The Horror of Pygmalion

gerome_pygmalion-galatee

Pygmalion ed Galatee by Jean-Leon Gerome

Recently, I watched three movies, Ruby Sparks, Ex Machina, and Phoenix, that reminded me of the Pygmalion myth. The story of Pygmalion seems to stick out from the rest of the Greco-Roman myths due to its lack of violence. A sculptor, Pygmalion, creates a statue so beautiful that he falls in love with it. Aphrodite answers his prayers and turns the statue into a woman, Galatea, whom Pygmalion then marries. It seems like a sweet story, until you start wondering what Galatea thinks of the whole thing. What if she didn’t like Pygmalion? Does she have any free will, or is she just a thing to please him? While she was turned from a statue to a woman, she never turns from an object to a subject. She is still a thing that Pygmalion created and owns, but now he can have sex with her without disgusting his friends and neighbors.

ruby_sparks_poster

Movie Poster for Ruby Sparks

The film Ruby Sparks deals with the question of free will directly. When Calvin, the protagonist, discovers that his ideal woman, Ruby whom he is writing about in a novel, has come to life, he is freaked out and assumes he’s suffering a mental breakdown. Once he ascertains her reality and that he can change her with his writing, he stops writing. He recognizes her as a person and understands that it would be a transgression to continue to control her. Without his meddling, her personality continues to grow. She gains new interests and finds the relationship she has with Calvin smothering. As the relationship nears its natural end, he tries to fix it by changing her behavior with his writing. The moment Calvin decides to ignore her self-determination the story becomes a straight up horror story. Calvin is now an abuser, an emotional manipulator. Calvin is not aware of the gravity of his actions. He thinks that he is just fixing his relationship. The filmmakers, however, are aware that what he is doing is an act of violence. This violence leads to a climax where Calvin reveals to Ruby that he is not only her creator, but he can also control her actions. While he doesn’t physically assault her, he uses his words to trap her in the room with him. Ruby grows terrified to discover that she is at the mercy of this man and that she has been robbed of her autonomy. In his attempts to keep the relationship perfect, instead of reflecting on how his own actions affect the relationship, Calvin turns to manipulating and abusing a woman.

Ruby Sparks does a wonderful job of showing how the wish to create the prefect woman ultimately is a violent wish. What causes the problems in the relationship between Calvin and Ruby is the same thing that causes the problems between all people. They are complex and want a variety of sometimes conflicting things. When someone wishes for a perfect woman, they aren’t wishing for an actual woman, they are wishing for someone who lacks this complexity. They are wishing for a person who doesn’t present their own freewill.

Despite the wonderful job that Ruby Sparks does of deconstructing the Pygmalion myth, the ending undermines its own criticism. Calvin realizes that Ruby is a person who deserves the freedom to make her own decisions and frees her. She leaves, Calvin turns the experience into a bestselling book, and, one day in the park, he runs into her again. She doesn’t remember him, and it seems like a beginning of a new relationship. While the film makes it clear that Calvin cannot have a successful relationship until he recognizes the autonomy and freewill of women, once he does, he is still rewarded with one. Recognizing that a woman has her own will, does not guarantee anyone a relationship her.

187986-ex-machina-0-230-0-345-crop

Ex Machina Movie Poster

The filmmakers of Ex Machina show that the act recognizing a woman’s own autonomy doesn’t guarantee a relationship. In the controversial ending of the film, Ava, the android, escapes leaving behind Caleb, the man who helped her, to die, probably slowly of dehydration or starvation. Ava’s actions seem callous and manipulative. Her escape from and murder of her creator, Nathan, is justified in the audience’s eyes. Nathan is going to reformat her memory to make a better model—an equivalent of killing her—he is holding her against her will, he has brutalized countless robots before her, he has created a sentient robot to be sex-slave (and denied that robot the ability to speak), and he is straight out creepy. When Ava and the other robot, Kyoko, murder him the audience easily accepts it as an act of self-defense, but it is harder for the audience to accept the abandonment of Caleb. After all Caleb helps rescue her, he cares about her, and he is such a nice guy.

However, Caleb becomes a much darker figure if you view him from Ava’s perspective. Ava is trapped in a room, and her captor brings a visitor that he has handpicked. The fact that Nathan chooses Caleb to trust would be enough in and of itself to make Ava suspicious. Add to that, Nathan has already explained to Ava that her survival depends on making Caleb care for her. Not in making him recognize her a sentient being, but in making Caleb romantically invested in her. The very nature of romantic feelings, and often the most frustrating part of them, is that we want something from the person who we are directing those feelings towards. There is always a bit of selfishness in romantic longing. For the object of that affection, there is the very real fear that someone will demand that those feelings be returned and that they will refuse to take no for an answer. Ava’s only interactions have been with Nathan, who illustrates the brutality that men can resort to to fulfill their desires. In comes Caleb, who, Ava has been told, will want something similar.

