A new short story, and some remarks

[This post is also available as an issue of my newsletter.]

I’ve been flushed out of my habitual cover by a couple of recent items of personal news. First, last week, at n+1’s annual fundraiser, I was given the Anthony Veasna So Fiction Prize, and was asked to give a very short speech. (A light-hearted report of the evening appeared in The Fine Print [subscription required].) I’ll reproduce my speech just below, for the curious.

Second, though I’ve written nonfiction for The New Yorker since 2005, this week, in its Sept. 26 issue, the magazine is publishing a short story by me for the first time. The story is called “Easter.” Please check it out! It’s my voice on the audio, by the way, if you were wondering what I sound like (I haven’t listened yet).

Remarks for n+1

N+1 has long been generous to me. Its first editors—Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Chad Harbach, Benjamin Kunkel, Allison Lorentzen, and Marco Roth—published my first serious fiction. At Penguin and then Viking, Allison took the further step of publishing two novels by me. Charles Petersen not only posted my film criticism on the website, but I had the honor of going into battle at his side against a plan that would have compromised and probably bankrupted the New York Public Library. (We won.) In the past few years, a new generation, including Sarah Resnick, Mark Krotov, and Dayna Tortorici, have shepherded into print my forays into speculative fiction. And tonight I am grateful for this award in honor of the bold spirit of Anthony Veasna So. Since my relationship with n+1 spans my whole career, I would also like to thank my agents, Sarah Chalfant and Jackie Ko, for their canny, insightful support. And the members of my writing group, Ben Nugent, Andrew Martin, Christine Smallwood, Greg Jackson, and Gemma Sieff, for their honesty and kindness. And I thank my husband, Peter Terzian, my first and my essential reader, to whom I am hopelessly devoted and who makes it possible for me, every day, to take the risks that have led me here.

But enough about gratitude. I’m a writer, after all. Now I want to talk about my mixed feelings.

Is it really necessary to show other people one’s writing? In his last years, Thoreau wrote mostly for his journal. After John Clare was forgotten, the verse he kept writing survived only because the doctor at his asylum collected the scraps of paper. Writing feels most necessary to me when I’m working through something personal—exhuming feelings too hastily buried, turning over a puzzle in my life. Neither motive requires an audience. In fact, an audience, since it implies a marketplace, may be at odds with revelation or understanding. “I am in danger of cheapening myself,” Thoreau worried, after his most austere lecture, “Life without Principle,” became a hit. If, like me and, very likely, Thoreau, a writer is gay and grew up before acceptance became widespread, he will probably always think of what is closest to himself as both a shame he had better keep quiet and a secret he is desperate to reveal. Boys on the hunt for bird eggs imagine that the skylark makes its nest up high, Clare wrote, because that’s what boys would do if they could fly. But the skylark, Clare insists, “nests upon the ground, where anything / May come at to destroy.” Hiding can be as life-giving as flying.

I had a dream recently: I was naked, and as I was heading in through a revolving door, you came toward me, heading out, which made me aware of being two people, one who formed intentions, and had come up with the idea of going naked, and one who registered impressions, and was experiencing, for the sake of remembering it later, what it felt like to be exposed—humiliation, panic. Why do I keep doing this? I asked myself. (I could ask myself the same question right now.) Is the writer the one who decides to go naked or the one who remembers what it’s like? Can I be one but not the other? Is it possible to be honest without being exposed?

For years, I had it both ways: I was ambitious, and it seemed unlikely anyone was going to read my fiction, which left me perfectly free. It wasn’t until 2008, when I was forty, that n+1 published a novella of mine. Without that vote of confidence, I probably wouldn’t have written the two novels that followed. But it took my cloak of invisibility away.

A writer writes alone, and a reader usually reads that way, but the communication between them seems to have to be public. Maybe a writer has to believe he can make a living at it, or at least have the fantasy. Thoreau’s and Clare’s late writings for no audience took place after their understanding of themselves as writers had crystallized. Maybe an audience is only necessary in early stages, as a precipitant. The matter of literary ambition is as strange as its kind. Feelings and perceptions as much as words make up the raw material, but feelings alone would only amount to entertainment, and perceptions, to a sort of flimsy journalism. And no one cares about just words. The ambition has to be to change what fiction is—to make the interaction of its elements richer or simpler, subtler or louder, than other people have realized it could be. So here the writer is, naked in his ambition at last: it’s impossible to change other people’s minds about literary form without other people.

