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The meaning of everything

I have just finished The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. It’s a contrived book, surely, but it does manage to get across the intended meditation: aging and memory and epistemology and the many flaws of the human brain. I feel that I am at an age that lies roughly halfway between young and old, and on some days I feel able to strongly anticipate some of what being old must feel like; whereas, interestingly, I find it harder to get back into a five year old’s shoes, even though I was once five years old. Ambition—youth’s temptress—is leaving me, but what goes in its place? We here in the West are still not really ready for this question, so millions of us at any given moment suffer in the void.

I read an extensive article the other day about Thoreau. I did not know (or, more likely, forgot) that he was such a puritan—and successful in literature mainly because of Emerson. Maybe the writer of the article overstates the case, but these stories of now-famous people who are read (or viewed, or whatever) extensively by our unpromising youth irritate me. I’ve changed since my university years and even since my thirties in this regard: I no longer revere the canon. Not only that, I see how dangerous the canon is. Certainly there are Great Works of Literature that are truly great and should be read. However, when you get past your thirties, you see that writing and stories you once found mesmerizing now seem trite and banal. This might be because of the Information Age. Or because of what must be the Age of Advertising. Or just because of age. (The other evening I could not manage to watch one more thing on a screen or on a page. The tank was full. Everything sounded exactly like everything else, and this goes for music, too, but in that case at least you don’t have to use your eyes and do the work of comprehending language.)

It is validating and fascinating to delve into the lives of other people by reading journals or novels; it is a powerful thing to do this and come away with the strong feeling that nothing of significance ever changes. The problems of Sylvia Plath are the problems of many people and many writers. There is a wonderful line somewhere in the Barnes book about how the trick of life is its continual success in making you believe that it means something.



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I’m Almost Fairly Certain

It’s about what we don’t let in. That’s how I sometimes think about the things I don’t think about. Don’t as in can’t, not as in don’t want to—the former being incompetence or limitation, the latter being sloth.

One thing I know nothing about is swimming in one of those natural water holes with mountain water running into them. Or in the water that surrounds huge hunks of rock in the middle of somewhere. I don’t even know the names of those formations, though I do know what a butte is. Also, a saguaro cactus. Mesa is the Spanish word for table, that I know. My own name means something when pronounced in Spanish, but the words are nonsensical. This is something that embarrasses me a little bit. It’s like meeting a foreigner whose name, when pronounced in English, is the word armpit or jelly.

Sometimes I’ll be at a dinner party and someone will say something amazing that I don’t know and would never have thought to think about. I hear the amazing thing and wonder how long I will remember it. If you think about these amazing things, you will discover that all of them are linked to everything else; everything is a body of knowledge, and has a history and a future. In 3015, someone will say the same amazing thing. Someone back in 1642 also said that amazing thing (accounting for cultural and time-period differences). Nothing is new, which is of course not a new idea.

The other night I sat down specifically to read an article and learn something new—maybe something to save up for a dinner party or a horrible wedding reception dinner, trapped at a circular table with the second cousins no one has seen for years. And I did—Providence, Rhode Island, is almost twenty-five percent Hispanic, and of those Hispanics, most are Dominican. Is this interesting? Better to store up the thing I learned about LSD, but then I suppose I would risk being judged as someone who thinks about LSD.

If we are what we think, are we what we know? And are we thus what we don’t know? Someone should do a study on this so that not so much of it would be not known. Maybe someone has, but I don’t know about it.

I have noticed that the things I don’t think about take up more room in my mind. Things that aren’t there are like the white space in a poem: nothing is there except for everything. The nothing holds the everything together.

I’m older than I once was—this, at least, is provable. One thing I do know is that the brain changes along with the body, but the only reason I know this is because I happen to have a brain and a body, so I have exclusive access to a primary source.

I learned a new recipe the other day, and also the other day I made up my own recipe, which tasted delicious. I have no idea what I did.

I definitely don’t know how my car works, nor do I know the details of most systems—governmental or utility or finance—that hinder or enhance my life every day. The biggest problem is when a child is around. Children ask very good and obvious questions, seventy percent of which I cannot answer. At one point, I, too, must have asked questions like that but now can barely come up with one. Or maybe it’s that I have so many questions, such as what are all the workings of the above systems, that they just stay packed in somewhere because knowing the answers—I’m sure of this—won’t help me much.

Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, and you’d think that this would be a subject of great interest to me, but it isn’t. Plus, the moment I begin reading about it, I’m lost and bored, and start playing computer solitaire.

Someday, computers will know everything about us. They will know our mood at any given moment, our desires, our diet, our behavioral and geographical patterns. They will have all of this data. They will be like the annoying party guest times two million.

The Internet knows a lot of things, and it isn’t shy. It knows so much that I don’t know which part to listen to. Knowing how to know something like that seems to presuppose a certain body of knowledge that I don’t have. It’s like being in a forest without a compass. The people who know a lot of things are the ones who would just make their own compass. But most smart people, such as art historians, cannot do this.

