the next writer in the series: july 1, 2014

fenton johnson

In  The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote, I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we … Continue reading

the next writer in the series: march 1, 2014

tumbledown

In  The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote, I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we … Continue reading

the squad: goon 3

Each chapter of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad can stand alone as a story, but united, these chapters took my breath away. I got chills as I discovered yet another connection between them: Characters who age and reappear. Younger selves revealed. Shadows filled in. Events alluded to that come to pass. The language itself (Chapter 13 is called “Pure Language.)

The subject of time and what it does to us is threaded throughout Goon Squad. From Chapter 3: “Ask Me If I Care:”

Lou looks so happy, surrounded by his kids like any normal dad, that I can’t believe this Lou with us is the very same Lou.

From Chapter 5: “You (Plural):”

My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?”

From Chapter 11: “Goodbye, My Love:”

“Let’s make sure it’s always like this.” Ted knew exactly why she’d said it…because she’d felt the passage of time.

From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

What he needed was to find fifty more people like him, who had stopped being themselves without realizing it.

And in that moment, the longing he’d felt for Sasha at last assumed a clear shape: Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there—his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.

And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.

In addition to time, A Visit From the Goon Squad is also about music. The book is divided into Side A and Side B, recalling 33s and 45s. The main character, Bennie Salazar, founded the Sow’s Ear record label. In my previous post, I quoted an excerpt that mentions, in the same paragraph, Bennie and a Jets game–a subtle reference to Elton John’s song.

Chapter 12 is Alison’s (the daughter of Sasha who worked for Bennie) power point presentation on “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” This 75-page slide show is stunning in its juxtaposition of word restraint and emotional impact.

In addition to the surface, there’s below the surface, before the surface, after… From Chapter 6: “X’s and O’s:”

I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once and asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.

E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “Music … does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way … and when we have finished does not every item…lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?”

Final post in a series of three on Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad: first post and second post.

*cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

writing my way there

I walk every step of what used to be the camp, of what is now Kingsland Bay State Park. Then I sit in a white Adirondack chair with my pen and paper, looking across the bord de l’eau to the Adirondacks. I bring my vision in to the flag pole cemented to the ground. The cement tells me it’s the same one that was here when I arrived for the first time in July of 1970.

Why do I want to come back? For proof I was here. For clues as to who I used to be. I just want to stay long enough to…

I think this place has something to tell me.

I remember friends I made here, but I no longer keep up with them. It’s this place I miss, not the people who were here. Is it this place or the person I was here?

I was my best self here. I learned how to be myself here. It was my first time away from home for a long period of time–eight weeks that first summer, nine the others. Each summer I got closer to me.

The metal rings holding the flag clang against the pole. The water of Lake Champlain laps against the shore. People spread cloths on the picnic tables. A motor boat zooms past a large sail boat that seems to linger in the moment.

Writing about it again this morning for this post, I finally get it. It’s the continuous life. That’s why I’m here–to understand that the girl who was here in 1970 is the same woman who is here now. I’ve been tagging these posts all week with those words without seeing it.

As Mary Gordon wrote so well in The Rest of Life:

“She sees that she has before her an important task: to understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her.  That she is the same person who was born, was a child, a girl, a young woman, a woman, and now she is old.  That there is some line running through her body like a wick.  She is the same person who was once born.  All the things that happened to her happened to one person…’I’m trying to understand what it means to have had a life.’”

Final post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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Madame, this is not your day

Because I’m always writing about how much I LOVE traveling, full disclosure compels me to tell the story of my trip home from Sirenland. I am only just now able to speak of this–now that the story has come to an end and I did in fact make it home. As a foil, I will sprinkle the story with lovely photos from the trip.

