Did I Mention the Brain Has No Internet

More notes from the brain:

I have been without the internet for around 10 days or so and I have been writing in my notebook more and more lately. Because of Stine’s recommendations I am partial to the Moleskine notebooks–I like their large notebooks and though I once laughed at Hugo and his very specific–almost eccentric listing and discussing of his writing instruments–I do now understand. I mean I must write with the uniball vision elite 5.0 pen from Wal-Mart–I have only been able to find them at Wal-Mart. I like the flat large notebooks and the soft shell and the large tan pages. I used to like the yellow legal pads and I liked to fill them with freewriting and notes but I mostly only hand write in the Moleskin books–I bought a pack of three one day and filled up one with the Huerfano project and now I am beginning a second with the Cornbread project. I like the notebooks as they make me feel like I am accomplishing quite a bit even though I might only be getting down one or two pages at a time–they make me feel as if I am plotting out actions and events rather than a final project which I will leave for the laptop. I don’t draft on the laptop as much as I used to–well I do draft on it I guess it is all a matter of feel. I sat in the backyard of the Abuelitos a couple of summers ago and drafted Huerfanos and now I can sit and draft Cornbread.

For those of you following along I completed another two chapters here over the break–I finished up the chapter on Rosalie–Rudy’s wife–and I am beginning the chapter on Cynthia Otero. The research of Otero’s death is so cold and flat–she was shot through Baca’s front door and died in the hospital a few days later–the articles read the shooting that led to the death as if they might not be directly related. Anyway I have a few pages of notes on that that will soon be chapter 18 and 19.

I also spent some time driving around the east side here looking for the tamale lady– I did thislast year in a blizzard for the ABuelito and this year I did it for my sister. The tamale lady lives on the east side and I spent more time driving around to get a sense of Baca’s old haunts. I wanted to go to the church where he was accused of beating up on his girlfriend and her niece but didn;t have the time. Hopefully this wil give me the burst of energy and dare I say inspiration I need to finish up these crucial passages now that I think I know what is going to happen.

For those of you who care–Rudy is with Bea and Baca finds out about it from Manito or Romes–I haven’t decided that just yet. Oh and Romes returns to give Manito a hard time about wanting to go to college and for not hitting on Bea.

More notes from the brain and chapters to come…

"You know I can’t get away…I’m with the brain again…."

The title of this weblog post is from some lines of dialogue from one of my favorite uncollected J.D. Salinger stories–“The Inverted Forest“. (I found it pretty quickly online and I wonder how old J.D. thinks about it.) In this story our main character, Corinne, is left by a childhood love. The childhood love, Raymond Ford, tells her these lines after leaving her for a younger and more abusive woman that is drawn similarly to his mother. Ford is a poet and the lines, in my reading, mean Ford cannot write without the similar surroundings of the life he grew up with. And Corinne was raised affluent and drawn as having so much provided for her and Ford doesn’t have much except for an abusive mother and perhaps the origin of his creativity.

I think of this story as I head back to Colorado possibly within the next few days. And I can say with some irony and half-heartendness after the drama and hurt of the last six months–I’m back with the brain.

Can’t hide in books and academics as I have for the past 16 to 17 weeks. And I talked about it a bit this term in my poetry class after we read sections of T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland. I don’t know if the poem and the story are meant to speak to one another but they do. I do know Salinger wrote poetry and I imagine so much of his poetry under his bed. Anyway, the chapter associated with the poem is on allusion as figurative language and the Elliot poem has more than 400 allusions to other works–all other works and I kid you not–in the literary canon, western and non-western. In the Wasteland, Elliot describes the emptiness after loss of WW I and how that perhaps allows him and drives him to write oddly enough–honeslty I am not quite sure what Elliot is saying–but I think that is what Salinger is trying to say. That which harms us and hurts us perhaps makes us stronger and fuels are creative literacies–like Ford and his writing on a card table in his new home at the end of the story. This is a pretty thin analysis on my part but that is pretty much what I think Salinger is saying in response to the Wasteland.

