This is what they did. Over the coursing of wayward rounds of revision, pausing here, delaying there, arresting themselves before another release, they offered writing or commentary in writing that they kept mostly to themselves, some of it published, in six stapled copies, at an art show since closed, and what was printed then and there since deleted or redacted.
Comments made on rounds before were, at last, removed from view. They considered their feelings, reconsidered, now unfinished, now complete. They destroyed it, and again; burned it, or would have. They disordered one lifelike text, to find what they weren’t thinking from the start.
They were tempted to write about pronouns here, and the improper use of they themselves. Probably they weren’t happy with the form. And yet it did seem to communicate some of the distance they had gotten, just as I do or does.
Edmund Burke, in his Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, has a mysterious sentence, “The second passion belonging to society is imitation, or, if you will, a desire of imitating, and consequently a pleasure in it.”
In summer of 2012, Triple Canopy editors Sam Frank, Lucy Ives, Christine Smallwood, and Dan Visel embarked on an inquiry into the purpose of writing. The editors decided that, rather than compose in straightforward critical prose, each would invent a story about him- or herself (a story narrated by someone named “I”) that would in some way express his or her concerns, doubts, euphoria, and/or opinion concerning the act of writing. They agreed that it would be OK to lie, and that no one should make everyone’s life more difficult by writing more than two thousand words.
This symposium or accord, which now takes the form of four short and thematically linked narratives, is presented to you here under the title “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
Let us suppose that someone is writing a story.
Four someones, first gathered, May 2012. The rules they follow are few and collectively conceived:
the text each of us writes should be:
- really good
- more interesting than David Shields, yet/and some combination of fiction and nonfiction (i.e., troubled in its genre) and not recognizably “poetry”
- could be something someone else might have written
- might be offensive or aggressive
- 2000 words or less
- due on June 13th
we might also meet once before our deadline to discuss our progress or lack thereof.
What happened next?
In the first round emerged ugly affects and confessions: Frank admitted to lurking on Internet message boards dedicated to the enlargement of the male organ; Ives felt like a bad person; Smallwood rehashed an ancient paranoia about a man she feared wanted to smell her feet; Visel complained.
Periodic meetings led to an early stab at publication in the exhibition “Meeting Point” at Mount Tremper Arts in New York. More meetings, conversations, revisions ensued. One someone mentioned Donald Barthelme—“The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” Emails went unanswered. Crudely memoiristic aspects were sidelined. The first person was preserved, as well as the empirical facts—nothing here, strictly speaking, did not occur. The project became a model for writing in a group.
“This is fun for everyone.”
To the reader
This, reader, is an honest book.
What Montaigne wrote on the first day of March in 1580 to serve as an introduction for his essays might be considered as a standard against which to judge these four pieces. First there is a text; then a reader of the text; then a guarantee of the text’s honesty; nothing changes.
It warns you at the outset that my sole purpose in writing has been a private and domestic one.
And everything changes. The truly disinterested writer is never published, of course; the barriers to publication are considerably lower than they were four hundred years ago. “Private” and “domestic”: Do they still exist?
I have had no thought of serving you or my own fame; such a plan would be beyond my powers.
By impotence, Montaigne claims he has no interest in the desires of his readers or his own desire for fame. Can he be trusted? This is an honest book.
I have intended it solely for the pleasure of my relatives and friends so that, when they have lost me—which they soon must—they may recover some features of my character and disposition, and thus keep the memory they have of me more completely and vividly alive.
Montaigne wrote against the very real prospect of the loss of his memory; a possibility no longer available. Memory is a given and controlled, to an increasing extent, by immortal corporations; today’s writer strives to shape that memory as much as is possible.
Had it been my purpose to seek the world’s favour, I should have put on finer clothes, and have presented myself in a studied attitude.
If distribution were perfect, Facebook would have hosted twenty pictures of every person on earth by the end of last year.
But I want to appear in my simple, natural, and everyday dress, without strain or artifice; for it is myself that I portray.
