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Thursday, May 31, 2012

On nostalgia

When I was a kid I used to love reading my grandparents' back issues of Country magazine. The glossy issues were mostly photographs sent in by subscribers, with the occasional article about twenty-first century barn raising or specialty pie crusts thrown in for good measure. More than anything the magazine celebrated nostalgia - think of those inspirational messages superimposed over kittens dangling from trees, those close-ups of basset hounds and babies in baskets. It was so sentimental, but the reason why it worked was because it was one hundred percent sincere. Try as I might, I could never find a hint of irony in those pages. Just puns, and American flags, and corn on the cob and Fourth of July.

I was reading these magazines in the Bush Sr. years and on into the Clinton era. It was really difficult to read these magazines come 2001 - by then the red, white and blue felt ironic in spite of itself.

For years I felt a similar pang of nostalgia when I thought about my hometown. How could you not? You grow up, you go away, you come back, and suddenly there are all the trees you grew up climbing, and there's the pond where you once caught tadpoles, and there's the Farmer's Market with all the vendors who know your first and last name. I was always reminded of the caption-writing contests in Country, and how, if I framed a scene with my fingers, I could name what happened there: where I learned to read. Where Josh built a skate ramp. Where we put on plays. All those quiet spaces where, on quiet evenings when the weather was right, you could reinvent yourself.

Coming back as an adult, as a graduate student, as a person with relationships and ties to other communities, has transformed, yet again, what my hometown is to me. It's a place intensely focused on school - a place where people come from around the world to study the crops, the law, medicine, science, writing. But it's just as much (if not more) what happens when school is not in session. Running 5ks, 10ks, half marathons. Local artists, local crafts, Flea Markets, farmers from around the valley, families on bikes, activists.

The last few years have taught me how to write, how to read, how to teach, how to cultivate and participate in a literary community, and perhaps more than all that, how to be an adult in the town I knew as a child. I get to hang out with my parents because they are my family and because they are my friends. I can reconnect with childhood friends beyond the superficial - I can really see what their adult lives are like. I can make my own decisions and judgments about the things I like and don't like about living in a small town.

In some ways leaving Davis a second time is giving me the chance to grow up again; to have a clearer idea of what I want from the world, of what I can contribute, of who I want with me along the way. This is not kittens hanging from trees or basset hounds in baskets. This is acknowledging that the world is imperfect, that sometimes bad shit happens, that the universe is not ruled on reason. And the best thing about being a writer is knowing that when things go wrong, you've got the vocabulary at your fingertips to put a name to it all. Name it, own it, make it art, move on.

And there, by the grace of whatever, go I...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fiction-aid


Fictionade Magazine - a magazine I currently contribute stories to - is offering a revolutionary online lit mag model for emerging writers and readers of contemporary fiction. If you like reading new stories and want to support emerging writers, this is one easy way to do it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Noise

"The family is the cradle of the world's misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Over-closeness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps something even deeper, like the need to survive. Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to be become. The family process works toward sealing off the world. Small errors grow a heads, fictions proliferate. I tell Murray that ignorance and confusion can't possibly be the driving forces behind family solidarity. What an idea, what a subversion. He asks me why the strongest family units exist in the least developed societies. Not to know is a weapon of survival, he says. Magic and superstition become entrenched as the powerful orthodoxy of the clan. The family is strongest where objective reality is most likely to be misinterpreted. What a heartless theory, I say. But Murray insists it's true."

--Don DeLillo, White Noise, 81-82

In an era when some Americans feel the need to "defend" the "institution" of "marriage," this feels ever more salient.

Monday, May 14, 2012

On graduation

I have this theory that words are cyclical, that all periods of serious production are followed by their necessary blank slates, that white noise that fills the gap between projects. I can't help thinking of all the unnecessary words in the world - the slogans, the cliches, the maxims, the polite repartee, the conversational habits of the universe - and wondering if as writers our job is to sieve it all down, sort it all out, until the only words that are left are the ones that matter most. The ones we've really got to earn.

I defended my master's thesis last week. I ended up turning in five stories that follow the same characters on the southern coast of Spain, four other stories (linked in theme but not in character/setting), and a working draft of the 100 word story project. It totals about 140 pages and feels like a promising but unwieldy baby, this beautiful yet messy monster that hasn't yet discovered the true source of its power. All of this, and still I feel the need to winnow, to pare it down, to find its roots. It is an exciting feeling. One I hope to fuel as the years go by and the characters grow with me.

My goal now is to produce another four or five stories set in Spain, to improve the narrative voice, diction and cultural cues to the point where I could structure a novel in linked stories. I hope to work on this manuscript for the next year (or more, whatever it needs, honestly) and then to apply to fellowships and work residencies abroad, where I could more fully delve into the voices of expats abroad - the voices I still remember but can't fully imitate.

Beyond that, the future is as endless and bizarre as this wide net of words. My defense was early; I still have four more weeks of grading, homework, planning, filing. I will soon be moving back to the Bay Area, where, for the first time in more than three years, I will be living in the same zip code as my boyfriend. I have been applying for jobs like crazy - teaching jobs, writing jobs, school jobs, anything that involves writing and people and environments where I can really throw myself into creative projects. This week sparked the first of several graduations - the air is ripe with the angst and excitement of programs ending, chapters closing. Sometimes I hate nostalgia, though I give into it with such ease. I have started contributing to Fictionade, a new subscription-based e-magazine, which shows great promise.

This weekend we drove down to Santa Barbara (my alma mater) for a friend's wedding. I still remember the fog of that final spring - how anticlimactic it all was, the moisture in the air until mid-May, when the beach was suddenly overtaken by the hot breath of the Santa Ana winds. It was the hottest I'd ever known Santa Barbara to be; in those final weeks of college I remember going to bed with a wet wash cloth across my forehead, watching the shadows on my yellow co-op wall as the heat trapped us indoors. The climate was telling us something. Move along now, it said. You've done what you came here to do. Go find other things to do, other places to be.

I can only imagine what heat Davis promises me, in these last few weeks. The messages are louder this year, but maybe that's because this time I'm really listening.