- No kidding, people are different here.
- Everything’s got a story and often it’s a long story.
- We’re glad we got out of San Francisco when we did but the real Tuscany is both much more amazing and much more about regular daily life than the brand “Tuscany” co-opted by sellers of “Tuscan-brown sofas surrounded by Tuscan-yellow walls,” etcetera. That’s all. Just something I was thinking about. Keep in touch. Missing all our friends in the States.–Cary T.
(UPon reading “Fear of Freedom” by Carlo Levi)
It was necessary to get out of America because America had become a monster, an unrecognizable foe, a fascist seedling sprouting on the fringe of consciousness.
It was necessary to go someplace far away from America to sit and contemplate, to try to regain the self.
I’m going to read this piece here: (Tasso Hostel open mic, Florence, Italy, Wednesday, June 6, 2018, 8:30pm!)
Italy was a renunciation, a place to flee to, a refuge. Though it was in reality a practical move, of course it seemed crazy and in our hearts we felt crazy and that craziness, that suddenness was itself a sign of our confusion and hurt, our fear, our fed-up-ness with America. It was a sudden, satisfying point of surrender, a throwing up of the hands, a turning over of the table on which the chess pieces defied us, a walking-off the field, a giving of the finger. Not that we thought it was the end-all solution; Italy was, rather, the next dry stone to jump to in the middle of a growing tumult of water, soon become a rapids.
We left America before we knew precisely where we were going. We knew we were going to Castiglion Fiorentino, that people there would welcome us, but beyond that we only knew we had to get out of America and that Italy was a place to land, a place to pause while we come to our senses amid the onslaught of America’s blind romance with fascism.
You’ve done it once already, Italy! You’ve gone fascist, seen its awful consequences, and with the latest government perhaps you are trying to return to that! Yet somehow Italy’s fascist turn is not so traumatic as America’s. Now it’s America’s turn and it will be historic and ugly and interesting also but we did not want to be there for the full pageant of death. We did not want to stay and resist because we felt we no longer had enough partners in resistance, having witnessed a melting away of our comrades!
We were like children awakening from a dream on a field of battle, finding ourselves abandoned and thus fleeing to the first available shelter. Did no one else see what was happening? Yes, they did, but they thought they could oppose it and by opposing it thus fix it but we saw it as too monstrous a wave, not a thing we could fix because we ourselves were creating this fascist wave, in our refusal to believe what we were creating, all of us, in our creation and our resistance, all of us together in our resistance not seeing that even our resistance was subsumed by this thing, this monster of democracy transforming itself and all of us with it, into fascism.
All we could do was flee, because we have had experience with such a thing, and so we fled, and because we wanted safety and quiet and thought we could not afford to live in Florence we landed in a tiny town with art and museums and coffee, where we had patrons and protection, a family who knew us and would watch out for us, watch over us. Yes, we fled America for the protection of an Italian family whose kindness touched us and made us feel safe, even as we realize that the fascist organization called Casa Pound, after the great and misguided poet Ezra, that the young fans of fascism have their secret club meetings and their powerful and cultured members, who seem to treat the fascist underground like Club 54, the Fab Mab, or CBGB, a private club of raw elegance and sophistication where the right sort of disaffected intellectuals torture themselves in artful and subversive ways.
It cannot be just a flirtation, it must mean something, this romance with fascism. It cannot be just puppy love. We cannot say that this flirtation is not a genuine cry of anguish, any more than we could deny that punk was a primal scream as much as a musical style, only later cleaned up and made expert entertainment by a little band from across the Bay called Green Day. Whom I adore, btw, just saying social upheavals are not just stylistic adjustments.
And now I seem to have fallen silent, reading Carlo Levi, being reminded of the necessity of resistance and seeing that I have left the playing field and my comrades. We resist the surface of fascism while our machines tirelessly breed it from within! Because fascism turned out to be from within, and inescapable.
