My story “Stone, Well, Girl” is out on SmokeLong Quarterly this week.
Yesterday was my 365th straight day of writing at least half an hour a day.
I learned a few things:
The daily practice is non-negotiable. In the past several years I have stopped writing many times. That skipped day turns into a week, then a month, and before I knew it, I lost the right to call myself a writer because I wasn’t writing. That kind of sounds hard on myself, but really, I cannot let my writing slip like that ever again.
A consistent time and place works best. I’m lucky that I can psych myself into writing anywhere (the ferry, my desk, a plane, a cafeteria, a park, the beach, a waiting room, a hospital room at 3 in the morning) or on anything (notebook, laptop, whatever I have handy) or anytime (early morning, late at night, etc.). But what currently works for me is waking up at 5 am and getting the morning routine out of the way before I start writing — then I hop on the bus at 8 am for a change of writing venue. I find that being able to write before going to the office provides me with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction I am otherwise denied for the next 8-9 hours.
My phone and the internet are the enemies of writing. Getting to Level Whatever on Clash of Clans, or a score in the 100s on Crossy Road, or leveling up my shaman in Hearthstone, wins me exactly nothing. I uninstalled them all last year, but that still left me with Facebook and Twitter and Feedly, those sly thieves of time, where I sometimes convinced myself that reading fiction and articles about writing fiction and articles about avoiding procrastination was somehow not procrastination. I can tell you what they are: they’re not writing.
Finish your stuff. This is way easier said than done. I write and revise exceedingly slowly and get distracted easily. (Like with writing quick book reviews and blog entries like this one.) I’m not that happy about my pace but right now it kind of works.
I finally have one forthcoming story (in SmokeLong Quarterly — a place I would have been scared to submit to had I known what their sliver of an acceptance rate was, so the lesson here is Don’t self-reject). I also have two other pieces making the rejection rounds; they’re done, but I smell revisions coming up for one of them soon. That’s fine.
But I also have these, in the space of this same writing year, in order of not-doneness:
- about 18,000 words into a novel (?) set in the Philippines in the early 1900s, loosely based on Macario Sakay, a third of which I’ve polished over and over
- a handful of flash fiction pieces that could easily be revised to doneness or made longer
- a steampunky kind of story about a woman who guards a machine (unfinished, but getting close to a full first draft)
- a few pages into a crime story about the hapless driver of a Tondo gangster (unfinished)
- several pages into a story about a bunch of office workers lost in the desert (way unfinished)
- a personal essay about my father (still way unfinished)
- a few pages into my “Goddess of Lost Things” story (very much unfinished, but wouldn’t you like to know more about this girl and this village and what happens when an asteroid passes over)
- a page or two into a story about Jose Rizal, medical examiner / detective (or supernatural investigator, I haven’t figured it out yet)
- and I’m also cleaning up an old creative nonfiction essay about me as a young reader (unfinished, but it’s undergone several drafts).
As I said, I gotta finish. (I like thinking of the above as my product backlog, to bring in terms from work.)
I have the best readers. Writing may be a solitary act, but without my community of fellow writers and readers I am nothing.
If there’s only one takeaway from this year of writing, it is this: it’s all about doing the work. I’ve been told I have talent but at the end of the day it’s nothing but a field lying fallow if you don’t sit down and do the work.
My mother asked me if I had a goal. I told her, in all honesty, that my only goal was to write every day.
I am not a big re-reader, and I know I should be. I happen to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy once a decade for some reason — not because I am a huge Le Carré fan or of the spy novel in general (I am neither) — but because there’s a mystery in its patient rhythms, in how the story progresses through ellipses and silences, that I still cannot crack. I figure I will read Maria Dermout’s The Ten Thousand Things again sometime soon, in the same way that I will watch Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love again or reread Francisco Arcellana’s “The Mats.” You know, just because.
We all, of course, have different relationships to texts (novelistic or filmic) at different ages, and our life experiences necessarily provide us with shifting lenses through which to read them. The books don’t change; we do.
A movie I found charming and sophisticated in my late teens now seems unwatchable and, well, icky; Woody Allen’s Manhattan is a perfect example. Watching Antonioni’s L’Avventura in your relatively carefree mid-’20s is a very different experience from watching it at a decade later as an unhappy and bitter divorcee.
While I am glad that neither my parents nor the librarian at my elementary and high schools kept me away from books that I “wasn’t yet ready for,” I am sure there were books of my youth that were clearly lost on me. One of those books was To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read in the Philippines before I was a teenager.
I remember almost nothing of it, in the same way I remember almost nothing of the film which I saw around the same time.
