Archive for the ‘Franz Kafka’ Tag

Object 7: Notebook Journal, 2007 – Present   2 comments

One a a few hundred notebooks/journals kicking around my apartment.

One a a few hundred notebooks/journals kicking around my apartment.

As you may know, I am an inveterate diarist. Each and every day, give or take a few lapses, I write down my thoughts of the day in a journal.

Why do I do this? Dunno. Just do, that’s all.

In telling the story of my life (thus far) through ten objects that can be found in my apartment, it would be impossible to ignore my completed journals. There are so many of them, sometimes I feel quite overwhelmed.

If we would think of my journals as one lengthy oeuvre, it would fill up over 100 notebooks going back to a notebook that I filled up with musings while still in high school, circa 1974. This work is simply the story of my life and how I lived it, filled with reflections not so much about the things that went right as on the things that went wrong.

I often tell my writing students that we don’t tend to sit down and write because our favourite baseball team won a close game. But a phone call that never came, well, that’s another matter entirely, probably good for at least a couple hundred (or thousand) words.

Doing a rough calculation – which I am absolutely useless at, given that I was not blessed with any mathematical skills whatsoever – this great document must be between two and three million words long, and growing a little longer each and every day.

That’s a lot of words. That’s a lot of anything!

Obviously, there are a lot of journals to choose from for an exercise of this nature, many different ways to go. For true stationery nerds like myself, I know that examining my shift from lined to graph paper that happened twenty years ago or so would be fascinating reading. But perhaps it’s best to say that it happened for reasons I don’t really understand, and move on.

I did find one journal that is quite unlike all the others in a few ways, and that’s the one you see pictured above. It’s quite an unusual size: 6” x 4” and 1” thick. I bought it at a Borders store in New York in 2007. (I wish now I’d bought ten of them because they are hard to find in this size, especially with graph paper.)

Two things in particular make this journal unique.

The first is that the entries aren’t dated, and so unlike every other journal I have ever written, the entries aren’t chronologically organized. I write quite randomly in it, so it is impossible to tell when exactly the entries were made.

For example, here’s a happy little poem I wrote one day. I’m not sure when. I’m not sure what great emotional blow I had sustained that prompted me to write it, nor do I know whom that blow was delivered by, but obviously my heart had taken another pounding, prompting this:

the heart bleeds out

connections tenuous anyway

are broken

unspoken desires die

on bruised lips

little wind eddies

scraps of paper scattering

setting a new order

of random.

don’t you ever

fold your hand

and walk away

from the table?


Happy happy! You can see why most things that one writes in a journal never see the light of day.  (Until now, it would seem.) In this sense, I guess one could say that the journal is used for practice. (Check out Franz Kafka’s Diaries some time for a great example of this, published by Schocken. He’ll write the same sentence over and over, just to try to make it as clear and economical as possible.)

Most of the time, the writing is not all that good, and not even meant to be shared. But every now and then, something works, and can become the basis for a poem or a play or even a novel.

They say in photography you’re doing well to get one good shot in a hundred. I’d say in writing that ratio is even greater.

The other unique aspect of this little journal is that it contains twenty or so self-portraits. I know, I know, you’re thinking is there no end to this giant ego? But it’s not like that, honest, it was part of an exercise to begin each writing session with a quick self-portrait, just a quick line drawing by way of preparation. I heard that Leonard Cohen did this for a while and I thought that’s good enough for me.

I can’t really describe these properly in words so here are a few examples. I don’t normally share them so don’t be too critical, I have no illusions about my drawing skills.  I’m posting them as thumbnails so they can be enlarged:

"because I forgot my glasses, I look perhaps like this . . ."

“because I forgot my glasses, I look perhaps like this . . .”

The halo is slipping . . .

The halo is slipping . . .





Well, you can see for yourself, they are good fun and not meant to be taken all that seriously. I’m not sure that going through the exercise of drawing the self-portrait changed the quality of my writing or not. It perhaps led to a little more abstraction and freedom, I suppose, from the tyranny of the written word.

And so, I will keep on writing in my various journals. When cellist Pablo Casals was in his ’90’s and still practicing for four hours a day, someone asked him why he bothered. “I think it’s started to help,” he said. And I guess I feel the same way.

Here’s a cool little number I found on YouTube to leave you with.

Thanks for reading!

Posted July 8, 2013 by Eugene Stickland in Uncategorized

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Object 6: The Trial by Franz Kafka, 1956   Leave a comment

It's so old you can hardly see the title which is embossed in gold on the green fabric.

It’s so old you can hardly see the title which is embossed in gold on the green fabric.

