What part of the autofiction is fiction?

Is it appropriate, in a work of autofiction, to ask, Which part is the fiction?

I think it is. Because of how people read.

The great thing about fiction is it frees the author of the ethical considerations of autobiography and memoir. When people read something that’s about something that actually happened they read one way. When they read about something that’s not supposed to have ever actually happened they read another way. They use them for different purposes. People read books that are supposedly true to get information about how to live their own lives. People read fiction sort of that way I guess but it’s different and they probably shouldn’t. The author doesn’t owe them to get the facts right. The author is free. Hooray for fiction! Hooray for freedom!

But in “a novel from life,” like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? it seems totally normal to ask, what parts of this are “from life?” and how?

Don’t you think?

Like, maybe, given how it’s likely to be consumed, it should have a consumer label, showing the ingredients?

Poets and Writers Live: Of writers and political conscience

I write from passion and desperation; my heritage is as a punk and a hippie, a fan of visionary and beat poetics, a lover of revolutionaries and rebels. I also am drawn to the severe aesthetics of writers like Nabokov and Wallace Stevens. I straddle worlds.

But let’s have a little context.

The Friday before the Jan. 10, 2015,  Poets and Writers Live event at the Brava Theater in San Francisco, I walked up and down 24th Street distributing cards and posters  for my business of giving writing workshops and arranging international retreats.

I went to Adobe Books, Alleycat Books, and Modern Times. At Modern Times I ran into journalist Denise Sullivan, and asked her about prospects for survival at the venerable progressive Modern Times bookstore. Prospects are tolerably grim as usual. This, of course, brings to mind the volatile cultural and economic changes we are living with but let’s not go there quite yet.

I mentioned to Denise that I was going to the Poets & Writers event up the street the next day. Denise mentioned that Modern Times is hoping to find a coalition of public and private support to continue playing its role as a purveyor of books geared to left and progressive sensibilities. I thought that maybe one of the panels dedicated to talk about community and support might touch on this issue but I did not formulate any plan to bring it up. I just sort of thought it would be an obvious issue. That’s not so smart, really, but it’s the truth.

So, Poets and Writers magazine is sort of the main trade magazine for graduates of writing MFA programs. I have come to love Poets and Writers magazine, actually, despite occasional exasperation at its quiet tone. It lists all the major literary competitions and who won them, as well as all the upcoming submissions deadlines for writers hoping to have their work accepted by journals. This is indispensable career intelligence. Its articles, to my mind, are a bit mild. But as I said, I burn with impatience and long to read mad, hallucinatory, transcendent voices.

This matter of taste is not evident always in my role as an advice columnist, though I have used the column as a platform to soar when possible. Nor is the fiction and poetry I write openly “political.” Yet it has always been difficult for me to sit in a room full of writers talking about process and not feel like screaming. Especially those writers who have prestigious degrees, awards and publishing arrangements. So it was difficult to sit in the Brava Theater and listen complacently.  Yet I lacked the courage to ask those questions I considered important. I thought it was more important to behave, to try to be an adult about it.

Kevin Larimer, editor in chief of Poets and Writers, opened the event by introducing former poet laureate Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was charming and her poems were enjoyable. But neither mentioned recent events in Paris that have rocked the world.

I should have stood up and said, What about the 12 murdered cartoonists in Paris? Can we have a moment of silence?

But, timid, half-asleep me, being a good student, I sat quietly in the balcony, remembering the early 1980s when Laurie Parker (who went on to become a movie producer!) and her sister, who worked there and always carried sandwiches, would let us in to the York Theater and we would smoke cigarettes in the balcony and watch  matinees.

I sat up there in that same balcony, enjoying Ryan’s poems and reminiscing sleepily. And the whole idea of writers’ roles in the larger society, the immediacy of it and its omnipresence — the fact that it’s not a writer’s role sometimes and not other times but all the time —  got away from me. I never spoke up or even raised my hand. I just kinda went with the program

To be fair, it was a beautifully run event in terms of efficiency, the politeness and well-behaved nature of the audience, the sticking to times, and the focus. Any political discussion would have been, in this setting, a disruption. Yet disruption is necessary at times. That is what writers are supposed to do, isn’t it? To disrupt? To speak the disruptive truth? To hurl insults from the balcony at power?

