CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
I am in the wake of having finished a small writing project and this is always a depressing place to be. Is this fundamental to the process?
I do really feel like everything I try to do turns into sand. And this isn’t just me being sad about having written a first draft with problems. Because when I write a first draft, it is the first product of a process that has taken months. Some people figure out while they write and then do about twenty-four drafts. I think about the story for a month or seven months, write an aggressive outline, and then plug in what was lacking in the skeleton. I have explained this all before.
But the one thing you cannot get down in an outline is the ending. The ending must always be pitch perfect. And you cannot ensure a perfect pitch during the concert solo if you have only practiced before going up on stage. You can plan the world over for a knock-out performance, but unforeseen things happen. We are caught in an evil net. You could get sick. Heck, you could die!
What really happens in a story, however, is that the story gets away from you. No matter how much you outline, when you throw down a thread that thread must always be connected or get cut. Pieces of the outline render themselves unconvincing in the light of what has been written. And once all the pieces have been laid down, there can only be one single way to end the story. And it is never what you had outlined.
The other problem that I have noticed is that even if you feel at home with the themes and symbols chosen, you will nevertheless seek to discover how those symbols interplay while writing. The urge to discover is irresistible, but it must be squashed. You must squash the urge to discover by abusing the dialog of your characters into pondering what this experience or that experience might mean in their lives. A philosophizing character will be the end of us all, especially if it is the crazy wife who up to that point had nothing but inchoate and obnoxious things to say.
Oh it’s all just vanity and vapor. I have been reading John Steinbeck’s journal he was writing as he worked on East of Eden and it has been the best book on writing indirectly I have ever read. But in it he maintains the orthodox doctrine of all beginning artists. And that orthodox doctrine, the foundational doctrine of all writers, is that they write to get at the mysterious and get at the impossible and get at the unseen. And it takes sweat and tears and an ambition and drive and pursuit that is always threatened by the natural, perishable things. But even in his forties, Steinbeck still had that urge. It is the beginning urge to capture the visions in your head. But the visions are not just some image or some plot or some character. It really is—and this is the orthodox, eternally pretentious line—a mysterious thing. It feels inside the brain like a textured, embedded thing. And the only way to get at it, to carve it out, is to write the story.
In this past story, I was trying to capture some vision of the eternal melancholy I get in the autumn months. Bound up in that is how I recall my childhood and how I recall the midwest and how I recall belief in God. I cannot tease these threads out but by writing a fitting end. And I failed to write a fitting end to the story. Yet again as Steinbeck said, you can only hope that some of that vision ekes out. If you’re lucky.
All that said, today is a low day. And everyone has those and there has been no discernible failure or sin on my part, except for the partial desire to wallow in this feeling, for it might justify future failures. As it stands now, I aim to maintain a long-ago kindled fire of joy. Meanwhile, I do feel like a failure who is not good at communicating or having conversations, who will not get into an MFA program even though he tried and who should maybe stop writing because it all just turns to sand.
What has compacted this depression and sense of inability is that the next story I was supposed to be writing just sounds like a complete joke. A complete and utter joke. I don’t want to write it. “But you don’t have to!” you say. Oh yes I do, I reply, and it is only a matter of time before I get a whole pile of ideas for the world building.
Until then, I am waiting for something beyond my control as the story ferments. I cannot just drum up the material necessary to make the story feel full and alive. But this is one of the longest processes. To think of the story and let it develop in your mind. I am depressed about it, because I see now how little thought I actually have put into the story as I sleep and eat and roam about the world.
The sad thing is that I need to tell it. Don’t ask me how or why. The additional sad thing is that I have the creeping suspicion that it is going to be a cataclysmic failure on par with the failure of my absurdist novel that took me eight months to write that seems to have gotten me nowhere for it is full of the most insane and inane elements combined since Francois Rabelais’ brain farts. And with this next story, how and to whom am I supposed to justify the scene where giant monsters battle each other? Someone perform deep exegesis on this and justify me.
But that is the temptation always, to undermine the natural force of the story by saying, “It must be explained outright in words other than the story.” I must resist this. The story is justified by the coherence. And the coherence is what makes the ending perfect. Now if only we could harness these forces and place them in a jar inside the chamber of our heart, that would be a real achievement.
The other reason why I feel depressed perhaps is because this week the task at hand is to not work on anything creative, but rather to write statements of purpose and take my driver’s test and edit old stories. When you add up these three things you get me sleeping in until noon. Would that this work involved grueling through a new story. But for now that is not open to me, for the time now is for foment and doing all that I have avoided, which is to look at the failures of my past foments. And to be appalled and to move on.
So let it be. Let us chart our course for the sun and pray for those who have real troubles and wake up early in the morning before the day grows evil and we stay in our apartments and we give up when we sense some dark we have to walk blindly through. What is this darkness for? It is not something that comes upon us. We are always walking in the darkness and it is only the moments when things seem to be alright and clear that we must fear. But that is why we have the light given to us, so we can be the lights in the dark place and the dark place is the perishable earth itself and these low days that number as many as the days of our lives.
We are all caught in an evil net. May Chewbacca cut us out.
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
I just got done writing a short story called All is Vaping and I want to get this in writing before I forget it, but I discovered what the story is really doing. What the story is doing is showing that all the fear and loathing as demonstrated by the book of Ecclesiastes, all that existential angst and weariness, points to the need for an eternal home.
Of course in one sentence this seems like a simple proposition, but when it comes to the thick of it, the very thing that points to God is often the thing that those who are not on the best of terms with God use to deny him. We make things so complicated for ourselves. We do not want to be saved, we do not want to get better, we do not want to admit how scared we are. So we pacify our fear of the vapor of all vapors, our own lives, by telling ourselves we have achieved distance from our fear. We have come to treat the fear as a badge of our years without addressing the fear. We are familiar with the fear, but we never at root see it for what it is. Wrapped up in the fear, and the fear is that all we do here is empty, is the necessity for there to be more beyond us, some being that watches our every move and in fact is judging our every thought and weighing it. The ones who are not on the best of relationships with the Creator say that they despise if this were the case, to have our thoughts weighed. But in fact we all wish so very much for our thoughts to have at least some weight, to amount to something. Without the Creator, our thoughts are as vapor. Our lusts are vapor, our urges vapor, our insights and bits of wisdom vapor. They are vapor of vapors and so is our life. What we want is for someone to at least take us seriously, to take our thoughts seriously, to tell us that what we do and what we spend our time with has weight to it.
But we refuse to accept the weight when Ecclesiastes says the weight is there. Ecclesiastes says, “Watch what you do and say.” God will hold us accountable. All of those vapors come burdened with responsibility. We only recoil from this, because we are all a little bitch who wants to be safe while simultaneously getting our own way.
But God has placed eternity into our hearts and what is more, he has placed these eternal things into an uneternal world, yet we are the ones to blame who cut off our own access to that which we crave. We crave the eternal in our hearts to be placed in a vessel fitting. The world we see now and the homes we make now are not the fitting vessels quite yet and we will never learn how to enjoy them until we, as the book of Ecclesiastes says, know that we must go to our eternal home.
It is the blind man who reads Ecclesiastes and says it is a hopeless book, that is it nothing but existential dread. That man’s reading of the book is what condemns him, because he cannot see the hope inherent in a proclamation like this: “God will hold everything you do and say with the weight you wished it were measured with.” The hopeless man will always be hopeless and the man with wisdom will always be wise and the fool will always be a fool and the wind turns around and comes back again and we must contemplate whether we want to be part of those who prove that there is something new under the sun within the borders the natural rules set for the imperfect vessel of creation, a vessel that with its unnewness cries out for newness, cries out for the new life of one who weighs in his mind the seriousness of his thoughts and his fears and says to God the father, “I am scared, because the world you made cannot contain everything within me. This life span cannot contain everything within me. What does it all come to?”
And when the windows break and the grasshopper drags itself along and the ladies stop singing, then we can say that what it all comes to is perfection of the eternal home made out of the world worn away with wind after wind and life after life. The winds themselves will cry out, “Enough! There is nothing left in us.” But we will be the ones that are left after the winds die out, our eternal souls unfurling in their new home with the rage of a perpetually burning fire.
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
There is nothing mysterious about the acquisition of ideas. The beginning of a story is when something in the world encounters me and I have the heart and eyes to endure this encounter. This adds up to finding an idea worth writing about. That is all. I find a bit of world worth writing about. And why is it worth writing about?
It is worth writing about, because I do not understand the thing yet. I do not yet understand the thing and that is why it seems worth writing about. I am never interested in writing about something I already feel I understand. If I feel like writing about something I understand, that is motivated by the rediscovery of that thing’s novelty. I want to write about the thing, because I believe that there is something to understand about it that I do not yet understand. I would not write about something I do not understand if I believed that there was nothing worth understanding.
Some of this has to do with personality. The material is chosen because there are key things about the world that interest me, though I might not be able to name them. Maybe someone who has read all of my stories could say, “You seem preoccupied with these things.” Maybe that is true and maybe that means that what I do not understand are the very things that preoccupy me. Maybe I am preoccupied, because I continue to not understand the same items of interest.
What I find interesting about this is that I time and again feel I have achieved understanding only to lose it again. But if that is true, then I am no better or worse off than the Israelites, even the remnant, who time and again required the reminders of a weekly Sabbath and an annual atonement and many other bits of rigamarole like special undies in order to get it into their thick skulls that this is true and that is not true—and though this is supposed to be written on the tablet of my heart, it was supposed to also be written on the tablet of the Israelites equally as God so clearly expected and therefore, I am no worse off as a child of the New Covenant if in my work I seek to understand what I often forget. Of course, it is much more particular than this. It is much more particular, because the truths I am supposed to remember can seem quite different if we have named the limits. What do I mean?
Take for example the truth that Jesus has paid for all of our sins. What does this truth look like when the limits have been set by an item of interest? Say the item of interest is the failed relationship between a father and son or say it is a battle in history or say that it is old houses coming alive to murder those who abused them.
Here is an equation. Take two truths and set the parameters of the two truths and what is at the other side of the equation? What do those two truths, limited by a set, equal? The process of writing the story and the process of reading the story is the equals sign and the conclusion of the story itself is what it all adds up to in the end.
I’ve gotten obscure on you, so let me rein this back in. I was talking about the origin point of stories. The origin point of stories comes from the addition of some bit of world that does not yet have meaning to any number of truths that are already accepted in order to discover the real value of the unknown variable. What is the unknown variable? The variable is the bit of world that is not yet understood. We come to understand the variable by plugging into the equation what we already understand.
You can also invert this, but who cares? This is just abstract gymnastics. Anyway, I will tell you how to invert it if you have spent the time paying attention to the drifting of the clouds. Often by using a bit of world you do not understand, you actually discover that what you understood before was not understood. By using an unknown variable, we also come to discover the true value of the known elements. It is a way of digging deeper into reality. None of this can happen without writing the story, without actually working out the problem and showing your work. Who knows what turns you will have to take while working out the problem.
MICHAEL THOMAS JONES
Last night I again found myself absorbed in one of Miyazaki’s spectacles (Porco Rosso) and I remain awestruck at his pure love of flight. I’m delighted by his portrayal of the unity of man with technological instrument – in this case, planes. It is so fitting for his chosen medium that he loves what he loves. Animation is perfectly equipped for the display of spatial relations, movement, light, speed, action. However, if we have found ourselves inheriting a different tool than animation (let’s say the written word), what things ought we to love, to turn our attention towards, in order to best describe the world according to the nature of the tools we have been given?
Words must be concerned with invisible things. The description of spatial relation is important to any story, of course, but it is not the glory of words. It is much more satisfying to watch animation of planes in flight than it would be to read a book about planes in flight, because flight is a kind of movement – it is itself a kind of animation. That’s not to exclude planes from being literary subjects. We are all literature’s loyal subjects. Thankfully the word when honored carefully is in turn a caring ruler, and makes its own contribution to the common good. Literature’s primary gift (and thus the writer’s primary concern) is the consideration of invisible things.
Invisible things may include: memory, history, sound, rhythm, smell, taste, texture, pain, bond, weight, love, desire, thought, ought, honor, pressure, dream, hope, understanding, sympathy, death, the dead, and God.
Some of these things may be displayed with visual representation, of course. Cartoonists, painters, and iconographers are very clever at arranging visual symbols and relationships in order to communicate interior truths. Nevertheless, it’s inherently more difficult to convey something invisible, such as someone’s interior monologue, with painting or film. This is why narration in film can be quite annoying. We didn’t buy tickets to hear narration – we want to see pigs fly.
The glory of the written word is to describe invisible things and hidden interiors. It can explore particular systems of significance in more detail and depth than images are able without great gymnastic effort. This is why God gave us sacred scripture instead of a sacred scrapbook.
We must note that God is a God of words: creating the world with a word, he also provided believers with precise words to be believed. He also gave us a certain kind of image: people. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. As are we. So images are very important, but for religious practice, the kind of images we are suppose to be creating are living ones – you know, babies. Religious life must deal with people, living images who have words, instead of graven images, which are wordless.
Cinema is astounding, because it gives life to the lifeless – a brief, phantom life. Those who are now dead are still allowed to speak and move. Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, whoever: none of them have ever stopped moving, really, as long as we keep playing their films. But all we’ll ever see of them are their beautiful faces. All we’ll ever hear are the crisp deliveries of words written by faceless figures in smoky Hollywood offices in buildings that no longer stand. It is only with words (practically speaking, written words) that we get to hear the silent inner voice of a soul. A book is a door into an invisible home into which we are invited, with great hospitality, through words.
But writing is also very much concerned with the dead, whether the words are inscribed on an ancient stele or your grandfather’s tombstone. Words may be printed in a book to tell us of faded histories or of people who never lived at all. Words are simply signs, and books bear within themselves great chains of significance made briefly visible through letters. It is not enough that we preserve the books themselves from decay, but that we continue to read, ponder, and write new books that continue reproducing the chains of significance (not unlike genetic information) within the hearts and minds of currently living readers. Contemplating words must help us contemplate death and all our mortal limitations, but also the radiant traditions passed down to us from the dead, traditions of wisdom we wish to pass on to those not yet alive. Those who are not yet alive are, in a way, also dead.
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
There is an island in the north where people sleep with rock creatures made out of their own dreams.
But one night as his spider lover curled her limbs around him, Astar looked to the sky and saw a bright light swirl by and descend, shining, to the peak of Sqwol Mountain.
“What is that?” he said.
But the stone spider did not answer him, because no one had ever taught the stone creatures to speak.
With Astar’s heart set on the shining thing, the furred flesh of the spider crunched back to stone. So Astar wormed his way out of the cold cage of her legs. And though he did not say it out loud, Astar asked the second most important question, “What am I?”
