A Review of Lisa Olstein’s Pain Studies

February 27, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Jehanne Dubrow

This past month, as I’ve struggled with the daily scald of acid rising in my throat, my sleep wrecked by the sensation that I’m drowning in my own saliva, my breathing asthmatic, my waking hours hoarse-voiced and blurry-eyed. I have had many occasions to meditate on my body. The fact is, I do not notice it when it doesn’t summon my attention with pain. I only remember that I live inside a thing called a body when it stubs itself, when it winces or twinges, when it bleeds or scabs over or scars. The pain brings me inescapably back to myself, even as it makes me want to run from my own skin.

In her first book of creative nonfiction, Pain Studies, poet Lisa Olstein meditates on the paradoxes of pain. Pain, she writes, is “vivid even in its opacity, vague even in its precision.” It simultaneously “reduces and expands, diminishes and amplifies,” so that the suffering body is drawn away from others and inward to the pulsing hurt.

Divided into thirty-eight short chapters, the text swirls from ache to ache, nonlinear as the pain it narrates. The book’s title implies that pain is a scholarly discipline. Olstein functions here as both scholar and sufferer, her approach brief and fragmentary, as if she worries that to linger too long on any single narrative might lead her to feel more pain. The book also functions as a series of artist’s studies, each chapter a sketch that presents the outlines of its subject matter. Like an artist’s drawings of a bird or a human hand, Olstein’s studies show us pain from dozens of angles so that we eventually see its whole shape.

Like any good scholar, Olstein grounds her assertions about pain in essential texts, including Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill,” Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale,” and Elaine Scarry’s landmark interdisciplinary text, The Body in Pain. Olstein’s analyses are wide-ranging and interdisciplinary, because pain too reaches everywhere, touches all corners of a sufferer’s life. She writes about the character of Gregory House—who is, provocatively, both a doctor and a patient—from the television drama, House, M.D. She links the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras to Emily Dickinson. She connects her own chronic migraines to the work of artist Donald Judd, his sculptural installations in Marfa, Texas, prismatic in much the same way as Olstein’s debilitating headaches. “If migraine’s prism could be painless,” she writes, “if migraine mind could be prismed through the lens of a hundred brushed aluminum boxes reflecting desert earth and sky, it would look like this.”

A central preoccupation of Pain Studies is the narrator’s examination of the suffering of Joan of Arc: “I find myself acutely, at times even obsessively, interested in Joan—specifically, in her trial. That is, what she had to say.” Finding references to Joan of Arc everywhere—in the writings of Anne Carson, Elizabeth Willis, even the former UN Ambassador Samantha Power—Olstein tries to understand “Why Joan?” In Joan’s trial, the author finds a menacing reflection of the “doctor/patient” relationship: all those unanswerable questions, all the poking and prodding, all the “deeply biased men” circling the small form of a woman.  

As compelling and beautiful as I find Olstein’s language, I can’t decide if her analogy goes too far. She points out that “[t]he word pain derives from the Latin poena (penalty, punishment, execution).” When pain strikes, it does indeed feel like the body has been put on trial.

I was named for Joan of Arc, Jehanne the medieval spelling, how scribes signed the saint’s name on all extant letters. When Olstein asks, “Why Joan?” I can’t quite see my own pain as persecution. I know the hurt comes from inside my body. At night, I lie on a wedge-shaped pillow, my back angled at a 45-degree angle, trying not to choke on the acrid water rising in my mouth. Someone is squeezing my lungs with a fist. But, no, there is no hand around my breath. I have not been imprisoned; I am my only prison. At least for me, there is no burning at the stake.
____
Jehanne Dubrow is author of nine poetry collections and a book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes. Her lyric essays have appeared in New England Review, The Common, The Colorado Review, and Image. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.

On India’s Lack of a Literary Culture and Community

February 26, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Anandi Mishra

Growing up 400 kilometers from the capital of India, Delhi, in an erstwhile industrial town Kanpur, I barely had any access to books that were out of my school syllabus. This was the early- and mid-nineties and all I had access to was a massive school library, its walls lined with books by legendary British writers. These, bequeathed to us by our colonial heritage, were a universe that kept me engaged for an entire decade. I relished in the works of authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Rudyard Kipling because I did not know any other authors. With age we were supposed to move forward to reading Mills and Boon or the novels of Danielle Steel. Discovering any titles other than these would have to happen on our own time, in a different set of circumstances and perhaps with access to a different library.

After a certain age, we were just not supposed to read books. There was no time to be wasted in honor of a creative impulse. If you were seen with a novel in hand you would be berated for wasting time.

