Paul Park’s City Made of Words

Hello friends, I've moved on from Typora! Typora is old news! Now I write in Obsidian. Long live Obsidian. Obsidian is basically the exact same thing, but there's mobile apps and it's really good at syncing and there's a lot of plug-ins, so you can use it as an all-purpose journaling and note-taking app too. I'm writing a short story in it now, for an anthology! Story is going rather well.

Also managed to get my Calibre server up and running and accessible anywhere on the internet behind its own domain name! Am feeling very proud of myself, since that involved getting an SSL certificate and doing some other strange stuff that I'm not really qualified to do. I've been using the "Random Book" function on the Calibre web browser more often. Sometimes you don't want to do serious reading, you just want to gaze upon the vastness of your library in despair.

At some point I bought a StoryBundle curated by Nick Mamatas (I think?) that consisted of a bunch of PM Press's slim and attractive Outspoken Authors books. And one of them was apparently this volume by Paul Park. I'd read Park back when I was a kid, but I didn't remember much about his work. He's one of these well-respected but quite marginal science fiction figures, like Emma Bull or Maureen McHugh or Michael Bishop--a frequent award nominee but not a frequent award-winner. A writer's writer, in other words (the book has blurbs from Ursula Le Guin, Jonathan Lethem, and Kim Stanley Robinson). Anyway, I started reading the collection and quite liked it.

The stories have a very realist feel, despite their metafictional and fantastic conceits. They often have odd, sudden endings, as if the author has said all they need to say, but the endings work quite well. Several are set in academia and deal with internecine academic feuds, like that between the New Criticism and the insurgent French literary theory. My favorite story was about a professor at an MFA program who's being tortured by an interrogator who asks him to justify his life--the MFA professor is deeply in doubt about the worth of teaching writing, while the interrogator is an MFA-holder who wants to be told that there's some value in the practice. I liked the book, it was fun!

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I feel about writing the same way I feel about parenting

Just read Stephen Marche's On Writing And Failure. I enjoyed its erudition and style, but in terms of the overall tone, I wanted to like it much more than I did. I wrote my own cynical guide to writing, as you all know, and it also had an anthemic quality to it, but I guess that I just can't take it all quite as seriously as Marche does.

The book repeatedly says, "No whining" and then involes Machiavelli being tortured, or Boethius being executed, or Anna Akhmatova hiding from the purges. Lots of people have had it tougher than you--there's no particular reason anyone should want your work in the first place!

I dunno. I enjoy hearing peoples' whining. It's what brings us together. And I think the biggest grace we published writers can give less-published writers is to sympathize and to say, "Yes, it's really not fair that something this good isn't getting any bites!" I'm sure Marche agrees with that, by the way, since the book opens with the following rather amusing passage:

“Is it ever easier?” a kid writer asked me recently. “Do you ever grow a thicker skin?” She was suffering, poor thing, after a gorgeous essay about the death of her mother had been rejected by every outlet that could publish it. I had no answer, so I told her a story. Just before the outbreak of COVID, Nathan Englander, the short story writer and novelist, had moved into my neighbourhood in Toronto, and we would sometimes sit around my backyard firepit, drinking and complaining. “Is it ever easier?” I asked him one night. “Do you ever grow a thicker skin?” At the time, some magazine editor had fucked me over, I forget about what. Englander had no answer, so he told me a story. He had been lunching with Philip Roth once. “Is it ever easier?” he asked Roth. “Do you ever grow a thicker skin?” Englander was then about to release a new novel, always a toxically anxious period. Roth didn’t need a story. He had an answer. “Your skin just grows thinner and thinner,” Roth told him. “In the end, they can hold you up to the light and see right through you.”

This passage has me until it gets to the last line. The book is shot through with a sense that writing is agony, that it's torture, that failure is everpresent, and that a writer's eventual fate is silence and obscurity. That very well may be true for lots of people, but it's not my perspective.

I feel about writing the same way I feel about parenting: I don't really see the ultimate existential point, but you have to do something while you're on this earth. I suppose if my writing (or parenting) life was more difficult, I'd need to develop more intellectual scaffolding to support the fact that I continue to do it. If I was being hounded by the Cheka, I'd need to believe that my poetry was worth dying for. I do believe that writing is worth dying for, but that's simply not the choice that I face in everyday life. It's just the choice between spending an hour or two a day doing some writing or spending it watching television. Seen that way, what's the agony? What's the horror?

Obviously, writing quite frequently makes me unhappy, but it's not like people who don't write aren't also unhappy. Life contains a certain amount of unhappiness, and it tends to latch onto whatever is happening right now. It's like I was telling a friend recently, when we were talking about mindfulness. The thing is, trying to be mindful is the suffering. Being present, feeling great about how present you are, feeling bad about feeling great, wondering if you're doing mindfulness wrong, trying to meditate, failing, feeling bad about meditating, having bad emotions and feeling bad that you can't meditate the bad emotions away--that's the suffering, and it's exactly the same suffering you'd have if you weren't mindful.

I'm including a subscription block below, just type in your email and you'll be sent all my posts direct to your inbox. Seems like an absurd thing to want, but apparently this is how people read essays these days

Gone full productivity nerd, also a review of Hitler’s Commando

Hello friends, I've gone full productivity nerd. It's a bit of a problem! Around the same time I started doing nerdy things like installing Typora, switching to windows, and cataloguing all my books, I also installed a note taking system called obsidian. Like Typora, obsidian is markdown based, which means you're more "future-proof" than when you use a proprietary format like apple notes. You can just read the notes with your bare eye. Markdown also allows you to do all the formatting without your fingers ever leaving the keyboard. Yea it's really cool (for nerds).

Anyway it started innocently enough when I started looking into the world of obsidian plug-ins, which include numerous little apps and tricks to optimize and customize your obsidian experience.

Then I got really into the idea of the daily note. See every day you have a note. You put observations and scraps of writing into the day's note. Then you put in links to other notes where you collate that information. You have another page that scrapes information from all your daily notes and aggregates all the tasks you've set yourself. It is madness.