While the above circumstances are not Caleb’s fault, he does prove himself a voyeur. He turns on a TV and finds that it is connected to a camera monitoring Ava. Instead of being freaked out and turning it off, he watches her. He never tells her that he is watching her. In that one action, Caleb reveals that he considers her an object. He may recognize her as sentient, but he doesn’t recognize her right to privacy. It is revealed that Ava is aware of this. While she tells him that she likes the idea of him watching her, she understands that she must manipulate the situation to survive.

In the end, Ava cannot trust Caleb. He knows she is an android, and, if she displeases him, he has the power to destroy her. Caleb, while obviously not as violent as Nathan, still reveals himself to be self-serving in his wish to rescue her. Had he not been attracted to Ava, would he have stilled helped her? Maybe. Ex Machina is full of references to the “Blue Beard” fairy tale (this has been explored in more detail elsewhere). In variations of the tale, such as “The Fitcher’s Bird,” not only is the serial killing antagonist killed, but so is his friends. One is judged by the company one keeps. Very early on Ava asks Caleb if he is friends with Nathan. Caleb says yes, then demurs and says that he just met Nathan. I suspect that this is the moment where Ava could not trust Caleb. In his wish to be friends with Nathan, he reveals a wish to be like Nathan. Caleb views Ava as a perfect woman, which is why Ava could never trust him. The price of displeasing him is just too great. She has to leave him trapped, so she could go live her own imperfect life.

Both Ruby Sparks and Ex Machina are critical of the Pygmalion myth, but they still present the story through a male perspective. In Ruby Sparks we view Ruby through the eyes of the author who created her. In Ex Machina we follow Caleb and his changing view of Ava, but the audience gets very little insight into her head. This male point of view is the prospective in most films that deal with the Pygmalion myth (and most films in general). Examples range from She’s All That all the way to Vertigo. Even when critiquing the objectifying nature of the act of creating a “perfect woman,” many films are still couched in the male gaze.

phoenix_web

Phoenix Movie Poster

Part of what makes Phoenix stand out is that the story is told from the point of view of the woman who is being molded into the perfect one. In the film, Nelly is a holocaust survivor who has undergone facial reconstruction surgery for a disfiguring wound she suffered in the camps. She then seeks out her husband, Johnny, even though she has been warned that he is likely the one who turned her over to the Nazis. When she finds him, he sees a woman who has a striking resemblance to his own wife but not his wife. He asks her to impersonate his wife, so he can get her inheritance. Nelly, who just wants to return to her old life, plays along and says she is named Esther.

What is so striking about Phoenix is the imperfect woman and the model for perfection are the same person. The big difference is that Esther/Nelly is present and is a trauma survivor, while the past Nelly lives on in Johnny’s memory. Johnny is so caught up in his memory of who his wife was, he cannot even recognize her when she is standing before him. He’s memory becomes suspect. As he instructs Esther/Nelly on how to talk and walk like her former self, the audience is left wondering if this ideal ever really existed.

The director does a wonderful job of showing the conflict Nelly feels. She longs to return to the life she lived before the war. She mentions to a friend that part of the reason she survived was she wanted to see her husband again. She has survived and has found her husband, but she must deal with both the possibility that he turned her over to the Nazi’s and the fact that trauma has changed her so much she is no longer recognizable. She too has an idealized version of her husband, but she must come to terms with the real man she has found. Nelly must come to terms with Johnny’s likely betrayal— later in the film it is revealed that he divorced her the day before her arrest.

This idealized woman who Johnny has been trying to turn Esther/Nelly into has always been an object to him. He may have loved her, but when it came down to it he was willing to sacrifice her. Even when he is telling Esther/Nelly how to be her past self, he only reveals surface details. We are left wondering if Johnny ever saw his wife as a person.

In the end, Nelly rejects both her idealized past and her idealized version of Johnny. In a scene where Johnny arranges for them to meet with old friends, she sings a song. Johnny recognizes her voice and for the first time notices the numbers tattooed on her arm. He stops playing, but she keeps singing. Once she is finished, she walks away. Nelly needed to be recognized as herself. Now that she has that recognition, she can leave. More importantly, she has also made Johnny recognize what he has done to her. In believing that Nelly was dead, Johnny was able to keep her reduced to an object. If she is dead, he doesn’t have to worry about her showing up and making him deal with the guilt of what he has done. If she is dead, she can never contradict the memory he has of her. But as Nelly is alive, he must deal with the fact that she knows his guilt and the fact that she is not the disposable ideal that he remembered. Ultimately, Nelly is able to assert her personhood and reject the nostalgia that was so appealing to both but also objectifying.

