Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Origins of the Novel

The first time I wrote and finished a novel I was sixteen. I wrote it in Mead notebooks in class, and sometimes at home. After I wrote the whole thing out in notebooks, I typed it on a plastic Smith Corona at a desk in the basement. I still have the desk (it's in my office). I still have the notebooks (they're in the attic). The Smith Corona is missing in action.

Yes, officer. I'm 16.
I would post a picture here of what I looked like at sixteen, but this should do it: I had an uncanny resemblance to the Les Miz poster. The picture on my first license looks just like that. Minus the flag.

Probably, the novel was ok. It was about a boy -- who was seventeen, had a single mom and some weird daddy issues. He was tall and beautiful, and had burgundy hair. He loved a girl, who was Ivory girl pretty, super smart, shy and bookish. Her parents were stuffy. They didn't like him or his looks or his single, cigarette smoking mom. They had sex. She got punished by her parents and was forbidden to see him. They ran away and her smooth talking, crazy -- did I mention crazy? -- boyfriend talked her into suicide, all while kind of ad hoc quoting some Keats.

I remember when I finished it. I was at the bar in my parents' house, and it was close to midnight on New Year's Eve. I remember that feeling of writing the last few words in pen, and closing the notebook.

Also, this is what I thought life was probably like. You meet a boy, you get in trouble, you have to die. No way out.

Heh. I'm so not changing the end of Daniel Deronda.
As far as I know, my mom knew I was writing it, but didn't read it. When I told her what it was about, and roughly how it ended. She told me -- very seriously -- that I had better change it.

Also, this wasn't the first novel. The first one -- same boy, slightly different circumstances -- involved the same single mom, but included her abusive boyfriend. This guy was an asshole. And the kid, he's so sweet, so pretty, so shy. He had a friend, too. A sassy younger kid, even prettier. The mom's boyfriend had a bad habit of beating the shit out of my character. Their apartment was grim, dark and run down. The porch slanted toward the street, and the kids had a habit of sneaking in and out of an upstairs window in the middle of the night.

This was eighth grade. My mom read parts of it, and told me -- matter of factly -- that perhaps the boyfriend was misunderstood. And maybe the mom was misunderstood too. Maybe she shouldn't be painted as such a terrible person for staying with the boyfriend.

My genesis for this triangle: David Copperfield. I was in love/hate with Mr. Murdstone. Plus, his name was Murdstone!

My mom's sensitivity: life. Except that I didn't know it. Sure I had gleaned some details from the past, and I'd first hand witnessed some violence. But I wasn't after her, or her story. I was writing my own. It was fiction.

As for the suicide, it was the biggest crescendo I could built. The biggest. And I was sixteen. I needed a big finish. There was no subtle and then they work things out in the moonlight for me. It was go big or go home. To die.

No one has told me I had better change anything -- for its being too close to the truth -- for a long time. But everyone still looks for themselves, still assumes they know where it came from and what it's about.

But it's fiction.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Joy and Pleasure to Have in Class

It was my most common report card comment: a joy and pleasure to have in class. Second to this one were comments about being too social, and comments about not working up to potential. Last week, in the midst of trying to teach Kieran statistics, I admitted to him that I only made it through half of what was then Sequential 3 math, also known as trigonometry.

I dropped out after I got a 50 on the midterm. It was really abstract. More so than any math I'd had. And while I wasn't opposed to abstraction -- I probably preferred it -- I just couldn't make my head pay attention.

Also, I had a novel to write.

I spent the 40 minutes of trig every day writing. I was working on my first attempt at a novel, and some stories that were really exciting to me. That year -- 11th grade -- I was reading Lolita and The Great Gatsby. I was immersed in French language and culture and wanted only to take more art than my school could possibly offer, or than I would be allowed after I'd filled up on all my requirements.

I remember going up to the teacher on the day I dropped and he said, What have you been doing all this time?

I said, Writing.

Really, he said. He was smirky. Smarmy. He used to tell us if we wanted to sit there and be stupid we could go right ahead. I'd told him I was writing so that he would know I wasn't sitting there being stupid.

Good luck with that, he said.

