Monthly Archives: March 2014

Darkness and Light

lamp in darknessI meet people sometimes who talk as if being a writer is a choice. If that’s true, they must be really different sorts of writers from me. Did Beethoven choose to be a musician? Did he think “Hmm, law is more lucrative, but I do have these tunes in my head.” I sure as hell didn’t choose. I write because it’s there, like breathing. Sometimes I wish I loved doing things that people actually pay a lot of money for (or any money). What would that be like? To feel fulfilled by international banking?

I think I may have mentioned this before, so if you’ve heard it, don’t stop me. Sometimes I feel a strong need, artistically, to go into the darkness. On occasion it has been either that or buy a sledge hammer and walk around the neighborhood smashing out the windshields of all the cars. When you think of it that way, living as a writer seems pretty reasonable. On average, it involves less jail time than using the sledge hammer. So I’ve been working lately on a short story that I’m trying to make as dark as I can.

There are multiple motivations in doing this. In part, the story is just following the spark of inspiration that came from a line in a song, where so many of my stories begin. For me, nothing switches on the blowtorch of desire to write like song lyrics. This dark story is also an emotional expression, trying to capture some of my reaction to life lately. And, ironically, in the act of writing, the story gives me a kind of joy. It’s an exercise in what I can do, a chance to stretch beyond my own norms. The more dark, the more grim, the more morbid, the greater the artistic joy.

The story is about a man going to a club that’s hard to get into, though he has a surreptitious reason for going. Here are a few lines from the story:

• A line of people dressed like cheap whores in glitter, male and female, was sprawled down the sidewalk beside the graffiti that leered from the wall.
• A smile crawled like an insect across the man’s lips.
• Holding the beer, Crowe moved his head and shoulders in time to the shrieking of the music, imitating some of the spastic joy of the damned that surrounded him.

The story has a plot, and it’s interesting enough, I suppose, but a lot of stories could have some similar plot. The real interest for me is in the style. That may just be because of my own love of language, of using them to create moods and images. As I work on this story, I’m looking for new metaphors, for ways to increase the creepiness, such as changing “curtain” to “shroud”, or changing “the glow of the bar” to “the red glow of the bar”. And if it works (possibly a big if), there is emotional satisfaction both as an artist and as a person who is in a mood sometimes to tell the world to get fucked and get away from me.

In true artistic schizophrenia, while writing this dark story, I also started a humorous one. I began both stories, in fact, within thirty minutes of one another, and I’ve been writing both, depending on what I felt like working on every evening.

The humorous story tries to build on a style I’ve been using for several years when working on very short humor pieces, originally inspired by the Russian writer Zoshchenko. I was so enthralled by him that I deliberately tried to imitate him, which I don’t think is possible, as he does interesting things with the Russian language that English can’t do. I write all these little humor stories in first person, using a nondescript white male character (myself as an idiot, that is, me pretending to be an idiot, pretending).

It’s harder for me to illustrate this story, as the humor builds from preceding lines, but here are a few lines, as a cop stops the narrator when driving:

“Do you know the speed limit here?” he asked.
“There’s a limit?” I said.
“You didn’t see the signs saying 45 miles an hour?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Did those refer to operating a vehicle?”
“45 is the limit. That’s how fast you can go.”
“No,” I said. “I believe that’s the suggested average.”

I like working on both these stories at the same time, because sometimes I also feel like putting my arm around the world to go dancing, even if we dance in the dark.

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Cultural Flowers

artistic alphabetIf you were to put the following words in alphabetical order, how would they go: interest, cream, railroad, create, bright?

How long did it take you? Five minutes? Did you have to get a copy of the alphabet to check? Did you write them down? Or perhaps, like me, you did it in your head in about three seconds (maybe I’m slow).

As a hyperliterate person myself, I’m not even aware that I know the alphabet. It’s just there. I take it for granted. Today I went to observe a class to teach English to people learning it as a second language. The emphasis of this class was on reading, and the teacher was trying to teach skills to help the students use the dictionary.letter A

The class opened with putting words in alphabetical order. It came as quite an eye-opener to me to discover just how difficult this was. With the words I listed up above, did you have trouble deciding between “cream” and “create”? They’re so much alike, after all, the first four letters the same. Did you almost instantly jump to the end to see that “m” comes before “t”?

