This is a question that gets asked frequently at readings and it is a kind of Generosity Test. Some writers just evade it….Donald Antrim and K. Knausgaard didn’t evade it.
Knausgaard –which I think means “Heart-Throb” in Norwegian, judging from the numbers of swooning women around me—even two well-known writers, sitting in front of me, were both swooning, swooning. It was slightly distracting. But he’s sort of sublime, this Knausgaard. “When I couldn’t write,” he said, “and my normal thing is NOT being able to write….So you write…But you must be willing to fail every day.”
Donald Antrim said something like: “I write to escape time and to be calm while I’m doing it.” He said that young writers should “get ready for anxiety. To avoid anxiety is to avoid the experience. It’s going to be terror.”
I am obsessed with endings and have been gathering them in magpie-like fashion for many years. Not that I have formalized that obsession, I have not, these last lines are in my head and they occur every now and then. That being said—good endings have changed my relationship to reality because they proffer elegant mini-solutions to that final conundrum that Kierkegaard set out at the opening of Fear and Trembling: How did I get into this and how do I get out of it again? How does it end?
This is story-anxiety, of course, it is the anxiety that things end, that they must, and that there might be a way that an ending in art is sort of a dress-rehearsal.
My favorite first lines are always one that begin Dear Reader.
My favorite last lines are diverse, and at the end of this essay-qua-letter I’ll list them. Meantime, I’ll depart from the letter that I never wrote and still have not written, because there is a distinction between last lines and final images.
First lines, in a play, are titles. Titles are important because as playwright and performance artist Holly Hughes, when asked how she titles a play, said, “I work backwards from the press release.” In the East Village theatre scene of the 90’s (where I first met Holly) most theatres didn’t have a way to advertise. This was way before the internet Now. If you weren’t under the institutional arm of a major theatre, and most of us were not, then you posted flyers at bookstores, clubs and cafes and left handfuls of postcards around town, and in the lobbies of other small theatres. You had to have a title that drew in the potential, that expanded in the mind like one of those small pellets of paper that drop into a glass of water, something that resonated and haunted the mind. At least that was the idea. You worked backwards from the press release, that meant the title. Titles can be either notoriously difficult for people—or easy-breezy, as mother says. A title is a kind of first line.
Theatre is a time art, so we don’t get that final line/image/utterance until we’ve endured the rest of text/performance. Of course with reading you can skip ahead and around, probably someone (Dear Reader!) may have abandoned this altogether and skipped to my end-of-the-line list. In a live performance there’s no fast forward.
So that’s on the table: to work backwards from the final image—image, not utterance.
Although final lines of plays are usually a fusion of utterance/action (which can also be inaction, as Beckett shows us again and again and again.)
John Cage: Begin Anywhere
Bishop: I let the fish go
Ellison: Who knows, but on some level, I speak for you
Beckett: (stage direction) Repeat Play
FINAL THOUGHT: How did I get into this and how do I get out of it again? How does it end?—Kierkegaard
I first learned the word from Samuel Beckett. He uses it to describe his short, his EXTREMELY short play “Come and Go.” Beckett’s plays became shorter and shorter as he got older. My friend Rick Cluchey, who worked with Beckett, says that Beckett didn’t want to “waste people’s time” and that’s why his texts became shorter and shorter.
“The word dramaticule is a noun that can be defined as a little or insignificant state or situation of events involving interesting conflict of forces. It is rarely used and thus not recorded in most dictionaries.”
My definition: a dramaticule is short form that can be a dialogue or a statement or a pithy utterance or an acute observation or a cri du coeur.
This space is devoted to some of my dramaticules—mini-essays, tiny dialogues, meditations.
Jennifer Egan received the Pulitzer and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and all of the other Prizes for her remarkable novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. When she accepted the L.A. Times Book Award (pictured: David Ulin, Jennifer Egan, Brighde Mullins), she spoke about the fact that she’d write even if no one paid any attention, because she loved writing. She reminded me of my poetry teacher saying over and over “the only thing that really matters is your relationship to your work.” Or, as John Ashbery puts it—“He danced on the bridge for the feeling of dancing on a bridge.” Adrienne Rich has written that “you must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.” Our lives do depend on our ability to to make things, and to make things is an act that is audacious, difficult and necessary.
In his book “A Bright and Guilty Place” Richard Rayner writes that “cities have characters, pathologies that can make or destroy or infect you….” This phrase came to mind when I went to hear Patti Smith speak and sing at USC. I associate her with certain places and times— New York City, the Chelsea Hotel, the punk scene….but then, too, with Detroit, where she raised her children.
Josh Kun asked Patti Smith what place Los Angeles occupied in her imagination. She said that she first saw it through the eyes of her mother, who loved Hollywood. She also mentioned the influence of hard-boiled Los Angeles writers—from James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler onward. She mentioned that she loves the nicotine-gum chewing detective from “The Killing” so much that Sarah Linden is the screensaver on her computer. When I told my friend Dawn Prestich, who is an Executive Producer on “The Killing,” she was thrilled—she texted me that “Patti Smith is now our screen-saver!”
