Dept. of Speculation
In the first half-hour of reading this book I found myself reaching for my phone over and over again. I kept wanting to clip out lines for Twitter or Tumblr, or so that I could put them into the inevitable review I’d write. But I realized I’d be copying the whole damn thing. Every single shimmering, truthful line has my heart gripped in its little serifed fist.
Fucking hell, this book. I type into my phone. I mean, fuck.
I’m thirty pages in and already I know: I will never write anything this good. Never.
Back in January I attended a photography workshop, one evening of which involved the students all showing each other their portfolios. Afterwards, I was chatting with one of the other photographers there, and I mentioned how struck I was by his work.
“I always find it so impressive to see someone conjure up an image, to construct something that didn’t exist before, completely from your imagination,” I said.
“But that’s what all art is,” he responded. “Making something out of nothing.”
“Well, I guess,” I said. “But it can also be taking one thing and turning it into something else, right?”
I asked Juliette the other day if she thought I was observant. She cocked her head and thought a moment. “You can be,” she said finally. “Sometimes you can be kind of oblivious, but you notice a lot of things that I don’t. And I think you’re really good at articulating things in a way that other people don’t think of, but that make you say, ‘Oh yeah, that is what I think.’”
This little bit of narcissistic despair, it’s not quite right. That is, I do write things like this. Some of these short paragraphs feel so familiar, intimate. Like a line from a poem that I haven’t quite thought of yet, but was maybe just around the bend. The difference is that everything I write, every picture I make, they come from life. If I have any talent or skill, it’s in awareness and analysis, not imagination. I can notice a detail and pluck it out and show it to you, and on a good day, maybe I can do that in such a way that you’ll see something new. But making something that wasn’t there before, that’s something that has always eluded me. It does not elude Jenny Offill.
How could somebody imagine this? I could write lines like these, but I could never invent them. There is too much detail, too much truth in the detail. How could you know a life, the little bits of a life, the emotions and nonsense and asides. The little in-between moments where we all really live. How could you know something fictional so specifically? I can’t understand it.
I have this theory that you can break down most writers and photographers into two groups, based on how they work: builders and explorers. (Why just writers and photographers? Well, that’s all I know how to do. Maybe it works for painters and sculptors and musicians, too. I don’t know. Or maybe photography and writing have a particular something in common that other art forms don’t. I don’t know that either.)
Builders are the ones who construct new worlds. The studio photographer. The novelist. The compositor. The poet (sometimes). They start with an idea, see it in their heads, and then bring the elements together until the desired result has been realized.
Explorers often don’t set out to make something specific. They go out into the world to see what’s there, whether it’s to a far-off land or just down the hall. The landscape photographer. The street photographer. The essayist. The raconteur. What goes into the work is what was there, perhaps with some embellishment, some creative editing, but it all starts from a lived experience.
And, of course, most people will fall somewhere between. Ideas often come from life, and life often needs some scaffolding before it becomes art. It’s probably not even a spectrum, but rather a volume, a space with axes going off in all directions. (What’s the origin point, I wonder? The basis? Where is that? What does it even mean? Probably nothing; let’s not extend the metaphor further than it can go.)
I’m an explorer. Is Jenny Offill a builder? I don’t know what her process is, but Dept. of Speculation is presented as a novel, as fiction. So, let’s call her a builder. And if we call her that, maybe we’re going to have to call her a genius, too. A motherfucking savant.
Why have I spent so much time talking about my silly little taxonomy? I don’t know. Perhaps it is just that impressive art is all the more impressive to me when it’s something I can’t do.
There are, of course, explorations that have moved me, changed me, found a back room in my mind and stayed there, popping out to say hello to my conscious brain from time to time. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Bits of Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. It’s not just the builders who have a claim to my admiration.
Dept. of Speculation is the story of a marriage, from the breathless, youthful sweetness of its beginnings through a jagged crisis and beyond. But in some ways it’s hardly even a narrative—certainly it’s not a conventional one. Rather, it reads like an extended prose poem, a series of vignettes and asides and emotions. Offill doesn’t come right out and say what happened, like a novelist “should.” She relates the plot by showing you the way each thing affects her narrator, her responses to the events, the things before and after. Things get slippery; the perspective shifts from “I” to “she,” and tenses slide around from now to then. Bits of famous authors’ poetry and historical factoids pepper the pages, and it’s up to you to infer their relevance.
It’s not straightforward, but neither is it a slog. It never feels like work. It took me perhaps four hours to read through the slim volume, and I never wanted to put it down or take a break. How do you do that? Make a book that’s both obscure and accessible? I don’t know, but apparently Jenny Offill does.
Have I gushed enough? Weighed this “review” down enough with my tangents and navel-gazing? Just go read this book. It’s really something.
