Sunday, December 30, 2012

On the Occasion of a New Year, or, G'bye 2012. Don' Let the Door Hit you in the Ass on the Way Out

How would I describe 2012? In a word: sucky. I've given it considerable thought and that's what I've come up with. I'm pretty knowledgeable when it comes to words--I know a great many of them, in fact. And this one fits perfectly.

Twenty-twelve was a sucky year.

Oh, it started out promising. A new job. A new (personal) decade ushered in surrounded by friends and family.

Then it all fell apart. And what followed was just...weird. Sucky. I won't bore you with details. I think I referenced just what obstacles I encountered in my sparse postings of the last 12 months.

I think it will suffice to say that I was (was? Am) at war. Internal battles rage constantly.

Side One: It's time to get up off the couch.

Side two: No. I'm going to sit here just a little bit longer.

Side One: Get up and do something. Sitting there dwelling on things will not make you feel better.

Side Two: I'm not dwelling on anything. In fact, I'm hardly thinking anything at all.

(It just dawned on me that my transcribed internal dialogues remind me of Beckett plays. Not sure if I should laugh or cry)

And I never felt in control of anything. One day I would feel perfectly fine--getting out of bed and brushing my teeth like a normal person. Then suddenly, the bell jar hovered overhead ("I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo." Sylvia Plath).

It was a year of false starts and insincere resolutions and of not being able to gather enough strength to pull myself out of the water that was slowly, comfortably, heating up to boil me alive.

And yet, it's nearly over--the year, that is. I can't--I won't make any bright, sweeping promises for 2013. Irony has a way of showing up right about the time I do (I learned that lesson the hard way, about a year ago).

So, I'll just close by saying that I'm hopeful I can make the year I'm cautiously entering better than the year I'm happily leaving behind.

Monday, October 22, 2012

“A Meditation on the Contours of Absence”

A few Fridays ago, I had the pleasure of spending time with some of my writer friends. We—a fellow graduate of the program, her husband and one of our instructors—met in Annapolis to attend a lecture by James Wood, a pretty incredible literary critic (New Yorker) who spends some of his time at Harvard. I decided to go less because I wanted to hear Wood and more because I looked forward to the company. I’d been feeling very disconnected from the creative process lately, and I knew whatever conversations might pop up between Jen and Bill and I would be a tonic, even if a temporary one at that.

And so when we learned the lecture had been canceled, I couldn’t help but marvel at my good luck.

We found a corner table in an Irish pub (Annapolis does not seem to be short on them), and ordered a round and the conversation soon turned to writing, and more specifically, why I wasn’t. Which, you know, I’ve covered here in the recent past. It’s not a mystery. I’m overwhelmed and terrified of accessing all the painful “stuff” that comes with loss. That was no revelation. But something else was.

But first, I think I need to back up a moment and talk about this question, “why write?” People have asked me that in the past, and I’ve had this particular conversation with other writers.  It can be an arduous task, even when there’s not the immediate specter of loss looming in every corner. I’m not unique in the art of avoidance. Yes, my writing friends and I agree, the payoff is worth it. When you hit upon something, when that epiphany cracks open the world in front of you, it’s euphoric, but the process. Ugh. The process can be hell. I remember a decidedly non-writing friend of mine, after listening to me complain about a particularly difficult bout with a short story, exclaim--with no small degree of incredulousness-- something to the effect of, “why on earth do you do it then?” And honestly, I couldn’t answer.  As I said, it’s not the first time someone has asked me that, and the only thing I could do by way of response is shrug my shoulders and mumble something like, “I just have to…”

I’ll say here that answer isn’t necessarily wrong. Something, somewhere inside really does have to, though it seems a pretty cruel joke to feel compelled to do something that at times can make mucking out the Augean stables feel like scooping up kitty litter.

It wasn’t until Friday night that I figured it out. We started talking about Ann Carson (who is quite possibly the smartest person on the planet, certainly one of the finest writers. Not convinced? Pick up the Autobiography of Red and then we’ll talk), and Nox, the artifact she created about her brother, Michael, which one experiences, rather than reads. In much too simple an explanation, Nox is Carson’s attempt to get at something—her brother’s life, his death (the news of which did not reach her for several weeks, as Michael’s widow didn’t know how to reach his family),their estranged relationship, all of that “stuff.” And to do it, she not only uses her words, but words in translation, images, photos, scraps of paper—these little bits of her life and his, little scraps of quantity that hopefully add up to something. 

