On Monday I wrote an essay about writing and acted as if I knew what I was doing. I don’t. But I wrote a book. That’s the good news. I wrote a book, but I’m not sure that necessarily means I know anything about writing books. Maybe ask me after the sixth book comes out. Maybe ask me in ten years, and I’ll have adopted a more seraphic ability to disperse writerly wisdom. Until then, I’m an idiot. I’m a very serious idiot who takes writing very seriously, if not many other things in life.
Imagine I’m the proverbial monkey at the typewriter, and I’ve written enough that something I’ve written is rather good. Perhaps this is an accident, perhaps not. If you do anything for long enough, you get good at it. That’s old wisdom, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I would not know. I’m an idiot who got really lucky.
This afternoon (morning in my mind) I sat in my fiction writing professor’s office and listened to his criticisms of a new story I gave over to him. Too long, he said– he compared the plot to a dog escaping the yard and running into traffic. Keep the dog in the yard, he advised. And then he asked me to cut the story (over 8,000 words) almost in half (he is allowing me only 5,000 words). I nod, I nod. I am in this moment terribly inadequate at expressing what I want to say about the story. Or mention what the story’s about.
On paper, I can write sentences clean as a disinterred dinosaur bone. But I open my mouth, and the slugs of incomprehensible babble spill forth.
What I mean to say is this: I am a writer, but that does not necessarily mean I’m someone worth listening to. I’ve got a few stories to tell, and I hope you think they’re good. God, please like me. Please, just give me a chance.
People keep asking, “Hey Derek, how do you feel now that the book is coming out?”
“It’s terrifying,” I tell them.
Of course I’m excited, practically electric with anticipation. But also I am struck with the terror that other people will finally read my work. And no, I cannot take back and book and rewrite it. I cannot, as I did this morning the office of my fiction writing professor, get back the story with comments. It’s done, cement, finito.
But no worries. I am proud of what I’ve produced. I’ve put several years of thought into the book. It reminds me of this idea I’ve been playing with lately. Whenever I speak to creative people, particularly those educated in universities, they tend to look upon “normal people” as boring. As robots pressing on and on, shackled by their pointless labor. These people are un-human, incapable of the higher thought available to those set free by the creative spirit. And that, to me, is such a stupid thought. So I claim not to be an intellectual, not to be interesting at the sake of others. I am an idiot. Just like you. We’re in this together, this trying to be better, this learning to be human. Our communal idiocy in the pursuit of meaning gives our lives meaning.
I think we too often dismiss the possibility that the inner lives of strangers are as fascinating and multi-faceted as our own. Often, I fall into the trap when writing of assuming that readers won’t get it. But I get it, and I’m an idiot! So please take me seriously. The plea falls from my mouth, limp and strange, isn’t it?
Richard Brautigan once wrote a story called ⅓ ⅓ ⅓ about three idiots attempting to write a shoddy novel. The last lines remain with me because they remind artists of the silly truth. And the silly truth is that no one cares what we do. I don’t mean that as a criticism, necessarily. I mean that the writer, the artist, the sculptor, he or she must care very deeply for the art he or she makes. Brautigan’s story ends like this…
“Howdi ther Rins said Maybell blushed like a flower flouar while we were all sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.”
And that’s what I’m doing, who I am. Another idiot, drunk on words and muse-juice, “pounding at the gates of American literature.”
When I was in elementary school, I attended speech therapy; usually grouped with students from the Special Ed class, we played games which emphasized specific sounds. I had trouble pronouncing r’s and s’s and t’s and v’s and d‘s and nearly every other letter. In fourth grade, I recall entering the speech therapy office (located near the back of the school) to see computers waiting, their screens bright and displaying the start menu of some game which would help us. Already, I was quite familiar with computers; we used them twice a week in Computer class (I’m not sure what it was called then), completing online quizzes to test our mathematical and literary skills. At home, the situation was no different.
My parents purchased a bevy of computer-based games for our family monitor, and the ones I can recall most sharply were named The Clue Finders. Each iteration of the game was designed for a different grade level: in one game, The Clue Finders explores Ancient Egyptian temples and in the next underground grottos housing dangerous volcanoes, and so on. We also had access to the internet, the dial-up internet, which required a series of squawks and guttural churning, like someone preparing to hawk a lugie (name for a wad of snot and spit and mucous collected at the back of one’s throat and projected across a room).
Not long after, when I was in seventh or eighth grade, my parents purchased high-speed wifi, and gone were the days of discordant dialing-in. Gone were the days when one must log off line before your mother could use the telephone. Gone were the days of the Dewey Decimal System, which elementary school librarians attempted in vain to teach us. But by the time my generation came about, this system was dead. Dead as disco.
So we grew up on the Internet. Technology played an important role in our adolescence, shaping us in more ways than one.
This was the beginning of a new generation, and by the time we reached high school, we had mastered technology in such ways our parents could never understand. The generation of Four-Loko-fueled YOLO. The generation of secret Tumblr accounts, sharing messages with strangers.
In ninth grade, I recall a particularly interesting phenomenon known as Mystery Google. One typed in any phrase and were instead transported to another person’s search. This allowed us to share our social media profiles like the Bubonic Plague. At the time, I had just begun recording videos of myself to put on Youtube (a strange adolescent trend), and Mystery Google allowed me to accumulate views. More importantly, my life would be slowly translated to video and uploaded to Youtube. Two years later, I would begin writing blogs. We were hooked, plugged-in to the ether of the nether-webs like no generation before.
And now there will be another shift. The next generation will never play Spin the Bottle without the IPhone app; they will never discover pornographic magazines in their houses but rather delve into the sexual world via the Internet. I mean, imagine the simple consequences of something as strange as Chatroulette—what will we learn growing up in this world where smut and sin and secrets are merely the currency of the online world?
What I find most intriguing, however, about the generation of students both in university and in high school is the proliferation of memes. The word memes, of course, applies beyond its Internet meaning: a meme is a re-occurring idea or theme within culture. According to the All-Knower and Grab-Bag-Research-Tool-Of-Our-Times Wikipedia, a meme “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”.
We have been able, then, to create a shorthand of memes: pictures with captions. When one sees Kermit The Frog Drinking Tea or Skeptical Willy Wonka or Grumpy Cat, we understand what sort of message will be depicted. We understand the context of the idea, allowing text to build upon this foundation of knowledge.
Memes, then, much in the same vein of art (films, books, philosophy) serve as a cultural shorthand. We have crafted a universal and complicated slang that might surpass the slangs of previous eras; no longer too may this slang, whether they be words or memes, remain regional. We understand each other, our generation, in ways that are intimate, encompassing, and really, really weird.
And we know what that sound means, you know the one, the sound of a train crashing through your house, that nuclear siren that announces the Internet’s imminent arrival. The sound of dial-up that might as well been our toddler lullaby. An idea we need not speak in order to understand.
I’m not sure what they’re calling my generation now—Generation Me, The Facebook Generation, The Slacker Generation, Millennial Generation, whatever. The diagnosis, no matter the given title, is clear: self-obsessed, self-entitled, bratty, morally weak, and eternally cynical. That about sums it up, the portrait painted by the other generations about our generation—courtesy of Generation X and the Baby Boomers (which sounds, to be frank, like twin circus rocket-men stuck in the bodies of infants). When we hear the criticisms arraigned against us, we often retaliate—this was your fault, anyways; you’re generalizing; blah, blah, let me Tweet about this.
When it comes to the current generation of writers, however (let’s say 15-25 years old), perhaps these modifiers are correct. Perhaps too are these modifiers useful. We are a generation that passed through adolescence with access to Tumblr. We can talk incessantly about ourselves on Twitter, update each grueling low and ecstatic high of our relationships on Facebook, and upload videos of ourselves talking to ourselves on Youtube. We mastered the act of the confessional in the sixth grade, learned to craft personal narratives in under 140 characters. In other words, our tendency to be solipsistic, to express the world through our particular lenses, allows us also to be some of the greatest marketers in the writing world.
