Haven’t done one of these in a while. This one’s from Gary Greenberg’s stunning review of Charles Foster’s Being a Beast and other recent learning-from-animals books in the Jan 2017 Harper’s (cutting the first sentence as it’s mostly gluework from the prior ¶):
…As civilization fails to provide sufficient balm against our loss, as its costs become unbearable for more and more of us, the world’s stink begins, by comparison, to smell like fresh air, and devolution begins to seem attractive—or at least attractive enough to inspire three books on the subject in the same publishing season, which, it is hard not to notice, was also an election season, one in which Americans cast off reason in favor of passion. In its terrifying aftermath, the yearning at the heart of these books for a return to instinct takes on a meaning, and an intensity, their authors could not have intended. Some people will step off the evolutionary ladder into a realm where they can ramble with dogs or goats or badgers, and claim that they’ve become more human in the bargain. But some may land where wild instincts rule. A dog, lest we forget, will gleefully rip your pet cat in two, a billy goat will fuck whatever doe he can get his hooves on, and a fox will eat all your chickens in a heartbeat and call it a perfect day. They will be remorseless for the pain they cause. But at least they can’t be accused of giving up on themselves or one another.
This is some expert-level criticism, not only capable of finding ties among three books (on admittedly related subjects) but to set these books’ concerns amid our own, those arising out of the times we’re finding ourselves confused by. It #resists, in today’s parlance, by looking past the partisan narratives we see retweeted every day in favor of its own reasoned understanding of who and where we are.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comedy show before like the one I saw at Doc’s Lab last night. Typically, standup showcases are hosted by one guy (usually), himself a comic, who does 5 or 10 before bringing out the first comic, and then maybe a joke or two in between. The host is an emcee, which is where the standup comic started, back in the postwar Catskills.
Kiss My Ass is hosted by Josh Fadem and Dicker Troy, a studio driver who grew up on a charcoal farm in Bakersfield. The latter wears a ballcap and dark glasses inside a nightclub and has a braided rattail about as long as a Slim Jim.[*] Dicker is an amateur DJ and sits at a table with a laptop and sound FX machine, which modifies his already low voice into weird echoes and flangerings between his cueing up such hits as “Red Red Wine” and “Plush.” While he does this, Josh talks to the crowd and gets people excited to see a show. There are no bits—no rehearsed ones at least. It’s all extemperaneous and chaotic.
That chaos and unpredictability is what makes Kiss My Ass such a joy. Dicker is a sharp and quick-witted one-linerman, like a less-precious Mitch Hedberg crossed with Sam Elliott ready for a barfight. Josh rolls with every punch thrown at him, and he knows how to turn the discomfort he himself has instilled in the audience (“I like losing a crowd!” he admitted at one point last night) into a source for more laughs. They’re two comics expert at “being themselves”[**] on stage.
Which is made all the more apparent when the local comics come up (i.e. when the showcase starts). Chad Opitz begins a joke about Sex on the Beach (the drink) that contrasts it with a drink of his own invention: a Rimjob on the Bus, “which is a PBR where the rim of the can has been licked by a guy with a cold sore.” It’s a fine joke, and comes to us with a fine joke’s standard rhythm and timing. Very few of us in the audience laugh. “See you shoulda played ‘Red Red Wine’ at the punchline,” Opitz tells Dicker.
“Do it again,” Dicker says, working his laptop, and Opitz sets up the joke again. He gets to the punchline, says “cold sore”, and silence. Another beat of silence. Then the drumbeat and “Red Red Wiiiiiine”, and that’s when the room finally laughs.
The old saw that comedy is all about timing might always be true, but Kiss My Ass shows how even this is subjective. Opitz’s act was timed to the second through practice and rehearsal. (Later he had a bit about Robocopera, which was a Robocop opera, which he sung word for word from a thing he’d written and memorized.) On its own, it works fine. On the stage that Dicker and Josh have set, though, it all fell apart. So did DJ Real, the next comic, whose bits involve pre-recorded music and sounds he responds to in perfect time on stage. Dicker’s timing in the “Red Red Wine” moment was traditionally poor timing. Josh often stood and looked at us in silence, patiently waiting for the next idea to come to him.
