Feb. 21, 2009

Doesn't Matter What It Looks Like

by Hal Sirowitz

"When you have blown your nose,
you should not open your handkerchief
and inspect it, as though pearls or rubies
had dropped out of your skull."
The Book of Manners (1958)

After you have blown your nose,
Father said, it's not polite to look inside
your handkerchief to see what it looks like.
You're not a doctor. What's more important
is getting the handkerchief back into your pocket
without staining your pants. There are some things
it's better not to look at. It should be left
to your imagination, but if you have
a strong desire to look you can always
find pictures of it in a medical book.

"Doesn't Matter What It Looks Like" by Hal Sirowitz, from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet W.H. Auden, (books by this author) Wystan Hugh Auden, born in York, England (1907). He wanted to be a mining engineer, but then one afternoon when he was 15, a friend asked him if he ever wrote poetry, and he decided to give it a try. He traveled around the world, wrote political poetry, and then settled in the United States and continued to write right up until his death in 1973.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer David Foster Wallace, (books by this author) born in Ithaca, New York (1962). He was a nationally ranked junior tennis player. He went to college at Amherst, where he majored in philosophy and English. For his senior thesis, he wrote a work of fiction. And when he was 24, that thesis was published as his first novel: The Broom of the System (1987).

He decided to write a novel about a future America where everyone is addicted to something — sports, drugs, sex, or entertainment. It was 1,079 pages long, filled with footnotes, complicated sentences, literary and pop culture allusions, and philosophy. And that novel was Infinite Jest (1996), which became a best-seller despite being so long and so difficult.

David Foster Wallace suffered from depression for more than 20 years, and last year he committed suicide at the age of 46. He said: "The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you."

It's the birthday of novelist Ha Jin, (books by this author) born in Liaoning Province, China (1956). After the Cultural Revolution in 1966, he had no more formal education. When he was 14, he lied about his age so he could serve in the Chinese army. He was almost illiterate, so he taught himself to read and then came to America for college and learned English. He has written many award-winning books of poetry, short stories, and novels, all in English, including Waiting (1999), War Trash (2004), and A Free Life (2007). He said: "Comedy is a high order of art, very rare. Life is full of tragedies, but how can you write comedy without vulgarities?"

It's the birthday of Chuck Palahniuk, (books by this author) born in Burbank, Washington (1962). After college, he worked as an assembly line mechanic for Freightliner. He wrote a novel, Invisible Monsters, but publishers rejected it for being too disturbing.

One weekend, he went camping with friends and got in a fight with some people at the campground. He went to work on Monday with his face totally bashed in, and it took months to heal completely; but the whole time, everyone at work pretended not to notice. That experience inspired him to write a novel. He said, "People didn't ask me what had happened. I think they were afraid of the answer. I realized that if you looked bad enough, people would not want to know what you did in your spare time." So he wrote a novel about an anonymous yuppie protagonist who gets sick of his safe life and starts a club where men fight each other in order to feel something. Chuck Palahniuk purposely made it even darker and more disturbing than his first novel just to affront the publishers who had rejected Invisible Monsters. He said, "I thought, Well, they wouldn't buy it, but at least they wouldn't forget it." But in fact, they did buy it — and in 1996, the novel Fight Club was published.

The nameless narrator of Fight Club repeats this mantra: "Deliver me from Swedish furniture. Deliver me from clever art. May I never be complete. May I never be content. May I never be perfect."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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