When Arundhati Roy won the Booker prize in 1997 for her debut novel The God of Small Things, it caused a tiny stirring. I was barely six years old at the time, probably reading Wordsworth and Eliot during our hour-long weekly library classes in school. Little did I know that when I would encounter the book about a decade later, it would positively change my world.

Every time I try to recall the moment when I first wished to be a writer, it’s a blur. By the age of 17, I was reading one book or another every week, buying them from expensive franchise bookstores in a mall in the university city where I now lived. Clueless about the things to read, with no one to guide I would end up buying not so scintillating titles like Conversations with God. During a vacation in the south Indian coastal town of Kanyakumari in 2008, I remember ambling alone by the beach and coming across a vendor selling two or three different books from the Chicken Soup for the Soul section. They cost a meagre INR20 each. I bought them all and polished them off during my few days there. After this, I would graduate to reading all of Paulo Coelho’s books. Within a few months, I was through with all these fancy foreign titles, but the thirst within remained unquenched. That is when I was gifted a secondhand, cheap reprint copy of The God of Small Things by an uncle. I was 19 or 20 years old then and I remember inhaling the book in a couple of days. It gave me confidence that the kind of writing I wanted to do was possible and that there were writers I could look up to.  

None of what I read before and after came even remotely close to the magic of visual imagery painted by Roy. As much as I wanted to read other writers like her, there were not many easily available. That is not to say that good books were not being written by Indians in English language. There just existed a yawning gap between them and the readers in provincial small-town India. With the advent of literary festivals, book fairs, and book talks, I expected new avenues and important resources to open for readers like me. Instead, with the proliferation of the internet, these worlds continue to exist on farther ends of the spectrum, with literary activity limited to big cities, and certain books exclusively for journalists and people with access to travel.

Cashing on this lag, opportunistic writers with MBAs, engineering degrees and finance brothers, make merry. They write simple, basic novels about banal things in the lives of people in small towns in India and market them through social media, so that these titles are eventually sold everywhere, from online stores to makeshift roadside stalls, to railway stations and newspaper stalls. They sell between INR100 and INR200, which would be less than $2 U.S., and make for comfortable reads. They sell in vast numbers and then go on to be adapted as movies. While these books thrive, there is little or no criticism of their quality. Mainstream English language book critics sit tight, waiting for the next Salman Rushdie title to drop. There is no barometer against which those writers should be measured, and so, they continue to thrive despite what is sometimes utterly below average writing.

The more famous, big publishing house authors who do care about the craft continue to write books that have no way of reaching readers. They move overseas, teach in universities, look to make life better for themselves, leaving little or nothing for their readers here. Their absence contributes to the existing lack of nonfiction and fiction workshops, classes, fellowships, mentorships and other such helpful and vital resources in the Indian literary ecosystem. Any budding writer looking to understand how to make it as a writer, or even where to start off, is faced with a vacuum. As a result of extreme apathy, general callousness and selfishness, there is a lack of a true literary community that could otherwise protect and support a writer. Most novelists are heavily online but continue to stay out of reach. To be able to even secure a famous writer’s email address one has to juggle through contacts and connections.

Earlier this month this tweet by Indian journalist and writer Annie Zaidi found me hapless. I agree with her on the fact that there is a serious lack of literary magazines in India. In my last ten months of publishing, whatever little I have interacted with Indian literary magazines, my experience has been shoddy. Most of them don’t pay, don’t edit, heck, don’t even inform when your article is up on their website. They call their magazines “a labor of love” using that as an excuse for unprofessionalism. Since a lot of readers don’t know about these almost anonymous magazines, the editors continue to exploit earnest writers for cheap labor. As writer and literary critic Kalyan Raman replied to Zaidi’s tweet, “Perhaps tangential, but we need literary zines in English to build a more participatory literary culture and to engender a critical discourse that is unafraid of the gatekeeping establishment. In other words, to show up our own entrenched mediocrities and make space for the new.”

As much as I agree with Raman, there is something to be said for the shoddiness of the existing literary culture in India. As a nation we are enmeshed in the beautiful culture of reading and writing, and a lot of kids continue to aspire and dream to be writers in a third world country like ours. Instead of making it seem like an unattainable goal or punishing them for harboring dreams, the existing literati should focus on creating a space that fosters the minds of young and existing readers and writers. A reading population is a thinking population, and is needed all the more now, in a world that is rapidly going to right-wing hell.
____

Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional. She tweets at @anandi010. You can read more of her writing here.

