All posts by debbie

Slow pacing in a Hitchcock film!?!

Yes.

(side note: I have a new portal story up at Lightspeed as well as an author interview)

We have the occasional family movie night over here, which started as a way for me to keep sane while my husband was in a long distance master’s program which required him to be gone anywhere from 4 days to 2 weeks every other weekend. But it ended up being pretty fun watching movies with the kids so we kept the tradition going. We all take turns choosing the film, meaning our movie watching history is quite varied, encompassing Spy Kids, Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade, Big Hero 6, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Singin’ in the Rain. 

This past weekend was my turn to pick, and I decided it was time to introduce Hitchcock to my kids. My dad is a huge movie buff–he also collects and sells 16mm film and fixes projectors–so I grew up in a house dripping in movie history. My dad’s approach to movies certainly shaped my approach to reading: he loves movies unabashedly, with little regard to genre labels. Mystery, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, literary, classics, whatever. So in addition to watching The Blob as a kid (ah, that movie theater scene with the air vents!), and The Attack of the 70-Foot-Women, and Them!, and some movie about brains from outer space, and a whole lot of Twilight Zones, and The Godfather, Hitchcock was thrown into my childhood at some point, and I have fond memories of watching Rope, and Rear Window, and North by Northwest as a kid. (I do not have fond memories of watching Psycho, as I am forever terrified of hotel bathtubs with shower curtains.) 

So I’ve made a point to expose my kids to older movies as well. My daughter giggled all through “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain, and we all found Errol Flynn’s 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood to be very, very exciting, though the sound quality sucked. I was a little surprised about cocaine’s appearance in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, but, you know, that just kick started the discussion about drugs and addiction that every parent has to have at some point (but did I really want to have that discussion when my daughter was 5? Thanks a lot, Charlie Chaplin).

For Hitchcock, I started off by showing my kids this spectacular preview to North by Northwest:

My 10-year-old son thought Hitchcock was hilarious. My daughter, now 7, got excited about the action scenes. 

North by Northwest went over great. I mean, it’s not the perfect kid’s film using today’s definition of “kid film.” The drinking scene needed some explanation (Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill is forced to drink too much bourbon then he’s forced to drive his car in an attempt to kill him). And some of the, what to call it, romantic (?) dialogue between Roger and Eve Kendall was waaaaaaay over the top (Roger: The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her. / Eve: What makes you think you have to conceal it? / Roger: She might find the idea objectionable./ Eve: Then again, she might not.) But I’ll take that kind of stuff to the choppy, non-stop frantic energy of today’s current films that are marketed to children. Kids, it’s assumed, are unable to or unwilling to linger.

What surprised me most about re-watchng North by Northwest is the varied pacing. In particular, when Hitchcock slowed things waaaaaaaaaay down. Take, for instance, the Indiana scene, my favorite in the movie. 

I would describe the scene as David Lynchian or maybe Fargo/Coen brothers-ish, but Hitchcock came first, so that comparison doesn’t work. But I love how everything is held a little too long. Other directors might have had one car pass Cary Grant by. Other directors might have shortened the interaction with the man waiting for the bus. But that slow pace built such tension as we sat watching the film nervously, our nervousness building with each passing encounter, until the crop duster descends and tries to mow Cary Grant down in the scene that follows. I believe something can be gained here from thinking about this scene in the context of writing, and genre writing in particular: that there is a place for moments of languid and quiet pacing even in such stories. (I ponder pacing and genre more here and here.)

Writing, antidepressants, and depression

My therapist has been bringing up anti-depressants every few months since I started seeing her in December 2015. The first time, I said there was no way I was going to take medication. My response was like a reflex. Where does such a reflex come from? Partly, I think I wanted to love my brain as it was. I wanted to think my brain was normal and good and, on the days when my brain did not treat me kindly, that I could wrestle it back into shape using behavior modifications, exercise, and my writing. My depression has never been the debilitating, can’t get out of bed sort. It’s chronic and low grade with occasional dips into major depression mixed with suicidal ideation. It’s not pleasant, but most of the time I can appear functional, and sometimes my brain will start doing some weird warped thinking that I can put into a story.

The second time my therapist brought up antidepressants, I said I’d think about it, and I thought about it for a few days, and then I said again, no way! I love my brain! And, to be honest, I had become very interested in writing about, and through, the low points of my depression. I felt like I was being given an opportunity to explore this weird dark murky awful landscape as a writer, and the writing I did while in such a place was dark, murky, weird, but also interesting to me.

