Thursday, May 31, 2012

at a wine bar in north hollywood

We sat together at a wine bar that we found on the walk from the movie to our car. We could use a drink, we all agreed, and allowed the waiter to lead us, sit us, serve us. All around, couples huddled together closer than their booths and tables pushed them, obviously drawn to each other, the single candle on the table between them reflecting the fire that lit their eyes, their hearts. Waiters, waiting for their customers to decide or finish or pay, sat at the bar, alternately talking to each other and gazing with empty eyes into the dim restaurant. Music hummed around us; I think the lyrics were about love. Food came and drinks were drunk, and we became happier than we were moments earlier, the three of us an odd threesome but gradually willing to create some kind of bond with each other, like the haphazard braid of a third-grader crafted with yarn she found in the storage closet. 

I think it was the drinks that charmed our secrets from us. Regrets are the deepest secrets there are, deeper even than our desires, because they are what make us believe we have to be ashamed. We carry these terrible mistakes with us with exhausting perseverance, so very determined that they are a part of us. Like a prosthetic limb. But what if we’re better off limping without that leg? It’s possible we could even learn to walk without it. One regretted the many times she’d given herself to chasing after a man. The other regretted having not. I smiled the way I do when I rehearse my own stories in my head but choose not to tell them, and I start to wonder how walking with a limp might feel.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

read: birds in america

At some point, I began to ask myself what I wanted to accomplish through writing.  And I decided that if others read what I wrote, I wanted to communicate redemption — the hope that even of trials, suffering, loss and mistakes, some kind of good could come. Naturally I can be rather melancholy, and I sometimes tend towards sad movies and stories (some of my friends label them depressing, but I call them realistic). All this to say that I’ve made a concerted effort to look for stories that show this kind of hope to observe how it’s done, and of course, to cultivate hope in myself. 

Still, I didn’t expect Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America to surprise me with so much hope. Some of these short stories seem depressing at the outset because each of her characters are dealing with such heavy issues, and they’re so weighed down. There’s Mack, a trying-to-be recovering alcoholic whose wife left him and took their five year old son along. Oh, and for a living he’s a house painter, and a crappy one at that. Olena is a first-generation Eastern-European-American learning to survive as an adult after the death of her parents. She misses them, and who she was with them, terribly. And Adrienne (my personal favorite) accepts the practical marriage proposal of her boyfriend when, at age 35, still unwed and skittish around babies, she falls off a picnic bench while holding her friend’s child, killing the young boy. These people have issues.

Where the hope comes in is that these characters all surprise you with their humor, their grace, their ability to remember and wish and desire, and in the midst of all the heartache, to choose. There are some really lovely themes of birth and rebirth (and what is choosing but a chance to birth something new?) woven through these stories, in particular with the parent-child relationship showing up in each story. There’s a section of dialogue in one of my favorite stories, called People Like That Are the Only People Here, where the mother of a baby with cancer is bargaining for a different way for her child (she’ll take a sixteen-year-old in a car crash — “Sixteen is a full life!”). The make-believe manager of Marshall Field’s (this is a different kind of “bargain shopping” that a mother does in her grief) responds with insight that uncovers the theme of the story and, in my opinion, of this collection of stories:
What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future. That is why they do the fateful and amusing things they do: who can say how anything will turn out? Therein lies the only hope for redemption, discovery, and — let’s be frank — fun, fun, fun! There will be things people will get away with. And not just motel towels. There might be great illicit loves, enduring joy, faith-shaking accidents with farm machinery. But you have to not know in order to see what stories your life’s efforts bring you. The mystery is all.
I also wanted to share my very favorite passage of redemption from this collection. It’s in Adrienne’s story, called Terrific Mother. After causing death, she is learning to live with herself again. This is a peak into her experience:
A shadow fell across her, inside her, and she could feel herself retreat to that place in her bones where death was and you greeted it like an acquaintance in a room; you said hello and were then ready for whatever was next — which might be a guide, the guide that might be sent to you, the guide to lead you back out into your life again.
Now, a quick list of what I loved about Moore’s writing:
  • Like I said in my previous post, she uses language in unique ways, with fresh metaphors and word pictures.
  • She helped a reader out. Her symbolism wasn’t buried ten layers deep. She served it up, and in a way that a reader with an appetite would readily reach out to serve themselves to more.
  • Her characters are real, vivid, likeable and struggling. And she touched on universal desires, hurts and loves. I am so different from many of the characters, and yet I related to each one of them.
I could write more, but I think I gave you enough. I hope you’ll choose to read these stories!