One of the amazing things about Sirenland is that it includes spouses in the dinners, the readings, everything except the workshops. So my husband was with me in Italy. He and I left Positano Saturday morning around 8:30. We took the train from Naples to Rome. After a pasta lunch with friends near the Piazza del Popolo, followed by a walk to the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps, then a glass of wine in the courtyard of our hotel, I began to feel sick. I went up to the room to lie down for a minute. Then I started throwing up. Which went on for hours. From my bed, between trips to the bathroom, I could see Cal on the balcony looking out at Rome. I could also see a couple across the way. Cal told me later that they were pointing at me on the bed and him on the balcony and laughing.

Anyway, even though I stopped throwing up sometime around midnight, I was dehydrated. My body felt all achy and feverish and so weird that I could not make myself get out of my clothes. Also, I could not stop myself from worrying about having to be on a plane in a few hours.

Sunday morning, I washed my face and brushed my teeth but did not have the strength to dig into my suitcase to change clothes. I told myself if I could just make it to the plane, I could curl up and go to sleep and by the time I got home, I would feel better. I would not breathe on anyone, and I would keep my anti-bacterial gel in my pocket.

At the Rome airport, I accepted the boarding pass the agent handed me, and I checked my second carry-on because I could barely lift my purse. An hour later, as Cal was about to leave to get on his plane (we fly separately), he noticed that my boarding pass had me going to Boston instead of Chicago.

The agent in the Alitalia Lounge helped me untangle the boarding pass mess and tried to reroute my suitcase but no luck there.

I finally got on the plane, took my shoes off, put on my face mask and got under the covers…only to hear moments later that we had to get off the plane for mechanical difficulties. When I walked back into the lounge, the agent who had helped me with the boarding pass was still there and I told her I was on the plane to Chicago, and with her lovely Italian accent, she said, “Madame, this is not your day.” No kidding.

Delayed one hour, then two more. Then they sent us to the airport Hilton to await instructions. I threw off my shoes and collapsed on the bed to sleep for 3 hours. Woke up, washed my underwear and socks in the sink, aired my other clothes, wrapped up in my raincoat, and watched movies on TV. Oh yeah, and the air conditioning was not working in the hotel. When our instructions came in, we learned that we would not be leaving until the next morning at 8, and that we should be at the airport at 6.

Back at the airport on the way to my gate, I got trapped in the train along with two other women. They had to come manually open the doors. Then the plane was delayed 30 minutes–fueling and catering…

By the time I got home–Positano to Naples to Rome to Chicago to Atlanta to Columbus–I had been in the same clothes for 3 days.

So sometimes, although I hate to admit it, I don’t love traveling. There. I said it.

Coming soon: more pictures from Italy, stories from Sirenland, and lots from my workshop with Ron Carlson. Also, on the first, a new guest post in the How We Spend Our Days series!

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The library, and step on it

David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest

IMG_2089On Humor: This book is often laugh-out-loud funny.

Hal: “I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.'” (12)

Hal: “I’m an O.E.D. man, Doctor.” (29)

The Narrator on Hal: “His way of answering the phone sounded like ‘Mmmyellow.'” (32)

Hal: “We’re all on each other’s food chain. All of us. It’s an individual sport. Welcome to the meaning of individual.” (112)

Hal: “This induced a spell of involuted marijuana-type thinking that led quickly, again, to Hal’s questioning whether or not he was really all that intelligent.” (136)

Hal: “I’m trying to cut down on patronizing places with ”N’ in their name.” (908)

On Humor and Sadness: In the sense of co-existing in a moment, of humor being an attempt to deal with sadness, a layer over the sadness, and finally melting into sadness.

Hal: “…I have administrative bones to pick with God, Boo. I’ll say God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I’m not crazy about. I’m pretty much anti-death. God looks by all accounts to be pro-death. I’m not seeing how we can get together on this issue, he and I, Boo.” (40)

Still writing beautiful sentences: Again, this is what kept my eyes on the page–page after page after page.

