On working, writing, and doubting

I wrote this speech for an event at the Michael King Writers Centre in November. The event was called ‘The Business of Writing: Making a Living Through Words’. I was super scared to say my speech, partly because it was 40 minutes long and I knew I’d probably die up there, and partly because this speech doesn’t really have any practical ideas for making a living out of writing. Afterwards, someone kindly suggested I should do Toastmasters. So here it is!

 

The question of how to make a living as a writer is at its surface very simple. The answer is: you write whenever you’re not doing your real, proper job. The proper job, where you earn your proper living. The answer is: you feel grateful to have a job at all. The answer is: you tuck your writing away, like a cyclist rolling up one trouser leg so the cuff doesn’t get caught up in the chain. The answer is: you have reasons to write other than to make any money – some of them banal and maybe even embarrassing, like wanting to be seen, wanting to be someone. Some of them grander and easier to own up to, like trying to understand what it means to be in this world when so many of us feel we are outside of it. To be part of a community that can provide solace, challenge, and escape. To advocate for the voices we hear less often than other voices in this community. Whatever your reasons, they push you forward.

But simple answers become less satisfying the more they are repeated. For weeks now, probably more than a month, while trying to write something about how to make a living as a writer, I’ve sat at my desk and slowly slid down my chair and onto the floor into a puddle. I’ve sat at desks and slid down onto floors in three different countries. Ann Lamott has said something along the lines of how writing is a process of repeatedly hypnotising then unhypnotising yourself, again and again. That’s what it’s like for me when I am writing. I hypnotise myself so that I can believe in what I am saying, I unhypnotise myself so that I can go over it all with a cold eye. And when I unhypnotise myself I realise that I’m the worst person to address the question of how to make a living, because the only reason I was able to travel to those different countries at all was because I had just been given an impossible sum of money for writing a book. Part of me still believes I’ve fallen into an alternate universe, and that you’re all in here with me, or at least very good holographic images of you are here, which I am now imagining to be holographically naked. And because of the immense privilege of winning such a prize, it doesn’t feel quite right to me to address even these naked holographic versions of you. I don’t know where I am in the system anymore, other than that I am speaking from an impossible place, and I’m no longer sure whether my opinions should have any bearing. And that is why those simple answers are no longer satisfying to me: because this system is so unpredictable, so unfair, so mercurial in its giving and withholding of affections. Affections, by which I mean money.

A literary prize isn’t really something a person can put into their career plan as a sensible milestone. ‘I’ll flounder for a number of years and then I’ll win a large sum of money from a prize committee that I haven’t even heard of.’ It would be like planning to buy the perfect pair of pants during a visit to a wig factory. It would be like planning to run your fastest time in a walking race that will disqualify you as soon as both your feet leave the ground. The idea of making money from writing seems possible only through the most unlikely combination of luck, sheer trickery, and the good humour of some official. That’s why prizes mean so much to writers: you cannot plan them, or, at least, I don’t believe you can if you have integrity. Instead, you can hope. Writers are good at hoping. Writers specialise in that long gap between how they wish the world to be, and what the world actually is. Sometimes I think it’s unfair, this expectation that writers should be above cold-blooded schemes to win something, when real estate agents and lawyers and presidents get to talk about winning all the time. Who among us hasn’t been tempted to write a book that just implores the reader to send them wads of cash? But no. You’ve got to tell a proper story. You’ve got to do ‘the art’.

When I think of the question of how to make a living, I find that the first thing I think of is a second-year commerce student who, after I had bought him a large orange and vodka for $5 one Saturday night at the Fat Lady’s Arms in 2002, wanted to know how writing would ever get me a decent job. He asked me: ‘What are you gonna do with that?’, almost as if I’d just pulled some indescribable item out of my pocket and was demanding that he look at it. I remember, in that moment, looking at the university students dancing all around us to ‘I’m Gonna Be’ by the Proclaimers, the worst song in the world and yet also the song that people most often shouted into one another’s faces. I said to the commerce student that I didn’t know what I would do with the writing. A hot shame came over me then for not having a reasonable plan. I remember having a strong urge to join the dancers. I wanted to fall into oblivion, thrusting about unthinkingly to a song I hated, and to emerge reeking of other people’s Lynx. The commerce student told me his career plan. I forget all the details other than that it was long, and it ended with him making a heap of money, and probably the two of us sailing around on some super-yacht and letting off fireworks.

My life then was filled with encounters like that. I’d buy somebody a drink, then they would find out I wanted to be a writer and they would ask how I would make any money. The answer, at least partly, was that I had to stop buying these people drinks. My bad dating decisions taught me that I had a knack for sitting in bars I didn’t want to be in, with people I didn’t like all that much if I’m honest, nodding along to the worst songs in the world. I had a knack for doing what seemed to be required. I wasn’t really any good at learning anything from situations back then, but these experiences keenly suggested to me that if I wanted something else, I would have to find the gumption to turn away, and to keep turning away. If I did not, then my eagerness to please, to be as least disruptive as possible, would lead me into situations and maybe even a life that I didn’t like very much. To try to be a writer is to disrupt. And to write well is to keep disrupting expectation. Anne Carson says: ‘You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.’ Never impede the movement harshly enough. Of course, Carson is speaking about writing. But I also think of the rush and the urge of society flowing over us like a bad music, telling us all the time what counts as a successful career and a successful life. You have to shield yourself from it, shield yourself harshly, to keep it from submerging you.

