Tell Me Everything

Hey again everybody. As I told you, I had surgery a week or so ago. Since then I've been too distracted by pain and the weird pain medication I'm on to concentrate on my own thoughts, so I've been reading like a demon to keep myself company, and I find it interesting to note that for some reason, the type of writing I have the biggest appetite for right now is short-form memoir. Short-form memoir by women, that is. Women who are writing about grief and love, illness and death, their bodies and their families and their drug of choice. The blood and guts of their lives. And god almighty, is there a lot of that kind of writing out there. I've been reading poorly edited junk on xoJane, the guilty pleasure web magazine I feel the need to "check" at least once a day when I'm bored. (Current headlines include: "I Hooked Up with Someone's Boyfriend, and I Don't Feel Guilty." At least someone doesn't feel guilty!) I've been reading better essays on similar (and similarly gendered) subjects in Lenny, Lena Dunham's frankly excellent feminist email newsletter. In today's issue the actress Amanda Peet has a smart, touching piece about her fear of aging, and the admiration she feels for her less-vain sister, who's a physician. Plinking around the internet with no real destination, I discovered an Australian journalist named Julia Baird who writes for the New York  Times' OpEd section, and I read a bunch of her stuff, including a recent piece about the cancerous tumors she had growing in her abdomen. I'm not usually much for medical details but I read all the ones she laid out in that essay, and it was pretty good. The writing, I mean, not the subject matter. That was pretty bad.

From there I found my way to a writer and Moth storyteller named Tara Clancy, who I hadn't heard of before. She's good too! I got a huge kick out of the essay she wrote about the neighborhood bar her dad took her to when she was a kid, and the oddball, loving community they found there. And just this minute I remembered about Samantha Irby, who is one of my new Internet favorites but who I have so far failed to write about on this blog. Not long ago I discovered hers, and found her to be one of the most refreshingly frank and funny writers I have ever read. I plowed through her book of essays, Meaty—it is hilarious and totally original—and am waiting (sort of) patiently for her to finish her second one, which according to Facebook she is writing this very moment. Keep at it, lady!

Let me be clear: I have always been more interested in women's stories than in men's, and I also favor autobiographical work to novels, though I do read a ton of fiction. Memoir is the kind of writing I do myself, in my essays, zines, and books. These stories give me life, as both a writer and a reader. In the week or so since I got sick I haven't had the energy to read much long-form writing, but I have started one book: Eileen Myles' Chelsea Girls, which she calls a novel but is understood to be based on her own life. It's as wonderful as I expected it to be, and even more unusual.

But I'm surprised to find how much I've needed it now, this female company. Why do I find it so comforting, and so useful, to hear women talking truthfully about their own lives? Maybe I don't have enough female closeness in my life (though honestly, I talk to my mother so much, and so exclusively, that a pair of walkie talkies would be as useful to me as my overpriced cell phone). Maybe it has to do with, ya know, SOCIETY, and the fact that women's behavior is so circumscribed that we don't often say how we feel in a day-to-day kind of way. Whatever causes it, I have the the most intense longing to hear people tell the truth, and it never goes away.

Memoir is tinged with a certain sense of inferiority, at least in the eyes of the kinds of writers who think they need an MFA in order to be writers—though there are plenty of folks who break through the stigma of it in order to be respected as serious artists, as Myles has. (But then, she's a poet first.) Writing fiction "from life" is looked down on, too. I think this attitude is stupid, and I have developed a pet theory about it as well: I think it's sexist. So-called domestic fiction, "personal" essays—hell, anything where the writer cops to having, like, FEELINGS—these are so often the areas of expertise of women writers, and that is the only reason they are considered less worthwhile, less intellectual, less important. Don't tell me it's because there are so many bad memoirs. There is so much bad EVERYTHING, and you don't rule out whole categories of experience because you didn't like that one thing you had that one time. I'm not gonna stop eating pizza entirely because they make it too greasy at the place around the corner. STRETCH YOURSELF, PEOPLE.

