Friday, April 29, 2011

Sweet mother of all things holy. Writers dancing?

So a few months ago, I was on board with The Southeast Review doing a talent show kind of fundraiser. Right, I said to myself. Enough with the writers mumbling brilliantly into microphones, enough with the words. Let's do something else, for once.

This was a bad idea mainly because I lack the obvious talents one might expect in a talent show. A worse idea, however, was my offer to dance -- with a back-up crew of grad-student dancers.

[NOTE: What you're seeing to the right here is the promotional poster of me and my colleagues in the poses of THE BREAKFAST CLUB, of course. The first line read: They'll only meet once, but it will change their lives forever."

If you're thinking, dear sweet mother of all that is holy this is a recipe for disaster -- oh, sweet disaster! -- you are right, my friend.]

Now, don't get me wrong I love to dance. When playing Field Hockey, I organized half-time shows (much to my coach's annoyance) and I twirl a mean field hockey stick. I taught ballroom for a few months because the teachers-in-training got free lessons.

But saying that I know how to perform on stage is like my father saying he's published -- he once won a safety motto at work and that motto was printed on thousands of #2 pencils. Thousands of them!

Basically, I can fake dance and that alone is rare in writerly types (minus Rita Dove's tango).

This is evidenced -- on a grand scale -- at the Associated Writing Programs annual conference -- the dance portion.

Yes, that's right. There is -- for some ungodly cruel sadistic reason -- an annual dance for writers.

For those of you have – blessedly -- missed the AWP dance, let me try to explain it. It’s like a ballroom full of writers have had their souls loosed from the bodies and in some sort of act of self-cannibalism the souls seem to be beating the bodies over their heads with their own limbs. There are sporadic leg spasms and convoluted shimmying. Who’s actually convulsing and who’s not is such fine line it’s like an EMTs greatest nightmare.

And yet it is a thing of such supreme beauty – a Flannery O’Conner grostequerie that catches your breath in your throat and, there, let’s in fan and pant and gasp ... and gag just a little.

And so, in that spirit, I always kinda wanted this dance to blow up, to go BIG, to reach for stars even if it meant failing – but failing boldly. AND THAT was what me and my dance crew so boldly attempted this past Tuesday night on stage.

This is what we writers know how to do – so well. And here is where dance is a metaphor for writing. Our best work – on the page and on the dance floor – pushes limits, takes great, brazen risks.

This is from my introduction read before the performance on Tuesday night.

"I don’t even like to call them back-up dancers because we are a dance crew. We have learned to anticipate each other’s every movement. We are locked in a kind of synchronicity –not actual synchronicity – don’t get me wrong – instead a kind of deep spiritual synchronicity . So if you’re not seeing what seem like ‘dance moves’ up here tonight – don’t be confused. (In fact, you can turn your head and close your eyes – we wont take offense.) We are ACTUALLY synchronized but on such a deep level that you might not even be aware of it.

"To perform for you tonight, we have overcome carpel tunnel, allergies, irritability, chafing costumes, snap-off pants.

"Now, a little background on this number we’re about to perform. We didn’t actually settle on THIS PARTICULAR musical number until this afternoon. But here’s the deal – when performing LA DANSE at a very high level, improvisation is best. We will be following in the tradition of the greatest jazz performers of all time. We did meet once and practice a different number … and so this will be a very textured performance, layered. (If you see vestiges of ALL THE SINGLE LADIES – that’s purposeful.)

"Let me say that I don’t think I’m overselling it here when I say that we have d

rilled

music – in general if not exactly this particular piece -- into our very core, our souls. We practiced together – before you all got here -- for long hard arduous minutes. Minutes upon minutes! So many minutes that I lost track!

"And there is poetry here. Let me read just a few lyrics.

"Obstacles are inefficient, follow your intuition, free your inner soul and break away from tradition.

Coz when we beat out, girl it's pullin without. You wouldn't believe how we wow sh*t out."

I introduced my dancers: Justin “Fuzzy Bear” Anderson, Adam “the Situation” Boles, Dario “Our Hebrew Beiber" Sulzman, and Wil “our white 6 foot 6 FSU Will Smith, our Fresh Prince, Big Willy’s style’s all in it” Oakes

But before we could drop it like it’s hot, there were ground rules.
A. There will be no clapping. Even if we start clapping on stage, don’t join us. W e will likely be clapping arythmically – on purpose, of course – and you’ll likely be clapping arhythmically because you are predominantly an audience of writers (see earlier speech on writers dancing). Our arrhythmia and your arrhythmia might th row off the delicate balance we’ve got going here on stage. So just don’t.

B. There will be no video footage of this performance. This is EPHEMERAL art. It will not and should not live on – in any media form. So if someone does start taking footage, I will jump off the stage like Patrick Swayzee at a summer lodge in th e Catskills and I will go Joaquin Phoenix (circa I AM HERE) on your ass.

On a side note, a documentary of BEHIND THE DANCE is now being

ma

de and you’ll be able to see – in vivid detail – some of our preparation.

B. and a Half. The music will be loud. Don't complain. I saw THE KING'S SPEECH and I think loud music might help.

  1. La Danse should be given and received if you all aren’t in the mood and if you’re going to sit there all quiet and jaded, it will affect our performance and we will NOT – I repeat NOT – drop it like it’s hot. In other words, if we fail (and not in that big grand epic way), it’s your fault.
And then what did we do? We "wowed some sh*t out".

Oh, yes we did.

The reactions after?

Comments like:
"That blew my mind."
"That was ... miraculous."
"Well, that's sure going to haunt me."

In other words, art happened.

[More photos to follow.]

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Paul Elwork

A 1/2 Dozen for Novelist Paul Elwork
who talks about writing historical,
reading slowly,
surviving childhood,
and offers this line,
"
The choices we have are hope and despair...
so decide where you want to land and take your lumps."


I despise the perv
asive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

A few different things inspired my novel: the true story of the Fox sisters from the 19th century and the Glen Foerd estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia were the two main sources that got together in my head. I drew the estate in THE GIRL WHO WOULD SPEAK FOR THE DEAD from Glen Foerd (especially the garden tea house there) and took the main story arc of the sisters from upstate New York who started the Spiritualist Movement by convincing people they were communicating with the dead through phantom rapping sounds they created using joints in their toes and ankles. I recast it, fictionalized the whole thing, set things on a smaller stage than the globe-trotting Fox sisters occupied before their time in the spotlight ended, and played with history by putting the story in the 1920s. There were other sources of inspiration, pervasive and specific. I've always been a little morbidly fixated and fascinated by hoaxes, on both the perpetrating and believing sides. Carl Sagan has been a profound source of inspiration--I first discovered the story of the Fox sisters in his book BROCA'S BRAIN and, years later, found deep and textured reflections on belief in another Sagan book, THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD.

Having said all of that, I agree that you can't track a novel by the sum of its parts in terms of inspiration. There's deeper stuff operating than we can parse out completely, for one thing, at all sorts of levels in our minds. For another, there's the act of writing itself, filled with moments of pure inspiration and discovery, like when characters do or say something we didn't plan for as writers. Isn't this where the rubber meets the road? Isn't this what the lady meant when she said, "Groove is in the heart?" Anyway, I think so.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I have a tricky relationship with the page, at times. When I'm in the groove and on a regular schedule, I can be very productive, but as my life becomes busier and the cares pile up, it just gets harder. I can be that disciplined writer--have been at times, for stretches of time--but I'm also quite distractible. The scheduling noise and other pressures get between me and the writing, and I forget all the stuff I know about opening yourself up to it, of getting yourself in that chair, in front of that screen (or blank page--I often like to write in longhand first), and doing it. I forget that it's not really about all of the planning in advance, but about the writing itself. Of course, you need some forward planning--there's research to be considered, timelines to sort, and so on--but deep down I know that such things can become more distraction than planning. There's a danger of being too intentional; of trying to patch things out of whole cloth instead of opening yourself up to ideas and getting down to business, as mystical as all of that sounds. I've made this reference before somewhere, I'm sure, but it's like the scene in THE MATRIX where Morpheus is training Neo to fight, and Morpheus urges, "Stop trying to hit me and hit me!" Yep. Big geek. That's me.

