Weeks 4 & 5: Why Bhabha Isn't on My List

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Just a few weeks into the semester, and I've already failed at my promise to blog once a week.  The past couple of weeks have been exhausting as I've struggled to get everything done, and I can already tell this will be another semester of very little sleep.  I've already settled into a (rather terrible) habit of sleeping just a few hours every night, then "treating" myself to a two hour nap on Friday afternoons, from which I inevitably wake up even more exhausted and disoriented.  I spend the weekend trying to study and catch up on sleep, and then restart the cycle of sleep deprivation on Sunday nights.  I have exactly six weeks left to finish reading all the books on my comp lists, so the cycle will no doubt continue until mid-November, when I will most assuredly crash and sleep off the rest of the semester like a bad hangover, rising only to tend to necessities (i.e. eating, teaching, grading).

The past two weeks I've been diligently reading for my travel writing and postcolonial exams.  I'm not sure why (okay, I know exactly why), but I've been putting far more energy into reading for my postcolonial exam than either of the other two, and it's by far the one I've read the most for.  I have just two novels and six theory books left to read on it.  Right now I'm reading Patrick Colm Hogan's Colonialism and Cultural Identity, which brings me to this week's list:

1)  Hogan's use of theory: or why Homi Bhabha isn't on my comp list.  When I was compiling my postcolonial list, I had a lot of difficult decisions to make, and I ended up making the list almost entirely on my own, with some help from standard PhD lists I found on the web.  I wanted to make the list fairly canonical and representative (Spivak, Said, Rushdie, etc.), but I also didn't want to read Bhabha.  I'm sorry, but apart from isolated moments of genius, his work is generally incomprehensible.  I assumed this was mostly a weakness on my part, even though in speaking with colleagues and other candidates I realized that I was far from alone in this estimation.  But this decision was justified today when I was reading Hogan's book, which is well-written, well-argued, and by far the most comprehensible theory book I've read from my list to date.  I've already killed one highlighter marking up his text because it is just full of genius. Seriously. If Toril Moi is my academic crush in feminist theory, Hogan is my new academic crush in postcolonial theory. (Or postcolonization theory, he would say. Seriously. Genius.)

So as I was drinking the Kool-Aid that is Colonialism and Cultural Identity (grape-flavored, natch), imagine my delight at coming to this line:  "On the whole, I find the writings of Bhabha and Spivak terminologically opaque, conceptually imprecise, and empirically lax" (25).  And this statement introduces an entire section in which he rips "Of Mimicry and Men" apart word by word and eventually concludes that what Bhabha has written is not theory.  All I want to say about this is, thank you, Patrick Colm Hogan.  Someone had to say it, and I'm glad that person was someone as articulate, accessible, and intelligent as you.

2)  Nadal wins the U.S. Open.  I realize that's quite a jump from postcolonization theory, but this is the real reason there wasn't a Week 4 post. I have a bit of an obsession with professional tennis and with Rafa in particular, so of course I devoted far more hours during Week 3 & 4 to watching the U.S. Open than I should have.

Seriously, is there another man alive who could pull off that shirt color?  I think not.
I watched every one of Rafa's matches during the two weeks. I'm not kidding.  And with Rafa being my top story during Week 4, I couldn't write my post until after the final.  The final between him and Novak Djokovic was supposed to be last Sunday afternoon, so I was fully expecting to post that night, but then it was delayed a day because of rain (and then several more hours because of more rain), so it was late Monday before I was finally able to celebrate Rafa's career Grand Slam, his first U.S. Open victory, and his third Major victory in a row.  I didn't fall on my knees or roll around on the ground, but I might have teared up a bit when he did.

There's just something about seeing young, hard-working people succeed at what they love that I find so inspirational.

3)  Emma Stone and Easy A.  This weekend I took breaks to see two movies--Easy A and Devil.  Devil was okay.  It was by far the M. Night Shyamalan movie that felt least like an M. Night Shyamalan movie to me, and considering how long it's been since I liked an M. Night Shyamalan movie, that's a very good thing. (This summer the Devil trailer played before a showing of Inception I went to, and the entire audience groaned and booed when M. Night's name appeared at the end of the trailer. I think that says it all.) Easy A was very likable, mostly because Emma Stone is an extremely likable person and plays a smart and sassy heroine. One of the greatest things about this movie is that Emma is intelligent and witty and (unlike Kady in Mean Girls) never compromises her intelligence.

This movie has been compared by some critics to other classic teen girl movies like Clueless and Mean Girls (both of which I've seen countless times and could easily see countless more), but it never quite achieved that level to me, so afterwards my brother and I tried to figure out what this movie was lacking.  We decided it was memorable secondary characters.  Amanda Bynes' Jesus-freak antagonist was just annoying (and was done so much better by Mandy Moore in Saved!), and Aly Michalka's best friend character was certainly no Dionne (but perhaps, unfortunately, more realistic).  As a love interest, Penn Badgley was sweet but lacking.  Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci were great as Stone's parents, however--adorable and irreverent.

Another reason this movie will probably never reach classic status, however, is exactly the reason it should--with the exception of the Jesus-freaks, it does not depend on the same sorts of stereotypes and cliques that so many other teen movies and TV shows (I'm looking at you Glee) do.  This high school felt much more...normal.  Like a real high school, like the one I went to, where people were not always so easily classified but they all still struggled to fit in anyway.  For that alone is the movie worth watching.