Their bad timings made the good timings less funny, because too worked.
With the showcased comics, the material is what had been practiced and worked toward perfection. Whereas Dicker and Josh had no material. Came with no material (well, Josh brought a watermelon-sized ball of yarn, but in bringing it on stage he admitted he had no ideas on how to make it funny). And yet they were the funniest people in the room because what they had practiced and worked toward perfection was their selves. Their personas. They spoke from the experience of having thrown themselves at chaos. It’s not quite improv, but it was definitely improv-adjacent. It was trickstery, looser, and I ate it up.
I should say it was also funny. It was so funny I hurt from laughing. Kiss My Ass is off to Portland and Vancouver and Seattle, and if you live anywhere near those places you should go see them.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Dicker Troy is a character of Johnny Pemberton’s, whom you might know from Fox’s new semi-animated show Son of Zorn that’s pretty funny. Because Kiss My Ass works better when you see Dicker Troy as a real person this post will do the same.↵
Quotes here because neither of these guys is actually being himself. Pemberton is doing a whole character and Fadem off-stage is a much more subdued version of himself. But every comic has a stage persona, and my point here is that these guys are experts at being comfortable on stage as their personas.↵
Public U.S. life now has become one of resistance to the federal government’s continually terrible and dangerous policies, and the most convenient and quickly satisfying arena in which to work out this resistance is social media.
Social media is a lousy and terrible arena for activism and argument. This is for at least two reasons:
Posts tend toward brevity (esp. on Twitter or in the 600×600 pixel box of Instagram) and few issues regarding national politics benefit from being discussed in brief, which is what cable news taught those of us who were paying attention.
Posts come engineered with the possibility of like- and share-rewards, which reward us not on the content of the post so much as the feeling it rustles up in the post’s viewer, and as such we learn to write posts less with our messy thoughts and feelings in mind and more in terms of how the post will play out to our followers.
I get enough information on what is happening and how to resist from the news I read, and I haven’t been convinced that I need this information sooner or more rapidly than I want it.
But I miss it. I miss the Twitter I came to love in Obama’s second term. I miss irrelevant Twitter, and I miss having a place where irrelevance could be given free rein. I get that times are different now, but I reject, I think, the idea that different times call for unilaterally different behavior.
I, too, am worried and insecure about the future, and about the future’s total unforeseeability. I acknowledge that I am the source of these feelings, that they’re mine. Therefore, I’m in charge of deciding whether and how to act on them. The worry I’ve had is that by being irrelevant and silly on social media I would appear irresponsible and ignorant, a kind of head-in-the-sand apologist/Pollyanna. But I’m not in charge of how I’m read, I’m in charge of how I am.
In short: if now’s not the time for jokes then when ever is?
I’m leaving MacDowell soon after four weeks here, and one of the many generous things they offer you is a photo shoot. During mine, the photographer had me pretend to be working. Here is what I typed:
New project. She’s taking my picture. I keep laughing. Can’t imagine I’m looking good. Telling bad stories. My waddle must be shitty, too. Never know wheter to close my mouth or not. Or keep it open. So I don’t know what else to do much here alos. My eyes, too. Stern brow? Gentle look of curiosity? Look right at the camera? Or here at my laptop screen? I guess here and not at her. Here. How’s my posture? Hopefully it’s beeter this way. Proud chest
Did my semiannual review of my students’ course evaluations this morning, which at my school are complex and quantitative and—if you’re the sort of person who sees your score and then sees your school’s average score and maniacally compares them free of any context, even if the thing scored doesn’t apply in any way to your subject—unhelpful. Sometimes, but rarely, do students write in qualitative comments. For one course, one student did. Here’s part of what they said:
His feedback is so helpful for students needing to make revisions to their written work. In rare instances when perhaps the dialogue exchange isn’t helpful, he hears himself not being helpful and fixes it.
Reading that was one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a teacher.
One of the last things people who know or are partnered/related to me would commend me for is my communication skills, but early on in my teaching — especially when I started teaching nonfiction — I realized that listening to what students want to do with their writing is more important than what I think they should do. Being clear about the difference, being clear about how what I think they should try to do stems from what I hear they want to do, is always a challenge. It’s one of the hardest parts of teaching artists how to grow.
