Being young is itself temporary, fragile, and ephemeral.
Tove Ditlevsen, Youth.
Being young is itself temporary, fragile, and ephemeral.
Tove Ditlevsen, Youth.
My ife expectancy number has declined a lot this year. from 87 to 82. I can’t imagine that 2020 helped a whole lot with that.
My writing life has improved with good progress on the novel and a few placements of stories and poems in the last year. I think the biggest thing I need to do these days is get more active and improve my diet and weight. I recently watched Leonard Cohen: Live in London and man, LC looked better at 73 than I do at 53. I have a new life goal of being more like Leonard Cohen.
As of tomorrow, I will have outlived (in no particular order):
A week shy of five years after I started writing, I have a complete first draft of the novel. It’s been a long journey and there’s still a lot of work to be done, but there’s a complete story now. Things I still have to fix include making sure characters don’t change names mid-novel as well as taking advantage of the fact that I now know more about the characters than I did when I began so I can flesh out a lot of details (and eliminate out-of-character behaviors) as I work further on the novel.
I have a rather structured process for the beginning of my work on fiction: I write a complete first draft.¹ Then I read it, scribble all over it making notes about how awful everything is and what makes me think I can write. Then I rewrite the whole thing from scratch starting with a blank Word document.² Again, I read the whole thing, plugging my nose to get to the end. The finalish step is to revise it: Now, instead of retyping everything, I let myself just work on the existing document and just change those bits that need to be changed.⁴ Once I’ve reached this stage is the piece finally ready to show to someone else.
Each chapter has gone through this three stage process (which explains the zig-zag pattern in the diagram above), in some cases, a chapter has gone through even more revisions,⁶ so this “first” draft is kind of a third+ draft. Nevertheless, the next step is to read the whole thing, then do a rewrite as above and finally a revision before I start thinking about workshopping it. But first, I can at least celebrate a little.
At long last, I’ve come to the end of the project, a bit more than seven years since I started. 999 in the Dewey Decimal system is “Extraterrestrial Worlds” but at my library, the end was in Antarctica instead. The last book, it turns out, has an incorrect call number labeled on its spine and is identified as 999 S instead of 998 S. However, even if it were correctly labeled it would still be the last book so I picked it up to read.
Shackleton’s expedition was a failure with the expedition’s boat The Endurance crushed in the sea ice before they even reached Antarctica itself. When it became obvious that the ship was lost, the crew salvaged what they could and made their way across the ice rather laboriously until they were able to get off the ice and ended up sailing to a deserted and inhospitable island on the coast of Antarctica before a small crew navigated to South Georgia Island and made their first contact with civilization. Everyone from The Endurance survived the disaster.
The crew who were assigned to lay down supply depots on the opposite side of the Antarctic continent were less fortunate, with three members of that group lost in the snow.
The whole thing reads like an adventure story, the first part more vivid than the second. It had the kind of tone that I can imagine appealing to the young Tom Sawyer who might lead Huck Finn into snowbound wastelands after reading it. At the same time, there’s the specter of the first world war hanging over the expedition with the men being largely cut off from civilization and not really learning of the war and its horrors until after their rescue and the unspoken imperialist attitudes of the explorers that, of course, it was their right to “conquer” the frozen terrain of Antarctica.
Having reached the end of this project, a few notes in retrospect.
I had originally planned this to be the basis of a gonzo experiential memoir, akin to A. J. Jacobs’s The Know-it-all or The Year of Living Biblically, but I realized early on that it was going to end up being deadly dull as such a project. I’m not especially thrilled even with the blog posts that did end up being the sole output.
But along the way, I did find myself reading and learning things I might not have otherwise encountered and it was a good exercise in controlled serendipity exemplified most dramatically in the letter I wrote that turned into the post for The Useful Book. I think with this project over, I’m going to let my reading go largely unfettered. I’ve been flooded a bit with books I’ve not gotten around to reading and the piles threaten bodily harm, so it’s time to read more of those books.
It’s been a pretty good month for writing. I managed to get a first draft of the last chapter of the novel finished and get started on the rewrite of that chapter. I expect to have the rewrite and revision done sometime before the five-year anniversary of starting the damn thing.
The less resistant feeling story has fallen to a back burner to a new story which has demanded that I work on it. I’m not entirely sure what happens in it beyond the inciting incident, but I’m curious to find out.
The workshopping of the new story went pretty well, with some good suggestions and affirmation of what I had already suspected were weak points. It might be publishable as is, but it will be publishable after I finish with its revisions.
Speaking of revisions, little progress on that front. I really need to push on that.
And a poem was picked up for publication, more on that when it actually goes out.
Today, I got my 1,000th fiction rejection.¹ It was a tiered rejection from Neon. Per my promise to myself, the journal responsible for the 1,000th rejection (or any acceptances while I was at 999²) gets a subscription³.
