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March 31, 2010

Marathon, dislocated // David LeGault

I write this mythology after just finishing a ten-mile run around two park lakes in Minneapolis. I'm in the midst of training for a marathon--what will be my sixth--but that doesn't make it any easier: both my feet are blistered to the point of absurdity; my calves are tight as piano wire; salt from dried sweat is caked around my eyes.

It's kind of disgusting.

david-run.jpgTraining goes beyond physical pain, throwing serious kinks into most aspects of my life. I mostly run at night, after the sun sets, and I run into all sorts of city-related problems: I've run through at least one drug deal, have been nearly hit by a car or two. Once I get home I'm wired, and I can't remember the last time I caught a full night's rest that wasn't somehow interrupted by shooting pain or a heavy-beating heart.

Still, there are certain upsides to marathon training. For starters, you get to eat obscene amounts of food and still lose weight. Probably more importantly, there's an intense satisfaction in running 26.2 miles without stopping, a sense of accomplishment when coming over the intense pain of the process (there's a special satisfaction in the PR, the personal record, but I'm not in the shape I once was, making a new speed record in the immediate future highly unlikely).

Haruki Murakami has perhaps done more justice to this subject than I ever could, but I'm still going to take a crack at connecting the marathon to the process of writing.

Marathon training amounts to a significant time commitment, to taking an hour or four out of your daily life to devote to building up your body, to accumulating enough miles for your body to handle the race. My own schedule looks like this: an hour or two of writing in the morning, an hour or two of running before I go to bed at night. Each process involves heavy revision: the body reshaped in a tighter, fit form; the story edited to maximize significance and aesthetic. The long hours in each allow the writer/runner to spend a lot of time (arguably too much) in their head, better shaping arguments and figuring out a most efficient means of accomplishing the task. Both are painful, time consuming, and sometimes awful.

Both--in the end--are altogether perfect.

March 30, 2010

A Timid Traveler's Life // Jana Misk

The weather here has been warming up with the arrival of spring, a phenomenon that often plagues me with internal conflict. The desire to go outside grows steadily as each sunny day slips past my living room windows--and so, too, does the feeling of obligation.

What a fool I must be to miss this gorgeous weather!

Luckily, it's still too early in the season for much guilt to have accumulated around this failure. For the brief period between the coming of sunshine and the oppression of guilt for not enjoying it enough, I find myself feeling more eager than usual to explore the world--at least in theory. I can imagine traveling to distant destinations (as long as they offer three-star hotels and running water), exploring echoing ruins in rainforests, even touring the overstimulating hell that I envision Tokyo to be, all without sudden queasiness. Usually this travel-fever doesn't last long enough for me to make actual flight reservations, and before I know it, winter is here again.

freiburg-cap1.jpgIn response to the warm weather, I dreamed two nights ago that I was vacationing in Freiburg, Germany (that charming city in which I lived drunkenly for two months during college). In the dream, I'd chosen Freiburg as a suitably distant destination that was also not entirely new to me--an attempt to compromise between my desire for stimulation and my fear of the unknown. After arriving, I soon realized that almost all the people I'd met during my previous stay at the language institute were still there, or there once again, in the apparently endless process of learning German, hanging out in cafes, and fraternizing in the way footloose 20-year-olds are wont to do. This fact disappointed me a little--I hadn't wanted circumstances to be quite so similar to my last visit. Momentarily I berated my dream-self for not having been more adventurous in choosing a destination. But then I got caught up in grappling with all of the minutiae involved in planning a vacation in a foreign country: back in my white-walled lodgings, I ran myself through German language drills, memorized guidebooks, and researched local grocery stores. Thus was my dream spent planning for my vacation while I was in fact on my vacation, and generally feeling at least marginally competent at managing my anxiety about the whole situation.

Though my nighttime dreams have lately featured a lot of traveling (more in the vein of moving my life, rather than just visiting a place), this particular nocturnal journey was the first in which I experienced the excitement and discomfort of navigating a new place while being expected to Fully Enjoy it. No business to occupy me, aside from the necessities of eating and sleeping. Just entertainment, soul feeding, that kind of thing. And all I could do was read guidebooks.

In life, too, I'm an obsessive planner. Slowly I've begun disabusing myself of the delusion that my time spent planning actually makes it more likely for me to do anything other than plan some more. This year, though, I'm developing semi-serious intentions to travel somewhere new. I know that this is in part because my boyfriend is forever dreaming wild dreams of remote locales, so I can ride on his intrepidity. When we first began dating, I resisted the possibility that I might share any of these kinds of adventures with him, and I still have no interest in driving his 1992 Honda Civic to Mongolia, or, for that matter, ever sleeping overnight in a car. But I figure this is a place in my personality where I can allow my limits to be pushed without compromising my true reclusive nature. After all, most of us recluses are very good at dreaming dreams of foreign lands, having spent so much time in the worlds our favorite authors created for us to keep in perpetuity on our night tables. It's just a matter of confronting the reality of those worlds, all the ways in which they appear mundane and abrasive, uninspired and oppressive. Reality is not a volume that is easily bookmarked and shelved away for later leisurely perusal. In Germany I got to deal with the constant awkwardness of the language and culture barriers on top of my own social ineptitude, as well as the persistent sense that my Asian features were attracting unkind attention.

Sometimes I wonder whether a reclusive nature is not most often a result of an oversensitive temperament--one that is less effective at filtering out unpleasant stimuli in any given situation. In situations where everything is new, the novelty itself is quickly overwhelming, a fact that makes traveling that much more challenging. Maybe this is why it's so common for people to joke that they need a vacation right after having returned from a vacation.

In any case, I'm still figuring out for myself this particular aspect of good living. For those who share my proclivities and limitations, I might simply suggest, as usual, that we be gentle with ourselves and avoid giving in to that internalized demand that we take it all on at once. Retreat is how we keep ourselves sane. But I think my own sanity will benefit from exploring some new territory this year.

March 29, 2010

Dreampolitik and the End of the Hundred Thousand Islands // J. Lee Morsell

Recently, while contemplating a glass of red wine and the cork from its bottle, I remembered that there was a time when my primary association with corks was not wine but rather messages, thrown to sea by castaways praying to be rescued from tropical desert islands.

I suppose I got this from Popeye cartoons, but it pointed to a mythos about islands far removed from my life, islands that somewhere dotted an oceanic wilderness, islands that might save sailors from drowning only to imprison them in isolation and make the sailors desperate enough to place their hope in a corked bottle floating across the vast sea.

Even when I was a kid, there was something appealing about the strange, paradisiacal hell these islands represented. Certainly, as a boy I craved the adventure of pirate battles and catastrophic storms, of high stakes through which one could fill out into a hero. Another aspect of the appeal, though, was not in adventure but in reprieve: reprieve from the rules by which I, as a child, and as a member of our society, was bound; a place where I could be left alone and do as I pleased.

As an adult, I am happy to do without sea battles and shipwrecks. But when today I imagine a desert island, despite my better judgment I still yearn for the reprieve. Although I know I would grow terribly bored, the idea of having nothing to do but contemplate ants and drink from a coconut seems at times like the most delicious, indulgent freedom.

What of populated islands? How do we imagine those? I shudder to think of the images I retain from my Popeye cartoons: foreigners as caricatures, incapable of speaking except to babble incomprehensibly, or to reflect racist fantasies.

There will be fewer islands soon.

The Maldives are a garland of twelve hundred coral islands in the Laccadive Sea southwest of Sri Lanka. Along with the neighboring Laccadive and Chagos islands, the archipelago was known to ancient seafarers as Lakshadweepa, Sanskrit for the "Hundred Thousand Islands" that stretch from the southern tip of India eight hundred miles into the deep Indian Ocean. The history of the Maldives' first settlement is hazy: the first inhabitants may have been Gujaratis as early as four thousand years ago, but it is more certain that approximately twenty-three hundred years ago Dravidian fishermen from Kerala made the atolls home and established a Buddhist, and later an Islamic, civilization that produced beautiful architecture and sculpture and copper-plate books. The Maldives became a British protectorate in 1887, and then a nominal republic in 1968. The country was ruled by one man for thirty years, until 2008, when it held its first successful multi-party election and chose a forty-one-year-old journalist and former political prisoner named Mohamed Nasheed for its president.

Arab traders used to call the Maldives the "Money Isles," and with today's robust tourist industry they might be so called again: excluding the oil-rich Persian Gulf, they have the highest per-capita GDP of all South Asia. Prosperity and the new democracy make this a good time for the Maldives, except for one thing: the average elevation is four feet eleven inches. Already, the capital, Malé, is sometimes flooded by unusually high tides. The latest research predicts that, as climate change melts the world's glaciers, sea levels will rise a meter or more in the coming century. Within a human lifetime, the Maldives will be ravaged by catastrophic storm surges, and will probably be almost entirely swallowed by the sea.

UnderseaMeeting-cap.jpgThe Maldives first came to my attention last October when ministers from that nation's government held the world's first underwater cabinet meeting. I saw a photograph of the ministers in scuba gear, seated at a long desk on the sea floor; one, his head in a cloud of bubbles, held a (waterproof?) pen in his hand and was signing a large, stiff document calling for the nations of the world to reduce carbon emissions. It was funny, really, a joke: an underwater cabinet meeting! Ha ha ha. But it was a terribly serious joke. Already, two islands in the Maldives have been evacuated due to erosion. Maldivians are building a new island, called Hulu Malé (New Malé), with a higher elevation to which they can move their capital. But nobody sees this as an adequate solution. As President Nasheed put it, if the world fails to reduce carbon emissions enough to stem the rising waters, and if the four hundred thousand people of the Maldives do not find somewhere else to go, they "are all going to die."

They are seriously considering mass exodus. Nasheed has established a fund setting tourism revenue aside to buy higher ground for his people, most likely in India, Sri Lanka, or Australia. As Nasheed explained to the Guardian, "It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome. We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents."

It can be no simple thing to move a nation. And the Maldives is not the only nation that will likely have to move. According to a recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, within the next fifty years, the Maldives, Tuvalu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, and some of the Lesser Antilles may all be lost to the sea.

What does it mean for a country to physically disappear?

Joan Didion wrote an essay in the late sixties called "Notes Toward a Dreampolitik." I assume that "Dreampolitik" is a reference to Realpolitik, a theory of politics based on pragmatism rather than on high ideals. Dreampolitik would then be a politics (or a complex of social relations) based on dreams.

In her essay, Didion presents a Pentecostal pastor who superficially resembles Mohamed Nasheed. Back in 1968, the twenty-eight-year-old pastor, Elder Robert J. Theobold, had recently left his native San Jose in accordance with "forcible impressions" he received from God, instructing him to start the Friendly Bible Apostolic Church in Port Hueneme, California, only to receive new forcible impressions instructing him to move his eighty-person congregation en masse to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, so as to avoid a great earthquake that he believed was about to hit California. Didion suggests that Pastor Theobold (like several secular case studies she presents) has acted according to dreams based in no reasonable way upon empirical reality.

MohamedNasheed-cap.jpgTheobold and Nasheed: each is young, charismatic, and plans to move his people a great distance to avoid calamity. The pronouncements of each have an unreal, dreamlike quality--a legendary quality, even, not unlike Noah's flood or Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt--but there is an important difference between Didion's dreamer and Nasheed. Theobold is able to "walk around right in the ganglia of the fantastic electronic pulsing that is life in the United States and continue to receive information only through the most tenuous chains of rumor, hearsay, haphazard trickledown. . . . To an astonishing extent [he keeps himself] unviolated by common knowledge." Nasheed's dream, on the other hand, squares with the best information available, and acknowledges the terrible fate that reason says is inevitable. I daresay that the physical erasure of his nation may be in a category with the horrors of the World Wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation: the stakes are so high, and the circumstances so unprecedented, that it feels unbelievable, like something that could only exist in the imagination. Indeed, it seems fantastical that a country could simply slip underwater. Some of his countrymen call him crazy for his proposal to evacuate, but it is they who keep themselves unviolated, so to speak, by what is becoming common knowledge.

Nasheed has said that his people "can do nothing to stop climate change on our own" (although, having pledged to become the first carbon-neutral nation on earth, they are trying admirably), and of course that is because the Maldivians have done little to cause climate change. It is industrial giants like the United States--populated mostly by people for whom islands are unreal, caricatures from Popeye cartoons, playthings of the imagination only--that caused climate change, and the industrial giants alone can stop it. It must be terrifying to be an island nation and know that your fate is in the hands of people who, on some level, do not really comprehend that you exist.

And yet it appears that Nasheed has made a breakthrough. He is an island person, a brown-skinned Muslim, who can speak in a way that Westerners seem able to hear. Al Gore has invoked him on the Senate Floor when arguing in favor of legislation to reduce carbon emissions, and Western environmentalists hailed him as an "eco rock star" when he rallied crowds in Copenhagen last December. It helps that Mohamed Nasheed is many things that are valued in the West: a truth-telling journalist and a leader of a nonviolent resistance movement who was imprisoned and tortured by an oppressive regime, but persevered and won the presidency in his country's first democratic elections. It also helps that he's young for a president, and handsome; he's not just dreamlike, he's dreamy.

But more importantly, Nasheed is also able to reach Westerners because he is not merely a sympathetic leader of a righteous struggle in another country. He is becoming a leader for us as well, for our own struggle to comprehend, acknowledge, and meet the challenges we face. Just as Al Gore broke ground with An Inconvenient Truth in terms of making climate change a mainstream concern, Nasheed has improved the discussion by taking a politically risky and serious position in relation to the unbelievable inevitable: the erasure of nations by rising seas that could, in the estimation of the above-referenced Environmental Justice Foundation report, displace nearly 10 percent of the world's population, creating millions--perhaps hundreds of millions--of refugees. This is truth-telling that Westerners crave, and have sadly lacked.

As the seas rise and new refugees seek refuge, the Dreampolitik may feel ever stranger and more disorienting. Let's not allow the theater of the underwater cabinet meeting (or the exodus fund, insofar as that, too, is theater) to be a mere message in a bottle, bouncing ineffectually in the waves of culture, addressing uncomprehending ears.

