Every narrative voice—but especially every nonfiction voice—is itself a fiction, and the world of writing and reading is divided between those who know this and those who either don’t or else deny it. Human beings have glands and secrete all sorts of things. But the human mind secretes stories. We live narratives. That is the only way we know how to experience anything, and it is our glory.
—  Lawrence Weschler, in the prospectus for his course, “The Fiction of Nonfiction,” quoted in The New New Journalism
Writer's Blocks

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This weekend my friend Austin and I were talking about writing, and I remembered an interview with Lawrence Weschler in The New New Journalism in which he talks about building with wooden blocks while he’s thinking about the structure of his articles or books. Here’s the passage, after he’s talked about his idea-gathering and information collecting:

Are there any activities that help at this point?
Two things. One is that I read a lot of novels. Writers like Larry McMurtry and Walter Mosley are especially good. I’m sort of like a bicyclist riding behind a truck: I want to get into the slipstream of that other narrator’s narrative. To get the feel of narrative, to be on the road, to remember what it feels like to tell a story.
The second thing I do is play with blocks. I have a very large collection of wooden blocks. Some of them are my own invention, and some of them are just rectangular.

These blocks belong to your daughter?
No, my daughter is not allowed to play with these blocks. They are mine.

And what do you do with these blocks?
Well, my wife, who is an important human rights monitor, and my daughter, who has been off at school, will come home and see the elaborate cathedral I’ve built on the kitchen table. And they’ll say, “We see you’ve been busy today.” And I have! Because although I’m not thinking about the material at all, I am thinking about structure and rhythm….

And how do these block structures get translated into writing?
I’ll be playing with my blocks and find myself thinking, “Hmm, I suppose if I put this part of the story in front of that rather than after it … That might be interesting.” And gradually I start to find formal issues of sequencing. Then I start to notice rhymes that I hadn’t noticed before.
For instance, when I was writing about Breytenbach there was a key moment in his story when he is being arrested at the airport and passes by a window in which he sees himself. I thought about what it might have been like to see himself at that moment. And then I remembered that in one of his poems he had a line about “South Africa is like the mirror at midnight when you looked in it and a train whistle blew in the distance, and your face was frozen there for all eternity, a horrible face but one’s own.” And I thought, hmm, if I put that quote next to that scene …
Now this gets really interesting. This is fun. And at a certain point everything flips around: I’m suddenly magnetized north rather than south, and everything else in the universe except the blank paper before me is north. I’m at my desk, and wouldn’t even notice if the house was burning down around me. And yet, I’m not interested in the material, I’m interested in the form. And the thing that is totally mind-blowing is that elements I put side by side for purely formal reasons turn out to be true about the real world. And this is because beauty is truth, and truth is beauty. It is the same kind of satisfaction that a mathematician gets out of an elegant proof.

Although the process sounds somewhat mysterious, and I’m not sure I would find it helpful in my writing, the important idea—that structuring writing is easier when you turn it into a physical activity—is undoubtedly true for me. I usually use index cards and shuffle them around, but using building blocks or Lego or even drawing a picture would probably work, too. The key is to get things out of your head and into your hands.

(All the interviews in that book are good, by the way, very focused on craft and would be of interest to any writer, not just journalists new new or old.)


Lawrence Weschler, author of Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin, discusses the experience of viewing Irwin’s Scrim Veil—Black Rectangle—Natural Light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1977).


CB 105:  ”Narrative and Stories,” as described by Marc Maron, Jesse Thorn, Errol Morris, Lawrence Weschler, and others.

Returning briefly to the idea of this tumblr account as a repository of my random, disconnected thoughts; on Monday’s WTF Marc Maron discussed in his opening monologue a quote from Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, an oft-mentioned Maron favorite.  He repeated it like a mantra, ”People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves.”  This triggered something in me, something likely familiar to anyone that listens to too many podcasts or reads too many random articles and eventually loses track of where ideas originate.  It’s when one independent idea merges with a vaguely related idea from your recent past and starts a flow of thought, like one bead of condensation merging with another and accelerating.  

