Monday, May 19, 2014

Won't somebody please think of the children?

I have tried to tap into many different sources of inspirations--needs, really--to motivate myself to complete this book. 

First, I had a lot of student debt and a few part-time jobs. A book I could write in the meantime; it's not like work was hard or really a time-killer. And a check for that would both put a dent in the debt and set myself on a path toward a career ... or something. Since then, the situation has changed: different job and more managed debt, but much less urgency. 

Then I tried to tap into my love for my sisters, whom I care about deeply. For them I want to be an example of success. If they couldn't motivate me, then nothing could. Well, it's not their fault I'm not finished. The are a constant source of energy, and remain a contributing factor in the story. (That Aedan has a younger sister originates in this background; although their relationship and subsequent story has little to do with my own, my connection to my sisters still informs the emotions involved.)  

And then there's my altruistic sensibility. I've long admired artists and activists who advocate for social justice. Not that I want to start a movement, but I've often considered the necessity of my writing to engage with a cause beyond my own issues or 'art for it art's sake.' A cause was all I needed. (I once even thought I could write topical, satirical plays that engaged with timely issues. Somebody might be able to, but not me.) I thought I would just need to "get my war on" to breach the reservoir of words and passion trapped in me. There are no lack of current issues that intersect with my story. (Poverty and housing in New York; mining disasters; workers' rights; child sex workers.) Serving something outside myself ... that's still an attractive idea. 

And I've even taken a more selfish angle--just write it for yourself. This has two distinct meanings. First, I feel I need to complete this novel as an act of self-discipline, self-realization, self-improvement. I have some qualities to complete a novel--but those I need to develop to finish this project will actually help me become a better person (or the one I want to be), or at the very least a more productive one. It might set me on a path to resolving my issues with "purpose" and "potential." And surely there are discoveries ahead that I can't even anticipate. But such an adventure--such a commitment--is scary. I am very risk-adverse, lazy, and complacent. Of course writing a novel isn't a proper therapeutic exercise, but maybe it can be. To paraphrase Ned Flanders' dad, 'I've tried nothing, and I'm all out of ideas.' 

The second meaning of "write for myself" considers my intended audience--a young me. Why not write the book I would have wanted to read at thirteen? Of course, at thriteen I didn't read YA fiction. But there's the challenge. (As if trying to get a current 13-year-old to read a history book isn't challenging enough.) Or hell, why not write a book I would want to read now? The Book Thief was the best book I read my junior year of college.     

So, getting to my point, a month ago I came to the following realization (quoted below.) It was at once surprising, daunting, and encouraging. And I return to it now as I return to working on the story, because keeping this all in mind might be the only thing that keeps me writing.

I can reach more topics—more timely topics—than I’d realized. If I can do it appropriately. And I think that many of them can be relevant to a teen audience. Alienation. Empathy. Escape into drugs, alcohol. Music. Love. What you’re supposed to do versus what you want to do. PTSD. Emotional and physical abuse. Identity/perception of roles and sexuality. Confronting Poverty & Cruelty & Avarice. Ambitions, dreams, possibilities. One person making a difference. Diligence, second chances. Self-expression. Parental relationships. Sibling relationships. History and science and technology.
All that … that’s the story. That’s a lot of stuff. A lot to talk about. But you don’t just talk about it—you show it, play it out in scenes implicitly or not.  You need to approach things with your particular angle, but you’ll need to let them figure out what to take away from it. Some ambiguity isn’t terrible, but it can’t come off as condoning something you don’t. Explore complexity and contradictions.

To educate, inspire, and delight.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Louis Lortie: after playing for nearly three hours, still gave us an encore.
Each individual in a concert audience responds to the performance in their own way, but it usually falls among certain behaviors. Some, both those familiar with the music and those hearing it for the first time, actively listen. Their focus is on either the music itself--whether its emotional effect, or its compositional aspects--or on the performer; typically, I would imagine, some combination of all these. Some listen less actively. Some occupy themselves with reading the program, checking their phone, dozing, re-reading the program, dozing, wondering what the person sitting next to them is thinking, remembering the past, wondering what the person across the room looks like naked, worrying about the future; but they still listen to the music by sheer dint of being in the room. Theirs may be a more passive connection, but they are undeniably in the presence of music. No level of engagement is better than the other.  
Depending on the concert, my engagement vacillates between active listening, passive listening, watching the performers, occasional dozing, and thinking about my life (despite the fact you’re at a production of an auditory art, classical concerts offer a rare, “quiet” opportunity for contemplation and reflection.) Sometimes, however, I’m rather actively engaged with the performance throughout and, as in the case of Saturday’s concert, just don’t stop thinking.

