Why I Like Writing Fiction (Reason #1)

“I don’t know, Ruth. You seem like such a happy person; I mean, I’ve never seen you less than glowing with anybody. But I have a question for you: your prettiness, all the attention, do you ever find it oppressive? Like, because men just like the idea of themselves being ‘with’ someone as pretty as you, but not really caring about you?”

I am damned with two coincident conditions: I am inquisitive, and I am analytical. This comorbidity could easily result in me asking wildly inappropriate questions. These questions are inappropriate not because they are vulgar, or in poor taste, or even, well, inappropriate; but because they are so rarely asked, especially in casual conversation, they are interpreted as strange, their asker as something of an outlier, or a Nietzschean. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Zarathustra.)

I believe the unspeakable nature of these questions is repressive and tragic, and it leads to that malaise hysteria–or, if the questions are particularly disturbing, they lead the asker to be admitted to mental health facilities. But because fiction is, technically, a separate and ontologically porous realm where almost anything goes, characters are able to ask those questions. If an author lets her/his characters ask these difficult questions, his/her book or story is lauded by critics–in the language particular to book critics–as “poignant” or “heartbreaking” or as “a daring exhortation compelling the reader to explore the inner world of [fill in the blank]. [Writer’s Name] shoves readers toward the door to the silent conscious, opens it, and dares them to step into the black.” Or whatever.

But, the thing about these questions is that they open up entire universes of personhood. Asking these questions takes what is otherwise a laundry list of traits and descriptions, set pieces, the meta-structures of introductions –> introduction of tension –> complicating factors –> climax –> denouement –> closing, and renders them real and relatable.

They are the barbs in the hook of plot; they emotionally attach the reader. Based on characters’ answers, they grow into something real; readers either empathize with a character’s assertions and grow fond of them, or they disagree and come to hate the character. It’s that connection which prevents the reader from leaving the story; once hooked, they come along for the ride.

Yet Another Preview of “Why You Should Date a Man Who Reads”

Not only is this excerpt longer than the previous excerpt, it is a scanned image out of my notebook, which, if I’m not terribly mistaken, makes this a more authentic reading experience. This might also tip my hand a little bit, revealing that I am, in certain key capacities, very much like the reading man I advised readers, female and male, to not date. Except, as I put it so eloquently to a friend over decaf coffee, “I am kind of like the man who reads from that piece, but I am not a dick.”

 

Ever the hipster, I write only in Moleskines

I’ll leave it at that. And, when reading, please forgive the poor punctuation, the illegible ‘f’ in the sixth line, and the somewhat purple haze hanging over the whole thing.

 

Some Quotes & The Halcyon Days Goes on Academic Lockdown

Such is the life of a student. In the coming 168 hours, I have to write more than 40 pages. One of the papers, about the future of the intellectual in the age of the blog, is worthy of publication on The Halcyon Days, but the others are exceedingly, brutally dry. They are, like certain cuts of meat, too tendinous and gristly for human consumption. I feel kind of bad for the underpaid graduate students forced to grade this stuff. At least mine’s grammatically correct.

For the next week, activity on HD will be minimal.

Now for some quotes. The bottom one is me.

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“…a large percentage of bright young men and women locate the impetus behind their career choice in the belief that they are fundamentally different from the common run of man, unique and in certain crucial ways superior, more as it were central, meaningful—what else could explain the fact that they themselves have been at the exact center of all they’ve experienced for the whole 20 years of their conscious lives?—and that they can and will make a difference in their chosen field simply by the fact of their unique and central presence to it…”  – David Foster Wallace, “Mr. Squishy”. Oblivion: Stories.

– – –

“I read,” I say. “I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with all due respect. But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk.” – David Foster Wallace

That Kind of Writing to Which I Aspire

For a class, I am tasked with writing a 20-25 page paper about an intellectual. My choice is one of my all-time favorite authors, one whose prose has influenced my own cognitive processing more than I’d ever like to admit.

For a class, I am tasked with writing a 20-25 page paper about an intellectual. My choice is one of my all-time favorite authors, one whose prose has influenced my own cognitive processing more than I’d ever like to admit. If I could be a tenth the writer David Foster Wallace was, I could die happily. The tragic irony of that phrase.

An excerpt from a story in the book Oblivion:

The truth is you already know what it’s like. You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.

But it does have a knob, the door can open. But not in the way you think…The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul. And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t? It’s called free will, Sherlock. But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or to laugh, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali–it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.

So cry all you want, I won’t tell anybody.

 

From Generosity, On Human Capability and Love

Here is a quote from Richard Powers’s novel, Generosity. After several months of off-and-on reading, I finished it today.