Of course you did. Most of the students this morning did not. The very concept of alphabetical order did not seem to be there. I wondered whether they could even read in their native languages.letter A

I visited this class because I intend to become, as a volunteer, a literacy tutor. For the next two Saturdays I must attend class, which I had to pay for, by the way, and we must also observe six hours of class. Thus I was there this morning (and pretty tired, after working at the asbestos job until midnight last night). I’ve done a lot of volunteering in the past, I feel better about my place in the world when I do it, and literacy tutoring makes use of my background. There were three of us observing the class this morning, and we also spent time working directly with the students. I loved it.

The class, meeting at 10 in the morning, had eight students, seven women and one man. Was this because the women had more interest in learning? Was it because the men were at work? I don’t know. Almost every student was over thirty years old, in some cases quite a bit older, every student was very dark complexioned, and four of the women wore large colorful head scarves.letter A

I didn’t hear anyone speak much, but I got the impression that they would struggle with a very complicated conversation. This was not easy for them, but there they were. They made the effort to find a class, sign up, and attend it. I not only sympathized with them, I identified with their struggle. Watching them slowly write the words as they put them in alphabetical order (or didn’t put them in alphabetical order), as they looked at the alphabet across the top of the page to figure out what the order was—this all took me back to my own work learning Russian. I remember trying to look words up in the dictionary (about 10,000 hours of flipping pages in that damned dictionary), wondering where the hell the letter Щ came. Somewhere near the end, but not exactly the end, and uh… I remember very well how it was, feeling that I would never, ever, ever learn that impossible language.

I also realized working with these students that when they looked at the alphabet, starting with “A” and then looked at a list of words that included “apple”, well, A and a don’t look remotely alike, do they?letter A

The people in the class looked like the people in my neighborhood. Every day I see dark-skinned women walking down the sidewalk, wearing colorful wraparound skirts, with head scarves. My little village to the east of Atlanta is known for immigrants (yesterday I discovered a store across the street with complete skinned goat carcasses hanging behind a glass window in a refrigerated room). So many people coming here to make a new life, just like it’s always been in this country. Just like my ancestors.

At the end of class I especially enjoyed working with one woman who seemed to catch on rather well. I also flatter myself that I letter Aknow something about teaching. I saw that she had henna flowers drawn on her hand and wrist, and I said something about them, then I showed her my own rose tattoo on the wrist. In a few minutes, one of the words she was supposed to look up in the dictionary was flower, and she like “Like a flower tattoo”.

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painting of girl with colored hairWon’t the future be great? Everything will be perfect, and people won’t be dumb anymore. Although…since it will be a time of perfect rationality, people like us wouldn’t feel at home, so it’s just as well we won’t be there.

I’m guessing that the ubiquitous logic and rational behavior of the future will extend to language, with none of the lemming-like fad following we now engage in. New words will be created because there’ll be a need for them, not because waves of emotion have washed the words onto the linguistic shore.

This ain’t the future, though (unless you’re reading this from the past, in which case, don’t vote for Nixon). Here in our own time, when we’re in the mood to consider silly things we do with language, like now, we have plenty of choices of words that could use a little scrutiny. Let’s begin with a constantly shifting acronym. Not long ago, as we became (slightly) less neurotic about sex, we began to refer to “lesbian and gay”—or since we’re still in a patriarchal society, we probably said “gay and lesbian”. Then someone said “well, what if you like both?” OK, OK, so “bisexual” was added, which led to “transgender”, even though most people don’t even know what that means.

Now it was too many words to say, so we went to the initials LGBT, and we’ve learned to live with that. It keeps us from having to pronounce all those words, and we know it has something to do with anybody who does sex different, or something. I’ve even seen exactly the same acronym in Russian (ЛГБТ) with the same meaning. Only now, sheesh, people are starting to add a Q. What the hell? A few weeks ago I had a conversation with an elderly woman who said she thought the Q stands for “questioning”, but in fact it stands for Queer. Whatever that means. Are they saying LGBT doesn’t cover everything? Why don’t we add a U for “undecided” and maybe an S for “sometimes by myself”. With LGBTQ we have passed absurdity. People in the future will look at this awkward pile of letters as a sign of how backward we were, that we were so obsessed we even needed to talk about this.