At the moment I have a scene I need to write in which a character tells a story, and I keep hemming and hawing, trying to manufacture the character’s story, instead of relaxing, letting all of that go, and allowing the character tell me his story. I forget sometimes that I can be as intentional as I want AFTER the story is on the page; I can manipulate and mold and alter to suit all of my purposes, but if I don't sit down and produce the words, there's just no making hay at all.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I had stretches of loneliness as a child, periods in which it seemed all of the kids in my neighborhood were either several years older or younger, and I dove into books to occupy myself. I guess that's almost a cliché of a writer's childhood, but there it is. I really was that kid who lived a lot in his head, hardly ever played sports, got paralyzed when girls were around--you know, a nerd. Even when I did have close friendships, covering years, it was always with one or two kids at most, around whom I opened up and displayed the goofy real me. Otherwise I scuttled through a lot of my childhood, trying to keep my head down and not get noticed. All of this had a huge impact on my writing, and on my aptitude for the solitary work of separating myself from real people long enough to write about believable people who never existed.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

My reading life is slow more than anything else. I try to read variously, going to classic literature, suspense novels here and there, sci-fi, horror, and contemporary literary stuff (I bristle at "literary" in its vagueness and implied snootiness, but for lack of a better word, I'll let it stand). I used to read more non-fiction and mixed it up with my fiction reading, but now--when I find myself embarrassed to say that it sometimes takes me a couple of months to read a long book--I limit my book reading to fiction. I used to read through a writer's catalog once I found myself devoted to his or her work, but I don't have the concentration for that anymore, it seems. Instead, I get around to reading their stuff or I don't. One exception is James Salter. Over a period of a couple of years I read every novel he has written, his memoirs, and most of his collected short stories. In a class by himself, Salter is--just breathtaking.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I'm not what you would call a man of faith. I'm not religious in any way, and I'm given to some very skeptical thinking about anything you can name. This manifests in my work through my themes, certainly. My currently available novel and the next idea and the next center around people's personal, altered perceptions of the world and each other, at an individual and cultural level. I'm not above it--I don't claim to look down from on high, sneering at those poor earthbound mortals and their subjective little minds. I'm right there with everyone else, trying to navigate my biases, knowing that I'm surrounded by my own filters and that any access I have to reality is highly personalized within me. In their worst forms, these limitations of perception and bias lead to oppression and even atrocity, and yet there is something so basically human about our cluttered and compromised psyches that we certainly can't just wish them away.

In my process, and in my life, when I'm getting things right and getting the work done, I operate by one main article of faith: The choices we have are hope and despair (indifference, for me at least, is a false middle choice), so decide where you want to land and take your lumps.

What's your worst writerly habit?

Probably the fact that I edit as I go. I reread and tweak and polish the prose as I make my way, rather than plowing through a complete draft and then pulling back to see the big picture. This connects up with my answer above about getting in my own way, about being too intentional, about hemming and hawing. And then again, maybe it's not such a bad habit. I often discover important things about the next scene and maybe the rest of the book in going back and tweaking and polishing as I work. I guess it comes down to my output, this question of whether or not it's a bad habit. Wait--I know it comes down to that.


Paul Elwork lives in Philadelphia and is the father of two sons. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Word Riot. His novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Group) is available online and in bookstores everywhere. For more information and links to short fiction and other content, please visit www.paulelwork.com.

Meet the Neurotics.


[Here's a kind of Meet-the-Neurotics essay about our obsessive-compulsive disorder and the therapy that my daughter and I went through when she was a little kid. It was first published in Because I Love Her: 38 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond.]


My daughter and I are driving home from her therapist’s office. We have just touched dog puke. This ranks as a glowing success, according to Dr. Jennifer who is young and still believes in, well: One. The curative powers of touching dog puke. Two. Most of the things she learned in graduate school, and … Three. That she can change the world with most of the things she learned in graduate school – one overwrought kid at a time.

“I feel like Benny Ogden,” I say.

“Who’s Benny Ogden?” my daughter asks, piping up from the back seat. She’s ten -- an earnest kid with mussy hair who wears her zip-up boots sockless. She has enormous blue eyes and light freckles. She’s recently started using a lavender colored conditioner that makes her smell like a teenager, and she’s become increasingly afraid of going to the movies, birthday parties, and a place called Fun Station – which, according to her, should call its parking lot a barfing lot because of all of its germs. She has a fear of germs and of barfing.

“Benny Ogden was the kid in our neighborhood growing up who would do anything.” If ten or more kids gather, one of them is bound to become the kid who’ll do anything, and one is bound, I suppose, to be the one to dare him to do anything – it’s a childhood society standard. Benny Ogden couldn’t stand up to simple taunts accompanied by chicken-bocking. “Benny Ogden would do anything a bully would ask him to. He made a naked snow angel and ate cat food. He moved the neighborhood dog poop, bare-handed, into Mr. Hoffman’s yard.”

"Was that the mean old man who made his wife sell her afghans door-to-door and was always re-tarring his driveway?”

“Yes, him.” It dawns on me that I tell too many stories about my childhood. I should be handing over real information, things that will be important later in life, or at least more relatable than Mr. Hoffman, the compulsive re-tarrer of my childhood.

Have I told her about Napoleon, Lincoln, Betty Ford? No. And I feel guilty all the sudden about this. Chairman Mao? Richard Feinman?

“I feel like Benny Ogden, too,” she says. “But I’m glad you touched the dog puke with me.

"Of course, absolutely. I wouldn’t let you touch dog puke alone.” What kind of mother lets her kid touch dog puke alone? Not me! And I didn’t have to touch the dog puke either. It wasn’t part of the plan. But when Dr. Jennifer told me how things would go, I volunteered. At first she’d looked at me skeptically. I was figuring that around the same time in graduate school when you learn how to get a dog to puke and then scoop it up, you’re also learning how to look at people skeptically.I said, “I’ve got issues, too – as you know.” She likes when I admit my culpability. “I mean this is mostly my fault so I should model, at least, good things like this.” Good things like this? Certainly it’s dawned on me that the desensitivity training is idiotic. Certainly it’s dawned on me that I prefer the question: What kind of mother lets her kid touch dog puke alone? to the question: What kind of mother lets her kid touch dog puke at all? Well-intentioned – that’s the most I can hope for here. But my decision to touch the dog puke showed a glimmer of forward-thinking intelligence on my part. I know how these things go down … as a parent. If you don’t touch the dog puke and only the kid touches it, and the kid becomes a memoirist – which is a possibility every parent should prepare for – then the mother has scarred the child. But if you do touch the dog puke, you were just stupid. In the grand scheme, I’ll always opt for stupid. In most cases, it’s the best I can do.

“It’s all going to work out,” I tell my daughter now, with a grand sense of authority. “I mean, I think things are getting better. If you can touch dog puke, you can touch the joysticks at Fun Station, right?”

“I think it’s pretty rare for people to catch sicknesses from dogs.” Since we adopted two dogs from the Humane Society earlier in the year, my daughter has been watching Animal Planet. Occasionally, she’ll say things like “Whale nipples are retractable.” I’ve learned not to question her random knowledge of animal life. Plus, our neighbor is a vet, and Phoebe spends a lot of time over there, talking about dog issues, and, I suspect, retractable whale nipples and other things I’m not so sure about. “Oh,” I say.

