nyc vs iowa, writing anxiety, and freud
I am back in Iowa for a little while, tying up loose ends. When I moved in August, there were no movers available in the state of Iowa or the adjoining Midwestern states who could move my things to New York on short-ish notice. This has to do with the fact that the Midwest is dotted with college towns belonging to Big-10 Universities, which means that from late July to mid-August, most of the region’s movers and U-Hauls are singularly absorbed by the migration of undergraduates, professors, and the like from smaller suburban areas into college towns. People whose lives are linked to the rhythms of the academic schedule. This is especially true in the Midwest, where the universities are sprawling, city-states of their own. My decision blow up my life and move to New York was made on the fly, and so I had to pay the price. So here I am, four months later, paying for my Iowa City place and the New York place. I don’t recommend it. Though, I still pay less in rent than I would be paying for a two bedroom in Bed-Stuy, so there is that.
There are compelling reasons to live in NYC, of course, mainly professional reasons dealing with my work in the cultural industries. Also, I do not drive, and in NYC, you do not need a car. Also, not that I have a lot of friends, but the friends I do have are mostly in NYC. There are things made much easier by living in the city. But the things having to do with living a life on a daily basis are simply easier in Iowa. If you go to a grocery store or drug store or even a small-scale department store in downtown Iowa City, you can buy almost anything you need. Soap, for example. A garbage can. A mop, a broom. Dust pan. Aspirin. Allergy medicine. Shampoo. Vegetables. Black pepper. German bratwurst. But in New York, it takes, maybe two, three stories and they still might not have everything you need. It took me two weeks to furnish my apartment with basic housewares. I still do not have a trash can. I have to put my garbage in trashbags that I store in a closet. It just seems silly to have to order a trashcan on Amazon, but likewise, it seems silly that a Target within walking distance of my apartment in a major American city would have no trash cans for sale. I may just give in and order one from the terrible website of doom.
When I was in NYC, I didn’t mind so much. I had my cameras and my books. I had the subway. Central Park. The East River. The Strand. My film lab. Movies at Lincoln Center and lazy dinners with friends. The quiet busyness of 10am on the Upper East Side. I had the perfect light of blue hour. Or, in the morning, the golden light striking my firescape as it cut over the East River and lay like a warm, old memory across my street. The way, on certain cold days at around 4:30PM, down on Canal, you could look up into the sky and see the deep blue fade to something paler and softer as dusk descends on all of the people waving their placards displaying wares and items. The chirp of the toy vendors, the blinking lights and whir of tiny motors. When you are in it, you do not think that you want to be anywhere else because it feels so ordinary and also perfect. Like it could go on and on and will go on and on.
The busy nothing of life.
I got back to Iowa on one of those great, cold days when everything is lashed by sub-zero windchills and people retreat inside. The desolation of Iowa City in the winter, emptied of its undergraduates. Like a city after the rapture. In my apartment, I made bold decisions to chuck everything, all of it. The apartment is emptier than it has been in years, and in that process of making it ready to leave, I have inadvertently created the very conditions I sought all along. A pristine emptiness. A little place to rest for a while, to think and do work and relax. A place stripped down to its bony essentials.
Yesterday was warmer, around fifteen degrees, so I took a walk to the river and snapped some photos. The river is frozen and powdered over with snow and scabbed with ice. A ways back, the industrial park. The tufts of steam. Cars. The library. Everything shut up for the winter, solemn in its loneliness. On other side, Hancher. The houses tucked away in the bare forests on the hill. Overhead, the eagles and the ravens fighting it out. I was the only person there. I have seen very few people since I have been back. Everything is bedded down for the dark season, I guess. But walking in the cold, I felt distinctly, vividly alive. And, it was so easy to stock up on supplies of things I needed for my stay. Little things like coffee filters and coffee and creamer. Batteries. A cable for my phone charger. I knew where everything was. I went into the stores and found them immediately. And they were there, waiting for me. In New York, you need to be a specialist to find the things you need. In Iowa City, you just kind of have to go in and poke around a little, and it’s there because there are only so many places a thing can be in this city.
