Monday, July 17, 2017

Better or Worse

Last week I watched the 1987 film Mannequin, with Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall. For whatever reason, this movie was a big part of my early life. For a time, it was my most favorite movie, to the point where I drew pictures of the two main characters and put them in a locket I wore because I loved them sooooo much.

This is not easy for me to admit. But I was quite young, around seven.

Seeing Mannequin nearly 30 years later was a weird experience. I remembered the outline of the plot, and I remembered some aspects of the performances, but most of what I remembered was inflection, turn of phrase, sound and look. The way some lines of the screenplay were said has been hanging around in my neural matter for all this time; it was like hearing lullabies sung to me in my cradle. Oh, this line, yes. Right, that montage. I didn't know exactly what the actress was going to say, nor what it meant in the context of the film, but I knew precisely how she was going to say it. An alchemical kind of memorization.



Since last week I've had those lines bouncing around in my head. I can't recite the whole movie, but I could parrot a good 25% of the screenplay right now, if you wanted me to. The way people get songs in their heads, I get scenes in my head, from movies or shows I watched either at developmentally crucial moments or have watched repeatedly. Mannequin had been lost to me in that way until I saw it again, and part of me thinks it was a mistake to watch it as an adult, because it woke up all those brain cells that had been sleeping and/or allocated to more useful tasks. And now I can remember it. For better or worse, it's in my head again, imprinted like a fingernail in clay.

Perhaps it's for worse that I'm saying this about a disposable 80s comedy with questionable gender relations, impossible plot mechanics (he's the toast of Philadelphia for designing department store display windows?) and untenably over-the-top performances.* Yet there are worse movies I could have eaten up as a child. And the bright 80s colors and synthesizers, the simplicity of the plot, the positive ethical compass, the sheer harmlessness of the whole enterprise - these things make it a pretty good movie for kids, even if that wasn't the intent.

Watching the film again, though - I wanted to memorialize the weirdness of that experience. Because although it might've been fine for seven-year-old me, now I can see what a thoroughly dumb film it is - the padding, the flimsiness, the Born Sexy Yesterday problem. I cringed all the way through, even as bits of my brain flared and lit like distant fireworks.** Both happened at the same time: affection, communicated across time and space, along with deep, vermilion embarrassment.

Some years ago, when we still lived in Maryland, I talked my husband into taking a day trip with me to Norfolk, Virginia, where I lived during my elementary school years. I had an itch to see this place called the Hermitage, where I went a few times as a child, and which I remembered as a mysterious, enchanted glen of sun-dappled woods. Someone had long ago placed millstones among the trees, which had been grown over by grass and moss. I remembered old brick walls, restless quiet, the possibility that Narnia waited around the next bend. I couldn't bear my half-memories of the place any longer, so we drove there.

The Hermitage grounds are lovely, but smallish and well-kept, not wild and mysterious. The house (which was off-limits every time I went there, so I didn't care about it much) sits next to water - the Lafayette River - a detail I did not remember. The woods I had remembered made up a fairly small patch of ground, and the trees were not exactly sparse but were not thick enough to hide the house or the neighboring wetlands, to make you feel like you were at all distant from civilization.


My memory sparked and fired from time to time, but like returning to an elementary school, everything looked small. Minimal. Mundane. Certain aspects did not disappoint, like the millstones, but nothing about the bit of woods we walked in felt enchanted. Matt was kind and didn't say anything to the effect of "we drove seven hours round trip for this?", but I felt deflated.

What I'm trying to say about all this is how strange our brains are, that they can latch on to more or less random input early in life and never let go. That might mean that we should be a hell of a lot more careful about what we give kids early in life, what movies and shows they watch over and over, what places they go and fall in love with. Or it might not; there's an element of "who knows" attached to all this, because I know I saw movies and went places as a kid that I didn't retain as clearly, or at all. I don't think having Mannequin and the Hermitage in my brain has made me worse (or better) off in any particular way, nor do I think the selection of this movie, this place, says anything special or important about me, my taste, my parents' parenting, anything like that. One of the most brilliant set of parents I know, their four-year-old loves Trolls, the movie made from nothing more substantive than a line of plastic toys; I think it's because the movie has bright colors, not because his affection for the film indicates anything about his destiny. But I'll bet he's going to remember the turn and shape and sound of aspects of that film well into his adult life. For better or worse.

