Wednesday, June 27, 2012

a metaphor for everyone's

Good writing works from a simple premise: your experience is not yours alone, but in some sense a metaphor for everyone's.

I came across this line in some reading for my poetry class and I thought, "EXACTLY." That's what we aim for, anyway. It's the same "personal as universal" idea that came up in the memoir writing workshop, and slowly but surely I am understanding how to incorporate this into my writing. I think it has something to do with getting down to what the experience was really about, and working up from there. But I think sometimes I've found it most helpful to just start writing about the experience, and the writing itself helps me to drill down to the real meaning.

I think poetry (good, accessible poetry) is the master of this, because of the mandate for rich images. I'm also learning about line and stanza structure, which is kinda like getting a new set of really good speakers: now I'm listening to a fuller, deeper music I never knew was there.Or at least could never articulate. (Because really good poets can make you feel the music in their writing without the un-studied poet really understanding, I think.)

For any food writers or poets or curious people out there, I also wanted to share this blog post on food writing. She gets at the same point: that writing about food is about food and so much more. It's about universal themes like memory, relationships, security and happiness (among other things, of course).

I'll leave you with a poem that I think does this well. Jane Kenyon is a favorite of mine, and a master at making her experience available to everyone through her poetry.

Thinking of Madame Bovary 

The first hot April day the granite step
was warm. Flies droned in the grass.
When a car went past they rose
in unison, then dropped back down...

I saw that a yellow crocus bud had pierced
a dead oak leaf, then opened wide. How strong
its appetite for the luxury of the sun!

Everyone longs for love's tense joys and red delights.

And then I spied an ant
dragging a ragged, disembodied wing
up the warm brick walk. It must have been
the Methodist in me that leaned forward,
preceded by my shadow, to put a twig just where
the ant was struggling with its own desire.

(via Writer's Almanac, 4/12/12)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

always ask the chef

The theory of happiness that is making the rounds these days is defined by “having it all.” Women, it seems, are still testing whether this kind of happiness is available to them, while many men no doubt roll their eyes or simply look the other way at this particular spectacle. But even they have their struggles and their demons.

If life were like a smorgasbord, having it all would mean eating as much as you want of everything you want, and if you’ve ever gone overboard at a buffet, you know how that ends. Many men pile it on, oblivious that in some countries people are starving for food, let alone choice. Women are going the moderation route, still believing that a little bit of everything will satisfy them.

Before we attack the method we need to look at the defining principles and ask ourselves if having equates happiness. Recently a good friend of mine sent out an update to some friends in which she explained that changes are on the horizon for her family, and in their discernment process they are looking for the best situation to accommodate both her and her husband’s professional ambitions as well as their children’s schooling and safety. Importantly, she maintained the caveat that “there are costs to many worthwhile adventures,” implying that to obtain something worth having, you may have to let go of something else, at least for a time. There’s abundant wisdom in her approach. Most of us would say we know this to be true, and yet so often we’re afraid to experience it. Loss can be heart-wrenching, and regret even more haunting. Having it all, or at least saying we gave it a go, means we don’t have to deal with these difficult emotions.

What it does mean is that we end up feeling exhausted, sub-par and divided most of the time. And it means we often settle for a mediocre experience of everything instead of excellence (or another, more internal way of saying that might be whole-heartedness, or singleness) in one or a few things.

Trying to have it all also presumes that we know what’s best for us. Or maybe it actually reveals that we don’t know. Needing to choose means that we gain enough insight and wisdom (internal as well as external) to make a decision. And for me, it means choosing to let go of my rights to have it all, or have anything at all, to the One who created me and to whom my life belongs. It might sound stifling, and I don’t necessarily think it was meant not to (we are asked to die, after all), but it actually leads to the happiness I think people are looking for. It means saying yes or no with confidence and joy, it means chasing a thing with complete commitment, and it means assurance that, however it feels in the moment, it will lead to something good.

I read once that, when at a sushi restaurant, you should never presume you know you what should order. Always ask the chef, and he will give you his best. 

I hate buffets anyway. I always leave feeling cheated.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

such fullness

Once each week, I make dinner for my housemates. The thing I’m not sure my housemates know is that this commitment is just as much for me as it is for them. It’s a weekly meditation, a ritual that reminds me that with raw, unformed ingredients and an hour of concentration (ok, and maybe a recipe and a little bit of know-how), a table can be prepared. 

