Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 28 January 2008

What Tao Lin, Woody Allen and I have in common

Most writers are very protective of their words. I know I used to be terrible. I would fight tooth and nail over every comma vehemently, passionately, as if some nasty editor was setting about my children with a pickaxe. Nowadays I'm nowhere near as difficult. Part of the reason for that is that, as one would hope after all these years, I'm getting the hang of this writing lark and not making so many glaring mistakes. But if someone were to come along and suggest a major rewrite then they'd have a fight on their hands. I spend a long time on editing and making sure that exactly the right words are used, the very best words for the job in hand.

I think I'd hate for a screenwriter to get a hold of anything of mine. That said, I'm a practical man so I'd sign on the dotted line (in blood if necessary), take the money and run and hope they didn't screw it up too badly. The writer in me wouldn't be content unless he got total control over the project but let's face it I'm no Woody Allen. Apparently he's quite good with his actors and let's them change his words all the time. But he's still the boss.

This brings us to Tao Lin, who's no Woody Allen either, but at least he lives in Brooklyn which is where Woody Allen was born. I've only flown over New York; I couldn’t tell you if Brooklyn was in the flight plan. Tao likes Woody Allen's movies, at least he admitted to Blake Butler he did. So he and I share that interest. I actually don't think Woody is that keen on his own films.

I don't know how well you know this young writer but he's something of an internet phenomenon, enough of a phenomenon to have an article written about him in Time Out so he's got that in common with Woody Allen too. I've only read Time Out. This is what the article had to say about him:

In addition to diligently maintaining his heavily trafficked blog, A Reader of Depressing Books, the prolific Lin is an editor at the online magazine 3:AM, has written a book of poetry and is now gearing up for the publication of his first two books of prose, the novel Eeeee Eee Eeee and a collection of short stories called Bed.

Lin, who got his B.A. from NYU in 2005, is presenting himself as something of a literary phenomenon — a DIY writer who’s making a name for himself without an M.F.A. or a mainstream publisher.

All very interesting but this is the bit that intrigued me:

A stickler for creative control, he once cancelled the publication of his own chapbook when he disagreed with changes suggested by an editor at Future Tense Books.

Now that I can relate to. The man has integrity. Good on him. It takes guts to stand up for what you believe in. Woody Allen has integrity too. Aeon J Skoble wrote an essay once entitled, 'Integrity in Woody Allen's Manhattan'. He also demands total creative control over his movies. This is where I start to get intrigued but we'll get to that in a second.

I read Tao's blog regularly-ish. He has an interesting naïve style of writing which I enjoy though a little goes a long way. But, and this is something I found with Erland Loe's Naïve.Super, simple can be deceptive. Here's a short poem from his blog:

i sold things on ebay that i don't have yet

i feel pressure to get these things

it is affecting my life

The reason I highlighted Tao's issue over his chapbook is that he's made an unexpected suggestion in a recent blog:

i encourage people to take my stories … or whoever else gives permission's stories … and edit them and submit them places, and write about it on your blog or comment here or email me when something gets accepted so me and other people can look at it and think 'haha'

it is interesting to me to see how people i know would edit certain stories i wrote

At first I had my doubts – I wasn't sure I'd read him right to be honest – so I reread the blog carefully and I had got it spot on. He was giving me, and anyone else interested, carte blanche to rework one of his pieces. How could one resist? This is basically how I work anyway. I get my story down any which way I can and then I go back to the start and rework it and rework it until it's hardly recognisable. I think of it as editing. Maybe it's writing. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference. Getting that initial draft done is the hardest thing and, especially with the novels, it's the real grunt work for me, a necessary chore.

When you first look at Tao Lin's work, it's easy to dismiss it as rough and unedited but on the whole that's not the case.

The stories in Bed I edited in agony. I spent like four to six hours a day for one month exclusively working on each story initially to create a “first” draft, and then further edited each story occasionally over the next six months or so, as they were rejected by magazines. - Interview in Redriver

My internet things might seem more impromptu. Some things can be typed really fast. If it's just a narrative I can do that very fast. If it's just plot and I want it to be funny.

