Archive for the 'Books/Literature' Category

Best Reads, 2010

Sure, I may have increased my online involvement in 2010 (tweet, tweet), but I still found time for some good paper reads. …Except for Strong Motion, which I admit that I read on my iPhone Kindle application during my morning bus rides. Also, I left out most of my class-assigned reads from early 2010. These are my pleasure reads 🙂

Clockwise, from top left

  1. Midnight’s Children (Salmon Rushdie). A re-read; This is one of the few books that is complex enough to re-read over and over
  2. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace). 1100 pages of small-font heavily-footnoted brilliance. My theory is that the first 100 pages is just a test to see if you have the brains/work ethic to read the whole thing.
  3. Close Range (Annie Proulx). Remember Brokeback Mountain? This is the collection that contains the original short story. Some of the most stunningly beautiful prose I’ve ever read.
  4. Strong Motion (Jonathan Franzen). After reading Freedom (see #7), it’s clear that this is a younger, less-developed Franzen who’s writing.
  5. Spoon Fed (Kim Severson). The memoir of NYTimes’ food writer Kim Severson. She traces stories of eight cooks (both famous and not) who helped shape her life and career.
  6. Absalom, Absalom (William Faulkner). As an English major and a Southerner, I love/hate/love Faulkner. You know.
  7. Freedom (Jonathan Franzen). Brilliant, Read It Right Now, Enough Said. Also, note the similarity in cover design for this and Infinite Jest..?
  8. The Poems of George Herbert. Reformation-era poet who wrote “architectural” poems, both in the content and the structure of the poem. Super cool and geeky.
  9. Wieland, or The Transformation (Charles Brockden Brown). Family curses, religious fanaticism, vulnerable women, and madness! …Supposedly this is the first official American novel.
  10. The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates. Smart lady, moments of insight, but gets repetitive quickly.

Airport Exercises for Writers

Being something of a shy girl, you’d think that airports would overwhelm me the same way that theme parks and state fairs do. But airports are some of my favorite places, especially the teeny tiny local ones and the big international ones. They’re a writer’s dream: basically a full cast of characters to pick and choose from.

Airport Exercises for Writers

Look at the makeup of the crowds waiting at each gate. Study the general differences between gates and imagine what that says about the place. For example: On my recent flight, there was a disproportionately high presence of camo and hunting boots at the gate to Akron, OH.

Try to guess who’s visiting that place and who’s flying home. A lot of the people flying from Denver to Ohio had small babies. It turns out that a lot of young couples move to Colorado, but have to take the baby to visit their parents back East. Maybe this shows that we as a culture still have an idealized view about “moving out West” to make a fresh start, or to get away from family…

When you book your flight, schedule a leisurely layover. Think about it this way: you may spend a whole day in airports but you won’t rush to catch a flight, and you can use the extra time as professional development. Grab a drink at the bar, set up in a central area, and…

Watch. Airports are emotional places. People say goodbye, part ways, start new lives, reunite with old friends. Watch those stories unfold, and make sure to record as much detail as possible.

Eavesdrop. People don’t really read anymore when they’re waiting for a flight; they talk on their phone. Oftentimes, they talk about the trip from which they’re returning (or on which they are embarking). On my flight back to Colorado, a group of six black women with leopard-print luggage, obviously close friends, were discussing their friend’s son who had either a) committed suicide or b) been institutionalized (couldn’t quite figure out which). Apparently this kid’s dad had experienced similar problems, and they wondered if it was genetic; mostly, they talked about how their friend (the mother) should have dealt with the situation, and how she should deal with it now.

Use your flight to write. It’s the ideal setup for a writer: no internet for distractions, a handy tray that doubles as a desk, and snacks served right to you.

Putting the NaNoWriMo Pledge to Work

I admit that I’ve had mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo, the cult-like offshoot project celebrating National Novel Writing Month. I wrote it off as the domain of fanfiction nerds, and I felt that it prioritized fast writing over good writing. Our culture is already saturated with bad writing, thoughtless publishing, and excessive wordiness, and I’m not sure if we should be encouraging people to add to that.

On the other hand, it’s a program that gets people writing, which is undeniably a Good Thing.

The goal is to write a 175 page (50,000 word) novel by midnight on November 30. NaNoWriMo defends the “kamikaze” approach where the only thing that matters is that you reach the finish line:

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

(from the website)

I respect this approach: many writers are so intimidated by the vision of a finished, perfect work that they just flail around, stunted, during the writing process. NaNoWriMo’s approach says: set aside your dreams of book jacket designs and New York Times reviews. Just write.

