Friday, June 23, 2017

Ten Books That Mattered: Part Five (Humblings)

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. Anaïs 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
A few years ago, my mentor, giving one of her lovely, lazy-Susan-like lectures, explained that when she first read Moby-Dick at a young age, she decided she would never write another word. She despaired of ever writing anything as good as Moby-Dick and thought it would be better not to write at all. Of course, she went back on this decision, and - having read her work - I can tell you that we're all richer for her change of heart.

Some time later, in another class, she re-told this story, and I told her that I'd read Moby-Dick since the last time I heard it, almost entirely because of this story: I didn't want to miss a book so extraordinary that it made her feel incapable of writing well.

"And what'd you think?" she said. "Pretty good, right?"

"Yeah, pretty good," I answered. We chuckled over the understatement.

Her despair about Moby-Dick was exactly what happened to me when I read The Light of Evening. I had never read such prose before, and I don't expect to ever again. I've read a handful of O'Brien's other books, after being so totally bitch-slapped by this one, and for reasons I can't explain, none of them did much for me. Her Country Girls books are probably her most famous work, because they were utterly scandalous in Ireland when they came out, but I read the first book and cared almost nothing for the characters so I didn't read the rest.

The Light of Evening is exceptional foremost because of its gorgeous, twisty sentences, but also because it is remarkably honest (and therefore terrifying) about the relationships between daughters and mothers. It takes an unusual kind of concentration to read it, and the only thing I can compare it to is the concentration I expend on remembering dreams long enough to write them down. Here's a review by Claire Dederer that explains how the sentences confuse and then captivate.

At the time - 2007 or thereabouts - I understood film extremely well, where to look for its load-bearing structures and how to determine if it's hollow inside. However, I didn't really understand prose, or the novel. I'd read plenty of them, and I'd written probably a short collection's worth of stories (mostly bad) and at least one novel (fairly bad, though fun). But I didn't understand them. I couldn't see under the hood, much less take apart the engine and put it back together again.

I didn't make a resolution not to write after I read The Light of Evening, but I did stop writing for a while in embarrassment. And the book made my mind spin off into a dozen directions of thought about why I wrote, whether I actually liked writing, why I thought I could make a go of being a writer, what I wanted out of the vocation, et cetera. I thought about writing a lot. And I despaired a lot, because I had no idea how O'Brien made the book, where she stitched things together, how she even began to pile words on top of each other to make such loveliness.

I understood correct and incorrect grammar, and I knew how to spell almost anything, but I didn't understand sentences. That is to say: of course I couldn't see the seams in O'Brien. I was a wee bairn. It was she, among others, who made me grow. Without The Light of Evening, I wouldn't understand so well a story told by Annie Dillard and retold by my mentor:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ''Do you think I could be a writer?''

''Well,'' the writer said, ''I don't know...Do you like sentences?''
It is an absolute requirement.

Once you learn how a garment is constructed, the seams are obvious, and seamless garments seem that much more awe-inspiring. So it is for books. There are writers whose work's seams remain stubbornly invisible to me: Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, poets in general. And David Foster Wallace, about whom I've written on this blog many times. (You can click on the tag at the bottom of this post to see them all.)

Even though it wasn't even ten years ago, I don't know how I started reading DFW. I don't know which book I started with, nor what made me finally pick it up, whether it was a recommendation or an impulse or a short story in isolation somewhere or "This Is Water" or what. But I know that a story in Oblivion, "Good Old Neon", made me feel like reality was bending around me. Like I'd always called the sky "blue" without knowing there was a distinct, specially reserved word for the color of the sky. Like I'd thought I had seen all the paintings in the gallery, and then I stepped through an unmarked door into an exhibit room four times the size of the old one.

It wasn't really the book or story that showed me how to hybridize my own work (that was I am not Jackson Pollock.), but it, and Infinite Jest, showed me that Victorian realism and its descendants were not the only way to write. This seems disingenuous, because I'd read Modernist writers like Woolf and Faulkner, and I'd read some experimental work, but it's the truth. The experimental writers failed to spark anything in me (because I'd read the wrong ones, I learned later), and the Modernist writers felt like kissing cousins to realism. They wrote in recognizable ways. What Wallace was doing, especially in "Good Old Neon", felt divorced from all the fiction I'd ever read, and made it all look like a goddamn puppet show.

I still haven't found anything that feels like Wallace, and I still haven't read a story that I consider better than "Good Old Neon". I've looked, hard, but writers who sound like him sound like tinny, risible imitations of him. Or I think I've found something like him, and then I go back and reread portions of IJ and go oh, right, no. This is the only thing that sounds like this. Oh, well.

But here's the thing: Wallace didn't teach me how [I wanted] to be a writer. O'Brien didn't, either. They both showed me that I was never going to be the best writer, which is always helpful when you're heading into a new pursuit. And they both made me think hard about how books and stories are made, and what constitutes them, and how to juggle the multiple concerns inherent in them. In Oblivion, Wallace demonstrated with great facility that a writer can choose to emphasize this or that building block to make a story look or sound a particular way - characterization in one story, description in another, patient misdirection in a third, Freytag or the undermining thereof in a fourth. O'Brien showed me what devotion to language looks like, and that writing splendid, multidimensional prose should be a lot of work; every last word must be carefully chosen. Wallace showed me technical tricks, which of course one cannot imitate without it being obvious that one is imitating Wallace, but which do inspire one's own technical tricks. (I mess around with punctuation a lot, which I wouldn't do without him.) O'Brien showed me how much I had to learn about sentences in the English language.

They both told me to shoot for the moon. Language simply cannot be composed more beautifully than it is in The Light of Evening. Meanwhile, Infinite Jest is nothing if not a very long series of writerly risks, and that's one of the reasons it's so exciting ( parts). Without taking risks, without making every word collide in a meaningful way with the next, writing is just not worthwhile.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Seven Things

1. Wanna see something interesting?

Behold, my statistics on Duotrope:

Click to embiggen because Blogger's photo UI is still very, very stupid

In the past year, 10 short stories have been rejected and 0 accepted (0%). Two essays have been rejected and two accepted (50%). I attribute some of this to the market for short fiction being fierce and oversaturated and in general, far harder to make headway in than the market for nonfiction - the general stats on Duotrope, not just mine, tell the tale. But also...maybe I should cut my losses on short fiction altogether. Maybe it's not where my future is.

