Impromptu Manifesto

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“Once you let people know anything about what you think, that’s it, you’re dead. Then they’ll be jumping about in your mind, taking things out, holding them up to the light and killing them, yes, killing them, because thoughts are supposed to stay and grow in quiet, dark places, like butterflies in cocoons.” 
― Helen OyeyemiThe Icarus Girl

Does Where You Live Make a Difference in How and What You Write?

Mohsin Hamid and Thomas Mallon discuss how where they’ve lived has affected their work….

Curtis and I found we had things in common. We were attached to the cities we lived in. We had two kids each, around the same ages. We reckoned St. Louis and Lahore were good places to raise them. We rarely met “colleagues” unless we — or they — were traveling. We appreciated a slow pace of daily life as conducive to writing (and forgiving of procrastination). We had spouses for whom our hometowns were professionally rewarding. And we planned to stay put — or at least we had no plans not to stay put.

Curtis would, therefore, probably become more and more a St. Louisan writer, and I would probably become more and more a Lahori one. But what did that mean?

It seems obvious that where we live shapes how and what we write. I suspect Nadine Gordimer might not have written “July’s People” had she not lived in South Africa. And J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” might have read a little differently had he been a resident of Osaka instead of Oxfordshire.

Places do things to you. Since I moved back to Lahore from London five years ago, I’ve attended a funeral for a family friend who was assassinated; seen 3,000 eager young people try to cram into a 1,000-seat auditorium for a 9 a.m. lecture (not mine) at a literary festival; had windows blown in by a gas explosion at a nearby restaurant; inherited a Jack Russell terrier from an uncle; met bootleggers whose round-the-clock home-delivery service puts that of New York City drug dealers to shame; and been grilled on my reading tastes by an audiologist’s assistant.

More on the last. I wandered into an appointment for an audiogram the other day with a copy of George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” under my arm — reliably thrilling stuff for an unreliably long wait. The audiologist’s assistant was youthful, and seeing the book, and asking what I did, she proceeded to explain her preferences (Urdu novels, mostly romances) and then challenged me to name three English novels that wouldn’t bore her, including one of mine, which I did, and which she wrote down.

I think I meet more readers in Lahore than I did when I lived in New York or London. Most of my friends in New York and London did read fiction. But many of them wrote it, too. Or edited it. Or agented it. Or publicized it. Or hung out with lots of folks who did. So they were readers, but they weren’t readers — they weren’t civilians, so to speak. When they discussed fiction, they did so as insiders. In Lahore, I rarely bump into readers who think of themselves as insiders. And when I discuss books, I’m much more likely to find myself discussing pleasure. It’s like being a chemist who’s stumbled into a field of people tripping on LSD.
What all this will do to my writing, I have no idea. The soil in Lahore is rich: fertile alluvial sediment from thousands of years of plains-flooding by the now dammed and dead river Ravi. I’ve been planting trees in that soil all around my house: neem, gulmohar, amaltas.

Sometimes they take, and in a year they’re twice my height. Other times they wither, and by next season they’re gone.
…….

All literary terrain is the seacoast of Bohemia, a geography mixed from physical fact and imaginative distortion.

When I moved to Washington, D.C., 11 years ago, I had the sense I was making an almost marital commitment to subject matter that, up to then, I’d been only “involved with.” Even so, I didn’t know that I would end up setting parts of a novel in my own Foggy Bottom house, let alone that the book after that one would be called “Watergate” — named for the scandal but sparked by the spiraling complex of apartments and offices I now saw every time I looked up from my desk and out the window.

Photo

Thomas Mallon CreditIllustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

At the time, a mutual friend told me he’d mentioned my relocation to Gore Vidal, whom I used to edit at GQ, and that the response had been: “It’ll be the death of him as a novelist.” The prediction was offered as sympathetic caution against the particular imaginative drag Vidal thought the capital exercised on anyone’s fiction-making capacities. I recalled the warning not long ago, with a certain relief, when my editor, even more than usually supportive, assured me that moving to Washington was the smartest thing I’d done.

To some degree, all literary terrain is the seacoast of Bohemia, a geography mixed from physical fact and imaginative distortion. Kafka never actually put a foot inside his Amerika, but for extended fictional enterprises set in a single place, the writer should probably be rooted. One wouldn’t take Booth Tarkington out of Indiana any more than one would remove Proust from Paris. In our own time, Allan Gurganus doesn’t just live in the same sort of North Carolina town he was born into and writes about; he makes it his business to keep sprucing up the old graveyard next to his house. His most recent book is “Local Souls,” a title that reminds us of the axiom, perhaps most often cited in the case of Joyce, that the really universal truths are always the most parochial. And yet, Joyce wrote the most local novel of all time not in Dublin but in Trieste and Zurich and Paris.