I find that sometimes things I could easily learn, in theory, just won’t go into my head. It is like part of the mind is a tyrant and won’t allow certain things to be known. Or known only tangentially, such as when you’re pretty sure you know something but cannot remember how, and therefore just shrug it off in order to reserve room for the new recipe, which for sure you know because you have assembled the ingredients on the counter.

I’m positive that next week I will not know certain things I thought I’d never forget. Or worse: I will not know things that I will realize I didn’t know even the week before. In five years, I should know more than I do now, but I can say for sure that this year I know less than I did five years ago because I have to keep looking up the same things in books. Also, I sometimes confuse my nighttime dreams with reality, such that sometimes when I say something or think something, I am not sure how I know it, and sometimes I assume that what I am talking about actually happened, but then I panic and realize that I don’t know for certain that I am certain.

The worst is when I am telling someone something that I know and I begin to understand that the person already knows what I am talking about, and I realize that what I didn’t know until very recently is something that is probably common knowledge, which raises another related concern, which is how it is that I couldn’t have known what I recently didn’t know? There are so many obvious things to know, obviously.

Collectively, knowledge is a curious thing. We know more than we ever have about everything and yet the same problems remain. Some groups that know exactly the same things come to quite different conclusions when exercising an analysis.

I was listening to an interview with a charming experimental classical composer. He knew all about music. He was asked a question about whether he feels the effect of all the other music and audiences out there encroaching on him and his art. He said he didn’t know anything about that. I just liked that he said that.

There are times when I discover that I knew something that I really could not have known; that is, I am totally correct about something I’ve never given much thought to. Who knows how I knew. Then again, I’ve been very sure about something only to find out that I was completely wrong. I will wonder how I could have been so wrong when my “right” feeling is often correct.

The things that I don’t know can bring me down. I read many informative articles that illustrate to me very clearly that by having read those articles, my knowledge about the topic has improved, but the byproduct is that I have a sense of yet another body of knowledge that eludes me.

It is easy to want to put your finger on it: “If only I knew this or that.” Such as, if your cat is missing, you’d like to know where so that you could go get the cat. My friend once had a cat that disappeared. She called a psychic, and the psychic knew where the cat was: the neighbor’s garage. The neighbor had gone on vacation, and the cat had gotten trapped in the garage.

In theory, psychics know everything, but they are not always correct, and can they really tell you what you ate every day for the last month? What I want to know is if psychics use calendars. I’m fifty percent sure that they don’t.


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An editor’s life in queries

QUERY 1 GYM INSTRUCTOR: In gym class, we girls had to take a test where we would grab a mounted bar with both hands and hold ourselves with our chins over the bar. I had the longest hold time, but the tall girl with the second-longest time got mad and demanded a re-test, and I beat her again. Later, she asked yet again for a re-test and beat my time. Then, at lunch, she took my comb and threw it in one of the bathroom toilets. This seems unfair and points to the inherent cruelty of children. Please confirm.

QUERY 2 CAFETERIA MONITOR: In the lunch line, the cute boy who was really good in math punched me in the stomach. I tried not to cry but you said that he did it because he liked me. Please provide further support for this argument.

QUERY 3 VACANT MOTHER: Notwithstanding your extensive body enhancements and MILF-like status among the boys in my high school, you’re my mother and I am forced to tolerate you at the least. Consider developing your character to include qualities like warmth, generosity, and intellectual stamina.

QUERY 4 JAMES HARSTAD: Your seduction of me was obviously convincing given my relocation from Boise to Botswana, but it turns out that you’re nothing but an alcoholic with a personality disorder. This episode has made me confused about boundaries and unable to trust. Remove event from narrative?

QUERY 5 ACQUISITIONS DEPARTMENT: I embraced the incestuous nature of this industry as a form of job security. But since when does “promote from within” mean “leave to languish in the admin position from hell”? Please resolve inconsistency.

QUERY 6 WAYWARD BROTHER: After I posted bail and gave you a ride to the pile of detritus you call a home, you snidely indicated that I had always been the successful one. This despite your having been the coolest kid in school from the fifth grade through senior year. You were the genius but here I am explaining what “paying rent” means. Please provide further details regarding this contradiction.

QUERY 7 THE FATES: Grocery shopping regularly at four stores, the runaround at Best Buy, the carpenter bee damage to the eaves, the infinite sicknesses of children, the never-ending birthday party events, decisions about organic skin creams and bridesmaid dresses, boring friends, trips to the cabin in Maine, the recurrent retching of cats, the hemming and hawing about asking for a raise, Weight Watchers point-gathering minutia . . . these observations of and reactions to the quotidian are generally insightful, but there are so many that the narrative gets bogged down in unnecessary detail. Simplify or consider including several sex scenes.

QUERY 8 DR. WILLIAM DYER: Your references to impressive-sounding psychiatric terms rely on a perennial misunderstanding of “negativity” and “introvert” in vernacular use. Let’s discuss offline.

