Sunday, December 30, 2012

Brushstrokes


One more day left in the Year of Being Brave.  Yesterday, I got out of bed and looked out the window and was shocked into full consciousness by the sight of a little red-breasted bird sitting on one of the crystalline branches right in front of me.  That little streak of red on an otherwise white, glittering world reminded me that so much of winter in Wyoming lies in brushstrokes: the planar snow, the dusky shadows of the trees, the days that lack dimension as layer of layer of snow fold down vs. the days that  are etched in true bluebird blue.  Those days dawn with an almost shocking clarity.  When I lived in Seattle, those skies -- so full of pigment -- were one of the main things I missed about home.  The dense, mysterious snowstorms have their own beauty, however, not least being the anticipation of skiing fresh powder...

It's time to set a goal for next year, but I'm not sure what it will be yet.  Last year, it came to me on a wan, sunny morning as I sat on a bench on Orcas Island, facing the water.  That's when The Year of Being Brave declared itself as the goal and the mission for 2012.  Like anything, the grandiose title was truly a product of incremental changes and decisions, as well as setbacks, because, well, that's life, isn't it?  This year has tested me in ways that I couldn't have imagined: some of it has led me to immense happiness and pride, and some to sadness and discouragement.  One of the oddest things that occurred was that life began to imitate art, the very art I'd set out to create.  It's a bit eerie.  Someday I'd love to share that story, but first things first: the book.

I tabulated today, and the first draft is very close to done.  Of course, after that there will be days and weeks and months (??!?) of polishing and reconfiguring and quilting together the two narratives.  But the actual writing part is definitely on the wane.  At this point, I am happy to report that I am as comfortable in the skin of my second character as I was with my first.  If anything, she has become my virtual stand-in -- the more neutral, dispassionate voice.  I wrote a love scene for her today and felt almost suspicious of myself.  Was I subconsciously writing it for myself?  Hard to say.  I have learned through this process that spending so much time with one work is often glorious rather than limiting.  So much expansion is possible, so many tangents (even if I need to edit them out later).  Overall, the process is more freeing than expected.  So, yay!  Onwards...

Friends, so many of you have accomplished amazing feats this year.  What are your goals and purposes for the coming year?  I'd love to hear.  In the meantime, I'll wait for that stroke of clarity that will hopefully arrive on the morning of January 1.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Ugly Truth About Writing, and Thank You


 
I am currently backing up my hard drive.  You mean, you've had a novel on your laptop, 6 years' worth of writing, photographs, music...and your laptop is from 2006 and incredibly slow...and you've never once backed it up?  Nope.  Haven't.  Stop looking at me weird.  Although, the novel has been living in Dropbox since the spring, and I have used one of those online back-up thingamabobs.  I remain a technology neophyte in many ways.

A task such as backing up one's laptop always leads to the most delightful writerly navel-gazing.  In succession, I opened languishing Word documents entitled "Dream Transcripts," "The Savage Dentist," and "Even the sound of cars driving by is hurtful after the end of a relationship."  Raw. Ouch.  Like the true hoarder I am, I suddenly felt pained to even transfer these long-forgotten and yet obviously beloved documents to the external hard drive in order to delete them from the laptop and thus free up much-needed memory.  I suppose, at heart, every hoarder feels a sense of psychological ease in knowing that something will stay and live where it has always lived, instead of the "banishment" of storage, deletion, or (unspeakable!) actually throwing it away.  This exact drama had a preview as I felt pangs thinking of storing even one box of books or papers in my parents' garage, despite the fact that I haven't yet scratched the surface of unpacking them.  I had bought that used copy of W.H. Auden's Selected Poems, and now, in the dead of winter, on CHRISTMAS DAY, a rat was probably going to chew through its center, and then I would have never really read Auden, and his Modernist words would be masticated and forever lost to me.  This line of thinking would occur with each book.

Another thing I save with a hoarders' obsession are the drafts of stories that I wrote in grad school and submitted to workshops.  I save every single copy that was annotated by professors and fellow students: many covered with loopy script, and even personal, page-long comments sheets addressed as letters.  Same thing goes for the comments my writers' group of 3 years in Seattle was kind enough to bestow upon me.  The last time I really looked at some of these comments--some dating from the very first quarter of grad school--it struck me that in that period of my life, I received the most validation and well-wishing and good old-fashioned understanding of my writing than at any other time before or since.  I am aware of the flurry of critiques that surround MFA programs, and I have found myself on both sides of the debate.  Still, it is a special time: when you are a serious person in a serious city, writing late into the night, printing out multiple copies, receiving engaged attention, even when it is salted liberally with criticism.  For me, it was a time that made sense.  Not in every way.  But in one important way.  Each day, I do the thing I am best at doing.  Each day, others witness it.  Others care.  I cared about them, too.  Some of the writers I worked with at the University of Washington became my dearest friends (holla!) and through its hive of networking, I connected with the three fabulously talented women who traded work informally with me for several years.  Some of my colleagues wrote indelible stories and poems that I still think about, even if it has been years since I've seen them.

