Culture of the Hidden

I was talking to my mother this morning about the stuff I’m reading for grad school. Right now, it’s the satires of Horace and Eddie Signwriter.

Cover image for Adam Schwartzman's Eddie Signwriter

I have to admit, a book with a plot is more interesting than a dead Roman preaching at me.

My mother was telling me about the book she’s reading that has a character who is found living in a museum. It made me think of the character in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – the woman secretly living at the top of the Empire State Building. My daughter just finished reading Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an entire book about a kid who lives in a train station.

What is our fascination with people living in secret spaces in public places? Could it be some spark of hope that if we become victims of the slow economy, that we might still be able to live a charming, eventful life in an airport (a la “The Terminal“) or any of the weird places (a hospital, a circus, a submarine, a cave)  the Baudelaire children lived in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events? Perhaps it’s some kind of gentle admonishment to people who move through subway stations and shopping malls every day to stop and notice what’s going on around them. Or is it the hope that there’s more going on than the mean, grimy mundanity of our lives betrays – the chance that we’re in the proximity of magic every day without even realizing it. That’s the way I look at it.

Between the Covers

First of all, I was gone for a couple of days (and trust me, I’ve been BUSY in that couple of days), and you all abandoned me. I feel like you and I were at a party, having a lovely conversation, really getting to know one another, then I excused myself to go to the bathroom and when I came out, you were standing with that loudmouthed guy who was telling that story about his truck and the deer and the bean dip and you waved to me, and turned back to loudmouth just when he got to the part about hitting the possum with his golf cart. And I didn’t blame you. I can’t even begin to compete with that. I’ll be honest, though. It hurt.

Anyway, back to the whole blog post thing. Books. I’m talking about books. A big part of grad school has been the enormous amount of reading I get to do. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve finished V for Vendetta, Rashōmon, Dracula, Quiet (The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking), The Woman in White, The Windup Girl, and I’ve just started Status Anxiety.

The thing that I love about “annotations,” as opposed to book reports, reviews or anything else I could write about the books I read, is that they’re personal. They’re influenced by the other stuff I’ve read, the events in my own life, the mood I’m in. When I’m doing annotations, I feel like I am at liberty to bring in every connection I think of while reading a book. I can talk about my connection to Buddhism and depression when I write about Rashōmon, or about Occupy Wall Street when I talk about V for Vendetta, or about my own dark thoughts about our world’s future when I read The Windup Girl.

When I write annotations, I end up looking at the whole thing as a kind of therapy. I can certainly look at how Hemingway created stories out of nouns and verbs and admire that, but I can also think about how racist, sexist, generally asshole he was, and how that informed the kinds of people he wrote about, and how I wonder whether that narrow worldview contributed to his depression. Sometimes, I get myself so wound up about the kind of person I should be that I can’t stand the kind of person I am. Is that what it was like to live in Hemingway’s ultra-macho world?

I think that we all look for ourselves between the covers of every book we read. We want to be the hero; we want to be the super-cool villain who has money, power and good looks; we want to be the mom everyone loves, the son everyone’s proud of, the kid who’s quiet and unassuming until she saves the world. That’s great when it’s fiction and somebody gets to win in the end (even if that somebody is the bad guy). But when the subject is human’s desire for love, as is the case in Alain de Botton’s nonfiction book Status Anxiety, I’m just as apt to put myself in the shoes of the unspoken subject of the book, the person who worries about other people’s opinion of them and how that opinion is influenced by how much money a person has, how good-looking they are, what kind of job they have.

Sadly, I’m a writer, so I have no power whatsoever. I’m not good-looking, although because I’m just words on a page to you, you can imagine whatever you want. The same goes for my finances. In short, I’m worried about what you think of me. But I guess I don’t need to worry anymore. Given the fact that you’ve chosen the guy with the truck and the dead possum and the bean dip over me, it’s pretty clear where I stand.

You Have to Give to Get

Tomorrow morning, I leave at just after 6:00am for Baltimore to be part of the Borderlands Press Boot Camp. Each of the participants had to read and critique 15 other participants’ stories, up to 25 pages. Does this sound familiar?

I think that as a writer, my most valuable asset is having a group of people whose opinions I respect, to look over my work and give me feedback. But, like any valuable asset, it doesn’t come free.

In addition to the not-inconsiderable financial cost of grad school, I have upwards of 50 books to read each semester – that’s ~2 per week, 10-15 of which require annotations. I also have to write something like 100 pages of new work each semester. I have to read, critique and be prepared to discuss in detail the work of 5-6 of my fellow students per semester. For Borderlands Press Boot Camp, I had to pay to attend, but I also have to read and critique the work of the 15 other participants and be prepared to discuss it in detail. For the critique group I’ve been part of on and off for the past 4 years, I have to read, critique and discuss in depth an entire novel (not just the first 20 pages) every couple of months.

I’ve learned so much from all the people who have taken the time to critique my work, and when I critique theirs, I think hard about what I could do to make their work the best thing it can be. But I also want to point out to everyone who has ever said to me “You’re a writer. Could you just look at this thing that I wrote and tell me what you think?” that no, I can’t. I don’t feel that it would be fair to the dozens of other people who have made some real sacrifices and put in a lot of time to help me make my writing the best it can be.

 

 

Annotation Nation

This, my friends, is Annotation Nation: a collection of book annotations done by a small group of authors. “What’s an annotation?” you ask. I certainly did.

An annotation is just a 1-2 page synopsis of your own thoughts and feelings about the craft of the book you’ve read. As part of the project period work for my MFA, I’m required to do ~10 of these per semester. Annotations are subjective, don’t necessarily include a plot synopsis and may be positive about a work even though it wasn’t a great read, provided that the author did something specific that the person writing the annotation found valuable. The purpose of doing these annotations is to get us to pay attention to the craft involved in the works we’re reading – to dissect and drill down on those things that worked and on those things that didn’t.

Annotations are useful to other writers when they give another writer who’s struggling with some aspect of their writing a reference to another author who is successfully managing that aspect.

Remember, as writers, it doesn’t do us any good to read if we’re not reading critically, with an eye toward what’s working, what’s not working, and what’s worth stealing.