Saint Augustine, the old Berber, once wrote, Factus est Deus homo ut homo fieret Deus: God became man so that man might become God. He also said, even more popularly, Dilige et quod vis fac: Love, and do as you wish. But that was before our abilities so far outstripped our love. – pp. 252. Generosity, Richard Powers, FSG.

An Extremely Random Thought

This is the product of a day of reading… which is to say that I was extremely prone to believing my thoughts to be particularly insightful. I wrote it in my Moleskine notebook, excited as all getout. You be the judge.

– – –

What if all mass is fluid, its solidity an illusion–a function of a given matter’s viscosity?

Glass windows warp over time: their bottoms fatter than their tops.

Stacks of gold bars were found in pharaohs’ tombs; melded together over thousands of years, discovered now as one solid mass.

Lessons – 1

[257] The illusion of facts will suffice. [272] Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize. [255] Facts now seem important.

A note to be affixed to the bulletin board. A finding from today's reading.

[255] Facts now seem important.

[150] If Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin hadn’t been based closely on verbatim transcripts of Palin’s performances, it wouldn’t have been remotely funny, and it wouldn’t have affected the election; its comedy derived precisely from its scrupulous reframing of the real.

[256] Facts have gravitas.

[381] In order to make it easier to handle, Darwin would cut a large book in half; he’d also tear out any chapters he didn’t find of interest.

[257] The illusion of facts will suffice.

[272] Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.

[496] This is the wager, isn’t it? It’s by remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own existence and the vagaries of your own nature that you stand the greatest chance of conveying something universal.

[497] Self-study of any seriousness aspires to myth. Thus do we endlessly inscribe and magnify ourselves.

[498] A man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory.

[499] What is true in your private heart is true for all men.

[500] All our stories are the same.

[501] Every man has within himself the entire human condition.

[502] Deep down, you know you’re him.

_____________________________

Some recognition goes to David Shield’s book, Reality Hunger, for providing these chewy didactic bits. This in spite of [259]. If “Genius borrows nobly”, I hope to have a little of it, genius–his or otherwise–rub off on me.

In Defense of Fiction: On Nuance

It is in that moment where muscles twitch slightly and a pang of synaptic excitement and that initial ineffable fraction of a fraction of a second before one articulates the “huh, I never noticed that before” that one experiences nuance.

I roll with a crowd that is somewhat slavishly devoted to reading. This is a good thing. With the exception of one of my friends, a man with whom I share my first name, the written matter they consume often takes the form of blog posts, magazine articles, and a preponderance of politics-, economics-, or entrepreneurially-focussed books. All of the above are categorized broadly as nonfiction.

A close friend of mine was reading some of my old blog posts and came upon a very brief treatise on the subject of “nuance” nested within a recent post, On the Hating of Haters.

He shot me an email asking me how one might gain a further appreciation of nuance, a question to which I responded with the following:

Short answer: read more fiction. Non-fiction writing is based on the premise of simplicity. The goal of a non-fiction book is to convey its thesis and supporting examples succinctly and efficiently. Nuance is often confused with extraneous detail, as being pertinent but largely insignificant to the larger argument; it is perceived to be a distraction from the larger “point” of the book/article.

Fiction, on the other hand, usually lacks a hard thesis and thus doesn’t need to convey information efficiently. A fiction writer may have a didactic message to convey, but the modus operandi of fiction for the past 200+ years is to “show, not tell.” Fiction writers show readers what they want to convey: adjectives are not the enemies.

As for some greater utility to fiction, I can only cite my personal growth in emotional intelligence and writing abilities. Both of which I’ve utilized in too many venues to mention here.

While it might be true that a certain critical mass of factual material must be mastered to be a functional adult. The real marker of intellect is not an increased volume of grey matter, the computational, repository bundles of nerve cells in the brain, but the volume of white matter, the neuronal connections that allow the brain to connect disparate ideas and concepts, to render juxtaposition and combination of ideas/things/messages in “contrapuntal” (to use a musical term) harmony.

That so many “young people” eschew the creative, integrative mental processes of reading fiction bothers me. They believe vehemently that consuming a media diet constituent of nonfiction, whether it is news or biography or pop-psych-sociology characteristic of Malcom Gladwell et al, makes them, in some material way, more intelligent. I counter this assertion by positing the following: functional intelligence has very little to do with the amount of factual information one crams into one’s brain; rather, intelligence can be measured by one’s competence with dealing with complexity, and the felicity with which one can deploy knowledge from disparate fields to address a given question or issue. From this integrative cerebral interconnectivity, not the mere aggregation and distillation of facts, “insight” is conjured.

