Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mountain goats

We spotted this guy atop Banff's Sulfur Mountain, which we climbed a month ago today. I was surprised by how unperturbed he was. A few moments later he was joined by his lady and offspring, both of whom sauntered so casually that it seemed us humans were merely moving trees. Unimportant.

We ate our sandwiches on a picnic table at the scenic overlook, where we were dive-bombed by merciless snowbirds. The birds made the goats seem even more tame. It got so we had to eat one at a time, the other on the lookout for the beaky monsters as they swooped down, one after another, aching for a bite of our turkey-avocados. But the goats--the goats were chill.

It reminded me a bit of awkward holiday parties, where the loudest and most memorable guests are the ones who never stop talking, or worse, never stop drinking, stopping between sips to slip in a passive-aggressive comment about the uselessness of your degree, all the while the real interesting people in the room are lumbering off to heated discussions in quiet corners. These are the people whose environments we want to discover--those far-off, beautiful corners of the world where there are jobs with benefits and vacations around the world.

I wonder if these people, like the goats on the hill, shed their skins once a year, and when they do, if they've also got to fight off the birds.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Is writing itself creative nonfiction?

Adam Haslett at Napa Valley College, July 2011

This summer, I learned to read again.

It's amazing how long I tried to write without really trying to read. Though perhaps that's just it--I didn't want to feel like I had to try. I missed the pleasure of simply falling in, absorbing language and character and story without having to dissect any of it. What made the difference? Adam Haslett, Dorothy Allison, Michelle Huneven, Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Maggie Nelson, Jim Shepard, Major Jackson--I got to see them read. Watching Almond describe hapless actors, listening to Allison bellow the most beautiful curses, sitting in the room while Jackson conveyed mood and tone and history in a series of careful phrases; it was electric. It reminded me of reading in my parents' cars, even after sunset, when I'd keep my finger on the page until we passed the next stoplight, because it was all so urgent. This was life, distilled in a way that made the world more real, thrilling, wonderful or tragic.

I've attended two conferences in the past month, studied writing on and off for years, worked at various institutions and stopped and started various projects. I needed a reminder that reading and writing are acts of pleasure, that maybe good stories and poems don't always beg deconstruction, that perhaps the best books are the ones that remind us of who we are. There are so many reasons not to write, and even more not to read--there's enough content floating through the universe that is digestible in visual and auditory form, what's the point of relying simply on words? And perhaps the scariest question of all: if our writing is not immediately marketable, or can't promise any financial gain, is it worth the time and energy?

I see this question in terms of its fiction and non-fiction: if the answer is yes, writing is always worth it, regardless of what we earn and what we spend, then we are telling one of the "writing market"'s greatest fictions--that if we believe in ourselves, eventually we'll be recognized. If the answer is no, that good writing reflects raw talent and there's a specific formula for achieving success, then we lose the opportunity to risk originality. I veer from one pole to the other, encouraged by the positive feedback of one teacher while reeling in the amount of work it will take to make any singular story passable or (maybe) publishable. This is all work that I enjoy doing, but I know that the minute I leave grad school, this is all work that I cannot afford to do full-time.

I present this not as a surprise, nor as a tragedy, but simply as an example of how we as writers tell ourselves stories in order to sit down and write our own. Some people (Allison, Haslett, Almond, etc.) do it so well, we tend to forget they were ever anyone else except those well-spoken professionals behind the microphone. I can't help wondering if at some point they had to distinguish between the fictions and nonfictions in their own lives from those they figured out how to depict on the page.

Either way, I'm so glad they reminded me that reading is fun--a truth that keeps us all writing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

one hundred word story #20

Doris the duck is butt-up in Reed Lake again. Margaret swims circles around her. “Damnit, D,” Margaret says, “this better be the last time you lose your motherfucking keys. I’m tired of you crashing in my nest. I’m so angry I could poop!” Doris doesn’t hear because she is underwater. But Doris didn’t lose her keys. Keys are not required to build nests—effort is. Doris doesn’t want to build nests when she could be underwater, where it’s crisp, dark, quiet. So quiet that she doesn’t hear Margaret’s final sigh, but sees her dreams drop like a small, dark mass.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Coco and Bigote Discover America, Again

We are in Portlandia.

