Thursday, August 30, 2012

In Which I Lose My Temper

Not all of my adventures in Montana were awesome. Or, at least, they weren't awesome at the time. I'm sure revisiting them in the future is bound to drag them into the realm of affectionate memories.

Near the end of my trip, I went to Glacier National Park with a friend, and after a long day of horseback riding, we checked into a hotel in Whitefish. The following morning, we packed up my friend's Subaru and got ready to get on the road. As we were leaving the parking lot of the hotel, my friend accidentally drove over a curb, a bump up and then down, and we both laughed about that little oopsie.

After getting some gas, the car seemed to be riding funny, and I hopped out to take a walk around it. One of the back tires was settled too close to the ground: a flat.

"I'm sorry," my friend said.

"It's almost definitely my fault," I told her. "All you did was go over a curb. My mother told me once that I get more flat tires than anyone she's ever met, and it's been a while since my last one."

Oh, well. Flat tire. One badass self-sufficient Montana woman and one woman with long expertise in changing tires. No problem, right?

One of the many things I learned on this trip: certain Subarus are made with wheel locking mechanisms that you have to remove with a special key in order to change the tire. This is a handy security measure for someone, I presume, but I have no idea whom, because I've never known anyone whose tires have been stolen. For reasons that are in no way my friend's fault, she didn't have this all-important key, although we tore the car apart looking for it. The only place to get another key was a Subaru dealership, and the closest one was six hours away.

The offenders

"I'll call my insurance," my friend said. "Why don't you walk over to the Safeway and ask for the number of a reliable towing company?"

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ten Pints of Blood

I was driving along in Idaho the other day, heading home, when my phone did the Darth Vader breath, which lets me know that I have a new e-mail. I very stupidly and illegally looked at it, and saw that the return e-mail address was that of the agent to whom I sent the [non-]horror novel back in April. My heart sank. I knew instantly that it was a rejection, since she would have called me if she wanted to take me on. When I read the e-mail (illegally and dangerously!), she said that the idea was extremely awesome but the execution made her doubt that she could sell it, and also noted that she'd attached her intern's comments and critique.

I shit you not, this song was shuffled to the top by my iPod mere moments after I'd read this e-mail:

I sat in despondency for a little while, and then rallied. My idea was good. There would be revisions suggested in the attachment, and if I made them well enough, maybe she'd want the book after all. If not, hey. This is not the last book I'll ever write. Yes, I thought it was as good as it could be, but it wasn't, and I have more to do. Okay. I can live with this.

Of course I waited until I had pulled over for lunch before I read the attachment. I don't actually have a death wish. When I opened up the doc on my phone, I was in the parking lot of a semi-kitschy diner just inside the north end of the Targhee National Forest.

Oh. Oh, God. Oh, fuck.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Never Give Up, Never Surrender

I mentioned some weeks ago that I saw Les Contes d'Hoffmann, an opera by Offenbach, in the theater thanks to the Met summer encore series. The opera is structured in three acts, each of which has a central female role: Olympia, a mechanical doll, Antonia, a melodramatic singer, and Giulietta, a scheming courtesan. There is also a prologue and an epilogue. The main character, Hoffmann, is a poet who fell in love with these three women, and the structure of the opera is that he's telling the stories of these loves to a bar full of drunken Frenchmen. The styles of each act are quite different. The first act is comic and quick-witted; the second is practically a parody of itself, with the weepy diva and her mysterious illness; the third is a sort of supernatural femme fatale story.

The music and the thematic elements of this opera double back on themselves here and there, and there are two characters (chaotic neutral and lawful evil) that appear consistently throughout each of the acts in an odd, novel way. The story, such as it is, rambles off into three completely different directions and you really have no idea where Offenbach is going with all this until he gets there. Some of its ideas seem utterly bizarre for their time to this 21st-century resident. Each of the three central female parts was intended by Offenbach to be sung by the same soprano. (Having seen the opera, I can tell you this is madness. The role of Olympia alone is unbelievably demanding, even though she only has one major aria. (But it's a stunner.))

Plainly, to me, Offenbach wrote this opera exactly as he wanted, without much thought as to who would be able to sing it and who would want to see it. Okay, exhibit one.