If my neighbor's new toy poodle, Shirley MacLaine, doesn't step on a syringe at the shore of Lake Calhoun, mutate into a bespectacled typist, and write this column in my stead, next time I will tell you about the apocalyptic discos of Tuvalu.


Image Credits:
Undersea Meeting: flickr/350org / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
President Nasheed: flickr/maapu / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

March 28, 2010

The Void Beneath Our Feet: An Interview with Eric Puchner

by J.C. Sirott

modelHomeLgeBkImage.jpgOne of the more fashionable knocks on literary fiction is that contemporary novels and short stories no longer concern themselves with work. An editor at the New York Times Book Review recently cataloged some prominent complaints, from Granta editor John Freeman on the invisibility of the daily grind in fiction to popular philosopher Alain De Botton's call for a more poignant literature of the workplace.

Obviously none of these people have read Eric Puchner. In Puchner's first collection, Music Through the Floor, his characters engage in a stunning variety of jobs (ESL teacher, attendant for the developmentally delayed, baggage handler).

Of course, in Puchner's short stories, as well as in his debut novel, Model Home, it's not what his characters do, but the emotional complexities that he captures about how they feel when they do it. The recently released Model Home follows a Southern California family as their emotional and economic fortunes fluctuate. Shifting from perspectives as diverse as an eleven-year-old boy to a middle-aged mother of three, Model Home manages to inhabit multiple voices and simultaneously convey hilarity and despair. I interviewed Puchner via email for dislocate.

Eric_Puchner2.jpgdislocate: A lot of the blurbs about Model Home seem to dwell on the tragedy that occurs in this book--we get words like "heartbreak," "despair," "travesty," and "desperate"--and yet there are some very humorous parts. How conscious are you of the balance between the two? Was the process of writing the comic or the tragic different in any way?

Puchner: I'm very conscious of trying to balance the comic and the tragic, not only because I think they're cosmic bedfellows but because I think, from a craft perspective, it's often best to approach moments of high emotion with a comic touch. It's a way of counteracting the melodrama; without that tension, there's too little distance between the characters' emotions and the writer's pride over creating those emotions, his desire to move you. I also think that the sort of hysteria brought on by grief is very close to the comic hysteria we feel when things go awry. Bergson, in his theory of comedy, calls it "mechanical inelasticity": someone pulls a chair out from under you, and you fail to adapt to the change. The same goes for tragic occurrences, I think: someone pulls a chair out from under you, one you thought would be around forever, and you can't begin to adapt.

In the second half of Model Home, in particular, I wanted to try something risky and see how far I could swing between hilarity and despair--or rather, how closely I could confuse the two. Laughter and despair come from the same place for me, in that they're both responses to the absurdity of life. We've all had those moments when something horrible happens, the void opens beneath our feet, and our first response is to laugh. Beckett's a big influence on me: that vaudevillian aspect was central to his plays, they're very funny, but of course they're also full of terror and despair.

dislocate: Music is a huge part of the characters' lives in Model Home, from Dustin and his band's punk ethos to Jonas and the Grateful Dead. Additionally, music often plays in the background of scenes in Model Home. How much effort did you put into deciding things like what song might be playing at a party in the summer of 1985 and how one of your characters would react to it?

Puchner: Well, honestly, I chose a lot of the music that I listened to when I was a kid. It was a huge part of my identity in the eighties, going to punk shows in Hollywood and liking bands that didn't get played on the radio. It was how I defined myself against Southern California yahoo culture. Meeting someone who listened to the early Replacements or the Minutemen was sort of like finding a long-lost cousin from Lithuania: there was this instant connection. As much as I'm grateful for the Internet, how accessible it's made adventurous music, I think something's been lost.

dislocate: Many of the stories in Music Through the Floor take place in Northern California, San Francisco in particular. Model Home primarily takes place in Southern California. Obviously, the two settings are quite different. Do you see yourself exploring either further? More California locales? Is there some aspect of the state that interests you, or is it simply a matter of writing places that you are familiar with?

Puchner: I am fascinated by the West, and by California in particular. Not the myth that some people subscribe to, but the reality of its economic collapse, and what its sprawl and diversity and increasingly homogenized-looking cities say about where America is heading. Underneath all that, there's a pioneering spirit that remains vital, I think, and which accounts for some of its incorruptible weirdness and pride. There's something, too, about the Californian version of the American Dream--its stubborn faith in capitalism, the way it seems so at odds with the majority of the population--that I'm drawn to as a writer. The discrepancy between the dream and the reality of most people's lives is just so extreme. And just in terms of the landscape, there's so much strangeness and beauty. I loved writing the sections of Model Home that are set in the Mojave Desert.

dislocate: How did you approach writing "bad" poetry from the point of view of Hector, one of your characters in the novel?

Puchner: I just thought about some of the poetry I was writing as a teenager. It was really bad. Even as an undergrad, I wanted to be a poet. Finally, my adviser took me aside and foisted some story collections on me, tacitly trying to tell me something, I think. (One of those collections was Charles Baxter's A Relative Stranger, which changed my life.)

I love writing poorly on purpose. It's incredibly liberating. I always thought I had to write beautifully--at least that's what I've always been taught--so just to say "the hell with it" and write something bad or ungrammatical can free up the imagination. I did that with my story "Essay #3: Leda and the Swan," which is written from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl with some serious grammar issues. It was a real breakthrough for me. The idea of "beautiful" writing can be something of a curse, I think, and its own form of bad prose. I see this again and again with my students who try too hard to be "literary." I do an exercise in my workshops now where I force students to write as crummily as they can.

dislocate: Do you have a theory of endings, particularly when it comes to short stories? How do you know when the story is complete?

Puchner: I don't have any theories, unfortunately. I wish I did. I do know that I often need an ending in mind to get started, and that invariably this ending evaporates in the course of writing the story. A new ending will emerge and surprise me, and it will just feel right somehow--that "whoa moment" that Louis Menand talks about, when the actual and emotional plots converge in an unexpected way.

dislocate: Any insights on the differences in your writing process when it comes to short stories versus the novel?

Puchner: I'm a painfully slow writer of stories, but I knew if I was ever going to finish a novel, I'd have to pick up the pace. So I wrote the first half of the thing without looking back at all--just forged ahead, a couple pages a day (a lot for me). It was a completely different process for me, and with a new baby in the house, a matter of survival.

I also very consciously tried to avoid what I think of as "the short-story writer's novel," which is sometimes just a bunch of stories in disguise. I made sure that the chapters were unresolved at the end, that they led into the next--even, in some cases, ended in cliffhangers. In some ways, I had to deprogram myself: I didn't want the singularity of effect that you strive for in a story, but something that accrued meaning and emotion and thematic resonance over time. Writing a novel takes ridiculous patience, I think, as well as an extraordinary faith that something will come of the years of hard work.

dislocate: Was Model Home written chronologically? Or would you, say, write Lyle parts, and then intersperse them with other characters?

Puchner: At least with the first half of the book, I wrote each of the point-of-view characters' trajectories separately, almost as if I were writing five separate novellas. It was the only way that felt natural to me, the only way I could discover who the characters were, what they wanted, what sorts of messes they would get themselves into. I don't know how I could have written the novel otherwise, given the number of subplots.

The downside was that I ended up with over eight hundred pages. That's when the real work began, with the second draft. I cut a whole lot of darlings.

dislocate: Were there any works by other authors that you returned to while writing Model Home? Are there any books you find yourself re-reading consistently?

I'm a big fan of The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury: it's a comic novel, but very moving, too. It's also sprawling, with dozens of characters, and it gave me the confidence to tackle multiple POVs in Model Home. On the sentence level, Joy Williams was a great inspiration to me. I love her sentences: so surprising and original, and yet they never seem to work too hard. I kept The Quick and the Dead on my desk and flipped through it when I was stuck, just to remind me what a sentence can do.

In terms of the classics, Anna Karenina is maybe the novel I return to most often. It's sort of the Platonic ideal for me.

Image Credit:
photograph by Saeed Mirfattah

March 26, 2010

Making Friends, Making Friends Feel Weird // Liana Liu

Guess what! I am an annoying, interrupting, sloppy drunk. Who knew? Well, I suspected it. But until now there was never any hard evidence--unless you call accusations made by friends/bartenders "hard evidence."

Thanks to the demands of this column, however, I have discovered that my friends were indeed telling the truth, and not jealous of my wit and charm. Or rather, not just jealous. In any case, now there is hard evidence in the form of this taped interview, conducted at Liquor Lyle's, late one Tuesday evening. How I loathe the sound of my voice! And the relentless enthusiasm! And my inadvertent sexualizing of the situation! It would be so much cooler if the sexualizing had been advertent. Obviously. Enough about me. Let's learn about Joe.

PICT0083.JPGWhat do you do, Joe?
I'm a student. Studying business.

Business? Awesome! (1)
Yeah, keeping up with school.

Read anything good lately?
This one book, Crossing California. It's a novel about these Jewish people in Chicago in the 1970s, and it mostly focuses on the children of these families and how they're growing up in this neighborhood. It was really entertaining, I really liked it.

Now tell me your reading secrets.
Um . . . I've read all of the Harry Potter books. (His friend: What!? You're kidding!) (2)

Do you dress up in costume? (3)

How about a wand? (4)
No . . .

Wait, sorry, I just made things weird. So Harry Potter?
When the last Harry Potter book came out I bought it at the airport in Santiago, Chile, and read almost the whole thing on the flight back to the US. I stayed up all night reading it.

Did you feel like you were living in that world because you were in this weird plane place?
Yeah, I was completely involved in the characters and I felt like I was there and they were my friends.

Were you sad when you finished the book?
Yeah, it was like a part of me was just gone. (5)

That's so sad! Who's your favorite character?
I don't know. Definitely not Harry, he's a whiny bitch. (6) I'd have to say . . . Professor Lupin.

Yeah, the genie in the bottle guy? (7)
No, the werewolf. (Friend: The werewolf! (8)) He was refined and subtle, really well done.

You liked him because you're so refined and subtle, right?
I hope so. (9)

Editor's notes:
(1) If I had been sober, this line would have gone like this: "Business? Awesome?" No offense, business people. I am just jealous of your wit and charm. Dad.

(2) My reading secret is that at age 12, I squirreled away romance novels and read the dirty parts over and over again. And over. Also, I've read all of Harry Potter.

(3) This is a normal question.

(4) I am amazing.

(5) The depths of a business student's soul are astounding! Who knew?

(6) Word.

(7) Drunk.

(8) I love how earlier in the conversation the friend was all, "What, bro? You read Harry Potter?!" (my paraphrasing). And here he's all, "The werewolf, the werewolf!" I should have asked him about his wand.

(9) Such modesty. I'm sold! Wait, unless that's some business trick. Sold? What? Oh no, what have I done?

March 25, 2010

Health And Technology: The Hands // Landrew Kentmore

Pro-bowlers and people who work on computers have one thing in common: they can both hurt their hands at their jobs.

A pro-bowler could hurt his wrist if someone accidentally puts some super glue in the finger holes on his bowling ball. Then his fingers could get stuck without him knowing and when he goes to roll his ball hard towards the pins, his hand might come off with the ball and go down the lane and score a strike. With computers, you don't get any points for hurting your hands.

On the scale of what's dangerous for your hand and what's not, computer keyboards are medium dangerous. Some things that are less dangerous than using technology are turning doorknobs, pointing at stuff, and touching sand. Some things that are more dangerous for your hands than technology are punching mirrors, reaching into fire, and checking if big turtles are snapping turtles by using your fingers. Some other medium dangerous things are high-fiving musclemen who are usually gentle but can get excited, and competing in knuckle-cracking contests.

I didn't know keyboards were dangerous until my roommate, Greg, started complaining about his wrist hurting all the time. I asked if it had anything to do with him wearing the really stupid-looking bracelet that his girlfriend got him and he said, no, the bracelet was soothing and not painful because it showed their love for each other (lame). He said his wrist hurt because he typed at work all day. He said if it got really bad, he might get something called carpal tunnel syndrome.

You're probably thinking, carpal tunnel syndrome? How am I supposed to remember something as weird-sounding as that? Well, I have a way. Imagine you work at a place that also has a room for an orchestra to practice music, so you carpool with some orchestra guys. One day, you try to take a shortcut on a road that goes through a tunnel, but you get stuck in a traffic jam underground. You're going to be late, and the orchestra guys start freaking out because they need time to get ready, so they take out their giant horns and stuff and begin warming up in your car, which is really small. This carpool tunnel situation can get uncomfortable, just like carpal tunnel syndrome is uncomfortable for your wrists.

carpel vs carpool.jpg
Unfortunately there is no way to avoid using keyboards for a lot of people. You might be able to get a microphone that types into your computer for you, but that could get embarrassing. For example, what if you work for a doctor, typing up stuff his patients have said to him? There might be a patient who had butt problems and was like, "my butt hurts, and it smells pretty nasty, and I looked at it in a mirror and it looks pretty gross too." You would have to say that and if attractive girls were walking by your office, they might think you're talking about your own butt.

So the only things to do are take breaks from typing and try not to type too hard. Also, look for signs that would make typing even more dangerous than it usually is, like if the keyboard is really hot and melting or there's a big poisonous snake on it.

snake on computer.jpg

March 23, 2010

Psycho, dislocated // David LeGault

It's probably the nonfiction writer in me that keeps me looking backward, finding more excitement, more value, in works that have been critically examined, pulled apart and sucked of their meaning.

Psycho_(1960).jpgMy students seem to think I'm crazy, bringing in videos of Britney Spears to talk about concrete imagery in poetry, making them cite academic sources when class digresses into arguments over reality television, but this additional examination of the (seemingly) useless seems to bring out the most interesting elements of their work, particularly with the essay.

With that said, what can we do with material that reaches beyond the modicum of popular culture, something that plays a larger role in the ways we experience story?

My class recently spent a good deal of time examining the famous shower scene from Hitchcock's Psycho, focusing on why it's so iconic, why it's considered one of the greatest scenes in film history. We've come up with quite a few ideas, and I'll list a few of the main ones below:

1. The fact that we never see heroine Marion Crane stabbed, the shadow obscuring the face of Norman Bates, the blood circling the shower drain without ever showing a wound--each of these images represents the unseen, which allow the reader's imagination to flourish.

