Refueling? Yeah, not so good at that

Following a link in Marly Youmans’ blog a few weeks ago, I read an interview with Joss Whedon that stuck like beach sand to sunburn. He describes a work pattern of constant, compulsive production, often on multiple projects at once. Even in rare blocks of downtime his mantra is “fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks” by consuming books and plays voraciously. I’m a Whedon junkie so I’m glad he’s a workaholic, and I enjoyed and identified with most of what he said, but the very idea of his life makes me sore, especially since watching Much Ado About Nothing and developing a bad case of house-envy (he filmed at home). First observation: he mentions no intermissions for packing up a sick mom’s condo or worrying over which summer camps to book for the kids (the hardest part of being a parent is trying to juggle zillions of decisions that could be trivial but that add up to a human being’s childhood—when you’re a Libra, no less). Most of my “downtime” is spent addressing other people’s needs. But best to leave the caretaking issue aside; I know I’m lucky and don’t regret my choices.

I’m still bothered, though, by Whedon’s sheer capacity for work, even though others have accused me of the same proclivity. I drafted this post on vacation, feeling out of sorts because I wasn’t sensing fuel rising in the metaphorical tanks. We visited Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington, North Carolina. I’m the family vacation planner and this year we wanted to do something low-key within a six-hour drive; we could squeeze out six days if we combined the travel with a southward detour to pick up my son from camp; and I always like to see an area I haven’t visited before. I won’t be volunteering for the regional tourism bureau anytime soon, but it was an interesting area. The ghost tour in Wilmington’s historic downtown was a blast. I could develop a serious dependency on fried pickles and Britt’s Donuts, so I’m glad my proximity to them was temporary. Eating Thai curry in a fancy little hut at Indochine was lovely. Walking on the wide pale beaches, discussing fiction with my son while bobbing in waves, sipping rosé on the hotel balcony while a guitarist crooned Van Morrison covers down by the pool—all good. I kept telling myself so.

I also told myself: it’s okay to be out of sorts. There were the usual trials of family vacations like picking up after kids in a small shared space, non-cooperative weather, traffic jams. From home, English department personnel upheavals and their consequences chased me via email—I started writing about those worries here last year, and the situation has only gotten more complicated since. I’m waiting on medical tests too, nothing apocalyptic, but one of the weird symptoms of the summer has been a racing heart that doesn’t seem to correlate with anxiety so much as create it (it’s hard to relax in the warm sun when your heart is palpitating madly). And my mother-in-law was hospitalized with pneumonia as soon as we crossed the state line, though she’s much better now. So if I was tired and down, that’s not unreasonable. Bad weather breaks eventually.

I’m less rich, prolific, and free than the internationally famous writer-director: I could afford to calm down about that, I suspect. Still, I was thinking all week, retrospectively chewing over my decisions the way I always do: was this the best way to fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks?

Whedon’s metaphor might be the problem. I don’t actually believe that’s how it works: pour art in, then rev your own art machine. For me, writing energy is unpredictable. Sometimes the more you burn, the more you have. Sometimes you break down and lie around in the junkyard, for better or worse, vaguely hoping you’ll be road-ready again after a breather. Sometimes “rest” is the cruelest thing you could do to yourself (see Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and imagine it as a writer’s blog). And then there’s all the worry around the work: keeping any kind of a spotlight on one’s writing can be a more than full-time job, and it’s a frustrating and demoralizing one. I alternate between committing to the publicity game and repudiating it, the way many authors do, I guess. Social media present whole new ways of feeling insignificant, even when the writing itself goes well (now imagine Gilman’s narration as a series of Facebook posts with decreasing rates of “friend” response).

In short, I don’t even know where my tanks are. But I have an idea that fried pickles are going to appear in a poem one day. Also those walks I took to the top of the barrier island: little waves were carving off chunks of sand in sweeping curls just behind me and I kept jumping, thinking I was being followed. And the buckeye butterfly that landed on my head like a benediction. Not fuel, exactly, but the world whispering to me, if I could turn off the engine long enough to hear it.

buckeye

Chimeras in the poetry zoo, or speculative verse novels

Knock me over with a griffin feather: even though I published one, I did not understand that the contemporary speculative verse novel for adults was a thing. Much less a thing that gets published by Norton and Knopf.* So I’ve been roaming the field, discovering weird beasts lurking around the poetryscape. Preliminary conclusion: the stories I most want to read are not out there, or I haven’t spotted them yet. But here are some interesting ones anyway.  I’m deploying the terms “adult,” “speculative,” “verse,” and “novel” pretty loosely, by the way, but more on definitions another day.

