Monday, July 27, 2015

We Went to the Beach

I finally read a Kate Christensen novel.  Tim once suggested reading her and I turned up my nose.  "Isn't she an alcoholic?" was my unfortunate response. 

Of course, I was thinking of her first novel called In the Drink which I mistook for a memoir.  Ha!  Add this to the growing list of literary blips in my brain, like the time I was disappointed to learn that A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was not, in fact, a translated book of nonfiction.  Crestfallen!

In the Drink
is, in fact, about drinking too much.  It's also about being young and clueless in New York City which, on my good days, is something I write about, too. 

I really liked In the Drink, so much that I went upstairs to where my husband hoards - I mean, stores - a metric ton of books.  I pulled down The Great Man, Christensen's fourth novel.  It won a major prize!  The PEN/Faulkner, in 2008. 

In other book news, I finished Jonathan Franzen's book of essays, Farther Away.  Some people think it's fun to hate his guts but I really do like his writing, his nonfiction in particular.  I appreciate when he openly talks about his coming of age as a writer.   In "On Autobiographical Fiction," he walks through his many attempts to not write about his family or his past self while writing The Corrections.  A few things happened in his life that made "going there" safer.  First, his marriage, which was a bit of a hindrance and hotbed of misery, fell apart.  Then, his mom got sick.  Finally, he had a conversation with a friend who called him out on his worry about getting his brother's experience wrong.

To Franzen's shock, his friend says: "Do you think your brother's life revolves around you?  Do you think he's not an adult with a life of his own, full of things more important than you are?  Do you think you're so powerful that something you write in a novel is going to harm him?" 

Franzen also talks about the difficulties of starting new work, and how he has to become a new person to do so:

"I'd like to devote the remainder of my remarks to the idea of becoming the person who can write the book you need to write....I will note in advance that much of the struggle consisted - as I think it always will for writers fully engaged with the problem of the novel - in overcoming shame, guilt, and depression.  I'll also note that I'll be experiencing some fresh shame as I do this."

Ha!  If this were one of the email newsletters flooding my inbox every day, I would highlight "the struggle consisted in overcoming shame, guilt, and depression" and hang a little Tweet This! next to it. 

Except those pre-selected Tweet This! moments drive me up a wall.  Forget trying to write a novel; what could be more arrogant than assuming your thoughts are tweetable to someone else, am I right, Internet?

I'm gonna hop off my essay soapbox now.  My last post on Emily Fox Gordon was its own term paper, and I hope we all survived it!  This week, looking for a blueberry cake recipe for the mound of perfect berries waiting patiently in our freezer, I thought, why don't I just throw up some recipes on this site?  Would you guys think I'd lost my way? 

I haven't lost my way, I promise.  I'm just plugging away at summer, flirting with A/C and trying not to drink too many frozen Cokes.  Scott Spenser said a novelist is someone who sits around the house all day in his underwear, trying not to smoke.  Now that smoking is so out of vogue, the definition is probably closer to someone who sits around in her Lululemon pants all day, trying to do six minutes of yoga. 
Speaking of yoga, Samantha is practicing standing in the middle of the room on her own.  She crouches, pre-Crow pose, and inches up slowly.  If she makes it all the way up, she laughs hysterically.  If she falls on her butt, she takes it like a champ and starts all over.  It reminds me of learning new poses: the elation when I get it, the obsession to try again when I fall out of it, the taste of it like a memory in my muscles, a form trying to express itself, a fire starting in my cells.

I think, if you can get past some the shame or the guilt or the plain inexperience that keeps you from embracing the unknown, life can be kinda sweet sometimes.  What do you think?  Do you agree?  If so, tweet it!

More on beach trips here:

With a baby
With an Eric Vithalani poem
With a coupla self-esteem tips

As a friend of mine would say: You're welcome!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Wilds of Narrative: Emily Fox Gordon On Marriage, Writing, and Therapy

There's nothing like catching a cold in June to make you feel silly about yourself, but I did and I do, and I've basically been recovering from life for half a month now. 

We had visitors over Memorial Day.  We showed them all our favorite spots; basically, we did nothing but shove sugar and/or dairy in their mouths for days.  Now the rains have come to Michigan, ushering in luscious, bee-heavy greenery, making it apparent to everyone in the neighborhood how little education I have in horticulture.

The people who lived in our house before us had extraordinarily green thumbs - not to be confused with Sissy Hankshaw's extraordinarily large thumb, a la Tom Robbins' exquisitely titled Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.  They left behind hydrangeas, hostas, peonies, roses, and a bunch of other beautiful things I'm too ignorant to know the names of.  In fact, I call these plants no names at all as I swing in the hammock and ponder just who is going to pull up the flowering vines that send alarmingly assertive shoots every which way around our fecund property.  It sure isn't going to be me. 

Whenever I get sick and/or stressed, I can usually trace my unhappiness back to a lack of quality narrative.  Either it's been too long since I've watched a good movie or I'm reading too many books at once and can't find a foothold in one.  Worst of all is when I realize I'm not reading anything at all, not even back issues of favorite magazines I keep around, issues Sam has somehow not discovered yet because they hide behind the stroller in the living room - so far, so good. 

