Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Writing the Unthinkable

So, I'm pretty excited. I've had a fairly productive few weeks. First, this phenomenal piece of art arrived in the mail:

You should buy this book and make Lynda Barry rich

If you can't tell from the photo, it's "Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor" by Lynda Barry, which is, to explain it over-simply, the notes from her decade long-workshop for non-writers, called "Writing the Unthinkable."

Not only is it visually stimulating, but I'm hoping it to be a mental/artistic wake up call too. Lynda Barry's work is always thoughtful/thought provoking (despite, or perhaps because it's couched in the form of "cartoon"), and I love the way it feels so much like a brain dump. Like if you took a cross section of her brain, it would look like this--words and drawings and ephemera right up to the very edges. I love the collages, I love that her work always feels as if she is truly trying to get "at" something. Which is all writing is really. Trying to get at what cannot be gotten at. A feeling, an idea, an abstraction. And I relate to the need/desire to work across multiple media -- the written word, images etc, the layers of meaning each kind of inclusion brings.

I'm so excited to dig into this thing I can't even tell you. I was flipping through it and right on the inside cover is this: What Everyone came to a realization that their certainty was what was wrong."  And this other gem, a few pages later:

I was trying to understand how images travel between people, how they move through time, and if there was a way to use writing and picture making to figure out more about how images work."

I would really love to have her as an instructor. I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but I feel like she's the kind of person who would be able to help me translate all the 'stuff' that's in my head on to the page. I don't think/organize my thoughts in a traditional way, I don't access the info that's rattling around in my head the way most people do. Or maybe, more accurately, I don't think traditional teaching methods were the best-matched method for me. Oh, I did fine in school and I am not saying that I was inhibited in any significant way, but I think that very creative part of my brain just never really found its path. Grad school was helpful. I had great instructors and a community of writers who helped me figure out how to access that part. But Barry is an unconventional instructor and I have a feeling that's exactly what I need. So I'm hopeful I will get something meaningful out of it.

This coincides very nicely with my sudden (and I do mean sudden--inexplicably so) interest in re-examining the novel I've been working on. My last iteration of it was some time ago. I'd started re-vamping it--another draft that was 180 degrees different from the one before. And I got some mileage out of that, but I feel like the first real draft--the draft that I worked on the longest, might just be worth revisiting. I'm excited about it, too. I'm looking forward to digging into it as well. And I'm hoping that I'm in the middle of a very lucky coincidence-- purchasing a book of instruction written by a very non-linear thinker and a desire to start again on a very non-linear work.

I'm excited. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It takes a village

Last night I spent a delightful few hours catching up with a friend I don't see nearly enough. We met through mutual grad school friends (though we never attended any classes together). While I've been slaving away at short stories, he's been making documentaries and short films (the former premiered at the Maryland Film Festival a year or two ago. Not too shabby).

We had a far-ranging conversation--music (bad puns using Smiths and Replacements lyrics) childhood memories (a larger-than-life Maynard Ferguson album cover, hi fi's in the living room) to familial relationships (we're Catholic, we don't talk about our feelings), to writers, classic movies, Chanel commercials from the '80s (did you know Ridley Scott made those?) you get the picture.
This album cover haunted my childhood. Thanks, Dad.

But we mostly talked about art and trying to make it. It was a great, invigorating conversation--the kind I feel a bit starved for, especially since finishing up grad school nearly 6 years ago.  It's something I've been looking for/trying to re-create ever since.

It's strange--I've always preferred solitude. Maybe that's why I was drawn to writing. It's such a solitary endeavor. And doesn't happen in a vacuum, does it? We're always influenced by what's happening around us. I am, at least. And I think when I feel like there's not a whole lot going on externally, internally, everything's kind of blah, too. But it's not easy to balance out the need for solitude and the need for group activity. I am definitely introverted -- I need down time to recharge. Even when I'm having a good time with people I care about, at a certain point, I'm done. I'm overloaded. But oddly enough, being in the right kind of atmosphere (i.e. a long, meandering conversation over strong drinks) can recharge me as well.

