A Song of Myself

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Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I spent this past weekend at a remarkable place, studying with a remarkable teacher, with two remarkable women by my side.  I learned so much about myself, about writing, about the ways my body (or maybe my brain) craves Diet Coke and chocolate after a few meals of tempeh loaf and steamed kale.

As I reintegrate into the rest of my life – coming home, as I did, to find a wonky Internet connection and sick kids – I feel like I’m just beginning to process the lessons of the weekend.  Dani shared so many delicious morsels about memoir and emotion and writing from “the memory of feeling,” but one question in particular is buzzing around at the front of my mind today:

As writers, what do we do with the contradictions in a life, especially when that life is our own?

Dani led us this weekend in an exercise called “I Remember…” based on Joe Brainard’s book of the same name, a collection of his one or two sentence reminiscences of his childhood and coming of age.  As I recorded my own stream of consciousness reflections, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which that kind of off-the-cuff writing flows without input from the inner critic.  My ideas moved from brain to pen without judgment or analysis.  What I was left with was a collection of moments which, almost accidentally, started to tell a story about my past.  And the story was full of me and full of my many contradictions.

I decided last night to play with the exercise, to change the prompt from “I Remember…” to simply “I…” and to write uncensored for five minutes.  Here’s what I came up with:

I am a mother.  I am a wife.  I am a daughter, a sister, a friend.  I used to be a teacher.

I am a writer.

I am a vegetarian.  I run sometimes.  I do yoga sometimes.  Sometimes I make a bag of microwave popcorn, dump chocolate chips on top, and eat the whole thing.

I subscribe to The New Yorker, but, a lot of the time, I prefer to read People.  After I read People instead of The New Yorker, I sometimes feel guilty about it.  I talk more about reading The New Yorker than I do about reading People.

I love to read.

I love to talk to my husband about where we might be in five years, in ten, in 25.  I love to dream together.

I feel calmest in a tidy house, in a quiet place, in a room alone.  I rarely feel calm these days.

I like to be by myself.  And then I like to come home again.

I understand that there are things that are good for me.  That make me feel good.  That keep me connected to the people I love.  I’m not usually good at making those things a priority over, say, folding laundry or playing “Angry Birds.”

I get grumpy when I’m hungry.

I love my kids, but I’m never as happy to see them as I am the moment I return after being away from them.

Contradictions again.  And all of them equally me.  I took so much away from my weekend of writing, but my first priority is to think more about what the story of my contradictions tells me about myself, to keep writing my way into understanding.

Who are you today?

The Write Stuff

Image by Francois Schnell

I’ve been writing a lot lately.

Actually, that’s not true at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and talking a lot about writing and reading a lot about writing.  I’ve even been studying writing with a great teacher.  But sitting down and actually writing?  Not so much.

And this not writing all the while learning about how to have a career as a writer has left me feeling disjointed, like I’m busying myself sprucing up the outside of a house that has cracks in its foundation.

I’m making time for the idea of writing, but not for the act itself.  And why is that?

Well, first there’s the fear.  As long as I don’t put myself out there, I can never be sure whether or not I can really succeed.  I can go on thinking that this dream is viable, that editors will love my writing and readers will too.  I’m not used to being unsuccessful so the idea of receiving rejection letters – and, yes, I know they will inevitably come – doesn’t sit easily with me.  I want to steel myself for them and prepare myself for the pep talks I’ll have to give myself when they do.  And, if I’m honest, sometimes I convince myself it would be easier not to try at all.

And then there’s the work.  Thinking and talking and reading and studying writing are all a lot easier than writing itself.  Writing is not a task-oriented undertaking.  It isn’t about highlighting and taking notes and checking things off of Post-it Note to-do lists, tasks at which I excel.  Instead, writing takes orginality and focus and insight, all of which are even harder to come by than time.

