All posts by debbie

Depression sketches

I have chronic low-grade depression (dysthymia, a word I will never be able to spell without looking it up) with some episodes of major depression. I also have a son with Asperger’s/Autism and a complicated marriage. So I’m in a lot of therapy now and have been for the past few years. Couples, individual, parent therapy to help my son, plus, as an extra bonus these past 8 months, physical therapy and gait retraining for a stubborn running injury. Upside: I can put therapists, and being in therapy, in all of my stories! As I know a lot about it now. Downside: it takes up a lot of time and I’d rather be writing (or showering). In couples therapy recently, I began doodling to calm me down, as couples counseling is as relaxing as someone looking into your eyes, and holding your hand, and pulling off your fingernails one by one, but also because I like doodling. Here’s me, on a relatively okay day, making a neat orderly picture while I talked with my husband and therapist. 

Then I had a bad week. My depression flared up. Here’s me at couples counseling, 2 weeks later, when I was stuck in one of those low points.

These two drawings are comforting to me for several reasons. I’ve often written through, and about, my depression, but I hadn’t drawn through it before. It’s nice to know that something as invisible as functional depression (well, invisible to other people at least) can come out in a sketch. Visual proof, perhaps. Also, I see these two drawings as a reminder that at some point my mood will inevitably improve. I was once able to draw neat boxes; then I was unable to draw neat boxes for a while; but now, at this moment, I am able to draw neat boxes again. The second drawing allows me to see my depressed self at a distance as well, which I find fascinating (I tried taking a photo of myself in a very depressed state once, because I wanted to see what I looked like. I guess I’m glad I did that, in case I have to describe someone who looks unbearably sad, but it’s a hard photo to look at. This drawing is easier for me to stomach). I see in that second sketch someone–okay, I see me–trying very hard to bring some kind of recognizable order to the chaos that was my mind at that moment. I appreciate and admire that some part of my mind was trying very hard to draw some recognizable shapes, even if the depressed part of my mind immediately went in afterwards and began to scribble methodically all over those shapes. (That is actually a great summary of conversations between my non-depressed and depressed parts of myself: the little non-depressed part of my mind trying to stay hopeful while the depressed part of my mind easily overwhelms it by releasing a vitriolic storm). 

And then, in the upper middle of the drawing, I swear I drew a portal for myself. Not consciously but I can’t help seeing it there now. I’ve been obsessed in my writing about portals for so long, and I love that some part of my mind was trying to create one for me, a dark tunnel out of the mess of myself through which I could go.  

Another book for the Slow Paced Genre Realism category

The Leftovers!

I forgot an essential book for the “slow-paced genre realism” category I recently made up: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I discovered the novel after watching the first episode of the excellent TV series. (The beginning of The Leftovers pilot, by the way, contains what may be the best three minutes in television I’ve seen. Please watch if it you haven’t! Overall The Leftovers an amazing job of depicting the complexity of parents and parenthood and this three minute intro is no exception).

The premise of The Leftovers: 2% of the world population has disappeared (about 140 million people). Though we get a sense of the chaos that happened immediately after “the departure” as it’s called (and that chaos certainly has apocalyptic tones), what is brilliant about both the book and the TV series is that the story really begins 3 years after the departure, when things have kind of returned enough to normal to resemble literary realistic fiction. The world still works. People have jobs. The infrastructure is functional. Yet everyone is affected–haunted?–by the disappearances and are dealing with their grief in their own way. Nobody understands why it happened: was it the Rapture? If so, why were non-Christians taken along with Christians? And why were bad people taken as well as good people? What does it say about someone if they were left behind? And where did the people who are gone go? Did they go to a better place? A worse place? Did they just disappear? 

Those questions are never answered, by the way, which I think is great. The answers might be the preoccupation of a different version of the novel, one more formulaically genre-ish, but this book’s concern is the way people deal with their grief, and how people move on, or don’t.

The Leftovers strikes me as “post-apocalypse light.” In most post-apocalyptic fiction that I’ve read, enough of the world’s population disappears to disrupt normal day-to-day functioning. The planet becomes a scary wasteland, and the story concerns itself with how people survive and eventually rebuild. They’re like adventure novels. In The Leftovers, only enough of the population is missing for practically everyone to be affected in some way. Most people saw someone disappear or they are related to someone who disappeared. But more than enough people are left that life can continue on seemingly unaffected on the surface. Everything is still functional in theory–there is electricity, cars, jobs, grocery stores, food. It’s the grief and the doubts that are crippling: why were certain people taken and why were certain people left behind? It’s really a novel about grief and all the ways that we can lose people. 

The book is slow and beautiful and subtle and devastating but also somewhat hopeful at the end. It also contains one of my favorite passages about motherhood. This passage rips my heart out by its teeth, so I’m going to include it below. 

(This is a letter written by Nora to Kevin, who she is trying and failing to date, about what happened the evening her family disappeared. )

