Saturday, April 30, 2011
Yesterday, Honey and I went to Artropolis. It's something we've been doing for years now, an often incredible festival at the Merchandise Mart. Yesterday we were both hungry for something impactful, resonant. The conversation between the two of us was stirring, but the art was largely... not. There was a lot of stuff that was technically compelling and felt good to look at, but I wanted something to vibrate in my chest cavity, and very little did.
I did however see some work of Ed Hodgkinson from the Mark Jason Gallery, by which I was, for a short time, quite transfixed. One of the reps came up to me and explained the process, which includes a lot of firing. At first I was really intimidated by this guy. Not even on my best day am I in the market for an enameled line painting priced at 16 grand. But I listened to him, and he wasn't pushing me to buy, he was just talking process. He handed me a catalogue. It was nice. We also saw a photo of an exhibit that was at the MCA of Takeshi Moro, about the gesture of apology. It was pretty profound, given a conversation the two of us had about apology, about compassion and regret. There was a platform you could climb onto and assume the Japanese bow of apology: I did. Quite humbling. How interesting it is to (rarely? finally?) acknowledge in your sinew and bone what you try to put into your mind and behavior.
So now I am thinking of editions, like in printmaking. An artist runs off tens, hundreds of editions, and chooses however many to frame, hang, market. What if writing were like this? What if we wrote and rewrote and rewrote scenes, stories, over and over, in different shades or voices, from different points of view, and were able to market them all? I'm not talking about a Quentin Tarantino thing or "the place where six different characters intersect on the same day" or whatever. I mean editions. What if we replicated the process of crafting a story, just to see what changed and what remained the same?
Is this what rewriting is like?
The idea of ripping from other artists isn't new. After a Black Keys interview on Fresh Air (have I mentioned how in love I am with Terry Gross?) I had the idea on the brain of writers escaping to interesting far-off locations to finish a novel like a musician recording an album in a special studio, because of the juju, the sound, that was in that place. I don't know what to do with questions like these-- I don't know if the writing world has the space that the visual world does for experimentation. The publishing marketplace is so different than the visual one. If a writer's goal, if my goal, is to take my work to market and sell as much as possible, are people going to buy editions? Must they all be housed in a single volume? Does the work, in its replication, become like a magazine, and lose its story-ness?
Oh, and one more thing. I've finally done it. But I must say, as a word of protest, that I did it in pursuit of writing.
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Friday, April 22, 2011
profession--1. a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification...
Yesterday I heard a photojournalist on Fresh Air say that journalists were craftspeople, not professionals; got me thinking about the difference, and what it means to identify one way or the other...
Sunday, April 17, 2011
So this isn't a space where I often write about my body, or my beauty or my fashion or anything. It isn't to say I don't like that sort of thing; I love it. But it's not a place where I'm all that comfortable. I feel like there's a real part of being a woman that I've just started coming into truly, and it's by and large been without a lot of support from other women in my life. You know that fantasy (or reality) of girls lounging around in one another's poster-covered bedrooms, trying on different shades of lipstick, swapping clothes and dishing about which boy they'd let get to which base? Yeah, that shit never happened to me. I used to make total fun of those girls who were always in the mirror combing their hair and worrying about their makeup--life was passing them by, and they were too busy worrying if their butt looked big in these jeans.
But something changed, and I'm not sure what it was. Maybe I began to finally, finally feel like I can be the woman I want to be without having to attach to others' perceptions or judgements. Maybe I met a man who made me feel so confident about who I am inside that the real me started to shine outside. Maybe going natural was the first step to letting the woman I am out... I have no idea, one of those brilliant alchemical things. But whatever it was, I've really come into a place where I can be pretty when I want to be without feeling liek I'm compromising myself; I can adorn myself the way I enjoy and deserve, and I can distance myself from anyone or anything who complicates that.