This copy of The Trial belonged to one of my mentors, Gene Dawson, whom I wrote about, inadequately, I’m afraid, earlier on this blog. (Please see Mentors Series 2: Gene Dawson, September, 2012.)

When I began this series on the objects in my apartment that tell my life story, I asked the hypothetical (hopefully) question, “If your house was on fire and you could only take one object, what would it be?” One of my bookish friends asked me specifically which book would I take in the face of that same all-consuming fire; my answer would be this copy of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the Modern Library edition from 1956, coincidentally the year I was born.

I have read this copy of the book once. I have also read, several times now, the Schocken Books edition of 1968, which you would think would be the same, but contains some subtle differences.  Both editions use the Willa and Edwin Muir translation, but in this edition the text has been revised by E.M. Butler.

So I suppose it was Butler who changed the famous opening sentence from “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning,” to “Someone must have traduced Joseph K . . .”

Why would he do that? Did he think that was better? Traduced? Really?

As we all know, there are many different kinds of books and many different approaches to reading them. These days, for example, I am indulging in a bit of summer reading, a guilty pleasure, with Inferno by Dan Brown. I feel kind of cheap and sleazy reading this. I didn’t even buy the book, I didn’t want it in my place, so I put it on my Kobo instead. Still, he’s got me hooked and I am learning a lot about Dante and Florence and the Divine Comedy and all the rest of it.

So there’s summer reading, which is allowed. And there is skimming and there is analytical reading and there is devotional reading to name but a few. I would like to propose a new category of reading. Unlike most reading experiences which I would call reader-based reading, there is an entirely different way that some of us read, those of us who are writers, and I would call this writer-based reading.

This type of reading is not recreational or escapist, in fact it’s part of the work we do, and we do work, even though some people are convinced that we really don’t and the words just appear by magic in our word processors as we sleep at night.

Writer-based reading is actually hard work. What we’re looking for as we engage in this exercise is not so much ideas – hopefully we have those, although again, many people seem to be convinced that we don’t, so we often hear things like “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for you!” or “Here’s a really good idea for a play!” implying that all of our own ideas for plays thus far have not been very good at all.

In writer-based reading, one could say we are looking for examples of the very best technique to express things in a way that will resonate as deeply and hopefully universally as possible. And then these things we steal. By the time we actually employ them, no one would dream what the source was, because it’s not so much a source in terms of content as in form.

For example, is it possible that Bob Dylan had read The Trial, and when he began his song “The idiot Wind” with the line, “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press?” it was actually a veiled and probably unconscious reference to the novel, even though he himself may not have been aware of it? We will probably never know unless Mr. Dylan happens to read this post and lets us know, if he even knows himself.  (That’s the beauty of the internet, he could.)

The point of writer-based reading is that we engage in the exercise like kleptomaniacs in a dollar store. We take this, that and the other thing with no real sense of purpose other than the fact that we like it, it touches something inside us, we think it might be of use somewhere down the line.  And yet, by the time we do use it, if we ever do, we have probably long forgotten where is came from in the first place. It’s not plagiarism, it’s literary recycling and it’s been happening forever, with its most famous practitioner being William Shakespeare.

The book, then, becomes a workbook. It shows evidence of having been read interactively. Coming back to this specific copy of The Trial, Dawson was the best I have ever seen at this. In this sense he taught me how to read as a writer reads. I can’t show you every page, obviously (unless you want to buy me a glass of wine) but here’s a sampling of a few pages, complete with Dawson’s complex method of using paper clips to mark – well, who know what he was marking, or why?  (Of course, when I was a young student and in awe of my favourite professor, I too marked everything with paper clips, but I’m over that habit now. Mostly, I’m over it. Sometimes . . . Oh, never mind.)

Here’s a few sample pages. They are thumbnails so you can click on them to enlarge them.

And so it begins.

The first page. I love the illustrations.

Note the cigarette burns towards the bottom of both pages.

Note the cigarette burns towards the bottom of both pages.

Dawson was always trying to figure out the lapses in time precisely.

The last page.

The last page.

So you can see that this book is bound up in my mind with my journey of becoming a writer, and in this regard it truly is one of the objects I have around my that helps tell my story. Beyond theories of how we read, I love the book. It helps me through hard times, through trials of my own. Joesph K. is probably my literary hero.

Finally, in my search for the lyrics to “The Idiot Wind” I found this song that begins with the same line by the band James. There’s also a great version on YouTube of them doing this same song live at the Albert Hall. They are thought to be one of the most underrated bands of all time, so I am pleased to do my part to change that and share this video with you here. Enjoy!

Thanks for reading.

Posted July 7, 2013 by Eugene Stickland in Uncategorized

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