7.15.2014

Jenks


I spent a lot of money one year, flying out to San Francisco to take a four day writing workshop with a famous editor.  My first hope was that I would be discovered, though I'd never admit that to anyone.  My second hope was that I'd learn what was wrong with my fiction.  

Here’s what I learned about Jenks.  He was a small man with a penchant for drinking, a fancy San Francisco house, a famous writer wife and a profound and consuming love of reading.  After applying to the workshop, he called and talked with me, in a detailed and thoughtful way about the two writings I had submitted.  I felt special but it turns out he does that with everyone who applies, a number I’ve now forgotten, though big enough, I remember, to stun.

Jenks had edited an anthology of American short stories with Raymond Carver.  We were assigned to read a number of stories from it for class discussion.  It was an impressive collection.  

After discussing published work, we discussed each other's.  Everyone wanted to make a good impression.  Jenks wanted a fiery conversation.  But of course, everyone was being very polite.  Jenks stirred it up, attacking the story I liked best, a period piece about a colonial girl.  Jenks said it was trite, that he'd seen a thousand such stories come across his desk, and that a writer's time is worth more than that.  A few fell in line with Jenks, irritating him even more.  "Isn't anyone going to defend it?"  

One older man said that he thought the sex scene was well done, infuriating Jenks, who declared it cliché. (Interesting to note: In an earlier discussion, I had said another classmate’s story of a girl and a boy falling in love while on horseback read like a Harlequin Romance.  Everyone, especially Jenks, thought my comment out of line and too harsh.)  

casually turned my comments on the colonial girl story face down.  I had read it twice, noting how I thought her word choice so beautiful.  (At the time, nothing mattered more than word choice.)  And such a powerful sex scene! But here in class, I couldn't bring myself to say anything.  Could I have come this far and still have such bad taste that I couldn’t see the obvious? As Jenks searched the class for someone to speak, I dipped my eyes.

Am I remembering it wrong, or wasn’t this the woman who had made a feminist critique of one of the stories, triggering in Jenks an anti-politically correct rant?  Was this really a bad story, or did he have some deep-set beef against women? Weren’t all the stories he liked best by the older men in the class? What was his relationship with his mother?

Regardless, the writer was upset.  These were the first several chapters of a novel she was very serious about, having dedicated much time, researching, outlining, writing.  I wanted to defend her, but I feared that Jenks would think me a fool.

Fortunately, it was lunch break.  I scrawled, “I’m sorry I couldn’t say it in class, but I still love your writing,” and I hurried over to slip it into her hands before she bolted.  Her face was hard, her eyes red.  She did not come back after lunch.

Even so, by my private conference time, I was feeling optimistic.  The class discussion of my other story had gone surprisingly well.  Jenks had said it was unusual and publishable.  Not great, he added, but fine.

So I must have been visibly crushed when Jenks said my other story wasn’t worth pursuing unless I completely changed the focus, maybe turning it into a trickster story.  The main character was too much of a bitch, he said, so we don’t care about her.  

“Is this based on a real incident?” 

Of course I said it wasn’t, even though it was.  Jenks said that I looked disappointed. I denied that too, saying thank you, it’s very helpful.  Mostly though, I was frustrated that he didn’t say this about the piece during our discussion on the phone before the workshop began.  If he had, I would have reworked it or submitted something else.  Of course, I had no idea how hard it is to know the most helpful thing to say and when it needs to be said.  

A long time before, I had heard a piece of advice about becoming a writer that was puzzling: It's most important to be empathetic.  It took me a long time to admit that the story I submitted to Jenks was a revenge story, that I had once worked for a woman I had no empathy for, and the result was a bad piece of fiction. 

Before we all said goodbye, Jenks suggested that the most valuable things to come out of his workshops are the relationships that we form with other writers.  He encouraged us to stay connected and read each other’s writings.  I made a quarter-hearted attempt to stay in touch, but I knew it wouldn’t last.  Rather than bonding with the other writers, I'd spent my lunch breaks walking around San Francisco and my evenings out with my brother and friends.  I don’t remember the names of anyone in the class.  I hope that woman whose story I really did like found a way to use Jenk’s advice as a launching point, whether she defied his critique or embraced it. 