I hate this, frankly. I just want to do my thing—and have all of you read it. (“I am the least difficult of men,” as Frank O’Hara put it. “All I want is boundless love.”) I want to make novels out of a sensibility that’s gay, and maybe a little too vigilantly conscious of its own workings, and in which the felt awareness lags behind perception with a rhythm almost of syncopation. Lately I’ve been trying to accept that I can’t do even this little as peacefully as I’d like to. I have to leave edges ragged, some of the seams unsewn. I have to let my writing more openly have the condition of art, in the sense of being a series of experiments, many of which will fail. If, in the first part of my life, the challenge was to come out, now the challenge is to stay out, in the open, which may be even more unsettling. I may never come to terms with it. But I have to come to terms with not being able to come to terms. “People wish to be settled,” Emerson warned; but “only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

Letter from the spices aisle

There was plenty of food to buy and there were few people shopping for it at Wegmans yesterday morning, which was probably about right for ten A.M. on a normal Friday. At the entrance, a policeman in uniform was standing in front of the citrus display, but he mostly seemed to be checking his phone. Am I overreacting? I wondered. I was at a grocery store instead of at my desk because I had thought that this wasn’t going to be a normal morning. Over breakfast, I had seen a tweet in my feed of empty shelves in Hokkaido, Japan, where a state of emergency had recently been declared on account of the coronavirus pandemic. Stores there had sold out of all paper products. I knew what happens to milk and bread at New York City grocery stores when there’s a rumor of a snowstorm, and had figured I had better sacrifice my hours for writing, which are never all that productive anyway.

I had a long shopping list. It didn’t make sense not to do the shopping for the week as well as for the apocalypse. I had instructed myself only to buy things that we regularly do eat and use. Oatmeal, farro—neither of which I could find, and I was too shy to ask, though Peter tells me that Wegmans does have both, the oatmeal we like apparently located in the “British” section of an ethnic foods aisle—canned beans, lentils. An exception: tunafish. In the early years of our relationship, Peter and I ate far too many servings of a dish we ended up calling “tunabeans” and now we almost never eat tuna from a can. But cans of tuna seemed very much like the sort of thing one eats at the end of the world. We joke a lot about how we’ll probably have to eat catfood in our old age, for example. I bought two.

Would two be enough? I wasn’t sure what I was planning for, exactly. Sheltering in place during some kind of general lockdown? Sweating out at home our own cases of coronavirus? (Would that even be legal?) I added a couple of cans of chicken noodle soup, which we allow our otherwise vegeta- and pescatarian selves to eat when we have respiratory ailments. But two cans of soup wouldn’t be enough if either of us actually did get sick. On the other hand, we weren’t sick yet. Maybe because it was hard to believe I was really buying groceries for a plague, I only seemed able to do it halfheartedly.

I bought a couple of boxes of tissues, even though I’m a handkerchief person, and as I put them in my cart, in my head I wrote a joke, which I later shared on Twitter, about how I was going to use them in a few weeks as currency, the way packs of cigarettes used to be traded in the gulag archipelago. Shopping in extremis seems to put me in mind of the Warsaw Pact. When I lived in Prague, decades ago, while Czechoslovakia was in a ditch between communism and capitalism, there were rolling, unpredictable shortages because farmers and other producers of goods were hoarding in anticipation of being able to get better prices once the new world order arrived. For a long time there were no potatoes; at one point, there was a run (as it were) on toilet paper, and on paper generally. Having been triggered by the Hokkaido tweet, I bought four rolls, and two of paper towels, in addition to the tissues. For years after Prague, I remained neurotic about keeping a stocked pantry, and about having candles and matches in a drawer somewhere in case the power went out. Half a dozen years ago I even made Verizon give us a backup battery when they insisted on replacing the good old-fashioned copper cable to our landline with a fiber optic one, which doesn’t transmit electricity. The phone company has a power system independent of Con Edison’s, and Verizon’s “update” was going to disconnect us from it. Now this backup battery is so old that it beeps an announcement of its death every few months, but as with most modern applicances, if you unplug it and then plug it back in, it resets and you get a little more life out of it. Just before leaving for the grocery store, in fact, it had been beeping and I had unplugged it anew.

When I started this essay, I thought I knew where it was going, but now I’m not sure.

When I got home, I saw out the window that our neighbors across the way have put up a Gadsden flag. That’s the yellow one with the snake asking not to be trodden. When I was a child, it was just a historical curiosity—I think it was around a fair amount during the bicentennial—but now it seems so dire. Last fall, when I visited my father, who lives in rural Texas, I was struck by how many houses in the state are flying “Trump 2020” flags. I don’t think I had ever seen flags for a political campaign before. Yard signs and bumper stickers, but not flags. And the presidential election was then still a year away! It suggested a shift in the kind of allegiance people were expressing. My parents both often tell me that I don’t understand what support for Trump is like in their part of the country now, and they’re probably right.

