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Truth and Fiction

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I guest taught a class earlier this week, one that the prof had titled “knowing the world through narrative.” I had mentioned in a conversation about my admin job that one of the things I miss about teaching is the opportunity to talk about books and the craft of writing and reading them on a regular basis. So there I was on Thursday, parachuted into a class of 100 students, with a plan to march them through literary analysis. I chose a few pages from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Are you my mother?, which is a memoir (though she terms it a comic drama) weaving psychoanalysis, Virginia Woolf, and Bechdel’s relationship with her mom into a pretty interesting text.

What I initially found so compelling about Bechdel’s book was her response to her mom at a point when her mom is asserting that there is no room for the individual, the personal, the specific in good literature. Bechdel says: but don’t you think that if you write minutely and rigorously enough about your own life that you can transcend your individual self? I thought that was spot on and beautifully put. Here, Bechdel shows you how hard it is to write about yourself and what you can hope to gain by it. It makes her project sound like self-ethnography, which fit in with what this class I was working with has been up to this semester.

The other notion I wanted to cover with the students, who had just been working with data collection and other quantifiable source material, was the notion of Truth vs. Facts. We can, if we choose, collect facts about a work of writing and these facts can bring us to a certain understanding of the work and influence our relationship to it. But good fiction is greater than the sum of its parts and, as Stephen King, Tennessee Williams and a hundred other writers have said–good fiction is the truth inside the lies they write. I wanted these students, most of whom would have had high school English classes that left them more or less cold and uninspired, to take the notion of reading literature seriously. So we talked a bit a about metaphor and symbolism (the apple I’m eating at lunchtime = the apple in Eden, for example) and get back to Bechdel and her notion of writing minutely and rigorously about her life as something that could become transcendent.

I thought it was awesome. And so good to talk about again. Ad as I write about it two days later, I may come to the conclusion that I am a better lecturer than I am a writer. My riff on my apple and Eve’s apple was pretty nice, I thought, and impossible to recapture now.

The other great thing about working with a graphic novel for this was the ability of that medium to visually display the layers of a text. Word bubbles, blocked off text that provides context/narration, and images of passages from other books (Woolf, Winnicot) that show the intertextual material Bechdel is working with. And then the images of the characters themselves. Are they happy, sad, regretful, confused? No adjectives needed–just those pictures. How challenging that work must be–to convey all of that with so little, really.

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Written by Jennifer

October 20, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Incoming Me

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(with credit & apologies to Havi Bell)

On a warm May evening eight years ago, or was it only seven, a friend of mine and I sat in my car in the driveway, engine off, and ran through what appeared to be her options to get out of a sticky situation. Well, I ran through the options; she batted each one of them away as too difficult, to painful, impossible. She was hurting and I was frustrated with the mess she found herself in and had no clue how talking to me was going to help her out. There are some issues, alas, which each of us must confront on our own: pistols-at-dawn and the responsibility rests on our shoulders alone. My feelings, my insights on her situation came from a place of compassion within me but, because they were mine, they did not resonate with her.

And in that car, I had a small flash, an insight both timely and useful–a rare combination, really. I asked her: “What would the person you would like to be do in this situation?” I thought maybe that question might sneak around all of the roadblocks she had constructed between herself and the solution (whatever it was) to her situation. Your best version of yourself, that image you have of yourself, dappled in sunshine, looking strong and capable and happy–SHE would know what to do here. She would behave with sovereignty and clarity, owning her decision and completely capable of managing the consequences. Why not talk to her??

It is easier to give someone unsolicited advice than to take it yourself. And I know there have been many occasions in the intervening years where I should have stopped tying myself in knots and had a conversation with the competent and sovereign version of myself. Frequently, I tied myself in knots and only came back to the realization of my own flexibility and control over my happiness with help from others.

But I am trying to listen to that version of ideal me now, and doing it consciously. Havi Brooks, who writes about “unstuckness” and yoga and shiva nata at www.fluentself.com, talks about this process, as well. She calls it talking to “incoming me” and she goes to her future, more knowledgable self for prompts, advice, and clarity on issues that are vexing her in the now. This makes sense to me, though it sounds quirky. In order to bypass that bitchy, nasty voice in your head that reminds you of everthing you’ve ruined, every mistake you’ve made, you might need to get in touch with a part of yourself that is beyond that and at peace.

Of course, there is a danger that I might be expecting too much from “incoming me,” “future me,” “idealized me.” And maybe that is why Havi talks about “incoming,” reminding herself that this YOU is always in process, always developing. There is no “future” or “ideal” to attain, because in that future moment, another “incoming me” will be in the wings, waiting to pull back the curtain and get new things in motion.

Right now I am hoping that incoming me has clarity on a few things–things related to space and shelter, things related to words and creativity, things related to the relationship between body and mind. That’s a lot to ask of her, maybe I’ll start slowly.

