Free for a storytelling spree

Standard

Another one of those aimless, sprawling collections of thoughts, quotations, snippets floating freely in my brain … all on the vast topic of writing and reading. Thinking about how ideas come to fruition and lead to a story or a storytelling spree of some kind. I know I am doing little more than collecting a bunch of random quotations and thoughts – not doing anything particularly creative myself, and certainly not weaving together a story. But I am, as I write about below, creating new links and networks in my brain… which I guess is part of my process (also noted below).

The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“In the place of the ever-changing cloud that we carried in our heads until the other day, the condensing and dispersal of which we attempted to understand by describing impalpable psychological states and shadowy landscapes of the soul—in the place of all this we now feel the rapid passage of signals on the intricate circuits that connect the relays, the diodes, the transistors with which our skulls are crammed. Just as no chess player will ever live long enough to exhaust all the combinations of possible moves for the thirty-two pieces on the chessboard, so we know (given the fact that our minds are chessboards with hundreds of billions of pieces) that not even in a lifetime lasting as long as the universe would one ever manage to make all possible plays.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

To write is to embrace a certain freedom and break free from constraints you did not even know were there. Sometimes to write is to buckle down and find your way. Free to write our stories, or some story, we have to find the way to do it – and seize the freedom that allows us to… even if, as Calvino cautions, we shall never live long enough to make ‘all possible plays’.

This can be a considerable enterprise, depending on how you experience writing, the process of writing and creativity. And the how you do it does not even begin to touch the why.

The write way

For some, writing is like giving difficult birth, laborious, long and painful. Or like a marathon, tapping into the reserves of the entire being while also still being a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other exercise.

“Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

For others, it’s almost dissociative, but still subject to much self-doubt and criticism as well as somewhat cynical self-reflection.

“…there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

For others, it’s casual and easy. (I tend to fall into this category but only because most of what I write is not ‘personal’ and I am not personally invested in it.)

No matter what the process is like, or what the results, it’s still a process. Entirely unique to the storyteller. This is true whether the story is a work of fiction that many will read or a technical manual that only a handful will read. Being able to delve into and engage in this process is a kind of privilege, necessarily implying that the abilities and time exist to produce – something.

The process

When I think of the “process” I think of two different things. One is the literal process of sitting down and being surrounded by certain comforts or habits, which many writers discuss. I suppose mine is closest to that offered by Gary Shteyngart: “I write in bed next to a coffee machine.” There are so many other well-thought-out and explained processes (or non-processes), when for some, it’s literally, in the end, just rolling over, grabbing the computer and putting the coffee machine to work. (Admittedly I don’t have a coffee machine next to my bed, but I make cafetiere after cafetiere and bring them with me to the bedside table where I think, read, work and write most of the time.) Each person has his or her routine, largely, I assume, governed by the impulses that inspire or force one to write and by the aforementioned way a writer experiences writing (hard work, escape, etc.).

The second part of the “process” relates to everything that leads up actual creation and development. How do ideas form – how do they grow from embryonic seeds into a multicellular life?

The eyes and ears have it

“There are days when everything I see seems to me charged with meaning: messages it would be difficult for me to communicate to others, define, translate into words, but which for this very reason appear to me decisive.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

This stage can start out in the vaguest of ways. For example, I see something or hear something and jot it down, whether it’s the URL on the side of a van: eloped.se (which I figured would not be about eloping but about an electric moped), or a much fuller vignette. In the case of the URL, it is not that I will write about the URL, the van, or even the misunderstanding/difference in the language but only the fact that some piece of cognitive dissonance jolted me out of the moment, stuck in traffic, to think about other connections and linguistic associations. It’s about keeping the brain working and linking seemingly disconnected concepts together.

The ‘sprout’ of a fuller idea might be planted by a conversation. For example, when someone told me that he ended up with a copy of Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon album in every breakup he ever had, without ever having had the album himself in the first place. Now the proud owner of six copies, all of which were relics of relationships gone by, existing on media ranging from vinyl to cassette to CD, representative of the eras of which they – and the failed relationships – were a part. Perhaps a flimsy premise for anything, but certainly a human anecdote to fill in the flesh of a skeletal character.

The read way

Every writer is a reader first.”

The other part of this ‘germinating ideas’ is preparation, however unconscious. It’s sparking the brain constantly to think in different ways, walking down new paths. This is largely done with (excessive) reading. It doesn’t matter if you remember everything you read: “Books also change, via our mental models, the very reality that we perceive.

And this is the whole point. Changing the perception of the world around you, the people around you, taking on understandings you did not have before… and applying this newfound understanding to your own creativity – freely.

Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -“When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov

It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it? In this way, the reading and examining process, too, is like writing. And it’s through this other level of understanding, of seeing the written word presented in many unexpected and unusual ways, defying expectation, that the freedom of creativity is cultivated.

The freedom of creativity

“No one, no matter how alienated, is without (or unaware of) an irreducible core of creativity, a camera obscura safe from intrusion by lies and constraints.”The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

Regardless of what hard work it can be, the ability to create at all confers a form of freedom.

