Tuesday, September 27, 2011


I'm trying not to get too excited, but I'm headed to Scranton PA this weekend (wait for it--the seeming contradiction of being excited to get to Scranton will be sorted out...here): The Pages and Places book festival is Saturday and I'll get to hear A. "Sasha" Hemon speak (at the very least. I might get to meet him, too. Like, meet him meet him. Not just stand in a line and have him sign my book while I fumble for some not-crazy-sounding conversational words).

So, yeah. Pretty psyched I might also get a chance to chat with Teju Cole, who wrote Open City. He's the other novelist on the panel with Hemon. He's been compared to Sebald, so I'm fairly sure I'd like the novel. I just wish I'd had a chance to read it before this weekend. Hopefully I'll pick up a copy when I'm there. The panel they're on is called "The City as Literary Influence" which might be relevant, given that I'm working on a large project that takes place in NYC and the more I write, the more the city seems to be as much a character as the humans. Maybe even more so...

There's also a lecture on coal region writers which I'm kind of interested in attending. Being a coal miners (grand)daughter, and having written a story or two about some miners myself, I'd like to hear what the three panelists have to say. The moderator is from Camp Hill, too. Interesting.

The festival should be fun and exciting and informative, and northeastern PA is pretty pleasant this time of year. So, I'm going to run now, and obsess over every.single.word. Hemon has ever written (is it tacky to bring photocopies of all his New Yorker stories and make him sign all of them?) and dig out my book on St. Clair so I have something to talk about with the coal miners.

I can't wait! <squeal!>

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hello, Progress, my old friend

Dear Progess:

You never write, you never call…Are we breaking up?

Progress (nickname: Headway) and I, we are estranged.  Or at least we were. I don’t want to get too hopeful here, but, things seem to be looking up for us. This summer was rough, though. I hardly ever saw Progress—we always seemed to miss one another. Mostly because I was spending more with Time Waster and Boredom (they’re cousins). Terrible of me, I know. Seeing as they are arch-enemies of Progress. But, they were so easy to hang out with. They never demanded anything of me. Nothing but time. They didn’t care if I sat around in my sweats all day in front of the television, watching episode after episode of 30 Rock or Arrested Development. They didn’t mind if spent hours surfing the interwebs—I mean, those kittehs with the funny capshunz? Hilarious!

I tried to keep in touch with Progress. Really, I did. We’d get together every now and then, but…I don’t know. We just couldn’t communicate like we used to. I pretended like it didn’t bother me; told myself that even the most solid and productive of relationships needs a break every now and again. But sometimes, as I climbed into bed after an evening alphabetizing the canned goods in my pantry, or flipping through photographs from my college days, I’d think about Progress. And just before shutting off the light, I’d catch a glimpse of a notebook or some research information or a manuscript—you know, all the great things Progress and I accomplished, and, well, I’d feel a little bit guilty.

I finally came to my senses a few weeks ago. Finally realized that Time Waster and Boredom were just no damned good and I kicked them out. Swallowed my pride and got back in touch with Progress. I was welcomed tentatively, and I guess I deserve that. I could put some of the blame on Progress—never sticking around long enough when things got rough, but really, it’s all on my shoulders.

Oh, sure, Time Waster and Boredom come around sometimes. I’ll see them—I mean, I can’t cut them off completely. After all, they were a big part of my life this summer. But it won’t be the same between us.  No, I’m determined to make it work this time with Progress.

Besides, I’m already midway through Season Five of the Wire.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Your memory is a monster

W.G. Sebald is one of my favorite writers, and, as luck would have it, I picked up a copy of Vertigo this weekend (we talked about this already).  Vertigo is a story so very concerned with memory and the strange evolution of our recollections (hell, Sebald is a writer so very concerned with memory and the strange evolution of our recollections) so it’s pretty fortuitous that I picked up a copy at a time when I’ve started to seriously think (again, finally) about my own motivations for the way I write. When I finally decided to dive back into the strange and satisfying and frustrating pool of writing after lounging on the beach for much of the summer.
Of course Sebald’s grappling with his past is much different than mine; to say it’s much more fraught is to be woefully understated. With a father who was a member of the Wehrmacht  during the Second World War, Sebald certainly had horrifying and confusing demons to contend with and those specters cast a long shadow over all his work. But it’s the way in which Sebald treats those memories, or rather, does not treat them, that interests me. When his father returned from the PoW camp where he had been held until 1947, the family never spoke of his father’s role the war, in the Holocaust. Apparently they never spoke of any aspect of the war and Sebald could only draw conclusions the way many of us did—from the outside looking in. He saw the physical ruined remains of this country—the destroyed buildings, the ravaged countrysides. He saw images from Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. He read history books in school. And so imagine what that kind of circuitous journey does to one trying to piece together one’s past. THAT past. Then, imagine trying to actually articulate it. To describe not only what happened (and you could read every single novel in the canon of Holocaust literature and realize that no one, even the most gifted and eloquent  and brave writers have come close), but your own strange and uncomfortable relationship to it. So, I think to deal with a very charged past, Sebald had to come at it slanted. His stories, littered with images as blurry as the lines he draws between memoir and fiction, are often meditations on the unreliability of memory. The protagonist in most, who goes by the not-terribly-disguised name of WG Sebald (sometimes he’s referred to as “Max” which is the diminutive of his second middle name, Maximillian), is peripatetic,  wandering, rucksack slung over his shoulder, over England and parts of continental Europe. (It’s hard not to see the wandering as a kind of necessary movement, the way a shark must keep swimming.) He visits historical sites and old friends. He takes trains and re-traces the steps of long-dead family members. He includes photographs, hazy, black and white ones, as if their inclusion would somehow make whatever it is he’s trying to access clearer. It’s not clear, though. At least it’s not well-defined (is that the same thing?). But his intent, I think, slowly starts to emerge from the words on the page. He’s clearly a man who was trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
But isn’t that what recall is, in a way? Our memories are tricky things. We think we have a hold on them, but really, it’s the other way around (like John Irving wrote in A Prayer for Owen Meany, “You think you have a memory; but it has you!”). No matter why; our memories have a mind of their own, so to speak. Our recollections twist and contort, all the while as the light that shines on them dims. It’s so hard to see them clearly.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Strand is my crackhouse

