Friday, August 20, 2010

The Crankiest Chimp

I found this under years and years worth of crap accumulation when I cleaned off my light table this morning. It was written in brush and ink on three file cards.

What the fuck?

I kinda think the only reason I'm not a poet is because I'm only drunk every so often. All of a sudden Bukowski makes sense. Actually, though. Bukowski isn't my favorite drunk poet. I'm a big fan of old Li Po.

Man. So the missus has put forth the proposition that my latest bout with ill health was due to nerves. This ain't unlikely. From time to time I crop up with some fairly spectacular psychosomatic episodes, everything from spastic colon presenting as colon polyps to stress-induced eczema presenting as an exotic fungal infection. And I've mentioned in passing on the blog that over the last year or two I've started having problems with puking due to stress.

Damnit. When will I stop picking on me?

Anyway. As I hint at above, I've been working on getting my studio cleaned up. I'm not able to focus well enough to do any writing (aside from this casual bilge), so I have to do something to justify my existence.

I haven't cleaned my studio as thoroughly as this in years. I'm doing it because I recently came upstairs, and something in me said, "This ain't just the place you go to hide from the dogs and the missus. It's your workplace. Take a look at your workplace."

And I said, "Oh, shit."

"What would you do if you came to work and your work area looked like this?"

"I'd clean it."

"And what if your boss said -- as you have been saying to yourself for quite some fucking time now -- that you were too busy to clean?"

Sigh. "The boss doesn't get to make that decision. If he gave me any shit, I'd calmly explain how important a clean, organized work area is to productivity. If he showed any further tendencies to bitch I'd make vague threatening OSHA noises."

"And who is the boss now? And whose workspace is this?"

If it weren't for self-awareness, I wouldn't be such a cranky chimp.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sick Again

This is another essay, but the reason I can't regard myself as a fine artist in the current sense of the term is that for me? This is a doodle. A sketch. Practice work. It's fun to do, it's nice to look at, but all it says is, 'form and color are neat.' I need narrative, image, draftsmanship -- elements that a lot of people have relegated to the arena of the commercial arts -- to feel creatively satisfied with a work. Frankly, that's why writing is more important to me than the visual arts.

Now, if I were to be able to look at work like that and give it the level of devotion and attention I apply to my other art, I could legitimately aspire to being a fine artist. Shame it ain't gonna happen any time soon.

Oh, and notice how the warmest color retreats into the background while the coolest pops forward? I never get tired of that trick.

So I've been sick again, and it gave me a chance to think about a few things, including, believe it or not, skepticism.

Here's the deal. I've mentioned in a previous post that while I have come to have a materialistic view of the world, I still retain a few superstitions. The interesting thing is that they have no root in a particular worldview, other than a vague belief in mystic interconnections and a marginally hostile spirit world.

Anyway, one of my superstitions is that things come in threes. That if something happens twice, there will be a third time. If you start thinking this way, you will notice that a lot of the time, this is true. This is because sometimes things happen three times. And if something happens three times, it happens twice and then a third time. It's not exactly magic.

But when you keep on noticing it, you start to expect things to happen the third time. It starts looking like a predictable pattern. I know this is daffy thinking, a bad loop, but there it is. So when I had the bout of altitude sickness when I was in Taos, and then caught the stomach flu from my niece a couple of weeks back, I started waiting for my third bout of fever and chills, sweats, and puking.

Sure enough.

Now, altitude sickness was clearly the issue in Taos. And everyone in my extended family caught that flu, so that's neatly explained. And the last bout tore my gut a bit, and that reopened yesterday -- my stomach was injured and primed for a response. But still, part of me is convinced that this is another demonstration of how things happen in threes. And if I take a little extra care of my belly for a while so it doesn't happen again, that'll clinch it. Me and my stupid brain.

Anyway, that physical condition is my idea of perfect discomfort. It fully occupies your attention for ten or twelve hours with nothing but physical discomfort. I'm not gonna go into the details, but there was one thing that...

Okay, there are a couple of sops to my state. First off, the bed is clean. It ain't just clean -- the missus just bought a new duvet cover, and it is soft and pleasant. And if I writhe enough, I can stave off nausea. Roll over, twitch, roll over, twitch...

When I came out of the delirium and sat up to read at around four or five yesterday, I felt a tickle at my clavicle, and scratched at it. Drawing my hand away, I saw my fingertips covered in some sort of webbing, tacky gray fibers matted together. I rubbed my chest, my shoulder -- I was covered with the stuff.

I knew it wasn't going to turn out to be some kind of arthropod invasion, spiders or anthropophagous silkworms or some such, and the odds of my undergoing a metamorphosis seemed slim, but I allowed myself to hope that this was going to be at least a little interesting.

It was lint. I'd rubbed it off the new duvet cover. It had been washed, but there was still a good dose of fuzz on it.

I just don't think other peoples lives feel the way mine does. It's not so much that I'm a weirdo. It's more like life itself is deliberately being as weird to me as it can. I mean, I go to bed sick and I wake up in a fucking cocoon. Is there a diagnosis for this kind of thing?

But as miserable as that was, there is a stage of sickness that I kinda like. I've often said that the thing you need to explain to kids about drugs, is that if you do drugs -- and of course, alcohol counts -- sooner or later you will pay money to feel as if you have the flu. The flip side of this is that there is a point in a fever when it can be experienced as a pleasurable if not pleasant altered state. (Ever read Slave Ship by Pohl?)

There is a type of writing I like to bring out for that state. The really ridiculously purple stuff. Clarke Ashton Smith is good. I once spent two days basically living a Clarke Ashton Smith existence when a bad case of the flu hit a stack of paperbacks. Last night it was Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

(Incidentally, if you combine that book with a T-shirt that says, "You're the reason baby Jesus drinks," people won't talk to you in an airport. I don't know if they still put it out, but Soldier of Fortune magazine was good for that too. It even worked on buses.)

See, that's the kind of book that really points out to me the limitations of working with other writers. That experience has been the central element of my development as a writer, and the effects have been almost entirely positive.

But if I were to try to write something like Against Nature? Jesus! They'd string me up by my fucking nuts if I tried to make them read that, week after week.

You probably haven't read Against Nature. Even if you've picked it up you probably haven't read it. For one thing? No dialog. It's all exposition. And it's about a man so fucking aesthetically exquisite that he finds himself less and less capable of living. Most of it consists of descriptions of his indulgences, many of which are fascinating critical passages. Most of those passages deal with subjects out of my range of knowledge, but where there is overlap I find much to be admired in Huysmans's (or Huysmans's protagonist's) thought.

But it is verbose, convoluted, filled with obscure words and references. The subtlety of its construction is magnificent. The use of pedantry as a diversion is delightful.

I mean, this is crazy stuff. Dude has a booze organ. Henry Kuttner had one of those in The Proud Robot; I bet he read Against Nature. The difference is that Huysmans spends pages describing how specific liquors have flavors corresponding to particular notes or chords played on particular instruments, and he makes a convincing case. It's half-essay, half-catalog, and yet the narrative of the protagonist's self-destruction is supported by every detail.

Everything I love about it is something that would get me red ink in a writing group. It's that simple. Some of my favorite works run contrary to most tastes. Thing is, is that I think a big fat dose of conventionality is just what my work needs. It's always about to run right over the edge.

But sometimes I want to go over the edge. I just want to jump.

I wonder if this is one thing that happens in artistic movements -- if you produce work you know isn't going to repulse every person who might critique it. It's a subtle influence, in that everything I've written with others I'm glad to have written. It's not like my time is being consumed uselessly at all.

It's just that there are some works that are too ugly and weird and malformed to appeal to most people, and I know I have more than a few of those in me. I wonder whatever shall I do with them.

Now off to bed, and back to the indolent life of the invalid.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In Which I Lose Decisively

So the Christian mentioned in the anecdote below -- up-and-coming writer Christian Walter -- recently sent me an email in which he suggested a resemblance between me and a character from a popular movie by the Coen brothers.

Can't see it, myself. But supposedly we talk alike.

So after the plot-blocking session at Taos Toolbox, my roommate Christian comes up to me as I’m skulking off. He’s hunched over with a dose of the giggles. “Walter Jon Williams plotted your novel. Are you going to your room to hide your enormous erection?

One thing I do know. There is no dignified avoidance of that sort of persiflage. There is only death or glory. “Sir, I do not respond erotically to such circumstances. It was not simply Mr. Williams, but a cast of the elite who plotted my novel. And should I find myself sporting an enormous erection, I won’t be taking it to my room. Instead, I will proudly display it to the ladies.”

I know, I know, but all men are vile and I was dealing with Christian. For God’s sake, the man drew boners on our placemat at the pizza joint. I couldn’t let him intimidate me. I’d never hear the end of it. Anyway, I go to my room, riffle my plot cards and rub my hands together like Scrooge McDuck, and then go back to that beautiful, horrible grind of critique.

A few generation starships later, I stagger to my feet and decide to shuffle about so as to stimulate flow in the lymphatic system. I head downstairs with the intention of offering a witticism to those hard at work in the meeting room.

I walk in the door. It’s Barbara, George, and Christian. Before I open my mouth, Barbara, without looking up from her laptop, says, “I don’t want to see it.”

It took me a good thirty seconds to figure out what the fuck she was talking about. Christian seemed entirely satisfied by this outcome. Barbara says she doesn’t have a sense of humor but I am unconvinced.