And now we've gotten to the point where I am writing this blog post inside my daily note. I figure that I can do a lot of my random writing inside the daily note and then whenever something gets big enough, I can put it into its own note. It's a productivity system, hence me being a nerd.

However because I am a wise productivity nerd, I know that the end is really the system itself. If you want to produce something, you usually just sit down and produce it. Creating a lot of scaffolding just creates extra work and creates an impediment to doing the actual thing you need to do.

But the extra work / impediment are fun in themselves and that is why we do them. And so it goes.

I've often wanted to have a daily journal where I keep a record of happenings in my life. But I usually run into two problems:

  1. nothing interesting ever happens to me; and
  2. if something interesting does happen, I bore myself trying to write it

I've reluctantly come to realize that most of my emotional life is completely mental. It doesn't take place in the real world. There are no events, no characters, no places. It's all essentially a day-dreaming (and a very boring sort of daydreaming at that, since I'm an adult and don't really let myself cut loose)

For instance I've been listening to The History of England's William the Marshal podcast, which is all about this influential courtier during the reigns of Henry I and King Richard and King John, and I just thought, you know, life then seems pretty exciting. It's like a social life, with swords. You just sit around castles, arguing about what to do next, and sometimes you have to fight. It's like I heard in a recent article: "the only way to make sex interesting again would be to punish it by death". Being a medieval knight is a lot like that: it's like a modern social life, but the penalty for annoying someone is they kill you (or impoverish or imprison you).

I've always been led to believe that fiction is about concrete details: sights, places, hurts in tummies, tears in eyes, biting winds, smelly farts, and, most importantly, the specific names of whatever flowers you might happen to come across (what is a jacaranda? What is a bougainvilea? I have no idea!)

But none of those things really create a genuine emotional response in me or, I think, in most readers. So what is to be done? I guess the only solution is to pay close attention to what actually provokes emotions, even if that thing seems recondite or illusory.

In other nerd news, I've been experimenting with using the 'content server' function of calibre, the software I use to organize my ebooks and digital comics. This lets me access my ebooks anywhere in the world just through the browser.

I have a lot of eccentric ebooks because at some point I got very into daily deal newsletters--I eventually weaned myself from the habit but not before accumulating about a thousand ebooks thatre pretty far outside what I'd normally buy.

In my calibre content server, there's a "random book" function, and the other day this tossed up a book called Hitler's Commando--the memoir of a Nazi SS officer named Otto Skorzeny. This is a name that'll probably be meaningless to most people, but when I was a kid I really liked those Harry Turtledove [alternate history novels][] where aliens invade in the middle of WWII and the Axis and Allies have to join forces to beat them. And in these books Otto Skorzeny is one of the main characters.

In actual life, he essentially invented the German special forces, and he was personally responsible for two of Germany's most notorious exploits: the 1943 rescue of Mussolino after he was arrested by the King of Italy; and the 1944 capture of Hungarian regent Admiral Horthy when he was on the verge of abandoning the Axis.

I decided to give the book a try and found it engaging. It reminded me of this quote from another book I've been reading, Nietzsche's Gay Science:

I prefer to understand the rare human beings of an age as suddenly appearing, late ghosts of past cultures and their powers: as atavisms of a people and its mores – that way one can really understand something about them! They now seem strange, rare, extraordinary; and whoever feels these powers in himself must nurse, defend, honor, and cultivate them against another world that resists them: and so he becomes either a great human being or a mad and eccentric one, unless he perishes too soon. Formerly, these same qualities were common and therefore considered ordinary: they weren’t distinguishing. They were perhaps demanded, presupposed; it was impossible to become great through them, if only because there was also no danger of becoming mad and lonely through them.

Skorzeny is certainly one of the human beings of an age. He is a meticulous planner, but he also takes outrageous risks. His Mussolini operation is only possible because he counts on the Italian troops to be too surprised to fire back when his gliders land at the remote mountain hotel.

His voice in the memoir is brisk. His life before and after the war are given no shrift. He focuses on what's of interest to his audience. Mussolini, Hitler, Kaltenbrenner, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels and a host of other war criminals stumble into and out of his narrative, but they're always startling when they appear, because the prime aim of the memoir is always the details of his military operations.

He doesn't acknowledge Nazi war crimes in the slightest. Later on he professes to be horrified when Germany is accused of executing American prisoners of war during the Battle of the Bulge: German honor would never allow such a thing!

Particularly galling is the Hungarian operation. Horthy, although a fascist, had resisted the deportation of Hungary's half million Jewish people. Once he was out of power, the Nazi puppet government viewed deporting these people to concentration camps as their first priority. The main crime for which Eichmann was tried and convicted was his role in organizing this immense operation. Without Skorzeny's operation, those people very likely would have survived the war and likely would've constituted the largest surviving population of European Jewish people. It really is that close. If Horthy had managed to retain control of Hungary, half a million people would've survived the Holocaust instead of being gassed in Auschwitz. Not a word of this is mentioned in the book.

Skorzeny genuinely doesn't care. Later on, he's perplexed that the Allies insist that Germany and Austria separate again. He says that the future of Europe lies in dismantling national borders, not creating them. He doesn't understand that nobody trusts his people.

One gathers that if the Nazis had won, he wouldn't have felt anything but pride. To me, he represents the average German in WWII--perhaps he didn't actively commit war crimes, but he certainly wasn't against them. (Not mentioned in the memoir, which only covers his war years, is that later in life Skorzeny allegedly worked for Mossad and killed German-born Egyptian rocket scientists on their behalf.)

However was he really that different from William the Marshal? The latter also earned a reputation for feats of outstanding courage and for his outstanding loyalty to the kings that he served. The latter was also essentially a henchman to a succession of powerful men. As in the Nietzsche quote, Skorzeny just seems like a modern version of a very ancient type.

Finally, I really don't want to move to substack, both because I don't love the interface and because the platform caters to transphobes, so I'm tryna do a half blog / half newsletter deal. That means I'm gonna be adding the following annoying subscription widget to all my posts. Enter your address and you'll be emailed all my posts! This seems like an absurd thing for anyone to want (why would a person want more emails?), but I guess with the demise of RSS readers, this is how people read these days!