P.S. I forgot to mention that this book was a used book find! I spotted it at a publisher's clearing house type store and snagged it for 25 cents.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

write it and take my chances

I have an writing assignment that I've been putting off, mainly because I don't know how to start. Or finish, or do it at all, really. My task is to write a fairy tale, and all that magic and all those little creatures that are waiting to be put into a story are intimidating me. I don't do little creatures -- my housemates will tell you that.

The starting is always the hardest part. John Steinbeck's reflections to a college story-writing professor helped me to realize I have company, even that of the most accomplished writers.
... I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances... The formula [for writing a story] seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something [she] feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, [she] may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.
Wish me luck!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

casting spells

If prose can cast a spell we will listen to it no matter what it’s saying (and maybe decide afterward whether we like what it’s saying—how else could, say, Lolita work?) If a narrative uses language in a magical and enlivening way, we will listen to the story.
-Lorrie Moore, in an interview in The Believer

Speaking of casting spells, that's exactly what Lorrie Moore has done to me with Birds of America. I don't like all the characters -- and yet Moore writes with such imagination that I don't want them to leave. I need to read to the end of each story to get my fix. The interviewer puts it this way: "you push words and sentences in a way that forces a new experience with language." Yes, is all I can say, really.

I'll write more when I'm done reading, but wanted to leave you with these precious crumbs to whet your appetite.

Monday, May 14, 2012

inspired: humanplanet

They say that if you’re open, you can find inspiration anywhere. Who “they” is, I’m not quite sure, but I know I’ve heard things like this before. What “they” don’t say is to beware of distraction, multi-tasking and lethargy because these are the great enemies of inspiration. I’m the one who said that.

Thankfully, I found some inspiration this weekend. My housemate and I have been watching HumanPlanet, produced by BBC. Think National Geographic in stunning documentary form — with a slightly over-dramatic English-accented narrator. Each hour-long episode focuses on one habitat (mountains, oceans, rivers) and how the people in those regions live. Equally as interesting is the “behind the lens” segment at the end of each episode, where they spotlight how they shot one of the stories from the episode.
So many of the stories in these documentaries are of people who have learned to live with nature because they are forced to in order to survive. Watching last night, I thought of Mary Oliver, a poet who had a deep connection to nature. Most of her poems draw on animals and plants for metaphors to bring themes to life. I once read that she woke early in the morning and instead of writing first (like most writers), she took long, silent walks through forests and by water. She lived in Massachussetts, and yet I suspect she had that same sense of surviving by the land that some of these people from other countries and cultures do. To her, observing nature was life, and in its metaphors and symbols she found her power to live. It got me looking at the documentaries in a different way.

One story showed a river that, flooded during monsoon season, crashed and tumbled. The narrator called it angry, a description that seemed a bit contrived to me. I thought, who says those waters are angry? Maybe they’re dancing, or laughing. Who says those waters aren’t having a raucous good time? Who says these kinds of things can’t be done violently? Sure, if you fall into the river, the might of it will probably sweep you to your death, but let’s remember that death isn’t all bad. (I’m speaking metaphorically here.)

Then there was also this incredible bridge made entirely of a tree’s roots. Each spring, the man who planted the tree coaxed the roots to grow and spread in a particular way, and now he was teaching his daughter to do the same, because the bridge was not yet finished and its shaping would continue beyond his life. It was a reminder of how long and strong roots are, how they can be tended to in such a way that they bring life not only to that tree, but to other living things around it.

