Tom Hopkins

June 17, 2022

Hello, world: this is a test post using the WordPress “Status” post format, to see if the RSS feed goes through to my new micro.blog account.

What I Remember Pub Day and Praise

What I Remember of My Love Affair with the Bird and Other Stories is available from the Cupboard Pamphlet as of today! You can buy a copy from their website for $10. The book is a collection of ten of my short-short stories, almost all of which were published in literary journals between 2007 and 2013. It’s 60 pages long, perfect bound, and has a gorgeous cover.

The Cupboard Pamphlet publishes marvelous work. I’m completely delighted and honored for these stories to be joining their catalog, and I’m grateful to Kelly Dulaney and Todd Seabrook for having selected it to be #43 in their quarterly series.

If you, like me, can’t get enough of the anthropomorphic marigold piano and its hibiscus background, you can enjoy the Cupboard Pamphlet’s tweets this past week, and the teaser images they’ve made based on the cover, from Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and today.

Finally, I’m also grateful to Chris Adrian, Jessica Anthony, Abbey Mei Otis, Matthew Sharpe, and Gary Shteyngart for their kind words about the book. You can read the following on the Cupboard Pamphlet’s book page, in addition to their amazing description of the book—I think my favorite two sentences are the last two: “So turn back the border. Your own country’s catastrophes will have to satisfy you”—but I’m going to share them here as well, below.

We’re still drowning in our own country’s uniquely catastrophic version of the world’s present catastrophe, which obviously makes it impossible to do any conventional book release things like in-person readings. But if we do anything like a Zoom reading—or if I come up with any ways in which this small book can do some small good in the world (Barthelme: “[A]rt’s project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world”)—then I’ll mention it here on this unpredictably, sporadically updated personal website.

But for now: blurbs.

Like Lydia Davis and Donald Barthelme had a really smart, really funny baby.
Chris Adrian, author of The Children’s Hospital

What I Remember of my Love Affair with the Bird is a brilliant flock of short-short stories. These hilarious, deadpan recollections and ruminations somehow transmogrify into incisive commentary on 21st century consciousness in just a few pages. Flawed, despairing first person narrators seeking hope abound, with revelations that dance on the head of a pin. I didn’t want this collection to end.
— Jessica Anthony, author of Enter the Aardvark

What I Remember of my Love Affair with the Bird gives us stories like tiny and tumultuous countries to be traveled through, banished from, remembered with the ache of exile. Hopkins leaps effortlessly between the mundane indignities of life in our global present, and marvelous impossibilities; both are revealed as equally inexplicable and inescapable. The geopolitics of a whole nation is mapped onto a body, the body is doing its best, its best is not nearly enough. You can wait for weeks at the border checkpoint, you can apply for a special visa, you can throw yourself into the water, you can trade your life for a stranger’s, you can close the book but you can’t ever really leave.
Abbey Mei Otis, author of Alien Virus Love Disaster: Stories

Can flash fiction be political, as well as intimate, weird, melancholy, funny, philosophical, and evocative of a whole world? The answer, in this beautiful collection by Tom Hopkins, is a resounding yes.
Matthew Sharpe, author of The Sleeping Father and Jamestown

A brilliant and much needed antidote for our fearful times. This is flash fiction as it’s meant to be. Thoughtful, smart, provocative and oh so funny.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Lake Success and Super Sad True Love Story

Good News: a Cupboard Pamphlet Chapbook and Beyond

A landscape painting of the countryside, painted in the late nineteenth century.

1) What I Remember of My Love Affair with the Bird and Other Stories is on its way! It’s available for pre-order now; the book will be officially available starting on Friday.

I seem to only write updates here on this site semiannually these days, but I’ll write another post soon with more notes about the book and the lovely things some very smart people have had to say about it.

In the meantime, I also made a few updates to my publication history page. More on those changes, below.

2) A month ago, I finished writing the book I’ve been thinking of and referring to as The Years of Living Autobiographically: Book III. (Back in late March, I posted an excerpt: entries I’d written during the previous month, the month during which everything in the U.S. changed.)

Now my working titles for the three books are as follows. I’m worried that these may cross the line into affected and grandiose, but as of this writing, this is what I’m working with.

The Years of Living Autobiographically

Book One
(2011-2012)
Fly Away, Tiny Lazarus

Book Two
(2015-2016)
To Be Alive Should Be Enough

Book Three
(2019-2020)
An Origin Myth for the Stars

I feel like I have even less of an idea of how to pitch this than I did before. I imagine the final product looking something like One Hundred And Forty Five Stories In A Small Box, the beautiful box set of three story collections by Deb Olin Unferth, Sarah Manguso, and Dave Eggers. I imagine the books being right at home at a press that publishes “experimental books about death,” which is what this trilogy is, really. Or with a press that publishes, say, “work that extends or challenges the formal protocols of nonfiction.”

