I’m turning OLD this year. But I’m taking it all quite well, really. There are benefits to aging of course. Social benefits, for example. And one in particular I find quite tantalizing. Since I’ve always been a tad socially-reckless — over-sharing, stirring the pot, making listeners squirm — what I’m most looking forward to with turning old is my newfound license to I-Don’t-Give-A-Shit (IDGAS). Surely you are […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
First off, I think it’s important to say that I do not, and have not ever primarily identified as white. On my mother’s side, I’m Native American, enrolled in my Tribe, and, to a large extent, raised in my culture. I was born on the reservation and lived on or near reservations for much of my life. Indigenous cultural signifiers are important to me – I love Coastal designs and canoes. I love to eat Salmon, attend gatherings, and socialize at potlatches or powwows. However, due to genetics (while both my grandparents on my mother’s side are Indigenous, my grandmother is light-skinned, and my grandfather, of mixed ancestry) it so happens that I am light. Like, really light. Light as a ghost, let-me-put-my-arm-next-to-yours-and-compare-whiteness light. Some people call me glow-worm because they think I’ll be florescent under blacklights.
There are a lot of ways in which it sucks to be a light or white-presenting Native American. I’m often not recognizable, even to people of my own nationality. Sometimes, I even have to perform to be seen by myself, as if by wearing turquoise and beadwork, I won’t get so lost in the Western world. Of course, it’s so much deeper than that, but it can help to have outward reflections of an inner truth. If I’m not performing for myself, it can feel as if I’m performing to others. At times, (though very rarely) others with mixed-Native heritage have compared themselves to me, as if I were on the bottom of the scale for Native-presenting-ness. “Oh, I look mixed, but I look more Native than Mistylynn, right?” This desperately begs the question, What does a Native person look like? As I’ve posed it at other times on this blog, I’ll leave that question for others to chew on. Suffice to say, the need to be visible, and to have a voice as an Indigenous woman, is important to me. Native issues are my issues, are the issues of my people. I identify as an American Indian woman.
And I have white privilege.
I’ve thought about this more and more in passing weeks. The shooting in Charleston, the death of Sandra Bland, the deaths of many, many more – all of these things have affected me on a deep level. When Mike Brown was murdered, I was so outraged that I immediately became that awkward person, jutting into a conversation not my own, all well-meaning, bumbling passion that needed to learn its place. My place, I now know, during this epidemic of police brutality, violence, and death, is as an ally. I can listen to what my Black friends share and say is their experience. I can believe them because they tell me it’s true. And I can choose to stand with them, encourage them, lift up and amplify their voices by listening, learning, and sharing what they tell me.
And part of what they’re telling me is that there are things I take for granted that I receive as a direct result of my skin color. Because I am Indigenous and I do face a great deal of challenges specific to my nationality, I have often wrongly believed that I don’t have white privilege. That isn’t true, because the larger world views me as a white woman. When I’m out and about in the rural area I live in, white people assume I am their natural ethnic ally. Police officers don’t stop me on erroneous, trumped up charges. In fact, I could, hypothetically, see a police officer, and feel either more safe, or neutral. I can look at a TV and see people who look like me. In magazines, movies, and casting calls, white is considered normal or standard. Avatar actress Zoe Saldana once said that she was turned down for a role because her skin was “too dark.” Said Zoe, “It’s only dark if you’re comparing it to something.”
But there’s more. At airports, I am not searched randomly. I can walk at stores without being followed around. With a few exceptions, people don’t tell me I’m “articulate” or say, “You speak English so well!” I can find makeup to match my skin tone. “Nude” colored products are the same shade I am. I can attend a pool party and be reasonably sure a thirty-five year-old man won’t barrel-roll in and pin me to the ground, knee against my back, constricting my breathing. I’m not likely to be put in a choke-hold. My last words will not be, “I can’t breathe.”
As painful and uncomfortable as it is for me to admit, my light skin benefits me at every conceivable social and political institution in the United States. It means everything from concealer, to skin-care products, to my very life.
But, you might think, Misty, you have had a lot of things go wrong due to your Indigenous ancestry. You’ve experienced land-theft, you’ve seen poverty, heck, the house where your brother lives had a sign hung by white folks that said, “Future Indian Ghetto.” The white folks who hung that sign saw you as an Indian. Your Tribe sees you as Indian. Even the Federal government recognizes it, and you’ve experienced persecution and racism firsthand, through the specific context of being a woman of color. How can you, of all people, benefit from white privilege?
I had a hard time understanding it, too. It all comes down to colorism: people of color with lighter skin are treated better in a white supremacist society, plain and simple. None of my past experiences, none of the experiences of my ancestors, negate the fact that, by virtue of my skin color alone, I have access to better healthcare, better education, and higher-paying jobs.
I’m writing this because I want other light-skinned people to acknowledge their privilege and admit that it isn’t normal that, by virtue of having light skin alone, one is automatically safer, wealthier, and better off in a society with institutions made to give them the upper hand. I want white people to admit to their own gross privilege, not because of shame, but because we should want equality. We should not be okay with a white girl getting her traffic violations waved by acting innocent to a police officer, but Sandra Bland dying because she didn’t use a turn signal. We can’t think Miley is cute for smoking weed, but Trayvon was a thug who got what he deserved. We cannot continue to justify police brutality by using the politics of respectability as an excuse. That’s saying, “You deserved to get catcalled because of your outfit.” We all know the outfit has nothing to do with it. But perhaps that is a clumsy metaphor as well. It sucks to be catcalled, but it would suck even worse to die.
I am acknowledging that I have white privilege, and I am demanding that all equal rights “privileges” should apply to everyone, not just those with light skin. I want everyone to be safe from police brutality. I want the wage gap to close, not just for women, but for women of color. I want an inner-city Black child to have the same access to safe, comprehensive education with qualified and passionate teachers, as his or her white peer. And for god’s sake, I want Taylor Swift to shut up when Nicki Minaj is talking.
The first step is to acknowledge, to see oneself, to hold up a mirror and really, truly look, and not look away.
I’ll close with a story: When I got to Thailand, the first big poster I saw was an advertisment for a product called “Snail White.” Snail White is a skin-lightening cream hyped to Asian women. Even here, it is considered better to be white, to be as white as you can possibly be. To be a ghost. To disappear entirely, a transluscent wunderkind, like Harry, Ron, and Hermione under a veritable Invisibility Cloak.
Untitled from the series Family, Friends and Strangers by Mary Frey
Mary Frey is a prominent photographer and Professor of Photography at Hartford Art School, Connecticut, USA. I first came across her work in the catalogue of Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, the influential MoMA exhibition of 1991, so I was particularly excited when she agreed to be interviewed here. Her work demonstrates a sharpness of eye and meticulous technique and her concepts, although seemingly banal, renew my faith in everyday wonder and photography’s ability to take those moments and immortalise them. For me, it was a pleasure to discover her continued devotion to photography and her considered approach. I’ll let you enjoy it for yourself.
Can you tell us about when you first discovered photography?