It was surprising that no one stood up and gave a speech or hurled insults, or cried or shouted.  Isn’t this crazy San Francisco? Maybe the $100 price tag kept out all but the most determined, commercially minded, career-oriented young fiction writers and poets? Anyway, I felt out of place in the  well-behaved crowd. Of course, if one feels generally out of place anyway, that’s part of it. But here is my beef:

I believe at gatherings of writers that some mention ought always be made of the larger global political context in which we work. Is this an outdated expectation? Perhaps the Poets and Writers staff discussed whether to mention the slaughter of 12 cartoonists in a Paris office building less than a week ago and decided to avoid getting sidetracked? It’s possible. This is not a reported piece so I haven’t asked them. Anyway I sat through the three morning panels,  skipped the first two after-lunch panels and returned for the last panel with Joyce Carol Oates, which involved Oates reading a poem that has been published in the New Yorker, musician Ben Arthur playing and singing an “answer” to that same poem, then a film using the poem as a leaping off point and then a dance performance, or maybe the other way around.

I had stopped listening and was scribbling away in my notebook, defensively.  That was interesting: That my creating is sometimes a defensive move, a way to reclaim creative space in response to the creations of others. Like I did as a kid!

Also had major realization about songwriting: need to jump in passionately again. So it was useful in that way. As to taste, I guess I just didn’t get it.

What’s not just a question of personal taste is this:

What customary obligation obtains for prestigious publications for writers to make space for vital political matters?

Is it not heartening at gatherings of poets to hear at least a token acknowledgement of world events that affect us? Does it not reaffirm a crucial truth? I think it a custom worth upholding. It says, to the uninitiated, that those of us who write recognize our global role, our responsibility to speak on behalf of others. And it reminds those of us involved in the daily practice that we are indeed doing it in a larger context.

As I was walking to the cafe this morning thinking about this, and the possible reasons no mention was made of the Paris murders, which are so in my mind and in the minds of commentators, I thought of the years that financial difficulties brought me to work for  one of the world’s largest oil companies. One of the things that shocked me, and left me feeling I’d been naive, was the unspoken assumption that what went on inside that building had no connection to what went on in the streets outside. When protests occurred outside the building directly targeting the company’s practices, it seemed that we ought to acknowledge and discuss the matter, and that the company ought to make some kind of explicit statement of its position. Instead there was silence. The message was that we completely ignore the world outside.

This is the corporate way. In the interest of efficient running, the keeping of timetables, corporate workers ignore “outside matters” and stick to what is functional: getting it done on time, sticking to the schedule. It allows corporations to ignore crucial issues and I think it’s a bad way to run a company.

I expected that a gathering of avowedly creative people would be different, more chaotic, more charged with energy. By the end I felt like a squirming teenager, eager to get out into the fresh air, wanting to shout, to rock and roll, to drive fast, to shout insults at those who had held me captive and whose placidity seemed to gain them the rewards we all wanted: the acclaim, the position, the security and acceptance.

It was an interesting moment. Then it ended. I went downstairs, ate one cheddar cheese square in the lobby “mixer,” I gathered up the remainder of my printed marketing materials, and fled into the fresh night air of 24th Street for a quesadilla suiza at El Farolito.

I Tweeted a little bit about this this morning. Maybe there is a conversation to be had about this.

For I am in a position full of contradiction. As I rail against the institutions I am at the same time courting them. I am diligently attempting to master the art of applying for fellowships and grants, submitting my work to journals and contests, writing queries and pitches.

That is why, actually, I so appreciated Kay Ryan’s quip about not being a joiner and assiduously avoiding such events as the one for which she was presently delivering the keynote. “Even a writer who doesn’t come to these things and loathes the whole enterprise still wants to know that they exist — that there is still a community to disdain.”

We all laughed. But no one said anything more about the contradiction, about our own, personal disdain for the messy and irritating job of self-promotion. It all went on in the background, all these ideas — how the democracy and freedom that allow us this privilege are being eroded, how the bookstores that were our lifeblood of community are threatened by economic change, etc.

And what was I there for in the end? Talk about contradictions. The $100 I spent to attend the Poets and Writers Live event was a business marketing expense. Leaving cards and fliers all up and down 24th Street was a marketing activity.

Although, to be fair to myself: I also attended as a matter of conscience and identity, as a writer of fiction and poetry interested in having my work read more widely.

It’s just a shame there was no  Jack Hirschman ranting in the lobby.

Does anyone else feel as I did — that there are some matters of soul, of conscience, that are present always and always ought to be voiced?


Writing the column has been a spiritual practice

I do realize now that writing the column has been an aesthetic and spiritual practice. But a spiritual practice must be supported. It was kept in balance by the salary. When we adopt certain practices if they are not supported they lead us to imbalance. That is what I am struggling with now. If I continue to spend four to six hours a day doing this aesthetic and spiritual practice, my life will be out of balance.