When I speak of the "ugly truth," what I mean is that, as any writer knows, the image of Hemingway and Fitzgerald drinking gin fizzes at a cafe table in Paris while also casually writing masterpieces on their napkins and/or moleskin journals is simply not a real thing that occurs.  Take me, for example--maybe not writing a masterpiece, but plugging away nevertheless.  Mostly, I am unglamorously dressed.  (The nice thing about living in a cold place is that you can wear a hat all the time).  I write on a Saturday night.  My dog seems confused by what I am doing.  I dream about my characters more than real people I know.  I set aside a day of unfettered writing and end up reading a book about the history of marriage until noon.  I queue up the novel and then hear the opening score to Downtown Abbey downstairs and spring from my bed in a second.  Truly Pavlovian.  I write.  And also, I don't write.  Or I write content for jobs, which are not novel-related.  The secret shame about working on a big project is that you've said "Goodbye!  I am off to make my fortune!" and you have been waved off and embraced and supported. And every day is a litmus test as to your commitment to the goal.  Some are banner days, and some are struggles--especially that old, beastly struggle of the will.

So, this is where I get to the "thank you" part.  Sometimes, I barely recognize myself.  Like an adolescent in limbo, I no longer live on my own (aka with the best roommate in the history of the world, ever); I no longer go out much; I no longer dress up (although I wear waaayyyy more hats); my evening calendar is often bare; I watch more television than I have in almost 10 years (unfortunate confession, but the fact that a show called "Duck Dynasty" exists has sadly not escaped my notice); I read about the same amount, but with a sense of guilt that I really ought to be writing my own words; I no longer report to the same office at the same time every day (give or take an hour); I no longer see the majority of the people that have provided my everything-or-close-to-it for the past seven years.  It's hard to know, without enough perspective, if all of these changes are bad or good, although certainly none of them have to be permanent.  I am not unhappy.  Sometimes, I feel happier than ever.  But, still.  Often I am confused and discouraged and demoralized, traded off equally with being ecstatic and purposeful and hopeful. I suppose there is no way to know what this time has meant until it is over, and the novel is done.  And even then, so much is uncertain.

So, thank you, friends from near and far.  And family, too (of course).  Every time you ask me how my novel is going, or we talk novel-shop, you comment on my blog, or you tell me that what I am doing is inspiring to you, it adds one more drop to the bucket of this is a time that makes sense.  Every time we talk in general, whatever it's about, my heart is gladdened and lightened.  The work is made real.  It seems less like the undertaking of an underemployed 29-year-old woman in her pajamas, and more like a valid project, and a dream that is worthwhile to pursue.  Obviously I wouldn't have come to Jackson if I didn't already believe that, but as obstacles rear themselves along the way, it is still heartening to remember.  I am so fortunate to have this time, to have the support to make it happen, and to have all of you.  Thank you.  Even though I am thousands of miles away, I could not do this without you.

P.S.  Miss you.  Love living vicariously through all of your news and adventures!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Just Shelved


The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and LossThe Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You may want to become familiar with the words "vitrine" and "bibelot" before beginning this marvelous journey into the past and into objects.  They come up a lot.  Indeed, de Waal does not shy away from rarefied diction throughout, but his artistic choices seem altogether suited to his subjects, which include Paris, Vienna, Impressionism, Proust, dynastic families, what it means to be a collector, post-War Tokyo, and what, exactly, happened to his own powerful Jewish family's legacy in the wake of World War II.  Oh, yes, and this is also a book about netsuke--marvelous, rare, and yet simultaneously quotidian Japanese objects.  Their journey into de Waal's hands is remarkable.  His reflections on what it means for them to have been first collected, then displayed, and finally, passed down, are equally remarkable.  Never completely comfortable with the easy angle, de Waal's own ambivalence often soaks onto the page, and while some reviewers have found this frustrating, I found it absolutely authentic.  Trusting the reader to draw his/her own conclusions, de Waal's nevertheless takes us on a entirely unique journey.  I highly recommend this book.

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TracksTracks by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another stunning, indelible book from Erdrich.  What can I say, this book saw me through a dark hour.


