Thursday, November 10, 2011

On Embodiment

(excerpt from an essay I'm currently writing)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about embodiment. By embodiment, I’m speaking about what’s tangible, like skin, bones, flesh, and blood. And there are also things like the trees, of course, and the paper products made from the trees, the lakes and the carp that scavenge the murky bottom for food. I’ve never been a fan of the tangibles. Taste, touch, hear, smell, sound. Mostly, I’ve seen them only as limitations or, at the very most, things that must be survived or tolerated.
            I like ideas, concepts, plans, fantasies, and expectations. I’m a big fan of love and and adventure and spirituality. Spirituality, it’s always seemed to me, is the place beyond the concrete. It’s the untouchable, inexplicable, the magic of life. In all probability, this love of the ineffability of things comes from my religious upbringing, where there was a clear distinction made between things of this world and the things of God.
            I certainly don’t want to make it sound like I’m all spiritual and serious. I’m quite the opposite, really. I’m irreverent and inappropriate, and my butt crack hangs out the back of my pants way too often. It’s a problem. The lowrise-pant cut helps my figure, since I’m high-waisted and look like a spider in pants that come up too high, but really it is disastrous when I bend over. But, that kind of makes my point: God, way up over there. Sadly, me and my butt crack, right here. To me, God and butt-cracks seem vastly incongruent. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

October Reading List a la Nick Hornby

Books bought: 

  1. Best American Short Stories 2011
  2. Best American Essays 2011
  3. Best American Spiritual Writing 2012 (which, to be honest, confuses me since how can it be possible that someone wrote the best spiritual essays in 2012 when no one has gotten the chance to actually write one since 2012 hasn't actually happened yet? it seems rigged or something. or metaphysical. like there's some tesser or something only spiritual essay writers know about.)
  4. How to read slowly
  5. Celeb cause by Helen Fielding 
  6. Friend of my youth by Alice Munro
  7. A son of the circus by John Irving
  8. The Mediator by Meg Cabot

Books read:

  1. Selected Short Stories by Flannery O'Connor (5 stars, of course)
  2. The Situation and the Story (4 stars...great resource for narrative nonfiction)
  3. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (so far, so good!)
  4. The first three chapters of The Hunger Games because I couldn't find Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which was hiding under the couch. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"There and Back Again" Published on Art House America Blog

There and Back Again

In 2003 my husband and I decided to move up north with our three-year-old so that Dave could attend seminary. We left our small Americana town committed to a new idea of living in an urban setting. We felt that we would die of boredom if we stayed in Franklin, Tennessee. How could our lives have any eternal significance in a place of such homogeny and affluence? Finally, we were on our way to living The Life we’d always fantasized about. The city, any city that was charmingly distressed, was the only appropriate setting to live a life worthy of Oprah, er, Christ — feeding the homeless, advocating for social justice, living out the Biblical call to love the poor. We had boundless energy, and a life in the city seemed just the place to expend it.
We hammered down our roots through the concrete and tried to make Philadelphia our home. We sold our second car, purchased bicycles, and applied for food stamps. I relished in the multiculturalism and the three thousand or more murals covering the city walls. Themes of courage, personal renaissance, and heritage emanated through the broken walls of this city that would one day be restored.    

Photo: Sarah Braud
But daily living in the city was harder than I expected. I was in a foreign culture with no one to translate for me. I eavesdropped on conversations at the park and tried to fit in. Women with names like Maureen and Kathleen stood on the sidelines — their arms crossed — while their daughters took turns batting. Their faces were weathered and their hair limp and I wondered why they hated me. My hellos were viewed with hostile skepticism. I finally learned to keep smiles to myself. After months of assimilation, I ascertained that imposing my cheery greetings on others was culturally inappropriate.
Read the rest of "There and Back Again" at Art House America Blog

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Southern Women's Response to The Help

After reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I declared it Book of The Year (of course, until I read The Hunger Games).  In my humble opinion, it had everything: an engaging plot filled with tension, a setting that breathed with authenticity, everything I love about Southern lit, and characters I wanted to befriend. The characters! They were so alive! I resonated with Skeeter’s battle with society’s expectations on her. I admired Minny’s fierce self-assurance and sassy tongue. My heart broke for Celia’s struggle with infertility and society’s rejection of her for being white trash. I wept over Johnny’s love for his wife in spite of it. I cheered when Hilly ate shit. I wanted approval from Aibileen, a woman who’s standard for character was something I could only aspire to. Most of all, after reading The Help, I wanted someone to press their thumb into my palm—like Constantine did for Skeeter—and remind me who I am.