Such control is possible when working from a position of cultural scarcity; it is no longer available to us.
My imperfections may be read to the life, and my natural form will be here in so far as respect for the public allows.
In a strange way, Montaigne’s public now might overlap with our own, though his sense of respect is not our own.
Had my lot been cast among those peoples who are said still to live under the kindly liberty of nature’s primal laws, I should, I assure you, most gladly have painted myself complete and in all my nakedness.
We have destroyed those people.
So, reader, I am myself the substance of my book, and there is no reason why you should waste your leisure on so frivolous and unrewarding a subject.
We will destroy leisure.
Comments are made from time to time. Comments are made on the Internet, on message boards and “social” sites or in threads at the ends of essays. We make comments to one another, invited by the language of the situation, as an assignment, response, edit. Comments can be spoken or written. My Microsoft Word, like yours, has an Insert Comment function, whose glyph resembles a Post-it. Insert Comment. Track Changes. Accept, Reject. Comments on the Internet, we agree, are universally terrible, or so nearly as not to be worth the time. But sometimes I want nothing more than your comments.
I took alot of time and was done daily. By the time I did finally measure I was 8.25" long and 6 months into the program. I started at 6.5" so this only made my confidence in his program that much greater. The first people that befriended me were Dino, Buster, DrGmerlin, Luvdadus, Twatteaser, Pamdaga and my long lost friend MisterEd. Then I entered my first plateau and started to lose faith in the original text. This is when I met Bib (Bigger). Soon after this developed some of the exercises that I still use today. Exercises like Counter Stretches, DLD Blasters, A-Stretches, Dual Fulcrums, Ankle Fulcrums, Bundled Stretches, Horseshoes (DLD Bends) and other less known exercises manifested. My faith in Bib brought me beyond the 10" mark. During this entire process I was suffering with my own mental disorders and felt so connected to this forum that I decided to start being honest with these issues. My life since has become somewhat manageable. I have also realized that I can do something with life of value. This potential was born out of these forums and the love of my fellow pe’ers. I am truly a product of my environment and my environment is you.
I deleted all of it.
No, I deleted some of it, hunching on my couch or slumping in one chair or almost upright in another, lying on one elbow in bed or back flat, knees and neck up on the floor, or erect at the radiator stacked with grimy air conditioner and hardly used Random House Webster’s Unabridged into a semblance of a standing desk. It is today, because how could it not be. I’m trying to collapse a few weeks or months of anxiety into an hour so I can finish this. I’ve had three coffees and a beer, iodine, bouillon, K-2, selenium, D-2, B-2 and -3, six eggs, three squares of chocolate, butter, nuts, berries, MCT oil, fermented cod-liver and butter oils, N-acetylcysteine, C, and magnesium. I’ve Googled Valium, Lexapro, Cymbalta, armodafinil, aniracetam, heart-rate variability, dual n-back, cranial electrotherapy stimulation. I’ve opened or closed thirty tabs, run Software Update and Time Machine, and repeatedly Emptied the Trash. I’m trying to explain to Christine, Lucy, and Dan, to Alex and Peter and Sarah, to you, to myself, what I was thinking when I wrote or read and Copy and Pasted that.
I had decided to start, if not being honest, at least describing my discomforts, and so a few years ago I began seeing a shrink. But the half the sessions I wasn’t obstinate and silent from the start I’d have entered his office and for ten or even twenty minutes delivered a monologue of my past week and how things were on the upswing, at least, in a positive direction, and he’d ask me, then, when I’d wound down, something like, So, what do you want from me here? Are you just looking for me to say, Yes, you’re doing well, I agree?