And back then I knew almost nothing of the South, or of the Civil Rights Movement, or the implications of the African Americans sitting in the rafters and standing up for Atticus Finch. (Was that scene in the book?)
So I read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman in The Guardian without much to compare it to, and reviews of the book will inevitably compare it to closely to the first novel. I found the chapter quite engaging, with the sentences beautifully constructed, and was eager to read more — but perhaps I should re-read To Kill a Mockingbird first, with a sharper critical eye. But is it still called “re-reading” if I first read it without historical context, a world and a lifetime away?
- The other book coming out on July 14 — and the one I’m most excited about — is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Here’s a powerful excerpt, in “Letter to My Son” (The Atlantic)
- “The internet means we’re a community and there’s no such thing as oversharing. Even this identity, Linda. We’re one in a way we never can be in real life. We’re an online forum past midnight.” Christine V. Nguyen, “Real People and Fake Friends: Linda Evangelista” (Entropy)
- James Brubaker’s “Four Sci-Fi Variations on a Grandmother” (The Austin Review)
- Two stories with something in common (guess): Hector Tobar’s “Secret Stream” (from ZYZZYVA, via Electric Literature) and Emily Wortman-Wunder’s “Trespassing” (The Masters Review)
- “She speaks to you as if you could speak back. Find a voice in your throat that wasn’t there before. She asks you questions, one after another, and though you can only answer Yes or No, you wonder if you are choosing the correct answer, or if one Yes or No in the wrong sequence could change everything, could alter your fate.” From earlier this year, Sam Martone’s chapbook “An Object You Cannot Lose” (Cartridge Lit)
- Kerry Howley’s “The Cage of You” (Granta)
- You might not agree with the assessment that “Elvis’s musical lift-off was never a simple black and white equation; it was more like a backroom radio left on between stations to pick up a tingly mix of all the different sounds in the air that month,” but what a sentence, what an essay. Ian Penman (again), from 2014, on Elvis; “Shapeshifter” (London Review of Books)
- Otessa Moshfegh’s “The Weirdos” (The Paris Review)
Also, I thought I’d get back into using Twitter, but I clearly don’t know how to use it. I tweeted these below:
I suspect my reticence on Twitter has to do with a kind of tweet performance anxiety
Because I recognize two warring impulses in myself, or to be precise, my Twitter self, or the self I project on Twitter.
The first is equivalent to the nonchalant toss of a gum wrapper into a waste bin,
Where, like those early, tentative, Facebook statuses, I announce to the world that I’m eating a ham sandwich for lunch,
Or that the disco version of the Star Wars theme, pew-pew sounds and all, was playing at Safeway as I placed a jar of peanut butter in my cart,
And by treating Twitter as such — the repository of thoughts, relevant only to myself, flung into the ether —
reinforces the notion that I’m having a pointless monologue, except that other people may be listening in, but I know they don’t.
The second is the mystifying pressure, mostly self-generated, to announce, and not just retweet, something that promotes my own “content”
like a new blog entry, or an old blog entry, which of course implies the infrequency and a quick exhaustion of tweets on my end,
Or write some retweetable bon mot, with a labored incorporation of ‘80s song lyrics, or some nugget of wisdom mined with great effort,
Or some cruelly precise act of derision, or a Seinfeldian observation about the world we live in and life in general,
Each word, each character, polished and gleaming, chosen with care and agonizing deliberation
but projecting that same indifferent quality as the swing of the arm throwing that aforementioned gum wrapper.
And between these two overlapping compulsions one must add the need to engage with other Twitterers, to seek them out, to give praise, to follow
And perhaps retweet their words, which I suppose acts as a kind of validation,
though I myself traffic in the same cheap thrill when I receive the notification that I have been retweeted or favorited.
And so this, in combination with my two warring Twitter selves, explains this peculiar anxiety as I plunge into Twitter again.
Follow me, if you like: @thewilyfilipino.
1. Sometime when I was 13 or so, I dedicated my life to Satan.
I’m sure someone dared me to do it, but I don’t remember. Which means I had a witness — my brother, or my cousin — other than smiling or frowning deities, but I can’t recall for sure.
I do remember thinking about my poor parents if the whole infernal plan backfired: how they would have to find an exorcist in case I started levitating from my bed. Or have to clean up the thick green soup I’d spew onto the walls.
I declared my service to the Dark Lord in my bedroom. No upside-down crosses or burning candles or “Hotel California” played backwards accompanied my declaration of faith. I didn’t write any renunciations, or recite blasphemous revisions of the Apostle’s Creed. I simply took a deep breath and said something uninspired, like “I give my life to Satan.”