4)  "My Mirror Speaks"--Death Cab for Cutie.  Every week there's a song or album that helps me get through the week, that I end up playing over and over until I inevitably wear it out.  This week that song is "My Mirror Speaks," which you can listen to here.  Ben Gibbard has one of those rare talents for writing lyrics that are as much poetry as they are song.

So that's it--those are the four positive things I wanted to share with you that have been going on in my life the past couple of weeks.  I'll try to come back next week with more things to share, but since I'll have four sets of exams and two sets of essays to grade, I wouldn't count on it.


Week 3: Let the Games Begin...

Monday, September 6, 2010

...Not the Hunger Games--that was last week.  I'm still obsessing at least once a day over the series' ending and my newest literary crush, Peeta Mellark, but the games I'm referring to in the title are currently far more terrifying to me.  Comps.

I've been putting off studying for them for far too long, and now I'm running out of time. This week I finalized my exam dates and submitted my final lists and justification, so now it's all too real. In a little more than two months I'm going to sit down and write those three exams, and I've never felt less prepared for anything.

This is my fault, of course. I spent my long, glorious, unencumbered summer writing fiction and reading YA and contemporary novels--not reading all that dreary travel writing and literary theory. And now I'm going to pay for it. Although there are a few journal deadlines and contests coming up that I may submit to, for the most part I've got to give up creative writing for the semester and focus on these exams. Just the thought of reading all these books makes me want to stick forks in my eyes, so I've come up with a few things that made reading last week just a little more...bearable.

1)  My newest musical crush, Ezra Koenig, and the fabulous music of Vampire Weekend. Their latest album, Contra, has been on constant rotation on my laptop and iPod this past week, mostly because I love Koenig's voice and their music is so upbeat I can't be unhappy (nor do I feel inclined to stick forks in my eyes) when I'm listening to it. Music is a big part of my creative process, whether I'm writing, decorating, or editing photos, and songs like the one below can make even my worst day seem just a little bit brighter.

2)  New Media.  Arcade Fire.  And Arcade Fire’s use of new media to create an interactive version of the music video.  This is the future, people!  Seriously, when Victoria shared this link on Facebook, I was MIND.  BLOWN. If Vampire Weekend makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, Arcade Fire makes me feel nostalgic and introspective. And this new video for their song "We Used to Wait" is seriously the most creative and inspirational thing I've seen in a long time.  I love mixing artistic mediums, and it really makes we wish I knew more about graphic art and computers.  If you haven't experienced this video yet, you must click on the above link immediately. Note: You have to have Google Chrome to watch it. (Which you should have anyway because Chrome is totes awesome.)  

My postcard to my younger self.

3)  My awesome support system.  I got to spend the weekend with those I love the most, including T and my family and my lovely cousins Britt and Jess, which is always refreshing.  I got absolutely no work done during the past three days, but it was good just to get away for awhile and recharge my batteries.  Oh, and eat yummy seafood in Destin and a fabulous steak at Meritage Cafe in Columbus, which everyone in the Columbus/Auburn/Opelika area should visit immediately.  

4)  Blogging writers.  Even if I'm not allowing myself to work on The Novel right now, that doesn't mean I'm not thinking about it all. the. time.  And a lot of what I'm thinking about is revision, even though I'm not finished with the first draft.  This is partly due to my terrible love/hate relationship (mostly hate) with outlines.  Sarah Frances Hardy and Katie Anderson have been running a series of posts on outlines this past week on their blog, and they have been tremendously helpful. If there's anyone out there writing a novel and struggling with outlines, I strongly suggest you check them out.

5)  Creative students.  This past week my literature students had to submit something I call the Encheiridion project (stolen from a similar project I did in undergrad)--a handbook on how to live a "good life" in the style of the Tao Te Ching, Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, and Epictetus's The Encheiridion.  The handbook was supposed to be grounded in philosophy and written for a 21st-century audience using 21st-century means.  I was amazed by how intelligent, creative, and original the results were. Along with scrolls, fortune cookies (freshly baked!), Facebook posts, handmade books, PowerPoints, a scrapbook, and a craigslist forum, several of my students made blogs or websites, and I wanted to share with you a few of my favorites:  Living Life.  Simply, Roadmap to a Successful Life, and For the Love of a Break.


Week 2: In better writing news...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Week 2 of the semester proved to be far better than week 1--even though I got almost no comp reading done.  I finished Millennium Hall on Tuesday and have yet to pick up another comp book--mainly because I was far too busy reading something more interesting and inspirational.  Which brings me to my list for the week:

1)  Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games series.  Is it strange to be thankful for another writer's books?  I don't think so.  Not if they're brilliant and remind you of why you wanted to be a writer in the first place.  We all need that kind of kick every once in awhile, the kind of read that makes you go, "This.  This is what I want to be doing.  Creating this."  Not that I want to write a book exactly like The Hunger Games, but I want people to feel something when they finish reading.  I want them to take that feeling with them, to reflect on it, to feel changed forever.  I finished Mockingjay, the third book, on Friday, and I'm still feeling its effects.  After I finished, I cried.  I actually cried twice, once while reading and once when finishing, and I honestly cannot say if I've ever cried when reading before.  I think I might have cried when Fred Weasley died, which would make sense, because reading this book was very much like reading Harry Potter 7 to me.  I finished both books in just one day (just as I finished both of the earlier Hunger Games books), but I had to take breathing breaks throughout because I was so stressed out.  The ending, to me, was perfect, and it left me breathless, and empty, and exhausted, and, as Chantel put it, heartsick.  My heart is still aching, even two days later.  After being immersed in that world for two solid days (I read Catching Fire on Thursday), it has been difficult pulling myself back out of it.  That's the kind of impact a great story can have.