We were having a family dinner.
   It sounds so quaint when you put it that way, doesn’t it? You imagine everyone together, talking and laughing and enjoying their meal. But it wasn’t like that. Things were tense between me and Doug. I understand now why that was, but at the time it just felt to me like he was distracted by work, not fully present in our life. He was always checking that damn Blackberry, snatching it up every time it buzzed like it might contain a message from God. Of course it wasn’t God, it was just his cute little girlfriend, but either way, it was more interesting to him than his own family. I still kind of hate him for that.
The kids weren’t happy, either. They were rarely happy in the evening. Mornings could be fun in our house, and bedtimes were usually sweet, but dinners were often a trial. Jeremy was cranky because … why? I wish I could tell you. Maybe because it’s hard to be six years old, or maybe because it was hard to be him. Little things made him cry, and his crying over little things irritated his father, who sometimes spoke sharply to him and made Jeremy even more upset. Erin was only four, but she had an instinct for getting under her brother’s skin, pointing out in a matter-of-fact voice that Jeremy was crying again, acting like a little baby, which made him absolutely furious.
   I loved them all, okay? My cheating husband, my fragile boy, my sneaky little girl. But I didn’t love my life, not that night. I had worked really hard on the meal — it was this Moroccan chicken recipe I’d found in a magazine — and nobody cared. Doug thought the breasts were a little dry, Jeremy wasn’t hungry, blah blah blah. It was just a crappy night, that’s all.
   And then Erin spilled her apple juice. No big deal, except that she’d made a big fuss about drinking from a cup without a top, even though I told her it was a bad idea. So what, right? It happens. I wasn’t one of those parents who gets all upset about something like that. But that night I was. I said, “Damn it, Erin, what did I tell you!” And then she started to cry.
   I looked at Doug, waiting for him to get up and get some paper towels, but he didn’t move. He just smiled at me like none of this had anything to do with him, like he was floating above it all on some superior plane of existence. So of course I had to do it. I got up and went into the kitchen.
   How long was I there? Thirty seconds, maybe? I gathered a handful of towels, winding them off the roll, wondering if I’d taken enough sheets, or had I possibly taken too many, because I didn’t want to make a second trip but didn’t want to be wasteful, either. I remember being conscious of the chaos I’d left behind, feeling relieved to be away from it, but also resentful and overburdened and unappreciated. I think maybe I closed my eyes, let my mind go blank for a second or two. That was when it must have happened. I remember noticing that the crying had stopped, that the house felt suddenly peaceful.
   So what do you think I did when I got back to the dining room and found them gone? Do you think I screamed or cried or fainted? Or do you think I wiped up the spill, because the puddle was spreading across the table and would soon start dripping onto the floor?
   You know what I did, Kevin.
  I wiped up the fucking apple juice and then I went back into the kitchen, put the soggy paper towels in the garbage can, and rinsed my hands under the faucet. After I dried them, I went back to the dining room and took another look at the empty table, the plates and the glasses and the uneaten food. The vacant chairs. I really don’t know what happened after that. It’s like my memory just stops there and picks up a few weeks later.
   Would it have helped if I told you this story in Florida? Or maybe on Valentine’s Day? Would you have felt like you knew me better? You could have told me what I already think I know — that the crying and the spilled juice aren’t really that important, that all parents get stressed out and angry and wish for a little peace and quiet. It’s not the same as wishing for the people you love to be gone forever.
   But what if it is, Kevin? Then what?
 

The TV series made some interesting but successful adaptions from the book, including giving one of the book’s minor character a much more prominent role. Holy Wayne, a charismatic cult leader, is dismissed as a charlatan in the book. With Holy Wayne in the TV series, we don’t know if he’s for real or not, or if he’s just taking people’s money and giving them hugs–he claims he can hug away people’s pain–but the thing is, people think that he is helping them. People, such as Nora in the scene below, believe he is for real. I think that’s rare and complex, to put practical doubts aside and show a cult leader giving something necessary to the people who believe in him. (I have little patience for cult leaders being shown as simplified one-dimensional villains, as practically every book that contains a cult leader portrays them, but that is a post for another day.) Re-watching this scene, I can understand why some people thought the TV series was overly devastating and dark–I believe it was called “the most dismal show on television.” There is none of that exciting adventure, where people triumph over the landscape/devastation/cannibals, that you often see in post-apocalyptic fiction (for more thoughts along this line, check out this New Yorker essay: “The post-apocalyptic imagination is shot through with unacknowledged wish fulfillment”). People in The Leftovers are certainly not triumphing. They are usually just really, really sad. But I think that’s a more realistic and honest tone than that heroic adventure vibe many apocalyptic books give off. 

In Which I Make Up a Categorization Called “Slow-paced Genre Realism”

(What I’m reading now: Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones; about to start Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which is such an awesome title; and reading the YA urban fantasy My Diary from the Edge of the World, Jodi Lynn Anderson, to my daughter)

I had a great time this past month savoring Version Control by Dexter Palmer. It clocks in at a little over 18 hours as an audio book, but once I settled into the story, I found the slow pacing to be really wonderful. I wonder if we can create a sub-genre in science fiction or fantasy of slow-paced genre novels (or slow-paced genre realism?). Think a little Alice Munro or Karl Ove Knausgard transported into a genre setting. Into such a categorization, I’d throw some of my favorite books: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, as well as Molly Gloss’s Dazzle of the Day and Wild Life. Ah, and how about the beloved The Wall by Marlen Haushofer? My Real Children by Jo Walton? And then there is this one book I read 20 years ago, which I can not locate, no matter how many creative Google searches I do, about a regular California community and a regular woman, maybe a mother, who is just essentially living in an almost boring way–and then, in what’s maybe the last two chapters, there is a nuclear holocaust. But that is such a small part of the book, maybe even an afterthought… 

I’ll stop my list now. But I do admire the authors who write this way. I think it takes some courage to straddle the line, not just in style but in plotting, between genre and realistic fiction as they do, as genre readers may find such fiction slow, and literary readers may wonder why there has to be aliens in the story.

My love for slow sci-fi and fantasy doesn’t mean I avoid or despise meaningful plot-driven  genre books. The Underground Airlines comes to mind, a page turner, but also fascinating in its alternate history of the U.S., but also a dark mirror to who we are now. In more traditional genre books though, I find myself drawn to the minor characters who are left behind in quests, who don’t save anybody or become involved in intrigue or do anything spectacular–who are simply living their ordinary lives against an interesting fantastical backdrop, and often I wish the story was about them rather than the hero. 

