Sunday, May 29, 2011
On Memorial Day, my grandfather -- a double amputee from World War II -- drove his Cadillac (outfitted with hand controls) down Main Street in Newark, Delaware in the Memorial Day Parade. He also sometimes handed out small velvety poppies with wire stems to people who made donations to the VFW while situated outside of the Acme in his wheelchair. Then Senator now VP Joe Biden came to his funeral.
This grandfather, Hiram Lane, was the only grandfather I knew, my grandfather by marriage. He lost his legs on the battlefield, watched a US tank roll toward him, unable to move, and he was then lifted up by an unknown soldier, who saved his life, opened his vial of morphine, helped him get it down. He was then placed on a stretcher then loaded onto a truck. The soldiers with the greatest chance of survival were put in the center of the truck, protected by the bodies of those not likely to make it. He was not put in the center. He made it to doctors and was eventually put on a ship where he contracted gaseous gangrene which he miraculously survived. What was left of his legs floated, dead, in the tub. Back in the states, he underwent over thirty operations, was hospitalized for three years.
But this isn't my family's sole soldier.
My great-grandfather first served in the Navy then the Army. The Navy gave him his first pair of pants; before that he'd only worn short pants, knickers. He was fed and clothed and he traveled, seeing a little action in Veracruz, where he ate his first banana and had an overprotective young officer who, above all, ordered his men to hide.
(My grandfather on my mother's side got out of serving in World War II. He knew a guy who knew a guy. After the war, someone owed him some money -- a lost bet -- and he gave my grandfather a German Lugger, pulled from a dead enemy soldier.)
While serving, my grandfather on my father's side died due to a blow to the head in a jeep accident, state-side. My father was five-years-old.
My father was in the National Guard -- too young for the Korean War and too old for Vietnam. He marched against the Vietnam War as it dragged on with my mother (and me in a stroller) and marched with me during the lead up to the Iraq War, taking turns holding my baby, now an 11-year-old.
(My brother was never a soldier. For a few weeks when my brother was 17, he met a dynamic recruiter and decided he wanted to join up. All he needed was for my parents to sign the papers. The recruiter called the house. He got my mother. She said, "You want me to sign papers to hand you over to my son?" She mentioned Parris Island deaths and went on to clarify, "Let me explain one thing to you. I will never, ever sign these papers. I will never, ever hand over my son. Over my dead body. Do not ever call this house again. Is that clear, officer? Over my dead body.")
Our friend Thomas Joiner has a massive grant to research suicide among our soldiers. It's a crisis in the military. And we're thankful that Joiner -- who's dedicated much of his life to researching and educating people about suicide -- is at the helm.
My grandfather -- the first one I mentioned above -- was sometimes instructed to walk an enemy soldier to a POW camp five miles away, and the order would end like this, "And be back in five minutes." This meant he was to shoot the enemy soldier.
A few weeks ago, I had a piece on NPR's All Things Considered, and someone wrote in the comment box something like: Seriously, Baggott's afraid of the draft? How stupid. I explained that my parents have 13 grandchildren, that I have four children, three of which are boys. Yes, I fear the draft. Yes, I fear war, combat, battle.
I let my 14 year old son watch Saving Private Ryan this weekend. He and his sister watched Apocalypse Now last week. This year is US History for my 16 year old; we've talked about so many wars this year.
Last week, my mother was in the post office and a young woman was sending cookies and a Playboy to her boyfriend serving overseas. She and my mother joked in line. The woman said, "Next time, I'm going to send him a dirty magazine and paste my face over every other girls' face throughout the whole thing."
Last week, I wrote In Praise of Single Parents. Today, I think of all those parents -- men and women -- who are tending to their families alone while their husbands and wives serve. Deep sacrifices all around -- the spouse sacrificing their partner, the child sacrificing their parent ...
Last week, Dave was in DC as a chaperon for a school trip. They went to Arlington, laid a wreath, and a soldier played "Taps". Dave's eyes stung with tears -- among all of those graves, all of that loss, he said it was the fact that the bugle has no keys. It was the soldier's voice that hit each note.
Friday, May 27, 2011
whose latest novel -- just out --
THE FIRST HUSBAND
is already being lavished with praise
and is topping my summer reading stack.
Here, she quotes some Oscar Wilde
(after you read Dave's 1/2 dozen,
indulge in this link for an Oscar Wilde-ian
take on Jersey Shore),
gives us great advice on criticism
and balance and being a work in progress.
Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.
My tip -- let's call it #7 -- is that writing is rewriting. No one ever gets it exactly right on a first draft - or a second or third draft for that matter. So it's great to take the pressure off and remember that you'll get where you need to go. It just takes time. One of my favorite quotes, which speaks to this, is by Oscar Wilde: This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again. So my tip is to remember this, and be generous with yourself while working on something new. Generous and patient.
Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?
