On reading and writing: quote of the day

Following my prior post about being a writer, I resort to the pith and punch of William Faulkner who said that anyone who wants to be a writer should be a reader first:

Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

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And if you want to be a great writer, you must absolutely smoke a pipe.

The queasy leap of calling oneself a writer

I hate saying I’m a writer. I hate the way people’s faces light up, as though I’ve told them my secret kink. Oooh, a writer. How one expects them to follow up with la-de-da and a twirl.”

Bethany Marcel at Literary Hub 

What’s so bad about that? I’d love to get a trill and twirl when I tell people I’m a writer. 

I half joke, because I get where Marcel is coming from. Saying you’re a writer is a slightly loaded statement, even a bit mortifying. As Marcel notes in her Literary Hub essay “How to Say ‘I’m a Writer’ and Mean It,” people always want more information: What do you write? What books have you written?

They get nosy. The perceived glamor attached to the writer’s life entrances. Sometimes people are lightly starry-eyed. Other times they’re simply curious. Other times: meh.

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But it’s not so simple. Saying you write is like saying you act, or tame lions. It’s exotic. It’s oft-misunderstood. Writers are outliers, and sometimes writers believe all the romantic rubbish that attends the title. These run from literary saplings (earnest neophytes who read too much Stephen King) to the bluff and blustery (Hemingway, Mailer).

Yet while many writers are unswerving blowhards (with beards to match), lots of them are painfully introverted and suffer a “shyness that is criminally vulgar,” to quote a famous ’80s British pop band. 

That’d be me. As Marcel says, “I’m bad at talking about my work. Like many writers, I’m shy. I care too much what people think.”

I for one wince when people say they’ve read my stuff, even if they’re complimentary, or when an editor scours my copy line by line, syllable by syllable. I’m a raw nerve. I feel naked and nauseated. Writing in many ways is a performance, and I have stage fright.

For a long stretch my speciality was arts and celebrity journalism, with a focus on film, not fiction, though I always dreamed of writing the latter. Marcel says that she’s “ashamed (she) was too shy to major in journalism in college. That (she) feared the prospect of conducting interviews so much (she) majored in literature instead.” 

I was the opposite. I majored in journalism. I was too nervous to take creative writing classes — all that reading your work aloud, all that classmate critiquing. I finally took a fiction course in my late-20s, a university night class. I lasted one meeting. 

What happened was exactly what I dreaded would happen, a variation on my worst nightmare. The class of about 20 students was instructed to write a short story in 15 minutes and then read it aloud. Horrified, I decided in that instant I would drop the course the next day, and I did, no refund.

Speaking before groups, even at the dinner table, has always been excruciating for me. I won’t even say grace. Large work meetings give me intestinal anguish. On numerous occasions I’ve been invited to speak to writing and journalism classes. I turned down all offers, with a blush, and utmost relief.

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A creative writing class — a Circle of Hell.

Yet I find interviewing people easy, almost extremely so, even invigorating, which is odd when I’m the first person to leave a house party because such events are just too people-y. 

Unaccountably, I enjoy asking others about their life and work. I possess a thirsty curiosity to learn about all manner of personalities, walks of life, mannerisms, pastimes, love lives, favorite foods, what have you, while a tape recorder takes it all down. I’m voracious for copy fodder. I just like to write about people, places, happenings, stuff.

For years I was a culture critic. I was known to be mean, mordantly honest. An asshole. Since college, when I was the campus newspaper opinion editor, I’ve evinced a boldness in print and shyness in person.

People wondered about the dichotomy, and I always said I hid behind the newspaper byline. I was largely invisible, save for my words and ideas. I could walk down the street without being accosted. (There were a few exceptions, none of them ugly. Once, comically, someone asked for my autograph.)

I often think I can call myself a writer, despite the pretentious ring to it. All I know is that when I say I’m a writer, I feel both a sense of pride and charlatanism. And always my stomach does a terrific backflip of crazy self-doubt.

“Before you can say you’re a writer and mean it,” Marcel says, “first you must believe you’re a writer.” I’m still working on it.

She’s depraved, debauched, despicable — and so lovable

One of the piquant pleasures of the British TV comedy series “Fleabag” is how its protagonist, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, insistently pokes through the fourth wall with the impish gall and smug impetuosity of a naughty little girl. She winks, crinkles her nose, smirks, grimaces, makes snide comments, all of it right at the camera, meaning right at us.  

She wants us to be a part of her latest escapade, her latest squirmy moment, lest this young woman has to go it alone in her flailing, full-frontally narcissistic existence. As she says in the first episode, she has “a horrible feeling” she’s “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”

Well. Now. Really. She’s not that bad. How could we love her so much, empathize with her so fully, if she was such a steaming heap of debasement? Even her self-anointed sobriquet, Fleabag, is more fitting for a scuzzy homeless tramp than the bitingly charming London cafe owner she is.