When I came home, I was too overwhelmed with everything I’d learned to immediately return to working on short stories.  Instead I spend the summer cutting and pasting paper.  In the fall, I put everything I had into a short story I had started before the workshop.  It’s my favorite.  But I was never able to write another. 


7.11.2014

My First Office



There was a tree we liked to climb on Howard Street.  The bark of the trunk was slick where Bee had once rubbed a full tube of chap stick thinking that might keep out the girls we didn't want in our club.  That was back when chapstick came in tubes big as cigars that hung from our necks on vibrant colored string.

The branches formed offices where we perched for club meetings.  I, being the youngest, always had the lowest office in the tree.  For a long time one summer, I couldn't climb across the gap between the three lowest offices and the two highest ones.  It required a big step, a long ways off the ground.

I stood many times at that juncture, the older girls egging me on, only to chicken out.

And then one day I got brave and did it.  The older girls cheered and I sat in that office I had long coveted, quivering with delight and relief.


7.07.2014

Wife and Husband: The Boring Truth



The wife is in a good mood for weeks, and then the lice are back.  So she gets a little grumpy and the husband says he's concerned about her mental health which drives the wife crazy.

A husband recovers from a state of dangerous paranoia.  The shrink tells the wife that it's her job to bring in the husband the moment he shows any signs of regression.  So every few minutes the wife asks, "Are you feeling paranoid now?", which makes the husband feel exactly how one would think it would make the husband feel.

Then, she meets a man who she thinks has cerebral palsy, until she realizes he's just really groovy.

She has a minor surgery that leaves a 2 inch scar across her adam's apple.  She can tell, people are disappointed when she tells the truth about how she got the scar.  So she asks her husband, the writer, to write her a better story.

The next night, at a dinner party, the husband tells his story about how his wife got the 2 inch scar across her adam's apple.

The story is:

A.  So shocking that it throws the party into a chaos that subsides only after a visit by the police.

B.  A beautiful tribute to the wife's best qualities and sensibilities that inspires applause and admiration for both the husband and the wife.

C.  A work of utter nonsense, causing one guest with asperger's to laugh hysterically and everyone else to whisper that perhaps the husband is indeed slipping.





7.05.2014

Ode 875


matt turner, electric cello
tad neuhaus, bass
joanna dane,  Kaossilator





This elaborate bungle
Of quivering termites,
Determined hoard,

Each mound a mite
each mite a block
each block a thought.
Each thought, a rupture
Of undulating verve.

Rejoice! this elaborate bungle
Kansas prairie,
Chloroform carpets,
ancient puzzles,
commingling fortress of
pungent heat *
* rotting,
dying,
 enduring =
All,
Chicken,
Termite,
Grass,
Earthworm,
Bursts of breath
From the depths
Of mitochondria,
Each 
an elaborate bungle
of elemental

Hydrogen,
Oxygen,
Carbon,
Phosphorus,
Nitrogen,

Our very threads,


Rejoice!
That thick blanket of universe
surrounding each photon
of each nucleus,

We are all but

equal

vibrations

of

the

same

everythingness

of speckled chickens
stuttering sentiments
of
- blither blather -
{or whatever it is they are capable of thinking}
their premature and nude heads,
pocked with the beak marks
of
some
flustered
cock.

Rejoice!




7.04.2014

On Patriotism



Wednesday, July 2, 2014, 8:23am.

Here's all you have to do.  Go to the basement and see how it makes you feel.

Thursday, July 3, 2014, 1:47pm.

It felt like I wanted to get the basement cleaned up, so I did that instead of write, all day yesterday which was okay because the internet was down and it was raining.  But today, the sun is out so I can only stand the basement long enough to carry the donations out to the car even though there's more to do.  Then I make myself coffee and sit on the porch.

Three boys float in discussing plans to bike to Sunset Beach.  Counter plans are proposed and rejected. One whines about how he doesn't want to go swimming, but by the time they're all leaving, he's changed his mind.