However, and this is a big however, the further I got from reading the book, the more a tension inside me grew. I began to feel that embarrassing recognition that I had maybe recommended the book a little too loudly (You know, like the shame I felt after having told everyone that Titanic was the best movie I’d ever seen. — Don’t deny it. You said the same thing.) Maybe, I worried, that once others read it, they may have some critical things to say about it. Whatever others thought of it, I now had the metaphorical pebble in my shoe. Something was making me uncomfortable. The pebble turned quickly into a sizable rock, then crumbled into some sharp gravel and now, it just won’t stop grating on my brain: When will our society finally get over our White Savior Complex?

Okay, so I am the girl that named her son after a literary American hero— the ultimate white savior—Atticus Finch. But, we live in different times. What does the American hero look like NOW? Who is fighting injustice NOW? Who is standing up for those who can’t speak NOW? And what color is she? I don’t know about you, but I am worn down with the  “White lady saves the poor, helpless black person” story. Dangerous Minds, The Blind Side, and now The Help. It’s played. (Watch this!) Hear me: I liked the movies, but let’s grow. Let's recognize why this storyline is offensive to others, particularly when it is the only version told.  Let’s move past the paternalistic adolescence we have been stuck in. Please, will someone write a story with a black hero that doesn’t take place in the ghetto, a check-cashing store or a barbershop? And, if you do, can someone cast a lead other than Will Smith? At the very least for the sake of variety!  

That said, after having watched the movie, my thoughts and a conversation I had led me in a different direction. I went to see the movie with five other women. Three white women and three black women. Our conversation was so much less about critiquing the film/book and more about what thoughts the images and story provoked. To be entirely honest, I was very surprised by the black women's response

Harmonie, Jennetta, Alena, Katie, Kathy and Me (not pictured).
After the movie, we wanted to have drinks and discuss the film, but in Franklin there aren’t any places open after 11pm, so we copped a squat on a grassy patch in the parking lot under some cherry trees and talked until the hard ground under our butts pushed us to get into our cars and head home. As a police cruiser drove slowly by us through the empty parking lot, one of the black women, gesturing to us white girls said, “I’m so glad we are with y’all.”

Five of the women were Southern, born and bred, and one was raised up North, but has lived in the South for all of her adult life. The conversation that happened after the movie was one of the richest I have had in awhile. 

Allena is the biggest anglophile I know. She wears pearls everywhere she goes. She takes tea every afternoon. She wants to be British. Before children, she was a pharmaceutical sales rep and has high aspirations for a political career. She is the most with-it mother I know and puts me to shame. She's also black and kills any chance to be stereotyped. (And none of it is by accident.) Allena wears her business suit everywhere she goes so that she will not be discriminated against because of her color. Has she been discriminated against? Oh, she's got some stories! She loved The Help. She told us that this was one of the first times she's ever seen a full-character portrait depicted of black women from the Jim Crow era. She didn't care about the paternalism, the lack of more nitty gritty racial injustice that would make it more authentic, the colloquial speech that made Abileen seem simple. She was just so happy to see women from that time period as real people. The only book that she's read that has done it better is The Warmth of Other Suns. Maybe women up North may not think The Help is an authentic portrayal, but Allena thinks it was about as authentic as she's seen. The Great Migration took her family to DC. They were looking for an escape from the blatant racism of the South, but she said the North, for many black families, turned out to just be a kinder mistress. 

Kathy is a white woman who I met for the first time last night. She grew up during the civil rights movement. "I had Jerri," she said." I lived Jim Crow." Jerri cleaned house and made dinner everyday. When Kathy was sick, Jerri would pick her up from school and take her to the doctor. "My mama didn't. Jerri did." Kathy said that even to this day she knows that Jerri loved her and her sisters, but also knows and understands why Jerri's children did not. Kathy told us about the race riots that happened the first week of classes at the high school. They had just desegregated and the black and white schools merged, adopting the white school's name, mascot and colors. The first pep rally inaugurated the school with an all white cheerleading squad. The black students protested by standing up during the pep rally, fists pumped to the sky, and walked out.

