Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Robert Caro: "I'm Not Sure I Ever Think The Writing Is Going Well ... I'm Naturally Lazy"

I am reading Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, by Robert Caro, which, at about 220 pages, is a mere post-it note when compared to his lengthy biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson. (The first four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson total more than 3,300 pages.)

Working is a brief, but illuminating, peek behind the curtain at how Caro works, and how he feels about non-fiction, and some remarkable examples of the breadth and depth of his research.

Caro talks a lot about power in Working. It can corrupt, yes, but not always.
Once you get enough power, once you're there, where you wanted to be all along, then you can see what the protagonist wanted to do all along, because now he's doing it. What power always does is reveal.
Caro is 83 years old and working on the fifth volume of his epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. The first four volumes are: The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990), Master of the Senate (2002), and The Passage of Power (2012). In January 2018, Caro said the fifth and final volume could be completed in anywhere from two to ten years. Caro also plans to write a lengthy memoir.

Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography (1975 and 2003), three times won the National Book Critics Circle Award for the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, and has won virtually every other major literary honor, including two National Book Awards (one for Lifetime Achievement) and the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Art and Letters. He received the National Humanities Medal in 2010.

In 2016, he was interviewed by James Santel of The Paris Review. A portion of the interview closes Working:
I can't start writing a book until I've thought it through and can see it whole in my mind. So before I start writing, I boil the book down to three paragraphs, or two or one—that's when it comes into view. That process might take weeks. And then I turn those paragraphs into an outline of the whole book. That's what you see up here on my wall now—twenty-seven typewritten pages. That's the fifth volume [of his Lyndon Johnson biography, which he has been working on since 1976].

Then, with the whole book in mind, I go chapter by chapter. I sit down at the typewriter and type an outline of that chapter, let's say if it's a long chapter, seven pages—it's really the chapter in brief, without any of the supporting evidence. Then, each chapter gets a notebook, which I fill with all the materials I want to use—quotations and facts pulled from all of the research I've done.

The boiling down entails writing those paragraphs over maybe . . . I can't even tell you how many times, over and over and over. The whole time, I'm saying to myself, No, that's not exactly what you're trying to do in this book.

If you saw me during this process, in the first place you'd see a guy in a very bad mood. It's very frustrating. I can't actually say anything nice about this part of the work. It's a terrible time for me. I sometimes think, You're never going to get it. There's just so much stuff to put in this book. You're never going to have a unified book with a drive from beginning to end, a single narrative, a single driving theme from beginning to end. There's just too much stuff.

I come home and Ina doesn't even want to see me for several hours, because I'm all wound up. I get up during the night to write that couple of paragraphs. I think, Oh, I've got it, I've got it, and then I get up in the morning and I look at it and I say, No, this isn't it. ...

Getting that boiled-down paragraph or two is terribly hard, but I have to tell you that my experience is that if you get it, the whole next seven years is easier. When you have it, it's so comforting, because you're typing away, and you can look over—it's usually stuck on the wall right there, but I don't want you to see it, actually. I put it away. I don't like anyone to see my notes. ...

I'm not sure I ever think the writing is going well. Every day I reread what I wrote the day before, and I've learned from hard experience that it's a real mistake to get too confident about what I've written. I do so much writing and rewriting. And Knopf knows. I rewrite the galleys completely. I even rewrite in page proofs, which they don't actually allow you to do, but they've been very good to me. I'd rewrite in the finished book if I could.

[You start writing in longhand, correct?] Yes. I write on white legal pads. I seldom have only one draft in longhand—I'd say I probably have three or four. Then I go and do the same pages over on the typewriter, and then I throw them out. I go chapter by chapter. I can't go on to another chapter until I feel this chapter is done.

I generally get up around seven or so, and I walk to work through Central Park outlining the first paragraphs that I'm going to write that day. But the thing is, as you get into a chapter, you get wound up. You wake up excited—I don't mean "thrilled" excited but "I want to get in there," so I get up earlier and earlier. ... I work pretty long days. If I'm doing research, I can have lunch with friends, but if I'm writing, I have a sandwich at my desk. ...

[Do you set daily quotas?] I have to, because I have a wonderful relationship with my editor and my publisher. I have no real deadlines. I'm never asked, When are you going to deliver? So it's easy to fool yourself that you're really working hard when you're not. And I'm naturally lazy. So what I do is—people laugh at me—I put on a jacket and a tie to come to work, because when I was young, everybody wore jackets and ties to work, and I want to remind myself that I'm going to a job.