Whether I went silent then, or had been from the beginning, we’d begin, haltingly, a terrible discussion about what it was we were supposed to be discussing, what it would be useful for us to discuss, what I wanted to discuss, what I wanted, just what was it I wanted, from which I’d escape with (another) monologue. Now he’d interrupt. And what were you thinking then? or And how did you feel then? Which would, again, stop me, or having been stopped, interrupted, I’d stay stopped, stuck in place, turning in on myself in order to answer him, racking my brain, as they say, or examining it as an alien might, or Descartes (as I imagine him), and finding nothing there but a blank spot.
How do you feel right now, or, When you paused or When you were silent for so long, what were you thinking or how did you feel, or, How did I make you feel when I asked you that question, or I just cannot remember the exact way he would put it, but he, incessantly or inevitably, had me return to an absence to begin (not) to describe it. His method, increasingly, seemed a rote evocation or provocation of a visceral sensation, or panic, in me that I not only didn’t know what I was previously thinking but was now thinking nothing, had no thoughts, was the least thinking (feeling) person in the world, was a machine, a stupid machine or robot, lacking any recursive function, any imitation of emotion or affect, that might help me nearly pass as human.
As months became a year, which had begun in crisis, with much to talk about and much information to convey, and turned into a year and some months, with a kind of stability, or tedium and excitement, exhaustion and energy, emptiness and plenitude, frustration and facility, that is, recognizable patterns of stasis and progress—I’m overwhelmed, I’m OK—as the year turned into a second, I felt repetitious, and felt my therapist to be repetitious, and not helping me not repeat, and our conversations became increasingly meta or mechanical, turning to the aporia in our own discussion, the blank spot not in me but between us. This new blankness didn’t scare me, but did bore me and make me cruel. Finally I told him that he wasn’t really worth much to me, transference in addition to seventy-five dollars a session, bringing what I wouldn’t call our transaction to an end.
I want nothing more than your comments. I am truly a product of my environment and my environment is you. I here dramatize blankness, if not boredom and cruelty or procrastination and anxiety, for your purposes, mine, so you might tell me what I think.
My understanding of writing was for a while informed by an idea about insufficiency I got from America. Take images and compare these to words: Words suffer. Consider the naturalness of the photograph, its informative, absorbing detail. It is even possible that the photographic image resembles nature most on purely analogical grounds, since nature is often understood to have no insufficiency, which is to say, in its “bounty.”
But here I only hint at what I take to be some of my earlier errors.
I was sharing a house with two other people the summer I was twenty. The floor of the room where I stayed had been painted white and was warped, sloping southerly. I had recently found an edition of Anne Sexton’s poetry in a box on the street and was reading it because I had heard of the poetry of Anne Sexton. I could not understand what I read. I read something by John Ashbery and wondered why he refused to say anything. Someone at the office said put a bowl of water in front of the box fan.
I was having trouble reading. I suppose I was having trouble completing tasks in general, but this seemed, somehow, unexceptional. I was doing a very bad job at work. Mostly I purchased smoothies and stared at guano-spattered chimneys.
I made some stupid lists. The lists said things like, “Read this book. Write a devastating novel of filmic specificity. Write a long, visually precise poem in which you tell the story of a redemptive journey in which the heroine is transformed. Read these four books. Understand the power of John Ashbery. Read each word of The Critique of Pure Reason.”
On weekends sometimes I lay on the floor of my room and pondered the perfection of everyone’s actions. “Everyone is acting so natural,” I thought. “Everyone knows just what to do.”
Nature was a kind of horizon, a mark.
You said the word nature, and after this there was nothing more to say. Everything you said next was just words pretending relevance to a far more plausible being.
Emerson calls nature, “essences unchanged by man,” but I am not talking about living beings or the planet, all of which probably do not fall into Emerson’s category anyway. These were organic, and probably they were part of nature, but actually they were only examples of what nature might be. For me, nature was a category. Nature was that which goes unquestioned; it is whatever is understood to have a right to be.
