December 3, 2012 § 3 Comments
I return often to The Man in Bogotá, a short story by Amy Hempel whose name, I suddenly realize, contains all the letters needed to write the words: May Help Me.
She has and she does.
I am not standing on a ledge, but I have had misgivings about a part-time job I have taken to help pay the bills and have some financial freedom. A woman needs money if she is to write, said Woolf, and time has only made this more true.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky and grateful to have any job in this economy but it is the exact opposite of anywhere I ever thought I would be. It’s not that I even dislike the work; in fact, there is something meditative about its dull repetitiveness. And I have a swivel chair, and a potted plant, the staff are friendly, and it is warm and dry. But there is no future in it that I can see. It is a means to an end and nothing more, and that’s okay too, but a part of my brain is trying to make meaning from it, beyond its practicalities.
It’s in my nature to worry and wonder. I am used to, and accept, this part of myself by now. Simply put, I am curious, expectant, and unsure about what role this new and unplanned experience is going to play in my life beyond a paycheck. And, as at other moments in the past, I’m looking for comfort and reassurance in a story, and asking myself the same question that occurred to the man in Bogotá….
“The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge – though not, she threatens, for long.
“I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.
“I tell the woman about a man in Bogota. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.
“Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.
“When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then – that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.
“Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogota. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.”
December 1, 2012 § 1 Comment
Earthworms and Earwigs. I was afraid to dig in the garden or nap in the grass.
Eavesdropping. I came down the stairs one night to get a glass of water and what I heard from beyond the door frightened me more.
Ebb tide. Carry me away.
December 1, 2012 § 7 Comments
I never cared for the name Edna, and I still carry the unreasonableness of a child who appraises a person by the name assigned to them against their consent or knowledge at birth. Why, for example, couldn’t her parents (she was a lady in our church) have called her Effloresce which means to blossom, to flourish, which is not unlike rejuvenation, which is the lovely meaning of unlovely Edna (she was the first woman I ever saw play a guitar and she had the blackest hair).
November 19, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Cant (kant) n. 1. whining, singsong speech, esp. as used by beggars 2. the secret slang of beggars, thieves, etc; argot 3. insincere or almost meaningless talk used merely from convention or habit — to use cant, speak in cant — adj. of, or having the nature of, cant —
CAN’T (kant, känt) can not cannot can’t
CAN I’m trying to say you more. My tongue trips on your consequences. First I need to learn to say – and mean – I deserve.
November 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
Backward (never always never always never looking).
November 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Baby (bā′bē) 1. a very young child; infant 2. a person who behaves like an infant; helpless or timid person 3. a very young animal 4. the youngest or smallest in a group 5. [Slang] a) a girl or young woman b) any person or thing –
November 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Acacia: a family of thorny shrubs and trees
Ache: a continuous pain
Acquiesce: quickness of understanding
Adjust: to rearrange or alter to suit the circumstances
Adrift: drifting, floating
November 8, 2012 § 6 Comments
Crossing the street this morning, I accidently bumped into a lady in one of those dark, tailored, masculine, power suits and soiled her power sleeve with the ketchup-soaked sausage sandwich I was carrying.
“Why don’t you look where you’re going?” she screeched at me. Passers-by stopped and stared, but I wasn’t intimidated and I wasn’t scared.
Instead, I imagined she was a loving god or one of those mothers who are so overwhelmed with care for their scattered child, their desperation escapes from their fearful bellies in a cry, in a scream, in a howl at the moon.
She hurried, hissing, on her way. I kept walking in the direction I was going but, every so often, I stopped to look left and right for fast cars, pickpockets and men with brown eyes. I wouldn’t want her to be worrying about me all day.
October 21, 2012 § 7 Comments
Mmm, Autumn, Fall, however you say it.
I went apple tasting today. I like the names even more than the flavours somehow: Ashmead’s Kernel, Criterion, Elstar. Ginger Golden, Jonagold, Honeycrisp. Newtown Pippin and Northern Spy. Spartan, Spitzenberg. Buckeye Gala, Lady, Ambrosia.
My belly is full of tart and crisp, fresh and juicy. I also drank some cider and now I’m sleepy.
by Robert Frost.
September 27, 2012 § 6 Comments
I am reading two essays at the moment: Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, and Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino!
The first appears in the book of the same name, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin in 1999. The second, I stumbled upon at The New York Review of Books, translated by Patrick Creagh and dated 1986.
