The chemical composition of sleep

I just submitted a piece to the Narrative Magazine 30 Below contest, but I’m not expecting anything. This was a good opportunity to complete and send out a piece of work (read: draft it weeks ago, write it in the two hours before the deadline). I’m thinking about writing a piece about the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Those are both interesting events in the context of my life. I was five when the wall came down and seven when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Somehow, neither of those things seemed important until a year ago, when I took a course on Soviet history at Cal. All of a sudden, I realized what had happened and what I had been so oblivious of throughout my life. Having an awareness of my personal history through the lens of world history is a strange thing.

I just read an amazing story by Tom Barbash in Narrative Backstage (3 month premium subscription that I got with the $20 submission fee for the 30 Below contest). I would recommend that you read it, but you can’t, because it is only on Narrative. I hope it is published in the non-premium section soon, because that story deserves to be read by more people. Barbash is a guy who makes everything seem so effortless, which is a constant source of amazement for me as a writer.

The story, called “The Women,” is about a father and son. They are in a state of shock following the death of the narrator’s mother. Well, the narrator is in shock. His father immediately begins to be attacked by throngs of women because he is suddenly an eligible bachelor. I should mention that the narration is in the first person from the POV of the son, who is a recent college graduate. There’s also a girl, a view, and some extraordinary sleight of hand. I think I loved the story because I can relate to the narrator, but I can also relate to the girl, and that is the strength of the structure and narration. I need to pick up more of Barbash’s work, and I recommend the story to you if you can find it anywhere online, which I highly doubt at this point. Again, it’s called “The Women.”

I must go to sleep because two of my friends are currently on the way here from Berkeley, and they will be here in less than three hours, which leaves me with very little time to sleep. So long.

Little Running Water

It is closing time – the music has been turned off. One of the girls has been sick and does not look any happier today. I sit at a table in silence and consider my options, which are few and far between. Today, a fortune cookie in a suburban fast-food diner told me to have patience. Afterwards, I went to work and watched two of my students struggle with subject verb agreement. One asked me to help him get into Stanford. The best I could tell him was not to lie, to not make himself look worldly by saying he reads The New York Times and The LA Times, and also enjoys catching up with the BBC World Service. The BBC World Service, in particular, seems to give off an air of pretentiousness that only the “also enjoy catching up with” phrase is able to match.

I go home. I feel like a fraud. I call eight of my old friends and only two answer or call back. One wants to apologize for lying to my ex girlfriend about why I broke up with her. Two years later, and she has yet to forgive me for his lie. Another tells me he’s dating a girl eleven years his junior. I instinctively ask if she’s one of his students, but I know I am out of bounds immediately. He’s heard that question dozens of times and she’s about to meet his parents in Memphis. I hang up.

We mention fate again, just to hear the way it rolls off the tongue. I don’t really know what fate means, but if it means what X told me while I was crying at a bus stop in June, that if you only have three true loves in a lifetime, and you might have to wait a while, then patience is the key to everything. Patience and quick thinking and a way with words.

Writing as vocation, not entertainment

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve come face to face with what it is I am doing. Because I’m not in an MFA program and I don’t have any deadlines, the act of writing has to be one of voluntary immersion, not forced acceptance. There’s a great pleasure in the realization that this is my work, and that I cannot excuse myself from it. If I want to be a writer, I have to write. Like many people, I think I believed that I was a writer, but I never acknowledged it to myself in a self-affirming way. I didn’t think of it as a job. The importance of placing writing on a level with work places it in a position of power. I’m not just a guy who writes; I’m a writer.

That said, I’ve been spectacularly failing myself. I’ve done some work, but it hasn’t been enough to achieve what I’ve wanted. I keep reading really bad pieces in respectable publications like The Kenyon Review and Narrative, and I think to myself that I can do better, but I haven’t done anything. I haven’t sent out submissions since January. At some point in time, I’m going to have to actually do something. No one likes a critic who can’t back himself up.