2)  Overcoming writer's block.  Thanks to Mockingjay, I've been able to work through a few of the issues that have been nagging me in The Novel.  I actually opened the file yesterday for the first time since school began and read it straight through.  And you know what, I didn't hate it this time.  And I even figured out what to do.  So I made a few revisions, changed a few lines, and I'm back in the game.  And it feels SO GOOD to be working on it again.

3)  Publication!  Last week I blogged that I'd received four rejections.  This week I had no rejections and one acceptance, so that's a pretty successful week in my book.  On Thursday I received notice that my story "Skin Deep" will be published in the October issue of Blue Crow Magazine, an Australian journal that publishes fiction from around the world.

4)  Finishing my justification.  In one draft.  My dissertation director attributes this to my creative writing, and she's probably right.   The comprehensive exams justification is something my department makes PhD candidates write to "justify" their reading lists--why they've chosen these lists, these texts, these time periods, etc.  Basically you just make stuff up about how these texts will help with the dissertation, teaching, job placement, future course planning, etc.  I wrote mine Monday night and she approved it Tuesday, changing just one word.  I can definitely live with that.

5)  Living in a college town.  This is probably the first time I've ever admitted to liking living in a college town. I'm forever complaining that the town is too small, that there isn't enough to do.  BUT what we lack in recreation and entertainment, we more than make up for in our choice of international restaurants.  Seriously, it's amazing that a town this size has so much to choose from.  This weekend I've been to an Irish pub, a Greek restaurant, a Cuban restaurant, and had Chinese take-out.  I may never eat American food again.  (Oh, wait, I take that back, because on Friday Kellye and I had lunch at Nathan's Hot Dogs.  That's right--we have a Nathan's in the student center now.  Nathan's less than 500 feet from my office=awesomeness.)

6)  And finally, rain.  It's been raining off and on all weekend, and it's raining outside my study window even as I write this.  I love the rain--the way it smells, the way the air feels after a storm.  And how it makes me feel like curling up with a good book--or with my computer and doing a little writing of my own.


Week 1 Review

Saturday, August 21, 2010

It's been one of those weeks.  I started back to school this week, and as if that wasn't a big enough transition, I contracted shingles just days before classes began and got four rejection letters this week--one form, one personal, and two asking to see more work.  So all week I've felt lousy and tired, and my meds make me feel nauseous, and the rejections aren't doing a lot for my writing confidence right now, which is already pretty low considering the struggles I was having the week before with The Novel.

It's really easy to concentrate on the negative when you're tired and stressed and wondering how every semester seems to get harder than the previous one.  So instead of focusing solely on the negative, I decided this week to start trying to find one positive thing, or one thing I was thankful for, each and every day.  And it wasn't nearly as difficult as I thought it would be.

So here are a few things I'm thankful for this week:

1)  I'm teaching four good classes this semester.  We've only had two real discussion days, but so far they've been very responsive and willing to discuss, and there are some extremely bright students in there.  So even though I'm teaching four World Lit I classes, I think my students, if nothing else, will make this a fun and satisfying semester.

2)  The French reading proficiency class I'm taking this semester (a requirement for my PhD) is going to be so ridiculously easy--no real outside work the whole semester.  So one less thing to have to stress over as I study for comps.

3)  Gmail lets you know when you forget to add an attachment.  I might be the only person in the world who didn't know this, but after dealing with TigerMail for so long and having students send me email after email without the necessary attachments (which of course I've done before myself), this Gmail feature just made me giddy.  If you write in your email something along the lines of "please see attached" but don't actually attach anything, before you send the email Gmail will ask you if you wanted to attach something.

4)  Duotrope's Digest is a writer's best friend.  As is submishmash.  Sure I got four rejections this week.  But thanks to these websites/programs, just minutes or hours after receiving a rejection I was able to resubmit those stories.  No worrying about SASEs and postal fees.  I didn't have to visit thirty journal websites to find the one I thought would be the best fit.  (Okay, maybe I did that, but only because playing with Duotrope is so addictive.)  And I can check on almost all my submissions simultaneously.

So those are the things I'm thankful for this week.  Next week I'll be back with a new list and hopefully better writing news.

One of my all-time favorite images.


A Room of My Own

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It’s that time of year again—back-to-school week, when fun writing gets pushed aside to make room for course planning, syllabi writing, article revisions, and—alas!—that book review I’ve been putting off all summer.  The week before school is also when I do some Serious Cleaning.  Mopping, scrubbing, vacuuming, dusting—no surface goes untouched because cleaning is something I rarely have time for once the semester begins.

