Blotter Paper

My quest to write the book that your kids'll have to read in eighth grade.

How I select the next book I’m going to read

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 16, 2014

betweenactsI’m sure that everyone out there has an extremely rigorous “next book” selection process. It’s really something of a necessity for modern life. You can’t just pick up whatever’s at hand, because a book cannot be consumed in a single sitting. You need a book that speaks, not merely to your current setting and mood, but to the current moment in your life. And that takes some serious thought.

Over the years, I’ve developed three rigorous book selection principles:

  • I must actually enjoy reading the first sentence (and the second one and the third one, etc) — If I pick up a book and the first sentence bores me, then I put it down. It doesn’t mean that the book is bad, but it does mean that the book is not what I’m looking for right now.
  • My whim is law - After I finished reading Jenny Offill’s novel, I decided that I kind of wanted to read a book that had something of an atypical form. This led me to consider Padget Powell’s The Interrogative Mood and Tao Lin’s Taipei. But then, I thought to myself, “Hmm…It’d also be really good to read a book by a woman,” so those two options were out.
  • Don’t look too far beyond the current book – It’s very easy to make elaborate reading schemas (for instance, last fall I decided that I’d read ALL OF GERMAN LITERATURE). And there’s something very satisfying about making those schemas. But when you’re following them, they become kind of a straitjacket. I’ve learned to dispense with the planning. It’s hard enough to figure out what book I want to read now, much less what book I might want to read in a week or a month.

Anyway, long story short, when I looked around within my parameters (less-typical form, written by a woman), my mind naturally drifted to Virginia Woolf. I picked up The Years, but the first sentence didn’t interest me. Then I picked up Between The Acts and the first sentence was:

It was a summer’s night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool.

And I found myself intrigued….anyway, that is the book I am reading now. It is good. I am enjoying it. Virginia Woolf really is one of the most powerful writers I’ve ever read. All of human existence is mirrored in her novels. For instance, this one is about some folks in a little country house who’re putting on an amateur theatrical (shades of Mansfield Park, there)…and it’s also about the imminence of World War II. That’s a pretty neat trick. Virginia Woolf is so political and so aware of current events, but she gets no credit for it, because she doesn’t engage with politics in the expected way.

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Even when I can’t get excited about much else, I can get excited about reading

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 16, 2014

17402288I’m gonna let you guys in on a little secret: being a writer is not very eventful.

Like, seriously, nothing ever happens. I mean, I get a rejection every other day. And an acceptance every two months, maybe. And every few months there’s also some slow incremental progress on getting my novel published (hearing from my agent, sending him a revision, etc). But other than that, there’s really nothing. It’s actually kind of boring.

I suppose that you publish a novel, there are a few more events: you get requests for interviews and you give readings and you get fan-mail and you engage in Twitter feuds with other up-and-coming writers. But really, I think it’s probably still pretty uneventful.

Most jobs are not as uneventful as writing. Most jobs have meetings! And targets! And deadlines! And crunchtime on a project!

In most jobs, stuff happens every single day.

It’s definitely not that way with writing.

Sometimes when I am doing my writing, I think, “Huh, well. I guess I’m just going to, like…keep doing this. And it’s never really going to be that much different from this…”

It’s a very weird feeling. I think that’s why a lot of writers make their own excitement, by drinking alot or feuding with people or engaging in other crazy shenanigans.

Anyway, you know what is exciting?

All the books that I’ll get to read. Every time I get to the end of a book, I become so overwhelmed with the sheer sense of possibility: I could read any one of miiiiiiillions of books.

I’ve actually become very picky. I will read the openings of ten or twenty books (something that the Kindle makes very easy) before I find the one that I am in the mood for.

Recently, I finished Grahame Greene’s The Quiet American (which I guess is a spy novel? It is a very strange one, though), and began reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation. This is a pretty weird book. There’s sort of a story there–a love story–that’s mixed up with all these strange facts and asides, like the following:

I got a job checking facts at a science magazine. Fun facts, they called them. The connected fibers in a human brain, extended, would wrap around the Earth forty times. Horrible, I wrote in the margin, but they put it through anyway.

Random facts?! That’s all you need to tell a David Markson fan like me (although this sort of collage technique actually dates back at least the citizen chapter of Ulysses, and I’m sure that some nerd out there can find an even older example of it). Actually, I picked up this book after reading about it in the New York Review of Books, because that is just the kind of monster that I’ve become.

But anyway, the book is so short that I already get to think about what else I might read. Fun fun fun.

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Coming up on my last workshop at Johns Hopkins (and perhaps my last one for a long time)

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 15, 2014

workshopAlready some of the other people I’ve spent the last two years with are figuring out their next steps. And I’m working on my final story for workshop. There is a bittersweetness to it, just as there is to all endings. For the last 20 or so months, our MFA workshop has been a constant presence in our life. Even when we’re not actively in workshop (i.e. during the winter breaks or the summer), I’m still very aware that I am going to have to produce work which is going to need to be subjected to workshop.

