Today I drank coffee for the first time in three years (1023 days, to be precise). Not sure why. I woke up at 5 AM and drove down to Los Altos to speak in their writer’s week. I got 6 hours of sleep (I normally sleep like 8-9 hours), but I felt really tired, really out of it. I decided to drink just a splash of coffee, which really did pep me up. Then I drank many more splashes, and now here I am sitting at a Philz with my heart hammering.
I stopped drinking coffee, all those years ago, because I realized: a) it was interfering with my sleep; and b) I can always power through and do what I need to do, no matter how tired I am.
But this time I really didn’t feel like I could.
EEhh, I dion’t know. Writer’s week went great! I don’t do that many school visits, but I always enjoy them. I keep it very unstructured. I just give a little spiel and then take questions for the rest of the period (anyone who knows me knows I can speak extemporaneously for as long as I need to).
I do feel like sometimes I disappoint the English teachers when I speak, because they expect me to say, given the subject of my book, that getting into college is no big deal, and that you shouldn’t stress out about it. They expect me to say you should be intrinsically motivated (by sheer love of the material) rather than extrinsically motivated (by the prospect of getting acclaim and going to a good college). But I mean, come on, let’s be real. If you’re motivated only by love of learning, then getting As is not a good value proposition. What you ought to do is study enough that you know the material, and then you should move on and look into things that interest you. But that’s not the world we live in. You go to school, and your grades matter. The college you go to matters. You close off future opportunities if you don’t get good grades. Now, do I think you’re a bad or stupid person if you don’t get good grades? No. Do I think you’re a failure if you don’t get into a good college? No.
I think the three* main determinants, in life, of success are: a) luck; b) connections and class privilege; and c) the ability to shrug off failure and keep trying. The first two are things that aren’t innate to you. And the third thing is something you only acquire by actually failing. By definition, people who get into elite colleges have not been tested by the crucible of failure. So no, I think what college you go to has absolutely no bearing on who you are as a person.
But I also think it helps with most things. Given that you have to go to school anyway, if you have any kind of aspirations in life, it doesn’t hurt to shoot for the top.
*There’s also an invisible X factor of course: the spark of genius. But it’s impossible to know whether you have, or will ever have, that spark of genius, so I just class it under “luck.”
Nothing important happening. Just doing some writing. I’ve gone through like ten ideas for books in the last ten weeks. I’ve realized that this is part of the process. I’m just testing out each idea to see which one’ll stick. I wouldn’t want to be stuck working for a year (or more) on a book that I don’t love, so I guess it’s better if it falls apart after a day rather than falling apart after a few weeks or months. Still, as with relationships, it’s a little difficult because you still need to get excited about each and every one…
At the same time as I’ve been reading all these romance novels, I’ve been listening to AMERICAN PSYCHO
If you want a good audiobook, you can’t go wrong with a first-person tale by a charismatic sociopath. For the last week I’ve been listening to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and while the book has been tough going (not just for its violence, but also for the monotonous banality of most of its conversations and interactions), I think it’s actually really good.
What’s startling to me about American Psycho is how much it’s not a parody. When I saw the film, starring Christian Bale (a film that’s remarkably true to the spirit of the book), I was in college, and I hadn’t yet experienced post-collegiate yuppie life. To me, all the talk about suits and restaurants and what’s the best paper for a business card–all of that seemed ludicrously dull. A parody of what adults talk about.
But it’s really not. How many brunches have I been to where we discussed exactly the same stuff as Patrick Bateman and his friends? The best restaurants? Fashion advice? I mean I once had a conversation with a friend about whether you could wear white sneakers for anything besides exercise. I’ve talked about undercuts and asymmetrical haircuts with many people. If you and I have talked in the last few months, I’ve probably mentioned my awesome beard barber or how all these thick-framed glasses don’t work for people with big dark brows like me. Many of Bateman’s conversations could be repeated word for word in my life without it seeming at all odd.
In fact, while googling him I read an interview with Bret Easton Ellis where he said as much: people read the book as this big satire of yuppie culture, but I was living this life; I was in New York, going to these places and talking about these things.
Also there’s murdering. Horrific sexual violence meted out to homeless people, women, his competitors, animals, and a random gay man on the street. It’s hard to know what to make of it. The violence is the most stylized part of the book, and it’s never clear whether it’s really happening. I’d say that it is, but that Bateman just lives in a slightly different universe from us: one with slightly different rules (but not that different, because, after all, serial killers do exist in our world).
