Blue bench + “Keep The Channel Open” 

I came across this lovely blue bench in Nob Hill, Albuquerque. It was outside a dance studio. Inside…I found these words and felt quite inspired. Thought I would pass it on.

 

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that activate you. Keep the channel open.” –Martha Graham

 

Postscript: After sharing this I vaguely recalled that some time ago, ages in digital times I suppose, I had posted something by Martha Graham on my blog before. I couldn’t recall what exactly. So, naturally, I searched for it. And it was the exact same quote. At first I thought of deleting this post or that one from 2011 but then decided to keep both. Words come to us to remind us that which we think we have forgotten. Inspiration is inspiration even if our digital posting mocks it from time to time.

no filter

Sometimes we need a filter to see and feel clearly. Other times, we can only see clearly without one.

I have spent most of the day this Sunday reading the  Winter 2014-15 issue of The Stinging Fly. If you are on Twitter, find them, follow them. Or better yet, check them out and subscribe! I discovered this magazine a few weeks ago and felt it might be something I would have to sit down to really read, Internet browsing wouldn’t suffice.

As most of you already know, there aren’t many magazines out there I have mentioned since the writing doesn’t really move me. It all feels stale. I stopped reading The New Yorker 8 years ago, not as a boycott but because I just gave up. Whenever I could browse online, I did, and sometimes I would find nonfiction gems but fiction didn’t impress. Other magazines that offer new writing by new writers disappointed too. Everyone in these “alternative” magazines trying so hard to be different that they forget the object was to write a story, a good story, not be different.

Not this. The writing in The Stinging Fly is so alive you could feel the stories moving without even opening the first page. The essay, the poetry, the reviews, the fiction, just all of it. I am inspired, I am moved, I feel hopeful. Art is not dead. Honestly, I don’t think I can articulately review any of the pieces in it, I am too stirred with joy upon this discovery. The writing is fresh, the perspectives unique, and it made me realize how it is our obligation to protect what is unique in one another. Moreover, having checked out the website of Deborah Rose Reeves and a few others who are published in this issue, I can toast to what Jamie is always saying, “You can’t encounter the richness of life if you never live it.” And if you never live it, you can’t really write it, create it.

I have never felt this more profoundly than I do today, of all the reasons that exist to create Art, the quintessential is to move us to a deeper understanding about ourselves and the world around us, and if Art can’t achieve that, at the very least it ought to give us a confirmation, more than mere hope, for an alternative. For some of us, those of us, whose standards are not aligned with that of the general public, that hope is not as readily available. But when it comes, it illuminates everything so clearly, that even the shadows become beautiful.

light

 

attention to details: a way of being

September 7, 2014.

 

The article in The New Yorker, “Creativity Creep” by Joshua Rothman, is probably one of the most succinct and apt essays I have read on creativity since the dawn of social media and the rise of “creativity” as a “job”.  Maybe there is hope after all if The New Yorker is willing to publish such an essay. There is always hope, I suppose. 

Mr. Rothman writes:

People like Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that we don’t just store things in our imaginations; we transform them. Coleridge made a useful distinction, largely lost today, between two kinds of imagining. All of us, he thought, have a workaday imagination, which we use to recall memories, make plans, and solve problems; he called this practical imagination “fancy.” But we also have a nobler kind of imagination, which operates […]  like “a human reflex of God’s creative energy.” The first kind of imagination understands the world; the second kind cares about it and brings it to life. In the “Prelude,” Wordsworth describes this kind of imagination as “an auxiliary light” that changes everything it illuminates.”

This watchful, inner kind of creativity is not about making things but about experiencing life in a creative way; it’s a way of asserting your own presence amidst the much larger world of nature, and of finding significance in that wider world. By contrast, our current sense of creativity is almost entirely bound up with the making of stuff. If you have a creative imagination but don’t make anything, we regard that as a problem—we say that you’re “blocked.”

How did creativity transform from a way of being to a way of doing?

[…]

It sounds bizarre, in some ways, to talk about creativity apart from the creation of a product. But that remoteness and strangeness is actually a measure of how much our sense of creativity has taken on the cast of our market-driven age. We live in a consumer society premised on the idea of self-expression through novelty. We believe that we can find ourselves through the acquisition of new things. Perhaps inevitably, we have reconceived creativity as a kind of meta-consumption: a method of working your way toward the other side of the consumer-producer equation, of swimming, salmon-like, back to the origin of the workflow. Thus the rush, in my pile of creativity books, to reconceive every kind of life style as essentially creative—to argue that you can “unleash your creativity” as an investor, a writer, a chemist, a teacher, an athlete, or a coach. Even as this way of speaking aims to recast work as art, it suggests how much art has been recast as work: it’s now difficult to speak about creativity without also invoking a profession of some kind.

[…]

Among the many things we lost when we abandoned the Romantic idea of creativity, the most valuable may have been the idea of creativity’s stillness. If you’re really creative, really imaginative, you don’t have to make things. You just have to live, observe, think, and feel.

 

This is what I have been doing in this space every Sunday, testing my “human reflex”, sometimes willingly and other times questioning that same reflex. Moreover, my recent work,  has taken me to experience depths of living, observing, breathing, feeling “creativity” in ways I can only hope to one day articulate in some tangible medium. And finally, since the advent of social media, people are of two views when it comes to absence from “blogging” or “sharing”: either one is living such an amazing life that there is no time to share photos or thoughts or alternatively, that an individual’s life must be so distressful that it doesn’t merit sharing. Of course, my point is about when people don’t share as much as they once did or at all, not those who report, the good or the challenging, for a sake of community and sharing, however regularly and openly.

Life is just life, it goes on. Yes, it’s sweeter when shared by those who “get it” but when one is truly original, majority of the people don’t “get it”.   At first.

 

Another article, also about creativity, was featured in ars technica and titled  “Is there a creativity deficit in science? If so, the current funding system shares much of the blame” by Ben McNeil.

Ben McNeil offers a notable quote by John Ioannidis who is head of the Stanford Prevention Research Center in California and links the quote to other sources.

“A truly innovative idea cannot be judged by peers: if it is truly innovative, no peer has any clue about it; if peers already know about it, it is not innovative” said John Ioannidis, head of the Stanford Prevention Research Centre in California. Ioannidis and others published a recent analysis called “Conform and be Funded where they show that safer, established ideas have a much better chance of being funded at the NIH than novel, creative ones.

To be fair, the bias against any risk is not limited to the NIH; it occurs across every governmental science agency globally.

 

I also found the following a bit unsettling:

In the early 1970s, Roger Kornberg, a 27-year-old Stanford PhD, was working at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. With a modest post-doctoral salary, Kornberg was given freedom to explore untried and risky areas of research. This would ultimately allow him to make a revolutionary discovery about how DNA is copied in cells.

