Friday, January 22, 2010

You don’t want me around

Can it be home?

When I worked for the Christian Century, I worked on an article about Beck. It was actually a review of an evangelical book that called him an “apocalyptic” artist--one whose work points to the brokenness of our times. I’ve been listening to a lot of Beck lately. I don’t know why. His albums, “Midnite Vultures” especially, skewer the politics and sexual ethos of our culture in a way that breaks my heart.

It begs the question: can art be Christian if all it does is shine a spotlight on our busted culture?

I’m having the same problem with my own work. The feedback I’m getting is that no one likes my characters. I admit, they’re not likable people. It’s a struggle to write the Great American Novel today and not include the repellent Americans that surround us. Maybe we don’t like to hear those stories because we don’t like to have a mirror held up to our own faces.

It’s immensely interesting for me to dive into the psyche of unappealing people. To find out what makes them tick. What could possibly be their motivation for doing the things they do? What’s wrong with our culture isn’t that we’re all a bunch of Hitlers, running around saying: we will crush the Haitians under our thumbs! No. We like to buy coffee at gas stations, drive across town for our yoga classes, eat beef burritos at Taco Bell. It’s those things that keep systemic oppression, structural violence, in place.

We want hope in our fiction, even if there isn’t any. We want characters to be likable, optimistic, heroic, even if the people we’re surrounded by aren’t. Without courageous protagonists as our proxy, what’s the point of art? Picasso had the same problem with representational visual art. Two-dimensional art is, by definition, unrealistic. It can’t represent the three-dimensional world we perceive. In a fraction of a second, we see both the rim of our coffee mug and its contents. Hence, cubism, and, thence, abstract expressionism.

Maybe we’ve outgrown heroes. A truly realistic novel would be immensely boring. People sitting in their cubicles tapping on keyboards. Curled up on their couches at night. Watching flashing screens ninety percent of their lives. Chapters would drag on and on endlessly. We don’t want realism. We want fantasy. We want characters who triumph over our own sordid circumstances.

I feel the same way about Beck’s music, sometimes. His lyrics are obscure, his music difficult. Sometimes I don’t want to hear about garbage trees or leprous faces. Even if I’m all alone in the new pollution, I don’t want to be.

At the depth of my depression last year, I told my brother I was listening to Beck. “Mutations,” mainly. (“Tell me that it’s nobody’s fault, nobody’s fault, nobody’s fault but my own...”) He said: “That’s the last thing you want to do! You are absolutely forbidden from listening to him!” I relented, went with John Prine and Steve Earle instead. It’s pretty bad when country music is a step up on the happiness scale.

Maybe I have to relent as far as my characters are concerned, too. Maybe the only way in which a work can be Christian is finding the image of God in people. That’s the only way they can be redeemed. Even Beck agrees: “True love will find you in the end.”

Saturday, January 16, 2010

We keep waiting for your footsteps

Lonely tent in morning light

It’s January and I’m camping alone, at Bucks Pocket State Park. I’ve done this once before, a solo overnight in January, as preparation for the Appalachian Trail. This time it’s just a lark. The advantage of camping in Alabama when it’s below forty degrees, and there are isolated patches of snow on the ground, is that I have the campground entirely to myself.

What’s incredible is how easy it actually is to do. I just threw my gear in the trunk, hopped in the car, and drove. I didn’t even know where I was going to end up. I followed road signs and GPS to a likely-sounding spot. Now I hear a rush of water to my right. My little fire holds back the darkness. The stars burn bright. I’m writing on actual paper, not keys, and the whole experience makes me feel like did on my boat, when I was actually living, not just putting in time.

It’s amazing how many more experiences fit into the same 24-hour day when I choose to live and not just exist. I haven’t been this alone, truly alone, in a long time. I haven’t proved to myself that I can do things alone. Things like pitch a tent in the dark, a tent that I stuffed in its sack and forgot five years ago. Things like build a kick-ass fire in under five minutes. Like survive outdoors in the winter.

I’m here because I’m hunting a piece of land. I want to see if I can find a home here, a real home somewhere in the middle of nowhere. On my drive today, the radio played me Roseanne Cash’s new version of “500 Miles.” I don’t want to be 500 miles away from home anymore. I don’t want home to feel forever out of reach, just beyond the next bend in the trail, across the next swell, over the next ridge. Home can be here, if I let it be.

Or can it? This state is notoriously hostile to outsiders, and I have exactly the wrong accent. Here I claim Maine, as it seems the closest state in ethos if not in voice, and no one down here has the least idea how a Mainiac sounds. In Maine, I was told I had a Southern accent. If that’s not irony, I don’t know what is.

Why is it so hard for any of us, me included, to do this? To jump in a car and cut ties with the known world? Because once I do it, it’s not hard at all. All it requires is a pair of figurative cojones and a good sleeping bag. But it’s still so, so hard. I fought against my own plan for days. I’m not sure if I was more afraid of wandering through the backwoods alone, or of allowing myself to find a place to put down roots.

I know, you’ve heard it from me before. And you’ll hear it again, I’m sure. My quest for home, unlike that of Ulysses, may be one that doesn’t have an end.

It’ll drop below freezing tonight. It may rain. I have twelve acres on a dirt road to survey tomorrow, and six acres outside Tuscaloosa on Saturday. Tomorrow I do the hunt for a campsite all again.

