The perks of being a blocked writer

Okay, in my last post, I alluded to being stuck between two places writing-wise, and I didn’t get into that.  So, now I will.  But of course, I’ll go off on another tangent first.

I saw the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower this weekend, mostly because I heard Cloud Atlas was a disaster.  I wasn’t entirely sure I would like the movie, partly because I thought it was completely out of my demographic, and partly because I’ve read the book at least twice and don’t remember a damn thing about it.  But I went, and I actually liked the movie a lot.  I liked it so much, I came home at ten at night, picked up the book, and plowed through the whole thing before I went to bed.  And then, as I went to bed and after I got up in the morning, I felt… I don’t know.  Maybe a mix of depression, nostalgia, enthusiasm, and dread, the emotional equivalent to when you get a fountain beverage and randomly fill it with a mix of every flavor, a Pepsi-Mountain Dew-rootbeer-orange-Sierra Mist-tea.  And it’s hard to describe it, because there were a few different things going on, and I’d have to explain every one of them to cover this.

First off, Perks had the typical high school coming-of-age tropes in it, opposites-attract, she’s-out-of-my-league, grass-is-greener, self-medication with drugs, rock-will-save-us-all, early-90s-are-the-new-80s, and about 17 more.  It’s all weaved together well, and maybe I feel bad for liking such commercial dreck.  It did contain enough emotional context that linked to my own teen experience, though, that it made me really enjoy and envy it.  The envy part is the big problem.  The reason I avoid reading these kinds of books now is that when they’re good, I want to write them.  And I’ve proven to myself that I can’t, and I shouldn’t.  But should I?

My last three books have all been a sort of mix of lowercase-b bizarro and absurdist humor.  I think they’re pretty damn close to my voice, and I think any of you who have read these books and have known me in person would agree.  Throw Rumored at the front end of that trio, and you’ve plotted a glide slope that pretty much defines who I am or who I will be as a writer.  It’s a solid 750 pages or so of work that very much describes what’s going on in my mind and sets the pace for what my next books should be.  After I finished Sleep Has No Master a few months ago, the plan was to write a Rumored 2 of sorts, maybe a different structure or gimmick, but a full-sized, nonlinear hunk of absurdity that did what Rumored did ten years ago.  I’ve even got a publisher that’s basically waiting for me to write the next book, so they can put it out.

But then, I sort of locked up.  Part of that is the reception of the last book, which has been piss-poor at best.  I think it’s a damn good book, but it’s been sort of lost in the mix.  Maybe the title and cover make no sense, or it’s the fact that it just doesn’t easily plug into a genre.  But it hasn’t sold, and it’s always hard to get working on something new when the last thing didn’t entirely work out.  There’s also the fact that I essentially put together three books in a period of just over a year, and the well is kinda dry.  I really wanted to push and get another book done by the end of the year, but I’m finding myself stumbling on ideas.

The other issue is that I don’t entirely know where I fit in.  I said lowercase-b bizarro because the more I read from the Bizarro movement, the more I think I don’t slot into it very well.  Most Bizarro is this sort of Troma film horror-comedy stuff, and I don’t really do that.  But I also don’t fit into the experimental or absurdist worlds, either, which seem to be the PhD-dominated academic community.  And forget the mainstream scifi community.  I probably spend too much time thinking about community and where I fit in and all of that shit, and I guess I’ve always worried about that, even before I was a writer.  But I can’t shut it off, and I don’t have easy answers, and it can become enough of a distraction to block me.

And… sorry, another tangent… okay, I read this biography of David Foster Wallace, and it talks about how he thought Mark Leyner was the antichrist because his satiric writing wasn’t sincere, or something like that.  And when I read that, it sort of pissed me off, because I love Leyner’s writing, and it made DFW sound like a blowhard.  But with all of this stuff in my head, it started to make sense.  I love writing the stuff that I have written in the last couple of years, but if I had to capture and dump the emotions I felt during this film and book, I think it would be completely out of scope of this absurdist humor thing.  I mean, I could start to throw down a coming-of-age tale, but it would be about a kid who goes to high school to learn how to anally insert DMT into zoo animals from his teacher, Lyndon LaRouche.  (Wait, gotta write that down in the idea book…)

