Finalist in New Millenium’s Flash Fiction Contest

I didn’t even know until a friend emailed me about it! It’s good, it comes at a time of serious funk between the ears. (Not the good kind of funk–as in George Clinton, Parliament/Funkadelic. The bad kind–as in “I suck”).

Here’s the announcement. Scroll down to see mine–it’s “The Perfect Essay” written as Lorien House (my old self comes through). And you can read the winning story, too, which I wish I’d written. I love New Millenium Writings!

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Vulnerability and its Disco-tents

I know, I know, I can never let the word “discontent” go by without the disco reference, although I never discoed in a tent. I’m not against the idea, however. It makes me feel mighty real.

Anyway. This morning I was thinking about this presenter at the WD Conference last August, whose thing was vulnerability. He did some group workshops in which people, as far as I know, were supposed to share things about themselves that made them feel, I dunno, bad, or like fuck-ups or, like stupid or evil people (i.e. not mighty real), and then people would hug them for being so brave as to share the failure or fuckup. Now, I did not go to these workshops, so I don’t really know what went on, so take everything from here on down with the proverbial crystalline substance. (SALT, baby, don’t get yer skin all a-shudder). The Vulnors (my word) also had a sort of blackboard, a black movable screen made of cardboard or something, which they had stationed at one end of the hall that lead to all the conference rooms. The object was to write things on it. So even if you didn’t want to participate in the vulnerability training you could write down some inner hurt, some hope, some message of love or solidarity or something like that, I presume. Again, I didn’t write. What was I going to say? “Nice wall?” Or some dubious attempt at humor, which would have, given my general mood during the conference (overwhelmed and speechless, GREAT for a writer!) come out as twisted and directionless and Aspergian as some of my blog posts.
(Who me?)

Anyway, the gist of the vulnerability thing, training, whatever it was, was that it’s good to be vulnerable. And that people walk around too guarded most of the time.

Actually, I think the second part of that statement is wrong, especially in the U.S. I don’t find most people particularly guarded. On the contrary, a lot of people broadcast themselves pretty freely. Like people who interrupt a speaker to tell the speaker why what the speaker is saying doesn’t work for them, personally, which happened a few times at the conference. As if the speaker needs to hear from that one person, at that moment. (Which is not at all what I’m doing here. NOT AT ALL). Or like people who tell you about their amazing food allergy journeys while all you want to do is pay for your cabbage. Or, um . . . facebook . . .

But leaving that aside, let’s examine the issue in a more linear fashion than Glena normally engages in.
First, let’s define.
According to dictionary.com, vulnerable means:
1. capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon:
a vulnerable part of the body.
2. open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.:
an argument vulnerable to refutation; He is vulnerable to bribery.
3. (of a place) open to assault; difficult to defend:
a vulnerable bridge.
4. Bridge. having won one of the games of a rubber.

Let’s, for the moment, leave aside number 4, which, to me, because I don’t play bridge, is kind of inexplicable. But I have to say in passing that: wow, what a sentence! “Having won one of the games of a rubber, she peeled herself off his . . . ” Oh, but I go too far. I go too far. Let’s get our minds out of the rubbers and onto the page.

Numero 3 is also kind of unhelpful, because people aren’t really places, although that reminds me of one of those ice-breaker or creativity-forcer type test questions you can find reams and reams of on the internet, i.e. “If you were a place, what kind of place would you be?” I bet no one says they’d be an anthill. Or a beehive. Or an embalming room. But I digress again, albeit in a far less sexual and offensive manner.

That leaves #s 1 and 2. I don’t think the Vulnors at the conference meant #2, exactly, although, yeah, “open to criticism” works, because I believe one of the points to the vul-training was to heal yourself from this insane fear of criticism that makes us so stiff and so unable to “be ourselves,” which, of course, is a magic panacea in the U.S. Be yourself and you’ll succeed, gain friends, money, you’re a genius, you’re already a millionaire. You just don’t know it yet, because you’re too busy trying to be someone else.

But what if you go around being yourself and you’re still unemployed or poor, what then? Well either it’s YOUR fault for not being ENOUGH of yourself, or it’s just a bad patch and sooner or later you’ll get your moment. So let’s admit that if we say, “be yourself and you’ll still fail” that might be a turn off for most people, even if the fault DOES in fact lie with the system they’re stuck in, not any lack of authenticity.

But–worse yet—what if the real you is actually a fuck of a person, a real jerk, and not the kind of charismatic or humorous jerk you think you are, but a jerk that sours the very air around you, the kind of jerk that saps the very will to live of his or her fellow humans? In that case, I’d say, very emphatically, “Do NOT be yourself. Don’t do it. Be Mother Teresa instead. Please.” I’d really want you to be that, to find some Mother Teresa-ness floating in the air and grab it and act as if you had it in you, and, you know, forget the real you because in these times of trouble, the last thing we need is another real you who is a supreme, death-wish-inducing jerk. I’d rather have a hundred fractional Mother Teresas than one whole supreme death-wish-inducing jerk. In this country, above all. Where we specialize in the circle jerk. (Did I just go too far again?)

Sigh. I am the fucking queen of the tangent. As well as the circle . . . aw shut up, bad Glena! Stop being yourself.