Kornberg would win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2006 for that work. Yet he told The Washington Post that he’s convinced his groundbreaking Nobel Prize winning idea would never have been funded today.

 

 

An unrelated short piece by William Childress titled “A Born Writer” in the most recent print issue of Writer’s Digest brought it all together for me in the form of a question that perhaps doesn’t have an answer.  A side note I must mention:  I have never had much interest in that magazine because the online version, with all the links and ads, has always felt manic to stay the least; however, I recently subscribed to print thanks to coming across a print copy at a book store which I found useful. Anyway, in the piece Childress writes, “…comments by Mom, friends or kin were useless. In their eyes, I was a success simply by putting words on paper. But they signed no checks. Editors are a writer’s link to reality. They know when they must tell a writer no–and they will. But sometimes I get lucky and hit the mark, and they say, ‘Thank you. This is exactly what we need.’ Then I try again, and again, and again…”

 

I reflected a lot about this “trying again and again” and the statement from the other article, “a truly innovative idea cannot be judged by peers”.

My primary reason for not having tried again and again (or just barely) is twofold: lack of time and that a part of me is quite  satisfied with the audience I have (not to mention grateful!) and whenever I sit to write my objective is to deliver a valuable story where the words are crafted with hallmark care and whatever happens after that fades into the background. That being said, if I want signed checks, I have to try, at least once, twice, or thrice and do so beyond here.

What I know now without a doubt, thanks to the perfect articulation by Joshua Rothman, is that this space has been and will continue to be about sharing a way of being that is me, a way which also happens to be creative. This is also true for a lot of others who blog and share some phenomenal photos, words, and art. This is also true for many who don’t. Some of the most creative people I know, artists and otherwise, are not available via social media platforms. However, it is my hope, that a new consciousness within social media is emerging, where we are able to distinguish our inherently creative natures from creating meaningful Art “that changes everything it illuminates”.  Stories are more than ideas and art is more than being creative. And while both kinds of creativity have their place, it would serve us all to approach each with more mindfulness. Mindfulness is not a job description or a test of creativity, it is a way of being.

 

 

branches

 

Still Sundays: “mechanics of understanding”

March 2, 2014.

I recently read an article about Carl Sagan, “Star Power”, by Joel Achenbach in the March issue of the Smithsonian magazine.  The article discusses the revival of the show “Cosmos” as it coincides with availability of all of Carl Sagan’s papers—all 798 boxes—at the Library of Congress. The show “Cosmos” is back much in part to Seth MacFarlane, creator of the television show “Family Guy” because he believes most of the science available on mainstream television, if any, is “fluff”.

The article quotes a note from Carl Sagan’s 1981 file after “Cosmos” was a big hit, “I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I  had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding”  (Achenbach, Joel.  “Star Power”, Smithsonian. March 2014: 68. Print.).

This part from the article took me to the vast universe within myself. When it comes to certain things, especially people, time, and cities, there is so much I understand so quickly, that it makes no sense to others. This, trying to translate what I understand, has been a struggle for me ever since I was little. As I grew older, I realized it was better to allow the natural course of events “show” at the mercy of Time instead of “tell” based on my understanding. I don’t think it makes me or others like me “brilliant” per se, when it comes to higher math, I have to show my work to understand it. Moreover, some of us who do figure things out faster, regardless of previous experiences, do see the “mechanics of understanding”, it is just that there is no medium to per se communicate these mechanics. That being said, there are times when I am so convinced of the merits of what I understand that I am compelled to translate it all, step-by-step, to others.

Perhaps that is why music is a phenomenon. It transports us to the “mechanics of understanding”.

Despite not being an opera aficionado, I recently learned that Italian composer Giacomo Puccini of “Madama Butterfly” wrote, “The conscious, purposeful appropriation of one’s own soul forces is the supreme secret.” Puccini believed that he “would not have been given desire without also being given the ability to create whatever it was that would come forth” through him.  

 

I shared this article, “Ten States Where Income Equality Has Soared” about the impact of gentrification with some friends. One friend replied, “Class division hurts my heart. This is NOT the land of the free.”   This is where my “mechanics of understanding” fail me. I don’t understand why there are people who can only feel good about themselves at the expense of others not having enough. How do we fix this? Can we? It’s existed as long as we can trace back recorded history. Then I reflect about what is going on in Ukraine and Pakistan and I feel justified to say, “At least it is not that bad in the United States. Not yet, anyway.” Is that the new standard of freedom?

 

A fascinating article in The New Yorker titled “In the Sontag Archives” by biographer Benjamin Moser states that his recent research led him to discover that “Susan Sontag wrote seventeen thousand one hundred and ninety-eight e-mails, which will soon be available for consultation on a special laptop. I was given a special viewing at the library, and the experience gave me a queasiness that I have never felt during the years I have conducted historical research. […] To read someone’s e-mail is to see her thinking and talking in real time.”

17,198 emails. That is nothing for most of us given the internet is only 20 years old. Most of us have many accounts and many more emails than that.

I think about this a lot. After I am gone, what of my emails? They are just a record of passing moments. What can a moment tell us? I was thinking about leaving California on February 9th and on February 15th I found a new sense of purpose here. All of a sudden I am invigorated by unprecedented opportunity for reforming education and closing the literacy gap. The emails before February 14th will give you a bleak picture that will make you question everything you knew about me. The emails since might reflect I am high on rosebuds. I think the more we digitally share, the less others really know us. I once wanted to tweet: “I am so spoiled by love.” I didn’t. That means so many different things to so many. I prefer communicating over explaining. Social media is no longer a platform for communicating authentically, even with the best of intentions.

The article continues, “Sontag wrote that photographs are as much about what they don’t show as what they do, that what we see depends on where the photographer places the frame. Her journals reveal a love of statistics and astonishing facts, but the moral center of her writing (about photography, about war, about politics) is an insistence that what we see is not always what we get.”

Benjamin Moser ends the article with this poignant thought which sums up our digital age:

“Now our lives are increasingly lived on the computer. The amount of data on our smartphones is far more than she could have imagined in her lifetime, though she died less than a decade ago. For anyone who believes in the value of historical research, hard drives, like those preserved at U.C.L.A., will be the locus of that research. Will they end up revealing more about our lives—or, by revealing too much, ultimately reveal less?”

I think they will reveal much less as we continue. 

We do all sorts of things, and say all sorts of things, and listen to all sorts of things, for all sorts of reasons. We remain unpredictable. I never thought I would but I deleted my What’s App account after Fakebook bought it. This saddened me given it was my primary way of keeping in touch with friends overseas but it had to be done.

