[narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity, vanity]


The main thing is to make a fuss.

At The Rumpus, Elissa Bassist posts a hilarious, mostly imaginary interview with Elaine Showalter. The focus, as you might expect, is on women and writing, but like both, it is also so much more than that.

I often explain to my mother that to be a writer means to suffer mercilessly and experiment with prescription medication.

Go read. Just do it. It's that good.

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He crossed the Danube on his cloak ...

"Legend has it that he was the son of a king, from Dacia or Denmark, who married a French princess in Paris. During the wedding night, the story goes, he was afflicted with a sense of profound unworthiness. Today, he is supposed to have said to his bride, our bodies are adorned, but tomorrow they will be food for worms. Before the break of day, he fled, making a pilgrimage to Italy, where he lived in solitude until he felt the power to work miracles arising within him [...] and went over the Alps to Germany. At Regensburg he crossed the Danube on his cloak, and there made a broken glass whole again; and, in the house of a wheelwright too mean to spare the kindling, lit a fire with icicles. This story of the burning of the frozen substance of life has, of late, meant much to me, and I wonder now whether inner coldness and desolation may not be the precondition for making the world believe, by a kind of fraudulent showmanship, that one's own wretched heart is still aglow." -- W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

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The End

Writing my novel, I left the hardest scene for last, and there's nothing left for it now except to write it, or give up.

I doubt it could have turned out any other way.

Time narrows to a point, specifically my mother's right pupil on lithium-stelazine-mellaril and I can say with complete confidence that the gimlet gleam in her eye has nothing whatsoever to do with me.

Still I need a paragraph, another hundred words...

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Fry & Laurie, Really Only Slightly Mad

Over lunch today with a friend, as I was picking over ideas for a new novel, I realized I was dreaming up a mash note to psychoanalysis wrapped around a murder mystery. (Oh, come on -- what else could it be?) My friend pointed me to Fry & Laurie's psychiatric sketches. These guys sure had a lot of fun with psychoanalytic psychiatry. I see their sketch "Slightly Mad" as a riposte to the question posed in Freud's "On Creative Writers and Daydreaming": What is the difference between the "normal" work of the creative writer and the pathological productions of, say, a writer like Daniel Paul Schreber, on the one hand; and the work of the psychoanalytic psychiatrist, on the other? (The title image on that last link is emphatically NSFW, unless you work in a Dadaist art gallery. What was Penguin thinking?)

The crux is the business about writing letters to the paper, about 3 minutes in.

Freud kept the patient on the couch, kept himself out of view, and recommended only the occasional provision of interpretations. Modern face-to-face psychotherapies don't protest so much. Here's Fry & Laurie on the result -- the relevant bit starts at 0:57:

At 2:21 there's a playful reference to the "Bender Gestalt Test," which is real, but Fry's invitation to draw a line seems more like a request to play Winnicott's Squiggle Game. Laurie retorts that Fry is using "some sort of psychiatric jargon that you've picked up from the Reader's Digest," which at once notes the confusion and elides it, in a send-up of just the sort of incomplete repression Freud sees in jokes and parapraxes. At 3:00, the preamble ends on the word "masturbation," and the power struggle comes to the fore. "I'm the doctor, and you are the patient." The roles reverse dizzyingly. The question of names comes up at this point: Who is "Dr" and who is "Mr"? The rest of the session raises, only to deconstruct, every piece of stage business in the psychoanalytic psychiatrist's theater: the authority to summon the secretary, to make clinical notes, to prescribe medication, to end the session, to offer appointment times. By 4:53, the joke's on us -- but I won't spoil it. Take a look.

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So I am looking at my file of "final" revisions for EASY JOURNEYS and noticing that starting every writing session with a fresh duplicate of the last file I worked on means that I now have a list of dates and times at which I actually sat down and worked on this book.

In the past year, I've made sixty duplicates. That's about one session of writing per week. Not a whole freaking lot, in other words. What has happened to the time? Did I spend all of it shopping online and eating bonbons?