I just got back from a great weekend in NY/NJ with some very dear friends. It was both exhausting and restorative, I have to say. It's always a bit draining for me to be out of my element--I'm sleeping differently, I'm eating differently, I'm generally moving about differently. But being around those you love, those who care about you, especially after a long absence, can be good for the soul. I kinda needed that.

I arrived at Casa Decker ( le Maison sur Concord?) in Jersey City on Friday afternoon, and after a brief pause (in which I unpacked my car, brushed my teeth and got a parking ticket), Tim and I headed into NYC--first to an Italian market (Eataly--you should go, it was pretty awesome. I got a chocolate bar covered in pine nuts) then to my own personal crack dealer, the Strand.

"Is there anything in particular you're looking for?" Tim asked on our way there.

I shrugged. "No. Not really. I'm sure I'll find something."

That "something" turned out to be five books in about 10 minutes. Maybe less. I'll have to check with Tim, but I think this is a record for me.

I don't know how it happened. I saw a sign indicating books under $10 and it just happened. I mean, how can you turn down Gogol's Dead Souls for $7.25, or Rivka Galachen's Atmospheric Disturbances for five bucks? I also managed to snag a copy of James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain for about the same price and Orhan Pamuk's White Castle (it's about teeny tiny hamburgers, I've heard), too. Found WG Sebald's first novel, Vertigo, and I'm halfway through it. I had to stop there, though. That's the problem with spending time in CrackBooktown--you've got to haul your books all over the city for the next few hours. Of course in my case, it was Tim who schlepped them around. He came prepared too, Brought a backpack and everything.

I left New Jersey with six books, however. When we back to the apartment Friday night, my friend Simon gave me William H. Gass's In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. 

A weekend filled with music, friends, and books. I wish every day could be like that.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Breakthroughs are fun!

I've been busy the last few weeks with side projects--a few essays here and there, and I've been trying to work out some things, writing-wise, outside of this blog, but boy, it's been tough. I'm not sure what went wrong, but writing had lately felt like a chore. A Sisyphusian chore. I just kept pushing that boulder up Mt Everest and then I'd watch it roll aaaaaaaaalll the way back down again. And that's pretty discouraging, wouldn't you say? Discouraging enough that I just felt like taking a break, the gods be damned. And I guess in a way, that's what happened. I'd avoided any meaningful writing for the past few months. I can't say why--maybe fear? Laziness? A feeling of being overwhelmed? A good solid mix of all of the above? Possibly.

A few days ago, though, I decided to do something about it. (I think I've come to realize that I function better when I'm organized, which is weird because when I think of adjectives to describe myself, "organized" is not one of them. It's not anywhere on the list. Does this mean I am task-oriented? Maybe. But that's a digression.) Anyway, I realized that I needed some way to fit in all the things I need/want to do (i.e personal writing, the blog, reading etc) but to get motivated so I don't just stick to the easy stuff (like "research"). I used to aim to write at least three pages each night before I went to bed. Three pages of anything--it could be a brain dump of all the crap that had happened that day, or something that had been on my mind--a screed, a soapbox--or it could be working out a story or an idea for one. But I'd gotten away from that in recent months, and even though I've been trying my hand at this blog thing, it's not the same. Here, while this is pretty informal, it's still public. And I don't always want to air every little piece of fluff that floats around in my head. But I kind of sacrificed one for the other (I hope you people are happy...heh heh).

So I made the effort to start again last night. And it sucked. I couldn't concentrate, but I kept at it. It was frustratingly more of the same crap I'd been sloughing through over the past few months. A bunch of words on the page, but nothing really to show for it. Ugh. I kind of felt like a failure. An even bigger one than before. But I made myself write again tonight, and it was much better. Really really better. In fact, I think I was able to get a handle on a story. That felt pretty good! And not only because it was a breakthrough--not a ginormous one (huh, "ginormous" made it through spell-check...), mind you, it's not some sea-change/turning point that will have me producing reams of fiction in the next few weeks, but it'll do--but also because it reminded me of the fact that I need to be fiddling around on the page to capture those breakthroughs when they happen. It just sucks that sometimes I (we) have to slog through so much  wordy worthless sludge to get to the good stuff.

Ah, I know. shut up and keep writing. I get it.