Resurrecting a Literature of Revolution, an Interview with Derrick Jensen

March 18, 2011
Derrick Jensen has produced some of the most culturally significant writing about the environment (and about the psychological environment we live in as a result of the dominant philosophy of corporations) of the past decade. His work is filled with a love and rage and hope that few of us could sustain for a week let alone a lifetime of prolific writing.

At the height of the Bush era when I was living in a falling down farm house without reliable heat or hot water, I tore through The Culture of Make Believe, Welcome to the Machine, Strangely Like War, A Language Older than Words, Listening to the Land, and Endgame. And I was entirely absorbed and fascinated by Jensen’s perspective of the world—his ability to illuminate the many different kinds of coercion and brutality that we all take for granted, and his dedication to revealing what Arno Gruen called “the betrayal of the self.” Jensen is also one of the very few men writing today who addresses rape as a part of American culture.

Recently I asked Derrick Jensen what made him take on this kind of work. And as to be expected he didn’t mince words.
“Because the world is being murdered,” he said. “And because, as Berthold Brecht wrote, Art is not a mirror to hold up to life, but a hammer to shape it. It is the responsibility of those of us who have gifts in artistic forms to use those gifts in the service of our community, and in the service of justice, and in the service of life.”

Jensen sees the literary landscape today as divided. “There is a wonderful tradition of overtly political writing,” he said, “from people like Eduardo Galeano, Susan Griffin, and so on. But for the last 50 or 80 years there is another tradition in literature that declares that literature (and especially fiction) should not be overtly political. I find this tradition immoral and boring. And it's not even in touch with literature's history. Have they never read Steinbeck, Dickens, Crane, Hugo?”

“A great example of the degradation of much modern literature,” he said, “would be The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is about a guy who is narcissistic and an asshole who has a stroke and who can then only communicate by blinking. He writes a book, and frankly after the stroke he is just as narcissistic and just as much an asshole. The book was awful and boring, and was well received and called a triumph. But as I read it something kept niggling at me, until I realized what it was: this book has the same plot (although it's nonfiction) as Johnny got his Gun, but Johnny got his Gun is one of the best anti-war novels ever written. This is what has happened to too much literature over the past fifty years. And I will not participate in that degradation. I'm going to maintain and resurrect a literature of justice and revolution.”

Jennifer Block on Childbirth and Choice

March 18, 2011
The U.S. House of Representatives voted recently to withhold all federal funding from Planned Parenthood for birth control, cancer screenings, HIV testing, and other urgent care the organization provides for women. This month alone has seen an incredible backlash against women in this country; the attempt in congress to redefine rape, the attempt to change the word “victim” to “accuser” in rape cases, the attempt to introduce the classification of “justifiable homicide” in cases where an abortion doctor is murdered, and, without the slightest sense of irony, a proposed one billion dollar cut to Headstart.

Women’s health has long been a political issue. The choice to have a baby and the choice to terminate a pregnancy are each fraught with misogynistic restrictions that put women’s lives in danger.

I can think of no better person to illuminate this subject than journalist Jennifer Block, author of Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care.

Block, a former editor at Ms. magazine and an editor of the revised classic Our Bodies, Ourselves writes about the intersection between women’s health and politics. I spoke with her yesterday about choice and the inspiration for writing Pushed.

There are so many books on childbirth and parenting. What made you choose to write such an overtly political work on the subject?

The moment I realized that childbirth is political is the moment I learned of "underground" home birth midwives, I had the sort of “click moment” that feminists described in the 70s. Back-alley births? Wha? I was young when I started this research. I was reporting on abortion and contraception for Ms. magazine and the Village Voice. I was well aware of the history there, but I was sort of stunned by the fact that women were losing control of their bodies during wanted pregnancies, during childbirth. That if I lived in Indiana (or Illinois or North Carolina or a dozen other states at the time) the government was going to tell me where I could and couldn't have a baby. Keep your laws off my body, right? But also that if I went to a hospital I might not be "allowed" to get up and walk around, or to give birth squatting, or to eat and drink. It's clear to me now that all health is political. Money, power, gender, race, class, ideology greatly influence it. Medical practice does not run on research evidence alone. Women especially need to be aware and reminded of this. And in terms of maternity care, we put so much emphasis on the baby (see new “text4baby” campaign) but childbirth can be a make or break situation for women depending on the care. They can feel triumphant or they can feel raped.