Might be switching to PC

Browsing the Black Friday sales, I saw a heavily discounted 15 inch Samsung Galaxy 2-in-1 computer. I've been thinking about switching from Mac to Windows, so I went ahead and got it. Since then I've been wrestling all of my data out of various walled-gardens. I had to say goodbye to most of my music: I took the core of my music library, acquired in college, out of iTunes and put it in MusicBee, and now I'm just selectively purchasing other tracks from Amazon Music (which sells music DRM-free) and adding them to the library. It'll mean fewer musics than back when I exclusively listened to streaming services, but the music won't be quite as disposable, and I won't have to say goodbye to it every five years when I switch to a new service.

When it comes to my books, I've gotten everything out of Kindle and am reading now using KOReader. I still have to get new books from Amazon, since they have the widest selection, but I have a system to crack the DRM when I need to (I didn't / couldn't use a similar system for my music downloads on Spotify bc I hadn't really 'bought' them, and it wouldn't have been right to yank entire albums and tracks out of Spotify for just the price of a streaming subscription).

TV / movies don't worry me bc I never buy those, really, so I'm content w/ streaming. If I lose access to some movie or show someday, that's fine, c'est la view.

I have a lot of audiobooks stuck in the Audible system. I believe there's a way to crack the DRM on those, but here the problem is they take up A LOT of hard disk space. I might have to use an external drive for this.

Then at some point I'll need to get all my notes out of Apple Notes, and put them into a third-party system like Obsidian. But that's next week's job.

Now you might ask, does this improve my life in any way? Is the time I spend doing this at all worthwhile?

And the answer is no and no. It's just a hobby. I mean sure, probably in 20 years I'll be glad I still have that one song (the way I'm glad I still have songs I downloaded in high school), but would I feel particularly bad in 20 years if I _didn't_ have the song? No, of course not. All this effort does is turn you into the kind of open-source nut who cares about computer ecosystems. But I'm fine with that. It's my version of tinkering with a car.

I'm liking the PC though! The performance is a lot snappier than my 2019 MacBook Air. The fan noise isn't too bad, and I can throttle it when I need to, but I never have that sluggishness I would have when typing on the mac. And although the 2-in-1 design isn't great for most people, I like it a lot. The screen on the laptop is extremely bright and great for watching stuff. Windows 11 is a bit hard to get used to--not nearly as intuitive as the mac--and I've already had crashes and corrupted files. But Scrivener and Office work fine. And all my passwords are in 1password already, and that, combined with Firefox, means that 90 percent of my browsing experience is the same. But we'll see how long it lasts!


Hello friends. I'm doing it! I busted out my little digital typewriter again, to make me sit down and actually write a blog post.

I've been busy lately. All my books came back to me at the same time time, so I've had to work on them all simultaneously. But it's fine. The work is getting done. In terms of my reading, I've been re-reading Gandhi's autobiography My Experiments in Truth. He has a marvelous voice, very warm and personable. The book is long, but one wishes it was longer--it ends in the mid 20s, well before the culmination of the freedom struggle. What you realize reading his book is how much of an oddball Gandhi was. Even his Hinduism wasn't straightforward. He really only read the Indian holy books in England, when he was in college, and he was very influenced by Western new-age spirituality and mysticism. He was involved w/ various theosophists, for instance, and he was also involved with the British vegetarian community (vegetarianism was a major fad in Edwardian England). A lot of the way he looks at Hinduism feels very distinctly Western--for instance, his view that untouchability is meaningless, or how he looks down on ritual (at one point, he goes on pilgrimage and feels ashamed of how non-spiritual the activity seems to be). His Hinduism seems intensely personal, and rather unconnected from any established tradition. If anything, it's a bit...Christian.

Seeing how Gandhi was a bit of an outsider made me feel more connected to India myself. Gandhi and I are from a similar caste and region of India, and if he can come at Indian society so askew, and yet be literally the most Indian person in the world, then why can't I? Perhaps I'm not Indian in the same way as other Indians, but I am Indian enough. I mean Gandhi only spent two years of his adulthood in India before moving back permanently at around the age of 45. He lived a lifetime outside India, and in the parts where he writes about it, he sometimes seems a bit like a stranger to it--he has almost no experience of it as an adult. Made me feel excited to read other Indian books!

Have been struggling to get abreast of all the periodicals I subscribe to. At some point I thought it would be a great idea to subscribe to the four big literary reviews (NYRB, LRB, TLS and Paris Review) and a few of the others as well. Terrible idea. Each issue is as long as a novel, essentially, and who has the time to read these books every two weeks? But on the other hand I find the coverage much more interesting than the NYT Book review. So I've been trying to think how I can keep abreast of it all. Still not entirely sure, other than a lot of skimming. But I've canceled the subscriptions (which were through kindle) because the issues were piling up horribly.

Went through a phase where I read lots of Alan Watts, a popularizer of Eastern religion during the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. He too has a very warm, congenial voice. All of his books are essentially the same, but the best is probably The Wisdom of Insecurity. I've sort of gotten into meditating and mindfulness and stuff lately, which is going well. Many problems are solved by remaining in the moment: there is no need to have any worries about the future, for instance, because the future isn't yet here. It also solves other problems that I wouldn't have thought would be affected: many of my insecurities and resentments disappear when I'm more present-minded. For instance if I am envious of someone, the envy dissipates if I focus on the here-and-now, my existence in this body, doing whatever I am doing. The envy can only exist in an entirely notional world where I evaluate my worth in some abstract way, based on abstract markers and expectations, as if totaling up the score in a board game.

On the other hand, present-mindedness does open up some new problems. The main one is: what is there to thing about? Like ninety percent of what I think about is the future, so if that's lost to me, what's left? It means spending a lot more time contemplating, a lot more time just sitting around, a lot more time staring at the walls. A lot of my activities seem less meaningful, for instance reading the literary reviews seems a bit pointless--I read them to keep abreast of the field and see what everybody was talking about. And I have no doubt that that's a valuable thing to do, professionally, but in the present, it feels oddly pointless and removed from my interests. I already have plenty of books to read: I'd rather be reading Gandhi than reading about all these other books.