If you read my print books it might seem different. Probably 95% of the time I worked on them was editing. - Interview in Litpark

Lin has a very clear idea about why he writes the way he does:

My ideal reader is myself. I’m the only person who knows exactly what I want to read. And that is what I write. Then I read it. Then I make it available for other people to read, for their own reasons — maybe so they can better know what they themselves want to read, which they can then try to write. - Interview in Publisher's Weekly

This is an important thing for every writer to acknowledge and one with which I agree, as does Woody Allen: "I do the movies just for myself like an institutionalised person who basket-weaves." There are simply too many people in the world for there not to be a market for what we do, no matter what it is.

Another thing about Tao Lin is that he works hard at his craft:

How did I get so prolific? I don’t know. I think about writing when I wake up, I think about writing constantly. But look at people who are martial arts masters or music prodigies. They practice like ten hours a day and structure their entire lives around martial arts or piano or whatever. Not many writers do that, I don’t think. Philip Roth supposedly writes eight hours a day, I heard from someone, but that is nothing compared to like Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee probably worked on martial arts and his body twelve hours a day. I write like four or five hours a day. If someone wrote and studied writing twelve hours a day every day they could easily write like a poetry collection, a story collection, a novel, and an essay collection every year, and have them be very good. - Interview in Redivider

Woody Allen is a well-known workaholic, something I've been accused of more than once and all three of us write about depressed and lonely characters. I think we've all been depressed and lonely characters at some point. Only Woody and I have written plays about them though.

Tao's poems deal with idleness and boredom a lot, things most authors would shrug off. I think we can all learn a lesson from this, to work with what we've got rather than sitting around idle waiting for the next big idea. That smacks of arrogance and, when you read the various interviews on-line with Tao, that's one thing this man certainly isn't. Woody Allen says he makes films to "fill the time". Surely poems would be easier. There are poems in his films, just not his own. I suppose that counts for something.

Here's another poem from Tao's blog:

i don't enjoy reading sartre's essay on the stranger by albert camus

i don't want to write this poem

i only read a few sentences of that essay

someone that famous must have said some asshole things

i hate this poem

Is this a great poem? Is the one further up the page? What do I know? I know a lot of people have a phenomenal amount to say about William Carlos Williams' tiny poem 'The Red Wheelbarrow' and that's supposed to be a great poem. I know that all three poems say more than what is contained in the words and that is good. That's what poems are supposed to do. I don't think Woody Allen writes poetry. I expect he did when he was young and got over it.

Anyway, I said I'd reworked one of Tao's stories. The one I picked was 'The Novelist' simply because I liked the title. You can read his original in Bear Parade. It might be a good idea to read it first. As for which one is the better? I like mine better – which as it should be – but I couldn't have written it without him.

Oh, and Tao, if you ever get round to reading this, if this was a ploy to get me to buy your books, it's worked.

The Novelist

I’m sitting in a bookstore in one of those plush one-seat sofas thinking about my novel when this big, tall lady with a shopping basket in which there are six or seven books catches my eye. I decide to follow her. She pauses, selects another book seemingly at random and tosses it in her basket. The woman notices me but my face has forgotten how to smile; it decides the floor is a much more interesting thing, so I look at the carpet and keep looking at the carpet until I'm sure she’s gone. I decide to check out the Poetry section but there are no plush one-seat sofas so I choose to sit on the floor. The poet-in-me is happy enough there on the floor but the novelist-in-me wants to go and find a plush one-seat sofa. I think it's time to stop simply thinking about my novel, so I take a pen from my pocket and write on my hand everything that's just happened.

I’m writing a novel set in a grocery store which is why I’m at the bookstore because the narrator in my novel goes from the grocery store to the bookstore. So I guess it's not set solely in a grocery store. I’m making this up as I go along. I’m writing a novel and I’m in the novel, which makes me a figment of my own imagination I suppose. Cool!