And then, as I am beating myself up, I remember that this year, I also finished TWO OTHER BOOKS. And, while finishing these books, and in addition to the sixty sessions I just mentioned, I spent four solid forty-hour weeks working on line-edits to EASY JOURNEYS, a task that takes place on paper before it goes to the screen.

So, revising upward, that's a total of sixty writing "days." How many work days are in a year?

About two hundred.

But, oh yeah, I've got a kid and a husband who travels a lot of for work, which means that my time isn't exactly under my control.

And I've been careful enough to make a backup of my novel every damn time I sit down to work on it, which ought to say something about my seriousness. Maybe one day in every three isn't so terrible, given everything else that's going on. Or maybe the real miracle is that I haven't given up yet.

I wish I could be like Annie Dillard, who writes so well about not writing. But of course this is not what I am doing. I am, in fact, working hard, and I'm making progress. What would happen if I stopped looking for evidence that I'm useless? Would I write more, or would I just read celebrity gossip all day?

Either way, I suspect I'd feel better.

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Closely Watched Trains

Was troubled by the trains this afternoon. On humid days, the long Amtrak beep-beep is audible in the kitchen.

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Nostalgia Item

Woke up with a song in my head. When I was seven or eight, my musical grandfather taught me to pick out the melody to "Pagan Love Song" on the piano. Thirty years later, I get to wondering about the tune -- who wrote it, what for, and how did my grandfather come to hear it. No answers on any score, but I did find a YouTube clip of hoofer Jack Imel performing the song on Lawrence Welk, circa 1958.

What silliness! And my grandfather was hip to it. Did he know, teaching me that song, that he was laying down a special sort of memory of him -- his sense of mischief, of fun -- encoded through ear and hands? Doubly indelible, and thank goodness for that.

Via Boingboing.

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Nike Learns An Important Lesson

It's raining, the apple tree has dropped its blossoms. and Nike's beloved outside toy, the Aged Bald Basketball, is covered with petals. As he noses the ball around the yard, now and then he snarfs up a petal, which makes him cough.

You gotta learn to take the bad with the good there, Nike, I say. It is fun to patronize him. We have shortcomings in common.

I don't say: You need to understand that your all-good object, the Aged Bald Basketball, has its flaws, too. I don't say: Someday you will understand how the bad petals on the good basketball fit into the larger scheme of things.

Well, now he's chewing up apple blossoms. This is how he has decided to solve the problem.

If he throws up, we still have work to do. If he doesn't ... Problem solved, I guess.

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This Is My Brain on Nicotine.

After seven nonsmoking years, last week I fell off the wagon. Never mind why. It was a bad week. The point is, I bought a pack of cigarettes and smoked them slowly, at a rate of two or three a day.

Now that I am out of cigarettes, I am the proud owner of a pack of Nicorette gum. Here is what I have learned from my experiment:

1. After one or two puffs -- almost nothing-- smoking feels wonderful. I feel calm, alert, steady, confident, and energetic. The psychic ache with which I am usually afflicted -- we all have our crosses to bear, as my mother would say -- is gone. Poof. Nada. I barely remember it. Provided there are no new assaults to my psychic equilibrium, which is never a safe assumption, the effect will last up to eight hours.

2. Halfway through the cigarette, I feel distinctly nauseated. I know from experience that if I continue to smoke, the nausea will recede. However, I also know that stubbing out the cigarette at the point of nausea, which I what I did last week, will make breaking the habit easier later on. Nausea is my friend.

3. My lungs feel cruddy when I smoke. My skin is dry and will get worse. I'm chillier, no doubt due to worsening circulation. After one week, I have already developed a minor, but irritating cough that will only get worse in time. All of which reminds me of how much I really do dislike smoking.

4. Nicorette tastes awful. However, after about two seconds in my mouth, I get the same feeling as in #1. Some minutes later, the nausea arrives so I spit out the gum, for the same reason given in #2. The last thing I need is an addiction to Nicorette.