Okay. Back to the point(s).
Vulnerability, definition numero 1–Capable or susceptible of being wounded.
Is this what they mean? Is this good?
I think what the Vulnors are saying is that defensiveness is bad. Sure, sometimes it is. Not always, but if it becomes a habitual thing, it probably is. I know you’re rolling your eyes at me. I know you stopped reading this blog two paragraphs ago. I know you’ve always hated me. F**k you – that kind of thing. My mother, bless her soul, used to “overhear” people saying bad things about her in the strangest places. Like on Ferris Wheels. So. . . not so good. But again, I tangent.

But, does “defensiveness is bad” automatically equal “vulnerability is good?” And if vulnerability is good, does vulnerability come from confessing some idiotic shit in public and then letting people hug you? (As an Aspergian, I don’t really care for the hug. I have a quota of lifetime hugs, and I believe I’ve almost reached it, so I’d rather not spend the last few being hugged in a freezing hotel hallway by desconocidos).

So: Is vulnerability good? Let’s unpack some of the assumed (based on observation of the vul-training video) benefits of vulnerability.

Vulnerability makes you feel better—because you’re not holding in a lot of putrefying shit.
Vulnerability makes other people like you.

Let’s take the second one first. There’s some truth in it. I’m watching a TV series on Netflix, called El Mar de Plastico (Spain) (which has nothing to do with the great Pacific garbage patch, the subject of a future post). It’s a cop show, basically, with serial killers and a lot of twists and turns and great characters and cultural and racial clashes while they’re at it, all set in contemporary Southern Spain. It’s one of the best cop shows I’ve ever seen actually. One of the main characters is a detective named Hector, who’s got PTSD from being in Afghanistan. He’s kind of wounded and obsessive and has very little sense of humor, yet he’s one of the most likable cop characters I’ve come across in any show. He’s also really tough: like jumping into cars from motorcycles tough, cars that contain heavily armed Serbian criminals. So he’s not vulnerable like he’s going to go in for confessing some jerky thing from his past in front of a bunch of corporate team builders. But he is vulnerable, insofar as he’s wounded. What makes him likable? I think it’s that aspect–the vulnerability, which is, in his case, bravery. But more important it’s his complete lack of swagger. The actor (Rodolfo Sancho) plays Hector as a moody but moral and compassionate loner. It works.

So we can say that the vulnerability is part of what makes him likable. He doesn’t pretend to be okay.

Another example is Lola (Nya de la Rubia), from the same series. She’s from a very traditional family of Gitanos (gypsies) and her father basically disowned her for becoming a cop. She’s also in love with Hector, but he doesn’t return the love. So those are two vulnerable points. But she’s also as brave and tough as Hector, AND, she’s always defending her family even when they turn their backs on her.

Then there’s Myron Bolitar in Harlan Coben’s books. He’s got more swagger and humor than Hector, but he’s also got Achilles heels—he does occasional stupid things, he feels shit he doesn’t want to feel. But he’s also a character in a book, so you see his internal dialog. That’s a little different, he’s not getting up in front of a group saying that he once took ten dollars from a poor old lady across the street. Although if Myron Bolitar had done so, he would probably confess it, and then set about making it right. For the rest of his life. Because Myron, like Hector, has a morality code, and is obsessive in that good way.

And of course–Jane Eyre, nuff said.

So these characters are vulnerable, but that’s only a small part of what makes them likable. What makes them likable is that they are brave, and that they aren’t full of shit. Therefore, vulnerability helps make you likable as long as you have other stuff going on. Like compassion for others, or a sense of humor. I think I’m talking about “character,” as in the thing you build via misery. GREAT.

Accordingly, likability doesn’t automatically arise with the kind of confessional vulnerability I’m talking about here.

Second assumption: Vulnerability makes you feel better about yourself. You unburden, so you aren’t walking around armed to the teeth all the time, or ready to fight. Because that’s tension, and everybody knows that tension is bad for artists. Right? Right? (hmmm. But could a dancer spin without any tension? Could he leap or raise his leg above his ear? Shut up, Glena. Five sides to every fucking coin.)

I believe this kind of unburdening was, at base, what was being sold in the Vulnerability workshops. Telling something about yourself that you’ve always felt ashamed of, or weird about. For example (and this isn’t the first time I’ve told this story) When I was about 8 years old, I broke into the house across the street. Friends of ours lived there, but they were gone, and we didn’t know when or if they’d be back. You have to know I loved these people—a childless couple—in fact they saved my sanity back then. When they left, I felt lost. What did I do? This is so logical it hurts. I broke into their house. I didn’t take anything–oh maybe a triscuit, which was all they’d left in the kitchen. I didn’t feel what I wanted to feel from being there. There was an initial rush of excitement when the window I’d jimmied gave way, but when I went inside–pure sadness. This desolate little house. Without the couple in it, I swear the place mourned. I swear the walls changed color, went pale, the dust didn’t even swirl in the shafts of sun coming through the bare windows. Everything lay still and flat. It overwhelmed me—this intense, intense quiet. Nothing scary either, the house didn’t creak or sigh and the words GET OUT didn’t suddenly appear in dripping blood on the walls. It was just–sad. I think the couple was so vibrant that when they were there, the house seemed super full of books and games and color and light, but without them in it, you saw that they didn’t really have a lot of stuff at all. It was empty. All that fun came from them, not from stuff. Without them, the house was a lonely little box.