I was lucky. I did get jobs. And even in early jobs, like working in Lotto stores selling people Instant Kiwis that very occasionally won $5, I felt a thrill at being solely at work. I might have wanted to be a writer, but I was also learning how to be a person facing out into a world. Even though that ability must be learned over and over again as we get older, and especially now when the urge to turn away can be so compelling, I noticed that when I was out there working, each day I came back to my writing feeling like a slightly different person. I had listened, observed, eavesdropped, stored things away. There’s an idea I picked up somewhere that all work is the avoidance of harder work. There is some truth in that. ‘I’ll just remove these little balls of lint from my coat instead of doing a whole load of washing.’ ‘I’ll just revise this paragraph for an hour instead of writing the next one.’ At my current job as an editor at Victoria University Press, we sometimes talk about ‘constructive procrastination’, which usually means playing around with typefaces and looking at cover concepts, instead of writing a back-cover blurb or ringing up a poet you’re scared of. But that avoidant work, although it must always give way to the harder work, can be rich with spontaneity – with conversations you might otherwise not have joined or eavesdropped upon, thoughts you might not have had. So, yes, my day job is, in a sense, the avoidance of the harder work of trying to really make it as a writer and only a writer. The harder work of pushing and pushing against a system where the arts aren’t valued as much as boats or rugby or Briscoes sales are. And for now, so be it. Selfishly, I find myself wanting to save the energy that I would spend on fighting. I save it to write work that matters to me.

There are plenty of articles online about writers who rejected the traditional book publishing model, and subsequently became hugely successful using Amazon, and were able to give up their regular jobs. Maybe some of you have been profiled in such a way. ‘Morgan wrote her debut novel Forever Dreams in 2014. Underwhelmed by the returns from publishing, she penned two more books and listed them on the Amazon website. “I couldn’t believe the response from readers,” she says.’ I’m not sure whether these articles are meant to be inspiring, or chastising – why aren’t the rest of you doing this? Catch up! They remind me of the many, many articles profiling young couples who have committed to living miserably and now own their own homes. I find it interesting – and I’m not sure how significant it is – how writers tend to be described when they’re in the news. A writer in the news can’t just write something. You have to pen it. And you’re not just a writer. You’re a wordsmith. You’re having ‘a love affair with language’. And if you win anything, you ‘pocket’ it. That sly verb ‘pocket’ – because writers glide around in huge coats lined with pockets, in case the opportunity should arise to pinch something to which they feel entitled, like a scented candle, or another coat lined with pockets. But, mostly, writers come across as these slightly otherworldly desperate fairy creatures, and if they have any monetary success at all, it’s novel. It’s amusing. They’ve bucked the system – the traditional system of writers being poor. As I saw one online commenter say below an article about the Indigenous Australian poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, who won a Windham-Campbell Prize earlier this year: ‘Well isn’t that nice? $215,000 in poetry money is $8 million in regular money.’ I think this also means that a 30-year-old poet is roughly 90 years old in regular human years.

I’m digressing now, but before the Ockham Awards earlier this year, all of the finalists in the various categories were asked to answer the question, ‘If you win, what will you do with the money?’ Some of the finalists wanted to pay off their debts, or put some new lino on the floor, or buy their son a new pair of trousers. I remember Anthony Byrt wanted to buy some trees. These were fairly ordinary things that would make their lives a little easier and brighter. But I couldn’t help feeling that, by being asked the question, the writers were being framed a bit like hungry animals in a zoo, with someone holding out a bit of meat through the bars, taunting. ‘What about this, then? Wouldn’t you like to have a bit of this?’

To be clear: media attention is really important to writers. It’s an essential road towards new readers, maybe even towards funding and residencies. I’m happy and grateful whenever I see a writer, especially a young writer or a Māori or Pasifika writer, profiled in the media. But we know, perhaps have always known, that it’s out of the ordinary for writers to make much money. According to a survey earlier this year, the ‘average writer’ in NZ makes less than a quarter of their income through writing. When you visit the government’s Careers website, there is a special page to describe Writer, and there is a sign like one of those Fire Danger Today indicators that you see on hot country roads. Only in this sign it’s an indicator for good jobs, as in, ‘Probability of a Good Job Today’, and the arrow is pointing decidedly to Poor. I don’t know why they had to make a whole sign out of it, and I resent it.

One of the joys and also the cruelties of writing, and maybe of all art forms, is that success can come in such myriad, surprising, and often economically immeasurable forms. A kind word from someone you admire, or when people besides your family come to a reading you’re doing. When people pay attention to your work, it can remind you how people are often ready to reach back to you, after you’ve done so much reaching out at them. These kinds of successes show us what it feels like to be thrilled. They lift you up and, to be a bit saccharine about it, help you to keep your heart.

Back to the successful Amazon author. This is an author who is writing on average
eight novels a year, typesetting and designing them herself, and using her social media profile to promote her work. When I think about writing books as a business, this is what I think of. Setting a target for output and sales, diligently producing and marketing the books. What is rarely mentioned in the success stories is that, along with needing to be good at editing and designing your book, you must be a very savvy businessperson. You must pay close attention to what sells, what doesn’t, which books are in the Top 10, what the correlation is between star rating and current ranking. You should research your ideal buyer – figure out their average age and income and what they’re looking for, and what websites they like best. One popular thriller writer has this advice to give about writing e-books that sell: ‘I’m tempted to say: pick a niche you actually enjoy reading. But this may not always be the best advice. I enjoy reading complicated literary novels and obscure texts in linguistics, but they’re hardly the stuff best sellers are made of. Your niche selection should be in line with market demands. This is why spending time in the Amazon marketplace is important: it will tell you which niches are popular and which are not.’ As for the writing itself, he notes: ‘Writing an eBook yourself can be incredibly fun if you enjoy the creative process, or a mind-numbing chore if you don’t.’