But since I haven’t found a book contest for Oulipian trilogies about death—not yet!—I’m guessing this will most likely come to fruition as a kind of secondary deal to the following:

3) I’m still looking for a home for Intercalated Days: A Novel. I’m still sending queries to agents, and as I wrote on my publication credits page, I’m also now querying small presses, and I’ve entered the novel in book contests.

Onward.

4) Unrelated to writing news: the picture above is the afternoon sun falling on a nineteenth-century painting, lighting up a detail of the landscape; the structure caught in the light is a mill. The shape of the light, to my eye, looks like a speech bubble. Which feels like a metaphor for writing, or any new creative undertaking? In the sense that everything we do contains echoes of and indebtedness to everything that has come before. (Jean Rhys: “All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”)

5) Also unrelated—except that it’s related to everything in America, all the horrific and deadly unfairness and institutionalized cruelty and endemic sexism and racism, and also the nihilistic death cult that threatens to drag us all down with it in its petty, suicidal, revanchist fever dreams—is the Electoral College, the worst Confederate monument of them all. It should be abolished. (Previous notes on this subject on this site, over the past two decades: “The Electoral College!” from 12/4/2000, right before the disastrous Bush v. Gore decision, a short film which may or may not still be visible; “Possible Outcomes,” from 10/14/2004, a kind of speculative utopian fiction of how we might escape two never-ending wars, then both still so young; “13 December 2004; or, A Few Things I Know About the Electoral College from Reading Books,” which I posted 11/11/2004, and which is comprised of the things I could remember from the research I did to write the script to “The Electoral College!” video; “The Truth About the Electoral College,” which includes that script, and another attempt at making the Flash Player thing work. Sort of related, I guess, as one more speculative-comedic progressive-realpolitik fiction: “I’m with Senator Coco.” Back when we had some sense of how outlandish and combative American right-wing politics were becoming—the intellectual/strategic spawn of Lee Atwater and Newt Gingrich—but we still had no idea (or at least, I still had no idea) how bad things would eventually become.

The Way We Live Now; or, The Year of Living Autobiographically, Part III

From October 2011 to October 2012, I wrote The Year of Living Autobiographically; four years later, from October 2015 to October 2016, I wrote a kind of sequel, which for the nonce I’ve been calling The Year of Living Ignominiously. (As I wrote here and here, it’s on a back burner.) And right at the moment—eight years after the first project, four years after the second—I’m in the middle of writing what I guess will be the third part of a trilogy.

I’ve been telling my students in the past few weeks—in our last in-person classes, which all ended on Friday 3/13, and in a few test runs I’ve set up with my students using Zoom this past week—to observe the world around them as it changes, and to take notes. Social media can be a good way to stay in touch with friends, and it can be a good conduit for accurate and trustworthy news from reliable sources. But social media, I’ve tried to remind them (this is nothing new, obviously), can also be a firehose of rumors, and it can be a crutch—one that so thoroughly reinforces our performed, public selves, that we forget or neglect our private selves. Take private notes, I’ve said. Keep a diary, a journal, a notebook, James Comey–style contemporaneous notes, whatever you want to call it. Think Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”; think Nora Ephron’s mom’s mantra that “everything is copy.”

Emily and I are trying to do good where and when we can; we’re trying to teach our students, and raise our sons, and be useful citizens if we can—of this town, this state, this nation.

And I’m trying to follow my own advice. In case you’re curious about what the work that might eventually be called something like The Years of Living Autobiographically: Book III is going to look like, here are the 21 entries I’ve written over the past few weeks. I’m following my same absurd self-dare as before: for one year, write one status update per day that’s precisely 420 characters long—no more, no fewer. (See previous posts on this: The Year of Living Autobiographically; Praise; More Praise.)  This time, though, for reasons that I can’t explain other than following instinct (and perhaps borrowing from my friend Jessica Anthony in her brilliant new novel Enter the Aardvark), it’s all in the second person.

Sat 29 Feb 2020
Do you want to see how I know there’s a hole in my dishwashing glove? you asked Emmett. Of course he did. You folded back the cuff, made a seal with your lips, inflated it with your breath. Then you gently squeezed, aimed a wobbly yellow pointer finger at Emmett’s nose. A small hole at the tip; enough to flood them with water, enough to pinpoint air. Toby needed to feel it as well. What a marvelously dad thing to do.

Sun 1 Mar 2020
“Why do we wear a kippah?” asked the rabbi. “Because it’s cool,” one girl said, to the rabbi’s delight. “Because you can,” said Toby. Emmett’s morah: “That’s my favorite answer so far.” “That’s a serious answer,” the rabbi said. “I don’t know if you even know how serious an answer that is.” It’s a reminder to be humble, she said. “I wear it to remind myself to be humble when I’m doing something that I think is holy.”

