Recommended Readings for Unstable Times

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There are usually two ways people respond when I shriek, “THE WORLD IS OBVIOUSLY ENDING, RIGHT?” Some people (my beloved, my close friends) are like “yeah” and then we shiver together over a glass of wine. Others chirp “things are great!” and we stare at each other without saying anything more. If I had any philosopher friends, I like to imagine that they would gaze deep into my soul with their limpid, color-shifting eyes and soothe me with ambiguous wisdom. But alas, I have no philosopher friends. This is a wind age, a wolf age, before the world goes headlong.

But friends, I take some cold comfort in the fact that things have literally never been stable (except maybe in ancient Greece and/or ancient Egypt and/or the ancient Abbasid Caliphate, before the libraries were destroyed??). If, like me, you are quivering on the edge of becoming a full-fledged conspiracy theorist, here’s what you should be reading and why.

The book of Habakkuk: For hallucinatory non-answers to why the world is so violent. Habakkuk was the most mysterious of all the prophets, and (I think) the only one to openly question God:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion: For the amazing way she captures a feeling of generational dread and grapples with the idea that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold“:

At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.

“Explica Algunas Cosas” by Pablo Neruda: Depending on your career, this piece is either a) a heartbreaking explanation of how art sometimes falls silent in the face of violence or b) a guilt-trip for artists who aren’t explicitly political. The ending is like a punch to the face:

…from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull’s eye of your hearts.

A Google search of the term “folie à deux”: to understand the dark side of love and the fragility of a person’s identity as a Single Self:

Depending on whether the delusions are shared among two, three, four, five and even twelve people, it is called as folie à deux, folie à trios, folie à quatre, folie à cinq, and folie à douze.

Your own childhood journals: To remind yourself that “priorities” are malleable and relative, even the priorities that, today, you consider defining pillars of You Yourself.

“Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot: Because of the dance that is love/pain/God/the world:

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.

[Credit goes to Charlie for discovering this one]: The poem Völuspá: Because it is about the end of a mysterious world:

Do you still seek to know? And what?

 

 

Everything I Know About Narrative Realist Fiction I Learned From “The Call” by the Backstreet Boys

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I’ve been studying creative writing since I was a kid, but I never learned much from “books on craft” (ugh) or discussions about whether or not creative nonfiction needs to stick religiously to the truth (yawn). As a matter of fact, it was a single song from the turn of the millennium that — despite its humble length and heavy reliance on “club” sound effects — taught me everything I know about good fiction. It begins with a simple phone call; it ends with universal heartbreak. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll question everything you knew about high art.

1. If you do nothing else, at least begin in media res.

Before the Backstreet Boys, pop music was heavily reliant on archetypal openings like a “sick beat” or a few pounding guitar chords. “The Call” ignores all that musty traditionalism in favor of something as intriguing as it is simple: the ringing of a phone. Why ease into the (narrative) pool when you can perform a (literary) cannonball instead?

2. You have approximately two seconds to establish tension.

Without tension, your story falls immediately — I have to say it — flaccid. Never ones to risk losing their underage audience, the Backstreet Boys hook us mere seconds into the song. A sleepy-sounding woman picks up the phone. “Hello?” A man’s cigarette-roughened voice begins, “I’m sorry, listen, I’m going to be late tonight…”

Dun dun dun. It’s not a new juxtaposition — innocent girl at home, hard-partying man anywhere but — but it sure is an effective one.

3. The truth is ambiguous. Play around with it.

What one character knows to be true might not necessarily be the truth of the story world. What the narrator insists is true might not necessarily carry weight in the real world. It’s called narrative unreliability (I think), and it’s one of the most interesting techniques a writer can play around with.

Forget Humbert Humbert and Holden Caulfield — “The Call” doesn’t get nearly enough credit for featuring one of the most famously unreliable narrators of all time. Before the song even starts, we hear the protagonist hanging up on his girlfriend without answering any of her worried questions, insisting, “My battery must be low.” As readers, we’re privy to the fateful night that follows, so when we look back on that “call that changed [the protagonist’s] destiny,” we realize that he was totally lying about the battery! What else has he been lying to us about? Is the girl at the club even real? Are you on drugs?

4. Down with the fourth wall! DOWWWWWWWNNNNNN!

Many of the world’s greatest stories have a narrator who introduces him or herself to the reader. Forget about that whole “Call me Ishmael” shtick. The narrator of “The Call” doesn’t even need a name:

Let me tell you a story ’bout the call that changed my destiny.

