TMR Editors’ Prize
Our new, enhanced online anthology
Current Issue: 36.1 (Spring 2013)
Featuring the winners of the 2012 Editors' Prize as well as work by Cara Blue Adams, Jennifer Anderson, Aaron Belz, Jerry Gabriel, Darren Morris, and Brad Wetherell... along with a conversation with Steve Almond and William Giraldi and a look at the art of Al Hirschfeld.
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Author Archives: Owen Neace
My relationship with literature, like that of most people who’d claim to have a relationship with it, is multi-faceted, complicated—even fractured. At work, I spend several hours every week in front of a computer, reading submissions, essays, blogs, etcetera. When not working, the majority of my time with a screen is dedicated to writing, be it academic or personal. I don’t own an e-reader, so when I’m reading at home it’s usually a paper book or journal. Then there’s the constant dialogue between my friends and coworkers. This dialogue, even if the moment’s topic is as seemingly mundane as the weather or lunch, is related to literature, for it is that shared initial interest that allowed the moment to occur. These facets, of course, are linked, and constantly inform one another.
However, there does seem to be another facet of this relationship which is more distinct than the others: live readings. These ceremonies are rare in a couple of senses. First (at least here in Columbia), they are rare because they are few. Each semester, the MU Creative Writing Program does organize a new student reading series (which you can check out here) and a visiting writers series. And of course, TMR hosts a few too, like the one happening October 8th, but these are nonetheless infrequent, much-anticipated events. This anticipation relates to the second sort of rareness of these ceremonies: the primary act itself, or hearing and seeing an author read his or her words. At live readings, the author’s chief goal in writing is inevitably achieved: he or she connects with the audience in a pure and authentic way. You hear and see the author’s voice and words—no matter if you’ve read them previously—and they resonate, if only on an auditory level. Thus, live readings are a facet of literature whose immediacy seems unparalleled.
Immediacy here is linked to voice, one of the most fundamental subjects in my relationship with literature. Common discourse and phonocentrism position spoken speech as primary, and because we call what emits from the author during a reading his/her voice, I use “unparalleled”. However, voice is complicated and fractured, too, much like the stated aspects from which it originates. When we describe voice as spoken or auditory, that referent may be negatively described as “not-written”. Furthermore, when we discuss voice in literature, we describe it as “narrative”. In both cases, voice is considered inextricable, and its transcendent presence as both a word and idea suggests a primacy more fundamental yet. This is most apparent in literature, where apparently voice must exist.
What I am wondering, though, is how the tradition of live readings—and moreover, its status as literature’s paramount manifestation of voice—will be affected by the constantly diversifying concept of voice in contemporary literature. I’d say that my understanding of voice has developed, but I’d nonetheless have trouble identifying a single ubiquitous quality—that is, one independent from and indifferent to the subsequent criticism of it.
This diversifying of voice is most readily apparent in the increased role of New Media in contemporary literature. The examples are numerous: we have seen a novel chapter in PowerPoint, a short story in Tweets (1 of 153), video trailers for books, and more. Each emits “voices” that are multi-faceted, voices that are “fractured.” In the first example, there is supposedly the character Alison Blake, but there is also the PowerPoint interface, its various constraints, and of course, Egan transcending all. Each are a voice—disparate, autonomous, whatever else. In the second, there’s Electric Lit., Twitter, Rick Moody’s shrewd narrator, and Moody himself. These go beyond words: they are more than words. That you could argue that there are more voices, or that there are less, or, finally, that my understanding of voice is general or incomplete, reveals much about the complexity of voice, its “inherent” difficulty.
In this developing realm called New Media, some have attempted to establish a concentrated presence which accounts for such diversity. Most literary journals have embraced social media, sure, and several offer content in additional mediums, but there are others still that somehow manage to emerge from the rest in a markedly progressive way. Not The New Yorker or Harper’s, whose historical weight propel them inevitably forward, rather, I’m speaking of ones like Electric Literature and Blackbird. Is formal inventiveness crucial, like the Moody story mentioned above, or is it the words the journals themselves produce (e.g. editorial policies, missions, forwards, etcetera)? Both? But is this not conceptually identical to Egan’s PowerPoint chapter? Presence, then, or dominance, is another sort of “voice.”
Even The Moth, a organization unique in its focus on live, unscripted storytelling, exists as an autonomous entity. “Each story is true and every voice authentic”, yes, but The Moth also maintains a blog, social media presence, and does radio broadcasts—in short, asserts it’s self.
Even so, New Media and its entities have yet to authentically (re)create the inexplicable magic of live readings. A video of an author reading does not compare with being in the same room with that author, his/her words assuming a new texture both visceral and singular, undeniably true, indifferent to your cursor, your mouse’s erratic clicking. It seems this is will always be so, that recreation is only an insufficient prosthetic, and I am happy for it. However, this language is “fundamental”, not fundamental. Nor are live readings. Likewise, some other “true” may emerge. Live reading culture could wane. If this happens, what will be lost?