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ArcadiaArcadia by Lauren Groff
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Two stars seems a bit harsh for a book that is quite well-written and populated with rounded, unique characters.  However, of the three Groff titles I have read, this novel was the least strong, and though I finished it quickly, I really resisted her choice to tell the entire tale in the present tense.  It made the whole novel, especially the beginning, seem hazy and overly precious.  I'm still waiting for the gorgeous, darker novel that I feel is up Groff's sleeve.  In the meantime, I hope to read more of her sparkling short fiction.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Potent Quotables

After the passing of poet Jack Gilbert, my friend Jessica wrote a beautiful tribute to him on her blog, and mentioned that his Paris Review interview was one of her favorites. Intrigued, I read it myself, and it's full of wisdom and just the kind of love we should wish from great artists.  Here is my favorite quote:

"I think serious poems should make something happen that’s not correct or entertaining or clever. I want something that matters to my heart, and I don’t mean “Linda left me.” I don’t want that. I’ll write that poem, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being in danger—as we all are—of dying. How can you spend your life on games or intricately accomplished things? And politics? Politics is fine. There’s a place to care for the injustice of the world, but that’s not what the poem is about. The poem is about the heart. Not the heart as in “I’m in love” or “my girl cheated on me”—I mean the conscious heart, the fact that we are the only things in the entire universe that know true consciousness. We’re the only things—leaving religion out of it—we’re the only things in the world that know spring is coming." --Jack Gilbert
We are also the only things in the entire universe who know winter is coming.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Winter's Teeth

It seems only yesterday that I was rhapsodizing about autumn.  Then this happened:
video
You may be able to make out the Wyoming flag flapping in the breeze.  A metallic edge is in the air and crystals are forming on our windshields at night.  In high school, I drove my sister to school in the mornings and we were always running so late (totally my fault) that I would scrape the tiniest little square using my driver's license and then force her to roll down the window and watch the edge of the road as we careened into the school parking lot and tried to make it to class before the 7:55 bell.  We were successful about 50% of the time.  Scraping a windshield in 10 degree weather on a dark, moonless morning with snow clogging the bottom of your flats? Probably not the most romantic part of Wyoming.  But, of course, even with the trees bared and the grasses grayed, a beauty of desolation remains.

In the past two weeks, a lot of things have happened, some of which I am choosing not to write about here.  I visited my grandfather and family in Dayton, Ohio; I started reading a book about the tracing of a family heritage through objects.  I started writing a children's book.  I wrote a description of Seymour, Indiana for a hotels website.  I want to write at length about stories and families and the beautiful sculptures of glass, light, and stainless steel that I saw at the Dayton Art Museum. Several friends have been blessed with new joys, and some have met new griefs. And, the other things that have happened...well, they have renewed my gratitude for life and for the people I love in ways I could not have imagined.  It truly is a gift, this life, and being able to see it as a gift...well, at the risk of sounding trite, that's a gift, too.

Also, I got a library card.


One thing I love about my life here is the repetition of my walks.  Readers of this blog may even notice that many photographs are taken from the same areas.  Each time I tackle Game Creek or Cache Creek
or what is fondly known in town as "the high school butte," I feel rewarded with the incremental changes to the landscape I see.  Geese were migrating, and now four swans are flapping by like white linen on a windy day.  No more two-stepping herons in the field; but on a still night, the coyotes whine.  The yellow leaves I love are also gone, but in their place are bundles of ice, binding the grass together in little clumps, little secrets.  The stars, even, seem colder and more inscrutable.  The characters in my book feel ignored; they, too, are cold and fractious and on edge.  That's what this in-between season is all about.  It's about the portent of changes, and oddly, amidst the tumult, about settling in.  It will be a long winter.  Better keep writing.  Better keep walking.  Better keep pausing to say thank you, under my breath, and yet loud enough for the world to hear.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

More Publication News!

My story, "Going," is now up at DISTRICT.  Check it out HERE.  This is the first of two stories that will be featured at this rad literary magazine.  Not only is the work great, but the editor was gracious enough to track me down on Facebook and ask me for a story.  That never happens!  Until now.  So, needless to say, I am a huge fan.  Enjoy reading!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Publication News!

I am excited that one of my stories, "Edward Hopper's Women," is the first piece of fiction being featured by the lovely and Seattle-based Pacifica Literary Review!  Go and check it out HERE.  I wrote the first draft of this story in 2009 and polished it up for publication afterwards.  It's oh so nice to see it in print.

I've also had two stories accepted by District, another brand spanking new and high quality literary publication.  I'll be sure to link to those stories as they go up!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pause