Lucky for me, I don't give a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut—I got that from the comments section on xoJane!—about literary careerism and elitist nonsense. That's why I know that good writing is all around us, waiting to be discovered—because I'll read literally anything, just to see what I think. Some of the best things I've read have been in zines and on blogs that few others have read, and were written by people who will most likely never find a large audience for their work.

Anyway, when all's said and done, reading other people's personal discoveries—whether they arrive at them within a perfect poem, or in the shimmering moments of a beautiful, lyrical novel, or at the end of a painful essay, like a birth—this gives me more joy and wisdom, entertainment and company, than almost anything else. It feels fucking good to write the truth, too. It's like Myles says in Chelsea Girls: "I always think it's such a secret story, this one, I just need to tell this story for me or else I will burst." (Me too.) "It's lonely to be alive and never know the whole story. Everyone must walk with that thought. I would like to tell everything once, just my part, because this is my life, not yours."

And it does, it feels like a secret, it is a secret until you tell it.

 

Enough! we're tired, my heart and I.

Early in January, I declared 2016 an Orgy of Reading. For me personally, I mean. I don't care what the rest of you jokers do. For years I have worked as a freelance book reviewer, which is a kind of writing I find useful and enjoyable to do, but it meant that at any given time I was reading a book for work, which had a way of interfering with my "personal" reading, as I call it. It was a bit like being in school that way. Last year I stepped back from reviewing books quite so regularly, and I felt a resurgence of my old passion for reading that was so pleasurable, it was almost sensual. Hence the word orgy. I was choosing books with titles that felt good to say, or ones that had beautiful covers. And even though I get most of the books I want to read from the library—cuz I'm cheap, and because I love it there—for a little while I treated myself to books that I had to buy because they were harder to find. For starters, I indulged the morbid curiosity I've always had about the artist Tracey Emin by buying a collection of the columns she wrote for The Independent newspaper, and found I dislike it, and her, more than I expected to. I've been devoted to the artist/writer/poet/musician Billy Childish for a long time, which is how I learned about Emin, who's a much more successful and better known artist than he is. After they broke up, she mocked him for staying in the small town he grew up in and revisiting the same subjects over and over in his paintings and writing. Childish wrote a poem that quoted Emin telling him, "Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck. — Stuck! stuck! stuck!" and a movement, called Stuckism, was born. Basically, the Stuckists were about upholding the value of painting and were down on conceptual, modern, and postmodern art, which is a view I don't entirely share. I find lots of conceptual art interesting and worthwhile. (And I understand that Childish himself dissociated himself from the movement early on, and may never have been too seriously invested in it.)

REGARDLESS, I deeply admire the kind of work Childish does. Reading his novel Notebooks of a Naked Youth broke me open in a way I hadn't been since I was a teenager and everything was new. His writing, paintings, and woodcuts are stripped-down, honest, and tough, but intellectually muscular at the same time—and he's done it himself all these years, without much in the way of institutional support. Not to play THIS game, but he strikes me as a real punk. I ... I kind of love him. Still, I thought Emin's columns might interest me, since I also enjoy short-form memoir, especially when it's written by women. But nah. I couldn't stomach those essays at all. They're just braggy chronicles of all the cool famous people she finds herself at parties with. Next!

(Well, next I might have to try her memoir, Strangeland. It seems like she might get pretty real in that one. I've enjoyed some of her artwork, and I want to like her. I've had a picture of her with Billy Childish on my desk for years. In it, she's wearing an old-fashioned bathing suit and heels, and she's laughing her gap-toothed laugh. Billy has on baggy trousers and is smoking a cigarette, and he's smiling too, which—google it—he's rarely shown doing. It's the 80s and they're in someone's kitchen. I could look at this picture every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of seeing it.)

