Arts

No Rest for the Writer

the-day-after-1895

weary reader rest
not for too long when you pick
your head up rejoice

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In celebration of National Poetry Month and in response to Time For Poetry, a haiku by this tired writer and reader who is trying to muster up some stamina for two book reviews that are due to editors soon (books I still haven’t finished reading) and trying to look at my own manuscript with its final 10,000-20,000 words being narrowed in on. I can’t help but feel like this perfect Edvard Munch painting.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

 

This week’s topic for the Weekly Photo Challenge is “Street Life”: a place reveals itself on its streets, from pedestrians strolling during lunch time, to performers entertaining tourists on sidewalks, to the bustle of local markets, and more….

A few years ago, I used to work up in Harlem on 125th Street. It is an area that is very busy, yet, also abandoned. There wasn’t much going on outside of my office building except the big construction pit on the north side of the street, the daytime mugging I once saw, and Bill Murray in a baseball cap standing outside the office. It is a strange intersection of bustling and abandonment, an active ruin. One summer, I decided to take my camera with me. I wanted to document the city streets and the people who pounded the pavement on 125th Street, which is also home to the Cotton Club. It is an area of greys and steel, but also one of bright colors in unexpected places.

**Of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without a recommended reading list at the bottom. This is a literature blog (I hope!).

Harlem, 125th Street

Cotton Club

Harlem, 125th Street

Recommended Reading List for Harlem, 125th Street
  • Jazz by Toni Morrison; Harlem in the 1920s + jazz music
  • Invisible by Paul Auster; about ten blocks south of the Cotton Club, a tragic event takes place to snowball all of the novel’s characters
  • Open City by Teju Cole; roaming the streets of Manhattan
  • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney; 1980s hedonistic NYC told in second-person
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolffe; racial tensions run high in 1980s NYC
  • Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger; we could argue over who the true phony is, but regardless this book captures Manhattan streets of the 194/50s



 

Unfinished Masterpieces

I recently watched the 2012 BBC documentary program, Unfinished Masterpieces with Alastair Sooke.* The host begins with the eternally frustrating predicament of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the Charles Dickens novel that was never finished, because Dickens famously died during the writing of it, leaving very few clues to the intended outcome of the narrative. Biographers, historians, and artists have endlessly tried to anticipate Dickens’ wishes by both speculating about the novel’s unfinished portion and even going so far as to invent possible endings in different mediums like theatre, radio, and film, as well as boldly attempting to finish the task of writing the novel.

Alastair Sooke also looked at other unfinished works and pondered the reasons behind the unfinishedness of these respective works. Like Dickens, Jane Austen also has an unfinished novel, Sanditon, which was left incomplete because of her death. A dozen “continuations” have been penned, all trying to capture Austen’s specific voice and her intended path for the remainder of the book. When Sooke separately asked a handful of complete strangers which they would rather have, all chose to stick with Austen’s original unfinished work.

The program also took a look at works that might have been purposefully suppressed by their creators. For example, the famous portrait of US President George Washington, which is the basis for the image on the $1 bill, was left unfinished by the portraitist Gilbert Stuart. What started off as a difficult portrait, the fact that it was unfinished was a financial benefit to Stuart, who sold replicas for $100 a pop. The notoriety of its incomplete presentation might have been more lucrative for him than otherwise.  This, of course, is reminiscent to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s explanation for his unfinished poem, “Kubla Khan.” He purports of wild inspiration from an opium haze and begins writing the famous poem when he is suddenly interrupted; when he returns to the poem, all inspiration is gone and “Kubla Khan” remains unfinished. Perhaps, the story behind it is more exciting than having an actual completed work.

There are other works that Sooke investigates including newly discovered poems from English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was known for his WWI poems that captured the horrors of the war, but whose unpublished poems have a tinge of romanticizing. This conundrum of including them in Sassoon’s canon is questioned. Perhaps, the poet didn’t feel these were up to snuff and didn’t intend them to see the light of day, beside being out of step with his known views. This idea was reminiscent of other writers (who were not featured in the doc) like Franz Kafka, who famously asked that all of his documents be burned and left The Castle incomplete with the final written line ending mid-sentence and David Foster Wallace, who upon his death left an incomplete manuscript and notes on his computer. This was all gathered together by his widow, agent, and other literary folk to become The Pale King.

