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Tuesday 16 January
My Year of Queer Reading: Tillie Walden’s Spinning

Filed under Books + NF + queers

A graphic memoir about a young girl in the world of mid-level competitive figure skating, who comes out as queer and comes to realize she has to leave skating behind. What’s beautiful about it are Walden’s colors and her use of rhythm and pacing, how she moves from small and tight panels to wider and more expansive ones. Examples are hard to quote, so to speak, but here’s a couple of JPGs I could find.

It’s just that deep violet color throughout, unless there’s light in the scene, and contrasting light: the sharp angles of early morning sunrises, or the glow of litup windows in a dark evening, car headlights at dusk. When that yellow appears on the page it’s like a trumpet or melodic refrain you’ve been waiting for.

The matter-of-factness about her queerness and coming out to family and friends was a smart touch, because this is a story hanging its narrative on other ongoing conflicts. And as with all coming-out narratives I felt that same pang of envy and self-loathing. To have even known I was gay at Walden’s age….

Much less had the guts to tell others.

I was amazed by the insight into the power and purpose of memoir from an artist just 20 years old at the book’s publication. Here she is in her author’s note:

I think for some people the purpose of a memoir is to really display the facts, to share the story exactly as it happened. And while I worked to make sure this story was as honest as possible, that was never the point for me. This book was never about sharing memories; it was about sharing a feeling. I don’t care what year that competition was or what dress I was actually wearing; I care about how it felt to be there, how it felt to win. And that’s why I avoided all memorabilia. It seemed like driving to the rink to take a look or finding the pictures from my childhood iPhone would tell a different story, an external story. I wanted every moment in this book to come from my own head, with all its flaws and inconsistencies.

I like this idea of how researching the facts/memorabilia of one’s life can push a story to the exterior, rather than keeping it true to feeling, which is to say true to emotion, intellect, and art.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2018-01-16  ::  dave

Thursday 11 January
My Year of Queer Reading: Sam Sax’s Madness

Filed under Books + queers

you either love the world
or you live in it

I love the sad wisdom in these lines, which is a sad wisdom that runs throughout this collection. I’d only before heard Sax’s poems, at two readings here in San Francisco, where he spent a number of years. He’s from the performance poetry school: some poems were memorized, some asked the audience to woop at certain breaks, all seemed to draw mysterious things out from his body, which is sturdy and self-possessed about how it fills the space it takes up, like a dancer’s.

Echoes from his past performances came to my ear as I read certain poems, that voice, but on the whole these pages were filled in a variety of ways. Space and line working toward effects beyond what the voice alone can do. The concerns throughout are with mental health, physical health, ailments, drugs, addiction, sex, and the body and its transactions. Sax is younger than me by a number of years, but smarter than me in a host of ways about queerness and ways of being queer in the world we, as above, find ourselves just living in.

it's beautiful
how technology can move
from its corrupt origins
into pleasure

i have to remember the internet
began inside the murder
corridors of a war machine

each time i link to a poem
or watch two queers kiss

“Queers” and not “men”, note. Also that cleaving of sex to poetry, or poetry to sex. “[T]he homosexual since his invention has been a creature held captive in the skull,” he writes in “On Trepanation” (the practice of sawing open a hole in the skull), and it’s a sentiment I felt in my bones. What made this book a gift was how readily Sax found salvation within this world, the one here, outside the skull. Because “heaven’s a city / we’ve been priced out of”, his speakers are here to make as much of this life as they can, no matter the costs.

spare me the lecture
on the survival
of my body
& i will spare you my body

Buy Sam Sax’s Madness here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2018-01-11  ::  dave

Tuesday 9 January
Why I’m Reading Only Queer Writers in 2018

Filed under Books + queers

  • Because I tend to be a late adopter of certain trends and habits.
  • Because even as late as 2017 the message I hear in the conversations about books, and stories in particular, is that the most important stories (and the stories most valued) out there are about A Man and A Woman.
  • Because if not “important” or “valuable”, then what One-Man-One-Woman stories often get called is “universal”.
  • Because If not A Man and A Woman, then the other best/important/valuable stories are sagas of families, as distinguished by sexual reproduction and hereditary bloodlines.
  • Because I’m a queer writer writing a queer book, and I’d like to get a sense of the conversations I hope to step into.
  • Because my knowledge of queer books has centered for too long on Books By Gay Men, and it’s time to rectify that.
  • Because in trying to figure out why I wasn’t enjoying Call My Be Your Name (the movie) I kept asking myself “Would I keep watching this is if it were about a man and a young woman?” and I realized I would not.
  • Because calling Call My Be Your Name a queer story when the story itself invests so much of its energy in not calling queerness by its name feels inaccurate.
  • Because if CMBYN is a straight story by/about queer people I’d like to start finding queer books by queer people, because, again, I’m a queer person writing what I hope is a queer book.
  • Because, in the end, queers are my people, and I’ve spent too long convinced otherwise.