As a child, I loved to paint and draw and excelled in my art classes. In addition I grew up close to NYC, so occasionally visited museums to see original works of art. I always owned a point and shoot camera which I used to record special events, but never really thought about photography as a serious art practice until I was in college. I still remember that “aha” moment. It occurred during my third year of study as an art student. I came across Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, The Decisive Moment, and I was hooked- I needed to make photographs. That was in 1969, and I never looked back.
Did you know early on that it was going to be a life pursuit?
Upon graduation I had a brief stint studying photography in graduate school but dropped out because I felt my work lacked direction and I was not ready to make a serious commitment to the practice. For the next seven years I held a variety of jobs (editorial, sales, teaching, commercial) all connected to photography, while continuing to make and exhibit my personal work. At the time I was doing street photography, strongly influenced by the work of Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus. I found teaching to be a good fit with these artistic activities so returned to graduate school in 1977 with a new commitment to photography as a lifetime vocation.
Man Fastening Pearls
Some of your early practice (Domestic Rituals and Real Life Dramas) is concerned with exploring photography’s role in depicting the everyday. What began your interest in these themes and what did you find?
During my second year of graduate study I visited my parents and dug out our family albums. At the time I was struck by how many of my childhood memories were formed by the snapshots taken during these events. Although not an original insight, it acted as a catalyst to explore this idea. I began by recreating either the scenes I remembered or the spirit of these events, using family and friends as actors. I also drew inspiration from sixties television, the illustrations in the popular magazines like Life and Look that I grew up with, and the writing of novelists like John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Jayne Ann Phillips. As the project evolved, I made a “laundry list” of everyday moments to photograph. I sought out people in the street whom I found visually interesting and managed to get into their homes to document these activities. All these folks (family members and strangers) became my cast of characters for both the Domestic Rituals and Real Life Dramas series, which I worked on for the next eight years.
Boy with Volcano Project
How was it received at the time? What else was going on in photography then that stands out to you?
Domestic Rituals was generally well received. I had several solo shows around the US, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for the work in 1984. Real Life Dramas was featured in “New Photography 2” at the Museum of Modern Art (NY) in 1986. During this time there was a lot of street photography going on. Also artists were using large format cameras in many non-traditional situations- and I was looking at the early work of my contemporaries like Nick Nixon, Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann and Joel Meyerowitz, and artists who explored American vernacular themes in their work such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. In addition, having studied in the MFA program at Yale, the influence of Walker Evans was profound.
The prosaic nature of many of your scenes interests me. I particularly enjoy the attention to the aesthetic of the image that your work demonstrates in a constructed way, yet still retaining a sense of documentary.
Can you talk us through your creative process? How do you find pictures? Or do you create them?
The tools I employed- a large format camera, B&W film, flashbulb lighting- had a significant affect on how my images looked, and in turn, how my aesthetic evolved. Working slowly with the view camera forced me to construct, rather than capture moments. My diffuse lighting techniques created a soft, revealing and democratic light, where everything was described with precision and all things in a scene had equal visual weight. When I approached potential subjects I simply stated I wanted to photograph everyday people doing everyday things. My working process was fluid. Often I had specific ideas about what I wanted for the photograph, but occasionally I would see a gesture in passing that intrigued me, and asked my subject to re-create it for the camera. The successful images hovered somewhere between the documentary and directorial modes, evoking the look of film stills or tableaux-vivants.
Perhaps photography works best in these scenarios; making something rather mundane into a universally resonant moment. I think it is a talent to resist the sensational in photography to concentrate on the ‘unseen’. Could you talk about your experience of / thoughts on this a little?
A photograph shows us what we know, yet contains its own fiction. That’s what excited me about Bresson’s work many years ago and the work of others whom I admire. I’ve always found it a challenge to photograph the familiar and to move beyond the image of what it is – to what it could be about.
What techniques do you use and how do you decide for each project what suits it?
I truly believe that work begets work and materials hold meaning. I often start with a simple idea and allow the photographs to inform the process to move the project along. For example, I spent over a year photographing taxidermy under studio lights with a digital camera for the Imagining Fauna series. Although lush and beautiful, these images lacked an integrity I couldn’t pin down. Then I happened upon an ambrotype and I realized this is what they needed to be. I converted the digital files into B&W transparencies and, with the wet-plate process, printed them onto black glass. Not only were these images of 19th century specimens created with an antique photo process, but the plates themselves had a physicality that acted as metaphor for the subjects and, in turn, our precarious relationship with nature.
In Real Life Dramas you introduce text as a major component of the ‘image’. What were your reasons for this and how do you see image and text working together here? Where did the texts come from?
When I began Real Life Dramas I merely wanted to see what my pictures could mean in color. I approached my subjects in a similar way to the earlier B&W work, but switched to a medium format camera. This allowed me to shoot off-tripod changing the look and feel of the images. While working in people’s homes during the day, I noticed that their television sets were always on, often tuned to soap operas. Thinking about how popular culture permeates (mediates) our lives, I began to wonder how words could affect the meaning of my images. I read mass-market paperback novels, and appropriated the feel of their language creating phrases I would pair with the photographs. Often overblown and pretentious, these words would shift and/or change the reading of the photographs, injecting humor into sober moments. The text looks like a caption, but operates against the description of the scene depicted, opening up possibilities for new interpretations and bringing into question the “truth” of the photographic image.
You are now working on Imagining Fauna. What brought you to this seemingly new subject territory?
I read an article entitled “Dying a Second Death” about how 19th Century taxidermy was deteriorating due in part to the chemicals used to preserve them, as well as the expense required to restore and house them in museums worldwide. This struck a nerve with me and my instincts took over. As I mentioned above, I spent a year photographing these creatures without a clear notion of why. It wasn’t until I discovered the wet-plate collodion process that it all made sense.
What have you learnt about yourself as a result of pursuing photography for the bulk of your career?
I’ve learned to trust my instincts. I’m unafraid of hard work, and willing to accept failure.
What keeps you going as a practitioner?
I’ve made a commitment to my practice and I feel a responsibility to my work. It has been recognized and supported these many years and I appreciate and respect that.
What advice would you give early career photographers?
Be patient, work hard, follow your passions, take chances and don’t be afraid to fail.
[Manliness is having a moment right now. So is Joan Didion. Let’s see if we can bring the two together.]
First, a parable for manliness in the 21st Century: My daughter, who is four, came with me to the ranch this week. My wife, who stayed home, sent her off looking cute in boots and cowgirl hat over a pair of pigtail braids. While I worked, my daughter followed behind me, chopping the ends off of cedar branches with a miniature set of clippers and throwing the pieces onto the brush piles I was building. Then she helped me find firewood, and then we roasted hot dogs and made s’mores and shared stories and jokes until bedtime.
The next morning in the ranch house, as I was helping get her dressed, I started to pull her hair into a ponytail. “No,” she said, “I want a braid.” I started to say Sweetie, mama does that, not daddy, because, at home, after I get her dressed I pass her off to her mother, who does her hair. But I stopped myself. I can figure it out, I thought. Braiding hair can’t be that hard. And I did it, readers. I did it. I braided her hair.
