Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Anne Boyer on Not Writing

[Writers: to fall in love, please read immediately] 

Thanks to Book Forum for posting and to Philip Graham for sharing  Anne Boyer's poetic list-style essay on the seldom-discussed topic of not writing:

It is easy to imagine not writing, both accidentally and intentionally. It is easy because there have been years and months and days I have thought the way to live was not writing have known what writing consisted of and have thought “I do not want to do that“ and “writing steals from my loved ones” and “writing steals from my life and gives me nothing but pain and worry and what I can’t have” or “writing steals from my already empty bank account” or “writing gives me ideas I do not need or want” or “writing is the manufacture of impossible desire” or writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is the world of wealthy women and of men.

—Excerpted from Garments Against Women (Ahsahta Press, 2015): "Not Writing" and "What is 'Not Writing'?"

Saturday, July 25, 2015


I had just finished Wild by Cheryl Strayed—a book that made me laugh, weep, and write earnestly into the night. Next I mused over In Some Other World, Maybe, a smart, very trendy, and ultimately memorable novel by Shari Goldhagen. I was having a blast. These women writers were feeding my summertime soul, and I wanted more. I wanted something fresh, something that would make me think, but not too hard. It is summer, after all.

Euphoria, Lily King's newest, had been sitting on the kitchen table for about two months. Before Wild and In Some Other World, I'd gone through a reading drought, so to speak. Do you ever have those? All through a hectic semester and a month-long road trip across the country, library books languished on my kitchen table. I unwound with LL Bean catalogs, Every Day with Rachael Ray Magazine, and The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks. Some choices we just can't explain.

In any case, finally. The moonsoons had arrived, bringing to a blessed close my reading drought. I poured a glass of wine and took Euphoria outside. For a moment, I watched the setting sun and inhaled hot pinion.

Then I opened the book, and almost immediately my world fell away, replaced swiftly and fully with King's. Euphoria was a different animal than anything I'd recently read, and I understood immediately that King writes at a whole other level than most. Above being a storyteller, she is a sort of research-artist, a painter whose pigments include facts, dates, and theories. She is a setter of well-researched scenes and well-considered characters. She is a master of point of view, structure, and restraint. An hour and a half later, my full glass of wine had some flies in it. The sun had set, and I realized I was cold.

I warn you, fellow writers: in King's presence you'll be humbled, whoever you are.

Of King's fourth novel, Emily Eakin of the NYTimes writes, "[Euphoria] is rife with such visceral imagery and pungent with the stink of disease, foul breath and unwashed bodies." Eakin adds that "The threat of violence and death looms from Page 1." The review closes with this: "In King’s exquisite book, desire — for knowledge, fame, another person — is only fleetingly rewarded, and gratification is inseparable from self-­deceit."

Ms. Eakin, I must politely disagree with it all. Well, all except the exquisite. Euphoria is certainly filled with visceral stink and foul breath and the threat of violence, but this after all is a book about white anthropologists traveling the Sepik River in New Guinea in 1933. What did Ms. Eakin expect? In her vaguely coy (but ever stylish) review, she overlooks what really roots the reader to Euphoria: the book's humanity. A sustained, dynamic current of sensuality and desire runs beneath the whole story, connecting each character and scene. This is the Copula Spider Doug Glover was talking about: bodies, sweat, pain, want, over and over again. Desire may be fleetingly rewarded for the characters, as Eakin claims, but for the reader the effects endure.

Speaking of want, it's immediately clear in Euphoria what every character wants. I've heard this is something you're supposed to do in fiction: understand what your protagonist wants most in the world, and tell your reader. In Euphoria, one character wants more than anything to learn. Another wants a place to call his own, and a woman to join him there. A third wants—well, I guess there is one character whose desires are less clear. Maybe he wants to forget. Maybe he wants never to leave the Sepik River.