Exhibit two is the White Album, which I'm going to admit candidly I have never really liked. I've always thought it lacked discipline and failed at coherency too often to be a successful experiment. Of course there are amazing masterpieces of songs on it which I don't need to name, but the balance of the album, the songs that weren't singles, always dragged it down to unlistenable for me. "Yer Blues" came up on my randomizer the other day, though. I realized that even though my opinion of the White Album as not much fun to listen to probably won't change, it's still an artifact of some of the best musicians on earth operating at the top of their game with a clear intent to push artistic boundaries.

The White Album is legendary for a reason. It does what it wants to do, presents the songs and musicianship exactly as intended by the band. There may have been better bands operating in 1968, but not many, and no one in such a stratosphere of fame forged ahead so deliberately and fearlessly as the Beatles did with that album.

Exhibit three: Infinite Jest. 1,079 pages of unparalleled genius and, I'd argue, unparalleled difficulty, except for probably Ulysses and À la recherche du temps perdu. I can't imagine what it must have been like to write it, but I know what it was like to read it - like being hit in the face with an overwhelmingly brilliant sun for page after page of incredible intention. Exhausting. Punishing. Full of light. Wallace had to know that it was insane to write a book like this, absurdly long and obsessively detailed and jammed with dozens of characters and so full of its own vernacular that it makes the reader live in two worlds for its length. But he wrote it anyway.

These three works epitomize uncompromising art. Each of these creators had a vision for what they wanted their art to be and say and do, and they went forth and created it, without regard for how it would be received in the world.

I've read enough experimental fiction to know that you can have this attitude and wind up with a big ol' mess. The temptation for me when I'm writing is constantly to temper and fiddle until I feel like what I've produced is right for an audience, not just for myself. If I go too far in the direction of uncompromising art, I feel like I'm letting my ego get the better of me, thinking I'm a lot more talented than I am.

Where's the line? How do you be secure enough that you've created a terrific piece of art that suggestions to make it "better" may be interpreted as compromising the art, and you rightly refuse to take them?

I had a very hard time writing this post. I could overindulge on this topic and write paragraphs upon paragraphs about writer insecurity vs. writer arrogance, the demands of the market vs. the demands of art and whether there's any way to balance the two without losing your damn mind, and a question that I find particularly enduring: how you create art that's uncompromising while still creating art that's excellent or even comprehensible. The simple answer is that you're just that good, but that's not enough of an answer for me. What compels people to sit through the first weird act of Les Contes d'Hoffmann or keep on reading after page three of Infinite Jest, other than perverse curiosity? How did those items get accepted in the marketplace - how did some gatekeeper see promise and decide to take a chance on them?

All of this applies to  me only in the most rudimentary way. I have not written Infinite Jest. But I wonder whether the compromises I'm planning for certain pieces of art are entirely the wrong thing to do, whether I'm bowing to the market in ways that lessen the impact and excellence of the art. Whether I should hold out and try to sell what I have, instead of trying to fold it up and fit it in a specific box. Or is it just a big ol' mess, what I have, and I need to tamp it down for it to be good art at all?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Me + West = LUV

I'm home from Montana. I really enjoyed the adventure, and I experienced so many things that were just incredible and that I couldn't have seen any other way, even though it took 36 hours of driving to experience them. I smelled rain and fire at the same time when I was in Utah. I stayed in a hotel run by a husband and wife in a town so small that I had to add it to Facebook's check-in utility. I rolled sagebrush between my fingers and smelled its wildness, and ate fresh roadside huckleberries. I touched a Joshua tree in a ridiculous driving rainstorm. But it's tiring, driving like that, and expensive to keep taking days off work and paying for gas and hotels &etc., so I'm glad to be home.

One of the big things I learned on this trip is that I love the West. I love the West. I thought I understood this, but I didn't know the depth of it - not even halfway there. I really, really love the West. Montana is astonishing, wild and rough and heartless and welcoming and utterly American. Idaho is beautiful along I-15 only when you're about to enter or leave it, and is otherwise pretty darned boring. Utah is head-to-toe unbelievably beautiful, the southern part especially, and has the oddest mix of cultures I've ever seen. I was openmouthed with astonishment at the tiny wedge of Arizona I drove through, its high highs and flat lows. And southern Nevada is unearthly in its distant desolation. But nothing made me so happy during the whole trip than driving through the Inland Empire, toward home, and seeing the San Gabriel mountains coming up through my windshield. I just don't want to be anywhere else than out here.

