Frank Chimero Writing Archive
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Madness and Rowing

I was in a tough spot this past week. The Great Discontent magazine is consuming all of my working (waking) hours, and I’m grunting my way through the center half of the process where you can’t see the end or the beginning. I’m the guy on a raft with an oar in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There’s water on all sides, and I’m rowing, rowing, hoping east is still east and that I am still supposed to be going east. I needed to finish something—anything—to not feel so helpless.

Books weren’t their usual escape: I was reading Dance of Dragons, the last book in the A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) series, but that idiotic paperweight suffers the worst possible fate for a book: it is long and complicated and boring, which is much, much different than the first three books in the series. I’ve tried to finish it four times out of a stubborn commitment to closure. Could you blame me? I had already spent so much time on the first four books. But, nope—I give up. It’s not my fault. A Dance for Dragons has danced its way onto my front stoop to be picked up by someone else.

I bought a copy of Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey on the recommendation of Austin Kleon and Mandy Brown, two trusted reader friends, who, once again, made an excellent recommendation. I finished Madness in four days, and it was an antidote. Oh God—what a book.

Maybe it’s a book? It labels itself as “Collected Lectures” on the cover, and almost immediately, Ruefle backtracks from calling them “lectures” in her introduction, instead saying,

I was told the students preferred informal spontaneous talks, but I am a rotten and unsteady extemporizer. I preferred to write my lectures because I am a writer and writing is my natural act.

Meaning that Madness probably isn’t a set of lectures, but a collection of Ruefle’s readings of writings. I think that’s why the book reads so fast: it was written to be read by someone who doesn’t want to be in front of people lecturing. In spite of that, it contains so much wit and charm, and so rarely gazes at its navel or twiddles its thumbs while turning over some pretty serious questions about poetry by braiding in topics like secrets, the moon, fear, reading, memory, and sentimentality.

The second lecture in the book is titled “Poetry and the Moon.” A bit about halfway through caught my attention. Ruefle writes (says?):

Really, people must think literary aficionados are all addicted to painfully heavy, slow things. Like the aircraft used for the lunar launches, good books only look heavy and slow: their speed depends on their internal engines and where they are pointed.

Now, A Dance of Dragons isn’t on the A-list of literary aficionados, but its “pulpiness” actually means it must contain even more rocket fuel than a more literary novel. The joy of pulp is the guilty pleasure of momentum, the sensation of progress, the whiplash of a joyride. That’s why chapters are so short in those terrible Dan Brown novels. You here and then you’ve finished it and now you’re there, and woah, look I’m reading! Look at all I’ve read! It’s the same thing that somehow carries you through thirty hours of Veronica Mars on a flu-addled weekend.

Ruefle’s short rocket-fueled analogy made me feel some pride about ditching Dragons. There are so many long texts that are paced much more to my liking. And the reminder that not all long things are slow, complicated, boring things gave me the courage to pick up Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote. And wouldn’t you know? A couple of hours and a handful of full-on belly laughs later, I am about 150 pages in, and flirting with the idea that this may be my favorite novel.

And now, ironically (and perhaps quixoticly?), I am precisely back to where I started. I am still mired in the middle of a big project, and wedged into the center of a very long book, but the views are good, I am laughing, and I am rowing.

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