I’ve had both excellent news and one devastating experience this week. Maybe this is the shape life is supposed to take: part dream, part nightmare. Anyway, the good news is easy, I heard another piece of mine will be published–three times published makes me feel legitimate. Three times sounds like a streak, like it wasn’t an aberration or mistake. This is comforting. The devastation has to do with prisons. What should be a relatively low key experience–a class visit to a prison museum, screwed me up.
I hate the idea of prisons. I hate the fact of prisons. I hate prison architecture. I hate the notion of retribution. I hate punitive measures. I hate cages. I hate life in cages. I must have been a zoo animal in former life.
At any rate, I refused to visit Alcatraz when I lived in San Francisco, and here in Philadelphia I have refused to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary (except for once giving in to the Halloween fest activity they have there, where you’re too busy dodging made up ghouls to reflect on the nature of imprisonment.)
Being given a clear eyed, highly informative account of the life of the prisoners of Eastern State did nothing to improve my sense of dread. I learned a lot. But I was filled with grief. I was filled with grief at the way ideas seize imaginative people, and how they then make reality bend to the idea, regardless of the shape of life. In this case, well intentioned Quakers thought the prisoners needed more reflection–while I typically respect the desire to encourage self reflection and insight, it seems obvious that imposing close to total human isolation is a bad idea. And yet, the idea was pursued, despite the consequences. Humanity’s ability to creepily adhere to ideas, regardless of evidence, is what terrifies me the most.
Anyway, I’ve been carrying around a grief stretched heart since my visit. The flowering trees are helping reverse my grief, but not the grief of those who are currently incarcerated.
I’m here to tell you how much I love working on my memoir manuscript. It engages a whole other part of my mind in a truly delightful, relaxing way. Okay, I may be lying about the relaxing part. Editing my memoir fills me with teeth grinding fear and hopeful gases. Yes, editing has physiological effects.
At any rate, I reread, in a state of pleasant surprise, my latest iteration of Bed Stories, which goes through various romantic and family anecdotes that are linked to the presence of beds. It’s always been my sweet, slightly broken darling, but I think it may have finally found its rhythm. Because writing is about finding, varying, and sustaining rhythm. (Did you know the word Rhythm had so many Hs? I did not.) But yes, this story is cooked. It is done. It smells like, well it smells like the vapors of Michter’s bourbon in my empty glass, which is a slightly smokey, slightly sweet, very boozy aroma.
This evening of delighted discovery of finished products in the rubble of my ever unfinished memoir is brought to you by the letter S. S for Surrender and Serendipity. Surrender because it seems that, like me, the students in my classes have basically given up on the readings. I have come to terms with drastic skimming. Serendipity because tonight I figured out that the deadlines for my next research papers weren’t quite as dire as I expected. So I came home and, instead of plunging into research, I got to plunge into my very own personal writing project. My personal writing project makes me feel at home in the way the best vacation I have ever had made me feel at home in a strange place. There’s sun, there’s discovery, and there’s a sweet satisfaction experienced between swims and naps. I don’t get to nap when I edit, but I do get to swim in my mind’s flow.
I’ve vowed to myself that I will rebalance my time> more time writing, less time reading homework/researching. I want to do it all, but doing it all must include my writing. There. I said it.
Tonight, I’ve been reading about (big words coming, so don’t freak out and abandon me here) Applied Symbolic Interactionism. It’s a social work theory formulated from 1890 to 1910 (stay with me…) and it freaking answers every question that drove the writing of my memoir. Okay, I’m exaggerating. It only answers or speaks to half the chapters. The chapter where I write in the second person, and my story about Frenchness and Identity–this theory can handle these questions. This theoretical framework specifically deals with multiple identities–internal and external, past and future, and across multiple clubs (e.g., France/America). Holy shit. That’s what my memoir is about: The imaginary, and the differences between the labels you inherit or are given and those you select for yourself. It’s deeply weird to have my narrative, story-based pieces explained in a structured theoretical framework. In one hour of reading what took me two years to write was explained. Can you guess how weird I feel right now?
Maybe I should be relieved that practitioners have been refining the theory for 120+ years. Does the existence of an explanatory theory nuke the need for a storytelling work? I don’t think so. But it’s a little bit like living in colonial Philadelphia with some back pain and being handed an x-ray of my spine. Several social work theorists can explain in elegant symbolic grammar what my brain has been toying with. I’m not sure how I feel about this.