And then there’s the question of voice.  I’ve written before about my ability to play lots of different roles, my comfort with lots of different kinds of people.  This trait – which I usually think of as a good thing – has made it difficult for me to figure out which version of me I want to be when I write.  The down-to-earth me?  The moony intellectual me?  The snarky critical me?  Any why try to be any of those things when others have already done them – and done them better?

There are so many minefields that keep me from putting pen to paper – the practical, the emotional, the mental.  But it’s time, I realize, to stop futzing (yes, futzing) around and start writing.

Because you know what?  The only way out is through.  Writing is what helps me get through.  I need to write in order to write.

I was watching my daughter yesterday as she gnawed on Sophie the Giraffe.  Everything she does, at seven months old, is an exercise in making sense of the world.  And right now her mouth is the vehicle through which she comes to understand things.  If it’s within her reach, it goes into her mouth.  She’s learning smooth, crinkly, bumpy, rough, gumming her way toward what she likes and what she doesn’t.

Ever since I started writing, putting my words down on paper has been how I’ve come to make sense of things.  My pen is my vehicle for understanding.  So when I don’t do it enough – when I worry about the machinery of writing, talking about writing and buying pretty notebooks rather than actually writing – I deprive myself of my chance to understand what’s going on in my head and in my heart.

So excuse me, if you will.  Enough talk.  I’ve got some writing to do.

What role does writing play in your life?  Are you more of a consumer of words or a producer of them?  How do you procrastinate?

The Quickie vs. the Slow Burn

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I love  spending the last hour before sleep curled up with a book.  Few things stir my soul like a good story and a well-turned phrase.  And when those things coexist in the same book?  Magic.  I recently enjoyed two books filled with both, even though the feel of them was completely different.

Most summers my husband and I tackle a literary classic that we somehow escaped school without reading.  This summer’s assignment?  George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  A giant doorstop of a book (690 small font pages in the edition I read), Middlemarch follows the lives of an interconnected cast of characters in a provincial English town during the early 19th century.  George Eliot – the pen name of Mary Anne Evans – doesn’t go easy on her readers in her part-Victorian/part-modern novel.  She gives us neither the easy romance nor the neatly-packaged happy ending that so many of her female contemporaries did.  Instead we see our two protagonists – wealthy, idealistic Dorothea Brooke and skeptical, scientific Tertius Lydgate – make profoundly bad choices from which she refuses to rescue them.  Only time and compromise allow them to reach amended versions of contentment.  Just as she doesn’t allow her characters easy answers, Eliot asks her reader to get to know a whole town, their biases and predilections, in order to understand her cast and their motivations.

If Middlemarch is a slow burn, then The Hunger Games is a quickie.  I’m sure many of you have read or at least heard of Suzanne Collins’s best-selling young adult sci-fi trilogy, which features a witty and clever female protagonist.  I’ll admit it: I wasn’t excited to read this book at first.  When my local book club chose it as our September read, I was afraid I was about to be pushed back into Twilight territory.  But instead of a moony protagonist who wiles away her time obsessing over her vampire boyfriend, Collins gives us a girl who is far too busy saving herself and her friends in a fight-to-the-death arena to think much about her beau’s twinkly skin.  Katniss Everdeen is smart and tough (I suspect she could kick Bella’s butt without much trouble), even while showing believable vulnerability to the impossible circumstances that confront her.  She is a believable teenage heroine and one of the better female role models I’ve seen created for young girls.  And the story itself is propulsive: Collins drops you into the land of Panem and sets you free inside her cleverly realized dystopia ruled by a Machiavellian overlord.

I plowed through The Hunger Games, staying up way too late to read and sneaking in pages when I should have been focused on my kids.  (Come on, we’ve all done it!)  Meanwhile, it took me time to read Middlemarch; sometimes, I’ll admit it, it felt like a chore to have to read it.  Then again, I breezed through The Hunger Games without marking a single passage.  Don’t get me wrong: Collins is a great writer.  But, in this book, at least, she’s not a beautiful one; there isn’t a sentence that invites you to curl up inside it.  My copy of Middlemarch, on the other hand, holds a ticker tape parade of Post-It Notes in its margins.  While Collins propelled me to the end of The Hunger Games with a furious story, Eliot spun language so full and so rich that I needed to stew in it awhile before moving on.