Planning ahead is key. If I feel rushed or harried, the whole process loses its meditative quality. These dinners usually happen on Wednesdays, so by Tuesday night, I’ve chosen the recipes (it almost always involves a new recipe these days) and purchased the ingredients. That means when I get home from work, I go into my zone.

You know what I mean by my zone, right? It’s when I’m completely focused and involved. It’s a rare experience to be completely absorbed in a task, but somehow cooking takes me there. Even if one of my housemates is in the kitchen with me, I rarely talk, and I try not to feel guilty about this. If they ask me if I need help, I almost always refuse, because cooking this way is a solo dance for me. It’s not that I don’t enjoy cooking with other people, but I need to be able to be conscious of what I’m doing, and being present to people often distracts me. Preparing a meal is a full sensory experience — I get to smell, listen, touch, taste, and see. (I once read that the best utensils are our bare hands. I need to try this more!) Inevitably I cut myself or spill something every time, but getting messy is part of the process; I’m slowly coming to terms with that fact. Oil sizzles, sauces bubble, dishes bang around the sink, slowly filling it up — my guilty pleasure is cooking like they do on food shows, preparing each ingredient and laying them out in their own bowls or plates so that they’re ready when you need them. Buzzers beep. 

And then it’s time. 

Each dish is brought to the table, water is poured, and if we’re lucky or feeling generous, we get the wine glasses out, too. I sit down, usually exhausted but also satisfied (even before we eat), and let myself breathe and talk and look at the people around me. We pray, we serve, we taste, then sit back, grateful to be given such fullness in our lives.

Tonight I’m making this Thai dish along with some eggplant. My favorite meal in the past few months was these Mediterranean lamb meatballs. What are you making these days? And what gets you into your zone?

Monday, June 18, 2012

the last book i loved

Some of you readers might have noticed that I've been posting casual reviews of books I'm reading. Soon after I sang my praise for Birds of America, I discovered Rumpus's blog column The Last Book I Loved. In it, booklovers blend book review with personal essay, explaining what makes the book great, and more specifically, what made it great to them.

Book reviews are helpful, but sometimes too dry and removed. These essays are intimate and speak of the relationship of book to reader. And they reveal that as in most any relationship, timing matters. Characters, settings, tension speak as if they were peering over our shoulders because our lives have positioned us to hear their story more acutely. And as a writer, I'm inspired to write something that can create the same sort of connection to readers.

I wrote my own essay for Birds of America, and it was published on Rumpus blog today. Head on over, have a read and pass it along to any booklovers you know!

Friday, June 8, 2012

summer 2012 reading list

As promised: Summer 2012 Reading List

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Knowing this is a literary must-read and a favorite of many, I bought this book (and even started it!) a few years ago. But it was just so… big. I got intimidated and shelved it. Determined, I put it on my to-do list for 2012. By starting it in June, I’m giving myself nearly six months to finish it. But hopefully I’ll wrap it up before the end of summer. Wish me luck.

I plan to make my way through this one slowly, meditatively, intentionally. It includes exercises that I want to be sure to try. I’m hoping it will expand and ground my personal journaling to enhance my writing and connect to God in new ways.

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
If you watch this reading by this Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, I think that is all the explanation you really need. Her poems contain some images that are really precise and imaginative. I would love to write like that. Summer is a time for dreaming, right?

The Color of Water by James McBride
I read this one after college and remember loving it. Time for a re-read, and to study how the author approached the form of memoir.

The Summer Before the Dark by Doris Lessing
Last year I read another of Lessing’s books (snagged at a used book sale for 25 cents!) and fell in love with her spare yet weighty style of writing and her dark stories. I’m going back for more. On a sidenote, I bought this book on impulse from a used bookstore (only slightly inferior to used book sales), and I’ve looked forward to reading it since the day I bought it.

I’m looking forward to buying this to get my fill of some contemporary short stories. Last year I bought it on my way to the beach and devoured it.(The link above takes you to the online version of the 2011 issue. Read these stories! I remember especially loving Scars and How to Win an Unwinnable War. And The Great Zero was disturbing, in a good way.)

I wish I could add more to the list, but I’m trying to be realistic, so there it is. Tell me what you plan to read! By yourself, to your kids, with your bookclub, even for class - I want to know!