I don't take notes as personally as I did when I was starting out. I understand now how helpful it can be to have other voices weighing in and seeing things I may be missing. I've also learned to be a better arbiter of criticism I'm receiving. A friend in graduate school once pointed out that if you have twelve people on a bus, they will each decide there is a different way to drive it. That stuck with me. And it reminds me that ultimately -- as the creator of a piece of work -- it has to be up to you whose ideas to incorporate. And whose ideas to ignore.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
Oddly enough, cooking has helped me. Since I moved to Los Angeles, I've started cooking dinner almost every weekday night (which I love) and I've found that it helps serve as the divide between my work life and my home life . Particularly for those of us who work at home, finding this divide is tricky, and I'm grateful this seems to be helping. That said, some days, after I cook, I go immediately back to the computer. So, I am still a work in progress.
What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
I had over a dozen jobs while I was working on my first book: tutoring, working at restaurants, teaching grad school and law school test-taking, working at a PR Firm, working for internet companies. One that really shaped me was reporting for ESPN The Magazine. (I'm not counting this type of reporting as a straight writing job, as often I would interview an athlete, send in that transcript, and my work was complete.) That job had a huge influence on me -- both because I learned so much about reporting, and because my editor there -- a man named Gary Belsky-- has been a supporter and guide on the writing I've done since. Also, I know about sports now. Or, I know enough to freak people out by talking about a 4-3 defense. That's always fun.
Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?
Place is huge for me. I like to write about towns perched on the end of the world -- Montauk, Narragansett, Williamsburg. They require something different of their inhabitants. Living in a city there are so many distractions, so many ways to avoid knowing what is really going on inside of you, inside of your closest relationships. The quiet (and noise) of a small town requires an attention to one’s own life that I'm really interested in exploring. In that way, it is definitely a main character.
What's your worst writerly habit?
Either my worst -- or just my weirdest -- is that I listen to the same song on repeat while I'm working on a book. It becomes meditative for me, and helps me focus on my work. With my first novel, London Is The Best City In America, that song was by Ryan Adams; for The Divorce Party it was a song by M Ward. And for my latest, I listened to two songs. Maybe this is something like progress!
Laura Dave is the author of the acclaimed novels The Divorce Party, London Is the Best City in America, and The First Husband (just released from Viking Penguin, May 2011). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Self, Glamour, Redbook, The Huffington Post, and on NPR's "All Things Considered". Dave graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and was named as a Fun and Fearless Phenom of the year by Cosmopolitan Magazine. A New York Native, she now lives in California.
To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,
short story writers, and agents, click on the below.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
But that night after he fell asleep, I felt alone -- more alone than I'd ever felt in my life. It's a strange unsettling feeling that's shown up early on with each of my pregnancies, usually that first night or so. I'm suddenly terrified. I didn't really understand that there was an actual baby growing inside of me that first time -- I mean, I got it, I read the books, I knew where babies came from -- but didn't really get it until she was out and I picked up her heel and said, "I'd recognize you anywhere." It was the heel I'd see shooting across the top of my belly for a couple of months.
But with the pregnancies that came after, I realized that I was actually not alone -- in a very real way. I was inhabited. Still, I knew that the babies could only do so much. Most of this process -- our survival -- was up to me.
And that first night, with Dave asleep beside me -- my God, we were once incredibly young! -- I thought of all of the women who have gone through this pregnancy and birth without that other person who, even in sleep, is there and their there-ness is what helps. In fact, pregnancy and labor must make Dave feel more helpless and useless than any other major even in his life.
And since that first night, I still think of single parents when doing something very ordinary, something routine, and I'm awed.
Last night, Dave was away. Otis had a bloody nose in the evening and then at around 1:20 am, he woke again. Blood everywhere. His blue eyes wide with terror, crying in huffs that then sprayed blood into the air. I bolted upright, swooped him up, grabbed a towel, applied pressure, helped him pee, carried him to the kitchen looking for smaller towels, not finding any. The house was hot. I was soaked in sweat. I kept the pressure up -- blood on my shirt and his, dotting the tile. I told him inane stories from my scattered brain -- about a well-dressed fox who falls in love with a chicken. I felt lightheaded -- having bolted through the house from a dead sleep -- I felt suddenly nauseous. And it hit me: I'm going to throw up and pass out.
I called for my oldest daughter, but a sound sleeper on the second floor, I knew she couldn't hear me. I thought of airplanes -- secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting minors. If I pass out, he'll keep bleeding. I put him down for a moment, told him to follow me. I laid down in bed, called the neighbors and Dave, though far away. No one answers cell phones in the night. I called my parents. I pinched Otis' nose again. I talked to my parents as he watched TV. "I remember your father staying up with your sister for hours in the middle of the night," my mother said and she told me about the time she couldn't get it to stop and went to the ER.
I kept applying pressure. It would stop. It would start again. I couldn't do much -- applying pressure with one hand, getting him water with the other. I only have two hands, but the truth is that normally I have four. My parenting comes with a bilocation option.
Finally, the bleeding stopped. I propped him with pillows and watched him sleep. And I thought of single parents, like I had that first night when I found out I was pregnant. That was nothing. This, all of it, done alone, day in and day out -- and the single parent still wakes up early and goes to work. There is no playing catch up. It goes on and on. Raising children is unrelenting. And the people of this world who do it alone -- with only two hands -- are amazing. Their dedication is resolute. Their fortitude incredible.
