A Rumination About a Piece I Intended to Write About the 2021 Chicago books Old Style, The Pueblos, Sub Urbane, Meiselman: The Lean Years and Blow Your House Down that Became Something About Intent, Myth, the New Year, the Writing Life and yes, ultimately the 2021 Chicago books Old Style, The Pueblos, Sub Urbane, Meiselman: The Lean Years and Blow Your House Down.
This was supposed to be a piece on writing, which is to say why do we write at all?
It is a piece about intent and myth.
It is not about Always Crashing in the Same Car by Matthew Specktor or Desert Notebooks by Ben Ehrenreich, though both of these wildly engaging books play a role in the creation of this piece.
My intent was to write something about a series of other books: Old Style by Dmitry Samarov, The Pueblos by Bill Hillmann, Sub Urbane by Jason Fisk, Meiselman: The Lean Years by Avner Landes and Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello.
But I didn’t
Though I will, well, I think I will.
Because I also intended for Always Crashing in the Same Car and Desert Notebooks the final two books I read in 2021, that was the plan, and in doing so, I found a way to frame this piece, that I didn’t write, and couldn’t for some reason.
Let me back-up.
I had this whole idea.
I was going to write something on all of these books that fell in my lap by Chicago authors and I was going to do so by the end of the year and craft some kind of statement about what they mean to me, but also what Chicago means to me, and writing itself, what that means to me, and my life, writ both large and granular. But I failed to do accomplish this. I couldn’t get to the piece. Had I gone too big and wanted it too much? Was I forcing something, I actually didn’t want to do work on despite my affection for these books, authors, Chicago and writing? Or is all of this have something to do with how much work this year has been, pushing, reading, hustling, trying to stay healthy, and how tiring that is to think about, much less write about?
Aren’t we all sick of that and ourselves?
Yet, while it’s probably not a failure to fall short on goals and plans such as these, I’m still haunted by it.
I wanted this.
I had ideas.
I read the books.
Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello
For example, if I wrote this piece, I might have said something like this about Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello,
“Seriously, reading this memoir may cause your brain to disintegrate under the sheer what-the-fuck nature of Frangello’s recent domestic life, her health, and the choices contained therein. And yet, merely focusing on the destruction (and triumph) Frangello so stunningly, and graphically, depicts here, ignores the larger narrative also afoot on these pages, what it means to not only be this woman, but any woman at any time and how society seeks to both define and break you.”
Which is to say, I would have said this, because I said it elsewhere, LitReactor for the record, but what I would have also wanted to say is that the book represents a triumph of perseverance as well. Not that Frangello hasn’t had other successes, she has, but she’s plugged along, kept publishing and kept pushing, and we’ve been at so many readings together, and so many bars and talked about our kids so much, and her she is, on the other side of something and it’s wonderful and it’s a reminder for me, for all of us, that you if you have the skill and the ideas, and if you do the work, sometimes, not always, but sometimes, good shit happens.
See, so if I written this piece, it would have looked something like this: I would have asked whether there are moments when I look to craft a narrative based on the work in front of me or if I’m hell bent on wrapping a narrative I’ve already written in my head around the art I want to consume?
Which is to say that I find myself interested in ruminating on my life as a writer in Chicago, while I’m also excited to write about a series of books from Chicago writers that I feel strongly about that arrived as I embarked on this very rumination. I then would have gone to say that I never wrote even a single sentence before I moved to Chicago, which in its way means I’ve never not been a Chicago-based writer. I would have asked does that mean I’m actually a Chicago writer? I’ve always thought that was up to writers who were born here to decide, though if it’s cool with them, it’s most definitely cool with me. The thing is, I believe I would have asked, would I have written that first sentence if my wife and I had moved somewhere else? We had lived in New York City before we moved here, and I lived in San Francisco before that, and I never came close to getting started. People write in those places, I’m certain of it, but it started here. I might have also paused to indulge in an origin story. How I was turning thirty, happily married, doing work I liked and felt that I was missing something. That something I decided was writing. Full stop. And I started. I might have written that I started going to every reading I could and was soon writing every day. What I would have wanted to say though, is that I pushed myself into a world I had no sense of beyond the books I loved and how insatiable I was to take in everything I could once I did.
It’s a journey, twenty plus years long, and what I probably would have said is I want to say something meaningful about that.
I still do.
Meiselman: The Lean Years by Avner Landes
I would have also written something about Meiselman: The Lean Years by Avner Landes, and because I wrote about this elsewhere as well, okay, again LitReactor, I would have said, to be clear,
“I’m a Jew, and I say this because this book is the most Jewish thing I’ve read since the heyday of Philip Roth. Too much? No, not that the awesome Jewishness of it all is what makes the book so engrossing. That exists due to Landes’ masterly ability to illuminate how the granular and quotidian struggles of what are mostly small lives can still be viewed as both grandly comic and ultimately tragic in the same sentence, if not the same breath.”
But not just that, because I would have also wanted to say that Meiselman is a reminder that people keep writing, that it’s a fucking debut novel and it’s stunning and that’s wonderful too. Also, it’s from Tortoise Books, a Chicago-based publisher (full-disclosure: Tortoise is also a publisher of mine), and this means something as well. Books keep happening no matter what, and they get printed, and that doesn’t stop, and this is not only in Chicago, but it’s certainly and definitely happening in Chicago.