As I write now, picking myself up off the floor once again, I feel an overwhelming sense of risk, almost certainly doom, descending, because I am going to need to say what I think about the e-book business. Because this is one of the viable ways to make a living as a writer. And I’m afraid of talking about it. I’m afraid of coming across as out of touch: as cynical, joyless, pretentious. Also, as someone who works in publishing and gets to see the business side of it, where we have to think strategically about getting books into people’s hands, I understand these are crucial, underpinning concerns, and that it would be naïve to imagine that once a book is written it just takes care of itself. At Victoria University Press we sometimes do find ourselves talking about ‘how to create a buzz’, and sometimes we coach writers in things like, ‘how to do a good reading so that people might pick up your book. Tip one: Do speak directly into the microphone.’ But, well, with ebooks, this is what I think of: when I read any book, I read to escape the world. I read to freefall out of this life and into some other one. This is how I have always read, from the beginning. There is something innately childlike about that escape. I am alone, but my sense of isolation becomes less acute. And when I think of the e-book author who is writing books specifically to appeal to a certain market demographic, I think: You’re no good at escaping. You’re too inside the world to help me. I need a writer who is outside of the world enough to really see it. I want you to be outside of the world with me. If your singular interest is in getting me to buy this book, and then you abandon me as you go through the mind-numbing chore of writing it, then I don’t think you’re writing for readers. Maybe you’re writing for skimmers, or for users of that app that summarises books for you so you don’t have to read them. I want to be able to tell that a writer has been moved to write. I want them to have risked something by telling the truth as they understand it. I believe that a writer has a moral obligation to do this.

I also believe that the writing that holds real value for us very seldom comes into this world in a planned, tidy, rational way, as in a business plan, without disarray and confusion along the way. I really believe that people who are writing anything truly of value will make some amount of mess as they are figuring out the necessity of their work, as they are clawing towards what is most difficult to say. I like the way Ann Lamott puts it: ‘You assume that the rational mind gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but rationality squeezes out much that is rich and fascinating.’ There are some classical stories that the 16th-century essayist Montaigne retells in his Essais, one about a man named Lycas, who went about his ordinary life and held down an ordinary job, all the while believing that everything he saw and experienced was taking place on a stage, like his life was a theatrical performance. Then a physician was able to cure his delusion, and Lycas became utterly miserable, blaming the doctor for robbing his pleasure in life. And similarly, a man named Thrasylaus believed that every single ship that came into the port where he lived was carrying a wonderful cargoe especially for him. Every time a ship came in, he rejoiced, and ‘welcomed them with great gladnesse’. He didn’t seem bothered that he never actually got to open any of these cargoes. But anyway, his delusion was cured too, and that was that.

For a writer, working with what’s irrational is in most ways unquantifiable, even though it’s really hard work. No one sees all of the pushing and pulling, except perhaps for other writers. We carry this work around with us, and in turn it pushes and pulls on us. This is partly why it is so awkward when we’re asked – as I’m sure many of you have been asked – to write something without being paid. We want to say, ‘But you don’t understand. I have to make this thing that wrings sense out of all of this!’ It feels like the work of writing has not been seen; it goes unacknowledged. But that work is where a writer lives.

Recently, I met the indigenous Australian poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, who I mentioned earlier. I’m not sure how to describe Ali in a way that would do her and her work justice, but to my mind she is an essential voice. She writes about her experience as part of the Stolen Generations, which refers to the roughly 100,000 Aboriginal children who were taken from their birth families by the Australian government and sent to boarding schools and church-run missions. When she was a baby, she was forcibly taken from her mother and given to a white family to raise. Ali’s mother, too, had been taken from her parents as a child. When she became pregnant at 18, Ali was pressured to give her son up for adoption, in turn. It was only when she was in her mid-thirties that she was able to meet her son, and to meet her birth mother. When Ali heard that she had won a Windham-Campbell Prize from Yale University, she was unemployed and living in a caravan in the desert, caring for her adoptive mother. In articles about her success, much was made of the caravan – here was this poet, unemployed, living in a lonely caravan, receiving a life-changing phone call to tell her she’d won a vast prize in literature. I admit I thought it was an incredible story, too. She’d been saved from a terrible caravan life. When I talked to Ali about that at Yale in New Haven, where we both were in September, she was bemused by how her caravan had been described. ‘I love my caravan,’ she said. ‘It’s a good caravan. I love where I live. It’s just a simple life.’ I guess that one detail just shows how eager we tend to be for absolutes, in stories about writers’ success – a caravan equals poor, probably miserable – rather than more complex realities. There was something else she said too, that the unconventional way in which she’d chosen to live was important in itself. It had helped her to recover. It gave her time. She actually didn’t want to follow any conventional path for the sake of fitting in with a society that had been so cruel to her and that still, she felt, hadn’t welcomed her and didn’t know what to make of her. She said she was going to use her winnings on her own terms – to build a place where more of her family could be together, rather than needing to travel all the time. And she would continue with her work of voicing the stories of a people who for so long had been unheard. I guess I just tell that story because Ali’s making a living was about confronting and helping to heal at least some of the damage of the past. It was having enough money to continue living on the edges where she had always lived, and to continue doing that work of healing, only now she had the gift of the validation and support of an institution like Yale.

This is a small digression. My father would sometimes have us film our own family versions of Mastermind or Sale of the Century in the lounge. Each contestant would be sat in an armchair with a torch shining directly into their face. And one of my brothers would have a camera over his shoulder to film the episode – we’d hired a video camera from the local electric goods store, Dalziels. I remember it being huge, about the size of R2D2. My father was the Quiz Master, so he would shout the questions, mostly questions about local geography, politics, rugby. If you got the right answer he would shout ‘That is correct.’ He was also in charge of the buzzer noise for when someone gave a wrong answer. It was this terrible nasal yell: Ehhhhh! My memory of being in the hot seat at Mastermind is muddled, because partly I remember being quizzed – the intensity, the pressure of it, the brightness of the torch in my eyes – and partly I just remember watching the video later on. One scene went like this.

‘What is the name of the RIVER that runs through TE KUITI?!’

‘Ummmm …’

Ehhhhh! The Mangaokewa! Who is the Prime Minister of NEW ZEALAND?!’

‘Ummmm … ‘

Ehhhhh! David LANGE! Name one NEW ZEALAND WRITER!’

I was about five years old at this time. I was sucking on the head of a teddy bear and rocking back and forth in the armchair, and squinting into the torchlight.

‘Stop shining that torch in her face! Come on, dear … famous New Zealand writer…. Janet…..? Margaret …?’ (This was mum, cheating.)

‘Ummmm…’

Ehhhhh!

‘Mahy! Mahy!’

EHHHHH!’ At this point both of my brothers would be joining in on the buzzer noise, and adding farting noises.

