Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Cut-Up

Something I will miss about school is the press of deadlines on my back. On Sunday I wrote 2,700 words because I had to turn it on Monday. I'd've liked another couple of days to work on the result, and then another week or two to let it ferment, before others saw it. But I'd waited too long to start, so I had to roll with what came out on Sunday.

The cool thing about this, and about the associated deadline, is that the thing got written. The not-so-cool thing about this is the feeling that I rushed it, that I didn't say everything I wanted to say, and that I got tangled up in my ideas and made a mess. Of course, those are problems that come out and get fixed in subsequent drafts. The professor said he wanted shitty first drafts, not perfection. But still. I don't like showing unfinished work to others unless I really trust them, and this feels unfinished. 

The gradual evolution of my writing process has left me with early drafts that are closer to finished than they used to be. By this I do not mean that everything I write is perfect. I've come to a writing process that includes such a long time chewing over the topic that when I'm finally ready to write, after the better part of a year, the work comes out like a late draft instead of an early one. All that time I was writing drafts in my head. If I'm not given that time, I come up with garbage, but if I don't have a deadline, I might go on thinking for much longer than I should. 

For my capstone class I'm working on a long, experimental memoir project. It is scary and hard, so I might have set it aside indefinitely if not encouraged by mean, heartless professors to write it now. It's a mess and a half at present, but I turned a corner of some kind on it in the past two weeks. The word count is building. I've figured out a) that I need an organizational strategy and b) what that strategy is going to be. Implementing it will take hard work of the kind that I've been wanting to do this semester, and was finally pressed to do on Sunday, rather than putting in a half hour here and an hour there. 

Life seems all cut into pieces lately. I give too many of them away. I want them for myself. I want to spend a whole day with my notebook, tea, the Brandenburg Concertos and a container of hummus. Not worrying about laundry, exercise, application deadlines, meals, money, nagging health issues, keeping up with friends' triumphs and tragedies, etc etc. Much of this stuff is worth my time, but I want, selfishly, to be neglectful of everything except the work. Is that asking a lot? 

Yes, of course it is. Yoga and meditation are more significant accomplishments when performed out here in the world, rather than in a cave in the middle of nowhere. My friend who wrote a novel 200 words at a time? I admire her a hell of a lot more than me, offering benign neglect to my husband for three months while I write in a trance every day. On Sunday night a dog barking at great length outside my window while I worked was too much and I yelled "Shut up!", which doesn't harm anyone (I was inside with closed windows), but it's not at all like me. I never lose my temper at annoyances like that. When working, I'm a different person - snappish, territorial, egocentric. 




It follows, I think, that I'd be a better human if I found a way to work in the world without overdosing. But I have tried that way and it does not work. I can't do 200 words a day. It makes me wretched. A cut-up life is doing something similar, but unlike with the memoir, I can't come up with an organizational strategy that fixes anything. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part One (Childhood)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anais Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
Something I didn't note in the prologue post about this series is that this list is in chronological order (when the books came into my life), not order of importance. With that in mind, let's talk about the Chronicles.

I read the Chronicles when I was so young that I no longer remember a time without them. I read them over and over as I grew up, and I loved reading them more than I loved reading pretty much anything else. (I still sort of feel that way. I could read The Magician's Nephew every day for months and not be tired of it.) I believed wholeheartedly in Narnia, and I ached to be as brave and true-hearted as Lucy. I failed to grasp the religious allegory in the books until I was much older, found out kind of offhand about Aslan = Jesus, and felt not a little heartbroken. (I am not the only one to whom this happened.) With cynical adult vision, I can see why I loved them so much:
  • They introduced me to storytelling, a force as powerful as gravity
  • I imprinted on Lucy, who is a semi-blank canvas, designed for little girls like me 
  • They imparted wisdom in fantastical, digestible ways (well-tempered mix of meaninglessness + meaning) 
  • Dry British wit, a mainstay for my sense of humor 
  • I didn't have Jesus, but I had Aslan 
My upbringing bore no religion. The atmosphere wasn't anti-anything, but more of a "nah, thanks" in the direction of churches of all stripes. Without a savior to fixate on, what did I have? I had Aslan, who was good and generous and there most of the times you needed him and not a tame lion. I'm not saying that God is a necessary element to youth, that all children will latch on to God if you feed God to them, but I am saying that if you introduce a flawless Godlike figure, through literature, into the mind of a voraciously reading child who hasn't a rebellious bone in her body, you will probably inspire devotion to that figure. That devotion may last well into adulthood. Part of me still hopes that Narnia will be what awaits me after I die.

