In the January 2016 issue of The Wire, Stewart Smith writes of pianist Matthew Shipp’s latest album: “Of the five albums Matthew Shipp issued as leader or co-leader in 2015, The Conduct Of Jazz is perhaps the finest.” It is a fine album; I’m listening to it now, fondly remembering the sublime experience of seeing Shipp in duo with bassist Michael Bisio earlier this spring. Still, The Conduct Of Jazz doesn’t make The Wire’s year-end top 50 cut, though it does make Downbeat’s roundup. My guess is that, one way or the other, Shipp doesn’t care. “What’s the use—I’ve got too many sides out as it is,” he was quoted saying fifteen years ago, in reference to a plan to retire from recording. “I don’t feel the psychological need to continually flood the market with this material…. Embellishment for the sake of the cash advance. That’s a kind of cynicism I’d rather not get into.”
It’s no longer taboo to admit, as an American Jew, that you have a Christmas tree. Some people call it a Hanukkah bush, which is about as absurd as someone diplomatically wishing you “happy holidays” after the eighth day of Hanukkah. It’s a Christmas tree, and some Jews, whose religious services, as a friend pointed out, will never be broadcast on the local news, long ago decided they wanted in on the holiday cheer, and that there’s no shame in that.
There comes a time in every Santa-believer’s life when that believing hits a snag. Often the seeds of doubt are planted by way of schoolyard bullies, or dream-shattering friends, or one’s own late night sneak from a bedroom to catch a parent in the act. At some point geography always gets in the way (“That’s a lot of ground to cover!”), or zoology (“Reindeer can’t fly!”), or ethics (“What kind of labor laws protect those elves anyway?”).
Two students of mine recently asked me how to go about writing the impossible. They each had a narrative that was at once their own and also not: one was trying to write through his experience of being present during a national tragedy and another was trying to write about her illness, which was advancing at an exponential rate. I told them each that there were two possibilities: either they were resistant to taking on the responsibilities inherent in the act of narrating and they needed to face and embrace them—even if that meant getting it wrong—or their stories were unlanguagable, in which case they would have to find a new framework for giving the narrative voice.
Even our blueprint for a romantic comedy suggests this bias: two unlikely people start out as enemies and end up falling in love. Against all odds, the circumstance proves stronger than the individual will. Which is perhaps the reason why writing about romantic love is so difficult in fiction: we have to first figure out why we fall in love in real life. Is it a choice? An accident? Both? Neither?