Literaria Deformis: a history of my terrible writing.

Having been reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria — a biography of his literary life (sort of) — it occurred to me write one of my own, taking stock, though in my case the writing was frequently badly deformed — which I say somewhat hyperbolically but also having inside knowledge of how deep the unpublished valleys can be, how amateurish, never mind the character of the published or recorded peaks.

I’m going to take some time off from here, is my intention, if reflexiveness permits, and plan to be back in the New Year probably.


Highschool: bad rock songs showing no aptitude for or understanding of the spirit of the music, some talent for rhymes (Groo The Wanderer style). My best creations were joke songs. Moby Dick a game-changer in terms of taking high culture seriously: this was learned and wise but also hilarious — an escape from sitcoms. (I had an unhealthy attraction to very stale sitcoms.)

College: A lot more reading, exposure to more styles only made my ridiculous writing worse. Wildly turgid might best characterize it. Again, some joke songs, while totally egregious, and probably a sort of anti-art, were the only things done sincerely and well. A vaguely promising Blakean poem was written…. On reflection, I wonder if it is what we call the joke song that is somewhat at the root of what I call my terrible writing: not taking your feelings seriously, yourself seriously, being self-undermining — or having been undermined.

Between college and Mendoza Line: pivoted from Shakespeare imitations to Hart Crane and Rimbaud imitations. One issue: hadn’t found a contemporary writer I really admired. Also: a lot of focus on orally reciting my creations, narcissism…. I didn’t yet have any sense of just how bad my writing was.

Mendoza Line/ Athens: Very important lessons learned here, albeit imperfectly. The artwork must be humorous (not a joke: comedic) — that is to say, fun (something by the way DFW made a point of). [Perhaps that overstates the importance of humor to the artwork, but I would say that whether something is funny or not is generally a good barometer for whether it is anything at all or not — a much more reliable barometer than, say, whether it is beautiful or not, though that is also a barometer.] Second, the artwork must come out of something definite in the artist and be forcefully communicated. That seems, and is, exceedingly basic as a statement, and you would think something self-evident to anyone who has ever tried to write; but before this time I would characterize my literary efforts as having been more like academic exercises about which there was an oddly hypothetical character: as in, if one were to ever read this poem or listen to this song — which one wouldn’t, because it is laughably terrible — there are some interesting things you could say about it. You have to make things matter, was the important lesson I was beginning to glimpse.

Mendoza Line/ New York: Wrote a couple decent songs, a couple interesting prose pieces, but was really despairing by this point of ever “writing anything.” Would make a lot of fragments that never coalesced or developed. Ulysses began to figure prominently: the idea belatedly began to emerge that the mission of art was (a) to see and portray reality as it occurs in everyday life but also (b) that the only place where one could truly see the everyday was in (i) one’s own life and in (ii) very small increments of time.

Post Mendoza Line/ American Book Congress. Writing on and for the internet rather than in notebooks was a subtle influence. Also, having my head turned by all the things I saw people trying on the internet. David Horton, Flarf and conceptualism… but especially Anne Boyer, Sam Pink, John Latta, Spurious, Daniel Green. Started trying to incorporate visual elements in poems (the result of encountering Apollinaire’s Kalligrams and HTML around the same time). A period of lateral motion or regression writing-wise (I had now introduced Frank O’Hara imitations into the mix)… I did at one point write a traditional poem that almost seemed like the real thing.

Post Congress/ coffee shop. A sense of total isolation from other people writing, and a better sense for what a niche concern it all is. “Mad monologues” were my chief production around this time: when I wrote something absurdly bad, I didn’t need to erase it, I’d realized. I could instead incorporate it into a monologue spoken by the absurd individual who must have thought of such a thing. My turgid writing was an asset here: just needed to be flipped on its head. Made five to ten of these short works which seemed to come off alright. (Although I style this something I “learned”, these stories actually hearken back to my only published works, from the late 90s.)

Current. The idea, falling out of (if not directly stated by) Joyce and Proust, that life was this incomprehensible protean thing which the artist had the power to crystallize and render clear. The sameness of my routine and personal biography made it seem like an excellent laboratory in which to isolate and commit to cryogenic freezing several strains of the Proteus, but at this point the results are uncertain — it may wind up it is the laboratory that’s frozen.

Future. Want to pursue the irrational sources of songs and poems. Feel like I’ve been looking a lot at everyday experience and very consciously dutifully asking, “what is that? how do I describe that?” — the question also: “what is happening when nothing is happening?” Once I get done with my current assignment, I’d like to give my subconscious the floor. Contrary to intentional observation, writing only “out of something.” Concerned with story.

Final Reflection. I very much think of literature and pop-rock music as being different categories; I don’t think, for example, Bob Dylan is a poet in the same way John Ashbery was. However, I would say that it was through my close encounter with pop music that I got a sense for what is foundational to both art forms –making it matter– putting real spirit into a thing, which is hard to do and yet easy to forget to do.

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