What Makes an Art Monster #deptofspeculation

“My plan was to never get married. I was going to be

an art monster instead. Women almost never become

art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves

with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own

umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill (2014)

* Read more

Sentence Level, thoughts during the editing process

I’m nearly done editing the first draft of a novel, and it’s a very engrossing process. I think I agree with Verlyn Klinkenborg that the most important task of a writer is to work at the level of the sentence. You can worry about plot and character and POV as much as you want but it won’t matter if the sentences aren’t works of art – ideally, every single one of them. I credit poets in particular with an understanding of the import of sentences. They can distill a thought down to a few words, or evoke an entire landscape with a phrase. One of my writing teachers at The Writers Institute, Harper’s editor Chris Cox, quoted someone saying that a short story should read like a poem, and a novel should read like a short story. This may be true and applicable in terms of structure. But in terms of voice, the ways that one can write a novel are infinite. There is no determinate on what makes fiction a work of high art. Read more

browser poem

CM Capture 4somebody once told me that when she gets distracted by the Internet, she just makes a poem out of the open tabs on her browser.


1)   gmail – here I just e-mailed my boss

2)   wethinkalone.us – here I signed up to receive a weekly e-mail from some writers including Sheila Heti, whose novel I’ve just read

3)   Vamoose Bus – here I am investigating the purchase of a bus ticket to Virginia, where my family lives, for Thanksgiving

4)   WebBeams – this is a portal used to get online at a coffee shop; today I used it at Bedford Hill, one of my staple writing spots, and I reflected that it’s a nice change to see fewer people on computers (because Bedford Hill only implemented the WebBeams policy recently; I’ve noticed other Brooklyn coffee shops doing this lately!)

5)   http://www.margauxwilliamson.com/ – a painter portrayed in Sheila Heti’s novel as the narrator’s (Sheila Heti’s) best friend. Much has been written about Heti’s novel so I’m late the literary party as usual, but God that woman has transformed literature in this hemisphere forever, I am sure of it. A woman writing about being a woman, and how fucking confusing that is (both the writing about being one, and the being one). A new work of literary fiction that takes place outside of New York, for a very nice change (ahem, Mr. Shteyngart/Mr. Lipsyte/Ms. Egan/Mr. Auster, etc etc etc). And the form—the e-mails! Each snippet of meaning, separated out and numbered! The lowercase letters! Each chapter title: “Margaux Goes To . . .” As if it were a children’s book, so cute, this woman’s story about the utter pain of living, of being a postmodernist creature divorced from most of nature, enslaved by economics, addicted to screens and substances. This is vital, crucial! Anyway, I think Margaux is a beautiful name (imagine having a name that ends with “X!” Wouldn’t you feel so special?) and I like her paintings

6)   A map of the New Amsterdam Market, where I went this afternoon for some special events, including an array of goods delivered by a wind-powered barge that sailed from Vermont. Don’t worry, all the magazines are writing about it already. After the event, I tried to shop at the market, but everything was too expensive. I finally bought a delicatta squash for two bucks (which I knew it would cost, even before it was weighed) and a ham/cheese/béchamel hot pocket thingy

7)   The Groupon page for exercise classes – I have too much energy, and I need to dance more often

I Like Dave Eggers So Much and Want to Know Him Better

Mae retrieved the certificate from her bag, and Jon’s eyes lit up. “You brought it!” He clapped quickly, silently, and revealed a mouth of tiny teeth. “No one remembers the first time. You’re my new favorite.”

“That’s very understandable. To spend time with your parents, believe me, I think that is very, very cool. I just want to emphasize the community aspect of this job. We see this workplace as a community, and every person who works here is part of that community. To that end, I wonder if you’d be willing to stay a few extra minutes, to talk to Josiah and Denise. I think you remember them from your orientation? They’d love to just extend the conversation we’re having and go a bit deeper. Does that sound good?”

CM Capture 2

The dialogue–it’s too perfect! It’s what makes Dave Eggers’ new novel so powerful. It depicts a world perhaps just a few steps away from Schteyngart’s dystopian Super Sad True Love Story, one drowning in technological communication. I laughed constantly while reading this excerpt, and occasionally slapped my forehead, muttering to myself, “Too true.” I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book, soon. Plus, the cover art is really lovely.

Indian Summer Reading

MidnightsChildrenI started on the plane from New York to Delhi (via Dubai) with the story of India’s birth, as told by Salman Rushdie through the eyes of one Kashmiri Saleem Sinai, who has psychic powers due to being born exactly at midnight on the eve of India’s independence (and its partition). The dense and elaborate prose was a perfect reflection of India as I encountered Delhi’s chaotic streets, the packed train, the throngs of pilgrims traversing Rishikesh–colorful woven fabrics resembled the litany of elegant words and plush dialogue, and the narrator of Midnight’s Children was like a cultural historian, explaining to me the intricacies of each character I encountered: Shiva and Parvati, sadhus and beggars, Sikhs and Muslims, the Indian Middle Class.