My older brothers had been through the same Mastermind gauntlet – more successfully than me – so it wasn’t like I was being treated unfairly in this instance. Mastermind was a lesson in how the real world worked. You had to know facts. If you didn’t know the right thing almost immediately, then you got buzzed. But sitting there in the armchair, the torch shining in my face, I felt a blinding sense of injustice. It was as if all the right answers were there in front of me but somehow I wasn’t able to reach them. The name ‘David Lange’, for instance, was a group of meaningless sounds that ungrouped and dispersed as soon as they’d been uttered.

The thing is I really wanted to have all the answers, and to have them effortlessly. I dreamed of being asked questions not about the government, rugby, and famous authors but about my life and my special creative ways of doing things. It was only in these scenarios that I had answers. I remember out the front of the house I would bike around in ever-tightening circles, imagining I was being interviewed on live TV – ‘What advice would you give to viewers who want to do these tricks on their bikes?’ – and I was telling them all about the importance of swivelling this certain way or how you had to do this flourish as you dismounted. The same when hitting tennis balls against a concrete wall. ‘The important thing is,’ I’d whisper to my interviewer, ‘you can’t get angry when you miss the ball; you’ve just gotta pick it up and try again.’ I would pretend to be Alison Holst while adding chopped nuts and Milo to my bowl of ice cream, explaining my interesting techniques. ‘Sometimes a spoonful of jam can be very nice. The important thing is to mix it all up very thoroughly.’ It was performative, but it felt so satisfying to me to have all these interesting answers and to be able to imagine the interviewer nodding along, impressed.

I guess I’m telling this story partly because I’ve realised that I’m the kind of person
who only has answers for questions that are not being asked directly of me, and I think that’s why I’m a writer. Writing, and reading, doesn’t usually feel like having a torch shone expectantly in your face. So many other times in our lives, we do have torches shone into our faces. Instead you sit in the dark until your eyes adjust. A piece of writing, for me often an essay, tends to start with a question – sometimes as simple as ‘Why does this thing feel the way it feels?’ or ‘Who was that person anyway?’ or ‘Why were we like that?’ – and then, in your own time, you start trying for a response. This feels to me like being inside one of those weird whispered monologues when I was little, circling around on my bike or whacking tennis balls against a wall, muttering my explanations and imagining, or hoping for, someone listening and nodding. Writers are so often responding to questions that haven’t explicitly been asked, which perhaps is why our work is so difficult to measure and reward. The system in which we must live says to us, ‘What are you even for?’

When I started writing this piece, I knew it would not be business-like or even educational, and that this would likely be frustrating. My writing has always lacked businesslike aspect: it tends towards disarray and clings towards what I find sustaining. But I find myself coming back to Montaigne, who was so interested in the idea of what consciousness was, that he had someone regularly shake him awake in the middle of the night so that he could catch a glimpse of unconsciousness just as it was leaving him. It was like he wanted to be in a dream, a reverie, all the time; yet he also wanted to be firmly grounded in reality and to feel as much of it as possible. As a writer, he was able to be lost in himself as well as to hang on tightly to everything that happened in his life – so that he could pull it back when he needed it in his work. Living as a writer, living at all, means learning how to hang on.

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The winning Jerry poems

It has been extremely difficult to choose the winners of this giveaway competition. It was so difficult that I’ve decided to give up further book vouchers so that I could award further prizes. It’s book voucher season!

Unfortunately Jerry was unmoved by any of these poems, even those that were particularly complimentary to him. So I took decision-making matters into my own hands. I want to stress that this was VERY DIFFICULT, AS ALL OF THE POEMS ARE VERY GOOD. Everyone who contributed just really got Jerry, and I was not expecting that.

A $40 voucher goes to Jacqui Hammond.

I’d like to award Eamonn Marra the VicBooks voucher for $45.00.

And Rochelle Savage a $40 voucher.

And Rebecca Hawkes a $40 voucher.

A $50 voucher goes to Mae (5) and her big sister Jean (7) for their poems.

The $100 voucher goes to Grisham Langston.

Thank you to everyone who wrote poems. They are all, without exception, a total delight and some of them are unexpectedly moving. I will probably make this an annual thing, book voucher situation depending. And fingers crossed *somebody* doesn’t get hit by a car or stuck in someone’s garage.

Here are all of the winning Jerry poems.

JERRY POEM

Ko Jerry tōku ingoa (My name is Jerry)
Kei te ngenge ahau (I am weary)
Kei te tuahuru ahau (I am hairy)

—Rochelle Savage

JERRY POEM

Ballerina slippers, a forest axe
This time a velvet suit
I see you from the shore, Jerry, you’ve marched this earth before.

—Jacqui Hammond

JERRY POEM

Once upon a time there was a cat named Jerry
Who rode his bike everywhere
And his tail was stripy.

—Mae (5)

JERRY POEM

Once there was a cat named Jerry,
Who lived in a house on a hill,
His owner’s name was Ashleigh and he wanted to go to school.

—Jean (7)

JERRY POEM

thys jerrye boye he’m flex hys toes
an crinkle up hys little noes
for wen ye pet, hys purr doth groe

—Rebecca Hawkes

JERRY POEM

Jerry is twelve feet tall, which is big for a cat,
and carries Ashleigh to work everyday then
takes a nap by the heater

—Eamonn Marra

JERRY POEM

Hairy Jerry soft and fat.
Wary Jerry, don’t eat that!
Cheery Jerry wondrous cat.

—Grisham Langston

dribble

The Dribble of Appreciation

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The ‘too many books in the world’ giveaway

I’ve never done a ‘giveaway’ before, partly because it seems like only proper bloggers do giveaways, and partly because I don’t normally have things to give away, but because this year I have been paid for a few bits and pieces in book vouchers, I have a surfeit of book vouchers! I never get around to using them because I forget to take them into bookstores with me and am too distracted and lazy to ever place the vouchers permanently in my bag so that they’ll be there when I need them, so instead I just buy books spontaneously with ordinary money. And, to be honest, I have many books to read before I even think about buying more. In fact I must now be prevented from buying any more. Someone would be doing me a favour if you took these godforsaken book vouchers off my hands.