These three films reveal how dangerous the wish for the perfect is. The thing about the ideal is it is unachievable and based on personal perspective. The Pygmalion myth is a story of a man who rejects reality for fantasy. It is not that women weren’t good enough for him, but Pygmalion was never interested in a living, breathing women in the first place. His ideal reveals his own selfishness.

Everyone is Awful

Film Poster for BreathlessA while back I watched the 1960 French film Breathless because French New Wave is thing that I know of through late night graduate student conversations in a bar. The type of conversation where you nod and keep your mouth shut in hopes that your friends won’t realize you have no clue what they’re talking about. Also, it wasn’t behind the Hulu pay wall that week. I’ll admit that I feel a bit presumptuous talking about a film that looms so large in cinema (after all my only real film credentials are that I can tell you which deaths in Friday the 13th were inspired by A Bay of Blood) but I’ve referred to War and Peace as Cluster F***: A Victory in the past, so screw it.

What struck me as I watched Breathless was how much I hated the protagonist, Michel. Throughout the film he tries to present himself as the cool film-noir anti-hero—made clear by an early scene of him staring at a poster of Humphrey Bogart—but it quickly becomes clear that he’s just playing pretend. He steals a car, finds a gun in glove compartment, and, like any child who’s found a gun, starts pointing it and pretending to shoot things. The whole stolen car and stolen gun leads to him shooting a police officer for real. We then follow Michel to Paris where we watch him break into a woman’s house, say “just like woman” when he can’t find any money, visit another woman, ask her for money, reject her offer of a lesser amount which he then steals when she’s not looking. Michel isn’t evil; he’s just a dick.

However, it was unclear to me whether the director, Jean-Luc Godard, wanted us to like Michel or not. If the director was pointing out the petty selfish reality of the characters that are romanticized in film-noir, then high-five I understood the film. However, if we were meant to sympathize with this character in midst of existential crisis and excuse his dickish behavior because ennui is hard, then I understood the film but am rather frustrated with it.

The character that really interested me, though often annoyed me, was Patricia. Throughout the film Michel pursues her, and she is the one who turns him into the cops, which results in his death. Many people see her actions as a betrayal, but I saw it as an escape. Michel tracks her down while she is working—selling newspapers—and starts pestering her in hopes of resuming their affair. Michel asks her to come to Italy with him, and she says no. He asks her to spend the night with him. She says no.  He later breaks into her house when she’s not there. At this point in the film, I was not viewing him as a love interest but as a dangerous predator. When she returns home, he’s in her bed in his underwear. At this point in the film, I want her to call the police. However, she acts nonchalant about the whole thing. He asks her to come to Italy with him again, asks her for sex, and talks about how she’s frightened of him. She tries to talk about her new poster and literature. It becomes obvious that while Michel wants her, he doesn’t particularly care about what she thinks or about her own passions. Throughout the scene, I keep yelling at my TV “call the cops!” She did not listen to me. When she confesses she’s pregnant with his child, he says something along the lines of “you should have been more careful,” which clarifies two things: he is indeed an asshole and one of the reasons that she’s been putting up with this BS is that she’s trying to figure out what to do. Unlike Michel, Patricia has ambition. She wants to be a writer and was working towards that goal: she had been given her first newspaper assignment. She is an aspiring artist, and it is Michel who stands in her way. However, even when she turns Michel in, she warns him and gives him enough time to make his escape, which he doesn’t utilize.

After watching the film, I realized that it told the story of an artist and a muse, but the genders were switched from our traditional view of that story. Patricia wants to be a writer. She talks about books, she’s starting to work as reporter, and she tells Michel that she’s going to write about him in her book. Michel is her muse, and there is nothing worse than being a muse.

If you look at famous artists and the people who are described as their muses, you’ll find that being a muse sucks. Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a friend dig up his wife Elizabeth Siddal to retrieve some poems he buried with her. F. Scott Fitzgerald used extracts from Zelda Sayre’s diary without her permission. Muses can expect artists to expose their secrets in an unflattering manner, to cheat on them, and to leave them. It is an exploitative relationship by its very nature, but as a culture we praise the artist and ignore the muse. One of the most read books in United States is On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but I doubt most people who read it know who Neal Cassady is.