Suddenly we’re just a bunch of cavemen, sitting around the world’s first fire, listening to that most universal of entertainments — the story.

5. Please, please, please, please, don’t spend time describing the club.

Or the bar, or the coffee shop, or the restaurant. Nobody cares that the music at the club was “hot, sweaty, and sensuous, with a beat like the ragged breathing of a panther.” We understand that coffee shops are full of “scruffy men writing the next Great American Novel in ratty notebooks, wondering if anyone is watching.” And we definitely know that bar floors can be sticky. Don’t bore us with your unnecessary descriptors. The main action of “The Call” takes place in a club, but the Backstreet Boys give us only this:

Me and my boys went out, just to end up in misery.

Our imaginations quickly sketch in the rest of the scene, and no one needed to hear about “the yellowing lime rattling around in her gin-and-tonic.”

6. Let your protagonist second-guess themselves.

Guilt. Regret. Indecision. Terrible emotions to experience in the real world, but they make for some of the richest characterization in literature (HIYA, PRUFROCK). Though the narrator of “The Call” quickly establishes himself as a sleezebag, the Backstreet Boys save him from becoming a stereotype by allowing him to express doubt and self-loathing, transforming him from a one-dimensional club bro into a nuanced, near-sympathetic protagonist:

I should have said no. … It eats me up inside/that she’s not by my side/just because I made that call to lie.

7. The most interesting moments often take place during the denouement. 

While the climax of a story may be the most exciting part, it’s often fairly one-dimensional — sometimes the real story lies in what happens afterward. Sure, “The Call” is about a man who cheats on his woman, but the story doesn’t end at the cheating itself, since that’s not the interesting part (BSB tantalizes, without cheapening the moment, by a simple “I’ve got a little place nearby — wanna go?”).

The emotional heart of the story lies in the narrator’s regret after he’s cheated on his girlfriend, especially once “one of her friends found out that she wasn’t my only one.” The regret is so poignant, in fact, that it can only truly be expressed by singing the chorus over and over again. In this way, we understand the dull inescapability of his pain.

8. There is real magic in repetition.

Writers have this irritating obsession with finding the newest, the most original ways of expressing things (“ocean” becomes “a glittering mirrorball wherein my future lies unformed, pulsing like a white dwarf” and the rest of the world mutually agrees to jump off a cliff). But seasoned narrators understand that sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is repeat a single word or phrase (see the now-legendary ending of Oscar Wao: “The beauty, the beauty!”).

Instead of telling us what happens post-breakup, the Backstreet Boys imply the empty future of the protagonist with a haunting repetition of the opening word: “Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?” This time, it’s not the sleepy inquiry of an innocent girlfriend left drowsing at home. It’s a vengeful ghost, whispering in the ear of a man who will never know true peace again.

9. When all else fails, sing the chorus again in a different key. 

Aaaaand modulate up a full step. Feels so good!

A Few Brief Thoughts on Being Legit [Video]

Addicted to iMovie and I’m not ashamed.

After re-watching this movie enough times to realize that it’s totally embarrassing genius bipolar, I have come to several conclusions.

Things I need to work on:

1. Talking loud enough to be heard over the rollicking soundtrack that I totally don’t have the rights to.

2. Narrative arc.

Things I don’t need to work on:

1. My hilarious fake-crying. #noregrets

The State of the Union [Video]

CHECK OUT THIS BUSH-LEAGUE MOVIE RIGHT HERE! I MADE IT ALL BY MYSELF! YOU CAN’T HEAR SOME OF IT BECAUSE I WAS ACCIDENTALLY PLAYING SPOTIFY IN THE BACKGROUND! I AM SUPPOSED TO BE DOING SOMETHING ELSE AS WE SPEAK! #recklessyouth #didn’twashmyhair #nopainnogain #SPAM

Part of the point of this video (which I accidentally cut out of the video cuz I’m an Oscar-winning cinematographer who just can’t be bothered) is that I got a new computer. I HAD NO IDEA THE WORLD WAS THIS FAST!

Today the Sky is Gray: A Compendium of Scientific Theories

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1. It is a direct reflection of Freud’s “melancholia,” from which I am currently suffering, and the grayness is actually emanating from me as I sit here, staring out the Megabus window, driving farther and farther away from a land where coffee is made with care and buses run down literally every street, although they do smell terrible (both the buses and the streets), but then again Chicago in the winter is not New York in the summer, odor-wise, not even in the same ballpark, so I rescind that last complaint.

