today I become a blogger

I just got back from my guitar lesson. Michele Castellani and I played picking exercises and he gave me some rhythmic figures to work with to improve my picking and my sense of timing. I started taking guitar lessons again after nearly 50 years because my playing had become sloppy and I had picked up some lazy habits. Plus, living in Italy, I want to engage with other musicians.

Before I got home, though, I tried to pick Norma up and got stuck at the end of a dead-end road and had to make a careful many-point turn with a ditch on one side and a wall on the other, and the wind has come up, the first sign of fall and winter, the first day in many months that it is chilly, and we have had a long day, finalizing our plans for the kitchen with our voluble and ingenious designer Alvaro Toresi, and our friends Todd Freeman and Connie Hendrix are here in Castiglion Fiorention with us, and we ate a long and delicious but somewhat exhausting lunch at Il Teatro in Cortona after meeting with Alvaro in Camucia and well into the lunch I felt I was maybe coming down with something and would not be able to make the writers group I usually go to up in Florence, and went home to take a nap.

All of which is neither here nor there, the inconsequential acts that precede a big decision, a big decision that sort of comes out of nowhere. I decided finally to start blogging about my life here. Mostly because I just want to.

I’ve been keeping a journal regularly since August. I always use the Mead 100-page composition book but lately I’ve been confiding in it daily, and it has led me to this point. I won’t bore you with my many reasons for disparaging such an activity as keeping a blog about my life in Italy. I’m just going to start posting things, some of which will be boring like this one, and others of which will go quite deeply and carefully into my writing life and my daily work to finish and publish book-length manuscripts.

People write blogs for themselves and for others. I guess that’s what this will be. It will be for me and also for you. And I won’t worry too much about whether it’s fascinating or not. Some days it will be boring, just like the writing I do in my journal. Other days I will spend a lot of time thinking through matters related to being a writer, etc.

OH: one more thing. This month makes five years since I lost my job at Salon.com writing the “Since You Asked” column. Less than two years after that job ended Norma and I decided to sell our San Francisco house and move to Castiglion Fiorentino, where we are living now. There will probably be lots more about that as well.

Sorry I don’t have a picture for this one. I’m lazy.

Cheers

CT

Why we had to get out of America

(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!

A Thing I Wrote in Last Night’s Workshop

From the prompt, “A child falling through the air”
November 5, 2017

The thing about seeing a child falling through the air is that you can really only see it in a dream or in slow motion in a movie.
Picture a child falling through the air and reflect upon how we are all children falling through the air. We are all in motion, a motion not of our own making, we are all being pulled toward something we do not want to strike but must inevitably strike, and it will not be pretty when we strike this thing we are headed to, and we do not have any say in the matter, and it is also possible that as the universe expands and accelerates so we too, in our inexorable falling out of control, are falling at ever greater speed toward some end we would not wish on ourselves or anyone else, and this ought to cause us great alarm if we thought about it a lot, but meantime it is quite easy to sit on a couch in a quiet room in a small town in Italy and type into a MacBook Pro, with one’s guitar sitting there at one’s feet, a nice guitar, but a guitar which also like everything else is hurtling through space powered by a force that we of course have no control over.
My novel.
Kid falling through the air. My novel. Same thing. Out of control, beyond all power to stop, headed for a messy concussive end, nothing I can do about it. My kid self. Could be. What of it? Who wants to know?
Kevin Costner in Tin Cup goes to see Rene Russo his golf student who is a psychotherapist and he sits on the couch and tells her he’s in love with her and she tries to keep it professional and calls her own therapist to talk about it and I’m thinking Tin Cup is a good movie if you like falling in love with your therapist and doomed Quixotic quest type movies which I do.
Kid falling through the air. Frozen now, got that image in my head, nothing to do about it, can’t stop shit from happening. Like that baby falling through the air, nothing we can do, we got no control, we got nothing, not even a fire department with nets, it’s all happening too fast. All we can do is accept it. Accept that tornado. Accept that blue sky. Accept that sunset, that lady bug, that skullcap, that immigrant. That immigrant I give two euros to every time I see him. Something about crossing water in a boat, in a what’s the word for it, what a shit brain I’ve ended up with, like a surly shopkeeper who won’t show you what you want to see, you know it’s there but he’s just not interested in showing it to you so you go Zephyr, no, Zebra, no, what is the name for that inflatable boat those immigrants came over from Libya on, that Prosper the napkin peddler came over on, Zodiac, that’s it, just like the killer in San Francisco. Zodiac.
Baby falling through the air. Immigrant from Nigeria crossing the Mediterranean in a Zodiac. Me falling through the air with this novel in my hand. I can feel the wind. Everything is accelerating. At the same time I know exactly what I’m doing, because it’s a performance, just like that baby falling through the air, seems so natural, like he’s not even acting, seems so real like it’s actually happening.