2. I've been slogging away for a couple of weeks on a book proposal. Man, do I ever not want to do this ever again. There's no better way to lose excitement about your work than to explain it over and over in slightly different ways each time. Feedback about it has been positive, though.

3. On a single day last week, I had a publication, a rejection that amounted to a huge disappointment, and an acceptance that amounted to a big deal. And my friend won an award. And I spent all afternoon at work with high nerves waiting for a meeting, only to be told nah. And then my period started. It was a weird day.

Contemporary proof. 

4. Last week I paid for a writing retreat in Santa Fe for October. I have never been to Santa Fe, although it's been recommended to me by a variety of people with good taste. I'm going to drive, which I'm really, really looking forward to; it's 12-14 hours, and if I was younger, I'd power through it in one day, WOOOOOO, but I will turn 36 that very week, so I am old and crusty and I'm going to take two days instead. I'll stop overnight in Phoenix on the way there and in Flagstaff on the way back, so I'll see two different paths through Arizona. My apologies to Tucson friends, but it's extremely not on the way.

For some reason my heart is yearning toward a particular retreat in Spain in April of next year. I don't know the people leading it, and I have never met anyone less interested in international travel than myself, but since I read of this retreat I can't stop thinking about it.

5. Eating less is hard.

6. Over the weekend, I wrote a little and read a lot. Lately I've been reading 250-350 page books almost exclusively, instead of a mix of long books, shorter small-press books, poetry, etc. Mixing it up is nicer than what I've been doing, because even if it's short, finishing a book always feels like an accomplishment. Reading half or a third of a book in an afternoon just isn't the same. I seem to have run through a great many of the poetry books on my TBR list, so now I'm stuck with short stories if I want to read short books. (No offense to the writers of those books of short stories. They're just not my favorite thing to read.)

Also over the weekend, I saw this remarkable film, which gave me the same impatience I always have when watching documentaries but which hit me in all my sweet spots: film, human lifespans, historical loss, palimpsests. I adored it. I really needed it, too, because it's become my habit to play Montana solitaire on my phone when almost anything is on the television, and it's not a habit I like having picked up. Dawson City: Frozen Time is pretty slow, but I had no choice but to watch only it. Having to expend my full concentration on it reminded me how much more pleasurable it is to expend full concentration on something rather than part here and part there. The following evening's reading was interrupted far less often than usual by Facebook checks.

7. There is so much bad news in the world that I want to fall out of it altogether. Every day, recently, something has happened that's either tragic or epically disappointing. Is it my duty to be a good citizen and notice these things, or is it my duty to protect myself from nervous breakdowns by letting go of noticing? The latter has been my strategy for some years now, but the bad news encroaches, crushes, and I feel more lost than usual.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Next Up: Bricolage?

Right now, as I write this, you can read a written collage I assembled at the Collagist. I am thrilled about this publication, for so many reasons that I need a list:
  • I ever want to cast more light on Mega-City Redux 
  • My friend Julie wants everyone on earth to read Other Powers 
  • This is the first written collage piece I've ever made, and it found a home in a (terrific) magazine called the **Collagist**, too cool 
  • The Ride of the Valkyries is about female power, and it's commonly associated with male power, and that is dumb and annoying and I want to reverse it 
  • I managed to say something important and interesting about feminism in a way that looked new to me 
I assembled the piece without much method, except for trying to shift from source to source with a fairly regular rhythm, and stretching out with my feelings, as Obi-Wan exhorts me to do. I chose these three sources because they seemed to have something to do with each other in my head - no greater or lesser intention than that. I plucked out portions I'd marked as I was reading, but I had many more than are in the finished piece. I trimmed based on what felt right. 

My favorite part is "[blank sentence]." It's so very Magritte. 

Earlier this week, Entropy published my most recent interview in the Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like) series, with the redoubtable Lynn K. Hall. I had fun putting this interview together, and I assuaged my guilt about not having read her book at the time I started the interview with gulping it nearly whole when I sent her my follow-up questions, and then confessing to my failure, and then salving the guilt with a positive Amazon review. 

I highly recommend her book, and not just for people who commonly read this kind of memoir. It's a tightly written piece of work, a model of structure and efficiency. Beyond the book's craft, Lynn's story is phenomenal and necessary.

Lately I've been brewing ideas without executing them, and submitting work all over, which is my favorite phase to be in. Brewing feels so necessary and correct, and submitting work reminds me that I have indeed written things, which makes me feel accomplished. Actual writing phases are filled with uncertainty and the feeling that I'm floating through life without really living it, which sucks. Brewing and leaning on finished work is nicer. Of course, I risk treading water too long in the red section of this handy diagram.

Now that school's out (for summer / for ever) (?) I'm reading a lot. But the pile never seems to get smaller. I've started a sub-pile beyond the "to be read" pile: the "READ THESE NOW YOU JERK" pile, composed of friends' books. It's also pretty tall. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I am tired of this

I have a vision of each shooting incident like a flame, a small deep whoosh like when the paper in the back ignites, before you can feel the heat or see anything; the soundless eating lip against the newspaper more blue than orange, blackening, hot but not dangerous until it reaches your fingers; spurts on this side and that side and in the middle and at the south and north and east and west until sparks fly from sea to shining sea and it all alights, combustion unstoppable then, even wet wood will catch and sizzle and dead matter will fly up the chimney and then nothing will remain, cinders, smoke, no living leaping flame, no spark, soot and ash waiting to be cleaned until spring comes and birds nest in the flue.

I have a vision of this place in flames.

McDonald's signs cracked and half-fallen. Starved Calvin Klein models graffitied and torn. Statues muscling each other out of city blocks, until their foundations decay and they topple.