Narrator: “the cold-penny tang of the autumn air” (539)

Narrator: “The sun has the attenuated autumn quality of seeming to be behind several panes of glass.” (623)

On Eschaton (the game): Or on reading IJ.

“Its elegant complexity, combined with a dismissive-reenactment frisson and a complete disassociation from the realities of the present, composes most of its puerile appeal. Plus it’s almost addictively compelling…” (322)

On suicide: Yes, it’s all over the place–the fact of it, the attempt to understand it, and the understanding of it.

Geoffrey Day: “As the two vibrations [exhaust fan and violin] combined, it was as if a large dark billowing shape came billowing out of some corner in my mind. I can be no more precise than to say large, dark, shape, and billowing, what came flapping out of some backwater of my psyche I had not had the slightest inkling was there.” (649) and “From that day, whether I could articulate it satisfactorily or not…I understood on an intuitive level why people killed themselves.” (651)

Kate Gompert: “Time in the shadow of the wing of the thing too big to see, rising.” (651)

Describing: I am astonished, over and over again, at DFW’s ability to nail a description.

Marathe: “Also the living room evening resembled an anthill which had been stirred with a stick; it was too full of persons, all of the restless and loud.” (730)

Marathe about someone else: “…she laughed in the manner of an automatic weapon.” (748)

Mario about his mother’s desk: “…what looks like a skyline of file folders and books…” (760)

Hal about Keith Freer: “He was still wearing the weird unitard he slept in, which made him look like someone who tore phone books in half at a sideshow.” (908)

On story-telling: Remember the “use less words” from the previous post? Add these:

Marathe: “‘Because it is necessary that I leave soon, a central point must be soon emerging,’ Marathe worked in as gracefully as possible.”

Kate to Marathe: “Is the madly-in-love part coming up?” (779)

IMG_2254I’m realizing as of the end of the 700’s that more and more lines I would like to include might be spoilers so I have left them out.

On living in the moment: A recurrent theme.

Gately: “An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat…Living in the Present between pulses…living completely In The Moment.” (860)

On addiction: Everywhere to every possible thing, and I include “to this book.”

Gately: “Feeling the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time. Drawing the time in around him real tight.” (859)

Gately: “…everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you somehow believed.” (861)

Gately: “the psychic emergency-brake was off…” (906)

Gately: “…he found himself starting to cry like a babe. It came out of emotional nowheres…” (916)

OMG, I’m at the end again…

[4th in a series of 5 posts on finishing IJ]

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infinite autumn

IMG_2087So for those of you who are still reading–and not that there’s anything wrong with that–Infinite Summer has crossed infinite boundaries to become Infinite Autumn…(thanks for the title to Kim in a comment to yesterday’s post). And for those of you who have not yet started, please consider Infinite Autumn: 11 pages a day and you’ll be finished before the click of the clock that signals winter. Infinite Jest is a read for all seasons.

And speaking of titles:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? [Hamlet, V.i]

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, it feels weird not to be reading IJ anymore. I sense hesitation in moving forward to a new book. I don’t want to remove IJ from “What I’m reading now” on my Reading List page or from my “Read with me now” box on my sidebar.

Hence my taking 5 posts to process being finished and letting go. As far as an overall design, I have none, I must admit, which feels a little reckless. This week I’m rereading what I have underlined and trying to get “a hold of” it.

I have read IJ only once and some parts more closely than others. I am qualified only to give my impressions of one reading with only a few instances of reference to outside sources and but I am telling you even if I missed a few days, always when I picked it back up, I was back in the story in one second and I think it’s because of the sentences.

Yesterday was an example of lyrical. Today, it’s an example of honest:

IMG_2254…when he realized that the various Substances he didn’t used to be able to go a day without absorbing hadn’t even like occurred to him in almost a week, Gately hadn’t felt so much grateful or joyful as just plain shocked. (p.349)

More tomorrow…

[2nd in a series of 5 posts on finishing IJ]

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finished

IMG_2090Well, today, Monday, September 21, 2009, is the official date on which page 981, the last page, of Infinite Jest is to be read. And I have finished. It is the end of Infinite Summer.