Yesterday I tackled my office, which of course is my favorite room in the house (maybe in the world!—I always find myself longing for it when I’m away).  Virginia Woolf was right—a woman (or man, for that matter) does need a room of her own in order to write, although all women define this space differently.  For some it might be a particular table at a particular coffee shop, or sitting in a certain chair, or being in a certain position (e.g. cross-legged on the ground, lying on the couch, sitting at the kitchen table).  What’s important is that when you find that special place, that space becomes sacred.  It isn’t that you can’t write anywhere else—for me, it’s that writing in that space feels more natural, and I associate that space with writing.  This association makes it easier to slide into the writing process and means that I’m less likely to get distracted.  (Emphasis on less.)

So here is a tour of my freshly cleaned office, my sacred writing space.  It isn’t much, but it’s mine, and I love it.

The room where I do almost all my writing, reading, studying, and researching (a.k.a. the place I spend 80% of my time).

My office bookshelves--which are mostly for work, not fun--now reorganized to hold comp books.  Notice Alice in Wonderland collection at top (including the awesome leaning chest of drawers I got in Costa Rica), and Andy, Pam, and Dwight bobbleheads.  Okay, so maybe there is some fun involved.  Oh, and that big gap on the top shelf--it's just waiting for me to make a library run for more comp books. :-/
Close-up of awesome drawers and Alice stuff, with Hopper's Nighthawks in the background.

A few fun books, photo albums, my writing journals, and boxes I keep writing research in.

A comfy place for reading, early morning writing...and the occasional nap.

The craft/supply closet.

And finally...

my favorite spot...

Where the magic happens (sometimes).  And occasionally Facebooking; blogging; and watching the neighbors, rain, lightning storm, or snow (twice!).    The bulletin board above is full of encouraging notes from my dissertation director, postcards of places I'm writing about, and...John Krasinski's autograph. :-)


On believing in what you do

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Yesterday I did something I've never done before--I wrote, revised, and submitted a story all in one day!  It was a short-short, right at 500 words, but I'm really proud of it, especially because the short-short has always been something I admired (when done well) but never thought I could do.  I've only written one other piece of flash fiction before, something for my thesis that didn't make it in.  I even tried sending that piece out once (to Flash Fiction Online, which sent me a really nice, personal rejection), but despite the helpful comments I received, I never revised or submitted it anywhere else.  I honestly wasn't that invested in the piece, had tried to write it more as an exercise than anything else, and I figured I had more important projects to focus on.

Last spring, however, I got another idea for a short-short.  It was an idea I was really invested in and wanted to make work, but I just couldn't figure out how.  It's a story told in reverse, and when I tried to write it I kept thinking that it would make a better short film, that I could just imagine watching the events happen in reverse while a voice-over read the story.  When I went to New York in May, I happened to catch the last weekend of Marina Abramovic's retrospective at MoMA.  (If you didn't hear about this, you have have to check it out.  Her work is out there, but it's absolutely stunning stuff.)  Abramovic is a performance artist, and looking at her work, at the artist herself ("The Artist is Present" is literal), I was stunned into silence and inspired beyond words.  My desire to turn this short-short into a short film came back full force, and it's a project that I would still love to make happen, but I know that it isn't realistic right now.  So for the past few months I'd abandoned the story, frustrated that I couldn't do what I wanted with it and not knowing how to make the story work on its own without a visual component.

Then something amazing happened.  After my Terrible, Horrible, No Good Travel Day, I spent the next two days revising another old story of mine.  It's one that I've tinkered with for years, even sent out a couple of times, but I never could get the ending right.  And then I suddenly knew how to fix it.  I knew what the final scene had to be.  I finished it Thursday and finally, for the first time in the five years (that's right--five years!) since I began writing it, it finally felt done.  I felt this amazing joy, this sense of completion, that I'd never felt with that story before.  So I gave myself the night off, made a nice chicken tikka marsala curry for dinner, and spent the evening relaxing on the couch.  

When I went to bed, though, my mind was racing with ideas, and I jotted some in my notebook before going to sleep.  The ideas were disconnected, all dealing with various stories and essays I'm working on right now, but when I woke up the next morning they were all focused, and I was only thinking about one thing--the short-short I started months before, the story in reverse, and I suddenly knew how to make it work.  I spent the morning writing, the afternoon revising, and after receiving feedback from T and Mo, I submitted the story.

So now it's waiting time, but I feel really confident about this piece.  It's not necessarily that I believe it will be snatched up by the first place I sent it, but I know that I will stick with it this time, that I'll keep sending it out no matter how many times it's rejected, because I believe in it that much.  


Travel Woes/Whoas

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Yesterday I had perhaps the worst travel day of my life, although that isn't saying much, considering I typically have amazing luck when I'm traveling.  Until yesterday, I'd never missed a flight or had a flight cancelled, and I'd only ever had one significant delay--about four hours when I was flying to Rochester two years ago.  So of course yesterday my luck ran out.  To summarize, my travels yesterday involved four airports, two trips through airport security, an hour and a half taxi ride from PNS to VPS, a 45 minute delay at VPS and another 45 minutes on the tarmac at ATL (meaning I got off one plane just five minutes before the next was supposed to take-off), sprinting through ATL (okay, more like power-walking) and barely making my flight to BWI (last person on the plane, the door closing just as I got there), and a four hour long car trip.  It was chaotic, and it was frustrating, and twice I almost broke down in tears.  I got a headache, I got dehydrated, and I didn't eat anything for nine hours (not a good idea for someone with hypoglycemia).  But in the end, I survived and I realized it could have been so much worse.