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Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), breaking the fourth wall with an uneasy reaction to the audience

Season one of Fleabag,” which premiered in 2016, is streaming on Amazon, with season two on the way. From online posts, viewers either adore or abhor Waller-Bridge’s character, which she created from her play of the same name. (Waller-Bridge stars in and writes all of the TV episodes.) “Hate the protagonist … She has no redeeming qualities and is totally unlikeable,” someone groused, and that’s enough of that.

So she’s divisive. Aren’t some of the most interesting women multifaceted? Don’t they chafe while they charm, pepper smarm with snark, own a bit of Mother Teresa mixed with, say, Sarah Silverman? “Fleabag may seem oversexed, emotionally unfiltered and self-obsessed, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” say notes from the “Fleabag” play.

With her floppy pageboy fit for a ’30s Hollywood starlet, natty outfits and Skittles-red lipstick, our anti-heroine exudes a glamor incongruous to her unsavory descriptives. Though she’s too surly to be screwball, she often recalls the great comedians of yore with kaleidoscopic facial expressions that match her shifting moods. Waller-Bridge plays light and dark with equal dexterity. She is a scintillating performer.

Fleabag has been called “an angry, confused young woman attempting to navigate life in London,” which is about right. Yet you can’t ignore her Olympian sex life, a tragicomic pastime that ends as these things do, with a droplet of satisfaction and a river of rue. 

With a rich, unsmiling sister, a fun, like-minded bestie and a mostly off-again boyfriend, Fleabag, who’s on the cusp of 30, is still working things out. She’s painted as a classic self-absorbed millennial, playing the field and playing out with scant regard for the collateral damage. Ever-so slowly we watch her crumble, perhaps implode. The show slyly builds to a dramatic pitch that’s truly poignant and confirms that there is little superficial about it.

“Fleabag” is TV’s best comedy, better than my other tops: the cinematic if shrilly hyperactive “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the near-perfect “Catastrophe,” the wry, wondrous “SMILF” and madly inventive “Atlanta.” (“High Maintenance” — you’ve slipped.) 

Super news: Waller-Bridge is bringing the stage version of “Fleabag” to the SoHo Playhouse in New York City for five weeks, Feb. 28 through April 7. Waller-Bridge wrote and stars, and I have a ticket.

As a one-woman show, she’ll be addressing the audience face-to-face, the fourth wall totally disassembled, the rubble kicked to the side. It should be tartly hilarious, cheeky and racy, and fantastically uncomfortable — just like the staggering series. 

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A booze for we the bamboozled

A popular bumper sticker circulating when George W. Bush was president read “Bush is a Punk-Ass Chump” — a masterpiece of anti-dipshit propaganda that I proudly displayed. 

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(I was in Texas Bush-country at the time, so I didn’t dare slap it on my car, lest an overzealous cop pulled me over for some imaginary misdeed. The sticker found pride of place on my fridge.)   

I’m reminded of the rascally decal by a new bottle of booze that just hit online shelves and is already sold out, dammit. It’s made by Empirical Spirits and it is called — squeamish eyes avert now — Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall. This surely zesty libation is a “habanero spirit based on barley koji, pilsner malt and Belgian saison yeast.” I don’t know what in the hell that is, but I want it.

But, like I said, the 50cl bottles, at $68.51, are plumb sold out. You can sign up for email alerts when it’s back in stock here. 

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As I haven’t tried the drink, here’s more about it from Uncrate, an elegant site for the highly selective male shopper (gander at its galaxy of dizzyingly unaffordable goods here):

“It could end tomorrow, or we could be in for six more years. Either way, spirits like this bluntly-named one from Empirical might help make it all slightly more tolerable. Distilled in Copenhagen, this clear spirit is based on barley koji, pilsner malt, and Belgian saison yeast. A habanero vinegar is used to rectify the spirit, but the final product is free of a spicy kick in the face — unlike the current political reality we face each and every day.”

Cheers to that. Gulp your beverage of choice accordingly. Drink responsibly. Or in this case, go nuts. We are rather thirsty for change.

Though the FTHSFW spirit is gone for now, you still can get a T-shirt embossed with the bottle’s clinically-plain label here. You owe it to your country. Clink.

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God or godless. Either way, you’re wrong

Though I’ve only made a wee dent in the book I got today — “Seven Types of Atheism” by philosopher John Gray — I am already bitten and beguiled. On page 33 of the 170-page manifesto, I find myself putting it down often to copy a tart line or provocative passage.

Gray, without airs but with erudition, places in his crosshairs the arm wrestle between religion and atheism, that eternal, irreconcilable chasm of belief, God and godlessness. He is acridly and relentlessly critical of both.

