On Erasure Poetry, or Separate Both Halves

Erasure Poetry

It’s never a good time to meet the undead.

That’s how I feel when I encounter my former married name,  the name that I answered to for 16 years, a name that belonged to a woman who no longer exists, either legally or emotionally.

I shed the name as quickly as possible —  I have a visceral reaction to it now, and confess I’ve even developed an aversion to the first letter of my former last name.

But it lurks. Oh intimate betrayal, it’s in my muscle memory.  When I’m fatigued,  I sometimes catch my hand in mid-signature swoop, and when I least expect it I find the former name still crouching in the bowels of institutional computers. As I did yesterday at the New York Public Library.

Although I quickly changed the name on my library card, for whatever reason, the reserve system didn’t catch up.  When I arrived yesterday to collect my books on hold for Stein, they could not be located.  I eventually realized  they were being held under the name of the women-I-am-no-longer.

The books I’d asked for were about Hannah Hoch, one of the most influential artists of the Berlin Dada movement best known for her photomontage and collage.  And so at some point, I stopped reading, picked up the pink reserve slip I’d flipped over to avoid the sight of my former name — in this photo, it’s a blemish I’ve removed — and decided to create an erasure.

Erasure poetry has a long, poignant history, good for elegies, which the above is.  I’m thinking about incorporating an exercise with erasure poetry into my next creative writing class.  It’s a nice way to become aware of the many words in our landscape — try it with a receipt the next time you go grocery shopping — and a satisfying way to impose meaning on detritus.

 

 

Spring 2014 Teaching Schedule

Here’s when I’ll distribute my wit, wisdom and chocolate via Gotham Writers’ Workshop this Spring:

  • April 5th: How to Blog – in NYC, one-day intensive.
  • April 9th: Creative Writing 101 –  in NYC, part of Gotham’s open house. This a one-hour class, which I describe using everyone’s favorite word, free.
  • April 16th: How to Blog – online, four weeks.
  • April 22nd: Creative Writing 101 – in NYC, six weeks.
  • June 13th: How to Blog – in NYC, one-day intensive.

On The Cult of DIY Home Organization

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Photo via Pinterest LilyShop.com http://www.pinterest.com/pin/186969822003224493/

I keep trying to write an essay about how compelling I find DIY home organization, because it’s something that can occupy my mind and attention for days, weeks.

I’m talking about projects to organize art supplies, books, closets, toiletries, errant electrical wires…underlying these projects is the idea that life can be manageable if you simply can corral your stuff, and make it pretty. This is the whole premise behind The Container Store, which is a totally legitimate way to tackle this issue, if you have buckets of cash.  In the DIY way of thinking about home organization, you make things better on the cheap. You go to the dollar store, the thrift store, the craft store and you re-purpose.

Unlike most quick fixes, I’ve found this life improving promise delivers. When you organize in a deep, authentic way, you take a critical look at what you have, how you (or the people in your life) actually behave relative to things that you have — not their ideal behavior, their real behavior — and then you create a system to work with that reality.

This makes things work a lot better each day, but I learned that it really counts in a crisis. I’d just completed a major home organization project a couple of years ago when I suddenly had to move. (See previous on divorce.) It didn’t make a shitty situation better, per se, but it did make my life  easier to know exactly what I had, where it was.

I have more to say about this, but every time I sit down to gather the research, I get diverted by a project I simply have to do right now right now right now! Like this one for making colored, glittered mason jars. (Mason jars being one of the sacramentals of DIY home organization.) So I’m off to find my Mod-Podge — and writing will have to wait.

On Being Angry at Machinal

Machinal, a play written by Sophie Treadwell in 1928,  just wrapped its revival run at the Roundabout Theater Company.

Feel good theater this is not. Machinal is the story of a young woman who murders her husband. The woman’s name is “Young Woman,” the idea here is that she stands in for every woman, driven to desperation by the misogynistic system of the late 1920s, in which a woman had few options, in which a woman who did not live with her parents or her husband was known as a “woman adrift.”

Machinal by Sophie Treadwell

The young woman goes from her domineering mother’s home to her husband who nauseates her with his touch, bears a child, after which a male doctor disregards her obvious postpartum depression. Eventually she has an affair with a handsome man, who leaves for Mexico. After which our Young Woman can no longer stand her annoying husband and bludgeons him to death.