Intelligence is gestalt, it is greater than the sum of its constituent parts; our knowledge is more than the words written and read, spoken and heard, created and consumed, respectively, throughout the course of our lives. The margin of error in our accounting here is the resultant cognitive gains of interconnectedness. Moreover, one cannot hard-wire methodologies for interconnectedness, only the potential for it. Why is it so hard to develop artificial intelligence? Resulting output is the product of false connections, the aforementioned insights are ersatz when uniqueness is attempted algorithmically.

The reading of nonfiction is an exercise in consumption, while reading, consuming, fiction is an exercise of creation. In the act of creation, which will be described below, the brain comes to play.

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A brief interpolation: have you ever noticed that on the bookshelves of the accomplished, one is likely to find a well-thumbed volume of Tolstoy or Austen or Huxley or Fitzgerald’s? These as opposed to Malcom Gladwell or any other member of the quasi-intellectual class who pass off cant and cleverness as meaning during their TED talks? Why is it that one might find, browsing the web histories of these same individuals, a link to one of the New Yorker’s blogs or to Slate, as opposed to a link to LifeHacker?

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Writing fiction is difficult. The writer is tasked with creating a world with a degree of comforting verisimilitude so that their readers might suspend disbelief for a moment and forget that what’s going on in the plot is, ultimately, fallacious. This is the objective world of the novel or short story. It is confined in its scope to the meanings of chains of well-chosen words. It is flat, its descriptions arid; it is a world nonetheless.

There is a world nested within that created by the author. When one reads fiction, one not only consumes its storyline; one is forced to imagine the characters, to form mental pictures of them, to perhaps ascribe quirks and ticks that the author failed to mention. Everything one pictures in this created world is highly personal. A beach umbrella mentioned in a story might evoke the one used on a seaside vacation as a child; in the mind’s eye, the brown bob of an old girlfriend’s hair might transpose itself onto the head of a particularly endearing female character. The world created by a reader is personal; the density of analysis one could do within the confines of a book can be virtually infinite. A book read well by a dozen people will offer a dozen interpretations; all are valid. All are subjective, and those who make claims to knowledge of an objective Truth divined from the text should be met with unflinching consternation. Their capital-T Truth is just as divined, as conjured, as pulled from the ether of their immemorial unconsciousness as the next person’s truth. Each person’s interpretation of a book is different, and one can interpret one’s interpretation as a reflection of themselves. The value of fiction as a tool for personal growth lies not in how the words on a particular page are articulated, or by the wild proclamations made by those in literary analysis courses, but by what occurs “between the lines” and over the infinitesimal space between synapses.

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A didactic question: If nuance–intricacy–in fiction didn’t really matter, would we never again, after viewing a film adaptation of a book, claim, “You know, man, I liked the movie, but the book… the book, like, had so much in it that the movie, you know, like, kinda leftout. I dunno, but the book was just so, I dunno, man, what’s the word…” phantasmagorical in its breadth, depth, and detail? Yeah, man: phantasmagorical. Try typing that out in a text message.

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Nicholas Carr, in his book-length rejoinder to his Atlantic article, [sic] “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, discusses the nature of the plasticity of the brain: that, with repetition, mental and physical activities, done repetitively, literally change the wiring of the brain. New neuron channels are formed, making behaviors that were once difficult easier over time. Recollect, for a moment, the monumental task before young children learning to dress themselves: the relative conceptual ease of snaps and elastic bands versus the enormous difficulty of buttoning a shirt. Tying shoes presents a problem that initially appears gordian in its intricacy. We learn. We don’t walk around naked. Not yet anyways.

The point being this: we live in a world driven by efficiency, we consume media that panders to the lowest common denominator of comprehension, and in a world so loaded with new information, new happenings, the new New New Thing (referring to the Michael Lewis book), Americans are using an ever-shrinking vocabulary to articulate what’s going on. (I don’t really want to say “we live in a world where…” anymore; it makes me sound cantankerous.) If one were to pull back from the goings on in the world, one would realize that ours is one of monodimensional blanket statements; things are articulated as black and white, righteous and “evil”, good and bad, immutable truth and rancorous bullshit. If it isn’t expressed plainly, elegantly, and matter-of-factly, it is taken as suspect. There are no freedom fighters, only terrorists; no moderate conservatives, only Randian, Bible-belting, free-market, ignorant, moose hunting, racist, xenophobic, quasi-populist Sarah Palin devotees. The monodimensional sells itself on its simplicity, and to mitigate the stultifying nature of the monodimensional, in lieu of another dimension, carefully-chosen language articulates itself in the spicy argot of over-dramatic extremism.