I have to produce. I write down how many words I've done in a day. Not to the word—I count the lines. I do it as we used to do it in the newspaper business, ten words to a line. I do a lot of little things to try to make me remember it's a job. I try to do at least three pages a day. Some days you don't, but without some kind of quota, I think you're fooling yourself.
In another part of Working, Caro writes:
People are always asking me what my daily schedule is. It's not fixed. I write each day as long as I can. As I've said, I write my first drafts in longhand—pen or pencil—on white legal pads, narrow-lined. ... [When I type the drafts] I triple-space the lines the way I did as a newspaperman, so there will be plenty of room to rewrite in pencil. I rewrite a lot. Sometimes I look at a page I typed but have reworked in pencil, and there's hardly a word in type left on it. Or no words in type left at all—every one has been crossed out. And often there's been so much writing and rewriting and erasing that the page has to be tossed out completely.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

A Bear Visits Next Door

On Tuesday, just after noon, the dogs were making a lot of noise and running around the back yard. I figured the old dog next door was also out. ... He wasn't. When I went out on the deck, I saw a young bear cub sitting on a tree branch next door.

After we herded the dogs inside, we could hear the cub loudly mewing. Eventually, he climbed down and out of our sight. Laura called a local conservation officer and was told the bear was likely frightened (undoubtedly by the sound of the dogs barking) and his vocalizing was telling Mama Bear where he was. When he perceived that the threat was gone, he climbed down reunited with Mama. The cub sounded like he was in distress, but he was likely just staying in touch.

The bear was likely about three months old, having been born in the spring.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Our House

Uproot our lives and move to Canada? Okay.

Move across the country and live in a small town? Sure.

Decide, as satisfied, life-long renters, to buy a house in that small town (and then do so, and move in, within two months of said decision)? WTF?!?

As Laura wrote in late May:
All our lives -- until now -- renting was the only thing that made sense. The price of real estate in NYC and the Toronto area is nuts. Purchasing a home would have meant tripling (or more) our monthly housing costs, or having a two-hour (each way) commute, or buying a condo. None of those options were appealing. We also didn't want the responsibility of home ownership. We simply didn't care about owning.

But the landscape has changed. We live in a place where homes are affordable, and where the tenancy laws for families with animals make renting very insecure. We have moved too many times in the last 10 years, and as we plan for our older age, this gives us more security.
We got the keys yesterday and will start moving our stuff tomorrow morning. (Actually, I took over some fragile kitchen stuff today. I also timed the drive between the two houses: 2 minutes, 15 seconds. It's good that it's so short, since we'll be making a lot of trips back and forth!)

Kitchen, with a crazy amount of drawers and cupboards. The sellers left a card and a small plant for us.

The deck is out the big window on the right. Laundry room is through the door and after that, the garage.

Wood stove. Not as nice as a fireplace, but ...

Not sure if we'll do anything with these plant beds. The one with the short green plants contains strawberries. Also hoping Cookie will confine her digging to these beds, if uncovered.

Most of the 40-foot deck is completely covered, which is perfect in a place where it tends to rain nearly every day during the winter months and for people who prefer shade to direct sun. Also included: firewood!

The previous owners did a lot of landscaping.

The view from Laura's office window.

Our offices. We actually like the colours. Mine's the green one.

Crawl space connecting main bedroom and my office.

With a Pup Rock poster!

The new home of The Joy of Sox.

In addition to the Pup Rock poster and the firewood, the sellers also left us a piano. (I think I know why: it is insanely heavy. We cannot budge it.)

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Bob Mould, 2016

Whenever I consider a list of my absolute favorite musicians, I tend to forget about Bob Mould. That absent-mindedness makes no sense at all because I have loved nearly 100% of Mould's music since I first discovered Hüsker Dü way back in the (celebrated) summer of 1984.

I've been listening to Bob Mould for 35+ years (Hüsker Dü, Sugar, and albums under his own name) and I can throw on any album from his discography at any time and be thoroughly engaged. I cannot think of anyone else about whom I can say that.

I find some of his stuff, like 1993's Beaster, just as musically mind-blowing as it was when it first came out. (Once it was recorded, Mould said he found it "unnerving" to listen to his lyrics.) The Times (UK): "Rarely has a band rocked out with such bleak intensity and utter conviction. A vast cathedral of noise and despair, erected and demolished in half an hour flat, this is an album which has to be heard to be believed."