Three recent events—reading Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, watching Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, and spending two months in South America—have sparked an interest in ideas of experience and their relation to, above all, writing. However, before the three events were even thought of let alone considered together post-fact, experience was not an uncommon topic in daily life, and not only for myself but also, it seemed, humanity in general. There was a sort of range of experience which began with the most concrete and terminated with the least concrete. Perhaps closest to the former was that sort of experience which related to the word experiment, the doing or trying of unfamiliar things. On the far end of this fragile range was/is the experience which relates to no specific verb, where experimentation has no certain place. This is the realm of Experience, the sort referred to in statements like, “Gain some Experience.” Somewhere between these two poles lies the sort manifested in the statement “I had an experience.”
This simultaneously concrete and artificial system of demarcation emulates formally the fragility of the range. What, if anything, fundamentally separates the three given types of experience, which we so easily and insistently separate in speech and writing? One might very easily argue that any moment, regardless if it results from any conscious choice to try or do something uncommon, is a new, authentic experience. Furthermore, it seems that Experience, which we undoubtedly revere and seek, need not be absolutely rooted in new- or uncommonness. At a certain point, which may be its formal realization, it is stripped of these roots, or perhaps severs them.
As writers, it seems that formal realization both motivates and authorizes Experience. This relates closely, though perhaps not explicitly, to writing fellowships and the choice of many (myself included) to delay attending graduate writing programs. Our perspective is limited and common. Get some Experience, goes the saying, So you’ll have something unique to write about (formally realize) afterward.
It would be disingenuous to say that I did not consciously conceptualize going to South America as an opportunity to gain such Experience before doing so. Even now, when I am asked to briefly encapsulate my time there, I often say, albeit with reluctance, “It was a great experience.” I realize that I don’t exactly know what this means, and though my inquirers are sometimes left a little dissatisfied by the statement’s generality and vagueness, there’s something else in it—wonder, possibility, mystery, etc.—which usually overshadows their dissatisfaction. Furthermore, time will almost without fail modify this statement; that is, if they were to later remember/be reminded of the experience in question, it would not be my lame declaration which would remain, but the fact that, as a result of my experience, I had gained Experience. It seems this progression is almost automatic, and undoubtedly expedited by some realization—in my case, writing—which responds to or draws from the pivotal event.
The other two events have further complicated this schema of e/e/Experience. In watching the film and reading the novel, I have completed the progression: I tried new things, and that trying—which is hazily though crucially changed to “watching” and “reading,” at a point—was an experience. And that experience affected me in such a way that I may say I gained Experience from it. Furthermore, The Darjeeling Limited and Leaving the Atocha Station are relevant on another level, as the both are concerned with ideas of experience. The former depicts three brothers traveling in India who, after having not seen each other for over a year, try to reconnect through various shared experiences. They are explicit about and apparently successful in this effort, but spend little time exploring or discussing the e/e/Experience schema. Nor does Anderson seem to do so formally, and the film remains as a proponent for experiences and Experience in the traditional and revelatory sense. Leaving the Atocha Station, on the other hand, is critical of the schema, and several passages are dedicated to exploring its workings. The narrator is a poet on fellowship in Madrid who, toward the end of the novel, must decide if he will remain in Spain after the fellowship has finished. When comparing life Madrid to that in the States, Experience becomes a critical issue:
“this, I would say to myself, referring to the hemic taste of chorizo or the aromatic spliff or both of those things on Teresa’s breath, this is experience, not because things in Iberia were inherently more immediate, but because the landscape and my relation to it had not been entirely standardized. There would of course come a point when I would be familiar enough with the language and terrain that it would lose its unfamiliar aspect, a point at which I would no longer see a stone in Spain and think of it as, in some essential sense, stonier than the sedimentary rocks of Kansas, and what applied to stones applied to bodies, light, weather, whatever” (163).
Two important and already-touched-on aspects of the issue are addressed here: uncommon- or foreignness as a catalyst for Experience, and the formal realization of this Experience through writing or language. Lerner’s italics are more than tonal, and do not differ fundamentally from mine; they symbolically represent Experience—or, more accurately, signal the impossibility of such an effort. The choice is self-conscious of its cheap- and imperfectness, and the narrator realizes that Experience cannot be represented purely through language.
One may argue that this can be extended to writing in general, that language ultimately fails, regardless of the subject. But Experience is different, for as writers, we seek and revere it like the Sublime. In common language, thoughtless though at times it may be, we betray our subsequent efforts to harness and represent it. Yet the resulting failure endlessly propels us, and we compromise, explaining our subject as, most commonly, foreign or new, be it stones or films or books or continents. If we are to live in language—and to so many people we do or will, we hope—nothing can stand as too abstract or untouchable. Or, if not, we must admit that nothing can authentically and completely exist through language, save the words themselves.
