Thursday, July 31, 2008

Blink of a word

Meryl Streep can convey more in the flicker of an eyelid or the twitch of her lip than most writers can in pages and pages of prose.
I am not sure how she does that.

Talent, genius, hours in front of a mirror. I am not sure.

But she knows how to use her medium – film – to its advantage. Close ups of her face and her (natural, instinctual, intentional?) minimal changes of expression can convey more than anything I have ever seen.

I wish that I could write more like Meryl Streep uses her face to convey emotion, plot, history, life.

I wish I could write more like Sarah McLachlan uses her voice to convey emotion, history, life.

I wish I could write more like Vincent Van Gogh painted the Plains of Auver. I love the three-dimensionality of his paint upon the canvas and the fact that he left blank spots.

I am not sure that written words can do this. It may well be a limit of the medium.

A limit of my talent, surely. But also perhaps a limit of the medium as well.

What works so well in a movie close up is lost on the vastness of the stage. Some actors can master both. Some cannot.

What works so well in a song is lost in simply spoken dialogue. Some can master both. Some cannot.

What works so well in poetry is lost in the novel. Some – a few – can master both. Some cannot.

It has come to my attention that I am physically incapable of writing short emails. IM and text messaging (beyond the simple technical aspects of poking in letters on my teeny tiny cell phone keypad) are hard for me to master.

While I feel the short story is more of my natural pace than the novel, the short email is almost beyond my capabilities. I mean, yes, sure, I can do it.

If I force myself.

And am self-conscious.

And not myself.

Some people complain that my emails are too long. Others don’t say anything, but I can tell they are put off by my verbosity. Still others probably don’t even bother to read my emails. If I can’t write everything I need to say in my subject line, they are ready to move on.

If I cannot say everything that needs to be said in about two or three terse, non-grammatical sentences full of quaint codes and shorthand, then clearly there must be something wrong with me. And what I have to say is most certainly not worth listening to.

Or something.

I think of myself as a writer.

As in someone who is compelled to write.

To put pen to paper or words upon a screen.

Constantly. All the time.

It is almost a sickness. A compulsion.

It is who I am. What I do.

The other day a friend of mine called me a storyteller.


No one ever called me that before.

She thought I felt a need to capture life in stories. She didn’t say that. She simply called me a storyteller.

She only needed one word.

I, on the other hand, need more than that.

Whole sentences.


Pages even.

To express myself.

I love the fact that the English language has more words than any other language. That we have more options and ways of expressing ourselves than anyone else on the planet. Not that I think of it as a competition. But rather that those of us who speak and write in English simply have a larger chest of treasures to choose from.

That means we should choose wisely.

We get to choose.

We have the privilege of choosing and because of that we should use that privilege judiciously. If we spoke certain other languages, we might have no choice at all. There might be only one word. Or no words. To convey what we mean.

Yes, I can write haikus.

And minimalist prose.

But my soul craves narrative, description, dialogue.

Not like I am Charles Dickens getting paid by the word or anything. I am paid nothing. And most of what I write is never read by anyone.

I don’t write because I want to be read, necessarily. I write because I have to.

I am very conscious of the words I use and the way I craft my sentences. I edit and re-edit. Blog posts. Emails even. Stories most definitely.

I know some of my email readers would be incredulous. How could that impossibly lengthy email have been edited?


Facts. Just the facts. We don’t want thoughts, emotions, fears.

I should convey my thoughts in extremely brief symbols. A hieroglyph might be helpful.

If I could capture the twitch of Meryl Streep’s eyebrow to convey everything I wanted to say, I would.

But I can’t.

I need words.

Lots of them.

I like description.


Witty dialogue.

Stories run through my veins. They pop out of my ears. Leak out of my pores. Seep out of my fingertips and into emails, blog posts, countless notebooks, Word documents. You name it.

I think about things like time. And how there are the same number of seconds in each and every day. But it doesn’t seem like that. Some days, some weeks are interminable. Like the movie Groundhog Day. Others whiz by, a blur.

I cannot believe it is almost a week now since I returned from vacation. This week, when you think about it, was no longer or shorter than last week. But it seems so different. On the one hand, each day seems so long. On the other, the entire week is almost gone.

Like sand through an hourglass, days of our lives….

