Thursday, December 21, 2006

On Writing

Many writers, such as Stephen King, advise that you should have a set time for writing--writing should be treated no differently than office work, with a time to punch in and a quota of pages for the day. And though there is certainly wisdom in that for many writers, for the creation of something from nothing takes a tremendous amount of discipline which often times can only be gained through a strict daily quota, the disadvantage for me at least is that the writing I do on such a schedule feels forced. It's the literary equivalent of pushing the square peg through the round hole.

So when I came across this piece by one of my favorite writers, M. John Harrison, a very naturalistic writer who is able to turn the details of the mundane and turn them into the surreal, the transcendent, or the disturbing, I felt relieved to see that one can be a successful writer while being guided by impulse rather than routine.

How I Write by M. John Harrison

Because I have no memory I’m forced to collect the things that interest me--landscapes, scenes out of other people’s lives, bits of overheard dialogue--in a notebook. I used to pride myself on using any notebook that came to hand, especially if it had a nice puppy or some flowers on the cover. But you end up like everyone else, using the Moleskines with the little squares despite the enduring shame.

Everything goes into the computer. It spends several years inside, like a character from Nova Swing, shifting location, attempting escape, undergoing recombination, transformation, cannibalism, verdigris, duplication, interrogation, prolapse. I rake through the files most days, looking for connections. Eventually even the gnarliest and most idiolectic bits and pieces give up what they know. Light, written in 2001, begins with a barely-modified note, including verbatim quotes, scribbled down in 1994 during an academic dinner in Leicester.

The notebook stage is the last time anything of mine sees paper until publication. I like to do lots of operations. Fountain pens and refurbished 1930 Underwood portables don’t cut it; digital management is the appropriate choice. Have you ever noticed how every male novelist you meet at a literary festival wears a linen jacket and is called Tim ? Tim prefers an antique Watermans, maybe his dad owned it. It keeps him pure and returns him to the sinewy prose of the giants who came before us all.

I don’t have any writing pattern. I hate being professional. I don’t write according to a schedule or an output plan; I don’t begin at the beginning and write to the end. Or rather: if I do any of those things I usually have to bin the results. Writing should be fun--absorbing, transporting, intense, whatever. It should ambush you. It should be up there with sex, drugs and irresponsible driving. It shouldn’t have anything to do with research or require a degree in finding out about lipstick colours in 1943. I can’t do it if I’m bored or depressed or feeling unconfident. Once it’s working, I can write anywhere--I’ve done stuff while hanging off an abseil rope on a sea cliff or a highrise building--but not under any conditions. If I’m sitting at my desk I hate to be cold, I hate anyone’s noise except my own. But I like working on a train.

I write to find out why I’m writing what I’m writing. I like to write from life, as in Climbers, but I like imaginative fiction too. Imagination is nonlinear, dynamical, not subject to reduction. I could never pitch an idea to Hollywood--if you can write it as a synoptic sentence why bother to write it as anything else ? Neither am I impressed by the myth of a prose transparent to some meaning which exists independent of it. However much of a record it pretends to be, what goes into my notebooks is already a fabrication. Good thing too.

Copyright Time Out 2006

Sunday, December 17, 2006

4:35 AM

A feeling that something was fundamentally wrong with this life had kept me awake. I had attempted to fall asleep, but ended up just lying in bed with my eyes closed and that restlessness in my heart. And so, unlike many of the past nights, I turned on a lamp at 4:30 in the morning, took a long shower, and decided to go out.

I drove down to Westwood and went to the only place that was open this late or this early, a mediocre chain deli that, in the emptiness of the streets, was lit like home.

Walking the block from my car to the deli, I could see my breath. The sky was still a deep black and the streets were still awash in the orange glow of streetlights, and the world was silent just for a while. This would be a good photograph, I thought to myself, a solitary figure in leather jacket, jeans, hunched in the cold, hands in pockets framed by the night and streetlights.

A tired, young waitress showed me to my table and asked if I wanted coffee. I smiled at her, both of us recognizing how tired we were, and held the look for a while. I said yes in that smokey morning voice, and within seconds, got my coffee.

There were about seven other customers in the deli. The four sitting behind me were young men who looked like they had been out clubbing, but were earnestly discussing the change of film and technology. A couple of booths further back, a lone man in his late forties with a shag of a hairstyle and a sweatshirt too young for him sat with an unassuming grin. I realized that it was the actor who played Cameron in Ferris Bueller's day off.

The man sitting in the booth next to me was in his late fifties, with a lean, haggard face full of grey stubble, wearing cheap glasses. He had a notepad that I caught a glimpse of, full of strange, hand drawn diagrams. The other customer also gave off that feeling of quiet madness, grey hair in a moptop, dingy t-shirt over sweats.

