All posts by debbie

A few reasons why Louise Edrich and LaRose are amazing

(side note: I have an essay up on Orion about why insomnia can be a little beautiful, and an essay on Brain, Child about why I got rid of all my parenting books) 

I’ve been studying Louise Erdrich’s new novel LaRose these past mornings. It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything so great that I wanted to go over it, sentence by sentence, and figure out what the author is doing and how the heck she does this (books I’ve done this with in the past: Wolf Hall (many times), Alice Munro’s short stories, Alice McDermott’s Someone) (I’m noting that these are all women authors–I wonder if there’s something specifically female in their use of language that makes me want to study their writing).

I love Erdrich’s dialogue, which sparkles, sparks, and is often hilarious. Her characters argue with fierceness but also with this underlying love (versus my own characters, who seem to argue with this biting meanness or detachment which I sometimes wish wasn’t there). Erdrich is not afraid to use exclamation points. And I find it interesting she doesn’t use quotation marks to note dialogue (despite my googling skills, I’ve been unable to pull up an interview where she reveals why. What came up, instead, were readers irritated at Erdrich for not using quotation marks. The Guardian has an interesting little essay about not using quotation marks, in which an author suggests quotation mark-less dialogue is “more immediate, more with it.” I can see how it flows more smoothly, perhaps seems more spoken.) 

Here’s some dialogue that I loved between a married couple, Peter and Nola Ravich. Some background, which will probably be very confusing (sorry): the Ravich’s next door neighbor, Landreaux Iron, accidentally shot and killed the Ravich’s son Dusty, so the Irons gave their own son LaRose to the Ravichs. Now Emmaline Iron (LaRose’s mom) wants LaRose back for good. Peter is trying to explain this to Nola and thinks it might help if Nola talks to Emmaline herself. I find the line about Landreaux’s height so funny, where Peter tries to say he’s practically the same height too. Nola’s cruelty when imitating Emmaline is so pointed and precise, and the shift in conversation, when Nola says she would kill Landreaux for Peter, is breathtaking. Throughout it all this warmth between Peter and Nola remains.  (I also think Erdrich is a master of really short paragraphs!)

“Two days later, he tried to have the conversation.

I just don’t like her, Peter, I don’t, because she is a self-righteous bitch.

Why do you say that?

Peter had read magazine articles that advised questions when you wanted to divert a way of thinking in another person. Or you wanted to stall.

Why? he asked again, then ventured. She’s your sister. You could try.

Okay, I’ll tell you why I can’t try. She’s got that program director’s attitude for one thing. Like, here’s Emmaline. Posing at her desk. Wehwehweh. I can listen. Listen with my hands folded and my head cocked. You know? Emmaline puts on her listening mask and behind that mask she’s judging you.

They were outside, at the edge of the yard. Nola ripped up a stalk of grass and put the end in her mouth. She narrowed her eyes and stared out over the horizon, that line at the end of the cornfields, between the sweeping coves of trees.

For emphasis she dipped her head to each side. Right. And left. Judging me.

She tossed the stalk of grass away.

Oh, I guess I could. Talk to her. If she would give back LaRose.  

Peter glanced at the ground, disguising his hope.

It’s been four days. I get it, said Nola. I really do.

I never said.

But I get it.

Peter nodded, encouraged.

I mean, it’s wrong, but I get it. She’s holding him hostage because she wants my attention. She wants me to be like, Oh, Emmaline, how are you, how is your project, your big deal, your this, your that, your girls that Maggie likes so much? How generous you are, Emmaline, what a big-time traditional person to give your son away to a white man and almost white sister who is just so pitiful, so stark raving. So like her mother that Marn who had the snakes. People never forget around here. And they will never forget this either. It will be Emmaline Iron the good strong whaddyacallit, Ogema-ikwe. The woman who forever stuck by that big load Landreaux and even straightened him out so he could, so he could . . . I’m just saying I would kill him for you. I see your face when you’re chopping wood. I’d kill him for you if it wasn’t for LaRose. So their damn unbelievable plan worked its wonder because now I’m better.

Peter questioned that now, but said nothing.

And nobody’s going to kill the big freak. He’s too fucking tall.

He’s only six three, murmured Peter. I’m six two.

I hope our son doesn’t get that tall. I hope LaRose doesn’t turn into a killer hulk.

It’s been a while now, said Peter.

Yeah, the years have gone by, haven’t they, Nola said.  

I love Erdrich’s depictions of imperfect families and imperfect marriages — couples and parents trying to love their spouses and families and sometimes failing, but still putting up with it. Nola and her daughter Maggie were particularly interesting to me.  Maggie, at first, seems to have oppositional defiant disorder. She is hateful and manipulative and cruel. (On LaRose’s first night at the Ravich’s house, Maggie kicks LaRose out of bed and onto the floor. “What are you crying for, baby? she said. LaRose began to sob, low and profound. Maggie felt blackness surge up in her. You want Mom-mee? Mom-mee? She’s gone. She and your daddy left you here to be my brother like Dusty was. But I don’t want you.”) (though LaRose and Maggie do end up loving each other and become very close). On the other hand, Nola, the mother, treats her daughter with cruelty and really hates her daughter, especially in beginning (“Nola’s eyes followed her daughter, sour death rays. She had raised a monster whom she hated with all the black oils of her heart but whom she also loved with a deadly confused despair”). It’s a complex and very real relationship. 