So here I am bragging about my teaching, but with the greater point of pointing out something all writing teachers should be working toward.
Anti-Intellectualism has always been a part of America, and no one’s done a more patriotic job of carrying that banner than its creative writers. We’re told, in craft books and MFA classes, to “write down the bones,” whatever that is. Maybe this is because people who feel things very easily are the people who most often become writers, but I’ve never been such a person. Feeling an emotion is as difficult for me as finding the derivative of a function by using the definition of a derivative, or swimming a swimmer’s mile—I can do it only after a lot of concentration and effort. But ideas come at me in flashes ten times a second, it feels like. Going through CW school I was taught to treat all this as a kind of noise I had to fight through or silence to get at something truer, as though the fire that lit up my brain was the wrong kind of fire, something showy and inauthentic.
What was it I was feeling?
The passage is labeled “excerpt for Ackerley blog post” but I’ve long since forgotten what post I must have been planning. I re-read, for class, J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself the other week. You can read my thoughts on it here. In sum: Ackerley’s book is great because it performs the act of thinking more explicitly on the page than any memoir I’ve read, and to me the art of memoir lies never in the events recalled but in the process/method/textures of the recall itself. Here’s how I put it specifically:
The book swims forward and backward in time in order to work all this stuff out, and in doing so it’s rarely scene-y. It’s thinky. It’s also a masterpiece. I was stunned by the book. I thought, I’ll never be this smart to put such a book together.
That emphasis is in the original, but I’ll repeat it here: I’ll never be this smart to put such a book together. I want in this post to talk about where smarts fit in with writing.
Sometimes I look at the world of “creative writing” the way I look at my own country. How did I end up here? When will I fit in? This goes doubly for the genre I write most: nonfiction. Searching Twitter for smart memoir, the most recent tweet was back on Nov 19. Shrewd memoir goes all the way back to Oct 29.
If one were to examine recent high-profile nonfiction book reviews … one might venture to argue … that the reception of nonfiction literature is also often focused on the books’ autobiographical facts—the illness, the incest, the poverty, the depression, the rape, the heartbreak, the screwing of the family dog—rather than on the strategies employed to dramatize those facts, rather than on the “how” of their tellings, instead of only their “who,” only their “what,” only their “where,” their “when,” their “why.” Only their facts.
Dave Eggers’s writing in his popular memoir about the conviction with which he raised his younger brother after the deaths of their parents, for example, was described by The Toronto Star in 2000 as having “gorgeous conviction.” Mary Karr’s writing in her memoir about growing up in the rough east Texas town of Leechfield among the tough-minded family and friends who raised her was described in The Nation in 1997 as “rough and tough.” Frank McCourt’s writing in his memoir about the searing conditions of his childhood in Limerick, Ireland, was described in the Detroit Free Press in 1995 as “searing.” In fact, nearly every review describing Frank McCourt’s writing seemed to insist on linking the qualities of the prose directly to the condition of the author’s childhood, as in, for example, The Clarion Ledger’s review—“Frank McCourt has seen hell, but found angels in his heart”—or USA Today’s review—“McCourt has an astonishing gift for remembering the details of his dreary childhood”—or The Boston Globe’s review—“A story so immediate, so gripping in its daily despairs, stolen smokes, and blessed humor, that you want to thank God that young Frankie McCourt survived it so he could write the book.”
I think people read to feel things they might otherwise not. Or to feel that their feelings aren’t strange. I’ve never read this way, but for years I’ve been trying to write this way.
I’ve got this residency coming up in January. Four weeks in a cabin in New Hampshire to write whatever I want to. I don’t yet know what I’ll work on, but regardless of what it is I know I have a job to do—shut up the voice in my head that says I’m being too smart here. That says I’m thinking and not feeling. That says my writing is no good because it won’t be called “brave” or “haunting”.
I’m committed to the idea that there’s a form of artistic bravery and risk that’s not tied to confessing, or evoking in the reader sympathetic emotions. I have to be, because otherwise my work doesn’t succeed not because of what I’ve done but because of who I am. And that’s too scary a possibility to consider.