2. The iconic music, metaphorically cutting through the eerie silence of the scene, nearly matching the pitch of Crane's scream--the scene uses audio as well as visual to receive full effect, showing why we must use every writing tool to our advantage.

3. The blood circling the drain, the scene shifting to a lifeless eye--Hitchcock gives us these (admittedly heavy-handed) parallels of the life draining out of Crane, but it reminds us how metaphors can make everyday life (taking a shower) into something profound.

This brings me back to the essay, and how we can use this scene as a reimagining of the overlooked form. Like Psycho, the essay strives to take an everyday occurrence (such as an overlooked moment in cinema, like The Wilhelm Scream) and make it profound. It should not focus purely on the self, but the way that the mind functions: through associations and juxtaposition, through firing synapses that connect our experiences into some greater accumulation. What do our observations of the world say about ourselves?

The essay should strive to make sense of it all: the seen and the unseen, the music and the silence.

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March 22, 2010

Online Dating: Stay in Your Pajamas // Jana Misk

While all dating can seem terrifying to reclusive types, even the most solitary of us need a little love.

boredgirl.jpgThe surge in popularity of online dating has become a boon to us as the stigma slowly drops away and "normal" people increasingly avail themselves of this new resource. If you're still in the "online dating is for weirdos" camp, get over it already. Everything happens on the Internet these days.

I started my thirteen-year online dating career before I got to high school. The first time I got drunk was in Golden Gate Park with a sixteen-year-old I'd met in a random chat room, who proceeded to trail me wasted down Haight Street proclaiming acts of love he would like to perform on me; my first kiss was at fourteen with a Miata-driving twenty-eight-year-old who'd claimed online that he was twenty, and then, in person, confessed to having a thing for Japanese chicks--and trust me, the scene has gotten WAY better since the dark ages of the mid-'90s. Luckily, so has my self-esteem, which is truly crucial in the world of online love, so get thee to a therapist if you need some help in that department.

What to Expect

The best thing about online dating is the ability to pre-screen your potential partners without ever having to choose an outfit or speak a sentence. No waiting awkwardly at a bar for someone interesting to come along (god knows that never works out anyway) or stalking bookstore aisles feeling like a pervert.

The hardest part at the beginning of this process is writing your profile, which admittedly takes a bit of brazenness and, just as importantly, a sense of humor. Your best training will come through reading other people's profiles. Try finding a friend who has some experience with this stuff so you can get a second opinion about your self-advertising copy. As a start, I'll impart a few words of wisdom from my own prowling days, useful for both screening prospective cuddle-buddies and for crafting your own online representation:

Guys who are "laid back" are always actually boring.

"I like to have fun." Really? How unusual!

Any smidgen of hostility should be interpreted as a thousandth part of what lies in wait.

Users, as a rule, post pictures of themselves that are between three and ten times more attractive than their real-life selves. (Choose your own photos accordingly.)

Creative, honest profiles glitter like gems among the muck. You'll recognize them immediately.

Cautionary Measures

After you've finished your profile, you'll probably spend several (dozen) hours looking through your prospects. Or if you're using OkCupid (see below), you'll spend several dozen hours answering Match Questions so you can optimize their your search results. You'll get to answer revealing questions like:

If you inadvertently found a phone number in a partner's pocket, which would you do?
• Call the number to see whose it is.
• Openly ask what/who the number is for.
• Nothing, I would trust my partner.
• Nothing, my partner's privacy should be respected.

You'll also tell OkCupid matching algorithm how you'd want your ideal match to answer.

Then you'll get up the courage to send a few messages to people. If you don't hear back, don't take offense--especially if you're a guy. WSMs tend to get about fifty times as many unsolicited messages as MSWs do.

Once you've hooked someone with your witty email repartee, you're going to have to prepare yourself to leave the house. If you didn't lie in your profile, you have nothing to worry about in this regard. Remember to take advantage of this blind exchange of information to get all of your most obvious weirdnesses on the table. Best to drive them away before you have to put your shoes on! At least that's always been my strategy.

But the more important thing is making sure not to agree to a date until you're sure the person you might meet isn't psychotic. This takes some skill to develop, and just a smidge of trial and error--but if I could do it as a teenager without getting knifed in an alley, then you can too, for christ's sake. Remember the basics: exchange a few emails before meeting; if you see or feel ANY red flags at any point, end contact politely but firmly; when meeting, always do so in a public place, do not divulge your home address or phone number or last name if possible, arrive and leave separately, and make sure your phone is available and fully charged in case anything freaky happens. And don't have more than one alcoholic drink on your first date, seriously! Of course, women tend to be more cautious about online dating than men are, and for excellent reason. Guys, take note of this and have a little sympathy; you will probably have to try harder to convince a woman to go out on a date with you than women will have to try to get a date. That's life.

Life After the Internet

Once you're actually in a relationship, your start on the internet will not really help things along, except that maybe your interests and proclivities line up a bit better than they otherwise would because you can screen for them more easily up front. This is nothing to be sniffed at. Fellow introverts can be, by definition, difficult to track down, and being with someone who respects and shares your desires for solitude and low-key socializing will make your life easier. I promise.

OkCupid FTW

Having tried a host of different websites for picking up dudes, I've determined that my favorite online dating site is (not surprisingly here) OkCupid.com: it has a great proportion of young, educated, liberal types with a sense of humor, if that's your thing, especially (again) in the major cities. And a basic membership, which allows you to do everything you need to do to find and meet someone you like, is free.

Full Disclosure

For the first time in several years, I'm currently in a relationship I did not begin on the Internet, and I'm very happy. In 2006 I met a guy on MySpace who I married and very quickly divorced. I DO NOT recommend MySpace as a place to meet anyone. People on the internet are actually crazy. But usually in an interesting way!--at least it's interesting for a little while.

In Closing

Remember that even if it feels a little weird to be meeting people from the internet, it's still way less awkward than going on the prowl at your local bar. You can be drunk on OkCupid, too, you know. So the next time you need some human contact with a complete stranger who might have something in common with you, try it out. Have fun!

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March 19, 2010

Ordering food over the Internet: FAQs // Landrew Kentmore

When you think about it, the Internet is the new mall. Just like the mall, you can buy stuff and meet weird people.

The big thing you don't get on the Internet are clothing stores that smell like cologne and guys with gelled hair trying to sell you cell phones. For a while, you also didn't get the food court, but that has changed! Now you can order food over the Internet, so it's just like the food court on the Internet, just without so many pieces of shredded lettuce stuck to the tables (unless you were shredding lettuce on your table and didn't clean up it all up).

Getting food over the Internet is a pretty new thing, so there are probably a lot of people who are confused by it. To help, I've answered a bunch of important questions below.

Q: I have a hard time doing things that take more than three steps to get done. Can I order food in three steps?

A: Yes, as long as you organize the steps right. For example, here's ordering food over the Internet in three steps: Step 1--your stomach gets hungry; Step 2--you go on the internet and order food; Step 3--a deliver guy shows up and gives you the food.

Q: What kind of food can I get over the Internet?

A: The two kinds of food you can order over the Internet are sandwiches and pizza. There might be a third or even fourth kind of food that you might be able to order over the Internet, but I haven't ordered them yet, so I don't know what they are.

Q: Is getting food over the Internet like getting books over the Internet?

A: The ordering part is similar, but books and food are very different. For example, you don't need to read books three times a day to survive. Also, you use your eyes on books and your mouth on food, which are two different parts of your face. Sometimes people say they devoured a book, but they don't mean they ate the book. They mean that their brain was really hungry for a book and so their brain ate a book by reading it fast. Most of time, when people say this, they just want to let you know they went to college.

Q: Is getting food over the Internet like getting music over the Internet?

A: No, but I wish it was! Think about how awesome it would be to download food! And instead of an MP3 player you would have a food player! You could download a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich and load it onto your food player for the morning bus ride! If you meet someone new, you could make him or her a mix, but it would be a mix of food! (You could put a lot of sushi and Thai food in the mix so she thinks you're cultured!) Maybe you could even illegally download food, but that might get dangerous with viruses.

This is a good start to learning how to order food over the Internet. As technology gets more advanced, the process will change (like if they build speakers that make smells instead of sounds, that might make ordering more interesting because you could smell the food cooking, but then some old websites might smell pretty nasty).

March 18, 2010

Maryhope: Literary Discretion // Liana Liu

Wells Tower's reading at Magers and Quinn was so well attended that I had to sit in a narrow aisle, facing long shelves of books. Despite my poor vantage point, I was still able to enjoy his reading because although I wasn't able to gaze at Wells Tower's attractive face, I was able to imagine it while staring at the book spines.

However, once the Q & A portion got started, I became miserable. How desperately I wanted to know what these question-asking people looked like. What sort of person asks a question about the writer's utensil of choice? Or the writer's underwear preferences? (Note: these questions may or may not have been those actually asked; my memory is a bit holey--I mostly remember my sorrow over not being able to see anything).

Fortunately, post-event I was able to do some inappropriate interrogating of my own. My victim: Maryhope, lovely graduate student in the psychology department.

maryhope-cap.jpgWhat's that you're reading?
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindovist.

How do you like it?
I love it. I saw the film so I wanted to read the book. So far it's very good.

Good! Now, let's get down to business. Would you ever not date someone based on the books they liked?

What are some deal-breakers?
The Da Vinci Code, anything by O'Reilly. I should probably stop. This is not a good way to make friends.

Right, right. Let's just say it's good that anyone reads anything. (1)

But really now, what would you do if you were on a date with a total studmuffin and he invited you back to his house to "listen to records," and when you got there you found a bookshelf full of Dan Brown and Bill O'Reilly books?
That kind of happened to me once! I went on this date with this really attractive millionaire.

Tell me! How did you meet him? (2)
He was a friend of a friend who wanted to take me out. Then I asked him what the last book he read was and he said he didn't read any books. So I asked him what the last movie he saw was and he said his favorite movies were "Jackass" and "The Thomas Crowne Affair" because Thomas Crowne reminded him of himself. (3) That's when I realized that even millions weren't worth it. (4)

That's beautiful, thank you.

Editor's notes:
(1) Wrong.

(2) Did I ask this question because I am interested in knowing where one might meet a millionaire? Yes, yes I did.

(3) If someone asked me what famous character reminded me of myself, I would say Garfield, the cartoon cat. Actually, I have said this.

(4) Like, how many millions? I wish I had thought to ask . . .

March 17, 2010

Richard Castle, dislocated // David LeGault

I've always been interested in fictional books, meaning works of literature that don't actually exist.

Most often, they are books referenced in actual books, like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the actual guide, not the novel where the guide is described), The Secret Goldfish (the book written by D.B. Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye), and The Necronomicon. In a lot of cases, these books are written as some kind of homage (such as David Means' short story collection, The Secret Goldfish, which is phenomenal). Other times, these books are written to cash in on the success of an earlier work, such as the countless Necronomicon knockoffs written since Lovecraft's death.


In any case, I came across a fictional book turned into an actual work, Heat Wave by Richard Castle. If you're not familiar, Richard Castle is the title character from the ABC Television Series Castle, a series about a famous crime novelist following a police detective on murder cases as research for a novel. In the show's second season, Heat Wave was released on the show, and a few weeks later I saw it in a local bookstore

Before I go any further, I need to make something clear: this book blows. The dialogue literally made me cringe on several occasions, it was terribly paced, and, for a mystery novel, the murder was completely arbitrary--taking away the joy of piecing together the clues by yourself. With that said, as a project, the book had some interesting aspects that are worth exploring.

1) Although the book was ghostwritten, the writer attempts to take on the persona of Richard Castle. The book's written from a third-person perspective, which usually puts the focus on the characters' thoughts and dialogue. However, the omniscient voice of this book is the most developed, which gets in the way of the story, but does give some insight into the writer's character.

2) The typical extras of a book take on a different meaning/effect. Heat Wave is dedicated to Kate Beckett, a character from the show, and the acknowledgment section makes references to false agents and publishers. Again, it gives some insight into the Castle character.

3) Although the book is poorly plotted, many of the books events obviously come from the "research" Castle was conducting on the show. For the die-hard fan, it's somewhat enjoyable to piece moments from the show into the book. Additionally, a sex scene in the book between the two main protagonists is meant to hint at some sexual tension from the television show between Castle and the detective he's shadowing.

In other words, the book fleshes out the world of the show. Although it doesn't make for the best fiction, on some level I appreciate the project: it uses the narrative voice--the writer persona--to convey a message independent from the actual book. At the very least, it opens up many possibilities for the third-person voice, and I'd love to see what the method could do in more capable hands.

Social Media Meets the Anti-Social Novelist

by Kevin Fenton

penguins.jpgYou could argue that nothing has changed.

You could argue that Addison and Steele and Samuel Johnson were ur-bloggers. After all, the first magazines--The Rambler, The Spectator--were not magazines in the modern sense. Rather, they were short personal essays published a couple of times a week by guys who spent too much time in coffee houses.

Team of Rivals, Doris Godwin's account of Lincoln's circle, describes a speech given by then-Senator William Seward that was so compelling that his fellow Senators actually stopped writing letters to listen to it. In other words, they stopped texting.

The social media impulse has probably been with us ever since the first cave dweller chipped LOL into a rock. But our ability to act on that impulse has changed--dramatically, and in less than a generation. And while that change is significant for society as a whole, it's especially profound for me as a writer because it has invaded my workspace and challenged values so basic I barely knew I held them.

All of this has happened in my admittedly extensive adult life. At my first advertising job, I typed copy on an IBM Selectric typewriter and handed it to a secretary who typed up a cleaner version on her IBM Selectric.

Then computer screens, which had first replaced calculators, usurped typewriters in homes and offices. People started putting their own content up on those screens. Other people started commenting on that content. Then this discourse moved to other appliances, especially phones. It's only a matter of time before toasters have opinions.

When Media Got Social

omglol-cap.jpgThe possibilities for liberation still dazzle me. Voices no longer need to slog through the old intermediaries--snooty editors, printers with their pesky demands for thousands of dollars, lads in short pants standing with megaphones on street corners.