Art Saves Lives

February 25, 2021 § 20 Comments

by Jan Priddy

I used to have a bumper sticker on the back of my car that read: Art Saves Lives. I was sorrier to lose that slogan than I was, eventually, to lose the car. Because that is how it feels and what we writers mean to do. We add our words to those who came before. We claim them: Sappho and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain, William Stafford and Ursula K. Le Guin, Joan Didion and Mary Karr. We know them by their words. We should be humbled, but our goals are not humble.

We want to change the world with our imaginations, one word at a time. Words are our raw material, and our tools include description and reason, vision and touch and sound and flavor and scent. We know that what we put down on the page makes a story and that stories are what make us human.

Here is a story:

In 1836, a recently widowed visionary, remarried. With his second wife he fathered seven children, preached, taught, found academic employment, and wrote in his study while a large household revolved cautiously about him. Quiet. Don’t disturb Papa, he’s working.

Most of us scramble and bargain for writing time, often finding it only in slivers and odd hours, between the detritus of day-to-day responsibilities and paying work, wedged between the insistence of people who rely on us to put their demands first and our human need for rest. How lovely to sit behind a door, working until we are ready to stop, parishioners anxious and waiting, our loved ones tiptoeing past the door—Quiet, don’t disturb the Writer.

But we are not writing sermons that come crashing into the world with authority and an eager audience, we are not Calvin Stowe, that mystic composing in his study.

It is his wife we know—the wife who bore the seven children and ran the house and did not, in her day, enjoy legal recourse to law, the right to vote, or control of her own finances. The woman who provided Stowe with a room of his own, didn’t have one herself. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Harriet Beecher Stowe, nearing forty years of age and with a newborn seventh baby, began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the kitchen table while keeping house. She was disturbed by something other than noise.

The little lady who started the Civil War, Lincoln called her.

I wonder: Did she worry her words would run out? Did she call herself a fraud and suffer writer’s block? How was it possible for her to have imagined, with a household bustling, interrupting, and tugging at her, that the words she struggled to pen would change the world?

Maybe we are writing our own transformational books at our kitchen tables and we don’t even know it.

Few of us have sheltered space or devoted congregations. We are not Emily Dickinson or even Calvin Stowe. We are poets scribbling lines while we wait for laundry to spin, composing in our head on a run, letting the cat out, letting the dog back in; we are novelists running sentences across the ceiling before sleep or revising stories in the rare hour children are preoccupied; we are memoirists and essayists getting up to make the coffee and losing ourselves in words when we have so many obligations. We hear voices. We stare into space and forget where we are and what we’re supposed to be doing. (Hopefully this doesn’t happen while we’re driving to the grocery store.)

We cannot know the influence our words might have on that still-imaginary audience. We only know we want to do it—this writing.

With so little outside our need, without free time or a room of our own, the leisure and space that all human beings deserve and crave whether they are writers or not—we have words. We have imagination.

We look up from our table and out at the world and bend back to our page. We’ll write what we understand of it, or admire, or deplore dream fear hope.

We’re not done with our work at the kitchen table. Whether we transform the whole wide world, or our own private corner, Art saves lives. I know it’s true. I think it’s why we write. We’re saving ourselves.

____

Jan Priddy’s writing has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as Brevity, CALYX, Liminal Stories, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies on running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE.

Hangover and Abandonment, Post MFA

February 24, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Meg McGovern

“You may feel a hangover. Abandonment,” Carol Ann Davis, Director of Fairfield University’s MFA Program, warned me and the forty exhausted students gathered together on Zoom for the closing remarks of our ten-day Residency, “but don’t forget the beautiful community we have built together.”

The hangover is not from alcohol, but rather the foggy feeling of being immersed in workshops, reading articles, essays, poems, attending seminars, completing several common reads, and holding discussions all day and into the night with other writers. The abandonment is the feeling students get when suddenly they must go back to their real lives and figure out how to manage writing, jobs, and family at the same time. When you are in a Residency, everything else is on hold.

I wrapped up my MFA a few weeks ago with a virtual celebration. The Hallelujah Cohort, as my graduating group called ourselves, dressed up in cap and gowns in front of our computers. Our emotions were mixed. We were high on the satisfaction of accomplishment that comes with completing four semesters which included craft papers, a third semester project, a 140-page Thesis, a graduate reading, and a graduate presentation, not to mention the pages and pages of reading, writing, revising, and editing work. At the same time, there was a sense of departure, abandonment, from the MFA community and the writing life established over the past few years.

No longer would we get regular emails from the director about deadlines.

No longer would we have semester assignments forcing us to sit at our desks for hours.

No longer would we choose a mentor and then meet every few weeks to discuss progress.

No longer would we spend ten days on an island or virtually immersed in writing.

It is now up to us to create our own writing lives and stay connected to our MFA community, to keep the momentum going and the friendships alive.

