31 August 2009

Is it really the last day of August?  I think 2009 will likely go down as one of the most un-summery summers in (my personal) history.  Tomato blight, rain rain rain, a tougher teaching schedule than I had in the spring, a series of ailments and illnesses.  My most summery activity was probably frequenting the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park semi-regularly; I even once, despite my lactose intolerance, enjoyed a delectable, life-changing frozen custard.   

I did spend Sunday of the last weekend of summer upstate in Ulster County with friends who have 47 sublime wooded acres bordering a large creek. If this sounds luxuriously summery, you’re mostly right; but the occasion for the visit was to have my author photo taken by kind and talented Robin, who happens to be a professional photographer.  

I fretted this outing for the week preceding.  The life of the writer — contra my previous life working in a professional office five days a week — is one in which meticulous self-coiffing and productive writing tend to develop an inversely proportional relationship.  I’ve never been particularly girly, but over the last two years or so, I’ve pretty much forgotten the how of the whole thing.  Hair?  Makeup?  Outfit?  Uy.  Like many-a bookish writer types, I fantasized sending in to my publisher a photo of gorgeous Pax the Pup, so naturally winning and photogenic (on Amazon, there is an explicit rule for Authors on the Authors  Administration Page:  Please, no photos of pets or children. Oh, cruel corporate guidelines!)

Pax Blanket

Bring a few different outfits, any makeup you normally wear, and something for putting your hair up if you want to try that, Robin had advised when we spoke on the phone.  Okay, I can do that, I thought.

By late afternoon, we had over 200 photos (the miracle of digital!).  This lighting, that lighting, the white shirt, the dark shirt, smiling, unsmiling, standing, sitting, arms crossed, arms by my side.  We included Pax in a few, for good measure.  The weather cooperated.  By the time we were done, my head was pounding and my stomach a little sick.  But I was grateful; it was done, and I knew Robin had done a great job despite my anxiety.

In a few days, all 200 photos will be loaded up to an ftp site for my review.  Somehow, I’ll pick one or two for the book jacket.  Similar to my previous ruminations about the book jacket design itself, I’ll ask myself: what’s the purpose of this photo?  What do I want it/what is it meant to convey?  How does the photo impact the potential book-buyer or reader, if at all?  Your thoughts?  To be continued…



27 August 2009

The Atlantic Monthly is nurturing a good debate about whether the Internet age is transforming our brains for the better, or for the worse.  This month, Jamais Cascio makes the argument for better; a year ago, Nicholas Carr made the argument for worse.  Both agree that our brains are indeed being transformed.

A year ago, I was on board with Carr; today, reading Cascio’s article, I find myself eager for a counter-argument.  What’s changed?  Essentially, I think I have grown exhausted of pessimism.  Which is another way of saying I am officially weary of my own fundamental temperament.

I just might be ready to be swept up in Cascio’s optimism:

If the next several decades are as bad as some of us fear they could be, we can respond, and survive, the way our species has done time and again: by getting smarter. But this time, we don’t have to rely solely on natural evolutionary processes to boost our intelligence. We can do it ourselves.

Most people don’t realize that this process is already under way. In fact, it’s happening all around us, across the full spectrum of how we understand intelligence. It’s visible in the hive mind of the Internet, in the powerful tools for simulation and visualization that are jump-starting new scientific disciplines, and in the development of drugs that some people (myself included) have discovered let them study harder, focus better, and stay awake longer with full clarity. So far, these augmentations have largely been outside of our bodies, but they’re very much part of who we are today: they’re physically separate from us, but we and they are becoming cognitively inseparable. And advances over the next few decades, driven by breakthroughs in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, will make today’s technologies seem primitive. The nascent jargon of the field describes this as “ intelligence augmentation.” I prefer to think of it as “You+.”

I feel cornered, to tell you the truth — my hands in the air in surrender.  There’s no turning back.  We have choices, but to resist is a lonely road.  If I were forty years older, the prospect of noble resistance might seem more realistic; I’d move to Kentucky and have evening tea with Wendell Berry, write about the virtues of a localized, work-with-your-hands (analog), live-off-the-land existence.  As it is, fifty-some years of resistance to technological trends would be like taking the other-worldly vows of a monk, but without the community or structure.  

I am a writer; words and how we interact with them is central to this technological revolution.  There is no way to non-participate, to be ignorant, of these major shifts.

So convince me.  I’m ready.  Show me the money.  Show me how all the compression and speeding up and gadgets will make both our minds and our souls better.  How digitization and byte-sizing of everything adds up to good.  How the lasting things will not be lost to us.  

25 August 2009

A string of technical difficulties this past week:  overload of my laptop hard-drive; a bug in my email program that wreaked havoc on my email archives; my laptop power cord went kaput; Internet connection issues (related to the email bug).  Ugh.  At such times, my version of road rage rears its ugly head, and I become a very, very, very unreasonable human being.  I begin to see the occupational hazards for tech support people.

In all this, I’m having to evaluate the contents of both my hard drive and my email archives (some 8,000 emails).  Time to sort and purge.  God, it’s painful.  I pride myself on the fact that I strive for a clutter-free environment in my  material life.  But in my digital life?  Uy yuy yuy.

Email archives are essentially personal journals.  What is the future of the email archive?  Will we soon be seeing “The Collected Emails of David Foster Wallace” in hardcover?  

As for hard drive files, I’m struggling with the twenty-three complete and partial drafts of Long for This World, each dated approximately monthly over a period of two years.  Any counsel from writers and/or highly-organized digital archivers out there?  “Get an external hard drive,” one friend has already advised.  I guess that will be my online research task this week.

21 August 2009

A package arrived in the mail the other day from my mother.

