Sunday, April 25, 2021

In Another Country


I keep this blog under my pen name, since I mostly use it as a hub for my fiction, and for thoughts about writing in general. But this week I was lucky enough to publish an essay through some day-job connections, and I wanted to share it here, too.

As part of a month-long celebration of the new Hemingway documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, our local PBS station commissioned artists and writers to respond to some of Hemingway's themes. The whole project was really well done. Hemingway's life and work is a rich vein to tap in to, and you can see that inspiration throughout the work that's been published so far. Check out the whole project here.

For my part, I knew right away I wanted to find an angle on Hemingway's story In Another Country, which has haunted me since the first time I read it. But as I tried to tease out the reasons for that, I found myself writing about Dad, 2020, and more. Here's how it starts:

 

In Another Country

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more."

*

If you ask me, Hemingway is supposed to be funny. That's why his stories are structured like jokes. “An old man walks into the sea.” Fisherman goes out, comes back with some bones—come on, that's comedy!

Or what about In Another Country? Do you remember that one? Here's how it goes:

There's this soldier who's laid up in a hospital. He's been injured during the war. The injury has taken his calf, but this soldier used to play football. “Don't worry,” say the doctors, “our machines will make you better. You'll be playing again in no time!”

In the hospital there's also a major. This guy's got a withered hand, but before the war he was the greatest fencer in Italy. So the doctors put him on machines too, and show the major pictures of all the hands the machines have already healed. “You'll be fencing again in no time!”

Then, some while later and still far away from the war, the major receives some terrible news: His wife has died of pneumonia. “Ah,” say the doctors. “How about some more pictures of hands?”

*

In Hemingway's story, the war takes from his characters what they hold the most dear. And in that, he points out, war is no different from life.

When I was sent home from work in March of 2020, I ripped two big sheets off my monthly desk calendar to last me through April. At the time this felt pessimistic. At the time, I thought, “Better safe than sorry!” It was the start of my retreat from the world, a withdrawal for my own protection as much as for others.

Not every retreat was so safe. My father, just a few years out from his diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia, began to suffer paranoid delusions while the country locked down. As he slipped further and further into himself, fearful of things we could not see or understand, he finally found a solution. While the rest of the world was staying inside, my dad left the indoors and began running away.

*

Okay, maybe Hemingway isn't funny funny. I should probably have called him “ironic.” That fits the bill a bit better.

Critic E. M. Halliday agrees. Here's what Halliday says about irony in A Farewell to Arms:

It is as if the author had said, 'Do not imagine that the kinds of cruelty and disruption I have shown you are confined to war: they are the conditions of life itself.' It is thus only at the end that the full ironic ambiguity of the title springs into view.”

So, like I said: Not really funny ha ha.




Read the full essay here.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Use it All Up

This week I've been reading 12 Short Stories and Their Making, edited by Paul Mandelbaum. The conceit of the anthology is that after each story Mandelbaum includes an interview with the author about some particular aspect of storytelling. The anthology is divided into subjects like plot, character, point of view, and setting, and in each interview Mandelbaum tries to draw out specific lessons that might benefit other writers.

It's pretty great. So far I've read stories by Walter Kirn, Kim Edwards, George Garrett, Gail Godwin, and Charles Johnson, and there's not one of them that hasn't made me stop and think. The interviews could be just the cherry on top, but the writers are deeply generous with their answers and so there's a lot of meat there, too.

Charles Johnson with grandson, seated behind a desk in his office, the walls lined with bookshelves
Charles Johnson
In one of my favorite stories, “China” by Charles Johnson, a man is his fifties takes up martial arts. The story is told in third-person, from the perspective of his wife, Evelyn, who watches her husband Rudolph go through his transformation with surprise, irritation, anger, and finally epiphany when she sees him compete for the very first time.

What's interesting about the story is how persuasive it feels. Calling it an “allegory” makes it sound heavy-handed, which it isn't at all. But I wasn't completely surprised, either, when I read this in Johnson's interview:

This early story (1980) was initially inspired by a rather heated discussion about Buddhism that I had with my friend and former teacher, John Gardner, in person and through my letters. … We argued back and forth about Buddhism in a few letters, then I decided to simply dramatize my position by writing the story 'China,' knowing that Gardner much preferred to read fiction than arguments.”

The story is an argument, and its tension comes from the two competing perspectives, the irreconcilable positions of husband and wife. But as a metaphor for mindfulness and self-discipline, it's also an argument that I think any writer would recognize between that part of the self that wants to create and the part that would rather give in to distraction.

Maybe that's why this story resonated so much. Especially this month, when I've been wrestling with myself just to get words down on paper, to prioritize my time for writing. Part of the reason I started reading 12 Stories was the fact I really haven't read much fiction this year, and I thought maybe that was the issue. So I gave myself a prescription: Take one story each night until the problem clears up.

I wasn't totally wrong. For instance, as soon as I finished reading “The Hoaxer” by Walter Kirn an idea popped in my head for a story and I sat down to write. Good fiction inspires, and sometimes that's easy to forget if you're on a run of bland reading. 12 Stories does not have that problem.

But reading more fiction can't solve everything. Despite a lot of change this year in how I approach the work of writing, it's still sometimes hard to remember what the work is all for. Stories get rejected, queries go unnoticed, and I'm still here typing away in my basement. So what?

In that, I'm much more like Evelyn. Here she is about halfway into the story, trying to process Rudolph's newfound devotion to training:

People were naturally soft on themselves. But not her Rudolph. Of course, he seldom complained. It was not in his nature when, looking for 'gods,' he found only ruin and wreckage. What did he expect? Evelyn wondered. Man was evil—she'd told him that a thousand times—or, if not evil, hopelessly flawed. Everything failed; it was some sort of law. But at least there was laughter, and lovers clinging to one another against the cliff; there were novels—wonderful tales of how things should be—and perfection promised in the afterworld. He'd sit and listen, her Rudolph, when she put things this way, nodding because he knew that in his persistent hunger for perfection in the here and now he was, at best, in the minority. He kept his dissatisfaction to himself, but occasionally Evelyn would glimpse in his eyes that look, that distant, pained expression that asked: Is this all?

Evelyn wants to protect Rudolph. She thinks she wants him to accept the world as it is. But what she's actually asking is for him to accept the world as she sees it, a vision that's incompatible with Rudolph's need to use up the unused parts of himself before they can spoil.

I think writers, like anyone who practices an art, have that drive to "use up" all of themselves. But there's always that other voice, the one wondering why you can't just accept the way that things are. If it were going to happen, it would have happened by now. The catch is that “It” is a moving target. Whatever "success" means right now, it will long have moved on by the time that I get there.

Alas, knowing that fact doesn't make it any easier to wrestle with. While I'd like to be Rudolph, fully present and devoting myself wholly to one thing, I'm still a lot of Evelyn, wondering, "What did you expect?"

Sunday, April 11, 2021

I Guess You Had to Be There

There's no word I trust less on a book jacket than "hilarious." Maybe humor is too idiosyncratic, or maybe it's the nature of blurbs to be a bit hyperbolic. Either way, what reviewers really seem to mean by it is "wry" or "ironic," or sometimes just "good at constructing paragraphs to resemble a joke." What they don't seem to mean very often is "funny."

It's all well and good for me to complain about this, since I'm not the one writing reviews. But I was on the other end of it this week when I got a text from my niece asking me to recommend a book that would make her laugh. 

Recommending books to a nine-year-old is fraught to being with. She's a voracious reader who makes no distinction between genres, but that makes it hard to know where to begin, and the obvious choices are usually books she's already read. The last time we talked she was just finishing up the Sherlock Holmes stories, had started a new series about dragons, was researching Greek mythology, and advised me to read Ramona Quimby.

So I've come to accept, as my personal rule of thumb, a 1-in-3 success ratio. When I give her books for her birthday, or make recommendations, I make sure to include at least three different titles. If even one of them lands, to me that's a win.

For instance: After finishing the Harry Potter books, my niece was on the hunt for a new series to read. So for her birthday I sent her John Bellairs' "The House with a Clock in Its Walls," Brian Jacques' "Redwall," and Diana Wynn Jones' "Howl's Moving Castle." Of the three, Bellairs got a lukewarm review, Jacques got nothing at all, and "Howl's Moving Castle" was declared the best book she'd ever read. (This lasted about a month, until she discovered Tui T. Sutherland, at which point it is fair to say that dragons became the central focus of her life.)

I took her reaction to Jones as a major success, and to hell with the other two. So when she asked me for funny books, I came up with three places to start and hoped at least one would connect.

Paperback cover of Paula Danziger's "This Place Has No Atmosphere," featuring an irritated looking young woman sitting on a moon colony with Earth in the background

First I recommended Paula Danziger, whose books are still some of my most vividly remembered from childhood. (She also introduced me to the term "silent but deadly," so for that alone I feel a certain debt, which I can only pay forward.)

Next I offered up Daniel Pinkwater, who really should have won the Pulitzer for "The Hoboken Chicken Emergency." Excellent title, and just listen to the description from Pinkwater's website: Arthur goes to pick up the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner but comes back with a 260-pound chicken. How can anyone resist a premise like that?

Finally, I suggested Jeff Smith's Bone, for its heart and its humor and for being such a smart and singular work. The only drawback to this one is that comics read fast, and even one as long as Bone may not take her too long. Fortunately this is offset by the fact that it gets better with every subsequent read.

