Sunday, August 17, 2014
Today I stumbled upon another writing process gem. I'm reading Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor: A century of wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger. As a child, Alice was friends with Franz Kafka. "Alice would beg him to tell her the stories over and over again. But she always wanted to know the ending - and that he could not answer. He simply could not complete his work. Later on, he would write, 'I am familiar with indecision, there's nothing I know so well, but whenever something summons me, I fall flat, worn out by half-hearted inclinations and hesitations over a thousand earlier trivialities.'"
Aha! Another glimpse of my truth.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you." - Ira Glass
Friday, February 28, 2014
That's true and also incomplete. I can write anecdotes and passionate arguments on Facebook all day. But I'm not writing creatively. The difference between a Facebook post and a blog post highlights the other reason I'm not writing. The Big reason. The Real Reason. A Facebook update can be quick, funny, incomplete, utterly lacking in context. It can simply be a picture. It can be a short conversation. It's a snapshot of a moment. The way I blog, on the other hand, tends to be to collect anecdotes for a few hours or days or weeks or years, then assemble them into something that makes a sort of narrative or point, even if it's a very short or simple one. Blogging - let alone writing memoir or fiction - requires perspective for me.
Perspective and some sort of connection to emotion. But emotion is painful, y'all. I feel like I barely get through my days doing the things that I need to do. Children dressed and off to their appropriate places with their appropriate things (snacks, water bottles, lunches, signed permission forms, money for this that and everything else, dance gear, gymnastics apparal, instruments, music, themed hats). Weekly schedules created and maintained. Meals planned, shopped for, and prepared. I've given up on cleaning up altogether. Committees worked. Summers planned down to the minute. These classes, these camps, these vacations, these meals, these structured free times. We don't do so well with unstructured time.
And as for me, I find a sense of accomplishment in managing and balancing all of this. I call it My Life. I also have something to pour into the space where I used to keep writing and dealing with emotions and exercising and tidying my house and whatnot. That something is food. I look forward to what I get to eat next. Predictable results, etc. But doing My Life and then eating and reading or watching TV or playing Nintendo or whatever else I do after the children are in bed and before I turn into a pumpkin (more committees) - in the space I used to use for writing or running or both (in addition to reading - there's always reading, for better and for worse) all of that allows me to mute my feelings.
And muting my feelings is a relief. As a teenager I felt so much, so acutely, it was unbearable. I filled notebooks with scrawls of rage and pain, pages warped by tears. Becoming an adult - and this happened gradually in my early-to-mid-twenties - was a relief. I could feel it happening. I sought it out. I called it perspective, I called it a mature ability to organize my thoughts logically, to present arguments rationally, to exist in a world with lots of pointy edges.
When I'm feeling a lot of pain, I can distract myself with TV or books or games or busyness and try to think about the pain as little as possible until a skin forms over the gaping wound, until I can examine it from afar without pressing too hard on the tender spot. This is a coping mechanism, and it works - to an extent - but it's not conducive to good writing because to write, I have to feel. I'm not sure I even remember how to turn that back on, anymore.
It's not that anything so bad has ever happened to me. I've lived a pretty charmed life. But it's cumulative, you know? I was a kid, and I was hurt by things I'd shrug off, now. I've had friend drama (and loss), relationship drama (and loss), family drama (and loss). I have a child with disabilities. She's great, but it's a lot to manage, sometimes. I have children, and that really is sort of like letting your heart walk around out in the world unprotected. I lost my dad too soon. It's easier to just . . . mute that a little. Let the skin grow closed, just a thin layer, so that light gets through but not too much. A manageable amount. That's how I'm living my life these days: in manageable amounts. Later, I'm sure, there will be more writing.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
The novel's current lack of visibility might be due in part to its Amazon blurb: The plot of GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT concerns the experiences of a young Gentile writer who poses as a Jew in order to secure material on anti-Semitism for a series of magazine articles. A thesis novel concerning the social and economic aspects of anti-Semitism in American life.
No, really, it's good! I wrote all over my copy of the book, and then typed up my notes. And, yet, it was fun.
It's a quick read, easy, but not shallow (except a little right at the end). And it's non-threatening, too, for a book with such a point. The main character is an ally (not prone to some of the major prejudices of his day) which casts the reader into the same role and allows us to hear hard truths and appreciate them while thinking ourselves exempt or hidden.
This is one of those books that has stuck with me and I find myself using some of its figures of speech in my everyday life weeks after completing the read. Flick, tap.
The novel is about a California-based widower and writer who gets a job with a major weekly magazine in New York City and relocates his family. The first people he meets are his new editor - who gives him the assignment of writing a series on antisemitism - and the editor's niece - who inspired the idea for the assignment and becomes the love interest/second main character. The writer gets the idea that in order to write convincingly and interestingly about antisemitism, he must experience it first-hand. So he introduces himself to everyone he meets as a Jew and undergoes a rapid transformation.
The novel deals not only with antisemitism but also with other forms of prejudice, including racism and sexism. I especially enjoyed some of the nascent feminism, as the author gently drew us along with contemporary lines like, "I'm having people over tonight. A couple of girls and people." How great is that? The role of women's work in the running of a household provides an interesting background, as do the the characters' remarks about "womanish softness" of thought and "a vague resentment that it's a man's world."