The best verse: Marly Youmans’s Thaliad (2012) tells a future matriarchal civilization’s origin story: eleven-year old Thalia, because she’s on a field trip to a cave, survives the apocalypse (solar flares, I think) and ends up leading a small band of other children to safety. Thalia’s story has a frame narrator, a young woman poet deciding to dedicate her life to books instead of love, whose attempt to create myth about her recent ancestors makes sense of the Thaliad’s form and allusions to classical models. This is a beautiful poem in pulsing iambic pentameter. Some of my favorite passages are the beginning of XVII: The Bridal May, which is hypnotically romantic, and snarkily funny bits like the opening sentence describing our pre-apocalyptic decadence:

It was the age beyond the ragged time
When all that matters grew disorderly—
When artworks changed, expressive, narcissist,
And then at last became just tedious,
A beetle rattling in a paper cup,
Incessant static loop of nothingness,
When poems sprang and shattered into shards,
And then became as dull as newsprint torn
And rearranged in boredom by a child
Leaning on a window seat in the rain.

Fashionable poems of 2013: blank verse is coming from the future to whoop you. However, I’m not satisfied by the ending, even though it’s supposed to reflect the goals and desires of the nation-building poet more than any truth about the original survivors. I was captivated by Thalia as unlikely leader, but the book closes on a romantic note and that ends up casting a different light on the whole tale. I was a hungry marriage-plot reader as a teen and learning that my life did not end at marriage was kind of important. Marly Youmans, maybe we need a sequel?

The most linguistically astonishing: I can’t believe Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution (2006) even exists. Scene: a fictional luxury zone called The Desert in 2016. Dramatis Personae: the Historian from Sierra Leone, whose voice appears in standard English prose, and the Guide, whose invented Creole includes bits of her native Korean, English, Middle English, Latin, German, Spanish, French, and a billion other languages. Most of the book is from her perspective in a series of individually titled lyrics such as “The Lineage of Yes-Men”: “Me grandfadder sole Makkoli wine to Hapanese colonists/ din he guidim to insurrectas…sticka hop? Some pelehu?” There are plenty of brilliant poems out there composed in various Earth One Creoles and reading Hong’s book was actually an experience of comparable difficulty, for me anyway. You just work slowly, sounding it out. My problem was I couldn’t see a reason to commit the effort required for full understanding of the full book—I read it through with spots of intense attention, but otherwise just absorbing the texture. I know from reviews that there is a plot, but the intellectual obstacles to its detection are just crazy. I wish Hong cared about hooking and moving her readers, because if she did, I would follow.

The most improbably moving: In both Red Doc> (2013) and its 1998 precursor The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson creates not a future dystopia but a classically-inflected world that’s just off to the side of the dimension I personally inhabit. The hero Geryon (in the second book, “G”) is a winged red cowherd-photographer who he can drop a television from an overpass in one scene and meet Hermes in another without busting the space-time continuum. I really don’t understand how poetry so experimental and disorienting can at the same time be gorgeous and full of heart, but I guess it’s a lesson: writers should follow their weirdest impulses, marketing be damned, because those projects are the ones that turn out to be truly amazing. Amazed as I am, though, I kept putting Red Doc> down to pursue assignations with less austere books. I wouldn’t sacrifice a jot of complexity, but I wouldn’t have felt condescended to by, say, an occasional pre-canto argument. Only my love for Geryon, instilled by the more accessible Autobiography of Red, made me keep at it.

The best candidate for film or TV adaption is also the most novelistic and least poetic. Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth (2007) conjures up turf battles among werewolf gangs in L.A. Baroquely plotted, full of interesting characters, it’s well-paced and often smart and funny. The choice of free verse teases out an aesthetic of mixture exemplified by cross-species romance and all kinds of border-crossings. Barlow sometimes handles race clumsily—some of the “native American legends” references seem ignorant as well as corny—but deep in its DNA, this is a book about affiliation, about how love and kind attention can ameliorate the world’s horrible brutalities. Being human means being mixed. For me, a more fundamental problem is that the verse just isn’t good. Standard phrasal lineation here, so it’s easy to read, but line breaks provide neither a score for performance nor artful layers of meaning. Plus, I know I sound like an English prof, but the punctuation’s a mess. Missed opportunities here.

It’s as if the verse novel might be a difficult form to pull off…still, I’m hopeful, and would be glad to hear more recommendations. I suspect the menagerie is much more various than I can currently see. All verse novels may be little uncanny, prone to sprout fur and claws at the slightest provocation.

