We’re All Just Exiles Here, of Our Own Device

The truth is this: Writing is a bumper-to-bumper crawl through hell with an occasional jolt to the next level of anguish. To be a writer means hitching one’s self-esteem to the slimy tail of success. Slip loose, and it’s into the wreckage of failed artists.

If there are cheerier routes to the blessed state of authordom, few take them. Like a nation of exiles, millions of tortured souls go forth in search of a byline and a word of approval. Only a three-chain flagellant is assured more misery. Yet being a writer remains the dream of any romantic who ever watched the seasons or fell in love or counted the zeros in some lucky idiot’s book advance.

Arthur Plotnik, The Elements of Authorship


Wrasslin’ With the Dying Fall

Last night was a movie night at home, and the late show was The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. The film garnered Rourke a best actor Oscar nomination and Tomei a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, and has been hailed as Rourke’s comeback role, and Rourke’s performance certainly deserves the acclaim it received.

I had wanted to see it since seeing clips of it during the Oscars a year ago. From the clips I recognized the film’s literary roots: it has a Raymond Carver-esque tone and theme. It concerns Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler resembling some cross between Hulk Hogan and Dog the Bounty Hunter, who saw his heyday in the eighties, and now only wrestles on the weekends. His slide from fame has taken him from celebrity to working as a stocker and at the deli counter of a grocery store.

The movie has all the elements of a Carver short story. A bleak wintry setting. (I was never quite sure where the movie takes place, although apparently it’s Elizabeth, New Jersey.) Trailer parks. A working class bleakness as Randy struggles to get by with the money he makes at his job and weekend wrestling gigs. Familial estrangement. In this case between father and daughter. Randy tries to redeem his relationship with his estranged daughter after a heart attack ends, or should end, his wrestling career.

The movie’s most noticeable literary element, though, is the “dying fall” that ends the movie. As the narrative moves along in the film it seems to be moving toward a Rocky-for-pro-wrasslin’ resolution, the sports hero/entertainer making a comeback when Randy quits his grocery store job and goes back into the ring for a triumphant bout. Tomei’s character even follows the wrestler to the ring. Tension builds. Will he go through with it though it may kill him? Or will he throw in the towel? Randy enters the ring. He battles his nemesis. He begins to clutch at his chest. He climbs the ropes. He leaps to finish off his opponent. Fade to black.

The dying fall, I understand, comes from music — it’s an abrupt fade out of sound. And it has been adapted to literary forms, including film.

My favorite fade to black is from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which the wounded hero Robert Jordan awaits his fate:

“Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”

The novel ends. Just like this blog post . . .

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
(Metropolitan, 2009)

In football right-handed quarterbacks get blind-sided if their left tackle misses a block. The blind side is the subject of the book The Blind Side by Michael Lewis; it’s also partially the subject of the movie based on the book, the same movie for which Sandra Bullock won an Oscar.

The movie, I’m told, is a feel-good movie (as much of a football fan as I am, I’m not fond of football- or sports-based movies because they tend toward “feel-goodness”; the exceptions I can think of are North Dallas Forty and The Longest Yard).

Feel-good movies are perfect for America, I suppose, especially at a time of financial crisis that seems to be edging toward a new Great Depression. Flashy, feel-good Hollywood extravaganzas were immensely popular during the Depression, as were positive-thinking books  like  Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich! and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

But perhaps feeling good is too much of a good thing. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided covers the mostly American phenomenon of positive thinking and how such thinking has crippled critical thinking in America as badly as Lawrence Taylor’s infamous blind-side hit smashed Joe Theismann’s leg. Ehrenreich examines cross sections of American society and culture, including health care, religion, and business, and determines that overall the positive thinking movement is not only detrimental to society, but also delusional.

As she examines one American intellectual/cultural tradition (one that extends at least as far back as Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of New Thought and Christian Science), she follows another — digging at America’s Puritan past. In this case, Calvinism.

Calvinism was not an overtly positive religious movement.

“The Calvinism brought by white settlers to New England,” Ehrenreich writes,  “could be described as a system of socially imposed depression. Its God was ‘utterly lawless,’ as literary scholar Ann Douglas has written, an all-powerful entity who ‘reveals his hatred of his creatures, not his love for them’ . . . . The task for the living was to constantly examine ‘the loathsome abominations that lie in his bosom,’ seeking to uproot the sinful thoughts that are a sure sign of damnation.”

Calvinism, Ehrenreich writes, required constant self-examination. Believers had to constantly check themselves for sin. Such constant sin checks led believers such as Eddy to suffer digestive ills, headaches, insomnia, and all manner of other physical, as well as psychological, ailments.

