Archive for the 'The Writing Life' Category

02 July

Past Lives

PastLives1Amy Gerstler & Alexis Smith recently spoke about the art of collaboration at the Honor Fraser Gallery in Culver City.   This installation is part of a larger exhibition, one that focuses on Portraiture.  They re-mounted part of their show “Past Lives” which is a psychically charged stage set that creates the effect of a mythical classroom. There are more than a dozen children’s chairs, all of them beaten up by generations of children.  The text on the wall summons up the commingling of past and future—there are horoscopes and hints to the Fates of all of these children. A blackboard tilts in one corner of the room, full of cryptic writing in strong slanted penmanship.

Of their collaboration, Alexis Smith said that she and Amy summon up or create a third person – and this person is the real artist behind the work. “We make-up a third person, who is not a collage artist or a poet,” Alexis said.

That idea of a persona who is a sculptor, and who comes into being because these two are collaborating, is such a fanciful idea.  It’s also a perfect way to think about the combined forces that these two artists generate in making this Magic Schoolroom.

ALEXIS SMITH’s work has the kind of wit that undermines the status quo. Her collages always seem to use language, and to summon up great writers.  Indeed “When I met Alex she was only working with dead writers—Whitman, Raymond Chandler, Borges, Longfellow, Kerouac,”  Amy said.  Amy said that she wanted to hang out with Alexis, but the only way that could happen was if she worked with her on a project.

“She worked all the time, and I realized that I wouldn’t get to hang out with her unless I collaborated with her,” Amy said, revealing the foundation that I suspect is at the heart of every true collaboration—affinity.  Part of that affinity probably has to do with Alexis’ immersion in writers.  “Over time, the images beat out the words,” Alexis said.   Later she said “I want to see what I can do without the words.”

A thousand startling juxtapositions animate her pieces.  It’s an eccentric (a word that Alexis Smith used) body of work, an insistent one from what I’ve seen, and it makes demands on a viewer.  You have to put a kind of mental pressure on the images and language for them to release their often funny, always critically sharp, punchlines.  The pay off is often that feeling of consolation that someone else sees the inherent absurdity in certain manifestations of culture and capitol and the types of manipulations that we are all prone too, since we are so often in a prone position as consumers.

The audience included the MPW class on Ekphrasis that I taught….and once again the word Ekphrasis came up for discussion.  It is a pretentious-sounding word, but it is an accurate one, one that means “description” in Greek. And, after all, as Wallace Stevens noted “accuracy of observation is the equivalent of thinking.”  Amy noted that Alexis’ process is a sort of “reverse ekphrasis.”  This brilliant observation drew no response from the audience but bafflement, but I know what Amy meant.

Both Amy Gerstler and Alexis Smith are profoundly inspiring and startling thinkers. To see the collusion/collision of their sensibilities, you need to see it in person.  And to linger—and to read the wall text which will reveal to you the whimsical darkness and levity that Amy Gerstler is so good at capturing:

Has no morals. Suffers from migraines. Refuses to bathe.

Talks all night. Broke new ground. Lost 50 pounds. Hates her

Name. Humiliates his children. Can’t sit still. Published

Eighteen novels. Can’t eat seafood. Lies to everyone. Gets lost

often.  Finds motherhood fulfilling. Succumbed to smallpox. Sees the


 –wall text from “Past Lives”


15 March

MPW Goes to AWP Boston


Last week MPW trekked through snow and ice for 2013 AWP Boston in Back Bay. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference can be a daunting experience with hundreds of panels on every conceivable topic and with over 10,000 attendees from across the country. Fortunately, the MPW contingent braved these wee temperatures and massive hoards with wide-eyed grace and good humor.

Dinah IMG_0224For one, Dinah Lenney (right) led a passionate panel on “Why Genre Matters” with panelists Sven Birkerts, Judith Kitchen, David Biespiel, and Scott Nadelson. Do labels like nonfiction and fiction help or inhibit the writer? The arguments for genre’s persuasions were equally as brilliant as those for its perils. While some in the audience clearly had a horse in the race (at one point an “Amen” was uttered), everyone agreed that it was the vital and intelligent discussion about why genre matters that truly mattered.

