Missed Connection

Adrian Tomine is probably my favourite comics writer & artist. I got into his work with Shortcomings (2007), and immediately went back through Summer Blonde (2002), Sleepwalk (1998) and the rawer Optic Nerve stuff (-1998). Since then I’ve picked up pretty much anything with Tomine’s name on it: the 2004 scrapbook of uncollected work, the postcard set, and 2012’s New York Drawings - a wonderful hardback collection of the covers and pieces of artwork that Tomine has contributed to The New Yorker over more than a decade.

The cover of that book features Tomine’s best-known piece: ‘Missed Connection’, which was first published as a New Yorker cover on the 8 Nov 2004 issue, ten years ago today. It depicts a man and a woman, seated on separate subway train cars, making eye contact and holding copies of the same book.

There’s something immediately sad about the scene - the simultaneous sense of possibility and the loss thereof; the unfairness of their being powerless to change the fate of being headed in different directions. I can’t help but wonder where those two are going, what the likelihood of their encountering each other again might be, just what exactly they are losing by passing by each other. Whilst Tomine’s graphic novel work is full of great characterisation and well-wrought narrative, his ability to capture emotionally resonant moments in single frames is often simply astounding. Nowhere is this more elegantly done than in ‘Missed Connection’.

Prints of the piece* (along with many others) are for sale via Tomine’s site, and more information on his catalogue can be found via his publisher: Drawn & Quarterly.

*curiously, the store lists an incorrect publication date for the piece sometime in 2009

Reading / Writing

Three months ago, on 1 Aug, I started a project to finally make it through David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I had failed to finish the gargantuan novel on three previous occasions despite being in love with Wallace’s writing; it was just too big, too unwieldy a physical artefact, and too demanding of the reader’s engagement to be picked up lightly or granted anything other than one’s full attention. Which is why I started Infinite Jetzt: a scheduled reading of the novel where I would tackle about 10 pages a day for three months. I sent out word on Twitter and was joined by a group of friends who picked up copies of the novel, printed copies of the schedule, and read alongside me.

As of 31 Oct, I’m happy to be able to say that it worked: I finally finished the novel, and not only that but the project itself proved invaluable. There was a period, 600 or so pages in, when I fell some way behind. I can be pretty sure that had it not been for the sense of community that had already grown up around the endeavour of reading the novel along with others, I would have put the thing aside again and maybe not picked it up for years to come. As it was I had both the internal pressure of a commitment to a weekly blogpost to motivate me, and the support of a group of sweet, dedicated people who I was heartened to find supporting me and each other. I caught back up, kept the pace, and finished the book on schedule at the end of last week. Doing so brought a mixed sense of relief, accomplishment, and an odd sense of loss that something that had been a daily part of my life for quarter of a year was now past. It did make me smile, however, to see that I wasn’t the only one feeling all of these things - it meant others had also got something out of the experience that they found valuable.

So, with 92 days and 981 pages of Infinite Jest behind me, what’s next? How about writing 50,000 words in 30 days?

I’ve been meaning to try my hand at NaNoWriMo for years, and when it popped into my mind again a few weeks ago it felt like a neat transition from a long-distance reading project to an intensive writing one. Like many, many people who harbour secret (or not-so-secret) writerly ambitions, I have long struggled with maintaining the kind of persistence required to see anything of substance through to the end.

Another trait I suspect I share with many aspiring writers is the tendency to collect writerly advice: snippets of wisdom from those who have completed a novel or 30. These include several thoughts on the relative importance of writing versus editing, and the necessity of completing the first draft before returning with any kind of eye for quality. Take this example I encountered recently from Warren Ellis:

[T]he first draft will always, ALWAYS be terrible, and you should make sure everyone knows that. The first draft is just surrounding the battlefield. The second draft is the actual battle, and, most often, where the real writing happens.