The day after graduation, I attended my last workshop then headed to the virtual closing. I had an unexpected wave of emotion, and tears welled up in my eyes as I left the Zoom gathering. What should I do now?

I had a million things to do; go over the comments on my writing from the Publishing & Editing workshop, read the few articles I hadn’t gotten to, read the pile of books I purchased during Residency that had already arrived, submit essays to literary journals, and write new essays brewing in my head. I needed to catch up on lesson plans for teaching my 6th graders the next day, do the laundry, pay bills, take down the holiday decorations—all the stuff I had neglected during Residency. Instead, I decided to lie down on the couch with my pup, Gia, at my feet. The brain fatigue—the hangover—hit, but thoughts churned through my head like butter and brought me back to a workshop about “Writing Life and Success.” I pondered on my own writing life. What should my writing life look like now? What are my successes?

Writing Life

Several professors from the MFA program spoke about their own writing life. One said she has kept track of her daily writing hours for thirty years. Another said, he doesn’t keep track, he just writes. In his memoir On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says to writers, “You need a room, you need a door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become.” King suggests writing 1,000 words per day and staying in that room until your goal is complete.

I don’t keep track of my hours writing, and I don’t have a room with a desk and a door. I write whenever I can, wherever I can, usually on weekends and in the evenings after work, a swim or workout, and dinner. My writing space is in the living room. I put on my headphones, listen to music for studying, and write. Many of my ideas come when I swim, on my walks, in the middle of the night, and on weekends when I am not teaching. When ideas come, I jot them down anywhere I can. Every writer needs to establish a definition for their own “writing life.”

Success

What I have learned is that success also has different definitions. Some write for money; others write to be heard. When my nonfiction book, We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination, about Chris O’Brien, an eighteen-year-old who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident, was published in October 2018, sales were great. Amazon listed it as #1 in Spinal Cord Injuries. Chris and I launched the book together with a 200-person event at a brewery, we spoke at high schools in our area, and we were interviewed on Connecticut’s Channel 8 News. After the initial launch, the momentum slowed, but success did not come just from sales. For me, success came from the impact on readers. While writing the book, I interviewed people who knew Chris and had been influenced by his positive mindset. A young man, a paraplegic, who Chris had met at Shephard Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta, told me he didn’t have determination like Chris despite being more physically capable. Accepting a new identify, from athlete to paraplegic, was unsurmountable. He died just as the book was being published and left a grieving family; his mother, father, and a sister who then reached out to me.

My words had helped them heal from their loss.

Their words were my success.
___

Meg McGovern teaches middle school Language Arts and is the author of We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has also written for their blog. Meg holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut.

Writing Workshops and the Power of Kindness

February 23, 2021 § 15 Comments

By Judith Colp Rubin

Several years ago, I attended a writing workshop in an exotic foreign country co-taught by two well-known female American writers. Billed as a retreat suitable for prose beginners and veterans, it promised to motivate people to write. It turned out to do the opposite.

The first day, when everyone had assembled outside in a circle, the air smelling of orchids and roasted coffee, the main instructor began workshopping the first piece. The instructor’s tone quickly grew negative as she pointed out the flaws in the piece, which certainly needed some work. But for the entire half-hour critique, the instructor didn’t praise a single aspect of the participant’s deeply personal words and suggested a top to bottom rewrite. As the days unfolded, both instructors tore into other participants’ work, including mine. I had written about finding a memoir written by my estranged grandfather, an experience that had affected me deeply. There’s nothing interesting about finding a family memoir, the main instructor said. Afterwards, I cried for a long time in my lovely bungalow, feeling that although I had made a living as a reporter, I was a terrible writer.

To make matters worse, both instructors praised the work of some of the participants. These writers formed a clique of teachers’ pets who, together with the instructors, sat together in the dining room and stayed up late drinking at night. I felt I was revisiting my darkest days of high school. And so it continued throughout the retreat’s 10 days. Those of us who’d been slammed returned home feeling we needed a good hug and another vacation. The first participant to be workshopped decided to give up writing altogether. I strongly considered doing so.

As this was my first adult writing workshop, I had no idea whether such harsh treatment was par for the course. With trepidation, I signed up for an Introduction to Fiction class at my local writers’ center. But the teacher fulsomely praised everyone. He told me that my short story, the first I’d written in over 40 years, reminded him of Tobias Wolfe. I knew he was exaggerating — I mean, really — but the compliment gave me the motivation to continue writing fiction and even eventually to get back to creative non-fiction.

