Sunday, October 27, 2013

9/100 (a birthday letter to sylvia plath)

Dear Sylvia,

It's your birthday today. You would've been eighty-one years old, but of course you're not. You're forever frozen in your youthful zeal and passion and confusion, and I suspect that's how you wanted it. But because it's your birthday, I'm forced to confront my bewildered feelings about you.

One part of me admires you. There is no doubt (and I mean there is no doubt; take the cliche away from it and consider what that actually means) that you were gifted beyond belief. You were a woman who knew how to feel, how to string words together in such powerful configurations that they reach in and squeeze the heart of the reader.

But another part of me is a little afraid of you. There is something dangerous about you, for you carry (carried?) with you a kind of infectious, desperate romanticism. You walked the tiny red line that on one side fell to wanting everything and on the other side fell to wanting nothing at all. You took your own life and, after reading some of your thoughts (I am reluctant to dive too deeply into your world) I can't decide if you felt death would be just another great adventure, or whether it was something darker, more irreparable. There is nothing romantic about suicide; it is heart-breaking and lonely and grievous, and it is forever.

You said, once, that your realest self was the poetry self, that it was the truest you. Conversely, your self which fell in love and had babies and made a home and was outwardly happy -- at least in moments stalled in time -- was your false self. Your nice self was your false self, you said. I wonder if that's true or whether, rather, both selves were equally you and the writing self, the not-nice self, was the insistent one, the intense one, the one with the emotions that felt the deepest, the self that you thought must be obeyed.

History is still undecided about you, Sylvia. Some paint you as a victim. Others point to Ted and the children left behind, the sad legacy played out in Nicholas's life, and paint you as the criminal. It is none of our business either way. Your story is history now and it is not absolutely necessary for us to decide what was right or wrong. But by your own urgent, desperate life and your own urgent, desperate death, you force us all to look at you and take sides, to consider something that has no bearing on our lives and yet feels weighty.

Sylvia, we are confronted by who you are. We are confronted by you. And although there was deep sorrow amongst your deep joy, I have a feeling this would make you smile. You've been gone fifty years, Sylvia, but you're still intriguing people.

Happy birthday, Sylvia Plath.



I don't think I ever talked about how NaNoWriMo went last year. I mean, I talked about it while I was in the midst of it, but did I ever say how it ended?

It was amazing. As you know if you were reading back then, I'd wanted to take part in National Novel Writing Month for years. Finally -- thanks in large part to the prompting of the ever-inspirational Laura -- it happened, and I couldn't have loved it more. I was genuinely rather terrified about the whole experience (not least because I think I got the beginnings of a plot idea like one week before start date? It was so sketchy!). I'm not a fan of failure and if I was going to do it I really wanted it to actually happen. Well I got there -- I got to 50,000 words on the very last day or perhaps the last-day-eve of November -- and I had thought prior that I'd be limping to the finish line if I got there at all. Not so -- which is the part I was so excited about. I reached the word count and there were still words left in me and I didn't hate it and I hadn't had too many moments of staring at a blank screen in the wee small hours while my retinas burned out. There were definitely moments when I was like, WHA? WHAT IS THIS STORY? And there were times when I wrote the most melodramatic waffle just to keep my fingers moving over the keys. But one of the best tricks was one that Laura (again) put me onto: word sprints. Set the timer for ten or fifteen minutes, and write like crazy for that time. Add a word count goal (try five hundred words in fifteen minutes!) for extra pressure. It sounds simplistic, but I'd never written faster in my life. Since NaNoWriMo, I've tried the technique at other times when the writing is lagging but I need to get some words out quickly. It's quite the miracle.

"Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year?" my mum asked, as we drove somewhere together yesterday.
"I'd like to," I replied, "but I'm doing DanoWriMo instead."
"Oh, good!" she replied. She took her eyes off the road for a sec to glance at me. "Is it good?"
"Oh, DanoWriMo is where I spend a month writing Hawaii Five-O fanfiction. You know. 'Book 'em, Danno.'?"
She frowned at me.
"Just kidding," I said. "It's Danielle Writing Month. Basically, I'm going to write a lot but on a lot of different projects."
And who'd have thought? That answer was so much more satisfying for my mother.

One of the reasons I've relished postgrad studies is because I'm forced to write on a lot of different topics and to deadline, but one of the things I hate about it is that it sucks my soul dry of any other writing time or headspace. With uni on hold between semesters, my goal is to dip into some unfinished writing projects, to submit to some places, and to get back into the swing of writing the stuff I can't get out of my head.

