Thursday, August 27, 2015

Matutinal


I am a better person when I write in the morning. Generally speaking, I am not in the least a morning person, but when I write in the morning, it gives me the confidence boost I need to make the rest of the day look instantly more appealing. This I discovered when laboriously ploughing through my recent writing endeavors. Though I had every intention to do the same thing as I did with my first novel—i.e. get up every morning at 8am so I could start writing for exactly one hour (sometimes longer, if I was in the flow) at 9am—my writerly discipline seems to have dwindled considerably during the past few months. Bad me. I have, however, been writing. The past week, however, I found myself (a) not getting up on time, but nevertheless (b) picking up my laptop at a random hour during the day, and writing until I hit the 1k limit. This is one of many methods to keep your writerly discipline, and one I had ditched in favor of the one-hour-a-day method, but this one seems to work better for me at the moment. When on a given day I decided to begin my day with a writing spree, however, I discovered that there’s a marked difference. And I have concluded that the writing-first-thing-in-the-morning method might be the one which suits me best after all.
‘Matutinal’ is a formal word according to my dictionary, simply meaning ‘of, or in the morning.’ It derives from the Latin word ‘matutinalis’ (‘pertaining to morning’), which in turn derives its name from a female divinity called ‘Matuta,’ the Roman goddess of dawn. Her name, in turn, might be a derivation from the adjective ‘maturus,’ meaning ‘early.’ Wikipedia furthermore informs me that ‘Mater Matuta’ was actually an indigenous Latin goddess, who was eventually conflated with the dawn goddess Aurora, and the Greek goddess Eos, whom some of you might know from Homer (she’s the ‘rosy-fingered’ goddess of the dawn). There were, after all, a lot of gods and goddesses to go around back in the day, even (or maybe particularly) a couple for the most hateful moment of the day. 
I repeat: I am not a morning person. I do have some discipline, and throughout the school year, when I have a more or less regular rhythm, I do get up at a regular hour (even if I don’t have class until the afternoon) to do potentially useful things. When I know that I don’t have to, though—on weekends, for example—I am the laziest of lazybones, and I usually spend most matutinal hours in bed. I don’t yet make it a habit to get up after 12pm, but I’m getting pretty close. And then I usually only get up because my bladder is full and I have to pee, after which a grudging breakfast follows, and then more unproductive hours loitering in my pajamas before I get dressed. My life is so exciting.
Mornings—and getting up—are just not my strong suit. First there’s the stumbling-out-of-bed bit, which these days involves me glaring at my alarm clock when I see how very late in the morning it already is, and then a slouching pilgrimage to the bathroom. Then there’s the matutinal wee, and the slouching pilgrimage downstairs, where I make my breakfast (the same every morning, except on Sundays). On productive days, I go back upstairs after that to wash the sleep out of my eyes, get dressed, and brush my teeth. After that, I start up my computer for the daily checkup of my emails, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. (there are so many things to keep track of these days). All this usually takes up a bit less than an hour (depending on how demanding social media are being today). 
For times when I’m not writing, this is about the extent of my matutinal ritual; after that the daily humdrum of school and other obligations wheezes into being like an old, coughing, blubbering seal. For times when I am writing, however, I turn off Facebook strictly at the turn of the hour, I open whatever story I was working on (or an entirely virginal blank page), and I write. For an hour, usually. That is what I oblige myself to do. If it’s going well, and I’m in the flow, it can be longer than that (because it doesn’t happen often that you’re in the flow, and you need to grasp that chance when it arrives). Usually, though, it stops after one hour. It’s only one hour. It’s not like the amount of time Stephen King spends writing every day (four hours, I think?). But it makes all the difference for the rest of the day. Because yes, this morning I have been writing, and today I can rightfully call myself a writer, and even if very bad things are about to happen that day, in that matutinal moment of bliss, I feel invincible. It’s a feeling many writers know: in fact, many claim that they don’t so much enjoy the writing itself, but the feeling of ‘having written.’ Which I recognize very well,  and I’m glad to be endorsed by my actually-published and famous peers. 