Aspiring writers also have trouble grasping the concept of “work ethic” when it comes to writing. Like any other job, a writer must sit down at a desk and produce words on a page, even when the Muse is MIA.

So that’s how I’ll be using the NaNoWriMo challenge this November: to sit down and get working on some projects I’ve had on my Big Career To Do list. I don’t expect to finish by November 30, but I do expect to have a draft sitting on my desk, and to be finally in the momentum of the project.

Artist/Writer Stranded Without A Book

I’ve written before about the importance of journals, art journals– whatever you want to call the Blank Book that causes you to stop, reflect, and articulate. Art journalers may not use text the way that a ‘traditional’ journaler does, but art journals still offer the same benefit; instead of articulating in words, the journaler is visually articulating his or her experiences, thoughts, feelings. The important thing is the reflection and processing of the, um, ‘external’ world.

So basically, I’m Without A Book.

Right now.

–> Look, no panic mode! (Okay, maybe a little panic mode). I finished a wonderful Fabriano Venezia art journal right before leaving on my road trip. (For the record, the Venezia journal was reviewed by Biffybeans as “glorious,” and I have to agree). But now it has been three weeks, and I’m still without a Book.

It turns out that this is quite the interesting experiment for an artist and writer. I’ve found that all my journaling energy has been redirected onto many different projects. Not only have I been using several different sketchbooks, but I’ve also begun some large-scale paintings, which I don’t do very often. As for writing, I’ve been directing a lot of that energy into poems, which I’m mostly composing on half-empty Rhodia pads around the apartment.

In general, it feels a lot more productive. Maybe it has been valuable to let go of my perfectionist tendencies and just CREATE, no matter the surface and no matter the medium.

But, I do have a fancypants new journal in the mail, so look for an upcoming review.

In the meantime, here are some sketches: (as always, click for full view)

A picnic lunch at Manitou Springs

10 minute sketch of our tent, just as it got too dark to draw.

lolconstitution?

When was the last time you received a letter that looked like this? (...If you're one of my pen readers, don't answer that.)

The clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.

–Neil Postman

_____________________________

When Neil Postman writes, “Each medium makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility,” he means that each medium for sharing information (letter-writing, telephone, smoke signals, etc.) re-orients our brains—not in a neurological sense, necessarily, but in the way we communicate, and in what we communicate. More than that, the medium affects what we think in the first place.

For example, I would never think about tsunamis or earthquakes in other countries if it weren’t delivered to me as “the news of the day.” If letter-writing were our main means of communicating information, I wouldn’t find out until months afterward—and they probably wouldn’t even tell me unless I had a family member in the region.

Sometimes I like to imagine…

How different our constitution might be if  it had been composed on the computer. Would typing, instead of writing with dip pens, have altered the things that the Founding Fathers thought important enough to include? Would they have wikipedia’d other nations’ governments first in order to do a thorough comparison study?

But the medium affects more than the contents of the information-document. The difference in information-mediums between the 18th century and the 21st —that is, dip pens and written letters versus email, news web sites, and texting—affects the quality and the meaning of our individual (and national) character. Think about how different a meaning “patriotism” had when it didn’t involve bumper stickers or even military service, but rather it meant: sitting at a desk in a cold, cold house, way out in the boonies, reflecting on the things that you believed in. You wouldn’t have been affected by any media-hype; instead, you would read a bunch of pamphlets, written by other people in cold, dark houses. You would reflect on their thoughts, and respond to them. And each of those pamphlets would have been well thought out– you kind of have to be more thoughtful, when you’re writing more slowly. (Dip…5 words….dip…4 words…)

If we still defined patriotism this way, I think we’d have a healthier nation. How strange to think that we might actually reflect on our beliefs, instead of becoming a “fan” of ideology X on Facebook. Personally, I think we’re damn lucky that the Founding Fathers were writing with dip pens when they declared independence. We at least know that it wasn’t a rash decision (“Shit! I hit “send” on that email to King George too early!”).

Quite a few people have already written admirable essays on the benefits of letter writing–though I embarrassingly don’t have their links on hand–and I don’t need to repeat them. It’s also important to note that none of us are advocating for the demise of technology: emails and quick-composition on the computer serve an important function in today’s world. My point is that we must keep in mind the effect that each medium has on what we write, not just how we write. In other words, it’s not about using “omg” instead of “oh my god” –it’s about how our responses to surprising news have become limited to an automatic acronym—“omg!”—without any real, individual reflection.