Anyway, it was summer, I was 8 years old and somewhat troubled, albeit largely invisibly. After the first time, I told my brother and a friend and we all went in. It was fun showing them how to get the window open and then put it back the way it was, but once we were in, the joy, as before, disappeared. They felt it too. We went in a couple more times, and then we stopped. But then, guess what? I started feeling this fierce, grinding guilt. Teeth-gnashing, you may call it, or twisting, because that’s what it would do: make me twist and writhe, trying to get comfortable, trying to get my evil act out of my mind. I finally told my mother. Punishment followed, although not as bad as I’d thought it would be. My parents tended to over-punish for relatively minor infractions–like “being smart,” and under-punish for things like B&E. The worst of the punishment was having to call and tell the couple what I’d done.

Did I feel better having confessed? Yes, in that the guilt was incessant and painful and obligated me to tell on myself. No, in that I didn’t feel “understood” or “accepted” or any of those things that I assume the Vulnors are looking for. But maybe that’s a function of time. Do I feel better for writing down that episode? Not really. I mean I’ve long since stopped feeling bad for that break in, so it’s pretty much just a story. But the Vulnor-man himself, the head of the Vul-trainings, confessed something similar–that he’d robbed some money from his first employer, who’d been such a nice man. The trainer felt bad about that little bit of larceny—small and mean. Telling it, the way he framed it, I guess, left him open to criticism. So he felt brave facing that. Yes, I get that. Facing potential criticism is hard.

Next, a white woman (I’m talking now about the video they showed), talked about a moment when she’d had a racist thought, and how bad it made her feel that she was that kind of person, a person who could have such a thought. So hers was less of a confession and more of a “I may look perfect but I’m not” moment. And, well, I don’t wanna get all “yeah, and?” on you, but most white people in the U.S. are racist, and/or nationalistic, and/or insert particular xenophobia here, to some extent, and yes, we should admit it. But THEN, we should try to see how it affects the things we do every day—the wars we don’t protest against, the environmental devastation that’s way worse in POC communities (and why IS that??), the laws on non-violent crimes, which give us the second highest incarceration rate in the world and disproportionately affect POC.  (The highest, apparently, is the Seychelles??? Remind me not to go there. They might have very long Statutes of Limitation, and I just confessed to a B&E). So, this woman’s confession was indeed brave. But, is that enough?

Back to the narrow discussion: did this woman’s admission of her racism make her feel better? Maybe, I dunno. Maybe she got a hug for being so brave as to admit it among such an enlightened and earnest bunch of folks as writers—NONE of whom, especially not the white ones, are at ALL racist, right??? But, what if she’d just admitted it to herself? Would she have felt as good? Probably not. But would she have used the information to do some “good,” even if that meant on a very personal level? Maybe. I don’t think the V-training was about actually doing stuff, other than hugging each other for sharing. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seemed to be about “me”. Kinda. The “ME”, I mean. THE ME.

Which brings me to the two reasons it made me a little queasy, the whole thing: One: It’s about “ME” feeling better about myself, feeling I can “open up” and people won’t hurl invective at me or hit me, or, in my case, set my hair on fire (yeah, really. You get why I’m not big on vulnerability?)

Two: It’s a commodity. I think this is, for me, the real turn off. Vulnerability as “new thing,” as “schtick,” as corporate team building. As means to an end—the end being success in our late-capitalist context. Sales, money, fame, all o dat. Hey, I can’t hurl stones, I went to the damn Conference to learn about the BIZ. But let’s be honest, folks, “vulnerability” is not something you have to buy. All humans are vulnerable to some extent. “Opening up,” whether in some Yoga or Buddhist or Team Building context, always seems to have to do with extroverts telling introverts they need to be extroverts. It doesn’t work, even when you couch it in lovey-dovey, touchy-feely, “sharing wall” and hugs and tears of the “I was so moved” variety. It doesn’t. Sorry. In fact, it makes this introvert freeze up. There’s something too, I dunno, unearned about all of it. The trappings of intimacy without the real blood and sweat of it. Aw, maybe I should just relax and admit it’s all good.

I’m a fan of non-human animals as examples for us humans. Many mammals, for instance, are “open” when they’re with family, herd, pack, whatever—meaning that they play. So I’ll take that as my definition for vulnerability—the ability to play. But those same animals know that in some contexts, you don’t let your guard down. And you need to know those contexts for yourself. If you’re lucky (like most cats) your ma teaches you. Otherwise, if you err on the side of “closed” you probably live longer. Or in the late modern context–stay sane longer.

One more thing on the subject, and then, te lo juro, I will STFU. Just this: I can’t imagine Thomas Pynchon ever taking part in a vulnerability workshop. There. Nuff said. I coulda saved the rest of the 3k plus verbiage.