I at least recognize this weird little high wire act and try to balance out the going-home-after-work-and-just-hanging-with-the-dog with some social activities (even if they don't revolve around artistic conversations). But it's not easy. I joined a literary journal as an editor about a year or so ago. And if I'm honest, I'll say it was because I wanted to stay tethered to a community I felt myself increasingly further away from. I'll go one further and say that I was also kind of hoping to find some kind of inspiration reading tons of other short stories. The good news is that the group of readers the editor has assembled are some of the most talented and thoughtful people I've met in a long time.  The bad news is (well, not *bad*, but...) that I'm just not as inspired as I thought I'd be.

Maybe that's an unfair statement. Maybe this whole post is unfair.  Does it sound like I'm putting the onus for my inspiration on others? I don't mean for it to sound that way. But there *is* something to be said for the community. The interaction and the free exchange of ideas.

The editor of the journal recognizes this--she tries to gather us all together a few times a year. Not just to go over the journal housekeeping stuff, but just to spend time with one another. It's good and I like it. I find spending an evening listening to smart people talk about art is probably one of my favorite things to do.

But I also like to go home, then, and be alone with my thoughts (and my dog, of course).

Why do I expect an alien to burst out of this nice lady's stomach?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pics or it didn't happen.

Yesterday, a friend and I went to DC for the day and spent some time in the National Portrait Gallery. I was particularly interested in one of the current exhibits, "Portraiture Now: Staging the Self," in which a collection of artists use their work in portraiture to explore and tell the story of themselves--a break from the traditional form of portraiture, which tends to fix an image in place/time. From the NPG website, "...portraiture...becomes a map of finding oneself and others."

 I'm cool with that.

Seriously, the exhibit was interesting, but one artist's ideas caught my attention. Karen Miranda Rivadeneira uses herself and other family members to recreate memories from her childhood, which, in an of itself is kind of unique and fascinating, but one line in her artist's statement resonated with me. She said she "revisits events from my youth that were never recorded."

Events that were never recorded.

When I first read it, it sounded as if there's this inherent assumption that anything worth experiencing is worth recording (or rather, it's direct opposite--if it wasn't documented, it's not worth remembering). And, regardless of what the artist might have meant by that statement, that's how I interpreted it.

Now, I've written previously about memory, this unreliable narrator of our lives (I may have even written about it a lot, in fact), but it's a fascinating subject -- and certainly the bread and butter of my own writing -- so I feel like it's a subject worthy of exploring. The thing is, I can tell right now that I'm not quite able to dig deeply into it yet, so this might just be a preamble kind of post.

Anyway, memory. This big, heavy box of stuff in our heads that's perched precariously on rickety little legs, ready to topple over at the slightest rumble of the ground beneath it. And it topples. All the time. And every time try to sweep everything back inside, we jumble up the contents.

When I was nearly five, we moved into a new house. I have memories from the old house--of being in the backyard on a swing that looked like a flower petal, of learning how to rollerskate from the next door neighbors, of my sister stepping on a nail whilst building  treehouse with the same neighbors, of being held in someone's arms, eating a piece of chocolate while the bigger kids ran races around the block, of building a snowman in the front yard, of sitting in the back of the house, looking out the sliding glass door, watching it snow. And for a long time, I just kind of chopped all of those memories up, thinking that they happened over a span of several seasons. Like I learned to skate one summer and got the flower petal swing another summer and Leslie had to get that tetanus shot another summer. But having moved out of that house when I was not even 5 years old, I'm guessing that my conscious memory only goes back so far. I'm guessing all or most of those memories are from one year of my life.

That's what's so fascinating to me about memories--that we impose layer upon layer of other information on them as years go by, as we grow and change into the person we are. And yet, those very events that we can't seem to remember properly are exactly what form us into who we are. Those memories that we can't rely on. So we're made up of all this ever-changing, unstable...stuff.

