The Scream

I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve been hearing it everywhere: It’s really hard to concentrate these days.

“It has been hard to concentrate on reading books and seeing movies since the election,” author A.S. Hamrah writes simply in this excellent essay about Trump and B movies for n+1. Yes, yes it has. In her sweet, intimate email newsletter last month, journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore wrote, “I haven’t had it in me to write lately, dears, and I apologize for it. Democratic inaction on the ACA repeal, the multiply broken heart, and extreme frustration over the fact that MY CORN IS NOT COMING IN has all conspired against our delightful communications.”

I’ve been troubled by this sort of stuff myself for several months now — since, oh, about November. I haven’t written much that I’ve enjoyed writing for a while, I’ve been intermittently depressed—I haven’t been able to find the kind of psychological stillness that you need to GO THERE, to get to that place. That in itself isn’t so unusual; writing is hard, and there are lots of things that, as Moore puts it, conspire against it. The strangest thing, to me, is how hard I’ve found it to read.

Reading is easier than writing—usually, anyway. Someone else has done the work; you just need to show up, and if the story or the language is good enough, unusual enough, and if you stick with it for long enough, you’ll get carried away on that current. It’s a powerful form of escapism, to be inside your mind but not really, to get a break from your own thoughts not merely by being distracted, but by actually inhabiting another person’s mind. It’s magic, when you think of it that way. Some people have compared it to time travel, but I think it’s more like leaving your body and moving along the astral plane, the closest you’ll ever get to being someone else.

For months, as I’ve been unable somehow to access this magic, I’ve felt the loss of it acutely. Sure, I actually “read” plenty: I read online news articles and everything the wonderful Masha Gessen has written for the New York Review of Books about the Trump presidency, and even the occasional personal essay, like this beautiful piece by Laura Maw that was published a few days ago in Catapult, about the film The Shining and the ways it talks about violence in the home, within families. I read the newsletter and essay that I quoted from above, too, obviously. But that experience of picking up a book and disappearing into it for a while? Looking up from the page now and then to think about one of its ideas, and an hour or two later, emerging wholly, refreshed and a little bit changed by the experience? I couldn’t do it. For a while after the election I had no interest, and for a longer while after that I missed the experience but still couldn’t do it. It’s become a problem, the way a bad or nonexistent sex life becomes a problem. You think about it all the time, but as simple as the supposed fix would be, should be, you just can’t make it work.

I remember that for months after my father died, almost 20 years ago now, my mother was plagued with the reading problem. She’s a huge reader who always has at least a couple of books going, but when she was in the depths of her grieving, she couldn’t do it. It was a kind of forgetting—not how to read, but how to want to. The desire just wasn’t there. It came back to her in bits and pieces, enough to haunt her for a while before she was able to fix it, and as I recall it was the sweet, clever Precious Ramotswe novels by Alexander McCall Smith that finally broke through and brought her back to the Land of the Reading. Grief is weird that way: It resets everything. You’re still alive but, for a time, you lose your life. If you’re lucky you eventually find your way back, though not everyone does.

My life is still in progress, I’m happy to report, and I’m writing this now because I’ve started to find my way back to it. (I’m also writing this now because writing has always been the thing that saved me, like throwing an ice axe out in front of me, one of those tough-ass climbing tools, and using it to drag myself forward along that slippery mountain’s edge. You gotta hang on, but you gotta keep moving, too.) The book that’s finally helped me remember how to live/read again (they’re the same thing) is called Scream, and it’s Tama Janowitz’s first book-length memoir, published last year by HarperCollins. I got it at the library a few days ago and have nearly finished it, and am totally confident that this time, after reading the first 10 or 20 pages of a lot of other books, I actually will. This small/ huge victory (they’re the same thing) is the result of some combination of wanting my life back and finally finding the right book, though I’m not sure I know what makes this book the right one, beyond the fact that I already knew I loved Tama Janowitz’s essays and memoir-style writing. In fact, she once wrote one of the best and most life-affirming things I’ve ever read about writing, in her 2002 collection of essays, Area Code 212: New York Days, New York Nights:

“But there is one thing I have, no matter if I can’t ever get published, or sell a book, or get an award or money or praise—I CANNOT BE STOPPED FROM WRITING.” Emphasis hers, baby. The emphasis is always hers. (She then goes on to say, “As for advice, I offer only this: Mamas, don’t let your daughters grow up to be writers.” Which I take as the feminism-edged joke that it is, and choose to ignore as actual advice.)