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Of Dance and Octopi (and Writing) Part I

I’ve been reading a book about octopi. Oops. That’s not the preferred plural.**

So let me start over. I’ve been reading a book about octopuses–Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. It’s not so much about octopuses as it is about intelligence–theirs and ours–and the similarities and differences between them. Mr. Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher, not a biologist. His aim is, as the title indicates, to muse on, or make a case for, intelligence, actually “consciousness,” having developed in two very different lines of evolution–cephalopod and mammal. Well, I’m not a hard audience for that. I think the idea that consciousness is limited to the human species is a blind one–a kind of Prince Harweda one (see below). So, for an audience made up of people like me, Godfrey-Smith has to spend time on the octopuses and the science rather than the philosophy. He does that. But, for his other audience–his fellow philosophers–he has to convince them, through accepted philosophical arguments, of his proposal. He does that too, I believe. In any event, there are whole chunks of philosophy in the book. I could actually read them and halfway understand them because (a) he’s a good writer, and (b) he sandwiches them in between the octopus-heavy parts (the fun parts), and thus tricks you into following along.

That said, a lot of the philosophical ideas he mentions made go “huh?” because I’m so very much NOT a philosopher. For example: the idea, prevalent probably in both science and philosophy, that you need words for complex thoughts. That strikes me as purely wrong. Godfrey-Smith does refute it with two very good examples, which, if I’d had the power of complex thought while reading it, I’d have come up with in a heartbeat (see how I’m sneaking the body in here? That’ll serve us well later on). The two examples are: (1) complex thought in deaf-mutes in a pre-literate society and (2) a very extreme case (fairly recent & documented) where a man suffered attacks of aphasia without warning. During these attacks, he lost all linguistic ability–all language: words, meanings, sounds. But he was still able to function quite well, for example by pointing at menus and being satisfied with what he got. (Of course, Billy Connolly might have had a problem with that approach.)

Again. If I’d had the power of complex thought at the time I read Godfrey-Smith’s examples, I’d have come up with one of my own: dancing.

I’m not taking about social dancing, really, although I’m not saying it wouldn’t apply. I’m talking about being onstage–maybe even a stage you saw for the first time yesterday–in the middle of a fast and intricate segment of dance, with bodies flying all around you, and the audience out there in front of you, and one wrong step and you crash, or you mess up the artistic vision of the choreographer, some of whom can be a bit unforgiving about that kind of thing. But that’s a second level worry–the vision of the choreographer. The first level thing is the crash, which leads directly to the body. What’s going on in this situation? Not words, if my experience is at all typical. There are the senses: sounds (music) sights, smells, etc, and there’s a physical knowing–kinesthesia. What I remember is that you don’t have time to think in words. You are thinking, of course, but it’s kinesthetic “thought.” Not based in words at all. It’s a lot more fun than thinking in words, actually. If something happens out of the ordinary, or if it’s an exciting show, you can put it into words later. But that’s a matter of translation–like describing a picture.

As I said, I’m no philosopher. To be dead honest, I can’t read philosophy because it doesn’t make sense to me–there are no pictures in it. I mean that literally and figuratively–there are neither stories (which make pictures in my mind), nor actual images. I like when enterprising people on youTube explain philosophy with pictures, like these guys, but still I don’t get it. So it’s very possible that what Godfrey-Smith is talking about and what I’m talking about are two different things. However, I am delighted, DELIGHTED, that philosophers now accept that it’s possible to engage in complex thought without words flying around inside you shitting all over everything like furious bats. Most athletes (including dancers) could tell you that. And I’m glad he’s making this case, philosophically, because Descartes still seems to rule a lot of philosophical thinking about non-humans, instead of being relegated to the mental-masturbation files of philosophical history. What? Descartes, cogito ergo sum and all that jazz, is a very good example, to me, of the Harweda aspect of most philosophy. Huh?

Okay. Have you ever read the fairy tale of Prince Harweda and the Magic Prison? The prince is a selfish brat. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. King and Queen, despair of him every becoming a decent ruler. So a wise old someone (witch, magician) offers a cure. S/he puts the prince in a beautiful house with an equal amount of mirrors and windows. Because he’s so stuck-up, he spends no time looking out the windows, and a whole bunch looking at himself in the mirror. The magic house makes what you pay attention to grow, and what you ignore, shrink. So the windows get smaller and smaller every day, and the mirrors bigger. Until, finally, there’s no light in the house. There’s a bird in the story, too, and the kid learns his lesson–which people seem to think is empathy–but I think it’s something more basic: interest in, or curiosity about, what’s outside of you. Descartes et al. seem like Harwedas to me–always looking in the mirror (the human mind, or should I say the post-18th century western civ. human mind) and never out the window (the world and everyone else in it). So they go blind pretty quick.

What am I talking about? What’s any of this anti-philosophy screed got to do with dance, or writing?

Okay, I admit, not much. But–wait for it–here comes one of my should-be-patented clumsy segues: As I read about octopuses, I thought, naturally enough, about dance. (Octopuses have no bones or cartilage, and have so many nerve connections in their arms that their intelligence is somewhat decentralized–the limbs are intelligent. For a dancer, that would be an ideal sort of situation. Plus, the critters are graceful as all hell.) Thinking about dance lead me to my own personal trajectory, from dance (through law) to writing. It lead to a lot of other things, too, but I’m trying to contain myself from sprawling, octopus-like, over at least 8 topics. Talk about decentralized intelligence.

