Thoughts about Albuquerque & a place called The Open Gym

As strange as it may sound, I have been avoiding writing about Albuquerque and New Mexico so as to prevent anyone learning more about it. This is very unlike me. When I like or love or find something curious, I share it with the entire world. It matters not if that world consists of one person or one hundred people. In this instance I have been very childlike. You know how a young child can sometimes pretend that if he or she closes his eyes, the object before him would simply go poof and disappear? Of course at the particular age of development a child isn’t aware that this is not plausible. So I have been childish lately, thinking that if I don’t talk much about it, I won’t jinx it by inviting unappreciative energy. That somehow as if I stay quiet, no one will know how great it is here. This is because I am protective. I am protective of this city and state as I was once about my New York that no longer is. I am protective as one might be about a new love. You want to scream at the top of your lungs that you are somehow living a dream you dared never even bother dreaming and yet at the same time you don’t want to invite envy or jealousy. I want to protect it from what is happening to cities all over. I don’t want to draw attention to the city in the fears that it will become the next “cool” or “hip” city. “Cleaning up a city” shouldn’t mean making sure locals can’t afford to live there.

Locals assure me not to fear given the high poverty level and significant small and big gang related crimes (robberies and car break-ins etc.). Locals remind me of the poor job market. Locals assure me that the DWI levels alone will keep people away. Others confidently state that most folks just go to the ritzy Santa Fe or Taos either becoming, or chasing, caricatures of art, missing the spiritual essence of the land despite it being right under their nose, bypassing this quirky, sometimes gritty, city as soon as they land. People in the Hollywood industry know Albuquerque well given so many movies and shows are filmed in New Mexico. Yet this influx never changes things permanently. No one wants to stay. It comes on and off the map like cheap lip gloss. It is and isn’t part of the United Sates’ psyche. Most people hear “New Mexico” and think you mean “northern” Mexico.  People sort of  know about Arizona but there is so much misinformation about New Mexico (if there is any prior knowledge at all) that her identity remains a mystery.

I must disclose the following: I don’t know how I would feel about the city if I were a kid who grew up here. Maybe I would leave and never look back. Maybe I would leave and then come back in my middle years or to retire (many miss the weather and seasons, not to mention the 300 days of sunshine). So, my perspective is based on being married to someone who is from here and proud to be from here and my having lived in many states and continents. I no longer need to be in a city that must entertain me every time I step out. Or perhaps, better put, what entertains me is very different now.  Actually, that’s not entirely correct either. While I lived in NYC I would live off of strangers’ tall tales and true stories but they became harder and harder to hear as the city started resembling more like Ray Bradbury’s nightmare than a cool science-fiction graphic novel. I mention this to assert that even in NYC what entertained me was not the clubs, the shopping, or any “scene”. Very few people truly understand what I loved about the city, especially my neighborhood.

There is one major university here, University of New Mexico, and yet Albuquerque is not a college town like Boulder, Lawrence or Des Moines. I like that about it. Jobs are hard to come by unless you work for the state or local government in some capacity. I had a college friend who lived here some years ago, long before I even met my husband, who said it is hard to meet people if you are not from here. Others have confirmed this; however, it hasn’t deterred me from making stranger-friends. Public schools are not the best (except the ones like mine!) but the private ones are, of course, bar none. Other than Nob Hill and Downtown (the city is trying to clean up Downtown and has done an amazing job to make it more inviting without gentrification) there really aren’t any designated strips like in Berkeley, Austin or the likes. You have to scratch the surface to find gems. In some ways it reminds me of Philly from fifteen years ago. That being said, people are genuinely nice and real. And they are filled with generations of stories and a product of at least three different cultures who have been living side-by-side for 100 years or more, including decades without recorded bloodshed. There are many breweries, coffee shops, several locally owned stores that are able to survive next to the big chains, housing is affordable, and the sky is a lucid dream.

The Indigenous/ Native American communities were here for tens of thousands of years. Then the Spanish were here for a couple of centuries. Then it became Mexican territory for a couple of decades. Thereafter it has been part of the United States ever since. Santa Fe is the oldest state capital city in the United States. The United States didn’t exist when Santa Fe was founded. Perhaps because it has always been a cultural meeting place despite people’s diverse backgrounds, the food is some of the best I have had in the world!

