Sarah Polley & The Ghost Ship

I’ve been a little obsessed with both of writer/director Sara Polley’s most recent films. The latest is “Stories We Tell” (2013), which deserves it’s own blog post, but the one I’ve been studying is “Take This Waltz” (2012). It’s about a young married women (Michelle Williams) who decides to leave her husband (Seth Rogen) and the comfort of their so-so relationship to take a chance with the more arty/mysterious guy she’s drawn to (Luke Kirby). It’s on Netflix.

imagesNeedless to say my live-in boyfriend was a little concerned about me watching this somewhat glorified tale of adultery over and over again. Actually, scratch that, technically there is no adultery–the character leaves her husband before anything physical happens—it’s just that her flirtation and infatuation with the other guy is so intense it feels like cheating.

My boyfriend’s got a good point. This film could easily be interpreted as a form of wish fulfillment for someone who is unhappy in their relationship, which I am not. I am however rewriting a story called “Part Of A We” that explores some of the same issues.

Like the story I’m trying to write the movie is teeming with sexual tension. In the movie the climax is an uninterrupted four-minute sequence where we see what becomes of the lusty couple, complete with nudity and the Leonard Cohen song whirling in the background, while the camera spins around the couple like a marry-go-round through a montage of their new life together.

If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to spoil it don’t watch this… 

WaltzI use the phrase “wish fulfillment” because in the real world I do not think the majority of people in a so-so relationship would leave. Unless something is really wrong at some point it just seems easier to stay. Contentment beats loneliness.

The character in this film seems rather content but she wants more. We all want more and we will always want more. We will always long for something, which makes it feel as though we’re always settling for something.

In an interview about the movie Polley says that in order to make a film she has to be deeply interested in the question it asks. In this case the question is: what happens to lust when it comes to long-term relationships?

Everyone believes in love and its capacity to shift and morph into something wonderfully intimate and complex with time. But what about lust and sexuality? What are reasonable expectations in that realm? These questions are difficult to ask directly because they make people uncomfortable, which makes them perfect for fiction.

For however grand and romantic and satisfying the climax of the movie initially is, the final wrap-up is just as interesting and much more complicated. After all the great sex and abundance of lust between the two we eventually we cut to the new couple in an unexceptional moment. Michelle Williams is on the toilet and the new guy is brushing his teeth and you can feel the monotony between them. The relationship has become ordinary.

This month there was a fascinating article in Time about how millennials were surveyed to be open to “Beta Marriage” contracts, which is basically a two-year trial period in which either party may terminate the contract.

It seems reasonable right? Test the relationship and minimize risk.

If there is a lesson to be gleaned from “Take This Waltz” it’s essence is conveniently summed up in a fabulous line delivered by Sarah Silverman’s drunken character:

“Life has a gap it just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic.”

There are some moments in life where you have to pick a side. Who to marry. Whether to marry. Whether to have kids. You can try to ensure your decision with trial periods and pros and cons but ultimately you have to come terms with the decision, whatever it may be.

My favorite quote on the matter is from Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Surgar column on The Rumpus:

“I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

It is no accident that the female protagonist in this story has a fear of “being in between things,” like connecting flights. She’s not afraid of missing a flight she’s afraid of wondering if she’ll miss it.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what I’ve missed and what I will miss. In the end you eventually just have to act. And when it comes to the permanent decisions you have to find solace.

Take-This-Waltz-4

In the same interview above, Polley explains how we like to believe that if we could just make this one change or do this one thing then everything else in our lives would magically fall into place. In the film we see this play out. In the very last scene the protagonist returns to the carnival ride where she and the mysterious/artsy guy had their first outing together, when longing was at an all-time high. The first time we see the ride is it a magical place but in the end she is there all by herself. When the music starts and the colorful lights begin to flash and the ride begins to move she looks lonely and disappointed but eventually she smiles. She closes her eyes and enjoys the dizzying circular movements. She’s okay.