I came across an essay of Dexter Palmer’s on Strange Horizons: “On Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.” It’s a lovely essay, written with the same generosity, thoughtfulness, and curiosity that I found in Version Control. The essay’s opening captures some of what I’ve been thinking about lately concerning writing, readership, and readers’ responses to a work–in particular, what seems like people’s impulse to judge, rather than a movement to first try and understand. To equate quality with whether or not they liked the book, not allowing that it’s possible for a book to be successful and, at the same time, for them not to like it. Rather than thinking of work we don’t like as a failure, there is the possibility that maybe it’s us: that we are uninterested in reading the work in the way the author intended, or that maybe we just don’t like that sort of writing. (How does one identify a successful versus an unsuccessful book then? Is it by first determining what the author was attempting to do, and then considering was the author able to achieve that? Or maybe it would help to simply acknowledge, before we judge, our reader biases: I don’t like fiction that leaves me depressed, etc.) Part of my feelings about this is personal: I write slow fiction, and that includes slow genre fiction. Right now I’m drawn to stories in which nothing substantial happens on the surface, other than the reader is given a window to a character’s life for a little while. I realize these sorts of stories aren’t for everyone. But the fact that a story isn’t for anyone does not, by default, mean 2 stars. Anyhow, here’s the Palmer’s essay opening: 

All novels are exercises in empathy for their readers; all of a novel’s readers are performers of its possible meanings. Each novel gives hints of the kind of person it wants its reader to temporarily become in order to enjoy it to the fullest. We don’t read eighteenth-century fiction with the same ear as we do fiction from the twenty-first, or science fiction with the same ear as literary fiction about the daily lives of New Yorkers. If we are skilled readers, we quickly pick up on the hints the text throws out and we shift our expectations. If not, or if the conventions of the work are unfamiliar to us, then perhaps we find ourselves left out in the cold, or saying, “I really wanted to like this book. But.”

This is certainly not to say that all novels are inherently good, and that a displeased reader is always one who has failed the text, but to say that when a reader bounces off a novel, we should ask if the problem lies with the author’s failure of craft, or with the reader’s inattention, improper expectations, or inexperience, or whether it’s caused by some other reason altogether. With a work whose critical reputation is well established over decades or centuries, this is easy: one-star Amazon reviews of Moby-Dick are mocked for a reason. But with a work of expansive scope and ambition that’s still only months old, the question is harder. Here is the opening of the New York Times’ review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, dated May 28, 1922:

“A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may comprehend ‘Ulysses,’ James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will gain little or nothing from it—even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it—save bewilderment and a sense of disgust. It should be companioned with a key and a glossary like the Berlitz books. Then the attentive and diligent reader would eventually get some comprehension of Mr. Joyce’s message.”[1]

That sounds like the beginning of a hatchet job, the sort of review we’d smugly laugh at now that ninety-odd years have passed, but two paragraphs later Collins calls Ulysses “the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century.” Collins isn’t hedging his bets here: he knows, even in these early days, that he is in the presence of genius. And yet he freely expresses an ambivalence about the nature of that genius.

In the following paragraph, I also found this idea fascinating: that micro-realism and micro-description has a place in genre fiction, but not in realistic fiction. I don’t know if I agree with this–perhaps My Struggle would be the book I would hold up as an example where the point of the book is in the minutiae of detail. Where it’s not the detail itself but the lens through which the detail is seen that’s important: every character or narrator does not see a tree identically. (Bolding below is mine.)  

Whether Moore’s attention to detail is an asset or a liability in the first part of the novel, it clearly becomes an asset in the second part, when the dominant mode changes from realism to a mix of young-adult fantasy mixed with metaphysical speculation. In this section we get an extended journey into the afterlife world of Mansoul, occasioned by a near-death experience brought on when Michael Warren chokes on a cough drop at the age of three. There is a strong influence in these chapters from Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, as well as the children’s adventure stories of Enid Blyton, and it’s here that the cosmogony of this novel is revealed: essentially, though humans perceive themselves as moving dynamically through three dimensions as they age, they are in fact static four-dimensional objects, and their belief in their own free will is a necessary illusion. If one might think that many parts of the first section of the novel would be better rendered as a comic rather than as a text, here Moore breaks free of the two-dimensional limits of the page, using prose to describe extra-dimensional objects that would be impossible to visualize otherwise, and that benefit from extended detail, being wholly imaginary. (One might also say that the problem here is that Moore writes realist fiction in the same style as he writes genre fiction, as if Northampton’s sights and sounds will be as unfamiliar to the reader as those of Mansoul.)

Love this too…the idea of intentionally creating a work for which an ideal reader does not exist. To have that be the point of the work.

But an optimistic reading, the one I tend toward, is that it’s a suggestion that the scope of Jerusalem is such that its ideal reader of this text may not and may never exist, and creating a work with such a scope was Moore’s ultimate aim. Nearly every reader who encounters this work and sticks with it will find his or her empathy for art tested, in one way or another: this is the achievement of a work that’s so remarkably versatile and all-encompassing in its genres and styles. Whether the book constantly tickles one’s pleasure centers (and I freely confess that it did not for me) is, in the instance of this book, almost irrelevant. The novel is aiming for greater things than pleasure, not least of which is the illusion of fully preserving a place, in all its detail, in four dimensions. (Alma, talking of her work, just a few pages from the novel’s end: “I’ve saved the Boroughs [ … ] the way that you save ships in bottles. It’s the only plan that works. Sooner or later all the people and the places that we loved are finished, and the only way to keep them safe is art. That’s what art’s for. It rescues everything from time.”) (1259)

Anyhow, read the essay! I’m curious about Jerusalem now, it’s officially on my reading list, but so are about 500 other books (sigh…). 

