What I Do, What I've Done, What I Aim To Do
 
To the sangha, to the community:

After 20 years of reading and writing, I am going to try out ‘Patreon’ and seek support directly. As you can imagine, this makes me feel more than slightly queasy! Above all, it seems to me that anyone contemplating giving me even a dollar should have the opportunity to know exactly what I have done, what I am doing, and what I seek to do. This document seeks to provide that information. If you have any questions about what I’ve detailed below, I would be very glad to correspond with you. This document can also be used in the event of my death, if there is interest in my work, and anyone seeks to know my wishes in regard to it.  

Although I am only publicly seeking support now, my life has actually been made possible for many years by the generosity, tolerance and good humor of a small community of people who have, for whatever reason, chosen to support me and my work. In the past that support has rarely involved money -- but the gifts of attention, encouragement, food, and patience are gifts no less grand -- or crucial. (And for those who have from time to time provided me a room: a room is the king of gifts. I often feel that my life has been the story of rooms given and rooms withheld. Every deeply happy period of my life has been initiated by the availability of a simple, bright room with a table, a window, and a door that locks.) 

HISTORY

When I was 15 years old it occurred to me that life was not long and that I would not be able to read everything. I decided that I should always be reading something classic, something really worthwhile. Peculiarly, I also decided that I only had time for books, not for movies, or movies, or television, or any other kind of media. I started with David Copperfield and made myself read 50 pages each day for 15 days in a row. I don’t remember what classic I chose after David Copperfield, but it must have been a hell of a lot more satisfying, or else I would have switched to video games, and had a totally different life!

I try to spend 2 to 3 hours each day in focused reading, detached from technology and distractions. As you can imagine, this is a luxury so profound and so sustaining that I eventually decided it was worth dropping out of society to engage in it! In the last 30 years, this joyful discipline has given me the beautiful and transformative opportunity to read deeply in classic and outsider literature, to study endlessly the literature of India, Japan, Italy, France, Portugal, Brazil, and the United States, among other places, as well as art history, biography, religious studies, and ecology. Although I hope my writing will find some small place in this imperiled world, I understand well that it is more likely that the real resource I provide lies in what I have read and discovered.  

Although I do not have the intellect of a scholar, I am deeply and passionately enthusiastic about classic and outsider literature, both so-called “sacred” and so-called “secular”. (I vehemently refuse this distinction. The Buddha’s /Dhammapada/ and Clarice Lispector’s /The Hour of the Star/ are both holy books. Both should be read as literature; both should be read as scripture. Both deserve to be wrapped in an orange cloth and pressed to the top of one’s head. If you want to start a bar fight with me, try suggesting otherwise.)

In 1994, Bobbie Louise Hawkins told me that I should write every day and take careful notes on what I read, including page numbers, so that I could come to class with at least 6 things to say. (Not 5, not 7.) I obeyed Bobbie’s instructions. I am obeying them still. In 1999 I was rescued from semi-homelessness by Janet Desaulniers and given a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute. In 2002, I moved to Tokyo. In Tokyo I taught American literature, poetry and prose, 19th and 20th century, as well as a seminar course in Emily Dickinson. (I admit that very few of my students spoke much English, so I’m not sure if I communicated anything, but it is my earnest hope that I did not do them any harm!) I never adapted well to life in Tokyo, but wandering in Asia made life in Japan possible. In 2014, life in Tokyo ended; since then I have wandered. This time included an abortive attempt to become a part of my family and its farm, but this was not possible.   

Although I have written more or less every day since 1995, virtually all the work before 2008 is juvenalia. From 2008 to 2011 there may occasionally be work that is worthwhile. Most of the work I’ve done that has any chance of being worth reading dates from 2011 to the present. I am such a slow learner. I am painfully aware that my gifts are earnestness, enthusiasm, and a capacity for endless work -- not intellect or inborn talent. It is my great hope that I will be able to continue learning and creating -- it took me so long to get started!

My work has now appeared in a several dozen journals and a number of anthologies. In 2016 I was a Fellow in Fiction, selected by Andrew Holleran, at the Lambda Literary’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ writers. Although the retreat was wonderful and populated by intimidatingly brilliant writers and activists, the real gift was the window of time that preceded it, when I had a room in Mexico and a feeling of encouragement and possibility: those 5 months were the happiest of my entire life.

WORK and GOALS

Although I work slowly and the vast majority of my work is best forgotten, there remains a significant quantity of stories, essays and hybrid forms. My wish is that some of this work could be collected into very small books and chapbooks. Although everything I’ve written with any chance of being worthwhile could easily be put into one thick ‘Guttersnipe Omnibus’, I think it would suffer badly in this form, like one of those doorstop editions of ‘Collected Poems’ that no one ever reads.