2. All across the globe, fish are dying. Instead of reflecting the blue ocean, the sky is now forced to reflect the gray, scaly underbellies of dead fish as they float silently on the surfaces of rivers and ponds across America, reeking slightly, glimmering moistly. This is because of global warming and/or Obama’s presidency.

3. By referring to Borges as my soulmate, I have created some sort of space-time continuum rupture and, in a totally Borgesian turn of events, I am slowly becoming Borges–and losing my sight.

4. The entire globe is on fire and what I take to be “clouds” is actually “smoke.” Signifier/signified/what is reality/what is meaning/etc.

5. Someone has colored the sky gray with a crayon. Probably Mary Poppins. Did anyone actually read the book Mary Poppins? That biddy has some serious superpowers and sticks the stars onto the sky with glue. She is way creepier than in the Disney movie.

6. The heavens have grown so bored with everyone’s petty Tweeting that they refuse to be a color anymore. Or maybe it’s not Twitter that’s the problem, maybe the universe is still mad at Anne Hathaway for refusing to embrace her total smugness and instead pretending (note that I didn’t say acting) to be surprised at her Oscar win.

7. The lead singer of Counting Crows finally got that gray guitar and played.

8. The gray, leafless trees and the gray, foggy, slowly-descending sky are in some sort of agreement, possibly whispering to each other behind all of our backs. Trees know, okay? Trees know. If you’ve read Tolkien you know this; if not, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

9. Zombie apocalypse.

10. Someone is holding a large piece of fabric over this Megabus with cornfields, farmhouses, and very realistic semi-trucks painted on it in order to deceive me into thinking the day is cloudy. This seems the most plausible explanation, but WHY? I will muse on the motivations behind this horrible  simulacrum while looking for small tears in the fabric.

Enemy of the State

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I might be famous one day, if not for my “quirky” prose than for bursting into flames while being tasered by the police because I was huffing gasoline. And if I’m not famous for bursting into flames, I’ll definitely be famous by sheer proximity, because I attach myself like a leech to people who seem destined for fame.

(Example: Johnny Depp once gave my flute teacher’s friend his number. 3 degrees from an Oscar nomination, baby!)

When that day comes, I am terrified of one thing and one thing only. No, not the compromising pictures of me crawling out of my USAIN BOLT SUIT. Olympic medalist in the haus! (That’s a little multicultural humor for you there.) Not the top-secret documents in which it is revealed that I am Quentin Tarantino’s ghost writer. Nay, not even the incriminating email in which I FORGET TO USE THE OXFORD COMMA.

(I’ll give you all a chance to reach for the smelling salts after that scandal-bomb.)

No no no no no. I am terrified of my true self being revealed through texts with a certain “Notorious M.E.C.” Who is saving my texts, you ask? Why, Facebook and/or the Devil, of course. This begs the question: are they one and the same? I’m not sure, but I’m positive that everything we do is being recorded for an evil, relentless, unsympathetic posterity.

(This attitude, my friends, is called a “conspiracy theory.” And it’s okay to have them. Everybody does.)

My text messages reveal me to be an extremely reactive, judgmental, neurotic capslock abuser with the vocabulary of a sailor PhD and the humor of a shining star of comedic genius and the paranoia of a serial killer and also someone who has really long eyelashes. (Notice how I made the serial killer a man. That’s called sexism. Women can be serial killers, too!)

Here’s a sample interaction between toridotgov and M.E.C:

toridotgov: WHY ARE WE WIZENED WITH GRIEF, HARDENED WITH RAGE, AND MUD-SPLATTERED WITH MEDIOCRITY???

M.E.C.: I have no IDEA why the horror of the world is constantly making us suffer. WE SHOULD BE LAUDED LEFT AND RIGHT.

I mean, that’s cute and hilarious and we’re clearly both in MFA programs given all that alliteration, BUT WE ALSO COME ACROSS AS DELUSIONAL POWER-HUNGRY MANIACS. Though we are delusional power-hungry maniacs, so at least our texts represent our truest selves. It’s good to be honest. It’s good to be real. Just be cool, everyone. Be cool.

image by Beth Hoeckel

Literally

Possibly the most irritating habit I’ve picked up over the past two years is a horrifying, life-consuming addiction to the word “literally.” It started as a hilarious joke (as do most things in my life, including the time I accidentally killed a man in Juarez), in which I convinced myself that saying “literally” with a super straight face about things that weren’t at all literal was the GREATEST THING EVER. I know, I know, it’s that type of demented thinking that leads to horrors like hipster irony. I’m not proud.