I mean that we sought a certain comfortable respite in order to wait and see what happens and not wait until everyone was fleeing, until we had been reduced to rags and were marching out of the city with a million other refugees. We wanted to be among the first to leave so we could set up house and welcome the others who stayed longer, who had more faith, who thought that fascism could be resisted and defeated while we believed that it was something dormant now awakened in the American soul, finally, after such long devotion to democracy. We thought it was far scarier than others seemed to think; we sensed its beginnings early. We sensed that our comrades did not see it and could not be convinced of its inevitability.
We are friends with the fascists; it has not come to war yet; we eat together, we sit around a table with those who quote Mussolini and idolize a past of violence and repression, who root for fascism like it’s a rock band, a favorite show, a fashionable shoe, to put on for the streets and the dinner tables and then take off at night, casting off one’s murderousness, one’s erotic fascination with dark domination. Believing that it does not grow in the night, but it does. It grows in the night and awakens stronger until eventually it, the plaything fed by darkness, eventually it grows larger, becomes the monster and master and begins to whip us mercilessly until we become the servant, meekly polishing its guns and submitting to its violent violations of our bodies.
Those last few months in San Francisco we had a feeling things would not end well; we saw the fascism of the technocrats, their dreamy hypnotic envelopment in code, their repudiation of the family meal and preference for solitary pizzas in front of streaming glowing code running down their green laptop screens like rain, their superman fantasies, uber mensches taking Uber to the mansions of their uber bosses. We had a feeling that America was ripe for an earthquake; it was that feeling of acrid stillness and violent unease, and so we in an instant decided to crack open the magical egg of real estate, convert our house to money, take the money and run.
Now we are here, safe high on a hillside, watching and waiting–and going to the Tasso Hostel every month for the Open Mic!
“I’m still alive!”
is something you shout
from the crevasse
to the rescuers
whose pick axes remind you
because you are still a poet although stuck in the ice
of cartoon implements from TV in Florida
and this is how you hope to go
one day but not yet because
the medicine was good and you are still here
a bit of a miracle but
as they with their chisels chip and hammer at the ice
that preserves you like an aspic of creative, this whole
human mess we’re in for a flash is also frozen like an X-ray
of the sun, leaping fusion mountains unsurfable
and now in tuscany looking west at rooftops
Two arms reach out a window shaking out a rug the
miracle of my rescue gets another dial click as
Scientists gather like in Florida TV sci-fi in black and white
and something I remember after surgery barely walking how I
Suddenly wanted pink and yellow shirts and
Soon as I could drive the V-8 Tundra I drove from the beach
down to mall and went to Nordstrom’s and bought these outrageous
pink and yellow shirts.
I just read this Alif Batuman piece in n+1 from a few years back in which I found a kinship reading of “craft.” So let me get something off my chest, counterproductive and humiliating as it may be:
Craft is awful. I hate craft!
Instead of standing out there in the hot sun polishing and polishing your doomed anachronistic prose beauty why not instead, today! unleash the wild craftless being within, that incoherent and frightening voice that keeps whispering criminal truths to your inner ear and let it come forth in all its terrible beauty and find its footing on its own, in a process of natural growth? Why push it, mold it, craft it, polish it like a little soldier to line up in uniform with all the other little soldiers of bland literature? Why? when it is a miracle as it is?
I love Amherst Writers and Artists workshops because they make possible a powerful and dignified emergence of the inchoate soul thing, this pure personal voice from the deep well of common humanity. Craft. Fuck craft. Do we humans need craft? No, it needs us. Craft demands that we shape our beings into product. I hate craft.
And yet I have spent the last 30 years practicing and ever-more-elegant craft, worshiping at the altar of “craft,” guiding my boat on a steady course of grammar and diction and usage and coherence … and why? When in my secret and true being I am nothing like the crafted representation of myself that I so earnestly slave over! Why? Because I have also needed to be employed! I have learned and practiced the craft of column-writing and copy-editing and line editing and developmental editing and I have learned the craft of novel writing because I want to be in the room, I want to survive, I want to get paid! I have learned plot and dialog and setting because I want to get into the room where the smart people are enjoying each other. I want their comforts! I want their pedigrees! I am a slave to my own sick, empty need for cultural approbation!