That is, when I reach a stage in my mind when I am ready to finally throw my hands up in the air at the powerlessness of having to tow the line, speak the party line full of marketing gobbledygook and corporate branding BS, of feeling rendered inert by the anodyne ‘voice’ of large corporations – either silencing me from within (restraint at being able to only say so much) or outside (as academics and journalists experience when entities like Google have outsized influence on what they can publish. Don’t be evil, my ass),  I am asking ‘what for’? To go on, continuing down this path of non-creativity forever until self-respect shrivels up and dies a merciful but none-too-early death? No. This is not what I was made for. I was, like many others, made to tell stories. I was not made to censor. I was made to create characters. I was not made to sit silently in offices and nod while someone describes another ‘campaign’ that will lead nowhere.

“Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist? What right does one have to play around with collective memory? Is there any credibility in getting these sometimes-disparate characters in tune? The starting point for all these characters was the thirst in them.” –Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Yes, I live in the real world, and for now, my creativity has to be partly channeled into this environment. And sometimes, strangely enough, reaching this stage of frustration, as described, opens the door to new clarity, a new approach to communicating in different terms, circumventing the “rules” imposed in these narrow frameworks. And isn’t that what true creativity is? Being able to find a completely fresh way to describe or communicate about something?

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

outside the comfort zone: trials of marathoners

Standard

“I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead. I repeat this like a mantra.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

When I was young – somewhere in the febrile netherworld between adolescent and teenager, I dreamt that I married a marathon runner, which seemed ludicrous at the time. Bookish and living in libraries, it seemed highly unlikely that I would ever meet a marathon runner, let alone have anything in common with one. (It may or may not be worth noting that this dream-world marriage took place when I was quite young, and the dream ended with the young marathoner husband’s premature death at 30, which led to my grieving by riding around in a car with a group of gay male friends.)

In the many, many years since I had this dream, I have never married. I am well beyond 30 myself now. I have, however, been involved with so many triathletes and long-distance runners, and lately I wonder, being as obsessed as I am with how things intersect and connect, why this thread has woven its way through my life. I have had my other phases, unconscious and unintentional, such as the French phase, the Microsoft employee phase, and so on (most likely these ‘trends’ happened because the people you end up meeting are all part of the ‘web’ in which you are woven and the circles in which you travel. Being with a French Microsoftie would probably lead you both to more French people and more Microsoft employees). But through all of the various phases, it seemed these people who chose to push and exploit their own bodies to extremes reappeared everywhere. I had always imagined I would have nothing in common with these human-endurance outliers, but I suppose there are aspects of personality I relate to: grit, solitude, being drawn to extremes, obsession with transformation.

Lately I have been trying to understand the desire and resolve to run in this way, to these distances and at such extremes of human capability or need. It was not a burning question, but things kept popping up to return the question to the forefront of my mind. First I read about a sedentary academic who eventually began to run 100-mile marathons. His article led me to read Scott Jurek’s book Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. Not a great book nor high literature by any stretch of the imagination (one of my “filler” books really) but nevertheless peppered with cliché tidbits and the odd literary quotes that add some texture as well as a how-and-why journey to the motivation behind this kind of lifestyle:

  • “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” —ERNEST HEMINGWAY
  • “Not all pain is significant.” (from painscience.com: “It’s the difference between engine trouble and trouble with that light on your dashboard that says there’s engine trouble.”)
  • As Thoreau, an American practitioner (though he probably didn’t realize it) of bushido and a pretty good distance walker himself, wrote, “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers . . . simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
  • Stotan sessions “beautiful and painful . . . underneath it all there was a sort of sound philosophy based on ‘Let’s improve ourselves as human beings, let’s become more compassionate, let’s become bigger, let’s become stronger, let’s become nicer people.’”
  • “You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone.”

Then I thought, well, Haruki Murakami has written about his own running in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. His insights weren’t much different from any other long-distance runner’s except that he often creates parallels with his writing:

  • “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.”
  • “In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
  • “So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.”
  • “Each person has his own likes. Once when I had a chance to talk with a sales rep from Mizuno, he admitted, “Our shoes are kind of plain and don’t stand out. We stand by our quality, but they aren’t that attractive.” I know what he’s trying to say. They have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan. So to the average consumer, they have little appeal. (The Subaru of the shoe world, in other words.)” (I liked this one just because it highlights functionality and personal preference – what works versus what looks flashy. I have always, after all, driven Subarus.)

But eventually I get some clarity from these readings and others – everything from personal reflections and essays to the more scientific and clinical approaches, such as an article on whether or not ultra-marathoners feel less pain, thanks to the Twitter feed of Al Jazeera English news anchor Peter Dobbie (yes, this kind of stuff comes from everywhere, doesn’t it?). Of course they don’t feel less pain – it’s psychological really – so it comes down to brain over pain (as the article states: “theory of pain catastrophizing and how that might be translated into pain management when you are 40 miles in and everything feels bad”). It all ties together so that these symptoms, if not catastrophic or apt to do lasting damage, can be assessed as non-critical discomfort rather than critical pain, can be overcome with some of the psychology, the tying the effort into a greater good, a philosophical drive toward being greater.

