I posted a status update on Facebook yesterday noting I was at The Yardhouse Restaurant, and that “at least they have good beer.” Someone responded asking me if I like to drink (yes, I like certain alcoholic beverages), and I found myself defending the stereotype of the drinking, binging, self-destructive writer. I’ve certainly had my scenes of inebriation, but I am simply lucky not to carry the addiction gene. Beyond that I have an inherent impulse toward beauty—meaning I cannot stand the way I look and feel after any sort of binge. Chocolate, tequila, smoke or deep-fried hush puppies, I don't feel good when I look bad. And I’m OCD about hygiene, so I can’t embody the unwashed, sloppy over-doer (nor can I be an effective hippie, but that’s another blog post).
In one of those universal existential confluences, moments after I posted my “I’m not a tortured, sloshy-drunk, self-mutilating writer” response, I received a friend request from a wonderful writer, Jacqueline Doyle, who has a story in the latest issue of the Santa Fe Literary Review, and read my piece, Demonios Y Canciones Mi Padre (live link to follow) there. In perusing her wall I found this wonderful essay she published in The Writing Disorder that interrogates the notion that writers generally create best when toasted. I found this excerpt apt: “But since I've gotten sober, I've noticed a few things. Not all writers are drunks. My own productivity has increased tremendously. Before I often wrote in an alcoholic euphoria after a night out of drinking, or induced a kind of euphoria sipping wine by my computer, and it sometimes produced results, but there wasn't much follow-through.”
Talent--it's breathes all around us. People can be so extraordinary. Watching the latest episode of SYTYCD last night I was yet again gobsmacked by art—the gifts of our bodies and brains. Not just dance, either, but in as many media as one can imagine. Each day I read the stories written by people I know, or from people I don’t know and must “judge,” and marvel at the creative impulse, the genius that must be ubiquitous—so much abounds. Feeling uninspired? Drab? Walk Off the Earth’s clever little cover song, performed with such acumen and wit, surely makes you feel a smidge better about the human stain? We are sublime.
Still, we focus and aggrandize production and consumption in our lives; our admiration doled out most often to those that accumulate money and power and things of “status” that ultimately mean nothing. We call him "Mr. Trump," for nothing more than his self-proclaimed status.The venture to become top dog is privileged, protected and exalted, and our singular impulse to art is diminished, mocked, and too often wholly unsupported.
For me, a writer's voice has always been the single thing that differentiates a story or novel for me. You can tease out or develop a story, but you can't create an author's voice where only a story exists, IMO. As a managing editor and reader (both personally and professionally), I am very aural in my response. Can I hear this author and his/her singularity when I read? I always read my own stories into a microphone--and am often astonished at what I hear back. Sometimes I'm delighted, other times I'm horrified at the obvious errors or pat quality of my words.
This notion was seconded in an interview with Amy Einhorn of Penguin Random House, in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers magazine. She says: "I think I would choose voice over story, if I had to. That is not necessarily a good thing, but I'm a sucker for a really strong voice. ... I can help somebody with the story, but I can't create a voice. I can't teach that, and I can't fix that."
Do you agree?
My favorite form of writing, and reading, is the short story or short essay. Unfortunately, novels are essentially what writers aspire to, and what readers refer to when they list off what they like to, or favorite, reads. But my early favorite stories were short: John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, Saki’s The Open Window, Somerset Maugham’s Red, O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. Short stories are the amuse bouche of reading. I’ve always liked reading this way—in a powerful bite rather than an extended meal. My mother gave me a collection of classic adult short stories when I was thirteen, which I read in its entirety; I still have the volume on my bookcase shelf.
With the short story form, a writer generally must sustain momentum and use language exceedingly well. Unlike a novel where the writer has the luxury of space to unveil a plot and develop characters, in a short form, a writer needs to hit hard quickly, blow a character out through actions, and reveal her/his writer’s “voice” in a limited area. It’s like having to stand out in a skit, rather than a movie.
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story in your soul" -- Maya Angelou
She was one of our lifetime's very greatest. A woman whose poise and voice conveyed that she was a force for wisdom, for compassion. She asked to be heard and she was: A poet, a thinker, an activist. I read her work and bought her cards and pinned her to my board as one of my heroes. She was one of the most beautiful people--true beauty, the sort that makes you want to be better yourself. She was as important as James Baldwin, and today I learn she has passed. Her life was often difficult, her actions bore dire results (the beating death of the man who raped her), but she dove into reading and learning and carried on with a dignity that I can only aspire to. What a life she led. When I searched for an image, each one captured her signature smile, and a face so alive it almost burst forth. I even loved her name. I will miss knowing you are in this world, Ms. Maya Angelou.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”—Norman MacLean
I relish a reason to blog (shame on me). I was tagged a little while back by the wondrous Linda Graziano Niehoff, a wildly talented writer and photographer I have come to know through the meandering channels of social media and gatherings of “emerging writers”. We have both been published in, and have a robust affinity for, Mike Joyce’s Literary Orphans. Linda’s piece here, My piece here.
Linda writes extraordinary stories, her immense talent is palpable and varied. I feel a bond with Linda, our mournful observations and strange departures are thumb-tacked to unexpected map locales and demographics. Then she has the added threat component of this eye—an eye that sees the transcendent and evocative components of ordinary relics such as antique buildings, gas stations, silver water towers, Laundromats. Check out her visions here. So thanks for the tag, Linda!
So, to the meat of this exercise.
I have just finished reading my former professor Jay Ponteri's essay, In Defense of Navel Gazing, published in a recent edition of Oregon Humanities magazine. This is a resonant piece for any of us who grapple with the stigma of memoir, an impulse to extract the writing we offer to others from within ourselves. Is memoir narcissistic? Poor writing? Amateurish, the dreaded navel gazing? In his essay, Jay Ponteri elegantly validates those of us who find the deepest satisfaction when writing about interior and private moments. When I’m writing a piece based on an experience, fiction or non-fiction, I have a mantra streaming through my consciousness—how am I connecting this to others? What aspect of this particular experience will resonate with an audience? How am I moving my particulars to universals that have meaning for others?
Referencing Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Jay notes: "As a reader, I don’t question "whether Didion is indulging herself or exploiting her experience  because I’m too busy feeling the contradictions in Didion’s heart. The prose transfers them from hers to mine." I feel this transfer, too, when I read a story like A Three Dog Life, or Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, or a story like Amy Bloom’s Silver Water. These are the authors’ particular stories, but the pain of loss, the reverberating anxiety of chaos, the unresolvable aspects of madness and/or futility—these aren't singular moments. Most of us have lived one or all of these challenges, and empathy proverbially sets us apart from lizards. When they are artfully told, we hear others’ stories, and through their catharses or at least resolutions, we bond—nodding our heads, or wiping our tears, or jamming up the volume on that transgressive song we play when we’re in agony.
Hello again from the world’s worst blogger.
I’ve had a festering writer’s block this year, only finishing up two fiction pieces I started at the end of last year and pulling out an old memoir piece called Jagged Little Summer, which was one of the final works I completed in college. As all old work does, I had a palpable physical reaction upon revisiting it that was akin to a fight-or-flight adrenalin dump—intense aversion. I hated it and knew it was all wrong. This piece is a memoir, and there were places I didn’t want to go with it, things I resisted reveal.
So first I rehashed it vigorously. I worked it and reworked it for at least the past six weeks. I kept revisiting it and tweaking a word here, a phrase there. It slowly got leaner, then longer, then better, but still it needed some stitching up, it needed a little more flight. Finally, frustrated, I made myself leave it for a while. If I stared at it for more than about 15 minutes, I closed the document and did something else.
There is enduring talk around art and health, particularly mental health. Are the most vivid, talented artists damaged? Is crazy and/or addicted and/or solitary the state in which artists create at their best? I know a lot of writers who imbue in their personal poison, and write, and they can give up some very good work.
Still, I have never been able to write that way. Although I can cull fine ideas reflecting on times in my life that feel stretched to a breaking point, and I can perhaps express myself with more abandon if I've had a glass of wine, or I’m feeling some kind of galvanized euphoria, generally clarity, good health and focus help me produce my best work.
I've been reading Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy if You Can be Normal (how great is that title?), an extraordinary memoir written by an exceptional writer who has transcended much in life. I recommend the book heartily. Jeanette Winterson is a writer who has greatly influenced my literary sensibilities, as well as my writing (hopefully).
The memoir contains many beautiful quotes that explore the notion of emotional dismantling and craft, such as this one: “Creativity is on the side of health—it isn't the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.”
There are so many opportunities in art, life, literature, to smack your open palm over your mouth and gasp. Gratuitous sex, inappropriate images, foul language, vulgar innuendo are arguably ubiquitous in the new normal of our culture.
In answer to the never-ending discourse about what is OK, and what is verboten for us to explore as writers, and how morality can quickly turn perverse, I penned my short piece Writing for God.
As if on queue, about a week after the piece was published over at the provocative Literary Orphans, one of my finer LinkedIn writing groups began a discussion titled: "How do you feel about sexually explicit/graphically written material appearing on LinkedIn literary threads? Is this art or pornography? " The poster elaborated on a particular piece that was submitted for a poetry contest--I have not read the piece. As you may have guessed, the resulting comments were largely indignant. Ranging from a man who loathes erotica, to a woman who quoted OSCAR WILDE in defense of "taste," to finally someone saying, "if the words offend, by all means stop reading!"
In the past decade I have written memoirs for a nun, tutored children from Somalia, edited a college literary magazine, interned at Literary Arts in Portland, published a few stories, graduated from University with highest honors, given a speech to a packed house at the Schnitz, remodeled a fixer-upper, written grants for programs that helped, extended my emotional /intellectual horizons, made an intra-state move, started a business, regained my groove, placed my finger back on the pulse, joined Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn, bought a smartphone, traveled, raised puppies, and most importantly--honed my writing skills. I bare myself here on The Paper Garden and hope some moments will resonate with you.