Part of it is feeling like there's enough land to go around; everything is so much more spread out here than it is in the East. Even though that's a bit more dangerous when you're traveling, it's also a relief, to feel like there are places that are untouched that are nevertheless worth being. I really did see the whole trip as an adventure - not quite a covered-wagon adventure, but for me it was a big deal, setting out with the smallest plan and without much idea of what would happen.

There's another 1,100-mile trip that I was considering in mid-September - Margaret Atwood is reading in Colorado Springs - but honestly, I don't think I'm up to it so soon. I wish I were. There's so much more to see. The West is so goddamn big. But now I've crossed it nearly top-to-bottom just as I did the East when I was in college. The pleasures of that trip were many, but it doesn't hold a candle to this one.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Story of Cracker Lake

Although I have many stories to tell about Montana, the friend with whom I had the experience that follows told me "You so have to blog this," at the halfway point, so I guess that's my imperative for this post.

On Friday I went to Glacier National Park, where I saw and heard and felt many amazing things. On Saturday, I went on a horseback ride, one that lasted seven hours and was one of the best experiences of my life. Every time in the past I've taken a trail ride, it's been slightly disappointing, because it's been too slow or plodding, or too short, or the surrounding landscape has been uninteresting. (A horseback ride I took in Bermuda was an exception, but I was wearing a helmet, which sucked a small bit of the fun out of the experience.) I had hope that this horseback ride would be extraordinary, that we would see amazing things, but I tried not to get my hopes up too high, because it seemed likely there would be problems with it like there always had been.

I was wrong. It was the ride of my dreams. It was exactly what I pictured and fantasized about, and more.

Our trail guide was named Harold, and he was an honest-to-God cowboy, his skin full of sun and dust. The belt of his chaps had his name emblazoned across the back of it. He was also a firefighter. And was all of 22 years old. I flirted shamelessly with him, from where I sat on my horse to where he sat on his, and wished briefly but violently that I was ten years younger and not married.

It was not Harold, but another cowboy, who ran down the rules for the trail and explained how to sit in a saddle. One of the guests going on a different ride mentioned the possibility of moose, and the cowboy - hopelessly masculine and self-assured, older than Harold but just as sexy - sucked his breath in and said with little humor that he'd rather meet a bear than a moose. More confirmation (as if I needed more, after the previous night (a story I'll tell another time)) that I was in A Dangerous Wilderness.

Our ride was six miles out and six miles back, on a narrow trail to Cracker Lake, and it was me and my friend and Harold on the ride, no one else. My horse, Roney, was a lazy sod who was very picky about where he placed his hooves, decidedly more of a follower than a leader. My friend's horse, Big Mac, was a large dappled beast with a wide flank and some draft horse in him. They were both docile and responsive. Going up the thin and rocky switchbacks made me feel like an awesome cowboy, but going down them was terrifying. It seemed likely that I'd tumble off into the steep forest and never be found.

We traced the curve of the trail around Swiftcurrent Lake, cresting it for about three-quarters of its circumference. We met hikers who stood politely aside for us, and I felt bad that they had to cope with our horses' leavings on the trail. We crossed rushing streams and discussed whether it was properly pronounced "crick" or "creek". We saw craggy mountains climb narrowly to impossible peaks, and we weaved through groves of tall ancient trees as well as odd low-growing ones. I nudged Roney into a trot here and there, and learned (with yelps of terror) that cantering uphill feels a great deal like bucking.

At length we arrived at Cracker Lake. Harold told us an absurd story about the lake's name - he said its discoverers left crackers by the shore to mark the spot - which turned out to be true. The water of the lake is a bizarre pearly blue color that I can't even really describe. We sat down by the edge of the lake and ate beef jerky and trail mix for lunch. (My friend ate canned tuna, but I abstained.) Harold, meanwhile, climbed up to an overhang and stripped down to his boxer shorts. He was not bad to look at, I'll leave it at that. He asked me to check the water. "How does it feel?"

I knelt by the lake and dipped my hand in. "Pretty fucking cold," I called up to him.

He dithered at the edge of the overhang for a while, worrying about clearing the rocks, while we encouraged and advised him. Eventually, he leapt, and my friend snapped pictures.