Becker’s quote on creating our own subjective reality dovetailed with another conversation I’d listened to on the overwhelming human desire for narrative.  The reality we carry in our mind, our own story line or narrative, is just that—something of our own creation, and not an objective reality shared by all.  And to carry that a step further, the narrative we create individually and collectively as a society can become more powerful and persuasive (perhaps dangerously so) than the objective reality it’s attempting to describe.  Before I inject too much of my own commentary, I want to track my initial train of thought which was from Maron on Becker to Jesse Thorn on Errol Morris. A few months back I was listening to the Bullseye podcast on which host Jesse Thorn was interviewing acclaimed documentarian, Errol Morris.  They were discussing Morris’s new film, “Tabloid,” and the topic turned to the tabloid medium itself:

Jesse Thorn:  Yes, and tabloids are about story-telling above all else.  Depending on the tabloid, they have various degrees of grounding in the truth.

Errol Morris:  Simplified story-telling.  Story-telling almost in the abstract.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but the tabloid idea is, if you can’t hook somebody four or five or six words in, game over.  You’ve got to work fast, you have to be succinct.  You might call tabloid story-telling story-telling ground zero.  It’s the essence of it.  I do something a little bit different, I hope I’m not confessing to something that’s going to get me into trouble.  It’s really as you described, I’m very much interested in how stories are constructed.  I like tabloid stories, but I also like sneaking a peak behind the curtain of looking at how tabloid stories come to be, how they’re manufactured.  It’s a way for giving us perspective on narrative, on stories, on the relationship between, and this is one of my fiends, certainly something that interests me, the relationship between stories and the truth.  Do stories blind us to the truth?  Do they help us see the truth?  Do we really need stories in order to survive?  What would life be without them?  How would we ever navigate the chaos of reality without some way of taking all of these crazy experiences and details and making sense of them?

They returned to the subject of narrative again shortly:

Thorn:  Well, “This American Life” is a show that is more dedicated to the narrative form than basically anything ever.  Another one of my favorite public radio shows is a show called “On the Media.”  When I listen to those, one of the things that is always coming up in my head is wondering about how that human craving for narrative shapes the world – shapes the way we, not just process information, but what information we process.

Morris:  In countless ways that we can’t even imagine.  Stories are so powerful that we exclude informational evidence because it doesn’t conform to the story that we have in mind, the story that we feel most comfortable with, the story that we wish to believe.  Stories may even be more powerful than the world around us.

Thorn:  That’s serious stuff you’re rolling out here, Errol Morris.

Morris:  Eh.

The conversation seemed so vital at the time and has remained on my mind.  In a year that will include both the summer olympics and a presidential election, we’re inundated with competing story lines.  Sport and politics.  Two subjects which can be exhausting precisely because they’re rife with a desperate need to narrativize.

Also, it struck me for the first time in my life I feel I’ve lived long enough to really tell a story and create my own narrative when someone asks me “Where did you come from?” or “What led you here?”  I find myself injecting all the traditional elements of storytelling:  a beginning, personal problems and controversy, heightened action, overcoming adversity, and a soft landing in the present with a happy conclusion.  In the end the story I tell, while being completely truthful, will often not really resemble my life in the least, but it’s convenient and so it becomes necessary, I suppose.

Following this train of thought on narrative and story, while writing this I recalled Jesse Thorn had discussed this same point subsequently during another interview.  Of course at first my recollection wasn’t so succinct.  Did I think of this on my own?  Is this an original thought?  No.  Did I read it in an article?  Was it in a film review?  It was in the Werner Herzog interview.  [listens to Herzog interview]  No, it was not.  Eventually Thorn’s interview with author Lawrence Weschler came to mind.  Towards the end of the interview Thorn brought up the concept of narrative.  They both almost simultaneously brought up Errol Morris’s short documentary (only 6 minutes and worth checking out), “The Umbrella Man,” which dealt with an oddly dressed man, as Thorn describes it, “holding an umbrella standing next to the spot where Kennedy’s motorcade is passing as Kennedy is shot, and he appears in the Zapruder film and was for many years the subject of huge amounts of speculation on what this guy’s role was."  On an otherwise clear day, he appears to be the only person in Dallas with an umbrella.  Thorn continues:

Thorn:  And so naturally there were [years] of people projecting everything on to this point of information.  They have this one datum which is this man is holding an umbrella and he shouldn’t be … And the human mind wants to make that into a story.  Wants nothing more than to make that into a story because it does not fit the pattern of our expectation.  And we want to make anything that doesn’t fit the pattern of our expectation into a story of some kind.