The storytelling is the primary thing, though. My mother used to make up silly stories for me (like a champ), and the Chronicles were by no means the first chapter books I read, but they were the first time I'd read something that felt like it had a history and a future. Something that shifted and grew over time, built on itself from book to book. It's like the difference between mystery novels and epics: Hercule Poirot does not change, does not shift in time and space, but Gilgamesh certainly does. I kept reading as Lucy grew too old for Narnia and Jill came to take her place. I kept reading as time circled back to show me how the wardrobe came to exist, after a Narnian tree blew down in Digory's yard. That experience demonstrated to me, for the first time, the heft and the compass of STORY, of narrative, as humans have been spreading it around fires for thousands of years.

And I wanted to live inside that understanding always.

Which is more or less how I got here, into this life, writing the words you're reading. Star Wars had a lot to do with it, too, a phosphorescent javelin of story and mythmaking thrust right into my brain at an impressionable age. But it was Narnia that made me want to keep reading, to make reading into a pillar of my life, and it was reading that made me want to start writing.

How I stared at this cover as a girl. This isn't at all what Jadis looks like inside my mind (though she is exotic here, which is appropriate, since she's from a crazy non-Narnian world), and Digory is dressed right but looks all wrong, and I don't even know what's up with Polly. But any other cover for this book looks even more wrong to me. This was the box set I had, and still have, and no other shall I ever read. 

The cynical adult vision that shows me why Narnia is so appealing to a kid has no capacity to dim my experience reading the books today. When people ask me what my favorite book is, I usually say it's the Chronicles, for a variety of reasons (some of my other favorite books sound hopelessly pretentious, or are too obscure to name without having a long, embarrassing conversation; everyone's heard of this book, and usually the other person has an opinion about it; etc). I can see the seams now, and Lewis's weaknesses as a writer, but his storytelling never falters. The wit still sparkles. The land of Narnia remains glorious, and kind, and surprising. I recognize that the books are extremely problematic, even beyond being a product of their time. Nevertheless, they matter to me more than any other book is ever likely to.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Accents and Attachments

I take notes in my car a lot. I use the voice-to-text feature to do this so I don't kill anyone. On certain words, Siri reveals to me that I have a trace of a Southern accent, based on growing up partially in the South with two Southern parents. It doesn't sound to my ear as if I have it, especially now that some Californian cadence has started to sink in to my speech, but Siri's transliterations tell the tale.

I can't remember the recent text-to-speech example that made this so clear to me, but as an example from long, long ago, in high school I attended a youth journalism conference with kids from all 50 states. The girl from Kentucky was from the mountains (i.e. her accent was very heavy, not modulated by town living), and she picked the letter I in an organizational context. She pronounced it "ah", and the proctor, from Massachusetts, did not understand her the first, second, or third time he asked for her letter. Siri is from California, so she, too, cannot understand me sometimes.

Recently I was taking notes about some titles I'd like to get on audiobook, and Siri recorded me as saying "From Here to Maternity". I'm pretty sure this was not a quirk of my accent, but instead a mistake. An annoying one. No more or less annoying, though, than the Facebook ads about fertility clinics and kids' clothes. I get tired of what other people tell me I should want.

Probably I shouldn't blame Siri. She can't even pronounce Sepulveda.

--

The writing has been going pretty well lately. I'm plugging at a few projects at once: something turning into a novel about Casablanca, a fragmented memoir thing about houses and spaces, and a hybrid essay I'm still dithering about. I need to hand in something for workshop in about two weeks, and I'm either going to write about fraudulence and Singin' in the Rain, or body mutability and Last Tango in Paris. I think the first one would be better for this context, but it might not be fully formed enough. The second one has been brewing for a year or so (part of it for 15 years or so), and I have enough to say about it that narrowing the scope will be the problem. So perhaps it's better to do that on my own time.

