Posts Tagged ‘Writings’

The language of flowers

February 5, 2011

I have always had a general reluctance towards flowers. Not so much an aversion as a mistrust. Very possibly it comes from the fact that they purport to send one message, but oftentimes end up sending another. I mean, there are books on flowers and their meanings. A black locust, for example, means platonic love. A buttercup; wealth, a daisy; innocence; a rose; love, desire, passion.   But do you think people are capable of sending the same message as the flowers they choose to send? Highly difficult task, if you ask me. In all likelihood it’s not so much that I dislike flowers as that I have always poorly  understood human nature to the point of knowing that someone may say one thing but mean another. Seriously. I’ve learned through the years that a flower isn’t just a flower, but rather, a symbol with some message attached. And that that message isn’t always the cute, flowery one that Hallmark and FTD would have you believe. Couple that with some pretty traumatizing associations to flowers and you have a recipe for doubt and dismay.

For starters, my grandmother died when I was 14. She was obsessed with flowers and so, prior to her death, she arranged to have a gazillion flowers at her funeral. There were daisies and tiger lilies and begonias and whatever else, and the whole funeral parlor was popping with yellow. I loved my grandmother dearly, but the smell of all those flowers paired with the smell of embalming fluid ruined it for me. For years every time I walked into a florist’s shop it reminded me of death.

Then there was high school. Every February there was a carnation sale. And depending on how much money your parents gave you, whom you were dating at the time and how many friends you had, you could buy carnations for your sweetheart or your friends till you were blue in the face. Then, on Valentine’s day, the teachers during homeroom would call out your name and you’d go up to the front desk, where everyone would see you, and you’d collect your carnation. Most of us received one, maybe two carnations with a little note attached that generally said something like “BFF,” and that would be the end of it. But then, there were the popular people. The cheerleaders. The football players. The jocks. The preps. They’d get some ridiculous amount of carnations, somewhere upward of twenty or so. And you’d have to watch them all day, carrying these carnations around, struggling down the hallway, fidgeting with them in class. Of course, they never put the damn things in their lockers. No. It wasn’t that easy. These people rubbed your nose in it. Literally. You didn’t just brush elbows with classmates in a crammed hallway on V-day. You had carnations smashed into your face. “Oops. Sorry my forty-seven carnations whacking you in the head. My bad.” All this, to the point where you found yourself sneaking around the gym locker room or looking in trashcans for discarded carnations to claim as your own. It was sickening to say the least. And I never quite got over it. To this day, any time I see someone giving out carnations, like Moonies or Christians on the side of the road or something, in the city, I want to ram my vehicle into that damn plastic bucket and be done with it.

Thankfully, I was able to recover from my botanical complex, if only for a short while. But, it was only a matter of time before I too, hater of anything with a stem or a bud, fell victim to that ancient and perennial commercialism of love, which states that if you do not receive a flower from a man, you have no worth.  My life changed at this point. I suddenly adored flowers. Not so much for their beauty as their ability to define me. And most likely because I’d never received any. And by the time I hit my twenties I felt I was something of a freak. If society validated a woman by the flowers she received, I must have been an alien.

Until S.

I was 22 and dating this Air Force police officer named S when I lived in Greenland. We had fallen in love, and despite my leaving to return home, we remained in touch. For my birthday he sent a dozen yellow roses. They were stunning. Everything I had imaged they’d be. It was the first time I’d ever received flowers. And I probably have every petal saved in a box somewhere up in my attic, that’s how amazed I was at the idea of flowers.

He drifted into the past, of course, but his flowers were possibly the last I’d ever really appreciate for a very long time. It was all downhill from there.

Throughout my marriage I only received one bouquet of roses from my ex-husband. He never bought me flowers for anything. Not Christmas. Not Mother’s day. Not any holiday whatsoever. Not even on the days I gave birth to either son, or the day I graduated with high honors from Rutgers University, after 16 years of trying. I don’t believe he even gave me flowers when my father died. Like I said, I only received one bouquet from him. Back in 1999, when I was about four months pregnant with my second child, I found out quite to my dismay, that he had sent some girl down in Georgia a dozen white roses. It would be the first of many more indiscretions on his part and the onset of the most miserable years of my life. Aside from frothing at the mouth with anger that he was cheating on me, I was possibly more incensed over the fact that he had sent some strange woman flowers (roses, no less) and had never given me so much as a dandelion. Anyway, shortly after this betrayal, I came home one day to my own bouquet. Out of guilt for what he had done, or possibly as a buffer for what he was about to do, he had sent me the clichéd dozen red roses that I still affectionately refer to as the “I just fucked around on you and sent my girlfriend flowers but now that you caught me, I’ll send you flowers too” bouquet. I can still remember throwing those things out long before they died on their own.

After the dissolution of my marriage, flowers sent to me never much improved. In fact, they became downright insulting. There were the occasional carnations wrapped in plastic from Wawa that my boyfriend G would pick up out of obligation on days like Valentine’s day. No card attached. There was the “I’ve been neglecting you to go party with friends” flower from S. It was a lily (isn’t that the flower of DEATH?). I planted it in my front yard and the squirrels ate it. And finally, there was the “we just started fucking and I want to move out of my parents house and in with you” roses from M, which, admittedly, were quite beautiful. Yet, they came with such onus that every time I looked at them I couldn’t help but wonder if I wasn’t being tricked.

The truth is, my history with flowers has been grim, at the very least. But, despite my seeming ingratitude and suspicion I do have hope.

