Happy Birthday, Annie Proulx!

Annie Proulx @ 2008 by PEN American Center/Beowolf Sheehan

Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) was born on this day in 1935. Proulx’s first novel Postcards was published when Proulx was 58 years old. So if any of you mid-life folks are feeling like it’s too late to try something new, please consider Annie Proulx as a refutation of that idea, as well as an inspiration.

To read/listen to Annie Proulx tell a story at the 2008 PEN World Voices Festival, click HERE.

Adventure and Art: A Manifesto for Women and Grrrls


I believe grrrls and women should have adventures. And we should have the opportunity to experience the adventures of other grrrls and women through books, film, music and visual arts.

Too many times we have read books and watched films about a man or boy having an adventure while a woman sits at home and waits for him. In movies like LEGENDS OF THE FALL, the male protagonist (in this case Tristan, played by Brad Pitt) travels the world having adventures and sex in opium dens while his true love sits at home on the Tristan’s front porch and waits for his return.

In books like Paul Coehlo’s THE ALCHEMIST, the spiritually seeking man (in this case, the protagonist Santiago) goes on an odyssey while his true love, the woman in the desert, stays in the desert unmoving, unchanging until Santiago’s return.

Which brings us to the word “odyssey” itself, a word derived from the name of the adventurous Odysseus who went to war and traveled the world for twenty years, while his wife Penelope stayed at home.

And even in contemporary books with female protagonists written by women, the big choice for the young woman often remains as uninteresting as “Should I chose the werewolf or the vampire to be my boyfriend?”

Puh-lease.

We as women and girls can’t just demand more interesting and engaging female characters. We have waited too long already. And there’s no guarantee the male dominated film industry or the imploding-as-we-speak publishing or music industries will listen. We have to write the books and—if necessary—publish them ourselves. We must write the scripts and storm Hollywood with them and—if necessary—make the movies ourselves. We must write the albums and–if necessary—record them ourselves. We must paint the paintings and—if necessary—show them ourselves.

We will no longer stand for stories that offer no more than the woman who waits on the front porch or in the desert, who plays the auxiliary wife of the man of action. We will no longer compliantly consume such art; we will, at the very least, take notice of the messages such art contains.

Statistics about women in artistic industries are daunting.

Only 30% of producers of major motion pictures are women. Only 10% of screenwriters of major motion pictures are women. Only 4% of directors of major motion pictures are women.

In the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, only 3.5% of the works of art on display are by female artists.

The publishing industry seems anomalous in this regard. Female editors and agents dominate the publishing industry. And most book buyers, book group members, and literary bloggers are women. And yet, to quote Lakshmi Chaudry “the gods of the literary…remain predominately male–both as writers and critics.”

From 1921-2006, only 31 % of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction were awarded to women.

Females easily make up 50% of published fiction writers; and yet in the New York Times article “What is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Past 25 Years?” of the 26 books mentioned, only 2 of them were written by women. (Writers of color are radically underrepresented in this article as well).

Does this mean women aren’t writing as well as men? Hardly. But it does mean their work does not receive the awards and acclaim more often bestowed upon their male counterparts.

Female fronted rock bands and female hip hop artists are still notable for their gender because rock and hip hop are also still male-dominated art forms.

These statistics and realities are daunting. But we will not spend too much time bitching about them; we will not become paralyzed by our complaints. We will instead notice them, pay attention to them; we will use our anger about them to drive dynamic and positive change. We will make that change ourselves.

Nicki Minaj

We don’t ask permission (or at least not for long). We write the stories, the songs, the films. We paint the paintings. We record or publish or film them ourselves if need be. We throw our own art openings. We open our own gallery spaces.

Like Ani Difranco, we start our own record label, Righteous Babe Records, and sell our music out of the trunk of our car until our records and our label take off. And we will go on to write, record and release more than 20 albums on our own label, maintaining our artistic freedom even as we garner attention and acclaim.

Like Kathleen Hannah (former lead singer of Bikini Kill) we start the underground punk rock Riot Grrrl movement even though, “punk rock is for and by boys.” We express our collective anger and joy loudly, for all the grrrls too afraid to do so themselves.

