12 June 2007

What I need

Now that's some title isn't it? Wouldn't life be simpler if we were all better at stating clearly what we needed? And discerning between what we truly need and what we want? I was told recently that I was receiving lessons in patience and humility.

But, to not be so serious, I followed Courtney's lead in letting Google tell me what I need. The rules are: Type "your name + needs" into Google. Although I got myriad hits the first time, the following list is a blend of various combinations of my name in the search criteria. The results are usually fun, but a few were like horoscopes -- could apply to anyone but hit very close to home at this moment.

Google says I need:

- bodyguards (Only if that crank phone caller the other day really does know where I live.)

- to write a description of herself (Look around here, people.)

- a duck to keep her company (Huh? What? Nothing to quack about.)

- a home where she will not be left alone in a yard (Apparently because of my feral background.)

- dental emergency treatment (As opposed to emergency dental treatment?)

- to either be rich or famous or navigate a confusing legal process (Two of these things belong together; one is not like the others.)

- your help on using this (I'm happy if you read and laugh along with this.)

- to learn to be gentler and less of a perfectionist (Ahem. Cough.)

- to make up her damned mind (Whatever. Give me time.)

- a French tutor (Preferably a handsome one in Paris...)

- issues addressed on the level of feelings (Abandon stoicism?)

- to blog, read a blog, or at the very least keep an open blog mind. (I'm doing that!)

- repair (The recent xrays & MRI confirmed that!)

- verbal encouragement (Or written, in comments.)

- a team (Of experts in something or other. No doctors or lawyers please.)

- to retire soon (I'd like to by age 50, but that's only happening in my dreams.)

- focusing (I embrace my adhd tendencies.)

- a shot of helium or something (How do you write that to signify a wee little voice?)

- to renew my commitment (Ahem. Cough.)

- so much light (Even when it isn't winter. Light = Joy. We all need lots of it!)

- a job (A different one, I'm assuming.)

- a group of at least 6 people, a room big enough to hold the group and a time span of at least 2 hours (And you wouldn't believe what I could do with that!)

- to keep her "Praise Jesus" routine in her church and spare her morning show audience. (I don't have a show & I'd never make it as a Pentecostal. I'm more faith+ scripture+reason than scripture+faith+emotion. Hands down, so to speak.)

- to be where the action is (As long as it doesn't involve high speed vehicular chases, violence, or anything scary.)

- needs more lips. So she's not Catherine-Zeta Jones, but she's got a nice, approachable smile nonetheless. (No comment!)

- has got to go! (Well said. The end.)

- to stop now! (Sometimes I have to be told twice!)

I think I should stick to a spiritual director for guidance on what I need, rather than the Google Oracle!

07 June 2007

Poetry Map has added a new feature to their website. Now there is a National Poetry Map. Click on the state you are interesting in and you'll be redirected to a page containing information on writers from that state and samples of their work. Additionally, there is local information such as conferences, festivals, readings and nearby bookstores. When I came across this link today, I visited several states and found interesting information. A nice place to spend a few hours on the net.

On the Indiana site, one of the featured poets is Ethridge Knight. His poem Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane is a poem that I first read about 25 years ago. I re-read it this evening; it is still just as powerful. You can read it here.

06 June 2007

A story in the brain remembered is a story forever

As I was on my way home today I thought of a short story I hadn't read in years: Ray Bradbury's All Summer In A Day. And then I thought about what I wrote yesterday about reading & Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. My remembrance of Bradbury's story, a seemingly randomness in my brain slowly drifting up to the surface of my consciousness, illustrates the point I was making in yesterday's post about how it is possible to read a work without looking at it as a literary work and considering the literary technique used in its creation.

I didn't think at all about how this very brief short story was constructed. In fact, as I thought about it, I could not have recited one line from it, told you the exact setting, or recalled the names of the main characters if the names were even given in the text. But, briefly, I was reminded about the nugget of truth in Bradbury's story and had the opportunity between stop lights to reflect on what it means in my world.

I had been listening to the radio weather report as I was reflecting on what a perfect day today was: 75 degrees, blue sky, a few clouds, slight breeze. Tomorrow we return to the abnormally hot weather we've had for the last month. It is suppose to be in the 90's, a temperature we usually don't have until August. Then, suddenly, I thought of Bradbury's story about a little girl on a planet where it rains and rains, with the sun only emerging briefly every seven years. In a gut-wrenching example of cruelty to another person, her classmates lock her in the closet during the hour of sunlight she had been awaiting desperately.

