Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Writing: Ur Doin it Wrong

Lately I've been using the hash tag #lifelessons on twitter*, which is a term that I use to highlight things I learn after doing something dumb.  Like, how to use the soap sprayer at the do-it-yourself car wash without getting hit in the face; or, if you take apart the vacuum cleaner to clean the filters, you should remember how it all fits together.  I've been doing a lot of these "dumb" or mundane things recently because I am currently without a job.  School's out for the summer--cue song--and I chose to come to Austin with the fiance and work on my novel while he goes to his real job and gets paid real money.  It sometimes gets a little awkward when people ask what I'm doing here (not to mention where I'm from--see earlier post), and I've even had one person refer to my role as the "trophy fiancee."  Har har.  I decided to take that one as a misguided compliment.

Of course I do tell people that I'm here working on my book (or "my novel," or "my writing," depending on my mood) which inevitably makes me feel like a fraud.  I'm not lying; I am working on something that I hope will become a novel...someday.  But the state of "being a writer" seems like such a lofty concept that I'm never sure if I'm embodying it now, or if I ever will.

It's a topic that often comes up among my peers and in my writing workshops.  One of my professors (a "real" writer, she has two books that one can actually purchase from booksellers) is fond of saying that the writing process is like masturbation--everyone does it, but no one wants to talk about it.  In other words, it's highly personal.  You'll sometimes see depictions of writers in movies or on television: set to a manic score, a solitary person (usually male), pounds out words on a typewriter (more dramatic, more tactile than a computer), balls up papers and throws them into the trash, and then....montage over, writer magically delivers bound manuscript to agent/publisher.

The problem with these romanticized visions, and the highly personal and individualized nature of the writing process, is that when I'm working toward that finished product, I'm constantly thinking: am I doing it wrong?

Hence the reason for feeling fraudulent, and for being annoyed, and then evasive, when people ask, "How's it going?"  "What's your book about?"  "How much is written?"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: Gryphon

I'm not sure why books of short stories aren't more popular, considering that today's collective attention span is so limited.

I recently reviewed Charles Baxter's story collection Gryphon for Hot Metal Bridge and I highly recommend it.  Check out the review here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Who are You, and Where are You From?

Where are you from?

It’s an innocent question, an easy one. People ask it expecting a few words in reply, a simple answer: I’m from Chicago. I’m from Branson, Missouri. To which they can respond: Oh yeah, I’ve been there. Or, Oh, what’s that like?

But when someone asks me this question lately, I freeze.  What do I say? And how much do I share?

To get you up to speed, I’m currently (living in? residing in? visiting?) Austin, Texas. The FiancĂ© accepted a summer internship here, and I tagged along, because: a) it was a chance to spend time together after eight months of long distance, b) I had nothing going on employment-wise, which meant I sure as hell wasn’t staying in Pittsburgh, and c) I’ve never been here, and I was curious.  I love going new places; it’s like an adventure.  (Though living in a characterless condo and going swimming every day isn’t exactly backpacking in Patagonia, but you take what you can get.)

But back to the question at hand. The obvious answer is that I’m from Michigan. I was born and raised there; I went to school there. Yet “Michigan” isn’t really significant to my adult life, other than being the place where my family lives. I never worked there (my adolescent stints at Meijer and The Pita Peddler don’t count), I’ve never paid my own rent or mortgage there, I haven’t directly been affected by its economy, its recent pains.

Actually, I'm from farther east, closer to the thumb.  But you get the idea.

Now, I suppose, I’m “from” Pittsburgh, though that doesn’t feel right either.  Three-quarters of the year I go to school there and am employed there, and I rent my own apartment—just me!—for the first time ever.  I have friends, a place where I volunteer, “my” gym, “my” stores, “my” places I go to write. But it feels temporary, secondary.  Temporary because once I graduate, I’ll move on to—I don’t know where. Secondary because it’s not really where I want to be (no offense to the University, and my incredibly intelligent and awesome friends). But, if this were Pretty in Pink, Pittsburgh would be Duckie (Jon Cryer, forever the second banana): he’s cool and nice and all, but you don’t want to date him, or take him to prom.

So who’s Blane (as played by Andrew McCarthy)? New York, of course, and Brooklyn specifically. I’m well aware I can’t technically say I’m “from” New York, or, God forbid, that I’m a “New Yorker.”  There are rules about making such claims, and being that I only lived there for four (I’m ashamed just by typing that paltry number) years, I can’t take ownership other than to say I lived there.

But when I’m standing in front of someone new, and they are politely waiting for an answer—so they can start to form a connection, and begin to piece together who I am—to say “Brooklyn” seems more telling than any other option. It’s where I ended one career and began another (and another), where I made my first real adult friends, where I grew my first (and only) real adult relationship—essentially, it’s where I became an adult.  And Brooklyn remains, in relationship terms, the One Who Got Away—the one who is the measuring stick for other relationships, other cities.  Which is why poor Pittsburgh, with its bad food and Midwest sensibility, never stood a chance. And why I keep fantasizing Austin to be Brooklyn—it’s just that someone shrunk it down and turned up the heat.

So what do I really say when people ask that deceptively simple question, Where are you from?  Inevitably, too much. That I’m from Michigan, but worked in New York, and now I’m a grad student at Pitt… And then their eyes glaze over, or they look at their watches, or gaze longingly at their cars, their escape.  And I realize I really need to keep it simple or I’ll never make new friends.

But I guess that’s the problem with clinging to a past relationship—it makes it that much harder to form a new one.