29 September 2010

Cultural style memo

Last weekend I went to a wedding. Evening at poolside, giant sparklers shooting into the air while the happy couple walked the aisle. Husband in cotton jacket with red polo, me in fancied up jersey dress with pleats and sparkles and flats.

Every. Single. Woman. was wearing heels. And some version of black with sequins. I had skipped the coiffeur and wore a ponytail.

"It happened again," I moaned to my husband, who's closest friend at the wedding chided him for wearing beige. I had led him astray telling him he didn't need to wear a suit. "I wore the wrong thing at the wrong time. Was there some sort of memo I missed?"

Some sort of cultural memo, I wanted to add. The one that tells me what to wear and when in Turkey.

I've learned to kiss hands and cheeks, touch hands to foreheads, implement a no-shoes-in-the-house rule, offer something to drink the second a guest enters the house, and implore them to sit down and stay even after five hours of tea. I've learned to accept that plans change at the last second, that mostly everyone will be late. I've spent hours at the coiffeur, basking in the pleasantries of salonistas and manicurists. I've even learned how to make some tricky Turkish food that impressed my mother-in-law, but for some reason, I've blindly guessed about what to wear to Turkish events and been wrong.

Tights and heels to a dinner where everyone is wearing sleeveless shirts and open-toed shoes. Jersey when everyone is wearing silk. Jeans when everyone's in a dress.

When have you felt this way, and is there something to learn from being slightly out of sync with your surroundings?

22 September 2010

Shaped by what we don't remember

It's that time of year again, for longing for distant things, the crunch of leaves under my feet, for waking up a little chilly in the morning and hoping for rain.

Torino, Italy

It's that time of year to be quiet and studious and read good books. In the last two weeks I've read The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest and Writing Great Books for Young Adults, and I started The Dive from Clausen's Pier today. Staring now at my bookshelf and thinking over the books in my Kindle, I'm surprised that I can't remember what I read before that. The time before and after I read a Stieg Larsson is always changed and different, like I'm on an adrenaline rush, and now it looks like with the third book in the series finished, I'm done.

Inability to remember some of my even my favorite books and movies reminds me of this essay in The New York Times: The Plot Escapes Me. In it, James Collins consoles me through Professor Maryanne Wolf's assertion that we are the "sum" of what we've read, even if we can't remember everything (or anything) about it.

I wonder if it's some trick of the memory that we can devour a book and then forget the contents. A kind of amnesia with a unknown purpose? All that time spent a writer spends writing. Hours, maybe days and weeks spent reading, and then you might not even remember the name of the protagonist.

What do you think - do we store that information somewhere? Are we still shaped by what we don't remember?

15 September 2010

Show, don't tell

Illustration for PAWI writing club

Artists tend to know this concept intimately: show, don't tell. Writers are beseeched to embrace it, but art is all about showing, even when work like Nancy Spero's The Torture of Women from 1976 includes jarring, typewritten layers of text. 

In conversation yesterday with Julie Tallard Johnson, we talked about her book The Wheel of Initiation and stating intention for creative work. 

Stating intention is like showing instead of telling, being clear on why you choose to be present in this moment.

Being mindful is, like Diana Baur talks about in her post A Case for Mindfulness"the practice of not missing out on your life because you were too fragmented to really notice.  If there is no other case to be made for mindfulness, it would be this fact alone."

Having an interest in, and studying mindfulness, is much different than being present. Mindfulness outside of my creative work does not come easy. One ear on the kids and while I try to focus on whatever task I have set out before me. Half-listening while I'm thinking of everything I want to get done. High sensitivity to sensory overload. I go into my work with such intensity that everything outside of it can sound like one long clanging bell trying to get my attention that I tune out.


That's a whole lot of telling, not showing. And several really good, clever excuses to avoid being mindful. Sounds a lot like Steven Pressfield's definition of resistance in The War of Art

What holds you back from being mindful?


02 September 2010

Pop culture vs. high art?

I'm a latecomer to the Glee obsession. My August NaNoWriMo writing binge was followed by three days of the first season of Glee with breaks to sleep, eat, shower, and feed my kids. It has become a post-project ritual to dive into entire seasons of shows and catch up on movies I've missed. Glee is research, I reason. I just finished the first draft of a young adult novel and don't want to appear clueless about American pop culture.

At the same time, I've been following along with the Franzen-Picoult-Weiner debate, a discussion on the extensive coverage of Jonathan Franzen's newly released book, Freedom, sparked by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner. Bestselling writers Picoult and Weiner argue Franzen's star treatment makes commercial writers, especially commercial women writers, look excluded from the literary boy's club.

Glee and the FPW debate both point to the supposed pop culture vs. high art divide. Seven examples show Glee and FPW might not make such strange bedfellows. 

1. Opposites attract. Glee club and football practice. Reading Alain de Botton followed by Candace Bushnell. We need variety or get bored as a species. Where would we be without the complementary colors on a color wheel? We're uncomfortable with consumption, but don't want to have to choose just one type of cultural food. While I love the rich flavor of a yogurt lassi made from scratch, drinking diet Cherry Coke reminds me of going to the dollar theatre with my best friend for double features. One summer I read as many of the Stephanie Plum books I could find while traveling through Europe. I ate at a Burger King in Groningen, the Netherlands with a Dutch friend who'd spent time in the States and was not repelled by Americana.

Can you be comfortable with fusion and relish variation and opposites?

2. Readers and viewers like a good show. Bestsellers make readers excited. What happens next? A bestselling author knows how to keep their readers guessing and coming back for more. Likewise, the buildup to Franzen's book release was borderline fanatic and giddy. It's not about good or bad, it's about getting a show. Glee, without a doubt, made me flashback to high school. My most quietest introverted friend forever captured the heart of my 1997 senior class by dancing along to I Will Survive in a sparkling blue floor-length gown to thunderous applause. Want to keep people interested? Surprise them.

3. They bring out the love and the hate. Met many people indifferent to Glee, Jonathan Franzen, Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner? Unlikely.

4. Competition makes people sport their full regalia. Glee is obvious with its costumes, but couldn't it also be said that writers rise to the occasion when they defend their genre? We get to see who throws a literary punch better than someone else, who can write themselves out of their corner, who just thinks its a colossal waste of their time to care and retreats to their bench. It's the thrill of the fight, not choosing the winner, that keeps us enthralled.

5. After it gets duked it out, everyone gets back to work. Write, dance, paint, sew, whatever the creative preoccupation, everyone gets back to it. Or risks losing their jobs or passion in life. Smart creative people never show every trick at one time to conserve energy for the work.

6. The line between pop culture and high art is blurry. Andy Warhol is the classic example of an artist who inserted himself into pop culture while satirically criticizing the mainstream. Despite its cast of misfits, the Glee soundtrack has sold 7 million copies.

7. They point to what people care about. And sometimes what people care about makes no sense. Sometimes it seems pointless. Awful. Sometimes it seems noble. Sometimes it is the voice that breaks the silence. As an observer, it is fascinating. And there's not more fertile stuff for novel writing than the tension between two opposing sides.

There's something really attractive about liking something you're not supposed to. 

When do you unleash your inner high artist and pop culture fanatic? Do you take sides?