First, write an entire book
This is the only kind of art I’m capable of creating after finishing my MFA last month.The Dunns went tubing for the 5th of July and I’ve memorialized it as such:
It’s a rainy day at the beach and I am stuck inside contemplating my suitcase. For once, I have made what I hope is a manageable reading list. It manages to be manageable because I’ve already read some of these (this summer—no cheating!) and I am at the beach for two weeks and I am unemployed until September. If I am unable to read ten books then I should ask for a refund on my post-grad AWP membership.
Here is my list of my highly recommended OR highly anticipated books:
1. The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison
Essayists rejoice: this book is a best-seller! What a rare bird indeed—popular AND intellectually stimulating nonfiction. We can only hope this is a good omen for future publishing amongst our ranks. The first few essays are really engrossing and leave me itching for more. (This is an inside joke because one of the essays is about Morgellon’s disease, a condition where people think they have things crawling under their skin.)
2. Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer
In the grand tradition of to-do lists, one writes them in order to cross things off. I’ve already finished this book. Check. It is the quintessential post-MFA read: Dyer writes in a lackadaisical frenzy about not being able to do anything at all. I will tell you that by page 20 it was already one of my favorite books—if that’s not enough recommendation, then know that Steve Martin says it’s the funniest book he’s ever read.
3. Lady Chatterly’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence
Dyer’s book is about how he can’t write a book about D.H. Lawrence. I will see if I can read a book about D.H. Lawrence. I haven’t read Lawrence’s fiction yet, only essays, but his essays are incredible so I hope for the best with this (banned, lascivious) book.
4. The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem
OK, this one is a cheat: I’ve been reading it for two years and finally finished it this month. It’s 511 pages long though, so whatever. A wonderful, epic, sprawling, autobiographical novel about growing up white in a black neighborhood. Delicate and moving and gorgeous.
5. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
I’ve heard so many good things about this Italian novel, the first of a three part series. The opening is spare and absorbing—can’t wait to keep reading it!
6. The Artist as Critic, Oscar Wilde
McNally Jackson sells these adorable re-printed copies of this book and I finally broke down and bought one. It’s a short play about art. I need all the over-the-top aphorisms I can get right now so, of course, Wilde.
7. The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
Rachel Kushner came and read in Iowa City and the sections she read aloud (she’s a great reader!) were hilarious. Excited to start!
8. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
After this book won the Pulitzer, you simply could not get a copy of it at the library so I had to read her earlier novel, The Secret History, instead. I could not put that book down—gorgeous and gripping, a rare genre indeed: the lyric thriller. I’m expecting more of the same here!
9. Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis
My favorite—I read half of this, but the cover is so gorgeous (and the book is so heavy) I had to leave it at home before departing on this vacation. Her micro-stories are perfect for reading one, resting one’s eyes, then reading another.
10. Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett
And last but not least, another ideal post-MFA read. This is Patchett’s memoir of her time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop with her BFF Lucy Grealy. It’s sad but beautiful but most of all wonderful; especially the parts where she describes little things about life in Iowa that I know so well.
You don’t get blue like this on the east coast. The camera on my phone doesn’t do it justice. This image shows a deeper blue than my memory does; the windshield adds an anti-UV tint. Let me try to explain: there is something about the horizon stretching out infinitely that gives the sky a watercolor wash. There is something about the great expanse of land here that opens up and gives way to these little superfluous cloud puffs. They float along as we drive beneath. They do something, I don’t know what, to the water particles in the atmosphere—these reflect or refract or thicken the sky, giving it a milky undertone. White-blue. Blue-white. I want to call it “blight” but that’s already a word and it means something different. David Foster Wallace called it the “color of old jeans.” It’s subtle. If you’ve lived under it your whole life you might not notice how it gets lighter as the sky chokes with humidity. You might not notice how on a nice day, the pale of it seems soft, as though its sweet creaminess were somehow influenced by the smell of the wildflowers on the side of the road. It is the kind of thing I can’t help but imagine myself missing when I eventually leave this place. It is the kind of thing that I already imagine enjoying when I return for a visit, looking out the window like my mother does when she comes here, staring intently, “I just want to drink it all in with my eyes,” she says, her hands gripping the steering wheel.
The other night I was out at the bar. There are only about five bars in this town that I, as a graduate student, find myself in. This particular bar is large and deep with many booths and long, flat tables, like a high school cafeteria. There is a big plastic dolphin hanging from one wall and lots of televisions with basketball playing and a jukebox whose music barely makes itself known under the din of a Saturday night. On football mornings in the fall, the bar gives away two kinds of free chili: MILD and WARNING VERY HOT.
I was standing at the bar waiting to order a drink. This bar, unlike the other four bars I might have found myself at, seemed filled with a convivial spirit—maybe it was the size, maybe it was all the shouting, or maybe it was just Saturday night. I did not, as I often do in this small town, recognize everyone in the establishment. I only recognized the bartender, who is my next-door neighbor. I caught his eye and he waved an energetic hello. “Do you know that guy,” asked the guy waiting next to me. He didn’t wait for me to answer. ”Isn’t he the greatest?” My eyes, after meeting his, needed somewhere else to go. They fell to his hands, which were covered in assorted silver rings. He was still talking. “One night I was in here and after a few drinks, I needed to drive home.” He went on to explain which town he lived in and where it was in relation to Iowa City. I was held hostage by the whiskeys I’d ordered. The man went on, lavishing praise on our friendly bartender. “So this dude right here, he made me a pot of coffee. We sat here and talked and talked about albums.” It wasn’t until he pronounced that last word, albums, that I realized what I had been doing. Cut, I’d thought. Irrelevant, I thought. Think of your reader, I wrote, on the imaginary sheet of paper that had materialized between me and this man. Vague, I wrote, next to the word “album,” and then I circled it with a ferocious swirl of ink. This could mean anything, I’d write, what kind of music do you mean, I’d say, is it The Sex Pistols? Run DMC? Yehudi Menuhin? Hugh Masekela? More details, I’d underline, describe it in relation to something else! Be specific!
"People sometimes link youth and its attendant mistakes to a sense of invincibility, but if there was a guiding principle of my own early twenties, it was much more a sense of inevitability. Of course I would end up staying for another drink, or sleep with the person who presented themselves to me, or spend some idiotic sum of money on nothing. Prolonged, public decision-making may have been something of a recreation among my friends — that weighing of options among people who still thought options would always be limitless—but I mostly remember a feeling of being carried along by the events around me, the decision made before I was even aware that there was one to make."
I was watching television the other day and the character, a man in a suit, described another character as dour. The character pronounced the word like do-er, as in, somebody who gets a lot done. Dewar, like the scotch my father orders when we are out at a nice restaurant. Dooer, like an overly sympathetic person saying, “Oh you poor dear!"
All my life I have been saying dour, like sour, like a dowager and her unfortunate hump. Like glower!
Dour means relentlessly severe, stern, or gloomy in manner or appearance. One of the tricks I learned studying for the GRE was to hazard a guess at an unknown word’s positive or negative connotation. Toady, for example, was a word that definitely sounded negative. When I got home from the test and looked it up, I saw I was right. Toady means a person who behaves obsequiously to someone important. Toady is pronounced exactly how you might imagine.
In the car on the way to the mall yesterday, I asked the other two writers in the car how they would pronounce d-o-u-r.
"Dower," they agreed.
"Wrong!" I shouted.
"Impossible," they scoffed. "Really?" they asked, again. I turned in my seat to watch them digest the difficult information. The same as I had, they seemed agitated by the truth.
We agreed that nobody in the world is worse at pronouncing words than writers, though you might think it would be the opposite. I scored pretty high on my verbal GRE, much higher than most of the law and business school hopefuls that take the test, but for a long time I thought lingerie was a delicate French underwear made of lace and lounge-er-ray was regular bras and underwear from Victoria’s Secret or JC Penney.
Writers are also readers, spending hour after hour immersed in a world of symbols on page or screen. They—we—begin to cultivate our own pronunciations. Home-grown grammar. Backwater, memory-soaked definitions. And so, to discover that somebody else has come before, that any etymology is not simply an extension of your own family tree, well, that is disturbing. And counterintuitive to the writer, who of course is a narcissist at heart. Narcissist: self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, or, perhaps, an inability to separate one’s life from the words used to describe it.