Dense but light on its feet, slim but chubby with fact, philosophy and opinion, the book reveals a bracing entertainer who hardly balks at taking intellectual swipes at celebrity atheists slash rational humanists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and other crusaders. 

Gray, says The Guardian, “is a card-carrying misanthrope for whom human life has no unique importance, and for whom history has been little more than the sound of hacking and gouging.”

That’s my kind of guy, though Gray takes things a little further than I do when it comes to faith, history and humanism. Still, his book, from 2018, is studded with eyebrow-cocking history lessons, slashing judgments and pleasing iconoclasm. A few nuggets from my early reading:

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“There is no such thing as ‘the atheist worldview.’ Atheism simply excludes the idea that the world is the work of a creator-god, which is not found in most religions. … Nowhere does Buddhism speak of a Supreme Being, and it is in fact an atheist religion.”

“Many versions of Jesus and his life can be supported on the basis of existing evidence. Among the least plausible are those that have been presented as fact by Christian churches.”

“Christian thinkers have interpreted the rise of their religion as a sign of Jesus’ divine nature. Among the many prophets teaching at the time, why should he alone have inspired a religion that spread to the last corner of the earth? Unless you think that human events unfold under some sort of divine guidance, the metamorphosis of Jesus’ teaching into a universal faith can only have been the result of a succession of accidents. … The Christian religion is a creation of chance.”

“A free-thinking atheism would begin by questioning its prevailing faith in humanity. But there is little prospect of contemporary atheists giving up their reverence for this phantom. Without the faith that they stand at the head of an advancing species, they could hardly go on. Only by immersing themselves in such nonsense can they make sense of their lives. Without it, they face panic and despair.”

McConaughey, the mensch

Meeting celebrities is easy. Interviewing them is a breeze. They are generally polished to a professional sheen. They know how to play the game, which is patently transactional. Some are harder than others (I’m squinting at you, Paul Thomas Anderson). Matthew McConaughey? He’s a cinch.

A good ol’ boy from East Texas, with a boingy twang, squinchy blue eyes, and bounding with bonhomie, McConaughey is much like what he seems: a smart, friendly dude you might want to shoot a shot with. He’s a charismatic lava lamp, alive and aglow.

To a journalist like me in 1998 — young, a smidge green — he was the most caring, amicable guy around. I was having a face-to-face interview with the actor in a Beverly Hills hotel room during a junket for “The Newton Boys,” Richard Linkater’s ill-fated western-comedy. A Texas guy, McConaughey was fascinated that I’d recently relocated from California to Austin for a newspaper job as a film critic. 

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He seemed genuinely interested, and we talked all things Austin and Texas, acting and movies. And from the room balcony he pointed out the groovy ‘70s-style van in the parking lot that he was driving cross-country for the hell of it. He was 27. We bonded enough that he’d remember me for years afterward. 

Like when he was walking the red carpet at the premiere of his 1999 comedy “Edtv” and he spotted me, grabbed my hand, pulled me aside and asked me how I was enjoying my new Texas hometown. He was sincere and serious, with laser eye-contact, shutting out the bustle around him. Then he smiled wide, cheeks caving into dimples, before moving on down the line. 

He didn’t have to do that. He could have said hi, answered my softball questions and walked on. But he was cool, concerned, a gentleman. He had class. 

Months later, when I ran into him at a Wendy’s on the University of Texas campus before a rare screening of Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 “Some Came Running,” McConaughey seemed a little out of his element, a tad awkward, though he still made a point of making me feel welcome and an equal. He spoke in a hushed drawl. He barely smiled. He kept things low-key. I introduced him to my girlfriend. He bought a large Coke. He sat in the middle row, we sat in the back.

The relationship between journalist and subject/source is a dicey one. They are rarely seamless. There’s a give and take, a perilous reciprocity that often leaves one party feeling burned. And so there’s this:

McConaughey was working the red carpet for the local premiere of Kevin Costner’s 1999 baseball melodrama “For the Love of the Game” at UT. He was beaming, strutting out of a black limo, in all white and all alone.  

He isn’t in the movie, he was just a celeb guest at the gala. And he was chomping a hunk of gum like cud. He approached me affably, answered two questions, then sauntered into the auditorium, chased by hearty cheers. 

I report details. I like what’s called “color” in my stories. So in my piece about the screening I prefaced McConaughey’s quotes with: “He was conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum.” Readers want to know each iota of their beloved celebrities’ behavior. This, I thought, was a telling detail — innocuous but revealing. Or so I thought.

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Matthew, gum, chew.

In 2003, four years after this gum-chewing reportage, the Austin Film Society threw a 10-year anniversary bash for the release of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age masterwork “Dazed and Confused,” which was made in Austin and co-starred a cocky, hilarious young newcomer named Matthew McConaughey. 