I am shocked at how much I loved Infinite Jest. I’d thought it would be impossible to read, and I found it the opposite of that. I had assumed (for what reason I don’t know) that it would have no plot, which is false. The plot threads are intriguing and actually do push all those pages forward. Wallace’s sentences are amazing. His tone, as he exposes all the good and bad of the way we live, is not superior, but right in there with us. His characters are revealed through their flaws and quirks, and they are real and lovable.

For the whole summer, I happily floated along on a little bit of IJ a day. It’s a little weird to be finished. As Wendy Macleod wrote in The Rumpus:

Finishing a book is like ending a love affair; the longer it’s been a part of your life, the harder it is to close the covers and walk away. You regret the parts that you read too quickly. In your eagerness to tick off pages and find out what happened next you didn’t always appreciate the elegance of the prose. You envy the next reader, the one who gets to discover the book for the first time.

How to write about a book with that many pages? Greg Carlisle did it in 500 pages in his book, Elegant Complexity. And this week, in 5 posts rather than 500 pages, I will share with you a few of my favorite things about IJ, starting with this sentence from page 5:

IMG_2254My silent response to the expectant silence begins to affect the air of the room, the bits of dust and sportcoat-lint stirred around by the AC’s vents dancing jaggedly in the slanted plane of windowlight, the air over the table like the sparkling space just above a fresh-poured seltzer.

A sentence as lyrical and lovely as it is true. We have all been in exactly that moment before, watching the bits of dust dance in the sunlight.

[1st in a series of 5 posts on finishing IJ]

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when I’m not being a mother

IMG_2001My husband and son just left the house to take his mother (my son’s grandmother) to church and to lunch. I declined. It is, after all, Mother’s Day. As the mother, I should get to choose what I want to do. And I still choose what I began choosing that first mother’s day–time to myself.

Over the years, my children have criticized my choice. My husband jokingly blows it up as “we’re leaving-that’s what she wants.” Even with three children no longer living full-time at home, I still never seem to have enough time for me.

We, as mothers, should tell that truth.

IMG_1994In a little while, I’ll make another cup of tea and move from my desk to my chair with a stack of lovely books…Mothers, an anthology of stories about mothers, I‘ve Always Meant to Tell You–Letters to Our Mothers by Contemporary Women WritersIMG_2000, Don’t Cry (the book I’m reading now), the New York Times.

Later I’ll call my mother…

My family knows now how I like to spend this day. My husband could not be any nicer–supporting me in my choice, taking care of any obligations that arise and offering to fix me whatever I’d like for breakfast and dinner, wonderful cards. My children not at home all called, which I loved. I look forward to this day every year.

I certainly can forsee some time in the future when I have no children living at home and I never see them that I would choose to spend Mother’s Day with them if that were a choice. But for now, I’m in my study, my tea on my coaster, a bergamot candle scenting the air, the tree branches blowing in the wind, remembering who I am when I’m not being a mother.

row houses

028_00When Georgia Heard was asked what one image she thought represented her life, she answered “layers,” clarifying “as in the Grand Canyon.”  I would have to say houses, as in rows of identical ones.

Georgia Heard wrote in Writing Toward Home, “The seemingly random observations I make or the subjects I choose to write about are like the branches of a tree whose roots reach down to the depths of myself and reveal my obsessions….The task of finding your key images is lifework.”

Pam Houston wrote in “Pregnancy and Other Natural Disasters,” an essay in A Little More About Me, “There is only one story of our lives and we tell it over and over again, in a thousand different disguises, whether we know it or not.”  And I swear one of her characters says this too, but I can’t find it.