I can do it. I know I can--both the hunt for a home and for the road less traveled. Once I set out, the easiest thing in the world is doing exactly what I should do. If I believe and don’t doubt. If I allow myself to make mistakes. If I refuse to allow other people’s opinions of me to matter. It’s the hardest thing in the world, too.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Sorry My Mistake

Happy baby pose (My sister's photograph)

I’ve been going to an Ashtanga Yoga class—two hours on Saturday evenings. I had a much different idea of what Ashtanga was before I started. Everyone always called it “power” yoga, and I hated that idea, because what I love most about yoga is that it doesn’t deal with archaic ideas like power, or “cardio.” It allows me to focus on being exactly in the moment that I am in now, in the body I am in now.

Ashtanga is many things, but it is not “power” yoga. It’s typical of vinyasa flow classes, where each movement corresponds to a breath, exhale or inhale. And it is intense. Every class I end up moving forward into my practice deeper than I had imagined I could, and it’s because so much is asked of me that I allow myself to move to exactly the place my body needs to be.

My favorite yoga truism is, “your body meets the asana in time.” Asana is the Sanskrit word for pose, and I’ve found that to be true in the rest of my life as well. My body meets the asana in time. In time, I find myself in the place I’ve been trying to be. Half of it is not trying at all, but breathing into the muscles, into the pose, breathing in time. “Do or do not do,” said that old sage, Yoda. “There is no try.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about a Gardner quote lately, from his book On Becoming a Novelist. Even though I adore The Art of Fiction, I resisted reading his second fiction-writing book because its title seemed so cheesy. Shouldn’t a real novelist be able to write without a book on becoming a novelist? It seemed to be more about figuring out how to wear cool glasses and hang out in cafes than actually writing a novel.

But one quote stayed with me:
“In her apprenticeship years, she succeeds, like Jack o’ the Green, by eating her own white guts. She cannot help being a little irascible: some of her schoolfriends are now rich, perhaps bemused by the fact that one of their smartest classmates is still struggling, getting nowhere, as far as anyone can see.” [emphasis, and gender correction, mine]
It’s that “as far as anyone can see” that matters. It’s exactly like yoga. I move forward in a pose by inches, by breaths. Some days it’s merely a finger’s-breadth that my hand shifts forward, but that is where the asana is meeting my body in time. It’s that way, as I write. I inch forward, making no progress, as far as anyone can see. Only I know that I’m releasing, breath by breath. I know that my sentences are strengthening. I know that my plots are taking shape. As I huddle in my basement, dickering over words, shrouded in down and dried out by electric heat, I know I’m exactly in the place I need to be.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Stones polished, then in consciousness

Rocks and water

On the range of art from high to low, from fine to schlock, film has a way of spreading its net most broadly. I’ve always believed that moving pictures are the true art of our generation. They give shape to our zeitgeist, and they also fulfill Wagner’s definition of the highest art: they combine visual art, music, and poetry. But as with all of the greatest art, they have the most capacity to fail.

Baz Luhrmann is one of my favorite directors, not because his films are always successful, but because I always enjoy them, even when they fail. More and more, I’m paying attention to the way in which artists have to constantly pick themselves up after being slapped in the face by critics and the public. Being a successful artist requires, more than anything, resilience. After acerbic critical response (what comes to mind is the Rolling Stone writer, name now forgotten, who asked “what is this sh**?” after a Dylan album from the seventies), a musician, writer, filmmaker, has to pick herself up, dust herself off, and say: I’m going to continue to create.

A good example is Cormac McCarthy. I enjoyed All the Pretty Horses, and then encountered this bitter and caustic review in The Atlantic, and wrote him off entirely. It’s horrible to contemplate that I could write off entirely a writer’s oeuvre because of some thwarted critic’s mean-spirited, if well-intentioned, criticism. But I did. The article made some good points, points that any creative-writing teacher tries to drill into her students. But it also demolished the hope of every working author it mentioned. It gutted them wholesale.

I finally returned to McCarthy, after a ten-year absence, reading The Road this month. Maybe McCarthy was able to take the good criticism with the bad, because he met some of it head-on. What blows my mind, though, is that he found the courage to tell any story at all, and especially such a difficult, dangerous one. The book is a love story, the story of the love between parent and child. In a world of darkness and horror, he posits, love is what saves us.

Maybe the book’s successful. Maybe it’s not. But McCarthy was brave enough to write it. He stood in the face of brutal criticism and said: no. I will continue to write. I will continue to publish. I will continue to take on difficult subjects. You can’t stop me.

Luhrmann does the same thing. I recently saw “Australia,” a film destroyed by the critical press. It was overblown and a little hokey, but I liked it. The line that stays with me is when the Drover says: “I’m the richest man alive because I have the best stories. At the end of my life, I’ll have a story worth telling.”

I do, too. And having a great, grand story means risking failure. It means failing. It means picking myself up and dusting myself off and thumbing my nose in the face of the naysayers. At the end of my life, I want to follow Dave Eggers’s dictum, as he says here.
What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who's up and who's down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.
What matters is saying yes. Eggers says yes. McCarthy says yes. The Drover says yes. I will, too.