It does confirm my decision to undertake these studies–I’m studying the right field which asks exactly the kinds of questions my brain likes to toy with. That’s a terrifyingly sexy turn of events. I have been enjoying the intellectual, moral and emotional stimulation of my schooling. But tonight I feel a little bit like Moses reading up on Exodus in the King James Bible.
I’m not sure what to with all this, or how it will impact my revision process, but I’m pretty freaking psyched and amazed, and with that, I’ll go read some more.
I’m engaged in hand to hand combat with a cold. The cold is currently pressing its fist against my face and forcing a cough and a lot of mouth breathing. Amidst my unfortunate nasal fluid releases, I have nonetheless read three academic articles, of varying interest. I’ve noticed that my feet are being forcefully plunged in cold theoretical waters, and I’m begrudging, but I guess social work will serve as my gateway to the arctic theoretical lands. It’s a one way journey. I fear that on the other end of this frozen analytical road, my language will become cluttered and ugly, and I will no longer be able to express myself simply. I fear that reverie and poetry will be eliminated for the sake of precision. Let’s hope not, dear readers. I guess this is the time to make a pledge to myself–I am definitely going to be forged, like molten steel, into a new psychic/intellectual and emotional shape by my training, but I also want to cling to my playfulness. I need to leave room for goofing off, exploration, inefficient uses of time, and my devotion to napping. Keeping these sacrosanct may help me try to protect my art side from my academy side.
Which reminds me, my readers have had my memoir manuscript for three weeks. Should I remind them that comments are soon due?
I’ve been waking up and realizing that I’m mulling over the findings in my readings and how they are altering my world view–for example, the best predictors of decreasing poverty rates for African-Americans? Lifting out of poverty correlates to having more AA’s being employed by the government and their having greater political representation.(That’s tonight’s homework–email me if you want the reference.)
Or I wake up feeling deep guilt about not having written anything other than this blog, and ruminate over all the chapters I need to revisit and improve when I start the memoir revision process in a couple of weeks. Here’s My Big Problem: I don’t have a quick snappy way of explaining how/why I ended up writing my memoir, or what the memoir is about. I guess that’s Two Big Problems.
And with my new schedule I’m constantly negotiating my priorities. Right now, for example. I really wanted to nap between work and my evening lecture. But I decided I couldn’t nap until I finished the class reading, and then I decided that if I finished the reading I was allowed to blog (still no nap in sight.)
I realize these are trivial problems–it’s like complaining about being covered in whipped cream–so messy, so sticky, and so delicious. That’s really what’s happening. My life is overfull with wonderful developments, but I’m not used to all this stimulation and activity. It’s great, but it’s definitely an adjustment.
While contemplating the Wye Oak, Yo La Tengo, The National show last night at the majestic Academy of Music, I occasionally had good ideas about writing.
(Yes, I need an excuse to blog, and lucky me, I have one tonight!)
I was thinking about how to manage my writing process, keeping the one month manuscript resting phase rule (which I’m enjoying). It occurred to me that the solution was to have a rotating list of manuscripts. I would need to log my scripts in and out of the cycle, but this system could work. It would force me to systematically work on one story, then let it rest, and pick up another story to push forward. Work, rest, work. Until I felt pieces had reached completion, and then they could move into a submission rotation list. I could be so organized!
Right now the concept remains conceptual. I’m enjoying my writing hiatus. I think I’m anxious about the work/school/life/writing balancing act. I’m trying to add in activities slowly, one at a time, keeping things manageable. My approach resembles trying to add new foods into a diet when you’re trying to rule out allergies.
I’m waiting for the inevitable freak out. The moment when I grab my PC and shut myself in for a weekend and just write, write, write. At least, I hope it’s inevitable. The moment might never come and I might need to do what I usually need to do, which is schedule official writing time on a weekly basis, so writing doesn’t slip into my ever lengthening to do project pile. My optimistic side hopes that the new class subject matter will lead to new writing ideas. Tonight’s class related writing idea: the aging of the prison population means that jails will become expensive state-run nursing homes. So I can imagine desperate senior citizens (myself included) whose lack of retirement funds pushes them to a life of crime. And then devious granny prison gangs will rule the jail world. See, I’m full of ideas.