Ultimately, the point of Carr’s book, that the Internet affected our brains neuronally, that our neural pathways programmed for deep contemplation, concentration, creativity, and imagination have decayed in favor of those that allow us to consume and process huge quantities of information quickly (i.e. superficially), is “learned behavior.” People who think simplistically implicitly allow themselves to do so.

Authors’ worlds are recognizable and engaging not because of the nouns they choose, but the adjectives and verbs implemented. These paint a mental picture, the resolution of which is wholly dependent on the specificity of the chosen words. An author mentions tiny details that spark, if only for a brief second, within the reader a “huh, I never noticed that before” moment. It is in that moment where muscles twitch slightly and a pang of synaptic excitement and that initial ineffable fraction of a fraction of a second before one articulates the “huh” that one experiences nuance. It is for these brief moments of cerebral vivacity, where I identify and solve simultaneously the trick the author is playing, catching ex post facto he or she rendering connections from disparity, that I read fiction. Many of my friends see the world as one that offers incredible opportunity, a view which I share; but unlike some of them, through years of reading too many works of fiction to ever count, I believe I’ve gained the ability to live fully in the moment, to notice what is ignored, to engage the world actively, to find the needle of interest in the great musty haystacks of the mundane, and, ultimately, be able to articulate to you, the reader, what I wish to articulate with a degree of exactitude I defy another 20-year-old kid with a blog to surpass. An appreciation for variegation, of tiny variations, of minuscule vacillations, comes with one for vocabulary—said appreciation is my avocation. It is learned and adopted and eventually taken for granted. We are creatures of habit, after all.

My Favorite Books of the Summer Thus Far, pt. 1

For some, summer is a time to take on an internship, to travel, to spend time with friends and (if so inclined) family. For me, summer is about reading the books that the University of Chicago’s rather absurdly demanding curriculum precludes me from reading during the year. This is not to say that I don’t read during the academic year, it’s just that I’m not afforded the opportunity to read as voluminously as I’m otherwise inclined to.

Below is a list (complete with critical blurbs) of two of my favorites from the summer thus far:

Gain, by Richard Powers, 355 pp. Picador USA, 1998

Gain is the story of a woman and a company, it is one of growth and alienation. It is cold, corporate, and clinical. The novel traces the development of a fictitious company, Clare, from its humble beginnings as a soap and candle manufacturer and importer to its pervasive, expansive, Unilever-esque logical conclusion. Intertwined with this is the narrative of a woman, Laura Bodey, and her daily life in the bucolic exurban town of Lacewood, IL, which just so happens to be the home of a Clare manufacturing facility. As the twin plot lines unfold and spin themselves together, the reader notices that with the growth of one comes the decline of the other. Gain gives hints of genuine emotion, and there are moments of palpable nostalgia and sentimentality (especially in the development of Clare), but the reader is left with a feeling of corporate detachment. A poignant commentary on corporate personhood, the ethics of business development, and the alienating power of marketing, rural existence, and physical and psychological decline, Gain is a must read for those interested in ethics, entrepreneurship, or the lexical workings of the “Genius Grant” recipient, Powers.

This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 248 pp. Library of America, 2000

An ebullient, skittering mess of a book, This Side of Paradise is the perfect novel for those that don’t read books (i.e. young people nowadays). Although most young people are first exposed to Fitzgerald in high school with the reading of The Great Gatsby, this novel, published when its author was just twenty three years old, provides a more applicable and personal meditation on the innocent pleasures of blasé youth, and the deep, adult pleasures of shedding that innocence piece by piece. The extent to which This Side of Paradise is thinly veiled memoir is unclear, though it must be said that the degree of verisimilitude between Fitzgerald and TSOP’s protagonist, Amory Blaine, is striking. Tracing Amory’s personal and intellectual growth from impetuous and pompous youth into literary snobbery during his first two years at Princeton into a real hurricane of a dalliance with a young debutanté into slow decay into post-college alcoholic turpitude and finally into what now might be referred to as indignant “adulthood,” TSOP sloshes about from one scene to another, mixing poetry, epistolary narrative, a peculiar quasi-drama in the form of a script, and careful reference to the dead white males that formed the backbone of the Jazz Age’s literary cannon. It left me with a sense of giddy self-recognition. I, like most young men, am, in whole or in part, Amory Blaine: restless, reluctantly realistic, wistful, and itching for success, the actualization of my closely-held overinflated notions of greatness. With this recognition comes the following fear: that I, like Amory, might eventually come upon realism, and, with it, resignation to the path more traveled.