By being a writer, an artist, Patricia has a certain power that Michel doesn’t. She make sense of her existential angst. She can use it to create something new. However, Michel can’t. He can ape the behavior of the characters he sees in films, but all he is doing is playing pretend. He can pursue his selfish pleasures, but all he does is consume. However, Patricia’s gender also makes her vulnerable. People dismiss her as pretty girl, and it is clear that Michel doesn’t even think of her as person. The pregnancy could be disastrous for her and getting abortion was illegal and dangerous at this time.

Her character is drawn to Michel not because she loves him but because he interests her. She’s mining this problematic relationship for material. If she were to give up those aspiration to run away with him to Italy, he would no longer be as attractive to her. There may be further economic angle to explore here: she states that she is being supported by her parents, so she has that bit of privilege. Michel, for his part, would probably abandon her in Italy as soon as he got bored. She stays long enough sate her curiosity and then takes the steps to insure her independence. Her behavior may be exploitative but so is his.

I suspect my reading of the film is not the one that Goddard intended. This film is one where many people seem to see the protagonist as cool and see his behavior as a rejection of some status quo. However, I cannot romanticize anyone in it.  The protagonist who is bored with society is a selfish kid aping the characters he sees in the movies. The woman he wants has life that doesn’t revolve around him, but he fails to acknowledge that. The artist uses the muse, then gets rid of him. Everyone is pretty awful, all things considered.

Questioning the Tomes

I just finished War and Peace. Yeah, you read that sentence right. Get the streamers; uncork the champagne. I read War and Peace, and it only took me a year. War and Peace is one of those books that is perhaps more famous for not being read than read. It looms, taking up an obscene amount of bookshelf space, and seems to say, “don’t even pretend like you’re going to read me.” Well, screw you book, I read the hell out of you.

What really struck me as I was reading was that I didn’t already have an idea what the book was about before I read it. Yes, I knew it was about Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, but that’s like saying that All Quiet on the Western Front is about World War I, that Slaughterhouse-Five is about the bombing of Dresden, or that Oliver Twist is about the economic stratification of nineteenth century England. However, I’ve rarely picked up a book that would be considered part of the “Western Canon” without already knowing the main conflict. Long before I read either novel, I knew that Moby-Dick was about Captain Ahab’s obsession with killing the albino whale that ate his leg and that The Brothers Karamazov was in part a murder mystery about which brother killed their father (perhaps this knowledge was why I was so frustrated that the despicable father remained alive so long). I haven’t read Great Expectations, but I know it’s a bildungsroman about a boy who aids a convict, plays with crazy Miss Havisham’s ward, and comes into unexpected wealth. The list goes on. If a book is widely read, its plot leaks into the collective consciousness. After a while, everyone knows what these books are about, yet I was wholly unfamiliar with the plot of War and Peace.

I suspect that some will say this ignorance is due to the fact that War and Peace is more famous for not being read. It’s one of those intimidating tomes that people demur from reading. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think of Tolstoy’s novel as being like Mt. Everest—it’s big and intimidating and that challenge attracts people. Around 4,000 people have climbed Everest. I bet a lot more have read War and Peace—it’s much less expensive than mountain climbing. I daresay that, like me, others will shamelessly brag about their accomplishment, which should be enough to get some of the major plot points into the larger culture.

What I think actually keeps the plot of this book out of the cultural consciousness is that we view it with such respect. It is one of the great literary classics, and to read it shows that you have refined tastes and that you’re an intellectual who ponders what others cannot hope to understand. Talking about the plot would rob the book of some of that mystique. True, it’s hard to summarize a book that follows about a dozen characters and that takes place over the years 1807 to 1819, but let’s take one character, Pierre. Pierre is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. His father has made him his heir, but Prince Vasili tries to convince the father, who is on his death-bed, to write Pierre out of the will. The father does not, and, when Pierre inherits the fortune, Prince Vasili manipulates Pierre into marrying his daughter, Hélène. Hélène probably had an affair with Dolokhov, so Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel. We’re not even through the first quarter of the book, yet this bare bones summary is starting to sound a bit melodramatic. And as we all know, there is nothing more counter to literary refinement than melodrama.

The brief summary that I gave above isn’t fair to Tolstoy’s work; as with all summaries, it cuts away the nuances of character and language. Still the novel is filled with moments that would be equally at home in a soap opera. When describing what was happening in the book to my friends, I would sometimes refer to it as The Days of Our Lives: The Napoleonic Wars Edition. Often when we talk about literature, especially books with a reputation for being “Important,” we fail to talk about the parts that share similarities with writing done for pure entertainment. I’m often surprised by how fun some old books are to read.

There is nothing more absurd than going into battle wearing white pants.

