I started listening to Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast maybe 6 months or so ago, and it was a quick favorite. The hosts are smart and funny and not afraid to disagree with each other. The Gabfest is usually posted weekly on Fridays, but they’re doing a daily short podcast during the government shutdown. I’ve gotten to the point where I really can’t stand listening to any not-really-news news about the shutdown, but I still enjoy the analysis and insight that I get from the Gabfest folks. Emily Bazelon is basically my hero. Listen on their website or download the podcast in iTunes.
Mindfulness teaches us that thoughts are just thoughts; they are events in the mind. They are often valuable but they are not “you” or “reality.” They are your internal running commentary on yourself and the world.”
- from Mindfulness
Because at the end of the day, when the glasses come off and our vision blurs, the big picture becomes clear. And we realize – I realize – that we are enough. We are gems, shining brightly with each facet of our lives – achievers and diplomats and confectioners and seductresses and memory keepers – each pointing to a different light and shaping our fractured lives.”
- Erin Loechner, from her always thoughtful, always inspiring blog, Design for Mankind
In 2009, the Paris Review published an interview with Mary Karr, the first (and as far as I can tell only) author interview in their “The Art of Memoir” series. I didn’t discover it until earlier this year, and I didn’t read it until last month. I studied an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club in the first creative nonfiction course I took in college, and since then, she’s been huge for me. And I’m so glad this interview didn’t disappoint (because, you know, the Paris Review so often publishes lame and/or boring interviews). It’s one of the pieces that will stay with me, full of moments that gave me pause, that I find myself turning over and over again even now, more than a month after my first read.
“It’s difficult to accept what your psyche or history dooms you to write, what Faulkner would call your postage stamp of reality. Young writers often mistakenly choose a certain vein or style based on who they want to be, unconsciously trying to blot out who they actually are. You want to escape yourself.”
My first reaction to this passage was “Is this true?” and then, “If so, how do we know when we’re finally writing as who we actually are instead of who we’re striving towards being? Here, Mary is talking about writing poetry that’s overly abstract and surreal, trying to avoid the grittiness and modesty of her life growing up, trying to sound, as she says, “edge-u-mated.” Wanting to look smart in order to escape the feeling that she wasn’t, that her poor, under-educated hometown was too ingrained in her. She wanted to show that she’d moved beyond all that. I can feel that in myself sometimes. The tug to separate myself from what’s associated with the Ford trucks and bonfires that framed my teenage years. A need for some distance between me and the mustaches and rural drawls of family gatherings. I remember reading once (possible something from here)that you have to be gracious with past versions of yourself in your writing. That it’s not fair to judge yourself from your current standpoint. I try to keep that in mind when I reflect on those years. They weren’t the prettiest, but they are part of who I am now.
So who have I been striving towards being? It seems in order to answer that question you have to better understand who you are. And I think that’s what I’m working towards right now. I think I’m trying to settle into what matters to me. I tried to be the volunteer, corporate-free, entrepreneur-minded independent for a while. And I think, during a lot of my college writing, I tried to be deep and thoughtful, presenting these pat ideas that were new to me as though they were new to everyone around me. I’ve learned I need to take it down a notch. Get more in touch with my voice, with who I am in real life and try to migrate that onto the page. Get that hometown grit in there. I feel like I’ve personally moved a far way away from that, and, just because it’s what I was raised in, doesn’t mean it’s me. It’s a part of me, but I’d say it’s more true to me to continue moving away from it–in my actual life and in my writing–than to to try to resurrect it as a current part of me. I’m not really sure what I’m saying here. I think I do understand what Mary’s saying, I’m just not sure how to superimpose the idea on myself and my own writing.
“I don’t try to reconstruct empty spots…In fiction you manufacture events to fit a concept or an idea. With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept. You don’t remember something? write fiction.
“It pissed me off when I saw James Frey on Larry King saying, ‘You know there’s a lot of argument about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction.’ You know what? There isn’t. If it didn’t happen, it’s fiction. If it did happen, it’s nonfiction. If you see the memoir as constructing a false self to sell to some chump audience, then you’ll never know the truth, because the truth is derived from what actually happened. Using novelistic devices, like reconstructed dialogue or telescoping time, isn’t the same as ginning up fake episodes.”
