Inspiration from My Dog’s Life — #2: Place

“Reading is probably another way of being in a place.” — Jose Saramago

2000-year-old wall in Rome

2000-year-old wall in Rome

I find it is always important to step away from the writing. Especially when it’s a long work, and I’ve been worrying it to death for weeks and months on end. But there is stepping away — as in putting it in that proverbial drawer and forgetting about it — and there is stepping away. Just taking a breather from the screen, or the notebook, for awhile is an important part of the writing process. Yes, it is part of the process. I like to physically remove myself by hiking. I wrote about my dog Buddy in my last (so long ago) post. He’s a listener. Which makes him the perfect companion when I hike.

We hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a great place to unchain myself from the physical act of writing. Buddy loves the mountains. More than almost any place other than the beach. His reaction to place is different than his reaction to people and dog friends. When we follow the familiar road that leads to the trail head, he begins to pace in the backseat, and cry. He doesn’t verbalize much, so this crying is notable. It’s plaintive. The longing it’s expressing is clear. He wants, intensely, to be in this place. He cannot wait to get out of the car.

I think what he loves about it is the same thing that attracts people to nature. Nothing much happens when we hike. When we’re climbing up the trail, our footsteps and breathing are often the only sounds other than birdsong and frogcroak. Sometimes we see other people and dogs, sometimes we don’t. I keep him on a leash because he has a tendency to find rattlesnakes. He’s content on the leash, though. He doesn’t need to run around or even socialize up here. He needs to smell everything — the dirt, the flowers, the scents of other animals, the breeze — and he needs to see everything. It makes him happy. His happiness is infectious, makes me glad I left all those words at home.

When I’m up there on the mountain, my mind calms. It’s a unique experience for me, mentally. My mind is never quite so smoothed out, so cohesive as it is when I’m hiking. That frictionless state of mind seems to be where the muse hides out. She’s in there, and if I pay attention, I can see her at work, filling in plot holes, giving characters motivation, creating scenes that make perfect sense, and all without any effort on my part. After the hike, I often return to the work with a small revelation that inspires me to get back into the thick of it. This, I know, never would have happened in any other place.

Other places, though, do inspire me, or plug me into some sort of collective memory that excites the brain waves rather than calming them. This has happened to me a lot. I think all of my books have their genesis in two things in equal measure — a character or set of characters, and a place. The book I am working on now was inspired by, in addition to two characters, Rome. I visited Rome for the first time in 2009. I was in Europe, and made a side trip to Rome to visit a friend. I had never felt driven to go to Rome before. But the minute I stepped foot in the city, it was as if some collective memory came back to me in an instant. It had the same sort of force as the kind of memories we often get from smells. Gripping, something I had to pay attention to, but of what I had no idea. Or like déjà vu. I have been here before, this place means something to me. But why?

In order to sort out this overwhelming memory, I have to explore the place. In the same way a dog has to smell every inch of a place, I have to visit as much of the place as possible and listen for the stories. In a city like Rome, those stories are everywhere, in layer upon layer, waiting to be excavated. I wonder, when dogs smell things, gather up all the information in those scents, are they gathering stories? Perhaps there is a kind of collective memory for dogs as well as for people. A memory that is more than simple instinct. A memory that carries the stories of a place, a species, a planet.

I think the reason I connect my dog’s reaction to the idea of place for writers is that there is something primal in the experience of place. There is something about the reaction that’s hard to pin down, but that somehow triggers our story-telling instincts. There’s a desire to know the place, or to be thrilled by the mystery of it, to settle into the comfort of it, or to just drop by because staying too long could be dangerous. But it’s the place itself that titillates, that disturbs.