Topple, Rome. Burn. All cities burn, eventually. I wrote that once.

Yesterday's heroes tomorrow's enemies today's talking heads. Flap flap flap flap flap. Birds nest in the flue.

Put your hands over your face before the camera snaps a picture. Open your mouth in a wail. Learn to do this before you are seventeen. Later, but not too much later, look for your open mouth on CNN. Look for it every two or three days. Look for it on routine anniversaries. Silver and gold. Carbon steel, the anniversary metal for these occasions. A common amalgam. Melted together and left to set in a mold, which is then shattered to create a death-object.

I have a vision.

It is kinder than the truth.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Notes from Here to the Ocean

If you have ever pulled the car over to set down an idea, you are a writer.

Blew a kiss to a jacaranda in bloom.

Perfectly tilled dirt. A machine has been here, farming.

The word arroyo untranslatable.

Hand to my own throat, fingers spread. The fragility there. Breakable breath.

"Table Song" : pious brother to your vices / You were shunned and burned your cradle

A decapitated palm tree looking like a violation. Unusual violence. Shaggy beneath its headlessness. The trimline ladder-high.

The shape of a woman with a latte, gazing.

I missed when it rolled over to 10,000 miles because of "Mary" and the scenery : the sugar rush / the constant hush / the pushing of the water gush

Precious water.

Driving, really driving, moving across the land at speed, as liminal: between waking and sleeping, between here and the ocean, the minutes after waking from a nap on the sofa, when the entire body glows with contentment.

Recognizing this feeling. Oh, it's love, I am in love. The voice murmuring to me over waves, dripping, that voice. Not that kind of love. Like poetry. Like music: the guitar rising in my heart, the piano rippling across my ribcage. I had forgotten falling in love could be nonsexual, nonromantic.

See myself as a streak of light blazing down the highway. Colors of the dawn.

Come around the last curve and there she is, spread out, stretched out, burning a thousand candles.

C'est vous, Los Angeles. Every love song is for you.

Shake my hair back, a happy animal. Take, take me home.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Ten Books That Mattered: Part Four (The Span of Everything)

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. Anaïs 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
If you've looked at this list and been curious about why a biography of Helen Keller inspired me so, today's post is for you. This book doesn't really go with any of the others. I mean, of course it does, because a life lived in books is a tapestry wherein every last thread depends on all the others. But this book is a straight biography, carefully researched in fact and detail, which puts it alone on the list; the language of it had nothing to do with what it meant to me; and its inspiration and influence weren't about a young, developing mind (#s 1-5) or an early, developing writer (#s 7-9).

Everybody learns about Helen Keller at some point before high school, I think. She's a part of American mythology: a girl who was born with every reason to feel sorry for herself, but who persevered beyond the pale in order to connect with other people. I don't remember why I chose to read a full-length biography of her, because I never had any significant interest in her aside from the natural awe and curiosity anyone might feel when they first learn of her existence. But for whatever reason, I picked up Herrmann's book at the Bowie Public Library at some point in my mid-20s, and won from it a new perspective.

I've been trying to talk and write about this for a number of years. I drafted this post for weeks. I'm not sure I've got it down satisfactorily, but this represents my best effort.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May Miscellany

As usual, once I write enough organized, one-topic posts I wind up with a bunch of smaller thoughts that need a place to go.

1. In finishing out the last semester of my graduate degree, I did two public readings and two semipublic readings. They were terrific. I love giving readings and I will miss the opportunity to do it. I guess I either need to join somebody's reading series or start a series of my own.

For the final GRS (Graduate Reading Series, which I've been co-running at CSUN all year), I read what I most wanted to, which meant I read a piece of the secret project, a poem (!) about hawks, and my manifesto. It meant a lot to me to get to read these things in front of an audience, particularly an audience that's known me for a long time but might not have heard/read this stuff of mine. I got positive responses.

Beyond my own experience, it was wonderful it was to hear my dearest Jesse read his poetry for the first time in well over a year. His work is so good, SO good, and I needed it.

For the first semipublic reading, I meant to read a piece of the revised final project I did for that class, and instead I ended up speaking sort of extemporaneously and reading a piece of this blog post, which had nothing to do with the class, and I don't really know how I ended up there but it made sense at the time. For the second semipublic reading, I read the start of the second chapter of the Casablanca novel I've started writing (did I mention that here? I'm writing a novel about Casablanca), and I think it went over fine.

The final reading was for 698D, my capstone/"thesis" class, and I was nervous for the first time in about six months. I'd been at a microphone easily a dozen times in the meantime, but this one, wow. My hands trembled. The reason was the material. I decided to read some of my hardest stories: the codex for why I will never live in New England again, the time I cried over a Banquet frozen dinner. I was afraid of being so vulnerable. Which is weird, because vulnerability doesn't usually scare me, but...I don't know. I was such a different person when I went through all that. Which explains itself, kind of; I wouldn't be who I am without crying over that Banquet dinner. Yet if this material wasn't interesting, or worth hearing, maybe that meant I was not an interesting or worthwhile person? [gestures with flappy hands] Whatever. I read the hard thing and I don't think it went as well as GRS but it's over and fine.

2. There's been some literary-world kerfuffle about this article, which says you HAVE TO HAVE TO write every day if you want to be a writer. No, you don't. I didn't even click on it when I started seeing it around last week, because no, you don't, and people who say that are locked into thinking there's One Right Way to do writing. Few things exist with One Right Way attached to them. I sat and stared at the wall and thought about this just now for several minutes, and drilled on down to things that are the same for everyone, like bodily functions, and even then I can't settle on the idea that yes, there's one right way to urinate and all the other ways are wrong. Human beings always have a choice.

But that is very far off the point, which is no, you don't have to write every day. I don't. I do, however, take writing seriously, which is the practice I think is truly important if you want to be a writer, and which practice I believe looks different for everybody. Consequently, in about two weeks I'll have another publication to tell you about. Take that, dude on Salon whose books I've never read.

