Saturday, February 13, 2010

Setting spiders to fight — Reality hunger

Among the Jesuits it was a standing rule of the order, that after an application to study for two hours, the mind of the student should be unbent by some relaxation, however trifling. When Petavius was employed in his Dogmata Theologica, a work of the most profound and extensive erudition, the great recreation of the learned father was, at the end of every second hour, to twirl his chair for five minutes. After protracted studies Spinosa would mix with the family-party where he lodged, and join in the most trivial conversations, or unbend his mind by setting spiders to fight each other; he observed their combats with so much interest, that he was often seized with immoderate fits of laughter. A continuity of labour deadens the soul, observes Seneca, in closing his treatise on "The Tranquillity of the Soul," and the mind must unbend itself by certain amusements. Socrates did not blush to play with children. Cato, over his bottle, found an alleviation from the fatigues of government; a circumstance, Seneca says in his manner, which rather gives honour to this defect, than the defect dishonours Cato. —Isaac D'Israeli, Curiosities of Literature (at I've Been Reading Lately)

Ballard was a working writer, first and last; the where of it was not to be disturbed. Fixed routines served him well; so many hours, so many words. Breakfast. Times crossword. Desk overlooking a natural ­garden. Stroll to the shops to observe the erotic rhythms of consumerism. Lunch standing up with The World at One on the radio. Back to the study. Forty-minute constitutional down to the river. TV chill-out meditation: ­Hawaii Five-O and The Rockford Files rather than Kenneth Clark.
—Iain Sinclair, Guardian (via Jenny)

* * *

Feb. 13, 2010. I found a notebook I was looking for (though not
the notebook I was looking for), the last entry of which is dated from August and quotes Walker Evans on James Agee: "[I]t did seem that wind, rain, work, and mockery were his tailors." By chance I flipped to a page dated exactly a year ago, Feb. 13, 2009. Here is what was written, scrawled across three and a half pages:

I don't even know if it's a novel anymore—it's basically a collection of lies.


—How'd you get so fat?
—She keeps baking things and I keep eating them.


—It's not just one book. If I put my mind to it, I could extract two or three solid novels from it, and with a little spit and plaster I could build up a half dozen unpublishable novellas. You know how the novella market is. There are at least twenty full-fledged short stories in there, I'm sure of it.
—But they're all scrambled together, is what you're saying.
He nodded and took a sip of his wine. —To complicate things, it's not pure fiction. There are other parts—many other parts—spoken by various characters, that are thinly veiled versions of my life. And then to complicate things, I appear in the pages, speaking more or less the truth.
I didn't say anything. It sounded like a disaster.
—It wasn't intentional, he continued. I wanted more than anything to write a straightforward story, a novel with good bones, meaty themes, vivid characters, and all the rest.* But I can't do it. Even when I start with the best intentions, things start getting strange around page three, and by page five you have the ostensible narrator falling asleep and meeting someone in his dream who happens to be me, and I then tell the dreamer about my dreams, except it's not clear, by the end of fifteen or fifty pages, whether it's still a dream or not.
—I'd love to read it sometime, I lied. Or half-lied.
—I'd love for you to read it. But I don't know how to present it. It's just this huge series of sequences—some on my computer, some still in my notebooks.
We walked to the balcony.
—Lately for the first time I feel like it's publishable. I mean, I can visualize the form it would need to take. You know Stephen King's Dark Tower books?
—Haven't read ’em, but yeah.
—I haven't read them either, but

[Here the manuscript ends]

*somewhere around here, written in microscopic blue pen and amended twice in black pen, the following was intended to be inserted: "I'm very good at being clear, normally. I was a stringer for the Times when I was in college, and wrote a lot of articles when I lived in Prague. I don't want to brag, but journalism was a breeze for me—locate the story, talk to people, write it down—and I thought fiction would just require a modest adjustment, like upgrading to a stronger pair of glasses." This is entirely made up (clear, Prague, Times), though oddly enough, I did upgrade to a stronger pair of glasses a few days ago.



Blogger mallard said...

Four questions prompted by this post:
Do you always keep a notebook? Do you write in it every day? In what activities do you indulge to unbend your mind? Favorite Ballard Story?

10:08 PM  
Blogger Jenny Davidson said...

I love this post!

12:04 PM  
Blogger Levi Stahl said...

I'm with Jenny D here: what a great post!

This is a bit too inspirational, self-helpy, really, and it doesn't strike me as the sort of encouragement you need anyway, but I happened to be reading Stephen King's introduction to Skeleton Crew just before I read this post, and here's what he says:

"All the same, you don't do it for the money, or you're a monkey. You don't think of the bottom line, or you're a monkey. You don't think of it in terms of an hourly wage, yearly wage, or even lifetime wage, or you're a monkey. In the end you don't even do it for love, although it would be nice to think so You do it because to not do it is suicide."

And now I want more than ever to read The Dizzies!

7:05 PM  
Blogger Ed Park said...

Mallard -- I do keep a notebook, or rather several; generally I never finish them. (I like the idea of the unfinished notebook.)

I also keep a monthly "notes" file on my computer, which I then try to print out every month (and put in a binder). I don't write in it/them on purpose (i.e., I don't sit down and say, "It's notebook time!" -- I only use the notebook if there's something I want to write down (generally a joke or observation or weird word/phrase). (Also, I consider this blog a notebook, too.)

My mind is always tense. I relax by reading Wodehouse or the first paragraphs of Nabokov novels, or Old Spice commercials on YouTube.

Ballard story: There are so many good ones, and they are so different. This might give you some ideas:,0,7969007.story

"The Comsat Angels" and "The Drowned Giant" and an of the "Vermilion Sands" ones would be good to start with...

(Also, I meant to recommend to you Robert E. Howard's El Borak stories.)

Thanks, Jenny and Levi!

Levi, isn't there a monkey on the cover of SKELETON CREW?

1:26 PM  
Blogger Ed Park said...

Also it occurs to me: What if the "novel" The Dizzies is actually *this*, by which I mean...the contents of this blog; assorted "excerpts" published online or in print; my various notebooks (beginning c. 2004); and the "real" work in progress (residing in files on my computer & in printouts)?

What if this comment is part of the "novel"?

What if every comment you write is also part of it?

1:28 PM  
Blogger mallard said...

I've always dreamed of becoming a published author. Here's my chance!

It was a dark and stormy night...

8:13 PM  

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