What might have happened? If I'd been immersed in writing back then, instead of taking math, instead of finding something to fall back on, something to make money with: a job teaching, a job at the bank, as a nurse. How much time did I waste, trying to be something that would earn a paycheck instead of something I loved? I did it again and again: in high school, in college, in graduate school. Any step I could take to get away from writing I would.

It probably matters less why now than it does that I have recognized it and stopped it. I gained something in the stalling, mostly in the form of people, especially in the form of children.

But get this: I wasn't outwardly subversive. I was a pleasure. A joy to have in class. I had learned early on not to be a thorn in anyone's side so I kept my rebellion to myself.

For too long.

What's to do now but move forward? And make sure that my own kids don't repeat the same pattern and shelve what they love for what's practical, for what an administrator tells them they should do, because that's what everyone does, everyone who wants to be uniquely just like everyone else.

There is no report card comment that says: this kid is crazy driven to do something we're not doing here, so we're encouraging her to do so. There is compliance and non-compliance.

I'm not suggesting a free-for-all, do whatever you want curriculum. I'm a huge supporter of the liberal arts education, especially when it's integrated.

But I'm just also a fan of what Nietzsche called "a long obedience in the same direction," because "there results, and always has resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living."

And that has nothing to do with compliance. I want that on my report card.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Someday this will be a movie starring Drew Barrymore

I have work quitting or at least work flipping out fantasies. Among the best of these: Tom Cruise's flip out in Jerry Maguire . . .

and my favorite, Jim Carrey's back to you, fuckers, from Bruce Almighty . . .

Last week, I gave up $10,000. And while I didn't exactly flip out, or flip anyone off, I did sort of come to a screeching halt.

Last spring I was contacted to offer a couple of creative writing courses at Syracuse University: a lucky break for me. It was part-time work (aka adjuncting) but it paid well, and . .  well, it was SU. While I may have misgivings on the prestige of the big school for a lot of things (especially having gone to Le Moyne) I was not about to argue with the reputation of the creative writing program. Also, I could be teaching the next Lou Reed.

It went well. By which I mean to say, I liked it, but what I liked most about it was teaching creatively. I was also teaching a writing intensive on the interpretation of fiction: which is just what you think it is: a lot of interpreting, snow = death, inscribing pens = penises kind of thing.

In the fall, two sections of gender and lit opened up for the spring. Another writing intensive with even more pens, but with the added inscripted body, queer theory,  and performativity too.

It was a lot of work. And a good opportunity to show my mettle: gender / queer theory would have been one of my field exams, had I finished my Ph.D.

Ok: I have a problem with quitting.

I did this once before, my first time around in graduate school, in 1996. I had lost my funding. My first year, I was fully funded, working as an editorial assistant for Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies (MRTS). When it closed, and moved from Binghamton, I was shit outta luck. In fact, that might be the official language of the English department. I remember a shrug, and a I dunno coming from the chair when I went in to ask where else they could place me.

So my second year, I took a full time job as a proofreader / styles editor at Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing. When I thought I was going to get to read all of the Norton Anthologies (and get paid $7/ hour) I instead got to read an entire textbook on bovine venereal diseases. Seriously, inflamed cow vulva is nothing to laugh at.

I was studying full-time, working full-time and by October, I was pregnant. By December, I had to quit something, and the only thing I couldn't quit was being pregnant. (Yes, I know I could have. The baby was planned. I know. Who plans a baby in grad school? I do.)

So I left everything. School (leave of absence). Work. Binghamton. I found I could do one thing right then and that was have this baby.

Now, fifteen years later, I'm in the same boat. After struggling through the middle school years and watching my brilliant, (yes, I said brilliant) under-motivated son go from top of his class in Liverpool to bottom of his class in Clinton,* I decided something radical needed to be done. In the midst of a whole lot of bullshit sometimes you need to focus on one thing.

I pulled him out of school.

No one at the school district knows what to do with him. When I say this, I mean I haven't gotten any idea or solution from them that says "lets try this" that isn't just punishment. He doesn't need punishment. He needs inspiration.

We're in the midst of liberating here. We're homeschooling. And unschooling. And for the time being, following our curiosity towards doing whatever the fuck we want. To facilitate this, I quit my two writing intensives for spring. My move was deemed "unprecedented" by the department.