“Plus,” she adds, “if we’re Benny Ogden then Dr. Jennifer’s the bully. And you know what you think of bullies.” Unfortunately I’ve lied about what I think of bullies. I’ve told the kids to stand up to bullies, that they usually back down. But I’m pretty sure this isn’t true. Bullies are bullies because they have a history of bullying and are likely, based on that history, to bully again. And I realize that I’m terrified of Dr. Jennifer. Her youth, her conviction! Give me the old doctor who just shrugs and says, “Have it your way.”

Dr. Jennifer is supposed to call me this week to discuss the next step in the process, and now I realize that I’m going to have to stand up to her, and that the reason I’m going to have to stand up to her is two-fold. One. Because she is a bully. Two. Because my daughter is playing me.

For good measure, she adds, “Next time she’ll have us picking up dog poop and putting it in someone’s yard – with our bare hands!”

“Right,” I say. “Right.”

“She has to be stopped.”

Here is the real issue: I don’t want my daughter to turn out like my mother. Glenda Baggott, is an overly anxious, OCD matriarch, who doles out equal doses of love and worry and I'm baby, still. She has spent her life trying to keep us all alive and intact, which, to her mind is no simple task. She believes that the world is out to get us. She’s not content to warn against drinking from germy water fountains, sitting on public toilets, eating foods past their sell-by dates. No. Her fears are much wider in scope, including dented canned goods, unscrubbed fruits, flea dips, sushi, doctor offices, gas fumes, idling cars, microwave ovens, household cleansers, the edges of bologna, elastic waistbands that could compromise the circulation of young children … Et cetera!

My mother takes her medication now – off and on – so that she doesn’t scrub pots until her hands crack and bleed. But sometimes the medicine itself seems too poisonous to ingest and sometimes the medicine makes her too tired. It seems that not having enough energy to scrub pots until your hands crack and bleed can be worse than scrubbing pots until your hands crack and bleed.

There are plenty of other quirks and phobias – some of which she’s handed down to me, and some of which I’ve unwittingly handed down to my daughter. If there’s anything I can do now to spare my daughter this fate, I will, which is how we wound up in the clutches of bullying effervescence of Dr. Jennifer.

The truth is, though, germ-phobes don’t have a chance in today’s market. There’s too much money to be made in single-use Clorox wipes. Back in the sixties my mother went through a phase of wearing mail-order disposable paper dresses. It was a mini-craze – there were paper bikinis and bathrobes. Unfortunately, the paper garments had flammability issues and, when women started to catch fire, they pulled them from the market. The paper garments were marketed at busy women on a tight budget, but what they didn’t realize was that they were a huge hit with closet neurotics. This is no longer a secret. Marketeers have learned not only how to attract germ-phobes, they’ve also learned how to create them in order to sell more products. Once upon a time, my mother and I were the only ones pulling down our sweater sleeves so that we didn’t have to bare-hand doctors’ doorknobs and using the brown paper towels to open bathroom doors. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to slicker-up in Purell, mid-conversation, if not admired. And does part of me want to Purell the joysticks at Fun World? Sure. But another part of me knows that some day soon, kids – armed with their personal Purell bottles – may do just that – and not just the second- and third-generation phobics, but the nouveau-phobic.

How sad. How very sad.

Dr. Jennifer called on a Monday, mid-day. I was in the middle of things and picked up the phone without looking at the caller ID. I was surprised to hear her voice – her chipper condescension. I wasn’t prepared, but she certainly was. Her speech was poignant and savvy and cluttered with scientific backing. She had data.

The plan was simple. In the upcoming session, she wanted to get Phoebe closer to the feeling of throwing up without throwing up. Dr. Jennifer explained that she’d introduced this idea to Phoebe already. In fact, she’d invited her to try it drinking a big glass of milk in the session before the dog puke touching – when I was out of town.

“And what did she do?” I asked.

Dr. Jennifer paused. “Is Phoebe lactose intolerant?”

“Not really. I mean I think she thinks she is because our babysitter was and she kind of liked the idea of it – the way kids this age like glasses and braces and casts -- but she eats ice cream happily. So she isn’t.”

“Well, she said she was lactose intolerant and couldn’t. She’s very … clever.” She said the word clever like it was a bad thing. She went onto explain that this week she was planning on having Phoebe drink a big glass of water – to avoid the lactose argument -- and then spin around to show that she can feel sick without throwing up, and that she was then to practice this at home, twice a day.

“Really?” I asked. “But what if she throws up?”

“She won’t.”

“She won’t? I thought psychologists believed in the power of suggestion. I mean if you tell her she’s going to feel like throwing up, she might very well throw up.”

“If she does, she’ll realize that throwing up isn’t that bad.”

“Throwing up sucks. It makes you feel completely out of control.”

“She needs to see her therapy through.”

“But, you see, I want her to say no to people who make her drink things that make her feel like throwing up. I mean, we’re heading into the teen years. I can tell her to do what you say because you’re in authority, but in a few years her peers are going to be the authority. And I want to teach her to say no.”

“Look, I know that you may want to back out, because, well, you have enabling issues, but I really think you should see the program through to its end.”

“I think I have commonsense issues. I don’t want her to be afraid of throwing up anymore, but I don’t want her to associate drinking water with throwing up. We’ve got enough associations with throwing up.”

She responded to this. There were more facts. There was more data. It was all really compelling. “It’s a controlled environment. It will be fine.”

“Well, I don’t want her to develop a bad association with controlled environments either. I mean, I mean …” I wasn’t being articulate. I was being bullied by the chicken-bocking of data and facts – with my family’s history clanging in the background. I decided to deflect. “How did you get that dog to throw up anyway?”

“It wasn’t really dog vomit,” she said. “It was a mixture of cottage cheese and vinegar and some other ingredients.”

“Do you even have a dog?”

She didn’t answer at first. She just asked me if Phoebe and I were coming in for your next session.

“That depends,” I said. “Do you have a dog or not?”

“I don’t understand your logic …”

“Do you have a dog or don’t you?”

“No. I don’t have a dog.”

“Did you have a dog as a child?”

“I didn’t need a dog for Phoebe’s session to be a success. You touched what you thought was dog vomit, and …”

“Did you have a dog as a child?”

“No.”

“Did you have a little brother or someone who would let you pretend he was your dog – crawling around on all fours and barking?”

“What?”

“Did you have a little brother or someone who’d pretend to be your dog?”

“No. I was an only child.”

“Did you always want a dog as a child? And was your childhood lacking because you never had one?”

“Maybe a little.”

“Okay, then.”

“Okay what?”

“We’re not coming in.”

My logic was simple. All childhoods are lacking in something. All childhoods are difficult. All childhoods are held together by painful joists. And, I’m not sure, but one of the main things we can hope for is a true expression of that pain – an honest expression of what’s going wrong and why; and we need to find out why we try to avoid that pain and why we’re afraid of that pain, and maybe that can only be done in real life – not in a controlled environment at all.

That afternoon before my daughter comes home from school, I drink a big glass of water and spin around. I sit down on the sofa and watch the room churn. I’m reminded of a time when I was on a high school beach trip, dating the guy who powered the spinning boardwalk ride where the floor drops out. I drank a lot of peach schnapps and was spun, and I haven’t had peach schnapps since. I feel like throwing up, but I know I won’t, and I don’t.

I ask myself, “What did I just learn?”

I answer, “The contemporary suburban human being of a high-strung nature and mediocre intelligence has been force-fed the obvious masquerading as insight for so long that they no longer know the obvious.”

And then I burp and the burp’s a little high in my throat, and I gag.

A few minutes later, my daughter comes home from school and finds me on the sofa. She plops down her backpack and sits next to me. “You look weird.”<

“I talked to Dr. Jennifer.”

“Do we have to go back?”

“We don’t if you’ll do one thing …”

“You have to go to Fun Station and touch all the joy sticks in the place.”

She eyes me, gauging my seriousness. I’m serious. “Okay,” she says.

“And you’re not lactose intolerant. You know that, right?”

“I know.”

“And I’m not an enabler.”

