End of another long and difficult week. Most of time spent conferencing and grading–mostly grading student papers as well as mid-term portfolios. I find these so important to teach but take time from my writing–my manuscripts. I did have time to record a few interesting videos I’ll soon be editing and adding to the Lincoln Land Review website. One of those videos includes a brief interview of Illinois author Ricardo Cortez Cruz. And what a great experience recording this interview and classroom visit. He discussed difficulty and complexity in his writing and he also discussed his sense of urgency and passion. He also discussed a bit on his idea of ‘slanguage’ which reminded me of my thoughts on spanglish and incorporating more representative language to fictive texts. And though I wasn’t writing or revising some of my manuscripts I believe I was focused of course on writing and the gathering of bullets or ideas on aesthetic to return to Monte Stories and perhaps some of my shorter work.
Also I’ll be spending some time in the next few weeks putting together my proposal for sabbatical. And so I’ll be putting together my plan for the next year to develop my creative and academic literacy through research of other’s fiction, travel to writing workshop and of course the act of writing at home.
So perhaps I’m beginning to think more like Prof Ron Carlson in this clip:
In my lit course we’ve been reading Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays and there is so much for the young writer to learn from this book. I have to preface this review or response or whatever you want to call it by saying I’m a writer and not a literary critic. Mostly I appreciate form and not meaning.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines literary minimalism–because I couldn’t find a good definiton in my literary handbook:
Literary minimalism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description. Minimalist authors eschew adverbs and prefer allowing context to dictate meaning. Readers are expected to take an active role in the creation of a story, to “choose sides” based on oblique hints and innuendo, rather than reacting to directions from the author. The characters in minimalist stories and novels tend to be unexceptional.
And as Didion gives us in her essay “Why I Write,” I am not very good at writing in abstracts so I’ll try to explain specifically how this book is motivating me tonight after a pretty decent discussion with my students last night. Like me they found the book dark and sinister–the themes of male dominance over the main character Maria. They also enjoyed the form which is truly why I admire the book. So spare and nearly as barren as the desert Maria drives through to reach her husband, Carter. Instead of a long and drawn out narrative as in other books we’ve read–and I’ve just finished Love in the Time of Cholera this summer and that book does have an overly sense of telling rather than showing–and this book and its 83 chapter–scenes really–are so spare they are incredibly rigorous to read. Some chapter requiring a few reads to gain footing concerning plot and in some cases even dialogue tags. It is almost as if the technical is Didion’s focus here and not character or plot. In fact we learn the most of Maria and not the men running around her, which perhaps is Didion’s point.
And her is some quick research on minimalism I wanted to throw up here. According to Chuck Palahniuk in his essay “Chasing Amy” where he praises Amy Hempel for her minimalism, Tom Spanbauer classifies minimalism to four components:
Metaphor: develop recurring metaphors for reader to interpret
Burnt tongue: Force reader to read close, twice
Recording angel: narrator without passing judgment
Writing on the body: tasty, smelly and touchable details—give reader a physical reaction
This applies so completely and closely to Didion’s text it is as if Spanbeaur is speaking of Didion. In Didion’s novel the theme of evil is given to us throughout in the physical fear and finding of snakes. Maria’s existential dread comes to us in the character trait of dreading snakes. But not only snakes–snakes who the universe or mother nature has decided should be venomous but having the traits of non-venomous snakes.
“Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask. I never would, not anymore.”
All giving us the problem of evil as a recurring motif in the book but in such economy. The idea that the universe is amoral and can strike at you in the everyday at any moment is another recurring theme. This the second paragraph of the book and reaches a note another writer would’ve taken pages to reach.
More on Didion to come as I finish rereading this amazing book…
I’m looking at my last post and seeing how frustrated I was. Grading assignment after assignment can do that to you. Three sections of composition can take a good amount of energy from you. And really teaching has given me so many opportunities. I shouldn’t knock it. Now I worry concerning time and writing–I worry that grading takes me from the writing. Takes me from my manuscripts. It all reminds me of how in grad school peers would complain around me about the workload and the time to create fiction. And as MFA students we all complained over teaching and writing. My answer was that it all was nothing as a real job–nothing like a real job. Nothing like the hard work from the stories of the Grandfather and Grandmother. Nothing like long and mindless shifts of breaking down cardboard boxes and unloading of trucks. I have to get back into that mindset. The creating of fiction has never been a chore for me. I have to find that mindset again.
And yet I am so fortunate to have work that is in my field. I think of the past week and all we’re discussing. There is so much here that interests me. We’re discussing Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion and literary minimalism. Discussing Tom Spanbaeur and Amy Hempel and Palahniuk’s ideas on literary minimalism. How to focus on technique rather than meaning. And in a way I feel I have surpassed some of the lectures I’ve received in the past–literary minimalism was given to me by analysts of lit rather than writers of fiction. So I feel I am giving my students a different perspective on the study of fiction. Teaching them how to teach like a writer. Teaching like a writer. And at the same time I feel I am developing myself as a writer–reading and rereading theory on the crafting of fiction.
And this summer I have the opportunity to meet with some writers I know and admire at the school’s expense–if I can get my proposal organized. And I also have the opportunity to take a sabbatical soon and write at the school’s expense. So I hope I can stay positive in the idea of teaching and being a writer. And again I consider myself very lucky to teach as a writer.