Mon 2 Mar 2020
An overheard fragment, a student’s phone conversation—”your arteries, your heart, a lot of pressure around your heart, so you can suffer complications from that. But I was on an Internet forum, and a lot of people were saying”—was she talking about COVID-19? Remember Rabbi Bunim: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one write, ‘I am a speck of dust.’ On the other, ‘The world was created for me.'”

Tue 3 Mar 2020
Your hands are dry from frequent washing. It’s tough, in these early days after the shortest month, to twist the knob to advance the date on your watch. A cold rain turned to steam as it hit the walkway by Warner. “Journey of the Magi”: a convert’s midrash on “We Three Kings”? Your students, unversed in Matthew. Rain at sunset; rainbow in the east; a tornado-yellow sky; then hail, gone before you could photograph it.

Wed 4 Mar 2020
Your friend, on leftist rage: “The horse you ride to victory—you don’t keep stabbing it in the eyes.” Later, you asked your students if they were doing okay, or afraid—you meant COVID-19—and one mentioned Biden. What did she mean? Biden has dementia, she said. She learned this on Twitter; it’s an open secret. She’d been proud to cast her first vote for Clinton, even though, your student said, she’s a “lizard person.”

Thu 5 Mar 2020
Your student, a “Bernie bro,” said she had you pegged as a “Warren bro.” Senator Warren, today: “If you say, yeah, there was sexism in this race, everyone says, ‘whiner.’ And if you say, no, there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think, what planet do you live on.” You want not to cry; you want cookies for dinner; you want to torch the subliminal civilization-scale erasure of the very idea of matriarchal power.

Fri 6 Mar 2020
Last night at the Feve, Emily introduced you to one of her students. He reached out to shake your hand. Wait, you said, let’s practice for Coronavirus. “Do you have it?” he said, his voice a bit panicked. No, no, you said, but we need to practice social distancing, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion to put one’s hands over one’s heart in greeting. He liked this idea; this was what you both did.

Sat 7 Mar 2020
In office hours, a student yawned almost every time you spoke. He also picked his nose. As he got up to leave, he reached out to shake your hand. Wait, you said, let’s practice alternatives. There’s putting your hands over your heart, and then there’s this: you held up the priestly blessing. He didn’t recognize it as Jewish, but Vulcan. “Live long and prosper,” he said, “I like it.” “Live long and prosper,” you said.

Sun 8 Mar 2020
As she introduced the Purim Shpiel, the rabbi encouraged everyone to eschew shaking hands. Later, a fellow Hebrew school dad reached out to shake yours. You proffered an elbow. He bumped it begrudgingly. “You must be from Oberlin,” he said, with a dismissive smile. Meaning, presumably, that taking science seriously requires leftist inculcation. L’esprit de l’escalier still hasn’t arrived. “It’s true, I am,” you said.

Mon 9 Mar 2020
Part of Emmett’s homework: “Explain how the unfair laws described in the introduction of the book had an effect on Thurgood Marshall’s life.” His answer: “He was soper mad at the white peapole ho did not alaw brown pepole to go to thar restrants.” True. Fair enough. COVID-19 is now in Ohio. Three cases, Cuyahoga County. Not yet a red dot on the Johns Hopkins University map. The governor declared a state of emergency.

Tue 10 Mar 2020
Outside your office, a coughing fit, then hawked-up sputum, then quiet. The U.S. has 971 confirmed cases. You sent Emily a Crimson lede: “Harvard Moves Classes Online, Asks Students Not to Return After Spring Break In Response to Coronavirus.” “Holy shit,” she replied. “Crap.” The list of Ivies charting the same course grows: Princeton, Yale, more. Then an emergency confab, and Oberlin, after break, will follow suit.

Wed 11 Mar 2020
Your children’s bus driver says the schools might close. Someone’s been swiping hand sanitizer dispensers from Peters Hall, the building manager said. Probably selling them on the black market, he joked. Word of mouth: hoarding toilet paper; student riots in Dayton; a Facebook group for unsanctioned spring breaks. The cause of your sacroiliac pain, your chiropractor determined, is your unconscious fear of turning 50.

Thu 12 Mar 2020
Cuomo: Broadway ordered dark. DeWine: a three-week “extended spring break” for all Ohio schoolchildren, starting next Tuesday; Oberlin students gone by then too. Tom Hanks infected; baseball delayed; Disneyland closed. One receptionist at your doctor’s office: “We’re gonna have to start making our own toilet paper!” The other receptionist: “Ew.” Driving home, a cheddar-cheese Combos bag, empty, scuttling in the wind.