Yesterday, in fact, was Valentine’s day, a holiday I typically downplay and try to ignore.   So, I went into the city by myself and walked and walked and walked down Pine and Spruce and then over to Walnut to revisit a few of my favorite antique shops. I bought a little vintage tin sign for the bathroom.  I had tabouli at Sarhara’s. And I strolled around looking at windows and doors, which I love to do. I thought of virtually nothing all day except maybe the temperature and how cold it got after a few days of unseasonably warm weather. When I got home though, sitting on my front porch step, there were flowers.

They were the prettiest flowers I’d ever received. There were twelve red roses, encircling a spray of extraordinarily green tiny buds, which rested upon the lip of a cylindrical glass vase with stones at the bottom.  I brought them inside and sat them on my countertop and I breathed them in.  I stared at them for what seemed a very long time. I made peace with them.

I actually found them to be quite beautiful.

I opened the notecard. They were from D. And he had scribbled—in his own handwriting—this little “xo” on the card. Just that. Nothing more. No “I’m sorry,” or “last night was great,” or “I’m giving these to you because if I don’t, you’ll think I’m lazy and cheap.”  Just “xo.” Possibly the purest, plainest, most direct language of affection I’ve ever received from a flower, in a very, very, very long time. A bouquet that actually came with the message it intended.

How rare.

I can’t say me and flowers will ever have the kind of relationship that say, Georgia O’Keeffe has with flowers, but I can say, I’m no longer opposed to them. They’re growing on me.  I don’t love them or hate them. I don’t see symbolism in them. But I am not averse to them. Umberto Eco once said that, “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left.” And I suppose that’s true. But what’s more, is what’s behind the rose; what’s behind the flower; both in the giver and the receiver. It is this that speaks more loudly than anything. It is the underlying current of love, or lack thereof that can make or break a daisy, a lily, or even a rose.

Dream of the week: concept of Christianity

January 2, 2011

The Great Spirits Portrait - Robert Donaghey

Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self-evident.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

Last night I had a dream that I was invited to attend an annual symposium of Christians and non-Christians (non-Christians that is, whose belief in history, science and religion are not entirely Christian based). The argument from the Christians was, every year, that non-Christians are cold, scientific atheists who do not believe in God and therefore, are judged as faithless, empty heathens who aren’t going to heaven. The argument from the non-Christians, of which I was one, was one of defensiveness, that non-Christians are warm, loving, well-educated, spiritual people who are tired of constantly being judged falsely for not having the same beliefs as the Christians. We also contended that Christians are unrealistic thinkers who can’t exist outside the box of man-made religion and have no ability or will to redefine or reinterpret some of the old, outmoded verses of their bible that simply do not apply to life today or ever,and that faith is not fact and others should not be judged on their ability or inability to *believe* in one thing, when there are other things to believe in.

Everyone at the symposium was relatively friendly to one another, despite the black and white thinking. But sadly, the non-Christians only had about five tables to the Christians’ 15. Needless to say, I felt a little out-numbered.

As the symposium was about to begin, I ran to use the bathroom, which was rather dirty. As I waited in line, I saw one of the Christian boys stick his head down the toilet. I was horrified to see this. His mother, who was helping her youngest daughter in the stall next to the boy, yelled over to her son, “What the heck are you doing?” I then quickly jumped in and replied, “He’s sticking his head down a dirty toilet,” believing she’d jump up and grab him in outrage. But that didn’t happen. The mother, obviously exasperated by her situation and her son’s mindlessness, pulled both of her kids out of the stalls and simply said to her son, “Can you please behave?” And that was it. She dragged her kids out of the bathroom, her son’s head dripping wet, and they went to find their seats.

And then I woke up and thought this:

I used to believe that progress via technology and science was part of human evolution. That consumerism, capitalism and massive development was a natural human progression. I used to believe that anthropological societies like tribal peoples in Australia, Africa and South America who didn’t move forward and adopt new technology like “Westerners” were not evolving. That their growth was in some way, stunted. But after reading Vine Deloria’s God is Red I now recognize our progress is part of the trajectory of Christianity, not evolution. Progress, science, technology, manifest destiny, forcefully overtaking new lands from non-Christian peoples– many of these are Christian concepts.

I also thought, that just like the boy sticking his head in the toilet, people do crazy things that are interpreted in all kinds of ways. Even though I can be horrified over something seemingly horrifying, someone else may simply be agitated. Which response is correct? Which is the “true” response. Answer: there isn’t one. There never is. One-thousand Frenchmen can be wrong.

I think that it is so difficult for us to accept new ways of living and different cultural attitudes because we are so mired down in judging people for not being what we believe they should be. We believe, like I did, that there is only one truth, one way, one direction. I now know this not to be the case. There are many ways to live and progress. Christianity is not “the” way, it is “one” way. And yet, just like the mother in the dream, if I tried to convince a Christian of this, I’d probably be looked at like I had four heads.

Why Americans voted for the GOP

November 3, 2010

I truly don’t understand the mentality of my countrymen, save to say that corporate America and the media have more control over us than we may think. The blight of Capitalism is its egocentricity and “out to win big” mentality, where rampant irresponsibility and no accountability reigns. Soda machines in grade-school cafeterias. Nitrates in hotdogs. Adding more sugar to cereals, all the while marketing them as “Whole grain goodness.” Building cheap parts for cars so they’re guaranteed to fall apart faster. Streamlining every imaginable boutique drug to the point where we truly begin to believe that drugs are a part of the human experience. Releasing songs about a man who loves a woman so much he must burn her as she sleeps in her own bed so that no one else can have her. Cigarettes. McDonald’s. Gatorade. Hummers. Coffee.