“I don’t even know what that is.”

“If it comes up later, in your memoirs or something, just remember that I wasn’t an enabler.”

“Okay.”

We sit there on the sofa, looking out over the back yard where the dogs are lying in the sun.

“She doesn’t even have a dog,” I tell Phoebe. “It was fake puke.”

“I thought so,” Phoebe says.

“You did?”

“Yeah,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about Dr. Jennifer and about bullies.” She gets up and walks to the window at the yard, rutted with dog paths and dug-up holes.

“What about?”

“I’ve been thinking of Benny Ogden, too. And I was thinking that one day, we could bring dog poop over to Dr. Jennifer’s yard. Like proof.”

“Proof of how healthy we are? Proof of how we’re glowing successes?” She smiles and nods.

“Bare-handed?” I ask.

“Of course not. That would be crazy.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why I Couldn't Care Less about the Royal Wedding.


In 1981, I was ten years old. I had to be THE target market for a princess wedding. But the pomp, the fluff, the incredible white regal jacked-uppedness of Charles and Diana's wedding hit me all wrong. (I was going through a phase of personal austerity.)

And then there were his ears and buckled nose. And she was so incredibly shy and doe-eyed and even at ten, she seemed young to me. The years played out, as we all know, darkly. It took decades for Diana to finally emerge from all of that pomp, fluff, and incredibly regal jacked-uppedness. And then she was dead.

Am I saying that this wedding feels eerily familiar? Am I saying that it's tinged with darkness and loss? Am I making any claims about a woman who seems nice enough -- a woman who isn't all jacked up about regal jacked-uppedness and might have gone through phase of personal austerity herself at ten?

No. None of that is my point.

My point is: Thank God my tax dollars aren't dishing out for this.

My husband says, "Yeah, but your tax dollars have gone to inauguration pomp."

And I say, "Yeah, but for people who were actually going to run my country."

My husband says, "Yeah, but she's going to do charity."

And I say, "Indentured charity. That's what my ancestor chose after he got caught stealing sheep in England and was auctioned off in a penal colony, now called The United States of America."

(Backstory: Maybe I'm jaded. If so, I come by it naturally. My earliest ancestor on my father's side DID steal sheep (twice) and was given the option to die proudly as an Englishman (by hanging) or be auctioned off in America for indentured servitude. He was like, "Let me think. I'll take option B.")

My problem is that it doesn't matter. The royal family is a vestige. They're not actually ordained by God. They're just some people who got caught up in this big fake house of pomp.

When Dave and I were running a boarding house for foreigners (for about 5 years), people from certain cultures wanted to visit the homes of descendants of famous people. They wanted to know where George Washington's heirs now lived. They couldn't understand why I didn't know, nor why I seemed proud of the fact that I didn't know.

In fact, GEORGE WASHINGTON didn't want us to know.

So, do I care about Charles and Camilla? They seem like asses, but nope.

Do I care about William and Kate? They seem sweet, but no.

Do I care to eat off of their faces on the commemorative plate? Weirdly, a little. Okay, yes.

Do I care that Beyonce and Jay-Z are playing at the wedding? Honestly, I kind of do. I probably wouldn't tune into a live broadcast, but I'd watch a youtube video of Kate and William dancing to some of that. Can they "dip it, pop it, twork it, stop it, check on me tonight"?

One more thing, coverage begins at 4 am. Seriously, bugger off.

Monday, April 25, 2011

An Open Letter to James Franco.

Dear James Franco,

Here are some things people do when they get nervous: eat, smoke, chew clay pottery (I saw it on a cable-access show), dress up in a bear costume (know someone -- panda suit), exercise, meditate, prune little plants, build lamps in basements, pet a cat ...

It seems like you might have a very specific nervous tic -- applying to graduate programs. You have SIMULTANEOUSLY attended grad school -- according to Wikipedia -- at Columbia's MFA program, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for filmmaking, Brooklyn College for fiction, AND Warren Wilson's Low Residency Program for poetry. FOUR programs at once.

How would anyone attend four programs at once and still have time to make out with Sean Penn AND saw their arm off in a deep crevasse? (Ah, much less do charitable work and have a personal life...)

You did nail the MFA from Columbia, one down. But then last year, you accepted another offer at Yale -- for the PhD in English -- and Wikipedia adds that you "will also attend the Rhode Island School of Design". How? By what act of Mad Eye Moody sorcery or multi-locating sainthood?

And, THIS year, the winner is [sound of envelope opening with Anne Hathaway looking on]: the University of Houston's PhD program in Creative Writing.

This is one pretty intense nervous tic -- in fact, you're like the Nomar Garciaparra of academia. You're the Elliot Gould of application-whispering.

Here's where someone else might want to offer some crackpot psychology. Is there some compensation going on here? Did someone tell the young Franco that he wasn't smart? (A lot of us writers heard the same thing -- we let our minds drift and wander from stuffy classrooms to the banks of crank-out windows, from the words on the page to the feel of them in our mouths to the lemon shine of the image in our heads. You're in good company. No need to prove anything.)

But still it doesn't hurt to say it: James, you're smart. You write stories that are definitely worthy of competing with the pool of emerging writerly talent in the United States of America. Yes, celebrity rubs off on your publications, but so does a good dose of cynicism that's probably hard to endure; it surely clouds everything, for better and worse. All of your acting work bears fruit in your other creative fields -- fiction, for one, is all about character, after all. And you are fruitful, evidenced by the way you multiply yourself. If you want to grow as a writer and a poet (or even biosynthesis nanotechnologist), you'll likely be able to do it -- but not because of your intelligence or talent (by God, there's a lot of smart talent out there) but because if your work ethic, your hyper-drive focus. In fact, I think it's all transferable.

But is your multi-applying compulsiveness working in your favor as a writer? Doesn't the act of applying alone take time away from your writerly endeavors?

Don't get me wrong; I admire your devotion to life-long learning.

And your compulsive applying leads to annual acceptances which gives higher ed a little sexy edge -- like those old library posters of Baryshnikov (and Kermit the Frog -- not as sexy but evidently surprisingly verdantly cerebral) reading a book (Tolstoy, I think). And -- my, my -- higher ed could use a little sex appeal.

If it's all good -- you're happy and higher ed is happy -- why should I care?

But I do. I fear a kind of excess going on. I fear that we're bordering on another star ODing.

Granted, I don't worry about you as I have Robert Downey, Jr., that unhinged Sheen boy, or Lindsay Lohan. This kind of overdose probably won't lead to coma or death. In fact, at worst, it might cause a little carpel tunnel.

But still workshops can get addictive -- the little crack high of criticism, of creating a chorus of critical voices in your head, of that readership locked in a room reeling with words. (In this metaphor, I guess I'm a pusher and a dealer, but actually I'm calling for a little intervention, some low-level rehab.)

Built with the best intentions, workshop is a false construct and one that a writer has to eventually outgrow. I guess I'll say to you what I'd say to just about any of my students after their MFA years. It's no longer about the workshop and the peers and the well-known writer mouthing off about craft. It's about you in a room. It's about that relationship with the page. It's about weaning from the crack high of criticism and quieting the critical voices. It's about the minutes adding up to hours. A world emerging and a voice to tell it.

There's no 12 step program probably because there are only two steps. Sit down and write. (And the first step is optional.)

Give us some more dark underworld of characters adrift. Give us some more of your Palo Alto.

Just tell it.


Sincerely,

Julianna Baggott

Sunday, April 24, 2011

lazy bunny.

Our Easter Bunny is a notorious lazy ass. He sometimes doesn't show until after noon on Easter Sunday. He leaves tags on stuff -- proof he bought the Easter egg socks at Target or the Silly Putty at Walgreens. (And cheap. There's no extravagance.)

And no baskets. I mean, there have BEEN baskets, but who can find them? And he doesn't replace them. My kids are the one at the local Easter egg hunt with plastic grocery bags.

