Monday, August 30, 2010

More Thoughts on "Uplifting" Messages

Life during Wartime, the new movie by Todd Solondz, opens with an absurd scene worthy of Ionesco or Beckett, a sparse dialogue told in close-ups between the inappropriately named Joy (Scottish actress Shirley Henderson), and Allen (Michael K. Williams), her husband. They are "celebrating" their anniversary at a restaurant—a bad idea that ends with Allen being called a pervert and spat on by the waitress, and Joy in full tears.
 Later, we learn that Joy works with ex-convicts and that by marrying Allen she has brought her work home—so to speak. Allen was incarcerated for an unnamed "perversion", but not all perversions remain unnamed in Solondz's film, as the pedophilia of Bill (played with his usual understated dignity by Ciaran Hinds) is the centerpiece of the movie—or so it would appear.
In another scene, Trish (the wonderful yet woefully underrated Allison Janney), Bill's ex-wife, tries to explain to Timmy, the younger of her two sons, why she has lied to him about his father being dead (he was in jail instead). Unbeknownst to her, Bill has been released from prison and is on his way from New Jersey to Florida, where his wife has relocated with their three kids. For a while, Bill hides, spying on his former family, and finally appears only to his eldest son, Billy, for a very brief meeting. 

As was the case with Solondz's previous movie, "Happiness", where the characters of the Jordan sisters Joy, Trish and Helen first appeared (played by different actresses), many will find the director's inclination to make pedophiles into sympathetic characters disturbing. 
But only a superficial reading would infer that Solondz condones pedophilia: instead, what he finds really disturbing is the unquestioning conflation of pedophilia with homosexuality (despite the fact that this has been proven flawed by statistics). 
This is shown in the attitude of Trish, who allows her son to become obsessed with "faggots" as potential rapists; and even Bill, in his brief encounter with his son, seems to worry that his son might have inherited his pedophilia if he is by any chance gay: when Billy tells him how he is majoring in anthropology and writing a paper on homosexuality in  the animal kingdom, Bill harshly enquires "Are you gay? No? You like women? Are you sure?"
Even the "perverts", it seems, hanker after an illusory ideal of "normality"; and indeed this wonderful apple pie normality is the attribute that Trish finds most endearing about her new suitor, Harvey.

Solondz masterly exploits all the clichés and stereotypes that pervade American culture, and explodes the American obsession for drawing impossibly neat lines down the middle of what are perceived as opposing discourses, thus creating abstract dichotomies of "good" and "evil"; the director's leanings are obviously to the left, yet he does not shy away from poking bitter fun at abstract liberal guilt about the war in the character of Helen (played with neurotic relish by Ally Sheedy), who used to be a poet but has found success in writing scripts for commercial Hollywood movies and sleeps with "Keanu" (!).
Solondz's aim is to show the stupidity of any black-and-white thought about "good" and "evil", whereby societal trends dictate what the scapegoat of choice will be: once it was "Japs" or Nazis; today it is immigrants, terrorists and child molesters; thus, pedophiles are often referred to in the movie as "terrorists". The title says it all: life during wartime is pretty much like life as usual—just worse.

At the end of the movie, a traumatized and neurotic Timmy, who's been frantically searching for answers he cannot find, blurts out "I don't care about freedom and democracy. I want my father!"
Yes, the father in a real and symbolic sense is what has been missing from American society—the real fathers are too busy earning enough money so that they can afford family health insurance, or have gone off to fight a useless war that will not protect anybody from "evil"; the metaphorical fathers, be they the founding ones or the "commanders in chief", have abdicated their responsibility to the people. And the mothers are left, as usual, to mop and pick up the pieces—but these are no Rosie the Riveter characters, these are women whose PTSD is no less acute than those of the men who fought the real war; and who medicate their pain with sleeping pills and sugarcoated pills of empty reassurance that "everything will be allright"

There are many things to savor in this elegant and understated movie, not least the fact that even in dealing with strong and unsavory subject matter the movie remains indeed elegant and understated. One must also laude the film's brevity: even though the pace of many scenes is quite slow, the movie itself goes by quickly and stops at the absolutely right moment—an ability, this, not always possessed by artists in our self-indulgent times.

