Archive | February, 2013

“My life is not a story,” Wrote the Memoirist

28 Feb

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After reading about how Benjamin Anastas describes his father as “a brooding Greek beatnik” who is “potbellied from lentils and with a beard down to his solar plexus chakra,” I knew I had to read his memoir Too Good to Be True. After all, I write about  Greeks and so-called beatniks. Too Good to Be True is the story of the breakup of his marriage and the dissolution of his writing career.

Its not told in an overtly emotional manner, yet its frankness is almost unsettling. These days we’re used to people baring all when it comes to relationships, but to tell the truth about money? To admit that even though he’d taught at an Ivy League and published in big-name magazines, he had to dig around in couch cushions to come up with money for his son’s dinner? That’s the type of honesty that’s hard to read because you worry he’s sabotaging his career by admitting his writing isn’t going all that well and putting it out there for editors and agents to read without the distance of time.

But isn’t that the struggle of the memoirist? While many critics claim that memoir writing is egocentric, a memoirist must lay down his ego. He must sacrifice self and present the truth. And while a memoirist may be introspective by nature, the beauty of memoir is discovering the truth along with the author.

This section from the chapter “Old Friends” is worth considering in terms of both memoir writing and living life:

How much of our lives do we write, and how much of them are written for us? I’ve been thinking about this problem lately, looking back over the trail that brought me to this place, and reading my progress at every step along the way—as adrift as I have been from the usual compass points, as unaware of my direction—for signs of an author, for the fingerprints left behind by some great invisible hand. My life is not a story. It has never been a story, not for me, not even while I’ve been taking great pains with this testament to tell it truthfully on the page. I am in too deep to call it a story. It hurts too much for me to understand it. But I am trying.

The contents of the book may center around infidelity and a mid-career slump, but the deeper story, the one that Anastas circles around to, is the relationship between parents and children, the relationship he had with his parents and the relationship he has with his son.

If I could request a follow up to Too Good to Be True, I would ask Benjamin Anastas to write a memoir about his childhood.

“Flophouse Budget Lifestyle”

27 Feb

Remember the other day when I waxed poetic about my submission spreadsheet? Well, I just stumbled upon Aaron Gilbreath’s article “The Business of Tracking Lit Mag Submissions” on Tin House‘s blog. I loved his old-fashioned pen-and-paper advice. This paragraph punched me in the gut:

Accepting contributor copies as payment for something that took six to twelve months to write; subsisting off microwavable Trader Joes food in order to keep your expenses low enough that you can afford time to write; working temp and odd jobs while publishing in magazines that writers respect but non-writers have never heard of – that’s monkey business. To have an adult’s business mindset and the flophouse budget lifestyle of a twenty year old musician seem antithetical, but I think of those things as part of the business of writing: few poets or essayists make enough money to support themselves by writing, but if you’re willing to live frugally and without popular recognition, you can enjoy a gratifying creative freedom by writing for literary magazines.

It’s so important to protect your creative freedom. There was a time when I didn’t. When I’d take little writing jobs here or there just for the few extra pennies in my pocket and the thrill of seeing my name in print. It took a breakup for me to realize I’d been squandering my time and my creative energy. I don’t publish as much these days, but the writing I’m doing is better, more thoughtful, more “me.” It’s worth more, to me.

And yet it’s so difficult to explain what Gilbreath phrases as “To have an adult’s business mindset and the flophouse budget lifestyle of a twenty year old musician” to someone who isn’t an artist.

Especially when you live in New York City, where the first question someone asks you is “What do you do for a living?” and where you’re judged by which neighborhood you live in. Here, a box of pasta costs double of what it costs over the bridge in New Jersey. Being middle class in New York City isn’t really the same as being middle class in other parts of the country.

Take this quote from The New York Times’ article “What Is Middle Class in Manhattan?“:

By one measure, in cities like Houston or Phoenix — places considered by statisticians to be more typical of average United States incomes than New York — a solidly middle-class life can be had for wages that fall between $33,000 and $100,000 a year.

By the same formula — measuring by who sits in the middle of the income spectrum — Manhattan’s middle class exists somewhere between $45,000 and $134,000.

But if you are defining middle class by lifestyle, to accommodate the cost of living in Manhattan, that salary would have to fall between $80,000 and $235,000. This means someone making $70,000 a year in other parts of the country would need to make $166,000 in Manhattan to enjoy the same purchasing power.

Or this one from NY Daily News‘ “N.Y.C. so costly you need to earn six figures to make middle class“:

In Manhattan, a $60,000 salary is equivalent to someone making $26,092 in Atlanta.

And of course, there’s this one from The Huffington Post’s “New York City’s Middle Class Is Facing An ‘Affordability Crisis,’ Says Christine Quinn“:

City Council defines “middle class” as those with a household income within 100 to 300 percent of the area median income (AMI). In New York City, that means an income ranging from $66,400 to $199,200.

I personally don’t have a “flophouse budget lifestyle.” I have a Career. Yes, capital “C.” I enjoy the work I do, and it also affords me the creative space I need to work on my writing without having to make a living off my writing, though I do earn money for my writing.

But, what does “lifestyle” really even mean? Reading and writing, and even being part of the literary community, do not require much money. There was some talk a while back about bookstores considering charging for readings, however most readings in New York City are free. Libraries lend out books for free. Museums have pay-what-you-wish days. There are more literary opportunities for writers in New York City than in many other places in the country, so in some ways it evens out. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

I did think this Onion article was funny, though.

Clip on Xu Beihong Plus Thoughts on Calligraphy, the Beats, and the Abstract Expressionists

19 Feb

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Burnside published my art post “A Time to Plant and a Time to Uproot” today.

It only occurred to me as I was posting this clip how interesting it is that Xu Beihong’s painting is from 1951. Doesn’t the seemingly traditional shuimohua painting seem much older? Xu is actually known for his Western sensibilities and is considered a forerunner in modern Chinese art.

Xu studied calligraphy with his father before attending the famous École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts — you know, that Parisian school where Degas, Matisse, Monet, and Renoir studied at. In 1917, Xu Beihong went to Japan to study art. During World War II, he sold his paintings in exhibitions throughout Asia, giving the proceeds to the Chinese whose lives had been upturned because of the war. As a teacher and artist, Xu’s policies greatly influenced the way both colleges and the government respond to art in Communist China. He died in 1953.

Meanwhile, over in Oregon at Reed College in the early 1950s, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen (who served Stateside during World War II), and Lew Welch–who are associated with the Beat Generation–were studying with calligrapher Lloyd Reynolds. Snyder and Whalen later spent time in Japan, where they studied zen. The US State Department initially denied Snyder a passport, alleging he was a Communist.

Asian influences can also be seen in the art of the time period, most notably the abstract expressionist art of Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, and Theodoros Stamos. Note this opening paragraph from the Guggenheim’s article “Abstract Art, Calligraphy, and Metaphysics“:

Following World War II New York City became the center of the avant-garde art world. Artists were working in new ways, and some were exploring the energy of the gesture with loose brushwork that reflected the impact of the artist’s bold movements. The calligraphic brushstroke was an approach to abstract painting that focused on the spontaneous gesture of the artist’s hand and was informed by the East Asian art of calligraphy and popular writings on Zen and its principles of direct action.

The article goes on to say:

In Chinese and Japanese calligraphy the brush becomes an extension of the writer’s arm, indeed, his or her entire body. The artist’s stroke not only suggests the movement of the body, but also inner qualities. Abstract as it appears, calligraphy also conveys something about the essence of the individual artist. It is therefore not surprising that 20th-century American Abstract Expressionists who sought to convey emotion through paint were drawn to it.

Because so many soldiers were stationed in the East during World War II, both the West and the East were influenced by each other.

What I personally find fascinating with calligraphy is the collision of art and literature, the visual and the literal, words becoming art, and art becoming words.

Modern Love

14 Feb
by William Hilton

by William Hilton

When I was still just a teenager, I fell for John Keats. He was a Romantic, prone to fits of passion and depression, the highs and lows most teenagers can relate to. He had studied and gotten his apothecary license, but who wants to be a doctor when they could be a poet? Both fix the heart, do they not? He sat under a plum tree and wrote an ode to a nightingale. Swoon. He wasn’t stuffy. He infused humor into his poetry and broke traditional rules, using false rhymes. He went on “road trips,” walking tours of the Lake District, Ireland, and Scotland. There’s a beautiful scene in the film Bright Star, about Keats’ romance with Fanny, in which a million butterflies flutter though a bedroom. And isn’t that just like love? Whimsical. Animated. Delicate. Fleeting. Memorable.

Gregory Corso, the poet associated with the Beat Generation, was a fan of John Keats’ poetry. It’s easy to see their resemblance to each other—the way they both referenced their hero poets in their poetry, the cheeky humor, their admiration for the Classics, the way they strayed from conformity, their struggling to make ends meet.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, here’s Keats’ thoughts on modern love.

 

Fragment: Modern Love

And what is love? It is a doll dress’d up

For idleness to cosset, nurse, and dandle;

A thing of soft misnomers, so divine

That silly youth doth think to make itself

Divine by loving, and so goes on

Yawning and doting a whole summer long,

Till Miss’s comb is made a pearl tiara,

And common Wellingtons turn Romeo boots;

Then Cleopatra lives at number seven,

And Antony resides in Brunswick Square.

Fools! if some passions high have warm’d the world,

If Queens and Soldiers have play’d deep for hearts,

It is no reason why such agonies

Should be more common than the growth of weeds.

Fools! make me whole again that weighty pearl

The Queen of Egypt melted, and I’ll say

That ye may love in spite of beaver hats.

 

Writing Wednesday: Writing from a Brothel

6 Feb

Dear Mom and Dad,

I’m going to go live in a brothel now. Don’t worry — just as the landlord. William Faulkner told me to.

PS: Sorry for robbing you and drinking all your whiskey. I’m just trying to be a good writer.

xoxo.

 

Note: This is completely fictional. But, Faulkner’s 1956 interview poses an interesting question: What is the best type of job for a writer to hold to earn some income while working on a book?

Clip: A Time to Plant and a Time to Uproot ~ van Gogh’s “Farmers Planting Potatoes”

5 Feb

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On Burnside Writers Collective.

Clip: A Time to Be Born

1 Feb

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“Nativity at Night” by Geergen tot Sint Jans, 1490

As the visual arts editor for Burnside Writers Collective, I curated artwork having to do with the theme “a time to be born.”

…And yes, the Byrds are now stuck in my head!

You can view the post here.

 

Happy Friday!!