January roundup: love and memoir

It’s ten degrees celsius in Vancouver and today I saw a woman drive through the alley behind my apartment in a sea-foam green convertible with the top down. Convertibles tend to stand out in a city where most people buy rain tires, but what made the woman particularly remarkable was her chinchilla fur hat and her passenger: a chihuahua in a chihuahua-sized baby blue Snuggie®. His erect posture and casual gaze made the dog look like he was accustomed to being chauffeured and the two of them made a funny picture idling beside the butcher-shop dumpster.

In my Vancouver literature class, my students and I have been talking about Vancouver as a postcard city, and the discrepancy between the real and the ideal. The woman in the convertible struck me as someone who somehow hadn’t noticed she was in the city of gore-tex and yoga pants and Subarus, a character in a story set in a different Vancouver than the one I live in. It was a few hours later that I wondered if anyone who writes about her own life can really criticize someone for making herself a character (even if said character purchases dog Snuggies). If nothing else, the book I’m writing is about my inherent tendency to narrate my life as a way of making some larger meaning out of it.

postcard city

postcard city

With that in mind, here’s your late January early February (I’m behind) round-up of love and memoir:

  • I really love this essay in Modern Love about the postcard kiss and the difficulty of letting a good story be nothing more than a good story:

He walked me to my car, and we kissed in the parking garage, under orblike yellow lights. It was a still kiss, a postcard kiss, a Disney princess kiss, the kind of kiss that makes blue cartoon birds chirp and swirl in the sky, their beaks holding garlands.

And this is exactly where the story should end. It should cut to credits, and the music should be triumphant but soft. Your last image should be of the young girl and the handsome poetry-writing boy frozen in a movie kiss. You should brush the popcorn off your lap and leave the theater smiling because everything worked out the way you knew it would. You can leave remembering that time when you were young and lovely, and things like that could happen.

(From “When the Words Don’t Fit” by Sarah Healy) Continue reading

27,766 words

I’ve been away. And for good reason. I’ve been writing, not quite every day but almost. All those strands of thought I’ve spent the past two-plus years collecting are weaving together into an imitation of an honest-to-god manuscript.

At present, I’ve got exactly 27,766 words. If we’re being technical, I’ve got about a bazillion more words than that, but 27,766 is the number of words that fall in order, one after another, into sentences and paragraphs and pages. In Microsoft Word terms, that’s about eighty double-spaced pages. And while I’m happy, thrilled even, about this sense of forward progress, the evolution of a bunch of disparate passages into a single, coherent thing brings its own unexpected anxieties.

Mostly, I worry about being a woman writing about love. I try hard to be smart and unsentimental, to be honest in a way that occasionally makes me uncomfortable. But I sometimes wonder about being dismissed as a girl who’s writing for other girls about their favorite girly subject. I am well aware of how writing anything that falls within the sphere of domesticity (or, even worse, romance) can relegate a women to the genre of chick-memoir or win her the label of myopic navel gazer.

And I worry about how slowly I write. I have, more than once, spent hours on a just few sentences. I’ve had the idea of this book for four years now, and have been writing it for at least two and a half. I try to think of Marilynne Robinson, who published her first novel (the truly excellent Housekeeping, which you must read if you are at all interested sentences) in 1980, and her second, which won the Pulitzer Prize, nearly twenty-five years later in 2004. In fact, each of her three novels has won a major book prize. She is not prolific, but profound, I tell myself.

Once I’ve got that Pulitzer nomination under my belt, I too can be less anxious about tangible productivity. For now, though, I am my usual, cautious self. I do not trust my sentences. I third- and fourth-guess them. It is better, I think, to trust in the writing process (that is, showing up at the computer every day for as much time as I can manage) than to trust in my own words. If you think something is good, give it a couple weeks. Things change.

An odd by-product of being cautious in writing about love, and of training yourself to doubt your initial instincts, to let them sit awhile before acting on them, is that you may also become doubtful of your instincts when it comes to love itself. Continue reading

What should a person know?

Consider these words:

know

acknowledge

notice

prognosis

cognizant

acquaintance

They all contain the sound of n+o or its mutated echo. Each suggests the idea of acquisition, the filling of a space in the brain or the body. An encounter with a bit of information, an awareness, or—if we are lucky—with another person.

I love this about words: the ways they multiply and divide, their particular cellularity. Each of these words contains within it the same single cell: the PIE root *gno-.

I think of the Gnostics, the early Christians full of spiritual knowledge. I think of the power of information, what comes with knowing something and the choice to share—or not share—what you know. I think of the difference between knowledge and belief and wonder if it is real.

I think about the things I am compelled to know. Right now: pizza. I want to know dough. To be acquainted with semolinas and yeasts, and the temperature fluctuations of my oven. I want to acknowledge our stories, why we tell them, what they offer. I want to notice what makes a sentence ache to be spoken aloud by its reader.

When I think of the things I do not want to know, the list is longer. I realize that I am an agnostic at heart, against gnosis, attracted to the unknown, the not knowing. Lately, I just want to settle in there, to inhabit that comfortable, ambiguous space. I tell my students that I am more interested in their questions than their answers. Those budding engineers and scientists are confounded by a teacher who says, “Don’t write a thesis. Your job is not to prove something.” Their hard stares suggest they do not like me for this.

Not knowing reminds me of the name of Shelia Heti’s new novel: How Should a Person Be? It’s on my reading list for the title alone. I like a good, hard question.

“To know – and to present what we know as if it’s all we need to know – is deadening, really,” Dinah Lenney says about writing essays in “Against Knowing.” I wonder, is knowing itself sometimes deadening?

Continue reading

make good art

Today my dog is sick. My apartment smells like spearmint-scented cleaner and dog poop. And I can’t leave. Or I can but I won’t because I don’t want to clean up after a sick dog twice today. So here I sit on the couch, summoning olfactory fatigue.

Confined as I am, I decided to jumpstart my creative process with a little inspiration. Typically, I am wary of advice and I’ve long suspected that anything created with the sole purpose of being inspirational is, by definition, uninspiring. I’m thinking of the books we kept on our coffee table when I was kid: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (and it’s all small stuff) and All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I may tend toward optimism at time, but even the titles of these books make me want to scream. All the stuff is not small! Some of it is big. And terrible.

You know what inspired me to become a more-relaxed person? The Big Lebowski. Oh man! I thought to myself the night I first watched the movie, I am so very un-dude. And then I put some real effort into doing something about it. It’s a beautiful example of something that is inspirational not by design, but by default.

Because I respect you, I will not post a youtube video of, brace yourself, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: The Musical. But I will warn you: If you are curious enough to google it, wait for a day when your apartment does not smell like dog shit. One’s stomach can only bear so much.

Still, I was inspired while sitting on my couch today. And I thought it was worth sharing. It’s a long video, but if you have time–or if you are stuck on your own couch–one that’s worth watching. Yes, Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech was written with the intention of inspiring a room full of art students, but he never sacrifices honesty for simplification.

In case you’re on the fence about watching, here is, from my purple love seat, the bit I like best today:

Remember whatever discipline you’re in […] whatever you do, you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art. And for me, and so many of the people I’ve known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones. And when things get tough this is what you should do: Make good art.

Now I’m going to try to make some art. If it some of it is good, even better.

on being young and in love–or on writing memoir and selling yourself out

Last week I was out to dinner with some friends when one asked me, “Does it bother you that J might read your blog?”

My first response was instinctive: “No. He knows what I’m writing about. He’s always known, since I started this project. And he’s read big chunks of it.”

But, as I let the question settle in, I wasn’t sure that was a good answer. I thought of Joan Didion, who I seem to be quoting often these days, and who famously said that “writers are always selling someone out.” I tried explaining what I’ve mentioned here before, that I don’t know how to write about love stories without writing about our relationship. So, despite the fact that, in the many years we were together, J was generously supportive of my writing, I think carefully about what I post here whenever it also implicates him. I said that I tried to write from a place of honesty and kindness, though I’m often not sure if honesty and kindness can co-exist that easily.

“No,” Jen said as we finished our sushi, “I mean, does it bother you that he can see, you know, what an effect he’s had on you?” No one had ever asked me this before, but in a round about way, I guess I have thought about it.

Cheryl Strayed, when asked at the recent Associate Writers Program conference about embarrassing her ex-husband in writing about the end of their marriage, said, “If you’re going to show anyone’s ass, it’s going to be your own.” And I tend to agree with this idea about memoir. The memoirs I like the most don’t have an agenda or anything to prove. They’re motivated by genuine inquiry, starting with the self.

Jen’s question reminds me of a photograph I came across a few months ago. In it I am sitting on one of the leather couches at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, DC. When we lived in the city, J and I often rode our bikes to the Hirshhorn, but this photo is from our first visit, when I lived in Florida and he lived in Ecuador.

I remember riding the narrow escalator upstairs, standing on the higher step so I was eye to eye with him, and staring into his face as if I might die if I stopped looking. I remember thinking that the people around us could see how I was staring at him, and him at me, and that for the sake of decency, we ought to stop looking at each other like that. But we didn’t stop. We spent the afternoon whispering, and gazing at the art, and then at each other. That we would soon be apart again made the whole experience all the more poignant in my mind, because that’s how you think about love at twenty-two. Continue reading

some thoughts on the essay, the lifespan of facts, and street photography

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the ongoing debate about truth, genre, and the writer’s responsibilities to the reader, at the center of which is self-declared essayist John D’Agata. Well, the debate rages on. I particularly appreciate Dinty Moore’s lucid comments about D’Agata’s rather manipulative approach to what is, in the end, a really valuable conversation about nonfiction writing.

