New Year, New Way of Doing Things

writing-pilot

Avenger Field, Texas, 1943 (from http://www.vintag.es)

Like a pioneer leading her weary and cold family across the wintry prairie, scavenging for food and shelter, I aim to journey into the past and show young folks what nosiness looked like before social media.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that instead of using handheld devices, my students will spend the semester making people anxious, as they lurk in wide, open spaces and scribble on blank pages.

I am bringing back the notebook.

Writing field notes may be a lost art. Like using a typewriter. Or handwriting a letter. Or wearing pantyhose.

But notebooks and field notes are sort of primitive forms of Facebook and Instagram. That makes them seem a little sexier, yes? We’ll see. I anticipate this may, at times, be like convincing young people to churn butter. Yet I remain optimistic.

One essay I tend to trot out from time to time is Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook.” Didion writes from a place of privilege and from a time long, long ago, so students tend to whine about it. But I ignore them and instead egg them on. Still, some look at me with an expression of “What in the heck is she talking about?”

It is images like these that keep me up at night, wondering how I can make semester plans seem less…antiquated.

I recently found solace while revisiting colleague Daniel Wallace’s blog. (No, not that Daniel Wallace, as he is likely to say. This is the Daniel Wallace of the University of Tennessee variety.) One particular post (“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Keats”) begins with this: “John Keats’s life and work offer some intriguing lessons for writers.”

Daniel Wallace, you had me at “John Keats.” If my husband would allow me to hang posters on our bedroom walls, they would not be open-shirt images of Leif Garrett and Rick Springfield, but of lines from Keats’s poems and letters.

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Soaking up the Keats energy on his front porch in Hampstead

I (heart) John Keats and his reliance on perceptions and imagination to drive his writing process. Imagination is one of those things we take for granted, like hot coffee and hardcover books. You could probably list air and running water here, too. Wallace goes on to explain that “Keats seizes all opportunities to write.” Well, hallelujah! That is exactly what we need to hear at the dawn of a new year and a new semester: a reminder that we are largely responsible for seizing opportunities and that we had darn well keep our eyes open. These opportunities, whatever they are, just parade in front of our faces every blasted day, and we often mutter “meh” and choose instead to watch “The Voice.”

Anne Lamott put it this way: “There is no reason for anyone to watch the 10 o’clock news, except wives of firefighters.” (I found this quote in a notebook, of all places, and wrote down so much when I attended one of her talks because, well, memory.) We make choices as to how to spend our time and how to use our brains, and I count myself among those who occasionally surrender. (I’m talking to you, Kiefer Sutherland, and your “Designated Survivor.”)

Keats may not have had the TV to sidetrack him, but he had his share of distractions. Like consumption and an empty wallet. Yet he wrote.

Despite being up against some pretty big changes as publishing embraced the novel, Keats soldiered on. He wanted to be somebody and stand out among the poets. He didn’t cave.

When he occasionally tried a little too hard, the result was something like Endymion, in which I ultimately found redemptive value. I even came to apologize for labeling it “the punchline of Romantic literature.” Harsh, I know. As epic poems go, it’s not really all that bad. But mercy, it is long. It is so thick and hefty, in fact, that when Percy Shelley drowned off the coast of Italy in 1824, one Keats critic wrote, “But what a rash man Shelley was, to put to sea in a frail boat with Jack’s poetry on board! Why, man, it would sink a trireme. In the preface to Mr. Shelley’s poems, we are told that ‘his vessel bore out of sight with a favorable wind;’ but what is that to the purpose? It had Endymion on board, and there was an end.”

So I, too, seem to have veered off course here. The topic at hand is not a review of 19th-century biting comments not unlike those you might find on al.com or other online pits of irritation and antagonism, but a celebration of writing habits.

When Keats began to approach writing as a habit—like drumming a table or talking aloud in an empty car—instead of an act of labor, he allowed the words and rhymes and observations to sprout “as naturally as the leaves to a tree.” (Here’s your reward for reading to this point. The full quote, from a letter Keats wrote to John Taylor, goes like this: “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” I know—fierce stuff.)

Only through habit and tenacity can a person produce something like Endymion, which begins with these lines: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness; but still will keep/A bower quiet for us, and a sleep/Full of sweet dreams, and health/and quiet breathing.” Stop. Read these words again. Maybe even a third time.

A poster with these lines hangs over my desk—not only because they are beautiful but because they serve as a reminder that from all the drafts and wandering and note taking, something good is bound to emerge.

 

If I Had My Own Magazine and Had to Write an Endorsement…

voting

images.indianahistory.org

(When The Atlantic released its first endorsement of a presidential candidate since 1964, the online news community shook and rattled just a little. What woke The Atlantic from its long slumber? As I read its endorsement of Hillary Clinton, it occurred to me, “Hey, what if every registered voter put into words—THEIR OWN words—why they planned to vote for a candidate? What if we all ignored Google and other people’s thoughts and relied only on our own?” So I posted that on Twitter on a Wednesday, two days before the you-know-what really hit the fan in the Trump campaign, and about six people read it. I determined that maybe I should just shut up and write. And I did.  I wrote this the following Friday. And now I am rereading it after enduring coverage of Clinton’s own October Surprise, and I have determined that I still stand by it—compromised security, sordid emails and all. So here I am, hitting “publish.” It’s time.)

For lo, these past 12 months, I have listened to Donald Trump approach his campaign for the presidency as if it were the season finale of “The Apprentice.” Like everyone else in this free world, I have listened to him degrade and insult minorities, patronize and objectify women, mock people with disabilities, and demean the U.S. military and its leaders. I have listened to him posit his theories on military science with the grace and dignity of a person who gets his news from a cell phone at 3 a.m. while shouting at the dog and eating ice cream from the carton. Continue reading

Summer Reading 2016

woman reading

Geez, Louise, this blog needs some resuscitating. Again.