It doesn’t always work, however, and recently I’ve been especially erratic in my writing habits. It comes in pangs, which is not a good sign, and it makes me feel shitty because this is how amateurs work (in bursts of inspiration). When I do write, though, it seems to happen usually not during the matutinal period, but rather in the afternoon. Which is remarkably different, because it appears not to give me half as much satisfaction as writing in the morning does. Because half the day’s already over then, and the possibility to feel great about the upcoming day is considerably diminished. Even though I write 1k every time, and don’t just go with whatever amount of words a single hour yields (which can be 1k, but might as well flicker at a meager 200 words), it simply doesn’t seem to do for my self esteem what writing in the morning does. And in that sense, I suppose, I might be a morning person. But don’t hold me to that. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Lodestar


One thing which can be said for depression is that suddenly, everything is equal. Our human bias to weigh positive information heavier than negative information is momentarily disabled, and every element becomes equally important. Depression is democratic like that; good things, bad things, big things, little things... All of it seems to signify about as much as anything else. Or as little, because during a depression so many allegedly important things seem to lose much of their import. ‘Depression’ being here defined as numbness and apathy, not desperation— the opposite of happiness is not desperation, but indifference. Whereas desperation still implies some kind of engagement (you only despair if you care about something), apathy implies that, well, it didn’t really matter anyway. Everything is equal. Or, to use the words of Freddy Mercury: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see... Nothing really matters to me...”         
    ‘Lodestar’ in its literal meaning refers to ‘a star that is used to guide the course of a ship,’ especially the pole star. The word is etymologically actually a literal descendant from the pole star, because it lends its form from the Old Norse “leiðarstjarna,” which literally meant ‘leading star’—you can still see the form in it. You can also see the vowel shift from ‘lode’ (which became ‘load,’ the original referring to ‘way, course, carrying,’ which gradually evolved into a specialized use of the word for the mining industry as a ‘vein of metal ore,’ derived from the notion of miners ‘following’ a vein of gold) to ‘lead.’ A figurative use of the noun (no longer restricted to maritime jargon) appeared in the 14th century. Though it’s a little-used word, I quite appreciate it.  
    In the history of the human race, lodestars have proven to be useful things, both literally and figuratively. In fact, some might call them essential, because any kind of achievement supposedly begins with a wish, an objective of some kind. Every life is guided by some kind of desire. But what happens when you lose your lodestar? 
    My current state-of-mind seems to teeter towards apathy, which is not a good state to be in. Everything is equal, but that also means that you have nothing to hold on to. There are no handles on a smooth surface. If every emotion, every idea, is as good as the next, then what does any of it matter? I compare it to the sea on a windless day: everything is smooth, everything is peaceful. Which might sound heavenly, but not when you’re in the middle of it, and every horizon spells the same flat, watery landscape. Imagine being shipwrecked on a silent sea. Drifting. When everything is equal,  you have no point of reference, and you have no idea if you’re stationary, or if this current (you aren’t even sure there is one, because you can’t feel it, but then you’ve learned that seas have currents, so you must be in one, right?) is taking you anywhere. On the sea, everything is equal. But when everything is equal, you have nothing to hold onto either.
    This, to me, is what depression feels like. There is nothing to guide you, and anything happening in your life feels like another imperceptible current which might, but probably is not taking you anywhere. I feel this about many of my day-to-day activities, my feelings, and even all this knowledge I’m stuffing my head with (both in school and through self-study). I found this feeling described wonderfully in a book I read last year. It’s called Girl meets Boy, written by the incredible Ali Smith, and it contains this:

I wished I was old. I was tired of being so young, so stupidly knowing, so stupidly forgetful. I was tired of having to be anything at all. I felt like the Internet, full of every kind of information but none of it mattering more than any of it, and all of its little links like thin white roots on a broken plant dug out of the soil, lying drying on its side. And whenever I tried to access myself, whenever I’d try to click on me, try to go any deeper when it came to the meaning of ‘I’, I mean deeper than a single fast-loading page on Facebook or MySpace, it was as if I knew that one morning I’d wake up and try to log on to find that not even that version of I existed any more, because the servers all over the world were all down. And that’s how rootless. And that’s how fragile.

Everything in this quote resonates with me, which is rare. For one, it is superbly written—the kind of writing that is not just competent, but inspired (witness the long lyrical sentence, and the metaphor-within-a-metaphor, both of which are spot-on). But also the kind of disengagement which it describes was something I had been feeling for a while, but I’d never become conscious of it (or found the words for). To me, it perfectly describes how it feels to be young in the age of information. The internet-metaphor especially hit me like a cartoon piano. Because the internet is supposed to be good, right? The democratization of knowledge, and all that. But what to do with all that? You know so many things, but none of it seems to matter more than any of it. Everything is equal, and therefore everything might be as useful, or useless, as the next thing. It is difficult to see the forest through the trees in these days of Fun Facts and Did You Knows. There is no lodestar, and that makes all this knowledge feel sometimes more a curse than a blessing. The embarrassment of riches, one might call it. Anyway.