So which one was the better read?  The quickie or the slow burn?  It depends, of course, on what you’re looking for, how you’re feeling, what you enjoy.  I will say that I finished The Hunger Games and immediately ordered the other two books in the series, both of which I finished within days of their arrival.  The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda, meanwhile, sit gathering dust on my bookshelf.

But my experience of devouring The Hunger Games trilogy while sometimes spurning Middlemarch left me wondered if we are being conditioned, we Tweeters and texters and Facebook status updaters, to value instant gratification over the slowly savored.  Are we becoming culturally conditioned to want quick thrills at the expense of hard-earned enlightenment?

Which do you tend to read more of: quickies or slow burns?  Which do you usually enjoy more?

Next on my reading list are Katrina Kenison’s The Gift of an Ordinary Day, Claire Dederer’s Poser, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  Any other recommendations?

Labor Day

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Labor Day 2007.  Big Brother was born.  As was my identity as a mother.

Four years.

High school.  College.  A president’s term.

A son.

I was never supposed to go into labor.

I have a uterine anomaly that was identified early in my first pregnancy that meant that I would have to deliver by c-section.  Going into labor could be dangerous for me and for my baby, my doctor said.  So Big Brother was scheduled to arrive by c-section on September 7, 2007.

But, like his little sister after him, he had other plans.  Maybe somewhere in his tiny brain inside his tiny body inside his increasingly tiny home, he knew that Labor Day would be an auspicious day to make his arrival.

And arrive he did, six pounds, fifteen ounces of wrinkly pink wonder.  A baby who became a boy who loves books and Legos and dinosaurs and knights.  Who was a brother twice by age four.  Who is happy eating peanut butter and jelly and popsicles.  Every single day.  Who thrives on routine and struggles with change.  Whose favorite color is orange.  Whose curls were cut into his first big boy haircut last week.  Who routinely stumps me with questions about death and souls and the stars.

This Labor Day he asked me: “Mommy, do you know anything about history?”

An innocent question, in every sense.  He is an innocent.  He knows countless facts about history, but is missing the conjunctions and the filler that give it its weight and its horror.  And he doesn’t intend the question with the heaviness with which it hits me, right in the sweet spot where the gulf between who I was and who I am seems bigger every year.

He doesn’t know the me I was before there was a he.  He doesn’t know that I was a student of history for years and a teacher of it for longer.  That I spent years writing a master’s thesis on it.  That I could tell him all about the French Wars of Religion or the Missouri Compromise.  About Great Zimbabwe or the desegregation of the Boston city schools.

He doesn’t know what I know – or what I knew.  And I wonder: do I even remember that history anymore?  Do I remember the historical me?

I’m not sure, but I give him an answer anyway:

“Yes, baby.  Yes, I do.”

Happy birthday, Big Brother.  Happy, happy day to the boy who taught me how to be a mother.  Through several hours of labor and four years of a labor of love.

The Correctionistz

This week’s Correctionists post features a pet peeve rather than an actual error:

I’m not sure if the creator of this sign knows the actual spelling of the word “cruise.”  I suspect he does.  But it almost irks me more if he willingly chose to spell it incorrectly.

Why spell something wrong on purpose?  Is Z that much cooler than S?

The Correctionists.  Keeping the blogosphere safe from grammatical and spelling errors, one post at a time.  For more from the Correctionists, please visit Amy, Jana, and Kelly.

Born to Run?

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I’m running again.

After a multi-year layoff during which I had my kids, I started running about a month ago, with the support of my husband, my sister-in-law, and the geniuses behind the Couch-to-5K running plan.

