Thursday, May 14, 2015

Let's Call It a Vacation for Now

In two weeks, a flash fiction piece of mine is slated to be published. If it goes forward as planned (you never know), on that day I'll post a meditation on what I wrote. In the meantime, and potentially for a while after that post, there will be nothing. 

I don't want to get personal - that is not the point of this space - but this blog is one of a handful of things that aren't working for me right now. Things that are subtracting instead of adding. 

I hope to be back later in the year with enthusiastic and worthwhile things to say about writing. I read this a few days ago and it gave me comfort, but not enough to find something to write about here. 

Don't worry! This post looks naked and scary, and I don't mean it to be that way. I'm having trouble, but it's not dire, nor is it interesting, nor is it new. I don't want to bore you or myself. 

So...smell you later. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

How to Write Soporific Prose

Just incidentally one day during our To the Lighthouse unit, the professor mentioned that Virginia Woolf's second novel, Night and Day, was aawwwful, a thudding interminable Victorian thing. It's not that I didn't believe her when she said this (I gather that she's something of a Woolfian, so she'd know), but I wondered if "aawwwful" was a relative term when it came to Woolf and/or if the book's Victorian attributes made it much more awful to someone who prefers Modernism. I was dancing through Middlemarch at the time, so I thought Night and Day would make an interesting middle ground between Eliot and what I was reading for class.

Turns out she was right. Night and Day is awful. Aawwwful. It's one of the dullest, most joyless books I've ever read. But man, is it ever an interesting awful. I'm learning so much from reading it.

The scenes are very bad, with all the rhythm of an oompah band at its first rehearsal. The narrated paragraphs are better, but largely descriptive - a lot of telling, much of which never pays off. We are deep inside the characters' heads, reading every last thought and emotional reaction to each gesture of every little finger, but the characters themselves are still remarkably inconsistent and difficult to grasp. Through all of this, I can feel the author trying and trying and trying to get something on the page that matters to her. In a chapter I just finished, I could feel her fever at the theoretical high emotional point of the scene, but I felt no fever in myself. The scene was an endless, stilted conversation between two characters in whom I have amazingly little investment after 300 pages, and I had no idea why it was such a big deal that they were talking to each other about who was in love with whom. Between the lines, it felt as though she was trying to write the scene when Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth. It fell flatter than a cheap stage set.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).
Apropos of nothing in this post, here's five minutes of stunts from The Great Stone Face.

The book feels like a sort of expungement. As if all the worst habits of a writer are being wrung out in print before she gets on with the business of writing well. Every paragraph is bogged down with prose that takes the longest possible route to get anywhere, and describes everything in exhaustive and unnecessary detail. Abstractions abound. We hop heads constantly, but to little benefit, which makes the book seem amateurish.
There was a brotherly kindness in his voice which seemed to her magnanimous, when she reflected that she had cut short his explanations and shown little interest in his change of plan. She gave him her reasons for thinking that she might profit by such a journey, omitting the one reason which had set all the rest in motion. He listened attentively, and made no attempt to dissuade her. In truth, he found himself curiously eager to make certain of her good sense, and accepted each fresh proof of it with satisfaction, as though it helped him to make up his mind about something. She forgot the pain he had caused her, and in place of it she became conscious of a steady tide of well-being which harmonized very aptly with the tramp of their feet upon the dry road and the support of his arm. The comfort was the more glowing in that it seemed to be the reward of her determination to behave to him simply and without attempting to be other than she was.
Are you asleep yet? Page after page of this! Every little emotional dip and soar of young love, recorded at enormous length, and then contradicted by the next minuscule emotional change, and then around again...oh my God, seriously, it's aawwwful.

Friday, May 1, 2015

That Comfort in the Kitchen

Last Saturday I was in my kitchen, preparing lunch: beet wraps from this cookbook. (A version of the recipe using European measurement standards may be found here; translating it should not be difficult for American cooks and is worthwhile, if you don't want to buy the book. Which is a good and useful book, if, oh, just a little pretentious. Now, back to our story.) I've made the recipe a number of times before. It is not a small amount of trouble, because it has so many elements that must each be prepared individually - cook the quinoa, toast the walnuts, zest the orange, blitz the beets with the goat cheese (measuring all the while), grate the apple, slice the avocado. The resulting flavor combination is so unique, though, that I enjoy making it when I can manage to get all the ingredients together.

The prior week, I'd made a strange chilled borscht from this book, and I bought and boiled too many beets for the recipe. So I had some leftover cooked beets. I also had a whole package of unused herbed goat cheese from yet another recipe; I'd bought the right amount of bell peppers to roast, but twice as much goat cheese as I needed. This is how my kitchen often operates: I get the amounts wrong when I'm shopping, or I find when I'm on the point of making the dish that I should halve the recipe or we'll be eating weird borscht for weeks. This M.O. means that the following week I need to search my cookbooks or the internet for recipes that will use up last week's excesses. Never a dull evening.

