Art & culture


Angie Thomas at FSU

Yesterday Angie Thomas, author of the best-selling young-adult novel The Hate U Give, came to Framingham State for an evening talk. In both her talk and the afternoon meet-and-greet that preceded it, Thomas described how she wrote the novel, and she fielded questions from (and offered advice to) the aspiring writers in attendance.

Book group flier

In her afternoon talk, Thomas gave two bits of advice that I scribbled in my notebook as soon as I got back to my office. First, write as if you’re getting paid, and you will end up getting paid. Second, write the book you want (or always wanted) to read.

Thomas described her own childhood, when the characters in the books she read didn’t look, act, or talk like her. In order to write the book she would have loved to have read when she was a young black girl growing up in a neighborhood that made the news only when something bad happened, Thomas had work on her manuscript every day as if that were her job.

In her evening talk, Thomas offered a third bit of writing advice: finish your projects. Thomas admitted how easy it is to move onto a new project when you grow tired or frustrated with a work-in-progress, but she advised against this, arguing that your characters–your ideas–deserve an ending.

Poster - Angie Thomas at FSU

I was struck by this image of abandoned projects being like orphaned children who deserve the dignity of a conclusion. I have plenty of half-finished projects languishing on my hard drive; at times, it feels like that is all I have from all these years of faithfully writing. Whenever I revisit the pieces of a half-completed project, I see its raw promise: what a great idea, and what a promising start! But I see, too, the obstacles and obligations that stood in the way: how difficult it is to write as if it were your paying job when it actually isn’t.

In her afternoon remarks, Thomas described the process she used to write The Hate U Give. She was working full-time at a church, and she’d spend her lunch hours typing her draft, hurriedly lowering her laptop screen whenever her reverend boss walking in, not wanting him to see the sometimes-salty language her protagonist, 16-year-old Starr Carter, uses.

Angie Thomas signs my copy of The Hate U Give.

Thomas’s account of how she wrote the novel reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s account in “A Room of One’s Own” of how Jane Austen wrote her novels in the family sitting room, hiding her handwritten pages under a sheet of blotting paper whenever family-members approached. Woolf argued that no writer–no woman–should have to hide her work or squeeze it into stolen seconds–she should have a room of her own to work without distraction or interruption.

Somehow, however, both Austen and Thomas managed to finish their novels despite frequent interruptions. You might even say the tight constraints of their writing schedules left them no room to procrastinate: like the former colleague of mine who finished her dissertation during the one afternoon a week her mother was able to tend her children, both Jane Austen and Angie Thomas made the most of the scant time they had.

Angie Thomas no longer has to work for a church; she now has that proverbial room of her own that Woolf described. But Thomas freely admitted it’s taking her longer to finish her second book than it did her first. Probably the most endearing thing in Thomas’s prepared speech and spontaneous remarks was something she said during the afternoon meet-and-greet, after offering her sincere advice to aspiring writers. Don’t listen to writing advice, she urged, including the advice she’d just given.

Graffiti alley

Today I wrote in my journal after too much time doing everything but writing: a lacuna of days. I’ve been faithfully writing in a five-year diary–just a few lines describing each day’s routine–but I’ve been too long away from my actual journal, subsumed with other things.

Pink heart

When I don’t write in my journal, my fountain pen dries up and so does my creativity. I miss simple things like paying attention to a robin clucking outside the window as the day deepens to dusk and the dog lies sleeping on a pile of pillows. One day, I tell myself, I’ll cherish this scribbled record of ordinary days; I’ll look back in curious wonder at this strange person I used to call “me.”

Mulxer

This morning I gave interviews at the Zen Center. Although I’ve been meditating regularly at home, I’ve been too long away from formal practice: another lacuna. But no matter how far you wander from your practice or the page, there they are waiting for you when you return.

Blue hair

I miss the predictable informality of daily blogging. Facebook and Flickr have become the places I post my daily jots and titles, which occasional overlap onto Instagram and Twitter. My blog has become by default a repository for longer, more methodical essays–the place I post when I have Something To Say, which means days and weeks go by between entries.

Miami

In my early blogging days, I didn’t let a perceived lack of inspiration stop me from posting. Instead, I showed up and started speaking even before I knew what would come out. In those early, more innocent days, I often found I did indeed have something to say, but I discovered that something only in the process of saying it. Leap and the net will appear, or build it and they will come.

Spread love

I’d like to get back to that routine, spontaneous commitment to show up and see what happens. It’s a habit that has served me well for some fourteen years; I’d be sorry to wander too far from it.

Madonna of the Star

Several weekends ago, J and I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see Heaven on Earth, an exhibition of works by Fra Angelico. The highlight of the exhibit is a collection of four reliquaries originally commissioned by the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The Gardner Museum owns one of these reliquaries, and the others are visiting from Florence’s Museum of San Marco: the first time in two centuries that the four pieces have been displayed side by side.

Assumption and Dormition of the Virgin

Heaven on Earth is an eye-popping display of radiant richness. J and I went to see the exhibit the weekend it opened because J is a fan of Italian Renaissance art, and Fra Angelico (aka Guido di Pietro) is one of his favorites. Seeing these four reliquaries in person, I can see why.
Fra Angelico’s paintings gleam blue and gold in a darkened gallery, museum-goers crowding and craning to admire intricate details up close while attentive guards repeatedly reminded us to step back.

Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi

You can’t blame us for hovering close. The figures in these paintings are small; unlike a mural or altarpiece, a reliquary doesn’t offer much space to work with, and Fra Angelico had a lot of iconographic ground to cover. These four reliquaries depict in sumptuous detail key moments from the life of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation and adoration of the Magi, the infancy of Christ, Mary’s dormition and assumption, and her coronation in heaven.

The Coronation of the Virgin

Although Fra Angelico was Italian, his paintings reminded me of the works J and I had seen at the Museum of Russian Icons earlier this year. In each case, an intricately detailed painting is intended as a window from this world to the next, the physical properties of gilt and pigment serving a larger spiritual purpose. Museum-goers at the Gardner were looking at rather than through Fra Angelico’s artistry, but it was impossible not to feel transported by so much grandeur collected in one small space.

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.

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