I love the way I can be in the moment when I run.  I notice the dappled sunlight on the corn fields I run past; the mama deer eyeing me suspiciously, then dashing off into the woods as I plod past her and her fawn; the old train switch being overtaken by the undergrowth, going back to nature.  I feel the slickness of the dew on the trail, feel my laces tickling my ankles.  I smile and greet the family of four, the mom pushing the double-stroller, the dad jogging ahead and then back again, keeping pace with his family while getting his exercise, performing that balancing act we parents know so well.

One foot, then the other.  I just go.

I’ve also been trying to sneak sessions of yoga into my weeks.  Life has been, well, hectic these last few months and I figured that yoga would help me find my center, calm me down, remind me to take deep breaths.  Yoga has done that for me in the past, and I’ve always thought of it as a touchstone, a place I could come back to again and again, to be that girl once more, the one who practiced most days, who found refuge in the studio.

But I’m not that girl anymore.  And the yoga’s not doing it for me right now.  Part of that might have to do with the fact that my town doesn’t have a yoga studio, or even a decent yoga teacher, so it’s been me and Shiva Rea and my worn-out DVDs on my laptop in the basement.  And it’s hard to find your zen when you’re fighting both monkey brain and periodic crashing sounds from above (Lego towers continue to be built and demolished upstairs no matter what I’m doing beneath).

With yoga these days, I can’t seem to find my flow.

According to University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow means “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”  

Whatever stock you put in the current happiness industry, it’s hard to deny the power of flow, wherever you find it – in your work, your hobbies, or your relationships.

When you achieve flow, you’re not thinking about it.  It just happens.  And so I fear I jinxed myself by going to yoga seeking something.  Instead, I found flow where I was looking for something else – outside, on the running trail.  I went in for some time alone, a chance to get back in shape.  And what I’m finding are some of the best moments of my day, where goals and worries fall away and I just am.  In the flow.

Where do you find your flow?  

Have I mentioned that I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan?  I suspect that the E Street Band definitely knew all about flow.  To wit:

Looking At Looking Up with Linda Pressman

I’m honored today to feature an interview with Linda Pressman, author of the newly released Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors, and Skokie.  Thank you, Linda, for taking the time to offer such thoughtful insights into your book and the process of writing it.

When did you decide to tell this story?  How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

I feel like this book was inside me my whole life, that the need to write this book was in me my whole life. Everyone who’s ever known me knew that I was going to write a book about Skokie. The only surprise really ended up being that I put my parents’ stories in there too. I don’t remember ever not having the idea to write this book. I even started it several times when I was younger but needed writing instruction, which I finally got starting in 2001 with my first Creative Writing class. By 2005 I had earned a Master’s in English and had heeded my professor’s advice to always have a writer’s journal. As of today, I’m on my 38th one, with each one containing 100 to 200 pages.

Since I tend to be somewhat prolific, it turned out right away that with this amount of material I needed to have a cut off point and I had to figure out what could be in the book and what couldn’t. I probably have enough perfectly good cut material from Looking Up to write two more versions of it!

It was extremely hard to get the structure of the book right, to be sure that the humor properly balanced the tragedy. At different times I wrote out all my chapters on note cards and changed the order repeatedly; another time I printed the entire book and then cut it up with scissors until it was in the order I wanted.

As far as the time period in which I finally had all my material together, to the date of publication, I would say it was 3 ½ to 4 years.

Can you talk a little bit about how you carve out time to write in your day?

I haven’t made standard New Year’s Resolutions in many years, but starting in 2007 I have made “Writer’s Resolutions” for myself. One of them is to write every day no matter what. I had a writing teacher who told me once that the more you write, the more you remember and the better you write. It’s like a muscle you exercise – it just works better, and that happened. By midway through 2007 I had so much material I had to change my definitions of what “writing” meant each day, including book organizing, chapter organization, etc.

