Monday, April 18, 2016

Quiet Assertion

Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves?
Even while we're still alive?
We wish to assert our existence, 
like dogs peeing on fire hydrants.

- Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin  

So often in life a situation arises or a comment is made that brings to mind an episode of The Golden Girls. I was young when this show was on the air. It originally aired on Saturday nights on NBC. I recall seeing & hearing snippets of it, but my parents didn't want me & my sister watching it because of a variety of adult situations depicted on the show, like, for example, Blanche taking considerable pride in her worldly ways. 

One of my accomplishments in college was watching & re-watching every episode of The Golden Girls. At the time, Lifetime TV aired several reruns a day. Often The Golden Girls reruns were followed by reruns of Designing Women, & oh, what a wonderful thing it was to end a long day of attending classes & reading & studying with those eight women. One day I'll divulge the complete & sordid details of my raucous college years.

I got an email from my editor last week regarding permissions. Specifically, she was inquiring about physical copies of books I might own so that we could ascertain specific page numbers requested by the guardians of a few of the authors whose words I quote in my book. Some of the quotes I use (& by "I" I mean my babies, Edie & Dr. Foster, of course) fall under the Fair Use Act, which is a copyright law about which you likely don't care but it basically means there are some situations in which quoting is fine & no permissions need be sought. 

As you may've guessed, Hemingway is on the list of those whose work I quote & whose work is protected like Fort Knox. There are others I quote whose words I'd be willing to let go of, to strike from the book should the process of obtaining needed permissions become too laborious, but I so desperately want to keep Hemingway's words. 

In conjunction with locating page numbers & periodically shaking over the fact that this whole publish-a-book thing is happening, I continued the process of preparing to teach high school English. I have a growing list of questions for my principal. First on the list is, (1) Can I have a coffee maker in my room? Last week I added, Can I take my AP Seniors on a weeklong retreat during which time we'll read The Sun Also Rises aloud (because the dialogue is fabulous & should be read aloud) & analyze it sentence by sentence, pausing briefly to sleep & drink coffee? to the list.  

Let me tell you something. Here's another sneak peak into my college years. I was supposed to read The Sun Also Rises in college, & I did. I read it.  Sort of. Maybe I was too focused on The Golden Girls reruns. I wrote a long, involved paper on Catherine Barkley (of A Farewell to Arms fame) when I was a college senior & I hate my former self for not reading The Sun Also Rises with the fervor it deserves because oh, oh!, the comparing & contrasting I could've done between Catherine & Lady Brett Ashley. I'm not going to write that paper for you now, but I am tempted. Spoiler: Catherine remains my favorite. I think she was Hemingway's favorite too, & I don't say that just because he kills her. I think he was, as a man & a writer, unsatisfied with some aspects of Brett Ashley (yes, I recognize the irony of my phrasing there), & thus he wrote Catherine three years later. But I digress.

There is an episode of The Golden Girls in which Rose is contacted by a man who served in the military with her late husband, Charlie. I'll save you the suspense & tell you that in the waning minutes of the episode, Charlie's war buddy admits to Rose that he read the letters she sent to Charlie & he believes he is in love with the woman who wrote them (fyi: that's Rose).

It was with many emotions that I continued to dig through The Sun Also Rises last week, while also corresponding with my editor as she seeks to secure permission for me to quote Hemingway in a book I've written. Hemingway, Hemingway, Hemingway. He's everywhere . . . & by everywhere, I mean all corners of my brain.

I thought about Charlie's war buddy last week because I was considering the idea of having strong feelings for, an emotional attachment to, someone I've never met, a man who died decades before I was born, a man I know only through the words he left, words that are held in such high regard one must seek the permission of his estate to quote them in a formal capacity.

Intellectually, I know that had I by some twist of fate been born at a different time, & lived a different life, & encountered him, I likely would not have taken well to Hemingway. He had issues, particularly with women. And alcohol. And he was overly fond of Cuba, you know, so that's a turnoff (Trey refers to him as my Commie boyfriend). I can't say for sure, though. He was handsome, he was tall, he had nice legs, he had a way with words, & a tendency to brood, & so maybe I'd have fallen hard for him, or at least agreed to tolerate him so long as he wrote to me. I guess in any life, in any circumstance, I am okay with Ernest Hemingway breaking my heart because he is doing it all over again with The Sun Also Rises, & I love him more for it.

If you're interested (& of course you are), the JFK Presidential Library has digitized many of the photographs that are a part of their extensive Hemingway collection. They can be viewed here

I wish more men with issues with women (& alcohol) (& their parents) could do what Hemingway did. I wish more men who experience war & all the trauma that accompanies that could do what Hemingway did. Yes, he needed therapy, but writing is, in my opinion, a form of therapy. He attempted to make sense of it all, & in the process crafted priceless gifts that keep giving years after his death.