5. Years ago, I was on Wellbutrin for depression, which had an interesting side effect: I stopped smoking cold turkey after two weeks on the drug and stayed quit for almost two years. This isn't surprising because Wellbutrin is the same as Zyban, the stop-smoking pill. After two weeks on Wellbutrin, I was free of the need for nicotine; I don't recall if the psychic ache was also gone, but I think it was.

This makes me think I now have three ways to deal with that ache: cigarettes, Nicorette, and Wellbutrin.

Cigarettes have too many side effects -- painful death from cancer among them -- to be really useful in the long term. Wellbutrin might be good, except that it, too, has side effects that include dependency on a medical professional, and health insurance to pay said professional, for supply. Nicorette is available OTC, with a reasonable side effect profile and a clear mechanism of action. And I can control the dose very precisely, by only taking it when I need it and spitting it out as soon as the nausea hits.



Procrastination at the End

I am coming to the end of a long stint of editing and with seven pages to go, I am procrastinating. This, despite the fact that the holiday madness begins tomorrow, and even though finishing up early means I can get a head start on holiday preparations. I seem resistant to the idea of having a "whole" experience - I would prefer to leave the editing undone and live with the continued pressure of the unfinished task than actually finish up, which entails decisions and compromises and so on.

Later: It's done. It took all of thirty minutes. Sure, the edit did require some thinking, which of course is not something I do except under conditions of duress. Was that my hangup, the actual thinking part? Gah. That's brain fog.

the register slips and --

My inner therapist brandishes a prescription pad.

"Go away," I tell him. "I got past it."

"This time," he says. His expression is faintly superior, like he's about to quote Milan Kundera.

For a split second I think about sharing my theory that procrastination is a way of symbolizing, through enactment, the idea of death, the one appointment everyone hopes to miss, but I don't. The idea is morbid enough to confirm his working hypothesis, and surely he will also feel the aggression in it and retaliate in some way that I hesitate to imagine. Even though, of course, this entire conversation is imaginary.

"Look at it this way," I say. "It is just possible that therapy is working."

Now to relax by making spicy chocolate cookies and candied pecans.

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It's the Little Things

I am sitting in my office. It's dark because I haven't opened the blinds.

"Open the blinds," I tell myself.

"Ugh. Who feels like getting up?" That's my inner thirteen year-old.

"Open the blinds. You can't just sit here in the dark. You work better when there's light in the office."

"My stomach hurts. I have a headache. Do I have to go to school today?"

"Open the blinds."


"Take more Zoloft."


"Open the blinds, then. OR take more Zoloft. It's one or the other. Now get cracking."


"What is your problem with the blinds?"

"They are ugly. They don't work properly. They remind me that I need to replace them. More work to do."

"Well, you're not going to replace the blinds today. Today, you are going to work. But first, you will open the blinds, or you will go into the kitchen and take more Zoloft, and then you will open the blinds."

"But if I go into the kitchen, I will eat a cookie, not a Zoloft."

"No, you will eat a Zoloft. You do not need a cookie. You need a Zoloft. Or, you need to open the blinds."


It kills me to do it, but I open the blinds. I take more Zoloft. I start work. Something is more wrong than usual. It shouldn't be this hard.



RIP, Tom Disch

Gone, suicide, handgun.

"Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distanced mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, [Disch] has been perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank sf writers." -- 1993 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

His blog. The despair is all there, and so obvious now, hindsight being what it is.

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My Deficiencies

I am sitting with my mother in the nursing home.

"I'm so tired," I complain.

She looks me over. I feel about eight years old.

"Do you feel worse walking up hills?"

Come to think of it, yes.

"I walked up College Street today. I felt like it took more effort than usual," I said. "I thought it was the heat."

"You have an iron deficiency," she announces. She is more confident than most doctors. "Eat more meat."