 

 

 

 

Stay In The Room & Other Writing Advice

In the last three months I’ve been to three writing retreats. The first was Lit Camp a small four-day deal in Calistoga, California. Then I was a teaching assistant at UCR’s ten-day residency in Palm Desert where I workshopped with other alumni. And finally I just got home from the Squaw Valley writer’s retreat.

I’ve put 1,109 miles on my car, have sat in over 50 lectures, have read 21 workshop submissions and have critiqued about 330 pages of other people’s work.

Needless to say I am so ready to get back to ACTUALLY FUCKING WRITING.

Seriously. If I have to sit through on more panel on “the future of the publishing industry” I think I might spontaneously combust.

Reading preference of Believer editor Casey Jarmen

Reading preference of Believer editor Casey Jarmen

I’m planning to write an essay for Lit Central about all this but in the meantime I have an entire notebook filled with bits of information–yes, I’m that dorky girl who takes out a pen and writes down the book you mentioned while you’re talking at a party.

What follows is just a random list of some of the things I wrote down and some doodles from the margins.

Quotes (I’m paraphrasing here): 

“I’m severely relieved when I find out that the people I need to talk to are dead” –Glen David Gold on researching for his memoir

A terrible attempt at drawing Glen David Gold

A terrible attempt at drawing Glen David Gold

“In American fiction nobody works” – Al Young (talking about giving your characters jobs)

“Poetry is to writing is what the piano is to music” – Al Young

“Workshopping should be for rough pieces, if not then that’s like cleaning up for the maid.” -Al Young

Three great statements from UCI professor Ron Carlson:

1) “Stay in the room.”

2) “Type yourself into the dark.”

3) “If you don’t know where you’re going why hurry?”

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“Writing is about building ramps to moments that matter. Then when the reader is in mid-air you slow down.” –Steve Almond

“You don’t get three adjectives you get two. It’s like accessorizing, you don’t want people to look at you and think “wow you’re wearing a lot of stuff” you want to look good.” –Susan Straight

“I don’t want to take 15% from a poet.” –Mollie Glick (in response to the question of whether poets have agents)

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“You don’t have to drink the whole carton to know whether the milk has gone bad” – Jennie Dunham (literary agent on reading submissions)

Recommended Reading (things people told me to read):

Story Collections: Last Night At The Lobster by Stewart O’Nan, Spectacle by Susan Steinberg, Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash, Twenty Grand: And Other Tales of Love and Money by Rebecca Curtis, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, The Last Chicken In America by Ellen Litman, The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, Like Love But Not Exactly by Francois Camoin, The News From Spain by Joan Wickersham, Nimrod Flipout by Etgar Keret, The Commuters by Cheryl Klein, Wearing Dad’s Head by Barry

Stories: Rock Springs by Richard Ford, Honeydew by Edith Pearlman, Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace

Novels: Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner, Duplex by Kathryn Davis, Gardening at Night by Diane Awerbuck, Tinkers Paul Harding, The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe, Shards by Ismet Prcic, Henderson The Rain King by Saul Bellow, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk by Tony DuShaneimage-7

Nonfiction (essays & books on writing): Rose Metal Press: Field Guide To Writing Flash Fiction, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story by Frank O’Connor, On Swarm by Tom Scocca, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction by Jill Talbot.

Folks I actually got to meet/chat with: Janet Fitch, Karen Joy Fowler, Michael Jaime-Becerra, Tara Ison, Rachel Fershleiser, Steve Almond, Susan Straight, Casey Jarmen, Tony DuShane, Rebecca Rubenstein, Al Young, Edan Lepucki, Glen David Gold, Amy Williams, Molly Glick, Elise Capron, Danielle Svetcov, Michael Carlisle, Andrew Tonkovich, D.P. Lyle, Andrew Sean Greer, Joanne Meschery, Christian Kiefer

Random Factoids and One-Liners:

Amy Tan was working as a business writer the first time she attended the Squaw Valley Writers Conference. It was 1985 and she was thirty-three years old. The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989. File Under: Things That Make Me Feel Better.

