The BBC published an article today regarding the latest anthology to feature my work that explores the cultural and artistic questions the collection as a whole explores. It’s incredibly thoughtful, and you can read it here.
“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affection and the truth of the imagination.”- John Keats
The creation of art is an ecstatic practice that is strongest when it is born from the eternal mystery bound within us from Newton’s limitless universe. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi terms these ecstatic states as “Flow.” Scientists term them as hypofrontality, a slowing of the prefrontal cortex resulting in a loss of ego. Artists speak of them mystically as when the muse takes over. No matter the definition applied, these selfless and timeless states allow artists to do their best work. In these waking dreams, there is no self to judge or interfere with. As writers, we are only taking dictation and trying to keep up. For the last few years, I have been studying practices to cultivate these periods of rich not-being. But this search is as old as humankind.
In the twelfth century, Suffi Muslims practiced reciting divine names and prescribed breathing methods and body postures to transcend to higher states. The same practices can be found in some Kabbalistic Jewish sects of that time, Gnostic Christians, Zen Buddhists, Yogic mystics, and beyond. Each is a method to leave the ego to reach the unseen. We all should find a practice to set our conscious minds aside for the divine. Cold exposure, trail running, and yin yoga have helped me immensely.
Karen Armstrong in her work A History of God relates that the words “myth,” “mysticism,” and “mystery,” all derive from the Greek verb “musteion” which means to shut one’s eyes or mouth. The senses that focus on the present are barriers. Therefore I meditate before I write to silence everything that isn’t this now.
Csikszentmihalyi found creative consciousness is not either/or, but both/and. Steven Kotler condenses this into the formal: creativity equals pattern recognition (linking of ideas) plus risk-taking (courage to bring the novel into being). Both of these mind states create dopamine in the brain, the hormone that creates a sense of well-being in expectation of reward.
The Flow Collective through fMRIs found that Flow exists on the border of alpha and beta brainwaves. But Flow also requires gamma waves which are fast-moving, make connections and drive binding neurons which are literally physical connections between two ideas. And gamma waves depend on theta brainwaves which appear when we meditate, practice yoga, or walk in nature.
To create one has to make space for that hypnagogic state between dreams and waking to arise. The richest ideas arise when our minds are free of surface concerns. When we cultivate these spaces we allow our brains to rejuvenate with oxytocin and dopamine. We also experience an uptake in anandamide (from the Sanskrit “ananda” meaning blessed) that binds to the same neural connectors as THC and promotes openness and relaxation. This better enables us to overcome the innate resistance we feel when it comes to doing the work.
Romantic poets like Keats and Wordsworth understood the necessity of submission to the natural world, of feeling rather than knowing, and leaving the logical deliberate mind behind. Even pessimistic philosophers like Schopenhauer felt that salvation could still be found in nature and art.
Transcendence is a fundamental need not only to be an artist but to simply be. In an unpublished paper found after his death psychologist, Abraham Maslow listed transcendence as the sixth, and therefore highest, a human necessity on his revised Hierarchy of Needs.
I offer this to encourage you to step outside yourself, make room for the muse, and find your own practice to better not-be. When we are better able to escape ourselves we can do more than we reasoned possible. It is science and mystery; something we have always sought.
Williams Wordsworth “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”
Steven Kotler The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer
Listen to this:
Tia Blake “Plastic Jesus”
My Own Private Antarctica
“You wait. Everyone has an Antarctic.”- Thomas Pynchon, V.
The depths of winter used to remind me of the last lines of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” In it, the narrator states, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” That refrain resonated across snowbanks, rang in the hollow spaces between icicles, and murmured in the wake of the metallic rattle of salt trucks. But after almost a year of quarantine, I feel disconnected from the poetic longings of the Modernists. Instead, I have contemplated the aching of the Romantics. Out my window, it is easy to picture the expanse of Antarctica forcing a singularity of being. Its gales cut the dreaming strands of connection. Sheets of snow stacks onto sheets of snow in the night.