Yesterday I came home from this expo all in a tizzy, with a renewed sense of joy and beauty at my brilliant locked hair, at my love for tending to it, at my joy in the body God gave me, and I spent the whole evening thinking about really cool things I could do to my hair.
Then, like a neon light in the 3 am-skid row of my brain, this word lit up.
I had no idea that this was so damaging to me. I'm only beginning to discover the ways in which all kinds of self-hatred was enacted and handed down to me, and I'm horrified at seeing the same self-hatred still be enacted today. I don't mean that black women are perming their hair because they're caught up in pursuing a white standard of beauty--many have made that argument, but it's not what I'm saying today. I'm saying that after hundreds of years black people are still colorstruck, are still caught up in concepts of good skin and good hair. How can we expect the world to treat us well if we can't treat ourselves well? And how can we treat ourselves well with next to no one to model what a healthy acceptance of ourselves?
I've often taken, after washing my hair, to braiding it into thick plaits. I've been locked for six years now, so there's a lot of hair up there, and when it's all wet it can get heavy and annoying. My sweetheart would come into the bedroom and see me tangled in my hair up to the wrists and tell me that he thought I looked nice.
"Really?" I answered, "I don't look like a pickaninny?"
And then once I really listened to myself, and I thought, why in the hell am I saying this? I know I'm beautiful. I'm nobody's dirty, ignorant, liver-lipped, watermelon-eating stereotype. On top of which, why would having an interesting, dimensional textural quality to my hair make me less attractive? This is me in my natural state. Why am I speaking such hatred and death to myself?
Because I learned it.
I'm so angry with my mom for ever thinking this about herself, and for teaching me to think it about myself. She's a smart, capable, attractive woman who simply knows too much and has too blessed a life to be caught up in such diabolical shame. But when I look back over my childhood, I see now that this bear trap of self-loathing clanked around her ankle every day of her adult life, and still does. And my churning, midnight-blue anger is run through with a red racing stripe of pity. I could pretend that I've already freed myself of the kind of humiliation that she still falls prey to, but the truth is I haven't. I can see the trap now, but choosing not to step in it is a daily activity, like choosing to put food into my body that makes me feel good, or choosing to speak life to my writing career rather than death. So angry, yes, I'm angry; my mother has come from so far that she should know better than to call herself a pickaninny or to ever have called her daughter one. She should know that being the human that you are is a fact, and one that can be celebrated and honored, not lacquered over or hidden. I'm deeply impatient, and I resent that I have to spend such time sloughing off her baggage. But all of that frustration and anger is tinged with pity. She's a woman, a person, and she doesn't know how much better her quality of life would improve if she could begin to accept and love herself.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
I stole this off my friend's blog this morning. This kind of thing has been on my mind for weeks now. Tied to the question (that was for a while, but seems no longer to be, a burning one) of whether graduate school is right for me, is the notion of who I want to be, what I want to make, and how to put that information into the world. Do I want to be the academic with the posh leather briefcase who rides her bike to campus and invites her students over to her dark, book-filled home for finger foods, a little wine and some philosophy? Or do I want to be the writer who writes, the artist who values my skills above almost everything else and does everything in pursuit of them?
The thing about succeeding as an artist is that people have to know you--they have to read your work, see your shows, they have to follow you in some capacity. You have to have talent, skill, a working knowledge of your craft to be sure. But you also have to have the confidence to put your stuff out there (and over and over and over again, because you will almost certainly be rejected out of hand). You have to respect yourself enough to want to be heard. I've been following this blog lately and its writer recently launched a newletter of her creative stuff that you can subsribe to for five dollars. I thought it was such a courageous and appropriate thing to do. From my end (and I'm sure I'm putting words in her mouth) it seemed that she's taking herself more seriously, and wanting to respect herself and her writing enough to make this kind of leap. I respect it. My friend the painter taught me that you should always pay artists what they're worth; the world doesn't value artists enough, and unless we take ourselves seriously--and often, the price tag is the only thing anyone takes seriously--than no one else will either.