Jenn is a thirty-something black mother from Kentucky. "That was my aunts," she said referring to the help. "My grandmother. They were all The Help." Her aunts and grandmother did not want Jenn's mother stifled in the small town.  So when the opportunity for her to go to cosmetology school and move to a more metropolitan city in the state, they encouraged her to leave her son with with them so that she would have a "chance".  During the summers Jenn would visit her grandmother (retired at the time) and her aunt who stilled cleaned houses and helped raise white children.  Jenn never knew what it was like for them; "They never shared the details of their days.  Of course, who would want to?  I was never allowed to go, even if I was sick.  My aunt would come home after working all day, cook us all dinner, and then she'd fall asleep over her plate of food.  I just remember her being so tired!!" She continued, "As I was watching the movie, something clicked in my head.  As Abileen was telling Mae Mobley, "You is kind. You is intelligent.  You is important", who is telling all the children of "the help" these things when they are so tired they can't see straight when they got home?  Could this be a factor in the breakdown of the African American family? It was very hard to hear how "the help" raised white children, and then their own children and then had to keep up with their own households, as well.  This meant there were generations of stable households in many white families.  What was going on in their homes?  Hmmm...makes you wonder.....

Katie is a thirty-something white woman raised in Pennsylvania. She has lived all her adult life in the South and seeks to right any injustices she sees, but generally focuses on those she sees in her local churches and schools. Katie is the most prolific reader I know. She reads it all. Chick-lit to historical nonfiction. The girl is a sponge with a sharp mind and even sharper tongue. She loved the book more than the movie, of course. There were too many complex issues the movie didn't even address that were portrayed in the book. The injustice done to Constantine needed to be in there, Katie thought. She brought up that while the racism against blacks in Franklin is still very much alive, the fear of immigrants in the public schools is the most blatant form of racism she witnesses on a daily basis. White families are rushing to get their kids out of the increasingly diverse public schools, taking with them funding and single-income families that can afford to have one parent volunteer at school. "We don't like what we don't know," Katie said. "Our nature is to always be ready to ostracize."

Harmonie is a new Franklin resident. She was born and raised in Memphis and told us that at 32, this is the first year of her life she's ever been in a white person's home.  Harmonie was quiet during most of our discussion, but  shared with us what was going through her mind. "What I was thinking about during the movie is something I have always struggled with. My grandmother picked cotton, but I don't know anything about my family previous to my grandmother's mother. Three generations back there were slaves in my family, but I don't know much else. I wish I knew more. I do remember my Grandma would call white people 'white folk,' like in the movie. I don't have history." Harmonie graduated with a high GPA from high school and was encouraged to attend college by the school counselor. Harmonie had no framework for why that was even a good option. So, instead of college, she went to hair school. But, at age 25, she finally enrolled. Her first semester on campus, at The University of Memphis, she returned to her car and found a note tucked underneath her windshield wiper. The note said, "I hate you people. Don't ever park next to my car again." Harmonie held her breath after sharing that story and it made me wonder if she'd ever told it to a white person before. 

 I felt so honored to have these women share their stories with me. If movies like The Help spur Southern women, white and black, to tell their stories, I will go see them. The women I saw the movie with weren't offended by the simplistic portrayal of Aibileen's character. "You is kind. You is good. You is intelligent," did not disturb my friends. They knew Aibileen's wisdom was coming from a deep place. Of course, I still think it is appropriate to think critically about what it says about our society that movies like The Help are being made or, probably more importantly, why there aren't more movies/books written by minorities about their experience.  Do I want to see more movies made that cast women and men of color as full-bodied, intelligent, complex, authentic leads and heros? Do I want to live in a world that gives everyone equal access to an audience that wants to hear their stories? I think movies like The Help remind us that the relationship between races still has a long way to go. Mostly, for me, it has made me question to whose stories and voices do I listen? 

To read more responses to The Help, check out this blog's collection of responses to The Help.  Pretty amazing how varying, and heavy hitting, the critiques are!