Silence. Nothing happened.
I was still there. I was still breathing. My head neither sprouted horns, nor was zapped by a bolt of punitive lightning. I had not been bestowed with powers of clairvoyance or the ability to hurl small objects across the room with my mind. My life of evil, ending before it even began.
My bedroom was still there, and it looked the same. My bed, my brother’s bed, our Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet posters on the wall. That one, with Tony Hadley facing the other direction as the rest of the band.
Years later I dedicated myself to Christ — a long story I shall not go into here — and was confirmed and baptized by immersion in holy water. That moment was accompanied by all the appurtenances of ritual designed to heighten the experience: the robes, the prayers, the congregation.
Nothing happened then either.
I was waiting to be filled by the Holy Spirit. Would it feel like a tingle in my spine? A sudden lightness in the soles of my feet? The clouds didn’t part, no dove descended from the sky, and no angelic choirs sang.
Looking back, I figure Satan just didn’t have any wonderful plans for my life. He simply had no use for a young uncorrupted Spandau Ballet fan, momentarily acting out in pimply teenage malaise, with no experience in the pleasures of the flesh. I wanted Satan in my life, but the old guy, ever the practical schemer, didn’t want me back.
Which leads me to more demons, circa 1775, via The Paris Review.
2. Leslie Jamison, “Catechism for the End of the World,” an introduction to Ryan Spencer’s “Such Mean Estate” (The New Yorker).
3. Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” (New York Times Sunday Magazine).
6. Columbia House was integral to the beginning of my musical education, via my mother when she ordered Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits as part of a 10-cassette package when we lived in California. (I think it was the only one of them that survived the Philippines; The Carpenters’ Greatest Hits and Frank Sinatra’s Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back was viciously attacked by mold, even as we attempted to replicate the slightly cooler temperature of Central California by placing the tapes in the freezer. That didn’t work either.) Anyhow, Annie Zaleski has a roundtable discussion / interview with former Columbia House employees, including Sasha Frere-Jones, as they “explain the shady math behind ‘8 CDs for a penny‘” (The A.V. Club)
7. Mark Thompson is the deceptively affable fellow behind the monstrosity-filled Monstark Studios. I picked up his books at a local art fair recently and his books — especially Lepustrosities: Experiments Successful and Bugmen who Bear My Nose — are eloquent and horrid, suggesting a bestiary written by Lovecraft and Ligotti.
8. Issue 3 of The Austin Review was excellent; highlights were Jason Hill’s “Alex Gehry Changed His Status to Single” and Stephen Parrish’s “Metronome.”
9. The great Ian Penman has a wonderful article on Sinatra — his prose can be a little showy, but it’s gorgeous and well-crafted and the article is well worth reading even if you don’t care much about Sinatra. (I do.) Hard to pick which passages are my favorites, but I’ll settle for this, about the Sinatra / Jobim album:
Ten songs, 28’05”, voice never raised above a murmur: utter perfection. A music barely there, like pollen on a summer breeze, the drowsy strings not slathered all over everything, but coming and going like midnight optimism. Sinatra sings lines like ‘tall and tan and young and lovely’ – all these clicky, tricky consonants like soldiers on guard duty – and yet when you recall his voice it’s a soft, uncurling wave.
From “Swoonatra” (The London Review of Books)
10. “Is it possible that what we think of as genre boundaries are things that have been invented fairly recently by the publishing industry?” Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman talk about “genre” (The New Statesman).
- First up for your reading pleasure, a gorgeously creepy transnational tale by the awesome Isabel Yap, “Good Girls” (Shimmer)
- DrFaustusAU draws Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” as Dr. Seuss (via Dangerous Minds)
- “From above, the mass of the city looks arbitrary, as if someone flung paint at a map and said, ‘That’s L.A.’” Dayna Tortorici, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (n+1)
- Dina Nayeri’s O. Henry Prize-winning story, “A Ride out of Phrao” (Alaska Quarterly Review, via Lithub)
- “Some sort of black jam in the middle of porridge is very nice, very striking in fact. And then a few flaked almonds. Be careful though, be very careful with flaked almonds; they are not at all suitable for morose or fainthearted types and shouldn’t be flung about like confetti because almonds are not in the least like confetti.” Claire-Louise Bennett’s “Morning, Noon and Night” (The White Review)
- A fascinating series of essays on the “7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life” by Suzanne Farrell Smith and Cheryl Wilder (Hunger Mountain). I think I relate to sloth the most.
- “Now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation.” Angela Carter, “The Lady of the House of Love” (from The Bloody Chamber, via Electric Literature)