Meeting Mark Z. Danielewski

My friend called House of Leaves “a winter book.” I was in college when my friend, Andrew, introduced me to Mark Z. Danielewski’s first novel. The labyrinthine novel is about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside. House of Leaves is a long, dense book with unconventional typography and layout.

House of Leaves

Creative Commons License
House of Leaves by Alan Trotter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

I couldn’t finish House of Leaves the first time I started it. I tried again a year or so later and finally finished it. It was like nothing I had ever read before.

Mark Z. Danielewski (MZD) likes to compare his individual books to specific art forms: House of Leaves is about film, The Fifty Year Sword is about campfire stories, and Only Revolutions is about music.

In 2010, Danielewski organized a stage performance of The Fifty Year Sword at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater). Five actors read their lines while a puppeteer cast shadows on a screen. Around this time, MZD created Atelier Z which is a collective of researchers, artists, and others who work with him.

I was thrilled when I heard Danielewski was writing a series inspired by modern TV shows such as Breaking Bad and The Wire. The Familiar is about a 12-year-old girl and her cat. (MZD loves cats. I love cats too.) Danielewski has acknowledged that sometimes TV shows are cancelled, and I cringe at the thought of The Familiar being cut like Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

I started reading The Familiar, Volume 1 the night before my wedding so for me the series marks the beginning of my married life.

My wife and I met Danielewski at his book signing for The Familiar, Volume 2 in Toledo, Ohio.


Strong T-shirt game

He read pages 77-79 from House of Leaves which I thought was appropriate because it mentions Ohio.

… I am tripping — overcast in tones December gray, recalling names, — I have tripped — swept in Ohio sleet and rain, ruled by a man with a beard rougher than horse hide and hands harder than horn …

It was amazing meeting MZD and hearing him talk about his work. I’m immensely excited for his next book, Honeysuckle & Pain, (isn’t that a great title?).


The Long Sentence

Long, well-crafted sentences are beautiful. One of the longest printed sentences is a four thousand plus word behemoth from James Joyce’s Ulysses, but it is not the longest by far.

The long sentence is a way for writers to flex their literary muscles. They can be used to develop an idea, provide detailed descriptions, and create tension. But a lengthy sentence can also be confusing and annoying.

The long sentence has a similar film technique: the long take.

A great example is the six-minute long take in the first season of True Detective. In the fourth episode, the director uses a long take to amplify the tension as Rust Cohle helps a biker gang perform a dangerous plan.

I want to share a long sentence from House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

It’s too dark and difficult and without whim, and if you didn’t notice I’m in a whimsical (inconsequential) frame of mind right now, talking (scribbling) aimlessly and strangely about cats, enjoying all the rules in this School of Whim, the play of it,—Where Have I Moved? What Have I Muttered? Who Have I Met?—the frolic and the drift, as I go thinking now, tripping really, over the notion of eighty or more of Zampano’s dusty cats …

The entire quote is about 700 words long. To me, the passage evokes a playfulness almost like a cat playing with yarn. I love House of Leaves, and I encourage you to try that labyrinthine novel.

What do you think about long sentences? Please leave a comment using a single long sentence or post a six-minute video response because this post is about long form (so meta!), and I promise I won’t critique your grammar.

Reading More Books by Women

One year ago, I asked my friends to recommend novels written by women. This was prompted when I realized I had read one book by a woman in 2014. I don’t have a simple answer for why I was reading so few novels by women. Maybe that’s a topic for another post.

So I spent 2015 trying to read more books by women. I listened to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn with my wife. I don’t think listening to audiobooks is cheating, but you can call the reading police if you think so.

I use a nifty website called Goodreads to track what I’m reading and find new books. Most of what I read is genre fiction: fantasy and science fiction. I read 25 books during 2015, and six of them written by women. I’m glad I’ve made progress, but I’m not satisfied.

I wanted to highlight two of the books I really enjoyed:

This year, I’m excited to try Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. Do you have any recommendations for me? You can follow me on Goodreads if you want to see what I’m reading.

Thanks for reading.

Divine Fire

The Ancient Greeks believed that artistic inspiration came from the gods, specifically the Muses: the nine goddesses of inspiration. Poets were stricken with poetic madness or insanity when they wrote. They were more conduit than author.

At that time, Greek thinkers also believed that the intellectual giants in philosophy, politics, and the arts were all afflicted by “melancholics” or melancholy. Science has since changed how people perceive writers and creativity, and doctors have provided insight about afflicted people who previous centuries would have labeled as “insane.”

