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Archive for the ‘The Essays’ Category

Political Me


Five years ago, I thought Tony Blair was an Olympic ice skater. Seriously. I couldn’t tell you the name of my state’s senator or locate Iraq on a map (among so many other countries).

“Oh, I’m not into politics,” I’d say backing out of the room (trying to save face). “I’m an artist.” (As if the two things were poised in inherent conflict.)

My descent (yes, descent) into politics happened accidentally. I was brainstorming unobtrusive forms of entertainment (i.e. not television) for those sometimes long days at home with Henry. This American Life was, for me, my gateway to news. At least, it got me on the NPR website. That “Listen” button was so easy to push–and voila–news show after interesting news show started to stream. Softly, in the background filtered Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, The Diane Rehm Show, meanwhile Henry and I built great block towers, assembled puzzles, colored cardboard rocket ships, and mixed cookie dough after cookie dough. (We really like to make cookies.)

I’ve been listening to the news now for two years, daily, (a lot of it) daily, and it’s starting to get to me.

I’m getting emotionally involved.

I envy the days when I wrote it all off, played the “they’re all corrupt” card. But, from the angle of my living room carpet, some seem more corrupt than others.

All this news has made a nail biter out of me. It literally keeps me up at night.

For example, recently, the incredible wave of courage and passion sweeping the Middle East (the horrors in Libya!). The nightmare Haitians have had to endure from natural disasters to plague like illnesses. Then there’s Burma and Darfur (Yes, that’s still going on). People in my own country (the United States) who get sick and can’t afford to get the medical care they need. The proposed slashes to education when it’s already near shambles.

At times, I feel guilty with prosperity and civil rights. At times, I lament myself as poor, struggling to protect myself against the mechanical (literally inhuman, as in legally separate from “natural persons”) greed of big corporations (e.g. insurance companies, irresponsible food manufacturers, Charter, Bank Of America, Johnson & Johnson, to name just a few disreputable names)

What’s a girl to do? Stop listening to the news? Join some political group (I’m not exactly sure if any exist where I live). Write my senator a letter?

I try to keep my political opinions quiet here at My Inconvenient Body. I don’t want to alienate or offend people I care about, or any reader, really, but as “the news” grows larger and larger in my life, it is more and more difficult to keep my mouth shut.

It’s also a matter of aesthetic. While I sometimes like to point with words, I try to push my own writing past the political costume to a more timeless and transcendent realm. One that looks past the “politics” to the people, and the usually basic dramas that drive them.

That said, I’m finding more and more, that sometimes you have to fight. It would just be nice to know when that sometimes is.

As always, your comments are welcome. Even (especially) if you disagree.

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1.

When I first found out I was pregnant, I worried how motherhood would influence my future as a “serious writer.”

Some causes for my concern were obvious. Having Henry has placed limits on my available time, available money, available freedom to travel, go for broke, take high risks. Most of these limits have proved surmountable, however, and in some ways, beneficial. The imposed time restraint has taught me discipline. The financial stress has led me to pursue more seriously a career in writing (as opposed to just writing for myself).

But there continues to exist an underlying worry regarding my fate as a mom/writer that is more sinister, less apparent.

Check out these graphs at the Vida website. Oh yeah, and the ladies are in blue.

For those of you who don’t feel like clicking, I’ll summarize. The disparity between female-authored books reviewed in 2010 versus male-authored books reviewed is startling, almost painful.

In 2010,

The New Yorker reviewed 9 female authors and 36 male authors.

Boston Review reviewed 14 female authors and 41 male authors.

The New York Times reviewed 59 women authors and 306 men.

You get the picture–but this is old news. Last summer, Jodi Picoult caused a stir, when she tweeted her response to the wild critical applause Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom caused:

NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.

The controversy was on. Was the New York Times Review a White Boy’s Club?