I ordered a meal that was too filling, and took me time between bites and reading a magazine that was two weeks outdated. And so I took it all in, the earnestness, the madmen, the insomniacs.

And I thought about you, though I don't know who you are. I may not have met you yet, and there you are, slumbering by yourself, or with someone else, our paths not having crossed yet. Or maybe I have met you already, neither of us realizing the full significance of the things we have said and the looks that we've shared. I thought about waking up next to you, both of us unable to sleep, our hearts restless not because there was fundamentally wrong with this life but because everything was right with it. And so we would go down to mediocre chain deli that, in the emptiness of the streets, was lit like home. We would walk down the early morning street, arm in arm, hunched over, leaning on each other, looking like the companion piece to "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" album cover. We would sit across from each other, smile, talk in our smokey morning voices.

By the time I finished my meal, the facade of the stores across the street had turned from the orange of streetlamps to the faded blue-white of the morning. I walked out, and saw my breath. This would be a good photograph, I thought to myself, the back of a solitary figure in leather jacket, jeans, hunched in the cold, hands in pockets framed by the grey morning light.

And I drove home, and now the day has fully broken. My heart is still restless, but I am calm for now. And I will sleep for a little bit, and wonder when our paths will cross.

"Driving so slow
Streets are empty as we go
Back over the canal
We've all had a long day and we're going home

We all got big tears in our sides
And the city salt doesn't help
But it sure cleans them out

In little coffee shops
And litte sidewalk cops
We're the only ones awake
We're the only ones that can't stop

Driving,so slow
Streets are empty as we go " -- Gemma Hayes, "4:35 AM"

Friday, December 15, 2006

Arc D'X

Let's call this an homage to Steve Erickson without reading too much more into this, shall we?

"If Etcher inherited both his father's brooding fatalism and kindness of heart, he resisted the lessons of life that teach one to be harder. In some ways Etcher taught himself to be softer. And in defiance of life's lessons that teach one to dim the light in oneself and fight the dark, Etcher intended to do neither. He hated the resignation that life insisted on." Steve Erickson, Arc D'X

And Jack says, what has kept me away from her is not a sense of awkwardness, but a sense of violation.

I will admit that I saw significance in the smallest of things, the direction of seagulls riding the thermals, or the confluence of a breeze and song playing distantly from a radio. I have sought significance in the smallest of things to fight against a rising nihilism. The intensity of my sight and of my gaze and of my heart, if given direction toward that nihilism, that void, would consume me. And so I set that intensity upon finding meaning where perhaps there is no meaning at all.

I have kept this silent from my friends, the import of Audrey's gaze on a random night. There is as much significance in her look as the breeze and the song, they would say, which is to say none at all. And knowing what they know of me, they would be secure in their certainty that they were right.

Had I only my own observations to rely upon, untrustworthy as they are, I would agree. But there was a precedent, another witness at another time, as binding to the heart as it was to reality.

Three years ago, during an unusually hot May Sunday, the heat arriving so quickly it struck Los Angeles into a stupor, there was a woman named Rose. Her eyes were as a warm brown as Audrey's were sea green. We had known each other for a year, became close friends. And after an afternoon at the Grove, we had retreated to my flat and its weak air conditioner.

We had lain facing each other, letting conversation slip away until there was just the hum of the refrigerator and the air conditioner, just looking at each other. As time passed and nothing more was said, the import of our mutual gaze became heavy and tangible. There was no significance to be had, no meaning to be found in any words that we had said previously. The only significance were her eyes and my eyes as reflections of everything unspoken. The night would end with tangled sheets and legs.

There would be later betrayals that would throw us apart and that would render whatever meaning we had created into nothing. Time would pass, and I would keep that nihilism at bay with the distractions of relationships that would have no meaning so that I would not spend my energy looking for one.

And then I met Audrey. She was nothing like Rose. Her eyes were sea green as Rose's were a warm brown. She was younger but at the same time was more mature. A friendship grew. I have no explanation as to why I had begun to seek meaning again, and yet I was. I had stumbled in the beginning, and it had begun to feel as if I were trying to prop a door open for the next three months.

On a cool winter's night, during a gathering of friends, I had decided to find out whether I should enter through the door or slam it shut. I had quietly broken her away from the the group, and awkwardly and sincerely expressed what I had been feeling. And had her words carried the only meaning, it would have ended there.

