I Am Either Where You Think I Am, Or, Not

It snowed this morning. It’s the first snow of the year. I woke up and there was the beautiful light off the snow in the kitchen as I came downstairs. I felt released from the fall.

I took a break from updating for a while partly because the methods by which I’ve maintained this blog seemed suddenly old to me and not very exciting to me, not in the light of the way I was thinking about how I use online media after the blogging panel at the CLMP. Also, before the election, many of my friends told me they’d come to rely on the news roundups that I did, even though at the time I did them I felt like I was under the influence of a kind of panicked rage at the way the current administration is destroying the health of the populace, the country, the Constitution, the environment, and our basic traditions as Americans, and thus was just trying to just put news in people’s way. “Alex has this political blog,” a friend said of me recently, to someone he was introducing me to, and I thought, Do I? So I reconsidered that and decided the Bush administration had turned me into a news aggregator, and that I wanted to be something else.

One thing I also reconsidered was posting columns written in the present tense but about events that had passed, something I began doing this spring, as the result was that people became confused about where I was, which was sort of funny but also bad in a larger way, though the idea, of using your blog to disguise your whereabouts, was born, because in order for me to write fiction I do better when I hide or feel anonymous.

So I may still make those posts.

This morning I am thinking about how Walmart has said they will now use renewable energy as long as it is cheaper than other forms of energy. This made me laugh a little, because when I’m given the choice between cheap poison to eat or food that costs more, I usually buy food. 

Years from now, if anyone is alive to do this, I think we’ll be seen as a people who lived for a long time under the expensive and poisonous illusion at the center of all petroleum product usage, which is that we can keep doing this and not destroy the world. Sometimes I walk through a store and I touch the plastic packaging of whatever I’m buying and I hold the plastic bag as I walk out of the store and I start to feel a slight anxiety about all of the oil in my life. And I wonder what the new packaging will look like, when there’s no way to make cheap plastic packaging anymore. In Greece this summer, it felt strange to stand on the cliffs and feel the sun blasting you and the wind nearly taking you into the air—of course the myth of Icarus comes from there, because I felt like I could just accidentally fly and never come back down to earth. Everywhere I went they were burning all this gas to do everything when meanwhile the old windmills had been converted to guest houses, and while this was cute, the idea of staying in one of them does feel like living in a Jeanette Winterson novel, but, it seemed like a mistake had been made. Like the Greeks were surrounded by real power and meanwhile were using the measliest, weakest most poisonous thing they could use. But this is true of us all.

This morning, after pushing the snow off my car and drinking some excellent coffee, I got to the office where Susan Henderson from Litpark notified me via Twitter message that she was tagging me in a blog meme—the ’56th page, 5th line of the book closest to you’ meme, which now has been renamed Literary Bling.

Here’s mine, from Screen Memories, by Sigmund Freud:

“By doing so I can establish a sound connection between the separate fragments of memories and arrive at a clear understanding of what the childish interest was that recommended these particular occurrences to my memory. This does not apply, however, to the subject matter of the third group, which I have not so far discussed. There I am met by material—one rather long scene and several smaller pictures—with which I can make no headway at all.The scene becomes fairly indifferent and I cannot understand why it should have become fixed in my memory.”

The reason Freud is the book closest to me at my desk in my office is that I’m reading Freud right now, because there’s no way to teach a class in the Graphic Novel, which I do, and avoid Freud, which I am not avoiding. Especially since discovering that in Interpretation of Dreams, Freud made a comic to illustrate it. Also, I basically feel like comics are a screen memory for the whole culture.

In any case, the purpose of the game above is to bring into view something unexpected, but in this case it also allows me a chance to fulfill a promise I made to someone after the CLMP panel, which is to put up a writing exercise I made up after seeing the film Bladerunner about 70 times.

In that film, androids are made to believe they’re human through memories that are implanted into their minds. The exercise is called “The Seed”.