I have been very, very busy with my summer reading, so some things have gone neglected. The stacks of books have grown so tall, in fact, that I have my eyes on winning the top prize in the adult summer reading program at my public library. All the lines are filled on a folded paper form, and I am quite pleased with myself. If I were 9 years old, I would be digging in a treasure box for a Lisa Frank pencil set this very minute.

I have since read the fine print, and there is no grand prize.

So what they are telling me here is that prizes are awarded by a drawing, not by an impressive volume of reading. What they are also telling me, then, is that some slacker who reads only one dog-eared copy of 50 Shades of Grey this summer while on a girls’ weekend to the Gulf of Mexico while sipping mojitos can easily sweep the prize box, while I sit here next to a stack of books and no prize.

It’s OK. I know who the real winner is. The winner is this girl. In return, I would like to award a few of my own prizes from my summer reading list thus far:

  • Quickest readThe Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son Talk About Life, Love, and Loss by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
  • Most bizarre readGone With the Mind by Mark Leyner
  • The “I’m Now Going to Sound Smart at Dinner Parties” read—(a tie)Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works by Jay Newton-Small AND First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brower
  • The “Can’t Wait for the Movie Starring Jason Bateman” readThe Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

While The Rainbow Comes and Goes deservingly earned the accolade of “quickest read,” I need to set the record straight. The speed in which I read this book (one day) had nothing at all to do with the reading level or font size or skimming. In fact, the reading level was very Cooper-like, the font size was not “large print,” and I do not skim. Skimming is beneath me. Either read or don’t read, I say.

My interest in the Vanderbilt mystique began lo some 37 years ago when I bought my first pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans through a layaway plan. I was a disciplined consumer—disciplined by the pathetic wage earnings of $1-1.50/hour, made by babysitting spoiled kids whose parents had to post-date checks for $9 during the Carter administration. The jeans came with a prohibitive price tag of $35. Having Gloria Vanderbilt’s name gold-stitched onto my 13-year-old butt was a mark of vanity and financial recklessness, yes, but it was also an announcement that I was willing to do what it takes to earn the money over several weeks so that I could slap that denim on my size 3 rear end. (I would pay even more today to be able to make that same statement with some modicum of legitimacy. But I digress.)

“The rainbow comes and goes” is a line from Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” When you pair designer jeans with a fashionable top, or an early 19th-century poem, well, you really have yourself something. An excerpt:

The rainbow comes and goes,

And lovely is the rose;

The moon doth with delight

Look round her when the heavens are bare;

Waters on a starry night

Are beautiful and fair;

The sunshine is a glorious birth;

But yet I know, where’er I go,

That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

The only thing more beautiful than this here poem is a pair of dark denim designer jeans, paid for on installment at Casual Corner. That pair of jeans was a testament to a tireless work ethic and an insatiable desire to fit in among the other girls in the halls of my junior high. Beautiful.

But back to Anderson Cooper and his book.

A consequence to my dogged dedication to own my first pair of designer jeans is that my loyalty to Gloria Vanderbilt runs deep. She introduced me to high fashion, after all. Today I watch Anderson Cooper with such jealousy and curiosity. He’s a Vanderbilt, for heaven’s sake, but he doesn’t act like it. I won’t go into all of the ugly and sad family history that Cooper lays out with the transparency of Waterford crystal because, frankly, you need to read for yourself. This isn’t Sparknotes. But I will tell you that Gloria Vanderbilt somehow managed to give Anderson Cooper the wherewithal to do what he was led to do. She didn’t smother him or consider his successes and failures an extension of herself. She gave him space. His living and his choices have not been part of her performance. She is fiercely independent, and she has allowed Anderson to live likewise.

And that leads me to a work of fiction that we could somehow manage to view as a nice companion piece to The Rainbow Comes and Goes. Nothing is more fun than analyzing families and parenting. NOTHING. Kevin Wilson delivers a whopping tale of a family who is at once exhausting and peculiar and just. like. us. And by “just. like. us.,” I mean, like you and your family. My family is perfectly normal in every way. The rest of you have a lot of work to do.

OK, I think they’ve gone now. My kids never read this far. So I can come clean and tell you that The Family Fang explores, in a most extreme way, every single parent-child relationship, even in my own family. I don’t care who you are. The parents are performing, and the kids (like it or not) are part of the performance. My parents did it to me, I do it to my kids, they will do it to theirs, and so on. It wasn’t until about 2/3 through this book that I made this connection. You will likely draw your own conclusions, which is what everyone should do when they read. As I tell students in composition and literature: There is no right answer.

If you are a parent or have ever been a child of parents, you perform. This whole thing is an act in some way. We are either trying to conform or trying to stand out. Either way, it’s a performance. I’m not sure, but I think we are wired this way. It ain’t pretty, but we can’t help it.

The Family Fang is one of those rare books that left me angry that it was over, that I had read through it too quickly. Wilson’s storytelling leads to a lot of rereading and reading aloud. It’s that funny. And that poignant. And then funny again. There needs to be a yield sign or pause button every few pages so that the reader doesn’t speed right through and miss the scenery. It’s fabulous.

Let’s cross our fingers and hope the movie version doesn’t screw it up.

I am not going to baby you people and go book by book on my Summer Reading List, outlining the plots and dissecting the good and the bad. Besides, as I have pointed out, I have read a lot this summer. But what I have done, good reader, is add a page to this blog—a page that lists a few book recommendations for anyone looking for some non-required reading.  Look for it under “Book Recommendations.” Think of it as my gift to you. Your money is no good here. No layaway needed.