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Non-Writing Things Which Nonetheless Help Me Write: Lawn Work.

Over at the Ploughshares Blog, guest blogger James Scott has been writing a series of blogs from which I’ve “borrowed” the title for this blog, because the idea which Scott is running with is one that has been on the back of my mind a lot for the last few months, as I’ve been outside of the academic environment (of both school and writer’s group) that unbeknownst to me was largely responsible for my relative productivity over the last year. Having stepped into a (near) void of poetic/literary thinking/discussion, I’ve been on a constant hunt for the last few months for ways to get into the writing head-space within which I lived unappreciative since the new year.

So, long-winded introduction aside, let’s talk about lawn work. When I finished with school in June I dragged myself (kicking and screaming) back to my lonely suburban hometown to live with my uncle who needed a roommate and was willing to give me a break on rent until I established myself. Within a couple weeks of unemployment and the feelings-of-total-uselessness that accompany it, I became an apprentice to the unending battles of regular home maintenance.  From pulling weeds to picking up squishy rotten apples to sanding down and re-staining the deck, I began spending significant portions of time with my knees in the dirt and my head in the clouds with words and ideas drifting by like migratory birds making an unseasonable return.

Three months later, the summer’s finally ended, I’ve had a job for a few weeks, and my outdoors work has been largely diminished. However, the leaves have begun falling with total abandon, and this afternoon, with a few hours to spare before work, I went out to deal with them a little bit. Within ten minutes, I had the bare-bones of a poem worked out, a new beginning for one that’s been brewing and the idea for this post fully formed. By the time the work was (as) done (as it can ever be), I’d developed some semblance of an idea why lawn work and writing seem to go so well together for me:

1. First off, both writing and the lawn work I’ve been doing are almost entirely aesthetic activities to me. Although there’re pragmatic/utilitarian benefits to both things, I don’t do them for those reasons. True, if you leave a deck unstained it can increase the chances of water-damage and rot and unpleasant fungal growth, but that’s not why you stain it. You stain it because it looks good. You don’t rid the grass of leaves, because they’re hurting anybody there, it just looks better. And despite the socio-political benefits we all optimistically attribute to writing and writers, I don’t expect my poetry to change lives or the world, but I’d feel remiss if it didn’t capture some sense of beauty.

2. Similarly, lawn work (and cleaning generally, actually, now that I think about it) and writing are some of the very very few parts of my life wherein I am prone to perfectionism. With writing, this makes sense to me intuitively: I take great pride in the (self-perceived) quality of my writing, which keeps my self-esteem out of the red, so inevitably I put a lot of effort into maintaining that quality. I don’t take any pride in my ability to clean/rake/paint, but I have an unprecedented tendency towards uncalled-for thoroughness, which may (now that I think of it again) have a circular relationship with regards to the lawn-work/writing connection.

3. On a side note: in conversation and in writing, I never know how to end gracefully.

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The Pros and Cons of Audiobooks

Since I went to the public library a couple weeks ago and found that the only section where anything interesting^1 hid was the Audiobook section wherein I found some David Sedaris and Lorrie Moore (and a copy of Dracula which I didn’t actually put on my computer for some reason), I’ve been meaning to write a blog about the advantages and disadvantages of the format.

Late last week I spent almost twelve hours over the course of three or four days listening to Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs^2 and when the last word was spoken by some pleasant sounding theater actress, I knew I would need to give the ideas I’d had throughout the book some time to simmer before I could actually state them in a cogent manner.

The actual effect of this “simmering” was me forgetting half of them. Overall, I guess that’s not so much a problem as a matter of life (at least for writers without pens and paper with them in bed when they’re falling asleep, which is when I had most of the aforementioned ideas). But regardless, I still have a few and they are:

1. When listening to a book and not holding a physical (or even digital^3) copy in your hand, you cannot underline or annotate or reread (you can rewind but that’s just a pain in the ass) or even stop and think about what you’re reading unless you’re obnoxious with the pause button and that doesn’t really recreate the seamless transition from reading to thinking to rereading to thinking to reading that is so easy with an actual book you don’t realize you’re doing it until the only time you have to reflect on what you’re reading is when the woman speaking directly into your ears stops to breathe or on less frequent occasions pauses for a few brief seconds to recreate what I imagine (and have no way to prove) is white space on the page.

2. When you walk down the street with a book in your hands (as I’ve recently been forced to do with Infinite Jest), the text looks green when you pass from sunlight into shade, and I’m not sure why that is. When you walk down the street listening to an Audiobook, you just look like you don’t enjoy the music you’re listening to and are thus stone-faced and impassive, rather than moving your head in a semi-regular way that most passerby would consider abnormal if it were not for the headphone cords hanging stupidly from your ears.

3. Similarly, when you drive down that same street reading a book, you get pulled over and potentially arrested, because that’s just fucking reckless.

4. On one of the days during which I was listening to A Gate at the Stairs, I didn’t do anything else. I’d sent out a few job applications by noon and felt justified in not doing anything but read for the rest of the day, which made me realize pretty quickly that you seem kind of lazy and pointless when listening to a book and not traveling. Despite the almost-intravenous injection of book-into-ear, I was just sitting on an incredibly comfortable chair fiddling with every small object that happened to be within reach (or that I happened to pick up on my way too or from the kitchen or bathroom) and staring blankly into space.

5. Your sense of time (both within the novel and without) is completely arbitrary. When you read a review of the book you’re listening to (because you’ve reached that point in the novel where you cannot help but find out if the squeezed-into-breathing-space thoughts you’ve managed are at all similar to the thoughts of anybody else^4) and the reviewer says a certain aspect of the novel does not come to the surface until page 200, you will have no idea what that means. Does that mean three quarters of the way through disk 6? What disk did you stop on? What chapter is that? Why does this book only have a chapter every two hours?

Overall, I think Audiobooks are not bad but could really benefit from being actual books.

^1. Try excluding this word from your vocabulary, I dare you. It quickly becomes a pain in the ass and a consistent source of self-remonstration.

^2. That’s right. MLA says italics for long works and I’m fucking sticking to it.

^3. I’m willing to acknowledge the existence and relative validity of eBooks even if I probably shouldn’t.

^4. I’m also willing to acknowledge the distinct possibility that I’m the only one with this particular compulsion. Also, Ry referred to this as “a need for dialogue,” which makes it sound a lot less insane. And I appreciate all the help not sound crazy I can get.