Grapes of Wrath

The other day my creative writing teacher asked us why we write. At times this has been a difficult question for me to answer. It has always been this lingering need to write stories without knowing who they would be written for, or why I should even bother. My answer to her, put on the spot, was that it makes me feel human. “Life affirming?” she asked. I said yes. Well, sort of. In contrast to what I actually do for a living, it makes me feel like I am creating something that has meaning, rather than creating something that makes people buy more stuff.

In the shower, the other morning, I remembered the moment I decided to write seriously. There had always been poems, short stories, and writing festivals in my youth. It is clear from my elementary school report cards that writing and communication were always my strongest subjects. But it’s clear to me now that the turning point was when I was twenty-four, sitting in my mother’s condo in Brampton, reading The Grapes of Wrath. That was ten years ago.

It’s true the actual story was one of non-fiction. It could have been told by a journalist, and it probably was at some point; the Dust Bowl of the thirties, the foreclosures of farms, the travel of thousands to California. But what Steinbeck did was turn it into a story that we, as readers could live long after that headlines were gone. Page after page I was completely absorbed in the plight of the Joads, the food they ate, their relationships, their ignorance and their fears.

And this why stories should be written and read. When you read a book you live inside the characters. You feel what they feel. There is no other way to do this in life. This is why I want to write. Because it feels human to connect, to tell stories that have not yet been told, to have readers know they are not alone, to let language blend and create parallels and metaphors, to make meaning out of life events, big or small.

It does not go unnoticed that the very evil in the Grapes of Wrath, aside from uncontrollable weather and the hungry banks, is advertising. A false promise on a handbill distributed to the farmers that there was plenty of work on the farms in California. The Joads use last of their savings to make the trek, and along the way encounter thousands of families like themselves. When they finally get there they realize that with so many available workers, the big corporate farmers can get labour for free. They pay the starving families with only a meal.

I was surprised that I remembered this moment. These changes in life usually happen gradually. Why do we want to do things we do? When it comes to making art, it seems like an insane pursuit. No money, lots of hard work, and the great potential for complete and utter failure. But I expect, or I have to believe, even Steinbeck must have felt this — at some point.

Look at the Birdie

I’ve been reading outside the lines lately. Trying new authors. Trying not to be so snobby when it comes to literature. For months I’ve had a collection of short stories sitting on my desk (along with about ten other fiction and non-fiction books) by Kurt Vonnegut. But it was only after Ben put a single story in front of me that I couldn’t resist reading the rest of the book. Look at the Birdie is a collection of unpublished short stories, collected over the years. In contrast Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House is a collection of the stuff that actually sold. And I’m not surprised that after reading both, I’m more drawn to former. There are certainly great stories in both, a few not so great stories too. It surprised me after all my years of reading that I had never come across his work before. And this is the rapturous delight of reading – when an author can open you into the world of his or her mind, experience, thoughts that you never had. TV can only rarely do it. Films are a bit better at it. But what is special about reading is that it is so personal. The characters exist in your head as you imagine them, prompted by a word here or there. Your interpretation is different because good authors don’t ever tell the whole story. You walk away with a sense of emptiness, of a new whole in the universe opened, that only another story can fill. And it continues. This was how I felt reading Vonnegut.

THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT

This is not Chick Lit

Ben didn’t give really me a Valentine’s Day present. But that’s okay. I didn’t want one. Personally I hate Valentines Day — this one particular day that when you are supposed to buy things for the person you love. The first part I detest is the buying part. The second part I detest is the social acceptance this one prescribed day is more special than any other. Not to worry, I feel the same way about Christmas.

Ben did get me a present though, but two days before, which to me was way more delightful; especially because we agreed no presents. He got it because I needed it at that moment. The moment when I was struggling to get my story right, to say what I needed to say about a certain type of woman. He bought me a book called “THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT.”

I love this book. I am walking around with this book in my hand like it is a political statement. I’m only on the fourth story; they are good, not as good as other stories I’ve read, but good. It’s what this book stands for that I care more about. Women writers who are writing about something more than:

White girl in the big city searches for Prince Charming, all the while shopping, alternately cheating on or adhering to her diet, dodging her boss, and enjoying the occasional teary-eyed lunch with her token Sassy Gay Friend.” – p 1

Chick Lit has it’s place alongside trash tv and romcoms. Fun, playful and light. I liked Sex & The City as much as the next girl. But is that it? Is that all that women are these days? Is that all they can read about? The numbers say yes… I want to believe no. There is nothing healthy about chick lit – it’s just sugar. It tastes great, but then you come down from the high and are left with nothing meaningful and feeling a bit robbed (and as a side note: too much sugar creates a perfect acidic environment for cancer cells to grow.) Literature is meant to expand us, take us to places we haven’t been, connect with deep, scary, beautiful emotions — that has always been it’s job.

I think maybe Ben bought this book for me secretly for Valentine’s Day. But this is slowly starting to look like Ben is really getting to know real me  – surreptitiously getting me an anti-chick lit book as a non-Valentine’s present. Okay Bubba, you’re getting it. xo

The Big Idea

In advertising the “big idea” is gold. In an interactive agency, it’s sometimes easy to get swamped in the execution and forget about the idea, the purpose, the creative strategy. But the opposite is also true, and there is nothing that infuriates me more than those who come up with ideas with no concept of how to execute. Because ideas are just words on paper until you make it real. And I believe that good ideas are a dime a dozen. Lots of people have good ideas. In fact I’ve had about five good business ideas in the past twelve months, I’ve had personal project ideas, like dearttc.ca, I’ve had ideas for promoting non-profit organizations and I’ve had ideas for about a hundred short stories.