These lines screamed at me when I was reading this interview. These are ideas I’ve mulled over since I started working in creative nonfiction/memoir. Because it’s a tough line. She makes it sound pretty clear and I think, really, it probably is. Like she says, if you don’t remember the episode, you’re just fictionalizing. If you remember it but maybe can’t conjure up the specific details of what was said, but the tone, the atmosphere, the idea of that moment is there with you, then you can reconstruct it in a way that makes sense. I’m not sure what telescoping time is–I think that’s like looking back and interpreting something from your viewpoint now. Like “at the time I didn’t realize it but he was trying to tell me he loved me” type of thing. I think I’ve waffled over the rigidity of this line because some of the writers that have influenced and inspired me are not so strict about it, and I’ve been afraid to be critical of them. Okay, him. David Sedaris has meant so much to me, and it’s difficult for me to look at his writing and sense when something’s false or exaggerated, to feel its inauthenticity. It’s not really the embellishment that rubs me wrong–a good story is a good story, and if it strikes a chord then isn’t that what we’re really going for anyways? It’s just the utter lack of acknowledgement, the flippancy of so casually throwing around the weight that comes along with stories of “real life.” Does it ruin something for memoirists to acknowledge their fictionalizations? Do they lose something to say “some of the events described here are a collage of what really happened?”
I think, really, I agree with Mary. Doing things like that–embellishing characters, compounding timelines–is taking the cheap and easy and false way out. The concept comes from what really happened; that’s the truth. To contort events and memories so that they fit the concept that sparks you as interesting, that would come from the events if they had happened this way ? Well, that’s cheating. “Because the truth is derived from what actually happened.” And giving up on that, not struggling to sort through the real events, to find the real truth, that’s cheating yourself and your reader. It’s creating false lessons on truth. It’s showing you know how to spin a story, how to spoon-feed the reader. It’s not showing you know how to sort through the muck and droll of life to find something worthwhile and meaningful.
“That’s what’s so gorgeous about humanity. It doesn’t matter how bleak our daily lives are, we still fight for the light. I think that’s our divinity. We lean into love, even in the most hideous circumstances. We manage to hope.”
“But we remember the bleakness.”
“That’s mostly what we remember.”
I don’t think this is particularly profound, but I like the sound of it. It’s very Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning. But what she’s really talking about, I think, is not going too far down the drama scale in your writing. It’s easy enough, as a writer, to sink into the description of a sad story. To really dredge up the pain and sorrow of an unfortunate event. But there’s always good. There is always the hope on the other side. That’s what makes good writing, remembering that other side, creating balance, creating a complete picture, representing real life, real humanity.
P.S. If you love Mary Karr as much as I do, you should follow her on Twitter. Her posts are a good mix of wit, sarcasm, thought, and inspiration.
That’s what’s so gorgeous about humanity. It doesn’t matter how bleak our daily lives are, we still fight for the light. I think that’s our divinity. We lean into love, even in the most hideous circumstances. We manage to hope.”
- Mary Karr, from The Paris Review‘s The Art of Memoir No. 1
While this blog languishes, the 29 x 29 Project flourishes. I made great strides in reading in May and June. This is more like the pace I was hoping to adopt as a regular thing in setting up this challenge for myself.
Also? I’m done with those pre-formatted reviews. Over it. They seemed smart to me at first, to have a template to work with so I didn’t have to think too much. But after the first few, I kind of dreaded sitting down to write one (hence some of the cricket chirps around here). So here’s just a few thoughts on the books I’ve read in the last few months. No spoilers, I promise.
I felt like the narrative plodded along pretty slowly at first. Smith builds a pretty strong foundation out of Francie’s (the protagonist) childhood, pouring great detail into her neighborhood and the penny-pinching that defined her days. It works to set you firmly within the setting, and the constant notation of the cost is tedious but does help recreate within you the mindset of the characters you’re reading about. Ultimately, Francie was endearing enough to win me over with her infectious hope and ambition. If I had read this 6 or so years ago, I probably would have related better and loved it more.
There were a lot of good things about this one: great imagery; charming characters; a well-balanced tone that’s light enough to sweep you along but holds enough weight to keep you steady. Swamplandia falls in the category of magical realism, and Russell plays that well with myths and ghost stories that feel right at home in the swamp. I wanted to love it, and many times I did, but the pacing dragged around midway and I found myself slogging through it. Still, worth the read.
I was nervous upon starting this because it’s pretty massive and, even though I felt like I read huge chunks at a time, I seldom felt like I was making progress. But I really liked it. Most of the criticisms are true–it’s often repetitive, sometimes the writing (especially dialogue and inner monologues) is weak and/or cheesy, and it feels a bit stretched out. But it’s compelling and easy enough to settle into the world–to get caught up in the little mysteries and work with the characters to put the pieces together. I’ll definitely be reading more Murakami in the future.
I don’t know why I hadn’t read this sooner. It’s a good, easy read with just enough weight to give you something to mull over. It didn’t really present me with new ideas, but reinforced and refined my thoughts on unity and balance and purpose. I think this one and my response to it is best summed up by a quote:
“Slowly this blossomed in him, was shining back at him from Vasudeva’s old, childlike face: harmony, knowledge of the eternal perfection of the world, smiling, oneness.”
