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?