Finishing up a particularly rough semester. Spending the last few days finishing up student publication editing as well as grading portfolios. Still have a few more hours of math and grade finalizing. Always amazed at just how much work we complete at my community college in writing and lit courses. Ready for a trip to NYC and the Latino Book Awards as well as more time as a student in Sergio Troncoso’s workshop at the Yale Writers Conference.
Just finished a very engaging What’s Write for Me interview on my book, writing and the process of writing. Thank you to the host Dellani Oakes.
On Tuesday I had the fortune of attending a private screening of the inspirational documentary film I am a Visitor in Your World . The film was about Rebecca Babcock, a young writer and blogger diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 25. The film was a poignant account of her life and struggles and Rebecca’s story was so affecting. I liked the idea that her poetry from her blog was used as voiceover.
After the film there was a Q and A regarding the editing, cinematography and the music used in the film as well as commentary from Rebecca’s mother, Mary. The DVD is currently available at the filmmaker’s website.
Drafting and revising semi-orphaned novel project but had some time to finish reading Orwell’s memoir/nonfiction/autobiographical novel about a young writer’s time in the ghettos of Paris and London. He works in restaurants and sleeps in homeless hostels. Pawns his clothes for food and also closely observes the down and out people he encounters. What strikes me most in Orwell’s work has to be his readability and the chapter movements. I’m also struck at his closely drawn character studies of those he encounters–the fat man in Paris and also Bozo in England are the stand outs. One thing that seems consistent throughout his writing is the strong sense of empathy and humanity. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
“Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then what is work? A navy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out-of-doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course – but, then many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout – in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.
“Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? — for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that is shall be profitable.”
Spending time with Nick Flynn’s book and also watching some clips from the adaptation: “We all need to create the story that will make sense of our lives. Make sense of our daily tasks.”
Some nights when I’m supposed to be working on my big fat failed novel. When I am supposed to be sleeping. Or grading. I can’t and so I sit and listen to books on tape. A few months back it was Jesus’ Son. Something about Will Patton’s voice that grabbed me. This time out I have been obsessing over Ethan Hawke reading Slaughterhouse Five.
Maybe it has something to do with my hesitation to dig in to some memories. And then dig in to the revisions. Maybe, like Vonnegut’s characters–coming to me via Hawke’s whispering performance–I’m up at night obsessing over the memories and the dilemma of how to organize my stories. How to give them structure. How to do them justice. How to deal with people who are dead and gone. How to try and recreate their errors in the writing. To try and re-imagine them and understand.
It makes me think of Alberto Giacometti’s surrealist sculpture “the Palace at 4am” and how it influenced or inspired William Maxwell to return to his memoir or writing. How it represents that dread in the middle of the night that comes to people.
I tell my students to find those stories that are so difficult for you that you stay up late thinking and rethinking their importance. The stories that give you Phillip Glass–The Hours soundtrack–kind–of–dread in the middle of the night when decent folks are sleeping. When even my dog is snoring. Perhaps I should tell my students what you do when you find the ghosts from those stories and how to keep them at arm’s length so you can just get some rest.
The sad situation reminds me of Amy Hempel’s first assignment in her workshop. To paraphrase: find the story that reveals deep secrets that reveals and breaks down your innermost sense of self. I guess I’m stuck on the “breaks down” part now that I am hundreds of pages in to my manuscript and the characters based on dead folks from my youth.
More on this as I think of it.
I remember Kerouac biographer Ann Charter arguing in the documentary King of the Beats that Kerouac could write in any form and style and that in her extensive study of the man and his work she could see the struggle for a more unique and distinct style. In the Sea is My Brother and also in Atop an Underwood, another pre-On the Road manuscript I’ve read lately, I can see what Ann Charter means. His early work, or “juvenile work” as some reviewers I’ve read have called it, contrasts sharply with his later spontaneous prose style or his more stream of consciousness writing made famous in his classic On the Road. That wasn’t much of a surprise. I was expecting text similar to Town and the City than The Subterraneans. And I wasn’t surprised to see a third person limited omniscience means of perception but I guess I was most surprised in reading the book as to find more themes of brother searching or mentor searching.