3. I had to cut this out of my post about Girl and Incest:

In the suburb where I lived during high school, there was briefly a bookstore in the same plaza as our local music store/safe haven, Record & Tape Traders. I don't know what the deal was with this bookstore, whether it was an indie or an overstock seller like Crown, but I found there one of the most unusual books I've ever read: Exegesis, by Astro Teller (who, the internet tells me, now runs Google[x], which surprises me not at all). I bought it because the cover was nearly black, with an imprinted :) on it, and that looked interesting. I imagine the book would seem very quaint now, because it's about AI and takes the form of emails and instant messaging, all circa 1997, but at the time its form and subjects were totally new to me. It was one of those books that drops out of nowhere and back into nowhere. It's never come up anywhere else in my life, and in the middle of a high school curriculum it was exotic indeed.

4. Augh, I forgot to tell you about this interview with Gayle Brandeis! It was the most fun one yet. Two more interviews are on their way.

5. Somehow I have become a person who asks for, and receives, ARCs (advanced reader copies). I don't know how. It's a delicious mystery and it makes me feel very fancy indeed.

6. Related to this, I've become convinced that the best way to be a writer in the world is to lift other writers up. I've had a lot of good luck in the past two years, but I've also tried hard to spread the work of others out in the world: giving small-press books away to people I think would like them, sharing poetry and essays around, telling people about writers/friends I know that I think they should know. Every victory for every writer I know is a victory for me, too. I don't know which way the karma is flowing for me, but I don't really think that's the point of karma. 

I guess this is networking, in its truest sense. But it seems to be going well. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Feminist Argument in Favor of Reading Infinite Jest

Some weeks ago, I read this article, and I got into a conversation with my friend Marissa about it. Marissa is one of my favorite people for too many reasons to list here, but here are two relevant to this post: she is an exuberant feminist and a beautiful reader. These things combine to make her spurn books by men in a way I admire. She can correct this memory if I've screwed it up, but I think it happened that she spent a year reading books only by women, and then when she finished the year and started a book by a man, it reminded her of all the crappy qualities of male writers and the reasons why she did the project in the first place. She metaphorically (or literally?) tossed it at the wall and went back to solely women writers.

(A number of other writers have done this year-long project. The article I remembered best about it was this one on (cringe) XOJane, but you can also find work about it on Flavorwire, Medium, and elsewhere. Some of the articles, like this one on the Post, even include helpful lists of women's books, because Lord knows no one can independently find women writers, hidden as they are behind vacuum cleaners and under changing tables.)

Marissa and I had a Facebook conversation about this article* on DFW, joined by other women who've experienced the same phenomenon of Men Recommending DFW. It got sort of philosophical, running to the question of why people recommend things to other people in the first place. How to distinguish between recommending as condescension and recommending as genuine interest and exchange?

The main question I wanted to ask was why not having read something must be linked to insecurity. I'm not trying to accuse the writer, but what I mean is -
I wanted to become the right kind of person: savvy, culturally literate, respected by the metropolitan elite that might assume by default the cultural illiteracy of someone from Virginia. For a long time, I’d respond to men’s Wallace recommendations with “he’s on my list,” or “I’ve been meaning to — totally.” And for a long time, I meant it. 
Why not just say "No, I haven't" without assuring the asker that you intend to? It might be because you want to keep the conversation moving smoothly, which is completely reasonable. But it reads to me as "Oh, yes, I recognize that he's Important and I fully intend to comply with society's expectation that I read him."
This is how you become the right kind of person: if you’re not in a position of power, identify your oppressors — well-intentioned, oblivious, or otherwise — and love their art. This is why it’s hard to distinguish my reaction to Wallace from my reaction to patriarchy. This insistence that I read his work feels like yet another insistence that The Thing That’s Good Is The Thing Men Like. 
Of course, I know female DFW fans. But when women have talked to me about Wallace, their commentary is usually “he’s funny,” or “I liked A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” It has never been “Go read Infinite Jest,” or “You haven’t read any of his work?” It should also be noted that, upon hearing about this essay, male Wallace fans have specifically listed women they know who like Wallace — as if this invalidates my disinterest somehow. 
So, okay. This is all fair and true and real. Coyle is right on the money when she talks about The Thing That's Good and the kind of person who generally tends to like/recommend DFW (white, male, pretentious, self-centered).** But I still don't understand why the answer isn't merely "No, I haven't read him." I mean, who cares? Why try to be the right kind of person? Why fall into resisting male insistence? No one wins that way. The resister looks passive-aggressive and the insister looks like a dick.

Moreover, why not reply with asking if the recommender has read Elena Ferrante? Or Zadie Smith? Or Clarice Lispector? Why is the response "Of course I'll correct this oversight" instead of "Hey, so there's literature in the world not written by men"? The latter might lead to an interesting conversation, or at least one where you get the measure of who's talking to you and why they're recommending DFW. Anyone who would say "You haven't read any of his work?" isn't particularly someone I want to talk to about books.

One of the main points of Coyle's article (as should be obvious from the quotes above) is the sense that gender divides contribute significantly to who recommends DFW.
The men in my life who love Wallace also love legions of stylistically similar male writers I’m not interested in (Pynchon, DeLillo, Barth). I began checking out of literary conversations with them altogether. Now, when getting into book discussions with a certain kind of man, I often say “I can’t read” as soon as possible. 
I genuinely love that answer. From now on, if someone says "You've never read any of his work?" about Philip Roth, I'll definitely say I can't read. But part of what I resist about Coyle's point of view is electing to shut down irritating DFW recommenders by...not reading his work. What I usually do with an annoyingly omnipresent writer is read his work, and then explain why I don't like him to people who ask. Knowledge is power, y'know, whether in the classroom or at a cocktail party. Being able to stand next to the most obnoxiously erudite person in the room and talk about DFW is, in my opinion, better than saying I can't read. If only slightly. 

As I wrote in that Facebook conversation: read Wallace and make up your own mind. Don't let DFW fanboys tell you what they think forever; tell them what you think.