But the parts that really stuck with me were about antisemitism and are equally relevant today, with our own various -isms. Prejudice comes in little "flicks" and "taps." “Rarely was the circumstance so arranged that you could fight back.” "They gave you at once the wound and the burden of proper behavior toward it.” There's a lot of discussion about “the complacence of essentially decent people about prejudice” and the question of whether it's gauche or required to make a scene and speak out against prejudice whenever you encounter it (even if it's at a formal dinner party with an important client).
All this unfolds as part of a love story between the writer and his editor's niece. She inspired the assignment and is passionately antisemitic . . . but perhaps she
has a different understanding of what antisemitism is and means and how best to respond. What brought the couple together eventually drives a wedge between them.
If you read - or have read - this one, please let me know; I'd love to discuss it with you! And if it doesn't sound like something you're willing to read, the novel inspired a movie by the same name, starring Gregory Peck.
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Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan
I loved this book. I didn't agree with the author about everything, but I did agree with him about a lot of things and I loved his passion for literature alongside his irreverent take towards it. This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm discussing Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan.
Murnighan "has a Ph.D. in medieval and renaissance literature from Duke University. He is the author of The Naughty Bits and Classic Nasty and has written for Esquire, Glamour, and Nerve. He lives in New York City and teaches creative nonfiction at the University of the Arts."
I don't hold all that against him, though. He writes like a hip professor who really really wants to pass along not the IMPORTANT SYMBOLISM or CRITICAL HISTORICAL CONTEXT of classic literature but rather a love of reading great books along with an understanding of how to read "tough" books and why the effort is worthwhile.
The publisher's blurb:
Did anyone tell you that Anna Karenina is a beach read, that Dickens is hilarious, that the Iliad’s battle scenes rival Hollywood’s for gore, or that Joyce is at his best when he’s talking about booze, sex, or organ meats?
Writer and professor Jack Murnighan says it’s time to give literature another look, but this time you’ll enjoy yourself. With a little help, you’ll see just how great the great books are: how they can make you laugh, moisten your eyes, turn you on, and leave you awestruck and deeply moved. Beowulf on the Beach is your field guide–erudite, witty, and fun-loving–for helping you read and relish fifty of the biggest (and most skipped) classics of all time. For each book, Murnighan reveals how to get the most out of your reading and provides a crib sheet that includes the Buzz, the Best Line, What’s Sexy, and What to Skip.
I found that if I tried to read the book straight through, the chapters and various classics began to bleed together. So I used it as my palate cleanser, reading a chapter or two between other books as I finished them.
And now I intend to start all over, using Beowulf on the Beach as a to-do list to fill in the gaps in my reading of the classics. I'm especially loving the "what to skip" bits, some of which confirm that a book that's supposed to be "great" but I have no interest in might not actually be so wonderful after all. (Murnighan has a theory that people like sets of three and sometimes an author or books is tossed in with two other, far greater works to make a complete set.)
My favorite part of the book is that Murnighan is so completely un-snobby about literature. He tells you everything you need to know about each book in order not to embarrass yourself at a literary cocktail party. And he also tells you what questions to ask to poke holes in the blowhard who quotes famous lines from books he probably hasn't read.
(Fourth Monday Book Club, this book is why we're reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude this month. I hear it's "the greatest novel of our era." And who can resist that?)
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Tuesday, December 6, 2011
For next month my book club is reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. And that was my choice. But there's another reader inside me, too. And that reader likes to read fun books that are quick and consumable and exciting and pulpy and fun. Also, did I mention, fun?
That reader discovered Harry Dresden a few years ago. What's not to love? In Jim Butcher's contemporary urban fantasy series, Chicago looks much as it does today. Except that, in the Yellow Pages, there's a single listing for a "Professional Wizard." That's Harry Dresden, and he's an old-school private investigator who solves problems with little help from modern technology (electronics don't do so well around magic).
The novels might start like classic noir detective stories but soon the missing artifact or other de rigueur case turns out to have an occult twist. To sum up the awesomeness here, so far we have:
1) Funny series novels set in Chicago
2) Classic mystery set-up
What's not to love? That's harder to put my finger on. But I found that I don't want to read two Dresden novels back-to-back. Butcher's voice grates on me after that and little . . . flaws? stylistic choices? character idiosyncrasies? . . . in the writing begin to call attention to themselves and draw me out of the story.
So I read the books one-at-a-time, with space between, because I really like to enjoy each one. These stories have it all: wizards, magical politics, faeries, goblins, trolls, zombies, vampires, werewolves, angels, priests, fighting, battles, war, romance, you name it and it's probably somewhere in this world. As an added bonus, the main characters are geeks.
Another benefit to the slow-read approach is that I didn't catch up to the author for a long time.
But when I finished Ghost Story (Book 13, naturally) last week, I was stuck. The next novel isn't due until next summer! And only one per year after that! Alas.
If the above description captures your interest, let me underscore that/reassure you in two ways: Butcher's writing improves as the series progresses, and the novels are better than the short-lived Sci Fi Channel series loosely based on the books.
If you've tried just one or two of the novels but haven't gotten hooked, I'd recommend perseverance. I was shocked - shocked! - at what happened in Changes (Book 12). It sent me scrambling for Side Jobs, an anthology of short stories and a novelette set between various novels in the series, as well as a novella set immediately after Changes. Then I rushed right into Ghost Story, which left me hanging deliciously.
I'm looking forward to book 14 - and it's worth noting that the author does have a planned story arc for the entire series, including an ending - but I think the first 11 novels, fun as they were, were worth reading as prelude alone for all the changes in books 12 and 13.
Recommended light holiday reading.
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