Bob Mould has never done anything other than exactly what he wanted to do. His early work influenced many bands, but that acknowledgement came years after the fact. He will turn 59 this fall (We share a birthday!) and he shows no sign of a creative letdown. It's amazing.

There are other musicians who have steadfastly done their own thing (Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elvis Costello), but that usually means there's a lot of their stuff I don't care about or actively dislike. Case in point: The songs on Elvis Costello's four albums from 1977-79 are endlessly inventive, both musically and lyrically, but I haven't cared a whit about anything he's done in the last 33 years.

That is not the case with Mould. Hell, I even like most of Modulate, his 2002 electronica-influenced album which confused (and turned off) a lot of the fans of his deafening guitar sound. (Though I freely admit I have never listened all the way through the 219 seconds of "Megamanic"!)

Bob Mould

October 15, 2016, Bologna, Italy, with John Wurster (drums) and Jason Narducy (bass)

A Good Idea / Changes / The End Of Things

Hoover Dam / No Reservations / Tomorrow Morning

Something I Learned Today / Come Around / Losing Time

In A Free Land / Celebrated Summer

KEXP, Seattle, WA

April 16, 2016
Hoover Dam / See A Little Light / The Descent / I Don't Know You Anymore / You Say You / Voices In My Head / Hold On / If I Can't Change Your Mind / Makes No Sense At All

May 10, 2016
The End Of Things / Losing Time / You Say You / The Descent / Black Confetti

Hüsker Dü

Camden Palace, London, UK, May 14, 1985

New Day Rising / It's Not Funny Anymore / Everything Falls Apart / Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill / I Apologize / If I Told You / Folklore / Terms Of Psychic Warfare / Powerline / Books About UFOs / Chartered Trips / Diane / Celebrated Summer / Every Everything / Makes No Sense At All / Pink Turns To Blue / Ticket To Ride / Reoccurring Dreams/Dreams Reoccurring / Eight Miles High / Love Is All Around

Saturday, June 01, 2019

"Everyone Says You Should Read Proust, But No One Had Ever Told Me That I, Specifically, Should Read Proust"

Reading the first five volumes of Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle—the gargantuan Book 6 (The End) waits patiently on my bookshelf (because I thought I'd re-read the earlier volumes so as to consume the entire project at once)—was one of the most exhilarating and addictive and enjoyable reading experiences of my life.

I now want to read Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, to which My Struggle has often been compared, and it is high on my list of future reading assignments. In fact, I am currently reading two biographies of Proust—Benjamin Taylor's slender Proust: The Search and William C. Carter's hefty Marcel Proust: A Life—while trying to figure out which translation would be best.

My attention this afternoon was drawn to an essay by Elisa Gabbert, mentioned in an email from Lit Hub Weekly:
Proust and the Joy of Suffering

One recent Monday evening, I scanned through our bookshelves for an unread classic—I had one last piece to write in this series on revisiting the canon. I considered writing about Moby-Dick, but did not seriously consider reading Moby-Dick. I want to, very much in fact, but I rarely read long books, and moreover feel that I'm saving Moby-Dick for an unclear future experience, some contained and isolating context it deserves—a long sea voyage, my deathbed. Perhaps I could write about not reading Moby-Dick. Then I thought about In Search of Lost Time, another novel people, especially writers, almost brag about not having read, as though admitting you haven't read Proust suggests you've read everything else. I pulled Swann's Way off the shelf, read the first paragraph, and was astonished. Its obsessive attention to memory, time, and the minutiae of experience as it occurs through thinking—it was not just good. It was, as they say, extremely my shit. Everyone says you should read Proust, but no one had ever told me that I, specifically, should read Proust. ...

It was more readable than I'd expected, but it wasn't exactly light reading. That first paragraph was deceptive, in part by virtue of being a paragraph. Later I read that Proust hadn't wanted In Search of Lost Time to have paragraphs at all. He wanted it to appear as one volume, with no sections, chapters, or even margins. It's as though he wanted it to be unreadable, more a gesture than a text. ...