UPDATE: The news that OUP chose post-truth (“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”) as 2016’s word of the year helps me read the above as a kind of cri de coeur. Stop trusting your emotions, folks. They’ll never not betray you.
I, along with dozens of online thinkpiece writers, feel that Facebook and Twitter helped sway the election for the worse. Trump trolled the U.S into voting for him, realizing early on that the presidency could be had for a lot cheaper than folks in the past had spent on TV ads. All he needed was to be loud and passionate. When the experience you focus on hourly unfolds before you as mute text in the same font, noise becomes very attractive, even as it’s repellant.
The 2016 election was the most emotionally charged, intellectually bankrupt election I lived through. Emotional charge + intellectual bankruptcy is what gets you mad likes/retweets.
Twitter isn’t any one thing. Everyone builds the Twitter they deserve by following whom they choose to follow. The problem for me is that I don’t know what kind of Twitter to build where reading it will expand my understanding of, or wonder at, the world. These days all Twitter does is make the world feel flatter and less colorful.
It’s a shame. I’ve always preferred it over Facebook because of how I felt the 140-character constraint challenged us to be interesting in fewer words. Also, following is a much less loaded activity than “friending”—kudos to s/he who has the strength on FB to unfriend their actual friends. For people on FB, it must feel weird to be friends in real life and not on FB. But then again the people I’m friends with in real life are different on Facebook. On Facebook, I don’t want to be friends with anyone.
So now I’m torn between using social media as a broadcast medium for these blog posts and other news, and leaving it all in full. I did this once, in 2012. I left Facebook after being an early adopter (back when one had to have an .edu address to join). People were confused and some people were mad. For years after most people assumed I’d unfriended them and blocked or hid in some way. People assumed I did this silent, cruel, passive-aggressive thing. That I had just disabled my account wholly seemed unfathomable.[&]
What’s great is that right as Twitter has become almost intolerable—today everyone feels impelled to share the same opinion about the VP-elect’s reception at a Broadway musical—it’s also tripled the number of promoted ads I now have to see, all of them autoplay videos. What’s the draw? How would I sell Twitter to a non-user?
It’s an app/website where people share hasty opinions in one or two sentences, without nuance, between flashy vid clips for Hollywood retreads and junk food items. Also a lot of reactions to the nonsense tweets of celebrities and slow-witted politicians.
“Having an opinion is so boring,” one of my closest (real life) friends once told me. He’s in many ways a role model for me, and today he’s in the hospital, and I’m worried about his health. It’s one of the wisest things I’ve ever been told. To me, imagination trumps opinion every time. And nothing kills my imagination like logging on.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Though I killed my personal profile, I forgot that I’d made a profile for Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy, to promote The Authentic Animal. This is how I’ve since been a lurker and then, with a new book to promote this summer, a revived intermittent user.↵
Chalk it up to a number of things. Election results. Flying to the east coast the weekend Daylight Savings Time ended. A court date yesterday N & I spent a very long time preparing for. I fell asleep (maybe? never clear whether I was out or just trying to be) past 1:30 last night and woke up for no good reason at 4:00. Around 5:30 I got out of bed and went to read on the couch.
Right now it’s 8:15.
These days I’m reading a biography of Talking Heads. David Byrne has been a hero of mine at least as far back as my senior year of high school, when I wrote about him and Warhol and Picasso in a college application essay. The movie he directed, True Stories, and the overall embrace of pop culture that it and his music presented which somehow also made room for critiquing it,[x] is what helped me see DeLillo’s White Noise as a feeble thing written with the critical acumen of a dull pencil when assigned it in graduate school.
Talking Heads’ story is a sad one about three art school friends, two of whom get married after the third serially ditches them for collaborators he’s more excited by. Where I am in the book is they just put out Remain in Light, which is both their most collaboratively created record and the one (if their biographer is to be believed) with the skeeviest denial of credit-giving. Tina and Chris did the cover up at MIT, but all the credit went to the design firm that laid out the liner notes. After agreeing on a “Songs by” credit with all four members + Eno in alphabetical order, the first pressing said, “All songs by David Byrne, Brian Eno, and Talking Heads.” Even, you can see up there, their faces are masked.