Last week, I, and what seemed to be about half of Columbia, had the pleasure of seeing David Sedaris live at Jesse Hall. I had never seen him before and though I only started reading him recently—Me Talk Pretty One Day this summer on my lunch breaks—I knew I was in for a great night when I saw the posters hanging around campus last month.
As the lights dimmed and Sedaris emerged, bobbing towards the podium and glancing timidly at the anxious gallery awaiting him, I leaned back and prepared for that pleasant belly ache like everyone else.
And, in case you had any doubt, he did deliver.
After starting off with a piece from his latest collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Sedaris jumped from earlier stories, to unpublished journal entries, and lastly, to jokes he’d been told on earlier readings. Also interspersed was more general oration that proved as entertaining as his writings, including a reading of a book title in what was to Sedaris an unknown language. When he asked the audience if anyone knew the language, and someone yelled “Croatian,” Sedaris replied, “Come see me after the show. The book’s yours.” Needless to say, it was a great show; but it was what followed the show that most impressed me.
The moment Sedaris said, “I’ll be in the lobby afterwards if any of you would like me to sign a book,” I began to make my move. I was clapping as I did so, sure, but I was more so concentrating on limiting was sure to be a significant wait. As I rose, made my way out of the row, I saw masses of people flooding towards the exits like there was a fire.
After standing in line for twenty minutes, two friends approached me with signed books. On one, Sedaris had sharpied a crying Jesus with the words “Why did you kill me?” above his signature. On the other, were the words, “I’m glad you can joke.” My friend had told her best one, upon Sedaris’ earlier request. I guess it hadn’t landed so well, as he’d also crossed out the word “joke” and underneath written “walk.” I laughed, impressed that Sedaris had taken the time to personalize their signings. My friends left, and I resigned myself to the long wait ahead.
Almost two hours later, a story for my fiction class as well as the university concert series pamphlet read, I was next in line to get my book signed. At this point, I thought, stealing glances at a slumped David Sedaris, I’m sure he’s just signing them. No way he’s still personalizing each signing. The person in front of me cleared out, and I stepped forward.
“Hello,” Sedaris said, smiling wide-eyed, as if I was first person to ever ask him for an autograph.
I said hello and thanked him for coming. “And thanks for your patience,” I said, “You must be exhausted.”
He paused, pen poised above the title, and looked up.
“I like signing books,” he said, and smiled.
After a moment, “It’s Owen, is it? O-W-E-N. Are you a student here, Owen?” Then, following a nod, “What are you studying?”
I told him English-Creative Writing with a fiction emphasis, and he perked up.
“Do you write short stories?”
A couple minutes and a couple questions later, he handed me my book. “Thank you for waiting,” he said, still smiling.
While he talked with my girlfriend, and asked her to tell him about her latest non-fiction piece, I flipped to the title page of Me Talk Pretty One Day.
“It was about my love for Bruce Springsteen,” she said.
He laughed. “Have you ever met him?”
She told him about the time she touched his sweaty arm and vest at a concert in Chicago.
“Oh wow,” he said. “Was it everything you’d imagined?”
As a young writer, I often feel intimated by the literary world. It is a place of grim prospect. Spend your whole life in front a computer or notebook, working to communicate something worthwhile and original in a worthwhile and original way. Sure, there are literary journals to strive towards, as well as grants and fellowships and other awards, but who cares about these things besides other writers? It’s even worse if you write primarily literary prose or poetry. Romance or crime, you’ve got a chance, but if you plan on writing anything else for a living, you better start playing the lottery.
Because of these truths, it’s easy to grow bitter. Many writers work and struggle and eventually prosper while this bitterness consumes them. I’m sure David Sedaris wouldn’t say he’s never had a bitter moment, but last night I saw no evidence of one. For at least three hours –we weren’t even close to the end— he made an effort to connect with every single person in that line. And he’s going to do the same thing every night for the next month. How does a writer, especially a well-respected literary writer, do this? Maybe if this was his first book tour, then maybe I could understand his insatiable desire to engage fans, but he’s been publishing books for over fifteen years. And not only that, but he reads his work, over and over again, with a zeal as noteworthy as his actual prose.
This baffles and inspires me. If David Sedaris can work and struggle and prosper with such an impressive character intact, I have to believe that so too can anyone. I hope I always will.
We thanked him and left. Outside Jesse, we opened our books to the title page. On mine, he’d drawn an owl perched on the publisher’s name. It looked at me, wide-eyed, patient, still. And on hers, he’d written “Your story has touched my heart.”