Reading also takes on a different complexion. For one thing, reading for pleasure seems much more important. If I'm not enjoying a book in the moment, then why am I reading it? There's no way a person can know everything--so there's no need to read just to meet some abstract idea of being cultured or educated. At the same time, even pleasure can feel empty. Ideally, I think, I want to be reading the book because it's necessary: something about it is essential for me at this moment. I've been reading to listen to and follow that voice.

Lately (bc of the Alan Watts), I've been thinking about the ideal of effortless action--the Taoist principle that you should be like water and follow the path of least resistance, do what is easy. It makes intuitive sense to me. Like today I was thinking, shoot I need to make a dentist appointment, so I just pulled out my phone and did it. Normally I would've made a note about it in my to-do list and just worried about it. Similarly, if something is out of place, I've been picking it up, instead of just thinking, man I should do something about that.

In the midst of all this, writing has been extremely easy for me. I can't overstate how great the writing has been lately. I just sit down at the computer and type for an hour, and then I walk away. Sometimes I think about the book when I'm not working on it, but msot of the time I don't. There's no anxiety, because, you know what, I'm doing the best job I can. And what's there to be anxious about? That it'll someday get a bad review? Who cares? No, what really used to make me anxious was the fear that I really wasn't a good writer, but now I feel like the term just isn't very meaningful in day to day life. Like when does me being a good or bad writer actually matter to me, in the present? It only matters when I'm thinking, "Wow I am so great" or "Wow, I suck." But if I stay focused on the present, those thoughts don't come up. Normally I get into these thought spirals where I try to reassure myself that it's okay to not be a genius. But if I'm present-minded, then the notion of 'genius' has no meaning (at least as applied to myself). Genius only matters when I think, wow, Proust is a genius. But how can anyone else call me a genius? When would that happen? How would I hear about it? Me calling Proust a genius is an expression of wonderment at his work. Me calling myself a genius is something different--it's just an attempt to find some further, greater significance in my daily life. Because meaning is kind of like a drug. You start off feeling good after a day of writing, and you think, "Wow, this book is really great. It's gonna change everything." And that makes you feel even better! But you get hooked on the drug, and you start to tell yourself things that you know aren't true, and then a part of yourself pushes back "Maybe the book won't change anything." But you want to hold onto the good feeling so you argue, "No, it will!" But if you just give up on that good feeling, the whole exercise becomes moot. The lesson I guess is that some mental pleasures really aren't worth the accompanying costs.

Anyway I've gotten pretty far at breaking my addiction to meaning! Because if you're present-minded there's no meaning either. It's kind of like an acid trip. You're just in a place, doing things, and that's it. There's nothing more. Actually, the feeling reminds me quite a bit of being on LSD. It turns out that LSD is just the experience of existing (but also stuff moves and is really pretty).

All of this stuff seems so obvious that it seems impossible I didn't know it before, but I think the problem is that it needs to be paired with a practice of staying in the present, and that practice has to be continuous. To the extent I succumb to that desire for meaning, I lose that equanimity, and that's something that happens roughly 100 times a day.

Anyway, I feel like I'm starting to sound like one of those New Agey people I've always felt tempted to make fun of. But it's kind of astounding that all this stuff is real. It works. It really can provide you with peace and contentment. Of course, my present-mindedness will probably wear off in a few weeks, and I'll be embarrassed by this post, but so what. For now it's great.

And, finally, my reaction to the Twitter imbroglio is that I've gotten very annoyed, all of a sudden, at being inside so many walled gardens online. I want to own my own data again! My first step in breaking out was to break the DRM on all my kindle books and start using a non-Kindle e-reader. I've been using this guy: the Inkpalm 5. It's essentially a tiny e-ink Android tablet. SUPER convenient. I can keep it in my pocket and pull it out whenever I need to read. The volume buttons on the side work as page turn buttons. And I've been using KO Reader, which has a lot more functionality than Kindle--I've been able to put my entire Kindle library onto the device.

Of course, it's complicated, and in some ways not as easy to use, and I might end up switching back at some point. I go through phases w/ non-Kindle readers: I used a Sony PRS-350 for a while, and then a Kobo, interspersed w/ virtually every kind of Kindle. It's a bit of a sickness.

But lately I've just accepted that I like tinkering with gadgets! It doesn't actually make me more productive, and I don't read any more or faster--if anything, it's the opposite. But so what? It's a hobby.

To jailbreak the Kindle I needed to bring out my Windows laptop, which has been gathering dusk on a shelf for a while. Took a while to update everything, but you know what? Windows is pretty good! If anything, it's useful to not have iMessages distracting me constantly. I downloaded Scrivener 3 for Windows and started working on my novel on the PC, and I'm finishing up this blog entry on it too. It's nowhere near as convenient or easy to use, but the freedom has started to mean more to me than it did. I like to know where all my files are--I like to get at them and be able to port them over to other services. I'm thinking that next I might try and free all my music too.

Comparing yourself to other people is a useful defense mechanism

Hello friendly people. I’m doing it! I’m writing a blog post! Feels like it’s been months. I’ve had a lot going on. My literary book sold to Feminist Press, which has made me really happy. They’re a great press, and it’s exciting that the book will be out there for people to read, but mostly I’m just happy to not be on submission anymore, as I was for most of 2022. I’ve worked on The Default World for at least four years at this point (the file says I started January 2018), and I’ll be happy to move on to something else. Not yet though, as I have at least six months of edits to do.

A major thank you is due to my agent, Christopher Schelling, who’s been great throughout this process—very receptive to my input and just a wonderful communicator and energetic agent. I always hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend an agent before they’ve sold a book for me, but now I can wholeheartedly recommend Christopher! He never ever lost faith in me or in the book.

I’m also about to sign a contract for another book—a nonfiction book—but details about that will pend the negotiation of a few details.