I’ve tried this kind of sincere, modernist, realist writing.  I’ve had some success at it in short stories; if you’ve read my story “Burial Ground,” I think that’s pretty spot-on of what I can do.  And some of you (okay, three of you) may have read Summer Rain.   I have two other books up on blocks in the yard like the trailer park Trans Am with no motor or wheels, one about high school, and another about college.  Summer Rain was the best of the three; the other two, there’s about 150,000 words of nothing.  Every now and again, I think about going back and trying to duct tape enough crap onto either of those manuscripts to get them out there, but Summer Rain itself isn’t selling.  I think I’ve learned a lot more about plot and character since I tried writing these other two books, and when I see them, I do see what’s wrong with them, and think about how I could restructure or rewrite them so they would fit.  But part of me thinks this would be a huge step backwards.  And it’s a tough wall to beat against.  It’s also depressing to think that even if I did manage to turn out a stellar coming-of-age book about growing up in the 80s in Indiana, I would have a tough road ahead of me in the marketing and sale of the thing.

So, caught between two worlds.  And this is why practicing bass instead of writing has been very helpful lately.  I have 40,000 some words written of this Rumored 2 project, and it makes absolutely no sense right now.  I know I will have to eventually knock back into it and come up with a structure and get the thing done, but it’s tough.  Playing major scales against a metronome until my fingertips look like ground hamburger is much easier.



Re-reading Infinite Jest, part 2 of 863

So I’m now just shy of 300 pages into my re-read of Infinite Jest, which is just over 25% of the way through according to the Kindle, although I think it’s closer to 1/3 done when you consider the last hundred-some pages are all endnotes.  Here are more random observations as I continue:

  • I think reading it on the Kindle does make it seem to go faster than print.  I don’t know the exact numbers or metrics, but it seemed like one print page of the hardcover contained something like 1200 words, where a normal trade paperback contained something like 250-300 words, meaning each page of IJ seemed four times longer.  With the Kindle, each screen has the same number or words, more or less, as any other book I read, be it Vonnegut or George Carlin or Tolstoy.  This makes it seem like the pages are going by faster, although it obviously takes several page turns to get through a single virtual “page”.
  • The endnotes don’t seem to be as much of a pain in the ass as they were back in 1996.  Part of that may be that they lend themselves to hypertext much more, and the Kindle’s links are more convenient than flipping between two bookmarks.  Or it could be that if (and once again, numbers are bogus) there were two endnotes per printed page, and there were six page turns per printed page, it would seem like there were three times fewer endnotes per “page”.
  • It’s so interesting that Wallace created this near-future world that happens in what others have determined to be 2009.  I’ve always disliked when near-future books predict worlds of jetpacks and robot butlers in the year 1991, like pretty much every Philip K. Dick book or 60s pulp Scifi novel.  DFW managed to create a world that largely felt like 1996, except for tiny changes in things like video conferencing and politics and TV media formats.  And that’s pretty much what has happened.  Granted, teleconferencing is just starting to take off because of Facetime, and the DVD and later BluRay were the displacing technologies of video entertainment, but his Boston of the late -00s is pretty close to the Boston of 1996, which I enjoy.
  • There is, however, the issue that this near-future now takes place in the past.  When it was supposed to be 13 years in the future, there was much more license for suspension of disbelief.  Now that it’s three years after the events should have taken place and the futuristic film cartridge system has not been invented, you need to not think about stuff like that.
  • I notice that in some ways Wallace can out-Leyner Mark Leyner.  I never fully understood the relationship between the two, and thought DFW eclipsed Leyner in greatness and popularity, but it also seems that Wallace admired or looked up to Leyner’s work prior to his own fame explosion.  I’ve always thought Leyner had no real peers in his absurdism and almost sketch comedy approach to writing, and always thought DFW was less ha-ha funny and more NPR/Franzen funny or whatever.  But then I see some carefully-placed reference or innuendo in part of IJ that would seem even too absurd for Leyner’s humor.
  • It amazes me how IJ pads itself with pretty much every inside joke or urban legend that Wallace heard over the course of a decade, but manages to pull it off so all of this stuff is an integral part of the story.  At points, it’s almost like he was looking for some excuse to kill pages, like he was getting paid by the word, and said “aha!  I’ll recycle the Jamaican Toothbrush Bandit story, and make it part of Gately’s back story – that should eat up a good 5000 words.”  But of course, it always works.
  • I have the unfortunate issue that whenever I read about Orin, in my mind I envision CJ, the punter who was on Real World: Cancun.

