Category Archives: Writers and Writing

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.

 

CTFlyer200

Stolen words

Write for Advice

 

Cary’s classic column from

My boss uses what I write in e-mails as his own. What should I do about it?


Dear Cary,

I’m an in-house copywriter/creative director with a small technical company, working for a boss whose communications skills, to put it delicately, are not his greatest asset. Lately I learned he’s been passing off my writing (not ad or brochure copy, just conversational e-mails on internal issues) as his own. I’ll write him a note on a topic, and later on that same note will land in my in box as part of a forwarded e-mail conversation chain — only now the note has his name on it. It’s happened several times that I know of.

I’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally decent fellow, and I sense he does this more for expediency’s sake (“Why bother rewriting this opinion that I share, when I’ve got this version sitting here?”) than to lay claim to my thoughts and words. Still, they are my thoughts and words, and I worry that by keeping my name out of these conversations he’s limiting my ability to benefit from people’s reactions to my ideas. Besides, I’m a writer: Even within the quasi-professional forum of interoffice e-mails, it feels like plagiarism.

Am I overreacting? And if not, should I confront him?

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

Here are some suggestions: Stop giving your boss great lines that he can use and call his own. Do your job on the brochures and the official stuff, but stop giving him stuff for free. If there are people you want to impress with your ideas, send your ideas directly to those people. Or if there’s a discussion you’re having with your boss and you can predict that it’s going to widen to include others, if you suspect he’s going to steal your material, suggest that that you include those people to whom he’s likely to send your material. Ask, what other interested stakeholders are there? You know, act like you care.

Either suggest they be included, or just cc them as though you thought that was the normal thing to do, since you know they’re interested parties.

Don’t be telling your boss not to cop your copy. He won’t get it. He’ll just think you’re being a pain.

You might also review just what you were hired for. Did you get a job description? Did anybody ever tell you what your job was? There is probably some expectation that you provide “other written materials.” These e-mails could be considered other written materials. You just want credit for it, right? So I’d find some way to let others know where it’s coming from — like, by cc’ing them before your boss steals your stuff.

And I would beware of your own personal motives that are tripping you up, too. Hey, I know about this: You want to do a great job of writing e-mails because that’s what you are. After all, you’re a writer. So you could be tricking yourself into giving your stuff away because you’re so damned good and you can’t help it, and you can’t help trying to impress your boss. I know what it’s like to be a writer. It doesn’t matter who the audience is. You’re still going to sweat over a few sentences until they’re perfect.

Bosses in non-media companies are so weird. They have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. They are just so weird. How do they even get through the day without being able to communicate?

Who knows. But they do. I guess they do it by hiring people like you.

Don’t pick a fight with him, but don’t be a sap!

WhatHappenedNextCall

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Thank you for rejecting me. I feel a whole lot better now!

 

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: RE: [Fence] Wading in Shallow Water with Architects
From: “Fence” <notifications@email.submittable.com>
Date: Tue, July 01, 2014 12:43 pm
To: “Cary Tennis” <cary@carytennis.com>

Dear Cary Tennis,

Thank you for sending us “Wading in Shallow Water with Architects.” We appreciated having the chance to read the work, but we feel that it is not for us.

Thanks again.

Sincerely,

Fence Editors

======

Thanks. OK. That’s cool. I can handle it. It’s not a big deal. It’s not like I’m going to go out and cut myself or anything. I just thought after all these years writing things I should start sending them out. Not that I thought you would publish it. Or anybody would. But just to, you know, like participate. Like because of a certain felt connection. Not that I care. Not really. Should I? Why would I? Why would I care if somebody published or did not publish a piece of writing I sent them? What difference would it make? Would it change anything? So why would I get upset — not that I am upset, mind you; I’m perfectly content — but why would I, just because I put some words into the computer and my the miracle of the Internet caused them to go somewhere and be read by someone else and then caused that person to make a decision, perhaps a quick but nonetheless sure and final decision, not to try to find a place in the magazine for those words. Why would that matter? Why would I get upset? Not, like I say, that I am getting upset. Just hypothetically. Because I’ve heard that some people do. Some people put such stock in these things, acceptance, recognition.

