Finished Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I kind of needed that. I generally don’t like an intrusive narrator who comes in and addresses the reader directly, but here it worked and added something to the book. The narrator’s acknowledgment of the reader and the inherent invented-ness of his characters, I think, put the focus on the – this’ll sound boring – pedagogical aspects of fiction while also adhering to the basic direction for all writers to be entertaining and interesting. Definitely deserves its status as a classic – and a second read . . . . . Someday.
Still plodding through Narrative Discourse (again) by Gerard Genette, and taking notes (again). Genette, Michael Ondaatje, and Walter Murch were big influences on me in grad school, and really changed my writing. Or, rather, changed what I expected from my writing. I couldn’t have finished The Evolution of Shadows without the ideas and examples provided by that trio.
Got a flotilla of galleys in June that will be jumping my queue so that I can maybe get the writers on the podcast this fall. The Lower Quarter, by Elise Blackwell; Thicker Than Blood, by Jan English Leary; American Copper, by Shann Ray; and Dreams of the Red Phoenix, by Virginia Pye. Now, since I’ve had Blackwell and Pye on my to-be-read list for earlier work, I’ve also plucked up Blackwell’s Unnatural History of Cypress Parrish, and Pye’s first novel River of Dust, both of which I’ve been meaning to read, but, of course, that’s not how things work, is it?
I have a stockpile of unread books because, well, you never know when the world will end.
Spent a week plowing through the Netflix original Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston. It’s very funny, and very human, but . . . it’s narrow despite being a show about two women dealing with their husbands leaving them for each other. Strange and fun to see Sheen and Waterston playing gay, but I wondered why they didn’t try to find a pair gay actors to do it. Of course, maybe there’s something to that casting in a kind of meta-commentary way. Cast a pair of straight Boomer actors who are comfortable pretending to be gay and maybe someone realizes there’s nothing to be afraid of there. Social class, however, is the only real problem I had with it. To me, there is nothing about that world that isn’t a kind of upper middle class fantasy.
Watched the Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. It’s very fascinating, and I need to watch it again because first, the subject matter is very dense and, second, because Slavoj Zizek has, for me anyway, a difficult accent. I have to listen intently to anyone with an accent for a good while before I can pick out the pattern and make sense of the way they make familiar words sound unfamiliar. The movie is a long, cinematic treatise on the fantasies that make up our various belief systems. I may have to pick up some of his work in English, add it to my long list of books to be read.
My only addition to my music collection in June was the 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight by Frightened Rabbit. Their song “Fast Blood” had been popping up on my Pandora feed, and I became obsessed with it.
Here’s a live version recorded in Madison, WI
This is the summer of inactivity on the podcast. Had some big plans that didn’t, or haven’t worked out. Being a one-man operation in the middle of nowhere means I’m often thwarted by my own emotional pendulum, and the logistics of it all.
Thankfully, Stephen McClurg has remained steady, so there has been a consistent, monthly show to keep the feed active. I’ve been enjoying the The Laboratory shows immensely, which might be why they’re running long, and why we keep talking for hours after the recording stops.
Writing & Submitting
I’ve missed my deadline for finishing “Far Nineteen,” but, of course, I’ll keep plugging away.
Submitting things is always so . . . fraught with anxiety . . . That might be the best way to describe it. I’ve always had a problem asking for help, and asking to be considered for anything. Asking an agent to consider representing me, or an editor to consider publishing me, is a lot like asking a woman to consider dating me. In the last 17 years, I’ve had two women who’ve dated me and one editor who’s published me. Every agent’s rejected me.
I used to say that I had a tiny nugget of talent, but I was going to polish that nugget until it shined. Can you polish something full circle? Right back in to dullness?
The idea of learned helplessness has been on my mind a lot lately. This is a behavior where someone has mistakenly learned that they cannot control or escape negative or unpleasant situations and that they must simply endure them. The false belief that they’re helpless then becomes so ingrained that, even when an escape is easily available, they can’t take advantage of it. It can happen to anyone if they have experienced the right kind of defeat, abuse, or loss of control and if it’s paired with the right kind of attribution style.
There is a very good, very detailed episode of You Are Not So Smart that covers learned helplessness (article with links here).
I’ve been thinking about it a lot in relation to two things in particular: writing query letters (or, rather, NOT writing query letters) and dating.
A lot of the problems with learned helplessness arises out of a person’s attribution style. If someone tends to attribute the cause of their pain to themselves and if they believe that the reasons are internal, stable and global – that is, the defeat, abuse, or loss of control is their own fault, that it will always be that way, and that it will happen in every aspect of their lives, then they can very easily find themselves in a situation where the means of escape, of relief, are right there in front of them and they can’t bring themselves to take advantage of it.
People locked in poverty and homelessness struggle with learned helplessness, but then so too do affluent people in abusive relationships or bad jobs. And, learned helplessness doesn’t apply just to individuals, it can apply to social groups and communities. Those in control, the politically powerful, the wealthy, often take advantage of and reinforce learned helplessness in order to maintain whatever status quo is to their advantage.
I once had a conversation with a man who tried to convince me that the poor wanted to be poor and unhealthy because those were the choices they made. If they wanted healthy food options, better jobs, and so on then they just had to decide that’s what they wanted – the facts that they might not have a car, that they lived in a “food desert” and didn’t have access to adequate public transportation didn’t matter. He seemed to believe that if a poor person would simply decided to be healthy, then they’d find a way to trek a mile or more from their home to a suitable grocery store, and trek the mile or more back home laden with healthy perishables instead of hoping down to the convenience store on the corner or the MacDonald’s a block over (all the while being told by society that it’s the poor person’s fault for living in a part of town without a decent grocery store when it was the grocery store’s decision to pull out f the poor neighborhood). Of course, he was a well-to-do white man from a well-to-do family who had, quite possibly, never had an opportunity closed off to him. He’d never heard “No” on a frequent and consistent basis and so essentially never developed an internal attribution style. Maybe he had an internal attribution style when it came to something else, but certainly not when it came to economic set-backs.
I’m naturally inclined to blame myself first, to ask what it was that I did wrong. My rejected queries all tend, I assume, to be my fault and not the agent’s fault. Form rejection letters don’t do a good job a circumventing that habit – and, of course, that’s my fault. See? When I’ve gotten a few personalized rejections, even if the content was baffling, it actually helped. Looking back on it, probably the best personalized rejection I got for The Evolution of Shadows was from an agent in Colorado who told me that present tense literary fiction didn’t sell. It was – and still is – a bullshit reason, but it allowed me to attribute the reason for my rejection to that agent and not something I did, which, in turn fired up that other dark side of my personality, the “I’ll show you” side. Over the years, I’ve begun to be more and more grateful to that agent, and to the other agent who told me that the book had a haunting, lyrical quality but that she didn’t know how to sell it.
But, I can’t keep relying on others to short circuit my tendency to blame myself for rejections (both literary and romantic). I have to find a way to do that myself and so, un-paralyze myself.