    I’m still stranded in my shitty student job for the time being, but I’m looking forward to starting work on a second novel. I may be currently drifting in a silent, noncommittal sea, but this second to-write novel is something I can regard as my lodestar. And it is currently also the only thing I feel I can hold onto, because all the rest is seems to matter just as much (and as little) as the next thing. There is wind sometimes, and incidentally a small storm can whip up out of nowhere, but that leaves you adrift as much as a silent sea. This, then, is water (hi, David). Learning to navigate it only requires two things: a decent ship, good weather conditions, and a point of reference. As for me, I’m not sure about the decent ship (I’ve been more together in the past, whereas now I seem to be gradually imploding into a random constellation of driftwood); the weather conditions are as good as they always were (so no change, though I’m not sure how good that is); the point of reference, right now, is that second novel. That is the only thing. As for the rest: “anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me...”   

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Pococurante


Running out of fucks to give is not, on the whole, always a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite liberating. All those old anxieties washed down the drain, and you are released from that awful straightjacket life held you in, simply because you cared so much. It isn’t a bad thing; at least, it’s not a bad thing per se. Because once you discover how liberating it is, running out of fucks to give can become quite addictive. And before you know it, you find yourself contemplating—as I call it—‘the Ethics of Apathy.’ Notice the shift in connotation: being carefree is generally considered okay, but being apathetic? That makes people feel a bit more uncomfortable. It’s a slippery slope: once you find yourself not caring that much anymore about the small things, it only takes circumstance and a certain mindset before you become indifferent to bigger, sometimes even the biggest, things.
    ‘Pococurante’ is a rare word, according to my dictionary, and it can be used both as an adjective and as a noun. As an adjective, it means ‘indifferent or unconcerned’; as a noun it refers to ‘an indifferent or unconcerned person.’ The word was originally coined by Voltaire in his Candide, in which there figured a nonchalant Venetian senator who held the name ‘Pococurante’—a contraction of the two Italian words ‘poco’ (‘little’) and ‘curante’ (‘caring’), the latter a present participle form of the verb ‘curare’ (‘to care’). A derived term is ‘pococurantism.’ Finally, a nice synonym I’d like to leave for my reader is the flourishing term ‘je-m’en-foutiste,’ from the common French expression “je m’en fou.” The more you know.
    On the whole, I’m not disliking my life as a pococurante. It’s nice and quiet, and it is immensely satisfying to discover that very few people can currently excite the peaceful waters of my usually so turbulent mind. If I lived in Ancient Greece, in fact, my current state of mind would be highly enviable—at least, in the eyes of the Stoic tradition. For them, the term apatheia literally meant ‘absence of passion,’ and carried no negative connotations. The best English translation would be ‘equanimity,’ rather than ‘apathy.’ If I’m being honest, however, I wouldn’t say that ‘equanimity’ is the best way to describe my current state of mind. Apatheia as the Stoics defined it didn’t mean a loss of feeling, or total disengagement with the world. My mindset at the moment, however, seems to be a closer supporter of pococurantism than equanimity, which is not what the Stoics had in mind. 
     Maybe it’s just the ennui from working on my shitty student job for two successive weeks, but currently my apathy levels seem to be particularly high. Not to a pathological degree—I function quite normally. But I feel curiously cut off from emotional engagement. Which, at the moment, is rather harming my relationship with myself. 
    Oddly, I think my literary pursuits might have something to do with my current pococurante attitude. Since I started reading seriously, I’ve developed a particular taste in my reading material. And because I now have a (more or less) clear idea of what I want literature to be, I am very critical of what I read. I’m caustic with what I consider to be in any way banal, which means that I spurn clichéd writing—both in terms of style and topic. I’m equally condemning of any trace of sentimentalism or overly dramatic writing. If you combine the two, you’ll find that my personal brand of literary criticism condemns any expressions of dramatic emotions, when said emotions are unoriginal. Think about love: romantic love is a major topos in world literature, but because of that it can very easily come across as clichéd. As such, I am dismissive of any overly dramatic expression of romantic love, simply because—apart from a few exceptions—it’s unoriginal. The emotion has to be complicated in a way for it to be interesting. The same goes for a whole range of emotions: if it is (a) unoriginal and (b) stated too emphatically, I disengage.
     For my literary pursuits, I don’t find this a bad thing. But when you apply my literary theory to life, the results are less alluring. Even if I find myself in genuine pain because of something, I usually dismiss it on account of that emotion being ‘uninteresting.’ Heartbreak, loneliness, a longing for something more... I push them all away on account of how worn-out, banal and boring they really are. I even find myself dismissing my overall contentment for the past two years. Sometimes I find myself wondering what really happened the last two years, and for a second or two, I can’t remember—while really, the last two years have been great from several points-of-view, much more so than the cesspit of despair that 2013 was for the biggest part. But at least that cesspit of despair, I then think, made a major impact on my personal development. Of the last two years, I’m not so sure... Even the last semester seems ages ago by now—2014 seems like a lifetime away—while 2013 feels like it only happened yesterday. (Admittedly, my dismissal of the importance of past two years might just be because they didn’t leave such an emphatic impression as 2013 did; emotional development might very well have happened, only I dismiss it because it was less noticeable.) A sad smirk appeared on my face when I realized this. How hopeless I can be: nostalgic about my worst depression, and blasé about my happiness. 
     Why? Simply because happiness is just not so interesting, while depression is. Tolstoy said it quite accurately when he talked about families, but even when you take family out of the equation, his aphorism still holds true: happiness usually looks the same on everyone, but there are a million ways to be unhappy. And this, in turn, fits in with my literary-theory-applied-to-life. My pococurante attitude only allows me to engage with emotions that I consider in some way ‘interesting.’ Sadly, very few of of my current emotions seem to stand the test.  
     Of course, I know that this is majorly invalidating of my own feelings. I realize this, and I realize that it’s probably not healthy. But I seem unwilling to change my pococurante mindset, simply because remaining aloof of all those messy, fickle, and tempestuous emotions seems a lot more appealing than willingly jumping into a whirlpool of painful sensations—sensations as tiring as they are vapid. For a person who can be often accused of too much sensitivity, apathy is a nice break. 
     But it’s not a party either. Because while it’s a major relief to find myself unwilling to care much about that one social engagement I’ll probably miss, and that one job that I didn’t get finished, I realize the danger of starting to think things like “Why am I doing this anyway? It’s not like it makes a difference.” It’s a surprisingly short jump from “It’s not like it makes a difference” to “It’s not like I make a difference.” Currently, this isn’t worrying yet, because such a realization could go either way: if you don’t make a difference, you’re not necessarily doing any harm either. (That is what I’m currently trying to achieve: being as quiet and inconspicuous as possible while going about my business.) But not making a difference might also head into a less innocent direction. In that case, pococurantism can be dangerous, and I think I might need to watch out.              

Monday, May 25, 2015

Redolent

Remember the days when everything was still simple? Yeah, me neither. But that is memory for you. The minute you start seeing the world in another light, suddenly events from your past become a lot more complicated than you had initially experienced them. In fact, memory is a tricky thing, and one I have recently become fascinated with. And this not only because I am currently going through yet another exam period, and am spending large chunks of my day stuffing my head with *cough*useful *cough* knowledge. It is also because, since I have rounded off my first novel now (still looking for a publisher, though I have been offered a contract, be it from a publisher which proved a bit too shady for my tastes), I am looking forward to new projects. Partly, I’m planning to start a second novel this summer, with an idea I have had for a very long time. But recently I’ve also been struck by a new idea for a short story collection. The way I’m imagining it, it will not just be a hodgepodge of stories, though, but a structured complex stories which interconnect in many curious ways (much in the way as my literary hero does it in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters). And my central theme, I have decided, will be memory.
    ‘Redolent’ is a wonderful word meaning ‘strongly reminiscent or suggestive of,’ always accompanied by the prepositions ‘of’ or ‘with.’ It also has two other, less used meanings, the first of which is ‘literary,’ and defines ‘redolent’ as ‘strongly smelling of’; the second my dictionary calls ‘literary’ or ‘archaic,’ and interprets the word as ‘fragrant or sweet-smelling.’ In its earliest form, it is found in the Latin verb ‘redolere,’ a combination of the intensive prefix ‘red-’ and the verb ‘olere,’ meaning ‘giving off a smell.’ In its present participle, this became ‘redolens,’ which in turn became ‘redolentem’ in the accusative form. It was this form which was taken over in French as ‘redolent,’ which is how it ended up in English in around 1400. I cannot express how grateful I am that Febreze never got ahold of this word. It would be forever spoiled. 