Erdrich has some great descriptions of less than perfect marriages too. In the Iron household, wife Emmaline is struggling to connect with her husband Landreaux after the accidental shooting which changed/ruined their life. Yet they remain married, and though their love has changed, it’s still love, I think. I don’t often get to read about unsatisfying love in a marriage where a couple stays married. 

Emmaline would not check out if he did; she would survive for the kids. For herself. Also, the good stuff was in question. Emmaline had put a wall up, Landreaux thought. He even pictured it— brick but at least there were gaps, maybe windows. Sometimes she reached both hands through, unclenched, and Landreaux hurriedly clasped her from the lonely side. He understood the wall as blame for what happened. He did not understand when she said he was asleep. His eyes were open. He was driving. He was pulling up in Ottie’s driveway.

And one last scene between Emmaline and Landreaux….I love how, in the excerpt below, Landreaux is trying to keep/accept Emmaline’s love, whatever she can offer him—which is different than what she offered before, when they first met and fell and love. Landreaux is trying to make this lesser or at least different love be enough. There’s some grief in that, some loss–but I love the image at the end, where Emmaline imagines she and Landreaux together, not in some idyllic paradise but in a slough with a “muck bottom” where “ducks batter their way across and up,” the place where Landreaux almost got killed. Probably not the place either of them want to be, but that’s where they are, and they’re there together.

He went straight to her, bent over and put his arms around his wife sitting in the chair. She put her hand up and held his arm. The kitchen light was harsh. She closed her eyes and leaned back. He pushed his chin lightly along the crown of her head.

You smell like outside, she said.

She kept her hand on his arm, frail gesture. Hardly the way a woman treats her husband when she’s become aware that it might be her cousin Zack who comes to the door. Hardly. Something, though. The hand on his arm hardly represented what had been their passionate marriage, their once-upon-a-reservation storybook time. She just held his arm. He leaned over her, his elbows on the back of the chair. Leaning wasn’t much, when compared to how they used to push a chair under the doorknob in a cheap motel where the lock was broken. They used to think they were something special. Lucky. They used to say they were sure nobody else had ever been this happy, ever been this much in love. They used to say, We will get old together. Will you still love me when I’m shriveled up? I will love you even better. You’ll be sweeter. Like a raisin. Or a prune. We’ll be eating prunes together. That’s the way they used to talk. But now they were tasting the goddamn green plums, weren’t they. Bitter. What about me? Will you love me? I don’t know, it depends on where you shrivel up. That’s the way they used to talk.

Landreaux straightened up and got two glasses of water. He sat down in another chair. Emmaline felt a surge of fear that suddenly contained what might be, could be, identified as possibility. She took a drink of water and closed her eyes. She saw a slough thick with reeds, muck bottom, tangled, both deep and shallow. She saw the ducks batter their way across and up. She saw herself, Landreaux beside her. She saw them both wade in together.

A friend of mine is considering reading all of Erdrich’s novels. I’m considering doing this as well, the problem being I have literally several hundred books on my to read list right now. I’d like to do this with Munro as well, read all of her work. I think it would be fascinating comparing the writing styles of Erdrich and Munro. Both write so exactly but without overdoing it. I never feel a forced lyricism or romanticism when I’m reading them. Erdrich’s books have a warmness to them, a connection to the community, while Munro’s characters seem often to isolate themselves, or be isolated. I feel like Munro is always looking to the landscape and rooms and people’s dress as a mirror to a person’s emotions. Erdrich does this but sparingly (although she does have a great description of Nola’s uncluttered sterile house, though that comes so late in the novel–until then we never really see the rooms that the characters live in). Hmmm, and why not throw in Alice McDermott too? Perhaps I see more similarities between McDermott and Edrich–McDermott’s novel Someone had such an underlying foundation of love, despite the various tragedies that cropped up, as does LaRose.

Secret anti-plot hidden messages

and two publications

Side note #1: my novella “Over There” is out in the latest issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review. It’s not exactly a beach read. Sometimes I wonder if it’s perhaps the least commercially viable piece of fiction I’ve written — a dark, violent, slightly experimental novella of all things about motherhood and torture in the Iraq war. Who in their right mind would publish something like that? Who in their right mind would spend months and months (I am underestimating the amount of time here) researching and writing something like that? On the other hand, I’m glad I wrote it. I wanted to investigate and try to understand how someone raises and loves a child after participating in really terrible things. Now I think I understand that more. I’m very grateful to the Alaska Quarterly Review for publishing a piece like this. They’ve published two other stories of mine in the past few years, both dark, violent, disturbing and rather humorless stories, that I think a lot of other journals might shy away from. I appreciate that the AQR takes risks and still sees the value of a story beyond its entertainment value. 

Side note #2: I also have a brief story up on Terraform from Earth Day. The story is from this project that has exploded all over my desk, which I’m trying actively to ignore now, but I will have to deal with it soon. I’ve read a lot of non-fiction these past two years about the environmental crisis, during which I started thinking the world would really be better off without us humans on it, so I wanted to examine that idea further by writing about it. This project concerns the future, computer games, the last generation of humans, auto-extinction (a word my husband claims to have made up but I love it), suicide, and beauty. It’s supposed to be an optimistic project but either my characters or I keep seeming to forget this fact. The project now looks like it will be several million pages long. Commercially viable? Hmmmm.

