Dumping Heroes: Gatsby, Manhattan, and coming to terms with it all

After watching Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, and his introduction of Gatsby to Rhapsody in Blue, and reading Fitzgerald’s description of New York as Nick and Gatsby cross into the city:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world…

 “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . . ”

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.

I cannot help but recall Woody Allen’s opening of Manhattan. Manhattan elates and saddens me.

I first saw Manhattan in 1979, when I was 19 and thought myself precocious. I was a sophomore at Swarthmore College, a school full of young people who rebelled in their precociousness. Tracy’s relationship with Isaac simply echoed my sense of myself. Who among my friends would have put a limit on the seventeen-year-old Tracy? We were only steps away from that age; we were not intimidated by 42-year olds. What did we know about power dynamics or anything more than our own blossoming worth in the world. Blossoming? Fuck that—we were valuable and powerful as we were.

If anything, we looked at the adults: Isaac, Yale, and Mary, as failures. They were warnings against what adulthood held for us. How many of those warnings were broadcast directly to us—adults, even bright, hyper-intellectual, and connected adults, failed miserably at the single focus of life: true and abiding love. (Is that the focus of life? Should it be?) They were even willing to ensnare us in their tangled ruin. And yet we were becoming those adults.

I still hear Rhapsody in Blue as flirtatious, triumphant and orgasmic—just as Allen used it to begin his movie. It starts with the clarinet ensorcelling the listener, almost drunk, almost like the opening of “West End Blues.” Then it is answered by the horns—overwhelming in their insistence, and unable to be subdued even by the speedy-fingered piano that interrupts the answer. There will be horns. There will be crescendo and climax. Yes there is more. It is hard not to feel movement through that city when hearing this music, but that city is full of sexual vibrancy, and sexual competency. We do it, and we do it right.

The sadness with Manhattan comes, of course, with the knowledge of what happened to Allen-—that youth and vigor swept him away. That romanticization won out over, what? Adulthood? And couldn’t we see in Manhattan all the signs of that? Where was there a space to be an adult in his work? Who knows what Tracy was going to come back to the city as—still full of possibility? or wrought into something, somehow less?

And here’s the thing—we are all going to be wrought by life, by struggle, by disappointment. It’s what we do after the first act that determines who we will be. Or the second act. Or the third.

Life contains an element of the bipolar—there will be elation and sadness. I embrace both. I struggle with both—or I try to. I tell myself to get ready for the fourth act; Agincourt, after all, takes place in Act IV. Still, the bitterness of disappointment is hard to set aside. And there have been so many disappointments, so many sadnesses, so many disenchantments. Heroes fall. I fail. What was once sweet on the tongue no longer pleases. My knees hurt. “I ache in the places where I used to play,” sings Cohen, and he sings in spite of his indelible croak. “Born with the gift of a golden voice,” indeed.

Manhattan elates and saddens me because it lays bare all the trouble to come and makes a statement about the seductive power of the city—a power I felt every time I visited it, every time I visit any great city. Life—like the city, the film about the city, and the novel by Fitzgerald—is rich and dense and confusing—and infuriating. I wish it was not so, and yet, it must be.

Breaking Up with a Novel, Falling in Love with the Next One

So, your brain works like this when you begin a relationship: a steady stream of oxytocin lasts about two years and gets you through the infatuation stage. During that time, you are giddily in love, and you do the due diligence (or you don’t) that gets you to something more lasting, something, possibly, permanent.

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Oxytocin

Here’s the trick. If you are still working on a novel after two years, it is time to throw it overboard. No, seriously. Part of what gets a reader to pass into the dream you wrote is a similar flood of hormones. Reading requires infatuation. Yes, you can pack a novel with drama and with exotic wildness, but somehow, somewhere the depth of infatuation a writer feels for his or her work will emanate from the page and enchant the reader. Or it will not–keep in mind that each reader will be enchanted with something different. But we tend to fall in love with willing partners. Enchantment breeds enchantment.

Novelists are oxytocin junkies. We fall in love—or we fall in love enough—to write and write against all expectation of a result, daftly believing in what we are doing in spite of no promise of permanence. And then, when we finish, we move on—or try to. Some novelists visit and revisit characters, unable to move on. There are a number of reasons: security (this stuff was published once, so why not try again?); habit (I already know these characters, this time and place); anxiety (how will I find another novel to write? I’ll just do this again—sort of).