 

I don’t believe in seasons. I think a winter can last one whole year and there can be three summers in 365 days. March 2013 to yesterday was one such winter. I will just borrow Lemony Snicket’s series title to sum up the longest winter which lasted March to March: a series of unfortunate events. This past year, despite all the wonderful things that came my way, demanded so much out of me due to work. This will no longer be the case. It finally feels like a new year.

Despite everything, I still managed to finish Collection of Auguries. Not just that, also around February 14th, I learned that Publisher’s Weekly decided to review my book and gave me a review that made me feel like I had finally reached the shore. This is not just because it was a review from PW, it is because I could feel that whoever read it felt the life-force in the stories. It was an affirmation for me: stories are living things.

 

When the topography of the land of the free no longer feels familiar no matter where you go, freedom becomes a moment-to-moment undertaking. Freedom becomes standing up for truth in meetings; freedom becomes refusing work without compensation, freedom becomes sticking to your values in a digital age where “selfie” is part of the value-system. Freedom becomes praying for rain because geologists have given up on a solution to the drought-like conditions in parts of the southwest.

After a year of feeling that stillness may not exist in equal parts throughout the world, you finally land on the shore, bone-dry from being tossed in the ocean, ready to redefine stillness. You are humbled that all your previous definitions were such mechanical understandings and the very reason you made it, as you complained there is no stillness, is because of an infinite reservoir from where Stillness pours. You understand that the very reason you, or anyone, makes it through winter, is love. When we are grounded, we sense that love as stillness, quietude even. When we are not, it is always love that which carries us back to our human interpretation of stillness.

The horizon looks promising despite the uncertainty, bad news around the world, and empty-calories in most internet content. As long as there are those who want something more, the way will be carved by a love for something more than oneself, the very love that carries us to the shore.

If you have a desire to change the world, you also have the ability.

I leave you with “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry:

Communicate slowly. Live/ a three-dimensional life;/ stay away from screen.  

And words fromHow to Write Poetryby my good friend, poet, singer, artist, and kindred spirit, V. Shayne Fredrick:

live and give others the freedom of life.

“seek the path that will demand your whole being” ~ Rumi

Still Sundays.

October 27, 2013.

 

I never imagined any kind of “writing life” because I never saw myself as a writer. When stories came to me as a kid, I didn’t think they were any different than dreams: you don’t grow up wanting to be a “dreamer.” You brush the dreams, the good alongside the not so good ones, in the mornings with your teeth and then you do it again and again. You don’t think about your teeth needing extractions, dentures, or fighting cavities; you just brush on. So it has always been with writing and me. But you do need time to brush. My current dentist tells me that we should brush our teeth for two minutes minimum after every meal, but especially before going to bed. “And what if you are too tired to stand that long at the end of the day?” He laughs and I answer for him, you change what needs to be changed so you are not that tired at the end of the day.

Every once in awhile I allow myself to be convinced a little too easily.  Just a little. And only occasionally. In those rare moments there is no devil’s advocate manufactured by the machine of reality, processed by hyper-self-awareness. In those moments I allow myself to think that maybe I don’t know myself well enough after all. This time I seriously entertained moving to a town like Paducah, Kentucky in my what’s-next-after-California-moments because someone had mentioned Paducah offered relocation money and subsidized housing for artists. I have always done something else in addition to writing, as have most writers before my time, and many continue to do so even in this digital age.  The only difference perhaps is that, unlike me, a lot of them work “in the field” of writing, as in teaching creative writing courses, lectures, workshops, etc. If such employment serves as a consistent source of employment to pay man-made rent to exist on earth and allows the time to actually create something new, even better. I am not those people. Since I didn’t want to “grow up to be a writer” I can’t now fit myself inside some box.  I did want to change the world, mostly for myself because it is too painful to witness the fragile humanity’s dissolution because of a selfish few. I also wrote. The longer I soak in this existence the more convinced I am that there are a myriad of ways to change the world and that constitutes as Art. We definitely need to bring forth more beauty in this world hence I admire murals but we also need to alternatives that make us think and hence murals alone aren’t enough to change the DNA of a city or her people.

Further research led me to learn how Paducah’s incentive program has inspired a few other communities elsewhere in America to implement similar programs. Detroit doesn’t have any yet because you can buy a house there for $100, never mind you may not make it to the next day to create something. Nothing pumps life back into a city like art that moves. Except. Except when such cities decide to discard the very people and projects that once revitalized the city and drew attention and capital from elsewhere. Santa Fe, New Mexico is a perfect example of such a city. Those elected as guardians of the city decide to create imposters for tourism and the charade can continue for a long time. But not forever. Even if I was not allergic to the concept of “creative communities” I wouldn’t consider moving to such places. Inspiration and Time don’t exist in some vacuum within the confines of a particular zip code. It is getting harder and harder for real creative people to find one another despite the barf bag known as “social media”. “Independent” has become a “genre” instead of actually something original. In the span of the last few months I have watched some “independent” films that I can’t even tell apart because they are following some idea of an “independent” film instead of telling a story worth telling.

I don’t need a creative community like some (and I respect others’ needs and desires to connect for whatever personal reasons) but I do need time. Right now I have none. I am immersed in an invisible war that continues on within the boundaries of this country, also known as “education reform.” I thought my experiences in “developing” and “third-world” countries had shown me quite a lot but California—specifically, rural communities in the United States—offer challenges on another level that can make the most experienced educator catch his or her breath. I am thinking about sharing a series of photographs titled: THIS IS NOT DETROIT. THIS IS THE REST OF AMERICA.

The jury is still out on whether the work I am doing in education will be a trailblazing model for other programs to follow once the current White House administration is out or another echo that will be ignored because too many think in terms of “profit” when they hear the word student.

Meanwhile, the highlights of my day consist of interactions with 10-year-olds who inspire me in ways that spin my head. I am persistently awed by how we are born so creative and then fear forces us to play a role. Perhaps later I can share some more on this topic, thoughts such as when this one 10-year-old replied to my query as if I had asked a trick question, “Of course I got the idea to write that from inside me. Where else can ideas come from?!” Or another student: “I figured out a way to remember how to spell significant: sign.if.i.cant!” And then another added, “Now don’t go on misspelling can’t!”

What makes me know with certainty that I am going to continue writing despite lack of time right now? Faith. Faith that the world needs real artists more than anything else who are willing to stand up for truth—there is no such thing as ‘whose truth?’ when it comes to certain universal laws that exist and can’t be denied—and rotate impossibility like a marble. Knuckle down. No Quitsies.