You can follow along with my year of queer reading on Goodreads.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2018-01-09  ::  dave

Wednesday 18 October
Writing’s Fraught History

Filed under Books

Was moved in various odd ways by this ¶ from John Lanchester’s “How Civilization Started” in the 18 Sept 2017 New Yorker:

War, slavery, rule by elites—all were made easier by another new technology of control [other than fire, detailed above]: writing. “It is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping,” [James C.] Scott maintains [in his book on early peoples]. All the good things we associate with writing—its use for culture and entertainment and communication and collective memory—were some distance in the future. For half a thousand years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively for bookkeeping: “the massive effort through a system of notation to make a society, its manpower, and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.” Early tablets consist of “lists, lists, and lists,” Scott says, and the subjects of that record-keeping are, in order of frequency, “barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, male and female slaves.” Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish cultural critic, who committed suicide while trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression.

Optimistically, we writers have clearly come a long way, and it’s wonderful that the art I’ve dedicated much of my life to has transcended these dark beginnings, that language since its invention has been so democratized and traded openly among the masses.

Pessimistically, I’m working within a tradition of power and control among state elites. I think of this both in terms of the things I write (about) and the audience to whom I’m writing. What are the ways my essays and blog posts and things maintain or reinforce ideas useful to the state in its project of oppression? What can I say that upturns such a project, in however small a way possible by one middle-class man in a comfortable job?

And how often am I writing to the very people who share this power with me—the more-literate-than-most with the gift of an audience, the gift of publishers’ interests? Very often. Probably always.

This ¶’s also made me think about the term “literary citizenship” or the idea of being A Good Literary Citizen. What this means in my community is doing things that help remind other writers they’ve found an audience. It’s going to readings in your town, and tweeting about others’ publications. It’s writing a writer when you read and liked her book. And not to disparage other writers, not to burn bridges.

These are all noble acts. Lord knows I’ve come up short in this kind of citizenship any number of times. But in working to be this kind of citizen, I don’t want to neglect to be the other kind—the one that acts nobly and consciously to the benefit of others, regardless of whether they’re also writers, too.

I’m not necessarily resolving anything here except to keep writing’s long shadow in mind when I quibble over how to make the structure of some sentence more beautiful. (I just did it. I just by reflex revised that sentence twice.) I’ll try to remember that there could be more at stake.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-10-18  ::  dave

Friday 25 August
An Update

Filed under Announcements + Books

I’ve written 138,000 words this year and none of it is publishable. Not publishable yet, is the point of this post (I think). About 100,000 of that is toward a new book, and the rest are from the essays and the short story I spent this summer writing amid travel. I’ve historically been the kind of writer who revises as he goes, who deletes what doesn’t look great on the page, and I don’t think it’s led my work to very surprising places. Now, I’m trying a new tactic. I’m trying to become a better reviser, and it’s scary because what if all those 138,000 words stay unpublishable?

It’s been a tough year, as tough as a year can be for a tenured professor. I remember a colleague talking with me earlier in the year about the Career Associate—the writer who publishes enough to get tenure and then stops, never to publish another book that would bring them to full. We agreed in our tones if not our words that such a fate is to be avoided. She had nothing to worry about, with three books and a newly donned full-professor title. I’d worked with such professors in grad school, and I remember wondering what happened. I remember assuming they could no longer write something publishable, which was to say relevant or modish. That was how hardily I breathed the competitive air of academia back then.

Here’s what I’ve been telling people: my first two books were written in a timeframe handed to me by academia; the first book to get a job, the second book to get tenure. Now that there’s no clock ticking, I can take the time to write the stuff the stuff I want to write needs. The stuff can dictate the time. Process can form the product. But there’s still a part of me with an eye on my CV, my online shares. When was the last time a thing of mine was printed? What if years go by and no one ever thinks of me?

This is egotism, but then again “pure ego” was one of the motivators behind Orwell’s writing. One of the hardest parts of writing is bearing through the time it takes. Unlike a table, or a computer, or a record, it always takes longer to make a book than it does to enjoy it. It always lives longer in your lonely brain than it seems to live in the world. I’m getting at what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls the “grief of writing,” the enduring of which he takes as an act of faith:

For the next nine years, I learned about grief as I worked on that damned short story collection. I did not know what I was doing, and what I also did not know, facing my computer screen and a white wall, slowly turning pale, was that I was becoming a writer. Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place.

I’ve never been good at faith. You should for sure read that Nguyen essay if you’re a writer in the academy. I found it so kind and helpful. It gave me a way to forgive myself.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-08-25  ::  dave

Monday 24 July
New Author Photo

Filed under Announcements

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I look so thin!

