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Monday, December 31, 2007

Finishing the "Letters" on the last day of the year

I think it was not only absorbing to read James Wright's letters, but there was so much to learn about writing... and about life in general. The last few pages were passing by, one after the other, and there I was worried over the fact that the magical and wonderful journey this book became in my life the last few weeks was about to be no more, just like 2007 in a few more hours. Thinking is beyond the mere fact of existing for me. I think all of the time, literally about everything. I admit a certain inclination to become obsessed with thoughts, morbid ones and regular ones as well. This year one of the most prevalent thoughts (read: obsession) for me was the question of existence in general. And this is what brings me to James Wright's letters again... He wrote:

"Spinoza says that the human being is a miraculous creature, and his miracle consists in his capacity for love. He can love anything, from an atom all the way to God. But it is just there, says Spinoza, that the tragic difficulty arises. For man must realize that his capacity for love gives him no right to demand that anyone love him in return. Not anyone. Not even God. I have found that a hard thing to face, but there is something in it that goes beyond pain."

The depth of this sentiment is really, as he states, beyond pain, beyond words themselves. Now, we can disrobe all the poetics out of love and concentrate on its bare fundamentals, and perhaps we do indeed find that we give love as an act of altruism or unselfishness. What of it, then? It remains the same existential question: "Must life have a meaning in order for it to be lived?" The end is the end, Wright reflects, for in a few letters further down the pages he writes to Robert Bly about his throat cancer which would eventually end his life. There are only a few letters dealing with Wright's illness, very brief in all... and I am sure that the editors (which included his wife at the time, Anne Wright) didn't want to post much about this but just the bare minimum. It is all too private to leave in the open. After all, it is in fact "The Selected Letters..." I am not quite sure where this entry is going. My thoughts have been in a jumble the last few days anyways. I have been pondering upon which direction to head in the new year for several months now, and I think I am now close to the answer. Certainly, the aforementioned passage was a determining factor. As my Jewish friends say: "Next year in Jerusalem..."

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

2007: Looking back, James Wright and New Reading List

Many of the events of this passing year are now long behind me. I say that because despite a pretty active November (NaNoWriMo), the second part of the year moved slow, as if not wanting to jump off that inevitable cliff called December. The highlight of my summer, of course, was the visit by Eugene and Ilse Dumolin. I worked very hard this past summer too, something I am trying to break the habit of doing. It's not that I am not going to work at all, but I learned this year that a lot of preparation doesn't mean less work later on during the semester. At any rate, that is done and it is now irreparable and incommunicable.

"The Selected Letters of James Wright" continue to drip out of the covers of that book like sweet honey. Wright is a master poet, and without repeating myself too much I don't want anyone arguing that point with me unless, of course, you are a Wright scholar of some sort. Otherwise, we have nothing to argue about. This man's brilliance is without comparison. To struggle and write like he did is nothing short of a blessed miracle. Here he takes account of his ongoing bout with depression:

"The illness is strange--I tried to describe it to you in one of my earliest letters to you. It is that catathymic depression again, but this time it has come very close to crippling me to the point of really blocking off any ability to function at all.... I have been getting the shuddering horrors, indescribably so, and frequently going to pieces, sometimes in really mad and violent ways.... I see less and less reason for bothering with anything. Anything at all. I know I am too tangled in the wrong kind of life ever to get out of it. I just wish I could forget the despair.... You know, sometimes I try to escape the thought, but it returns and returns and returns: that some day I shall rise at morning and simply walk outside and away, leaving everything behind, like Buddha."

Wright's ability to write despite this ongoing bout with depression is something I will never be able to understand. In 1959, this man was at the height of publishing, writing essays for critical analysis, etc., all the while suffering from a paralyzing depression. If that doesn't cure the most stoic among us, I don't know what will. His letters have been a source of comfort to me throughtout most of this year. I have read them very carefully, taking my time and seeing in them the succor any writer needs when in doubt of the writing process. I still have over 150 pages to go and I am taking it slow, savoring every word from this genius. While I've only posted from the letters, pretty soon, (perhaps in 2008) I will post from the "Selected Poems," a book which has won my admiration because 1) the letters, and 2) its capacity for wonder and awe.

What's interesting about admiring a person for their genius is that one ends up remembering things that otherwise would just slip between our intellectual radars. I have a deep appreciation and admiration for George Washington. I think it began in middle school. A couple of days ago I was thinking about Washington's crossing of the Delaware river to go attack the Hessian mercenaries stationed at Trenton, New Jersey during the War for Independence. I was driving to the store around 9 AM when I remembered that that very same morning, December 26th in 1776, around that very same time, Washington was attacking the Hessians into what would be the turning point of the war. Washington has a special place in my heart. Don't ask me why, but I appreciate his tenacity and his unwillingness to give up or surrender the cause. If you ask me, that's the kind of president we need right now.... so vote George Washington in 2008.

I decided a while back to only read "Classics" this coming year. While the gesture was an honest one, I started having second thoughts because I find it very limiting; specially when my eyes and hands simply cannot or do not want to stay put in one specific genre. I am certainly not giving up entirely on the classics; think of it, I am reading titles it never even crossed my mind to read (for example, Charles Dicken's "The Pickwick Papers"). The list doesn't seem overwhelming in terms of numbers (there's only 23 books on the list right now), but the majority of them are "kilometric" titles (Tolstoy's "War and Peace"). Seeing that I still have much work to go on "The Silence of This Wall," before June 2008, I will say that the list is ambitious for the amount of time I might have. Of course, I will be timing it so as to take advantage of things like, my upcoming trip to China in April (nothing beats 14 hours of non-stop reading--believe me, I've done it twice coming and going to Japan). At any rate, here's the official picture for the 2008 Reading List: LIST

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gatsby turned out all right in the end...

One of my greatest fears and insecurities when teaching the "Survey of Classic American Literature" course is always the persistent worry that students will not appreciate the exquisite languor and perfection of "The Great Gatsby." I insist from the very beginning that we take out time and read slowly. Perhaps it is because the book itself has become a rite of passage of sort, that the expectations are, no pun intended, great. The students of today have little intention of putting up with a book they "dislike from the start." So it is with a heavy burden that I begin introducing this classic of American literature hoping that, as the narrator concludes, the book--as the main character--"turn out all right in the end." This semester it did. I know that I have written on this blog about reading and writing, but it feels I have neglected teaching as a central idea and experience. I am glad to be correcting that lack today.

What I try to emphasize at the start of the instruction period about this great book is how much F. Scott Fitzgerald put into it. The book itself is slightly over 50,000 words. I consider it the great miracle of literature because for a writer to put so much into a book, a transfixing and complicated plot, deeply fleshed characters, and above all the poetic and lyrical language used, is to me the most amazing and outstanding artistry of this book. It was a relief when I started to realize the students' appreciation. Some of them read ahead because they "couldn't wait for the next reading assignment." They singled out entire passages and read them out loud, appreciating the taste as if the words were fine cheese or some other delicacy. In a world that has become too dependent on technology, too fast for people to notice beauty, it is a relief that all (and I mean ALL) of these students enjoyed this book so tremendously. I think one of the passages that moved the students the most, (and I am being partially biased here), is when Nick Carraway, the narrator states:

"It was seven o'clock when we got into the coupe with him and started for Long Island. Tom talked incessantly, exulting and laughing, but his voice was as remote from Jordan and me as the foreign clamor on the sidewalk or the tumult of the elevated overhead. Human sympathy has its limits and we were content to let all their tragic arguments fade with the city lights behind. Thirty--the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair. But there was Jordan beside me who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age. As we passed over the dark bridge her wan face fell lazily against my coat's shoulder and the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand."

Amazingly, students took Nick's relationship with Jordan a bit more serious that I had anticipated. Their break-up (as subtle as it was) had to be pointed out to those incredulous students who didn't want to believe the story was coming to an end, and that whatever relationship Nick and Jordan had in chapter nine needed to be salvaged and carried forward. This and all the other enjoyable memories from these last two weeks will definitely carry me over to the next term. This is teaching the way it should be... free thinking and exploration, drinking the sweet meaning of literature, breathing it like fine dust into our lungs until we are about to explode with enjoyment.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Struck by the Awesome Power of Melancholy

James Wright is a genius, and who ever says otherwise is itching for a fight. Presently, the reading of "The Selected Letters of James Wright" finds me in 1964 (all the letters from 1963 have been, unfortunately, lost). Wright is suffering from a tremendous depression, while at the same time putting out some of his best poetry ever! How this giant of a man is able to concentrate on the creative power of his own voice when only torturous thoughts about his past invade his peace is totally beyond me. But there he is, blessed Wright, with the soul of a Greek god, writing his heart out both in poems and letters. There are several letters to other people about Robert Bly that leave me wondering... did Wright really like Bly at all? At any rate, some of these letters are up for argument, and some of the things that Wright says about Bly to other people (for example, his hesitation at times to support Bly's journal "The Sixties), seem contradictory and two-faced. Never mind me... reading through some one's "selected letters" has a quality of voyeurism and one must not pass judgment while at it.

It is still happening to me, you know, that "writer feeling" I was talking about last week. I am going back to many things I read a long, long time ago about writing fiction... about how characters begin to do things on their own, about how Joseph Heller could think about his plot and work out problems while brushing his teeth... all those things that I previously considered "overly romantic and fake perceptions of the craft" are now happening to me seamlessly. I think (at least I am almost certain) that I solved a crisis moment in my novel while I was brushing my teeth this morning. So those things actually DO happen, and they have stopped being "over romanticized fakisms" of writers in general.

Other efforts are now brewing in the percolator... can't wait to get to them.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

James Wright's Letters...

For some odd reason I have neglected to tell of my late-night readings of "The Letters of James Wright." I have been savoring these kernels of writing know-how for a few weeks now and I have forgotten to write about them here. Right now, James Wright is struggling with a massive depression that sent him to the hospital, and finished off his first marriage. It is often said that to be a poet one must really know suffering (sort of like singing the Blues, I guess). If this is so, I say James Wright paid the price three or four times over the norm. But his suffering was also our gain; his most moving poetry comes from this time. I love reading his letters to Robert Bly, they are full of such optimism for the writing process and so much belief in it. I often struggle with this idea. I abandoned efforts midway through because I didn't yet believe in my "voice." Even after publishing a handful of short stories in publications that went bankrupt the moment the issue hit the bookstore stands, I never considered myself a real writer. I have to believe like James Wright believes in those letters. They are full of love for the craft, and I must work hard to develop my own belief as well. The picture above is of me the day I crossed the 50,000 words mark making me the winner of NaNoWriMo on November 24th. It was the day when everything stopped for me as a non-believer. It also allowed me to go back to my Moleskines instead of writing on a blank screen with a pulsating cursor. I am not a Luddite, but script makes me remember those long days at Crocker Park writing like the end of the world was coming, week after week, so much material. And then the day that I suddenly stopped, lost all my faith in what I was doing, closed the Moleskine, and walked away. Incidentally, I was looking at some of those notebooks today and I realize that after my long stretch of revisions with the draft in front of me, I am going to definitely hit that other hard-driving plot again. But right now it is all and everything about the present project. Revise, revise, revise... this is a craft, and I love it and no matter how terrible I really feel inside about other issues, I will struggle against all odds and finish this. I believe in it and I believe in this new lease on life writing has given me. God bless you, James Wright, wherever you are... I always knew your book would enlighten me and teach me.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

December is the cruelest month...

Not really, but since I am not going to (in all likeness) be able to finish my reading list this year (by four books), I now declare December a hostile month. Just kidding. I know T.S. Eliot had more to say about April than I have to say about December, so I'll leave it at that. I have been reading "On Bullshit," by Harry G. Frankfurt. The volume is a quick read through an intensely high discoursed theory on why is there so much bullshit in the world. It may or may not be humorous to some, but the fact that one can tell its "tongue in cheek" suaveness is a real treat. Prof. Frankfurt aims to answer "what is it, what it does and why is there so much of it." I have been touch and go in my reading of this, but I should be done before the week is out.

Since I have so much to do before "The Silence of this Wall" comes out in print, my reading list for the year 2008 is rather limited in scope. I will be reading "classics" primarily, but I have added some re-reads to the list because I feel they are essential to my growth as a writer. One of these is a beautifully, mint-condition, first printing of Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum." If you have never read it, I can only describe it as magical. It is really one of the most fantastic and well-written books in the world (no exaggeration, as the NYT once said about "One Hundred Years of Solitude," "This book should be required reading for the entire human race."). My love for "Foucault's Pendulum" grew out of a road-trip I had with a very wealthy friend who, while being in college, had a $85,000 car. We took his BMW all the way to Washington, DC all the while listening to Tim Currey masterfully reading it in Audio Book (here is a sample reading). I was hooked immediately. If you have read that book by a guy named Dan Brown, then you'll know where all those accusations of plagiarism came from if you read "Foucault's Pendulum." At any rate, that and some other "classics" will be my reading list for next year: some Dickens, more Brontes, Tolstoy, etc.

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