Eddy began to rethink her Calvinist upbringing, swinging it 180 degrees, developing what in the 19th century came to be known as New Thought. “In the New Thought vision,” Ehrenreich writes, “God was no longer hostile or or indifferent; he was a ubiquitous, all-powerful Spirit or Mind, and since ‘man’ was really Spirit too, man was coterminous with God.” The Bakerian universe was abundant, and anyone in touch with the spirit of God, could benefit from God or the universe’s wealth.

While Ehrenreich applauds, for the most part, the turn away from bleak Calvinism, she notes throughout the book how both secular and religious gurus of positive thinking have latched onto the abundance of God or the universe and posit the notion that anyone through positive thought and visualization can manifest anything their heart desires: cars, homes, more wealth than you can imagine, even if you can imagine quite a lot. Moreover, think positively enough and you can defeat all manner of illness, including cancer.

Ehrenreich’s earliest encounter with positive thinking came after she was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. The first chapter delves into her experience and her encounters with breast cancer culture, in which positive thinking “transform[s] breast cancer into a rite of passage — not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood.” Positive thinking was so pervasive in this culture that when Ehrenreich expressed her anger on a support group Web site she was chided for having a bad attitude; she was chided for not trying hard enough to accept her disease as a life-transforming, almost uplifting experience comparable to an ecstatic religious conversion.

At the heart of positive thinking, whether it’s encountered in health care, business or religion, Ehrenreich argues, is Calvinism, especially its insistence on constantly checking oneself, which can lead to crushing anxiety, because if you fail to attract what you want, according to the gurus, it’s because you are failing yourself — you haven’t successfully checked your negative thoughts. And be warned: if you continue to be negative you risk further failure, and perhaps job loss or even ostracism, because positive thinking gurus advise dropping negative people.

“When the gurus advise dropping ‘negative’ people,” Ehrenreich writes, “they are also issuing a warning: smile and be agreeable, go with the flow — or prepare to be ostracized.”

Getting rid of negative people isn’t all the gurus advise, Ehrenreich writes. We should also cull reading newspapers and magazines from our lives because all news is negative and perpetuated by unenlightened people unaware of the positives in their lives.

It’s negativity, according to the gurus, that creates the atrocities in the world. Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, said, according to Ehrenreich, that such disasters as tsunamis “happen only to people who are ‘on the same frequency as the event’.”

Much of the language of positive thinking — secular and sacred — reads like religion; it’s a fundamentalist faith with no gray areas. You’re either with us or against us. Challenging its ideas makes you negative — thought control is a common term in positive thinking literature, and, as Ehrenreich notes, the term doesn’t take on the negative connotations as it does in Orwell’s novel 1984. Always look on the bright side of life, no matter the circumstances, it says. Smile. Do not worry. Pay no heed of fears. Do not mind the linebacker about to crush you.

“The effort of positive ‘thought control,'” Ehrenreich writes, “which is always presented as such a life preserver, has become a potentially deadly weight — obscuring judgment and shielding us from vital information. Sometimes we need to heed our fears and negative thoughts, and at all times we need to be alert to the world outside ourselves, even when that includes absorbing bad news and entertaining the views of ‘negative’ people. As we should have learned by now, it is dangerous not to.”

That’s not writing, that’s keyboarding

That’s not writing, that’s typing.

— Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

A long time ago, just out of grad school, I took a job as a substitute teacher (an experience that makes you think of all the good population control would do for the world) and filled in for a computer science teacher. One of the classes that day was keyboarding; the digital age had killed typing class. (What would Mavis Beacon do?)

Back then, when the Interwebs was a toddler, I was a Luddite of sorts. I wrote all my grad papers on a manual typewriter. Lloyd Arnold’s dust jacket photo of Ernest Hemingway working at a manual typewriter was etched into my brain, a definitive image of the writer at work. I never imagined myself composing on  a computer.

Of course I did. And still do. But obsessive questions linger: Does a writer’s writing change when when he or she switches from a typewriter (or longhand for that matter) to a computer? And how does it change?

Earlier today, as I caught up reading favorite blogs, I ran across this post at Bookslut. Apparently, a new biography of Ralph Ellison suggests Ellison’s writing was shakier when he switched to a computer:

Writing on the computer transformed Ellison’s fiction–both its process and its product. It would be going too far to blame the computer for Ellison’s failure to publish his second novel, but its impact on his writing was complicated and certainly not always positive. Writing fiction on the computer is a qualitatively different experience from writing by other means.

I know my writing is different when I compose on a computer rather than a typewriter. I reread sketches I’ve written on the typewriter and they sound better, at least in manuscript. But, when I’ve rewritten those same passages on the keyboard, they don’t sound right. They sound “written” rather than organic, rhythmic sentences. But then I reread published pieces that I thought at the time sounded great, but that read stiff and mechanical months or years later.

Is it the typewriter or computer that’s changed my writing? Or am I a stiff judge of my own writing? Am I getting better? Or am I the same?