I ask the sales assistants at the information desk what their return policy is, the bookshop's that it. Since there's no till there maybe it's wrong to call them sales assistants because they're not actually selling. Writers fret about details like this. I ask both of them, simultaneously. This is for my novel but I don't tell them that because I don't believe my character – which is me – would tell them and I need the experience to be as realistic as possible. I turn my head to each of them as I talk and, using messed-up syntax, I ask politely, "The policy of return is what at this store?" My voice is weak, barely audible. I watch them closely and make a mental note of their reactions. The one says, "Excuse me?" His colleague says, "Uh?" A third information person – yes, that's better than 'sales assistant' – rises up from behind the counter, like a … robot. ('Robot' isn't quite right but it'll have to do for now). He glares at me, unblinkingly, like a robot. (Maybe 'robot' would work earlier too). My neck twitches, tenses. I clear my throat and inquire, "What is the time of closing for this store?" (This has all been rehearsed you must understand). I continue: "Which books by Joyce Carol Oates do you stock?" They dither and look at each other, clearly confused now that my mixed-up syntax has suddenly cleared up. Before they get a chance to react I tell them all, "Never mind," turn briskly on my heels and make a beeline for the Biography section where I kneel down and jot all this on my wrist now since my hand is full of other stuff. Sting's biography is in front of me. I stare at his face on the cover and it stares back. Nothing passes between us. I make a note of this too. It might become important.

Leaving there I found myself wandering around the Magazine racks like a little lost soul, maybe a foreigner (possibly a Spaniard) or a wee boy searching for his mammy then I go to the Games section and stroll through the aisles before finally moving into the Music area where I decide I really must head upstairs to the café. When I get there I find what feels like a good place and think a bit more about my novel. After a while I try another place which turns out to be an altogether better place because I get an idea there and locate a plush one-seat sofa the better to develop it. My idea is for the narrator to go insane on page 100. On page 99 the narrator will be sane though by page 101 he needs to be severely deranged. I take a pen from my pocket and make a note of this on my arm.

That done I headed to the General Fiction section where I start to pick up books at random. I read the first sentence of each book and the last sentence after which I give each book a makeshift review. On a scale of 1-100 most books score in the low 20’s. There are a few books where I can’t even make it through the first sentence; I get bored. These automatically receive a score of 1. I feel good. This is all going in my novel.

I track down a paperback copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. When I have it in my hand I check around for people but there's no one which is strange – this is the General Fiction section – but I don't question it. I settle myself in an empty plush one-seat sofa and rip out one of the blank pages from the book. As I tear the page I cough loudly so no one will notice me. On the blank page I write the words "Prowess", then "Morbid" and finally "Incongruous". These are all words that are going in my novel. I'm not convinced they'll all need capitals.

I realise I will need to discover what happens when someone spills coffee on a display of hardcover bestsellers. That needs to be in my novel, although I'm not sure yet if it'll be before or after page 100, so I buy a coffee from the café, an espresso, make my way to the hardcover display – it’s directly inside the entrance – and stand there thinking how great this will be. I sip my coffee. It burns my mouth. I sit the cup down on a Harry Potter book. It covers the title and I can't read which one it is. I pick it up but I forget to check which book it was. My mind is elsewhere. I can’t do it. There are all these invisible forces pulling me away from the action. I put the coffee back down, on Harry Potter’s face this time. I’m thinking I just need to say fuck it, fuck Harry Potter and start doing things. I’m thinking this could be a turning point in my life if I could just manage this. After I spill the coffee I’ll chat up some girls. I’ll infiltrate their circle of friends where I’ll become their leader. We’ll have an orgy where I'll impregnate all of them. I’ll father children with each of them and I’ll call them my minions. We’ll all live under Queens Street Station in an underground tunnel system where I’ll give them assignments, like in Charlie's Angels. My children will have more children and they'll become my minions too. We’ll all live in my underground lair. They’ll dig it deeper, straight through to China where they’ll travel the length of the Great Wall and reproduce with the Chinese. I take out the page I tore from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and note all this down. I read it over carefully. This is good, I think. I'm a genius.

I continue sipping my coffee and wonder what to call my novel. I write, Me and My Minions on the bit of paper and then immediately score it out and write, My Minions and I but I score that out too and settle on Straight through to China. After I finish my coffee someone comes up to me and looks me straight in the face. I look down, at my hands, at the empty coffee cup, at the Harry Potter book. The person asks if he can help me. It’s a guy, an employee, but he doesn't look like a sales assistant. He has a jacket on or maybe a blazer. (I'll need to google them to see what the difference is). I tell him, "No" but he keeps staring at me, angling his head to try and see my face. I tell him that I’m fine and keep my eyes fixed on Harry Potter’s face, on his glasses. I turn away and head straight to the Travel Guide section. Thankfully the guy doesn't follow me. I pick up travel guides for Paris and the Bahamas but I'm not interested in them. This was not a part of the plan. I wait for the guy to move away from the entrance. He takes forever. As soon as the coast is clear I hurry quickly past the hardcover display and out of the bookstore. Outside, the sun is yellow and the sky is blue which is reassuring. I stand up straight. Posture says so much about the person within. The pavement is white. I think to myself, I am writing a novel. I am a novelist.

I stand on the pavement, feeling superior to all these other people who are not writing novels. A tall man strides by me. I wonder if he’s writing a novel. He doesn't look like the type. I feel superior to him. He’s about two feet taller than me. He doesn’t give me a second glance and strides in the bookstore at my back. I stroll into the parking lot, find my car, get in and sit gripping the steering wheel. My knuckles are white so I relax my grip. I pull the passenger seat forward and climb into the backseat of the car. I sit here a really long time listening to people in the parking lot and watching everyone going in and out of the bookstore.

I wonder if my novel will make me famous. I'll have to do a book tour. I should practice signing my name over and over again. I spy a young couple kissing outside their van before going into the bookstore. I wonder how many novels they have written between the two of them. None I expect. It starts getting dark. I stare at the people outside. I follow them with my eyes. I can't stop wondering how many of them are writing novels, if any. I watch a lady pet her son on the head like a dog. The son ducks, hops away. I watch a man skip across the parking lot. His friends jeer at him, from behind and call after him but I can't hear what any of them is saying. They all laugh and go into the bookstore. I pull my legs up on the seat and move to a crouch. Then I turn round, kneel and look out the rear window. It’s getting dark. The parking lot lights come on. I clamber over the backseat into the trunk area. It’s quiet. I peer at the back of the backseat. I've never looked at it this closely before. A car draws up beside me. I feel hidden. The car doors open, someone gets out and then they close the doors behind them. There are voices: a man and a woman. The man says, "Lets do it on the roof tonight, we’ll pull a mattress up there". The woman laughs. She says, "No, in next door's yard, against their back door". They laugh as they walk off. I imagine them with their arms around each others waists. Then it’s quiet again. It’s dark now. I think to myself, No one knows I am here. I lie down, tuck my legs up and wrap my arms around my knees. I feel small. I stare at the dark inside of the trunk and then close my eyes. Yes, this is all going in my novel.

© Tao Lin and Jim Murdoch


Tao Lin said...

hi jim, i enjoyed reading this post

thank you for writing it

that is photo of some other tao lin

there are many tao lin's, many of them are computer people, there is also a famous pianist named tao lin

i also enjoyed your rewriter of the novelist and that you like your version better, that is 'interesting' and exciting to me or something, i like it

Jim Murdoch said...

Ooops. Hopefully that's you now. I did notice there were a few and I thought I'd got the right one - a lot of the photos are a bit on the dark side so I was looking for a clear one and I guess I found one. At least he wasn't bad-looking, you can be thankful for that.

Dick said...

An interesting read, Jim.

Vis a vis attention to craft & work-rate, I guess that for most writers circumstance or selfishness are what have them dedicating the long watches of day or night to writing. Solitude in a garret provides the opportunity but starves the writer of the interaction that, for most, will feed the inspiration. Tapping away behind a locked door while the family unravels outside provides the opportunity but at a high domestic price.

I risk the latter sometimes, but mostly settle for low productivity & years of gestation for most poems.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Dick. Yes, I too did the 'right' thing, got the jobs, paid the bills and I was talking only yesterday about the side of me that regrets not moving into that garret when I was a teenager but to be totally honest I wasn't ready when I was a teenager. I could do it now, now I have a lifetime's worth of experiences in that other world to plunder for ideas, but the real reason is that now it's safe to, there isn't so much at risk; the family has grown and flown, I've done my duty and it matters that I did.

Dave King said...

An interesting post Jim. I have been to Tao Lin's a couple of times. Every bit as unusual as your post suggested it would be. Absolutely fascinating. I shall need to go a few more times and will need to digest very carefully, I think. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Dave. I don't know if you've read any of the news articles recently about the new Japanese trend of phone novels but if anyone writing in English could have a stab at this then I think Lin could actually manage something meaningful.

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