I have always worked simply, endlessly, perhaps childishly, in short forms. Like Robert Walser, I am proud to the point of arrogance about being minor, slight and humble! It seems to me that my work would be best presented in short books or chapbooks of 48 to 120 pages.

I’ve written stories, essays, novellas, as well as in several hybrid forms I made up myself.

Possible manuscripts include: 

A chapbook of stories. This manuscript is complete and available.

A short book of stories. This manuscript is complete and available. To create a truly first-rate version would require work with an editor, a careful selection and revision of the best stories. I think I’ve gone about as far as I can on my own. (Sigh. On so many levels!)

Several years ago, in imitation of Joe Brainard, I wrote a collection of very small stories called 77 Irish Love Stories. This work was revised and redone in Mexico and could be made into a chapbook. I also made a version of 39 of the stories, which could be included in a book of selected stories.

A chapbook or small book of essays. Although I think of myself as a writer of stories, my essays have always been more enthusiastically received. As well as the metta essay, which has had an odd life of its own, there are essays about the farm, about India and Thailand that have all had some small success. A chapbook could be put together swiftly. A proper small book would require more time and work with a skillful editor. It is an open question whether metafictional works like “Autoportrait: Upon Returning to India” belong to a collection of stories or essays, or if these hybrid forms could create a small book of their own.

Regardless of how it is labelled, most of my work for the past few years has been in the form of collages made of very short pieces. (Most of the work that means the most to me makes use of peculiar short forms: Marcus Aurelius, Sei Shonagon, Mary Robison’s later novels, David Markson, Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva, Eduardo Galeano’s ‘Book of Embraces’, etc.) It often seems to me that the best possible help I could receive would be someone who understood “It goes together like this!” Then again, I admit that the work in its existing peculiar and sprawling forms also gives me happiness and satisfaction. 

The work closest to my heart is a peculiar novella, Artifact Panel, which consists of 100 to 200 very short episodic passages. A 10,000 word excerpt of this work, which can also stand on its own, is complete and available. An extended version of 15,000 words exists but needs revision and a skilled eye beside my own. It is likely that longer versions are also possible, using existing material. (Although I understand that Hemingway would disapprove and Chekhov might be politely dubious, almost anything I’ve written in the last few years could be presented in a 3 minute radio version, an extended dance remix, and a super-long late night club version.)

Another novella is titled Please Lose & Forget and was originally designed to be printed on 108 4x6 cards. It is, in India, what would be called a “garland”, a song of praise. Rather bizarrely, I have worked on this regularly over many years and never shared it with anyone. It exists in third draft and would need a month of additional work before sharing or publishing. It is 7 years old now and quite peculiar, very romantic, but I believe it to be worthwhile. (Incidentally, the 2 novellas cannot and must not be published together. They are addressed passionately to 2 different men. They would not get along!)

My current project is an essay, Running Away Cannot Be Praised Enough. Oddly enough, this has attracted more interest than anything else I’ve ever written. It currently exists as a 10,000 word manuscript, with several thousand more words that have been typed and revised, but not incorporated. My best guess is that the finished manuscript is approximately 15,000 words. At least another month of focused work, and hopefully the help of a skillful editor, would be needed to complete this project.

As well as stories and essays, my tendency to work obsessively and endlessly on blank 3 by 5 cards has led to a number of hybrid forms which I’ve named “manifestos”, “spells”, and “lessons”. Here are my best guesses: the manifestos are juvenilia; the spells are best forgotten or incorporated into the novella Artifact Panel. The lessons feel like a form that could be worthwhile, but that I haven’t quite learned how to do. Artifact Panel is a gigantic mosaic or collage. The lessons are my attempt to make miniature versions, like a Joseph Cornell box, out of 3 to a dozen disparate elements. I continue to feel that this is a goal worth pursuing: I’m just not sure I’ve ever succeeded at it. There are at least 30 lessons in existence, of which I have shared only a few. These could also be used to make a chapbook, on the off chance anyone thought they were worthwhile.

In any case, although I feel fond of my hybrid forms, they’ve seldom been of much interest to anyone else. They are a joy that I allow myself. Endless scribbling is my refuge. Many odd forms are bound to result!

Other projects:

As I said before, it is entirely possible, indeed likely, that I am a more useful resource as a reader than as a writer. In a quiet way, I’ve tried to be useful to translators, writers and readers by championing their work and seeking to bring works to their attention of which they may not have heard. No productive member of society has the opportunity to read as I do! It gives me great joy to be a foolish cheerleader for the writers and translators I adore. (If you’re ever wondering which translation of a famous work to read, send me a note immediately! I am a merciless “translation snob”. If I think you’re reading the wrong version of a book, I will remove it from your hands.) 