In order to avoid working on that project / desk issue described above, I decided to clean up other areas of my desk, at which time I came across this folded sheet of legal paper that I found last year. The paper had been slipped inside the pages of a library book. I still have this fantasy, leftover from my childhood, of finding a really exciting note slipped into a book that would be the start of this great adventure or mystery: a clue, a map, a spell, etc. Instead, what I found was a woman’s brief answers to a quiz from 2011. I kind of love that as an anti-plot twist. Actually I love a lot of things about what the woman wrote and how she wrote. The grammar of the voice. Her description of her eyes changing color (in answer #3 – read it – it’s beautiful and eerie!). The slight feeling of a formal performance–it is a test after all–though it seems heartfelt as well. It’s a reminder for me about what makes a voice believable. The small turns of phrase (how the opening that jumps right into the sentence (“Since I can remember…”). I would have written it, “Ever since I can remember,” which is so much more stilted). The little surprising revelations (wanting to enjoy and slow down even the bad stuff in one’s life). Or what is crossed out. 

1/24/11

1. Since I can remember religion has been a lead role in my life. Being raised with a very narrow idea of what is to be true and right in regards to living this life and the next. There was zero room for discussion of notions different than that of the Holy Bible. Belief and faith in fact was what surrounded every aspect of my childhood. By the age of 9 I knew better, or should I say I knew there was much more or at least something different. I do not believe in what I was taught. I can’t say honestly what it is I do believe because since I was 9 I have been asking myself that same question. What I can say is I feel enough about the subject for it to still be a major part of my life, and in my mind as much as I wish it was not.

2. I feel the meaning of life or what gives life meaning is different for everyone. It would be the reason you do what you do and are what you are. That reason varies with each different person. Meaning of life could be what’s most important to you. As cliche as it is to say the purpose of my life would have to be V—-. She is my reason for everything. I’m sure most mothers say the same thing but it was my one and only answer. As for what I hope to achieve in life….my list is long. Of course the basics, school, career, and so on. But what’s most appealing to me in my future is time. I want to take my time, to do things slow and enjoy them. Even the bad stuff. I hope to achieve the ability to take better control of the things going on around me and for the things I love to keep and know them longer.

3. If I knew the answer to that question I have no method of finding truth. The only tactic I’ve ever known is what is in my gut. Things can change appearance and meaning so easily. What I thought to be true can so quickly turn. Even my own eye color plays games with me. I’d like to say my eyes are green. I could say there’s truth to that, even scientifically you could prove it. But sometimes if I look in the mirror, there’s so much orange and yellow it hardly looks green at all. And so often do people tell me I have beautiful grey eyes. That’s a silly example, but it’s why I just stick to the old gut trick. As for what I know to be true….all I can know for sure is what I feel. That changes sometimes with my mood but my feelings towards the ones I love, or even my feelings toward an idea or belief, I know them to be true and everlasting.

Mistake

 

Emotional truth versus realism

A Poem from The Crossover

The existence of the novel-in-verse YA genre strikes me as so unlikely. Who would have thought such a specific form could exist let alone be appealing and keep winning a lot of Newberry Awards? Speaking as an ex-poet, I love how a novel-in-verse can give poetry a cohesive story and, in doing so, makes poetry feel so much more relevant and enjoyable. It also can strip away unnecessary description and maneuvering from fiction, streamlining the voice in this very powerful way. Inside Out and Back Again, Brown Girl Dreaming, Out of the Dust, and Crank are a few great novels-in-verse  I’ve enjoyed. So during a recent trip to the library, while lugging bags around containing honestly 50 pounds of graphic novels for my son, I spied The Crossover and gladly checked it out. Told in free verse, The Crossover won the Newberry Award in 2015. It’s a story of twins, Josh and Jordan, talented in basketball, and about their relationship to each other and to their father.   

The most powerful poem of The Crossover for me is “Questions.” Josh’s dad is in the hospital, Josh is angry, he’s just sat beside his father, and after the two of them stare at each other for 10 minutes in silence, the dad suggests they take turns asking questions but not answering them. While I can imagine characters thinking these questions, I can’t imagine characters speaking most of these questions out loud, and I wondered for a while whether the non-realism effects the powerfulness of the interchange. In the end I decided so what if this dialogue would never happen in reality: these words capture the emotional truth of the relationship and the situation so well that I don’t think extreme realism matters here.

This idea of capturing emotional truth rather than reality reminds me of several passages from Tom Bissell’s great essay about Warner Herzog, “The Secret Mainstream.” Herzog occasionally scripts dialogue or action for his documentary subjects who, at least in the examples Bissell cites, don’t seem to mind as the scripted parts get at the emotional truth of these people maybe better than their actual life does. Here’s one example as described by Bissell: In Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Herzog’s astonishing documentary about the escape and survival of a German-American pilot named Dieter Dengler from a Pathet Lao prison camp in 1966, Herzog shows us Dengler entering his San Francisco home, whereupon he opens and closes the front door several times before entering. “Most people,” Dengler explains, “don’t realize how important it is, and the privilege that we have, to be able to open and close the door. That’s the habit I got into, and so be it.” Dengler did not actually have this habit. In fact, it was Herzog’s idea. While it embodied a real feeling Dengler had, it was not a real activity. Assigning to Dengler an activity he did not engage in is what Herzog has called “the ecstatic truth,” wherein literal accuracy cedes its ground to emotional accuracy, a subjective realm entered through manipulation and fabrication.”

Anyhow, here is the passage from The Crossover that I loved.

Questions

Have you been practicing your free throws?
Why didn’t you go to the doctor when Mom asked you?