A few minutes ago, I wrote the final paragraph of one the character's stories in my novel.  I've been with her voice since Day One, and although it sounds hokey to say it, she is the one that I've written the novel for--if it wasn't for her stubborn, insistent voice, I wouldn't be where I am now.  I'm a bit superstitious about spilling too many of the beans about the book or its characters, but I can share that I've long planned to have two interwoven sections: one with her, and one following another, related character.  It's all planned out in my head (except, of course, for all the lovely digressions that end up being the best writing), and yet...as I double-spaced and typed in the subject header of "Part Two," I found myself at a loss.  I'm entering a new phase in the drafting process, and while I am excited because it means that the book is moving forward, towards where I want it to go, I feel what I think is probably a normal fear that I won't be able to sustain this switch in point of view and tone.  I worry that I'll miss the heady composition process from the point of view of my first character, whose very tics of speech and taste are so clear to me, it's almost as if I've ridden in a car with her for days, listening to her unbroken monologue.  Suddenly: silence, with all its pregnant expectation and blankness.  I realized, while facing down that daunting "Part Two," that I needed to come here and write about being afraid to press on...so that I can actually press on.  These are uncharted writing waters for me.  What if I write past the point of comfort, past the point of a neat ending?  What if I just keep going?  Well, I suppose it's time to find out.  Gulp.
***
Another note: I haven't unpacked most of my books, but was restlessly rooting through my boxes of unread tomes, trying to unearth something compelling for my next read.  I found this little James volume (pictured above), which I believe I purchased as one of a dozen during a Seattle Public Library sale.  I felt it came back to my notice for a reason, so voila, I am now reading it.  And, hello, double negatives and strings of dependent clauses.  An imitation late Jamesian sentence: "It was not that she had not noted the effect she had produced on him, even while being unsure of the effect being altogether something that she could have produced, had she been aware of being able to produce effects, but then she was of a type wholly used to the assumption that when an effect had been made, surely at its heart, an intention had lain behind it."  Of course, psychologically, not so inane at all, but the style is incredibly dense.  I feel I must stick with it, however, due to the charming Hug Coupon bookmark that I found inside.  The paperback edition itself is from the 50's, and a prior owner had gone through and hand-taped the spindly pages back to the spine.  At a guess, I'd say the "coupon" dates from the same era.  On the back is written: Clayton, 11:15 Wed. at Carol James - audition for "Noah"on-camera industrial.  This one's for you, Clayton.  I hope you got that part.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Just Shelved

George Eliot: The Last VictorianGeorge Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very delightful and thorough biography of Marian Evans/Lewes. I'm not sure the lay reader who hasn't read at least two of Eliot's works would enjoy it, but the textual interplay between art and life was really fun to uncover. I think I actually enjoyed the beginning sections of the book when Evans was still finding her way towards fiction the most. Many fascinating letters survive from this time. One real tragedy is that no letters survive between Eliot and her longtime companion George Henry Lewes. Surely one of the most enduring and passionate literary love stories of all time, between such unlikely figures! Alas. I bet they wrote some great letters. However, still highly recommend this biography for any fan of Eliot and the Victorians!

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Monday, October 1, 2012

Rounding the Seasons


A couple of days ago, I found myself longing for a specific poem about autumn.  I knew I had read it before, and that it was a well-known, oft-anthologized work.  I riffled through my memory, recalling that the poem was infused with a sense of drowsiness, the sharp smell of a cider press, the subtle-sweet scent of autumn's glorious decay.  Was it Yeats?  Something about gold, or another poem about the beloved "quiet one"?  Was it Dylan's young boy, singing in his chains by the sea?

But no, the poem I sought was Keats' "To Autumn."  "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" it begins, full of praise and exhortation.  There is a cider press, and a winnowing wind, and the long locks of autumn, golden in the sun.  The poem is infused with a honeyed sense of time, with languour, with, really, all those lovely -our words that signify leisure and slow time.   It sounds a bit like the autumn I am inhabiting right now--one I have not experienced in this specific setting for eleven years.  And oh, how worthy of an ode it is.

I smelled the first intimations weeks ago as I hiked into the Teton Range with my family on a very hot and sunny day.  The soft, sweet smell of the yellowing heart-shaped aspen leaves immediately conjured the first signs of an autumn I had completely forgotten.  I thought of all of the poets who have dedicated their work to each of the four seasons, and I listened to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons"--the alternating frenzy and light strings of a year's passage.  In all the years of living elsewhere, autumn was always the season I had missed.  And how could I really say I had come home again until I experienced its return--right here?  I realize now that we can never truly love--or know--a place until we have experienced it in its roundness.  Every day is a gradation in color, every day adds a new, delicate tine to the comb of the chilling breeze.  Every day is a revelation.

This morning, I drove the curve of the highway, returning home towards town, and saw the crest of the Grand Teton peeking out over mellow, pastoral hills and fields, its crags just rinsed in snow.  My soundtrack for the drive--Prokofiev's "Romeo & Juliette"--swelled with grandeur during my favorite portion of the score, which I will unashamedly admit is the ultra-romantic balcony love theme.  (So beautiful!)  Ah, yes, there loomed my beloved.  Sighted with full orchestra accompaniment.  There have been so many moments like this for me in the past month that startle me into feeling vibrantly alive and full of an intense, heart-pressing gratitude for being here at this moment in time.  For seeing this place that has been relegated into memory for eleven years through a newly-discovered season, and a newly-discovered me breathing within it.


***
(I realize all of these blogs from Jackson have ended on somewhat of a heart-swelling note of effusion so far, but what can I say?  Effusive seems to be the name of the game for me right now...  As Modest Mouse would say, Blame It On the Tetons.)