The Pueblos by Bill Hillmann
I would need to mention The Pueblos by Bill Hillmann here as well, because it’s also a product of Tortoise Books, and while I didn’t write about it elsewhere, I would have told you that Bill Hillmann is another Chicago author I’ve spent time with in countless bars, bookstores and cars, though more than that, once appeared with him at a reading long before his debut Chicago classic The Old Neighborhood was published, where he not only read from what would become The Old Neighborhood, but also regaled me with tales of running with the bulls and the impact of Hemingway on Hillman’s life, life’s work and survival. Later, I would pitch an Op-Ed to the Washington Post on behalf of Bill’s then publisher when he was famously gored by a bull, and now we’re here, he’s written a memoir of running with the bulls and culture and obsession, as Bill giggles and hustles his way through Spain, trying to hit 100 hundred runs for no reason more than this is what must be done, and written about, because why, because that’s what we do.
Always Crashing in the Same Car and Desert Notebooks
Still, if I was able to write this piece, which I wasn’t, I would need to return Always Crashing in the Same Car and Desert Notebooks, the former a rumination on failure as examined through the prism of being a child of Hollywood, celebrity and the act of writing specifically, as well as creating anything more generally; the latter a rumination on end times as contemplated through the prism of living in the desert and recognizing it as a living, breathing thing, the science of climate change, myth, both those that are passed down and those we create for ourselves, the meaning and breadth of time and the act of writing.
In both cases, there are sentences I’m stuck on, and linger for me even as we move from one year to the next and I never quite wrote this piece I wanted to write.
From Desert Notebooks:
“Why bother to write when there will be no one left to read.” (page 7)
And from Always Crashing in the Same Car:
“What makes a writer fall silent?” (page 325)
Why am I stuck on these, because I write, I spend time with writers and I think about writing all day, every day and whatever falls in between.
Sub Urbane by Jason Fisk
One of those writers is Jason Fisk and I would have talked about his latest poetry collection Sub Urbane and I would have reminded people that I don’t read enough poetry, but I always read Fisk. It’s true that we also read together early in our writing lives, that I fell in love with his thoughtful and gentle presence as he read work that celebrated the people and neighbors so many of us grew-up with in small towns and suburbs across America. That there is a focus on the tiny pains that afflict us, the scars and injuries and losses we suffer. That there are also the stories and grace notes provided by our children and how we get through the day, step by step and moment to moment. Fisk is a chronicler of these quiet streets and yards and the trees above us. Someone has to be. Someone has to write those words and remind us that we are alive and getting through it, as are so many others around us.
Why do we bother to write then? I’ve always thought it was because we didn’t have a choice. The switch is flipped and it cannot be un-flipped. But maybe this is part of the myth making I engage in, so I can keep going, so I can feel alive, connected to something and kinetic. Because people do stop writing for a multitude of reasons and I’ve been thinking a lot about this as well. There are people I sought out, drank with, talked to, edited, commented on their work, read with, read, emailed, texted, called, shared rooms and cars and beds with who have stopped writing. And when they stop they’re not necessarily even remembered except by those they’ve influenced, which is part of what drives Specktor’s work, even if may not lay behind the work of Ehrenreich at all.
If we’re all gone, what’s the point?
Which is on some level why I started thinking about this at all, or at least the idea of writing about the piece I wanted to write if I had chosen to write any of it.
Why do we write?
What does it mean to write here in Chicago?
And what does the last twenty years mean to me at all?
Maybe it’s more accurate to ask why do I keep writing?
Old Style by Dmitry Samarov
If I wrote this piece, I might have continued down this path and written something about Dmitry Samarov and his new book Old Style. I would have done so in part because Old Style is ostensibly about a guy, Samarov, who works in a bar and that job goes away, as does any desire to be around that bar, a place that was so important to his sense of self. It’s also about what we lose, any of us, as we age, as things change and we change. How neighborhoods once cool and affordable become less so when discovered by people with money. But then it’s also about the pandemic and what we’ve lost there. Which is what? Lives certainly, and certainty, though if we’ve been lucky enough to stay healthy, what so many of us have lost is the things we feel connected to. We’ve become untethered and in that way Samarov’s ruminations on what’s gone speaks to all of us. Even then, I wouldn’t have planned to leave it at that. I would have wanted to comment on how Samarov has self-published this book. How he and I have crossed paths at different times with publishers we’ve both worked with and how he seems to have decided there is little value in that game. Still, he has things to say and he’s going to say them as he sees fit.
It would have been important to me to finish this piece on Samarov, because one, I admire the hustle, productivity and approach he’s taken to his life as a creative, but it’s not only that. It’s also about why we create or write at all. I know don’t Samarov well enough to even pretend to know why he continues as he does, but I know I want to believe it’s because he doesn’t have a choice. I’ve created a myth around him as well: he has to create, he has too many ideas not to. Which is to say, that like Frangello, Landes, Fisk and Hillmann (and Specktor and Ehrenreich too), he has to move the stories from his head to paper however they get there and wherever they go.
I imagine, I would have ultimately finished this piece I could not write sharing that this is the longest I’ve gone in the last fifteen years without having a book published. I would have added that I’ve been blessed with all the opportunities that have come to me only since we moved to Chicago and I chose to start writing.
It may be though that my time has passed and I need to be cool with that.
Which I will be.
I will have to keep writing though as I do nearly every day, in that I don’t have a choice, regardless of the end times and whether I go silent or not.
Anyway, that was what I intended to write.