Doing that requires you to read an awful lot,*** because the target for pretentious people is constantly shifting. But I think it's possible not to be forever saying "He's on my list," between a combination of reading a lot and not giving a damn about whether you've read this or that book. If you care about whether you've read it or not, read it. If you don't, don't. (I mean, why is this so hard that we write feminist essays about it?!) I won't let people talk down to me about books, because I've read a lot of them, and not having read a particular book probably means I've read a different one instead.

Plus, it turns out that a lot of people are faking their knowledge.**** The women in this Facebook conversation noted that most copies of Infinite Jest go unread by their purchasers; pretentious dudes don't often have the discipline to actually get through 1,000 pages of dense intellectual trickery. I, however, have read it. Which means I can keep up a conversation about DFW if you start one and I will know if you're pretending you've read it. Knowledge = power.

And look, I'm not saying Coyle should give in and read DFW like the patriarchy wants her to, but instead to choose reading him as the most powerful option. Don't let them teach you how to use a table saw, or (more accurately) talk to you about how useful the saw could be if only you could get your tiny woman-brain around the challenge of its operation. Read the manual and use it yourself.

Don't let them devalue your opinion, love. Read and speak some more.
Their ignorance shouldn't infect you.

Marissa pointed out that the way Men Recommending DFW see the person/woman they're recommending it to is as "an empty vessel waiting to be filled with male intellect". Ugh. Probably. So turn that around. Read more books than anyone in the room. Have an opinion. Don't let anyone make you feel small because you never got around to Jude the Obscure. Read Middlemarch instead and talk about Victorian realism vs. the waning influence of minimalism, and how since postmodernism we've strayed from the genuine novel form into a kind of extended short story, and how you can see this if you read Sophie's Choice against something like 11/22/63. Those ideas are free from me to you. Enjoy them.

The rest of this post is just extended footnotes, because of course it is.


*I'm annoyed that Coyle (or her editor) picked Brief Interviews with Hideous Men to read for the article, because I think it's the least intellectually interesting of his work I've read. He's so mean in it, so heartless, an empty center where the humanism of many of his other works goes. The title says it all: the book is a series of experiments in depravity, rather than in transcendence, which is how I see some of his other work. He's unkind in other stuff, too - the state fair essay, and the essay on porn - but I barely enjoyed Brief Interviews. I'd've picked "Mister Squishy" or just Oblivion to give you a real idea of him. But then I guess Brief Interviews is the most hostile and pretentious Wallace gets, which might be the Wallace fanboys like best. Yuck. 

**It bothers me so much that these are Wallace's strongest recommenders. It's like Richard Wagner: he'll never get the taint of Hitler off of him, even though his art has no meaningful connection with Nazism. 

It has become clear to me over time that everyone who loves Wallace loves him for completely different reasons. The people who are most vocal about loving him seem to love him for the worst reasons: because they think they're as smart as him (or they want to be); because they find his superiority towering instead of hollow, as he eventually did; and because he writes about the minefield of self-awareness, by which sensitive people both male and female, both wonderful and dreadful, are consumed. (The dreadful ones just talk about it a lot more.) I love him because of his excavation of that minefield, and because he likes words more than any writer I've ever read, and because he can write in approximately 6,874 modes, which is 6,873 more than most writers. Among other reasons. But the smart is much less interesting to me than the heart in his work. Fanboys seem to have it turned the other way. 

***I've written elsewhere about the benefits of omnivoracious reading: here, re: YA, and here, re: motivation for reading fancy books. I suspect I'll be writing about this topic in one way or another for the rest of my life. 

****I was COMPLETELY HORRIFIED by this Buzzfeed list and others like it. Why would you pretend to have read anything? It's just going to get you into trouble when people ask what you think! But it cuts both ways. People apparently lie about the books they've read all the time, so you've got the edge if you really do read them. (I've read 15 of those 22.) 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Medusa Laughs Again, Through Me, at Ms.

I guess May is my month. "A Body Manifesto in Five Acts", which I wrote, appears today at the Ms. Magazine blog.

This essay has been cooking in me for years. Influences include Hole

, Sadie Plant

, Stephen King, Simone de Beauvoir, Laura Mulvey, and most especially Hélène Cixous.

If you haven't read "The Laugh of the Medusa", do yourself a favor. My essay is the first ten minutes of the film of Fellowship of the Ring to Cixous's boxed set of LOtR plus The Silmarillion.

I've discussed the genesis of this essay before, but there are a few things I want to note about it now that it's out in the world.

First, it was being angry at someone that kicked me in the ass to write it after years of thinking about it. Generally, I don't think being angry is much of a reason to do anything, but this particular anger was good for me. And that itself was a useful lesson: the motivation to make art may not always be lofty or noble, but whatever makes you make art is a good reason to make art.

It happened like this. I tentatively introduced in class the idea of women living in their bodies differently than men, and an older woman, in her fifties or early sixties, disagreed with me. She said she didn't think women had any particular consciousness of living in their bodies that functioned differently from that of men. I looked at her and thought - perhaps unfairly - you are interpellated. You have been fooled by the patriarchy. There is something different about women, and you can't see what it is because you've lived too long in the shadow of men, through the maddening eye of the male gaze. How would I explain to this woman, I wondered, that a woman is more aware of her body than a man is aware of his?

When I sat down, I thought initially about all the different names and adjectives under which women operate, and that's where the first paragraph came from. The first paragraph was the last time I remember thinking consciously about what I'd put on the page. It poured out of me from there.

That's about as in-depth as I can get on the process of creating it, because that's the second thing I want to note. This essay did not come from painstaking word-by-word work; it came from white heat. I wrote it in a long gasp, except for two paragraphs which I was too distracted to add at the time and added later. The foundations of feminist theory it builds on are all in my head, though, and that theory took years to acquire. I read Dworkin and de Beauvoir and Mulvey in college, fifteen years ago; I read Freud and Kristeva and "Medusa" in the last two years. All that was a primordial soup from which the words came flaming out. But that is the way I write: the painstaking work takes place over a long period of time in which nothing is produced. The production period is extremely brief, but it calls on all the thinking-work. I've tried to explain this multiple times, because my work schedule looks breezy and weird to other writers, but this essay is possibly the most extreme example of it. Fifteen years of work condensed to 2,100 words I wrote in a few hours.

