December 10, 2013

The Responsibilities of Writers


This morning, NPR interviewed David Simon, writer and producer of The Wire, and Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, about the effect of the NSA surveillance on writers. Nafisi talked about how she’s heard of poets who censor themselves because of the NSA surveillance, and Simon talked about how writers have a responsibility to write anyway.  That got me thinking about the responsibilities that writers have. 

1.      To write. First and foremost, writers have a responsibility to write.  They have a talent, a skill, and they should use that skill.  The only way to be a writer, after all, is to write. Think of how what you’ve read has deeply affected you and what would have happened had that author not written whatever it is? Your words may have the same effect, and therefore you have a responsibility to your readers.

2.      To be brave. It’s easy to write what’s easy, not to push yourself, not to edit as much as you need to, not to reveal what you need to.  I believe in prudence ~ do no harm ~ but always ask yourself: “Am I holding back because of my concern for others, or am I just not being brave?” As Anne Lamott says, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Besides, your best material often comes from what shakes you to the core.

3.      To be honest and truthful. By this, I don’t mean not to write science fiction ~ science fiction is more emotionally truthful than some other types of writing.  What I mean is that if you write false, the reader will see right through you.  You may think you’re being clever, but readers are much smarter than some people give them credit for.  Don’t talk down and push yourself to be as accurate and honest as possible.

4.      To be clear.  I’ve found that when people use circuitous language, it’s often because they either don’t understand what it is they are trying to convey or they haven’t thought it through or they're being untruthful.  Others use fancy language when they’re trying to impress people ~ don’t do that.  You just come across as unintelligible and pompous. On the other hand, there are things that are hard to convey, and so you have the responsibility of working even harder to convey them clearly.

5.      To write to the best of their ability and to continue to improve their craft.  We need to write well, and so we need to always be working to get better at what we do.  10,000 hours, and all that.  And as Gladwell says, it not only has to be practice, but you have to challenge yourself and find mentors, if you can.

6.      To consider the rhetorical situation, especially audience. Unless you’re writing totally for yourself ~ which is fine, too ~ you have to consider the needs of an audience.  I think of it as a sin, in fact.  You also need to consider the genre you’re writing in and what you’re trying to achieve.  “Everything is an argument,” as they say, and you need to use all your tools to convince your readers.

7.      To represent the interests of their client, much like a lawyer.  Sometimes we’re not writing for ourselves, and there’s no shame in that.  Writing for money isn’t bad.  In that case, we need to put our own needs and agendas aside and consider those of the people we represent above all else.  There are many writers who consider this their highest calling ~ to represent an organization and change the world.

8.      To entertain.  Be not boring.  This came as a surprise to students when I taught freshman comp.  You not only have to write well, but you have to try to engage your audience.  It helps if you’re engaged with the subject yourself, and I’ve never found a subject that didn’t engage me in some way once I got into it. 

9.      To be good literary citizens.  Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit, and so it’s easy to become isolated.  I think we have a responsibility to help other writers ~ whether it’s volunteering at a grade school or giving other writers feedback and encouraging them or running a litmag or something else. 


You’ll notice what’s not on this list.


1.      To follow your heart.  I'm not saying not to write what you want, but, you know what, sometimes you just need to write for money to feed your family, and what’s more noble than that? Also, writing is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration, as they say ~ trust your fingers, not your heart.

2.      To write what you know.  There is truth in this, in that you should write clearly and truthfully.  However, don’t let this dictum confine you.  You’re a white male surburban kid?  You don’t have to write just about white male suburban kids.  What I take from this is to write what you care about and write about it truthfully.

3.      To be likable.  We have no responsibility to be likable and in some situations we have a duty to shake people out of their complacency.  I think this is a hard one for some women writers, including myself.

4.      To create likable characters.  Likable can be very boring. Claire Messud said it best: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

5.      To fight for the underdog ~ or the top dog, for that matter.  By this, I mean we need to question our knee-jerk reactions, and we don’t have a responsibility to have a certain take on things.   We as Americans tend to go for the underdog, but sometimes the establishment is trying to do good in the world too, and maybe they need to be represented.

6.      To be moral. I recently read this on the interwebs: “A writer should change readers into better humans.” Bullshit.  You can try to do this, sure, but there are many other goals in writing, and much writing that has changed the world has been considered immoral by the people of its time.  Harm no innocents, surely, but also don’t be afraid to tell your truth, as most likely it’s someone else’s truth.

December 5, 2013

'Argos' by Michael Collier

I love this poem.