So, today, wiping blood off of my cell phone and the walls and stripping the bedsheets, soaking the towels, I think of all of you. (It was only a nosebleed, after all.) I'm thankful you exist and press on. You are inspiring. And I just wanted to tell you that.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
1/2 Dozen for Michael Griffith
and, yes, he chose the bitter alternate Q and A
for which he earns points.
With us, he discusses failure, writing ecstatically (and DAMN can Griffith write ecstatically, as well as beautifully oddly and oddly beautifully),
and confesses he's a BOOK-CLUB VIRGIN.
I'll invite ANY book club in the Cincinnati area
to DEFLOWER HIM with his latest novel, TROPHY, which is already getting rave reviews.
1) Where do you get your stupidest ideas?
The fiction that I tend to want to write begins with an outlandish and playful premise (synonym for “stupid idea”), one that throws up all kinds of barriers to emotional engagement. The trick, then, is to figure out a sneaky, sidelong way to poignancy through dippiness and puns and jokes and absurdity. The new novel, for instance, takes place in one second, and starts from the proposition that cliché has it right, and your life really does flash before your eyes in the moment of your death. If that’s so, then for as long as you can keep memories flashing across the screen, you can’t die; you have a kind of split-second immortality. That stupid idea presented a couple of challenges that seemed interesting: How to make a novel made all of so-called digressions, in which the only plot point (Howdy, Mr. Reaper, sir) is given away in the first line; a novel in which the protagonist announces immediately that his intention is to waste as much time as possible, and then asks the reader, for almost 300 pages, to pretend not to recognize whose time it is that he proposes to waste; a comic novel about (OH ho ho) dying? It’s boxcar upon boxcar of stupid ideas, arranged into the prettiest wreck I could make.
2) Tell us about your failed projects.
I suppose I’d say not only that all my projects are failed projects (I’m sure my readers will readily agree), but that I reject the possibility of a successful project. Some people seem to have the idea that novels are projects, that life is a project. The very word “digression” implies this kind of thinking, implies that there’s a right and proper gress from which one has strayed. But whose life is a linear narrative? Whose consciousness runs along a string? How to tell progress from regress from digress? We are poor, bare, forked animals who live most of our lives in a state of ungress.
Trophy is a more fully realized doomed idea than most—a project failed in every way I could think to fail it over six years. But I have a zillion stupid ideas that I might still figure out how to botch at length: There’s the novel about a band of grammar terrorists who rove the countryside to avenge sins against the American language; there’s the love story about two shy devisers of crossword puzzles who communicate through their grids; there’s the tale of obituary writer who thinks herself a knight whose job it is to take public revenge for her obituees against all who wronged them in life.
3) Do you believe, deep down, that you're pretty much a fraud?
Of course. What else is writing for?
4) What books/other authors do you consider to be wearing the Emperor's New Clothes? Who is completely overrated? What classics really blow?
The world is stocked full of overrated writers, several of whom have the first name Jonathan and the last initial F. (Also: The Old Man and the Sea? Seriously? And while I’m at it; The Iliad is a Robert Rodriguez bloodbath in verse. One severed limb per work of literature/film is my iron-clad rule. No matter what the soundtrack sounds like.)
5) If a slow writer -- one who takes a good ten years to write a book -- do you think it's all about crafting the exact right sentence or are you just kind of lazy?
It’s about lazily crafting the exact right sentence.
Probably my favorite bit of literary praise is the one John Updike gave my beloved Vladimir Nabokov when he said that VN “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” That seems dead-on to me, and the fact is that you can’t gin up ecstasy most days, no matter how hard you try. Ecstasy has so many enemies, ranging from famine and injustice to hangover or hangnail. That a writer is having a blast while writing is certainly no guarantee that the reader will, too (there’s plenty of self-indulgence in the world), but it seems to me a near-certainty that if the writer is bored or disengaged, the reader will be as well. I long ago came to grips with the fact that I won’t produce thirty books, though I very much admire those who can and do.
6) Have you ever cried on the way home from a Ladies' Book Club where they got a little drunk and caustic? Did it hurt your weedle feelings?
I’ve never been invited to a book-club meeting of any kind, even though I live to be in the company of people feeling drunk and caustic. And have easily hurt weedle feelings. And cry more often than John Boehner. And love cake.
THE SKINNY ON GRIFFITH:
Michael Griffith’s previous books are Bibliophilia (2003) and Spikes (2001), both from Arcade. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Salmagundi, Oxford American, New England Review, Shenandoah, Ninth Letter, Southwest Review, Five Points, Blackbird, The Washington Post, and other periodicals, and he is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (2004) and the Louisiana Division of the Arts (2001), among others.
A native of Orangeburg, SC, Griffith earned an AB in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Princeton (summa cum laude) in 1987 and an MFA in Creative Writing from LSU (1992). From 1992 to 2002 he served as the Associate Editor of The Southern Review. He is now Associate Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and teaches in the Sewanee School of Letters as well. In 2004 he became founding editor of Yellow Shoe Fiction, an original-fiction series from LSU Press, and he is Fiction Editor at Cincinnati Review.
For more 1/2 Dozens:
To read more 1/2 Dozens from novelists, memoirists, poets, short story writers, and agents, click on the names below.
