I like to believe that I’ll write best selling books for a decade to come, that money and health will last until I die suddenly in my sleep, my obit featured in the NY Times. I tell myself that one more burger with fries won’t hurt me. Electronics are made by sweetly smiling fairies in cloud castles, and they build happiness into every app. Pine trees applaud their fallen pulp-paper heroes. Corn is always picked by hand and sold by children at family farm stands. An oil well releases the souls of dinosaurs trapped too long in mucky graves. These ancient beasts crave sunny beaches where sea birds use crude oil for sunscreen. Mule deer hold meetings to study the long asphalt meadows filled with herds of speeding creatures. “How fast,” they say. “Could we learn to travel there?” And break their legs trying to emulate Cougars and Mustangs rushing past, though not like the breeds they’ve seen before. I could go on, but my imported French roast coffee is cooling and my musical phone needs a sip of the energy that flows freely from the wall.
There’s a song from the 1950s, “Little Things Mean a Lot.” I agree. Little words mean a lot. Comedian George Carlin (may he rest in peace) once said that rather than get on the plane, he would prefer to get in the plane. Think about it. So the little word for today is up. Campaigning recently, President Obama told a rowdy crowd, “Hold up! Hold up! Listen Up!” Like a barnacle this little preposition gloms onto other words and slides into writing and conversation almost invisibly. Almost ubiquitously. Consider this list: wake up, get up, rise up, screw up, f*** up, the acronym SNAFU, throw up, put up or shut up, what’s up? Rain lets up, protestors speak up, cowards give up. Business picks up at this holiday time of year. Some of us put up the Christmas tree. We light up that tree. We stand up for our beliefs. Or we throw up our hands. Police order “hands up.” They’re up to something, but I’m not up for it.
It’s not as if we don’t have other choices to relay these ideas and images. We can stand, speak, make mistakes, vomit, contribute, be silent. So why do we put up with up? Why tolerate its intrusions? These word combos are conversational. They keep us from sounding pretentious, stuck up. My intent then is not to banish up, discard all of these little suckers that keep appearing, popping up, in my writing or conversation. I want, instead, to be aware, to awake to the usage rather than giving in to automatic phrasing. I want to clean up my verbal mess.
READ FOR EQUALITY
Colon Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Black Books Galore! AALBC.com’s November 2016 eNewsletter
Yesterday I read Benjamin Percy’s essay “Move Mountains: Activate Setting” (AWP Chronicle, Vol 49, No 3, Dec 2016, 98-105). He makes a convincing case for orienting the reader to place and giving place agency in the story. Things must happen that could not happen just anywhere. Although not exactly news to me, Percy makes a good argument to writers who might be less than clear about where in the world our characters live and love and die, or not. I’m there.
Regular readers here know that there in my most recent fiction is, obviously, Providence RI. In fact, the book is dedicated to the city, partly because of my connections to it: I was born there and educated, in part, there. It’s a historic and lovely city, founded as a refuge for religious minorities in 1636 by Roger Williams when he got booted from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last fall I went back and walked the sidewalks on College Hill. Providence is home to Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales, and Rhode Island College. I drove around the city, admired the restored homes on Benefit Street and got reacquainted up close. Like other old friends, we had both changed, but deep down we were what we had been, connected.
Lately, our connection has an other-worldly aspect. Within two weeks of launching the novel here in Colorado, I’m meeting people from Providence: two of the baristas in one of my regular coffee shops, a couple I met decorating our church for a benefit auction, and a poet who came to speak to our book club in Boulder. Last week I plucked, at random, a novel off the new-books shelf at my favorite library, and there, it was set in Providence. So first I went to the city and now the city has come to me. Ahh, that’s a fine twist.
I admit it, I sometimes start books but set them aside before I finish. Right now LaRose, by Louise Erdrich, has been on my coffee table far too many days. Erdrich is a talented novelist and her work is important, illuminating as she does the lives of Native Americans when they fray from contact with the white establishment. I feel guilty letting this book go stale. I preach “Read for Equality,” yet I have not finished this important novel by a Native American writer of great talent. On the other hand, I listened compulsively to an audio version of Louise Penny’s newest Inspector Gamache mystery, A Great Reckoning. Penny too is talented and I took in every word.
My different responses to these books lies in my attachment to the characters. I become immersed in their lives. I care about them. And when their lives get too hard to bear, I back off. In LaRose awful things happen to the characters and I feel their suffering, abhor the cruelty and injustice, fear for their survival. My filter fails.