So I received this great letter  (pictured at the top) along with my order for ten new dip nibs this past week. I appreciate knowing that this person took ten, fifteen minutes to focus on communicating with me. And it wasn’t multi-tasked with checking email or youtube (because distractions, trust me, are a killer when you’re using dip nibs. India ink dries fast. And the next thing you know, you’ve shellacked your fingers together).

Check back soon to see what projects I come up with for these new nibs. I’m currently working on a big artsy birthday present for a friend, so they might become a useful tool for that…

From Pictographs to Pixels

Photo by Bryan Rierson Photography and Brian Allen

Finally, my two primary interests united! Artsy inky stuff + cultural studies = my dreamy future. And last night I got a good dose of both when I attended a talk by Brian Allen called “From Homer to BFF: about how we express ourselves.” The event is part of a series hosted by hosted by CU Libraries Scriptalab and the Colorado Book Arts League, which resulted in a diverse audience: from hip graphic design students and aging papermakers and letterpress printers.

I was familiar with most of the cultural aspects of the presentation (Socrates’ anxieties about changing from an oral culture to a print culture, for example), but I really enjoyed Allen’s take on it. He talked about letterpress printing as a profession where men are allowed to be creative and artistic in a socially acceptable way. (Gender commentary gets you brownie points in my book.)

And he focused on the ways that printers and calligraphers have responded to a digital age– which is just a smaller version of how every oppressed group (whether racial, cultural, or professional) has developed strategies and adaptations for survival. See Gloria Anzaldua for further reading.

I also appreciated that Brian wasn’t totally against digital technology, given that so many craftsmen and women are. What is important, he concluded, is that we help digital technology to make good choices. And that we engage our own hands in the 3D world at the same time.

Still, while I was musing how to incorporate this into my professional future, I had to concede that is harder for women to get into this profession. Women are more commonly book artists and calligraphers, but printing is still a boy’s game. Ah, well. Yet another thing to add to my Badass Professions for Women list (which, so far, includes glassblowing, pen turning, and being a pilot).

A College Career in Journals

My senior year of high school, I carried a moleskine notebook with me at all times. I was slowly (and painfully) detaching myself from high school, and I didn’t speak much that year– everything went into the book. It was sort of a compulsion, really: I had this tiny, meticulous handwriting, and I wrote in complete, cohesive sentences, often in essay-style. I copied down every quote that was meaningful to me, every conversation I overheard, nearly every unique thought that passed through my mind. And I neatly pasted in every receipt, ticket stub, every scrap of paper that I came across. My doodles were always photo-realistic, never imaginative. Looking back on it now, I see that year as a process of collecting the disparate scraps of myself before leaving for college.

So then, the turning point: I went to see a film with my dad, and my bag was stolen from under my seat. With my journal in it.

…and I learned the very important lesson, that you should always keep yourself whole enough to survive a stolen book.

Catharsis

I think my mistake was trying to make it honest and beautiful at the same time. I remember writing down horribly secret things that I had never spoken or written before: mortified, and brutally protective of the book afterwards. That honesty was necessary, but I had to set a lot of very restrictive boundaries for writing at the time: I only wrote in pencil, because I didn’t want to see any crossed-out mistakes. I would erase and re-erase until I had accurately articulated the feeling, event or thought that I wanted to convey. If I forgot to paste a ticket stub in, I felt furious– like something was missing and the book was incomplete. And I never allowed myself to go back and read my earlier writing.

After that book was stolen, I didn’t journal for my entire first year at college. It was too painful, and I was exhausted. I didn’t have the energy to put my life together so compactly again.

As it turns out, that painful transition was a Seriously Great Thing. For the first time in my life, I really embraced the place that I was in (which is to say, college). I explored it. I introduced myself to people, I put myself out there, I took risks. I cut my hair off. I got straight A’s, fell in love, twice, and began to see myself better, and more clearly. Basically, I put my energy into my life instead.

Back to the Book

But let’s face it, I’m a creative writing major: I need some paper in my life. I transferred schools, feeling infinitely grateful to my first college and peaceful about leaving it. This time, when I returned to the habit of writing things down, I began using a pen. Which meant I crossed things out, a lot, and my handwriting was larger and looser. I also discovered how inferior moleskine paper is.

And this time, I tried to be okay with leaving things out. I sought a balance between living my life, and distilling it onto paper. I reconnected with the art of writing itself, received my first fountain pen from my dad, and began to think more critically about the environmental impact of being a writer…

I can’t say that my three years of living at Kenyon were more meaningful than my first year at Hollins. But I can say that (slowly and consciously) I began to integrate writing into my life in a healthy way– a way that I could see playing into my future and my profession.

And shucks, it does feel nice to look at that stack of notebooks and know that my tumultuous, rewarding college career is messily contained within it.


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