Like Nicki Minaj, we quit our 9-5 office job—despite the disappointment it causes our mother–to work on our lyrics full-time and push our career as a hip hop artist. And we write songs that say:

In this very moment I’m king/In this very moment I slayed Goliath with a sling… I wish that I could have this moment 4 life/4 life, 4 life/’Cause in this moment, I just feel so alive/alive, alive

Like Amanda Hocking, we publish our own books and make them available on our blog until the sheer buying power of our fan base drives the publishing industry to us.

Like Shauna Cross, we become a roller girl; and then we write a novel about it called DERBY GIRL; and then we write the screenplay adaptation of the novel, which becomes WHIP IT, the first movie directed by Drew Barrymore, a female actor brave enough to take the reins and make her own film.

The internet and social networking have brought down the barriers that once existed between art and audience; they have rendered the gatekeepers much less relevant than they have ever been before. And so we create our work; and we take responsibility for putting it out into the world so that our audience can find it.

But most of all we keep having adventures ourselves.

We don’t ask for permission to be granted by our fathers, our mothers, our lovers, our brothers, our husbands, our wives, our bosses, or friends. Or even from our sisters, who sometimes worry and so might like to have us sequestered from harm.

We go out into the world and live. We run through rain forests at night; and swim in oceans; and kayak; and when we run out of money, we take the ferry from Seattle to Alaska where we wait tables at the Princess Hotel and ride our mountain bikes under the midnight sun. We busk on the streets in Bosnia. We work as cops in Palmer Lake, Colorado. We teach a boy to read or a girl to play the guitar. We give birth to or adopt a child. We take a call on the National Domestic Violence Hotline. We go to physical therapy school. We support the art other women make; we buy extra copies of books and albums we love; we give them to our friends as gifts.

We say, “You are talented.”

We say, “You can do it.”

We say, “Yes it can be done.”

We say this to ourselves. We say this to each other.

And then we use our adventures to fuel our art and we share our art with others; to show them the way; to let them know that they are not alone. And so women and girls can see that with or without permission our art and our lives will flourish. Our art and our lives will not be stifled by the music or publishing or film industries or by gallery owners or well-meaning loved ones.

We are women and girls; and we will make our art and have our adventures; and we will support each other.

If this manifesto spoke to you, please shared it with a friend.

www.marypaulinelowry.com

Real True Grit

“Well, there is no beat of a good friend.”

–Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn, in the novel, True Grit.

“He is not my friend.”

–Young Mattie Ross, speaking of Rooster Cogburn, in True Grit.

The American myth of the rugged, self-sufficient individual is ever-present in our culture. Think of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a character based on the nameless “Continental Op” of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller, Red Harvest. The characters abandon the very concept of community. They no longer even want a name that could be known by others.

The myth, of course, is just a fictionalized reflection of a belief held by many Americans: the self-contained individual is all. The furtherance of individual liberty, with little regard for the fate of the community at large, is the only legitimate role of government. The belief comes with magical thinking (or cynical slight-of-hand) that unrestrained selfishness will produce more for all than selflessness, altruism, or compassion.

Charles Portis’s True Grit and the 2010 film version by the Coen Brothers turn the myth on its head. In the process, the works tell us something about loneliness, inequality and the pursuit of friendship in contemporary America. We can look at the “true grit” of the book and movie as a reference to the courage to befriend others selflessly despite differences and barriers.

Continue reading “Real True Grit”

Read This And You Will Become Smart And Go To Heaven

Library

Dictators often come wrapped in lofty literary pretensions, it seems. And you thought the novel was dead.

Suzanne Murkelson has a terrific piece in Foreign Policy about the literary lives of dictators. She was disciplined enough to avoid the term tortured prose. But I’m not.

Murkelson notes that it was the late Turkmen autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov who blurbed his own work:

A person that reads Ruhnama becomes smart … and after it, he will go to heaven…

What writer wouldn’t love such an Amazon review? The gift of intelligence in this life, the promise of eternal happiness in the afterlife? I wonder what you get if you reread it?

Muammar al-Qaddafi wrote a children’s story called “The Astronaut’s Suicide” about an American space explorer who ends it all after he returns to Earth and discovers he’s lost his job due to budget cuts. Goodnight, Moon. One hopes he at least read Niyazov.