Both writers are capable of murder. Murder is, of course, Penny’s stock in trade, but she writes a series, and main characters in series survive to appear in the next book. They may be wounded, troubled, or abused, but they live on in my imagination, and I know that as I open the next book. I mean, Ann Cleeves would no more kill off detectives Jimmy Perez and Vera Stanhope than she would poison a neighbor’s barking dog. I doubt that Penny will off Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The reader is safe if the character is safe.
Erdrich has no such obligation to her characters. Her obligation is to truth. She does not write gratuitous gore, but given that truth some scenes are powerfully graphic, and I know that not all of these people will survive. I close the book, slip it back into the library bag, make a silent apology,, and slink off like a frightened child.
Bad enough that the national news this week startled us and that people are taking to the streets in protest. That we have had another presidential election that thwarts the popular vote, the direct voice of the people. That my dear dog is fading slowly into infinity. That my daughter is dealing with her father’s serious illness. That my marketing of the new novel has been upended by someone else’s faulty scheduling. It’s been a tough week. My phone died, had to be shocked back to life by a new battery. Leonard Cohen died.
So pour another cuppa joe and settle in. We need to talk.This week I heard Richard Russo (one of my favorite writers) comment on NPR that good writing is increasingly important in troubling times. I had had the same thought. More than ever we desperately need honest, accurate, thoughtful journalism, fiction, poetry, and essays. I am not interested in celebrity opinions or sensationalism, never have been. I want clear reporting and reflection about the people, their actions, and their plans that affect our local, state and national governments, our collective life. I want people to pay attention, not homage. We need good writing more now than we did even a week ago, whether it’s 140-characters on social media or an in-depth editorial in a balanced print source. We must read from Left to Right, and not rely on a single source.
I want, need, a diet of more than verbal popcorn. I want the hearty protein of research, investigation, and clarity, not a fast-food reading list, but an organic garden plot that I tend daily, weeding, harvesting, feeding my need for facts and careful reportage. I plan to be thoughtful and thorough. I’ll be skeptical but not cynical. I’ll be a good citizen, alert to false accusations and political shenanigans. Please join me, no matter what you write or what you habitually read. Or how you voted. You did vote, didn’t you? Please write from your heart, read with your head. Stay awake.
AND READ FOR EQUALITY
LaRose, a novel by Native American writer Louise Erdrich.
Although I write mostly poetry and fiction, I read randomly—memoir, science, essays, whatever gets my attention, something strange, a book about a topic I would not have dreamed of. I welcome your suggestions, and here’s my sample reading list of twenty books:
Barnett, Cynthia. Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.
Beavan, Colin. No Impact Man (living with virtually no carbon footprint)
Bilton, Nick. Hatching Twitter.
Birkhead, Tim. The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg.
Coss, Stephen. The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics.
Epstein, Randi Hunter, MD. Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth.
Hatch, Steven. Snowball in a Blizzard: A Physician’s Notes on Uncertainty in Medicine.
Hermes, Edward. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash.
Kean, Sam. The Violinist’s Thumb: Love, War and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.
Pollack, Eileen. The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.
Rogers, Heather. Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage.
Stanton, Mike. The Prince of Providence: The Rise and Fall of Buddy Cianci (flamboyant mayor of the city).
Stuver, Bill. Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places.
Terry, Beth. Plastic Free.
Toler, Pamela D. Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War.
Venturi, Brown and Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas (architecture).
Voigt, Emily. The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish.
Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat.
Wiseman, Alan. The World Without Us (about the decay of buildings and return of the natural world, sans human beings)
Usually, I post a blog on Saturday morning, but yesterday the world intruded and I chose to commit to the living instead of the virtual. It’s a choice writers rarely talk about. More often we brag about or bemoan the need to be at our desks, a diagonal way of saying how dedicated we are to this art form.
But Stephen King (a fellow Mainer) in On Writing, says to put the writing desk in the corner of the room, put life out front. So when my dog, who has two major illnesses going on in the same 21 LB body, had a GI problem first thing in the morning, all thoughts of writing vanished. No blog, no critique group. We headed for the vet clinic and I waited till 1:00 pm to hear the welcome words that this was not the day I’m dreading when we decide there’s nothing more we can do for the dog. This kind of day not only puts the desk in the corner but puts all thoughts of writing almost out of sight. Yes, I sat with my journal, scribbling while I waited, but the words were all about the angst of making decisions about treatment, expenses and eventually the need to let him go.
He’s home, he’s eating and napping and cheerfully taking his two additional meds. His belly looks bloated and he licks it like he’s soothing it, but otherwise, we are having our usual morning. I’m still a writer, but I’m also a person with a strong attachment to other living beings.