Archive

Archive for November, 2011

The Bones of a Story: An Alleged Affair and an Author

November 29, 2011 5 comments

Often times, we don’t get the whole picture. We aren’t privileged enough to get even a glimpse. Instead, we stare at the bones of something and try to determine what it is, what it was, and what it means. But meaning a tricky thing, like perspective. It is fluid, and it never falls into a straight line. There is literal meaning and figurative meaning — the first being the chalk outline of something, the second being the soul of it.

I’m looking at the bones of something, hefting them in my hand. Someone has cleaned the off nicely, but left them in a heap. It looks remarkably like a puzzle, and I cannot help but wonder about the authenticity. Something does not have to be true to be authentic, just like a story can be made of lies and be brilliant. The best fiction is stitched together as such, with enough shades and shadows of truth to give it meaning. In the world of a story, things merely have to feel true to be true.

Stories are grey things, a collaborative act in two parts — the first part being the author putting the words on the page; the second part is a interaction between text and reader, specifically the meaning that the active, close reader can draw from the text. Without the author’s vision, the text does not exist — but without the reader’s interpretation, it does not live.

Consider Sylvia Plath much lauded The Bell Jar , which is a loosely based autobiographical work. It is not entirely a work of fiction, neither is it a tale of merely facts. Plath deftly blends the two.

A more recent novel would be Alice Sebold‘s jarring, stunning, and brilliant The Lovely Bones. It is a work of fiction, yet it is fueled by a personal life experience (which you can read about here). Writing, of course, comes out of a person and not a hat; there can, certainly, be crossover (deliberate or otherwise) between an author and his/her writing. Personally speaking, there are certain parts of myself that have wormed their way into things I’ve written — occasionally without my knowledge or consent. But these are, generally, pieces of things, not the bones or musculature of a story.

What, then, does one make of You Deserve Nothing, by Alexander Maksik? According to Jezebel.com, there is talk of an alleged affair between Maksik and a student of his, back when he taught in Paris. (See here for the full article. It is an interesting read.) Again according to Jezebel.com, the novel seems to be a roman a clef, based on Maksik’s actual experiences at the American School of Paris. He was, supposedly, dismissed from his teaching post for allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with a student.

Now, I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know the female character (Marie) in Maksik’s novel is a real person, or even a composite of real people. The book has garnered a lot of praise, and judging by a cursory look at it, myself, it is well-written. Jezebel wonders if the book’s acclaim would suffer if the novel has elements grounded in reality (i.e. if the story about the affair is true).

This leaves me feeling squicky, first of all. Second of all, it leaves me a bit at odds with myself. There are a billion ways to look at a novel — a bunch of different lenses of critique, from Feminist to Reader Response to Deconstructionism. Extracting the story from the supposed circumstances, one would presume (as Roland Barthes stated) that the author is effectively dead. That the words on the page are all that matter. Yes, texts act as artifacts for any given time (Dickens would probably write VERY different novels if he lived in present day England — the same goes from Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Mitchell) — but they are also, at their core, STORIES.

But here’s the thing: I don’t know if the novel loses merit, depending on its inspiration or genesis. I am, as I write that, extracting my personal feelings regarding the author. That is not easy to do, because my gut reaction is something akin to: EWWW. (The reaction might be censored, for fear it would only contain curse words and garbled mumbling.) I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it curious that the editor was Sebold, given her literary history. Then again, that could all be coincidence.

Like I said, before, I’m sitting here staring at the bones of something. I cannot tell what it is, just by eyeballing the various parts. I can point to something and say, “I’m fairy certain that is a skull,” but I can’t tell you specifics. I can say that it looks as if it’s made of bone, but I cannot say with certainty that is actually bone.

Authors work very hard to remind people that they are not their stories. I do. I’ve heard other writers talk about this, too. You can write a story about a serial killer, without turning into Darkly Dreaming Dexter (or assuming that Jeff Lindsay hacks people up as a hobby). There is potential, yes, with Maksik’s book that it is unfortunately grounded in personal experience — but I’m not sure that I can say that potential would detract from the praise being given. (Note: For clarity’s sake, that doesn’t mean I think such actions would be conscionable. I do not.)