Then recently I had a Very Bad Weekend, where my suicidal ideation ratcheted up a step, and it freaked me out a little, and also I was spending so much energy trying to answer the question “Do I want to be here anymore?” that I was having trouble doing anything else for a few days other than surviving and writing. (An awful complex fact: I think the writing I did during this time is actually pretty fascinating, and weird, and dark. I’m hoping to turn it into a creative non-fiction piece. So I don’t think my depression ever ruined my writing, though it did narrow the focus of my writing to me me me me me.) At my next appointment, my therapist brought up medication again, citing some reasonable evidence based data: that meds + therapy have been shown to be more effective than meds or therapy on their own. That I have been working very hard at therapy for 1.5 years and maybe it was time to try something a little different. She mentioned the possibility that maybe I didn’t have to go through so much suffering in order to write or to live my life. She doesn’t believe that artists need to be depressed in order to be good deep artists. Sometimes freeing one’s self from depression can actually help one’s art, she said. I said okay, yeah, I’ll think about it, and this time, I did actually do some thinking and some questioning.  

Here’s what I thought about. How useful was my suffering or my depression? And who was it useful to? Was it useful to my writing? What kind of writer would I be without my depression, and without access to that very deep dark hole of a place in which I fell from to time? Would taking meds mean I was agreeing that my brain wasn’t normal? Was I just buying into society’s idea of a normal brain? What if my husband liked me better on meds? What if I liked myself better on medication? Was I participating in the over-medicating of American society if I started taking anti-depressants? What would meds do my writing? And, of course, there was the question, how much did I want to be here? 

I had no idea the answers to any of these questions, so I started reading about writers and medication, or at least googling about it. I found some essays on line.

Lev Grossman wrote, in 2010, about how SSRI’s (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) weren’t great for his writing: 

“When I look back on the writing I did during the 18 months or so that I was on SSRIs, it doesn’t seem terrible. Actually I won two awards that year for journalism, something that never happened to me before and hasn’t happened to me since. But I don’t think my fiction was all it could have been. There was a blankness to it. I feel like when I’m writing something worth reading, I’m doing two things: I’m saying something, but at the same time I’m reacting to what I’m saying, and I’m building that reaction into the next thing I say — I’m iterating, feeding back into myself, forming strange loops. Somehow that second stage wasn’t firing while I was on Serzone. The loop wasn’t looping.”

Lev Grossman writes, also in 2010, about how Wellbutrin was much better for his depression and writing (Wellbutrin is a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor (NDRI), so it doesn’t mess with serotonin). He makes Wellbutrin sound really nice. 

“The fact is I was falling in love. With Wellbutrin. I had found my drug. I could get out of bed in the morning. I did less ruminative thinking. I didn’t write and rewrite the same sentence 50 times. Whereas before I would get stuck and blocked ten times a day, now I kept on bulling forward. It was like I’d been water-skiing my whole life, but the boat had been going at half-speed, and I kept sinking down into the water until it burbled up around my knees and eventually I dropped the rope and fell over. Now the boat was going full speed. I was skipping along. I was finally getting somewhere.”

In 2013, Alex Preston seems to suggest in The Guardian that antidepressants are mostly bad for one’s creativity, though occasionally the drugs are portrayed as a necessary evil, depending on who you ask.

“Within three weeks of my own Prozac fog lifting, I was writing again. Yes, I still felt down, so down some days that I couldn’t work and buried my head under the duvet, but the trade-off was days when my fingers couldn’t move fast enough over the keyboard, my pen struck sparks from the page. In Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, the heroine, Kitty Finch, has just quit Seroxat. “It’s quite a relief to feel miserable again,” she says. “I don’t feel anything when I take my pills.” It’s been five years since I took my last SSRI. The happiness I get from my writing is deeper seated and more authentic than anything that could be confected in the laboratories of Big Pharma. The drugs didn’t work for me and, more importantly, I couldn’t work when I was on them.”

In 2014, Gila Lyons writes in The Millions how SSRI’s changed her writing (she had severe anxiety). Summary: she was glad she is taking SSRI’s, though the drugs did change how she wrote.   