Anyways. A couple weeks ago I paid a visit to my new favorite Philly library, the Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional branch. It's a bright, bustling, modern library, with a good collection and a dragon. I nosed around in there for a while until I found a few books that interested me, including Morvern Callar. Do you remember that one? I saw the film adaptation when it came out a million (fourteen) years ago and remember liking it, and its quintessentially 90s bleakness. I've read a few stories by Alan Warner—he's a Scottish writer who writes in local vernacular, which is a style choice I really enjoy—but somehow I hadn't gotten around to this novel, which was very well received when it came out. So I brought it home, and let me tell you, it's good. It's so strange. Morvern Callar is the name of the young woman whose story it is, and she's an unusually compelling character. Every synopsis of the book tells you this much, so it's not spoiling anything to let you know that when the novel opens, Morvern's live-in boyfriend has committed suicide (in a really gross way, too). Her response to the tragedy is fucking weird. Though she tells us her every thought as she proceeds to do strange and dark, yet strangely life-affirming things, I'm drawn forward by trying to understand her motivations, because she doesn't seem to have any. She's totally self-contained and, in her secretiveness, very powerful, and I refuse to believe she's empty-headed and nihilistic, which is what seems to be the consensus on what this book is about: The nothing generation that came of age in the 90s.

But I have to be honest, my orgy of reading is on hiatus this week. I have hit a wall of mental exhaustion, and all I can think about doing in my down time is, like, bodily stuff. I want to go for walks, drink coffee, and slather myself with the patchouli hand cream I got for Christmas. I want to help Joe dig up our garden out back and try starting beans and corn from seeds and, like, listen to the radio. I do NOT want to go to your party or meet you for drinks. Don't take it personally, I'm just so wiped out. I think it's from writing. For the last two months I've spent part of every day writing a new book, and though it hasn't been an especially difficult or frustrating process this time around, I think it's drained me. Rummaging around in my memories, dredging stuff up—both sweet and sad stuff—and laying it to rest—that's hard work. Even though I'm not quite finished writing the manuscript, I need to take a break from it. And as far as reading goes, I think I'll keep up with Morvern and maybe see what else Alan Warner has written recently. But for today, tomorrow, the next day—I don't think I'll feel all that hungry for a good book.

What do you do when you need a mental rest? Or a mental kick-start? I've gotten pretty good at taking care of my body when I'm tired or sick or sad, but I'm not as sure how to replenish a tired mind. Your suggestions are welcomed.

Love, Katie

dragon

Tell it like it tis

An update, for those of you who were waiting with bated breath: That bookstore in the Poconos did not let me down. I'll stop being coy about it now and tell you, the shop is called Sellers Books & Fine Art and it's located on the main street (one of only two streets) of Jim Thorpe, PA, a tiny, unusual town of gothic Victorian buildings cut into the side of a mountain. There's nothing much else around there, just woods and lakes and guys in trucks, though the town itself was an important hub 170 years ago, with lots of money flying around thanks to the lucrative coal mines there, a railroad where switchback technology was invented, and a major opera house where Mae West, Al Jolson, and performers on the Vaudeville circuit once graced the stage. Over this past weekend the rollicking little town—with a handful of very good restaurants and a few lively bars, it's still a hub—had an added carnival atmosphere because the Pennsylvania Burlesque Festival took place there both nights, and we kept spotting tough, tattooed ladies with awesome hair strolling around the sidewalks, eating ice cream. But the bookstore, well that alone was worth the trip. Two cats live there, and one of them (named Zoe) followed me everywhere I went and let me stroke her head while I read. I found the biography section first and almost immediately spotted a book I've never seen anywhere else: A Radiant Life, which is a collection of Nuala O'Faolain's journalism. Score! Nuala O'Faolain wrote two of the most beautiful memoirs I have ever read, and I had the great privilege of hearing her speak at the Philadelphia Free Library a few years before she died. She was so smart, and stayed pissed off and truthful until the very end. (The last line of her obituary in the New York Times is a quotation from an interview she'd recently given: “I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me,” she said. “The world said to me, ‘That’s enough of you now, and what’s more, we’re not going to give you any little treats at the end.’ ”) So I've got that book and have been enjoying reading bits here and there. This kind of short-form journalism never really holds up in book form; what seems impressive for its ability to get across complex ideas and feelings in short piece when you read it in an overstuffed newspaper seems a little superficial and lacking when you're holding a book in your hand. But it feels like a rare treat to have this book, and more of her writing to read for the first time.