Frank makes his slow trek back from Jacob's.

The girls are in the backyard setting up a clubhouse under the canoe.  

Tonight we will go to Memorial Park to see fireworks.

Tomorrow, I'd like to post something about patriotism.  But so far, all I've come up with is this:

My dad used to hang the flag every fourth of July, a little ritual that was curious enough that we kids gathered around.  Dad would unroll it, there on the front porch and stick the pole in the stand.  And at the end of the day he’d take it down and roll it up and prop it in the corner of the basement where it sat until the next July Fourth.

I don’t know how I know that my dad hung the flag on September 11, 2001.  I couldn’t have witnessed it because I was bunkered down in our Tuscon apartment with our two and a half month old baby.  I remember talking to my brother on the phone and him saying there were some jerks in his department who actually went to work.  I didn’t tell him my husband had too.  

At some point I felt I had to get away from the news.  It was so bright out, so blue.  I walked across the street to the Time Market where Tree, the giant hippie with patchwork bell bottoms and a musical bike was ranting about how we deserve it.  I was stunned.  And now I remember.  I cried on the phone when my mom told me my dad hung the flag that morning.

































7.01.2014

Part One: (The madness of not having a voice. The madness of looking for a voice in everything I read. The madness of the world progressing beyond where I can comprehend it. The madness of my resistance to it. The madness of not fitting in. The madness of motherhood.)


Editor's Note:  This piece was written in 2010, over a year before the author's diagnosis of a terminal case of whimsy.  

I like my coffee hot enough to burn my tongue but the coffee gets cold quickly here in November.  I can’t drink it fast enough, and already it’s cold.  I hate having to go to the basement, down those narrow stairs with the molding carpet, and all those boots and coats and mittens, just to warm my coffee.  People say why not move the microwave to the kitchen, where it belongs.  But it isn’t even worth explaining, they would never understand. 

My mother especially would not understand.  It’s her microwave, the one in the basement.  She brought it for me, all the way from Nebraska, because she got a new one, and now I see why because half the lights on the digital display are out, so it’s impossible to discern how much longer one needs to wait before a thing is done.

Today a friend came by to slip a paper bag through the crack in the door, ginger tea and banana bread, made to cure my terrible cold.  I told him, “I just discovered a new writer.”  Which isn’t exactly true.  She’s dead.

The friend asks, people ask!, how’s the writing? And I blush and stammer.  Such a child!  Because there’s nothing to say at all.  Twenty years go by and I don’t have a book, or anything, to show them.  So I say, it’s going.

If they only knew how I sit at my desk and spend the hours shaking dandruff from my hair.  What would they think then?  But I’m not suppose to think about what other people think.  I’m supposed to think about the present moment.   

But that is damn difficult.

Every night, I hunch in the basement, in my robe, waiting for the lentil bags to heat and then I carry them up the stairs where I lie in bed, the lentil bags across my jaws because my muscles are always sore from grinding my teeth all night. 

I was grinding my teeth down to little dull nubs until my husband forced me to go see a dentist and he gave me a piece of plastic to stick in my mouth at night.

People are surprised that I grind my teeth because I seem like this happy go lucky type of character and I am!  Oh I am!  But I read a lot of fiction.  And that can cause a person a great deal of worry.  And delight!  Yes.  But mostly bad things happen to people in fiction.  And then good things too, but always some bad.  In fact, that’s what Jenks says makes good fiction, that up and down, the constant movement between highs and lows.  Even within a single sentence!  That’s enough to make a person grind. 

Now I have reoccurring nightmares of chewing gum that breaks apart in my mouth and sticks to everything and no matter how much I try to dig the gum from my mouth, there is always more and I berate myself for taking the gum in the first place since I never chew gum when I’m awake.  I think that I am awake.  But I am dreaming. 

The same is true of vertigo.  In my dreams, I’m terrified of heights and always there are edges, stairs without railings, or steps missing, or I am high up in a giant tree and have to climb down, or escalators a mile long and steep as a north face.  And I always am surprised that I am scared of heights in real life too, that I thought it was confined to my dreams.  Because, you see, I don’t realize that I am dreaming.