I'm sure I thought of this story because we've had such heat and there are areas that are experiencing horrendous drought. The "extreme weather" must have made those synapses fire and retrieve a story about extreme weather. Yet, that is not what Bradbury's story is about thematically. I went from thinking about too much heat, to too much rain, to the sadly too-human trait of cruelty and indifference to another's heart-felt desires. Funny how our brains work like that, isn't it?

Which lead me to thinking about how this is an example of one of the functions of literature: to make us think about experiences that aren't our own direct experiences, but to which we can relate. And we can pull that vicarious experience -- the idea of the experience -- from our grey matter sometimes years after we have read a story and think about it again, perhaps in a way completely different than our original encounter with the story.

(If you haven't read Bradbury's story, I recommend it. At less than 2000 words in length, reading it is a fine way to spend a few minutes. Although I could find copies using Google, I didn't find any site that looked like it had legit copyright permission to post. Sorry -- no link.)

05 June 2007

Reading Like A Reader

Last year, soon after it was published, I started reading reviews and blog posts about Francine Prose's book, Reading Like A Writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them". It seemed that there was no middle-ground: either the review/blogger loved the book, or he hated it. I had seen the book in the store before I had read discussion of it on-line and I had been intrigued by the title. But, I felt like I didn't need someone to tell me how to read, so it was placed back on the shelf. Later, after reading so many items about this book, I did buy a copy because I wanted to read Prose for myself.

I read the first four chapters soon after I got the book. I put the book down after those four chapters and didn't pick it up again until I read Dorothy's post a few weeks ago about it. Litlove and Stephanie also wrote about it recently. Since I was on a spree to complete several in-process books over the holiday weekend, I picked this one up & started it where I left off.

There were marks and comments in the margins of the first few chapters -- obviously I had reacted to reading the text -- but I could not remember anything significant about the book. That should have told me something about this book. I began reading it determined to complete it, and did so. Now a week later, I struggle once again to remember something distinctive in this book.

Prose's book doesn't cover anything that someone with more than one or two introductory classes in literature shouldn't have already learned. This could be an additional text for a beginning creative writing class. She dissects texts to offer up examples of fine writing, starting with the basic unit -- words -- and working her way through sentences, paragraphs, narration, etc. Some of the works she cites inarguably are examples of fine writing. Some of them, for the avid reader, are not unfamiliar, and one can appreciate Prose's efforts to find such wonderful examples to support her points.

Yet, I don't think that I learned anything new from this book. Her book may be a guide to an aspiring writer, but I think that it would have to be one who hasn't yet studied much about writing.

Is it for readers? I don't think so. I think that people who are avid readers do not need an instructive text on how a writer might approach creating a literary work. Aspiring and beginning writers might benefit. In the early chapters Prose writes about how a close reading of a text is beneficial to the writer. In fact, she suggests that this could be a better approach than a writing workshop.

I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made. And though it's impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction.

This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire. And so the book that follows represents an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.

Prose writes about how it is reading that taught her to how to write, not writing classes. She says that the writing workshop is beneficial to learn to line-edit, but it is from reading that she learned how to write. I'm not sure why, in the initial chapters, she tries to advantage the reading of good writers over writing workshops. If such workshops teach one how to line edit, isn't that also what a close word-by-word reading would do by example? Can you do one without the exposure to the other? Is this really a dichotomy that should exist?

More importantly, does this really matter to the "passionate reader"? I'm not sure that there is one way to read a work. I think that even an unschooled reader, that is one who hasn't been introduced (is indoctrinated too strong a word?) to literary studies, can certainly enjoy a work of literature without needing to be able to dissect the manner in which the writer developed the character. One can read a short story by Chekov (Prose discusses his work extensively) and enjoy the pleasure of reading a story, perhaps connecting to it on an emotional level. On a different level, the same reader could reflect on how Chekov crafted his story, analyzing the way in which it was built, the seemingly effortless technique used to develop his characters. This leads to a different appreciation of the story and a deeper understanding of Chekov as a master craftsman of the short story, but does not necessarily reflect a closer -- or better -- reading of the text. This is just a different kind of reading of the text. Prose is right that would-be writers should study the examples of well-known authors and their works in this manner, but I don't think it is a necessary approach for "people who love books".