He had no clear answer, but he knew what he wanted to do. Astar wanted to be the first man to climb Sqwol Mountain. Astar wanted to bring back the shining thing. He could see himself in his mind now, bringing back in his arms whatever it might be, saying to everyone laying with their pale lovers, “Look what I have found.”
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
The first line of a bad poem popped into my head yesterday as the plane landed. The poem would be bad, because I had written it. The line was, “When the buzz has worn off.” And in the half-conscious state of being awoken by a landing, I felt that this line was freighted with a great deal of significance.
But mostly, I thought about how my one and only love of words has gone for days without any longstanding flirting or acknowledgment from me.
I wonder why I wake up some Mondays feeling a strong lack of personal value—that is, what value do I have to offer?—and besides the obvious answers that it is LoVe of good things and TrUsT in God, the acute and unobvious answer always ends up being that I have gotten sort of, em, randy for imagination. The malaise sets in when I have only for a few days not gone into the unrealized realm to hunt and capture those fleeting images that for my entire life have been the one thing that puts the value back into, em, ha. ha. —> reevaluating reality!!
All I came here to say was that when I don’t write, Caleb get angry and you won’t like when Caleb get angry. I apologize to all the friends right now who in the past two days were subject to mild pissyness for Caleb’s sake. Together we will make patience great again.
But we have been here before. If you have read anything on this blog, you will know that every other post by me is something like, “What am I doing with my life? Why do I feel so bad? Oh yeah, that’s because I am not doing what I love as the proper worship and devotion dedicated to the one I love.”
May we all take joy in our toil and when the buzz has worn off, may we seek out the buzz again, being buzzed on the work provided by the spirit of God that indwells all humans seeking to please their God with the devotion of labor rooted in the joy of a world renewed by death and a faith that provides the means to make it through that death day by day.
I could say more about the idea of being buzzed on labor subject to the right master, but for now I will let things lie. For the harvest is plentiful and the laborer is you.
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
A guy named Gary G. Porton famously defined midrash as:
“a type of literature, oral or written, which stands in direct relationship to a fixed, canonical text, considered to be the authoritative and revealed word of God by the midrashist and his audience, and in which this canonical text is explicitly cited or clearly alluded to.”
I have written a midrash by this definition. Reading Isaiah 44, I was impressed by the level of detail Isaiah goes into in order to mock those who make idols. But as he described the process of crafting idols, I thought, “This almost sounds like a reasonable vocation.” Leveling things out with a plane, oh my! Idol makers are artists.
I wanted to portray a crew of idol makers as sympathetically as possible in order to show that genuine artistic tendencies can be the instruments of idolatry. The other thing I wanted to explore is the idea of inspiration and the images invented by the imaginer himself as idolatrous. In the context of idol makers, is this not the case? Is it not the case that the origin of their idolatry is in fact the images they develop in their own mind? They develop with their imagination the form of that which they will create and with their imagination, they are guided.
The idolatry is perhaps to mistake the imagination as coming from a divine source. At the end of the day, if it is from the imagination that the idol originates and if the idol is considered divine by those who make it, perhaps it is the imagination that is the real divine thing (according to idolaters).
I do happen to believe that the imagination is the most angelic—the least beastly—faculty we as humans have. But it is easy for those with visions of the supereal to mistake this attuning to the beautiful as divine in itself. The imagination is not divine in itself. It is a gift from the divine in order like reason to comprehend the divine when it is witnessed or encountered. Imagination is a translation device. When the wrong thing is translated, the imagination cashes out with a hollow product. Real art, art that is alive with the sublime and many layered coherence, can only be produced when the imaginer has been encountered by some sublimity or some divine coherence from outside the skin cask. You cannot encounter yourself.
This is the heart of idolatry. Those who encounter themselves, mistake themselves for god and in so doing seek to comprehend themselves with a translation device, be it reason or imagination. They are charged with visions of themselves—or maybe not visions of themselves, but visions stamped exclusively with the exact imprint of their own nature instead of being imprinted with the nature of God. Unfortunately, because humans have their own kind of inherited glory, there is a sense in which we mark whatever we make with divine imprints. Yet this is only partial and it would take a lot of senseless pondering to see the divine coherence in an Asherah pole.
I also wanted to ask what the nature of raw materials is. Isaiah 51:1 says, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord, look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” If the wood used by an idolater were sentient or living, what would it think of its use? Where would it rather be? Does it by the process of being used to make an idol get converted by the way the idolater treats it? Or, like the people of God, is there something inside the instrument of idolatry that still might long for home?
The people of God have throughout the eras of humanity been made the instruments of idolatry. Sometimes they were converted by proximity. Jezebel taking office is enough for people to bow the knee to Barbara. Other times, those who resisted had nothing left to them but mourning or running away.
Idol makers themselves, whether they believe their garbo about their product or not, are instruments of idolatry. Some of them might find themselves in this situation due to political coercion or simple reasons like not wanting to starve. This might seem like a random point, but I want to get across that often the people of God bow the knee to idols for reasons other than wavering in their conviction.
But by bowing the knee, it functions as though they have traded the truth for a lie. This is often not an intellectual decision. The Israelites did not all say, “After weighing the arguments, it is clear that the god Barbara is more real than Yahweh.” The generator of their idolatry was not intellectual denial, but the desire to stay alive and become more powerful. The people of God are still tempted by the false gods of comfort and coitus and coercion that age and get older with those who use them.
That does not mean that those who become idol makers stay wise to what they are doing. As time goes on, they forget what they are doing. The bowing confuses “real” believers and eventually even those who dipped extendedly into coitus come to intellectually assent to their denial. You get to a certain point where you cannot see that what you have come to depend on for permanence is literally used as fuel for a fire. But after our pleading with God has gone quiet, even the stones will cry out, “Bring us back home.”
Our valley is known for its trees. They are not like other trees. Their roots are as hard and heavy as stone. It takes a lot of strong men to get the big round roots in position to roll down the mountainside. If the roots are not at the right angle when they roll, there is tragedy. My father remembers when the old quarry master gave the okay for a tumble and the root tumbled right into town. An entire family died. The tree only stopped rolling once it hit the wall of our mill. The people that died happened to be my uncle’s wives and children. My uncle went and killed the old quarry master, becoming the quarry master himself. He made a better quarry master.
It is hard work at the quarry. You need an entire team of excavators to dig down around the base of the tree just to expose the prized roots. Once exposed, you need strong saws and iron muscles to excise them from the somnolent, black dirt. I have heard stories that the earth actually moans when you pull the roots out. They’re like infected teeth. If you dig down enough, you will see that the roots are not growing from this earth. They are growing from the stone that is the jawbone of the mountains.
You can only imagine how hard and heavy that forgotten stone is and how precious. The roots are hard and heavy and probably very old, but the trunks of the trees and everything you can see of them from town—their broad-shouldered branches and their sharp, green blades all cresting at a delicate, curled crown—is young. For the few of us who are curious, we have come to wonder if the specimens have been there since the beginning of time. It’s the roots we’re after. The mighty trees above ground we see everyday, they are just shoots. It’s almost like their majesty is something the roots want you to be satisfied with, like a safe-guard and distraction from the real treasure. But what have the roots been keeping us from? And what of the stones?
As for the trunks and the branches of the trees, they are good for building roofs and piling on top of each other to make the walls of our houses. The trunks and the branches are softer. You can make clothes out of the trunks if you slice them thinly. As for the branches, of course the lords living on the mountains have hundreds of archers with bows made from them. That is why they win in any battle.
