A New Semester of Creative Arts and Community

Hello! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted an entry, and it somehow seems fitting that this entry is born out of a mistake.

I’m getting ready to teach a course at University of Michigan that I set up last year entitled “Creative Arts and Community.” We started a wordpress site there: http://creativeartsandcommunity.wordpress.com/ which features short documentaries the students did in small groups near the end of the semester to highlight important things they learned about local creative arts organizations. They’re a great group of people. Here’s a photo of them, the one I accidentally posted to this blog and then couldn’t bear to delete:

MCSP photo '12

This photo, along with their documentaries, will be moving to the archive and tomorrow I’ll meet a new class and look forward to what they create and add to this site.

I also hope to be posting more regularly here–posts that intermingle among writing, teaching, and life topics, which are topics I firmly believe should be in conversation with each other.

To new beginnings,

Julie

Another AWP Appearance

Thanks to my brother and his family who drove from Columbus, Ohio to stay with Ambrose for a few days, and my third-grade best friend who opened her Boston home to me, I was able to make it to another AWP conference.

I am an only parent who prizes sleep, and I still haven’t published a book (though I continue to accrue my yearly trickle of journal publications and writing friends that keep me hopeful), and so, I am well aware that my AWP experience is not the stuff of sensational legend. When I think of AWP abstractly, I imagine two groups of people: the MFA students who are ten or more years younger than me, mostly unfamiliar with serious life circumstances, who sit at the bookfair tables with hangovers and more party invitations. And, the people about ten years older than me who have tenure track jobs and several, award-winning  books and know all the publishing editors, in fact are going to drink with them all (yes, all of them) later that night—a get together that will alter the next ten years of the literary world and will be alluded to in multiple future poems.

Because I belong to neither of these groups and because I have very little available time or money and wasn’t presenting this year, attending AWP doesn’t seem very practical. What purpose does my going to AWP serve? What is my connection to the writing world?

Sometimes it is difficult to take such questions seriously. Sometimes it is easier to misidentify them as brief rhetorical occasions for self-loathing. But they are serious questions, and deserve serious consideration.

I am writing this blog entry on the plane ride back because when I return home, all my responsibilities will meet me at the door and whatever writing inspirations the AWP experience has generated for me will have to wait, for the most part, until the end of the semester (7 more weeks!).

I went to several panels and met up with many lovely friends. The panel that affected me the most, though, was “The Poet Magician: Writing Out of Single Motherhood.” I went to the panel because while I was at AWP I was realizing that I was there as a gift to myself. That I spend so much time working in isolation that I wanted to be surrounded by other writers, and not just all writers in general, but writers who have creatively approached challenges I share and are making multi-faceted and genuine things from them. In short, I realized my AWP attendance was not a search for blanket professional or craft inspiration, but rather a search to see how others were integrating shared personal challenges into their craft, challenges that are rarely spoken of and, though all the personal stories have slightly different variations, are all informed by culture, economics, race, and education. I also went because the title was fun. Fun is a necessary companion to survive struggle.

The panel was a lively mix of struggles and accomplishments, vulnerability and power. Much of the talk centered around both acknowledging the intense solitude surrounding single motherhood (or, “independent parenting,” which we all agreed was a much better, active phrase) and the ways that challenge is also an important writing opportunity, that our unique position to solitude intensifies/heightens what drives most writing in general. Panelist Mairead Byrne, (yet another reason I attended the session–we studied at Purdue together some time ago and I greatly admire her as both a writer and a person) wrote, “When I speak as a single mother, the audience steps away.”

The panel was, perhaps, the most forthright one I’ve ever attended, and also opened up some amazing models for hybrid approaches to writing and new possibilities for the ways our selves and our writing can connect. I was talking to Mairead after the session and she noted that it would be pretty easy for us to just all go have a drink and swap stories, but that it was another thing to provide a suitable critical framework that helps us understand and build. This panel was an important starting point for that.

After my husband died, I continued to wear my wedding ring for over a year. This was partly to continue and honor my connection to him, partly to thwart any dating discussions, but mostly, really, so that I would not be mistaken for a single mother. I didn’t want people to think I was a single mother because I didn’t feel strong enough to carry both my grief and outsider judgment.

Shortly after I stopped wearing my wedding ring, I took Ambrose to a doctor’s appointment. I sat down in the waiting room, and Ambrose started playing with another boy his age. They ran trains around the room and then picked up a play tea set and started pouring cups for me and the other mother. Both of us began drinking from our imaginary cups and as we did this, we also began to talk. The other mother was younger than me and black. I also noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. The ring thing was something I never used to notice before, but now find myself checking all the time.