Why is the issue of choice so important? Why doesn't choice end with fighting for abortion rights?

There's an unfortunate joke among maternal and child health folks that the reproductive rights community is concerned with everything BUT reproduction. But abortion rights are based on broader rights to autonomy, privacy, bodily integrity--the idea that your body belongs to you and anything that happens to it against your will is a violation, be it an unwanted pregnancy or an unwanted surgery. If a woman's rights don't disappear when she becomes pregnant, then the movement should protect and defend them whether she decides to terminate the pregnancy or carry it to term. A more expansive notion of "choice" would make for a bigger tent, I think, and a politically stronger one. I've met birth activists who are morally opposed to abortion but support it because they understand the implications for their "right to choose" a home birth, or their right to refuse a cesarean, or their right to breastfeed in public. "Choice" has to stand for more than a procedure.

Were you responding or reacting to social, literary or journalistic trends that were apolitical, depoliticizing or focused heavily on gender based marketing?

I was definitely responding to a silence on the subject. When I began looking into this, the mainstream media wasn't covering it, feminist groups weren't concerned about it, and the medical establishment acted like there was no problem, nothing to talk about. Even the midwifery establishment (if you can call it that) initially downplayed the fact that some of their cohort must practice outside the law. I forget who famously said go to where the silences are, but that's where my instincts went. Not that this made my job any easier—I tried for years to get articles published and hit many editorial roadblocks. I suppose I was also responding to the faux ethic of “balance” in journalism that often just reinforces the dominant opinion rather than genuinely questioning it. For example, a challenge to the status quo by midwives or public health researchers or god forbid regular women is dismissed by the go-to OBs (who've been quoted in every other article on the subject), and that settles that. Of course, quoting both sides doesn't necessarily achieve balance, because one side may have much more cultural authority than the other. I struggled a lot with this issue of balance and credibility as I dug deeper into the subject and began to form a point of view. I never saw myself as an “advocacy journalist” and yet of course I was developing some opinions as I became informed—How could I not? There's a time and place for objectivity, but we also need journalists to be human, to think critically and allow their thoughts and feelings to inform their work. That's not bias, it's intelligence.

Our Stories, Ourselves; an Interview with Alexis Santi

March 18, 2011
The recently released Vida report, tallying the disparity between men and women being published today is a sobering reminder of how much work we have ahead of us.

Today I had a chat with Alexis Santi, founder of Our Stories Literary Journal on the subject. Santi earned his MFA from George Mason and his MSW from Washington University at St. Louis. He’s edited four anthologies of fiction and interviews and his own work has appeared in a number of literary journals.

As a small press publisher what do you think about the recent Vida study which has revealed sexist publishing practices at several major magazines?

The study proved to eliminate any doubt that the publishing industry is ruthlessly interested in perpetuating a cycle of discrimination against women. However, I would like to add that this cycle of discrimination does not end at women, that the lack of representation of all of us in any excluded groups: Latinos, African Americans, Asians, Gays, Transgender, etc... is troubling and as of yet, undocumented.

Publishing is a reflection of the inequities of society. To be ignorant of this fact is to be ignorant of the inequities inherent in society itself. In the same way that history is not only written by the victors, those who are chosen to write those histories must themselves reflect the power structure. So for example, to me, the story of JT LeRoy aka Laura Albert, the woman who wrote as a man and fooled the industry is much more instructive than the lampooned James Frey and how he fooled himself into thinking he was a writer. Whether it’s the editor never culling fresh writing without connections or it is they’re not taking the calls of particular agents, I wish I knew. In the end, it’s the entire system that I find alienating not just a single aspect of it.

What are the stats for men and women being published in Our Stories?

In the past five years we published 45 men and 38 women. That’s 54% men to 46% women.