Another river, gentle in one season, became violent in the next. I’ve experienced that kind of change in seasons, and that nature permits, or even causes this change gives permission to us all to let the seasons of life have their way.

Where are you finding inspiration?

Friday, May 11, 2012

the questions themselves

Is there a magic notebook where I can write down all the questions I keep asking myself that have no good answer? Then the question, once written, would somehow be resolved and never needed to be asked again? If you find a journal like that, tell me where you bought it. Or add these questions on my behalf:

Why can’t I write better?
Why is my voice so weird?
When will I get over that friendship that I ended, but then realized that she was ending it, too?
Why can’t I get my act together?
Why didn’t he like me?
Why does my hair do that?
Why can’t I express myself more clearly?
Why can’t I be more like her?
Why do I always seem to get stuck at mediocre when I try to be really good at something?

And maybe I’d like another journal where you can write down questions and the answer magically appears the next time you open it. My list would include:

What do I do with regret?
Can I be truly happy?
Am I missing out on something big as a single person?
If I risk big things to go after some dreams, will I be ok if I fail?

Instead, maybe I’ll write on the inside cover of my real journal — the one in which I am usually too timid to write these questions — one of my favorite quotes:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Monday, May 7, 2012

Read: On Writing by Stephen King

Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.
Drink and be filled up.
-Stephen King, On Writing

There are lists out there: must-reads for writers interested in improving their craft. Stephen King’s memoir on writing is one I’ve seen on quite a few of those lists. I was skeptical at first, mostly because I associate King with a few scary scenes of It that I’d seen on tv growing up (I am forever afraid of clowns) and with mass market fiction books (yes, I have my prejudices). I’m glad I gave it a try — while On Writing doesn’t make my personal list of favorites, I enjoyed it. A solid read.

I expected King to jump right into writing. Instead, he started at the beginning, meaning his childhood, to show “how one writer was formed.” I was tempted to rush through or even skip this part (do I really care about Stephen King’s childhood?). But it turned out to be delightful, an easy read with fun details about his formation as a person and a writer. In fact, I was sad when it was over.

The section that actually focuses specifically on writing covered most basics that are found elsewhere. What I liked about King’s book was his tone: he kept it honest and light. He was serious about writing without taking writing (or himself) too Seriously. At the end, he expressed that his goal was to give writers permission, and I felt that his tone helped him accomplish this. Or, I felt like I’d been loosened up from some of the Big Ideas about writing that stifle me.

Some lessons I’m taking away from On Writing:
  • Closed door, open door writing. King suggests writing the first draft with a closed door, figuratively and perhaps literally, too, if it helps. During this phase, there is no audience. You’re just trying to get everything down. During the second round, open the door, imagine the audience and clean it up. The simple imagery is helpful for me, since I often try to get it right (ie open door writing) the first time through. 
  • There is a muse. He lives in the ground. In one passage, King erases our nicely penciled pictures of fairy-dust muses and instead imagines him as a cigar-smoking guy sitting in the basement, waiting around for the writer to do all the work. He assures us that he does have a bag of magic, we just have to make him feel at home before we see it. In other words, writing is hard work. Do it regularly, take it seriously, and the magic will eventually happen.
  • Ideally, your partner (or community) will challenge and inspire you in your craft. King credits his marriage with helping him be a better writer and a better person. I like the way he writes about his wife — as if he’s admiring an ancient work of art that he’s studied for years yet still is in wonder over — and I imagine that nurturing that sort of admiration for one’s spouse is at least part of what helps a marriage last. (Their relationship reminds me of Julia Child’s with Paul in My Life in France, for those of you who’ve read that.) 
  • Writing should be fun. I liked that King clearly enjoyed what he wrote about, and that’s why he wrote it. He wasn’t trying to be a certain kind of writer or write certain kinds of novels. He wrote about what interested him (and it turns out that made him very successful).

What are you reading?