Heart lifting

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Baby Abby and baby Guion, engaging in favorite activities. (Photo from a sweet baby shower.)

The joys of spring are so apparent that they’re almost not worth naming. I part the curtains with anticipation every morning, noting the growth of my long-nurtured perennials and the return of familiar weeds. We continue to walk every day, observing how quickly the trees shed their blossoms and mature, how insane the songbirds have become in courtship and competition. I walk slowly now, but I am still walking. This seems to be what counts.

I have always tended toward loving home and domesticity, but this instinct seems to have kicked into high gear, now that I’m nearly nine months pregnant. I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. My first instinct at any invitation is to say no, definitely not (much to my extroverted lover’s chagrin). I am staying put. I am waiting here, where I have been planted for the time being.

. . .

Perhaps one of the strangest sensations I’ve encountered, poised on the brink of motherhood, is the fact that even though I am reading copiously about babies and parenthood, I don’t know anything more than I did before. All of this knowledge hasn’t transformed into preparation or prediction. I still have no idea what it will be like. In almost every other realm, I can read dozens of books and walk away with at least some increased knowledge. This does not seem to be the case concerning child-rearing. It’s all still a grand mystery. Maybe it always will be.

These days, most people ask us, “Are you ready?” And I always say no, of course not. Who is ever really ready for this?

I skimmed an interview with a designer, a mother of two, who used this metaphor for the voyage from childlessness to parenthood: You lived on Earth, very happily, for many years. Then you’re packed onto a spaceship and sent to another planet. You can always see Earth from your new planet, and you know you can never return. Sometimes this stabs you in the heart. This other planet is very different and strange at first, but you come to love it. It has its own joys and pains and secrets and pleasures. You accept it as your new home, remembering Earth as a distant, fond memory.

. . .

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.

— Susan Sontag, lecturing on Nadine Gordimer, quoted in Brain Pickings

Human rights

A favorite recent anecdote, told to me by my coworker:

The topic of blood diamonds comes up when my coworker is home visiting her parents, who are very conservative, FOX News-abiding folk. Coworker tells her parents that our fellow coworker, P., recently said he’d never buy a future fiancee a diamond, because of the conflict regarding the precious stones and the fraught diamond trade in Africa. No one at the table knows much about blood diamonds, and so her mom says, “I don’t understand; what’s the problem?” Coworker says, “Well, it’s a human rights issue.” Mom’s eyes narrow, knowingly, and she says, “Ohh. I get it. So, he’s really liberal, huh?”

So! Score one for us, liberals! We have human rights on our side. Conservatives apparently don’t go in much for those.

That which you do not know

Close Range: Wyoming Stories.

I recently started Annie Proulx’s collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories (which includes the story “Brokeback Mountain,” famous because Ang Lee adapted into a film). I have loved Proulx since I read The Shipping News a few years ago and was excited to begin this collection. I’m only 60 pages in, but it’s been wonderful so far.

Here’s what it’s making me think about:

Annie Proulx comes from a different universe, as far as I’m concerned. She lives on a 640-acre ranch in Wyoming. These stories are about Wyoming people: Ranchers, weathered wives, wannabe bull-riders. I don’t know the first thing about life in Wyoming, but Close Range makes me feel like I do.

This collection stands in contrast to another set of short stories I read a few weeks ago, I Sailed with Magellan, by Stuart Dybek. I Sailed with Magellan is focused on the trials and tribulations of boys growing up on Chicago’s South Side. That’s another universe I don’t know anything about. I’ve never been an immigrant boy fighting my way through life in downtown Chicago. Neither have I been an aspiring bull-rider in Wyoming. But Proulx succeeds in something that Dybek does not: She manages to make her universe accessible to people who have never seen it, who have never known it. Dybek, while also a gifted writer, drops some kind of veil between his characters and their stories and his readers. I couldn’t get close enough to Dybek’s characters to really know them.

The distinction has been puzzling me ever since. What is it that Proulx does to make her universe accessible that Dybek does not? The best I can get at an answer is that Proulx’s characters seem to have more globalized, relatable flaws and desires. Dybek’s boys are very localized; they have Chicago problems with Chicago answers. Proulx’s people live in the vast, empty planet of the Wyoming plains, but their problems are our problems, too. In “The Half-Skinned Steer,” we recognize the self-sufficient old man who thinks he can make it on his own. We know Diamond Felts and his experience of the conflicting tug between freedom and protection in “The Mud Below.” We have seen them all before.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is not related to my thoughts, but this passage is from Annie Proulx’s 2009 Paris Review interview. I love her description of the joy and arduousness of writing, as if it were like manual labor:

There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works.

All stories go wrong

Click for source.