I think about things like Rice-a-Roni. The San Francisco treat. There was an amazing piece on NPR this morning about the history of Rice-a-Roni. About how a young couple needed a place to live in San Francisco right after the end of WWII. Housing was short, because there were all of these servicemen returning from the war. The couple ended up renting a room from an elderly widow who lived in a small apartment. She had fled the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915, during the last great war. Her two young children had been lost in the chaos. Pregnant with a third child, she had wandered for months through the wilderness with other refugees, eventually ending up in Syria. Somehow she made it to America. She loved to cook, even in the cramped quarters of her small apartment. One of her specialties was rice pilaf, which included vermicelli noodles chopped up into itty bitty pieces. The young American wife learned how to make this rice pilaf, and her husband, who worked for a pasta company, thought it would make a great side dish in a box. A novelty in the late 40s, early 50s. And hence Rice-a-Roni was born.

I think about my children. Who are not home yet. Whom I miss terribly. They will be coming back this weekend.

I think about friends who are having health crises. Friends who are well. Friends who are making huge changes in their lives. Friends who are making no changes in their lives. My mother’s friend who passed away on Tuesday night.

I think about all sorts of things. Books I have read. The nightly news. Conversations I have overheard. Things I need to do. The color of the clouds in the sky. Traffic. The squabbling of political candidates. Bills I need to pay. What I am going to make for dinner tomorrow night. Global warming. And how obscene it is that Exxon/Mobile had the largest profits ever.

Meryl Streep would be able to convey all of this with a quiver of one eyelash. I, alas, must wrestle with words. And the fact that words are inadequate. Or that I am inadequate at using words to convey what Meryl Streep could convey with the quiver of one eyelash.


At least I have many, many words to choose from….

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Woman

Is it possible to separate the artist from the person, or the person from the artist?

I would say, unequivocally, no.

I can only speak, knowledgeably, to the artist as writer. I cannot address other media or creative processes, but I will take a leap and say that the artist and the person are inseparable.

Personally, I am always writing.

Sometimes on paper or the computer keyboard, yes, but always in my head. I don’t think I am ever “not” writing. I am always observing, taking note, eavesdropping on conversations, twirling phrases around in my head, writing huge chunks of story in my mind. This can be conscious or unconscious.

And then there is what is constantly going on below the level of consciousness, that hum of electric energy, that stewing and fermenting that never stops. And expresses itself sometimes in my dreams, my daydreams, my imaginary conversations and interactions, or even eventually in conscious thought or expressed word.

I am addressing this topic of the creative process because a co-worker and friend began to read my blog and noticed some similarities between things I was writing about and things we had talked about at work.

Where do I get topics for my blog?

Does real life influence what I write about? Or does what I write about emerge in real life?

The answer, of course, would be both.

Sometimes I will be talking about something and that will trigger thoughts in my mind about a possible blog topic, or it will somehow work its way into a current blog topic. Other times I will be writing a blog post, or mulling one over, and express verbally, out loud, some thoughts that once expressed seem right for that particular post.

Movies I see, books I read, news stories, events and interactions in my daily life, all of these can weave their way into something I am writing.

And not just into blog postings. Into anything I am writing: a story, a poem, an essay, a casual email musing.

What if I hadn’t had that conversation about x?

What if I hadn’t suddenly remembered something from my past which I would later weave into my writing?

Then my writing would have been different.

Perhaps I would have talked about something else instead. And a different thought or memory would have come into my head. And somehow gotten integrated into my writing.

As I was writing a recent blog post, I was conscious of the fact that I was weaving in something I had thought of/remembered and mentioned in a conversation earlier in the day. I was also conscious of the fact that the person I had had this conversation with might very well read my blog post and recognize it and call me on it.

Not many people read my blog. A few close friends with whom I share my blog URL, the occasional stranger who stumbles upon it or links to it from someone else’s blog.

Although a blog is open to the entire world, or the entire world with Internet access, I think of it as a more private place.

For me, anyway.

I know that very few people are reading my blog, and those who are either know me really well or don’t know me at all.

And this gives me a certain amount of freedom to write as I wish or to write about things that make me feel vulnerable.

Because I have children, there are certain topics I simply do not write about in my blog. That is my conscious choice. Not that my children read my blog or even know about it. But just in case they ever do.

Yes, it is true, I at times write about my children.

But usually in a humorous or good-natured way.

There are some blog posts they might not be very happy about, because they are teenagers going through all that teen crap and angst and awkwardness. But I would never write things that were intentionally cruel or mean-spirited.

Usually my kids crack me up, or say something profound, or frustrate the hell out of me with their teenness.

My blog allows me to write about my life and life in general as an anonymous citizen.

I am by nature a very shy and introverted person. But my blog allows me to make parts of myself vulnerable in a way that I do not feel is overly threatening.

It also allows me to write something more “real” than fiction, although sincerely I do believe that there is more truth in fiction than there is in real life.

Fiction is all about truth.