"How cold is it?" I called, as Harold stroked to shore. His freestyle was unsurprisingly perfect.

"It's pretty fucking cold," he said in a normal tone. His voice echoed up to me off the surface of the water.

I have no idea how Harold managed to ride all the way home in wet shorts, but he did, and didn't complain a bit. We gave him a huge tip.

I felt so happy to have been on a horse all day that I can't even describe the sensation. Each new bit of the landscape that we saw seemed to have been meant for viewing from the back of a horse. I wasn't afraid of bears. I wasn't afraid of anything, except the descending switchbacks, and of falling behind or being a crummy leader (both issues that Roney did not help to alleviate). All day long I had a painful charley horse in my right leg and the seams of the saddle were rubbing in a, um, real specific place, but I could hardly bring myself to complain. It was too good to be on a horse in the wilderness, everything I needed for the day in my saddlebag. Riding out to a lake with an indescribable color and stillness. In a cowboy hat.

Saddlesore, exhilarated, sunburned and smelly and high on life, we drove out of the park and made our way to the hotel, where we both took showers and zonked out not long after 9:00. The next morning we drove home, and got into another fine mess. But that's for a different post.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Power and Inevitability

Well over a year ago - it might have been in 2010 - my dear friend Catherine introduced me to Dear Sugar, an advice column on The Rumpus, by sending me a column of hers that was about writing, as I recall. It might have been a different column, one just about life, but when I try to think about how I read her work for the first time, all I can remember is a day and night of clicking the back button and then clicking on the next column on the list, devouring them all in a tiny enlightened space. There was so much beauty, so much wisdom, so much life in her columns, and most of what she said shot straight to my heart. Her columns touched various parts of me, inspired me in many different ways. But I loved her completely, the pure and drooling and nameless love that a reader feels for a writer when those words click into an empty part of you.

I couldn't bear not to know Sugar's real identity, so I looked it up. I'd never heard of Cheryl Strayed. I didn't read her first novel; I read a chapter of it, and it was so intensely written that I was pretty sure I couldn't get all the way through it. Catherine did get all the way through it and she told me that yeah, it was like that the whole way, and wasn't easy to read, unfortunately. But I knew from her column that a second book of hers was soon to be released.

That book was Wild, which you may already know about. It's a memoir of the summer Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and I knew that it was going to be big-hearted and glorious and filled with a kind of truth that was downright holy, but I had no idea it would make the kind of splash it's been making. Which is to say: Oprah has restarted her book club just to get Wild into as many readers' hands as possible.

Of course I knew I had to read Wild. This writer changed my life. This was apparently the book of her career. I knew that something incredible waited between its covers. But I also knew that it was in hardback, which meant it would be expensive and annoying to read. And I knew that since it was selling so well, it probably wouldn't be into paperback for more than a year.

So I waited and waited and heard about Wild and how amazing it was from every possible source, feeling that lame hipster burn. Because I could have told them all exactly how amazing Strayed was, since I knew about her a long time ago (sniff, hair toss).

Two days ago I was at a Barnes & Noble in Bozeman, Montana, and I'd had enough. I broke down and bought the hardback. And yesterday, I sat outside on the porch of my friend's little house near Whitehall and I read about a hundred pages of it, adding on to the 50 I'd read before bed the previous night. While I read about Strayed connecting to the spread of nature in California, I listened to the birds and felt the breeze, I watched as my friend's father dug in the earth, and I looked around at the trees and the sun and the mountains. I felt the same thing I've been feeling ever since I drove into this state, leaving the dull farmscapes of Idaho and driving straight into the most take-no-prisoners humbling experience of my thirty years and ten months. I felt here. I felt alive. I felt real.

Now I'm not sorry I waited so many months before I bought Wild. I'm not sorry that the indie bookstore in Hollywood where I saw Strayed had sold out of it. As I read about her sensation of being the only person in the world, alone with the landscape and its power and its inevitability, I looked at the sun in the big sky of Montana and I felt her sitting there with me, telling me her story, woman to woman.

I wrote this post last night outside on my friend's porch, getting eaten by mosquitoes, listening to the evening and looking at the fading palette of the sunset. The sprinklers were going, water splatting against the tarp stapled over the greenhouse. As I wrote, the sprinklers shut down for the night, and from then on, there was only utter silence.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


You guys. YOU GUYS.