Third, my vision for this manifesto is to publish it with photographs in a standalone book. I have mental sketches for what I want the photographs to be (they involve my body, red paint, my husband's clothes, other things), and I have a photographer in mind, but she is in Oregon and I'm in L.A. and I have no idea how to arrange studio space, lighting equipment, and so on to make it happen. If you have fallen in love with this piece and are in a position to help me with any part of this project, by all means let me know.

Fourth, very importantly, I am not an essentialist. I don't believe that only biological women are women. I don't believe that organs or mascara or vocal pitch make or break the status of "woman". If you are a transgender/genderqueer/gender-fluid person and you think that, with this essay, I am somehow saying there's no room for you at the woman table, please, please, please get in touch with me (kcoldiron at gmail) and let's dialogue about it. My endeavor is to demonstrate how women, in my experience, live in their bodies, and to diagnose cultural conundrums relating to life in that body. I do not desire to offend or exclude.

(A non-binary friend of mine loved this piece, so I'm proceeding on the idea that I did okay...but I'd genuinely like to hear about it if not.)

Final thought: I never wanted "A Body Manifesto in Five Acts" to find a home anywhere but Ms. I am proud and honored beyond measure that Ms. agreed it belonged with them. But this publication, this honor, was kindled by my belief in my own power to speak and think and write. I would not hold such a belief without what Ms. has been doing since long before I was born. What goes around comes around, and around, and around.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Three (Young Womanhood)

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. Anaïs 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
I haven't returned to Blake Nelson's Girl since I read it, and I don't remember how I found it, unless it was a random bookstore purchase.* So, this overview comes almost completely from memory, which may be faulty.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Weekend in Frazier Park, CA

No longer protected by distance or time, we live in the whole world at once, like postmodern gods, experiencing our own flesh and surroundings only disruptively.
- R.M. Berry
On the way to the cabin, I kept seeing ghosts of myself. An eighteen-wheeler that read "Aslan Logistics". A large homemade sign that read "Kat's Bakery". The general store had one small bottle of Crown Royal Black, my favorite, next to several larger bottles of regular Crown Royal. One small bottle just for me. In the waning afternoon as I sat on the porch, the biggest crow I've ever seen flew across the yard. It was the size of a small goose. I wondered if it was a raven, if that's just the expected size of ravens, and then I heard caw caw caw and went nope, that's a crow.

(I used to think crows were bad luck, but one day I decided to think of them as good luck. My life has been lucky ever since.)

The first night, I watched Manos: The Hands of Fate while I drank whiskey and thought about the work I had to do. My hands kept reaching for my phone. But my phone didn't work. No reception, no wifi. I'd been severed from my life. So I could only pay attention to Manos, instead of Manos + four other things.

I woke to birds doing what they do in the morning. I noticed that they sang with the gray part of dawn and then quit once the light started to rise. Sunrise and sunset were different on the middle of the mountains; the light fell at imperfect angles, and the actual circle of the sun didn't appear consistently with its beams. I ate breakfast and started work. I worked all morning, listening to my iPod (a Classic, now a dead breed and an antique by technology standards. But it's the only model that holds as much music as I need) and not bothering to change out of my pajamas.

At lunchtime I touched my phone, and then looked out the window. Rabbits blended with the chaparral but for their bright white tails. Steller's jays hopped everywhere. Small mammals I couldn't identify (size and appearance of squirrels, with short, sparse tails; way too big for chipmunks, too skinny for groundhogs) dug and quivered in the yard.

I worked for most of the afternoon. I finished 2,700 words: the second chapter of the Casablanca project/the final paper for my narrative writing class. I delved my fingers into my Singin' in the Rain essay and cat's-cradled it, burrowing deeper, finding the elements I'd dashed by on the first pass and hanging them out on the line. I added something over 1,000 words.

Dinner and some wine. The heater had been running on and off all day. The cabin had no central heating and didn't warm up much during the day, and it was genuinely cold, not just cold by California standards, at night. That is a fear I've faced and defeated, and here I was facing it again, during a few days' span when my creativity was the only thing at stake.

The following morning, Saturday, I took my time getting started. I'd accomplished the two main things I needed to. Writing on my thesis could certainly have kept me for another week, but it wasn't really what I wanted to do. I need to turn in 40-75 pages of material in mid-May, and all semester, though I've been fairly dutiful about work on the manuscript, I've had the sensation that what I turn in will be nothing like a finished product. In part because 40-75 pages is not a full-length memoir manuscript by anyone's standards, and in part because I knew it would take unencumbered, untethered, untimed work, for months or years, before I had a finished product I could stand for other people to read.

And, in all honesty, I have never felt good about this project. I didn't want to do it when Chris told me he saw the book in it, and I didn't want to do it when my adviser told me she thought it was a more worthwhile project than anything else I was working on. I didn't want to do it when I'd written a project proposal, when Jesse sketched the line of music I needed to preface it, when I found epigraphs, when I got feedback on the stuff I brought in to my small group, when my adviser told me I was doing great but needed to dig even deeper, when I nailed down present-day experiences to integrate with the old ones, when I uncovered memories I'd forgotten, when I constructed a skeleton to work from, when I found a theme to anchor, when I read Heroines and understood what was missing. No amount of progress made me want to do it.

Departing from this chronological narrative of my trip to Frazier Park, I didn't want to do it when I finished the draft on Saturday (May 6), when I revised it on Sunday, when I printed it out on Sunday afternoon, when I considered how to bind it and hand it in today. I still won't want to do it when I read from it on Friday, May 12. I don't feel ready to write it, even though I've written it. I don't feel old enough. I don't know when it will see daylight as a finished project. I need to reread Bachelard and come to terms with what I've already put on the page, what remains to go on it. I need to decide whether I find myself boring, whether I want to see this book in print, what this is all for. Never have I known such uncertainty. It's good work, I know, good writing, but it feels wrong, in instinctual ways I can't defend or explain.