“Be so good that they can’t ignore you.” – Steve Martin
Victor Hugo published five volumes of poetry before The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He so badly missed his deadline that he gave his assistant all his clothes, wore only a smock, locked himself away, and wrote until the work was done. He tore himself apart in isolation, loving an image, and lived as his as Quasimodo.
I write every day and make progress. I am not driven by desire or desperation but miss both. I move ahead hitting keys to avoid the sense of erasure. There is hope still. I haven’t woken up.
“Dreams are what you wake up from.”- Raymond Carver
Thomas Pynchon wrote in his debut novel V. that everyone has an Antarctic, a barren expanse that must be suffered if one is to reach themself at last. Progress is reduction. Explorers like Shackleton and Amundsen made peace with what they abandoned. Survival, like holy enlightenment, results from stripping away.
“Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”― Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake
In 1770 the seventeen-year-old poet Thomas Chatterton committed suicide alone in an attic apartment. After his death, he became an emblem of the Romantic Hero: sensitive, misunderstood, and doomed. It is an easy archetype to love: youth, beauty, and sacrifice. The trouble is that no one long grieves the vanished. Martyrdom does not engender reverence. The hero of the Romantics was doomed and heartbroken, but in a world where most are, their sacrifice falls mute. So we trudge on against the ice and winds, learn to empty our hearts and minds to transverse the glaciers that split under our feet. Writers return to words. Musicians to movements. The horizon darkens and narrows, but we steel ourselves to relate undying love as best we misunderstand each other.
The Dry Valley in Antarctica hasn’t seen snow or rain in two-million years. It is often colder there than the surface of Mars. NASA used it to test its Viking spacecraft. Later these landed on Mars and found proof that waters once covered its face. Buried miles beneath the Antarctic ice are over 300 lakes. They are rescued from freezing from the heat of the Earth’s core. Half the world is covered by waters over a mile deep that have never know the sun. In the depths of our souls, we hold bodies that reach for the sun, that wait to be revealed.
The future is as impossible as tomorrow. After a year of crystalized solitude are we hopeless romantic strays, or explorers breaking our bodies to reach a world we hardly recall? When I write late at night I try to find the fire of ambition. In the night sky, ancient heroes burn in constellations. On winter nights, I search for the North Star. My breath is fog. There are no questions. The ice will melt in the rain soon. I am restless, but I move ahead.
My book review of Elle Nash’s new collection Nudes from Short Flight/Long Drive books will be published by Entropy on February 22nd. You can read it next Monday at Entropymag.org.
An anthology that includes my flash fiction has an upcoming review in The Guardian in the UK. I will share the link when it is up.
Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. His novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” included is worth reading the book alone.
Listen to this:
Marianne Faithfull “Plaisir d’amour”
Billy Strings “Enough to Leave”
“The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.” – Stephen Hawking, A Brief of History of Time
Recently the concept of time has been on my mind, both the mechanics we measure it with and the philosophical leaps it engenders. A year passes into the next, and we sense revival. We buzz with the static of another shot for the world turned kind again. It is easy to forget that all the demarcations on time are only dreams agreed upon. Still I prefer to dream. But lately I have become an observer of myself in time.
As early as 1,500 B.C. the Egyptians used sundials to divide the day into two twelve-hour cycles. Later the Romans would calibrate clepsydras (water clocks) using sundials to tell time when there was no sun. The seven day week was firmly established in the 4th century by Roman Emperor Constantine. The early divisions between was, now, and will be were in place.
“The two most powerful warriors are patience, and time.” Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Seek pain. That is the theme of this month’s Go Ruck challenge I have signed up for. Go Ruck is a training program developed by former Special Forces officers based on rucking (hiking with a weighted backpack) and CrossFit. Since January 1st I have hefted a thirty-pound sandbag onto my back, and moved out regardless of the weather. It is satisfying to endure and do. The stoic philosopher Seneca said, “The obstacle is the way.” The more I suffer the more stillness I find inside.
