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.

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.”

The shame of ‘showrooming’ bookshops

I am one of them. I am scum. A scoundrel. Rude, obnoxious, miserly, cheap. 

I confess: I have gone into an independent bookstore with my phone or laptop, browsed, then purchased the books I wanted on my Apple device — inside the bookstore. 

I did not carry the books to the cashier and buy them. No. With withering impudence, I hit the Amazon app, clicked twice and bought the books online, saving on average $8 per title. It was disgusting. It was exhilarating.

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And it was wrong. No matter it was a decade ago, that cute little caper still reeks to high heaven. What I hate is that it’s probably worse than, if not equal to, what small bookshops are now dealing with: the tacky phenomenon of “showrooming,” explained here by The Guardian:

“Of all the insults that booksellers stomach, the most awful is the newest. Gone are the days when it was someone shoving a book down their pants … Now it is ‘showrooming’: when customers go to physical shops only to research purchases they will make online. This is a bugbear of the booksellers who have been engaged in a David and Goliath battle with online retailers for the past decade.”

Adds Keith Edmunds, a former bookstore owner, at Mental Floss: “They’ll come in and use their phone to take a picture of the cover and barcode and just use the bookstore as the Amazon showroom. It’s awful.”

It is awful. It’s gauche and sneaky. It gives one’s moral relativism a mighty workout.

As mentioned, I showroomed. Some 10 years ago at my local indie bookshop, I scanned the shelves for Vietnam travel guides, plucked three or four volumes, went to the bookshop cafe, cracked my laptop and bought the best titles — online, at huge discounts.

Back then, I thought this was hand-rubbingly clever, cutthroat capitalism in action: Screw you, full-priced bookstore. I found a real deal!

Even now I don’t like paying $18 for a new paperback that I’m not sure I’ll like and that I can usually get in used condition for $4 at Amazon (one penny, plus $3.99 shipping). And I admit, guiltlessly, that I shop Amazon a lot, though I’m more inclined to use the library these days, saving cash and trees.

On occasion I will haunt our local indie bookstores, used and new, but my fealty to them isn’t ironclad. I feel more spiritually crushed paying $27 for a book at the store than paying $16 for the same product online. It’s a virtue vs. Visa smackdown.

I want to support the local shops, yes, but it comes at a literal high price. I have philosophical quibbles with Amazon, even if many authors do not (word is they profit more from high-volume discount sites than full-price brick-and-mortar outfits).

What’s not cool is showrooming. If you’re going to drop cash at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, do it at home. Looking at books in a store helps you shop with accuracy, and asking staff questions about titles is invaluable. And why you’re there, you might actually buy a book from the indie shop, a move that could abet its fragile longevity.

A great tweet from the owner of Fountain Books in Richmond, VA, recently went viral:

“We had a lot of ‘showrooming’ today: people taking pictures of books and buying them from in the store and even bragging about it. This is not ok, people.

Find it here.
Buy it here.
Keep us here.”

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Your neighborhood bookshop. A showrooming-free zone.

On language: quote of the day

“Rather than make one’s argument come alive, clichés do the reverse. They capture a morsel of thought, cover it in batter, and fry it into mush.” — Mark Abley in The Walrus

For good measure, here’s a rogue’s gallery of flagrant clichés. As language guru William Safire put it (with a sardonic wink): “Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”

Don’t cry over spilt milk; Selling like hotcakes; The rest is history; Every cloud has a silver lining; When it rains it pours; Don’t judge a book by its cover; Don’t beat around the bush; Don’t count your chickens before they hatch; It’s a dog eat dog world; To be honest; Basically; With all due respect; Giving it 110%. It is what it is; Paradigm shift; Walk the walk; Pushing the envelope; Thinking outside the box; The elephant in the room.

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A few of my year-end enthusiasms

People, places and culture — little consolations — that are turning me on (saving me?) in the waning days of a sometimes unbearably tumultuous year …

  • Courtney Barnett — Guitar rock lives. Or so we can dream, a reverie persuasively advanced by grungy guitar-slinger Barnett, a pop-punk pixie who’s making some of the crunchiest, catchiest, folky-fuzzy rock around, music that sounds improbably lasting. A devout DIYer with a Grammy nod and fervent following, Barnett traces the raw, minimalist contours of Nirvana and the Pixies, with squalling distortion and a voice so uninflected that her Australian accent claws right through. That voice echoes the talk-singing and slightly nasal tones of Liz Phair, Patti Smith and The Hold Steady. Wincingly intimate, her jagged, jangly songs are shot through with personal drama and cutting irony. Often they’re downright hilarious. Choice cuts: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Debbie Downer,” “Avant Gardener,” “City Looks Pretty.” Watch her in concert HERE. And visit her squiggly world HERE.

