Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Television: A Black Hole or a Useful Tool?

I must confess that (like most "modern" people, I guess) I have developed a keen interest (should I call it an addiction? I don't think it's quite that serious) in the watching of television. 
I don't want to call it an addiction because I know that, as with any other "drugs" in my life (which in my old age have pitifully, though perhaps healthily, reduced to just red wine, and sleeping a little too much sometimes), I am capable of taking or leaving them, depending on circumstances. I have been known to go on a detox and quit wine, cheese and rich foods for months; I have in my past lived for years without a TV set; I have been capable of getting up at dawn if my job at the time required it.
Winter, though, is invariably one of those times when I am particularly depressed, for reasons both personal and weather-related (I probably suffer from the most-appropriately named S.A.D.), and therefore more prone to reach out for "the three great stimulants of the exhausted ones", as the Joni Mitchell song would have it. 
In her case, she called them "artifice, brutality and innocence"—and though I'm not sure what she referred to (all poetry requiring a certain degree  of hermetism), I know all of these terms could apply to the TV shows I watch. I am not fond of cops, yet I do watch Criminal Minds and even CSI NY; since reading Dracula as a teenager, I have had a literary fascinations with vampires yet I am spiteful and weary of all the spin-offs that feature these wondrous creatures today (haven't vampires been done to death yet—if you'll forgive me the cheesy pun?). This weariness, and even my intolerance for any plot featuring the lives of American college students and of blond cheerleaders in particular, didn't prevent me from getting totally hooked on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer

Of CSI NY I admire the fabulous acting (let's not forget Gary Sinise's past as a founding member of Chicago's Steppenwolf  Theater), but I dislike the extreme reliance on scientific proof and hi-tech instruments to solve crimes; I also abhor its all-too-facile implication that good and evil can be so easily separated. 
Such an implication is instead dissected and constantly pulled at the (frayed) seams by both Buffy and Criminal Minds, which makes them a rewarding and worthwhile use of my mental time. Well, here you have one intellectual excuse for escapism—but at least I'm not pretending, like some theories of the media that used to be fashionable, that all mindless TV is instead an exercise in critical viewing, that viewers "negotiate" their own meanings instead of taking everything at face value, etc. The sad reality is, more and more people are hooked on mindless television shows and Internet sites; all the more important, then, to extol the virtues of those programs that manage to instill some shred of doubt (I doubt, therefore I think) into the viewers.
In Criminal Minds, for instance, almost not one episode goes past (at least in the old series; I have yet to catch up with this year's) without the discovery that some form of family abuse and/or social, religious and moral rigidness and intolerance are the root causes pushing the "unsub" (=unidentified subject) over the threshold of the basic life traumas we all inherited at birth into the murky territory of violent psychotic behavior. 
Yes, the psychological analyses the members of the BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit) come up with to explain the criminal of the week's behavior may be simplistic at times (but this is television after all, not a conference of the psychoanalytical society), yet the message is more than a touch subversive: that threshold between good and bad, normal and abnormal, Criminal Minds tell us, is a lot thinner and more easily crossed into than we care to believe... 
The underlying implication, which flies in the face of "commonsense" American stories about good and evil and the rewards of a life spent doing good deeds as opposed to the "wages of sin", is that, given the right (=wrong) circumstances, we could all be the unsub...
Also, the lives of the members composing the FBI team investigating and solving the crime (though on occasion arriving too late to save the latest victim of the unsub, a fact which also flies in the face of American conventions of "happy ending" storytelling) are anything but neat and tidy, or rigorous and full of morality as Anglo-saxon puritanism childishly expects of its public figures—forgetting that they, too, are human beings: their lives are messy, full of heartaches, break-ups, drug addictions, controlled rage, unfulfilled desires, and dark family histories. In other words, the stuff of life...

Buffy, though, in my mind went more than a notch better: by positioning itself in the world of the impossible, or rather of the anything is possible, the script gave itself room to breathe, the freedom to expand, grow, change, be in turns utterly dark and painful or terribly churlish and funny (and, often, both in the same episode). 
With Buffy, it took me a lot of viewing to get into the story, and this wasn't because I was required to suspend belief about a world filled with new monsters constantly surfacing and vampires prowling cemeteries at night the way raccoons prowl the less frequented areas of some American towns. All storytelling, whether visual or verbal, whether "factual" or fantastic, requires that we suspend belief (and, I would argue, the more "realistic" the story the more we should probably be suspicious of it). 
No, the reason it took me so long to get into the series is because the characters are written in skillful, careful and complex strokes that bimboesque Cordelia, the impossibly goody-goody Riley—and even the Buffy character herself (and Sarah Michelle Gellar's work on her). 

Just think about any other TV series featuring the same characters, week in week out (Raymond, Friends, even the much wittier Frasier): mostly, what changes is what happens to the characters, it is the external events, but their reactions remain similar and predictable, because they are predictable and unchanging. Yet this is not really the way we experience people in reality; in real life, we are in constant flux, and over time, while our most inherent make-up may not change much, we reveal aspects of ourselves we didn't even think we had, or others who knew us didn't think we possessed. So one could say that, although being about something completely outlandish and fantastical and implausible, Buffy was much more about real life, real human experience, than some "factual" documentaries could ever engage with (think of the complexities of a character like Spike, for instance—and James Marsters' masterful rendition of them).

But what I most like about Buffy is that it was not afraid to court controversy, by promoting the character of a highly-sexed, vulnerable-yet-amazingly-strong, not-too-intellectually-deep-yet-profoundly-philosophical, aspiring-to-goodness-yet-ridden-with-a-dark-side young woman; by daring to present us with homosexual as well as heterosexual love as both being perfectly acceptable and normal; by insinuating several messages about the real evils in our lives: capitalism and consumerism, regimented school learning, the military machine, even, god forbid (!) religion (in one episode, after hearing about the significance of a reliquary from Giles, Buffy utters: "Note to self: religion—freaky"). 
The ultimate message in Buffy (as exemplified in one of the most sublimely-written episode, Lie to Me) being that our facile vision of the world as neatly divided along the lines of good vs. evil is a convenient but totally untrue story we tell ourselves because we are, surprise surprise, afraid of, and in denial about, the darkness within...