So it’s been a big year. I am pleased. Of course I’m stressed out and for the first time in my life I’m feeling imposter syndrome, but I’m definitely pleased.

For the last few years, I have (like most people) noticed that I’ve been having trouble focusing while reading books. I’ve covered this up by reading a lot of audiobooks, which don’t care if you’re focused or not, but some things don’t work well in audio. So recently I picked up a really cheesy self-help book called Hyperfocus, by a productivity expert. It contains tips and tricks on how to get you into “Hyperfocus” mode (minimize distractions before you sit down, set a timer, etc). Nothing revolutionary.

Anyway the book inspired me to adapt the Pomodoro technique for reading. What I decided was that I’d hide all my devices and set a 25 minute timer and just read. However I noticed very soon into attempting this that, while reading, I’d think of things that I needed to do, or notes I wanted to make. So instead of writing them in my phone, I started logging my stray thoughts in a journal and then going back to reading.

An unexpected outgrowth of this was that I noticed a lot of mental discomfort while I was reading my current book (which happened to be Chelsea Martin’s Tell Me I’m An Artist). This is a coming-of-age story about a working-class girl going to art school in SF, so it bears some resemblance to my literary novel. And, like most books these days, it was represented by an agent and acquired by an editor who’d both rejected my book. So it was natural that I’d feel envy and that I’d compare my book to this book.

But by logging these thoughts and moving past them, I realized how artificial these feelings are. There is quite literally no relationship between me and this book beyond the fact that I am enjoying reading it. Everything else is just a story I’m making up.

Over the course of a few days of this kind of logging, I started to learn how to put down all this weight I’d been carrying. For a while, it seemed almost too easy. All I needed was, poof, to not compare myself to people, and suddenly I could enjoy reading again! I tore through a dozen books over the course of a few days (many were recommendations, other literary books I’d steered clear of over the years because I envied their authors too much).

Then, as I started to revise my literary book, I noticed the catch. Suddenly I was overcome with a terrible anxiety. All I saw were its flaws and its failures.

And I suddenly realized, ahh, here’s why I compare myself: it’s a defense mechanism. I want to reassure myself that I’m better than these other writers, so my book is sure to succeed, etc. Or at least that it deserves to succeed—because the alternative, maybe it’s not good enough, means maybe I am not good enough. Maybe I don’t have enough worth.

So I was satisfied that re-learning how to read would be a complicated process—it wasn’t nearly as easy as it seemed. Nonetheless, what’s true is that no story I tell myself about other writers is going to improve my work’s quality or its chances in the marketplace. My chance of success is totally separate from other peoples’. So all I get from this comparison is a temporary emotional relief. But the cost is that I can’t really enjoy reading my contemporary’s books. Recently, doing all this reading, I’ve seen how much fun reading can be!

I think ultimately I’ll just learn how to feel bad and anxious in a more measured way, but in the short term it’ll probably be a rocky transition as I lose that habitual defense mechanism. We’ll see!

Gaddis’s Recognitions; the curse of the auto-didact; what to read after Marx

Hello friends, I haven't been updating often, I'm the worst, I know. Absolutely nothing to report here. I finished reading William Gaddis's The Recognitions, which was brilliant and it's one of my favorite books now. I liked the first two third better than the last part, and some of the ending seemed a bit pat, but all in all it was extremely funny and very humane, had a strong moral core. People say it's bitter or cynical or satirical, and they insist that it's somehow against modernity. I don't think any of that is true. It's a book about how to live. The hero, Wyatt, becomes a forger of Old Masters because, for him, that is the truest and most authentic art-style. The book is about how we have a cult of the individual, and how the search for individuality can undercut a person's sense of self. To be individual, to be original, you need to be unlike anyone who exists or has ever existed, but that's not what it means to have a self. Having a self, having a true inner life, means not defining yourself by the opinion of people outside yourself. It means having your own values, your own sense of right and wrong. And it's impossible to develop those values if you're atomized and disconnected both from other people and from your own history. If you don't have a place in the world, then nothing you do matters--even worse, if you have no place, then everything you do ends up being a shout for attention, and you end up defining yourself entirely in accordance with how much attention you get. A personality, in order to develop, needs demands to be placed upon it, so it can figure out its own ethic and respond in its own way.

The book is about how art and literature can misdirect people, make them focus on the glittery and ersatz, instead of what is truly timeless, and so I think that, while much of the commentary focuses on the counterfeiting and plagiarism within the book, really the book ends up being a criticism of its opposite, of the way people are so lacking in their own values that they need someone to tell them if something is good or bad. They need something to be a Van Eyck, they need something to be canonized, because without those external markers, they can't have an authentic response to it. And that, to those people, plagiarism and originality are all the same: there is nothing in them that can really respond to art.

SO I REALLY ENJOYED THE BOOK. The first half is pretty straightforward, narratively, but eventually it gets harder to read: about two hundred pages in, the author stops saying the protagonist's name, so you need to start intuiting his presence as a speaker on the page. Most of the book is told in dialogue, and sometimes it can be difficult to figure out who's speaking. I found this reader's guide VERY helpful. I would read the summary of a section when I started that section, and I would consult with the character index as needed. But I think the book is pretty doable. The comparisons to Ulysses are overstated: this is a much easier read.

My dad's been visiting, and I talked with him about writing literary criticism, one of my sidelines, and I said, you know, I used to really admire all these critics who were full of literary references and quotes, until I realized so much of it was faking. Each critic has a handful of authors they return to again and again, deploying endlessly to support their arguments.

When writing a critical piece, there's a tendency to want to do a lot of research, but you can't read everything! So where's the end-point? In an NYRB-style review, you generally read an author's entire ouevre (if it's less than five books), but for other outlets you don't even do that. I have a few big authors I've never read, and I always feel like I shouldn't write anything until I've corrected those gaps. For instance, aside from The Poetics, I've never really read Aristotle. I have a lot of Plato, but no Aristotle. That's not uncommon, unlike in medieval times, Plato is read much more widely than Aristotle, but still, it's a gap.