Another word carrying far more political and emotional weight than logic is “African-American”. Who thought of that? I can tell you one thing, there was no linguist sitting in the room when they came up with it. Do you know how many syllables that is? Seven. Plus a hyphen. Even black people don’t want to say it, except when they’re being formal and know they’re supposed to. In normal practice they say “black”—basically, consonant vowel consonant. Simple. Everyone else also says “black”, unless they’re meticulously demonstrating that they’re not racist. I once had a student who was writing about some incident he experienced in London, involving a black British citizen, and my apparently not very bright student talked about the “African-American gentleman” even though he was referring to an Englishman. I just hope we don’t start referring to “white” people as European-Americans. If we do, I’m going to shorten it down to Eur-Am, so I can say “I am Eur-Am”.

Let’s consider one more word, very different from the ones above. This one doesn’t refer to people, but to the country: “homeland”. We can almost name the day this incredibly emotional word was introduced into common American usage. If the word had come about naturally, from an emotional attachment people had toward the country, I would not object. But in fact, the word was injected into our parlance as the name of a government agency. Talk about your emotional attachment. Department of Homeland Security. And consider the cynical bullshit involved in the creation of that name. Here is an enormous new agency whose job will be to gather more information and watch people. How can we make everyone feel comfortable with that? Let’s use the word “homeland”, a word that sounds like it came from a cowboy song or translations of German poetry. Previously, it was a word that almost no one actually used. People are starting to use it now, though it still grates on my ears, maybe from knowing where it came from.

Or maybe I will go live in the future. I’d like to have a rational homeland where people don’t need a special vocabulary to treat each other like human beings.

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Colored Ink

tattoo of blue roseExcessively Long Introduction
Years ago I would occasionally look at tattoo magazines. In some cases the images were beautiful, truly amazing things that astonished me. In other cases the tattoos were hideously ugly, clearly intended to shock and repel, sending a message that something about the wearer’s unfortunate life compelled them to visual transgression. And then there are tattoos that are just dumb, dum, dumm, God almighty! Clearly a lot of morons are getting tattoos.

Still, I was interested. I never imagined I’d actually get one, though I finally decided that when I turned 50, I would get a tattoo, only I couldn’t make up my mind what to get. Last week, after I turned 61, I got one. I just needed time to contemplate. My daughter made all the arrangements, choosing the place and the artist, and she went with me. Earlier, when she and I were in a bar sharing a bottle of wine, my son-in-law, the artist Tyson McAdoo, was on the phone with her joking about reasons I should not get a tattoo. (For a little context, both my daughter and her husband are covered with tattoos.)

Here are Tyson’s reasons and my iron-clad, logical response: (1) What will it look like when you get old? Answer: I’m already old, so no problem. (2) You’ll never get another good job. Answer: A good job? How is a tattoo going to make things worse in that regard? (3) You’ll only attract crazy women. Answer: I clearly haven’t needed a tattoo to manage that.

So last Saturday, my daughter and I went to Ink and Dagger tattoo studio (or “parlor”, if you prefer a more genteel 19th century vocabulary), and a couple of hours later I walked out with the tattoo pictured above.

Finally, My Actual Point
And I do have an actual point. When I lived in Pennsylvania, twice I met composers who said they were interested in working with me to write a one-act opera. Twice I got fooled, because twice I wrote the libretto (you see how sophisticated I am; I used the technical opera word for “script”), and twice the composer did not write the music. On one of those two occasions—ah ha! my real point—the subject we agreed on was a woman who symbolizes a change in her life by getting a tattoo. Almost the entire opera (called Colored Ink) takes place in a tattoo parlor. I think it’s a shame the music never got written, as it might have been the only tattoo opera in the world. (So if you know any serious composers, send them my way.)

Below I’m giving a few lines from the opera, ending with an aria about getting a tattoo, sung by Jenna. She’s the woman who gets the tattoo, and her boyfriend Taylor, a serious businessman, is appalled that she has done this. The two of them also work together. Imagine all of this being sung, especially the aria.

And why can’t I be respected with a tattoo?

We have to live in the real world, Jenna. This is where we pay rent.

You think I’m naïve.

That’s not what I’m saying. But I have to go. Make sure you get the Keller files to Robert. I’ll pick you up this evening at seven for the party. Be careful your sleeves are long enough. [He exits to the right.]

Yes, I’ll wear long sleeves. But why does it matter so much? Taylor was right about one thing. He really doesn’t know me. I wish he did. [She looks at her rose tattoo.] It’s part of who I am now. And I’m glad.