(

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Self-Education

Excavating some old journals, I found these entries from Past Kirsten:

Wednesday, 6-22-94 (11 years old)

Today at Kidzart Camp we acted out the passageway of death in Greek Mythology.  I got really interested so I went to the library and checked out a book about all the Greek Gods, Goddesses and mortal heroes.  So far my favorites have all been goddesses or women.  Here are some of them: Artemis, Athena, Cassandra, Demeter, Hera (and two more I can't remember).  A lot of the goddesses + women were helpless, but these women were smart and often beat men.

Thursday, 5-11-95 (12 years old)

I have been writing every day for a week today.  Today was pretty regular.  I have also decided not to be so studious.  I am not saying that I'll never do my homework or anything like that.  I'll still try to get A's and good grades on tests but just to be more loose and not feel pressured to do schoolwork all the time.  I desperately want a pair of brown or forest green or white or dark blue corduroys.  I also need a bra that doesn't always show the straps.  Socks too!

Friday, 5-12-95

I can't wait until Monday because we get to go on our band trip.  The day we've been promised for so long is finally coming near.  I am going to bring my discman and have a seat by myself since I'm not much of a talker on road trips.  I have had a pretty good day.  Nicole is spending the night tonight.  In fact my day has been pretty exciting today.  More in other journals.  (Because I actually had six at the time.)

Friday, 12-22-95

Dear Signifa (I had now named the diary),

Only 3 more days till Christmas!  I know I'm being a bit materialist but I think everyone is in a small way.  Today I read a lot of Emily of New Moon.  It's a very sweet and good book.  We went to a friend's house which was sort of fun (being completely honest.)  I stayed up till 12:00 watching a movie about a dysfunctional family and I got a new book from Caroline, The Scarlet Letter.  I can already tell that I'm going to love it!  Each phrase drips with beautiful, rich words and it seems to be an inhuman struggle with pain and suffering which always appeals to me!  Ciao!
***
While visiting beautiful Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island a month ago, I took a George Eliot biography from the leave-a-book, take-a-book shelf.  Now two days into an immersion and reconnection with one of my favorite novelists--especially from my formative years--I have enjoyed the portions I've devoured thus far regarding Eliot's youth.  Painfully gifted, exceedingly self-critical, and yet immensely motivated to win approval (and love), I think her story might ring a few bells of recognition for most of us adults that grew up as bookish, shy, and awkward children.  I know it certainly does for me!

I include most of of these old diary entries of mine simply because they make me laugh, but I was also surprised, on looking through some of my old journals and papers (being a prodigious diarist at the time) at how--alongside the predictably hilarious laments about acne and sixth grade crushes--I was clearly preoccupied with my school success and fledgling intellectual endeavors , holding myself to a rigid standard of excellence.  Of course this makes sense, as at the time I was a plain and oft-teased girl without the charms of bubblyness and prettiness that usually endear little girls to adults and peers.  I was too tall and had little to no interest in sports or other rowdy games.  Any extant picture from that time has been shoved into the deepest, darkest drawer of my old desk, so you'll just have to take my word for it: picture a stork with a pot belly, bowl cut, braces, and huge round glasses.  Banded together with the few friends I had (all of whom were also bookish, and remain close friends to this day), I found that the one thing I could do was schoolwork.  I loved to read (of course), and alongside this, I had an ambitious streak, and found that mastering schoolwork was the sole route available to me for distinguishing myself and winning praise.  Because, oh yes, like anyone, I loved praise.  I was not in it merely for the joy of learning.  It surprises me to find diary entries dating back to the 4th grade in which I recorded staying up until nearly midnight in order to study and complete assignments.  Fourth grade!  Apparently, I have been working on those procrastination and cramming skills for a very long time.

Reading itself, however, was an enduring joy.  I remember clearly the summer I spent obsessed with the Greek myths.  At my insistence, Dad took me to the local library, where I checked out a ponderous cloth-bound volume entitled A Dictionary to All Greek and Roman Mythologies.  I turned page after page of myths, laboriously cross-referencing the goddesses and heroes mentioned with the appendix in the back.  I encountered a lot of "Rapes" in this endeavor.  The Rape of Proserpine.  The Rape of Leta.  Huh, I thought at the time, but in all these pictures it just looks like someone's picking a woman up and carrying her around.  (I hadn't really figured out the illustrations or statuary depictions yet.)  I penned a little skit about being a messenger from the Underworld and wrote many small poems from the point of view of gods and goddesses.  In other words, I was in total adolescent nerd heaven.

I also remember how the early classics I read completely walloped me, especially the Brontes.  I loved Jane Eyre so much, I felt she might be a literary stand-in for myself.  I related especially to her feelings of mousiness, smallness, and inhibition.  At the same time, her radical bravery and demand for egalitarian love inspired me, and gave me hope that despite what I felt to be my unlovable exterior, my inner worth might someday be discovered.  I would surmise that any young person reading such a book at such an age might have similarly powerful feelings of identification with the young narrator.  Indeed, the novel is most enjoyable to read as a young person, in my opinion.  This set off a programme that continued through my early college years of "serious" fiction and poetry reading.  Interested only in what the Canon deemed the Classics, I scanned lists with titles such as "100 Best Books of the 20th Century" and "100 Greatest Novels," starred the books that looked interesting, and then read them one by one as my pleasure reading, or on summer holidays.  For a long time, I turned up my nose at contemporary, and most American literature, preferring instead to plod through a random selection of world literature greats.  Thank goodness, too!

