s what maybe only she can do. rather than remind a public in maybe constant need of reminding about it, she’s instead, she’s rubbing her whole ass on drake of all people while rapping half-assedly along with a novelty hiphop footnote from my high school days. for whom is this any kind of victory?

(also quote this problematic part of the bitch article: “There are questions and criticisms that the video was shot, directed, and produced by men to satisfy the male gaze, to further perpetuate the commodification of another black female body. But this condemnation ignores and silences Minaj’s voice and ability to make decisions about her own representations as an artist and a business person.”) (also wrestle with this bit from grantland: ” Cutting up a metaphorical dick onscreen makes it even more clear that the “Anaconda” video is about Nicki asserting her power, not as a sexual object but a sexual subject.”)

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-11  ::  dave

Wednesday 10 December
Writing So Bad It's Beautiful – Part 3

Filed under Grammar/Usage Nerdery

[Continued from .]

Now I’m thinking of Gary Lutz and his Lishian sisters and brothers who see the sentence as the wellspring of creativity. I’m not a Lishian. Assertions about good sentences are bona fide ways to get me paralyzed from creating. But that’s not to mean I don’t like gussying up my sentences when such gussying occurs to me. And lately, when I gussy it’s been more of a gussying down than up. If I can see a way to make my sentence clunkier, or to let it dabble in a bit of redundancy, I want to take it.

For example, last week I wrote an announcement that The Cupboard, the pamphlet series I and my friends have been running in different permutations for oh eight years or so, is getting new editors. We three are stepping down. It’s good news, in that those stepping up have more time to dedicate, and thus The Cupboard should flourish. Here’s the first draft of how it started:

The Cupboard is about to release its 20th volume. This doesn’t necessitate a change, it just happens to happily come with one.

I had two problems:

  1. Twenty volumes might, given some set of circumstances, compel a change. I sure changed after my 20th. So I felt like I needed to say that, while it might necessitate a change, it doesn’t necessarily do so. Such a change isn’t inevitable, is what I felt I wanted to say. Was that the same as compelling change? Yes and no?
  2. It’s fine to split infinitives in English. I know that. Still, I don’t always like to. But to not split “happens to happily” I’d have to have “happens happily to”.

Solving problem 2 gave me the license to solve problem 1. I wanted to use both words and I wanted to put them together because I figured I could and that it would be the kind of sentence a workshopper would stumble and thus pick up his pen over. Again, I saw my opportunity and took it:

The Cupboard is about to release its 20th volume. This doesn’t necessarily necessitate a change, it just happens happily to come with one.

It’s a clunky and ugly sentence, and I love it. As someone who spends so much of his time trying to articulate what’s good and bad about writing, I see that sentence and I see that it’s bad, and I love it.

It’s the best sentence I’ve written all month.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-10  ::  dave

Grammar/Usage Nerdery
2014-12-09 :: dave
Grammar/Usage Nerdery
2014-12-08 :: dave
Books + Comedy + Endorsements + queers
2014-12-05 :: dave
2014-12-04 :: dave
2014-12-03 :: dave
2014-11-26 :: dave
Very Good Paragraphs
2014-11-25 :: dave
Comedy + teaching
2014-11-21 :: dave
2014-11-20 :: dave
2014-11-19 :: dave