The pendulum clock was improved by Galellio. The wristwatch appeared in World War I. In 1950 the National Physical Laboratory developed the atomic clock with the second as its prime unit of measure. In the 1960s the invention of the laser allowed time to be measured to the attosecond (1018) which became the standard for international time.
“The trouble is, you think you have time.”- Jack Kornfield, Buddhist teacher
I bought an Ink+Volt planner for this year. In it I note my goals with their timeframes, and track how my time spent aligns with them. It is a North Star to guide myself through the fog of days passing.
The scientific standard for measuring time is called the “caesium standard”. This measures the exact number of cycles of radiation – 9,192 631,770 – that it takes for a caesium 133 atom to transition from one state of energy into another. We have reduced our markers for time from the Sun to the atom.
But time may be as much a dream as the dream of newborn grace on the horizon. Carlo Rovelli in The Order of Time posits the mechanics of the universe exist outside of time. He argues events are the only true measure of time. Time is what we remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”- Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
Time is what we hold in the afterwards, and what we do now. It is what we are mindful of rather than when. Even in our cherry blossom lives we can warp time with a memory or a single line written.
“The Illusion of Time” Andrew Jaffe, Nature
Atomic Habits James Clear
Listen to this
Irma Thomas “Time is On My Side”
When Paul Gauguin was my age he arrived in Tahiti after cutting his prior life adrift. The previous year, 1891, he had lost his job as a stockbroker after a market collapse and faced a choice. He had to decide whether to chase the security and respectability of a professional track, or give up all he had built to paint. Either decision meant surrender. In the end he elected to live as an artist, and sailed to Tahiti in search of the primal life he imagined there. Though personal desolation was likely he vowed to end what he saw as a cycle of generational submission to a prescribed being.
“The work is to become native to one’s own heart.”- Gary Snyder
I have been studying the lives of artists for next year’s project, and appreciate the sacrifice Gauguin made. Admire is the wrong word. The impressionists only had eight showings, and his paintings had not ignited the public fervor that others had. Gauguin understood how terribly chasing his passion could. His close friend Vincent van Gogh only sold one painting in his life even though his brother was an art dealer in Paris and promoted his work. Still Gauguin left the mooring of respectable existence to follow sirens’ song innate in an artist’s heart.
This year (by fortune, forfeit, or failure) I have followed Gauguin’s model. For a while I wavered on the line of commitment that he did, and we all must. I considered a position in Texas, and turned down another in Michigan which I dreamt romantic but felt stranded. I moved away from the angry, contracting world, from social media and the news cycles, and retreated into the wild where no howl or birdsongs can break the peace I find there. I surrendered to my writing completely for the first time in my life. There is no chart to follow, no shore on the horizon, but I am sailing.
“Suffering is not enough.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
And I stay busy. At times I feel like a prisoner who dreads his release because he has so much left to do in his private world. My French is gradually improving from daily study. My trail runs are quicker. A few weeks ago I refurbished a mid-90s Giant Boulder 500 hardtail mountain bike, and can ride rock falls and jumps I would never have tried before. Every bruise a lesson.
“Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become that path himself.” – Henry Miller, Henry Miller on Writing
The novelist Richard Ford says that every novel has to make its own place in the world. They are not needful things. I like to think that every novel is a love letter, and keep faith without signs that if you love hard enough then others will too. Though I am careful to adopt any story I tell myself a fact or a guiding star for now it is enough to dream of beautiful islands offering refuge somewhere on the other side of the words I leave in my wake as I cut ahead through the headwinds of this stormy year.