I drove fifteen minutes down the road, to where I had cell service, and called Matt. "I think I'm going to come home today instead of tomorrow," I said.

"Is everything all right?" he said.

"Of course," I said. "I'm very happy. I'm just finished, or almost finished, and I miss you. I see no need to stay."

"All right, then," he said. "Yay."

I refreshed my inbox. I had 17 new emails. I opened Facebook. I had 26 notifications. I put down the phone and looked up at the mountains, at the falling dust spun up by my tires, at the pines around me.

On the way back, I drove by the Jim Whitener Tree, one of the biggest ponderosa pines in California. It has been growing since before the printing press. The road was too narrow for me to stop and take a picture with my phone. I fixed the look of it in my mind: branches themselves as large as trees, a trunk extending far below the elevated route I drove on, roots so deep, I imagined, they could dig straight through the earth's mantle to its warm core.

Back in the cabin I spent, no kidding, 15 minutes on my feminist manifesto. I wrote two paragraphs, and it was finished. That's work I've been waiting to do since November. It's true that I needed to be in the right frame of mind, but I was still disgusted with myself that it took so long. The DVD player, paused on a Rifftrax short, didn't even have time to go to its screen saver between when I started the two paragraphs and when I finished them.

I went downstairs to sit on the porch and brought my notebook. Suddenly, words arrived. I wrote about the Steller's jays, and about the men working on the house next door, and about the cold I lived through in the winter of 2005. I don't know if I'm finished writing about it - this is the nth time I've done so, I've lost track - but what I wrote felt definitive. As if it was the codex entry. I wrote about the day I took my shirt off in the winter at Mount Holyoke, an incident I still don't understand. I wrote about what happened when I went to the opera in November, just after the election.

Birds. Small mammals. Sunlight.

I went inside, ate lunch, typed what I'd written. I started packing my things, which I'd strewn in disarray all over the bedroom. I gathered up the trash and washed the dishes.

I went back outside to the porch, and while I sat there, thinking, listening to the wind in the green leaves, I heard what sounded like either a small child's shout or some kind of bird's cry. As the sound got closer, I determined it was definitely a bird, although I couldn't imagine what kind. Then a man walked past the cabin with not one but two enormous white cockatoos on his shoulders. He talked in a conversational way - to the birds, I learned shortly.

The man saw me and said hello, and I walked up to the street. I wore pajama pants and flip-flops and a Star Wars t-shirt and you could have fried clams in my hair. He didn't care. He greeted me and introduced me to the more friendly of his two cockatoos, who stepped onto my arm, walked up and over my shoulders and down my other arm, and then walked back again. His feet gripped but did not pinch. His beak and tongue were both black, worn, used; only a tinge of yellow colored his white feathers.

He, the bird, was thirty years old.

After a very pleasant conversation, after the man (Greg) and his birds had headed back toward home, I returned to the porch and sat down. I looked around the yard, my head completely empty of reactive thoughts. "That sure did happen," was the closest I could come. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before.

I decided to leave. Any other possible occurrence would have been a disappointment after meeting Greg.

On the way home, I looked at the mountains. I took the same way home as I took out, but I never once checked my phone, so it all looked completely different. The wild poppies like spilled paint on a hilltop; the clover tinging the yellow grass purple. The sky, and the whipped clouds across it. A hitchhiker and a handmade cast-iron ranch gate. Two trees, one bleached and one blackened, fallen and entwined in a clearing. The leaping engine of a Camaro. An overloaded Dodge Caravan with peeling paint.

I saw the world, is what I'm trying to convey. I saw the world. I didn't see it through a screen, like a concertgoer more interested in recording the show than being present at it. I saw it at its normal pace, not scrolling by with the speed of my finger. I saw it with its own colors, not an Instagram filter. I saw the goddamn world, and nothing about it looked old or small to me. I fell back in love with it. My heart rose with the San Gabriels and fell with the sun.

And I fell out of love with screens, temporarily at least. I realized I'd been allowing the world to shrink to the size of my phone screen, and I'd been seeing everything through that little rectangle. I had missed the real thing for the sake of the simulacrum. Yes, there can be more human connection through the little rectangles than out there in the real thing, I'd be the first to agree with that. But I'd lost track of what I love about the world - its indifference to us, its thereness - in favor of something that would react to me, conform to my needs, be forever novel and new.

I got done almost everything I needed to get done to finish my M.A. that weekend, but I also picked up perspective I desperately needed. My attention had become a baby feeding on pixels, and I needed to grow up again. I owe that to a few days in a cabin, to Greg, to my own words, and to the wind in the pines.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

News & -Letter

Holy moly there's so much to share with you. I went for a writing weekend and picked up a great little shift in perspective. I finished my feminist manifesto after five months of not finishing it. I am three weeks away from completing my master's degree (AND NO I'M NOT PANICKING OR ANYTHING).

But, far more importantly, I reviewed Lidia Yuknavitch's new novel, The Book of Joan, for the Rumpus.

"Joan does not participate in the binary. She does not play the patriarch's game."

I truly do not know how this happened, except that it did. I am honored and astonished.

Also! My interview series at Entropy continues. The most recent interviewee was Teow Lim Goh, and the interview ranged into deep stuff. I've got a few more terrific thinkers lined up to interview, so stay tuned.