It’s not my favorite of their records,[y] but it’s the one I’ve been listening to the most these days. I don’t have a point in this post. I just need to wake up to get my day started. I need to read students’ thesis work closely enough to understand what it’s trying to do and come up with constructive tips for revision. This is a kind of collaborative work.
I have periodically in the past collaborated with writers and artists. The Cupboard was created with the idea of being an anonymous collaborating collective, but that iteration never took off. What I like about collaboration is making something that’s mine and yet new to me, that’s something I wouldn’t’ve been able to make, stuck as I am in my own brain.
It is, though, a vulnerable place to put myself in. To have another person negate a thing I added in the pursuit of creation is scary, and when it happens it hurts and makes me feel stupider than I am. I imagine it’s like co-parenting a child. Maybe collaboration is a way to grow up.
I’m led, in the Heads biography, to sympathize with Tina Weymouth, who seemed only to want to make art with her friends for the rest of her life. Is it a form of arrested development? There’s a tie between collaboration and open relationships I could make if I were better rested.
Right now “Listening Wind” is about to end. Byrne is singing about the wind in his heart and the dust in his head. Once again he’s saying it better than I can.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
“I discovered that it’s more fun to like things, that you can kind of like things and still be gently critical, without blind acceptance,” Byrne told Time in 86.↵
That would be More Songs About Buildings and Food.↵
This week I’ve thought about my country the way I’ve imagined people with abusive or deadbeat parents think about their abusive or deadbeat parents. (I mostly know such people from bad movies.) No matter who they are or what they do, the parent will continually let them down. The parent has too long a history of putting their own needs before the child’s. The parent has never really been there for the child. Eventually, the child gives up on the parent.
The question then is to what extent I give up on my country.
Then I remember that only 27 percent of eligible voters chose the president-elect last week. That’s 18 percent of the total population. When I say “America” or “Americans”—when I look around and wonder whom to feel betrayed by—I almost never know what I mean.
But this week, of all the things I am, I’m most ashamed of being an American.
Reading Nell Irvin Painter’s NY Times op-ed this morning made me turn to whiteness. “Who defines American whiteness right now?” Painter asks. “How will white people who didn’t support Mr. Trump in 2016 construe their identity as white people when Trumpists, including white nationalists, Nazis, Klansmen and [Breitbart News], have posted the markers?”
I’ll be damned if I’m going to let myself get lumped in with those fucks. But I don’t have an answer to Painter’s question of how to construe my identity, how to publicly and visibly be read as the sort of white man who would never want himself represented by the president-elect. Who would never see his race as something noble and pure, something he needed to protect.
I used to roll my eyes at the A in LGBTQIA. Unless you’ve been hated for who you want to fuck, don’t horn in on our acronym. But I’ve changed. One path I can see through the miasma of race and history I’m lead through when I consider my fearful brethren and white shame ends at being, and maybe identifying, as a capital-A Ally.
It’s not horning in on someone else’s struggle, it’s showing solidarity with that struggle. When you love people different from you and see them being hated, hurt, and killed, wouldn’t you want to do something? I want to do something. For me, the days of criticizing others acting out of love might be over. Thanks, Trump.
Ally thoughts have led me to queer rainbow thoughts. Specifically these:
I am, for the first time, worried about spending the holidays in South Dakota this year.
I no longer want to pass as straight.
The problem with the former is one Neal and I have talked about and will face together, surrounded there by his family which is full of people whom I know love us. The problem with the latter is that I don’t know what to do.
I never had the conscious goal to pass as straight (when it happens, that is; God knows I’m no Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor). It’s mostly a factor of straight folks’ naivëte. Or how shabbily I dress. I was also maybe afraid to be different. Now what I feel most is the need for solidarity among the majority of us who did not want this man in charge, and I want this solidarity to be visible.