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ARGOS
by Michael Collier

If you think Odysseus too strong and brave to cry,
that the god-loved, god-protected hero
when he returned to Ithaka disguised,
intent to check up on his wife

and candidly apprize the condition of his kingdom,
steeled himself resolutely against surprise
and came into his land cold-hearted, clear-eyed,
ready for revenge--then you read Homer as I did,

too fast, knowing you'd be tested for plot
and major happenings, skimming forward to the massacre,
the shambles engineered with Telemakhos
by turning beggar and taking up the challenge of the bow.

Reading this way you probably missed the tear
Odysseus shed for his decrepit dog, Argos,
who's nothing but a bag of bones asleep atop
a refuse pile outside the palace gates. The dog is not

a god in earthly clothes, but in its own disguise
of death and destitution is more like Ithaka itself.
And if you returned home after twenty years
you might weep for the hunting dog

you long ago abandoned, rising from the garbage
of its bed, its instinct of recognition still intact,
enough will to wag its tail, lift its head, but little more.
Years ago you had the chance to read that page more closely

but instead you raced ahead, like Odysseus, cocksure
with your plan. Now the past is what you study,
where guile and speed give over to grief so you might stop,
and desiring to weep, weep more deeply.

December 4, 2013

'I Love Deadlines'


Douglas Adams (via)

"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." ~ Douglas Adams 

December 3, 2013

Agreements

Not actually my son ;) (via)

My son’s been giving me a bad time lately.  He’ll say, “Mommy, it’s all your fault.”  He’ll drop his bread on the floor or make a mess or nothing at all will happen, and he’ll say, “It’s your fault, Mommy.”  He’s joking, I know he’s joking, and he knows that I know he’s joking. All in good fun, and we laugh. 

But I was thinking about the social agreements we make, the way we agree on what’s “normal” and what’s acceptable ~ which amounts to the assumptions we make. You know how a couple will have a certain way they do things.  She stays at home with the kids and does all the housework and he goes out to his job but doesn’t have to do any housework or “help” with the kids.  Or he does the cooking and she does the laundry and they share taking care of the kids.  Or he’s the primary caregiver to the kids because she can’t handle it for long. You get the picture.

We personally have these agreements between us, but then society, too, has agreements.  The idealized nuclear family is an agreement: wife keeps the home and kids while husband goes to a job outside the home.  All this is, however, is an agreement, and these things change over time.

What’s interesting about all this is that we often take those agreements we’ve been handed by our parents and never question them.  The nuclear family is how it “should” be.  Two people of the same sex having a loving relationship and getting married? Inconceivable.  It’s inconceivable because that’s the agreement we’ve inherited and we take the status quo as “normal” and “acceptable,” and anything outside that is “unnatural” or the other.

I was particularly struck yesterday by a number of articles I read that illustrated this.  One was from the Guardian ~ and I can’t seem to find it now ~ about a man who raped and killed his wife.  The point of the opinion piece was that we blame the rape victim and tell her (or him) that they should have done something different, that it was their fault.  By saying that, we’re setting normal that way, rather than saying the rapist is the one who is responsible for his own actions.  He (and it is most often a “he”) should be held accountable rather than the victim.  Another was about the practice of gaslighting, named from the iconic 1944 MGM film, where you call a person crazy and discount their feelings and thoughts so much that they question their own impulses.  A third one was about a woman who witnessed a man undermining another young woman and her writing, and how the woman took the chance and pointed out the gaslighting. A lot in the news about this type lately.

It takes a lot to change these givens.  First you’ve got to understand what’s going on and then you’ve got to call people out on it.  You’ve got to make boundaries and change normal to something that takes your reality into account.  It’s really hard to do ~ on a personal level and on a societal level.

That’s a little of what my son is doing ~ gaslighting.  We all do it to varying degrees.  It’s all in good fun, but it’s also a way to control your world, to try to get your way.  It’s a way to nudge the agreement.

December 2, 2013

The Stories Don’t Suck


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It was a great Thanksgiving.  Amid driving to Omaha, eating deep-fried turkey and Guinness cake, seeing Frozen in 3D with cousins, and talking nonstop, I edited through my story collection.  Only one more story to go and I’ll have an almost final draft!

One thing that was cool about it was I used my Asus Infinity tablet with a docking station/keyboard to do it.  It was a little slow, but so totally worth it with the portability and flexibility.  I loved being able to sit at the dining room table with everyone around and work and then have it in the car on the way there and back.  Very productive.  The Word I use (Kingsoft Office) does not have full capabilities and takes a little to get used to, but it worked great.

But the thing I loved most was the thing that inevitably happens:  the stories didn’t suck.  Most writers I know are like this.  They write something, and they may think it’s good or not. But the more time that passes, the more they are convinced that the story is absolutely no good and they’ll be mortified when they go back and read it.  But when they do finally go back ~ you know what? ~ they’re not so bad.  In fact, some of them are decent.