Then again, maybe I only think this because it took me nearly 20 years after earning my Masters to detox from the academic bs that had tainted my enjoyment of reading. Sure, I can discuss works using the terms of literary analysis and criticism -- and sometimes I do in this blog. But, sometimes, there is just a sheer joy in reading and it's okay to say "Wow! That book was great!" because that's all that needs to be said.

04 June 2007

Summer Reading or The Whale

I've always been a bit curious about the idea of "beach reads" or summer reading. Do people who don't typically read readily devour books while on vacation? Are avid readers more likely to pick up a trashy, guilty-pleasure novel during July and August when the sun glares so brightly at the beach that it's difficult to read the words on the page? Would a bibliophile actually want to get greasy sunscreen marks on a book?

I don't want to discourage people from reading, but I don't know that many non-readers who suddenly become readers during the summer months. I know that in some locales it is standard to assign a Summer Reading list. I was never required to read anything over the summer when a teenager, although I do remember one summer when my older sisters (they were probably 13 or 14 and I was 9) had a contest to see who could read the most books during the summer. They happily burned through numerous paperbacks. I abandoned the contest early in my struggles with my book, a story of frontier life titled A Lantern in Her Hand. I remember nothing about the book, only its title. Now, one of my sisters reads a lot of throw-away romances and the other hardly reads anything that isn't work-related. And I read all the time. I think I'd beat them both in a rematch.

Summer tends to be a time when I seem to finish more books, but I think it has less to do with the season than it has to do with getting to the middle of the year and realizing how many books I have started. Since it's usually a ridiculously high number (approx 15 started but not finished since Jan. As I said -- ridiculous!), I typically vow to not start another book until I finish my books in progress. I usually have as much luck with that resolution as I did with the summer challenge with my sisters years ago.

I do remember one extreme reading summer. I was in summer school, trying to take as many classes as I could so I could finish my BA by December, when I was due to run out of money and had lost my funding. I took four American Lit courses -- a lower-level Modern Amer Lit survey, an upper-level American Poetry since 1945, a class on the 20th century novel (mostly Faulkner and Hemingway) and a class on Hawthorne, Melville and Poe. It was this last class that I dreaded. The professor was a stickler for good writing -- I owe most of what I learned about writing from her; any mistakes are because I have forgotten the rules, not that she didn't teach them. She was a task-master, demanding full participation and possessing highly advanced skills for ferreting out anyone who hadn't read even one page of the assignment. Imagine my fear than when I saw the reading list. Surely we wouldn't read Moby-Dick? We only had 4 weeks. But, there it was on the list: that lengthy novel with entire chapters devoted to obscurities like uses for whale blubber sprinkled amongst the hundreds of pages of absurd megalomaniacal attempts to kill a big, predatory fish.

I worked in a bar busing tables that summer. This was a bar frequented by townies, not college kids who had mostly abandoned Midwest College Town for the summer. In between slopping suds and burning fries in the fryer, I'd drink cheap beer and read a few pages. Most afternoons I spent on a beach blanket--the nearest thing resembling something to do with a beach I saw that summer--in the front yard of the dismal student rental, drinking more beer and reading Melville's masterpiece.

I loved Moby-Dick. It was the best summer "beach" read ever. I've been thinking recently that I should re-read it. Maybe I'll even read the chapters on whaling and making oil from blubber.

Reading The Road

I started reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road the other night. I've read much about this book -- both positive and negative. I haven't read much fiction this year, and although I have several other books I've started, I decided that I wanted to start yet another. Since I've been spending a lot of time with non-fiction this year, this is a definite departure from the other books I've been reading.

I've only read about 70 pages and I haven't decided yet exactly what I think about the book or McCarthy's writing style. This is the first book by him that I have attempted to read. The first sentence of the novel drew me in: "When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him." But then I stumbled when I read the next: "Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before" Dark beyond darkness? "Overwrought sentence" was my first thought; trying too hard to be poetic. But I read on. Phrases written as sentences. How can one make sense without a noun & a verb? I don't get it, at least not very easily.

But, as I continued I realized that this is a great example of a writer knowing the rules so that he can effectively break them. The disjointed phrases, the half-thought sentences do mean something. Each sentence builds upon the others to create a desolate and bleak voice. I don't like the lack of punctuation in places; I don't like that there aren't any chapter breaks. But, I do like how it all works together to form McCarthy's tale of a father and son struggling through a nightmare landscape in hopes of finding someplace that will be a refuge from the apocalypse.