Reading has been going even better. I'm in a voracious phase, so I'm getting through an awful lot of books.

And the in-between of those two pursuits has borne some fruit in the recent past. Here's a book review I wrote of two terrific books of poetry, and watch this space for an exciting new project I'm doing with other writers. I can't tell you more than that until it comes to first fruition, and the timeline is TBD.

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Have you ever dishonestly read a letter of recommendation about yourself that you weren't supposed to read? I did that this week, and I sort of died at all the nice things said about me. It was like a page and a half, closely typed, of pure praise. The past three years have been a gradual process of feeling better about myself, no longer thinking I am the literal worst and starting to think I'm maybe pretty cool (one recent morning I looked in the mirror and said "good to see you," which is, like, enormous progress from 2013), but this letter of rec was insane. Part of the reason it was difficult to read was the source: a professor I admire so much that I am shy of her and don't want to intrude on her time. Maybe I should have worried about this less over the last couple of years.

Them's the times, Fred

--

Last week I finished the audiobook of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I'm going to have to be more careful about checking for "plague novel" status in books recommended to me, because I do not like plague novels, they are scary and they make me lingeringly mournful for weeks, but by the time I realize that's what it is I'm hooked and I can't quit reading. This one was beautifully a novel, fully realized and characterized and interwoven, but on the sentence level I couldn't wait for it to be over. I had a little bit of the same reaction to it that I had to Never Let Me Go, in that I didn't see what all the fuss was about; I could see the seams and had read better books in pure genre reading. But I enjoyed this one more. More ideas in it that resonated with me (Shakespeare, fame, light). The thing that's stuck with me, that I keep thinking as I peek at the news through my fingers, is the endurance in the novel. Humans endure. Maybe the species is in decline - it's possible, it's not crazy, the dinosaurs had their day and passed on, as well - but maybe not. Maybe the species will just change the nature of its influence on this biosphere. Cheery thought, I know, but the Buddha warns against attachment.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Sink, Empire, and So Shall Come New Days

Last year, my friend Kathleen recommended that I read a biography of the Mitford sisters, because the adventures of those six women in the 20th century are a truth far stranger and more interesting than fiction. I had never heard of the Mitfords. Their celebrity didn't reach the areas of mid-20th century culture I know best (music, Hollywood), and their biggest celebrity was in Britain, not the States.

In December I began listening to an audiobook about the Mitfords, The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell. I didn't last long. The beginning of the book is about the sisters' childhood, which rollicked with wit and fun, entailing private jokes and humorous catastrophes and, generally, growing up in genteel, intelligent poverty in Britain between the wars.

These stories and circumstances were so light as to be frothy, and I grew frustrated. Since the election, my Facebook feed had become a wailing wall. Everyone seemed to be yelling at everyone else. The ideological landscape of my country was changing, publicly, painfully, and paying attention to the multiple nicknames each Mitford sibling garnered by the time she was two became impossible.

It's funny. This is funny. Because I am the first person to say I'm not sure art and politics relate to each other comfortably. I've been trying to sort this out since 2002, when I watched two Pontecorvo films and found them just very bad, anti the opinions of the textbooks and the professor. The politics were the point. His art, explicitly political, was deemed good art because it was explicitly political, and I couldn't agree. The films were dull and meandering and even (literally) out of focus. From that point I examined explicitly political art on artistic merit, not political merit, and often found it wanting.

Now I am less certain about the purpose of art than I was then. I still believe that art ought to be artistically sound first, not second or third or last. But I've learned that politics and art are often, if not usually, inextricable, and that "pure art" with no political implications is more uncommon than I thought. (It took a lot of historical exploration and education to learn this, so forgive me if it sounds naive.) Plenty of filmmakers and visual artists and writers and singers primarily played artistic roles and secondarily played political ones, but nevertheless, politics creeps in to the strangest corners of art. The personal is political in many more contexts than second-wave feminism.