I cannot read the caption on this and I badly want to

So I had leftover beets and leftover goat cheese, but they were in different proportions than the recipe called for. I also had herbed goat cheese instead of plain. Also also, I didn't have any walnuts, nor any raisins, so I was using pecans and just going without raisins. My common practice for cooking quinoa is to use half vegetable broth (or chicken broth, whatever's on hand) and half water to cook it in, because it makes the quinoa more flavorful. When the recommended cooking time is over, I turn off the heat, drape a doubled dishtowel over the pot, and put a lid on top. I let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes or until I need to serve. This is a trick I learned from a rice pilaf recipe years ago, and it keeps the quinoa from being either soggy or undercooked. The beet wrap recipe calls for cooking the quinoa in plain water with no after-steaming.

I was considering all these changes with amusement as I was grating the apple (half an apple, I've found, is plenty), and a lightbulb went on over my head so brightly that Matt noticed, from the living room, where he was occupied with something else. I stood perfectly still and let the light penetrate every brain cell it could, and then I noticed Matt noticing me.

"You okay, there?" he said.

"Yeah," I said. "I just figured something out."

"I can see that," he said.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

TL;DR Reading in Public Is Fun But Weird

Prior to March of this year, I had read my work (aloud) in public zero times. As of Saturday, I have done so twice. Here is video of me reading from my essay, "This is Not a Safe World", at The Last Bookstore on Friday, April 24th.

I am not as short as I appear to be.

You can find the entire essay in the 2015 issue of the Southern California Review, which I know you can purchase in person at The Last Bookstore and which I'm assuming you'll soon be able to purchase at this website, although the new issue's information doesn't appear there just yet. Like I said in the last post about it, the essay's very personal, trigger warning, yadda yadda. I'm not ashamed, I just don't want to make you uncomfortable.

I can't tell you what a weird, heady, impossible experience it was to do this reading. In the car on the way home, I yelped "I'm confused!" more than once in trying to explain to Matt how I felt and thought about it.

The prior reading took place at CSUN on March 20th and was in honor of the spring Northridge Review's release. Even though I'm happy that the story appearing in that issue finally found a home (it's the oft-rejected story that guest-stars in this post), I failed to blog about that reading or promote it here. Now I wish I had, because the two experiences were quite different.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Precision v. Grace, Classical v. Jazz (or The Great Oz Has Spoken)

Last week I sort of unintentionally reread some feedback a professor gave me about a year ago.
While this piece feels done, it’s felt done from the beginning, and done in a way that, as impressive as the writing is, feels like there’s a cap on, holding everything together deliberately and tightly. I know this is what most writers aspire to, at least for a while. And then there’s the next stage, which involves letting go of all that tight control to dig deeper, to burrow, to be surprised. I think I already said this, and if not, shame on me. But really, if you can write this well, Katharine, imagine how well you might write if you were really writing. And by that I mean working the language intransitively, not acting upon but acting – not writing about (the self), but writing (the self). You clearly have all the craft skills you need to stop thinking so clearly in meaning. 
This feedback confused me. Even after I achieved some distance and met with the professor, the way forward did not come clearer. (I still didn't understand it particularly well in rereading last week.) But I set it up in the back of my mind, kind of like a canvas backdrop, while I went on and wrote to the best of my ability.

I blogged last fall about how much despair ensued when another professor unknowingly echoed what the first one had said. The backdrop rippled a little, starting to appear more realistic and less like scenery, but I still didn't know what to do with it.

This blog post does not tidily conclude with me figuring it out.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Cleanest, Ripest, Prettiest Banana

I wrote part of a post about precision, and part of a potpourri post, but what's really foremost in my mind right now is Virginia Woolf, so please allow me to write about that and let's see what happens.

My class this semester is British Modernism, so we're studying Woolf and Joyce and Eliot and a couple others. A few years before World War I, right in the middle of the Modernist period, an Italian artist named Marinetti introduced an idea called Futurism (which bears no relation to futurists you hear about giving TED talks or working for Google). Immediately before the war, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound introduced an idea called Vorticism. These two strains of Modernism are sort of opposed to each other, and in order to learn about them more thoroughly, our professor has set up a role-playing game to take place over the next week and a half, a literary salon in which various points of view will make themselves known. Real individuals - Eliot, Pound, Marinetti, etc. - are portrayed by students in this game, and more general groups of people are represented as well: New Women, book publishers, Welsh miners. The salon takes place in mid-1914 in London and is hosted by Virginia Woolf (who, in life, spent much of 1914 in the grip of a terrible mental breakdown, but anachronisms abound in this game).