But yet, there is significance in silence and in the gaze, as precedent proves. After Audrey said that there was someone else in her heart, though she was disappointed that he did not show up, we stood facing each other, letting conversation slip away until there was just the din of the convesations of others, just looking at each other. As time passed and nothing more was said, the import of our mutual gaze became heavy and tangible. I had a shock of realization that Audrey's gaze was the same one as Rose's.

The night did not end in a tangle of sheets and legs. Instead, the next night, I received a message from Audrey requesting me to respect the relationship she had with someone who had made the minor betrayal of being absent last night, of attributing the night to inebriation. She had ended the message with what was meant to be a reassurance, that there was no awkwardness on her side.

I had responded by assuring her that I would respect her relationship, but through no fault of her own, I would feel awkward. To feel how I did, to know that gaze, it was impossible for me not to, although this latter remain unwritten. This was a farewell.

Afterwards, I realized that awkward was an inapt term. The mutuality of that gaze, the reflection of each other's desire, was heavy and tangible. It was not the breeze and the song. And for something so laden with import to be tossed aside, or even worse, to be truly temporary, as transient as a breeze, felt like a betrayal. The betrayal was not Audrey's, but of reality. It felt like a violation.

And now that intensity, that mutually recognized desire, exists solely in me, and ignored in Audrey, given direction toward that nihilism.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


"Happiness is a dark thing to pursue . . . and the pursuit itself is a dark thing as well." Arc D'X, Steve Erickson

"I want to reach my hand into the dark and feel what reaches back." "Want," Recoil

An observer looking in at 9:30 p.m. on a certain weekday night at the random Los Angeles bar would have seen a man and a woman, slightly apart from a gathering, at their own table, gazing intently at each other. The lighting is a dim yellow that will make any memories of this scene sepia-toned and amber-like.

The man and the woman have been staring at each other, not saying a word, for longer than should be comfortable for casual acquintances. As nothing is said and more time passes, there is a palpable feeling that something is changing. It's akin to that sudden drop in pressure, the wind rising just before a storm. By all accounts, the observer would have every right to believe that something is happening, a shift in the relationship between the two.

There should be an import to this scene. There should be a significance.

There should, but there isn't.

We shift perspective. The man knows this gaze. He knows this gaze because he has seen this gaze before, and it comes as a shock. He has seen this gaze because, a long time ago, a woman he loved gave him this gaze at the beginning of the relationship. That old love has gone. The same gaze is here with this woman. He had nearly given up on this woman.

If the world did not move on, perhaps there would be some significance. But the world does move on. Context and sobriety fill in the day. The next day, the woman will tell the man he is mistaken. There is no import.

There are the usual platitudes that the man will tell himself. These platitudes will not stop the insomnia. They will not stop the sense of disappointment so palpable it leaves him physically stunned.

The night will come, and then the false dawn. It will be a long passage.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Running Up That Hill

"It doesn't hurt me.
Do you want to feel how it feels?
Do you want to know, know that it doesn't hurt me?
Do you want to hear about the deal that I'm making?
You, it's you and me. " -- Kate Bush, "Running Up That Hill"

Jack returned home around three in the morning, his shirt damp and smelling of cigarettes, whiskey and stale cologne. He switched on a a single lamp on the first floor, leaving only a small area of yellowed light barely illuminating his coffee table and half his sofa. The rest of his loft was still encased in shadows and moonlight.

He untucked his shirt, unbuttoned the cuffs, but otherwise left his clothing on except for his shoes which he had kicked off when he walked through the door. He went to his kitchen and opened the window, letting the cool Santa Ana winds rip by and chill his skin through his shirt. Then, as he did every night, he opened his fridge and pulled out a blue water bottle. He went to the kitchen counter, twisted the cap of a small plastic bottle, and shook a chalky, hexagonal pill onto his hand.

About a month ago, Jack had switched to taking the SSRI at night. The sudden extra serotonin available to his mind had left him detached and tired during the day, so he realized that he could use the SSRI as a sleep supplement as well as a equalizer if he took it in the evening instead.

Jack placed the pill on his tongue, and then took long, deep pulls from the cold water bottle. He placed the bottle back in the fridge and stood in front of the window, letting the moonlight pour over him.

Each of these actions were slow and deliberate. Jack had taken to imagining everything from a third person perspective, every move a scene in a mental film, a photograph. His actions would exhibit a slow, unassuming manner. If a neighbor across the street had looked at Jack's loft, he was see a silhouette, hands in pocket, framed by bone white moonlight and a dim paper yellow backlight.

This narrative was an exercise in detachment, a complement to the pills and the therapy and the alcohol and the cigarettes. For the past month, he felt anything but detached. Even with the SSRI, he had failed to sleep more than three hours a night. His mind had turned into a mobius strip of circular thoughts of disappointments and frustration. His heart was a pronouncement of broken sighs.