I hate giving gifts. But …

It’s a terrible thing about me I guess but the truth is that the approach of the holiday season fills me with a mortal fear that I will have to give people gifts and I won’t know what to get them and so will get something stupid and it will ruin the relationship forever and cause me to spiral into a suicidal depression in which I will drive the car over a cliff but not actually kill myself only become hugely disfigured and then go through a lifetime of plastic surgeries that will only make me more gruesomely hideous.

It’s also possible that while trying to decide what gift to buy someone I will feel ever more frustrated at my inability to make a simple choice that regular people all over the world are making with apparent ease and this frustration will lead to anger and the anger will lead me to say something inappropriate to the person I am with who up till now thought I was a pretty decent person but will then decide on the basis of my sudden outburst that I am rather unstable and maybe made some bad life choices and henceforth that person will block my calls and unfriend me on Facebook.

Or I will spend way too much money on an inferior product. Or I will get something I think the person will like but which I personally find hideous and when the person opens it in my presence I will be seen to wince and that will telegraph something untrustworthy and suspicious about me, that I don’t really like the thing I claim to believe is really really cute and if I’m lying about that maybe I’m lying about many other things and this relationship, too, will spiral out of control and I will find myself blocked in numerous technological ways from further contact.

These are just a few of the bad things that could happen. This is why I hate giving gifts. But here is something. Here is the thing.

Finishing School Book CoverOur book Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done makes a great gift. I propose it as the solution to all gift-giving problems. And I have somewhat reliable proof, based on real people saying real things without prompting or cash prizes. When we talked about this idea, Danelle and I, when we wrote the proposal and showed it to people, especially but not only people in the worlds of journalism and book publishing but other people too, the thing they said, the overwhelmingly most common thing they said was, “I know somebody I want to give this to.”

So that was something we knew from the very beginning, that this would make a great gift-type book. So naturally we thought the smartest thing to do would be to publish just in time for the gift-giving season. Say, in October, just in time to get the advertising ready and everything geared up for a big push to market this book as a great gift book.
Instead, and surely they had their reasons, our publisher decided to release the book in January 2017. And the launch was kind of a bust for a number of reasons most of which totally having to do with me, which I hope to go into in subsequent posts …

Number One Reason the January 2017 Launch Was Kind of a Bust: I moved to Italy. It was a totally unrelated decision, unrelated to the book, which surprised the bejeezus out of Danelle, my co-writer, and probably caused her to think that she had teamed up with a person who was mildly unstable, a diagnosis that in subsequent interactions I must say has proven to be largely accurate, but be that as it may, the point here is that this is a great gift book that came out at the exact wrong time for a great gift book and I’m setting about to do what I can to rectify that totally innocent error by mounting a major push now, now that it is getting to be just about on the verge of gift-giving season. (Plus you don’t have to tell me how complicated the book business is, or how hard it is as an editor to get your favorite book slotted in the publication date slot you want it slotted in, especially if you are a brilliant but fairly new and young editor who has not yet acquired the superhuman clout and intra-business social capital you will later acquire, so I hold no grudge about this, I totally understand.)
Nonetheless, this is just by way of saying that for the next two months I’m going to be all over this trying to explain to people why this is a great gift book because I really am all about helping people and changing the world.