Do more men submit more work to OS than women?

We collectively don’t have the data to answer this in any way. Short of counting on our fingers. The arts as a field are notoriously shoddy in all things data or research driven. It’s our Achilles heel and what makes us sound clueless when asked for proof as to whether what we “do” adds value to society. What makes this truly sad, is what data that does exists out there, success in the arts, etc.. is shoddy academic work dittoed without adequate peer review.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I am a humanist and that title includes being a male feminist. I am a believer that there is no hierarchy of oppression. The only way to change this system is by changing ourselves and breaking this cycle.

Ace of Spades; an Interview with David Matthews

March 18, 2011
David Mathews’ memoir Ace of Spades is the story of the author’s bleak childhood and adolescence in inner city Baltimore. A confessional, coming of age story that employs poetic language and sardonic wit to restrain and redirect the rage comprising the heart of the book.

Though published in 2007, Ace of Spades feels very much the work of another era stylistically. It also feels like the work of another era because the plot centers around Mathews, a mixed race kid, passing as white.

Ace of Spades stands out as a work of serious self-reflection and cultural analysis, a work that goes beyond the solipsism of other memoirs of the time and remains today a work of true revelation.

I recently asked David Mathews about the political subtext of Ace of Spades.

“For me,” he said “there happened to be a political element, or more correctly a sociological element, inherent in my story of growing up mixed in America. I didn't see a way around addressing the institutional forces which prompted most of the decisions I made. So the personal was necessarily political.”

“I was sort of reacting to the trend of memoirs written by (usually) white men of a certain age and class,” Matthews said. “whose stories seemed to have import only as far as the specifics of their lives, and maybe those just like them. Very few told me anything about the human condition, or gave me a glimpse into a world of stakes, with real consequences. Whether James Frey got clean (of his bullshit, entitled, self-imposed debauch) or Dave Eggers became the next great whatever, meant very little to me. I also wanted a literary style that freed the book from time or place, so I chose a kind of 19th century, ornate form-- kinda Poe meets Goethe. I wanted someone to pick it up a hundred years from now and have it feel timeless, like a black & white movie.”

Why we Read; an Interview with Philipp Meyer

February 03, 2011
When I first read Philipp Meyer’s American Rust I was struck by the poetry of it and exhilarated by the issues the author brought to light. It was the first novel I’d read by a contemporary that excited my sensibilities for language as well as meaning. It’s a courageous and deeply sensitive piece of fiction and to me it heralded the beginning of a new kind of writing and possibly a new kind of masculinity—something less solipsistic, less bent on traditional expressions of power, and steeped in an understanding of the current economic decline and demoralization of men’s characters. As these are issues I’m interested in; family, gender, economic decline, the transformation of the rural landscape, and the momentum of real life events that can sink the lives of exceptional people; I was more than a little curious about Meyer’s thinking when he wrote the book—whether there was an overt political idea he was trying to impart to his readers.

I wondered if he was responding to the trends that preceded American Rust, the so called works of “Dick-Lit” and “Chick-Lit” that have categorized and infantilized readers as handily as if they were five-year-old shoppers in the “Toys-R-Us” gun or doll aisles. I wondered if he began with a political conception for the book.

Last week I stopped waiting for the man to release a statement on the subject from his ranch or gun range or hunting camp in Texas, and just flat out asked him. What was going on behind the scenes when he was writing about Billy Poe and Isaac English?

“As far as I can tell, my work comes from a million different places in my subconscious,” Meyer said. “And even when I typed the last word of American Rust, I did not think of it as a political novel. But of course you cannot write about people without giving them a context.”

“Probably like most people, I tend to draw a distinction between books written as entertainment and books written as art. “Chick Lit” is entertainment, which is fine. I think the majority of books printed have always been this type of book—if you look at the bestseller lists from 50 years ago, you probably haven’t heard of any of the authors, but they sold millions and millions of copies.”

But Meyer said for him the bigger issue was writing amidst today’s prevailing literary context: postmodernism “It’s been the dominant literary movement of the past sixty or so years. And while there are certainly good postmodern novels, overall we're talking about a literature that has the most narrow tonal and expressive range of any movement I can think of, worse than the Victorians.”

