I once lived for furthering my collection of autographed books. Getting a book signed meant going to hear the author read, waiting in line with other fans, and then, finally, being presented with the chance to utter words of praise. Sometimes it meant getting teary-eyed with envy, worrying over whether I would ever write anything so poignant. This happened when Amy Tan walked by in purple velvet with her lap dog trailing behind her. During middle and high school, at the height of my obsession with autographs, I spent a lot of time writing letters, poems that exhibited the same longing for impossible love, and short stories that revealed I was fixated on the same themes of displacement and loneliness that I am now.
I heard Jamaica Kincaid read twice. The first time she read at the local university from her novel Lucy. I was in seventh grade and inexperienced in matters of love. She read a passage about sucking on a boy’s tongue and I was mesmerized. She stood before a large audience and I couldn’t help but see that she was someone important. The second time I went to hear her read, I got Lucy signed by her before she spoke. My father told her that I wanted to be a writer. She didn’t say anything, only proudly signed her name. Later, during the Q & A, she asked in perfectly enunciated words, “Where is that girl who wants to be a writer?” I shyly raised my hand. She went on to recommend Gertrude Stein to me. Following the reading, I began to imagine Jamaica Kincaid as my writing teacher. With her intimidating stature, I divined she would be just as intimidating of a teacher. I thought only she would be capable of whipping my writing into shape. I wanted her to treat my writing so harshly that my only option would be improvement.
Yevgeniy Yevtushenko read in Russian at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Neither my father nor I spoke Russian, but my father decided to expose me to culture. What I remember is Yevtushenko’s ostentatious blue jacket and his sweeping gestures when he spoke. I later learned Russian, partly thanks to falling in love with his incomprehensible poetic voice, I read some of the poems from his collected works, wondering which he might have read that evening.
When Jennifer Egan came to the suburban Barnes and Nobel to read from her novel The Invisible Circus, my mother and I were the only audience members. Afterwards, I asked Egan one of those typical questions about her writing schedule. I came away with the interesting information that she worked part-time as a detective. Later, I composed a letter to her, which led to another obsession. I spent a grand portion of the day waiting for the mail. A letter was just another passage into the literary world. Not only was I waiting for personal letters, I was also waiting for acceptances from literary journals.
The postman arrived after I got home from school, so I would sit in the armchair near the window and wait for his footsteps. They would culminate in the metal clamor of the mailbox closing. When he had moved on to the next house, I would open the door and collect the mail.
I received one response from Jennifer Egan and an acceptance from a neighborhood newspaper, but most often I received letters from my pen pal who lived on the other side of the city. I met her at a poetry reading at a café called Brewed Awakenings. I played Irish tin whistle and read some poetry. She came up to me afterwards and gave me a copy of the literary journal called Zink in which she had been published. She was also a writer and yet she was incredibly accessible. She asked for my address, and pulled a blank piece of paper from the pouch around her neck for me to write on. I felt uncomfortable about giving a stranger my address, but I did it anyway. At that time of my life I said “yes” to everything.
To my surprise, a few days later I received a typed letter from her in a handmade envelope. I wrote back and she was quick to respond. It wasn’t long before I began to live my life in order to write it to her in a letter. The events that occurred during the day, occurred so that I could describe them. It was then that my writing probably took on its autobiographical quality.
As an adult, I haven’t had such a faithful pen pal, another writer with whom to commiserate. The advent of email and real responsibilities make it impossible to live just for handwritten letters, but most of all, it’s hard to find someone who can be a friend and somewhat of an idol at the same time.
Though I once attended readings regularly and took great comfort in spending Sunday night at the fiction series at the KGB Bar, some of the luster has been lost. Writers seem so accessible that an autographed book doesn’t bring me the same pleasure as it once did and writers seem just as much friends as idols. Now a writer myself, I realize that writing isn’t such a magical process. Still, there are moments when I can happily transport myself to those simpler times of books and letters, the time when I was open to every ounce of experience. Just recently I came away from a reading with a signed copy of Joshua Cohen’s Witz, heard Mary Gaitskill read at the crowded Franklin Park Reading Series, and went to hear Cory Doctorow, Rivka Galchen, and Gary Schteyngart talk about the bleak future while drinking dark and stormys. I also went to hear Jennifer Egan read at Greenlight Bookstore. This time it was to a packed house, inspiring me with the possibility that my writing can also grow in this way.
[Image credit: Weston Boyd]
The Internet was the big bogeyman, the great scapegoat of 2010. In September, I wrote about how social networking was perverting my friendships. In October Millions contributor Emily wrote about how it had eroded her attention span. And at a certain point, it seemed like every time my wife and I had friends over the conversation turned to the ways the Web was ruining all of our lives: how it was destroying our productivity, sapping our sex drives, devouring our precious time on earth.