Monday, May 23, 2011
The news is in -- e-book sales have officially surpassed sales of print books. I don't have an e-book reader of any kind. Why? Well, it's not because of some old sentimental thing I've got for the book itself, as you might guess of a writer. I don't get weepy about paper and glue-bindings and keep books in pristine condition for my library. The reason is the opposite.
I rough my books UP.
I dog-ear them, underline, write in the margins (arguments with the author), rip off their jackets (luridly?). If a book has spare pages in the back, I often fill them with notes, ideas, or letters to other writers (often times Fred Chappell for some reason -- I've written him dozens of letters in the backs of books that I later rip out but don't send. Why him? He's one of those author-teachers I owe and owe and owe -- but I'll save that for a Chappell post).
The books that have been important to me show it. They wear my hours. I can open one of them up -- say Mary Morrissy's Mother of Pearl (not to be confused with the Oprah pick of the same title) -- and I know what I was working on at the time I first read it. I can trace her words back to the hand print she made by forcing her hand in the wet cement of my mind. I can see what I was thinking on the page. I know that reading a certain passage changed my mind on a character of my own making. I look back on those pages and think -- damn, I don't even remember that earlier character, that floaty being, that milksop.
My copy of Flannery O'Connor's letters -- The Habit of Being -- are filled with notes about the south of France, including the inspection of roadside snail shells and the discount prices for pate in the super market circulars.
I also have been known to throw books -- maybe spike them is a better word. I get mad at books. Usually, this heightened hostility comes in waves. In this mood, there really isn't a book that's going to please me. They all have on fatal flaw: they rely on language and when I've given up on words, there's no appeasing me. Books will fly.
You can't spike a Kindle. Well, you can. But it gets expensive. I'm guessing Kindles don't slap and skid nicely like books do.
But, when I return to my senses, and maybe I mean that the words again attach and bind to my senses, it's the books -- stacks of them around me at all times -- that prop me up. They're my shifting pillars.
I gave a novel that I'd read and loved to a good friend. This friend is an avid reader, a fast reader, a reader who often loves what she reads. In other words, this reader is the opposite of me. I usually don't like what I read. I am, in fact, an angry reader. I start out jaded and hostile. The writer has to work -- hard -- but if I take off its jacket, it's a good sign. If I grab a pen, even better.
My friend read the book and gave it back to me. She said, "Well now I get why you read so slowly. You have a deep wholly engaged ongoing relationship with the writer on the page. It must be exhausting."
A good book is exhausting.
I've learned how to skim. I've had to teach myself. And there are lots of books that would be perfect for me to read on a hand-held device, and, yes, I've been told there are highlighting functions etc ...
But a small dog-ear means one thing, a deep one another. Underlining is good, back-talk even better. How would a book on an e-reader know the moment I'd started to undress it? How would I even know?
So, yes, one day I'll get one -- my mother keeps berating me -- and some books will exist there just fine, but there are others that won't. At the end of a good read, the book should feel it -- down to the kink in its spine.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
But, instead, I thought of what Arnold and I have in common -- we both married Shrivers. I thought I'd post an excerpt from this essay (which first appeared in " It’s A Wonderful Lie: Truth About Life in Your Twenties, in which I discuss my husband Dave's Shriver-ness. His mother's maiden name is Shriver and, yes, he's related. Below you'll find the (terrifying in a GREY GARDENS way) Shriver family reunion that Dave took me to after we'd been dating about a month.
But there's a lesson embedded in it. A cameo from an elderly couple -- the hosts of the reunion -- Aunt Hat and Uncle Holden. These two were at both Arnold and Maria's wedding and (a bit of a let down?) ours. They were elderly and amazing -- "inspiringly romantic," as I put it below. They are the lesson here -- not the kind of love won while cheating on your wife, without protection, and hiding a child from her for 13 years. Nope. Not even close.
I know that Arnold knew this couple -- and what did he think of them? Could he stop his large rectangular head for a moment and turn off the jaw-clenched power smile long enough to see something beautiful in them, something to aspire to? It's hard to see what other people have to offer, deeply, when you're lying about who you are and spending all your effort in trying to convince people of that lie that is yourself.
To set this up, all you have to know is that my mother's parting words to me before I went off to grad school were these: Whatever you do, don't fall in love with a poet.
And so, I did -- immediately. We'll start the essay here:
This was before I found out that he wasn’t just a poet.
He was, in fact, a Shriver poet.
He told me this when he invited me to a Shriver family reunion – on a 200-acre Shetland pony farm just outside of
"As in Maria Shriver?" I asked. "And Sarge? And the tennis pro?"
He said that Aunt Hat and Uncle Holden, the hosts, had, in fact, been to Maria and
"Do you think Maria and Arnold will be there?"
He shrugged. In all fairness, he didn't know. He hadn't been to the farm since he was a boy.