I was stupidly proud of that braid the rest of the day, proud like I had been the first time I started my own campfire. When I got home and told my wife about it, she was less awed: “Of course you can braid hair,” she said. “You’re a grown man.”
The point is that there are different ways of looking at manliness: in one view, manliness is what differentiates men from women; in another, it’s what separates a grownup (who identifies as a man) from a child. It’s adulthood, performed by a male-type person. In the first view, the manly thing to do if you find yourself in my position is not to braid your daughter’s hair, because that’s not what men do. In the second, the manly thing is to do it, because you’re a grownup responsible for a little girl, and this one little thing will make her day better. You can do it, so you should.
In case it’s not clear, I hold the second position. It seems to me a more valuable (the only valuable?) understanding of manhood, the one that makes manliness actually matter. More importantly, It doesn’t block manliness off from any part of goodness—like being nurturing or cooperative, which are characteristics useful in any grownup. Instead it makes manliness synonymous with goodness, with doing the right thing.
Think of the ways we talk about manliness: as making necessary sacrifices for those who depend on us, doing what needs to be done, choosing the ugly truth over the pretty lie. Leaving behind the comfortable, taking risks when they’re needed. In all of those definitions we’re still just talking about being good, brave, responsible. And if that’s what we mean by manliness, then we have to acknowledge the fact that women are now—and always have been—as good at it as men are. Which, in turn, means that men can, and ought to, learn manliness from women.
This idea, that men can learn how to be from women, hits right at the recent controversy regarding Cardinal Burke and his comments on the “feminization” of the church. Those comments only make sense if you hold the first view of manliness. Because if you hold the second, the “feminization” of the Church doesn’t matter. After all, no one (not even Cardinal Burke) is saying that girl altar servers, or women readers, or any women helping at church are less devout, less disciplined, less faithful, less willing to sacrifice than men or boys (“The girls were also very good at altar service,” says Burke, as if that’s proof they need to be excluded). If those are the virtues the Church is supposed to be teaching, and if men are refusing to learn those virtues because they’re being taught by women or girls, then—as Michael Boyle points out—those men need to grow the hell up. Or, to put it more plainly, they need to man up. III.
Speaking of learning from women: A few months ago, one of the better “manliness” websites, the Art of Manliness, posted the commencement address Admiral William McRaven gave last May at my school, the University of Texas. It’s a great speech: in it, McRaven takes ten things he learned at SEAL training and generalizes them into life lessons. Like: “don’t back down from the sharks,” and “measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.” And the lesson that gives the speech its title: ”If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” McRaven says:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
That’s absolutely right. But as much as I liked the speech—and I really, really liked it—these days I need something more. I mean, I know I should make my bed, and I do. But that doesn’t get me one page closer to finished with my dissertation. It doesn’t get me job interviews, or help me speak with ease and confidence when I do get those interviews. In fact, making my bed (like doing the dishes, and mowing the lawn) is one of my ways of procrastinating, of making myself feel productive without doing the stuff I need to. Making my bed has become, for me, a marked card.
“Marked card,” you may already know, is a reference to an essay that gives me something McRaven’s speech doesn’t. I keep a copy of this other essay printed out in my desk drawer, my go-to pep talk: it’s Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.” In that piece, Didion writes: “The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards—the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed.”
Maybe pep talk is the wrong word. More of a stern talking-to.
A high point of the essay comes in this remarkable passage near the end:
In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: ‘Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.’ Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, ‘fortunately for us,’ hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.
From that, she distills the essence of what she calls self-respect: “In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.”
Like McRaven with his bed-making, Didion extols the virtue of the “small disciplines.” Only, she also writes that “the small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones.” Obviously McRaven gets this, but it’s Didion who really pushes the point. In short, McRaven makes a great cheerleader; more often these days I need Didion the drill sergeant.
But I’m calling it: despite her sports and war and gambling metaphors, and her stories about pioneers and Indians, Didion will never appear in the Art of Manliness.
The joke, of course, is that Didion is supposed to be a girly writer. The girliest! Caitlin Flanagan writes that “to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female.” And Katie Roiphe says that she has never “walked into the home of a female writer, aspiring, newspaper reporter, or women’s magazine editor and not found, somewhere on the shelves, a row of Joan Didion books.”
Flanagan’s essay actually introduced me to Didion, in particular to “On Keeping a Notebook,” which might still be my favorite piece of hers. I joked at the time that Flanagan’s gender essentialism made me want to check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem right away, just to prove her wrong. But Flanagan did have a point. She made fun of a male fan who forgot what Didion said she wore in “The White Album”:
I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in Haight-Ashbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. “I’m not good with clothes,” he admitted, “so I don’t remember what it was.” Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.
I think I got something from her packing list in that essay, but I’ll admit that I don’t get all of the resonances of all Didion’s outfits. It reminds me of the other night, when my wife and I were watching the end of the TV series The Fall. About Gillian Anderson, H said, “Her skin! It’s just so good.”
I don’t think I’ve ever commented on another person’s skin. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed another person’s skin, unless something horrible was going on with it. I realized when H said that that we were watching the show in entirely different ways. But is that it? Is that the big, essential difference between men and women? I have an endless memory for football games, and she notices other people’s skin and the hems of their skirts?
Of course it’s not—as even Flanagan would admit, there are men who notice skin and skirt hems and women who are oblivious to them. But even if so, what does it matter? What does it matter next to “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not”?
I found a counterpoint to Flanagan’s essay in this 2007 post from Jessica at Jezebel. Jessica insists that men like me who love Didion do so because we can read her without (in her words) feeling like pussies. She picks up on what could easily be called a vein of masculinity that runs through all of Didion’s work.
Look again at “On Self-Respect.” The whole essay is an act of gender-bending. Didion rejects the role of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, and of Francesca da Rimini. Instead, she compares herself to Raskolnikov and says she wants to be more like Rhett Butler. And if we can say self-respect is something like what the Art of Manliness calls manhood, and I think we can, then she puts Jordan Baker’s manhood up against Julian English’s. Jordan wins. And then there are the references to the Wild West, to Waterloo and the playing fields of Eton, and to Chinese Gordon holding Khartoum against the Mahdi.
(By the way, I had to look up Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi. I think that should go on the record if we’re going to make something out of me not knowing about crepe-de-Chine wrappers.)
Besides her subject matter (wildfires, John Wayne), Jessica zooms in on what she calls Didion’s “glacial emotional distance.” Coolness, hardness, distance: these are characteristics that show up regularly in writing about Didion’s writing. Here’s Roiphe:
There is in her delicate, urban, neurotic sensibility something of the hardy pioneer ancestors she describes, jettisoning rosewood chests in the crossing, burying the dead on the wagon trail, never looking back. At one point she quotes another child of California, Patty Hearst, saying, ‘Never examine your feelings—they’re no help at all.’
“She is, in the end,” writes Roiphe, “a writer of enormous reserve.”