What’s more interesting than his murdering are the times when he doesn’t kill. Bateman obviously murders to shore up his masculinity. He murders the girl who broke his heart in college. He murders the guy who has the big account at work. He murders a gay man who coos over how handsome Bateman is. But sometimes the tables get turned, and Bateman is forced to feel his own weakness and smallness. At one point he’s about to murder a coworker so he can date the coworker’s girlfriend, but the man instead makes a pass at him. Faced with the man’s longing for Bateman, he’s just…he can’t handle it. Can’t handle it for what it suggests about him. And to kill the guy would seem less like an act of power and more like an act of revenge: it’d seem like Bateman wants to kill him just to shut him up and stop him uttering the truth.
It’s very odd to read this book, whose portrayal of masculinity seems so modern and so spot on, at the same time as I’m reading all of these romance novels with their male heroes who are, well, not very real. These books are filled with men who are sensitive and giving and intuitive, without ever losing their strength
And yet…the two types are more similar than different. Even though they’re for women, romance novels don’t particularly challenge conventional notions of masculinity. Instead, they inculcate women with notions of masculinity that they’ll then use against men. Romance novels are (with some exceptions) just another piece of the cage.
More and more, masculinity seems to me such a diseased concept. What is there in it that’s good? Traditional masculinity inculcates notions of hard work and self-reliance. It’s about toughness and fortitude. But do modern men have any need for those things? Sometimes there is a pain that should not be born. It should either be shrugged off or somehow soothed. Masculinity just seems to lead men into these traps, where they walk into systems that hurt them, again and again, because the system knows they will not complain. And then the men become angry, and because they cannot show weakness to their peers, they direct that anger towards women, homosexuals, and other minorities. And where’s the sense in it? What benefit is this to anyone? Perhaps ‘real men’ won the west, but weren’t women there too? Didn’t women face the rattlesnakes and the droughts and the winters as well? Don’t women know how to suffer?
A lot of people read Bateman as a sociopath, and maybe he is. I’m not a psychologist. But there’s so much in his psychology that seems familiar rather than foreign, and it’s that familiarity which is the most chilling part of the book.
In the last month I’ve read fourteen romance novels, and it’s a bit odd to be reading romance while you’re engaged. Right now I am actively in love. This is the span of my own life that would be covered by a romance novel (except that my love has been so dull and easy that there’s no way it’d fill an entire book).
The experience of finding and falling in love is centered in our society to a startling degree. But, if anything, it’s actually more prevalent in popular culture than it is in life. Most people find love, of a sort, at some point in their life, and then afterward they stop looking. Even during our single years, most of the time we’re not actively yearning for love. Yet our desire to read and hear about it is endless, and to a large degree it seems to be disconnected from our actual experience of being in love. People who’re trying to find someone don’t necessarily consume more romantic narratives than do people who’re not looking or who’ve already found their person.
Not that this is unique to us. In India, ninety-five percent of people have arranged marriages, but all the films and the songs are still about falling in love. There, most people know that the thing they’re seeing is something they will never experience (at least not in precisely that way).*
It’s odd for me too as a writer to read about love. Lately I’ve been wanting to write much more straightforwardly about love. The love story in my first (still unpublished) YA novel was about lust and longing and it turned tragic. The love story in Enter Title Here was a subplot, and to some extent I only put it in because finding a guy and falling in love with him seemed like an easy way to move the plot of the book along. But my latest contemporary YA is a love story. At it’s core that’s what it is. And when I think about books I want to write in the future, they’re often love stories.
I can’t say whether the world needs any more love stories, and I certainly can’t say why I want to write them. My feeling is that it has to do with what I’ve written about: capturing the heart of longing. There’s nothing more nakedly accessible to us than our desire to love and to be loved in return. I think what love stories offer, even more than the vicarious experience of falling in love, is the feeling of loneliness and longing. When we read a love story, we remember what it was like to be alone. But the feeling is made safe. In real life, loneliness is a pit, and falling into it is a lot easier than climbing out. But in a romance novel, we know that all of this suffering comes out worthwhile in the end.
In my own life, I’ve felt a lot of loneliness and hopelessness. Probably not more of it than most people, but still, it was a predominant emotion for vast swathes of my life (sometimes it still is), and when I was single and tried to write about it, the books were too despairing. I was unable to grasp hold of the emotion without letting it bite me. Now it’s different. I have a little more perspective. That though to me is the thing that’s worth writing about. Not love; loneliness. To me, love is most worthwhile, within a story, because it represents hope. No person can be fully lost to despair so long as they continue to hope for love.