Adapted from some text messages
And the Megabus is like
A twelve-minute walk from my house and then you hop right on
Throw your suitcase to the driver
Climb up the stairs
The bus is like
70% white college students and 30% black Chicago refugees with the thickest accents I’ve ever heard, a practically unintelligible dialect
To me anyway
There is a small community here hoping to escape violence
Also the amazing government benefits
Shuttling back and forth on semi-public transit
Never what you’d expect
Iowa I mean
The bus ride is a brief sociological study
Of a new America
A straight highway
Only corn 4 hours
It’ll be tall and green by the time you get here
When you get to Chicago the train station is like two minutes away
Maybe get a bottle of wine somewhere and
Print your ticket at the machine
Take note of all the Amish gathering at the entrance
Overalls and lace caps and more red-faced babies than you can shake a stick at
Also if you’re lucky some dreamboat hiker dudes with tall backpacks
But they are probably headed West, to the Coast Starlight line
Or the Empire Builder
The Lakeshore Limited departs at 9:30pm
So bring a book or whatever and pray for an empty seat and stretch out your legs in front of you and
Settle into the night
At the casino there is a poster advertising an upcoming Kenny Rogers concert. I consider myself to be far outside the sphere of Kenny Roger’s influence—in terms of age, in terms of location, and in terms of stylistic interest. Nevertheless, the song creeps into my ear as though it had been playing all along, as though the poster had a tiny speaker of its own. The catchiest songs are songs that the would-be listener says to themselves anyway: “It’s getting hot in here,” you might say, accidentally setting up what is just the first half of the entire line: so take off all your clothes. So far I have only managed to lose ten dollars in the penny slots, but the line rings true:
YOU GOTTA KNOW WHEN TO HOLD ‘EM, KNOW WHEN TO FOLD ‘EM.
The song trumpets in with an accompanying burst of irritation: this song will be stuck in my head all night, my bra will smell like smoke forever, I will never get that ten dollars back, this sticky dribble of cranberry vodka will stain my blouse. Permanence is a mixed blessing. Once the annoyance passed, I was left with a feeling of dread. What if everything you wanted came true? A hit single, coolers full of champagne, ruby necklaces, hearty pats on your back—but in repayment you had to sing that hit song for the rest of your life at every casino across America. Doomed to experience your own success, over and over. I thought I might print out a picture of Kenny Rogers and tape it above my desk. I might look up at him there and remember that once my words leave my mouth they are anyone’s to take away. I might look up at him and think something as obvious as: success is a gamble. But I have had two cranberry vodkas and so I will forget this idea, remembering it only much later when I find an email to myself, blank except for the subject line KENNY ROGERS.
Now that I am on the verge of receiving a master’s degree, I feel validated enough in my own intelligence to stop the fruitless act of pretending I am ashamed of my own television consumption. I will not go so far as to say that I am proud of it; I will only be frank about the fact that I am steadily and doggedly making my way through season four of Murder, She Wrote.
I turn to mysteries during times of turmoil in my personal life. When I was applying to graduate school, and did not know whether I would move to Wyoming or Colorado or North Carolina or stay exactly where I was in a pool of my own misery, I watched all eight seasons of Monk. His compulsions made mine pale in comparison. He quintuple-checked his stove before leaving the house—I sat in mine, rarely leaving. When I was adjusting to the bitter cold and silence of winter in Iowa, I watched all twelve seasons of Law and Order SVU. The violence and fear provided a sick yet soothing nostalgia for my former life in Brooklyn. I was glad to have moved to a place where strange men did not growl at me from their car windows, but I also missed the adrenaline rush, the hair on my neck standing up, that bright sense of urgency that fear imparts.
What does Angela Lansbury do for me now? As Jessica Fletcher, she is always working to meet a deadline for her publisher. Her fingers fly over the typewriter she keeps at her kitchen table. There is always a pie baking in the oven. There is always a friend knocking at the side door. She does not have time for that friend but then, suddenly, there is a murder. Forgetting that every week of her life has been interrupted by murder, she takes the pie out of the oven and puts on a pot of coffee and solves the murder. She goes for a jog on the beach and solves the murder. She puts her hands on her small waist and solves the murder. She tilts her head to the side and tsks silently, widening her already huge eyes. Then she solves the murder. The murder is a frameup, she always discovers. In Jessica Fletcher’s world, there is infinite time and every minute of it is put to good use. This is the opposite of my reality.
In Jessica Fletcher’s world, justice is executed based on the minutest of details. If the carnation petal had not fallen to the floor, if the window had been closed properly, if the theater director had not quoted the critic, verbatim, then the murder would go unsolved. In fact, if Jessica Fletcher had not flown to New York in the first place, if she had not slid those red glasses on to examine the evidence, we begin to wonder if the murder would have even taken place.
Jessica Fletcher has no memory and therefore will never suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. She enters abandoned houses with gleeful abandon. She opens enormous trunks at antique stores without a moment’s hesitation. She knocks at the door of the hotel room and, when nobody answers, pushes on the door to see if it yields. It always does. Whenever she enters a room, there is always a body on the floor. The body is never a tragedy, it is merely a disgrace. Nothing is truly serious except Mrs. Fletcher’s baking and her long-dead husband.