Still, for me to say this book isn't political enough is incredibly funny. I couldn't read a pundit's book if you paid me. Generally, I believe in the long term, the broom of history sweeping and sweeping us all into the dustpan, and my current sense that everyone in America with any kind of platform is using every possible opportunity to rail politically drives me nuts. And disappoints me. And depresses me. And lots of other effects. I have been watching funny animal gifs and posting beautiful things on Facebook as much as I can, because I cannot be the only person who wants frequent breaks from The American Situation.

But the Mitfords were too much fun for me. I got so mad at their frippery that I abandoned the book for a few weeks. Soon, though, I'd had enough of Benjamen Walker's doomsaying, and organizations saying they needed my voice (and my money) "now more than ever," and I went back to it. Thereafter, the book ventured into the mid-1930s, and its tenor changed completely.

Two of the sisters, Unity and Diana, became close friends with Hitler. Unity spent much of the 1930s in Germany. One of the sisters, Decca, was a radical Communist, and eloped with her husband to Spain at nineteen. These different viewpoints estranged Decca from the family on and off for the rest of her long life, even through her testimony before HUAC and her authorship of The American Way of Death, a book I'd certainly heard of.

Unity attempted suicide on the day Britain declared war on Germany, shooting herself in the head. Diana, until the end of her 93 years, refused to change her opinion of Hitler personally. She abhorred the actions of his regime, once she learned of them, but she didn't encounter Hitler in that context, and personally she found him charming company.* Even though Diana's husband was the leader of the British fascist party before the war, neither of them was particularly anti-Semitic; fascism and evil were not intimately linked at the time. Decca emerged as an eye-wateringly complicated woman, and two of the sisters barely emerged at all. As the Duchess of Devonshire, Debo completely revitalized Chatsworth, one of the greatest estates in England, and in order to keep it afloat, merged nobility with commerce in a way old families had been reluctant to do.

There's more. It's an interesting family.

Clockwise from upper left: Unity, Decca, Diana, Nancy, Debo, and Pam. Click to embiggen.

My feelings about this book changed so many times as I listened to it. The chapters about Britain and Germany during the 1930s were valuable, rich, accumulating in meaning as I compared them with The American Situation. I watched as the entire British servant system fell apart in the face of munitions factories, conscription, and the Blitz. Royalty was forced to adapt to the needs of non-royalty instead of the other way around. The empire sagged to its knees. Is this an unfortunate set of movements, or a satisfying one? Can the fall of an empire - sacrifices untold entailed - ever be nailed down as a plus or a minus for the people and the nation? How long will it take for us to know?

What I walked away with: reinvigorated fascination for the 20th century. Respect for English mettle. Determination not to ignore The American Situation, but to maintain my belief that human life is drawn in small circles, described in details at eye level, not necessarily in galactic movements. "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives," says Annie Dillard. The Mitford sisters wrote uncountable letters, raised children, loved their husbands, traveled Europe, followed their own lights. What parts of their days, of their lives, mattered most?



*From the introduction: "She liked and admired him as a man when she met him, and she still believes that 'It is not a question of right or wrong, but the impressions of a young woman in the thirties. Of course it would be easy just to deny these, but it would not be very interesting, or true.'" I find this courageous. To dismiss those early impressions and claim that she knew he was evil, and faked friendship, is the kind of hindsight activity that is unhelpful in attempts not to allow ugly histories to repeat themselves. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Prologue

In 2014, I got tagged in a "ten books that mattered to you" meme. I spent a while putting this list together, and have continued referencing and revisiting it ever since. Although there are many runners-up (Absalom, Absalom!, The Open Curtain, Inside Scientology), and although I've read some necessary-to-my-life-and-brain books since 2014 (The Argonauts, I am not Jackson Pollock, Moby-Dick), these still stand as the ten most important, most impactful books I've read.
1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anais Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
These are all by white people, sadly. Five are by men and five are by women. Six are fiction and four are not. Six are by Americans, three are by UK writers (two British, one Irish), and I could not find out much of anything about Dorothy Herrmann, unless she's Bernard Herrmann's daughter as well as the author of the Keller book, in which case she too is American.

I thought I might, for the next several weeks, write intermittent posts about why these books matter so much to me. I don't know if I'll go one by one or not, because some of these books were important for clear-cut reasons that don't require much analysis. Maybe I'll lump a couple together.