Looking back over my records, the first rejection in my “modern” era of rejections was a form rejection from The New Yorker (the story in question. “Confiteor” is something that I’ve since trunked).
My acceptance rate in that time has been 2.06% with 20.8% of my rejections being personalized or tiered, including personal rejections from The New Yorker and The Atlantic, so I’m apparently doing something right (although I could certainly stand to be doing things “righter”). For the year so far, my acceptance rate is 5.7% with 40% of my rejections being personalized/tiered.
I’m drawing to a close on this project and for the 980s—South America—I saw this book which one of the back cover blurbs describes as “taking vital parts out of everything that has been written on the discovery and settlement of America … arranging them in a kind of verbal collage … something that defies classification into a genre.”
This was enough to catch my attention and the book delivered on its promise. Beginning with pieces of pre-Columbian myth, legend and memory and building from there, Galeano created a vital accounting of the history of the Americas from the dawn of time until the late twentieth century. Officially, I only read the first volume of the trilogy for the Dewey Decimal project, but I was so captivated, I read the last two volumes as well. There was a great deal that was unknown to me—my history classes in school focused pretty much exclusively on Europe (mostly Western Europe) and the United States. And even with a broader knowledge of Latin American history, there would still be much to catch my attention because Galeano is as likely to have his attention caught by the tale of an Argentine socialite who absconded with a young Jesuit priest and became pregnant with his baby only to end up executed by firing squad at her lover’s side, as he is to consider the history of Christopher Columbus, Simon Bolivar or Fidel Castro.
I feel like this is the book that A People’s History of the United States could have been, something that manages to tell its story through both the “great” men and the commoners, that doesn’t elide the unpleasant aspects of the hemisphere’s history while also giving due to the incidents that most historians would ignore.
Of all the books I’ve read in the course of this project, this is the only one that I’m planning to buy my own copy of, although when I re-read it, I’ll read the original Spanish text.
Chapter 26 is finally done, I’ve completed the first draft of Chapter 27 and I’m partway through the rewrite draft. The story continues to reveal heretofore unknown things about the characters, which is a plus (and some inconsequential happenings in the first draft have become a bit more consequential in the rewrite). I feel optimistic that a complete first draft¹ of the novel will be done before month’s end.
And that story that I’ve been working on all year (and all last year and far too long before that), finally reached a point where I could workshop it last week. My next new story is feeling less resistant to completion and should manage to make it off my computer in time for my next turn workshopping later this month.
Plus, I finally finished revising a story I workshopped back in March, so that’s now out on submission.
For the last two decades, I’ve heard many people waxing rhapsodic about Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so when I got to the 970s—History of North America—I decided that this was my chance to finally read it.
What I found was not the life-changing book that many people consider it to be. I imagine a big part of that is that I’ve become familiar with so much of what seemed revolutionary about the book’s retelling of the country’s history. And because I’ve also found myself reading some deeper dives into some of these topics, like Kerry Greenidge’s Black Radical about Charles Monroe Trotter, or Nelson Peery’s memoir about his life during the depression and his time in the army during World War II, at times some of this felt a bit thin. Perhaps if I had little more than the standard-fare American History curriculum, I might have been more impressed.
And then there’s the problem that I often find with thinkers on the left who often get into a self-defeating obsession over ideological purity. The lesson I took from the 2000 election was clear: as uninspiring as the Democratic candidate might be to me, it’s far better to have even the most centrist Democrats in office than the vast majority of what the Republican party has to offer. And yet, I know people who have lived through 2000 and 2016 and yet still seem to think that if only enough of us clap our hands and believe that Ralph Nader or Bernie Sanders will come to save us. And then we get President Trump.
In this book, I was willing to accept Zinn’s critique of Roosevelt. There was a lot he could have done that he didn’t (although at the same time, his remaking of American society and government was absolutely miraculous and it’s unlikely the socialist movements of the first half of the twentieth century could have gotten there even without their vigorous suppression). But Jimmy Carter? I’m sorry, but his critiques of Carter ring hollow to me and strike me as the sort of idealism of the left that leads to its downfall.
The 960s bring me to Africa. Another part of the world that I know very little of the history of. The selection of options was somewhat uninspiring, and I decided to take a look at this book.
I knew very little about colonialism in Africa. I was most familiar with the history of colonialism in the Americas and India, but almost nothing about Africa, so I decided this might be a good way to introduce myself to the subject.
Certainly, it’s a bit maddening that the book has little to say about the people and cultures that existed before the Europeans’ arrival, but there was some good information about how the curious institutions of South Africa arose, and the transfer of that country from Dutch to British rule (I also discovered that I had been misplacing Rhodesia in my mental map of Africa).
Germany’s meager attempt at colonialism is discussed at least some (it had always surprised me that of all the great powers of Western Europe, Germany had no real colonial legacy), as is the partition of Western Africa between the British and French.
In retrospect, I think a different book would have been a better introduction to African history, but for what this was, it was not a bad book.