OK. So what does that have to do with Pueblo? Well, my family and so much of who I am is in Pueblo. Was in Pueblo. Since the Abuelita died I haven’t been all that well. I have been teaching and I have been writing. Perhaps I have been working too hard in order not to think about things. But I write about Lolo and the Abuelitos and my growing up and so I feel that all that fuels my writing and my creative sensibilities. I mean I approach writing of fiction and non-fiction all through Pueblo and my growing up there. Spruce Street and the southside I grew up on. And soon I will be back and be able to see the family and work in the old/new library on some research and I have to say I am dreading it and also looking forward to it. The paradox to add to another long list of paradoxes I deal with in my life and work.

Reading Through Cornbread

Over the last three or four days, D and I have been going over the Cornbread Baca manuscript. She reads it to me over google video chat and I listen and then I make notes on the manuscript–reading it all out loud is so helpful for me. She has been so giving with her time–thank you, D. Some notes for revision and re-envision coming from those readings:

We talked about comma usage problems of sentences–of course. Grammar and syntax are not my language or so I have always thought. This leads to quite a few useless repetitions in terms of words and also line by line information that repeats. First draft types of problems. Just as in the thesis, I can’t keep track of ages and time issues in early drafts and even later drafts. Character’s ages and dates. Arghh! I need to know that enemy and defeat but perhaps not until the bones are constructed. I am still drafting–that’s my only defense.

She also likes the scope of the story–the humor and the pathos of the situation. She likes the dialogue–she says it is authentic. Especially Lolo’s. And I do want more flash forward to Lolo’s Denver apartment.

She likes the character of Bea but also wants more clarity of chronology, since there are so many characters and so many stories going on–chronology of one central character would help, at least one focusing thread. This will help to give more of a central idea like Rudy’s murder but we need a bit more than that. Perhaps not as chronological as it needs to be right now. Maybe more like Caramelo. Perhaps follow Manito from his drop off at the Abuelitos’ home and then on to college and also following Bea to Colorado State with Manito–maybe the crisis/resolution will be the two getting out of the neighborhood and getting out to college–like the end of This Boy’s Life. I always say I want time to be more fluid like William Maxwell but I see her point and I need to draft a timeline if not for anything but my notes–maybe some sort of rudimentary family tree and such. D made me do this for the Huerfanos project and I have to say the homework step that I thought would be tedious was very helpful. Perhaps I can draft that with D’s help or I can do it while in Colorado.

She also added that the rabbit story or tentative Ch 14 doesn’t seem to fit and I need to work on the placement–perhaps placing it earlier in terms of tension and resolution to Lolo’s involvement with manito as I seem to be caught up with Bea and then we flash forward and away from the Bea story arc. I need to work on that–perhaps placement and new approach. Note: I also want to add more to the back story of the Abuelito and the child he fathered or was alleged to have fathered.

Controlling of time and deciding on chronology seems to be the biggest flaw in her reading and I agree. And I have time to re-think those problems as well as some time in Colorado to perhaps research Cornbread a bit more since the Chieftain website is not as helpful as it used to be.

Ira Glass and Failed Narratives

D and I went out to the university and braved the well dressed yuppies and the cold to watch Ira Glass and his one-man show. Peg and John Knoepfle were also there. The show is called Ira Glass–Broadcast Stories and Other Stories. We are both huge fans of This American Life from way back and pretty much all around NPR dorks as well. Kim believes NPR makes you smarter and Ira Glass agreed. He explained how he believed NPR makes you a better person and how he believed that is what the intimacy of radio should do. He also said how he wanted to break that open and create and expand into more of entertainment with radio–to focus what was humorous as opposed to just cold fact or meant to scare or intimidate or shock. He said that was the spark of his first few segments on NPR and then his own show out of Chicago. He also joked he wanted to do the whole live show last night in the dark with only his voice and audio clips and music to capture the intimacy of the voice over the radio as in his show.

