Monday, June 11, 2012

Historical Strawberries

Last week I fell into a pit of writerly confusion, due mostly to a few different things I have been reading. 

I read a blog post from my friend Shanna Mahin here, where she raved about writer Cheryl Strayed and her The Sun essay "The Love Of My Life." Both Shanna and Cheryl Strayed are memoirists, and if you read the essay you'll get a taste of the powerful and complex emotions each of them are able to capture, along with the raw honesty of their lives. (See also Sam Dunn's book Failing Paris.)

I also recent read Julie Otsuka's PEN/Faulkner Award winning book The Buddha In The Attic, which is a beautifully written book, told in first person plural, that describes the Japanese immigrant experience in way that was far more educational to me than other accounts I've read in the past.

So, why the confusion? 

I've admired everything I've been reading lately. Both Otsuka's book and Strayed's essay feel weighty to me, feel valuable. At the same time, neither of these works is something I would personally want to create. I end up questioning if my own work has this same vague sense of value, and right now, unfortunately, my answer is no. I want to be able to find this value while still exploring what I want to explore. And, really, I think what this means is that I should be moving slower, planning more, thinking more deeply. I think I need to explore more inwardly as I produce words on a page.

It doesn't help that so many voices are always promoting other writing. I mean, that's really cool, but hearing all of these compliments has temporarily blinded me. I spent the weekend trying to write an essay, and then I wondered if I should go back to my novel Rooster and explore the immigrant thing again. Dumbly, I assume that the value will appear if I just explore the right topics. Um, probably not.

None of this is to say that I'm depressed or even necessarily down. I think it has been helpful to show me where I am on my journey. I'm probably dumping all of the new stuff I've written lately so that I can explore something new with these things in mind. We'll see. I refuse to make any commitments or promises!

Also, I went to Bread Lounge this weekend, and it was wunderbar! Below is a reminds-me-of-my-friend's-ex-military-father-eating-bread-in-his-chair baguette and a ciabatta loaf. Not pictured are an almond pastry (that got partially eaten before it occurred to me to take a picture) and a croissant, all of it for ten bucks.


What's Peanut eating? Roast chicken or nothing at all.


  1. Oh, I want bread now! Sorry to hear you're in a slump - if it's a slump at all, I guess. Journeys have turns we don't expect, so I think it's good you're looking at things from a different angle. :)

    1. Michelle,
      I'm not sure it's a slump. To me it feels like clearer vision, which is good and just a little depressing. ;) I just have to work to make sure my next book is better than the last.

  2. I just read "The Love of My Life" which I should have done after commenting and not before, because I really can't talk just yet.

    I'm also sure I am one of those voices saying "read this!"

    The bread looks delicious.

    1. j a zobair, Cheryl Strayed has written a couple of novels that you may want to check out too. I'm curious to read them myself. I think Oprah is about to feature one of them, or has already, or never will and I'm just on crack.

    2. I think she is featuring "Wild" which I had heard about but didn't connect the name up when I read the story.

  3. Possibly my opinion on this "weight" or "value" question is a bit of self deception or wishful thinking, but here goes: I think that any author who's being honest and thinking deeply about his characters will bring weight and value to a work. I also think that the author won't necessarily see that weight or value in the work they create, because it's just part of their psychological makeup. Shallow people create shallow art, deep people create deep art (if they let themselves), and that's all there is to it. Or most of it, anyway.

    I think there's a real danger when trying to consciously make something "important" that what you'll end up with will be merely preciousness or pedantry, which both pretty much suck. Work on your craft and write about things that are important to you, and let the weighty valueness take care of itself. Every word I write seems like fluff to me after I've written it. Maybe it is all fluff. I have this voice in the back of my head that frequently looks at what I've accomplished and complains: I thought we were going to write important books. I don't know how to write an important book. I just know how to write the books I write.

    On the other hand, every book we write should be better than what we've already written. And every book you write makes me want to write better books.