The semantics have changed, but the question remains: Are writers more prone to addiction and mood disorders?

Mood disorders are a group of psychiatric diagnoses characterized by a disturbance of the person’s mood. They include clinical depression, bipolar disorders, seasonal depression, and substance induced mood disorders.

There are plenty of stories about writers that support this hypothesis. Many great writers have displayed similar struggles: addiction, depression, and other mood disorders. I call these tendencies the Hemingway-personality.

Ernest Hemingway was a brilliant novelist that changed the landscape of prose with his economic and deft writing. His famous works are “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway was an alcoholic, and he shot himself in the head with his hunting shotgun during a period of depression. Experts believe he was bipolar. Hemingway is a representative example for addicted and depressed writers.

Someone with a Hemingway-personality is more likely to enter a creative occupation, such as writing. Some scientists and psychiatrist even argue that a writer with a Hemingway-personality has an advantage in creative efforts.

Not all writers have a Hemingway-personality, of course. Writing doesn’t increase your chances of depression. I’m not suggesting that you have to suffer to make great art. However, many writers have suffered mental illness and destructive addictions.

As I write this, I’m faced by a blunt truth. I am a writer. So … do I have a Hemingway-personality?

The bestseller author Stephen King was an alcoholic and drug addict before he quit mid-life. In his book “On Writing,” he said he doesn’t remember writing one of his books because of all the drugs and alcohol. (You must read “On Writing” if you’re a writer. It’s great fun.)

“Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what?” King said. “We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.”

I attended a Baptist college in a dry town so I didn’t drink alcohol during college. But we had caffeine in abundance. The gas station across the street sold rows and rows of caffeinated soda and energy drinks. Liquid energy. I called it “my rocket fuel.”

Hunter S. Thompson was a novelist and journalist that wrote “The Rum Diary” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” both of which became movies starring Johnny Depp. Thompson was well-known for his use of illegal drugs and alcohol. He was, in other words, a Hemingway-personality.

Thompson collected guns. After years of painful health conditions, he used one of his guns to shoot himself in the head, a Smith & Wesson Model 645 semi-automatic pistol.

Wikipedia has a page called “Writers who committed suicide.” It’s a grim list for an aspiring writer. Suicide and depression are intimately linked: most writers on that list killed themselves because of depression.

Virginia Woolf, 1941. Ernest Hemingway, 1961. Sylvia Plath, 1963. Hunter S. Thompson, 2005. David Foster Wallace, 2008. They all committed suicide.

Scientists have done limited research on the connection between creativity and mood disorders. But enough to know a relationship exists.

“It seems likely that creative individuals do have higher rates of mood disorder in general, and bipolar disorder in particular,” Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen said. She is a scientist and neuropsychiatrist that specializes in mental illness.

Some scientists and psychiatrists even argue that a writer with a Hemingway-personality has an advantage in creative efforts.

“Clinicians who treat creative individuals with mood disorders must also confront a variety of challenges, including the fear that treatment may diminish creativity …,” Dr. Andreasen said.

Some writers believe that treatment for their mood disorder would sever their link to the Muses. They’re afraid of losing their power. But research suggests that treatment can actually increase the productivity of writers who have mood disorders.

Creativity isn’t directly liked to mood disorders: it isn’t a symptom of mental illness.

This discussion raises an interesting question: In the future, should we remove genes that can cause mood disorders? Will that reduce the number of artists in the future? Would it be worth the sacrifice?


It means a gap in an artistic work, such as a manuscript or painting. Usually it’s a result of time or the elements, tiny fingers stripping the meaning away. But sometimes it’s a conscious, deliberate destruction.

Let’s pretend it’s 1982, and my girlfriend just dumped me. I might burn trinkets and letters, gifts and clothes. I can feel the heat baking my face and smell the heaviness of gasoline. I watch the flames eat away the evidence. Except it can’t erase the pathways in my mind.

With the beginning of social media, my generation must decide what to do with ex’s. They cling to your life like bits of glue on your sleeves. Relationships now leave a digital trail too. We list our relationships on Facebook and become “Facebook official,” we post pictures and statuses. My girlfriend and I have dated for six months now, and we’ve uploaded dozens of pictures. We are Facebook friends with each other’s friends.

I’m in the process of switching my Facebook over to Timeline. I’ve been amazed at how much you can edit and delete in Timeline. Click, snip, gone. This would be a natural opportunity to eliminate an ex from my profile — a Facebook purge.