In an essay for The Atlantic, entitled “All the Sad Young Literary Women,” Chris Jackson wrote,

But this whole controversy, such as it is, reminded me of a recent lunch I had with a fellow editor.  I was going on about some novel I was reading and loving and she cut me off and asked, when was the last time you read fiction by a woman?  And I honestly couldn’t come up with anything for a few minutes.  It was a pretty shameful moment. . . I can’t speak to the specifics of the Picoult/Times dispute but I can say that the frustration Picoult expressed is shared by a lot of women (and men) who write or work in the literary world.  In my experience … it’s clear that women are willing to buy books by male writers, but men seem much more reluctant to buy books by women.  And while I’ve never seen it quantified in any way, there’s definitely a feeling out there that men–even when writing about frivolous subjects–are taken more seriously as literary writers and are more likely to be presented to serious readers by the various literary gatekeepers.

There are honestly too many blog posts, articles, and essays on the topic of gender inequality inside the literary who’s who to quote here. Go ahead and Google it, if your interested. You could whittle away hour after anxious hour reading (especially if you’re a female writer).

2.

There was a Boy’s Club in my college. I wanted to belong. They accepted me, but my gender was always there, between us. My inconvenient body. Oh, it was true.

I wanted to conspire, I wanted to stay up late smoking, I wanted to drink whiskey and talk literature, art, philosophy (what little I knew at the time). I didn’t want romance. Or love. Even though I was a girl, I did not want to become “a poem.”

“You are a poem though your poem’s naught,” Ezra Pound had said to H.D. while courting her in Philadelphia at the beginning of both their poetic careers.

I wanted to be taken seriously. Sentiment was my worst enemy. While it can make a poet out of a man it can completely destroy a woman artist’s credibility. I had to think about these things.

Still do, and motherhood has been the whammy of all whammies. I’ve talked baby talk and framed footprints and acquiesced control to my, at times, horrifyingly messy body (It was difficult for me to feel dignified while giving birth) (though yes, it is wonderful and amazing and primitive and magnificent and all that).

3.

One comment on one essay lamenting the discrepancy in attention given to women as opposed to male authors suggests that more women use pseudonyms. Tempting, but I don’t think that’s the right direction.

I wrote my college thesis on the role of the contemporary female writer in western society. I titled it, “Joy on the Margins.” Here is the first paragraph:

To attempt to assign the role of the contemporary female poet [and writer] in Western society is to attempt the impossible; however, it is possible to elucidate the contexts, challenges, and strengths available to her. I wish to argue that women as poets [and writers] operate within a context or paradigm that they are especially competent to change. Female poets, due to their place on the margins of the poetry establishment, hold an especially influential position in the transformation of poetry and the direction it will take. The woman as poet, her transition from voiceless to voice, object to a subjective source of reality, claims an especially influential place in literary development, which is consequentially also helpful in the development of an new paradigm or healing reality.

However, before female writers can inhabit the power in their marginal position, they must first resolve several personal conflicts. The woman writer must discover a way to develop on her own terms. She must find her own psychology, her own significance, her own authentic definition. The woman writer must discover her own language, articulate her own feelings, and discover her own perceptions.

She must no longer accept the definitions handed to her.

Those numbers, those graphs don’t scare me. They excite me. We’ve got so much further to go, and I get to go. I get to be apart of this worthy trip.

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The Grand Canyon

I once read an essay by Walker Percy claiming that it is nearly impossible for the contemporary person to truly see the Grand Canyon. He claims the Grand Canyon is unavailable to most people. That while a celebrated amount of tourists ogle down its throat every year, this crimson spectacle remains to be seen.

But how could something so big be so difficult to see?

Let’s imagine the Grand Canyon. At sunset. A bruised sky arcs over those deep purple ridges. If this image could speak, it would say “Om.”

If you are tempted, do not mistake this image before you as the Canyon–this is only an imagined scene most likely based on a reproduced photograph, a film, a post card, a well-written poem, or at some point, memory.

Let’s start over–where Percy starts. Percy opens his essay, “The Loss of the Creature” with an example. He describes the lone explorer and adventurer Garcia Lopex deCardenas as stumbling over this remarkable expanse of fissure, the pale pink flesh of earth exposed. I can’t even begin to imagine seeing such a spectacle for the first time.

(I feel obliged at this point to mention that I am well aware that deCardenas did not actually “discover” the Grand Canyon. He was far from the first person to see it (there were populations living there before he came along), but it was the first time he saw it or conceived of it, for that matter, and he is Percy’s example, so he is my example, here.)

The closest I can come to  seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time is recalling childhood (though, truthfully I can’t recall that far). I see a star, a tree, snow! It’s all so miraculous and new! We are truly caught off guard. We are truly experiencing and seeing.

To this wonder, to this experience, Percy assigns a value ‘P’. This ‘P’ represents the intensity quotient behind the authentic encounter with the canyon. (i.e. you have no idea such a thing exists, and then, suddenly, woah, there it is.)

So why would Walker Percy claim that the average tourist does not even receive a millionth part of value ‘P’?

Too many distractions? Commercialism? Pollution? We’ve since seen greater wonders? Technology?

Percy blames it on something called the Symbolic Complex. He contends that the sightseer approaches the Canyon with a preexisting Symbolic Complex in his or her mind. The Canyon is no longer the canyon glimpsed by the Spaniard. It is a collective throng of photographs, brochures, movie clips, and the like. It is the words Grand Canyon.

The sightseer measures their satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon corresponds to the Symbolic Complex. The climax of the tourist’s satisfaction is not the spectacle itself, but the “measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the performed symbolic complex.”

If we are not careful, the idea of the Canyon becomes more real than the Canyon itself.

Love

I think this is how it is with love so much of the time.

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I am but I


I am finding it difficult to use the pronoun “I.” As people fight, and I mean fight, (torture, beatings, exhaustion, the like) for liberties I, on a regular basis, take for granted, writing about myself and my comfortable life (Sure, I’m poor, but I live well.) feels chatty, cheap, ugly.

Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan. I know, I know, these things go on all the time: repression, suffering, political unrest, but it’s not the suffering that’s shrinking my “I,” it’s the fighting, the strength, the courage for engagement, and right now it’s forefront, it’s growing, it’s on my mind, and the only way I can find my way back into my skin is through humility and, eventually when I am ready for it, gratitude.

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All These Little Stings


As form rejections pile up in a shoebox pushed beneath my desk, it is difficult not to become discouraged. These Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes and their “Dear Writer” slips are physical manifestations of little failures, little stings.

The question arises: What to do with them?

An answer does not come easily–the metaphorical implications reach far.

My hide-them-away-in-a-shoebox response was initial and fitting, as I have never been that comfortable with failure. In fact, I usually give up before real failure is imminent, or dangerous, or meaningful. I’ve given up on places, people, projects. When I have wanted to give up, in most things, I have.

But my life is different now, and giving up is no longer an option, in most things.

One bold poem by WS Merwin suggests I “paper my wall with rejection slips.”

I climbed a really tall mountain, once, and about halfway through, I became 99.9% convinced I could not make it. When I finally did make it, I felt like I’d really accomplished something special.

In a way, I feel like hiking that mountain was one of the most important things I have ever done.

I was young, then. Young enough to feel proud of myself. Young enough to take that feeling seriously.

WS Merwin ends his poem:

I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you can’t

 

you can’t you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write

 

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I like to keep my goals guaranteed. Process oriented. “Feel good.” For example, I was the bright-eyed and unskilled basketball player who truly prioritized having a good time over making her next shot. In school, my aim was to learn, not to make good grades.

This aim-for-the-journey-and-not-the-destination mindset works almost all of the time, but every once and a while, a situation will arise that I can’t wrap my self-esteeming head around.

If I told you I enjoyed writing a businessly succinct query letter so that I could sell my manuscript, I would be lying. I literally broke into hives when I sealed those manila envelopes closed.

At this point, my goal–to get an agent to help me publish my book–is completely out of my control. It is completely dependent on the agents and agent assistants living in New York, who must sift through one hundred queries a day in order decide that mine may be worth a second glance.

I prepare myself for rejection. For the neat “Thanks but no thanks” slips. For the marathon mailings. For the ouch ouch ouch. It’s going to sting.