Monday, April 18, 2011

First BiMonthly "Diagnose Me" Contest

Hypochondriacs live a fulfilling and rich life. Fantasies are good for the creative mind. Fantasizing about disease and death create neural pathways that connect the left-brain (more analytic side) and the right-brain (the creative side). Hypochondriacs, by in large, have a higher intelligence quotient than non-hypochondriacs. Though this information is not researched, it is proven by the opinions and anecdotal evidence of my hypochondriac sister, mother and myself.

In light of this evidence, I thought we could all participate in a brain-stimulating activity that is good for all of our health. The Diagnose Me contest will begin with a few symptoms, and will add symptoms as they arise. Your job will be to guess the corresponding illness. The worse the diagnosis, the higher your points. The correct diagnosis, however, wins. (The rationale behind the scoring need not be explained and might only be understood by those of equal or greater intelligence than the judge.)

Caveat 1: Self-Diagnostics is a medical craft that can only be certified by an accredited foundation. However, lay practice can never hurt.

Here is your first challenge:

Patient: Dave
Profile: 38 year old, male. Married. Father of Two. Photographer. Technical Writer.
Symptoms: Numb foot for two days. Tingling hand. Both right side of body.
Potential causes: Tick bite, one week prior to onset of symptoms.

Diagnose Me!

Leave your diagnoses in the comment box. Winner will be declared after Dave consults a licensed physician. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Confessions of a Failed Track Star

My mother, after I won a blue ribbon at Brockett Elementary's Field Day mile run event, decided to sign me up for the Atlanta Coca~Cola's Children's Road Race. The race was a month away and my mom began my training regimen. After school, I had to complete three laps around my block. Neither of us were sure of the distance, but she guesstimated it was close to a mile. She'd time me every day, sometimes standing on the front lawn with a stop watch, sometimes she'd glance at the stove clock and guesstimate that I was slower that time.

On race day, as she drove me down interstate 85 toward Peachtree Road, my mother had one piece of coaching advice: "Stay in third place. Then, in the last stretch, make a break for it." I stored her advice in a bubble in my chest. The bubble swelled under her tutelage. She believed in me. I believed in me. I just knew I was going to win.

We exited the freeway and followed signs to parking, driving slowly past crowds of pedestrians in running attire. We were flagged into a crammed parking lot by men in t-shirts and sandals, smocked in bright orange vests.  "You'll need to hurry," they shouted as we got out of the car. "They are about to start.

Mom and I scurried to the sign in table. I pulled on my Real Coke shirt and Mom quickly pinned on my race number.  We could see the starting line banner a few blocks up and began pushing through the crowd. About a block from the starting line, we heard a gun shot and the crowd around us jolted into a collective stampede. I was in the race. My mom was in the race. We were jostled around until we crossed the starting line and I, apparently was in third place. Third from last place, that is. All clad in red t-shirts, we swarmed down the street and I was simply one among thousands.

My dreams of breaking the finish-line tape floated away. The bubble inside my chest didn't pop, but simply deflated to a soapy film. Oh well, I thought, at least I got this cool t-shirt. My life as a track star was over. My mother retired her position as coach as well. We never mentioned the race again and when I went to high school, I tried out for drill team. Mom didn't attempt to give me any pointers. I was on my own. And I was okay with that.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Unnecessary Quotations

I just can't handle unnecessary quotations. Few things peeve me more than this heinous grammatical crime. This sign actually caused a bowel movement. But, my view of humanity was restored when I saw that one costumer mocked the sign with her own mandate: Please clean bathroom! -customer.  Unfortunately, she leaves me with an itchy brain by not completely the mocking by adding unnecessary quotes around "clean." Please, if you plan on mocking a sign with unnecessary quotations, please, "FINISH" the job! - Management.

For those of you willing to admit that you, like the sad sack who wrote this sign, have the same offensive problem with grammar, please take advantage of this pocket-sized resource available at your local 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I won! I won!