In the winter of 1940, the Polish artist and writer Józef Czapski was in a Soviet prison camp, and he was thinking about Proust. He was among a small group of officers and soldiers who survived the war; thousands of others were executed. In Czapski's words—he writes it twice—those others "disappeared without a trace." To occupy themselves, to keep their intellects sharp, to give "proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind," Czapski and his comrades in the camp delivered a series of lectures to one another. "Each of us spoke about what we remembered best," be it architectural history or mountain climbing. For Czapski, who had studied painting in France and been friendly with some of Proust's old friends, that subject was In Search of Lost Time. As the painter and translator Eric Karpeles writes in his introduction to Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, "A prisoner's constant state of vigilance was surprisingly conducive to the reclamation of memories." It came back to Czapski there, in the freezing ruins of a bombed convent, the way Combray came back to "Proust" when he was dozing off or when he tasted the madeleine dipped in linden tea. He delivered the talks in French because he'd read the novel in French—they say you should study for a test at the same time of day you'll be taking the test, should suck a peppermint during both, so the taste brings the knowledge back. "What Czapski remembered best was the quintessential book of remembering," Karpeles writes. ...

In a brief introduction to the lecture, written in 1944, Czapski speaks of "the joy" of that time in the prison camp, the "rose-colored light" of those hours spent giving and listening to lectures, "where a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived." ...

I am always struck by depictions of happiness in wartime, in the darkest conditions—in Chernobyl, in concentration camps. ... It's a form of resistance, to refuse to have pleasure taken away from you. But I think, too, there's something fundamentally life-affirming about proximity to death. We grow nostalgic for our pain, once it's safely in the past, because pain's intensity makes regular life look banal. ...

Along with his comrades, Czapski found meaning and beauty in the prison camp ("the hours spent with memories of Proust, Delacroix, Degas seemed to me the happiest of hours"), and they survived. Czapski lived to the age of ninety-six. But he had assimilated Proust's indifference to death, which is not the same as an indifference to living. It is, rather, an apprehension of existence so luminous that the threat of death recedes into dim corners.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

May 1: When Most Of New York City Got Up And Moved

Dan Lewis, Now I Know, September 26, 2013:
There are roughly eight million residents of New York City. According to a 2010 article in the New York Times, 70% of them rent. That's about 5.5 million people, each of whom could be moving to a new place once their current lease runs out. Yet despite the incredible number of both apartments and renters, in general, the process of renting an apartment in New York City (and particularly in Manhattan) occurs over a short period of time. Typically, a renter starts his or her search only a few weeks before moving, checks out a dozen or so places over a day or two, and upon finding something suitable, quickly readies an application and bank checks to cover fees. The whole system — to use the term loosely — is a frenetic ordeal which hardly seems like it could be worse.

But until about seventy years ago, it was. Because almost everyone moved at the same time.

Sometime in the 1600s or early 1700s, New York City developed an odd tradition. Leases, across the city, expired at 9:00 AM on the first day of May. The origins of this tradition are unclear. Wikipedia cites to two different sources, one of which references the English celebration of May Day (explained here), another which claims that the Dutch settlers originally came to Manhattan on May 1st, and the tradition is borne out of that. In any event, the cartoon above, from 1856, encapsulates the madness — thousands upon thousands of people taking to the streets, with all their stuff, moving from one apartment to another, all on the same day. Davy Crockett observed the phenomenon in 1834, as retold by Futility Closet:
By the time we returned down Broadway, it seemed to me that the city was flying before some awful calamity. 'Why,' said I, 'Colonel, what under heaven is the matter? Everyone appears to be pitching out their furniture, and packing it off.' He laughed, and said this was the general 'moving day.' Such a sight nobody ever saw unless it was in this same city. It seemed a kind of frolic, as if they were changing houses just for fun. Every street as crowded with carts, drays, and people. So the world goes. It would take a good deal to get me out of my log-house; but here, I understand, many persons 'move' every year.
All in all, this "moving day" was a terrible idea.

Being an informal one, and a custom at that, it should have been an easy one to change. And it wasn't universal. That is, not everyone's lease ended on May 1, so it should have been pretty easy for landlords or renters to demand a different date if given that one by the other. But the tradition persisted, to the point that in 1912, Harper's Weekly imagined a world with automated, flying "moving stations," as seen here. Moving Day was entrenched in a city which to a person, with few exceptions, hated it.

It quite literally took a world war to end the practice. When the United States mobilized its citizens in World War II, it created a shortage of able-bodied men stateside, making it nearly impossible to find someone to help you move on "moving day." Tenants stayed on past their leases and the practice of relocating on that date began to erode. And then, in 1945, the end of the war dealt "moving day" a death blow. As the New York Times reported in October of that year, troops returning from abroad created a major housing shortage in the city, which "turned 'moving day' into a myth."

Bonus fact: "Everybody moves!" days aren't a lunacy unique to New York of lore. July 1 in Montreal has the same thing happening. The operative word there is "has," because (as of 2013) it's still a thing there.