Even now, I am only writing this blog in hopes you might become curious about me as a person; so invested, perhaps you will read about my book and later buy my book, and so invested, you will buy every book I ever publish.
The strange phenomenon of being a “modern writer” is the new wave of marketing techniques, namely writing blogs and tweets and Facebook statuses. Did you know that some writers keep a schedule of the tweets they’re going to send out? I would also totally do that if I were more organized, though it’s a hubris we can pass off as generational, right? The days of locking yourself away in a log cabin to clack out a masterpiece on a rusty typewriter are long over—we’re the generation of Microsoft Word, the generation of the #amwriting hashtag, the generation of getting paid to muse about celebrities online and create lists for, seriously, literally anything.
The internet for the writer offers both an incredible resource and a black hole of time-wasting activities. On the one hand, we can access research materials faster than you can mutter Google, we can connect with other writers via Twitter and complain about all the work we’re not doing, we can save money on query letters with the advent of email, and we can read purchase almost any book with a few mouse clicks; on the other hand, we can waste oodles of time on social media sites and reading Lists of The Cutest Quokas.
But perhaps most significantly, we can blog. WordPress recently alerted me that I had been blogging on Word Salad for four years, and while I’ve experienced an extreme downtown in readership, I have continued to write about the writing life, about movies, about my travels, and at times about cats. There exists a special danger to blogging—over-sharing. At what point does the humorous confessional become the admittance to childish activities? I have been reading writers’ blogs for many years, especially those with whom I am contemporaries, and there exists a trend of sharing what could be potentially harmful to the writer or to the writer’s acquaintance.
Of course, some stories shared on the internet could be shared for the sake of hilarity. Sexual encounters, drug use, and petty theft have become a hot topic for blog-writers. But if one writes these essays, these articles, and these blogs with the hope of one day becoming a writer and then fails to become a writer, where does that place the context of what the writer has written? What will future employers think while reading about you at age seventeen, stealing cigarettes from the gas station?
Maybe there are actions the Internet should not know about, spurring articles like 10 Disgusting Habits I Formed While Living on My Own, The True Reason I Will Never Find Intimate Love Is That I’m Selfish, or Seventeen Slurs Not to Call Someone Interviewing You for a Job. Maybe file these under, things the world should never hear; or maybe file them under, The Internet Is a Great Therapist But Only Until Trolls Begin Berating You and Sending Death Threats.
To write about oneself is a balancing act. While we want audiences to believe we are relatable, that we are human, we wish also not to come across as unemployable.
The true question to pose: am I writing for an audience at all or only for myself? Am I writing to entertain or to create “buzz?” And if I take the focus away from myself, if I reject the paradigm of the Me Generation, if I abandon the internet in hopes of writing “pure prose” and “technologically-unadulterated poetry,” then why am I writing in the first place?
There must exist a love of self or at least an analysis of self (which is an important step toward love-of-self) before a writer may write about themselves. This isn’t a memoir. It’s a blog. This isn’t a bookstore or a job interview. It’s the Internet. The anarchic no-rules-ever, blog-with-aesthetic Internet. If you didn’t come to read about someone talking about themselves, why are you even here?
Scaffolding rises around the obelisk, frames of metal bars spider-webbed to provide support for the crumbling monument. Seated below on a patch of iridescent green grass, I tilt my head to better discern the meaning and image depicted on the grotesque statue above. The recent attempts to fix the statue, likely after wear from weather, obfuscate my view of the statue itself, whether that be a person or animal or tomato with glasses (no one knows at this point). In this way, one can often obscure history through the revisions we make in the present.
In Germany this year, one witnesses an era of reinvention, whether that be for better or worse. One sees construction cranes as often as buttered pretzels. With each skyline marred by the machinery of renovation, it seems as if the entire country is receiving a face lift.