I have a $100 Booksellers card (expires March 2018), a $40 Booksellers card (expires August 2018), and a VicBooks gift voucher of $45 (it doesn’t say anything about an expiry). You can use the Booksellers one at any bookstore, but you can only use the VicBooks one at a VicBooks store.

If you would like me to send you one of these vouchers, please write a poem of no more than three lines and post it as a comment. The poem must mention Jerry, who is pictured in various settings below. I’ll pick the three poems I like best (that’s if I even get three poems. i.e. if only one person comments then they can have all the vouchers). The competition closes on 5pm Sunday 19 November.

Any comments saying that it is bad behaviour to give away book vouchers will be deleted.

Spaceman

Spaceman

IMG_3079

Bucket

IMG_2966

Toes

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Your soul is confirmed

Before I set off from the States this morning I was feeling like one last American-ish experience so I decided to do SoulCycle, a spinning class that combines motivational yelling with intense – I would say dangerously intense, at times – exercise in a hot dark room. When you book a class you get an email that says: ‘Your Soul is confirmed, for 8.30am on Saturday’, as if you’ve made a suicide pact. I’ve been to the class a couple of other times this week, in Brooklyn, because I can’t help being curious about any form of group exercise that sounds like a cult, and, as well as finding the class wildly awful, I’ve found it hilarious and engrossing. As your legs spin frenziedly on a stationary bicycle, you have to do dance moves (tiny bouncing motions that seem to serve no real purpose) and scream ‘Wooo!’ when the instructor asks you to. It’s stupidly hot – no fans, no air conditioning. Four glowing candles anoint the base of the instructor’s bicycle at the front. The instructor’s job is to yell things. My first instructor, Nicholas, was a big yeller. ‘Do not be afraid. You are ready for your life. You belong.’ Every so often Nicholas would literally just scream – it was meant to be a whoop of excitement but it sounded like a scream of frustration, like one of his limbs was trapped under a rock and he couldn’t free himself. While screaming, he’d twirl his towel around his head – and, again, it was meant as a ‘fun’ gesture but to me it looked like someone stranded on a remote island trying to signal a plane passing overhead. And then for one song, he stopped cycling and just swayed around extravagantly, like an exhausted American Idol contestant listening to an audience singing lyrics back to him.

The stuff Nicholas said was so meaningful that usually the centre could not hold and it disintegrated into some kind of sublime nonsense. ‘Inside this room is where you will find your wildest, most dangerous truth.’ ‘Go inside yourself … and open yourself.’ ‘Let go of all of the bullshit out there, all that anxiety and fear out there, and live your truth out loud.’ The instructors liked to reference ‘bullshit’. They spat out the word. Bullshit was the antithesis of the SoulCycle philosophy, and I understood it to mean: ordinary life. Out there, deep in the bullshit, you’re no hero. You’re just a person. A person with bullshit obligations and bullshit responsibilities! The bullshit references were a way, I guess, of making people feel somewhat seen, like yes, we understand that your life is full of frustration! But you know what: none of that really matters. Which is true: we all lose perspective. But the message was double-edged. The implication was that being on this bike, being here, doing this expensive class and possibly buying some of the expensive kit out in the lobby to show your dedication to the expensive class, this is what matters. In a largely meaningless world, this means something.

But did it mean anything, actually? … well, there were moments that seemed close to it for me, when something the instructor said made my cynicism soften, like – to Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ – ‘You might not have any idea who it is, but to somebody out there you are a hero.’ My soul was nowhere near soaring, like they kept telling us it would be, but I felt it startle, like it had been gently slapped and the slap had felt sort of pleasurable. I’ve heard of people weeping in these classes, feeling a cathartic release. Was it simply that, if someone throws enough stuff at you, then, like the cold-reading psychic, they’ll hit one of your insecurities – I’m not strong enough, good enough, smart enough – so that you feel truly seen?

My second class was with a guy called Noh, a burly bearded man wearing a gold chain, who, like almost every other American I had to say my name to, called me ‘Ishy’. He yelled it a few times. ‘You got it, Ishy.’ ‘Ishy’s gaining on us!’ Noh explained to us why we should all choose bikes close to one another rather than spreading out around the room. ‘There’s always one fucken gazelle,’ he roared, ‘that wants to turn left when all the other gazelles are turning right. You’ve seen those nature documentaries: the lion is running after the pack, and one of the gazelles thinks, “I’ll go over here” and it peels away from the pack, and in that moment you just know. That gazelle is gonna get eaten. So. Stay with the pack!’ Noh only played Bowie and Prince, and it was this that got me. During both ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Heroes’ I felt my energy – and some sort of … emotion – surging and I started grinning idiotically in the dark, and for a moment the line of joggling lycra butts ahead of me fell from my eyes and I felt like I was riding into the future. I felt good. It was a moment when SoulCycle’s blatantly capitalist impulses seemed to collide with something really worthwhile.

Then the butts floated before me again and I realised: it wasn’t SoulCycle doing that. That was Bowie. That was Prince. They were the ones doing all the emotional labour, and I’m not sure either of them would be happy about it in this context. And the spell was properly broken when the instructor said, as our arms were raised up, half stretching and half expressing some uncertain gratitude: ‘Suffering does not happen just in the US. Suffering happens all over the world.’ I can’t quite put my finger on why this felt so cheap; I think it was the implication that being aware of this suffering pretty much meant doing something about it. The reminder that there was suffering vaguely somewhere in the world was meant to make us feel good, because now we knew about it – whatever and wherever it was. Everyone’s arms hovered in the air until the instructor said we were done.