What's up with that?

And the whole documenting part. That's where it gets really interesting to me. I think it's also kind of interesting that I interpreted the artist's statement to imply that undocumented = not important. That's probably a whole psychological portal to something deeper in me that I'll have to explore later. But anyway. Documentation. Why do we do it? Because even snapping that one fraction of a second in time isn't going to keep the memory pristine. It may not even capture the memory. So why do we document, sometimes obsessively? Is it that desire to get "at" something? To make something that we can definitely point to, say "Here, this is me. This is the why and the how of me?"  And if so, who, exactly, are we documenting for? For ourselves? For others? For those around us? For those who will find this stuff when we're gone?

Well,  feel like I've kind of gotten off the subject, but I'm still kind of scattered about how I'm feeling. I'd like to spend more time with my thoughts on this. But I'm pretty sure this won't be the last post about it.

Stay tuned.

A portrait in attitude only.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

I hate writing, I love having written.

It feels pretty good to be writing again.

I've always agreed with Dorothy Parker's attitude toward writing that I referenced in the title, but for the last year or maybe two, I could barely get past the that first bit.

I've talked about the reasons I couldn't/wouldn't write previously--so I don't think there's much need to dwell on them further--but the fact remains that I wasn't doing it.

I'd try, of course, I'd screw up my courage (because that's what it felt like I needed--courage. Courage, Camille, courage.), and pick up my pen. And then...nothing. Or not anything remotely worthwhile. I felt strangely over- and under-whelmed at the same time. I had zero enthusiasm for the task. I felt utterly devoid on any kind of creative thought, though I knew there was something there, something that needed uncovering. I was just too frightened to try gaining access to it. And that completely paralyzed me. I was like this weirdly overloaded circuit that, rather than burning up, flaming out from the excess, I simply shut off.

It was an awful feeling, this shutting down. Is this what writer's block feels like? I hated it. And because I'm a fairly smart person and like to avoid sucky, painful things, I stopped trying.

Then I tried again. I don't know why, don't know what made this time different. Maybe the not doing something started to suck more than the doing something that sucked did. Maybe I knew, way in the way back part of the brain that exactly nothing would change by doing nothing. That even something that felt terribly inadequate and superficial was better than a blank page. That even something inadequate and superficial might something lead to something that was pretty goddamned adequate. A lot more goddamned adequate than a blank piece of paper at least.

So that's how she kept her tongue so sharp.

At any rate, I don't know if this will last, if this is the breakthrough that I needed or just another false start. It certainly feels different this time. Honestly, I don't care. It's less crappy-feeling and that's a step in the right direction.

I love having written.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

NaNoWri...oh no.

So, we're nearly 10 days into November and if you haven't started writing that novel yet, get crackin. You're about 15,000 words behind.

For anyone who doesn't know what I'm talking about, November is officially (someone made it official, I think) National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo (the one and only time you'll ever see me write that), a project that tries to get people to write an entire novel in 30 days. Which is certainly a lofty goal...buuuuuuuuuut not one I can really get behind.

I mean, sure, it's great to encourage people to write, right? We all need some help getting motivated once in a while. And yes according to the website, the organization that runs the program does other good stuff, like promoting writing literary, fostering a sense of community and providing classroom kits for kids. So it's not all bad. But it *did* come up with the word "noveling," so I can't completely forgive them. Seriously, I don't mean to pick on them, except...

Except I think that typing out 50,000 words in 30 days is only part of the process. Granted, it's a big part. But at the end of the month, you don't have a novel. You have a first draft. And that's not a bad thing, but don't kid yourself. It's a draft. And it's going to probably not be great. In fact, I'm guessing (no offense to anyone), it's going to suck. But that's not a bad thing either. In fact, a sucky first draft is a shit-ton better than no first draft at all (says the girl with a partial first draft of a novel moldering in a drawer somewhere).

