09 December 2010


“The problem begins when one forgets the artificiality of it all, when one neglects to pay homage to those designations that to our minds—to our reflex senses, perhaps—make of music an analyzable commodity. The trouble begins when we start to be so impressed by the strategies of our systematized thought that we forget that it does relate to an obverse, that it is hewn from negation, that it is but very small security against the void of negation which surrounds it…When people who practice an art like music become captives of those positive assumptions of system, when they forget to credit that happening against negation which system is, and when they become disrespectful of the immensity of negation compared to system—then they put themselves out of reach of that replenishment of invention upon which creative ideas depend, because invention is, in fact, a cautious dipping into the negation that lies outside system from a position firmly ensconced in system.”

--Glenn Gould, "Advice to a Graduation"

02 December 2010

There's No Such Thing

Yesterday I gave my Creative Writing students a True/False quiz:

  1. (Creative) Writing is a form of art. T F
  2. Writing is political, and has the power to affect social change. T F
  3. Writing should be uplifting, and reveal the best of humanity. T F
  4. Writing should be dark, and reveal the problems of humanity. T F
  5. The best writing is accessible and relevant to the widest amount of people. T F
  6. The best writing is esoteric and rarified. T F
  7. I write for myself. T F
  8. I write for others. T F

The idea was to get them to think more globally about the writing they’ve done over the semester, and what they’ll do with their writing in the future, but the quiz may as well have been a list of the questions that batter me around daily. There are the ways I want to answer, and the ways that my writing, itself, answers. There’s no such thing as “my writing, itself.”


A few years ago, I saw a very famous young fiction writer get up on stage in an auditorium full of eager undergrads. The undergrads had a lot of questions for him, and they especially wanted to know about his writing process. Of course they did. He’s done this huge, inscrutable thing, and they want to know if and how maybe, someday, they could do it, too. His answers ranged from “I don’t know how that happened” to “It just came to me” to “That’s not a good question.” It was a grand and infuriating abdication. It was cruel to the questioners, not only because he was withholding information that they wanted to know, but because it perpetuated the myth of the author as some kind of mystic, some kind of vessel who receives ideas from the universe and magically transmits them to paper. Without work. Without, most importantly, responsibility. Inspiration is real, but at a certain point a writer makes choices.


I got into indie and punk music in my teens, and I remember thinking, as late as my early 20s, “I wish there was such a thing as an indie scene for literature.” This was not so much because I was dissatisfied with mainstream, but because I just didn’t get why underground fiction didn’t exist, or, if it did exist, why I didn’t know about it. In college, I wrote papers for my Cultural Studies classes about the subversive power of zines and queer punk, but literature was conspicuously absent. I really don’t know why it took me so long to discover that experimental fiction, queer fiction, and independent presses existed. Thank goodness for San Francisco, and Camille Roy’s workshop, and New Narrative, and Denton Welch, and Jane Bowles, and more and more, discovering every day.

Because I believe, of course, that writing is art and that all art is political. I believe that form, syntax, character, and diction are political choices, as are the ways one chooses to get one’s writing out into the world. Sure, a writer makes choices based on aesthetics as well, but all of it has a political valence. So that a writer who abdicates responsibility for how the words get onto the page and out to the public is saying, “I am not political, I had no hand in this”—which is the way hegemony solidifies itself, by proclaiming itself originless and invisible.


See but this is the thing. I am drawn, as a reader, to work that departs from fiction-writing conventions, that is explicitly or insidiously subversive, that is clearly out to, in some way, fuck shit up. But that’s not really the kind of fiction I write. And now here come the chorus of voices (you don’t have to provide them, I do a fine job providing them on my own), saying “How can you say “The kind of fiction you write? Can’t you just choose to write in a different way? Don’t you dispute the notion of an ‘authentic’ voice? Can’t you just make the words do whatever you find to be most politically salient?” I mean, yes and no. Because despite it all, I love narrative. I don’t care that much about plot, but I’m deeply invested in character, and my brain runs pretty well on conventional syntax. And I can write shorter pieces that are more experimental, but that writing doesn’t sustain me, creatively, over the long term. And, perhaps now more than ever, people make camps, draw lines. (See, for example, the Juliana Spahr/ Rebecca Wolff debate.) I’ve gotta say that, politically, I’m down with Spahr’s argument, but you wouldn’t know it from my work. And to force one’s work into a shape to match one’s politics—even if those politics are your own—feels somehow false.

Some days it’s a wonder I can get a word written at all.

02 November 2010

All Hook No Chorus: Recently-Appreciated Exemplars of an Invented Genre

1. Barbara Comyns, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
Catalogue of disaster, burnt bacon, toy boats stuck in the mud. Attention and arc are beautifully equanimous.
2. The Parting Gifts, “Sleepy City”
Stones cover. One of the hookiest non-chorus songs I’ve ever heard.
3. The Slits
RIP Ari Up. Incantatory.
4. Rachel B. Glaser, all of Pee on Water, esp. “Dream House”
Teenage narcissism=lead vocals, “real world”=backing track
5. Bruner, “Wichita Lineman”
As far as I can tell, there’s one primary line that’s changed from the Glen Campbell version: “And I want you for all time” becomes “And I want you all the time.” Pristine, wrenching urgency forced to simmer.
6. Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch
I’ll admit it, I haven’t yet read back through it in the hopped-up order—but when no thought is left unreported, the hook becomes the way the mind works.
7. James Schuyler, “A White City”
Each line a hook a sound a site.

05 October 2010

On Restalgia, In Romgret

My good friend Sara Marcus just put out a book called Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. Sara is a terrific writer—I’ll term her style “passionately precise”—and the book does an excellent job of presenting a comprehensive history of RG, including first person accounts of many people involved with it, as well as the historical context in which the movement(s) was born. Though she takes great pains not to overly nostalgize in her book, it’s impossible, as a reader, to have been someone for whom RG was important in the early-mid 90s and not spiral a ways down the nostalgia path. And since I came into RG a bit on the later side of things, that nostalgia’s a little pinched with, say, regret. Say romanticization. Why wasn’t I there earlier, when it was most vital and exciting and important? That path is steep and picks up momentum. Why wasn’t I five years older and living in Olympia in 1991? And, for that matter, why wasn’t I 20 years older and part of the downtown New York writers’ scene in the late 70s? A queer activist in the 80s? What’s new now, at 33, is that this romanticizing/regret (“romgret”? “restalgia”?) extends to my own past experiences—why isn’t it still the early 2000s in the San Francisco music scene, why can’t I make it still be then, that way, today?

I think, and this is a theory I’m formulating as I write it, that projecting wishfully back in time usually speaks to some lack in the present moment. Or an insecurity about the possibility of a lack. If nostalgia is necessarily a backwards-traveling path, then the best opposite, the most forward-thrusting path I’ve known is the very thing I’m nostalgizing: the DIY spirit. The sparkiest, most energizing, exciting, and possibility-laden times in my life have been those most brimming with DIY artmaking, political action, and community: the summer I was 16, in Vermont, meeting queer artists my age for the first time and realizing I could be that, too; the Erase Errata shows/anti-development protests at the 16th St. BART station; the Excuse 17/Vitapup show in 1995 when the bands moved the show from Under Acme to Spa Studio because the original venue wasn’t all-ages; self-releasing the first EE 7”; the Matt Gonzalez campaign; radical queer flyering at Wesleyan; 949 Market; the Big Ballyhoo art show. There have been brushes with it in more recent years—the “Art of Touring” event/ gallery show in Portland last year, the Mirah video shoot—but it’s anomalous when it happens, and thus more loaded and prone to nostalgia itself: I was remembering this while it was still happening.

None of this is any more of a cliché, any more than getting older. But how can that not feel like an excuse? I can list more excuses: I move too much, I went to grad school, I’m in a relationship, I’m a writer and thus self-isolating, New York is too busy, too obliquely political, I eat $13 hamburgers, no I don’t want to self-publish my novel thank you very much, who the fuck knows, the Internet. There are many, many things that I love about my life right now. But I miss—sometimes excruciatingly—that DIY spark, that anything’s-possible not just hunch, but absolute certainty. And though it’s so easy, and sometimes tempting, to forget it, I know that if I‘m going to find the today-version of that spark anywhere, I’m not going to find it by looking behind me.

20 September 2010


A catchy song only matters the second time you hear it. Is that true? The first listening lays the groundwork, but the power of a catchy song is in its after-effects, the extent to which it lodges in your brain, consciously or not, so that in the second, and subsequent, listenings, the primary pleasure is in the flush of recognition. It’s in the itch you did or didn’t know needed scratching. Certainly, catchy songs are also often something other than catchy, and there are plenty of immediate pleasures to be found in hearing many songs for the first time. But last night I went to see Superchunk, and they are a band whose primary asset is catchiness. It’s their hooks and, yes, choruses. I don’t know a single song past 1994’s Foolish, and the vast majority of the set came from their last couple records (which, to be honest, I didn’t even know they’d released). Though it was great to see Mac hopping and flailing around the stage, and a despite-herself pogo or two from Laura, I was pretty bored. It was thwarted nostalgia, too, of course—I wanted the songs that reminded me of something, that reminded me of myself a decade-and-a-half ago. I wanted the songs that would let me dip into my 17-year-old self, then immediately transcend it, with the viscerality and difference of the current moment. I know it’s not Superchunk’s job to do that. Was I talking about catchiness?

Anyway, I’m trying to start writing a new novel. I don’t know what it’s about. Actually, the problem is that, variously, I’ve thought it might be about any of the following: teenagers, New Jersey, Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead, queerness, Israel/Palestine—but I don’t know what it’s about in a more adverbial sense, as in, I don’t know what it’s up to, I don’t know how to make it up to something. I don’t have a character, voice, style, or structure. In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor wrote, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” I’ve got statements out the arsehole, but no story. I know that the best stories find their statements, not the other way around (which is, in part, why Ayn Rand was not very good at writing stories). Over the last couple months, I’ve generated pages of attempts. One piece uses a Superchunk show as the setting for a transformative teenage moment. At times the piece feels about to veer into story, but what’s driving it is statement. An idea of what this show did or could mean, to me, to the character who is much closer to me than I would prefer.

I’m not sure, right now, if catchiness is statement or story. I’m leaning toward the former. Statements are important, we need statements, and we need statements to arise from art, and with artfulness. It’s possible that the best statements are stories in their own right. They imply dimension and action, though their outward manifestation may be simple and concise. Statements gain depth not through expansion, but through repetition. How many of us have cut off a catchy song before it’s finished, because we just can’t wait to start it over and hear it again? When reading a novel I love, on the other hand, I try to slow down the reading process as long as possible, in order to let the story creep and linger. Whether it’s a page or 1000 pages long, I think a story should feel infinite when you’re writing it. To find infinity requires patience. And oh, how hard it can be, to hold on to that patience through the lure of statements, to wait out that unscratchable itch.

11 July 2010

She's Real

Kicking Giant’s “She’s Real” is the theme song of a New York City heat wave. I knew this in 1996, the first summer I lived in NYC, and I remembered it today. I love Alien i.D., the album it’s on. It came out in 1994 on K Records. The whole album is a crucible of croon and churn, of stinging melodies and dry-mouth beats. “She’s Real” is the last and crooniest song on the record, it’s about walking the streets of NYC, pining for an unreachable lover, on a night that’s “much too hot to sleep,” and the whole thing is simultaneously tension and release. Part of that is accomplished by the dueting of Tae Won Yu, whose always-impassioned-but-a-little-whiny vocals could fall flat on a belter like this, with guest vocalist Joanna Bronstein, whose voice is clear and cooling. Another big part of the genius of the song is Rachel’s drumming; even in the fast parts, each hit is always separate, drawing attention to itself while simultaneously propelling the song-as-a-whole forward. Those drumbeats are exactly how it feels to walk in oppressive humidity—you notice every step while you’re taking it but forget it immediately after. Did I describe the arc of the song? It’s hot, it’s hard to remember. The song starts with just Tae singing and guitar, then Joanna starts singing, then the drums come in, then the song starts moving, then we get the first breakdown, and in it there are two layered guitar lines, sharp noise and gurgling melody. Rachel’s drums come back in, and it’s a dirge, resigned. “I was sleepless, Second Avenue.” That specificity is another reason the song sticks: “Now I am walking down the river to the East River Park.” It reminds me of the way Bolaño is constantly naming streets, subtly impressing (as in “impressing upon”) you with his geography. Of course, for it to really stick, you have to want it: when I was a teenager and first heard this song, what was more romantic than the idea of walking the streets of the city, “85 at half past 2,” searching for a way out of heartbreak? The harmony on the “She’s real” refrain is pure insistence and delusion. And then the tambourine kicks in and the walking continues despite its impossibility, “Be my baby,” there’s no fucking way, this is late night delusioning, this is teenage desire, this is the heat-inspiration, because doesn’t the awesomeness of its intensity make you feel that everything is possible, only that you’ll get it to it a little later? The end is a fucking Neil Young guitar solo, like the one where he guests on Elyse’s “Houses,” the notes are few but they burn. And then what? Shaky tambourine, straying feedback. The song goes out like headlights in the distance, like lights in the windows when it’s finally cool enough to get to sleep.

09 June 2010

Teenage Seagulls

Earlier, I remembered when I was in high school and went to see the movie Higher Learning (I keep slipping up and thinking High Art). I remember not very much about the movie, except it was the early 90s and the movie was meant to be a very consciously multicultural snapshot of a first year at college. You had the naïve white female student, and the black male ambiguously “angry” student, and white artist dude, and so on. Somewhere in there was a lesbian subplot, which I think I somehow knew about before, though maybe all I knew was that Liz Phair had a song on the soundtrack, and it was a time when I was very, very much a fan. I saw the movie at the Tenplex in Paramus, I think with Kristen, and when I think about it this seems strange to me, as I don’t remember that we were close enough friends that we would go to movies just the two of us. Maybe I’m remembering wrong. Part way through the movie the lesbo kiss happened and of course this moment was going to be so important to me, so privately so, not just the moment but the lead-up to it, and then in the lead-up, or maybe it was in the moment of, this group of kids sitting behind me got rowdy (I didn’t know them), yelled “Oooh, gross, nasty,” predictable and relatively mild epithets. I was enraged. I turned around and said something. What did I say to them? Did I actually turn around and say something?

I wrote an editorial in my school paper. What was it about? I started writing this to tell this story and now I realize that the specifics have all emptied out. I hadn’t written for the school paper before. Had I? The editorial was about outrage, it was about injustice. It questioned why homophobia was publicly acceptable. The article was not about me. I wasn’t out at all in high school, and, in my mind, writing this article did nothing to implicate me, personally, in what had happened or my feelings about it. The article was about an issue, one that had made me angry, as I felt it should make other people angry. It was not about me.

I think about this incident and my memory fails me. It fails because there was already an act of willful forgetting involved in it, a denial of myself, as if my action of writing about my outrage at the other teenagers’ homophobia could, in the act of being public, be made separate from me, my physical self that I carried through the halls every day, of a school small enough that I was known by most people, and where no one said the word “gay” unless derisively, or else hesitantly, about someone somewhere else. The article was a refusal to acknowledge the real source of my reaction in the theater. I was not outraged, but ashamed—of my body that had sat in that movie theater so privately eager and then made to feel shame for wanting it so much.

Sometime after I saw the movie I got the soundtrack and listened to “Don’t Have Time,” the Liz Phair song, over and over. The lyrics are vivid and obtuse, and the sound is pure ambivalence. The song starts out ambling, deceptively carefree—“There’s a little bridge now”—a possible escape, an opening, but she’s singing in a key too low for her, as she often did, so the last words in the lines get swallowed. She’s cynical, and self-consciously so: “If I could solve your problems/ what do you think I would be/ one stupid seagull picking Styrofoam up out of the sea.” The song pauses, then comes back in with more drums, a quicker tempo. She’s repeating the first verse and it could sound celebratory, but the celebration rings false, she’s rushing the words now and puts even less feeling behind them. The guitars shimmer in the refrain (I don’t think it’s a chorus) but her voice is pissed-off, boredly, “Don’t have time” for your problems. Why do I feel as if she’s talking not only to the “you,” but also to herself ? The verse-melody returns and now the bass plays high up on the neck, buzzing, and there’s a flip-off in the bounce of that bass, we’re in a boat bouncing on a tiny lake, nauseous with waves. “Don’t remember feeling older any worse than feeling wooden and alone.” Syntactically, the line makes little sense, but I knew what she meant with that line, trapped there in the small, shitty boat of the song. You thought you would feel better when you got older, and now look at you, older, wooden and alone. The song ends with nearly a minute of layered sound: crooned, dreamy melody low in the mix, guitar chord continually resolving and unresolving itself, shards of distortion that begin as an accent but sharpen, come forward. There’s a vision of something easier and an impatient itching to get there. By the end of the song the static has shaped itself into the cry of seagulls, taunting the people stuck on the ground, and taunting themselves for needing them.

26 May 2010

Synesthetic Anesthetic

from James Purdy's The Nephew:
"As they talked to one another in the dark, it even seemed to them that they were living their entire lives all at once, and were in command of their total personalities. Friends and relatives long dead entered into their conversation, and the hard implacable void of contemporaneity was dissipated. One could, so to speak, see land, breathe air. The night had lifted from night."

20 May 2010

Sincerest form etc.

I’ve been thinking about the question of influence and imitation, in writing and in other forms of art-making as well, about what it means to be conscious of your influences, to at times consciously attempt to replicate aspects of work by those you admire. I’ve been thinking about the line between interesting and clunky (purely derivative) imitation, about the ways that influence bleeds in even when you don’t mean it to. Sometimes, I think, the bits in our work that feel most “stolen” from another source are totally not identifiable as such by the average listener/reader/viewer—I always felt like I was throwing other bands’ riffs into Erase Errata songs, but in the midst of everything else that was going on in the song, and due to my admitted lack of actual technical virtuosity, I have a feeling these stolen riffs entered the world much transposed. In writing, you may not have bandmates’ cacophony to hide behind, but you still have the cacophony of your own brain-processes, your own contexts. Jason was recently telling me how transparently he felt that he’d ripped off a Sebald scene and thrown it in his novel, but the way he told it to me it seemed a) more a tribute than a theft and b) like probably no one would be able to tell. I think too about an anecdote I heard years ago about Stereolab, how they listed their songs on their set-list after the titles of songs they felt they’d ripped off to create them (“Percolator” = “Take Five”, etc.). Sure it makes sense when you think about it, but, usually, only then. When we feel the shine of influence so strongly, we think it must be blinding for everyone else.

But I’m also wondering about more insidious, less conscious forms of influence. What about when you love, say, an author’s work, but your work is kind of nothing like theirs? Does that influence still show up without your realizing it? For example, I am such a huge fan of Jane Bowles—recently re-obsessed via this amazing volume that Four Corners Press put out, featuring two stories each by Bowles and Denton Welch, another of my faves, with beautiful drawings by Colter Jacobsen. What I love about Bowles’s writing is the matter-of-factness with which her characters inhabit contradictions, the characters’ simultaneous absolute sense of self-awareness and absolute inability (or lack of desire) to adapt that sense of self in order to fit into regularly functioning human society. In Bowles’s work, indecision is everywhere, but ambivalence is nowhere. My writing, on the other hand, is often fueled by a sense of ambivalence. Where Bowles’s fiction is quick and amazingly on-the-surface, mine is frequently slow, lyrical, and very focused on the interior. So does my work still bare the mark of her influence? Is it there, in however transposed a fashion, in the way that all our experiences and contexts somehow come across as a trace (in the literal or Derridian sense) on the page? Should we deliberately push our art to echo the art we admire? For those of us who get obsessed with the art we love, I think we often want to join it, to get close to it, by paying testament somehow. But is it better if we don’t attempt to get close to all of our heroes, but leave some out that we can continue to admire, appreciate, from a fan’s safe distance?

25 March 2010

Balance in Asymmetry

George Nakashima, Bench With Back, 1976

24 March 2010

All Hook, No Chorus

I was driving through sunny Brooklyn the other day, listening to the Beach Boys. Though I’ve had my moments with all of Smiley Smile or Pet Sounds, I tend to return to particular songs: “Heroes and Villains,” “I’m Waiting for the Day,” and, especially, most recently, “That’s Not Me.” Definitely, these songs are all catchy as fuck—they move, with the kind of buoyancy unique to great pop songs; a few chords, a melody, and you’re granted easy entry to the bubble of the song, you float along with it. What surprised me to realize, contrary to my unexamined expectations about what comprises a great pop song, is that none of these songs have choruses. Refrains, definitely; hooks, abundantly. But if a chorus is a sort of destination, a moment of unloading where the listener decides whether or not to get on board for the next verse, then these songs are stationless, ever-traveling. That’s what makes you want to go back to the beginning and start again.


In her essay “Telling Tales,” Lynne Tillman writes, “As a writer, I question the need for goals or directions, for specific outcomes based on specific actions or events.” Tillman is not arguing that writing should do away with narrative, with narrative structure, altogether—she is suggesting that plot, in the conventional sense of the term, can be “a way of setting limits,” of “control[ing] the meaning of a story.” Sticking to a conventional plot structure—rising action, climax, denouement—can overdetermine the cause-and-effect in a story, can imply, too simply, that x event leads to y outcome. The lopsided-mountain-of-a-plot-curve we’re so used to seeing on high school English blackboards can streamline all the messiness out of x, erasing the z and w and perhaps latent aspect of y itself that causes the narrative to end up at whatever outcome it does.

Considering plot in this less limiting manner means opening up what counts as “action” in a story. Again, from “Telling Tales”: “I think, thinking is an activity. An emotion may produce an action, be an action or a reaction.” Narrative moves forward by accumulation, by action at the level of consciousness. Take this scene from Tillman’s Haunted Houses, in which Jane, a young woman, is sexually assaulted by a male intruder. The scene begins: “Jane fell asleep with the radio on next to her head. Rock and roll, the background to her dreams. The music was her first thought when she woke with a man lying on her back.” We begin the scene internally, in music, in thought, a dream-haze scrimming the physical action. When Jane becomes aware of the intruder, she doesn’t scream or cry out, but comprehends, thinks: “Jane understood that the longer the man didn’t get hard, the more desperate he would grow…She thought about screaming.” Still embedded in the same paragraph, in the same even, inevitable tone, they struggle, the man gives up, leaves, Jane “hear[s] the radio again,” calls her sister, a friend, and the cops come. In the midst of a traumatic scene, perceptions and physical action mutually constitute the event. It is only in retrospect that the physical—the bold line of the plot curve, soaring towards climax— moves to the foreground.


I hope, by way of my Beach Boys example, that you realize I’m not slamming on pop music. I hope, too, to make clear that Tillman’s point about plot, and my support of it, is not a call to do away with all signposts of conventional fiction. Characterization, narrative, setting, conflict—these are all elements that I deeply believe in. In fact, one of the things that I love most about Tillman’s fiction is that, by letting go of some conventions of plot, those other elements of fiction become even more potent. ALL HOOK, NO CHORUS: Narrative that values the grain of narrative—language, character, small moments of perception and observation—and finds surprise and richness there. Songs that delight in the material of the verse—the riff, the lyric (repeated, inverted)—rather than the chorus it leads to. Trying to disrupt the idea that for a piece of music or narrative prose to matter, it needs to go somewhere. If you’re with it, it’s already there.

(You can find “Telling Tales” in Tillman's essay collection The Broad Picture (Serpents Tail, 1997), or the great anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House, 2004)).