Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Turkey Turned Two And We Didn't Celebrate (What Kind of Parent Am I?)

I know, I know-- and I can't even pretend that I forgot the poor bird's birthday. No, the two-year June anniversary of this blog's creation passed by with my full and guilty cognizance that I was letting it go unacknowledged. I offer the following as explanation, if it does not quite pass as an excuse: I felt I could only permit myself the distinctive pleasure of the anniversary post if I was in the mood for self-congratulation, and while such a requirement did not prove any barrier last year, when this blog and I still had a love that sprang eternal, this year the June anniversary arrived at the end of the bleakest period in this blog's young history, and I didn't feel I had it in me at that moment to celebrate its life. This post tells the story of how that came to be. It thus takes you behind the scenes of the weekly production of this not-so-well-known blog.

In my anniversary post last year, I described the writing of this blog in terms of the life-cycle of a small insect, with each post being equivalent to the bug's consummate moment of generation, inevitably followed by a rapid death, until the idea for the next post would begin to emerge and the cycle would go on. This process repeated itself every seven days or so, if not more rapidly, and each time it did so without my consent or foreknowledge. Often, indeed, I would resent it when it started up again -- "no, no, not now! not today! I have other things I have to do -- work and groceries and school! I can't drop it all for that damn blog that no one reads!" I would think. But of course, I'd still have to write the post then and there, or else-- like something dreamt in the last five minutes of slumber -- the idea would vanish or else seem preposterous and uninteresting an hour later if I didn't commit it to paper.

And besides, such resentment at being called to action by the inner compulsion to write was infinitely better than the long periods of waiting that lay between each generative burst, when the self-doubt would begin to whisper in my ear that for all I knew that last one was the very last idea for a post I'd ever be allotted in my span. You might think this fear had been sufficiently contradicted by experience after enough weeks went by, but we know what Hume would say to that sort of argument, and anyways terror is an inevitable response so long as one is wholly dependent on an external power, even if that power has generally proven trustworthy. I am entirely at the mercy of whatever mysterious agglutinative force one day starts binding together quotes and arguments and memories taken from my life and recent reading into a chain of thoughts -- and this is an unnerving position in which to find oneself. If this inner voice decided simply to go quiet one day, I would presumably not be able to write again, and I have no way to explain why it hasn't done so. I guess this is why I like William James -- in my case as in his, observing the subconscious at work is the closest I have come to experiencing the supernatural.

But in that first year of the blog's life, as I say, the inner voice was especially garrulous. Indeed, I was actually erring on the side of modesty in that anniversary post when I estimated my blogger's life cycle as lasting a full week -- quite often, in truth, a new idea for a post would begin to form a mere two days after the one that came before it. I would have, that is, a single 24-hour period of soothing deadness, in which I was neither writing nor aching to write, and then the driving agglutination would force me back onto my feet and I'd be pleading with it for only one more half-day of interrupted authorship. For some long stretches in the first year, then, writing this blog became less like trying to generate a flow of ideas than it was like trying to switch buckets beneath a ceiling leak fast enough to catch all the water that was passing through. The loss I experienced at such times was not that of the dull drab idea-less days, but rather that of idea-bursts from the leak that I was not quick enough to capture.

And so in this fashion I would continue to "grow up and perish like the summer flie" (Milton) every few days and I guess also went to school and worked and read things and had some sort of social life, though such details are more hazy, and all around my life was to me a charmed, if also somewhat torturous, thing.

Already, though, you can see that I have surrounded this period with a halo of nostalgia -- and am referring to it in the past tense -- so you can guess that this second year on the blog has been a bit more difficult. It wouldn't be right, however, to say that the insect larvae life-cycle and gushing ceiling geyser models sketched above no longer apply at all. There were definitely periods this past year that followed the it's-just-a-matter-of-switching-buckets-fast-enough-to-catch-all-the-water pattern as closely as did some of the busier epochs of the first year: the bombing of Gaza last summer, for instance, the high-profile cases of police violence, Charlie Hebdo -- all provoked outpourings of that sort, as readers may attest. (I haven't ever sat down to figure out what is the longest post ever featured on this blog, but the one about the rally I attended for Eric Garner and one of the last of the string of Israel/Palestine posts I devoted to arguing with myself last summer would have to be front-runners.) In the last few months, however, the leak has seemed as if it were running a bit dry.

To explain this, however, I first need to say a little bit more about how posts on this blog are born.