I want that 18 percent’s face slapped with my gayness. I want to wear pink T-shirts with all-caps messages on them. Or hold Neal’s hand more often in public. Or tattoo BUTTSLUT across my knuckles. Of course, I run into an immediate problem: What does “look more gay” even mean? Aren’t I engaged in the struggle to enlarge the common conception of what “a gay man” looks like?
As soon as I “look gay” to someone who doesn’t know me, I enforce something false at best (I dress the way I am) and homophobic at worst. Other than sucking dick in public, there might be nothing I can do. Is this a kind of victory?
Maggie Nelson read at USF last week, and she kindly signed my copy of The Argonauts. “I want to give you some seeds,” she said, slipping inside the front cover a packet with morning glories on the front. I thought it was a quirky gesture until I got home and read the printed message she’d taped to the front. Maybe you’ve seen it passed around online these days, but it was the first I’d heard it:
They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.
I had to teach a class the morning after election day, and knowing my students and myself I knew it wouldn’t work to discuss “Consider the Lobster” and talk about the uses of research in nonfiction. So I went to church in the morning to pray over what to do and I was reminded of George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” (PDF), and I thought, let’s talk about that.
I read it aloud and we talked about it. We talked about the election. We talked about the role of the writer in society. We talked about the role of the writer in the self. I asked students to write essays titled “Why I Write” and said that the only way to do this wrong is to be false about it. If you write to get revenge, write about that. If you write to explore erotic fantasies about your junior-high classmates, write about that.
I said, “And think right now. Why do you write right now? It’s not a contract you need to hold yourself to.”
I invited them to share the essays with me. A couple actually did. Here’s the one I wrote:
Why I Write
I am sitting in the chair I sit in in my living room and Neal is around the edge of the wall in the kitchen area and I have an idea for dinner. We should, I think, make frozen Chinese food. Neal, though, may have his own idea for dinner and it may be better than my idea for dinner. So I think that I should ask whether he has any ideas for dinner. I say it in my head: Do you have any ideas for dinner? I wait patiently until he comes back into the living room.
“Drrvnideusdurn?” I say, my tongue a slug in my dumb mouth.
“What was that?” he asks.
“Doyouhaveanyideasfordinner?” I repeat.
Once, in an election year summer, I was on a porch with a man telling me that my generation was going to bring about the end of the American Democratic Project. He and I were born within a decade of each other. I was trying to say that I wanted to vote for the candidate who inspired me the most, but he was telling me I had only one choice and that was to vote against the candidate he feared the most. He has, I think, been made afraid by messages and images he sees on TV and the Internet. I say instead, “You’re, like, bullying me,” and I leave the porch.
Sometimes, certain words strung in a certain order have a kind of beauty to them. Here’s one I discovered and chewed over in my head for a while just last week: Help me not to feel that people feel that way about me. There is a feeling there, and an idea about the self and how the self is seen and maybe created by others, that I hadn’t known or understood until the words came to me in a rough but interesting order and I reshaped them into that sentence. The process of doing this is what I think of when I hear the word “writing.” Writing isn’t just the record of thinking it is the mechanism through which I think, and what I have found over the last decade of doing it is that aesthetics—say, the careful attention paid to words’ sounds and effects—can lead me to new truths.
This is ancient, this idea. It is at least Keatsianly ancient: beauty is truth and truth beauty. It has the pleasingness of facts and folk wisdoms and what I’ve for a long time erroneously called “universal truth”, but it is only partially true, and at times dangerously untrue. There are many strings of certain words in certain orders that have a beauty to them on their own, but the problem with words is that they signify, and some beautiful words create lies, or obfuscate truths.
A not nefarious example: once, I heard on the radio a eulogistic essay for a newly dead coach. The man reading it was a longtime sportswriter. It ended with the line, “People talk about someone being a gentleman and a scholar. Well, he was a gentleman and a coach.” It had, I could hear, the sound and feel of a beautiful ending, but it said, in the end, nothing. The sportswriter let his beautiful language take over and get in the way of my understanding his subject.
Some beautiful words tell truths and some beautiful words tell lies. Why I write is to know the difference, and to use that difference to be understood. I speak and no one listens. I write it down and people know it to be true. That’s Rene Ricard. Replace “know” in his second sentence with “feel” and I begin to get a sense of why I write.