I started thinking that my background as a dancer is a whole lot different than most writers’ backgrounds. Sweeping generalization, yes (just watch my octopus arms swirl, encompassing everything!), but perhaps not so sweeping today, in the age of the MFA. Of course there are dancer/writers, scholar/dancer/writers, performing artists who combine dance and writing, all that. Yes. But they don’t tend to congregate in the MFA literary world. At least I don’t think so. If I’m wrong, correct me. More to the point: to go from someone who could barely string together an articulate sentence, and didn’t really want to, to someone who writes novels–100k word novels–well forgive me but I think it’s a bit out of the ordinary. I’m not saying good, I’m saying different.

And not at all comfortable, to be honest. As a dancer, maybe I needed words. I read a lot during that time, mostly science fiction (Larry Niven, William Gibson, David Brin, U.K.LeGuin), but also a lot of Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita is one of my all-time favorite books), and Henry Miller, a fair amount of Jorge Amado, Earl Thompson, and of course Mikhail Bulgakov–The Master and Margarita is another favorite. I didn’t write, much, although sometimes I kept a diary, and a lot of times I wrote very, very, bad poetry, usually with some lovelorn context, which was completely at odds with my preferred reading material. I had absolutely no concept of writing, as in working on it the same way I worked on dance. Dancing made sense to me–it was physical and there was music involved, and not a lot of thinking. I remember a friend of mine describing a jazz dance class she took regularly. She said, “I love it. You don’t have to think.” I got what she meant immediately–some choreographers work so organically or musically that you don’t see the steps–you don’t hear them thinking: OK, here I need a five count in the legs over a seven count in the arms.”

As a choreographer though–during my short and marvelous stint at creating dances–I noticed that sometimes the stuff that requires a lot of thinking to create and learn looks better on stage than the stuff that doesn’t. SOMETIMES. But what I really learned as a choreographer is that creating is hard.

Creating is hard. That’s what writers do, so it’s kind of unfair to compare being a dancer with being a writer. The apt comparison is choreographer–writer. When you create, you’re doing something quite different than purely learning and interpreting a dance. You’re doing something with a lot more aspects to it. You’re thinking about how this will look on stage, WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY, am I trying to say anything at all, does it have to mean anything or can’t we just shut up and dance? And if we just shut up and dance does it have to be so technically stunning that people’s insides will drop through the theater seats, splat, and they’ll walk out on quivery legs thinking, “gosh, what talent, gosh what beauty. It’s got nothing at all to do with me and I understand that perfectly and I’m fine with it.”? In other words–are we about spectacle? Intimacy? Daring? Politics? What the body can do? Musicality? Are we about stories or sensation? Do we want people to want to dance afterwards? Or to want to give us money because we’re the elite corps doing what they can’t do?

I didn’t last long as a choreographer. I had some very minor successes. What started to happen was that I became interested in Theater–in truth I’d always been interested in it but I started to see words as useful to what wanted to do. Performance art, shows with both movement and words. I got interested in all that, and I’m still interested in it. Then, it all got very difficult. Financially, life-wise, every which way.

So I did a very sudden and weird thing, given who I was, who I am, who I wanted to be.

I took the LSAT, got offered a full-ride to law school, and went. It was not a well thought out decision.

I became a lawyer. Not a bad one either. But in so doing, for some reason, I felt I had to eradicate who I was. I had to prove that I was ruled by the neocortex rather than (as most people could have told me) by my reptile brain. (Nothing against my reptilian sisters and brothers. Bask on, man. I’m with ya in spirit). I had to prove how freaking smart I was. How freaking cerebral I was. Not a very good use of energy, actually.

I went to extremes. I decided I hated art, dance especially. I talked about how useless and elitist it all was. I hid my past. I brushed off questions with the line–“I quit dance because I got sick of waitressing”–which I still use. Listen. A lot of dancers I knew made the transition to the so-called professions–law, medicine, etc. Most took their background–their successes–with them. I didn’t. Suddenly, the whole episode, the whole fabric of Glena dancing in New York City in the 80s and 90s; the whole wild, patchwork and broken glass quilt of it, was an embarrassment.

What followed was years and years of cramming a pillow over the head of my performy, artsy, dancy self and suffocating her. Or him. I didn’t need to do that.

I started writing, I think, in self-defense. I started with poetry. Poetry seems the most physical to me. It’s interesting that Godfrey-Smith referred to poetry and philosophy as the most mental of occupations. I don’t think that’s right.

Anyway. Above, I said that maybe the dancer needed words. I think she did, especially when she started to choreograph–she needed stories, stances, things that come in wordy packets. I think so.

But I’m absolutely certain that the writer needs the body. Needs dance. Needs performance. I think that, for me, it’s the missing link. It’s what my writing needs-a performance or physical aspect. I’d love to universalize that–say that every MFA candidate has to take a year of dance classes, or singing or acting, along with her writing. But that’d be just silly. I think what I’m actually talking about here is putting the animal back in the writer. The book Technicians of the Sacred, edited by Jerome Rothenberg, is an example of that–indigenous poetry didn’t exclude the animal self, or segregate it off in some “genre” type slot the way modern writing often does.

So here I am, waving my arms, with my crippled knees and my years of auto-suffocation, and my certain age, and my words. There has to be both, she gasps, the suffocated one. Can’t we be both?

La neta? (the truth? the gist?) We do not know. We simply do not know.