So here's to DanoWriMo! You folks can keep me accountable and ask me pointed questions when you see me, about whether I've written at all in the last twenty-four hours, or whether I followed up that invitation to submit. In the meantime, how can I cheer you on? Who's doing NaNoWriMo this year?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Why I still think blogging is important (even though I'm kind of terrible at it):

Recently I've been dipping into the archives of Pink Ronnie's lovely blog. It's composed by the mother of a gaggle of little boys and is such a beautiful, gentle record of one woman's life. I've been especially struck by the little excerpts from her personal journals. Her voice comes through in these snippets so clearly, yet there is also a refreshing sense of contemplation and self-examination.

Ronnie's words remind me of why I love blogging and how good it can really be. I think, back in the day when blogging first moved from the domain of geeks to the domain of anyone, there was some cheesy sheepiness associated with blogging. There was this idea that blogging was a play medium, not a legitimate form of written expression and certainly nothing approaching literary expression. I still hear people discuss blogging as though it is a craft for fourteen-year-olds talking only about high school and who they're crushing on this week.

If blogging ever was merely this (chalk me up as a skeptic), it's certainly moved beyond that place. In the western world, almost everyone communicates online to some degree. The proliferation of facebook, twitter, and email mean that (for good or ill) lots of people articulate their thoughts in a written context on many different occasions any day. Blogging, which was once considered the obnoxious upstart, the death of thoughtful self-expression, can now almost be thought of as long-form writing.

Now, though, amidst the myriad of snippet-like thought-bubbles we leave behind us like a little trail on the internet, blogging has almost been left behind. Blogging is no longer the illegitimate lovechild of the journaller and the journalist; rather, it's the elderly gentleman in the room who doesn't even realise how unintentionally hipster he's being. My analogy's all wrong, of course; it sounds like I think blogging is outdated -- and I absolutely don't. But what I mean is that blogging represents a slower pace, a deliberateness, an intentional deceleration that is starting to feel vaguely peripheral or old-school. I haven't researched it, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that the rate of new blogs being created has dropped somewhat over the last few years. Why spend half an hour composing a blog post that receives three comments when you can spend half a minute composing a facebook status that receives thirty likes?

But that's the very reason I think blogging is still important. I don't mean a reverse of what CS Lewis calls "chronological snobbery" -- that because something is older, it must be better; I mean blogging is good because slowing down and considering is both healthy and helpful. We are too lazy -- I am too lazy -- to slow down. Perhaps that sounds contradictory. But we are used to biting off information and spitting it out in tiny chunks. There is no chewing or digesting; there is no waiting for our food to settle between courses.

Composing blogs and reading the long-form blogs of others is the long Sunday brunch in our little world punctuated by the drive-through meals that are twitter, tumblr, and facebook. None of these are wrong, neither are any of them inherently better, but blogging is important simply because it offers something that these other shorter forms do not.


I've mixed the metaphors and gotten a wee bit excited. You'd never guess I'd been sitting on this post for a week. But I just have a lot of feelings about blogging, you know?

Friday, October 11, 2013

There will be blood (and vague spoilers):

This semester, I had to read (among others) The Hunger Games. Of course, there was no had about it. I've already read the book three or four times. One more time did not feel in the least bit like work. (And getting to write about Katniss for one of my papers? So much fun!). I definitely read with a more critical eye this time around, though. When I first read The Hunger Games, it was pre-craze, so I came to it without preconceptions and was completely swept up in the fast pace and startlingly scary world that Suzanne Collins had created. There was barely time to focus on the words, let alone critique anything of the writing. The second time through, I read to re-experience that wild ride, and I'm pretty sure the third time I read it was post-movie, when I wanted to check things and make comparisons.

This time, though, I wasn't reading to see how things turned out or to refresh my memory on the story arc. The characters, the plot twists, and the bleak world of Panem are all pretty familiar to me by now. So I was a little nervous. I love these books, but I'm well aware they are not classics. As well, I'd recently read some debates about the books' bleakness and a critique of their violence. As I went into reading The Hunger Games again, those criticisms were the little cartoon devil on my shoulder. Does this book stand up to the re-reading, in spite of these objections?

It does -- for me, at least. And grandly. As I read again (warily), I couldn't help but be impressed by two things in particular: the pacing and the characterisation. I think Suzanne Collins nailed both, and these, combined with the gripping worldbuilding of dystopian America, are what I think makes the book (and its sequels) work so well.

But what of the violence and the bleak perspective?

Collins' treatment of these themes, which are key to the text (and key to most of the criticism I've read about The Hunger Games) is gritty and realist. However, it is never gratuitous. This might sound contradictory. If violence is fictional, and if it is explicit (which it occasionally is in The Hunger Games), then isn't it, by nature, gratuitous? I don't think so. I think violence is gratuitous when it exists for its own sake. I think violence is gratuitous when it exists to bring pleasure (when it gratifies). I think violence is gratuitous when it has no meaning, or when it is revelled in. And I think violence is gratuitous when it is divorced from consequences.