I have since taken about 50 writing classes in person and online and attended other writing retreats. I never again experienced what happened at that first retreat; if I had I probably wouldn’t have written another word. Instead, I received excellent advice on how to rework my pieces, but all within the context of pointing out what I’d done right.

Recently, I participated in an online Flash Fiction class taught by Kathy Fish. It took me four tries to get into this class which always booked up immediately when it was made available on a first come first serve basis. After having her server crash, Kathy switched to a lottery system. When I started the class, I hoped not only to learn about this genre but also to understand why this class was so popular. The teacher was excellent as were the exercises she provided. But there was, I think, another crucial factor. Kathy made clear she would only allow positive feedback to be given about all the pieces. Any piece can be better edited, she explained, but in her experience, positivity brought out the best writing in participants. By the interest in her classes, it seems to be working.

At times I’ve wondered whether the excessive praise was too much. I’ve read pieces whose authors might have benefited from some tough love and total rewrites. But I’ve seen how some positive feedback can give a writer dignity and enable them to focus on their weaknesses.

It’s been almost 50 years since I received my first encouraging words as a writer, but the incident remains clear in my mind. My third-grade teacher had underlined a phrase I had written in a story: “The cat’s eyes were gleaming,” and had written “excellent!” underneath. That one word probably more than anything made a writer out of me.
___

Judith Colp Rubin is a writer based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Lydia Fakundiny and the Art of the Essay

February 22, 2021 § 10 Comments

By Nicole Graev Lipson

After my son was born, I emailed my college writing teacher to share the news, eager to bring her along with me into this new life stage. Once, she’d been the notoriously intimidating professor whose name got passed around among Cornell’s English majors. But after three semesters in her classroom, over nearly two decades of emails that ebbed and flowed, through my own writing and teaching career, she’d become to me, simply, Lydia: mentor, voice of conscience, distant lighthouse. It’d been almost a year since our last contact, and this milestone had left me searching for my coordinates.

When I first met Lydia Fakundiny, my world had turned, without warning, to confusion. My parents’ marriage imploded, and they wouldn’t say why. I gained twenty pounds, watching my body swell into rolling hills. And then I lost forty, watching it shrink into skeletal valleys. I took secret gulps of cinnamon liqueur before leaving my room, certain I was unfit for the world without them. I didn’t know what was happening—just that the person I once was had disappeared.

In this state, I found myself in Lydia’s course The Art of the Essay, gathered at a table with eleven classmates. There was the notorious professor on the first day, seated before a stack of books. Her dark hair fell at an angle to her chin; her forehead was creased by years of thought. She didn’t smile—not quite. “I have no syllabus,” she said. “We’ll need to invent this path together.”

I’d always known the “essay” as something five paragraphs long that I wrote to prove to teachers what they wanted proven. Lydia showed us what an essay could be: the journey of the mind pushing, on paper, through uncertainty. She read to us from the masters—Baldwin, Woolf, Didion, Walker—and their words passing through her took on profound urgency. I listened closer than I’d known one could listen, hitching my way on these words to a place where things made sense.

Meaning, I learned, had an architecture. A sentence, depending how it was built, could crack the heart open like a cathedral door, or leave it numb as a concrete cell. Tentative, I wrote my first essay. Lydia returned my ten pages with two pages of typed comments, and I discovered the exhilaration of being taken seriously. I wrote another essay, and then another. A sliver of path opened. I saw I was in the middle of a living paragraph—one that I could write my way out of.

When fear stopped me from registering for her higher-level course, Lydia called demanding to know why I wasn’t on her roster. When my grandparents went missing at my graduation, she slipped off in her regalia to track down the campus police. When I told her I’d landed an interview at a New York City magazine, she gestured toward my gingham dress: “I hope,” she said, “that you won’t be wearing that.” I heard this not as judgment, but devotion.

Years later, I sat at seminar tables with my own English students, discussing essays I’d discussed with Lydia, assigning them her assignments. “Read it like it matters!” I urged them before they shared work aloud, just as she once urged me. Teach them like they matter, I told myself, advice she’d never actually uttered because she didn’t need to.

Late at night, I saw that my email to Lydia had bounced back. Maybe her address had changed? I Googled her. What appeared was impossible to absorb: her name, so familiar and indelible, hovering in bold letters above an obituary. Survived by her brothers. In lieu of flowers. My heart stumbled over the phrases.

I had missed her by one month. While I’d been sleeping, sorting mail, wandering the grocery aisles, she had been ill, and then dying, and then gone. There were no calls in the middle of the night, no relatives mobilizing in my kitchen, no guests to welcome to a shiva. There was just me on my couch, shame over my oblivion, grief over all I’d taken and never given back.