That’s all for now. I’m keeping track of my page count over on goodreads, if you want up-to-the-minute (or -day) tallies.


Re-reading Infinite Jest, part 1 of ?

Okay, I gave in and started re-reading Infinite Jest the other night.

I’m 8% finished as of last night, which is roughly like running the first two miles of a marathon.  It’s enough that I’m getting some momentum, but so little that I feel like it could take me a while.  I dug through my 1996 paper journal last week and found that it took me something like 20 days to read it last time.  Of course, I did not have a TV, was single, had no social life, and this was before Facebook, Twitter, and a million other things were invented.  In fact, I think I was still dialing in at 14.4K back then, and my computer was a Linux machine that wasn’t running X, just a naked command line prompt on a 12″ monochrome monitor.  The closest thing I had to a tablet computer was made by Mead, spiral-bound and college ruled.

My first strategic move on this attempt was to eschew the print edition.  The only print copy of the book I own is a hardcover first edition, signed by the author with the “smiley face” next to his name, which might or might not be more rare or indicative that he was in a good mood when he read in Seattle.  The print copy killed my wrists last time around, and this was long before I’d developed all of my wrist, back, neck, and other chiropractic RSI issues.  When I read in bed, I tend to hold the book with three fingers and my thumb on the cover, and my pinky under the book, as a sort of stand.  This means when a book weighs any tangible amount, it strains my small fingers, and if that book is a thousand pages long, it starts to feel like they’ve been slammed in a car door.

So I went with the kindle ebook.  This solves another problem, the “how many bookmarks do I use?” issue.  Unless you memorize page numbers in some Rain Man-esque fashion, you’re going to use at least one bookmark on a read of the paper edition.  Most people agree you should use two, with one marking where you are in the body of the book, the other marking where you are in the endnotes.  Some people also advise you to keep a bookmark on the page describing the Subsidized Time timeline.  Nobody ever told me about that, but there weren’t web pages about how to read IJ in 1996.  That said, there also wasn’t a wikipedia page I could reference instead of using a third bookmark.

In the kindle edition, endnotes are hyperlinked.  And thankfully, there’s a “return to text” backlink after each endnote, so you can quickly get back to the text.  The only issue with this is that the kindle software will return you with the line containing the endnote reference at the top of the screen.  So, for example, if you’ve got 30 lines per screen (arbitrary – I didn’t count) and on line 16, there’s endnote 44, you can click that, read it, click “back”, and that line will now be at the top of the screen, not on line 16.  That means you lose some context and might need to back up a page, depending on how you read.

I started reading on my iPad, and then switched to my actual Kindle.  The advantage to the real Kindle is that it’s paper-white on the e-ink display, and it doesn’t have Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of games on it.  But I ended up going back to using the actual iPad.  Why?  Because it’s a bigger screen, and because clicking on endnotes is much easier.  I have the keyboard Kindle, which requires you to navigate around with the little stub of a joystick to get to an endnote and click on it.  Then you have to wait a second for the screen to refresh, and then you have to repeat the procedure.  It’s much faster and less of a hassle to do it on the iPad.

Another huge advantage to reading on the Kindle is that I can click a word and the definition pops up.  I’m finding that Mr. Wallace has a much more, um, big vocabulary than me.  I don’t know if looking up definitions like this is teaching me new words, but I’m much more likely to click on a word rather than dig out a copy of Webster’s.

I’m finding that this time around, it’s been much easier for me to get in the swing of things, but I don’t know if this is because I already know the general plot of the thing.  When I read it in 1996, I didn’t know a single other person trying to read it, and there was no wikipedia to help me.  I am avoiding any secondary reading during this pass, though.  I’m not looking at any of the blogs or fan sites, and I haven’t bought Elegant Complexity or any of the other reading guides.  No sherpas, no supplemental oxygen on this climb up Everest.

My impression so far is that the book is reminding me so much of 1996 and the events around then.  I had a horrible time of it back then, something I’ve alluded to on here, but something that was incredibly painful to read about when I dug around my paper journals back then.  I was about a year into my stay in Seattle, a year removed from my college life.  I hadn’t seriously dated anyone since the end of 1993, and was certain I never would.  I had some kind of stomach disorder going on and was certain it was gall bladder cancer or unchecked appendicitis (it wasn’t), and I seriously didn’t know what the fuck I was doing with writing.  I now look back at Rumored as my favorite book I’ve written, but back then, I spent all of my energy trying to convince myself I needed to stop working on it entirely.  All of this influenced my perception of the book, and now as I navigate his prose, it brings back a lot of those memories, which is both good and bad.

I don’t have any other great insight at this point, but I felt that if I kept mentioning the reading project on here, I’d stick with it.  So, there you go.


Things I Remember About Infinite Jest

I first heard about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest from the 1996 profile in Details.  (I used to subscribe to Details for some reason; I’m not sure why.)  I didn’t have a TV then, so of course I ran to the bookstore, bought the hardcover, and forced myself to read at least 50 pages a day over the next few weeks and get through the whole thing.  And I did, and it was awesome.

And now it’s 16 years later, and I’m trying to start another book, and whenever I ask myself, “what the hell do I want to write?” of course IJ is on the short list.  And I think I should re-read it.  And I bought it on the Kindle, because one of my chief complaints about the book was that at the time, I lived in a tiny 100-some square foot studio apartment with no furniture, and slept on a twin mattress on the floor, and the only way I could ergonomically handle that big chunk of dead tree was to lay on my side with the book on the floor, and completely fuck up my neck and back twisting around to look at the pages.  And of course, I have not re-read it since, because I would have to invest a month of time into it, and I can barely focus long enough to type 140 characters at once.

But I keep trying to think, what the hell do I remember from that book?  So here’s the list.  It’s probably filled with spoilers, so you’ve been warned.

  1. Lots of end notes, but you already knew that.
  2. The one guy was a pro football player, and was a really shitty player on his college football team, but he knew about tennis and one day when he was pissed off, he kicked a football like a tennis ball some insane number of feet, and that led to a career in the NFL.
  3. I knew nothing about the NFL at the time, and was not sure if there was a team called the Arizona Cardinals.  (This was before wikipedia.)
  4. The guy shaved against the grain, like his dad taught him, which was apparently wrong, but I did the same thing and wondered if I was going to somehow give myself some incurable skin disease.
  5. The one girl with the messed-up face was using some toothpaste that was supposed to rebuild your enamel.  Hers was messed up from smoking crack; my teeth were pretty much totaled at that point from drinking a six-pack of Coke every day, and I was in the middle of getting everything restored, and kept thinking about trying to find some similar product.
  6. There was a big discussion about pot being physically addictive in some small percentage of people, and I remember having a similar argument with someone at work once.
  7. A guy killed himself by putting his head in a microwave oven.  He accomplished this by cutting a hole in the door so he could stick his head in it while it was closed.  Shortly after I read this, my microwave oven died and I freaked the fuck out, convinced the coincidence was somehow related.  (And also because I had this thing of Hamburger Helper cooking in it, and you can’t really eat that shit cold and uncooked, and putting it on the stove was beyond my skill level, so I drove to Target and bought a new one at nine at night.)
  8. The part of the story about how that girl ended up with a messed-up face was not explained right off the bat, which I realize is something you do to pull the reader into continuing with the story, but every time this happened in the book, I was convinced I’d somehow missed that part of the backstory by skimming over it, and would go back and re-read, searching for answers, something that made the book take far longer for me to read.  (I am in no way criticizing DFW’s plotting and foreshadowing ability and/or decisions; I’m just saying I’m a poor reader.)
  9. I was going through a very significant depression in the fall of 1996, and the way DFW described the various depressed people greatly disturbed me, mostly because his descriptions were so goddamn accurate, and I greatly felt like I’d end up like one of them.
  10. I thought the ending was the most unresolved ending in the history of literature.

And that’s it.  I do not remember anything else.  So yeah, I need to re-read it.