When is the game?
Why didn’t you ever take us fishing?

Does your brother still have a girlfriend?
Are you going to die? 

Do you really want to know?
Why couldn’t I save you? 

Don’t you see that you did?
Do you remember I kept pumping and breathing? 

Aren’t I alive?
. . . ? 

Did y’all arrest Uncle Bob’s turkey? It was just criminal what he did to that bird, wasn’t it?You think this is funny? 

How’s your brother?
Is our family falling apart? 

You still think I should write a book?
What does that have to do with anything? 

What if I call it “Basketball Rules”?
Are you going to die? 

Do you know I love you, son?
Don’t you know the big game’s tomorrow? 

Is it true Mom is letting you play?
You think I shouldn’t play? 

What do you think, Filthy?
What about Jordan? 

Does he want to play?
Don’t you know he won’t as long as you’re in here? 

Don’t you know I know that?
So, why don’t you come home? 

Can’t you see I can’t?
Why not? 

Don’t you know it’s complicated, Filthy?
Why can’t you call me by my real name? 

Josh, do you know what a heart attack is?
Don’t you remember I was there? 

Don’t you see I need to be here so they can fix the damage that’s been done to my heart?
Who’s gonna fix the damage that’s been done to mine?

Two publications and a great book without words

Penny, The Sun, and The Only Child

I have a short piece out in Penny, a cool new journal that pairs a writer with an illustrator (the illustrator for my story was Brandon Reese), as well as offering interesting writing and drawing prompts. I started writing flash pieces about a year and a half ago, when I was bogged down in a slightly experimental novel about the Iraq war, and it was so freeing to work within a 1,000 or 1500 word limit. And fun! I mean, the revision process just can’t go on for months or longer (one hopes) if your story is only a few pages long. Penny’s limit is 500 words and it is such a pleasure to work within those constraints.

Also in the March issue of The Sun I have a short story “The Portal.” Back in 2003 The Sun published my first real short story–about a girl who is trying very hard to be a miraculous saint. The story, and that acceptance, convinced me that I really could be a fiction writer (I was a poet at the time), so it was great to work that magazine again. Not to mention that in “The Portal” I finally got to channel my decades of longing for a real portal to open up and take me to another world. (Do most people outgrow this kind of longing? I might say I wish I could, but if I was totally happy in this world, I probably would give up writing.)

On the topic of longing for other worlds: Stella and I spent the last few days reading The Only Child (by Guojing), a wordless book told in heartbreakingly lovely pictures, and I really savored that time with her. Stella is in first grade and these days prefers long chapter books, ideally books with scary things in it, such as monsters, adventures, and danger (I’m glad I snuck in the Little House books with her when I could). Or, now that she is reading. she wants to spend our time reading Elephant and Piggy books to me. It feels like my days of reading great picture books to her (and maybe reading aloud to her in general?) are numbered. The Only Child was perfect for us though, as we took turns telling each other the story that was happening on each page – I told the story on the left page, she told the story on the right. It’s about a child who is left alone one day because her parents need to work. The child leaves the apartment and takes the bus by herself, hopefully to go find her grandmother. But she becomes lost and enters a warm and compassionate fantasy world instead.  

only-child-1aone-child-2a
only-child-3

It’s especially moving that this takes place against the backdrop of China’s one child policy and draws on the author’s own life. Guojing writes in the author’s note, “The story in this book is fantasy, but it reflects the very real feeling of isolation and loneliness I experienced growing up in the 1980s under the one-child policy in China. When I was young, both of my parents had to work to support our family, so during the day, my grandmother would take care of me. But still, sometimes–if they had to rush to work or if Nai Nai was busy–they would leave me home alone. This experience was common in many families at that time. I belonged to a very lonely generation of children.” 

That loneliness is evident in the first 1/4 of the book, where the drawings of the real world are dimmer, as if seen through a smear of smog. But after the child leaves the apartment and becomes lost in the woods, and rides a stag into to cloud steps into a sky, the pictures brighten, and the joy of the child playing in the clouds with her animal friends is just brilliant. That sense of joy becomes moving when remembering that such happiness, and the child’s adventure itself, is just imaginary. But then again, maybe imaginary only to us adult readers. To the child it seems real or real enough. 

I’ve been interested in alternative ways to tell stories: certain video games are telling some pretty fascinating narratives (That Cancer, Dragon; Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture; and To the Moon come to mind); or graphic novels; or stories without words (another favorite is The Arrival by Shaun Tan). Perhaps a Twine game is in my future. Or even going back to stories being told aloud, as sound rather than only written words (this audio reading of Dracula is a pretty fabulous example – that book works so much better to me when spoken rather than read on the page). 

I’ve been thinking of the one-child law recently after going back and rereading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. This book is partly about imagining the world without humans, but it also is about extinction and global warming. His solution is fixing overpopulation by every couple having only one child. The Only Child is an interesting counter-argument against Weisman’s proposal (though what is the solution then? perhaps finding another livable planet – go exoplanets!). 

