Clearing the Shelves

Yesterday, my kids and I needed a project. We’d spent the weekend on the beach and were all exhausted and sunburned and cranky. As a growing family of five, we have LOTS of to do lists, so we decided to tackle the curious bookshelf that lives between our dining and living spaces, the one that has become a receptacle for every bound page in our house that doesn’t have an exact home. It includes board books from when the kids were little, remnants of my mother’s YA library circa 1983, books I’ve begun reading downstairs only to be interrupted 8,000 times by any variety of downstairs distractions, sheet music, 19 Haggadahs, etc., etc. It also includes an unfiltered collection of books I’ve read from every genre, overflow from the four larger bookshelves I keep stuffed in my office.

Much to their delight, the kids quickly discovered that rarity of rarities: that mom was much more responsible for this particular mess than they were. Their piles were respectably large, but mine was this heaping thing that is now spreading its wings in several directions on our living room floor.

I don’t know about you, but I find that any unplanned exposure to my life ends up being a bit of a Rorschach test of how my kids perceive me. My youngest found my pile awesome, because it was big and it toppled. My daughter, who is 11 and figuring out what kind of young woman she’d like to be, smiled a quiet smile and told me how happy all my books make her. My oldest, who is 13 and is as brilliant and vocal as he is opinionated and loud, couldn’t fathom what he was seeing. “Have you really READ all these books, mom?” Not exactly (see: interruptions, above), but the real number is probably some multiple unfathomable to us both. “It looks like you read as much as ME!” A textbook thirteen-year-old observation, at least in my (no pun intended) book. They’re at that age when the patterns you’ve been hoping to instill in them finally take hold, but they think they invented them. “But where do they go? Have you memorized all of them? Are they all in your HEAD?”

I love that last question. Yes, they are all in my head, to varying degrees. But they are even more in my heart. I’m not a fan of the false dichotomies of head vs. heart, or intellect vs. emotion, or any other construction of the human experience that seeks to neatly categorize parts of the whole. And the lovely thing is, I’m sure that I don’t need to explain this to my kids. They may not understand it now, but when they feel their entire bodies and selves releasing into a story – last night it was Charlotte’s Web for my youngest, begun in the bathtub and dragged to the bed; it’s been The School for Good and Evil for my daughter and her best friend, who share the books like giggled secrets; and currently its anything Greek myth related for my thirteen-year-old, who lectures me on the gods and goddesses and their purpose (because he’s still wrapping his head around my thorough liberal arts education, something he’s sure he needs to build on) – I know this is one of those great truths that benefits from no explanation. It just is, and the more I get out of its – and their – way on this one, the better. So thank you for this, too, gods and goddesses of reading and writing and their gorgeously inconceivable intersections, thank you for giving me something to trust in, something I can give my children simply by stepping out of their way. As if you hadn’t already given us enough.

The(Mythical) Intersections of Literature and Pop Culture?

I recently came across the work of Gavin Jones, a Stanford scholar who is researching the role that failure has played in the creation of great literature (he recently published a book entitled Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History). He argues that the professional and personal failures Poe, Twain, Melville and others experienced informed their work in important ways. “Failure,” Jones claims, “as it unfolds in literary pages, becomes essential to an understanding of what makes us human – both within and beyond the pressures of social context.”

I wonder if he’s unintentionally hit upon a paradox, that writers engaged in the publication game have always been under tremendous pressure to succeed, both financially and critically. The market is thick with people vying to create the next best thing, and now more than ever, that thing should be as edgy and immediate and compelling as possible. If writers pay close attention to the market, they would be encouraged to write the literary equivalent of a pop single, something that is catchy enough to grab the short attention spans of buyers looking for their next fix amid the constantly replenishing sea of new volumes. And popularity doesn’t buy you a reprieve, either. I have a few friends who write hugely successful young adult series, and they bemoan their increasingly short deadlines and the constantly increasing pressure to write the next installment (which, of course, should be even more irresistible than the last).