We asked MPW students to describe their experience at AWP Boston. Here’s what they wrote:

Caron Tate IMG_0194

All I have to say about the AWP experience is: Everybody in the program you HAVE TO go. Find a way. Whatever you want to do with your writing, there are lectures,workshops, and presentations on it, and the discussions, hanging out, and crazy fun with your classmates is the best EVER!\


Trisha Chambers (right)IMG_0193

Had an amazing time with MPW classmates @ AWP! Here are my favorite quotes.
Richard Russo: “Writing is an exercise in empathy. To write is to become more generous.” Benjamin Percy on writing about werewolves and non-werewolves: “All my characters are hairy on the inside.” Cheryl Strayed: “Your book has a birthday. You just don’t know what it is yet.”


 Sharon Sim-KrauseIMG_0366

I received a delightful snow confetti welcome the moment I strolled out of the Logan airport. I was transported from familiar LA to refreshing Boston, eagerly taking in jolts of inspiration from writers and muses, and basking in the soothing company of fellow MPWers.   My most memorable quote and reminder on why we write came from Richard Russo: “Writing is an exercise in empathy. To write is to become more generous. To be my best self is to write.” Thank you MPW and AWP for this invaluable opportunity!

Lauren NelsonLauren IMG_0190

AWP is the most useful, enjoyable, and grounding experience I’ve had this year. My favorite panel was “How to get your first university teaching job,” and it was great hearing Don DeLillo speak.


Kelsey NolanIMG_0329 (center)

Knowing that there were over six hundred booths at the AWP book fair was, quite honestly intimidating. How could I ever know what to go see, or who to talk to? Walking in was, all at once, overwhelming and compelling. The buzz made me feel welcome–like I was supposed to be there. I wanted to meet everyone there, submit to every literary journal, and buy every book. I could have spent an entire day in there and still not exhausted it. The whole conference felt that way, really, it was incredible.

Susannah LuthiIMG_0183

Highlights were meeting one of the writers we published in SCR (Erika Wurth). She presented on a panel on Native American writing and came by our booth. Thrilled she sent us her work. Dinner with the MPW crew. Hearing about Connu (my start up) second hand. Figuring out the framing/ending of my novel thanks to Don DeLillo’s panel. Watching Matt in action 87 percent of the time. Connecting with the friends from Skidmore and seeing progress they’ve made–one lit journal, Unstuck, in its second year, a novel done, a few stories published, and a new women’s lit journal started. They are incredible. Ron Carlson’s flash lit panel. Seeing Anne Carson.

Matt AckelsIMG_0220

AWP provided all the twist and turns of a good novel. I met quite a few characters, some wacky, some endearing, and most memorable. I learned things about my life in the broader context of our world, about my place in the greater literary community. Through the countless panels, I gleaned insights into writing and the craft. Of course, there were moments of daunting plot twists (running out of journals too soon), intimidating landscape (the thousand member book fair), and unwitting heroism (free cupcakes from Howard). Ultimately, this experience sharpened me as a writer, thinker, and, most directly, as a citizen of the wider literary community.

And here are those cupcakes!IMG_0353

06 October

Where I’m Writing From:

...the view from the bed...

The bed. The California king. In the master bedroom (not grand, but cozy, in the far bottom corner of the house). There’s nothing unseemly about the location; it just happens to be where I work these days—having to do with various developments: like, last winter I slipped on the ice in Vermont and broke my coccyx; like, my desk chair, which I’ve replaced with one of those enormous exercise balls, was lousy to begin with: but who can actually sit on a ball for any length of time (without bouncing—and bouncing isn’t actually conducive to reading or writing or thinking, not for me anyway); like, my college graduate has come home to L.A., so I can’t hole up in her room anymore. Long and short: if I were to open a fortune cookie? If it were to read, “You will finish an essay tomorrow”? Without affect, all joking aside, I’d be able to add in bed. Moreover, it turns out, though my husband is skeptical, this is as fine a place as any to get the job done. (Why is he skeptical? He’s afraid the work will interfere with my sleep, infect my dreams—and if only that were true; that’d be as good a reason as any to work here, right?) On the bed, I can spread out my papers every which way; if my feet get cold, my sock drawer is closeby; it’s quiet down here, and not dark exactly—more like a tree-house than a cave, thanks to the Chinese Elm that grows just outside the sliding glass doors—and the atmosphere, remote and isolated, promotes writerly/readerly immersion. Plus my office—my actual office—is just on the other side of the wall, if I happen to need a file or a book or an extra pencil.