There’s always a time, when travelling around or even just being somewhere unfamiliar, that your body starts to feel like just another awkwardly shaped piece of luggage that you have to haul around, and slowly but surely your mind starts to become luggage too, getting heavier and heavier and more and more awkwardly shaped and you can’t get it into the right position for optimum carrying and it keeps banging against your leg and sometimes it just breaks open and all your brain’s underwear spills out on the road. There was this one night, just after arriving in New York from New Haven with the other Windham-Campbell writers, when I was meant to go to a party, and I did want to go, but I felt so jagged and depleted that I couldn’t – I felt like one of those burrowing frogs that won’t surface from its sand dune unless there are very specific weather conditions. I stayed in my hotel room instead and tried to eat a bagel while crying. Like the desert rain frog letting out its tiny helpless roar I posted a despairing status update on Facebook. Maybe the difficulty, one of the difficulties, is that experiences that are extraordinary and joyful are quite close, in their felt intensity, to experiences that are overwhelming and distressing. The intensity wavers and wobbles like a compass needle. (Another reading of it … I’m a giant flake.)

But then the city would show me some sudden softness, like a guy asking me for directions as he crossed the street and then laughing, ‘Why the fuck don’t I know this! I’ve lived here fourteen years!’ And so many dogs on leads, each of them the size of a slice of toast. And the poet Jeremy Sigler, after our reading with Eileen Myles at the Brooklyn Book Fair, sighing, ‘Man. That was hard. I feel like I need to come down after all that.’ And a brilliant photographer named Beowulf, who was taking photographs at the Windham-Campbell festival and had just seen me speaking at an event: ‘I mean you do gesture a lot, but your gestures hold a lovely nervous energy.’ And then he told me an anecdote about Anthony Hopkins being nervous to have his photo taken one time.

My dad found New York far too loud and abrasive, with all its jackhammers and sirens and shouting. So he bought a set of earplugs especially for the city. He’d become very attached to his earplugs and had started to wear them willy-nilly. On the day I met him and Mum in New Haven he said he’d been out walking and had gone through the park, New Haven Green, and he had to pass two guys shouting right in each other’s faces. ‘And they were so loud, I had to put my earplugs in!’ I laughed my head off but later I thought when I’m seventy I’ll probably be doing the same.


Knausgård drew an analogy between observing hedgehogs and writing about things in your world. That you can try to creep up on them; you can spy in a calculated sort of way. Or that you can sit quietly in the garden, waiting for darkness to fall and the hedgehogs to come out and be all around you. There, you can see the hedgehogs just be present in the world, as themselves, without noticing you. ‘Whatever it is that shows itself in [my] work, it has to show itself unguardedly, with a kind of trust.’

He said that as long as you’re thinking about how something seems to others – whether it’s important enough, good enough – and if you begin to calculate and pretend, then the writing is ‘no longer accessible as itself, but only as what we have made it into.’ 

One of the things that moved me the most about his talk was the way he acknowledged that as a writer he wanted to be seen. His yearning felt like his yearning to be a famous soccer player or singer when he was a kid. ‘I wanted to be seen. I wanted the recognition that comes with being a writer, and that by becoming a writer, I would show that I was special, that I was remarkable, that my work had special significance.’ He called this one of his selfish reasons for writing. But it was no less real than the loftier ones. It was weirdly moving to me that he was able to articulate this hope, after all this time, and after all this fame.

He stood at the lectern for about an hour, stroking the sides of it and sweating what looked to me like literal diamonds. He said, ‘I feel a joy in existing and being a part of this world, as if the soul is lifted and I am no longer myself.’ His English was perfect but strange, and seemed more perfect because it was strange. His syllables kept getting caught up in themselves like an audiotape catching and rewinding.

After his speech the Windham-Campbell writers were all called up into the wings. Knausgård was there, sort of pacing around shinily. We all stared at him and the poet Carolyn Forché clasped her hands together and said, ‘Wonderful! You were wonderful’ and he looked at us all as if through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, and drifted off. Later on, at the formal dinner, someone pinched his name tag from the name-tag table.


I want to say something about the men. It doesn’t feel quite right to say that – ‘the men’. When I say ‘the men’, I mean the men you pass in the street and the men who pass you; the men who serve you in a bar and who sit down the end of the bar; the men waiting alongside you at a train or bus station. The men are the weather of a place, the same way people’s accents are the weather. For a given day, they make up your impression of a city. I was in Soho, walking behind an impossibly beautiful woman and it was as if she was creating this huge, slow ripple in the street as every man’s head turned – men in doorways, men passing on bikes, men sitting on steps with their phones, out in the warmth. If there was any head belonging to a man, it was turning. Low whistles and murmurs were in the air like vapour trail. Another day, in downtown Brooklyn, a man came up to me and said, ‘Let’s play a game to see who’s smarter. I ask you three questions and –’ I realised he just wanted money so I gave him a few bucks, and he grabbed my hand tightly and started hugging me. ‘You can’t walk into my life like this and then leave!’ He had this straightforward happiness about him and I wanted to be able to smile and talk to him, but I couldn’t because he was a strange man hugging me. And also because earlier that day I’d been walking in Park Slope when I heard a guy screaming at a young woman. She was walking quickly, looking straight ahead, while he jogged at her side. ‘You’ll never keep a man because you’re so stuck up! Ugly bitch!’ He screamed and screamed at her. He spat at her. It was frightening and everyone including me was hurrying away. It was the first time I’d seen anything like that. On many of these streets the air felt like it was swollen with looking, and with angling to find a way into others’ personal space so that they would look back at you. This man just could not deal with this woman not looking back at him. Looking straight ahead to where she was going, instead of looking up to acknowledge the man, was an act of defiance.


I’m writing this on the plane from New York to London and the man next to me is snoring kind of monstrously so I’ve decided to be awake for the rest of the flight. When we boarded a few hours ago, the snoring man was rude to an attendant, saying ‘Get rid of this’ (his way of asking her to take away a cup of orange juice he didn’t want), and grunting when she paused before taking his cup. An hour or so ago he woke up from what sounded like a deep sleep and called on the attendant. When she appeared he said stiffly, ‘I would like another blanket.’ Not only did she fetch another blanket and pull it out of its wrapping for him, she also laid it over him gently and tucked it around the edges of his chair. She tucked him in like a baby. He muttered ‘Thank you.’ She was doing her job, a large portion of which must entail being kind to people who have been obnoxious to her, but I was still touched by her kindness to him, and by the reminder that even dickheads get cold.

