The hours we spend becoming ourselves.

Hope_Gangloff_the_girlsEmma Cline’s debut novel got a seven figure book deal. Seven figures, you guys! But after reading The Girls, I have to say, she earned it. Based on the Charles Manson murders, The Girls is the story of a young girl named Evie who falls into a cult. But she’s not drawn in by the charismatic leader (who is, of course, a man). Instead, Evie is seduced by a bad, beautiful, dirty, black-haired vixen named Suzanne.

Unlike most Manson-based fiction, the novel really isn’t about Russel, the angry hippy with poor guitar-playing skills whose grudges incite murders. Cline’s book is less about the sensationalist violence and more about girlhood and all its complications, pains, and joys. It’s a compelling story (an all-nighter page-turner) but the best part of The Girls is how Cline captures the obsessive insecurity of teenage femininity. Like take this passage:

Every day after school, we’d click seamlessly into the familiar track of the afternoons. Waste the hours at some industrious task: following Vidal Sassoon’s suggestions for raw egg smoothies to strengthen hair or picking at blackheads with the tip of a sterilized sewing needle. The constant project of our girl selves seeming to require odd and precise attentions… Back then, I was so attuned to attention. I dressed to provoke love, tugging my neckline lower, settling a wistful stare on my face whenever I went out in public that implied many deep and promising thoughts, should anyone happen to glance over… I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

Daaaaaamn. I wish I had read that at age 15. I wish I had known how little difference those ritualistic pluckings and preenings would make, how much energy I was wasting on thankless tasks that always made me feel worse, never better.

I wish I could say I’m beyond vanity now, but that would be a hilariously transparent lie. I’m so vain! I probably think this song is about me! But I’m also less inclined to spend time or money on my vanity. Because at the end of the day, I’d rather spend those hours becoming more and more myself.

Image by Hope Gangloff, whose work I’ve written about before and admire so goshdarn much. 

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Two nice things: A body like mine, a body like yours.

Kathe_butcher_fuckeditupOne.
For a long time, my answer to the question, “Who is your favorite artist?” was spat out quickly, thrown from my mouth like something vaguely disgusting: Egon Schiele. Don’t get me wrong. I adore Schiele. But I love his work because it is so twisted and tortured, so uncomfortable to look at, so unsettling. Today, when I first saw the work of Kaethe Butcher, an artist from Leipzig, I gasped. Her illustrations have all the deranged, manic agony of Schiele, and all the raw sexuality, but Butcher adds a fierceness to her portraits. While Schiele’s subjects often seemed terribly sad, Butcher’s have an air of fuck-it-ness about them. They don’t care if you like it. They aren’t here for you. 

Two.
While we’re on the topic of female bodies, I’m reading two strange books. One is a first-person portrait of a sociopathic pedophile, a young female teacher with a taste for adolescent male flesh. The other is the story of an anorexic, image-obsessed young white woman and her jealous roommate. (Click here to see Tampa by Alissa Nutting and here for You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman.) While the subject matter is entirely different, there are so many similarities between these two bold books. Both authors zero in on the female body and explore every inch of it. They write about taboos and urges, inappropriate needs and pathological desires. They both feel feminist, but in very different ways. And I recommend both novels for your Unflinching Books By Badass Women reading list.

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.

On polar bears and Barry Lopez.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 8.50.19 PMI dream about bears.

I am not sure when bears entered my subconscious in such a strange and vivid way, but they did, and I think they may be here to stay. I dream about ferocious grizzlies and playful fat black bears. I dream about big white bears with paws the size of dinner plates and hollow hair that gleams creamy-yellow in the northern sun. In my dreams, I see cubs climbing trees and sliding over the ice. I sometimes think I can smell them in my sleep; I’ve been told they smell of pinesap and animal musk. Sweet, sticky, fresh, brutal.

Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I think I see a bear. I never see these phantom bears in the woods or in any landscape when I might meet an actual bear. Once, when I was very tired and working late at Maine magazine, I thought I saw a bear descending the stairs on all fours. Of course, it was just my co-worker, bending over to pick up something he had dropped. I shook my head clear of fuzz and fur, and went back to my computer screen.

I don’t know where this fixation comes from. I never liked bears, not particularly. I always felt kinship with hares and foxes, smaller animals that leap and scurry, not big lumbering things. I was never afraid of bears, either. Not like I’m afraid of heights (that terror is illogical and visceral, something that breaks my composure entirely, turning me into a quivering puddle of metallic fear and foul-smelling sweat).

I saw a video today of a polar bear cub dreaming. I wonder if it dreams of people. I hope not. I hope it dreams of calving glaciers and frigid ice floes, of the epic sounds of its northern homescape. I hope it dreams in a palette of blue and turquoise, deep rich indigo and startling mint green—the colors of frozen water and star-lit midnight.

I am reading a most excellent book right now: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. Never have I found an author whose career I desire as much as I want his. He makes nonfiction feel as pleasurable as fiction (and that is NOT an easy task). Someday, when I’m old and grey and going over my body of work, I want it to feel like his—varied, complex, focused on nature and the natural world, brave, smart, poetic. Here’s just a tiny sample of the wisdom and beauty that flows throughout Arctic Dreams:

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Dreaming of bears and leaning into the light—one is my reality, the other, my goal. Not a bad place to be, for now.

Image: Sculpture by artist Ellen Jewett who makes “natural history surrealist sculpture.” See more here.