Why I read, why I write: Erica Jong edition.

Aleksandra Waliszewska

Beware of books. They are more than innocent assemblages of paper and ink and string and glue. If they are any good, they have the spirit of the author within. Authors are rogues and ruffians and easy lays. They are gluttons for sweets and savories. They devour life and always want more. They have sap, spirit, sex. Books are panderers. The Jews are not wrong to worship books. A real book has pheromones and sprouts grass through its cover.  – Erica Jong

A very close friend recently told me that she finds my writing to be extremely tactile and sensory. That made my day. I have been told that my writing can be very physical before, that it oozes a little. Once, a copyeditor pointed out that my description of white water rafting sounded a bit too much like a description of rough sex. While I was mildly embarrassed (and pretty amused), I have to admit I was also a little proud. It wasn’t the effect I was going for (I was aiming for adrenaline and I guess I overshot!) but I think the slightly-sexual-ness comes from an interesting place. When I read for pleasure, I am drawn to writers who make everything feel sexy and alive and real. I admire prose that makes my stomach churn and my spine tingle.

Here’s something I’ve come to realize about myself: I want to viscerally connect with everything. People, places, animals, buildings. You name it, and I probably want to touch/taste/feel/smell it. I want this impulse to translate into something more than just a desire for experience, and sometimes I think it does (other times I think I’m just a glutton for novelty). I think, with a little more rigor, I can shape that into something worth reading. I want to pull out my guts and assemble them on paper, blood staining white to red, hands messy with the effort. And to be totally honest, I’m just practicing right now, on this blog. This is where I play around with words. It’s where I hone my skills and sharpen my knives. (So thank you for reading, because every page view makes my effort feel WORTH IT in a very real way.)

Today, I feel inspired by the work of Erica Jong, who makes me want to be a better writer and person. I’m inspired by my friend, Sophie, who gave me that lovely compliment mentioned above. (If I write from the gut, Sophie writes from the heart, and her heart is a compassionate, fierce, and beautiful place.) Finally, I’m inspired by Aleksandra Waliszewska. She makes art that is outlandish, pagan, brutal, and just a little bit pretty. For me, she strikes all the right notes in perfect order. Check out her stuff, and see if you agree.

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Your wild is tame compared to these reindeer-riders.

05-mongolian-reindeerOne of my many 2016 goals is to get in touch with my wild side. I don’t mean my party-girl-stay-up-all-night self (no, I know that bitch well enough already, thanks) but my moss-sniffing, leaf-eating, earth-worshipping wild side. The side of me that revels in storms and licks the rainwater off my face. The side that dreams of bears and sleeps under the stars.

This part of myself is also loud and a little unruly. She feels everything and she reacts quickly. She knows her place in the world and loves it (she’s joyful, that wild girl). She’s dirty and willful and perhaps even sometimes a little obnoxious. But she doesn’t give a fuck. Because that’s what being wild is… to me, right now.

But as I write this, I am reminded of the actual wild folk on this planet, the people who live off the land for twelve months of the year. Compared to many people in this big world, I’m the tamest little shrew that ever lived, typing away on my laptop, safe in my bed, miles from any the real wilderness. In many ways, I have an easy life, a cushy one that allows me to grow fat on my butt and fingernails too long for manual labor.reindeerriders1

I know “easy” is relative. I know one way of living is not superior to another. I know I am romanticizing the nomadic, of-the-land lifestyle that many people lead by necessity. But I do think there’s something I can learn from listening to my wilder side. I think there’s a lot the earth can teach me; so many things the world has yet to reveal.

Today, I am gazing at pictures by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, a Harvard-educated photojournalist and scholar with a Phd in Mongolian and Tibetan languages. He spent over a decade living in Tibet and the Himalayas, documenting the lives of nomadic tribes and herders. He captured women riding reindeer and men communing with bears. He documented a girl and her fawn and a boy gazing proudly at his trained eagle. He lived amongst these people, learned their habits, and depicts their wild lives with compassion, honesty, and just a little romance.

