Studio

Welcome to my studio, where I post regular updates on my work and contemplate the art of writing.

I recently read from my novel Gnarly Wounds at a literary salon in Duluth. Below is a link to a video excerpt from the conversation that followed the reading. The salon participants asked a lot of questions about both the business and philosophy behind writing a book like Gnarly Wounds, so I thought this would be a nice “behind-the-scenes” kind of conversation to have in my virtual studio: come on in.

  • A Clearing in the Mind April 28, 2014 If I stand in the middle of a city and clear my mind of all conscious conditioning, all wandering thought and expectation, utterly wipe it clean, and I look about me without prejudice, I now see it as a creature that has just emerged into the light from a sewage pipe it entered miles away, in a swamp at the edge of town, where perhaps it was born, and where probably it is used to forage. I don’t see the sudden city as something “I” or “we” made for some purpose, but simply as a new environment I must now negotiate.I quickly realize “I” and “we” are forces of natural selection. “Nature versus Nurture” is quickly revealed as a false duality. My biology is the result of past environmental forces, including the forces exerted by these creatures that, in one of many animal communication systems, are called “humans,” speaking being as natural as birdsong, writing as natural as pheromones.A creature responds to its surroundings by calling out. The call may take the shape of a material inscription, whether an Atlas Shrugged or a calculation of claw marks on the trunk of a tree. I hear the cry, I interpret the sign, I react to it as I would react to anything else in my surroundings. It influences my behavior, which further influences my surroundings, perhaps becoming a sign itself (such as this). Where is the division between “nature” and “culture,” between action and reaction? There is no clear division, only a miraculous moment, immeasurable as the singularity of a parabola, when something falling begins to rise.
  • Why We Need More Translation March 24, 2014 A former collaborator contacted me this winter to resume some unfinished Arabic translation work we’d started years ago, and I’m happily back at the task, and back to thinking about how absolutely critical this kind of work is for American writers to engage in. The reasons are manifold and, I usually assume, quite apparent. However, if I’ve learned anything about human understanding, it’s that nothing is ever apparent to everyone, and (since there are always exceptions, at least when limits of scope are allowed) in those rare instances when something might actually be apparent to everyone in a given audience, it never hurts to repeat that potentially apparent thing, so I will outline some of the more salient reasons why I believe the writing and reading of literary translation is of utmost importance for Americans right now:America has become dangerously insular, due to the increasingly unilateral nature of it dialogue with the rest of the world. For example, among others, I want to know what the elders in the tribal areas of Afghanistan are thinking; I want to know what the Ainu are thinking; I want to know what the Russians are thinking; what they’re thinking not just in the streets, but in their dreams. In other words, I want to know what they really think. We can only get at these nuances in literature, in the language writers feel most comfortable using, which is usually their native tongue. How does the heart speak? In what language does beloved speak to beloved? (Come to think of it, the rest of the world probably doesn’t know a lot of this stuff about Americans either, because we make little collective effort to support or disseminate our own literature abroad... or at home, for that matter. What they get is simply what sells, which is ...
  • The Genius of Collaboration January 27, 2014 If collaboration is executed in a fashion which renders the individual contributions indistinguishable, it is a radical confrontation of the conventional egocentrism of the western literary tradition, wherein the individual is considered the only legitimate source of genius. Not even in the most progressive western literary subcultures (such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, for example) is collaboration seriously practiced. Even here, the myth of individual genius is perpetuated in the process of attempting to subvert it, probably because Nature, the perceived source of Romantic genius, has simply been replaced by Culture, in Postmodernism that is. The fundamental means of production has remained essentially the same. The raw material is just different. Even when we read Ashbery’s poetry, we are foremost aware that we are reading Ashbery’s poetry. We don’t tend to read it as a collective expression with no clearly accountable ego behind it. We read it as Ashbery.I yearn to see more collaboration where the constituent selves of the contributors dissolve into a collective utterance, and where they make an art of it, so collaboration is more than merely an occasional side-project that’s done, if ever, solely for amusement, because it’s not taken seriously, because it doesn’t get published. Though we see precisely this kind of collaboration in music, where artists work together more often than not, the literary apparatus (as well as in the visual arts) fortifies a different strain of western belief, the same that enables CEOs to earn grotesquely disproportionate salaries, for example. Collaboration models a responsible use of resources (sharing, in other words), an antidote to the excesses of pride and entitlement, and, most importantly, the pleasures of playing together.My own experience with literary collaboration has been transformative. At first, I was a bit anxious about “losing control” of the work, and being held accountable for the ...