It's all in the book, my lovelies, it's all in the book, so best not miss out on this lush work of art. King will take you to a place you've never been, a muggy, buggy place you won't want to leave. Weird, I know, but just trust me on this one. Euphoria looks short, like maybe you'll finish it in one night, but I assure you, dear reader, you will not.

Friday, July 24, 2015

You'll Never Walk Alone

Read my writing at The Millions!

Thanks to Philip Graham for the nudge, and to C. Max Magee, for making my essay look gorgeous.

And, thanks to Katie Thebeau for her images.

Onward and upward!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ken Budd on Agents, Publicity, and Writing About Those You Love

Meet Ken Budd, everyone! He's the author of The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. The memoir chronicles travel, volunteering, and the death of Budd's father.

Over the past few days, I've had the chance to chat with Budd - we covered agents, publicists, publishers, and the question every creative non-fiction writer wants to ask: To what extent can we write about the people we love?

In a New York Times opinion piece published in 2013, Budd writes:

"I wrote a memoir in the aftermath of my father’s death, and while the book was many things — a search for meaning, a travelogue, the story of my adventures as a global volunteer — it was largely a book about Dad. I was measuring my life against his, telling his stories, making him the ghostly muse in my midlife crisis, and I wondered if I, too, was doing some kind of wrong."

He adds, "My father never asked to be on display. And what we as memoirists choose to display — what we insist is essential to display — is an easy source of conflict. Dad grew up poor, never went to college, yet reached upper management with high-tech firms on both coasts. I wrote about this. It defined him. It fueled his drive and ambition. It defined me. I always felt like the lite beer to his stout ale."

It was a privelege to get to know Budd, whose answers to my questions were honest and useful. He agreed to let me share some of his insights with you, my dear readers. May Budd's words bring hope and inspiration to writers everywhere!

How did you get the idea for the book?
I was about a third of the way through my journey when I thought… this might be a book. I had volunteered in New Orleans and then Costa Rica. At the time I was working at AARP The Magazine. The then-travel editor had assigned a story on volunteer travel that wasn’t working out and I said, “Tell you what: I’ll write about my experiences in Costa Rica. If you want to run it, fine. If not, no big deal.” The ensuing article got a nice response and after that I wrote a book proposal. I sought an agent and got turned down four or five times before finding the right person.

Wasn't it hard to get an agent? First I mailed my proposal to an agent here in DC. I had a slight connection: a colleague of mine had assigned an article to one of this agent's clients. I mailed the proposal and got no response - not even a form rejection letter. After that, I decided I needed connections. A travel writer I know was nice enough to introduce me to his agent. She passed, but recommended to me three agents she knew. They all passed as well. I think they saw potential in what I was pitching, but they were all older, established agents who weren't willing to invest themselves in my idea. They did, however, provide feedback on the proposal when I asked them, which helped me to strengthen the pitch. I'd reached a dead end when an agent pitched me a story at AARP. I said, "Hey, would you be interested in looking at this?" She did, and she was the right person. She was younger than the other agents I'd spoken with and she invested herself in the project. So if you want an agent, I'd suggest making connnections with other writers and asking if they'll make introductions.

How did the shape of the book change after you got an agent? I had originally proposed the book as more of a travel memoir. My agent convinced me that the real story was the fatherhood issues: the sudden death of my father and my struggle to accept that I would never be a father myself. She was right, so I revised the proposal and wrote a sample chapter. We got offers from [two large publishing houses]. After that, I volunteered in four more countries. So my editor made a leap of faith. She bought the book based in part on the sample chapter, but there was no guarantee that the rest of my travels would be memorable.

What did you do to promote the book? Everyone I knew who'd written a book said I would need to hire a publicist, and that's what I did. I got some publicity help from [my publisher] for the first month when the book came out, but publishers today just don't have the money for much beyond that. The publicity firm got me on 50+ radio shows along with some print and online interviews, and I wrote some byline pieces. If I had it to do over again, I'd hire a publicist long before the book came out, rather than after.

