Review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words

lahiriOn my fifth day in Italy, I accuse an Italian man of stealing my clothes. His basket, overflowing with clothing, is blocking the dryer into which I placed my clothes, and none of the garments are visible through the glass window. Scusi! I say, and that’s it—the extent of my Italian. I am all out of words and stand there with my hands on my hips, angry and confused and feeling like an idiot. The man speaks in rapid-fire Italian, riffles through his basket. He gestures to the three dryers, as if to say, which one? I point to the one in the middle. He moves his basket, and when I am close enough, I see my clothes there, stuck to the side of the dryer.

Mortified, and not possessing the words to explain, I repeat myself, but in a kinder tone: scusi!

 “The unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don’t know in this world.”

To read In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein) is to be reminded of all that we don’t know, and all that we seek to find.

Read the full review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words on Brevity.

Writing Travel: A Process of Unmooring

e.v. de cleyre train track photograph 35mmSara Majka‘s debut story collection, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, begins with movement: “Maybe ten or eleven years ago, when I was in the middle of a divorce from a man I still loved, I took the train into the city. We were both moving often during this time, as if it were the best solution to a shattered life: to move from place to place, trying to thread together, if not marriage and our lives, then something in ourselves.”

Why do we travel, and how do we write about why we travel? As if addressing the difficulty, the first line of Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild is: “My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings.”

Sara Majka’s beginning is straightforward—a character ten years out from the middle of a divorce recalls taking a train, and in the same breath, recalls the reason for all that movement: “trying to thread together […] something in ourselves.”

Read the rest of this article on the Ploughshares blog: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/writing-travel-a-process-of-unmooring/

Weathering/Writing the Storms

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In an episode of Master of None, Dev and Arnold walk home from a mostly uneventful night out at a bar. One remarks how cold it is. The other says it’s supposed to be nicer the next day. Dev acknowledges how cliché and potentially banal the topic at hand is when he asks, “you want to keep talking about the weather?”

The weather is often the subject we revert to when we don’t have anything to talk about, or when we don’t know someone well enough to know what to talk about. Read the rest of the article on Ploughshares: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/weatheringwriting-the-storms/

How to Write Violence

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How to talk about violence in literature, when the term violence is so broad? “Violence” is defined as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something,” but it’s also used to depict the “strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force.” How to talk—or write—about violence at all, both despite and because we seem so inundated by it? Read the rest of the post over at Ploughshares: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/how-to-write-violence/

now that i have your attention

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This week, a short essay of mine was published, and at the same moment I posted an announcement on social media, WordPress chose one of my blog posts as an editor’s pick. The first thing, the essay, I knew about, but the editor’s pick was a complete surprise. In the post, I wrote, “the reality of my inbox is crickets,” but yesterday, the reality of my inbox was a freshly hatched nest of baby birds.

When I first launched this blog on WordPress to document my travels in Asia, finding my voice as a writer (a voice I find painful to go back and re-read), I read the editor’s picks and liked the posts and thought to myself, someday. I found new blogs to follow, and those whose posts were chosen and received hundreds of likes seemed to feel compelled to write a follow-up post, a reflection on the humble beginnings of said blog, complete with gratitude, in an arguably deservedly self-congratulatory tone.

For years, I hoped to be chosen. Only when I forgot about it did it materialize, and instead of telling you about how great it feels to receive a wellspring of positivity from strangers around the globe, how grateful I am (and I swear I am), I want to tell you how it hurts.

Like this: my second thought, after some disbelief, was, there’s still work to do. As in: an editing deadline to meet, a book proposal to write, books to read and write. While I guess that line of thinking keeps me humble, it also keeps me from pausing long enough to enjoy the moment—to revel in the fact that I put a piece of writing out into the world that resonated with people. That’s what I wanted, didn’t I?

Like this: it hurts because I wanted it, and I thought that exterior validation through the form of publication was what I needed to prove my self-worth, and now that it’s here, it has arrived, I see my self-worth is far too dependent on the words and actions of others. I thought publication and attention and accolades would validate me as a person, as a writer. I thought it would elevate my self-worth. But instead of reveling in these small and necessary accomplishments, events that are very reaffirming for me as a writer and oft-reluctant blogger, the issues I thought would be solved with publication were only magnified. As I wrote this morning, I cried—sobbed—to the point of gasping for air, blowing my nose so hard it bled.