A Post About Plot

Here is how to make a magic book appear in someone’s hands.

I write in a sometimes unstructured and intuitive way. I tend to hear the words I write. I don’t think it all out ahead of time.

So I end up with events that happen in the novel but without explaining how and why they happened. For instance, I imagined a book, a fake book, a book not actually written by Mesopotamians five-thousand years ago but purporting to be such a book and believed to be such a book by certain gullible, vulnerable people. This was a funny joke for me. But what about what they call in some circles the “chain of custody”? How did this fake book get into the hands of this gullible person such that she actually believed it was written by Mesopotamians five thousand years ago and explained how her little town in the Sacramento River delta came to be? Ridiculous, I know. But that’s the conceit, in a satirical novel. She appears with the book at a certain time. How did she end up with the book?

This is where plot thinking is necessary. I got much out of reading Patricia Highsmith’s book about writing suspense fiction. Thinking about such things is not my strong suit. As I said, I tend to hear voices, write down what they say, and figure out later where they are coming from: Are these two people talking in a bar, or on a long car ride, or in bed, side by side? Is this one person talking to herself? Where is she while she’s talking to herself? What is the visible setting?  So, as regards this fake book, I had to come up with an elaborate and initially innocent situation in which the protagonist’s business partners created it as a practical joke. But then the situation changed. They create it and plant it in the local library, and this alone requires considerable resources and skill, which they do have, as powerful and wealthy practitioners of the arts of illusion, i.e. television sitcoms and movies. So the book is planted in the library where the protagonist will find it and believe that it is real. But then the situation drastically changes–as will happen in novels. The situation changes in such a way that the book is no longer just an innocent prank but sets off a series of events with big consequences. Still, how does she end up with the book in her hands?  When does she have the opportunity to go to the library and why? Why does she go to the library? She’s not a library-going person. All these are storytelling things. Plus: How to tell it? Show the scene or summarize it, or tell it in a jaunty, ironic, faintly superior third-person authorial voice? Decisions, decisions.

Plus: It turns out in my intuitive, don’t know why I’m writing this scene sort of way, I had already written a scene where the protagonist goes to the library and checks out this book. But where is that scene? I can’t find it. I’m searching text files with the world “library” and can’t find it. Oh, well. I can write it again.

It is annoying to me that stuff has to happen for a reason, but readers, myself included, do seem to require at least a modicum of cause-and-effect. So I neatly arrange things so that when all the magic happens, one can look back and see how the situation developed. That is one of the chief pleasures of reading a novel, appreciating how it unfolds, appreciating the little bits of handiwork.

That’s it for today. Except for the fact that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I don’t really get to write that part yet. I have to drive somewhere with someone do to something with someone plus six dogs.

I wish all I had to do was write.

Taking it down to the sentence level

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.

Letter from Italy

I have this image in my mind of saying goodbye to someone on a river, maybe on the Arno in Florence, on a bridge, maybe the Santa Trinita Bridge, that would do, that would be a good bridge, and I can see the sky, a bluish color, you’ve seen a sky at dusk when it’s bluish,  you know how good it looks.

I’m not sure why the image of saying goodbye to someone comes up. Maybe because I feel I have said goodbye to so many people. There is a big goodbye hanging over me. Like a constant goodbye. Like I should walk around with a big Goodbye sign on me because so many people are now missing from my life, and so much is unfamiliar.

But I love what is unfamiliar. Today for the second time we drove up to Monte San Savino to this little joint that serves lunch but were late for lunch so he made Norma a sandwich and I had a pastry and espresso and aqua frizzante and she had a glass of wine. And then I was antsy. So we walked into that building with a courtyard and then out back is this garden. Sheesh. I’m not Mary McCarthy, you realize. I’m reading The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed and man she is some writer that Mary McCarthy.