Kathryn Hughes' biography of Eliot does bring to mind colors of my own girlhood and self-education in literature.  Eliot's self-education is a whole other marvel in erudition and intellectual rigor, so mine pales considerably in comparison, as does my intellect, of course.  A George Eliot is only born once or twice a century.  However, reacquainting myself with her august, looming presence over English literature, and over my own influences as a writer, I realize that in my childhood efforts, Eliot was just the sort of person I sought to copy.  More so than any writer, even writers whose works have moved me equally, and on a more adult footing, Eliot, the Brontes, and Austen were my original authorial heroines.  They were the first authors who affirmed for me that even someone obscure, plain (because I remained obsessed with this self-fashioning for many years), and even unpleasant could become "great" and be remembered for years to come.  And, I should mention, reading of the young Eliot, I am reminded of how arrogant and often priggish I could be as a girl--inflating my sense of self-importance in accordance with my belief that only great people could understand a soul such as my own.  That self is certainly the most painful to remember now that I have entered a well-adjusted adulthood and have long been reconciled to my own limits of intellect and influence.  As I said, there can only be one or two Eliots, and luckily, after about the age of 14, I cooled down a bit with my pumped up self-opinion and became a more pleasant, social, and (interestingly) less obsessive person.

Still, I have been interested in revisiting this long-buried childhood self because it was this same stubborn girl that chose writing as her metier at the age of six and insisted through the twenty-three intervening years that this was the thing--the thing I was destined to do.  I suppose, after all this time, that I am still invested in believing that girl.  I have to be.  This year I'm supposed to be doing the thing for real, for keeps.  I am starting to say it, more and more.  "I am a writer."  I have doubted myself many times, especially through my unfocused and pleasure-loving twenties, but here I am, alone, away from most of my friends and the urban center I've called home for six years.  I'm sitting here in my parents' house, sequestered with a book and journal and computer, and I am writing.  Painfully, and sometimes joyfully, I am doing the thing.  Ironic, isn't it, how our younger selves are so foolhardy and yet so full of fierce belief?  If I had given young me the (totally true) spiel about how hard it is to be published these days and how the state of publishing is perilous and how it's so hard to find time to write, she would have looked back at me, blinking behind those gigantic wireframes, and said So?  You just have to do it.  Her blind, arrogant, and foolish belief is, in many ways, exactly what I need.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Just Shelved


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As anyone familiar with Strayed's advice column at The Rumpus, Dear Sugar, can tell you, Strayed has an immensely appealing voice--the kind that is emotional, but not cloying; generous, but not over-the-top.  I always love her columns, and several of them have brought tears to my eyes with their ability to truly address those in pain with understanding, wisdom, and what can only be described as love: the kind of love miraculous in its non-specificity.  The kind of love that only rare people feel for every other human who walks the earth. A kind of Gandhi Redux, if you will.

I am happy to report that this same appealing voice is present in Wild, Strayed's memoir about a transformative period of her life spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.  Appealing, yes, and a book I finished in just a few sittings.  However, Wild pales considerably in comparison to memoirs and travelogues I've read recently that marshaled a more superlative power of description, a more expansive ability to draw conclusions, and an even rawer revelation of the self.  I don't think Strayed intends to enter the company of writers such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, W.G. Sebald, or Maggie Nelson (whose book, Bluets, is far more fractured in its method of excavating a festering emotional wound).  Nevertheless, I think a truly great tale of the road should illuminate all that is visible and something else--something less tangible, but important nevertheless.  They should illuminate something eternal, even within a landscape that is always in flux, or within memory, which is fluid by its very nature.

I'm not even sure what I am asking for...  Wild is a friend you would enjoy hiking with for the day.  The greatest writing on nature and voyages of self and world discovery are like Strayed's cherished copy of The Dream of a Common Language: those are the books that you cannot burn and leave behind, even when the hiking is done.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Close Encounters of the Moose Kind

video
I took the above video in order to illustrate the peacefulness of the swaying aspens outside of our living room window, but what ended up coming through more ominously was the seemingly amplified ticking of the living room clock.  This winsomeness doth tend towards time-wasting, the clock seemed to declare, and I have to admit, it had a point.  I am under the gun, so to speak.  The Year of Being Brave has a timeline that can run out: it is a finite goal, and when I am tempted to treat my time here as just one long lollygagging vacation, the truth is that time looms large.  And so, I have responded with internal deadlines of my own: setting dates that characters' arcs will be completed and a date when I want to be done drafting and headed into revising (around December).