After all, something positive came out of my horrible day--when I wasn't frantically running around airports and sweet-talking ticket agents, I was just sitting.  And reading.  And thinking.  

What I was reading was Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, which somehow, in the midst of PhD studies, I just hadn't made the time to read.  I read Interpreter of Maladies right after she won the Pulitzer and bought The Namesake as soon as it came out, but for some reason I didn't rush right out to get Unaccustomed Earth, probably because I'd read several of the stories before in The New Yorker and figured that I'd already read the best works in the book.  I was totally wrong.  

Yesterday gave me the opportunity to read the first half of the book, and with each story I grew more and more in awe of Lahiri's ability to convey the subtle details and difficulties of family life and individual desire.  I realized why I had fallen in love with the short story form when I was in college (partly thanks to Lahiri's first collection, partly because I was consuming volumes of Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and Ann Beattie), and I realized why I've struggled with writing in that form ever since.

I've never really written short stories "for fun."  Even when I was a child I wrote novels or novellas.  The first story I ever wrote--when I was seven--was eight pages long, and that was by far the shortest thing I ever wrote until I went to college.  Short stories have always been associated with schoolwork to me; they are what I had to write during years of creative writing classes as an undergraduate and graduate creative writing major, but I always saw them as keeping me from the work I really wanted to do--writing a novel.  

The only time in my life that this wasn't true was during my Advanced Fiction Writing class as a senior in college, when I was studying with the amazing Jennifer Fremlin, the best creative writing teacher I've ever had, who guided but never stifled my creativity.  I was also reading lots of Lahiri, Carver, Munro, Beattie, Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, Ethan Canin, and Sandra Cisneros--among many, many other short story writers--so I guess you could say I was learning from the masters of the form.  With the exception of Atwood (who is brilliant in every genre), these are the names of a rare breed of fiction writer--those that are better (at least in my opinion) at the short story form than they are at the novel.  They deliver the short story form to a place most of us can only dream of achieving, a place of honesty and truth, a place I rarely find in short fiction today.

And here is the real problem:  when I'm reading literary journals today, I'm rarely taken to that place.  Instead, I see far too much emphasis on quirkiness and shock value, and not enough on mining relationships to uncover those little truths we all subconsciously know and relate to.  And quirkiness and shock value do not inspire me.  So I haven't been writing short fiction.

But yesterday, sitting in one airport or airplane after another, I rediscovered the kind of short stories that I once loved, and I re-realized the power and potential of the form, and I started thinking.  And jotting down notes.  And...writing.  I thought back to stories and characters in my graduate thesis that I had loved and never published because they never seemed "right" to me, never complete.  And I suddenly understood things about those characters that I hadn't understood before, that the stories felt unfinished because the characters hadn't fully revealed themselves to me yet.

And so I'm writing short fiction again, or at least heavily revising old stories, and in some ways I'm counting my blessings that I had such a horrendous travel day yesterday, for it means I get to have an amazing writing day today. :-)


On where the ideas come from

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

It's been nearly a month since my last post, and a lot has been happening.  Unfortunately, not as much writing on The Novel as I would like, but I hope to rectify that this week.  A little more than two weeks ago I left PA for Alabama, spent about two and a half days at my home in Auburn where I met with my dissertation director and academic writing group, then went to visit my parents, then went with some family to Orlando (for our annual trip to Disney World and a visit to Islands of Adventure to see the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter [too hot and crowded right now--there are lines to get into the Wizarding World and even lines to get into the gift shops!]), then went to Mobile this past weekend with other family, and now I'm back at my parents' house.  This afternoon I'll head back to Auburn for two weeks, so hopefully I'll be able to get back into a better writing routine during that time.  I've been taking notes and jotting down scenes and lines as they come to me, so I'm itching to get back to Alyssa's story.  I'm also working on a new short story that came to me on Sunday, much to my cousin Brittany's amusement. 

On Sunday I went to the restroom to remove a tag on the new skirt I was wearing.  I had forgotten the tag was there until I was already wearing the skirt (it was hidden inside), and when I ripped it off the first thing I noticed was that it said "Made in India" in large black letters on one side.  These three words stuck out to me (perhaps because I have a bit of an obsession with India and am writing my dissertation about it), but they got me thinking about the fact that our clothes (and most inanimate objects we own) are often better traveled than we are, hailing from distant, exotic (poorer) places we probably will never journey to.  For some reason this (perhaps silly) thought saddened me a little, and I was mentally bombarded by images--a woman cleaning out her closet and noticing the labels in the clothes she is throwing away, all the places she has never been; a bed and breakfast on the coast of southern Maine--Kennebunkport, perhaps--and its annual spring cleaning day after a long, harsh winter; the woman and the inn's owner, her best friend since high school, a gay man who, with the exception of the occasional trip to Boston, hasn't left Maine in ten years.  Within ten minutes these people had names and histories, and the story had a title and an opening.  As I sat scribbling ideas furiously in a notebook, Brittany asked me what I was writing, and I told her I'd had an idea for a short story while I was in the bathroom, and I told her my ideas.  She laughed, of course, trying to make sense of how my mind had jumped from a label in a skirt to a gay man running an inn in Maine.  Of course, I couldn't make sense of it myself, but that's one of the most exciting things about the mind--it makes unexpected connections and sends writers in directions they may have never anticipated but that the stories are better for.