I was walking up the long slope, and I saw the churches again. The red brick almost glowing in the dusk. The deep gray of the sky overlaid with patches of smoke from chimneys and steam from building ventilation. It looked like a de Stael painting. I missed it so terribly. These skinny, dull streets like black veins. The snow-tufted trees and low shrubs. The wide, immaculate white of the snowy fields and university lawns. The abrasive wind. The crunch of salt underfoot. The complicated business of thermals under your jeans and tucking your hems into your boots. The cold does something to light. Makes it diffuse and soft. Or else, concentrates and saturates it. I want the cold to bring tears to my eyes. I want the blurry-eyed elation of being pierced. I opened the blinds this morning, and saw a crow land in the street, coming down gently. It looked around and picked up something and flew away again. As I was crossing the street after going to buy a sandwich for lunch, I looked up and saw more crows tracing out patterns in the deep blue sky. Their calls loud over the quiet of the empty streets. I looked up and the sun was striking something metal in the parking complex across Van Buren street. I saw a car slowly coming across the icy hilltop. It was a beautiful image. A beautiful moment. The wind picked up and cut my cheeks. The birds were gone. The sky was empty. Just blue up there. So blue.
I have been reading Freud and Zola. Last night, I finished The Ladies’ Paradise, translated by Brian Nelson. It is about the workings of a large department store in Paris. It deals with Zola’s usual themes of love, neurosis, and wealth all within the complicated machinations of capitalism. The Freud I’m reading right now is Civilization and its Discontents, which is, at the moment, a study of the idea of how human relations are mediated and controlled within this thing we call Civilization, particularly with respect to what we call happiness. It’s kind of strange because in the last newsletter, I was writing about my increasing uneasiness with social media, and then I open the Freud to find him explaining the very thing I was feeling.
I know that some people did not like the newsletter or what it had to say or what they thought it had to say. They think I am cynical or lying or both, I guess. It’s a strange thing to be misunderstood, but also human. I find it difficult to talk about these things because the very issue at hand is the thing that prevents easy understanding. I mean, for example, that newsletter was just my attempt to express my own personal feelings about social media. And people took it to be an argument about the way we all should be. That wasn’t it at all. When I say I don’t think we are sharing with each other, the emphasis is on I don’t think. My discomfort does not have to mean that you are uncomfortable too or that you should also be experiencing discomfort. I am only ever talking about my own feelings. My own thoughts about what it means when people do or say things to me or that I observe. You do not have to internalize anything.
And then people say, Well, why do you share it then? If you aren’t trying to convince people of things? And, like, that is kind of my point, no? Like, has digital life gotten to the point where everything is an argument to be won? Is every piece of writing trying to exert an influence upon you? I spent my whole life having friends who were mostly very far away from me. Who were on the other side of the world sometimes. Or at times made up. I have spent my whole life having conversations with these friends in my head. And then online, when we would write to each other. When I sit down to write, I am not always trying to convince people of things. Sometimes, I am just writing down my thoughts, like things I would say to a friend. Sometimes, the mode of digital life can be merely expressive. And just because you want to construct an argument against or for or to me, does not mean that I have an acted in such a way as to want to influence you.
I think sometimes we have this issue in digital life, this misunderstanding of the idea of public and private. Sure, I could write a diary and keep it to myself and never share it with anyone. And I do. There are things I simply tell my friends and do not share online. Increasingly, because people love to either co-opt what I say or misinterpret it and cast it as something that I never said or did or intended. That is their right, even if I find it kind of weird. And I’m sure we all do it. I’m certain we do. I know I do it to people, especially people who annoy me. But there are things I keep to myself. Or share just to vent or express.
We all have parts of our lives we reserve. But as someone whose primary social idiom is the internet. I don’t necessarily feel that I am being public by posting things on Twitter or Instagram or writing them in this newsletter. Of course, they are not private. But that does not mean that I am trying to exert influence or begging to be consumed. Sometimes, a person just wants to express. Or share. The thing that makes me uncomfortable is the underlying presumption that my expressing also entails a desire to be consumed. I am not sure that this is true. Or a healthy.
Also, with respect to my uneasiness when people ask me where things are from. I have explained this many times, but I guess it bears repeating. If I post a picture of a book I am reading. Or a passage that moved me or made me think or made me laugh. People ask where it is from. They do not engage the thing. They want to know where the thing is from. And those are not the same. There are people who want to live their digital life as a recommendation engine for other people. And that is no shade, that’s fine. More power to them. But it’s kind of weird that people mostly just want to know where you got a passage or a sweater or a record player or whatever, and they don’t actually want to engage with what it is you’re sharing. It feels, again to me, acquisitive rather than communal.
There are also times when people respond to my discomfort with being asked where I got things from by saying that they are just nosy. Or they just want to know. Or they’re just looking to fit a passage into context. Etc. That it is cynical to presume that someone is just acting out the impulses of the algorithm and that not everyone is mimetic. And that is true. But I would also argue that “just wanting to know” and “being nosy” and “wanting to fit a passage into context” are all acquisitive, extractive ways of engaging with someone. Like, I’m not saying you should write a response paper to someone’s screenshot of a funny thing from an article, but I think it’s kind of weird that we don’t stop to ponder why it is that the first thing we do in response to someone sharing something is to seek to acquire it for ourselves. That’s all I mean.