 

My silence has been about protecting this city from a Silicon Valley invasion or even a remote infection (pun intended). I know this sounds silly but the arrogant take over by young people in charge of decisions that impact so many when they don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions is not only dangerous, it is not sustainable. It isn’t that young people haven’t existed before; it’s just that we treated them as inexperienced no matter how brilliant or talented. Somehow we have started equating “page hits”, “likes” and “retweets” with experience, maturity, intelligence, and compassion.

Then I realized that silence could be perceived as permission. I am going to be writing about Albuquerque, starting with this post, in the hopes that my words will attract more people who genuinely appreciate this city and state and less who want to move here and change it into whatever hip place they left. I met one young lad at a local bookstore here who had the audacity to remark, “Yeah, New Mexico would be perfect if there was a beach!” It’s a land-locked state! There is no beach! If you want to be near a beach, live there! Don’t dig a puddle with your money and “try to bring the beach” with you. That’s what I am talking about.

If you love where you live (realizing no place is perfect per se) and enjoy your neighbors and the community, then you know how I feel.

Green Sea

After first freeze. November, 2015. Albuquerque, NM.

 

Today’s Albuquerque local story is about Bill. Bill owns a medium sized gym called The Open Gym. I have only talked to Bill twice. In fact, prior to talking to Bill the second time, which prompted this post, I had only seen Bill around the gym a few times without even knowing he is the owner. Let’s back track as to what in the world could I possibly be doing at a placed called a gym?

I hate gyms. Gyms remind me of hamster cages. Somehow I have never been able to convince myself that being at a gym is fun. In California I tried so many gyms to maintain my functional health and physical condition, that I lost count after four. Everyone was a fitness coach or trainer (once again, young and lacking experience). Apparently being able to walk upright made a person qualified to be a trainer or an instructor. If it hadn’t been for Francine’s yoga classes or the yoga teachers who would come and teach at Yoga Space in Bakersfield, I would have been in an even worse physical and mental health than when I left. When I left my home in NYC in 2012, I was in the best shape of my life. This is saying a lot given I had always been active. After college this became challenging due to multiple factors but in 2007 I found Marco Rojas and his yoga classes were an emotional, mental, and spiritual challenge that relied on physical alignment and strength. In California, this last year, before it was apparent that I was losing my strength, I went on walks, I tried yoga, and I even bought into that cross-fit idiocracy (no offence to anyone—but it is NOT, repeat NOT, good for your joints. Maybe if you are 18 and can jump around, it won’t hurt you right away, but given how it is executed most places, it is a disaster). Anyway, upon moving to Albuquerque we have been literally doing something or other since we settled into our beautiful space.

About four weeks ago I decided although I love both of the yoga studios I attend, I was not getting stronger. Unlike my husband who is a disciplined fitness aficionado and incredibly nutritionally aware (and a phenomenal cook!), I am not. Jamie doesn’t need to go to a gym or take group classes or have a coach. He can do it all by himself right at home. Most gyms are designed as a place for people to feel good about themselves for attending, regardless of any results. They can be isolating yet serve as a pick-up joint both for men and women. People are competitive and rude. I am happy if this has not been your experience. In fact, I have a friend in NYC who is a gym rat and goes to a really big gym and loves it. However, most gyms are trying to be like this absurdity and no thank you.

 

I can’t really recall how I found Bill’s gym. I think I was looking for strength training classes and something in my search led me to information about a trainer named Adelaide Mcmillan. Upon joining the gym (which is so affordable!) I decided to work with her because I wanted to learn more about rock climbing and hiking. I am in New Mexico, after all. In order to be able to join her and others who regularly go rock climbing with her, I needed to become stronger. So, once a week, I train with her and follow her plan on my own four times for the rest of the week. I am continuing with my yoga three times a week. It hasn’t even been four full weeks and I already feel so much stronger.

Adelaide has a wonderful sense of humor and the best part is that she is neither a ditzy Barbie doll nor a woman who feels compelled to be aggressive and macho. She is not trying to be permanently 20; she is beautiful and extremely strong. She also loves to travel and really likes Albuquerque. I hope I can share a photo of her and her story here later.