I’ve been noticing that I can differentiate writers who have been writing for decades between those who’ve been writing for a much shorter time. I read an article somewhere recently (can’t remember who wrote it or where it was) that discussed the style of writing intrinsic to younger writers. Younger writers, this writer said, were only concerned with the self – there was no description of scene or setting. He said that young writers were writing about their feelings instead of what they saw, about how they felt instead of what made them feel. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially, he said that there’s an enormous preoccupation with the self that has become clearer recently. To me, this is most evident in Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation.” It is also clear in Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” but Eggers work is, in actuality, a piece of genius, while Wurtzel makes me laugh.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too many good writers lately, because everything I read in publications just seems horrible. There are too many people who are writing, and frankly, I can’t see how they are chosen for prizes and publication. It’s like they’re playing at being writers, but only doing it halfway, so that the end result is a story that gives only half of what it should. I’m instantly bored with most writers under the age of thirty, which makes me sad because I should be supporting them, but I just can’t handle their work.

Here’s a good example of a story that was literally painful to read: Shark, by Rachel Yoder, which was published in The Kenyon Review. Does she actually need to punch us in the face with the fact that the narrator is discovering his homosexuality? There’s an enormous lack of subtlety in that story, and it grated on me.

That’s all I got for now.

Revision

Revision has become a code word for reorganization. It’s no longer enough to rewrite a few sentences; I need to revise whole paragraphs and place them in some semblance of order. It’s not easy. I don’t remember how I wrote essays last year. Seems like all I did was put them together on the fly, with no restructuring until after workshop. Now I have to do something different. I actually have to get to the point where I work towards a goal. What I told my students was that everything in their essay has to relate. The goal here is the same: to stop the tangential references, to move forward.

The weekend is full of anger

The weekend is full of anger: anger at the people who decide what must be eaten and what must be said; anger at those who speak but do not listen; anger at those who follow the speaking with mild condescension, smirks, and outright laughter.

The weekend is full of memories: people come back from the dead time bridging the past and the present. We eat ribs and drink coffee and heckle the waiters. She looks at one with such intensity that I am surprised he doesn’t notice. Her stare takes him completely. He’s married. I become curious.

I remember a man’s daughter, three years my senior, who fell off a horse and got trampled. She’s here, in the city. From what he said, she hasn’t grown. I’ve grown. He hardly recognizes me.

The weekend is full of hope: I start to believe in fate, only to reconsider a few moments later. I rationalize it by thinking that I did not want to go. I wonder if it would make sense for someone to believe in fate for themselves, but not for others. I start to think that it doesn’t work that way.

Books of my life

There have been few books that have truly impacted me. Sure, there are the usual suspects like “Beloved,” “Heart of Darkness,” and “Lolita;” those are books everyone seems to love and quote from endlessly, but my list is much shorter. I guess I will start in chronological order, with the earliest first. I’ll also separate the list into Fiction/Nonfiction/Poetry.

Fiction

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (first read ~1999)

In all honesty, I need to reread this novel. I think I read it at least ten years ago, if not more, and I can hardly remember it. What I do remember is Marquez’ use of magical realism, which I believe to be one of the finest literary modes in use. Magical realism has come to define the way I view writing, and in some ways, the way I view living as well. Marquez was the first writer to challenge and inspire me. Reading this novel was like being taken into a room and battered with ideas for 468 pages.

Blindness – Jose Saramago (first read 2002)

I read this novel six times. I was a senior in high school and Blindness was assigned by our AP Lit teacher. After I read this, my friend B and I had to do a project discussing Saramago’s work through the lens of formalism. For some reason, we wrote our paper in six hours, the day before we were supposed to present it. We ended up getting a D. We had a good laugh about that recently. The novel itself astonished me for its inventive structure and the cast of characters Saramago employs. There’s not much to say about it in terms of plot, except for the fact that everyone in the world suddenly goes blind, with the exception of a woman. Characters are known by descriptive apellations (the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the girl with dark glasses). Some of the most visceral scenes take place in a mental asylum, inside which the blind have been quarantined. The novel is an examination of social breakdown and a possible allegory for the human condition. The ending will prove whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. I think this novel influenced me most of all through Saramago’s style, which mimics blindness and defies standard literary conventions by avoiding dialogic quotation marks and proper sentence structure.

Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov (first read 2008)

One of my picks for the top ten novels of the 20th century, Nabokov’s Pale Fire is absolutely worth the time spent arduously trying to get through the first half of the book. If you know Nabokov’s style, the novel is full of laughs. Everything is a joke played on the reader. I for one, love this, because it drives me to figure out what is going on. This novel is a perfect example of fantastic structure and slow plot reveals. Kinbote, the “narrator,” if I may call him that, is farcical to the extreme. His notes on specific lines (the novel purports to be an analysis of a poem) become flat-out digressions which have little or nothing to do with the lines they are referencing. I read Pale Fire the night of the final for my Nabokov class, in about six hours. Hell of a ride.

Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee (first read 2009)

Simply stated, this is the best novel I have ever read. Focusing on justice/animal rights/rape/post-apartheid South Africa, Coetzee manages to show one man’s fall from relative grace and his struggle for redemption. This novel is an exercise in understanding and accepting futility. I want to say that, once again, the ending will prove whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. This is one of the fastest reads you’ll likely encounter, because Coetzee’s language is pared down to almost nothing.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood (first read 2009)

I’ve already talked about this book at length, so I’ll just say that Atwood is a genius and leave it at that.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami (first read 2009)

In my opinion, this is Murakami’s best novel. A mixture of science fiction, hardboiled noir, romance, and philosophy, Murakami will make you question the meaning of your life. There’s also an amazing statement on immortality, which is encompassed within an eternal subdivision of time.

Nonfiction

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers (first read 2004)

What else did you think would be on this list? Eggers’ memoir gave me hope for being a writer. I think I unconsciously try to emulate his bold style. With the exception of the MTV scenes, this memoir is incredible. It’s both an examination of Eggers’ life after the death of his parents, and an ironic statement on the art of self-referential writing.

Poetry

Autobiography of Red – Anne Carson (first read 2004)

This is an updated retelling of the myth of Geryon, a monster slain by Herakles as part of his Ten Labors. This doesn’t really qualify as a pure work of poetry, because it is a novel in verse. It puts Geryon into the modern day body of a young man who falls in love with Herakles, but is later betrayed by him. Geryon loves photography and has red wings and travels to Argentina and sits in cafes watching tango dancers. Highly recommended.

A city to come home to

St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, St. Petersburg, Peter. In my mind, the present iteration for the city of my birth is “Absent European.” The city, built on the backs and bones of thirty thousand men, brought Russia into the age of modernity, but it is absent. It is absent from my memory, absent from my grasp, and there is an absence of hope of return to the city of my life.
The duty of every Russian writer must be to write about St. Petersburg, for the greatest have done so: Gogol, Bely, Brodsky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov. I follow in the footsteps of giants, traversing Nevsky Prospect, laboring over these rectilinear streets, these canals that contain the bones of thousands.
As a child, I chose a school in the center of the city over the one I could see out my bedroom window. Each morning, one of my parents took my sister and me on the hour long commute to the city center by subway and tram; crushed between absent-minded men and women heading to work, we emerged from the metro station on Nevsky to the voices of street peddlers.

The MFA application season is upon us

Time is going by so fast. I just graduated, god damn it. It hasn’t been nearly six months. Today, Seth posted a new post on the MFA Blog about where people are applying, which prompted me to think back towards what I was doing this time last year.

All I remember is the Honors Thesis class, and the brutal workload of taking six classes, being in class for 23 hours each week. My relationship was dead. We barely saw each other. I learned how to think. I impressed people with my writing. Bharati Mukherjee provided excellent commentary on my essays and treated our class like professionals. That was refreshing. I made progress. Some weeks I only saw J once in seven days. I wasn’t yet starving. I wasn’t yet alone.

Etcetera

My father returns from Russia today. He’s been gone since June 20th. I hope things improve, but I’m not sure how that will happen. Apparently, he’s been receiving more messages about work here in LA, so if all goes well, we’ll be working on a production within the next three or four months. My tutoring hours have been steadily dwindling, partly because the students are lazy and don’t show up. I’ll get new students next week, and I’m also doing more work with an individual student on his application essays.

Still working on that essay for the Narrative submission. The going is tough.