“So if there was a sort of novel I consciously did not want to write,” he said, “it was the social novel as conceived by the average postmodernist, in which the characters speak things straight from the mind of the author—sociology theories from a textbook, economics theories from a few issues of the Wall Street Journal, maybe some organic chemistry. The reason those novels work, when they do work, is they generally enlist the reader as a sort of accomplice, by giving her/him the sense that ‘you are very smart if you understand this.’ Most postmodern lit doesn’t create worlds so much as massage the reader’s ego. You read the novel, you feel smart. You feel like you belong to a club. The genius of it being that while you're pretending to appeal to the reader's intellect, you're actually just telling them how smart and good-looking they are.”

“But of course when you finish those books, you have not seen anything differently, you have not lived inside another person’s head. And that to me is why we read novels, is why we are drawn to art in general. It helps us understand other people, it helps us make sense of the world, maybe” he said, “it helps us understand ourselves.”

Why We Read: An Interview with Philipp Meyer

February 02, 2011
When I first read Philipp Meyer’s American Rust I was struck by the poetry of it and exhilarated by the issues the author brought to light. It was the first novel I’d read by a contemporary that excited my sensibilities for language as well as meaning. It’s a courageous and deeply sensitive piece of fiction and to me it heralded the beginning of a new kind of writing and possibly a new kind of masculinity—something less solipsistic, less bent on traditional expressions of power, and steeped in an understanding of the current economic decline and demoralization of men’s characters. As these are issues I’m interested in; family, gender, economic decline, the transformation of the rural landscape, and the momentum of real life events that can sink the lives of exceptional people; I was more than a little curious about Meyer’s thinking when he wrote the book—whether there was an overt political idea he was trying to impart to his readers.

I wondered if he was responding to the trends that preceded American Rust, the so called works of “Dick-Lit” and “Chick-Lit” that have categorized and infantilized readers as handily as if they were five-year-old shoppers in the “Toys-R-Us” gun or doll aisles. I wondered if he began with a political conception for the book.

Last week I stopped waiting for the man to release a statement on the subject from his ranch or gun range or hunting camp in Texas, and just flat out asked him. What was going on behind the scenes when he was writing about Billy Poe and Isaac English?

“As far as I can tell, my work comes from a million different places in my subconscious,” Meyer said. “And even when I typed the last word of American Rust, I did not think of it as a political novel. But of course you cannot write about people without giving them a context.”

“Probably like most people, I tend to draw a distinction between books written as entertainment and books written as art. “Chick Lit” is entertainment, which is fine. I think the majority of books printed have always been this type of book—if you look at the bestseller lists from 50 years ago, you probably haven’t heard of any of the authors, but they sold millions and millions of copies.”

But Meyer said for him the bigger issue was writing amidst today’s prevailing literary context: postmodernism “It’s been the dominant literary movement of the past sixty or so years. And while there are certainly good postmodern novels, overall we're talking about a literature that has the most narrow tonal and expressive range of any movement I can think of, worse than the Victorians.”

“So if there was a sort of novel I consciously did not want to write,” he said, “it was the social novel as conceived by the average postmodernist, in which the characters speak things straight from the mind of the author—sociology theories from a textbook, economics theories from a few issues of the Wall Street Journal, maybe some organic chemistry. The reason those novels work, when they do work, is they generally enlist the reader as a sort of accomplice, by giving her/him the sense that ‘you are very smart if you understand this.’ Most postmodern lit doesn’t create worlds so much as massage the reader’s ego. You read the novel, you feel smart. You feel like you belong to a club. The genius of it being that while you're pretending to appeal to the reader's intellect, you're actually just telling them how smart and good-looking they are.”

“But of course when you finish those books, you have not seen anything differently, you have not lived inside another person’s head. And that to me is why we read novels, is why we are drawn to art in general. It helps us understand other people, it helps us make sense of the world, maybe” he said, “it helps us understand ourselves.”