Despite reading variations on this piece of advice many, many times I have failed to internalise the message. I’ve never been able to complete one pass before tinkering, re-reading, evaluating…. It really is death for my desire to carry on with a piece, but it’s something I can’t help doing. To my mind NaNoWriMo may be a perfect antidote. 50,000 words in a month seems like a near-breakneck pace to write at, but is just the trick to stop me indulging my inner editor: there simply won’t be time to look back; the schedule demands a constant forward momentum which, I’m hoping, will carry me through a first draft and leave me, when December rolls around, with a substantial enough stack of pages that I’ll remain invested in the idea of making it all into something worthwhile.

Rationally I know that none of those pieces of writing advice is going to provide a magic bullet that suddenly makes novel-writing easy. The not-so-secret trick that everyone who completes a task of this size learns, I think, is persistence. I’m anticipating that NaNoWriMo will teach me that with writing, as with distance running and developing a daily meditation practice, the only way to do it is to do it, and eventually, maybe, it gets easier. At the least it gets more familiar.

The successful completion of the Infinite Jetzt project has me thinking I need to revise my conception of myself as someone who doesn’t finish reading the novels he starts. This year I completed The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (528 pages), Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (880 pages), and Murakami’s colossal 1Q84 (1,328 pages) among others, before taking up Wallace’s novel (1,104 pages incl. the endnotes!). This month I’m working towards also revising the idea that I don’t follow through on writing fiction. If I can just get my pages together, worrying about quality can wait until December.

200 Days and counting...

In 200 days, on 26 April 2015, I’ll be doing something perhaps a little crazy - something I wouldn’t have believed, a couple of years ago, that I even would have attempted: I’ll be running the London Marathon.

I haven’t been running all that long. Having grown up asthmatic and bookish I spent most of my teens and even 20s eschewing pretty much all kinds of exercise where possible, and only laced up a pair of Nikes about three years ago. I remember distinctly, in the early and even medium stages of the ‘couch-to-5K’ programme I was on, feeling like completing a 5K was near impossible… then it was something I accomplished. After that it seemed like trying to break 30 minutes was an insurmountable barrier… until I did it. It’s still kind of shocking to me how quickly running 5K became just something I do a couple or three times a week. The next challenge was longer distances, and recently I broke the hour barrier for 10K. Not world-beating pace, but another personal goal achieved.

I feel like running has taught me something about perseverance—about patience—and has helped shape my temperament over the last three years to some extent. I think of it as a similar discipline to meditation, and approach the two with a similar mindset. Both have taught me about my limitations and helped me start to reach a bit beyond some of them.

I don’t feel anywhere near ready for a marathon! But then, perhaps that’s how you’re supposed to feel with 200 days to go. The jump from 10K to 42.2K is genuinely daunting, and right now the thought of running constantly for what is likely to be somewhere around 4.5 hours is painful. But if it was easy I guess it wouldn’t be as worth doing.

So, now I have 200 days ahead of me in which the marathon will factor into almost everything else I do: 200 days of watching what I eat, training consistently and increasingly vigorously, and working towards a goal that right now seems kind of impossible. As soon as the acceptance letter came through I sublimated my anxiety with two things: first I used it as an excuse to hit the Nike store for gait analysis and finally upgrade my shoes; secondly, I started to think about which charities I’d like to run for.

The London Marathon remains Britain’s biggest single-day fundraising event, which in-and-of-itself is pretty remarkable. If I’m going to put myself through a lot over the next 200 days I’d like it to be about something bigger than just myself. And in truth it didn’t take much thought: I’ve chosen causes that have touched those closest to me - if you’d like details you can read a little more at the fundraising page, which is already up.

I’m looking forward to it, though anxiously. And I’ll make sure to keep you all updated on how much I’m missing sugar, and hating the hours spent running through snow-filled streets. Wish me more than luck.

On Performance

The difference between music played from record and music played live is, or should be, the human elements: spontaneity, invention, emotional immediacy. A good record can be wonderful company, its unchanging nature a great comfort - knowing you can return to it, an old friend, and avail yourself of its familiar charms. And it may seem to change, a little, as you change. The act or manner of your receiving it is altered as you are through time, but the recording is a static object.