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  • “Night Train”: New and Selected Stories by Thom Jones I didn’t even know Jones died two years ago. He’s one of my favorite short fiction writers and I kept wondering where in the hell he went, when he would publish again. I was alerted to his fate by this posthumous assemblage, plucked from Jones’ classic ’90s collections “The Pugilist at Rest,” “Cold Snap” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” each worth owning, and cherishing. But with this chubby tome, featuring seven new stories, including the typically mordant title tale and spanning the biting, semi-autobiographical Vietnam War epic “The Pugilist at Rest” to the absurdist vermin mayhem of “Mouses,” Jones’ spare, sinewy, mean and bust-up funny realism comes into exhilarating focus. Fueled by grit, violence and the tough tenets of his hero Arthur Schopenhauer, this is essential contemporary fiction.

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  • Gin and tonic at Angel’s Share  Last month I drank a gin and tonic with a Japanese gin I criminally did not get the name of at Angel’s Share, the dark, elbow-jabbing speakeasy in New York’s East Village. It was the smoothest, lightest, tastiest G&T I’ve ever sipped, spritzed with a gorgeously un-cloying tonic that was gently fizzy, not nose-tickingly fizzy. The drink was a perfect alchemical mingling of alcohol and mixer, a frosty masterpiece. (If only I could afford the $17 elixir more than once a year.) 

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  • “I Am Dynamite!” by Sue Prideaux — Penetrating and punchy, with an attractively light touch for the weighty subject, Prideaux’s new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my dearest great dead thinkers — atheism! nihilism! iconoclasm! self-invention! and more furrowed-brow brilliance — is like literary windshield wipers, a slashing text of clarification and demystification. Despite the luxuriously daunting walrus mustache and monumental scowl worthy of a grumpus Mount Rushmore, the German polymath — yes: a prickly, willful malcontent — wasn’t the poisonous philosophical force we’ve been warned of. (For one, he abhorred antisemitism.) Reason reigned, until it crumbled amidst the famous crack-up that would kill him at age 56. Dead: first God, then him. 

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  • Istanbul — First come the post-vacation blues: the immediate despondency felt when you return home from a great trip. Crap, it’s over. And then there’s the afterglow: the crazy satisfaction and rapture you feel when the depression burns off. Damn, that was the best trip ever! I got back from Turkey last month and I’m basking in the afterglow. I was mostly in Istanbul, one of few cities that can hurl me into a dream state that’s as wondrous as it is ineffable, an otherworldly stupor of sights, sounds and flavors, pocked by the lovable multitude of stray dogs and cats and the unfailingly caring and splendid people. I still savor my Istanbul lodgings, the über-charming boutique Hotel Ibrahim Pasha and, in Cappadocia in Central Turkey, the Pumpkin Göreme Restaurant and Art Gallery, where the cheap and divine fixed menu delivers the allure of Turkey on many plates. If I sound a little intoxicated by it all, I am. 
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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
  • “Skate Kitchen” — The young women of this scruffy 2018 skateboard drama are hell on wheels — or is that Chanel on wheels? No way. The tribe of shredding female street teens are all about the clacking and scraping of boards on New York concrete, smoking spliffs and coupling with the opposite (or same) sex. The star here is bespectacled Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a taciturn 18-year-old from Long Island who defies her mother for the skate parks and subways of Manhattan, where she’s promptly absorbed into a rowdy posse of all-girl skaters. The film is predictably sincere about teen rebellion equating to freedom and addressing, softly, teen politics and gender politics. Yet it works; it has kick. Crystal Moselle (2015’s hit documentary “The Wolfpack”) shoots with a meandering vérité camera, the city captured with gritty love and bloodied-knee realism, and music to match. The movie is on DVD and streaming. The trailer’s HERE.

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  • Cubby the Wonder Dog — The perennially pampered pup, huge heart, small bladder, gives as good as he gets — hugs and snuggles, mutual adoration, tricks and treats, ribald chit-chat over Scotch and cigars. We love the mutt with our lives, no matter if he begs, bedevils the cats or poops and pees on occasion and off the Wee-Wee Pad. Spiritual creatures, dogs are fuzzy founts of friendship, besting humans, I’m afraid. I’m rotten when I wake up, until I see that damn dog wagging his curled tail and things fall into place. Mused author Thom Jones (see above): “Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.”
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Cubby

The daunting and taunting of the bulging bookshelf

Nothing in a home excites me more than bookshelves crammed and jammed with actual books, as opposed to knickknacks, tchotchkes and corny picture frames. Filled right, they are towering works of art, swirls of graphics and oceans of colors.

I love engorged, groaning bookshelves, whose heaving pulp cargo functions as stylish and classy decor, the jostling spines stringing rainbow rows of erudition, edification and entertainment. So gorgeous and seductive is a grand, brimming bookshelf, it’s almost erotic.

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At minimum, it takes hundreds of volumes to stock an amply, aptly impressive bookshelf. It takes a collector’s fervor, an obsessive appetite for those bound squares of facts, fiction and, so often, beauty.  

But there’s this: Do we actually read all the books in these sprawling collections? Or do they act largely as pretentious decor, literary plumage that flatters the owner?

That depends, but I know I rigorously try to read every title on my shelves, as nearly impossible and as crazily aspirational that proposition is. Still, I don’t see them as frills and frippery. I simply think walls of books look amazing. (Bookshops and libraries: Platonic ideals of aesthetic glory.)