Despite—or because—of everything, I did not feel seen or heard—at precisely the moment when I thought I would.

I’d be lying if I said this was all about having one post receive a mere blip of attention in the vast span and scope of the internet. (“I am not a special snowflake,” whispered Roxane Gay.) It’s never about one thing. That’s the problem with writing, blogging, with narrative—done poorly, it loses all sense of nuance.

“More often [true moral complexity] is found by wading into the swamp, getting intimate with discomfort, and developing an appetite for nuance,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty. Quoting Barthes, aiming to “live according to nuance,” Nelson adds that “By definition, there is no master sketch for what such a thing might look like. It can only be an experiment.”

How much of an appetite can a blog have for nuance, how much room for discomfort, for wading? How far off track do I have to get before I tell you: someone very close to me did something that made me feel not seen and not heard—unseen and unheard. Invisible. They did not acknowledge my existence, rendered me a nonentity. The intention was not malicious, there was an apology, and that, combined with the flood of attention to a single blog post, should have been enough to tell me that I am seen, heard.

Nuance is harboring intense gratitude and severe self-loathing at the same time. That knee-jerk reaction, there’s still work to do, is dedication and ambition and the depths of low self-worth, at the root of which is the feeling of not being good enough. (“No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gas lighting,” writes Claire Vaye Watkins in her essay “On Pandering.”)

So here, now that I have your attention, let’s open up that wound. Let’s blow past the surface-level gratitude, the titles and lines on a CV, and let’s explore the question of what it means to be seen and heard in a culture and society where every movement is tracked, every meal, interaction, conversation, and event can be shared widely and immediately. What does it mean to feel seen and heard? What does it mean to feel connected? What does it mean to feel good enough? And what if I defined it for myself, rather than blindly ascribing to societal conditioning? What if (and how) do I divorce my self-worth from the thoughts and opinions of others? If external validation feels empty, how can I make myself feel seen and heard?

“Such a project generally gets a bad rap in our culture: nuance is all well and good for the ivory tower, people say, but in the ‘real’ world, what position are you going to take? Whose side are you on? Where will you land at the end of the day, or at the end of days?” (The Art of Cruelty)

Head still throbbing and nose full of snot, I slipped into the most ridiculous lavender-colored knee-high socks, laced-up my sneakers, and went for a run—for maybe the second time in six months. I ran not through the streets of my neighborhood, not over the sidewalks, but through the abandoned alleys. Footsteps landed on cracks and potholes and clumps of deadwet leaves, on paths that were largely neglected. I did not run on the streets where I could be seen, did not run on the sidewalk where I might be heard, but tread lightly past the empty backyards, asking myself with each taptaptap on broken pavement what it would be like to see and hear only for my self. A mile later, clearer-headed, catching my breath, I passed a winter camellia in bloom—pale salmon petals with a gold stamen. I could tell you that I had a mini-epiphany, walking past the tree and its flowers, but that would be a lie. I did not land on any answers in the alleys, did not land on anything except my own two feet. So maybe that’s it, that’s the point, or the solution, or part of the solution: to land on one’s own two feet.

how clean the world

e.v. de cleyre boston green line train snow

How fitting, everything covered in white, the day after an acquaintance’s death. Even the recycling bins look pretty. Even the kale and swiss chard left to rot in the garden, now shriveled and withered, look pretty. The walkway to the front door, the railings on the back porch, the neighbor’s roof, all white, a seamless shawl. I forgot how clean the world looks when covered with fresh snow. How new. And yet how desolate. Few cars pass by the house. Fewer pedestrians. The neighbor stands outside in long sleeves, jeans, and an apron, taking pictures with a phone.

The sky too is a blanket of bright white. Rooting through my computer for a document, I come across images I took of Boston the day before I left it for Portland. It’s eerie, the way the footprints on the lawn of the museum two years ago match the ones in my backyard today, the way the sky is that same shroud of white, the way the train tracks here are coated with snow, just like they were there, back then. Has nothing changed? Am I still essentially the same person, with more tattoos?

e.v. de cleyre MFA boston exterior snow

It’s been two years, and still, people ask me where are you from and I answer New Hampshire. The further I am from it, the more likely I am to claim it as my own.