On Being Asked to Write a Poem for the Centenary of the Civil War
By Maxine Kumin

Good friend, from my province what is there to say?
My great-grandfather left me here
rooted in grateful guilt,
who came, an escaped conscript,
blasted out of Europe in 1848;
came, mourned by all his kin
who put on praying hats
and sat a week on footstools there;
plowed forty days by schooner
and sailed in at Baltimore
a Jew, and poor;
strapped needles up and notions
and walked packaback across
the dwindling Alleghenies,
his red beard and nutmeg freckles
dusting as he sang.

There are no abolitionists in my past to point to.
The truth is that this man,
my only link with that event,
prospered in Virginia, begat
eight young and sewed eight years
on shirts to get them bread.
When those warm states stood up to fight,
the war made him a factory
in a pasture lot where he sat,
my part-time pacifist,
stitching uniforms for the Confederates.

The gray cloth made him rich;
they say he lived to lose it all.
I have only a buckle and a candlestick
left over, like old rhetoric,
from his days to show how little I belong.
This is the way I remember it was told,
but in a hundred years
all stories go wrong.

Week 6: Writing and editing a short story

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Week 6: Writing and Editing Stories

Deep down, every journalism and English major just wants to be the next great American novelist. Journalism is a particularly helpful disguise for this rosy ambition, because it at least carries with it some tinge of respectability (although perhaps not anymore). You get a job as some underpaid slave to the newspaper industry, staying up till ungodly hours just to finish that paragraph-long story about city council that won’t even have your byline on it, and for what? For fulfilling the dream of someday writing your masterpiece and making it big.

I walked away from my university with a degree in journalism and English, so I guess I’m guilty as charged. I’ve loved words since I was practically a baby; according to my mother, I apparently taught myself to read when I was 3 (although I might have just been memorizing those Lady and the Tramp books). I remember my grandmother asking me when I was 6 what I was going to be when I grew up. I stood at the top of the staircase and shouted, “A WRITER!”

Today, however, I don’t think I’d call myself a writer. I am a zealous reader and work currently as a copy editor/publications assistant, but I’m not really a writer. I don’t believe that I ever could be a novelist, much less a great one, and so I half-heartedly start dozens of these short stories and then abandon them after I get discouraged. I squirrel them away on my laptop and don’t show anyone, ever. (Especially not my brilliant husband, who IS a professional writer and a very gifted one at that.) These stories that litter my hard drive feel like my shameful indulgences.

However. Thanks to encouragement from a few blind, loving souls (Guion, Angela, and Emily), I decided that my challenge for this week would be to give those stories some much-needed attention. I have no starry expectations for them. I still don’t plan on sharing them with anyone. But, for me, a large part of the joy of writing is finishing. I haven’t finished a story in forever. So, I think it’s about time.

A Fake Writer’s Diary

DAY 1. As we were cleaning up dinner, I asked Guion what he did when he hit a wall. He shared some advice from his sage professor, short story writer and affirmed genius, Deborah Eisenberg. Eisenberg says that when she’s trying to get to know a character better, she will write little adjacent stories that describe something that happened to that character. The little story never makes it into the larger work, but it is an important effort in getting to know the people that live in her pages. Tonight, I tried to do this with my stubborn characters. It felt a little bit like cheating, but I think it helped.

DAY 2. Today my lesson to myself was to write focus on dialogue, even if I was producing terrible dialogue. I was thinking particularly of Franzen, who I most recently read, and his impeccable grasp of dialogue. His characters’ conversations seem effortless and believable and yet essential to the movement of the story. I don’t know how he does it. One of the realizations I’ve come to today is that fictional dialogue does not necessarily have to be a verbatim replica of how people actually talk. Characters are, after all, naturally hyperbolic and we need them to accomplish things with their speech that we may not otherwise accomplish in real life. Today I’ve decided that I am going to be OK with that.

DAY 3. I wonder if it’s a problem if my protagonist is totally unlikable. Do all protagonists need to be sympathetic?

DAY 4. It’s really dreary to hear writers talk about their writing. I don’t think I call myself a “writer,” though, so maybe this won’t count?

DAY 5. Today I taught myself the lesson that there is nothing sacred about the beginning of the story. Even though this was the first thing I wrote for this piece, it does not necessarily mean that it must stay. Especially if it’s bad. Beginnings can change. So can endings.

DAY 6. Writing by hand is difficult, but I like it. I think I write better on paper and edit better on a computer. I didn’t bring my laptop on our Triangle trip and so I am happily relegated to the good old-fashioned notebook and pen.

DAY 7. OK, so I didn’t write today. Too busy. I will forgive myself.

Despite my somewhat sporadic attention to this task, I made more progress with this shabby little story this week than I have in months. I will count that as a successful weekly challenge.

Next week, I will undergo what is by far the easiest challenge of them all: To wear the same necklace every day for a week. This is largely inspired by Catherine, who would wear an accent piece with everything for a month. Except that she always looked great and I might not.