2011 Numero Cinq Erasure Contest
My entry was not nearly as amazing as the announcement of the winner, so I think I will share that instead:

At long last, after much delay occasioned by feckless judges who are next thing to derelicts and juvenile delinquents, using Numéro Cinq expense accounts to go on sea and surf vacations in Guadeloupe, stock their wine cellars, and buy braces for their kids. One judge financed matching face lifts for himself and his dog out of his NC per diems. This is what the management has to put up with. On the other hand, the judges are in unanimous agreement for a change. Their matchless literary tastes have coincided. And who cares about their personal foibles as long as they deliver pristine and irreproachable judgments—eventually?
And to this end, all the NC judges agreed, that for wit and arrogance, this time, no one could touch Sarah Braud’s entry (with or without the “illegal” numbers). The finalists were brilliant, but there was just too much twist in the tail of Sarah’s last line to resist. And in a literary world where often the words are delivered by and meant for men, this entry flips the entire culture on its head—starting with the words “rules” followed by the deliciously subversive “Avoid exercise.” It does it with sublime timing, exuberance and mischievous glee.
Congratulations! Three cheers! 21-gun salute! You are now the object of envy of the Entire Literary World, possibly the Universe. Soon people who barely know you will be asking for help with their entries for the next NC contest (and possibly small loans).  One piece of advice: Do not accept emails from NC Contributing Editors asking you for credit card and bank account information. It is simply not true that Rich Farrell needs your help to succeed to that $1 million inheritance from his Mexican uncle.
The winning entry reads:
I have laid down the Rules:
1. Avoid Exercise.
2. Make art.
3. Follow a man who helps you and lets you hit him.
—Sarah Braud

(Text swiped from Numéro Cinq online literary magazine)Clearly, the judges at Numero Cinq are brilliant (evidenced by their final choice). If you'd like to read more of their brilliance: check out Douglas Glover's lastest novel, Elle

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fits and Spurts

I try to be consistent. I really do. But, I have also started embracing the me that is sporadic. Maybe not-cleaning-up-as-you-go can be a positive attribute. Growing up, we would clean our bedrooms on Saturdays. During the week, though, it all went to pot. Clothes, dirty dishes, homework, crafts, blankets from our forts and more would end up littering our bedrooms, and we were content to live in the squaller. Saturday morning though, after our routine cartoon watching, we'd head to our rooms and Mom would call us more than once  to use our elbow grease.

There is nothing wrong with that system. Am I right? If you aren't  in the mood to clean up after yourself day-in, day-out, it's fine, as long as, at some point, the elbow is greased and  life is put back in order, cobwebs removed and mold is kept at bay. It's all a facade anyhow. The illusion that we are in control of something. We aren't really.  Cleaning is for those who need that fantasy of control. The real risk-takers are those who cast off discipline and perseverance for the less neurotic form of living, mop-free.

Did you see those babies in the documentary aptly entitled Babies?  You had your clean and safe North American and Asian babies with their FDA and APA-approved car seats and organic, toxin free baby wipes. Then you had your rolling in the red dirt and sleeping with the rooster babies from Mongolia and Africa. And that baby from Mongolia just made me feel like butter. What a happy child. Even when his brother whacked him behind his mother's back. Even when he almost put himself through an involuntary brist climbing off a rusty barrell, in the middle of a cow pasture. That mama was not worried about keeping her yurt germ free. But, I digress.

My point is, I am not consistent. With anything. Cleaning, writing, you name it. But that doesn't necessarily have to be a character flaw. It can be a conduit of inspiration. Like, right now, for example. Instead of cleaning up to cook dinner, I'm snatching this precious 25 minutes alone to write on my blog. Even if I tried to be consistent, which I have, I'd fail. So, I will embrace the spurts and the sputters and the fails. I will name it something positive, have it branded and start raising funds to support a non-profit that promotes healthy living through waiting for the mood to strike. You watch. It'll be a national trend soon. And I'll be giving advice on how not to do the dishes.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why you should read Mystery and Manners again.