Those people must have low self-esteem. They must have made some poor choices in life. To base their well-being on something so fragile and out of their control as the acceptance or non-acceptance of a piece of writing by a literary journal, even a literary journal with which they feel a strange kind of simpatico, even a very strong yet strange sense of simpatico. A person like that, you’ve gotta figure, must be kind of messed up. Like maybe they had a childhood in which there was not a lot of physical affection and straight-ahead emotional support. Maybe. Just hypothesizing why anyone would put too much store in such a high-risk/low-reward endeavor as the publishing of small pieces of admittedly disordered and not altogether well-thought-out or well-structured literary prose, and you can put literary in quotes as I don’t think it really means all that much now. So, I just wanted you to know, you know, that like I said it doesn’t really affect me. Well, OK, now, it does affect me, right, or I wouldn’t be writing this? Right? OK, so it affects me. But not that much. Like I’m not going to jump off a bridge or anything just because Fence magazine didn’t choose to print this strange little thing I wrote. I mean, OK, I’m not going to drink either. But I might just make a big Fuck You pot of strong black assam tea and drink two cups really fast with sugar and then feel all nervous and hyper for an hour! Just to make a statement! Just to say, OK, yes, I was bullshitting you, and actually it does affect me. A little. Not a lot but a little. Now maybe that has to do with years of unresolved feelings and certain memories of abject failure and insult at the hands of teachers and other figures of authority. And maybe, OK, maybe unresolved feelings about the purpose of writing and of literature, and feelings toward the kind of people who get involved in it, who sometimes tend to be kind of, well, I’m not saying weaselly necessarily, or overly intellectual and self-involved, but let’s just say, OK, as long as we’re being honest here, that I don’t really want to hang out with you, either, OK? I mean if you think just because you didn’t accept my piece of work that makes you somehow better than me well you just have another think coming, ok, Buster? You get what I’m saying? Because you are no better than me. You may have more money and intelligence and a better education and come from more stable, interesting, well-adjusted and successful parents, and you may have better social network and be better adjusted to the demands of today’s workplace and maybe you have great sex often, too, and maybe people see you and instinctively like you and want to be your friend, and maybe you genuinely have a pretty amazing talent in the world of creative writing. OK. That could be. You probably dress well and have funny things to say that other people would have thought of eventually but you think of them right away. That’s possible. I’m not saying it’s not. But that still doesn’t make you better than me. Because I am just fine. I’m not bothered in the least. I am, to tell you the truth, just happy to be here and to be able to put together a little piece and send it to you. In fact, I’d say it was a fortuitous event just that I did it. I’m just proud that I took the time to put that little piece together and send it to you. And that I had the good taste to send it to you instead of some other inferior publication that other people might think is cool but which we both know is just a pale imitation of some avant-garde notion that has already expired from overuse. So I’m feeling pretty good about that, actually. Even to be rejected by you is better than being rejected by some of those other folks. In fact, more I think about it, it’s not just better, it’s kind of cool! In fact, it’s great. In fact, come to think of it, it’s a frigging miracle that I was even able to write that little piece that you so quickly and offhandedly rejected. But I wonder if you even read it. I mean I wonder if you read it carefully and thought about what went into it, and recognized the subtle patterns in the words. They aren’t obvious patterns. I’m not one of those obvious people you see sending stories full of plot and character and consequence and ideas and social insight. That’s not the kind of thing you like anyway. There were more like little murmurs of pattern in there. I thought you might pick up on that. But no, you were probably thinking about some girl you’re going out with who comes from a good family and has a place up in Maine for the summertime. That’s what you were thinking. And all about the boat her dad has and how it’s so nice up there in the summertime. Like you maybe just weren’t thinking straight. That’s OK. That doesn’t bother me in the least. Because I know a thing or two. I know how things work. So don’t worry about me. I’m fine. You have more things to worry about than me. I’m just one little person out here, one person among many. Why would that matter to you? Why would you get all concerned about me when you have this girlfriend with the place up in Maine, and all that great educational background and stuff? You wouldn’t. And who would blame you? Certainly not me. I’m OK. I’m fine. I’m not at all affected by this rejection. Well, OK, like I say, a little bit. But not enough for you to concern yourself with. You just go ahead with your rejecting all the other little submissions until you find one you like, which is probably by a friend of yours, or a student of one of your former teachers who somebody said was really brilliant, or you met at a party or owe a favor to. Not that the whole thing is rigged. Not at all.
So you don’t worry about me one bit, young man, or young lady. I can handle it. I’ve been rejected by people a whole lot cooler than you. I’ve been rejected by Paris Review and the New Yorker, so you can just stop standing there with that proud smirk on your face. I’ve been rejected by people you’ve never even heard of. So there.
Just go on about your day. Don’t give it a second thought. You know you’ve got things to do. It isn’t even worth thinking about , is it?
Except … and this is not really a big deal … but what if I was to kill myself because of this rejection? How would you feel then, you heartless literary magazine rejecter? How would you feel then, if you learned that it was right after receiving this particular rejection, out of all the hundreds that one receives (doesn’t one?), that I decided this is enough, the jig is up, it’s time to cash it in? Think about it. I’ll bet you do think about it, in fact. I’ll bet you think about it all too often. In fact, I’ll bet that’s what’s been troubling you, and that’s why you rejected this piece: Because you are dealing with a deep contradiction in your own soul. Of course! And that’s what happened. This piece of mine, which actually, OK, since I wrote it, must actually be brilliant even though nobody really recognizes that brilliance except me, this piece must have triggered some awful psychological breakdown in you, so that you were unable to think clearly and see its brilliance, and had, instead, like a person who is repressing some awful but unavoidable truth, you had to reject it.

