Monday, March 23, 2009


1. The last time I was in Miami was 2003, when one of my enterprising traveling companions wrangled us fancy hotel rooms by pretending to be the management of a famous band. Half a dozen years! I cannot believe how long that sounds.

2. The airplane from Orlando to Miami was the ricketiest vehicle I've ever been on. It made the Mesaba flights from Minneapolis to Bemidji seem like luxury jets. The flight attendant was the co-pilot, a tall and brusque man with stern eyebrows, a heavy accent, and not a wasted word. "PLEASE BUCKLE YOUR SEATBELTS," he shouted down the aisle. "WE ARE GOING." Then he went into the cockpit and closed the loose sliding door as much as he could. It didn't close all the way.

My seat, the glamorous-sounding 1F, in fact had no window. To my right and in front of me were nothing walls of grimy beige plastic. To my left, the closed door with its metal staircase folded against it. The sensation was that of traveling in a large carton, perhaps one stashed in the back of a covered wagon.

An hour in I realized I had to close my New Yorker and my eyes and try to imagine myself anywhere else. I have only thrown up once on a flight, ever. It was a tiny bush plane, in Churchill, Manitoba; the pilot at one point turned the plane perpendicular to the ground, and when he righted it, I lost my lunch. But this flight came close. When we landed, the co-pilot burst out of the cockpit--"OKAY, WE'RE HERE," he hollered with a mighty clap--and I tottered down the steps to the tarmac to wait for the baggage handlers to roll my suitcase from the cargo cubby to where I stood about twenty feet away. They had to duck under the wing.

3. Miami temperatures in the mid-70s. The air is downy and warm. I could cry at the sheer gentleness of it.

4. At the Turkish restaurant, my dish was called "I'm Crazy About Tomato!", or, as the waiter called it for short, "Crazy Tomato."

5. Miami men wear fitted button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled up just one cuff-length, untucked over narrow yet loose jeans, and flip-flops or loafers. The women wear tiny dresses and shorts and impossibly high heels, but their walks betray them, tottering on the shoes, holding a boyfriend's hand for support, or hunching and crossing their arms across their chests as they duck around the slow walkers. I have not seen so much cleavage since the Renaissance Faire of 2002.

6. The beach at night was vast and pale and empty, the ocean vast and dark and empty. I admire the ocean but it will always make me feel uneasy in some way--I don't like not being able to see the other side. And it has that intense smell. It smells like life and like death. But I was very, very happy to see it.

I keep picturing a map and myself as a tiny fleck on that map, down at the fingertip of the U.S. In my mind's eye the map is a biological one, not political, no roads or city dots, just green. I'm reading Karen Russell's book St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and the stories are about the super-weirdness of Florida and especially its dark swamps and critters. That interests me much more than Beyonce's mansion. Manatees over celebritees.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


The difference for me in writing stories and writing a novel comes down, maybe, to this: In writing a story, you take one element and blow it up. Writing a novel, you take every element, everything you know, and try to distill it into one thing. This task is staggering.

At some point in my freshman or sophomore year of college, I started conflating my writing notebook and my personal journal--no longer separate, just everything in one notebook, as it came, the invented and the real all mixed up and sometimes overlapping, and I continue this practice to the present day. But holy mother, is it making the novel mining a crazy experience. It turns out I started taking notes on what would become this novel (I thought it was a story then) in two-thousand-fucking-two. So I am digging back through seven years' worth of life, or rather lives, to pull out sentences and notes and ideas I'd forgotten. This is about twelve or thirteen journals of all sizes--Moleskines, spiral-bound sketchbooks, big 8x10 art books and little square ones and all shapes and sizes in between, a couple of them dog-chewed in the corner so the pages are hard to turn.

The journal-mining is dangerous work. I have to stay on task and resist the pull of my own past lives. Retrospection is a bitch, and the periods of doomed euphoria are a harder tug than the moments of immediate darkness. It is intense (and I'm not saying this with wistfulness or nostalgia, just clear sight) to realize how different a life can be and how rapidly it can change, over and over. And it's sometimes shocking to realize how much I've forgotten--I'm not an avid chronicler of events, more ideas--and it makes me glad I wrote down what I did, and wonder what happened between those pages that I wish I had access to now.

Through it all, multiple characters and stories pop up, some of them later realized, some abandoned. Little flags and post-it notes. The elements of this thing I'm working on. The constant is that I was constantly making things up in the middle of living the real thing, and often the fiction has the real truth and the documentary leaves it out.

All of it fuels the story, but it puts me into a strange cloud where I feel like I am perpetually on the verge of a sneeze or tears.

I think DFW had it about right with his extended analogy of DeLillo's hideous hydrocephalic infant. It does feel like this.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Two trends I have noticed in undergraduate short stories.

• The office is the new courtroom. AND OR, the office is the new unhappy suburban home. TBD.
• Oscar Wao is the new Holden Caulfield.

Both these developments cheer me.

The office-as-setting is no less inspired by television and movies than the courtroom, and just as vulnerable to familiar tropes and cliches, but at least there's a significantly better chance the writer has actually spent time in one. (And no "you can't handle the truth!" moments.) I am also noticing a marked drop in unhappy-married-people-in-the-suburbs stories, and I wonder if the office is also the new unhappy home, the locus of thwarted ambitions and entrapment and mortal dread. Prickly exchanges have moved from the kitchen table to the break room table, the loneliness-in-company of the bedroom transferred to the loneliness-in-company of the cubicle.

Re: Caulfield vs. Wao, I think it's high time for the know-it-all prep-schooler to clear some space for the persecuted-yet-indomitable, longing, lovable geek. Is this another ripple of the Obama effect? Either way, I'm down.

Monday, March 2, 2009


I can't tell yet if Twitter is going to be like Facebook, a thing that seems superfluous and creepy until it seems inevitable and fundamental. (Or cellphones, for that matter--I remember when I used to take mine out sheepishly and try to answer it discreetly out of sight of my grad-school colleagues who were smoking on the Dey House porch. I felt like a pompous tool with it. This was 2001.)

So far I have found Twitter's potential exceeds its actual pleasure yield. Personally I am more in the school of "Entertain me with your pithy wit, my friends" than "Tell me every move you make" (or "Sell me every move you make.")

But I'm starting to figure out how to make it useful and not just a thing I look at on my iPhone when I'm standing in line. Poetry Magazine sporadically sends thought-provoking little lines and images (Living is a meatloaf sandwich. --John Ashbery.) Today I learned via Publisher's Lunch that
Deal for DFW's PALE KING from "tentative" to official; a partial work of "several hundred thousand words" plus notes, outlines, and more
Which led me to the full explanation via AP. I feel both excited and sad about it. I wonder if reading this incomplete novel will be an amazing illumination of David Foster Wallace's writing process, or puzzling and impenetrable, or just heartbreaking. Or all of the above, more likely.

And in the world of living writers, my friend Pauls Toutonghi is going to be serializing his short story "Tourism" via Twitter starting today, here. Already off to a banging start!
1. AMELIA EARHART DIED BEFORE IMPACT. She saw the shimmering water and the way it opened upwards. Her eyes were open.

The tank was almost empty; Howland Island invisible. And so she stopped her own heart. She could feel the sun on the back of her neck.

As far as Twitter-born stories go, Douglas sings the praises of Dame Jetsam, a fictional character created on Twitter around whom a whole storyline and world have sprung up--it involves a shipwrecked lady and a fusion sensibility of olde-tyme + modern vernacular--with other people joining in as Sir Flotsam, Doctor Detritus, etc. Their emerging adventures are collected here.

But of course, the medium is bound to also suffer some Totally Unnecessary Twitter Narratives. A while back
I Twittered (tweeted? I don't feel that verb) about a Mad Men binge I was on, and was instantly friended by the surprisingly web-savvy "Betty Draper." "Betty Draper" churns out frequent updates, which unfortunately follow vapid 1950s housewife cliches that anyone could manufacture based on a cursory familiarity with 1950s stereotypes, and that in their period-fetish glee sail completely over what makes her character on the show so tense, complex, and sad: "Put a casserole in the oven. I wonder when Don will be home." Perhaps it's just a testament to verisimilitude--even a brilliantly-crafted fictional character can be dull and overshare.

(It turns out that "Betty Draper" also maintains a blog of similarly surface-level artifact fetishism, if a bit anachronistic--a Sterling-Cooper business card with a web address?! I'm fascinated by the fanfic phenomenon. In a way, maybe these inconsistencies and oddities are more interesting than a seamlessly-executed homage.)

I feel inconclusive.
I like the challenge of filtering and distilling an idea to the most compact form possible. But it isn't easy, and while my handful of Twitter friends turn out funny and interesting tidbits, most of the random Twitterers I've browsed through are beyond boring, oversharing their tedium into the ether. Seriously, people, who needs to know your laundry plans? (Or the status of your fictional casserole?)

Few of my friends are on Twitter yet, and I imagine it will get more fun when (or if!) more of them (you!) get on board. Holler when you arrive.