I thought of tracking down her brothers, or writing a testimonial on the funeral home’s comment wall. But neither of these felt right. Instead, my infant son blinking beside me, I wrote her one last email, thanking her for helping me understand, through the art of writing, the art of living. I pressed “send” and watched it disappear, a burst of pixels swirling away like dust.

My son’s fist was a curled seashell. His tiny chest rose and fell. I promised him a lifetime of mattering, in honor and memory of her.
___

Nicole Graev Lipson’s essays have appeared in River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, The Hudson Review, Hippocampus, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she is working on a collection of essays about motherhood. She can be reached at www.nicolegraevlipson.com.

A Review of David Lazar’s Celeste Holm Syndrome

February 19, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Elizabeth Bales Frank

Cinéaste. That’s a fun word, with its emphasis on sophisticated enthusiasm. Unfortunately, that word did not reach peak popularity until the early aughts. In my teen years, I was just a nerd in my dark bedroom, in thrall to the glow of the goings-on in what a certain female relative described as “those boring black and white movies you watch all the time.” Undeterred, I left the Midwest for film school and the art house cinemas of Greenwich Village.

David Lazar, whose latest essay collection is Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, grew up in those art house cinemas and revival houses, travelling from Brooklyn into Manhattan to feast on the offerings of the Hollywood Dream Factory. If the terms “Hollywood Dream Factory,” “Celeste Holm,” or even “character actor,” leave you cold, if you don’t drive by Turner Classic Movies while channel surfing just to see what’s on offer, if you concur, in other words, with my relative’s judgment on “boring black and white movies,” this book is probably not for you. Lazar’s knowledge of his topic is so thorough and he explores it with such zeal that neophytes will feel in the dark—and not in the transporting dark of the cinema. But if you are a cinéaste, this collection is an education and a delight.

“Have you ever watched a film and just focused on the supporting characters?” Lazar asks. “As a child who felt as though he were destined to play a supporting role, a watching role . . . the action, it seemed to me, was on the sidelines.” Later, he explains the allure of character actors: “What magic, to suggest human dimensionality on a flat screen in just a few minutes. What humility mixed with persistent faith, to think that these occasional moments of impersonation . . . could really matter to those of us sitting out there in the dark, ensembles of one.”

In this collection, Lazar explores the films of Preston Sturges, who ran a kind of cinematic commedia dell’arte in the 1940s, employing the same actors in numerous films. In “The Two Oscars,” he compares the wit, outsized talent, and outsider status of Oscar Levant and Oscar Wilde. In other pieces, he explores some terrifying or sacrificing (or both at once) movie mothers (Thelma Ritter, Elizabeth Marvel), and provides solo monographs on Jack Carson, Martin Balsam, and Edward Everett Horton. But it is the title essay, “Celeste Holm Syndrome,” that brings it home in this collection.

The “Celeste Holm Syndrome,” you see, is not about being a character actor at all. It is the practice that Hollywood has of “sexually undermining interesting ‘mature’ women when their roles called for economic power or independence.”

As examples of the “Celeste Holm Syndrome,” Lazar cites Eleanor Parker, the Baroness in The Sound of Music, and Nina Foch in An American in Paris, who loses Gene Kelly to the charms of Leslie Caron. (Lazar might have an obsession with Nina Foch, who occupies a large digression of the Oscar Levant essay as well, as Levant played the musician sidekick in that film.) Other examples include Eve Arden and Celeste Holm in numerous films, women who don’t need to be schooled by men, women who enter the scene “vibrantly sexual, verbally playful, self-aware and forward in their intentions, [who] end up humiliated, disposed, cast aside for ingenues.”

Notice above I wrote “Hollywood has” and not “Hollywood had.” Do we not see repeated examples, in our entertainment, the “Celeste Holm Syndrome”? To my mind, the term should elevated in the popular lexicon to the status of the “Bechdel test.” (And for those not familiar, the Bechdel test, created by Fun Home’s Alison Bechdel, demands that two women in a movie have a conversation that is not about a man.)

Lazar’s writing is both erudite and ardent. He is both professor and cinéaste. In his essay on Franklin Pangborn and Eric Blore, who played quietly snarky valet and butler types, he declares that they have names which confirm his “long-held belief in nominal determinism.” Another way to say that is to declare, as he does, is that one of Jack Carson’s wives was called Kay St. Germain Wells—“whose name I may elope with in my dreams tonight.”
___

Elizabeth Bales Frank’s work has appeared in The Sun, Barrelhouse, Epiphany, Post Road, The Writing Disorder and other publications. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute in 2018 and encourages you to support your local librarians, especially if you live in Missouri. Her novel Censorettes was released by Stonehouse Publishing last November.