You had to reject it! You had to! Of course you had to. I understand now. I understand everything! Everything is forgiven, poor man!

Well. I guess that settles that. So I don’t hate you or want to come to your office and shove you up against the desk and slap your face. Why would I want such a thing? Who would even have such thoughts? Certainly not me. No, I’m fine. This is my little lot in life and I accept it. In fact, like I said, I’m kind of glad. In fact, it’s a frigging miracle. A miracle!
A miracle, I say! It’s a miracle! Thank you! Thank you for rejecting my piece! Thank you! It’s a miracle!

I don't mind! Why would I mind? It's fine! Everything's fine! Reject me! Go ahead and reject me! There's always tomorrow! The future is bright! Don't give it another thought. Just go about your day like nothing happened. I'm OK. Really. I'm fine! It's a miracle!
I don’t mind! Why would I mind? It’s fine! Everything’s fine! Reject me! Go ahead and reject me! There’s always tomorrow! The future is bright! Don’t give it another thought. Just go about your day like nothing happened. I’m OK. Really. I’m fine! It’s a miracle!
Cary on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

Caring for the writing self

I have learned a lot in the last seven years about caring for the writing self and the creative soul. Some of the things I have learned have helped other people, too.

Doing the Amherst Writers and Artists method has become a way of life. Many people I have met while doing this have become dear friends whose occasional appearances are now cherished events in the week.

The role of teacher is one I take reluctantly. I never liked teachers much; I was kind of rebellious I guess, and independent, resistant to being led. Yet I believe fervently in the effectiveness of people coming together to write and read aloud in a structured way. The part of being a teacher that I take reluctantly is the authority part, the part that implies that you should do things my way.

What I have to impart is is a way of being. That is what I share.

Many of us have been conditioned in childhood to denigrate our creative selves. I was lucky not to have this conditioning from my parents. My parents valued my creative spirit, so I am not damaged in that way, and I can therefore share with others a fresh delight in creative exploration.

Like everyone else, I do have a shadow side related to my creative work. But it mainly comes out when I cannot be as free and creative as I was meant to be.

The AWA workshop is the ideal setting for me to help others reach their creative potential. One thing I know from long experience is that artistic success and accomplishment take unexpected forms and involve unexpected difficulties. One aspect of creative endeavor we can control is the regularity and quality of our practice. We cannot control our level of genius or our talent but we can control our level of commitment, and we can consciously acquire knowledge about techniques and markets. We can choose what books to read. We can read books that acquaint us with current forms and techniques. We can to some extent control the amount of time we give to the endeavor, and we can find ways to build it into our lives. We can make conscious sacrifices that give more time to creative work.

This is why I keep doing the AWA method, because it is one conscious choice I can make to continually feed the creative spirit. Each time we come together to write, it strengthens us a little more. However uncertain the future may appear, however distant we may feel from having a completed book and an agent and a publishing deal and a movie option and syndication and residuals and book tours and awards and wide publication and fame, however distant these things may seem, we can always make day-to-day choices that keep our creative practice alive. We can always keep writing. And we can enjoy it.

That is why I keep providing these workshops and urge people to attend. Because the creative spark, the spirit, needs to be fed.

Another part of the creative journey is the practical realm: gaining recognition, acceptance, publication, monetary rewards, etc. Learning about this is like learning about any set of institutions and practices; it is a little like learning about how to get into a school, or how to get a job. There is an application process. So we have to ask, What are the requirements? Who are these people who work in publishing for a living and how does one, in essence, get a job with them? When we publish something we enter into a kind of employment. We don’t like to think of creative endeavors in this way, perhaps, but when we offer our work for sale we are economic actors. It may be called “cultural” activity but it is in fact economic. At the fringes of the literary economy are magazines supported by grants of money from funding organizations, universities, philanthropists and so forth, which take only minimal ir any advertising and keep their shelf prices low. But it is all economic activity. It is all the trading of labor and materials. The rewards are sometimes emotional, having to do with status and self-worth. But these too are economic drivers.

It is important to understand this in order to protect the creative spirit. For if we fail to get published we must understand it is probably because we did not gauge the economics of it; we did not understand that we were in a role of selling our work, and selling our work means tailoring it to the market. Certain segments of that market may be hungry for extremely unusual, idiosyncratic, nearly unintelligible work that seems to come from a primitive or intensely intellectual source; a small number of people hunger for work that is wild and  strange and disjointed; they hunger for surrealism or dadaism or impenetrable intellectual prose; they do constitute a market but it is a small market because they are rare, unusual people. The masses tend to enjoy writing of a more pedestrian sort. I tend to be of the more rare sort who likes extremely strange work but paradoxically I want to write for a large audience so I try to write in forms that are widely accessible.