What does all this have to do with writing? Nothing and everything. It ties in with my previous musings about "happy endings" and "uplifting messages". 
The message in Solondz's movie is not at all uplifting, and his moral is a bitter one to swallow, but his vision is not clouded by a one-sided, facile version of "the truth"—and that is the mark of a true artist.
I leave you with a comment by the director himself:

"If you want sympathetic characters it's easy enough to do, you just give someone cancer and of course we'll all feel horribly sad and sorry. You make anyone a victim and people feel that way. But that's not of interest to me as a filmmaker or as a writer. I may be accused of a certain kind of misanthropy but I think I could argue the opposite. I think that it's only by acknowledging the flaws, the foibles, the failings and so forth of who we are that we can in fact fully embrace the all of who we are. People say I'm cruel or that the film's cruel, but I think rather it exposes the cruelty and I think that certainly the capacity for cruelty is the most difficult, the most painful thing for any of us to acknowledge. That we are at all capable. And yet I think that it exists as much as the capacity for kindness and it's only the best of us that are able to suppress, sublimate, re-channel and so forth these baser instincts, but I see them to some degree at play as a regular part of life in very subtle ways and not so subtle ways."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What is an "Uplifting" Message, and Do We Need One?

Gentle readers,
I am a member of She Writes , an online forum for women writers and others in the publishing industry. A post by Erin Hosier , a literary agent, recently captured my attention. Titled "The Great Competition for the Saddest Story Ever Told", it was her response/commentary to a query she received from a woman who described her life story as an autobiographical project—a story so unredeemingly harrowing as to be almost unbelievable (incest, pedophilia, mental illness and drug addiction were only some of the "highlights" int this story).
This post got me thinking again about my favorite subjects—success, memoir, publication, cultural differences.

Below is the comment I posted on Erin's page. As always, I invite your opinions, Gentle Readers. You can go and read the whole thing here: 

"Publishers are looking for stories that can inspire. That's just human nature and the American way. We don't mind if you were forced to bear your father's child in poverty, just as long as you eventually star in your own tv show, or at least work with other tortured children to try and make things better."
Dear Erin, I am a European who now lives in the States, and I would like to "problematize" (as they love to say in academic theory) your statements above. 
Firstly, "human nature" and the "American way" are not the same thing. Audiences in Europe do not seem to mind reading books, or watching movies, without a specifically "uplifting" or "inspiring" message (two attributes that, in themselves, bear defining—what's "inspiring" for someone may be hopelessly dull for someone else). European audiences are also more used to types of writing, film-making, or creativity in general that are more "experimental" and less "linear" in the way of narration, voice, subject matter, etc.
Secondly, starring in your own tv show is perhaps a crass objective for some serious writers/artists. Adam Lambert is not Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Leonard Cohen, and I suspect that none of these musicians would have ever made it to the final of American Idol today. 
I am not naive and I do understand that, in America, publishing is a business and that even those few remaining small, "avantgarde" presses need money to survive (in Canada and Europe, a lot of these enterprises receive government money or are privately funded). 
However, there is often a fine line between the crass commercialism of a stereotypical "happy ending" message and what you define as an "uplifting" and "inspiring" one. Even a relentlessly bleak ending can be inspiring in its own way—if nothing else, to remind us that life is immensely more complicated and nuanced than TV and Hollywood movies and novels depict it to be. 
Yes, a book and a movie both need a beginning, a middle and an end, we agree on that. However these bits need not be in a linear fashion, and the ending need not be a clear-cut, happy, or even uplifting one to make the experience meaningful and profound and even life-changing for the audience. 
I recently saw a French movie horribly titled in the English version "Making Plans for Lena" (the original French title was "Non ma fille, tu n'iras pas danser", which roughly translates as "No, my daughter, you will not dance", and this "mistitling" alone tells a lot about the cultural difference between American and French audiences.) 
If I had to give you a "hook" for this movie, it would roughly be: "A neurotic, dissatisfied married woman and mother of two kids in her late thirties, in the middle of divorce proceedings from her husband, quits job, moves to her parents' country home to house-sit while they vacation in Rome, all the while pondering the meaning of her life and of life in general—without coming up with any precise answer in the end." 
I much suspect that an American agent or publisher would not give this hook the time of day—were it a film or book synopsis. And it would be a pity, because the movie instead was beautifully poignant, deeply truthful and realistic about the human condition everywhere—not just France. As a middle-aged woman who feels she has made many mistakes in life and perhaps wasted a good half of it, I was deeply affected by this film and it left me thinking about it for a long time. And isn't that what art is supposed to do? 
Franz Kafka said "the books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation—a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us." Lest you shrug and say "Yeah, Kafka, that damn depressed, sickly writer", let us remember that Kafka, as well as casting an unflinching eye on human despair, was also capable of great irony and humor in his writing.
And an all-American author, William Styron, also said that "A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end." That "exhaustion" need not be pessimistic or awful; it could instead be akin to the pleasant, fulfilling exhaustion one feels at the end of a particularly wonderful love-making session.
When did such lofty goals for literature, and art in general, go out of the window? 
Have they? 
In our times of ephemeral and easy consumption of creative endeavors, has that feeling of "slight exhaustion" as response to the end of a book, or movie, or concert, or theatrical performance or art exhibit, been permanently replaced by a yawn of mild satisfaction, an off-I-go-now-onto-other-business reaction?
I hope not. 
Call me old(-fashioned), but as a member of the audience I still want to be surprised, shaken to the core, left exhausted by art. And I know I'm not the only one out there.
I do however agree with many things in your post: the distance, the voice, the ability to communicate your experience to others must all be there to make the writing of a memoir worthwhile. 
I'm completing a book on my mother's mental illness and unsavory death, and it took me over three years from her departure to be able to start writing about it. By the time I was ready to workshop the pieces in my book, I was also able not to take any comments made by my fellow writers personally and to consider them instead as being just about the writing. 
My memoir is for me a creative product, not an act of therapy or a wishful thinking money-making spin, and I want to communicate (if not "inspire" or "uplift") and share the experiences in it with a wider audience, not just express myself. 
And I agree that the tone of this query was grating, narcissistic, and for me it made the experiences described sound almost unbelievable. 
Above all, it was relentless—there was no moral of any kind. 
There: my take on all this is that, instead of a "message", what a work of art needs, if it wishes to be of any real import, is some kind of moral—whether this is shared by many or few, whether it is part of the current social mores or antithetical to them. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Willamette Writers Conference — Some Thoughts on "Making It" as a Writer