PS I'm taking an online poetry class this summer, also on my 2012 list of must-do's. Eek, I'm so excited!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

summer reading lists

Starting in first grade and for the next five year, at the end of the school year I would bring in a paper grocery bag to school. I think I decorated them, too, but I can't quite remember. What I do remember is the thrill of filling them. Standing with my classmates in a single file line, together we wormed through the halls, trying to whisper and contains bursts of laughter on our way to the library. There, we set loose to choose ten books to take with us for the summer. One of my most vivid memories from elementary school, and one that makes me the happier than most others, is loading books into my bag as a first-grader - new reader, proud of my skill and finally able to read chapter books ALL BY MYSELF. My favorites in those early days were the Betsy books by Carolyn Haywood. Because what 6-year-old girls doesn't love to share her name with an adventurous young book character?

Those bags held my early summer reading lists. In high school I read what was assigned (and sadly, I remember few of those books!), and in college I read books and articles on faith and justice as part of summer missions. Worthy reading, but not much fun. Now I have a constant reading list, but who doesn't love the idea of picking out books for pure enjoyment, reading that will likely be done lying on a beach towel with salty-wet hair blowing while waves call you back to play, or at the very least sitting in the backyard with a small glass of wine while the sun puts itself to sleep?

I'll be putting together a summer reading list over the next few days, and I'll share it soon. In the meantime, I'm curious: What all-time favorites would you put on an ultimate summer reading list? And what will you be reading this summer?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

read: wild

When I first heard about the book Wild, I knew I wanted to read it at some point. The book is about a woman’s journey hiking the PacificCrest Trail — not an entirely impossible feat, but deeply difficult in many ways, physical being only the most obvious, and I think it was this idea of taking on a seemingly insurmountable challenge that drew me. .

Then I had the opportunity to hear the author speak on a panel of memoir-ists, and her intelligence and insight pushed the book up my list. I read it for the story, and also to study her writing from the view of what she’d offered during the panel presentation.The author also shared about her decision to write the book. She seemed to have a deeper, layered purpose, one she didn’t herself fully understand what she set out on her adventure. Tragedy forces us to understand life anew, in the same way that journeys of this type question the physicality and importance of the people and things we hold so dear. In a ways, it’s a common narrative, and yet the author’s adventure didn’t seem contrived but very organic

The book entertained me, but that was about it. A few passages stuck out to me as key to her transformation, but the way she recreated her journey into this book didn’t give me enough of her internal life to help me really understand what this experience meant to her. Honestly, it read to me like the journal of a young person, a bit too self-involved, often focusing on the concrete phases of the physical journey, reconnections with friends, and most disappointingly, a condom she packed and wondered if she’d use on her journey. I expected some perspective, since this is a 15-year-old journey, but I guess she decided to write it purely from the point of view of who she was at the time. I also wanted more reflection. I think the author meant to lead the reader to connect some of the pieces into metaphors (like her heavy pack that she over-packed in the beginning and that she came to think of as part of her body), but for me, there wasn’t enough there to fill out the picture. I re-imagined the book as a series of essays and vignettes instead of a chronological story with occasional flashbacks. To me, this would have worked better. But perhaps some of the journey aspect would have been lost.

There’s almost constant critique of memoirs and their writers in the literary world today — for their self-absorption and their sheer abundance. Reading this one, especially with such high expectations, got me thinking more about this debate. I think many memoirs, like blogs, appeal to mass audiences because they’re easy to read and because they’re so intimate, so publishers see that there’s a market for them. Many readers find comfort in fast, formulaic stories that they can easily process and relate to. I also think we as a society may be addicted to peering in at other people’s lives. You’d think we wouldn’t gain much satisfaction from this habit, since usually we compare ourselves and come up short. I’d guess that some of us find roadmaps in the stories these books tell (and that isn’t entirely bad). The danger is in believing we can recreate the story and make it fit into our lives, when in reality any maps we use can only be vague guides or bearers of small, rare jewels of wisdom that transcend the unique circumstances that our particular paths lead us on.

I looked briefly at my log of books read over the past few years. I’ve read few memoirs, and I only gave one more than two or three stars. I remember that there are a few that I didn’t even finish. So I’m curious — what memoirs have you read and enjoyed? What did you gain from them? What did you like about them?

Later this week I’ll share a few memoirs that I enjoyed. Stay tuned!