Writing this blog was never meant to be for me anything that could be described as "work." Work is something of which every human life has more than enough already, including my own, and so too, no post here is ever conceived though a process of "research" -- again, that is something with which my cup has already fully runneth over the past few years, between class and various nonprofit jobs. The posts do emerge through reading and through drawing material from what I read, of course, but never in an intentional or systematic way. When I am reading anything substantive, I always keep a mental ledger running on one side of my mind where I can take note of lines or phrases that seem like they might come in handy, but I never know in advance how they will do so. The most I can do is to organize them under theme headings, almost as if I were already placing them under the tags on the right-hand side of this blog ("this one from George Eliot is Criminal Justice; that one from Nabokov is for Autobiography").

(An aside: I've thought about keeping myself more organized in this process by means of a "Commonplace Book" of the sort your average country squire might have maintained in the 18th century, but I know exactly where and how such a practice would go wrong -- I'd start convincing myself that everything I read was worth keeping, so that I'd soon reach the point where I was simply copying out whole novels and poems longhand into a journal. I might as well just read the book then, hadn't I? You would know why I fear this result if you were ever to see a book where I've tried to highlight or underline "key passages." You will see the ten pages covered in very modest markings. These will be followed by countless subsequent chapters where virtually every line has been emphatically underscored. Once I have reached that point, I then need to introduce a series of new devices to accentuate further -- to underline the underlined -- because of the diminishing marginal returns on the the original commodity of the underline -- so I start putting in double lines and stars and stars with circles around them and exclamation points with circles around them. Put simply, by the time you reach the climax of any book that I have abused in this way, you will be swimming in ink.)

I almost never undertake a process of looking for quotes or authorities to fill out a post, however, and this is probably just a sign of how uncreative I really am. The quotes and authorities I want to use for a post, you see, always come first, and any idea that I have most often emerges merely from a chance I identify to connect them to each other. My own contribution is at first just to provide the filler and connective clauses that go between the quotes, though it often happens in the process that I become unexpectedly taken with my own filler and forget to what other quote from what other maestro or private deity -- Erik Erikson, Philip Larkin, etc.-- it was originally supposed to lead to. The last several paragraphs, for instance, all began as mere filler to get us to the following nugget from Nabokov, which I have been saving in my mental ledger for quite some time, as it describes perfectly the research-that-ins't-research that goes into stringing together the thought associations that result in a post. "All I know," Nabokov says in one of his interviews, "is that at a very early stage of [a] novel's development I get this urge to garner bits of straw and fluff, and eat pebbles. Nobody will ever discover how clearly a bird visualizes, or if it visualizes at all, the future nest and the eggs in it."

I complete my own pebble-swallowing and nest-making with a similar innocence of what natural designs may be operating through me in the process. I don't set out to watch five hours of interviews with the woman who played Maria on Sesame Street because I am expecting in advance that she will say something that will prove relevant to a crisis in the Middle East and to Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell," but far more varied inputs than these have been known before to spring into military formations in my mind and demand that I record them, so maybe these will too.

So that's "where I get my ideas" -- from other people, though I try to give credit as much as possible. As for the actual joining of words into sentences that we call writing, the best of this is done in my head, usually when I'm lying in bed in the morning or at night, or when I'm pacing interminably around the kitchen sink (I'll probably have to get up again in a second and start walking in order to remember what the next sentence after this was going to be when I planned it -- something about Nabokov in a bathtub?), or when I'm in the shower. Nabokov has yet another good line somewhere about getting so lost in his internal compositions that he doesn't realize that he is doubly or tripling soaping himself in the wash. I have a similar but somewhat more inconvenient problem: I will occasionally find myself rinsed and fully dried after a shower and suddenly unable to remember if I actually cleaned myself. Clean or not, however, I will have emerged from such a wet rumination with at least three or four good sentences in hand.

Of course, such sentences are never as pristine when committed to paper as they are in my head. When I see them in their less spectacular form on the page, I always wonder why I couldn't just have written them out the way they occurred to me, but for whatever reason, while I always start the sentence smoothly enough,  I panic -- though I don't always do this-- and not always to a fault, I might add-- right before reaching the end and add some qualifying parenthetical or adjoining phrase that spoils the effect.

Of course, it is possible for me to write without this ideal kind of compulsive inspiration, in the purely mechanical, physical senses of the verb "to write." However, the difference between the experience of doing so and that of my blissful blackouts in the shower is like that between laying a harp flat and plucking its strings and standing it upright and giving it a full strum. The disparity in quality is audible, and I don't think only to me, though I won't shame publicly any of my electronic children by declaring which of them was conceived under such circumstances -- readers can probably tell.