The question of whether we should finish something or bring to the masses an unknown work once the creator dies is debated and Sooke presents authorities with equally good arguments. Would The Garden of Eden really be a novel Ernest Hemingway would have written himself or could it only be imagined by editors after his death? Kafka wrote that he had an idea for the ending of The Castle, but who knows if it would have still been the same by the time he got there. He leaves the novel mid-sentence and incomplete, almost a perfect final note to a book so concerned with bureaucracy and never-ending frustrations. Sassoon’s poetry could have been just for himself, an attempt at a new form that didn’t quite fit with his other poems or maybe, they were simply something he was not proud of. Thus, choosing to let them go unpublished.

A whole other dilemma–the one of continuing a series–I shall leave to the documentary, but I’ll give you this small bit. Think of the long-dead novelists, Ian Fleming and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose characters–James Bond and Sherlock Holmes–are still appearing in new releases, albeit, by different authors. What an entirely different conundrum. For some reason, we are ill-at-ease when it comes to the unfinished. We like wholes, a feeling of sturdy completeness. Although, I do not count myself among them, this might be why so many people had a hard time connecting to Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. People generally dislike ambiguity and residing in the liminal.

Have you seen this documentary? Are there other famous incomplete works out there? It seems like a strange debate that I find myself on both sides of. I’m curious if anyone has additional thoughts.

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*The 50 minute program can be watched in its entirety on the BBC’s website here; I don’t know how long it will be available, so step on it.

On Writing About Places and Spaces in Fiction

How characters relate to spaces and places in fiction is an incredibly intriguing topic for me. I find myself drawn to works that have characters who find deeper meaning from the spaces or places they inhabit with their actions manifested by some connection to the place or space. Some examples are K. and the impenetrable castle in Franz Kafka’s The Castle, the shy Eleanor Vance and the wickedly haunted house in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and let’s not forget the whimsical yet frightening world of Wonderland that Lewis Carroll’s Alice must endure. 

I often find great inspiration by looking at photos, both my own and others. They help me to remember places I have been or invoke imagination. Images are very relevant to me as a writer. I shall secretly divulge my desire of creating a literary journal that would feature short/flash fiction or vignettes inspired by photos that in someway document “place and/or space.” Writers would cook up what ever they wanted based on the image. I once was involved in an anthology where writers were given carte blanche to write a piece inspired by anything at a private museum’s collection. Also, after recently translating the script of a short film for whose actual film I wasn’t able to view till after I translated it, I relied on photos and other artwork I found on the internet. Half of the script was mostly concerned with the surroundings of the narrator, whether it be in the wild or back in civilization.

So, in lieu of my imaginary literary journal, I present a photo that I can’t stop looking at and the original flash fiction it inspired.

Some would have thought it was the end of the day by how tired Martin looked. His eyes were set back and sunken in folds of skin that were cracked from the cold air that blew in from the large roll-up door that was left open during the day. When he had started working at the factory, his skin was tight and unblemished. The factory walls still looked the same, though, ever since his first day there. They were painted an industrial white that conjured feelings of both cleanliness and insanity. Once while waiting for his paycheck, Martin sat on a folding chair that was placed off to the side. He turned and looked at the walls and saw for the first time the cracks that ran up to the ceiling, the smudges of dirt that had been left by other men waiting for the same thing. Martin put his thumb to the wall and swiped it across. He had left nothing behind. Martin turned his face toward the wall and smelled. Again, nothing.

The walls didn’t smell of the factory. How could this be? He smelled it on himself, on his clothes, and on the other men who walked up and down the main floor watching as machines crunched and whirled. Martin washed his clothes, scrubbing them across a board, listening to the repetitive metallic rhythm of each stroke. The sounds reminded him of the factory’s noises and how they were never supposed to change. If there ever was a change, this meant trouble.

At the beginning of the day, Martin was already tired. The day before, he had heard a different noise on the line. Everyone came to a halt and ran to one side of the main floor. Martin stood there without moving. He looked up to the fluorescent lights that were hanging high above and squinted. Finally, he moved to the far wall away from everyone else and leaned against it. Martin didn’t look toward the wall. Instead, he rested his shoulders back and kicked up one foot to hold his balance. He didn’t think of the dirt at the bottom of his boot that, no doubt, smeared across the imperfect white.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned

The Weekly Photo Challenge this week is Abandoned. The creator shows a photo from Berlin that is excellent and writes: “I’ve always loved wandering inside and taking photographs of abandoned buildings. Ruins are fascinating: in these physical spaces, the past, present, and future are one, and time becomes fuzzy.”

I am currently working on a piece of writing that deals a lot with abandoned places, especially ones that are right in front of us, but somehow are forgotten or overlooked, hiding secrets and history. I once wrote a post titled, “Cities That Inspire Us For all Sorts of Reasons,” which included two photos relevant to this topic. Below are my photos of the block around the corner from where I stayed during my last bout in the former GDR city of Leipzig, Germany. I come back to these photos of the abandoned schoolhouse often and have even written a story about it.

Places, spaces, and how we relate to them in fiction and writing is a top fascination of mine. I thank you for indulging me and if you want to see some more excellent abandoned photos, look at the Doublewhirler photo-blog, where they have captured some haunting images of the graffitied bobsled run from the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Treasure

This week’s photo challenge topic is “treasures.” The questions asked are: What do you treasure? What’s most important to you? What I noticed from other participants is that they are taking a less literal approach than the original challenge creator.

The above photo is of the castle in Karlštejn (located in Central Bohemia), which was originally built “as a place for safekeeping of the royal treasures, especially Charles’s collection of holy relics and the coronation jewels of the Roman Empire.”¹ It towers over the small village of Karlštejn and you can’t help but notice its presence when you disembark from the train platform.

I find myself scrolling though my snapshots now and again, thinking back to my day trip a couple of years back. The castle was recommended to me as a sight to see and then I also found out that it was the castle–Das Schloß. [insert: oh good grief...here she goes again...]. This is the basis of Kafka’s castle–the strongbox that land surveyor K. just can’t penetrate. He’s spends the novel trying to gain access to the castle so he can speak with the mysterious government official known as Klamm.

Like K., I never made it inside the actual castle, but walking around it and the open air interior was still perfect. Unlike K., my inability to gain access to the rooms was due to my lack of entry payment.² The really exceptional moment is when you are standing at the top and can see the whole village below. These photos and memories are what I treasure. Below is a view walking from the train station.³

  1. History of the castle from the official website (English).
  2. Ok, so the admission is 270 koruna (~$13), but I preferred gazing at the steep stairways and looming turrets, and looking at the view from up top. Stuffy treasure rooms were not calling to me that day.
  3. On our train ride, there were 2 young Scottish brothers arguing over who would be the train conductor if the situation arose. Of course, the elder brother won by ending the conversation declaring he would be the train conductor because they’re can only be one.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Selfie

I’ve never participated in the Weekly Photo Challenge before and because of last week’s post–Bookishly Me–I felt motivated for two reasons. 1) No one has ever seen my face in this here land and 2) my undying love for Kafka and Prague. My reflection off the case surrounding a model from a film version of Franz Kafka’s short story, “In the Penal Colony.” The film never came to fruition and the model finds its home at the Franz Kafka Museum in the Lesser Quarter of the city.

I suggest going to this museum. It reminds me of a weird visual art exhibition if curated by David Lynch. Kafka’s writing is already absurd, horrifying, and kafkaesque. To whomever curates this museum–bravo. It can be so uncanny that there is even a warning sign to children at the cashier’s desk and I saw a crying girl brought out by her mother. This museum is so odd, that there is a water statue out front of two men peeing toward each other.

I have a few photos that count as “selfies” that might have been more interesting, but, alas, they showed too much of my face and for the time being, I would rather be obscured by a clay model of a man being tortured.

If you haven’t already, read “In the Penal Colony.” You can read it for free online, both in English and the original German. Enjoy!

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post script While typing this post, I accidentally typed Frank Kafka instead of Franz. I imagine Frank Kafka lives above a laundromat in Queens and enjoys Indian roti take-out. One day, someone will create a Lynchian curated museum to him, as well.

Distractions : Sunday Funday

It’s a lazy Sunday for most (unless you’re a certain quarterback or two) and before you start guzzling beer and dipping chips into various dips, here is a fun little quiz from Buzzfeed meant to predict the career you should actually have. Based on my love of Indiana Jones, travelling, and National Geographic, I thought I would be assigned ‘professional adventurer.’ Although, I’m unsure if this actually was an option. What did you get? Were you surprised?

Friday Picture Book

I planned a book review and everything for today, but it’s just not happening. So, in honor of yesterday’s post about images and visual art, I’m putting up a few of my own photos for enjoyment, criticism, and ignoring. If you are in the mood for other blog photo cruising, may I suggest: Doublewhirler, Helen McClory @Schietree, photo of the day @National Geographic, and Stuck in Customs. If you have any tips on other blogs of the photog variety, please leave them in the comments section.