Art & culture


Nest-like

Last week, sci-fi and fantasy author Ursula Le Guin died at the age of 88. Although Le Guin is best known as a novelist, I remember her most fondly for her quirky essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

Pottery and textile

Like Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag” is an essay about women’s fiction that is itself a kind of fiction. “Carrier Bag” is an essay, but it offers a narrative of how women’s writing evolved. In telling that narrative, Le Guin muses upon characters who appear as if by accident from an impromptu stream-of-consciousness reflection that would be entirely innocuous if it weren’t for its edge.

Woven

Le Guin suggests that male literature tells stories of swords, spears, and sticks: phallic weapons that make a point by focusing on heroic tales of conflict and conquest. Women’s stories, on the other hand, are like bags. They are capacious, inclusive, and eclectic: a narrative assortment of jots and tittles gleaned from random gathering rather than targeted hunting.

Folded paper

Carrier-bag tales are a compendium of ordinaries. Hunters and warriors need to work in solemn silence in order to focus on their heroic quest, but gatherers are the original multi-taskers. Long before men fashioned sticks into spears, Le Guin suggests women fashioned animal skins into slings for carrying infants, gathered food items, and all the random stuff that civilization depends on. (Anyone with an infant knows the most important invention of all time is the diaper bag, rivaled only, perhaps, by the miraculous repository known as “your wife’s purse.”)

Pottery and textile

Gathering nuts and berries is a social endeavor–there’s plenty of time for gossip and small talk while many hands make light work. While filling their carrier-bags with fruit, nuts, and berries, women shared stories to entertain themselves and their children, with all of this chattering happening amidst the constant interruptions of inquisitive toddlers, adventurous youngsters, and fussy babies.

Intricacies

When I read Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” I’m reminded of my blog. Hoarded Ordinaries isn’t especially heroic, it doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a point or plot, and it certainly qualifies as a ragtag collection of mundane minutiae: a proverbial mixed bag. So why bother to keep a carrier-bag account of my ordinary life? Because like countless women before me, I’m a social rather than heroic creature. Having gathered my own humble bag of pretty flowers and shiny stones, I want nothing more than to share.

Thoreau's last journal entry, followed by a blank page. He died six months later.

Yesterday I went to the Concord Museum to see This Ever New Self, an exhibition of Henry David Thoreau’s journals that closes this weekend. It was inspiring to be in the same room as so many notebooks Thoreau had touched, along with a ragtag assortment of objects: for example, his desk, flute, and walking stick; the only two photographs taken of him; two pages from his herbarium; and the wooden chest in which his notebooks were stored.

Journal with Thoreau family pencils

Most moving, though, was the final entry in his last notebook: half a page of Thoreau’s indecipherable scrawl, then an empty page. Thoreau, the placard explains, wrote his last journal entry in November, 1861 and died six months later. The empty page that follows the final entry in Thoreau’s voluminous journals–nearly ten thousand pages written over the course of his adult life–is as stark and final as slammed door.

Journal with drawing of hawk feather

Journal-keeping is an indefinite endeavor, a kind of composition that defies the constraints of beginning, middle, and end. A story follows an arc, and a novel is definitively done when published, but a journal (and a journal-keeper) starts anew with each page. A journal is a compendium of loose ends, dropped narrative threads, aborted ideas, and discarded dead-ends. That is what makes Thoreau’s final journal entry so shocking. This is a story that was cut off prematurely in mid-thought. It’s the ultimate cliffhanger: the words To Be Continued abruptly replaced with The End.

Click here for more photos of Thoreau’s journals at the Concord Museum. Enjoy!

Face and spray can

Sometimes when I’m bored or feeling uninspired, I’ll page back through my journal to see what I was doing, thinking, or worrying about at a given time in the past. If nothing else, this practice is a great way of cultivating perspective, as I frequently find that something I was completely consumed by even a few months ago is now entirely forgotten and irrelevant.

Modica Way

Last September, I read (and blogged about) David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding, a lightly-edited collection of journal entries from the years 1977 to 2002, and today I rediscovered an observation I’d written in my journal while I was reading the book:

Red

I’m realizing as I read that there are two kinds of journal-keepers: thinkers and recorders. Thinkers write long, sustained entries on a given topics–informal essays on whatever deep thoughts they’re having. Recorders, on the other hand, keep a spontaneous list of whatever thoughts pop into mind as they are writing, jumping from subject to subject as their minds themselves wander.