I love this gym because the people who go there are regulars. I see the same faces even if I haven’t talked to many of them. It feels safe and as a woman I am not disgusted or annoyed by men on a testosterone high. Women actually smile at one another and everyone is so courteous. It doesn’t have a spa bathroom but the changing rooms are always squeaky clean and have showers if one so desires. And this is the most important part for me: most dumbbells and weights are made of this metal which leaves a residue that smells like burnt iron. I have an idiosyncratic disdain for that smell. I can’t stand it. I have to hold things that smell like that with a glove or a towel. None of the weights at The Open Gym have that metallic stench! It’s amazing! I don’t know what material they are made of but it sure isn’t metallic or if it is, it is covered.

This Saturday when I walked into the gym, I was so moved by this image. There was Bill fixing the hardwood floor. This is what local looks like, was my first thought.

Bill

 

 

I introduced my self and thanked him for this space. I told him why it was important to me. It wasn’t just about fitness, it was also about writing. The time I was writing full time in New York, I was also on top of my physical health. If a writer, coach, teacher, artist, poet, is a vessel through which creativity flows, then the vessel needs to be strong enough to process all that comes. I haven’t been able to write since June. Yes, it has been because of settling into a new place and all sorts of relaxing-ness and busy-ness, but it has also been because I have not been able to take care of my joints and muscles. I wanted to express my gratitude to him for this place that I look forward to going.

While I was chatting with him, I learned that Bill is also an attorney! We discussed schools and law and owning one’s own business. Yes, Albuquerque may not have a lot of typical corporate jobs, but it is great if you want to run your own business.

 

My mother always says that wherever one lives, one must literally appreciate the dirt of that land. This means giving back to the community in ways no one may ever notice. This means taking care of the city. This means loving the city with all your mighty heart, unafraid.

I never imagined I would get a chance to call another place home after New York. But then again, I never thought I would actually like a gym. So much for knowing oneself entirely despite the many experiences that reveal to us how and who we really are.

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.

Summer of 2015: Bread Loaf School of English

Is there anything sweeter than June?

Of course there is. It is July and August! It is an entire summer dedicated to reading, writing, and being in a place where the exploring has no end.

Greetings from New Mexico!

 

In September of 2014 I sent an email to those subscribed in which I shared my extensive research related to MFA and Phd. programs and my reasons for not wanting to attend either. However, I mentioned that I was quite taken by Middlebury College’s graduate school, Bread Loaf School of English, for a variety of reasons, reasons that I didn’t share.

I didn’t think–didn’t have time to think–about any of it becoming a reality until February of 2015. Looking back on it, September of 2014 till February of 2015 is hardly any time in between but because of so much that happened in that short amount of time, it feels like lifetimes. In March of this year I had a very honest  exchange with the admissions director: I was not some teacher confused about what I “really wanted to do” when I grew up; I was extremely picky about workshops and such, having attended only two to date (one in Prague in 2011 before Auguries and one in March of this year hosted by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency in Big Sur); and my definition of “community” was very old school, basically sans the digital static; and the idea of more debt for yet another degree wasn’t exactly exciting. I was so taken aback by her patience, kindness, and sincerity regarding all my concerns, that I decided it was worth applying with all my  heart. Where there was one real human being there had to be others, right?

I began my personal statement essay with: “Are you a writer who teaches? Or are you a teacher who writes?”

I ended that essay as follows:

In February of this year I had the opportunity to present my work of last two years with my phenomenal students in a rural community in California at the CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) conference in San Jose. On the final day of that conference we were given a long quote by John Steinbeck, part of which I share now, the part that answered my question.

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

It is my hope that during each summer of attending Bread Loaf I will find a community of avid readers and learners, which will make me a better writer. My experience at Bread Loaf will be one of joy and it will help me be of service to my students. It would also provide for a shared reading experience that I would cherish beyond any classroom.

Essentially, if I was going to go back to graduate studies, I wanted the cake and I wanted to eat it too and that too without calories!

Ask and receive.

So, here I am. Very grateful for this opportunity to become a better writer by having a shared reading experience.