If we are to nuture and protect our creative selves we must be practical and realize that not everything we produce is going to be met with love and approval; a lot of what we produce will have to be adjusted for a market if it is going to be published. So another purpose of the workshops is to strengthen artistic self-esteem so that we do not fall apart when we realize we have to revise or rethink our work for a particular market, so that we know we are keeping our creative spirits alive and fresh even though we need to go through cycles of revision and critique for the market.

The workshops keep it fun, and enliven our sense of self-worth, and keep it separate from the sometimes slow, grinding and unpleasant tasks necessary to get our work published.

That’s also why I am always trying to learn about literary agents, publishing and markets. I want my work to be read; I want to be a part of the conversation. I don’t just write for myself. Writing helps me stay psychologically healthy but I don’t write for therapy. I write to be a part of the larger world, to connect. So if you are trying to find an agent, or get your work published in small magazines, or make a living as a freelancer, I am interested in hearing from you. This is the world that I know and love. I have mostly made my living by writing, and that world makes sense to me — more sense than the other main repository of writers, which is the educational world. I have mostly done journalism and am coming late to the world of literary book publishing, which does seem to be more closely allied with universities and less with what I consider the more street-level activities of journalism, activism and performance.

Anyway, there are many ways to feed the creative spirit and my workshops are just one way. I hope you will find as many ways as you can to feed this vital part of your self. I am doing my small part to keep the world a creative, vibrant, interesting place for us all. I hope to see you often and to always lend a helping hand to help you find new avenues of expression.
— Cary T.

 

Cary14

Three recent occasions upon which I should have tweeted and could have tweeted but did not in fact tweet

It was at one time understood that to be noble one must not draw unseemly attention to oneself or glorify oneself or make oneself seem, in a crowd, to be the most important person, or to seek glory only for oneself at the expense of others, nor to seek to draw the fame of others toward oneself for one’s own gain.

But today, all good citizens must tweet and tweet widely. One must take selfies and tweet these selfies widely. This is well understood and does not reflect poorly upon the tweeter.

And yet, things hold us back. Prior scruples, outdated mores and education, notions about what is proper and good, about how the self ought to be portrayed, about the self itself, how it once was a unitary thing and yet is now an atomized thing, an amalgam of a million tweets and bytes, a decentered, fluid phenom of the video multiverse.

I confess that on three recent occasions I was near people whose glory exceeds my own and should have therefore taken selfies and tweeted them widely but indeed did not. I had my iPhone in my pocket but did not bring it out. I betrayed my sacred duty. I froze up. I forgot my true mission. I had conflicting teachings. My father on his deathbed said to me, “Son, do what you have to do, but don’t overdo the tweeting. It’s bad for your eyes.” This admonition, wise as it was, held me back.

Yet when it is time to tweet, one must tweet. One must overcome. So herewith, three occasions upon which I should have tweeted and could have tweeted and did not in fact tweet. May the subjects and recipients of these tweets now, in response, retweet and widely retweet, so that these tweets may cover the earth and the cause be glorified.

1) Stanley Bing aka Gil Schwartz, upon the publication of his new book, The Curriculum:

There I was in his home, in the bosom of his family, among his many friends and his lovely wife. I could have embraced Gil Schwartz, aka Stanley Bing, taken a selfie and tweeted it widely. Yet I did not. Why not? Apparently I was doing what used to be called “having a good time.” I do not know what that is called now but I found myself sitting in his living room playing his guitars, joking with him and Laura and guests, and eating red beans and rice (or jambalaya, as later Norma and I had a rather detailed discussion involving some not inconsiderable amount of Internet research o the question of jambalaya versus red beans and rice). All that time, I could have been tweeting about his hilarious new book The Curriculum. I could have put my arm around him and his lovely wife Laura Svienty and we could have posed for a selfie-plus two and it would have only taken a second and might, as it journeyed around the globe, have inched his already impressive Amazon sales ratings just a tiny bit higher. I could have and did not. What is wrong with me? I think that Gil, Aka Stanley, might look into my eyes and say, Cary, my friend, you’re just trying too hard. Get with the flow. And I think he would be right.

So go buy his new book The Curriculum. If you do not, I just may buy it for you. It is as of this second Number 1 in Amazon in the category of Books > Business & Money > Management & Leadership > Training

2) Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love:

So that was Saturday night. Then on Sunday afternoon Norma and I thought we would go down to the San Francisco Public Library to see what authors would get awards from the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association this year, because among our many friends up for awards was the inimitable and brilliant Gary Kamiya, whose Cool Gray City of Love was up for best regional nonfiction, and which, among many fine nominees, was indeed the winner. Again, I had my iPhone and while embracing Gary it would have been an ideal opportunity to take a selfie and tweet it but I did not.What is wrong with me? So imagine, if you will, the handsome Gary Kamiya receiving his award and reading from his book, and then go and buy the book so you can enjoy it yourself. It is now of this second Number 13 in the Amazon category of Books > Sports & Outdoors > Hiking & Camping > Excursion Guides! Oddly enough, but there you go.