I was struck by a difference in each version of a sentence in Calvino’s ninth definition of a Classic (the essay ventures fourteen interrelated definitions of what constitutes a Classic Book). In it, he is talking about the personal relationship or rapport that ideally occurs when a classic text ‘works’ upon the reader as a classic:
“If there is no spark, the exercise is pointless: it is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love.” (McLaughin)
“If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love.” (Creagh)
Lord, if someone had shown me McLaughin’s version when I was an impatient, distracted, undergraduate struggling to get it on with Joyce and Chaucer, I may never have completed my degree; I would have been out of that bedroom so fast!
Of course I see where he is coming from in both of these translations: ‘duty’ and ‘should’ are not desirable entry points into a book. And respect is won, rather than assumed and given blindly. But there is a difference in meaning and implication in each of them that I think is interesting.
This is pointless! and It’s no use! strike me as the perfect ‘out’ a sophomoric reader is just waiting to pounce upon. The decisiveness of the words If there is no spark seem like the conclusions of someone expecting instant and unequivocal passion. Not necessarily young, but dare I say immature? Whereas, If the spark doesn’t come seems less impulsive, more considered. It implies an attempt over time. I tried. I worked at it. But it did not come. It’s a pity.
I see both translations, both types of reader, in myself. But I hope I am more the second type these days. How long does one try at something that just isn’t working is a valid question. Yet so often we give up too easily, especially when it’s something that we truly want, and what we truly want is often complex and perplexing and work. Love is work. Sometimes.
And if the spark doesn’t come, the exercise isn’t pointless; all it is is a pity. And there are plenty more classics in the sea.
September 24, 2012 § 21 Comments
A day for promises and beginnings believed. On Monday, things will be different again.
I woke up with the dark because I was chilly, but I was pleased. How wonderful! I’m awake before my alarm. I listened to The Writer’s Almanac, as is my morning habit I’ve decided.
I woke again at 8am to discover I’d fallen asleep. The whole day since has been a question mark. It is National Punctuation Day so it is fitting, I can see that, but still.
Did I sleep in? I’m not sure. I slept past seven, which is the hour I had intended to wake. I slept till eight, which will not do at all and I was very unhappy and filled with fog and disappointment. Does it count that at six I was listening to a poem about sparrows and receiving a reminder that it would be Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday had he failed to die?
What matters? What counts?
Never mind old bean. Forget about this small false start. Carry on old chap. Drink your tea. Eat your porridge.
(I make my porridge – or oatmeal as you might call it – overnight in the slow cooker. This small act of forethought and readiness for each morrow makes me inordinately happy and pleased with myself. If nothing else, I seem to say as I switch it on low and anticipate tomorrow’s warm creaminess, I have achieved this one thing that I know is good for me, both in this prudent moment and again in the morning, each spoonful deliberate and delicious.)
I was going to Write today.
First, I checked my inbox and there was a letter from a friend. Why do I continue to call one set of sentences an Email and another – delivered by the same medium – a Letter? Content, I suppose. Meaningful, engaging, carefully composed sentences perhaps. I have not had a penpal in years. I continued to write letters until it became not so much painfully unbearable but embarrassing that I received none in return. I think about all of the things that were and are done or not done only from fear of embarrassment and I feel ashamed.
I decided to reply to my friend’s questions and concerns at a later time. After all, I had planned to get some Writing done today and I was already so far behind after waking up so early and waking up so late.
Then, another question came to me and, in answer, I set aside my Writing and I set aside my plans and only slightly worried that Writing will never be my number one priority. I pressed Reply and though not in exactly these words, I said something like Dear Friend.
Many hours later, I did worry and, frustrated, I counted all the things today that were not I Prioritizing Writing.
I counted the hours: One and a bit, I fell back to sleep. Half or so for tea and porridge. Three and a half. Typing typing typing. Head bent low. Deliberate. Thoughtful. Engaged. My dear friend. Three and a half hours! On an email?
And I counted the words: One thousand, five hundred and forty. The number of words I removed because they were not precisely what I wished to say to them, were too indulgent, whose tangents were needless though not untrue or even all that bad.
Two thousand and eighty-four is the number of words that finally said something like life is a beautiful and terrifying risk but we must.
I was hungry, then. It was after noon. I heated some dal, bit down on a cardamom pod; it was not unpleasant and yet I spat it out. Why? So many questions. Suddenly, it was one and I should have finished Writing by now and ready to put on my running shoes.
My sister phoned from Ireland then. We hadn’t planned on it but we spoke for an hour and sometimes she even listened as I begged her to hear me say something like Trust. Believe. Just Breathe. Do not ever worry. I love you. I love you. Oh Just Get Over It.
I’m still in my pajamas.
It’s almost four.
Nothing went the way.
May as well salvage something with a blog post.