One of the largest renovation projects in Germany today is called Stuttgart 21, which is a joint initiative between the state of Baden-Württemberg, the federal government, and the Deutsch Bahn (DB) to expand railroads through the state as well as build a state-of-the-art Hauptbahnhof (fancy German word for main train station). When one stands in today’s Hauptbahnhof, its massiveness is undercut by the intense renovation going on outside its walls; to even reach the main train platforms, one must travel through a specially-designed temporary walkway, which offers a glimpse of the massive destruction and reconstruction of the train station.
For many outsiders, the construction project seems like a non-issue; when I first heard about the project from my grandparents, I simply shrugged my shoulders and mumbled, “Cool,” in the same way someone might react to any calamity removed from their personal experiences. Due to the immense costs of the project, however, many people are incredibly unhappy with the idea, especially since the project has exceeded his budget by more than €2 billion euro as of 2013 (source: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/berlin-alarmed-at-cost-overruns-of-stuttgart-21-station-project-a-880112.html). In fact, the project has received critical backlash ever since the idea’s inception in the mid 1980’s.
In 2010, the German government began in earnest to move forward with the building project, though since then they have encountered major delays and budgetary underestimations. At this point, several critics wonder whether the dream of a futuristic train station will ever truly become reality. The misanalysis of budget have risen questions among Berlin politicians concerning from where future funds will come.
But I don’t want to get bogged down in the specifics of the project itself, but would instead like to highlight its politics. In the wake of the final announcement that the Stuttgart train station project would indeed move forward, German citizens flooded the street to protest. What begins as a peaceful though passionate protest becomes later a violent clash between protestors and police; the police responded by shooting water cannons at the protesters. On one particular day (1 October 2010), the police helped protest construction crews as they cut down several trees in the Schlossgarten (very near the train station) in order to make room for the renovations. In the protest and subsequent backlash from police, more than a hundred people ended up injured. It is important, here, to note the incredible panache of German protestors standing up for what they believe. They marched against the renovations, citing the ever-climbing budget and the imminent destruction of both nature and culture. Because the project will include new rail lines through Baden-Württemberg’s countryside, one assumes that several more trees will fall before the project’s completion.
Because I cannot describe so well in words the spectacle of the protests, I will include a few pictures below (culled from the internet):
What interests me most about the Stuttgart 21 project is the ways in which both sides of an argument construct their narrative. On one hand, Angela Merkl and other proponents speak triumphantly of a doorway into the future, of the grand and efficient railway systems Germany will enjoy in just a few years. In the eyes of the proponents, no one is really destroying anything, but rather one is building a better future. Meanwhile, the opponents construct a narrative of wasteful spending and unnecessary destruction.
“Building the future” seems to be a good term for the ambitions of the project, but what I think is more appropriate is the term “building the past.” We write the future’s history in the present. Depending on what stories we tell about our motivations, our values, and our dreams, we manage to influence how history will view us. We shape the biases of tomorrow when we spin the right story.
The question, then, remains: is the Stuttgart 21 project truly helpful or more harmful? Will the project ever be completed, and more importantly, will those who protested be thankful for new facilities or remain resentful of the destruction and waste the project has yielded? Which side will claim victory in the hallowed halls of history?
In the past two days, I have paid approximately ten euros to use the restroom. Until now I have not long contemplated the strange and cruel practice of paying to use the toilet; up until now, I laughed off the practice as “European” and “culturally important,” though these terms lose their punch when one considers the scalding hypocrisy that pay-to-pee toilets represent. In a continent renowned for being at the forefront of human rights, one must pay to use the restroom. At some places, the pay is “suggested,” some old and grandmotherly woman stationed just outside the restroom with a plate (always empty, the coins swiped into her pocket). If one fails to pay here, one might dash past this woman and avoid an admonishing rant. In other places, however, the sentry is far more sinister. They will block your path until exacting the toll for bowel-evacuation.
The problem here is multi-faceted: while I understand the need for businesses to control who uses their restrooms, these practices carry over into public toilets. One must usually pay fifty-cents to push through a turnstile and then use the restroom whether it be in a train station or shopping center.
