Talking about my brain over at Writerhead (thanks, Kristin!).
I teach creative writing, which, for me, has a lot to do with creative reading (thanks for the term, Burroughs): how is this book structured? What’s the point-of-view? How does the writer deal with scene, time, transitions, character, movement, language, pacing—like how come Faulkner can go for nine pages without a period and it reads super slow but Selby can do the same thing and it moves like lightning? It has something to do with adjectives, I think; Selby rarely uses them, and Faulker uses three or four at a time—the rickety, water-soaked, creaking wagon wheel—AND, when he really wants you to slow down, he puts an and between each—the rickety and water-soaked and creaking wagon wheel—I’m thinking specifically of Light in August, but I’m sure there’s other shit going on in his other novels, especially if he’s in the first person … and tense! What about tense! After Tell Tale Heart, I thought I had the whole tense thing figured out, but I’ve since realized that having anything figured out in writing is the most ridiculous statement ever because somebody out there has busted open anything you thought you knew about anything. I just read this great essay by Francine Prose about how whenever she thought she knew what she was doing, she’d read something by Chekov that totally went totally the other way. Fucking Chekov. Rape Fantasies by Margaret Atwood did that to me, too: the whole story’s in past tense and then SHAZAM, on the last page we’re in present sitting in some bar??! And that Edward P. Jones story The First Day, which is in past for one sentence and then present-tense-little-girl until the end? WTF, Edward P. Jones?
Seriously, I LOVE this shit. I get super excited talking about it. I jump up and down in my chair. My students look at me like I’m on crack (until they start jumping up and down, too, which I know is when I’ve done my job right. When we all bounce) but then, then, then, THEN the question is, how can I use all this in my own writing? Like, what tense is my stuff in? What if I switch it? What if I yank out all the adjectives? What if I try this or that or that or this, and when you know that the solutions to whateverthehell challenge you’re having in your writing is there, in front of your face, sitting on your very own bookshelf! or maybe in a play you saw last week! or a movie! or maybe a TV show if the show is good (Hi, Keifer Sutherland! Hi, Lady Who Played Starbuck on BSG!) and the thing is—I could keep going. And going and going. This is, hands down, the most important thing about my life as a writer: having an understanding of craft. A love of craft. But in my life as a reader? Sometimes I want to turn that part of my brain off. I’m trying to think of it as a sort of control panel on the side of my head, like I’m a cylon or something, and can flip the switch to whatever kind of reading I’d like to focus on, subsequently canceling out the others:
Reading to study the craft.
Reading to learn the content.
Reading to critique the message.
Reading because I love to read.
Reading because I need a good laugh.
Reading because I want to make the world a better place.
Reading to my son.
Reading to escape.
Reading to relax.
So, I’ve been reading I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass, and what I want to talk about is the structure: multiple chronological short movements, each 3 years apart, in the lives of two sisters. I love that idea: to look at two characters through the lens of the most significant moments in their relationship. I love it, and I’m going to use it.
I’ve been reading I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass, and what I want to talk about is voice. It’s a dual 1st person, the narration jumping back and forth between the two sisters. Through my work with 2nd Story’s personal narratives, I spend a lot of time thinking about 1st person. We write our stories to be told aloud, and the language must be 100% authentic to how that storyteller speaks. Sometimes that feels really different from a more literary 1st person narration. There are times when these sisters speak and I’m like, That’s fancypants language, it’s not really her talking! And it’s not … it’s her voice on the page. But somewhere in the back of my head I’m like, Her voice on the page IS her voice speaking, and if it’s not authentic to her speaking voice—character that’s being created for me on the page—then I don’t buy it. But I don’t know if that’s a personal preference thing, or a solid rule (and if it is a solid rule, probably Chekov broke it, right?). Anyhow, it’s something I think about a lot, and look for in every first person narration. So much has to be taken into account: what time period are we in, who is this character, where are they from, what level of education have they had, etc.? How does that come into the voice on the page, and must that be authentic to the character’s speaking voice?