He seems to hate fake grass. His attitude is: "Why buy fake grass when we've got a yard full of real grass in the yard -- which is always overgrown?"

One year he decided, "Hey, I'm obviously not a morning bunny so maybe I'll hide all of the colored eggs handmade by the lovely children in the yard so that it's done when they wake up?"

He did so.

In the morning, there were only little bits of pink and purple shells in the yard. Some suburban predator had eaten 'em all. And so he was like, "Fine then. Go on an egg shell hunt." And he moped.

He's a jerk, but at least not as bad as the tooth fairy -- who completely blows off her responsibilities or, maybe worse, leaves her little I.O.U.s or, even worse than that, some sweet little note as if that's supposed to take the place of cash.

In other words, happy (jaded) Easter!


[Cartoon above found at Snarkerati. Foam bunny ears made by Theo.]

Friday, April 22, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for William Lychack


A 1/2 Dozen with William Lychack

who has some brutal writerly advice

5 Anti-Rules for Handling Criticism

and some blackbelt wisdom on
mystery of why we keep showing up
to the writing desk
as well as to our own lives.






What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

All right. How about I turn this over to my wife, Betty, as she’s the long-suffering soul who has fallen in love with, borne the brunt of me and my writerly self:

“Run for the hills!! You’re crazy!! They’re too difficult!! Too self-absorbed!! Too selfish!! Seriously, think twice if you can! And, if you can’t, then have a strong sense of yourself. In order to stay with a writer (or anyone, really), you need real personal strength, your own set of occupational or professional passions, as well as a vision for how to balance family and work and finances and all the rest of it. Bill and I have been married more than 15 years, and there’s not a day I don’t curse him for some reason, just as there’s not a day I don’t enjoy the ride and privilege of being with someone who is passionate about what he does, who strives to listen to the quiet internal voices, and who battles the war between loving what he does and being consumed by it. ”

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Writing Tip #2 for Aspiring Writers: STOP ASPIRING. Seriously, enough with the aspiring, just start being a writer and stop worrying about everything concerning your own anxious vanity. Learn that it’s all about caring. You need to care so much that you don’t care if anyone else cares. Which might make them care. Or might make you secretly care if they care. And might make you do everything in your power to get them to care. The writer and editor William Maxwell once gave me the following advice: “Try to listen to your feelings as you would to the sound in a sea shell, and then put them down on paper.” That seems the kind of perfect, direct, and useful counsel that an aspiring writer (such as myself) might ignore for a good decade. And one ignores it for good reason—it’s difficult work—but your real job is to care enough to say what you feel about the world.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

Quit. Nobody wants your stories. Everything you ever write will be rejected. (They don’t call it a submission for nothing.) So, really, just give up now. Go be a “normal” person. Make a living helping people or doing something useful in the world. I mean it, if you can quit right now you should quit. If there’s anything anyone can say that steers you away from writing, listen and let yourself be steered away. But if writing is the way that helps you make sense of the world, if you find a kind of well-being in trying to touch bottom with emotions and feelings and thoughts, then stop feeling sorry for yourself and trust the process and get out of your own way, get a good night of sleep, start again in the morning.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I care about criticism on an economic, practical, why-can’t-I-be-loved-by-everyone level, but I truly don’t follow book reviews the way I used to. So little of it feels necessary or mission-critical to me. But, since you asked, I’d like to share five anti-rules or coping mechanisms for criticism:

1) Invoke The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Remind yourself that you’re just a dude trying to get along in the world. And should you stumble across some dismissive or snarky or half-assed review of your book, you might be well served to invoke The Dude and say, “Yeah, well, you know, that's just like your opinion, man.”

2) Remember what Charles Baxter once told me after I mentioned a bad review of my novel to him, “Well, Bill, you put your face out there it’s gonna get slapped.”

3) Call your friends. Pity the poor reviewer. Mock his or her intelligence. Give them a name. (This is particularly effective for those consistently vapid reviews at PW.) Say things like, “Gosh, Mildred at Publishers' Weekly sure did hate my book, didn’t she?! Can’t dislike a book more than she disliked mine, can you?!” Or, “Jeepers, I really seemed to piss off old Earl, didn’t I? Lots of malice there, it seemed, but I still think it might’ve helped if he actually read and responded to the book I wrote, rather than the book he wishes I wrote, don’t you think?” As you can guess, this sort of talking can go on for a while, though you probably get the gist of it by now.

4) Anticipate the worst. I mean, the reviews that tend to sting are the ones that say things you already suspect about your own work. Truly, you sense all the weaknesses of your book better than anyone, so write the bad reviews in your mind before the book is published. And if those things hurt enough, do something about it before the bugger appears in really real reality.

5) Finally, go have a drink, or play with your kids in the yard, or look at the trees and the sky and the way spring seems to have returned overnight. Go have a full life in which writing is one part. In short, get over yourself. Know that you did your best, that you’d not change anything in your book even if you could, and that it’s a subjective business. Stop trying to please everyone. Stop worrying.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

I simply don’t finish books I hate, so it’s hard to say who I hate most. Life’s too short to soldier through books that don’t speak to one’s condition or situation. That said, I can’t say I want to spend much time with writers who are glib or overly clever, who are all about irony and post-modern cool, who don’t seem to break a sweat over their pages. I believe I’m always looking for writers who are trying to offer something of great importance to them, authors who are handing over something of great value and urgency. The pyrotechnics of writing don’t speak to me anymore, and I admire writers who bow their heads to the yoke of story and plow.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

Among other things, I’ve been an editor, a ghostwriter, a speechwriter, a construction worker, a bartender, a lifeguard, a janitor, a high school teacher, a tree service guy, a house-painter, a camp counselor, a warehouse worker, a Mister Softee Ice Cream Man… But my time as a judo instructor (and judo player) helped shape me as a writer more than any other job. Not only did the philosophy and physicality of martial arts engage me, but I learned about the entire world in that small windowless basement of a dojo in New York City. I played a lot of martial arts—and the key to judo is balance—the idea, in Japanese, of kozush. I’d venture to say that Judo is nothing but kozush. Overcommit in one direction, and you’re vulnerable to the opposite. Every strength becomes a weakness. Every weakness a kind of secret strength. Every throw includes and implies its counter throw. And you learn to throw by being thrown. At any rate, it took eight years for me to earn my shodan, my blackbelt. Eight years, five days a week, and a lot of luck not to get seriously injured. Luck to have other players in the dojo to train with. Luck to have a sensei with his constant nudges and scowls and occasional beams of praise. It’s not unlike writing a book. And like a book, no one can promise you a blackbelt if you go to the dojo for ten years. But they can guarantee you will not get your shodan unless you keep showing up somehow. And maybe I’m crazy, but the real mystery becomes how—or, better yet, why—why you keep showing up at the dojo or the desk or the marriage or the church or the classroom or any of the countless passions that drive your days.

William Lychack is the author of a novel, The Wasp Eater, and a collection of stories, The Architect of Flowers. His work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and on public radio’s This American Life. The Architect of Flowers has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Summer 2011 season.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Letter Series -- #3 from Nick Krieger

A Brief Introduction:

What is The Letter Series?

This occasional feature on my blog is not for everyone. In fact, it's audience is very specific.

Over the course of the next few months, I hope to feature letters of advice from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals written to parents raising kids who don't fit the typical gender-identity mold. When we have questions about child-rearing, we usually go to the generation of parents before us. In this case, however, the world is changing so fast for the GLBTQ community that I think it's best to hear from the now-grown children of the generation before us.

Keep in mind that these letters are written to parents who want their children to be healthy and happy and comfortable with who they are. If you want to change your child, this isn't the place for you.

Some of the letters will be written by people who are parents themselves. Some won't. But for those non-parents there is always deep humility while faced with giving parenting advice. I've told these generous souls that I'm not looking to them for their experience as parents, but as having been children.