This is the way many of my stories are born--a real life image, such as a weird hairstyle, a cool tattoo, an awesome car, will suddenly spark a new image, of a (fictional) time, place, character, who soon has a history, something to tell, of his or her own, and then I go searching for the best vehicle (story) through which the character can speak.  I love these moments, when the ideas come effortlessly, endlessly, and I relinquish control of the story and just let the character dictate where it goes. 

So now I have two fiction projects on my plate, as well as an ever-growing stack of comps books to read, a book review to write, and an article to revise.  It's going to be a busy summer. :-)


On the importance of research to fiction writing

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Despite my claims in my last post, I finished The House at Riverton this morning, long before Dead and Gone.  The last hundred pages or so really flew by, and I couldn't put the book down.  I love when that happens.  Morton has a gift for stretching out the secrets of her plot until the last possible page, and the ending of HaR was beautiful, haunting, and masterfully composed.  A rare feat, I believe, when endings are often so hard to get right.

One of the things I love about Morton's writing is how skillfully she moves between the contemporary moment and her characters' pasts, which are always just as important, if not more important, as what is happening to them in the present.  Typically, the setting for that past is Britain in the early twentieth century, and in this novel Morton had to know and understand what servant life on a grand country estate was like, as well as about World War I, women's suffrage, the Roaring Twenties, society life, and the burgeoning film industry.  A rather daunting list of research topics.

I think writers sometimes overlook how important research can be to fiction--or at the very least, readers often underestimate how much research goes into writing a novel.  To me, research is one of the most exciting parts of the writing process.  Perhaps this is because I also spend so much time doing academic research for my dissertation, which is in eighteenth-century British literature and postcolonial theory, not in creative writing.  But I also think research allows me to accomplish one of the goals I've always had in my writing--to become someone else.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of becoming a writer one day, but I also wanted to be a lawyer, an architect, an Egyptologist, a psychologist, an artist, and a musician.  I realized early on that most of those dreams were impossible (I'm a terrible musician and I can't draw to save my life)--on one level.  What I realized was that as a writer, I can become all of those things, and I don't even have to go to school or have any talent in those fields to do it--I just have to do the research, and then I can write about those topics.

Yesterday, I got to spend much of my day doing exactly that.  The protagonist in my novel secretly wants to be a haute couture fashion designer; even though she's studying drawing and photography, she really wants to  create "wearable art."  So I spent some time yesterday researching exactly what kind of fashion designer she would be, looking at countless designer websites, flipping through their collections, and studying images from recent New York and Paris fashion weeks.  A guy she meets is a botanist, so I spent some time figuring out what college he went to.  I wanted him to have gone to an Ivy League school near Boston, and it had to have a botany program.  Specifically, I really wanted him to have gone to Dartmouth, and after some time playing on the Dartmouth biological sciences department website, I realized they had a concentration in plant biology--close enough.  I also created a new flower for this particular scene, and even though I had an idea in my mind about what I wanted it to look like, I wanted to compare it to real flowers, so I spent half an hour looking at pictures of flowers and reading about their individual properties.  Smaller searches were done on the Na Pali Coast of Kauai, wheat fields, the Phoenician language, and perflurocarbons, and I even spent some time Photoshopping some of the designer dresses I found to create one I thought would appeal to my protagonist.  All in all, several hours of research for only four pages of text!

That may seem extreme, and it's true that not all stories or even all parts of this novel call for so much outside information, but the key to good writing, I find, is in the details, in being as concise and precise as possible.  Sometimes, when we're writing about something outside our immediate field of knowledge, we don't have the proper vocabulary or mental image to capture those details, but a little research can go a long way toward making writing more authoritative, more precise, and, most importantly, more believable.


The Candy, Steak, and Brussel Sprouts of Novels

Monday, June 7, 2010

I've given my students an hour of our three hour long class tonight to work on drafting their final research paper, so I thought that while they were writing I should, too.  I spent most of today grading their critical analysis papers and prepping for class tonight, so I only had time to write a couple of pages on The Novel, but I did find time for a bit of reading.  I find that when I'm writing I also must be reading the kinds of works that inspire me, and today it occurred to me that I'm currently reading three books simultaneously: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, The House at Riverton by Kate Morton, and Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris, the ninth book in the Sookie Stackhouse (True Blood) series.

