Saturday, June 13, 2015

Here's Where I Stopped Reading This "New Yorker" Article About "Bibliotherapy."

I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the initial questionnaire about my reading habits that the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud, sent me. Nobody had ever asked me these questions before, even though reading fiction is and always has been essential to my life. I love to gorge on books over long breaks—I’ll pack more books than clothes, I told Berthoud. I confided my dirty little secret, which is that I don’t like buying or owning books, and always prefer to get them from the library (which, as I am a writer, does not bring me very good book-sales karma). In response to the question “What is preoccupying you at the moment?,” I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote.  

Last Thursday, Mr F woke up at midnight and didn't go back to sleep all night long. I had to sit downstairs with him to keep an eye on him so he didn't get into trouble wandering around the house in the middle of the night. When it hit 6 a.m. I got off the couch to go get ready to go to work, at the new job I started in January which is essentially a brand-new business that requires me to retrain a bunch of lawyers in my area of law, while also trying to build a business from scratch, something I did once before only to have incompetent people destroy it.

That day, Friday, I was going to court to sue a bank that had improperly and illegally tried to repossess our client's car, sending repo men to her house several times. She needs the car, of course, to get to and from work.  Now it's my job to save her car, and if we win I get paid. When that hearing was over I had to sit in an hour-long traffic jam on my way to a meeting with some clients who are in danger of losing their house.

Yesterday, I had planned to start up my walking again. It's the only exercise I can really manage, with my asthma, and I haven't been able to do it in the last three weeks because I've had such trouble breathing.  But after taking the boys to the free day at the Children's Museum -- we're reluctant to spend the regular admission at such places because if the boys get upset or scared right away (as Mr F did) then we might have to leave early, wasting the money -- I was too worn out to go walking.

I'd like to have the luxury of worrying about someday not being able to grieve properly.  But I've got real worries.

The Madison Children's Museum Can Be Kind Of Creepy

Sunday, June 07, 2015

10 Minutes About Michael Cunningham Talking About Denis Johnson

I was listening to the New Yorker fiction podcast, where writers read their favorite short stories that have appeared in The New Yorker. This week was Michael Cunningham, who I feel like I recognize his name but I have no idea why.

Michael Cunningham was going to read Harold Brodkey's Dumbness Is Everything, but before he read the story he was talking about why he liked Harold Brodkey and he mentioned his use of language, which he (Michael Cunningham) found difficult to copy.  He mentioned that lots of writers mimic lots of other writers and specifically used the phrase You see a lot of fake Denis Johnsons out there.

Denis Johnson, you may or may not know, wrote the story Emergency, which is an amazing short story that you should read.  (You can read it here.)  Some Guy At Work told me about Emergency, and I listened to the New Yorker podcast of that story and was enthralled.  I eventually borrowed Johnson's Jesus' Son collection of short stories on audiobook, and was even more enthralled.  I would drive around listening to them last year, late at night when I took Mr F for his nightly rides to try to get him to sleep, while I was planning on leaving the law firm that was crumbling around me and hoping to make it through the end of the year without anything too terrible happening, and Johnson's stories about losers and thugs and lowlifes and poor people and the like just cut right into me, in a good way -- the way I guess an amputation of a leg might be a good thing, if you were going to lose it anyway, or the way I felt after I had the heart attack a few years ago and they took me in for surgery and patched me up.  Terrible to go through but worth it to get to the other side.

I was so caught up by the stories that I wanted to try to write my own Denis Johnson-esque stories, and I did, I think.  I wrote one about a third-shift cook in a diner in the middle of nowhere, and one about a guy who robs a bank, and a couple of others.  Most of them are awaiting publication in one form or another and eventually I'll probably have them out there to be read.

The thing that got me is, is it so bad that there are fake Denis Johnson stories? Or fake anyone stories?  Sometimes, when I read an author I like, like Nick Harkaway or China Mieville, I am just in awe of how good they are and I sort of mentally shake my head and think Oh man I could never do that, like watching that guy walk between those two buildings in Chicago last year.

Other times, I read a Denis Johnson or Philip K. Dick or Stephen King story or We Are Become Friends, this one story by the people who used to write A Softer World, and I think Neat, I'd like to try that. And is it wrong to try to work out what another author did and see if you can adapt it to your own?

I don't mean I'm just writing a story pretending to be Denis Johnson. I mean I like the feel of it and the look of it and the sound of it, and so I try to see how my own stories might work if filtered through that kind of lens instead of something else.  I think it makes me a better writer, and I cringe at the idea that writers are saying fake Denis Johnson about people like me, people that try out different voices and styles.

That's ten minutes.