Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way

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I Wrote a Book

Amy Poehler writes about writing in Yes Please:

Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their “morning ritual” and how they “dress for writing” and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to “be alone”— blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book. Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.

Good god damn. That is the truth. I participated in NaNoWriMo last month. This is what kept my blog posts and Facebook status updates lean. All of the energy I could muster for crafting words was poured into writing twenty-five hundred words five days a week for four weeks.

SIDE NOTE for nerdy nerd nerds: In that quote she references the cabin in Big Sur that Jack Kerouac worked in toward the end of his career. This is the place I am going on a pilgrimage to in the coming weeks. This was in the plan before I randomly picked up this book.

The point of NaNoWriMo is to prevent the perfect from being the enemy of the good. At thirty-nine I am finally grasping the reality of this problem. I shall explain.

I made a sensible choice years ago to take a job in tech as opposed to design. After years of eating ramen to snag two degrees, I was in desperate need of creature comforts, comforts that are easily procured with money. With skills in both software development and design, I pursued software development to net a bigger paycheck and an assured brief job search. I could always go back to design after I avert the very real risk of scurvy.

Fast forward thirteen years, and I never went back to design. True story: eating ramen and sweating making rent sucks. I can’t say that I have regret. Yet, I have been yearning to stretch my creative muscles.

Two things mortified me when I started tentatively stretching those atrophied muscles in the last few years. First, I have grown afraid of failure, or perhaps more precisely, afraid of displaying my stunning lack of competence. The second compounds the first. I’ve spent fourteen years consuming excellent writing and music; I have a much keener sense of what good and, unfortunately, bad looks like.

I found these two gremlins in my photography, writing, and music. I spent years thinking I would find sunlight to melt them into oblivion. Instead years passed, and I created nothing.

Something caught my imagination a few years back when I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Bear with me as I will grossly truncate one of the key ideas he expresses in his book; 10,000 hours of practice is all that’s required to master a skill. What we often call talent, might better be understood as persistence and discipline in a given area of interest.

In the years since, I’ve come to see compelling arguments that some of his interpretations are questionable. I read the book just after it was published, so I didn’t have this information to discourage me. And for that, I am thankful.

I decided to blog. I decided to schedule photo shoots. I shared my photos on my blog. My discomfort with mastering my new camera body was on display. My utter failure as an editor is still there for all to see–just go to my archives here and select stuff from three years back or more. (I’ve probably let some typos through in this very post.) Since I committed to write about the BBC’s Big Read booklist, I had to write blog entries when the muse wasn’t there. I forced myself out of the apartment with my camera when I wasn’t inspired.

Something wonderful started to happen. I learned a habit that enables my inner editor–multiple passes of the same passages in different sittings. Sometimes in pass two or three I discovered that under my aimless, uninspired rambling was something worth saying. Sometimes the muse that left me adrift on the first draft found me on rewrite two or three. Shots that felt pointless in the moment only revealed their beauty once I sat at the computer editing.

And then there’s learning that can only take place in the context of experimentation. Over three years, I mastered my photo editing software. I started to know what could and couldn’t be altered later while at the shoot. My vocabulary has expanded, giving me more efficient ways to express myself. I know how to use a colon–sure I had to look that up about nine times. I got physically adept at manually focusing–and quickly–so as to not be victim to autofocus selecting the wrong focal point. My ear for good prose expanded. I’ve grown to have a sense of what lens I should use with just a rudimentary understanding of the environment.

At first, I couldn’t look at my work. I cringed at every sloppy mistake. But more than three years on, I see my mistakes less and my progress more. I see that the experiences of creating the work, writing or pictures was worth while in its own right.

And this brings me back to the perfect being the enemy of the good. The unholy mess of writing I did years ago, I can now see as the good. It wasn’t good writing. Yet the only way to to become a better writer is to write, and this is the good. The journey of learning to write well is the good.

I wrote a novel. It is not great. And that’s ok because multiple rewrites can solve for this. It’s good because I now know I am just awful at writing dialog. It’s good because the experience has made me a different reader. It’s good because I know something about writing now. I know that writing my way through a plot I know from word one feels dull even when the pacing might be appropriate for the reader. My mind moves faster than my fingers. My brain fumbles with thoughtful prose as I am eager to move the plot forward. I’ve learned that my inner artful muse really needs my inner planner to ensure all plot holes are sealed up. I’ve learned that I forget what the hell I wrote the day before.

And this was all better than good but less than perfect. It was great. Congratulations fellow NaNoWriMo winners. Congratulations me.


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“When You Are Engulfed in Flames”

David Foster Wallace has a quote about suicide that is the most true thing I have ever read on the topic.

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” – David Foster Wallace

This quote came to mind when I heard the This American Life episode about William Burroughs. The episode features a conversation between a Burroughs historian and Iggy Pop. It couldn’t have been a more fitting combination.

After describing Burroughs, all the beautiful and grotesque aspects of the man, the interviewer asks Pop what he thinks of Burroughs. After a pause Pop says, “… this wonderful American man of a certain generation did his best to shoulder the burden of intelligence and sensitivity and deal with his pain.” The truth rang out in its simplicity.

The most insedious aspects of depression is that it holds your tongue mute. If the very best we can do for each other is share our burdens, depression holds its victims hostage in their own heads. In a culture where we only acknowledge publicly the positive range of human emotion, the words to name all else dry up and blow away.

My friend mentioned that going public with depression often results in sputtered, unsatisfying platitudes or comforting the listener. Because we fail to acknowledge dark emotions, well intentioned listeners are traumatized just hearing someone call them by name. I find myself minimizing the truth in response to my listener’s discomfort. And a moment for real connection is lost as I put my happy mask back on.