I am in Montana, and it is so beautiful, so bedrock-right-feeling in my skin and flesh, that it hurts to think about not being here in another few days or a week. I miss my home and I miss my husband and I miss all the normal mosaic-pieces of my life, but I kind of wish that every couple of months I could uproot that life and replant it in Montana for a week or so. It's nothing like I thought it would be. It's not a state that ever interested me, and yesterday I bought this sticker:
And last night I put it on the back of my car after my Montana-native friend assured me that I wasn't a poser for feeling that way after a week.

Tomorrow we're going on a camping trip, which is yet another new scary thing that my Montana-native friend has wheedled me into. We're going on an all-day horseback ride. I bought a hat with roses printed on the underbrim to wear on the ride. I can't fucking wait.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Good Thoughts / The Necessity of Because

A dear friend of mine is having a serious crisis right now, and I'm worrying my face off about it. Please do me a favor and close your eyes and think good thoughts for my friend, even for a split second, if that's the time you have to spare. This person really, really deserves good thoughts and good things and has had far too much of the opposite.

It feels weird of me to say that and then go and have a normal post below, but I wrote the bulk of this post before any excrement hit any spinning blades, so here you are.

I got another one of those amazingly good pieces of feedback the other day. This time, my miracle reader reminded me that only the wrong kind of stories occur with "ant writing", i.e.: this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. No, stories are supposed to have events that result from one another. Things that happen should lead to other things happening, which interact with other things to create new things happening. With the things and the happening. "Because" is the key connector.

I knew this in an instinctual way, but no one had ever pointed out to me before that it's lazy writing to build a story any other way. I thought it over and realized that many times in the past, I had done this all wrong. Mostly because I was following my desire for the piece to come out exactly like I imagined it. I imagine a girl in a box, and that's where she is for the 2,500 words of the story, explaining her situation. There's no because, there just is.

And it dawned on me rather quickly where this came from. Two major sources that informed my storytelling in exactly the wrong way.

One was John Ford. Ford was a director of mostly Western films during much of the 20th century. Name a famous Western made before about 1965, and the odds are that Ford directed it. Ford's first talkie Western and one of his best-known films was Stagecoach, from the magic year of 1939. Stagecoach is good. It sets forth archetypes on which Westerns would depend for decades to come, but still makes them feel rather fresh and complex. Hooker w/ heart o' gold, quiet & reluctant hero, John Wayne, etc.

The climax of the film involves a chase, specifically a chase of the titular stagecoach by a gang of Apaches. Lovely long tracking shots as everyone rides hell-bent for leather. Years ago, I read on the IMDB that someone had asked Ford why the Apaches didn't just shoot the horses that were pulling the stagecoach. That would have stopped the coach for sure. Apparently, Ford answered, "Because that would have been the end of the movie."

But wait! The cavalry always rides in to help!
Hey, Injuns, let's just sit and wait for them, and then we can all go home!

From this I learned that you can cheat on obvious plot holes if you make the story compelling enough. (Well, obvious to some people. I never would have thought about shooting the horses, but now, of course, every Western I see I'm yelling at the Indians to do the same thing. They never do.) I learned that the creators of fiction sometimes see those plot holes and just don't care,* because they're telling the story that they want to tell, and the movie isn't over until they've said exactly what they want to say.

The second source was The Simpsons, the episode "Lisa's Sax":
Homer: And that, my children, is the story of Bart's first day of school.
Bart: Very nice.
Homer: Yeah.
Lisa: Yeah. Except you were supposed to be telling the story of how I got my saxophone!
Lisa: Mom, can you tell me the story of how I got my saxophone without having it turn into a story about Bart?
Marge: Sure, honey. Bart had just completed his first day of school, and Bart...
Lisa: Moooom!
Bart: Hey, she's just giving the public what it wants. Bart by the barrelful!
Marge: Sorry, Lisa, it's just how the story goes.
It's just how the story goes became a mantra I repeated to myself as I built stories. She decides to put the found pieces of a mannequin together because that's how the story goes. He decides he wants to bring her back to her homeland because that's how the story goes. He breaks his ankle and stays behind because that's how the story goes.