If you haven’t been keeping up, what you need to know is this. John D’Agata (lyric essay writer) and Jim Fingal (fact checker) recently published a book which contains their lengthy and heated exchange about an essay by D’Agata which was published in The Believer. The book quickly reveals D’Agata’s willingness to change the facts on what appears to be an otherwise-journalistic essay about a boy’s suicide in Las Vegas. The two men debate the merits of the facts in the face of larger aesthetic choices, with Fingal representing a relentless (and at times extreme) commitment to factuality and D’Agata interested primarily in aesthetics (the rhythm of a sentence is better, for example, when it says there were 34 strip clubs in Vegas, despite the fact that there were actually only 31).

Now, it turns out that even the e-mail exchange was a kind of exaggerated performance piece, with the each man playing his respective role in an attempt to make the conversation less “nerdy,” more “dramatic,” and ultimately, more publishable.

Because I cannot resist, I decided to chime in on this debate in the comments section of Dinty’s blog post and ended up writing a relatively-long response. So I thought I’d post it here as well, for anyone who might be interested in the larger conversation about fiction and nonfiction, essay writing, facts, truth, and the writer’s obligations to his or her readers. If you are a true nonfiction nerd, and interested in more discussion, check out the many other comments in response to Dinty’s post.

Here, for what it’s worth, are my thoughts on the matter:

Etymologically speaking, “essay” once meant “to try” and also “to weigh” or “to test.” And one of the things I love about the personal essay is that it incorporates those historical definitions into its contemporary form. But “essay” as we use it today is a noun that contains the verb. And this noun also contains specific ideas about truth, which can’t be arbitrarily dismissed.

Continue reading

some sloppy and unrelated thoughts on love and writing

Today it took three presses of the sleep button combined with Roscoe’s cold nose on my shoulder to motivate myself to throw off the duvet and put my bare feet on the floor. I was forty minutes late to my regular Friday morning writing session, and even after employing  “the Klonsky method”–my friend Dave swears by a precise combination of caffeine and sugar (the mocha) to kick-start the brain–I still couldn’t direct my thoughts enough to put together a proper blog post. So I’ve given up. I’ve accepted that my mind, like most of downtown Vancouver, is going to be occupied by low-altitude haze today.

With that said, I have some assorted thoughts:

Number one, I got a nice e-mail from the folks at Folio last week, and I thought I’d pass it along to interested writers. Folio is a literary journal published at my alma mater, American University. Last year, in addition to poetry and fiction, they started publishing nonfiction, including a short essay I wrote called “On Love and Naming”. Now they’re looking for more nonfiction, so if you’re interested, submit. The staff is fantastic: supportive and easy to work with. They’re also running their first-ever fiction contest this year. So if you’re a fiction writer, enter! If you’re interested in reading, rather than writing, subscribe! It’s a steal.

In other–totally unrelated–news, I stumbled across an intriguing concept today: The Museum of Broken Relationships. The museum is a touring exhibition of donated items: artifacts that remained after romantic love ended, what the curators call “the ruins of relationship.” From their website:

Whatever the motivation for donating personal belongings – be it sheer exhibitionism, therapeutic relief, or simple curiosity – people embraced the idea of exhibiting their love legacy as a sort of a ritual, a solemn ceremony.  Our societies oblige us with our marriages, funerals, and even graduation farewells, but deny us any formal recognition of the demise of a relationship, despite its strong emotional effect.  In the words of Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse: “Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator… (there is) no amorous oblation without a final theater.”

I’ve been reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s new book The Marriage Plot which quotes extensively from Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. And now that Barthes’s book is on my radar it seems to be popping up everywhere. The idea of love–and particularly the breaking of a relationship–as something that contains an element of theater makes sense to me. One item from the online exhibition is an old Nokia cell phone with the caption, “He gave me his cell phone so I couldn’t call him any more.”

In my first year composition classes, I ask my students to write an analysis of an artifact somehow related to their education. The students who really invest in the assignment inevitably return good results: what the red engineer’s jackets suggest about the role of gender in the engineering faculty, how the ads the university uses to attract new students sell a lifestyle rather than an education, the conflicting messages student dining facilities convey about health and eating. I suspect my students would be pretty terrible at writing about artifacts related to love–they are a smart but often sentimental lot–but I love the idea of performing a similar analysis of love’s artifacts.

My favorite artifact from the online exhibition is a Slovenian bread bowl. The jilted lover writes,

You wanted me to bake bread. Because a woman kneading dough is so erotic, isn’t she? You probably thought I’d work up such a sweat that it would drip from my breasts directly into the bowl.

Continue reading