But what does this do to the content of what we read? If the most successful writers are working in a market that pressures them to produce quick, glittering things, will we lose the deep complexity the best of literature has been (arguably) founded upon? Would Ulysses or The Invisible Man or Beloved or The Sound and the Fury or The Great Gatsby stand a chance if they were to be published for the first time in 2016? Would the slow build of life experience as it informs the novel have any purchase in the modern world? Would it ever have the chance to rise to the top of the heap that is full if works that are frequently very well written but, by necessity, hastily composed and forced into a break-neck pace?

When Harry Potter first hit the stratosphere, I remember a great divide between those who argued it didn’t earn its accolades, and those who applauded any book that could get so many kids reading (actually, this was only one of many divides that surrounded the unprecedented success of those books). I happen to fall in the latter camp, and also think that Rowling’s work is straight up wonderful, but I don’t think it represents the pinnacle of literary depth. And I miss the support great, slow, old-fashioned novels deservedly received. They invited readers to go deep and go long into human experience, and I’m not sure anything can quite replace them. Nor do I see any reason for them not to continue to be written, but I worry about their future to secure the audiences they need to keep them afloat. And I fear that content is not enough, anymore. That, perhaps, great novels written by small writers will never see the light of day.

What do you think, dear reader (or fellow writer)? How do you choose how to spend your literary time these days? Is it informed by what’s dangled in front of you or your fellow (wo)man? Do you conscientiously seek out titles that aren’t on a bestseller or top pick list or that don’t have a booksellers blurb dangling beneath them at your local Indie? Are you seeing the kind of complexity you ache for in modern letters? And are we better off or worse for what we’re reading today?

The Life-Changing Magic of Revision

This one is for you diehard perfectionists out there. You know who you are. You haven’t finished that novel because you “just haven’t gotten around to it,” though it’s been sitting on your desk/computer/chest for the past ten years. You can’t write because all your youthful talent has disappeared, leaving only stodgy half-starts and depressingly mediocre early drafts. You won’t show anyone your work because “it’s not ready yet,” though you yourself are terrified to reread what you once thought was the best thing you’ve ever written, and are sure you’ll explode in a high-strung-meltdown of neurotic doom should you find that it’s not quite as good as you once thought.

There’s this wonderful video of the late, great poet Stanley Kunitz meeting with a group of teenagers at the 92nd Street Y. He’s about 98 and they’re all about sixteen, and this one girl with sky high hair and blue eyeshadow asks him soulfully if he ever writes something he thinks is really good, only to find he doesn’t like it later. And he replies, just as soulfully and without missing a beat, “All the time!” He then goes on to describe how he writes every day in the wee hours of the morning, and how at 4:00 AM that which looks like genius looks decidedly different in the brutal, bright light of day.

It’s what he doesn’t say, though, that really sticks with you. It’s the undeniable enthusiasm in his voice, the tenderness toward this imperfect and glowing soul, the gleam in his eye that tells you that it’s those brutally bright days that challenge him to start anew, that have, perhaps, fueled him for the eight or more decades he’s been writing.

I wish revision didn’t have such a bad rap, didn’t have such a second fiddle, sloppy seconds, Skipper to perfectionism’s Barbie kind of street cred, ESPECIALLY among the more talented, less experienced writers. They are the ones in the worst trouble. If you’re young and gifted, you’re not used to the seasoning failure gives your work, you have no trust in the process, you probably aren’t brave enough to share what scares you about writing, so no one’s shared what scares them, and you get all tangled up in this huge net of self-loathing and frustration. Your only exposure has been Hollywood movies in which musicians take dictation from God and men pen masterpieces with one foot. And not just any foot – the non-dominant one. It’s the artist’s equivalent of only being exposed to NBA players and confusing their performance on the court as the everyday norm of basketball players everywhere.

Thank God for basketball, for all the amazing gifts we do bring out into the open, the talents we encourage young people (and by young, I mean in spirit, not numbers) to develop through practice and practice and then some more practice. We tell the young athlete that sore muscles mean she’s growing stronger, that a day of poor performance is just an anomaly, that if she shows up and dedicates herself to his art, she will see results long term that daily performance alone might never predict. We tell the young chef that his hard-won but botched dough will inform the next one even better; the young mathematician how long geniuses worked on single problems; the young carpenter that callouses need to be developed before a hand is truly strong.