3) The Write On Mamas collection Mamas Write:

Finally, on the Thursday preceding, we were at Diesel Books in Oakland with the Write On Mamas for the publication party for Mamas Write,  their collection of essays on writing and parenting which Norma and I had a hand in producing, as I provided some minimal copy editing and Norma designed the book. Again: I could have whipped it out and taken a selfie with Janine but I did not! What is wrong with me? I will endeavor to do better in the future, without, of course, appearing to work too hard at it.

Cary14

Another blog post about blog posts

Not to be postmodern or self-reflexive or self-conscious about the form but just to say that I’m going through a process of discovering what I love and in the process of discovering what I love I realized as I was exiting the bathroom that the reason I didn’t feel comfortable in the comments section at Salon for the whole 12 years I was writing those 2,300-odd Since You Asked advice columns was that I felt uncomfortable discussing the people who had written to me for advice, and I felt uncomfortable discussing what I had written, and I felt protective toward the people who had written to me. I felt unequal to the task of knowing fully what they ought to do and where they fit in the moral, judgmental hierarchy into which we were always placing them. Also uncomfortable about evaluating what I had written, because what I had written was written in a fire of passion that might not be professional and might not be aesthetically pure and might not be ethical if you get right down to it. There was an ethical stink about the whole thing, frankly, much as it warms my heart that people are helped by it. There is an ethical stink about it not just because the kind of help people actually really need is so hard to find, not just because a stranger on the Internet is a poor substitute for a flesh-and-blood person who cares (though yes of course words can heal at a distance, and inspire, and light up), not just because I myself am ambivalent about as a writer taking the next easiest thing that will make me money rather than doing the very hard but true thing which is to take the mainstream literary stage boldly and without apology, but mostly because, as I realize now, I was not comfortable talking about other people that I don’t know.

I do not like to gossip. Gossip makes me uncomfortable but if it were just that I wouldn’t care. It isn’t my discomfort that’s at issue. It’s why I’m uncomfortable with gossip. It feels like a kind of murder.s;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;a

? (did you see that series of semicolons? that was the result of my dozing off in this chair as I sat wondering should I even publish this. That was me falling asleep at the keyboard.)

This discomfort discussing the ills and woes of others who have written to me for advice contrasts with my perfect ease talking about random stuff that happens to me, and my whole trophy case of bullshit opinions. Like the fact that I’m unhappy about Steven Colbert taking David Letterman’s place, and that I never liked R.E.M. (they sounded like ornament; the Clash sounded like rock; even the Talking Heads sounded like they came from necessity; R.E.M. sounded like they came from abstraction, from cake decoration, from a jangly, riffy notion of what might be cool). In fact–and here is what I am just beginning to grok about this whole fucking awful blogging situation–I also have thought that my life was not interesting, and still think so, but am writing as a kind of aggression suppressed Lo these long dozen years during which I used suffering as a platform for my tap dance and literary recitation under the hot lights of an imagined Broadway, an imagined crowd beyond the pixellated footlights. That’s another thing that, say what you will, has always had a bit of ethical stink about it: My use of the pain of others, however good my intentions, however salutary the results. Surely I have done some good; surely my ability to sit for hours or days working through someone else’s complex problem, trying each avenue like moving chess pieces to see what devastating outcome was likely if, say, she told the truth or didn’t tell the truth or confronted her father or didn’t confront her father etcetera, has given the world some good things. Surely I have not been a huckster or a con, and surely out of this pact with those who are suffering I have produced some interesting, affecting and at times I’m sure, out of 2,300 columns, occasionally moving and surprising writing.

Yet for me there has always been, as I say, this ethical stink, and this air of its being provisional and not at the white-hot core of destiny. I have stumbled into things. I have riffed. I have stumbled onto stages unprepared and read spontaneously from just-written texts; I have improvised my way; I have through sheer bravado delivered what sounds like literary work but may on closer inspection prove to be ingenious facsimile. I know I am capable of these things and I am half the time secretly joking as I write, as my father was secretly joking as he entertained us with his tales, tongue literally in cheek. I am multilayered and contradictory and who isn’t? I am this and that both at the same time and who isn’t? And with this comes the guilt of the actor, the guilt of the journalist always selling someone out, the guilt of the memoirist using others’ pain for performance and backdrop and foil.

So to be always writing the column and only writing the column was like being a merchant seaman but not in the Marines; like being in the next room while the grownups decide who will be mayor.