Someone asked me the other day about why I think our mutual acquaintance runs in insane ultra-marathon-type events. (Sure, in this case, she just wanted to find excuses to talk to me about the acquaintance, but I treated it academically, as I do with most things.)

She asked: “Why do you think he does it?”

Impersonally, I replied, “I don’t think it’s something anyone who doesn’t do it can understand.”

I have recently read several books to try to gain insight into marathon and ultra-marathon “thinking”. I told this ‘interrogator’: “I cannot claim to understand the pathology.”

She exclaimed: “So you think it is a pathology!”

Me: (haltingly) “Not in the strictest sense, no. But as a deviation from what most people do, yes, it is a pathology in that sense.”

Some exchange/banter followed about the insanity of it, but I started outlining (at least for myself) what I think defines the reasons why (if we must understand or seek understanding):

  • The people who do this kind of running often also tend to think it is as crazy as non-runners do … in the sense that they push their bodies beyond the limits of what a body should be able to do. Pushing beyond physical limits. Feeling more alive than ever while also being almost dead. This drives the process, the motivation and desire to continue.
  • An ‘extreme’ runner is not doing it because s/he thinks it’s “normal” or “middle of the road” even if it becomes normal for her/him.
  • The opposing forces of isolation/solitude, as long-distance running is a solitary activity, and community/camaraderie built with a group of others who find this ‘insanity’ to be a worthwhile pursuit.
  • The opposing forces of feeling control while also feeling out of control (i.e. “I can undertake this unfathomable feat; I can’t feel my feet/hands/can’t stop vomiting – can I go on? Can I do this?”)
  • A unique/unusual sense of accomplishment from doing something that most other people cannot do, even if they did not find it insane to consider.
  • Added bonus if the running endeavor can be connected to some concept of “doing good in the world” (a charity component, etc.)

“…and I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world.” -from The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner: Stories, Alan Sillitoe

I engage in my own form of marathon, which has nothing to do with running, and it tests resolve and endurance, too. It is my test for whether someone, in coming up against me, is built to last. The drive to run, but not running from something, cannot be entirely dissimilar – it is a constant test of tiring but continuing, reaching an outcome, elated and exhausted, but facing the demand to get up and do it again, insane or not.

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

1999

Standard

A trove of notes from the summer of 1999 – the past, while so well-illuminated feels like a part of a long and long ago night.

Summer begins, and I’m traveling around in Hawaii (Maui) and then all over Europe, accompanied by what appears to have been everything Nadine Gordimer had published at that time. The sounds of the Red Hot Chili Peppers followed/haunted me everywhere in the world I went. A Spanish guy who spoke no English tried to seduce me in Prague; an Australian tour guide named ‘Mat’ kept referring to every few-hours-stop in one city (without an overnight stay) as a “city lick”, which struck me as obscene; Budapest was enveloped in a massive thunder and lightning storm; Munich was unimpressive; I remember very little of Vienna other than the oppressive heat and a seemingly bipolar Australian girl; my hatred for Italy was born, as I lost my wallet and subsisted on the bits of various currency I had on hand for the various destinations (pre-euro days) I hit after Italy, although my time in Rome was made softer by meeting an American airline crew stuck there overnight; Luzern, my only stop in Switzerland, was civilized and orderly, as you would expect; I told a man in Nice that he had a piece of paper stuck in his hair; on a sweltering Friday night in Barcelona, John F Kennedy Jr’s private plane went missing; hellish times with hellish people in Madrid; a man came up to me in Tours and started saying something, which startled me, which caused him to ask if I understood French, to which I replied “un peu” – in English, he continued, “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” I said, “Thank you.” He replied, “No, thank you” as he placed his hand to heart dramatically and kept walking. Hahahaha. So French of him.

There are other bits that I noted nothing about, which I found less than impressive – London, Amsterdam, Monaco. But I fell in love with Berlin then but still have nothing to say about it.

After all of this I ended in Iceland, where I spent several weeks and knew I wanted to stay there. At the time, I thought forever. But it only ended up being about 8-9 years. Only. En route to and from Reykjavik I had to stop at Oslo Gardermoen, which was then new, and seemed so strange. Now it’s my “airport of choice”, like it or not, but back then I could never have imagined. By the time I got to Iceland, I had exhausted my Gordimer supply and bought new books (my new credit card had been sent to my friend’s house, so I once again had money) – Jose Saramago, Bohumil Hrabal, Haruki Murakami.

I never wanted to leave. Unfortunately, I did not listen to my instinct and did leave, and found that leaving had been a huge mistake. I should have stayed. At least I returned as soon as I could.

Photo (c) Paul Costanich.