Unprecedented because I pulled out so close to the start of classes. Also, I expect, because in a highly competitive academic milieu, leaving for family issues just makes you a mom, when they thought you were a professional. Unprecedented because how could you give up $10,000 to stop everything and figure out how to teach your most important student? If I were a legit, full-time employee I might have been able to finagle a leave of absence, but when you operate as a satellite, they just kind of cut you loose.**

As always, I second-guess myself. I asked for a lot of advice. I got a lot of advice. A lot of it was super helpful. And I'm still getting lots of advice. I expect it will continue. Everyone (but the school, apparently) has ideas about how to raise and teach a child.

We had a meeting with the principal and the guidance counselor last week. A meeting where I expected to be offered some insight, some proposal, but what I got instead was a version of them telling on him, and what the told me was what I already knew. What I was prepared to say, instead, and what we did say, in a longer, more formal way was I got this.

You know what, I got this. Thanks anyway. And for the time being, I have to let go and not feel bad about my unprecedented decision to stop teaching 60 students in favor of teaching one.

*I'm not pitching some east cost / west coast Liverpool / Clinton thing here. Chances are, he would have done the same thing in Liverpool. But the reality is that he never got the chance to shine at Clinton. He was tracked into mediocrity and stayed there, and partially, my gut tells me that's because no one tried very hard to get to know him or notice his particular understated sparkle. That's right. I said sparkle.

** Also, yes, I know I am privileged to be able to make this decision at all. In another household, mommy would just keep working, and junior would just keep failing. Losing 10k is hard for us, but it's not the end. I'm not the sole or even the main breadwinner. And I'm still teaching one class: the fiction workshop.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I Am Woman, Hear Me Mew

I've seen two posts recently that caught my eye: the first was an anti-rape poster that is directed at men. As in, Men, you have the power to stop rape from happening. Innovative. Most rape prevention materials are aimed at women. As in, Rape is inevitable, so here's what you need to do to protect yourself. In fact, most involve techniques for self defense, martial arts, or in some cases, handguns, and the most extreme: the newly invented South African female condom that has teeth. 

That's right: teeth. Because what better way to stop men from raping women than to threaten them back with a vagina that might chew your dick off. Other effective ways to stop men from raping: shoot them. Beat them with your fists. Oh, and pepper spray. Because apparently, men are completely incapable of controlling themselves.

In the men's ad, the tagline is "My strength is not for hurting." It acknowledges, maybe even panders to, men's power, the power of male sexuality. It's so powerful you can't stop it without excessive force. In fact, what the Rape-aXe essentially says is, You can't stop them from going in, so you might as well hurt them while they're in there.

The second post that caught my attention was a tweet from Pank magazine that read something like: not interested in stories that use the word "cougar" to describe female sexuality in women over thirty.

What's wrong with the word cougar?

In the rape-prevention ad, male strength is honored. Men are strong. Men can rape. It's within their power not to.

When you use the word cougar, you acknowledge that female sexuality -- when not infantile -- is dangerous. It can eat you alive. It has teeth. And can outrun you.

By contrast, Maybelline has a new product, Baby Lips -- a lip balm which promises to give you back the lips you were born with. It's winter. Who doesn't need lip balm? But the ad features a young model with girlish looks -- girlish as in babyish. Big lips, big teeth, wide vacant eyes. In one shot, she pulls a string of bubble gum out of her mouth, twirling it like a kid would. The product's tag line? Get back the lips you were born with. Doublespeak. It's as much an ad for lip balm as it is for virginity, and you're kidding yourself if you don't think so. Vaginal rejuvenation has come to Central New York.* Which means it's pretty much everywhere. What's next? Anti-aging labia cream? Wait, do they already make that?

What I learned from these two posts: you need to pussy-foot around men's power and the inevitability of force. Or grow some teeth. But when women over thirty are powerfully sexual -- and God forbid, assertive -- it's essentially deadly. Kinda sexy, but deadly. You're better off being a really hot baby.

*I hate even giving this guy a plug. And yes, the center for women's incontinence is run by Dr. Sopp. Some stuff you can't make up.