I confess I don’t read all the books I acquire. One, the quantity is too great, especially when new books keep crashing my bulging bookosphere. Two, not every book is worth reading — too many just aren’t good enough. 

So, as I’ve mused here before, I frequently dispense with books that aren’t thrilling me. The rate that I put books down at the 50-, 80- or 100-page mark is deplorable. It’s also necessary. I show no quarter.

“I own far more books than I could possibly read over the course of my remaining life, yet every month I add a few dozen more to my shelves,” writes Kevin Mims in this essay in the New York Times.

That is a sickness I know well. But mostly I’ve stopped this hoardish habit. I realize now that not every well-reviewed book or immortal classic is worth picking up.   

I used to work in a corporate bookstore — the biggest bookstore in San Francisco at the time — and, like that ravenous kid in the candy store, the one with chocolate smeared all over his mouth, I couldn’t help but accrue a gigantic book collection. It fast became overwhelming, so I kept a list on a lined yellow notepad of all the books I hadn’t yet read, planning to cross titles off as I went. Sheer folly, that.

I have since evolved and have become the prince of the partially read book. Though my shelves boast more tomes that I have actually completed, the rejects are copious. 

And then there are the books I haven’t even cracked yet, and may never get to. In his essay, Mims locates a term for this: “tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read. My personal library is about one-tenth books I have read and nine-tenths tsundoku.”

That doesn’t mean your fabulous bookshelves are mere pretty repositories, ceiling-scraping storage bins. They are libraries and all that that word implies: knowledge, art, stories, journeys, lives, cracking your head open with the world.  

Says Mims:

A person’s library is often a symbolic representation of his or her mind. A man who has quit expanding his personal library may have reached the point where he thinks he knows all he needs to and that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. He has no desire to keep growing intellectually. The man with an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.”

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* Late postscript: I stumbled upon this nifty quote in my readings later today. It’s from “The Bookish Life,” an article by Joseph Epstein:

So many books are there in the world that no one can get round to even all the best among them, and hence no one can claim to be truly well-read. Some people are merely better-read than others. Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.”

Biting into a tangy ‘Cherry’

The novel I’m reading now, “Cherry,” is gritty, witty, dirty, funny, grim — and marvelous. Compulsively readable, the rollicking fiction introduces in debut author Nico Walker a natural dynamo equipped with a dazzlingly fresh voice that has a compelling, troubling croak in it. It’s scratchy, a little hoarse, and it sings with a hard rock crunch. 

Almost universally acclaimed, “Cherry,” out this summer, is tough, streetwise and gruesomely war-torn. It is ugly, scabby — drugs, crime, graphic combat violence — yet lovely still, bristling with heart, candor and raw youthful love that throbs unvarnished truth. What emerges is a pungent, probing snapshot of America today, what has been dubbed “(perhaps) the first great novel of the opioid epidemic.”

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I’m just over half-way into it, so my take on the book isn’t fully formed, but early impressions beguile. Walker traffics in autofiction — like his narrator/antihero, he was a 20-year-old medic in Iraq, pulled bank robberies and battled a heroin habit — so he knows of what he writes. (Walker, 32, boasts a remarkable backstory: He wrote “Cherry” from prison, where he remains.) 

“‘Jesus’ Son’ meets ‘Reservoir Dogs’ in a breakneck-paced debut novel about love, war, bank robberies, and heroin,” notes the publisher.

So far the narrative sizzles with combat action and battalion buffoonery among low-level fuckups, not the slick, seasoned pros of, say, “The Hurt Locker.” The war reportage is colloquial and harrowing; the prose lean and sinewy and almost drolly unsentimental. 

“Cheetah was driving. Cheetah was a shitbag. He was big into Faces of Death and what was almost certainly child pornography. He would buy all the stupid gaudy knives the haji shops sold and mount them on the plywood wall above his bunk. He was driving that morning, and I thought it was stupid since he wasn’t even a grunt. He was the lowest ranking of three supply POGs in the company, and he wasn’t even good at that because he kept getting himself Article-Fifteened for being a moody knife-pulling shitbag.”

Walker’s “language — relentlessly profane but never angry — simmers at the level of morose disappointment, something like Holden Caulfield Goes to War,” says The Washington Post, accurately.

The protagonist’s romance with a girl back home leavens the drama at this point in the novel. Yet meanwhile there is this: unflinching combat that seems as vital to the story’s realism as any of it, and with which I will leave you. Hang tight:

“I said, ‘Where are the casualties?’ He said, ‘They’re all dead, you fucking asshole.’ I looked again at the body of the gunner. He was burned away, scrap of IBAS clung to his torso, legs folded up, femurs and tibias and fibulas with black tissue, arms melted, body eviscerated and lying on its guts, face gone, head a skull. The smell is something you already know. It’s cooled in your blood. The smoke gets into every pore and into every gland, your mouth full of it to where you may as well be eating it.”

No matter how horrible that passage is, it feels strangely and totally essential. “Cherry” is like that: so uncompromisingly true, it rattles you awake.