As it turns out the individual later came forward and, as is stated in the film, claimed "it was a protest at the appeasement policies of Joseph P. Kennedy, John Kennedy’s father, when he was ambassador to the court of St. James in 1938/39.  It was a reference to Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella."  Nothing remotely close the conspiracy narratives (including the umbrella rocket launcher pictured above) many proposed.  It’s the degree to which reality was disconnected from the assumed narratives that makes this such a great case in point.  The primary narrator of the film, Josiah "Tink” Thompson, relays John Updike’s reaction:

Thompson:  He said that his learning of the existence of the umbrella man made him speculate that in historical research there may be a dimension similar to the quantum dimension in physical reality.  If you put any event under a microscope you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on.  It’s as if there’s the macro level of historical research where things sort of obey natural laws and usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen.  And then there’s this other level where everything is really weird.

Moving on from “The Umbrella Man,” Thorn talks about how there exists a commonality among filmmakers–at least when being interviewed–to identify with being a storyteller, and how being a storyteller strikes at something very basic within us.  It gives us “a real rush in our brains because it’s supposed to be there, like it’s the thing that makes us really good at hunting or whatever, and it makes me really worried and uncomfortable that this goes on in all of our brains uncontrollably and is this powerful bias in our lives towards narrative.  Unless it’s narrativized it’s not absorbed, and if you narrativize something that isn’t rational, it will be absorbed."  Weschler counters:

Weschler: There’s an interesting problem.  I would phrase it differently, I would phrase that in most of our lives we are treated like robots; we are treated like Pavlovian dogs.  And I find on the contrary that the capacity for narrative–for experiencing things as narrative and for getting a rush out of the narrative–is actually kind of hopeful in that context … I think in much the way that your gallbladder secrets bile and your pancreas secretes insulin, your brain secretes stories, and that’s not frivolous, that’s great.


Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees + True To Life by Laurence Weschler

Two fascinating books that really must be read together…1

When the artist David Hockney read Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin soon after its publication, in 1982, he telephoned the author to say that while he disagreed with virtually everything in it, he couldn’t get it out of his mind. He invited Weschler to his Hollywood Hills studio to discuss it, initiating what has become a series of engrossing dialogues, here gathered together for the first time.

Weschler explains in the introduction to the Hockney book:

For some twenty-five years now, whenever I have written about one or the other of these two giants of contemporary art… the other one has called me to tell me, “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” The two have never met or conversed in person (straddling that Southern California scene like Schoenberg and Stravinsky before them, each seemingly oblivious of the other’s existence though in fact deepy seized by the work); instead they have been carrying on this quite vivide argument for over two decades, through me, as it were.

It’s fascinating to juxtapose excerpts from the two books — there are so many things to cross-reference, so many subjects that come up again and again.

One thing that fascinated me is the way in which each artist’s process is driven by asking questions (both artists in the course of their careers have befriended scientists, and waxed poetic about the connections between science and art in terms of inquiry), but how the way each goes about his inquiry has direct economic implications.

At one point, Irwin talks about the importance of artists structuring their finances “in such a way that they do not have to rely on the sale of their art”: “Look…it’s really quite simple. Pursuing the questions which art provokes is a long-term activity that necessarily needs to be free of short-term measures and rewards.” This take is an outgrowth of Irwin’s process: he spends a great deal of his artistic inquiry not actually making anything tangible. In fact, his installations are of such a fleeting and ephemeral nature that “he simply was not producing much by way of salable items.” Irwin admits, “I spen[d] days, weeks, months finishing things no one is ever going to see,” and, “My stuff, my offering, for the most part simply isn’t going to be there to pass on because…almost all my more recent steps have essentially been erased.”

Hockney on the other hand, while working through his questions he is constantly making pictures, whether it be his photocollages, photocopier experiments, paintings, etc. He’s leaving a kind of paper trail behind, and a paper trail can be picked up and sold.2

  1. Oddly, my reading year has been a year of paired books: reading one book, then reading another that compliments it or cancels it out… 

  2. This isn’t to say he’s necessarily intentionally structuring his process in a way that produces salable items. (“I’m not so much interested in the mere objects I’m creating as in where they’re taking me, and all the work in the different media is part of that inquiry and part of that search.”) 