 

In other news, Vusi and I are almost done with www.realthinkingtree.com (it will be live in a few days! It’s has been a huge learning curve for me to create a digital platform like this and I couldn’t have done it without Vusi). I created it to share my reading and writing strategies with parents and educators as I continue to grow in this profession. I feel it is imminent that educators across the United States (and the world) utilize the Internet to share what they are doing (or what they are unable to do, even if anonymously) to help one another given what’s at stake here, the future. Here is an excellent post on the demise of the artist-teacher.  What makes www.realthinkingtree.com unique is that it is also a safe platform for students–from anywhere–to connect with each other (and with me) about their thoughts on reading, writing, and learning because students’ voices are missing from the learning conversation.  In order to make that possible, we had to review COPPA, a federal law that regulates activities of users under 13. COPPA requires parental consent before signing up on sites “that may attract children under 13”. In the past I have only worked with older students, but while I was living in California I had the unique opportunity to work with an amazing group of 5th graders. They will now be in 7th grade and in case they find me (many have!) and want to sign up I had to ensure it was done properly. What’s interesting is that both Fakebook and Twitter are able to bypass COPPA by stating that they are not platforms which attract children under 13. I wish that was true! More importantly, I wish there was better enforcement of these regulations given the dangers of younger folks signing up on social sites.

 

Finally, here is the podcast interview with Jessican Ann Media where I talk about writing, auguries, yoga, community etc. I have received some wonderful feedback about it and I am grateful for the opportunity.

 

Bread Loaf.

I am enrolled in two courses for this summer. The first course is “Nuclear Southwest: Literature and Film” and is taught by Jesse Aleman. I have been reading this assigned link as a warm-up to the background on the Atomic Bomb. The “interdisciplinary course examines the literary and cultural fallout of the atomic Southwest—a constellation of texts, images, and film that confront the nuclear era with protest, critique, fear, survival, and humor.” Last night I watched two assigned films, one of them was Trinity and Beyond (available on Hulu ) and the other was The Moment in Time: The Manhattan Project (available on YouTube). Both films show the uncertain days of the beginning of World War II when it was feared the Nazis were developing the atomic bomb and the migration of a group of nuclear scientists to Los Alamos where the first atomic bomb was detonated. I am very lucky that my in-laws, both in their 70s, are actually from New Mexico and have seen many parts of the state, including the changes to their hometown Santa Fe, which provides for another rare perspective not offered in a textbook or documentary film.

The second one is “Indigenous American Literature” and is taught by Simon J. Ortiz! I was first introduced to such literature by Prof. Bud Hirsch at University of Kansas. I have written–not as well as I can now– about that much younger self here (the shorter version, our first conversation) and here (the longer version, our last conversation before Prof. Hirsch died too soon). Reading these two older posts about an even younger time in my life brought tears of joy. I wish I could tell Bud that I am enrolled at Bread Loaf and I will be taking a class where we begin the session by reading the exact same book which I read with him, Ceremony by Leslie Mormon Silko. Silko is originally from Albuquerque and among many other well-deserved acclaims also  “self-published her multi-genre book Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (1993) under her own imprint (Flood Plain Press).”

Moreover, I wish I could tell him that his letter of recommendation didn’t just land me in law school, but because of that experience I met another great professor who became a wonderful mentor and remains a dear friend. That I had a lot of questions after his death but now I know I was never lost and he always knew that. Most importantly, I wish he could have met Jamie, my best friend, the love of all my lives, and I could tell him I finally “get” what he meant by a “love that just doesn’t quit, no matter what life throws at us, a love where you are in love always.”

His loss doesn’t make me sad like it once did. If anything, it confirms that there are no mistakes, and there is indeed some invisible trajectory following commands, whispers from our deepest chambers, that we can’t always hear.

So, I will be reporting from “The Land of Enchantment”, New Mexico, this summer. That is, when I am not reading and writing!

I am re-reading Fahrenheit 451 and other Bradbury stories again because I plan on teaching them. Re-reading Ceremony after over a decade. The rest of these are not Bread Loaf readings but my own! Hope I can do it! I am almost done with the Stinging Fly issue and it is fantastic.

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

 

Still Sundays: Ghosts of Elsewhere

October 12, 2014

 

I have been traveling in other worlds lately. The worlds of William Maxwell and Frank O’Connor’s words. I am in Ireland and in New York but I am still here too as I stare upon Elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” is always a place in Lahore or somewhere in South Africa. I see corners of streets from “Elsewhere” if the sunset’s light hits the smog on the leaves a certain way. Some days, the quiet on a street after the cars leave an intersection takes me to this “Elsewhere” to which GPS coordinates don’t exist.

