Keep on Walkin’

I’ve never really thought I could write personal essays (or non-fiction, for that matter). They never held much appeal to me, as either a reader or as a writer.

A lot of this has to do with my checkered educational history; for someone who aspired to be a writer, it now amazes me how many college professors desperately tried to stomp that aspiration out of me–yet at the same time, it enormously pleases me that I proved them all WRONG. When I first started college, the week before my seventeenth birthday, my basic English Comp class required us to spend the first day writing an essay, predicated around the question you are going to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island, what three people and three things would you take with you, and why? I don’t remember what I wrote; I know one of the people was Stephen King so he could keep writing books to entertain me. But the end result of that essay was me being moved from Basic Comp to Honors English. This was not only a surprise but exciting; whomever that professor was, he recognized my ability! 

Honors English, however, turned out to be a horrific nightmare…as did all of my experiences with the English department of that particular college. My new professor–whom I shall never forget, like I shall never forget my first creative writing professor at that benighted plague of a university–was, quite frankly, a moron. There were only twelve of us in the class; she advised us on the very first day that she never gave A’s because that left no room for improvement. I was not an Honors student, so this didn’t phase me, but it caused a lot of discomfort in my extremely-driven-by-GPA classmates. And she stuck to that; none of us ever got an A on any of our essays or papers, and she certainly didn’t teach us anything. My essays were shredded by her on a regular basis; she also liked to proclaim that we would never get so honest an opinion on our writing as we got from her, and even as a naive teenager, I sensed that she took malicious pleasure in being as nasty as she could with our work. We never got anything productive or useful from her; no editorial guidance whatsoever; just nasty condescending commentary in red ink on our papers. That, coupled with a kinder yet equally unhelpful professor in the second semester of Honors English Comp, convinced me that I would never be able to write non-fiction; that writing essays and personal essays were a skill set I neither possessed, nor could learn.

Thanks for that, bitches.

And when you factor in the creative writing professor the next semester who told me I’d never publish…well, you can see why I became absolutely disinterested in college and it just became something else I had to endure and get through.

So, as I grew older and evolved and continued reading and pursuing from time to time my desire to write, I avoided nonfiction and essays. I was never going to write them, I wasn’t any good at them, so why bother? This negative perception continued throughout my life until a friend told me, several years ago, that you write a personal essay on your blog every day. I’d even written and published some, yet I still had that wall up in my mind: I’m not smart enough. I’m not clever enough. Anything I have to say has already been said better by someone else. Anything point I’d try to make would get the response “well, duh, LOSER.”

I started reading Joan Didion last year, beginning with her book Miami, and suddenly, began to see essays in an entirely new light.

This is a book about books. To try that again, it is a book about my fatal flaw: that I insist on learning everything from books. I find myself wanting to apologize for my book’s title, which, in addition to embarrassingly taking part in a ubiquitous publishing trend by including the word girls, seems to evince a lurid and cutesy complicity in the very brutality it critiques. If I can say one lame thing in my defense, it is that I wanted to call this book Dead Girls from the moment I realized I was writing it, in the spring of 2014 I wrote an essay on the finale of the first season of True Detective, trying to parse a category of TV I identified as the Dead Girl Show, with Twin Peaks as this genre’s first and still most notable example. People seemed to like that essay, so I understood that Dead Girls was something I could hitch my wagon to.

So begins Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. To be honest, while I greatly enjoyed reading this book, I didn’t find that most of the essays were, in fact, about ‘surviving an American obsession’; I thought this was going to be a lengthy look at how the trope of dead girls runs through, and is repeatedly used, over and over, in all aspects of crime fiction; be it a television show, novels, or films. Bolin instead extrapolates her theme to encompass society as a whole, and I’m not entirely sure she succeeds.

Didion, on the other hand, opens this way:

This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me the more imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder. That was why the piece was so important to me. And after it was printed I saw that, however directly and flatly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read and even liked the piece, failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads. Disc jockeys telephoned my house and wanted to discuss (on the air) the incidence of “filth” in the Haight-Ashbury, and acquaintances congratulated me on finishing the piece “just in time,” because “the whole fad’s dead now, fini, kaput.” I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.

It seems unfair to critique Bolin negatively simply because the book went in a different direction than I thought it would; but I ultimately was disappointed in her collection primarily because I was looking for, I don’t know, a feminist point of view about the misogyny in crime fiction, both written and filmed. That was, actually, my primary carp about her book. I enjoyed it otherwise; Bolin has a dry wit and she wrote about a lot of things from a perspective I hadn’t considered–that of the young millennial female trying to make it in an increasingly hostile world with very little opportunity for young writers to make a living. She also critiques Didion harshly; harsher then perhaps I might have, although I do periodically take some issue with the lens through which Didion sees the world and writes about it–that of a very privileged white woman, whose inability to recognize her own privilege sometimes colors her observations.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the third non-fiction book of Didion’s I’ve read over the last two years; the others being Miami and After Henry. I also read her novel A Book of Common Prayer, which, while bizarre, was also terribly interesting and exceptionally written. Regardless of what one might think of Didion’s privilege and how it might color her lens, the woman is an exceptionally skilled writer. Her sentences are flawlessly constructed, and the rhythm manages to convey an almost world-weariness, a sense of being jaded by what people do. The two books are actually good to read together, because they seem to focus on the same thing, even though written decades apart. Bolin uses the trope of the dead girl to launch into her consideration of a world where young people are disillusioned by the lack of opportunity, where intelligence and talent perhaps do not provide a means of making a living anymore, and how the misogyny of society, as depicted through the dead girl trope, helps stack the deck against young women. Didion’s book looks at the beginning of that erosion, the decay of the mythology of the American dream. Her observations of Haight-Ashbury during the days of the hippies and the flower children, and conversations with the young people who flocked there, is an interesting contrast to the world Bolin is writing about: those young people were disaffected by the box of the American dream, felt trapped by the opportunity their parents were pushing them towards; they didn’t want the white picket fence and the 2.3 children and the dog and the split-level house in the suburbs and the long commute into the city for a 9 to 5 existence. They rejected the American Dream; Bolin’s generation wishes it were even an option to reject.

Were I teaching Freshmen English Comp, these two books would be my required texts for my students. Both books made me think; both books inspired me to write myself and gave me ideas; both writers have depth and perception and skill. I got more than I was expecting from Bolin’s book; I got precisely what I thought I would from Didion’s.

I highly recommend both.

Love is a Battlefield

Yesterday I made an attempt to run errands; but after I went to the bank I felt dizzy and nauseous, so skipped the grocery store and came home. I spent the rest of the day alternating between fevers and normal, and so on, so I simply parked myself in my easy chair with a book, a blanket, and a cat. I finished reading Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer, which was extraordinary, and started another that I’m not too wild about. I also started watching a documentary of the history of the Papacy on Prime, which conveniently now has an app for AppleTV. I shall continue to try to read the book I’m not wild about, but it may not survive the fifty-page rule. Harsh, I know, but I have a lot of books to read.

I am hoping that I am in the last stage of this illness; I am still coughing so hard that my lungs and diaphragm hurt, and right now my eyes are kind of warm, but I think I am going to be able to hang with a quick (ha!) trip to get groceries and then spending the rest of the day curled up underneath a blanket with a book. My kitchen of course is a disaster area, but I feel confident that I’ll be able to get it cleaned up today as well. This is a big transition from yesterday, I might add, when I felt like a limp dishrag for most of the day.

Hope springs eternal.

In other exciting news, I’ll be signing and speaking on two panels at Comic Con in New Orleans in two weeks. Huzzah! Of course, this appearance is contingent on my living that long; which is a moment by moment thing. I am feeling odd again right now; not sure what that’s about, or even how to describe it, but I guess the easiest way to sum it up in one word is fuzzy; like I am out of my body and observing but not participating. It’s unnerving, and it definitely needs to stop.

All right, I think I might need to lie down again. Heavy sigh.

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Islands in the Stream

I am officially on Christmas vacation! It’s only four and a half days, but I will take it, thank you very much. I am still not at 100%, but today is much better than the nadir of Wednesday, and even yesterday. My throat is raw and my chest still hurts from coughing so hard, but I am down to DayQuil, cough drops, and the occasional tablespoon of honey. I had planned originally to get a lot done today; and I still might try. I am a bit foggy right now, but then I’ve only been up for about an hour thus far. I think the worst part of this illness has been the utter exhaustion. Yesterday was the worst on the score; I was so tired everything ached.

And to add insult to injury, I’ve gained two pounds this week. Where is the justice in THAT?

I’ll tell you where: nowhere.