For as long as anyone can remember, it has always been the lords with their archers on the high places leading us in the valley. They are our gate to the rest of the world through which the world receives the goods of our mysteries and the lords receive strange arts. The lords are wealthy. Not wealthy with goods only, but wealthy because they live on high places. From there they can see what is beyond the valley like they own the world. They can see everyone down in the valley, too. Meanwhile, we live with the constant reminder that we must climb, we must dig, we must work and move if we are to rise every day and rise for the rest of our lives.
My uncle had been the quarry master during my entire childhood until he came to work with me and my father in the mill. All the heavy lifting at the quarry for decades left him more or less crippled. His legs were bowed, his back twisted. My uncle knows a lot about the wood and how it must be handled. When my father encouraged my uncle to keep working not at the quarry but in the mill, my father had the good of the mill in mind. It was not a branch extended out of the goodness of his heart.
Of course, both my father and I knew that if he did not have a good reason to stay in the valley, he would find some way to break out. My uncle had an aggressive posture towards the valley that I have come to understand now. It poured out from the wellspring of his sadness. This valley had done him no good. I believe that at the end of the day, the valley has done all of us wrong and the most reasonable thing left to do is to wrong the valley right back.
Luckily, my uncle liked his work here. He was the one responsible for bringing the wood in once it had crashed down the mountainside from the quarry. From there, he directed a team of strong men to roll the root into the main room where the iron saw did its work. They guide the root on tracks and lift it with ropes. The iron saw does not need any human might to move, all it needs is water. When the root is put in position, the iron saw rises and falls through its midsection with the harnessed power of the falling water just outside.
My father thinks that anyone who knows how to build or move anything is a miracle worker. But my uncle thinks that if anyone is a miracle worker, it’s my father. Put a block of wood in front of him—raw, dense, brutish grain—and he turns what is jagged into curved hips. Crooked knots become full lips, and what was once there is not there any longer, leaving only sensuous fingers held out in delicate strength. His work as a sculptor is miraculous.
The lords seem to think so, as does the rest of the world. Anyone who sees his work craves them as they might crave human lovers. He does not deal only in women. My father makes all kinds of figures for anyone willing to immediately provide him with goods. When making full-sized statues, this is always the lords. Every now and then, someone from the village we live in or from a village nearby requests that a smaller sculpture be made. It is something like a status symbol for many people to own one of my father’s many sculptures. Families will save up, will wait years in advance, for him to personally dig his chisel into the ancient, dark waves of living stone that grows buds at the touch of air and sun.
You would think that my father was immune to this social pressure, but he was not. He sculpted and kept as many as he sold. I think he was simply overcome with passion for his finished sculptures. It was a deep passion, a deep hunger, motivated not by the forms of the sculptures but by the mystery of having created them. A similar passion had overcome anyone who had seen them. My father was the most talented sculptor anyone in the valley knew about. When people saw his sculptures, they felt they were seeing some mystery of craftsmanship beyond human hands.
For all his fame, my father was a poor man. A life lived under the shadow of gods is not glamorous. It does not mean you live in comfort or peace. We lived in squalor. What the lords paid him was just enough for him to trade goods with those who worked for him, just enough for the farmers to feed us, just enough to keep the quarries operational. At nights when it became cold and wind whistled through the valley like the windpipe of a reclining god, filling every crevice between the logs of the walls and around the doorposts, we threw the scraps of the ancient roots into the fire. This was how we used the waste. All that powdery sawdust and curled, citrus peels of lumber went into the fire to warm us. If not to warm us, then to roast the fish my uncle had caught from the river or bake bread loafs we’d received from farmers’ wives.
My uncle did what he could to provide. We did not like being dependent on the farmers, because harvests were inconsistent. When harvest was good, sometimes the wheat would be just as expensive as it had been during a bad year. The only thing that could have convinced the farmers of their unfairness was for my father to tell them that he would never make a sculpture for them. But unfortunately my father was burdened with the additional responsibilities of permissiveness. He did not avoid being abused, thrown around, or cut bad deals. He was not a stupid man, but few things could get him to confront someone. This is why I went and lost my virginity even before I knew I wanted to lose it.
When for the third time a girl came to the mill bearing my child and the third time I told them to never come see me again, my uncle threw me to the ground in front of the iron saw. The iron saw rose and fell towards my penis. My horrified father ran from his well-lit studio of sandy-wooded carpet and shrieked. I lost nothing, but I gained a fear of my uncle.
While my father lived under the burden of gods, rival artists lived under the burden of my father. Resentment in private was in public reluctant high praise. With such a resource as the wood, it is hard to imagine that my father would be the sole one exploiting it. Other sculptors competed with him, struggling to replicate a creative process that remained opaque even to himself. Their sculptures were not nearly as valued, but they were nevertheless in demand for those who could not afford better. The threat my father posed to these other sculptors was enough to make my father their enemy.
I remember vividly the day thieves broke into his workshop under cover of the river’s midnight noise. What they found was not just sculptures, but my father working in a dreamy delirium. Seizing the opportunity to ruin the man, they threw my father to the ground and dug his eyeballs out with a searing chisel. Now you have to know that once my uncle fell asleep, he fell asleep heavily. But I woke from the shrieking and first thought it might have been in my dream. When my scattered fears grew coherent, I shook my uncle awake.
He made it down the ladder just in time to find my father rolling on his back in the sawdust, his hands trembling over the bleeding gouges. Through the window and across the river, hooded heads splashed through the shallows. My uncle jumped out the window and with his crooked legs, spattered into the water after them. I knew what would happen to those men, so I focused my attention on my father. I brought a bucket of water and washed his wounds. I took some of the linen we use to veil the sculptures and wrapped it around his eyes. I calmed my father down like he was my own child.
The sky outside was pinkish now, the light on the horizon yellow.
“Where is he,” my sleepy father muttered, staring up at the ceiling with the soaked wrappings. “My brother, go look for him.”
I laid my father down in the corner of his workshop near the warm fire. I looked up and down the river. There was my uncle some thirty feet away, crouching on the bank and staring down the river back at me. I joined him at his side.
“What are you doing?”
“Where do you think this river goes?” he said. He dipped his hands that were caked with blood into the water.
“No. I think it would be.” He turned to me. His left cheek had the mottled scars left by fire. “We are not from here or from this valley. Not me, not your father. We don’t belong here.”
I said nothing.
“There was a girl. She got pregnant. If it was not for them, I would have left. She kept me here. My family.”
“Are we not keeping you here?”
He shook his head. I took his hand and helped this man of waning glory stand.
“No. We are going to get out of here.”
We walked back to the mill where my father waited for us between the doorposts. When we walked into the mill, he got onto his knees. He was in the sawdust shrieking and crying tears of blood. He pleaded with his brother never to leave the valley and leave us unprotected. His hands blindly clutched at where he thought his brother stood. Finally, some fingers found a hand hanging at a side. They wrapped around the wrists. These swollen wrists had strange bumps, as if they had been broken repeatedly. When my father settled down, when he let go of the warped wrists, my uncle took his big thumb and wiped away a bloody tear from my father’s cheek.
“I will be here,” he said, “until the day we leave together.”
“No, no we can’t leave!” my father said, “They would never let us! Never! They need me.”
“You know we do not belong here. I am getting weaker. I can’t protect you forever.”
“At least stay until the next unveiling! Please! That is all I ask! Help us carry it up the mountain!”