But that's really hard for me to do, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because so much of what's out there is projection--mine, yours, someone else's--and not reality, and I don't want to put a false self out into the world. And I could: I've had a lot of training in false selfs. Maybe it's because I can't tell the difference between self-promotion and arrogance. I don't want to say and do things in pursuit of, "Hey look at me," and be mistaken for a smug, arrogant know-it-all who doesn't believe that she has anything left to learn. I find the idea of drawing attention to my successes really difficult, but given the world we live in, if I don't say it, and I don't hire a publicist, than no one else will. The world--by which I mean the media and entertainment industries--have made a killing out of not very bright people jumping up and down and setting their hair on fire. If the art I'm building is about anything at all and I don't put it out there, it's gonna be run over by all the shit that's saturating the collective conscious.
At a meeting last week I had the hardest time telling my colleagues I'd been selected as a finalist for a teaching award. I don't know how good my odds are of actually winning, but it's nice, at my age, to have made the short list for something like this. But I almost choked when I said it, and I'm sure the look on my face was a perfect blend of terror, hope and mortification. Why should that be? Is it the culture of the community? Maybe; but that's too easy, to say that those people make it hard to share good news with--because really, they don't. The reality is I'm just terrified to ask others to look at me and respect me for the talents and skills I've developed.
But that's a very real block. If I don't do anything about it, it's going to hold me back in a profound and permanent way. So, I have to use my strength in service of my vision. I have to be cosistent and aggressive about seeking exposure and opportunity, and I have to do it now and keep doing it, because I believe. I believe I have something to say, something to say that someone has never heard, and that someone else doesn't want me to say, and I have to get it out there. If I am strong and motivated, and working in service of my goals, I can walk through fog without caring that I can't see the ground beneath me.
Monday, April 11, 2011
She works harder than James Brown (only she's not, technically, in show business) and she's been every-fuckin-where. I am such a fan. I had the fortune of writing with her in a group last year and her work changed me, as an artist and a person. She's a two time Weisman Award winner--which, to be fair, may not mean much to you if you're not a student of a particular Chicago art school. But her work, recently featured at the Book & Paper Arts Center here in Chicago, is now available for purchase.
Click here to check out the photodoc of Uptown, one of the most urban, complicated and interesting neighborhoods in Chicago. Next month, if you're in the south Loop, come check her stuff out at Manifest. It promises to be dope.
Other work--image and text--can be found here. Manifest B.A. + B.F.A. Photography Exhibition 2011: 2 May - 20 May, 2011, 1006 S Michigan Ave
Thursday, April 7, 2011
Father once wrote to me, "Do not forget the story of Icarus, who wanted to fly to the sun, and having reached a certain height lost his wings & fell into the sea." You may often feel that neither Anna nor I are what we hope to become and that we still lag a long way behind Father and other people, that we lack soundness and simplicity and sincerity. One does not become simple and true overnight. But let us persevere, and above all have patience. He who believes, does not hasten. Still, there is a difference between our desire to become Christians and that of Icarus to fly to the sun.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
I was so excited about this post because it validated something that's been on my mind a lot lately. I think and talk with others about this idea of criticism in the workshop all the time. I run writing workshops, and feedback is kind of their bread and butter, but I encounter students who complain that in our workshops--which aren't structured classically, or as the "Iowa-method" in our hallways--they don't get enough feedback. I think it's a really common perception among writers who are working in a group session that you aren't getting good feedback if your work doesn't come back to you dripping with comments and changes, with red ink. No pain, no gain, right? You need to know what to do to make your work better, but you won't know unless you distribute it to fifteen people and they rip into it for a good forty minutes. This is probably what the instructor had to undergo in the '70s, it's only fair that you budding writers get your turn. But does this really make you a better writer?