Mongolia_Reindeer_PhotographyThere’s nothing wild about looking at pictures on your computer screen, but it is very inspiring. Check out more of his work at MessyNessy or on his official website. 

On radical empathy and trying to be a human being.

Walton_Ford_Wolf_ParadeI teach kids writing part-time. One of the things I teach them is how to actively listen. “When you interview someone, you have to listen, really listen,” I tell them. “You have to listen hard to what they’re saying. You have to be an active listener.” I tell them variations of this. I tell other writers variations of this, too. I say I’m working on being an active listener, an empathetic listener. I say this will help my “craft,” though I don’t like to use that word (it seems much too lofty for magazine writing). What I don’t tell anyone is the truth. That I listen most when I’m most depressed, that this is my way of hiding how toxic I am, how poisonous my company can be.

Does this sound virtuous or self-pitying? I would prefer it to sound virtuous, as though I were saving my bad energy for those who deserve it (i.e. myself). I suspect it sounds self-pitying and rather self-promoting. Look how good I am! I practice empathy like overachieving children practice the violin. Fumbling, out of tune, cringing at their audience, balanced narrowly on the edge of embarrassed and proud.

Listening closely allows me a way out of nearly every social situation. It doesn’t require me to pass judgment or think analytically. I have sat quietly and listened while friends describe their ongoing affairs with married men. I have nodded and told them I could sympathize, that I could see how hard it was on them. I have listened closely while someone very close to me told me about her suicidal thoughts. I looked at her, staring into her face. “I understand,” I said. I offered nothing else. I have let justifications sweep over me quietly as one friend eviscerates a mutual friend, tearing them to tiny, petty shreds. I nodded. She needed to vent. I get it. I always get it.

This is my biggest strength and my greatest weakness. I am a big bloody mess of emotion that drips all over everything. Am I staining your carpet? I’m so sorry. I have had things ruined by this problem, too. Please forgive.

It’s a complete cop-out though. It’s a way to phone-in human interaction. It seems so deeply virtuous, so wonderfully kind. Empathy is so important—I do really believe that. But I also feel an excess of empathy sometimes, a porousness in myself that I fear goes both ways. The world bleeds so easily into me, I must bleed so much onto it.

I read about someone who was practicing radical honesty. They weren’t allowing themselves a single lie, not even the kind we call white. No “I’m almost there, just give me five minutes!” No “Seriously, it tastes great!” I find that idea terrifying. Honesty all the time can be exhausting and dangerous. But maybe empathy all the time is just as bad? I believe that there’s a brutality to any kind of excess, just as there’s a beauty in excess. Maybe brutality and beauty go hand in hand and they always will—the older I get, the more I suspect this is true.

Or maybe I just don’t understand the world yet. Maybe if I listen more closely, I will.

Image by the great Walton Ford, whose work I admire so, so much. 

Iceland is magic.

Andre-Ermolaev_Iceland_photograph
2015 has been a strange year for me. It’s been a year of very high highs (engagement! book deal!) and very low lows (cancer. surgery.) and all the forward motion has my head whirling. So, I did what I always do in times of stress: I booked it outta there.

I’m writing this from Iceland. I’m staying in a little wilderness pod on a peninsula in western Iceland, about an hour or so north of Reykjavik. I’ve been to Iceland before, but I didn’t get to truly experience it. Now, I’m traveling abroad alone for the first time in my life and I love it. I’ve been here for less than 24 hours, but I’ve already swam in an outdoor public pool, took a sulfur steam bath, climbed to the top of Reykjavik’s highest church, tripped into a waterfall, and hiked over a Viking ruin. It’s a little lonely being here by myself, but in a way I really enjoy. I talk to myself. I eat what I want. I take naps in the car. I ignore all itineraries because the only one I need is in my own damn head.Andre_Iceland_photography
Anyway, for the next five days, I’m going to be bumming around the Icelandic countryside looking for hidden folk and snacking on delicious cheese. (Seriously, the cheese here is like nothing I’ve ever tasted—creamy beyond belief, flavorful yet mild. Mmmm I want more just thinking about it.)