When a relationship doesn’t work out, many people start a digital purge. A friend of mine recently broke up with her boyfriend, and she deleted all her profiles pictures with him. Ragged holes. It’s a lacuna. Except in this case, we know what belongs in the gap.

A digital purge creates a lacuna in your story. It’s cutting a character out of the story. Les Miserables without Éponine. The Phantom of the Opera without Erik. A Tale of Two Cities without Sidney Carton.

This removal is not complete, of course. A digital purge cannot erase a relationship. Love produces scars in your brain. My generation purges their profiles so they can get some closure and start to heal. But is a purge like that healthy? I don’t know.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a quirky film about two lovers that try to literally erase their memories of each other after a break-up. In the movie, the main character Joel asked if the process was safe. The doctor said: “Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage. But it’s on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you’ll miss.”

The title of Eternal Sunshine comes from a poem by Alexander Pope called Eloisa to Abelard and tells the tragic, true story of two lovers in the 12th century. Famed thinker Peter Abélard became Eloisa’s teacher with the aim of winning her affection, and the two had an illicit love affair. The lovers later married. When Eloisa’s guardian discovered the affair, he had Abélard forcibly castrated. Both Abélard and Eloisa joined monasteries after his castration. In the poem, Eloisa pleads for forgetfulness, essentially amnesia:

No, fly me, fly me, far as pole from pole;
Rise Alps between us! and whole oceans roll!
Ah, come not, write not, think not once of me,
Nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

I had a crush on a girl once. She had a quick smile, and I thought she liked me. One day I logged onto Facebook and saw she had entered a relationship. My stomach clenched like a muscle cramp. I hid her from my news feed for several months because it was too painful. Time has her way of dulling pain, her homemade morphine.

But the human brain is designed to preserve memories connected to powerful emotions. Even if an amnesiac can’t remember an event, they hold the subconscious memory and emotion with them. Love will leave scar tissue in the brain.

The erasing procedure in Eternal Sunshine is an extreme form of a digital purge. When you purge your profile, you’re helping yourself to forget by speeding up the forgetfulness caused by time.

Do I want to forget the first time I told a woman I was attracted to her? I hadn’t planned on telling her that evening. We were standing outside her dorm, and the words spilled out. We sat on the spring grass, and I remember a small tree nearby was blossoming with white flowers. The day was so bright that it didn’t seem like it was evening, and we were so young. Even though I have regrets, I wouldn’t want to erase that.

I don’t have any clear answers. I’ve never purged my social media, not because I believe it’s wrong, but because I’ve never experienced a painful break-up. A gap can protect someone from a traumatic memory — so sometimes a lacuna is better.

This leaves me with a question … would Eloisa erase Abélard from her memory? I can’t imagine the anguish she endured. Eloisa tasted the ecstasy of sexual pleasure and intimacy before her husband was brutally emasculated by her family. And after his castration, she was separated from him. I wouldn’t condemn Eloisa if she erased him from her mind, removing her longing and wrapping her in the sweet peace of forgetfulness.

First Memory

My first memory is in the Old House, and I have a persisting feeling that perhaps it’s not real.

That’s how I think of it — the Old House. My family has only lived in two houses in my remembrance. The Old House was a one-floor building with a kitchen, living room, and bedrooms.

I must have been younger than five because my brother was still in a crib. I remember walking into my brother’s room and looking at a toy sheep hanging over the crib’s guardrail. The memory is soundless like some dreams I have.

I have a habit of filling in the history of a photograph. I imagine what happened before and after the photo was taken. Did I see a photo and built a memory around it? I can’t remember. I will never know unless I see an old photo of a toy sheep hanging over the banister of my brother’s crib.

What is your first memory?

memory stacked in layers

I walk into the chapel. It is one big room with a ceiling that soars above me. My family spreads out into the room.

It is the summer of 2011, and we are on family vacation. We haven’t been together at Camp Lambec since 2008.

My parents got married in this chapel. I look over at them, wondering what they are thinking.

I’ve seen pictures: Mom talking to guests in her wedding dress, a photo of my mother’s family beside the pond.

Outside the chapel is a tree planted in memory of my grandfather. On the far side of the camp is another tree dedicated to my other grandfather.

I grew up coming to camp, and my memory of the place is stacked in layers — child, teen, college student. My parents met at Camp Lambec. All four of my grandparents worked as counselors at camp.

Grandma Bundy told me how she caught the girls in her cabin sneaking out at night to talk to the barn boys (summer staff). She told the girls they could talk to them front of the cabin or not at all.