Random Thoughts I’ll Compile Here Since I Haven’t Posted Anything For Months

Writing about suicide: Adam Johnson’s fabulous short story “Nirvana” (from Fortune Smiles) and the YA book All the Bright Places have gotten me thinking about the challenge of how to bring suicide into a story. Johnson does a great job of the narrator husband struggling to love his depressed and probably suicidal wife who can’t stop listening to Nirvana (the band) and will probably be unable to get out of bed for the rest of her life. How do you create love in that setting? It’s a powerful, moving story. Though honestly I could not put All the Bright Places down, I found Finch, the suicidal bi-polar boy, to be a bit too charming. What if he was just depressed? What if he wasn’t so likable in his manic phase? What would the story be like then? It did feel like Violet (popular pretty girl who is struggling with older sister’s death) only knew, and perhaps could have only loved, Finch as his manic self. Was it really love then? The thing about teenage love, I suppose, is that it has less strings attached than, let’s say, marital love with house and kids. Though it’s sad to leave it behind, you could more easily. Had Finch only been depressed, I’m guessing Violet would have never fallen in love with him in the first place (or if she had been able to fall in love with him, that would have been a very interesting and complex story). For my own writing, I was pondering if the least interesting point of view in a story about suicide was the suicidal person’s point of view. Why would this be? And who to tell the story from then?  

YA tropes: though I love really, really YA, some of the repeating tropes are starting to get a little old for me. The cute outsider boy in a band. The boy who likes the girl who eventually likes him back. The awful parents. The clueless parents. The absent parents. The parents who are the cause of the characters’ problems. Are parents of teenagers actually so terrible?

YA books that transcend those tropes: Picture Me Gone (a girl who has a close relationship with her parents, her parents are good, they do make mistakes but everyone works past that – it’s also a great mystery); Tamar (historic World War II novel about resistance in the Netherlands. Parents make mistakes but it also shows the parents, or in this case the grandparents, at a young age making those mistakes, and it shows the complexity of how a mistake is made, and then having to live with those mistakes); The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (I don’t remember there being any romance in this book, finally. Instead it is brutal, honest, breathtaking account of race and the American Revolution ); The Summer Prince (the prince loves the narrator’s best friend (a boy) but also loves the narrator (a girl). In fact he has gotten some tech alterations and now loves everyone, including the city — can that still be love? And the girl loves the prince….it was kind of mind-blowing to see a different set up of teen relationships here);  

Where are the YA books where: nobody likes anybody romantically; people like each other but then those people like other people for the entire book; people like everybody; the parents are good and doing their best; kids cause their own problems; there is not some revelation at the end and it’s just really messy

Why is everyone not reading to their children in public? I know, I’m kind of an extreme reader, so maybe it makes sense I have two kids who also really really love books. But when traveling, I do wonder why am I the only parent reading to their child in the entire airport? I’m not exaggerating. I can not remember seeing another parent reading to their child in all my travel these past 9 years. Even at the library, it seems the kids are flocking to the computers instead of sitting in their parents laps, or beside their parents laps, listening to a book. Reading is my daughter’s and my number one activity to do together, and I am already worried about how sad I will be when she no longer wants me to read her books (though she has offered that, once she nails this reading thing, we can take turns reading Harry Potter #5 to each other, she reads a chapter, I read a chapter, etc.). Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if airports had little children’s libraries that you can borrow books from for the flights? 

Alice Munro: I have been reading her slowly every morning, trying to learn from her. Just finished “The Love of A Good Woman,” a 4 part novella which makes incredible twists between each of the parts. 

What I want to be reading: a really good historical novel. I didn’t see many (any?) on the best of lists 2015 though. How about a really good YA historical novel? That’s what I want to be writing right now. I went back and reread Bringing Up The Bodies over the holidays and tried to enjoy the book while, at the same time, tried to study how Mantel is such a pro at dialogue. Each character speaks distinctly, in his or her own style, and for much of the book — or all?–the action of the story is people sitting in rooms and talking. But somehow Mantel makes it work.

Meta fiction: For the past year, I’ve felt disillusioned with fiction, maybe because some major stuff was happening in my life. When I was writing about that major stuff, it felt so false to try and craft it into a traditional well-written story. I didn’t feel like putting on an attention-grabbing beginning, or putting a thoughtful ending on it, or adding some connection between the characters, or making sure the whole thing felt satisfying to the reader–because that didn’t seem true to my life. So I wrote a meta novella about a mom parenting a boy with autism and two meta short stories, one about marriage and another about religion, all of which the writer played a role, and now all that is done, and I am…purged! I hope. And ready to start fully reimagining characters again. (I know, according to one of my writer friends, adding creative non-fiction to a fiction story is EVERYWHERE these days, but that’s not why I did it, honest!) (though I do think Adam Johnson does this very nicely in his short story “Interesting Facts”) 

Harry Potter: just finished reading the new illustrated version to my 6 year old daughter, and I’m listening to the 7th and final book with my 9 year old son. What changes those characters, the plot, and even J.K. Rowling’s style went through over those 7 books! I didn’t love The Deathly Hallows on my first reading many years ago, but this time I thought the book was great (up until the battle scenes toward the end, which got a little battle-ish for my taste).  The break from the usual traditions of the first 6 books is startling: while Harry starts at the Dursleys, he is never going back to school, there is no riding the train or sorting hat this time. And the impossibility of the task that Harry is left with, to find the remaining horcruxes but who knows where they are or how to get rid of them, is captured so accurately in the first half of the book. Harry is alone (well, with his two friends, but the three of them are alone), Dumbledore is gone, and he has to do something that’s really, really hard. About 1/3 of the way in, I as a reader began to feel just as hopeless as Harry and Hermonie and Ron (where is this book going? is it going anywhere?) — I mean this in a good way. I liked sharing Harry’s despair. And I feel like Snape’s evolution of a character is so excellent. Though I’ll admit I may never understand the logic of the whole Elder Wand (why is Harry its master if the wand was buried with Dumdledore, and I know Malfoy is involved too?). Anyway, I unabashedly love these books. 