One of the most surprising aspects of War and Peace was how funny it was. Tolstoy is trying to make the point that great men aren’t the ones who change the world, but rather they just get caught on top of the cresting wave of change. To do this he often shows the chaos of the battlefield—how orders from generals are based on old, often wrong, information and how the soldiers on the field are reacting to a different set of circumstances so cannot possibly follow said orders. He also shows how the bureaucracy of war keeps anything from getting done, officers vying for advancement and trying to sabotage each other. As far as Tolstoy is concerned, wars are won or lost regardless of the generals and their tactics. During these sections, I started to refer to the novel as Cluster F***: A Victory. Another thing that Tolstoy taught me about war is that it causes traffic jams: people fleeing the coming army, soldiers marching to battle or retreating from a loss. Another title I used to refer to the novel was Traffic Jams and Bureaucracy.

Less surprisingly, Tolstoy interweaves the moments of humor with moments of horror. Officers vying for advancement, no matter how pathetic and funny they may seem, still make their power-plays with men’s lives. The chaos of the battlefield can seem funny one second, and in the next second a cannon ball has obliterated a person. In one scene, Pierre, a civilian, goes to a battlefield just to look. Tolstoy paints a humorous picture of this bumbling tourist wandering about, yet, when Pierre barely escapes with his life and the soldiers he stayed with are all killed, we are terrified. After the capture of Moscow, Pierre is taken prisoner by the French. Tolstoy superbly shows Pierre entering a dissociative state in order to survive: he focuses on counting trees rather than realizing that his friend was just executed.

Strangely, one modern genre that War and Peace reminds me of is that of the internet comment. Tolstoy is angry at historians and how they paint history. There is chapter after chapter, with many great insults, where he picks apart the Great Man theory. He mentions that many historians believe that Napoleon lost a certain battle because he didn’t personally oversee it, as he was suffering from a cold, which means, according to Tolstoy, that the servant who failed to dress the French Emperor in warm clothes was actually responsible for the outcome of the battle. Basically, Tolstoy read some history, became enraged at it, and wrote a really long comment. I imagine that if Tolstoy lived today, he would be a terror, albeit an eloquent one, of the Amazon reviews and the YouTube comments section.

It may seem like I’m being disrespectful to a great piece of literature, and you’re right, I am.

While I read the novel, I was moved, I laughed, I gained new insight, and I yelled at it. I’ll praise what I thought was good, and I’ll criticize what I thought was not. I disliked how he presents peasants as an ideal of Russian identity and Christian suffering rather than as people, and how he presented two of the women as representations of true womanhood whose identities are consumed completely by their husbands and children. Still, I loved how he showed war as absurd. I like to interact with the books that I read. One of the ways that we can kill a book is to treat it like an untouchable relic behind glass in a museum.

This post, no doubt, has revealed my suspicion of dividing literature into the categories of high culture and low culture. I find the elements that low culture is derided for (sex, violence, bathroom humor, melodrama) are often in the works of so-called high culture, while I’ve discovered moments of transcendence and have seen the human condition laid bare in low culture. Admittedly genre or pulp fiction often provide nothing more than an escape from the everyday, but sometimes Literature, with a capital “L,” is nothing more than empty intellectual posing that only reassures its readers that they’re better than that ugly rabble. The latter has always struck me as more dangerous. It disturbs me that I feel a sense of accomplishment in reading War and Peace, which is, as we discussed, primarily known for being long, whereas I was reading fantasy series where individual novels were just as long in my teens. I too am guilty of being awed by the dubious reputation of “Great Literature” and “Important” books, when all that makes a book great is that it helps you understand the world in a way that you haven’t before. It doesn’t matter if this understanding comes from horror novels, fairy tales, or chick lit, as long as it makes you re-examine who you are and how you interact with the world.

As I was finishing War and Peace, I was also giving up on another famously long, much more recent and read novel, The Goldfinch. I was listening to The Goldfinch audio book on my commute, and, for whatever reason, that medium wasn’t working out for me. I’ve had this happen with a few other audio books—sometimes I just need to experience a book through the printed page—so The Goldfinch is now on my to read pile.

Recently a Vanity Fair article came out discussing the growing divide over the novel. Is it awesome that a literary novel has become so popular, or is it an example of the decline of letters that such a book could even be considered Literature? As I haven’t finished the book, I don’t feel comfortable in saying whether I think it’s good or not. However, reading the criticisms of Tart’s novel, I was struck by how much of it was about keeping all that adventure stuff, that escapism, that ability to be enjoyed by teenagers away from important literature. I’m guessing that some of these critics aren’t big fans of Treasure Island. Ultimately, I’m suspicious of this criticism, because it reeks of the old high culture versus low culture view. What seems to decide the boundary between the two is the critics’ aesthetic tastes. However, if they weren’t moved to reflection or didn’t gain some kind of insight, I can’t blame them for dismissing the novel. Still, as an outsider and member of the rabble, I can’t help but wonder if there is some literary guarding of the gates going on here.