Los Angeles figures as a place in the imagination through a blend and a whirr of associations. Geography, immigration, inheritance and new technologies were the perfect mulch-bed for Hollywood. There is also Noir—that distinctly Los Angeles sub-genre. Rayner describes noir as “on the one hand, a narrow film genre, born in Hollywood in the late 1930s when a European visual style, the twisted perspectives and stark chiaroscuros of German Expressionism, met an American literary idiom.” He goes on to say that it is also a “counter-tradition, the dark lens through which history came to be viewed, a disillusion that shadows even the best of times…”
She also talked about what Josh Kun called her references, but what I understood to mean her influences: “I mix freely,” she said. “I take what I like from different worlds and try to make my own world. I look to work that makes me want to work—work that agitates me.”
She said that as an artist she feels “sort of dogged…I can’t relax. I always want to photograph– I always want to translate–” I always travel with a small notebook, and as she spoke I was trying to keep up with her, trying to write down the sense and gist of her phrases. We weren’t allowed to record or photograph that night, so this is written from those notes and those impressions—of course I did see many people in the audience covertly taking photos or recording on their little easily hidden devices.
Patti Smith spoke about loss and love—and how emotions and experiences get transformed into art. She spoke of losing her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, and her mother and her dog—“they’re all gone. I’ve lost them all. But as I lost people I thought I can still talk to them. Because they’re still here—a host of happy, scolding spirits.”
As she played “Because the Night” she invited the audience to join in. She said that she’d always hated it when she was at a concert and the singer cajoled the audience. “Now I’m doing it,” she said. She also said how she still felt the love and tenderness and lust she’d felt for her husband when she sang “Because the Night.”
After she sang, after she spoke, after the event ended I was walking my dog Violet across campus. We crossed paths with Patti Smith. When I introduced Violet to Patti Smith, she kissed Violet on the head and said “Beautiful name.” Yes. Then she asked me “Do you want a pick?” YES, I did, and she handed me a guitar pick. Here it is, and here is Violet:
“I don’t like meeting my heroes,” MG Lord said to me when I told her this story. I didn’t really meet her, I said, Violet met her. I just happened to be there when it happened.
Last year, when poet and novelist Sapphire visited USC, we asked our
students to come up with questions for her visit. The students had read Push, Sapphire’s “underground classic” that was made into the film Precious.
One of the students wrote:
“I was surprised and touched to see a quote from the Talmud in the introductory pages (of PUSH): “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.'” I love this quote because it really almost undermines the Job-like quality of life within the book. While Precious should curse her maker for her life, she is astoundingly resilient. I have to assume that’s at least part of why this book is so popular. The Talmud, while old and full of wisdom, is not oft quoted by lay persons. Where did you come across this quote and what does it mean to you?”
I don’t know which of our MPW students wrote this question (if you read this blog post, let me know!) but it goes to the heart of so much about writing practice, and it also speaks to the presence of influences in Sapphire’s new book, The Kid(Penguin 2011). Precious’ journey is so much about coming into language, learning to read, to write, to articulate her experiences, and she becomes influenced not only by her teachers and classmates but also by poets such as Lucille Clifton. The Kid’s protagonist is Abdul Jones, Precious’ child– and he inherits his mother’s love of story and of the word. His journey is harrowing…indeed The Kid makes Precious look like Anne of Green Gables. Sapphire’s influences–the poets Ai and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Flannery O’Connor, Basquiat, and many others– hover above and below the surface of the text. When I read The Kid I thought about the challenge it’ll raise for many readers, even sophisticated ones. I also thought of John Cage’s response to some of the questions that his compositions raised in the mind of a harmony-loving and bereft audience: “I am going toward violence rather than tenderness, hell rather than heaven, ugly rather than beautiful, impure rather than pure — because by doing these things they become transformed, and we become transformed.”
Sapphire will be reading from THE KID reading at Eso Won Books on Friday, July 22.
I have always loved opening up a book and seeing a map. The map’s a promise of a world, a landscape. “Terrain determines tactics,” is one of my favorite quotes– Kenneth Burke said it, and he’s talking about context. Place is context.
Two books by recent MPW graduates have crossed my desk in the past week, and both have to do with place. The first is a collection of short stories by TONI MARGARITA PLUMMER, “The Bolero of Andi Rowe” (Curbstone Books, Northwestern University Press, 2011).
When you open this award-winning first collection, there’s a hand-drawn map of Los Angeles and its environs– the San Gabriel Mountains looking as mystical as the mountains that the Fellowship of the Ring charts. Underneath the San Gabriel mountains is a webby network of freeways– the 210, the 10, the 605, the 5, the 110.
“Inez Suarez didn’t have a man…No, what Inez Suarez had was Los Angeles,” notes the narrator in “All the Sex is West,” the third story in the collection. It’s an impressive debut, with a blurb from Sandra Cisneros on the cover (see below)
The other book is a collection of poems by BRIAN McGACKIN, entitled “Broetry” (Quirk Books, 2011). This first collection of poems has some riffs on canonical poems– nods to William Carlos Williams (see cover, below) as well as Frost et al. But there are homages and contemplations of Los Angeles, as in this poem, “The Clown Outside the Furniture Store” which catalogues a list of neighborhood characters including:
The guy twirling a Little Caesar’s Pizza
sign on the corner of Lankershim and
Vineland. Two of the five homeless dudes who
hang out under the overpass….
My Jiffy Lube guy. Jessica Alba.
All actors. This town is ridiculous.”
So add two MPW graduate takes on Los Angeles qua Los Angeles.
Dramaticules inspired by Beckett and Theatre and Life in Los Angeles and Literary Forays and Dogs and Poetry and More Dogs