Mannequin, at least, was entertaining. Keep your expectations low if you elect to watch it; the leads have nice chemistry and Spader has to be seen to be believed, but that's about it. If you've never been to the Hermitage and you're near Hampton Roads, it might be a nice place to visit.

What I definitely don't recommend is trying to go back to where you've been, whatever that means to you. You can go home again, but you can't live memories the same way a second time. Even if you retain them with precision, like the actors reciting their lines permanently in my mind, like the millstones under my adult feet, they'll never be exactly the way they were.

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*I mean, I don't know who was telling Spader to do what he did in this movie, but he behaved approximately as human as Ed Grimley.

**An unintentionally funny thing: the evil department store is named Illustra (which is an odd name for a department store, right?) and it's mostly pronounced by the actors like Olestra. I don't think Olestra existed then, so now it's pretty funny to hear them talking about margarine and meaning a department store.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Six (Truth and Consequences)

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. Ana├»s 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
Part of me can't even figure out how to write this, the final post in this series. I've talked and written so much about Lifespan and COW (which is what Lidia calls The Chronology of Water - she even says it aloud like the animal, like moo-cow - so that's what I'll call it too) that I don't know where to start writing about them again. Both books changed my life. Crucially. Undeniably. No-going-back-ly.

But then, every book on this list has changed my life. Easily half of all the books I've read have changed my life to some degree. Changing your life is not really that hard, or that unusual. Every pebble in the riverbed changes the current a little, alters where the cold water lies and where you have to swim a little harder.

If not these books, perhaps some other books. If not them, a song or an album, a play, a film. Something would have come along to make my life different than it was before. That's how this goes, this life thing, this art thing.

But since we're here -

I read this review of The Lifespan of a Fact and decided I had to get hold of it. At the time I was writing genre fiction almost exclusively; in 2012 I wrote most of a novel, Highbinder, that I still love very much but that is many miles away from what I'm doing now. Still, even then I was obsessed with truth, and with the distances between and among truth, memory, story, and fact.

Lifespan looks like it's going to be a lot of trouble to read, because the layout of each page is one central rectangle of black text surrounded on all sides by smaller, footnoteish text colored either red or black. But it goes quickly. You develop a rhythm for reading the text and its associated notes, in whatever order you elect. You go from page to page in awe of the ideological clash taking place, even though it escalates gradually, even though it involves unpleasant dick-swinging, even though it leaves off on a note that makes you stare at the wall in existential terror.

As always, click to embiggen, because as always, Blogger makes it
impossible to make pictures the size I want them to be

Last semester we read Lifespan in my creative nonfiction class, and I ended up recounting part of the conversation we had in an essay, "Bright White American Smile."
What a thrill to study The Lifespan of a Fact in a classroom. The book had changed my life. I couldn’t wait to hear what younger minds made of it.

The result astounded me: they didn’t care about the facts. They sided with art. What difference did it make if D’Agata got every little thing right? He was telling a story.

But it’s not the truth, I argued, nearly apoplectic. The truth is sacred. It’s necessary. It’s water in the desert of the real.

Eh, they answered.
There was a lot more to it, but, y'know, that's why I wrote the essay. The book revolves around big questions, and questions that may seem small but are actually huge: the importance of rhythm in prose, the general point of fact-checking, the actual meaning of "nonfiction," and whether writers bear a moral responsibility to their readers. I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but searching for the answers is a big part of why I have developed and sustained a writing practice for the past five years. I don't think genre fiction could have kept my interest as I failed and failed and failed at writing during that time. If Highbinder had attracted a publisher, then maybe it could have, and my life would be different. But it didn't, and instead I read The Lifespan of a Fact, and so I am where I am.