My parents and grandparents played softball in the valley at camp. And when it rained, they ran and slid in the trapped water.

All of my grandparents except for Grandma Bundy have died. But my grandparent’s presence is heavy at camp. They are here.

As we walk around camp, we see the recreation hall is gone. The camp tore down the rec hall because it was going to fall off the cliff and onto the beach. I’ve seen pictures of people at camp standing on ground that was long ago swept out into the hungry lake.

Lake Erie continues to eat away at the beach and shoreline. My parents remember when the beach was bigger. I don’t. My memory doesn’t reach that far.

A Different Life

In a different life, I didn’t go to Cedarville University. Instead of choosing Cedarville in 2008, I decided to stay in Columbus and go to Otterbein University. I’m graduating with a degree in Journalism and Media Communication soon.

I’m an intern at the Columbus Dispatch, and I’m hoping they’ll hire me in May.

I don’t write creative nonfiction because I’ve never heard of it. I’m writing a novel, probably about vampires or werewolves or superheroes.

I didn’t work two summers at camp. I never met my girlfriend.

I’m quieter, more reserved.

My decision to attend Cedarville has shaped who I am. One key decision can guide the rest of your life.

Scientists have found that humans replace most of their cells every seven or ten years. So I’m not the same cellular material as I was when I was born.

We are shaped by the people in our lives. When I hear Cedarville, I think about the people. My roommates. My friends. My classmates. I have shared life with these people, and they’re made deep impressions in my thinking.

This begs the questions: Am I the only Jonathan that could have existed (or does exist)?

How do you view time? Is it a straight line, perfect and unbroken? Or is it a branching root system? Are there alternative paths?

Some cultures such as the Mayans believed time is circular, and they sometimes represent this idea with a snake eating its tail (the Ouroboros).

life eats its tail by pheezy, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  pheezy 

Are we windup soldiers marching in-step to our creator’s drum? Or are we blind men groping about in the darkness? I believe we are neither … we are something more complex, something liquid.

Who would you be if you made a different decision in your life? Please tell your story.

Like Black Chalk on my Hands

My dad never exercised when I was in middle school or high school. He has always been naturally athletic. He was good at baseball, basketball, and football — better than the other dads.

My dad has five sons, including me. I’m the second oldest. We played a lot of pick-up games with him — football in the cul-de-sac and basketball in our driveway.

I remember playing basketball with him during the summer. My family has a portable hoop in our driveway, and we played two-on-two — my dad, my two older brothers, and me. (My two youngest brothers weren’t big enough to play.)

The driveway was cracked, black asphalt that left a residue on your hands like black chalk. Our driveway sloped down so the ground was several inches lower farther down the court.

My dad taught us how to play basketball.

“See the square on the backboard?” he said. “Bounce the ball off the corner for a bank shot.”

He taught us defense. “Stay between your man and the hoop,” he would say.

My dad was hard to guard inside because he had excellent body control and technique. He could shoot outside and cut inside to the hoop.

We played two-on-two tournaments. The games had a strange tempo. They contained periods of serenity as the ball was bounced in a hypnotic pattern, up-and-down-and-up-and-down, and suddenly it transformed into frantic movement, a mad dance. Bodies flexed for position. Feet pounded the asphalt.

The ball flicked between hands and was suddenly launched up, arcing over outstretched arms toward the hoop.

We stopped playing two-on-two after my oldest brother joined the military and I went to college.

Some Writers Are Just Better

Some writers are better than the rest.

Sure, everybody has a rough or bad piece once in a while. But I’ve been in several writing classes before (advanced composition, fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction), and it’s very clear some writers are better than others.

I worry about how well I write. “Am I good enough?” I catch myself thinking.

Recently, I read “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland for my creative nonfiction class. The book is written for artists, and it talks about the whole talent thing:

“There is probably no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have …”

I agree with Bayles and Orland. Worrying won’t make you a better writer (but it might give you some extra wrinkles). If you love your work then it doesn’t matter.

Stephen King also talks about talent in his nonfiction book “On Writing.” (King is one of those writers that’s just better than the rest …)

He wrote: “… While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

These two quotes might seem conflicting. They’re not. King said not everyone can be a good writer, and Bayles and Orland said that a committed artist shouldn’t worry about their talent level.

So stop worrying about your talent level after you’ve decided to write. If you’re bad at writing then find a new craft to master. Maybe you’re a dancer or a musician or a painter.

I really hope I’m a competent writer.