Yet  do not wish to abandon it. So I do it sporadically.

In the meantime, I make these notes, so you know I am still here, thinking these words, thinking in this way.

I suppose this is why monks and religious folk have gone to live together and support each other, because to live in this way, giving oneself over wholly to some practice which takes everything one has, one must simplify. One must depart from the world, in a sense. Because there is too much to do.

I love you

I love you, O person who is unknown to me. That is what I send to you. I send my love. This is a rare thing to be able to do. I am not being paid for this but still I am sending my love.

When I was being paid, in the many times in my life where what I was writing was a product purchased by a company, such as all writing is when we are paid for it, I still saw my job as one of sending love out through the words. I wanted to do it in a funny and clever way but it was still an act of sending love out in words. I was still trying to cause delight in the mind. I was trying to give you the best of what I can do.

I know I have a gift. At times I have let this go to my head. At other times I have debased myself because of this gift, feeling I had to lower myself and not display this gift. I have my neuroses, my demons and wounds. But I also have this gift. I see and hear things.

What is next? I’m not sure. Oh yes, I remember now: Writing the column is a spiritual practice.

I can still speak directly to you

The advice column has a quality to it that is of a person speaking directly to another person. That quality flows out of the form of it, that it is epistolary in form.

What I can do, even if I am not writing the column is I can still speak directly to you.

What I can do is to speak directly to you, the person who is seeing this. I may not be able to untangle entire lives in the time I have to write. But I can speak to you directly in this way.

This is a literary style. It can be defined by sentence type and word choice. And sound. It has a particular sound, this style of mine, how I write. It is also an intent, embodied in a literary style. The intent is to implore you to slow down and participate with me in a kind of breathing. That is, the slowness of these words is meant to say to you, slow down and breathe with me. Perhaps I am even trying to hypnotize you. I am saying slow down and read these words along with me. Slow down and contemplate our collective powerlessness, out of which grows great strength. I am saying, recognize with me that in this moment as I am writing I am picturing you reading we are together. There are no other worries. In this moment that you are able to read this, you are safe and protected. You are breathing. This won’t last forever. I will pass on and you will pass on and one day there won’t even be a trace of us here on this planet. We don’t know where we will be then. For some reason we are prevented from knowing this. Yet for right now if you are reading this everything is OK. Nothing is going on except that I am sitting in my room in the noise of the heater, with my cups and my crumpled napkins, my plate and my cellphone, my nails that need clipping and my keys and glasses case, my lamp, my stack of mail, and I am only doing this one thing.

I can think about that stack of mail and I can even feel the tension it causes when I think of it, but even that is somewhat under my control because I can return to this simple act of writing to you.

Next: I love you.

The serious writer’s predicament

What a radically dangerous pledge it is, to pledge oneself to writing. You must be willing to let everything else slide.  (Or must you?)

If I decide that today I am answering a letter from a person who is suffering, that might be all I do today. If I put limits on it, if I say that because I am not being paid then I can only spend one hour on it, that may cheapen it. What I need to say may require six hours, not one.

What I do in the column is the opposite of a bullet-point list. It is a song. I enter into the spirit of an individual’s life. I try to touch people. I try to move heaven and earth with my prose.

Next: I can still speak directly to you.

If I had enough faith, would I just keep doing it regardless?

At times I feel that if I am a person of great faith and serenity I can simply continue what I was doing and everything will fall into place. Because I practice the 12 steps and am deeply connected to a community of faith and recovery I am sometimes in that state of mind where everything will be fine. But also I am in that place where I am not the only person living in this house. If the house crumbles around me and the bills aren’t paid, it doesn’t just affect me.

I do not know exactly what will happen. That is what vexes my spirit: Not knowing the future.

Is that not crazy? Who among us knows the future? Who among us can control what will happen tomorrow? And yet I fret. Why? Because having a salary creates the illusion of a certain future.

The future is an illusion. Still …

I know, when I meditate, and when I am connected to my 12-step community, that certainty in a future is an illusion. I know from my own experience that a tumor can be found in the body and that will mean a new path. A tumor can be found and that will change everything. Or money can fall from the sky. Or an anvil can fall from the sky. Or a piano, as in a cartoon. When writing the column I am deeply in that world. When writing the column I am for a while in the world of meditation. That is what I transmit; I inhabit this world of things as they are.