Fri 13 Mar 2020
You stopped by the Boys & Girls Club, looking for Toby. They’re also shutting down. Our lives are upended, “but I really think it’s the right decision,” you said. “It absolutely is the right decision!” said one of the teachers, wiping down tables. “We gotta stop the spread!” Faculty and staff are pulling together, but in ordinary times, a dean told you, “there’s usually a pervasive hermeneutic of suspicion going on.”

Sat 14 Mar 2020
“I have the sense of being unmoored from responsibility,” Emily said. “It’s like a storm with no storm,” you said. “It’s like waiting for a tornado,” she said. “Exactly,” you said. Emily: “I guess I’ll put on some socks and do some knitting? That sounds like a pretty good plan, right?” It did. Spain joins Italy on lockdown; first case in Lorain County; patient surge “threatens to swamp U.S. hospitals”; at dusk, snow.

Sun 15 Mar 2020
California: all seniors must shelter in place. Ohio: all restaurants closing, except for take-out. Your knuckles now sting when you wash your hands with warm water. Cleaning the natural keys of your loaner Steinway, using a non-bleach disinfecting wipe, is easy, but what about the sharps? “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Amazing Grace,” up and up, octave by octave. Pope Francis walks the Roman streets alone.

Mon 16 Mar 2020
France on lockdown. DC shuttering. San Francisco: everyone must shelter in place. First case of COVID-19 on the Oberlin campus; an employee in the dining hall, who last went to work on Wednesday. Your department chair: “Everything is radically unmoored right now.” No atheists in foxholes, no libertarians in pandemics. Your sister, on the phone: “Are you hoarding toilet paper and pasta like all other white Americans?”

Tue 17 Mar 2020
Cemetery ramble: Toby in-line skates, Emmett scooter. In the IGA, you sidled toward the granola bars; a woman who’d been a yard from you stole even further away. Was the man behind you at checkout, the one buying a case of ramen, wearing blue scrubs? Italy: “morgues are inundated, coffins pile up.” President Ambar shared a poem: “What if you thought of it/ as the Jews consider the Sabbath—/ the most sacred of times?”

Wed 18 Mar 2020
You parked on Main, but the Feve’s front door had a note: pick up all takeout at the kitchen entrance. You drove around back in the rain. A chalkboard sign pointed the way. You entered, approached the bar. A man was ahead of you, also picking up takeout. He held up his hands to protect his face. “Stay away from me!” he said, then he relaxed. “Just kidding,” he said. “It’s all good,” you said, stepping out of his way.

Thu 19 Mar 2020
“One of the things we can do for each other is extend each other grace,” President Ambar said, closing the remote faculty meeting. “Even as we do this difficult thing. We will all be the better for it.” President Bacow, in an email: “The Talmud says that to save one life is equivalent to saving the entire world”; when we’re through this, “there will be no way to calculate the number of lives your actions have saved.”

Fri 20 Mar 2020
National Guard deployments; U.S. land borders closed to nonessential travel; Italy’s death toll exceeds China’s. These headlines are written by a child mimicking the opening montage of a crap disaster flick. Breakfast: margarine on Triscuits; lunch: Laughing Cow on Cheez-Its. Emily at IGA: “There is no fucking toilet paper, flour, bread, or pasta sauce.” The joy of “Seven Nation Army,” you on piano, Toby on trombone.

Intercalated Days: A Novel

A stack of Intercalated Days manuscripts; the top one is looking for a home.

Following up on “Some Updates on My Status Updates,” from March 2019, and “A Note on Notes, an Update on Updates, a Work in Progress,” from September 2017:

I finished a draft of Intercalated Days, a novel, this past summer. Then I showed the book to Emily. She gave me edits. Which I finished responding to in October.

If you happened to have read what I wrote in March—”Following Instructions exists within Intercalated Days. I’m almost done with the former. Then I can build it out into the latter”—that is what I did this summer. Following Instructions is the primary text, which is surrounded, or accompanied, by a secondary, contrapuntal text. In the margins, or perhaps in the gutter, depending on how you look at it.

In other words, I finished the novel after about two and a half, or maybe five, or maybe six years, depending on what I’m counting from: six years since I started writing; five years since I started editing; and two and a half years since I realized what the final thing would or could be, and began climbing the Heartbreak Hill of shaping it into the thing it has now become.

The current manuscript is about 125,000 words long, or about 300 pages. It’s already cursorily laid out in InDesign, which I realize may annoy some agents or editors, but since it’s in this kind of Talmudic – Pale FireEncyclopedia of an Ordinary Life structure, there’s no way to actually read it in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages.