I liked the following passage in which the father finds an unopened can of Coke which he gives to the boy:

What is it, Papa?
It's a treat. For you.
What is it?
Here. Sit down.
He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said.
The boy took the can. It's bubbly, he said.
Go ahead.
He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It's really good, he said.
Yes. It is.
You have some, Papa.
I want you to drink it.
You have some.
He took the can and sipped it and handed it back. You drink it, he said. Let's just sit here.
It's because I wont ever get to drink another one, isnt it?
Ever's a long time.
Okay, the boy said.

In just a few short sentences, the reader understands that the drink is not just a treat, but a gift. The father doesn't want to hurt his son's feelings when his son wants to share, so he obligingly takes a small sip, but he wants for his son to enjoy it. Through the boy's realization of what a singular gift this is, McCarthy depicts how bleak and barren their world is.

Ever's a long time the father says.
And the boy knowingly agrees.

I look forward to reading more of this book and I'm sure I'll post about it again.

02 June 2007

Away From Her/The Bear Came Over the Mountain

A few months ago, one of my reading groups selected Alice Munro's collection of short stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage for its monthly selection. I had the book on my shelves for a few years, but had never finished reading it. About a year ago, one issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review had featured Munro and I found the articles interesting. I was looking forward to discussing Munro's work with the group.

I was surprised that nobody in the group liked Munro. How could they not? I thought. I passionately made my case for Munro: the clearly defined characters, succinct, accurate description that vividly creates an image, a sparseness of setting that perfectly echos not only the physical but also the emotional landscape, stories about women that are true to the core. They all agreed, but still, they found Munro's work to be depressing in its achingly raw truthfulness. My fellow readers found the women characters to be real, but they didn't want to live their lives. Reading one story after the other was too much.

I can understand that sentiment. I like reading one or two stories at a time, not an entire collection. Maybe that's why it takes me a few years to work my way through a collection of short stories. Munro's stories certainly demand such reading. Her stories are best read individually, and perhaps, with significant time in between each reading least the reader burn out from reading so much heartache, loneliness and real life.

By the time my book group met, I had not finished all of the stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, including the last one in the volume, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain". Soon after that meeting, I heard that this story was being made into a film. Away From Her opened recently and, based on its 95 rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the strength of Munro's work, I went to see it today. I think this is an excellent movie. Although the story is gut-wrenching at times, the film doesn't stoop to melodramatic sentiment. While the subject is similar, this isn't The Notebook.

Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) have been married for 45 years and Fiona is losing her mind to Alzheimer's Disease. Fiona enters a nursing home and is separated from Grant for the first time in their marriage. He is unable to visit for the first month. Rather than be confused as to why her husband hasn't visited, Fiona forgets her husband and falls in love with another patient. The movie, though, isn't just about Alzheimer's. It is about the curve balls that life throws at you and how you deal with it over time. It is about loss, and about love refined by the trials of a long marriage.

Directory Sarah Polley said this about the type of love portrayed in the movie:
It was the opposite kind of love than we usually celebrate in films, which is new love without knowledge and without hardship. It's the whole idea of love after life has had its way with you, and after you have kind of failed each other and things have gone off the rails. Yet love still somehow exists between them." - 2007 AP interview on "Away From Her", as quoted on
I think Polley achieves this in this film. The love between Grant and Fiona is immense; after Fiona forgets Grant, his love for her continues unabated.

Julie Christie's performance in the film is remarkable, as are the performances of Gorden Pinsent and Olympia Dukakas. Like the characters in Munro's story, the characters in the film realistically struggle with their lives. Dialog is used in the movie to convey ideas presented in the short story as dreams or past events, but the screenplay nicely handles these without being too preachy. The scenery in the film plays a part too; shots of the cold, snowy Canadian countryside seem to echo Christie's character's confusion and loneliness.