Upon finishing the behemoth, I dwelled in the essence of contemporary Rishikesh, which was founded on the legacy of Swami Sivananda, a doctor who discovered Hatha yoga in this city on the Ganges and made it massively popular in the West, by reading B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Life. Though I am not a practitioner of Iyengar yoga, he is exemplary as an author and as a proponent of the “householder” tradition of Hatha yoga, which allows a person to be at once fully committed to the dedicated lifestyle of a yogi and its ethical practices while also living a modern life, earning a living, and being a family member. Light on Life is organized according to the five koshas, the “sheaths” of existence: annamaya kosha (the outer/material/bodily layer), pranamaya kosha (breath and subtle body/chakras), manomaya kosha (the mind), vijnanamaya kosha (wisdom, intuitive intelligence), and anandamaya kosha (bliss, samadhi, the eternal Self). Using this form, Iyengar unfurls a beautiful and sophisticated treatise on approaching life through the lens of Hatha yoga, ethically and through asana practice, and through Patanjali’s ultimate trilogy of tapas (dedication), svadiyaya (self-study), and isvara pranidhana (dedication to the God within oneself). I read this while at the Anand Prakash ashram, a wonderful place that offers serious yoga classes and sattvic (energetically-balanced) food to people from around the world (and sometimes even Indians who are curious about “this yoga thing”!). 

But perhaps I had saturated myself just a bit too much with the wisdom and well-being associated with yoga, because I could not help but ignore all the spiritual books at the shop in Rishikesh and instead purchase Nabokov’s Lolita. Was it a bit incongruous, in a culturally-conservative country such as India with an ancient tradition of restraining or even dissolving all desires, to be delving into this artistic commentary on lust, perversion, seduction, and illicit fantasies? Maybe so, but oh the joys of such jaw-dropping prose, sentences so lofty as to make you forget entirely what country or culture you’re in and only think of the world of scuzzy American motels and 1950s society, bursting at the seams with its own hidden sins. In Pondicherry, after a short flight to the South and a bus ride from Chennai, I nursed an upset tummy and luxuriated in Nabokov’s prose and his protagonist’s strange obsessions while staring out at the Indian Ocean in between the stunning pages.

From there, my reading only strayed further from the golden path of spirituality. Not only that, but I added about a brick’s weight to my luggage by purchasing a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Why, you ask, would I do such a ridiculous thing? Well, I was actually reaching for Salman Rushdie’s recently-published memoir (equally as weighty, anyway), when the Jobs book caught my eye. How funny, I thought, that I’m traveling through India worshipping its antiquity while its urban centers are plunging ahead into a technological future. Maybe I thought that the Jobs book was actually a story about more than American culture–it was a story about where the entire world was headed. And when I flipped the book open, I discovered that Apple’s founder had, in his early twenties, wandered through India for seven months, barefoot, meditating and subsisting on very little food and pondering the nature of the mind. At one point he declares to the biographer that meditation is hard, but with practice the mind does eventually settle down. So, that settled it–I purchased the book and tore through it in about one week, and by the end I not only wanted to purchase an iPhone, but I also felt somewhat comforted by the fact that Jobs had been such a nonconformist and so dogmatic about his spiritual beliefs, even while starting up the company that became Apple. Could it be that, in a deep sense, the values and practices of Indian and Buddhist culture are actually an integral part of the one company that is arguably the backbone of American and perhaps Western culture today? Is the iPhone just another addition to a long history of American intellectuals and innovators borrowing inspiration from Eastern cultures–an example that, as the globalization adage goes, we are more interconnected than we even know?

Finally, of late, at the Western-aimed cafe called The Dreaming Tree where I often sip tea and eat salad when I am tired of having dosa and curd rice at roadside restaurants or ashrams in Tiruvannamalai, I rummaged through the communal basket for new material and came up with For Whom the Bell Tolls. Reading Hemingway’s account of the guerrilla perspective in the Spanish Civil War while lounging among American and European ex-pats who have stayed in India to live a low-cost spiritual lifestyle, I cannot help but reflect upon how lucky the current generations are to have the opportunity and the ability–due to money and the Internet, which allows people to work remotely and stay in touch with loved ones anywhere–to enjoy such a safe, comfortable, peaceful existence. Now our wars are, for the most part and sadly, fought by the underprivileged of society, while those who can afford to ignore them usually do. And I myself am so lucky to be able to enjoy this time in India, learning about yoga (in its many varieties) and the cultures here, reading and meditating and taking walks around the sacred mountain Arunachala. Or perhaps these words of Hemingway say all of this and more, so nicely:

“But in the meantime all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow, over and over again (I hope), he thought and so you had better take what time there is and be very thankful for it . . . So if your life trades its seventy years for seventy hours I have that value now and I am lucky enough to know it. And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it.”

“Courage and Encourage: Recording Dehumanization at Guantanamo, PEN World Voices Festival #PEN2013

tumblr_inline_mmebup59dC1qz4rgpThough it may be true that, at least in history, values, be they of a nation or of humanity as a whole, do not survive unless we fight for them, neither combat (nor force) can alone suffice to justify them. Rather it must be the other way: the fight must be justified and guided by those values. We must fight for the truth and we must take care not to kill it with the very weapons we use in its defense; it is at this doubled price that we must pay in order that our words assume once more their proper power.

Albert CamusChroniques Algériennes in: Essais p. 898 (Pléiade ed. 1965)(S.H. transl.)

The PEN World Voices Festival took place in the midst of a months-long hunger strike amongst detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the prison site that has been at the heart of many debates and scandals around the use of torture by U.S. Military. One of the panels, called “Writers and Resistance” and featuring attorney David Frakt, former General Counsel of the Navy Alberto Mora, author of The Torture Report and Director of Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN Larry Siems, and Bosnian-American fiction writer Aleksander Hemon, examined the various ways in which American officials courageously wrote reports of detainee abuse.

At the opening of the panel on Saturday, moderator Lynne Tillman highlighted an important relationship between “courage” and “encourage,” noting that this is where PEN fits in—writers know that PEN has “got their backs,” and so they are encouraged to be courageous. Read more