It seems an ambitious enterprise, writing about memory; I freely admit that it is. Which is why I’m reading up on this curious phenomenon, and I’ve come across various surprising and interesting facts which I think will serve as inspiration. ‘Redolent’ is in this context a particularly interesting word, because it reminds us that our memories are often triggered by sensory experiences. Think about the first sentence of Love in Times of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” What Dr Urbino’s particular association between the two is, the reader has to wait to find out, but immediately in that first sentence there is a sensory trigger attached to a particular memory. And isn’t that exactly how memory works? 
    Because I have already done some brainstorming about the matter, I have decided that, much like memory (and also much in the style of my literary hero), the way to tie these stories together is through association. And one of those associations I have made is with magic. Isn’t memory a mysterious thing? How you can remember some things, while other things disappear almost the moment you see them. How you can suddenly remember something you had forgotten for years, and how you can suddenly forget about something which occupied your mind for months. How memories often (always?) seem different when you look back at them later. Memory, I would argue, is like a stage magician: it forces you to focus on some things, and overlook other things. That is why things can sometimes take up entirely different meanings so many years after the facts, even though the facts haven’t changed. And all this happens because the brain, the seat of your memory, works by means of neural connections. If the connections change (and they do all the time), the memory changes. And at any moment, at any time, any type of memory might be triggered to your consciousness. To Dr Urbino, the scent of bitter almonds, redolent of unrequited love. To others, maybe a piece of music, as is so beautifully expressed in a song by Elbow, Bones of You: “When out of the doorway the tentacles stretch, of a song that I know and the world moves in slow-mo,” after which the singer is transported back into a memory, “And it’s you, and it’s me, and we’re sleeping through the day; and I’m five years ago, and three thousand miles away...” 
     At the same time, memory can be an escape. Who doesn’t like nostalgia? It has that appealing combination of fondness and melancholy. To address this side of memory, I’m reading up on Houdini, the great escape artist (and magician). The man who fascinated audiences worldwide with his incredible feats of escape, sometimes from seemingly unbreakable confinement, may well serve as a metaphor for memory, which allows us to retreat from the present, and escape into some kind of past. On the other hand, memories can also trap you, and then it is the memory you have to escape from. It is an intricate dynamic, and one which I am curious to discover. At any rate, I have identified my own sensory experience which is redolent of things past: chlorine. When my sister and I were small, we used to go swimming every Saturday with our dad. I liked swimming—I particularly loved diving, and keeping in my breath as long as possible—and because I now rarely visit a swimming pool anymore, any whiff of chlorine can transport me back to those halcyon days. How about you? 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Neoteric

I have been confused lately. While trying to get my novel published, I went through what you might call a literary identity crisis. It is nothing very serious, but it troubles me. Suddenly, for example, I wasn’t sure anymore whether my novel is good enough. Then I decided that it might really not be good enough for my standards, and then I wondered whether I can really publish something I don’t stand behind 100%. Of course, I realize, this might just be my subconscious playing on me its latest stratagem to trick me into self-sabotage. Partly, I still feel like I should at least give it a try, even though the novel doesn’t live up to my current standards anymore. On the other hand, my darn principles stand in the way. On the other other hand, it seems—given some of the novel’s peculiarities—incredibly unlikely at this point that I will ever be able to get it published at all (so why even try?). And this is what bothers me most of all, because it is not the experiment which bothers me; my concerns lie mostly with the plot. I actually quite like the (modest) experimentation I engaged in, but I fear that it will exactly be that which will scare off publishers. Because in the current publishing climate, it is extremely difficult to do anything that is really ‘new.’ 
   ‘Neoteric’ can be both an adjective and a noun. As an adjective, it means either ‘belonging to recent times,’ ‘recent’ or ‘new or modern.’ As a noun, it denotes ‘a modern person,’ or ‘a person who advocates new ideas.’ Its origins date back to the Greek adjective ‘neoterikos’ (‘youthful, fresh, modern’), which then inevitably prompted a Latin transcription, ‘neotericus.’ It was taken over in English in the 1590s, and since then its meaning has not really shifted. According to my dictionary, it is ‘formal,’ but of course that will not stop us from using it. Be neoteric, use ‘neoteric’! (Okay, it sounds like a condom advertisement, but you get what I mean.)  