And I thought the show would be like another episode of This American Life so I was surprised how much he spoke of narrativity and creating engaging stories to tap emotional empathy. I was surprised how he started the clips himself and added the music with a flair and timing of a maestro conducting. He Also spoke of how he developed his style of anecdote and then analysis or reflection that the show is known for–the idea of creating a suspenseful story to hook the listener. He argued it was working in his show because he gave a large number in terms of research to prove that people who tune in stay tuned in–I think he said average listening time was 44 minutes. He related how he developed this style working for NPR in Washington DC constructing his small segments and later he compared to how pastors joked with him and how this style of story telling has been used for ages in sermons and in churches. He made the point this was done because everyone couldn’t read so preachers created compelling stories with simplisitc rhetoric to capture larger emotional ideas as well as staying grounded and real.

To my enjoyment he also criticized local news and cable news for making the world appear smaller and with less wonder than what he aspires for news and journalism. I use clips from his show in my classroom from time to time and my students consistently have no idea what they are listening to–I feel they are so used to what Ira called “useless narratives” from video games and movies and tv. I hope to give them humor and compelling claims of value and policy. He said no matter the story or genre–short fiction or novels–the idea is to create empathy. He said that is what drives his work and also his interview style. To put yourself in to someone else’s shoes. Also he spoke of how radio can give you more visuals than tv–of course he was joking but that would be the idea of all text–to immerse the reader or listener into a reality or a space of true intimate experience. This is such an amazing idea and something I am sure all failed writers try to bring to fiction. This one anyway.

(Oh and I wonder if he is related to Seymour Glass?)

the Time to Fail

Last day of classes and soon I will be moving on to finals week; the term began a week later than last and I am very quickly realizing the crunch of time. My course grades are due on the 22nd–the 22nd! Three days before the holiday. I can’t believe it. And lately I have has so many ideas for the Cornbread Project and also I have had the feeling like I am a much better writer than teacher and I am thinking all I need is the time to fail.

So perhaps I will paint some broad strokes here. I hope soon I will be able to sit on my couch and stare out the window and try and work on my own work in my lap as opposed to a student’s work or the institution’s work of assessment. Dec 18th is the date for assessment. And I want to get back to the couch and to Bea and Manito–Lolo and Cornbread. As I am starting to realize the direction of those stories. And Anne Lamott advises we try and imagine placing family and responsibilities into a bottle and creating the chance to complete the dificult work of creatiing fictive spaces. And Didion gives me the idea of self-respect so perhaps I will have much more time to work on Cornbread.

And D and I yesterday were talking about Bea as if she were real–like Salinger states: real enough to give a lunch and put on a train and send her off into the world. And D and I were discussing her direction and her relationships as if they were real and breathing. So perhaps I do understand Susan-Lori Parks and this idea of the characters tapping on your shoulder and begging to be in your work–wanting to live in the work.

I hope I can get back to them soon.

Writing, Bounty Hunting and Secret Sharing

Last night I took a break from grading plays and watched a televsion program I usually watch when I can remember it is on. It is a horrible thing for me to admit but I do watch reality television from time to time. I also watch Fox and Friends in the morning because, like Jon Stewart on the Daily Show says, I have low self-esteem when it comes to pop culture.

Anyway I am watching my reality bounty hunting television show and they are following these bounty hunters as they look for fugitives–really they look for people who have not appeared in court and owe them money so it feels more like debt collection than Tommy Lee Jones Fugitive-esque bounty hunting. And the fugitive was caught pretty quickly without much detecting and then this one fugitive cries and goes on about his habit and his dead-end life. It is all pretty horrible. The camera is right in his face as he cries and goes on and as he hugs his wife with handcuffed limbs for seemingly the last time since he has skipped court appearances and is probably looking at significant time away. And I couldn’t help but feel real hatred for the reality tv form in this moment and I felt like the producers and the star of this show were exploiting this person–they were making money and fame and ratings off of this poor guy’s arrest. Off of this poor guy’s failures.

They were sensationalizing his failures and giving us the intimate moment of realization of failure. Sensationalism at its best which I have to admit is part of the reason Americans watch cops and watch the Evening News. And I felt really awful about myself and why I wasn’t working on my own manuscripts at that moment like most moments I take time for myself instead of work or school–or even my dog. Then it hit me–am I doing anything too different in my manuscripts–in my fiction?

And isn’t it just like a writer to present someone else’ story for an audience and then feel bad about the realting of the intimate. Who gives me the right to tell someone else’s story?