Bad Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

January 27, 2011
Readers of my blog (and friends) will know my mother as the person whose ideas about parenting included reading booze-drenched modernist classics to me when I was eleven. So, it will not come as a surprise to anyone that when I was a few years older than that, she dropped me off at a Kurt Vonnegut reading while she went to a lecture in another part of town. I was a big Vonnegut fan at the time and thrilled to be seeing him.

I’d spent an entire summer lying on the couch with the headphones on reading his books. Though I had not survived the bombing of Dresden, I felt that, like Billy Pilgrim, I’d become “unstuck in time.” When Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door to discuss damnation I would tell them that I was a “Bokonist” the religion practiced by the characters in Cat’s Cradle. And it goes without saying that Kilgore Trout’s “career” as a washed up homeless science fiction writer was one to which I very seriously aspired.

But the biggest influence Vonnegut exacted over me was at this reading, where he told the students in the audience they didn’t need to go to school and could just as well drop out.

It was fantastic! I felt like a boulder had been pushed off the hole I was buried in, and light was streaming down upon me. I was so excited I could actually feel the hair on my neck stand up. It was so simple. I didn’t have to go to school, I could just walk away. I’d been entertaining the thought since kindergarten, but Kurt Vonnegut was the first adult I’d heard emphatically state that school was entirely unrelated to success. And he was obviously more successful than anyone I knew. My stupid parents, who grew up poor, seemed to think school was the reason our family had things like food and a house and a car. But really they should have been thinking about how school made them boring automatons who had to dress up for work, not famous writers like Kurt Vonnegut who could obviously wear whatever the hell he wanted and never comb his hair or shave.

“Now I really wish I’d gone to that talk with you,” my mother said yesterday when I asked if she remembered it. “But really, why the hell would you have listened to any of that?”

Good question. I am certain that I was constitutionally incapable of going to school. And I am also certain that the kind of reading I did as a kid created a specific kind of mental model that made me prone to dropping out. Vonnegut was just in the right place at the right time to solidify my plan.

My mother went on to describe Vonnegut as a “wild-eyed guy with a scruffy mustache,” and then pointed out a number of suspect role models I’d had since childhood, the majority of them fictional, including: Oscar from the Odd Couple, Eliot Vereker, Jake Barnes, and one unfortunate autumn, the very real Hunter S. Thompson and Jean Paul Sartre which allowed me to combine the concept of “existence preceding essence” with some pretty anti-social behavior.

Notice something about these idols? Not a lady in the mix.
And it seems no coincidence that the lives of men in these eras had more than a little in common with the lives of children. A kind of freedom that leaves unseen others to pick up and provide care and progeny. They were not such far-fetched imaginary peers for a middle schooler.

While Kurt was freeing me from the prison of academia, my mother was at an Adrienne Rich lecture. While I was planning my escape from education and middle class culture, my mother was working her ass off to get the degree she’d missed because she was raising three kids and supporting the idealistic career of her husband. While I was fighting every second to remain a genderless brain on a stick, my mother was living as a smart, uneducated woman in a small conservative place with few opportunities.

It didn’t take a genius to see that growing up to be a real woman in the real world might be worse than growing up to be Kilgore Trout.

It was just as I quit high school and was living on my own that my mother gave me Joan Didion to read. Specifically an essay about Haight Ashbury. About how the convergence of political events and ideologies, lifestyle, and aspirational living caused a generation to neglect their children; caused their children to be precocious, lost, at risk for various kinds of violence, accidents, and failures. And caused women to conceive of themselves as liberated while giving up their most basic freedoms.

“You will really like this,” she said simply. “It made me think of you.”

My mother has not always been there for me. As a woman coming of age when she did, she was not always there for herself. But without fail she gathered the literary angels that helped me think and write and live.

“Damn right, toots,” she said when I thanked her. “I knew what I was doing.”

Oh, I would not Give you False Hope

January 19, 2011
I get asked a lot of parenting questions these days and questions about being a single mother. I think this is partly because many of my friends and peers are having their first kids or raising toddlers, while my son is nearly grown—a brainy, wiseass musician entering college who is sweet enough to send me things like youtube videos of Mr. T singing “I pity the fool who don’t love his mother.”