The point I'm trying to make is that what happens at the end of November, what happens when you hit "save" after you've typed out your fifty-thousandth word is not in any way shape or form the end. It's the beginning. It's where everything starts. You have a first draft, fer crissake. Do something with it!

Actually, *don't* do anything with it. Put it away for as long as you possibly can. Break up with your first draft. Let it down easy, because there's no kinder thing you can do for your writing than give it some space. Give yourself some space, too, while you're at it. Go out and see other novels. Play the field a little. Maybe experiment with a short story or two. Or you know, just take some me time.

Then, when you're up to it. go crawling back to that novel. Tell it how much you've missed it. Take it slow, spend an evening together, getting reacquainted, remembering all the good times you two crazy kids had. Only then can you really make a commitment to getting serious, long-term.

Okay, even I'm tired of this metaphor. But you get the idea. Time and distance are two of the greatest tools for a writer and they seem to be the two things that are most overlooked in the writing process. Perspective is key and you simply can't get useful perspective when you're furiously trying to come up with 1600/day for 30 days straight.
Writing makes me sleepy.

Listen, if participating in the November novel writing program is what it takes to get you motivated, to get you in the proper mindset in order to get what's been spinning around in your brain for I'm guessing years and years, then so be it. Write away. And then come December 1, walk away. Just until spring. Treat it like your favorite houseplant and keep it inside until after the threat of frost is over for the season. Then bring it out and cultivate it, let it bloom and grow (wow, I am *full* of dumb metaphors tonight.)

Monday, November 3, 2014

If I could be a camera...

My great uncle Dave was the historian of the family, the record-keeper, the story teller. He was my maternal grandmother’s younger brother (There were a total of 8 siblings, I think-- at least those that lived past infancy). They were a big, Irish-Catholic family and you know Irish-Catholics are really good at making more Irish-Catholics, so there was a big, sprawling diaspora and Uncle Dave knew everyone, knew how one person connected to another. Knew where the Malloy branch of the family tree sprouted or how the Morgan’s were nearly pruned completely.

We have tons of family photos, too. Which I think might be unusual? The Nolans were not wealthy by any means. In fact, they were literally dirt poor. There are photos of my grandmother and her siblings as children—skin and bones and scabby knees. Posing for the camera while chickens scratched around in the dirt behind them. And those photos--turn over any one you’re were likely to see Uncle Dave’s script on the back. It might be brief and to the point, “Betty and Catherine, 1938” or it might be considerably more vague, bordering on mysterious. “Pinky and Mayday” is scribbled on the front of a photo of two men climbing on what look to be drainage pipes. Turn the photo over and the label –in the same handwriting-- reads “Whitey and Pinky.” Not sure why that guy merited two nicknames…But they were all labeled in some way.
Pinky and Whitey and Mayday and...

Catherine and Betty and some girl named "Florence". Poor thing.

I’m sure my uncle thought this was going to help future generations (i.e. me) understand and know the Nolan family history better. But the truth is, I really don’t. I mean, it’s not his fault and he’s certainly not the only person to believe that a few names and a couple of dates = historical record. Photos don’t tell the whole story, do they? They capture one tiny fraction of a moment in time, but that’s it. The story lies elsewhere.

When I first started looking through the photos—boxes of them had somehow found their way into my parents’ home, most likely as older relatives died and their houses were cleaned out—I was discouraged that I couldn’t really get a sense of who many of the subjects were. My mother didn’t have much more insight either, though she could fill in some blanks. It bothered me that so much history was lost. That my uncle, thinking he was recording information for posterity, really hadn’t done much for the next generation at all.

"Daddy, Money Nolan and Pat Kerns" on the back. Money. Someone's nickname was Money. Not bad.

Except now I realize just how much of a favor he’d done for me. If I knew everyone’s history, if I knew who Pinky and Mayday and Money were and where they sprouted on the family tree, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. If I knew why my grandmother and my Aunt Catherine were sitting on a rattan chair with another young girl named “Florence” in the middle of what appears to be some kind of empty lot in front of a chicken farm, well, my imagination could just take the night off, couldn’t it?