When corporations and wealthy “donors” who sway elections do so for their own interests, the human element is lost; humanity is lost. And the only thing that’s put in its place is the lie that purchasing goods will save our souls.

In Dan Franzen’s latest novel “Freedom” his protagonist Walter who’s an environmentalist tries to save this rather decent-sized tract of land for the Warbler, a migrant bird that’s not even on the endangered species list. To do so, he has to displace about 200 people from their homes along the mountain top – a place where families have lived for generations and have buried their dead. But the underlying point of saving the land for the bird is for a wealthy “friend of the Bushs and Cheneys” to begin mountain top removal mining for coal. The underlying message Franzen sends his readers is not so much that it’s wrong to displace people for the sake of coal mining. That is the obvious message. But that the displaced people themselves are part of the problem in that they allow corporations to take over, and they sell out for the promise of money and “six-foot-wide plasma TV screens,” and the ability to move into the middle class. Franzen’s message is that family, land, earth, tradition are no longer enough to sustain us; we no longer believe in simplistic values, but rather in money, immediate gratification and consumerism.

And that, right there, is the basic hook of Capitalism: you too can be middle class and have a decent salary and buy, buy, buy, if only you let us do whatever it is we want to do without you asking any questions. Because the American dream, after all, is to keep up with the Joneses and to buy a house and a plasma screen TV and have two cars in the driveway and two kids. Why just yesterday, one of my FB friends said, “I vote with my wallet.”

And so, the Republicans gained control of the House last night. Their agendas can finally be met and big business can once again prosper and we can once again earn our incomes and consume more products. We had such high hopes for Obama and in our impatience for him to fix everything, we ousted him, if only in voting for the Reps during the midterm elections. Have we lost sight of the Bush years? Have we forgotten that Bush, dare I say it, got us into this mess in the first place? Or is there a deeper, more troubling specter that is to blame for America’s free fall from our happy place? Could it be that we have reached the point where the vestiges of a real life are being replaced by a more desultory one?

As Camille Paglia once wrote: “Are we like late Rome, infatuated with past glories, ruled by a complacent, greedy elite, and hopelessly powerless to respond to changing conditions?”

Again, our relentless pursuit of consumer goods and the fact that they’ve been denied us since 2008 may be playing a bigger role than we’d like to think. Let’s face it, we want our purchasing power back. In today’s NYT Op Ed section, even Timothy Egan writes, “Obama got on the wrong side of voter anxiety in a decade of diminished fortunes.”

So what does all this mean to me? It means that the gap between one side of the country and the other seems to be getting wider. It means that people’s incentives for happiness needs to be a little less superficial. And it means that I, within myself, will be more aware of resisting the dangling carrot of consumerism as best I can, and not be so easily swayed, misled, or seduced by the mindless, sugar-coated world of a whole grain box of cereal or a Starbuck’s coffee. It means making sure I keep what is truly of value in perspective and never put the illusion of money as the American Dream above what really matters: the future of this planet, my lifelong friends, and my family.

Help me figure out what to write next!

August 4, 2010

Where do I begin? I am lost. I have about 17 unfinished projects on my desktop and no inclination as to where to begin or what to tackle next. This is what I’ve got….

  • A story about a husband who loses his job due to the recession and so he takes another  job as a singing banana telegram. But things go awry and he refuses to take off his costume to the point where it starts to jeopardize his marriage. (fiction)
  • A story about a woman who goes nuts trying to have a baby (this is in editing stage) Fertility (fiction)
  • Boob Girl (personal essay): about breasts and identity
  • Boob Job (personal essay): breasts and how they have shaped a life
  • Joe Boxer (personal essay): this may be finished, may not…about a pair of stray underwear I found in the laundry one day
  • Bits and Pieces of a Marriage (fiction): a collection of one page flash fiction pieces that create a larger work about the end of a marriage but the beginning of a woman
  • Oacoma (fiction): about a woman and her son
  • Greenland (fiction/personal essay/creative non-fiction): travels, tales of bartending on the ice cap
  • B, the story of a 17-year-old who loses her virginity (fiction)
  • Twelve (a story of the meaning of the number 12)
  • Where Refrigerators go to die: about a Brazilian cleaning lady obsessed with labels.
  • How Ed did it: personal essay about growing up with a con man as a father
  • Mary Jane: a story about my father’s love slave
  • Money: personal essay about growing up with a con man as a father
  • The Love Addict (fiction) (could be combined with “B” (see above)
  • Untitled 1 (A road trip about a retired couple who decide to separate or stay together) (fiction)

And on and on….none of these are even remotely finished. HELP! WHat sounds remotely interesting. I need someone to tell me what to do!

I want my name back

June 25, 2010

I can share. Especially when it comes to my last name. In high school I sat next to a girl named Kristie Shields and though we had nothing in common (She was a hood, I was a punk. She had crackly, over-dyed reddish hair and crooked teeth; I had poofy 80’s hair; I’d just gotten my braces off ), I still thought it was kind of fun that we had identical last names. Same with Brooke Shields. She was a big star when I was a kid and it was a regular omission of mine to admit we were not related. In fact, my cousin played a similar trick on me of the variety that I’d play on others. He said he sat next to Brooke Shields while taking the entrance exam to Princeton as they were the same age, going into college the same year. Y’know, we sat alphabetically? I believed him. And to this day, I still don’t know if it really happened.