I don’t believe that I’ve been harmed by workshop (though I do think that it’s possible for a person to be harmed by it). However, it (and this whole environment) has changed me more than I thought it would. The very first story that I turned into workshop was this one, but I also don’t think I could write a story like that today. It has too much exterior and not enough interior. Nowadays, I prefer to write stories that are a bit quieter, and it’d be hard to say that the MFA environment didn’t have an influence on that. It didn’t operate by making me afraid to turn in certain kinds of stories. It operated by changing my value system: my sense of what kinds of stories were good.

I don’t know, maybe that was a certain kind of harm.

All I can say is that I don’t think the stories I was writing before I came here were particularly great, and I’m happy with my creative evolution.

However, I do wonder what it will be like to write without the influence of workshop. I think there’ll be something about it that’s very freeing. Probably I’ll slide into some bad habits. My practice is to make sure that everything I turn into workshop is as perfect as I can make it. And that makes it very difficult for me to ignore the problems that the workshop finds. These aren’t things I haven’t yet gotten around to fixing; they’re things that I never even noticed. However, when I’m writing on my own, I’m never gonna notice those things.

Still, I’ve written and sold plenty of stories (like…almost every story I’ve ever sold) that didn’t go through a critique process, and I have confidence that I can navigate the world on my own.

The truth is that, on a creative level, every year is very different. I am constantly writing this story or that story and saying, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.” But even in the moment when I write it, I know that I’ll someday have to write something better. Sometimes I can’t even believe it. Sometimes I look on stories or novels I’ve written, and I don’t even understand how they came out of me: they just don’t seem like things that I could have produced. But what’s even stranger is to know that if I’m ever going to get anywhere, then someday in the future, I’ll need to sit down and produce something that’s even better.

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Living in the open air is a very different experience

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 13, 2014

I’m currently reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and I’m liking it very much. Graham Greene is funny, he made a distinction between his “serious books” and his “entertainments” that seems completely nonsensical to anyone except (presumably) for him. I think that The Quiet American is an entertainment, while The Heart of the Matter is a serious book, even though they’re kind of the same book.

Anyway, what I’ve been struck by in reading the book is how it all takes place in the open air. Even when you’re inside, the air and noise of the outdoors are flowing through your environment. It’s interesting. And very different from the way we live in the U.S. Here, the windows are almost always closed. Even now, when it’s relatively temperate throughout the United States, I imagine that most people are like me and are keeping their windows closed and their houses climate-controlled. The only place (that I’ve been) where people keep their windows open is California. I know that when I was an undergrad, our dorms had neither air-conditioning nor (I believe) any heating, so we tended to have windows open all the time.

There’s something atavistically satisfying about being able to feel the wind and smell the breeze and hear the birds. It’s not necessarily a comfortable thing (I wouldn’t and don’t choose to do it), but there’s a part of me that’s happy when I’m forced to.

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These Marvel films tend to be pretty uninteresting on a visual level

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 12, 2014

_1395260042When it comes to movies, I do I enjoy watching big-budget visual effects spectacle. If all I wanted was a compelling story and interesting characters, then I could get that from many forms of media. But there’s no place besides a movie theater where I can watch a massive ship break apart and slowly drag its passengers down into the freezing deep.

However, there’s a devil’s bargain at work here. Because visual spectacle costs a lot of money, then the only movies which contain visual spectacle are going to be those are going to be big-budget studio films. And nobody makes a film like that unless they feel pretty confident that they’re going to recoup their investment. And the way that they make themselves feel confident is by futzing around with it until every possible objection to the movie is removed.

But that’s not enough. I don’t care how much money it costs to render a massive airship, all I care about is whether it looks cool. And the special effects in so many big-budget action movies simply don’t look cool. The biggest culprit here is, I think, all these Marvel superhero movies. I just came back from seeing Captain America: Winter’s Soldier, and I found it to be a very bland experience. The movie had no soul. Everything looked exactly like what I’d expect it to: sleek curves, shiny surfaces, silver / grey / brown color palette, lots of whirring motors. The fights were the same uninspired punch, punch, kick, jump over something, slide under something else, shoot somebody (repeated ad nauseum). It was incredibly expensive to create, but it was all just rather boring.

In order for an artistic work to be good, there’s got to be some kind of inspiration at work somewhere. At some point, someone needs to take a chance and do something new. It doesn’t have to be too big of a chance. I don’t expect a lot from these movies. I mean, the characters were pretty thin, and some of the coincidences were absurd (the Captain’s jogging buddy turns out to be a guy who can operate a super-suit), but that was okay. Where you lose me is when you make a movie that doesn’t do the one thing it’s supposed to do, which is look good.

Take, for instance, the main villain in the movie: The Winter Soldier.

This guy was so boring-looking. He was basically dressed like Snake from the Metal Gear Solid games, which is to say that he looked like every sneaky covert ops ninja you’ve ever seen in a tv show or game or movie or book. His big piece of flare was that his arm was metal.


No, the movie literally left me yawning. By the time it was half over, I was trying to see if I could fall asleep (I’ve had some very restful sleep in movie theaters. I still remember the great nap that I took during Ocean’s Twelve.)