Now, I can't say yes or no unequivocally, because I've never been in one of those standard classical workshops. I'm biased. I don't know what it's like to have your work criticized in such a manner. But I know myself, and I really, really don't think it would be helpful. I think it would make me defensive, and defeated, and I'd probably drop out of a class where the professor made it his/her goal to put my work (and my self-esteem) into a blender and hit "pulverize" on the regular. On top of which, I'm not actually sure what this teaches you to do, besides to be critical (and generally in quite an unproductive way) of others. I had a conference with a student recently who was bemoaning the fact that this isn't how we run workshops, under the misnomer of constructive criticism, and I told him why. The reason his work isn't covered in comments is because that when he gets it back, he writes to the comments. When a roomful of people take aim at your writing--which is always, I don't care who you are, a deeply personal thing--and they tell you what's wrong with it and where it sucks, you write to their comments. These comments don't tell you anything about your process, or anything about your patterns, or anything about what's working in your writing and how to make more of the story work. All you learn from these comments is that (for instance) your dialogue is unbelievable, your main character seems wooden, and nobody likes the fact that you're writing about the suburbs of Maryland instead of New York.
Don't misunderstand me. A writer needs to be critical of her work. Fall in love with her prose all she wants, the next day or week or whatever, she needs to view it with a detached, unemotional eye. She needs to have a deep sense of her standards, her voice and her message, and she needs to be able to recognize when she's saying the thing she means to say, and when she's not. But she needs to be able to recognize those things. She needs to learn how to recognize strong work in her writing, so that when her writing falters, or flounders, or just plain fails, she can recognize that too, and do something about it. Critical writing workshops give people too many opportunities to smear their own creative and emotional baggage all over other people, rather than allowing them to make ask questions and make observations that are supportive and helpful to the writer. I'm not sure if they teach writers how to recognize what's working about their writing, and how to make choices about to make the stuff that's weak stronger.
So the obvious question is, Jess, if you don't allow your students to take shots and unload on each other about their writing, how do they give feedback? Well, I don't want this post to turn into a plug for my alma mater and current employer, but I'll say this: I and my fellow directors encourage our students to listen for their voices and the voices of the work, to listen for where the story is working, where it's reaching them as audience members. We teach them how to recognize these things, and how to talk about why moments or qualities of writing are working so effectively, and also to be mindful of what questions they have about places where things aren't working, where they weren't clear or were rushed or hard to understand. We teach them to look for patterns, and we teach them to be observant about their own processes as artists. The idea, my sincere hope, is that the feedback they receive in my class is going to make them a better writer because it's putting them in touch with their process and their voice, and because it's teaching them how to reflect upon their own work in an even, honest way.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
(Sidebar: so this is all armchair quarterbacking, right? It sounds good, but how the hell do I know if what I'm saying is true? I realize now that I know less than I thought about a woman I considered one of my closest friends for almost five years. This could be because I wasn't interested in her story; but it could also be that she was careful with what she showed me. I've put this idea together with what little I know of the social and religious scars she bears from the community she was raised in, and while it sounds good, I don't know if it holds any water. I do know that when I went to her and her pastor, seeking an opportunity to find a way wherein my husband and I could remain a part of the worship community now that we were no longer friends and was denied, I felt soundly rejected. The heavy oak door of a house of worship shut profoundly in my face, and it was fucking cold in that street, man.)
So now all this time has gone by. I have all this lovely, worthwhile perspective. I know more about myself than I did then. I can say, with some certainty, that I am not invested in any kind of relationship with this woman that is even remotely similar to the friendship we used to have. For years I felt like Timothy to her Paul--protegee to her mentor, the diminutive, slightly awkward and always in need of correction and guidance sidekick, for whom friendship is a favor. I am no longer interested in the pursuit of relationship that feels so unbalanced and unequal. I also want to be in friendships where I can be vulnerable and still be safe, where I can feel supported in uncertainty or fear, where I can be the soft, easy, quiet parts of myself without risking ridicule or chastisement. There are a number of reasons (my twisted pathology) why I sought a kind of friendship that wouldn't permit this in the first place; and there are also reasons why it worked so well for her, if in fact, it ever did. But if she's still served by this kind of friendship, well, it won't come from me.