I mean this idea of the secret sharer or the recording angel I have studied and learned of in fiction–from Marjorie Sandor’s mostly–seems connected to this idea of exploiting the story for a given purpose. I mean it seems more than means of perception to me and more like exploitation. And I worry about this. I hesitate to make my family caricatures and types. I worry about as one writer friend told me–all the cabron stuff–in the manuscript. I think she meant it as a verisimilitude concern rather than a content criticism I assume but my friends and Abuelitos talked like that and I want to capture it. I mean the Uncle does have a rough life and doesn’t seem to care though those around him do and I want to capture that. I don’t, however, want to exploit or sell that out for the sake of a story. And I am sure this is a concern most writers have. What exactly am I sharing and why am I sharing it?

Why tell the story and who would want to hear the story? A student in my class said it best–who would want to read this I keep asking myself?

And my answer would be the Uncle and the Abuelitos. I want to write for an elite audience and a local audience–as broad an audience as possible–at least I hope. Like Bell Hooks I want to represent a community rather than exploit community or empower myself. Well, I do want to empower my own creative literacies with these stories but not at ther expense. Perhaps that is the difference.

what are you? writer vs teacher

cropped-c6qibu5wuaamyrl-jpg-large.jpegOne of my fellow teachers here at the community college asked me a very interesting question a while back. She asked, “What would you rather be doing–reading or writing?”

We were waiting for a professional development meeting/seminar to begin and I didn’t have much time to answer but I think I told her I would rather be out somewhere fishing. We both laughed but I’ve been thinking about the nature of that question since I have an MFA and the fellow teacher who asked me has an MA in literature. And I think there was thread between the distinction of the two degrees in her comment. She might as well have asked me–what are you, a teacher or a writer?

And I am always going on in my classes about the difference between the two degrees. I always seem to pat myself on the back and tell my students how the degree is unique and there are only a few instructors here at the college that have MFA’s and how I am the only one teaching composition who has an MFA and blah blah blah. I’m not really a bragger–actually I am pretty self-deprecating at times. In fact, my degree is something I am quite proud of despite the bad reputation the MFA holds compared to the European sensibility regarding writing programs. Research the latest Nobel Prize bologna on NPR if you don’t believe me. But I am always questioning my credentials.

Just after arriving here the art department instructors pled their case to the powers that be concerning their pay grade and their degrees. We won that battle and I am happy to see the school recognizes the degree apart from the MA. And I like that I am associated at least on paper with the visual artists and the graphic artists here at the college. I like the idea that we both create instead of tediously analyze.

My point ,I guess, is MFA degrees show someone to be a writer and a student of form and the MA/PHD shows someone to be a student of literature and theory and analysis–at least the way I think about it. Jenny Cornell once made that distinction for me in her office and she was one of the most dynamic personalities and credentialed person I have ever worked with. And I also had a crush on her but I won’t go in to that here.

Anyway, I imagine I obsess over that question and the idea of whether I am studying too much of other literature as opposed to writing literature. And perhaps I am not one to lock myself up for 15 hours a day Stephen King style and produce manuscripts but I have been pretty productiove this last year or two. I finished at least 5 short stories for submission–I have 6 out in the world right now looking for homes– and I have completed the Huerfanos novel/project and I am about halfway through the Notorious Cornbread project/manuscript. So I feel quite productive and so when I pick up a book or a magazine to read and study fiction or creativ non-fiction why do I feel like I am not writing enough. And I still study form closely as Stephen Minot advises.

And now is where I make the connection to teaching. In my mind the old comment–those who cannot do–teach,always bothers me. At another seminar this term a biology teacher answered with an Aristotle quote. Those who understand are the ones who teach best–or some such quote. The room applauded for that one. And in my mind the distinction between a teacher and a doer or a writer is very important. And this term–perhaps because of the quality of my assignments and final products from my students in comp and lit have all made me feel like a writer.

Yesterday, after receiving annotated bibliographies from my students, I never felt more like a writer in my life. And even as I respond to students’ creative writing–one act plays in particular–I find myself to be more a writer. Not because of the quality of the assignments as nearly all of those were pretty successful drafts. But the errors come from me having a dificult time responding to creative writing as opposed to composition.