Jack had gone out tonight in an attempt to distract himself. This was the Boys are Back in Town Scenario, walking with his friends in a confident swagger. Buy the Betties drinks, chat them up, play the role of Lothario in a leather jacket and hope those slender legs are wrapped around the waist by the end of the night.

And for a while, Jack had played that role admirably, nodding his head to the giggles of the student/bartender/actress of a brunette that sat across from him. But inevitably, there were lulls--pauses while waiting to buy drinks, or the minute to take a piss, or the inevitable awkward silences--that allowed reflection to break through.

As reflection broke through, so did Jack's inherent intensity. It was not enough to randomly fuck some woman he'd be relieved at not hearing from ever again. There was something in his totality, a compulsion, an obsession, that propelled him to find deeper meaning in everything. There was something in him that conflated deeper meaning with emotion, so that all of Jack's actions were governed by a need for passion.

He would imagine, during these times of reflection, that the rules of perception fundamentally shifted, suddenly allowing everyone to see emotions. In that instant of change, Jack would flare into a brilliant red aura that would suffuse the bar.

But reality was not so accomodating. That swell he felt in his chest, that thunder in his heart that he had begun to feel with only a certain someone, could not change the brush offs, the unreturned calls. That the cascade of emotions were not fundamental rules underlying reality, that longing that felt so certain was not a fourth law of thermodynamics, was beginning to lead Jack to a nihilism of which he did not want to enter.

And so, like every instance he had gone out the past three months, Jack would detach himself. He would be cordial for the rest of the night. He would drive himself home along the empty Los Angeles streets, lit only by the orange streetlights and the blue of his car's dashboard.

He would walk slowly, deliberately into his loft and take his pills.

But tonight, the Santa Ana winds had blown away the smog, leaving the night sky clear so that the stars shown. And Jack, standing at his kitchen window, illuminated by moonlight, looked up at Orion, and let himself hope for a world in which longing was just as tangible a force as thermals beneath a bird's wings.

"C'mon, baby, c'mon darling,
Let me steal this moment from you now.
C'mon, angel, c'mon, c'mon, darling,
Let's exchange the experience, oh...

And if I only could,
I'd make a deal with God,
And I'd get him to swap our places,
Be running up that road,
Be running up that hill,
With no problems."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

How Can You Be Sure

"The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death." -- Pearl Buck

During a recent drunken outing, a comrade of mine proclaimed to me, "You know, she's not who you think she is. Just give it up. You're no good for her and she's no good for you." I ignored this the best that I could since the only perspectives that matter in this situation are mine and hers. And as for who I thought she was, I thought she was kind, quirky, inquisitive and certainly not the stereotypical Angeleno fluffchick whose brushoff I couldn't give two shits about. I thought she was a friend.

At the risk of sounding fatalistic, it appears that my comrade was right. Although I viewed her as a friend, apparently I'm no different to her than some random who asked for her number at a club instead of someone whose gotten to know her for the past few months.

Yeah, I do know that brushoffs are an inherent, intrinsic part of social life. I might as well be railing against getting wet in the rain. And yeah, I do hear that rational voice in my head sounding so mother-like saying, "Gosh, if she treats you like that, why would you want her to be your friend."

Rationality is all well and good, but unfortunately, it doesn't stop the insomnia, the disappointment, that bit of heartache. Knowing that the pharmacology of these reactions can be put down to an sudden, short term decrease in serotonin that no amount of paxil can remedy doesn't get rid of this feeling of sadness.

The thing is, if she were just some random chick I met at a club or on-line, it wouldn't affect me like this. In fact, more often than not, I would've been relieved at the brush off, which in this case was a begged off get together followed by an unreturned call.

But instead, for some reason, I started building up expectations with this one. I know I stumbled with the friendship early on, but I thought it was a friendship. Now though, I know where I stand with her, which is to say I don't stand anywhere with her.

It's a blow, to realize that you really don't mean anything to someone who you liked. It brings you down, it makes you feel worthless, less of a person than you are. A Certain Someone before her had already made me feel worthless for two years. It's not something I want to repeat.

I realize that most people are able to brush off the brushoffs easily, shed off their disappointments like wet clothing. But for me, well, I can't help feeling the accumulation of disappointments. It's a sad Pavlovian response by now--every time I felt that flicker of potential, I get crushed. And this, this just reinforces it.

"When I'm like this how can you be smiling
how can you be sure?
(I don't want you anymore)
How can you be sure?
(I don't want you anymore)
How can you be sure?
(I don't want you anymore)
How can you be sure?" -- Radiohead