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-07-24  ::  dave

Wednesday 12 July
One Way of Thinking about Marginalization

Filed under Obvious Things

I recently refrained from posting anything about the #HeterosexualPrideDay Twitter hashtag designed, it seemed, to make people indignant. But I’ve been thinking about it. And I’ve been thinking about white feelings of marginalization and malinformed notions of fairness and came up with a kind of parable.

Is it a parable, Jesus?

Imagine you are a student in school, and this is the year you have the meanest teacher you ever had. She[*] gives demerits or detentions for the slightest note-passing, or talking to your neighbor. She grades on a 1-100 scale even though most of the work is qualitative and impossible to assign points to, and thus when you are handed a 73 on your paper and your quiet friend who never studies gets a 92 you have no understanding of what has happened.

In short, she’s a tyrant. You don’t have to be here. You could drop out of school. You could ditch most days. But you know that there are consequences for these actions, and you have a plan for your life that entails you passing this grade and eventually graduating. And so you’re stuck. You’re stuck with a very mean teacher who has all the power in the room.

One day, your teacher comes in with the principal behind her. She is shouting something about chairs. She has just one chair at her desk and one stool at the front of the room, whereas the twenty-five of you all have chairs behind your desks. There is an imbalance of chairs between teacher and students. Furthermore, she is forced to stand and write on the blackboard while you and your classmates get to sit all day. “It’s unfair,” she says. “Why should students get special treatment?”

The principal brings in a custodian and together they take away all of your chairs. You’re now forced to stand during class, while your teacher sits. Still, though, she hands out detentions left and right. Still, her grades seem punitive and unreasonable.

Any white person complaining about the lack of a White History Month or white representation in media or advertising or on packaging is this teacher. Every straight person wondering where the straight pride parades are is this teacher. From a fundamental inability (or outright refusal) to understand how she has all the power in the room, the teacher’s actions have made a bad classroom even worse.

And worse for everyone. No bad teacher’s job is going to get easier or more rewarding with twenty-five pissed off students glaring at her every morning.

I know it goes without saying to anyone reading this blog, but if you number among the majority in a situation, you have power those who don’t number among you can’t access or use in any way. When these people make something of their own (a holiday, a parade, a hashtag, a T-shirt) that doesn’t include you, it cannot take that power away from you. The only thing that can take power away from you is laws and policy.

But then again, you have all the numbers to vote against it.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I am sorry to gender her female, but my meanest teacher was Mrs. Greenspan and so this helps me.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-07-12  ::  dave

Friday 30 June
Queers and Degenerates

Filed under Obvious Things + queers

Today Angela Merkel voted against same-sex marriage, and I laughed and was reminded of the time when Nancy Reagan died, and Hillary Clinton went on TV and reminded us all that the Reagans did so much to “start a national conversation” about AIDS.

But this post isn’t about how politicians beloved by people on the left continually reveal themselves to be fundamentally opposed to (or perhaps just ignorant of) leftist thought. This post is about the comments I read at the end of that Independent piece on Merkel. Here’s my favorite:

Why it’s my favorite is that it reminds me that when you hate an idea or an abstraction so much, that hate can completely rewire your rational, thinking brain. Your hate (the same often goes for other passions) can become a kind of warm bedfellow preventing you from being a person. Or even, like, doing simple math.

But the comment I want to talk about here is this one:

I’ve heard arguments along this line before: I don’t have anything against gays but because the sex they have can’t make babies they are unnatural/degenerate/deviant/etc. The idea being that we’re not bad individuals, but we possess and profess a kind of darkness or evil.

One of the best things about being queer is that you stop seeing the reproduction of the self through intercourse as some kind of culmination—much less the central culmination, as most straight people seem to understand it—of a life on this planet. Another way of putting it: generation doesn’t need to only, or even chiefly, be read biologically. Or evolutionarily. We might think of generation socially, or psychologically. You might even think of it astrologically: Our purpose on this planet might be to give worship to the Sun for it’s the Sun that gives us life.

This is an equally valid way to think of the “generate human”—such as that exists.

A social understanding of generacy or generation might sound like this: If all you do is stay home and make a bunch of babies with your straight spouse, and you never get out and volunteer or vote for civic-minded policies, or if you always put “family first” and don’t know the names and biographies of your neighbors, then you’re a degenerate. You’re the worst kind of degenerate.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-06-30  ::  dave

Friday 30 June
The One Rule of Writing

Filed under teaching

I.
I’ve taken to saying this a lot in classes. The only rule to writing is You can’t be boring.

Every other rule you might come across is breakable. Use vivid verbs. Structure your essay with scenes. Show don’t tell. Write what you know. Don’t bring out a gun at the end of your story to resolve the conflict.