The lentil bags help. 

Such a child. After all these years, I still haven’t found my own voice.  I have to wait and wait until some piece of fiction creeps inside me and stirs me all up.  It’s embarrassing and I would never admit it to anyone, but there it is.  I didn’t even know it myself until a year ago when I was at a party and I was getting friendly with a nice man who was a musician and I admitted I was a writer and he started asking me about it, but as you already know, I got red faced and embarrassed and stuttered and he said, with a kind smile, but how wicked no less!, he said, “so you haven’t found your voice yet.”

I was flabbergasted. Here was a thing I would never have admitted to myself and a perfect stranger slaps me in the face with it.  Let’s just say, the conversation was rocky after that.  And then I left.  I thought him a run-of-the-mill ass.

For many months, every time I read some fiction and ran to the computer, vomiting a great mess of verbiage, I remembered what he said.  Such a child!  And almost forty years old at that.  Children imitate, unabashedly.  It’s their practice.  I am nothing more than that.

Take this morning, for example.  I’ve been carrying around the house The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates.  I carry it to bed, along with my lentil bags and then I carry it downstairs for breakfast.  Throughout the day it is in the bathroom, or on the piano or the front desk or the kitchen table, or in my purse if I am going out, which I haven’t been because of this terrible congestion I’ve been suffering.  It is a heavy thick book that I read at random, like I do most books, childish I know.  I rarely finish reading a book, and only sometimes start one at the beginning, yet more things my mother does not want to know about me.

Oates writes “There are worse fates than being known for, indeed, exclusively identified with, a single title: in the case of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, and, in her time, renowned as a leading feminist-theorist, that title is of course The Yellow Wallpaper.”  Of course!  I had never heard of it.   

Only sometimes am I scared of the basement.  You see, I am a mother now and not afraid of things like that, though I am.  I am afraid of men in masks breaking into my house, worse yet, one, unbeknownst to me, living in the basement.  He hides in a dark corner and jumps out and ties me up and imprisons me for eleven years, the time it takes me to work up the wits to escape.  I become an instant celebrity.  I write my memoir which becomes a best seller.  The fame overwhelms me and I become a hermit and fall into a depression from which I never recover, my body found a full week after my death.

I took a class in college, a self-defense class where they taught us to yell in a deep and strong voice, “NO!”  we yelled and struck back.  We learned to chop an attacker’s throat and knee him in the balls.  We learned to make fierce faces, to replace our fear with anger.  On the last day of the workshop, a man dressed up in thick padding, put a mask on and straddled me, to simulate what it would be like to wake to find an intruder getting ready to strike.  It was bright and we were in a gymnasium and the class was all standing around watching and we women were fierce!  We yelled and growled and kneed and chopped and afterwards we hugged and cried and were happy and relieved and surprised and went out for coffee and scones, propelled by our adrenalin.  The idea was to practice finding a voice even at the height of fear, even when we thought we’d never have one, to pretend we were fierce, and supposedly, the more we practiced, the more we would come into our own. 

My five year old daughter won’t go downstairs at night to get her blanket.  Sometimes I'm impatient and don’t understand why she won’t go down, even when I turn on the lights for her.  I begrudgingly go downstairs, my daughter pulling my hand until she sees her blanket, a glowing mound on the couch.  Go get it, I tell her, standing in the doorway.  And she hesitates and then runs on tiptoes, not wanting to disturb what hides in the dark, what unnamed fears, she runs and grabs her blanket and returns to me, relieved. 

She has no idea that I haven’t yet found my voice. 










6.30.2014

Until The Glass Breaks






In the opening scene of the documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White, on a farm house porch, cows grazing near-by, nails a wire onto a board, tightens it with glass bottles, and plugs it into an amp.  He slides out a riff, drags on his cigarette, and comments, "Who says you have to buy a guitar?"






tad neuhaus, diddley bow
joanna dane, vocals, shaker

6.28.2014

Age Old Worry





How are we ever going to evolve
if you are okay with how everything is?