John Irving: I wish he wrote more concisely, as I have to read Avenue of Mysteries for a book club I’m in and it is 20 hours long. I’m curious at what speed I can listen to and still absorb the plot. X1.5 is okay (only 15 hours long!). Will x2 work (10 hours long!). x4 would be awesome but…(5 hours long!). I was trying to think of him as a Charles Dickens, but I feel like Dickens prose is denser and his use of language much more surprising. That said, Irving has made me laugh out loud, which is difficult to do while on a long run, and I am intrigued by the manic farcical energy of some of his scenes. 

Children Writing Books

Stella wants to be a writer / personal trainer when she grows up. Some nights she drags out exercise equipment and encourages me to do the really complicated exercises she dreams up. Other evenings she spends working on her writing. Being a first grader, she’s smack in the middle of learning to read / write / spell, which sounds like a magical time, when words stop being symbols and they start clicking into focus. She wrote some of her first independent sentences for this book she made in honor of her cousin Andre’s first birthday. Seeing her work so hard on her word choice, and what happens next, and what she wanted to communicate to her reader made me think that writing when you’re 6 isn’t a whole lot different than writing when you’re older, only my 6 year old seems less anguished about it. In fact she radiated pure joy every time she got down a sentence. I love the sweetness of her plot and how everybody in her story is happy. I wish it was possible to write like that as an adult. Here’s the text / translation of Stella’s story. 

hi
Clap clap cat said baby andre.
The baby andre had a cat. Did the baby andre have a dog? 
Baby andre did not have a dog. Hi stella said baby andre.
Little baby andre hid with stella.
Baby andre played with stella.
Baby andre laughed with stella.
Baby Andre pretended to fly. Stella did too.
Baby Andre climbed and ran. Stella did too.
Love stella

final-IMG_2800 IMG_2801 IMG_2802 IMG_2803 IMG_2804 IMG_2805 IMG_2806 IMG_2807 IMG_2808 IMG_2809

Family Art

Hillerbrand+Magsamen, Clifford Ross, and a few other gems from the summer

My husband and I developed a nasty habit of really enjoying art museums when we were living in Minneapolis decades ago, and when our two children arrived, we weren’t going to let the fact they existed make us quit. So we’ve been dragging our kids to museums ever since they were babies, learning a few things along the way, such as museum guards in big cities will probably be unkind so remember you’re not there to see the guards, while museum guards in small cities will likely be nicer, and audio tours, especially audio tours for kids, are a godsend.

This summer we saw several exhibits that engaged the kids. I felt lucky to have the chance to watch my son and daughter experience, and lose themselves in, so much art. 

Stephen Vitiello’s All Those Vanished Engines

#1. Mass Moca, lodged in an old converted cloth printing factory in Massachusetts, was a treat, in part because the campus is such an industrial playground meant for exploring. Especially of note was Stephen Vitiello’s All Those Vanished Engines, a sound installation taking place in the old boiler house building. While my husband called this perhaps the most dangerous art installation he’s experienced (no unnecessary safety rails here!), the kids were thrilled with their ability to wander around the building on their own, and with Vitiello’s sounds playing throughout, the once utilitarian setting was able to transform into something more sculptural, abstract, haunting (and haunted?), and timeless. I’m always grateful when art is taken out of its sacred guarded context and put in a place which encourages the viewer, and in particular a kid, to interact with it.

Mass Moca passenger pigeons Eclipse#2. Also at Mass Moca: Eclipse, a 100-foot video installation by Sayler/Morris, where a flock of passenger pigeons fly away via the walls and ceilings until nothing is left but a barren tree. Addicting and lovely to watch though also sad and timely, as we will probably see a lot more extinctions in our future. While watching the installation, I got to reminisce about One Came Home, a great YA book by Amy Timberlake that won a Newberry Honor in 2014 and takes place in the late 1800’s when passenger pigeons could still fill the sky.  

#3. But my favorite exhibit at Mass Moca was Clifford Ross’s Wave Cathedral. Two rooms held large photographs from his Hurricane series, which I am now addicted to, as is my 6-year-old daughter. We ended up buying the artist book and the two of us spent a good deal of time that weekend staring at each jaw-dropping photograph. It amazed us both how each picture of essentially the same thing–waves during a hurricane–captured such a totally different mood and impulse, while beneath the beauty ran this tension that the waves were also a destructive force, and in fact were in the process of destruction at that very moment. The kids enjoyed talking how in the heck Ross was able to take these photographs without getting swept away

hurricane-cathedral clifford rossIn a back room, in a rough and unfinished large space, was “Digital Hurricane Waves,” where “computer-generated renderings of complex fluid dynamics are projected onto two large LED screens.” We were lucky enough to have the room to ourselves. The kids were entranced as was I.

Spencer Finch’s Sunset (Central Park)#4. Edible art. Spencer Finch’s Sunset (Central Park), part of Creative Time’s Drifting in Daylight in Central Park. On the one hand, this art project involved eating ice cream. which is pretty easy to understand. On the other hand, this was kind of a high concept art project, so I’m going to quote from the exhibit’s supporting materials: “After painting a watercolor of the sunset over Central Park, Finch meticulously extracts its hues to color cones of soft-serve ice cream, served free to park-goers in a series of what the artist calls an “edible monochrome.” A very nice assistant was on hand to try and explain it all to us though the process became a little too complicated for me to retain. Suffice to say the ice cream changed colors throughout the day, and the colors had to do with the hues of the sunset over Central Park that Finch had captured. So enchanting, to be able to participate in (and ingest!) art like this: we waited in line happily for about 20 minutes while some mood-altering music played, Jasper closely studying the shifting color of everyone’s soft serve as it gradually transitioned from green to the yellow that we would receive. It tasted good too. 