Really, reality, sharing last names: I had the privilege to meet David Shields, author of Reality Hunger, at Thursday’s Writers Conference. L picked him up at the train station and he slept the whole way over, and so our hopes seemed dashed that he’d make a decent presentation of himself during his creative non-fiction workshop. Since this conference started, we students huddle expectantly at the door of the classroom, amazingly high on hopes of being dazzled, blown away, awed, stupefied. We want our money’s worth. We want to be changed, altered, refined, refashioned. We want what the Buddhists want—we want to be in the presence of someone’s supernatural insight that might lead us to a Noble Truth. And when you have one bad experience like we did with Apple, [possibly more about this in a second draft] you start doubting the powers that be. You start doubting the possibility that you have enough money to buy something like that. That maybe, your needs are too wide and too vast to put a price tag on, and that you’re probably not going to get thrown that glimpse of nirvana.

But it does come. It appears in one-liners that we scrawl like maniacs into our notebooks, that read badly after the fact, because in the moment, in the context, it makes perfect sense. “Monotony can be insightful” (Stephen Dunn); “What could be sadder than a clown without a context” (Stephen Dunn); “The essay is….untrammeled access to a person’s conscience” (David Shields); “An essay is not always an exercise in ego…The self has to jump the tracks out of the self…and become bigger than the self. Complacent, self-assured people don’t make good essayist” (David Shields); “The job of an essayist is to have doubt” (David Shields); “You strike me as someone who has a compost heap” (Alexis Apfelbaum).

In the lobby of the library, when L brought him in she introduced him as David Shields, and I said, not so clumsily, but I could have done better, Yes, yes, I’ve been coming across your work all month: Tin House, Creative Non-Fiction, blah, blah, blah. And of course, I mentioned his name and mine. My name is also Shields, I said, almost with a wink like, you and me, we have a connection (I didn’t say that last bit, I thought it). But he turned, sleepily, possibly still trying to wake up from his nap from 30th Street Station, and said, “That’s not my name.”

Not your name? Forgive me for thinking that. But it’s on all your books.

[Insert here story of my name, then go on to discuss fiction and my relationship to it; ramble on about PBQ and “Reality Fiction” and my nearly 20-year belief that the I—the first person is the vehicle for all stories told. Eventually get back to DS and why Shields isn’t his name].

The story is so much more than this awkward moment of me feeling a little irked that someone would take my name and use it– on his books, no less– when clearly he has his own. He’s damn right to suggest that we are hungry for reality when so much of the world and the people in it are phony. Not to say that he… Well, the story isn’t about the vehicle so much as the message. It tells how I go from incensed to exultant in the span of a couple hours.

And it tells that his class presentation, after all, was replete with all the tingly insights and truths I had hoped for. It tells of the moment when I was changed too; when he addressed the audience during his reading, and quoted Kafka’s belief that fiction “should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us” and then INVALIDATED it by reminding us that there is far too much fiction in the world today and what we desperately seek is REALITY. The story goes on to say how my eyes welled up (that’s what happens when you believe in someone’s argument and have a connection to someone, in spite of their name). And a little moment of Cha-ching pleasantly fell upon me. I got my money’s worth. I had my religious experience. And I decided, then and there, I was switching to non-fiction.

But I’ve run out of time and can’t tell that story right now. I’ll have to log back in to tell it. But Shakespeare was right. “What’s in a name?” I’ll get over David Shields’ appropriation of Shields, but I’ve joined his movement. I’m a fan. Reality Hunger is one of the best books of 2010. I might even be inspired to change my name.

I take back everything I said…

June 23, 2010

Isn’t it ironic?

A teacher, criticized for his own work as having “limited relevancy due to…heavy usage of cultural references,” (see blurb below) criticizes a student for virtually the same thing. A comedic writer, not finding a comedic piece funny. And a classroom full of frustrated MFA students whose tolerance for argument seriously diminished due to an earlier line by line by line by line by line by line…analysis of one student’s 18-page story.

Such was our fate this afternoon, which made me want to take back everything I said the previous day.

Poor, poor Pete G____, whose story kicked ass but who got such bad reviews by Max Apple that I squirmed in my seat with discomfort (I think Prof Apple asked us not to use the word “squirm” to describe a character). This was not the kind of criticism I was talking about. I didn’t want anyone to have to hear over and over again “Your piece just isn’t funny.” “It’s just not funny.” “I didn’t find it funny in the least.”

But Pete’s piece was funny. It was subtly funny, and it poked fun at mass consumerism. Apple said consumerism isn’t funny anymore. It was funny But it’s not now. He also said that Pete never took his work to the next level. “It’s stale,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere.” Adding, “especially not for me.”

So, instead of giving Pete his fair share of a line by line analysis, he opted instead to read something that was “actually funny.”

And it was actually funny. It was “The School” by Donald Barthelme. And everyone laughed. BUt I argued that Pete’s goal was not just to offer a “farce” or a “satire” as Barthelme had done. Instead, he was giving us magic realism, farce and social criticism on consumerism. We shouldn’t compare. Max Apple’s reply? “It wasn’t funny.”