I’ve been thinking more and more about the idea of language in my fiction. It’s something I obsess over. And I guess this whole series of posts began with Richard Hugo and Auden and the idea the writer must love the language they utilize more than the reader. And I do love the mix of Spanish and English my Grandmother used. I love the idea of approaching the story remembering sounds and bits of dialogue I can hear from my memories. So when I write it just comes. I do want to represent that upbringing and yet at the same time I admit my Spanish is horrible. Embarrassing really. And in my own ethnic identity struggles and explorations–again, remember last month more people asked me what I was than ever before. So the Spanish language I use is always disappointing other Latinos and readers. One person called me out at an IMAGE award dinner I was invited to that is associated with my community college teaching position. And I felt that was an aggressive reminder of what it means to be truly Latino.
My Grandmother used to tell me what a shame it was that I didn’t know more of my language she would say. Or she would say ‘your people’s language.’ And then she would speak in English to almost everyone. So in terms of language skills I am a little bit of both. And yet I have to admit my verbal and language strengths rest in English though I do write in Spanglish. But the publications I send my writing to aren’t a bit of both. Which causes the problem. A bi-lingual and bi-cultural writer needs more and more bilingual and bi-cultural publications.
This afternoon I was reviewing a PBS documentary on George Lopez called Brown the New Green. I reached the point of the documentary where he discusses language and immediately remembered why I put this on my Netflix queue. In this documentary George Lopez gives the best quote about the language he utilizes:
“The fact is I speak very little Spanish during the day and when I get on stage I speak in tongues. But broken and twisted and inherently wrong but that’s how we do it. And that’s what it is. And if you want me to go to Berlitz and learn the right way I’m not going to do it. So you’re going to have to deal with the way it is and take me the way I am and if you don’t think I’m Mexican enough because I don’t speak Spanish then I say fuck you.”
First off, I love the idea of ‘tongues’. Again when I write it just comes. Sometimes I go back to words I know were used in the old house and I use today and I can’t spell. Embarrassing. But amazing because it makes me scrutinize the language I’m using to get to hearts of characters. Also what I love about George Lopez’ quote is the idea he is absolutely unapologetic about being bi-cultural and bi-lingual in his act. He is nearly admitting to language as representation utilized versus a dominant use that is Spanish and also English–a new bi-cultural entertainment. “Create your own position,” says George Lopez.
This last week I’ve mentioned Spanglish in my classes on more than one occasion. My midwest students look at me as if I’m crazy and one even asked me, Is that a real thing? She said it rather dramatically and forcefully. She said it as if I was telling her about something so foreign and odd to her. I immediately became homesick. (This is after a week in which several book reps and students asked me, What are you?)
And I’ve went on about the importance of intimate language. I’ve went on about how the author must love the language used. Love it much more than the reader. Back at home, out of the classroom as I try to write, I thought about the Grandmother and how she would swim between English and Spanish so efficiently and sweetly. She controlled the mode from speaking on the phone to friends and speaking out the door to pay her paper boy and then she would shift to speak to the Grandfather. A mixed modal approach to communication. From the old kitchen. I admired her so. And she could tell a damn good story. In her house coat cooking and smoking and recounting old stories from when she was a kid. She would explain the San Luis Valley to me and never talking down to me. The stories always brought me in and so I have to recreate that in my stories whether nonfiction or fiction. I don’t do as well of a job at swimming between the two but I do my best to recreate the words and the cadences and the tones.
So, of course when I write I have no thought of the audience. I had no thought an editor wouldn’t understand and question so harshly the drafts I sent in. I have posted at least three comments from editors on this blog where an editor expresses the thought–Do you expect our readers to understand what these words mean? Some contests have emailed me the work was strong but they had specific provisions that the work be in English. And in my mind the pervasive mixing of English and Spanish is the truest representation. And I know some writers think this is assimilation and not representation. And yet for me the language my Grandmother used is what I want in my stories.
Here are some quotes I’ve quickly gotten down.
“Spanglish is less the introduction of new words into either language than the distortion of the sound and meaning of Spanish or English words. . . . There are as many versions of Spanglish as there are national origins of Latinos and geographical variations in English vocabulary and diction.”
(Earl Shorris, The Life and Times of Mexico. W.W. Norton, 2004)
“Spanglish is often described as the trap, la trampa Hispanics fall into on the road to assimilation–el obstáculo en al camino. Alas, the growing lower class uses it, thus procrastinating the possibility of un futuro mejor, a better future. Still, I’ve learned to admire Spanglish over time. Yes, it is the tongue of the uneducated. Yes, it’s a hodgepodge. . . . But its creativity astonished me.”
(Ilan Stavans, Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language. HarperCollins, 2004)
Writer Eduardo Gonzalez mentions in his article Spanglish: To Ser or Not to Be? That is la cuestion! that the use of Spanglish represents a reality for so many of us here in the southwest and now in the midwest. He states the use of it gives vigor and testimony to the writing and I agree. And at some point I have to believe the use of Spanglish in my writing and the bit of it I use over the phone and in my personal life is who I am and what I want to hold to. I also once mentioned in some writing concerning Latino literacy development that the degree I hold, yes, is an English lit degree and I called myself an English major for many years while I wrote in Spanglish in my notes and in my personal life. I also wrote years ago how I knew that fiction bridged these cultural gaps and perhaps the language itself is how I am trying to bridge those cultural gaps.