I’d read this before several years ago. I remembered the gist of it, but with the movie coming out and everyone making a big fuss over the book again, I thought I’d give it another go. I’d originally not understood why everyone was so enamored with it, and I still don’t really. I mean, it’s good, duh. But I still think most people are drawn to it because the setting is glitzy and the characters are wasted half the time. It’s a fantasy world most people wish they could escape to–adults who seem to do whatever they want in their easy lives. Of course, it ends in stark realism, and that’s kind of the point. The literary snob in me wants to say that most people like it because they miss the point, but that seems pretty harsh, no?
I love this book. It’s probably the best thing I’ve read in a long while. The narrative finds a sweet spot between fantasy and reality; the prose is gorgeous without being heavy-handed. Each line is carefully crafted. Writing like this is extremely difficult–so easy to lose your reader among the flowers and flourishes of poetic prose, but Ausubel is truly masterful in her balance. It approaches a topic that has been covered countless times in a surprisingly unique narrative, one that is the best mix of comedy, romance, tragedy, and heroism.
To be fair, there’s probably no way this one could have met my expectations for it. I’d read an essay by Cheryl Strayed several years ago; it was one of those reading experiences that stays with you long after you’ve moved on to the next piece. Her words were raw and honest. As a reader I was in awe; as I writer I wondered if I’d ever be able to put myself out there so completely as she had. I realize now that a book-length work simply can’t sustain powerful writing like that–you’d be exhausted by the weighty drama of every page. So, if I’m being realistic, Wild was good and inspiring and heartfelt. It just wasn’t the masterpiece I was hoping for.
This was probably my quickest read. I soared through it in about five days. Which speaks to its readability but not really to its quality. Which it had is spades until about halfway through. It’s not that it turned dull at that point, I just felt like the writing dropped in quality. Or maybe I didn’t like the way the plot worked out. Characters that were initially interesting turned a little flat. And the ending was mildly infuriating, though I guess that’s part of the fun of this type of book.
I’m one of those people who operates in waves of enthusiasm. One month, I can. not. stop. blogging. The next, I’m taking pictures of everything. The next, I’m reading essays in every spare minute. It’s why every blog I’ve maintained has lain dormant for months at a time. It’s why our house rotates between cluttered and clean. It’s why one week we eat carefully planned meals, and the next we eat pizza and sandwiches. It’s not the most effective approach to goals and interests, and it’s an impulse I’m always trying to tame.
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with being goal-less. It’s a odd idea for me–someone who has written in this very space about how much I love goals, goal setting, goal achieving, and goal systems. But goal setting, by it’s very nature, emphasizes a certain dissatisfaction with the present; it puts you in a position where you’re always striving for the future. And that element of the goal-centered life has always been a little unsettling for me. After reading a post on Zen Habits that echoed that idea and enumerated the benefits of being goal-less, I decided to give it a try.
So for the month of June, I have no goals. Instead, I’m narrowing down what matters to me. I’m filtering out the fluff, filling up my time with meaningful pursuits–activities that pass the time and leave me with something more than spent minutes. This means I’m reading more, I’m retooling my to-dos, I’m refocusing here on The Lucy Show. I’m trying to be more involved in what truly gets me instead of just picking up anything that catches my eye.
I realize that, in a way, these are goals. But there’s no real marker. There is no “read 5 books to get back on track with 29 x 29;” or “write 6 blog posts in the next 2 weeks.” There is only “remember what matters; forget what doesn’t.”
I guess, more than anything, I’m trying to understand how I work. I always thought structure was my best friend. If I write out this specific list with these specific goals and all the specific steps to take towards said goals, then I will end up where I want to be, and I will be the person I want to be doing the things I want to be doing. And that still makes sense to me. But I’m starting to question if it’s what’s right for me.
Because I fall off the wagon a lot. Most months, I achieve about 50% of my goals. To me, that’s not bad. It’s easy to see it as “50% more than I might have achieved otherwise.” But that view also discounts everything else I might have accomplished that wasn’t on my list of goals. Sure, I know I did it. And I never really beat myself up over missed goals, especially when I know I my priorities shifted and I accomplished other as-yet-unnamed goals. But that’s what makes me think the most that this goal-free approach may, in fact, be better for me. Instead of allowing myself to accommodate new priorities as they arise by squishing them in among preset goals, why not just provide open space for them to emerge where they will?
What I’ve noticed the most this month is that, for the first time in a while, I feel like I have some stretching space. I had never consciously felt burdened by my goals–I only recognized them as a centering force, something to give me focus and keep me on track. And I’m not convinced that firmer hand isn’t more useful for me than this free-form, open-ended approach. But I’m comfortable for now. That’s enough.