Monday, July 30, 2012

More on Personal Essay

Finally found sources for three more descriptions of personal essay.

Aldous Huxley: free association artistically controlled

Elizabeth Hardwick: thought itself in orbit

Virginia Woolf: A novel has a story, a poem rhyme; but what art can the essayist use ... to sting us wide awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life ...?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Personal Essay

A few notes after creative nonfiction and memoir workshops at University of Iowa:

Patricia Hampl I Could Tell You Stories: This is the narrative engine that drives autobiography: Consciousness, not experience, is the galvanizing core of a personal story.

Vivian Gornick The Situation and the Story: The memoirist, like the poet and novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it's the wisdom ~ or rather the movement toward it ~ that counts.

Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French have just published their edited collection, Essayists on the Essay. They gave a reading Wednesday evening. Although I furiously took notes, I regret I did not write the names of the essayists whose essay definitions I thought were so poetic. Google was not much help this evening. I will have to post my favorites when I can attribute properly to the authors.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Liberating Arts

I am tempted to scale one of these columns, scratch off "al" and chisel in "ating": LIBERATING ARTS.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Road Trip

Driving today through unfamiliar towns and country, I passed miles and miles of fields of brown-husked corn stalks, their tan tassels matching dried grasses roadside. I passed tackle and bait shops, Vidiots video and gaming shop, a gun shop next to a bar—wait, was that cold-beer sign in the gun shop window?

In small towns, yard after yard had tables filled with very small items for sale. Thirty years ago, on road trips, my husband and I could have had a bumper sticker that read “This car stops for yard sales.” We’d almost always pull over and look for junque among the junk. Once I found a Victorian hand vase for just a few dollars. Nowadays, however, I'd be more tempted to stop at a yard sale to unload stuff. Here, you take it. I can't deal with it any more.

I passed this fellow inviting folks in to eat. Who decided a bear baring its teeth was inviting?

Crossing the mighty Mississippi, I noted many golden almost-sandbars beneath brown waters. The Welcome to Iowa Center had a large FOR SALE sign in the window. Sign of the times, I guess. Not to worry, soon the self-proclaimed World’s Largest Truck Stop welcomed half the road warriors in the world. Besides the truck museum and signs for a huge truck jamboree (can’t imagine what this is, I’m afraid), the path to the ladies room was like a wall-less mall selling everything from the expected snacks to the unexpected—jewelry and American Indian pottery. Adding to the sensory overload of the place itself was the neon many customers wore. Neon-orange sunglasses. Neon-pink short-shorts. Neon-yellow flip-flops. Another sign of the times, I guess.

Finally at my destination, took an evening walk and noted a pine with a double-ess-curve trunk. Hula tree? Indecisive tree? Wave tree? Oh, and I liked this bench, too.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review: Fierce Attachments

Review Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Vivian Gornick; Introduction by Jonathan Lethem Fierce Attachments
Before reading Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, I felt frustrated by frozen memories. Why can’t I remember conversations, let alone themes, from my childhood and teen years? Why can I not paint a picture of anyone, myself included? Why does no one appear whole? After reading Gornick’s memoir, I sense a thawing. Memories aren’t exactly gushing yet, but they’re trickling.

Gornick weaves anecdotes to show primarily influences of her mother and a neighbor, Nettie. Other influences, other relationships appear, but Gornick’s focus seems to be womanhood and what she learned of it through Mama and Nettie. The memoir tells stories from the author’s childhood as well as adulthood. The reader enters into Gornick’s relationship with her mother through observations and conversations. Stories are infused with lively descriptions and dialogue and the author’s rear-view-mirror perspectives.

I cannot say my actual childhood experiences mirrored Gornick’s in any way, but the ice picks chipping away at my blocked childhood are the questions this memoir asks. Adults can universally ask Fierce Attachments’ questions of their own childhoods. What was openly praised? What was hush-hush? What was openly criticized? What unspoken alliances formed? What did you really desire—the deep-down reasons for actions? How did men relate to women, and women to men? What subliminal messages resulted? How did you assimilate these ideas? How did you question them, rebel against them?

To whatever degree readers examine their lives because of this memoir, they will benefit.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review of Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Stacy Schiff’s painstakingly researched account of Cleopatra and Roman and Egyptian life from 69 to 30 BC illuminates ancient history in a way that slashes long-held mysteries and art-invented stereotypes of the Egyptian queen. Drawing from writings of chroniclers of the day Cicero, Plutarch, Appian, Dio, Josephus, Lucan, and others, Schiff paints a picture of Alexandrian and Roman life, royal rivalries, abuses of power, conquest hunger, politically arranged marriages and murders, idol worship, luxuries and hardships, and personalities of key historical figures. Even some actual conversations are here recorded. The book also includes color photos of artifacts showing faces and maps that support the text. One is a stone carved to commemorate Cleopatra’s father, which she commissioned redone to commemorate her reign. In the caption, Schiff notes, “Given the turbulent times, reworking was a Ptolemaic stonecutter’s specialty.”

I found this book fascinating on many levels. Its historical significance is stunning. Each reader, I suppose, will find his own myths debunked. For example, I was surprised to learn the Rome I had believed so civilized was in fact quite disorganized and barbaric in those days. Here is a quote from page 108: “… Rome was squalid and shapeless, an oriental tangle of narrow, poorly ventilated streets and ceaseless, shutter-creaking commotion … Homes collapsed or were torn down regularly. … To be trampled by litters or splattered with mud constituted peripheral dangers. Pedestrians routinely crumpled into hidden hollows. Every window represented a potential assault.”

I also found barbaric specifics hard to stomach. People’s heads and hands regularly being chopped off and displayed is grisly stuff. People were torn limb from limb. Life was valued much less than was power. Man’s inhumanity to man in any era is painful for me to read about, as are duplicitous betrayals, changing loyalties, and constant wars. Reading about the lifestyles of the rich and famous is just plain boring for me. The first details of Alexandria’s splendors and sophistication (especially in educating Cleopatra) fascinated me, but decades of Cleopatra’s extravagances became tiresome. Still, it is the details that make this book historically important and a masterful presentation of complex personal (mainly Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra) and national (Rome, Egypt, other countries, and empires) relationships.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Hymn (by G.K. Chesterton)

A Hymn by G. K. Chesterton

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.