Hopefully. Because it never really does. The title I’ve used, “Meditation of the contours of Absence” is a quote from Meghan O’Rourke’s New Yorker review of Nox. I re-appropriated it here, because that’s exactly what I do, every time I sit down to write. I meditate on the outline of something that isn’t there—be it loss or love or grief or regret or anger or pain. I’m forever trying to get at something that can never, no matter how hard I try, be captured.  I might get close every now and then, but I’ll never actually reach the goal. And that’s a terribly frustrating thing to grapple with. This acknowledged rock that will, no matter how many times I get close to the top, always roll back down. And yet, I keep pushing it back up. Every time.

And every time, I think, This is it. It’ll work this time. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

What is and what should be

It's 8:46 pm on Monday night and I should be at a bar. Seriously, I was invited to some kind of literary/performance something something by a friend of mine. I wanted to go--I've been feeling disconnected from writing in general lately and thought the event (whatever it might have been) would've been a good way to re-connect. And I was all ready. Then, about 10 minutes before I needed to leave, I suddenly wasn't so ready.

I don't know exactly what happened; although it's never been easy for me to get involved in new things on my own. So maybe it was social anxiety. Maybe I was not up to the exhausting task of entering a room full of strangers and either pretending to be perfectly comfortable in my skin or pretending to be perfectly capable of making interesting small talk. Maybe it was something else.

My friend Maxine--who's had her share of grief in the handful of years I've known her (and who has managed to steer her way through it was a grace that I find astounding)--gave me some advice right after my father passed away. She said that I should respect my grief and give it room. And that made perfect sense to me. It was probably the best, most comforting thing I'd heard.  And so maybe that's what I did tonight. I gave the grief some room. Because I think that's what happened. I think this whole weird couple of months reared it's weird head tonight. It does that sometimes. Suddenly something happens. I'm fine one moment, then the next...not so much. And I can't explain or predict it.

And I was looking forward to going out tonight. Like I said, I've been feeling disconnected. I've been trying to write, but I guess I'm blocked or something. But I can't figure out if there's something in my way or if I'm in my way. Lordy knows I've got novels worth of stuff bouncing off the walls of my brain, but I can't decide if it's moving too fast for me to capture, or if I'm just too scared to access it. I don't know.

What I do know is I got knocked sideways a few months ago. One minute it was a brand new year, I was getting ready to start a new job and I had just celebrated my 40th birthday surrounded by great friends and my family. And then, four days later, it all came crashing down. And while I think I manged to crawl out from under the rubble, I'm still a bit shaken and dazed. How long will it last? I'm not sure. Those in the know tell me the first year is the hardest. If that's the case, I've got about nine months under my belt.

Here's to hoping the next year is better than the last.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

JD Salinger, 9/11 and Writing as Therapy

In the summer of 2001 my obsession with the JD Salinger and his Glass family stories took a productive (and, some might say,  inevitable) turn when I decided to start my own little masterpiece about a funny/sad/smart/tragic bunch of geniuses. Like Wes Anderson--who would beat me to it with the Royal Tenenbaums that December--I decided to cannibalize/invert/update the story (and that will most likely be the only time I can legitimately compare my work and his...). Instead of a dozen or so separate short stories about Buddy and Seymour or Franny and Zooey,  or Seymour and a bananafish, I mashed them all together into one. There were other differences, too. My protagonist was female (she was the "Franny" character), with three older brothers (Seymour, Buddy and Zooey. I didn't want to completely re-create the story, so I cut out a few siblings--the Walt and Waker and Boo Boo character equivalents would not make an appearance in my book). I set it in real time--2001, but kept the orginal location, however, of New York City.

And so for a few weeks in late July and early August, I began meandering around the story as I was trying to re-imagine it. This is not unusual for me. I am the queen of false starts.  I play with style and format, with tone and voice. I can start and stop a piece a dozen times before I find something that works.

Then one gorgeously clear and blue and calm morning in September I was on the phone with my mother. I can't remember why she called me at work, but I do recall that at one point, near what would be the end of our conversation, she suddenly stopped what she was saying to comment, "Huh. Something is going on at the World Trade Center."

The next thing I can remember is watching the second plane hit. My coworkers and I had gathered around a television set someone's office. I don't recall how we got there, who made the suggestion, or even how we finally figured out that that "something" was a plane smashing into one of the buildings. But there it was. The other thing I remember clearly was how it felt as if the floor beneath me was wobbling as next we heard about a plane hitting the Pentagon, then one falling from the sky in western PA.

What's next? 

Did I mention that at the time, I worked for a government agency in Harrisburg, PA, with a private office and a ton of free time on my hands?

So in the days following --days that are silent in my memory. Clear and blue and sad but always silent. I can recall images --of course those of planes and steel buildings on fire, of smoke, of a tattered American flag and steel girders sticking up amidst the rubble like a broken ribcage--but no noise. I don't recall music or conversation or car horns or dogs barking.