A red carpet press-line was formed. Here comes McConaughey, who I haven’t seen in four years. He is arm-in-arm with two young women, and chewing gum. I hurl him a question. He stops on a dime before me, and says, pointing to his mouth, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?” Dimples flashed, this time with a shit-eating grin, and he brusquely walked away with an up-yours swagger. 

Perhaps, just maybe, I had pissed him off.

Forward five years, to 2008. I hadn’t seen People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (2005) since the “Dazed and Confused” screening and I was a little nervous as I was scheduled to interview him for the micro-indie comedy “Surfer, Dude” in Austin.  

He was there, in shorts and sandals, hair mussed and shaggy, mood ebullient. He greeted me with glowing teeth and cavernous dimples. He was almost ecstatic. He loved this movie. He was back. 

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McConaughey during our “Surfer, Dude” interview

At the end of a very friendly chat, I screwed up the nerve to ask him about that day when he repeated back to me, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?”

He laughed heartily. “I didn’t like the use of the adverb ‘conspicuously,’” he told me, practically slapping my knee. “If you hadn’t used that word I wouldn’t have cared!” He was over it. We cracked up.

The intricate dance of writer and subject is a fragile one. Like that, it can topple in misunderstanding. It can snap on the perceived power of one simple word. But people, even movie stars with eggshell egos, are resilient, forgiving and, sometimes, like McConaughey, true mensches.

How wine’s vines wrap around your brain

I am sipping wine as I write this, a chilled glass of Portuguese rosé that is an ideal swirl of sweet and dry, fruity and floral. It is 42 degrees outside. The fusty stereotype says that rosé is expressly a summer drink, just as some insist soup is only a winter meal. I say balderdash to both feeble-minded myths, which suffer a fatal lack of imagination. 

So, indeed, I am sipping wine (rosé!). And I am thinking of an article a friend sent me about the intricate neurological processes involved in the simple joy of tasting wine. It says: “According to neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, the flavor of wine ‘engages more of our brain than any other human behavior’” — be it pitching a baseball, basking in Bach, playing Fortnite or, I imagine, having tangly Tantric sex.         

I’ll drink to that (and I did). More, and listen closely as the ideas get knotty: 

“The apparently simple act of sipping Merlot involves a complex interplay of air and liquid controlled by coordinated movements of the tongue, jaw, diaphragm and throat. Inside the mouth, molecules in wine stimulate thousands of taste and odor receptors, sending a flavor signal to the brain that triggers massive cognitive computation involving pattern recognition, memory, value judgment, emotion and of course, pleasure.”

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I’ll drink to that, too, mostly because that passage was as complex as some of the most sophisticated wine varietals, and it kind of gave me an instant hangover. (Shepherd’s book, by the way, is “Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine.”)

Yet so much jibber-jabber is a buzzkill. So let’s for a moment detour to Turkey, the last place I really indulged in wine. Namely to Göreme, in Cappadocia, where I enjoyed a marvelous wine tasting. Just me, the sommelier and lots of wine.

After almost crashing a rented motor scooter about four times in the craggy hills of Göreme, returning the vehicle well before it was due, I was rattled. Walking to the town center, defeated and with a comical helmet head, I caught a sign outside a handsome restaurant that said simply “Wine Tasting.” It was time for a drink, a celebration that I didn’t smash open my head toppling off the scooter into rocks and shrubs.

Apparently I stumbled upon a hotspot, the newish Mozaik Restaurant, which is rated the #1 restaurant in Göreme on TripAdvisor. (OK, it’s TripAdvisor — take it with a grain of salt.) For about $18.50 you get four tastings of the varietals of your choice. The wines come from the rugged Cappadocia region, a local tasting.

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A rose from Cappadocia, served by my sunny sommelier.

Thing is, and I’m hardly complaining, my friendly host did not pour tasting measures — a few hearty sips — but pretty much full pours. I sat there for a good 90 minutes, sipping four glasses of wine — a Chardonnay, Merlot and, of course, two rosés. They were excellent, dimpled with notes and accents and bouquets and finishes and all that jazz.

I all but forgot about the scooter drama, because, little did I know, this was happening inside my head: The wine, recall from above, “stimulated thousands of taste and odor receptors, sending a flavor signal to the brain that triggered massive cognitive computation … emotion and, of course, pleasure.” (Italics mine.)

That’s a lot of action from a sip of fermented fruit. I know shamefully little about wine — I’m no vino snob; the rosé I’m sipping came out of a box — but I can tell good grape from rotgut pretty well. All that “cognitive computation” triggered by a “flavor signal” is nifty enough. But I think many of us agree it’s the “pleasure” that’s triggered that we are after. I’d drink to that, but, alas, my glass is empty.