I think there's a lesson in there for writers too, especially those of us who work with non-fiction, and particularly in the genre of memoir—a territory that is inherently hybrid and murky, unstable and unreliable, like quicksand in the bayou; yet always threatening to cave in to the absurd demands of those who clamor for "just the facts, ma'am"...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Life Gets in the Way...and the Ghost of Christmases Past and Present

It's been so long since my last post, as the overwhelming burden of life just got in the way: putting together an MFA application, gathering transcripts, filling in forms, choosing writing samples, and having to condense all the mistakes and triumphs of my life and my future goals in a 500 word statement (who thought of that? It's more like journalism or business memos than creative writing); dealing with a perpetual house renovation that has been going on for over a year, that started to go wrong the minute after the house was bought and has left me marooned in a 40% finished house without a "room of my own" to write in, without even a shelf to house my books—a totally stressful situation; squabbling endlessly with the husband, for reasons stupid or serious but always hurtful; being stranded in a new city where, a year on, I have yet to find any footing, any true friends, any real sense of community; finding a job—after looking for work for a year—I'm totally overqualified and totally underpaid for—not great for my self-esteem. And finally,  the icing on the cake: the onset of the winter blues that always weigh me down (on top of my everyday underlying depression)...

All the stuff of life one has to contend with, day in day out; many writers out there would tell me to get over it and get off my ass (or rather get it down on a chair) and "just write"; but sometimes that isn't the feasible or possible way. So after much agonizing and guilting myself (as if I needed any more guilt in my life) about not getting my book done, I've decided to give myself a break, a holiday, a respite.
I will continue to think about my book, to breathe it, dream it, write little notes to myself about it, to send out submissions, to revise the already written parts; but I'm not doing any serious writing for a while.
I've decided that, right now, I need the distance; and that I especially need a break at this particular time of the year when many are celebrating their being part of a family, a community, and I find myself instead totally alone and so far away from the few people in the world I hold dear.

I have always hated the holidays, and I'm sure I'm not the only one to feel that way; but I'd become the Grinch if I told people that, so I shut up and smile politely when people tell me how much they are going to enjoy their Christmas dinner, and complain to me about how little time they have for their Christmas shopping.
Inside, I feel like screaming. I have no great Christmas stories to tell anyone; all I can think of is the myriad Christmases that my mother ruined for me because she would always provoke a fight with my father on our way to dinner at his family's, whom she hated; I remember one particular Christmas when my mother was carrying on and must have insulted my uncle so badly that he threw a plate of tortellini in brodo at her, which missed and went on to smash itself on the wall behind our table, splattering chicken broth and filled pasta all over the black leather sofa underneath.

As if all these bad memories were not enough, my mother ruined Christmas once more, and forever, for me by dying during this holiday period—sometime between Christmas day, and the month of February when she was found dead. So celebrating Christmas or even pretending to find any joy in these winter months is just not an option for me.
I have always dreamed of a Christmas far away from Christmas, in a place where it is summer in winter, where, ideally, the population is not even Christian; every year, I dream of Christmas on the beach, basking in the sun, forgetting that it is Christmas, away from the glitter, tinsel, wrapping paper, decorations, religion.

So my probably very bad, unprofessional advice to all the writers who are feeling like me right now  is: when you can't write because your life just gets in the way, not in the normal everyday manner that life always has of getting in the way of creativity, but in a huge, insurmountable way that gives you physical pains and heartache, just give yourself a break; take a holiday from your writing; dedicate yourself to healing the mind and the body for a while, and then get back to the work with a fresh eye.

That's what I have promised myself to do in the new year; in the meantime, I will keep updating this blog (hopefully at a faster rate than I have lately) and this will be my writing task for the holidays.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Snippet from the Non Fiction NOW Conference: Truth, that Old Chestnut Again

I just came back from the Iowa NonFiction NOW conference—a rather exhilarating experience—and found a post on the lovely blog "Sixth in Line" with a UTube video by Dinty Moore that rehashes that old contentious chestnut, truth or non-truth in non-fiction, in a hilarious mannerThat chestnut was of course one of the dominant themes at the conference, so my immediate instinct was to post this reply on Elisabeth's blog. I will post conference notes and reflections on this blog in due course.

[at the conference] Dinty Moore was "debating" David Shields exactly on these points. In my mind, they were both right and wrong. 
Writing may be a contract with the reader, but it's not a legal document where you swear you'll tell the truth, and nothing but. 
Conversely, I cannot abide Shields' dislike of anything that has a personal narrative that's not disjointed and fragmentary. 
I read many memoirs that are structured like linear narratives and still wonderful; I read others that are more lyrical, more experimental, more fragmented, and still wonderful.
The writer's contract is with his/her own conscience: it is the obligation to turn out a book that, as Kafka said (and Shields himself seems to like that quote) strives to be the "axe for the frozen sea within us"
Anything else is just idle intellectual discussion.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Scorn About Memoir, Again