People seem impressed, or maybe just relieved when I do not say California. Because of this, I start offering it up more readily, without being asked. In New Hampshire, I say, an inch of snow is nothing. 

Here, it is something. An inch of snow effectively shuts down the city. Buses disappear from the schedule, saying they’ll arrive in ten but never show. The ones that do are fitted with chains, the sound of metal whipping the ground a kind of haunting, cold and cruel. Without snowplows or trucks to coat the roads with salt and sand, streets and avenues become sheets of ice.

The snow turns to rain overnight, freezing and coating the branches. We wake to a world of glass, so quiet and so still, that the crunch of boots is heard as people pass the house. The neighbor’s roof melts, thick beads dripping down to expose gray shingles.

The train crosses the new bridge over the Willamette, and the little sliver of Ross Island that faces it is dusted with white at the feet of its bare trees. Mt. Hood is barely visible, a mass of white hovering over this amalgam of evergreens and rooftops, of docked boats, of bridges, of manmade sand pits beside the train tracks.

When will I change my answer to the question? When will this become home?

Morphology of the Essay: Ander Monson, Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, & Maggie Nelson

Memorial Arch and MEmorial Church of the Leland Stanford Jr University Palo Alto 1908

According to Wikipedia, a keystone is “used figuratively to refer to a central element of a larger structure […] that locks the other elements in place and allows the whole to be self-supporting.” With a stone archway, the form is inherent, or predetermined. First, there is the abutment, then vertical supports, then voussoirs, and finally, crucially, the keystone. Ander Monson, in a 2008 interview: “in considering form, I think we immediately run up against expectation.”We, as readers, expect a certain order to things, and as writers, we learn the conventions of form and structure. We are taught that you can’t place a keystone without the voussoirs, yet you can start an essay without first deciding what form it will be, where the keystone will reside.

Leslie Jamison‘s essay, “Morphology of the Hit,” admits, “I never know how to start this story. I just don’t. That’s why I need functions.” Specifically, the functions of Vladimir Propp, author of Morphology of the Folktale, which provides Jamison “a map for storytelling, a catalog of plot pieces arranged into thirty-one functions: commencements, betrayals, resolutions.”

Continue reading on the Ploughshares bloghttp://blog.pshares.org/index.php/morphology-of-the-essay-ander-monson-claudia-rankine-eula-biss-leslie-jamison-maggie-nelson/

Begin Again: On Endings in Nonfiction

Talking, or writing, about endings is hard—whether it’s the end of a marriage, the end of a life, or the end of a book (lest one spoil the conclusion). Life rarely offers sudden and definitive endings or epiphanic conclusions. Rather, events leading up to the end seem to be a slow unfolding, occasionally bleeding into a new beginning. For writers of nonfiction, dealing with actual occurrences often means there is no definitive end, and even if there were (such as a death), there comes the aftermath—the grief, the coping, the rebuilding.

How does a writer of nonfiction decide where to place the punctuation mark when lives—grief, love, loss, and even joy—are ongoing?

Continue reading on the Ploughshares bloghttp://blog.pshares.org/index.php/begin-again-on-endings-in-nonfiction/

a mediocre horoscope

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Reading productivity hacks thwarted any attempts at productivity. Instead of writing, I read about how to fit writing into a busy day. Instead of responding to e-mails, I read about how to effectively deal with what can seem like an endless onslaught of e-mails. I say “seem,” because the reality of my inbox is crickets. I check and double-check the spam folder, thinking that job offers, correspondence, and congratulations-your-essay-was-accepted notifications were accidentally sent to the trash.

I harbor an infatuation with the genre of self-help, the full scope of which might render you suspicious. I both naively and idealistically hope that to help the self is to help others. A long list of articles regarding productivity hacks brought me to my local library, this new thing, maybe you’ve heard of it, where I can borrow books I couldn’t otherwise afford. I find myself reading books I wouldn’t buy but feel would be good for me to read.