I have lived many lives and when it comes to “Elsewhere” I have lived them more than once in this very lifetime.

I sometimes wonder if I am everywhere but Lahore on purpose, at least in part unconsciously. Some secret resolve to keep oneself protected from such depths one can’t claw out of, at least not without bleeding. How much blood can you shed for the past? It requires immense strength to pull your entire body weight to toss yourself over the other side of a wall. Now, add to that weight the additional poundage of memories, good ones, of a world that doesn’t exist anymore, not even in pictures that can now be touched to insta-glorify even garbage.

I think of William Maxwell’s words, thoughts, dispositions, in his stories, interviews, anecdotes about him, and his letters and editorial notes to Frank O’ Connor. I relish the characters in Frank O’Connor’s stories; I have been reading many of them, almost all of them. “Ghosts” is a remarkable piece of art, sheer genius in my opinion.

“They could go looking for ghosts, but he had ghosts there inside himself and I knew in my heart that till the day he died he would never get over the feeling that his money had put him astray and he had turned his back on them.”

That’s how it ends, that story, and that’s how it stays with you forever.

The ghosts within us, of our other selves, that remember different worlds, aren’t scary but they are persistent. They don’t haunt us for the sake of nostalgia but as a plea to save the present.

 

Anyway, I think of William Maxwell and others and can’t help but wonder if any of them could ever relate to the stories I want to write, characters that don’t belong to one city, characters whose edges can’t be neatly cut according to most MFA programs that follow a trend even when they try so hard not to follow one. More importantly, I wonder if any such editor exists now. What I mean by that is, editors who hold their current positions because they are or were writers first. I mean, take the current editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman, I can’t seem to find any creative fiction she has penned despite being part of the literati long before taking on the role as an editor. (Side note: I use The New Yorker just as an example, not as some implicit attack; perhaps it is not fair to mention an example of a magazine whose fiction I don’t read, it was a very different magazine before the 90’s. This is not to say they haven’t published authors who deserve their public or literary reputation, but one doesn’t have to read The New Yorker to “discover” them).

 

But perhaps there is hope after all? The recent Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to an unknown author (to me and probably majority of the United States’ readers), French writer, Patrick Modiano.  Lucy shared an article with me which sheds light on the current creative conundrum. Horace Engdahl, Nobel judge, part of the Swedish Academy, hopes “the literary riches which we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa will not be lessened by the assimilation and the westernisation of these authors.” The article in The Guardian continues, “Engdahl slammed novels which ‘pretend to be transgressive’, but which are not. ‘One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,’ he said. ‘These novelists, who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.’”

What precisely constitutes as “westernization” is a dated concept in itself in my humble opinion. It’s not as easily defined as it once was. The advent of social media has changed the landscape in many ways, but in as many ways Internet and social media have brought this change, in equal amounts, thanks to people’s self-absorption everywhere, they now know even less about the world outside of their mobile devices and computers.

 

Frank O’ Connor’s Ireland reminds me of Lahore.

“I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people merely because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said; but that doesn’t mean that the stories themselves were inspired by events in Ireland. Many of them should really have English backgrounds; a few should even have American ones. Only language and circumstance are local and national; all the rest is, or should be, part of the human condition, and as true for America and England as it is for Ireland. The nicest compliment I have ever received was from a student while the authorities of the university were considering the important question of whether I was a resident or non-resident alien. “Mr. O’Connor, I find it hard to think of you as an alien at all.” (Steinman, Michael, ed. The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell 1945-1966. 15. New York: Knof, 1996. Print.)

 

Writing stories makes feel less of an alien on this planet, where geographic divides don’t make sense, given the human condition, made of ignorance, sufferings, joys, dreams, are as common throughout as the oxygen we need anywhere to stay alive.

Sometimes I feel this digital space will be known as the place where I recorded my challenges “to get it down right” till I finally got it down, even if not right, and I could care less because there would be no more ghosts.

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

 

“a special state of mind” ~ Marquez

It was during my first trip to Europe, a year before graduation from undergraduate studies at University of Kansas, a year before “September 11” would change travel, when I was first introduced to the works of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The novel was Love in the Time of Cholera and the time was a train. My friend Dawn who gave me the book before my first trip hopping European cities on trains had said, “You need this.”