This new book is as deadpan-weird and hilarious as all her best writing, like a conversation with—if not a friend, a person you’d LIKE to befriend. With her stories about her friendship with Andy Warhol and the time she heard the Sex Pistols play their second-ever show at some guy’s house party in London, knowing her seems aspirational, even though she makes it clear that all of this stuff feels accidental to her. At one point she writes something to the effect that everything that’s ever happened to her seems equally weird, surprising, absurd, even the nothing-things. (She writes about those too, complaining lustily about the stupid organization of her local supermarket. She’s always pissed off, always on the verge of giving up, but never doing so.) I loved reading this because it’s a way I’ve felt many times in my life. And if everything’s equally weird, everything’s equally likely, too. Looking at the world like this has a way of making it open up to you.

I’d have to call Janowitz’s writing voice utterly unique because she is seemingly being herself COMPLETELY, all the time, in a way that most people can’t or won’t try to be. It puts me to mind of something I once read in an essay by Dorothy Allison, “Stubborn Girls and Mean Stories,” which was published in an anthology called An Angle of Vision: Women Writers and Their Working Class Roots. In it, she talks about treasuring the early “review” that her partner and the mother of her son gave her after reading one of her first books: ‘“It’s not bad,” she said. “You are the real thing.”’

The real thing. I think about this often. There can be no higher compliment, no worthier goal. That’s what Tama Janowitz is, and it’s what I am too, when I don’t forget it. I guess that’s why this book is the one that pulled me back onto land, exhausted and coughing up seawater. It has that fighting spirit. If you read between the lines, all that’s there is a will to live.

14582776997_8d04555f9a_o
“…the blade struck against a waterfall, which was rushing down near them from a lofty crag, and with a splash, which sounded almost like a burst of laughter, it poured over them and drenched them to the skin. Whereat the priest of a sudden woke from his dream…” From Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué

On public speaking

There’s reading, and then there’s readings. I do both, but I find the former much easier to do than the latter.

That being said, I’m proud to say that I do actually find it POSSIBLE to give readings these days. For a lot of my life—beginning, for some reason, in college, and lasting until around five years ago—I found the anxiety of anticipating speaking in public almost too excruciating to bear. I would always accept invitations to read—I’m too much of a huckster to feel good about saying no to an opportunity like that, and I’m always so touched to be included—but I knew that in saying yes, I was resigning myself to weeks or months of miserable worry. I just accepted this fact about them (and about myself), said Yes, thanks, I’d love to read, and coped privately with the unhappiness of it.

“It gets easier the more you do it,” everyone said, and I always smiled and nodded and thought, “But not for me!” I really believed I was the one exception to this very human rule. But as it happens, I’m not. I made myself do more and more readings even though I found it hard, because I felt it was worth it. I wanted to be a writer who gave readings, not a person who didn’t do things because they scared her. I’d get up to read and my voice shook, my legs shook, my hands shook. I’d speak quickly and apologetically, then blaze through an awkward reading from a marked-up copy of one of my zines (though I tended to sort of go blind with anxiety, so couldn’t really see my notes). I once threw up in the bathroom of an art gallery, then splashed a little water on my face and came out and read, hoping no one could smell my breath. I don’t think the readings I gave back then were very entertaining to sit through. They may not even have been audible. But I did them, dammit, and the relief I felt after sharing my work in this way I found difficult was so good, it was physical. I almost miss that feeling. ALMOST.

I’ve had a few break-throughs here and there, and the more successful events gave me a confidence I could carry with me to the next time I got up to read. At Ladyfest Philly in 2013, I was miked and professionally lit, which was a new experience for me, since I’ve most often read in bookshops, classrooms, record stores, and little show spaces in people’s houses. There was a chair and I sat in it, made myself comfortable. As I started to speak I looked out to the audience—a much bigger one than I usually read to—and found that with the bright lights in my eyes, I couldn’t really see anyone. The joy! I read so easily and comfortably on that occasion that I actually enjoyed myself, and I could feel the power in what I read. I KNEW there was a reason I kept doing this!

Over the years I have read the piece I shared that day—the essay that served as the introduction to my first book, White Elephants—as well as some others, again and again. I’ve found that with practice I can nail the rhythm and flow of a piece, make it sound as good as I know it is.

The more I do it, the easier it gets.

Now I give readings often. My partner Joe and I both write and publish zines, and over the past few years we’ve enjoyed organizing and hosting readings as well as going on tours to other cities and towns. We’re on one now, sorta, having returned from a road trip to New England last week and with one reading remaining: The Philly Zine Fest Preview Gala, tonight. First we read with friends and strangers alike at the East Falls Zine Reading Room, the small DIY space we started last year. We called the event Sad Fest and everyone read sad-sack writing and played sad-sack songs. It was great. Then we hit the road and shared some of our poems with an engaged and interested group of poets at the Golden Note Book in Woodstock, New York. The next day we drove to Boston and read our zines to a lively bunch of zinester pals at the Papercut Zine Library. And before coming back home to Philly, we did a reading at a lovely, cool bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island called Ada Books.

We never remember to take good photos of ourselves actually doing the readings, but here are some pictures from the “Dog Days, Cat Zines” tour. That’s J. fiddling with the kaleidoloop he uses to make noise-music to accompany some of his poems.


Once we’ve read at the Zine Fest Preview tonight and tabled with our zines and books at the main event tomorrow, our tour will be over, and so will the summer. That’s how I’m thinking of it, anyway. I’m ready for the fall to come so that I can indulge in some of my quieter, more private pleasures for a while: needlework, long walks, and lots of reading—rather than lots of READINGS, ya dig? But I have loved doing this tour, pushing myself and growing, meeting new people and some cats, too. It’s been a long summer but a good one, exhausting but worthwhile.

See you in the fall, folks.

 

What a Book Is

Hey gang! I’ve been meaning to get on here and write something smart about books for a while now, but I haven’t been able to. Ya wanna know why? Cuz I got appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery! And wow did it hurt. I’ve spent the last week or so unable to do pretty much anything, but today I seem to have gotten back a bit of my old vim and zest, not to mention the INTELLECTUAL RIGOR you come here for. And since an interesting new title has recently been donated to the East Falls Zine Reading Room, I think I’ll take a moment to tell you about it.

A few weeks ago I attended the Philadelphia Art Book Fair as an exhibitor. We had a table—we being The Soapbox, the DIY print- and book-making center I belong to—and were selling prints, zines, and artists’ books made by our members and giving out information about our upcoming events. We sat next to the folks from Ulises, which is a bookshop and curatorial project that brings out publications, exhibits, and lectures on a different theme each season. They were lovely guys, and I made a trade with them: a few of my zines for a copy of their publication of Ulises Carrión’s The New Art of Making Books. (You can read the full text here.) Carrión, a Mexican conceptual artist, is their project’s namesake.

By this point you may be asking, What is an artist’s book, Katie? My short answer is,
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ! My longer answer is that an artist’s book is a book, but not in the usual way. It’s a piece of art in the form of a book. The artist may make just one of these books, or she may make multiple copies or versions. And sometimes the artist’s book won’t look much like a book at all.

artbooks.jpg
See, here’s what happens when you google “artists’ books.”

The Ulises edition of The New Art of Making Books does not have a spine and is not otherwise constructed like a book in any way except that it is comprised of text that has been printed onto paper. These prints are stacked up and stapled together at the top. This not-a-book structure helps guide us toward an understanding of Carrión’s definition of a book, which he delineates by differentiating between books of the “old art” and the new.

“In the old art the meanings of the words are the bearers of the author’s intentions. … The words in a new book are not the bearers of the message, nor the mouthpieces of the soul, not the currency of communications. … The words of the new book are there not to transmit certain mental images with a certain intention. They are there to form, together with other signs, a space-time sequence that we identify with the name ‘book.'”

About those “old” books, Carrión goes on to say,

“A book of 500 pages, or of 100 pages, or even of 25, wherein all the pages are similar, is a boring book considered as a book, no matter how thrilling the content of the words of the text printed on the pages might be. … A novel with no capital letters, or with different letter types, or with chemical formulae interspersed here and there etc., is still a novel, that is to say, a boring book pretending not to be such.” Haha! No tea no shade!

reading2.jpg
So many layers of meaning.

Because The New Art of Making Books is not really a book, we had to get creative about the way we added it to our collection. Storing unusual publications like these is continually challenging, since we need to protect them but also want to store and display them for ease of use and reading. This hinge clip contraption from the thrift store does the job nicely, and serves to highlight selections from the library.

zinelibrary
Of these three, only Daniel Zender’s Escape Plans, on the left, is a “real” book. This edition of the zine You, on the right, takes the form of a photocopied letter inside of a paper bag.

In Carrión’s manifesto / essay / theory / art piece, he reminds us that in the first place, writers don’t write books, they write texts. Though The New Art of Making Books was first published in 1975, it’s even more relevant now, as I prepare this text you are reading to be “published” not as a book, but on a blog, where it can be accessed for free by anyone connected to the worldwide network known as the Internet. But that’s a conversation—about reading, literature, and the changing nature of literacy—for another day.