That was my experience this weekend editing through my stories.  Some of them needed some work, especially the oldest ones, but the newer ones weren't half bad!

October 28, 2013

'A Gardener Is an Artist'


Reading a fabulous nonfiction/popular history For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.  Fascinating stuff.  And this passage, wow!

Butchart Gardens (via)
Although science was very much at the core of Fortune’s work, he was at heart a gardener, and a gardener is an artist: His canvas is land; his medium, plants.  A gardenre works in a three-dimensional world, taking into account the relative heights of trees and depths of borders, the slope of a hillside, and the views to be borrowed or enhanced.  But he works in a fourth dimension as well: time.  A gardner plans for seasons: which trees will bloom in spring (forsythia, magnolia, cherry, lilac, and apple) and which will reach their peak of color in autumn (acer, euonymus, and elder).  A gardner’s art also spans years ~ in determining which trees mature quickly and grow tall easily, such as birch, ash, and the softwood evergreens such as cedqar, fir, and pine, and which grow slowly and with some effort to leave a lasting legacy, such as oak, beech,a nd maple, which stand for generations.  Fortune was well aware that to be a great gardener demanded great patience.” ~ Sarah Rose, For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History

September 11, 2013

I am honored to have a piece up at Role/Reboot! Have you read the article in CNNMoney about men in traditional marriages tend not to promote women in the workplace? This is my response, "Men in Traditional Marriages Are Less Likely to Promote Women at Work. Here's What to Do About It."


An excerpt:

Men in traditional marriages are much more likely to deny promotion to women in the workplace, according to a study last year. In other words, if your boss is married to a woman who stays at home, you as a woman may not get that promotion, even if you’re qualified.
The study had several other key findings—that those same men are much more likely to view women in the workplace unfavorably, to perceive organizations with high numbers of women employees as operating less smoothly, and to view organizations with female leaders as “relatively unattractive.”
“The consistent pattern of results found across multiple studies employing multiple methods and samples demonstrates the robustness of the findings,” reports Sreedhari D. Desai (UNC Chapel Hill and Harvard), Dolly Chugh (NYU), and Arthur P. Brief (U of Utah).
Maybe we haven’t “come a long way, baby.”

Click here to read more.

August 23, 2013

To Be Famous, You Have to Document Yourself

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“History goes to those who leave stuff.” ~ me
Have you ever noticed that biographies and documentaries are most often about people who leave a paper trail or a video trail or photo trail?  Coincidence? I think not.

August 22, 2013

Al Jazeera America


I loved watching the new news station Al Jazeera America last night.  I think it’s so cool that we have this option, and I hope the channel makes it. Somewhat because we have entrenched political debate in this country, and this might stir things up, but moreso because I love the chance to get away from “The Danger of a Single Story.”

You know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fabulous TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” don’t you?  (If not, I’ve put it below.)  She talks about how America has a narrative of what Africa is and isn’t and how her work is not only a reaction to that but a claiming of her own story.  This happens throughout history.  People yearn for a single line of meaning for the world, preferably that involved their kin in the main storyline.  Unfortunately and fortunately, that’s not the way the world works.  Everybody is the hero of their own story, but if they have the power (hegemony) they get to impose their story, their version of the truth, on the multitude of other narratives out there. 

Creating meaning for a group isn’t a bad thing.  It’s human nature, how we make our lives have worth.  But we have to acknowledge the many narratives that there are.  Like the Harper’s piece by William T. Vollman about being suspected of being the Unibomber.  In an interview on NPR, he talks explicity about his America and what it means.  (Mikhail Bakhtin has some interesting things to say about the centripetal and centrifugal forces in national dialog.)

Some of the things I love about the new Al Jazeera America channel.  The fact that most of the anchors are nonwhite (by that I mean not of European American descent).  That it has an international focus yet still covers the U.S.  That it tells positive and negative stories.  That there is dialog and disagreement and vehement discussion.  That The Nation advertises on it, and you can go online on Facebook and participate in the discussion.  Most of all, there is pushback against the dominant lines of discussion. 

Very cool.  And here’s the wonderful Adichie for your moment of zen.
 

August 5, 2013

'Motherhood Isn't Always a Choice' Up at Role/Reboot


One day I noticed on my Facebook feed a fascinating article at this website called Role/Reboot.  Then just the next day I saw another.  I kept clicking over and reading all these great articles by wonderful writers, all from this same site, and they kept popping up on my Facebook feed.  Needless to say I've had writer's envy ever since and wanted to publish something for a long time.  And now I have! Thank you, Role/Reboot! You guys rock.