Monday, April 4, 2011
The stoplight is about to change; people are leaking into the intersection in anticipation. But I am glued to the concrete by your memory. I am tortured by the taste of you that floods my mouth with the tangy, green bite of spring. Your laugh is in the wind, your hands are the hot breath on my legs as I walk across the subway grate; your shoulders are the shoulders of the man who stands in front of me, also waiting for the signal to cross the street, checking his watch. I reach out to touch him, already knowing it isn’t you, and when his stranger’s face looks expectantly into mine, I stammer an apology and brush past him, hoping he isn’t watching me walk away, thinking what an idiot I am. The whole train ride home I rumble past Grand, Chicago, Division, and Damen, jammed between a bored-looking businessman in a gray suit and a student with an IPod and a tube full of architecture plans sticking out of his bag. Neither of them notices me. My breath is shallow, a brick of anxiety weighing down my chest. I feel heavy and unready for spring. Your smeary fingerprints are still all over it, and I do not know how to wipe them off, or even if I want to.
They make you drink at this reading series. Well, they don't make you drink, but it's customary to, to have a shot before you read published work that you brought to share as fodder for trivia, and another shot after. Between the two shots of Jameson's I had that night and the bourbon and soda I'd had to quell the shakes before I read my own stuff, I was pretty lit by the end of the night. So all I remember about his work is that it was a first-person story about a jackass of a narrator who has sex with a girl who passes out with her head in the closet. The story is about more than this; he hates it when I describe the work like this. But honestly, I have the tolerance of a nine-year-old; after one drinks the room's a little soft focus and after two it spins. I was wasted, and that's all I can remember.
photo courtesy of Grayscale Studios
Friday, April 1, 2011
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison- the first time I read this book, I was a senior in high school, then again, a junior in college. It was the literary leg of my undergraduate thesis. It was the first book I ever read that made me say, "I didn't know anyone else felt this way. This is so stunning; I feel less alone." I use sections of it as a teaching tool in the classroom, because I think Ellison does some amazing literary tricks, but mostly I still just love it because the voice is so arresting and profound, and because when I read it the words vibrate in my chest like plucked harp strings: the prose provokes in me a visceral sensation. It makes my mouth water.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath-again with the doubling up: read first in 11th grade and again junior year. I had the immense privilege of staging (most of) this book with my mentor, Paul Edwards, and a handful of fellow artists while in school. It is irreverant and confused and so ardent in its desires. There's none of the cool Eastern detachment I'm supposed to want in life in this novel; it is all about frustration and passions and the carnival-colored swirling world of mental illness. Another one that vibrates in my body out of familiarity.
- Immortality by Milan Kundera- I've read most of the Kundera cannon, and Unbearable Lightness twice, but this is still my favorite. It's so experimental (which I generally don't cotton for too much, and I think my husband would love it) and it does all kinds of things I didn't think a book could do. It was the first time I'd read a conceptual-philosophical-religious-international story and it made me think differently about a writer's relationship to her audience and her characters.
- Running in the Family by Michael Ondatjee- this is a recent read, a purchase in pursuit of advice on a writing project, and it took my breath away. I've had a lot of trouble battling internal censorship, and this book tells its story honestly and without hesitation. Sometimes the writer isn't even there, and we're just left with images and scenes of the family, without his pesky opinion tripping up the movement. It is a fine model for my writing right now.
- Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin- my father gave me my first copy of this book when I was twelve. I don't know how he came by it, but that gesture cemented several things within me and between us, the least of which he ensured that I'd become a writer. Yes yes, everyone says that Baldwin is a stronger essayist than fiction writer, but that doesn't matter to me. This collection, and in particular "The Rockpile" and the title story, are so significant because they teach me about people I've come from. I don't know if you've ever encountered a thing and felt that you were connected to it in a way that you couldn't see or articulate, but that's how I feel when I read these stories. On top of which, Baldwin's so diverse; he fought in so much of his work against being pigeonholed as one kind of writer, despite the fact that the world wanted to define him. I admire that.