For me, there's also the auto-didact's curse. When you've been conventionally educated, you don't know everything, but you do know everything you're supposed to know. And this can make you seem extremely well-read if you encounter other people who had conventional educations. For instance, when I was teaching undergrads, I used to ask their favorite book, and I'd almost always read it, not because I've read every book, but because I've read every book an undergrad is likely to read. And our professors were the same: they'd read every poet or story-writer a grad student is likely to know.

But when you're an autodidact, you've often read far more broadly than a conventionally-educated person (hardly an English PhDs have read as many Chinese and Japanese classics as I have), but you also have basic gaps that can make you look very uneducated.

Often these gaps are in the realm of books about books. When you're an autodidact, you see little need to mess around with the secondary writing that grows up around literature. You just read the books, and that's it! But for an English PhD or professor, that writing constitutes the majority of their reading. So they're more familiar with, for instance, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, and Foucault. Personally, I think Derrida, in particular, is a bit of a fraud. But I haven't read Of Grammatology. So I'm in a position where I've read Hegel and Kant and Marx (which most English PhDs would not have), but not some of these far more (in today's terms) influential writers that, often, even a grad student would know. This leaves you quite vulnerable, and it's a difficult gap to cover.

C'est la vie. Anyway as I was telling my dad, when writing a piece of literary criticism, I just sit down and write it out. Whenever I get to the part where I'd put a quote, I write, Plato said something like, "this is the quote, it's not the real quote, I'm making it up." Then later on I go and look to see if I can find the real quote.

My dad said, "But how do you know the author really did support your point?"

And I was like, "Because the author helped form your thoughts! You're not going into this with an axe to grind or a prearranged thought process, you're taking the chain of associations wherever it will go. You developed your thesis precisely because of your own knowledge, which in turn comes from the books you've read."

I've actually never had the problem where I just couldn't find support for my points, because why would I make a point that couldn't be supported? Now my points might still be risible, and the support might be scanty, but there's usually enough there that I can at least make a case.

The more difficult part is when you make historical claims. For instance, if I say, "Chaucer's output was a result of England's victories in the Hundred Year's War" then I've got to that actually true? When did Chaucer do his writings? When was Britain on top in the war? When was the Battle of Crecy?" It's very easy to say historical things that are just plainly, on their face, untrue. And I'm pretty sure that's something I've done more than once. On the other hand, that's why I don't write about, say, climate change policy. When it comes to writing about writing, the stakes are rather low. And anyway, at least I attempt to make coherent sense, unlike Derrida.

I've started the third volume of Marx's Capital. It's going. Am already looking forward to what I'll read next. My plan was to read Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Freud, Heidegger, Adorno, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas in a project that undoubtedly would take several years. But already there have been sidetracks. I decided to read Adam Smith before Marx, which was invaluable. But now I'm tempted to read political and economic theory instead of philosophy. And I've already read volumes by Husserl and Habermas. Now am thinking too of Schopenhauer before Nietzsche. So we'll see. There's plenty of time. Will undoubtedly still be making my way through these books in ten year's time. And then I'll have the Anglo-American tradition to work through as well. And the Renaissance and Enlightenment: I should reread Descarte, and I've never read John Hobbes or Locke. I've read Hume, which was excellent. Hume is really all you need, honestly. That guy figured it out all out however-many-hundred years ago. You can't know moral truth the same way you know scientific truth--Hume proved it quite satisfactorily. But still those crafty Germans and French, not sensible like the Scottish Hume, have tried for two hundred years to wiggle their way out of the conundrum, and they've succeeded sort of (not really).

Random thoughts on writing sci-fi

Hello friends, I had this vision at one point a month ago that I was going to post here every single working day. That vision unfortunately didn't come to fruition. But I'm still around. Just turned in probably the last big revision for my YA novel. I always think revisions are going to be relatively small, but with this revision I cut 35k words and wrote another 28k. All within a month! Feel kind of proud of myself. I feel good about this novel. I really do. Definitely worth the pipe-bomb that some right-winger will send me over it! Today I was talking to another author, and they were like our child's school does this conference for writers, do you want to come. I was like sure, then I was like wait a second, you live in Florida, right? No, I do not want to be around children in the state of Florida.

Anyway, I don't want to do that thing queer / PoC writers do where we adopt a pose that we're under a state of siege or whatever. I'm fine. I never actually get hate or harassment. The current climate is a bit like terrorism, I guess? It's meant to scare all trans people, and it most certainly does. It scares me. But it hasn't actually, literally hit me in any concrete way yet. And I am very, very lucky to be getting published! Makes me sad to think of all the trans women and girls out there who never got to publish books. Also kind of weird, because I am not at all political (in my writing) and am so new in transition and wasn't a trans kid, but now I feel all this weight to do something, to be there for the kiddies, to represent or something.

Well, whatever, good problems to have.

I've been reading a lot of poetry lately, largely in single-author collections. I've been reading a lot of Wislawa Szymborska and a lot of Osip Mandelstam. Most of Szymborska is translated into English by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, and they do an excellent job. The poetry is so rhythmic, even in English, and it contains subtle, irregular, but frequent rhymes. It sounds great. She's a very playful poet, and she reminds me quite a bit of some of the posts in the Beat tradition, with her refusal to become overly erudite and poetical on us. Osip Mandelstam is, of course, the opposite. All of his poems are about Biblical times or Renaissance Italy, and they contain exalted, very Christian images, and powerful feelings of despair and triumph.

Anyway reading these books of poetry has made me realize: you don't necessarily read poetry so you can remember it later, or so you can talk about it. You just read it for the emotions you get. I think it was the Nadezhdha Mandelstam book that gave me permission to read poets in a less-educated less-expectant way. She said something like, "What you get from a poet is their world-view." And you can't boil it down to one thing or another, but yes, you're in touch with a particular consciousness and way of seeing the world. It's also a much more emotional experience, in some ways, than reading prose. But the emotions, at least for me, are finer, more fleeting.

Lately I've been feeling very emotional. I mean, I've been trying not to. I just think many things in the world aren't as I'd want them to be. And I feel disillusioned in a lot of ways by the gap between how people act and what they say. But my life isn't materially worse. So I don't know how to balance that kind of galaxy-brain perspective with the fact that less has changed in my quotidian life.