Continue reading “Read This And You Will Become Smart And Go To Heaven”

A New Take On The Gothic Novel

Brian McGreevy recently sold his first novel “Hemlock Grove,” a revisionist gothic which explores the nature of monstrosity. McGreevy, who shows proper disdain for the supernatural teen craze led by the Twilight series, seems destined to do for modern day gothic what Cormac McCarthy did for the Western. McGreevy’s novel, chock full of shapeshifting werewolves, vampires, and an incredibly tall Frankenstein-like teenage girl, is indeed literary, a fact validated by the novel’s purchase by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, an imprint famous for publishing “serious” literature.

McGreevy’s fascination with and reinvention of gothic horror has inspired me to study the genre.

Good old Wikipedia defines gothic as a “genre of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance….Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, decay, doubles, madness, secrets, and hereditary curses.”

Aided and abetted by my new Kindle, which allows me free access to any novel that is public domain, I started with the first gothic novel, “The Castle of Otranto” by Horace Walpole (1746). In its first edition, Walpole published the novel under a pseudonym, claiming in the preface that the manuscript had been originally penned in Italian in 1530 or earlier and had just been discovered and translated. The novel was received with acclaim and the translation was widely praised. In the second edition, Walpole admitted the hoax and from then on the novel was panned by critics.

While reading “The Castle of Otranto,” I began referring to it as “the worst gothic novel,” instead of  “the first gothic novel.” Melodramatic and largely silly,  the novel that gave birth to a genre was nevertheless pretty dang fun to read.

Now I’m on to reading “The Mysteries of Udolpho” (1794) by Ann Radcliffe, a woman largely credited with shaping the gothic novel and turning it into a legitimate genre. Fans of Jane Austen will recall that in her gothic parody “Northanger Abby” (written 1798-1799, published 1817), the protagonist, 17 year-old Catherine Morland, is deeply affected by reading “The Mysteries of Udolpho.”

I’ve only just begun the novel, but like her fan Jane Austen, Radcliffe seems to have a knack for describing her characters’ sentiments and personalities in a few masterful lines.

I hope to keep trucking through my self-taught gothic novel class, so that by the time McGreevy’s “Hemlock Grove” hits bookstores, I will have a better understanding of the genre he hopes to reinvent.

To read about McGreevy’s career as a screenwriter, click HERE.

On Writing: The Hunchers, the Librarians and War

The enduring conceptions of what we nowadays call the “writing process” come from two camps: the Ugly Hunchers and the Mincing Librarians.

Hunchers are characterized not only by their grotesque facial features and typically poor posture but also by their gnomic pronouncements on the composition process. The chief Ugly Huncher of our time is no doubt John Ashbery, who in the early Nineteen Seventies renewed the Huncher philosophy with remarkable pith. “Poetry,” he said, “is mostly hunches.”

Plato, despite his relative talkiness and reputed beauty, is the most famous of the Hunchers.  All Huncher Pronouncements are considered merely afterwords to his. He said, speaking of the poet: “…he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth….” There have been many Hunchers and many Huncher pronouncements since, of course, but I give Plato pride of place not only for his thorough-going Hunchiness, but also for his figurative bleakness. Reading his words, I am always persuaded he is right: the poor poet toils away in the dark, creaking image factory, way out in there in boring suburbs of truth, far from the vibrant metropolis where the philosopher kings whoop it up every night. And there he has stood for millennia, poor, benighted, stooped and weary on the assembly line, forever stitching together his dank bolus of falsifying imagery. Plato always convinces me, for awhile,  that whatever it is we do when we write cannot be discussed–and certainly not in the open air and the strong, cleansing light of the sun, as one would discuss, say, the progress of a garden vine or the habits of a charming pet.

Plato inhabits what we might call the First Huncher Position. The idea, perhaps also implicit in the comment by Mr. Ashbery, is that Poets Are Idiots. But there is also a Second Huncher Position, one that dwells not on the simplicity of the poet’s mind, but the complexity of the poetic product. I call this the Hideous Mongrel Theory of Poetry. It goes like this. No story, no poem is purely blooded. No one has worked for years, as people do with dogs or racehorses, to establish a clean, predictable line of descendants from a single source of good genes. Each poem has many fathers and mothers. Each poem is mongrel. And each poem is two-headed, three-headed, four-headed. What seems to be a singular poem is actually two or three poems or plays fighting it out like cats in a bag (or like mongrels in the trailer courts of language). Look closely at any poem, even the simplest, and you will see several poems, even many poems, each with its own dubious heritage. It is the same with stories and plays and certainly with novels. A piece of writing is not a singular creature. It is a colony. And each member of the colony, each sentence, each word, has its own lineage, its own strange face, its own gait, its own inclinations.

T. S. Eliot, a Closet Huncher, sums up the Hideous Mongrel theory elegantly, but with great discretion. Always decorous, he does his best to disguise with a euphemism the genetics of the monstrous, three-headed pup dropped with a plop into the proper workshop or literary journal:

“It is not in the nature of things that there should be a point-for-point correspondence between the mental processes of any two poets. Not only do poems come into being in as many ways as there are poets; for the same poet… the process may vary from poem to poem. Every poem has its own embryological pattern…” (emphasis added)

Embryological pattern? We know to what he alludes: bastardy, monstrosity, excess digits, random mutation.

Whitman is perhaps more to the point.  “Something long preparing and formless,” he says, “is arrived and form’d in you.” Whatever it is that like the Alien has built up in us from the digestive gases or the ethers, we cannot know. We may have a hunch about it. We may figger it’s probably its own singular monster, one unlike any other monster that grinds through the ribs of any other poet. But what it is and how it forms, where it comes from and how it arrives, we don’t know. We hunch around our hunches and sometimes we splat out a poem. This is the Basic Huncher Position.

Opposed to the Hunchers and their ridiculous, though picturesque theories, are the Mincing Librarians. The Librarians believe in metonymy. In Mincing. That is, they believe in division by parts. The Librarians are the ones who take swords to the quaint metaphors nurtured with such care by the Hunchers. The most influential, though least recognized, of the contemporary Librarians is Janet Emig. Haven’t heard of her? You only think you haven’t heard of her. Janet Emig coined the Librarian’s Big Sneaky Term. That term is “writing process.”

According to Emig, who developed her theory while studying the composition process of high-school students, writing consists in:

  • · “Pre-writing,” which consists of planning, research and outlining
  • · Drafting, which is the initial composition
  • · Revision, which is review, modification and organization by the writer
  • · Editing, which is proofreading for clarity, conventions, style, whether by the writer or another
  • · Submittal, which is sharing the sharing the writing, possibly through performance, printing, or distribution of written material

(I have quoted here extensively from the Wikipedia entry on “writing process.”)

When you become sickened, if you are not sick already, by seminars, colloquia, talks, discussions and papers, like this one, on the “writing process,” you will know who to blame: Janet Emig, who, bless her heart, was only trying to figure out how to teach idiot high-school students to write five-paragraph essays. That her Big Sneaky Term became big at all is a testament to the littleness of contemporary thinking about whatever it is that we do when we write.

But the Librarian model has always suffered from a certain sketchiness. Emig’s model obviously follows from Aristotle, our first great classifier, who also analyzed the writing process as consisting of steps. For Aristotle, of course, there were but two steps: figuring out what to say and then saying it. Falling from a chair might require fewer steps, and less analysis, but otherwise creative composition seems to be among the simpler phenomena ever analyzed by the Great Classifier. Emig’s model is Steppier than Aristotle’s (it could hardly contain less) but her method obviously devolves from his.

The problem with the Librarian’s model is that whether it contains five steps or two, none of the Steps, and certainly none of the “analysis,” teaches us much about the creative act of composition. It is all very well to include a step called “Drafting” in a model of a writing process, but what does “Drafting” tell us about how poems and stories really get made?

This difficulty becomes most apparent when we look at the Librarian explanation in its purest form. For this most elegant and generally applicable model, we turn to Elder Olson, who has described The Librarian’s essential sense of the “writing process” as well as anyone has:

“… the poet… is operating as a poet only insofar as he is constructing constitutive parts and assembling them into a whole; in those operations only does the poetic process exist…”

And this process, making parts and arranging them into wholes, is, I hasten to add, the same one used by the fiction writer, the playwright, the ad man, the architect, the house-builder. Olson’s definition has the virtues of clarity and relevance; unfortunately, it tells us nothing about the writing process as a process unique to writing. Writing is another of those things humans do and humans do it they way they do most things–with some focus, many distractions, with love, or boredom, or maybe with genius (as if we could define that!) and with no particular understanding of the process itself. No one knows what Olson’s “parts” are. Nor his “wholes.” The writer works with words and sentences, but they are not really the parts. The parts are both smaller and more subtle and larger and more powerful than words and sentences. And what are the “wholes?” Unless the writer strictly imitates a piece of writing already written, who knows? The whole is what the writer is trying to get to, and she stops when she gets there, maybe, if she doesn’t run out of energy or inspiration first. But what is the “whole”? Define it at your peril.