The point is, Didion herself is—or acts like—one of the gender outliers Flanagan glosses over in her profile. Even Flanagan gets around to this, near the end of her piece—except that rather than writing about the masculine (the cool, the hard, the distant) in Didion’s prose, Flanagan finds it in her parenting, which makes the passage pretty tough reading. Focusing on the early death of Didion’s daughter Quintana, Flanagan writes:
Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters—two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who “saw death” in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty—and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was “precisely what I want to be doing,” Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.
If you’ve read Flanagan before, you know that this is, for her, a gendered charge. In fairness, she also chides Quintana’s father, John Gregory Dunne, for his parenting. But that “Not with her mother” mirrors the close of Laurie Abraham’s 2006 profile of Flanagan. Abraham begins by saying that she confessed, on entering Flanagan’s home, that she was feeling a bit guilty about being there because, back home in New York, her children’s gerbil had died and she thought they might need consoling. Then, at the end of her piece, Abraham writes:
Midway through the interview in her home, I say that I noticed she removed the most searing line from her revised “Serfdom” essay: “When a mother works, something is lost.” So, I ask her, do you stand by that line? “Yeah,” Flanagan says, her voice now soft, serious. “The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.”
So Flanagan isn’t criticizing Didion as a person—she’s criticizing her as a woman. Distance, coolness, and hardness might be okay in a father (think of Cardinal Burke’s comments on fatherhood), but they’re unforgivable in a mother. But while both Roiphe and Flanagan write of Didion’s hardness as a flaw (an artistic flaw for Roiphe, a moral flaw for Flanagan), I wonder how much of her popularity has to do with precisely that, and with all of the ways that she diverges from the stereotypical female script. In other words, I wonder if her popularity isn’t just about the clothes and the interior design, but also about the war references; not just about the flowers in her hair, but also about the Stingray. Didion’s popularity might just be a perfect illustration of VJW Smith’s point that I cited last week: “The experience that girls share is not so much that of being a girl but that of not being one.”
If you want to talk Didion and gender, you could turn to her profile of John Wayne, or to her send-up of early-1970s feminists in “The Women’s Movement.” But more interesting, I think, is her profile of Georgia O’Keeffe. Like Didion, O’Keeffe is a sort of icon of smart femininity—the same girls who have Didion on their bookshelves may have had, at some point, O’Keeffe prints hanging on their walls. (Full disclosure: when I met H, in college, her room was decorated with small versions of O’Keeffe’s flowers, cut from a calendar that had been a high school graduation present.)
In Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe has self-respect, having been “equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” Didion describes her as hard, as astonishingly aggressive, a child of the prairie, a “straight shooter.” When she observes something, she does it “coolly”; when her paintings are exhibited in Chicago, she “was a hard woman who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago.”
Didion also calls her a guerilla in the war between the sexes. For some writers, “the war between the sexes” could mean a clash of masculine and feminine cosmovisions, the natural result of Mars meeting Venus. But that’s not how Didion uses the phrase. For Didion, O’Keeffe’s struggle comes from the fact that her femininity blinds the men around her to the ways that she’s like them. Or, more accurately, to the ways that she’s better than them. Because in Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe out-mans the men:
“The men” believed it impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York. “The men” didn’t think much of her bright color, so she made it brighter. The men yearned toward Europe so she went to Texas, and then to New Mexico. The men talked about Cézanne, ‘long involved remarks about the “plastic quality” of his form and color,’ and took one another’s long involved remarks, in the view of this angelic rattlesnake in their midst, altogether too seriously.
My favorite passage, though, comes at the end of the piece:
In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.’ In a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia with the star, but only the painter left us this shining record. Ten watercolors were made from that star.
I may not get everything about the leotard and the stockings. But going silent as the stars come out over the Texas prairie? That I get.
I want to make clear here, though, that I’m not just saying that I’m drawn to some masculine energy I see in Didion’s writing. Even if I (still) disagree with Flanagan, I think something’s missing from the Jezebel article, too. When I re-read “On Keeping Notebook” I remember that, despite all the talk of pioneers and shooting bottles out of the sky, my stake, like Flanagan’s, is with the girl in the plaid silk dress at the end of the bar. That’s either despite or (more likely) because of the fact that I can’t know exactly what it’s like to be her.
And I can’t know that, for lots of reasons. But that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to her, and if I can relate to her I can learn from her. Didion starts Slouching Towards Bethlehem with a quote from Peggy Lee: “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.” Whatever her personal failings—and we all have them—that’s what so much of Didion’s writing is about: courage. And whatever our differences, that’s why we listen to, study, and read each other. To learn. And, to steal a phrase from her piece on John Wayne, Didion makes great reading if you want to learn about doing what a man’s gotta do.
This is not a typical blog piece, though nothing about me is typical, so it fits appropriately.
I have been hesitant to write anything about my life which is deeply personal, because that requires an incredible willingness on behalf of the writer to be vulnerable and honest. However, I am always up for a challenge.
I’m 9 or 10 years old. I’ve snuck into my parents’ bedroom and am quietly walking across their carpet, praying that I don’t make a sound. I open their closet and find the brown metal box. My heart is pounding, hands shaking. I crouch down, balancing on the balls of my feet, ready to jump up and escape at the potential first creak of the stairs. Silence. So far so good. I lift the top up slowly. It doesn’t betray me by squeaking. I’m grateful. My little fingers search through the vanilla colored tabs labeled BILLS, LICENSES, etc., until I finally find the one I’m looking for: “FOSTER.”
I cock my head to one side, straining to hear any sign that I might be caught. Reassuring myself that I am safe to proceed, I gently lift the folder out, and look inside. Shamefully, I can’t remember the exact contents inside of the folder, except for the one thing that was most important to me: my true name.
I finally had a piece of my identity, right on that paper. You must understand, my mother refused to talk about my adoption. Whenever I would bring it up, or cautiously try to ask a question, the response would either be a look reflective of one who had just seen their own puppy murdered before their eyes, or she’d ignore the question altogether, feigning deafness.
There are a few things that I did know at the time.
1. I came to them when I was 2 years old through foster-care.
2. I did not speak, nor even cry, (they thought I was autistic).
3. I had been found in a closet eating peanut butter off a wall.
4. I would walk into walls, (probably because I didn’t have the best depth perception from time in said closet).
Other than that, I knew nothing. And in that moment, I knew something new: The name. My name. “Corley.” It rang through my head, as if it were some magic or sacred prayer, too powerful to utter aloud.
My revere over this new information is cut short. I think I hear something. I quickly put the contents back in their proper place, my heart beating into my eardrums. I close the lid, knowing my truth is in there, safe.
A few days later, I slink downstairs into the basement, which is my fathers makeshift office/cave/sanctuary — the only place my mother never ventures into. My mission is to “borrow” some quarters. I know he has them in abundance. I find them waiting for me in the bucket that once housed peanuts. I count out about 12, thinking that will be enough. I press my palms to my pants, trying to muffle the sound of the coins I now carry.