Self-help-slash-business books, for one. Volumes about discarding traditional means of employment and creating your own opportunities. Seeking a rough road map to financial security and creative freedom, I read a book that espouses the lack of any one road map, and thereby provides no guidance, only vague encouragement that is barely specific enough to feel relevant, like a mediocre horoscope. Seeking a way to work less and make more, I read a book by an individual who advocates for stepping out of the oppressive office culture for more meaningful projects, but unfortunately falls into the trap of utilizing oppressive language and principles.

Recently, I weeded my bookshelves, which I am inclined to do each time I return from a house-sitting gig. Confession: I buy too many books at once and hang on to them all with the intent to someday read. I’m trying to be more realistic, somewhat against my Piscean disposition. I’m trying to create space. I’m trying to be more generous, an attempt at magnanimity undermined by aspirations for meaningful connections.

A slim volume of poetry, purchased at a literary event this summer, lifted me from the spell of purging and I slipped into the spaces between each line. After a month or so of self-help books, I had forgotten what literature felt like: the heat of it, the heart palpitations, the immovability of a body whose usual state is near-constant fidgeting. There exists within me a deep longing to integrate the words I read with the life I lead, hoping that I will remember each line and forever imprint it on my memory, like one yearns to recall every crater in a lover’s iris. 

Making small talk at a poetry reading, dropping off a resume at a bookstore–somewhere someone asks me about my reading tastes, and I resist the urge to joke that I find Tolstoy easier to digest than expected, and Schulz a little chewy, and Krauss to be bittersweet and addicting. I once told someone I liked Salinger, and they seemed crestfallen, as if their opinion of me had been shattered by a negative association they had to a certain assigned reading from high school.

Edward Snowden recently described metadata as analogous to “a record of every book you’ve ever opened.”

What do my bookshelves belie? What does my library queue say about me? What kind of online dating profile would it write? Aspiring minimalist, addicted to self-help, who occasionally supplements soulful business books with dark and depressing nonfiction narratives seeks like-minded bibliophile to discuss essentialism, privilege, surveillance, travel, and relationships?

As if sensing this, I neglect to update my account when I change my name. I continue to borrow books as someone else, an odd and hopefully harmless form of fraud.

Writing the Mind: Nicole Krauss, W.G. Sebald, & Paul Harding

10 krauss sebald hardingHow does one apply the adage show don’t tell to the interior of the mind—a vast expanse one inhabits daily, but never sees? While Pixar’s Inside Out turns the subconscious into a playful and sometimes dark adventure, literature must rely on language—pacing, syntax, and form matching function.

In the early pages of Nicole Krauss’s novel Great House, Nadia mentions to an unnamed character that when her significant other moved out, she was left with little. A friend suggests she call a Chilean man who was searching for a place to store his furniture while he traveled back to Chile. Krauss writes:

It took a minute for him to sort out who I was, a minute for the light to go on revealing me as a friend of a friend and not some loopy woman calling—about his furniture? she’d heard he wanted to get rid of it? or just give it out on loan?—a minute in which I considered apologizing, hanging up, and carrying on as I had been, with just a mattress, plastic utensils, and the one chair.

Rather than being told that Nadia is nervous, or having Nadia state, I was nervous, Krauss utilizes pacing and language to convey anxiety. Similarly, the word “loopy” mirrors the looping, spiraling structure of the sentence, and heightens the repetition of words and phrases, such as “a minute,” and “a friend of a friend.” The three questions embedded in the sentence, one after another, rapid-fire, suggest the firing of synapses in an uncomfortable exchange—when one’s mind and mouth are trying to sync up, make sense, or be understood. Not only are there three questions, but three mentions of “a minute,” conveying how quickly this all happened, but how long and drawn out the exchange seemed to feel. Likewise, Krauss pairs three verbs—apologizing, hanging up, and carrying on—and three nouns—mattress, plastic utensils, chair—to create a winding, well-rounded sentence.

The form matches the function; the structure of the sentence conveys the rushed and uneasy nature of the phone call, without explicitly stating what was said between them, or the tone of voice, or the external details or gestures that were made in those quick moments. We are wholly embedded in this character’s mind. We are intimately woven into their internal landscape, at once cerebral and emotional.

Continue reading on the Ploughshares blog: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/writing-the-mind-nicole-krauss-w-g-sebald-paul-harding/