Well, now that I've told you the process, I expect you can perceive how and in what way it is liable to break down in stressful circumstances. The life cycle of the blog requires two things above all else to complete itself each week -- time and freedom -- and these are things of which we all have far too little in today's world, though I have an easier time of things than most. Over the past two years I have come to accept that it really takes me an entire day, from about 10 AM to 7 or 8 in the evening, to write, edit, and publish one of these posts -- if it's going to be any good, that is. And full, unused days dangling like a handkerchief out of a window are just not often found anymore in the adult American's week. And of course, I need time not only for the writing, but also for the pebble-swallowing and nest-making that must precede it. I need to devote some hours of the week to reading old novels and checking the New York Review of Books website and looking at Human Rights Watch updates and other things that would be entirely ruined for me if I were doing them for some actual reason, like work or in order consciously to gather blog ideas. Otherwise even if I do manage to find my one free day at some point in the week, I will not have enough bricks to gum together that would enable me to use it when it comes.

During my final semester of Divinity School, just concluded this past May, I was often faced with this last-named problem. Between part-time field education, five classes at school (my own fault -- I took a lighter schedule in the fall and had to pay for it later), and writing a master's thesis, a significant enough dent was finally put in my cherished pebble-swallowing time that I began to feel it on the blog. I may have still had Saturdays free, but now for the first time I felt genuinely spent and unable to write by the time I reached them. I would still go to the library and pull up Six Foot Turkey on my laptop-- and then I would stare at the empty "New Post" screen in catatonic despair. Maybe I would pace around and thereby generate ideas, but often I would find myself unable to begin the exhausting process of recording them. George Eliot pictures one character in her Felix Holt (by far the best and most lovingly-described character in that less successful of her novels) at work as follows: "He could not sit down again, but walked backward and forward, stroking his chin, emitting his low guttural interjections under the pressure of clauses and sentences which he longed to utter aloud." That business of the "pressure of clauses and sentences" is one I know well. When I was particularly full of them on those library Saturdays last semester, I would often feel it keenly in my pacing. Typically, indeed, I would have a close-to-complete post all written out in my head, but for some reason I would be utterly incapable of figuring out what to say in the first sentence or paragraph that could some how enable me to access and release the terrible pressurized backlog squirming in my brain.

You must have noticed, if you were following the blog, that I did in fact manage nonetheless to keep to my slated schedule of one post per week. By this point, however, my life cycle had become a death cycle. Granted, you can't have life without death and vice versa, but the emphasis between the two quantities in my weekly spiral had shifted. If before I had had to live each week in order to die, now I had to die in order to live.

Every single week, on that one free Saturday, after wasting a morning and early afternoon in frantic pacing, I would angrily close up my laptop and trudge home --  always wondering as I did so (and I am in fact sane enough to wonder this, though I may not have given much evidence of it so far)-- why on Earth am I doing this to myself? No one compels me to write these posts, after all, and I certainly do not have Dr. Johnson's excuse of doing it for the money. This is purely a self-inflicted torture. Any reasonable person hearing about this incomprehensible private drama would no doubt ask me something like the following, and she or he would be right to do so: Why don't you just put the blog aside until you have time to work on it -- or at least until you want to work on it?

That would be, to repeat, a perfectly reasonable suggestion. However, I have many superstitions about this blog -- none of them perfectly rational, but all of them founded in a close and long-standing observation of myself -- and one of them has always told me that if I were one day to break the weekly cycle, there would be no recovery for the blog. I might move on to other creative projects and even other blogs, but this one, Six Foot Turkey, if once I allowed the weekly cycle to break, would be kaput. I would lose my ability to enter that particular associative stream I do when writing this blog, for the simple reason that any project I worked on in the past will-- after a few months of neglect -- start to strike me as the work of a different person. It may be work I still take pride in, it might be work I like, but I can never again pick it up and simply go on where I left.

So, missing my one Saturday window for writing each week seemed to carry with it grave risks indeed. And each week that this miss happened, I would throw up my hands and renounce the blog entirely (for the reasons above, I did not feel that simply missing one week but not the next was ever an option). I would seek to liberate myself from my self-imposed shackles -- "I'll never write another post again!" I would inwardly declare.

But then -- and here comes William James again-- it was precisely when I gave up, when I decided this time really was it, it's over, my blogging days are done, I guess it's time to take up racket ball or the driving range -- that the way would be cleared for the next idea finally to arrive. It's the classic born-again experience. "I was in the depths of my despair when He came to me." It is when we "drop down, give up, and don't care any longer," as James says, that the conscious life finally ceases and the path is opened for the subconscious self to pull in and show us that our situation is not quite so bad as we thought after all.