Yet it is true: I hate all of these things. My pure voice rails at these things. It resists. It resists the slightest hint of awkward accommodation or knuckling under. It resists the boring, the routine, the necessary. It resists quotidian requirements because its whole reason for emerging is to escape the quotidian.
This bursting, sparkling, desperate inner being looking for escape and expression must contend with the need to pay the rent (pay the rant?) by doing things that require craft: Journalism, copy-editing, consulting, teaching, workshop leading. And yet at heart it is not about craft. It is about mystery.
Not to mislead: Yes, in AWA workshops we do talk about craft. Yes, it is true ina quotidian sense you can’t go anywhere without craft; it is like air in the tires. But more important we talk about vision and personal truth. For who is going to stop you on the road and congratulate you for having adequate air in your tires?
Indeed in any honest workshop we must talk about craft but I would rather talk about finding the clear water. I would rather talk about finding the central strange inner being that needs voice, that resists easy assimilation, that elbows its way into the room and roars and farts and laughs at us as we slavishly attempt to craft it into something comprehensible. I would rather talk about the incomprehensible. I would rather worship at the feet of this central strange inner being that rightly resists the demands of “craft.”
Fuck craft. I hate “craft.”
OK. I’m done now. I’ll unlock the door and you can leave.
I have rewritten a certain scene several times. As a result, I now have several overlapping texts, texts that repeat other texts or portray the same events in different colors.
Luckily, using Scrivener, I can go through this 3,000-word morass of visionary … OK, that’s the other problem: This scene combined the visible world, i.e. a woman who is sleepwalking, with the interior world, the things she is dreaming while she is sleepwalking, and then the things she is saying out loud, audibly, as a result of what she is dreaming as she is sleepwalking. It would be easier if she were on stage. We would see her and she would act out the sleepwalking part. But this is a character in a novel and I must indicate what is going on. So I had all these texts, which were basically, to be honest, failed attempts to get it right. Each text had some interesting language and some useful information. But they didn’t work as a scene. Luckily, with Scrivener, I can use the Split at Selection and the Split With Selection as Title tools. Most people probably only split longer things but sometimes, like today, if I am in a hurricane of compelling but confusing text and I am trying to make several things work at the same time, i.e. tone, scene, interior monologue, external description, alternating poetic interior with forward movement toward a sudden moment of awareness, i.e. she is awakened by someone’s voice, then I might use these tools to take it down to the sentence level, summarizing each sentence to really understand what’s going on.
It’s slow, painstaking work but that’s why writing, for me, takes a long time. I worked on it yesterday, I worked on it last night after dinner, and I am working on it again this morning. Norma and I went to Bar Maro for pastries and coffee and then strolled through the little Sunday market on the streets of Castiglion Fiorentino and I came across
the most achingly beautiful mandolino from the 1800s and I had to leave it in its case and return to the apartment and start in on this again because time it the medium in which one works. Plus I was out of sorts because of the following: I was working on it last night in my study and then I thought, gee, I’m kinda tired now, and I lay down and next thing you know it’s 5am and I’ve slept in my clothes on top of the daybed. Then crawl into actual bed with actual wife to try and attain a few more hours sleep only to find that … I haven’t paid the TIM bill and our Internet is cut off! Not pretty scene with wife. Then off to COOP store where we pay the TIM bill and, miraculously, we did not expect this at all, but the Internet went back on in about an hour.
Anyway, if you’re lost, if it isn’t working, take it down to the sentence level. Slow, painstaking work.
Or throw it out! You could, you know. If it isn’t essential. But this thing, I really want it in there. I want it to work. That is my wish. And what is a novel but a collection of cherished wishes, worked over and worked over until they are shining, luminous prayers, good enough to fool the gods.
One of the counter-intuitive aspects of finishing a novel turns out to be the desperate struggle not to have any new ideas. Or only new ideas in the service of problem-solving.
Finishing is a closing-down, a limiting effort, bent on discarding, not on expanding.
Yet sometimes, to finish a scene or section, one can be helped by a new idea.
So here is an example of how the problem-solving aspect of finishing the novel interacts with the need for research and the presence of a fertile imagination. I have to write this scene where the eccentric actress who has disappeared for two weeks after a bizarre solo performance makes her reappearance in her home town. Telling it from inside the car she is riding in felt boring and claustrophobic. It seemed better to tell it from the viewpoint of all the reality TV crews and news crews perched in trees and apartment buildings watching the few roads by which her car could re-enter the town. But then what happened? I started thinking about what kind of symbol this town would come up with, what experience-brand object or theme would arise from the fertile collective consciousness of AmeriBrain, the marketing amygdala of the American OverPsyche, and I thought perhaps a burning Valentine, as her performance happened on Valentines Day and involved lighting a fire on stage, burning her clothes and many items from her past on stage, and then disappearing. I pictured suburban lawns with Flaming Valentines; I imagined young women imitating Lydia’s behavior, which had been reported in the press though no journalists had been allowed into the theater where her performance took place. Then I imagined young women imitating her act of defiance, having their own fashion bonfires. I saw a thousand points of light–piles of cheap, boring, overpriced women’s fashion burning on suburban lawns all across America. So I thought I ought to do a little Internet research on current fashion brands, just to get ideas and a little grounding. I read a BusinessInsider article about the top 10 fashion brands and was amazed to find that Zara was number 1! This novel is all about NumBer One (numb-er) … so I happened on an article about Zara written by … none other than our former colleague at Salon.com, Suzy Hansen. So that was interesting, that Zara does no advertising, that its strategy is to change its offerings so frequently, and price them so low, that if you see something there you have to buy it or it will be gone next week. So then I become interested in Suzy Hansen and what she has been up to and notice that she lives in Istanbul, which is interesting … and find she’s writing a book for FSG about observing America in decline from abroad. And so I thought I would send Suzy an email just to get in touch and ask how the election of Donald Trump might be affecting the publisher’s interest in a book about America’s decline … How Fascinating! How absorbing! How utterly Distracting!
So back to the novel. Now I have an idea. I didn’t really want an idea. I am trying to finish up, limit. But: I did need something vivid with which to make an emblem of Lydia’s return. Now I have this image of all these copy-cat clothes bonfires all across America. And then I think, OK, how to do that? I like news-item pieces and this seemed ideal: AP: A rash of house fires as young women imitate Lydia Favors by making bonfires of unwanted clothes and other items.
The finishing process is necessarily both subtractive and creative. But I have to limit my creative notions to those that actually solve problems. It might be tempting to follow this thread into a whole other subplot. That would be disastrous and might take me off schedule. That will be for another novel. For now, just something quick I can cook up to make her return to town more vivid. And funny. And maybe get Wolf Blitzer in there somehow. Because, to me, Wolf Blitzer is always funny, and seeing him ponder the phenomenon of women creating bonfires of their clothes and burning their houses down just seems amusing.
But fast, see. That’s the thing. I’m trying to get this done. It’s tricky, having new ideas. They must be contained; they must be harnessed to purpose; they can’t drag me off into whole new subplots. That’s my weakness. That’s why this novel has grown like a giant tumor on my laptop. Too many subplots.
OK, everybody, back to work!
Hi. So here it is Day 3 of my 49-day project to finish this novel using the Finishing School method and talk about it as I do so. Today, what I am editing is a long solo performance by the main character in which she gives a rambling monologue that makes her sound faintly deranged, and then dumps the contents of two bags on stage, one an expensive Gucci bag and the other a cheap Safeway bag, and uses the objects to fuel her monologue, as she disrobes and throws her clothes on the pile, and then squirts her father’s Ronson lighter fluid on the pile and lights it on fire and disappears, as in the title of the novel, Famous Actress Disappears.
Then there is a big fire onstage and all the audience members are locked into the theater. It is challenging and complicated to write and I have been working on it a long time but I am now pretty close to having it done. The entire scene is about 10,000 words.
I am trying to give the narration of the performance the same intensity as the performance itself yet also must draw back to describe situations outside the scene to maintain narrative sense for the reader.