“I agree that powerful art is created out of a deep need, and bears the imprint of the essential raw self or soul. But if my anxiety really is a biological disorder, as doctors and psychologists have repeatedly insisted, then my essential self isn’t the anxious thoughts and existential dread I used to constantly feel. My essential self would lie underneath the layers of catastrophic images and anguished mental chatter. It’s possible that the medicines I take could help me travel a clearer and more direct path to that place, avoiding the potholes and back alleys of phobias, anxiety, and panic. Though it takes more discipline to sit down and write now, since I am not doing so to save my life, I am practicing writing from a place of curiosity rather than pain, fascination rather than desperation, forging my way more safely into a different dark.”

On Vice, Amy Smolcic writes in 2016 how antidepressants (Lexapro) were bad for her writing.

“Lexapro turned me into a zombie, riding through the motions of life without feeling. Things that made me angry became irrelevant. There was no twinge of sadness watching Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. If you’re wondering whether something is off, that’s a sure sign. Whenever I picked up a pen to write, I had nothing. I couldn’t even write about the damn rain. If you’re a creative writer who can’t poetically describe the rain, you’re in trouble.”

There are a lot of forums where people who enjoy writing at various levels say antidepressants either killed their creativity or it was okay or maybe it even helped (here’s one discussion at reddit).

“I write more frequently now, because I don’t have to fight against the fatigue and hopelessness to even get started on a story. I did have a bit of an adjustment period in my work, but that could be attributed as much to how I drank pre-meds as anything; I had to encourage myself to write as fearlessly sober as I did drunk. The idea that medication is guaranteed to ruin your work is horseshit. Yes, some people have reported that, but others have had the opposite experience, and I can’t help but wonder how many people have avoided a treatment that could’ve saved their lives based on that fear.”

And then there are the numerous articles and more articles and even more articles about how we are an over-medicated society. This 2 part book review, by Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books in 2011, is kind of famous (here’s part 1 and part 2) (Peter Kramer, noted below, does not find Angell’s arguments to be accurate, by the way).

“The books by Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat are powerful indictments of the way psychiatry is now practiced. They document the “frenzy” of diagnosis, the overuse of drugs with sometimes devastating side effects, and widespread conflicts of interest. Critics of these books might argue, as Nancy Andreasen implied in her paper on the loss of brain tissue with long-term antipsychotic treatment, that the side effects are the price that must be paid to relieve the suffering caused by mental illness. If we knew that the benefits of psychoactive drugs outweighed their harms, that would be a strong argument, since there is no doubt that many people suffer grievously from mental illness. But as Kirsch, Whitaker, and Carlat argue convincingly, that expectation may be wrong.”

Even my beloved Dr. Weil chimed in on the overmedication of America in The New York Times this week (by the way, what Dr. Weil says below sounds like an extreme generalization and does not sound like a good idea or a viable solution):

“Here’s another example: I would only use antidepressants for very severe depression and then only for a year at most. With long-term use, they can intensify or prolong depression. For mild to moderate depressions I would try other measures: regular exercise, reducing caffeine, acupuncture, cognitive therapy, vitamins B and D, St. John’s Wort, fish oil — and spending more time in the company of happier people.”

There has been some pushback to the overmedicated narrative thankfully, though I think those voices are generally quieter. One example is Peter Kramer’s Ordinary Well: The Case for Antidepressants. I just started reading this book, and it is great so far. 

“To state Kramer’s position bluntly, SSRIs work—not all the time, and not for all people, but in lots of ways for lots of people. How they work remains a partial mystery, and how well they work has a subjective component—as do the afflictions the drugs treat—but murky borders do not mean there is no country. Pharmaceutical companies may have pushed a cartoon claim of “chemical imbalance” to suggest that some people need supplementary serotonin the way others need extra iron, but Kramer bases his assessment on 30 years of clinical experience as well as his own immersion in the literature of drug trials.”

Armed with such random and inclusive research, I decided to keep researching. Because I like research! And as long as I was researching, I could put off the decision of whether or not to start taking meds. I kept talking to my therapist about medication. I wrote to one of my favorite writers Andrew Solomon, who has struggled with depression, to get his opinion. Andrew Solomon generously wrote back this very solid advice: 

“If you look at my books, you will see that antidepressants have not gotten in the way of my writing as well as I ever have. If you try the meds and feel they interfere with your writing, you can stop taking them (under a physician’s directions).  If you never try them, you’ll never know.”

I thought about Daphne Merkin, who wrote This Close to Happy, a beautiful memoir about depression, while on meds. I thought about how 25% of American women aged 40-50 are on antidepressants, a fact which freaks me out and makes me so sad (what is it about this world that makes so many women that age incompatible with living happily on the planet)?  