Now I can cuss. Now I can write long sentences and not worry if they even completely grammatically hold together, though I believe they mostly do, rattling ragged into the station but still mostly not burdened with unconnected concluding gerund phrases and other not-wholly grammatical stylistic novelties that displease me. (Ha ha whose joke is that now?  Who is deliberately tearing things apart just to see how they crash?) Now I can be the person who is not that gentle and kind. Now I can say that many things displease me, including the tentativeness that passes for manners and respect, and the refusal to look me in the eye that passes for cool in Oakland.

Cary14

I suppose I could be a blogger

I’m so awakened by Ifemelu in Americanah, her blogging, that after the doctor, whose first name was Tennessa, which I had never heard before, and which, when I mentioned it to the medical student who had amazingly white teeth, got me a blank and slightly fearful smile as if she did not know which way I was going with this simple acknowledgement that I had never heard the name Tennessa before (I was frankly curious to know if it would be a recognizably male or female name), I went to Peet’s for tea and they did not have gen mai cha but they had a jasmine green tea which I do not like and they had Earl Gray which I do not like so I settled on black English breakfast tea, and sat in the window at Peet’s in the Lakeshore Plaza on Sloat and continued my wonderful, energizing, effervescent enchantment with this novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called Americanah, in which Ifemelu, whose name I cannot get out of my head, comes to America and observes us. Yes, us. You and me, as we go about our sometimes charming and sometimes clueless and sometimes cluelessly cruel, rich, privileged, blank-faced, rude, hungry, entitled, brittle, righteous, Christian, needy, overly sensitive and spoiled little lives. In Yale and in Philadelphia and in New York and in Baltimore and in Connecticut. Ifemelu has not yet come to California in the book and I do not know if she will. I wish she would if she doesn’t. I would like to know what she would have to say about Valencia Street and 24th, and the Alley Cat Books, and the Google buses and our rage at the Google buses, which I am thinking I could make a piece of personal literary nonfiction out of if I rode one.

This is how I naturally write and that is why I am thinking I might just be a blogger because I am no longer a writer on salary and strangely enough “blogger” sounds more enterprising than “freelancer,” which has a doubtful air and always did because one had to first acquire an “assignment” as a “freelancer” but one can magically become a “blogger” just by blogging. A blogger is someone who blogs, to paraphrase a tautology of which I am fond and yet suspicious, because everybody knows when we say “writer” in one context we mean it as an occupation and trade, like “cook” or “shoemaker,” and there are limits to what even the most enterprising DIYer can do as far as being a shoemaker. “Do you grow your own cotton?” (Read the book if you don’t get that.)

If I were to become a blogger I would want to say something controversial and yet harmless and so I would probably say how sad I am that Steven Colbert is taking over from David Letterman, how I mourn already, and how Steven Colbert leaves me cold and has never made me laugh, and how I find him irritating and hyperactive and want to shush him and if we were at a dinner party I would leave early with some excuse.

Part of it is that I love David Letterman so much. Part of it is not wanting to see him replaced. But if he were to be replaced wouldn’t it be wonderful for him to be replaced by someone with a small ego and a folksy manner, some humility, and when I say humility I mean affect, I mean acting, I mean the persona of humility which seems to allow the rest of us to relax and laugh as the brittle and hyped-up persona of Steven Colbert does not. I mean that I have never been made to laugh by Steven Colbert. I have gaped; I have observed with detachment that he has twisted something around again; I have seen that what he says makes others laugh. But I have never laughed and I have never loved Steven Colbert and so it is sad to know that he will take over from David Letterman, whom I love and have since watching first in Paul Keister and Debora Iyall’s apartment up on Nob Hill on California Street where they had practically no furniture because she was on tour with Romeo Void and I’m not sure if they’d even had their wedding at the Art Institute yet, but there was this young, gap-toothed ironic and silly man on late at night and that was Dave.

But who else? Who is large enough in the firmament of stars (odd phrase that)?

I do not know. Perhaps you do. Perhaps you also do not find Steven Colbert funny and by mentioning it I can give you courage, like in the old days when I used to enter into the spirit of whatever your malady was and thus by example allow others to breathe more easily at their desks in highrise office buildings where they would think about their lives and read my column and commune with all the lost souls found on the Internet. Or perhaps you will pity me for missing what is so funny about him. I like to laugh. Jon Stewart makes me laugh. Edgy people make me laugh. Silly people make me laugh. He doesn’t seem edgy or silly; he seems like he wants us to know how smart he is and I’m not sure how smart he is because what he does is obvious but then so is what R.E.M. does and I never got far disliking them, either, nor did I get very far Disliking Intensely U2.

But then I thought, maybe that’s what blogging is for, to dispense possibly unpopular opinions and see what you think.