He was little help, and I was ill-prepared. I'd only been to my own family reunions in
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not the type to go for the money. I think that I’ve already established that: I was trying to become a writer. But as we drove up the coast in the Honda – seven hours with the heat on full blast to protect the engine – the prospect of a timely death of an elderly doting Shriver crossed my mind. I knew Dave had no money, but with Shrivers in the wings, how long before a trust fund, a simple inheritance? I didn’t dwell on it, but when two young writers get together, there is an unspoken argument that exists on a molecular level from the very first instant. It’s an argument about time, and arguments about time are usually arguments about money, lightly disguised. Imaginative by trade, we were both aware that, if this were to work out, long-term, we would be jockeying for housewife. Writers want to be at home, by and large, close to their own screen. And because I had no real sense of money – not wealth and not poverty – I only thought about the future abstractly.
And I knew better than to tell my mother about the Shriver aspect of the reunion. Why orchestrate disappointment?
When we drove down the dirt driveway to the mansion, I was reminded of the fact that the rich are an unpredictable lot. We were greeted by about fifteen itchy dogs on the front porch, mangy dogs, more than one having a stump where a leg should be. There was a tree growing out of a crumbling chimney, a bird-shit-stained statue of St. Francis, the yard spotted with noisy barking wild peacocks. Maria and Arnold were not there, and it was pretty obvious, early on, that they wouldn't be touching down. However, the guest list wasn't without its surprises: a Communist uncle and, if memory serves me correctly, a weasel-raising cousin. (Was that right? Do people raise weasels?)
But this was nothing once we got the full tour by our knowledgeable guide, the weasel raiser's mother. There was a small room devoted to thirty-some years of unopened mail, much of which was probably monthly payments of people who'd bought their little girls now long-dead Shetland ponies.
In the upstairs bathroom, a sword hung on the wall next to a picture of a Shriver holding up the decapitated head of a native of someplace unidentifiable. There was a room for the sole purpose of dying, cleverly called “the death room”. The walls were lined with pictures of famous people on their deathbeds, presidents mostly. A fake bookcase led to a prohibition-inspired hiding place. In one corner, an eight-legged formaldehyde-steeped calf in a glass case.
The attic walls were covered in World War I posters and newspaper headlines, the ceiling decorated in a similar fashion for WWII. A ham hung from a beam, but the caretaker had been dead for years so no one was really sure how long the ham had been curing. The attic stretched on and on, room after little room, each filled with giant steamer-trunks of god-knows-what. Silver? Shriveled hams? Shrunken heads? Impossible to say.
I was horrified, of course. But I’d read some Flannery O’Connor by this time, some Marquez. And although I didn’t know what to do with it, I knew an eroding literary landscape when I saw one. On some level, I understood all of this as a gift.
And Dave, he was stunned by it all too. He said, “I just remember the ponies. I was a kid, you know. Kids remember ponies.”
The food was covered with flies, picked over by cats. I walked in on a caterer crying in the bathroom. Dave and I ended up splitting a Trix bar that he happened to find in the glove compartment. We were in this together.
We were shown to our room, next door to the death room. I was afraid to sleep on the sheets – it was all so deathly. Dave lied down and I slept on top of him at first. Finally exhausted, I relented.
This is the point when the relationship should start to lose steam. Hadn’t he misled me? Wasn’t this oddness just a little too much to bear? But that isn’t quite how it played out.
Oddly enough, our hosts, Aunt Hat and Uncle Holden were endearing, holding hands as they greeted people from their wicker porch seats which creaked like their own old bones. She wore a faded house-dress. He was a retired banker with crusted mustard on his suit lapel and a droopy boutonniere. They rode around in golf carts. They were, in their own way, inspiringly romantic.
It was a landscape of stump-legged dogs and barking peacocks and golf carts – as foreign and fecund as a jungle. It was an estate rotting, yes, but from neglect of earthly possessions, an inability to part with the past, and a love of the living, a love that extended to ponies, strays, and even, or so it seemed, flies. This is where we would really fall in love.
In the morning, we brushed our teeth together for a long time. Taken by this new image of not being one but two people, we looked at ourselves in the spotty mirror, spitting and rinsing, glancing from our own reflections then to the other's and back again.
"Your nose is crooked," I said.
He leaned into the mirror. "It just curves out on this side and dents in on the other. It's not crooked."
"By the time you're eighty, your nose will be in your ear."
"No, it won't," he said.
"Noses grow the length of lives." I had heard this on Geraldo. I was very relieved that Dave didn't ask for my source. "I hate to tell you but your nose is headed very definitely east."
Dave continued to brush and then responded, "My nose has, if anything, been sharpened, refined, in search of its element."
"Its element is obviously located in the east," I said. Dave, a little concerned, took a closer look at his nose. To make him feel better, I added, "Look, my nose is hooked under, the nostrils are tucked way up under there. You can't even see the nostrils what with the hooking."
We both looked at our noses, as if seeing them for the first time. And then Dave said, "So your nose will grow into your mouth. Everything you say will come out garbled." He paused. "But I'll only be able to hear half of it anyway, what with my nose in my ear."
With this, he pointed to our future together; what I realized in that moment that I wanted to believe: we would grow old together. It was the first small proposal in a series of small proposals.
I said that we would be great fun for the grandkids, perhaps they could even wheel us in for Show and Tell. And that’s how I accepted – a first small acceptance in a series of small acceptances. As if adding a bit of mood, a piece of the moldy ceiling drifted down and settled into the rusty sink like snow.
On one level, I didn’t expect to fall in love. I saw this other future version of myself, a merciless, lonesome writer, banged up, brooding, bullying her way through life. But, honestly, I also felt like this was the person I’d been waiting for. There was a feeling of relief – a feeling of Oh, here you are, finally. And this is what you look like. And this is what your voice sounds like. And this is the set of your childhood memories. I’d thought I’d been looking but really I was just waiting for him without knowing that I was waiting, really, without knowing that I missed him. I thought the ache was a restless lonesomeness, but it was more like homesickness for a place you haven’t yet come to.
That’s how the story begins. I was twenty-two and my mother said, “Don’t fall in love with a poet,” and I did and we’ve been together ever since.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
In yesterday's Brutal Alternate Q and A, Karen Sayler McElmurray mentioned a review of one of her books. It's a review that I'll never forget. The book in question was Surrendered Child, a beautiful, heart-wrenching memoir about McElmurray's teen pregnancy and the child she gave up for adoption. The memoir has an astounding twist at the end, one no reader could ever forget.
And YOU, punk-ass reviewer, dismissed the memoir as "labored womb-gazing." I read that review and felt sick.
First of all, it was a sick joke. I heard you in my head saying, "Labored -- as in labor, get it? And womb-gazing, like navel-gazing, right? But a funny twist and the opposite, right? Get it?"
I got it. I got it and I couldn't let it go. The term "labored womb-gazing" stuck in my head and wouldn't leave. I wrote a letter to the publication. When Fence Magazine asked me for a commentary on publishing, I aired my grievance. But there it was in yesterday's Q and A, and everything flooded back to me.
My God, the memoir was about a teenaged girl -- alone and shut off from her mother -- getting pregnant, forced into a marriage, going through labor, and giving that infant away.
Labored? Screw you, dumb ass. Hell, yes, it was labored. Do you think McElmurray should have written it blithely? Could have?
Womb-gazing? No, womb-gazing is not the same as navel-gazing. The navel isn't really worthy of much gazing -- linty, sure, your own little swirly imprint, inny or outie -- hence the meaning of the expression. But the womb -- you stupid punk-ass -- is where cells divide, where life starts, where the heart first ticks and the brain first fires its synapses.
It's personal -- deeply and irrefutably personal -- and political -- deeply and irrefutably political. Do you know some of the personal and political issues of the womb? Surely, one or two have pulsed across your radar.
Maybe you're saying, hey, what's it to you? It wasn't even a review of one of your books. Why are you getting so heated?
Except that it wasn't about a book at all. It was about the validity of a subject matter -- the womb, pregnancy, motherhood. And your review was saying that this subject matter didn't merit the writer's gaze and therefore didn't merit our attention as readers.
But here's the thing. Years have passed. There's a chance, dear reviewer, that your life has changed. There's a chance that you've found yourself nine-months pregnant, in a hospital gown damp with your own sweat, on sheets awash with your own blood, screaming under the fluourescent lights, a mirror pointed at your spread legs, a child's head edging out of your own body.
There's a chance, too, that this wasn't you. (I've certainly imagined you as a man.) But instead the woman in the hospital bed is the woman you love. And you're the man, standing there at her side, feeling mute and helpless and useless as your own child -- ruddy and purplish is forced out into the world, slick and new, and then the baby is rubbed and wrapped and put in your arms.
And your life changed forever.
And you got it.
And you weren't thinking "labored womb-gazing" because why would you? It was just a review of some book in a long unending assembly line of reviews you were grossly underpaid to write.
But maybe later, in some quiet moment, when the woman you love -- still clotting and bleeding is being helped by a nurse in the bathroom -- or maybe later, some night, three months down the road, when you're pacing the floors with an infant that you didn't have to surrender, one you got to keep, those words rattled back to you from some dim recess of your mind and you thought -- I was wrong. I got it all wrong.
That's my hope. Today, that's what lets me move on.
Monday, May 16, 2011
a writer has taken me up on the
ALTERNATE BRUTAL Q AND A.
And, well, the result is something quite stunning.
But that might be because it's an interview with
Karen Salyer McElmurray
who always sets me off kilter
in the best ways,
a brilliant writer
and author of one of the most beautiful
and heartbreaking and redemptive
memoirs I've ever read.
Where do you get your stupidest ideas?
I don’t know if they’re stupid ones or not, but I get ideas that are freer, more open to playing with language and letting characters create their own scenes when I’m swimming or running or dancing. I find that being in my body makes the story at hand more grounded. When I’m grounded, the words find their place on the page.
Did you consider becoming a writer settling because you really wanted to be something else -- something better or more useful to society?
I think a lot these days about how the comparatively safe life of a writer in a university can find a place in the community, a use that is of and in the world. I’m in year four of remission from colon cancer, and my wish to be of use has in these years grown broader and more urgent. I’ve done some work for chemo labs at local hospitals in both Georgia and Maryland--reading to patients or just sitting with patients and getting them anything they want or need as they get treatments. Scott Russell Sanders, in an essay of his called “The Writer in the University,” urges us as writers not to mistake the academy for the world—to seek out the work of our hands, work for our communities. My next project is to find work in a women’s shelter. I used to think about teaching a writing class in a shelter. I’m not sure about that. I just want to work with my hands.