None of this can be said for The Hunger Games. I think Collins' perspective on violence and what it means to live in a violent society comes through incredibly clearly. In no place is violence praised or upheld. Those who enjoy violence (like the Capitol which creates the Hunger Games, and the Career tributes bred for fighting) are recognised to be depraved. Even when Katniss is pulled into the violence of the Games and feels a brief surge of triumph at conquering one of the other tributes, it leaves her feeling empty and soiled: she has been forced to take a position that revolts her.

The arc of what violence does to the individual and the society follows through in the other two books of the trilogy. Mockingjay, the final book of the three, is emotionally wringing to read. The intensity of Katniss's world and the sensibilities of war take their toll on all the characters -- and those who are destroyed physically may have the easier time of it. The conclusion to The Hunger Games trilogy is not an entirely happy one, but it is satisfying. Does that seem like an oxymoron? There are no puppies and rainbows, but the story ends the only way it can.

There is an honesty to sad books that is not always present in books with fairytale endings. Certainly, sadness in literature can be just as self-indulgent as cheer, but when it is done well (or maybe even just honestly), there is an authenticity to it that is enriching. I've heard people complain about the lack of sunshine, but I relished the ending because it was an honest one. A character -- a person -- cannot experience the kinds of things Katniss did and remain unchanged by them. Grief changes people; hardship changes people. I think Suzanne Collins was very truthful in her presentation of that.

And in spite of the lack of confetti and streamers, the ending to The Hunger Games trilogy is a hopeful one, and that is where I think these books make another important distinction. Life is tragic and life is wonderful. Freeze the frame at a sunshiny moment and you have your comedy. Freeze the frame in another and it's a tragedy. But regardless of whether the sun shines, there is hope and a sense that, because of the future, the past has not been for nothing.

Monday, October 7, 2013

8/100 (letter to my great-grandmother)

Dear Evelyn,

I've been spending so much time with you lately that it feels strange to have stopped.

For several weeks in a row there, you consumed most of my thought space. I had expectations when I set out to write about you. I expected that there would be little to say, for we know so little of you. I expected to be comfortable with gaps in our lack of knowledge. And I expected to be emotional.

That last part, of course, turned out to be true. But I did not expect to be so emotional. I did not expect to feel a shaking to my fingertips as I found out more things about you. I did not expect the writer part of me to thrill at the story aspect of your life while the woman, daughter, and sister part of me grieved for your loss, for your lonely hours confused and misunderstood (and possibly mistreated) in a mental asylum now abandoned and left to the ghosthunters. I did not expect to relate so deeply to you, to find kinship with you even in the ways we both -- you and I -- attempt to make sense of the quirks and deviations in our expected picture of a happy, mature, adult life.

The other expectations were, of course, proven wrong. For a woman of whom we know so little, you offered us so much. I could not get to you, immediately, so I had to get to the space around you -- like when one can't see the shape of something, only the negative space that surrounds it. If you can fill in enough of the negative space, then eventually there's an entire outline, a portrait in reverse. And that's what I was able to make of you, Evelyn. There is no record of your words, no list of the people you met, or reports of how you filled your days. But we have this negative space, and with that, it's possible to paint a picture of where you were, of how you lived. We can speculate about what you experienced. We can empathise with you. It does not matter if we do not know what you did. We can consider what you felt. As one memoir theorist puts it, we can move away from thinking of you as an achieving subject and instead look at you as an experiencing subject. And you certainly experienced a lot.

One last thing I did not expect, Evelyn. I did not expect that writing about you would open doors full of stories and memories with my grandmother, your firstborn daughter. I knew she would share and that I would cherish it, but I did not think that it would be something I would recognise as rare and precious even while I was experiencing it. She is almost eighty now, and times for sharing cannot go on forever. I'm thankful that you gave us the opportunity for this one.

We would not be here now if you were not there, then, and it still saddens me that I could not have known you; that my mother, your granddaughter, could not have known you; that my grandmother, your firstborn, did not know you.

But we are doing our best to know you now, and what we know, we love.


PS. The day after I finished writing about you, I came across this passage in a book by Jandy Nelson. I can relate, and I think you would, too:
"Whatever makes a woman leave two little kids, her brother, and her mother, and not come back for sixteen years... I mean, we call it wanderlust, other families might not be so kind."
"What would other families call it?" I ask. He's never intimated anything like this before about Mom. Is it all a cover story for crazy? ...
"Doesn't matter what anyone else would call it, Len," he says, "This is our story to tell."
This is our story to tell.
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