Still, I like my writers, especially my writer friends, to stay where they’re “supposed” to be. I was oddly relieved when James Ellroy returned to Los Angeles after some years in both Kansas City and Northern California, and while I rejoice at the possibility of Patricia Hampl’s spending more time in the East, I also fret at the thought of her ever permanently leaving St. Paul, a city that since Scott Fitzgerald hasn’t truly belonged to any writer but her.

Some authors need to get away to get started, to have their Quentin Compsonian love/hate moment for the place from which they’ve sprung themselves. Willa Cather and Mark Twain and Joan Didion were really able to write about Nebraska and Missouri and California once they reached cities far from home. Of course, such writers will be warned that if they stay away too long, they’ll lose an ear for how “their” people really speak — and there’s some truth to this.

Sometimes, of course, a vivid foray into a foreign place — an extended stay in extraordinary circumstances — will give a writer experience that he can pack up for later brewing back home, a strong foreign coffee to be drunk at his own desk: Forster’s time in India, let’s say; or Mailer’s war days in the South Pacific. On the other hand, permanent exile, like hanging, can concentrate the mind. Conrad came fully alive when he lost himself in another land and language.

When the cyber revolution first took hold 20 years ago, none of us realized how much time we’d all be spending in the Cloud, that vast nowhere in which everyone’s a “friend.”

Amid so much virtual reality, the actual, geographical kind, whether we’re at home or abroad, begins to feel more necessary. The localized book has outlived the local bookstore.

Poison Ivy: are elite colleges bad for the soul? ›

“Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life” (Free Press) is an attack on college culture in this overscheduled age. The sheep are the students—he also calls them “Super People,” “an alien species,” and “bionic hamsters”—and he thinks that, with respect to their education, everything they do right puts them in the wrong.

“The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it,” he writes. His complaints turn most violently against the Ivy League and its spiritual siblings. The problems don’t start there, though. High schools, the job market, prestige-seeking universities, distracted professors, and parents—especially parents—all contribute to a culture in which kids are supposed to perform before they even start to learn. 

Learning is supposed to be about falling down and getting up again until you do it right. But, in an academic culture that demands constant achievement, failures seem so perilous that the best and the brightest often spend their young years in terrariums of excellence. The result is what Deresiewicz calls “a violent aversion to risk.”

College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. . . . The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways: all of these are incitements, disruptions, violations. They make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself.

(Instead, college smothers the soul)

The groovy lore of college—the notion that it is a place to find yourself, follow your passions, learn to think in ways that benefit the world—dates to this era, too. Nisbet thought that these ideals were mostly feel-good bunk. Since when was it the university’s responsibility to solve all of society’s problems? 

In other words: we’re here to tell you everything you should know about Chaucer, not to fix your life.

Credentialism—the pursuit of markers of success for distinction in the eyes of strangers—is what happens when you wipe away the grime of old-boy exclusivity. And the cost of a college education isn’t easy to ignore. Deresiewicz bristles at the idea that unprofitable pursuits, like philosophy or travel, are “self-indulgent” for young people at the cusp of graduation. 

Like many before him, Deresiewicz points out that the promise of pure meritocracy is something of a farce…“Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been calling for for years,” Deresiewicz writes. It is his strategy for breaking the upper-middle-class cycle, and it’s a reasonable notion. But it requires viewing college as a socioeconomic elevator: you go in disadvantaged and you come out comfortable, thanks to the fine job you got, thanks to the credentials and connections you acquired along the way. It is the very model that Deresiewicz has been urging us to smash.

So which is it? Is élite college the idyll where intellectually curious young people find the time to engage with the great books and those who love them; learn from one another without impingement from the outside world; and then leap off the cliff of the unknown? Or is it the launching pad, where, in exchange for hard work and some forward planning, students—most crucially, those from marginalized communities—are positioned for careers worthy of their capabilities and a long-term safety net? 

hat we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.”

Fortunately, that world already exists. It’s possible to get a topnotch education at any number of public universities and liberal-arts colleges, both of which Deresiewicz cites as alternatives to the Ivies.

 “The topics aren’t important,” she said. “What you want to do is find the people who are the best teachers and the best writers and take whatever they teach.” 

Everybody isn’t your friend. Just because they hang around you and laugh with you doesn’t mean they’re for you. Just because they say they got your back, doesn’t mean they won’t stab you in it. People pretend well. Jealousy sometimes doesn’t live far. So know your circle. At the end of the day, real situations expose fake people, so pay attention.

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Life lesson. Take note.

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We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness.

We are monkeys with money and guns.

Tom Waits

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