A teaser:

Motherhood Isn't Always a Choice
For years, Tamara Linse wanted to have a baby, and she could get pregnant, just couldn't stay pregnant. So "choosing" to have kids isn't always that simple.
As I read the recent article “Having It All Without Children” in Time magazine, I was struck time and again with the word choice. Women choose to have children, while other women choose not to. Some variation of the word occurs throughout the article.
Choice is not a word I would have applied to motherhood in 1998. I was 29, and my husband and I had been married for five years. We wanted to wait to have children until we paid off our car payments and student loans, both of us working two jobs, and had remodeled the early 20th century Victorian we bought the year we married. We were nesting. We didn’t think of it that way, but there’s no other way to put it.
I should take a step back. Growing up, I was not a baby person. I was the youngest of seven, so there weren’t a lot of babies around for me to take care of. I didn’t gravitate toward babies, but I liked them, and I always thought I’d have a couple. Of course I would: My mom had had seven, and one of my sisters had seven, along with four step-children.
But then, at age 29, my husband and I lost our first baby at six months’ gestation. I went to that particular appointment by myself, and so I was alone when the matronly OB/GYN told me that the ultrasound showed no heartbeat. She had this look in her eye I will never forget. Compassion and empathy, certainly, but also a withdrawal, as if I had something, as if I were something that she had to protect herself against, the emotional equivalent of crossing herself.

For more, click on over to Role/Reboot.

July 10, 2013

The Amazing 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

No, I'm not talking about the movie.  I'm talking about the fabulous series created by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Cue crazy screaming fan-girl!  Avatar: The Last Airbender, created for Nickelodeon, is single-handedly one of the best shows in recent history, animated or no.  You should watch it!

And I always love the behind-the-scenes look at things.  Avatar always was a bit of a mystery, as they didn't do much publicity for that, but I was thrilled ~ thrilled! ~ the other day to come across this video interview of the co-creators. I love to hear them talk about the creation of it and the craft of it.  I love how they went above and beyond, outside of the received notions of what good animated film should be.  I love that they based it on real-life martial arts imagery and ideas ~ the best art has a firm grounding in reality, as well as lots of imagination.

I just love it.  Here you are!


July 3, 2013

The Power of a Well-Told Story

From Two American Families (via the New Yorker)

If you screened Two American Families for Charles Murray and other social critics who believe that the decline of America’s working class comes from a collapse of moral values, social capital, personal responsibility, and traditional authority, they would probably be able to find the evidence they’d need to insulate themselves against the sorrow at the heart of the film.
But the intellectually honest response to this film is much less comforting, for the overwhelming impression in Two American Families is not of mistakes but of fierce persistence: how hard the Stanleys and Neumanns work, how much they believe in playing by the rules, how remarkable the cohesion of the Stanley family is, how tough Terry Neumann has to become. Both families devoutly attend church. Government assistance is alien and hateful to them. Keith Stanley says, “I don't know what drugs or even alcohol looks like.” In the words of Tammy Thomas, whose similar story is told in my new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, these people do what they’re supposed to do. They have to navigate this heartless economy by themselves. And they keep sinking and sinking.

This is George Packer in the New Yorker talking about a new PBS Frontline documentary Two American Families about the declining prosperity of two families in Milwaukee.  I would like to see it, though I know it’ll be heart-wrenching.

But what I love is Packer’s point about stereotyping vs. the power of detail.  It’s easy to insulate ourselves from pain and social responsibility through the power of reducing someone ~ or a whole class of people ~ to an idea.  We can dismiss it handily without feeling any remorse.  It’s the same way hunters can bear to kill living breathing animals and soldiers can murder other people.  The other is reduced to an object, a target, an idea.  Hunters and soldiers have to, or they couldn’t provide for or protect their families and their homelands.  It would tear them up and often does anyway.  But in a social context, it’s a choice, an easy out.

But I’m not here to soapbox you.  My point is the power of detail.  The way you reach people is through the immense empathy created by a well-told story.  Le mot juste, the exact right word, or words. That’s Packer’s point.  This documentary has the power, if you give it “an intellectually honest response,” to push you past your comfortable notions of who deserves and who is to blame and to see on an individual level the effects of forces beyond their control.

As a fiction writer and as someone who does marketing for my job, I am constantly reminded of the power of details, of a narrative, to move people.  Writing can be used for infinite good, for empathy, for love. That’s why I strive every day to get better at it.

July 2, 2013

Toxic People

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So, some idiot that I hardly know on Facebook said something about getting tired of toxic comments and unfriending and unfollowing those people.  I thought it was an excellent idea ~ you should be free to associate with whom you want to and not with those you don’t.  It’s your prerogative.  I like the idea of removing toxic people from your life.  