A nurse called Ambrose’s name and we stood up to go. “Say goodbye to your friend,” I said, and Ambrose and the boy waved to one another. I nodded goodbye to the other mother who smiled and touched my hand. “So you’re a single mother too,” she said. I tensed for a second and almost corrected her, but instead I nodded yes. As I did that I was flooded with a rush of relief. We weren’t ignoring what we both knew. “Yes,” I said out loud. “It’s hard isn’t it?” she said, and again I nodded yes. “He’s a beautiful boy,” she finished.

The 10 Most Devastating (and Funny) Books of All Time

A few nights ago I was reading a conversation about humor in fiction in the current issue of Gulf Coast. The title, “I Start From a Place of Outrage and Sadness,” is taken from a response Elisa Albert gives to a question about when, in the writing process, humor works itself in. Rarely do you get writers agreeing about anything, but when asked this question, all the writers (Albert, Steve Almond, Sam Lipsyte, John McNally, and Deb Olin Unferth) generally agree that humor allows us to travel beyond fear. Lipsyte writes that humor is “a sensibility that enables everyone involved to go places (usually forbidden places) they couldn’t get to otherwise.”

My own favorite books are simultaneously devastating and wickedly funny, and I think a large part of this is dictated by my desire to go somewhere I usually can’t in a genuine way, in a way where I choose to go and to struggle through simultaneous layers of meaning that cannot ever effectively be distilled down into one thing. Nothing that is felt strongly is unequivocably made of one emotion or one knowledge base and humor allows readers to remember that, and to see themselves as both insiders and outsiders, as people who sometimes get the jokes and are sometimes the butt of them. This confusion doesn’t mean there is an ambivalence about the real, important issues that these works confront. The funniest, most devastating novels lay bare social, racial, and economic injustices in very straightforward ways. The ambivalence lies in how we are to go about living with these injustices, about what happens when we struggle to right them, or ignore them, or to think up some Jerzy Kosinski  Cockpit plan to just take some people out.

After two days of soul searching and looking through all my bookshelves, I’ve compiled a top ten list of books that are devastating and also funny. The books are in no particular order, although since Don Quixote is the best book of all time (sometimes Harold Bloom is right) it is in the first-spot position on my list as well. I could spend a lot of time talking about each book individually, but really, if you haven’t read them, you should just go do that. I’m sure there are books that might deserve a space in this top 10 that aren’t here (though I’d be hard pressed to take any of these off)–feel free to rant or add. Again, these are the qualifications: Devastating first. Funny second. (although often when reading such books for the first time the order of which you notice these two things is backward). I fully realize this list is probably too American-heavy, and am really bummed that Flannery O’Connor is the only woman on the list. Are there any readers out there who can persuasively fix that?

Don Quixote

Don Quixote Cover

2666

2666 Cover

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Cover

Watt

Watt Cover

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Trout Fishing in America

Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, the Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar Cover

The Metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis (Bantam Classics) Cover

A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories Cover

John Henry Days

John Henry Days Cover

The Tin Drum

The Tin Drum Cover

Anne Carson’s Antigonick–Removing Crusts of Ornament and Slashing Curtains

Anne Carson staged a reading in Ann Arbor from her new book Antigonick this past Wednesday. It’s a loose translation of the Sophokles play complete with Carson’s own handlettered pages interspersed with illustrations on translucent vellum by Bianca Stone (a fabulous poet and artist I am just learning about. If you’d like a quick taste go here to her Poetry Comics). Both the book and the staged reading are arresting and beautiful in their surprises. During the question and answer session after the performance, Carson said one of her translating missions was to “remove the crusts of ornament” in order to present the play more directly, in the way it reads in original Greek. Getting at this directness involved cutting several long scenes down, reimaging the genre of the play to the point that Antigonick is sometimes described as “a new kind of comic book” and adding references to Beckett, Hegel, and Virginia Woolf. During the reading I saw, Carson cast poet Raymond McDaniel as Antigone and Yopie Prins as Kreon, gender-switching the roles in a way that heightened my desire to listen. In this translation, Carson manages to put me on enough unfamiliar ground to rouse my curiosity and to experience this story as a struggle that has and always will keep going.

Her mission to “remove the crusts of ornament” has also been resonating with me this past week. It seems like a relevant goal to strive for in the making of all art, that artists should examine and remove their ornaments whenever possible, and that this removal will illuminate what is (or is not) actually there.