Two nights ago, I made the ill-advised decision to climb the small butte behind our house in the waning twilight.  I was treated to some spectacular sunset views at the top:

However, on the way down, I quickly realized my error in attempting to dismount in the encroaching darkness on a switchbacking trail wearing flimsy Tom's (total non-local move).  Using my phone as a flashlight, I stumbled down, taking twice as long as it would normally take, and set off on the bike path that curves through most of the valley and provides a beloved trail for bikers, dog walkers, and foolish pedestrians walking home in neighborhoods with no streetlights.  Relying on my familiarity with the path, I entered a section with a church parking lot and bushes to one side and homes on the other.  My phone died and all went dark.  At that exact moment, I heard the crashing of brush and twigs and one gigantic shape loomed ahead of me in the darkness, followed by another, slightly less tall dark shape.  I did the smart thing, and completely froze.  I knew a huge moose was standing just yards from me, and that the smaller shape was most definitely a moose calf.

Now, one thing about moose--they do not crash out spastically from the brush like deer and run every which way, alerting you to their presence while also revealing their fear of you.  Moose just stand there and stare at you, either aggressively or nonchalantly, and it's up to you to give them a wide berth, especially if they have young whom they'll want to protect...with their hooves.  So, locked into a staredown, I backed up, and up, and crashed through some underbrush of my own in order to cut across lawns and parking lots and come back to the trail far from where I'd encountered them.  And, just for good measure, I started to run.

The next morning, our dog Bodhi bayed and alerted us to the presence of not two, but three moose grazing on our neighbors' yard shrubbery.  Mama in actuality has two calves!  In another classic non-local move, I retrieved my camera and crept closer.  I stared at the two calves (probably up to my shoulders in height) and they stared back, unblinking, arranged identically side by side.  And then, once more, the cow--that huge, looming shape from the night before--lurched out and raised herself to full height.  Daylight staredown: engaged.  I knew my cue and hightailed it away, scampering on the driveway in bare feet.  As I fell asleep last night, I'm almost certain I heard the same moose crossing over our back deck during the witching hour.  Neither patron saints or goblins, the moose family are placidly going about their existence, and their neighborhood just happens to be mine.  I feel pretty lucky.
Second calf is hidden in the brush to the right.

I leave you with a few images from my last week about and around:




Saturday, August 25, 2012

Home Again, Home Again: First Dispatch From the Year of Being Brave

This summer, I left my job and life in Seattle to move back to Jackson, Wyoming and finish my novel.



I woke up the morning after leaving Seattle in a tent 30 miles from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho to the sound of thunder and droplets of rain hitting my nose.  The previous evening had been so mild that my Dad and I had opted not to cover my brother's tent with a rainfly, and after sitting around the fire and drinking a glass or two of wine, I fell asleep looking up through the transparent netting towards the tops of Ponderosa pines.  The campsite was one of only two indicated on our indispensable road atlas, and after driving two country routes past "towns" with atmospheric names like Rose Lake, we found ourselves up high, flushing deer from their hidden hedgerow posts and passing old barns and cabins crumbling in on themselves.  (A note: decaying barns in fields are like my favorite thing, ever).  The next day, I listened to an interview with the author Deborah Magpie Earling, whose grandfather drowned in that very lake.  His son always remembered the sweat-stained hat that lay--abandoned--after he vanished beneath the glassy surface.  Oh, yes, I thought, it's totemic details like this that make us write in the first place.

Sleeping in a Forest Service campground after a long drive, partially on dirt road, seemed like exactly the right thing.  Even though I was still hundreds of miles from Jackson, my hometown, those kinds of woods are home, and so are the little outposts within them.  The campsite attendant camping there for the summer with his thick Northeastern accent; the little wooden port-o-potty and well structures; the process of walking out the flattest section of the ground and strategically pitching the tent to face the morning sun.  Those steps have been with me since I was very, very young.  

Of course, the thunderstorm and whipping winds dashed all attempts to rise with the sun or eat oatmeal cooked on the campstove, so off we drove as the sun rose (something I rarely see, being so much a night owl).  All of I-90, the route we'd taken straight from Seattle and eventually into Montana, proved to be a rich vein of memory.  As childhood memories tend to do, various family camping caravans and passings had collapsed in on themselves, but as the names of towns rose on green highway signs, the distinct places came back.  Wallace, ID where we had once visited a defunct brothel and seen a list of "acts" and prices taped unceremoniously over the light switch; "Anaconda Opportunity," surely one of the most delightful road signs in America; Deer Lodge, MT, home of the old territorial prison and an old car museum and a preserved rancher baron's property.  As a child, I'd keened towards every hint of History with a capital "H" and had probably driven the whole family crazy by insisting that we stop at all ghost towns and gravesites.  Sometimes, I was disappointed to find that my excavations of cross-beam cabins produced nothing more than beer cans and the remnants of campfires.  But nevertheless, a sense of struggle and effort underlies even lonely highways like I-90 and the empty fields and thick forests that mainly surround it.