Does a story have to be real in order to be true? No. It merely has to be believable. Additionally, I think it is dangerous to confuse the author with his/her story. However, personally speaking, I’ve having a tough time wrapping my head around this entire discussion. What do you think about this?

Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things.” ~Neil Gaiman

““Literature is without proofs.” ~Roland Barthes

Advertisements

Community and Stepping Up: The Writing World

November 28, 2011 1 comment

Time and again, I am awestruck by the sense of community that exists in the writing world. Via Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and various other forms of social media, I constantly see writers, editors, and agents pitching up where and when they can. Sometimes, it is in the form of encouragement; other times, it is a shared drink and commiseration.

When needed, it is also a fundraiser (speaking, now, specifically of the one for writer, editor, and artist Terri Windling). Please, check it out here (there are amazing things up for auction, already). I didn’t know much about her or her work until this morning, but she is gifted, has lovely mermaid-like hair, and a dog that is so adorable.

Being a writer means, in my best estimation, being part of a non-geographically determined village. A really odd, eclectic village — one that often revolves around the basic writer necessities: coffee, tea, chocolate, bacon, and booze. I love that village and its people. Thanks to Twitter, specifically, I’ve come to know many great writers; there is a sense of belonging. It is tangible, not abstract. People, colleagues, contemporaries, and friends — these folks have your back. I’m hard pressed to think of another occupation that holds that same kind of synergy and connection, the same sense of belonging. I know I’m overusing that word (inconceivable!), but it fits.

Help is given when needed, and I admire that. It makes me proud to be a small part of the writer tribe. Give if you can, when you can. If all people followed that advice, the world would change for the better.

Owning Who You Are

November 26, 2011 12 comments

 

The other day, I had the pleasure of reading Deanna Raybourn’s blog post about owning who you are and what you like. So much of life’s difficulties tend to stem from attempting to disown parts of ourselves that seems a little tarnished or unacceptable by some bizarre standard. There’s nothing more horrifying than waking up and realizing that you loathe the direction your life has taken or that you’ve been hiding a part of yourself in the shadows.

It isn’t easy to be exactly who you are, especially in a world where a lot of people scoff and sneer and try to pull at your courage. The truth is that the people who are a poised to tear another down are really just scared or envious. So much of people’s baser actions stem from a well poisoned with fear or the inability to understand something that isn’t familiar.

But I digress. Deanna wrote about the mix of interests that make her who she is and there was so much about that entry that just made me cheer (and not just because we like a lot of the same things, although now I find I need to buy a pair of cowboy boots; I owned a red pair until I was about ten. I miss them).

So, without further ado, here is what I know – and I say that knowing full well that I may know different things tomorrow, because part of the beauty of being your own person is the ability to change one’s mind.