I also get asked about parenting because of the kind of writing I’ve been doing this last year, particularly So Much Pretty—which examines family and community life and the lives of children, looks at how these things are impacted by broader economic, and cultural issues.

I talk to friends about children. But I have never written about my child. This isn’t because he’s not a charming, interesting, well adjusted guy, but because until very recently, he was too young to consent to being a subject. And this may be the crux of any parenting philosophy I have. A concept that has more to do with the cultural landscape than the nursery. I have also never written about single parenting for the same reason. The fact is you can’t get informed consent from a child to write about his or her life. And there is an enormous conflict of interest in being the parent and the writer when it comes to these topics.

Chris Cleave, known for his outstanding novel Little Bee, put it best when explaining why he would no longer be writing the popular “Down with the Kids” Column about his children for The Guardian. In discussing his son Cleave wrote:

“…his brilliant insights are becoming revelatory of him as an individual, rather than of the condition of infancy in its universality. This is a magical and a fragile time; it belongs to him alone and isn’t mine to redistill and reinterpret.”

I’m always shocked when I read the kind of intimate exposure to which parents who blog subject their children. And I would urge parents—especially mothers, many of whom have become a whole demographic of “mommy bloggers” to avoid entirely the aesthetics of this trend which exposes the personal lives of children and overrides their autonomy while failing to address the issues that directly and intimately impact the way we are able to care for them—like economics, health care and sexual politics.

The practice of blogging about children has also gone a long way to increase the sense of children as accessories to adult lives, stories to tell, mannequins for cute clothing and representation of financial or cultural status, vessels to be filled with life lessons, or contrawise precious little Buddhas that have taught us humility by throwing up on our Brooks Brothers jackets. The fact that many parenting and mommy blogs sell ads to diaper, food and toy companies has eroded the intimacy of family life, and particularly children’s lives, making them vehicles for commerce; ways to sell the products of large corporations whose vested interests are rarely in line with creating a safe and acceptable future for children.

(In March The New York Times did an excellent job looking into the trend of mommy blogging and the commodification of childhood in a piece titled “Honey, Don’t Bother Mommy. I’m too Busy Building my Brand” which can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/fashion/14moms.html)

Cleave is right in saying that our children’s lives belong to them to interpret. And I would go a step further. We need to reclaim the private intellectual and emotional space of parenting. Contemplation, not continual outside affirmation and commentary is essential for real bonding with the people to whom we gave birth.

Loving your child is about being present, about being conscious of the things that will shape their lives inside and outside of the home. We live in a world where several million women and a smaller number of men are blogging about their children and that’s an amazing thing. But a majority of these blogs are really about the parent—the exasperated anecdotes that mask the unaddressed feelings of powerlessness and fear at the heart of being a new mother or father awash in emotions.

Anxiety is a big part of being a parent. The terror that your child might be hurt or that your child might hurt someone else is at the core of raising another human being. Exposing the intimate details of your child’s life to the world may allay some of that anxiety by elevating them to celebrity status—but it is ultimately counter intuitive.

So I am asking you—“mommy (and daddy) bloggers”—who are looking for community, affirmation and support, during the trying time of raising infants and toddlers, folks who want to show the world how much you love your children. Look to the concrete issues you can support that will make care and love manifest. And blog the hell out them.

Here are a few good resources to start with:
National Center for Children in Poverty http://www.nccp.org/
Human Rights Watch http://www.hrw.org/
Convention on the Rights of the Child http://www.unicef.org/crc/
Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media http://www.seejane.org/
Union of Concerned Scientists (citizens and scientists for environmental solutions) http://www.ucsusa.org/

…and like I tell my friends, it can never hurt to get rid of the television

The Boys from County Hell

January 19, 2011
Recently a friend who’s been reading my blog asked why I only write about the things I think and not about things I do or stories about my life. It’s a good question. And while the obvious answer is that I’m trying to maintain some privacy, the bigger picture is that it’s not easy to write about the people you love.