 

 

I close the curtain on this bemused Sunday by sharing words from Lionel Shriver’s latest essay in The New Republic which serves caution against the glamour of the so called creative life.  I am copying and pasting a huge chunk despite the hyperlink because The New Republic doesn’t allow access to the articles for free after some time passes, and I don’t want these precious words to get lost through the Internet’s ozone layer.

Here is to the “reflective life that rightly constitutes the real thing”!  

I’m concerned that my delivery of this cascade of beaverishness might come across as boasting. On the contrary, it serves as both lament and confession. My scribbled diary is a disgrace. Taken as a whole, my upcoming schedule does not remotely represent the life I signed up for when I was seven years old. […]

These admittedly elective diversions are all on top of a host of ongoing botherations bound to confront any fiction writer foolish enough to have poked a head above the public parapet: beseechings to blurb other writers’ books (therefore read them). Requests to review other writers’ books (therefore read them—and because reviewers are only paid for their own wordage, these assignments pay about 25 cents an hour; for your trouble, the author will probably hate you). Essays like this one. Solicitations of quotes (free quotes) to fill out other journalists’ articles. Book launch invites. Charity appeals for signed, annotated first editions to be auctioned at tedious galas at which your attendance is expected and for which you have nothing to wear. Interview requests from foreign newspapers, asking you to discourse at length about a novel of which you are not only tired but, said book being two or three publications back and only now coming out in Greek, you don’t even remember. Website and book supplement demands for “your favorite book,” “your five favorite books,” “your ten favorite books,” “the book that changed your life,” “your book recommendations for Christmas,” and “your favorite summer beach reads.” Importunings to judge literary prizes, which means you can’t even win them. I may boycott social networking, but e-mail is bad enough, and for many of my colleagues, Facebook and Twitter must easily leech, as Kazuo Ishiguro would say, the remains of the day.

Meanwhile, any author is now expected to pull out all the stops for a book release. The more publishing in aggregate gets hysterical about the end of literature as we once knew it—I personally am not the only agent of insecurity here—the more their publicists are frantic for writers to accept any opportunity whatsoever to attract attention. This means setting weeks aside, or—in the case of writers who publish simultaneously in the English-speaking territories of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and the U.K., as I do—up to four months aside for e-mail, radio, and TV interviews; unrelenting photo shoots when you have already used up your small, tawdry wardrobe on the last book release; yet more festival and bookstore appearances; and scads of journalistic assignments: features and comment pieces riffing on the nonfiction subjects nominally related to your novel, filler slots like “My Favorite Thing,” or lazy, personal bare-alls to make yourself seem interesting. But considering how you spend most of your time—repeating yourself ad nauseam—you are not interesting.  So: When does a novelist write novels? Writing the books themselves gets fit in here and there, like making time for taking out the trash before bed. I have grown perversely nostalgic for my previous commercial failure—when my focus was pure, and the books were still fun to write, even if nobody read them. […]

The attraction of this occupation should not be its ancillary perks. Hence I not only worry about publishing’s entire economic infrastructure imploding, as single talented voices are drowned by a populist clamor of amateurs eager to be read on the Internet for the price of a double-click. I also worry about writers of the near future who make it—only to blog, tweet, e-mail, text, and Facebook their precious time away; only to be swept up in the confoundingly elaborate architecture of appearances, celebrity profiles, website questionnaires, and photo spreads built atop the fragile foundation of a lone imagination at a desk. For scrawls in an author’s diary readily become either excuses to procrastinate or objects of justifiable resentment as competition for the solitary, reflective life that rightly constitutes the real thing.

Understanding California, thanks to Steinbeck

A year ago today I moved from New York City, my home—or the closest someone of my disposition gets to calling a place home—to California, where my family makes it a home for me. I captured that experience on a quasi Still Sunday here last year when I was between JFK and SFO.

A week prior to moving I submitted the collection of stories to be published because I thought I was “done.” I had no idea the work only begins when you think you are done. Nonetheless, today I am actually finished. Editing, more editing, and then some more. It just didn’t end. It was exhausting and I came close to giving up so many times, often because there was so much else that was going on since I have been in California. To be honest, one final attributions page still remains! It really shakes you up, the entire process.  It is a humbling process too: your final, most polished draft still needed editing. It puts these blog posts in perspective.

I am coming out of it thinking, the best part about writing really is the writing itself. That being said, if I didn’t leave NYC for a year or two, if I didn’t grab life by the horns, I would have been trampled under life’s business-as-usual hooves. And I don’t think I would have ever been able to offer more than what I have been offering here. That is to say, living, really living, the times it feels like you have no time for living, is as necessary as writing itself and sometimes the living aspect looks like you are not producing anything.

Also, it has been living here for a bit, being knee-deep in the real California and not just visiting my family, that I have found a new understanding about literature as an art form.

I have been re-reading John Steinbeck.

This is from the scene when the Joads in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath finally get to California:

And the man said, “You ain’t gonna get no steady work. Gonna scrabble for your dinner ever’ day. An’ you gonna do her with people lookin’ mean at you. Pick cotton, an’ you gonna be sure the scales ain’t honest. Some of ‘em is, an’ some of ‘em ain’t. But you gonna think all the scales is crooked, an’ you don’ know which ones. Ain’t nothin’ you can do about her anyways.”

Pa asked slowly, “Aint-ain’t it nice out there at all?”

“Sure, nice to look at, but you can’t have none of it. They’s a grove of yella oranges-an’ a guy with a gun that got the right to kill you if you touch one. They’s a fella, newspaper fella near the coast, got a million acres-”

Casy looked up quickly, “Million acres? What in the worl’ can he do with a million acres?”

“I dunno. He jus’ got it. Runs a few cattle. Got guards ever’place to keep folks out. Rides aroun’ in a bullet-proof car. I seen pitchers of him. Fat, sof’ fella with little mean eyes an’ a mouth like a ass-hole. Scairt he’s gonna die. Got a million acres an’ scairt of dyin’.”

There is a longer excerpt here. The chapter which begins, “Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans.”

Being in California now, although many migrant farm workers are brought here as laborers for those who own the land, and some might even be “illegal”, but there are many who have been here for generations and consider Mexico a neighboring state. It is truly a complex situation in many ways.