 

 

** I looked it up, because I had no idea.had to look up the correct version. As it turns out “octopi” “has no etymological basis” according to the Grammarist. Basically, the use of the word octopi arose with the mistaken belief that “octupus” came from Latin, when it actually came from ancient Greek. So the “i” ending is Latinate, and not appropriate for Greek words. However, “octopi” due to long usage, has been accepted by the language gods. So either one: “octopi” or “octopuses,” is correct. Since I prefer the latter, I’ll use it, although I’ll keep the eye-catching “Octopi” in the title.

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Sex in the words, sex in the city

I just read the most brilliant thing I’ve ever read. Or at least read recently. The most brilliant thing since I first read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in my early twenties and kept reading it, over and over, convinced the book had somehow saved my life. Or since the first time I read Henry Miller and thought–wow, you can do that with words? You can write stuff that wild, that abandoned and still have it make (a kind of visceral) sense? Or the first time I read William Gibson’s Count Zero, and got so trapped in it I can still call up the images in my mind the book provoked, far more intricate and culturally layered even than Blade Runner, my favorite movie in those days–days I remember mostly as nights, full of heat lightning and deserted streets and abandoned buildings. (I’m talking about 1980s New York City, for those of you who don’t remember it).

But back to the brilliant thing. It’s by Roberto Bolaño, who seems to have replaced Isabel Allende and Junot Diaz in my list of favorites, although I’m not sure if he’s actually replaced them, or if he just began a whole different list made up of only himself. Jumped the shelf and landed on a ledge across the room, a little more shadowed, a little more mysterious. Fellini and Kurosawa are lurking around there too, but they do movies, so they have it easier (joke! Don’t hate me, movie folk).

I just read Bolaño’s book El espíritu de la ciencia-ficción. The book itself is not one of his better ones; it’s actually kind of a precursor to Los Detectives Salvajes, in which he dips into a lot of the themes: youth, quests and obsession, Mexico City, love, and poetry, or rather poets; that he unravels at great lengths in Los Detectives. So the book isn’t the brilliant thing. But one part of it–a span of about 15 pages, left me walking around my house saying, “how did he do that? How the fuck did he do that?” Walking and talking to myself, going, “Shee,” and “Damn” every so often. If I were back in 1980s NYC, I’d be out on the streets, walking and sniffing the air like a wolf. But, since I’m here, and I’m old, and I hurt my knee last week, I had to pad around uttering idiotic non-words of awe.

The part I’m talking about is the very last part of the book, in a chapter or section called “Manifiesto Mexicano.” In it, one of the protagonists, Remo, and his new girlfriend, or almost girlfriend, “Laura,” visit a bunch of public baths in Mexico City (the “DF”–Distrito Federal). Here’s a short section, translated by me, who ain’t any kind of a translator, but will do my best to give you the flavor. I’m sure you could find the book in English, if you looked hard enough. I couldn’t, but I didn’t look so hard. Here’s my translation:
“Together, mounted on my Benelli motorbike, which by then I’d figured out how to handle, we tried to visit all the public baths in the DF, guided by an ineluctable desire–a mixture of love and risk. We never accomplished it. On the contrary, the more we found, the more the abyss opened under us, the vast, black geography of the public baths. While other cities show their hidden faces in theaters, parks, piers, beaches, labyrinths, churches, bordellos, bars, cheap cinema, old buildings and even supermarkets, the hidden face of the DF is found in the enormous web of public baths–legal, semi-legal, and clandestine.”

The thing about this section of the book is that it could have been sensationalistic. I think (not to put down us U.S. writers, but I have to say it), that in the hands of most of us, it would have been gritty and ugly and “real” (yadda yadda, whatever that means), or there could have been a bunch of victim/victimizer stuff (keep in mind that Laura and Remo are 17 and 18, respectively), or it could have been full-on erotic, or wry and ironic and funny. But–Ah, and I’m sure I’m wrong here and making terrible, non-PC generalizations, but I’ll say it any way–we wouldn’t have been able to approach the tenderness and terror and mystery, and unafraid, completely unsentimental love, that Bolaño managed.

Nothing really happens. Remo and Laura visit a bunch of baths. Remo, who tells the story first person, focuses on one bath in particular, where he and Laura have a tense, strange, dreamy encounter with and old man and two boys their age. And everything takes place behind steam, but nothing’s at all coy. Mostly, it’s about love. Laura, the girlfriend, is the strongest, wisest, most unafraid and terrifying girl anyone I’ve read has ever created on paper. She’s almost the Queen in the game of chess–she can go anywhere. But unlike the Queen, she remains open and–free. Charged word, yeah. But free she is. No kind of victim. In fact, there are no victims in the book. Only searchers, and lovers.

And Remo’s in love. The kind of love that makes you lie on the floor because if you stand up you’ll explode or leak everything out through every orifice & pore, or you’re afraid that if you stand up, time will start moving again and you’ll lose something, you’ll lose a second of time with her or him, and you want to keep it and wrap it around you and smother in it. Remo’s in love, and he’s not afraid of it. No posturing, just the realization that he’s living a mystery.

It’s very much a city dweller’s piece, too, probably. The real star is the DF.

So it was brilliant, and now I have to figure out what I can do to copy the hell out of it. Just kidding . . .