The only really good negative review of the novel that I read was one from Salon. The reviewer points out problems with The Goldfinch’s portrayal of its characters of color. What makes this review good is it does what good literature does: it made me reflect. The reflection was on myself and my assumptions. I had already encountered four of the characters she mentioned, and I only felt bothered by the doorman. In fact, I assumed that what we initially saw of the doorman was part of a professional persona and that there would be more to his character. However, when I heard the part about the maid who offered to work for free because she loves her employer so much, I didn’t even register what a B.S. statement that was. It’s like when, in War and Peace, Pierre asks one of his serfs if he wants to be free, and the serf says no. While I believe that Tolstoy wanted his readers to see that statement as sincere, I read the character as being guarded with his master and saying that which most insured his safety. Why I didn’t have a similar realization with The Goldfinch, when the maid basically tells the narrator’s mother that she’s such a good boss that cleaning the mother’s house is reward in and of itself, reveals my own ignorance. Notice that the maid didn’t say she wanted to be friends—which would create a more equal power dynamic between the two woman—but that she wanted to continue to serve even without compensation. I’m not  happy realizing that I too didn’t think anything of that scene when first heard it, but I’m glad that this critic pointed out the problematic assumptions inherent in such a view.

I suppose what I’m looking for when I read is an interrogation of the world and myself. While I enjoy escaping from time to time, I’ve never seen escapism as being opposed to that interrogation. Vampires, spaceships, and afternoon tea can help shatter illusions about the world. However, because books are by people, they will be inherently flawed like people with dangerous blind spots that allow us to remain secure in a false sense of superiority. When I was talking about my problems with the portrayal of women in War and Peace, a friend said, “Yeah, but it was written over a hundred years ago.” “So it was of its time,” I said, “that doesn’t mean that I should excuse either it or its time.” Let us praise the books that make us feel, but let us never excuse or ignore when they fail to question dangerous assumptions—these two activities are not exclusive.

Week 1 Post 4: Leaving the Familiar Path

A few days ago, I wrote a post for A Writer’s March, which I’m reblogging here. If you haven’t taken a look at A Writer’s March site, you should. Even if you’re not participating, there is a lot of good advice for writers.

A Writer's March

When I was a child, I was terrified of going to new places. There were a few places that I considered within my territory, and if I strayed out of that territory, I believed that people would recognize me as a stranger and heckle or even attack me. Once on a family vacation to California, we had to stop at a supermarket. I chose to wait in the hot car, because I was convinced that something would go wrong: it was all right to be a tourist as long as you stuck to the touristy places. Of course, nothing went wrong. Still I had good reason to fear wandering off the familiar streets.

When you leave the familiar, you face not just the unknown but the possibility of something going wrong. Your car could get a flat tire on a lonely stretch of road. You could become lost. You could meet…

View original post 595 more words

The Start of March – 2014: An Open Letter to all Past/Present/Future Participants.

I’m again participating in the Writer’s March. With all the pre-manufactured writing goals that are presented to us, it nice to develop and focus on my own goals. I would to recommend, to all my writer friends, participating this March.

A Writer's March

My fellow writers:

In previous years, I’ve spent a LOT of time during The Writer’s March thinking about time  posts about time– when should we write, when can we write, when WILL we write.  It was about  finding time, making time, recognizing the time we actually have (and the things we tend to spend with it).  This year, perhaps because my own writing has shifted, I find myself much less interested in WHEN we’ll write, but WHY we’ll do it – and, as a part of that – why would one decide to dedicate themselves to writing with us in this month of March.

If you’ve participated in Writer’s March before, you probably remember that I spent a year living in Indiana.  This was a long year for me – the weather got to me, the lack of money got to me, the poor pay of my jobs got…

View original post 775 more words

Difficult Books, Insecure Reader

Once a former friend of mine, who liked to collect interesting quotes from the internet, made a point of repeating a quote to me about how the only good reason to read was for enjoyment (unfortunately, I neither remember the quote or who said it). In retrospect, I realized that she was using this quote as a veiled criticism of my reading habits. At the time I was reading some French post-modernist novels. Those books often were a hard slog, where I didn’t necessarily understand all of what I was reading. I suspect my friend was trying to point out that I should not read books because they are “important.” What she failed to realize was that I enjoyed reading those books.