   As most writers, I did not give a great deal of thought to how I saw myself as a writer when I started writing. I simply knew I wanted to be a writer; I did not right away consider what kind of a writer I wanted to be, what kind of fiction I wanted to write, and what kind of a message I wanted to convey with my writing. And I am very happy that I didn’t, because since finishing my novel I have been thinking about it, and it has thrown me quite for a loop. Since then, I have arrived at the conclusion that I don’t like my novel anymore. But more problematically, I am also still struggling with what kind of prose I do want to write. It is quite a dilemma. I want my prose to be readable (so not too obscure), but I don’t want to be deliberately sensational. I want to write realist, personal, intimate stories that focus on character, and the character’s psyche and emotions. Now, you might say that this description gives a pretty good idea of what I’d like my fiction to look like. But it is my last literary ideal which messes up the whole picture, because I also want to be original. I don’t want to rehash stories that have been written a thousand times before; I want to make a new contribution. In my ideal world, I would like to be a neoteric. But how does one do this, exactly?
    I have been studying Ulysses in my free time (I have no life, and strange hobbies). I’m still trying to find a way to read it, and I’m not sure whether I really like it, but for me it has one thing going for it: it is fucking innovative. And that not only requires vision, but also a lot of guts. And they are the kind of guts most contemporary writers simply don’t have. Moreover, the innovation wave of modernism has long since stranded, and publishers now aren’t esthetes who are willing to risk everything for ‘art’—they want to sell. In the current publishing climate, I don’t think Joyce would have been able to get Ulysses published. And yes, there are several ways to be a neoteric, and you don’t have to engage in Joycean experiment to be innovative. But when my editor tells me to ‘tie up the ends’ for my novel, or tells me you can’t make a certain stylistic choice, I get just a little sad, because I think you should be able to do your own thing, as long as the ‘deviation’ is a conscious choice. 
   But where is the line? Where do you distinguish between ‘doing your own thing’ and ‘accommodating the reader’? Because I admit that there are certain problems with my writing style, and I need to edit my stuff like any other person. And yes, I want to write accessible, readable prose. But some things I simply do because I like them, and even though they might make my writing just a little less accessible, they are what makes writing joyful for me. And it would make me incredibly sad not to be able to do them anymore on account of ‘reader accommodation.’ This last given should, of course, make the choice an obvious one: you only ought to write if you love doing it (that is the only right reason to be a writer, really), and anything which might cause you to stop loving it, ought to be out of the question. But I would like to get published at some point; I do want to be read. And what if making the neoteric choice would stop me from ever achieving that? That would make me sad, too...
    As you can see, dearest reader, I am much in doubt. I greatly admire Joyce, if not because I love Ulysses, then because I am in awe of his dedication to his experiment, and the sheer amount of guts it takes to do such a thing. It isn’t easy to make the neoteric choice. But it is a necessary one, I think. In a text by Flannery O’Connor she writes that these days, the market is flooded by writers who write competently, but whose prose is essentially traditional, and, in fact, boring. The democratization of the market, and the existence of MFA programs in America, make that 90% of what gets published today is probably well-written, maybe even good—but good isn’t great. And to me, of course, being good is simply not good enough. I would like to do something new. 
    But there’s the other rub: how can you still do something new? The history of literature is a concatenation of action and reaction. At one point, a new literary format rails against the established literature. The movement is hailed as neoteric and innovative. Then it becomes so popular that the ‘new’ format becomes the established norm. Then another new format arises in reaction to what used to be new. Etcetera. The point being, of course, that this has been going on for a couple of centuries already. And modernism has happened already. Postmodernism too. The literary avant-garde has passed, and it seems frankly pompous to even try to do something ‘new,’ because so many people have already done so, successfully. And I would like to be neoteric without being obscure, but what if that last stipulation makes me, in fact, really traditional? And what if my wish for innovation will make my work unpublishable? Two combating ambitions, you might say, and both are quite persistent. They are the cause of my latest concerns. As stated, they have thrown me quite for a loop, so if anyone has any ideas, don’t hesitate to let me know. This aspiring neoteric is having issues.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Neophyte

Dearest reader, it has been done. My book has returned from the editor, and after some minor adjustments, it is officially ready to be served to a publisher. I have been working on this novel for about two years now, and though I hear that this is about how long it takes for just about every author I admire, it felt like a very long time to me. But then, I am only twenty-three, so I guess two years of my life does feel like a long time. Anyway. After two years of imbedding myself in my self-constructed fictional world, I have come out again, and should now dive headfirst into the very real world of query letters, credentials, agencies and publishers. I admit that I am a little daunted—if not downright terrified. Because while after three years of writing, I feel like I have gained some proficiency in that area, when it comes to publishing, I am as green as I could possibly be. 