Finding the “I” Character in Memoir

February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

As a teacher of memoir since before the invention of the lightbulb, one challenge I see writers struggle with consistently is how to make the “I” on the page a fully living, breathing, walking and talking character. And even more important, how to make that “I” someone the reader will want to spend time with, over ten or 250 pages.

Phillip Lopate aptly points out that the problem for writers is thinking that the ‘I’ we type onto the page “is swarming with background and a lush, sticky past…” Instead, Lopate warns, all readers will actually see in the letter ‘I’ is “a slender telephone pole standing in the sentence, trying to catch a few signals to send on.”

I know this problem well, because it remains an issue for me, in my own early drafts. It is maddeningly difficult to escape my own mind, one in which the mere thought of myself brings up this complex, swirling, tumbling wealth of memories and associations. What is needed, however, is to somehow enter the mindset of an anonymous reader, one who knows virtually nothing about me.

Yet it is not enough to merely tell the reader who I am. Why should a reader believe me, of all people? Why would you believe some stranger in a Starbucks who wandered up to your table and began explaining his positive traits, unjust obstacles, and charming little idiosyncrasies? The natural reaction to the fellow in the coffee shop is to think, “Sure buddy, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Readers aren’t that different.

On Wednesday of next week, Feb. 24th, from 1 to 2:15 pm, I’ll be exploring the various ways we can craft a compelling “I” onto the memoir page, and how that person becomes a rounded, engaging, and believable presence. The 75-minute Zoom webinar, hosted by the wonderful Jane Friedman, will focus on:

  • Why characterization is critical
  • How the ways in which we assess people in “real life” transfer to how readers assess us on the page
  • What to reveal, and what to keep hidden   
  • The importance of compassion when writing about others, but also when writing about the self
  • How to gain the reader’s trust through honesty and fairness about yourself and your adversaries (And the surprising way sharing your own faults affects the reader!)

The webinar is useful for writes at all levels,  

  • When: Wednesday, February 24, 2021
  • Time: 1 p.m.–2:15 p.m. Eastern Time / 10 a.m. Pacific Time
  • Fee: $25

Registration and more information here.

Getting Honest about Om: A Brief Essay on Audience

February 17, 2021 § 13 Comments

By Heather Lanier

I want to write an essay about trying to teach my kids to meditate during a pandemic. But it’s neither easy to write an essay, nor easy to live in a pandemic. Attempting one inside the other, I decide to simplify. My meditation is Christian-based, so I decide before even starting that I’ll submit the finished piece to a Christian magazine.

Writing for an overtly Christian audience is new to me, and at first, it’s kind-of liberating. I can make in-house jokes, referencing Jesus’ more peculiar behaviors like cursing fig trees and doodling in sand. Also, I can employ all kinds of handy code words for complex ideas. God, for instance. Faith.

But then I hit a problem. When I first taught my kids to meditate, we chanted om. Why? Because one of them requested it. And because their father was once a Buddhist monk. And because their mother still opens books by Tibetan nuns and appreciates Sufi poetry. We chanted om because I believe there are many paths to God.

The magazine’s submission word-count is tight, 1,200 words. So in the first draft, I leave out om entirely. Instead, I say we did on day one what we eventually did on day five: Sat in silence for a minute. It’s true. . . but also not true. I walk away from the writing desk knowing I can’t live with the draft as it is.

The nonfiction writer’s only constraints are facts. And there are sometimes ethical reasons to change those facts. We change the name of a doctor who harmed us because, despite malpractice, he could sue. But whenever we consider twisting the facts because we don’t know how else to artistically handle the complexity of real life, we should make ourselves sit back down at the desk and figure out a way to stay truthful and tell a readable story. Doing so reteaches me again and again this lesson: If you work with the truth long enough, it will always yield a better piece of writing.

Why does this happen? I suspect because working with the messiness of truth requires us to punch out new spaces in the confines of prose, like someone knocking down walls in their home to add a playroom, an indoor swimming pool, or a personal arboretum. Trees in the living room? Why, yes! We build unexpected things inside the requirements of our genres, which means we innovate—which is what good art in any form requires.

So I write om back into the story. I describe the half-harmonic, half-discordant chord between my kids and me.

And then something interesting happens: getting honest about om enables me to write in a voice that’s honest about my whole inter-spiritual perspective. The voice is unabashed, and unapologetic. She’s no longer concerned with an arena of Christian readers.

In fact, I’m suddenly not writing to any arena. I’m now writing to a person, singular and intimate. This person doesn’t necessarily subscribe to one religion or another, but she’s wholly interested in whatever mongrel version of “prayer” I taught my kids a week ago. This person is a friend.