Miranda & Blair

As it turns out, Long for This World is not my first book.  Miranda & Blair, the story of two girls, best friends, who have a big fight but then make up and become best friends again, was in fact my first book.


Elephant and Mice

I have almost no recollection of writing Miranda & Blair.   This elephant’s behind does look familiar, however.  Apparently, Miranda and Blair take a trip to the zoo together; an elephant escapes; pandemonium ensues; four (blind?) mice save the day.


About the Author

“This is her first book and hopefully not her last.”  Ha!  That’s funny.  Who knew?  Even funnier… the book I am now working on is called Sebastian & Frederick —about a friendship between two boys (who reconnect years later as grown men).  Hmm… I wonder if I can work an elephant into the story line…

19 August 2009

It’s hard to say whether it’s cooler right now to love Mad Men, or to hate it.  I suppose aloofness would be the super-cool posture du jour:  Mad WHAT?  Don WHO?

At The Elegant Variation, a reprint of an excerpt from n+1, panning the show as “an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better.”  The writers at TEV themselves “came to it with an open mind, looking to fill a void left after the last season of The Wire.  We made it six episodes, walked away and never looked back.”

I’m a lover not a hater.   I recently stayed up way past my bedtime watching FOUR consecutive Season 2 episodes.  There were many other mission-critical things I needed to be doing (like, for instance, sleeping). With such obsessions, one asks oneself at some point, what’s this about? 

People who know me know that I’m not a particularly bandwagon-y type.  If  anything, I err on the side of suspicion when it comes to popular fads (and yes, I recognize that this is as flawed a posture as mindless conformism).  But I do notice that a lot of writerly folks love Mad Men (TEV and n+1 notwithstanding), along with The Wire.  People are split on The Sopranos (didn’t do it for me), Deadwood (run, don’t walk!), Six Feet Under (if I’m stuck in suburbia and someone has cable TV, I’ll watch it), and other HBO series, but The Wire and Mad Men seem to be staples among the literary.   

(David Simon has in fact said many times that The Wire was conceived to be “read” more like a novel than a TV show.)

It’s odd to feel part of this “club” of Mad Men lovers.  There is a faint self-loathing that creeps up, like how I feel when I’m at an Ikea on a Saturday afternoon and almost half the people I see around me are 30-something Asian Americans wearing solid-colored clothing and Daniel Libeskind eyeglasses.

What’s interesting to me is how different Mad Men and The Wire are from each other.  When I consider the two obsessions, I can’t help but compare.  The writing on The Wire is far superior, I’d say.  And the story lines much more complex and compelling.  I could watch The Wire — every season — over and over and over again and take greater and greater pleasure in the writing, and the characters, each time.  

With The Wire, I feel I am being both entertained and enlightened; The Wire is challenging, in a highly stimulating if slightly painful way (I feel the same way about David Simon’s Iraq War mini-series Generation Kill) — maybe akin to the experience of a David Mamet or Neil LaBute play.  Mad Men is an altogether different kind of pleasure: I am aware of being both entertained and indulged; to some degree affirmed.  Because, let’s be honest, as nice as it is to behold Don’s beautiful face in almost every frame;  it’s all…  about… the women.  

Yes, yes, yes, we women say internally as we watch Peggy, Betty, Joan, Trudy, Jane, Mona, Helen, Bobbie, Sheila, and that vixen Joy at the end of Season 2 saunter by in their fitted dresses and high heels.  I am her, and her, and her, and her, too.  

Don and Joy

I am (s)he as you are (s)he as you are me and we are all together.

And there you have it; for a woman in 2009, living the fullness of identity fragmentation, Mad Men is integrative.  Which I suppose is just another way of saying, it’s therapy.

17 August 2009

A couple of state-of-the-industry pieces on the Web:

Popular-fiction writers Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman discuss the strategy of giving their work away for free on the Internet to increase sales, buzz, and ratings (both are in favor).  Read about it (and listen to it) here.  I confess that when I first read the headline at Publisher’s Weekly, I thought it referred to EL Doctorow, and that’s what made me click over.  Now that would be something.

Literary agent-blogger Nathan Bransford declares on his blog that the age of being “just an author” (and not a promoter) is officially over.   He cites Thomas Pynchon’s lending his voice to the book trailer for Inherent Vice, and the fact that “even Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah.”  I also noticed that on Pynchon’s Web site, there is a link for a Pynchon Wiki — which is something like Cliff’s Notes on the Web, I believe?   

I’m not sure what the effect of Well, McCarthy and Pynchon are doing it is supposed to be exactly — convincing, or comforting, perhaps.  If Marilynne Robinson started blogging and making You-Tube videos, I personally would certainly take notice.  I guess for those of us who are still on and off the wagon — Analogians Anonymous — there are stages of grief; and the great-writers evidence effectively jolts us out of our denial.

15 August 2009

Long For This World now has a Facebook Fan Page.  Go here to become a Fan.

I’ve written here on this blog quite a bit about the weirdness of Facebook. (Even weirder is the idea of encouraging people to “become a fan”; once I set up the page, I “became a fan” of myself, and that was kind of surreal.)  I’m not honestly sure what a Facebook Fan Page is for, but I’ve been advised by good people I trust that it’s worth setting up and seeing how it flows.  Mostly I’ll post short updates on book-production progress, events, and other book-release related tidbits.  

Maybe it’s sort of like when women are pregnant and they update their friends and family throughout the nine months — I’ve gained 16 pounds(ugh)… We know the gender! (but if we told you we’d have to kill you)…  Finally stopped vomiting!…  Set up the Education IRA today!…  Painted the nursery yellow!

This blog has become rather meandering (enjoyably so) since I started it in February.  I guess the FB page is where, six-and-a-half months now to release, I get more focused.  If you’re inclined, do join me (and bring your friends along), and I’ll try to keep it inn-er-esting.