What is it about memoir that prompts many intelligent and learned people (who should know better) to poo-poo it? Yes, it's true that memoir has become somewhat of a literary trend lately and often for the wrong reasons (the proliferation of not-really-indispensable remembrances by the rich and famous is my pet-peeve example); but as a genre, memoir has a legitimate place in the pantheon of literature and should not be treated with the scorn that it is subjected to by many writers and readers alike.
I saw just one more example of this when I attended a public interview with Leslie Marmon-Silko , the wonderful Native American author. She has recently published a new book, The Turquoise Ledge, whose subtitle is "a memoir". It is, as her interviewer Molly Gloss pointed out, a memoir in the style of Annie Dillard's meditative essays on nature and the environment: Marmon-Silko lives on the edge of the Sonora desert in Arizona and, when not writing, loves to take long walk; the book is a collection of the thoughts inspired by and the incidents witnessed during, these walks—interspersed with personal recollections.
Molly Gloss is an author herself, of historical novels set in the American West and fantasy books; during the interview, she displayed a considerable scorn against memoir, implying that perhaps the new Marmon-Silko book should not have been labeled such (too good, or too serious to be a memoir?)
At one point she said that when one thinks of memoir, usually this conjures images of famous people writing about their achievements, or people with "dysfunctional f". The latter was uttered with a considerable smirk on Gloss' face—the implication being that only self-indulgent, self-centered people write memoir (and especially so when it is about "dysfunctional families"): the rest, the enlightened and "serious" writers, concentrate on either the more conventional end of non-fiction (ie. the politically-worthy, such as exposé journalism, or socially relevant essays); or, better still, they just write fiction.
Now, I am the greatest lover of fiction around; and I must confess that I read a great deal more fiction than I do non-fiction; and yet, apart from the occasional short story and poem, the thought of writing anything other than non-fiction, and then again other than personal non-fiction stories, has never occurred to me.
Why? Because, as an old and old-fashioned feminist, I believe in that little dictum, "the personal is political"; and I believe that, by writing memoir, we can both satisfy our "reality hunger" (with apologies to David Shields —someone who certainly doesn't have a narrow idea of what non-fiction is) and communicate something that will be socially and culturally relevant and of interest to readers other than our family or friends. In fact, let's explode once and for all the myth that the only people who will be interested in reading our memoir are our next of kin or our closest friends: oftentimes, these are in fact the people who end up being our worst critics and least enthusiastic readers, because of the personal investment they too have in our life story—and the fact that their perception of the "facts", the "truth" may not exactly coincide with ours. Many memoir writers talk about this problem—see for instance Louise DeSalvo and Mark Doty .
As a rebuttal to all those who scorn memoir: all good writers, even when they are writing about themselves, are capable of separating their real life from their real life as it exists on the page, where it ceases to belong to them alone and becomes an artistic product, becomes public domain.
I had just one of those "dysfunctional families", but the reason I came to believe I ought to write about my mother's madness and terrible life was not therapy; I have never confused art with therapy: when I want therapy I go to the therapist, when I want to write, I go to my desk. It was instead because I realized that there was a story there, potentially interesting to other women (and men, too); a story about madness as it related to gender, as it related to a specific culture. And that I could tell that story in a voice that was both poetic and critical.
Yes, it is possible to write memoir that is utterly solipsistic and narcissistic, and indeed there are many books like that out there; but there are also many crappy works of fiction, so would this latter fact be enough to disqualify the entire genre of fiction? Should we look at books as entities within a labeled box, as part of a genre—or should we look at books as we ought to look at human beings: each one unique, each one the product of a particular culture, historical moment, the product of a creative mind inflamed with a timeless yearning: the desire to tell a story?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Haunting of Gloves: The Things I Lost

In writing the memoir of my mother, I've been thinking a lot about material things—things she gave me, things I gave her, things that were in her apartment in Naples and I lost when I got rid of them in a haste. At the time, I had such an urge to get the place cleaned up and could not deal with it myself: my mother had died there. She had been found dead. After quite a while. Not the kind of scenario anybody wants to deal with when it's time to "clean out the closets". Just being a couple of hours alone in the apartment was agony for me, so I took a perhaps too-swift decision and called for the local equivalent of "1-800-Got Junk"—a couple of guys with a rickety truck who came and took everything away.
Later, I realized not only that I'd given away things that were potentially precious from the monetary standpoint, but also things that I really should have kept as mementos.
One entire fragment (I prefer to call them that, rather than chapters) of my memoir deals with the "biography" of these lost things. Objects are such potent repositories of memory, of memories; and often the things we miss the most are not those that ought to be most valuable or important to us, either in financial or emotional terms. 
Instead of bemoaning the loss of the Persian rug that I could have probably sold; or the wall clock that chimed Big Ben's tune (though my father had long stopped its mechanism, claiming he couldn't sleep; and after his death my mother had never restored the clock to its song); or the 1960s and 1970s furniture that I personally found horrid but in America sells as "vintage modern"—instead of missing any of these things, today, nearly five years after my mother's death, I still find myself obsessing about a pair of gloves. 
A pair of gloves I'd bought for her in London, where I lived for 15 years prior to moving to North America. They were, as English fashion often is—a compensation for, as that Pink Floyd song had it, "hanging on in quiet desperation"?—a little eccentric, a little baroque (Vivienne Westwood's lesson): in a fake velvety material that was in fact synthetic yet still plush to the touch; of a color there are no exact words for, best described as a sort of burnt amber with a deep golden glow. 
My mother, not usually given to eccentric outfits even in the throws of her most manic and absurd behaviors, fell in love with these gloves, and took to wearing them even around the house sometimes, to cover her mildly arthritic hands, their skin chapped by too many years of dishwashing.
She loved those gloves. 
And I got rid of them. 
Afraid that keeping anything too personal of hers would jinx me with some evil eye; my scarlet letter of guilt, the guilt of having abandoned her because there was nothing else I could do, nothing I could do for her, short of allowing myself to slowly die next to her. 
Or, in a more rational version of this story, afraid of contamination because the gloves were in the room where she died and was found. 
I kept them separate from all the stuff I had the Sri Lankan house cleaner who worked for one of my best friends stuff in big black trash bags; this was in the first few days of my stay in Naples, when I still believed some manner of sorting out of my mother's apartment was possible. 
Later, having learned from my mother's nosy neighbors how she had died, the cleaner was spooked and disappeared, leaving all the trash bags sitting in the room. He would not come back to help any longer, didn't even ask for his wages, would not meet me; I ended up giving the money I owed him to my friend to give to him. 
I was alone, help-less in the most literal sense, overwhelmed by the dirt in the apartment, the mess of useless things my mother had accumulated in the nearly 20 years since my father's death. She was not exactly a hoarder—rather, had always been a reluctant housewife; my father's stern military command had forced her into a housekeeping duty she did not embrace, a daily requirement that she cook, clean, be a dutiful wife. When he died, she saw no reason to maintain the place tidy, or even clean. She let it go, let herself go.