Anyway, I was only thinking about art: Movies were natural. The higher their budgets, the more natural they appeared. Writing was weak. The 1990s were over yet there was the lingering torpor of Clinton-era aesthetics, the need to have seen Titanic, its nasty sentimentality epitomized by Kate Winslet’s crimped orange hair …
I began to make a list of moments in poems I considered not entirely lost, where language had been appropriately pressed into the service of detail. This was where writing was likable and moving and important and natural—in its presence as visual detail. I made a list of the best images in the poetry of John Ashbery:
I considered one of the few discrete, perfectly clear images in the lucid poetry of George Oppen, “a white powdered face.”
The summer passed.
I was in college.
Things were not going well.
A professor stood before the lecture hall with several dried leaves of tobacco. She had a runner’s body, a goofy face below conservatively dressed hair; word was she sought professional advancement through administrative coups. She agitated a tobacco leaf. It crackled near her clip-on microphone. She spoke about Edgar Allen Poe’s Virginia.
It was so natural.
Taking our first exam for her survey of American lit I inscribed what I believed was an excessively relevant example:
I am writing in this book. I am writing in this book. I am writing in this book. I am writing in this book. I am writing in this book. I am …
This would demonstrate my command of New Historicism. I carefully offset the text.
The teaching assistant offered me a D. He wondered in turquoise loops if I would speak with him. He wanted to know what I expected. He said that we could make a pact. His tufted fingers were adorned with multiple class rings.
I had a Hotmail account and owned a Gateway PC. The Democrats were about to lose the election.
The question was, not what can words say, but what can they show. Where the word evokes an image, it does some sort of work. But most of the time people are just talking about something or other.
This is to say, I took the photograph to be a very natural mode of expression without even finding unique photographs particularly expressive in themselves; it was just so clear to me what a photograph is of, the information it conveys. But what is a word “of”?
The way my theory of appropriate linguistic imitation worked was through pointing. It was best to use words that had as limited as possible a set of referents. Like the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose Course in General Linguistics was popular in humanities guts at the most recent turn of the century, I liked the idea of a picture of a tree hovering over the word tree. Or: Better yet, we should put the word above the picture; the word should produce a thought of the picture; from the thought of the picture we might arrive naturally at the thing; the word should point us in this direction, should do nothing less and nothing more.
I wanted a written language that spoke plainly, stupidly, of things. If not like a photograph, light’s writ, writing should be, or so I thought, as much like a drawing as possible, a picture.
Around the same time I was coming to these tyrannical conclusions about the proper use of written language I was, as I have mentioned, going to college. It was becoming increasingly difficult to, on the one hand, hold my experimental beliefs and, on the other, pass the classes I was enrolled in. The most pressing problem was how long it took to write. I would spend a whole day trying to put together a pair of sentences, and for this reason even an uninventive prompt like, “Describe some violence in Coriolanus,” could require almost a week’s work.
If I had been smart I would have just studied art. Instead, I quit school. I used money I had saved to fly to Los Angeles, where I rented a car from a dry cleaner near LAX. It was a red two door with rims. I took Route 1.
I had decided that I was going to search for the most dumb writing, the most image-like. I hoped it would be so much more natural.
Gertrude Stein once wrote, “Nature is not natural and that is natural enough.” There are miles and miles of hillside into which Route 1 has been blasted. I got out of the car and climbed over a fence into a field that had two horses in it. I wandered around small towns and drove into areas of cultivation. On an empty inland road, I did 120 and was picked up by aerial radar.
I practiced writing landscape. Repeatedly I stopped the car and attempted to write down what I could see.
I stopped in San Francisco where the car was towed after I got lost in the Mission. I retrieved it from a dusty lot. Seeing it for a second time I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I drove to Crescent City, the northernmost dot on the Californian coast. I turned around again.
I wondered: What is it the novel does that the poem doesn’t do?
If any of the writing I did during this time were extant, I would include it.