Posted in Movies | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Played more computer games this week than I have in maybe four years

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 12, 2014

Started playing Fallout (the original). It’s pretty good. The gameplay is pretty decent, for an RPG. But it’s also pretty bad. The level design is blah: you have to spend alot of time running back and forth in identical environments. And the writing isn’t that great, either. I would say that Fallout 2 was a huge improvement, but since I haven’t played that in 6-8 years, I don’t know. Maybe that one is disappointing too…

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Can’t actually get excited about Game of Thrones, but always glad to watch it

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 11, 2014

I just saw the Season 4 premiere. It was pretty good. It remains my opinion that the show is better than the series. So many characters in the show are sharper and more understandable than their counterparts in the books (Tywin, Joffrey, Bronn, Sansa, the Hound, amongst others). However, I’ve read the books so many times (at least half a dozen) that I just can’t get excited about the show. I’ll watch it, and I’ll enjoy it, but that spark just isn’t there.

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I’ve learned to distinguish between the goals that can be relaxed and those that can’t be

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 10, 2014

A picture of a dog in a jacket that's meant to, somehow, keep it calm.

A picture of a dog in a jacket that’s meant to, somehow, keep it calm.

For a long time, I thought of not-doing-a-worthwhile-thing as being somewhat equivalent to doing-an-unworthwhile-thing. For example, I thought of not meeting my weekly word count as being equivalent to spending all day eating junk food. I didn’t draw the distinction between actions that were harmful and those that were merely neutral.

But there is actually a huge difference. If I’m not very productive writing-wise, for a month, then I don’t harm myself (I merely fail to make progress). But if I was to stop updating this blog for a month, then I’d lose lots of readers. If I was to watch TV all day, then it wouldn’t be great for me on a psychic level, but it wouldn’t cause me nearly the kind of physiological harm that I’d have if I spent all day eating cookies.

Nowadays I have so many things that I’m trying to do (I would come off as a crazy person if anyone knew the kinds of activities that I track on a daily basis) that it’s pretty easy to just get to the end of my rope and find myself unable to make everything work. For instance, this week is just not gonna be a productive writing week. I was sick for the beginning of it and for the remainder of it I’ve just been so stressed out by professional and personal issues that writing was the furthest thing from my mind.

But even as I’ve let slide many things in my life, I’ve been careful not to let everything slide. I’m still trying to wake up in the mornings. I’m still trying to eat (more or less) right. I’m still doing a little writing each day (just to maintain the habit of it). Because of all this, I know that next week I’ll be in no worse a place than I am right now.

Posted in General Principles | 2 Comments »

Gotta stop writing these blog posts at 12:15 AM

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 9, 2014

I try to write one blog post every day, but it is (understandably, I think) a fairly low priority for me. This means that I often push it aside and make it the last thing of the day, when I need to scramble around and try to think of a topic. And yet, I know that I’ve spent a fair amount of time today thinking about things that would’ve been good posts. I’m not sure how to capture those ideas. I either need to just write them when the idea occurs to me, or I need to figure out some way of taking down the ideas as they occur to me.

Periodically, I make plans to become a better notetaker, but I’ve just never managed to do it. I take down notes on my phone sometimes, but it just never feels organic. I read, in Daily Rituals, about a writer who took long walks in order to think. Whenever he had an idea while on his walk, he’d pin a (blank) piece of paper to his coat and associate it in his mind with that idea. Then, when he got home, he’d slowly unpin each piece of paper, remember the associated idea, and then note it down. Maybe that’s all I need: some kind of mnemonic.

I honestly don’t have ideas that often (or I have them so often that I don’t feel the need to catch them when they flit past), but it’d still be good to have note of the 1 or 2 each day that I really want to remember.

Posted in Other | 3 Comments »

All I want to do now is play Master of Orion

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 7, 2014

This is one of the races in MOO. It's a Klackon. The Klacks are boyz. Which isn't really saying anything. They're everyone's boyz, because they're the best race. They are to MOO what Kirby was to Smash Bros.

This is one of the races in MOO. It’s a Klackon. The Klacks are boyz. Which isn’t really saying anything. They’re everyone’s boyz, because they’re the best race. They are to MOO what Kirby was to Smash Bros.

Electronic games are the least guilty of the guilty pleasures. All the other guilty pleasures–drinking, drugging, browsing the internet, smoking, watching too much TV,  eating too much–feel mindless and self-destructive. But playing electronic games isn’t like that. In some odd way, it actually feels like you’re doing something. Maybe that’s because you’re actually, you know, you’re thinking. These games involve plenty of strategy. They use the same parts of your brain that you use when you, like, strategize stuff. Other enetertainments mostly work by anesthetizing you, but electronic games take you away from reality by putting you into a flow state. 

Which feels really good. It feels productive. It feels like you’re operating at the peak of your potential. And it feels like you’re doing something worthwhile.

But you’re actually not.

Woops: the brain is playing another trick on itself.

On the other hand, I guess you could say that electronic games are also the purest and least deceptive of mankind’s substitute activities. Unlike sports or other hobbies, video games don’t pretend to be more than they are: a harmless and pleasurable way of using your brain’s leftover potential for acquiring and mastering new skills.

Posted in Other | 2 Comments »


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