I stayed in Naples for a while, sleeping at a friend's house and going to the apartment every day, trying to sort things out, always leaving without having accomplished anything much other than feeling miserable, overpowered, wrecked, haunted. 
All this time, the gloves sat on a green metal trunk covered with a mauve cloth bearing a design of nineteenth-century ladies on horseback, in the room where my mother had died. I meant to keep them; yet, on my last day of visiting the apartment, I did not take them with me, and did not leave them in what had been my teenager room, the contents of which were the only things I decided to salvage and have shipped over to North America. 
Instead, I threw the gloves onto the pile of trash bags still filling the room, walking out on them, consigning them to the fate of all the other things in the apartment.

I recently came across a lovely post on writer/teacher Paul Lisicky's blog . You know that old, over-abused dictum —(that many theoretical essays on photography have sought to disprove)—"a photograph is worth a thousand words"? Well, the title alone of this post was worth a million photographs: "The Museum of My Mother" .
Lisicky's post was not dark; rather, it was a lyrical, nostalgic remembrance of his mother through the odd objects she left behind in the vacation house he inherited from her. 
In his post, Lisicky says that the house is "ghosted with her presence"; my mind is ghosted with my mother's presence, and at the same time her absence. In my urgency to run away from her place of unhappy life and horrible death, I lost a great deal of objects, mementos; but their vivid images are forever burnt into the retina of my mind, haunting me all the same. 
You can take your life out of the place of memories, but you can't take the place of memories out of your life.

Friday, October 8, 2010

On Being From Another Language

This post was stimulated by another, on Maria Clara Paulino's blog which is full of wonderful reflections on estrangement and being "in-between" two languages, two places, two cultures. She is Portuguese and I am Italian, but I can relate to her musings in a familiar way. In the post, she writes on the use and abuse of the word "love" across cultures—how in her native Portuguese language it is taken very seriously and it means a very specific kind of affection (as it does in my native Italian); while in America, it is often just thrown there at the end of a letter just to mean a slightly more intimate form of  salutation.
I have often wondered how it felt for Joseph Conrad (with whom I curiously share a last name, though mine was acquired through marriage) to write in a language other than his native Polish. According to the Wikipedia entry for him, Conrad "brought a distinctly non-English tragic sensibility into English literature." I think there is something to be said for being a bilingual, bicultural writer; it certainly gives us a different perspective on the language we write in, and also on ourselves. When I was living in Canada, the linguistic slippage between the English and French that were the official languages, and the Italian in the back of my mind, often created some interesting occurrences. Below are some musings written during one of those occurrences, one day that I was listening to the French CBC radio channel:

'... a sudden jolt to my system: words in Italian coming out of the radio, like an alien lingo, dissociated from any source, context, culture, discourse, dialectic, amorous or hateful speech; the politeness of formal encounters or the cutting language of intimate insults; words in Italian coming out of the blue, like sobriquets inserted into a strange electronic music part-psychedelic part-contemporary/classical—words foreign to anybody else listening to this Espace Musique station I often put on because the Quebecois accent, when it's not too gratingly nasal, is soothing to my ears and I don't have to pay too much attention to a language I don't understand very well, I can let it wash over me like ripples in a calm sea, it doesn't jump at me with the same heavy burden of meanings, associations, memories and images like English... 
But today, it was Italian, oh, the incongrousness of it! All of a sudden a strange string of Dove posso trovare un albergo? Mi puo' indicare la direzione del museo? Come si chiama questo? — conventional phrases from travel books, those that never really help you because you always invariably misuse or mispronunce them or they are hopelessly out of date in the continuously evolving universe that is a living language shared and spoken by millions; silly phrases for tourists, made even more ridiculous by the strong Anglo accent, and in the suddeness of it I was moved and shocked and surprised by the intensity with which it moved and it shocked me, that such words all of a sudden should come out of my radio, and fall there in the otherwise silence of my morning alone preparing breakfast, feeding my cats; words so foreign and exotic to others in their incomprehensibleness, but to me, all too familiar, arresting...
Like the Surrealist list recounted by Michael Foucault at the beginning of "The Order of Things", these words belong to a taxonomy strange, almost disquieting, exotic in its foreigness, remote, incomprehensible to most listeners, who can be amused by them, irritated by them, pleased by them, but not find them normal. And yet, and this is the mark of my displacement, my permanent damnation to stranger status, I cannot find them normal either, because they are transplanted away from their context, deracinated from any meaning I can recognise, any soil I could walk on, any speech I could utter or hear uttered by others.
 Words. Just words. Foreign. Exotic.
 I am exotic to myself, for a moment, and yet at the same moment my brain, my heart recognize these words: they are part of the milk imbued at my mother's breasts, part of the sounds heard when I was growing up; they are the sounds and tastes and feelings and smells I was socialized into as a child. They are part of my landscape, but my landscape at some point suffered an earthquake and collapsed and went under the ground. My landscape is all interior and nothing in these mountains, these trees, this sea, these smells and voices and colours and sounds and clothes and demeanours and vibrations surrounding me here, today, call up any tree, any mountain, any sea, any sounds, any smells any voices any clothes any demeanours and vibrations I can recognise from my interior landscape.
To live in the crack where my landscape fell into; to inhabit an Atlantis of the memory, swimming in its amniotic waters day after day, and no one, no one knows where I really live when I say I live "just around the corner", nobody really knows where I am when I smile to them, when I talk to them in their language, when I reply with or without attention, when I shop and pay in the exact change and I make a joke at the checkout counter and I am more often than not misunderstood not because of my imprecise use of English but because of the slippage between my English and their English - a slippage not linguistic but cultural.

Some weeks ago an acquaintance told me, eyes ablaze and amused with the discovery she had just made: "I've just realised why your way of talking is so lively, so distinct, so wonderful! You use English as if it was Italian—it's not the grammar, it's something else. Your intonation, an inflection, certain peculiar words you use, you make it come so much more alive!"
She is a storyteller and translator from the Yiddish, speaks three languages and grew up in a Jewish area of Montreal in the 1950s. She understands the mystery of languages. Even though her passport says "Canadian", even though English appears to most to be her first tongue, she, like me, lives in several different linguistic universes at once, making comparisons and shifting from one to the other restlessly. It's a good but hard exercise for the mind, and sometimes you can get stuck, you can become confused, caught in the limbo between languages, and then you don't quite know where you are anymore.
Which language is this now? What am I speaking now? Which language am I supposed to use now?
Even today, after 24 years of having made English my daily language, 24 years of no longer speaking my mother tongue from rising to bedtime, I can become caught in that gap. Sometimes, a little shortcircuit in the brain, some crossing of wires, and an Italian word or even a whole, brief sentence may slip into my English conversation, and suddenly the gap opens up into a deep and almost threatening abyss, the abyss of my mother's madness I have tried to keep at bay all my life.
Her madness had nothing to do with language, her madness had all to do with language. In different cultural contexts, my mother's frequent ranting and raving, apparently without any sense or order, some of her speech patterns, could have been those of glossolalia, the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues" praised and encouraged within some Christian practices. And, in yet other cultural or historical places, her delusions could have been seen, praised or feared but never ridiculed, as manifestations of the power of witchcraft or shamanism...
I come from a culture that still believes in the power of the evil eye, and the evil eye is not really much to do with a gaze but rather with an incantation that needs to be verbalized, requires an utterance to come alive, to become effective, powerful and dangerous. But I have come to see that there is another form of the evil eye: it is that question I have learned to recognize as not necessarily innocent, not always just the sign of a curiosity about others:
"Where are you from?"
Language as the marker of identity and otherness, and once  you open your mouth, even if your facial traits, your body language, your clothing style, had not already given you away as a foreign, anOther, your accent does.
Where are you from?
From another language, one far, far away, eons removed from this one."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The "Expert" Proliferation: Should We Be Worried?

There is a worrying (at least to me) phenomenon out there, and it's growing: the proliferation of the "experts".
For a fee or (rarely) for free, they will let you use their services to find a job, find a publisher, find an agent, find a contractor, find a house, find love—find whatever it is that you were looking for, and even what you didn't know you were. As I recall it from my anthropological studies, this phenomenon would be embodied by a person, or group of people, granting or denying access to a particular culture to the outsider/anthropologist who is in the field to study, live with, collect information about that culture. This person of group of people are called in anthropological speak "gatekeepers", and it seems that today we have more and more of them holding the keys to the gates we need to walk through in order to reach our goal.
As if it were not enough that agents have become the almost exclusive gatekeepers to publishers—these days, even most of the small, "avant-garde" presses don't take direct submissions from authors any longer—now writers also have to go through the services of multiple agencies that purport to help with the bothersome process of steering the writing in the right direction. These services will not only give you editing and proofreading help, they will also create a database of magazines and contests and journals and agents for you; will customize your resume and your book proposal; and will keep these files running for you.

Now, I say to those of you fellow writers who have no time to manage these things on your own, by all means use these services if you can afford them. But let me play devil's advocate a little: apart perhaps from the fresh and expert pair of eyes offered by editors and proofreaders—and you could still get this kind of help without the whole package, or even for free from well-read, trusted friends or fellow writers—none of the things these services can do for you are things you could not do for yourself.

Anybody with Internet capability can research literary journals and magazines; I have a list of over a hundred of them, American and Canadian (yes, I'll gladly share it with anybody who asks): I bookmarked their sites on my computer, and also cut and pasted their link and submission information into a Word document that I keep in a "Writing Submissions" folder on my desktop. In the same folder, I also have a separate Word file with upcoming deadlines for competitions and/or general submissions; and I have yet another file where I track the results of my submissions.
Likewise with agents: once I'd done my homework—which you must as it will be a waste of time to send your proposal to an agent who is not interested in your genre—it was easy to build up a file of suitable agents to whom I plan to submit. Again, there are plenty of free resources on the Internet to help you research agents and write a proper query letter.
Yes, to get all of the above started did cost me a lot of time; but once you do the preliminary work, to keep it updated doesn't take too long—a few minutes a day, an hour a week. And of course you could use an Excel file to order all this data more efficiently, but I'm the technologically inept person who just happens to hate spreadsheets and prefers to do it the hard way.
Just think of all the paperwork the writers of old had to write and keep on file to remember where and when they sent off their stories or manuscript... With our computers and cut-and-paste capabilities, we have it really, really easy today.

I'm not trying to take work away from all the under-published or unemployed writers who are running these services for other writers: I'm just trying to point out that they are offering us a valuable service on the one hand, and perhaps a minor disservice on the other, by contributing to the ever-growing field of "experts" who ensure that the gates between us, the artists, and those who might be willing to look at/read and buy/publish our work become more and more impenetrable.

It's not just about writing, or art in general: these days, there are all kinds of special schools that teach you how to do all those jobs that once upon a time were obtained through the time-honored craft of apprenticeship. Today, this proliferation of gatekeepers and experts means that people with lifelong experience of any given things will probably never get the recognition they deserve because they do not happen to possess the "right" credentials.
In a field other than writing but equally dear to my heart, food, I have for years been troubled by the claim to "expertise" on "Italian" food staked by so many chefs or food critics only by virtue of their having mastered a few recipes at culinary school; or having taken a cooking class in Tuscany; or having spent a couple of months in Italy.
Now, I've been cooking for 21 years but I never went to cooking school and if a chef saw me in the kitchen he'd probably be horrified by my knife skills or the mistakes I occasionally make. And yet, my knowledge of "Italian" food is an insider's knowledge: it is the knowledge that comes from having been born and bred in the country; from a heritage that is Italian generation upon generation going back thousands of years; and also from the self-education about food I obtained from living, eating and cooking outside of my country for the second half of my life.
These days it is almost common place to say that there is no such thing as "Italian" food but only regional and local food; outside of Italy, this knowledge did not exist until a decade or so ago, but it has always existed for me as innate cultural knowledge. From my studies of food history, though, I have also learned that many of the recipes Italians now think of as "traditional" have only existed for a couple of hundred years; and yet, most Italians today think of them as eternal and are loathe to tamper with them—which is exactly how the concept of tradition is understood in most cultures.
This double-sided knowledge—the insider who instinctively knows which shape of pasta goes with which sauce and the intellectual who knows that tomato sauce is a product of the colonial invasion of the Americas—cannot be learned at school or acquired so quickly or easily. Yet this knowledge of mine counts for nothing in today's world: I have no certification, no CV of cooking experience and no appearance on the Food Channel to validate it—only my daily, quiet and quietly enjoyable, work in the kitchen.

I may have a personal axe to grind because I'm too old to jump on the "expert" bandwagon and therefore I might remain forever unemployable, but I'm worried about the phenomenon of "expert" proliferation—it makes for a culture financially broke as people attempt to buy the means of expertise for themselves; for a culture of constant dissatisfaction because the phenomenon of expertise makes the things we desire more difficult to obtain and prompts us to envy those who obtain the status of experts.
It also makes for a spiritually empty culture as we devalue the irreplaceable preciousness and uniqueness of life experience in favor of the quick fix of an experience validated by a piece of paper, and glorified by public appearances.
The proliferation of "reality" shows today might seem to belie my claims; yet if we look at them, what matters is not the real life experience that the participants come with, but rather the set of skills they will acquire and the changes they will go through in order to become "better", different people. For a while, when I lived in Canada, I watched "Style by Jury" on TV in fascinated horror, as scores of people whose appearance, for better or for worse, was quite unique and outstanding were transformed all into the same samey bland brand of "attractive" by a team of experts who gave them a fashion, beauty and psychological makeover (dig getting over a major childhood trauma in just one week of therapy!)

Back to writing, I nostalgically long for the "good ole days" (I'm not romanticizing them—I know that it was difficult for writers back then too) when you could just write, and then send your stuff off to an editor who would eventually send you a personal letter back, with not too many middlemen involved.

I would love to hear from you, fellow writers, gentle readers, to know what you think about all this: too many experts out there? Does it bother you? Or do you feel you have to read and listen to all of them?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Creation Is The Best Revenge

From desire and regrets, revenge will sometimes follow. Here, I need to share a bit of personal experience, albeit reluctantly (yes, I'm writing a memoir and I'd have no problem publishing it, but I find the abundance of personal information displayed on blogs and other Internet sites somewhat excessive). It, is once again, a personal story about love—or a distorted semblance of it.

Once upon a time I had a relationship with a man from an "exotic" country, the one where Vikings originated from. Though in its current, rather Euro-centric connotation this word is most often used to describe "oriental", "Eastern", or "non-white" (I must use quotation marks because all of these terms bear scrutiny and re-definition), in its original etymology "exotic" simply means "introduced from another country: not native to the place where found"; the word is derived from the Greek exō, meaning "outer". I was a 5-foot-short Southern Italian girl with dark curly hair; he was a 6-foot-4", russet-haired, blue-eyed man. We lived in England, where his ethnicity and the odd visual impression our couple produced were somewhat exotic. Our relationship, however, was anything but exotic—it was instead that all-too-common blend of neurotic, sometimes violent, often destructive "love" where one person's most awful traits play (or rather, grate) off the other's most awful traits. 
The boyfriend was narcissistic, selfish and self-absorbed beyond belief; he felt an almost constant need to flirt with women, to threaten an imminent betrayal; and I, from the intelligent, educated, feminist woman I had been before meeting him, was reduced by his behavior to a petty, nagging, jealous shrew.
In the end, this man left me, after we were engaged to marry—a few days, in fact, after he'd given me an engagement ring, and only weeks after we'd started the paperwork necessary to get married. It happened out of the blue, after a drunken night in which he kissed, right in front of my eyes, a woman who was our neighbor, who lived with her husband on the top floor of the Victorian house where I owned the basement apartment. This couple had been our constant companion of dinners and evening drinks for many months, during which I had noticed a steady progression of my boyfriend's flirting with her, and of her reciprocating.  

For a few months after he left me, I was a wreck, in the throes of desperate depression. Then one day I realized that his leaving me was the absolute best point in our fucked-up relationship, pulled myself together and started writing a short story. In it, I wrote almost the entire truth about our relationship, except that, as the protagonist of the story, in the ending I exacted my own little revenge against the cheating, lying and womanizing boyfriend. 
The story got published in a feminist collection of women's tales of revenge; following the fate of many other similar small press outputs, this book eventually got remaindered, though it is possible from time to time to find a copy on Amazon.

These days, I don't often think about my short story—for me, it was primarily a way of getting rid of my pain by exorcising the past: not just by turning it into a creative product, but by re-writing it altogether. 
I am not (at least not in the present) a writer of fiction, but I know that—even though one must be careful with the re-writing act—in memoir and personal essay writing there are equivalent ways to exorcise the pain of the past: by elevating it to the kind of experience that speaks about more than just one person's life; that speaks to more people than just me and my close friends.