I’m not sure what happened to the “landscapes,” the lists I made of mostly meaningless visual detail with very small people and animals and buildings and trees and clouds. I think when I got back to the Northeast Corridor I left them in a notebook, and then this notebook was lost in a move or thrown away. I didn’t for a long time know what the point of these written landscapes was, since they had no narrative structure, and even if they did satisfy my desire to have a kind of writing in which each word stood perfectly for a single, real thing—a thing whose name the word was—no one else could possibly want to read this tedious writing. (Some of the landscapes went on for ten pages, nouns with minimal prepositions, adjectives, and gerundives powering interminable anaphora.)
At some point I started taking poetry classes. It’s because of this that I even have a written record of my trip/extended exercise. The following mediocre poem was, then, composed after the fact. (I never, by the way, became any more natural.)1
I Don’t Know
The first and only time I saw
The desert in California I was
Alone. Outside Joshua Tree my
Motel had an entire baseball team
Staying in it; at night
They wandered around the pool
And vending machines with
Their shirts open. White cotton
With thin red bars, a
Blue “C” above the heart
I remember there was a movie on tv
About two alcoholics in love
I laughed out loud. I spent the day
Climbing to the top of a short gray
Mountain. The sky was clear, the moon
Visible at 4pm like paint off
The face of a dime pressed in
“Looks like the ground on the moon”
A French woman standing beside me
Said to her American friend
Driving out of town, my phone
Started to ring. I pulled over
Next to the 1001 Nights Motel
It was my college roommates calling
From Boston. When would I come home
They asked. What was I doing?
Out of the dropped beige ceiling tiles one afternoon in the late 1980s, a voice summoned all the girls to the auditorium. Principles, police officers, and the principal were present. The girls were shown a reproduction of a man. Crosshatched beard, small teeth.
The girls were told that this man was going around the town asking to smell girls’ feet. The girls were instructed that under no circumstances were they, the girls, to permit this man to remove their shoes and socks and smell their feet; we were not to remove our shoes and socks for him. We were instead to say, “No!” with force and volume and to run home, or to a trusted adult, immediately. The smeller was an adult, of course, but not a trusted one. We were not to run to him.
The girls returned to classrooms and refused to tell the boys what had happened. The boys were titillated. It is only now, years later, that I understand this reaction to be appropriate.
That very afternoon, on one girl’s very short walk home from the bus, she was intercepted by a bearded man. He said, “Excuse me, excuse me!” The small girl—her face so small and her nose so jutted out—jutting hugely, tragically, Romanly—jogged away at top jog speed. No one would smell her feet! Not now and not ever! (Such did the thoughts, frantic and uncooked, skitter like lobsters crowded in a warming pot.) The man was holding a sheaf of flyers. This detail had been neglected by official description.
The girl’s mother was home and the girl breathlessly explained that the foot-smeller was after her. Her mother looked through the sliding glass door into the backyard and beyond that to Darby Court, where she saw the man trudging along with his papers. She said that he was their neighbor, advertising trumpet lessons. Strange neighbor, to never before have been seen. Did he know her house, which one her mother was? Was he very aware of her intrinsic musicality? She played piano. Her after-school schedule was dolorously full.
Many years later, years that cannot be counted, I look back and see that our neighbor had heeded a noble calling. The trumpet is God’s own instrument. It has the power to obliterate history. It takes away words. It makes legs move, knees tumble. It is the noise of commandment, and it opens seals.
Human civilization does not, generally speaking, depend on music to get-things-done. It depends on people’s ability to follow rules. These are simple rules. There are rules for what to do when a foot-smeller approaches and rules for how to drive a bus, rules for how to become a police officer and rules for how to shave men’s facial hair. There are rules for writing sentences. It takes time to learn that not every man with a beard is the same man.
Did I follow the rules by jogging at top jog speed away from the man hiding behind his beard? The trumpet man looked like a foot-smeller. What did I look like, top jogging down the road?
Perhaps someone has written a set of useless detailed rules for what to do when a bearded and toothed neighbor approaches, shaking papers in hand. That girl, so inexperienced in the art of playing a greeting by ear, had to wing it. Who has a nose for his neighbors? We would be dogs to sniff around.