In the meantime, please check out some of my previous Scandinavian-themed blog posts:

1. A post about “Friluftsliv” a rad Norwegian word that means connecting to nature, soaking in the wilderness, and feeling peace from green things.
2. Have you ever heard of the Jolabokaflood? It’s a holiday tradition that I think is absolutely BRILLIANT. (Also, did you know Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country on earth?)
3. A little bit of imagery-inspired fiction (or to use a title I don’t really like, “Old Finnish People With Stuff On Their Heads)
Iceland areal shot
And finally, the pictures above are by the very talented photographer Andre Ermolaev. Seen from above, the Icelandic landscape is even more otherworldly (and trust me, it’s pretty surreal already). His photographs look like beautiful abstract paintings. He captures the natural beauty so wonderfully, with striking compositions and colors that really sing. Check it out.

Why I read, why I write: Making jewelry for the inside of your head.

Ellen_Jewett_Turtles

My work is incredibly important to me personally. It brings me joy and it brings me life and it brings me meaning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be important to the people who read it. It would be nice if it did bring them life and meaning, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not their fault that I wanted to be a writer. I just want to do it because I like doing it and it’s a pleasure. I always quote Tom Waits, because I had this amazing experience of getting to interview him and every single thing that he said was so Socratic—he’s just biblically wise about the arts—and he said something like, “You know, it’s not that important what I do. I’m just a guy that makes jewelry for the inside of people’s heads.”

OH GOD Elizabeth Gilbert nails it, all of it, in this very long, very wonderful interview with The Rumpus. Most people know her from Eat, Pray, Love and  many “serious” writers and readers tend to dismiss her because of the chic lit nature of that particular book. But she’s so much more than that! She’s a wonderful nonfiction writer (The Last American Man is one of the most fascinating true stories I’ve ever read) a sharply funny fiction writer (Pilgrims, her short story collection, is also worth a read) and one of the best TED speakers ever (seriously, go watch this right now—it’s awesome).

I’ll stop fan-girling now and stick to the facts. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert makes me feel better about getting rejected, because that’s just a fact of writerly life. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert recognizes the value of hard work and fights against the whole idea of genius, a toxic concept that’s killed plenty of genuine creativity. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert also recognizes that writing isn’t truly that important. It’s not! It’s a wonderful thing to read and a wonderful thing to write, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. It’s one way of addressing the existential despair and the turtles-all-the-way-down nature of the unknowable universe but it’s not life or death.

And, once you recognize that slightly uncomfortable fact about our work, there’s no excuse for not having some goddamn FUN with it.

Above image: sculpture by Ellen Jewett, a Canadian artist who creates fantastical and otherworldly animal pieces.

Things that I wrote: A Dress to Die For, published on The Hairpin.

V0042226 Two skeletons dressed as lady and gentleman. Etching, 1862. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Two skeletons dressed as lady and gentleman. Etching, 1862. 1862 Published: February 8, 1862 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 2.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Like other narrative arcs that replay over and over in our fairy tales and myths, the poison dress resonates for a reason. Clothing is intended to shelter us, to provide a firm barrier between the squishy stuff of our personhood and the sharp edges of the outside world. Clothing should protect us and shield our nervous parts from the thorns of Eden.

But despite its intended function, clothing is often harmful—particularly to the women who wear it and the workers who make it. Beauty is pain. And it’s a pain that begins far before Glauce tightens the strings on her golden bodice, long before ladies shimmied into their arsenic-laced gowns, long before we stepped into our Forever 21 high heels and stumbled towards the nearest bar. It’s a pain that begins in production.

