Archive for April, 2016

Soundtrack to messing about with other people’s words

I had some things I was going to say about dialogue today, but in thinking about talking, I got distracted by this question: Why couldn’t I have chosen work that would allow me to listen to whatever I want? I know people who listen to podcasts all day long and perform billable tasks at the same time. There isn’t a single thing in my workday that can be done to the accompaniment of someone else talking. Even most music is out. I love the image of ploughing through a task with headphones on, you know, like the programmers in The Social Network. But that is not my lot.

I can’t recall the context now but one of my sisters once told me she liked to imagine me lighting into a new manuscript to the opening scene in Pulp Fiction,including both the restaurant robbery and “Miserlou.” I was delighted. Mostly, does this mean she thinks I’m a little bit cooler than she usually lets on?

In fact, most of the time I’m not listening to anything. Or rather I’m listening to the manuscript I’m working on as I read it, in my head. But there are certain stages of the process when I can loosen the grip on silence a bit and for that I have a couple of playlists that I add things to a few times a year when I realize I’m in a rut. The first consists of classical, most of it admittedly fairly pedestrian:

Schubert, Trout Quintet (Jeno Jando, Kodaly Quartet, Istvan Toth; conducted by me, with gusto)
Bach, Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould)
Bach, Cello Suites (Pablo Casals)
Grieg, The Complete Piano Music (Einar Steen-Nokleberg)
Fanny Mendelssohn, Das Jahr (Lauma Skride)
Handel, Messiah (London Philharmonic. No really, not just for Christmas.)

The other list is jazz. I went through a stint this winter of trying to bolster my jazz situation. I wish I could say it was due to some nobler inspiration, but really I was just watching Homeland at the time and wanted more of whatever Carrie was listening to while skulking in her car. Here’s what’s stuck:

Brad Meldhau, Highway Rider (I also have a few of his early albums, but this is more … outdoorsy or something.)
Oscar Peterson, Night Train (except for “Hymn to Freedom,” which just derails me from anything else I’m doing)
Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um
Bill Frissell (with Ron Carter and Paul Motian), Eighty-One
Bill Frissell, Blues Dream
Keith Jarrett, Koln Concert (old fave that’s been in steady rotation most of my life)
Keith Jarrett (with Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette), Up for It

Lyrics are allowed in when I’m typing up my notes (and for the most idiot-proof of inputting tasks). With every project I reliably hit a weird little lull I can’t quite explain somewhere in between typing my editorial notes in note form and turning them into real live sentences. I’ve usually been with a project for a couple of weeks straight at that point and I’m keen to get it to the author and I’m SO CLOSE. For making this happen I rely on Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne album. Every time. For whatever reason, those first few seconds of “No Church in the Wild” snap me into instant productivity. I feel I should account for this, tell you that I hear those lyrics and what they’re saying about women, or on the other hand apologize, to those who care more, for this album being kind of ancient by now. Sometimes typing up notes just wants what it wants.

What I’ve been thinking about when thinking about blogging (and only thinking about it)

When I look over my dayplanners and scraggy little notebooks for the past couple of years there are probably a hundred notes to myself to write a blog post. Or to write “three blog posts this month” if I was engaging in a particularly ambitious spree of planning and self-improvement at the time. It’s not just that I think I should do it; I’ve missed the writing. So what’s been the holdup? It’s just a goddamn blog. What have I been thinking about while studiously not writing anything?

Most recently I’ve been thinking about the backlash against personal essay collections and the notion of “confessional” writing and whether it is self-indulgent. I’ve been reading a lot of personal essays lately, in collections by Roxane Gay, Meghan Daum, Lena Dunham, Anne Fadiman, and others, and putting aside the question of why the confessional or the personal should be pereceived as problematic in the first place, I’m reading them because I’ve found in them writing that is eloquent and honest. This is something I think is an accomplishment, fundamentally artful, and what I read for, in all genres. There’s nothing easy or particularly indulgent about it.