I should be surprised by none of this. Julianna Baggott once said that if you want to write any piece of writing, don’t imagine an audience. “Imagine whispering your story urgently into one person’s ear.” In Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which I share with my graduate students, Gornick explains how finding the right voice can help a writer elucidate the story, “the wisdom, the insight, the thing one has come to say.”

The voice I’ve found has its own accord. Where the voice of the early draft could only conclude with canned understandings of faith, using words like “grace” and “God” as unopened suitcases, this new voice lands on a final paragraph that feels utterly new to me.  

This is what writing coaches mean when they implore you to “find your voice.” But as Mary Karr explains in The Art of Memoir, the only way she has been able to “find her voice” for a book-project is to write her way into one, a task that sometimes takes hundreds of pages. Luckily, sometimes it only takes a handful of false starts and a few secretive oms.
___

Heather Lanier’s memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her essays have appeared in The Sun, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Salon, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of Writing Arts at Rowan University in New Jersey, and her TED Talk has been viewed over two million times.

69,728 Words and Counting

February 16, 2021 § 28 Comments

By Lisa Rizzo

How does a poet morph into a memoirist? It happens when poetry can no longer restrain words that spill over the sides of a container composed of lines and stanzas, instead filling page after page. It happens when the need to lay down a narrative becomes so compelling that a poet must begin to write the story of her need.

I had always wanted to write but in my early years struggled with narrative. I have a drawer full of old short story fragments and aborted novels, all typed on onionskin paper with a portable typewriter (yes, back in those days!). I’d never dreamed I could write poetry but one day, when I admitted to another story failure, in frustration I gave verse a try. Even now I can picture myself sitting in the university library when the thrill of my first (very badly written) poem ran through me. I believed I had found my calling and gave up wrestling with narrative then and there. In my last forty-odd years of writing and publishing, I believed that would never change.

Many decades later, my father, then in his mid-80s, began to slide into the shadow world of dementia. As I watched my father losing words, losing memories and losing me, I tried to capture the progression of that loss, to capture him on the page. I wrote poem after poem, several of which appeared in my collection Always a Blue House, published the year I turned sixty. By then my father, living in a nursing home, couldn’t come to my book launch party. He couldn’t even understand that I’d written a book, much less read any of the poems.

My father had always been a closed man, emotionally damaged by his Depression-era childhood. Abandoned by his mother, he grew up in orphanages and foster homes. That early trauma left him with an inability to express his emotions, turning him inward, into a silent man. A silent father with a daughter who lived for words.

As his disease progressed, I found myself compelled to write about our strained relationship, a subject poetry couldn’t satisfy. I wanted to come to terms with our conflict and with his dementia that had stolen any opportunity to heal our breach. As suddenly as poetry came to me long ago, the desire to write a memoir appeared. Since my father had such trouble expressing himself with words, I would help tell his story. And that required the full sweep of narrative.

In my transition from poet to nonfiction writer, I battled insecurities not very different from those that plagued me starting out. For so many years I had called myself “poet” and not “writer.” Those two labels connoted to me two completely different types of artists. I had to battle the power of those labels to realize: what is a poet if not a writer of poetry?

Since I earned my living as a language arts teacher, I did what I would advise any of my students: start learning. I took online courses and read book after book on writing nonfiction. I read as many memoirs as I could, soaking up every technique and way of telling I could find. I had to learn to combine my poet’s voice with the “telling” reflective nature of memoir, how to lay myself on the page as the genre requires. Poets can, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “tell it slant,” shading their emotions and selves behind metaphor and imagery. I came to see that I’d found it easier to write about difficult topics in poems by keeping myself in soft focus. Memoir requires bold-faced honesty, the reflective voice revealing the writer’s deepest foibles on the page. Still struggling with this, every time I write I replay the wisdom of a writer friend: we must see more of you on the page.

I wondered if I the poet, used to works taking no more than a page or two, could find the fortitude to amass words page after page, until I created a book. A daunting task—but the thrill of pages piling up kept me going.

I persist and the word count increases. Now I can say writer as well as poet. I focus on the doing and not the labels. Next to my computer I keep William Faulkner’s quote: “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.”

________________________

Lisa Rizzo is the author of Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2016), a finalist in the 2016 National Federation of Press Woman Awards, and In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in journals and anthologies including Calyx, Naugatuck River Review, Longridge Review, The MacGuffin, and Unmasked, Women Over Fifty Write About Sex and Intimacy (Weeping Willow Books). She is at work on her memoir in progress, Half-Orphan: A Daughter and Her Father. Visit her at www.lisarizzowriter.com

 

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