She’s convicted, sentenced to die in the electric chair. Witnesses note that she adjusts an errant lock of hair before the voltage courses through her body.

***

The play was compelling,  the lead performance by Rebecca Hall engrossing, but the play itself…something seemed not quite right to me, narratively speaking.

Clearly, the audience is meant to sympathize with fragile and shaky young woman, as  constrained by the circumstances of her life as she was strapped into that electric chair. But she’s also not entirely sympathetic – after her courtroom confession of her husband’s murder, the judge asks her why she simply didn’t leave her husband.  The audience laughs at this line — the look on the young woman’s face in response shows how plainly idiotic she thinks the judge.

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I, as a feminist audience member, want to be on the side of the gender-oppressed, but I could not repress a raised eyebrow, an internal girl, please. That Young Woman had other options besides bashing in her husband’s skull with that pebble-filled bottle.  After all, she had sufficient freedom to have an affair. And her husband doesn’t seem quite so repellant, just boring and annoying.

I wondered whether Sophie Treadwell was constrained by the facts upon which she based her play. As a writer of narrative nonfiction, this is a predicament with which I could easily sympathize. Treadwell had been a journalist as well as a playwright, and Machinal is based on the story of Ruth Snyder, who in 1928 became the first woman to be executed in Sing Sing since 1899.  Treadwell attended Snyder’s trial, although she didn’t cover it.

A quick look at Wikipedia disproved my theory. In fact, Synder’s actual story was much more interesting than the story Treadwell wrote. Snyder got mad at her husband because he was still enthralled with his late fiancée.  So she had an affair, took out life insurance on her husband, and with her lover made seven (7!) (Seven!) (7!) attempts on his life before the duo successfully garroted on attempt number eight.

***

So then I decided I would be angry at Treadwell. She had a good true story and she fucked it up by fictionalizing it! To me, the glory of fictionalizing is to improve a story not to make it more murky and less interesting. My anger eventually propelled me to the New York Public Library, which delivered me Broadway’s Bravest Woman: Selected Writings of Sophie Treadwell.

It turns out that I was not alone in my frustration. For while Treadwell was considered inventive, and multi-talented – a playwright, producer, director, actress, The New York Herald Tribune described her as “a roomful of people” —  she also apparently didn’t mind irritating her audience with unlikeable characters.

She wanted her plays to be performed on Broadway, but she also didn’t want to follow the conventions of Broadway. Her friend Alexander Koiransky, Russian drama critic wrote this to her:

 Sometimes I think that there is in you a definite perversity, with which you insist upon bringing into your plays things and situations which make them unacceptable to the bosses of Broadway…do not write beautiful plays intrinsically obnoxious to the masters of the hours.

This was not advice Treadwell was wont to follow. “She created realistic complex characters who were difficult to understand by an audience used to simple, understandable heroes and villains,” note editors Dickey and Lopez-Rodriguez.

Let’s be clear: this was adding insult to my narrative injury: now I’m being lumped in with un-nuanced creatures who can’t appreciate complexity of character? I mean, I like a complex character. But you still need to have a plot that follows.

But as I continued to read Broadway’s Bravest Woman, Treadwell’s reputation started to undergo a rehabilitation (with me) .  I learned that she was really working out her own personal issues with her parents, and with men, and with the media through her writing. The Synder case wasn’t really an inspiration as much as it was a provocation. As a writer, I absolutely approve of appropriating public issues for private introspection. (Obviously.)

But I definitively turned the corner from irritation towards a grudging fondness when I read that at bottom, Treadwell just didn’t like people all that much.  (Misanthropy being among the most sensible and endearing of human characteristics.)

She especially didn’t like people like producers who wanted her to revise her plays to fit “industry norms or traditional formats.”  Editors Dickey and Lopez Rodriguez write that Treadwell preferred to rely on “the emotional connection she established with her character, rather than on an assessment of the play’s fundamental action.” That is certainly apparent in Machinal. I still don’t think this was really for the best, narratively, although I will allow that her approach to writing allowed for originality.

So, Sophie Treadwell, I get you. And I have decided to not be angry at you anymore.

Maps of the Interior — Ink Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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My favorite part of Ink Art, an exhibit of Chinese contemporary art at the Met, are Hong Hao’s  Selected Scriptures.

They are basically a mash up of everything I love.

From a distance, they look like vintage maps that you’d discover in some dusty bookstore. (Vintage maps, dusty bookstores, ooh la la.) He created them using silkscreen printing, but they’re meant to look like woodblock prints, which I adore.  Stepping closer, the maps themselves are thought-provoking, disturbing and funny. (Yes, yes, and oh yes!)

I especially appreciated his World Defense Layout Map, in which the continents are superimposed with delicate images of various forms of violence; and his Latest Practical World Map, in which  place names are substituted with various characteristics  — “Potential Market,” “Brain Drain,” “Never Mind”.

Exhibit text says:

The artist has sought to compile a new “encyclopedia” to put forward his own understanding of the ever-changing world, reshuffling various aspects of culture to effectively dissolve boundaries and meanings, just like a computer virus. Hong’s images resemble ancient classics, but are rife with intentional text errors, misnomers, and cartographic misrepresentations that offer a humorous commentary on the diverse and subjective ways in which the world is visualized and understood.

Here’s some more about Hong Hao.

On Keeping a Writer’s Journal

In my creative writing classes, we talk a lot about writer’s journals and notebooks.

I usually reference my own habits in this regard — I’ve been keeping a journal every morning since I graduated from college. When I started, I would fill notebooks — college ruled, spiral notebooks, fast, bold tip pens.  Then, 84 months ago, I shifted onto the computer. (I know this with precision because I start and number a new file each month. )

I liked writing by hand, but I write an awful lot in these journals — usually 30,000 to 50,000 words a month.  On paper, the pages literally mount. And then mound — by the time I switched to digital,  my notebooks had already filled many, many boxes. Also, in our Google-accustomed world, paper journals are incredibly annoying to search by keyword.

The search function is important because I want to  understand how I felt about certain events or people over time, but also because I use this journal as a tool for my writing. (And with the kind of a time I’m investing in this activity, it damned well better be!)  Although it’s true that I don’t write in my journal with the conscious intent of it being useful as anything but venting, the reality is that I often use my morning journal as a stealthy source of first draft material.

In addition to my morning journal, Evernote has become my working notebook — I write drafts in there, store  lines that pop into my mind, stray facts, images, inspiration.

When I travel, I also like to take notes by hand, usually, and I know, insufferably, in a Moleskine. (Not easily searchable, but I’ve written the destinations I’ve visited on each cover — I find these more useful for browsing, the nitty gritty facts I need for travel writing go into Evernote.)

And, finally, I keep an art journal. That’s not usually something I talk about in my writing classes, but I did write a little bit about that on Perceptive Travel. I guess I can confess here that I have a sort of secret life as a book artist. I recently exhibited a small handmade book at 110 Church Gallery in Philadelphia.

Anyway, as with all subjects of interest, I also very much enjoy reading about how writers and creative people keep their own notebooks and journals.  And because I am often asked for resources, here are a few I like:


Writers and Their Notebooks, edited by Diana Raab. A collection on essays by writers of all kinds — novelists, travel writers, memoirists, on the notebooks and journals they keep.  Ilan Stavans: “To others my notebooks might appear to be a messy affair…to me the accretion of material (In Talmudic fashion) distills truth. Truth is what literature is about: the conviction that through words, not just any words but the right words, and whatever else accompanies them, I might reach the essence of things.”

Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal by Alexandra Johnson, really gets at the heart of the matter. The subtitle: The Art of Transforming Life into Stories, with exercises and journal prompts. A few years earlier, Johnson wrote The Hidden Writer, about the function of diaries on the creative life of women, including Sonya Tolstoy, Alice James, Katherine Mansfield, and of course Anais Nin, the patron goddess of the diary.

“Diaries also chart the underside of a writer’s life, — the slow drain or premature killing of talent,” writes Johnson.  “It was Yeats’ uneasy bargain: writers are “forced to choose perfection of life, or of the work.” Wasn’t this the cautionary lesson of many early diaries — the choice had always been the perfection of life. Sonya Tolstoy birthing the ninth of her children while trying to write stories; Anais Nin, unsolicited, giving Henry Miller her only typewriter when his broke.”

The next book is somewhat harder to find, but worth it:  Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher is a slim volume on the various ways a writer uses a notebook. For recording slang, colorful expressions, dialogue, and of course, particular experience. “Too often I have only vague feelings and sort of ideas when I begin to write. I sit at my desk with a sinking feeling…this is where my notebook comes in handy,” he writes. “Rereading it is like rolling up my sleeves and immersing my arms up to the elbows in hot particulars. In all the possibilities that exist in words. More often than not, this gets me back on track.”

For some reason — I hate to admit this, but I  think it’s because the books of are of similar size and length  — I always think of Breathing In, Breathing Out in combination with Kim Stafford’s exceptionally lovely The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft. This book isn’t explicitly about journal nor notebook keeping, although of course the subject comes up. “All coherence in my writing begins in the ready hospitality of the little notebook I carry in my shirt pocket,” writes Stafford. “Because the book and pen are always there, and because my memory is weak, I take dozens of moments each day to jot down phrases from the flow of life. I take down conversation overheard, notes on a sweep of fragrance, an idea that brims up…the palm-sized book folded open is where every piece of my writing has its beginning. Some twinkle in the language around me makes me raise my head, listen close, and jot.”

The Blonde Club: On Teasing and Joking in Romantic Relationships

I had forgotten all about The Blonde Club, until Dolores reminded me.

“Whenever I went away on a trip without my husband, I’d quip that I didn’t have to be lonely while I was away because he’d be having fun with “Dolores” – his make-believe girlfriend,” writes Vikki Stark.  “To me, that was a riot – that my husband could ever possibly have a girlfriend was so far-fetched, I thought it was a really funny joke,” she wrote in her book Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal.

As you might guess from that title, this funny joke turned out to not be such a riot. Her husband really was having an affair, which led to the sudden dissolution of their marriage.

After her experience, Stark, a therapist, started to study the phenomenon of apparently-happy husbands who don’t just stray, but simply walk away from their long-term marriages. Ultimately she looked at four hundred examples of this strange behavior, which she calls Sudden Wife Abandonment Syndrome.  My own divorce fit the characteristics of this phenomenon so neatly, that I almost wondered whether my ex-husband had actually used it as a checklist.

The Blonde ClubBut I had to put down the book when I got the part about Dolores. This was just getting creepy. For many, many years, my then-husband and I joked about “The Blonde Club,” an imaginary call-girl service he would patronize when I was out of town, or out with friends, in any event, not around.

I first remember it as The Blonde Club of Ithaca, which would mean that this joke started very early in our relationship – either when we were in college, or immediately after we got married. As we moved from city to city, the joke would be adjusted for geography. The Blonde Club of Rochester. The Blonde Club of Delaware, New Hampshire, and finally Manhattan.  He would make the joke, or I would make the joke, I think we both genuinely thought it was funny. Obviously not a real humdinger, but at least worth a chuckle.

It immediately struck me that couples just don’t make jokes about Dolores and the Blonde Clubs when infidelity isn’t a concern, on a deep and unvoiced level. (In fact, after I became aware of an actual instance of his infidelity, I don’t recall either of us ever making that joke again.) It also occurred to me that when we joked about The Blonde Club over the years, what were really saying to each other was something like this:

Me: “Hey, you know what? I don’t trust you.  Although I could never say that out loud.”

Him: “I realize that you don’t trust me. You probably shouldn’t. I don’t know how to talk about this.”

Fucking hilarious, really.

The moment where I could have made something meaningful out of the Blonde Club jokes is, of course, over. But since the family Stein is legendary for its humor — especially in our own minds – this made me realize that I need to look more carefully at the many times that I tease or am teased, make or hear jokes,  particularly in an important relationship. And perhaps you, dear reader, should as well.

***

First, I should say that I don’t want to ruin humor. It really is the good stuff in life.  Smiles are how we show pleasure, laughter is smiling, escalated and reliably provides more pleasure. Sometimes being funny is just being funny. A joke is sometimes just a joke.

Teasing, especially, has an important function in relationships, writes Robin Kowalski in her book Complaining, Teasing and Other Annoying Behaviors.  Teasing, is always about confronting another person about some aspect of his or her identity.  (“Identity confrontation couched in humor,” Kowalski writes. As opposed to bullying, which lacks humor.) The focus of the tease can be physical appearance  – like wearing glasses. It can be a lack of skill – oh, just picking from my own long list of failings, a tendency towards being late, or getting lost. It could be a customary way of doing things, like for instance, how I always leave just a little bit of coffee in the cup.

Teasing requires knowing something about the person — you can’t really effectively tease someone you don’t know; you can’t really be teased by someone who isn’t paying you close attention. So it establishes camaraderie and conveys some degree of intimacy. This is why it can sometimes feel good to be teased and to tease.

Behind this knowledge, though, is also some degree of hostility. And humor is also a way of being hostile.  This is not necessarily a bad thing. People that you interact with regularly, no matter how much you love them, can be annoying. Making a joke about some grating aspect of their behavior lets you voice that annoyance without elevating it into a “we need to talk” moment.

And actually, humor is an incredibly elegant way of handling the smaller challenges in a relationship. It allows you to give voice to some part of your experience that you’re not able to utter directly. It gives you some cover, in case your observation cuts to close to the bone. (“Jeez, can’t you take a joke?)  And you get the relief of having expressed the truth  “even though it had to be done through all sorts of roundabout ways,” Freud wrote in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.

Also, you’re able to get the other person on your side, at least at the moment of their laughter. “The listener will be induced by the gain in pleasure [from laughing] to take part, even if he is not altogether convinced,–just as we on other occasions were fascinated by harmless witticism, were wont to overestimate the substance of the sentence wittily expressed. “To prejudice the laughter in one’s own favor” is a completely pertinent saying in the German language,” observed Freud.

To cite a rather extreme example, Freud recounts story told about the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, traveling on a train car filled with pro-slavery ministers. One approached him and asked: are you here to free the niggers? When Phillips said he was, the minister suggested that he leave the state.  Phillips responded like this:

“Excuse me, are you a preacher?”

“I am, sir.”

“Are you trying to save souls from hell?”

“Yes sir, that’s my business.”

“Well, why don’t you go there?”

The car erupted with laughter – laughter from the other racist ministers – and the one who’d questioned Phillips hurried from the car in embarrassment.

The point, Freud said, is that the minister was obnoxious in his approach, and Phillips, being a classy guy, didn’t want to respond in kind, but nor did he want to just let it slide in front of a group of other preachers. So he used humor, which enabled him to “fascinate” the other clergymen, and for a moment brought them to his side.

***

That’s a slightly different application of humor, obviously Phillips and the racist preacher weren’t in association with one another, didn’t have an ongoing relationship to consider, weren’t going to be sleeping together that night.

But it’s easy to see how this would work in a close relationship — that if you can get your significant other to laugh at some aspect of their annoying behavior, for that moment, they recognize it and agree with you.  For instance, I’m a person who is prone to being a little spacy – I am capable of walking many times past some piece of detritus on the floor and not seeing it. My then-husband would often tease me about this, and I would laugh. A lot happened in that moment of teasing: a slightly annoying behavior of mine was brought to my attention and in the moment I laughed, I acknowledged its annoyance. We had a shared experience of warmth and laughter, and I even would stop and pick an errant sock up off the floor from time to time.

So humor discharges negative energy, which is sometimes exactly what’s needed. But that becomes a problem when the joking and the teasing are about something very important, even fundamental. Like trust. Like fidelity. Or a career change, or an important interaction with the in-laws,  or child care issues, insert-your-important-issue-here. Joking about it makes you feel like you’ve handled it, you’ve brought it up, you’ve come to a resolution. It’s like a more enjoyable form of denial.

Humor also might be the only way that you can first bring up a difficult topic  if you’re joking about something important, you many not even be consciously aware of how much it is actually bothering you, it may be the joke itself that gives you the hint.

So the trick  it seems to me, isn’t to stop joking and teasing in close or romantic relationships. It’s deciding when you need to keep talking, once the laughter stops.

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