But I've been creating web sites for fifteen years, blogging for five, and indulging in social media for long enough to get intermittently sick of it. Between two aliases, I've tweeted 1,755 times. And I can report this: there's also a downside to social media, especially if you're a serious writer.

The brave new screen is a place of addictive clicking, impatient reading, sensory deprivation, unfair criticism, empowered morons, solipsistic connection, amateur design, first-draft writing, gimmicks and distractions. And, as Lee Siegel points out in Against The Machine: How The Web Is Reshaping Culture and Commerce--and Why It Matters (2008), the Internet's biggest downside is a triumphalism that deflects discussion of the new technology's downsides.

The Triumph of Triumphalism

Such triumphalism has some distinctive, only half-conscious strategies. One is dressing up commercial motives in the rhetoric of liberation. Siegel likens the mass enthusiasm for the Internet to the enthusiasm for the car in the early '60s. Both promised social mobility.

And while garden-variety innovation is driven by early adopters--gung ho insiders--triumphal innovations are also driven by late adopters. I have to look no further than my own recent experience: wherever two or more are gathered, there shall be a mention of social media. At a dinner party, over coffee with a downsized marketing executive, at board meetings, at a client meeting, someone always says: We really need to be in social media. Interestingly, these comments almost always come from people who aren't in social media themselves. The trick of triumphalism is that it makes people who don't adopt its worldview feel left behind and perhaps even mildly ashamed.

This mode of triumphalism also makes particular business models seem like inevitable social configurations. Of course, cars dictated our urban planning. Of course, the Internet will host our commerce and discourse.

On a positive side, triumphalism generates that rare enthusiasm that comes from participating in something epochal. Cars are cool. Computers are charismatic in the way that science fiction made real is charismatic. But charisma blinds us to negatives.

ASAP Meets 24/7/365. Oh, Goody.

Two commercials accidentally betray connectivity's downside. In the first, two blandsome guys sit at a table in a diner. A project is up for grabs. But they know if they can just get the estimate sent off before the fries arrive, they will get the job. They lack the proper connectivity, but the camera pulls back to reveal a savvy competitor sitting at the counter. She has the right info-appliance connected to the right can-do network. The point is that what business really requires are response times normally associated with comic book heroes.

In the other commercial, someone is lounging at the beach and working on his laptop. Holographic ghosts of conference rooms past appear before his eyes and ask him to "add the new sales figures" and then drop in to say "good job on the Johnson presentation." The explicit point is you can work anywhere. Those of us who can't remember our last truly clean vacation know the implicit point: you can never escape.

It makes sense that speed and availability are valued in business, even if they're currently a little overvalued. But those commercial imperatives are also bleeding into the larger culture, which includes serious literary writing. In his excellent In Pursuit of Elegance (2009), Matthew May makes the point that problem solving and creativity require observation, silence and incubation.

Interestingly, people in business are thinking seriously about how to limit interruptions. Try googling "interruptions and productivity"--you won't even have to finish typing the query. Anti-interruption products are becoming ubiquitous. And if interruptions are keeping people from getting work done in cubes, I can testify that they are also keeping people from writing novels.

The Rise of the Imperfectionists

Social media compounds the manic tendencies of the Internet. Its very structure encourages sloppiness.

Blogs crave posts with a frequency that would exhaust professional journalists. The stars of Twitter post multiple times a day. What's more, neither Twitter nor Facebook has an edit function. Twitter Help tells those who ask if they can edit a tweet, "Nope. Once it's out there, you can't edit it. You can delete an update by clicking the trash icon on the right end of the update, but you can't make changes." I'm betting these Silicon Valley darlings can program an edit function. Editing--the essential writerly act--has been considered and rejected. Social media isn't writing: it's talking with your keyboard.

When Truman Capote said of On The Road, "That's not writing, it's typing," he meant to describe one individual's writing. Now, "not writing but typing" describes an entire culture.

This culture has produced spokespeople. Personally, they are friends of books and the people who create them. Chris Brogan (121,000 Twitter followers) rhapsodizes about growing up in libraries. Seth Godin (41,000 Facebook fans) has brilliantly captured the essence of what is important about a book. But as the leaders of the new media, these men naturally champion the values of the new media. They favor improvisation over deliberation, immediacy over incubation, collaboration over autonomy, connectivity over isolation, porousness over barriers, what they view as a vibrant amateurism over a smug professionalism. In a webcast to the publishing industry, Brogan set the tone with three words: "imperfectionism trumps precision."

Although Brogan is being provocative when he exalts "imperfectionism," the values he's espousing aren't evil. But they are the values of talk, not writing. (Perfectionism is oppressive in talk.)

The values of social media are also the values of sales, not craft. Consider Seth Godin's dismissal of Janet Maslin:

Janet Maslin at the New York Times is a cranky hack. She reviews popular fiction and non-fiction, and as best I can tell, she likes neither very much. She's taken authors to task for questionable copy editing and devoted entire reviews to pointless rants about trivia. Here's the thing: she doesn't matter. Janet's reviews appear to have no impact at all on whether or not a book sells. Her voice is not in my head.
Robert Morris, on the other hand, is a useful guide for people in search of good books. He's reviewed nearly 2,000 books and received almost 25,000 helpful votes for his reviews on Amazon. If he likes your book, you're going to sell more copies--not because he liked it, but because his thorough review lets other people decide if they want to buy it or not.

Godin is judging a book review solely by the metrics you normally apply to an ad: increased sales. Certainly every author wants book reviews to sell his book. But serious authors--even business authors--know that reviews have other functions: e.g., assessing arguments, discussing ideas, connecting books to larger intellectual trends,

Godin's post is a display window for the shortcomings of new media. Writing quickly and without an editor, he produces an unrigorous argument distorted by unexamined biases. He doesn't disclose that Morris has reviewed him favorably and or that he tangled with Maslin. Godin doesn't actually show the effects of either the Amazon reviewer or NY Times review on sales. An editor might have pushed Godin to look more closely at Morris's influence--which amounts to only about a dozen "helpful" votes per book, at least some from friends.

Writers Need Editors, After All

Editors, internal and external, are at the heart of literary values. For starters, those values include revision, deliberation, craft, an unwillingness to toss first drafts out into the world. Robert Frost famously sniffed, "Conversation is always a first draft."

Most of us also crave some freedom to play, uninterrupted, in our own sandbox. Craig Ferguson wrote his novel Between the River and the Bridge when he was working in the movies. Because he was sick to death of exposing every decision to immediate cacophonous input, he went home and wrote whatever the hell he wanted. As a man who drummed for some angry Scottish bands in the 80s, he likened the freedom of what he was doing to punk rock.

Revision, perfectionism, privacy. These aren't the values of social media. But these are the values of one of the powerhouses of digital culture. Apple does not embrace social media, preferring craft to chatter, control to collaboration. This may be why Apple's products and branding are so popular with the creative class. Steve Jobs makes Marcel Proust look like a team player. The perfectionists at Apple suggest the possibility of a different kind of web.

The values of Apple also suggest that the values of social media are chosen. And they can be unchosen, in favor of more writerly ones.

And perhaps the greatest of the writerly values is focus.

Distraction Is Not Destiny

My single greatest enemy as a writer is distraction. Yet the assumption of a distracted, multitasking, fractionally attentive life is dear to new media.

In a recent webcast to publishers, Chris Brogan said that Moby-Dick is problematic today, because our attention is more atomized than ever before. From the viewpoint of a hands-on consultant, he's right: our attention is ridiculously fragmented. We never used to write notes to each other while merging onto the freeway--as someone in front of me did Saturday night.

Tellingly, the statement "we are more atomized than ever" is positioned as a description of an inevitable outcome rather than as an acknowledgment of a choice.

Is there really more on our plate? Does Obama really face more challenges than Lincoln? Did Bush II juggle more complexities than FDR? Am I forced to multi-task any harder than my mother, who ran a dairy farm, raised five kids, and worked forty hours a week as a nurse? I have Twitter followers. She had cows. Cows are way more demanding.

Unlike my Mom, I'm surrounded by the Pavlovian beeping and ringing and chiming of information appliances. Unlike a writer of a generation ago, I return to my desk to see--thanks to Facebook--the equivalent of a dozen postcards and--thanks to my browser bookmarks--a newsstand. On a bad day, the Internet optimizes my procrastination.

But these are distractions and, to some extent, we can control distractions. Most of my biggest distractions have an off switch. From software that monitors time-wasting activities to a more considered approach to social media, I can make choices. Two non-profits I'm associated with have established a presence on Facebook but have decided against using Twitter accounts because of the time they demand.

And despite the talk about shortened attention spans, we do make time for long-form narrative. My wife and I set aside weeks worth of discretionary time each year for shows like Big Love. The Harry Potter series, which tracks a character over novels and years, is one of the few cultural creations to make anyone as rich as an entire country.

In the majority of instances, I am distracted because I want to be. I am distracted because I've never heard an email ping I didn't like.

So What Do We Do?

Every bit player in the zeitgeist tells me to sign up, sign on, tweet, post, friend, follow, comment, subscribe, update, stream, and connect. And, in fact, I do most of these things. But I'm going to try harder to remember that the zeitgeist doesn't always have my best interest in mind. I am going to take back some choices.

For me, Ludditism isn't a choice. It's possible to stick your head in the sand and pretend social media doesn't exist. But there aren't many ostrich success stories.

And social media are a natural choice for writers. These new forums may not be writerly, but they are verbal--and cheap. And, like Hugh Hefner, you can be an extrovert in your pajamas.

I wish I had a formula for social media success but I don't. (After Merit Badges is published, I will share what I learned from its marketing in a free downloadable case history.)

There are some things I'm pretty sure aren't going to work, such as racking up sheer quantities of connections. Tested marketing wisdom says you proceed from awareness to consideration to purchase to loyalty, and that each stage requires several contacts. If all you do is get someone to click "friend," you still have a long way to go. Yes, I'm in your rolodex, but rolodexes don't buy books.

I think it's also important to get a sense of the ethos of each social medium. Facebook is essentially a reunion, and selling too hard generates a special Tupperware-party awkwardness. Twitter is more openly about loose connections, information sharing, and self-promotion, but crass self-promotion is frowned upon. In this, it resembles a professional conference. My blog is the literary equivalent of those stands at grocery stores where they give you the new pizza on a toothpick. I post weekly so as to not test anyone's patience. I try to comment on other blogs.

I'm building an infrastructure of awareness. What will it get me? Of course, I might be one of those Internet successes like the mommy blogger Dooce, the food blogger featured in Julie and Julia, the wine guy Gary Vanyerchuk. I expect something more modest: that I will reinforce some friendships on Facebook, make some connections on Twitter, and let potential readers sample my writing on my blog. If my novel is good, my social media efforts might provide some of what the agency HSR:Gyro calls "energized word of mouth." But social media can only do so much. I also have to write good books.

And, given the serious investment of time that social media requires, writing good books could be a problem. I want to have a second novel ready when Merit Badges is released at AWP in February 2011. I've spent maybe an hour on that novel in the last month.

Ultimately, I don't think social media is the answer for writers looking to find an audience. The web is shifting and some models will prove unsustainable. We need to move beyond the conversational web to the crafted web. In some ways, social media itself reflects this trend. Four years ago, blogs--the near-daily, unedited output of individuals--ruled. Now they've been largely displaced by Twitter and Facebook, with their gathered communities and brief postings. But these sites are too sloppy, too time consuming, and weirdly feudal, fragmented and personal.

I suspect the changes afoot will not be revolutionary. Some form of social media will endure. Writers will still have to work to find their audiences.

The best way for writers to promote themselves has always been to find a forum where they can regularly share their best work with strangers. Think the New Yorker. To do that, we need to move toward something aggregated and edited, designed and promoted, rich and continuing. In other words, we need web sites with the curated energy of magazines.

Kevin Fenton's novel Merit Badges, which won the 2009 AWP Prize, will be published in early 2011. He holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. He's worked for more than two decades as an advertising writer and creative director. He can be found on the web at eitherthisoranap.com.

March 16, 2010

Socializing for Beginners: Trivia Night // Jana Misk

If you're lucky enough to have found a few friends who tolerate your regular extended absences from their social lives, you might be able to inspire tears of joy by suggesting that the lot of you attend a weekly Trivia Night at your local bar.

These perennially popular events are actually great for reclusive types who nevertheless feel they should be out in public more often.

First, the game is played in teams, which means that it's completely acceptable for you to talk only to your small group of friends--indeed, anything else might seem like treason. No one else will be milling around either, except the drunkest of the attendees, who have probably forgotten they're playing. It's socially acceptable to ignore these people. All the Trivia Nights I've been to involve writing answers down on a sheet of paper, which also eliminates excessive human contact.

trivia-cap.jpgSecond, small talk is fairly limited and low-pressure thanks to the stream of trivia questions that everyone must discuss in fierce whispers until an answer is chosen. So you get the enjoyment of talking without the anxiety of needing something interesting to say. Also, don't feel too bad if you don't know anything about most of the questions. A couple of helpful comments throughout the game will be enough to justify your presence there (and anyway, I hear that friends are people who like to be around you even if you don't know the answer to Trivia Night questions). If the idea of being asked questions you don't know the answers to distresses you too much, some weekly trivia events announce their themes in advance, so you can study up. Try to find one of these and convince your friends it's the best one. They'll agree if you start winning free drinks for them every week. (In any case it's a good idea to try out several different Trivia Nights, to find which one suits your temperament and knowledge base best.)

Third, because Trivia Nights are usually at bars, you can drink. In fact, this is encouraged. Your friends will be drinking too, which of course means they'll notice your awkwardness less, which will anyhow melt away the more Jager bombs you do. Just remember: the next day, your level of retrospective shame and social anxiety will be directly proportional to the amount of alcohol you imbibed. (The emphasis on drinking is also a good reason for finding a Trivia Night within walking distance of your residence.)

Finally, Trivia Nights are usually held on weeknights and last about two hours, give or take, after which everyone is usually happy to head home feeling accomplished and content. Two hours is generally manageable for me, and it can be comforting to know that something has a definite end point.

Congratulations--you just made it through an evening of socializing without (I hope) having been bombarded too heinously with feelings of paranoia, panic, and shame. And what's more: you are now, officially, a team player.