But the reality is, as I plug through draft#7 of my current short story, that it’s one thing to have an idea and its a totally other thing to make it happen, to make it all make sense, to make sure it makes sense to other people who are seeing or reading it without any context whatsoever.

As Ben read my most recent draft of my story I finally broke and just told him what I was trying to say. And it wasn’t coming out in the story. He found what I was trying to say was quite compelling, when I said it out loud. But he didn’t get it in the execution. So the moral is that while ideas do matter, what matters more is how you execute it. Because an idea is nothing unless it is made into something. Executing an idea is a million times harder than coming up with idea in the first place. I could sit on my ass and tell the world I have all these story ideas, written on cue cards and in journals. Really compelling shit. But it means nothing if I don’t actually turn it into something. Something that people actually get. And whether it’s an advertising microsite or a short story it’s a hell of a lot harder than you might think.

Something I’ve been meaning to tell you

I’ve just finished Alice Munro’s collection of thirteen stories called “Something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” There was another book I read, inbetween Eggers and Munro, but I’ll be blogging on that later. I’m not exactly sure why it’s taken me so long to discover her writing, but it couldn’t have come at a better time. Munro writes about the ordinary; two sisters growing old with a story they both lived with, a woman’s life after her divorce, a grandmother’s view of herself in the eyes of a visiting granddaughter. And yet, it is so compelling, so human. Ben and I had a couple of arguments about books when we first moved in; I didn’t respect his love for fantasy and science fiction. I tried to explain why I held Salinger, DH Lawrence, Virgina Woolfe, Plath, Joyce and Steinbeck (I could go on) in such high regard and why I considered it “better.” It was difficult for me to answer, I just knew, in my soul that these writers are unique because they look into the real, the ordinary, the everyday and find something spectacular. Something so very human.

And so with Munro. The best story by far in the book was the first, with the same name as the book. And I loved it not only for it’s storytelling, or it’s simplicity. I loved it because it taught me something I’ve been struggling with in my own writing; how to make one character know that another one may not be telling the whole truth. In one simple sentence Munro lets us know that someone could be lying. Distrust — so very human.

Goodbye JD

Margaret Atwood wrote in Negotiating with the Dead that “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear and fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.” (p.156) Perhaps it is true that writers do write for the only reason that they fear their own death. I wondered today, in hearing the news of the death of my favourite author of all time, did JD Salinger write because he feared death? I’m sure his experience on the front line in World War II made him feel like he had no choice but to write. But as far as the world is concerned, the man stopped writing after the sixties. Or did he?

I was first introduced to Salinger by way of a university course called Religion and Literature at the University of Toronto. My professor introduced me to Franny & Zooey, which continues to be the most influential book in my life. My professor said that he half-hoped for the day Salinger would die, so that maybe his writing for the past fifty years would finally be available for us to read.

Sorry, my thoughts are a bit scattered with this post.

One day, in an attempt to save our relationship, my ex boyfriend presented me with the one thing I wanted most in this world – the no longer published writing of JD Salinger. The story goes that some man in Texas had a word document that contained transcribed versions of stolen pages from back issues of magazines that had once published the stories. They were in libraries in universities, scattered across America. Salinger refused to let them be reprinted. And after all the hype about the influence of his only novel The Catcher in the Rye it seems like Salinger had it with society, retreated to the mountains and refused to let anything else be published. The man in Texas had them in a digital format, and gave them to my ex to win me back. You might have figured out the end to the story.

But I have all his stories now (I think). And I love them. And I could read them again and again.

And like my professor I am waiting for the vault to open, to have more Salinger to read. Because I can’t get enough. This man changed my life, and made me want to become a writer. I am heartbroken that he is gone and that he had such a tormented existence.

My prof once said that Salinger regretted killing Seymour in A Perfect Day for a Bananafish. Seymour Glass was exactly what his name meant. He “sees” “through” society and the shit. But at the end of the story, Seymour kills himself because he can’t stand the superficiality. But the hero is the one who sees more, and should rise above it. He doesn’t kill himself. He dies, of natural causes, deep in the forest of the mountains of New Hampshire.

Thank you JD. You changed my life. I’m sad you are gone.

The Bell Jar

sylvia_plath

I suppose the only one benefit to being sick is that I actually can get some reading done. Having been holed up with my chronic bronchitus again for over a week I’ve had no choice but to finish off Murakami and move on to Plath (given that I don’t have a TV).

About one year ago, I impulsively bought “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath, for no reason I can remember, but have shelved it as a result of Paris, new job, new boyfriend and too much work. But I’m halfway through, and I’m only sorry to know that there were no more books written after this one. It is an incredible book. It is so raw and honest, and feels so familiar. I liken it to the work of my favourite, J.D Salinger. I’m not sure if any literary scholar would do the same but their styles and genre of writing seem so similar to me.

I’ve already starting dog earing pages, where paragraphs have stunned me with their honest brilliance.

—-

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green-fig in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quiet make out.

I saw myself sitting at the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest…”

—-

Being sick and reading are the two things that make me realize I’m not really doing what I want to do. And I might not always be able to do it. So I damn well better start.