I told my sister I was worried my writing would suck on meds. She asked me, “Would you rather write well and be miserable, or be happy and not writing well?” I said, “I think not writing well would make me miserable.” The deep dips of my depression had been giving me something to write about or write against. My therapist said maybe not being depressed will give me more energy and focus to write. But usually I had been able to write through my depression, and I wasn’t often distracted by it, except when I felt compelled to research the effectiveness of various suicide methods, which I always felt could be used for a story, anyway.  

I talked with the writers in my writing group. One friend asked did I know how many writers were on meds? Another said we were talking about SSRI’s here, right? It’s not like we were talking about clozapine. I tried to explain my hesitation: I wanted to love my brain as it was. “Well, fine,” said a friend, “go ahead and choose to be miserable!” But it was more complicated than that. I was exhausted from my suicidal ideation that had been haunting me for years. I was tired of having to justify my life to myself, which, on good days, I kind of could do, and on bad days, I couldn’t. But I wanted the world to go on meds instead of me. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen.

So I picked up the phone, called my primary care physician, and made an appointment.  

My primary care physician is a lovely MD with a holistic bent. She likes yoga, lentils, and breathing exercises, and she has never in the 15 years I’ve known her been an enthusiastic prescriber of drugs. This is one reason why I like her. But I thought my situation would be an exception. When I went in and said, “I’m depressed! I want anti-depressants!”, it’s true I expected fanfare, or at least for her to say, “Congratulations! You’re here after hours and hours and days and weeks of research and thinking! You’ve made a healthy decision! You are not ruining your writing in any way!” Instead my doctor looked disappointed. She promised that she would write me a prescription, but then went on to talk to me about diet changes, positive thinking, meditation, and walking for a long time. I felt like a junkie. This was not the response I was looking for. I left thinking, have I not tried enough? Are weekly therapy sessions, and trying to implement a whole host of healthier thinking habits, and having an emergency plan, and a list of coping strategies, and yoga, and running when I’m not injured, not enough? On the one hand, I appreciate the amount of time my doctor spent with me. On the other hand, I think (and hope) antidepressants are warranted with depression, and with some kinds of depression, lifestyle changes are not a substitute for meds. 

I started taking a low dose of generic Lexapro.

I’ll be honest, at first I felt like I was poisoning myself. I know that sounds dramatic. But my body physically felt so bad, bad headaches, nausea, like I had the flu. I thought it was my body’s last ditch effort, that it was crying, “Please, please, stop!” Then the tiredness set in. I didn’t tell my husband I was trying out meds for the first two weeks. Instead, I pretended I was sick. I’m not sure I’d recommend this approach, but that’s what I did. I didn’t want to have my husband say, “I am so excited that I will not have a super depressed spouse anymore, hooray, go medication go! Can you take more or maybe up the dosage?” (I did eventually tell him, and he did not say any of this). I listened to a lot of The Hilarious World of Depression podcasts during this time. It’s a brilliant, lovely show where comedians talk about their experience with depression, and a lot of them are on medication or have used medication to get through their depression, and it was such a healing relief to hear creative funny people talk about meds in a positive light.

After a week, the headaches and nausea did go away. The tiredness didn’t. It’s still here, in fact, sitting in my lap. It’s a tiredness that reminds me of how I felt when I had a nursing newborn in bed, and I would wake up in the morning feeling like I hadn’t slept, and then I’d continue to feel that way the entire day. It’s a tiredness that is like a weight attached to my limbs. It’s uncomfortable and a pain. 

The good things about medication? I am able to talk to my husband again in the evenings. That voice in my head exhausted me to such a degree that all I wanted after dinner was quiet, which is fine if you have a quiet spouse or if you don’t have a spouse at all, and also if you don’t have any kids, but I have a spouse, and he likes to talk, and I have kids. Also I feel like my sadness has a floor on it now. I’ve only cried once in the last 4 weeks. I am not thinking of suicide every day or multiple times a day. Last week I didn’t think about it once. Things bother me less. Should things bother me more? Probably. But it is relaxing, to not watch the evening explode or catch on fire or burn down after one bad interaction with my husband or my children. And sometimes it’s nice to be able to not be thinking anything. 

How has SSRI’s affected my writing?