Some people insist that the Bible is literally true. Others say it is just stories. If we look at Jesus in the Bible, some of his most powerful truths are conveyed in parables.

Does something have to be literally true in order to convey truth?

No, of course not.

I think what sets man apart from animals is stories. And storytelling. And the search for truth.

Man tells stories in order to try to make sense of his world, his universe. Man is always trying to find the meaning of life, or meaning in life. If he does not find meaning, then he tends to create it.

We have a huge aversion to meaninglessness.

I have a huge aversion to meaninglessness.

I write because I have to.

I cannot not write.

I could no more not write than not breathe.

Is everyone like this?

I am not sure.

My guess would be no.

I think often people have passions or creative urges that are an integral part of their being. Be it writing or singing or dancing or painting or acting or running or gardening or teaching or helping or loving or any number of things.

Does life have meaning, or is the only meaning to life that which we bring to it?

If I had the definitive answer to that question, then the whole world would be reading my blog.

And I would have to stop writing it.

And that would be a sad day for me, at least.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Reading Roulette

I am in the midst of selecting my reading material for Canada.

I leave for points north in a week, and I want to be prepared.

Last year, during my week in Georgian Bay (a.k.a. – heaven!), I read four plus books; numerous magazines (of the long article variety); and the NYT and Toronto Star on an almost daily basis.

I was very proud of having read four books in one week.

Four good books in one week.

I would like to replicate that accomplishment. It is not the number that is so important, but rather the books themselves.

Thus, I have been checking out recommended summer reading lists; perusing the popular new fiction/non-fiction shelves at both the library where I work and my local public library; and thinking back over books my friends and family have suggested over the past year as “good reads.”

This is the pile I have sitting next to me right now:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (gave this book to my sister and her husband for Christmas; they both loved it -- as did at least two other of my book reading/loving friends)

Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky (again, a book I gave to my sister and brother-in-law for Christmas and that has been recommended to me by several other close friends)

Books by Larry McMurty (a brand new book I just read about and am dying to read, as it is all about books and book collecting by someone who is passionate about books; heck, the cover alone with jam-packed floor to ceiling built-in bookshelves is about enough to make me orgasmic!)

When You Are Engulfed by Flames by David Sedaris (his latest, and he always cracks me up!)

The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis (a rather odd, fantastical book recommended just the other morning on NPR; this is a stretch, but the book is slim, so I may give it a try. The author is described as a modern day Kafka; I am not sure if that is supposed to be a compliment or not. I have never gotten over reading The Metamorphosis [Die Vervandlung] -- in the original German!)

The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark (she is probably more famous for her first novel, The Great Stink. The dust jacket blurb says: “a consuming, passionate, darkly humorous tale set amid the clamor and chaos of 18th century London.” Sounded interesting, and different.)

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (I actually have already read this book, a few years ago, when it first came out, but I volunteered to lead a discussion group for the Summer Reading Project at my university in August with incoming freshmen. And I thought I should refresh myself. Although I am not so sure I want to do so while on vacation! )

I have some other contenders:

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton (the autobiography of a Trappist monk and his struggle for spiritual belonging; I read about this in Sue Monk Kidd’s Firstlight and promptly went out and bought it)

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson (“one man’s mission to fight terrorism and build nations… one school at a time;” this book comes highly recommended by several close friends)

I cannot possibly read ALL these books on my one week vacation, but I will probably take at least six.

In case.

I may end up reading really fast. And I don’t want to be without a book.

I will never forget the vacation to Mexico where we rapidly ran out of books. I even read my husband’s books and he read mine. And we were still out. This prompted a trip to the hotel giftshop, where the rack of paperback books was outrageously overpriced (this was back in the late ‘80s). We finally ended up picking the thickest book on the rack – a rather trashy book about Mexico and the Mayans, full of sex and violence – simply because it was the thickest book on the rack.

Yep, we were buying a book for price per page! We wanted a book that would last the rest of the trip.

Never again!

There is also the possibility I won’t like one – or more -- of the books I have brought enough to want to finish it. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it is not a good book, just that I wasn’t in the mood at that particular point in time to read it.

Or it could mean it was not a good book.

Whatever. I want plenty to choose from.

I do not want to be left in the lurch without a good book to read.

We spend our days kayaking, swimming, sunning, boating, eating, drinking, talking, reading, talking, reading, reading, reading. My early mornings are devoted to writing. With no TV or Internet or other multimedia distractions, we all get an immense amount of reading done. Even though we keep so active and busy during most of the day.

It is a reading heaven.

I love it!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

"And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air..."

I have spent the bulk of this long holiday weekend – with Thursday thrown in, too – cleaning out the storage room in the attic.