She's probably right. I've been anemic before, and I do feel that way -- lethargic, and steaks and cheeseburgers seem oddly palatable. Still, I resist the Floradix. Is this why we have doctors, because we don't listen to our mothers?

Or is that just what my mother would say?

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Better Words

Sadly, depressingly, ironically -- how could it be otherwise? -- the official vocabulary of mood disorder is rather skim-milkish, thin, revolting: low self-esteem, hopelessness, anhedonia, pervasive low mood. The demotic is not better: feeling down, having the blues. It would be so much better to have words that actually expressed something. Everything is all fucked up! for instance, instead of "hopelessness." Or Today, I suck, for transient low self-esteem, and in general, I suck for the pervasive kind. You suck would indicate, oh, I don't know, irritability... Must be time for the midday Zoloft.



A Londonish Day

from a John Virtue painting
Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Why is a fire truck parked outside my window? I am quite sure the house is not on fire, although now that the coffee maker has stopped glugging, I really should pour myself a cup before I manage to turn the stuff into wormwood as usual. And then I should turn off the heating element. No fires here.

Everything seems so strange today, odd but uninteresting. I ought to go see about the fire truck, but instead I sit and type at the window. It's one of those days.

One of my favorite London poets, Aidan Dun, now has a website. He also wrote a wonderfully wry, elaborate, and pleasingly though not intrusively Derridean "Ode to a Postbox".

The world shall write a love letter to itself and entrust it to the poet
who will place it in the postal system at the earliest visitation of his
first class muse.

The black and white picture is a detail from a painting by John Virtue, part of his London series. Saw the real thing three years ago in London -- the paintings at the Tate, drawings at the Courtauld -- last time I was there. I think of Virtue as a depressive's painter par excellence -- he uses only black, white, and shellac. Color, he says, is a distraction. From what? Let me tell you: seeing the world as it is. Realistically.

Overstatement? Maybe. But if you walk out of the National Gallery on any bog-standard cloudy London day and stare at the sky, I think you'll agree that Virtue's urban landscapes, postmodern as they are, partake of a certain realism.

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Sort of Like an Internet Bezoar

Laughed out loud today when one of my Google searches turned up the following text string, to which I have only added line breaks:

Do you believe in love
Like I believe in pain
Celexa & Trazodone
Are you also doing psychotherapy?
Usually the combination works a little better
Than either one alone

Oh dear, the things that Google coughs up.

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Rx for Joy, Way Better Than Zoloft

Happy day! I just learned that the Saint Ann's Review will be including one of my stories in their Spring 08 issue. And, Mark liked my post about hypertext at if:book so much that he reposted it on his blog! Oh, I'm just one big silly grin right now. Thanks!

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I Lack Executive Function Today

So much to do, so much brain fog to contend with. My inner coach is shouting: Come on, come on, come on, do better, do better, do better...

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Moominland Midwinter

Among other things, Tove Jansson's Moominland Midwinter is a sweet, funny fable of winter giving way to spring. In other words -- in more clinical or medical words -- it can be read as a story about depression and its ending. Which, perhaps not surprisingly given the pharmacopeia in my cupboard, is something I'm thinking about a lot these days.
It's winter in Moomin Valley, and all the Moomins are asleep. All the summer toys are stowed in the bathing house; sheets cover the furniture to protect it from dust; the stove is cold; the pantry is full of jars of Moominmamma's strawberry jam, waiting for the first spring breakfast. Moominmamma herself is snoring. The sun dips below the horizon and stays there.

A typical depressive, Moomintroll bolts awake in the middle of the night. The winter world is terrible. It's dark, it's cold, there's no one to play with, the sun is gone and it seems like it will never come back.

Moomintroll ventures outside. (Apparently his depression is not the agoraphobic kind.) He meets some funny characters in the shuttered bathing-house -- notably the steady, practical, if somewhat unimaginative Too-Ticky, who spends her time ice-fishing, and the irrepressible if somewhat self-seeking Little My (pictured, left), who responds to the apparent frost-bite death of a squirrel by observing that his tail would make a wonderful muff.