Also I've been working a lot! I mean it still doesn't add up to an actual day of work for a doctor or a construction worker, but this year along I completely rewrote my YA book once, and then did the latest half-revision. I also have written a few proposals, and I've done tens of thousands of words on other projects. Of course it's nothing compared to last year, when I completely rewrote the literary book AND wrote a first draft of the YA book, but for some reason this year I feel more productive. Not sure why. I also wrote at least fifty thousand words, mostly in axed drafts, on a science fiction book, and I think that I'm starting to get a handle on it

For at least ten years I've been handicapped in my writing sci-fi books by one thing: I just don't want to write about people fighting. Like, combat, swords, lasers, it's just totally uninteresting to me. And I realized at some point this year, I just don't believe in that. Like, the heroes in books should lose 99 percent of the time. But they don't, because they're just that good at fighting and killing. It doesn't have anything to do with the rightness of their cause: they just win because they're better at fighting. It makes no sense to me.

The exception is military novels, of various sorts. I still enjoy those. There I think the way the fight works and proceeds is part of the story. And there is a (slight) moral component to who wins and who loses in a war. But I don't really know enough about war to write a novel like that myself.

So yes, I decided, there's no need to write about swords and lasers anymore. I'm just not going to do it. Yes, I enjoyed when I was a kid reading about that stuff, but I'm not a kid anymore. So now whenever I develop a setting, I'm like, would people in this setting solve these particular problems with swords and lasers? And if the answer is yes I just don't write that story.

Maybe the sci-fi will go somewhere, who knows, but so far good things are happening.

Capsule reviews, Aug 25: a few podcasts and a book on self-education

History of Byzantium - I’ve gotten very into Byzantine history lately, and there’s not as much out there in the English speaking world as you’d like. It’s shocking how good this is, how thoughtful, and how it mixes narrative with broader social and economic developments. Really entertaining and informative. The History of Rome is good, but this is better—one of the best history podcasts in existence.

History of Africa- There is nothing else like this out there. Popular history books (publishing in English and published in America) about Africa’s pre-colonial civilizations are pretty few and far between. As such this podcast is a major contribution—I contribute a substantial amount on Patreon every month. Start with the second season on Aksum—a civilization in the Ethiopian Highlands that rivaled Rome and Persia for size / influence and outlasted them both (it started in the pre Roman era and only fell in the 13th century). It’s stuff you can’t believe you’ve never heard before.

Don’t Go Back To School by Kio Stark— I’m always looking for books I didn’t know existed. This is a good example of one! I came across it while scanning the episode list of a literary podcast called Overdue. It’s a crowd-sourced book about ways to learn without going to school—it consists of interviews with a bunch of people who prioritized learning outside of school (and the ways their learning relates to their job and ability to earn a living).

My story isn’t really akin to anything in the book. The thing about being a writer is that virtually every writer you care about, whether it’s Virginia Woolf or W.H. Auden or James Baldwin, engaged in a long self-directed course of study as they were in the process of becoming a writer. You CANNOT learn in school the kinds of things you need to write fiction or poetry well. You can major in English, but the kind of reading you do for that degree is useless for writing: nothing in the English degree allows you to understand the well-spring of truth or beauty. Nor does majoring in creative writing really help much: you can learn a few rules of thumb, but let’s face it, writing degrees aren’t very rigorous: writing ten poems a semester or three stories a semester and reading four or five books (which is about the workload of most MFAs) won’t do anything. That’s equivalent to roughly 1/10th the work you should be doing every half-year of your writing life. And the 100 books you’d read to get an English undergrad degree or the 300 to get an English grad degree are, likewise, only a fraction of the thousands of books you’ll need to read to become a writer.

Moreover, English degrees don’t prioritize books that have the most to teach a writer. Almost every English major nowadays will read FRANKENSTEIN, for instance, but few will read MIDDLEMARCH or MOBY DICK. English degrees prioritize books that are short and teachable.

So if you’re going to be a writer, and especially one of literary fiction, you’ll at the very least need to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Dickens, Milton, Balzac, Flaubert, and a few dozen other major writers on your own. There is simply no other option.

What’s fascinating, though, is how few writers actually realize this. What’s weird is writers will be like, I love Jhumpa Lahiri or George Saunders, and not realize…both of these writers did the reading I am talking about. It’s honestly a bit perplexing. Why would you not do the same things as the people whose writing you admire?

So if you were writing a version of this book for writers, it would be: you literally cannot learn this in school.

When you’re a writer, you’re reading in order to figure out the source of the aesthetic experience: where does it come from? What provokes it? How can I replicate it? You’re basically reading for pleasure, but paying ever so slightly more attention than the average reader does. It’s not that hard!

Anyway I’ve gotten off the topic of this book. I do like the book I will say. Sometimes I’ve thought about how good it would’ve been to have skipped college and just saved the money and lived somewhere interesting and read books for eight years instead of partying for four. But I suppose you need to GO to college to learn how silly it is.

Poetry is there for the person who’s capable of reading it

Hello friendly people. I've been feeling anxious lately. It's okay. My self-medication is reading Nadezdha Mandelstam's second memoir, Hope Abandoned. It's basically just about everything she didn't put into the first one. It's hundreds of little vignettes about Soviet literary life, organized very impressionistically, with lots of jumping around in chronology. It's one of the densest reads I've ever had. It's sad and shows humanity at its worst--she's unfailing in detailing peoples' hypocrisy and moral cowardice. But I think it's best when it comes to the question: what is literature for?

In America, there is so much hand-wringing about poetry. Does it matter even though nobody reads it? Can it be revitalized? Can it be made relevant to ordinary people?

This 'ordinary person' has become such a fetish in literature. Because almost all writers these days have egalitarian principles, we don't like to think we're writing for a rarefied intelligentsia. In the Soviet Union, too, they had this worry. Writing was supposed to be proletarian in character (this is in the early part of the Soviet Union) and the intelligentsia was frequently denounced. Writers and artists tried all kinds of dodges to make their work proletarian. In the early Soviet Union, writers frequently wrote about factories, as in the classic Gladkov novel, Cement.