  • Straight Queer January 2, 2014 I learned, years after graduating from my rural, Midwestern high school, that my classmates had unofficially voted me most likely to shoot up the school. The messenger was a former class mate I’d bumped into (I can’t remember where), the guy I used sit in the library with during study hall, when everyone else was in the cafeteria. I knew that people thought I was a bit unusual, but this new information surprised me, enough, in fact, that I didn’t think to follow up on it with any questions. Nevertheless, I was apparently more than a bit unusual to them. I was a bit dangerous too. Of course, we can never know exactly what others think of us (if they even know that themselves), and yet these impressions, often of no material foundation, can have material results. So I’ve occasionally speculated about what it was they were seeing in me, how they were shaping me into some symbolic vessel for their fears… as I went about my business unaware.Despite my regular involvement in school activities (football, track, theater, the science team, the English team, Future Problem Solvers, etc.), I never felt accepted by my peers. Girls would have little to do with me, though, admittedly, I made very little effort myself (anxiety, etc.), and the boys seemed vaguely afraid of me. Younger students seemed intrigued by me, but, flattering as that may have been, it was also too ephemeral for me to give serious thought. As I mentioned earlier, I never did figure out what they thought of me, or if there was even some kind of consensus, but I did catch occasional glimpses of potential versions of myself among them, such as the time when I was walking through the relative silence of the cafeteria during study hall, bringing ...
  • Your Language Is in Love with Your Mouth December 11, 2013 Having been on the road a bit lately, giving readings from the recently released novel, I was planning to record a few observations here about reading in public, but my thoughts ended up somewhere far away. Nevertheless, I’ll try to retrace my steps.For starters, here is what I consider the most important lesson I’ve learned from the many readings I’ve given: Reading is theater. This, for me, doesn’t imply that it’s supposed to be over-the-top or “dramatic,” but that you embody the words; you feel them as you’re reading them; you speak them as if you have never spoken them before, as if they just occurred to you now, on the epiphanic tip of the present; you use your full body in the expression (at least subtly), including, yes, your hands; you speak in different, appropriate voices for the different personas or characters who may be contained in the writing; and, of course, you articulate and project!And here is where my mind ended up: Your writing isn’t alive until it is in your lungs and your throat and your mouth and your ears. This is the origin of all our language. This is where it wants most desperately to be, where it is most at home, in the voice of the one who brought it into being, who brings it perpetually into being, in the voice of the one that is simultaneously you the individual and you the species and you the very vessel of life. Your language loves your body. This is its source and destination. When the circuit is broken, it dies. Please don’t let it languish. Please don’t neglect it. It yearns only for the warmth of your breath to bring it to life.
  • The Ends of American Art October 25, 2013 Every age dictates its needs to us. I feel this particular era, in America, is demanding we emerge from our self-imposed subcultures and talk to one another, or we’re going to dissolve back into something pre-USA, perhaps a loose confederacy again, if not autonomous city-states, or even tribes. I’m not saying this would necessarily be a bad thing, but I do nevertheless feel compelled, as an “American,” to initiate dialogue on the subject, lest we unwittingly have the rug pulled out from under us mid-stride.We’ve reached a point where dialogue seems nearly impossible because we no longer know each other’s language. This haze of forgetfulness, or ignorance, if you will, isn’t unique to political language, by the way. It has drifted between nearly all identification groups, often the solipsistic, self-affirming lifestyles into which we have retreated (under the banner of consumer capitalist media). It seems to me that the noblest goal of American art now is to bring the factions together and give them a language they can share, not necessarily to reconcile differences, and certainly not to glorify patriotic myths of consensus, but to facilitate understanding.I often catch myself comparing our current situation to that faced by the English in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, after the English Civil War, when the extremes of the Tories and the Whigs, which had previously torn English society apart, were consciously negotiated by writers who sought a middle way between them, and who, incidentally, ended up creating arguably the most revolutionary and useful forms in modern English letters, such as the novel and the dictionary. To call these writers merely peacemakers (as crucial as that role is), or to claim that their culture was revitalized primarily by an influx of colonial wealth, would be to miss the long-range significance of what they achieved for the ...
  • The Cultural Influences behind American Fables August 19, 2013 During a conversation with my editor, when he was asking me why American Fables (the second novella in my triptych-novel Gnarly Wounds) was structured the way it is, it occurred to me that other people might also be interested in knowing the story behind the unconventional style of that book. The purpose for the aesthetics of the other two novellas in Gnarly Wounds seems fairly easy to intuit, but not so for American Fables, which, despite being relatively easy to read, strikes most readers as a bit startling at first. So, to help make a bit more sense of it, I’ve decided to provide some background about the two cultural phenomena that had fairly even hands in inspiring me to write it the way I did.The first influence was totally random. I was watching television one night, something I do rather sparingly, and stumbled across an episode (?) of Lost that I at first suspected to be the result of broadcast technical difficulties, but which I later concluded was an intentional effort to summarize the entire preceding season in the form of a one-hour composite, probably intended to bring casual viewers up to speed on an already puzzling plot. I don’t usually have the patience to sit through an hour of what passes for television entertainment, but this particular format had me engrossed. It moved so damn fast, essentially burning through an episode every couple minutes, tossing all pretense of narrative foreplay aside. I said to myself, “That is pure narrative. I’m going to do that too.” In fact, the working title of American Fables was “Pure,” and you can still find traces of that working title/concept scattered throughout the final version.The second major influence on American Fables was the work of Norwegian cartoonist John Arne Saeteroy (know primarily by ...
  • Form & Nothingness August 1, 2013 Form is of utmost importance to me, to a metaphysical extent, for I believe it transcends even being itself. Nothingness bubbles into being through the agency of form, while form likewise penetrates into the abyss of its own origin. We are, the salt shaker is, the mountains of Mars are… the mystery of absolute nothing igniting into being within form.We define experience by formulating it, thus differentiating the undifferentiated mass of sensations that flood over us. We categorize them into genres of seemingly lived narrative, into modes of expression seemingly best designed to accommodate different emotional and psychological conditions. Notions of “love,” for example, are most commonly (ironically) expressed in the most fleeting of forms, poetry and song lyrics. The understanding of fear is most often delegated to the horror genre, and so on, but not ad infinitum, for the intent is to make comprehensible and therefore finite the forms of response to “reality,” which, incidentally, is another form. (I would imagine that outside human experience the number of potential forms is infinite.)But how does it matter to me to believe that we are made, physically and culturally, of equal parts form and void? To a pragmatist such as myself (well, a Pragmatic Gnostic Stoic Zen Buddhist, to be a bit more precise at this point in my journey), this is an important question, as much for my art as for my daily living. Believing that the inscrutable void is at the heart of everything from snails to supernovas comforts me immensely… knowing that mystery shall never be banished from the world, for the world would have to go with it. And knowing that form is a condition of existence draws my attention to the shapes of everything from, well, snails to supernovas, sonnets to civilizations, dreams to dreadnaughts. And ...
  • The Unified Field (of Culture) Theory July 16, 2013 A point of departure for a foray into the Unified Field of Culture Theory could be this: One cannot forsake a single aspect of a cultural system without at least subtly forsaking everything else within that system. In other words, no single element is entirely independent of the rest. In fact, there is no “single” element. To systematically banish something as seemingly innocuous as socks from your life will eventually call all of Western civilization into question, one blister at a time. If you’d like to test this, you can, of course, obtain faster results by removing other things. Try to avoid clocks for a day, and note how you feel. Remove all music from your life, and watch the landmarks of your existence shift position. Remove all hints of science from your writing, and see what you have left.Of course, there are smaller scale ways to practice this awareness of cultural unity. When you go to a restaurant, notice how the quality and presentation of the food resembles the quality and presentation of the décor. I can just about guarantee that if there are price tags hanging from the art, the same attention has been given to the food; price and cost will have been the primary concern, with the culinary art serving as proprietary camouflage tossed over the underlying profit motive… with perhaps little more than the foundation of all Western civilization underlying that.Though I have been calling this “The Unified Field of Culture Theory,” it’s fun and edifying to try to identify where the boundary between culture and nature exactly lies, in relation to the theory. Attempting to trace the influences on something as seemingly source specific as, say, higher rates of alcoholism in the upper Midwest, will lead you to points as divergent as seasonal weather ...
  • Words Incarnate June 24, 2013 I believe we Westerners are commonly condemned by Cartesian dualism to confine ourselves to finite realms, but it need not be this way. To illustrate otherwise, I'll expound on one physiological fact: words literally shape the neurons in our heads. The final form of a poem or story or treatise or whathaveyou is not simply ink on a page, but physical patterns in living minds, patterns which are likewise influenced by the conditions and contexts in which the words are heard or read. They are cerebral geometry, fusing the mind and the body (the world) in the act of cognition itself. (Though I believe there is no actual fusion, because there is only ever one entity/whole to begin with, there is merely what appears to be a fusion to those acculturated to Cartesian assumptions.)Words are also the vibrations in the air as we speak them, influencing our environment both subtly and explicitly, as ripples or waves on water. They are both the physical phenomenon and the physical behavior they engender. Thus the life of a word is manifold, beginning without clear delineation from the influences of the world on the mind, and branching, through that mind, through the fingers and throat, through media, through the eyes and ears of others, and onward through other minds as they too are pressed upon by the world of which we are all a part, through even the "senseless" air and earth (which, after all, does sense through us), to live endlessly unto oblivion. There is as much an end to them as there is to us. So I believe at least.

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