I guarantee you I'll finish the last book first.  Why?  Because it's the junk food of the bunch, and I love junk food (literally and metaphorically).  I had a student last semester ask me why books like Twilight are so popular, and I told him it's because they are like candy--or like junk food.  They have no nutritional value, and in many ways they'll probably harm you more than help you, but they're yummy.  It's hard to resist a piece of candy if the choice is between that and a brussel sprout (at least if you have a sweet tooth like mine).  Junk food, like the Sookie Stackhouse novels, is hard to resist when the choice is between it and The Vicar of Wakefield.  Reading the Vicar is more beneficial in the long run--it's on my comps  list, afterall, and reading eighteenth-century novels helps me to understand more about how we got to the novel form as it is today--but it isn't much fun.  It's the brussel sprout of the group, the text I have to force myself to swallow but know that in the end it's good for me and that I won't regret it.

Kate Morton's book falls somewhere in-between.  I don't eat her books up like candy, not because they aren't compelling and entertaining, but because I prefer to savor them, like a good steak.  Her books are the kind of rare works that truly make me dread reaching that final sentence.  They are beautiful and lyrical and honest and emotional, without being overwritten or cliche or meladramatic.  The House at Riverton is the second book of Morton's I've read (the other being The Forgotten Garden, her only other book until The Distant Hours comes out this fall), and I find it as captivating and inspiring as the first.  Her characters are beautifully flawed and real; her story lines are so intricate, weaving past and present together effortlessly; and her settings are always so meticulously drawn.  She is exactly the kind of writer I want to be and secretly fear I never will be.

So given a choice between the three books sitting on my night stand, I might grab the candy first, but only because the steak is worth the wait.


A Digression on Travel and Water Lilies

Friday, June 4, 2010

I was fortunate enough to spend last weekend in New York (one of the benefits of now living only five hours from the city), so my next few posts will probably be about different things I saw and learned while I was there.  It had been awhile since I was in the city, so I did the normal touristy things (Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building), some of which I'd never done, as well as visited some of my favorite museums, saw the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music on Broadway, and went to a Yankees game.  There were setbacks all along the way, but for each disappointment there seemed to always be a small reward.

For example, A Little Night Music stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, but when we got to the theater we found out that Catherine was ill and would not be performing. That was certainly disappointing (although her understudy was absolutely amazing and Angela Lansbury was fabulous), but a lot of people exchanged their tickets because she would not be appearing, so we got to sneak from our nose-bleed balcony seats to some of the now-empty mezzanine seats. After listening to the cast recording and reading reviews, I'm actually sort of glad we got to see Jayne Paterson play the role of Desiree instead of CZJ.  Her voice was amazing, she fit the part exactly (I thought), and her rendition of "Send in the Clowns" brought me to tears. I only wish I could get a recording of her version because every version I've listened to since then (including CZJ's, Sinatra's, Streisand's, Judy Collins's, and Glynis Jones's) seems sub-par.

Better seats also came our way at the Yankees game.  A couple wanted to switch with us so they could sit with their friends, so we got to move about ten rows closer.  (Great seats, on the third base line.)  The disappointment came in that A-Rod had been given the night off and Posada is on the DL, so they weren't playing.  But we still won (8-2 against the Indians), I got to see Cano hit a grand slam, and I got to hear "New York, New York" played over the loud speaker at the end and sing and sway with thousands of true Yankees fans, so it was a great night.

The most disappointing thing that happened, though, was that MoMA had none of their Monets on display at the moment, but when I asked about it a lady told me there was a fabulous exhibit (the best she had seen) at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea.  I checked their hours (10-6, Tues-Sat), and Saturday afternoon we headed to Chelsea, only to find that the gallery was closed!!!  We weren't the only disappointed ones--we met other groups coming and going to the gallery who were all upset that the gallery had decided to close for the day, but unlike most of those people, we weren't New Yorkers who could come back the following weekend.

Monet is my favorite artist, so there was really nothing "good" that could come from this disappointment, like in the other two cases.  I have since looked at the exhibition online (linked above), and my only consolation is that many of these paintings are on loan from the Musee Marmottan in Paris, which I visited in 2005, and that the layout and space of the exhibition has nothing on Marmottan (a whole room of Nympheas!).  I also self-indulgently high-tailed it (okay, I actually waited until Sunday) to the Met, which has several rooms almost entirely devoted to Monet, so that I could sit and bask in the calmness that only the Water Lilies can create.

I have seen the Water Lilies in many galleries and museums (the National Gallery in D.C., the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Art Institute in Chicago, the National Gallery in London, Musee Marmottan and Musee d'Orsay in Paris), and although many of them appear very similar, I never tire of looking at them.  Just being in their soothing presence, seeing Monet's thick brush strokes and masterful manipulation of color, calms me and gives me a feeling I can only describe as joy.  This is the feeling I was after on Sunday when I bypassed thousands of masterpieces in the Met in search of the one piece I wanted desperately to see--Monet's Water Lilies.  I sat in front of one of the later Nympheas--from the time when Monet's cataracts were worsening and his paintings of Giverny became increasingly darker and more abstract--and let myself get lost in the color, let the painting sweep me away to a happier place, one in which I was not in a crowded museum gallery with dozens of other people, but alone with the painting, alone with perhaps Monet himself.

The Water Lilies always spark something inside of me--the feeling I earlier described as joy--that makes me want to create--to create art, to create beauty, to give someone else the feeling Monet has so graciously shared with me.  Right now I'm working on a rather strange project--part performance, part flash fiction.  I don't know where it will take me or if I'll even be able to finish it, but I have Monet (and Marina Abramovic and Picasso, but I'm saving them for another post) to thank for the inspiration.