     ‘Neophyte’ is defined by my dictionary as ‘a person who is new to a subject or activity.’ In its original meaning, it (still) refers to ‘a new convert to a religion’ or ‘a novice in a religious order, or a newly ordained priest.’ It came first into English as Church Latin in the 1550s, at which point its predominant meaning was ‘new convert’; its derived meaning of ‘one who is new to a subject’ is first recorded in the 1590s. To go all the way back to its roots, it derives from the Greek ‘neophytos’, a noun use of an adjective meaning ‘newly initiated, newly converted’; in a very literal sense, though, it means ‘newly planted,’ from ‘neos’ (‘new’) and ‘phytos’ (‘grown, planted’), which in turn derives from the verb ‘phyein’ (‘cause to grow, beget, plant’). Though its use appears to be rare before the 19th century, one could definitely say that ‘neophyte’ is anything but a novice. Unlike, oh say, ‘twerk’ or ‘selfie.’
    My neophyte status in the field of publication is giving me, I admit, quite some anxiety at the moment. In the assumption that my novel is, right now, the best it can be, there are so many things that can still go wrong when submitting your manuscript to a potential publisher. Depending on what publisher you are submitting to, the tone and style of your pitch can either be just right or just wrong, and chances are that you’ll fall into the second category. For a young writer like me especially, it is not at all easy to be considered seriously for publication. When the submission guidelines stipulate that you should include ‘relevant writing credentials’ in your query letter, I have several times now looked shamefacedly at the feeble paragraph that flowed out of my fingers. When you’ve only been published in a student magazine, and all you’ve managed to do was to become ‘runner-up’ in a writing competition nobody heard of (yeah, that was a thing—I haven’t told you about that, have I?), and you, uhh, oh yes!, you have a blog!—then chances are that you’ll be passed over quickly. Oh yes, and I’m a student. And I live in Belgium. And English is not even my mother tongue. Shit. 
    Long story short, I have a lot of factors working against me when it comes to being considered for publication. The only thing I can really hope for, is that (the preview of) my novel looks appealing enough to them to have a serious look at it. And, of course, it is wise to search specifically for publishers who consider new, unpublished authors. An added problem, though, is that my novel isn’t just a novel you can put in a paperback, or turn into an ebook which you can purchase on Amazon (which I am boycotting anyway). Because I have added some experimental touches here and there, you a) need to have my book in print and b) its production might require more than the average printing press. Which is expensive. Which makes it risky. Which makes it even more difficult to be considered for publication—added to which is that my book is ‘literary’ fiction, and deals with philosophy and psychology and poetry and whatnot, so it is likely not to be enjoyed by a very broad readership. So. More shit.  
    To be entirely honest: I am not feeling very optimistic about this, and not just because I am a neophyte in the publishing world. My editor suggested that I look into self-publication, but the sad fact is that, being a poor student, I simply do not have the funds to finance such a project. And another obstacle, I suppose, is also my own stubbornness about this publication business, because I am adamant about doing it ‘the proper way.’ And this, to me, means that I go through the harrowing process of sending out letter after letter until I can’t write anymore, getting so many rejection letters that I can supply the local origami club for several evenings, until finally someone is willing to take a risk on me. That’s how the greats got there, didn’t they? Patience and perseverance. And I believe in the process. But that, alas, does not make it any easier. Pray for me, dearest reader. I will need it.  

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Quixotic

If you would have told me a year ago that in less than seven months I would have managed to assemble and install a fully functional poem dispenser, I would probably have laughed at you. A poem dispenser? Such nonsense. Intriguing nonsense, but nonsense all the same—certainly not the type of nonsense I would think of as a feasible goal. The very idea seems barmy. I do often exhibit an optimistic and hopeful attitude towards the future, mostly due to my large imagination, and may sometimes even be accused of bovarism, but when I first half-laughingly suggested the idea, I certainly did not think that this would be in any way a plausible, if at all possible, achievement. But dreams, it seems, can sometimes come true; one does not even have to travel past the rainbow. Even when the dream in question is really, really barmy.   