Another reason I am where I am is COW, which I read just a few months before Lifespan, which was how I remembered it but which I'm still surprised to confirm. (Sidebar: in a single summer I read Mary Gaitskill's Don't Cry, Jincy Willett's Jenny and the Jaws of Life, and Barry Hannah's Airships, which all display remarkable, unusual, fascinating story-making, and each of which is a master class in writing. Why they all came my way in just one summer I'll never know.)

Later, I sent copies of COW to four women I know. Three of them wrote me messages and emails that said WHAT IS HAPPENING I FEEL WEIRD MY LIFE IS CHANGING MY BODY EXISTS HALP. And I was like, I KNOW. COW is powerful. (The fourth woman didn't like it. Too much sex.) I've been giving it away to people ever since; I think I've bought at least twenty copies. I decided to keep a handful of them on my shelf, just in case.

What I wrote at the time:
Chronology is a book that has absolutely changed my life. In a week. I am waiting to write much about it until I read it again, which I hope to do next week. I want to read it every week. I want to write it on my skin, to chop it into dust and breathe it into my lungs. It feels like the only real book I've read since I was a little girl (aside from books that just broke my heart, like Feed); the word "book" seems inadequate to describe it. 
I never did write more about it, because I assimilated it so deeply that writing about it seemed unnecessary. And now, of course, I'm stuck writing about it, because of this series.

It's a book full of contradictions. For a memoir so subjectively about its author, it offers a remarkably objective, granular sense of the experience of life. It grapples with language as a limited set of parameters, but it applies language so flexibly that other writing feels stiff, toylike, minor. Most profoundly, it frees the writing of women from the methods and practices of men's writing. It's assembled the way a life is remembered, rather than the way a book is Supposed To Be Written; the grammar varies according to the mood the reader is meant to feel; the style ranges widely; metaphors roam like fenceless horses.

Still from the book trailer

COW affected me by virtue of its novelty, certainly. I had not read Cixous, so I didn't know there was another way to write than some version of the Harold Bloom way, nor did I know what could differentiate women's writing, trauma writing, body writing, from more traditional prose.

But the book also showed me that I am always going to be the center of my writing, and I get to choose what I do with that centrality. My mentor says - quoting someone, I think - that the most interesting thing about a piece of literature is the consciousness through which it is filtered. She's talking about voice, and her lesson is a little different from what COW demonstrates, but the underlying ideas are nearly identical. Even if I try to scrub out all traces of myself in order to write a story about a robot stealing organs to make himself human, I can't remove me. Not completely.

This seems obvious, because I write my ideas, using words inside my head, but how far I choose to lean in to myself as I write is the variable. And that little lean, from here to there, is an enormous possibility space. There's no way to divorce a writer completely from what she produces, I believe, but there's a big difference between every character in your novel having a little piece of you inside her and writing explicitly from, or of, the self. Jesse told me after reading my secret project - which is not biographical in any significant way - that he found it deeply personal, and I think that's because I wrote it out of my body, instead of allowing my body to be remote from the process. I could not have written it that way before COW came into my life.

What I've learned since I read COW is that the work is better, more intense, more interesting, when I embrace the me at the heart of each sentence. That may take the form of genuine memoir, or it may involve explaining the emotional history of my porcelain veneers during an essay about The Lifespan of a Fact and Singin' in the Rain.

It's not how the list turned out, but the better pair of books to talk about in tandem, if talking about the books that mattered to me, is Oblivion and COW. Those are my two favorite writers: Wallace and Yuknavitch. Between them, Wallace is the mind and Yuknavitch is the body. Wallace sometimes gets embodied, and Yuknavitch is a brilliant thinker, but they generally fall inside those lines for me.

Since discovering the place of each of these writers in my cosmology, the missing element that's been nagging at me is the heart. Who's the heart?

My secret desire, ambition, terror is that I'm the heart - that I'm the one who completes the trinity.