“The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of “What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” – and that is the heart’s field.” –- Eudora Welty

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Inspiration from my Dog’s Life — #1: Echemythia

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My son rescued our dog, Buddy, from a kill shelter seven years ago. They had taught him three basic commands: Sit, stay, heel. He was housebroken, too, so those commands seemed good enough for me. What else would a dog have to do, other than sit, stay, and heel? Anything else would be superfluous. Neither I nor anyone else in the family tried to teach him any other commands. But Buddy — a Boxer/Pit mix who was found roaming the streets of Los Angeles — has always paid close attention to the words his people say. Whenever people are talking, he cocks his head and pricks his ears (wow, two in one sentence and neither one meant as a pejorative or in a sexual context!), focusing on every word. In this way he has taught himself the meaning of many words and phrases. He knows the difference between “going for a hike,” and “going for a walk,” and even just “going for a ride in the car” with no exciting destination to look forward to. He knows “upstairs,” “downstairs,” “toy,” “bone,” “cracker,” “Get your leash,” “get your collar,” and the names of a dozen animal and dog friends. There’s much more, but I won’t bore you with all the details.

My point is, language is very important to him. He’s made it his mission to learn it — at least the parts of it that have relevance to him. But he only listens. He never talks.

Now, I know most pet owners have probably wished their dogs could speak to them at some time or another. But really, wouldn’t that just ruin it? For him as well as for us. There’s something sacred in the act of listening and watching without interrupting those experiences with the noise of speech. Reading is all about listening, isn’t it? We read to listen to someone else’s story.

For me, writing is also listening. I am listening closely, silently, so I can hear the story I am trying to tell.

In the book I’m working on now, one of my characters practices echemythia — the maintaining of silence. The Greek mathematician/philosopher Pythagoras had two groups of followers: the mathematikoi, or learners, and the akoustmatikoi, or listeners. The first thing one did upon joining Pythagoras was to practice echemythia for a duration of two to five years. Upon completing this period of silence, one joined the inner circle of learners. Apuleius said of Pythagoras: “This, I tell you, was for him the first axiom of wisdom, ‘Meditation is learning, speech is unlearning.’ ”

What I take away from this idea of talking as a kind of unlearning is that we have to commit to listening in silence in order to hear what our characters want us to know about them. We have to listen with profound commitment in order to understand the meaning in their stories. We have to refrain from interrupting with our own speech in order to catch the subtle details, the undertones. We can’t learn what we need to know about them unless we first listen in silence.

My dog is very in tune with the rhythms of our lives. He knows when we are leaving without him, when someone is about to show up to change the routine, when he will be going out with us, when he’s about to get a treat or some play time. He knows all this because he listens without speaking. Can I hear as much in the handful of words my protagonist whispers in my ear as I drift off to sleep? I am willing to believe that a few simple words I have heard perfectly because I have listened perfectly can give deeper meaning to the stories I want to tell. But I have to be willing to do the hard work of unlearning to talk when I should be listening.

“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together.” — Thomas Carlyle

A Way Out of Wordlessness

'City_of_Words',_lithograph_by_Vito_Acconci,_1999City of Words; lithograph, Vito Acconci

Finding the Words

It’s commonly referred to as writer’s block. But I like to avoid that term simply because when I can’t write, there is a long list of causes I can look to. I go through the list, checking with my brain as I do so, to see if I can pinpoint a specific thing that is hindering my ability to write even a sentence. None of the causes are really accurately described by the term “writer’s block.” So let’s just chuck that one out.

Sometimes I don’t write because I am distracted – by my job (teaching and grading papers), my family, endless chores and errands, the internet. (Ah, the internet. I will save the analysis of that demon child for another time.) Sometimes I am discouraged – by the business of publishing, by my readers’ responses to my ms, by my sudden conviction that I simply can’t write. Sometimes I am just too tired and too busy all at once.

But then sometimes, it comes down to a matter of inspiration. Often, I sit down in front of the keyboard with the whole day free and nothing to keep me from writing. Yet, I sit and sit and just keep on sitting. That familiar sensation overtakes me: there are no words. I have nothing to say. It’s like being at a party with people you don’t know and finding not a word to kickstart a conversation. After a while, it seems to make more sense to just leave the party. Or get up from the desk. Or, worse, get on the internet.