A great majority of my relationships with art are of this nature. The books, films, paintings etc. that I love, like the records, don't change. I change, my perception of them changes, and there's value in that evolution; one can see oneself reflected in it. How you relate to a book differently to how you once did. What a painting used to mean to you. What you thought a movie was about.

Like performed music, the life of a piece of theatre exists in its human elements and is amplified by uniqueness. Where an academic career in literature nurtured in me the love of the word as written—of text—it has primarily been the decade-plus I have spent working in theatre that has convinced me, slowly but incontrovertibly, of the unique power of performed art.

There was a seed sown maybe at undergraduate level, when I first started reading Samuel Beckett. There is much in Beckett to love on the page: he is lyrical, supremely intelligent, wickedly funny, and can be hauntingly insightful. However, studying the plays alongside the novels and poetry, I began to discern the unique ability of performance to deliver something that even the most beautifully constructed paragraphs of text could not. At their core, perhaps necessarily, my most cherished experiences with texts are cerebral: the thrill of having a new point of view revealed to you, of being transported mentally to another set of circumstances, of becoming acquainted with persons entirely constructed by you, the reader, in collusion with a remote author—the atomic elements of which construction a mere 26 characters and attendant squiggles and dots of punctuation—all this remains something akin to magic in my mind. But there are things that the printed word cannot do.

The mere fact of having a living human being take the stage before you is enough to start firing up empathic synapses that even the most beautifully written first-person narratives can’t reach. Taking that as a starting point the stakes of live performance are exponentially higher, and the potential rewards more visceral, more immediate, less cognitively and more limbically driven. I have long loved film, which seems to fall here at some kind of half-way point: recorded media with a human face. As with recorded music there’s the luxury of replayability, of examining at one’s leisure the minutiae of a performance, and marvelling at the artistry by which it is heightened: camera angle and motion, editing, sound design…. All of which, again, is an exercise in appreciation at a remove that retains great value.

But I have found some of the thrill of theatre also to be contained in the knowledge that what one is witnessing, one will witness precisely once. No two performances will be the same, no two encounters between you as audience and the performer will be identical. Partly yes, as with the books and the paintings, you’ll carry something into the exchange on a subsequent occasion that wasn’t there the first time around, but also this in front of you is another full person, adding to the equation their own infinity of potential, broadening out the horizon of possibilities as to what might happen between you in the course of the thing to unknowable, dizzying dimensions unfathomable in the case of safe, unchanging works of static, non-performed art.

Aphex Twin on Art

Richard David James just released the first album under the Aphex Twin name for 14 years, and—perhaps just as unexpectedly—has conducted a lengthy, amiable interview with Pitchfork.

Reading the piece I was struck by the manner in which a number of James’s thoughts seemed applicable universally across all creative disciplines, and at all levels of output. For instance, there’s this on procrastination:

The number of times I can convince myself to purchase a new notebook instead of getting to work in the current one is maddening, and James captures that idea neatly. Sometimes it becomes about the setup rather than about the process, and the key is in catching yourself before that becomes too consuming.

Similarly there’s something here about routine, and the ease with which we fall into the trap of changing the wrong things as a way of avoiding the real work. It’s easy to start feeling like the important part is that you have the correct items of kit, and that that’s enough for the work to magically start to flow. When that doesn’t happen I’m certainly dumb enough to think endlessly about changing the setup instead of persevering with the project.

And then there’s this, which is important I think.

Endless ink has been spilled, and pixels rearranged, on the ways in which the advent of digital has reframed both the publishing & consumption of art; I’ve read less on how that has altered our understanding of what it means to be an ‘artist’. Something about James’s comment speaks to the fact that it’s ultimately the work that’s important, rather than the source. It’s not who you or your marketing team say you are; it’s not the vector by which your output reaches its audience; it’s not even your pedigree that matters - it’s the thing you’ve made, and how it makes people feel. Which, actually, James is also brilliant on: