Reengaging with the Fucker

The first rule is that there are no rules that are not fit to be changed. A few days ago I bravely claimed on this public forum that I would write 2000 words a day. Well, almost every day. Well, maybe not really. Here’s what happened between then and today.

After working on Chapter 3 and writing my last blog post in a flush of new writing, I decided maybe I should go to Chapter 1. So I sat and my desk, opened a new document, opened the old document, and cut and pasted a few things. And it sucked. It began somewhere in the Depths of Boredom and then meandered through a deep grove of No Fucking Plot At All, wait have some Pretty Sentences!

I despaired. But because I am an optimist without a current paper to edit, I persevered. I checked out Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I have mostly stopped reading writing books, because I understand (at least intellectually) how to get to the page and how to get words down. I understand the basics of the craft of poetry. But something clearly is missing in my understanding of the craft of nonfiction.

Ms. Gornick does not disappoint. She talks about how you have the situation of the book. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald loses her father and adopts a goshawk. But that isn’t the story. The story is that Macdonald, in her grief, tries to rid herself of all humanity and live wild like a hawk. (This is a brutal simplification. Please don’t decide not to read this book based on my description. It is such a good book.) Then she finds her way back to being a feeling, hurt, complicated human. That is the wisdom.

This is why Julie Powell’s memoir Cleaving sucked so bad. The situation was amazing. She cheats on her husband in what appears to be a perfectly happy marriage. She goes gets an apprenticeship as a butcher. Excellent! But by the end of the book Powell still does not know why she originally cheated on her husband in what, according to her, was a happy marriage. There is no story. The narrator is not to be trusted because she doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing. This is why you don’t write a memoir in a year even if you get a fancy contract after the sale of your first book (Julia and Julie). Maybe she fucked up her marriage in order to have something to write about.

Gornick insists that you have to know why you are telling the story and thus create a persona that is able to tell that story. The persona is not a lie, it is the character that is you. “In each case [of the books she mentions earlier in the chapter] the writer was possessed of an insight that organized the writing, and in each case a persona had been created to serve that insight.” Powell does not know her insight, so we don’t really arrive anywhere. We get that she likes rough and/or dangerous sex (thus the affair). We don’t know why or why at that moment of time did she begin on the affair. (For a good review, read this.)

Macdonald knows she is writing about her journey into wildness and back again. She does not mention details that are not closely related to that story, even if they are related to the situation (the author, her dead father, the hawk).

I am hoping I can take my story and tattoo it to my fucking forehead keep it in my brain long enough to fashion myself as a persona. I might come up with some key words. Maybe this is how the ADD memoirist figures out finally what is important to the story and what is not. Does this tidbit fit my key word? No? Delete. (The ADD memoirist can’t figure out what is not important to the story because the gaps in her executive function give her no ability to discriminate.)

What books do you hate and why?

In Which I Turn Into My Father

I am at a poetry reading. The woman standing on stage talks about tulips as yellow as the sun. The image bothers me. First, it is boring, a little cliche. But then I begin thinking more critically. (The reading was boring, what could I do?)

What color is the sun? We usually see it in infrared or maybe ultraviolet. The Hubble photos are color-enhanced.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to write about what color the sun actually is?

Color is reliable here on earth (if you’re not color blind or arguing with your second sister about the color of your third sister’s childhood bedroom). But not in space. There are colors that human eyes are not made to understand because we don’t process the right waves.

Isn’t that more interesting than tulips that are as yellow as the sun?

What do you overthink?

If Queries Were Honest

Dear Person I’ve Admired for Years and Years and Years,

My book is an accumulation of pain, broken relationships, heartache, and things I’d rather not talk about, but I cannot write poems about bunnies any longer. I couldn’t think of what else to do with this manuscript, so I mailed it to you. If I got published, maybe I could move out of my parents’ basement.

I have been published in three journals you’ve never heard of, and one—my best publication—that you might have heard of in grad school. I would be pathetically grateful if you took my manuscript, and thus would agree to all edits, even the ones that go strictly against what my novel is about. You have my word that I will only complain about it in quiet bars where no one knows how to read.

Here are the five books I read over and over while writing my book. I have them memorized. I stalk three of the authors on Facebook, and the fourth and fifth authors died in the last century by their own hand. I hope to avoid their fate.

Yours very sincerely,

Author

 

Anti-Books

I recently reread a memoir that had a subject pretty similar to mine. And I hated it. The premise was good. Some parts of it were super interesting. But the author couldn’t decide whether she wanted to be a journalist or a memoirist. To make things worse, she did something that some of my favorite journalists do (*ahem* Natalie Angier*ahem*), which is to show off their vocabulary until the sentences are hideously overwrought and E. B. White turns in his grave.

“I drank Scotch, my father’s favorite tipple in his sunset years”

Who fucking says “tipple” anymore? And his “sunset years”?? Please. What did he look like/smell like/sound like as he drank Scotch as an old man? Was he on a yacht in Florida or a shabby nursing home in Wyoming? Help me out here.