March 15, 2010

Mapping the Unseen: An Interview with Adriane Colburn

by J. Lee Morsell

Colburn_ArcticSuns-cap.jpgSan-Francisco-based artist Adriane Colburn is working on a series of installations and maps that seek to organize and chart changes in the natural and urban landscape. She recently attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in the wake of research trips to the Arctic and the Amazon.

Colburn seeks through her artwork to visualize the unseen, to depict frontiers of geography, politics and history--to reveal. "Apocalypse" is Greek for "revelation," or "unveiling." Upon meeting her in California this January, I mentioned that her work qualifies as apocalyptic, which led to the following conversation.

Morsell: You recently attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Why?

Colburn: The conference was supposed to be a pivotal moment in the politics of climate change, and in some ways it was. I'm fascinated by the political system surrounding climate change, and the conference related well to a project I'm working on which has to do with frontiers, and with looking at the earth's last vestiges of wilderness, at uncommodified parts of the globe. Also, I am teaching a course on Art and Climate Change at the California College of Art this semester.

Morsell: What unexplored frontiers were discussed there?

Colburn: First, I should say that by "unexplored," I mean in a scientific sense as well as in the grand tradition of exploration and exploitation. My particular interest tends to be on remote parts of the earth that are experiencing unprecedented levels of exploration, exploitation and visitation, but that also play important roles in climate. There's lots going on regarding the Arctic--the more interesting panels I went to focused on ways that indigenous communities are embracing science as a political tool to lobby on climate and territory issues. Panels I went to about the Amazon were more specifically related to frontiers, because, in the Amazon, there's a lot of remote wilderness, and there are still something like fifty to sixty uncontacted tribes.

Morsell: How would you characterize the emotional tone of the conference?

Colburn_UpFromUnderTheEdge-cap.jpgColburn: I saw really passionate people, scientists and politicians alike, not getting anywhere. Of course, my access was limited to events happening around the talks, rather than the debates themselves, which were restricted to high-level delegates. A lot hinged on the conversation between the U.S. and China, and a few different countries that have a lot of power. The difference in what the poorer countries of the world need and what the industrialized world needs is dramatic--most of the industrialized world isn't expected to get the biggest effects of climate change. Currently, a lot of the problems disproportionately affect Africa, island nations and the Arctic. I witnessed real desperation. On December 14th there was a walkout with the small-island-nation contingent, and it stopped all the talks. They're very loud, and really impassioned, because they have to be. The survival of entire cultures and countries is at stake. I mean, there are people who are preparing to relocate entire islands.

Morsell: What's your sense of what was accomplished at the conference?

Colburn: I'm not an expert on the topic. However, I can say that, while we're not in a great place after the conference, I expected it to be worse. The U.S. didn't sign anything binding, but they made more steps than have been made in the past, ever. They've committed to reducing emissions a certain amount, which isn't nearly enough, but at least there's more commitment than there's been in the past. And the language is changing for the discussion of climate, and including more, needed, conversations about mitigating deforestation and creating an economy around preserving tropical forests.

Morsell: Let's talk about your artwork. How did you become interested in unexplored territories and frontiers?

Colburn: I have always been interested in the topic in one way or another, beginning with a fascination with early American history and manifest destiny. In 2008 I went on a seafloor mapping expedition in the Arctic. We were making some of the first accurate maps of the Arctic seafloor visualizing that terrain using multibeam sonar, and being part of this modern-day exploration was really compelling. Most of my work has dealt with visualizing things you can't normally see because of scale, or because they're underground or inaccessible or historically removed in some way. The Arctic sea floor was something that is submerged and invisible.

Colburn_FortheDeep-cap.jpgOne of the reasons why that area has been so unexplored is because the ice has kept it inaccessible. Now the ice is melting. There is an increase in access and a lot of interest and money going into the oil and gas exploration there. Our government is supporting mapping there to support the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea, which will extend our sovereignty over areas of the Arctic seafloor.

Morsell: Can you describe for our readers the artwork you made from that trip?

Colburn: I created a large map derived directly from the sonar data that we were collecting. It looks at all the areas of the Arctic that have been mapped.

Morsell: Would it be correct to say that in your piece you are representing the map itself, rather than trying to represent what the sea floor actually looks like?

Colburn: Yes.

Morsell: Why represent the abstraction of the map rather than reconstruct the actual experience of the sea floor?

Colburn: For this project, my interest was more in the map than in the actual place. I am looking at that human impulse to make the unknown visible, to visualize things in order to better understand them. I am interested in the process and the politics of getting these little bits of data, and I am equally interested in the missing information. We were crashing through sometimes three meters of ice, and that makes a lot of sound that interrupts the sonar, so there are gaps in the data. I was interested in the flaws in collection.

Morsell: Tell us about your trip to Peru.

Colburn: I went to Peru with the Cape Farewell Project, which is a nonprofit based in London. They take artists and scientists on expeditions together where everybody does their own climate-change-related research. The Cape Farewell Project's aim is to put climate-change issues into the cultural realm for discussion, trying to foster a cultural change in how we look at the world through art. So I went with them to Peru and we went to the Andes, started at the glaciers and then more or less followed the water of the glaciers down through the cloud forest and into the Amazon Basin. That section of southeastern Peru is the most biodiverse place on the planet, and it contains several uncontacted tribes. It has just started being explored for oil by Hunt Oil, from Texas. The territory they are exploring in is part of two national parks and an indigenous communal preserve, but the government of Peru has passed legislation stating that anything under the surface of the earth--oil, gas, minerals--belongs to all of Peru, so there are all kinds of problems over the issue of oil. This political side of exploration in that area is very interesting to me in the same way that it is in the Arctic. There are many ties between the scientific research being conducted and the research that leads to the discovery of oil and gas.

Morsell: Did you find it productive to engage with scientists?

Colburn: Yes. I think there are a lot of similarities between how scientists work and how artists work. Data collection is really process oriented and strange.

Morsell: Some artists just stay home in their studios and make stuff from there. Why do you like to go out in the world and have these adventures?

Colburn: Jeez, who doesn't? [laughs] I like researching things. It's like being in school eternally. But also, my work is really labor intensive, and I sit in my studio for long hours and cut out little scraps of paper, and I just wanted to get out more. You look at things differently when you are in the landscape. It's less narcissistic for sure, which is more interesting. It's less about the interior world of one's own mind and more about engaging with a larger context. There are so many good reasons for it. With respect to climate issues, I admit it's problematic to jump on airplanes and travel around the world.

Morsell: We could get bogged down in the quandaries of that, but--You have said that you were aesthetically attracted to abstraction. The concrete world is so beautiful and interesting. What interests you about abstraction?

Colburn_PipedInHookedOn-cap.jpgColburn: I don't know that the question is as pertinent as it used to be for me. When I was younger, I didn't know how to do anything but very literal, representative things, and abstraction was important for me when I was figuring out how to make art that was interesting. But I think now abstraction is just a language for me. I'm still interested in it as a code. Whenever you have visual information that is tied to a piece of data, there's a real disconnect between the way the thing looks and the information. I am interested in the mental leap required to visualize data and the visual language we use to describe information.

Morsell: You have also made images about the body where you mapped the circulatory system. Why?

Colburn: In a lot of anatomical models, the circulatory system will be spread out and arranged into a flat plane. That's really similar to how you map something. You abstract it by unfolding it and making it manageable. When you look at something that is not normally visible, you have to change it completely in order to understand it. I've also mapped waterways and sewers, and visually there are a lot of similarities between how we describe those things and how we describe body systems in maps. Out of context, you might not know if it is a waterway or a circulatory system.

Morsell: You have said it's a hard time to be an artist. Why?

Colburn: Politically, these times are really complicated, and the environment is a mess. It seems really narcissistic and decadent to make art objects, rather than do something that plays a more concrete social role. Of course, art can play a social role, but I struggle to make work that encompasses the political content I am interested in without sacrificing my artistic process. It's really hard to make political work that's still fresh and challenging in an artistic way. In Artists in a Time of War, Howard Zinn talks about the role of artists historically as reflectors of society: artists can express something about the world that might not be seen any other way. Part of that role is to show something beautiful in times of strife, when there might not be a whole lot of beauty around. It is important to have artists remind us of the better parts of human society.

Morsell: You spend time confronting change, confronting things we may have to say farewell to. How does that make you feel?

Colburn: Bad! It makes me feel terrible. Really frustrated. The more I know, the more bleak my worldview becomes. But it's human nature to keep engaged. I think it's actually pretty rare that someone feels defeated and just gives up. Humans are always trying to embrace optimism and make change and move forward, and I'm a victim to that impulse, probably.

Read the column inspired by Adriane Colburn in The Weekly Apocalypse.

The Real Avatar in Peru // J. Lee Morsell

Shortly after interviewing the artist Adriane Colburn, I saw Avatar, one of seven apocalyptic movies playing in Minneapolis at the time.

As something like 200 million movie-goers know, Avatar depicts a foreign planet where a tribe of blue people lives in harmony with its jungle home atop a valuable mineral deposit; the tribe must defend itself against an earth-based mining corporation and military contractors. The movie has flaws--the story is trite, as David Denby pointed out, rather "Pocahontas meets Fern Gully," as a friend of mine disparagingly put it, and it rehashes the old Indians-need-a-white-savior-to-help-them-fight-the-white-conquerors narrative in a way that should make us uneasy--and yet: it breached my defenses, surmounted my inclination to be skeptical, and filled my heart with ardor for my fondest wish that biodiversity might be defensible against King Midas disease and Empire.

There was a startling synchronicity. Last summer, Colburn joined scientists and the Cape Farewell Project on an expedition from a shrinking Peruvian glacier down into the Amazon basin. The scientists collected data toward measuring the carbon content of the rainforest, and Colburn gathered materials for an art series involving 3D cut paper and video. She had told me that the part of the Amazon she visited is the most biodiverse place on Earth, that it is home to fifteen uncontacted tribes, and that Texas-based Hunt Oil was prospecting to drill there. I thought, Avatar is like an allegory for Peru. I emailed Colburn and told her so.

She replied with a link to an article titled, "The Real Avatar Story." The article reports that last June Peruvian police opened fire on five thousand Awajun and Wampi people in their tenth day of a protest against new rules that made it easier for foreign companies to exploit indigenous land. Current.com reports more details: three MI-17 helicopters launched tear gas while police on the ground shot rifles; machine guns may have been fired both from the helicopters and on the ground. This did resemble Avatar, right down to the helicopters.

Eighty-two protesters suffered gunshot wounds, and accounts say that somewhere between eleven and fifty protesters, and twenty-three police, are known dead, with up to four hundred protesters disappeared. Witnesses report that the military burned bodies and threw them in the river.

A few weeks later Hunt Oil moved into the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve and began building one hundred helicopter landing pads and three hundred miles of trails along which to detonate over twelve thousand explosive charges for seismic testing. I don't think it is taking the Avatar comparison too far to ask, how many explosive charges does it take to topple a Hometree, or a Tree of Voices, or a Tree of Souls?

A weak link in my pleasure at the indigenous victory that concludes Avatar is that, given the formidable asymmetry of the conflict, James Cameron was unable to imagine a realistic way for the Na'vi to win, and he resorted to a magical solution: the planet Pandora herself joined the battle, mobilizing jungle beasts to enter the fray at the darkest hour and, like Holy Champions at the Apocalypse, drive out the corporate evil.

But here on earth, where the battle appears to be equally asymmetrical, it doesn't seem likely that tapirs, anacondas and jaguars will help indigenous Peruvians drive away Hunt Oil. Instead, people will have to focus on real-world solutions.

The problem is, I don't think anybody knows what an achievable real-world solution to the irrepressible drive to drill for oil everywhere might be. We can argue that, under threat of catastrophic climate change, nobody should prospect for oil, period; or that uncontacted tribes of the Amazon should be allowed to choose the terms on which they engage the outside world. But the destruction of the Amazon is the sort of grave problem for which the very concept of a solution seems magical, utopian--and "utopia" is Greek for "not place," as in, there is not a place where utopia can really occur. Nobody can finally end the threat of profit-motivated conquest or climate change or nuclear annihilation or terrorism. Certainly, threats can be mitigated through lots of practical hard work and collective organizing, but look at December's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen: following seventeen years of international climate-change negotiations, the conference achieved merely a non-binding accord recognized by even its champions as inadequate to avert catastrophic climate change, and characterized by the chair of the G77 (a bloc of one hundred and thirty poor countries) as a "suicide pact."

With real-world evidence like the Copenhagen suicide pact, we can see why James Cameron failed to devise a realistic solution for his high-stakes drama. We can see why the wish to be saved by a holy Apocalypse persists.

But then, it took generations to criminalize slavery in the United States, and another century to end legal segregation. Seventeen years may well have been the size of the window we had to avert climate catastrophe, but seventeen years is nothing.

Colburn confessed to me that, "The more I know, the more bleak my worldview becomes. But it's human nature to keep engaged. I think it's actually pretty rare that someone feels defeated and just gives up. Humans are always trying to embrace optimism and make change and move forward, and I'm a victim to that impulse, probably."

A victim to that impulse. This is wry humor, perhaps. Wry humor may be the skeptic's version of the fantasy that Pandora will send reinforcements--perhaps each has the possibility to be not a substitute for action, but an aid to it. In the same way that a spiritual like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" could be both comforting and galvanizing to the Civil Rights Movement, maybe humor and fantasy both take the edge off the otherwise grim never-ending necessity to face the Hunt Oils of the world.

Luckily for me, life doesn't feel grim in Minneapolis right now: the snow has just melted, the birds are singing spring, and the other morning I was awakened by a thunderstorm that I could pretend, from under my covers, was the sound of summer. Next week, assuming a meteor hasn't flown through my desk window to smash my computer, I will tell you about Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, and about Dreampolitik.

Read the interview with Adriane Colburn.

March 12, 2010

Notes for New Editors: An Interview with Adam Hochschild

A companion to "The Art of Moral History: An Interview with Adam Hochschild," in dislocate #6.

by J. Lee Morsell

Adam Hochschild--image by Spark MediaAdam Hochschild is the author of six books. His latest, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award. King Leopold's Ghost: a Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award.