Great novelists work the same material over and over. Think of all the orphans in Dickens, or all of his switched and hidden identities. Or all the women negotiating lives surrounded by powerful if vision-impaired men in Woolf. Faulkner built Yoknapatawpha County and then inhabited and re-inhabited it again and again. Maybe J.K. Rowling knew that she was beginning a 7 volume world at the start, but how could commercial success not have impacted that world? I could go on.

I could just as easily line up novelists who produced one, maybe two books and then stopped. Might I suggest that they were not prepared for the jarring and harrowing experience of finishing a book—of feeling bereft, broken up with? Their lives were intertwined with that book. It had been the one (as it should be, as it must be!). Yet, once the flow of oxytocin stopped, that’s where they were. Done. And done.

Would falling in love with the process be a solution? You get the oxytocin for two years, it doesn’t matter what—or who—you fall in love with. After the infatuation, you have to learn another way to love. Something more indelible. Love your process like that. I have been writing every day for years—fits and starts, fiction and nonfiction. I used it as a base on which I found a more fiery, single love (that book). After finishing it, I crashed hard, but I also had the writing, some kind of writing, to propel me forward.

I will find another, brighter love as I go forward. Another novel beckons. Before I berate myself too much for the difficulty of beginning the next, I must acknowledge that I am still haunted by the ghost of the last. My brain misses the rush of turning to those words, those characters, those places. So to will your brain. Be ready. It’s just the oxytocin. Just.

And so, I revisit places—the Calders at the National Gallery of Art remind me of the value of clean lines, whimsy, and balance (always balance!). In spite of the heartache, there is beauty—beauty made by hands, not simply discovered in nature. Although that beauty too—the changing fall colors, the scent of the season even as I walk on the National Mall—fills my sails with new wind.

I take my iPad to bed and write as I imagine Proust did, propped up among the pillows. If only the cats would bring me coffee. I have a table in a library on which I arrange my materials, and where I make progress. I wait for the next rush of crust-breaking hormones, chipping away with sad hands until that day arrives—when the glimmer becomes a fire again. I am ready.

Vulnerability (sadness and happiness) and Writing

I have had long stretches of sadness in my life. Not depression, mind you. I dipped an oar in that black river at the end of my annus horribilis; I learned the difference. Sadness is not intractable. It will seem odd to hear this, but I cherish my sadness. I do not revel in it, nor do I valorize it, but when it comes, as it must, I do not turn away from it as from an unwelcome guest. There are good reasons to feel sad. This past year has laid a few at my feet. I have made decisions that would, at some point, along with a bounty of other emotions, cause me sadness.

Sadness passes. So does happiness. I am happy by default. I have a sleep app that prompts me to reflect on how I feel at the end of the day. I almost always designate “happy,” even on days that I also tag as stressful. Even on days when I have felt sad at some point during the day. However, I do not feel happy exclusively, nor do I adamantly cling to that emotion.

When I grew up, my mother warned my brothers and me away from things that would make us feel sad. She policed movies and television shows that grappled with serious and discomforting issues like nuclear war or actual (not fictional) crime. The ugliness never plagued me as much as the shutting off of truth did. Information—truth—drew me with powerful magnetism. Even now after watching the news of the day, I can let anger and sadness pass even as the information remains. There are rare occasions when the cacophony of information drowns out other, happier possibilities. There are times when the information mixes with personal challenges and setbacks. The personal is harder to overcome.

I fortify my day with opportunities for joy. I surround myself with students—people who are younger than I am. They have avoided the cynicism that adults wear too willingly. I go to the gym and lift weights, then charge ahead on the elliptical for 23 hard minutes (530 calories burned!). This summer, I took my place at the table in the school library and worked at my book. I go home, cook dinner (steak, broccoli, and brown rice with avocado), then read. I head to bed at a reasonable hour.

Sometimes, happiness—extreme happiness—is necessary. The first big push for a new writing project requires a kind of ignorant and unabated bliss. There are 100,000 words ahead, and no one may ever read them, but I am going to write them anyway. I began this past book in the bountiful throes of such exuberance. Boundless joy carried me into the first hundred pages of my book. Fortunately, when the cause for that joy left my life, the writing continued. I was writing—at last!—and that became the source of joy for me.

The Doctor on Horseback

Even now, writing this, I feel happy. I look at a photograph from a year ago: the doctor on horseback. I am ecstatic. The novel had not yet begun. As far as the horse carried me, the novel carried me farther—and further. It helps to know the difference.

