Friday, April 29, 2005

The "Me" in Memoir

Our defining moments ... Posted by Hello

I'm taking a wonderful, manically generative Creative Non-Fiction course. Last week I spewed forth 25 pages of freewrite based on random nouns I pulled out of a basket. This despite a nasty sinus and upper respiratory thing--and not all of my freewrites were bad either!

But it is all memoir, and I shy away from the "me" portion of that word. I don't mind dealing with myself humorously like I did in my "Bull Castration" piece, reminiscing about my foolishness feels cathartic. What I avoid are the forays into those deeply personal spaces, the places that strip my Holly Golightly facade right down to my scrawny, naked vulnerability, the places that say, "have at me." There's a reason I love Breakfast at Tiffany's--I've spent a lifetime cultivating an image that says I'm OK, I'm hip, with it, savvy man, on top of the world--and happy dammit!

But all this reading Prof. Perrin Kerns has assigned demands that I confess, give it up. I'm not sure what I'm ready to reveal. Yes, I have daddy issues. I have compulsive tendencies. I've always been unhappy with my appearance, and I avoid projects that could present failure. But do I want to explore the whys of these insecurities?

I want to find that way to explore memoir which supercedes self-indulgence. Memoir matters to me when it resonates with the human experience, when it doesn't just tell me point-blank about the author, but rather reaches out shyly, without overt craft, manipulation, or self-promotion. James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues is a lyrical example of finding ways around focusing on the self while still revealing profound private pain..

In reading several memoirs this week, I am struck by the universal experiences we share in being human. In Wayne Koestenbaum's My 80s, I bond deeply with a gay intellectual from the West Village (I've never been there) when he says:

"I focused on my sadness as if it were an object in the room, a discrete dense entity impervious to alteration"--exposing our tendency to esteem our tragedy. And,

"My mission in the 80s was to develop my aestheticism, My mission in the 90s was to justify my aestheticism"--deep resonance here.

In her essay But Tell It Slant: From Poetry to Prose and Back Again, Judith Ortiz Cofer talks about the idea that distillation of the subject can have deeper impact than elaboration:

"... it begins with the pause of the artist before a blank canvas, the discipline of restraint that was best expressed by Richard Hugo when he advised the writer, "Think small, if you have a large mind it will show itself."

I like this idea. Our current culture seems to be about an endless barrage of sound-bytes, a superficial grasp on nearly everything ... multi-tasking as a more desirable trait than reflection. I can see the influence of hyper-media on my personality. I like subtlely multi-layered, simple, beautifully told stories that focus inward. In a way they provide an antidote to hypertextuality.
Instead of grasping at every available connection, they allow a peaceful insularity. In this space of focus (much like when I practice yoga) I will attempt to find my truths.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

This Week in Lit: Fathers

This week in my literary life: I've found the link, the collective thread that ties all literature somehow. This week it's fathers, but you've got to stay with me to see the tie-in.

Before I get there, I’ve got a few things to report. Lynda Barry came by Marylhurst University last Thursday to a packed house and an idyllic spring day. Lynda appears animated (as in from another dimension of being)—as if she’s been conjured, full of life, elasticity (great facial expressions), humor and insights. She ran us through a series of writing exercises prompted by simple nouns—such as “car,” or “accident”—which resulted in my professor becoming extremely inspired, throwing previous assignments to the wind, and assigning us 70 (that’s right 7-0) pages of handwritten freewrites by the time our class meets again on Thursday. Help me!

I’m reading two memoirs and an epic simultaneously. One,
Reading Lolita in Tehran, is for pleasure, the other, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, is for a Creative Non-Fiction class I’m taking. Homer’s The Odyssey is for my Mythology course. My cup runneth over with the rich experience of these three entirely different books

Reading Lolita … just had a passage which blew me away (p. 172). This memoir is about a former Iranian national (she now lives in the U.S. and teaches at Johns Hopkins University), who was expelled from the university where she taught and formed a secret reading group that focused on banned texts such as Nabokov’s Lolita. In this passage she reflects on the rich literary history of her country:

“We would take turns reading passages aloud, and words literally rose up in the air and descended upon us like a fine mist, touching all five senses. There was such a teasing, playful quality to their words, such joy in the power of language to delight and astonish. I kept wondering : when did we lose that quality, that ability to tease and make light of life through our poetry? At what precise moment was this lost? What we had now; this saccharine rhetoric, putrid and deceptive hyperbole, reeked of too much cheap rosewater.”