There’s another book that I read that was much lauded and about one of the topics I write about. And it was boring as fuck. The narrator was whiny, and she thought no one else had ever written about said subject. And she was published in the New Yorker. Feh.

But I think it is good to articulate why we hate books that try to do what we are trying to do but fail for one reason or another. Maybe it helps us avoid pitfalls. Maybe it helps us rethink structure. Maybe it challenges us to come up with criticisms outside our own inherent jealousies.

What’s your anti-book?

Biting the Bullet, Drinking the Bulleit: Attending AWP for Cranks and Poets

Are any of you folks going to AWP? I’m sucking it up and attending it this year. If anyone wants to meet for drinks, I’ll be the one in mask. No, kidding, I’d love to meet you. But you might have to sign a confidentiality statement first. Let me know.

In honor of the bazillion-page AWP catalog, I’d like to suggest a contest:

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to come up with the name and description of a conference panel that describes your writing life or work in progress. This is your chance to be funny, pretentious, truthful, and/or chock full of lies.

Submit below or by email (which is independentclause at the gmail). My favorite academic will judge (right, Cougar?). The winner gets swag that I’ve been promised at the AWP bookfair.

Tawdry, bumptious, and madcap

In my cubicle days, I worked near the production staff. There was one assistant who drove everyone crazy. She spoke in cliche and didn’t understand basic aspects of production flow even after it was explained to her twenty-five times. One of my other colleagues and I would escape the cubicles and go out to get coffee. She had three kids and a writing studio that no one, including her husband, knew about. She was wry and smart, and perpetually harassed by the assistant.

“I swear, the next time [assistant] asks me how my weekend was, I will say to her ‘It was as tawdry as it was torrid’ and see what she has to say about that,” she told me one day, as we went out to get coffee. For the rest of the time we worked together one or other of us would ask how something was and the other would reply “It was as tawdry as it was torrid.”

I’m reading a memoir that is a tad overwritten, but this sentence just about did me in.

“It was a trip as bumptious as it was madcap.”

I don’t care who your father is, memoirist, you are not allowed to use the word bumptious in all seriousness. This is a story you’ve heard other people tell too many times. It could be more interesting and less name-droppy. Instead of using old-fashioned words to talk about intellectual life in Paris in the fifties, which is what this sentence refers to, tell me like it was. Make it your own.

Let me know how it felt to be there. Make your details interesting, not just your language. Tell it yourself, and make me feel as if I were there. And I’ll bet I’ll feel neither madcap nor bumptious.

How was your evening?

Woohoo, It’s Friday, Let’s Talk About Racism!*

Never let it say that at Fangs and Clause central that I don’t have fun. Unfortunately, one of my greatest joys is schadenfreude. This is why Yo, Is This Racist? is one of my favorite blogs. It makes me feel like less of a dumb ass. When I’m feeling a little more intellectual, I like to read Crunk Feminist Collective. Instead of schadenfreude, I find incisive, extensive discussions of race, culture, academia, and society. They are not hack bloggers, like myself. Each post is an article. It’s well-thought-out cultural criticism based, often, in personal experience or on current events.

I’m a white, thirty-mumble woman living in a predominately white neighborhood. I have lived in more racially diverse places in the past. I am from the South, where you can’t avoid the fact of racial discrimination. It’s not that folks in the South are necessarily more racist than folks in the North, it’s just that it’s all at the surface. I know that when my parents moved to Hometown in 1965, they made sure to move to Fantastic Elementary School neighborhood, because it was one of the elementary schools that was desegregated. Not all of them were.

I don’t often talk about racism in my daily life. But there are things I notice. (I’m sure there are many other things I don’t notice.) This entire post is really an excuse to post an article from Jezebel today about hipster, or ironic, racism. Now in my more urban past I spent time with people who could rightfully be called hipsters.

I came across a lot of hipster sexism. Naked lady flaps on a minivan is not ironic, it is offensive. Hatred of Joy Harjo in my grad school program was probably racist, with a bit of sexism. She was a shorthand for everything certain MFA boys hated. Frank, vivid poetry that addresses racism. The Jezebel article talks about how people think they can make fun of racism by imitating it. I spent a lot of time “making fun” of a particular regional accent in the place where I went to college. Three months in I had that very accent.

So, be polite. Own your words and thoughts. Listen well. And when you’re dealing with a fraught issue take the extra time to make sure you get it right. And, because you guys are the peachiest (Downith, that is 1950s slang for da bomb), here is a quick, brilliant video guide about how to confront racism in casual conversation.

(My thanks to KVO, without whom most of these links wouldn’t have found their way into my hot-linking hands.)

*Also, please note that it is white privilege that I can write about racism like it’s a diverting and intellectual topic, rather than a dead-serious phenomenon that I have to deal with every day while walking down the street, hailing a cab, applying for jobs, going to the grocery store, sitting in class, or watching TV.