In fiction workshop today I learned several important things:

  1. Criticism can be harsh and hurtful. It’s all in the delivery. I think too little criticism on something that is obviously in need of it is not good. Nor is too much criticism to the point of the author feeling belittled. Some where there needs to be reality. As Stephen Dunn put it, “Our work here [in class] is provisional. These are poems on the way to becoming poems. Everyone wants their poems adored and that happen now and then…but not a lot.”
  2. Faces don’t “smolder like a freshly lit cigarette” (but I think I already knew that)
  3. Sometimes things aren’t always as they seem. Students can love a piece for one reason, while an instructor can find reasonable fault with it. Both side have merit. It’s your job to pay attention to both.
  4. And lastly: Don’t argue with an old man who’s written five books and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Respect him, despite disagreeing with him.

More to come on Stephen Dunn.

“Apple has been compared favorably with John Barth, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. Although his work has received critical acclaim and enjoys considerable popularity, some commentators think it may have limited relevancy due to Apple’s heavy usage of cultural references. However, it has been posited by some scholars that Apple’s audience is increasingly a younger generation, more sympathetic to his flashy postmodern technique and for whom written language is less meaningful than Apple’s pictographs.” –Taken from enotes

This post is “lovely”

June 23, 2010


Someone said it at lunch. A student. I can’t remember now who. It was a warning to vulnerable, over-sensitive student-writers with flimsy self-esteem: “You gotta toughen up for these workshops.”

Twenty years ago when I took my first writing class at a college in North Jersey run by Dominican nuns, I would have agreed. Sister Bridget was a fairly kind-hearted woman but she’d rip you to shreds in front of your peers if you failed to put together a story with some semblance of meaning. But times have changed and now, successful writers with huge credits to their names (New York Times book review, New York Times Op Ed section, Granta, Harper’s, three published books, etc.) forewarn their workshop groups to be “compassionate,” “sensitive,” and to “discuss the piece’s finer points.”

We don’t want to offend anyone, now. Do we?

Here’s my gripe: The pros, who are all having nightmarish flashbacks of their MFA workshop experiences are applying these nicey nice terms (Great, Lovely, Has Potential) to everyone’s work. It’s not just my stuff that’s “great.” It’s John’s, and Jane’s and Larry’s and even Juanita’s who’s never taken a writing class in her life. We’re all “great,” and “lovely.” And there’s no distinction among us. And while this is great and lovely for our self-esteem (God forbid anyone’s sensitivities are offended) it doesn’t do squat to help us learn, grow or trust the validity of our professors’ opinions.

Granted, I’ve only been to three workshops so far this summer, but inevitably, they all begin with the same recurrent address: “First off, let me say that overall, this was a lovely piece of writing…I really enjoyed the bit about the blah, blah, blah, and I love the way you intuited blah, blah, blah…Also, I think you have a lot to work with here as far as blah, blah, blah goes.” If we’re lucky, the lecturer says this: “I have one criticism…”

Inevitably, when I’ve been workshopped previously, that “one little criticism,” no matter how clearly it comes across (which, usually it doesn’t because no one wants to offend me), no matter if I take notes and write it down in my binder and later, circle it and put arrows around it to mark its existence, goes in one ear and out the other. It evaporates. I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t want to be a writer that has to go back and edit her work. I want to be a writer who delivers a work of art on the first draft. I want to be the diamond in the rough. I want to be a star. And forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think others are like this too. Heck, who doesn’t want to be told that what they’ve created is a flawless shiny ball of fuzzy perfection?

But the trouble is, none of us are perfect and only maybe one or two of us (yes, that’s it) have submitted a publishable piece that has real potential at the moment it is being workshopped. And we as students know this. We have to read all the manuscripts as well and comparatively speaking, we all know what’s crap and what isn’t. So two things occur: cognitive dissonance—we recognize something as being black, but then we are told it’s white, and an internal prompt to follow the herd and be nice too. No one wants to offend anyone else. No one wants to step up to the plate and go against that social construct known as correctness (political correctness, social correctness, etc.). And why should we? We’re taught, so as to bolster our self-esteem of course, that Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was rejected 20 times before someone published it, or that no one wanted to publish Bukowski for years. Not only that but the very nature of art and creative writing is subjective. Who’s really to say what’s crap and what’s not? And who am I to be so presumptuous?

And yet, this is our business. This is our life’s work. There is standard in the industry that, as students, we need to know if we are to attempt to reach it. My guess is that Obama will not “gently suggest” to McChrystal that he should resign. My guess is that Ben Bernanke got where he is by virtue of a lot of hard knocks and struggles, not by a gently cresting sea that propelled him forward with “First off, let me say that overall, you’re a lovely person…”

Bullshit.

In yesterday’s workshop I felt Big Brother was watching, controlling what we said and how we said it. And we were not given enough credit for trying to be humane on our own. We were forced into using words like “lovely,” “great” and “nice,” even if we didn’t mean it. Everyone was on guard. Even men like ______ held back their idiomatic language and bold criticism that for an entire year, inspired me to work harder and strive for better.

I am not suggesting that we denigrate or disparage individuals. There’s no place for “you suck.” But work is another matter. Work cannot be taken personally, despite the fact that it is the product of the individual. Work is in the public realm and when you put it there, it is up for criticism.

There was this kid yesterday whose piece was about to be discussed, until we were reminded to be nice. He spoke up and said, “I can take it,” but by then it was too late. Instead of a more accurate discussion of his work, he got the “this is lovely” version. And to add insult to injury, everyone talked it to death out of nervous energy. Truth is, it wasn’t bad. If he held his focus, if he removed the immaturities and judgments in his voice, if he tightened up a few parts and expanded on others, it would have read better. Would he believe me amid the phoniness that ensued? Could he trust anyone brave enough to tell him the truth? I don’t know. I hope so. Because that’s what will make him a stronger writer. And if he’s able to identify with and trust the judgment of people whom he admires, he just might be led in the right direction.

Teachers have an ethical responsibility to students not only to foster an environment conducive to learning, but to tell the truth. We need to know when our work works and when it doesn’t. The problem is, no one wants to suppose that there is one truth or that they have the right to judge. And maybe there isn’t one truth, and maybe they don’t have the right to judge. But someone needs to step up to the plate an offer up what’s known as an OPINION. Because there is a standard of good writing, and opinions count, and if a teacher is not willing to cultivate someone’s work, a student has to be willing to seek out the truth, even if it hurts. As for me, I’m looking for the truth in magazines. One thing I can be sure of is that the publishing industry isn’t afraid to tell me if my work sucks or if it truly is lovely.

Fabulous

June 22, 2010

Write, write, write; read, read, read…bleary-eyed and catching up on a few essays to be workshopped tomorrow. And so begins the week of the Summer Writers Conference.

What did I learn? Loads. Forthcoming.

But first, a quick tale of high highs and low lows.

I don’t know what it is about the human brain that can churn out what it thinks is a great tale, see it on the page and believe in  its perfection only to be told by a group of trusted readers that x  is wrong, y is wrong and z is wrong. How is it that we cannot see the errors and omissions of our own work? How is it that we can make such seemingly obvious flaws? Not sure. Don’t have answers.

But having workshopped Fertility again, after this second draft, I feel as though I am closer to a more publishable version. I just need to sit down with one person that I trust and work it out, almost line by line. Is that so hard to do. I feel as though there’s only so much I am capable of figuring out on my own, piecing together from student comments.

Oh, but I did love Jewel Parker Rhodes. She was vivacious, exciting to listen to, to watch, to experience. And she taught us a gazillion things: the difference between a melodrama and a tragedy (something I should have remembered from undergrad), how to take responsibility for your characters’ lives, actions and decisions, and that there are obvious “breaks” in tone as a story rises and descends. That a writer must giveth and taketh away. Keep the lid on things, so to speak. That what is not spoken is just as important as what is. And that most good novels are character driven. I can’t wait to read her book “Yellow Moon.”

Her feedback on Fertility was priceless- “You came so close,” “You almost pulled it off,” “It’s a fucking amazing story,” “But you need to tighten it up,” “You need to recognize that it has the potential to be a tragedy; instead you gave us a melodrama,” “The real tragedy is the untold backstory of her husband and what she’s losing,” “Expose it.” “The protagonist is so conscious about everything, and yet completely blind.” “That’s the irony.” “Everything’s there, you just need to know what to do with it.” “This story can be so much shorter,” “Cut it back, but bring forth the important stuff,” “Keep the lid on things.” And so on.

So, it will be my job to write out questions and try to get answers: So, there should be no confrontation in the supermarket then? At all? But what then?

Revision is a bitch. Back to the drawing board. And yet, it is during the act of revision that we learn of our limitations or our talent. I feel as though I am indeed stuck in the former, trying desperately to hurdle my way toward the latter.


Cut and paste

June 16, 2010


This is a year of Facebook status updates. I hope to create something of substance from it. Or maybe I’ll do nothing to it. Maybe it reflects the life of a girl as is.

I am in a miserable mood. The Born Again down the street just told me, Jesus’ll make that misery go away. I wanted to tell her, But he kinda put it there in the first place. Not that I want to blame God. But who else is responsible for devising human nature?

I’ve been buying light bulbs from the blind for 3 years now, thinking I was helping a needy organization…turns out it was a scam.

Something you never see in the suburbs: a man bringing his own canvas tote bag to the grocery store.

Homeowner’s insurance in NJ has gone up and coverage has gone down. Nice. Be sure to reassess your home to see if you can get lower rates. And don’t be afraid to pull the ‘ol “I’m switching to Geico” bit.

Can anyone see this post? I’m not able to see anything anymore. Can you see me? I feel unseen.

Why am I hoarding coat hangers?

The news is so depressing lately.

I finally bought our train tickets to Cordoba.

Mango Shrimp salad with black bean and corn salsa.

Avocado, oats, banana and almond milk smoothie…

Are we still in the Postmodern era, or have we finally come upon something new?

I’m evesdropping on an economics professor who’s saying the dollar is taking a dangerous dive in the coming months, and to invest in copper.

“The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything…”

So…it’s onto Lolita, next, where I’ll sink into a deep depression over my leg hair for the next week…

It was a desultory look– she was so desperately drawn to the smallest hint of attention– that absorbed her and set her obsessions in motion…

Having yet another bout of cognitive dissonance.

You were mountains and oceans. I was deserts and forests.

When we were newer it was all about cities. Paris. Madrid. New York. San Francisco. But this was the last stretch of living and we both agreed it was more about natural landscapes than sprawling conurbations.

We drove west on impulse. We wanted to see the desert, as if it were a marker of how far we’d come, not only in our travels, but our lives.

Sun. Bones. Hair swirling east behind us. Peels of laughter from the shadowy caverns of our happy insides…

Last night’s dream (possibly soon to be reality): Doug and I, due to the poor state of the economy, joined a cultish flock of millions that sold peanut brittle and tobaccoless cigarettes

I always said I would get off my arse and do something with my life when the rotation of the earth alters, the length of the day gets longer and the poles shift their location…Now what?