It could still be accurately described, as I wrote two years ago, as “an autofiction wrapped in a writing dare wrapped in a false document” or “John Cheever meets Anne Lamott meets Sarah Manguso meets Jenny Offill.”

Here’s how I’ve rephrased those ideas in my current query email: “The elevator pitch for the book, I think, might be that it’s a John Cheever – Anne Lamott hybrid, or an autofiction enveloped in Oulipian saran wrap, packed into a false-document breakaway suit.”

Which is to say, the query emails are going out! Although I feel like I also understand more than I ever have how a manuscript, even one that takes years and years to write, can just end up in a drawer. Even if the writer thinks it might be good: I think I understand better how you could just never want to think about it again.

I’ll write updates in this space, if there are any!

Wish Intercalated Days good luck.

Here goes.

Good News: The Cupboard Pamphlet

It’s day two of the new year, and I need to get to the office to finish preparing for class today, and I have office hours, and to be honest I keep wondering these days if I ought to have our passports on me at all times in a plastic bag, just in case we need to walk north until we get to that big freshwater inland sea and start swimming (a worry that’s not unrelated to the themes of the work in the news at the end of this sentence), and I really should write in more detail about my good news, and I’m not on social media anymore, and sometimes it feels like social media has swamped all other forms of contact (so how on earth will anyone ever know this?), but for now, for this morning, for this medium, I am so absolutely thrilled to write that What I Remember of My Love Affair with the Bird and Other Stories, a chapbook collection of twelve of my short-short stories, will be published by The Cupboard Pamphlet in September of 2020.

A Letter to the Warren Campaign from a Supporter Who Feels a Bit Overwhelmed by the Irregularity of Things These Days with a Request About Email Regularity

Dear Senator Warren,

In answer to your campaign’s online survey question: “Is there anything else you’d like to share about why you’re in this fight?”

Yes, there is. I am in this fight for regularity. For predictability. If I were to put it in a campaign slogan, it would be this: Make Public Service Boring Again.

And to get there, I want to put in a small request: Please give us, your supporters, two choices for the emails we receive from your campaign, as follows.

1) Keep getting fundraising emails the way everyone has always done them. Emails sent unpredictably, at random hours on random days. Emails from unpredictable senders (“Elizabeth Warren,” “Warren HQ,” “Team Warren”). Emails with a chance to be one of 224 donors from Ohio today, or with a request to meet this fiscal quarter’s fundraising goal, or with a favor, Thomas, to give even more than you already have done—even though at my age, and with two kids and a mortgage, and with our tight budgeting, I have already given precisely how much money I can.

Or,

2) Start receiving a new, secondary email campaign, one like no one has ever done before. (No one that I’m aware of, I should say.) Emails that are always sent from the same sender. Emails that are always sent at the exact same time once a week, like a magazine (say, Fridays at 10:00 a.m.). The Elizabeth Warren Good News Friday Digest. Emails that are a campaign diary, essentially; emails that are a summary of Senator Warren’s previous week. Possible additions at the end could include events in the following week that we can attend, and/or a list of follow-up concrete actions that we Warren supporters can take.

And then maybe—just maybe—a postscript. Not a grid of multiple pre-populated ActBlue buttons. A PS with just one maybe-give-whatever-else-you-can donate button.

Getting back to your campaign’s online survey: I want all the things on the list in the survey of “the issues that matter most to [me]”: from campaign finance reform to corporate accountability, from jobs to nuclear non-proliferation to universal child care. All of it.

But I also I want to have the confidence now that in 2050, we’ll have the confidence that civilization itself might have a shot of making it to 2100.

In our current political spectrum, this would be called liberal. But to me, it’s cold-hearted conservative capitalism: I want money and trade and capital and banks and voting American citizens all to continue to exist in 2100. I want elected representatives to still exist in 2100. I want there to still be people saying “Oh look, can you believe it’s 2100, and these blueberries are delicious, and boy the Green New Deal and President Warren’s Green Marshall Plan were such good ideas, and also I have to walk the dog” in 2100.

I want there to still be dogs and blueberries and spoken language in 2100.

I would like regularity and predictability at the large scale and the small scale, the epochal and the daily. The regularity and predictability of the world continuing to exist, instead of the deadly chaos of climate denialism. The regular, predictable positivity of scheduled magazine-like emails, rather than the deadly chaos of the unpredictable tweets of a madman.

My cautious, tired, middled-aged and middle-class dreams might seem contrary to those of “Dream Big, Fight Hard, Live Proud.” But I think they’re one and the same. They’re both about love.

Living from love—not from toxic narcissism.

In addition to the unpredictability of campaign emails, the strategies of Democratic candidates all too often seem like inside-baseball panic. I remember a call I received from a fundraiser who yelled “We’ve got to stop these Republicans!” at me right before I hung up.