Urinating is a basic human right, a need just as much as eating or drinking or sleeping or love. The laws that allow public restrooms to charge to urinate or defecate disenfranchise those who cannot afford the yearly expenses; it forces those people to do their business in public. This becomes after further analysis also a feminist issue, since women more than men require a “private place” to use the restroom, whether that be urinating or changing tampons.
These sort of issues carry too into the classroom (who holds autonomy over our bodily functions?), but interestingly in Germany this affects adults too. I have often wondered whether one truly needs to pay; I have never tried not to pay. When given the choice, I will pay twenty or fifty cents. This morning at an art museum, I had to pay a full euro to use the restroom. The argument, of course, is that European toilets are much cleaner; there is usually a person stationed to clean the toilet and keep paper stocked. Of course this is important, but to what extent do customers subsidize restaurants and department store chains so that someone will earn money for cleaning? Why is it the burden of the customer or public to pay these people rather than the individual companies (it’s not like these companies are not making absolute bank)?
It’s a question of both economics and human rights: is the price worth the clean restroom? Most would say, yes. After experiencing the perpetually disgusting restrooms of the USA, one tends to appreciate a sparkling-clean commode. What bothers me, however, is the compulsion to pay; when asked to pay something, I would donate. But certainly one euro is too high a price for a little tinkle, no?
Overall, I understand the trend toward pay-toilets but do not want to see the trend extend toward the USA. Because when you really need to go, who has time to count out coins?
When we are young, perhaps reading a favorite book, we come across new words. I vividly recall frantically flipping through the dictionary in search of the word “immured” which appears Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows. For those who have not followed the adventures of Mr. Badger of Mr. Toad, “immured” means “to be imprisoned.” This process of learning new words as children mirrors the process of learning new words in another language, except that one must explain and dissect new words with words one already knows; what makes learning a new language for authors is when one confronts a word that possesses no direct translation.
One of my favorite phrases that exemplify this conundrum: de mal de pays, the name of a Franz Litszt song that translates usually as “homesickness,” though according to a character in Haruki Murakami’s new novel, this phrase really means, “the ungrounded sadness of feels when looking upon a beautiful landscape and remembering home.” In German, one encounters several of these words including Wanderlust, Backpfeifengesicht, and Schadenfreude. For those not in the knows, Backpfeifengesicht means “a face that begs for a fist,” roughly speaking. In addition to expanding one’s lexicon, one learns new ways of speaking. I have noticed, for example, that both in fiction and personal essays, I have absconded with the use of complicated words in favor of words-that-are-hyphenated-that-together-means-one-word, which plays on the German compound word. Almost any complicated word in German can be found out by combining two, three, or more smaller words. When I must describe something that does not have a clear and well-known set of description words (for example, technical jargon or sometimes the language of music,) I opt instead for the insanely-long-compound-phrase.
The true learned skill of adopting a new language, however, is that one must communicate with others in the new language. Because the writer might be in a class, he may likely not enroll with others who speak English; of course English-speakers possess a global privilege to travel almost anywhere and be able to speak English with locals. The English language has infected Europe with better efficiency than the Black Plague. When one does however seek to explain concepts in German, a language through which I can only express the simplest expressions, one must fashion precise speech. When speaking with international students, one learns to explain complicated ideas in simplified terms. This teaches the writer to exorcise the jargon from his writing, composing sentences with clarity and economy.
Naturally, I have not performed correct archeology of this subject, the relative skills that bridge writing in one’s mother tongue and also a new language; here, we have only grazed the top soil. Of course I too have learned only German, and I enjoy the language, unlike Mark Twain. When one begins to explore new languages, one learns new idiosyncrasies. I have heard (only through reading books in translation), that to read a manuscript in its original language is an act not unlike sleeping in your own bed after weeks abroad. If you have ever undertaken the challenge of learning a new language or anything new (be it rocket science or funeral undertaking), what have you learned? How has the new-found knowledge affected your writing tendencies?