For example, although I spent 20 years shouting that the work of Lucia Berlin deserved to be world-famous, never in my wildest, most optimistic dreams did I imagine she would suddenly find the fame and global readership she now enjoys. The year I crowed about her book, the publisher wanted to throw it away because it had only sold 11 copies that entire year. The next year, with the help of Lydia Davis and Stephen Emerson, she was rediscovered, and those same stories sold hundreds of thousands of copies in a dozen languages.

I have more than 100 short book notes up at Amazon and Goodreads. I freely admit that I am more enthusiast than critic. Because I read mostly obscure and small press books, if a book doesn’t impress me, I let it pass in silence. The life of a small press book is hard enough! If I lived a life with a little more stability, in a place where I could receive books, I would like to improve my ability to write short reviews and perhaps seek to have a column championing neglected literature, primarily in translation.

I especially enjoy writing ‘invitations’ to books that are considered difficult or in some way intimidating. There are many so-called “difficult” books that can be perfectly accessible and hugely rewarding if you know the right way to approach them. I’ve written about George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Samuel Beckett’s early novels and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s I Am That. On each occasion a number of strangers have contacted me to say that now they would try to read the book, or try again. As these are books that I love deeply, this gave me great happiness.

Books that I would like to reread and write “invitations” for include: Clarice Lispector’s lesser-known novel The Apple in the Dark, Pirandello’s delightful but neglected novels, the works of the Icelandic mega-genius Halldor Laxness, and all the works of Raymond Roussel, especially Locus Solus. (That 6th chapter is a doozy, but I promise I’ve got a system for reading it that makes it an easy joy!) 

A month ago my life abruptly became more beautiful when my dharma teacher providentially ran out of room in her luggage and gifted me her copy of the Majjhima Nikaya, or The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Every day it gives me so much instruction and delight. It’s a book that anyone with a deep interest in Buddhism should read, but I suspect people are put off because: it weighs 5 pounds, it’s 1400 pages long, it’s based on 2500 year old oral teachings, it’s translated from Pali, and it can be, on occasion, ever so slightly dry and repetitive. In other words, what a heavenly task for a bookish drop-out nerd such as myself! I’d love to create an irreverent and ebullient 5 page guide, cheerfully shepherding people toward which of the 152 suttas might give them the most joy and inspiration. If they started with half a dozen suttas that were really rewarding, they might very well be hooked. . . 

CONCLUSION

I’m nearly 44 years old. I’m pretty well exhausted. Sensible people would no doubt advise that I get a real goddamn job for once, learn some accounting or some elder care, sign up downtown at a temp agency. This is supposed to be pragmatic. It seems to me wasteful. For better or for worse, I’ve worked obsessively and endlessly for 20 years, I’m going to try a little longer to see if there’s any place for what I know, for what I can do. I don’t need a middle-class life or the life of a householder: to survive and be able to work is enough. Who knows? Someone, somewhere, may want to know about Hindu influences on Icelandic literature, Mary Todd Lincoln’s pulp reading habits, early 20th century Japanese modernism, or forgotten sex-crazed French dada manifestos. With a little luck, someone might even want a book of stories, a guidebook on how to run away, or an odd collagist novella on queer wandering life.

When I look at my Patreon page, the thing that bugs me the most is that it’s all so nauseatingly grandiose. It’s exceedingly unlikely I’ll get anywhere near any goal or elicit any major contributors, but even a very small amount of funds could make a big difference. For one thing, this would give me a functioning debit card. Recently I’ve had good luck getting into fancy literary journals -- especially considering that 95% of them are off-limits to me, since I haven’t been able to pay 2 and 3 dollar submission fees. 9 bucks a month is at least 3 submissions! A functioning card would allow me to book an 8 dollar room when I’m arriving into a strange city at 3 a.m. -- without having to bother, AGAIN, a tremendously long-suffering friend.

All right. I hope that was useful or entertaining. That’s what I’ve been up to, that’s what I hope to do. Please understand that I ain’t The New York Times. It’s not my intention to set up a paywall. If there’s anything I’ve written that you wish to read, just ask. I will comply with warm gratitude. Obviously I’ve shared all this information in hopes that someone might have a suggestions about how to survive or appropriate ways to get my work out into the world. 

It is my hope that in a few weeks I’ll be able to puzzle out a way back to Mexico, where I’ll hopefully be able to rent a simple room and go on writing and living with gratitude for that warm-hearted and merciful place, in the company of those I have come to love.

Many of you reading this have been kind to me, as well as vastly tolerant, for many years indeed. Thank you so very much. Please feel free to contact my privately if you have ideas or questions.

With love and respect,

Jonathan