Modica Way

Thoreau was a thinker, as am I: any given entry sounds like the rough draft of an essay. But equally intriguing is the spontaneous stream-of-consciousness produced by recorders–and Sedaris falls in this category. One minute he notes the cost of eggs at a given diner or the cost of milk at Winn-Dixie, then the next he recounts what drugs he and his sister took on the beach or the slurs passengers in a passing car shouted while pelting him with rocks.

Escape

Readers appreciate the profundity of thinkers, but they are sometimes put off by the sheer randomness of recorder-style journals. When a writer simply records his or her thoughts as they occur, it’s sometimes difficult for readers to tell how important any given item or event truly is. Is the price of gas as important as a pending real estate deal or argument with a friend?

Ghost

What non-writers might not appreciate, however, is the importance of objectivity and impartiality in writing. Most folks would be outraged by an argument or insult, but recorders cultivate a curious kind of equanimity. Viewing everything as grist for the mill allows a recorder to keep a nonchalant account of everything happening in their life. There’s no need to judge or justify what you did, what you saw, or what you thought; just write it down. What results is a refreshingly real depiction of a person’s mind, without censorship or prudery. Over the course of letting oneself think on paper, a recorder develops a sincere and fearless style. Nothing is held back because nothing is shunned.

Modica Way

Theft By Finding is at times wickedly funny, but not because Sedaris is trying to be funny. Instead, the book is funny because Sedaris is entirely deadpan in his account of absurd behavior. The down-and-out people he encounters in Chicago and Raleigh behave in absurd and ridiculous ways, and he reports what they say and what they do in a nonchalant tone as if there is nothing remarkable or disturbing about it.

Spray paint

There are plenty of people who say they’ve seen enough crazy shit to fill a book, but they don’t ever actually write that shit down. David Sedaris is wickedly funny because he simply records the absurd things he sees and overhears without judgement. The stories and scraps of stories he records speak for themselves, without the need for commentary or critique.

Tinged

I’m currently reading The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs’ account of her cancer diagnosis and death. The book is divided into four stages, just as terminal cancer is, and in the passage I read this morning, Riggs enters stage three of her journey right as her own mother dies of the disease.

Fade to pink

Riggs is a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, so her approach to living and dying is inherently–one might say in-hereditarily–Transcendentalist. Riggs reads and writes her way through her diagnosis, treatment, and stages of grief, drawing parallels between her life and the essays of Michel de Montaigne, which themselves were models for the ones written by both Emerson and Thoreau.

Essayists believe writing is itself illuminative: we write in an attempt (in an essay) to understand. The title of Riggs’ memoir, The Bright Hour, comes from a line from Emerson referring to morning as a time when sunlight infills and inspires, allowing “this sickly body…to become as large as the World.”

Duck lips

The sun rises every day, and every day people die. There is nothing inherently special about Riggs or her cancer, treatment, and death; Riggs experiences mortality as countless others have both before and after her. But what makes a writer’s passing particular is the very art of essaying: even in extremis, there is a conscious commitment to watch and record, one’s own impending death becoming its own kind of data.

This kind of noticing does not come naturally; it is human nature to turn away from scenes of sickness and decline, reminiscent as they are of one’s own mortality. But writers train themselves to turn toward trauma just as war photographers run toward scenes of slaughter. I suppose there are a few exceptional souls who live oblivious lives and then turn into compulsive chroniclers of their own demise, but in my experience, awareness is a tool you hone over time.

Fading to pink

Although Riggs’ memoir had its genesis in a blog she began soon after her diagnosis, I don’t know if she was a lifelong journal-keeper like her famous forebear was: it was Emerson, after all, who urged Henry David Thoreau to keep a journal, and American literature is all the richer for it. But Riggs was trained as a poet, and poets like essayists are compulsive collectors, using language as a tool to snatch up and save the otherwise ordinary detritus of days.

I’m roughly halfway through The Bright Hour, but I know how it ends–I know, in fact, how every memoir ends. We all were born with a terminal diagnosis, but some of us are in denial about the details. Riggs died at the age of 38, leaving a husband and two young sons; Emerson died at the ripe age of 78 after having lost much of his memory and mental faculties. How do we measure the richness of a single life: is it by length of days or the number of enduring publications? Riggs lived the last years of her life in an entirely Emersonian fashion, reading, writing, and trying assiduously to understand this brief, bright hour that dawns, hastens across the horizon, and inevitably fades.