In their company, Moomintroll learns lots about the peculiar winter world of Moomin Valley, whose inhabitants, as charming as they are, correspond in various ways to the less charming bits of oneself. For instance, there is the fearsome Ancestor who is locked in the cupboard and should not, under any circumstances, be let out; there is the mysterious, cantankerous Dweller Under the Sink. Moomintroll must deal with these characters; they are either the keys to his release from sadness, or they are important distractions from that sadness, things to keep him busy while he waits for spring, just as one does wait, in a sort of antic hope, for the anti-depressant to kick in.

At the height of the winter, the creatures gather for a bonfire, a signal to convince the sun to come back. Too-Ticky asks Moomintroll to help, by sacrificing the "garden seat," a bench of which he is for some reason enormously protective, as fuel for the fire. Reluctantly, he relinquishes it, in exchange for a promise he has extracted from Too-Ticky: He will be allowed to meet the Ancestor.

But the Ancestor is not taking visitors. Frustrated, Moomintroll complains to Too-Ticky. She introduces him to the Dweller Under the Sink. Good-natured Moomintroll compliments the Dweller on his enormously bushy eyebrows. The Dweller takes offense, in a language that Moomintroll is dismayed to discover he cannot understand. He repeats the Dweller's words, in an effort to make things better that only succeeds in making them worse. The garden seat goes up in flames. A large cold creature named the Groke accidentally sits on the fire, extinguishing it. All the sacrifice is for nothing.

"Such things happen," says Too-Ticky, philosophically. Moomintroll is not convinced. He retires to a corner, frustrated and stuck. At this point, he might take some Prozac, or see a therapist.

Who should arrive next but -- the Hemulen! Blustery, vigorous, the Hemulen is a dynamo on skis who is suspiciously addicted to fresh air and physical thrills. In an effort to shake the group out of their winter blahs, he cheerfully recommends exercise, especially swims in freezing water. Naturally, everyone hates him -- except Little My, who sticks by him long enough to learn how to ski, and then, having no further use for him, skis off on her own.

The Hemulen's ambiguous success with Little My notwithstanding, the group decides they must free themselves from the Hemulen. But no one wants to be mean. So Moomintroll is given the task of kindly and tactfully sending the Hemulen on his way. But Moomintroll's nerve fails him. He finds he just can't do it. (Nobody said psychotherapy, which also includes resistance to psychotherapy, would be easy.) In the end, this is just as well: The Hemulen makes himself useful after all, by saving the life of the least of their community, a sad creature named "Salome the Little Creep." (Might the name be a clue to the psychoanalytic schema I'm claiming is at work here?) For this good deed, Moomintroll makes the Hemulen a gift of the last jar of Moominmamma's wonderful strawberry jam, a great prize, and the Hemulen leaves, on good terms with all, followed by the dog, Sorry-oo, who has finally found a master he can tolerate.

Inevitably, spring comes, the sun returns, and, crucially, Moominmamma wakes up. The house is a mess, all her jam is gone, so is her silver tray (Little My used it for a sled), some rugs, her furniture. She is delighted -- there is less to clean, less to worry about. Far from misbehaving, Moomintroll has done everything right.

"Mother, I love you terribly," says Moomintroll, grateful for Moominmamma's loving, skilled and discreet transformation of bad things into good.

"I love you terribly."

That is, of course, exactly what one wants to say and to hear. Among other things, the story is about two mingled wishes: the wish to offer a love one knows is flawed and terrible, and the wish to be made the object of love in return, despite or perhaps even (oh, terrible hope!) because of one's terribleness. Jansson's free, generous genius gives form to both wishes -- and then, bless her, she gratifies them fully. It's probably worth noting that Jansson dedicated this volume of the Moomin series to her mother. Can stories cure depression? Can lost mothers be brought back to life? No, and no. But there's something to be said for the comfort on offer here, for such consolation.

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