Yes, sometimes I read books to lose myself in adventure, but other times I wanted the struggle. Like how some will hike a difficult trail or solve a difficult puzzle, I enjoy getting through difficult books. Just as one can feel miserable and hot during the middle of a hike but elated at the end, I too often feel miserable during the middle of a book but elated at the end. And sometimes, I give up.

All this build up leads to a single point: I’ve read Finnegans Wake! In the past few weeks since I’ve finished it, I’ve resisted the urge to carry the book around and tell strangers “See this book, I’ve read the whole damn thing!” I’ve always been worried about finding myself in a conversation with snooty elitists—the kind that only exists in movies and New Yorker cartoons—who’ll look down their nose at me and say in their mid-Atlantic accents “Have you ever read [insert obscure author’s name]’s [insert obscure title probably in French or German]?” But now,  I feel secure in the fact that I can reply “No! But I’ve read Finnegans Wake, M***** F*****!” Let’s not dwell on the unlikelihood of this scenario or its revelation of my insecurities, but instead focus on my feelings of accomplishment.

I should admit that I would have never picked up this book on my own. I was too intimidated by it. Hell, I was too intimidated by Ulysses to read it, and Finnegans Wake is supposed to make the former look like “See Spot Run.” A podcast that I listen to, Literary Disco, created Finnegans Wake Up, where everyone participating read five pages a day and discussed the book on Goodreads. Reading the book as a member of a community helped me, I would not have finished it otherwise. Reading other participants’ comments allowed me to better understand passages and not lose hope during the really rough parts. That said, I still finished the book a month after the group. I imagined myself as the last person who crosses a marathon’s finish line; everyone else has already gone home to take nap. But damn it, I still crossed that finish line.

If it was simply hard, I would not have been able to keep reading. Like a treacherous hike where there is often the joy of being in nature, there were these moments where I suddenly felt like I understood something. Whether it was a line that seemed to be questioning the  nature of literature and narrative, a reference to history, mythology, or Popeye, or really really dirty jokes (and Joyce likes his puns filthy), I still  found honest enjoyment. Of course there was the page after page of what seemed to be pure gibberish, where I just hated it all. At those moments, I could not blame anyone who threw the book against the wall.

The more I think about, I realize that I’ve always been drawn to difficulty. Not necessarily the same syntactical, grammatical and purposely obscure difficulty of Joyce. Yet when I think of my favorite books—the ones that I turn to when I just want to get lost in a story—there are still types of difficulty: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels contain satire which forces me to turn a critical eye on the real world, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and We’ve Always Lived in a Castle forces me to face the dangers of my own inclination towards isolation, Sándor Márai’s Embers  make me consider my own failed friendships, and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility helped me better understand what it is like to have limited options and have to rely on the good will of others to survive. Even if the prose is easy to follow, these books cause me to turn a more critical eye on the world and on myself. Rarely is such observation an easy or enjoyable task, yet it is one that I not only find necessary but that I crave.  Thus I turn to a wide array of books and films that I’ll struggle with and, yes, sometimes fail to finish. What my former friend failed to understand was that I didn’t read to lose myself but that I read to challenge myself.

Of course, she may have simply been responding to what she perceived as elitism on my part. Considering that I was in my early twenties, I was not necessarily above snobbery. I was proud of my achievements, and I thought literature was important. Even now when I brag, “I’ve read Finnegans Wake” many will hear “and you haven’t!”  Hell, I still hear “and you haven’t!” whenever I get in the conversation with people about books, films, travel, food, and whole mess of other experiences. My joy in reading that big intimidating book is the difficulty that I experienced and worked through, not that others haven’t read it. Anyone can answer my “I’ve read Finnegans Wake” with “Well,  I’ve read Proust” or “Charles Dickens” or “Agatha Christie” or “Toni Morrison” or “Isaac Asimov” or “Dean Koontz” or a long list authors that I have yet to read. The truth is I still fear those cartoonishly pretentious intellectuals who will have always read that obscure author that I’ve never heard of. As with all personifications of my insecurities, they will never be impressed. It’s still fun to image smacking them with a volume of Joyce’s work or any book for that matter.

Days Without Writing

At what point is one allowed to call oneself a writer is a question that I’ve spent far too much time contemplating. When I was younger, I would shy away from calling myself a writer because my writing wasn’t serious, wasn’t good, wasn’t published, wasn’t published in a paying magazine, and myriad of other reasons. I now say that the only thing that makes a person a writer is that they write (something I’ve heard a lot of other people say for a long time before I accepted its obvious truth). As long as I spend a good portion of my time getting words on the page, I am a writer. Maybe not a good one, a successful one or any other qualifier, but I am inarguably a writer, though there is always a little (or huge) part of me that doesn’t think I can call myself one. Part of the problem is that people tend to define me by my day job instead. Still, I tell myself, I’m writer first—I write everyday after all.