But does it matter where we work? I think it must. It matters to me anyway, especially (though you might suppose it’d be the other way around) once I’m in the throes of whatever it is. This is not to say that whole paragraphs haven’t rushed me in Trader Joe’s, in line at the ATM, even at stoplights (the car is very good place to work, just ask Susan Straight, who’s written nine beautiful books, parked and waiting to pick up her daughters from here and there); goes without saying, of course, we should always carry a notebook, or, if we’re as put together (as dapper!) as New Yorker reporter Gay Talese, we might consider cutting cardboard into pieces to fit the interior breast pockets of our blazers. See and this is the sort of inside information that delights and inspires, right? Why didn’t I think to ask Aimee Bender, who read and spoke about writing to MPW students in Doheny library last Monday night, where exactly she spends that allotted two hours a day: would she be able to write those perfect stories just anywhere, or does she—like Virginia Woolf and me—need a room of her own?

“Houses, rooms, our designs of all sorts and all material things will eventually vanish,” wrote Mark Helprin earlier this week in an essay in The New York Times, celebrating not just his own work space, but the value of serendipity in a writer’s life. And last August Dani Shapiro blogged about “creating a narrative out of puzzle pieces…I have a feeling,” she went on to say, “that those of us who spend our days alone in our rooms working out stories on the page and in our heads obsess about the question of pattern and randomness.” Perhaps it’s because our work is mysterious and confounding in that way, that so many of us need the illusion, at least, of a safe, familiar reality, however impermanent it might turn out to be. And we have to believe, don’t we, that if we show up there with some regularity, we’re more likely to benefit from some wonderful ‘accident.’ Gay Talese says his “bunker,” his “subterranean think tank,” is where he can work “without any distractions.” Give yourself a treat and let him take you on a tour. And for more on where writers live and work, visit A. N. Devers’ wonderful site:

04 June

Like, Like, Like…

The interesting thing: All this grumbling we of a certain generation are doing about social media—Facebook, for instance—so self-righteous are we, so sanctimonious: we can’t quite believe we’re asked, for instance, along with a thousand other people, to hear what you made for dinner last night, or that you stubbed your toe last Friday—and, with the next breath in the very same tone (as if we were, all one thousand of us, your intimates) that your boyfriend dumped you or that your mother is dead. Are we supposed to “like” that? “Unlike” it? Quickly scroll (scurry) away as if to protect your privacy? In the end, aren’t we vaguely embarrassed for each other, isn’t that what we are? And yet. From there it’s a hop and a skip to condemning a whole generation—that’s what we do—for its inability to relate to people in person, face to face; all this false intimacy, we insist, all this posting and texting and sharing in fonts and images, when you might be having a face-to-face, voice-to-voice conversation with somebody who actually cares about you. That’s what we say. As if it were the ‘kids’ fault. But is it? Do they use Facebook this way? Actually, they don’t.

When I was new to Facebook, a colleague and I had an argument about what it’s for. She advocated for the personal: Tell me, she said, about last night’s date and the new curtains in the guest room. Don’t tell me, she said, that you have a new book deal or by-line. When I objected—when I said I’m not about to ask my friends (all 600 of them, which apparently isn’t very many) to read about my dog (neurotic), or my herbs (gone to seed, except for the chives which are flourishing nicely), or my tattoos (don’t have any); but how else to alert my 600 friends to my essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books? -she just sniffed. If I catch you self-promoting online, I’ll unfriend you, she said. But six months later she had a new book to sell, and like that (snap your fingers), she changed her tune: acquired a thousand more friends and started posting reviews. I haven’t asked her how she feels about FB now, though neither of us are on very much except to play Scrabble. And if it’s true that I got on in the first place because I wanted to play the game with my daughter, who had gone away to college—because I wanted to keep tabs on her without keeping tabs (she moves a letter, I know she’s okay)—would you believe me? Well, it’s true, so there. However, Eliza has long since stopped playing with me: And I long ago started posting on FB like everybody else: About my by-line here and there; about my friends’ by-lines here and there; even, four years later, about Eliza’s graduation from college. I succumbed, yes, to celebrating the personal online, and I can’t tell you how gratifying it was. Because, come to find out, if ‘friends’ will dutifully ‘like’ a post about my piece in LARB or HuffPo (thank you, friends!), three times as many of them will let me know it was worth my while to show off my beautiful graduate. Does this mean anything? Is there a lesson here? Undoubtedly.