My father’s grip on the wrists slackened and my uncle lowered himself uneasily into a crouch. He pushed my father’s hair back from the wrappings with his twisted, big-knuckled fingers.
“I will go one last time. But this time, I will not be coming back down. And neither will you. We are getting out.”
So that was the agreement my uncle made with my father. I think in the mind of my father, it would not be the last unveiling nor would any of us try to leave through the gates of the lord’s palaces and out into the world.
After a farmer’s wife sewed his eyelids shut, my father went back to work. He wasted hours dragging his hand across that last sculpture as if looking for the final addition he had lost track of and had forgotten to make.
I said before that the form was not always of women. That is true. In fact, it would be truer to say that even the women he formed were not women. My father sculpted creatures that did not exist. Yes, yes, there might be portions of the familiar here and there. But the forms were so unreal that even my father’s own imagination had captivated him. The unreality of the forms was their mystery. None of this was true for that last sculpture. Looking at it, I was afraid because it simply did not look like anything at all. With the loss of his sight my father had lost everything.
“What gave you the idea for this one?” I asked.
“I saw it in a dream,” he said. This was always his answer. His eyes looked at the space where he thought I stood, as if the finished sculpture was there.
I knew he was telling the truth, but what disturbed everyone was the origin of these dreams. Did my father know gods or did gods know him by name? I have my doubts. Many people say that the strangeness of his sculptures revealed that there were gods in his mind. If gods did not live in his mind, they’d say, then at least they had visited once or twice. But gods did not make that last sculpture.
This was the life my father had to live. He was forced to carry the burden of inspiration. The fear of losing his balance in the worlds revealed by his mind kept him up at night. He was made feverish, almost tormented. Where did this come from? I still wonder, but the world had its answer in the sculptures he made. The root wood was prized because it was so sturdy and beautiful. It did not splinter, shatter, rot, weaken, change. Only fire and edges could alter it, turn it into ashes or mysteries. But the real export of our valley was not the wood. Our export was the same mystery that had overtaken my father, you understand.
One morning before the unveiling, my father descended into the bright room of his studio from the attic of the mill where we slept. He closed the door behind him, but opened the shutters of the windows. They let in the spray from the river’s fall and the glimmering of the sun-speckled ripples. He felt the warmth of the light on his dirty cheeks. He breathed deeply and resuscitated what he could of the low visions he had in the night.
Like many times before, my father stoked the fire and worked his chisel over the coals. He worked the red sharp edge of the chisel into the wood with the smack of a hammer and his strong arm. The wood softened from the heat like it had been frozen from lack of attention. With the low visions in his mind guiding him, my father stretched a line across the block and marked it out with a pencil. He shaped the block with planes, marking his future chisel movements with a compass.
My father forgot to eat or drink water that day. He fainted and collapsed into the carpet of sawdust. I found his limp corpse there under the amber powder of the dust sparkling in a shaft of light. When his corpse awoke, I dipped a cup to his lips and set bread crust on his tongue. With what little strength he had, the fool, he began to come back to me.
I looked at the sculpture my father had made again. The form had not improved or become any mystery at all, but my father rose and began smacking the chisel into a random spot on the chipped block of wood with stupid persistence.
“Father,” I said, “why are you still doing this?”
My father, whose blind face was in the sunlight, cried. He stopped hammering and turned to face me. With the brightness of the light behind him, I could only make out the two sewn lines above his obscured mouth.
“Because…imagine how they must feel!”
He pressed his hand against the statue, somewhere where eyes ought to be.
We had three days to ascend the mountain with the finished sculpture to the high place of the lords. The journey took about that long. The lords ordered the unveiling of the new mystery to happen on a certain day. Any time earlier or after would not have been acceptable. Our family had lived with this pressure for decades and we knew what it required. All work at the mill stopped.
My uncle was in charge of managing the strong men. You have to be firm when dealing with them. They had that sense of privilege people who work their bodies hard have. The disfigurement of my uncle’s body was the disfigurement their respect required. He shouted at the strong men in front to pull harder, he shouted at the strong men in back to work more quickly. He directed them when and how to be careful.
My father used his brother as the eyes he did not have to watch over his somber child. The men in the back were responsible for laying the tracks under the sculpture as the men in front groaned from the taut rope they tugged bled into their shoulders. Meanwhile, my father held onto the left side of the sculpture as I watched the right and also my father rising blindly up the mountain.
We had to climb through deep snow. The snow was as fine as sawdust. When a breeze puffed on the branches weighed down with clumps, we’d be splashed with sparkling flakes like spray from the river. Above me, with my gaze encircled by the crowns of trees, the blue unearthed sky rolled out of the valley on the white surface of the clouds. I thought I heard drums beating in the distant air as if in celebration of the blue sky’s ascension.
“Do you hear that?” my father said, “that is the sound lonely birds make.”
For a moment, my uncle stopped shouting and came to my side.
“That’s the sound you make when you can’t find a girl to ruin,” he whispered.
They pulled the last segment out from under the sculpture too soon. The unrevealed sculpture, wrapped in linen, lost its balance and fell towards me and my uncle. He threw me out of the way into the soft snow. His deformed arms pushed back and bowed weakly at the hinges of his elbows.
The sculpture silently crushed him.
Yelping and with tears in their eyes, the strong men hopped through the snow. They inserted their fingertips into the snow around the edges of the sculpture. Before my uncle had invented the idea of ropes and tracks, roots were handled with backs bent and snapped tendons. This was how the strong men lifted the sculpture off him. It was a privilege to see such might almost beyond human hands. I swear I heard their muscles tearing. When they lifted the sculpture to its rightful place on the tracks, I saw how it had left a depression of its outline in the mold of the snow. Within this hollow cast of a rough woman’s figure, the dead-eyed corpse stared up at empty air.
“We have to carry on,” my father said. He knew what happened. He wiped his sealed, stony eyeballs. No one cared what my father said, not even my father. Everyone else looked at the crumpled thing indented against the low-lying earth. My father stood ankle deep, facing the steep ascent ahead.
But the strong men knew the price we would pay if we did not carry on. We spent only a few minutes, that was all we could afford, wrapping the corpse into a linen and packing it with snow. We then used some of the rope and hung the corpse from a high branch in hopes that no animals would find it. No one planned to speak during the remainder of our ascension, it seemed. The birds drummed for our march and the sound of feet chomping into the snow followed us. My father was the first to hear the sound of feet doubling ahead.
“Ignore them,” he said to us. Above us, we saw a group of other strong men lifting a covered sculpture with ropes and tracks. Cautious sculptors trudged alongside, pressing paranoid hands against it in fear it might lose its place. The strong men with us shouted threats at this group to go faster. I felt proud and safe with them. The strong men above threw snowballs at us like children.
“We have just lost my brother, parasites!” my father shouted. The other sculptors laughed. I believe our strong men would have killed them if they did not have their responsibilities.
Two days later, we stood all tumbledown among our enemies, just as dirty and tired from the journey as us. This assembly of sculptors and hired strong men waited for the lords. Banners smacked in the high mountain winds. Servants ran out eleven carved benches for the eleven lords. The lords came out to us in their fitted clothes. As they took their seats, strangers with foreign faces gathered behind their backs. Never in past unveilings had they been there.
“Who do you have for us this time?” a lord said. He motioned for two servants to unwrap the two sculptures. One, of my father. The other, of our enemies. The unloosed linens flapped away from us along the courtyard ground like a couple of injured birds trying to escape.