*Note, there are Bollywood movies that deal with falling in love after marriage, but those form only a minority of the romantic narratives that Bollywood offers.
Was thinking the other day about how it’s amazing the way little things can get in the way of writing. Like if you have a dirty plate on your desk, you might say to yourself, “I’m gonna clean this plate, and then I’m gonna write.” But then if you don’t clean that plate, you won’t end up writing, because first you need to clean the plate!
If the plate was a bigger task, it’d be easier to see what you were doing. If you were like, “I’m gonna do my taxes, and then I’m gonna write,” you’d be able to rationally look at it and be like, “Doing my taxes is a big job. I’ll do it later, and I’ll write now.”
But because the plate is such a small job, there’s never a moment at which it makes sense to just give up on it and go ahead and write.
Of course, you could also just go ahead and clean the plate. But…then you’d have to write.
Posted on March 5, 2017
Still working on a book. I’m at the very beginning stages. It’s not easy. Struggling, as always, to find the heart of longing: the thing that the character most needs; the thing that really really really drives them. Oftentimes the heart of longing isn’t something that’s ever articulated in a book. It’s not the overt goal; it’s instead the absence that the character is trying to fill by pursuing their overt goal. Very hard, finding the heart of longing. And yet it needs must be done.
Posted on March 2, 2017
Yep, I quit smoking six years ago. I am happy about it. Tobacco is apparently one of the most addictive drugs? The percentage of casual users who become addicted is much, much higher than for cocaine.
Periodically I’ll hear a story from somebody where they’re like, “Man, my uncle quit heroin and alcohol and cigarettes thirty years ago, and the only substance he still gets craving for is tobacco.”
To which I have to say, what the heck? Who gets cravings for cigarettes? Basically the moment I’d kicked the physical withdrawal (I smoked a pack a day for five years), I was like…smoking cigarettes is insane.
Now I don’t think tobacco is the worst drug in the world. It’s clearly not. In fact, it’s amongst the least harmful drugs in the world. Nobody ever beat their wife, killed their friend, blew their life savings, or lost their job because of tobacco.
However, it definitely has the worst cost/benefit ratio out of all the drugs. I mean, alcohol makes your worries melt away and helps you forget life’s burdens. Heroin gives you the closest thing you can get to pure happiness in a bottle. Cocaine makes you feel like a god. LSD fundamentally transfigures the world and leaves you feeling like you understand all of reality in a new way. MDMA makes you feel an ecstatic communion with all of mankind. Amphetamines let you transcend your body and your mind and commit, fully, to whatever task is in front of you.
Now all of these drugs have negative cost/benefit ratios in my opinion (at least for me), but they’re at least fun! And sometimes useful!
Tobacco does what? In the beginning it gives you a tiny rush, lasting no more than a few moments. After a year or so of daily smoking, you feel nothing. Maybe a few seconds of ease. Really, at some point the only thing tobacco gives you is the ability to once more feel normal.
And in return it takes, on average, seven years of your life!
What a terrible bargain; which is why only those famed for their lack of foresight–teenagers and addicts–tend to take it up.
Quitting smoking was great. I’m very lucky I was able to do it. I quit cold turkey. It wasn’t very difficult. I had a uniquely easy transition. I did gain twenty-five pounds, which was no fun! But within two years I lost all that and more. I’m sure if I took up the habit again, I’d find it much more difficult to kick.
My body experienced all the typical benefits of quitting smoking: more wind; fewer and less severe colds; my cough went away; my circulation improved (I could feel tingling in my fingers and toes for months after I quit). But one unexpected improvement was that my overall productivity dramatically increased. I noticed, shortly after I quit smoking, that I was hitting my daily word counts in much less time.
I have three theories about this. The first is that when you’re addicted to cigarettes, you exist in a perpetual state of withdrawal. Every hour or so, you get antsy and distracted. Removing this drag on my productivity allowed me to do more. The second is that smoking just takes a lot of time. I was spending an hour a day smoking! That’s an hour of my life I got back. Finally, the most intriguing theory is that smoking broke my flow. All writers know that only a minority of your writing time is truly productive. It’s the 80 / 20 rule. you do 80% of the work in 20% of the time. And that 20% is the time when you sink really deep into the work and get into a flow state. For me, I think that having to get up every hour to smoke was hampering with my flow.
We’ll never know for sure, but in any case I’m thankful
Posted on February 23, 2017
I abandoned the literary novel I wrote about in my last post. Now I’m working on a science-fiction novel. Probably by the time I post again I’ll be working on a romance. Egads, I am so flighty. My books are always falling apart on me! Its okay though. This is part of life. And I know that if I do this long enough, eventually something gels and a book results.
I’ve been reading only romance novels for the past week or so. Read three Judith McNaught books. She’s a powerful writer! Some of her books approach being very good. But even the ones that aren’t good still have something compelling about them. I think the characters are just so bold and larger than life. And her heroes aren’t mean to her heroines! I hate hate hate the romance trope of the hero who is mean.
Also been reading lots of Georgette Heyer. She’s slowly getting a lot easier to read. She reuses the same slang over and over, so eventually you get the hang. I still wish the books came with a glossary though.
Here’s some things that’d be on it: bird-brained, “make a cake of yourself”, “has a fine whip”, noddle-headed, cit, on dit, pinery, succession houses, billet.
There are hundreds of these! Entire pages filled with them! And most are easy enough to puzzle out, but each time you encounter one of these phrases or words, it slows you down. Truly, I’m shocked at the density of this writing.
I’m also shocked at how good Heyer is. She is so good at blending the absurd and the realistic. Her characters seem to have a lot of psychological realism, but then they do things like hold up an evil moneylender at gunpoint. Or go on a wild-ass hot-air balloon joyride. And you’re like…wait…this is an unlikely turn of events. But this stuff sneaks up on you!
And I absolutely love the central love stories, because, at least in the books I’ve read (Cotillion, Frederica, and The Grand Sophy) they were all so unlikely. In Cotillion the heroine begins by dismissing her eventual romantic interest with a word, saying he’s stupid. She only gets with him because she thinks she can order him around. Everyone assumes he has no understanding. But he proves very capable at doing the things that matter! And he has fine taste in waistcoats.
In Frederica, the hero dismisses the heroine by saying, basically, that she’s plain. He doesn’t evince any romantic interest in her. And she, for her part, evinces none in him. And as the novel continues, you’re like, how can these two possibly get together? But then they do! And it makes total sense! And it’s awesome. Love this. Need to figure out how she does it. Create two characters with a chemistry so subtle that it almost escapes the reader…until it doesn’t. Most romance novels aren’t like that. In most of them, the sexual tension is wielded so bluntly, and, as a result, the mechanism that keeps the couple apart often feels very artificial (because if they want each other so much why don’t they just get together?) Whereas in Heyer, their separation always make sense: the reason they’re not together is because they don’t even know they ought to be!
Posted on February 21, 2017
Hello precious internets. Last night I came up with a sweet idea for a novel for adults. It’s a sad literary novel: sorry sci-fi / fantasy enthusiasts. It’ll probably fall apart in a few days, or like most of my novels-for-older-adults it’ll end up not being very good, but I suppose it’s something to divert me.
Recently I was about to argue with somebody on Facebook and I had a weird realization. “What does this sound like to the person I’m writing to?” Like…it was so strange. Here I was living out a psycho-drama in my own head, and I suddenly became aware that there was another person involved in this exchange. Ultimately the insight hasn’t had much of an effect on my own life (I still have to live it inside my own head, after all!) but I did forgo posting the comment. And it has made me think a little bit about my novels. What would this sound like to somebody who isn’t me? Why would anyone read this if they didn’t have to? What is there in this that enriches other people’s lives?
Ultimately these are very difficult questions to answer. I think it’s hard to write for anybody except yourself. Just like I post FB comments that amuse me, I also write books that amuse me. One can only hope that one’s own tastes mirror, in some way, the tastes of the population. And yet…one still wonders. How does this all sound to somebody who isn’t me?
Posted on February 19, 2017
I got about fifteen thousand words into my book project, and then it fell apart and I completely lost enthusiasm for it. I’ve learned to pay attention to these feelings. If you don’t even have enough interest to make it through a first draft, there’s no way you’re gonna have enough to make it through the months or years of revision the book is gonna need.
So now I’m back on the prowl for a new novel idea. I wish I was one of those people who had a zillion novel ideas on the back burner. I don’t. In order to write something, I need to not only have a conceit, I also need to have a character who really pulls at me: someone who’s both desperate and heroic. And, at least for me, it’s not easy to come up with someone like that.