The Neuroscience of the Dead

There’s an advertisement in the back of the current issue of Poets & Writers (on page 97, to be precise) for a new book called Against Workshopping Manuscripts. The ad is, to be generous, homemade-looking. The copy, in part, reads as follows: “Shall we admit that workshopping stymies the imagination? —Resulting in leathery thought and actual harm.”

The passive-aggressive quality of the first question makes me want to hurl the magazine across the room (Shall we admit that your copy jumps to conclusions about our opinions on the matter, and has the gall to presume that we are simply hiding them from the world, cowering in fear of conventional wisdom?); that odd and amateurish em dash makes me feel—how shall I put this?—more charitable, say; but the marvelously appealing image of thought being leathery (I want my thinking to be tough and waterproof, like tanned animal flesh!), and the idea that writing—poor, neglected writing!—could ever actually cause harm, in this bright and glaring universe of amphibious space tanks and night-vision sonar guns and street-legal off-road military transport vehicles and the kids, the kids, they’re killing each other every day with their poisoned school uniforms and samizdat mobile phones—and yet, looking at the website of this two-lady publishing operation, and seeing that this book (with its strangely generic ocean waves on the cover!) purports to challenge the hegemony of the workshop with “upper cortical re-entry” and “plucking wounded young people from the herd,” well, I am as charmed as I was when I first heard about the book People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves To Unsuspecting bystanders and what to do about it. Whether their conclusions involve wearing a tinfoil hat or not, I look forward to the neuroscience of us all becoming better writers, and getting this damn dead person off my back.

The Norwegian Samoan

A convenient thing about giving stories somewhat unique titles is that they are then, once published, fairly easy to Google; that is to say, thoughts or opinions about a uniquely titled story that have been published on the Web are relatively easy to track down. (This is a new experience for me, having a name that is common enough to be nearly completely un-Googleable.) So yes, I confess, I have been caught self-Googling; or rather, to be more specific, I searched the Internet for the phrase “The Samoan Assassin Calls It Quits” yesterday, which is how I discovered that the story had been mentioned over at Utne back in May, which is awesome, although the mention does make me wonder a few things, such as: Is it always difficult to feel certain as to whether someone writing about your writing actually enjoyed it, and why is it that this question, this squeamish uncertainty of being liked, so easily springs to mind (and is this feeling like the experience, in microcosm, of reading a review of a book you wrote)? And does all talking about writing feel kind of like a game of telephone? And why is the first rule in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style so difficult for people to grasp? (Speaking of my name, perhaps the only reason this rule is relatively easy for me to grok is because it applies to all three of my names, as well as the name of the state I grew up in, where this story is set?)

Searching for a Fax Machine in the Air Conditioner Factory

I wanted to find out if a particular phrase a friend made use of the other day had actually originated with a particular artist or not. The following is a loose sampling of the results Google returned to me:

Sometimes I’m reminded of a postcard I saw long ago. It was a sort of Lichtenstein, pop-comic-book style card. There was a woman talking on the phone, and she was saying, “Oh my God, I forgot to have children.” When I was twenty, a friend gave me a T-shirt bearing a comic strip frame of a glamorous woman weeping dramatically, over the caption “I can’t believe I forgot to have children.” You know that illustration with a stylish woman talking on the phone, saying, “Oh my God, I forgot to have children”? There is a funny cartoon of a middle-aged woman, hand to head, exclaiming, “Oops, I forgot to have children.” It was one of those 1950s cartoons of a glamorous brunette, with a speech bubble saying: “I can’t believe I forgot to have children.” It is kind of like the Roy Lichtenstein cartoon-style painting, which is of a woman on a bus, and she says in a balloon over her head: “Oh no, I forgot to have children!” And one day I suddenly realized that T-shirt where the woman says “Oh my God, I forgot to have children” was me. Headlines like “Hey, I forgot to have children!” cause some of our listeners to hyperventilate. Others have seen the cartoon of the woman exclaiming, “Oops, I forgot to have children,” and decided it wasn’t such a joke. The cartoon of a crying woman saying “Oh my God, I forgot to have children” is more applicable than ever. Charlotte: But we’re 38! These are the years. Carrie: Yes, I know, I’ve heard. I’m running out of time. I don’t even have time to eat this cookie. Charlotte: How is it? Carrie: It’s so good I forgot to have children.

And I have realized that the Web is only as reliable as our own memories, only as smart as our own minds, only as good as our own senses of responsibility and codes of ethics; and therefore, I have concluded that we are all doomed to hell.