I am at school. It’s lunchtime. I tell an aide I have to go to the bathroom in order to escape the cafeteria. They let me go. I feel the weight of coins in my pocket as I make my way to the bathroom, only I don’t make it to the bathroom. I make it to a pay phone. I slip my hand under the phone and get out the white pages and scan the C’s, (why they had white pages for a school pay phone, I will never know). I find the first of quite a few Corleys. I put my retrieve a quarter from my pocket and dial. The voice on the other end of the phone tells me the call is 50 cents, so I put in another quarter. Ring, ring. The rings feel incredibly long and short at the same time. Almost as if I’ve entered some weird time warp. A voice answers.
“Hello” I say, “I was wondering if you gave up a child for adoption?”
“What? Who is this? You prank calling someone? You call here again, I’m calling the police.”
Click. I pause, unsure of what to do. It never occurred to me that people might call the police. I reasoned with myself that I would call 2 more numbers, and then I’d stop for the day. I dialed the next Corley on the list, no-one answered. I was in the middle of calling the second number when I receive a tap on the shoulder. I turn to see it’s the school guidance counselor.
I am in the Principal’s office. He asks me why I was on the phone. I don’t respond. The guidance counselor tells him I was trying to find my birth mother. He says that he’s going to call my parents. Tears start to form from behind my eyes. It is not sadness that I am feeling, but panic, sheer terror… I know what’s coming. She will sound concerned on the phone, but secretly, her rage will be building. She will be kind to the Principal and the guidance counselor. She will look at me with sympathy. She will put on a good show. We will exit the building, and I will walk slowly behind her, head down. The silence will be deafening. I don’t know how long it will last. An hour? A day? 2 days? I will be left to guess, silently to myself, which part of my behavior is making her upset and angry. I do not like playing this guessing game, because if and when the question comes, “do you know why I’m upset,” I will never have the correct answer, which will only aggravate her more.
After what seems like an eternity, she comes through the front door of the school. My heart beats through my chest. I feel sick. I am going to die. She enters the office, where she proceeds to exchange pleasantries with the principal and guidance counselor. At this moment, I leave my body. It is too much for me. Everything starts to sound as if I’m underwater. I keep waiting for the inevitable, for the horrific moment when I will be forced to leave with her.
We get into the car. My body feels detached from my head. I am hyper aware of everything around me. I feel as though I might float out of my body. I am waiting. We pull out of the parking lot. The sound of the turn signal is reverberating through my skull. Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack.
I am staring straight ahead when my mother announces that she is going to be taking me to the family pediatrician, *Dr.Strauss. Somehow, in this moment, it makes me feel safe, and gives me the feeling that perhaps it wont be as bad as I think.
I am sitting in a pale yellow room. My mother is in there with me. I feel as though I have entered a strange new territory, one of security mixed with dread. Its similar, I’d imagine, to feeling the terror of being in a lions den, but comforted by the fact that the lion has just been shot by a tranquilizer gun.
The door opens. Dr. Strauss, his tiny glasses magnifying his blue eyes, looks at me and smiles. This puts me at ease enough to feign a small smile in response. He sees my mother and asks her if he might be able to talk to me alone. She begrudgingly acquiesces. I note her demeanor: she’s taking it personally. It will get taken out on me later.
He takes a seat on a stool with wheels. He rolls over to the exam table where I am sitting. He asks me what happens. I hesitate. He reminds me that he won’t repeat what I’ve told him to my mother. I fill him in on what I’ve been up to. He tells me about his own adoptive children, and how it’s natural to want to know where you’ve come from. I ask him if he knows anything about me or my birth parents. He sadly doesn’t have any information. I’m wondering why I’ve been brought in here to talk with him.
Back at home, my mother is leaning against the counter, arms crossed, staring at me. The ice out has begun. I stare back at her, my eyes inadvertently causing her head to look shrunken. I’m waiting for her to say something, anything, but she just continues to stare. Her eyes begin to well with tears as her shakes in disappointment. When she finally does speak, she asks what she’s done wrong that would make me do something like that. She proceeds to tell me that I have everything, and keeps asking, “What did I do? Tell me”. It isn’t a question, its an accusation. I stay silent. I have lost my ability to speak. I am caught in the jaws of fear. I do not know what to say. I do not have the words to explain that I want to know about my beginning, where I came from, who gave birth to me. Instead, all I can mutter is “I’m sorry.” She sends me to my room.
A few days later, I am sneaking into my parents room again. She is out, not to be home for hours. My dad is in the basement, drinking and listening to jazz. I am safe to explore. I open the closet with the box still there. I lift the brown metal lid, fingers quickly remembering the place where the file is, only it’s not. It’s gone. I frantically look up and down the filing tabs. Nothing. My stomach sinks. I search again, and again. The reality of the situation sinks in. This is my punishment, my biological erasure. But she can’t take the one thing that really matters, the name that is seared into my head:
**Subsequently, I did get to meet both of my birth parents, but those are blog posts for another time.
it’s natural to be afraid,
the birth and death of the day.
this is your
and the cure,
saying so long, lonesome,
and welcome, ghosts.
will you ever not
be haunted, asking
“what do you go home to?”
Michael Prihoda was born in the Midwest. He is still there. He is the founding editor of After the Pause literary magazine and he spends a lot of time watching Modern Family when he should be writing. He tweets @michaelprihoda and blogs at michaelprihoda.wordpress.com.
Note: these poems entirely constructed from the song titles of music albums, said album becoming the poem’s title. The genre is experimental found poetry. The artist can be found here.
We are the women with heavy eyelids, hectic homes, and full hearts.
We are mothers.
When our little one forgot his favorite blanket in the car this morning, we left work to take it to him. We wiped butts, played chauffeur, cooked dinner, cleaned messes, gave baths, read books, and chased away monsters. Not once today did anyone say, Thank you.
We are unacknowledged, but we will wake up and do it all again tomorrow.
We are mothers.
Dinnertime tonight was a disaster. Our big kids complained about everything, fought with each other, and didn’t want to eat what we made for them. Our toddlers screamed and threw food across the floor because they didn’t get a nap. In all of the chaos, we yelled at our kids. Then retreated to the bathroom and cried because we lost our temper with them, again.
We are frustrated, but we always forgive and are always forgiven.
We are mothers.
Today, we are so incredibly tired. It takes everything we have to put one foot in front of the other until our kids finally go to sleep. Our minds won’t stop replaying the endless list of chores we need to finish – clean up dinner, empty the dishwasher, switch out laundry because no one has any clean clothes. There is so much weighing on us tonight. Despite all of this, we just spent the last half-hour lying at the end of our child’s bed with our eyes closed, while they sang themselves to sleep, because they were scared and needed us.
We are overwhelmed, but we will always find time for our children.
We are mothers.
Long after everyone else, we finally make it to bed. Our bodies are drained, but our minds are still racing. Sleep escapes us, once again, because we are worried. Worried that we yell too much. Worried that we are too hard on our kids. That we are not hard enough on our kids. That we are not making the right decisions.
We are insecure, but our kids know we love them, so we are doing something right.
We are mothers.