And so I wrote. Page after page after page. I shut my office door and clattered away on the keyboard. Writing. September through December 2001 were probably the most prolific months as a writer that I've ever had (or ever will have). I had to write, I remember thinking. I had to fix the work. You see, I had already started writing a story which was set in NYC. And now, well, NYC wasn't the same. And I knew I couldn't get away with pretending it was. So everything I thought and felt and saw got mixed in to that story. For better or worse. Everything got folded into this story.

I am sure it's terrible. Clearly I was too close to the gamut of emotions I was running through every hour to have any meaningful perspective. Closeness is never good for fiction. Time, distance. Some objectivity. I had none of those things at the time.  But it didn't matter.

I never finished it, not that I think I was supposed to. Therapy, I think, is pretty organic and fluid. You give and take what you need to move on and hopefully, you heal.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

We Are Family

I’m overwhelmed. While I recently mustered up the nerve to start working on the novel again, I’ve realized I’ve still got a lot of crap that I need to process.  I mean, I’ve got this huge chunk of unfinished work about loss—devastating loss—and before I experienced my own devastating loss, I *thought* I knew what I was doing with it and how I was going to write it. Then January came and knocked me sideways. My perspective followed suit.

Not surprisingly, it took this long for me to even think about picking it up again. It took me nearly seven months to even consider thinking about thinking about picking it up. And now that I have, I don’t know what to do. From a practical point of view, do I keep moving in the same direction because I hate to see all that work wasted? Or do I toss it and start again?  I have new story to tell, that’s the thing.  I’m not sure what’s been written in the past is the story anymore.

A few weeks ago, I started moving things around, expanded the family. Instead of just two siblings—brother and sister—I added a few more sisters, gave mom more presence (Yet, still no decision on the dad. Why? Not sure if it’s the practical or emotional side of my brain that’s making that decision. Probably a topic for another post…), more stuff to help me write what I know.  

And what I know is that close families are exceedingly complicated organisms. They are somehow fragile and unstable and fraught as well while at the same time they are stronger and tougher and more resilient than anything on earth.

And maybe that’s what I should have been doing all along.

PS: I've got you singing that song, now, don't I?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Loss and other Obstacles. For DDO

This is, admittedly, a misleading title.

It’s been a long time since I sat down at a keyboard to write something that wasn’t focused on injury prevention in developing countries (my day job). And it’s almost exclusively because my dad died. Suddenly and unfairly. So suddenly and so unfairly, in fact, that I remember being left with the sense that his death had been just a misunderstanding and if I could find whoever was in charge we could sort this out and everyone could go home happy, and in time for Jeopardy.

But of course that’s not how it happened. Eventually, we did go home, less one, though I must admit watching Jeopardy was really the only thing I could manage for a considerable amount of time. I think. I’m not really sure exactly what I did in those first few months. There’s evidence I showed up to work. I remember walking the dog in the cold and dark. Playing spider solitaire. I ate a lot of macaroni and cheese . I watched television. Unless the storylines involved fathers or loss. Or losses of fathers.

But what I did not do is write. Or read. I couldn’t. There was something in the way. Some big dark, heavy something. Besides, I knew I would find no comfort in any of it. I didn’t need the catharsis of writing. I’m pretty sure I was uncontrollably catharting all over the place. That avalanche of grief—the sorrow and heartbreak and despair and helplessness, the exhaustion and frustration and regret—still rushed down the mountain toward me no matter what I did. And a lousy pen wasn’t going to stop it.

It’s grief, I know. It doesn’t have a logic. It’s no more logical than, you know, the death that brought it on.  But in a way, it’s strange (ironic, maybe) that my grief at losing him is what ultimately got in the way of my writing.

At his viewing, the condolences from his friends and colleagues (some of whom I was meeting for the first time as they passed through the very long line on that very cold and very icy night) to me could be put into two distinct categories. The first was summed up nicely by a co-worker of his who said simply, “You know, your father never met a stranger.” Which was true. If he didn’t know a soul when he entered a room, he’d have at least a buddy or two by the time he left. Be it a remote airport in Alaska, or a crowded piazza in Capri, my dad loved to make friends.  The other was this: “Oh, you’re the writer! Your dad said you just had something published…”  This was also true. I had published a short story a few months before. In fact, the last memory I have of him, he’s sitting at my dining room table, a day after the family celebrated my 40th birthday, three days before he was gone, thumbing through the story yet again.

I knew he was proud of me. I have that. There is no mystery, no need to sort out a misunderstanding there. And I know he’d be disappointed, hurt, even, if he knew he was the cause of my extended hiatus. That fact has never been far from my thoughts, even when I was trying to blot out all thoughts.

I’m writing now, as you can see. Is this the first of many? I don’t know. The big, dark, heaviness of grief is still there, and I can’t say if I feel better or worse, but this wasn’t as frightening as I thought it was going to be.