Where I’ve Been

…and what I was doing, and how I got there and back, for the past week (an omnium gatherum): The Mac fired up at midnight on top of the Honda at the Thornton’s in West Virginia. Enough homemade tamales to feed an army; if everyone in the world could spend a week visiting with each other, bringing with them food their moms made, could there ever be any more war? The DQ and Jones’ Restaurant, Men’s Warehouse and Levy’s, the seemingly complete miscommunication of the whiskey distribution question, the inescapability of Wal-Mart, etc.: if prizing the local and independent over the national and corporate isn’t entirely universal, where do the boundaries of the divide lie? A dry county, but fireworks are perfectly fine, and totally awesome, and didn’t actually hit the bride and groom. The abstinence-until-marriage billboard: “Let’s talk dirty! Syphilis, Gonorrhea, Herpes: Dirty enough?” Paid for by the federal government. How soon until the next Ten Commandments? Ubiquitous Jesus-is-coming-in-five-minutes billboards. America repent! Homemade sassafras tea. Luna moths every night on the porch windows. When the vacuum cleaner is in the refrigerator, then we’ll know we’re having a good time. Facial fuel? How about pecker fuel? “Honey, it’s not a place. The information superhighway isn’t an actual highway, it’s an idea.” Run-through, call time, stage manager, the right person to be in charge of telling over a hundred people what to do next. “You don’t know how lucky you are to be… that age, and have your health, and to be starting out on that journey. It’s like a great… bank account, and you got the rest of your life to spend on it.” The sacraments, the liturgy. The Mennonite girls from down the road, just wanting to help. The whole week a barn-raising. When we carried the geodesic dome across the field, it was ouija-board effortless. “This is a song about what it’s like to be Ben Affleck, and to be in love with Liv Tyler, whose dad is Bruce Willis, and there’s a giant asteroid hurtling toward Earth, and you and Bruce have to go into outer space, because you’re both deep drillers, so that you can plant a nuclear device inside the rock, and this song is about what love is like under such conditions.” How badly did he cut himself when the saw fell off his nose? Having been given the secret of the inside-out underpants, was it the backwards underpants, or the mantra for the removal of obstacles chanted hundreds of times, or both, that got us to the airport with only five minutes to spare? “That’s pretty weird. The sun set behind us, went all the way around the Earth, and is coming up in front of us. I mean, it does that every day, but not while you’re driving the whole time.” When in Maryland at two in the morning, crab seasoning-flavored potato chips. “Tom, when are you getting married?” I can’t describe, or even think about, her epithalamium without crying.

Same as It Ever Was (Look Where My Hand Was)

The blogging revolution is the desktop publishing revolution is the photocopier revolution is the mimeo revolution is the typewriter-and-carbons is letterpress is surely some other democratizing technology of reproduction not lodged in my all-too-short historical memory (is the telephone? is the telegraph? is the Gutenberg?):

I’ve never liked mimeo. Sure, it’s fast and it’s cheap but it doesn’t look like a book. If you can do it yourself, why bother? […] Somebody once described mimeo publication as “punk publishing” and that made it work for me for a while. But not really. […] I like these shiny books: they look commercial, real, they look American. If only the stupid publishers and the brilliant poets could get together. Mimeo skirts all that so the publisher is the poet’s best friend or even the poet and that’s that. Your family won’t believe it’s a book but so what. They also are unable to read your poems. So I have only set my hand once to mimeo publishing but it was an act of revenge in my heart—we did an anthology of poems ourselves in response to another slicker inferior one. Mimeo was effective in this case—fast & cheap. It wasn’t like killing someone, it was like throwing a beer in their face.

—Eileen Myles, in The Poetry Project Newsletter, March 1982; from A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960 – 1980: A Sourcebook of Information, Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips.

Get off the Internet; I’ll Meet You in the Street

From “The Wide, Wide World of Chapbooks,” by Tim Kindseth, in American Book Review, March/April 2005 (Volume 26, Issue 3):

Reading Bob Dylan’s new memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004), I was struck by Dylan’s obsessive curiosity as a young man, one that did not allow him to stop with the reading of tattered paperback copies of Balzac and Chekhov—and bound books in general—that were easily at his and anyone else’s disposal. Rather, he had an insatiable appetite for arcane knowledge that took him to the far corners of the New York Public Library, where in his early twenties he was scouring newspaper articles written during the Civil War and available on microfiche for song ideas and personal satisfaction. Had he been content with digesting what everybody else was busy poring over, I’m not so sure his songs would have bloomed.

Granted, most of what you’ll find in chapbooks written today probably won’t be as stimulating to the imagination as first-hand accounts of the battle for Lovejoy Station written with slang long-gone. But there’s always a needle in every haystack, and that’s reason enough to try to get your hands on any chapbook you can, whether you find it at some local reading, at some ruined pawn shop on the wrong side of the tracks, or through some focused browsing on the World Wide Web.

For me, though, this picture of the young Mr. Zimmerman exploring ignored arcana makes me want to turn off the World Wide Web altogether. Granted, this haystack we’ve all made is a marvelous thing, like a new layer of brain we’ve all evolved (ah, if only we could adapt at will, consciously evolve, the things I would do with my extra set of hands!), but I need to go do some browsing at that ruined pawnshop, see what bits and scraps have been left behind. Anyone care to join?

(Direct link to PDF of essay, here.)