But we don’t stop something by trying to stop something. We make something wither by starting something better. We don’t stop people from wallowing in the spiritual gutter of a nihilistic death cult by yelling “That’s bad! You should feel bad about yourself for wallowing!” We draw our fellow Americans’ better angels up and away from the death cult by calling to them from Dr. King’s Beloved Community, from JFK’s—and Reagan’s—City upon a Hill.

We stop something bad by starting something much better. Something good.

You, Senator Warren, are starting something.

Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that, goes your slogan. Yes we can, went Barack Obama’s slogan. I voted for Obama because I felt like I was helping to build something, not stop something. I feel the same way about your campaign now.

Plans, not reactions. Collaborations, not fomented divisions. Steady progress, not strategic chaos. Partial victories, not the angry purity of “We’ve got to stop these Republicans!” FDR’s Fireside Chats, not the Stephen Miller strategy of an exhausting blizzard of hatred and lies—a strategy from a man who seemingly read Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism as an instruction manual.

Back again to emails: I’m not saying get rid of email strategy choice #1 entirely (“Can you give another $5 before midnight, Thomas?”).

But please consider also giving us the optional email strategy choice #2: the Elizabeth Warren Good News Friday Digest. Give it a shot!

Instead of thousands of us clicking “unsubscribe” to get rid of the email strategy choice #1 emails altogether, some—or even a lot—of those of us who react badly to unpredictability might stick around. And by sticking around, and by feeling good about all the good news in the President Warren Good News Friday Digest emails, and by having the calm feeling of regularity and predictability, and the feeling of an industrious and thrifty nation working together in a steady way toward shared goals, then we might just also click on the “PS please donate” link and give more money to the campaign.

Thank you for considering it, and thank you for being such an inspiration.

Sincerely,
Tom

Some Updates on My Status Updates

The screen of a scanner.

“False Documents,” by E. L. Doctorow, on its way to PDF form: see below.

I am completely off social media now—unless you count writing a blog post update like this once every six months or so, which seems like a different creature altogether.

Goodbye, Facebook

For years, I would deactivate my Facebook account for long stretches of time (see: posts related to The Year of Living Autobiographically). But finally I listened to the advice of Virginia Heffernan, among others; the following I cut and pasted, perhaps ironically, from Twitter.

Call it sophistication, call it boredom with the interface, call it misanthropy, call it a productivity hack or a cognitive-security precaution or a weight-loss measure. Just find a reason and get off Facebook. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

I downloaded everything, then deleted my account.

A screen grab of deleting Facebook.

You’re about to permanently delete your account.

Goodbye, Instagram

I really enjoyed Instagram, and I think I would pay for a similar service—so long as it had nothing to do with Facebook, and had nothing to do with people influencing other people. I’d like to avoid places where the covert advertising of envy, despair, and rage occurs, where hostile foreign powers with highly sophisticated military intelligence operations seek to divide us, where corporations exploit beautiful young people to make us feel bad, convince us to seek out their products in fruitless attempts to salve our despair.

I just like sharing photographs. But I’m happy to have no photo sharing tool—especially no free, weaponized, democracy-eroding tool—for some time. I’m happy to wait until someone with more skills than I have reads Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and then creates the solution to the problem Lanier is describing.

In the meantime, I downloaded everything, then deleted my account.

Goodbye, Twitter

I was barely on Twitter. I wrote and endlessly edited Twitter posts and essays that I never posted, which I know (and knew) is a waste of time.

I took two recent examples of this foolishness, and turned them into blog posts; I posted them retroactively, with the date and time stamps of when I stopped editing them (“How Are Things in Mandragora?” in December and “Empathy and the Obligations of Freedom” in November).

I asked a writer whose work I admire greatly, whom I’ve never met in person, and who is famously not at all on social media: “Do you happen to have any suggestions for how to stay away from such distractions, either mostly or completely?”

She replied: “As for Twitter, in my experience, addiction can’t be curbed; it can only be quit, usually after hitting bottom.”

She’s right.

Zadie Smith is right too: “I have seen on Twitter, I’ve seen it at a distance, people have a feeling at 9am quite strongly, and then by 11 have been shouted out of it and can have a completely opposite feeling four hours later. That part, I find really unfortunate […] I want to have my feeling, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate, express it to myself in the privacy of my heart and my mind. I don’t want to be bullied out of it.”

So I quit.

I downloaded everything, then deleted my account.

Hello Again, Fakery

Separating the phone-number tabs on a bulletin-board flier.

Help with the fliers for my fakes class.

In other news, I’m teaching two creative writing classes this semester: one on monologues (both in fiction and drama), and one on false documents.

A photograph of two fliers on a bulletin board.

My class is not called “Affordable Mimeographing.”