    1. Scott, I think my response to some parts of your comment are better left for another blog post that I intend to write whenever I feel like it. :) But...

      "I think that any author who's being honest and thinking deeply about his characters will bring weight and value to a work." I agree with you on this, and the challenge, for me, involves maintaining that honesty and thought throughout an entire story, something that is really challenging. I don't think I have yet to manage it.

      "I also think that the author won't necessarily see that weight or value in the work they create, because it's just part of their psychological makeup." I agree with this too. I think this is really cool, actually.

      The part that I want to talk about later is the part about writing what is important to us. I'm afraid it will involve that stupid story about my white balloon again. I'll abbreviate it in the retelling.

      And I hope we continue to challenge each other, Scott. It's a race to the forever undefined finish line!

  4. Greetings from a total bread addict.

    Cheryl's story was a gut punch. When I got done reading it I was thinking, "How, as a memoirist, can you top that level of fearlessness?" In fiction there is always a new person, a new situation, a new something. But if you're writing about your life, how do you do "better" than something so raw and open?

    Davin, if I can use a silly bread analogy -- you, as a writer, are in a perfect process. To make bread you add your ingredients and when you mix them there is a reaction. The bread rises, you punch it down, you let it rest and rise again. It does the thing it does. It does its process as long as you've given it what it needs.

    I LOVE Scott's point that "every book we write should be better than what we've already written."

    1. Wendy, Welcome!

      I once wrote an entire novella that had bread as part of a driving force behind a character's motivations. It was called Bread. All the guy ate was bread. Bread and pills. And one man.

      I often wonder how many stories a memoirist can have inside of them. I wonder if the commitment to being a memoirist requires that the writer seek out a more dramatic life than they would normally lead. Some of that must be true. It must really toy with your head. I have a friend/memoirist who was writing a story about her mother's death that included her carrying the ashes in the trunk of her car for months. Now, I wonder if she has to keep carrying the ashes in her trunk until the book is done in order for her to be honest.

      Bjork and Sally Field have both talked about seeking out emotional experiences so that they can recall them on command. I often do the same thing when I spend my weeks (like this past one) reading about face eaters. I'm embarrassed to tell people what sorts of Google searches I've done.

    2. I don't get the attraction of memoir, as a reader. I really don't. So much of it seems to be someone saying, "Look how much PAIN I've endured." And the thing is, a lot of memoirists seem to cling to the pain as if the pain is what gives value to their lives, as if giving up the pain will make them frightfully ordinary, as if the pain is what makes them interesting. I lived for many years with someone who was fucked up in an interesting way (booze, pills, sex, self-destruction and general mayhem), and after a while it was just boring: all the pain was the same thing over and over again and that's all I get out of a lot of the current crop of memoirs. And I don't enjoy it, and I don't know the purpose of it. This is not a condemnation; I just don't understand why people read/write memoirs.

    3. Scott, I get where you're coming from. I responded the same way when I read the essay mentioned above. But what I simultaneously felt was a depth of emotion that I think is reached less often in fiction, maybe because it's so much harder to imagine that emotion than it is to report on real emotions one has lived through. I'm not sure. On the rare occasions when I read memoir I'm usually seeking that complexity because I often feel like I can relate to it. It makes me feel less horrible when I see that other people have made the same mistakes I have made or when other people have been victimized the way I've been victimized. Fiction can accomplish all of this, maybe even in a better way, but that high quality fiction is hard to find.

    4. On the other hand, I just read Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Babylon, which is essentially memoir in the form of essays, and it was pretty good. Toward the end you realize that her crankiness throughout the book is based in a breakdown she's been having/recovering from while writing the pieces. It's all presented out of chronological order, so Didion's personal story isn't immediately clear. Though her anger and provincialism surely are. Maybe I'm just tired of reading first-person accounts of self destruction. I see it less as fearless writing than as a sort of dysfunctional bragging.