Wow, was this ever shoddy storytelling. "It's just how the story goes" works when you're telling stories about your life, or when you're a Simpsons writer with an A plot and a B plot you have to connect, or when you know you've got to have an exciting chase sequence at the end to make the audience happy. It does not work when you're a rookie constructing a novel or a short story that has to be good enough for people to want to read it.

There's no because in either of these examples. It is what it is because it is what it is, and while I think that can work pretty well with visual narrative art since the consumer is distracted by all else about the medium, it's not how you write books. There has to be a because. The Indians have to have a damn good reason why they're not shooting the horses.

So, lesson learnt, Miracle Reader. No more listening to John Ford (by all accounts, he was a jerk, anyway), no more listening to Marge. Plots have to have purposes. It all has to connect and make sense. It doesn't in real life, as we all know, but in fiction there has to be a because.

*I couldn't find a place to put this above, but I can't miss the opportunity to say it: a rare exception to this attitude is the Coen brothers. I've yet to find a single plot hole in any of their movies. Their screenwriting is shockingly perfect, and they're no less amazing for creating stories both outlandish and insanely neatly tied up. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Crawling Inside

This has been a busy week for me, creativity-wise. In that time, I've written two personal essays and a short story, and one of the essays was already sent to its intended market. Plus, I revised the literary story about the hesitantly gay college guy (I was downright shocked at how not-terrible my initial revisions were) and sent it off somewhere too. And I rallied about the robot story and out it went to a second market.

The short story is the big news, though. I've been toying with the idea for a couple of weeks now, ever since I read a 1995 article in the L.A. Times about the death of a Romanian gymnast. I've been not wanting to write this story, fearing it. I've been feeling (for the 986th time) like maybe I'm inadequate to the task of literary writing. Which is why I wrote two essays first: to get them out of my head, yes, but also because I'm on much more solid ground there. I've had more acceptances for my essays, after all - I was even paid for an essay.

Last night, I couldn't sleep. Couldn't sleep. Couldn't sleep.

I was occupied by that Romanian gymnast story. About the perspective I wanted to add to it. I told Matt while we were hiking the other day that the thing most enduringly intriguing to me as a writer is crawling inside the head of the villain. Narrating from Hannibal Lecter's POV. One of the longest early stories I wrote - novella-length - was about a young man who was compelled to commit rape. He'd been pushed out of his right mind by a trauma as a boy, and he covered up his madness until things came to a head for him as a teenager. I wasn't trying to excuse him - he couldn't excuse himself - but trying to turn out the inner dialogue of the monster on the page, like dough onto a floured surface. I wanted you to read and sympathize and then be repelled by sympathizing.

At 11:30 last night I came out to my laptop and started revising one of the essays. I pretended to myself that this was why I'd gotten out of bed, to revise the essay. I wrote a few paragraphs. I tried to get on the internet - I badly wanted to hear "Bohemian Rhapsody" for reasons unknown - but it wouldn't connect. I listened to 1 Giant Leap instead, then Moby. (18 really is a mediocre album.) And before I knew it, I'd opened a new clean Word doc and was typing feverishly: "Little bitch. Little bitch."

It took me until 1:30. There was nothing else in the world, just me and this horrendous human being and what he'd done to this girl. A different angle than my poor mad rapist: this one showed the animal, without pause, without mercy. And a really different story than the real one.

It only topped out at 1,500 words (really, I don't think it should be more, it's too ugly), and I haven't looked at it yet. But I wrote with the door totally closed, with no interest at all in how it would read inside someone else's brain. So I'm curious as hell how it'll read in a week or so. I'm going to give it some time to settle, get over my fever. After I went back to bed I had a few more ideas about how to shape the ending, but I wrote them down. I won't lose them.

This, after one of the essays I wrote this week explained at great length that I can't write ugly stories like some writers can, and worse luck. Is there anything about me that stays true for the long term?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Birds from My Hands

Fight Club is an exceptionally problematic set of philosophies, but I went into that
to the tune of a 30-page independent study project when I was in college
and now is not the time. This piece of the work I can truck with. 