How was the book received with your family and friends? Was anyone hurt or put out? [A friend of mine] said, "I have a friend who wrote a memoir. It was a really beautiful book. None of his family will talk to him anymore, but the book was terrific." So that worried me. When you're writing, it's such as isolated process that you're not really thinking about the work being published and someone actually reading it. When my editor read the first draft, she said, "It's good - it's so honest." And I thought... Honest!? Oh shit! Honest isn't good!

What are you working on now? Most of my writing is still tied to the book, even though it came out three years ago. Most recently I wrote an online piece for National Geographic about criticism of volutourism. My primary focus, however, has been on developing a digital TV project tied loosely to the book. I did a fair amount of TV when I was at AARP, and the publicist I hired suggested that TV should be the next step. So I developed a TV proposal, and six months ago I signed a co-production agreement with a producer I'd met. The show would be a 12-episode series; each episode would focus on a different location and a particular quirky, giving-back project. We shot a three-minute trailer and developed an outline of episodes. After talking with some agents, we've decided to pursue it as a web-based series. We can maintain more control and build an audience, which could possibly lead to a network deal down the road. By this fall we'll be working with a company that will try to sell sponsorships.


In his NYTimes piece, Budd writes:

"If you’re gonna do something, do it right. That’s the approach I took in writing the memoir. And yet I discovered something curious once the book was released: even though it’s my story on the page, readers see it through the prisms of their own lives. For all of a memoir’s exhibitionism, your tale is interpreted by readers to suit their own needs, their own experiences, their own journey. It’s a type of literary scavenging: they keep what serves them and reuse it for new purposes.

But it is still your story. And in telling mine, I grew closer to Dad. He became not more dead, as Lewis warned, but something entirely different. He became more real."


Thank you to the lovely and talented Tara Lakowski, who introduced me to Budd. Lakowski's story collection, Bystanders, will be published by the Santa Fe Writers Project next year.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Blue is the Warmest Color

Blue is the Warmest Color is timely, sensual, smart, and emotional. Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, the film explores women, hunger, and what it means to be a lesbian—or not—in today's open-minded world. Love will always be a rose—beautiful, expensive, potentially dangerous—and in that, Blue is nothing new. But for anyone who has ever wondered what lesbians do—in and out of bed—Blue is a must-see. Be warned: you'll weep, laugh, and blush madly. Not one to watch with your mother, methinks...but then again, I don't know your mother.

Released in 2013, Blue begins as a slow-moving movie, paced more for a 1980's audience than that of today—though the French, perhaps, are less device-addled and ADHD-plagued. And yet Blue quickly reveals that the French, in many ways, are less many things than we Americans are: less addicted, less guilty, less repressed. The characters love preparing and eating food, making love, drinking wine, lying in the sun, standing in a park, cuddling on a bench. Pleasure is taken at every turn, and as a result the actors boast clear skin, bright eyes, and toned midriffs.

Anyway, you might not make it through all three hours of Blue, and that would be okay. The first hour is satisfying in itself. The first ten minutes are. But the movie in its entirety is a lesson in patience and its subsequent reward, for those who sit through Blue are paid handsomely.

Blue tells the story of pouty-lipped, 15-year-old Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who lives in France with her parents. They serve her wine at dinner (while the American audience sighs...if only the US could be that mature) and in the mornings, Adele goes off to high school exhausted and tousled. For the first thirty minutes, the movie goes on like this: Adele is a hearty eater, smokes cigarettes on her way home from school, and has sex with a cute guy at school who takes an interest.

Of cute guy, Emily Greenhouse, in her New Yorker article "Did a Director Push Too Far," writes, "Early on, Adèle tells a suitor that she likes languages—the word is langue. It’s the same word, in French, for “tongue,” and the camera hardly ever leaves hers: her mouth, her rude chewing, her sucking, her wails." Langue, langue. It's a theme that pervades the film. Anyway, predictably, the sex between Adele and suitor is uninspired and, by the end, pretty sad—a vacant look in Adele's eyes and all that. Still, something tells us that this behavior is nothing new, and this is not the first time. Something else tells us there's much more to come.