Well. CLEARLY I am angling to connect this small observation to the New Zealand election, with so many people voting to keep things as broken they are. But it’s probably enough for now to say … I’m making an effort to remember that people who feel very comfortable about their lives and unmoved by others’ struggles are three-dimensional. And that they have their reasons, and that they feel vulnerable sometimes. It’s just that getting an extra blanket is so much easier for them. They might even have a person to place it gently over them and tuck them in; all their blankets keep them warm and they sleep soundly. They’re never awake to see all the people who are too cold, too worried, too hungry, to sleep soundly.

I voted in a Williamsburg pub where Gemma Gracewood (producer/musician/writer/mum of a cool baby called Wiremu) had organised a New Zealand voting party, with printer, shredder, and cardboard voting booth installed. It’s funny, voting overseas – it feels as if your vote holds more weight just because you have to go to slightly more trouble to do it. But there’s also an arrogance that automatically, embarrassingly surfaces – I mean, I find this for myself – where, simply because New Zealand feels so far away, you feel bigger and more ‘a part of the world’ than you were before, and so your vote must really be of special interest this time, like some rare migratory bird blown way off-course in a storm and ending up on a beach on Wellington’s south coast.


(Rest in peace beautiful man Tom Petty.)

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Octopus v.2

I’m over in the States for the Windham-Campbell festival at Yale (Knausgaard!) and the Brooklyn Book Festival (Philip Lopate! Elif Batuman! Ann Powers! (whose Good Booty I’ve just started reading, on Fergus B’s recommendation, and it’s GREAT)). I’m here a few days early, so I’ve been wandering around mostly failing to get my bearings so am just looking at things: the beautiful buildings (some of which look incredibly like decorative hats), streets that look like healthy green salads, a variety of small dogs, slow-moving professor-types, young men with lustrous hair walking with their hands held behind their backs. My overwhelming impression is: many people here are very, very clean and ironed-looking, like they’ve just hopped down off a clothes hanger. Even the air feels tumble-dried. I’m conscious that I’m kinda scruffy, still bloodshot-eyed and shiny-foreheaded from jetlag, and alternately I’m dripping with sweat or the sweat is drying out into a thin, salty crust. (It’s not massively hot, it’s a kind of close warmth: but also I’m a stress sweater. When I feel it coming on, there’s nothing to do but brace for the wave.) In an effort to tidy myself up a bit I went into a cosmetics store today and the lovely woman at the counter tried to put some makeup on me but like the octopus vanishing in a smokescreen of ink my face abruptly disappeared in a cloud of sweat. So. All of the Windham-Campbell writers are having our photos taken on Wednesday, in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (!!) and I’m not sure how that will go.

One of the side effects of the long-haul flight was this freakish auditory hallucination: I could swear I was hearing death metal all through the flight, and for a long while afterwards. It was very detailed death metal: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge; backing vocals, intricate riffs, drum solos, guttural screaming. I’ve never had this before. It’s pretty much faded out now, but every so often I’ll hear it trying to resurrect itself again. Could it just be tinnitus? Could this just be what tinnitus sounds like in the United States? I’ve heard of people having ‘musical ear syndrome’ but they hear opera or classical music. Not death metal.

I have a bunch of public events to do this week – here is one of them. And others here. And, I mean, holy heck: I’m tired of hearing myself complain about this, but I’m kind of terrified. The past couple of days have reminded me of my deep-set shyness and flailing nervousness – I’d thought they were somewhat under control, but they’d been lying there dormant this whole time! It’s like I’ve woken up into a room full of ancient cicadas that have dug themselves up and are now rasping their heads off to make up for lost time. And it’s funny how every time I go out to explore some new bit of the city – East Rock, today, which looked completely like somewhere I’d expect Dean Koontz’s Outsider (half ape, half bear) to come blasting out of some bushes – I feel immensely pleased with myself for gathering up the courage. The courage just to WALK AROUND. (Regular readers of this blog will know that the Outsider is my preferred childhood monster.)

But: one of the other writers here will be the poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, who was profiled in the NYT this weekend in a terrific piece by Charlotte Graham. I can’t wait to meet her.

Some inconsequential pics (they will hopefully get more interesting over the next few days, when I’ll be actually, y’know, meeting more people and forcing myself to go to parties.)

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Outsider country.

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THIS BLOG POST WAS INITIALLY CALLED ‘MY NECK, MY BACK’ because of THIS graffiti I saw. I didn’t know the next two lines of the damn song. Shame. Thanks Holly Hunter!!!! Millennials, saving us from ourselves since 1985

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(I got lost in the woods but saw this fawn so it all worked out fine.)

 

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The milks here are just incredible. I’m very happy about the milks situation.

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Octopus

it’s like genitals
I want to show you all these tiny parts

but I’m public public public

(from a poem called ‘Rewriting’ by Eileen Myles, in Sorry, Tree (2007)

 

I was walking to work the other day in heavy rain. It was one of those rains that seems to be triggered by people walking into it, like an alarm sensor. So as soon as I left my flat it kicked into action. I had on my proper raincoat and I had the hood up, which I never do unless it’s a serious rain. (The truth is: several people in my life have teased me about having a disproportionately small head – have I written about this before? probably – and I suspect that a hood just draws attention to it, kind of like an egg coddler.) It’s a good raincoat because the rain seems to just bounce off it.

I had this strange feeling, when I was walking along, that my head, inside its hood, was utterly safe. It felt tiny (. . . it is), and warm and cushioned inside its house. I was able to let the rest of my body drift about, exploring the rain. I thought of myself as a sort of octopus. A small head, two large round staring eyes. My body would move in such a way that it seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. If I accidentally lost a limb while my body was out in the water, it would swiftly regenerate. And just like a severed octopus limb, anything broken from me would be able to carry on operating, of its own volition, for a little while – maybe it would try to pick up food to try to feed a phantom mouth, or uncoil to beckon a cat, or squirt water at my enemies. Meanwhile, my eyes would follow everything.