Backwards and Forwards
This is the time of year for retrospectives and resolutions, both of which always strike me as simultaneously necessary and kind of ridiculous. There's always so much navel-gazing and hand-wringing, and then there's all the subsequent navel-gazing and hand-wringing about the navel-gazing and hand-wringing. And yet, reflection is good for the soul, goals give you something to reach for, and, well, if I weren't the type to do my introspection in such a public manner, you wouldn't be reading this, would you?
2011 was a year of discovery and redefinition for me. I found out that I am a good enough photographer that people will pay me to take their pictures. I got the first inklings of what it's like to be the father of a daughter. I learned that I can write on a schedule, but not when I'm also trying to support a photo business, a day job, two kids, a wife, a dog, and a social life.
I started out the year thinking of myself as a father, a husband, a writer, an engineer, and lots of other things. Now? Still a father and husband, of course, but with my daughter's birth and my son continuing to grow and change, those mean something different now. (I suppose that will always be true.) Am I still a writer? I suppose, since I still write, but I'm not really trying to be a writer anymore, being so caught up with being a photographer.
And what's the plan for 2012? What will I do differently? What will I start and what will I stop?
One thing I will stop is promoting this blog the way I used to. I've spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking and planning and trying to figure out how to get more readers, more pageviews. At one time I wanted to be the next Heather Armstrong, but I think we can all agree that the blogger-turned-Internet-celebrity ship has sailed. And that's just fine. I'm gratified (and a little amazed) that there are a few people out there who enjoy reading this site, but it's time for me to stop trying so hard to be popular and just write because it's what I like to do.
The rest? Maybe I'll lose weight, write more, take more pictures, get to bed earlier. It's not looking so great for that last one, so far, but who knows?
I'm looking forward to finding out.
Getting to Know Me
I started this blog over eight years ago, but until Jason was born my writing was sporadic at best. There are a lot of reasons that I got serious about writing regularly at that point. I wanted to have a record of this time in my son's life, of course, so that I'd be able to look back later and more easily remember what life was like. It was also right around then that I started thinking about actively pursuing writing as a second career. I've talked about both of those before, I think. What I may not have mentioned, though, is that I also wanted Jason to have a way to know me, know who I am and how I think.
You see, I realized a while back that although I spent my entire young life around my parents, and although I have come to know them as an adult, there's a lot about their lives that I don't know. I know some facts--dates and places of birth, for example, and the names of their high schools. I've even heard a few stories from their youths and young adulthood. But I have only the barest impressions of what their lives were like before I was born. In fact, I can't even really say that I know much about what was going on with them before I graduated from college nine years ago. When I was a child, I wasn't aware enough to see or understand what was going on around me, and when I was a teenager I was, like most teenagers, too self-absorbed to care.
As I finally took steps into real adulthood, I came to know my parents for who they are now. I think I can say that I know who they are and what's going on with them as well as I do anyone who doesn't live in my house. But there are still big gaps from before that I wonder about, and even though I've mentioned this to my mom, I haven't ever really sat down with them and asked them my questions. Somehow, the idea of interviewing my parents, as though I were going to write their biographies, just seems too awkward.
I don't know if Jason will feel the same way. Maybe he'll know me well enough, or maybe he'll never think about it. But I know that I want him to know me, and if he feels the same way, I don't want awkwardness to be an obstacle for him. I missed my chance with my grandfathers, and I find myself wondering about their lives all the time.
I haven't previously done much writing here about my past, so I hope that those of you who read this blog now will bear with me from time to time as I share a few anecdotes. Hopefully the stories will be interesting enough to be worth your while, but if not, please just keep in mind that I'm really writing those for a very small audience, one that won't even be able to read these words for some time to come.
Why Do I Do This?
You may not know this, but this week is Metablog Week. As the founder of Metablog Week, Schmutzie, puts it, "Metablogging happens when a blogger blogs about blogging on their weblog." As it happens, this event fell at a sort of serendipitous time for me, since I've been thinking a lot lately about why I write, and why in particular I write for this site. (In a box with a fox in socks.)
It turns out that I don't even remember why I started this blog in the first place. The story I've been telling myself is that it came out of my high school English teacher's parting suggestion that we keep a reading journal, but when I go back through my archives, it turns out that my first blog post (about which I am now truly and deeply embarrassed) predates my first review by over a year. Of course, I'd had a web site for almost five years by that point, but what was it that made me decide to dip my toe into the blogging pool on that spring day eight years ago? And with a trite political op-ed piece, no less? I don't know.