(What is real Writing? What are words for unless to cheer a heart on or shake someone you love and fear for? What counts? What counts as me being the person-writer I want to be? Oh, when will I ever do one fucking thing that I say I’m going to?)
September 20, 2012 § 8 Comments
A periodic news and reading round-up
(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).
I haven’t been procrastinating so much as stealing short snatches of screen-time while my parents were in town. Not easy in a one-room loft where nothing much is secret or sacred. They must worry why I was in the bathroom so much…
But moving on!
They are homeward bound and I could settle down into a Long Read in peace, but I’ve somewhat developed a taste for these brief bursts of story and pleasure.
Like Staccato Microfiction – who are taking a break right now but will perhaps return if we all clap our hands loud enough. Don’t die faerie-sized wonder-fiction!
Also, I have just discovered these amazing things called “podcasts”. Have you heard of them? Marvelous inventions. Call me Ishmael. Call me Luddite!
Of course, I was aware of them silly, I just never remembered to listen to them till a very jetlagged Ma n Pa were snoring away in my little loft and I had a yen for a good yarn but didn’t want to turn on the lights or make too much noise. Thusly, I finally got around to listening to all those New Yorker Fiction Podcasts on my ipod, and thank goodness I did because I discovered the wonderful Bruno Schulz whose strange and enchanting story, “Father’s Last Escape”, is read and discussed by Nicole Krauss. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have found this writer, late to the party though I may be…
Speaking of stories ‘on tape’. Speaking of Ishmael. Moby Dick is being broadcast online, in a short, manageable chapter-a-day format, so I may finally get around to conquering the behemoth!
Short-lived, but so satisfying.
Leaving me plenty of time to fill with more procrastination so if you know of any little gems, do send them my way; there’s plenty more space in my brain for small!
August 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A periodic news and reading round-up
(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).
Actually, I didn’t procrastinate so much this week.
What with hiking and camping and wildflowers and whatnot.
But, also, because I started actually using the internet-blocking software I downloaded weeks ago. The psychological boost is phenomenal (wow, I just spelled phenomenal correctly on my first try. Of course you’ll have to take my word for it). I like the way it asks you “How many minutes of Freedom would you like?” It’s a perfect name-choice for the app, it never fails to remind me what its application is giving me rather than removing.
Of course, I’m still very much me, and in my web-wanderings this week I was:
Anticipating Irish short-story writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s latest collection Mother America.
Resolving to “Quit Fu*ckin Around”, to “Art Harder” and other “ways” to survive as a creative person.
Tearing-up a little reading a fellow emigrant’s memories of Dublin in The Last City I Loved series in The Rumpus.
Giggling (and salivating) at this delightful food-n-drink piece that imagines recipes in cookbooks composed by Virginia Woolf, Chaucer and Raymond Chandler.
That’s about it. Will work harder at procrastinating next time, promise!
August 5, 2012 § 18 Comments
What are your favourite books about writing and craft? Last week, in an effort to focus and get back on track – not only with this blog but my writing-life in general – I picked up a few books on the subject, beginning with Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, as it was recommended to me at least twice this year.
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
This sweet excerpt exemplifies the book in general, but it is also atypical. Bird by Bird is part writing instruction and practical example, part memoir and personal anecdotes. It pays particular attention to the feelings of fear and immobilization writers often face, and offers tips on dismantling the process, bit by bit, bird by bird. But it is also too much about the tears and the tantrums, the jealousies and anxieties and emotional dramas of the writing life – Lamott’s writing life, though she seems to write as if her experience is characteristic.
I didn’t like it much.
The scene between father and son at the kitchen table is one of the only successful anecdotes in the book, in terms of relating an incident back to writing and extrapolating a clear lesson from it. The majority cross the line into uncomfortable or cringeworthy over-share, which are supposed to be amusing and illuminating but I just didn’t get it.
A lot of people love and find Lamott hilariously funny and insightful but her style is not for me and I found myself skimming past the personal dramas, petty jealousies and histrionics, searching for something more concrete and instructive about how to write – and well.
Perhaps this impatience is the problem, and Lamott does address it in the book when she talks about her students who look to her for the secrets of success – or shortcuts, which is what we really mean.
Why is it that we refuse to accept the simple advice in life, are convinced things are more complicated than they really are?
“You seem to want to write,” she tells them in a final class. “So write.”
Of course, it is more complicated than that and I’m not ashamed to say that I am in need of instruction and have so much to learn: want is different than do, and how. It was frustrating, then, to slog through so many cliches and weak wisdom: “Write straight into the emotional center of things… Write towards vulnerability.” How does one do that? What does that even mean?
