Saturday, March 29, 2008

A timely quote (for me, anyway)

It's by Anton Chekhov, and it's about becoming a "civilized" person, but I might substitute a less loaded word. I think it's about living a fulfilling life.
     What you must do is work unceasingly, day and night, read constantly, study, exercise willpower... Every hour is precious...
     Shuttling backwards and forwards to Yakimanka won't help. You must roll up your sleeves and make a clean break, once and for all... Come back to us, smash the vodka bottle and settle down to read... even if it's just Turgenev whom you've never read...
     You've got to get over your fucking vanity, you're not a child any more... you'll soon be thirty! Time to grow up!
     I'm expecting you... We all are...

The first time I discovered this quote (in Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree), I felt as though Chekhov was either speaking directly to me or that at the very least he was addressing a near-future me who would find his instructions helpful. I was similarly inspired and sobered by last night's event at Town Hall, a Richard Hugo House-sponsored joint reading by Sherman Alexie, Michelle Tea, David Schmader, and an MFA student named Ben Blum who won Hugo House's New Works Competition. Blum's story was good, and supposedly this was his first reading in front of a group, so his delivery, under the circumstances, was dynamite. I envied not only his slightly shaggy good looks but also his obvious talent and drive. The people who read last night clearly spend a decent bit of time writing, and my hope -- with the workshop Elana and I have started, and in general -- is to increase the amount of time I spend writing. To "exercise willpower," as Chekhov puts it, not in a compulsive, freaked-out way but in a calm, sensible way -- i.e., if I use my time this way, it will be more rewarding for me in the long run than if I spend the same amount of time trying to come up with a clever Facebook status sentence.

Back to the reading: Michelle Tea not only had a fantastic outfit and awesome glasses, she read her story just quickly enough to create an energetic, almost electric tone for the story (Hugo House's Lyall Bush described her sentences as "breathless" and "poetic" when he introduced her) but not so quickly that you couldn't absorb every detail. And there were many details. Her frantic, comic, take-no-prisoners approach reminded me of George Saunders, whose first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, has been one of my favorite books since college. Tea really has a handle on how to write fast-paced fiction filled with verbal slapstick and still get some real emotional resonance out of the situations and characters, all of which is pretty reminiscent of Saunders. The narrator's fixation on a fictional (and awful-sounding) TV show reminded me of David Foster Wallace's essay on TV and fiction, which I really like. (When a professor tells DFW that the best fiction is "timeless," DFW sensibly asks whether including such newfangled technologies as phones would be a story's undoing.) I knew Tea only from her great nonfiction piece "Transmissions from Camp Trans," which has been published in The Believer as well as 2004's The Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology. Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger had a funny song about getting kicked out of the band he started (it would be autobiographical, he joked, if he were "someone else"), and David Schmader's piece on being gay in high school and taking shelter in drama club benefitted greatly from his ability to singlehandedly perform five-second snippets of great American plays.

All in all, it was a lovely night. Hugo House was only vaguely on my radar before I attended the Valentine's Day reading event, and unfortunately their next season of readings doesn't start until October, but I hope to take a class or two there to supplement the workshop and build some momentum in my return to writing. Speaking of which: Lois from the workshop lent me Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher, and while I remember it getting mixed reviews, I really like it. (And like Election and Little Children, his two other novels adapted for the screen, it'll become a movie soon enough -- apparently directed by the Little Miss Sunshine duo.) It's been a while since I wanted to keep picking up a novel to see what happens next -- it's beautifully paced and highly readable without being shallow or empty. Like Tea, Perrotta picks his moments and makes them resonate.


Kate said...

Very timely for me as well. Response to follow, probably. PS, enjoying the non-hyphenated

John Rogers said...

Neal--Glad you visited the V.B. yesterday. Saw Hans P. in Berkelekey, CA--he's thriving.

Check out the Notorious LBT for coverage of Nebraska's cultural goings-on. No joke--she's really pretty good.

Finally, if you haven't yet, pick up the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of Chekhov's short stories. It's a singular contribution to the short fiction canon.

We'll talk soon, I hope.

John R.