I’ve been reading I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass, and what I want to talk about is this struggle I’m having with how I read. You’re reading just to read, I told myself at page one. NOT to look at craft—but obviously, that’s not working. It’s the first thing I see, and actively shutting that part of my brain takes work (it’s totally like how Sookie in Trueblood is telekinetic and has to put in constant effort not to hear other people’s thoughts ’cause listening to other people’s thoughts all the time’ll drive a girl crazy. Shit, listening to your own thoughts all the time’ll drive you crazy; imagine hearing everyone?—That’s what I’m talking about. Except without the vampires [and while I'm on True blood ...WHY DO I HAVE TO WAIT A WHOLE YEAR TO GET THE NEXT SEASON IN ITUNES?] or awesome opening credits). I remember, back in grad school, and the crazy and necessary process of training myself to study craft, as opposed to metaphor or meaning. Like, instead of reading Moby Dick and arguing about whether or not the whale represented God, or The Man, or organized religion, or whateverthehell, maybe the whale could just be a whale for once and, instead, I look at how Melville dealt with vantage point and structure and model telling, ’cause those are the techniques I can use in my own work. Creative reading, indeed.
In an ideal universe, I’d read the book nine times in all sorts of ways, but who has that kind of time?
In an ideal world, I’d have that kind of time.
I used to blog every day. Then I had my son, and suddenly free time was this rare, precious commodity, something first meant for sleeping and then, later, to be fought over. There’s only X amount of time, how do you chose? Write a blog, write a book, write about a book, read a book, read about writing? What about doing dishes, groceries, showering? When will I see my husband? What about my job—student work, syllabi, 2nd Story?
Also, now that I have the luxury of examining this all in retrospect, I was a bit post-partem. Not Brooke Shields, Down Came the Rain, but not that baby blues thing they talk about, either. Something in between. Something messy and complicated, and, in the middle of it all was my little boy. Who wants to blog when you can build a castle out of spice jars?
So the pressure kind of got to me, and my blog was yet another reminder of things I wasn’t getting done. Everytime I’d look at it, the date of my last entry grew further and further away, and one day, after another How come you’re not blogging anymore email showed up in my inbox, I took everything down (I was very dramatic about it, lots of yelling and banging into things. Meryl Streep will play me in the movie). Again, in retrospect, it was more about me trying to find the balance between being a parent and being … everything else. When I’d complain, people told me to cut myself some slack. “You’ve got a kid at home!” they’d say. “It’s okay if you’re not producing what you used to.” On one hand, that’s a really nice sentiment, but the fact is this: my kid is the coolest thing ever. I want to be better at everything because of him: better mother, better writer, better wife and teacher and friend and human being. Using him as an excuse for not getting work done—novel, stories, essays, blog—makes me want to stick a fork in my eye.
My point: I’m taking this blog thing a little bit at a time.
That said, I’m super excited about it. I need it, I think. I’ve been feeling sort of crazytown, which always happens when I’m not writing enough, like, what do I do with all these thoughts? (The only thing that quiets everything down is watching 24 on streaming Netflix. Seriously, I do this every night. It cancels out all the noise in my head which for the record is just a normal-person amount of noise, as opposed to Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood being all telepathic and needing to sleep with vampires for some peace and quiet. Also, I’m currently ripping off 24‘s real-time-countdown stuff for a story which is a total blast [at this point, whenever I talk about this shit, and I talk about it a lot, somebody always asks why I'm not using models of real-time-countdown in literature instead of some implausible TV show about terrorists and I’m all, Have you SEEN 24? An hour-long adrenaline rush! And the technology is awesome! And Jack Bauer ripped some guy’s ear off with his teeth! And everybody keeps coming back from the dead! I LOVE people coming back from the dead!] What was I talking about? Bauer, Sookie [rhymes with cookie], busy thoughts, feeling crazy). Running helps with the crazy, as well, which is too bad because I sort of hate running. I’m reading Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running right now in the hopes of finding some joy in it.