On August 6th, 7th and 8th I schlepped to a middle-of-nowhere location (the Sheraton at PDX airport, inconveniently located right between two Max train stops) to attend the Willamette Writers Conference. This organization has been around for 25 years and has chapters in various parts of Oregon. If you live in the state (and even if you don't), check out their website  

In my previous incarnation as a doctoral student I had attended academic conferences before but never a writers one; at the Willamette's, the atmosphere was relaxed, informal, the people cordial and open. I attended some interesting workshops, made a few connections with fellow writers, and pitched to five industry professionals, three agents and two editors. Two of them were even interested in my book!
The pitching process was quite an experience in itself: scores of us hopeful writers nervously waiting outside the banquet room to be called inside when the time of our pitches came. The professional you had signed up to pitch to (a list was available well in advance, at the time of registration for the conference) was waiting for you at a table with their name tag on; you had fifteen minutes to find this person and proceed to convince her/him that your idea would be a worthy investment of their future time.
Some of us (the old-fashioned "purists" — do you still exist out there? If so, drop me a line) would maybe contend that this is a terrible process, a sort of literary "speed-dating". It was indeed like speed-dating, but not terrible at all. I enjoyed it; learned a lot about presentation, communication and persuasion skills; and ended up slightly revising my pitch each time according to how the person in front of me presented themselves. Most of the agents/editors I talked to were kind, responsive, friendly.
It is true, though, that in the tough publishing business of today the more commercial your idea, the more chances of your pitch being accepted. But hasn't this always been the case? 
I am uneasy with glorifications of a mythical past when art was a commerce-free zone and "true genius" would eventually be recognized and triumph. Years of graduate studies in art history have taught me that this is indeed a myth. Many artists who enjoyed commercial success in their time have today been forgotten by history; many artists we today put on a pedestal did not have that great an acclaim in their lifetime.

What's that recipe again? 30% Perspiration, 20% Inspiration and 50% Sheer Luck? Whatever percentages you believe to be true, these seem to be the ingredients that combine to make a "successful" writer.
But what's the definition of "success"? What is yours?

I have a little tag from a fortune cookie that I keep in my wallet: 
                                           "Success is being at peace with yourself."
My definition of being at peace with myself is to fulfill what I, perhaps arrogantly, believe to be my calling in life: Art (I use this word in its widest possible acception, to include all creative human endeavors). 
At times in my life I've strayed away from that path, and always eventually come to regret it. Now that I'm not young anymore, I feel the acrid breath of finality on my neck, and this both terrifies me and pushes me to try harder for that elusive "success" and its attendant gift — peace of mind. Of course we know how scores of successful artists have been mentally ill, have succumbed to real or invented despair through drugs, alcohol, suicide. That is also another cliché, isn't it? The mad genius. Though some contend that there is a correlation between manic depression and creativity. Psychology professor (and herself bipolar, as she bravely confessed in her memoir "An Unquiet Mind") Kay Redfield Jamison researched this widely in a provocative and beautifully written book, "Touched With Fire".

Again, that 30% perspiration. But  when you have to struggle with depression even to get out of bed and try to make sense (let alone meaning) of your day, it becomes harder to keep perspiring. 
One strategy could be not to demand too much from ourselves in order to avoid setting us up for the spiraling depths of disappointment, disillusion and despair. 
If you try to impose too much discipline on yourself, you will fail and then the blame game will begin, leaving you with even more negativity as a residue. 
But if you take it only one day at a time, though, you won't achieve much of anything and time will slip through your hands like sand. 
It's a difficult balance, one I'm still working on today. 
A tightrope walk with no safety net below.