And yet, if I want to make a career out of it, there are hurdles I have to hurdle. I was never good at sports, if you haven’t guessed. The idea of losing and having that loss matter is enough to make this writer want to keep her book to herself.

Our finances our tight. (Homemade haircuts tight) I yearn for more audience. I yearn for more time to write–and yes, it’s tawdry but true–time is money. Necessity makes me bold.

Octavio Paz gives me courage:

“I have a great belief in poetry, but not in poets. Poets are the transmitters, the conduits. They are no better than other people. Poets are vain–we have many defects. We must realize that we are human beings, and be humble. Poetry is very important, but poets are not.”

Yes. I can believe in the work far more easily than I can believe in the worker, and when those rejection slips come, it will be my belief in the work that keeps me going.

As always, I am so grateful to you for reading.

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1.

The fear of happiness is one of those fears that can make my eyes roll. Come on. Really? Being afraid of feeling happy?

And yet, a curious thing has happened. It started with my pregnancy, with my staying still and settling down. When times are tough (e.g. when I’m fighting with my husband or worried about money), I’m not afraid. I’m too busy dealing. When things are good, when I feel an exuberance of love for my husband, when I hold my baby’s strong and smart body, when I sit down after a good meal and think, life is good, fear rears its monstrous noggin. Waves of anxiety wash out heart beats. I have to regulate my breath. What if something happens? What if something terrible happens?

The fear is worse in moments when I am most tempted to acknowledge my satisfaction with things. The fear is worse when I feel the most happy.

2.

A weeks ago, I came across this passage in Jose Saramago’s The Double:

He arrived in the late afternoon, parked the car outside the door of the apartment building, and then, nimble, lithe, and in the best of moods, …  walked up the stairs as lightly as an adolescent, not even noticing the weight of his suitcase … and he very nearly danced into his apartment. In accordance with the traditional conventions of the literary genre known in Portuguese as the romance, or novel, and which will continue to be called thus until someone comes up with a term more in keeping with its current configuration, this cheery description, organized as a simple sequence of narrative events in which, quite deliberately, not a single negative note was struck, would be cunningly placed there in preparation for a complete contrast, which, depending on the writer’s intentions, could be dramatic, brutal, or terrifying, for example, a murder victim lying on the floor in a pool of blood, a convention of souls from the next world, a swarm of furious drones i heat who mistake the history teacher [the hero] for a queen bee, or, worse still, all of this combined into a single nightmare, for, as has been demonstrated ad nauseam, the imagination of the Western novelist knows no limits, or rather, it hasn’t since the days of the aforementioned Homer, who, when one thinks about it, was the first novelist.

It’s true, the Western novelist knows no limits, and unfortunately (for me) my instinct for story was oozing into my small, domestic life.

And I don’t think this literary dread is contained to the writer. If you watch read books, if you hear/tell stories, if you watch movies at all, you know this ancient story structure. The formula is natural. It is the hero’s archetypal journey.

So, here I was, anticipating my life’s next plot twist, as if I were a helpless character in someone’s dramatic story.

Irrational, a bit crazy, but even after seeing all this, I couldn’t shake the anxiety. In fact, it got worse.

 

3.

I’ve read that in nightmares it’s good to turn and face the monster/killer/animal pursuing you. It’s helpful to turn and look them in the awful face and say their name. Call them out. Ask them what they want.

So, two days ago, as ridiculous as it felt, I said my fears out loud. I told my husband I was afraid I would die or he would die or something would happen to little Henry. I felt silly. My fear felt closer and worse. He just hugged me and I felt like I’d made a mistake in saying anything at all.

Then I slept on it. I dreamed that an important person died and I attended that person’s funeral. It felt real and very sad, but by the end of the dream, I had already started to heal, and I woke up to this renewed understanding of that old cliche, that death is what makes life so sweet, so joyous, so poignant and valuable.

I kid you not, I felt better and I feel better. I’ll admit, I feel a little self-conscience posting this at all, but it felt so important, when I realized it. That bad things may happen, in fact, some bad things will probably happen, but for now, things are good, and if I see a pair of stairs, I will walk up them nimble, lithe, and in the best of moods.

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