And finally, I've started an email newsletter, Fictator's Digest. The idea of it is that I'll email you every so often (every couple of weeks? maybe?) to let you know about publications, what's going on in my world as a writer/reader, if I'm doing events or reading anything interesting. You can subscribe to it here. (It's a free MailChimp account, so if you see ads or PRESENTED BY MAILCHIMP!!!!! all over the emails, my apologies.) I'll send out the first issue tomorrow, so roll up, roll up, roll up!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Two (Adolescence)

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
Sometime during middle school, an elderly lady neighbor in our apartment complex delivered to me a brown paper shopping bag filled with books. I think she said (perhaps I heard this secondhand) she thought some of them were a little too young for me, and some of them were a little too old, so hopefully the result would be just right. I wish I could remember all the books in that paper bag, but one of them was The Cricket in Times Square, an utterly charming book which now feels like a relic from another century (which, I guess, it is). Another was The Hiding Place, which I still feel guilty about not reading. A third was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3, a mass market paperback with a forest green cover and solemn white lettering belying what lay within.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Bloody Noses

Yesterday, two news stories of interest to liberal audiences broke: a shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school in which two adults and one child were killed, and an incident in which a passenger was dragged forcibly off a United flight after it was oversold. My Facebook feed, which leans very far to the left, offered a ton of commentary on the United flight incident and very little about the shooting.

My husband put it thus: "It's another school shooting."

The United thing is slightly more unprecedented. Though it's part of the larger pattern of the last few years: the contempt and corruption and absurdity in institutions has torn through the last polite veil and it's on the surface now. Nepotism is plain instead of hidden. Swastikas are being spray-painted on churches. Profit comes before people, in Detroit and North Dakota and on the internet. It's always been here, roiling and charred; now it's visible.

I am not anti-gun, but I am not pro-gun. My father kept a shotgun under the bed, which my mother knew how to use. We believed in Constitutional rights in my family, but it doesn't follow that my family thought willy-nilly gun ownership was a good idea. It's kind of funny, because the two issues are at opposite ends of the political spectrum in this nation, but in my view, abortions and gun ownership should both be safe, legal, and rare.

It dawned on me a couple of years ago that plane flights, in a country as large as America, are not a luxury but a necessity. If you need to get home for a funeral, you don't have another choice but to fly. It's another way that the European model of planning a society doesn't fit America: the Eurail is reliable and useful because Europe is small. Copenhagen runs on bicycles because it's small. America can't do it the way they do it over there because our land mass is simply too big, and infrastructure planning for a place as large as America presents challenges that the Eurail doesn't face. (This doesn't excuse Amtrak for its suckiness, but it gives some sense to why lawmakers won't pour money into a rail infrastructure here. The distances are impractical.)

My opinion on gun control approaches apathy. Shootings keep happening, and we ride the roller-coaster of public outrage, and nothing changes. Why should I state and defend my position when lobbying outguns me every time?

If plane flights are a necessity rather than a luxury, why are they so unaffordable for the average person? Why do they run so unsatisfactorily, such that jokes about the unpleasant aspects of flying were already unfunny a generation ago? Why do they have to teeter between regulation (FAA) and deregulation (stockholders)?

Matt said to me once that handguns were designed for no purpose other than to kill human beings. This altered the way I view guns altogether. I see no problem with responsible gun ownership, but unless you're a collector (like some people collect decorative plates - and because of how I feel about cars, I fully understand a 100% unmurdery attraction toward guns, and whatever, you do you, but you probably have a gun safe), why on earth would you want a handgun unless you think you might kill a human being someday?

Why would you want to own a machine gun if you are not a soldier?

Why is overbooking flights okay?

"Because it's my right" is a good enough reason. I'm perfectly okay with that. Very little is more ingrained in the American perspective than my rights. But freedom and danger dance, inseparably, eternally, a tango toward the end of the world. Conscious decisions about which element to prioritize are necessary. You can't just assume you're either free or safe; you need to work it out for yourself, how much of each you want. And there's a point where I think the safety of others lands at a higher priority than the freedom of a few. That point keeps poking our nation in the temple again and again, cold and sharp, twenty children, fifty college students, a dozen moviegoers.

The opposing view on the United thing is that he should have just complied. Sure, I guess. If you think compliance will make people treat you fairly. If you think compliance is a virtue. If you think that overbooking flights is the customer's problem, not the airline's.

After Sandy Hook, I realized that the gun laws in this nation will not change. Ever. If the murder of twenty elementary school children spurs no restrictive action related to guns, nothing ever will.

As long as airlines are running a public utility for profit, shit like this is going to go down. They'll squeeze us into ever smaller sardine tins and charge us $400 for it and nothing will change. As long as we keep paying for what we have to have, and no one in a position to be heard says hey, this isn't right, and it matters to you as well as to me, we'll keep being dragged out of seats we paid for. We'll keep being given bloody noses and told to comply. For profit. For stockholders.

Guns don't cause these deaths. Illness does. If we can't fix illness - and we can't - there must be a way to limit what illness can wreak on the innocent.

The frenzy of being American contributes to it. Being male in America at a weird time, when the comfortable supremacy of men erodes daily, contributes to it. Powerlessness - like the kind that leads you to close your mouth instead of joining a union, like the kind that leads people to accept the phenomenon of overbooked flights so they can get where they need to go - contributes to it. The availability of guns, and the press coverage of prior shootings and the availability of guns to those prior shooters and the press coverage of the availability of guns to the shooters before that and the peaky emotional outpouring of rage and support after each one, these all contribute to it.

To keep the gears moving, to keep the bottom line in the black, to sell subscriptions, to generate clicks, so we can buy things and stone ourselves with television and tell each other how much better the advertisement was than the football game.

Don't you want to be famous?

Don't you want to matter?

Don't you want to get home?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Me (and Alyse Knorr) on Entropy!

Today marks the launch of an interview series I'm doing for Entropy called "Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like)". The idea is that I interview a bunch of authors about books they hate, and thus comes fruitful conversation about books and perhaps writing generally. This one's been in the works for a while, so I'm thrilled to share.

My first interview subject (and I believe the first person I have interviewed since, oh, 1999) is Alyse Knorr, a poet whose book Mega-City Redux I have been giving to all my friends since late last year. Up next on the interview docket are two more poets, which is appropriate, since 

Because this is the Fictator, and it's what I do here, I'm going to explain how this thing came together, and how what happened to me can benefit you if you are a not-yet-famous writer.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


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.


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.