Burroughs Adding Machine

Social justice, arts and politics, life in New York City

Women Writers Rule!

There was a period of time when I allowed myself only to read women writers. I devoured Virginia Woolf, E. Annie Proulx, Amy Hempel, and Toni Morrison. I was reading (and still do) a lot of the astute, original, and, in an eggheady kind of way–loopy–writing of Lydia Davis. For some reason, I felt some sexist part of me gravitated to male writers.

I like that I forced myself to consciously choose women writers; I’m somewhat disappointed that I had never assessed my choices. Does the gender of a writer make a difference to you?

Flavorwire published a slideshow of their favorite female writers, including Sarah Vowell (pictured above), who (whom?) I adore. She’s a regular contributor to This American Life, of course, but I like the fact that book-length essays allow her the room to showcase her wide-ranging knowledge and her wry voice. Flavorwire’s lovefest for Vowell:

7. Sarah Vowell

Why we love her: Vowell validates our inner history geek. She was also the voice of Violet in The Incredibles.

Best known for: Assassination Vacation; The Partly Cloudy Patriot; Take the Cannoli

The line that made us fall for her: “Once I knew my dead presidents and I had become insufferable, I started to censor myself. There were a lot of get-togethers with friends where I didn’t hear half of what was being said because I was sitting there, silently chiding myself, Don’t bring up McKinley. Don’t bring up McKinley.”

Vowell is one-of-a-kind smart. Self-effacing, with one of those hard-to-believe life stories (she makes growing up in Montana as hilarious as David Sedaris makes growing up in South Carolina), Vowell is only one on this list of remarkable women writers. I’m a big fan of the fiction of Barbara Kingsolver and Aimee Bender, who also grace the list.


Filed under: literature, women, , , , , , , , , ,

Art and Lists

What can you decipher about a person from their to-do list?

Liza Kirwin selects her favorite lists by American artists and architects. What’s fun to note is the variety of expression: not only straightforward to-do items, but watercolors, collages, and the poetic interspersed with the mundane. Kirwin is a curator at The Smithsonian, and knows her stuff. Among my favorite bits here is a list by the architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the iconic St. Louis Arch. I remember first encountering his spiritual, earthly architect in a small chapel at MIT my freshman year in college.

Another artist, James Penney, can be seen trying to manage his life as a young artist in New York:

In his 1932 sketchbook he made a list of survival tips, including “spend what you have on materials” and “don’t go back to Kansas.” On the opposite page he sketched the steel joints, lifting hooks, and pulleys in the construction of Radio City Music Hall.

That fortitude and desire to make it in the Big City reminds me of Joan Didion’s famous farewell to the artist’s Manhattan life in “Goodbye to All That” (as well as the subsequent ode by another essayist who I’m gaga about–Eula Biss–in her collection No Man’s Land). I’d love to see what Didion or Biss have on their to-do lists, and what it reveals about the writer at work.

Filed under: art, writing, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kafka Was a Secretary

And Faulkner was the head of his local post office.

Adjusted for inflation, the salaries for Kafka and Faulkner were $40,000 and $18,000, respectively. Puts the importance of writers having a day job in perspective.

I like this nifty little chart from Lapham’s Quarterly for several reasons. First, it’s got a tongue-in-cheek tone, not taking itself too seriously (“Occupational Hazards” for the man who captured existentialism in the form of a cockroach?: “Tedious memoranda, bureaucracy”). I’m also impressed with the variety of writers captured: canonical writers like Trollope and Fielding; Charlotte Bronte’s salary and responsibilities as a glorified nanny; and, of course, Kafka in his modernist profession.

Another reason I like this chart is its premise: Very few writers earn their living merely off writing. A good number of us in 2010 teach writing, some writers I know earn their paychecks in publishing or arts administration, and the wise ones, in my opinion, earn their living outside academia or the arts altogether. For years, a good friend of mine earned his living in Brooklyn as a carpenter–and a fine one at that. I’ve half-heartedly joked with friends that I planned to become a baker, relishing the solitude and actual product of this work. Show up for a hard day’s work (unrelated to writing) and then arrive home with a clear head (unmuddled or exhausted by writing shop-talk).

It’s eye-opening for some of my aspiring writers to adjust their mindsets and envision that that writer’s life–even after attaining a level of success like publishing novels–does not adequately pay the bills.