And that’s the key to it—at least for me. I get to make up the history that I don’t know. Yes, of course it’s sad that I don’t have every detail of who these people were and how they came to be in these photos. And sure, it’s selfish of me in a way to gleefully think that I can spin out a tale of who “Money Nolan” was. But all of this is great fodder for the “what if.” “What if” Money got her nickname because she was part of a famous gang of bank robbers during the Depression? What if she got the name because she was a wealthy benevolent benefactor who helped the family fight back against the mine bosses? What if she was a former showgirl in New York and that’s how she got her name? Who knows?  

And let’s face it, history, memory—none of it is every 100% truthful or accurate, either by chance or by design.  And in some ways, when I sit down and fill in the blanks that time has left for me, in some small way, I get to participate in that history, be a part of that life. And isn't that really what a writer is supposed to do anyway?

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Written Ofrenda, A Newish Start

In one of the last memories I have of my father, he is sitting at my kitchen table. Most of my family is there—it’s Sunday morning and I’m making breakfast for them. The night before, we all gathered to celebrate my 40th birthday. And amid the chaos of people shuffling around my too tiny house with its oversized secondhand furniture, of the dog circling the table, looking for scraps from the weakest links (my mom and brother in law), of dishes clinking, knives scraping, the coffeepot percolating, I turned to see him, quite in the din, flipping through a copy of a literary journal—one that had just published a story mine a few months prior. He was reading that story. Re-reading it, I should say. I knew for a fact he’d read it before. At least once or twice. I knew he’d sent links to friends, at least a few relatives, too. In fact, at his viewing—less than a week later—as people came through the line to offer their condolences to the family (a line, I might mention here, that stretched down the street of his hometown, Steelton, PA. A line of people, standing in the dark, in the cold, icy January rain for him), I had this information confirmed. Mostly by his co-workers—the ones I hadn’t met before—upon learning which daughter I was, always had the same reaction. “You’re the writer!” or, “You’re the one who wrote that story!”

That was nearly three years ago. Ironically, just a few months before (at about this same time of year), I’d made up my mind that I was going to spend my 40th year finishing the novel I’d been writing for what seemed like decades. I was ready. I was energetic and hopeful about it and looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and finally, finally getting it done. And then…whammo. Fate sucker punched me, two weeks after my birthday.  My father’s death knocked me off my feet. I couldn’t write. I didn’t want to write. In the days that followed, the occasional days that I felt normal, the days that I didn’t feel like crawling into bed at 5pm and staying there until oh, I don’t know, June, I didn’t dare disturb the fragile peace. I turned away from writing. I found no comfort it in.

But eventually, the normal days started outnumbering the sad ones, which is a good thing. And I started to not be so afraid of writing again. But by then, I’d started to realize something—I’d gotten out of the habit of writing. I’d spent the past few years working rather hard to discipline myself to write regularly. At that point it wasn’t anymore a question of wanting or not wanting to write, of being brave or scared or fragile or strong or any of that. I’d simply gotten out of the habit. And not just of writing, but of thinking about writing. Of spending all that time in my head with a piece of writing. I’d gotten so far away from it that I could barely figure out how to start pedaling again. It was weird. And frustrating. And so I stumbled. Many times. I stopped writing, I got blocked. It was ugly. It’s been ugly.

The irony of all of this isn’t lost on me, either. I understand how lucky I am that I knew how proud my father was of me, of my admittedly meager writing accomplishments. I never had to guess how he felt (and not just about my writing, either). Even if I hadn’t known before that moment I glimpsed him at the kitchen table, silently reading that story again, I would have figured it out then. And yet it was his sudden death that pushed me away from the very thing he bragged to his colleagues about. Or perhaps it was the excuse of his death, to be honest. The excuse of it.

Today is October 31, Halloween here in the US. On Sunday, Mexico will celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. A day to honor those who have passed. And so to honor him, I’ve decided to give it one more try. I think he would be proud.