Maybe you can also tell me why so few people of the supposedly aware and tasteful set of which I am a charter member do not watch the most amazing and exciting show on television right now other than The Good Wife, which is American Idol. Am I the only one in my social group who is stunned and reduced to tears by the dream of regular folks from dirt-poor ordinariness and drabness in shared bedrooms having their dreams not of cheap stardom but of true artistry come to life in front of practiced and knowledgeable professionals? Am I the only one who is interested in what Harry Connick Jr. says because he is not only a star but a working musician with practical knowledge who thinks about practical problems of phrasing and chords and so forth?

So I do think about things other than therapy and God and why you think your husband is making you unhappy.

Oh, and one more thing. What do I notice about publication dates and review dates and marketing cycles, which I lived with in the world of music and so am hyper-alert to and somewhat dismayed by, as it means that culture runs to the tune of marketing and distribution, which we know but still find at times when we are delicate or extremely moved and perhaps vulnerable to be unsettlingly and even outrageously crass even if, as I think I admitted somewhere near the beginning of this sentence, true, but that all the reviews if you search on the name “Ifemelu” (I just wanted to see if it was, um, a super-familiar name that I just hadn’t heard because I don’t know enough about Nigeria) seemed to all happen in May 2013 when the book came out, which I know, again, is obvious and how the world works and why do I have a problem with that, but still, it’s just something I noticed that bothered me. Because the world I live in bothers me in case you didn’t notice yet. In case I’ve spent 12 years being such a nice person trying to help other people with their problems that I didn’t have time to be this other extremely bothered person who sometimes feels the whole crushing weight of the world’s crass idiocy on his shoulders and has to get down on his knees on the sidewalk just for a minute until it goes away?

Do you have a project you need to finish? Is it driving you nuts?

FinishedCropWouldn’t you feel great if you finally got it done?

Finishing School is a way to get things done when nothing else has worked.

It doesn’t matter what the thing is. Finishing isn’t about the mechanics of the task. It’s about the process, or method, of finishing. It’s very simple. It is easy to learn.

If you have tried scheduling, will power, time management, getting up earlier, taking off a day, enlisting the help of experts, doing copious research, asking your friends for help, starting over, and a million other things, and this one thing still isn’t done, then try Finishing School. Because obviously those other methods didn’t work.

And don’t give up! Come to Finishing School and let us help you get it done.

This method will work. If it doesn’t, just tell me and I’ll give you your money back. I’ll be glad to give you your money back because I’ll be learning something from you. It’ll be useful research-type information. Nobody has asked for their money back yet but eventually someone will, and when that happens I will congratulate them and thank them, because that will help us improve the method.

But for now, people come to finishing school and they finish whatever it is. And you can too.

What are you putting off? Is it a lifelong dream? Is it a project around the house? Does it involve the prospect of an unpleasant conversation? The risk of rejection or disappointment?

Whatever. The main thing is that it’s something that needs to be done and it’s not done so it’s bugging you. But you’re finally ready to do something about it.

Good for you.

sign up.

Or if you’re not quite sure, email me at cary@carytennis.com and tell me about your situation.

GuestHouse_Slider_TEXT

Increase your creativity. Contact rich memories. Write with greater ease. Meet creative people.

 

Register Today - Hand Drawn Blue

Come to Guest House Retreat and Conference Center in Chester, Connecticut, May 16 through 19, 2014, for four days writing, thinking, talking and exploring new inner territory in a safe and supportive environment.

I’ll be there, along with Amherst Writers and Artists founder Pat Schneider, offering daily Amherst Writers and Artists workshops in the beautiful Connecticut countryside.

For info, email cary@carytennis.com or call 415 308-5685.

 

And who am I?

CarySmallerMy name is Cary Tennis and I’m a veteran writer and musician lucky enough to have found a writing workshop method that works wonders with writers of all levels of experience and ambition. For 12 years I wrote the “Since You Asked” advice column for Salon.com, and became attuned to the many obstacles creative people face, both emotional and philosophical. And I learned a good bit about my own process and quirks. I’ve been leading Amherst Writers and Artists workshops and retreats on the West Coast and around the world since 2007 but this will be my first workshop in Connecticut. Whether you are acquainted with the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method or not, I look forward to sharing with you its powerful benefits. I use the method as spelled out in Pat Schneider’s book Writing Alone and With Others, but of course I bring to it my particular learning and style. I trust that whether you are acquainted with the method or are doing it for the first time, you will find something useful and lasting in the experience.

 

Why Connecticut? Why Guest House?

My wife, Norma, and I looked long and hard before settling on Guest House. It’s a beautiful, secluded gem of a retreat and conference center on the Connecticut River, halfway between New York and Boston. We thought, not being from the Northeast, that it would be good to make it available to both metropolitan areas. And we liked its mission statement: “To create opportunities for transformational work, and to provide a nurturing environment for people seeking to develop human potential and enrich the world.” Plus:

  • There’s a grand piano in the lobby!