But in 2011, I say enough with all this bellyaching! The Internet is just a thing that sits on my desk, if it sits anywhere at all. If I close the lid of my laptop, it can’t get me. If I walk outside it, can’t follow me. Blaming the Internet for the novel I didn’t write is a little like blaming a plush sofa for the marathon I didn’t run. Sure, the couch gave me a comfy place to hide while I was busy not being the man I want to be, but it’s hardly the cause of my problems. Replace the couch with a straw mat and suddenly I’ll run 26 miles? I doubt it. Scuttle the Internet and suddenly I’ll be the writer I’ve always dreamed of being? Hardly.
So, my resolution for 2011 is to stop blaming the Internet for all the ways my days go awry. There are two reasons, abstracted from recent experiences, that make me think this is achievable.
The first is that the Internet is not actually that addictive. I know we talk about email and Facebook and the latest headlines on ESPN like they’re allurements on par with strippers and cigarettes, but really? I spent the week around Christmas at my in-laws’ house which is kind of in the woods and where you can’t pick up a wi-fi signal unless you stand with your computer above your head while balanced on the top railing of the porch on a perfectly clear day. So I didn’t use the Internet much during that time, and if what followed counts as Internet withdrawal, then the Internet is pretty weak sauce indeed. A few times I fantasized about my inbox filling up with unread emails and on Christmas Day I wished I could have checked the Celtics score. But there were no cold sweats, no shakes or shimmies, no aching in my groin. What this made me realize is that the Internet does not have a strong magnetic pull of its own. It’s more like water, ingenious at filling negative space, at seeping into cracks. So in 2011, I’m going to stop fretting over the Internet and instead think about it the way I think about my bathtub: caulk and forget it.
The second experience took place a few days ago. It was in the morning and I was about to sit down to work and I told myself, “Today I’m not going to waste time on the Internet.” I’ve given myself that same pep talk on thousands of mornings but it resounded differently this time: Suddenly it seemed like such a plainly impoverished ambition. “That’s it,” I thought to myself, “That’s all you hope to get out of the day, to not refresh the nytimes.com over and over?” What I realized then is that the opposite of the Internet is not concentration. That morning I was indeed successful at staying off the Web, but so what? I fiddled with my pen, adjusted my socks, stared out the window, filled and refilled my water bottle, went to the bathroom. It turns out there are a lot of ways to fritter away time that don’t involve a computer screen.
What I’m after—what I think most of us are after—is sustained, focused engagement in a meaningful task. If only the Internet were the only thing standing between me and that. So, resolved for 2011, no more complaining about the Internet’s role in my life! If failures do happen to accrue this year, I’ll place the blame instead where it belongs: on my parents.
(Image: 2/365 from fenris117’s photostream)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores has been available in the Spanish-speaking world for about nine months, but it won’t available here until Oct. 25. The Book Standard already has a review up (which I believe is the Kirkus review), and it’s quite negative: “There is no indication – unless it is the word ‘melancholy’ in the title – that Garcia Marquez means his tale to be the parody of macho idiocy it appears to be. His hero ends revitalized and radiantly optimistic, while readers are left wondering, ‘Can he be serious?'”
Today I heard from a reliable source some very interesting info about Eric Schlosser. Yes, the same Schlosser who I derided two days ago for phoning in the follow up to his huge best seller Fast Food Nation. First of all, it turns out that Schlosser is currently hard at work on another Fast Food Nation style expose. This time he’s tearing the lid off of America’s prisons. It seems like there is wealth of material here, and there must be plenty of improprieties and outrages that the American public needs to know about. I don’t forsee such a book being quite as successful as Fast Food Nation. Everyone has eaten more than their share of fast food, but not everyone has spent a lot of time in prison. Still, I’m sure it will prove to be a very good read. There is another tidbit of info on Schlosser, as well. Apparently he and the director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) have collaborated on a treatment for a film version of Fast Food Nation I suppose that the book does contain a number of compelling characters, and each of these characters has an interesting enough, if not completely fleshed out, story. But, it would definitely take a director as imaginative as Linklater to really pull it off.More MeloyMaile Meloy’s new book, Liars and Saints came out today. She has been widely lauded for her short stories, so it will be interesting to see how well her first novel is recieved.
If you haven’t seen the action in the comments of Garth’s reply to n+1’s column on litblogs, it’s worth a look, as the discussion has, shall we say, flowed onward. Mark, meanwhile, has begun posting “an irregular featurette” called “The n+1 Letters” in which he revisits the correspondence he has had with the magazine in question. Here at The Millions we tend to take a more dispassionate view the literary scuffles that crop up from time to time, but being in the middle of this one hasn’t been entirely unpleasant. It’s entertaining at the very least.Update: Scott has expressed his queasiness with the tack Mark is taking, and I’ll admit to sharing that discomfort. (I would not republish private correspondence without permission.) Also, n+1 editor Keith Gessen has now left a comment at the original post.