And also a conundrum: Because, yes, I admit I’ve surrendered, I’m as bad as the rest, I’ve addressed you all as if you were one and the same, approached you on Facebook, answered you on Facebook—as if you were interested, as if you were my ideal reader, which, I’ll insist (as did Kurt Vonnegut), is the way to the best writing; if, that is, one were actually crafting prose for public consumption (a story, an essay); which is, you might argue, exactly what we’re doing on Facebook! So why doesn’t it feel quite right? How is it that I want you, in your essays and stories and books, to fool me into feeling they were written just for me? Why am I certain that’s good for your sentences? Whereas when you’re not trying to fool me at all? When you write just for me (and everyone else) on Facebook? I feel a fool for reading and writing and answering in kind. And, blushing for us both, I want to ask: Isn’t anything sacred, off-limits, or simply too dull to post? Maybe not. Maybe so. Depends on the reader, depends on the writer; I don’t know the answer, I really don’t.

Here’s what I do know: For all our whining and preaching about real communication, it’s we who are abusing the venue, not our children. We of a certain age who would appear to need to over-share; we, wishing each other condolences and happy anniversary online—pretending, with equal emphasis, as if we want or mean to confide in hundreds of people, and care what they think to boot—who might be accused of behaviors that are false, coy, and cloying, and having to do with what? Extreme loneliness and alienation? A desperate effort to keep up? Fear of obsolescence? All of the above?

But why oh why, you might be wondering about now (if you’re still with me, that is) am I going on and on about Facebook?

Because every so often, to my mind anyway, somebody gets it absolutely right, as did author Nicholas Montemarano a week or so ago, when he wrote:

You don’t want to write, you don’t want to, you just don’t want to, no way, not today, not happening, you’re afraid that nothing will come or that nothing good will come, it’s Sunday, the day before a holiday, as good an excuse as any, why not spend the day reading, tomorrow you’ll write, or the day after that, but tomorrow or the day after you’ll still have the same fear of not writing or not writing well, so you make a deal, you’ll get into bed with paper and pencil beside you, and you’ll close your eyes, and whatever happens happens, no promises, and after a half hour of dozing and daydreaming you open your eyes and a sentence comes to you: “The year I was thirteen—unlucky thirteen.” And this sentence leads to another: “The year I let a boy get lucky with unlucky me.” And this sentence leads to more sentences: “Three years older than me, but still a boy. Absolutely a boy. Closer to being a man than any boy I knew, but not even close. My mother’s boyfriends were men.” And these sentences lead to more, and 15 minutes later the page is filled with sentences, and you read them aloud, you pick at them, you like the way they sound, you decide that they have a chance at making the cut when your novel is done, probably years from now, and you quit while you’re ahead, while you’re excited. Hours and hours of doubt and fear, 15 minutes of writing. A day’s work.

O but this was personal, and professional, and authentic, and generous, and inspiring, and comforting, too. What a gift. I liked it. I liked it so much. And I hope you do, too.

11 December

I’d like to write like ___… (fill in the blank)

Still Life with De Kooning...

