Art & culture


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.

Cup and saucer vine (Cobaea scandens)

Last spring, a colleague flummoxed me with a perfectly innocuous question: “Do you work on your own writing?” This is a seemingly straightforward question, one deserving of a simple “yes” or “no,” but it left me stammering. What does it mean, exactly, to work on “your own writing”? Of the various sorts of writing I do, which one is actually “mine,” what exactly counts as “writing”?

Asters

As a professor, I should be working on formal academic scholarship; if I ever were to join the ranks of tenure-track faculty, I’d need to hop on the merry-go-round known as Publish-or-Perish. But apart from a few book reviews, I stopped producing formal academic writing when I finished my dissertation more than a decade ago, and I remain deeply conflicted about the genre.

Secret garden

Part of the reason it took me so long to finish my dissertation was the identity crisis I experienced halfway through, when I realized I didn’t want write about Thoreau, I wanted to write like Thoreau. I’ve never reconciled the tension I feel between academic writing (the kind of writing I should be doing to advance my career) and personal essay-writing (the kind of writing I scribble in private notebooks and share on-blog). There’s the kind of writing I like to do, then there is the kind of writing I “should” be doing, and I haven’t figured out a way to build a bridge between one and the other.

Viewing through

Years ago, another teaching colleague mentioned that he reads my blog, and his voice was tinged with envy. “You can write about anything you want,” he observed, and again I wasn’t sure how to respond. Yes, I can write about anything I want, and that is exactly what keeps me writing…but my blog writing doesn’t bring any professional benefit. My blog serves as my own creative outlet, and being able to write about a variety of topics–whatever is on my mind on any given day–is a source of great personal satisfaction. But while that teaching colleague has moved onto a permanent full-time position, I continue to piece together a string of temporary “visiting” appointments. I can write whatever I want, but that writing isn’t something I’ve been able to leverage toward lasting full-time employment.

Silvered

So what counts, exactly, as “writing,” and which writing counts as “my own”? The words I write in my journal are both theoretically and practically my own, as no one other than me sees them. The words I revise and then post here are my own as well: I write them for no one else’s benefit, nobody compensates me for them, and I share them simply to satisfy my own creative itch. My blog-essays, then, should most definitely count as “my own writing,” so why was I so reluctant to admit that aloud in response to my colleague’s question?

Moss steps

I have never felt judgement from my colleagues because I write blog essays instead of academic articles: in all honesty, most of my colleagues are too busy to follow what I do in my off-hours, just as I am too busy to follow what they do in theirs. But even in the absence of external judgement, it’s entirely possible to feel self-generated guilt. Why am I wasting my time, my inner-critic questions, working on writing that does nothing more than make me happy? Given the perpetually temporary and thus tenuous state of my employment status, why aren’t I toiling away at academic projects: the kind of writing that could lead to more gainful employment?

Silvery

For better or worse, the only way I know how to write is by following my curiosity: my scribbling pen is like an unleashed dog that runs and wanders where it will. I share on my blog the kinds of things I enjoy reading: one way of understanding my blog, in fact, is to see it as a repository of my own intellectual interests, a personal cabinet of curiosities.

In “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson defined “genius” as the belief “that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” I don’t presume to know the hearts of all men, but I know what I like, and in writing about those things, I trust that there are others, somewhere, who are interested as well.

Bee on stonecrop

I recently started reading David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding, a lightly-edited collection of journal entries from the years 1977 to 2002. The early pages of the book recount a Kerouac-like stint of hitchhiking, fruit picking, drug using, and general penury. In his introduction to the book, Sedaris advises against reading the book from cover-to-cover: as a diary, the book lacks anything remotely similar to a plot, instead reflecting the crazy daily existence of a person without a clear direction. Instead of reading it cover-to-cover like a conventional narrative, Sedaris suggests readers dip into the book at random, reading it like a joke book where some episodes or anecdotes are funnier than others.

Bee on stonecrop.

I have two good reasons for ignoring Sedaris’ advice. First, I’m reading a library copy that I have to return in two weeks, so I don’t have the luxury of a leisurely and random read. Instead, I have to start at the beginning and plow right through.

But my second reason is the more important one. I too am a journal-keeper, so whereas normal readers might grow tired of a the senseless ramblings of a young man trying to find himself in the most random of ways, I’m admiring the narrative fluency of that young man’s mind. I’m not reading for story as much as psychology: not what happened to young Sedaris so much as how he responded to what happened.

Bee on stonecrop

What I’m interested in watching is the suppleness of mind that allows Sedaris to write whatever comes to mind, even when what comes to mind isn’t remarkable or particularly noteworthy. Non-writers believe, I think, that you can spend your life not writing and then suddenly open your noticing eye when something important, exciting, or inspiring happens. But that isn’t how writing works.

Bees on stonecrop

How writing works, in my experience, is you practice by keeping track of minutiae. You scribble things down every day even when your everyday life is boring or uninspiring. You practice noticing the quality of light through the window, the sound of crickets chirping, or the insistent chip of a cardinal. A journal is to writers what scale-playing is to pianists. Playing scales isn’t interesting for listeners, but it’s how pianists keep their fingers flexible and their minds focused. After playing scales, scales, scales, a pianist hones her ability to play measure after measure of actual music. The music happens because of (not despite) the hours of disciplined drudgery that precedes it.

Bumblebee on stonecrop

When you’re in the thick of your life, you’re not very good at determining what will be life-changing or profound. That’s why journal-keepers record all of it. Theft By Finding is a massive book–more than 500 pages–but Sedaris explains it’s still not exhaustive: he edited out the most boring, repetitive, and inane material, and even then, there’s still a lot that might bore or befuddle many readers. But that’s exactly what I love about reading the journals of practiced writers. I don’t read because every page is wonderful; I read because it’s wonderful to encounter a gem-like line in the middle of otherwise unremarkable stuff.

Golden

There is something magical about the hour before sunset, when the sun sinks deep toward the horizon: a time photographers call the golden hour. Vertical surfaces glow as if gilded, and every grassy head is highlighted and haloed. The very ground seems hallowed, illumined with a metallic sheen. There is no magic, no shenanigans, behind such shows: it’s simply the sun casting everything into its best light.

Cattails

Last night Leslee and I walked at the Minute Man National Historic Park, saying farewell to August by walking into the sunset then back to our cars. Classes start next week, and already the days are growing shorter. A month ago, it was too humid for walking, and once winter descends, the evenings will be too dark. Yesterday, though, the weather was perfect: clear but cool, with the sun playing peekaboo behind intermittent clouds.

Hayfield

They say you should make hay when the sun shines; instead of making hay, Leslee and I walked alongside stonewalls, over a cattail swamp, and past an old hayfield, stopping by Hartwell Tavern to admire a small flock of pygmy goats and sheep. A woman in colonial garb tended the animals, pulling out an iPhone to see whether her shift was done: time to head back to the 21st century. During the golden hour, it’s easy to think time stands still as the sun lingers low, but everywhere, eventually, life becomes history, casting a long shadow on shortening days.

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