Karl Ove Knausgaard Lit My Cigarette

And I feel terrible about it.

Context is essential: I was at the 92nd Street Y on Friday night when he was doing a reading and an interview alongside Rivka Galchen. Her reading was first, and I loved it. She was smart, and funny, and seemed so down to earth. She was shy of the crowd, or at least came off that way, knowing as she did that it was, for the most part, not there not to see her, but to see the famous Knausgaard of the My Struggle saga (the fourth book of which just came out).

I am reading the first My Struggle volume at the moment, because my significant other (SO) loves Karl Ove and his writing with a passion he otherwise reserves for techno music and me. We sat in prime seats, row F and to the side. When Karl Ove and Rivka sat down for their interview, the former was facing us.

His reading had been magical. Hearing the names and the pacing read in his voice, with the correct accent, felt so much more natural to me than reading the book itself, the style of which I’m struggling (no pun intended) with. His adherence to detail is beautiful at times, but at others make me feel lost in a landscape so unfamiliar to me, but in a mind so intensely familiar to me. I do not presume to be as smart or sensitive as Karl Ove. But the way he talked about writing that night, the way he talked about it being a coping mechanism, a way to avoid the shame of life – it resonated. I write for many reasons, but one of them is escapism.

When the reading and the interview were over, it was only 9:15 or so. The line of people waiting to get their books signed was backed up almost all the way into the auditorium so we found an alternate route out, one that was underused and perhaps not totally kosher, though there were no signs telling us we couldn’t be there. I told my SO, I bet he’s smoking a cigarette before the signing. Let’s go around the corner and see.

And indeed, there he was. He is incredibly good looking, white hair and beard, kind eyes, a tall and fit figure, dressed in skinny jeans and a blazer and brown boots. He belonged in Brooklyn. In Portland, OR. In Hollywood. Not at this side entrance in New York. But at the same time he looked entirely natural, smoking his cigarette and talking to Rivka and the head of 92Y.

I legitimately couldn’t find my lighter as I took out a cigarette and rummaged through my bag for one. We approached, getting closer and closer. Should I do it, I asked my SO, should I ask him for a light? And he said Yeah, that’d be so cool.

So I did. I asked Karl Ove Knausgaard for a light. I said, Excuse me, I’m so sorry, do you happen to have a light? I interrupted their conversation in order to get his attention, as I would do with anyone else I saw smoking when I was in need of a light. I’ve been interrupted before for the same reasons. Smokers are pretty much seen as the scum of the earth these days, so we tend to be nice to one another.

Karl Ove took out a yellow mini-Bic lighter, gave me a pained smile and lit my cigarette, cupping his hands around its tip. I held my own up reflexively, to block the wind, but stopped myself from touching him. Behind me, my SO claims to have been smiling like a goof. I should’ve stopped at that, pretended I wasn’t at the event, that I didn’t know who he was.

But I have a penchant for honesty even when it gets me into trouble so as I took the first drag of my cigarette and thanked him, I looked at the other two and said, And thank you, all of you. It was something like that. Thank you for tonight, maybe, with a gesture towards the 92Y building. My SO and I walked down the block a bit, so I could smoke and while keeping them in sight.

After me, other people passed by and interrupted the conversation between the three people who’d been on stage that evening. I couldn’t hear what they said, or how the stage-presence reacted, but I was already regretting my own, similar, actions.

I had cheapened the experience. I had made Karl Ove look me in the eye, light my cigarette, and interact with me when he had no reason to do so other than politeness. I want to think he’s forgotten about it. I want to think that if he hasn’t, he doesn’t think of me as unbearably rude, but as, perhaps, ballsy or charming. Or as a fellow smoker who can’t find her lighter.

But my attempts at being ballsy and charming have backfired on me too often. One I insulted without knowing she would read the comment in which I put her down – a put-down that was entirely made because of my mood that morning and poisonous envy. Another I’ve had a conversation with regarding vaginas and the things we put in them. Another is my mentor. Another I shook hands with in the lobby of a literary agency. Another, recently, is not so much a luminary as an inspiration, and I treat him with a reverence and admiration that I think he finds off-putting. I am convinced that the half dozen published and/or famed writers I’ve interacted with see me as a young, doe-eyed, desperate writer who only seeks fame. Most of them probably don’t remember me or care about me (other than my mentor, whom I know does).