Anyway, Steinbeck reported this complexity, the relationship of people wanting to possess the land against people trying to survive against all odds in this abundant land, with such swift mastery, that Grapes of Wrath was written in five months and went on to win many prestigious awards and remains an American classic. That was in 1939 and while he wrote it he gave us another gift, a journal he kept for the entire time he was working on Grapes of Wrath, now titled, Working Days: The Journal of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938-1941. Some research via the search engine www.duckduckgo.com (of course Google doesn’t provide many solid results anymore; easily accessible doesn’t translate to good quality!) led to a site that had an excerpt from it:

June 9: …This must be a good book. It simply must…

June 11: …My life isn’t very long and I must get one book written before it ends. The others have been make shifts, experiments, practices. For the first time I am working on a real book…

June 18: …I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity…

I first came upon Grapes of Wrath in 8th grade in Kansas and I didn’t finish it. I had read Steinbeck’s other works and thought I would enjoy it but I only finished half. Then it was junior year in high school and I was enrolled in an AP Honors English class (which I was almost failing because I was so bored trying to decode meaning out of literature as the teacher understood it from way back when she was taught in school, not even meaning she had derived from her own critical thinking) and we had to read it. I read it; I finished it. I didn’t understand why I didn’t take to it as much as his other novels but I didn’t think much more about it as I decided to do a required assignment on Faulkner instead. However, Grapes of Wrath did leave an impression on me to the extent it leaves an impression on anyone: it shocks you.  Then I had to read it again in some college course and I was more taken with the quality of the writing. Every time it was presented as “historical fiction” or “realistic fiction” or “classic” and never how it relates to the current time.

 

A year in California and I have been dumping my pail of questions on anyone and everyone, trying to make sense of the way things are here, and everyone says the same thing, that’s just how things are. I have been compassionate, I have been confused. I have been angry, and I have felt hopeless given the state of this state. And then, one morning, around 4:00 a.m. I woke up thinking about Grapes of Wrath. Just like that, out of nowhere. I started reading and re-reading excerpts and then any and everything Steinbeck felt while writing it. After it was published it has been noted that he stated, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” 

 

So, here I am, a year later in California, thinking about “there is a failure here that topples all our success” which was presented as fiction by a man in 1939 in the hopes that that reality wouldn’t be repeated. And yet has anything changed?  

 

Yet somehow I feel better. Despite this knowing that nothing has changed or even if things have become worse, there exists an account, a most raw portrayal, of triumph of the human spirit against all odds. It’s still possible today.

 

Steinbeck knew exactly what he was doing even when he had doubts. Never underestimate the power of intentional creation as opposed to talent just oozing out ever so naturally. 

Great Art—literature—lives dormant inside your lack-of-understanding until it bursts open like a parachute to save you from all that you can’t change. It helps you land on the ground from where you must try anyway.

I understand why it is mandatory reading in most competent high schools even if many people behind those decisions can’t remember reading it, nor teach it: art is an eternal exhale on the glass of Time.

“believing takes practice” ~ Madeleine L’Engle

On Friday night we randomly stumbled upon one of the most authentic Italian dining experiences outside of New York City.

I told our very entertaining server, who has been working there for 14 years, that he reminded me of a character in a book. We laughed and then he mentioned A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  I had just mentioned her a few days ago! Paul, our server, said he used to read to his children from it.

 

No “Yelp” or “Urban Spoon,” just a foggy night on Pico Street in Santa Monica led us to this wonderful restaurant.  It has been around for 40 years yet many don’t go this far up on Pico Street and don’t know about it. Those who do know about it, visit regularly, and spread the word too. Of course, you can read more about the actual restaurant, Valentino, on your own.  However, had I read about it, I probably wouldn’t have gone in because as is so often the case now, websites and reviews seldom provide for reality; pricey doesn’t mean authentic; and if the crowd is pretentious, it soaks up any authenticity.

 

Paul made this evening very magical for us. The last time I had such a genuine Italian experience was at a friend’s parents’ house in Treviso, Italy. The meal just didn’t end.

As Mrs. Whatsit said in A Wrinkle in Time, “Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”

A very happy birthday today to my father for practicing new songs and singing old ones—both literally and figuratively—and teaching us to listen to the music within our hearts. We are so grateful to him for giving us the infinite gift of believing. This Sunday I am grateful that I am here to celebrate his birthday with my entire family and family friends.

Here is to making new songs.

valentino

“I write in service of illumination and memory.” ~ Mark Helprin

I received a wonderful gift this month. A dear friend (and literary comrade—here I just mean the word literary to mean having to do with literature without any yucky modern day connotations) not only sent me a new book but introduced me to a new author (and he is alive!). The book is A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. As soon as I read the first few pages I felt I was home, more precisely, I was transported. Here was a writer who understood cities were as important as characters and sunlight that carves shadows for memories.

“Rome was not meant to move, but to be beautiful. The wind was supposed to be the fastest thing here, and the trees, bending and swaying, to slow it down. Now it’s like Milan. Now the slimmest swiftest cats are killed because they aren’t agile enough to cross streets where once—and I remember it—a cow could nap all afternoon. It wasn’t like this, so frantic and tense…” (5-6)

 

Although the book begins in the year 1964, every time I have visited Rome I have seen that Rome.

 

I haven’t been able to do much writing lately. Writing for me is not a chore or something on the to-do list and yet it demands discipline as if taking one’s insulin shot. You have to do it every day. Even if it is 500 words. And I don’t have time for even 500 words lately. I write in my head, no doubt, but it is not the same. I lived like that for 10 years before I exploded to do nothing but write for 2 years. That time will come again.

Over the weekend I met a woman, probably in her mid-30s at most, who has a professional degree from an Ivy League school and yet she hasn’t been able to find work in her field since 2008. At one point she had two full time jobs and she worked 65 hours. She still has two jobs but maybe not that many hours. She is working on a young adult fiction novel that she hopes to finish by the end of the year.

We talked to her for a little while. We talked about how the government is making things worse. We talked about how despite doing everything you were supposed to do in order to get what you want, you can still be without a job. We talked about a different time.

The next day I woke up missing Paris. I took a hit of nostalgia thanks to a clip on Youtube.  “A short bus ride in the streets of Paris in 1928. Another time, another world.” Then I found a clip from 1930’s making predictions about what the future will look like.

This morning I came across horrible news that “Black and North African railway workers were banned when the President of Israel visited France ‘because they might be Muslim'” and all of a sudden I didn’t desire Paris the same. Except I did. But not this Paris. Just like not this New York City. Just like not this California. Just like not this Rome.

I filed my thoughts under a new turning point for my writing. The entire time I have been sharing my writings here on this digital shelf (which, believe it or not, is under major construction along with the content!) I have openly stated, “I write to understand and be understood.”

Now I want to remember. Not to escape all that is happening everywhere—-from no jobs despite qualifications to corporations ruining education to the Congress failing its constituents to fearing other American cities ending up like Detroit to the disappearance of the American middle class where young kids are writing articles for The New Republic about how hard it is to live in San Francisco on a six figure salary—but just to remember how it can be.  I want to be transported.