On "the thing I came for"

Friday, May 21, 2010

The title of my blog, of course, comes from Adrienne Rich's achingly beautiful poem Diving Into the Wreck, which has been a favorite of mine since I first read it in Introduction to Literature during my first year of college.  I'm not a poetry expert, by any means, and I can honestly say that of the four main genres of literature, poetry is the one I'm the least comfortable teaching and discussing.  But there's something about this poem that has always spoken to me, as a writer, as a reader, and as a traveler.  In fact, my first attempt at blogging, the travel blog I started (and abandoned) a few years ago, was also called "Diving into the Wreck."  After two days of debating what to call this new blog--Should I use a pithy quote? Should I just use my name?  Should writing be in the title?--I reread Rich's poem and realized no other name would ever fit quite as well.

In her review of Rich's book, Margaret Atwood (one of my all-time favorite writers) says, "The wreck she is diving into...is the wreck of obsolete myths, particularly myths about men and women." Rich's quest is "the quest for something beyond myths, for the truths about men and women, about the 'I' and the 'You,' the He and the She, or more generally...about the powerless and the powerful." In many ways, this is always the writer's quest.  If, as Horace stated, the purpose of poetry is to "educate and delight," it most certainly is also to discover truth.  Perhaps not capital 'T' Truth, but those small truths that we all take for granted, that it can take a writer to reveal to us.  Those are the moments many readers read for, those little turns of phrase that suddenly enlighten our understanding of some matter, that make us better understand what it means to be human.    

For a long time, my favorite lines in this poem were "I came to explore the wreck./ The words are purposes./  The words are maps."  This was how I saw the writing process, the importance of words on the page.  But my focus on these lines perhaps caused me to underestimate the power of the next stanza:  "the thing I came for:/ the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth."  The wreck is what separates great writers from great storytellers.  Bookstores are full of books by fantastic storytellers who cannot be called great writers because their stories simply "delight," without revealing any essential truth.  The world needs both, of course.  But what Rich's poem reveals is that as writers, we cannot be afraid to go there.  We cannot be so wrapped up in creating myth and story that we forget the thing itself, what the story is really all about.

And what is it all about?

Rich's poem (and Atwood's review) reveals this as well, although it's something we've known all along--the writer's journey is about men and women, about the powerful and the powerless; it is, in effect, about being human, with all the flaws that come with that designation.

Rich finishes the poem by describing one of the fundamental parts of writing, the process of becoming the character, of becoming the hero of the myth, "the mermaid whose dark hair/ streams black, the merman in his armored body," just as all writers must do, must become the characters, the people who inhabit our stories.  As we are discovering these characters, however, as we are letting them share with us their lives and their truths, we simultaneously must come to terms with the realization that these are not our stories--we have merely been privileged enough to have a small share in them, in these lives and in these myths, "in which/ our names do not appear."


On dreams

Thursday, May 20, 2010

For some time I've considered starting a writing blog, and this summer seemed like the perfect opportunity.  This past year has been a roller-coaster ride for me academically, as I've realized more about who I want to be professionally and that, no matter how successful I am, I will never find personal fulfillment in other people's dreams.  Even as I became more aware of what I wanted, however, I found myself with less and less time to make my own dreams reality.  This was mostly my own fault, for I've always found it difficult to say no--to both people and money.  So this spring, along with taking perhaps my two most strenuous graduate courses to date, I found myself teaching four undergrad classes, all literature, two of which were full of texts I'd never read before.  I also continued to work as an editorial assistant with The Scriblerian and to work with my department's Research Culture Committee, organizing faculty events and maintaining a blog about the work we were doing.  So all of these distractions left little time for what I really wanted to be doing--writing. And reading.  Or, at least, reading works that inspire my writing.  I was certainly doing plenty of reading; reading seemed to eat up every moment of my day.  I was reading for my grad classes or reading for the classes I was teaching or reading for my comp lists--but never reading for me.  So I was never doing the two things I longed to do the most, the two things I realized I wanted to give up everything else to do.

The semester ended last week--final grades have been submitted, my last two seminar papers (EVER!) have been turned in--and now the summer stretches before me, the first summer since high school in which I'll have true, uninterrupted writing and reading time.  Thanks to all those jobs during the school year, I saved up enough money to get me through a couple of months without working, so I gave up my summer class at Auburn and made arrangements to teach in Pennsylvania for six weeks, giving me from June 16 to August 18 off--two whole months to write and read.  Of course, I have to read for my comps this fall, I have conference proposals to write and I have editing to do, but I also have something I haven't had in quite awhile--free time.  Lots of free time.  Free time which isn't really free at all--because I'm dedicating it to those things I've long wished to have the time to properly do.

This blog is about keeping me honest on that quest, about forcing me to write and read even on the days when I'd rather be enjoying the summer sun or watching reruns of my favorite TV shows or sleeping until noon.  It's a way for me to connect with all of those who are enduring similar struggles as they impractically chase their dreams, and it's a way for me to connect with myself, the self I tend to lie to more than tell the truth, the self that always needs a little encouragement, the self that realizes that impossible dreams are the only kind worth having.


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