I didn’t anticipate this, though. My initial interest in the Liszt production was to witness a feat of endurance as well as see rarely produced event. Three hours … one man at a piano … an epic solo work composed over the majority of a life-time: for me (I’m such an odd kid) that was enough to commit the majority of my Saturday evening. And yet despite this, I still anticipated possibly being bored at times (when the music either took a turn toward the twee or saccharine or repetitive or challenging), and considered it likely I’d doze off about 40 minutes in. How wrong I was.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

To the Bowery, a love letter

It was beautiful and boisterous on the Bowery, as always. And Aedan, as ever, was charmed by the sights and sounds of a stroll along that throng-choked boulevard. And as ever, he could be comfortable to be lost among this crowd, this cacophony. The pleasure of anonymity in such surroundings appealed to him. To be among, but not of. Alone, but not lonely or isolated. A certain elegance in such a mess—where the city would never be less than its true self. It was the place to see and be seen. Sure, Fourteenth Street had its highfalutin attractions, and Dutchtown beer halls were forever full of music and merriment, but on the Bowery … life burst forth on the stage and sidewalk alike. The show was everywhere and anywhere. Performers and characters of all forms and acts appeared on the Bowery. Beggars and thieves and hookers profited from the density of humanity in the throes of gaiety. But even these types were compelled to revel in the bounty of the Bowery. The slums, so near, never seemed so far. It was the light, more than anything, Aedan realized. The galaxy of gas-lamps offered—and reflected—the profusion of joy among the performers, peddlers, and passersby. This glow, so foreign to the tenements and their alleyways, bathed their inhabitants in radiance. It clarified, enlightened, and uplifted with equality and without prejudice.

Kinda rough (and probably not too accurate) but oh well.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A new year ...

And no finished novel. Ugh.

New deadline: August 10 ... 2014.

mo' typing, monkey

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pondering Truth in History and Fiction

It's been a month since my last post--but that's not because I've stopped writing. It's just that there's been nothing good enough to post, or anything I would consider progress. More words, more sources, more obsession? Yes, yes, and yes--but still not enough.

Currently, I'm very excited about securing digital copies (suck on that NYPL!) of two potentially enlightening sources, one primary and one secondary. Published in 1872, James McCabe's  Lights and shadows of New York life; or, The sights and sensations of the great city. A work descriptive of the City of New York in all its various phases will serve as my cultural guide to postwar New York--just as it did for McCabe's audience. Although it will hardly be an objective account, it seems awfully comprehensive and detailed in areas of particular interest--especially those necessary for creating an accurate sense of daily life in the city at the time. 

And I realized a few weeks ago, that while I attempt to decipher and depict the emotions and psychology of a young prostitute, I ought to have a better sense of what her life and experience would be like. So I found Their Sisters' Keepers: Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870 by Marylinn Wood Hill, and discovered both that I knew little about prostitution in this city and that I would need to know a good deal to give Charlotte both depth and a realistic context. But just beginning the Introduction has confirmed that I'm on the right track with all the complexities and, especially, contradictions that would have been present in her life. And I'm always on the look out for more authentic details. Answers to a big question about a little thing came from The Humble Little Condom: A History by Aine Collier. Anecdotal, yet detailed, her history gave me a sense of the common usage, materials, and popular opinion of prophylactic birth control in mid-19th century America. Fascinating stuff, and more ancient than I thought. 

And in other research news, I finally finished a classic source on life in the New York City tenements: How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. Yes, he does rely on some pretty glaring ethic stereotypes that almost undermine the work. But in the context of his time (1890) these would have seemed apt characterizations. And there's no denying the influence of this work toward improving the conditions of the poor in New York by popularly depicting their plight in a pioneering work of photojournalism. Although he writes about conditions 15-20 years later than my period of interest, his anecdotes and photographs from visits to the tenements are invaluable records of street life and the hidden lives of the indigent. While the conditions are specific to this city and this time, Riis is able to show something universal, sadly enough, that's recognizable among impoverished people of all places and ages. 

Now, for some thoughts on writing.

First, on writing--literally: Here we have the results of studies on the psychological affect of handwriting versus typing. Needless to say, despite your penmanship (or lack thereof), writing something by hand gives you a stronger connection to the words, thus better retention (in the case of note-taking), accountability & drive (in the case of goal/task statements), and fluidity of thought (in the case of creative writing). I have been writing by hand for about the last month, and while the flow of the pen is nice, beholding an actual page--and filling it with ink scribbles--is the more satisfying part of the process.

Then I found two interviews in Guernica Magazine that spoke to me, the first with noted writer Lore Segal. Although she's had a long and illustrious career, I've not read any of her works. Nonetheless, one of her answers struck me as particularly relevant to my attempt to write:
I’m always amused by the way questions are asked. “What did you intend?” That’s not even a recognizable verb. You don’t intend when you write. You sit down and you’re thinking things and dreaming things and someone says something and you think “Ah!” That’s how it happens. Intention is not part of the game.
I too often make intention part of the game, when it clearly doesn't belong. It just happens. Sure, thinking about the reader is one thing, but doing a critical analysis of your own novel before it's even finished? That could very well lead to a book that a) doesn't get finished, and b) isn't worth reading. Something to ponder ... but not too much.