Oh, and there's one that towers over all the rest: Hamlet. But it's not a book, it's a play, and I think of it as a kind of river flowing under my reading constantly. And its importance is both more ordinary and more subjective than the rest of these. Hamlet matters to me because of 1) its music and 2) what it demonstrated to me about making art. Those aren't reasons for me to recommend it; those are reasons 1) to love it and 2) to teach it.

I could teach some of these ten, but others would be hard. The same poem read aloud by 20 people is going to sound terrible in some percentage of those voices, and that average applied to some of these books would wound me. Hamlet, though, can take whatever you throw at it, and it will keep swinging, as it has for 400 years.

Anyway, look for these posts coming up if you like it when I talk about books. That's a big if, I realize.


Monday, February 20, 2017

From Me to You: A Little About Networking

Last week, as I prepared the exegesis post for "The Girl on the Bike", I wrote this:
I must disclose that I have a dear friend who's a semi-dormant editor at the Rumpus, and I ran "The Girl on the Bike" by her before I sent it in. I am certain that I got an acceptance because of the piece's quality, not because I got my friend to push something into publication as a favor. But the nature of the writing world, like most professional worlds, is that the more people you know, the more help you can get in order to succeed. I have a lot to say about this, as it pertains both to this piece in particular and to publishing in general, but I am lucky in who I know and I'm well aware of it and you can be mad at me if you want. I got lucky by paying for opportunities for myself, but I also got lucky by showing up, for free, for years, in all kinds of circumstances. I'm going on and on now but I will write a separate post about this someday.
I wrote this as a footnote, and then I took it out. I didn't want to distract from the issue at hand, which was talking about "Girl", and by the time I was typing the last sentence I realized that I had a lot more to say about the subject than I could put in a footnote.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Bitlets

I recently made long-distance friends with a fascinating writer of poetry and prose. After I rando-emailed her, she Googled me, sensibly, and found my blog, and read my From Me to You series. She asked in her next email if she could share the series with her students, because she found it helpful and thought they would too. I tried not to use too many exclamation points in my reply, but I was flattered and pleased that I'd been of help. Others have told me they've referred students to the series, as well. This got me wondering whether I should collect the series and print it, or put it in an ebook. Still considering. What do you think?

In the meantime, I've written another installment, which I'll put up next week. It's not about submitting work, as the first five were, but it definitely circulates around the issue of publishing.

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This week, on deadline, I wrote a thing. I'm not satisfied with it, but off it goes to workshop anyway. (see "deadline".) It's definitely the beginning of something bigger rather than a story that stands on its own, and I'm looking forward to digging deeper into it later. Through this whatever-it-becomes, I will finally wreak my revenge on Casablanca for its mediocrity.

Yeah, I said it. Argue against me. Unemotionally.



--

Reading at present:

Anne Enright, The Gathering. The audiobook is driving me totally crazy so I think I'm going to pick up the paper book sometime this summer instead. The woman reading it is so slow that I lose track of what the last sentence said by the time we're in the middle of the next sentence, and the library app doesn't have the ability to change speed like iBooks does. Fully four seconds elapse between every sentence, which makes me want to scream. I really like the writing, though.

Wendy C. Ortiz, Bruja. Funny and moving and interesting and beautifully detailed. If you are a person who gets bored by other people's dreams, you won't like it. But I'm not, so I do.

Kate Zambreno, Heroines. So good I wish I could take it more slowly than I am. I did not like her novel Green Girl (I believe I'm the only one) (sorry), but I deeply love this.

The Cupboard Pamphlet. I picked up a subscription to the Cupboard at AWP last year, mostly because their tote bags were terrific, and man, I'm glad I did. I read duncan b. barlow's "Of Flesh and Fur" a couple of weeks ago and raved about it for two days, and then I read John Paul Stadler's "Prehistoric", and admired it although it was not my kind of thing. The Cupboard publishes tiny, beautifully designed little booklets, and I have not yet read one that wasn't excellent. Check it out.

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This weekend I am going to separate literary events on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I guess that's my life now.