This May, I suffered a fit of reading starts.  Nothing quite stuck and I was out of sorts until I got my hands on Book of Days, a collection of personal essays by the divinely registered Emily Fox Gordon. 

Where to begin?  Gordon is a marvel.  I heard her speak on a panel at AWP this year, and I pretty much fell in love on the spot.  As her fellow panelists spoke - including John T. Price who moved half the room to tears - Gordon looked down at the table.  She drummed it occasionally, as if rapping out a rhyme.  Was she okay?  She might have been rehearsing what she had to say, but I couldn't be sure.  I was actually a little nervous for her.  Was she prone to forgetfulness?  Hadn't she prepared?  Would she pull off what she needed to say when it was her time to speak? 

I needn't have worried.  When she spoke on the topic of creating secondary characters in non-fiction, she was candid and full of such fascinating phraseology, I see now why her writing astounds.  What appeared to cause much effort on the part of her brain, her drumming and pondering while waiting to speak, I want to believe may just have been her way.  We all want our artists to be charmingly eccentric, don't we?  Or is that just my wish, my Southerness showing? 

In any case, I wanted to take her home with me. 

Instead I did the far more socially appropriate thing and checked out her book from the library.  The essays in Book of Days spear and turn around the fact that Gordon was institutionalized as a teenager for behavior that was, in essence, symptomatic of deeper rifts happening at home.  Her account of the psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires where she spent several years of her youth is sober and forgiving, wicked and artistic, forthcoming and tactful.  In short: so damn good. 

From an essay called "My Last Therapist":
"My therapeutic education did me harm.  It swallowed up years when I might have been learning, gathering competence and undergoing the toughening by degree that engagement in the world makes possible...I acquired the habit of the analysand, the ruthless stripping away of defenses.  But in my case not much self had yet developed, and surely none of it was expendable...I stayed for three years, years that I would otherwise have spent in college."

Throughout the book, Gordon speaks of the self-identity and self-esteem she finally found in her life through her irascible relationship to her husband, a philosophy professor.  (Her own father was an acclaimed academic, a topic she writes about with a kind of frank restraint in the essay "Faculty Brat," then with her ferocious intelligence in "Faculty Wife.")  She pirouettes through issues of feminism and analyzes the aggression that teemed in her personality for much of her life, aggression that didn't find its proper expression until she started writing after her daughter was born. 

I would never call my marriage irascible, nor use a phrase like "the vehemence of his anxiety" to describe anything about my husband, but I relate wholeheartedly to Gordon's understanding of marriage as an arena for journeying alongside not just another person but - because of that person's particular code of being, and how the two of you relate to each other - a place for discovering your own self, too.  (One of my favorite lines in the book, which of course I can't locate right now, went something like: I wasn't passive-aggressive.  I was passive and aggressive.)  Without dragging you through my own therapeutic garbage, let's just say, I appreciate this aspect of marriage.  I was able to commit to Tim because of the quality of his being, but on an elemental level the alchemy of marriage itself, some days, gives my breath back to me.

Gordon also puts into words the primal healing that occurred for her when she started to write seriously:

"In the years since I left Dr. B's office I've begun to write in earnest, and writing has allowed me - as nothing else, even the wisdom of [revered psychologist] Dr. Farber, ever has or could - to escape the coils of therapy.  I don't mean that writing has been therapeutic, though sometimes it has been.  The kind of writing I do now is associative and self-exploratory - much like the process of therapy, except that the therapist is absent and I've given up all ambition to get well."

She concludes this section about her final therapist with the words: "He was more than competent; he was really good at what he did, and got better as he went along.  Eventually he became a kind of adept.  He learned to vaporize at will like the Cheshire cat, leaving nothing behind but a glow of unconditional positive regard, allowing me spacious arena in which to perform my dance of self.  In resisting his impulse to lure me back into the charted territory of psychoanalytic explanation, he granted me my wish to be released into the wilds of narrative."   

I love that quick leap, in her prose, from the therapist's couch to the "wilds of narrative," and feel it gets at what I'm basically always trying to say: The practice of art is itself a kind of wilderness.  The link between the natural world and creativity is so strong in my life, I become lost without either of them.

I might have first written about this idea in a post I wrote four years ago.  I remember the night I wrote it fondly because my relatives were visiting and were teaching me how to use Facebook (!!).  Four years is not that long ago, in the span of Facebook, so it shows you how slow I was to that game. 

It's also important for me to link to that post because ever since I read this essay by Justin Hocking, I have felt a strange sense of gratitude and schooling, a humbling in the face of what Hocking says about Ken Kesey.  I just re-read the essay to cull some lines, but the language, while brilliant, is maybe stronger than some Sut Nam'ers might prefer.  (My inner Presbyterian is showing herself right now!)  The part I'm talking about, for which I was exceedingly grateful when I first read it, begins: "I don’t think I would have particularly liked Ken Kesey in the 60’s, or any decade, for that matter."  I've written about Kesey a couple of times on this blog, and I want to come clean and say, maybe I should have done a little more research before metaphorically running into the arms of his socio-literary-drinking-the-koolaid circles. 

All right lovelies, we've reached the end.  Check out Emily Fox Gordon and go for a hike, a walk, a seduction of mosquitoes.  And if you're in Michigan anytime soon, please come do my gardening for me.