I was young and like most, not all, young people I was in love with the idea of love which meant I was more interested in looking than finding and my melancholy stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know the difference. It was a rebellious trip in every which way possible and it would begin a series of events that eventually led to a rebellion with one’s worst nemesis, oneself.

I wasn’t very far into the book when I knew this was no ordinary writer and this was not just a love story. The last time I had been this moved by the writing itself, beyond the story, was when I had read The Great Gatsby on my own, long before it would become assigned reading in high school. I knew without having read any reviews or commentary that I was reading craftsmanship in the ranks of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner etc.

Her stylish attire did not seem appropriate for a venerable grandmother, but it suited her figure—long-boned and still slender and erect, her resilient hands without a single age spot, her steel-blue hair bobbed on a slant at her cheek. Her clear almond eyes and her inborn haughtiness were all that were left from her wedding portrait, but what she had been deprived of by age she more than made up for in character and diligence. She felt very well: the time of iron corsets, bound waists, and bustles that exaggerated buttocks was receding into the past. Liberated bodies, breathing freely, showed themselves for what they were. Even at the age of seventy-two. 

(Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Love in the Time of Cholera. p. 25-26, New York:  Knopf, 1988. Print.).

I was on one of the many train rides and felt this strange, fierce urge within to feel what it would feel like to write those sentences. So, I asked for a bunch of napkins from the little restaurant area in the train and started writing the aforementioned passage over and over again. I knew in the next city I would have to find a journal—I didn’t even have a journal, can you imagine?! But until then I wrote and rewrote those sentences until I felt full. The kind of full one feels after over-eating on a holiday dinner. Then on a different train I experienced another urge: what if I tried to describe people I saw on the trains the way he had? The way in describing how a man touched his eyelashes could offer your a glimpse of Italy’s history? What if…and what if… So I described people as if an artist might have attempted to jot a quick line sketch.

After the trip, upon my return to the United States, with one year still left at the university, becoming any kind of writer wasn’t even in the periphery of my imaginings. I was obsessed with international relations and took as many political science and history courses as possible. Then “September 11” happened. As if I wasn’t already about to burst in half doing splits between two cultures, now I had to redefine myself as the world changed definitions every other month. It was a very chaotic time and I wanted nothing more than to  start my life in the very city where the acts of terrorism took place. And a year later that is exactly what I did. Everything aligned perfectly—beyond human planning—for me to begin my life in New York City. Between the time of graduating and starting my life and work in New York City I read everything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez I could get my hands on. The only thing I still haven’t finished reading is the novel which would finally bring Marquez international notoriety: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I am not sure why this is given I have read even the most obscure of his collections, essays and other novellas. Perhaps now is as good a time as any.

What Gabriel Garcia Marquez gave me is what Franz Kafka gave him:

One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.

(Stone, Peter H. “Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Art of Fiction No. 69.” The Paris Review. The Paris Review Mag., Winter. 1981. Web. 2014).

I could write a love story and have it be a report on a country, culture and history! I could tell a political story about love and I didn’t have to fit myself in a niche of a culture that matched my skin color or the color of my passport! Of course I didn’t think of all these things the instant I read his words. That would be a slow coming together. As all of you following this journey since 2010 already know.

A year away from becoming a Nobel laureate and before the publication of the English translation of Love in the Time of Cholera in 1988, Marquez ends the 1981 Paris Review interview by stating:

I’m absolutely convinced that I’m going to write the greatest book of my life, but I don’t know which one it will be or when. When I feel something like this—which I have been feeling now for a while—I stay very quiet, so that if it passes by I can capture it.

 

In 2009 when I began writing to share my encounters with my friends (which eventually led to this blog in 2010) it was because of Marquez’s Leaf Storm which he wrote for his friends who had been his biggest supporters long before anyone knew of his work. I created this space so my closest friends and lovers of stories and words could stand witness to the trial of fragments where sometimes I am the judge and other times the advocate and yet other times a mere stenographer.  And the year 2009 began long before 2009. Somewhere in Paris that summer when I finished Love in the Time of Cholera I sat in a typical internet cafe staring at the email I had crafted to my recipients. I counted the number of people to which the email was going. When I had begun that trip I was writing an email update of my travels to every person I knew whose email address I had. Three months later I was only emailing a handful of friends.  I mean the others had done nothing wrong but I felt they couldn’t relate or understand or appreciate my urgency—literal, acute, grave compulsion—to share those reports of my travels. I didn’t know then that there was a writer in me whose primary task was to ensure I was always in the company of those who could see that writer even though this other me would have laughed at the idea of writing a book, a blog, a thought.