He has been a reporter for the
San Francisco Chronicle, a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," and an editor at Mother Jones and Ramparts magazines. He is currently working on a book about World War I. We interviewed Adam Hochschild in November 2009 for the upcoming dislocate #6, and discussed topics ranging from politics and literature to the joys and perils of research. In the following excerpt, we discussed globalization, the impact of the Internet on journalism, and what he has learned as an editor.

dislocate: You have written that, when you were a young writer in the 1960s, you wanted to live in a pivotal place and time, as Paris had been in the 1920s, and you chose the San Francisco Bay Area. How did the Bay Area influence the sort of writer you became?

Adam Hochschild: Probably less than one would think. It was an extraordinary place to live. How did it affect me as a writer? Hard to say. The 1960s were an extraordinary time wherever you were in the country. I got to California just two months before the Free Speech Movement happened at Berkeley. I was actually there as a reporter on the day they made what was, at least up to that point, the largest mass arrest in American history. I knew a lot of those people. San Francisco was very much a center of a struggle around the world, but so were many places around the country at that time. I was lucky being there in that I stumbled into Ramparts magazine, which was a very interesting and sort of bizarre place to work for a time.

dislocate: You have worked as an editor at Ramparts and at Mother Jones. How did being an editor affect your own writing?

leopold.jpgAH: It was a big help, more so than I realized at the time. I often felt frustrated, because it was a struggle, especially during the first years of Mother Jones, which were very high pressure, to find enough time to do stories of my own. I really managed only one longer piece of reporting a year on average. But looking back on it, I realize that being an editor taught me a lot, because you're always trying to judge what is going to interest readers. Does this story deserve to be one page in the magazine or eight pages? If the story has some good ingredients but doesn't really sing, what's going to make it sing? If the structure sags, how do we work on it? It forces you, day after day, to make critical judgments about other people's writing, and that is good for learning to do the same with your own writing. You do surveys of readers all the time, so you have some sense of how writing is impacting the audience, a very important thing for a writer. At Mother Jones in particular, I also learned from the process, because we were a collegial place edited by what was, in effect, a committee. Somebody would be assigned to be the editor responsible for a given piece. You would show it to everybody else, they would mark it up, make suggestions. We'd do that with the pieces that we wrote, as well. There's nothing that's a better process than taking a piece of your own writing and having it go through two, three, four rounds of being marked up by a group of colleagues who are really good at this stuff. I try to do that when I teach, and I try to do that in my own writing by badgering friends into reading my manuscripts.

dislocate: Do you feel that today the Bay Area is a pivotal location in any way analogous to how it may have been in the 1960s?

AH: The more I see of the world, the more I realize that the differences between San Francisco and Minneapolis, New York, Boston, or wherever, are just so miniscule when you compare them with the differences between the world's north and south. I spent a couple weeks in eastern Congo this summer, and it was just a reminder of how differently people in most of the rest of the world live. This all looks like paradise to them.

dislocate: From your travels, do you have a sense that there are more nodes of culture now than there used to be? Is it a more complex social landscape?

AH: Certainly what's apparent is that cultural images, or bits and pieces of culture, fly across borders electronically in ways that they didn't use to. In Africa, I've seen people in a dirt-floored courtyard outside dirt-floored huts built of adobe watching a French soap opera on a battery-powered TV. So some kind of culture is traveling there one way or another in much the same way that we're exposed to African music or Indian music or South American indigenous music. This wasn't possible one hundred years ago. But what travels most easily in either direction is not necessarily the best that a culture has to offer. Often it's very superficial images, phrases, commercial names, or habits of consumption, rather than ways of thinking. So I'm not sure that the globalization of information and ideas is entirely a good thing, although I think there are aspects of it that are very good.

dislocate: Speaking of ways the world is changing, you helped to found Mother Jones in the 1970s. If you were founding a new magazine today, would you do things differently?

AH: Well, I sort of have the answer in what's happened to Mother Jones since then. It now publishes bimonthly, but it has a website that changes not just daily, but sometimes hourly, with several people who write mainly for the website; and all of the material that's in the magazine eventually appears on the website without great delay. I'm delighted that there are nonetheless more than two hundred thousand people who are still willing to pay for subscriptions or buy the magazine on newsstands because they still prefer to read it in print. How long is this situation going to last? I don't know. I'm still very attached to print on paper, but I realize we live in a world where it's expensive and it does require cutting down trees. Eventually, I suppose people will get accustomed to reading books on electronic readers, and it may be that at some point not too far from now, that is how most publications and most books will be read. I feel sad about that, but it's probably inevitable.

dislocate: As journalism increasingly shifts online, will the main difference be merely in the physical experience of reading off a screen versus reading off a page, or do you think that the Internet actually changes the way that journalism is done, the way that stories are written?

AH: If you are really interested in a particular story, it's great to be able to read an intelligent narrative, and then to go on and look at a gallery of pictures, to hear voices of people who appear in the story, to see some video that relates to the story. I love the chance to do all that. There are interesting kinds of interactive journalism that open up that way. There's a nice feature on the Mother Jones website of the Iraq war timeline called "Lie By Lie." In this timeline, you can look at all the references to a particular person or a particular kind of event, every one of these thousand-odd lies that are tabulated--there's a link that takes you to the statement by the government official, and the document that disproves what he said. The Internet allows you to do that in a marvelous way. At its best, it's that. At its worst, I think, it makes us into skimmers, into people who have very short attention spans who hop from one thing to another, turn away from the computer screen to get the latest Twitter feed, turn away from that to deal with text messages, and so on. I worry about that eroding the kind of patience and concentration required to read a longer narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction. I really do feel that to go deeply into a subject, whether it's history--which is what I write--or to evoke a whole world in a way that a novelist does, you have to be able to do extended narratives, and you have to be able to count on people having the attention span and the time and the willingness to read them.

In the rest of the interview, Adam Hochschild discusses character in nonfiction, the power of literature to nurture empathy, and how to shape raw research into a story. For all this and more, pick up a copy of dislocate #6, The Contaminated Issue, due out in May 2010!

Is a touch-screen phone right for you? // Landrew Kentmore

When you poke stuff with your finger, it usually reacts. If you poke a dog, it will look at you. If you poke a mound of dirt, it will turn into a mound of dirt with a finger-shaped hole poked in it.

When my roommate, Greg, pokes his girlfriend while they're watching TV, she reacts by saying "stop it" and then giggling like she doesn't want him to stop. I also respond to these pokes, by leaving the room. But if you poke a cell phone screen, it doesn't really do anything unless you have a touch-screen phone!

A touch-screen phone is kind of like if you combined the TV with the remote to the TV--it has the buttons and what the buttons make happen all in the same place! Except, unlike a TV, you can talk to it without people thinking you're weird! This probably sounds awesome, but touch-screen phones aren't for everyone. Before buying one, you need to consider if a touch screen is right for your lifestyle.


Since you have to touch the screen all of the time, it's more important than ever to keep your fingers clean. This will probably not be a problem for a lot of people, but if you're someone who is constantly forgetting who you are and where you live so you need to go to the police station and get your fingerprints taken to get your name and address, you might want to consider a different kind of phone.

Also, most touch-screen phones have bigger screens than non-touch-screen phones. This may sound great for people with bad eyes, but consider this: the easier it is for you to see the screen, the easier it is for people around you to see it too. For example, let's say you have a ten-year-old niece that is really into girly stuff. One day, you finally start talking to a cute girl on the bus. Just when she starts smiling at you, your niece texts you a picture of her new doll. Now you have to choose whether to ignore it, which means being lame to your niece, or respond with something like, "This is awesome!" with your giant touch-screen phone right in front of the girl, who might read your message and think you're some sort of weird doll collector guy.

Since you don't want to damage the screen pressing down too hard, the buttons on touch screen phones don't need so much finger pressure. This can be a bit dangerous for people with certain hobbies. Imagine you're into bee-keeping. You check on your bees and everything seems fine, but then the bees start to get rowdy. You take out your phone to log onto the internet so you can search for how to calm down bees, but the bees keep dive-bombing your screen and messing everything up. Now you are in a really dangerous situation!


So touch-screen phones may seem like some totally cool new technology, but like everything, it will be replaced by something even cooler soon. Maybe they will make a think-screen phone, where you just need to think about something and it will come up on your phone. This could also be used to stop crime, because they could set it up where, whenever some guy thinks about stealing stuff or murdering somebody, his phone would call the police.


March 11, 2010

Welcome Note from the Editor-in-Chief

by Colleen Coyne

Welcome to the new dislocate online!

We've been hearing it for years: the publishing world is undergoing significant changes, and literature as we know it--both its material form and its content--will never be the same. This news is both exhilarating and slightly terrifying to most literary-minded folks, us included.

Over the past few years, our energies largely have been focused on our print journal--Issue 6 comes out this May--but our newly revamped site has been in the works for a long time, and we're excited to finally unveil it and claim a piece of the digital landscape.

As writers ourselves, we dislocate staffers have faith in the tangible written word--the physical object of the book, the journal, the magazine. None of us is willing to ditch our lovingly, carefully accumulated book collections, though some of us may own Kindles. And we aren't clinging to any neo-luddite, anti-tech philosophies that try to pretend the Internet isn't such a powerful force in all our lives. Instead, we're embracing the innovations that bridge the print and digital worlds, innovations that provide access to both literature and the resources to learn about, write, and publish it: everything from the experimental and hilarious poetics of the Flarf movement to Duotrope's one-stop publications clearinghouse. For instance, google Jim Shepard (featured in the upcoming Issue 6) and you'll get an excerpt from one of his novels, links to where you can buy his books, videos of him reading his work, author photos and book jackets, and other goodies. Satisfy your book lust with a few clicks--it's that simple.

But what is it that people--lit folks and everyone else--are really looking for our digitized, networked world? In a recent New York Times article, John Tierney reports that UPenn researchers studying the most frequently emailed Times articles concluded that people are sharing articles that are (a) generally upbeat and (b) brain-stimulating, cerebral--smarty-pants, if you will. Specifically, people are interested in articles that are awe-inspiring; such an article produces in the reader an "emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self" and it "involves the opening and broadening of the mind." According to Tierney, most of these articles are scientific, about natural phenomena or technological innovations, and people share them to both appear smart and forge an emotional connection with the recipient.

You probably won't find much about transformative portable solar power or neuroscientific forays into canine brains, but the new dislocate online aims to satisfy you, our fellow readers, writers and editors, and lovers of all things literary. We'll give you a behind-the-scenes look at our journal, feature interviews with hot new writers (and readers--what is that cute guy/gal at the coffee shop reading these days?), re-discover some fine short stories that haven't gotten their due, review some impending apocalypses (literary and otherwise), keep you apprised of events around the Twin Cities and beyond, dissect the latest lit news and gossip, and much more. We believe that good writing has the power to entertain and make you laugh, make you think--and also has the potential to awe, to inspire, to transcend, and to open and broaden the mind.

From the start, dislocate has been a venue for interesting and surprising work by talented writers, and in the past few years we've been moving toward challenging traditional ideas of genre and form, still honoring skill and craft but eschewing work that lacks edge and energy--which sometimes leads us into unfamiliar and unexpected territory. Taking it a step further, the new dislocate online is about breaking down the boundaries between print and online media--bringing those two worlds together without privileging one over the other, and without fear of what might im/explode in the process. So stop by often, join the conversation, and take part in yet another experiment in dislocation!

On Failure // Liana Liu

Such a plan I had, what a plan. My column, this column, "Reading People," was meant to consist of interviews with the general public about their bookish feelings.

As you can see, this first entry is no such thing. Instead, it is an explanation, a rationalization, and an apology. It turns out I have overestimated myself; I am far more timid than I supposed.

failure-cap.jpgI have a long history of overestimating my abilities. For example, when I went to New Zealand, I signed up for a mountain biking trip, even though I had never mountain biked before. I had regular biked, and wouldn't you think it was almost the same, just on a mountain instead of pavement? Obviously, I didn't think this through. So, yes, there we were in the van, winding our way up the mountain, when the driver-guide mentioned that we would be biking the same trail that the New Zealand Mountain Biking Team trains on. Then he pointed at the trail. I pressed my face against the window to look. I saw grass and rocks and trees. I saw nothing that looked like a trail. And yet, I was still confident that I could do this; after all, everyday I biked two miles to school on a nicely paved bike lane--how could this be that different?

It was different. I fell off the bike about three times in the first minute. Maybe you'd better take the paved way down, the driver-guide said. So as everyone else embarked on the trail made famous by the New Zealand Mountain Biking Team, I wobbled slowly down the road. Very slowly. There was no guardrail. This was a mountain. About two minutes in, I flew over the handlebars and into the road. Apparently, mountain bike braking is different from regular bike braking. I lay there for a few minutes, whimpering. I'm going to stop here, because the story only gets sadder.

Besides, you get the point: I overestimate my abilities. In this case, I overestimated my ability to approach strangers and interview them about what they are reading. I asked a few acquaintances and they politely demurred ("I can't! I have to finish combing my hair within the hour!"). I asked some friends and they laughed in my face ("No way. Why don't you write about your mountain biking accident instead?"). Then I did what any reasonable person might do: I got drunk. Liquid courage! Unfortunately, once I was drunk I stopped caring about "that stupid column" and instead participated in a gun show competition. Yes, I don't know what that means either.

So what I've learned is this: people are so ashamed about their reading choices that they dare not talk about them. Or people just don't want to talk to me. Too bad for them, I have some bold new strategies I'm putting in action this week that may or may not involve jumping jacks.

Dear readers, be patient. You are my favorite.

March 10, 2010

Texting, dislocated // David LeGault

text messaging--image by Alton/wikimediaI have a love/hate relationship with the text message. It's an interesting technology: it can contact several people at once, can leave reminders/dates/direction, can anticipate the word I'm most likely to write.

It's pretty great. But the text also encourages the passive-aggressive noncontact tendencies in all of us: why talk or reprimand when words can take their place? Text messages are concise by design--the 256-character limit is both convenient and problematic.

