Only Half an Hour

I copied down the following years ago from a photograph of sketches on the wall of Philip Guston’s studio (plate 70, specifically, bet. pp. 178 and 179 of Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, by Musa Mayer, Penguin, 1988):

I hold my inventive capacity on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands on me, and, sometimes for months together, put everything else away from me. […] Whoever is devoted to an Art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it.

Guston wrote out the above in all caps; his attribution was simply DICKENS. (Here, for the moment, is a JPEG of the photo.)

What’s skipped over by that ellipsis is really interesting, though. The quote comes from a letter Dickens wrote in 1855; I might be terribly wrong, but I think the gist of the letter is “sorry, I can’t see you, I’m really busy.” Here’s part of the ellision:

“It is only half an hour”—”it is only an afternoon”—”It is only an evening”—people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes—or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometimes worry a whole day. These are the penalties paid for writing books.

—from p. 584 of The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 7, 1853–1855 (Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson, Angus Easson, eds., OUP, 1993)

Which reminds me of this:

Writing is a deep-sea dive. You need hours just to get into it: down, down, down. If you’re called back to the surface every couple of minutes by an email, you can’t ever get back down. I have a great friend who became a Twitterer and he says he hasn’t written anything for a year.

Dave Eggers, interviewed in The Observer, 7 March 2010; via.

I Miss My Letterpress; or, I Miss My Cuneiform Tablet, Part Two

I’m at the warehouse party now. I’ve been here for almost a year. I followed Elizabeth’s advice (as I wrote about last April); I went ahead and started touching the photos on the walls, making them come alive.

In some ways I like it, but in other ways I don’t like it at all. People have such completely different approaches to how they exist at the party. It’s not like any kind of party in real life. Or rather, if it were a party in real life—or at least, if the one tiny corner of the warehouse where I am were like real life—it would be this. It would be a party where there are overlapping, intermingling small groups of people having conversations with each other. In each of those groups, there are often one or two people who have a greater ability than others to say witty things, or to make clever replies to things other people say. Other folks in these groups cluster around the witty and clever individuals, waiting for them to say something funny. (Call it the Oscar Wilde effect, maybe? Six Degrees of Dotty Parker? Algonquinization? Sociologists surely have a name for this already.)

To me, this feels like the positive, relatively normal, socially adjusted way to do things here. But there are many folks who exist in this strange new space rather differently. Some people at the warehouse are just standing around; you touch their photos, they come alive, but then they just linger there like wallflowers, regardless of how they behave in real life. Granted, they might be communicating by telepathy with other people (torturously expanding the bounds of this metaphor still further, this is a party at which it is possible to be telepathic), or maybe they’re handing notes to each other, but they’re not participating in any of these small conversation clusters. (This is arguably a reasonable way to behave at the warehouse. It’s free to get in, but the price of getting in, as I wrote before, is that the corporation throwing the party is recording every single word everyone says, parsing those words, and selling the results of the parsing to other corporations, who in turn stand around the periphery of all the conversations at the party, asking the participants to buy things. “I see you’re a middle-aged woman!” they yell through their bullhorns. “Can I interest you in some facial-cream samples?” It’s pretty weird, really; it’s entirely reasonable to be quiet in this context.)

Other people, though, are mostly quiet, but will on the very rare occasion chime in. “I’m at the beach!” one will say, after being completely silent for half a year. Another will whisper part of a poem once a month. An older man sitting in an easy chair nearby looks up twice a week and recommends the op-ed pages of The New York Times. “Read Maureen Dowd today!” he says. “She’s right on the money.”

Again, this is all just the small corner of the room where I happen to be. Most of the warehouse is populated with young people getting drunk, sniffing glue, and screwing and insulting each other, photographing one another all the while as they do these things, then immediately showing each other the photographs. The corporations, like vultures, hover around their region of the warehouse in the greatest concentration, and with the greatest appetite.

Among the middle-aged writers and editors and attorneys and filmmakers and moms and dads, where I am, there are fewer vultures.

Then there is still another way in which some people I know are both at the warehouse party and not. Their attentions are elsewhere, at a simultaneous, competing party, a telephone party. (That party is run by a different corporation; the telephone corporation and the warehouse corporation are openly at war with each other.) These partygoers are in the warehouse, but they tend not to participate in any of these small conversation clusters; instead, they stand nearby, having phone conversations on a hundred different phones at once. You can hear everything they say, but if you don’t have a telephone yourself, you can only hear half the conversation; you have to guess at the rest.

What they say into their telephones frequently begins and ends with code names, terms of art, and telephone-party argot. “Ahoy ahoy, Fatty Arbuckle: I know, exactly! Yankee Pot Roast,” one will say into his first phone, then quickly turn to his second phone, saying “Ahoy ahoy God Pants, ahoy ahoy Seriously Cut Deltoids, ahoy ahoy Ladies Who Knit Sweaters for Dogs and Cats: Tomorrow night, but the venue’s changed, Cone of Silence, Denver Broncos,” then grab a third phone and say “Link Ray Film Fanatic: This morning, but the deal isn’t solid yet, you should check out what he said yesterday. Gustave Doré Engravings, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Schrödinger’s Cat.”

I have had at least four bad dreams in the past week in which I was forced to participate in the telephone party.

All of this might sound like Luddism, but it’s not; what I’m trying to get at is more that I’m frustrated at the inelegant ways in which all these new modes of connecting sometimes come crashing into each other, wary of the intentions of the corporations involved, and skeptical of anyone from any camp who claims to have wrapped his or her head fully around the zeitgeist. But I’m still wildly optimistic about where this is all going. The secret, as with nearly everything, has to do with finding balance, I think; and the balance, I think, has something to do with the very different pleasures of the ethereal on the one hand and the the thingness of things on the other—making things that won’t last a day, while at the same time, making things that have some reasonable shot of lasting a hundred years or more.

As an old friend who’s at more parties than I’m able to count might put it, in a way, it has probably always been thus, ever since Lascaux.

Me Playing Guitar on Radio David Byrne

(Ten-year-old Web site birthday week catch-up post, five of five.)

The Radio David Byrne playlist for the month of February, titled “Sharing Is Caring,” includes seven of Cindy’s songs: four tracks from Gloria Deluxe albums (one from the eponymous LP, three from Hooker), plus three from Devotionals (Songs for Shunkin).

I played on “Little Piece of Grace” and “Such a Long Time”; I also sang on the former. (Hooker, like this Web site, turns ten this year. Have you listened to the record lately? I think it’s holding up really well.) As you’ll see if you link to Byrne’s site, only the current playlist streams, but the archive includes links for buying the individual MP3s.

As you’ll know already if you’re on Cindy’s mailing list, her new show, The Truth: A Tragedy, is having its international debut the last weekend of March at Les Subsistances in Lyon, France; the American debut will be in May at Soho Rep.

At the moment, the copy for the Les Subsistances Web site page about Cindy’s show begins “Attention : découverte !” I think it would be marvelous for the French to discover her work. I’m hoping that would make her the Jerry Lewis of cabaret-twang performance art. Which might be fitting, since the show, I believe, draws heavily from the world of stand-up comedy. Which I’m hoping might also mean money. Good old-fashioned old-world old-school support-of-the-arts money. Which would be awesome.

As you may also know, the show is largely about our dad.

The Fall VQ

(Ten-year-old Web site birthday week catch-up post, four of five.)

In the fall 2009 issue of the Quarterly—which shipped last October, I think—I had two pieces: the regular Vassar Yesterday department (which involved the great Luddistic joy of doing research on microfilm), and a short item about an alumna named Anne Cleveland, Vassar class of ’37.

Cleveland’s career is fascinating—I’m hoping that someone at some point writes a longer and more substantial article about her life and work. I think the story might be right up Joan Acocella’s alley, actually, since the tragedy of Cleveland’s career—early successes followed by difficulties in her personal life followed by a long silence—is not dissimilar from at least a few of the profiles in Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints.

Some links: an obit: “Terrific cartoonist of 1950s fled from her talent,” The Oregonian, 21 April 2009; another obit, this one in Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter: “Anne Cleveland, 1916–2009,” 25 March 2009; another post from a few years ago on the Comics Reporter site—part of a larger conversation about women comics artists, but it has some useful biographical details not included in full in the above obit: “Regarding Anne Cleveland…,” 19 May 2006; and a blog post from a couple of years ago by Shaenon Garrity, also a Vassar alumna (class of 2000): “Anne Cleveland’s Legacy at Vassar,” 29 August 2008.

I was very happy to get quotes for the piece from Liza Donnelly (Vassar professor, New Yorker cartoonist, and author, appropriately enough, of Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons) and from Cleveland’s son Toby White.

“Sleepwalking”

(Ten-year-old Web site birthday week catch-up post, three of five.)

In the current issue of Quick Fiction: a story of mine called “Sleepwalking.” It’s in print edition #16, which had an official publication date of October 2009, but in actuality shipped a bit later than that. As is always the case with QF, this issue has a fantastic lineup of contributors (Kim Chinquee! Aaron Burch! Et al.!) Eight dollars buys you a whole lot of good writing.

One bit of oddness: my story is missing a noun. There’s just a blank space on the page where the word should be—it was six letters long, and was inadvertently replaced with a tab character (probably right before going to press, says QF publisher Adam Pieroni).

The sentence now reads:

But look, his clothes—once chic, now worn thin as      —we all know his predicament.

…so in a way, it actually looks like it could be intentional; his clothes are now as thin as this blank space.

I suggested that we start a “Help Tom Hopkins Find His Lost Word!” Facebook group, but so far this hasn’t happened yet.

My bio for this issue—which will make more sense when you read the story:

Thomas Israel Hopkins has had a kind of love/hate relationship with the island of sleeplessness for decades. Although he is enamored of the idea of a blog that’s only open during business hours, you can learn more online, any time, at tomhop.com.

“The Man in the Moon Is a Lawyer”

(Ten-year-old Web site birthday week catch-up post, two of five.)

My story “The Man in the Moon Is a Lawyer” is in the current issue of Indiana Review—Winter 2009, issue #31.2. Here’s the table of contents for the issue. Look at the excellent company—Martone et al.! Here’s how you can buy a copy.

My bio for the contributors’ notes explains much, obfuscates more:

Although merely an armchair attorney himself, Thomas Israel Hopkins is entirely in favor of manned space travel, amateur or otherwise. His writing has appeared in Quick Fiction, One Story, Sonora Review, Poets & Writers, and Bookforum, among other places. Learn more at his online lunar lounge, tomhop.com.

Ten Years Old

Ten years ago today, I registered the domain name tomhop.com for the first time. This Web site remains as infrequently visited now as it has been since before Al Gore was chosen as President by a majority of the American electorate.

I’ve been renewing the domain once a year ever since; I’ve never renewed for more than a year, because in a way, I’m always astounded that the Web as we know it, as we experience it, continues to exist. It’s already a difficult-for-a-layperson-to-fully-grasp quadrillion-tentacled octopus. But I keep expecting it to be, say, colonized by zombie-clouds run by the Swedish mob, or poached by a consortium of Romanian aspirin-by-mail dealers, or purchased outright by a shadow holding company of cryogenically frozen pharmaceutical-industry billionaire gangster-tycoons.

In the past week, I’ve been digging through a few years of infrequent posts—I can’t imagine what it’s like to dig through old posts when you write a blog more frequently than once or twice a month—and one thing I’ve been reminded of is that links become dead rather quickly. Over the years, they also go dead rather thoroughly. Also—and this is not unrelated—the written posts with what feels like the longest shelf life are the ones that are meant to stand alone. Not writing meant to point elsewhere, or comment on something that someone else wrote, published somewhere else—just short things, nothing but what they are, sent out into the void.

Whatever the lesson is there, it applies to everything, I think.