No one, for the entire day in Germany, pinched me for not wearing Green. I’ve been waiting for this moment since 1st grade. Also, apparently it’s “a bit weird” to skip down the street with a joyous countenance as you listen to fantastic songs by the Wombats, feeling as if you’re in a movie and gliding straight through some fantastic adventure. They also seem a bit perturbed by someone sitting in a trance as they stream the new Kendrick Lamar album on Spotify. The Germans, I believe, can party, but they provide clear and definite borders to places of work and play. They are the living emodiment of the cliche-frat-honors-student-matra work hard, play hard. As seriously as do Germans take work, do they also take their play: a stern businessman might wander into the park, strip into the nude (pubic nudity is allowed in certain areas), and proceed to lay on his back and drink a beer, smoke a cigarette, to only ten minutes alter re-dress and return to work in some skyscraper, the austere mark of a German returning to his face.
Where these spaces of “play” and “work” become blurred: cafes, bars, where a professors of theology reads the Qur’ran aloud to himself beside a table of rowdy young students PROST!-ing for the fourth time in an hour, suds of hefeweizen splashing down their mugs. But not so mugs with green beer. Here, there exists on Irish Pub and exactly one Irish party this evening. This is to me surprising, because any chance to glorify binge drinking to social drinkers can make bars sees serious green (in this case: money). Otherwise, St. Patty’s has barely been mentioned (other than of course by me) asking others if they knew today was St. Patty’s Day.
Hong Kong: no.
Denmark: Yes, because they can drink.
Otherwise, the day passes on unmarked by puke puddles or garish green baby onesies. Today people sat in parks and spoke lightly (not nude, these imaginary people) of things other than cultural appropriation or how drunk they’re gonna get tonight. The sun winks at us from above, in on this cosmic joke. Below us, a swatch of green, green, green-as-shamrock-on-the-Lucky-Charms-Leprechaun green.
“This being human is a guest house.” – Rumi
First thought: it’s steeper than I imagined. So very like me to underestimate a mountain. A year ago, maybe two, some friends and I tackled the Appalachian mountains, just a leisurely 21-mile trek. By journey’s end, we were soaked and miserable.
But the Black Forest is more beautiful than the Appalachian mountains, and today’s hike will only stretch one or two miles (cannot really figure out kilometers yet). But the trees splay their gnarly fingers from black soil. The view stretches below, a city in miniature.
A fluffy corgi bounds toward me, its tongue flapping in the wind. Told you I smelled magic here.
I reach the crest of the mountain and climb next a look-out tower where I have a brief conversation with two girls from Michigan. The bird’s nest is a rickety structure, and I fear falling. Though it’s breath-taking, to tower so high, to look down and see birds gliding far beneath your feet. To feel something entirely transcendent.
But I begin my decent: getting dark and the altitude is making me feel sick.
On the way down, you notice the alternative routes rogue teens have tread. On the rocks, graffiti symbolism evoking death. At the path’s entrance, a witch misleading whomever dare enter the woods.
The locals have put their various special touches upon these paths to ensure they are especially creepy.
Back in the hostel now, chowing down on a few wurste. The Black Forest Hostel is a pleasant place, very homey, including a kitchen, a pool table, and cozy living quarters (which you share with 20 strangers).
On the second floor hangs a wooden plaque, painted with the following poem by Rumi:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
-Rumi, The Guest House-
Day 2: Mostly worked on fiction and went eventually to a poetry slam. The poetry slam occurred at the Rang Teng Teng, and I had the pleasure to speak with other Americans, some of whom bought me free drinks. Always wonderful to meet poets abroad.
Day 3, 8:05am
I sit above Freiburg, a monstrous buzz rising from the buildings far below.
This city is no landscape painting, cannot be captured like a photograph now or now or now or now. The city breathes, changing with each instance. The city grows, its limbs spiraling up mountainsides. You can never define this city but by its smallest moments.
So true also for the human, for we are not portraits. We change each moment. We grow. Identity is too fluid to pin down, an ever-changing magic word you cannot pronounce correctly. Each second is a deliberate reality, a conscious memorial of now, now, now. We may not be still, somewhere a small hum emanating always from our chests. Hear that? This is a song that never repeats the same notes, melody wild as dandelions, formless as campfire smoke.