I am sure I sound like a jerk, but until you’ve been farmed for content, you don’t really get it, I guess. It’s easy to assume something positive and beautiful when the mass of community is an abstract thing in your mind. It’s not so easy or beautiful when you post something and you end up with fifty new messages in your Instagram DMs asking where something is from. When the mass of mass culture is messaging you, asking you, demanding of you recommendations, it’s not so abstract. In my experience. And again, this is my own discomfort. If you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it.
None of this would matter too much if I didn’t want to share things with people. I like sharing what I am reading. Hearing people’s thoughts. Their jokes. Their comebacks and clapbacks. I love hearing their elaborate histories with books and movies or whatever comes to mind. I like the unruly, shoulder-to-shoulder ruckus of it all. There’s nothing better than sharing a bit of obscure history I’ve stumbled over and finding out that other people have heard of it and read about it too. I love that shit. There is nothing better or purer than that, people sharing and laughing and exchanging. But that’s not what happens usually, is it. What happens is, you post a pic, a screenshot, a passage, and people just want to know where it’s from. Where you got it. Where they can get it too. Not even because they’re going to get it. Just for the sake of the information to be filed away, indexed in this hive mind search engine we’re building. A further refinement of big data. There’s no human in it. Just cold inert facts. For myself, I try to circumvent that. Ask something else. I suppose that annoys some people.
And that’s fine. Because ultimately, I am not trying to influence your thinking one way or another. This writing project of mine is an entirely selfish way of trying work out what I think. Freud describes it as, “Much of mankind’s struggle is taken up with the task of finding a suitable, that is to say a happy accommodation, between the claims of the individual and the mass claims of civilization. One of the problems affecting the fate of mankind is whether such an accommodation can be achieved through a particular molding of civilization or whether the conflict is irreconcilable.”
The scope of this newsletter is simply that. Trying to find my own happy accommodation.
I don’t know if I will continue to think about and write about the tension between my desire to be an individual and the mass claims of digital civilization. People seem to view me as a crank or annoying. They want me to shut up and simply tell them where the things are from. I understand. They want to participate. Even if the thing they want to participate in is just one person’s little life. They want to get in there and make their mark, get their piece, partake in the communion. Online, we’re all just saints and martyrs, giving out our boons and blessings, being partaken of. I suppose it troubles people that there are things they cannot know or access. That there are people who get on Twitter to share and express but not be consumed.
In Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Carol says to her younger lover about her ex-husband’s family and their world of social convention: “I know what they'd like, they'd like a blank they could fill in. A person already filled in disturbs them terribly.” That is how I feel sometimes about the way people interact with me online. That I am not really a person at all to them. I am content. I am amusement. I am a surface on which they can project and what individual value I possess exists solely for extractive and acquisitive purposes. That is how I feel sometimes. But I think, okay, maybe I just won’t write about it anymore. I’m not going to sign myself up for misunderstanding and misreadings. That’s okay. I can shut up about it. No problemo. I love minding my own business anyway.
I fly back to New York later in the week. I’m sad to be leaving Iowa and the little space I’ve carved for myself out of the larger space of my old life here. I know it’s mostly the false romance of reduced scale and leaving. When you have no choice but to love a place because you are soon to never seen it again. I won’t ever see this apartment again probably. I won’t ever see my landlord or the hot maintenance guys. I won’t see the inside of this building again. I guess maybe that’s what feels so potent about this time. Saying goodbye to it all, setting out for a new life with the more robust complications having to do it all the time. It’s easy to feel romantic about this little apartment with no stuff in it because it presents a sanitized simple vision of how it was to be here. But I know the minute I moved back and put all my stuff in it again, I’d hate it and want to be somewhere else.
So for now, I am just going to enjoy the fantasy of it. The quiet days of productivity and good winter light. The little days of reading and sipping coffee and going to the bookstore and taking pictures. That’s the other thing. I learned photography here last June. So I’ve been photographing the things I first photographed but with better technique and more insight and whatnot.