Vincent van Gogh The Letters of Vincent van Gogh
Listen to this:
Philip Glass Glassworks
Amyl and the Sniffers “Some Mutts”
“Mystery and Melancholy” -Giorgio De Chirico
Last week I parked on the shore of the St. Claire river, staring off at a Canada that Americans are barred from entering, and listened to French talk radio. The temperature was 22 degrees Celsius. There was no rain. Everything else broadcast was lost on me. But I loved the rhythm of the syllables as they matched the river’s lapping, and regretted my French was so terrible. I took one year of French in eighth grade. At thirteen there is nothing a boy can learn except through injury. Now I can hardly remember the words for “I love you.”
France has been on my mind since I spent that day alone on the shore. Not the France of today, but of the Impressionist, Post-impressionist, Surrealist, and New Wave. Nostalgia is stronger than history. And it is easy to become nostalgic for a life only lived through print and pictures. Lately I have been studying painters and filmmakers. One’s artistic voice is a fusion of personal experience, the beliefs it breeds, and the limits of his or her vision. Medium does not matter.
“The whole art of poetry is to say what can’t be said. So every poet, every artist, feels when he gets to the end of his work that there is something absolutely essential that’s been left out.”
– Alan Watts
Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical Art painted the distance and threats he saw growing down even the most peaceful lanes. Matisse rejected shape, perspective, and detail in favor of the bold impact of primary colors. Andre’ Breton and the Surrealists scavenged beauty from the out-of-context, strange, and chance associations. They valued the art of children and the insane because they were liberated from the constraints of reason. In a France where reflecting the concrete was prized these artists climbed to replicate fluidity and dream state.
“…resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality” – Andre Breton
Still, visions remain composed of fragments from the waking life we are destined to return to. French New Wave filmmakers like Godard understood this, but filmed the facts of living we hide in our games, in the unsaid. In his Le Petit Soldat the heroine is stunning because her stoicism averts naked passion. A man begs for her love, risks his life and freedom, light cigarette after cigarette. She combs her hair, tranquil, only answering the questions she cares to. She tests his hunger with silence edged with promise. And promise is our greatest drug. In Breathless the heroine interviews an artist. She asks about the place for women in society, and other questions to weigh his heart. When he turns away, a knowing comes to her eyes. She has stolen a confession and passed judgement.
“What is your life’s greatest ambition?”
“To become immortal- then die.” – Breathless
I offer this as a fire door- an exit. A confusing wash of the everyday and bizarre is where joy lies waiting. I am writing this because this is a year of unemployment, sickness, anger, and burning. But we can escape through the logic of constructed nonsense, or by stepping past this surface life to interview our shadow selves. Now, even if helpless to forget, we should learn a new way to say, “I love you.”
Jean-Luc Godard Le Petit Soldat
(English subtitles available)
Andre Breton “Manifesto of Surrealism”
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Plagiarism is the highest crime an artist can commit since we survive on our imaginations. Our thoughts are our currency. But as in every justice system there are degrees and contradictions. Petty thefts are not only tolerated, but encouraged. T.S. Elliot, in an oft-abbreviated quote worth reading in its entirety, states that “Mature poets steal.” Nearly all undergrad poetry students take part in at least one found poetry exercise where they are sent out to scavenge words from the fire extinguishers instructions, soda can labels, warning from student health pamphlets. Then back in class, they wrestle to massage their scrounged vocabulary into lines and stanzas greater than their parts; to see the splendor waiting in fragments. For the last few months I have shoplifted words liberally from my daily reading. When my own prose lags I go to my list and read “whipsawed,” “raw-boned,” “carousel,” “luster.” The right word is waiting there to fall into place. Then I can go on. Never steal lines, but pocket single words on the sly. Beauty will be exonerated.