6.27.2014

Selections from a Guatemalan Journal, 1998. Livingston




George started walking with me as I passed through town.  I had told him I had something I wanted to ask about so now he wanted to help me out.  "What is this thing you are curious about here in Livingston?  What is your research about?"

"Do you know about the Hotel Flamingo?"

He didn't know much, having only lived in Livingston for three years.  He talked smooth Belizean English.  We walked along the beach.  He showed me his art; "La Buga" carved into coconut shells, hanging by a length of twine.

I stopped at my favorite bar which happened to be within sight of the Hotel Flamingo.  Enrique was there, that friendly heavy eyed man who runs the Hotel Garifuna.  We shook hands, happy to see each other.  He was sitting with Patrick, the skinny Frenchman (a functioning crack addict according to C.); a jewelry maker; an old white man, tanned with a gold necklace; and an ancient black man who I didn't recognize, whiskey on all their breaths.  Enrique bought me a beer.  We talked and Patrick shared a skinny home rolled with his skinny wife who I was sitting next to.

The afternoon was spectacular.  A big woman was dancing punta.  The old men were playing dominoes.



6.25.2014

I Like the Idea of Books Too!



It was a scene I witnessed in La Crosse, Wisconsin last week
and I imagined it might be best expressed in a cartoon.


I like the idea of books.

But I didn't feel like drawing a cartoon
because all I wanted to do was read Cervantes.





6.23.2014

Part Two: (The madness of finding Part One, years after writing it, and attempting to write Part Two. The madness of trying to recreate the voice the writer emulated while reading “The Yellow Wallpaper”, while instead reading "Don Quixote". The madness of the shifty voice.)



It is the curse of the supportive parents that their children turn on them and bite, precisely because of all they’ve done.  It seems that much great art stems from deprivation.  Look at Cervantes.  He was poverty stricken, wounded, imprisoned.  And from it sprung what many call the greatest work of literature, the first modern novel.  I strain trying to imagine what life was like in 1605, the year it was first published, and fail, though of course, all was essentially the same: We are mostly slaves to our emotions, full of greed and desire and jealousy and joy.
Normally, I wouldn’t be one to reference Cervantes.  But while bike riding in Madison with my husband, I wonder if perhaps there is a happening at Shockrasonica.  And because my husband is trying to make up for some rudeness at the beginning of our ride, he acquiesces, agreeing to return a half mile in order to swing by the house. 
Sure enough, the interior is aglow. We both recognize the saxophone player from Jill’s annual Christmas Eve party.  His bandmate wears a little pointed hat and taps on kitchen pot lids, until the hat falls off.  Then he howls and throat sings and parlays with a guitar.  At some point, I ask the man who is hunched over a book in the narrow front hall, what he is reading.  Something by Washington Irving.  He calls it research since he enjoys adorning his modern prose with old turns of phrase. 
Isn’t it strange that these writing styles come and go, that a voice is so intricately connected with its context, that to write in another era’s style today will be flatly rejected by even the savviest publishers?  Of course these thoughts come out a mess and the man most likely thinks me a fool because the closest I’ve come to reading Don Quixote, his favorite novel, is watching Looney Tunes, and I can’t even recall who played Don Quixote and who played Sancho. 
He, the man reading Washington Irving, is Kathleen’s brother.  Both share the house with Seth, whoever that is.  Kathleen seemed to remember me from the first time we stopped, months back.  She’s amazed that we happened to catch a show since they are rare, though the man on the porch who Andrew talked with said they have thirty a year.
He (Kathleen’s brother) recommends his favorite translation of his favorite novel.  I have nothing to say about various translations of any work, having neither the brain nor the patience to read Don Quixote once, let alone several times.  So I state the obvious as I’m so good at: That such an undertaking, translating a thousand pages of anything, is immense beyond imagining.  I say I hate to use the word “talent”, because it implies these monumental tasks are somehow effortless, whereas mostly, it just requires a lot of hard work. The man counters that there’s a great deal of hard work poured into mediocre novels.  How well I know that!
He rubs the fuzz on his head, and suggests that really, talent is everything, that it takes more than hard work to turn a mediocre novel great.  He taps his forehead and uses the word “germ” as he looks up, searching for how to define what it is that’s present in the mind of a person who can write Don Quixote. 
The next day I tell my mother-in-law about the conversation, and she says she just downloaded Don Quixote onto her reader yesterday, to take on the trip to Spain.  A sign.  I go home to pluck it from my shelf, a copy I bought for a quarter, a half dozen years back, intending to read it of course, but never knowing if I really would.  I see it is not the man’s favorite translation. 
I begin regardless. 