But we don’t do this for writers. Writers, after all, are plagued with gifts that hit them like lightning at birth, causing them to act weird in groups and ostracize themselves and maybe get a hair or shank too far into the sauce and work in isolation if they can manage not to throw themselves into traffic first.

I’m here to tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. On the daily level, I moan and groan and roll my eyes and would rather do the dishes and clean up under the boys’ beds and empty the cat litter before I start writing. And sadly, for many years I thought that avoidance and fear was a sign I should never begin, was it was an advance-warning that I would never amount to anything. But then I got a little older and wiser, and I remembered how afraid I used to be before going out on stage, how nervous I was before seeing a loved one after a long absence, how tension and anticipation and the unknown were signs of caring enough about something to risk putting the entire contents of your heart out there on its behalf. I also made the astonishing mathematical discovery that a beautiful novel is made of up of individual sentences, and that sentences are made up of words, and that words can be organized, free of charge, into any number of strange and compelling combinations. I spent ten years working on a book of sixteen poems. I wrote a dissertation so dense physicists are forming new theories about the existence of intellectual black holes. In other words, I wrote a lot, and most of it didn’t see the light of day.

What’s more, I realized that Keats was an anomaly – a wonderful anomaly, to be sure – but for every Keats there are thousands of writers whose work isn’t rich until their lives are, and they’ve had some time to reflect on those paradoxically mundane and unique riches. Writing responds incredibly well to maturity, both in content and approach. It likes a grizzled, black-humored sea captain with twenty years of dark empty nights under his belt much more than it likes a dewy eyed freshman. It much prefers a mom who’s raised a dozen kids and grandkids and has stretch marks and weird, as-yet-to-be-defined curves and lumps, yet goes out running every morning anyway, and loves every minute of it to the starving supermodel. It much prefers Stephen King to a virgin.

And I promise, I speak from experience. I was a terrible writer until I actually wrote. I was hugely talented, but a terrible writer all the same. And it was the writing and revising and falling down umpteen times and getting back up umpteen more that forged that bone-deep relationship to writing that I know cannot do without, not to mention a few life lessons as well. I became a writer by writing, and 99% of writing is revising. It’s considering and reconsidering and shaping and chipping and getting one’s hands dirty in the miraculous, frustrating medium that is language. It’s a puzzle that will never be solved, a goal that can never be reached, and it reminds me, every day, that fighting the good fight is always a thousand times more rewarding than leaping into victory.

So with apologies to all you freshly minted knights ready to slay the dragon with one fell swoop, I can’t WAIT to meet you after you’ve been knocked to the ground so hard you can’t quite breathe, but then you do, and it makes you laugh, and you reach out a hand for help. I can’t wait to meet that character. And I’m absolutely sure I won’t be alone, that we all ache to read things written by other bloodied and dirty and strong-hearted souls, that so many other hands will be reaching toward you, too.

What is Love?

If anything, it’s undefinable. And I hope it remains so. Yet I’m always so surprised to come into contact with people who see it, somehow, as small. A thing for Disney movies and incurable romantics and – I don’t know – puppies? A thing those of us too naïve or soft to know any better turn to when we should be batting down the hatches or sharpening our knives and white-knuckling our guns or putting huge walls up between ourselves and our neighbors.

Because in this worldview, love and its particulars are for those who are too small to stand up and fight, who remain intentionally – and foolishly – too soft to match blow for blow, strike for strike, insult for insult, hate for hate. Yet while I’d be the first to admit that hate and fear and anger are loud and violent and hard to ignore, to feed and fuel and invest in them as if they are the most powerful and lasting contributions of humanity is no different than voting for a schoolyard bully as most likely to succeed.

I don’t mean to draw too much attention to the size of love, as it’s unquantifiable by almost anyone’s standards, but I do want to emphasize its pervasiveness, and its complexity. I wouldn’t have written an entire book about love stories if I could explain that theory in a few lines, but it does seem that the sheer bravery and strength and isolating thrills of love are undermined in our collective conversations. All stores ARE love stories, not because all stories are about our deepest, most fulfilling connections, but because of how, no matter what, we continue to seek those connections, or feel their absence, or define ourselves against their lack.

Love drives us all, whether we want it to or not, and yet so few of us want to admit to it. But this is because we try to define it too narrowly, too simply, when it truth it underscores the best and the worst in all of us. Those who do not feel it experience unimaginable isolation; those who are deprived of it feel forever incomplete; those who are hurt by it grow hard against it or develop callouses of the heart that make it strange and strong. We are driven to connect to one another, and to claim otherwise or try to diminish the light in this truth is an exercise in futility, a practice in denying the undeniable.

What happened in Orlando this week has sent millions of love stories into the ether, like so many sparks of light after an explosion. Stories of the terrifying risks of love, of the anguish of love ripped too cruelly and too soon, stories of those who fear it more than murder. Yet all of these fall away in the midst of stories of the sheer strength it takes for most of us to love, to stay open and affective while navigating a national crisis of violence and finger pointing and social desperation. It is astonishing to think that some consider love to be weakness, a deliberate pulling of the wool over one’s eyes, when it is the truth-fearing coward’s way out to shut down and calcify, to court toughness when our bodies and spirits are unchangeably mortal and dependent and fluid and short.

When we really look at love, there is as much sadness as there is joy to its stories, but to feel that sadness is to feel the entirety of love, to know that to lose or shun or deny it is to suffer, and that to welcome and allow for its imperfect allowances is step into our collective inheritance as we might step out of shadow into light.

Reclaiming Summer!

I’m writing this from my favorite spot on earth – Cape Ann, Massachusetts. It’s a little spit of land off the north coast of the state, and it’s all light and ocean and old houses and visits from nearly forgotten but essential ghosts of myself. We spent almost every summer up here when I was a child, and at every turn I can catch a glimpse of my younger self at the other end of the beach, or in the light dappled shadows of the trees, or further down the dense forest paths where the wild blueberries can be found. And the most wonderful thing about all this is that when I look around, I see that my ghosts aren’t alone.

For example, have you ever noticed how the beach is a great equalizer? People of all ages wander the sand looking for shells and sea glass, or squeal when they put their toes in the Atlantic in June, or lie on beach towels and chat for hours while they bury their hands in the sand.

In four days, it will officially be summer. I know, I know. You have work to do, a full schedule, a demanding life. But isn’t it true that everything in the world has a counterpart, that all actions have equal and opposite reactions? One of our biggest faults as a society is that we tend to convince ourselves that, in all our greatness, the laws of the physical and natural universe will probably just bend on our behalf. We don’t really need all that much sleep. Or to feed ourselves well. Or soften and be vulnerable. We’re too busy working and doing and earning to think of such trivialities.

That is, until we get sick, or burn out, or get divorced, or lose our jobs and think our lives are over if we can’t earn as much money as we once did. Sooner or later, the balance we haven’t cultivated is going to come crashing down on us like so many spiritual and/or metaphysical bricks.

So how’d I get from beach days and childhood to such a sobering reminder? I’m so sorry, but you made me do it. Because the beauty isn’t enough, is it? The gentle call from within you — the one that already asked you to schedule a beach day approximately six trillion times since the last frost – keeps getting told it can wait. Even though we all know it can’t. Just because your work voice is a bully doesn’t mean it’s right. In fact, the loudest and bossiest among us are usually the most exhausted and cranky.

So how’s your wandering calendar? Have you scheduled any Not Work? Maybe you can circle June 21st on your calendar. Draw a star by it, or outline it in every pen color you can find, or just mark it with something else totally ridiculous to remind the hidden, quieter parts of yourself that you’re going to make it OK for them to come out of hiding. You’re going to make some space for them to breathe. You might even find a way to let them run around a bit and stretch their legs. Maybe even play.

And the great part of all this is that you can justify it to the most sober and serious and responsible parts of you. Because even they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a life of work produces nothing. That distress and disease and discomfort and disappointment don’t make you into some kind of noble work martyr. They just martyr your work. The real saints among us – and most of the creative and productive and accomplished people I admire – radiate joy. Aren’t you ready to join them? Aren’t you ready to be whole again?