The plot shows a very young Kerouac developing themes of friendship and perhaps also themes of the individual choosing more direct experience over the academic or over the intellectual experience. I also thought it interesting that much like Sal Paradise chasing Dean Moriarty in On the Road Kerouac gives us the similar William Everhart and Wesley Martin. William is the bookish and frustrated Columbia English Professor and Martin is the more experienced seaman who entices and convinces the lesser traveled Everhart to sign up for sailor duty. Again as in On the Road we see themes of travel and romanticized world experience—also travel without amenity as romanticized by young men. We also see another trend of Kerouac’s which is to show young men choosing friends, travel and experience—also choosing liquor and excess—over marriage and more secure pursuits. Or as Leonard Gardner calls it in the novel Fat City, choosing the fraternity of men.
My critique of the book is that so many of the conversations seem unnecessarily weighted. Folks drinking and talking about philosophy, communism and socialism rather than more organic and less-telegraphed thematic notes. We see much more subtle dialogue and interaction in On the Road. Again, as in Town and the City I feel like he is trying to be Thomas Wolfe or F Scott Fitzgerald—or maybe even Jack London—by giving important themes in a heavy handed way instead of giving us more natural and spontaneous emotion and dialogue. The sea here is a heavy metaphor whereas the metaphor of the road from later work seems much more effective. Kerouac’s ear for capturing voices and dialogue was evident though. The editor’s note at the beginning of the book is quick to remind that Kerouac sailed with the Merchant Marines and quotes pages from his 1942 “Voyage to Greenland” journal reminding us of Kerouac’s keen eye and ear for observing and his deftly drawn character studies.
In his article “In the Watery Part of the World”, Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal calls The Sea is My Brother a “bad book” and shows the young Kerouac’s “inexperience” and I guess I agree. But I have to say I find the study of Kerouac’s so-called failures and inexperience important in the way I admire reading Salinger’s uncollected stories. (I’m waiting for Salinger’s estate to publish a nicely produced version of those as well as the Hapworth 16, 1924 manuscript.) Seeing a major writer’s flaws can give insight into our own process and failures as well as give a strange encouragement.
Working my way through Sergio Troncoso’s list of suggested Latino authors. I began with Troncoso’s novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust and moved on to Daniel Chacón’s collection of short stories Unending Rooms. This has been a long week of grading final composition and literature portfolios so finding the time to read has been difficult. I’ve been reading late at night and early in the mornings. In many ways I’ve been willing it. The professor I share office space with asked me just today, “How do you find the time?”
And I found the answer in the book itself. Chacón writes:
What if the way we read a book is the way we live our lives? If we can’t stand the reading and are always looking at the bottom of the page, toward the end of the chapter, counting how many pages until the end of the book, surely we must live life the same way, impatient with a walk in the city or with sitting in a garden, waiting only to arrive, never to be. (81)
And this week I wanted to be the person who focuses and reads to escape to explore other possibilities but also to enjoy and understand–to complete. And in many ways I wanted to escape my students’ term papers and my own grading rubrics for some fictive spaces. It’s been a long-term.
And Chacón’s book came at the right time as many of his stories in this fine collection involve fictive spaces—alternate realities of the mind and place we are awoken to and also spaces we find ourselves trapped. But also spaces we can escape.
Chacón also writes: “Reading should be like entering different rooms of a house, creating walls that rise up around you and then dissolve into a mountain range or a tree on a hill” (230). These stories are well crafted and Borges-esque. I particularly enjoyed the Epilogue: Borges and The Xican@. I felt this story or essay or whatever one wants to call it is where I felt closest to the author and empathized with the experience. I also enjoyed the Meta aspect of the story and was fascinated as the author, the character/persona of Danny and Borges himself wrangled over the aesthetic at play in the book.