Happy New Year!
Let me get some business out of the way: the inaugural Nob Hill 6-week session of The Lab starts TONIGHT (1/24), and there may still be one seat left. Email me ASAP if you'd like to sign up.
And big Thank Yous to everyone who helped spread the word!
Now for a long overdue update:
I hear the mail carrier below my window in the entryway of my building while I'm listening to and simultaneously re-reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor. By today's standards, it's a poor-quality, but none-the-less riveting recording of her actual voice at Vanderbilt University in 1959. I'm delighted by how funny Ms. O'Connor was on that day, how rapt the audience seemed by their bursts of laughter, especially given how serious Ms. O'Connor comes across in her essays on writing, and how grim the subject matter of much of her fiction, even when humorous.
I book mark it, pause the recording, and run downstairs to my building's entryway to give the carrier a DVD mailer I've needed to return for a month. She takes it and hands me my stack of mail. In it, there's a card my mother told me to expect. I open it on the way back to my office, knowing she recently visited her sisters and mom in Wisconsin. Inside, there's a photograph with me in it from 1976. The photo is of a road trip--and while I'm grateful that ours did not end up like the one in the O'Connor story--it's not entirely unlike it either: family sets out on a vacation. A woman in slacks. A grandmother and young boy in tow. Detour onto an unpaved road.
I stare at the photo for a while and then return to reading/listening to the story. My head is full of the imagery from the parts of the south I've never been, and memories of my childhood. Both the memory and the story act as filters and re-contextualize the other.
It's this process that makes me feel very happy to be alive.
It's the end of the first month of The New Year, so back to school and to the start of a new session of The Lab. It's been a great break, but I can hardly wait to get back into the mix. Why? Because of this: how listening to someone else's story can help you tell your own.
I reach the part where The Misfit says, "My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. 'You know,' Daddy said, 'it's some that can live their whole life without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything!'"
Most of the writers and artists I know, in a moment if being "into everything," were told a version of what The Misfit's father said. Given what you can glean from The Misfit's life circumstances, most of us who share his propensity for having "to know why" are fortunate to have found our creative outlets.
I am not implying that without art we would have become serial killers...but given the personality of a couple of the writers (and aspiring writers) I've met...well...I not ruling it out either.
In the photo, I was six: two years younger than O'Connor's character John Wesley. We'd parked on a dead-end road in Broomsfield, Colorado. I'm holding onto my Grandpa Clark's hand. Grandma Clark is holding onto Grampa's arm with one hand, and her sister Dorothy's with the other. A chain of four of us stand on a narrow and gravely road with a sedan parked a couple hundred yards in the distance at the base of a stone cliff.
Why was I the only kid in the picture? Where were my brothers? My parents? Who took the photograph? Why was there a car at the dead end? What am I holding in my left hand? Wasn't Dorothy one of my aunts who died of alcoholism? She looks so healthy and capable in her pleated white slacks and open-necked, white-and-red striped blouse. Why didn't she get help?
Now I'm thinking of the new novel I'm writing. How little I know about Thomas' childhood, and how important it is to the story (in ways I don't know why, but nonetheless know); specifically his childhood relationship to his brothers. And suddenly, I have an idea to interject a memory of his childhood, the only kid with a bunch of adults on this road trip. Thomas will remember it in a scene where, shortly after a tragedy happens in both their lives, he is about to see and have dinner with his father.
My memory of my Grandpa Clark, who died shortly after my newly acquired photograph was taken, is of a very quiet man. I liked him and felt he liked me. I don't get to see Grandma Clark very often, but she, too, has always been my ally. I specifically remember her keeping an eye on me during the years my parents could describe as my being "into everything," before I left home for good, when my against-the-grain personality started to emerge.
Grandma Clark and I once ditched the rest of the folks in a lake house at a family reunion, got into a rowboat and made our way far from shore. Surrounded by water, she told me stories about growing up on a farm, what it was like to be married to Grandpa, what my mom had been like as a little girl. If her stories took her to a place that triggered it, like the childhood death of her oldest son, or the day my mom left home, Grandma cried freely, just like I always had, and just like my mother did and still does. That day, Grandma kept talking through her tears and snot and constricted throat until the stories shifted into scenes that made her laugh.
Why? Neither of my grandmothers was anything like the grandmother in the story. So, did I think of myself like her? A racist, petulant, selfish, manipulative liar who seemed to require a gun in her face after witnessing each member of her family's murders before she could access her own decency?
No, I didn't. But perhaps more importantly: Yes, I did.
It bugs me when people reduce art and the people who make it. "It's an Asian-American book." "It's a Black play." "It's Cuban art." The other night I made the mistake of confronting a dear friend for calling a movie that focuses on two guys in love "a gay movie."
My friend was merely using economical language. It didn't warrant a confrontation. Still, I couldn't help asking her if she'd refer to any of the thousands of movies focusing on a lover relationship between a man and a woman as "straight" or "heterosexual." No, I said. You wouldn't. You'd refer to the themes and the actors and the writing and the script and the cinematography. It halted--or at very least, derailed--what could have been an interesting conversation.
As a teacher, I reduce art and the people who make it all the time. If my experience allows me to assume, Flannery O'Connor's virtuosity with the short story probably has nothing to do with the fact that she was Southern, a woman, or Catholic. There are plenty of people who fit those categories and others who have lost their father to a disease they'd later suffer from, too. I sometimes talk to students as if it's BECAUSE OF these things that O'Connor was able to write these stories--rather than the fact that she was able to write amazing stories IN SPITE OF certain challenges.
I use broad strokes of her biography in attempt to manipulate students. I want them to find her stories as moving as I find them. It's an attempt to validate my own tastes and what resonates for me. I exploit these facts outside of the story itself to further my theories about what I think O'Connor sought to achieve.
O'Connor, in almost all her stories, reminds me of what can happen when there's no outlet for a person's energy. The danger of being trapped. Whether it's trapped in a body that doesn't work--or trapped in a time or town or job that limits the person's options and forces the person to downsize his or her dreams and desires.
Last semester at SFSU, I taught a graduate-level process class called Characterization. In it, ten smart aspiring writers showed up every week. In addition to a bunch of short stories, we discussed the novels Sula, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and The Yacoubian Building. On the surface, these three books have nearly nothing in common. The subject matter and style in which each author chose to depict her or his characters allowed us to freely experiment with the limitless choices in how we depict our own. Even though the focus was on character, a common theme emerged in the works: what happens when the opportunities available for expression do not match the person's capacity to create and give them form?
2011 was an especially challenging year. I didn't get a couple of things that I worked hard for and really wanted. I came close, which was, on one level, encouraging; but on another level even more painful. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I metaphorically felt like there was someone there with a gun to shoot me every minute. Career stuff was hard. Family health scares were hard. Other changes, too. Hard, but not impossible. Not even close. And I owe so much to the freedom I have, that Sula and Oscar and Taha el Shazli and John Wesly's grandmother did not.
In thinking about what to say in this newsletter/update, I was tempted to do a repeat of last year. Of singing the praises of former students who've gained admission to MFA programs across the country; publish books; win awards. Instead, I decided to write this, as a shout of gratitude for the freedom to create.
Looking at the picture of me as a little boy, and rereading a story I discovered before I knew I could be a writer, I see that I've come a long way, and I also see how much further I have to go. I'm reminded of how easy it is to become bitter. To expect more than I give. To allow the ambition to be recognized for what I've already done eclipse my desire to dig deeper, get better, try something new. Art and conversations about it are, for me, the gun pointed in my face, the thing that brings me back to the middle of the lake where nothing else mattered except listening to another person's story.
Thanks, all. Hope your 2012 is off to an amazing start.