This interview led me to one with my favorite fiction writer, Aleksander Hemon. Now, I've actually read and re-read several of his books, articles, and short stories--and even gone to a book signing. So I was surprised I hadn't come across this interview earlier. I suggest you read the entire thing. By the end you might be fed up with his personal opinions or his cynicism, but he's prone to some profound reflections on story-telling.

Exhibit A:
You devise ways to tell a story that complies with your sensibility. Style and method are really extensions of your present sensibility. The beauty of literature—also its limit—is that it is inescapably personal, even if you’re writing science fiction. Even if your story takes place on a different planet, it comes out of your personality, your personal experience, your sensibilities, your interests, your passions, the whole of you. Even if you tried to extinguish your personality, what is left in the story will reflect it, perhaps by its negation. Our lives provide the bricks from which we build these cathedrals.
Exhibit B:
I like to blow up this notion that all we have to do as writers and artists is represent reality, which is presumably solid and self-evident, with no negotiation of the gap between myself and the world, between this body and this space, which needs narration to close it. You have to figure out a way to cover that gap. It seems self-evident because we do it routinely. It’s a condition of being conscious. But what fiction and art can do, particularly narrative art, is construct consciousness—in a sense, we have to do it for the first time, every time. We, as writers, have to figure out a way to create a consciousness in language. It’s crazy even to attempt to do that.

Exhibit C:
Guernica: What has been the most surprising thing about living as a writer?
Aleksandar Hemon: I don’t know if surprising is the word, but I learned a hard lesson in Bosnia about art and its ennobling aspect, or the absence thereof. But despite all that I know rationally, and everything that I can put into words, I can say that I have difficulty giving up the notion of the nobility of art. I make money doing this, and I want to make money, and I would like to have a lot of money, but I still believe that the only reason to write is that somehow it will make something or somebody better. I do believe—and I know I shouldn’t—that art transcends money and success and any of that. You can still do it if you’re not clinging to the notion of nobility. But I am, I’m clinging to it by my nails. I really can’t justify it intellectually. I’d argue against it rationally. Yet, if it wasn’t for that—what would this life be? What would this world be? What the fuck would we do? I’m fully aware that it’s something that cannot be accomplished by me or anyone, but it’s something to strive for, and fail at, daily. 

And finally, to add to the discussion of the role of the artist, I'll leave you with an excerpt from a speech by James Baldwin. Take it as you will, but to me it is both daunting and inspiring to really consider the exclusive duty and unique ability of the artist.

Monday, October 28, 2013

In the Gutter, February '72

I don't know how I got home that night. As I recall, I hardly felt the cold at all. I was never dizzy, but my feet moved as if frozen blocks ... My head hurt when I awoke. It didn't hurt that night though ... No, not until they knocked me out. He did. And robbed me. She did. Two of them, maybe more. I wouldn't know. The woman came up to me all of a sudden. She was was just right there in my face with her tits, her story, her breath ... A favor her request; money his demand. Never saw the bloke, but he missed on his first swing. Not entirely: the blackjack caught the scruff of my neck, took me down a peg. More to his level, I reckon, 'cause his next blow was true.

A horse pissing a Hudson-like current by your head is a rude awakening, but no less than I deserved. I cried then. Not 'cause I lost all I earned, or from the pain, but because I'd come to a place I never thought I'd stray. In fact, I kept such a clear eye on it--stepping as far as I could manage from its slippery slope--that I thought I'd be well far from it for the rest of my days. But I guess I was short-sighted. All roads led there eventually. And the truth of that stung like the cold wind. And the tears came. I was my father's son: Aedan, son of Seamus--son of shame.

I vomited on the steps of the tenement. It burned my throat. The wages of an hour's labor spent and spewed just like that. The lump above my ear was tender and nearly throbbed. My jaw clicked and clacked. It hasn't closed right since.

The night was a dark cloak wrapped tight on the streets. In the building that darkness would be smothering: with windows few, and the walls coated in black grime inches thick--years of scum, the residue of lives spent in this inescapable squalor.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Make it more like a play, huh? Okay ...