So if I were in a conversation with someone and I said, I have this image in my head of saying goodbye to someone on a bridge, and the bridge is over the Arno in Florence and the bridge is the Santa Trinita Bridge that got blown up in WWII and then put back together, and on one side is the Spini Feroni Palace where Salvatore Farragamo has his shoe store and museum, and on the other side is the Harold Acton Library of the British Institute, and somehow that bridge has a hold on me. I stopped there last week and watched a Japanese couple have their wedding photos taken; the bride’s train was 15 feet long and the photo assistant was holding it out and letting it fly in the wind. I photographed it just like everybody else.

Being in Florence feels like a political act but I doubt that it looks like a political act because it is a small, personal act, an act of personal and political necessity, a quiet statement, an act of removal. It is also  the joy of knowing this:  We wanted to, and we did! Driving into the mountains this afternoon, looking across the Valdichiana as the sun came down, we look at each other and we share this knowledge that: We wanted to, and we did. We just took off, like in the middle of the night, and now all the things that were abrading our souls, that were slowly killing us, those things are left behind.

But what of this image of saying goodbye to someone? It is as if a constant goodbye is going on, all the people we used to see that we do not see: We are lonely, there is no doubt about that. Well, I am, anyway. Norma has been swept up by the Castiglionese. Me I think frankly they can take or leave but she has been swept up by the town. Me, I’m the guy who just came here to slow down and stay home and write.

Anyway, I think about this image of the bridge. If I were in therapy maybe the therapist would persuade me to talk about the feelings behind it. And I would do so and probably find something out that you’d think would be totally obvious.

Buried in it is my deep, awful, dispirited feeling about what has happened to America, and what has happened to San Francisco.

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?

I used to love … What?

So here is another thing. Seth Myers is interviewing Joe Hill and I am watching from my perch high and far away on my mysterious island of emotional distance and contempt  and it is as if the older I get the more godlike I am because there is nothing that surprises me and I cannot be seduced by the son of Stephen King and I am charmed by nothing; I have attained the weary omniscience of a god  for whom all is repetition and slender variation; watching pop culture now is like watching a waterfall: the same silver mesmerizing stream, beautiful yet unchanging,  soothing yet loveless; I observe without allegiance. It is just a waterfall.

There used to be allegiance. I used to fall in love with bands. I fell in love with The Clash.

Before Joe Hill was on Kerry Washington was on and in between them was Michael C. Hall. So Kerry Washington is a star on Scandal but you knew that. You knew that but I did not because as I say pop culture has marched on like a silent army of robotic simulacra outside my tenth-floor loft window in an ur-New York City apartment in an imaginary graphic novel that is being read by a character played by me in a black leather chair by the red brick wall of his tenth floor loft window while the TV is on. I remember being in the vortex of slavish pop culture erudition, the mindless brilliance and repetition that the liminal soul state between 12 and 18 requires, that I have hung over the edge of the waterfall and watched band after band slide into warm liquid obscurity, that now older but no more knowing I am riffing now that’s all, on stage in the hot light in the roar of a bored indifferent crowd I strut with my top hat and cane, begging you to watch and begging you to see my code, crack the mystery of my eggshell, warm up to me, tell me a bedtime story.

Snorting speed to stay up all night entering calendar events in the computer of the San Francisco Weekly in the early 1980s: Now that was the big pop culture thrill: Knowing every single venue and every single show. For what? To feel the vicarious thrill. To possibly be cool by proxy. Enough. Horseshit. A bogus thing. But wait. Have you been there too? Do you also know the dizzy wakeup call when you’re watching a new talkshowhost and you don’t even know who the former talkshowhost was and you realize it’s been 10 years?

How 10 years can go by. How all your young friends look old. How you can’t believe children are allowed to be bank tellers.

When will I fall in love with a song or a book again? Perhaps never. Perhaps now it will just be an endless succession of amusing repetitions, authors enacting and reenacting a regal ceremony and me, locked in a sterile 10th floor room with my words, fewer and fewer, rolling them around on my desk, looking for a new combination. Me no better than you: both of us working with scarce few tools, seeing what we can do in the time allotted, like on Top Chef or the Apprentice.