Mrs. Fletcher wants to be called “Mrs.” because she is old-fashioned, and there is nothing wrong with that. The death of her husband is the only death that will ever make her sad, and anything else that happened afterward is nothing but a distraction from her own writing. She is a free agent and a best-selling writer and sage and a relic and she wears only outfits that remind me of my own grandmother, who is equally badass.
As I prepare for yet another uncertain portion of my future it is maybe just good to see that even when I am old as hell I can still tramp around the Eastern seaboard making judgment calls and taking names. Or maybe it is just that Jessica Fletcher writes book after book and none of it takes any time, none at all, which is good because how else would she have time to go undercover in this lavender turban?
Not only do I feel smarter, but all these dead trees in the long distance of College Street look suddenly as sharp as scientific renderings of neurons, bony black fingers reaching across today’s milky sky.
If we wrote essays like workshop wanted us to all the essays in the world would be 1,000 pages long. They would be hybrid form essays because they would have to contain photocopies of bank statements, glued-in lockets of our hair with corresponding DNA analysis, portraits of the artist as a child AS WELL AS artwork from their kindergarten art class. They would need to include Rorschach results from the last two generations of both sides of the family. For readability, they would need to be written in a choose-your-own-adventure format. Turn to page 12 for a full scene of my mother yelling. Move ahead to page 46 for a lyric response to the challenges of poverty. Page 367 will offer bold statement about identity, fully deconstructed, citations available in the notes section, research made clear in the footnotes, related thoughts readily accessible through use of the forty-page index.
Right now I am using a glue stick to affix an example of my early work, a landscape in Crayola. A stocky unicorn stares off into the flattened horizon. Its stark white environment is dominated from above by a heavy rainbow. A looming sun wears black sunglasses, without which it would blind itself, or scorch the chaos of green grass that anchors the unicorn to this imaginary earth. I can see the confidence of this young artist in the way she filled in all the blank spaces with a measured pressure. I can see my small hand now, holding the crayon and turning it in search of its sharpest side. I can still hear the sticky noise of the crayon releasing from the paper.
celebrating our thesis drop at the casino
If they made women like they made pants, we would be a race of Amazons. A simple equation: the wider the hips, the longer the legs. All across the nation, wide women grow exponentially taller. Cuffed pants and high heels fall out of fashion. Sales of footstools decrease. Sidewalks everywhere buckle under the force of muscled calves and meaty thighs. Workplace productivity skyrockets as lunch breaks grow shorter and shorter: secretaries and CEOs alike return to their desks cool and collected. They have all returned from Old Navy or Bloomingdales where they walked straight up to the table of jeans and paused infinitesimally, scanning the denim wash options. They check out minutes later, paying with credit, signing the gray screen with a careless wave of the plastic pen. They don’t check the receipt because they are all dreaming separate but similar dreams about their weekend plans, which involve a picnic at the park. They are not worried about what wine to bring because in this universe all wine is the same and equally delicious and any kind will taste great with potato salad whether it is mayonnaise based or vinaigrette-y.
Today is the day I must title my thesis. In order to think of something, which is difficult, I have gone through my pages at random and selected different lines from the work that appealed to me. This exercise was of literally no use. I still have no title. But now I have this odd list of lines, which I will share with you. It has been a long time. I have missed my short posts. But this big baby needs to be born. Here are some genetic strands from that unpleasant child:
thin drippy pancakes
“just my hoarding supplies”
home for wayward girls
describing homelessness in a high-pitched voice
the theft of the old casserole dish
avoiding hypodermic needles during hopscotch
looking for garbage
nailpolish at the neck wound
a humiliating premise
embarrassed of our unconventional landscaping
this woman wanted another peanut butter cup
neck-sweating men everywhere
cheap velour material
we solved that problem with two bungee cords
the mountain people out in Petersburg
“I thought about taking off my pants”
I am dressed for the day in jeans shorts and a straw hat.
fruit rollups in the pantry
I am saving the environment
gym class had always been an exercise in revenge
lovingly wrapped in unbleached wax paper
triangular white hair nets and wooden clogs
Martin Luther King Jr. smiled benevolently over our every day-dream
delicately prepared hairstyles wrapped in plastic bags
extra squad cars cruise along the avenue
“have some lemonade,” suggests my therapist.
his face is not the face of a killer
the crackling coughs of my mother
I am hungry and it is lunch time
deflated like my empty backpack
“Excuse me, do you drink wine?”