My first glimpse of Jackson itself was through a haze of forest fire smoke, but the joyous greetings of our dogs remained the same.  And so now I'm here.  My trappings of Seattle life lie in a clutter of boxes and bags in my brother's borrowed room (the little kid's room, it still seems, even though Ben is 25 years old now).  In the morning, I wake to the sound of my parents going to work and the dogs' nails clicking back and forth along the tiled highway.  At night, I go to bed to the sound of coyotes wailing somewhere in the fields, and Canadian geese land and take off from the same fields all day long, honking and stitching together their ragged V-shape.  The aspens pattern our drawn shades like static, ticking and shivering.

Wyoming.  A place where you can go home again and ride around with one of your oldest friends in an old Ford Lariat pick-up truck and go to look at your old house on Angus Drive.  It looks the same from the street, but the well-worn trail you used to trudge into the willow thicket has been swallowed by a new house on the corner lot.  The trees are much taller.  Oddly, everything seems bigger rather than smaller.  And so you can go home again, but someone will have built a house over some part of your memory; a new generation of kids are leaving their inner tubes to dry in your old yard; the late-night diner is long-closed.  The landscape, however, neither remembers nor forgets you.  And this has always been the comfort of home.



(P.S. My friend Jessica Day is one of the people who inspired me with her own brave, astounding writing journey this year.  She gave me the excellent advice that blogging is like the warm-up run for the writing ahead, and keeps you accountable to your goals.  Her own blogging on the subject is so rich and lovely that I really must urge you to go here immediately and read it.  My first entree is just a pale copy in comparison!)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Just Shelved

The Rings of SaturnThe Rings of Saturn by Winfried Georg Sebald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The past year has been my year of reading European travelogues--Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, Rebecca West, Lawrence Durrell, and now W.G. Sebald. Except none of these books are actually travelogues, any more than a novel is simply a story. They are compendiums. They are philosophical treatises. They are everything. Only--the writers have composed them while rambling. Place looms down into the works. Place catalyzes.

The Rings of Saturn is one of the most beautiful of all. Temporally, the author walks through an area that I myself have seen, so my love wells a little from nostalgia. Even without a familiarity with the Anglian countryside, however, there is no doubt this book is a masterpiece. I don't use that word lightly, but if a work of art can make one see the beauty and inscrutability and humor and cruelty and cravenness and mechanization of human beings side by side with the mysterious things they have built and created, and condemn the darkness of our souls, while still wanting to live, while still, in fact, loving that most tenuous of gifts--well, then isn't that work of art doing all that it is possible to do? Along the way, I learned about the last Chinese empress, silkworms, abandoned missile silos, crumbling country estates, Joseph Conrad, Chateaubriand, Rembrandt's painting of a dissection...I learned so much. Each section ended with a note of pleasure, like a cello string being plucked deep inside the sternum. I dreamed all kinds of beautiful dreams when I finished the book. I was changed by it.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Just Shelved

The BookshopThe Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As in The Blue Flower, her masterpiece, Penelope Fitzgerald excels at thumbnail portraits. Both novels struck me as exquisite miniatures, with plots that seem to turn on incremental accretions of consequence and opinion that can yet turn the tide of a life. They also abound in aphoristic and eminently quotable dialogue. For a peep into a small bookshop in the Anglian fens, do read. I didn't have my peacock feathers blown back the way I did with The Blue Flower, but The Bookshop is still a good little novella to spend the day with.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Just Shelved

So Long, See You TomorrowSo Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A master class in saying everything in just a few words.


The Tiger's WifeThe Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you've read this book, tell me if you wouldn't rather it be called The Deathless Man. I resisted the neat tie-up at the end. I like my packages messier these days, with lots of loose ribbon.


Louise in LoveLouise in Love by Mary Jo Bang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading: participation in the construction of an artifice; the construction of a dream.


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Friday, January 27, 2012

Story Up At Wigleaf!

My short short, "Praying," is the featured short at Wigleaf today. Go take a look! This is my first real short short (now one of my favorite genres to work in) and has always remained a favorite of mine. Happy to see it in print at last. Do yourself a favor and browse some of the other Featured Shorts and Postcards up at Wigleaf while you're at it--they all pack a punch. I particularly loved "After the Flood" by Susannah Felts.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Verse & Reverse: A Daily Poetry and Friendship Project

Yesterday, my dear friend Maggie and I hatched a scheme over Gchat (known font of inspiration for schemes of all kinds) to trade a photograph and poem with each other every day. She will snap the photo; I will compose the poem. Our goal in all of this is to have fun, commit to a simple artistic (and low stress) exercise each day, and to emulate the Donne quote that "letters mingle souls." Below is our inaugural poem and photo pairing. Sometimes the two may inform each other, and sometimes not. You can check out Maggie's own blog and tracking of Verse & Reverse here.

Thank goodness for friends;

they make this blargish epoch

more palatable.