Just like the first time I tried crystal meth, it quickly became a habit I literally couldn’t break. It also spread to my friends. Soon enough, even my dentist was saying things like, “I will literally pull out all your teeth if you don’t sit still.” The only person who remained immune was my boyfriend, too busy playing the bass literally all the time (not an exaggeration) to notice that his woman was sinking into a syntactical quicksand from which there was no escape.

Instead of fighting the hopeless fight against invasive adverbs, I’ve decided to embrace the word “literally”–nay, to CELEBRATE it–by exploring the most genius literal usage of our day and age as found in a little thing I like to call THE POP SONG. In a world of hyperbole, a world where people use and abuse the word “literally” on a daily basis, sometimes it’s refreshing to hear of things that are actually literal. Devoid of all poetry, subtlety, wit, and pretensions. Refreshing as a stream of Fiji-brand water, which is literally a ripoff. The following lyrics are literally literal. U hear me?

1. “Girl, run your own show/but don’t be on some ho shit.” –Kreayshawn

This is the most hilarious line I have ever heard. I love how Kreayshawn DOES NOT EVEN TRY TO RHYME. She just doesn’t give a fuck. She has something very basic to say (I would totally give this advice to one of my friends if she were trying to leave her 9-5 and considering prostitution), and she says it in tuneless deadpan. A few more singles like this one and all editors will be out of business forever.

2. “Bad enough to die from one/not to mention four or five.” –3 Doors Down

Well played, 3 Doors Down. Well played. The lesser intellects among us like to grapple with the existential dilemmas found in the game Would You Rather…(my brothers always asked me if I wanted to “die in a cactus bush,” and I’m still not sure exactly how that works), but you’re way too real for hypotheticals. Instead, you remind us of the immortal truth ever-hovering around the edges of the life-death spectrum. Why beat around the [cactus] bush? It’s always worse to die from more things than from just one thing!!!!!!!!!

3. “Stalking-ass bitch/shit I don’t like.” –Chief Keef

I’m totally with you on this one, Keef. I, too, dislike stalking-ass bitches. This line resonates with me in a particular way because of my downstairs neighbor, who truly gives me the creeps. He told me that he keeps baby oil in a spray bottle and spritzes it all over his body. Then he showed me his shiny arm and said, “It gleams.” Then he told me to watch out for creepy guys.

4. “Interesting’s what I find you.” –Black Eyed Peas

I really respect the BEP’s decision to go for the blandest adjective of all time here.  Other artists may kill themselves trying to unearth the MOST surprising, original, fresh imagery for their tunes, but the BEP extends a huge middle finger to the literati with this powerful one-two punch. They find me interesting. And they’re sure as hell not gonna elaborate.

On that note, I am literally packing up my Chicago apartment and moving down to Bloomington, Indiana, right now, to get my MFA. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Intricacies of Divorce

Here’s the thing about divorce: it’s not just for spouses anymore.

Yes, my friends, you can divorce anyone these days. Your boss. Your coworkers. Your dogwalker. Your college professor. The tenuous threads that bind humanity together are growing ever weaker, ever more translucent. One day they will all be snipped. But until then, it’s up to us to do the snipping. Surely you follow me.

Take me, for example. I recently divorced one of my brothers for several weeks. Of course, he never realized we were divorced but that’s because he never calls me, which is why I divorced him in the first place. Lack of communication: it’s not just for marriages anymore. Then one day he showed up at my doorstep, bedraggled and starving, begging me to buy him a train ticket. So I undivorced him. Because I have a soul. A soul called Kindness. Or maybe it’s called Shared DNA. What’s the difference? Now there’s a deep thought.

As many of you know, I’ve been divorced from multiple baristas at my ex-favorite coffee shop for months. They couldn’t understand why I always bought the extremely cheap drinks and stayed there for hours. If you can’t understand my art, if you can’t support my career as a fiction writer (yeah I said “career” non-ironically), then there’s no place for you in my life. Am I right, ladies? Steam all the milk you want, but you’ll never know me. 

You can also divorce your friends. If you try to skin me alive and eat my heart while making me listen to the story of how you and your boyfriend broke up for the millionth time, wellll…I might not want to be friends with you.  There’s “being there for people” and there’s “psycho killer, que’est-ce que c’est?” if you catch my drift.

I’m pretty sure last night my boyfriend divorced the Gilmore Girls. It was pretty sad. Thankfully I was there to lend him a shoulder to cry on.

Divorce is a good way to teach people lessons. They’re all, “I want you to do this meaningless task in exchange for money!” and you’re all, “I’m worth more than this, bitchezzz,” and the next thing they know there’s a beautifully-wrapped package on their doorstep. And they get really excited, but inside? DIVORCE PAPERS. Because you were sneaky and wrapped the divorce papers in peach-colored tissue paper and tied them up with raffia. That’ll learn’ em.

One of the many great things about divorce papers is that you can hide other useful things between the pages, like restraining orders and documents that say “I hereby swear to publish this novel” and your divorcee will probably sign them without realizing it. Who just achieved their American dream? You did. You.

10 Places You Must See Before You Die

1. America

Known to natives as “land of the free, home of the brave,” America has something for everyone. If you want to see cool buildings, you’re in luck–several of America’s most famous cities are full of buildings. Looking for a great local bar? Simply head to the middle of any city or town and look for a sign that says “Red Lion,” “Plough,” or Tiki Palace.” Itching to try some of our famous cuisine? Any major American highway is lined with tantalizing options–we recommend the legendary restaurant Arby’s, pronounced AR-BEEZ.

2. Ocean

Ocean is a large hole, filled to the brim with pulsing, salty water. Return to your fetal roots and take a dip in the comforting intrauterine bath that brings life to the world and allows clouds to form and whales to survive. And mermaids!!

3. The Moon

No vacation is complete without a long stare at the night sky. Crane your neck from side to side until you spot a mysterious, shining orb. This is the “moon,” a legendary ball of rock that hangs from the ceiling of the sky on invisible threads. Please note: “moon” is often confused with “sun.” One simple way to tell them apart: are your retinae burning? That is not the moon.

4. Pasta with Parmesan

King Solomon’s riches. Cleopatra’s beauty. Pasta with Parmesan. Often called the “Venus de Milo of the Twenty-First Century,” a steaming bowl of buttery pasta, lightly salted and sprinkled with curls of fresh Parmesan, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Please note: keep an eye out for curly small noodles in a colorless broth. Con artists have been known to trick tourists into paying good money for this sight, attempting to pass it off as pasta con Parmigiano, but it’s actually a cheap knockoff called Ramen. 

5. Not the Inside of a Hospital

If you have never seen the inside of a hospital, you have possibly had a great life, with the exception of–ew–your home birth.

6. Facebook’s Deactivation Screen

Nobody who hasn’t attempted to free themselves from the soul-sucking claws of Facebook at least once can call themselves an actualized human being. Facebook’s deactivation screen is manipulative and strange–you’ll be presented with a series of random “friends,” as Facebook insists, “They’ll miss you!” But they won’t miss you. They won’t miss you at all. 

7. Jupiter’s Core

Have you ever wanted to be crushed into an exquisite diamond by unbelievable pressure and strange gaseous substances? Nothing is better than a Tiffany’s ring–except maybe a glittering rock composed of your very own body. We’ll bet good money that your soul’s in there, too. Book your trip to Jupiter, today!

8. A Really Spaced-Out Baby

Not much is cuter than a baby drooling on his dad’s arm, totally spacing out and quite possibly high. Hello there, lil’ fella!

9.  Bros Talking Shop

Bored in a strange city? Catch some prime comedy by heading to your local coffee shop or gym and listening to bros talking shop! You’ll split your sides wide open at lines like, “We’re really taking the initiative by reaching out into formerly untouched markets,” and “Can you recommend a great distributor with the skill sets I’m looking for?” A can’t-miss attraction!

10. Graveyards in the Snow

If you really want to feel like an artist–or the Phantom of the Opera’s next victim–take a stroll around your local burial grounds the next time it snows. The deep silence, the soft gray of the tombstones shimmering through the snowflakes, the stone angels with their temporal crowns of white, the strange snow-covered lumps on the ground that cannot be confirmed or denied to be dead bodies–it’s a life-changing experience.