What are ornaments for writers? Pretty similes. Forced cadences. Unnecessary repetition.  Unbelievable resolution. Affectation of all kinds. It is harrowing to think about my own writing against this measuring stick. When am I pretending at something I don’t have? When am I trying to cover this up with sparkles in the hopes that no one (not even myself) will notice?

In The Winter Sun, Fanny Howe writes about our initial tendencies to use words to cover up deeper truths.

Revision is suspicious of first words and assumes they exist only to signal something else, something deeper. I revise what I have written in order to strip away fraud and get to the uncontaminated first intention. By slashing the curtains of words, I might finally glimpse the words behind the words and the silence behind those.

This is such a visceral and elegant statement on revision. “Slashing the curtains of words,” is exactly what Carson has done in this translation of Antigone, and the whole writing world would be much improved if writers devoted more time to this.

Writing Rules for Next May (after writing incidents this May)

I looked forward to May all year. Teaching, taking care of Ambrose, and trying to keep myself stable left me with almost no time to write. In May, Ambrose was in school M-F from 9-3:30, and I did not have any teaching-related responsibilities. I started doing the math in February: That was 22 weekdays Ambrose was in school. Subtract 30 minutes of each day for eating something and an hour right before kindergarten pick-up to come out of my writing haze by exercising or doing yard work so that I was present again as Mama, and that gave me 110 writing hours. My goal was to look through my short fiction, throw away a lot, considerably revise other pieces, and generate enough new material to come out with a strong story collection.

In the interests of my future self and anyone else who finds themselves with a jaunt of free writing time they haven’t had in a while, I’ll tell you what happened and what I learned:

Accomplishments
New stories (or old ones with at least 75% different words): 2

Major revisions (40-75% different words): 4

Minor revisions: 3

Stories discarded from collection: 5

Failures
Stories still in need of major revision: 2

Stories I didn’t cut from the collection but probably still should: 2

New stories I should write after more cutting: 2

Looking at this and cross-referencing it with the general feeling I have going into June gives me the assessment that I did pretty well, but really needed another month or a smarter, more inspired brain to get this collection into the final shape I wanted it to be. I generally set goals for myself that are too high and this, generally, pushes me harder. It helps me accomplish, perhaps, not what I wanted to accomplish, but at least what I needed to accomplish in order to take my life as a writer seriously.

I am genuinely excited about the work I have done, and, though the stories are not literally linked, there’s a cohesion in sensibility that wasn’t there before. I renamed the collection Better and Happier People. I like that title. It speaks to a core desire the characters in my fictional worlds keep trying to achieve (without, of course, much success). I also, as I tend to do when writing anything, slipped into uncontrollable poetry mode several times over the past month and generated some new poems worth saving. That said, I’m thinking about what I needed and what I could have done without this May . . .

Rule # 1

Coffee should be made very strong, in a French press, and poured into a small cup. This pleasure keeps my mind a little strange, and also gives me two reasons to get up from the computer: restroom breaks and coffee refills. I write upstairs and keep the coffee downstairs, so I’m getting some kind of movement. Studies from organizations like the American Institute for Cancer Research urge people who sit a lot to make sure that every hour they get up for 1-2 minutes for some kind of exercise. Ah, so many benefits of coffee.

Rule # 2

Decide what to work on the night before. There are enough decisions to make in the morning; where to start shouldn’t be one of them. Making this decision before bed also informs my dreams so I wake up both more focused and more flexible. Dreams are strange for reasons.

Rule #3
Don’t clean the house, but feel free to do yard work. It was May for a whole month! Go outside already. This is what it looks like out there:

Rule # 4

Using facebook, etc, in the evening or when I’m just waking up and too tired to really be productive is a good thing. It reminds me that there are real people out there who are living their lives. Some of these people are in more of a mess than I am. Some of them are more beautiful or patient or more interesting. Some of these people ooze talent from their pores and are riding crazy word publishing waves. In small doses, this knowledge keeps me both humble and hungry.

But flipping between facebook and Word in the middle of my writing day creates the illusion that I’m both working harder than I really am, and having a much better time than I really am. I think Facebook is kind of like smoking. In fact, I think facebook releases instantaneous dopamine almost as well as nicotine. But, if you do it too much, you feel like crap. Some scientist should check into that.

I am sure there’s more rules. If you have any to add, I’d be happy to hear them. Next May, I might want to try and write a novel . . .