Related: I have these pants. Really great pants. They were expensive, and do great things for the ass. I bought them before I got pregnant, and I still can’t fit into them, and lately, when I look in the mirror, I’m all pantspantspants! and then I’m like, Really? All that women’s lib and positive self image hoohah and I’m STILL talking about my butt? ‘cause the thing is, it’s not about the pants, it’s about feeling bad about myself, self deprecation on a continual loop, and eventually you have to shut up and just tackle the shit head-on. Which means, for me, to suck it up and do the running. I got an app called Couch to the 5K and Murakami’s memoir about running and writing. Two birds, one stone.
I love Murakami. I lovelovelove his story “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.” It made me fall in love with strangers. Like, I’d be walking down the street and I’d pass all these people and be all that is totally my 100% perfect person, no wait, it’s him! Or him! What about that guy! I love everybody! you and you and you! And the voice! It’s like the narrator’s sitting across the table from me, just talking, like we’re the very best of friends, plus it jumps back and forth between past and present tense which is a bitch to pull off but somehow it all works, and did I mention that part about love and strangers?
Also: His novel Wind Up Bird Chronicles is on my all-time top-five list of Best First Pages of a Novel Ever.
Also: The title is a play on one of my favorite short stories of all time: Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I was maybe fifteen when I first read that story, with a very small-town Midwestern girl idea of how love was supposed to look. Something about pop songs and yearning. Reading it was like a brick to the head: people have different ideas as to what love is! You can fall in love more than once! Sometimes love is ugly! Sometimes beautiful, but not beautiful like Pat Benetar’s We Belong Together, beautiful in a different way! Then, about a thousand years ago, in grad school, I had to write a structural parody of it, swapping out LOVE for whatever subject matter I chose, as in: What We Talk About When We Talk About Screwdrivers. What We Talk About When We Talk About Our Mothers. What We Talk About When We Talk About Paris, or Politics, or Technology, whatever, fill-in-the-blank. Best assignment ever. Aside from being an awesome study of dialogue, it’s a blast insofar as character development: what kind of people would sit around talking about screwdrivers? Or their mothers? etc. Furthermore, all the characters in the story are drinking—getting progressively drunker as the night goes on—but everyone gets drunk in different ways. Some of us are chatty, some belligerent, some quiet, so who are these people I’m writing about and how do I show that?
So here I am, getting all excited about writing. Which is the goddamn point, right?
Also: I just picked up the new Carver biography (new to me, at least). I’m a fan of biographies. Mostly because I’m interested in the writing process, and I get ideas from things other writers have tried. Here, I owe thanks to the every student who’s ever sat in my Critical Reading and Writing: Short Story class, studying different writers’ processes and reporting back to the rest of the class. Every semester, I hear about sixteen new writers, and that has had an enormous impact on my life as a writer, the most notable example being: Ann Petry would work for a year and save, then take a year off and write. Year on, year off. So, in 2003, I added two bar shifts a week to my teaching schedule, and in 2004, I moved to Prague for a year.
I might be gearing up for that again.
If I’m being honest, I also dig into biographies because I’d like to know there’s hope. That people can slay tremendous dragons and come out unscathed; or, if they are scathed, at least they’re better for it. They make art from it. They make the world a better place, somehow. I taught a class on Kafka when I was in Prague, and the most powerful thing about his journals was that every other entry talks about how he didn’t get writing done today, not the way he wanted, he’s pissed at himself, how do you find the balance, this SUCKS—but still, he keeps going.
That’s what I’d like this blog to be: an experiment in keeping going. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami says: “I didn’t write at one stretch, but rather a little at a time, whenever I could find free time in between other work. Each time I wrote more I’d ask myself, So—what’s on my mind right now?”