When we discovered we were expecting a child, we knew things were about to drastically change. Caring for a baby would be difficult. We wondered how we would manage to fit a child into our lives. What we didn’t grasp was that being a mother would become our lives. That it would consume us.
Some days we wake up wondering if this madness will ever end because we don’t think we can endure another day. Other times, we stare intently at our children with longing hearts, hold their tiny faces in our hands, and beg them, Please stay here in this moment with me forever. But we know they won’t.
Our precious infants learn to crawl, walk, and talk too quickly. They challenge us through the terrible twos and threes. We fall in love with the inquisitive preschooler, always asking questions and saying too much at the wrong time. Our grade-school kids keep us busy with homework and practice, but we are so proud of the amazing little people they have become.
As tweens, we see the beginnings of the distance. Our children slowly creep away from us, and our hearts break, just a little. They transform into teenagers who assert their independence and suddenly know the answers to every question in life. Then they come back to us, as young adults who realize they never really had the answers after all. They marry, have children of their own, and we become grandmothers.
Through it all, we will be there. Motherhood has no finish line.
The days we endure with our children now, as insignificant as they seem, are the building blocks of their lives. Today’s struggles become tomorrow’s memories.
Even when we are gone, our sons and daughters will long for us, just as we will long for our mothers. Our children will cling tightly to every memory they have of us. They will find comfort in looking at their hands and knowing, These are my mother’s hands.
We will always be our child’s safest place.
We are mothers.
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(image via iStockPhoto)
We’ve had a rocky relationship you and I, my dear Quinny.
Although at just over five years, it’s outlasted many of my others.
But let’s not get off on the wrong foot – or wheel – here.
You’ve seen us through two children. From car seat, to pram to push chair – you’ve been there every step of the way. You’ve had milk and juice tipped all over you, biscuits, chocolate and ice-cream smeared onto your frame and squashed into your seat, and let’s be honest there’s been a few leaky nappies along the way too. And maybe a few occasions where I’ve run your tyres through something unsavory – the bird poo at the Norfolk nature reserve springs to mind.
Your shopping basket has been overloaded more times than I care to remember, but you’ve saved my arms from having to carry all those groceries back from the shops over the years. Although I’ve never really forgiven you for coming without individual handles – rather than a bar – that I could have hooked my hand /change bag over.
There’s been so many good times; you were there for those first tentative walks out, trips to the supermarket and family excursions. You helped rocked my babies to sleep in those early months when nothing else seemed to work and naps weren’t always so easy to come by.
But, like I said, it’s not all been plain-sailing – there were days when you were nothing short of a giant three-wheeled albatross hanging round my neck.
Remember when we first met and it used to take me hours to attach the car seat or pram basket to your base? And all the times you kept getting stuck in shop doorways because your back wheels are just too darn wide? And how about all the occasions when we struggled over kerbs, cobbles, sand and up steep hills?
And let’s not talk about the steps. Those darn flights of stairs when it took two of us to lug you up – and then back down again.
To this day I’m still haunted by the hours I spent out in the garden just trying to attach the pump to your wheels so I could re-inflate them after we’d been running on empty for too long.
Nevertheless you’ve been part of the family for what feels like forever, an extension of me. Unlike your double seated cousin. I couldn’t get along with him – he was too big, un-steerable and I couldn’t be bothered to get the instructions out every time I needed to collapse or set him up again. If I remember rightly he was a bit dangerous too, especially if you left him unattended, prone to tipping up if his balance was interfered with.
Thank goodness my big girl was always so happy and eager to walk.
And then there was the day you decided you’d had enough; you weren’t going to comply and fold down anymore – there you stayed in your upright position, like a regimental soldier.
In a way I was pleased you were stuck up, rather than down – for although I could no longer get you into the boot of the car, at least we could still use you for the walk to school.
However, now my little man would rather walk than ride (well most of the time) and come September he’ll be able to making his way to nursery on foot (fingers crossed).
This summer for the first time since having children we’re going on holiday without a push chair filling up the boot – I’ll be able to pack what I like, possibly more than one pair of shoes if I’m lucky!
But now you’re finally surplus to requirements, I think I might miss you a little bit after all. Whenever I leave the house without you, I find myself forgetting what to do with my arms. For so long they’ve been resolutely gripped to you, forging my way along the path ahead.
On more than one occasion I’ve found myself gently rocking the shopping trolley as I stand in the supermarket checkout line waiting to pay, while passers-by flash each other looks as if to say ‘avoid that one, she’s barking’.
Flying solo without your reassuring harnesses holding in my children in scares me a little, as now I have two possible runaways to contend with. They’re growing so fast, their journeys just beginning.
Yours has come to an end – and not a particularly pleasant one, stood in the garage gathering cobwebs.
I just wanted to say, on their behalf – thanks for the rides.
Later this month, Vintage Contemporaries will publish New American Stories, a richly variegated anthology of American short stories edited by Ben Marcus. The collection, which Marcus put together more as a playlist or mixtape than a “museum piece,” is a stirring arrangement that presents a strong case for the American short story as a vital, living thing. And, like unmediated life, it is uncategorizable.
With its recent fictions by American masters (Don DeLillo and Joy Williams), contemporary favorites (Zadie Smith and Rivka Galchen), so-called writer’s writers, and relative unknowns, New American Stories is refreshing in the way it rejects easy emotion in favor of a derangement of the senses. In other words, as Marcus notes in his introduction, these stories form “a kind of atlas, or chemical pathway, to the sort of language-induced feelings that…are no longer optional.” We spoke to Marcus about the contemporary short story and the idiosyncratic art of putting together a literary anthology.
Flavorwire: I was just considering how daunting a task it must have been to put together such a robust anthology of new American fiction. What was that process like?
Ben Marcus: Part of what allowed it to happen was my feeling that there could have been six volumes of this thing, that this was meant in no way to be some definitive text or the last word on stories that matter. Really, I thought of it more as a playlist or a mixtape, something that could hopefully draw you further in — to explore more and branch out. What made it possible was taking some pressure off of myself. Instead I had more fun just looking at the stories I could love over a long period of time, the stories that grew and became more complicated and richer when I read them, re-read them.
In one way, doing an anthology becomes a great excuse for reading everything that you can get your hands on. We’re so busy doing tons of other things, trying to get our own work done — I also read a lot of student work. So years go by, and all of these writers I want to read go unread. I have these piles and piles and shelves of books. It occurred to me that there was so much terrific work happening, that I was falling behind. Doing the book became an amazing excuse to take this vacation completely structured by intense reading. To be honest, the most fun part of it was just sitting with stacks of books, just having no real set of principles or rules other than reading and reading and reading, making smaller piles. Just getting to the bottom of something.
On the other hand, there are all of these agonies. There are writers I know are masters that I can’t get my own traction with as a reader. I know I’m surrounded by people who love and worship these writers. Then I try my best to get that feeling, and then I can’t. Then I feel guilty, like there is something amiss with my own reading apparatus. In the end, I can’t read as anyone other than myself, and I hope no one gets their feelings hurt if they’re left out, or if they feel that there is something, again, that is supposed to be definitive about this book.