Grade papers, run, read…

Note to self: do not go running right after eating Shwarma. Bad idea.

You know you’ve hit an all time low when you take the “Which Steel Magnolias Character Are You?” quiz on facebook.

Today was the day I should have stayed home.

Today is the day I actually get out of the house.

I’ve been eating 6 pieces of veggie sushi and 6 pieces of shrimp tempura sushi every day for the past 5 days. At $9.00 a day, that’s $45 a week and $180 a month. Maybe it’s time to revert back to PB&J.

Spinach and egg omelette with baked sweet potato fries

Goal of the day: I will not waste time doing meaningless things…like writing dissertations on pigs in blankets, teaching people about the nonlinear notion of time or applauding neck tattoos. Really?

Apples, dates and pistachios. A vitamin. A kiss from my two sons. The belief that life is replete with with goodness…

I think I just saw the Dalai Lama in a Jeep Cherokee at the corner of Stokes and Lenape.

Loving the warm night and palm trees every where

I love all the Pat Robertson comments coming up through the feed

Considerably more grounded today than yesterday.

More important than old Halloween candy, I just learned that our spacetime universe is being created one planck length at a time as we twist and turn in the available branches of the 5th dimension…

I never thought grad students complained about the thickness of a book or the fine print of a novel…until I became one very whiny grad student. The Rhetoric of Fiction: 550 pages…really?

I love that the terrorist dude plead not guilty.

Taking the long, traffic burdened drive to work today.

Off to the city to wander like Bohemians through vintage shops and art galleries.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” ~T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Smoked trout pate

Up early to heat up car and move it for plow guy; then, it’s off to Homegoods, Wholefoods and Target for last minute crap with mom and kids, only to end up back in the kitchen for more food prep.

Breakfast. Workout. Shower. Teach. Race home. Pack. Head to Bear Creek Mountain Resort for company party. Drink too much. Sing Patsy Cline’s Crazy. Say things I’ll most likely regret. Go to bed feeling self-conscious, sheepish and bloated. Wake up early. Get massage. Eat cleansing breakfast. Come home.

Severe mood disorder day.

I’m officially done with green tea.

I gave up coffee for green tea because of stomach problems with coffee, but green tea is worse!

The hellish nightmare of Christmas shopping is officially over.

More raw delights: In a food processor: 1/4 cup of raw pistachios, 1/2 cup pitted dates, a dash of salt. Blend until crumbly, then sprinkle over a bowl of fresh cut apples

At Macy’s in center city watching the Christmas light show

I don’t feel like reading another damn word.

This post is dedicated to Funky Donnie Fritts.

In the midst of a mild fit of aggravation over having to rake leaves on a Sunday.

NYC today with Doug.

Lunch at Zinc with Jan (this is the official last post about food, unless of course I eat something amazing at Zinc and feel compelled to tell everyone about it).

I promise to refrain from anymore food posts for the next several days.

The single, stressed out, working mother’s dinner for three: scrambled egg sandwiches with ketchup.

I will never eat a turkey & brie sandwich with a side of lobster bisque again.

Making an investment in fixed fantasies.

Pressured into changing my profile picture.

A little Annie Dillard today.

To the polls

Shepherd’s pie, baked pumpkin seeds, apple cider, family & friends and loads of candy…

Act important and gain respect for being successful, even if you’re not.

The Antioxidant Packed Breakfast Smoothie: One cup of soy milk, 1/4 cup fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, 1 banana, a handful of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, spinach leaf, dandelion leaf, broccoli sprouts and one scoop of Whey.

Grading a million papers and calculating quiz averages today. Booooooor-ing.

POLL: Should Tracy have her 6th grader vaccinated for H1N1/Swine Flu?

Many divine moments in the span of sixty seconds.

ASk yourself: is my update relevant? Does it appeal to the reader? If you answered no, hit DELETE

Atomically we are mostly empty space.

De-baptizing people with hairdryers.

Don’t write stories in your head at one a.m. just because you have insomnia.

Hiking through Valley Forge today with my wonderful, sexy boyfriend and our kids.

The blurry haze of a fever

Spoon feeding myself some tough love

Kinda looking forward to tonight, kinda not.

Alchemically challenged.

I so long for the day that I don’t have to dependent on certain things to sustain me…

Forced into being a night owl tonight, but for a good cause.

Yes. Done reading and commenting on all grad fiction. I officially have a free weekend.

is talking to Luscious on the phone and painting her nails.

is seeking solace in a heating blanket and 20 pillows.

is trying to create a future update that is relevant and exciting.

needs to take a break

is going to grade one more paper then head over to Cindy’s with a bottle of Shiraz in my hand.

Facebook as escapism is no longer working for me

Back to sushi diet.

Offsetting my anxiety with the Tallest Man on Earth.

is enjoying some good ol’ fashioned escapism.

Despite the misinformation that’s being passed around, I still buy organic.

Love, Love, Love…

is writing a sestina.

is drinking cheap Spanish wine with Doug and watching the Phils.

is happy to be here, posting away.

almost cracked her head open when the garage door fell on her. She so wanted to post an update from the ER but thought that might be a little melodramatic

feels like her head is in a pressure-cooker.

teaches her first class today.

is perturbed that she didn’t realize Kristy was in Wyoming.

is wearing a metaphorical bullet-proof vest today

‘s constant baking of pies and cookies is a ruse, designed merely to avoid real work.

is spooked by the noiselessness in her house and in her head.

has recovered from some pretty bad, rural American conservative jokes against women and watching poor little cows get hog-tied, or whatever.