I guess because in composition I feel I am grading and in creative writing I feel I am relating and sympathizing more than I am grading as say for my lit 110 poetry mid-term or my lit 113 ethnic term paper. In those I feel I am grading content– and not commenting on form. The paradox of it all.

But yesterday I wanted to stop reading and stop grading and work on my own fiction which is coming pretty fast and furiously these past few months. Can that be a success to add to the failures of this failed writing weblog?

Writing Mentors and the Passing Down of Failure

I first heard of failure as it relates to writing from my old writing teacher and mentor Will Hochman . And I don’t mean he failed me or told me I was a failure. No, he was tough on me but kind and nurtured his students from draft to draft. Never had composition with him but rather lit courses and creative writing–poetry and fiction. He gave me Richard Hugo and gave me Donald Hall. He saw something in me I did not see in myself at the time.

Later he got me a gig as a writing center tutor getting paid to work with writing–getting paid to work with students. This led to teaching community college courses, led to a career and an obsessive compulsive view of fiction and poetry. Will helped make the failed writer I am today. As much as Huerfano County and Pueblo County. I mean he helped me appreciate failure in writing. To appreciate the long, dificult process of writing. This is something I try to instill in my students. This is the kindness I always try to find for my students.

Here is a note from his website (stolen without permission–Sorry, Will):

Accept humanity’s flaws as what it means to be you. Sometimes how we write ourselves is all about the heuristic of failure.

In other words, writing is about empathy and humanity. And I recognize how dificult that is. Can I teach empathy in 16 weeks? I can surely lead the way–or try. I suppose you will need to ask my students about that because my students feel 16 weeks of a semester as too brief of a time to complete a significant change in literacy skill. They say I push too hard–like all students complaining. And I can only suggest it is enough time to craft at least 4 writing assignments. But mostly I try to instill the care for writing–the care for drafting. That same appreciation of learning from failure. From understanding what makes writing bad and what makes writing effective. To understand literary quality not as a critic but as a human–with empathy and hope. And that is not a failure.

But at the end of a term like here in school in the last week of classes we are talking quite a bit about revision and escaping from the failed document. To improve academic non-fictive spaces and I think of Will. I think of how I have become a mentor or someone who passes-on this idea of failure–a success in my view. The idea to see things where they can begin and not always where they are stopping off–to steal from Salinger. Oh, Will didn’t give me Salinger but he gave me more of Salinger.

Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow

Those of us without strong family ties or inspiration look for wisdom or guidance from wherever we can find it. And those who read usually find escape or motivation from texts–and that would be a success. I mean I have been writing about failure on this site quite a bit but finding a text or manuscript that motivates and kick starts our own projects can be the only success perhaps to speak of that is pure and true. And Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow has been one of those books for me. What a gem of a book. I find myself returning to it again and again for inspiration and guidance. But not just as a writer.

Not just in writing but in memory and strength in facing the past. And this is where I will be cheesy and cliche’d and state that this text is a friend. And I have only seen interviews with Maxwell–his reflections on Salinger are also very interesting to me– and I have read few of his books but I remember the day I read the book in Oregon, for Marjorie Sandor’s novella course, I thought–I want to write a book like that. I want to have visions of the past like that.

And the prose style so clear and simple and yet speculative and uncertain of the truth and of the reality of the past. So dream-like and airy. Maxwell’s work is so amazing and his death was such a loss to the literary world.

And I taught the book a term ago in a novels course and of course the students hated it. They thought it was good literature but not a good read–as one of my students put it. I always hated that phrase–it’s a good read. Like a page turner you buy at the airport that is the literary equivalent of a burger shake and fries. The fast food version of a book–just to pass the time. A book you take someting from in a short term manner instead of a meaning that grows and mul;itplies as you grow. But I do feel I am learning from this book and my understanding of it. This book I return to and return to.

And maybe if I had an Abuelito like Maxwell who had coffee with me, or listened to me or wanted to call me up and ask me about my life, I hope it would have Maxwell’s head and perspective–or at least the literary face I see when I return to the book.