I put the groceries away, ate lunch, tried to do a little work. Later in the afternoon, on my bike on the way to Cross Fit, I decided I should write an essay about how shopping for a plague is reminding me of having lived once before in a society that was in crisis, but then I had been young and the disorder had seemed like an adventure and a challenge—like a story that I was visiting rather than one that I was described by. And Wegmans had been so calm! Maybe after all I was the one carrying around the anxiety about being able to provide in an emergency, perhaps on account of still being a writer, which doesn’t quite add up to a living. We still needed oatmeal and farro. There was a Whole Foods on the way back from Cross Fit, and after class, I stopped there on my bike ride home.

At Whole Foods, though I knew where to find the oatmeal we liked, there wasn’t any. “It’s getting pretty cleared out,” said an employee, when I asked if they really didn’t have that brand in stock. They still had another brand that we don’t like quite as much, so I took two bags of it. Then took another three, because we have oatmeal every morning. Would five be enough? There were still a few bags of farro; I took them. The only cans of beans still left were lesser-known varieties, but I already had enough beans. Most of the pasta shelves were empty. Maybe people who shop at Whole Foods are more avid news consumers than people who shop at Wegmans? Or maybe the mood of the city had changed over the course of the day? In which case perhaps it hadn’t actually been crazy of me to have gone to the store in the morning. I got in line with my few items, but while waiting, I started to feel anxious. Did I really have everything we needed? Had I gotten enough tunafish?

I went back. “We need QR codes for all of these,” one employee was saying to another, gesturing at empty shelves where cans of beans had been. “They just declared a state of emergency in California,” another employee volunteered. “The whole state?” I asked, shocked. “I don’t know because I haven’t had time to look into it,” he replied. (In fact, so far only a few counties in Califonia have declared emergencies.) I got more tunafish—four cans, this time. There were still two small boxes (not cans, this was Whole Foods) of chicken soup on the shelf, and they seemed to be the last ones. I took them, too. Before I left the aisle I remembered that we needed whole coriander, not for the apocalypse but just for our regular lives. Whole Foods doesn’t have whole coriander, only ground coriander, and I knew this, but “Walk Away, Renee” had started to play on the store loudspeakers, and Peter had told me last week that one of the members of the Left Banke had died recently, so I stood in front of the spices for a while as if to verify that they didn’t have whole coriander and it occurred to me while I was standing there trying to hold it together that this wasn’t going to be the first plague I had lived through, actually, even though this one looked like it was going to move a lot faster, and I suddenly had the feeling that I had had one night during Hurricane Sandy when I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a video of a Con Ed transformer exploding down by the East River—a feeling that everything was coming apart and that maybe it was going to be too much for me. I was fine, though, I knew. Peter and I were in good health (and even if we came down with coronavirus, we’d almost certainly be fine), and I was shopping for things like farro and steel-cut oatmeal. I was living in the richest country in the world. It’s just a sad song, I told myself.

On the ride home it occurred to me that if Trump loses in the fall, then by this time next year he won’t be President. In fact he won’t have been President for five weeks. This might not happen, of course, but it was pleasant to think about.

My new body

I see a faraway look come into the eyes of many of you when I offer to talk about my new workout program, but on the internet there are no gatekeepers and you can’t stop me . . .

This is probably not the news you were expecting to hear from a essayist/novelist often pigeonholed as Jamesian, or at least wannabe Jamesian, but a few months ago I joined a Cross Fit box. There, I said it, I called it a “box”; that’s how you can tell I’m one of them now. A “box,” for the record, is a gym where people do Cross Fit, and Cross Fit is a workout program that combines elements of gymnastics, weightlifting, and aerobic training, including short intervals of high intensity. From day to day, the workout prescribed at a particular box changes, and as the New York Times recently reported, “from a purely motivational standpoint, variety matters” in exercise. I had heard several friends and one cousin extol the program, in some cases praising it for offering a workout so exhilarating that it even seemed to alleviate depression, and I was heading into a winter that looked like it was going to be kind of rough. It looked like an undertow was likely to follow the publication of my second novel. I wanted something to jolt me a little out of myself. My routine at the Y had gotten so mellow that between sets I was not only reading but taking notes on what I was reading. Not in the margins but in a separate notebook even. I was aware, too, that I was fifty-two (not fifty-three, as Google alleges!), and that if I wanted to try one last bout of athleticism, time was running out.

The somewhat paradoxical result, three months after signing up for a free intro lesson, is that I no longer feel with the same acuteness that time is running out. I’m in a pretty good mood, actually, even though nothing about being a writer has gotten any better. The mood alteration was confusing at the outset; my intellectual self remained fractious and grum while the animal organism beneath grew more limber and buoyant. A new kind of cognitive dissonance! Superstructure gradually but inexorably converged with base, knocked into shape by the animal carrying it, and one day, to my shock, I realized I was cheerful. Somewhere along the way my body itself changed, too. This remains disconcerting, if pleasant. The new body isn’t exorbitant or baroque or anything, but even so, I still don’t quite feel identified with it. It’s nice to have, and my husband is a big fan, but in a way it feels slightly beside the point—as if I’d just started a new job and it just so happens that I look sharp in the uniform but the uniform isn’t why I took the job. I also have no confidence that it’s going to last. “What if I write a blog post about my new body and then it withers away?” I asked my husband. “Then you can write a blog post about that,” he suggested. (Surely the cheerfulness won’t last.)

All of this seems very unlikely to someone who knows me as well as I do. Like most pre-gay boys, I was poor at sports. One of my elementary school nicknames was Butterfingers, as if to remind friends not to pass the nerf football to me, and by the time I reached high school, I dreaded gym class and regularly forgot my gym clothes—a desperate attempt on the part of my unconscious mind to get me excused. In a strange way this history turns out to be excellent preparation for Cross Fit, where, as a novice, I am almost always the weakest, slowest, and clumsiest person in the room. I don’t like being the weakest, slowest, and clumsiest, but since that’s who I was growing up, I probably mind it less than most other people would, and can stand it longer. I think I’m usually also one of the oldest people in my Cross Fit class, if not the oldest, and that, too, is a hidden advantage, in that I’ve had a lot of experience with failing at things and with learning from failure, and at my age I take it for granted that anything really pleasant is going to require work. I don’t want to seem to be underselling my grandiosity and ambition here. I’m not really indifferent to where I rank in a group, or in the world generally, as some of you have noticed. I’m a pretty competitive guy, and not only as a writer. All I’m saying is that I’m old enough to have gotten used to taking the long road.

Like many gay men, soon after coming out I started going to a gym, which was more or less required in the dating marketplace. My goal was beach muscles. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. A few years ago, Peter brought home an exercise book and looking through it, I realized that with my poor form I had probably been injuring myself for years. An impinged shoulder sometimes woke me up in the middle of the night literally screaming, and spasms in my lower back often caused me to hobble and wince—and it’s likely that I had inflicted these pains on myself. I had accepted them as part of my inevitable mortal decay, when in fact they were very likely punishments for mistakes I didn’t realize I was making. Since I started Cross Fit, I haven’t had any back spasms or shoulder impingement. All I feel is a more or less pleasant soreness for a day or two after a hard workout. I used to have to spend ten minutes every morning sitting at the edge of the bed, nodding my head in an effort to unkink the muscles in my neck and upper back. I don’t have that problem anymore, though (truth in advertising here) I do have to do fifteen minutes of yoga stretches every morning, for the benefit of my glutes and hamstrings.

The hard part of being a writer is the long spans of time alone. One misses company but can’t quite afford to belong to anything too tethering. I like the low-pressure camaraderie of the box. People bring their dogs and their babies. Everyone has been supportive and welcoming. One fellow member loaned me a weighted jump rope for a month; one staffer volunteered that he’d read one of my novels, to more than which no writer at a gym can aspire. There are no mirrors on the walls of the particular box I go to. I don’t know whether this is explicitly part of the Cross Fit philosophy or just an accident of architecture, but I like it. When I first started, I worried that without mirrors I wouldn’t be able to see whether I was doing a movement crooked, or in some other way wrong, but I’ve come to realize that it’s only through the eyes of a coach or a peer that you ever really “see” a mistake, anyway; the false confidence provided by a mirror would be a distraction. Also, without mirrors, I’m able to forget, at least for the first dozen burpees, that I’m not as young as the people around me. I think this is what I meant earlier when I said that the new body itself is a little beside the point. I’m hardly against exercise for the sake of vanity, any more than I’m against writing for the sake of money. But you don’t spend a Cross Fit class gazing at your reflection and thinking how much hotter you’re getting, and that’s not only because there’s no mirror there (at least none in the box I go to). You spend the hour trying to learn how to do something you couldn’t previously do—just last week, I finally had a breakthrough on the exercise known as the kipping pull-up, though double-unders and toes-to-bars are challenges that I have yet to rise to—or trying to persist through fifty sit-ups, or learning how to feel which muscles you’re activating in which way. Thinking about the firing of specific muscles feels uncanny, by the way, if you haven’t ever focused on and practiced doing it before—like trying to memorize music if you’ve only ever memorized words. I think in the end it’s the learning—of things that are physical—that has me most hooked.