Can I die if I take a shower during a thunderstorm? I really need to get ready to go out, but I don’t want to die.

Chicken don’t clap.

has just enough time to post this update.

just finished Amy Bloom’s short story “Sleepwalking.”

and her kids are addicted to Arrested Development

is the Maddening Obscurist.

feels the weight of September upon her.

is revisiting Prince’s 1999 album.

and her mother are now addicted to the creamed corn casserole…Obesity, I hear you calling.

thinks it’s probably a bad idea to take her son to the the dentist during his current coughing craze.

is frustrated (this update has nothing to do with sex).

is listening to the cicadas this morning.

is going to bed in the rain.

wants nothing to do with paint.

is writing.

just ran into JC on his lunch break (no, not Jesus Christ; that was yesterday).

probably won’t make it to her 9:30 class at the gym this morning because her son refuses to wake up.

When I opened my quarter-pounder with cheese meal (no onions) there on the bun was a crucifix. Unfortunately the only thing left of it to sell on ebay is this photo as the stigmata was eaten right along with the medium sized fries it came with.

Is going to say yes.

If anyone can give me five valid (operative word “valid”) reasons why we shouldn’t accept Obama’s health care reform I’ll shut up already and kiss your arse…

is back to reality, and the pile of bills is proof.

is starting the detox diet… tomorrow.

is rearranging the thoughts in her head.

wants to know what’s up with all these earthy-crunchy types going out into the Alaskan wilderness to build eco-friendly, sustained homes. Why not just do it to your own home instead of BUILDING MORE HOMES and junking up the planet further…

was reading Cosmo last night and appropriating sexy phrases for turning a guy on; one of which was “Wow, your penis is so big.”

remembers when she used to count the hours, then the minutes…

is paying unusually close attention to Liz’s posts, so as to prevent her from making egregious and unwarranted grammar mistakes.

and her sister-in-law spent the day with three sick children– until we all decided to leave the shore and come home.

s drinking good wine and having a great conversation with Jan, Nuria and Jody out on the back porch.

is up early for a teacher training seminar today. Home and missing the shore already.

had fun playing in the puddles last night, remembering the big flood of ’91 at the crack house.

has been entertaining, feeding, yelling at, laughing with and caring for 4 boys down the shore, all of whom are currently into wearing AXE deodorant.

is loving the salty, breezy, cool, quiet night…

My heart is so small it’s almost invisible. How can You place such big sorrows in it? “Look,” He answered, “your eyes are even smaller, yet they behold the world.” ~ Rumi ~

is hours away from a two-week vacation on Long Beach Island.

wonders when the word “surfeit” will be hers.

wants to know why triangle man hates person man, why’d they have a fight and why’d triangle man win???

regrets eating a HUGE chocolate muffin for breakfast 😦

s eating a HUGE chocolate muffin for breakfast and looking for a blueberry pie recipe online.

is challenging the status quo today

“But then when he had got settled at the hotel, and they had started their little pattern of cafe life at the Eckmühl-Noiseux, there had been nothing to write about- he could not establish a connection in his mind between the absurd trivialities which fi

is in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere.

has NOT smoked for 638 days, 10 hours, 49 minutes and 19 seconds (21 month anniversary).

is getting ready to make the tortilla española and cue the flamenco

isn’t ready to let her children grow up. Yeehaw for stunted growth! C’mon…who’s with me????

almost sent a love letter to Jan H instead of Doug H. Oops! Too many H’s in my “inbox.” 🙂

is her own worst enemy.

has counted the days of clouds and rain and knows the sun has had its fill of time-off and will soon be back again…

is dreaming of Marrakech…

is awaiting the arrival of her hot boyfriend.

is tap dancing on her own last nerve.

is re-reading The Sheltering Sky

might do something in the sun today.

is slowly coming back to life…

On reading…well

June 11, 2010

I’ve started reading grad stories/submissions for the Writers Conference and praise be ta Jesus, I found two really good, inspiring  short stories in the batch. I’d rather not post names, lest I offend anyone, but i will say that both submissions had a very strong voice, I was able to visualize their characters and the story lines were both simple and direct. There are probably only three, maybe four students whose work inspires me. I find that number shockingly low for a grad program. But then again, that is based on personal taste. I’m sure there are other writers in the program whose work is admired by a group of their peers.

At any rate, I’m relatively pleased with my submission (Fertility) although my biggest fear is that the main character “Elaine” is not clear enough and the story line is not smooth enough. Is there enough build up from the point she becomes annoyed with this woman and her bag to the point where she plans to attack her? Is it believable? Is her personality consistent? Do I ramble too much?

What I really liked about these pieces I read last night was their consistency and creative twist- where their story lines went. I often feel my topics are not creative enough, my vocabulary or the way I put words together is not strong enough, and that I lose my way in a piece. It’s very hard for me to maintain the same voice throughout a piece, especially when i go back and edit and interject new stuff.

But Lauren Grodstein said something very important last semester: If you’re not writing well, you’re not reading the right stuff. And it’s so true. I feel as though I have not found anyone since Annie Dillard that inspires my own voice. The trouble is making time. My list of responsibilities is long: take care of kids, earn my paycheck, manage household, train for triathlon, read grad submissions, write my own stuff, revise, plan trip to Spain, spend time with D, time with family, friends, and so on. Corners have to be cut. For now, it’s reading good stuff- if and when I find it. Until then, I will continue shuffling through graduate work in hopes of finding a gem.