Saturday, November 12, 2011

Exploding Unmentionables: An Intensely Personal Book Review (Sort of)

 If you've ever given birth, you'll understand what they mean when they say "the urge to push". Urge is putting it mildly. There is no wondering whether, perhaps, you may or may not be ready to push. There is no weighing the consequences. There is no sense in telling you not to push. There is no worrying about what people will think of your pushing. There is nothing in the world to do except push.

David Foster Wallace's description of a work in progress: “a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floors of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebro-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.”

There's no way to know what truckload of mental suitcases the reader brings to any bit of writing at any given time. As a compulsive writer and an avid reader, the most gratifying experience for me is when I read something that collides with me and has me screeching on the brakes and sending that mental baggage flying: exploding unmentionables in a colorful, embarrassing mess all over the place.

Mrs. Hagstrand was my 6th grade teacher. She was so beautiful to me with her flowing skirts, nubbly sweaters and thick ankles. She was Jewish, and therefore exotic in our small Vermont town. She wore chunky, ethnic jewelry and a sleek bob. I wanted so much to be her. I tried to dress like her, write like her, talk like her. I wanted so much for her to see the potential "her-ness" in me. I wrote a book of poems for a creative writing project. I barely remember the poems - a vague recollection of one about a unicorn - but I remember working and reworking them to make them sound just right. Earlier that year I had won a state-wide creative writing contest and had my story displayed outside the governor's office. Full of 11-year-old anxious excitement, I awaited my turn for a private conference for the teacher; for the praise of my latest literary endeavor. Shattered and sick to my stomach, I listened to her explain meter, rhyme scheme, feet, stanzas, all a blur of her red pen and the tears I tried to swallow. "Well Suzanne, I've seen you do a lot of things well, but this isn't one of them."

At some point, the diary I have kept since I was 6 years old became less a record of events and more a blank space for experimentation. Fragments of thoughts, poems, I'm sure a lot of angsty feelings, ideas about things outside my small existence, quotes from songs, books, conversations, magazine articles that resonated with me. I wrote frequently and abundantly, a place I could not only be wholly myself, but also to try out who I might want to be, how I might want to think. When I was 14, my whole family moved to China. Rather than fly out of New York or Montreal, we drove from Vermont to Los Angeles, stopping all across the country to say goodbye to family and friends along the way. A month in the minivan with my parents and siblings, drifting farther and farther away from my childhood home toward what might as well have been another planet. I kept myself busy with Aerosmith and my journal. My older brother kept himself busy reading my journal while I was asleep and repeating parts of it back in conversation while I was awake with a gentle, mocking smile.

The year I dropped out of college, my roommate and I spent all of our time in a coffee house. Writing and letting each other read it. We met some other aspiring writers (who wasn't an aspiring writer? Perhaps the aspiring rock stars?) and spent many a caffeine fueled night - bleary eyed, half-starved, electric - talking, writing, creating with the pretension that only 21-year-olds or established writers can pull off. That roommate remains one of my closest friends. In a recent email, she told me "Your words have kept me afloat this year."

I have the skeletons of short stories littered throughout my journals. Ideas I wanted to explore tangled and left to die in the brambles of poorly developed fictional characters, stilted dialogue, and broken plot lines. I stopped writing much because I didn't like to write fiction. I had stories to tell, but I wasn't famous enough for an autobiography, "important" enough for a memoir, but I got bored with fictionalizing it all. I started this blog as an outlet for that pent up writing. Every time I go to press "publish", my inner censor says: "Why are you publishing that? So much navel-gazing twaddle. Who would want to read that?"

In a prose creative writing class in college, my professor told me I could write tone very well. He told me I could make the reader really feel something, but that my plots went nowhere. I said wasn't it enough to make the reader feel? "Well no!" [pregnant pause in which his ruddy, jowled face seemed to reconsider] "No. No it's not." [quietly, as if to convince himself].

A few months ago, I said "screw it" and started this blog.

I read Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields when it first came out. I had never heard of him before but I read a review by accident as I was stuffing the newspaper into the wood stove and I was intrigued. In part, the book explores how the literary vehicle of the novel somewhat outmoded and tedious. Our current culture craves reality because it seems to be in such short supply. The literature we crave is the real or seemingly real. He speaks of elevating non-fiction from mere memoir or scholarly pursuit to the lyrical essay, the literary collage. I read it all in one night and couldn't sleep for the fire it started. A writer, a good writer, a published writer had defied genre and the literary world with this manifesto, this justification for my journals. It was as if, like my brother, he'd read my journals while I was sleeping and was repeating my thoughts back to me. Except instead of mocking, he returned my thoughts to me in this amazing, eloquent, intelligent, resonant collage. Serendipitously, he sent me a signed copy of the book which is now dog-eared, annotated, underlined and full of coffee stains. "For Suzanne - Good luck with your own writing - Glad to hear this book pushed you in interesting directions."

I went to hear him speak the other night at the library. I shook his hand afterward and told him thank you.
"Your book has liberated my writing. Thank you."
"You're welcome. You're the person I wrote that book for."


  1. I have skeletons of short stories hidden in a box in a closet somewhere, too. Isn't it funny how we allow others and our own selves to pull us down? Teachers have such a huge impact on our lives... especially when they tell us we "can't". I love your writing! Keep it up!

  2. Thanks, Nicole. I'm speechless, really. Nothing comes to mind but, wow, thank you.

  3. Hello, thank you so much for coming to my blog and giving such encouragement yesterday. You are a terrific writer, the post about your father is especially moving, but I relate to this one too about writing and journals and writing memoir as something very important and real. Livvy

  4. This post was so great I'm almost not jealous about your exchange with Shields. I read his The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead and loved it. Reality Hunger is now at the top of my to-read list. I could definitely use some writing liberation and inspiration at the moment.

  5. @Livvy - Thank you for such kind words. I love your blog and read it like a letter from a friend.

    @Masked Mom - I'm almost jealous of myself. I can't believe it happened! I'm not one to introduce myself to people I want to meet. You should check out his "Enough About You" as well. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for reading and thanks for using a word like "great" to describe something I wrote. I'm in shock.

  6. I think a lot of us don't BELIEVE that we are as talented as those we admire. It is hard to see yourself as special or talented enough to succeed. I'm trying to work on it, myself. Blogs, I believe, are great tools to put your mind in the mode of "expression".

  7. I LOVED the quote about a work in progress. I have one of those babies following me around. As for people wanting to read about your reality, with writing like yours you needn't worry.
    (And, thanks for your comment on my blog. It was one of the kindest encouragements I've ever received.)

  8. @Elizabeth - I whole heartedly agree.
    @Jewels - Oh my, thank you. Talk about 'kindest encouragements'... As for the Wallace quote, give that baby some love! I want to see what it grows up into.


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