- The Women's Book of Yoga & Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness by Linda Sparrowe and Patricia Walden- yes, yes, Light on Yoga is transformative, and right now I'm in a bit of an ashtanga groove (started reading this blog recently), but this book changed the way I look at yoga. My practice has been evolved into a spiritual practice of sorts for some time now, but this book helped me discover a kind of synthesis between my flesh, my feminine identity and how I move my body around. I am regularly consulting it for holistic advise about living with the things I live with as a woman. I'm so glad it exists for me as a resource.
- The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson- I didn't know it when I read this book, but I love Anne Carson. I read her collected poetry of Sappho translation and was transported, and I bought my husband a book-album-picture box-thing called Nox that she created, that is completely inspiring. The Autobiography of Red is one of the strangest and most beautiful love stories I've ever read. It is because of Anne Carson that I can work on the other project I'm working on, which is still much to green and incubatatory (can I make that a word?) to mention here--yet.
- The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender- I fell in love with this book when I saw Paul Edwards' staging of "The Healer" at Northwestern a few years ago. I met Aimee Bender when she was on Columbia's campus in 2008--that seems like forever ago. She was so approachable and friendly. When this book came out I bought it at a sidewalk sale in my department and devoured it in maybe 72 hours. I was blown away by the writing, her innovative use of language and metaphor; it knocked me on my ass--and I wanted to read it slowly, but the story was so good, so marvelous and interesting that I had to read it fast. I gaze at it on my shelf, half in joy half in terror of how fucking amazing the writing is, and know I must read it again with my writer's mind at the front. But not while I'm writing--this might be one of those books I can't read while I'm writing because it'll make me wanna throw in the towel and go become a secretary or something.
- Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant- this book is a sleeper, something I'd never heard of before, that I bought recently and am reading quite slowly. Like the above mentioned, this book is definitely one of those I can't read while I'm writing because it makes me want to quit. These stories--regardless of length or subject matter--are so surprising. It's like riding your bike down a hilly street and having all these strange cool things run out to you and tie balloons on your wrist and offer you strawberry Kool-Aid or something. It's alarming. It's sad and complicated. I love it.
- The Letters of Vincent van Gogh- I'm reading this one slowly, too, because the structure lends itself to being picked up and put down again. I love the intimacy of personal papers, and the kind of wet, incisive truth that comes out in journals and letters that we get to be privy to because someone thought to take these bundles to a publisher. I'm on page 12. I'm so thankful.
So there are a couple others that I'll add post script but that didn't make the list of top ten for one reason or another--some of this will be obvious.
*The Bible- this one's a staple of wholesome religious midwestern upbringing, isn't it? A book I've been reading on and off my entire life for a number of reasons, and that I read now for a number of reasons; it's become quite an interesting tool in terms of writing and relationship. I hope I'm able to view it without the condescension that so many employ in casting it as a great book full of lessons but not necessarily relevant. I hope also that I don't use it as a measuring tool or a weapon or a barrier against the complications murkiness of life, so that I can blind myself with it and feel safer in a strange world.
*Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey-I've written about this book before. Say what you want to about him, this novel shook me for weeks afterward. I don't know what his process was in drafting this thing, but it was astonishing. The kind of discipline I imagine it must take to make a book like this, I should be so lucky.
My husband's book, titled but as yet unpublished (I think you can, I think you can, I think you can.)- I couldn't bear the cheese factor of putting his novel on this list. It's my hangup. Life with him is so great sometimes I think my face is going to fly off in all the joy, but I feel so obnoxious in that place, so I try to play it low key. It's a knotty tale of race, family and loyalty. Look for it. (I think you can, I think you can, I think you can.)
*one more, I thought of one more. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose- This book has changed the way I read. And write.
What am I missing? Tons, obviously. But what changed your life?