The rationalist approaches the peacock and sees, possibly at first glance, beauty. But, after the beauty has worn off and the tomatoes have all been eaten off the vine, the scientist hears nothing but the screeches and sees nothing but dinner. The writer, however, sees the King of the Birds.
            The writer writes because, when the rationalist is done with all the defining and the categorizing and the mystery of life has finally been “revealed” and exhaustively understood, more mystery is found underneath it. Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners, says that if you are asked to explain what you are writing about, the only sensible answer is to say, “Read the story.” If what we write about can easily be summed up in a one-sentence theme, then why have we wasted our time writing for pages? It is, in fact, impossible to divide the theme from the story, just as it is impossible to divide the incarnated Christ from God Himself. The mystery cannot be understood without the body, the tangible, just as the concrete cannot be understood without mystery. Flannery writes that stories cannot be limited to character motivation or right theology. The writer “has to be concerned with these only because the meaning of his story does not begin except at the depth where these things have been exhausted." This must, I believe, be the litmus test I use to assess my own writing, though O’Connor would laugh at the irony of my applying human formula to measuring Mystery.
            Mystery, Flannery says, is an unflinching look at the true condition of humanity and all of its horrors, and finding that the God who evaluates it all has deemed it worthy to die for. Religion doesn’t limit the artist; it, in fact, frees the artist to see the fullness of the human experience. If God accepts it all, then who are we to look away. As a doubt-filled believer, I can firmly take hold of this call to not try to understand it all, but to tell all of what I see, particularly in the deep recesses of my heart and mind. The role of uncertainty is possibly one of the main tools the Christian artist must use in interpreting life through art.
            Manners would then be the what of what I see: the daily routines, the accents, the figures of speech, the clicks and tics, my conflicting thoughts, the sinner and the saint in each character. A whole character does not live since there is no such thing on the earth. The broken, whole-enough or thoroughly shattered person lives, not because the writer makes her live, but because something else has brought her to life. As soon as my writing takes a turn into certainty, I have surely let my writing die. I will leave conclusions and explanations to the scientists and theologians. I will push off the false burden of the fate of souls and I will concentrate on the burden of creating art.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Love Dogs

I was fortunate to have the chance to get to know Dr. Richard McCann at the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency. I was assigned to his workshop and, with every piece that we looked at critically, like a surgeon, he cut to the heart of everyone's narratives. He kept pushing each of us to find the motive underneath our motives. Our workshop was like writing class and group therapy rolled into one. I left each day with a deep sense that a magical connection was being made among our faculty leaders (Richard and Sascha Feinstein) and the other writing students.

One of my worries going into a graduate writing program was exposing my writing to people who did not share my similar worldview. However, it has always been my hope that my writing would surpass the boundaries of the Christian literary market and would stand up under the scrutiny of even the most cynical reader. I want my writing to be universal, for someone, anyone, who reads it to be able to connect with my experience and see themselves. I thought for sure that I would be grilled and misunderstood and  ridiculed or worse: dismissed.

However, that has not been my experience at all. Okay, certainly there may have been those who have dismissed me, my interpretations, and religious assumptions; however, none have overtly. Well, there was the one professor who refused to say hello to me when I waved, but I think that may have had more to do with his poor eye sight than his desire to cold-shoulder me. In fact, Richard McCann congratulated me on my bravery for writing about spirituality. Because I knew a brief history of how the Church at large has hurt McCann, I feared his bitterness toward it would turn toward me. Not only is McCann not bitter, but also generous in spirit— he made gestures toward me that were incredibly nurturing and life-giving.

As I was finding my seat on the airport shuttle on the last day of residency, I was pleased to see Richard there. I was hoping for a few more minutes with this brilliant man. After a few minutes, we realized that we were on the same flight to DC, where I would then switch planes and he would de-board for home.

After watching a harrowing episode of Hoarders on together in the airport lobby, we sat next to each other on the plane. Richard shared a poem with me someone had previously sent him. With his melodic, raspy voice he read the poem "Love Dogs" by Rumi, translated into English by a writer and prof at the University of Georgia.  As he read this poem to me, I instantly realized that Truth is Truth and Mystery is Mystery, no matter where you find it, and the cynic in me that fears all the other cynics in the world was silenced.

Love Dogs 
One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I’ve heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express
is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Thanks to Richard and Rumi, the cynics' questions aren't as scary anymore (no matter how many answers I cannot give them.) I will continue to whine until my Master comes home.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Actually Stuck

A Series of summaries from the lectures I attended at my writing residency. At my age, my neural pathways are mostly carved. So, I strive, in my graduate education, to retain just a smidgeon more. This is a record, not of what I was taught, but of what actually stuck.