I feel for the first time I am expressing myself in my photography. Partly because I know these subjects so well whereas in New York, I shoot and hope for something interesting. Here, I am trying to capture some of what I feel when I look at the empty fields, the frozen river, the great sweep of the sky. I am not merely just hoping I snag an interesting shot. But putting myself into my photographs. That is perhaps the real lesson of this trip. That what it means to find your subject doesn’t always look like going to a new place and finding new shapes. Sometimes it’s just learning to pay closer attention. A deeper, better attention channeled onto things that matter to you.
It's funny. I just learned that lesson in my writing life as well. At the start of this year, I turned in my next novel The Late Americans, which gave me so much trouble. For years, I’ve grappled with the fear that nobody needs this novel. That it’s a boring, inconsequential project. I let a white man get in my head. Or maybe the white man was already in my head, and I just needed a convenient excuse to voice doubts I already had. I don’t know, but either way, working on the project was miserable for years because I simply did not believe in it. I loved it. And I loved it when I started it and finished the first draft. It felt like something that mattered. But shortly after, I started looking at it with such unkind, vicious eyes. I tried to imagine what people would say. Oh, another novel about young people. Oh, another novel about precarity. Who cares.
But then, something changed in December. I think I found a way back into the project. After many months and years of complaining to all of my friends about how the project was dead and dying. I decided to do something about it. And found a way to fix my issues with it. And to answer some of the criticisms that I was making up in my head. I think it was just a matter of attention. Putting better, deeper attention onto the questions at the heart of the project, questions that still matter very much to me. Like, what does it mean to try to be a poet in the world today? What does it mean to try to make art amid these irritating and kind of amusing systems of social justice and change and capitalism and inequity and what have you. What does it mean to try to transcend your social class or what happens when you are forced to reconcile people’s vision of you with how you feel about yourself. I guess what I felt was that the book is in some way about people trying to find their happy accommodation between the needs of their individual, expressive lives and the demands of the mass culture in which we live. And what can be more worthy than that?
But still, I was in this phase of listening to what other people thought and substituting their judgement for my own. No one wants to read a book with writers in it. No one wants to read about artists. No one wants to read about these people in a college town. What about real shit? Etc. I thought I had to scuff up and bruise and mutilate my syntax and my language, thinking if I distressed my idiom enough, it might feel more urgent. But more urgent to whom? Not to me. I already felt the urgency of my characters’ lives. Their problems felt urgent and real to me. The pain of waking up in the morning and trying to express something real about yourself is very real to me. As real as all the mundane horror of my working class life before I left home. Going to college as a working class person doesn’t obliterate the difficulties of existing as a working class black person in America. It simply relocates the difficulties and puts them in a different context. But I had all this weird reverse shame of writing about working class people in college towns, as though their pain and their class struggle were merely abstract. Or notional. Rather than real. A weird thing happens when you listen to too many middle class people who went to grad school talk about writing programs. You can start to internalize some of their bad essentialist logic. Like, to enter a writing program somehow makes you less able to access the real, material difficulty of people’s lives. Or that it makes everything you write too pretty or too easy or too, I don’t know, rarefied.
But of course that’s not right. Of course, what matters is the writer and their own temperament and skill and sensitivity. What matters is that the writer is concerned with real shit. You can’t just slap on vernacular and posture and say it’s real. That it’s got heat to it. That it’s new and fresh, etc. Swagger isn’t art. We have these notions in culture. These wrong-headed ideas that the value and worth of something arrives via its exterior or the appearance of its political context and valences. We think that real art arrives sounding a way, looking a way, with a certain attitude and gesture. That the art about real people and real lives comes dressed up in its Carhartts and rasping its menthol complaints. And maybe it does. But it’s not about that shit. It’s about what’s in the guts of the thing. How does it approach the human condition. How does it render the social life of this world, of these people. Real art is specific. Particular. It has its own localities. It traces them obsessively. It’s more than just a style. It is a way of seeing. Being.
I thought I needed new ideas. That I needed to go out into the world and consume and find better things to stuff into my work. But what I needed, really, was to pay better attention to the things that were already in me. That seems really obvious now. Like, so obvious. You are interested in what you are interested in. But I fell for the oldest trick in the book. This false idea that there is worthy subject matter and unworthy subject matter. But in the end, like, what matters is the quality of the attention paid to the subject matter. The quality and depth of the attention. That’s what gives us novelty. It’s when someone looks at something that matters to them for a long, long time and finds something in it that they didn’t see before.
I’m never going to be like the pithy, smart people who write their articles and stories in Google Docs and who talk about socialism on podcasts. I’m never going to know a lot of things about stuff people consider to be cool or riveting. I have to ask my white friends who actors are because they tend to bleed together for me. But that is okay. I’m starting to like the person I am. We’re just getting to know each other.