  1. Make a list of three stories your family tells about you all the time. The kind they tell you when you bring home a friend. Usually these stories are set in the first three years of life, when you can’t remember very much. Choose one. Examine your memory of it. Describe it.
  2. In my case, the memory I use as an example is of how I used to hide behind furniture in my family’s house in Seoul, and then from there I would imitate the voices of the people in the room. The story is about how one time my grandmother and an aunt of mine were having an argument, and then in a pause in the fight, they heard a small voice say what my grandmother had just said. This caused my grandmother to laugh explosively, but my aunt felt insulted, and hated me.
  3. Now figure out what the story is about: in my case, the story is about how a child’s talent for imitation inserts him into the center of a conflict that is not his, and gets him into trouble.
  4. Now figure out if you can take that situation and move it through time and space, repopulating it with different figures. This is how I came up with the situation of my second novel, the one I’m finishing now, The Queen of the Night.

I use this exercise typically at the beginning of the novel class I teach at Wesleyan in the summers, at the Wesleyan Writers Conference. I often use it in Fiction 1. The memory, if you examine it, is typically suspect—a fiction you’ve created using images from old photo albums from that time, and you can tell it’s false because the image is in the Third Person and our memories are usually from inside our head, not memories in which we observe ourselves walking through our own field of vision. We make these fictions to have a relationship to the story, because the story is alienating to us—it is told usually to embarass us, and is a way the family shows it knows you in some way you don’t know yourself, and thus you belong to the family. It’s an act of both affection and aggression, and it’s done in the presence of a newcomer because that tells the newcomer where they stand. Even as telling them admits them to the family.

I call it a protofiction, and if you look at yours, after you do it, you may realize that this is what you are already writing about in the work you’re doing.

By way of ending this, here’s the Freud comic, which is called “Dream of the French Nurse”. He uses it by way of describing how dreams protect the dreamer while they sleep.



  1. Worth the wait, although you lose me in the last part.

    Yours is one of three blogs I check in on on a daily basis. The main reason is that you are an accessible writer who writes about writing, something I am deeply interested in. You are also politically aware and active, and I am not, and while all of those updates and links didn’t do anything for me, they didn’t stop me from checking in on you, and I knew if I waited patiently you’d write something (that I would find) interesting and beautiful again.

    I fail to see why people’s confusion of where you are at any given moment due to the tense you choose is “bad in a larger way.” I consider your blog a sort of creative non-fiction when you are writing in that dreamy way, like when I thought of Alan Hollinghurst characters when you were– where? France, right?– not his writing, but the situation you found yourself in and the names of your companions and being in that chateau. Anyway, it seems a strange case to make against one’s self, someone who excels in that kind of writing. And in your defense, I never felt fooled, but entertained.

    I am having trouble wrapping my mind around your exercise– my childhood memories are scant, and I am hard-pressed to recall any stories my family tells about me. I suspect, though, and you might agree, that whatever they are, I am most likely writing about them, again and again.

    Thanks for this one.

  2. RJ: Bad in the sense that family and friends who use this blog to locate me at a given time misunderstand where I actually am.

    Thanks for the compliment about Mr. Hollinghurst. And for your reading.

  3. “The Seed” was the first of many useful exercises you shared during my week at Wesleyan. I learned something about what I was already writing. And the what I wrote for the exercise has informed the novel that I finally started writing by the end of that week.

    For me, it’s an effective exercise because it requires you to play the role of writer and reader within a few minutes. Too many fiction exercises have you do one or the other, but not both. With this, I get a nice balance of openness and analysis.

  4. You are entering a new phase of bloggerdom–when you ponder the existence of your blog and its purpose in life and writing.

    All bloggers must go through it. Well, some don’t, and they really do suffer for blogging in the dark.

  5. Funny-I realize after reading the full description of the exercise, I’ve been doing variations of it for years in my head for writing prep, but not knowing I’m doing it on a subconscious level. It will be fun to try it consciously tomorrow.
    My own blog I see as a tether to friends I don’t always see often, with maybe 10% of entries being a great moment of conversation between us, but the other 90% of entries being spewing of random thoughts that just kind of drift around in blog space, bumping into the other random thoughts out there that we’ll all look back on in years and find solely amusing to ourselves-fond silliness.

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