The Joy of List Making Part 2: The Throwback Special

I recently became obsessed with The Throwback Special written by Chris Bachelder. I started off listening to it as an audiobook while aqua jogging in the local YMCA’s pool. It’s a difficult book to listen to in the first place, lots of shifting points of views (the novel follows 22 men) and tons of little gems of descriptions and dialogue that you might miss if your attention wanders for, say, a second. It’s especially difficult to listen to while aqua jogging in a pool, as pools are noisy to begin with, at least the pool I use, and you’re also getting splashed, and sometimes the nice water aerobics women sharing the tiny roped off corner of the pool with you are trying to talk to you. (What is the perfect book to listen to while aqua jogging? I haven’t quite found it yet…). So after a first listen through, I read this book again, this time on my Kindle. Then I listened to it one more time. Then I went back and reread anything I highlighted, which seriously was about half of the book.

I think I’m done with my rereading, but really, it’s an amazing book stylistically, a book I tried to study and learn from as I read through it again. How does Bachelder manage to be so funny while not belittling his characters and turning them into a joke?  How, in this time, in the current political/publishing climate, do you write about 21 white middle-aged men (1 of the men is bi-racial) and still have their stories seem vital, valuable, and worth telling? How do you take a story about football and guys and make a reader like me, who is completely uninterested in football, and prefers I’ll be honest to read stories about women, love the novel? And then there’s all the smaller stuff: how Bachelder is an expert at not over-explaining. How he slips in small details and then leaves the details behind, letting the reader make of them what they will (such as this hint at a character being suicidal: “In his garage where he did not kill himself he had constructed a prototype of a self-washing house window.”). How he has his characters tell these amazing, interesting, yet at the same time ordinary stories to each other and then the particular story isn’t brought up again. The story isn’t connected to some future event either. It’s put out there, often in a monologue format, and usually not everyone is listening to it, and that telling of the story is its own purpose.  

I could go on and on but I’ll limit myself to one more thing Bachelder does extremely well: list making as a narrative device. His lists have this great rhythm to them but I also love how he breaks the rhythm with dialogue or grammatical variation or by varying the length of a list item. And also I love the emotional variation of his lists too.

TRENT HAD COME HOME to find his daughter going down on a boy. Jeff had come home to find his daughter going down on a girl. Andy had come home to find his kid doing like this with an aerosol can of whipped cream.

“Yeah, whippets,” said George, the public librarian.

Tommy had come home to find that his dog had eaten a package of diapers. The surgery was twenty-five hundred dollars, and now he had pet insurance. Nate had come home to find his wife Skyping with a man in a military uniform. Bald Michael had come home to find his son hurting a cat. Whenever Peter comes home now, his daughter is reading. He was so anxious for her to learn to read, so worried when she showed little interest, but now that’s all she does. She doesn’t even talk to Peter anymore. She just sits in corners, knobby knees pulled up to her chin, the book held over her face like this, like a veil. The other men knew about books over the faces of girls. Carl came home to find his son building something with a lot of wires. Wesley came home to find that his twins had built twin snowmen. The picture was on his phone if he could only find it. Fat Michael had a friend who came home to find that the rags he had used to apply linseed oil to his furniture had spontaneously combusted, causing sixty thousand dollars of property damage. When Steven had come home, everyone in the house was just gone. 

Here’s a great list of the various t-shirts that the men wear to sleep.

THE EMPTY HALLWAYS WERE HAZY WITH sconce light and Wi-Fi radio waves. The small red lights of ceiling smoke detectors blinked in no discernible pattern. An elevator car rumbled in its shaft, transporting nothing but a name tag (Marc) and the scent of degraded deodorant. A ghost coursed the stairwell. The vending alcoves clicked and hummed.

Vince’s T-shirt read Daytona Beach, and he snored intermittently.

Carl’s T-shirt read No Coffee No Peace, and the Sharpie wouldn’t wash off his hands.

Wesley’s T-shirt read Richardson’s Lawn & Garden, and he composed, in his mind, in the dark, a long letter to his son.

Gary’s tank top read I ATE THE MEGABURGER, and he snored aggressively.

Bald Michael’s T-shirt read Miller High Life, and his sleep apnea machine made a pleasant bubbling sound like a fish tank.

George’s T-shirt had a picture of Darwin with an enormous block of text far too small to read, and he snored slowly.

Nate’s T-shirt read WTF?, and in the dark he regretted the cigarette.

 Robert’s T-shirt was inside out to conceal the design, and in the dark he worried that his older daughter was developing an eating disorder.

Andy’s T-shirt read Which Way to Rock City?, and he snored like a cartoon hound.

Gil’s T-shirt had a picture of Thor and Loki, and his hand was asleep beneath his pillow.

Myron’s T-shirt was yellow, and he snored with a placid countenance.

Tommy’s T-shirt was incomprehensible, and he snored beneath his mustache.

Fat Michael’s sweaty shirt read Bailey’s Peak Challenge 2006, and he ran seven-minute miles on the treadmill in the hotel’s Workout Center, wearing his Joe Theismann helmet and staring blankly over the single bar of the face mask into the wall-length mirror.

Derek’s T-shirt read University of Virginia School of Law, and in the dark he wondered if he should put some pachysandra or other ground cover on that steep slope in his backyard.

Steven’s T-shirt had a picture of sunlight passing through a prism, and he snored consistently.

Jeff’s T-shirt read Ninja in Training, and he told Steven, snoring beside him, that as much as he hated to say it, this would probably have to be his last year.

Randy’s T-shirt read Thompson Optical, and he could begin to feel the gentle tug of the pill.

Chad’s T-shirt read California Dreamin’, and he snored without making a sound.

Charles’s V-neck T-shirt was white, and all of his T-shirts were V-neck and white.

Adam’s T-shirt read Second Place Is the First Loser, and in the dark he calculated his chances.

Peter’s T-shirt was blue, and he stared at the clock, waiting for the number to change.