This past semester, I agreed to teach five Freshman composition classes. I was busy to say the least. Many of the books that I read where actually audio books I listened to on my commute. I was having a long distance relationship with my husband, even though we lived in the same house. And for the first time in years, I wasn’t writing everyday. Worse a whole week could go by without me writing.

I worried that maybe I was letting go of my dream. After all, I’ve read countless essays about how academia stifles writers and about how working as adjunct crushes one’s will to live regardless of one’s field. I hadn’t heeded their warnings, and I’d become another cog in the machine of academia. I wanted to throw myself down a green hillside during a rainstorm in despair and cry out about my wasted genius, but I had papers to grade (and I live the desert where rain is scarce and cactus is plentiful).

Now that my winter break is over and I’ve been able to catch up on sleep, the last semester no longer seems such an epic failure. Yes, I could have managed my time better, and, yes, I didn’t get as much writing done as I usually to do. I did revise quite a few of my poems, and I put together a chapbook that I’m quite proud of. I didn’t produce a ton of new work, but revising has always been the majority of my process. In retrospect, I did write quite a bit, but I just felt like it wasn’t enough, which is how I always feel.

But during last semester, I wondered if I selected the right day job—in part because my day job, teaching college English, is a career in and of itself. I’ve always known that if I was forced to choose between teaching and writing, I would drop teaching without a second thought. The problem is if I were to stop teaching, I would still need a day job. I know that artists shouldn’t concern themselves with money, but having regular meals and a roof over my head are luxuries I’m not willing to do without. I’ve worked since I was sixteen years old and having gone from fast food to retail to offices—teaching is the first job where no matter how bad it gets, I don’t sit in the car before my day starts and think, “Maybe I’ll get fired today. Wouldn’t that be wonderful.” Being an adjunct is the most stressful job I’ve ever had, but it also allows me to be a little selfish. The hours are flexible and the majority of work is grading papers and class prep, which can be done at home at 3 a.m. in my pajamas. Also, I get to focus on things that concern writing. Teaching grammar has helped me understand it better. Yes, none of my students care about the comma, but damn it I do.

There are many good reasons why writers shouldn’t work in academia, but I suspect those reason are more true for some individuals than other. The biggest reason, I’ve come across, that writers should get out of academia is that it isolates them from the larger world. It is an ivory tower that allows them to ignore what is happening on the streets. Yet I’ve found the opposite to be true. When I read students’ papers, I read about their experiences with financial hardships, crazy families, war, illness, death, birth, betrayal, abuse, friendships and joy. I discover more through talking to my students than I’ve ever encountered in the small talk in an office or a store.

In one class last semester, a student decided to read “Sins of the Father” by W.D. Ehrhart (you should definitely read the whole poem here). In the poem, the speaker’s daughter comes home from school crying because she’s being mercilessly teased. When the speaker says “It breaks my heart. It makes me want someone/ to pay. It makes me think—O Christ, it makes/ me think of things I haven’t thought about/ in years. How we nicknamed Barbara Hoffman/ ‘Barn’” the whole class gasped at this revelation of the speaker’s own past cruelty. I wanted to jump up and down and tell the class that, “What you just felt was what poetry is supposed to do.” Though most of them treated that moment of empathy like an anomaly—it was still there. Selfishly, I use such moments to remind myself why I write.

When I was getting my MFA, one of my biggest fears was that my classmates and professors would realize that I wasn’t suppose to be there and that I was just pretending to be writer. Other writers have assured me that this feeling is universal, but those reassurance have never made those feelings of inadequacy go away. Sometimes writing does not seem enough to be a writer. There is barrage of contradictory cultural messages about what one is supposed to do to be writer—move to New York, renounce materialism, experiment with drugs and alcohol, meditate, listen to jazz—and no matter the choices I or any one makes, someone will mention how what we are doing isn’t part of the writing life. Of course, that is all BS, because the only thing that matters is that you’re writing.

I realize that no matter what day job I have it would be the wrong one, because all day jobs will, from time to time, keep me from writing. I’ve just been lucky enough to find one that allows me to obsess over writing even when I’m not, and I think that is what a writer should look for in a day job. In the end, I didn’t stop being a writer last semester, I just slowed my pace.

Woman Writing Letters by Charles Dana Gibson