When a monk inhabits the world of things as they are the monk may do nothing for weeks at a time. In our world, in San Francisco, as a homeowner and a credit card user and a purchaser of PG&E gas and electric and garbage services and a buyer of gasoline and soap and food and clothes, I cannot just sit; I am in relationship with the suppliers of all these things. I am in trade. And as a business person, I am in all kinds of reciprocal agreements and relationships with people. I cannot just be a monk.

So again we are talking about the place of the writer in the world.

Next: The serious writer’s predicament

Why and how being paid makes a difference

There is an editor’s letter in the current Poets and Writers Magazine in which the editor takes issue with the idea that it makes a difference whether you write for money. He seems to think that there is such a thing as writing for writing’s sake. I know what he means but I wonder.  I wonder if he realizes that the reason he can afford to entertain the notion of not writing for money is because he himself is writing for money. I wonder if he sees this — that writing not for money is a romantic notion.

To me, writing not for money is a privilege and a romantic notion. I don’t mean that one ought not write simply for the joy of it. But at some point, if one is writing for publication, economics becomes a central issue. It is a material issue. Because if your money is not coming from writing then it is either coming from a store of money that has passed on to you or been given to you in some way, which means that you view the world in a certain way, or it is coming from an occupation that drains you of resources that would otherwise be devoted to your writing, and deprives you of the time you need to fully do your job as a writer.

So I think we would all be better served by talking openly about the economic challenges of being a writer, and about the rewards we receive.

I have always tried to make my living as a writer. I tried doing other things and they took too much out of me. That is why I didn’t have children. I could not see how I could do that and still devote every waking hour to writing and reading and getting better at doing this craft.

So now I am at a crossroads. I would love to write the column as I was before. But writing it for a job, like playing for a team, makes a difference. I do not want to shortchange people. I do not want to do second-rate work. If I do it, I want to do it right.

Tomorrow: If I had enough faith, would I just keep doing it regardless?

Things that confuse me

What is public and what is private confuses me. I turn my life into writing. That’s my material. So now in this life I am faced with a situation that is part personal and part political and economic.

As a columnist I felt it was my job to share with you whatever I could of my personal life as long as it did not injure anyone else. So, for instance, things that would embarrass my wife I tried not to say. Of course, some things about me are so strange that it embarrasses my wife a little just to have them in public. Just to have people know that she is not married to Superman is some kind of embarrassment. That she is married to a human being. So I try to be discreet.

At the same time, I am a creature of many weaknesses

I have often felt that when people do business they are not as honest as when they are in private dealings. We try to put on a face. We want people to do business with us so we act like everything is great. That has always bothered me. And yet I understand it.

Being a writer has meant growing up in public.

I do believe that we ought to talk openly about the social and economic forces that affect our private lives. Unless one has an assured private income one must work. If one works as a writer then one’s life is precarious. That is a given. So why should it be a secret that as a writer one is always figuring out how to make it work. One is always hustling. One is always selling something.

This conflicts with the persona of the advice columnist, whose sole interest is in the well-being of the other person, and in entering into the spirit of the situation.

So in considering whether and how to continue writing the Since You Asked column now that there is no longer a salary attached to it (and hasn’t been for over a year) one faces these interesting questions. I like to share this. I feel that I have come to be known by many people out there and that we are in a more or less ongoing dialog.

Tomorrow: Why and how being paid makes a difference

What I used to do

I used to write a column five days a week for a salary from Salon. In this column I practiced a particular kind of literary art whose purpose was to affirm the dignity of individual suffering. This required a particular kind of writing, one that could sustain and encompass an individual’s dramatic situation. That dramatic situation included both personality and social forces. My aim was to acknowledge the totality of forces bearing on a situation — the individual’s personality as well as the choices available in the world. And then to produce something that was pleasing: sometimes pretty, sometimes kind, sometimes funny,  sometimes beautiful. Sometimes  crazy.

This was constant: I was always swinging for the fences. Swinging for the fences was my mantra. I knew I was lucky to be doing this and that it couldn’t possibly last forever and so never once did I succumb to cynicism. At times I was tired or distracted or simply wrong. But I was never glib. I never took it for granted. This meant working every day four to six hours writing. That is a relatively long time to spend writing. If you are doing that, that is pretty much all you are doing. This had consequences which we’ll get to.

I knew that this job was a rare opportunity to do a kind of writing that very few people do, and that as long as I had the job it was best for me to give it everything I had. In doing this job I created a body of work. It is literary work. And because I was being paid to do this work, I never cut corners. I dedicated myself to this.

Tomorrow: Some things that confuse me