But in this regard, I feel much like Knausgaard. Yes, I want my work out there. I need the validation that he needs; he called a friend and read him what he’d written every day during his writing-about-America column, just so the friend would tell him, Yes, this is good, I know you think it’s not, but keep going. I badly want to find an agent who believes in me and gives validation for my writing. But I also write to take away the shame, as Knausgaard said that night, the shame and guilt of every action I take.

So here is my confession. I am ashamed, Karl Ove, of treating you like a celebrity, a commodity for me to interact with for a moment and then boast about (as I immediately did on Twitter and Facebook). I am ashamed of not taking in your stage-bound words and holding them dearly to my heart and keeping my experience personal. I am ashamed of asking you for a light.

It doesn’t count for much, and this is an apology you will never read, Karl Ove Knausgaard, but I have the utmost respect for you as a writer and a human being – because every human being is worthy of respect and because of who you are. If you remember me, forgive me. If you have forgotten me, good. I will not forget. And I will probably not forgive myself.

Reading Into Things Too Much; A Study in Impossibly Stupid Reflections

Dear Ilana Masad,

The members of the fiction admissions committee have carefully review your application, and I am sorry to report that we are unable to offer you a place in [REDACTED].  We have a limited number of openings and must turn away many promising applicants.  This year, one thousand and twenty-six people applied for twenty-five spaces.

We wish you well and thank you for your interest in [REDACTED].

Sincerely,


[REDACTED]


Director

[REDACTED DIRECTOR’S INITIALS]/jz

It is 5:37am and I am awake and thinking of the nature of time. Because that’s what writers do. Right? Faulkner did it. I must do it too.

At first I thought the typo in the first line was the missing “ed” from the word “review,” but then it dawned on me that this may not be the case! What if the typo is the word “have” that comes before “carefully?” Strike that word out, and the whole nature of this thing is thrown into question. A 5:40am kind of question. If the members of the fiction admissions committee carefully review my application, that means they are still reviewing it, ad infinitum, and even though they “are unable to offer” me a place, they might totally change their minds, if, you know, they keep reading my application over, and over, and over…
This, at 5:42am, is a hopeful, and far more cheerful, way of looking at this whole situation.
Then again, maybe the missing “ed” is supposed to deprive me of what those two letters are shorthand for – think higher ed, continuing ed, that sort of thing. Maybe they’re just rubbing it in. Assholes.

Or maybe they’re encouraging me to seek the “ed” in other places. Maybe I should get a PhD.

But what’s with the double spacing? Look, REDACTED, I’m an editor myself and I totally notice  when  there  are  two  spaces  between  words, mostly because old people are prone to double-spacing because you used to need to do that on typewriters or something. I think? That’s what someone told me. Maybe it was my mom. The question is, REDACTED, did you actually write these letters on typewriters? I mean, that would be on brand, but then again, maybe it’s actually a message hidden in that double space. Are you going to take me on a treasure hunt? Maybe if I look with a magnifying glass, I’ll find a secret QR code there, betraying the nature of temporality and embedded societal ageism (old people double space, young people QR code). Then if I scan the QR code into my phone, maybe I’ll be directed to a link that says PSYCH! YOU’RE TOTES ACCEPTED!

Or maybe, and just maybe, I realize at 5:45am, this is actually a secret Jay-Z marketing campaign. I mean, it makes sense, sort of, in an alternative and paper-killing kind of way. If one thousand and one people are getting this letter (though there’s probably a waiting list, and maybe it’s also twenty-five people long, just in case none of the people who get into REDACTED want to go, in which case it’s nine hundred and eighty-six people getting this particular letter, but I can’t be sure because it’s too early to do math) – well, that’s a lot of shares right there. Every one of us letter-receivers is going to share it with our friends, families, therapists, cats, and neighborhood sympathetic bartenders. Or baristas, baristas are cooler these days. And let’s not forget hairdressers. People talk to their hairdressers, right? Or is that just something from Legally Blond and Orange is the New Black? Anyway, shares. That’s the point. Maybe Jay-Z is going to rebrand himself as jz and is looking to break into highbrow hipster writer culture, you know, the kind that only reads Anna Karenina and e. e. cummings and cries when rats are smushed by buses while smoking American Spirits.

Not that that’s me or anything. (It’s actually not. American Spirits are too expensive and taste gross.)

But if Jay-Z is rebranding, then hey, it’s his own identity and I totally get that. I respect that. Peace be with you, jz.

It’s 5:56am on a Sunday morning, and I have no decided that I’m over you, REDACTED. Because if you really want me to read so much into your letters, you don’t really want me. That’s what they always say about relationships. Don’t be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you. Right?

Or maybe you do want me and just want to play Sherlock Holmes games. Well, I’m sorry, REDACTED. I’m not that smart. Or have that ready an access to opium. Or use the word “ejaculated” to express a way of speaking. No, wait, that’s John Watson writing about Holmes. Or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing as Watson about Holmes.

Things are getting meta over here.

It’s 6am.

Thoughts on Genius

Disclaimer: Forgive me for the pompous and maybe too flowery nature of this post. I’ve been reading Michael Cunningham and Virginia Woolf and I wanted to try my hand at writing something like this, trying to articulate my thoughts with more than my usual drivel of words. Forgive me, again, if I sound obnoxious, and if I do, believe me, I won’t force any such thing upon you again.

________________________________

If there is a feeling that accompanies the witness of genius, surely it is awe. Seeing a great masterpiece of art, listening to incredible and unbelievable music, or turning the pages of a book where words, simply words written one after the other, convey the genius of the author – these experiences all come hand in hand with mixed emotions, and at their center, awe.

Somehow, genius seems to give one both the feeling of great insignificance and great community. At one and the same time, one feels tiny compared to this piece of majesty and beauty that touches one’s senses, but also part of a vast body of all the others who have appreciated and seen and felt what one has felt. The illogical nature of this emotion – for if one is small, how can one be large at the same time? – goes hand in hand with genius, which is something, I believe, that no one, not even its possessor, can fully understand. We can understand aspects of it, appreciate parts and facets of it, but never the whole. Perhaps we could gain a full picture of the nature of genius if we collected each and every person’s idea of what the piece, be it a painting, a piece of music or a novel, conveys, we might reach a whole in which we understand both what the genius meant to pass on to us and also what he or she didn’t, what we understand, we who are the vast organism that at one moment in time seem to exist only to appreciate the piece.

There is genius that is cold, calculated and smooth, the results of which would be cold and calculated too if only we didn’t have the need to insert emotion into everything. To this kind of genius we give our own thoughts and feelings, the stirrings in our bellies and the pictures that flash across our minds. We exalt something we may not understand, but why shouldn’t we do so when something has this quality that is so hard to define – genius?

Then there is genius that gushes with more emotion, more heart and soul that we can take in a single view, a single read, a single hearing. To this genius we may do a damage as we try to reign in our emotions and control them, simplify them, understand them. Maybe we shouldn’t try to do so, though, for maybe it is this genius most of all that we ought not to try and understand – maybe it is this genius that we ought to let take us for a ride, whirl us around without apparent, obvious sense and comprehension. Maybe swimming in the place where all emotions stem from, somewhere deep in the soul, is good for us, once in a while.

 

A Thought On Writing

Although I’m writing about essay-writing in this particular instance, I’m pretty sure that this happens in creative writing as well.

There is a point, while writing something, when your brain simply goes numb. You catch yourself staring at the computer screen or at the notebook in front of you, and for a moment you’re almost sure that no thoughts have gone through your head for the past two minutes. Of course, if you think about it, you realize that you’ve been thinking the whole time, but not about anything profound or interesting – definitely not about what you’ve been writing. Rather, you’ve been thinking about your next meal, or the dress your friend just bought, or the trees with their pretty autumn leaves outside.

It’s a strange sensation – almost like your mind is betraying you, for once it gets to this point, it’s often really hard to get your mind to function properly once more. You may need, at this point, to get up and stretch and do something completely different. If you try to stare at the page for much longer, you’ll fall into despair and won’t manage, under any circumstances, to write something you’re pleased with. It’s a tricky situation, and one which I’ve been reaching over and over again in the past couple weeks.

The real problem is when you don’t let yourself take that break from whatever you’re writing. It’s a problem I repeat too much. I need to learn to listen to my brain, and when it tells me to stop and get up and do something else, I should do it, instead of sit and force myself to write for another half hour or hour or two or three. Having said that, I am, of course, going back to my extremely poorly written essay, even though my brain is going fuzzy. Alas, I must ignore my own conclusions for tonight.

A Passion For Fantasy

The first fantasy novel I read was the first of the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I was young enough then that my mother was reading it to me, at my request – the book seemed long and daunting to the nine year-old girl that I was. About twelve chapters in, though, I started cheating- I would keep reading after my mom would put the book down and say good night. A few chapters later, I felt guilty and confessed to my mother what I had been doing. She laughed and let me read it on my own from then on. That was the first average length book that I read on my own.
Today, it seems so funny to me, having read series upon series comprising eight-hundred page books. Fantasy novels tend to be long, full of twisting, complicated plots and myriad characters. One of my series even has a section listing the “Dramatis Personae” at the beginning of it, lest the readers should forget who’s who.
Too many people criticize fantasy novels for their themes: idealized past, patriarchal societies, a suspicious appreciation of monarchic or socialist systems of government. The ironic and critical presentation of such systems which is apparent in so many of the books is usually overlooked entirely.
Moreover, there is so little appreciation for the massive amounts of research and imagination that goes into the writers’ work. Fantasy writers create whole worlds from scratch, from political entanglements to the irrigation systems, from magic spells to religions, from the layout of the land to the very flora that grows in it. When they’re not building their worlds, they’re researching ancient warfare, the hundreds of different deities that exist in current and ancient religions, the way actual monarchies functioned once upon a time and much more. And this is just for writers of this type of fantasy – there are so many different types and sub-genres that they’re hard to keep straight, and critics often don’t bother to distinguish them whatsoever.
I’ve held these opinions close to my heart for as long as I’ve been reading fantasy, and I have never had the opportunity to research these phenomena. Why is fantasy so disdained? Why isn’t it appreciated, but rather looked upon as a genre only for children and teenagers and unsophisticated readers? Why are the writers of fantasy not praised for their incredible writing style at least? Why do fantasy novels reach the best-seller lists, but then get beaten down and criticized?

I wish it weren’t the case, that so much of the fantasy genre be treated as sub-par by so many – especially when books that are fun reads but by no means well-written become best-sellers overnight.

A College Essay

Months ago, around September and October, my days were spent at work, studying to become a customer service rep, and at home, slaving away over essay after essay for the colleges I was applying to. I’ve been looking over them lately, and many are extremely similar since they were built over the same mold. Here is one, however, that I like because of its genuine explanation about why I’m so looking forward to college.

Many people, myself included, have a very hard time enjoying elementary and high-school education in and of itself. This is especially true here in Israel, where many school years begin with a teachers’ strike because our schools don’t get the funding they need, and thus teachers aren’t getting paid what they should. This, in turn, leads to ever-fewer people choosing teaching as a profession, which means that the teachers we students get are often there because teaching was their last resort, or  because they once wanted to be teachers, but the years of working in a zero-respect job with hardly more than blank paychecks have made them bitter.
Another reason why many people don’t enjoy their high-school education is because we don’t really get to choose what to study. Certain things are forced upon us and then taught in such a way that leaves them joyless, the necessity of studying them rendering them dull.
I tried, as much as possible, to enjoy my studies to the fullest despite the way they were taught. I tried to make history come alive despite the droning quality of my teacher’s voice, tried to make literature exciting despite how it was hacked to pieces and dissected in class as if that was the only way to analyze it, tried to make the hours of grueling math homework on the weekends be cathartic and a source of pride rather than an unbearable chore. I succeeded, sometimes. But it’s hard to be enthusiastic about your studies when there’s little help or support from the school.
This is why I am so excited to be going to college in the United States, and also why I am reluctant to choose a major straight off. I’m so enthusiastic and willing to explore different subjects for a year or two before declaring my major, and I feel that this will rekindle my passion for learning new things. I do know that I might well end up majoring in English – but then again, perhaps I will major in Writing or Psychology or maybe even Drama. My interests are varied and as of now, I cannot choose which field I want to study exclusively.

Inspiration

Inspiration can come from anywhere. It can come from the way a cloud moves across the sky, reminding you of  a puppy chasing it’s mother through the sky, trying to catch up with her. It can come from the way your morning cup of coffee smells, the rich and heady aroma of it rising into your nose and awakening your senses. It can come from the old man you saw on the street who was struggling with his shopping bags and grumbling under his breath about the youth of today.

Inspiration can come from your favorite books, movies, radio-shows and music. You can copy and steal from every written word ever published without anyone being the wiser, because on the way to your finished work you changed everything you meant to steal. Your inspiration can carry you past plain copy-and-paste into the land of borrowing from lyrics, ideas, symbols, and generalized characters. You can decide to copy the tale of Aladdin’s Lamp and end up writing about fog in San-Francisco – and even then you might be positive you stole the whole thing.

Inspiration can be slippery. It can hit you when you’re in the middle of a conversation, when you’re driving, when you’re about to fall asleep – as a result, you’ll lose the ideas, and kick yourself for it. It can also strike you just when the pen is in your hand or your hands are hovering over the keyboard.

Inspiration can be a bitch, and desert you for days at a time.