*I did know and can recommend Anne Kennedy’s The Time of Giants, 2005, although I don’t have a copy anymore. A twentieth-century speculative verse novel that was a “where have you been all my life?” literary love affair: James Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim” (in Divine Comedies, 1976, and eventually part of a much longer trilogy). “The stories I most want to read” are that insanely inventive, spooky, engaging, high-stakes, and smart, but with a middle-aged mother in the leading role and all good-looking teenaged lycanthropes required to sulk in the wings.

Not inspiration but stupid grit

Lately, the idea of writing makes me want to throw up. I’ve coped with severe morning sickness, the kind that keeps you bedridden for months, so a few paragraphs aren’t going to get the better of me: I face down the nausea almost every day.  I’m watching myself with a certain amount of curiosity, though. How long will the queasiness last? And why do I keep writing anyway?

Physically, I lack grit, or at least I rationalize myself out of difficult efforts very quickly. My mother used to call me “lazy Lesley,” with some justification. I still don’t like to clean my room, much less shovel snow. I exercise just enough to keep total decrepitude at bay. My spouse and daughter are runners and my daughter, newer to the sport, describes the satisfaction of pushing through the pain. Not me. I hate the metabolic collapse of middle age, but to face the pain of serious exercise I’m going to require a more urgent motive than a little mild self-loathing.

When the efforts are social, intellectual, and creative, though—in teaching and especially in writing—I seem capable of pushing myself beyond all reason. I honestly don’t understand why, though I have an inkling it may have to do with identity investments. I have let go of a lot of old truths that once felt permanent: “I am young,” “I am a skinny person,” “I know a lot of crap about contemporary music,” and, very recently, “I am the mother of young children” (the younger will be a teenager in September).  Those changes make me cling even more strongly to “I am a good teacher” and “I write like crazy, or like a crazy person, but anyway, watch me go.”

So, having lost a lot of time last summer to my father’s death and its aftermath, this summer the need to make progress on a long-contemplated prose book feels especially non-negotiable. I decided that May, when I wasn’t teaching but had various end-of-year school obligations, I could clear up a backlog. In June, I would hit the new book hard. May was, in fact, one of the most productive months I’ve ever had as a prose writer. I revised three essays, finished another that had been languishing in a state of near-completion, edited an interview with a poet, wrote two reviews of poetry books, and submitted the lot to various journals. That doesn’t mean they’re done, or I’m done revising and resubmitting. Still: triumph over pain!

Despite confidence, though, about what I have done, I feel totally appalled by what I need to do next. I have no faith that anything I’m writing is worthwhile. In the new manuscript, a book about twenty-first-century poetry but aimed at a general readership, I’m trying to keep out on the edge of what feels safe because at least life is interesting, out on a cliff. At least I’m not bored by the problem of putting sentences together, as I had been feeling when writing conventional scholarship. The new work, though, is challenging me at almost every level. At every juncture I ask: is this transition interesting, at least to me? Would somebody reading this sentence really want to step into the next one? Why does this paragraph matter? Those questions hurt.

And then school ended for my kids and my spouse came home from a difficult trip emptying out his mother’s condo: she has dementia now, he just moved her into assisted living, and a buyer wants the place in late June. I did feel full of the appropriate spousal compassion, but holding down the fort domestically for six days had meant drastically compressed work time. I had become panicky about not practicing my nausea and self-doubt. And then we had our annual argument about how the summer days should get split—who gets to write when—which meant making a case for time to do the sickening work I’m not convinced anyone will ever want to read.  My time comes at the cost of his time, and he’s a writer afflicted by existential nausea, too. So now there’s an extra pressure on my time at the desk, an extra reason to feel like puking.

Another question I ask myself when facing down that screen: is there something else I’d rather do for these few hours a day during the short span of an academic summer? Because, you know, I have tenure. I could just stop. I could do volunteer work or spend enough hours walking to compensate for my hatred of that efficient, high-intensity running stuff.  Perhaps I could surrender to my stealthily-growing Twitter addiction. After all, there are a lot of highly-disciplined writers out there. I’d have to be delusional to think my own effort was genuinely important.

But I have a strong, illogical compulsion to push through the pain. It’s primary programming: keep writing until the circuits die. It would be handy if I could believe a Master Programmer created this drive in me as part of an elaborate plan. Instead, I suspect it’s just some biochemical feedback loop, a serotonin delivery system or something. Yet here I am.

Two related posts you might be interested in, if you’re thinking about the same things: Jeannine Hall Gailey on whether you can get it done and still be a nice girl; Marly Youmans on creating good vibrations. That’s a nice idea, isn’t it, that all our good lines and sentences might be a way of improving the tuning of the universe? That’s not really why I write, though. I don’t know why I write