Sunday, April 18, 2010

100 Minutes of Solitude

Essay in Embryo #6

In Aldous Huxley's
The Doors of Perception, the author takes mescalin under supervision to see what it would do to his brain. It leads him to requote Pascal:

"The sum of evil," Pascal remarked, would be much diminished if men could only sit quietly in their rooms.

When I read
Doors, it is unexpected. Living in a rented, furnished house in Rockport, Mass., N and I are lounging like tabby cats on a Sunday afternoon. I scan the owner's bookshelf and land on Huxley, settle down on the floor next to the record player, strap on big headphones, and listen to the following fugues:

1. Space 2001: A Space Odyssey (soundtrack)
2. Days of Future Passed (The Moody Blues)
3. Ben Hur (soundtrack)
4. Four Polonaises (Chopin)

I am unfamiliar with each record, and by the time I finish with Chopin, I've finished
Doors. A series of new, disparate sounds clamoring for space in the canals of my brain. Despite the long periods of voiceless sound, I am filled with voices that are, somehow, also shapes--a talking geometry that makes my organs itch.

is discussed as: voices; textures; a form of composition; a strict discipline described as boring, laborious; borne out of improvisation and thus the basis of idea; contrapuntal, or, "point against point"--things that appear as opposite, independent, but when paired, create something complex, inexorably human.

There is great space in minimalism, but when I cram my mind full of expansive, voiceless music, my first instinct is to write something down. I do not become the voice the music has left out, but just one that falls out of a cloud, trying to gather to the biggest drop I can before hitting the sidewalk, or, perhaps, striking an animal's tongue just as it gathers a whoop--silence a liquid in search of a voice.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Drafting, pt. 6

Time: 10:16 a.m.
Music: A Process in the Weather of the Heart | Radere
Mood: turned-in, turned-over, overturned

I have just sent out what will officially be the final version of my thesis, and it's not all that fulfilling (akin to being asked what it's like to "be 25" on your 25th birthday). The understanding this whole semester is that Thesis does not equal Book. And while this has made the process of revision far less scary, as there was never really any threat of failing, it has made the idea of finishing anything, ever, seem like a red herring sipping ambrosia from a holy grail.

While I made significant changes in the structure for this revision, changed some endings, and in one case wrote a new chapter, the main thing I took away from the experience is that there is much work to be done. With teaching and being in a fiction class this semester, the real revisions I need to make seem impossible to tackle. When revising a draft of a book--where the 'anything goes' style of original creation is no longer allowed--it takes a significant amount of time to get back into the book's voice. You have to sort of hypnotize yourself, casting the spell that you're not at your computer wearing PJ pants at two in the afternoon, but that you're actually an important writer with something worth showing an audience. Getting over the self-consciousness of this idea takes at least an hour of staring into space.

In order to auto-hypnotize, my process often involves: listening to incredibly long experimental songs, the more ambient the better, through big headphones--in this case, earbuds would be like a dutch boy's fingers trying to dam an exploding aqueduct. Then, I often find myself overcome by the speed of thought, so I turn everything off and plant my face in the couch. N has walked in on this a number of times. "What are you doing?" she asks. "Duh. I'm writing."

It can take hours for me to beat to papyrus pulp that self-conscious voice that loops, "I'm writing. A book. I'm writing a book," over and over. When I do, it will most likely take another few hours for a paragraph to emerge. It won't be until the next day that I can start expanding beyond that. So, even though I'm still in an MFA program, doing what I love, and being able to work from home for a majority of my week, it is not a schedule that allows for uninterrupted workweeks where I can manacle my mind with heady music or, stuff my face into a cushion.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Drafting, pt. 5

Time: 9:46 a.m.
Music: "Traversing the Fourth" | EloiSing
Mood: oatmealy

In keeping with the (self)conversation I started in the post All My People, I've been thinking a lot about this question of 'audience' and why I'm having such a hard time coming up with a clear answer as to who I hope reads this book (beyond the fantastical answer: everyone). As I'm slated to turn in my 2nd/final thesis draft in less than a week, I've written up a letter to my committee discussing the changes I've made. I go into the question of audience a bit, and so here it is in all its almost-makes-sense-ness:

A word on audience: S [a committee member] has been concerned, for a while now, whether or not this is a ‘religious’ or, for lack of a better word, ‘secular’ book. She mentioned that she was often uncomfortable with the use of Bible verses, and even the names God, Jesus, etc. Obviously, this is something I’ve been wrestling with for years. In my mind, this is a work of literature that I want everyone to read, regardless if they're atheists, Catholics, or satan-worshippers. I see my use of religious concepts as no different than Eula Biss’ use of research on telephone poles in No Man’s Land, or John McPhee’s research on, well, everything in the world (how does he do it?). The simple answer then, is to make sure I’m explaining things enough to let ‘outsiders’ in.