Aside from the obvious beauty, the end of this passage made me consider what it means to write unfettered. I complain about boundaries, but I’ve lived a life where the repercussions for expression are not dire. What a gift. I hope the ways we are trying to know things in this country never become Orwellian, that the politics of who we are never restricts our voices or subjugate creativity to control.

From Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night … (p. 24) comes this passage regarding his absent father:

“All my life my father had been manifest as an absence, a nonpresence, a name without a body. The three of us sat around the table, my mother, brother and I, all carrying his name. Flynn?

Some part of me knew he would show up, that if I stood in one place long enough he would find me, like you’re taught to do when you’re lost. But they never taught us what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting.”

And this reminded me of that final scene in the film Smoke Signals, when Victor gives the agonizing speech about the legacies attached by our fathers. This speech has always torn me apart. Check out the cartoon that links to Lynda Barry's name above, it's about her absent father. What is Lacan's Law of the Father really about? Is it authority, legacy, absence, subjectivity? The Flynn passage urged a short reflection about my enigmatic relationship with my own father.

The final tie in, that "hyperlink" we can find within three totally unique books and a visit from a dynamic cartoonist, is THE FATHER. In Iran "The Father" is represented by an oppressive, partriarchal government that stifles creative expression. In Homer's The Odyssey, I've just read the segment about Telemakhos' search for his father, Odysseus. What can you say about your father? His legacy?

No Photos ...

Since I downloaded Hello onto the college’s computer during class, using my e-mail address, I haven’t been able to use it (for downloading photos) from my home. It gives me this nasty message, “the operation was aborted”—which sounds like I’m somehow launching a missile, or strategic military move, rather than a software program. So, I’ve sent a “troubleshooting” ticket in to the space that occupies “Hello” software, and let’s see if for once, this cyber-conversation can actually result in some action. Otherwise that picture of the back of my “dungarees” (as Cynthia identified them), might be the only image I’ll ever be able to get on this blog!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Beacon Rock State Park is mainly a huge volcanic plug which was left behind when eons of erosion swept the surrounding mountain away. Climbing Beacon Rock involves traversing a series of switchbacks, back and forth sometimes with a stream of people ahead of and behind you. On this day the temperatures were nearing 85, and the sky was clear of any shading clouds. Here I'm waiting for the girl hiking in front of me with a "W '04" T-shirt, and expensive hiking regalia to get out of eyeshot before I do something mean-spirited! :-)

When you reach the top of Beacon Rock, you have a view of the Columbia River Gorge that extends almost impossibly in both directions of the river ... really a magnificent rock.

This concept of eternal vision, of visual links from the present to the past, and the notion of fluid time (navigatible both backward and forward) fascinate me. Responding to the photo today, I think about Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera when the protagonist is traversing the Magdelena River in Colombia, and how profoundly the landscape changes when he makes the journey again 50 years later. What did the Columbia River Gorge look like, smell like, even taste like before highways were installed beside it, before the mountain around this plug washed and blew away? What can Gaia leave for a woman five hundred years from now to see from a similar view?

Posted by Hello

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Mythological Madness

So who likes mythology? Until recently I rather ignored it. But my professor's ebullent engagement of the irony and humor in mythology has drawn me into this genre. The interplay between god and man, monsters and culture, subterfuge and transformation is fascinating, as is the insight I now have into the story behind all those classical references we find in texts through time. I think I would be a better Christian if monotheism involved some of the divine interaction with humans we see in mythology!

Dante's Inferno would have had deeper resonance for me with a better mythological base. The site I linked to for The Inferno is an excellent source with some compelling graphics, check it out if you're a fan.

Classical Greek myth reminds me of hypertext in the sense that it is extremely interconnected and "incestuous." Additionally it has this sense of strange digression. Take, for instance, Achilles. One can conjure Achilles (think of marble statue or Brad Pitt, whatever floats your boat), and find a world of connections. The link I've added is a wonderful page fully conveying the digressions that can result from curiosity about Achilles. Note the excessive hyperlinking toward the bottom of this Achilles page, and also the vivid, passionate artistic representations. Is your Achilles a baby being dipped by his vulnerable heel, as Creti depicts in his painting, or is he a Hollywood movie adonis carefully cultivated to fulfill a consumer image. I tried to upload a picture directly into this post, but alas! it did not work.