What does a rose mean when it blooms on your arm? I’ve planted seeds and waited, waited for rain to fall, waited for Taylor, to garden together, with his kisses that held me in thrall. From seeds we grew seedlings, and rose bushes came. But Taylor doesn’t know me, the girl who sits all day, the girl who types, the girl who dies doing what people say. He doesn’t even want to know.

I’ll never have roses from Taylor. My rose bush grows in sunlight, I’ve waited for rain to fall, but not a bud and not a flower. I should have painted roses on this wall. Instead a rose blooms on my arm.

One rose can turn into a dozen. When someone really listens, and cares what we have to say, who cares what we need to be happy, a rose becomes a bouquet. What does a rose mean when it blooms on your arm? It means you’ve seen the flowers in yourself.

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Diving From Grace

painting of marsh“Some say I fell from grace; they’re being kind. I didn’t fall—I dove.”

This quote from page two of the novel The Mermaid Chair, by Sue Monk Kidd, embodies part of what I like about this book. The protagonist looks at the edge of life’s cliff, walks up to it, and voluntarily leaps off, hoping for wings. I’ve lived that way myself often enough, and no doubt will do so again. I relate to this protagonist, Jessie Sullivan.

But while I’m discussing this book, let’s pause for a completely relevant moment in a Malaysian/Thai restaurant. I went there with my daughter on my birthday last week. I loved the cool city decor, the ambience, the subdued elegance of the restaurant. My daughter, however, was more critical. She felt they might have done more to create a sense of intimacy for the diners (occasional divider walls, perhaps) and she noticed the phone ringing, which she felt was wrong. Here’s my point—my daughter has designed several restaurants in Atlanta, so she’s more aware than I am of such things. As to the food, we both liked it a lot, but neither of us is a serious cook. A real cook would have been cataloging every ingredient in the dishes, tasting the sauce, wondering what was in it, not just making a lot of yummy noises, like I was.

I’m a writer, so what I notice is writing. In reading The Mermaid Chair, I was almost instantly swept onto the wing of a coastal heron, to fly above the marshes in delight and admiration at the style of writing. There were phrases in the book, such as the quote I began with above, that stopped me in my tracks. I would pause, reread a sentence or phrase, admiring and thinking “Lord, look at that”. I was jealous of a writer with such skill and creativity, but now that I’m a real actual grown-up, or at least know several, I’ve learned not to hate people who are better than me. I think Kidd is better than me.

Of course you’re thinking Give us examples. Here: “…in the pink hours of the morning when the sun sat like a bobbing raspberry out on the water.” “For the first time, I could feel a hand at the small of my back nudging me toward the mysterious dwelling place of menopausal women.” “…each one of those years a bone of darkness that he’d knawed.”

I liked this book so well that I wrote to the author, and one of things I told her is that I think the book is about the yearning of the soul, which it is. Aside from any motifs involving place or characters, surely one of Kidd’s impulses in writing The Mermaid Chair was to express a character who feels that there must be something more in life. Who can be alive and not feel this way? Some people take that wild feeling and leap from a cliff, some people drink a little more, some save up for a vacation, and some people hammer the yearning down into a broken silence. In this book, Jessie Sullivan, though married, falls in love with a Benedictine monk (I’m not giving anything away there).

There is a very strong sense of place in the book. That may not be a quality you care about, but it evokes the diamonds in my eyes. The book takes place on an imaginary island off the coast near Charleston, South Carolina. I also like to bring a location to life in my own writing (as I mentioned last week, I also wrote a book using Charleston). The island in The Mermaid Chair is not real, but then again it is. How many islands near Charleston can you name? For most of us, Egret Island is as real as it needs to be, with herons, sea grass, and shrimp fishermen.

painting of mermaid

Painting by Victor Nizovtsev

Kidd uses an interesting technique here, telling most of the book in first person from the point of view of Jessie Sullivan. A few chapters, however, are from the point of view of two different men, but those chapters are written in third person, putting a little more distance between the reader and those characters. Thus Jessie is the focus of the book, not only from having most of the chapters, but because we directly hear her voice speaking. She is also an artist, and Kidd uses Jesse’s paintings to show psychological changes in the character, as well as making the art a plot element at a critical moment.

This book contains scenes of deep tragedy, normal everyday pain, shocking craziness, and passion that forgets every voice but itself. It’s a book about being human.

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