But, in the same way a spark of inspiration can ignite a conversation at a party, and cause you to end up making a new friend, that same spark can move you into the writing space, the place where your brain moves faster than your fingers and you don’t quit for hours. With the party scenario, it can be something as mundane as discovering the person next to you is reading the same book you’re reading, or knows someone you knew in high school, or just got back from the country you’ve always wanted to visit and has all kinds of recommendations for you.

It’s really not all that different with writing. But, as with the party conversation, you have to be willing to dig for that kernel of inspiration.

These are some of the ways I dig:

I read. Of course. I read both fiction that is completely unrelated to what I am trying to write and non-fiction that can inform me about my story or characters in some way. My current work-in-progress is set in Imperial Rome, so it’s easy to find all kinds of books to read about it.

But I think more important even than reading for inspiration is finding visceral ways to connect to your work. Again, with my current project, this is easy. I have watched a lot of videos about Rome. Just seeing someone walk down a street that might figure in my book serves to make me anxious to find out what happens next in my story. I return to the computer with new purpose.

I have objects I brought from Rome: a candle from a church, a stone I found near an old Roman road, a postcard photo of the Forum. These are things I like to touch and hold, set next to my keyboard and contemplate. Sometimes I just like to eat things I ate in Rome – orange and fennel salad, for instance. Or walk on stones in thin-soled sandals. Wash myself in olive oil. I am not kidding!

You don’t have to be writing about such a historical time period or place in order to make these tricks work for you. Ask yourself about your character. What does she love to eat? Eat that thing and imagine you two are sharing a meal. What does she do when she needs to clear her head? Does she hike, ride a bike, meditate? Do that thing, and while you are doing it, imagine her doing it with you.  What does she do now?  Let the story inhabit you because you are inhabiting your character’s physical world. What does your character wear? Does he have a quirky approach to his choice of wardrobe? Get an article of clothing that is representative of your character and wear it for awhile. You know, like Holden’s red hunting cap or Leopold Bloom’s mourning suit.

Is your protagonist a painter? Crack open a tube of oil paint and smell it. Smear a little on your fingers. Is he working as a dishwasher while he’s trying to get back on his feet? Wash some dishes! Get your hands soapy, your sleeves wet. What does that feel like? Does your skin itch? Perhaps just writing a paragraph about the sensual bits involved in washing thousands of dishes will inspire you in other ways, and you will learn new things about your character and your story from this simple physical exercise.

You get my point. What I am trying to say, I think, is get out of your head. Climb into the physical world of your story. You’re not really writing right now, so “writer’s block” is a meaningless term. You are problem solving by taking action in the real world.

“A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.”
— Roland Barthes

The Writer’s Life? What the Hell Is That?

The Original Bloomsbury Group

The Original Bloomsbury Group

Do a Google search of the term “writer’s life” and you will come up with books written by authors like Natalie Goldberg and Gay Talese, magazine article titles, websites, blogs, lectures, symposia, and documentaries about Marcel Proust and even Wallace Stegner.  It’s a term that has been around a long time.  For me, the words once echoed with a kind of ache; they contained the perfect idea of the way I hoped to live one day: months of writing interrupted by brief periods of offering readings and lectures; involved communications with fellow writers and students of writing; freedom to focus on all of these things.  The phrase offered up images of Paris in the 1920s, the Bloomsbury Group, and leisurely residencies in writing retreats.

A rarefied few writers do live such lives.  But they are the 1% among the literati.  And even for them, the classic model of the writer’s life may be doing its swan song as I write this post.  Now when I hear that phrase, “a writer’s life,” I admit, I snort. The way we all live our lives has been so drastically altered by technology, the once-classic route to authorial success has become cluttered with tweets and blogs, apps and e-books, hundreds of thousands of people hawking self-published work on Amazon, floundering publishing houses, the disappearance of the newspaper book review section, and the horrible vanishing act of bookstores themselves.  What the hell is the writer’s life now?

It all seemed to change in a nanosecond.