Trent’s T-shirt read Big Data, and although he courteously wore a nasal strip, he snored with calamitous volume. When he woke up, he discovered that his nose was running. Though he did not have a cold, or he hadn’t had a cold when he went to bed, mucus was now streaming down his face, his neck. In the dark he reached toward the bedside table for a tissue or towel. He grasped something soft, and brought it to his face. As he did so, he realized that the mucus was blood, and that the tissue was a jersey.

The final excerpt uses, in the last section, the list as a plot device–cool! I especially love, in the list below, the list as a question, and the uncertain list where not even the narrator knows what is going on. 

THERE WAS A DEER next to the dumpster behind the hotel. It stood still in the rain, ears alert, waiting to be frightened. A grainy version of the deer occupied a small box in the third column of the fourth row of the surveillance grid of the sixteen-channel CCTV monitor at the front desk. Like anyone shown on a surveillance monitor, the deer appeared to be involved in a crime.

In another box of the surveillance grid, the parking lot glittered blackly.

In another box, four grown men threw a football in a hallway.

In another box, two employees from the AquaDoctor scrubbed the lobby fountain with soft brushes.

In another box of the surveillance grid, the stairwell was so profoundly deserted as to seem post-human.  

In another box, an elevator passenger dropped into a three-point stance.

In another box, it was very difficult to tell what exactly was going on. 

In another box, a man wearing an elbow pad ran an unsustainable pace on the treadmill in the workout center.

In another box, two grown men threw a Frisbee in a hallway.

In another box, the continental breakfast had long since ended.

In another box, was that a cat in a hallway?  

In another box, inhabitants of the conference center applauded silently.

In another box of the surveillance monitor, the front desk clerk ignored the sixteen-channel surveillance monitor.

In another box, a man pacing and gesticulating alone in a hallway was either suffering from mental illness or using a phone with a hands-free headset.

In another box, an upside-down bird gnawed grainily on the knotted rope in its cage.

In the final box, an elderly man walked with purpose and a dignified limp through the lobby doors, into the hotel, vanishing from the box. He then reappeared in the front desk box, placing his elbows on the desk in a manner that seemed both inquisitive and assertive. He spoke with the front desk clerk — he appeared to speak with the front desk clerk — then walked briskly out of the box. The elderly man reappeared in the elevator box, pressing buttons, or more likely pressing a single button repeatedly. Here, in the elevator, you could see him well. He was perhaps seventy-five, with a full head of neatly trimmed gray hair. He was tall, with excellent posture. He wore a plaid shirt tucked into dark pants, but it was not difficult to imagine him wearing a uniform of some sort. The man did not, like almost all passengers, look at himself in the mirror on the back wall of the elevator. After a time, the elevator doors opened, and he exited the box. He reappeared in a different box of the sixteen-box surveillance grid, walking toward a group of grainy men throwing a football in a hallway. Most of the men dispersed immediately, though one of the men stood against the wall as if frozen. His face, which was not clearly visible on the surveillance monitor, had a startled expression. The abandoned football still spun on the hallway carpet like the altimeter dial of a rapidly descending aircraft. Midway down the hall, the elderly man stopped outside of a room, and knocked on the door. The vending alcove was neither visible nor audible. The man appeared to say something to the door. One is forced to assume that he was viewed through the peephole. Eventually, the door opened, and the elderly man entered the room, disappearing from the box in the fourth column of the second row of the surveillance grid.  By this time the deer, too, was gone from the box with the deer in it.

List Making Part 1: the joy of post-its

(side note: an interview with me is up on the F&SF blog where I discuss the background to the story that’s in the Jan./Feb. issue of the magazine)

I’m going to post about some amazing lists soon from the novel The Throwback Special (by Chris Bachelder), but first, this development for my writing desk: I now have a bulletin board, and I have post-its. I’m combining both of these things to create….lists! I’m hoping this will help me stay organized when I write and make me feel like I am choosing to work on whatever I am working on. It has been suggested that I am obsessed with post-its in other parts of my life too, but I really find they are essential, as both a parent (you can literally stick a note to your child) (I’m joking, I don’t usually do that) but also as a writer. I especially love them during the revision process. 

Anyhow, here, below, is what I’m trying to work on this week. Current projects today on the left, future things to the right. I just finished a draft of a story I’ve been working on for a month or two, so I’m taking a few days to get myself organized, process the crazy amounts of notes I’ve been taking, and maybe do some reading.   

Louise Erdrich, LaRose, Hearts

(side note: I have a new story out in the January/February issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which is really huge for me, because….Ursula LeGuin has had stories published in that magazine! Also I’ve been trying to get in there for, oh, about 13 years…)

Back in the summer, I was going through a LaRose / Louise Erdrich obsession, so, in my obsessed state, I decided to go through the novel and make a list of how Louise Erdrich describes and uses her characters’ hearts. I remember being interested in a couple things: first, simply, that people’s hearts kept coming up throughout the book. It seemed an unusual descriptive point to keep circling around. But also I was interested in how Erdrich sidestepped cliche and managed to make her heart descriptions meaningful, moving, and illuminating. That’s really hard to do. It’s like trying to describe multiple characters’ tears (“Never describe your character’s tears,” I remember one of my writing teachers once telling me). Just rereading the experts below makes me want to reread LaRose again or maybe read everything Erdrich has ever written. But what about Shirley Jackson?! What about all the great sounding books on all the best of 2016 lists? What about rereading, and rereading, and rereading The Throwback Special, my latest obsession? Anyhow, here are a lot of ways that Erdrich describes hearts.  

 

He lets Landreaux come close enough for him to take the infallible shot. Closer and closer yet. There it is. Peter squeezes the trigger gently with his heart exploding. Nothing.