The latter is based on Faking It, the seminar I taught at Columbia in 2012.

Spines of books on a bookshelf.

Some of the assigned reading for my classes, plus recent reading, plus Anne Lamott.

I’m using Fakes again as a textbook, edited by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer. And I recently read Vollmer’s Permanent Exhibit (BOA Editions, 2018), as well as Shields’s How Literature Saved My Life (Vintage, 2013). Both are excellent. (All pictured above.)

Hello Again, Fiction

Also, as long as I’m updating various statuses: way back in 2017, I said I might post updates here on how the novel I’m writing—trying to write—is going. I knew, and wrote, that I might fail to accomplish this. Which I have.

I’ve been calling it Xeno’s novel, meaning that as soon as I seem halfway done with the work I have left, the next half of what remains looms before me, and the finish line recedes away. Which is quite obviously not unique to me, or to this project.

The end result may be so small, so slight, that some readers might ask—if it ever has readers—This took you how long to write?

Manuscript pages.

Following Instructions: A Journal of My Second Son’s First Year.

If you’re reading this, and you’re wondering what the hell this is a picture of, Following Instructions exists within Intercalated Days. I’m almost done with the former. Then I can build it out into the latter.

I keep at it.

How Are Things in Mandragora?

[NB: Before I left Twitter—having barely been on Twitter—I was inept at Twitter. Which would have been obvious to anyone who ever read how much (or rather, how little) I wrote there. The inability to edit, among other things, was a deal-breaker for me. Anyway, before I quit, I wrote a few last Twitter threads that I never posted. This is one. The date/time stamp for this post is retroactive; I’ve set it to the day I gave up on editing this particular post in TextWrangler.]

Emily Barton’s first novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron, is set in the village of Mandragora on an unspecified island in the Outer Hebrides. Chapter Two begins: “Our ancestors crossed the great body of water that lies between Scotland and ourselves in paper boats…”

But which island? It’s not important for the purposes of the book; but recently, Rick Wilson (a Floridian GOP media guy whose writing I, a liberal Yankee Jew, greatly admire) retweeted a note from Londonist about the map of Fictional Britain.

Fake Britain! Brilliant! I checked: Was Mandragora on it? It was not. Could it be? “[W]e’d love to hear suggestions for additions or corrections,” the map’s description noted. So I wrote.

In the UK, Yves Gundron’s publisher was Canongate Books; I mentioned in my email that The Scotsman‘s review was quite apt: “Like a saccharine-free prehistoric Brigadoon.”

Matt Brown from Londonist kindly replied to say that he’d be happy to add Mandragora to the map. But is the village on a coast or inland? he asked. An excellent question! On p. 33, Yves Gundron writes:

We know our mountains to the east, our mountains to the west, our mountains to the north, and our mountains to the south, and none of us, save Mandrik [Yves’s brother], has sought what lies beyond.

So the geography of their valley helps explain their isolation as a medieval village—changed by the arrival of Ruth Blum, the American anthropologist.

As a side note, the novel—especially the ending, where the device of story being in the form of a false document allows the reader to see the impending disaster that Yves himself cannot see—keeps being tragically relevant.

I starting poking around on Google Maps. Could there be a real island that fit the needs of the fictional island? The dot in the blue sea that jumped out immediately was the island Hirta, in the small archipelago of St. Kilda.

Neel Mukherjee, writing for T Magazine:

St. Kilda […] is one of the outermost outposts of the British Isles: Beyond it to the west lies the North Atlantic in an unbroken stretch until Newfoundland. The main island, Hirta, was inhabited until 1930. Beyond the reconstructed main village, which is just a row of half a dozen houses, the island is dotted with scores of cleits, stone storage huts with turf roofs, that characterize the St. Kilda archipelago.

Plus sheep, and “seabirds (and their eggs) for food“! This is promising!

But why is it uninhabited?:

The medieval village on Hirta was rebuilt in the 19th century, but illnesses brought by increased external contacts through tourism, and the upheaval of the First World War contributed to the island’s evacuation in 1930.

Mostly uninhabited:

St Kilda was bequeathed to The National Trust for Scotland by the 5th Marquess of Bute in 1957,” who leased land “to the Ministry of Defence as a radar tracking station for its missile range on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.

In reality, “[t]here are no trees” on Hilda, writes Mukherjee. (There are in the novel.) “[W]hat can survive being buffeted by the North Atlantic winds from all sides year-round?” And Ministry of Defence staff would obviously notice a medieval village.

And it’s small. 2.5 square miles, a fraction of the size of the island where a very real uncontacted people in the news recently make their home.

But for the purposes of Fake Britain: A Map Of Fictional Locations In England, Scotland & Wales, I asked Emily, and she gives Hirta her approval.