Now, we live in a world that offers so much information and so many kinds of entertainment, and such easy access to all of it, that taking the time to write or read books seems like an ancient pastime, something people did only in stories of long ago. Doing research for this blog entry, I found an article by Anne Hill in The Huffington Post about the future of publishing (it doesn’t look so great).  These are the words under Hill’s byline: Author, Consultant, Radio Host, Public Speaker.  See?  It’s nearly impossible to be just a writer these days.  It doesn’t pay.  Look at all the content on the internet. How many of those writers were compensated for their time at a rate that could be qualified as “making a living”? Precious few, is my guess. Instead, writers have to scramble to make themselves multi-talented in this age of multi-tasking, multi-platforming, and outsourcing and underpaying.

There is a danger to all this. The need to offer oneself up as expert in many fields can result in overextending oneself, or even to cheating. Take the case of Jonah Lehrer. He is the author of three books. Just this last week, his second book, How We Decide, was removed from bookshelves by his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His third book, Imagine, was pulled from shelves in July. His publisher took this drastic and costly step because Lehrer plagiarized and did sloppy research. In “Journalists Dancing on the Edge of Truth,” David Carr calls Lehrer a “blogger, author, speaker,” and refers to him as “overhyphenated in a way that makes feeding all those platforms with fresh intellectual scoops a risky enterprise.”

Lehrer felt compelled, it seems, to write books, blog, write for The New Yorker, and speak at events all over the country. Is that what it is to live the writer’s life in the 21st century? Back in the day, writers who had to augment their income from writing taught literature and writing. But that now seems to be considered a second-rate profession. In “Proust Wasn’t a Neuorscientist.  Neither Was Jonah Lehrer.” Boris Kachka writes that as Lehrer’s life was unraveling he told journalist Michael Moynahan, who was instrumental in reporting on Lehrer’s plagiarism, that if Moynihan outed him, he, Lehrer, “would never write again—would end up nothing more than a schoolteacher.”

Teaching and writing are both occupations that require thoughtfulness, concentration, time commitment, and absorption. I am afraid all of those qualities are being subverted by the ways in which technologies are taking over our thought processes. Teaching and writing are also careers that are being eviscerated by both underfunding and outsourcing. It’s getting harder and harder for any but the 1% in both those fields to make a decent living, so perhaps many feel forced to over-hyphenate themselves.

This is a complicated issue, a multi-layered problem. Its causes lie in both the new economic paradigms that are being created in this down-sized and outsourced culture, and by the ways our brains are being rewired by technology. Some of us probably simply want to be many things to many people. Perhaps Lehrer fed on the idea of being a new, 21st century Renaissance man. But many others of us, those who earn fifty dollars for an article if we’re lucky, and who toil as adjunct college instructors for wages that are an insult, are forced to hyphenate our career selves.

In either case, I find the new trend to be insidious. Both for readers and for writers. And for every part of our lives that is affected by those two acts.

“You become a writer because you need to become a writer — nothing else.”                     — Grace Paley.


The Mission of the Book Review in the 21st Century

I used to look forward to the Sunday edition of The Los Angeles Times, largely for the book review section.  But, of course, as newspaper circulation has diminished, most newspapers in the United States have gutted their content.  It has gotten harder and harder to find book reviews in print media.  Which leads me to the point I want to make here.  Since so few publications devote space to books, shouldn’t the ones that do rethink their mission?  Is it helpful to publish those reviews that eviscerate books?  Or do we want to guide readers to books they may enjoy, whether those books are perfect or not?

Reading is a highly subjective endeavor.  I have bought more than a few novels because they were lauded by reviewers in The New York Times, only to be deeply disappointed by the book.  And of course the inverse is true as well; many books that have received scathing reviews still manage to please and even thrill readers.  So, then, why write book reviews?  As a teacher of literature, I’ve encountered plenty of students who, in spite of the 21st century impulse away from long-form narrative, enjoy reading.  Yet many of them are not sophisticated about the ways they go about finding books.  Book reviews could serve to lead those kinds of readers to books that exist outside the bestseller lists.  So why use the book review, especially in the limited real estate of print media, to serve as a book’s executioner?