Cleaning out part of the storage room in the attic.

Going through stuff in the storage room in the attic.

I feel as though I have not really done very much.

Have only made a slight dent.

At the same time, there are ten bulging black garbage bags full of “stuff” out by the trash cans. As well as two huge moving boxes filled with dozens of empty boxes I broke down one by one using nothing but a Pampered Chef paring knife. On top of it all is a vaporizer from the 1960s, well used by my sister who always seemed to have colds and coughs as a child, in its original box.

These past three days, I have gone through about a hundred boxes. Condensed some. Reorganized some. Put some contents into new boxes. Rearranged and restacked other boxes.

And purged, purged, purged.

I have finally located some of the items I never could find when we first moved here five years ago.

And I stumbled upon multiple blasts from my past. And my sister’s past. And my parents’ past.

I found baby pictures of my mom. Pictures of her with her old boyfriends during WWII. Photos of my mother’s parents when they were incredibly young and in love. A stunning photo of my grandmother from 1923, standing alone, the wind blowing her dress, by some large body of water. It looks like an ocean, but my mom thinks it is more likely Lake Erie.

A box of family heirlooms that my father’s sister’s estate sent me after my aunt passed away in 1998, the same year my dad, her older brother, died. I only scratched the surface, but found locks of children’s hair, hand scrawled letters to Santa Claus from all of the brothers and sisters, homemade birthday cards and Father’s Day cards, school notebooks, photos, and a letter my dad wrote his dad from Wabash College when he was barely 18, telling his dad how he had thought things over and he now had a whole new view of his father and the kind of man he really was. He said he was going to try to get into West Point and become an Army officer. He wrote: “you can make good money in the Army, too (this was in the middle of the Great Depression when his father was struggling to support a family of seven as a traveling salesman) – why, a general can make as much as $13, 500!”

I found photo albums of my ex-husband and me when we were first married. Of high school and West Point and the Army. I finally found the photos of my West Point roommate who passed away suddenly this past December at age 44 from a rare autoimmune disease. There we were out at Camp Buckner as brand new yearlings, still wearing old Army green fatigues, and posing for the “best summer of our lives.”

Drawings my children had made when they were toddlers. A scrapbook from some sort of brainwashing Vacation Bible School my one son must have gone to with crayon drawings of him and Jesus and his brother climbing trees and playing at the playground. Poems my older son had “written” in preschool. A short story by my younger son about a teenaged guitar player who had long black hair and brown eyes and was “about 5 or 6 feet tall” and wanted to start his own band.

A box of short stories and essays I had presented to my parents the Christmas of my senior year in high school – for them to keep always!

A waffle iron from the 1950s, old Easter bonnets, Jackie Kennedy’s pill box hats (well, they were probably my mother’s pill box hats), my sister’s drawing table and innumerable art projects in just about every conceivable medium. Cigar boxes and glass jars of nails and tacks and screws and nuts and bolts. Old sheets and placemats and linen tablecloths and napkins. My wedding dress, preserved for eternity in a special box. Old golf clubs, badminton racquets, a baseball bat. Books, books, and more books. And still more books.

You know, once you start moving things around and opening up boxes and pulling stuff out, you start making an even bigger mess than was there originally.

Or so it seemed.

After I rolled them down two flights of stairs, I made myself carry out the heavy, full bags of trash one by one to the garage, so I would feel like I was accomplishing something.

I loaded my car up with seven stuffed bags of outgrown (or undergrown) but still perfectly good clothes from my children and me, drove down to my mother’s church, and squeezed them one by one through the slot in the St. Vincent de Paul box. Acts of penance; surely a priest or a nun would walk by and notice my generosity.

There was part of me that thought I should have just rented a giant dumpster, opened up the attic window, and just started dumping shit out the window without even looking at it or going through it.

This job was endless!

There was another part of me that got bogged down, sifting through old letters and papers and photo albums. Snooping into people’s former lives. My former lives. I could spend years going through all of this stuff, reading or, in some cases, re-reading letters, discovering someone’s treasures, flipping through photos of several families’ special moments.

I am tired. I am stiff. I am dusty and sweaty. I have paper cuts on my hands. My lower back and shoulders are killing me. My hair has frizzed up into a mop of curls from the heat and humidity. I am dusty and dirty. And dying to take a shower. Or a long hot bath. And have a stiff, cold drink.

I have seen things I had forgotten about. I have seen things I never knew about. I have seen things I would rather not have. I have seen things that touched my heart and made me cry. And made me say, “Oh, my!”

My life flashing before my eyes. Or my whole family’s lives flashing before my eyes.

And I have only just begun….