The first week (which, I know, everyone says is too soon to feel any real effects, but whatever), I felt like a voice was shut off in my head. Sure, it was the voice that had been set on loop, the voice that would get stuck and tell me all sorts of awful things about myself and then go on repeat, or it would remind me, when I was really down, of the various ways that one could kill themselves. I realize none of that is at all useful. But that same voice would sometimes point out a reality not available to everyone else, a reality I wanted to write about. I miss that voice. The first week I imagined that poor voice bound and gagged and hurt. My therapist suggested there is a way to get the good parts of that voice back, but I don’t know how to do that yet.

When I first started to take meds, I would sit down to write, and all I heard, instead of that familiar voice, was,”OH MY GOD I AM MEDICATION, OH MY GOD I AM MEDICATION.” I was very self-conscious. I would change a word in a sentence and then go back and examine the change, and wonder, is this change any good? Would I have made this same change before medication or would I have been able to come up with a better word? This did not help my writing any. But eventually I chilled. This took 1 week, maybe 2. I got to the point where I might remind myself, “You’re on meds!” and the response would not be a freak-out but something more civil, like, “Yeah, I am.” 

Once the panic subsided, it seems like I’m able to revise just fine, though the tiredness is an issue, and I tend to start falling asleep half an hour after I start writing, which means a long nap, from which I wake up cranky, because I hate naps, and after I write for a little more, I start falling asleep again. I’m thinking about seeing a psychiatrist and trying out an anti-depressant that isn’t known for fatigue. (It will be hard for me not to go in and say, “I want Wellbutrin!” As that is what Lev Grossman likes and used while writing the later books of his Magician series, and I like Lev Grossman, and I like his writing. But I need to remember Lev Grossman has his own brain and I have mine, and each brain’s response to medication is so personal and unique) (though I still might go in to the psychiatrists office and say this anyway, as I am tired of being tired). 

In terms of subject matter, I don’t have the same drive or obsession to be examining my sadness and my depression in my writing. Is this a good or a bad thing? Perhaps it was time to move on. I probably have way too many pages written on this topic. It might be exciting to write about something more outside of myself. I don’t know. There certainly is less of an urgency to write as well, though I’m still writing just as much. It just takes more internal motivation. Maybe it’s that writing is no longer so tied to my survival. Will that affect the quality of my writing? I don’t know. I have to imagine this change will be reflected in my stories somehow. But I know a lot of great writers have not written out of a sense of survival. And I’m sure a lot of great writers have. 

Am I part of the overmedication of America? Part of me thinks that a person’s individual depression, or anxiety, or reasons for taking medication is so complex, that perhaps everyone should mind their own business and stop being so judgmental about what medicine other people are taking. For me, the decision to take medication felt necessary, if I wanted to stick around, and it was through no lack of effort on my part. And I don’t think medication is so great that I would ever want to be on it if it wasn’t necessary. It’s not like, whoo-hoo I’m exhausted, and I want to take a nap, and I don’t care so much about so many things anymore, this is awesome!

Sometimes I feel like a character in one of my stories, who takes a pill so that she can be altered enough to allow her to stay in her current life. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, I suppose, other than I would like my unaltered brain and my current life and the world to be a better match. 

I like to go back and read this passage from the Guardian essay

“For Lewis it was a decision between writing on Prozac or not writing at all. For Keeril Makan, the choice was rather different. One of America’s most celebrated young composers, he struggled for years with a depression that would often find vivid reflection in his work. He describes his music as “informed, almost viscerally, by my depression”, and spiky, atonal pieces such as The Noise Between Thoughts attack the listener with a bleak physical force. Finally, though, he reached a point at which he had to step away from the darkness. “Although I was still composing,” he told me, “it was such an excruciating process and was putting me in contact with these really difficult emotional places. I couldn’t go on with my daily life. I was creating music I was happy with and people were interested in, but I had to live as well.”

He started taking the antidepressant Wellbutrin and meditating, and found that his music gained a new depth as he dragged himself out of his depression. “Being on the antidepressants does change the type of emotions I’m experiencing,” he said, “but I think they can be just as interesting. If anything, this helps the composing. I was working on an opera recently and I don’t think I could have written it before. I was too one-dimensional, emotionally. Things were just dark but now there’s both – dark and light.” I confessed to admiring the raw power of his early work and he chuckled. “It’s true that I’m not as fully immersed in darkness as previously, but I guess I don’t care, because I couldn’t keep doing that. It was a question of living, or creating this music that was negative and violent. I made my choice.”

I’m still treating this whole thing as an experiment. 

 

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…. 

wood-carving1

wood-carving-3

wood-carving-2

wood-carving4

wood-carving5

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.