So you actively avoided a prescriptivist, “this is the American story” approach?
When I was growing up, we had anthologies — like the Norton anthology — that were really trying to be definitive. I suppose I kept telling myself while working on this that other people should do their own versions. I wish other people would collect thirty-two stories and present them to me. We’d just swap anthologies. Of course it doesn’t work that way, but I think that helped me realize that I just had to read as myself, and not some type of figure trying to present to a culture the stories that matter.
I guess the title isn’t The New American Story. You have some room to work…
We went through a bunch of different titles, by the way.
In the introduction you call the short story the “ideal deranger,” and you liken it to a drug, or maybe you suggest that stories actually are drugs in the form of language. One great thing about this approach is that it cuts a path away from both comfort and alienation, realism and vanguardism. I guess what I mean is that derangement is neither easy satisfaction nor a lack of pleasure — it’s something else. How did you come to this idea?
I feel a little self-conscious that I’ve exhausted that metaphor, but I know that — no matter what else is going on in my life — when I get captured by a story, when I get up at the end of it, I’m different. I do feel like I’ve just gotten viciously baked. Then I get to go back out into the world with this filter over my perspective. Or at least a different level of adrenaline.
It may seem like a stretch to see reading these stories as essentially chemical, but I also like it because it takes me away from genre distinctions. When I first started compulsively reading short stories, I was not aware of genre. Or I was not aware of what is seen as a sort of battle between the realist story and the postmodernist story. Though I do remember reading these two anthologies. One, a really great one, called Matters of Life and Death — it’s just tremendously good. But even by [Tobias Wolff’s] own admission in the intro, it concerns only a certain kind of story. Then there was a different anthology that was much less good — but still occasionally explosive — called Anti-Story. It was sort of declaring itself in opposition to the realist story. So I understand why people become entrenched and want to defend a certain way of doing things. On the other hand — and this might be connected to teaching, or being with younger writers when they’re first thinking of writing themselves — you begin to notice that when you leave out these polarities, readers and writers can be a little bit more liberated, a little more engaged. Possibilities open up when you don’t present these things as sides of a battle.
Maybe, in retreating from these critical categories, I felt most comfortable talking about the physical experience of reading stories because they do fuck me up. They do really get inside me. It’s not something you can shake.
Your introduction also works as a story of sorts, and it avoids becoming a boring critical or theoretical summation of the state of the American story. Was this something you wanted to avoid?
There is an awful set of questions around the short story and its accepted irrelevance (against the novel) and its commercial inferiority. I just fucking hate it all. I hate that it’s even a conversation. It’s as if people are just asking the questions they think they’re supposed to ask, but it’s such a strange way of looking a story. You’re really just making an arrangement of language, and the length of it starts to seem — imagine trying to justify a song. If you think about a shorter poem versus a longer poem, it just seems so irrelevant. I suppose after enough time spent trying to justify a story to someone you just want to walk away. Maybe it’s not really for them.
Then there is just the problem of: “What the hell do you put into the introduction of an anthology?” I wasn’t going to itemize the stories. People just want to kill themselves when they read that sort of thing. Nor am I really a critic. I can’t write an introduction that is going to situate everything, that is going to clarify the trajectory of these writers. I’m not the kind of writer to do that. So the intro just becomes this problem I have to solve. Like any piece of writing it had to feel honest. That’s easier said than done after a while. Probably in the end all that I was left with was how it feels to read a story. That’s what I tried to do.
One unavoidable requirement of the anthology’s title is that these stories must be somehow American. I didn’t think much of this until I read the first story, Said Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia,” which is set in an America at war. Is there something to be said about what’s happening to the “American” short story? How did you negotiate that requirement?
Well, from my perspective it’s sort of expanding and dilating at once. I knew that what I could do was show the range and slipperiness of the work being written in this country. For instance, Zadie Smith has lived and worked in New York for quite a while. On one hand, I sort of consider someone looking at that and saying, “What the fuck? That’s bullshit! She was born in England.” In a way, I just don’t want to be so hung up on that. Encouraging a sense of flexibility around the “American” requirement was something I wanted to do. Did I look at the content of [Sayrafiezadeh’s] story and hope it would trigger thoughts about American identity? — definitely, definitely not. Frankly, there were four of his stories that I was trying to choose from. I’m really enamored by his work. I knew that I wanted his work — I just didn’t know which story. But I didn’t consciously choose it because it dealt with American things.
What about the “new” requirement? If I remember correctly, one of these stories dates back to 2004. Some are from last year…
I edited an anthology about ten or eleven years ago, and I think that the rule there was stories from the last ten years. I had a vague idea of doing that with this one. In some sense it’s arbitrary. In fact, there is a story in here that — I found out when the manuscript was being copyedited — came out in 1995, and I thought: “Wow, that’s actually kind of great.” Another case was Joy Williams. I knew I wanted something by her, and I was reading some of the stories in a book she has coming out called The Visiting Privilege. I gathered some of the stories that were going into that, and there was one that blew me away. We were going to the next step before I found out it had been written in 1969.
So there was no singularity, no specific point where you felt the American story had changed?
Well, that story of [Williams’] struck me as so contemporary in its idiom, its rhetoric, its tonal structure, everything. But of course it’s not. It’s a necessary and humbling thing to encounter. To feel as though you have some connection to what’s happening to the story right now, then to find all of these tendencies, strains, and techniques going way back to these little errant pockets of literature — for me that’s always a reminder that I just actually haven’t read enough. Everyone right now is making this documentary, technical, dry, detached stuff, but it’s also not true that there is anything particularly new about it. If you read enough, you’ll find a precedent for everything. As much as we’d like to think that we’re onto different stuff.
So I don’t know if I was trying to do anything other than present a range of things that feel vital, that feel vibrant, that feel complex. Maybe then it’s for other to notice, with a critical language, what those things are. Frankly, when you read a lot of short fiction in limited amount of time, it’s interesting to see the overlaps and redundancies, the modes that lots of people use. I would find ten stories by ten different writers that started to seem really similar to me in the way they were put together. And I would have a hard time including all of those stories. In the end, I wanted a range of approaches. So if a story was not playing in the same sandbox as 90 percent of the stories out there, I was more alert to it. I worked hard to read a lot of stuff that was quite unusual, that was formally adventurous, strange, difficult — whatever you want to call it. A lot of it I would get excited about, but halfway through it would just fall apart. There would be tremendous paragraphs followed by plodding dullness. I saw a lot of stuff that delighted me, but when I read and re-read and kept it on my desk for a month, by the end, because I could see through it, I was less disposed to it, if that makes sense. But there were those pieces that were beautifully constructed from the first word to the last.
This may sound strange, but while reading the anthology I was reminded of something the filmmaker Pedro Costa told me, that contemporary cinema “doesn’t contain any death.” He also explained it in terms of failure, that cinema is now afraid to fail. It seems like these stories contain plenty of death, in that sense, and failure. I’m thinking most of all of Robert Coover’s amazing “Going for a Beer.”