Yesterday at Pomona College I had the pleasure of listening to the brilliant theories of New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler speak.  “Ren” spoke about convergences: moments when life and art display surprising, sometimes inexplicable patterns, a phenomena called “apophenia."  From a coffee cup swirl to the whirling galaxies, from this shot of Che Guevara’s execution to an old painting, the patterns are everywhere once you start looking.  His book Everything That Rises, published from a series of posts for McSweeney’s, is totally amazing… I’ll certainly be on the look out for convergences in my own life from now on. 

Being available in response

Frank Chimero, a man full of good ideas, shared another one recently: a text playlist. Basically, it’s a selection of readings that he revisits on a regular basis, “almost a pep talk in text form,” as he describes it. Frank’s list included a ton of good stuff (I’ve done some thinking about “stock and flow” myself), and the wonderful Liz Danzico responded in kind with a great list of her own.

I’m still working on my list, but while I’m in the process of pulling it together I decided I had to share one reading that I’ve been revisiting a lot over the last few days. It’s from Lawrence Weschler’s incredible book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which is about the artist Robert Irwin. Chapter 15 is called “Being Available in Response,” which is also the name of a project initiated by Irwin.

The first time I read this chapter I nearly lept out of my chair — I got so excited I reread it three or four times right away.

Rather than trying to explain the project too much, though, I’ll let Irwin (and Weschler) tell you about it as they do in the book. Here’s Irwin:

“I just sort of let it be known that I was available, in a way like I’m saying it to you. I mean, I didn’t put out any ads or anything, but word got around. And you could be, let’s say, up at UCLA, and you’d say, ‘Well, let’s take advantage of that. We’ll have him come up and talk to the students.’ And that’s what I’d do. Or, 'We’ll have him come up and do a piece on the patio.’ And I would just come up and do that.

"There’s an important distinction to be made here,” [Irwin] continued, “between organizing and proselytizing, on the one hand, and responding to interest, on the other. I was and continue to be available in response. I mean, I don’t stand on a corner and hand out leaflets. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not trying to sell anything. But on the other hand, if you ask me a question, you’re going to get a half-hour answer.’”

Keep reading

The best thing about Los Angeles is the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a magical world where everything is kind of real and kind of not and it really doesn’t matter what is and isn’t true because it’s all so fucking awesome. When I interviewed Ren Weschler for this week’s Bullseye, we took a few minutes after we were done to talk about the MJT. Ren wrote an amazing book about the museum and its founder which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders.

Grace comes into play in those situations in which you work and work and work at something … that then happens all by itself! It would not have happened without all the prior work, but the prior work didn’t cause it to happen. The prior work was preparation for receptivity. But then there is something beyond that which is gratis, for free. That is “grace.”
—  Lawrence Weschler in The New New Journalism.
  • Listen

On this week’s Bullseye with Jesse Thorn:

Andrew Noz of Cocaine Blunts & Hip-Hop Tapes and Tumblin’ Erb recommends rap songs.

Long-time New Yorker writer and current president of the New York Institute for the Humanities Lawrence Weschler talks about the uncanny valley, and about human beings’ bias toward narrative.

Comedian Chris Gethard convinces P. Diddy to come be on his stage show at the UCB Theater, beats up a dwarf who’s torturing him as a toddler with a whiffle ball bat, struggles with bipolarity and writes an awesome book called A Bad Idea I’m About To Do.

And my Outshot: a recommendation of the twitter feed Fake Civil War.

If you’re a reporter — you, right now — you are going to have 1,000 pieces on the table at the end of this. And you’re going to try to make it into something that sings. And it’s going to be clunky, and it’s not going to work, and there’s going to be something wrong, and you won’t be able to figure out what it is. And you’re going to work, and you’re going to work, and you’re going to work, and then suddenly it’s going to be right. It will go from being the million-sided polygon into a circle. That pop can only occur, in religious terms, in grace, which is to say “gratis,” which is to say for free. You work and you work and you work at something that then happens by itself. Writers feel this all the time, artists feel this all the time, and it’s especially true of political movements. When I was reporting on the Polish workers’ movement in the ’80s, those people had been working on that stuff for 20 years and nothing had happened, and then suddenly it happened. And you ask them why it happened, and they say, “I don’t know.” It would not have happened without all that prior work, but the work didn’t cause it to happen. There was all that work and something more. And that something more is for free. Another way of putting it is it’s preparation for receptivity. If you hadn’t have worked, you wouldn’t be prepared to receive the gift that comes. When I think of grace, I think it’s the thing that happens over and above all the other stuff you did that suddenly makes something shimmer and glow.
—  Lawrence Weschler, Asked and Answered, T Magazine blog
Ideas, when they get like that, then you can really get into the game of reason. You can really sit down and reason the nature of what you are thinking. When you peel all those layers away and you arrive at just the qualities of the ideas themselves, it becomes very clear and very simple as to why they are what they are and do what they do. Then, later, when you bring back in the motives and the aspirations and the rationales, you can begin to see how they in turn alter the ideas.
—  Robert Irwin
Robert Irwin’s Big Visions, Barely Seen
Now, at 87, this artist has seen interest increase in his works, which find the evanescent in the everyday.
By Randy Kennedy

