Making the Mountain


I recently put together a night where people talked about what they make and why. Below is what I read: 

I had a moment when I knew I wanted to write a novel. It was November 3, 2007. I was at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, and I was watching a 3-D movie about sunspots. I was not sober. I’d like to say that the inevitable destruction of our solar system made me think about my own mortality. But really, I was thinking about work.

I had recently changed jobs. I had been at a trade publication called “Sales & Marketing Management Magazine.” The best thing I could say about the job was that it provided me with health insurance. I had been trying to leave since I got there, and finally had. Now I was writing at a media blog, and it had felt like a big move. I had a ton of creative freedom and I was meeting interesting people. But watching this movie about sunspots, I realized that blogging for ten hours a day was not what I wanted either. I wanted to write a novel.

Some people know their whole life that they want to write fiction. I knew my whole life that being creative professionally is hard. My mom is a painter, and each night, she’d come home from work vaguely sad or with news that no one could relate to, like that she had moved a bottle two inches in a still life. Her work wasn’t fun, and she resented when people ask if it was. It’s her second most hated question, right after, “Are you still painting?” Growing up, I’d see her go to her studio every day with the inevitability of gravity, but people still treated her career like a hobby.

But watching this movie about sunspots, the loneliness and the statistical odds of a creative life felt irrelevant. I wanted to write a novel, and I’d rather fail than not try. And so it became my 2008 New Year’s Resolution to make an effort.

Which is more or less what happened in 2008. I gave up blogging and started writing. All the things I feared about having a creative life have proved true.

It’s lonely. The problems I have as I’m developing a character or a scene don’t make sense to anyone but me. My novel exists mostly in a drawer. But that feeling I had at the Liberty Science Center, of having to write, is still there. And now I’m working on a collection of short stories. 

There are all sorts of practical things I like about writing short stories. Mainly that they are shorter than novels. But I’ve always loved short fiction. A short story doesn’t pretend to have all the answers; it’s a snapshot of a character in a moment that feels true.

One of my favorite moments is from the John Cheever short story “Clementina.” It’s about an Italian woman who becomes an au pair for an American family and has lost her visa. Marrying an older, slightly creepy guy is the only way she can stay. Here’s the scene where she makes her decision:  

The room where she read these letters was warm. The lights were pink. She had a silver ashtray like a signora, and, if she had wanted, in her private bathroom she could have drawn a hot bath up to her neck. Did the Holy Virgin mean for her to live in a wilderness and die of starvation? Was it wrong to take the comforts that were held out to her? The faces of her people appeared to her again, and how dark were their skin, their hair, and their eyes, she thought, as if through living with fair people she had taken on the dispositions and the prejudices of the fair. The faces seemed to regard her with reproach, with earthen patience, with a sweet, dignified, and despairing regard, but why should she be compelled to return and drink sour wine in the darkness of the hills? In this new world they had found the secret of youth, and would the saints in heaven have refused a life of youthfulness if it had been God’s will? She remembered how in Nascosta even the most beautiful fell quickly under the darkness of time, like flowers without care; how even the most beautiful became bent and toothless, their dark clothes smelling, as the mamma’s did, of smoke and manure. But in this country she could have forever white teeth and color in her hair. Until the day she died she would have shoes with heels and rings on her fingers, and the attention of men, for in this new world one lived ten lifetimes and never felt the pinch of age; no, never. She would marry Joe. She would stay here and live ten lives, with a skin like marble and always the teeth with which to bite the meat.

We don’t get to know how her marriage works out, if she has kids, if she’s happy, or happier than she would have been back in Italy. We just know that in this moment, she made a choice to always have the strength to enjoy life.

In that way, the short form is more honest than the novel. The length of the novel implies that you’re getting everything. But there is no everything, there’s no whole story. What happens to Ishmael after the Pequod sinks? Maybe Moby-Dick is just a cover letter for his next job.

Cheever used to put on a suit each morning before he went to write in the basement of his apartment building in Manhattan. He wanted to feel like he was going to a job, even if it was only an elevator ride away. My method is to wake up early every day. I learned from my mom that making art doesn’t happen by accident. She still goes to her studio every morning, and I never presumed that I could make something any other way.

It’s not that I want to write every day. I could be very happy—much happier, in fact—watching reality TV every day. I write every day because I want to get better at writing. It’s a vague goal. But the only thing that’s certain is that I won’t get better at writing if I don’t write.

Most mornings, I don’t get much done. I do laundry, I make my bed. I stare out the window. It’s a weird time to be up.

For a while, everything is just black, except for the diagonal streaks of light from the big apartment building on the corner of my street. And then the sky turns navy, the kind of navy you want to believe is black if you made a mistake when purchasing stockings. 

From there, everything gets bluer, though it’s still a dark blue, a blue that could pass for this season’s new black, and the naked branches of the trees become visible. Then the sky is really blue, a blue that, if you were being gender normative, would do well in a baby boy’s room, a blue so light it would surprise you, considering how dark it still is. 

And then, I’m not staring out into total darkness, but the house across from mine, though I can still make out my reflection in the window. Each moment, the sky gets lighter and lighter, which feels like a betrayal of the night, which I suppose it is.

And it’s just like that Hemingway line about going bankrupt—slowly, then all at once—and then it’s time for the day to start. 

(I wrote that a few years ago, while I was procrastinating.)

All of my early mornings are sort of like water on the rock. Every day, I wear away at my inability to understand my characters and connect words to their feelings, and eventually, something emerges.  

Endorsement: Matt Berninger on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast

Apparently, Bret Easton Ellis has a podcast. I don’t know what you were expecting, but if you were expecting him to talk about himself and shill for 90 seconds at a time about audio book services, you’d be right. 

Though, I wouldn’t want Bret Easton Ellis to be anything but narcissistic and money driven—it’d be like asking a zebra not to be striped. It’s also kind of funny how he just talks about his relationship to his guest’s work instead of asking the guest any questions. 

The other night, I listened to his interview with Matt Berninger of the National. “Boxer” was the soundtrack to BEE’s summer of 2008; “Alligator” was the soundtrack to my summer of 2006. 

They do talk about music some, but  Berninger is remarkably bad at remembering the meaning behind his own songs. (Those looking for context on “City Middle” should look elsewhere.) They also talk a lot about “Mistaken For Strangers,” a documentary Matt Berniger’s little brother made about the band and his own failures. From the trailer below, it seems like a future endorsement. 

Lessons in Productivity

For the past four Wednesdays, I’ve woken up at 4:23 am to write before a 6:30 am track workout. This is the most responsible sounding thing I do all week. One problem: I have trouble getting anything else done all day.  

My list:

Moby-Dick, Heman Melville

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami 

Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth 

La Place de la Concorde Suisse, John McPhee

Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri 

Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld 

Rock Springs, Richard Ford

The Stranger, Albert Camus

Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc 

Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick

The Journalist and the Murder, Janet Malcolm 

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, Maile Meloy 

(Source: emilybooks, via emilygould)

Year In Read, 2013

A year is long, or long enough that when the end of December comes around, when the days are so short they start becoming longer, when there’s no work to be done besides eating sweets and vague thoughts about self-improvement, it always comes as somewhat of a surprise.

My favorite part of this time of year is watching the dusk settle into the night and staring at the bare branches against the changing sky. That’s probably the best part of winter anywhere. The best part of winter in Denver is the way the snow doesn’t melt if it’s covered in shadows.

I don’t have any grand proclamations about 2013, or any predictions about 2014. In 2013, I read and in 2014, I plan to do the same. After the jump, the books I read last year.

Read More

How The Year in Read Gets Made, or The Reading Habits of Rebecca Aronauer

My uncle records all the books he reads. I admired this; such a list was proof of something. When I graduated college and the period of assigned reading had ended, I began recording what I read, too.

During the year, I write down what I read on a wall calendar. This year was Bernese Mountain Dogs. 

After finishing the book, I record my name and the month and year I read it on the first page. 

For bookmarks, I use tickets, race bibs, and business cards. I try to match the scrap paper with the book.

It’s nice when the bookmark goes with the color of the book:

The Middlesteins, January, 2013, Paine to Pain Half-Marathon race bib

Or when a narrative component of the book matches up nicely with the bookmark: 

50 Shades of Grey, with the card of Office N. Huber of the Aurora Police Department, April, 2013.

The best is when both things happen:

The Centennial History of the Colorado Jews, with a train ticket from Grand Central to New Rochelle, my hometown, a place where Passover and spring break are the same week. 

No Obituaries For Talk of the Town Subjects

The guy who walked every block of Manhattan is dead

Before any web search I now ask myself, “Would Beyonce be doing that with her time?” 

Before any web search I now ask myself, “Would Beyonce be doing that with her time?” 

(Source: she-works, via mollpants)

Things That Have Been Great

The Brother HL-2270DW

Printing, or rather my continual disappointment of the life of inkjet cartridges, had been a source of some strain for most of my freelancing life. No longer! I got a printer that only prints and now I print, double-sided, old New Yorker articles like a baller/paralegal. Being able to look at the physical draft of a story I’m working on feels like the writer’s version of indoor plumbing – that is, a luxury that shouldn’t be one.

One Radio Host, Two Dancers

Ira Glass’s dance company came to Denver this weekend. Part of the fun was having no idea what a collaboration like this would look like. I went because I have faith in Ira Glass. The show is thought provoking and accessible, and only exists as a performance. It’s not a streamable experience, and if means allow, it’s definitely an experience that’s worth having.

Finishing a Story

I PDF’ed a story I’ve been working on off and on for the past 18 months, and I feel good about putting it behind the glass door of an Adobe file. I spend about seven hours a week writing, which isn’t that much. Most of the time, I feel like I’m not doing anything other than waking up early. Turns out, I was writing a story!

Not Wrong

She thought that to swim in the winter, with snow on the ground and the wind howling, was the greatest luxury.

- Richard Ford, Optimists