Archive | April, 2014


14 Apr

In what amounted to only a brief sleep, I had a dream that I’d already had many times while awake. I dreamt that I’d been very lost. Today, ‘lost’ might mean being thirty miles away from home without a GPS or wi-fi. In the ancient world, to be lost not only meant to wonder if one would ever make it home but to wonder, upon that very slim chance, if it was even worth it to come back. Time would have rendered everything that made it ‘home’ completely foreign.

Men wishing to visit exotic new places were not even sure how big the world was—if it was indeed limitless, or if their travels would pit them right at the edge of heaven or hell (if the earth was flat, who was to say one couldn’t walk right off the edge and into another world?).

Travel needed to be thought about with a great deal of courage and pragmatism. For one setting out into the world, one had to trust their resources and powers of perception if they even had plans to come back. One had to calculate the harmony of the winds and seasons and weigh them against the temperaments of foreign cultures and bonds made through great effort and much learned, and sometimes, much lost.

Men taking to the open sea, leaving wives and children behind, were obligated to live for that very hope of return, even if it meant dealing with great deals of change. But to those with no ties but cultural ties, ties of bloodline and heritage, being lost to one place is to be found to another.

In my particular dream, I set out into the world and became so incredibly lost that I was forced to wander and wonder for 100 years. Why did this strange fantasy keep occurring to me? Why did it color my dreams with images of such investment toward this all-consuming, life-long project, this simple but very heavy act of returning?

And I realized that this was just it—this word ‘project.’ This very thing we call ‘life’ is something we perceive to have linearity. Not only do we see it as having the linearity that exists between birth and death, but there is a linearity that begins from some quite remote moment and reaches toward a sense of purpose or a goal.

I will not bother asking what the purpose is, for I cannot suggest anything like an accretive purpose for mankind or even an individual purpose. But what we do know is that everyone seeks to fulfill a purpose of some kind, but the question is, where do these varied purposes come from? Some want to get rich or make good art or raise children or accomplish all of these at once. Some want to make their parents happy or serve their country or destroy their country.

In all of these things, there is a sense of investment in a project that is bigger than the individual undertaking it. We are wrapped up in and living in narratives not of our own making. The stories that make up our world will either see themselves lived out through us or we can make our own new stories through them.

Perhaps this is why I had become so obsessed—if at first only subconsciously—with being lost. It represents the most refined example and highest summit of what it means to invest oneself in a project. Being lost is the biggest project of all. The project is not simply survival—one could clumsily refine every other sense of ‘project’ to a sole drive like will to survive or will to life. Rather, when one is lost, the project is to forsake the biggest change, to forsake nature’s most violent act against man, which is not death, but this—to destroy his sense of knowledge. When a man finds himself alone on the shores of a distant island with no promise of ever being seen again or when a man wanders through the wilderness on some foreign continent, unsure as to what direction he is going or if his home even exists or if his family has not moved on altogether to a new place, all of his learning is either burned up by the circumstances or thrown into that inevitable journey.

By throwing what little knowledge one is even capable of acquiring in this great stretch of life into a simple yet heavy project such as returning, absolutely everything that doesn’t matter is trampled into the muds and dusts of time.

The artist is like one who sets out on a very far voyage from which he may never return. But the artist’s sense of ‘return’ does not belong to a home that can be located within the artist’s life. The artist loses himself and seeks to return to a place that has escaped man altogether—to a place that may never have existed or which is so primordial that it only leaves some trace of itself in our minds and keeps passing through us in a never-ending inheritance.

The artist is not doing something so different from everyone else, and yet no one sees it. The artist’s project lies so adjacent to the projects of the world around him that their very foreign variables would appear to pose a threat to convention—few would like to admit that the strangeness of the world is not entirely strange, or far too related to what they consider normal.

Most surfaces of the earth have been explored and exploited. There are very few places to get lost anymore (even when a man is lost today, he knows where it is that he is lost, at least in some general sense). It is no longer really possible to be geographically lost to the degree that ancient man could.

But it is still possible to get lost in other ways. Think about the very concept of being ‘lost’ and what makes up its essence. It is to be plunged into the unfamiliar. The narratives that make up today’s world, though varied, numerous and contradictory, are familiar. Perhaps the only way that one can be lost today is to travel so far from the narratives of culture that one finds oneself in completely foreign territory, which one never thought one’s mind could reach. To be lost today does not necessarily have anything to do with even moving an inch. One can become lost while one is completely still. It is a perceptual loss.

‘Loss’ has often become a synonym for a kind of despair or the absence of something good. But that is the only to have lost something else. Once you yourself are lost, it would seem that you lost the entire world (or at least, the world you knew).

To seek a new voyage is to accept or embrace the fact that you might get completely lost and will have to dwell in that place of loss. Is it so strange to view the artist as someone who willingly accepts that voyage into the loss of the world they know, so that they might find or be found in a new territory altogether?

The Form of a Collection

9 Apr

As I continue work on a current project of mine, I reflect back on the time I started it, thinking it would be a quick affair. It is now April of 2014 and some variation of the project has existed since November of 2012. It is a collection of stories whose title has also existed in some form for the better part of a year—it is Artists go to Hell.

An unpublished novel of mine, a comedy about suicide, had been assigned the name God Hates a Coward after the Mike Patton song with Tomahawk (Not sure how to get a hold of Mr. Patton for permission to use his song name. How long did it take Murakami to get a hold of The Beatle’s legal team for his novel Norwegian Wood? Or how long did it take Douglas Coupland to get a hold of Morrissey’s legal team for his novel Girlfriend in a Coma?). Between that possible title and another envisioned collection, which I wanted to call Statesmen go to Heaven, I started to recognize an unexplainable theologically punitive strain to my tentative titles.

My intention for the collection Artists go to Hell is and has been that it would be a series of stories tied together by one theme. While some pieces were meant to stand on their own and had been written in isolation from the others (or had at least started this way) I wanted them to play off of ideas that had been of great concern to me. I found myself writing about celebrities and their idiosyncratic relationships with their public and the world around them.

I thought to myself, am I really concerned that much about celebrity and pop culture? Hasn’t this all been done before? Am I trying to write Bret Easton Ellis books now? It seemed puzzling that this would be a concern of mine to deal with in fiction, just as I think it puzzling that some artists spend an inordinate amount of time carping on the dangers of technology though H.G. Wells and J.G. Ballard had done it much better.

It occurred to me that there was a certain theme in this work of mine that ran underneath the more obvious, topographical one. Celebrities and their publics were mere stand-ins for ideas that transcend the borders of popular culture and run into our everyday lives. I was dealing with scapegoating and codependence. I was dealing with the way that society turns people into symbols that mean quite a bit more than what that society intended, and often when society doesn’t know it’s doing it.

Discovering about a third of the way through my work that the collection had this element to it, it was then easier to steer the other pieces in that direction, and to offer subtle variations on the theme.

I was looking for a sense of harmony that would be almost musical in execution. I wanted to think of the piece as a Rock and Roll record as much as a collection of fiction. The term ‘concept album’ gets thrown around a lot in music, but I think the term is a much more determined and rigorous version of what music albums already are. Every time an artist makes an album title that isn’t concurrent with any of the song titles, the artist is trying say something about the whole (that is, so long as the record company isn’t raping the meaning or pushing some agenda for marketing reasons).

I am committing myself to a certain unnamed tradition by making this collection. I am certainly not the first nor will I be the last. The cohesive, theme-oriented collection of fiction will survive and take on new forms, despite what the general markets have said in the past about collections not doing as good as novels and other genres. If you care about the money, you should probably create a different kind of fictive structure.

But for those of you trying to carve a form out of a formless wood, or for those of you trying to tie a certain set of obsessions together through means that have been so far invisible, I would encourage you to take a great deal of time to reflect on what it is that has dominated your thought life.

Perhaps it is books you’ve read. Perhaps it is past stories you’ve written. Perhaps it is music you’ve listened to. Perhaps it is a certain set of things that have happened in your social life, or any great number of harmonies between these different areas. If you are trying to find a form for a collection, I would encourage you to forget about the money, because, as past occurrences tell us (in other words, the statistical realm, which is a different subject altogether), collections don’t make money. If they don’t make money, you don’t have much to lose by giving it the extra moment needed to discover the harmony inherent in the stories or essays or posts you’ve been writing as of late.

If you dig into that substance of your life you are most curious of, you will find something worthy of you.