There have been times that my daily writing has been a haiku or a list of what I plan to write, but all I know is that I try to keep moving in the right direction. Right now my definition of writing has expanded to include promoting. I think of it as “work in service of the book,” and if it satisfies that requirement it counts as writing.

Humor is a key element throughout Looking Up.  To whom or what do you credit your great sense of humor?  Did you see humor in situations as a kid or did the humor only come in looking back on them?

I do consider that our family, in between battling for each apple and the best chair in the family room, had a great sense of humor. Even the grown ups, despite their various tragedies, would sit around their poker table and hoot and holler for hours, crying with laughter, telling jokes in Yiddish. I’d say each one of us has a certain sense of humor based somewhat on the juxtaposition of what life was like compared with what we expected it to be, which also has its roots in the fatalistic Yiddish humor we heard around us.

I think part of being a writer is that part of you is absorbing a lot of details, almost distracted by details that others might not even notice. As a kid I was very observant and later developed a sense of the ridiculous, especially once I was in school and realized my family was so different from the others around me.

What does your mother think of your book?  How about your sisters?

The day I handed my mother a copy of Looking Up was really one of the best days of my life, and hers too I think. All seven of us had spent our lives hearing our mother ask us to “write her story,” and, truthfully, it was something we brushed off along with running from the Holocaust. When I came to the painful realization that my childhood book of growing up with seven sisters and Holocaust Survivor parents needed to have her story in it, it was an awful moment for me. I put the book away for about six months and worked on other things trying to get over my aversion to facing this history head on. Then, when I was ready, I sat down and interviewed her. She has complimented me on the handling of her story and expressed satisfaction that it’s in print, that she doesn’t have to worry any longer about “someone writing her story.”

The names of the majority of the people in the book were changed and this was difficult for my mother – the connecting of people with names, especially since she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But the portion of the book that is her story was very special to her.

The majority of my sisters have been wonderful about the book. This didn’t happen overnight. When I first began writing, I think it was somewhat disconcerting for them. Over time I had to get over a lot of my fears of writing and what this person or that person would think of it. I just tried to keep a few rules front and center: tell the truth and be kind. Hopefully I did that. One sister was one of my early proofreaders. Others have sent me lovely notes about how much they enjoyed the book. For the most part, my fears were unfounded and I feel the reception in my family was better than I could have hoped for.

Being Holocaust Survivors clearly influenced the way your mother and father parented you.  How do you think being the daughter of Survivors affects the way you are raising your son and daughter?

I’ve been very careful about my children’s exposure to the Holocaust because of growing up with Survivor parents. Most of this is related to my concern that, in a way, my mother was passing her atheism/agnosticism down to us with all of her stories. I wanted my children to believe in Judaism and not to have the Holocaust get in the way of that. I’ve been the transmitter of Holocaust stories to my children; a one-generation filter between my mother and them, telling them her stories but making sure that, somehow, there’s not just despair at the end of each one.

Looking Up ends when your family moves to Arizona when you’re 13.  Do you have any plans to write a sequel?  (I hope so!)

I am planning a sequel, which starts upon our arrival in Arizona. I haven’t worked out the story arc yet, so I’m not sure if it will go through only high school or get through a portion of college. Our lives changed a lot with the move and there’s a lot of story there, like Looking Up, a combination of tragedy and comedy that I hope will appeal to readers.

I enjoyed Linda’s book so much that I want to share a copy with one of my readers.  I will draw a name from the comments sections of both this post and my post reviewing the book (using the tool at www.random.org) to receive a copy of Looking Up.  Deadline to enter: midnight EDT, Monday, August 22, 2011.  (You may comment on each post to double your chance of winning!)

And the winner is…Justine!  (Giveaway is now closed.)

Please also click here for my review of Linda’s book, and be sure to check out the favorable review of Looking Up from Kirkus.