I like to use text messaging in my creative writing course: it serves as an interesting parallel to traditional form poetry. What are sonnets and haikus if not a self-imposed restriction on language? Writing constraints force the writer to generate work in a way that doesn't come naturally. By restricting word choice, a writer has to be more aware of language then they are in the unrestricted, stream-of-consciousness form. Also, in the case of rhyming poetry, it usually imposes rhythm or repetition that's satisfying to the reader.

With texting, the constraint has inspired some interesting ways to get around the lack of space--it has increased the popularity of acronyms, the wtf/lol language helps to cram more meaning into a small space. Poetry, I believe, has similar aspirations: how can we capture the world in a single flash or image, a moment of intense reflection?

textread-cap.jpgText messaging is already finding its way into literature. Check out the popularity of the text-message novel. Texting may also be at least indirectly responsible for our increasing comfort with reading literary work on the screen as opposed to page: think of the rising respect for e-journals and the flash form; think of TriQuarterly, a literary institution now going electronic; think of Scarab, the new literary journal available on the iPhone.

So, as writers, what do we do with this?

We need to write (and edit) as if we were writing in a text: treat every word, every letter and symbol, as if it were valuable. Don't waste space with unnecessary asides. Be blunt. Be aggressive. Sarcasm won't translate to a reader without a winky face, so take it out. Remember that every form comes with reader expectations: discover them, use them, break them if necessary.

Write a poem or flash on your phone--embrace the restriction and see what happens.

Call for Submissions: The New dislocate Online

Do you sometimes fantasize about how cool it would be to write a stupefyingly popular blog, column or article for an online magazine? It is time, my friends, to turn those dreams into reality. dislocate.org is looking for contributors to write articles about books, writing, the "industry," and all things remotely related to a writer's life (art, fashion, pop culture, sex(!), etc.).

Perks of writing for dislocate.org:

  • Expand your portfolio!
  • Beef up your résumé!
  • Build a loyal following among the denizens of the internets--and thereby a readership and consumer base for your forthcoming magnum opus!
  • A little internet cred never hurt with the agents, either, or so I'm told.

dislocate.org is currently looking for:

excellent writing, of course. But more specifically:

Guest Contributors
Article categories are still somewhat fluid, so write about anything that excites you. Here's what we're thinking so far:

For the "Writing" section: book reviews, author interviews, profiles, craft-related essays, stuff about publishing, an "MFA Beat"-type section, general coverage of the literary scene, "opinion" pieces on any of the above.

For the "Culture" section: everything else (subject to the web editorial team's definition of good taste).

Go ahead and submit an article! Send a query or the full article (in the body of the email) to dislocate.online@gmail.com.

Staff Writers
Interested in having articles published regularly on dislocate.org, and adding a sweet line to your CV? Staff writers will be chosen by the web editorial team on the basis of previously submitted work. In other words, give us something awesome to publish, then give us something else that's equally awesome, and after that we'll discuss making you a core member of our writing team.

Questions? Comments? Great ideas? Send them to dislocate.online@gmail.com.

March 9, 2010

The New Scientist // Jana Misk

It's no revelation that introverts don't get much love in our society. Rainier Marie Rilke, dead now 84 years, arguably remains the modern recluse's best advocate (tied perhaps with Carl Jung).

In Rilke's famous letters to a young poet, he mentions frequently the importance of solitude for an artist's soul:

What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours--that is what you must be able to attain. . . . Only the individual who is solitary is placed under the deepest laws like a Thing, and when he walks out into the rising dawn or looks out into the event-filled evening and when he feels what is happening there, all situations drop from him as if from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of pure life.

The New Scientist, 13 March 2010
Though he continues to serve as a patron saint of contemporary artists who need permission to withdraw from the chaos of everyday life, Rilke himself didn't seem like an especially enviable character. He was plagued by his sensitivity to the world, suffering any time he came into contact with the event-filled evening and all of its concomitant feelings. And he didn't even have billboards, cell phones, and Twitter to deal with.

Still, despite constant social pressures to "participate," "have some fun," and "get dressed once in a while," life can yet be enjoyable for the reclusive among us in the modern world. It just takes some work.

Personally, I often get stuck ruminating ("perseverating," one of my blissfully World-of-Warcraft-addicted ex-boyfriends used to call it) about how seriously to take these accusations that I need to leave the house more often, that I'm letting life pass me by, etc. But who's to say? I tend to take as authorities figures like Rilke, Jung, my therapist, and New Scientist magazine--and yet the line between healthy introversion and shut-in status still looks frustratingly blurred.

Thus the weekly column you are now reading: a project of cataloging Stuff I Like About the World--stuff that either validates my introversion, or else makes me feel less freakish by inspiring me to declare, "This is worth going outside for!" (Keep in mind that, for me, what counts as "going outside" includes crossing the parking lot to get into my car, ordering a burrito at Chipotle, and, on some days, descending to the apartment complex's basement to do laundry.) Positive thinking is a good skill for me to practice, anyway.

And so we begin with my current favorite introverted self-indulgence, and also one of my aforementioned authoritative sources on the degree to which my introversion is healthy: New Scientist magazine.

I first heard about New Scientist when I was in Germany (yes, I went abroad, for two whole months--but I survived only by being drunk the entire time). One of my newfound drinking buddies was a quiet chemistry PhD who had completed his degree at Berkeley. Prior to my two months in Europe spent pretending to master the language of Nietzsche (I got thirty-four pages into Also Sprach Zarathustra--but they were thirty-four excellent pages), I had taken to reading books like Schrodinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality. I was indeed searching for reality, using science to cope with a deep "I'm twenty years old, where the hell is my life going?"-style depression during the day while spending my evenings dozing to marathons of The Osbournes. This string of events is the only reason I can think of for having gotten into a discussion about a science magazine with a fellow alcoholic. Some years later, while recovering from a breakup that threw me into another depression, I treated myself to a year of scientifically supported optimism.

An annual subscription (52 issues) is $72 if you order online. If you're concerned about paper consumption or haven't yet gotten sick of staring at a monitor for 60 to 90 percent of your waking life, the New Scientist offers an outrageously reasonable online-only subscription option. But I prefer the paper version--it's nice to feel distantly connected to the world without the use of a keyboard. (Reading the newspaper doesn't quite fill this role for me--I find the experience too similar to shopping an Ikea sale.)

If you spend a lot of time alone at home, and you don't have pesky friends who invite you out (or even if you do), having a few issues of New Scientist lying around is multiply useful.

  1. First of all, you're pretty much guaranteed to read most of each issue of the weekly periodical, so you won't feel ashamed that you're wasting your money, and you'll be accomplishing at least one concrete thing each week even if you spend the rest of your time contemplating the yellowjacket corpse that's been caught in your window screen since last summer.
  2. Second, if someone actually happens to come over and sees your stack of smart-looking magazines, s/he will be impressed: "Wow, [your name] must be a genius! S/he must be doing really important things alone in this apartment all the time. Now I feel less miffed that s/he never returns my phone calls."
  3. Finally, it's a great prop to take out with you on those occasions when you're forced to leave your apartment, so that people will think you're serious in that marginally acceptable academic kind of way, and your aloofness may be partially forgiven.

This morning I had the chance to find a new use for my subscription. My boyfriend, having had a rough (decidedly extraverted) night, woke up feeling too ill to do anything other than sprawl on the couch in his underwear and nibble toast, so I entertained us both by reading article snippets to him. Though I basically did nothing this morning except make tea, I at least learned a few things, e.g. that, due to global warming, coral reef bacteria may stop producing a certain gas that contributes to cloud cover for the region, which could lead to the imminent destruction of Australian rainforests. Also, mammals that live in trees tend to live longer than their "ground-bound cousins." Now it's pretty hard for you to tell me that I wasted my day, isn't it?

While topics in the magazine range from technology to health to space exploration, I don't have too much trouble relating some of the content to my own cloistered existence. Notable discoveries:

  1. Sexual activity is better at relieving stress when you do it with another person. (This tidbit unfortunately led to my first marriage, but in rough times it still encourages me to seek human contact.)
  2. People who read cognitive behavioral therapy-oriented self-help books tend to feel more depressed after finishing the book than they did before. (Those CBT folks are so silly. As if they could reason me out of my bad mood!)
  3. A recent study has shown that feelings of happiness may make people behave more selfishly. (So many places to go with this...)

The clincher for my unwavering support of this publication: I've never had anyone from the New Scientist subscriptions office terrorize me with human contact, even in the form of a phone call.

Writing Rituals: Superstition or Science?

by Rosanne Bane

ritual.jpgHonoré de Balzac always put on a dressing gown that looked like a monk's robe before he wrote. Alexandre Dumas used different colors of paper and different pens for different kinds of writing. Saul Bellow had two typewriters--one for fiction, one for essays and criticism--that could never be interchanged.

Charles Dickens moved the ornaments on his desk into a specific order before starting to write. Isabelle Allende lights "candles for the spirits and the muses," has fresh flowers and incense, and meditates to open herself to her writing. Stephen Pressfield wears his lucky work boots, drapes his lucky sweatshirt nearby, and positions his lucky cannon on a thesaurus pointed at his chair so "it can fire inspiration into me."

Few writing rituals make sense to anyone but the writer who employs them. Some are even contradictory: Stephen King writes to loud rock and roll; May Sarton preferred eighteenth-century music only. Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll and Gunter Grass all wrote standing up; Mark Twain, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton and William Stryron all wrote lying down.

Despite a prevailing cultural bias against rituals as mere superstitions, writers have long known the power of ritual to reduce anxiety, increase confidence and initiate and sustain their writing. As novelist John Edgar Wideman observed, "The variations are infinite, but each writer knows his or her version of the preparatory ritual must be exactly duplicated if writing is to begin, prosper."

Now, thanks to new research in neuroscience, we know why writing rituals are so effective. Neuroscience has abandoned the theory that once we reach adulthood, our brains can no longer grow, change or heal significantly. The new paradigm of neuroplasticity that recognizes the brain's ability to transform itself is concisely stated in Hebb's Law "Neurons that fire together, wire together."

In other words, if the neurons for smelling lemons are activated at the same time as the neurons you use when you're writing, those two groups of neurons start to form a connection--they "wire together." Repetition reinforces this connection so that eventually firing one set of neurons causes the other set to fire as well. The more you repeat the behaviors together and the more exclusive the behaviors are--you smell lemons only when writing--the more powerful the neural connection becomes. Eventually just smelling lemons will trigger the neurons used for writing and you'll "feel" like writing.

German playwright Friedrich Schiller applied this principle long before Hebb proposed his neuroplasticity concept. Schiller stored rotten apples in a drawer to keep his imagination alert. He used the association so much, he claimed he couldn't write without the odor. It may have a secondary benefit of holding at bay anyone who would otherwise interrupt Herr Schiller's genius.

Rituals can focus on objects, what the writer is wearing, what tools the writer is using, or the environment the writer works in, but the rituals that employ a strong sensory component are particularly effective. Remember Proust and his madeleine?

You don't need to endure nasty smells like Schiller or spend a lot of money like Joaquin Miller, who had sprinklers installed above his house because he could only compose poetry to the sound of rain on the roof.

Simply select a sensory experience you'd like to associate with your writing and engage in that experience every time you write and preferably only when you write. You might want to eat licorice or lemon drops, drink a particular flavor of tea, or burn a scented candle or incense. You could drape your computer in red velvet or run your fingertips over a small shell or stone. You could select the soundtrack for your novel, giving each major character her or his own theme song to play when writing about that character. You could create a collage of photos related to your current writing project and set the collage next to your computer whenever you're working on that project.

The connection will feel forced at first--give it time. Your brain will create new neural connections and you'll develop your own quirky, but reliable, ritual to put you in that writing state of mind.

Rosanne Bane, Creativity Coach and Teaching Artist, is author of Dancing in the Dragon's Den: Rekindling the Fire in Your Creative Shadow and the upcoming Around the Writer's Block: Simple Ways to Apply Neuroscience to Unblock Your Writer's Brain. Rosanne teaches creative process classes at the Loft Literary Center. Visit www.RosanneBane.com or BaneOfYourResistance.wordpress.com, a place to share insight and information about the many forms of writer's resistance (procrastination, looking for answers in the fridge, staying too busy to write, etc.) so you can stop resisting and really enjoy your writing.

March 8, 2010

A Prescription by Dr. Spaceman // J. Lee Morsell

Welcome to my new column, where each week I will review the Apocalypse. Or perhaps I should say, more accurately, premonitions of apocalypse, such as occur through disasters, anticipated disasters, and fantasies of disaster.

Why? Because it's fun. And because the Apocalypse is a myth with pernicious manifestations.

josh1.pngWhat is apocalypse? Dictionary.com, definition 5: "Any universal or widespread destruction or disaster: the apocalypse of nuclear war." Definition 3: "A prophetic revelation, esp. concerning a cataclysm in which the forces of good permanently triumph over the forces of evil." In Christian tradition, the Apocalypse is the moment Jesus returns to earth to solve the problem of evil; as Milton put it, "to dissolve Satan with his perverted world; then raise from the conflagrant mass, purged and refined, new heav'ns, new earth." There are apocalyptic traditions in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism too, each with the common view that the earth is corrupt and that disaster can cleanse it. People seem to desire the cleansing disaster, and have predicted it for millennia. (To list just a few dates predicted to be The End of the World As We Know It: 1260, 1300, 1533, 1666, 1844, 1914, 1988, 1997, 2000, 2008, 2012.) The Apocalypse is expected almost every week; so far it has never actually arrived.

It might seem far-fetched to claim that people desire disaster. Certainly, most of us are not in suicide cults, and we want the world to continue. And yet I wonder how far we've really come since the Millerites, an apocalyptic cult that enjoyed widespread appeal in the nineteenth century. The Millerites predicted, via millions of copies of their newspapers, that The End would arrive October 22, 1844. When the sun rose on October 23, they dubbed it "The Great Disappointment."

I know more than one rural white man who seemed a little too eager stockpiling supplies prior to the expected social meltdown of Y2K; apocalyptic novels like the "Left Behind" series sell millions of copies; and at this moment there are seven different apocalyptic movies playing in Minneapolis theaters near me. (Might movies, like dreams, express wishes?)