I am over halfway through with Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer, and it is really quite marvelous. I tend to shy away from literary fiction, as a general rule, but this is not only gorgeously written but it’s telling an interesting story as well. That’s my primary complaint with literary fiction; if the story isn’t interesting the writing has to be beautiful, and so often it isn’t. I’ve never really understood the cults of writers like William Styron, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen; I’ve read their books and not been overly impressed with them. (Although they all have their moments.) But I generally simply say “I guess I’m just not smart enough to understand or appreciate their brilliance” and end the conversation there. I guess I’m just not a fan of the “plight of the straight white male” school of literature.

All right, I’m feeling a wave of illness coming on, so I am going to retire my easy chair with the book.

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I Want a New Drug

I despise nothing more than being ill.

Today is the best I’ve felt since Saturday, but i am so tired. Just exhausted. I actually got up this morning, came downstairs and sat in my easy chair–and fell asleep again. I also have that weird medicine-y hollowish head feeling, and I’ve been coughing so hard my throat and lungs actually hurt. I’ve also been unable to focus; which completely sucks. This is all sinus-related, as we’ve been having damp, cooler humid weather, complicated by also having a cold. Right now I trying to drink down a cup of coffee, but it’s making me sweat….and it’s the first and only cup I’ve had this morning. I’m also very dehydrated. This is my last day of work this week, and I’m hoping that tomorrow I’ll wake up feeling normal and healthy again.

One can dream. I have a four day weekend and I don’t have to be back at the office until three on Tuesday; so I really have four and a half days off. Being sick, of course, means that the house is a total disaster area. I need to get some cough drops and Kleenex before I go to work today, but I feel singularly unmotivated. I still feel, not sick so much as funky and tired. I hope this is just my body shaking itself off and healing itself, but one can never be sure. I hate this; I have far too much to do to continue being sick.

I started reading Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer last night–got maybe a page or two into it before falling asleep–and was again struck by her extraordinary skill.

And on that note, I think I’m going to try getting some of this mess cleaned up before I go into the office.

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Sad Songs (Say So Much)

I don’t feel very Christmassy this year, but nor do I fall into the bah humbug category of Christmas. It’s interesting that when it comes to this particular holiday, it seems as though reactions are predicated on diametric polar opposites; you either love it or hate it. I fall into neither category; it’s just another day. I like the idea behind Christmas; reflecting on peace on earth and goodwill toward my fellow man, and so on. Those are lovely sentiments, but aren’t they things we should think about and focus on the entire year, rather than the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas? Maybe I am a humbug, I don’t know. It doesn’t help that I am ill.

My diaphragm is sore and I have a slight sinus headache and I feel like I have to cough all the time. I’m not feverish, and it’s more of a meh feeling than anything else. It’s the tickle in the back of my throat that’s especially making me nuts. And the soreness of my throat and the diaphragm, and the medicine-head feeling from the DayQuil. Paul seems to be doing better; it looked like he was at death’s door a couple of days ago, but he seems to be slowly coming out of it. I am hoping I’ll be over it by Friday, which starts my four-day weekend. I’m sure, though, once I get showered and cleaned up, stop at CVS for some cough drops etc, I’ll feel much better. At least I certainly hope so. I have a busy day at the office, and then of course tonight is the office Christmas party.

And at least I’m not congested. If I were, I’d have to kill myself.

I’ve started and given up on several young adult novels over the past few days as well–including some that were critically acclaimed and award winners. None of them passed the fifty page rule, and they all went into the donation pile. While it felt good to get the TBR pile down a bit, I was enormously disappointed; but A. S. King’s Reality Boy was so good it was bound to make anything I read after look not as good. And getting the TBR pile down is always a good thing, don’t you think? One would hope, at any rate.

I’ve become obsessed with Joan Didion, and I think my next read will be her A Book of Common Prayer. It’s kind of astonishing to me that I’ve never read anything she’s written (Miami is my current non-fiction read; I love the way she writes. I’m also thinking, re: a conversation I had with my friend Susan, about writing a memoir in the form of personal essays. This of course is the ultimate in hubris; why do I feel my observations and my experiences are so amazing that they need to be shared? But…it’s been an interesting life, and even if it doesn’t get published, it will help me personally to write such a thing. I actually started the other day because I don’t have enough else to do, right?).

And on that note, I’m going to straighten up this mess in the kitchen and get ready for work.

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