Tell us about your failed projects.
I have had and do have file drawers of stories (mostly short stories, since I don’t work as well in that form) that didn’t become complete. But I try hard not to think in terms of failed projects. I try to think of what Maxine Kumin said at a reading at Berry College some years back. She keeps a file on her computer called The Bone Pile. It's full of lines and sometimes poems that need to wait awhile to find their place.
Have you ever thrown a punch because of criticism? If not, have you at least mentally prepared long elaborate speeches hand-tailored for specific critics? Where do you do this mental work? In the shower? Long car rides?
My most difficult response from a critic was to say that my memoir about surrendering a child to adoption was “womb gazing.” Well, sure it was. It was looking hard at a birth and an adoption that defined my life. What did I do with my anger about that review? I talked with friends. I wrote an essay about it, and later a panel presentation. Long car rides? Yeah, with Kurt Cobain turned way up.
What are you compensating for -- most deeply?
I often think I’m compensating for the way other women in my family have not spoken up. There’s this scene in my memoir, Surrendered Child, where an aunt of mine is sitting in the living room in her trailer and her husband comes in waving a rifle around like he’s playing a game. He aimed it at her and she said, “I hate it when you do that.” She didn’t move or raise her voice. The background to that story is that the trailer is the same place where my cousin shot himself. That cousin? A kid, really. Nineteen, twenty when he died. The same one I remember seeing last at the dining room table in the trailer. First we said a blessing, thanking Jesus for the chicken and slaw. Then we were all eating and he was in the other room with AC/DC turned up really loud. We kept talking and passing the biscuits and gravy. He came out finally and walked over to my aunt, his mother, and said, “I’ll never be as good as you are. I want you to know that.” He was dead a couple of years later. While no one has pointed a gun at me quite like that, I’ve had other, more metaphorical guns held to my heart. Lovers. Colleagues. Strangers. I compensate often for that gun-play. For my cousin, telling us all he wasn’t good enough and that he needed something, something way down deep, and that none of us were listening. I keep trying to be the woman who gets up and walks out of the trailer. The one who says no or yes, anything but sitting there, waiting.
On a typical day, how much of your writing time is dedicated to feeling like a failure? Would you say that this is an essential part of your creative process?
Seriously, looking back, would you go into something else?
If a slow writer -- one who takes a good ten years to write a book -- do you think it's all about crafting the exact right sentence or are you just kind of lazy?
Do you think being a writer has, in some ways, made you sharp-tongued and self-centered, in a way that would embarrass your mother?
Do you think that your writing life has sabotaged more than a few of your relationships?
Very sadly, yes. Once I lived with a man named George. We traveled the world together, worked together, lived in a cabin near Asheville, North Carolina together. Used to be, I’d make him leave the house before I could write a word. I failed to realize that the perennial beds outside our home were a poetry I’d never know how to write.
Have you ever cried on the way home from a Ladies' Book Club where they got a little drunk and caustic? Did it hurt your weedle feelings?
Have you read the new studies on sitting and how it shaves years off your life? In what ways do you think writing will lead to your early demise?
Karen Salyer McElmurray, who has been a landscaper, a casino employee and a sporting-towel factory worker, is in her current life a writer and a teacher of writing. She is the author of Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother's Journey, described by The Atlanta Journal-Constitutionas "a moving meditation on loss and memory and the rendering of truth and story." The book was the recipient of the 2003 AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction and a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book. McElmurray's debut novel, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, was winner of the 2001 Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Her work in both fiction and nonfiction has also received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the North Carolina Arts Council. Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University, McElmurray is Creative Nonfiction Editor for Arts and Letters. Her newest novel is The Motel of the Stars. She hopes, in the next year, to begin a new memoir about her travels in India and Nepal and the end of a love affair.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
I say to the 14 year old son, "Look, if I were an Asian-American Tiger Mom, I'd make you practice piano two hours a day. All I'm asking is that you watch The Manchurian Candidate with Denzel!"
He says, "If you were Asian, I'd be Asian and I'd already know how to play the piano. AND I'd be a Ninja. So... you kind can't argue with that!"
"The problem with that guy is simple. He'd pick a lame Foucault joke over a supremely funny fart joke. How can you make an authentic connect to a person like that?"
Dave says, "Wait. I take that back. I do want to be the pole in your pole dance. I wasn't paying attention."
Because PURE is now in galley form and one copy is in our house ...
The 14-year-old (who refuses to read my work) says, "I see you're working on the sequel to FUSE there. I see a Partridge chapter up there."
"Yeah, the first book alternates between four points of view and this one probably between five."
He says, "And maybe I know that because I READ the first FOUR chapter of the book LAST NIGHT before bed!"
I spin around. "You did! I'm so happy! I can't tell you what that ..."
"Oh, wait. I didn't know you'd be genuinely that excited. Um. I was being sarcastic."
"So you feel really bad now, don't you?"
"So bad you're going to read the first four chapters tonight."