When I was depressed in 2002, I sought out a counselor, and he advised me that happiness was, if not an illusion, then, at least, a particularly difficult aim. He made this suggestion because I was tangled up in feeling that I was mistaken for not being able to feel happy. My relationship of the past 6 years had ended. I was teaching in a strange place, and my friends were hundreds of miles away. My mother had just gone through a harrowing battle with cancer. My father had just died. Happiness was, at best, elusive. And, perhaps most damning of all, I was not writing.

Writing is difficult—for the reasons I pointed toward above, but also because it requires a kind of vulnerability. One must, at once, care and not care at all about the reader. One must care, and not care at all, about the outcome of the effort. One must learn to love the process above all. This is true of life as well, but writing lays this truth bare in ways that many other kinds of work do not. It is work, and it is, absolutely, not.

No matter what other happiness—even joy—passes from my life, this more vulnerable happiness remains. It was always there, waiting for me to find it, perhaps waiting for me to need it. Finding it, and needing it, I am vulnerable now—open to a more profound sadness—but also open to a deeper joy. I write and proceed.

500 pages

I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton with a Ph.D. in English Literature/Creative Writing in 1994. Before I went to graduate school, I did not know what I wanted to be. I had written a little earlier in life, and had taken a fiction workshop while I was an undergraduate, but my sense of myself as a writer was hazy at best. Still, I had done some work and I applied to writing programs in the spring of 1988. I was accepted at Binghamton.

While I was in graduate school, I wrote stories, a novel that I shelved, some poetry, and essays. I also wrote a slew of academic papers. Mostly, I read furiously and widely, delving into a world of literature and philosophy that had not existed for me before I began this turn in my life. I still have many of the books that I read in those six years and they are either a bulwark or an anchor. Now, they seem more like part of a wall that divided my life into the time when I did not write, the time I discovered writing, and the time I stopped writing.

That time ended in 2018 when I considered moving away from family and the jobs I held in Norfolk. I had been separated and divorced for four years. Calamity at one of my jobs resonated in my life. I was at sea. I needed to find a ground that was not defined by the needs and desires of other people. I needed, frankly, to be selfish and directed. I do not believe that it is a surprise (to me at least) that my colleagues sent me packing with the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck when I left in August of 2018. Message received.

Because I did give a fuck — too many fucks — not just in my professional work and personal life, but in my writing. Unlike some of my one time classmates, I felt called to writing not so much because I had a need to express myself, but almost in spite of any need to exclaim, “Here I am!” I was obsessed with getting at some ineffable and intractable truth that existed outside my narrow sense of self. I wrote with an evangelical zeal. Can I say that art motivated by such a keening has little easy air to breathe? It does not. My stories, even when they were fantastic, needed to tread more often on the ground.

When I started writing this blog in 2014, I was in China to adopt my daughter. I started to write about simple human truths that were grounded in my simple human experiences. I hoped that my observations would have some resonance with others, but I wrote without too much of a concern for an audience. The work proceeded in fits and starts after that initial push. And then it flared into this—a daily practice of reflection and direction. That fire lit the flame of the novel I finished in August and has carried me into a second.

My writing projects since May of 2018 have produced over 500 pages of words. Some are good. Some are better. My nonfiction has been largely about my writing and writing in general. My fiction has just been a story about a Djinn, almost a retelling of an older—much older—story, with some of my preoccupations thrown in for good measure.

Writing (fiction and nonfiction) has felt revivifying. I have enjoyed the deeper reflection and playful invention. The writing has come more easily and far more consistently than anything else and at any time I have ever written. Ever. I have looked forward to the task and have left it—whether I write for an hour or the better part of a day—feeling replenished. More will—and does—come.

When I shared this insight—500 pages! More is coming!—with a friend, I did so with the proviso: “in spite of the past year.” She corrected me: “Because of it.” Perhaps so. Perhaps I spent the past year and a half knocking myself off my moorings just so that I could get this work done, just so that I could reclaim all that I had feared was lost.

I told another friend that I felt a kind of urgency to write. She worried that I was ill or distressed. Yes, I have been distressed. Old wounds have haunted me and focused my attention. I have allowed them the space to heal. And have used the writing to help me heal.

While the writing has helped me gird myself against that distress, it has also allowed me to wrap myself in joy. I feel that joy more profoundly now than when I was starting out some thirty years ago. The old uncertainties have fallen away. I do not ask, “Is it good enough? Will there be another? Do I have the right?” Instead, I take solace in a more durable method that suits my heart and mind. I go this way.

