The Unspooling Challenge

Strange how you can be perfectly cogent in one writing mode and incoherent in another. I distress over that when I’m writing fiction– “Write the story like it’s an essay about something that hasn’t happened yet.” (Delightful, but this never works.) Relatedly, my good-writing voice is only sometimes plugged in. I’m working on a project with another friend for The Toast which required me to edit a three-hour gchat session into less keyboard mash, more palaver. I thought I was holding my own with the adults– a foreign policy analyst and an assistant professor– who sound more concise and authoritative than I do unedited. But upon review, I was same old me: a blowhard.

Relatedly, I am blogging less and using Twitter more. “Didn’t you start this blog to track how Twitter would affect your thought process?” asked a friend on Sunday. Yes I did. My more substantial ideas go to paid work, which this WordPress is not. Plus, there’s something Lily said weeks ago — why commit to coherence when on Twitter people will respond to what’s good and ignore the rest? But internet writing appeals to me for its ability to unspool and draw out, so I’m going to try something new: for at least the next week, at the end of the day I will turn a tweet into a blog post. Maybe the good-writing voice will appear. The good-writing voice’s chief characteristic is it knows exactly where nouns-as-verbs sound poetic– I think of Ben Lerner’s love of the verb “to brain,” a word like an American baseball bat boring a hole in your skull from the broad end. The goal of good-writing voice is to sound like a Russian laureate translated to his or her limited maximum abilities in another language. Good writing voice is conspicuously absent tonight. Too much articulation isn’t healthy for me.

What if the apple… is just an apple?

When I was a second year in college I took a survey course on American modern literature taught by a man I admired. I wasn’t opposed to the subject matter but it wasn’t why I was taking the course. The course’s true appeal was social climbing and a chance to get closer one really great crush. (I alternately love and hate this as a literary trope, as in, in The Flamethrowers, when Reno moves to New York City in pursuit of a bad boy from art school.) One day I had a revelation while my professor, who you should imagine physically and dispositionally as the English teacher from Boy Meets World, was talking about the infamous pile of shirts in Gatsby’s closet.

My professor

My professor.

Suddenly he stopped: “What if the shirt” (long pause) “is just a shirt?”

This blew. my. fucking. mind. Of course! The shirt doesn’t need to be a literary symbol for the scene to function. Sometimes a shirt is “just” a shirt.

Recently I found an unexpected reiteration of “What if the shirt is just a shirt” in abbot Nilus’s 5th century interpretation of Genesis:

It was the desire of food that spawned disobedience; it was the pleasure of taste that drove us from Paradise. Luxury in food delights the gullet, but it breeds the worm of license that sleepeth not. An empty stomach prepares one for watching and prayer; the full one induces sleep. (Abbot Nilus, Tractatus de octo spiritibus malitiae, chap 1, p.79, col. 114B, trans. by Musurillo, “Ascetical Fasting,” p. 16)

Really takes the wind out of your sails, doesn’t it? Maybe the apple was just an apple, something to fill the stomach and cause pleasure.

Gertie the Dinosaur

I’m working on a new project about the Rube Goldberg machines in Betty Boop cartoons. (Unsurprisingly, Rube Goldberg was producing actual Rube Goldberg machines around the same time as Max Fleischer was working on Betty Boop for Out of the Inkwell.) I already knew one count on which this is a personal topic — my father’s diminutive for me when I was very young was “Booper Girl,” after Betty herself.

Betty Boop animators Max and Dave Fleishcer developed rotoscope, a technique by which live action stills are traced over and animated, following the success of Winsor McCay’s “Gertie,” a sloppily amiable brontosaurus that McCay made the lode of his vaudeville act. In the vaudeville finale to “Gertie the Dinosaur” McCay jumps behind screen and re-appears in Gertie’s mouth as a cartoon. This was purportedly the inspiration for the Fleischer brothers’ new, ultra-realistic technique.

Cab Calloway was rotoscoped as a walrus for this 1932 Betty Boop cartoon.


Promotional Poster. The animated cartoon is a black-and-white line drawing.