One student last term said that her old writing teacher—a much beloved and now dead writer and critic—pronounced in class Don’t write flashbacks, because—he actually said this—nobody has written a good flashback since Proust.

Every “don’t” spoken in a creative writing classroom is an invitation to do. Except Don’t be boring. And yet, there’s an important corollary to the One Rule: Only you get to define what “boring” means.

II.
If, then, the only rule is Don’t be boring, I need to change the way I teach. It’s no use teaching craft techniques when all of them are ignorable. If it’s true that every artist decides for themselves what’s boring (and thus what not to write), then I can best help students by getting them in touch with their boredom. More specifically: how to cultivate it. The artist is the person more bored than others—perhaps more bored by others—and through that boredom creates something new and fresh.

“Writing can’t be taught,” say any number of tenured writing professors.[a] These same idiots would maybe also argue that you can’t teach boredom. You can’t teach people to Daria their way through books and the art world. To which I say: Watch me.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. This was a great tweet by Victor LaValle the other day.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-06-30  ::  dave

Saturday 10 June
Day 2 Home

Filed under Reviews

I.
Iceland is small. It’s a little bigger than Indiana, if that helps, filled only with the population of Pittsburgh. It feels big as you drive around it because of how much it resembles the U.S. West, especially as envisioned in Road Runner cartoons (except with bumpy lavarock fields instead of dust and dirt), but there are so few places in all that space to stop and look around. It’s like the opposite of a mall.

But like a mall, it’s easy to run into people. Sure: I was there for a conference, and so there were a number of folks doing the same things I did, seeing the same sights. But without any pre-planning, I ran into two of these people at a geyser and a waterfall. Even odder, I ran into an old gradschool friend who I knew was going to be in Iceland at some point this summer (though not for this conference) at the same waterfall. We hit the waterfall on Sunday. I also saw there the guy from our Friday walking tour of Reyjkavik who said he wanted a hot dog. On Monday we drove to the Snaefellsnes peninsula—a long, thin finger of land filled with mountains and waterfalls and tipped, at the sea, with a glacier—and we stopped on the way up at a museum on the settlement of Iceland (not recommended). In front of us in line were a middle-aged balding man and who I hoped was his daughter. They, I felt, were proceeding too slowly, and so I told Neal to hold back and let them proceed a bit so we didn’t keep bumping into them.

Tuesday, I saw them walking out of a cave.

II.
Tourism is booming in Iceland, and we could tell by how in-development everything was. Our hotel was mostly finished, but there was still construction noise one day and the back patio and basement spa were closed. Both the base office for our glacier tour and the ship we cruised the ocean on to watch birds and eat live scallops were equipped with full kitchens, but at this point were only serving coffee and pre-packaged snacks. The ship sat dozens, but our group was just ten people.

If Iceland were someone’s webpage it’d be topped with Under Construction gifs. “It’s the place, I hear,” texted a friend of mine last week, and he’s right. Outside of my conference friends I know six people who’ve gone in the last year or are going within the next. It’s cheap to get to. You can fly there direct from Boston, California, DC, NY, Miami, Chicago, and even Pittsburgh, where a roundtrip ticket flying out this week will cost you just $560.

That’s not counting seat selection or bags. Or water or snacks. Or your hotel room. Or food and water in Iceland, where nary a water fountain is to be found in this country that prides itself on its unimpeachable drinking water. It’s a smart tourism model: make it dirt cheap to get to and then charge an arm and a leg for everything you possibly can once they’re there. We never ate out in Iceland after having done so much of it so well in London and Paris, but footlong subs at Subway cost us $15 each.

But this isn’t anything new. Tómas, our walking tour guide, born in Chicago but raised his whole life in Reykjavik, told us that, growing up, his family would eat out maybe twice a year. It was always too expensive. Everything imported. Locals, he said, eat at Subway, or Domino’s, if they aren’t cooking at home. No one eats shark, or puffin, the “local delicacies” advertised at restaurants. Their numbers are dwindling, puffins, owing to climate change and unsustainable hunting. Add foodie tourists to the mix, and they could be gone pretty soon.

III.
I’d never been before to a place where most people had never been before. Everyone’s been to London and Paris. Everyone’s been to Denver. The effect of being in Iceland was like being on some frontier. I felt very lucky. Even at the Blue Lagoon, which maybe you’ve heard of, which is filled with the wastewater of a nearby geothermal power plant built in 1976, making it about a natural as a corn maze, I felt like Neal and I had discovered something private and magical.

Is this the draw of outdoorsy vacationing? Usually we’re in cities paying extra for the audiotour. It takes a lot out of you. Or me, at least. Day two of being home and I’m on antibiotics and a bland diet to combat the six days of severe GI distress I’ve been fist-clenching my way through. Neal, though, is fine. Blame me, not Iceland.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-06-10  ::  dave

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