Failure, Self-recrimination, and Advice in Much Ado About Nothing (and other places)

One of the joys of reading Shakespeare is finding small moments that are only (only!) tangentially connected to the play—as if Shakespeare was trying to overpack his plays with wisdom. One such moment happens in Much Ado About Nothing, when Leonato’s brother, Antonio, attempts to advise his brother. Antonio knows that his brother is grief-stricken, and wants to assuage that grief with wisdom. He offers this: “If you go on thus, you will kill yourself,/ And ’tis not wisdom thus to second grief/ Against yourself.”

Leonato responds with a diatribe against the advice:

I pray thee, cease thy counsel,

Which falls into mine ears as profitless

As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel,

Nor let no comforter delight mine ear…

Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk

With candle-wasters, bring him yet to me,

And I of him will gather patience.

But there is no such man. For, brother, men

Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief

Which they themselves not feel, but tasting it,

Their counsel turns to passion, which before

Would give preceptial med’cine to rage,

Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,

Charm ache with air and agony with words.

No, no, ’tis all men’s office to speak patience

To those that wring under the load of sorrow,

But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency

To be so moral when he shall endure

The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel.

My griefs cry louder than advertisement.

Later Antonio will suggest: “Yet bend not all the harm upon yourself./ Make those that do offend you suffer too”; and Leonato agrees to this course—grief will give way to anger and action.

All in all, Leonato hits on the failure of most advice to do anything like good. Can words “[c]harm ache,” or are they just “air”? And what will mend agony?

My father rarely swore. I recall two incidents of “fuck”—once while he was driving, and once when we were getting hammered by a boom made too dangerous by inattentive helmsmanship. Swearing on the ocean was easy for some, but not for him, because he was happier on the his sailboat than anywhere else. Of course there were often far from pleasant days and nights spent under sail. Instead of offering anodyne comment, or suggesting that better days were ahead (we were, after all, headed to Bermuda and at least one evening of perpetual dark n’ stormy’s), we would pronounce, “This is shitty.” That was as far as he would go under duress—save the one time when we were in specific danger—and it summed up the the awfulness of a third day of rain and misbegotten wind as well as anything.

I recognize that we were under sail, and therefore about as far from genuine grief as can be imagined, but soaked, misdirected, and cranky will approximate. We had the advantage, as Leonato said to “endure the like” all together. How often do we experience grief together, and just suffer with each other? How often do we witness those in grief, and feel compelled to offer wisdom—and recoil in shock when our solace is returned with scorn?

Leonato responds in this vein. His grief is exacerbated by his initial response to his daughter, when he excoriates her after Claudio wrongly heaps shame on her. His grief is doubled by the knowledge of his failure of faith in his daughter. Antonio’s final advice points his self-despite toward the men who caused his fault.

And this is a special sort of grief—a pain we lade on ourselves. How many of us can easily confront our failures? Not our foibles—we populate the empty air with “my bad’s.” But genuine failures? Only those who have can offer us solace. Shakespeare offers us this in Leonato’s rejoinder to Antonio.

Writing the Dream

It is different for each of us, but being a fiction writer means living a large part of one’s life in the realm of make-believe. Wait, that’s not quite right. It means that we build something new—over and over again—in the land of make-believe. Fiction writers are artists of the possible. Sometimes the possible looks an awful lot like the everyday, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes the possible is just as sad or happy as the everyday, and sometimes it is happier or sadder. We decide what it will look like and how it will feel, and then use our prose to create a circumstance in which those visions and feelings come to life. In the most prosaic terms, we make the hammer that the protagonist drops on his bare foot, breaking his toe, and sending him into howls of hurt and anger. The hammer, the hurt, the anger, the foot—and the rest of the protagonist—come from the writer.

One of the joyful challenges of writing is not simply making a world that does what I want, but in making a world in which what I want makes sense. There is a difference. I am certain that all writers struggle with the switch from a world in which they create everything—and in which most of it works—to the world in which they do not—in which the deft use of language has absolutely no impact on reality, or worse, in which their singular ability to shape the world is denigrated, or produces an opposite effect than intended.

John Gardner said the goal of fiction is a “vivid continuous dream.” That’s a damn good metaphor for how fiction should work. The whole piece needs to bind together with the logical and artistic consistency of a dream—nothing that wakes the reader from that dream can be included. But a dream—with all its truth and disjunction—is hard to create intentionally. We’ve all seen—or read—dream sequences that were stupidly obvious. A great dream draws us in, surprises us, and finally wakes us from slumber wondering, “What the hell was that?”—and maybe, if we are lucky, driving us back into sleep for the chance to retrace our steps back to that magical lost garden. There is a reason that we pour over books of dream interpretation to discover the real meaning of the nightly synchronized swimming show our brains orchestrates for our (dis)pleasure.