When I stripped away the well-worn platitudes and personal dramas, there was little I hadn’t heard before or could not be said in a short piece on the subject:
- Write, and write often.
- Write at approximately the same time every day: this trains your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.
- Break things down with small assignments: start with your childhood or, smaller than that, start with your school lunch. Write down as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame.
- Keep a lot of index cards and keep them everywhere. Everything you see and hear and come across is potential material for a story.
- Move beyond perfectionism – it will ruin your writing and block inventiveness. Learn to accept those shitty first drafts.
- Revise, revise, revise. Edit, edit, edit.
- Understand that you may never be published and, if you are so lucky, it is not going to solve all of your problems and be the neat and tidy dream you imagined.
- Write because you want to and not for any ends that just aren’t guaranteed. Write for the love and joy of it not for external success or money.
All fine advice but, for me, nothing so novel or enlightening that made the rest of the book worth reading. A better and succinct list of rules is Colson Whitehead’s ‘How To Write’ in the New York Times last week.
This may sound disrespectful – especially coming from a novice – but I find it difficult to take writing advice from someone who’s writing I don’t enjoy or appreciate. (By the by, I’m with Salon and Molly E Johnson this week: folks are too fearful of negative reviews; niceness isn’t necessarily constructive.)
Like I say, though, a lot of people love and recommend this book so, if you’re new to writing or like her style, you may well get more from it than I did. A good start – or timesaver – might be to check out some isolated quotes from the book on Goodreads: they contain the essence of her message without having to deal with the rest!
Where to go from here then? I want to read more books and meditations on the craft and would love some suggestions. I’m just settling into How to Write a Sentence, And How to Read One by Stanley Fish and I already like it so much more. Who do you take your advice from? And, perhaps more importantly, do you actually take it? Or are you like me, searching for something more complicated than the age-old adage: “You seem to want to write, so write.”
August 3, 2012 § 2 Comments
Not that Friday signifies what it used to.
In an episode of Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess (played to haughty, privileged perfection by Maggie Smith) asks “What’s a weekend?” For a lady of leisure, every day’s the same.
When we were walking in India, the days melded and Mondays and Sundays lost all meaning: Hindu worshippers are not dogmatic with their days; we knew it was Friday if we happened to walk through a predominantly Muslim village and the mosque keened out the call to kneel and pray.
Since coming home, every day and evening has been weekend-like, with dinners and drinks and hikes and bikes. Slowly, though, we are returning to a rhythm and I am desperate for a day and week with structure and a predictable – but flexible! – pattern.
I think I work best, and more, with a routine.
In my old job in Ireland, I had a strange set-up where I worked sleepover shifts, one week on and one week off, in a house with adults with intellectual disabilities. In my ‘week on’ I worked a lot of hours, including a weekend where I started work at 5pm on a Friday and finished at 9am the next Monday.
I was also doing my Masters part-time during the day.
The crazy thing was, I achieved so much more in the weeks where I had college classes and working at night. I had to go to the library during my lunch-break because I had to catch the bus by 4pm to get to work by five. And I had to read those books and articles on the bus and any spare moment because I had to not sound like an idiot in class the next day or get into shit with my teachers.
On my week off – or should I say, my off week – I had so much time to read and study, to get on top of things or do extra. But, my name is Deborah Rose and I am a procrastinator. It has been four minutes since I last procrastinated.
This is me:
The thing is, life looks quite different now from Ireland two years ago. Transitioning to a life where I supposedly work for myself comes with many challenges, not least of which is how I manage my time. I don’t have an external motivator – like a boss who might sack me or a teacher who might fail me if I don’t show up or don’t get the work done. It’s all on me and I am my biggest obstacle!
And it’s not like I’m watching videos of baby hedgehogs* or something.
There’s this great piece in The New Yorker on What Was Revealed When the Lights Went Out in India. That’s important.
And this one that asks: What’s a Metaphor For? Which is something I need to know if I were ever to write one.
Or these words of wisdom and affirmation about How To Find Your Purpose And Do What You Love. How about that?!
Except I already have a hunch what my purpose is and I know what I love. It’s a case of getting the cuss on with it.
But not before I read Dani Shapiro’s much better piece on the subject: #amwriting. I should really download that Freedom software. Oh wait! I did! I should really use that Freedom software…
This blogpost is an example of procrastination I suppose… But it’s also placing words upon words in a way that I like, so I count it.
I know it’s cheating, really. (And I lied, I do watch baby hedgehog videos, and baby sloth bears too!) But it’s Friday and the sun is shining. I’m bunking off. I’m playing hooky.
See you bright and early on Monday! I’ll be good next week, I promise.