 

I share some excerpts from Mark Helprin’s interview in the Paris Review. His thoughts and words deeply resonated with me and I share them here for the woman I met over the weekend. I also share them because I want to keep these words near.

 

 

INTERVIEWER

Why can’t writers be intellectuals?

HELPRIN

It isn’t that they can’t be, but, rather, that being an intellectual is not sufficient, and too many “writers” these days think it is. This is because art has for so long been subsidiary to science, and the creative impulse for so long subsidiary to the critical facility. Why should a baseball player want to be a sports announcer and why would an actor want to write movie reviews? Far be it from me to criticize my contemporaries (isn’t that what Idi Amin said?), but this impulse makes no sense unless you consider that so many writers these days are not really writers at all but intellectuals doing what they think writers do.

 

INTERVIEWER

You don’t like to give interviews or readings. You’re obsessed with privacy. What about your relations with other writers? Do you write blurbs and reviews?

HELPRIN

I remember standing on a rock in the water at Woods Hole talking to my father-in-law, an eminent biochemist, who was expressing his gratitude at being part of the great community of science. Although I understand the benefits of community—for one thing, it enables you to take pride in the accomplishments of others, so you are relieved of the terrible burden of ambition—I don’t partake of them. I am excluded and I exclude myself for a number of reasons. One of them is the nature of the community in which I work. Before my first book was published, I gave it to John Cheever to read with the hope that he would review it for The New York Times Book Review. I still have the contract for the book, a slim volume of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf, who at the time was still paddling about the hallways of the institution after which he was named. Even though the first printing was only five thousand copies, I had appended to the document a table of royalties that accounted for sales of up to one hundred million. I managed to sell three thousand copies of the first edition, which was not as good a performance as I had anticipated. My hopes lived on, however, as I had not had the opportunity to market the work in India, China, South America, Africa, or Russia, not to mention Indonesia, Japan, and many other places where, all told, billions of people make their homes to this very day.

I assumed that Cheever would read the book, think it was magnificent, review it in awe, and that it would therefore be placed on the front page of the book review. This, needless to say, would help in boosting total sales toward the one-hundred-million mark—although, I must admit, I’ve been on the front page many times now (though I may never be again), and sales have not been quite that robust.

He did read the book; he had no choice, he needed our swimming pool. And he did like it and told me so, after which I spent several days raping my calculator. One of the things I was going to do with the money was to buy the New York City Police Department (don’t kid yourself about the feasibility of that) so as to be able to redirect their efforts toward fighting crime rather than living with it. I was also going to see if I could buy Grand Central Station, which I was going to make into the world’s most magnificent studio apartment. Can you imagine my shock when John, dripping wet with heavily chlorinated water, told me that he was not going to review or even offer a quote for the book?

Maybe he just didn’t like it, but what he told me was that he had a book coming out, and a friend of his had a book coming out, and they were going to assist one another. This, he said apologetically, precluded his efforts on behalf of anyone else’s work, so as to maximize the impact. I was struck by a double lightning bolt of anger and shame. Anger that things were like this and that I was excluded, shame that I had hoped to do exactly what it was that had suddenly been done to me. It was no less a stunning lesson in the falsity of the system that judges and promotes books than it was in my own vanity and weakness of character.

I vowed at that moment, spurred on, as is so often the case, by shame, never to review a work of fiction, never to quote for a book (once, I allowed a letter to be excerpted in which I described the author of a very fine book, but not the book itself), never to serve on a prize jury, never to participate, in short, in trading favors—and I never have. Most people who encounter one writer’s recommendation of another, whether in an advertisement in the press, on a book jacket, or in a review, assume that they are witnessing an act of altruism spurred by a disinterested love of literature. Undoubtedly that is sometimes the case, but my experience over thirty years has taught me that most of the time these things are simply exchanged—like wampum—and that in addition they serve as a tool for keeping one’s name in front of the public without actually paying for it. If you are presented as an arbiter of taste, it really can’t hurt you the next time around, can it? In this system, the ideal posture is one of noblesse oblige. The participants want to put their generosity on display as much as their fellows in politics want to make public every ounce of their compassion. It’s good business and it explains why Vinic Totmule says of Joshua X. Belasco, Joshua X. Belasco is perhaps the finest writer in English today, except, of course, for Vinic Totmule, and it then goes on to explain why Joshua X. Belasco is quoted all over the place as saying, Vinic Totmule writes in white-hot prose.

INTERVIEWER

How are you received in academic circles?

HELPRIN

As you might imagine—given that I am absolutely sure of the now heretical proposition that you cannot judge a book by the race or sex of its author. And you can imagine how well I and my work are received in academic circles, when I assert plainly and without apology that deconstructionism, like Nazism or Stalinism, is less a system of thought than a sign of mental illness. In 1975, I went to visit Roger Rosenblatt at The New Republic in Washington. He had been one of my teachers at Harvard and Marty Peretz had been a tutor in Kirkland House, where I had lived briefly a decade before. Roger reintroduced me to Marty by saying, You remember Helprin, don’t you? From the asylum?

He was making a joke that then came true. I had always wondered what would happen to people who spent six to ten years laboring on a five-hundred-page tome entitled “Vaginal Motifs in Etruscan Beekeeping,” and now I know. They go stark raving mad and then they get tenure. In an accident of history, the American university system mistakenly modeled itself after the German rather than the English and then distorted even that. The greatest sin in American academia is to make a generalization. That’s why Oxford and Cambridge seem so civilized in comparison; there, they recognize that life, history—even the deeper currents of science—are terms of art. Here, on the other hand, you spend the best years of your life grinding away at vaginal motifs in Etruscan beekeeping and when it comes time for independent thinking you’re about as ready as the lid of a garbage can.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse to death and I do want to return to your line of inquiry, so let me say in summary that relativism and politicization have so smothered the universities and the world of publishing that to state, as I do, that it is possible to serve universal ideals and appeal, non-politically, to the fundamental needs of human nature by addressing its fundamental questions, is perceived as heresy. The end and the beginning of it is that I dissent from the dominant orthodoxies that cradle the profession I practice, that, despite what some assert, I have never been shy about it, and that, therefore, I find myself not only out of the mainstream, but playing the role, at times, of moving target. As I have an activist nature, I fire back.

 

INTERVIEWER

Doesn’t this lead to overwhelming practical difficulties? A Soldier of the Great War was conspicuously overlooked for awards and for the Times list of notable books. Does that bother you?

HELPRIN

Of course it did, but only briefly. First, you may recall that I have mentioned shame in answering one or more of your questions. I have a very high quotient of shame and I believe in the existence of honor. Even though the magazine piece that questioned my honesty was false in itself, I was ashamed to be taken for the kind of person it portrayed. If you had a reputation for writing bad checks, despite the fact that you had never written one in your life, you would feel very bad every time you took out your checkbook.