The odd thing is that the real world sometimes feels more like a poorly written dream than my fiction does. People behave in random—seemingly so—ways. We are subject to momentary desires, and desires that have little to do with our present circumstances. No amount of professional therapy will ever translate a deep understanding of our pasts into a reasonable pattern of behavior in our present. Knowing why we are who we are does not give us the sudden ability to act other than we have been. If characters in fiction acted the way people do in life, we would all throw the books out the nearest windows.

When we write the dream, we must select and we must focus. The genuinely random bits of life must be jettisoned for a kind of “unity of effect” (that’s a term that Poe uses in the “Philosophy of Composition”) Hence writers fall back on routine while they write—trying to evoke this unity by listening to the same music (if they do) while they write, or writing in the same space, at the same time of day, using the same pen or pencil or computer, and the same kind of paper—or typing in the same font. The tricks are endless. The goal is the vivid continuous dream.

And yet, we are like the actors in Shakespeare’s time: we get our roles—just our lines—and little else. We must pull our parts together based on the parts we have already played—young lover, perfidious King, lascivious barmaid, starry-eyed daughter. Or so I imagine. Somehow, perhaps, we craft a starry-eyed King, or perfidious daughter. Shakespeare did.

When I was a child, we had a favorite book in the house. It had split pages and you could make new animals by combining the top of this animal, the middle of some other, and the bottom of that one. Some of the combinations were absurd—and that was the point. So, we experiment and put our stories together.

As for what to do with real life, I do not have an easy, or a happy answer. It will not be shaped. I write this even though I work as a teacher, a so-called shaper of young minds. Too much has happened in my life that has defied shaping. Like a fairly conscious dreamer, I have learned to act on the stage of the unconscious—which happens in the waking life just as much as the sleeping—and to fly into the tornado that devastates the landscape. I avoid destruction. I cannot stop the tornado though.

And here’s the secret: when I write, I pray for the tornado. Everything else is wind too calm. I need a wind wild enough to carry me. And it does.

New Year’s Day

Today is my New Years Day. Today school meetings begin in earnest; students return and classes resume next week. What that means in practical terms is that I was up while the clock had a “6” to start the time, and at work while it showed a “7.”

The time doesn’t really matter. As long as something like 8 hours of sleep happened before I wake, time is just a way to organize the day, so that people can make arrangements. During the school year, the events of the day begin at 8 AM, and I like to be present and pleasantly caffeinated well before then. I plan accordingly.

Nonetheless, it is a new year, with all the attendant joy that comes with beginning. This year, I begin in strangely excellent physical condition. I can swim five miles without stopping (a task I once reserved as a test before heading out on the ocean). I can lift more weight than I have in thirty years. And I weigh as much as I did when I was fit and in college. These are all old markers, but remind me that even though years may pass, I can still fight myself back into shape.

I have also finished a draft of a novel, and have started working on revision. These are new thresholds, and mark a significant change in my daily life. Writing every day has been a revelation. I did not plan far ahead, but trusted—blindly, confidently—that there would be wells along the way. I know that the way ahead is—as it is in my favorite Kafka short story (“My Destination”)—“fortunately, a truly immense journey.” I cannot carry enough water to get me where I am going; there must be wells ahead.

I do not know where that journey will lead. I do not know what the next books will be about, but I can feel the impulse to write, to imagine and . All that matters is the writing and allowing for the discovery—the thrill of the new and of exploration of a subject, characters, places, and ideas. I know that there will be a physical analog to that journey, but that it will be bound to psychological, artistic, and spiritual travel as well. All must happen, and will happen.

Once upon a time I wrote a poem about baseball (and not at all about baseball) that ends: “Each day the day begins again.” And so it does, except I am more aware of my old self, and of carrying him—that old hulk, but also that bright star—into this year. So I go, crafting a way forward, learning, reclaiming, and working.

This is the single greatest attraction beginning a new school year—as it has been since I was much younger. There is something new to learn, some new idea, some new book, some new inner and outer experience on the horizon. Even though I am now a teacher, I plunge ahead, building on what I know, and striving for something I do not know, and prepared to discover. Away we go.