Stage from our seats

Last weekend J and I saw the musical Fun Home at the Boston Opera House. Ever since Fun Home debuted on Broadway in 2015, I’ve been quietly skeptical that Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir could be adapted for the stage, even after the show won multiple Tony awards and A (not her real initial) had seen and raved about it. Despite these glowing reviews, I wasn’t completely convinced a playwright could translate Bechdel’s book, which is masterfully told and powerfully illustrated, into another genre. I so closely associated the content of Bechdel’s memoir with its visual format featuring cartoon drawings of her childhood memories, journals, and family photos juxtaposed with her middle-aged commentary, I couldn’t imagine telling that complex and complicated story any other way.

Washington Street

Clearly I wasn’t imaginative enough. From its opening scene, Fun Home drew me and other audience members into Alison Bechdel’s unique family history. The daughter of a small town funeral director, Bechdel came out as a lesbian in college, discovered soon after that her father was secretly gay, and then lost him to an apparent suicide. On stage, this story is told with three different actresses playing Bechdel: young Alison, college Alison, and grown-up Alison, who observes from the margins, sketchbook in hand, as her life literally plays out before her (and the audience’s) eyes.

Set before the show

As a musical, Fun Home doesn’t try to replicate the visual format of the book. A small desk represents adult Alison’s cartoonist studio, the place where she struggles to understand and portray her conflicted relationship with her father, and individual props stand in for significant scenes in her life: the couch and piano in her meticulously restored, museum-like childhood home; a coffin in the funeral home (dubbed the “Fun Home” by Alison and her young brothers) that is the family business; and the door to the Gay Union where she came out as a lesbian in college. Audiences have to imagine the rest of the story.

Boston Opera House

The hand-drawn map of her father’s life that Bechdel provides in the book, for example–his birthplace, home, and site of death all contained within a tiny circle of rural Pennsylvania–is described in song but never shown. Instead, we imagine the vista of Bechdel’s childhood from her own imagined perspective as she plays airplane with her father and imagines a bird’s-eye view of her life.

Audience members also have to imagine a nameless character who plays a brief but pivotal role in Bechdel’s childhood: a butch truck driver who walks into a diner where young Alison is eating with her father. In the book, we see Bechdel’s drawing of a woman who never knew the impact she had on a girl who bridled against the dresses and barrettes her father forced her to wear. In the musical, young Alison stares at an off-stage, invisible figure who is invoked only through a recitation of her emblematic appearance: short hair, dungarees, lace-up boots, and a large ring of keys. The outfit and its impression are magical to young Alison: her first realization that people like her exist in the world outside her small circle.

Ladies' lounge

Fun Home the book bills itself as “a family tragicomic,” and I have no shame in admitting I wept as the show turned toward its conclusion. Yes, there are moments of comedy in the story, such as the over-the-top, 70s-psychedelic dance number young Alison and her brothers create to advertise the family funeral home or the awkward bumbling of college Alison’s first sexual encounter. But college Alison’s earnest interactions with her father are heartbreakingly powerful without even a hint of sentimentality. Desperate to understand and be understood by her father, both college and adult Alison encounter instead silence, her questions cut off as abruptly as the oncoming truck that took her father’s life.

Overhead

Whereas I approached Fun Home the musical with high expectations based on multiple readings of Alison Bechdel’s book, J intentionally did no research into the musical beforehand, knowing nothing more than my brief explanation that the show was based on a memoir by a lesbian cartoonist. His reaction to the show was the highest form of praise, as he said he was immediately drawn into Alison’s life not because it was a “gay story” but because it was an engaging and relatable story about an ordinary person who happens to be gay. Although the exact details of Alison Bechdel’s family upbringing are unique, her story is easy to relate to if you’ve ever had a family member (or a childhood) you’ve struggled to understand.

Six word memoirs

This past Friday was the National Day on Writing, and for the first time, Framingham State hosted an event sponsored by the English Department and the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA). Among the day’s activities was a six-word memoir wall where students, faculty, and staff posted colorful sticky-notes telling the (brief) stories of their lives.

More memoirs

Capturing your life in six words sounds difficult, but it’s fun and even addictive once you try it. (You can read some examples here.) On the first day of my American Short Story class each semester, I tell students the apocryphal legend of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” We debate the larger story behind these words: who placed the ad, why were the shoes never worn, and is the baby who should have worn them alive, dead, or never born?

The best people are English majors

It turns out you can say a lot in only a few words, and every semester my students and I try our hands at writing our own six-word memoirs. If you had only six words to share your life story with strangers, which six words would you choose? A six-word version of my story I often share with students is “Went to college, never came home,” but other six-word accounts of my life are equally accurate, like “Still writing after all these years.”