As I had every time before, I bowed before the revealed figures. I expected our enemies to bow before my father’s god as well. Yet the only person who bowed was my father—the only person to whom the gods remained veiled. When we did not hear the expected chanting, we one by one lifted our heads. The lords were still sitting.
“What god is this!” A lord pointed to my father’s sculpture. A block of an unformed mass, barely a woman, covered over with the bark of chip marks and senseless carved contours.
“We have heard that the woods do not grow from the earth. That they grow from the mountains themselves,” a lord said to us. One of the servants came with a torch and lit my father’s sculpture. “We have long thought that what you have brought us is nothing but your own invention. Today you have proved this with this joke. You have made us worship what can be destroyed. What do you make us out to be? That we would worship the wrong god!”
A number of servants came around with swords. Slices of ancient wood went flying off the rough figures of the gods.
“Any one of you who makes it back alive will bring this request to the people of the valley: bring us the real god deep from the mountains. Bring us what cannot be burned or chopped.”
The lords stood and disappeared behind the foreigners. That was when I saw the packages in the hands of the foreigners. They held what looked like bound books wrapped in paper. As the gods burned, they lit the packages and threw them into our assembly.
To my sudden terror, the package that hit my father ripped him apart. There was a very loud sound. Bits popped off the burning corpse like embers out of a fire. I was thrust onto the ground. In the confusion, something hurled itself against my neck. Other packages fell down on us, instantly ripping apart with some internal force. The whole assembly tried running out, but many of the terrified sculptors burst like my father had.
Me and the rest of the sculptors half-tumbled down the mountain through the snow. The foreigners behind us kept throwing the packages down on us. The snow erupted where they fell. When we made it into town that night, we all hid in the mill. We were not enemies anymore.
We watched from the town as the forest fell apart above us. At the edges of the forest, trees rolled down of their own accord. Not just trees. Gigantic bits of root crashed into town, caving in the walls of our houses. I saw the stones of the mountain for the first time come down the mountainside. I saw stones rain down from the sky upon our valley like flung arrows. I saw the mountains come to us.
Only the buildings in the middle of town survived, like the mill. Then the rain of stones stopped. When me and some other sculptors rose to inspect the old quarry, we found a deep trench full of stones. They were like silenced corpses piled one over the other. The foreigners eventually came to explain to us what they had done to the mountain. They said how they could mine deeper into the quarry for the stones with their strange art.
I lost my voice the day my father died. I also lost my sense of hearing. They say they heard cracking, shattering, splintering. All I can hear now is a shrieking in my ears. That is why I write and that is why I have no other choice, but to take the job of my father. I carve sculptures from stones. They are hard and hearty. Like my father, I make no profit.
Unlike my father, I hate what I do. I hate my work, I hate my sculptures. If my father were alive, I am happy that he would not be able to see them. But I keep working. I keep chiseling sculptures from stone. I send others to bring them up to the high places of the lords. They are satisfied for now, but I know that someday the lords will doubt these figures, too.
But I do not hate the stone. I am sad for the stone. How must it feel to come back home to the mountains after it has lost its form in my mill? It would be better for all of us if we let the stones stay where they are. It would be better for me—why unearth what is covered? I don’t think the stones want to be unearthed. I don’t think the stones want to be carved. The stones would be right in wanting to go back to where they were hewn and to the quarry from which they were dug—slumbering, waiting.
I hate the lords. I hate what they have done to the mountain, what they have done to the village, what they have done to my family. The mountains have crumpled in, in, in. There are walls of stones now gathered around the village. I would love someday to take those packages of the foreigners and throw them at the lords themselves. If they can burst the bones of the mountain, they can burst the bones of the lords who have been there for as long as we can remember, keeping us down here in this valley, burying us with arrows first and stones second and death finally I am sure.
Of the three girls whose babies belonged to me, I married the prettiest. The baby died when she gave birth, so we are raising the two children of the other girls. We sleep in the attic of the mill. When I descend the ladder in the morning before anyone else has risen, I see the iron saw. It reminds me of my uncle, whose corpse remains unburied. My uncle who hung from a tree. The poor crippled man that saved my life, but did not save me from this valley. At the end of the day when I close my eyes and fall asleep, my dreams are not full of visions and gods, they are full of how I might get out of this valley, get far from these mountains, get away from these gods!
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
Magic realism is not weird or even that interesting
I am especially susceptible to the evil poison of the mechanical university system that is making bank on creative suckers like me. Why? Because of all genres I took to as an early writer, it had to be magic realism. How did I manage to choose the most trendy genre to be interested in, barring some blend of absurdism and meta-fiction and blasé storytelling that focuses on the African American lesbian protagonist’s rough interaction in the grocery story with an old white man who said the wrong but funny thing. Oh we really can all get along in this mean world that hates being nice, can’t we?
I managed to choose it, because for the longest time my greatest point of pride in writing was my ability to ignore how everyone else thinks about writing and does writing and seeks to gain from writing. There’s the Scylla of the Myth of the Christian Writer and the Charybdis of Playing the Culture Fiddle. The first is a ghetto which requires you to be a brand of shiny and the other is a babylonian beast looking for the next experiment or technique or voice or style.
How did my willingness to ignore both camps lead me to inspect the catchiest, jangliest jewel of all currently being devoured by the American champions of the weird and novel? Because I had my own idea about magic realism. I used and abused the term, defined it in my own way, to break new ground for myself. I used the term to provide myself with license to write in traditional forms of fable.
And maybe this sounds wrong in your ear holes, but the only being that can give you license to write is yourself and the only being worth guiding the morality of your writing is God. But as it stands, the various camps of elite—however much I might be setting up strawmen here to lob darts at—believe they hold the keys to license. Christian elite say you cannot be too weird and the Creative Factory Elite say that you need to be original. The problem is that no one knows what they mean by weird or what they mean by original.
The aesthetic compass for so many people is guided by reactionary impulses and all this does is make the literary moment the rediscovery of license to write in traditional forms. This is all very abstract, so let me give you an example. The example I am about to give does not entirely map onto this dichotomy between Christian Cultural Camps and Creative Factory Programs.
Kafka isn’t that weird or interesting, either
Take Franz Kafka who is so often praised by intellectuals and original thinkers and the mainstream counterculture. Why is he so liked so much? Why is he lumped in the same group as writers who were talented? James Joyce knew how to write good short stories. One of the reasons Dubliners is so good is because James Joyce observed people and recorded his observations honestly.
One of the reasons why Kafka is so ungood is because he does not maintain the images in his stories with fitting descriptions. In Description of a Struggle, which is one of the worst short stories I have ever read, you find that his inability to describe action is one of the factors that motivates his move to the weird. Weird things happen in Description of a Struggle, because Kafka doesn’t know how to render normal actions. The reason he has the protagonist swim through the pavement, and this is an assertion, is not because he thought, “Oh I know how to make this story seem dreamlike.” He thought, “That would be funny.” And it is Kafka, it is. But had your protagonist not swoommed through the pavement, would you have been able to make him act like a real person?
Further evidence for the fact that Kafka didn’t really know how to write is the dialog in his short stories, which can go on and on. Not in a Dostoevsky-bountifully-voiced way (which has its limits). His dialog goes on and on, because he gets into that natural flow of writing dialog which is the result of license. There is a license that comes naturally to writing dialog, because the excess of words does not come from the author himself. That would seem like a vice, no, the excess of words is coming from the character. This one step of removal provides the author with an excuse to not trim the fat. And this is fine; literature is full of rambling characters and so are essays like this one.