Kafka was a secretary. Bronte was a nanny. And Faulkner was a postmaster (supposedly a poor one–drinking and lazing–at that). Who’s to say that writing and fortune belong in the same breath?

Filed under: work, writing, , , , , , , ,

Gore Vidal: “America is Rotting Away”


As cantakerous and opinionated as ever, Gore Vidal talks with The Times about the deteriorating state of the U.S., his disappointment in President Obama, and his disinterest in discussing his writing.

How does Vidal, who switched support from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama during the primaries, feel about the current President’s performance?

I was hopeful. He was the most intelligent person we’ve had in that position for a long time. But he’s inexperienced. He has a total inability to understand military matters. He’s acting as if Afghanistan is the magic talisman: solve that and you solve terrorism.

He couples Obama’s lack of military experience with his pandering to the religious right:

Obama believes the Republican Party is a party when in fact it’s a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word ‘conservative’ you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They’re not, they’re fascists.

And his suggestion for a brighter, more effective Obama administration?

Obama would have been better off focusing on educating the American people. His problem is being over-educated. He doesn’t realise how dim-witted and ignorant his audience is. Benjamin Franklin said that the system would fail because of the corruption of the people and that happened under Bush.

Also responding to questions about his biography, Vidal speaks briefly to The Times reporter about his childhood with the Kennedys and the perils of Hollywood screenwriting. Perhaps most interesting is his riff on the differences between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. “Don’t make the error that schoolteacher idiots make by thinking that gay men’s relationships are like heterosexual ones. They’re not.” Of course, Vidal was speaking about straight and gay relationships in the objective, as he has long rejected labels throughout his public life. Identity politics seemed the least of his wide-ranging interests.

Gore Vidal, still fearless in his opinions and opinion-making. PBS has a fairly comprehensive introduction to Vidal’s work, if you’re interested, including a timeline and video. One of the hidden treasures on the PBS site is filmed footage of a photo shoot with Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Filed under: literature, politics, , ,

Chalkdust dreams

Posing with literary rock star Denis Johnson at AWP two years ago

With literary rock star Denis Johnson at AWP two years ago

I woke from a long, vivid dream this morning wiping my thumb and finger together. The narrative of this dream involved a morning literature class at B.C. I was so focused on facilitating a good discussion that I forgot that a group of my colleagues–a hiring committee, actually–was observing.

My notes, scribbled in notoriously illegible blue ink, were useless. I sweat under my necktie (why was I wearing a tie?) and in the creases behind my knees. It was the teacher’s equivalent of the actor’s nightmare: appearing on stage buck naked. My undergrads were supportive of my efforts but the cabal of professors was combative. What literary value was there in Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson’s story collection of a heroin addict? Why discuss the gay themes and criticism of Reagan-era policies towards HIV/AIDS in Angels in America? Who are these Pinoy poets, and why teach them beside canonical authors like Whitman and Emily Dickinson?

I’m what you might call an active dreamer: I swat my arm if I’m dreaming of a tennis match, and I talk out loud when I’m agitated or fearful.

After I woke this morning and headed toward the sweet, sweet coffee already brewing, I realized that I was still wiping the traces of imaginary chalk dust away.

Filed under: education, literature, pop culture, , , , , , , ,



» "Pinays," AGNI, Spring 2016
» "Dandy," Post Road, Spring 2015
» "Wrestlers," Fifth Wednesday, Spring 2014
» "Babies," Joyland, August 2011
» "Nicolette and Maribel," BostonNow, May 2007
» "The Rice Bowl," Memorious, March 2005
» "The Rules of the Game," Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, June 2003)
» "Deaf Mute," Growing Up Filipino (Philippine American Literary House, April 2003)
» "Good Men ," Genre, April 2003
» "The Foley Artist," Drunken Boat, April 2002
» "Squatters," Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America (Asian Am. Writers' Workshop, 2001)
» "Deaf Mute," The North American Review, Jan 2001
» "The First Lady of Our Filipino Nation," The Boston Phoenix, 1999
» "Paper Route," Flyway Literary Review, 1996
» "Brainy Smurf and the Council Bluffs Pride Parade," Generation Q (Alyson, 1996)
March 2018
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About Me


About Me

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More