Monday, October 31, 2005

The Roller Coaster of Creativity

Maybe it's just that I've been eating too much chocolate and not enough fresh vegetables, but I feel like I've been on a roller coaster this week. Up, Down, Upside Down.

Middlebrow often thinks my self-esteem slumps are an effect of my being a creative writer. You don't see American Studies professors acting like that, he says. It may be true. In graduate school, the creative writers were the ones on mood altering drugs (prescription!) and the American Studies folks seemed very even keeled. Maybe they just self-medicate with beer and Cosmopolitans.

But it begs the question, does the creativity required to be a writer or an artist also mean that we are more prone to bouts of low self-confidence and more days where we just want to stay in our jammies and watch "Ellen"?

I don't know. But maybe it is my lack of writing time, or the feeling that no one, ever, will publish my collection of short stories that is so eclectic as to be schizophrenic, and to contradict the word "collection."

See, this is why MB gets frustrated with me. I just won the Utah Collection Contest, I have an essay, beautifully designed and illustrated, forthcoming in Ninth Letter, what the hell is wrong with me?

Oh yeah, I'm a writer.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Emma and The Gender Bias

Today in my theory class I tried to confront the pretty much universal initial reaction my students to the novel Emma. Among the nine students (yes, I'm down to nine), not one of them claimed to really enjoy it. Perhaps my own love of Austen has blinded me to her faults, but c'mon, not one? In an effort to find something to convince them that the novel has literary merit, I did a search on J-Stor. What did I find? Some woman scholar criticizing the novel for being "light" and "of no consequence." As a reaction of my male students, I can (sort of) understand their inability to relate to Emma or Knightley and any of their decidely upper-class dilemmas. But a woman scholar? Why the Austen bashing?

Still looking for some comfort, I turned to my friends Gilbert and Gubar. There's a reason Madwoman in the Attic is still in print, still required reading for so many scholars. It's refreshingly clear and direct. What did I find there? A feminist defense of Austen, to be sure. And some humorous, and infuriating quotes from male (and female) writers about how Austen's novels are "perfect as far as they go-- that's certain. Only they don't go very far" (that's Elizabeth Barrett Browning).

Here are a few more:

Mark Twain, "I could read his [Poe's] prose on a salary, but not Jane's. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death."

Henry James, ". . .she sometimes, over her work basket, her tapestry flowers, in the spare, cool drawing-room of other days, fell amusing, lapsed too metaphorically, as one may say, into wool gathering, and her dropped stitches, of these pardonable, of these precious moments, were afterwards picked up as little touches of human truth, little glimpses of steady vision, little master-strokes of imagination" (qtd. in Gilbert & Gubar).

What's striking about these criticisms, aside from their belittling her art as mere "dropped stitches" is their overwhelming sexism. At the base of these criticisms, and at my students' inability to "relate" (as they said), is a dislike of female stories. I don't mean merely a dislike of stories by and about women (though I mean that too), but a dislike of a focus on the domestic, on the private, on intimacy, on conversation. This criticism is couched as a lack of plot. "Nothing happens," my students said. I then proceeded to list all the things that happened in the text. It's not that nothing happens, I countered, but that you don't like what does happen. Why? They say it's only about "relationships" and "marriage." Yes, I said, on some level it's a marriage plot. (I've always disliked this term: it reminds me of a plot of land, as in where the woman will be buried when she is married. Ha!) But it's also about class and status, about manners, about obligation and family, about language and textuality.

As a response to their initial reactions to the text, today in class I had my students list books they were required to read in English classes. Then on the other side of the board, we listed books they had read for fun. We talked about which required texts were part of the new canon (Morrison, Momaday, Cisneros) and which were part of the old canon (Shakespeare, Conrad, Homer, Dickens, etc.). And then we talked about how many were by women (very few) and how many had a female narrator or protagonist (even fewer). Only one that most people had read, To Kill A Mockingbird, was both written by a woman and featured a main character who was also female. But, I went on to say, it's not even wholly Scout's story; it's the community's story. Plus, one of my students added, Scout's kind of a tomboy.

Then I tried to get them to see how what they expect of a novel has been shaped by the novels they've read. What's more, their assessment of a text's literary worth has been influenced by the texts they were required to read. There's literature, and then there's the light books, the guilty pleasures, the indulgences. We know which are which.

As this is a theory course, I said, I'm just trying to get you to have some kind of critical awareness of why you like what you like and why most of you don't like Emma. They seemed to get it. The two women even seemed to have liked the book once they got into it.

Ultimately, I told them, I don't think it's just a book about marriage. I made my case for why the book is about Emma's inability to read other characters; in theory-speak, Emma is about the unstable signifiers of gesture and intention. As the text states, "She had taken up the idea, she supposed, and made every thing bend to it." Finally, then, the book is about pre-conceptions, and how we interpret the world through the lense of our firmly held beliefs about what things mean, how they signify. Even if they don't seem to mean what we want them to mean, we bend the signs to fit our ideas. We don't interpret, we project.