But everything is not fine, and living in a fictional reality is crazy-making. When you find yourself with no response to big questions like, why am I here, you also question getting out of bed in the morning. Because my body is only satisfied to lay down for a limited numbers of hours, I suppose? And when the only things you treasure are the occasional sunrise and a cup of coffee, it’s nearly impossible to answer practical questions like, what kind of job do you want?

Depression isn’t just a case of the sads. Oh God, if it was that simple! It comes quietly and distorts perception. I only become aware it is upon me once I am fully under its thumb. The alligator has me and has entered its death roll before I am aware I am in trouble; in this state I can barely muster the strength to cling to awareness. Crying for help is simply no longer an option.

It tints all aspects to concious thought. Hopelessness, insecurity, anxiety touch every moment. The greeting from the guy at the coffee shop becomes suspect. The invite from a friend suddenly is imbued with pity and obligation rather then a genuine desire to be with you. What might have been fun in another context is robbed of pleasure. Whatever was bright in this world loses its color. You are there in the burning building. And that jump is looking more and more like relief. Anything but this.

Because naming is so hard I write. Because seeing a loved one’s face when I speak these words is too overwhelming, I write. Because David Foster Wallace’s quote sooths me, not in spite of his suicide but because of it, I write. Because maybe someone else might take courage that they are not alone, I write.

…That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable…
…The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you…
– David Foster Wallace

The truth is a dick. And consider this particular moment endured.

Note: When You Are Engulfed in Flames is the title of a David Sedaris book. That reference is on purpose.

Second note: if you know me and are concerned, kindly keep that shit to yourself. This is not my first rodeo, and unfortunately this will not be my last.

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100 Books by 40: BFG and Swallows and Amazons

It’s been a bit since I last posted about books. I actually finished BFG some weeks ago. It totally slipped my mind to write about it. I have also been spending quality time with Anna Karenina and Brideshead Revisited. I should wrap both of those up in the next week or two. So while I haven’t been writing about reading, I have been doing a considerable amount of reading.

BFG is and acronym for Big Ugly Giant. Said giant steals an orphan from her bed. To the girl’s horror, she learns that there is a land of human eating giants. Luckily, her BFG seems to be a vegetarian. Adventures ensue when they attempt to thwart the human-munching giants.

Roald Dahl seems to be deliberate in the morality he delivers in his books if Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is representative of the rest of his work. It follows that he is making a point about the morality of eating animals. He doesn’t shy  away from dark topics, and the way he glibly describes the different flavor profiles of humans across the globe seems to mirror the way in which we talk about pork, beef, or chicken. Maybe I’m interpreting this too directly. Maybe he’s making a broader statement about consumption, and the willful ignorance that it requires to maintain peace of mind.

In casting the orphan girl and an unattractive giant as the protagonists, he is suggesting that people just outside the norm have inherent value. Toward the end of the book the girl and BFG get treated to a dinner with The Queen, which seems to suggest that the world will value you for what you can deliver to it rather than how you look. I love this as a message, but I don’t think the world is inherently fair. People who deliver valuable work are routinely judged by more superficial measures. Of the lies that I used to believe, my faith in fairness was the most difficult to shed.

Jeez. I didn’t know I had this much to say about this book. I didn’t love it when I was reading it. But I love the way it made me think. It’s a short, easy, thought-provoking read, so I suggest it.

Swallows and Amazons is a precious book. It’s the most romanticized tale of childhood that I have read yet. It’s a pleasant read in that it prompted me to daydream about racing dirt bikes and building tree forts. But it was too precious. A couple bites of cotton candy are nice; a whole bag of cotton candy rots the teeth. Swallows and Amazons is a great thoughtless beach read, but it’s utterly unmemorable.

Now then, back to Anna KarininaBrideshead RevisitedA Suitable Boy, and Naughts and Crosses.

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100 Books by 40: Persuasion

Before I get into Persuasion, I need to vent about the BBC’s 100 Best Books list. I’ve just discovered that number 59. Artemis Fowl is actually a series of eight books. EIGHT! Between this and the BBC slyly listing Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials as two books (actually six books), I want to start calling the list the BBC’s Best 111 Books. I realize that LOR was intended as one whole book, but conventionally it was released as three. I call shenanigans on the BBC. I will be reading Artemis Fowl for months. At least it is a young adult series; I shudder to think of a Kafka work spanning eight books.

I’m getting lulled into enjoying British Literature, but I would like to follow the BBC’s list with something a little less Brit Lit centered. I might have found that list a few days back. By the time I complete the BBC’s list I will have read about 30 of the books on this list. Blending of fiction with non-fiction feels haphazard. I find that appealing. Some intern just dreamed up this list, and I don’t care.


Now then, back to Brit Lit. I really enjoy Jane Austen. Going into Pride and Prejudice I was prepared to hate it. I don’t like romance. I hate romantic comedies. Reading Jane Austen and George Eliot has given me clarity on why. My romantic media consumption was limited to Hollywood’s interpretation. My partner just watched “Love Actually”, this Christmas season and was enraged by how absurd it was. There are movies that pull the curtain back on real relationships which are most often a balancing between good intentions, false assumptions, short tempers, and the grinding aspects of everyday life. “Blue Valentine” comes to my mind. Lets just say “Love Actually” was not one of them.

The point is I went into Jane Austen and George Eliot thinking “Pretty Woman”. I came away with appreciation for Austen’s wit. Both writers display artistry with language and acute abilities to tell the truth about relationships. There are beautiful moments along side frustration and disappointment. It’s a continuation of all that you struggle with plus the struggles of another. At its best relationships can drive us to  be our best. But growth hurts. It’s hard.

Persuasion is a great little read. It doesn’t feel as epic as Pride and Prejudice, but I think that’s due to its reduced length. If you want a bit of Austen without committing to Pride and Prejudice or Emma this is the read for you.