The other find was a pretty-looking novel by Helen Garner, an Australian writer I'd never heard of before. Apparently she's very well known and successful in Australia but to my knowledge has not gotten much attention here (though actually a quick search shows me that my city's library system has a number of her books, so maybe it's just me). The book is called The Spare Room and it looked like just the sort of thing I most like to read: A contemporary story, written by a woman about relationships. I understood when I bought the book that it was about a long-standing friendship between two women, one of whom comes to stay with the other for a few weeks' visit. Nothing in the book's back matter gave away what the story was really about, which is that the visitor is terribly ill with cancer and close to the end of her life. I think it's understood that this book is some version of a story that really happened to the author. It read that way to me, and when I looked into it I saw that Garner is indeed known for her journalism, and that some of her detractors have criticized her for publishing "novels" that are not really fiction. I don't consider "writing from life" to be a failing in any sense, though I do think it can be a problem—or at least a distraction—when something in the writing stands out to the reader as being different than it's meant to be. I've always been vaguely confused by roman à clefs, for example; why not call it what it is? I wish that we could open up what is considered acceptable in the form of memoir (some necessary collapsing of details, tricks of memory, and poetic license) so that we could name these things more accurately. That way a memoir that reads like fiction could still be called a memoir, and those critics who get all butt-hurt about their need for fiction to be this incredible invention would be mollified.

Anyway, it's a beautiful book and I plowed straight through it. Very sad; I did a lot of crying in this kitchen as I finished reading it yesterday. I plan to dig up more of Garner's books in the hopes that her eye for detail and compassionate truth-telling will keep me good company for the rest of the summer.

Gary, Indiana

It doesn't come out for another few months, but the artist and critic Gary Indiana has written a memoir, and it is glorious. I think he's not as well known as he should be, at least in my circles. I keep trying to talk about the book with people I know, and they all frown and say, "The name sounds familiar," not getting the joke of it or, therefore, why it sounds familiar to them. I probably shouldn't quote from the book publicly yet, but I'm just going to leave this here for now, in case anyone needs it: "The audience was as much the show as the music, raw sound that drilled into the brain and was less important than what the players wore, what they did with their bodies on stage. Everyone competed for the most fucked-up reputations, the most suicidal carelessness with drugs, the most gratuitously hostile behavior. Yet punk musicians and followers I got to know personally were touchingly sweet, highly intelligent, and un-materialistic to a utopian degree. Damaged in one way or another, but who isn't?"

He's writing here, of course, about punk, which he experienced when it came to Los Angeles in the late 70s. Before that, he lived in a crumbling hippie mansion in Haight Ashbury. He's also lived in Cuba on and off for many years. So far, he's had a kind of extraordinary life, and he is so fucking smart and funny—his writing voice is wonderful company.

(The book's back matter describes him as caustic, but I don't see that. He probably wrote the back matter himself because the book's author usually does, I think, so maybe he's the one who thinks of himself that way. He comes across as far too thoughtful in his analysis of things to be caustic. He is breath-takingly direct though, I'll give him that. He doesn't seem to flinch at all when he has to say something difficult, or unflattering; his descriptions of his family are priceless. But there's a tiny, chest-ripping tenderness that telegraphs across every mention of the stray cats he sees on the street in Havana or in L.A., even though he usually doesn't do much more than notice them and describe their looks. But you can't fool me, Gary Indiana. If you love lost, scrappy little animals, then you love everything that's good.)