After I returned from the movie this afternoon, I retrieved Munro's book from the bookshelves and read "The Bear Came Over the Mountain". Although a few insignificant changes were made-- necessitated most likely by the medium --
the film is true to the story. Like Munro's story, the film is stark, yet compelling in the manner in which Munro accurately depicts the plight of Alzheimer's patients. The screenplay is also true in sticking to the same narrative as Munro's story, with one small exception that I found jarring. Towards the end of the film, the nurse who has been helpful to Grant throughout his wife's stay at the nursing home, condemns his past affairs. While Grant is remorseful about it, he had put it in the past until his wife's deteriorating memory begins to focus things in the past. Kristy, the nurse, pointedly tells him that his behavior is typically male, that maybe his life only seemed okay to him, but not to his wife. This seemed out of character for the nurse to say, given her nurturing to both her patients and to Grant. At first I thought these words were exactly what one would expect a Munro character to speak. But, this scene is not in the story. On reflecting on it after reading the story, I think that this scene states explicitly what Munro's stories typically only imply. In that regard, it seemed out of place, but not entirely out of context with the story.

I would recommend seeing this movie and reading Munro's story.

01 June 2007

Flow and Non-flow (writers' block)

It's been nearly a month since I posted. I hadn't realized it had been quite so long, although I know I have thought for days that I should post something. Yet, I couldn't find the motivation to write, even when I had topics I knew I could post.

I recently read Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Published in 1998, but building on years of his work, Csikszentmihalyi's book is about finding "flow experiences" in one's life, those ecstatic, exciting moments when one feels an energized sense of accomplishment and mastery. Csikszentmihalyi describes it as this:
The metaphor of "flow" is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as "being in the zone", religious mystics as being in "ecstasy", artists and musicians as aesthetic rapture. Athletes, mystics, and artists do very different things when they reach flow yet their descriptions of the experience are remarkably similar.
I think that ecstasy and rapture are apt words to describe this feeling. There is an energizing --almost electrifying -- feeling when one finishes a creative work. I might struggle with writing a poem or a blog post, but when I'm ready to call it done, the emotion is one of not just accomplishment, but also one of pleasure and satisfaction. Similarly, I can perform a task such as cooking that might bring me a similar experience in some situations. At the end of a long day, it is just a chore, a necessity to provide myself and my family with a suitable meal. Some days it's even a difficult task just to order the pizza and drive 3 more miles in rush hour traffic! Flow doesn't occur for me in this instance. But, on a weekend, when I am not rushed, when I can actually plan to cook, rather than simply to prepare, I love being in the "zone". I can get lost in the activity as it becomes something more than just a task.

I think about the so-called "runners' high", a sense of euphoria produced by the release of brain chemicals. As our knowledge of the brain grows, I wonder if scientist won't find biochemical changes in our brain when we experience "flow"? Helen Fisher (who I wrote about here) has done research into brain activity when one is "in love". If discernible differences are identifiable in medical tests (MRIs) when one has "fallen in love",why wouldn't our brains do something similar when we are engaged in an activity that makes us feel good?

There is a lot in this short book to ponder; having read this following reading a few books and articles about culture and arts, and thinking about the "culture wars", feminism, post-modernism and spirituality (yes -- my head starts to hurt sometimes!), I'm sure that there is much I might say about "flow" in both creative and quotidian endeavors, certainly more than what I will write about this evening. But, as I sat down to write a post this evening -- fully intending to write about beginning Cormac McCarthy's The Road -- I was struck by one thing in Csikszentmihalyi's book and how it applies to not writing.

Csikszentmihalyi defines as a requirement for a being able to produce a flow experience that the activity have a degree of challenge and mental engagement. I think this can be applied to writing and writers' block. I don't think that someone would write if they didn't experience immense satisfaction in the end product. I think that all writers must experience "flow", though not necessarily every time they write. (Csikszentmihalyi has done research regarding flow & creativity and, although he does touch upon it in this book, he does a deep dive into it in other works.)

The problem is, though, that to get to that level of "flow", one needs to work very hard. Especially when your inner critics are telling you that what you are writing is a piece of junk, it can be extremely difficult to find the motivation to write. Frequently, it doesn't seem worthwhile. Avoidance sinks in, followed by thoughts like "Why do I even bother?", or sometimes impulsive behaviors to abandon or destroy the work in progress. How many times have I thought in the last month "If I don't write something today, I might as well just sign in to Blogger and say 'goodbye'"? (Obviously, I didn't.)

The more one procrastinates in beginning to write, the more difficult it becomes to write. The anxiety produced can be strong enough to deter one from continuing onward. The mental engagement can be daunting. Yet, if you work through the anxiety (or despite it), you are likely to eventually experience "flow". Then, the hard work seems worth it. I wonder if there isn't a negating experience that can happen, something within our brain that stops us from pursuing an activity that might bring us happiness?

Maybe writers' block is the antithesis of flow.