 

The birds were silent. Snow was falling off the trees that day. She had scrubbed her body red with snow. She threw off everything and lay naked in the snow asking to be dead. She tried not to move, but the cold stabbed ice into her heart and she began to suffer intensely. A person from the other world came. The being was pale blue without definite form. It took care of her, dressed her, tied on her makazinan, blew the lice off, and wrapped her in a new blanket, saying, Call upon me when this happens and you shall live.

 

Landreaux sat down at the table, touched the edge. He didn’t want to speak, to bring up the thing he dreaded. He could feel the tension bubbling up inside, the quickened pump of his heart.

The agreement, whatever we call it, Peter started.

Landreaux just nodded, staring at his fingers.

The question is, said Peter.

Landreaux’s heart just quit.

The question is, said Peter. What’s it doing to him?

Landreaux’s heart started beating again.

What’s it doing to him, he weakly said.

 

You dove, he said. He stroked her shoulder all one way, like feathers.

A mean dove. Who will peck out your heart, she said.

That would hurt.

I can’t help myself. Will you stay with me, she said, suddenly, if I go crazy?

There was desolation in her voice, so he tried to joke.

Well, you already are crazy.

He felt tears on his chest. Oh, he’d gone too far.

In a good way. I love your crazy!

 

The sugar would jangle her nerves, she thought, but it didn’t. It slowed her heart. A dopey, fuzzy wash of pleasure covered her and she nearly blanked out before she made it to the couch.

 

Then she had another thought— their tradition worked. Dazzling act. How could she or Peter harm the father of the son they’d been given? She closed her eyes and felt the heavy warmth of LaRose as she rocked him to sleep,

 

A mysterious & lovely package from a Sun reader

Each time I’m lucky enough to have a story in The Sun Magazine, I’m just floored by the emails I receive in response. This doesn’t usually (ever?) happen when one is published in literary journals, even very good literary journals, at least in my experience, and though I should be used to it by now, it’s hard not to find that radio silence a little disappointing. The emails from Sun readers, on the other hand, are heartfelt, thoughtful, moving, and personal, and I am so grateful–so grateful–so grateful!–SO GRATEFUL!!!!–whenever I receive one. More than the publication itself, hearing from a reader allows me to think that, yes, the lifecycle of that particular piece is now complete. It’s left me, and gone out into the world, and done what I’ve always hoped it would do: find somebody and become something meaningful and separate from myself in that person’s life. It’s really, really amazing that writing, written in such isolation, can do this.

In response to “Two Moons,” my story in the December Sun (which is based in part on my challenges raising my autistic son), a kind reader sent me a beautiful box of wood carvings. For the first week, I kept them out on our kitchen island. My kids were constantly touching and petting and moving them, each asking if they could keep one in their rooms. I finally carried the carvings into my writing space in the attic. In his original email, the reader had mentioned that his carvings told a story of their own, so when I emailed him to let him know they arrived, I asked to know more about that story. He never wrote back, a response I kind of love: it means I have to figure out the meaning on my own.

A New Year’s Resolution: reach out more to the writers whose work moves me and let them know how important their stories are to me.

Here’s a few pictures of the wood carvings from a photo shoot on my writing desk, taken when I was supposed to be packing for an upcoming trip…. 

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Tooth Pain & Loving Shirley Jackson

There is the possibility these two things are related

(Side note: I have a new story, “Two Moons,” out in the December issue of The Sun. This is the second part of a 3 part novella about a mom who is struggling to parent her difficult son.) 

So first let’s talk about tooth pain. For the last 8 weeks I’ve been struggling with mild to extreme pain on the upper left side of my mouth. When it was the worst, especially when I was off Advil and trying to monitor the pain, the pain in my teeth was all I could think about. So I free wrote about my tooth and all the trips a good deal. The pain was most intense after the first root canal and crown on a separate tooth, but before the redo of the first root canal (with a second root canal on another tooth yet to come), and I told myself, well, lucky you, here is an opportunity to write about very intense pain and the fear that comes with it–that this pain might be permanent, as I know it is for some people. That this is your new normal. That the source of the pain might never be found. The possibility that the pain is all in your head (is it still pain then, if one is imagining it?). And how the act of trying to describe pain to someone who is not feeling your pain is nearly impossible. How does one put pain into words? Must it always be through metaphor? I haven’t gone back to look at all that writing yet–it will either probably be very interesting or very awful–but I’m hoping it might fit in somewhere in this massive mess of a creative non-fiction project about depression that I’m hoping to work on in the upcoming year. It was fascinating, for me at least, to compare depressive mental pain with extreme tooth pain: is one preferable, or more bearable, over the other? What kind of pain would you choose, if given a choice?  

Around the time I became obsessed with the pain in my teeth, I also became obsessed with Shirley Jackson. I like to think that these two events are somehow related. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, the new biography about Jackson by Ruth Franklin, which I recently finished, is fabulous. I feel like all women writers, especially married women writers, should read it. I loved watching Jackson develop as a writer as her life unfolded, and I loved watching her work through her failures and her year of writer’s block, when she was unable to write anything. And seeing how she juggled her family, her work in her house, and her writing. And seeing editors refusing to publish a book of her short stories even back then, even by Shirley Jackson, because books of short stories didn’t sell as well as novels (is it comforting, that this was still happening so many decades ago, or is it just sad?). The portrayal of Jackson’s somewhat disappointing marriage to Stanley Hyman was fascinating and honest. Franklin did an excellent job suggesting how tensions and anxieties in Jackson’s life, especially with Jackson’s mother and Jackson’s husband, were reflected in her writing. Hyman and Jackson’s love was intense, especially at the beginning of their relationship, but things quickly turned complicated, as Hyman wanted an open relationship, while Jackson didn’t. There was a jaw dropping section early on in the book where it seems like Jackson is suggesting that Hyman raped her (marital rape is a tricky business, especially back then, I imagine). This quote is from Jackson’s diary: “If it’s sex I can’t do anything about it,” the entry reads in part. “He forced me God help me and for so long I didn’t dare say anything and only get out of it when I could and now I’m so afraid to have him touch me.” This incident happened early on in their marriage. They would stay married for 25 years, up until Jackson’s death, though there was the suggestion that she was about to leave Hyman right before she died. I think at times, even later in the marriage, Hyman and Jackson still loved each other–perhaps I think this more than Franklin, Jackson’s biographer, does–but their love just didn’t look like the typical narrative. I loved so much about Jackson by the end of this book. How she struggled with fear and anxieties (she dropped out of college at one point after having some kind of breakdown–Jackson was probably suicidal then, and later in life she was agoraphobic)–but how perhaps that all allowed her to write the material that she did. I love this quote. 