At the risk of making a silly comparison, I had an apocalyptic dream last night: Dr. Spaceman from 30 Rock convinced me to take a suicide pill as part of some medical treatment. (30 Rock fans will know that Dr. Spaceman is a quack; he generally encourages characters to indulge their base desires in unhealthy ways, and, when faced with real medical emergencies, is useless.)

(Perhaps I should keep this to myself, but I do notice an uncanny resemblance between my dream and the Heaven's Gate cult: back in 1997, they thought the only way to "survive" the end of the world was to commit suicide so their souls could board a passing spaceship.)

Anyway, I took my pill, and spent all night waiting to die, calling my loved ones to say goodbye and only getting voicemail. But then I didn't die. The apocalypse had been deferred. As the Apocalypse is always deferred. (Except for Heaven's Gate.)

I am not the first to suggest that, in this era of nuclear and ecological threats, there is a dangerous potential for the Dream and reality to converge and for apocalypse to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if "widespread destruction" does occur, I expect that we will find the destruction to be real and the Apocalypse to be disappointingly imaginary. No Holy Champion will rescue us with "new heav'ns, new earth." We will have to live with the "conflagrant mass."

Join me each week for reviews of moments where the Dream and reality blur, such as the discos of Tuvalu, Wall Street oracles, zombie culture, extreme science, and drug cults. If, by next week, a seven-headed beast has not risen from the sea and eaten my alarm clock, I will deliver a column about Avatar and the Amazon.

March 5, 2010

An Interview with Fiction Editor Brian Gebhart

by Liana Liu

briangebhart.jpgBrian Gebhart, like all the best superheroes, has multiple identities (please note: this is not the same as multiple personalities). He's a writer! He's an MFA student at the University of Minnesota! He's a molder of young minds (please note: I hear he has a student fan club)! He's a loving husband! He's great at trivia! He's from Oklahoma! He has a fluffy cat!

Oh dear, I think I have lost the thread of my thesis. So let's skip to the point: in addition to all these things, Mr. Gebhart is also the current fiction editor of dislocate. Now that all the selections for the next issue has been finalized, and the magazine is entering the production stage, Brian has agreed to reveal to us all his best fiction editor secrets. What a fine fellow!

LL: So, Brian Gebhart, how did the submission reading go for you this year? Did it feel good? Did it feel bad? Any high moments? Any regrets?

BG: Well, reading as Fiction Editor is better than reading as an assistant editor, simply because I get to focus more of my attention on the quality work. Don't get me wrong, I still read a lot of bad prose, but I get to read a lot more of the good stuff, too. The high moment that sticks out to me is the one happening right now. The other editors and myself are in the process of making our final selections. We have a good crop of fiction to choose from, so the process involves revisiting the best submissions I've read over the past several months. As far as regrets, I suppose I would have liked to have a smoother system in place for handling the online submissions. This is our first year accepting them, so I had to work that out as we went along. Luckily, I had a great team of readers to help me out--without them, I don't know what I would have done.

LL: What sort of stories caught your attention? What were you looking for?

BG: The stories that catch my attention tend to be the ones with a sense of narrative urgency, a sense that this story must be told. It's hard to put a finer point on it, because that sense of urgency can come in many forms: from a conventional story structure with fascinating characters and great writing, to a more experimental story that grabs my attention because I desperately want to know how the pieces will fit together. What I find most disappointing are stories--and they often have good writing and a compelling situation--that just don't go anywhere, don't develop in interesting ways or offer any surprises. I saw a lot of those this year.

LL: Do you think the fiction reading committee adhered to a certain aesthetic when making choices about what they wanted to see in print? If so, how would you describe the aesthetic that dislocate aims for?

BG: We certainly don't have a singular aesthetic. Quality is always the foremost consideration. That said, we do welcome work that challenges boundaries or takes an unconventional approach to narrative. That's something I really enjoy about issues of dislocate: you'll often see an experimental story right next to one that takes a much more traditional approach. We're happy to have that mix.

LL: What are some other pitfalls you saw many writers falling into with their submissions? Do you have any deal breakers, rational or irrational, for a piece of writing?

BG: I notice many writers can't resist the temptation to concoct a lofty turn of phrase or a weighty metaphor, even if it's inconsistent with the tone of the piece. Perhaps I notice it because it's a pitfall I am susceptible to myself (and do my best to resist). As far as deal breakers, unintentional humor comes to mind. If I'm laughing at something I know I'm supposed to find gritty or moving, I find it hard to take the piece seriously.

LL: How about deal makers? A soft spot for . . . whale fiction, perhaps?

BG: Not really. At least, I can't think of anything in terms of subject matter that I'm particularly enchanted by. I do find myself impressed by humor and dialogue if they're really well done, perhaps because I don't think I'm as good at those things in my own fiction. But I'm excited by anything and everything if it's well written.

LL: If someone was going to bribe you into accepting his/her submission (though of course you would not accept the bribe, OF COURSE), what would the best bribe be?

BG: Hmm. A book deal? Short of that, I'd say tickets to the Twins/Red Sox series in the new ballpark. With vouchers for beer and hot dogs, cause that can get a little spendy. That's right, I said "spendy."

LL: Once you've picked the stories for the issue, what is your approach the editing process? Do the selected stories see much revision?

BG: We deal with revision on a case-by-case basis. Some stories need more than others. Much of that depends on the writer, on how much they're willing to revise and how much time we have to accommodate those revisions.

LL: As a writer yourself, has working on dislocate changed the way you approach sending out your own work?

BG: It's both encouraging and daunting. The sheer volume of work is overwhelming. There's just so much fiction floating around out there, and some of it is really good. So the challenge is to figure out how to distinguish your own work. If there's one lesson I've taken away from my time as an editor, it's that aspiring writers better learn how to grab a reader's attention and then offer a payoff for that attention. Every writer has their own way of doing that.

LL: Any books you've lately read and liked?

BG: I read The Savage Detectives over winter break and thought it was fascinating. Bolao is one of those writers whose work sticks in my head; I can't stop wondering how he does what he does. Right now I'm reading a book of stories by Etgar Keret called The Girl on the Fridge. Those stories are incredibly short for how powerful they are and how much narrative he's able to pack into such a small number of words.

March 1, 2010

The Quiet Charge: An Interview with Jim Shepard

by J.C. Sirott

shepard-cap.jpgJim Shepard is the author of six novels and three short story collections. Our interview with him in the upcoming dislocate #6 ranges from the books he re-reads every year to how he reached his empathetic limit when he considered writing from the point of view of a historical figure who derived orgasms from swimming in the blood of children.

The September 22, 2009 interview was too long to print in its entirety, so we've split it between the print journal and
dislocate.org. In the following excerpt, we asked him about lessons learned from his former teacher, the great John Hawkes, and about Electric Literature and the Kindle.

dislocate: In a recent essay you wrote for the Rumpus, you discuss John Hawkes and the advice he gave you as a young writer. He would say, "You read Lolita--why'd you stop reading Nabokov? You read two Flannery O'Connor stories--well, Flannery O'Connor wrote a whole bunch of stories." Along those lines, are you, in the tradition of John Hawkes, a completist?

Jim Shepard: Oh, no.

dislocate: So that wasn't an important part of Hawkes's advice for you?

JS: Well, I took the advice to the extent that I was shamed into thinking, Why haven't I read more? Now, there are some people like Nabokov where I've read almost everything. But everybody I know has pockets of shame where you're like, "Oh my god, I can't believe I still haven't read that." And in fact, somebody--I forget who--put together a collection of essays where they just asked writers, "What's the most embarrassing gap in your knowledge?" People would say, "I've never read Milton," that kind of thing. But there's so much in the canon. I think what Hawkes is urging us to do is this: if you say you love Nabokov, why don't you read a lot more of him? And I certainly know writers who have taken three or four writers and read everything. It's not so hard to read all of Flannery O'Connor. It's very hard to read all of Dickens; it's very hard to read all of Nabokov, but you can do it. So, I haven't taken Hawkes's advice completely, but I certainly was shamed enough to go back to writers I most admired and re-indulge, essentially--re-submerge myself.

dislocate: Now, sticking with Hawkes, one of the things you write about him is how his work can be "astonishingly idiosyncratic." In your appreciation of Hawkes you write: "The boy's being scolded, and then for no apparent reason he puts his finger in the ashtray and then licks it?" You then write about your own transition from writing suburban domestic stories of your own experience to writing the "astonishingly idiosyncratic." How, in both your teaching and writing life, do you focus on and impart that concept?

JS: One of the things I stress with my students is that they should pay really close attention to the weird. The weird shows up even in the most ordinary stuff. Part of the reason you have a workshop, part of the reason you have readers, is that they can educate you as to how weird you really are. Of course, everybody thinks they're fairly mainstream--even the people who claim, "Oh my god, I'm just so odd." But then they say, "Don't you do this? No? You don't?" Because what that is, I think--and so did Hawkes, I imagine--are those moments where your work gets outside of your conscious control. And that's where you're actually getting into something that's a little more intuitive, something that's a little richer, something that you haven't already laid out in a neatly conceived plan. That unruliness is what's going to give your writing energy, because the stuff you've laid out is pretty reductive, even if you're a master of design.

I don't write outlines for stories, but if I have a lot of material, if it's a story that's using a lot of science or history, I will often try to organize the information I have. And then I'll try to put it together in a rough but likely design. That design is an illusion that I create for myself that allows me to keep going. Without it I'd be too terrified to continue. But I need to understand that the design is an illusion. I need to understand that in some rough way, there is going to be a pattern, but if that pattern remains unchanged, that's evidence that the thing is dead. There has to be a moment where I go, "Oh, no, this is going over here, and that's going out," where I'm starting to teach myself as I go along. If I'm not--if in the writing I haven't learned anything more about the skeletal, oafish thing that I started with--that's a fatal sign.

dislocate: Do you make a distinction between the "astonishingly idiosyncratic" and "quirk"? That is, quirk for the sake of quirkiness can often be very light, very--

JS: Yes, I suppose that can be true. If you imagine "quirky" and its associative meanings--things like whimsy, strangeness for the sake of strangeness--yes, that's quite annoying. For me, a good example of weirdness that immediately takes on weight is Miranda July's best stuff. You read it and you see that this is a narrator who quickly lets you know there are some very strange things about her and that those things cost her. She's not simply saying, "I'm the weirdest girl you've ever met, don't you want to date me?" She's saying, "I am so weird, and let me tell you, it's not that much fun. Because there are problems with being this weird." A lot of July's narrators try to keep a very light tone. They try to make it sound as though they aren't really bothered by things. The extent to which they are is the extent to which the fiction works. I just did a conference with Shantha [Susman], and she's got these short shorts and some of those narrators work exactly like that. They have this element of "I'm just taking stuff as it comes. I know I'm strange and that's not a big issue." In fact, where the weight of the work resides is in the reader's responding, "I think this bothers you more than you think." That's suddenly where the stuff blooms.

dislocate: Miranda July is an interesting example because she can be quirky yet poignant, whereas quirk without poignance--

JS: Exactly. Quirky without pain? Then you're just performing. All of first-person narration, all of literature, really, is a kind of performance. This person is trying to get you to love them. Humbert Humbert is performing for you. But Lolita works because you realize Humbert Humbert is in some serious pain. And that tension--I'm going to deny my pain and charm you, and at the same time, by the way, I am the most miserable fucking person you've ever come across--that's a hugely compelling tension. Now, in the stuff that doesn't work for me of Miranda July's, you never quite see enough of the pain. Or it stays too oblique and you can't figure out what's bothering the character. Whereas, in the stuff that works, you think, "Oh my god, girl, you have got to get some help."

dislocate: Now, you were involved in the very first issue of Electric Literature. They made an animated trailer for your story. How was seeing that?

JS: I think publishers are catching on, or have caught on only very slowly, to how important the object is to the writer. I mean, the writer has a very child-like relationship to his book. You really want this object to be something you would like to have in your hand. It means that a book design or cover art that you really don't like is much more painful than it should be, rationally. Charlie Baxter's first novel, First Light, the one that works backward in time, had a cover that was stupefyingly ugly and hard to read. He was really heartbroken about it. He even offered to pay them to remake the cover and they wouldn't do it. What I think a lot of writers are doing in terms of visual representation and packaging of their work is just trying to dodge a bullet. With the Electric Literature people, they said, "One of the things we'd like to do is a trailer." I thought, "How cool is that? I don't know if anybody's going to see it, but I've never had anything like that before." Then they told me they had a number of animators that they were thinking about. They said, "We'll send you their work and you tell us your response." Now, that was fun. But at some point, even the most powerful writers, except someone like Updike, turn over control. Updike had total control over his covers and I think they looked like it. They were the most bland things. They would say "John Updike" and the title and then have a picture of a coin. And the reader would be like, "Good job, John."

Can you, and would you, read a short story on a screen?

JS: Could I? I guess I could. I never have. Electric Literature is a product mostly for iPhones and Kindles. I don't have a Kindle and I don't plan on putting short stories on my iPhone anytime soon. I very much like reading on the page. I understand the logic of the Kindle to the extent that if I were flying to New Zealand, and that's twenty-four hours each way, that's a lot of Russian novels to pack into my suitcase. So the Kindle, at that point, would make a huge amount of sense because I could take an infinite amount of novels and read whatever I wanted. It's very much like an iPod where you have your whole music collection. In the middle of a trip I can say, "Forget Ray Charles, I'm going to listen to Elmore James." I understand the Kindle in that way. I don't understand the Kindle when someone buys a two-hundred-page novel and sits down at their desk at home to read it. I don't get that at all. When Electric Literature first approached me, I wasn't that receptive. Andy Hunter drove up to Williamstown from Brooklyn and talked me into it. It wasn't the fact that I'd finally get to be on a Kindle that convinced me. Instead, I liked the desperation he mentioned of, "We have to figure out a way to get people interested in short fiction. There has to be a way of doing more than putting an ad in the back of Writer's Market."

dislocate: Not surprising that the most ruminative of writers, Nicholson Baker, can't stand the Kindle.

JS: That makes a certain amount of sense, doesn't it? One of those moments writers love in a way that publishers have never wrapped their heads around is when your book actually arrives. You can take it on the bus; it's a thing in your hands.

For the rest of the interview, pick up a copy of dislocate #6, The Contaminated Issue!