On January 1, The New York Times published a great, long profile of 87-year-old conceptual artist Robert Irwin, the recent interest in his work, and his current project in Marfa. Here’s some brief backgrounf on Irwin:

After serving in the Army in the late 1940s, Mr. Irwin spent time in several Los Angeles art schools and started out as a post-Abstract Expressionist painter who, from the beginning, cared little about the career requirements of the business; he made ends meet betting on horses and college football games. Turning away from painting, he became one of the best-known members of the ’60s Southern California movement known as Light and Space, whose practitioners, including James Turrell, John McCracken, Doug Wheeler and Helen Pashgian, pioneered a kind of work that turned away from objects and how they might be perceived and focused instead on the experience of perception itself.

More so than that of his peers, Mr. Irwin’s work was sometimes barely there, and it can easily be mistaken for architecture, or landscaping, or interior design, because of his affection for working outside of galleries and museums, tweaking the everyday world. For several years after he gave up his studio, his practice consisted of not much more than wandering the country like a kind of secular holy fool, offering free lectures and advice to students, what he called his “project of general peripatetic availability.” “Scrim Veil — Black Rectangle — Natural Light,” one of his most celebrated pieces, created for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1977, was just daylight, a white scrim, a painted metal bar and a painted line on the walls.

And here’s the Times on his current work in Marfa:

On a recent sun-streaked morning, Mr. Irwin tipped back a hard hat and surveyed cinder-block walls rising from the arid West Texas scrubland here, the beginnings of what will be the first permanent installation of its kind designed by him in America, on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Founded by the sculptor Donald Judd, Chinati is a mecca of work made mostly by minimalist artists who came of age, as Mr. Irwin did, during the 1960s, as painting and traditional sculpture gave way to a more complex, amorphous vision of what art could do.

Permanent works by many of the artists Mr. Judd admired — Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, John Wesley — are part of the foundation’s collection, and it is believed he wanted a work by Mr. Irwin, whom he befriended in the 1970s, to be part of the complex, too. But Mr. Judd died in 1994 before that could happen. And it has taken more than 15 years of false starts, scrapped plans and painstaking fund-raising for the project, scheduled to open to the public this summer, to come into being, as simple as the idea may sound: a C-shaped building with no artificial light (only what comes in through the large, regularly spaced windows); walls of translucent scrim bisecting the interior, making views inside dissolve into a kind of vapor; and a courtyard with Palo Verde trees and a collection of jutting basalt columns that suggest a prehistoric skyline.

Back in July, Mark Lamster wrote a critical piece on Irwin’s Marfa work for The Dallas Morning News, asking is it okay to demolish a old buildings in the name of art:

“What other town of 1,800 do you have 20-year-olds moving to and contributing to it?” says Buck Johnston, a Dallas expatriate who runs an architecture and design symposium and is a well-known public advocate for all things Marfan. “That’s one reason why we’ve stayed here. We have this influx of youth. And this economy? You have two master’s degrees, you still can’t get a job, but you come to this small town and you can make a difference.”

In the case of the demolished Fort Russell hospital, that idea of transformation carries a conflicting resonance. “Artists take us to a place that we can’t imagine,” Moore says. “That’s what artists do.” For the moment, imagination — and memories — are all that remain.

Lamster’s essay is also a great a look at the history of Marfa and the origins of Irwin’s project there. Both piece are well worth a read. Also, if you haven’t yet, I implore you to read Lawrence Weshler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of Irwin based on 30 years of conversations. It’s one of my favorites.

“It’s strange. With food, for instance, people seem able to understand what’s involved: you savor the taste rather than just feed the body. But people have a hard time understanding that it should be the same way with visual experience.”

-Robert Irwin in L. Weschler's Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees