Commonplace Books & Other People’s Words, Post Election

fullsizerender-6On the recommendation of two of my students in the advanced memoir / creative nonfiction class I’m currently teaching, I recently went back and finished Mary Karr‘s excellent The Art of MemoirIn Chapter 19, “Old-School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr suggests keeping a commonplace book: “a notebook where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose out. Nothing will teach you a great writer’s choices better. Plus you can carry your inspiration around with you in compact form.” She includes other great exercises—memorizing poems, writing reviews, and augmenting a daily journal with a reading journal.

I first came across the term “commonplace book” on a former colleague’s syllabus. Martha and I taught at Marymount Manhattan College, and she showed me her syllabus for Narrative Fiction (English 180?), the introductory literature class I would also be teaching. I loved the idea of this—a reading journal.

Both Karr and poet & editor Mark Pawlak, with whom I read last week, mentioned the practice of keeping a commonplace book, and I feel inspired to keep such a book apart from my regular journal—right now they are combined in one notebook so unless I go back to my journals to flag and cull excerpts from what I’m reading, I sometimes lose those copied out passages. In fact, I wrote out the following quotes from Karr’s book in my journal last week. This post will be a kind of online supplement to my commonplace book—I’d like to try doing that and see if it feeds my writing and teaching at all—making some of this commonplace book visible and available. Ideally, it would also be a potential resource for other writers or my students, but also a resource for me to look back at what I found interesting or inspiring. Here are some of her words that struck me.

From The Art of Memoir:

No matter how much you’re gunning for the truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle. Start trying to bring yourself to the page and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision. (153)

In her chapter on revision (Chapter 24: “Against Vanity: In Praise of Revision”): “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” —quoting Mark Twain

She also quotes from G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (on 217):

I have never done anything ‘useful.’ No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world….Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil, and outside mathematics it is trial anyhow…I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value that differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

I’ll add one more quote, not from Karr, but rather from Rebecca Solnit. My friend Gail Hosking showed this to me (pasted into her journal), when I mentioned I’d been crying earlier in the day—still stunned over the results of the election.

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings that may be at odds with your soul, your destiny, your humanity, so there’s another kind of success in becoming conscious that matters and that is up to you and nobody else and within your reach.

This helped, to see what Gail had copied and pasted into her journal. I shared Solnit’s words with my students last night too, all such devoted and inspiring writers themselves. I felt better after reading and discussing their thoughtful work.

I’m sharing a couple of blog posts by writer friends, which also helped to deal with the helplessness, despair, and mourning that engulfed me and so many of us this week.

Recent News

The Cleveland State University Poetry Center announced that my book manuscript, How to Make Your Mother Cry, was a finalist in its 2016 Essay Collection Competition. The other press that recently awarded my manuscript finalist status is also in Ohio: The Ohio University Press’s 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize. What makes this ironic is that the essay I wrote last week for the Kenyon Review was about Ohio and my fear of the Midwest.

In other good news, my essay “Married,” was published last week— in the literary journal Waxwing —Issue 9, Summer 2016. I spent my 20s and 30s going to weddings—over 50 of them (I counted when planning my own wedding last year). I love weddings—they are such joyous events— but there was also a point, in my early-30s, when it felt bittersweet to always be attending these celebrations solo.

My friend Elliot once pointed out that part of weddings is about getting single people in one’s community together—that weddings are a good place to meet people. I met people, but never the right ones. This essay is about that time in my life when I attended so many weddings.

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Still of my sister-in-law and me from the wedding video.

“Married,” an essay written about two of many people I did not marry, begins:

We were in the airport. I can’t stay in this moment. You were sweating so much you needed to find paper towels. You found the usual symbol indicating the usual room. I waited for you, by your bags, watched the people on the moving walkway, standing or walking. Here was all of it: the travel and tiredness. The rolling black suitcases and the pale green suits. Read more here.

No One Is Ordinary; Everyone Is Ordinary

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Elizabeth McGovern on the left; Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton on the right. Robert Redford directed Ordinary People.

Here’s a link to my latest essay for the Kenyon Review, in which I watch a movie from the 80s, get sappy about it, and come out about depression. It posted last week on the Kenyon blog, and I’ve heard from lots of people from different parts of my life—I didn’t know how many people loved and were moved by Judith Guest’s Ordinary People—that it struck a chord for so many. index

What If Every Night Were Ladies’ Night? An Interview with Writer Sonja Livingston

Livingston_CVRwithblurb-658x1024International Women’s Day is March 8th and Women’s History Month is March. I’ve always found this both gratifying (to have a day or month set aside) and suspect. To whom do the other days and months belong? And Ladies’ Night at whatever bar or club–who gets the rest of the week? (I think we know who does.) What would it look like to instead consistently foreground and value girls and women?

Creative nonfiction writer Sonja Livingston’s latest book, a fascinating collection of lyric essays entitled Ladies Night at the Dreamland, does just this. She combines history, memory, and imagination to illuminate the lives of enigmatic, little-known American women from the past. Her two previous books (one a collection of essays and another a memoir) are also centered on women and it’s refreshing and necessary to have what is often at the margin (poverty, Western New York, the lives and stories of girls and women) moved to center stage.

I interviewed Sonja, someone I’m enjoying getting to know, over email in March. She lives part of the year in Rochester, NY, and I attended a master class she taught last Saturday, which was terrific (and helped me to get some writing done). Here’s a favorite excerpt from the interview about Sonja’s thoughts on writing. She says:

Paying attention is the main way I feed my writing. There are a thousand quotes about it already, but noticing is everything. In writing, and in life. In fact, I sometimes wonder if my writing is an excuse to make myself notice, and to glom onto people and places without shame.

My full interview with Sonja about her new book is online in the Kenyon Review now. Read more here….