At any rate, from Aphrodite to Dionysus to Odysseus to Poseidon, these gods are good fun. Feel free to share you favorite myth ...

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Telling Stories

I love the short story. It is my favorite genre, although in terms of marketability, it can be a thankless one. This weblog is named after a short story by a writer, Jerome Wilson, who is younger than me! "Paper Garden" was his first published story. It has since then been featured in several anthologies such as You've Got to Read This which is a collection of stories that American writers selected because they "held them in awe." I figure Jerome Wilson did pretty well for himself--first time out, anthologized, and more than half a decade younger than me!

Incidentally, "Paper Garden" is a fabulous, tragi-comic story. Fabulous is a bad word to use when referencing literature, but "wicked," my first choice, was worse. If I had to pigeonhole it, I'd say that "Paper Garden" has hints of Faulkner, O'Connor, and maybe even Bobbie Ann Mason. It is a story of pathetic glamour in an inappropriate framework, or maybe more accurately, the flip side of what we superficially see as special. I wanted to link it here, but it doesn't exist on the internet. It does exist in Wilson's own collection.

So what are some of your favorite short stories?

This group of favorites are shorts I've loved as long as I can remember: (unfortunately, it appears I didn't read many shorts by women writers when I was young)

Red, by W. Somerset Maugham
The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck
Orientation of Cats, by Julio Cortazar
Hands, by Sherwood Anderson
The Open Window, by Saki
The Rocking Horse Winner, by D.H. Lawrence
The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico
A & P, by John Updike
The Love-Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein, by O. Henry

My list of newer favorites includes: (women writers are clearly better represented here)

The Aleph, by Jorge Luis Borges
Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin
The Smallest Woman in the World, by Clarice Lispector
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver
Cathedral, by Raymond Carver
Salvation, by Langston Hughes
The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Wants, by Grace Paley (as finely tuned as storytelling gets)
In the Cemetery Where Al Joson is Buried, by Amy Hempel
Bartleby the Scrivenor, by Herman Melville
The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien
Two Kinds, by Amy Tan

I've listed these titles on the fly--spontaneously recalled as stories that not only resonate deeply with me, but also inform the choices I try to make when I write. I have this idea that I'll write a review of some of these as one occupation of my blog ... we'll see if that one pans out.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Garden of Stories

Welcome to my brand-new blog! Finding a title for this blog has been an exercise in frustration. I tried Carpe Diem! a motto of mine, but it was taken ... so was The Yellow Wallpaper and Song of Myself and even Somewhere I Have Never Travelled. Finally I have claimed two names, The Smallest Woman in the World, inspired by the magnificent story by Clarice Lispector, and The Paper Garden, an equally beautiful tale by Jerome Wilson originally published in Ploughshares.

I felt representing myself as "the smallest woman in the world," was really false advertising--I'm not so very small--so I've settled on The Paper Garden (ironically apropos for a venture into hypertext) until which time the other name becomes relevant. So, here as my official site created in celebration (and compulsory direction) of Prof. Meg Roland's Postmodernism and Hypertext course at lovely Marylhurst University, in damply blooming Portland, Oregon.

What can I tell you about myself ... I am a 40-something latecomer to the academic community. I spent the first 30-some years of my life trying to find myself, until I realized that was pointless. Now I hope to get that undergraduate degree, move on to graduate school and possibly teach or write for a living. Not a practical goal, I know, but my goal nevertheless. I love the written word ... I'm trying to find out whether it loses anything by not being on paper--maybe you can help me with that. If comments are enacted, I'd love to hear what you think. I also love the great outdoors, which is why Oregon is such a magnificent place to live. You'll learn more about me as time goes on.

This blog is going to be an exercise in learning about blogdom, centering and sharing. This is my own space, I make no apologies or qualifications about what it might represent about me ... I can only claim one thing and that is to be human, which implies the wickedly flawed state of being we all share. Please continue to check in with me, and let's see where this endeavor leads.