In short, the working writer trying to understand her process must read any Librarian’s account as a soldier reads Caesar: with interest, but remembering that the battle itself is altogether muddier, bloodier and rattier than Caesar ever knew. And that what happens in the trenches when the Barbarians begin their howling charge is probably explicable, but perhaps only by old, battle-scarred soldiers, who can generalize based on their experience of many battles with Barbarians. The younger soldiers, and perhaps even the earnest Librarian, may, in the event of an actual battle, be altogether too preoccupied with the festivities to take many notes.

I do not assume that I am yet a soldier with enough experience to say what the battle is truly like. And, of course, writing is only like a battle in a rather florid figurative sense. But it is useful, if only as an exercise in imagination, to imagine one of these old soldiers, probably now a limping, drunken grandfather, and to listen to what he says as he rattles around in his cups late at night. I often hear him, or someone like him, when I write. Sometimes he speaks faintly, sometimes more strongly. Sometimes he is full of folly and I listen as a dutiful grandson listens, half-aware, sunk in the muds of my own dreams and worries, lulled by his voice yet eager to be on my way. Other times, what I hear from him seems to shine in the air like a star.

What he tells me is always a story. He is not an abstract talker. He cannot tell me what battle was. He cannot even tell me what battle is. But he can spin a tale, sometimes, that I cannot forget. He always talks of war–he has never known anything else–but never as “war.” It is always a battle, this one, that one, always the particular siege or rout or enfilade. He talks as well as he can. It is important to him to get the details right. And over time, if I listen carefully, these details seem stack up into a kind of truth–a small truth, a battered one.

What do we learn from the old soldier? First, that there are few useful general truths about war. The battles are various, their outcomes always different. What worked this time might work next time, but then again, it might not. And second, that luck plays a bigger part than any general is willing to admit. Often the battle is decided by weather, or by a flock of birds that signals the arrival of flankers, or by the presence of a single ditch that no one saw until a clumsy corporal fell in. But the main thing? It’s a fight. He is emphatic about this. What you gain you must take.

This is the crux of it, right here, the question I most want to ask. How do you do it, how do you take it, seize the day, stand your ground, rout the enemy?  How do you win?

Here the old man smiles, and takes another drink. Here, he knows, he is telling me a Big Secret. “Ambush,” he says. “Ambush is always best. Know the terrain. Set up in the best spot, on the best ground, the high ground, and wait with cool patience.”

And then?

“Well,” he says, grinning, “You must kill like a champion. You must be fast and ruthless and cold. You must love to fight.”

But there must be more to say. Some secret behind the secret. It’s difficult to believe this is all there is to war, about which so much has been written, so much lore, so much romance, such strategy. I tell him this. He seems offended. I wait. He settles down, takes another drink.

“Look,” he says, finally, staring right at me, trying to make me understand, “Peace is for dogs.”

“That life I had,” he says, “It’s the only life.”

He gets up to leave. He has said all he’s going to.

References

Arrington, Phillip K. “Tropes of the Composing Process.” College English. Vol. 48, No. 4 (April, 1986). 325-338.

Ashbery, John. “Craft Interview with John Ashbery.” The Craft of Poetry. Ed. William Packard. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1974. 111-132.

Olson, Elder. “The Poetic Process.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Autumn 1975), pp. 69-74.

Plato. “The Republic.” Book X. The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions. Trans. B. Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892. 13 February 2009. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/767/93816>.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: The Library of America, 1982.

“Writing process.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Feb 2009,06:11UTC.14Feb 2009<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Writing_process&oldid=269715645

Adventures of a Young Man: The First Good-Bye

“Your children are not your children.  They come not from you but through you for they are but the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.” – Gibran

Ma worried.  The majority of her energy was consumed by this endeavor.  I often thought her anxieties were her finest possessions.  They were frequently justified. I was a teenager but understood very clearly that every important decision Ma had made had led her closer to a kind of ruin.  She seemed to be uncanny at making bad choices and when destiny presented her with options she usually picked the course to do her the most harm.  My mother’s great ability, though, has always been her capacity to love.

We were standing at the edge of the June sun during a Michigan morning. There was hardly room for Ma and me on a narrow slab of concrete that served as a modest porch to our tiny tract house. A shadow kept us chill and I saw where the light was already hitting the corn and squash in the garden.  We did not grow things for pleasure; we planted seeds and waited for them to become food.  We also went to neighbors and tried to sell them the extra corn or tomatoes for money to buy other food or school clothes. But I was trying not to think about these things because I was 17 and leaving home after high school. In fact, a part of me was already gone through the split in the hedgerow that lined our neighbor’s yard and across the weedy baseball diamond where I had chased fly balls.  I was already seeing myself hitching down Hill Road to where it intersected with the recently completed stretch of Interstate 75.  I had not chosen a destination but was thinking vaguely of California and Colorado. There was nothing more important to me than adventure and I wanted to see the country and sleep under the sky.  I suppose I was sufficiently smart to feel an obligation to my youth but not intelligent enough to be afraid.

A Southside Girl and Her Soldier Boy

“Son, I just don’t understand.” Ma looked up at me as I lifted my pack and slipped my arms through the shoulder straps.  “Where are you gonna sleep?  What happens when you run out of money?”

She was squeezing her fingers and alternately pinching them together with the opposite hand.  This was a habit she had acquired years earlier when she feared an unexpressed rage of Daddy’s that she sensed might become violence.

“I’ve got my sleeping bag, Ma,” I told her as I patted the cotton bedroll hanging from the bottom of my backpack.  “And when I run out of money, I’ll do odd jobs.  There’s always some kind of work.”

“I don’t see why you can’t just stay around Flint,” she said.  “There’s lots of good jobs for young men your age.  You could make some real money on the line or a road crew or something.”

She was right.  It was 1969 and the Chevrolet truck plant, Buick Motor Division of General Motors, Fisher Body, and every other business associated with the automotive industry in Flint, Michigan was hiring.  They did not mind taking on college students for a few months because they were desperate for laborers to build the cars America had become fascinated with in the decades after World War Two.  I had friends who were making over $400 a week with overtime by hanging doors as car and truck frames rolled past them on the assembly line.  But I had always believed the factory had done something to my father that was not worth the wages.

“We’ve been through this, Ma.  We can’t keep having this conversation.  This is what I am going to do.  I don’t need that much money.  I’ve got the grants and scholarships I need for college.  I’ve got to go now.  I want to go see Lake Michigan before dark.”

“Oh son, just look at you.”

“What?”

She leaned in my direction with her short arms and reached around to hug me in a way that had always made me feel safe as a boy but just then I was starting to feel trapped.  Ma pressed her head against a spot near my lower chest.  She was only 4’ 10” tall.  I felt her hands grab the metal frame of my backpack and take a grip that was tight enough to prevent me from leaving.

“I’m so sorry, Ma,” I said.  “But this is what I have to do.  What I need to do.  Please don’t cry.”

I shifted the pack slightly on my hips and thought she might ease her grasp.  The nylon and aluminum frame rig was loaded with all of my clothes and some camping gear.  When the $18.95 item had come in the mail I had felt the kind of excitement that kept me from sleeping at night.  I had leaned the frame against the foot of my bed and lay awake looking at the tan fabric and contemplating myself wearing the pack in the midst of rugged scenes in national parks and great deserts.

“I love you, son.”

“I know that, Ma.  I love you, too.  But I’ve got to go now.”

She released me and I kissed the top of her head.  No matter how many times she washed my mother always had the faint scent of fried food in her hair.  She worked for eighty cents an hour at a short order restaurant just off the Dixie Highway and every night when she came home, her white, seersucker uniform and her hair gave off the aroma of fried fish and grilled burgers.  Ma had come to America for both love and money and had ended with a job that provided nickel and dime tips from truckers and factory workers.

I quickly stepped back off the porch and said good-bye again and I was unable to avoid seeing her tears. I had never hurt my mother before and I did not like the feeling.  She had so little and now one of her most cherished things, her eldest son, was simply walking away into the distance. She had no idea where I was to sleep that night or any other night nor when she might get a call or a post card.  Ma must have thought she had no control over any events in her life and suddenly even her children were becoming losses.

I turned around at the hedgerow.  She had both hands over her mouth and was crying.  None of my four sisters nor my brother were anywhere in the vicinity.  My departure was of little consequence to them.  Maybe they simply did not believe I was going anywhere beyond the neighborhood grocery store.  But Ma knew.  And it was painful for her. There had been many times when the boys I ran with had urged me to join them in law-breaking schemes like break-ins or theft and I had backed out.  There was no good reason for it except that I knew there was a risk of getting caught and I did not want to shame or hurt my mother. She worked to hard too give me chances. But I had to leave and travel regardless of her hurt and fears.

I turned back again on Westdale and saw her short profile outlined against the white doorframe.  She was determined to watch me until I disappeared because I am sure she did not believe I was truly going.  Our house appeared even smaller than the 850 square feet of space where Ma was raising her six children.  The faded cedar shake shingles had been painted black a few years previously and she had planted a few flowers and bushes around the property. I had decided she was trying to suggest to neighbors that we were moving in the direction of respectability and that no more police cars or emergency vehicles were going to disturb their nights.  Daddy had been sent to an institution down in Pontiac and Ma had gotten a divorce before he was released.  He did not live any more in our house.

Looking for a Way Home

My only view of Lake Michigan that day was from the back of a pickup as patches of blue water flashed between factory buildings in Gary, Indiana. I slept my first night on the road beneath a highway overpass along an Illinois cornfield and listened to a soft rain.  Ma was likely sitting at the small table in her kitchen and chewing on the nails she had long ago bitten to nubs. Her stubby fingers had never appeared feminine and her hands were coarsened by years of restaurant work but her children did not go hungry or stay too cold.  I wondered if she had ever felt as hopeful and excited as I did lying there in the rainy darkness.

Ma still lives up in Michigan in a house where people care for her but she wishes she were back in Newfoundland.  She complains that the people around her are all old and the woman who walks all day and takes tiny steps annoys her.  Ma and I were in the living room and I watched the walking woman with the frail neck and papery skin until she stood next to my chair.

“I just came here to see if I could get someone to help me,” she said.  “Can you help me?”

“I would if I knew how,” I answered.  “But I don’t.”

Ma was staring at the front door.  She spends much of her day now looking in that direction and I think she is convinced her youth and health are on the other side of that house’s wall.  In her mind she continues to come and go as she pleases but her body is still and failing.

“Son?” She touched my forearm.  “If you can just get me out that door and down to the border, I’ll be okay.”

“What do you mean, Ma?”

“Just get me to Canada.  I’ll get back to St. John’s as soon as you get me over the bridge.”

“Ma, how would you ever get there?”

“I’ll just use my walker and I’ll walk and walk and walk until I flop over and then I’ll start again and I’ll keep doing that until I get there.”

“Even if you do get there, Ma, who will take care of you?”

“What do you mean who will take care of me?”  She raised her voice.  “I’ll take care of me that’s who will take care of me.  I always have haven’t I?”

“But Ma, you’re…….”

“Don’t tell me anything, son.  I’ll get me a job at one of those restaurants down on the harbor and rent me a room off of Water Street.  I just need you to get me to the border.  Don’t you worry about how I’ll get home.  You never let me worry about you.”

“I know, Ma.  I’m sorry.”

Ma’s turn had finally come to say good-bye.  And I did not want her to go.

St. Johns, Newfoundland Harbor Where Ma Grew Up

Annie Proulx & The Gourds

[caption id="attachment_8440" align="alignleft" width="190" caption="Annie Proulx. Photo by Gus Powell."][/caption]

Annie Proulx. Photo by Gus Powell.

A friend who knows I have a deep love for both the books of Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx and the music of The Gourds sent me a link to the NYTimes review of Proulx’s newly released memoir “Bird Cloud.”

In the review, Dwight Garner writes:

I like her abiding fondness — I share it — for an under-sung band out of Austin, Tex., called the Gourds. Ms. Proulx nails the lead singer Kevin Russell’s voice — it’s an original American instrument, in the moonshine-soaked vein of Levon Helms’s — as “like a graft of a carny hustler onto a Missouri River flatboat man, roaring about putting down his brown cow.” (Here’s one thing to do today: download the Gourds’ songs “Last Letter” and “Dying of the Pines.”)

Put me in a room with Brad Pitt, Bill Clinton, Martin Scorcese and Annie Proulx and I would make a beeline for Ms. Proulx. That’s how much I love her searing, brutal prose.