That’s interesting. I’m sure in some sense that is going on. I’ve been reading [Coover’s] stories my entire adult life. He was a teacher of mine long ago in school, and I’ve always loved and appreciated his adventurous approach to writing. What was interesting to me about his story is that, yes, it has this formal playfulness, but it scratches into this deeply human place. This is something he usually resists. He’s more comfortable in an antic, satiric mode. I thought he sort of did it all in that story. I’ve talked a lot with him about when he was first writing, when there was a conscious resistance to move away from the Richard Yates variety of domestic realism. He came up feeling that was the king to dethrone. You can feel that animating a lot of his work — an anti-psychological, certainly anti-sentimental mode. But that story felt like such an amazing mixture — it has something that I feel is quite tender. That’s why it was such a shoo-in for me.
There are stories here that could be “accused” of straightforward realism, but there are also stories that could be seen as “experimental.” Though I guess they aren’t experimental in the sense that William Gaddis rejected the term — they aren’t “experimental” because they aren’t experimenting. The authors know exactly what they are doing.
I would totally agree with that.
Do you think both readers and writers are now rejecting the idea of the experimental short story?
I thought that. And in one interview I sort of said it. I think I asked, “Does anyone really identify with being an experimental writer?” I caught all kinds of shit for it. Of course, I just don’t feel legislative about those things at all. Writers should just do exactly what they like. To me that term is often used in a derogatory way. I guess I just don’t really think about it that much anymore, and I’m not sure there is a lot to be gained from head-scratching about it.
I wanted to make an anthology that tries to ignore most of this, one that just wonders what could happen if we make bedfellows out of all of these approaches. The world of the short story is already just so small. The audience is pretty small. So the fact of creating a whole subset of softball teams — it starts to seem so pointless to me. It’s as if you like painting but you only like Cubism. I guess I’m imagining a reader who is not indoctrinated by this stuff. Obviously there are going to be pieces that people love and dislike — I learned that with the last anthology I did. People would say, “That’s not even a story!” But what kept me interested was putting all of these stories in conversation with each other, and, in some kind of cheesy way, imagining myself at a certain age. What book would I make? I’m the only reader I am, that I have access to. I’m creating this thing, a book for myself, that I would have wanted to read and do want to read and re-read. You just hope that you’re not alone in this set of responses you have to the stories.
Taking my dad to visit a local institution that has withstood the ravages of ferocious growth. Some things remain intact in my hometown…
It’s a different town. That’s all I can say when anyone asks me what I think of Sarasota today. When I grew up here, there were few buildings higher than two stories. It was affordable, or at least affordable enough that a family of four could come down and start over in a stilt house on a shell drive in a part of town so close to the water that retiring baby boomers are willing to shell out half their life savings to live there now. Going back is strange, particularly because I haven’t lived there for almost two decades. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just different.
When I go home, I go back for family. My 95 year-old grandmother who has more energy than I do. Stepbrothers and stepsisters who live in farm country far east of the interstate. And my folks, my dad and stepmother, who marvel at the rapid growth of the little town.
“Want to see the house?” my dad asked me. He was referring to the house I (mostly) grew up in, along with three siblings. A one story cottage in a place called Oyster Bay, which backed up against the fingers of Sarasota Bay.
“Sure,” I said. So we drove there and I recognized nothing.
The house where the house I grew up in used to be.
The home we had is gone, razed in the name of something bigger. Maybe better and maybe not. Who am I to say? It’s not like our lot was unique. On the stretch of street where my brother and I used to ride our bikes and play football with other kids from the neighborhood, only one of the original houses stood unchanged.
“If you blindfolded me, drove me around, and dropped me right here,” I told my dad, “I wouldn’t have any idea where I was.”
There was something strange about the new houses. They seemed to have no interest in fitting in, following the architecture of the old Florida homes that had been there for decades. They were also gigantic, far larger than any home I was used to, and I tried to imagine how many people might be living in them now. Was something that size only for two people?
And there was something else. Something strange I couldn’t put my finger on. Then my dad drove me to the next neighborhood and I saw a beautiful banyan next to an oak tree whose lowest hanging limb was suspended off the ground by a set of wooden planks the owner must have built themselves. That’s when it hit me.
“They dug up all the trees.”
My dad nodded. They’d dug up all the banyans and oaks, taken them down along with their accompanying Spanish Moss. Clear cut and uprooted everything on the property. And now they can build things like this:
It would be a better picture but, you know, there’s a gate.
I’m not a very nostalgic guy. I understand things change and I try to appreciate the moments I got to enjoy in places more than lamenting their loss. But this was jarring. There were immaculately manicured driveways and lots instead of old growth trees. There were imposing gates on every other property. Coming back to Sarasota is strange, but it’s still a beautiful place and I can still find my own ways of connecting to it.
But coming back to this neighborhood was like landing in an alternate history. I didn’t even feel sad, just baffled. Any memories I have of the place, or my childhood in it, gain absolutely no traction in this new geography. I don’t live here. I never lived here.
My dad and I decided to head to the Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar for lunch on the same day, and there’s something comforting there. It’s one of the few places left in my hometown that I have active memories of visiting. When I was a kid, we’d come here regularly. I even swam in this creek when I lived in a nearby neighborhood.
Then, two years after I left for college, they caught this guy in that same shallow water where I used to swim.
You should see the other guy.
That is a 1500 pound Great White Shark that, I can only assume, was down in the creek checking out local real estate trends. Everyone else retires here. Why not the shark? They hauled him out of the creek and hung him up like a warning sign in the Old West. This here’s how we deal with cattle rustlers round these parts. I came back from school and went to get lunch and there was the shark. He’s still there 17 years later.
The bar itself is largely unchanged. They still print the menus on old newspaper, and they still offer local favorites like grilled grouper sandwiches and Key Lime Pie. It’s a bit bigger than it used to be, and the prices have jumped. But overall it’s still a local hangout, a quiet little Old Florida joint popular with locals and those like me who need a reminder of some continuity in the town. You can still pull up on a boat and tie to the dock out back like my grandfather and I used to. This is comfort food in the truest sense of the term for me. I can’t remember a visit to Sarasota where I didn’t stop here for this.
There wasn’t any mystery for us. We both got the grilled grouper sandwich and a beer and shared a slice of Key Lime Pie. Old standbys on an old standby kind of day. We talked about the town. We talked about our history. We talked about what has changed in the growth. And, inevitably, we talked about what’s been lost. That’s a long story. It’s not always a sad one, but one can’t help but notice that it gets longer by the year.
I don’t go back to Sarasota for what’s been lost. I go back to see family, to feel the breeze off the Gulf, to feel some connection to who I was. No matter how many of the landmarks get plowed under in the meantime. It’s a reminder that we don’t need the landmarks to find our way to the past. But when we find one, it’s a relief. It’s a reminder of how close we are to the water we once swam in, and that maybe it was better if we didn’t know what was coming, or what kind of dangers might have been swimming around us the whole time.
The Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar is located at 5353 S. Tamiami Trail. They have a website here and a facebook page here. They are open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week (10:30 close on the weekend).