29 May, 2020

Too Much TV for Me


Having been locked down (or not, if you use the prison's questionable terminology) for a month and a half, I'm suffering a variety of the quarantine fatigue that has most of the rest of America uneasy, and, again, like most of the rest of America, I've been seeking at least some relief in the form of television.

I haven't quite decided how to feel about this. I grew up in a household that generally considered TV a last refuge. As if to prove how low-priority we considered televised entertainment, our one TV set was small and janky, a portable black-and-white model with a clothes hanger for an antenna. And of course we didn't have cable. You could make the argument that a child of the '80s raised in a home without MTV is no true child of the '80s. My childhood was atypical in a lot of ways; not being glued to the tube was a very minor one.

Today, bingeing entire seasons, or even whole series, in a few days, carries more than the whiff of a guilty pleasure. I try to convince myself that there's only so much a shut-in can read, but I have a hell of a time trying to truly convince myself of that. My critical mind can be a real hardass. Throughout this quarantine, whenever I turn on the TV, it's said, You could draw instead, or write some e-mails, or reorganize your footlocker, or, basically, do anything else at all. I don't always listen, but the criticism creeps to the back of my mind and stays there.

There are videos online (I see clips on TV) of ordinary people in their homes, getting creative in occasionally stunning ways. Admittedly, my options are a bit more limited than your average joe's. In prison, raw material is generally contraband, and is in short supply. So is range of movement. I'm sure that I'd innovate the shit out of some things if I had a kitchen, workshop, garage, or parking lot or backyard at my disposal. I'm not an uncreative sort. But is this just an excuse to rewatch Tim Burton's Batman, or to check out an episode of Ru Paul's Drag Race on a lazy weeknight?

In Season Three of The Americans [spoiler alert!] Martha's exfiltrated to Moscow after the FBI learns her secret, Pastor Tim and Alice learn about Philip and Elizabeth being deep-cover KGB officers, the Centre demands delivery of a horrific virus, and even though I watched this amazing Soviet-era drama years ago, with bated breath, seeing it again now feels fresh and even richer, somehow, than during the first go-round. I don't feel a shred of guilt for squandering time by watching it. Does not feeling guilty mean it's not a waste? I'll think about it later. The next tense episode is calling my name.

22 May, 2020

A Word on Words


There's an apparent paradox in writing. To write effectively, you have to intimately know the limitations of the craft, understand that your words will never, ever equal the experience behind them.

Novelist John Updike summed this up perfectly when he observed, "Language is intrinsically approximate, since words mean different things to different people, and there is no material retaining ground for the imagery that words conjure in one brain or another."

We all have different minds, operating under different perspectives, with different biases, filtering everything through different processes of thought. My "little red wagon" is different from your "little red wagon," and that's okay — provided you understand that writing "little red wagon" isn't going to amount to your reader picturing the same old-school Radio Flyer you had as a kid, with its missing plastic hubcap and rusty scrape across the lip in the rear. That little red wagon is forever trapped in your mind.

Remember Paul Cezanne, the French painter? He did this famous image:


Translated into English, the text says, "This is not a pipe." And of course it isn't; it's an image of a pipe. No big deal, right? But to put this idea out there, right at the turn of the twentieth century, was borderline audacious, like pointing out the emperor's nakedness. It wasn't so much the idea of representations being distinct from reality (which was pretty obvious, once everyone thought about it), as Cezanne's writing it on a canvas and hanging it on a gallery wall.

Today, one and a quarter centuries later, Cezanne's non-pipe is still not a pipe. So too with your memory of a little red wagon. It's just the memory of a little red wagon — not the wagon itself, but a firing of electrical impulses in the brain that conjures up your idea of "little red wagon."

Here's a fun fact: every time you remember something, you're actually only remembering the last time you remembered that thing. The only time you remember a person or event accurately is the very first time. After that, you're building a mirage of a mirage. It's like playing a game of Telephone with yourself — always a little less accurate than the time before.

It's similar with words. Words aren't really things, they're concepts. They point to ideas about things, they don't represent those things. Conjuring representations is the work of yet another mental process, related to language but not part of language.

What I'm talking about here seems very Zen. Again and again, the teachings of Buddhism refer to nonexistence. Things are not things, says the Diamond Sutra. Things are made up, exclusively, of non-things. Vietnameze Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn often used the example of a flower, which is "made only of non-flower elements." Water is not a flower, but a flower is made up, in large part, of water. Ditto carbon. And minerals. Even an atom is not an atom. The finger pointing to the moon is not the way.

Zen teachings make frequent references to what's called buddha-nature (i.e., absolute reality). These teachings hold that reality's true nature is indescribable, since to describe it depends on the existence of a perceiver who exists apart from reality, rather than part of it, which, no matter how much we regard ourselves as separate from it, we are. Not to delve too deep into this, but it seemed like a fitting parallel to draw.

So, if any idea we put into words is doomed to fall short, then why bother writing? I ask myself this question a lot, especially since the apparent breakdown of temporal reality under quarantine. Stimulation for the creative mind is difficult to come by, here in this concrete box with the partial view of a parking lot, a narrow rectangle of sky, and some patchy grass. The closest thing to exotic scenery I get is watching Ancient Aliens on mute.

Coming up with material for writing projects is trickier than usual right now. Reporting only my day-to-day activities, the bread and butter of every lazy letter-writer, is out of the question, unless I decide to relay ridiculous conversations my cellmate and I have, or tell you about the giant hairball I found rolling around the floor at work. Trust me, blog posts about that stuff would get old really quickly.

The reason that I write is the same reason that Zen teachers say they practice: because it's what one does. If you're a practitioner of Zen, you practice; if you're a writer, you write. You just do. I don't know if this means that I'm enlightened or just some doofus who's stuck doing the thing he does because he can't be bothered to conceive of worthwhile alternatives. For whatever it's worth, I continue putting my words out there, hoping that one or two of them resonate with you, and that they, for however brief an instant, draw a direct line between my thoughts and yours. Maybe our little red wagons will even turn out to be similar.

18 May, 2020

Synopsis-Writer's Cramp


There are a lot of things you don’t think about while writing a novel — the number of snow leopards still alive in the wild, what your face was before your parents were born, what Nickelodeon slime is made out of.... As a writer, hard at work on a novel, when you do inevitably dream about crossing the finish line, polishing that last little rough spot out of your manuscript, your mind might conjure book signings, readings, or receiving a lucrative advance, but I guarantee that no one in the history of ever thinks, "How am I going to write this book's synopsis?"

For those who don't know, the synopsis is a punchy summary of the book's plot, beginning to end, that's essential for finding a literary agent and courting potential publishers. It's not as easy as it sounds. In fact, as I just spent a couple of days learning, it's what ten-hour tension headaches are made of.

My novel clocks in at just under 110,000 words. (It took eight years to write, which is very different than saying that I worked on it for eight years.) It features ten narrators and scores of ancillary characters. It features text-message bubbles in one part, Arabic text in another. How could I possibly distill its fine-wrought plot, replete with echoes, overlappings, and allusions, to a few hundred words? The literary snob in me cried foul.

I did it, though. I hacked and I whittled, and, like a sculptor who just keeps chipping away at the stone until the artwork within is exposed, after a couple of days, I have a two-page synopsis that's coherent, free of adverbs, and, I hope, fascinating enough to attract a literary agent. Now I send it off and find something else to occupy my mind for three months while waiting for a response.