I keep forgetting to post this, but it’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written. Support your local freelance writer! At the very least, you’ll learn that there is a shoe museum in Toronto which is amazing and filled with gorgeous old things. It’s a bit like my hair art piece… but even more fun to research. Go read it!

Empathy Cards: For when #fuckcancer isn’t enough.

empathy cardsThis series of cards by Emily McDowell are just brilliant. Since Garrett got sick (CliffNotes version: my boyfriend has lymphoma and was diagnosed just a month or so ago) I’ve been hearing a lot of strange, infuriating things from well-meaning family and friends. Like “everything happens for a reason.” Or “you’ll come through this journey so much more grounded.” Or “it could be worse.” cancer cards

Garrett’s currently going through chemo and it sucks. Really bad. The whole thing is just so awful I don’t really want to write about it. I’ve been spending so much time in hospitals that I’ve gotten used to the smell and the strange pastel colors and the forced cheeriness. It’s awful.

Anyway, the point is this: These cards are freaking awesome. McDowell is a cancer survivor and she knows how ridiculously hard it all is. You can buy her cards here and you can read her touching and honest story here.

How writing is like catching fish & what Rilke said.

Illustration by Elisa Ancori

Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life. – Rainer Maria Rilke

I caught a fish with my hands once. It was swimming upstream to spawn in the thaw of spring, which in Maine means mid-May (we don’t have a pretty, dappled ascent into summer, just a mess of thawing ice and a long, painful mud-season that only plays at warmth). Every now and then, a trout would fly out of the river as it tried to make its way up the waterfall, a little flash of black and silver in the air, improbable as a proverb.

I was with a park ranger, and he told me to try and catch one. I waded out into the water across slippery stones. It was so, so cold against my bare feet and ankles. It took a few tries to catch a fish. I would see it coming, watch downstream as it approached, and plunge my hands into the water, groping blindly in the bubbles and blackness. I felt so many fish swim deftly between, around, over my hands. In the end, I crouched down with my numb hands motionless in the water, ready for the trout to come to me. Eventually, one did.

I held it over my head and my friend on the riverbank took a picture. I remember feeling so powerful, as though I had accomplished something far bigger than grabbing a dumb creature out of a river. Then I set the fish back into the water and let it continue its upstream swim, struggling against the current, driven by instinct and desire, rushing toward its chance to mate.

I’m writing this because I can’t write anything else right now. I am smothered by winter and anxiety. And when I read that Rilke quote, all I could think of was that fish. Experience is as slippery and elusive as a fish, evading all attempts to pin it down with language, though that is the job of the writer, isn’t it? To catch the fish. To say something real with the clumsy, numb tools we have.

Spring’s thaw can’t come soon enough.

Above quote by Rilke, image by Barcelona-based artist Elisa Ancori

Why I read, why I write: Kurt Vonnegut edition.

ann teresa barboza embroidery artist

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Kurt Vonnegut is such a boss. Here are his eight tips of writing short stories, a list that includes “be a sadist” and “every character should want something.” But the above quote is my favorite. Write to please one person. When I’m teaching writing to kids, I call this their “dream reader” or “fantasy reader.” Who is a person who you admire, who you most want to read your work? When I write, I think about a professor I studied with at Bard. I write for him, because writing for everyone is exhausting and impossible. A fools errand, just like trying to be liked by every person at the party.

Image by Ana Teresa Barboza, who creates amazing embroideries of plants and bodies and other natural things. Check out her website here.

Here’s to finding sparkles.

muchaThis year, instead of making resolutions, I decided to think about who has inspired me in 2014. I have a bad tendency to compare myself to others, and it usually makes me feel horrible, lacking in some way. But it doesn’t have to! When I slow down and think about the people I love, and the traits I admire in them, I don’t feel lacking. I feel lucky. Lucky to know them. Lucky to learn from them.

Here are just a few people who inspired me in 2014. Every year, I resolve to be braver, to be kinder. This year, I want to be brave, kind, compassionate, ambitious, creative, and to see the sparkles that light up every day.

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