Here are two of her rejection letters that were on display at the conference. There was a poster board filled with them.

"the voice has to compensate for the fact that the characters, lacking complexity, are simply heroes or villains or nonentities…"

“the voice has to compensate for the fact that the characters, lacking complexity, are simply heroes or villains or nonentities…”

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-Edan Lepucki attended Squaw for the first time in 2007 and it wasn’t until this year, seven years later, that her debut novel “California” came out. File under: Patience Is A Virtue.

-Micheal Jaime-Beccerra says he tries to write 500 words a day and that he’s lucky if he’s kept all 2,500 words by the end of the week. File under: How To Eat An Elephant.

-The first draft is for yourself. The other drafts are you adjusting the story for an audience. (paraphrasing Glen David Gold)image-6

-The first story in a collection is a statement piece.

-You should know how much money is in your character’s pocket.

-The fear of plaid and fear of buttons are actual phobias.

New BFF’s: Penina, Mike, Ian, Janet, Ploi, Becky, Dawn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Year In Reading: 2013

After a close look at the books I read this year and which ones really got to me I’ve realized just how important emotional resonance is for me to truly love a book. I mean I love books that make me think and stories that take me to unexpected places but it order to really get me I have to feel something.

This probably seems obvious.

But it’s almost like this: I’d much rather read a story similar to a hundred stories that I’ve already read if it can stir a dramatic series of feelings within me versus an extremely original one-of-a-kind genius type story that leaves me cold. And I’m not sure that everyone would feel that way. Some people get bored more quickly. Of course the best stories can do both. I wonder if this is something I will grow out of. If my tastes will become more sophisticated if that’s what that means.

Anyway, this year I read thirteen story collections, ten novels, nine non-fiction and two novellas.

By accident I happened to read 17 books by women and 17 by men, which is kind of cool.

Here’s a breakdown of what I read:

Story Collections

Brief Encounters with the Enemy: Fiction by Said Sayarafiezadeh

There were a lot of things that I liked in this book. The characters lives were very ordinary, most come from working class backgrounds, and are the same type of people that I like to write about. There is a faint but eternal type of sadness within all of his characters. It’s quietly depressing. I like that he focuses on small moments. I think I will return to this book as an example of a linked collection, if I ever get around to writing criticism like I want to. There are not specific reoccurring characters but there are reoccurring character types and the stories are linked by location, subject, gender and several thematic threads. There are also reoccurring moments in this collection—young men leaving for war admit their fears to characters who don’t know how to respond and all the same thing “go kick some ass”—these details have a haunting quality and provide enough connective tissue to create an overall effect that is similar to what you’d find in a novel. The central conflict is the same through out. So on a structural level I was fascinated by this book, though I can see how many people might find it a bit dull.

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Didn’t love this one though it was well written. Just not a big fan of historical fiction but I’m glad I read it. At the end of each story she has a few paragraphs explaining where she found the idea for the story, whether they were based off of real people or taken from a line in a news article or what. It was really fun to finish a story and see where it came from, what was real and who was real and in some cases what happened to the people after the story ended.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I thought I would enjoy this book a lot more than I did, I’ve heard other writers rave about it but there were a lot of times where the premise of each story was marvelous but then in the execution sometimes the promise of the premise wasn’t fully formed. The worlds that she built were wildly creative though and the subject matter of each story felt original–which is hard to do sometimes with a literary short story collection, people are always writing about the same things over and over (the loss of parent/child/spouse, infidelity, terminal illness)–so in that sense it was really strong but it didn’t stop me in my tracks and knock me out in an emotional way. Reading this and Lydia Davis made me realize just how important a book’s emotional impact is for me to really love it.

Tenth of December by George Saunders

I read this book and listened to it too and I’m so glad I did. The opening story “Victory Lap” felt a little confusing at first but there is one line uttered by a young girl that is hard to forget: “But seriously! Is life fun or scary?” The story “Sticks” is forever burned in my brain. And “Escape From Spiderhead” is the most elegant story that I read this year. It was entertaining, thought provoking and so tight. I think it’s a testament to a writer’s strength when you can go through each line of a short story and feel as though each line needed to be exactly as it is and exactly where it is. And Spiderhead is a story like that, there is nothing extra and every sentence feels unchangeable.