So I said so.  I commented, “That’s what’s great about being an adult. You get to choose who you associate with.”  I should have known better.  He wrote, “Tamara, you’re outta here” and unfriended me.

It shouldn’t bother me, but of course it does.  That’s why I’m writing this blog post ~ to help purge it.  Must develop thicker skin. That said, I’m happy not to be friends with someone who takes good will and twists it.  Ironic, though, that he saved me the trouble of doing exactly what he was trying to do.

Have a happy life!

July 1, 2013

Putting Yourself Out There


One of the things I’ve realized through this blog and my writing is that, to be a public person, you have to share your life.  That is what people want from you.  They want to be let in.  They want to know how you spend your days and your triumphs and your failures and your good times and those times that make you blush to think about.  Sometimes they want to be uplifted, but sometimes they want to laugh at you.  It doesn’t really matter.  They want to be let in.

I guess I knew this on a visceral level, but I hadn’t realized the extent to which it is true.  It’s definitely true for TV celebrities, of course.  Reality TV.  We want to see all the intimate details of the latest star who’s famous for being famous.  We want to be let into their living rooms, their refrigerators, their bedrooms.  Certainly a human impulse.  I can imagine that the producers of reality television encourage them to reveal even more than they’re comfortable with.  And we the public want ever-increasing levels of intimacy.  And people are willing to give it, even at the sake of their dignity (sounding like an old fart here). 

But it’s also true of writers and artists.  You have to let people in in the same way if you become a celebrity, of course ~ and after all that’s one of the main reasons writers write and artists paint (see George Orwell’s Why I Write) ~ but you also have to let people in through your art.  By that I mean the best art often comes from that part of the artists that is painful, embarrassing, heart-wrenching.  You are transmuting the horrors and joys of your life into this aesthetic and emotional object, a journey for the viewer. 

People have a need for art, for writing, for an aesthetic rendering of their lives or someone else’s.  What we call the Touchy Feely Show (New Dimensions) was talking just today about that ~ about how narrative is not this idle thing but rather an ordering of our world that deeply impacts our lives.

And I guess, finally, what I was realizing is that being a public figure is a choice.  You have to put yourself out there.  You have to share.  Honesty and lived truth has to shine through your work because that’s how you reach people.  Which takes courage.

May 23, 2013

The Elements of Glamour

I love people who take a subject and riff on it, and so this video is fascinating.  Virginia Postrel talks about the elements of glamour.

Something like this: Glamour = idealization + sprezzatura + distance + mystery.

The point she makes that I love is what’s left out.  What I’m trying to write is somewhat the opposite of glamour ~ I try to capture the small moments in life and dramatize them effectively. These moments are often the unglamorous ones, the ones that more stylized writing leaves out.

I’m going to be thinking about this a long time.  How do I encorporate glamour to make a more satisfying piece of art yet stay true to lived experience?


May 21, 2013

Tornados Are Self-centered

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This morning, on the way to an orthodontist’s appointment in Fort Collins.

“That tornado is self-centered,” my seven-year-old daughter says from the back seat.

 “What, Sweet?” I say.

“That tornado, the one in Oklahoma.  It’s self-centered.”

“Well, I guess it is. That’s a good way to put it.”

A pause, then she says, “It’s because he’s angry and sad.”

“The tornado?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says.  “The tornado is angry and sad because he doesn’t have any friends.  And he’s self-centered.”

“Oh.”  So that explains it.

May 17, 2013

Nonconfrontational

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I’m nonconfrontational.  My husband is nonconfrontational.  Our families tend to be nonconfrontational (well, except for the Outlaw Cousins, but you know how it is).

That’s why Facebook has been so interesting lately.  The more friends I get, the more likelihood something I say or post is going to get a strong response from someone.  I had to unfriend someone because I posted something that pissed him off once and then ever after he would attack me on my comment section.  I gave him a couple of chances and then unfriended him.  I’ve even touched off some good friends. 

Which is funny, because I am by nature noncontroversial.  I have strong feelings about things, but because I’m nonconfrontational I keep my mouth shut.  I don’t comment generally on people’s posts in my feed that I think are wrong-headed or downright dumb.  They have their right.

And pretty much everything I post is pretty milquetoast (mmmm, milk toast, yum).  I stay away from religion and politics.

It keeps me in my comfort zone, but then I think: Is this part of me not being brave again?  It seems like everywhere I turn nowadays, I’m getting hints that I need to be braver, to stand up more, to reveal more, to not shy away from confrontation. Which seriously is against my natural inclinations.

I do love a good indepth intellectual discussion, however, even if the person doesn’t agree with me.