I'm not sure they bought it, but seeing as how most of them hadn't finished the book, I think they just took my word for it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Son Asks the Tough Questions

Last night when we were sitting in the Breakfast Nook, Son asked me some questions. After I responded, he would make a little tally mark on his paper, rest his hand on his chin, look at me and nod. Then he would ask another question, nodding as I answered. I am only sorry I cannot replicate his hand gestures here for your amusement. Just imagine some of the hand gestures you've seen me make when I talk.

What is necessary about dogs?
What is necessary about cats?
Why do cats poop in the house?
Where do dogs go when they die?
What do you think, does money survive or not survive?
Tell me how you feel about money.
What is necessary about this point to relation of form? (Here he gestures, circling his hands in front of his body, away from each other and then bringing them back together.) I think he says something about "complexity." When I ask him what he means he smiles and then laughs.
What is necessary about cats and dogs? Together. Like 5 and 6 are together. (Here he writes a five next to a six and draws a line to connect them.)

When he asks me "Where do cats go when they die?" I answer that perhaps it's like a big living room, with a rug and a fire and lots of toys.
"And they can poop in the house?" he asks.
He knows what's really important.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Re-emergence of Fun!

I am rediscovering Fun! (that's fun with a capital "F" and an exclamation point) Not that I think Fun! and I have been enemies for the last, say, seven to ten years, but I think graduate school saps a little bit of the Fun! out of you. Or, should I say, graduate school hinders our ability to just have the Fun! without analyzing it, deconstructing it, commenting on it as it happens, etc.
I rediscovered Fun! this weekend during my first tennis class. I haven't taken tennis lessons since junior high. In high school, the coach let me practice with the team and I got pretty good. But I'd forgotten how much fun it is to be ordered around, to receive unambiguous instructions, and to just run around the court, without much thinking, for an hour and a half. As adults, I think we are under the mistaken impression that exercise has to be mundane or it's not good for us, but it's not true!
I really liked not being in charge. I liked when the coach, Debbie, told me exactly what to do. Stop! Plant your feet! Start swinging for that lob sooner! Toss the ball higher for your serve! Stretch those abs! Wrong foot! (Not to give you the wrong impression. Debbie didn't actually yell. She said everything calmly).
I especially liked this silly game we played in teams of two against other teams of two with one coach feeding us balls: an approach shot, a volley, an overhead. I was running and sweaty. Today I'm actually sore!
All I can say is that now I'm dedicated to playing tennis as much as possible, and to taking tennis classes where I get some concrete instruction. Language, in tennis class, is not an arbitrary signifier. I bloody well know what a volley is.
Let's hear it for Fun!

Friday, October 14, 2005

Baby Lust

My best friend from junior high, Adrienne, came to town yesterday. She brought her three month old daughter, Alex, who was incredibly adorable and ridiculously well-behaved. She didn't cry once (okay maybe once, but only for about three seconds) and she fell asleep pretty quickly just from being walked around and bounced for a little while.
Son enjoyed having the little visitor around, and he especially liked interpreting her coos and sighs, her kicks and swipes for us. When a blanket was placed on her and she started kicking, he said, "She doesn't want that." When she cooed for a few seconds, he said, "She's hungry." He really liked watching her nurse. I think it took him back to the good old days. When she needed her diaper changed, he grabbed a diaper and the wipes out of the bag.
I gained a little insight into what kind of big brother he would be. He was very anxious to help, and he loved talking to her and smiling at her, trying to get her to grip his hand. But he was also a little nuts, dancing a little too close to her tiny head, and jumping and being his normal crazy self.
But the baby was so cute and he was so attentive it made me, momentarily, rethink this whole "one kid" thing. I know it's more economical and more environmentally sound, but babies are cute! And Son seemed pretty into her. When I asked him, however, if he wanted a little sister, he said, "No." I always wanted an older brother (because I have three sisters, of course). Part of me wants Son to be an older brother. But I'm not sure that's a good enough reason to have another child. Is it?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


For some reason I've been thinking about laughing lately. Perhaps it was brought on by watching Conan O'Brien bobbing for apples (after Martha Stewart tied his hands behind his back with a cloth napkin, of course). I laughed so hard I almost cried. And then I thought about how long it had been since that had happened. And then I remembered a man I knew in high school. I think he was a gay barber, but that's beside the point. (And how did I meet him? And why did I know him? Fascinating questions, but also beside the point.)
At a party one night, he told me about a friend of his who was so funny in high school. She was hilarious. But then she went to college and she got ironic and bitter. And then she wasn't funny anymore. She didn't laugh as much. She got dark. All this by way of telling me to "maintain my sense of humor."
And now, on the eve of my 20th high school reunion, I have to ask myself, have I? When I think about the friends I had in, say, junior high, I remember how we used to laugh at the slightest thing. We used to laugh hard. And then in high school, all I had to do was call up my friend Cyndi using my "Jewish mother" voice and we would laugh for hours. We'd do our "Jewish mother" voices at the carwash, at the dinner table, during grammar class. We laughed all the time. And with my sisters it was the same thing. My one sister would do Dana Carvey doing George Michael. We would all sing "Chopping Broc-olli." In college I would leave my friends long, convoluted messages that usually had a punch line.
In recent memory, there's the Conan O'Brien thing. Oh yeah, and tonight I laughed at Son's statement that what he wanted for dinner was "Beans and Buggers."
So what's happened? Has life gotten less funny or have I?