And so it was satisfying to find out that she too has an appreciation for The Gourds, who make music for the “unwashed and well-read.”

I have the fun good fortune of sometimes spotting members of The Gourds around town (In January, 2005, I saw Jimmy at the Quik Mart buying a six-pack. “How are you?” the cashier asked. “Just got back from the inaug-aug-augeration,” Jimmy slurred. The cashier rolled his eyes at the mumblings of a drunkard. I stifled a giggle, knowing The Gourds had indeed just played George W. Bush’s $40 million inaugural bash.)

But Annie Proulx, who lives in the far removes of Wyoming, can only be conjured in my imagination. However, after reading that NYTimes Review which revealed our shared musical taste, I was inspired to send Ms. Proulx’s literary agent an email asking if she would be willing to forward Ms. Proulx a missive from me, an aspiring writer and fan.

Her agent said she would indeed. And so a couple days ago I penned Annie Proulx a little letter. While I await a reply, I think I’ll put on a Gourds record and start reading “Bird Cloud.”

photo from The Gourds website.

Requiem for Reality

Emerson said, “…wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things.” It’s in his essay, “Nature,” and he was talking about the sacrifice of sacred truth to profane ambitions:

When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise,–and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections.

Oh how I wish America had listened. The reality of visible things is in retreat, and in its place we have Glenn Beck, Drudge et al, masters of the art of replacing simplicity and truth with duplicity and falsehood.

It’s no idle worry. When that infamous Bush aide scoffed at the idea of a “reality-based community,” he meant it. Nearly 20 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim, more, probably, than know what a Muslim is. For many, the villain is not unemployment. The villains are the unemployed. Bush didn’t wreck the economy, Obama did. Health insurance companies aren’t the problem, government is the problem.

Cry, baby, cry, for reality is in retreat, driven back by the power-mad and the impossibly irresponsible. Reality’s assailants do not realize that once they’ve virtualized the earth, they too will float free of its blue assurance, vulnerable to the next big illusion. Gravity needs mass, and right now American politics is massless.

Continue reading “Requiem for Reality”

Fiction’s Frilliest Genre Gets Real(er)

Note: A version of this article was originally published in the San Antonio Current in 2002, and was reprinted in the Detroit Metro Times in 2003.

She gasped as he plunged his fingers beneath her heavy skirts. He grinned like a pirate when he discovered her honeyed folds — No, wait — as he plundered the honeyed core of her desire. Yeah, plundered is more pirate-like. Arrr! She reached out, tentatively, until her trembling fingers brushed the soft suede of his breeches. She felt enormous heat and hardness there, and knew she touched the pulsating evidence of his manhood. Pulsating evidence? Hmm… the throbbing shaft of his manhood. “Oh,” she gasped, her swollen, tortured lips sheened with the dew of her desire. “In truth, you may prove to be far too much man for me, Aelred.” “There is only one way to find out, my lady,” Aelred growled. In one move he bared himself to her, the enormous beast of his need rearing up from its inky thatch…

If I tell you I write romance novels, odds are you’ll think I sit around all day in my pink satin robe, popping bonbons while dreaming up passages like the one above (the purplest of purple prose that sprang, like Aelred’s manhood from its inky thatch, from my own imagination). For those who have never read one, the idea of a romance novel conjures images of a shirtless Fabio clutching a frilly female on the cover of a book filled with references to his throbbing shaft, her velvety sheath, the glistening dew of her passion, the devastating extent of his arousal, and the quivering mound of her femininity.

No wonder the romance genre still exists in so many minds as a ridiculous and easily dismissed form of fiction.

Fact for the uninitiated: Those flowery, gooey allusions to penis and vagina are generally found only in historical romance novels, not contemporaries. Another fact: Even historicals have updated themselves, often beyond recognition as “just” a romance novel. Read Patricia Gaffney’s fabulous Wild at Heart (Signet, 2002) for a case in point.

Take the term “bodice ripper.” Coined by the media and still used — by the media — to describe any and all romance novels, the phrase has been both outmoded and out of favor for decades. Originally invented to describe historical romantic fiction of the 1970s and ’80s, in which rape was, unfortunately, a common initial phase of the courting process between hero and heroine, the term “bodice ripper” is now, thanks to the efforts of feminism, frowned upon by the romance writing and reading communities. Continue reading “Fiction’s Frilliest Genre Gets Real(er)”