And yet, I feel myself responsible for everything that happens to me, even if I’m not. That’s just the way it is. So I feel that the reason A Soldier of the Great War didn’t get any prizes is that it just wasn’t good enough. True, the reviews were so extraordinary that they were suspect. How many times can one be likened to Tolstoy without questioning the standards of the age in which people write this about you? And Germans too, no less. On an intellectual level, I might wonder about this prize business, the crux of which is that I don’t grease anybody, but, emotionally, I feel that it was my fault. And therefore, subject to my control. This is what enables me to wade through these minor adversities. The difficulty that most leads to alienation and despair is powerlessness, and I do not feel powerless. Why? Well, it is within my power to write a better book than the last (not that I always will, but I can aim at it). It is within my power to understand the circumstances in which that book is received. It is within my power to put temporal glory in perspective and to order my priorities according to what is fundamentally, even eschatologically, important. Having done so, being left off a list of notable books becomes somewhat less than a mortal wound.

Second, what you mean by the practical basis, I assume, is the ability to make a living and find satisfaction in one’s work. I have always had another profession. Only of late, in the last hundred years or so, has the world economy become rich enough to support a specialized caste of writers. Most writers have always had other things to do and done them well. I noticed a long time ago that writers who did nothing but write were generally a sorry lot of self-pitying neurotics, and that by contrast, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Chekhov, Yeats, although they may have had their troubles, usually had another iron in the fire. I believe it was Flaubert who said something like “live like a bourgeois, so you can write like a wild man.” I see the opposite of that these days, and also that passion is reserved for politics and reason for literature, when it should be the reverse.

Anyway, I set out to follow an alternate profession. I went to graduate school to study political science and history. I experienced the full spectrum, starting at Harvard, where, despite a general atmosphere of petty insanity, I must admit to finding a very impressive synthesis of the German and English approach. I then lurched to Oxford (lurch, by the way, was the word), where they do beautifully in writing history as literature, and finally thudded down (perfect way to describe it) at Columbia, where the political science department is so quantitative that students who lacked math just sat there like Cabbage Patch dolls.

At present I’m a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute (where I work on military questions pertaining to the Middle East), a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal, where I write for the editorial page. These are wonderful places staffed by brilliant people, and my association with them (the antecedent of them being mainly the people) more than makes up for anything I may forego by being of a different species than that of my literary brethren.

I may be ostracized, but there is no organization to it, so I do manage to keep busy. We’re moving to a farm and I go to bed at night thinking about alfalfa—not the character in Our Gang, but the vegetable. Helping to raise my two children is the best and most valuable thing I’ve ever done and I’m right in the midst of what have been increasingly wonderful years (don’t forget, I’m home all the time). Mix this all up with piano lessons, walking in the mountains, finishing my next novel, writing newspaper columns, making an occasional speech, managing a household, and being married to a lawyer who is a lot taller than I am and very beautiful, and you have a full life.

INTERVIEWER

How important is financial security for the writer?

HELPRIN

As with everything else, you’re ruined by either too much or too little. The question remains, how do you define what is too much or too little? One of the most beautiful phrases in the Hebrew liturgy is Daienu, which is pronounced die-ain-u. It means “enough (for us),” and in the song that is sung at Passover, the idea is that God has given much more than we require. Among other things, this allows us not to waste our lives in continual pursuit of more, and suggests that we should decide what it is that we truly need and then learn to stop wanting.

Of course, this idea flies in the face of materialism, for, in the practical application of materialism—as the current state of the United States illustrates—you can never have enough, and your goals are set not according to an understanding of what is needed but rather only in competition with others (yet another downside of relativism). I have enough. I have always thought that I have had enough, even when I lived in one room ten feet from the railroad tracks, in the Bat Galim quarter of Haifa, and my first wife and I had to share a bathroom with fifty Russians, Turks, and other refugees. And why was I content with what I had in that objectively somewhat difficult situation? Simply because, in light of the real suffering that sweeps continually over the world and always has, in light of the forces that, for me, find their most startling expression in the Holocaust, how could I not be content? How could I be affected by—you brought it up—being left off the list of someone’s favorite books?

INTERVIEWER

It’s hard to imagine what you’ve described as being standard procedure for how to become a writer. Are your present-day habits as idiosyncratic?

HELPRIN

I’m sorry if I always go on at length and then respond to your question summarily, but the essence of the answer is that I work with a great deal of discipline, although I usually take on more than I can handle and often have to extend due dates. I have always been appalled by bohemianism because of its laziness, disorder, and moral weakness. I understand that this way of living is a response to the fact of human frailty, but it leans too far in one direction. Being a little more buttoned up doesn’t mean that you’ll get so brittle that you’ll break. Nor does it mean that you don’t understand tragedy, loss, and, most of all, human limitation.

 

INTERVIEWER

Is dealing with sex in a novel ever a problem? Why in the main is it done so badly by novelists?

HELPRIN

Why would dealing with sex in a novel be a problem? The trick, I believe, as with almost everything else in the world, is to keep it in proportion, to be honest about it, and to be modest. When a man and a woman feel love or infatuation and the ethical codes by which they live permit it, they express it physically. Of course it can get quite intense—hyperventilating and wall banging and that sort of thing—but when it’s over it’s over and you go on to something else.

I think the failures to which you allude can be explained by various complementary theories. Quite simply, if one has no sexual outlet, one will think about sex a great deal. Writers work in isolation and are generally thoughtful people who do not live to satisfy their desires the way people do in, say, Brazil. In addition, the literary culture is also one of failed marriages, odd neuroses, and ill health. If you combine all these things you get less sex than biology might require and so you get musings driven by heat. I find, for example, that I tend to write about food when I’m hungry—it’s only natural.

Another reason may be that, without an intuitive sense of what art is, many people use sex as a—forgive me—prosthesis, just as they use politics, to fill the emptiness in their understanding. And, of course, it sells, doesn’t it, so it elicits a Pavlovian response in writers. It’s like a pigeon pressing the right button and causing food pellets to drop down a chute. Throw in a few tumescent penises and “breasts like upright cones” and you can put in that new swimming pool or make your annual contribution to The Cat Wilhelmina Guerilla Unit of the Animal Rights Liberation Army.

 

INTERVIEWER

I can’t resist asking. Have you ever suffered writer’s block?