I Want to Show You More by Jaime Quatro

This was one of my favorite books of the year. Each one of these stories was powerful and emotionally taxing in best possible way. There was also a lot of variety in as far as the structure of the stories. This is a good example of how a story collection can become something more through just a few well-placed reoccuring characters, locations and conflicts. A little goes a long way and Quatro manipulates this fact to great effect.

I Want to Show You More

Slut Lullabies by Gina Frangello

This was another great collection that had a big effect on me as a writer. After reading “As You See” I almost immediately started writing cheap knock-offs of that story. Once again it was the emotion that the author was able to inspire within me that did it but besides that  all the stories were extremely entertaining and fresh. I cant’ wait until her next novel comes out. Her voice is incredibly strong.

Rattling Wall Issues I & II edited by Michelle Meyering

Next year I’d really like to up my literary journal reading. I really enjoyed both of these issues. I was at the very first Rattling Wall event and it’s been really fun to watch this beautiful journal grow. I would list some of my favorites but I let a friend borrow my copies of each issue!

Stories For The Night Time and Some for the Day by Ben Loory

I read this book in one sitting, I absolutely loved it. Some of my favorites were “The House On the Cliff And The Sea” and “The Girl In The Storm.”  I don’t think I could ever write surrealist stories or fables but this book made me want to read more of that type of stuff and to get away from my tendency to focus on dirty realism when picking out story collections to read. It reminded me of all the different places we can go in fiction and more importantly what super short fiction can do. How a thousand word story can have as much or more impact then a six thousand word story.

Our Kind by Kate Walbert

The first story in this collection was really hard to get through. The rest were awesome though.  Some great insights into what it means to be a woman and a mother without being flowery or overly feminine, that probably sounds weird, I guess I mean that the subject matter is approached in a very direct and refined way that feels much more sophisticated than how such topics are often explored in more “chick lit-y” books.

Later at the Bar by Rebecca Barry

This was okay, I was expecting to hate it but it was alright. The bus driver story was the most impressive.

The Girl In The Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender

Excellent.

Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis

While I can appreciate what Davis does in her short fiction, I mean she is extremely original and creative and fun to read, but there is something about the writing that leaves me cold compared to other super short story writers like say Amy Hempel. I’m glad I read it though, I will probably read more of her. She’s one of those writers that makes me want to write every time I read her work.

The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank 

I couldn’t really relate to the somewhat affluent woman in this book, some of their problems felt a little melodramatic. Like the stakes weren’t that high for any of the characters. Very girly, not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just not my favorite brand of fiction.

 Classics

Slaughter House-Five-Kurt Vonnegut

Good. Again, I can see it’s phenomenal merits but it’s just not really my cup of tea. I liked Cat’s Cradle way more and I’m not sure why. I will be reading more Vonnegut though, from a craft perspective there is so much to glean and learn from this master story teller, especially when it’s comes to economy and brevity and all that.

Dubliners by James Joyce

Excellent.

A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway

Loved. Loved. Loved.

Cat’s Cradle 

Perfection.

Cult Classics

Wait Until Spring Bandini by John Fante

There is very little plot in this book but John Fante’s voice and his characters are good enough to follow anywhere. I will be reading more of him I’m sure. It’s no Ask The Dust but it was a vey quick and enjoyable read.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

This is a powerhouse of a book. It’s big and ambitious and fucked up and heart warming in a very twisted but fascinating way. I do think that it was way too long and I really didn’t care about the outer story compared to the inner story, but this was probably the most impressive novel I read this year. (Besides Winter’s Bone which is in a category of it’s own.)

Nonfiction

Let Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

This was fun but it didn’t seem to hit those more serious moments that his other books have been able to.