But there’s a bigger problem here. To get a bit philosophical, I think that my audience is defined by the book’s title. My audience are ‘Sleepers,’ for a number of reasons. In one sense, it is for the people who have had any amount of religious exposure, and have thus been left wondering what it all meant, and even more, how to begin talking about it. In another sense, it is my opinion that America’s capacity to parse religion has fallen asleep. Culturally, you’re either a Falwell or you’re an atheist, and heaven help you if you try to talk about God in any sense beyond the very broad, unassuming higher-power-however-you-choose-to-define-it manner. It is my belief that Christianity, from Catholicism, to Mormonism, and all the other wacky permutations, is the only allowable prejudice left in American culture. And no, I’m not saying that racism, sexism, etc. don’t exist anymore, but they’ve moved into a more disturbing latent form, rather than something professed openly in conversation, media, the classroom. It’s cool to hate Christianity, and laugh at its feeble-mindedness. We’ve gotten hung up on terms, on words that every individual reads their own experience into. To me, this renders the word “Christian” moot and useless. But, what I’ve learned from the few instances where people have indulged in the content of my book is that we’re actually dying to talk about the search for meaning, and not just in the relativistic post-modern sense. So, the title,
Wake, Sleeper is a call to myself to start dealing with these issues head-on, as well as, I hope, the same thing for anyone who has ever wondered what happens after death.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Call It What It Is(n't)

Essay in Embryo #5

The dialogue between my waking and dreaming mind seems to have moved from calling across canyons to chatting at a coffee shop. As in, my dream-stuff often sheds direct light on what I'm puzzling over when I'm awake (or, more likely, while I'm trying to sleep). Perhaps the mania of mild insomnia over the last three years has been building a bridge between the two worlds. Or, maybe it's like I've written the word create, and then smudged it with a dirty eraser until text and abstraction are a leaden swath of existence.

Ex.: I've been trying to think of a new idea for a short story for a fiction workshop. I contemplated writing something about someone (read: me) who has never punched anyone before. That night, in a dream, I somehow wrote a first line, and when I woke up, I decided it was actually worth pursuing. The line: "Tracy Billideaux swings and misses."

Your sons and daughters will prophesy

A common phrase I often heard in church was, "I felt the LORD telling me..." or, "The LORD gave me a vision about..." How were they so sure? What if they were misguided a bit? The consequences for putting words in God's mouth seemed steep. I also felt guilty, because, why couldn't I hear/see this stuff/Stuff?

your old men will dream dreams

Last week, at a party where there was much local beer and tea-infused gin, N and I headed upstairs to crash at the host's house. In a reversal of home-life, I was out in seconds, but N, despite the gin and Malibu, couldn't drift into dream. Then, amidst her buzz, she felt that she saw a pot in front of her, with maybe-God saying, Fill the pot. Fill the pot. In her state, this seemed logical enough, so she did. And slowly, as the pot filled, she fell asleep. "I don't know if it was God, or just me being drunk," she said. And in her admission of uncertainty, it seemed like the most believable Sacred Talk instance I'd ever heard of. She couldn't claim that she was a Holy Receptacle, and it was that humility that felt convincing.

your young men will see visions.*

A few nights later, back home and back to our normal sleep/sleepless roles, I couldn't make the sleep-leap. I was stuck in the drifting, just a touch too aware of the fact that I was falling asleep, and thus rendering the final nod impossible. Amidst the thought-parade, I saw a pot, and I was like, oh yeah; I guess I'm supposed to fill this. So I started pouring water from what was apparently 'my' pot into what was presumably God's pot (who, as it turns out, has the same copper-bottomed Revere ware as I do. It's just a lot more polished). But, instead of it staying there, the Pot kept pouring it back into my pot. But it wasn't water--it was an opaque golden syrup, or, maybe white wine--a sauvignon blanc, perhaps. Sweetening the pot, I thought, for reasons I'm still not clear on. Though, despite the lack of clarity, I felt rested by the whole ordeal. And that maybe going around convincing ourselves, and others, that God is always in the borders of sleep, could be soul-destroying. Something is lost in the telling, the writing, that reduces it to crazy or holy, David Koresh or King David.

*Joel 2:28