Eight years ago, out of the blue, the exotic boyfriend started emailing me; I'm not sure how he tracked me down, but against my better judgement I wrote back, even cordially because I had no more feelings for or against him, apart from amazement at his resurfacing. Then for four more years we fell out of touch again, and I had forgotten all about it when he reappeared again, this time with a cryptic email that talked about all the things "left unsaid" in our relationship. I replied that there was nothing left to say, really: we'd had one of the most fucked-up relationships; at the time, we were both wrong, headstrong, immature; and I hoped we'd both learned from the past. His ego must not have liked this answer because he disappeared again, only to reappear a few months later, when he tried to push my buttons and I reacted badly, writing  a curt email saying "no more correspondence". He replied but I  refused to read it and it all seemed to end there. But, oh no. Apparently this man who is now in his late forties still needs... what is it exactly? The validation, the distraction, the escapism produced by an Internet liaison with an ex-lover of over a decade past? 
At any rate, a few weeks ago here he was again, in my junk mail box, with the unrequited, 18-years-too-late confession about something I'd always suspected and he'd always denied: at the time we broke up, he had been having a "torrid" (his word) affair with the neighbor.

All this is not terribly interesting in itself, because only Woody Allen and a few other male artists are capable of describing their own shallow, banal, conceited, selfish immaturity and get away with it—and with a wonderful artistic product. 
I am confident that a good writer (perhaps à la Philip Roth?) could still turn this story into a great novel, but I'm not the one to do it (to you writers of fiction out there: feel free to use this plot—I won't sue you, just give me an acknowledgment in your book if you get published).

The only reason I'm telling this story, is because I know myself—and I know that, despite all my protestations to the contrary, I would have been hurt by this sudden revelation had I not been in possession of one more ammunition against the willful cruelty of my ex: the knowledge that I had exacted my revenge in a story; that I had exorcised him, his memory, the memory of our relationship with all its pain, absurdity, fucked-upness, in my writing. 
And, while out there in his frozen country the ex-boyfriend is probably wringing his hands in the petty satisfaction of the very idle and the very bored, thinking he has caused me to suffer—or even to pause from my present life for a moment—here in my rainy city I can smile mischievously, knowing he doesn't know that I took my revenge against him 14 years ago.

"Creation is the best revenge": I said that, or at least I think so.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Is Regret the Salt of Creation? Or Is It Desire?

In February of this year, the UK newspaper The Guardian interviewed a bunch of writers and asked each of them for a "decalogue" of personal writing rules. (This article was brought to my attention when I read Christina Baker Kline's selection of her favorite among these "rules".) My feeling about such "lists" is that one ought to be deeply suspicious of them, since articles such as this are so banal and so recurring—the stuff of journalistic stocking-filler. Also, the need to know what famous writers consider their personal decalogue is in a way part and parcel of that all-American obsession for celebrities—what they do, what they say, what they eat, etc.
And yet, there was one of these "rules" that touched me deeply and is still haunting me, for altogether personal reasons, so I want to pass it on.

British author Geoff Dyer's rule no. six was "Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire."

A decade ago I had a lover who said to me, in one of his most bitter and self-deprecating moments (something he used to do a lot, and that I initially mistook for literary inclination, then came to understand as deep mental instability) "Regrets are what I live for." 
But in his case, this posture of poet maudit was deeply pernicious, because all the regrets he had so willfully cultivated, not finding any other creative outlet, ended up festering in his soul, creating cancerous poison in his mind.
Yet, my experience—of a life full of regrets that constantly threaten to turn into festering wounds—has been that, if you use your regrets instead of letting them take over your life; if you turn them into creative products, they can be like manure—maybe a bit stinky at first, but in time penetrating into the soil to feed it, so that it will grow beautifully strong plants...

There is a phrase by Willa Cather that I treasure (oh no, not another quote—oh yes!) and each time I start a new diary (I have never liked the word "journal") I transcribe in the first page, together with any other quotes "du jour" that more fit my mood at that time:
                      "Desire is creation. It is the magical element in that process"

So is it desire or regret that fuel creation? 
But this is a false question, only valid if we buy our Western cultural bias towards diametrically fixed opposites. Desire (unless you are of an extremely austere and moralistic religious persuasion) is seen as a good thing in our cultures—the motor that pushes us forward to want things, to perform, to achieve. 
However, the inescapable by-product of desire is regrets: a certain accumulation of them, like dust over furniture, throughout the years of our lives when our desires fell flat; or when we did not even allow ourselves to entertain them. 
Regret can turn into poison and generate envy, anger, even violence. The best cure for regrets, then, is to take them and use them creatively.
If you're writing fiction, you may give your characters all the desires and regrets you wish and play around with them, without anybody getting hurt except maybe for your reader's feelings from time to time (but what is the pleasure of reading if it doesn't elicit a strong emotional response?)
 If you're writing a memoir, you can be both confessor and witness to your desires and regrets; flesh them out on the page and relive them, this time around, with a sense of their contemporaneity instead of their cause-and-effect timing. 
This counterpoint of desire and regrets is what gives a memoir, in my opinion, a sense of the author's passion, vitality, strength—even more than the sometimes wishy-washy optimistic moral message ("I survived and I'm all the stronger for it") that seems to be the requisite ending for memoirs these days.

Yes, that play of desire and regret, so similar to the play of life and death...

Friday, September 10, 2010

Is Memoir Still a Dirty Word?

This needs to be an on-going conversation, so my post here is just a quick pebble thrown into the pond, hoping to stimulate some discussion around this issue.

The scorn against memoir that some writers and critics seem to feel, in spite of the growing—(perhaps too much?)—trend for memoir publication, puzzles me; but it also reminds me of a similar scorn, that vis-à-vis the medium of photography when it emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century as a new artistic form. Indeed, the whole debate that raged at the time (and, significantly, has not quite died today) was on whether photography could be called an art form at all, given its heavily technological basis and its infinitely reproducible output.