What do you think?  Braver?  Or why can we just get along?

May 16, 2013

Wisdom of the Ages



Marilyn Monroe and Groucho Marx (via)
Well, Art is Art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know. ~ Groucho Marx

May 15, 2013

What Virginia Woolf Represents for Me



Today, on the anniversary of the publication of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, the Paris Review posted the cover and this quote from the novel on Facebook.

Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks—all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.

This is in the point of view of a war veteran with PTSD named Septimus who kills himself in a later section.   

I’ve read almost everything written by VW, including her diaries.  I very much identify with her.

One of the many things I love about VW is that she did what I try to do, which is to dramatize everyday moments, some of them mundane but some of them horrific.  How appropriate and wonderful and horrible that this is a man about to commit suicide?  And then VW herself commits suicide.  By that I mean that he notices the beauty in the world, just as she does through her writing.

But what I really love about VW is how she’s all mixed up in my mind with England.  I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Anglophile.  I think it originated from reading The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden and all those wonderful children’s books as a child.  I took such comfort in the worlds that were created.  And then it translated to reading English writers as an adult.  I am transported to another world when I read English authors.  Nothing like they imagined, I suppose ~ my own made-up place, my very own Pooh Corner. 

Strangely, all VW’s dark material within this world just endears her to me more.  Because for me it’s a safe world in which to explore those dark feeling that I have too.  Here is Septimus leaping to his death onto a wrought iron fence, but he’s seeing beauty, and right around the corner is Mrs. Dalloway, who’s concerned with past love affairs and social convention. 

She also brings to mind my lovely trip to London and Dublin.  I stayed at a fabulous B&B in South Kensington run by Miss St. Clair, a lovely older lady whose parents were in Africa with the military when she was born.  I stayed for a week in each city, and those memories stick in my mind ~ the free museums, having Kerala cuisine in a little out-of-the-way place, watching 15-minute Shakespeare, and meeting my English professors to take in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. So much more. By the end of the trip, though, I was homesick and had to stay the last night in a dark little place.  I obsessed a little about VW that last night, definitely shouldering her dark moods.

But when I see the name “Virginia Woolf,” I immediately get a feeling that’s hard to describe.  Nostalgic, certainly.  A healthy dose of innocent Winnie the Pooh feeling. But also a dose of darkness that deepens the feeling.

She, along with Hemingway, is one of my writer gods.

May 14, 2013

Act Like One

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I love the website The Art of Manliness.  As the daughter, wife, sister, and mother of men (and soon-to-be men) I’m really concerned about how to nurture them and help them have pride in who they are.  Also because I’ve often felt like an interloper in an enemy camp ~ many women I know, myself included, have tried to have self-worth by shunning their femininity and trying to be a man.  So I guess you could say I’ve thought a lot about it.

I love this post by Brett, the founder of The Art of Manliness, about how to be a man.  One of his main points is this:  if you want to be a man, act like one.  Figure out what you think a man is and then pretend.  A good man is a good father, and so be a good father.  Don’t opt out or wait until you feel like it.  A good man is someone who upholds his responsibilities, and so uphold your responsibilities.  A good man is a good friend and stand up for others.  And so on.

Above all, don’t wait for someone to give you permission to be what you already are.  Just act.  Just do it.  Even if you don’t feel like you are, that you can own it.  Just go ahead and be it.

This is great advice in any area of life.  This is particularly applicable for being a writer.  You don’t need permission to be a writer.  You don’t need a teacher or an MFA to tell you you’re a writer.  Writers write.  If you write, you’re a writer.  You don’t even necessarily need readers to be a writer.  The one you most need to give you permission is yourself. 

So go forth and virile agitur ~  “the manly thing is being done” or just do it. Do it every day.  Whatever it is that you are ~ stop resisting and own it, do it.

May 13, 2013

Mothering in a Larger Sense

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Everyone has an opinion about mothers.  Everyone has a mother, or a couple mothers, or an absent mother.  And there are many mothers who are fathers and fathers who are mothers. It’s personal.  People feel strongly about mothers.

I was struck about the sheer volume of strong feelings expressed on Facebook yesterday.  Many of them were blanket positive, but there were many that were negative too ~ either they had a horrible mom or they can’t have children or some other combination.  Pain and anger are perfectly legitimate responses to mothers.

I don’t know how people can have a straight positive or negative response, though.  Life is not like that.  No person is perfect and fulfills our every need.  Likewise, no person is all bad.  I believe there is a continuum, and some mothers are mostly good and some are mostly bad, but our response ~ because it is such an intimate relationship ~ is inevitably mixed.  It changes over time too.  You may have been in conflict with you mother as a teenager and then realized so much once you have children of your own. 

