Winter is flying by. A daily whirlwind of projects, grant proposals, performances, stories and many long hours with my books. My desk runneth over with holepunchings, paper clips, to-do lists and a stack of books for this update. Let's start at the top:
I've been thinking about the meaning of life-- something I do when I find myself wasting said life watching shows like The Real Housewives of Wherever the Fuck and Who Gives a Good Goddamn. And I don't quite know what the meaning of life is, although I am pretty sure it's not to be found in any of the tearfully 'unscripted' sequences in reality TV. But I can say that the things that give my life meaning are books, art, music, and all of the wonderful individuals I am lucky to love.
But it's easy to feel this way about books when I've read so many good ones in a row.
Because They Wanted To, Mary Gaitskill's 1997 collection of short stories, is breathtaking. Gaitskill is a damn fine writer, in possession of the kind of mind and intuition and artistic precision that enables her to articulate the most complex and unfathomable emotions. She approaches her characters almost scientifically, presenting them as they are, not as they might be or should be.
It's just so refreshing to read of a couple who fall in love while engaging in rape fantasies, you know? I find myself trapped in conversation frequently about how people ought to be, as if we all came packaged from a factory but missing a few parts. It is a relief to read stories in which that question, the question of how people ought to be, plays no role. We just are the way we are. It takes a lot of courage to allow your characters to be themselves-- pretentious, humorless, racist, sexist, angry, needy, slutty, self-important, deluded, sanctimonious, perhaps all of the above, and all at once. But always themselves.
Doreen kept to herself in the basement, where she could smoke. She had covered the walls with paintings depicting horrible scenes from her childhood and posters of rock stars. Every time they talked, Doreen told the same stories about her abusive mother and her experiences with bands and coke dealers. They talked of other things, too, but variations of these stories always ran through the weave. Jill had heard them many times, but she still liked the way Doreen told them; as sad and absurd as they were, she brought them out as if they were exquisite silk prints that she fluttered before Jill's eyes and then lovingly folded away. . . Doreen was sick with Hepatitis C, which would probably kill her one day.
For any of you who've read Gaitskill's recent novel, Veronica, this character will be familiar-- she seems to be an early version of the narrator of that story.
Joan Acocella's collection of essays, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints has been my between-book reading for several months now.
I love reading about artists, especially when they've bounced back from crisis to create some of their best work. Acocella's focus seems to be on just these kinds of reversals. My husband had clipped this review from the New York Times Book Review when I was having a particularly bad month of work-- a month of rejections, self-pity, self-loathing, all of the wonderful byproducts of the creative life. It was this review by Kathryn Harrison, and it made me go out and buy the book at once.
Particularly, Acocella is interested in artistic careers that include break and recovery, and how the work changes in the wake of trauma, including the chronic, compounding trauma of rejection. She is a keen and sympathetic observer of the ways in which corrosive disappointment can strip away the veneer of culture and refinement that an immature artist typically acquires, revealing the more genuine sensitivity, the art, beneath.
Now, on to the sweetest book of the month. Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions, A Diary of My Son's First Year. Anne Lamott is wonderful, everybody knows that. Funny, raw, occasionally somewhat self-helpy, but I accept that part of her in the way the friends who really love me accept the fact that I never answer my phone. It's just how she is, and I cry right along with her until I find myself spitting with laughter. Her memoir is a journal of her first year of motherhood.
And it made me so happy to have a cat. Just a cat.
As always, she muses about the writing life. Here, she's speaking about her father, who was also a writer:
I think he believed that our job, the job of a writer, is not to get up and say, "Tomorrow, in battle, most of you will die . . ." Instead, a writer must entertain the troops the night before. I think he believed that the best way to entertain the troops is to tell stories, and the ones that they seem to like the best are ones about themselves. You can tell sweet lies or bitter truths, and both seem to help, but it's like Czeslaw Milosz said when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, "In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot."
Another memoir, The Pharmacist's Mate, was a surprise gift from my dear friend and director, Jean-Michele. It's a slender little volume at 89 pages, designed with the attention to detail McSweeneys is famous for. The design of this book alone (the hardcover, I mean-- softcover was published by Penguin) makes it worth buying, from the old-school blueish cloth binding that makes it look like a ship's logbook to the ghostly painting on the front cover. I read it in one evening in the bath. When she told me it was in the mail, Jean-Michele said: "Don't read anything about it. It was meant for you."
And you know, she was right. It's got everything I love in it: crazy theater people, sea shanties, family secrets and revelations, a sailor. It's a sad story, but funny-quirky in that McSweeney's vein that can be intolerable when it's done poorly. In this instance, it is wonderful-- her quirkiness seems like a thin but beautiful coat of protective varnish brushed over material that is raw and easily damaged. She's writing about her struggles to get pregnant while her father is dying. But much more than that, really.
And Frank had that thing I love, which is that freaky enthusiasm that makes people gorgeous at the same time they are acting a little strange. Frank clearly loved singing sea shanties, and was one of the only ones in the group who would pantomime pulling the ropes as he was singing, "Heave away, haul away." He was the only one who would yell out these little cries, these joyous war-whoops, between verses, that maybe no real seaman ever yelled, I don't know, but it didn't feel that way. It felt like a real seaman on a boat in the middle of the ocean would make that sound, hell yes . . . And the thing I love about the Franks of the world is that when a god shows up like that, in the urge to make a seemingly inexplicable gesture, they don't fight it. They just surrender. And if they feel self-conscious and ashamed, they don't pay it any mind.
Finally, my favorite book of the month: Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. If I could reprint the entire memoir here, I would. It's a memoir of Murakami's life as a long-distance runner. But it's also about his life as a novelist. When he speaks about running marathons, he's also talking about writing novels, and vice versa. And throughout it all, one gets the impression that writing and running are actually spiritual activities for him; that running is a meditation that enables him to write stories he loves.
I've always made fun of runners. I think they're crazy. But this line made me reconsider my assumptions about why people run:
Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life-- and for me, for writing as well.
Even when he talks about running a bar-- which he did until his early thirties, when he decided out of the blue to try his hand at writing a novel-- he is talking about writing. This is great advice, something I want to always remember as I work:
A lot of customers came to the bar. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and said he'd come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it the other way, it didn't matter if nine out of ten didn't like my bar. This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what.
Oh, so many things. Short stories, proposals, cover letters, emails. This post. My name in the sky. The Book of Love. My cat's name with little hearts around it. That sort of thing.
A memory, inspired by Joan Acocella's lovely essay about Mikhail Baryshnikov. When I was in elementary school, probably no older than second grade, I had a recurring fantasy that Mikhail Baryshnikov came to my school, Lakeridge Elementary, and said that he would choose one girl to be his dance partner in a ballet that would happen on stage in the school multipurpose room (that's what we called the lunchroom, because it had a stage as well as a kitchen, and it was also the gym).
You see where this is going. He picked me! Of course he picked me. (Wouldn't it be awful if you were the type to have fantasies in which Baryshnikov didn't pick you, but that other girl, the one with the Esprit jeans with the zippers at the ankle?) And then we would do this amazing dance, with lots of lifts, and of course I would be wearing the same long white nightgown that Gelsey Kirkland wore to play Clara in The Nutcracker. After our dance, Baryshnikov would admit that he loved me back. The age thing totally wasn't an issue. And we lived happily ever after. This fantasy entertained me through many Sunday mornings at church.
I am possibly the only person I know who watched Sex and the City and wanted SJP to end up with Baryshnikov's character. I love him. Anyway, I've decided that I must see him dance before I die. Or before he dies, or stops dancing. So I'm putting it out to the universe: my elementary school love and I must be reunited, A-SAP. I promise I won't jump onstage, or wear a nightie to the performance hall. But I might leave with a bit more to say about the meaning of life, something along the lines of hot men in tights=meaning of life. You listening, Universe?