From today's National Day on Writing event. #WhyIWrite

At Friday’s event, we also asked students, faculty, and anyone passing by to pose with one of our #WhyIWrite whiteboards. Just as everyone has a life story to tell, everyone has their own reasons for writing. (You can see some of them here.) Some of us write to understand our lives, some of us write to escape them, and some of us write to share our experience. Some of us struggle to explain exactly why we write; we just know it will take far more than six words to say.

Hibiscus

I’m almost done reading Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, What Happened. I rushed to read the book in large part because of the backlash against it: many angry reviews have been written by people who haven’t read (and indeed refuse to read) the book, so I was eager to make up my own mind. Regardless of how you feel about Hillary Clinton, she’s in a unique spot to comment on an unprecedented election.

Cherub

Now that I’m almost done with What Happened, I have a few observations about it. First of all, I’ve been struck by how much of a bookworm Clinton is. I knew that Clinton was smart, but I wasn’t expecting a memoir that mentions so many books: books Clinton read before she entered politics, books that guided her as a candidate, and books she’s returned to in the aftermath of a crushing defeat. In the first chapter alone, Clinton mentions more books than Donald Trump has probably read in his entire life. I don’t think Clinton is trying to look bookish; she’s just a person who reads (and thus talks about) a lot of books.

Tamarack

Second, I’ve been struck by Clinton’s obvious religious faith. Whereas many politicians make a big show of piety to appeal to heartland voters, Clinton has always been private about her own Methodist faith. Now that Clinton is out of the political realm and thus more comfortable talking about her personal life, it’s clear that her faith inspires pretty much everything she did as a politician and (especially) everything she’s done since. Although many of Clinton’s critics will presumably accuse her of false piety, she literally has nothing to lose now that she’s no longer running for office. When Clinton explains how prayer and the advice of trusted spiritual advisors helped her weather everything from the trials of her marriage to the stresses of a contentious campaign, I choose to believe her.

Water lilies

Third, I think What Happened is far more than an autopsy of a failed campaign; it’s also a warning about what lies ahead. Press reports (and negative reviews) peg the book as a political postmortem, with Clinton offering excuses for why she lost the 2016 election. But as attention-grabbing as those parts of the book are, the most interesting, troubling, and useful parts are the ones that warn of what comes next: a book that could have alternatively called What’s Happening. Clinton’s days as a candidate are over, but the challenges she faced as a candidate are not going away. Instead, those challenges will be alive and active in future elections, threatening to undermine our democracy as long as we continue to ignore them.

Maidenhair fern

Clinton describes a perfect storm of factors that led to her defeat and Trump’s victory: a toxic stew of sexism, misogyny, racism, sensational press coverage, an ill-timed letter from then-FBI director James Comey, Russian interference, a widespread inability of voters to detect and ignore fake news, and a willful campaign of voter suppression. Despite all of these impediments, Clinton still won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, but that still wasn’t enough to win her the presidency.

Mown path

Still a policy wonk, Clinton offers ample evidence to support her claim that a combination of forces tipped the election in Trump’s favor, devoting an entire chapter to a statistical analysis of how Comey’s letter about an FBI investigation into Clinton’s email usage proved to be the nail in her campaign coffin. But here’s the thing: even if you don’t believe Clinton’s admittedly subjective account of what went wrong in the 2016 election, you’d better listen to what she says about future elections.

You can argue that sexism and misogyny weren’t a factor in Clinton’s loss, or you can argue that James Comey had no impact on the race. You can argue that nobody is to blame but Clinton herself, and she would actually agree with you. But–and this is the essential point–with the exception of James Comey, none of the factors Clinton discusses is going away, so we ignore her insights at our (and our country’s) peril.

Stonewall

Maybe Clinton was a terrible candidate, as her critics argue. But sexism and misogyny aren’t going away, so the next woman to run for president will still have to face them. Maybe racism didn’t motivate Trump voters–but racism isn’t going away, so future populists and demagogues will still have reason to appeal to it.

Maybe the Russians didn’t work single-handedly to get Trump elected–but we know for a fact they interfered in the election, and they continue to spread fake news and propaganda designed to sow domestic discord. Russian propagandists and click-bait factories aren’t going away, so future candidates will have to face the lies they spread, just as Clinton did.

September faun

Most alarmingly, voter suppression might not have lost the election for Clinton, but it played a role, and it’s not going away. If we believe in fair and accurate elections, we should be alarmed by the number of voters who were prevented from voting in states where the election was decided by a slim margin. Voter suppression alone might not have thrown the election to Trump, but it’s an issue we should care about if we care about future elections.

Clinton’s tale of “what happened” is about much more than her individual experience of the 2016 election. Instead, it’s a tale of what will continue to happen if we don’t learn from recent history.

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