“Manifiesto Mexicano” dovetails nicely with a post I’d been wanting to write about New York City, Manhattan specifically, and how it’s changed since I first got there, in the early 1980s. How shiny it is now, and how everyone is quiet and orderly and cell phone faced and there’s very little of that messy, violent, stare-you-down or come on to you anarchic feeling New York had way back when. I was thinking how that change had a lot to do with sex. But when I write that, I feel like I’m setting up a huge misunderstanding, because what I’m talking about isn’t really sex–it’s lust maybein the sense of desire, wanting, etc. It hasn’t got all that much to do with the straight on mechanics of the act, although that’s part of it of course. It has more to do with what Bolaño writes about–kind of the mystery aspect of wanting. Tenderness and violence. The awareness of death, how it brushes your shoulder every day in the city, how it peeks out at you from a dawn sky as you’re headed home from dancing all night. Maybe it’s very youthful, maybe it’s very old. Whatever it is, it isn’t clean and you can’t find it in a cell phone world. Maybe I’m actually talking about love. And anarchy, in the non-political (is anything non-political?) sense of the term. Without some kind of anarchy, there’s no love.

So, in Manhattan, there’s still sex all over the place. People are better looking than they were (that’s true! have you ever looked at old photos of the 80s?) People dress better, fashions are more flattering. There are still homeless people–a lot, actually–but there seems to be a bigger divide between them and everyone else. As if they got caught in the bad old days while the rest of us moved on. People work out. They bathe a lot. The subways are smooth and shiny and clean and even the ads have changed. Now, it seems that you get an entire series of advertisement for the same product the same subway car–such and such storage space, all such and such clothing store or website. A slightly different, but uniformly slick, ad in each panel. In several of my subway trips I found myself studying a bunch of very beautifully done leotard and underwear ads. Each consisted of a woman in a yoga posture and a hip little bit of patter, like “hot outside and now this guy’s pit is in your face, but at least your V is fresh and dry.” (paraphrased, I don’t remember the exact words) Patter that screamed “edgy” and “real” in order to sell me something. Patter that said, “hey, look! We get you. You’re so cool and awesome, and so are we.”

Hell, just give me a packet of five cotton panties from K-mart and shut up. I don’t need to be understood by my underwear maker. Especially since it all probably comes from some sweatshop or uses some disastrously GMO’d cotton that’s killed off huge numbers of small towns, somewhere. And I don’t need to be cool, or awesome. And I ain’t.

I’m not saying anything new here. I know that.

Another consisted of a few different one-liners about apartment hunting in New York (Manhattan & Brooklyn real estate and the $$$ of it: always a good rallying point, always good joke fodder). But why five or six ads for the same company, up and down the subway car? Has the MTA hired interior decorators? It wouldn’t surprise me. The fare’s up to $2.75 a pop.

What’s any of this got to do with sex? I don’t think it’s sex I’m talking about here. I’m sure a poll would tell me New Yorkers are still having tons of sex. Hell, they’re too pretty not to be. It doesn’t have to do with sex. Maybe it has to do with love. I loved the New York of my youth, the broke one, with problems, with dangers, with mysteries.

Probably, Bolano’s DF (of the 70s), had a lot in common with my New York of the 80s. The DF’s probably changed a lot too. Hey, change is good! I’m not sure why I keep huddling on the floor, wrapped in my old New York, trying to describe something that’s long gone and good riddance in the Brave New World. Like Remo in the public baths, seeing everything through love and steam.

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Conference Recap

As I’ve said, I’m not one for Midtown Manhattan–too many tourists, too many overpriced fast food joints, too many overpriced everything. And I’m not one for conferences, which tend to take place in big, bland hotel rooms chilled to those keep-the-mayo-fresh-and-the-vagabonds-out temperatures. The WD Conference was no different–Midtown Hilton, cold rooms, a lot of beige and that shade of pink that you know has been chosen by a focus group.

But I enjoyed it! Although the next time I hope they hold it somewhere like Van Cortlandt Park or Miller Field on Staten Island. Watch a little soccer, dodge some goose poop, and talk about writing, listen to people talk about writing, thumb through a ton of tempting books about writing by the very people you’ve been listening to, and write notes about writing. It would be perfect.

There were too many interesting sessions going on at the same time, so I often had to choose between marketing-type seminars that would done me a lot of good, and craft-based seminars that fascinated me. I chose the latter, generally. A true highlight was Donald Maass’s all day seminar on The Emotional Craft of Fiction. (See book by same name, which of course I bought, here. It can’t be easy to give a 7+ hour presentation on anything, let alone something so, well, squishy as getting emotional connection into your writing. The man never flagged, which I think has to do with his passion for the subject as well as his knowledge. Mr. Maass also gives three-day workshops on the EC of F, as well as other writing intensives. You can read more about those here.

I won’t go into the other great sessions I went to, but here’s a sample: a session by historical fiction writers Crystal King and Anjali Mitter Duva, and one by suspense writer Hallie Ephron, a panel on “Straddling Multiple Genres,” and one on “The Art and Business of Historical Fiction.” All fascinating, all worthwhile. Maybe because everyone in the room was engaged in doing what I’m doing, and they’re either further along or we’re neck and neck or whatever, but they’re all excited about it. In other words–a kind of solidarity I’ve never felt in my “real” job(s).