I'd love to hear from you, Gentle Readers. What's your recipe for success? What's your balance? How do you cope with depression or any other debilitating illness and still find the energy and time to be creative?

I leave you with another recipe, a quote (yes, you've gathered it by now: I'm the Queen of Quotes — they, like certain songs, have accompanied me through life — different ones according to the phases I find myself in) by Willa Cather, from her wonderful novel "The Professor's House":

                         "Desire is creation. It is the magical element in that process"

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gentle Reader...

...I hope you will read me and share your comments, wherever you are. I hope you will chime in with your ideas on what memoir-writing, writing in general, writing within a specific culture (not necessarily the North American one — I'm multicultural and fully bilingual), and culture in general, are about. 

I hope there will be gentle readers to this blog. 

The thought of having a blog had entered my mind many times and I'd always rejected it as "unnatural". Finally, a couple of weeks ago I went to the Willamette Writers Conference and pitched my book to an editor who advised me to have a blog. His was a gentle but decisive push, enough to march me over the threshold of my indecision. An indecision of a cultural nature — as most things with me are, as most things with most humans are.
I'm an Italian woman of a middle age and of the old school — the one that teaches that you will meet people if you just make yourself visible and available. This may still happen (or not) to a degree in the old country, but in the new world it's a whole other story. Scores of lonely people sit in coffee shops scouting their laptops for new friends to add to their Facebook page. 
A vision that still seems odd to me. 
And here we move already from writing to culture (my anthropologically-bent mind won't let me go any other way): in my country of  birth, people go to coffee shops to socialize and chat with friends, and they stay home if they need privacy. Here in North America, it seems that the opposite is true: people share houses more often than not, more often than not with others they have (or have ceased to have) not much in common with, so the only way to be alone and in peace is to sit in a public place. 

And so, gentle reader, I've already told you a bit about me, and here's more:

I am a writer of non-fiction currently working on a memoir project based on my mother's life and her death. She was mentally ill and though this kind of memoir is a dime a dozen these days, my mother was nothing like the glamorous, eccentric mad woman that most books or movies on this subject depict. It is a challenge to write about an "invisible woman" whose life would otherwise disappear, but it's a challenge I welcome as a needed antidote to the incessant and inane chatter of "celebrity" lives that permeates contemporary culture. 
I was conflicted about my mother all throughout her life. After she died, the pain of guilt (the guilt of not having been able to "save" her from her madness and from her horrible death) took over for a while. In the end, working through my grief, I came to the conclusion I needed to write this memoir as a memento, a tribute to a life that never amounted to much. 
My mother made my life hell with her madness but she was also a mirror held up to my own struggles with "normality", my rebellion against the life that Southern Italian culture required I live: to become a wife, mother, guardian of the house. So I ran away from my mother and from my own culture and I find myself today stranded as far away from my Mediterranean roots as I could possibly be — in Portland, Oregon (it feels a bit like being one of those medieval explorers who believed they'd fall off the edge of the world if they navigated too far).
Before alighting on these western shores, I lived in another North West, the Canadian one, in Vancouver BC. And before that, I made my home in the frozen wasteland of Buffalo, NY. And before that, I lived in England (mostly London) for fifteen years. Oh, and I forgot to mention five months spent in Munich between my hometown of Naples and moving to England... 

The word "home" means so little to me. And yet it means so much...

So now I'm trying to find my own home in writing, in my heart, and in my mind. 
Memory is like a shattered mirror that reflects back the past in fragments, in shards. 
I'm writing this memoir as a collection of such fragments, of shards of the shattered mirror that was my mother's life, and her life with me, and my life with her. 
Each of these stories is a different one, requiring a different view mirror.
There are poems in this story, there are tales about history and religion and politics in Italy, and in Naples. My city, for those who know it, is an unknowable entity. Many have tried to scrutinize it, analyze it, tell her story, but she remains mysterious and unyielding. There are fantastic tales about her, there are tall tales and there are nasty stories. The truth is a amalgam of all these nuances, and cannot be told in simple, black-and-white strokes.
And so is with the story of my mother's history.
An aside: one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, talks in one of his essays about language and culture that Italian is profoundly at odds with English, and uses the example of the word storia, which in Italian has a multiplicity of meanings: story; history; tale; dealings; romantic or sexual affair.

Gentle reader, qual' è la tua storia — what is your storia
How do you relate to the workings of memory; the writing of memoir; the writing life in general; the mirror that is mother; the loneliness of the long-distance life (with apologies to Alan Sillitoe)?

I'm curious to know. Curiosity may kill the cat, but it seems to benefit humans immensely. I've always liked to adopt literary quotes as life mottos, and this Dorothy Parker phrase has become my current motto:
"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity"