I’m late writing today because my son has brought home his art projects and I’ve been busy admiring them. I have a small collection of these objects scattered around my writing space: a clay hippo, missing one ear but redeemed by the most adorable toe point of its left hind foot; a corn-husk doll with twine belt and tie; a 3D extravaganza titled The Dancing Mushroom, made with oil pastels and paint; a sock puppet sporting googly eyes and a felt uni-brow, its sticks held upright between the spines of my photography books; a god’s eye of red, black and green yarn, formed around the architecture of an old CD, with a green mancala bead at the center; a watercolor tree on a washed blue background, thick clumps of grass around the trunk; and the new addition, a piece of soft plaster with my son’s name carved in the top, colored all over with pencil to make it look like a stone.
I’m convinced that all this creativity is good for my mojo. Also, I fucking love the artist.
What artwork do you keep nearby?
Last night I watched a Dutch movie called The Broken Circle Breakdown. It’s hard to describe the impact it had on me without becoming hyperbolic and using the word ‘best’ one hundred forty-seven times, so I will simply tell you that I cried buckets, thought about it all night, still am thinking about it this morning and probably will watch it twice or more again today. I don’t always enjoy stories told out of sequence, but this one was knit together so beautifully and the performances were so powerful that I found myself utterly captivated and the very opposite of lost. Plus, the music…
The writer by the nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. – Carson McCullers
Writers on dreaming, from A Writer’s Book of Days:
William Styron said the whole concept of Sophie’s Choice was the result, if not of a dream, of a kind of waking vision.
If Amy Tan was stuck on the ending of a story, she took the story with her to bed and let it become part of the dream.
Robert Stone said, “The process of creating is related to the process of dreaming although when you are writing you’re doing it and when you’re dreaming it’s doing you.”
Jorge Luis Borges said that it is written in the kabbalah that when the words in a dream are loud and distinct and seem to come from no particular source, those words are from God.
Allan Gurganus reported that his characters have made guest appearances in his dreams.
In her collection Darkness, Bharati Mukherjee‘s story “Angela” re-created the image from a dream she had of cutting wings off birds and sewing them together so she could fly.
Stephen King reported he uses dreams the way you’d use a mirror to look at something you couldn’t see head-on—for example, to look at your hair in the back.
Maurice Sendak said, “Dreams raise the emotional level of what I’m doing at the moment.”
Anne Rivers Siddons believes that every creative impulse that a working writer has arises out of that dark old country where dreams come from. “You can trust your subconscious to supply you with truly horrendous, wonderful dreams if you’re in the middle of something that’s disturbing you badly,” she said.
There are lone cemeteries,
tombs full of soundless bones,
the heart threading a tunnel,
a dark, dark tunnel :
like a wreck we die to the very core,
as if drowning at the heart
or collapsing inwards from skin to soul.
There are corpses,
clammy slabs for feet,
there is death in the bones,
like a pure sound,
a bark without its dog,
out of certain bells, certain tombs
swelling in this humidity like lament or rain.
I see, when alone at times,
coffins under sail
setting out with the pale dead, women in their dead braids,
bakers as white as angels,
thoughtful girls married to notaries,
coffins ascending the vertical river of the dead,
the wine-dark river to its source,
with their sails swollen with the sound of death,
filled with the silent noise of death.
Death is drawn to sound
like a slipper without a foot, a suit without its wearer,
comes to knock with a ring, stoneless and fingerless,
comes to shout without a mouth, a tongue, without a throat.
Nevertheless its footsteps sound
and its clothes echo, hushed like a tree.
I do not know, I am ignorant, I hardly see
but it seems to me that its song has the colour of wet violets,
violets well used to the earth,
since the face of death is green,
and the gaze of death green
with the etched moisture of a violet’s leaf
and its grave colour of exasperated winter.
But death goes about the earth also, riding a broom
lapping the ground in search of the dead -
death is in the broom,
it is the tongue of death looking for the dead,
the needle of death looking for the thread.
Death lies in our beds :
in the lazy mattresses, the black blankets,
lives a full stretch and then suddenly blows,
blows sound unknown filling out the sheets
and there are beds sailing into a harbour
where death is waiting, dressed as an admiral.
~ Death Alone by Pablo Neruda
Some things I saw yesterday:
- A form we give our patients, returned with all the appropriate numbers circled for rating the function of the afflicted hand, but with the circles jagged and tenuous as kindergarten stars.
- Two holes in the knees of a pair of black leggings.
- Miso soup, separating, then stirred to reveal cubes of tofu and concentric circles of bright green onion.
- Small hand pressed to a glass door, leaving a perfect, sticky starfish-mark at knee height.
- A man who talked and talked and slowly talked, whose mouth began to resemble the jaws of a guppy. Opening, closing, opening, closing, as if the words were water and he was trying to swallow them back.
- Pine trees slow-dancing in the wind.
- (Debris from tree party on the hood of my car.)
- Fans of water bursting from a black road, lit in yellow and red, disappearing like fireworks into the darkness.
What did you see?
Happy Valentine’s Day, beloveds.
Blackbird 2.0. I spent the weekend mapping out a new outline and got a start on the writing, beat down yesterday morning’s panic attack over the looming deadline, and woke this morning with an unambiguous directive in my head: simplify. The structure of this work is becoming increasingly complex, with a third-person, backward-moving timeline spanning several years, and a new first-person narrative detailing the events of a single hour, weaving through the middle of it. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking it, too. Why do you imagine I’m awake and lathered in sweat at 3am every day?)
The only way to make this story work is to simplify anywhere else I can. Strong visual cues leading in and out of the scenes, a tight cast of characters, and a clear premise—which hasn’t been clear until recently. But as I started restructuring I began to see the point of the story as revealed in all the neat little dovetails where the twin narratives intersect. Each time I found one, I thought, Oh, and you were there all the time. How is it I didn’t see you?
This, I think, is the most sublime aspect of writing. It’s realizing that your subconscious has been at work all along, weaving its story under the surface, waiting for your conscious self to wake up and discover it. What relief there is in knowing that despite the day-to-day floundering and angst and despair, you still are your own best and truest ally. You are quietly writing even when you’re not, even when the work seems like a horrible muddle, even when you think you’re writing about something else. You don’t always listen and you can’t always hear, but the message is in there. You to yourself. An echo in a locked room.
The clip is obliquely to the point of the post, and is also my unsubtle way of steering you toward this show. This haunting, poetic, mesmerizing show.
If you could describe in physical terms the room of your mind, what would it look like? How is it furnished? What are the colors. What music is playing, what floors are underfoot, what have you pinned to the walls?
My dear friends, I hope your day is merry and filled with joy. Thank you for your affection and friendship, and for giving me so many people to love.
If you get HBO, don’t miss this. All the YoungArts shows are terrific but this has been my favorite yet.
It started as a flicker of interest. A throw-away phrase that hit home. An understanding. I am a married woman.
Suddenly he wasn’t married anymore. He told me a few of the stories and we railed together against faithlessness. I had also been cheated on, done wrong. But not by my husband.
How hard it is to think you’re looking at the horizon with someone only to find out that she is looking at the door. But sympathy is tricky. It can lead to the desire to comfort. He was so alone.
Desire is easy. It is casual and plentiful. It comes like wind off the water, quick, steady, and passing. In this other man, I see other places I have been. In other times, and in other situations, we would have had sex. And the sex would be good. Sometimes you can just tell.
I know that crushes happen, even if you’re in for the long haul. And it’s the long haul that makes me more sympathetic to this other man. I know how to love better than I used to, how to balance the thick and the thin.
And I think he knows this too. But I am not his wife. I am not a betrayer. I keep thinking crush, keep thinking no, keep thinking desire is easy, and love is hard. I am getting older. I let myself feel desire. And I continue to choose love.
Tell us, if you like, about a crush.
When I was a girl, my family had a collection of records and a pair of enormous cushioned headphones with a curly cord to connect them to the stereo. I used to lie on the floor for hours, lifting the needle like a junkie to replay my favorite songs, over and over and over and over, hundreds of times in some cases. I’ve always had strange taste in music, strange addictions to songs that caught my attention and refused to let go until the song and the images it evoked had played out so many times that they finally failed to move me. Only then, exhausted and dissatisfied at losing the high, would I be able to move on.
These compulsions are still with me. I read things—passages and whole books, blog posts and comments and emails and articles—over and over, for no productive reason except to satisfy the deepest imaginable itch. Some words, some collections of words, have such a rhythm and fluidity, such a dizzying rightness, that I can’t let them go. I often feel as if I’m dancing a reel, spinning first with one partner and then the next, caught in the centrifugal force of some mysterious reaction that to this day I can’t explain.
This song was on a record I saved up my allowance to purchase: The Storytellers, a double album by various artists, which I ordered from a magazine insert. It had songs like Ode to Billie Joe, Shannon, Killing Me Softly, and Daniel. But this song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot, is the one that haunted me, the one I played again and again. And again. And again…
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her.
And the iron boats go, as the mariners all know,
With the gales of November remembered.
That I listened to this song, (such a repetitive melody, like a prayer or a meditation) at least four hundred times tells you as much about my childhood as it’s possible to know.
How obsessive are you, really?
I got with somebody’s date
you’re like a soap opera cover
my lover self-automates
you say a-somebody say
you’re like salve for a leper
you’re sweet for somebody’s pain
yeah, you got to live for your own
you say you got all the sordid details
check out retail
watch it sell
Dear Mr. Green,
I’ve never written a fan letter to an author before. It has always seemed self-evident that anyone who could write something as funny and romantic and achingly tragic as The Fault In Our Stars should know his book is going to leave a wide swath of toppled readers in its wake. Far be it from me to add unnecessarily to the inbox. But in this case I really must stuff my note into the metaphorical Hefty bag, because I loved Hazel and Augustus and even horrible old Peter the Doughboy (okay, maybe not him so much), and I want to thank you for the experience you’ve given me. I am grateful for every second these characters spent in my mind. They will never leave it.
I happened upon this lovely set of videos by Lauren Oliver, who describes how her book, The Spindlers, went from idea to finished product. The videos are probably intended for children but I watched some of them twice.
Today I got approval for my next book, Blackbird. (!) Time to celebrate and build a writing play list—the best of writerly treats, and not to be missed. Sir Elton’s kicking this one off.
Yeah. I’m singing it and I don’t care who hears me. Sorry, neighbors.
I’ve been emailing with my sister about our various projects and goings-on. She’s planning a second trip to India, and said this when I asked about the itinerary:
We were going to concentrate on the south of India, but if we are going that far I must go to Dharamsala which is where the Dalai Lama lives. So there is all kinds of Tibetan culture and a huge Buddhist temple/compound that I want to check out, and just putts around the town. Then since we are north we are going to Varanasi which we wanted to do last time, but cut it out. Then south to Kerala and Goa where we went before, but spending more time there. The beaches of Goa are glorious! And Kerala is where we stayed the night on the houseboat last time and cruised the backwaters. It’s so lush and green. Then maybe Mumbai for 2 nights on our way home. I don’t really care about Mumbai and Sharon did it last time with TJ, so we’ll see. . . .
There is something so beautiful about a traveler’s spirit. That wish for new experience, for foreign cultures and unfamiliar vistas, the willingness to accept a stranger’s generosity with gratitude and wholehearted joy—it takes so much more than I have. More courage, more physicality, a bigger heart and an open mind. My sister has those qualities in abundance; me, not so much. I satisfy my wanderlust the lazy way, in the vicarious thrill of reading about these exotic places and knowing my sister will see them. She’s going on a journey. An adventure! She’s going to see the world.
I wish I shared her desire for sensual experience. My world is vast but locked up tight inside my head and largely unsharable. I’d rather think about a place than actually go there. I am the mountain to my sister’s Mohammad, and this post is as close to Varanasi as I will ever get.
How do you feel about travel?
This morning I finished Breath by Tim Winton. (And I started it yesterday afternoon.) It’s been too long since I was swept up in a novel like this:
I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared. In Sawyer, a town of millers and loggers and dairy farmers, with one butcher and a rep from the rural bank beside the BP, men did solid, practical things, mostly with their hands. Perhaps a baker might have had a chance to make something as pretty as it was tasty, but our baker was a woman anyway, a person as dour and blunt as any boy’s father and she baked loaves like housebricks. For style we had a couple of local footballers with a nice leap and a tidy torpedo punt, and I would concede that my father rowed a wooden boat as sweetly as I’d seen it done, in a manner that disguised and discounted all effort, but apart from that and those old coves with plastic teeth and necks like turtles who got pissed on Anzac Day and sang sad songs on the verandah of the Riverside before they passed out, there wasn’t much room for beauty in the lives of our men. The only exception was the strange Yuri Orlov, who carved lovely old-world toys from stuff he fossicked up from the forest floor. But he didn’t like to show his work. He was shy or careful and people said he was half mad anyway. When it came to blokes, he was all the useless beauty the town could manage.
For all those years when Loonie and I surfed together, having caught the bug that first morning at the Point, we never spoke about the business of beauty. We were mates but there were places our conversation simply couldn’t go. There was never any doubt about the primary thrill of surfing, the huge body-rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears. We didn’t know what endorphins were but we quickly understood how narcotic the feeling was, and how addictive it became; from day one I was stoned just from watching. We talked about skill and courage and luck — we shared all that, and in time we surfed to fool with death — but for me there was still the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.
If that doesn’t enchant you, I don’t know what more I can possibly say.
What kind of danger did you find as a kid?
“You know, there is a quote-unquote political story by Chekhov. It’s called “Grief,” and in the story all that happens is there is a man who drives a horse-drawn cab and his son has died earlier that day. The whole story is he can’t get anyone to listen to him about his heartbreak. At the end of the story, he goes into the stall with the horse and takes the horse’s head and just says, ‘My son died today, I loved him very much.’ Is that a political story? Not really, except we are 10 years away from the Russian Revolution. So to me, if you want to explore a political idea in the highest possible way, you embody it in the personal, because that’s something that no one can deny. Whatever your supposed politics are — left, right — if you put it in a human connection, most people will rise to the occasion and feel the human pain in a way that they might not if it was presented in a more conceptual way.”
~ George Saunders
All those men were there inside,
when she came in totally naked.
They had been drinking: they began to spit.
Newly come from the river, she knew nothing.
She was a mermaid who had lost her way.
The insults flowed down her gleaming flesh.
Obscenities drowned her golden breasts.
Not knowing tears, she did not weep tears.
Not knowing clothes, she did not have clothes.
They blackened her with burnt corks and cigarette stubs,
and rolled around laughing on the tavern floor.
She did not speak because she had no speech.
Her eyes were the colour of distant love,
her twin arms were made of white topaz.
Her lips moved, silent, in a coral light,
and suddenly she went out by that door.
Entering the river she was cleaned,
shining like a white stone in the rain,
and without looking back she swam again
swam towards emptiness, swam towards death.
~ Pablo Neruda
This morning over toast and OJ, my son told me about a book they’ve been reading in class. On the surface, it’s a story about a donkey who finds a magic orange marble and uses it to change into other things, and to change the world around him. But the unfortunate donkey accidentally morphs himself into a rock and becomes stuck that way. My son’s teacher explained that there is a second story behind the scenes, the marble being a metaphor for the prescription drugs the author’s son became addicted to.
As a rule, books are not a popular topic of conversation at my house. If pressed, my son will offer a plot rundown or give me some of the action-packed highlights, complete with sound effects. But this simple story about a talking donkey got his attention, because of the symbolism. Because there’s something more to it than what’s on the surface, and that deeper meaning makes the story infinitely more satisfying. I remember reading Billy Budd in high school, and listening to my teacher’s discussion of how Billy might be a metaphor for Jesus, and how this explained the profound effect his death had on the other characters. I remember feeling as though someone had given me a golden key.
My son is off to school now and I am back to work on my synopsis, reading my editor’s notes and wondering what it all means. What’s the orange marble here. Where’s the golden key.
What are you really writing about?