I don’t mean to really compare myself to a literal octopus – the octopus is after all one of the most cognitively complex animals of our time! Its intelligence exists on a whole other and unknown scale to ours. It’s the basic structure of the octopus I was really interested in, as a metaphor. I thought: maybe there’s a way to replicate this feeling of having a control centre, deep inside this hood where I can shelter but still see everything, and I can let the rest of me flail about in the weather and have bits broken off or eaten every so often, depending on the day’s luck. There must be a way to have this feeling without putting my hood up.

There’s this essay by James Brown in The Fuse Box (yes it’s a Victoria University Press book, but THIS IS NOT SPONSORED CONTENT) where he mentions that for poets at poetry readings, you can think of the poem you’re going to read as your ‘safe house’. That’s the place you can always go back to, where everything is familiar and known. There will certainly be places where you’d prefer not to look – like a tiny cupboard that a cold musty breeze blows out of, or behind the pinecones in the fake fireplace where you once saw a rat go – but basically you understand the furniture and how to work the locks and the stove. You don’t have to leave at all. Venturing out of the safe house – as in, doing some impromptu banter, maybe telling a joke – can be worthwhile, but it is definitely risky. You’re out in the open now and death is possible.

As a teenager I was often told that I should be getting out of my ‘comfort zone’. The nineties were a golden age for comfort zone talk, as they were for that book Being Happy!: A Handbook for Greater Confidence and Security, with a picture of some guy with a heart for a tongue bouncing through a field of weeds, screaming. He was out of his comfort zone, and I needed to get out of mine, too, in order to ‘grow’. I now hate the whole concept of the comfort zone and the supposed necessity of leaving it and actively putting oneself into places of discomfort for the purpose of personal growth and a less boring life. I always wanted to be a houseplant, growing happily inside a warm greenhouse. I’m not sure I even believe in ‘zones’. I like better the idea of a person simply having different layers. Sometimes a certain layer is exposed all raw to the day; sometimes your layers are braced strong; perhaps more often you’re a messy overlapping weave of layers, like a big peeling heel.

Maybe all this is too obvious to be written about. If so, picture me like an octopus rocketing away under jet propulsion.

When I think about a safe house, I’m not thinking about a comfort zone. I’m wondering if it could be a place you take everywhere with you. It doesn’t recede just because you’re in a different country where you don’t know how the trains work or you’re sitting on a stage about to try to answer a question and sound like you know what you’re talking about. Even as various limbs are being lopped off all around you, you can be warm inside, safe in the knowledge that everything will grow back and that they can’t touch you in here. I don’t really think it’s possible. I think it’s a fantasy. I’m going to carry it around anyway.

 

what the fuck was that

‘Library 2101’ by personalmessageblog

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Let the eagles go

A thing that drives me disproportionately crazy is the ‘bald eagle screaming’ sound effect in pop songs. I don’t know what is going on with this screaming eagle, and why people keep sampling it, but I’m sure I’ve been hearing it more and more often. What is going on with all these eagles? Are they targeting me? Tonight I was at a spin class at the gym, and the instructor had the volume up high. The song finished, we all dripped and panted in the darkened room, and after a brief silence there was this sudden godforsaken scream of outrage. Eagle! Eagle in the room! We were meant to imagine it, majestic shark of the sky, swooping down on a scurrying rodent and tearing it to pieces! This heralded the start of some shitty techno that we all had to pretend to cycle uphill to. The eagle screamed its head off once more halfway through the song. Wild and free!

I should note something though. The scream that we’re supposed to think is the bald eagle’s scream is actually a red-tailed hawk’s scream. I guess someone decided they had to dub over the real bald eagle’s call, thus setting this lie snowballing, because the true call of the bald eagle is quite timid. It’s a tiny cackle more than anything, or a little ‘heh heh’ laugh. (Listen here.)

I’m glad that New Zealand’s national bird has such a bizarre call. The male brown kiwi sounds a bit peeved, like it’s discovered a huge mess someone else has left behind that it has to clean up. Aaaaaaaghhh! I’m at my wits’ end! It’s difficult to project patriotic sentiment on to that sort of racket. And the female sounds like Marge Simpson’s mum.

The thing that bothers me about these screaming eagles, though, is that it’s just another reminder that people are no good at letting animals be animals. We have to project our own nonsenses on to them, for all of history and all over the internet forever. The bald eagle has to be wild and free and eternal (although Benjamin Franklin disagreed, labelling it ‘a bird of bad moral character’, ‘generally poor and often very lousy’ and also ‘a rank coward’). The tiger has to let us gawk into its eye, and see the thrill of the fight so we can rise up to the challenge of our rival. Dolphins are always smiling. Snakes are either evil or symbols of penises, usually both. Doves bring peace. Slow lorises have to be almost unbearably adorable as they raise their arms to be tickled, in what is actually a gesture of total panic. It is just so annoying to us when animals don’t mean what they look like they mean.

I’m really looking forward to reading Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra Special Talking Mongoose by Christopher Josiffe (here’s an amazing long review by Bee Wilson). The tale sounds literally incredible. Gef the Manx mongoose, who made his home with a rural family in the Isle of Man in the 1930s, was said to speak in a number of languages, and could also sing, whistle, cough, swear, dance, laugh satanically, and attend political meetings. Basically he was a benevolent but sometimes irritating presence. The family fed him bananas and oranges, chocolate and biscuits, sausage and bacon (he rejected the bread and milk they tried him on at first). Now, this is the sort of animal story I can get behind. Bee Wilson: ‘Over the months … the Irvings warmed to some of Gef’s ways, and he became a pet of sorts, who amused the family with his gossip and jokes. He was less eager to share these witticisms with outsiders who came to the house to check him out. He didn’t like to speak to people who doubted him and punished them with silence and insults or threatened to blast them away with a shotgun.’

gef-the-mongoose

Mongoose. via

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