But since it keeps coming up, I have two stories for you about my brothers.

The first brother story is simple:
While walking home from first grade in the wintertime some older boys walking behind me started throwing snow balls. They hit the back of my coat and I ignored them, but finally one hit the back of my head and I turned around. That was when they stopped laughing and looked shocked and horrified. “Oh shit.” one of them said “Oh my god.” They ran up to me, brushed the snow off my coat and hat and out of my hair, asked if I was okay and did I need them to walk me home? “Please,” they said, “don’t tell your brother.” This sense of guardianship is very likely the reason I’ve never had any accurate sense of my own height and weight. And while our politics and values often drastically diverge, while this brother called me by no other name than “little bonehead” for twenty-five years, (even going so far as to make me a Christmas present of a racoon skull with the words “little bone head” decoupaged all over it). He’s also clearly the reason I’ve rarely had a sense of limitations. If a little girl can instill horror in neighborhood thugs just by turning around, if she can become a woman who accepts skulls as presents, she can move through the world differently.

The second brother story is more complex but doesn’t involve animal bones:
Years ago, driving to the ocean with my younger brother the two of us were captivated by the site of a forest fire. Trees black as soot, stunted and narrow and shaped like coral stood beside the tall green canopy of pines and maples that flanked the road.

That’s amazing my brother said and I nodded. It was otherworldly. An outgrowth of Hieronymus Bosh’s hell sprung like an oasis inside the neat chuck of remaining forest that hadn’t been turned to highway.

My brother, who was paying for this trip, was a businessman who lived in Manhattan and worked seventy hours a week. He was so overextended he sometimes fell asleep in the shower while getting ready for work. The two of us talked on the phone often in those days when he was driving home, about books and politics and if there was some kind of unifying theory that could make things right in the world. I urged him nearly every day to quit his job, a job that would in just a few hours see us basking on the beach and eating lobster on the pier. This was the first vacation I’d had in more than five years. I had at the time an 11th grade education and had just been laid off from my job landscaping gardens on the campus of a lesser Ivy League school in a small gray town unreachable by trains. I was raising my son, collecting unemployment, writing and freelancing.

Which of us was, at that point in our lives, the domesticated forest and which was the site of the fire was a question that played out silently while we drove.

My brother supported my writing and he supported me when I was out of work and it made me feel simultaneously like a complete failure, and like a very loved, very lucky person.

I have lived between these brothers my whole life. One, now a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who has sleeve tattoos, three children, a dog, a house in the suburbs, and his own unfinished manuscript; the other, now a bio-ethicist, who lives so lightly on this earth and in his skin and so heavily in his mind, his ultimate goal is to own nothing, to move with his wife into a Volkswagon camper van with a couple changes of clothes.

Fraternity and diversity are what I know most deeply of family. My brothers have made it possible for me to know what it feels like to love unconditionally a businessman and a soldier. And this is no small thing, to see behind the curtain of the dominant culture of men and corporations and war, and to know that they are built on the intentions and talents of individual boys.

Something to Say

January 19, 2011
When I was a child my favorite story was a piece by James Thurber that my mother used to read to me. It was called “Something to Say” and it was about an alcoholic writer named Elliot Vereker, an eccentric whose genius was confirmed by the number of terrible things he did; freeloading on friends, crashing parties, breaking light bulbs on the ground because he liked the sound of shattering glass, wrenching plumbing away from the walls and denouncing the achievements of those around him because they were all fools. Despite this he was loved and respected—seen as a guy who wrote something of substance. To my eleven year old mind, Vereker seemed the perfect role model.

The same year I fell in love with Vereker, my mother read me The Sun Also Rises, Portrait of the Artist, Waiting for Godot and The Canterbury Tales. It’s safe to say I came to envision a certain literary lifestyle as a child and set out to achieve it. Bums, wanderers, drunks, and lunatics populated my internal landscape. Mostly because they were to me, at nine or ten or eleven, incredibly funny, possessed of some great mystery.