Time to Write

I used to write every day. That’s the advice most successful writers give to struggling writers. In This Year You Write Your Novel Walter Mosley asserts, “It doesn’t matter what time of day you work, but you have to work every day because creation, like life, is always slipping away from you.”

Compelling and true, how much slips away in the span of a day or even an hour. Yet, no matter how hard any of us try, Walter Mosley included, there is no way to stop this certitude of loss. We cannot write as fast as we live. Thus, the struggle for a writer is not to stop all loss, but rather to discover what is most important to preserve and to retain that discovery long enough to explore it through writing.

Two days ago, Ambrose loosened his first tooth on a half-eaten chocolate rabbit just minutes after I brought him home from kindergarten. I had 15 minutes between the time I got done teaching and his kindergarten pick-up. It is nearing the end of the semester, and I had a full bag of papers to grade. But I left those alone. Instead I used those 15 minutes to call an opthamologist to set up an eye exam because he had failed his vision test at school. I also checked the calendar to see where he was going to play his first soccer game. I don’t know anything about soccer, and we had spent the past few days going back and forth to a sporting goods store to make sure he had the right shoes and shin guards and socks so that he would look like the rest of the kids and so he would be adequately protected. He howled when his tooth came loose, “something horrible’s happened,” he kept repeating as I tried to decipher what was wrong. He had been eating that chocolate rabbit for three days; the creature in his hand was missing its ears and its eyes and part of its foot. When I realized that Ambrose’s tooth was loose I thought I had been pushed past my limit of acceptable change. But there he was, afraid, and so I sat him on my lap for an hour and told him stories about the tooth fairy and about growing up. When he calmed, I got out paper and we drew what we imagined the tooth fairy to look like. This is Ambrose’s picture. She doesn’t have wings because she has a massive butterfly wand instead that acts as a helicopter and takes her wherever she needs to go:

The orange rectangles at the bottom are Ambrose’s baby teeth. He explained, “I drew them there so that we will always remember.”

As I write this, more than 48 hours after this happening, I know I have already forgotten a great deal about this episode. Now that I’ve written down some of what I can remember, some details have become more permanent. Without writing this today, I might have thought about this day a year from now without remembering the confluence of events—how the soccer preparation and the opthamologist appointment heightened my anxiety about his loose tooth. Yet I can say with all certainty that with or without this blog post I would remember those orange rectangles at the bottom of his drawing and Ambrose’s assertion that he drew them so that “we will always remember.”

Such a relatively small thing, and perhaps something that sounds like Ambrose parroting a cliché. But, since the death of his father last year, the notion of remembering is very acute and clear in our minds. To remember in an active, tangible way is to strip away almost everything so that what remains is illuminated. Was Ambrose thinking of his Papa when he drew those teeth? When he said that phrase?

Of course I didn’t ask. It is enough for a five-year-old to loosen a tooth after a full day of kindergarten. Of course, I was thinking of Matthew, and of course this is why Ambrose’s statement made me ache past the normal ache of seeing a loved one grow so quickly. No matter how many days pass, I will remember this moment in this way because it was sharp enough to stick.

I hadn’t planned on writing anything about Ambrose’s tooth in this blog post. It’s late and I’m tired, and I lay down on the floor with my laptop to write a brief assertion about my writing plans for the month of May. I’ve told almost everyone who has seen me that I’m going to get a year’s worth of writing done in May. Before Matthew passed away I wrote every day, but that is not possible anymore. That is not me being lazy or undisciplined. It is actually not possible. Yet, during the whole month of May, Ambrose will be in school from 9-3:30 and I will not be teaching or prepping to teach. I have a mess of a short story collection that I’m set on pulling together all in this one month. I keep hearing myself ask myself, “Is that a crazy plan?” And I keep hearing myself say, “Yes, that is a crazy plan.” And then I tell my plan outloud to someone else. I am amassing witnesses so that I feel responsible for the plan. I am, if nothing else, a very responsible person.

The thing that worries me the most about my plan is that I haven’t had those other 334 days to write. I have written a few poems here and there, and revised a few more, but that’s the extent of it. So many writers make the comparison between writing and exercise; if you don’t do it every day then the muscles atrophy. Yet, when I wrote every day, I never had the intense desire to write like I do now. I think of May and I think of writing as an immense privilege rather than a job. I am grateful for writing in a way I have never been before. Some of me worries that too much is lost, but some of me also feels an extreme clarity for what I am taking with me.