Back in the 80s, when I lived in New York City, my sister and I went to see a De Kooning show at the Whitney Museum of Art. We played a game: Stood back from each canvas and guessed its title, delighting ourselves when we came close—when we saw what we were supposed to see—though no word or phrase of ours was as pungent or evocative as any of De Kooning’s: Here’s a sampling (in no particular order) from the vast retrospective on the sixth floor of Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art through mid-January, 2012: The Cow Jumps Over the Moon; Landing in Boston; Door to the River; The Cat’s Meow; Conversation; Queen of Hearts; Excavation; Whose Name was Writ in Water… And my especial favorite?–title, I mean?–Self Portrait with Imaginary Brother: Talk about mixed genre; talk about emotionally loaded. And to think about: how can an artist—painter, musician, poet—focus the imagination of his audience with a title? Should a work of art speak for itself? Should we go ahead and interpret as we please? (Can we help it?) Or ought we to consider the creator’s intention? See, once we know the title of that drawing, and as we consider those two boys side by side—how not to be intrigued by the inner life of at least one of them?

Self Portrait with Imaginary Brother, completed in 1938, comes early in the current exhibition, which covers “seven eras”; De Kooning only stopped working a few years before his death at age 93. But though it wasn’t difficult to choose my favorite title, I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite decade—I couldn’t, in fact. For if they are wonderful one by one—each painting and each period—taken together, as evidence of a life in art, the effect is extraordinary.

But you can read any number of experts on De Kooning–including Holland Cotter, who wrote about this particular show when it opened last September: “Unfurling a Life of Creative Exuberance” reads the headline, which (speaking of the power of titles), by way of entry to his smart review, was just one more reason I couldn’t wait to get to MoMA when I was in New York a few weeks ago.

According to Taylor, “…De Kooning…wanted to open everything up, to bring—to squeeze—everything into art: high, low; old, new; savagery, grace… And so he did, in a laborious, pieced-together, piled-up, revision-intensive way…”
The critic then explains the artist’s process: “Typically he would start with a drawing, add paint, draw on top of the paint, scrape the surface down, draw more images traced and transferred from elsewhere, add paint to them, and on and on.”

Sound familiar? Sound like writing and revising? (and revising, and revising again) I thought so. I hoped so. And I couldn’t wait to see for myself.

Then, not long after I’d made reservations online, a status update on Facebook caught my eye: “I want to write the way De Kooning painted,” wrote Susan Cheever. At least that’s what I thought she’d written–that’s what I remembered when I checked with her after seeing the show, to ask about quoting her post. Susan referred me to an essay she’d published at The Fix, which was enough to send me back to Facebook to find her post all over again. Turned out I’d been hasty—I’d heard what I wanted to hear. Susan’s actual status? “I want to write the way De Kooning painted in 1981–those last precious years.” And in her good essay, she asserts that De Kooning’s best work was created after he got sober at age 74. “Can only a fellow ex-alcoholic get it?” she asks.

Maybe so. But how to reconcile Cheever and Cotter? Cheever and me? Not that Cotter doesn’t love the later paintings (and I do, too), but not more than the others; and while Cheever characterizes the early work as “frantic and uncontrolled,” he tells us just the opposite: the artist, he says, “was a deliberator,” and, “Every painting was a controlled experiment.”

On top of which, in the exhibition itself, one of De Kooning’s students is quoted as saying that his teacher worked relentlessly, month after month after month on a single piece, to achieve the feeling that the paint had been “blown” onto the canvas. So, whether or not the artist was a drunk, here’s my take: I’d like to write like De Kooning painted; with that kind of focus, absorption, commitment, and passion, year after year, decade after decade; I’d like to accumulate a body of work that honestly reflects who I am and who I’m becoming; I’d hope to acquire experience, insight, and fluency that informs my craft and content; and I’d like to think my perspective–as it changes and deepens–will continue to inform and transform me and my sentences.

De Kooning inspires me—just me—not because he sobered up, but rather because he was never content to repeat himself; and, as far as I can tell, he never got stuck. Or if he did, I guess he stuck with it until he wasn’t stuck anymore. Besides which, those earlier paintings are gorgeous in my view, full of movement and color and humor and joy and pathos and mystery; and I’d like to write like that, yeah.

So: All kinds of questions raised here, by three—only three!—responses to art: Is it true that we are what we do? How much must we know about the artist to understand and appreciate his work? Can the audience, reader or viewer or listener, help but project and endow? Is there any such thing as objectivity on either side of the equation? And does it matter what moves us, so long as we are moved?

Chime in and tell me what you think…