I wrote every day as a kid, and every day as a teenager, and nearly every day as an adult. Writing and reading were worlds without hierarchy. Without rules. Where the sneakers you wore or the place you lived, or later, the jobs you had to take, didn’t matter. Writing was a place where experiences, euphoric, or mundane, or incredibly shitty, could be put to use. Could be made into something, instead of just making you into something.

I carried this feeling with me everywhere. It helped me leave home and leave school and leave the country. It helped me have a baby. It helped me work for a radical newspaper and leave work at a dead end literary magazine for a bartending job that brought me to the setting of So Much Pretty. And it helped me get through the days while working at a small town Daily—where people really do come into the newsroom to scream in your face when they’re pissed. Scream at me, part of you thinks. I know what the roof of your mouth looks like now. I know what it feels like to be bored and disgusted at the same time as worrying I’ll lose my job. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t make up.

Thurber wasn’t just doing a character sketch with Elliot Vereker. He was satirizing the idea of genius. The well worn concept that in order to write you have to be some kind of brilliant fuck up. Some kind of suffering monster. And this is probably what I love most about the story, how insufferable Vereker is—how he is an upfront loser, a cad with everyone but they insist he’s special, smart. His eccentricity is proof enough.

I have loved many eccentrics, and many drunks, all of them one kind of artist or another and I was for a time, in very good company with them. I love many of them still but I don’t buy the mystery. Don’t believe the hype. I think of these Vereker-esque personas a good deal these days while I am honing exactly what it is I should say to describe my life to people that may be interested. What will it be? The classic list of terrible jobs that shows real world chops and my commitment to writing all in one? The too cool for school story? There are, it seems very few templates, well worn mantles of “genius” available. Should I talk about ballet lessons or sleeping in train stations or my ethnic heritage? My politics? My child? What fable does the reader want about the writer? What piques interest and draws them to the novel, to the real thing. Because the real thing, after all, is what this is about—not persona.

The fact is this: You are what you do. There are few professions as exhaustively personal and revealing as writing—and this is true for fiction and non-fiction alike.
I can say many things about myself and already have in this short essay, but there is little I, or any other person you don’t really know, especially someone talking to a mass audience, can say about themselves that would reveal with sufficient depth who they are. If I tell you a story about who I am as a writer, it’s because I want you to read my work. If you want to know who I am, I promise you will find me there.

I want you to read my work because I have something to say. Not something about me. Something about us.

In the next several months I will be writing about these things; books, and personae, and what I do. Feel free to check back. I’ll be here.

Arson, Baby Seats and Dinner for Two

January 19, 2011
I was putting a picture of me and E. into a new frame recently when I took the backing off and found a foodstamp. The old-school paper kind, printed with the words "food coupon." I suspect I put it there to remind myself of something.

It made me happy to see it—not because my kid is all grown up and we don’t need foodstamps anymore—or because it’s a symbol of struggle and achievement but because these pieces of paper have good associations for me. They meant we could go grocery shopping.

During the time we were on foodstamps and WIC, I didn’t know how to drive, so we would go shopping by bicycle and E. would hold the bag in his lap in the baby seat. We had moved from a squat on the Eastside of Buffalo because of shootings and arsons and annoying hippie housemates, to an apartment on the Westside—our own space with a small public library nearby and a little yard.

We were on welfare for two years—and we typified American public assistance recipients at the time; white, not formally educated, a woman, a child, generally in the program for a little over a year, usually during a time of transition.

The picture of me and E. was taken by a friend when we were visiting the city. We are leaning back on a couch together—E. is short and grinning, resting his head against me and I look like a tired, nerdy, kid; a book open on my lap, wearing black framed glasses and a black sweater.

When I think about where we came from I’m not ashamed of having lived it, or proud of having gotten out. The shame of the kind of poverty that threatens to keep a mother from feeding her child lies squarely elsewhere. And having pride just for scraping your way up to that place is for fools.

I no longer know why I put the foodstamp behind the photograph. Unless it was to remember our rides to the grocery store, our hours of reading, or the happiness of feeding my baby. Memories that make it clear that, regardless of what we want, we all need the same things.

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