Written by Jennifer

August 21, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Nightmares

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Given that I’m in a new place, physically and professionally, and spend a lot of time in my own head, it comes as no surprise that I’m having some weirdo anxiety-fueled dreams.

There’s the one where it’s the first day of class and I don’t know where my room is or what I’m supposed to teach them.

There’s the one where my students and I are all sitting around the seminar table and I want to show them some great books we’re going to discuss and my copies of the books are all waterlogged and moldy and the pages are fused together.

Ahhh, good times.

But by far my favorite anxiety dream was the one I had last night. The kids are at school and I glance up at the clock to see that it is 10:30 and realize I sent them to school without lunch and snack and their first nutrition break just passed and my kids have nothing to eat! The rest of the dream is spent running around a dreamscape town buying odd food choices in even odder places. There are no ziploc bags or containers of any sort for the egg salad sandwich and I put potato chips (!) in a tea bag and find a cache of rotting hamburger in a meeting room. And while I’m doing this, the number of kids I have to feed keeps growing. First one, then two, then three and then, thank god, Ingrid came in and woke me up.

Some mornings I wish Canadian elementary schools had cafeterias.

Written by Jennifer

September 29, 2011 at 7:27 am

Posted in Canada, Kids, writing

Mysterious ways

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Most blogs I read–especially blogs written by women–come with some sort of “about” page, in which the author categorizes and labels herself for her readership. “I am a single mom and a lawyer.” or “I am a homeschooling mother of three and am also trying to get my own business doing letterpress tea towels up and running.” Dale made sure that our info page here points you, dear reader, in the direction of our favorite spirit, in case you feel like having a case of Hendrick’s gin delivered to my door. And, just as many blogs’ “about me” pages are woefully out of date, ours, too, could use some refreshing. The problem is, I don’t quite know what to say. We are not having another child, we are still married, I’m still way-out-there liberal, and I still love gin. But I am no longer working as a German professor and realize that I may never again fill that particular role.

After a certain age, I suppose one imagines that the “about me” page is pretty much done writing itself. Your profession, the number of kids or cats you have, your hobbies–I imagined those items as things you acquired or grew into during your young years, so that you could enjoy them in your middle and old age.
But such, it would appear, is not the case. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it has for me.

Written by Jennifer

September 18, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Posted in life, writing

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Duddy, oh Duddy

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As part of my pledge to myself to blog my leisure reading for you, dear Readers, I am going to write about The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordechai Richler. This book has been on my “to-read” list for ages, largely because of the volume of German-Jewish literature I was reading for research and teaching and my need to expand my knowledge of diaspora Jewish literature beyond the German. Business + pleasure = Richler.

A year or two ago, I read Barney’s Version by Richler and it took me a while to get into it. I thought perhaps this was because I didn’t have the necessary Richler/Montreal/Jewish/Canadian literary or cultural background to “get it.” And eventually Barney and his tale grew on me: he was a sheister, a shady businessman, a wealthy man who came by his wealth honestly sometimes and dishonestly, too. Duddy is the original Barney. Or, as a friend here put it: The rub on Richler is that he writes the same novel over and over again every four or five years or so. To this verdict I can only amend: the protagonists age as Richler himself does. Duddy the grubby St. Urbain urchin who schemes to buy land up north morphs into Barney, the middle-aged Montreal Jew with a cabin in the Quebec north woods. And I’ll grant Richler a pretty compelling plot line, if one that is rather well-worn in the pages of twentieth-century literature.

The bummer of reading Duddy for me, though, was that I enjoyed Richler’s craft more than I enjoyed his story. He is a good writer; he draws his characters well; I felt I knew a couple of them and saw what the others represented in the social fabric of the narrative. But the story itself, the plot, just tired me out. The title is a surefire giveaway that this story is entirely Duddy’s own and follows his development (or aging, as Duddy doesn’t really develop at all–he remains a selfish teenager at heart) from the selfish vantage point of his own wants and needs. Duddy is unconcerned with the Yvette, with Vergil, with his peers as he forges ahead with his plans to impress the men in his family. Mom, of course, is dead. Aunt Ida is, maybe, crazy. Women . . . they are so inessential to the drama of the male psyche. I grow weary of such narratives.

Marie Kaschnitz, Ruth Klüger, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein–there are women writing “Jewish” fiction in Germany, Austria, and the US that doesn’t focus on the feminine experience of being the marginalized Jew. (Of course, Klüger and Goldstein and others do remark on the marginality of the female Jew within the observant Jewish community itself.) I see the characters in Kaschnitz’s prose, or in Goldsteins, as being more fully rounded, more accessible (to me?) than the penile-focussed, artist-as-a-young-man characters offered by Richler, Biller, Roth, et al. I tend to reject out of hand the contention that women write for women, or are better understood by women, and men for men. I think my benchmark of good writing is prose that allows any reader to see into the characters, to see the universal in the specific example the author has crafted. As a woman reading, I resent being excluded and marginalized by the text as it comes into being.

So, up on my feminist soap box, I saunter off to read some Margaret Atwood. G’night, Ladies.

Written by Jennifer

August 31, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Extracurricular Kids

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Although many of my comrades south of the 49th parallel have kids who are in school already, our clan doesn’t begin until after Labor Day. For those of you keeping track at home, that means TWO LONG WEEKS of the kids at home and no summer camp plans in sight. Having promised myself and my spouse that I will not begin to drink before 5:00pm, I have resolved to get out of the house, with the kids, and do creative things.

Unicorn Lives Here

I am using Keri Smith’s How to be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum as my inspiration. I bought this for myself a few weeks ago, because Smith’s suggestions for how to document your life, your environment, and your thoughts blew my mind. Reading through her explorations, I thought so many of them would be excellent practice for creative writing, for jump-starting my brain, for focussing my journaling efforts on something other than the dronedronedrone of memememememe inside my head. As a bonus, tons of her exploration suggestions are things you can do with kids. Bingo!

Today we started with a modification on Exploration #11: Differences. Collect multiples of one thing (such as leaves, stones, shells, seeds, etc.). Lay them out in front of you. Observe them in detail. Using the “object log,” list the differences you see. Try to document at least twenty-five things.(page 51)

The crew: Greta, Ingrid, neighborkid J, (neighborkid E and neighbormom A participated for a while), myself

The supplies: blank paper, triangular shaped crayons, glue, construction paper, some beads, some fancy scrapbooking paper

The locale: outside–from our back door to the end of the block

Herbarium

The method: Step 1. make rubbings of different patterns. Leaves under paper was a logical place to start and G kept that theme going–all natural, she said. We did tree bark, the open scar of a recently felled tree, flowers, even a dead bumblebee’s wing. The others also branched out and did water line covers, gate decorations, license plates on cars, asphalt, bricks.

Step 2. Assemble a book or collage with your rubbings. You may add objects with glue or tape to the book or collage.

Step 3. Describe what you’ve created. Is it the atlas of an ant world? Is it a magical kingdom with a unicorn’s house? (see neighborkid J’s pic below for the unicorn house!) Write a story about what you found, rubbed, and selected for presentation!

I’d give this project a solid B- for the kids. Collecting rubbings was great fun and the idea of gluing together a collage or book captivated their imaginations. However, things got rather bogged down in the gluing portion of the activity. GLUE! COLLAGE! MORE GLUE! TONS OF GLUE! You can imagine. Neighborkid J really focussed on creating a place and named it and decorated it and presto, she was done!

Snapdragon!

Greta kept everything small scale and decided that she had created a herbarium for Hogwarts.

Ingrid took the longest to get to a point where she was ready to narrate. The sorting and cutting and gluing and gluing and cutting and cutting really enthralled her and she would have happily remained on that task until the end of time. With the cutoff looming, though, (Dad is coming home in 30 minutes and the mess needs to be cleared up by then so we can have family time and make dinner!) the others jumped in to help her and she put together this:

She wrote about a talking snapdragon, in keeping with the herbal theme she’d started with.

My next task is to try this for myself. I will share where I take it with you all here.

Written by Jennifer

August 23, 2011 at 11:02 am

Canadiana Reading List

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What I do not know about the country in which I currently reside could fill bookshelves. And it does. So, thanks to a generous friend  and a used bookstore, I have the following reading list to catch me up on Canadiana:

Margaret Atwood, Before the Flood

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

Mordechai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Margaret Laurence, The Diviners

Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women

W. O. Mitchell, Who has Seen the Wind

Hugh MacLennan, Two Solitudes

Rudy Wiebe, The Temptations of Big Bear

Criag Brown, Ed. The Illustrated History of Canada

Peter C. Newman, Company of Adventurers

To be fair to me, I am not a complete dolt and have read a great deal of Atwood, and taught her first novel, The Edible Woman, in Women’s Studies courses. But I haven’t read her newest stuff, which focusses more on the damage to the environment caused by the patriarchy than the damage to individual people. I’ve also read some Richler, but not his seminal Duddy, so that needed to happen.

I hesitate to ask you, gentle reader, if you have anything to add to the list, for I also have other reading that needs to happen and, well, kids and a husband and knitting that all need tending to. But, comments on your favorites are most welcome, as are things that might have been neglected in the creating of this list! (Oh, and my French is abysmal, so we’re sticking to Anglophone literature and history. A true loss, I am sure.)

Written by Jennifer

August 14, 2011 at 6:39 pm