The problem is when the dialog becomes nothing but pure exposition devoid of any voiced character. You can see this in The Village Schoolmaster. The dialog between the village schoolmaster and the main character is not alive with distinct voice. It’s only alive with Kafka’s desire to talk about a story instead of actually writing a story.
Now of course this might be the result of translation errors and I’ve read somewhere that Kafka is hard to translate. I’m fine with saying that. I also have to say that I have read both his unfinished novels, The Trial and The Castle. There is one scene in The Trial that made me laugh out loud. I would like to go back and read it in order to verify my opinion that it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever read.
The problem is that I read these two novels and The Metamorphoses years ago when I was trying very hard to like Kafka and be cool. So I don’t know how good those novels are. I do remember that, barring a few very funny scenes in both, they were slogs that literally did not go anywhere. Kafka should have been a standup comedian. He would have been better suited to it than long form prose. He has these one-off mental images that are hilarious. Even Description of a Struggle has a moment like this. The way he describes a naked fat man who scrunches his face in concentration is great. Yet amusing descriptions here and there don’t make a story.
I am also fine with saying that these stories are immature and that his best stories, like In the Penal Colony, are the ones to be scrutinized. Very well. But since I have rambled for a long time about it, I’ll just take one shot at In the Penal Colony, which only seems to be liked because it’s enigmatic enough to be interpreted broadly and has obvious anti-Jesus undertones. That is not what makes it bad, though. What makes it bad is that it could have, strengthening its parabolic quality, been much shorter.
In my opinion, Kafka does not do a great job of describing the actual torture device. Maybe it’s because I’m bad at reading and maybe it’s the translation, but the placement of the glass in relation to the needles is especially open to interpretation. And since the story all hinges on being able to visualize this machine, that is hardly a virtue.
I walked through just a few things here to point out that at the very least, Kafka was not a master of storytelling and he never became a master of storytelling. His best stuff succeeds only when he has a powerful enough mental image of humorous interactions and his worst stuff shows you the immature impulses that he never really overcame.
Kafka himself did not think his stuff was worth saving or keeping. He told his best friend, Max Brod, to burn it all and if he were to save any stories, he should only save about five. I think Kafka was right. He only wrote about five short stories that are okay enough to read. But why do we disagree with Kafka’s own assessment of himself and against his wishes read and love his writing? Because he gives us license.
The literary moment is often the rediscovery of something old
The mascot of magic realism, Gabriel Marquez, famously said that The Metamorphoses showed him that you could write in a different way. Kafka gave Marquez license to write fables at a time when the best and most famous writers did not write fables. The best and most famous writers wrote experiments in technique rooted in “realistic” metaphysics. Consider and ponder these names: James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, Marcel Proust.
I bet you anything that Marquez had authors like these in mind when he said that about Kafka. Why? Because if Kafka wrote in a different way, that meant that he had to be writing in a way no one else wrote. Of that list above, there is historical proof for Marquez interacting with William Faulkner’s writing. Undoubtedly he was aware that modern novelists were tinkerers of form and that Kafka was not.
My point in all this is to show that Kafka is famous, because he gave license to write in a way that was decidedly not in vogue for modern literature. He did not tinker with form. He struggled to achieve stories that had very much form at all. But Kafka’s goal, his target, was to write fables. Each and every story he wrote could be categorized as a fable. In fables, it is okay for a person to turn into an ungeziefer and for there to be giant moles and for all the characters to be titled instead of having proper names.
Kafka is considered a literary moment. He is considered a literary moment, because he gave license to write in a reaction against the trends at the time. While he cannot be credited with the invention of magic realism, he can be considered an inspiration to Marquez who helped define South American magic realism. The genre Marquez wrote in, however, was not new. The only reason his stories are tagged magic realism is because at the time the only literature getting written was wooden-worded realism.
The only reason wooden-worded realism was getting written, too, was because philosophy and the entire world was deeply skeptical of language and its apparent artifice. So in an attempt to be honest and real, authors tried peeling back the artifice of language and to mistrust their own tool. Literary juggernauts were juggernauts because they played with their food. At least Kafka had the innocence and sincerity to tell the stories that compelled him, instead of constantly trying to rip the rug from under his own feet.
But I hope you see that the Kafka was not doing anything new. He was just telling stories with traditional premises and seeking to find the significance in the conclusions he came to about them.
Why do we tell stories in different genres?
We should make an important distinction for posterity: Kafka is not a surrealist. Surreal things happen in his stories, but the end goal of his stories is not to replicate the quality of dreams. For a further discussion of the distinction of fantasy and surrealism, you can read about why I (used to) dislike writing fantasy. I’d like to say more on the subject of surrealism and its distinction between fantasy (or the telling of fables) in the future. All I’ll say for now is that I am under the firm belief that surrealism is primarily a genre for the amusement of the senses, while fantasy (and the telling of fables) is a genre for the consideration of the reason.
The goal for all stories, whether surreal or fantastical, is to provide answers where questions were previously. We read stories and we read fiction to better interface with reality. Storytelling is merely a mental process we boot up like we might boot up an argumentative essay. Hopefully the story spits us out at the end more willing and able to love the world for how it is. The difference between the process of fiction and the process of setting up arguments is that one is generated by the faculty of the imagination while the other is generated by the faculty of reason. Endurance in imagination looks different than endurance in making arguments.
For example, I am making arguments in this essay I have been writing and that takes a kind of flight—but the flight I take in my imagination when I write fiction is a very different kind of flight. It is the same for you as the reader. While this essay might tire out one part of your brain and the spiritual thoughts which are correspondent to certain synapses firing, it will not tire out your use of imagination. In fact, going and reading a story after this essay (or in my case, writing one because I have to) will be a relief.
That does not mean that there is any inconsistency when I say that some genres of fiction are more for reason than others. That relates to the end goal of story. The end goal of a fable or a fantasy is to give us something to think about. The end goal of a surreal story is to give us something to see and carry with us regardless of meaning or moral.
As it is now, I will leave aside any discussion of the French surrealists, even though I am about to mention four French writers before the era of tinkerers I partially blame for the burial of fable. Mentioning the surrealism that rose at the same time as the tinkering would be a different inspection. My hunch is that surrealism is also a kind of tinkering that is not wholly sold on the sincerity required to tell a plot that is downright Aristotelian. Side-note: the license for making these grand sweeping claims, even if I am wrong, is because every generation reads and interacts with the generation before it. I hope you don’t need evidence for that.
Why do we doubt certain genres?
All that cynicism about language and snobbery in the early twentieth century, I’d wager, is partially because of the generations of literarists before it like Flaubert, Maupassant, Balzac, Zola, and Chekhov. Emile Zola is the worst offender who dubbed his own genre “naturalism.” This naturalism shares a lot of the DNA of much of the other genre authors that were writing at the time: the deliberate attempt to avoid dishonest language. This was good and bad. I guess we can call that realism—or what I like to call, boring and silly.
Zola, who I will take to be the mascot of this bunch, wanted to render reality as closely as possible in fiction, because he recognized that so many stories twist reality to their own end. So many stories show unbelievable things happening in order to make moral points. Maybe Zola did not have these in mind, but for our purposes you can think of children’s bedtime stories. In a children’s bedtime story, when a butterfly dies the whole world really can go to pieces.
But is this rEaLiStIc? NO! Shame! Shame-shame-bad! No! We must depict reality as it is in full detail and color, we must tell stories that really happen to people! We must be as distant as possible and keep our grubby fingers off the fictional process. We must be like a camera on the back of our characters and follow them around to see what they do! Because so often, we turn real people into mere caricatures and into what we want (psst, this means that the fictional process ends up sucking).
As a result, we shall tell stories that go nowhere—but at least they’re realistic! And we shall describe the opera house and how the people enter into it for an entire chapter—but at least it’s vivid! And we shall watch as our characters poop on the toilets—at least they’re human!
This obsession with showing reality as much as possible, like the world’s worst photographer, began that whole concern with language and whether or not the artist is a liar. They did not yet believe that the artist was a liar like the modern novelists did, but they did believe that he could easily become one, so they strived hard not to lie. Zola did not realize that by his own definitions, he was lying.
Zola’s terrible novel, Nana, is deliberately a fictional process Zola was running to see what kind of human nature this character and the nation at the time had. But in order to do that, Zola had to invent the character of Nana. You cannot write fiction and try as hard as you can to be as realistic as reality itself, because fiction is not realistic.
I forgot where I was going with all this
The success of fiction hinges on how much an author trusts the imagination to be a given thing for producing illusions in the mind. Zola could not have chosen a worse artistic form to show reality, because the imagination does not work how he’d like it to. It’s much more powerful. You don’t need an entire chapter to describe an opera house. The imagination is so powerful that all you need is one or two fitting descriptions. And although the first reason for these descriptions is to tease the imagination, we actually choose what descriptions based on how these descriptions interweave the fabric of subconscious connections being made by the reader. We choose to make the opera house look one way or another, depending on the needs of the story. What artifice.
I’m not describing this as lucidly as I had wished so I should probably stop, but I hope you see my point. There is nothing realistic, in the way that paintings are either realistic or unrealistic, about the imagination. Verisimilitude is better achieved by physical media.
I just got an email in my inbox from Submittable that demonstrates my earlier point about the world’s desire for the novel. Submittable is a very popular platform for submitting works of fiction and poetry and other schlock to literary magazines no one reads around the country. The title of this email was “Eccentric: And Why Not?”
And this is the main point I have been driving at. The whole world tells us what fiction is and is not, but this is the jostle of generations. Right now, there is the desire for the eccentric and weird and novel and voice of diversity. Meanwhile, Christians desire a culture warrior who will hold the sword of only certain kinds of fantasy approved by local church governments.
Avoid the jostle
See that there is nothing new under the sun, that what is uncool now will be cool tomorrow, and that the only reason to write fiction is to get answers you can’t get any other way but by making those imaginative connections between two unlike things being likened. Ultimately, the greatest unlikes are likened through fiction: our picture of the world and the world itself. This is a unifying relationship that brings us closer to the world and this is why the imagination and its use is very much a moral exercise.
We use our imagination in order to get a better picture of the world. This is not accomplished, like Zola thought, through words themselves. It is accomplished by the imagination as-teased-by words. It is through the imagination that we see the world better, but only the person who believes there is a world to see can use it like this.
Some people believe that we make our own worlds through language and fiction, that we tell ourselves stories. And in part, this is true. But we do not tell ourselves stories in order to escape from reality. We tell ourselves stories so we can break out of our false expectations of what the world is and to see what necessarily rises out of tragedy.
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
I have been told by most of my older siblings at this point that what I am feeling is entirely normal and this comforts me. I feel completely lost in my twenties, feeling my way in the dark, not knowing where or what I am going to do. And that’s just fine with me.
I do, however, know what I should be doing and that is doing stuff. I am going to start just doing stuff to see what sticks. I am going to do whatever I want as long as I feel that it’s useful. Now is the time for making mistakes and for making something to look back and say, “Well, at least I tried.”
For the past month, I have been on the road. The first week I spent in Michigan right on the chill lake two hours from Chicago in an old house with no air conditioning. The next week, we drove back to Illinois and watched movies in the air conditioned basement renovated with devotion from my parents who if I may be so bold are entering a season where they might feel as confused as I am.
From there, I drove down with my two beloved sisters and my niece and nephew to Baton Rouge. The French called this place when they first paddled down the Mississippi, “the place of the red-hot hot dog.” We were in the car for eighteen hours, I believe, and broke up our trip by stopping at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee in order to burn popcorn in their microwave. We managed to guide the smoke gently away from the flashing smoke detector. I flew out of New Orleans a week later to the high city of Denver, Colorado where I spent my time with my brother and sister-in-law wondering how we could more further eviscerate a comedy act which was so unfunny it didn’t even amuse us.
Yesterday, I flew from Denver to Spokane and I knew that I was on the right flight, because everyone around me was gross. The couple I sat next to had it in their hearts to get sloshy—on a Frontier flight. They purchased two adult beverage bundles, which included two adult beverages and a mixer each. In addition to these purchases, the couple asked of the flight attendant that they might have a can of Pringles and a thin slice of beef jerky and assuredly they were not turned away.
The man said to me, “Behold my wine tastes of cream cheese.”
And I, sipping on my I’m-not-anxious-gin-and-tonic said incredulously, “Assuredly, it does?”
And he said, “Aye, it be a cream cheese wine my homie.”
So in our reverie, he and I encountered the mysteries contained within the wine and assuredly, I be playing not, I said, “You’re a downright sommelier!”
But when I said it, I feared that I perhaps had mispronounced the word and feared that he might think ill of me and my trucker hat and button down shirt—but lo! I remembered that I was on a flight to Spokane and that across from us there were three stoners cussing their enthusiasm concerning the Burning Man this year and how, “Every year, the cops are in cahoots with the festival, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Indeed there is nothing to worry about whatsoever these days. Nothing at all. The world is not falling apart, Joan Baez is still alive and thankfully Hitler is dead (what a relief) and we’ve come to terms with gluten-free trends and friends are getting married and family is having kids and the fabric of society has been torn so many times that there’s nothing left to tear and Cher still has a gorgeous smile and lives in El Centro, California and is 5’9″ tall and her children are Chaz Bono and probably someone else who struggles with chastity.
Meanwhile, we have gotten away with a depreciation of ambition for so long that we find ourselves bored. It is time to refuel those tanks. So what have we chosen to do? Why, write a serial online novel of course. The author says that it is not a serious affair, that it will be a light little fling, but can he manage that? Can he manage how hard it will be to not care too much? But frankly, we are worn down and weary by caring about the wrong things.
We care about word choice when the sentence is unwritten and we care about what others think when there is no one even watching and we tinker with unfinished projects and tailor lives we haven’t lived. Yes, we’re sick and tired of not speaking up. College crushed our spirits as it was designed to do, because our spirits were far too high and then there was the season of listless wandering, seeking for something to devour and get our teeth around, but at the end of the day we came up hungry. And that is an answer in and of itself. When nothing happens, that is license to make something happen. Confidence is coiled up inside the person who has failed many times, but the difficulty is that failure can just as easily be turned into license for giving up. We resist this.
The fact of the matter is that I have never been more excited about life and how easily it has set me up for failure. What would failure be? Giving into my latent and insane laziness. Life is a challenge we try to meet until we’re too tired to keep meeting it and other bland aphorisms that depressurize the real thing I am feeling and, when added together, end up just dissipating the feeling altogether. The fact of the matter is that I feel angry and I want to kick some teeth in and the first person in line is me. Let’s all get in line and get some actual work done though we are weak and small and confused and a profligate waste and very perfectly safe.