Correction: I am in Portland, having just dropped Ryan off at the airport after an awesome night with our friend Jenn Chavez and her boyfriend Erin. Yesterday was a pretty unbelievable day: we awoke to deer tiptoeing through our foggy Cougar Campground on Mount Rainier, drove up to Paradise pass, which is still under 10 feet of snow, then embarked on a brisk 5-mile hike on the Wonderland trail before setting off for Portland. Once we made it off I-5 (oh, how I loathe thee), we met Jenn and Erin in Belmont for--get ready--an art show, a drive-by candy car, dinner at Sizzle Pie Pizza, and an awesome metal show by Avi Devi at Katy O'Brien's.

It's not often that I start the day on a mountain and end it on a pool table, surrounded by men with chin-length hair and women with surprisingly screamy voices. Oh, and after the show, Jenn and Erin took us to a pod--not of whales, but of mobile food carts, all strung up with bright lights. Ryan got poutine (Canadian fries with gravy and cheese), and I got a fried coconut chocolate pie.

We are now very much back on the grid, after spending the past ten days camping in western Canada (first in Glacier National Park in British Columbia, and later on Vancouver Island), wandering through Olympic National Park in Washington, where we visited the Hoh Rainforest and camped at Mora campground on the coast. We were so wrapped up in the intensity of hanging moss against the blue blue skies that we almost didn't notice the abundance of goth girls hanging around the Forks Thriftmart. That's when we started noticing the vampire signs--apparently Forks is where the Twilight books and films are set, and there are kitschy tours that teenage girls and their moms take. We even passed a sign that read "Vampire Threat: Low."

Ryan has returned to California this week to attend a wedding and take a class while I am staying at Reed College to participate in the Tin House Writer's Workshop. You could say that we are shifting gears--I'm focusing on writing (one year til my thesis defense!), he on teaching. He'll fly back next week and we will once again stock the car with carby snacks and mosey our way back home.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Coco and Bigote Discover America, Part Deux: Canadian Invasion

One year ago today, Ryan and I were in New York, the halfway mark in our first cross-country road trip. Today we are enjoying Canada Day in Canmore, Alberta, a beautiful little town just outside Banff National Park.

We departed California on June 19 and made our way east through Nevada to Idaho, where we saw the Craters of the Moon National Monument (lava tubes and craters in the middle of the greenest, lushest potato country imaginable), and bathed at Lava Hot Springs before trundling on to Wyoming. We camped at Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park, encountered a moose on the Jenny Lake trail, before moving on to Yellowstone. Ryan had never seen a geyser before, so we were extra lucky to catch Old Faithful sounding off twice during our afternoon at the park. We saw bison shedding their fur, black bears, elk, moose, marmots, squirrels, deer, and an uncountable number of fellow humans.

From Yellowstone we headed northwest through Montana's Big Sky country toward Glacier National Park. We spent one day on each side of the park, starting at Avalanche Creek on the west side, where we nearly hit a black bear as it scuttled across the road. The sunset was spectacular over Lake MacDonald, but we also loved camping at Rising Sun on the west side, near Many Glacier, where we spotted a Grizzly bear. From Glacier we drove the 35 miles across the border to Waterton National Park in Alberta, a scenic little village with perhaps a higher deer population than people. We enjoyed hot chocolates at the Prince of Wales Hotel, a historic hotel perched high above Waterton Lake.

We made it to Banff in time to celebrate Ryan's birthday by hiking Sulfur Mountain and taking the gondola back down to the hot springs. We had planned to camp tonight in Jasper, but campgrounds in all directions are booked for Canada Day.

Our journey is slowly approaching its halfway point. Tomorrow we plan to drive to the Columbia Icefields, and hopefully camp near Jasper, before turning our wheels westward toward Vancouver. We've been operating off the grid so far, making gourmet dinners on Ry's new camp stove, and averaging 3-5 mile hikes in the mornings.

Basically, we're becoming Canadian mountain goats, and from what we've seen, that's a good thing.