  1. I am not just one thing. No one is. I love reading as much as I love watching movies (from Casablanca to The Green Lantern). I believe in singing and singing loudly, even if I haven’t practiced in a long time and can’t hit all the notes. There is never a bad day for a song or musical number – and I may not have any formal dance training, but dancing around the kitchen will cure any bad mood, especially if the kitchen smell like pasta sauce. Speaking of pasta sauce, I think that jarred sauce is an abomination, and it makes me want to cry. If ANYONE ever wants to learn how to make marinara sauce from scratch, email me. It is easy, and it will be a balm to your soul. There are few problems that cannot be tackled with a good friend, a cup of coffee, and a slice of cheesecake. I love high heels and yoga pants with equal passion, and I’m just as likely to go fishing than I am to apply my eyeliner perfectly. I love Scrabble and champagne, but I can’t stand beer, except the occasional Corona with lime. I think that pretending to be someone else can be amusing and liberating, and I’m not afraid to adopt a different accent in public. If you run into a woman who looks like me, but who is suddenly British, just call me Moneypenny. I might even answer. Once, I wanted to be an actress (and a Bond Girl); there might even be headshots floating around out there. I never followed through on it, but I still consider it. I don’t think it’s ever too late for a new dream or the resurrection of an old one. I believe in the power of laughter, red lipstick, and smiling at strangers. I believe in being nice, until there’s a reason not to be – in which case, RUN. I won’t abide anyone hurting someone I love. If I love you, it’s usually for keeps, and I’ve got your back even when I don’t agree with you – and let’s face it, no one agrees all the time.
  2. Stay true. This is often the hardest thing to do in life. Deanna mentioned that it is monumentally more difficult to stand up to one’s friends, because they hold a place of esteem in our lives. This is true. I am easily swayed, if I’m made to feel foolish. It took me YEARS to say, “I’m a writer” out loud without looking like I was either going to bolt from a room or throw up on my shoes. It took me even more time to hold fast to that identity in the barrage of follow-up statement/questions that feel more like a wrecking ball crossed with an inquisition. Everything I write takes me one step closer to the writer I want to be. I hope to hell I never stop learning about the craft AND the industry, because the best writers can always see the opportunity for growth and change. The same goes for people, actually. The day I cease to be able to see another perspective is the day I lose my ruby slippers and my toes curl up. Did I mention my affinity for movie quotes and references? I’ll also quote from Shakespeare on command.
  3. I am what I am. (Anyone who can name what song that’s from is automatically AWESOME.) I am a geek who occasionally dresses like Audrey Hepburn or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I read comic books, will kick your ass at video games, and I own a killer pair of leather pants. I draw, but not well enough to do anything with it, and I will bait my own fishing hook even if I have to use a live minnow. I still think it’s gross, but I push past it. I am stronger than I think I am, but weaker than I want to be, sometimes. I believe that love is never wrong, even if it’s slanted, and that broken hearts are just milestones. I think that everyone is entitled to their opinions, but ultimately, you run your own life – because you’re the one who’s in it. I think that everyone person should know how to change a tire and make at least one decent meal. I think that there is power in a good story and that poems will steal your breath if you let them. And I don’t care how old I get, I will always love birthday and Christmas with equal verocity, because it’s important to hang on to that piece of ourselves that still dwells in delightful possibility.

There’s nothing admirable about fitting in, falling in line, or pretending to be normal. You know who’s normal? No one. That’s a lie they tell you in middle school to make you feel awkward when you dress differently or want to dye your hair. Fall in love whenever you can. Believe in magic. Stop to look at sunsets. And remember: there’s never going to be another YOU, so grab hold of that, and rock the hell of it.

“I believe in pink. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in kissing, kissing a lot. I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong. I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls. I believe that tomorrow is another day and I believe in miracles.”
~Audrey Hepburn

““I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not.” ~Neil Gaiman

“That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”
~Joan Didion

Sally Owens: All I want is a normal life.
Aunt Frances: My darling girl, when are you going to realize that being normal is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage!

~Practical Magic

Dear Unknown Caller*

November 22, 2011 8 comments

Dear Unknown Caller,

Look, I know you think you’re pretty clever — blocking your number, so that I can’t see where the call is coming from, or who you are. I must admit, you’ve piqued my curiosity, because you’ve added a little mystery to usual telephone-dance. Do you know I screen my calls? Are you keenly aware of the fact that I can hardly resist temptation–the temptation to know. Is your name some kind of forbidden knowledge? Surely, you realize that I am rather fond of seizing that proverbial apple and taking a big chunk out of it. And so, your strategy was born, and I acknowledge the brilliance in your theory. You block your number, attempting to entice me with your continuous barrage of calls, each one more perplexing than the last. Sometimes, you hang up when you get my machine; other times, you wait until the beep before pushing ‘end.’ Really, now, it’s like you’re playing with my emotions.

Pushing ‘end’ is such a cruel fate; it’s potential brutally cut short just before revelation. You’re withholding, really, and that’s just not nice. Sometimes, though, you leave me little clues. A couple of times my answering machine catches just a little bit of what’s playing on your radio, and some song’s stuck on a proverbial loop on the recording. But no matter how much I pump up the volume and play that cryptic message, I can never figure out what song it is, because there’s too much static. There’s too much static on the line, Unknown Caller. Surely you mean to give me a better hint than that.

I’ll tell you a secret, though: every time I see it’s you, I almost pick up the phone. You’re getting to me, you know that? Really getting under my skin. A woman can only stand a good mystery for so long. You’re calling once or twice a day, now. Along with those strange calls from Canada. I don’t know anyone in Manitoba. Not that I know of, anyway. Plus, there’s also those bizarre calls I’ve been getting from California, Nevada, Maryland, and Indiana. I’ve picked up those calls, before, and either I’m on the receiving end of a dial tone, or I’m met with someone trying to see me a cruise, or who wants to give me a discount on industrial strength foot cream. Of course, I don’t want to go on a cruise (because I don’t want food poisoning, thank you)–and I don’t even want to know what the hell industrial strength foot cream is. Okay?

There was a time where I used to pick up the phone to avoid those weird silent messages on my machine. Because no one likes silence on a machine, especially when you know someone is sitting there, on the other end, almost daring you to pick up. Just to see if you’ve, you know, won a yacht, or Publisher’s Clearing House. Everyone is just dying to talk to Ed McMahon, right?

So, Unknown Caller, you’re not the first to play these machine-games with me. I’m wise to your tricks, and I’ve seen all your wiles before. (And, you know, if we were comparing–my wiles are much better than yours. Trust me.) You can flaunt your mystery in front of me, like a cup of coffee in front of an insomniac. I just might be thirsting for a good jolt, you never know, because I’ve been down this road before. I’ve picked up the phone under similar circumstances. And it’s never been worth my time. Usually, you turn out to be some guy who doesn’t speak English, trying to convince me that I need to refinance my mortgage, or buy a satellite dish–because it’ll change my world. Or, you end up being the annoying guy who wants me to answer a few questions about a product I never used, or about a survey that I never actually filled out.

But, Unknown Caller, I just can’t trust myself with you. Because as much as I know I shouldn’t, I just want to pick up the phone. I just want to know. So, maybe you’ve caught me. Maybe you’re wearing me down. Maybe next time you call, I’ll pick up. Maybe I don’t really want you to stop calling me, because I’m curious. Perhaps I like the anticipation. The wonder. The building tension. Maybe I’m scared of finding out the truth. But you’ll never know, will you? Unless you somehow convince me to pick up that phone.

Call me, baby.

*This is a repost from an old blog from years back. I’ve gotten a lot of unknown calls lately, so it seemed like a good time to drag this one out of the archives.

Categories: Humor, only slightly ranty

To Ask Forgiveness

November 21, 2011 2 comments

You see nothing
but foxes and dreams, a daffodil
hidden from time, still
bright yellow, always perfect
in its secrets –
I gather them easily enough,
a bouquet of old mistakes
forever new.

This is where
the lies leave off, a thorn
stripped of all its sincerity; a single
red rose that wilts quicker
than it can bloom, reminding me
of all the funerals I’ve seen before,
even those that are not marked
by a gravestone.

Leave it behind.
Forget even the fingers
of every little miracle; it taints,
but it is also tainted, a siege
of silences that conjure
nothing but ghosts, old words
laid out, laid bare, unable to be buried
or lopped off from their origins.
Leave it behind? If only it were that simple.

There were lilacs that day,
an incandescent reminder
of memories made against the cold,
a shelter for the leaner years,
a light for the darker years,
a star that falls for the sake of the journey –
oh, that was me, wasn’t it?
And I burnt out quickly,
hushed like a bullet
flung from a silent gun:
end it, he said.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t even try.

Your laugh was love-knot,
and it stuck in my smile; I did not want
to untangle it. It was a choice,
and without warning, you dared a laugh
I could hear but couldn’t catch,
it fell against me like an appetite, ravenous
and indelible, all limbs and demands –
there, between us, naked
and rend of bones, our secrets
blossomed out, a gathering of looks
that nailed us down, dragging
our skin from our selves, a printing
of passion onto the shadows of our souls,
a love-trick, a creature without vows,
each kiss a promise of one
trying to occupy the other.

Now, we wear each other’s faces like masks,
as every other future ceased
in a single moment
whispered:
yes.

Categories: Poetry

Rouge Fruit and a Face Mask

November 19, 2011 3 comments

The other day, I was assaulted by a banana. No, really. I opened my fridge to get half-and-half, and a banana promptly fell on my head. At that point, I surmised I have officially become a cartoon character, and I need to find my way back to Cool World. (If only to meet Gabriel Byrne and Brad Pitt – the latter, only if he shaved and no longer has Mountain Man face/hair. Because…no.)

So, by this logic (term used loosely), I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way. (What? It worked for Jessica Rabbit.) Does this mean I get a sparkly dress? Because that would be fun. No? Damn it.

I bet you thought the fun ended with the Attack Banana. It doesn’t.

This morning, I morphed into a sitcom. Don’t believe me? I put on a facemask. It is the color of calamine lotion, which is to say PINK. While I waited to wash it off, I figured I’d do some chores. I straightened up the bathroom. I folded some laundry. Then I wrote RETURN TO SENDER on a package that contained the wrong item (was I the only one who didn’t know you could still do that?), and walked out to the mailbox.

…WITH THE FACE MASK ON. Halfway to the mailbox, I realized that I was still wearing something the color of an old lady’s foam hair rollers. I figured I’d already made it halfway there, without dying of SHAME, so I’d just suck it up. I did, however, stop to strategically tie a shoelace that did not need tying, just as someone drove by. One of the benefits of having long hair (aside from looking like Cousin It or Helena Bonham Carter, occasionally) is that it makes it fairly easy to hide. Moving on…

This week, I did three things I’ve never done before: 1) been accosted by rouge fruit, 2) walked outside looking like someone’s crazy aunt, and 3) done something I’ve only ever seen in the movies or heard about in an Elvis song.

I’ve heard it’s good to try new things. I just hope next week I don’t slip on the damn banana, instead.

Categories: Humor

Wintersong

November 18, 2011 4 comments

Our years fell out of season,
and just like that, it was over; we were nothing
more than calendar pages
ripped out of time, thrown out
and away, like an exhausted dream.

We were only words, feelings
frozen in action, waiting to drop
underneath the last of the stars,
unable to cling to anything
made of solid earth –
our wintersong became our final war.
I forget the tune, now.

Since then, I have worn the blame
like a burning albatross, one mistaken
for a phoenix; its songs scald
me with secrets, an innocence
that long-since seeped out of my smile.
You collected heartbeats
for decades – mine was not the first,
neither was it the last. But where do you put them?
Bury them, please.
It is the only decent thing to do –
everything else is calibrated wrong,
measured out with closed eyes
and shaking hands. Still,

it is better as it is. Your reasons
always left me too raw, split open
like a vein, the two halves
never again to be perfect and whole.
Once, we cultivated love
in a garden of prettier lies; I chose the fruit,
but we both tasted it as too ripe. Such harvests
never last, and worse yet –
they do nothing to sustain life,
or feed even the least demanding orphan of hope.

I loved you
as I loved myself –
without fail, even when I should feel
baser things, like shame. I loved you
as a tide ravishes the shore, ignorant
of one who is drowning. I loved you
like a blank page, waiting
for the gift of revelation.

But you were a starless clock,
a darkness without destination,
a footprint left in snow, an incomplete
midnight hour
where nothing gets out alive.

Categories: Poetry