Though there is a dearth of book reviews in print, the internet is dirty with book blogs and places like Amazon and Goodreads, where anyone can post a review of a book.  Back in August, in the Slate Online Book Review, Jacob Silverman argued “Against Enthusiasm” in the cyber world of book reviews.  Claiming that the online literary culture has become too “mired in clubbiness,” and that writers are glad-handing one another, he believes the “constant applause is making it harder and harder to hear the voices of dissent—the skeptical, cranky criticisms that may be painful for writers to experience but that make for a vibrant, useful literary culture.”

But this is what I would ask the Jacob Silverman’s of the world to consider:

In his Los Angeles Times piece, “On the Tyranny of the Moment,” Pico Iyer makes a plea for the importance of the book: “The medium that has been dying the whole century may be one way we can rebel against the hidden dictatorship of Right Now.”  He worries about the problems inherent in the way we use technology, though, because “information cannot teach the use of information. And diversion doesn’t teach us concentration.”  We have access to billions of websites, all vying for our attention.  But few of them offer the kind of information that lends itself to the deep involvement that reading a book requires.

What I am trying to say, I think, is that we need all the readers we can get.  We, writers and other readers, need to teach floundering readers how to find books they like, not to disdain books they will certainly never attempt after having read a nasty review.  Does it matter if writers praise one another too much, if the end result is that books do not disappear?  That mission to critique in the most skeptical way may be partly responsible for the demise of so many print book review publications.  What did the casual reader or the reader unfamiliar with the publishing world gain from the savage book review?  Sometimes when I read those reviews, I felt the critic was simply trying to show off his or her own cleverness, rather than give a rational overview, or even a taste, of the book.  We, the readers, were meant to praise the wit of that reviewer who was just too brilliant to ever find any book quite good enough.

In a time when hundreds of thousands of books are published every year, but very few are marketed properly, the charge of the book review may have to change as much as the ways books are delivered to us are changing.  We need to teach people to read, we need to encourage people to read, we need to celebrate the very act of reading.  Bring on the imperfect book, the book that makes some readers want to throw it across the floor.  Others may waken to the power of the written word while reading the very same line that caused the cranky critic to finally give up in disgust.  In the end, finding something to read is what matters.  If writers praising other writers can aid in the process, then I stand in support of that new trend.

“People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are.”  — G.K. Chesterton

Resisting the 21st Century

I admit it.  I want to go dancing in speakeasies and take grand tours of Europe that last for years.  And I want Maxwell Perkins to be my editor.  I want to be one of those writers who, in the good old days, wrote the book and then let the publisher do the rest.

Steampunk computer, by Bruce Rosenbaum Steampunk computer, by Bruce Rosenbaum

Instead, here I am, in the age of social networking, smart phones, and e-books.  Publishing is doing its best to avoid the fate of the music industry, while turning over the job of marketing largely to the writer.  Anonymity has pulled a disappearing act, and if one is to be a successful writer these days, it seems, it is necessary to report on every event and thought one experiences, and hope everyone else wants to know about said mundane events and random thoughts.

All I want to tell you about is how I think Moby-Dick is one of the most important books ever written, and that my bookshelves are still crowded with paper books, and that I do not own a Kindle or a Nook, and that Shakespeare makes me swoon, and why I think books are still so important.

I want to tell you how much I love spending time with the characters in my own books, and how confusing it is when it comes time to send them out into the world.  I mean, given the state of the world of publishing.  I would like to replicate Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, and just do things their way.  Forget the internet book tours, the youtube videos, the efforts to make things go viral, the virtual non-existence of book reviews in print media and what that means to readers and writers.

But I can’t forget any of it, can I?  I mean, this really is the 21st century, and I do not have a Way Back Machine.

So, I will move ahead, and do my best to co-exist with the present state of things.  And I will use this blog to post about my efforts to get my second novel published, and about craft issues, and about books I am reading.  And perhaps now and then I will slip into the past and simply revel in it.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby