What I'm writing
I wish I could report that I've been diligently working on Junker during the past few months, and will soon have a finished first draft, but that's not at all the case. I've barely touched the manuscript this year (I'm stuck at about 15,000 words), and though the story still occupies my mind from time to time, the actual writing of it is on hold for now.
Fortunately, I've still been writing regularly, thanks to two resolutions I set for myself for 2014. First, every week I'm writing a new 1-2 page (400-800 word) story, on whatever subject comes to mind. Or actually, due to their brevity and the need to start a new piece each week, it would be more accurate to call them sketches or introductory pieces, with only a few of them so far being complete, self-contained stories. Several of the stories were riffs on various books I've been reading (Budd Schulberg, Knut Hamsun, William Maxwell), and two are even potential introductory chapters for book-length concepts I've been kicking around. I'm giving myself the first and last weeks of the year off, so this project will give me fifty pieces of raw material to further hone into finished stories or even books.
And lest I end this year with just fifty pieces that may or may not ever be finished (the latter being more likely, given my work habits), my other project is a serialized story, in which each installment is written by hand (with no editing) on a postcard, and mailed to a writer friend of mine. I have no idea where the story is going, but with any luck I'll come to some sort of resolution by the end of the year. I wrote the first installment in January and the second in February, and though I had hoped to write a new one every few weeks, it's looking like monthly installments are more realistic. Having a reader waiting to read my next installment has really been effective motivation to keep writing.
So, while nothing is happening with the novel, at least I've still been writing on a regular basis. With any luck these exercises will keep me limber and sharp if and when the novel ever comes back to me.
"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece
"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago
"Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America
"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key
"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged
"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night
"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks
"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless
"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth
"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune
"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)
Wolf in White Van
Yes, another John Darnielle post...Darnielle's lyrics have always been very literary, and several years ago he published his first work of fiction, a novella for Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality (which I have not yet read, but intend to grab the first time I see it in person). Now he's about to further solidify his writer credentials with his debut novel Wolf in White Van, which is coming out in October. Really, really looking forward to this.
Cartier-Bresson in Chicago
Excellent: I didn't know that the great Henri Cartier-Bresson was ever in Chicago, let alone that he photographed memorable images here, like this one. I'm heartened to see he was as enamored with the abstract geometry of the El tracks as countless other, lesser photographers (myself included) have been since the system's inception. And I admire the juxtaposition between the hard rigidity of the tracks and the soft and slightly pained humanity of the boy's face.
"The Afternoon Party"
I'm very pleased to announce the publication of my piece "The Afternoon Party" in the debut issue of Goreyesque, an online journal devoted to new works inspired by the artist and writer Edward Gorey. My piece was inspired by Gorey's delightfully macabre "Thoughtful Alphabet" stories (26 words each, A to Z), and was really fun to write. My only regret is that Gorey isn't alive to illustrate my story; I can totally visualize the drunken socialite and the hapless guests flittering around her, but totally lack the necessary drawing skills to bring the story more vividly to life.
"What greater cumulative toll the small irritations of life take than its major woes; if instead of the thousand perennial gnats a man could pay in one good snakebite."
- Peter De Vries
"...dressed for a walk in the country..."
I've just started to wade into William Maxwell's short story compendium, All the Days and Nights. I really admire this incisive yet almost offhand description, from "Over By the River", of the apartment building doormen of Manhattan's posh Upper West Side.
Doormen smoking a pipe and dressed for a walk in the country came to work after a long subway ride and disappeared into the service entrances. When they reappeared, by way of the front elevator, they had put on with their uniforms a false amiability and were prepared for eight solid hours to make conversation about the weather.
In just two sentences Maxwell presents two solid visual images (doormen in their informal and formal selves), the sacrifice they endure and implied economic disparity between themselves and their employer (long subway ride), and the false, empty drudgery of their jobs (chatting with tenants about the weather). Well done.
Reading in Public: Chicago, 1964
It's been a long time since I updated my "Reading in Public" series (almost a year and a half now) so when this wonderful photograph came up on Calumet 421, I just had to add it. The photo was taken by Jay King on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, in 1964. Not only is this gentleman reading in public, but he's so engrossed by the book that not even walking can distract him; based on the posture of the couple behind him, it appears that he's standing on a corner, probably waiting for the walk light. I certainly hope he looked both ways before returning to his reading. And I wish I could tell which book this was.
"The man does not remember the hand that struck him, the darkness that frightened him, as a child; nevertheless, the hand and darkness remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, part of the passion that drives him wherever he thinks to take flight."
- James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone"
"...a raging demon, slashing with his pen..."
In Black Boy, Richard Wright recounts how astounded he was, at seventeen years old, to first read H.L. Mencken.
I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words...Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them for a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.
Wright was able to read Mencken’s books only by stealth, as the Memphis public library of the 1920s didn’t check out books to black people. But reading Mencken’s literary criticism stokes a sudden passion in Wright to read the fiction of the previously unknown authors cited by Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser in particular, and so he manages to check out more books from the library. He tears through the books and develops, if not quite empathy, then an awareness that struggle and inequality are not confined to African-Americans, and that progress and equality could be fought for with the weapon of words.
It had been my accidental reading of fiction and literary criticism that had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities. Of course, I had never seen or met the men who wrote the books I read, and the kind of world in which they lived was as alien to me as the moon. But what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these books - written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson and Lewis - seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action.
It’s interesting to note that the fiction writers revered by the young Wright were all Midwesterners, covering a broad swath from Minnesota to Ohio, while Wright dreams of leaving the racist repression of the South for the (relative) freedom and opportunity of the North, specifically Chicago. Although most of the characters of those novels were white, Wright seemed inspired by the lives they lived in the North, even though those lives themselves were often limited and inhibited. To Wright, even the constrained lives of Carrie Meeber and the common folk of Winesburg must have seemed preferable to what he faced in the South, and prodded him toward Chicago and its greater possibilities.
Black Boy is a lively and often gripping account of Wright's young life, which has given me a better understanding of the obvious rage that permeates the pages of his landmark novel Native Son. No author writes in a creative vacuum; everything they create is flavored by their past life experiences, and Wright is a clear example of that. The first installment of my latest Structured Reading effort is now complete, and I'm moving on to James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son.