“Aedan! Over here, my boy.”
            Aedan turned at the shrill cry of his name. Few men knew it, and one that did, Jim Daly, wouldn’t have used it. To him, a slap on the back, or a spit plug of tobacco, or a “Getovahereyoubasterd” was a standard greeting. So he was surprised to see Dr. Smith balancing on a plank, holding a wooden crate under his arm.
            Aedan excused himself, with no regret, from the sand pipe, and maneuvered between the planks and entry shafts, tools and mud to reach Dr. Smith near the foot of the air lock.
            “Dr. Smith?” What the hell is he doing here? And why does he have birds?
            “Let’s go to section four. There’s no work in there today, am I correct.”
            “Yes, sir. We’re working here in the middle today.”
            “Good. Take this and follow me.”
            Aedan had become accustomed to odd jobs in the caisson—a stranger worksite could not be found in New York—but he could not understand what a man of medicine could possible want down there. Patients came to him after all. But Aedan accepted the crate and followed the surgeon.
            They ducked through the doorway cut in the thick wooden supporting wall, bouncing along the planks spanning the muck. They crossed the chamber and into the next. It glowed with a peculiar white light. Seldom had Aedan seen an empty section with not a single laborer or engineer at work. There was almost a serenity to be found there, although it was a setting wholly unnatural--and one could hardly forget the immense weight bearing down. 
            Dr. Smith followed the wall and paused at one of the massive brackets angled between the wall and ceiling. “This will do.” Aedan wedged the crate between the bracket and the wall. Hanging his medicine bag from one of the tall hooks usually used for whale-oil lamps, Dr. Smith proceeded to pull out an instrument.
            “Alright, please open the cage and pull one of them out. Loosen the wire there and it should just … Mind the other doesn’t escape!”
            Aedan stretched his hand through the narrow opening, grasped a fluttering feathery thing, and pulled it out in a flash. Looking down he saw the beady eyes of a bewildered pigeon. It struggled against his fingers for only a second, but Aedan could feel its nervous heartbeat.
            “Attaboy—now just hold him still a moment …”
            Aedan watched as the doctor stretched out one of the bird’s wings.
            “Now, the pressure down here this week is about twenty-pounds per square inch. As this caisson descends, the river and river bed increase their weight on the frame. Consequently, the compressors must increase the pressure of air inside the frame to counter that weight. The current trend is about two pounds—that is, an additional two pounds of air pressing on each inch of surface in this chamber—for every foot the caisson descends. The compressors can handle it. And the Chief Engineer assures me the caisson can handle it. ‘Twice as strong as the Brooklyn caisson—four times stronger than it need be,’ he says like a proud father.”
            Aedan tried to comprehend this sudden rush of information hitting him like the pressure in the airlock just an hour before. How can someone know all that and talk so easily about it? Like it was just something he heard on the street.
            Dr. Smith noted Aedan’s look and its resemblance to the confused, slightly petrified, but otherwise content pigeon. He carried on.
            “But the pressure of this air can be difficult for you and the other men to handle. And if nothing else, you know exactly how that feels. And that’s why, with your experience, you’re qualified to assist today—and in the future if you like.”
            “I would, sir. If I can help someone else avoid that same kind of pain from working down here.”
            Dr. Smith smiled. “The conditions present are well known, but what occurs to the body in them—that is still a mystery. I want to see if the concentration of oxygen in this atmosphere …”
            How am I supposed to know what any of that means?
“Oxygen: the molecules of the air that you breathe to give life to your flesh.”
With a nod Aedan feigned understanding, and Dr. Smith continued.
“I want to know how the excess of oxygen affects the natural healing process of the flesh.”
With a movement swift and sure, the surgeon made an incision under the birds wing. Aedan saw a smear of blood on the scalpel edge.
“There. And the next, please?” Dr. Smith wiped his brow with a damp shirtsleeve. “Let’s hurry up, now. The idea wasn’t to experiment on myself.”
They repeated the procedure.
“How will you know what happens? Or what it means if something does?”
“There’s a pair of birds in the hospital. I've made similar incisions on them. At the end of the week, I will compare the wounds with these birds. If there’s any difference down here from the natural healing process at the surface that might help me understand what this air does to you.”
Aedan paused latching the crate door.
“To you workers,” Dr. Smith continued, his brow damper still.
“Aye. God knows we need someone looking out for us. Otherwise, we’re just … little bleeding birds stuck in a crate. Not knowing thing a damn thing outside of what we are, what we were born to be.”
Dr. Smith was silent. He reached for the crate, but Aedan, the taller of the two, grabbed it first.
“On the hook, right?”
Dr. Smith removed his bag, and Aedan looped one of the slats over the hook’s end until the crate was firmly affixed. Aedan peered into the crate, now at eyelevel. “What are you going to do with’em?”
“After I examine the wounds and take blood samples, they will be exterminated,” Dr.Smith said, regaining his professional detachment, as he made for the chamber exit.
“You reckon I could have’em then? All ov’em?”
Dr. Smith paused at the doorway.  

“Even after a week down here,” Aedan continued, “they’ll be good eating yet.”