A romantic notion: the heart knows the truth. And, after all, the truth is what obsesses me.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Novel-Writing / Blue-Footed Boobyness

In setting up the Casablanca novel, writing the early chapters, I've heaved a lot of existential sighs. It feels so tedious, having to tie the rigging and erect the masts for my model ship. As the New Yorker brought to my attention, 
in an interview with the Guardian last August, [Rachel] Cusk said that she had recently come to a dead end with the modes of storytelling that she had relied on in her earlier novels. She had trouble reading and writing, and found fiction “fake and embarrassing.” The creation of plot and character, “making up John and Jane and having them do things together,” had come to seem “utterly ridiculous.”
That's a terrific article if you read the whole thing, and it expressed a feeling I'd started to have about writing short stories at the time I read it in 2015. Writing fiction had begun to seem even more farcical than reading fiction usually did. Inventing people and setting them off on journeys felt hollow. Like playing with paper dolls in scenarios unimportant and soon forgotten. It was part of why I began to sway toward nonfiction, metafiction, hybrid work. Not only am I not especially good at writing regular short stories, but I don't enjoy it. 

In the Casablanca novel, although I'm writing mainly about one character and her journey and her interior life, I have to put together other elements of character and plot in order to sustain that journey, as well as - critically - the reader's interest. Okay, so I've invented a teacher who's a member of the French Resistance, and a principal who colludes with the Nazis, and a wife who's left her husband over fascism, and little teenage friends who are uninterested in the war. But making them all hang together as a whole tapestry, making cause and effect happen in a dance of inevitable surprise - that is the stuff that, in my opinion, makes it a novel. And that stuff is annoying and difficult and not nearly as interesting in the course of its invention as I ever think it will be. 

Writing all the other stuff is the work, and writing about my main character is the fun. I wish I'd remembered that novel-writing works this way before I decided to undertake this one, but I didn't, and now I'm stuck.

I hoped I would have more to say about this situation, above - enough to make a decent-sized post - but I do not, alas. Except to say that I read the book that New Yorker article was about, Outline, and it was one of the dullest, least fulfilling books I've read in yonks. Since it was the first book of hers I've read, I don't know if I don't connect to Cusk, or if her transition away from fiction has made for an awkward book or two.

Anyway, that's not enough data for a full post, so here's a few bits and pieces.

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I briefly expressed this here in May, so forgive me for repeating myself. Since I reviewed The Book of Joan - gratitude to Julie and Brian, always and always - I've been tentatively asking various publicists and presses for ARCs to review, because I like reviewing books and doing so might lift my profile some more. In reply, I keep hearing "sure, okay, what's your address?" and it's making me ask WHAT EVEN IS THIS FARCE WHEN AM I GOING TO GET MY LITTLE DUMB LIFE BACK PLEASE DON'T LET IT BE SOON.

(ARCs are advance reader copies, un-proofread versions of books that are printed a few months before the book is actually released to the public. They are sent out to book reviewers and to writers at some level of fame who are willing to say nice things about the book. They are sometimes called galleys.)

People who have been doing book reviews for a while might think it's silly for me to feel gratitude and awe at getting ARCs, because I've heard tell of the phase where ARCs take over your mailbox and become an annoyance. But as of now, I still feel excitement.

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I had another No Really I'm So Done with Facebook day last week, and then the next day there was a Carolyn Hax column I simply had to talk about and I got into an interesting conversation on her wall and agh, I was dragged in again. Honk if you relate.

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I'm applying for residencies and whatnot for next year, a process so very uninteresting that it's almost not worth the possible reward. It feels like a slow, weird, conceptual dance I'm doing. That is, it's not the energetic, buy-what-I'm-selling song-and-dance that a salesman has to do, because it's in print and it's related to art, not commerce. But it's still self-promotion and self-exposure. Like a super-crappy mating dance. Same steps over and over, full awkwardness on display, uncertainty flapping in the wind.


I'm also assembling essays for a collection to pitch. The hybrid film essays are not yet ready for a whole collection, so this one's different - odds and ends, really. Some of them come from this blog, some from elsewhere. It's a weird experience. Copying stuff from the blog into a Word doc, changing the font, reorienting aspects of the context - suddenly the words feel more official. Figuring out how it all goes together, and whether it does, is equally weird. It's me, I'm the consolidating factor. Is that enough?

All this is on deadline, which gives it a stress blanket I do not enjoy. At least it means the unpleasantness of these processes has an end point.