Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.
George Saunders was the single most important writer I discovered in college, and Civil Warland in Bad Decline was among the earliest story collections I read while dreaming of being a fiction writer.
So you can imagine my surprise this year when in one of his Story Club newsletters (which is excellent, by the way) he linked to a preface for the book I’d never read before, one in which he describes in loving, misty-eyed detail everything it took to write his first book. Turns out the piece was written for an edition that came out years after the one I read, and it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing I’ve discovered this year. My favorite passage:
I will forevermore, I expect, be trying to re-create the purity of that time. Having done nothing, I had nothing to lose. Having made a happy life without having achieved anything at all artistically, I found that any artistic achievement was a bonus. Having finally conceded that I wasn’t a prodigy after all, I had the total artistic freedom that is afforded only to the beginner, the doofus, the aspirant.
Here it is in its entirety. And yes, I’m mostly linking it here so I’ll have easy access to it for the rest of my life nbd.
If I’m being honest I think that more than a few of my theses these past few years have turned out to be wrong. But the most important thing is that we’re still playing. It’s a privilege to play.
So here’s to the next phase. The new world begins today.
One of the interesting (privileged?) things about Edgar Wright’s screenplay to “Last Night in Soho” is that every needle drop is called out explicitly; it’s kind of fun to play each song when it comes up in the screenplay to see how it impacts the scene on the page, though unfortunately this didn’t make the plot any more appealing for me.
Long story short it led me to rediscovering a bunch of old songs including this one. The original is sung by James Ray but the George Harrison cover has this whimsical video:
Turns out that despite the inability to go to movie theaters for the majority of this year, my movie watching rate hasn’t been affected as dramatically as I feared! I do sure miss the hell out of those big screens, though.
Jeff VanderMeer’s post Thoughts on the Writing Process: Optimal Conditions and Tips is one of my favorite things I’ve read recently. It’s so pragmatic and honest, suffused with such a generous attitude of self-care and understanding for the writer. I love how much emphasis he places on doing everything possible to enable the magic of the subconscious storyteller.
My favorite product I bought last year was a dustbuster. No joke. And in a way, wasn’t the majority of 2015 about busting the dust of life? I wrote the most words, wrote the most code, took the most flights, took the most vacation and spent the most time in my hometown of my adult life. I went to Disneyland for the first time in two decades. I went to a feminist science fiction convention. I went to PAX in Seattle. I became an HBO subscriber. I went house-hunting in San Diego. I built a new computer in real life, and time machines in my writing life.
Still, time moves on. I’ve only managed to post a Best Of list two out of the past four years so let’s not get too precious about it. Here are some of my favorite things I remember from the year that was 2015:
It’s been nearly a year since I discovered the Forty Days of Dating project and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve still only read up to Day 21. In my defense I kinda don’t want to get to the end too soon; it’s a fascinating experiment made even more beautiful by the presentation, and a good reminder that Life needs to be not only a series of Emersonian experiments but a series of finished projects as well.
No, I haven’t stopped reading them, dear reader. I just got behind. And while every week is still hit or miss there’ve been enough enjoyable moments to make me believe this a worthwhile exercise. What I don’t want this to come across as is some form of judgment on each writer (though I suppose that may be impossible), think of these more as notes on what worked and didn’t work for me personally while encountering each of these stories.
“Victory” by Yu Hua (August 26, 2013 issue) — A cheating husband always presents a potentially interesting scenario. Unfortunately I found the language (translated from the Chinese) too cold and distant to foster much empathy.
“The Colonel’s Daughter” by Robert Coover (September 2, 2013 issue) — A group of revolutionaries gathers to plot a coup. Loved the tone and atmosphere of this piece, as the characters size each other up like suspects in a game of Clue.
“The Heron” by Dorthe Nors (September 8, 2013 issue) — I actually appreciate when authors have the conviction to make their short stories short. Unfortunately this one, about a narrator’s thoughts at a park, just didn’t have enough meat on the bone to stay with me.
“By Fire” by Tahar Ben Jelloun (September 16, 2013 issue) — An interesting portrait of the life of an Arab street seller that takes a sudden political turn. For me the ending felt a little too jarring and pointed, not quite earned.
“Bad Dreams” by Tessa Hadley (September 23, 2013 issue) — A young child has a bad dream in which she finds the details of one of her favorite books have changed. The premise seemed a bit indulgent to me, but the consequences of the dream and what it foreshadows for the parents felt like the hint of a great story to be.
“The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris (September 30, 2013 issue) — A New York couple plays out several hypothetical date-night scenarios as they live through modern relationship ennui. This story frustrated me. A great premise, great setups that cause you to reflect on your own life and relationships, exceptionally confusing execution.
“I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” by Paul Theroux (October 7, 2013 issue) — A grown man goes back to visit the bedside of a dying childhood teacher. I really appreciated the oblique angle in which this story approaches its subject matter, showing that there are never easy answers (or straightforward consequences) to childhood horrors.
“Katania” by Lara Vapnyar (October 14, 2013 issue) — Two girls growing up in Soviet Russia compare dolls and dollhouses, and by extension their lives. Vapnyar does a great job of putting you in the shoes (and shoebox dollhouses) of these girls; the ending just didn’t work for me though, and seems to completely undercut the realism that comes before it.
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro (October 21, 2013 issue) — This reprint (first published December 27, 1999) felt more like a valedictory lap for both The New Yorker and Munro immediately following her Nobel prize. It’s probably unfair to even evaluate this story along with the others shown here because it’s so damn good; within the first page it was clear that Munro simply writes on a different level.
“Samsa in Love” by Haruki Murakami (October 28, 2013 issue) — A cockroach awakens to find he is now Gregor Samsa. I count myself a huge Murakami fan, but even this (his first New Yorker story in a while) felt too Murakami-esque with not enough wrinkles to imply any kind of interesting growth. At what point should a writer be concerned about becoming a parody of himself?
“Weight Watchers” by Thomas McGuane (November 4, 2013 issue) — A construction worker helps his dad lose weight in order to reunite with his mom. This was one of my favorite stories from this group; its sheer joy of language shines through in the narrator’s colorful diction and idioms, and there’s a loopy world-weariness that seems honest and hard-won. I really need to read more from McGuane.
“Benji” by Chinelo Okparanta (November 11, 2013 issue) — A lonely rich man becomes involved with a married woman. I enjoyed the sly trickery this piece is constructed on; the existential question it ends with is food for thought as well.
“Find the Bad Guy” by Jeffrey Eugenides (November 18, 2013 issue) — A man approaches his old house and family, including his wife who has a restraining order against him. This was an incredibly fun read, with a main character who is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators but charms you anyway with his wit, hysterical voice and the exciting possibility that anything can happen in the next paragraph. I loved every minute.