"Actually not that bad."
Dave says, as if this is a previous unrevealed deep confession, "You know, I was an English major with a Philosophy minor. I mean ..."
"And I was a First Team All-Catholic Field Hockey player. At a certain point you've just got to throw your hands up."
Dave pauses. "First team All-Catholic?"
"Okay, okay. So it wasn't the toughest division! Back off!"
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Here are some really basic tips. They come from being aware of my creative process -- let me reiterate: MY creative process. I'm not now -- nor will I ever -- claim that my process is better than anyone else's . But I will try to dismantle the myth that allowing your process to be mysterious is the only true way to be an artiste. I've found that the more I'm aware of my process -- in very basic on-the-shelf ways, the more writing I can create.
Also, keep in mind that I didn't always have the luxury of time. I had my first two kids below the poverty level so finding time at that point in my life -- and others, four kids, professor, touring -- was like trying to make bread from dust. Hard. So, yes, with the tips below, there's an assumption you've elbowed out some time to write -- begged it, stole it -- but somehow have gotten it. (If not, get it.)
I used to only be able to write for about 2 hours max. Then I learned that I could do 2 hours in the morning and then another 2 in the evening/night. Then I realized that I could take shorter breaks and write 2 hours, take a fifteen minute break, and go back for another two or so. This way I can do long days, when necessary.
Someone asked me yesterday, if I write when I'm tired. I do. I have times when I really struggle with fatigue -- anemia and thyroid problems. Sometimes I can't bully through, but when I can, it's because I tell myself that I'm not tired, that what I'm feeling isn't fatigue. It's more like a block of wood that sits behind my eyes. I can still see. I still have access to my brain and I can still work. It's very hard to think broadly at these times -- like plotting -- but I can get into a scene and see it and write it.
There's the golden blur between wake and sleep. Honor that. Have paper and pen beside your bed. This is important. The short power nap can be really solidly important too.
Instead of dragging through that late afternoon slump or almost ready for bed tiredness, I've started exercising instead -- push ups, sit ups, putting music on and dancing until I'm sweaty. I get all the blood pumping and have jittery energy and get back to work. Exercising, just in the last few weeks, has really changed my process for the best. Not the kind of exercising where the point is to go to a gym and keep your heart rate elevated for XX number of minutes. No. This isn't an little post about being heart healthy -- read up on those, they're all good. This is a post about writing. I spend a burst of energy -- ten minutes of hyper movement and exertion -- I get really sweaty, but don't shower, just grab the energy and write.
I do try to sleep well at night. I'm not great at it. But once I fall asleep I usually stay asleep -- even when woken a bunch of times in the middle of the night, I tend to go back. A good night's sleep helps with the next day's work.
When I'm burnt in one genre, I move to another. Sometimes I have to do this in a day to keep myself fresh. Here's a post for more on the benefits of genre-hopping.
Pay yourself first. Find out when your brain cells produce the best work and block that time out for your own work -- as much as humanly possible. It might be early morning or after midnight. Try to work this.
Learn to write while not writing. Don't know what I mean? That piece is HERE.
Have go-to books and writers. When I'm stuck on a project, I have very specific voices that jump-start me. Eventually, it helps to find a spot in your own novel where, tonally, you've hit your stride. Come back to it again and again.
I see writing as a daily practice. Here's why.
Find out how other human beings affect your work. Do some bum you out so that you don't want to write? Be with these folks either less or AFTER you've written. Do some charge you up creatively? Use that energy and block out time after being with them.
After an evening out, I can't fall right to sleep. I absorb the energy and it has to take some time to get out of my system. So I don't lay there in bed after a party, I write.
If I have a drink in the evening, it kind of signals to my brain that the day is over. Done. Relax now, it says. Clock out. (Barbara Hamby just pointed this out to me although I knew it, I'd never heard it stated.) This is true for me unless it's a cocktail with a little caffeine in it. Sometimes I want a glass of wine and to signal the end of the day so I do. But sometimes I think that I might get one more little burst of writing in after the kids are asleep. I'm aware of what that drink does to me and what it signals.
I time my caffeine. I never drink caffeine unless I'm going to get to my creative work (or I drink a little to stave off a little headache). Caffeine is an important part of my process and has been for the last five years or so. I use it wisely. Ditto bonbons.
I don't clean. This helps. More on clean versus clutter. In fact, I hoard.
Eating. I'm a grazer. It's good for my process to get up, peel an apple, think while peeling, and then to have some of that fuel to go back to work. I write for a while, go back to the kitchen, eat a rolled up piece of turkey, go back to writing. Go back to the kitchen and get other something ... I need to work, walk away, work, walk away.
And sometimes I need to get in a car and drive. This is a bad day. But sometimes there's no other way around it. I have to leave and drive with music blaring. I bring paper and pen and eventually pull off and write.
Also, I say to Dave sometimes, "We can't leave this room until I get this part figured out." I talk. He listens. He might not even know the project I'm working on. He offers something. No. He offers something else. I say, "Keep talking." He says a few more things and I say, "Stop. Got it." And I go back to work. This is a great person to find. Find your own, of course. Mine's busy.