It’s hella tricky, dude! But another day and I think I will have this scene good enough, so that it does not break down or fall apart or lose readers.
The plan here is to finish the novel and have it be good enough to send to agents. For a while I thought of hiring a professional editor but I really don’t want to do that. I want to do it myself. I’m in that old tradition of the writer as lone hero, figuring it all out for himself. Though I advise against that in my work with others, I seem to be stuck with it for myself, at least for this novel. I want all the glory.
So I put in a good day of work, on this Thanksgiving Day, in Italy, and we ate pasta with cinghiale, or wild boar, and apple cake from the alimentari, and assam tea from Henry’s on Noriega in San Francisco (Thank you, Margaret McCue, for bringing it!), and I have 47 more days to get this thing done.
Also, which is the whole point here, I am using the Finishing School method, i.e. figuring out how much time it’s going to take, finding the time, enumerating the tasks, psyching myself up (that’s not actually in the method, I just do it), and checking in with my creative buddy before and after each work session. So I’m on track. It’s really pretty simple. One of those things that’s really simple but really effective if you do it.
I’m not going to go into why. I’m just going to share the day-by-day problem-solving of a guy who’s been working on the same novel since 1995 and is going to finish it, absolutely, using the techniques in the book Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done. Danelle Morton and I wrote the book on finishing. Now we have to prove that it works.
So I am a literary artist at heart. Ahem. No, really. And I am a punk. That’s where I live, emotionally, aesthetically: A hippie jazz-loving punk music loving literary artist who has done a lot of journalism but always in his heart is and was a literary artist.
With problems. Like fears, addictions, neurotic behaviors, self-defeating behaviors, all that. Not your classic “winner.” More like a talented loser who doesn’t know how the world works but watches really carefully to try to understand it and pass as normal.
Anyway, since we’re down to the wire here, I am going to be very much about the mechanical aspects. As of yesterday, I had exactly 7 weeks, 49 days, to accomplish this.
Starting in tomorrow, I will tell my tale, day by day, missing a day here and there but basically I will share with you my story of finishing a novel as it happens.–Cary T.
p.s. Tell your friends. It’s going to be interesting. It might get dirty. It might get weird. But it will surely be interesting.
Finally after the rains of May and June the sky went a brutal blue day after day and the ancient stones warmed and the air grew hot and everyone slowed down, even the animals. The dogs that barked all winter and spring now lie on the concrete and let me pass. Even the motorcycles sound lazy. Now the weather is barefoot, short-haired, slow and workless, without ambition, a weather of waiting, of warm skin and patience, of early mornings and late nights, of swallows and cicadas and midnight tennis and boys playing calcio in the basketball courts.
How it came to be that our apartment door opens onto the Loggiato Vasariano, where in summer people eat pizza at outdoor tables and sometimes watch soccer projected on the wall above our door is that I fell in love with this apartment because it had the best views and the most mystery. It has three views. To the south is the castle Montecchio:
To the east is the bell tower of the Chiesa di Collegiata, backlit in the morning sun.
And to the north the window of our bedroom looks over the Piazza del Municipio itself. This is what we saw the other evening out our bedroom window:
I have just come in from sitting on the wall of the Loggiato Vasariano talking about the heat and Hemingway with my Italian friend Walter who is discontented. Walter is discontented because he loved Florence but he moved to Castiglion Fiorentino to be with his daughter and then his daughter moved to London. Now the Brexit may bring his daughter back to Italy which would make Walter happy.
I do not know too much else. I know we have a writing workshop in France at the end of August and there are still spots available. I know I left the United States and do not want to go back any time soon but maybe eventually to take care of some business in San Francisco and see friends. I know there is a paradox at work in that the same rapacious capitalism that was making life unpleasant in San Francisco also offered us a convenient exit so I am here in exile looking on with horror as America gets weirder and more violent every day.
Drop me a line: Piazza del Municipio, 7, Castiglion Fiorentino (AR) 52043, ITALY
p.s. That red arrow in the picture at the top, that points to our apartment. The castle in the background is Montecchio, and the bell tower is the Chiesa di Collegiata
This story is all in the comments below.–CT