I like this dinosaur heritage to the Fleischers’ career. I have one tattoo: a lithograph of a brontosaurus on my left bicep. The tattoo appealed to me for its impersonality compared to, say, an effigy for the dead or ostensibly “deep” Chinese letters. But I also like that dinosaurs confuse reality and illusion: Although they appear in myth as dragons, they really existed. And one more reversal in fictitiousness– most of us know dinosaurs chiefly through the movies. The dinosaur’s reality-busting heritage isn’t specific to commercial blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Land Before Time, but was present at the very genesis of animated cartoons.

Gif'd from "Gertie the Dinosaur"

Gif’d from “Gertie the Dinosaur”

Monk Poem


I meet my particular hell
among the fraudulent monks
in Times Square
selling their gold-paper wares.

A saxophone blares.
The moon is mooning us
– you, I –
perfect shot for reticence’s last call.

Maroon this mood.
It is a snail-plain mood
on a knoll.

Or does the moon knee the sky
right in the groin
knocking out the lights?

I’m no terrorist
I’m an outlaw, not a thief.

Steal away little outlaw
little monk
golden goods are no trade for a snail-plain moon,
its Buddha knees spread wide.

Very recent internet history

I spent most of my leisure time today reading about 2008-era Gawker and now I have a whole new bookmarks folder dedicated to very recent internet history, most of which involves Gawker and its satellites (The Awl, New York Observer, n+1, smaller blogs like Young Manhattanite and TMFTML, etc.). Gawker’s such a content farm it’s almost a pointless exercise to limit myself to particular blogs. For example, should Buzzfeed be considered a Gawker satellite? What about Rolling Stone? No, but certainly alumni work for both publications. Anyway. What I’ve realized is 1) I know jack shit, 2) everyone, literally everyone is connected (the guy from pitchforkreviewsreviews wrote on the Awl about Young Manhattanite??), and 3) pretty much everyone who’s successful thought of themselves as an outsider five or six years ago, and maybe still does. That last point I bring up, not to edify myself as a prospective future “success story” — I mean, it’s possible, but all signs point to No – but to remind myself that just because I’m cranky about cronyism doesn’t mean I’m insightful or immune to it. It also reminds me of that tired plot point on Girls S3 where Hannah quits her advertorial job to pursue a “serious” writing career. I don’t think that storyline was well done, but now I have a better idea of what it was trying to say: everyone has a dismal “New York moment.”

“I love me enough for the both of us”

I’m reading Philippe Lejeune’s On Diary and it’s so precise, thorough, interrogative, simple, and entertaining, I’m just over the moon. I’m not big into the fetishization of books; to me, it’s the information inside them that matters, and if I evangelize for hard copy it’s only out of concern for the presently available technologies re: archives and marginalia. But this book is beautiful: clean, supple, the binding just big enough to be flipped through with a satisfying thwack. It’d better be, I had to order it special from the Strand Warehouse, and even that was a gamble, since my local academic bookstore said it was out of stock. But wow, there are just so many wonderful things to pore over in this book, and I’m finding myself revved up and thinking a million miles a minute.

Here’s something that hit me in the gut. It’s from a 17th-century Sulpician mystic, Marie Rousseau, whose diaries take up thousands of pages and have been read in entirety by no one but Marie and her two transcribers.

But on the subject of this strength, since I told him that I was too weak of body to serve him, and especially too weak of lung to preach him he replied I will give you twice the strength and a double lung I did not understand that word and it was understood that he would strengthen my lung, not only to preach him but also to love and to bear the effects of his love which are often severe and impair one without the mercy of GOD. (Lejeune, 74; emphasis hers).

Almost any old thing sounds poetic if its language is outdated enough, but I love this text’s turns. “Double lung” is phonetically beautiful in English and, maybe because it was written around the same time — this particular entry is from 1642 — it reminds me of the equally mystic Weird Sisters’ Double double… (you know the rest). But it’s more than that: it’s the lung that sucks and expels, it’s the idea that love can be harder to receive than to give, that it’s the organ of breath instead of blood that reifies feeling, and the Bersanian insight that penetration demands strength, too. That’s a lesson I’m learning now, one I didn’t know I had to learn. I remember in January, when I was still a mess, attending a birthday party, feeling my friends’ love for me and not knowing what to do with it. I told my therapist that it was like a gift given to the wrong person. Partially, that’s because I worried I had been deceiving my friends about who I was, so of course their love couldn’t strike its intended target; but also, it’s because it’s disarming to feel love when one goes through life as though tightening a braid.