What I’m Reading, What I’m Writing

Reading:

Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, Charles Baxter

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Blanco, Allen Wier

I’ve written a short (1200 words) essay about one of the pieces in the Baxter collection and sent it to a few places. I may run it here soon. One of the interesting things about Burning Down the House is that it was written 20 years ago the first essay, “Mistakes Were Made,” anticipates the narrative dysfunction gripping what’s left of the national discourse.

Hemingway is a re-read. I’m enjoying most of it. There are some things I cringe at, which forces me to ask question I probably wasn’t asking as a younger reader (and as a hunger human being).

I recently watched a talk by Allen Wier on YouTube and really liked it. I just started reading his first novel, Blanco. It was published in 1978. I’m only two chapters in, but the writing is tight and I’m excited to see where it goes.

Writing:

I have a second, very brief essay (650 words) out to a few markets. It’s about relationships, which, really, all fiction is.

I have a new short story (5000 words) out for editing, and a second new story sitting at about that length with probably 2000 words to go. It hasn’t stalled, but I have had to put it aside because the final piece of it is, for me, too emotional at the moment.

I’m revising a novel manuscript that I worked on during my MFA. Doing that brings lots of highs and a few lows. There are bursts of new creativity, and characters are doing things that surprise me. My subconscious is planting symbols and loose ends that are being addressed later, the narrative is coming together. I suppose the only thing I’m really afraid of in life (apart, of course, from things involving relationships) is that I won’t finish this project. Not because it’s hard (it is, and should be), but because of the chance that something stupid will stop me in the middle. So, I need to keep that crucible, imposed only by my own anxiety, in check.

I visited with a friend in the hospital this past week and we talked about the things we need to do be in good head space. When I find anxiety medicine working, I eventually forget to take it. He had a good solution: “set an alarm on your phone.” What I’m trying to say is that anxiety is not a great muse. The things I’m reading are helping with the way I’m thinking about narrative structure, and that, in itself, brings some anxiety. But on we go.

On we go.


Paul Krugman and Leonard Cohen on Depression and Depression

Paul Krugman Mellencamp has finally uttered the words.  We’re in a Depression.  His Sunday NYT piece, “Depression and Democracy,” is here.

Elsewhere, Leonard Cohen has shared about Depression and Depression:

LC: Well, you know, there’s depression and depression. What I mean by depression in my own case is that depression isn’t just the blues. It’s not just like I have a hangover in the weekend… the girl didn’t show up or something like that, it isn’t that. It’s not really depression, it’s a kind of mental violence which stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next. You lose something somewhere and suddenly you’re gripped by a kind of angst of the heart and of the spirit…

– Leonard Cohen, French interview (trans. Nick Halliwell)

It’s hard to be hopeful about the world economic situation.  But Cohen’s kind of depression — God, he’s right on, isn’t he, about there being different kinds? — the kind of mental violence, the kind that stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next, the kind that grips you and won’t be shaken off without time and effort and help…maybe you see yourself in that.  Unwanted thoughts, irrational compulsions, excessive guilt.

For years, I looked to Cohen’s quote and thought, well, shit, this is the condition of artist. I found out later that it’s also the condition of millions of people who, in addition to being sensitive, winsome, and artistic, also happen to not produce enough serotonin on their own.  For many, such is the biology of general anxiety, OCD, and other depressions.  If that’s you, please know there is help.  If you don’t know if that’s you, please see a trusted physician and find out.  A friend of mine said it best: “no one should have to suffer because of their biochemistry.”  We’d never suggest a diabetic go without insulin.  We’d never expect a diabetic without the right help to function in healthy ways, let alone thrive.  Any physician worth her salt will tell you  it’s the same with the way our brains process the presence or death of chemicals our bodies are making as best they can.  Beloved, God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.  A righteous mind.

Stephen Hawking Says He Don’t Believe in Heaven

“go and tell it to the man who lives in hell.” (Noel Gallagher).

Now, friends, listen.  When I was a youth group leader, we used to talk about “hell monkeys,” by which we meant people who tried to prop up Christianity with appeals to the fear of Hell with a capital H.  So when I say “hey, Stephen, I love your righteous mind, but as far as there being no heaven, friend, go and tell it to the man who lives in hell,”  I don’t mean “go and tell it to the man who’s on fire for eternity.”  Rob Bell alert: I don’t actually believe there’s a place of eternal, conscious torment.  I just don’t. Do you?  Do you really?  Even if you do, I bet you wish you didn’t, and I don’t say that with any particular relish.

When I heard that Dr. Hawking thinks there ain’t no heaven, my first thought was: in other news, it’s been confirmed that the Pope, is, indeed, Catholic.  My second thought? Oasis quote!  “Go and tell it to the man who lives in hell, good sir.”  Go and tell it to the woman who’s been to hell and back, friend, go and tell it to the gent who knows there’s a heaven like he knows he’s in hell now.  Maybe I do mean that heaven is a place like I’m saying hell isn’t, or maybe I mean heaven is Reality as such, in other words, that God is Reality, the grounding of our being,  and that there’s a surprising narrative arc to the story of history, and to our personal stories.

I can’t say I’d be upset to find out I’m wrong about all of this. I’d never know, of course.  But it strikes me that heaven is the opposite of not knowing,  a state of spirit, union, reality, what have you, where we may know fully, even as we are fully known.   That’s my hunch, anyway.

Hawking said heaven’s a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark, and that passes the muster of “Everything I’ve Been Told About Reality is Totally Wrong 101,” but I expect something a little less glib from a mind like his.  And anyway, I hope for heaven, but not because I’m scared of the dark.  That’s just silly.  When kids are scared of the dark, it’s because of what they imagine is creeping around in it, not because they sense the impending dread of annihilation.  In fact, kids don’t get scared of the dark until someone tells them they should be, long after they’ve established skills like object permanence by which they understand that  things don’t disappear when the lights go off.

The good professor’s recent “there’s no heaven” moment of “Imagine”-esque aplomb is what it is.  It’s not really news, any more than it was news when the USSR said Yuri Gagarin didn’t find God in low orbit.  We’re talking about physical apples and spiritual oranges. A entirely materialistic cosmology amazes and enthralls me.  The vast expanse of the universe does things to my soul I can’t explain.  Maybe that’s akin to some innate fear of heights, maybe there’s an evolutionary edge to feeling things like awe, epiphany, transcendence.  And maybe heaven is in these details even as I don’t expect the Hubble to send back any pictures of the Holy City coming down. Even as I don’t expect pristine, cogent metaphysics from the leading scientific minds of history.

I’m one of those saps who’s always been interested in the theory of The Thing In Itself.  My impulse to sit and appreciate a moment, a painting, a puddle, to find some unifying string in all of it or even to appreciate it for what it is, well, this borders, at times, on obsessive compulsion.  Maybe so, maybe so.  Maybe we’re only talking about chemicals.  In my silly, time-bound mind, I have to wonder, though, who the hell put them there.  And why.