I don’t know what my one story is, but I’m working on it.  The more I write, the more I see similar shapes.  I have pictures from all over Columbus of these row houses.  (Unfortunately, I just realized, not digital ones.  And my scanner is refusing to work with Vista.)  When I travel, I take pictures of these houses as well.  The one at the top of the blog, as well as the one in today’s post, were both taken in Provincetown in 2006.  The one on my website is of the same houses but taken by a professional photographer.

I think the houses have something to do with exteriors and interiors.  All alike on the outside, but what goes on inside must be so different.  Or maybe a fascination with the exterior to avoid the interior.  Also, maybe something to do with simplifying our lives to one of these small little houses–something manageable.  Perhaps even , though this one will surprise me if it turns out to be true, something to do with community.

In an interview at the back of Waltzing the Cat, Pam Houston said, “I surrender myself to the truth of the metaphors I have chosen (that’s the scary part), and eventually, the story finds its own truth.”

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beach music

img_1383Pat Conroy, a large white-haired man, stood on a stage in front of a seated crowd last night in Columbus, Georgia.  He’s the author of The Prince of Tides and Beach Music (my favorites), and he was the speaker at a black-tie dinner honoring a local doctor.  Prior to the event, I had some concern that even though Conroy was a great writer, he might not be a great speaker.  Not to worry.  The man can tell a story.  

And that’s what he did last night.  He leaned forward, his arms outstretched, one on each side of the lectern.  He looked at the audience as he spoke about how he paid to have his first book The Boo (which he admitted was not very good) published.  Then he told us that when his agent called two years later to tell him that his next book, The Water is Wide, was going to be published for $7500, his response was “I can get it done way cheaper down here.”

He looked a bit stuffed into his tux and his breathing was noticeable.  But with sincerity and without sentimentality, he told us stories–the truth about the last days of his mother and then of his father.

Pat Conroy was born in Atlanta in 1945, and he now lives on Fripp Island in South Carolina with his wife, the novelist Cassandra King, who came with him last night.  To see him interview her, check out this YouTube video.  

 Pat Conroy’s new novel, South of Broad, is expected out in September.

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the feminine mistake

I made it.  Quit my legal career when I was pregnant with child number three and sick, falling more and more behind on everything with each tick of the clock.  For whatever reason, there was no voice, from inside me or from anywhere else, encouraging me not to quit, telling me that it would only be this bad for a very short time, and that the risk of giving up my ability to support myself was too great to give in so easily.img_1328  My husband was supportive of what I wanted to do, and even after I stopped work, he shared the parenting and the housework that was not done by others.  And I’m still married.  And I ultimately discovered something I enjoyed more than practicing law.  I was lucky.  A lot of women are not. 

Leslie Bennetts dedicates The Feminine Mistake to her mother, her baby-sitter, her daughter, and in memory of Betty Friedan, “the visionary who first opened my eyes.”

Betty Friedan is, of course, the author of the The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, the book that revealed women were unhappy in their limited roles of wife, mother, housekeeper.

Apparently, now, 40 years later, significant numbers of women are retreating from the workplace to the home.  Leslie Bennetts wanted to find out why and how it was working out.  It is the stories of these women–some using their real names but most not–that propel the reader forward.  It is unnecessary toward the end of the book, when the author writes, “So the main thing I want to say to other women is this: Protect yourself.”  A man is not a financial plan. 

Take maternity leave.  Work part-time.  Lower your standards (House, episode 1-19-09).  Switch jobs.  But don’t drop the thread.  It’s all but impossible to start over again from scratch.  And to quit work because you only make enough to pay the sitter is to ignore the long-term earning potential of your job.  “Your career is an investment you make in yourself…”

Women must take the lead in insisting that everyone wins when both parents participate in raising the children and taking care of the home.  Investment in a career you love as well as in your family will give each of us “the fullest possible life.”

“It has become inescapably clear that choosing economic dependency as a lifestyle is the classic feminine mistake…it’s simply too risky to count on anyone else to support you [and your children] over the long haul.”