It happened years later that my mother and I were standing under a dropped ceiling in the cold, clean beige basement when she showed me a picture. A prominently nosed woman in a Diane von Furstenberg–style wrap dress was standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower. I said, “But I don’t remember going up the Eiffel Tower in the daylight. I remember going up at night.”
She snatched the picture back and said, “This is a picture of me.”
There are still things that are hard to get used to.
Ceiling tiles dropped. I saw a foot-smeller waving a stack of papers at me. My neighbor saw a small girl running from his lessons. He saw her running from his dream, not very fast, but fast enough to get away. This is what is known as “rejection.” An error that took the shape of refusal.
I trust that it is clear why I am relating this story. In my dream, I was attending an evening of presentations, not quite a conference, more a handful of people giving short talks to a small group of people at a gallery. This was going to be next Tuesday. I had said that I would present something for Triple Canopy, which had been invited to speak collectively, but then Alex Provan said that he’d do it, and of course that made more sense. Really I had no reason to actually attend this; perhaps I was being supportive, maybe I’d already blocked out Tuesday night.
This begins with the presentation just before Triple Canopy went on. A man—undistinguished—was reading a prepared piece. The program contained a transcript so that we might follow along. Overly literal illustrations processed across the screen behind him. It was, in fact, a multimedia extravaganza.
The story that he was reading was intended to be a parody of a well-known science-fiction story which is composed of nonsensical dialogue (“Pin?” “Pinned”), which eventually comes to a resolution when the reader realizes that the story is about two prelinguistic babies, maybe retarded, digging their way out from under an enormous quantity of rubble to finally reach the surface of what turns out to be a postapocalyptic world. I don’t know, I should interject here, if this is actually a real story. Maybe it is, by some European like Stanisław Lem, and I’ve heard it described somewhere. I don’t think I’ve read it. Is it possible that this is how I remember The Unnameable? That’s wrong.
Regardless of my knowledge, this story that the man was reading seemed to be extremely familiar to the crowd—even if not explicitly science-fiction themed, gatherings of technologists seem to gravitate to that by default, it’s so boring, that presumption. But I don’t need to dwell on that. I felt a little out of place, which is perfectly normal in a dream. As I mentioned, the version of the story that was being read on this particular night was a parody: Here, the two babies had been replaced with a mouse and a rat who were digging their way up out of the rubble, except that in this version they hated each other. This was conveyed with a lot of interior monologues. It was meant to be a hilarious departure from a sanctified text; the audience was making a show of laughing, just enough to demonstrate that they understood.
Except that this was interrupted. The guy reading this was in front of a screen where projections were made; and suddenly something went wrong with the computer that Alex was using to prep his presentation, and the sound and visuals of the Triple Canopy presentation appeared on screen—which was, as it turns out, overwhelming: animated GIFs, one a jerky, rotating cornute bust of Alex, somewhat in the manner of Mapplethorpe, gilded using some new Pantone color-projection technology; stuttering sound track, edgy in the right way; slogans flashing in and out as if it were 1994 and Raygun had decided to go into the PowerPoint business—and here is the problem, this unplanned interruption could not, despite the best efforts of the staff, be shut off; this seemed to go on for an eternity. Was I embarrassed?
Eventually, of course, control of the screen was wrested back to the computer of the first presenter, who had somehow kept mindlessly going the whole time, even though the audience had no chance of following him under Triple Canopy’s inadvertent audiovisual assault. The man stopped reading and clicked his clicker, bringing a new slide into view. It became clear that the parody version of the story had been intended as a soft lead into a pitch for the revenue potential of science fiction. There were, it turned out, potentially billions to be made in the field. Just look, the pitch went, how all of you responded to this classic story! His agency could produce marketing content for anyone: Just imagine if the mouse and the rat in that story had been named Coke and Diet Coke! The man kept talking, but I drifted off. The world is full of bad ideas.