Ellen Lesser

It seems appropriate to look at apocalyptic literature when trying to craft the end of a short story.  Ellen’s lecture was tailored for the fiction writer, but I found much of it to be helpful in nonfiction craft as well. The current thinking in regards to certainty in the end of life, and even the end of the world as we know it, must be taken into consideration when you are writing for the current reader. What is certain about life? What is certain about salvation? What is certain in these times of global warming, inevitable environmental implosion, and world wars? The writer must be aware of what the general human consensus is if she is to connect with her readers in any real way.

Ellen’s passion for her craft seeped through every sentence of her lecture. I left with not just more tools for writing, but with a deep sense of inspiration. I want to love and know my area of concentration like this brilliant, incredibly human person. I am jealous of all the fiction writers who get to work with her this semester. However, one thing that I added to my writer’s toolbox was the knowledge of how to pitch your language to fit the tone of your subject.

End times stories demand Biblical language. Ellen took us through three short stories included in the anthology Best American Short Stories released annually. She walked us slowly through each story and pointed out how Rescue and Redemption now look to the 21st century reader—and believe me, it doesn’t look good. In fact, if you were to take the three short stories we read, you’d think we were a real cynical lot. Rescue and Redemption look more like gates into the deeper levels of hell. Is optimism even possible in the current climate?

The stories were riddled with religious imagery. There were snakes present, floods, hell-fire smoke, mentions of Eden, crosses, vines and sanctuaries. The infusion of Biblical terms and images worked to support the story’s consideration of how we should live in the end of days.

Of course, my mind honed in instead on poop imagery. Though Ellen kept directing our gaze to the religious slant of the language, I kept hearing the doo-doo slant. (I know, I have Freudian issues.) The story that took place in New Orleans during the Katrina flood was infused with the words refuse, shit, brown chop, crap, log roller, septic, boat hole (maybe that is a stretch, but I swear I heard “butthole”), movement, dump, shit storm.

My bodily function fixation, upon reflection, explains my unfailing optimism even in the end of times. (Wait for it.) I watched the language through all the pieces go from shit to compost to vine-ripened tomatoes. I saw that the writer had included gardens bursting with fruit right in the middle of the protagonist’s apocalypse. The best tasting tomatoes were growing next to his outhouse. Therefore my worldview: Even when life goes to shit, there is another power at work that can turn it all to nourishment. Ah, redemption! Oh, I like this whole pitching language business.

Of course, Lesser taught us so much more, but, alas, that is all of what actually stuck.

Lesser spent most of her time looking at “Rubiaux Rising” by Steve De Jarnatt, chosen for Best American Short Stories 2009, a story about a detoxing junkie trapped in his grandmother’s attic during Hurricane Katrina is miraculously airlifted to safety. You might want to read the end if you want to know what happens when the world does end.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What Actually Stuck

A Series of summaries from the lectures I attended at my writing residency. At my age, my neural pathways are mostly carved. So, I strive, in my graduate education, to retain just a smidgeon more. This is a record, not of what I was taught, but of what actually stuck.

Patrick Madden’s Lecture: WHERE THE ESSAYS ARE

Pat has a nuanced sense of humor that infiltrates his writing and his speaking. Even when he is unsmiling, there seems to be a smirk hiding under the surface that keeps the listener/reader on her toes, waiting for the punch line. He’s kind of adorable in an overly earnest-kind-of-way. Like the Colin Firth of the Essay World, Mr. Darcy without the scowl—though his intelligence and stature can intimidate even the stoutest of students. I highly recommend his collection of essays Quotidiana

Madden's writing allows you to sit, breath and enjoy his current of thought which generally leads to happy seas of the mundane. I guarantee you’ll want to hug him, or someone close by, after you read his stuff.

At the residency, Pat gave a practical lecture on getting your essays published. Though, you’ll have to forgive him for sneaking in lessons on the true nature of the classical essay, he cannot stop himself:

The Personal Essay…
  1. Is Not an article; Articles set out to prove something.
  2. Is Not a composition; Compositions are the cancer of the essayists mind—Beware: 5 paragraph essays may cause internal hemorrhaging! In fact, Madden might go as far as to say that the 5 paragraph-essay-structure is a blight on the face of American education.
  3. Is out to ponder something, to follow your meditative thoughts through all their wandering paths, through scenes and reflections, not knowing where they will lead. To understand the real essay, you must know its birth and history: St. Augustine wrote his Confessions, delivering a new genre of writing into the literary canon. Michel de Montaigne, the Father of the Personal Essay, nurtured the form into its maturity. Visit Madden’s website,, for a buffet of short, classical essays. You’ll be surprised by how enjoyable these quick reads are. My personal favorite: Of a Monstrous Child, about Montaigne’s experience seeing a conjoined twin (or should I say conjoined twins if he had only one head?) on the road to town. It’s actually very comforting to know what hideous thoughts others have. That is the point, in my opinion, of the personal essay: To humanize our own monsters lurking inside. Of course, Madden has fewer monstrous thoughts than I, so his tastes in essays lean toward the beauty of the world, mine toward the grotesque.