QUERY 9 THE FATES: I left Boise again, this time to live with my Spanish lover in Barcelona, since he was unwilling to relocate. In Barcelona, I was neglected and spiraled into a depression due to loneliness. I moved back home, only to find out a year later that he fell in love with a Greek woman and moved to Athens. The irony doesn’t escape me, and irony can be an effective literary device, but in this context, the event stretches credulity and makes the protagonist seem like a dunderhead. I suggest reworking this entire section.

QUERY 10 FRIENDS: It’s not the Facebook likes or Tweets or shared videos per se, which could be viewed as a form of interaction; it’s that sending and getting so many of them, paradoxically, gestures toward the actual level of your platonic commitment. We might need further reflection on the meaning of “friends” to justify inclusion.

QUERY 11 DR. SANDRA COLLINS: A sinus infection would not seem to present too many challenges to the medical community, but after three prescriptions, seven allergic reactions, five new symptoms, two new drugs, four specialists, and at least one misdiagnosis, we are left to wonder about the merits of this passage. Could we develop further the implied connection between doctors and wellness?

QUERY 12 DARKENED MIND: I accept you, I really do, but we all need a break sometimes. I find your constant rehashing of the past to be not only annoying but also indicative of an unstable mentality. And all this blaming keeps the storyline heavy and saturated. Then there’s all the measuring up you feel compelled to engage in. I would lighten these reader-unfriendly passages with a few harmless how-women-are-different-from-men anecdotes and/or cute pet stories.

QUERY 13 ASSHOLE STRANGER: All this about Alzheimer’s and belligerence does not ring true to me. Maybe you’re belligerent! Who are you, anyway? Get out of my room.

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More from the genre debate

Joshua Rothman, of The New Yorker.

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Short story collections: frequently asked questions

Q: What is a short story?

A: A short story.


Q: What is a short story writer?

A: A writer with a career death wish.


Q: What is a short story collection?

A: A collection of discrete short stories.


 Q: What is a linked short story collection?

A: A collection of stories that are discrete but also connected somehow.


Q: Why not just write a novel?

A: Why not just read cereal-box advertisements?


Q: Why not just stop writing fiction and get a real job? Anyway, I digress. What is a novel in stories?

A: A linked short story collection.


Q: Sounds pretentious.

A: The terms are meant to distinguish a collection of discrete stories from a collection whose stories are connected. A better term all around would be one that doesn’t include “short” or “story” or “short story,” since these words make people run away.


Q: Right? What’s with short stories? They just get started and then all of a sudden, they’re done. You can’t really sink your teeth into them. Why would anyone write them?

A: Because the form is rather tricky and rewarding and has a long and interesting history.


Q: Ha ha ha ha ha. Oh, you’re serious.

A: Yes! Alice Munro just won the 2013 Nobel Prize for a collection of stories.


Q: Alice who? Ha ha ha ha ha. Just kidding. What is a short story cycle?

A: A collection of stories where the stories are discrete but connected and also either build on each other or express conceptual tension.


Q: Huh?

A: Yeah, hairs are being split, but some people like that sort of thing.


Q: Should I now leave you to compose sort-of-okay literature in compressed and discrete form?

A: Yes, please.




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Markup!, a new reality game show

If you like Masterpiece, you’ll love Markup!, a reality game show for the editor in all of us.

In the first of three rounds, four contestants must electronically edit a passage from a marketing professional and make it comprehensible, compelling, and grammatically correct in two minutes. Players will be surrounded by ringing phones, phone conferences set on speaker phone, inane office chatter, and flickering lights. Results are scored by three judges, who will evaluate the markup and provide scores in three categories: Diplomacy, Elegance, and Thoroughness. The loser is dismissed from the show.

In Round Two, the players must electronically edit a passage from a literary theory grad student while suffering a head cold (no symptom relief allowed) and three straight nights of sleep deprivation. The loser is dismissed from the show.

In Round Three, the final two contestants must, in addition to experiencing incessant chatter, flickering lights, a head cold, and sleep deprivation, sit in a windowless, A/C-less building on a 106-degree day. They must perform a hard-copy markup on a twenty-five-page report (with 17 charts) written by an engineer whose third language is English.

The winner is awarded the grand prize, which is the knowledge that he or she has made a positive contribution to the written word.

Drew Carey is reported to be considering a move from The Price Is Right to host the show.

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Two (totally true!) anecdotes

1) A few weeks ago, a male acquaintance of mine introduced me to an acquaintance of his. My acquaintance introduced me as a fiction writer. The new guy said, “No, thanks, I prefer reality.”

2) Today, a co-worker noticed the novel sitting on my desk. She said that 99% of her reading is nonfiction and that she prefers true stories. I said that all fiction is true. “No, it isn’t!” she said. “I prefer factual things.”

We know virtually nothing about the universe. We know very little about our brains. We know a few things with some certainty (this is called history). We highly suspect that there are some universal, moral truths.

Everything else is conjecture. You are safe reading fiction.



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