Although I was pretty sure I endorsed this message from the time I heard it, I don't think I really got what it meant until recently. (Or perhaps what follows is just what it means to me.) I used to think it was a message about consumerism, about the value of a dollar earned through labor versus what it buys you, which is to say: a lot less than your labor is worth. Standing in a store and comparing the cost of something to the number of hours of work, at your hourly rate, whatever your job is, that it will take to buy that something, is an incredibly effective way to shrink your expenditures. Chasing after strine green stripe patterns only grants happiness in limited avenues, I think - like my joy over my lil' Tom Servo, just one of the many items on my desk, some of which you could sell or swap or drop in the sea and I wouldn't grieve for long. If you're in a lifestyle where it makes you really happy to own things that are as good or better than the things owned by people around you, cool, but I refer you to DFW's speech about choosing what to worship.

Getting sidetracked. Last night I looked at the bookshelf I've half-filled over the last two weeks with new books, wondering what awaited me between their covers. I bought a copy of The Chronology of Water at Book Soup while I was there for the Cheryl Strayed reading, and although I'm knee-deep in Caitlin Moran's amazing wonderful hilarious totally self-affirming book How to Be a Woman, the second reading of Chronology is coming soon. I'm sure it's a book I'll keep forever.

It was hard to get rid of a third of our books before we moved out here. It was hard. For as long as I can remember, since I was a child, I've prided myself on my book collection. I always joke about having too many books, but it's an arrogant joke: look at me, I'm a book person. As you can see from the overstuffed shelves all around you. Many of the books I hadn't read. Some of them I'd read and hadn't enjoyed. Some of them were gifts I hadn't wanted. I kept them anyway to keep a piece of identity: I am a person who owns this many books.

In weeding through them, it started to seem either like I should just get rid of everything, aside from The Chronicles of Narnia and The Blind Assassin, or keep all of them, just to be safe. Matt, on the other hand, made piles of giveaways that made me stop him repeatedly to ask "are you sure?" He put all of the Harry Dresden paperbacks in the giveaway pile, books he'd sped through gleefully and went careening out to B&N to get the next one. He shrugged and told me that he'd read them and doubted he'd read them again.

I nodded assent, but he might as well have been speaking Chinese. Don't you want them? I wanted to ask. Never mind reading them, don't you want them anyway? To look at on the shelf, to remind and reassure you that you had a good time while reading them? That such nice things exist in the world and you've experienced them? That other people will look at these books and say ah, yes, you are a reader?

Matt has always been smarter than me.

One of the blogs I follow is What I Wore 2Day, a daily outfit blog. I don't have that much interest in fashion, but the stuff the blogger comes up with to wear is fascinating. Nearly all of her combinations I would never wear, but I salute her for her adventurousness. Part of the reason I followed her in the first place was a contradiction about her that opened my mind a bit on people and their hobbies: she loves fashion and clothes and is not an idiot. She's a former Marine and a sweet, clever cookie. It was thoughtless of me to believe that people who pursued what I saw as "shallow" interests were also shallow, and Kasmira turned that around for me in a way I'm really grateful to her for.

She also lets things slip in and out of her wardrobe so, so easily. I don't think it would be accurate to call her closet the primary interest of her exceptionally full and active life, but she spends an enormous amount of time and energy on it. In the years I've followed the blog, she has purchased and then swapped/given away/sold positively hundreds of items of clothing. Potentially thousands. She will keep stuff that's useful and versatile for years, but when it's time to let it go, she does. She doesn't talk much about this, but I can tell that she's not sentimental about or attached to her clothes. When it interests her, she picks it up, and when it ceases to interest her (for a variety of potential reasons), she lets it go. I hugely admire her emotional noninvestment about this, and wonder how she manages. I get attached to my clothes, few and uncool as they are, too easily.

When I looked at my bookshelf last night, I realized that it was possible to read a book and then just give it away, if I so chose. I could let it slip out of my hands, having had the experience. It was possible to see physical books as metaphysically disposable. Of course there are books with influences that last and last and reverberate throughout the space of a life, but the wide majority of books, no. I can read them and then send them off to be read by others. Like birds from my hands.

I saw a little slice of this (not the whole thing) months ago. As an experiment, when I finished Then We Came to the End, which I liked enormously, I brought it to my friend Maleesha when we met in Colorado. I gave it to her, because I thought she'd really like it, and thus sent it on its way. Maybe she'll give it to someone else. Maybe it'll speak to her more than it did to me and she'll keep it in a hallowed spot on her bookshelf.

But if I'd let Then We Came to the End sit in my own house, it would have had a hold on me that was disproportionate to my enjoyment of it. It would have been there needlessly: feeding my ego and the perception of myself as a Book Person, but not giving anyone else enjoyment. That's sad. And it would have contributed to locking me into being a Book Person, a Person Who Owns Too Many Books, in its own small way. It would have owned me. Maybe it would only have owned a single cell of me - while the whole collection of books own maybe an arm or a leg of me - but that would have been too much.

So I sent it away. And I'm so glad I did, because Maleesha told me she really liked it. I liked it too, I thought it was clever and funny and insightful and met a difficult technical challenge, but I doubt I'll want to go back and read it over and over like I do Bag of Bones or Wicked or Bradbury's short stories.

Those sorts of books, the ones that flow in your arteries and that you don't forget even for a single week of your life, those are the ones you keep. And about which you say "oh, I'll just buy you a copy" to people who ask if they can borrow them. They don't own you, but they ground you, keep you in the place you belong.

Ultimately, nothing should own you, nothing should tell you who you are. No thing, no philosophy, no person or tendency. And don't talk about Fight Club.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dear Sugar: The Other Night I Went to a Reading

Margaret Atwood once said - and I don't remember if it was in this wonderful book or in an interview or what - that once of the very best things you can do as a writer is to give readings. I was close to dumbfounded at this advice. This might sound arrogant, but if you're a writer you probably recognize it as true: you hear the same goddamn advice over and over and OVER again. It comes in different forms, and sometimes it appears as the opposite of itself, but there are certain things that stay true and bear repeating and you can still get good and tired of hearing them from every possible source. But this was new. This was the first time I'd heard this advice.

It astonished me to hear something new in the sea of yeah-yeah-yeah, so I instantly doubted it. How are readings really going to help your bottom line? You reach a small roomful of people in most cases, a couple hundred in an auditorium at best (and most unlikely). But she's Margaret Living-Canadian-Treasure Atwood, so I figured she knows best, even if I didn't really understand.

As of Monday night, I understood. I went to my first-ever reading (...I think? There must have been another one before now, surely, I'm not that introverted) at Book Soup on the Sunset Strip, and the reader/writer was Cheryl Strayed. This UTTERLY FANTASTIC and not-large bookstore was quite packed with Sugar and Wild fans waiting to hear her. I stood up for about two hours, all told. From the personal perspective, the one where I'm me living in my skin and this is the woman who's inspired me to be a better and truer human in 84 different ways, it was incredible. When she signed my book, I said idiotic stuff, including "thank you" about 6 times in a row, which was really what I wanted to say most even if it didn't come out the way I wanted it to. I wanted to hug her and bow to her and ask her about my mom and cry into her nice black dress. But there were too many people also waiting to say thank you and watch her hand write into their books.

From the writer's perspective, so much was accomplished: big sloppy fans of hers, like me, got to hear her voice and see her in living life, which I'm sure was gratifying for her. People walking by looked in, saw the crowd, came in for a listen, and discovered her for the first time. She sold a ton of books that she wouldn't have otherwise sold (the bookstore sold out of Wild), all of which have the potential to be lent around to friends and lead to more sales. The bookstore itself profited quite a lot (yeah, I bought some more books, some of which I'd intended to buy and others not so intentional). People in line for the signing got to trading stories and learned about even more books that needed reading. And now I'm telling all of you that if you have the chance to hear Cheryl Strayed do a reading, don't miss it, and that will lead to STILL MORE sales and word-of-mouth. It's just a big round robin of book-reading and book-buying. Even though it's only a little, person-to-person thing, doing a reading - not like appearing on Oprah, for instance - it makes a non-insignificant, stone-in-a-pond kind of impact. Lesson learnt: Margaret Atwood is right about everything.

So go see Cheryl Strayed if she comes to your town. Here's her schedule for the rest of 2012. If you have no idea who this Cheryl Strayed is that I'm talking about, buy this book. Don't ask questions, don't protest, don't read about it and think about it before buying. Just buy it. I can pretty much guarantee you won't be sorry. If you insist that you can't afford it, here's the archive of her Sugar columns at The Rumpus, but it's less fun by an order of magnitude than reading it in book form, and harder to fold down pages and write YES!! in the margins.

In other news, I think there's an essay on its way out of me this evening. I'm feeling a little less confident about my KUFC book, for reasons I want to write about in the essay. It has to do with Salieri. That's all I'll say.