So, that was grand, and most welcome.

Then… there was the (insert chilling scream) Pitch Slam. Yes I wrote out my little pitch and yes I slammed agents for three minutes at a time. Two agents expressed interest, in fact my first two choices. Two others rejected it on the grounds that they didn’t handle that era in historical fiction. Well that’s fine too. Slamming seems a strange way to pitch a novel–a novel being more long con than quick hustle. And I’m no saleswoman–I have all the charisma of a weed. But, useful nometheless.

One thing I came away with was that writing is a BIZNESS. I knew that, of course, but when you spend so much time working on a story, using your imagination, it’s easy to forget that someone eventually has to buy the thing. Or not. So now I understand what that means a bit more than I did.

All in all, I’m glad I went. Pase lo que pase.

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Writers Digest Annual Conference

Next week I’ll be taking the train–yes the TRAIN–to New York for the Writers Digest Annual Conference. It’ll be nice to be back in NY! (Cue music: “Back in the New York Groove”). This conference is in midtown, which I try to avoid at all costs, but that’s Conferencelandia, I suppose. Anyway I’m taking a couple extra days after it to explore old neighborhoods. I’m one of those rather pathetic people who complain about the Disneyfication of Manhattan, the gentrification of most of Brooklyn and part of Queens (Astoria, Long Island City), the stupid (yeah you read it right) stupid prices landlords have the nerve to charge for housing, etc. One of those folks who remembers the bad old days of broke New York: garbage strikes, 2 hour subway delays, heads being found in soup. Good times! Except for the head in the soup. Have you ever seen Wolfen? That’s the New York I mean. I might be the only person who gets nostalgic watching a horror movie. (Shameless pitch: read my story “Alphabet City, 1985” (you can find the link in Writing, too), for some 1980s New Yorkiness.

But the point is the Conference! I’ve never done such a thing. All those writers, editors and agents in one place–the mere thought of all that erudition and word savvy makes me quiver. In fear, ya understand. I hope to pitch the Butte novel, tentatively titled Copper Blood. I am not known for my off-the-cuff verbal spontaneity. Thus, I shall memorize a pitch and try not to repeat it like an automaton, or, worse, like ME. I wonder how many of these people have even heard of Butte? Will the very name of the city make them go vitreous and slippery? Stay tuned.

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Real Viceralists

I used to blog. Back in the early years of blogdom, I blogged about my trip through the wonders of cancer treatment, and about my newly minted lawyer blues. I used to have the rhythm down, and the lightly ironic stance, and all that. But I lost it! I lost it! And I can’t get it back. It’s actually a relief. Now I can blog the way Nature intended–without whimsy, without hundreds of hyperlinks and cute pictures. I’m not going to dive into the question of whether Nature ever intended a blog. Watch crows for clues on blogging. They blog regularly in fields, backyards and garbage dumps near you. They describe dead animals, live ones who interest them, the contents of dumpsters, and probably your new hairdo. They’re good bloggers–vivid and urgent and absolutely not whimsical.

Like the real viceralists or however it’s translated. Vicerrealistas actually. And who are they?

I just finished reading Los Detectives Salvajes by Roberto Bolaño. In Los Detectives, several young poets in Mexico, DF (Mexico City), go on a quest to find an obscure (and fictional) poet of the 1920s (post-revolution in Mexico) named Cesária Tinajero, supposedly the first viscerrealista. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, so don’t glaze over. In the book, “el realismo viceral” is a literary movement, fictional, but based on a movement invented by Bolaño and Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, called infrarrealismo.

Infrarrealismo came from surrealism or dadaism, which means it had that “protest” stance. Like the other two, infrarrealismo sought to “volarle la tapa de los sesos a la cultura oficial”–“blow open the brains of official culture.” Kinda like punk. By that I mean that there’s something named “Rock” or something named “Poetry” that everyone agrees on–it’s “official.” Each has its agreed-upon education, techniques, connections, gurus, stances, words, subjects, and even rebels. Then, in the case of Rock, along come the Ramones and play 3 chords wham wham wham over and over and say the same 5 words over and over for 2.5 minutes. This at a time when you had all these long and almost symphonic concept albums with strings and epic drum solos and guitar meanderings for 40 minutes at a time. And then here’s 2.5 minutes of 3 chords and the Ramones have volar-ed your sesos. (volar = fly, sesos = brains).

The rush of that kind of audacity and urgency is, I think, very much what all artistic protest movements intend. Like crows divebombing peacocks in an icy wind. It never lasts. Never lasts.

So, the infrarrealistas (which movement, incidentally, lived and died in the 1970s, just like punk), sought to do that with poetry.

I’m pretty sure they didn’t succeed–if success means a place in any kind of canon. I could be wrong–after all, the surrealists did get their encyclopedia page, and a few of them even got famous. But Bolaño did succeed, not as a poet, but as a fiction writer. And we’re all very lucky he did. Los Detectives is a wild book, audacious, in the best sense. Here’s your link, English version, and link, Spanish version, in case you wanna buy it, and contribute to Mr. Bolaño’s estate. (He died in 2003, RIP). Look for my review coming soon to this very website–under “Reading”.

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