The saving message that my subconscious usually brings to me when I need it is that I can still write. Of course I can still write, because in reality I am not dependent on some mystical external forces, I am not at the mercy of the supernatural. In truth, all I am doing in writing this blog is setting down one word after another after another, which is something I have done countless times before and can continue to do as long as I desire it. There's a sentence. And another. And another-- hey and that one's actually pretty good, where did that come from?-- I can't stop, My God, look at me go!


That was all filler, by the way, that was originally intended just to carry us to the following quote from Joan Didion, saved up in my mental ledger, which gave me hope when I first read it that my dying-to-live cycle each week was not a sign of creative bankruptcy. If Didion suffered the same affliction and it led to the creation of Slouching Toward Bethlehem, there must be hope for us all. As she describes it in that work: "[T]here is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic."


This past May, though --

 -- the unthinkable finally did happen. I missed a week on this blog (the audience gasps). From May 4th to 15th, there was total silence on the Turkey-- not even a short poem. It was the only perfect blackout we have had since we first started airing here on Channel Blogspot. I had the formal excuse, it is true, that it was finals week of my last semester of Divinity School, but in my heart I do not accept that as a good reason. After all, I wrote that post about Netanyahu's reelection the same week I cranked out forty pages of a master's thesis, and there is always enough happening in my life that I could potentially appeal to it as a reason not to blog, if I wanted. But the truth is that if I really have something to write, I will always somehow make time for it, no mater how outwardly busy I am. The problem that week was that I was just too mentally exhausted even to know what to say.

Did this one missed week utterly destroy the blog, as I always feared it would? No, not really -- I'm still here today, ain't I? But I also can't shake the feeling that things have become a bit looser around here. There's a bit less discipline. Some weeks I allow myself to throw up only a short poem, rather than a full-length post -- and this is a first inroad of indolence.

In some ways, of course, I am freer now than I used to be, for having broken the witch's spell and emerged thereby into the normal world of adult humans who do not feel that they are in psychic peril every time they don't write something at the arbitrarily-set pace of one per week. But I have mixed feelings about it, still, along with more than a twinge of nostalgia for my previous captivity. I mean-- look at the lackadaisical person I am now. I'm writing this post on a Wednesday, for God's sake! That may mean little to you, but to me Wednesdays are always the wrong day to blog, since they are in the middle of the week and therefore do not "count" as the requisite weekly post. If I were writing this on a Tuesday or a Thursday it would be a different story. I mean, is this supposed to be the July 2-7 post? Or the July 9-13 post? Like you, I'm sure it doesn't matter, because it doesn't have to be either (which I always knew), and I'm not even sure that I care (which would not always have been the case). Such an attitude is liberating compared to what came before it, but it is also strange to me, and it requires me to work out for myself a new way of relating to this blog.

You can see that in a state of such internal turmoil here on the Six Foot Turkey, it was a bit difficult for me to write just another birthday post last month, when the appropriate day arrived. I hope this meditation goes some way toward explaining my lapse, while also demonstrating that my underlying love for the bird continues undiminished through it all, though it has had to grow into a deeper, matured, and more seasoned kind of love in the process, such as one feels toward someone whose flaws have become part of the reason you like to have them around, and whom in turn you are no longer trying to impress.


In keeping with "tradition" (meaning that I did this one other time last year), I will leave you with my top picks of posts from the past year. These are the ones that, whatever terrible struggles and pains went into their creation, could basically be said to have worked, and which I look back on with the most fondness. Without exception, what set these posts apart was not any superiority in their writing, but the fact that each of them was founded in a single genuine emotion, keenly felt and personally expressed, which I tried to translate into words, in a way that wasn't hampered by too many other ulterior motives that always prove self-defeating in the end (such as the desire to sound smart). A good number of them were also set apart by the unusual distinction of being fun -- a rare thing on this blog.

They are, in chronological order, and starting after the anniversary post last June:

1) "Samurai Cop" (1991) and the Good Bad Movie
2) A Review of "Lolly Willowes"(1926)
3) Or Is Liberal Zionism the Problem?
4) Zola in the West Bank
5) "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" (2009): A Review
6) On Becoming Re-Radicalized
7) Spirits: A Halloween Special
8) Panic
9) An Immigration Crisis of Conscience
10) Protest (This is the Eric Garner one)
11) A Poem ("Young People")
12) Violence and Responsibility
13) Metaphysics and Melancholy: A Review of William James
14) Charlie Hebdo
15) John Upike's Terrorist (2006): A Review
16) Israel/Palestine: The Realistic Solution
17) Conversions
18) They Decided to Kill Him (initial response to the Tsarnaev death sentence)
19) Reading Habits
20) Mad Max (1979): A Review

No comments:

Post a Comment