HELPRIN

Never happened. Probably because I never had the sense that I was obligated to meet anyone’s expectations other than my own (and I can forgive my own mistakes) or my father’s (which were so demanding that he could never be satisfied anyway). Assuming that you are a professional and that you know how to write, why would you be unable to do so? If an electrician said, I have electrician’s block. I just can’t bend conduit. I can’t! I can’t! I can’t run wires! Help me, please! he would be committed. One thing would be certain, and that is that his paralysis in the face of his work would have only to do with him, and not with his craft. I’m of the old school, I guess, and I would call writer’s block laziness, lack of imagination, inflated expectations, or having-spent-your-entire-advance-in-Rio-de-Janeiro-and-taking-taxis-and-going-to-restaurants-you-can’t-afford-before-you-have-written-a-single-word-of-the-book-you-pitched-to-a-cretin-with-an-out-of-control-cash-flow.

 

INTERVIEWER

A banal but important question: why do you write?

HELPRIN

I share Norman Maclean’s view of literature, although I did not discover him until about ten years ago, long after I had set myself to the task in which he succeeded so beautifully. The motto of my first book, intended to apply to everything that followed, is, “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” from the second canto of Inferno in Dante’s Commedia. I translate it, “Love moved me and makes me speak.” Beatrice is explaining to Virgil why she is asking him to help Dante after he has fallen. I have always taken this as Dante’s answer to the Paris Review question of why do you write. And it is certainly mine.

I have no doubt, as well, that it was Norman Maclean’s. Just think of the last line of “A River Runs Through It”: “I am haunted by waters.” Of course, you have to have read it to understand why it is his way of saying, “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” but he more or less verified this interpretation in a letter I have that, during the eighties, before Maclean died, was circulated almost like a document of the samizdat. It is from him to a Hollywood producer, and it reads, in part, “The story [“A River Runs Through It”] is . . . my love poem to my family, and in the end reaches into the blind world where one cannot help—does not even know how to try to help someone he loves until it is too late to help . . . . I waited until after I was seventy before I was sure that my hand and feelings were steady enough not to make a mistake in telling this story. No ‘figures’ in the world would persuade me to permit someone else to tell the tragedy of my family without my ultimate approval of the way my family and the way I feel about them are portrayed.”

In 1977, the Pulitzer Prize jury chose to award the fiction prize to Maclean for A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, but it was overruled by the Advisory Board. That year, no Pulitzer Prize for fiction was given, and that year, to paraphrase Andre Maurois, it died (although the body sometimes stirs, such as when it embraced Bill Kennedy).

As for your question, I am asked it quite frequently, as you may imagine. In fact, it runs a close third to “do you write with a pencil or a pen?” and “can you make a living?” I always fail, out of politeness, to point out that the only people who are asked questions like these are prostitutes. No one asks professional water skiers, Why do you water ski? And I have never heard anyone inquire of a waitress or a park ranger if they are able to make a living.

When asked the why-do-you-write question, you are usually expected to present a fairly elaborate theoretical construct graced with ornaments of altruism that veer into politics. A lot of idiots will say that they want to “communicate.” Intellectuals will lust to guide you through their theoretical construct, and you can bet that they’ll have one. First, almost by definition, an intellectual must have a theoretical basis for those rare occasions when he takes action. Second, in a secular world, each artist is a mini-god, tasked with creating new universes between breakfast and dinner. It used to be that if one believed, like Dante or Shakespeare, one was content to imitate the beauties of life and the world, even to praise them. The artist’s task was one of illumination and memory. Now it is one of creation, and look at the difference between, let us say, Mozart and John Cage, or Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett.

This modern impulse, that arose when lack of faith abridged the common language of mankind, has been mainly destructive. My proof of this is simply to contrast the art of modernism with the art that came before it. But even if you look kindly, as I do not, upon what I consider the wrong turn taken at the beginning of this century, you still may admit that each artist now creates his own frame of reference. That is supposed to be one of the glories of modern art and it partially explains why the artist has been an intellectual; he has to spend most of his time explaining, in the new language he has invented, the new worlds he has created. The only problem is that compared to what we already have these newly created worlds are pretty thin.

If you don’t operate according to the conventions of modernism, they write you off as a simpleton, for who but a simpleton these days would not have a complex code, entirely of his own making, that he is ready to flog in a diversity of settings and promote as if it were the political program of a very tiny special interest group? And these days the artistes are so exhausted that they can hardly come up with their wimpy little private codes, so they politicize their work—not only because they’re weak minded but because they’re too debilitated to do anything except follow instantaneous social currents. They simply don’t know how, in the same way that it is unimportant whether or not Roy Lichtenstein chooses to paint like Raphael, because, whatever it is that he wants to do, he can’t paint like Raphael.

Then there is the notion of progressivity, the idea that art, like science, is moving on a linear track and must always go forward—this despite the fact that the overwhelming characteristic of the universe is that its physical laws cannot be abridged, its materials and cycles stay more or less the same, and human history and development are stable enough so that we are just as moved by poetry (such as, for example, the psalms) written at its beginning as by a song written yesterday. If you credit the idea of progressivity, you will always have a facile but careless answer to the question why do you write. You will say, even if you bathe it in modesty, that you are doing your part to advance civilization. Please.

My answer, then, as you may have guessed, is very simple. I write in service of illumination and memory. I write to reach into “the blind world where no one can help.” I write because it is a way of glimpsing the truth. And I write to create something of beauty.

One thing I can say is that I am quite certain that Mozart did not have a philosophical or theoretical justification and explanation for what he did. The music was obviously divine and he went after it as best he could, which, fortunately for everyone else, could not have been better. You don’t have to be Mozart or Shakespeare or Raphael to follow the same lead. But these days, to follow that lead you do have to be willing to go it alone.

Create or Else: Jack Rabid

March 17, 2013.

No writing today because it was the most perfect still sunday! It was filled with California sunshine, love, and family time.

Sometimes words really aren’t necessary, says the girl who eats words for breakfast and rearranges their meanings in her sleep.

I did get to some writing but it was for the “Note to the Reader” section for my collection of stories. The “Acknowledgments” section remains blank. Knowing me, it will be quite short. Anyway. In that process, I went down the rabbit hole of some of my writings that I have shared here.

Then I listened (again) to Jack Rabid’s words tonight.  He is the creator of The Big Takeover magazine. His words in this video made me realize that sometimes as important as the one creating the experience (for example, a musician), if not more so, is the one experiencing that which has been created, the one also known as the real fan. The term fan might as well be obsolete now because we think “followers” are fans when they are really just followers. The real fan is an artist in his or her own right. The real fan is a believer, the disciple who stands next to you before others can see the full picture. The real fan creates something quite different with the experience; sometimes it is visible and other times not so obvious.

I am very grateful for those who continue to read my writings here and share however, whenever and wherever.
Here is the link to the video in case it doesn’t open up within the post. I wanted to place it in my vault for future nights.