The movie's first turn comes when Adele, late at night and alone in her room, conjures an image of the cute blue-haired gay girl she passed in the street. Subtle and fine, this scene is erotic and transcendent. Blue hair is there, and then she's gone, and Adele is left alone with her body. From there, the movie picks up, though there remain many long camera shots of Adele's pouty mouth.

Eventually, in a lesbian bar of a caliber that surely only exists in France, or in a French dream, Adele meets blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux). Their meet-cute is sexy and smart. Adele is almost painfully earnest, and so, so young. Still, the scene grips and holds.  What follows is one of Blue's crueler turns, arriving in the form of Adele's so-called friends. They have seen Adele with blue-hair, and they accuse her in the schoolyard of being lesbian. They taunt her mercilessly—almost unconvincingly—and a crowd forms. Adele, so obviously gay, turns red in denial.

From there, Blue chronicles the lives of Adele and Emma. Adele's sexual awakening—her true one, not the one she's faked all this time with men—takes place in the form of many long sex scenes with Emma, the first famously seven minutes in duration. Do not, I repeat, watch this with your mother. Let's just say that the women go from casual to serious fast, and then they have made a life together. They throw parties together. Adele is the object, constantly, of our gaze and Emma's.

Greenhouse's New Yorker piece goes on to expose the director as a slave-driver: "Seydoux and Exarchopoulos said that the shooting had been unbearable and they would never again work with Kechiche. The French union representing the film industry spoke of deplorable conditions for the crew. Seydoux [...] said she felt like a 'prostitute.' Exarchopoulos described a 'horrible' continuous take in which Seydoux hit her over and over, leaving her raw."

Of Blue, the New York Times writes, "It’s a three-hour movie about women, a rare object of critical inquiry perhaps especially for American men working in the male-dominated field of movie critics. The truth is we need more women on screen, naked and not, hungry and not, to get this conversation really started."

Scathing reviews, forced prostitution, and director brutality aside, the truth remains: Blue is an astonishing film about women, beauty, and sex. Three hours passed quickly, and when Blue was over I wanted more. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Take a little trip

Sometimes I visit the places I’ve been to before. Driving in the afternoon heat of tourist traffic, I return to a red beach in India where I watched the sunrise with strangers. I think of the silence at the waterline there. 

    Or as I'm pumping gas, I go to the hill in Baños, where I walked and walked through the green, through the fields and wet woods, and could see everything from the top: the way the mountains cut into canyons and water flowed. I'd had a broken heart then, and the shard of it is forever embedded in my memory of Baños. 

    In line at the grocery store, I go to the streets of Buenos Aires on a night when the musicians were out and we sipped beer from the same bottle. I leave my life, my job, the things I need to do, and I send my mind to the places I have been. 

    Don’t we travel for this? Don’t we all want something we can keep with us forever? Travel teaches us each the same lesson: that our lives don’t have to be the way they are.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Sol LeWitt at the Mass Moca

It's a gray day in June, and I am driving to Williamstown, Massachusetts to meet my brother. I’m coming from Boston, and before that I was in Brooklyn, New York and Washington, D.C. I’ve seen Little Rock and Linville Falls, North Carolina this time around, and I even spent a night in Chatham, Tennessee, birthplace of two Nobel Prize winners. Who knew.

Anyway, I’m due to meet my brother in two hours, and there’s time to spare. I wonder where I’ll eat lunch, where I might stroll while I wait for him, and then I pass a sign for the Mass MoCA, an art museum I’ve studied in college, read about in magazines, and in general vaguely wondered about for many years. "Great!" I think, and pull in. Ample parking!