We live in a cynical age.  We do not embrace platitudes easily.  We are happy to shoulder the negative and glory in it, but believing in something pure and good is seen as naïve at best. We wear our hairshirts proudly for all to see and we boast about it.

I would like to make a case for motherhood as nurturing.  Not a personal thing ~ not your mother or my mother.  Rather, a platonic ideal, a daily practice,  a way of life.  I would like make the case that nurturing is a powerful force for good in this world.  The maternal side in mothers and women who are not mothers and in little girls and in fathers and men who are not fathers and in little boys and in transgendered people and in single people and in people of every stripe.  I would like to hold up as an icon that part of everyone that puts the needs of others ahead of itself, that sees within the person the baby that each person was and cares deeply for them, the creator of meals and safety, the one who will face down the tiger or the bureaucracy or the abuser for  the sake of another.  All those traits we associate with the ideal mother, the ideal nurturer ~ those are the things I would like to celebrate, that I think the world needs more of.

Like David Foster Wallace said, the clichés are true.  That’s the reason they are clichés.  But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored.  They are clichés because they are no longer fresh and they don’t surprise you into feeling the emotion that they used to.  If you really thought about them, if you really let yourself feel for the other person, to put yourself in their shoes, how could you feel anything else but profound empathy, do anything else but nurture. 

I’m as guilty as the next person of pulling the chitinous armor around me and shutting it all out.   But I need to be braver.  You need to be braver.  We all need to make this world by love, not war.

Happy Mothers’ Day.

May 10, 2013

Come to the Circus!




My two seven-year-olds have been wanting to go to the circus for forever. We always seem to miss it when it comes to town.  Well, last night we made it, and the kids were thrilled!

It was the Jordan World Circus, and it’s amazing.  It was held inside our local ice arena. We walk in the door, and the three women taking tickets are dazzling in their costumes and makeup and they speak with a thick Russian Accent.  My kids’ eyes widen, and my daughter says, “Do you speak Spanish?” “No, no,” the woman taking our tickets says. 

We walk through the door into the arena area with its three rings, and instead of the usual dusty or wet nonsmell, there’s the fecund smell of animals and of cotton candy and nachos.  We were right on time, but it looks like we’re early because all the performers and hands are focused and rushing here and there setting things up and taking things down.  As it turns out, it’s this way throughout the performance.  Everything is in transition, in a flurry of being torn down or being constructed off in the shadows to the side of the spotlight.  We didn’t arrive early ~ we arrived in the midst. Everyone not in costume is wearing black, but not just black pants and t-shirt.  No, the black they wear is a costume too and reminds me of old-world Europe with the flare of South America.  Everyone also walks with purpose and pride ~ they know their jobs and do them well.

We buy some cotton candy and some popcorn and find our seats.  The first act to come out are the tigers.  They have something like eight tigers, three of them white tigers.  They are pulled out by stage hands in a long train of cages, two animals per cage.  A circular arena with pedestals has been erected, and the animals are let two by two into the arena.  The tamer is the only one who comes in with them, though there is someone along the side to poke the reluctant white tiger with a long stick.  The tigers do cool things like walk backwards twice across the ring, roll over in unison, and jump through a flaming hoop.  They don’t seem dangerous, bored more than anything, except for a time or two where one or another seems irritated.  As I sit there, I wonder two things:  1)  How dangerous is it really? They look well-fed. 2) I’m sitting yards away from eight tigers.  What if they decide they don’t wnat to take it any more?  We’re nothing more than mice to them. (Ever seen a cat play with a mouse?)

Next was an amazing bicyclist doing tricks.  He was gravity-defying and did a double flip and landed on his wheels.  There were skate tricks and in-the-air hoop dancers and juggling and hula hoops and contortionist and a guy balancing on a chair.  There were beautiful majestic elephants standing on each other’s backs and spinning in circles and a woman riding on one’s back and trunk.  There were two hilarious father-and-son clowns who each tried to get the crowd on his side. From the website, I see the performers are from all over the world ~ Russia, Hungary, Columbia, Costa Rica, and the United States.  The circus itself is out of Las Vegas.

I particularly loved the women.  They were what women should be.  They looked like superheroes.  They were oh-so-strong and curvaceous and so physically brave and proud that you wanted to stand and cheer just looking at them.

I’ll give the circus this: they are masters of separating you from your cash.  Which is the point, for them, after all ~ they have to make a living.  It isn’t cheap to feed elephants and tigers, I’m sure.  The community hands out free tickets for kids, but that’s how they suck you in.  Adult tickets are $18, most food or drink is $5, the elephant or pony rides are $5, and it quickly adds up to a bundle.  However, you don’t mind a bit, except when you run out of money and the kids are begging for more.

The kids loved it.  They sat wide-eyed and kept saying, “That is amazing!” I was so happy to hear that.  In this age of movie effects and unreal reality shows, we get desensitized to how dangerous these things really are, and how impossible they are.  I really felt the danger.  And the wonder, which is what a circus is all about, after all.  My favorite was the elephants.  Just standing there looking at them.  Their eyes are wells of time ~ you can just lose yourself in them.  One of them had this beautiful fuzz of black hair all over, and their bodies are miracles of Mother Nature’s engineering. 

We’re looking to see when Barnum & Bailey comes to Denver.

May 9, 2013

Hello Again

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I’m going to start blogging again, and I’m really excited about it!

I wasn’t excited for the last couple of months.  In fact, I was quite the opposite.  I was as low as I’ve been since high school.  I not only couldn’t write ~ I couldn’t even read for a while.  That’s the first time that’s happened EVER.  I watched a marathon of Law & Order SVU and furiously doubted my very credibility as a writer.  It’s made me think a lot about the way I limit my own writing success just through lack of the necessary self-confidence.  Hubris, some would say.

But now a new day dawns. I’m working on several really exciting projects, which you’ll hear more about in the coming months. Yes. 

I’m sending you all good vibes and good luck!

PS  Very timely.  Chuck Wendig posted a link on Facebook to Hyperbole and a Half's post about depression. Exactly.

February 26, 2013

Brain Candy

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Don’t you just love smart in-depth content?  Well, I’ve collected some links over the years to some really great sites.  So, for your Tuesday Rabbit Hole of the Mind, here they are.

·       TED, or Technology, Entertainment, and Design, a site that has great 20 minute talks by really smart people (http://www.ted.com/)

·       Byliner, which highlights amazing longform journalism and fiction and even has some great short book-length works in their Byliner Originals (https://www.byliner.com/)

·       Brain Pickings, a great site by Maria Popover that highlights and points to great smart and original content (http://www.brainpickings.org/)

·       Arts & Letters Daily, a site that points to really smart academic and related articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://www.aldaily.com/)

·       Open Culture, a free cultural and educational website (http://www.openculture.com/)

·       The Millions, smart people saying smart things (http://www.themillions.com/)

·       The New Yorker (of course) (http://www.newyorker.com/)

·       New York Times (of course) (http://www.nytimes.com/)

·       The Atlantic (of course) (http://www.theatlantic.com/)

·       Harper’s (of course) (http://harpers.org/)

 
And a bonus for those of you who forgot more about math than you ever knew:

·       The Khan Academy, the absolute best way to brush up on your algebra, trig, and calc (http://www.khanacademy.org/)

February 25, 2013

A Braver Life, or Today I Write

Bravery, by Nathaniel Eckstrom (via)

One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is fear as dream-killer.  The opposite of dreams is fear, I’m convinced.

It is very hard to live a brave life.  By brave, I mean following up on opportunities, going for your dreams, and allowing yourself to dream in the first part.  Going against the tides of your life and the world around you to go after that which lights you up, whether that’s doing art or following a career as an animal communicator or going to Africa to help the poor.

It’s so much easier to be safe, to do what we’re supposed to do.  I had a counselor once who said, “Don’t ‘should’ yourself to death.”  Because it can be death, a slow spiral where you feel like you’re drowning.  And the whole world around you and your family and friends all have an agenda for you.  They want you to be answering their needs, doing what you’re expected, and not changing an iota. 

And beyond that, you can take on the fears of those around you.  The political climate of the last ten or fifteen years has included lots of fear-mongering, and it’s like mass hysteria took over there for a while ~ even now with the whole gun thing.  It’s about fear.  And you can also take on the fears of those closest to you, and they only want what’s best for you, so you honor that and before you know it, your life is very small.

The problem with all this is you can’t just make one big decision and everything changes.  Well, you can decide, “I’m going to live a braver life,” but then what it comes down to is a whole bunch of very small decisions every day.  Do you carve away time to do your art, or do you do the laundry?  Do you follow up on that serendipitous connection a friend mentioned, or do you not bother?  Do you take care of your body so it’s in the best health it can be so that you’re ready to follow your dream, or do you get fast food because it’s cheap and easy?

So, a braver life, one tiny step at a time. Today I write.

PS And if you want a smart and hilarious take on being brave, read Patty Chang Anker's Facing Forty Upside Down blog (http://www.upside-down-patty.blogspot.com/) and follow her author page on FB (https://www.facebook.com/#!/PattyChangAnker) and her on Twitter (@PattyChangAnker).