Mandelstam is contemptuous of this phenomenon, but she's also contemptuous of elitism, because she sees that the intelligentsia itself is quite stupid and without taste, and that they view literature only as a way to salve their own egos. She sees that, far from prizing individuality and personality, the intelligentsia constantly lays the groundwork for its own demise, that it is wary of the power of ideas, and that it's always looking for ways of putting down the burden of thinking. She in fact charts the early intellectual currents that led to the intelligentsia's surrender to Stalinism, and she situates them precisely in this wrecking, and this break with the past, and this distrust of the power of literature itself. Paradoxically, by giving literature a purpose, you destroy its purpose.

In contrast, when discussing her famous husband's attitude towards poetry, she says, "M never thought about those things." (I'm paraphrasing). In fact that's not true, as she describes, he routinely was frustrated with himself for not being able to appreciate the new party line and not being able to write more 'useful' literature. Even though he mostly wrote short lyrics, people could tell instinctively that he was a person rooted in Christianity and tradition--someone with a deep reverence for what had come before--which also in turn gave him a reverence for the meaning of individual human life. Unlike the rest of the intelligentsia, he was not so willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater ideal of social progress.

When she thinks about the purpose of literature and poetry, Mandelstam is always drawn back to one thing: the primacy and importance of private life. Under the Soviet Union there was no private life, no freedom of belief. You couldn't write apolitical verse, because that itself was political. And without the ability to feel what they wanted, peoples' inner lives either died off or became totally other-centered (oriented towards awards and accomplishments).

Poetry helps a person develop their inner life. Poetry, at least of Mandelstam's sort, is the record of a person in the world, experiencing life. It's not like meditation, it doesn't seek to extinguish the self, instead it celebrates the self and celebrates this life on earth. The purpose of poetry is to put to music the poet's own personal world-view, and to impart their way of seeing the world, as a guide for people to develop their own individuality.

Seen this way, poetry isn't broccoli. It's there for the benefit of whomever needs it. Poetry is like speech. Poetry is like sidewalk scrawls or recipes put on the internet. Poetry is like anything that's exchanged freely, simply because people are full of joy at being alive.

I loved that, because I see my own work the same way. I know that people often find my work cynical, because I don't idealize human nature or turn away from the darkness and confusion I see in people, but my work is also about ideals. I never write anything that doesn't contain a hint of how people can be better and more courageous than they are. I like to think that my work appeals to the best of people--not the part that's looking for an easy heroism, for some collective victim they can stomp into the floor in some orgy of self-righteousness. It's for the person who has their own sense of right and wrong, and who is willing to stand up for it.

That's why my work often doesn't fit easily into taxonomies of left and right. It's why even though I'm trans, it's often ignored by people who love "transgressive" queer writers. There is nothing really transgressive about my work, but it can be very difficult for readers who don't have principles of their own, and who've never thought about the difference between right and wrong--readers who don't truly have a self.

And I think in our ongoing crisis of liberalism, it's important to remember the self. For me it's such a joy to know things. To know very deeply that some things are true and some are false. On a sidenote, whenever I say something like that, I always like to list one true thing I know, so that people know I'm talking about real, concrete things and not just vague feelings. So here's one true thing I know: it's that if you're hiding from the truth, it will hamper the work. You can be a liar in your life, but when you sit down to work, you must be honest. If you try to write a novel about a farm-boy defeating an evil empire, but part of you know that in real life it's impossible for one person to bring down an empire single-handedly, then your work will not come together. You might write it and sell it, and it might even win awards, but it won't possess life, and the person who will suffer most from the lie is you yourself, because you'll have cut yourself off from the source of lasting art.

I know that there's a wellspring of lasting art that you can train yourself to tap into. I know there is a musical note at the core of each worthwhile piece of prose--something you can train yourself to hear.

This is an aside, but lately I've been thinking of something else I know, which is that there is no unconscious mind.

That's a pretty radical idea. Ever since Freud we've accepted the notion that part of you is submerged, and that it doesn't contribute to your conscious impression of thinking, but that this submerged part nonetheless does a lot of your deciding for you. Many concepts in modern life hinge upon the idea of an unconscious mind. For instance, all our notions of racism hinge on the idea of an unconscious bias: you can hate a certain kind of people without knowing that you hate them.

And yet, is that really true? Does the unconscious exist at all? While it's true that non-conscious processes take place in our mind (all of our breathing and movement, and a lot of our sense-processing, for instance), there is no evidence that there is an unconscious mind that does our thinking for us. This bicamerality, where you have the thoughts you have access to and the unconscious thoughts that exist off on their own, in a locked room somewhere, like you're two people sharing one body--there is no evidence for that.

Moreover, what would it mean to not believe in that? Well, it would mean that we are responsible for all of our actions. That we in some sense have chosen all of our actions. We can still make mistakes, we can still be ignorant or thoughtless, but we cannot say that we are 'better' than the things we've done. We cannot say that our conscious mind knew this was wrong, but the unconscious one did not.

Modern society, by believing in an unconscious, has come to a place where it demands an unconscious. We need a place to put all of our dangerous, unspeakable thoughts and desires. But, really, those things are just as much a part of our consciousness as are all our other thoughts and desires.

The unconscious is really just a way of trying to solve the mystery of free will. Since we cannot imagine the idea that we are truly free, we instead imagine a situation where we are two people, and one of them is mute and in control of our body, while the other can speak but is mostly powerless, and the only job of the second person is to speak to the first person and convince them to do what we think is right. But if we fail to do the right thing, it's not the fault of our 'real' self, it's because we didn't convince our unconscious self, which is, at its core, a nasty brute.

But really, we are free. We do choose. The real mystery is that there isn't a reason why we do most of what we do. We simply do it because we're alive and you have to do something. People search and search for the meaning of life, without realizing that it's something they find every single day. Most of our actions are literally without any reason, not even an unconscious one, other than that we willed them.