Publishing is a noble goal for the writer, and therefore, Pat gave us a few tips to take with us in our pursuits. His first advice was to read literary publications, get to know the personalities of some journals in order to know which of your pieces would be a good fit. I have found the blog Essay Daily to be a great resource for finding nonfiction journals. The blog has a fabulous list on the right sidebar called “Homes for the Essay,” which is fairly exhaustive. I’m still trying to find the journals that are just “so me.” I’ll be sure to let you know when I do. Many editors, Pat reveals to us, read only the introductions of submissions, so you need to make sure the guts and glory of your writing show up in the first few paragraphs.

Of course, Madden shared much more with us, but, alas, that is all of what actually stuck. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ball Juggling 201

One semester of grad school down, three to go.

Clearly, being a full-time student added to my list of roles has kept me from updating my blog! But, as I learn to negotiate the highways and byways of life as a student, I am seeing the road with more clarity.

I have spent the past six months reading 16 books—most of which were creative non-fiction, written 6 critical essays, 6 book reviews and 150 pages of creative work, and attended two residencies—22 days worth—in Vermont! I have loved every minute of it, and it is very out of the norm for me not to be whining about something! (I'm sure the antidepressants help some, but there are some things that pills just can't cure.)

I'm starting the semester strong, reading some amazing stuff. Though it will be no surprise to anyone, I'm enjoying Flannery O'Connor—What a smart cookie! Mystery and Manners would have to be my favorite book on writing so far. I have underlined just about every sentence. My book just looks ridiculous...My underlining was supposed to cue me when I look back to see what I should include in my critical essay. I hope my professor this semester is ready for rewritten copy. Maybe I'll just change the font and he won't recognize it.  

Speaking of my advisor, I have a new one! Patrick Madden, my brilliant essay-expert of a professor from last semester has been shared with five other students and I will miss his critiques and encouragement. But, I will continue with my education of the classical essay on his site Quotidiana. I will be working this semester with the memoirist and biographer Lawrence Sutin. His work is incredible and I am loving A Postcard Memoir. The level of academic excellence we are being exposed to at VCFA is fantastic. Every time I go to research one of the faculty, I am amazed at the amount of google tags that open up. Seriously. I've decided that my next goal in life is to have a Wikipedia page dedicated to my accomplishments. It'll be one of those long-ass entries that talks about my childhood in Tucker, GA, including the baby kangaroo we had as a pet. Of course, my more technical creative nonfictionist classmates will charge me with inaccurate information....(So what if it wasn't a baby kangaroo? It was a wallaby. Same diff.) You can't just add yourself either. I've tried. It'll be up for one day and then someone out in Wiki Land deletes your entire entry, officially saying that your life is just not important enough. They may have a point. Whoever "they" is.

So, if you are up for it. We can have a mini-online book club. It'll be called: Don't you wish you'd get credit for reading this book like me? Book 1: Mystery and Manners

by Flannery O'Connor. Book 2: A Postcard Memoir

by Lawrence Sutin. You can even order these books straight from my blog. Yippeee! The memoir has beautifully-written lyrical essays that were inspired by Sutin's postcard collection. I have enjoyed reading them (each essay is quite short) and then using some of the postcard images for my own inspiration to write.

Feel free to leave comments about the books. We can have a dialogue going in my comments box. If you say something really interesting, I might even include it in my critical essay. Though, I won't cite you, if that's okay. Just know that imitation is the biggest form of flattery.

So, as I continue to strike a balance with teaching, schooling, parenting, and living, I will try to bring in more blogging. What's one more ball to juggle? If I drop one, well, that'll just be more balls to shag. And, who doesn't like a good shag every now and then?