And yes, it's fair to say that this list suffers from the fact I haven't been nine years old in quite some time. I'd like to think these recommendations are classics, but we all want to believe that about the things we grew up with. If she enjoys any of the above, I'll call it a win. If she doesn't, then I'll ask my niece to recommend something hilarious to me, and we'll see how she likes being the one in the hot seat.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Solitude

This week I started reading Fenton Johnson's “At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life.” I picked it up because it looked interesting, and because it seemed like it might be kindred to Anneli Rufus's “Party of One," which I loved.

Chapter by chapter, Johnson's book profiles artists and thinkers who were famously solitary. Thoreau, Cezanne, Whitman, and Dickinson all get their turn as Johnson looks to glean insights about the connection between solitude and making art. What I didn't realize was that the first couple chapters would focus on Johnson's own life, particularly his childhood growing up around rural Kentucky in the company of Trappist monks from the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Headshot of author Fenton Johnson in a black shirt and tie, facing camera
Fenton Johnson

I've spent time at Gethsemani, and reading Johnson's description of the abbey, the monks, and their land brought back the memory of my own trip there in 2013. At the time, I was in pretty bad shape. Drinking had become central to everything I did, and I knew both that I wanted to stop and that I didn't know how.

But that wasn't why I went to the abbey. My stated reason was to go and create for myself a kind of DIY writer's retreat. I'd looked into official programs, ones that would include other writers and teachers, but they all cost too much. I discovered that writing retreats were an industry unto themselves, and each one seemed more expensive than the last. Even my alma mater had got in the game, unveiling a retreat to Chamonix, France, where students would study with celebrity writers for thousands of dollars a piece.

I didn't have that kind of cash. I couldn't even conceive how to get it. The abbey, however, cost nothing.

Once I got there, though, I didn't actually do much writing. I was too busy not being drunk. How had this not crossed my mind? My weekend retreat at the abbey meant spending three full days dry. How in the fuck did I forget about that?

Well, maybe some part of me hadn't. These kind of games seemed to happen a lot—part of me, the Sober Me, was always trying desperately to outfox the Alcoholic. Unfortunately the deck was stacked pretty badly against him; Sober Me almost never managed to chalk up a win.

Aerial photo of Gethsemani Abbey showing the monastery, grounds, and cemetery
Gethsemani Abbey

Yet now, somehow, he had. I arrived at Gethsemani without any plan for how I would drink. No bottle stashed in my suitcase, no address for the nearest bar in my phone. I hadn't even remembered my cigarettes. I'd delivered myself to the abbey completely cold turkey, condemned to spend the next three days sober, alone, and in silence.

Oh that devious, devious Sober Me. What a bastard.

I got a late start on the day I arrived. I didn't show up to the abbey until evening, well after dinner was served. The monk at the front desk gave me a key and directions to my room, then asked if I'd already eaten.

Yes,” I lied. Drinking had taught me to be as unobtrusive as possible, to avoid inconveniencing anyone whenever I could. People tend to leave you alone that way.

But the monk wasn't having it. “What? What did you eat?”

I froze. I wasn't expecting that kind of skepticism, but his tone was unmistakable. He might as well have just shouted, “Bullshit!”

I ate on the road,” I lied again.

Stop it,” the monk said. “Go get a sandwich.” Then he was done with me.

I went to the cafeteria to find a stack of cold grilled cheese sandwiches, waiting, I guessed, for late arrivals like myself. I put two sandwiches on a plate and took them along with my suitcase to sit down at the nearest table. There was a placard to remind visitors this was not a social space: SILENCE IS SPOKEN HERE. I ate my sandwiches and I thought about the monk at the front desk. All of a sudden I started to cry.

What the fuck is wrong with you, I thought, trying to force down my dinner. I didn't feel upset. I felt relieved to be contradicted, even if only to be ordered to eat. But I wondered what I'd got myself into.

It was, in fact, the start of three very long days alone. I did not do very much writing. But I also did not run into town to pick up a bottle. I spent most of the three days hiking through the woods that belonged to the monks. Some of the paths were well-marked and worn. Others were overgrown to the point of being impassable. Sometimes I wasn't even sure I was actually on a path, and then suddenly there'd be a cross or a bench or a little stone shelter and I'd realize that yes, okay, I was still going somewhere. Eventually all roads led back to the abbey.

Crying into my grilled cheese sandwich sounds pretty pathetic, and no, it wasn't rock bottom. Yet it was still somehow a moment of clarity. My path to alcoholism was littered with an archipelago of nights I can now see as red flags. All those parties and dinners and celebrations where I thought the point was to get as drunk as humanly possible—I didn't connect at the time that these individual events were not isolated, or what they might combine to foreshadow. Maybe I didn't want to.

But my path to sobriety was made of those same kind of moments, disconnected until they were not. It would be years after Gethsemani before I finally quit drinking for good. It would take years of trying to stop, failing, and trying again before I'd finally succeed. Yet Gethsemani was still part of the path. That dry, silent weekend became something to which I would return again and again. I know you can stop drinking. I know you can stand your own solitude. I know because you've done it before.

Either/Or

Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...