#5. “Higher Ground,” by Hillerbrand+Magsamen, shown at the Everson (Syracuse’s own art museum) and originally commissioned by the Houston Airport System and the City of Houston. The husband-wife team Hillerbrand+Magsamen seem often to focus on performance art that involves the family, and my kids were thrilled to see other kids in the video installation, as well as to find art with humor (the video shows the artists’ family constructing a space rocket to Mars out of everyday household objects). The exhibit was meaningful as well as entertaining, focusing for me on the tension between imagination and reality. Is a collective (or family) imagination possible? What would that even look like?The kids didn’t want to leave.  

HIgher Ground at the EversonThe exhibition was supported by a lovely operations manual / activity book commissioned for the Everson exhibit that had some interesting prose-poem musings on family and journeys, as well as mazes and coloring pages. From Section 1, Mission Details: “Who is in your family? It may not be the people with whom you spend the most time. It may not be the people with whom you have the most in common. It may not be just people. Many dogs and cats think of themselves as family members. Many a fish and its tank have pitched in to try to put out a house fire. The birds look in our windows and wish they could be a part of the family. Each family member has a plate of food. Each family member has a preferred place on the couch. The birds have nothing. Talk to the people who live in your house. Determine their origins. Family is a rank or badge that functions as a welcome mat. Family members don’t have to knock to enter the home. We all have keys.” 

Hillerbrand+ Magsamen  Higher Ground Everson

Capturing One’s Children in Art

sally mann family picturesSally Mann wrote a fascinating article back in April for the New York Times magazine explaining her reasoning behind photographing her children as they grew up, and how the critical and popular response to such photographs affected both her and her family. I thought she was eloquent about how, when a parent is capturing their child through art, the child they end up capturing isn’t actually their own child: they are representations of a child, a glimpse of the child in a small moment of time. As I’m working on a more personal novella right now about parenthood, this idea has comforted me and also struck me as true. The process of writing is a process, even in memoir, of transformation of the subject, of turning a child, perhaps one’s own child, into words, 

“For all the righteous concern people expressed about the welfare of my children, what most of them failed to understand was that taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering. When I stepped behind the camera and my kids stepped in front of it, I was a photographer and they were actors, and we were making a photograph together. And in a similar vein, many people mistook the photographs for reality or attributed qualities to my children (one letter-­writer called them “mean”) based on the way they looked in the pictures. The fact is that these are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind and shade. These are not my children at all; these are children in a photograph.”

Andrew Solomon + expanding our ideas of pregnancy & motherhood

far-from-the-treeAndrew Solomon has produced some of the most articulate, intelligent writing about parenthood which hopefully is forcing us to finally expand our definition of what parenthood is. I’ve felt for a long time, ever since becoming a mother 8 years ago, that most literature is simplifying parenthoods’ complexities. Solomon’s book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is an exception: at 976 pages (or 40 hours long for the audio version!) it more than captures the pain, sorrow, and love that I know as parenting, and it shows, likewise, that parental love can take on so many forms. And that trying to love can be as meaningful as loving. It was one of the most powerful reading experiences that I’ve ever had. I read it two years ago, but after my son was diagnosed with autism last fall, I went back to reread the autism chapter, and found the accounts even more moving, as I now was one of those parents trying to understand, accept and love a child so different from me. Solomon’s discussion on neurodiversity as it relates to parents is especially rich– do parents try to cure their child’s autism or accept it– as well as his description of the “autism parents’ literature of miracles,” whose draw is hard to ignore.  

“Two diametrically opposite fictions contribute to a single set of problems. The first comes from the autism parents’ literature of miracles. In its most extreme form, it describes beautiful boys and girls emerging from their affliction as if it were a passing winter frost, and, after wild parental heroics, dancing off into springtime fields of violets, fully verbal, glowing with the fresh ecstasy of unself-conscious charm. Such narratives of false hope eviscerate families who are struggling with the diagnosis. The other plotline is that the child does not get better, but the parents grow enough to celebrate him rather than seek to improve him and are fully content with that shift. This whitewashes difficulties that many families face and can obfuscate autism’s authentic deficits. While the lives of many people who have autism remain somewhat inscrutable, the lives of people whose children have autism are mostly avowedly hard—some, excruciatingly so. Social prejudice aggravates the difficulty, but it is naïve to propose that it’s all social prejudice; having a child who does not express love in a comprehensible way is devastating , and having a child who is awake all night, who requires constant supervision, and who screams and tantrums but cannot communicate the reasons for or the nature of his upset— these experiences are confusing, overwhelming, exhausting, unrewarding. The problem can be mitigated by some combination of treatment and acceptance, specific to each case. It is important not to get carried away by either the impulse only to treat or the impulse only to accept.”