I think this is wonderful. I think this is the best idea for helping us learn that I've encountered in a long while. I don't care much for either Futurism or Vorticism, but I'm really looking forward to the game, which starts today.

But did I mention I was given the role of Virginia Woolf?

I don't exactly know what my responsibilities entail, but I can tell from the game materials that they're different than those of the other personalities in the game. I can also tell that the other students think I've been singled out, somehow. I feel singled out. I feel like the professor publicly named me the smartest person in the class. (It may not seem that way out there in radioland, but the context of the class is largely what gives me this impression.) It makes me feel two sensations in equal measure: strutting peacocky pride and enormous discomfort.

This mix of emotions is not unfamiliar. It's how I feel about the upcoming magazine release and reading, and it's often how I feel (in smaller measures) when I get compliments. When I work hard, I'm aware that I worked hard, and I take pride in people recognizing it. But I also feel squirmy about the idea that other people are noticing that I did something good, or - as in this case - that other people are noticing that I've been picked, like a banana from the bunch, for something good. I'm proud that I was the cleanest or ripest or prettiest banana, but I also wonder if maybe some of the other bananas weren't going to be better for the job. What if I'm not so ripe after all?

The metaphor's going south a bit, but the point is, if more people than just me are aware of something I did that was worthy of recognition, I'm going to look all the stupider if I fail or fuck up. Impostor syndrome is only sometimes a problem for me, but fear of failure is powerful bad juju. The voice in my head as I've been preparing for this game over the last couple of weeks is straight-up Tweek from South Park, "Agh! Too much pressure!"

I think my brain is Cartman in this scenario

And I know it isn't, that it's all going to be over in like two weeks and no one will remember or care what went on and I'll get a B at worst and everything will be fine. But I still feel like something big is expected from me because the professor's put me in the shoes of one of the great writers of the 20th century, one of the great feminist thinkers of all time, a writer she fairly gushed about when we were reading To the Lighthouse last month. The pride kicks in and I feel like being Woolf (for three days) suits me, and then I feel like an inadequate, arrogant jerk for even thinking that she suits me because see the last sentence, and then I feel like, well, I didn't trick the professor into thinking I'm something I'm not, and then I feel like, oh God, how am I going to be Woolf for three whole days without doing something dumb or off-key? And simultaneously I'm kind of shifting in my seat because everybody knows that I (probably) didn't trick her.

All of this seesawing, I'm feeling it all keenly this morning, getting ready to dress up in my Woolf costume and head off to school with my fountain pen and reasonably period-appropriate notebook. It's comforting that Woolf herself was sort of an emotional mess, no matter how controlled and crystalline her writing was.

Oh, I guess I forgot to add that we get extra points for cosplaying. Yes, this game is serious fun. Wish me luck.

If you, too, want a beautiful handmade wood pen for a remarkably low price, visit PennTexPens on Etsy.
The notebook I can't help you with; it was a gift. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Potential Reading and Polanski

Today I have for you 1) a bit of writing news with some uncertainty attached to it, and 2) a piece of actual writing with dubious merit attached to it.

My essay "This Is Not a Safe World" will appear in the 2015 issue of the Southern California Review, which is the litmag for the University of Southern California. I've known this since January and have woken up remembering it on about half the days since I found out, because it still blows my mind that they wanted this essay, because nobody wanted this essay, it got more than a dozen completely perfunctory rejections. Sending it to SCR was an arrow into the air, and I continue to be astonished that it hit its target.

The news part of this news is that the release party for SCR is taking place on April 24th at The Last Bookstore - two weeks from tomorrow. I got an email a couple of weeks ago announcing this and asking all the contributors whether they wanted to read. I emailed back right away that I wanted to read - I have daydreamed over the idea of reading at The Last Bookstore, genuinely one of my favorite places of all the places I've been in my life - and I have not gotten a reply as of yet. So I don't know if I'll get to read, but maybe I will. Come anyway, on April 24th at 7 PM, to The Last Bookstore to mingle and browse and listen to everyone who does get to read.

I'm proud of the essay (otherwise I wouldn't have kept sending it out after getting no encouragement), but it is quite a personal personal essay. It reveals things about me that, if you know me in life, you may not be comfortable knowing. I hope, if you attain access to the 2015 SCR, or if my essay is chosen to be readable by the journal's website's proprietors, that you read it and enjoy it, or at least that it makes you think. But if you decide to steer clear because you'd prefer some elements of my history to remain unknown to you, I'm OK with that.

That's the news, so here's the writing. I composed this as an exercise about a year ago, and Matt made me think of it the other night, and I'm posting it in part because I have no real idea of its worth. It was an experiment in organized thought. See what you think.