Leaving aside the fact that the definition itself of "technology" is in the eye of the beholder—(by the standards of its own time context, the iron age was high technology)—and the whiff of elitist preciousness intrinsic to the idea that photography should be of lesser value because it can be reproduced, what is interesting is that the debate about photography back then, as the one on memoir today, hinged on similar fears held by the artistic élites of the time. 
A fear to become displaced from their creative ivory tower by the new medium/genre; and a fear of not being easily able to categorize the rather "hybrid" nature of the new medium/genre (and, by default, of "diluting" the classification status of their practiced medium).

Back then, it was the painters who vilified photography (while at the same time they started using it widely as a tool, recognizing its ease when compared with painting on location or with live models); today, it is the fiction writers who vilify memoir, regarding it as a "lesser" and at the same time "tainted" enterprise. 
Lesser, because in their mind it requires no feat of imagination to write something factual; tainted, because they cannot accept that even the "truth" (yet another moniker requiring socio-cultural contextualization) could be somewhat constructed and fictionalized. (On this somewhat endless debate, one wonderful text that collects a wide range of opinions by some of the strongest voices in the field of non-fiction writing is "Truth in Non-Fiction ", edited by David Lazar).

I could go on but I will stop here, hoping to stimulate discussion around these issues. I am here reproducing parts of a text (the underlining is mine) by Brent Staples found on fiction and non-fiction writer Kathryn Harrison's website. He writes about Harrison's controversial memoir "The Kiss" (in which she recounted her incestuous love affair with her father), but only by default; most of the piece is about the scorn against memoir.

"Autobiography was once dominated by famous people who summed up their lives near the end... Younger novelists have joined the memoir trend. But hard-core traditionalists have denounced it as a blight on literature and a turn toward self-indulgence and exhibitionism. This is curious indeed, given that novels and memoirs are often so closely related as to be interchangeable. First novels in particular are often no more than thinly veiled personal histories. In addition, the best memoirs use fictional techniques -- and could easily pass for novels if the writers wanted to call them that...
... the historical novelist Thomas Mallon said that novels were inherently about "larger truths," while memoirs were about personal ones. But what's obvious is that the devilish little girl in "The Liars' Club" is every little girl. That she bears the author's name makes her no less compelling or universal...
It has become popular to dismiss memoir as a way of peddling misery to a voyeuristic public. But what's at play here is a prejudice that regards fiction as more literary than nonfiction narrative writing... given the stylistic kinship that now links novels and memoirs, that prejudice is no longer supportable."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On "Social Media" and "Internet Presence", and How to Write (practically)

Yesterday I went to a meeting of the Willamette Writers Group. Karen Karbo , a multi-published writer with whom I took a memoir-writing workshop at the beginning of the year, was giving the talk. 
It was about her concerns regarding emailing, blogging, facebooking, twittering, and all the myriad other "social networking" tools that have appeared in our lives and everybody feels obliged to use. 

Karen was both encouraging and disparaging about the whole thing, but the gist of the talk was (I'm not quoting verbatim, just summarizing) that these things can, and often will, suck you dry: as a writer, you need as wide as possible a mental space made of peace, reflection, solitude, deep thinking; now, these technological tools do not encourage the creation of such a space—rather, they are too quick and too fleeting, like ripples on the surface of water. 
So it  would be best for us, as writers, to use them in moderation; even better, try and get someone else to do it for you if you can. 
Remember that, in a good day's work, you still don't have an unlimited bounty but only a certain number of words at your disposal—use them wisely, don't waste too many on things you will regret later, or things that will not last long. 
Karen's final suggestion was to do your real writing on a computer that has no internet on it, or even write by hand. 
This resonated with me, as I do know that my writing by hand always yields a completely different product from my typing at any manner of keys: something more immediate, more gutsy, more personal, from deeper within my psyche. So I'm glad I never got rid of my old MacBook, and intend from now on to use it as a more modern typewriter. I
 would still rather write by hand all the time, but the thing is that I'm a very fast hand-writer yet a lousy typist, so it takes me too long to transcribe what I write by hand. I have several notebooks full of insights, thoughts, germs of ideas for stories and essays, phrases, paragraphs or even entire pages I meant to use in my writing, yet I have not managed to transcribe many of these into my computer so that I can expand on them, or just keep them archived.

On another level, though, the talk made me feel quite depressed because it encapsulated my misgivings about this technology: I may be too old, but I still hanker after a time when we could just call each other up, or meet, instead of forging connections via email and other sites. Of course I'm very grateful for email because without it, I'd still be waiting for the elusive letter from my many friends scattered around the globe (though there was a certain, irreplaceable thrill about that—not to mention the loss of the tactile and sensual experience given by the choice of writing paper, the envelope, the specific handwriting of each person, etcetera). And of course, without the internet, I would have probably never met some of the interesting people I've made connections with, nor would I be writing this blog.

Still, what gives me pause is the fact that, as Karen mentioned, today it may not be the best writers/books that get attention, but rather the ones that are better at self-promotion. A sad thought indeed for those of us who still want a real depth of feeling and experience to be encapsulated in a book, or movie, or other artistic production.
As Kafka said, "a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us". A tall order indeed, in these days of quick and cheap thrills, when a book is more likely to serve as diversion on the daily commute and become recycled after only one reader...

Another worrying aspect of this phenomenon is that even authors with multiple publications to their name are now required to get on this "social media" bandwagon by their agents, publicists or editors; yet in their case, thanks to their relative fame, they will have an already-built-in audience once they are on the internet; fans and followers will google their names and find their websites or blogs or Facebook page.
But where does this leave the rest of us who haven't published, aren't famous, and yet still need to have a "presence on the internet"? 
What kind of presence do you really have if no one reads your blog anyway? How is that different from sitting alone in your room writing?

Gentle Readers, I would love to hear your voices on these issues.