The journey to find a cure for one’s child is exhausting and disappointing. One could devote, or lose, their life to that sort of thinking: if only I read the right books, or enough books, or find the right therapist, or implement to ideal parenting methods, etc. Solomon describes one mother who accepts her son’s condition as being more at peace than the other mothers with him he spoke: “Marvin Brown’s mother, Icilda, has delineated what she can influence and what she cannot, and she does not rail against what is beyond amelioration. It is easy to patronize “simple wisdom” by honeying the rough circumstances from which it generally springs, or by representing it as simpler or wiser than it is, but Icilda Brown seemed more at peace with her son’s condition than almost any other mother I met. A lifetime of nonchoices had given her a gift for acceptance. She demanded good services for her son, but did not expect those services to turn him into someone else.”

Solomon wrote a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about pregnancy and depression, and I think this article works to do the same thing Far From The Tree does. Pregnancy, like parenthood, is not this joyful experience for everyone. The ending of the article is lovely, and the last line breaks my heart in its truth:  “Wanting to love your child is not the same thing as loving your child, but there is a lot of love even in the wanting.” Mothers will try to love their children, Solomon acknowledges, but not all mothers are able to love their child in they way they intended to love. I think what Solomon is saying applies not only to pregnancy but to motherhood, and not only to women with depression but also to women who struggle with the realization that they can’t be, for whatever myriad of reasons, the sort of mother they thought they were going to be.  

“We still have retrograde ideas about how pregnant women should feel, and we need to revise them — not only for depressed women but for all women. Pregnancy is portrayed and talked about almost exclusively as a time of rapture and fulfillment. But it involves a major shift in identity, a whole new conception of self that can lead to depression and anxiety. Change — even positive change — is stressful, and in this way pregnancy can constitute a kind of elective trauma. An abrupt transition into selflessness is not immediately appealing to everyone. Pregnant women long given to self-doubt may question their ability to take care of the child. A society that glorifies motherhood while resisting basic accommodations like guaranteed extended maternity leave makes the identity shift more frightening and abrupt than it needs to be. People given to anxiety now have a harrowing array of new anxieties to grapple with. As one woman I interviewed observed, “The things that make motherhood joyful also make it terrifying.” We should strive for a more pluralistic idea of pregnancy — for one that accommodates a wide range of moods and attitudes.

The British psychoanalyst Rozsika Parker has argued that competent mothering requires two warring impulses — to nurture the child on one hand, and to push him or her into the world on the other — and suggested that maternal ambivalence was the catalyst for achieving these apparently opposed objectives. But modern society has stigmatized the pushing and sentimentalized the clinging, and so we have denied basic truths and caused ambivalent mothers to see themselves as bad even though ambivalence can be highly productive. Mothers often exaggerate, to themselves and to others, their protective, adoring feelings, and they discount their feelings of irritation or anger as weaknesses. But a child should meet with irritation and anger some of the time; he or she should understand what those emotions are, what provokes them, how they are expressed and how they are resolved. Depression is obviously not desirable, but openness about it is tied to being honest about the challenges that motherhood entails. And that openness must begin prenatally if it is to be realized once a child has entered the picture.

There are many things that can help depressive women: the love of a supportive partner and friends, of course, but also acknowledgment of their illness and ready access to effective treatment. Most who battle antenatal or postpartum depression are committed to their children, and are trying to commit to the identity that is motherhood. For some expectant mothers and new parents, love seems to be automatic; it wafts them instantly up to a new level of consciousness. Others have to climb a very steep staircase to reach the same heights. The fact that the exercise can be agonizing and that some women cannot quite make it does not dull the intent behind it. Depression calls on resources some women have and some women don’t, including a capacity to hatch intimacy out of despair. Wanting to love your child is not the same thing as loving your child, but there is a lot of love even in the wanting.”

Portals & poetry

I’m been thinking a lot about portals lately–you know, the doorways that are always appearing to characters in books and taking them to more interesting worlds. Lucky them, I have always thought. But after waiting a lifetime for a portal to appear to me, it seems that isn’t going to happen. I’m not sure portals appear often to adults to begin with and they certainly don’t seem to appear to mothers of small children, a minor tragedy of fact I’m trying to fix in some future stories. (Side note: great list by Lev Grossman of his top 5 portals, and also check out this thoughtful essay about writing portals from io9.) 

Tangentially, I have fallen in love with a book of poetry, something I haven’t done for about a decade, since I kicked poetry to the curb and took up fiction writing. The book is Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke, and the final poem of the book reads to me like a portal poem (if there isn’t such a genre yet, there should be). “Home” is especially moving after reading the entire book, which is full of anguish, loss, and a lot of grief. I felt like I was holding my breath for the first 109 pages and then to reach this poem, on page 110, was like a long exhalation of air. Finally the narrator gets to arrive here, to somewhere she wants to be. It’s worth noting this home is a place she has never been before but only dreamed about. The problem of how to get there is, unfortunately, not addressed. It makes me wonder what our own homes would look like if we got to create them.

Home, by Laura Kasischke 

It would take forever to get there
but I would know it anywhere:

My white horse grazing in my blossomy field.
Its soft nostrils. The petals
falling from the trees into the stream.
 
And the festival would be about to begin
in the dusky village in the distance. The doe
frozen at the edge of the grove:
 
She leaps. She vanishes. My face—
She has taken it. And my name—
 
(Although the plaintive lark in the tall
grass continues to say and to say it.)
 
Yes. This is the place.
Where my shining treasure has been waiting.

Where my shadow washes itself in my fountain.
 
A few graves among the roses. Some moss
on those. An ancient
 
bell in a steeple down the road,
making no sound at all
as the monk pulls and pulls on the rope.