“but i have always loved (and there is the opposition: love) to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where i was afraid and take it whole and work from there. so there goes castle. i can not and will not work from within the situation; i must take it as given. . . . i delight in what i fear. then castle is not about two women murdering a man. it is about my being afraid and afraid to say so, so much afraid that a name in a book can turn me inside out.”

I loved how she was a mom, and a housewife, and she wouldn’t have been able to write what she did if she had been something else. She had such crazy dreams at night. She believed in ghosts. She loved her kids a lot. She had hoped her marriage would be different and that, after marrying, she would never be lonely again. Anyway, the book is well worth a read. The only danger is it will probably make you want to read every single piece of Jackson’s writing, as I am now planning to do. 

Shirley Jackson with her children, North Bennington, Vermont, 1956

Reading list for holiday break: yes, most of these are Shirley Jackson novels. The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson); The Throwback Special (a book by a male writer, Chris Bachelder, about men and sports – not my usual thing, but that’s why I love this book club I’m in, so I get to read books I wouldn’t otherwise pick up); We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson); The Lottery collection of short stories (Shirley Jackson); The Sundial (I didn’t know of this Shirley Jackson novel until I read her bio–it’s about a family who holes up in their home, believing the world is ending. It’s unclear at the end if the world is about to end, or if it’s just in their heads. I love that idea). I do want to read Jackson’s more domestic humor books (Raising Demons, and Life Among the Savages–Ruth Franklin in the Jackson bio suggested these books are the precursors to mommy blogs). But I think that might need to wait until January. 

Bluets & creative non-fiction

(Side note: new speculative story for teens out in the November/December issue of Cicada magazine! Also there’s an interview with me. Also, perhaps most excitingly, there is my favorite author photo in that issue: me lying in my daughter’s bed, along with my daughter, her classroom guinea pig, and a Harry Potter book. It’s not the most flattering picture (of me, anyway, the guinea pig and my daughter look great) but, you know what, that was a moment of transcendental happiness for me. I loved that guinea pig. I loved my daughter. I loved Harry Potter. I loved my daughter’s bed. I loved reading to that guinea pig. I loved how, when reading, the guinea pig would look up from his carrot then slowly, slowly creep toward me, closer and closer, until its front paws were on my shoulder, and its face was sniffing my face, like he was trying to find the words I was speaking out loud. Other times, he would try and eat the book. He was my ideal reader and I miss him.)debbie-stella-guinea-pig

(I also have a new story, “Safe,” in the Fall issue (65:3) of Epoch, a journal I had been sending stuff to for the past 11 years, so this is particularly nice for me. It’s a story told by an evangelical narrator who is relatively new to the faith. I wrote it to help me understand my little sister, who got re-baptized into an evangelical church 2 or 3 years ago.)

Anyway, these days, I’m trying to find a way to write about my life in a way that doesn’t bore me and also doesn’t feel like I’m selling off my children. I tried a few straight forward essays, but putting my son’s actual name into one of those pieces made me sick to my stomach. I hated the thought that I was presenting my version of my son’s life as this fact, this truth, while his version of the story remained untold. Also I felt very constrained by the truth. So that was the end of my straight-forward essay career. A better fit, perhaps, is the “hermit crab” essay (nice essay on what this means here) – essentially it’s using form to examine/ponder something about one’s life. A truth within a form. A great example of a hermit crab essay: The Pain Scale, by Eula Biss – it’s as powerful, and fascinating, and readable to me as any piece of fiction. But I love that it’s also true. And I love that it doesn’t have to tell a narrative or story. I’m also interested in the idea of “speculative non-fiction,” where you take elements of your life, and insert speculative elements, and then write about it. 

I’m slowly reading Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle (still on volume 1!). I love how it’s not his life specifically that makes the book so mesmerizing, but the fact that meaning can be found in the smallest details of a life. That every life, every detail, can be meaningful. And the writing is kick-ass too. Actually, I find myself unable to read it most days/nights, because it requires so much energy. I get overly preoccupied with figuring out what I can learn from every sentence and, in the process, I end up taking way too many notes. Still, I think there’s something very essential that can be learned about writing creative non-fiction from this book. I’d love to see what a female version of this sort of writing looks like. 

Bluets (Maggie Nelson) is another form of creative non-fiction that intrigues me. I’ll admit, when I first bought the book, I read a few of the numbered sections and put it down. It felt so precious, so performed, for my tastes anyway, the voice too heightened, and there are so many paler imitations of this structure out there. The heart of the book felt like, in many moments, it was at the mercy of the writing. That said – once I got past the first few pages, there are still so many lovely, moving parts. The transitions, the organizational structure, the flow, is pretty mind-blowing. While I wish Nelson would take it down a few steps, and be a little more grounded, it’s also clear that isn’t what she was trying to do. Her voice feels like that of a questioning, seeking oracle, and I get that it’s not meant to be straight creative-non fiction. Maybe it’s more poetry. Anyway, I’m glad I read it. Here’s a passage I particularly loved about depression, which I’ve been trying to find a way to write about, so it’s always this exciting huge deal when I find an example of someone doing it successfully. How do you write about your own sadness without getting self-indulgent and boring people? That’s what I’m trying to figure out. From Bluets:

“127. Ask yourself: what is the color of a jacaranda tree in bloom? You once described it to me as “a type of blue.” I did not know then if I agreed, for I had not yet seen the tree.

128. When you first told me about the jacarandas I felt hopeful. Then, the first time I saw them myself, I felt despair. The next season, I felt despair again. And so we arrive at one instance, and then another, upon which blue delivered a measure of despair. But truth be told: I saw them as purple.

129. I don’t know how the jacarandas will make me feel next year. I don’t know if I will be alive to see them, or if I will be here to see them, or if I will ever be able to see them as blue, even as a type of blue.

130. We cannot read the darkness. We cannot read it. It is a form of madness, albeit a common one, that we try.

131. “I just don’t feel like you’re trying hard enough,” one friend says to me. How can I tell her that not trying has become the whole point, the whole plan?

132. That is to say: I have been trying to go limp in the face of my heartache, as another friend says he does in the face of his anxiety. Think of it as an act of civil disobedience, he says. Let the police peel you up.

133. I have been trying to place myself in a land of great sunshine, and abandon my will therewith.

134. It calms me to think of blue as the color of death. I have long imagined death’s approach as the swell of a wave—a towering wall of blue. You will drown, the world tells me, has always told me. You will descend into a blue underworld, blue with hungry ghosts, Krishna blue, the blue faces of the ones you loved. They all drowned, too. To take a breath of water: does the thought panic or excite you? If you are in love with red then you slit or shoot. If you are in love with blue you fill your pouch with stones good for sucking and head down to the river. Any river will do.

135. Of course one can have “the blues” and stay alive, at least for a time. “Productive,” even (the perennial consolation!). See, for example, “Lady Sings the Blues”: “She’s got them bad / She feels so sad / Wants the world to know / Just what her blues is all about.” Nonetheless, as Billie Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in deeper and deeper saturation is eventually to move toward darkness.

136. “Drinking when you are depressed is like throwing kerosene on a fire,” I read in another self-help book at the bookstore. What depression ever felt like a fire? I think, shoving the book back on the shelf.

137. It is unclear what Holiday means, exactly, when she sings, “But now the world will know/She’s never gonna sing ’em no more/No more.” What is unclear: whether she is moving on, shutting up, or going to die. Also unclear: the source of her triumphance.

138. But perhaps there is no real mystery here at all. “Life is usually stronger than people’s love for it” (Adam Phillips): this is what Holiday’s voice makes audible. To hear it is to understand why suicide is both so easy and so difficult: to commit it one has to stamp out this native triumphance, either by training oneself, over time, to dehabilitate or disbelieve it (drugs help here), or by force of ambush.

Writing non-fiction + what we can learn from our kids’ photos

This week I have an essay up on Motherwell, a new online magazine with some really interesting, thoughtful writing about parenting. My essay came out of a challenge I gave myself a few months ago, to try and write a few non-fiction pieces. I’ve written a lot about parenthood in my stories and I was curious what writing non-fiction about the same topics would feel like (the other essay that came out of this experiment was up on Brain, Child a while back). It was more difficult than I thought, to have to stick to reality, and I was reminded many times in the process why I love fiction so much. Sometimes, for me anyway, to really get at the truth of what happened, it seems best/natural/easiest to make things up (or at least alter the details).

(Tangent: I think that’s Werner Herzog’s approach to documentaries, where he is searching for the “ecstatic truth,” “wherein literal accuracy cedes its ground to emotional accuracy, a subjective realm entered through manipulation and fabrication.” (quote from Tom Bissell’s great essay on Herzog “The Secret Mainstream.”) So Herzog doesn’t mind having his interview subjects rehearse the answer to a question first. He’s not against giving them an idea for a dream they never had, or a habit they don’t possess, if it gets at some greater truth that may not have been accessible by sticking strictly to the facts). 

That said, I’m still interesting in exploring non-fiction, but maybe playing with form by trying a “hermit crab essay”–a form I didn’t know existed until I came across this great essay about it. (From the essay: “Hermit crab essays adopt already existing forms as the container for the writing at hand, such as the essay in the form of a “to-do” list, or a field guide, or a recipe.”) Or else I might continue to explore speculative non-fiction, a term I believe I made up, where it’s still about your life, only with speculative elements included. 

My essay on Motherwell is about quite a few things, including learning how to accept who my son actually is, as well as what happened when we gave him a camera a few years back. To compliment the essay, I wanted to post a few of my favorite pictures that he’s taken. I’m fascinated by kids’ photographs: it’s like getting into their brain and looking out at their world through their eyes. Because my son has mild autism, and communication isn’t always easy, I feel especially lucky to have these glimpses into how he sees the world. 

These are two of my favorite extended-family photographs. I love the expressions on everyone’s faces, and how honestly everyone is captured.

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These are some of my favorite extended-family photographs. I love the expressions on everyone's faces, and how honestly everyone is captured.

These were from The Holy Land Experience’s Christmas display in Orlando. It was a surreal place for me, and I think Jasper captured that surrealness. I am fascinated by his sister Stella’s expression in the photo with the (fake) horses.

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These were from The Holy Land Experience's Christmas display in Orlando. It was a surreal place for me,  and I think Jasper captured that surrealness. I am fascinated by his sister Stella's expression in the photo with the (fake) horses.

Some self portraits….I have wondered, what does it mean when a child obscures his face like that in a portrait of himself? 

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A few other family shots. Love the first one, a family portrait where you can barely see who’s there. As if there are perhaps more important things in a family portrait than the people themselves. In all of these three pictures, faces seem the least important part of a person.

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A few other random shots…of an art installation involving mirrors at Brooklyn Bridge park, some frost on our car window, and a zoo pic.

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