    “Cary Tennis has it all,” says Amherst Writers and Artists founder Pat Schneider. “He’s funny, he’s kind, he’s smart he’s brave, and he’s very, very wise.”

  • Nearby salt-water swimming!
  • Miles of hiking trails!

 

Register Today - Hand Drawn Blue

 

Cary14

My reading is private–so why start reviewing novels?

Into my awareness a few weeks ago came this strange, unbidden thought: My reading is private. I don’t really want to talk with you about the books I love. I just want to love them in my own way. I mean, I like you and you’re interesting to me, but the reading I do is mine, all mine, and I don’t even all that much want to share it.

Is that bad of me?

The truth is full of paradox, of course. Because in practically the same breath I’m going to say: I’ve decided to start writing about books.

People expect you to want to talk about the books you’re reading. Why is that? Is it because books are supposed to be important? Is it because of a presumed duty, as a citizen, to sharpen your perceptions, to make sure you’re not misguided, or to share your insights with others for their enlightenment? That takes the fun out of it. Reading novels and poetry and short stories is one of the few pleasures left in which I do not incur an obligation. All I have to do is read. What a glorious pleasure! Why mess that up with a duty to discuss, analyze, explain a viewpoint and defend it? Aagh!

And yet. And yet I am interested in my own thoughts about why books do what they do, and how. And writing is a nice way to explore one’s own thoughts.

But here’s the real impetus behind my decision to start “reviewing” books. I want to be a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

It has to do with my longing to belong. I may not want to talk to you, but I want to belong to your club. So I was sitting in Java Beach writing my weekly Wednesday advice column this morning when, because I got on the mailing list for the NBCC at the AWP Conference (I can see the more I get involved, the more the acronyms are going to pile up), an email came from the National Book Critics Circle and I read it and suddenly I wanted to know who all these writers were that I had never heard of. I mean, I’ve heard of the ones that it’s obvious I’ve heard of and you’ve heard of them too, but the other ones I haven’t heard of and it made me curious and even a little excited. Of course, I’m used to massive disappointment, too, so it’s a guarded interest.

I’ve been on a kick lately, see, to find books I really like, and writers I can meet and talk to. Mostly it started when I read a San Francisco Magazine piece on Litquake and it was so disgustingly clubby and mutually congratulatory. This bothered me. But rather than simply make a face and take an attitude like a high schooler, I decided to embark on a project. I decided to be an adult and read all the novels by San Francisco Bay Area writers that I could stand, and be really, really honest about my own reactions, and see if I could find some that I really, really liked.

So far I’ve only found two novels. Well, three actually. To be honest. I read some interesting things but I only found three novels, lately, from the Bay Area, that I really could say I loved. Oh, and I found one short story collection that I really liked. Then I went up to the author of that short story collection after a reading and told him one story made me think of John Cheever and he said kind of dismissively—but also maybe self-protectively, as it’s a drag to hear the same old dumb first impression, when your work is much deeper and more complex than that—that he’d heard that before.

I’m still looking for more. I’m checking books out of the library all the time, whenever I hear of something I might like. I don’t like much. And I’m only going to write about novels and short story collections that I like. I mean really like. Like when I was a kid, when I read just because I liked it. I might mention books of poetry too but I don’t know if I can really write about poetry.

I guess writing only about books I like would make me not an official critic. That’s fine with me. I don’t want to be a critic. I’m not out to enforce my standards or influence the world’s taste and judgment. I just want to join the NBCC and get their magazine discounts.

I’m not really all that interested in having a dialog with you, either, about the books that I like. I say what I say and you read it in private and that’s that. That’s how it used to be. Your enthusiasms are probably different from mine, anyway. Mine are strange but also at times very quotidian. I don’t know if you’ll enjoy what I have to say about the books I like. I’m not doing it for that. I’m doing it so I can have three reviewer’s clips and then maybe they’ll let me into the National Book Critics Circle as a charter member sort of. And then I can get those magazine discounts.

Like I say, to tell the truth, I’m just one of those people who just wants to belong. I want to be in the club. You can be in the club with me. I’d like that. I just don’t want to have to explain and agree and disagree and all that. It’s like, the cool thing is, I’m not getting paid for this, so I can do it however I want! Isn’t that great! No more pretending!

Oh, and also I figure it’ll show book editors and agents that I know a little bit about how novels achieve their effects. Since I’m writing one myself, I ought to know. I think I kind of do.  I think I kind of know how to do it, I think. So I’ll enjoy talking about that.

Soon I’ll do my first one. I hope it’s not too hard, like a test, or an assignment in school. I don’t think it will be. I’m not trying to prove how smart I am or anything. I already know where I stand with that whole business.