Of course, other than the reviews, blogging was a pretty occasional thing for me until two summers ago, when my son was born. So maybe I should start there. That was obviously a momentous time for me, what with all the changes entailed in becoming a parent, and the desire to have a contemporaneous record of my life through that transition was definitely a big part of it. But, if I'm being honest with myself, how much had to do with wanting a journal and how much had to do with the fact that I'd been reading Dooce regularly?
See, I've always thought of myself as introverted and uncomfortable with attention, and that's certainly how most people think of me. The single most common reaction this blog has gotten from my family and friends has been surprise at how open I am here, and at how much goes on underneath my staid demeanor.
The truth is, I've always wanted to be famous, though it pains me to say it. Not the kind of shallow celebrity that our reality-TV-obsessed culture is so fascinated with these days, true, but I do have to admit that I've dreamed about getting the kind of respect and admiration that I have for a really good writer or artist. When I was young--the kind of kid who told his boss "I don't want to be in the newspapers; I want to be in the textbooks"--I probably wanted to be in the same pantheon as a Mark Twain or a Gabriel García Márquez. These days I'd settle for being a John Grogan.
(Man, that is so arrogant. "I'd settle for being a beloved international bestseller." Sometimes I strain even my own credulity.)
I tell myself that what I really want is not actually fame, but rather I want to have created something wonderful. My life having been so moved and influenced by great art and great writing, I want to try to give something like that experience to other people. And all that is true, but it's incomplete. I want to have done something great, but I want the recognition for it, too.
Which raises the question: if no one read this blog, would I still write it? It would be facile to point out that practically no one reads it now, so there's my answer, but at this point I'm still working toward the goal of a wider readership. What if I came to the point where I knew that would never happen? Would I still write? After all, I'm always telling people "I like having written but I hate writing."
I like to think I would. Since I started keeping to a schedule over the past few months, I've been finding that the more I write, the more I think of to write. Maybe it's still just the enthusiasm of a new project, the whole "I'm going to become a writer" thing. But more and more I'm finding that the words and topics are flowing more easily and it's harder not to write. There's just so much I want to say!
I don't know if I'll ever achieve any kind of fame, or whether any fame I do achieve will be lasting. I can't deny the desire, though, and maybe that means I'm coming at this writing thing from the wrong angle. I can't help feeling that I'm doing something good here, something meaningful, and maybe that's enough, even if nobody is reading it.
By the way, I recommend checking out the rest of the site. The range of experience and the quality of writing represented there has made for some great reading. I've been following them for the past several weeks and quite enjoy it.
Why This Will Never Be a Regular Column
I've been running this site in one form or another for over seven years now, and the Useless Opinions section has existed for more than three. In all of that time, I've only written 15 of these pieces. It works out to about one article every three months. What gives? Why can't I get it together to write something once a week, or even once a month? Lately I've been mulling over this very question, and here's what I've come up with:
1.) I'm not passionate enough. I have convictions on political and social issues--some of them even quite strong--but I just don't care enough to really do much about them. I vote, and I sometimes talk about what I believe. It's not even that writing would be too much work; it doesn't even occur to me most of the time that I should write about an issue. And besides, even if I did write about something like that, what would be the point? Not very many people even read this, and those who do are likely to be either friends or family, and in cases where I strongly disagree with people, I generally don't want to run the risk of alienating those close to me.
2.) I'm not smart enough. Well, either that or I'm too much of a generalist. Whatever the reason, I'm not really an expert on very many things. Certainly not very many interesting things. Consequently, I'm not qualified to write technical articles. Even with the things I do know a lot about in comparison to the average joe--electrical engineering, for example--I'm not experienced enough or knowledgeable enough to teach them.
3.) I'm not interesting enough. My life is pretty normal. I go to work in the morning, I do my job, I come home. In the evenings, I eat, I talk to my wife, I watch TV. Occasionally, I hang out with friends. I go to the movies a lot. That's about it. I'm just not dramatic enough to think that the boring details of my life would be interesting reading.
4.) I'm not funny enough. If I were funnier, I could probably make my life fun to read about. I'm not those things, though. I have a hard time making fun of the events or people in my life. I think in order to be good at that sort of thing you have to be convinced that you're in some way better than others, and I don't. Or, at least, if I do, I dislike that about myself enough that I don't want to point it out.
5.) I'm too embarrassed. There are very few things that make me squirm more than reading back over old journal entries (which also tend to be quite few and far between). As I get older and gain more perspective, I realize how silly so many of my previous fears and peeves are. When I see how self-righteous I have been in the past, it makes me wish I'd never picked up a pen in the first place.
6.) I'm too lazy. Writing is work, so when it comes to writing I do what comes naturally: I procrastinate. Speaking of which, I should probably quit stalling on that Overlook turn. Or, you know, get back to that whole "job" thing.