Our third letter is from memoirist Nick Krieger. Here it is:

After ten years of living as a lesbian, I now consider myself transgender, and a transgender *man* only when society forces me to choose between two boxes on a form, or between two public restrooms. Many people see me as a gay man. My sexuality is all over the map. Queer is the only word that holds me completely. I question everything. At thirty-two years old, I can claim an identity stake in each letter of the GLBTQ. I consider this to be the greatest gift of my life.

If I could make a request to parents, to myself as a potential parent, write an open letter to parents of GLBTQ kids, this is what I’d say.

1) Truly listen to your kids and support their choices. Allow them to make mistakes. Cultivate their sense of self-trust. As is the case with everything I write here, my belief in the importance of this stems from my own experience. I wish my parents had supported my decisions about sports, musical instruments, college major, that every time I asserted a desire it wasn’t thwarted. Sure, it would’ve been nice if they also supported me when I came home with my first girlfriend. But it’s never just the GLBTQ issue that poses challenges to the parent-child relationship. It may just be the one to exacerbate the issues already in place. I spent my entire twenties learning to listen to myself, discovering how to respect my own sense of knowing, teaching myself the skills to quiet my own internal voices of doubt. This is called growing up, maturing, and it’s basically a standard part of life. Offering kids—or even offer friends, lovers, parents, anyone really—a voice of support to carry with them on their journey through life is all too rare. A steady positive voice is much needed for GLBTQ kids who will inevitably face hardship in our society.

2) Make change. Or as Gandhi said, (and I’m hoping you can’t go wrong by quoting him) “Be the change you want to see.” Of all the ignorant clichés, and trust me, I’ve heard them all, the “I just don’t want your life to be any harder” line from parents is the one that frustrates me the most. Yes, there is institutionalized oppression, homophobia and transphobia, discrimination, bullying, and violence, but let’s not instill a helplessness in ourselves. I am not a victim and my parents are not victims of being dealt a bad hand in life.

There are specific organizations, non-profits, and legislative measures to progress GLBTQ rights, but even when there is no doing, no action, it’s possible (and even more important in my mind) to project a way of being that furthers equality, rights, and acceptance of all people. I’d like for us as a GLBTQ community to view our progress in terms of progress for everyone, for our collective humanity. The sense of empowerment and the joy that comes from making the world a better place to live in for all, especially those less privileged, is profound. At least that has been my experience.

I wish someone had told me, not that my life would be hard, but that it would be phenomenally rich. I wish someone had told me that through my own self-inquiry and my own unique experience, my empathy would deepen, my compassion would expand, my gratitude for being alive would be huge. Telling kids these things is not all that effective. But kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and they can see it in your smile, they can absorb it in your dinner table commentary, and they can feel it in the way you treat the cashier at the grocery store.

3) Take care of yourself. Act with compassion and acceptance towards yourself. We all remember that moment, the loss of innocence, when we realized that our parents were just people too, that they had no training, there was no manual, they were kinda just winging it. It’s been my experience that unless I’m taking care of myself, listening to myself, trusting myself, it is impossible to adequately take care of, support, accept, and empower another person.

I may identify with every letter in the GLBTQ, but the whole of my being is not GLBTQ. And as I just re-read what I wrote, it seems that, in the end, what I wanted to offer had little to do with gender and sexuality. There are books out there with practical tools for the problems that rise while living, or having kids, with a gender and sexuality that does not conform to dominant culture. There are more books, better books, coming out. The market is growing, the quality of the information is improving. And as a writer of memoir, I’ve noticed that narratives are also shifting too. The stories we are telling each other and the world are changing from that full of pain and overcoming struggle, to ones of happiness, freedom, and self-expression. I hope that more voices join into the conversation, and that more people share their experiences. But mostly I hope that while, we, the GLBTQ community and allies, are engaged in Toemaggedon, fighting for equal rights to wear pink nail polish, that we remember the little things, the simpler, subtler and impactful day-to-day things, that we strive to embody and encourage the values of kindness, respect, and acceptance in our every thought and action.


Nick Krieger is the author of the forthcoming memoir Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender (May 10, 2011, Beacon Press). His writing has earned several travel-writing awards and has been published in multiple travel guides. He lives in San Francisco where he spends his time practicing yoga, eating cereal, and queering all that he can. He holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco.
Visit him at: www.nickkrieger.com.

A 1/2 Dozen for Leah Stewart

A 1/2 Dozen for novelist LEAH STEWART

who offers some smart-mouthed advice on love,

a beautiful tribute to A. Manette Ansay,

and FINALLY someone's taken me up on the question
about writers who shaped you because
you hated their work

and more ... Here goes.


What’s you
r advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Consider polygamy, so the two of you can marry someone with a steady income.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

In my whole life, there's been nobody I've hated like I hated Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck. Everybody rolls their eyes at the sentimental happy ending, but I've always felt like Steinbeck was married to the sentimental unhappy one. I don't know if I can articulate my reaction to him more clearly than that, not having read him in years and having hated him so viscerally when I did. Grapes of Wrath was the only book I was assigned to read at all three levels of education--high school, college, and grad school--and now the thought of it makes me shudder. As for Hardy, what I don't like about him is the whole "caught in the wheel of an unstoppable fate" thing. I'd much rather see characters make bad choices on their own, choices that tell us something interesting about their nature and human nature in general, then struggle like pinned butterflies before surrendering.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

My first thought on reading this was: Ha! I'll try to give a more complete answer. I lose track of things when I'm in the midst of a novel. Emails go unanswered, my house goes uncleaned. But I still manage to interact with my family and teach my classes, so I think I'm balancing the important things. When I'm between drafts or books, I usually do a lot of frantic catch-up. That's the place where I am now--sorting the outgrown clothes in my kids' closets, answering emails from four months ago.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

A. Manette Ansay had an enormous impact on me. She came to Vanderbilt, where I was an undergrad, my senior year. The longtime fiction teacher, who'd been there since the Fugitives, was of the "you're a writer, you're not" model. He was encouraging, which of course is enormously helpful, but I'd never done an exercise, I'd never done a revision, I'd read very little contemporary fiction. I didn't even know what an MFA program was. Manette not only challenged me to move beyond the bounds of my instinctive approach to writing—to write in first person, to start a story with setting, which I usually ignored—she introduced me to writers like Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro, and encouraged me to go to a graduate program. I'll always be grateful to her, and I think about how she helped me often when trying to be a mentor to my own students.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

I've always said no to this question, but I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. I mentioned before that I had no natural inclination to write about place, and never did it before Manette suggested I try. I attribute this to my military-brat childhood--I never felt especially located anywhere, a feeling which persisted long into adulthood. But maybe since Manette's original challenge I've worked to compensate for this. The Memphis setting is very important to my first book, Body of a Girl, and the book I'm working on now has a great deal to do with Cincinnati and the characters' relationship to living here. I always set my books in a different place--Myth of You and Me is Boston and Gloucester and Oxford, Mississippi; Husband and Wife is Chapel Hill--and I do have a sense that those places shape the book in some crucial way.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

Husband and Wife was the easiest, because I was in the throes of life with a newborn and a toddler and I had a lot to say about that. So once I came up with the plot that would allow me to say it, the book came pretty quickly. The Myth of You and Me was horrible, horrible, horrible. I was under contract to an editor, and I wrote four different versions before she broke the contract. (In fairness to her, I had a hell of a time figuring out what that book was about. The first draft isn't recognizable as a draft of the finished book.) After that, I wanted to throw the book in the trash, or burn it in the yard, but my beloved agent Gail Hochman said, "Well, you could do that. Or I could try to sell it to someone else." Which she did—to Sally Kim, with whose help I finally got the book where I wanted it to be. Happy ending!

Could I tell? I don't know. In retrospect I should have been able to tell that the first draft of Myth would go badly, since I had so little idea of what the book was about when I started it. But it takes a certain amount of denial to get to the end of a novel.

Leah Stewart is the author of three novels, Body of a Girl, The Myth of You and Me, and Husband and Wife. The recipient of an NEA literature fellowship, she teaches in the creative-writing program at the University of Cincinnati.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jeanne Leiby.

Jeanne Leiby
1964-2011


When I saw Jeanne after she'd gotten the gig at The Southern Review, we were in a hotel lobby at an AWP Conference -- maybe in NYC, but I can't be sure. We were standing near a fake potted fern and those ferns start to blur over the years. I congratulated her. She pulled me aside and told me the quick version of how it all happened. I think she was still a little stunned that she'd gotten the job, in fact. It had passed down from some giant literary figures -- all white men -- and then was handed to her.

I'm going to butcher this story, but bear with me -- taking all I say with a grain of salt and the noted blur of memory over time.

She told me that the strangest part of the interview was with someone high up at LSU -- I'm not sure how high up. She'd expressed to him her impression that The Southern Review felt a little stodgy, a little uber-male, and Old World Southern.

Later in the interview, he said, "Jeanne, I see that you've never been published in The Southern Review. Why is that?"

She told him that she hadn't submitted work because of that very impression that the magazine had. She said it was time to give the job to a woman, maybe even one not from the South. Maybe instead one from Detroit. Maybe to her.

And Jeanne was definitely from downriver Detroit. She was tough and smart and fiery. She told me that there's a board room somewhere at LSU with the portraits of the male editors who came before her. They were all hung too high on the walls. One of her first orders of business was to set them all at eye level.

But before she even got to that point, she did something brilliant and generous. She told me that she didn't want a coeditor, a system that had been tricky for The Southern Review in the past. She negotiated to use that money to fund two fellowships for emerging editors, poets, novelists, professors who wanted to immerse themselves in the literary magazine world -- and still have the gift of time to write. The move was both smart -- why share power? -- and deeply generous. What better gift to give to the next generation than opportunity?

And that's what happened. She took in those students in -- ones who'd graduated from writing programs and were deeply gifted -- and handed them real jobs where they immersed themselves in literature -- a grand tradition, in fact. They got real-world experience. Jeanne made that happen.

The last time I saw Jeanne we were in Sanibel at a writers conference there -- where she was truly beloved. I'd sent her a story that she'd rejected, writing me a note to say that she wasn't David Lynch enough for it. We were talking about genre writing. It was a fiery conversation between us -- out there by a pool, sitting in deck chairs, having drinks.

She was giving me a hard time for veering from my post as upholding all things literary. I explained that I wasn't interested in that role. I wanted to storm the gates of what has been -- for so long -- ghettoized as genre. I wanted to get dirty and see what I could do in those worlds with language.

Honestly, Jeanne was telling me what I think a lot of people from the literary world would like to tell me -- Stop messing around. Get serious. Come back to us with all your muscle. Don't pull any punches. Jeanne had the guts to say what she thought, when others don't. I loved that about her. Admired it deeply.

I convinced her that I was still swinging -- more viciously than ever. And that what I find in genre is a kind of deep liberation and challenge. Basically, I said, "Come with me. Storm some gates."

Right at the end of the night, she sat back in her deck chair and confessed that if she could write anything -- anything at all -- she'd write a noir thrillers.

And so it came full circle.

And she was right about the story I sent her. It was too David Lynch for her. It belonged to the dark finery of my subconscious and it burrowed its way into PURE, the post-apocalyptic novel that'll come out next year. I had my inscription for Jeanne already in mind. It began: For you, Jeanne, and the David Lynch in you. I know it's there."

And, for now, I just want to say that she was a lit-up soul. I'll miss her fight and her mouthiness. I'll miss her downriver Detroit.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

My Weird Thing for Jason Bateman


When you're a white girl now grown up and of a certain age and you proclaim you've got a weird thing for Jason Bateman, it's kind of like saying you have a deep, perverse affection for toast -- yes, you can argue that it's some complicated toast, maybe even occasionally twisted toast, at the very least some hard-working and talented toast, but it's still toast.

I'm comfortable saying, in public, that I love seeing Jason Bateman in almost anything. But the fact that I think he's incredibly sexy -- and that "by anything," I might mean a porno (and I don't even watch porn) -- now that's disturbing. That's something you keep to yourself.

I can publicly state the sexiness of James Franco, Will Smith, even a little Jude Law and certainly that last Bond guy -- the hostile one. Not Bateman.

But I came by my thing for Bateman honestly in 1986. The show was called Valerie (because of its lead Valerie Harper) then Valerie's Family then Valerie's Family: The Hogans (when Sandy Duncan showed up as the lead) then The Hogan Family. I had to look all this up because the show is a complete blur -- except for Jason Bateman who I remember as a charmer, sweet-talker who caused trouble and never got caught -- and he was hilarious. He acted circles around everyone else on set.

How to describe it? Like watching Streetcar for the first time with Brando blowing it all wide open or Shia Le Beouf kicking ass in Even Stevens. (Or somewhere between the two.)

In any case, I fell for Bateman. I fell hard. And I was already in -- kinda -- as I knew his sister from Family Ties, a show that's not a blur and that I still quote from, quotes that my husband (a white boy now of a certain age) gets. Loved Justine.

Did I want Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium to do bigger things? I did (as I was the one to write the prequel -- The Amazing Compendium of Edward Magorium it would have helped to have more spill-over readers). Was I disappointed not to be invited on set? I was, a little. It stung. Was I disheartened by Couples' Retreat? Yes. But I didn't blame Bateman. I bounced back. Arrested Development still stands.

And as deep as my love goes, you all know that I'm a bad fan. (It's like the stalker I once had who'd never read my work. He just wanted me to read his work. What a selfish stalker he was!) And I'm busy and I miss things.

By which I mean, I just now saw The Switch on DVD. I can't give a review with any measure of clarity. As a writer, I can say -- hey, it was based on a Jeffrey Eugenides short story; some of the lines are really brilliant. I can say that Patrick Wilson looks better when he's asleep on a plane two empty seats over from you. (I sat this close to him on a flight to LA this spring and can personally attest.)

But that's where all objectivity ends. Because someone with a thing for Bateman finds that the more neurotic he plays, the hotter he is. And the more you realize that you're drawn in by the uber neurotic Bateman, the more uncomfortable you feel. Ashamed, that might be the right word. Maybe dirty even? In any case, wrong. And maybe, in the end, that's all part of his mystique, his grand smokin' hot (hypochondriac) quotient.

That perky nose! The slightly crooked teeth! All those smiley wrinkles at the edges of his face! The mussy hair! The pale dusting of freckles! The ability to work a sweater vest! Even argyle!

You get the dark picture here. I don't need to go on. My husband sometimes reads this blog. (And you KNOW my stalker doesn't even bother.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hello, Book & Facebook Awards for BEST COMMENTS

A. Hello, Book. So, I visited my novel at Target this weekend -- where it resides on back end-cap display -- and it was like walking up to your kid at a science fair table where she's displaying something volcanic.

And I was kind of like, "So, how's it going? Many people stopping by?"

And the kid's embarrassed you're there and kind of wants you to leave -- but also to stay because she wants it to seem like there are people interested in her volcano. She keeps smiling at others who pass by and barely makes eye contact. But you can tell, deep down, that she's glad you came.

Or maybe I'm not the parent at all, but that kid herself. And my damn volcano was made all by myself -- unlike the other kids who got their fancy-smart not-distracted-by-their-older-more-important-children parents to do it for them -- and, as a result, it's rickety and probably doesn't work at all. And all I want to do is dismantle my display and put it back on the porch where, once upon a time, it was all mine.

Or maybe it was like seeing your book at Target and not like the above at all because who does THAT level of anthropomorphizing. It's a book.

And maybe the copies of it got mysteriously moved to the front cap of the display. Maybe. I'm just saying it's possible.

And maybe I also bought a pair of black knee-length shorts that I already own (but can't find).

B. FACEBOOK AWARDS FOR BEST COMMENTS

I've decided that I need to start giving out awards for the BEST AND MOST BRILLIANT COMMENTS to my (not so best and/or brilliant) Facebook Posts.

First Place for Best Kicker in a Comment Box goes to [drum roll] ... Stella Marr for this response to my post on the new word coband (invented by Rachelle Jewel) .

Stella wrote,
"It is especially cool to think that there was a femnine for husband -- husbande. I do love saying husband when I introduce my better half. Probably has something to do with the fact I was a hooker for ten years, prior to getting a BA from Barnard."
(For more on Stella, her web site.)

First Place for Most Hilarious Inventive Commentation goes to [drum roll] ... Ashley Parsons, for this beautiful addition to a discussion the same discussion though focusing on the baffling expression "Hug the bear," invented by Dave Scott (my coband, see link above):

"... Please ask if we could get some cross-collaboration going with "Eat the Blanket." One uses the phrase to encapsulate the basic "gimmick" or "premise" of a movie or other fictional... work ---the basic thing you have to 'swallow' to make the whole rest of the story work - no matter how cumbersome it is. For example, the movie INCEPTION - I totes ate the blanket on that one and loved it. (the blanket there being the whole i-can-go-into-your-dream-using-this-drug-thing-and-here-are-the-dream-rules-pay-attention-it's-going-to-work-i-promise). Come to think of it, I think I ate several blankets there. Maybe it was a matching set - pillow-shams, comforter, bed-ruffle, valance. I can tell you it was high thread count."

(You can hit Ashley's blog by clicking here.)

And WHAT do they win? Um... I don't know. How about this award that they'll have to rip out of the grip of Ellen Page.

Partner? Wife? Husband? Or ... coband?

The terms husband and wife feel outdated (exclusionary) and partner has that weird country-western vibe. But, listen, I ran into someone with a new term that I think could take off. Today, I'm posting about it over at ABOUTAWORD.

As extra bonus material, I've also invented the term EXAGGERBATION, and Dave's trying to get his saying "hug the bear" off the ground.
(Feel free to join in and make up some verbiage.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On the Body (A Skinny Woman Confesses)

I wasn't raised to think skinny was beautiful. That's not how my family worked. The epitome of beauty -- in my father's eyes -- was Teri Garr. In retrospect, this was one of the best things he did -- unwittingly -- to convey to me the concept of beauty. Teri Garr wasn't known for her knock-out sex-symbol beauty (well, there's the line in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN "nice knockers," of course). She's a comedic actress -- blond and beautiful, yes, but she was considered serious in her talent. Funny was beautiful. Smart was beautiful. Vulnerable (Teri Garr played it so magnificently) was beautiful. Beautiful -- and not uber skinny a la Jane Fonda of the era -- was beautiful.

And yet I was skinny. As a child, this was a vexation for my mother to bear.

I was so small that one of my high school friends confessed that her mother told her not to tease me about being so puny because I had a disease. This wouldn't have been so alarming if her mother hadn't been a nutritionist with a strong medical background.

Well, according to my mother, I was sickly. Terribly sickly. Just this winter, she mentioned my sickly childhood. I thought, "Was it really a sickly childhood?" When I visited my second grade teacher in the nursing home, she said, "Oh, but you had such a hard childhood, wee girl, what with your sickly constitution." (She was Scottish.)

I missed a lot of school, yes. My mother preferred me at home with her. I was the last child, the baby, and she was bored.

But I don't remember really being all that sickly. I had pneumonia at five, yes, took antibiotics and bounced back. I had a few fevered Christmases, unlucky that way. But I don't remember doctors ever worrying about me -- only my mother.

And she worried hard. The catch phrase thrown at skinny kids those days was, "Doesn't your mother FEED you?"

This killed my mother. She fed me and fed me and fed me. She desperately wanted me to get bigger.

And I did. I ate huge amounts of food, and then I burned it up. I was hyper. I remember my mother always saying, "Stop jiggling around!" I'd say, "I'm not jiggling, I'm dancing." I was the fastest runner in my elementary school in third grade -- across genders. I lost that title for a few years when bussed to the inner city, but regained it in Catholic school, outrunning boys through 8th grade. My gym teachers always pulled my mother aside.

"Put her in gymnastics," one said.

"Gymnastics? Have you seen those girls? Stunted for life? Even their vocal cords! She'd never grow!"

One suggested track. But I can't run solely for the sake of running. There has to be someone chasing me or me chasing a ball. I finally found my way onto field hockey and lacrosse fields -- and although the track coach was always after me, this was where I ran and ran and ran. Some of my best dreams are of field hockey played on a newly mown field.

In this way, my body came to define me. I was scrawny, but very athletic. If picking teams among kids who didn't know me, I was chosen last. But after that first time, chosen first. I felt I constantly had to prove myself. I still do. On the page, I'm certain that other writers get away with crap that I can't. I still hold onto the deeply ingrained notion that I have to write harder, just as I used to have to run faster -- to make up for some other lack.

Everywhere I went people fed me -- an extra breakfast at the house next to the bus stop, my grandmother and her cups of flan just for me, a woman down the street who told me she'd pay me a dollar once I weighed fifty pounds. I don't know how old I was when I could finally collect -- old enough to walk there on my own and demand my cash. And I was also runty in the short sense; and it didn't help that "Short People" was a billboard hit in elementary school.

At thirteen, I wore my swimsuit backwards -- the kind that looked similar front and back. I realized it in the water that it was ballooning in the crotch. I was a board.

I hit high school at the height of anorexia and bulimia awareness. People eyed me with concern. One of the first things my mother-in-law to-be said to Dave after meeting me at twenty-two was her concern about my eating disorder.

Except I didn't have one. For ages, I always tried to eat in front of others -- even when I wasn't hungry -- to set them at ease. I'd never go to the bathroom after a meal, worrying that they thought I was throwing it up. Still, people accuse me of not eating, of dieting, of being weird about food and trying to stay small. I've only dieted due to gestational diabetes -- which was excruciatingly hard and I gained deep respect for those who truly diet.

I have gained weight in my life. 5 pregnancies (4 babies and a miscarriage), I've gained and lost well over my entire body weight.

And, interesting to note, the only time I gained weight without thinking about it was when I lived in France, had no money, and took public transportation. Always nervous about when I'd next get to a table, I learned -- for the first time -- to rely solely on three meals a day, banking as much bread dipped in yogurt as humanly possible and then, bustled around on the Metro, I was inert.

(I write all of this, by the way, knowing that I'm breaking a rule. Skinny women aren't supposed to talk about their bodies. If we do, we're told to shut up -- usually in a nice way, but not always. Fair enough.)

I've been expecting to gain weight all my life. My grandmother who got pregnant at 17, weighing 87 pounds, and at 9 months weighing 117, was tiny -- until later in life. Under five feet tall, she eventually weighed 180.

Not that my body hasn't changed. Trust me. It has. Irrevocably. And age? Just recently, I've suddenly seen a shocking (shocked?) woman in the mirror -- one I do not completely recognize.

But just recently it has dawned on me how much a part of being small has shaped my adult life too. Napoleon? Do I need to walk into a room and take up more psychic space? Do I use my small size and femininity to a different kind of advantage? (There has to be SOME advantage to being a woman.) In my head, I'm still a scrawny girl with a lot to prove. If there's something good in that, there's something also destructive -- something I hope, one day, to outgrow, at least a little.

And, too, I've absorbed my mother's worry. Her hypochondria became mine. The old soul case! Mainly, I just want it to work. Mainly, I just want it to last. Mainly, I'm still the scrawny kid on the ball field -- mentally willing the coach not to take me off the field.