"Do you ever read really old books?" he asked.
I couldn’t remember a single one, always so foolish when talking with a very intelligent person.  How powerful, these slightest shifts of perspective.  From confident to crumbing in a moment.  I’ve heard it said that if instead of telling our kids that they did a good job on their math test, we tell them they are good at math, their performance improves by some significant percent.
Did anyone ever tell Cervantes that he was good at math?  What if Cervantes had a computer? How does such an array of editing and publishing tools change the words?  What trysts and parties and adventures did Cervantes miss in order to write Don Quixote?  What did the neighbors think? Was he a good friend?  What if he hadn’t ever been hungry, or cold, or poor?  How thin is the line between the madness of a character and the madness of the mind that created him?  Is there such a thing as free expression, being so bound as we are to our culture, our language, our land?


6.10.2014

Summer Plans



I reached for the coffee grinder the first day of summer and suddenly I'd had enough of the tohuwabohu.  I spent the morning clearing the kitchen of all it's clutter.  Today, I cleaned the refrigerator, recycled the newspaper/magazine/school flier pile.  I have big plans to go through my drawers and to clean up the basement during the first heat wave.   My desk needs attention as well as my desktop.  How to manage all this data?

Of course, there's the painting, the album making, the fruition of the backyard art garden.  There's seeds to plant and holes to dig and an endless supply of grass to mow.  There's the house to buy and transform into an improvisational art space.  There's letters to write and presents to send and a lot of porch sitting to be done.  There's lessons to be planned and plans to make plans for the plans we have yet to make.

I open my sock drawer, ready to begin.  But decide to close it again.







6.02.2014

Thoughts On Being Human: Things I've Learned So Far, Whether Long Ago and Forgotten, or Just Learned and Soon To Be Forgotten.





To be effective,
my attention must not be
too thinly
divided.

What I'm working on 
can turn out to be 
something very different 
than I thought it to be.

To get this done,
that doesn't.

Good enough is good enough.

Appreciating all art
makes all art better.






Thank you for your patience.



5.16.2014

Plot Twists




I haven't seen Biffy since the Birkebiner and now she's pregnant.

Don't tell her I said so, but it's the third that pushed me off the brink.

I've given up trying to keep control.  And when I forget, scolding my son for not practicing, or getting angry at the girls for making a mess of my supplies, or griping at my husband for how he deals with the leftovers, they let me know, quick.




Over coffee, S. tells me that he's come to realize that we are nothing more than manipulations of the government, that the Sixties were just a big plot by the C.I.A to stir the society up.

Of course, I worry that if I don't make the kids clean their rooms and get away from the screens, and write thank you notes, and eat healthy food, that they will turn out to be terrible people.  I try not to be arrogant, but there it is again:  Assuming that what I want them to do is best for them.

I don't want other people telling me how to spend my time, so why should they be any different?

Like most everything, my need to control is motivated by fear:  I fear that if I let go, my kids will fail and I will be judged.  Worthy concerns.  But what would happen if I allowed my kids, myself, and everyone else, the freedom of rising above fear?  Why not learn to be motivated by love?

Funny how what is so sane sounds so kooky.




S. says he's pregnant and wants to give birth to a project with the students that will reflect all the complexities of classroom dynamics.  

He says that he can feel the beginnings of the death process.  

I suggest he make some concrete plans, like starting a blog.  

He's skeptical.  Still, I think it's a premier idea.