This week the presence of the “I” in book reviewing is being debated over at The Walrus magazine. So I’ve been thinking about that and how the expectation that you begin a piece of writing at a distance from yourself on the day you are writing, like getting the cab to drop you off a few blocks from the party, can be mighty stifling. Specific to book reviewing, what is this idea that we not speak about what informs our reading? This is not, to my mind, quite in the same league as the problem of the interviewer who won’t stop talking about themselves.

I’ve also been thinking about well-respected authors I know who are incredibly uncomfortable about and even disdainful of the idea of sharing anything of their private lives in their published work, let alone on the internet. Their voices are in my head whenever I begin to write something that reveals even the most salient details of my life. What I’m belatedly coming to realize, though, is that it’s important to be selective in what you take as life lessons from people who aren’t willing to reveal anything about their lives.

Then I’ve been thinking about other bloggers. The bookish blogs I like best are the ones that combine readings and thinking about literature with something of the writer’s daily life. Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This and Mary Beard at A Don’s Life are two of my favourites. Both are very open about using blogging to hash out their ideas along the way and are not shy about doubling back, changing their minds, revising their positions on things, or, you know, occasionally talking about bathing suits if that’s what happens to be top of mind that day.

I’ve been thinking about all the things I’ve talked myself out of writing anything about because I wanted to appear focused and on topic. The other day I went through the entire archive of my blog before I stopped writing it in the fall of 2014. Granted, this was not an especially arduous task since between announcements about getting poems published and reviews of books I’d edited and so on, I had really only ever written maybe twenty-five thoughtful posts that had taken me any length of time. It’s not nothing, but it’s not much. Right away, though, I became very annoyed by the tone in these posts. Who was this chipper camp counsellor type? It took me a while to grasp that the effort of not saying too much about myself and not tackling any of the broader issues swarming around my reading (mostly for fear about being out of my depth) was making me annoying, even to myself.

On saying too much: While I haven’t been blogging, I’ve been in a long in-between time–in the soup, as I like to think of it. A couple of years ago the relationship I’d been in since my early twenties ended and even though I’d always been adamant about it not being a marriage, when you live with another person for a decade it will tend to take on almost all of the trappings of a marriage. In short, it’s been weird. I’ve also moved six times since then, and if you don’t have a solid writing practice going, moving is a sure way to not establish one, in my experience.

On a less strictly logistical level, one of the things that changed after this breakup was the direction of my reading, which I didn’t quite know how to talk about because I was very determined not to be confessional. Just as an example, did you know that in the world of mystery/crime writing, the majority (I think I can safely say this) of sleuth-protagonists are single? The female cohort has interested me most. Some of them are what you might expect if you have a poor impression of “cozy” mysteries with self-described plucky, headstrong female sleuths (whose adventures are usually financed by hefty inheritance funds). But then there are protagonists like Claire deWitt (Sara Gran) and V.I. Warshawski (Sara Paretsky). They are smart, often cranky, and running their own show–albeit sometimes badly. Being a single person who is self-employed, I am a walking, talking sole proprietorship. And in mysteries, lately, I have found a reliably inspiring vein of reading that speaks to this experience.

What I’m going to be blogging about for the next while:

My reading and what informs it. Maybe I’ll get out of my depth and one of the voices in my head will manifest as a real live person on the internet telling me I’m wrong. Anything’s possible.

Book editing. I’ve been editing books for thirteen years, but save email conversations with other editors and notes to authors on how to improve their work, have not written (or presented or anythinged) much on the subject that occupies my brain most of every day.

Genre fiction. As I’ve tried to articulate here before, I find the perceived divide between genre and literary fiction problematic and would like to pick away at that more.

Physical books. I’m not going to chastise anyone who prefers e-readers (I would have once!), but I do continue to find the physicality of paper books interesting, in terms of the coincidences that happen when books are in the same room together, borrowing other people’s books, marginalia, the random things that fall out.

And, you know, there’s going to be some personal minutiae along the way, so settle in or shuffle off, as you wish.