I Can Barely Take Care Of Myself by Jen Kirkman

This was awful. I’m working on a story about a women who chooses not to have children so I thought this might be a fun light-read and maybe even useful. But the author refuses to go deep, or be vulnerable. For instance she describes in detail how she meets her husband and how happy her marriage is but skips over the divorce completely which would have been way more interesting and offer the potential for the reader to feel some sympathy for the women but instead there is none and she becomes sort of unlikable. Seems like as a memoirist she just didn’t have the balls to go to those dark places. The behind the scenes look at becoming a comic was sort of fun to read though. I guess she would be considered a humorist more than a memoirist though? Does that let her off the hook a little? I don’t know.

The Sociopath Next Door By Martha Stout

I listened to this book and it was good, I learned a lot. I’m thinking about writing a novel about a sociopath or at least someone with sociopathic tendencies so I got what I needed from this. The reader of the audio book almost ruined it though she was too dramatic.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Loved.

Mastery by Robert Green

Loved this, it made me completely rethink what it means to be an artist and how to get to the places I need to go creatively. Insightful. Lots of great stories about historical figures.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Good.

That Used To Be Us by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum

This one started off really strong but felt a little two prescriptive at the end. But this was probably the most eye-opening book I read this year. Feel like I have a much better understanding of where the country stands in relation to the global economy in a lot of different ways. How and why we’ve fallen behind. Thomas Friedman can pretty much do no wrong in my book.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

This was my first DFW book. I’ve read bits and pieces of him here or there but this was my first big bite into his work. I listened to this collection so I don’t know if it would feel more dense or more challenging to read if I actually read it instead of listening it but I loved it. David Lynch essay was my favorite.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion 

Another audio book almost ruined by the reader, I thought Diane Keaton was a little too over-the-top to capture the subtle elegance of Didion’s prose. I will read more of her work in the future (like actually read it not listen to it).

Novels

The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge

Another one of my favorite books of the year. The voice is great, the central conflict feels really personal, the pacing is great and the reveal of information toward the end is really satisfying, the combination of funny/fucked-up/sadness that comes at you all at once is perfect. Overall wildly entertaining and emotional I read it faster than any book this year, just soared through it.

rob-roberge-book-the-cost-of-living

Winters Bone by Daniel Woodrell

I’m starting to find that I prefer smaller novels, stories with comparatively small plots focused mostly on one single character. This book is like that (so is The Cost Of Living and Wait Until Spring Bandini) it’s really a masterpiece, one of the finest books I’ve ever read. Like “The Things They Carried” good is my only way to describe it.

Richard Yates by Tao Lin

This book was excruciating to read at times but I also feel like I’ve been in the exact same type of relationship that the book follows, and there is something really charming and sweet about this story but it’s also totally fucking annoying.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

I can’t say I loved this book, once again for me to be carried away I really need that intimacy and emotional resonance and this book didn’t quite get me there (though there are definitely some vulnerable moments that we see between characters and plenty of self-loathing within the protagonist). But there were also times when this book was phenomenal, the futuristic stuff was great, the structure and shifting point of view was handled really well, the main character was funny and sad and sympathetic. Not really my cup of tea but I can see it’s many merits. Out of all the books this is the one that I seem to recall on a regular bases, I find myself hearing a tech news blurb or other trends in social media and then I think of this book. I have also seen people interact online and have thought “they’re so media…

We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane

Another book I devoured in a day or two. I loved the episodic nature of the narration, each characters unique voice and perspective and quirks. The editorial third person was fun to read. All in all it’s a great character-driven saga that showed incredible range, Crane can channel a nine year-old boy, an unlikable millennial, a man with dementia and all her characters with such ease. It’s impossible to get bored reading this book. It was also fun to read after reading a couple of her story collections to see how she’s transitioned into writing a more traditional novel (though I really think “All This Heavenly Glory” has many novel-esque qualities).

Novellas

Fly Over State

I don’t remember the plot of this book but I do remember that I liked it. It made me want to read more novellas. Wish I could say more.

Your Rightful Home

Ditto for this one.

Poetry

I do not read poetry.