Last question: Where is Mandragora relative to Laerg, a “fictional island […] which features in the 1962 novel Atlantic Fury by Hammond Innes” and is “closely based on Hirta”? In the same spot? Or nearby?

Matt, in the end, smartly made them separate, but near each other. Since these are simultaneous overlapping realities, no one from Mandragora would never have encountered anyone from Laerg, and vice versa.

PPS By the way, if anyone at Canongate Books ever reads this, The Book Of Esther—called a “glorious mash-up […] breathtaking in its ambition and scope” (Chronogram) and a “wild pageant of tumult and valor” (Booklist), a novel “as addicting as a Jewish Game of Thrones” (NYTBR)—has no UK publisher.

At least, not yet.

Empathy and the Obligations of Freedom

[NB: Before I left Twitter—having barely been on Twitter—I was inept at Twitter. Which would have been obvious to anyone who ever read how much (or rather, how little) I wrote there. The inability to edit, among other things, was a deal-breaker for me. Anyway, before I quit, I wrote a few last Twitter threads that I never posted. This is one. The date/time stamp for this post is retroactive; I’ve set it to the day I gave up on editing this particular post in TextWrangler.]

The week before the midterms, I reminded my fiction workshop students that early in the semester, I’d described the restrictions of my writing assignments in the context of our greater freedoms as Americans. In this time and place, I said, you’re free to write what you want.

But in the past few weeks, I said, we have learned that a writer for an American publication was tortured and assassinated for what he wrote. This awful news, I said, makes the freedom of expression seem terribly precious.

I want to share with you a few quotes about empathy, I said. Which may be helpful to you, if you find it hard to think about writing as a worthwhile endeavor in times like these. (In class, I wasn’t as articulate as I would have liked to have been, attempting to say all this.)

The first quote was from George Saunders, since we read “A Perfect Gerbil,” his essay on Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” and his story “Home”:

Why is the world so harsh to those who are losing? Sensing how close we were to the edge financially […], I realized for the first time, in my gut, how harsh life could be and how little it cared if someone failed. […] The realization that failure was possible, even for me, had the effect of increasing my empathy. If life could be this harsh/grueling/boring for someone who’d had all the advantages, what must it be like for someone who hadn’t? A thread of connection went out between me and everyone else. They, too, wanted to be happy.

—from the preface to CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (new edition)

Then I read a favorite quote from Donald Barthelme’s essay “Not-Knowing”:

[A]rt’s project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world. It is this meliorative aspect of literature that provides its ethical dimension.

Then this great quote from Nikki Giovanni:

Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.

I have not read Black Women Writers at Work (1983, Claudia Tate, ed.), but I’m grateful to Jon Winokur (who compiled Advice to Writers) for having tweeted it, and Emily Barton for retweeting it.

My hope, of course, is that this is not all too much to take. I said that I wanted to share these quotes because the news of the world had been particularly devastating the past two weeks.

The torture and assassination of a writer; the attempted assassination of twelve critics of the current “louche shyster” (Josh Marshall) aka the “umber Maginot” (Rick Wilson) aka the “self-pitying drama queen” (Peggy Noonan); the massacre of eleven of my landsmen—it has all been, to put it mildly (and to view it only in one way), terrible failures of empathy.

In the face of all this, I view creative writing workshops—and the greater categories workshops inhabit (the practice of writing, the study of literature, the liberal arts, even liberal democracy itself)—as tantamount to a religious practice.

I am asking my students, I suppose, to share my faith. Which, again, I hope is not overwhelming. Perhaps they just want to write stories! But writing stories is a political act. Not seeing writing as political is itself political.

I didn’t say all this in class, of course.

It is not my job to advocate for a candidate or a cause. But it is my job, I believe, to challenge them. It is my job to make the case to my students that they have grave and magnificent responsibilities.

I closed with a quote from Alexander Chee. (Alex, if you ever happen to read this, I haven’t told you how much I enjoyed How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I already knew that the individual essays were good—what surprises me still is how astonishing well they fit together into a larger whole, how they come together as a narrative, as a memoir.)

My syllabus ends with this quote:

Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.

But this week, I ended my class with a longer excerpt from the last paragraph:

If you are reading this, and you’re a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes—and make no mistake, it is already here—be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there?

—from “On Becoming an American Writer

In the quote I initially included in my syllabus, I think I was wary of mentioning war and “the ones who are coming for your life.”

But here they are: they don’t come across borders. They cross a border in their mind, then go across town on Shabbat.

Vote, I told my students. Vote!

The world will be a different place when class meets next week. We just don’t know how or in what way.

I didn’t tell them who to vote for.

But I think only the authoritarian bent on exploiting the values of a free society in order to undermine those very values would say that a teacher can’t urge a student to exercise the franchise.