     ‘Quixotic’ is defined by my dictionary as ‘extremely idealistic, unrealistic and impractical’. The word belongs to, by far, my favorite category of terms—terms which have their roots in literature. ‘Quixotic’ finds its origins in Spanish literature, referring back to one of the first heroes in literary history: Don Quixote. The knight who went to fight the windmills is undoubtedly the epitome of distorted ambition and outdated ideals. But a bit of hallucination is sometimes not unhealthy, as it shows. If it were up to me, I would fill my life with quixotry (BAM, it rhymes).
    I did not have any windmills to fight, or giants, for that matter, but I did have a machine to somehow bring into existence; a machine of which the very premise is quixotry. The idea is simple enough: you take your average toy vending machine, but instead of putting toys in the little capsules, you put in poems. When I first encountered the concept (for the record, I did not come up with this idea; I stole it from Pinterest) I immediately imagined such an apparatus residing at my university, in the corridor where the English Department is situated. It would be nothing short of glorious. 
    What an idea! The tiny universe created in a poem, contained into a plastic shell, brought randomly to whomever is willing to be surprised by poetry. The idea appealed immensely to my literary idealism; spreading knowledge and wisdom, making it marketable, and therefore accessible to a wide range of people (people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in poetry)... A utopian fantasy, but one I did not imagine ever being able to bring to fruition. It was a quixotry: the department could not possibly agree with it, it would be impossible to finance, and the practicalities behind it all seemed like a cloying web of logistics, which I knew I was no good at. 
     I was never so happy to be wrong. When I first suggested it, my peers’ enthusiasm about the idea surprised me, and because some of these peers have connections inside the department, they laid the first stones on the path hence: the department’s approval. More than this: they agreed to finance it, which was more than I could have hoped for. And once this foundation was laid, me and two dear friends of mine have been collaborating to bring about this quixotic experiment. 
     Don’t get me wrong: it was a cloying web of logistics, and there were many issues to deal with before we got where we are now, but on the whole it went more smoothly than I could have hoped for. I found a firm which still sells these (pretty old-fashioned) vending machines, inquired after their produce, got information. Once the type of dispenser had been settled on, I took care of the correspondence, paid for the dispenser (I still have to get my money back from the department, but I am confident that this will happen soon enough), and made sure that it, along with a very big bag of capsules, was sent to one of my co-conspirators, a very nice girl who in the mean time had been taking care of the object on which the dispenser would be mounted: a multi-functional upcycled cabinet, with three drawers, respectively for (1) empty capsules, (2) poem suggestions, and (3) a tiny book exchange. The result, I daresay, is quite enchanting.
     I, in the meantime, had to concern myself with the poems, which took some doing, since to fill the dispenser, one needs to fill 173 capsules. Which equals 173 poems. Even with my literary education, I can not, off the top of my head, name 173 poems, so I borrowed greedily from both the internet and my father’s library. This also required a system, because to avoid entering the same poem twice, I had to carefully keep track of which poems I used in my selection. I never much saw the use of spreadsheets, but I am quite in love with them now (oh lord, I’m starting to sound practical). 
    Another annoying thing about the poems was of a more physical nature: the capsules in which I had to fit them are pretty small, and I had to make sure to make my papers compact enough to fit into these capsules in their folded state. This also caused some difficulties, but we ultimately settled on an A5 format (which, in turn, had consequences for the type of poems I could include in my selection), and a particularly light type of paper, which can be folded into a very small size. Finding the right printer took some doing, but this obstacle was eventually also overcome. The dispenser has since been moved to the department, and once I get my money back, it is ready for use. 
    Realizing the quixotic, then, was not as impossible as I had thought, but it took quite some toil to get there. The more so, of course, because this is not a project for which I could rely on the expertise of others—none of them had ever endeavored something like this. The process, on the whole, felt like a long protracted improvisation, with a lot of groping in the dark, every turn making me wonder what on earth I was doing. But the results are there. Incredibly. Quixotically. But truly. My next dream is to organize a flash mob. Though that might be just a bit too quixotic.