I am grateful for each and every person who has served as a baluster in this journey, this “special state of mind.”

-a.q.s.

 

“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.

stillness is a manji…or charpai…

March 31, 2013

Still Sundays.

I am still convinced yesterday was Sunday. I should have written yesterday. I felt stillness bow from the edge of the horizon to the fingertips of the wind. I should have written yesterday. Today is not yesterday. Today has clouds and nostalgia is not as sweet; the aftertaste of memories has a vengeance. The best stillness is in which you are aware of the only truth that is real: there is only now.

 

Today I will share about a manji. Also known as manjaa, charpai, charpaya, and charpoy.

 

Here is the Wikipedia definition thanks to the internet: char “four” + paya “footed” is a traditional woven bed in the subcontinent of southeast Asia.

Dictionary.com offers that it is a noun that is a light bedstead used in India, consisting of a web of rope or tape netting.

Of course, also thanks to the Internet, we can charge $500 (or more, depends how much you can afford in your efforts to impress imaginary people who don’t really matter to you) for something that actually costs $2.00 to make in the country of origin.  Owning these as decor—not actual use, heavens forbid!— also serves as novelty for the plutocrats. Ironically, often the people who use these cots are villagers who can’t afford anything better.
Digression:
The other day while passing through Los Angeles, I overheard a group of men (producers?) discussing their possible pitches to the funding gods in the entertainment industry. Their topics included: a “reality television” series where plastic surgeons compete for make-overs; a “reality television” series where people buy houses without seeing the neighborhood; and one other asinine idea which I am now forgetting. I was shocked by two things: 1) Their unawareness about the privilege to quite possibly bring their ill conceived ideas to something quite real which the general public will end up watching and 2) One of the middle-aged men was wearing a shirt that had one word on it, ‘unemployed’.
I watched them finish their $12.00 sandwiches and then saw the “unemployed” man drive away in his  very new B.M.W.  I don’t doubt he has never worked a day in his life. I know this with certainty because his idea wouldn’t be so trite if he had.

 

Here is an example of a writer talking about a manji in a blogpost:
I bought this cot from an Indian store. It was too expensive I thought but my mother said it is great quality, very durable. The colors are simple and it really is strong. It brings me such joy. I can feel the cool breeze when I just rest on it. I love drinking my coffee on it. That is so divine. I find it so interesting that the very people who look down upon those who consider this their bed in villages in the Subcontinent of Asia are the ones who like to have one in their houses but not to use—only to show!

 

Here is an example of a poet talking about a manji in a post:
“Manji”
the knots that hold me/I can feel the hands who made them/ like earth/ I understand the sky.

 

Here is an example of an aspiring author writing about a manji and it might have taken him or her three hours to put it all together, and yet these words may never be seen by anyone even if they did find context to breathe in a proper, finished form:

 

Neelo hadn’t seen a manji since she stood on the balcony of the haveli and accidentally saw her father kiss the forehead of the young girl who was brought over the night before as a possible bride for her brother. The manji sat in the center of the brick veranda as two peacocks trod around it, almost knocking the bowl with water in which almonds had been resting overnight. She could hear the fan moving as fast as a spinning top, the blades indistinguishable. The adage “if these walls could talk” is not applicable in some parts of the world; some structures are built so there is no need for secrets.
What would I write or say about a manji?

 

Stillness is a manji, made of the same material I feel on 108th and Broadway.
mangi
I leave you with some words I was playing with earlier this week:

 

Coffee With Jesus

 

I would like to take Jesus out
for coffee.
Who else would he invite?
He would probably laugh at my prayers.
I don’t want to save the planet;
Just myself would suffice.
We would talk about plagiarism:
“Look at the damage it can create!”
Jesus would exclaim.
I would laugh at his aggravation.
I have bigger problems, I’d say.

 

 

This Easter Sunday I am grateful to my father who protected us from religions, taught us to question all books, including his words, so we would grow up to still believe in One Law—called by various names all over the world—as we continue to shine our doubts.

 

A joyful Easter Sunday to all.

 

 

 

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.