Do this. Go to a place foreign to your experience. Become a strip mall explorer. This week I wandered into a violin shop with no musical ability, history, or cultural touchstone beyond fiddles bowed wildly in the bluegrass dive bars of my youth. It was an empty midday and the owner, with nothing else to do, generously gave me a tour of each gleaming wood grained femme oiled with care. Violins from Norway with carved dragon heads like Viking longships. Body-less practice violins whose strings could only whisper notes. Violins the size of my hand meant for toddlers. He played a Stroh violin with its tin horn amplifier while telling stories of European street musicians long dead. I learned about horsehair strings, and the best rosin. Each instrument was its own handmade creature. The owner glowed; consumed with his singular passion. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t there to buy. I listened with genuine interest, and that is all anyone truly wants- to be heard and matter. I left serene, if envious that I will never have such a sole obsession in my life. My magpie mind roams to learn. It drifts to catalogue souvenirs and stories that glimmered.
“There has to be an imaginary point, a non-place, where language intercepts with our concepts of time and space. And he is a stranger at this crossing without words or bearings.”
–Don DeLillo The Body Artist
One of the books I read this week that I can’t recommend enough is Don DeLillo’s surrealist short novel The Body Artist. In such a brief work it strikingly interweaves questions of time, reality, consciousness, being, gender, memory, and art. It is one of the few books I’ve read twice this year, and I still feel as if there is so much there to mine.
My own writing is going well. The new novel is advancing with care. I am also line-editing my punk rock coming-of-age novel Dream Kids before its next full content edit. Punk rock is a hall pass; an invitation to devolve into the gross kids we were and love in memory. Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” becomes The Cramps “Naked Girl Falling down the Stairs.” We need dumb fun. We need to play. We need to remember to forget.
Don DeLillo The Body Artist
Listen to this:
Sloppy Seconds “You’ve Got a Great Body, but Your Records Collection Sucks”
Niccolo’ Paganini “Caprice for Solo Violin, Op.1 No. 4”
For the last few weeks I have lost control of my dreams. They are too consuming; vivid as waking life. Scenes heavy with symbols lead me through timelines, unlived but concrete. Shipwrecks. Empty highways. Cramped foreign apartment; the bed unmade. I see fingers woven into mudras, sweating in the Empty Quarter. Signs from a deaf language. They spring me awake at four in the morning. I could blame the flood endogenous DMT, or believe they are prophecies. But neither satisfies. There are messages I am failing to decypher.
Even in daytime living I can’t help but think about dreams, both the Morpheus plays I remember and the aspirations I once clung too. The taxonomy of what to be. When I imagined being a writer I felt molded to be one of the broken ones who watched the world with orphan eyes. A blue-collar writer like Raymond Carver, escaping the orchards and processing plants of Yakima to return to it always. A beaten down poet like Kerouac shivering in a Colorado railyard, paperback tucked in his too thin workman’s jacket. A bohemian wander like Rilke desperate to be loved, only to die in the arms of his doctor in a sanatorium.
The last seems least possible now. There is no pause for honest communion. In his life Rilke traveled near destitute across Europe where he met Tolstoy and Pasternak, Nietzche and Rodin. The image of the Bohemian artist, ever journeying to meet his own has been replaced by the immediacy of digital interactions that last no longer than a wink, a wave of the hand. But how can you know another’s art, their heart, if you haven’t heard their voice, eaten their food, or shared their drink? In my bohemian dreams artists would crash on each others’ couches, share work penciled fast onto lined paper, and sing until the streetlights fell dark one at a time. This was romance. And romance, like our highest prayers, is a phenomena of the mind.
I dream of Lou Andreas-Salome. The forgotten muse who inspired Rilke and Nietzche, who was the center of the mandala from which poets and sculptors leafed and spiraled. The first female psychoanalyst, a prolific author, and a woman who demanded freedom despite the rules of society and the offerings of orchestrals and poetry. For this much is true: no mass movement of creation was ever sparked without the gravity of a woman. Men are too lost, too child at heart, to found a tide of wonder alone. Lou Andreas-Salome. You broke so many hearts, and now a century past, we know how best to break our own.
Listen to this
Friedrich Nietzsche “Hymnus an das Leben”
Rainier Maria Rilke “To Lou Andreas-Salome”
Anais Nin “Talks about Lou Andreas Salome”