When I say make sense "of it all," that includes not only the wars into which he flung himself headlong, but a long list of personal tragedies, including the suicide of his father, which probably solidified the feeling of his own impending death (at his own hands), a catalyst for the reckless lifestyle he led. Also a catalyst for the reckless life he led: his mother dressing him like a girl when he was a young boy. It stuck with him, & inevitably led to his overwhelming need to prove his masculinity, & to write tortured male characters who grapple with societal expectations of what it means to be a man.

One of my (small) goals when writing my book was to work in a (casual but not in-depth) mention of Freud since there is considerable discussion of Hemingway in the novel, & Freud would've had a field day with Hemingway. Edie concludes one of her letters to Dr. Foster with Freud's line, "How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved." I don't know that Hemingway was ever sure he was loved, by anyone, & if he ever felt that surety, his immediate thought was not one of boldness, but of panic that it wasn't real, wasn't sufficient, wasn't permanent. Yes, he seemingly lived a bold life, but I believe much of it was a false bravado.

I hate that I haven't before now paid more attention to Lady Brett Ashley & The Sun Also Rises. Knowing that he penned her three years prior to Catherine Barkley is eye-opening, to say the least. In a handful of words, he constructed a powerful commentary on an entire generation disillusioned by war, while also trying, & arguably failing, to work through some of his highly personal, highly destructive demons. Had he successfully purged the demons, he may've never written A Farewell to Arms, so there's the upside of personal demons, I suppose. 

My dominant feelings for & about Hemingway are sadness & awe. You can't delve too deeply into his biography without becoming despondent; the more you learn about his life, the more you're amazed at the artistic genius he channeled in attempting to come to terms with it all. I hate that he took his own life. I hate that he feared he'd never write again, because it suggests he saw little value in his life beyond what he was able to put on paper, & subsequently sell. I hate that he likely never successfully dealt with his demons, that he, like his protagonists, wrestled with questions about deity, morality, war, masculinity, & man's capacity to be monstrous, but also to love. That he died in a cabin in the woods at his own hands makes me long to hug him in the same way I long to hug Frederic Henry as he takes his final, forlorn walk in the rain. Obviously both men are, for various reasons & in a myriad of ways, impossible to grasp.

A little birdie told me a handful of my future English students have become aware of their teacher's blog. So, yes, here it is. Read away. Maybe there'll be a quiz. Maybe you can pick up a few pointers about what I might enjoy during Teacher Appreciation Week (although I note I already own every season of The Golden Girls on DVD). I have no secrets, aside from my Lifetime TV-binging in college. Whether it's now or later, you're going to learn a lot about me, & I am going to learn a fair amount about you; you cannot discuss literature with people without them, even if inadvertently, giving you a little peek inside their head.  

To my students, understand that, in addition to analytical, academic writing (which we will do because it is fun & because this is predominately the writing you'll do in college, on the AP Exam, etc.), we're also going to discuss & maybe experiment with other forms of writing. Nonfiction, "I" / "Dear Diary" type writing, or "journaling" will continue, & we may even dabble in some fiction. Thanks to some CLEP credit, I never took English 101 & 102 in college; as a sophomore, I stepped into Advanced Writing, & it was Advanced Writing.

We read little in that class; we wrote a lot. I left with three short stories that comprised the bulk of my grade. They were enough to earn me an A in the class, but they were not spectacular. I was so, so proud of them at the time, though, because I worked incredibly hard for them. They didn't come easy. I worked especially hard for the third one as it was due the morning I was to leave to drive to Houston with some friends to see U2 in concert. Good times, good times.

I look at the short stories now & see tiny seeds (admittedly among some ugly weeds that make me cringe). I learned how to write dialogue. I liked the freedom of inventing people, of doing little to no research, of citing nothing because I was making it all up. It was nonacademic writing, & it was exhilarating, & plus I was earning college credit for it. I recall with so much fondness & thankfulness the professor who allowed me to take the class despite my age & my lack of any prior fiction writing courses. She pushed me so hard. I want to be the teacher who makes you cry now, but whom you love later. I have two kids under five; I can handle the tears & the hatred. I have my coffee & the Golden Girls & Hemingway; I don't need your love.

So, maybe we'll plant some seeds. Maybe you'll write a short story, eh? We're going to be reading some phenomenal ones. As a writer, the short story is not my thing. I need thousands more words, but many of the great novelists we'll be reading also churned out some excellent short stories. I don't have the "official" literature list in my hand at the moment, but it's a safe bet that when we read The Awakening, we'll read Chopin's "The Story of an Hour." I guess it goes without saying we'll read some of Hemingway's short stories. I mean, duh. You can add those to the "official" list.

Writing is, in my opinion, perhaps the best way to, as Ms. Atwood says, exercise your desire to assert yourself, to pee on the fire hydrant, but writing should be, can be, the antithesis of the crude simile Ms. Atwood uses. We - you & I  - are not dogs lifting our legs & aiming mindlessly; we are discerning people, made in the image of God, who, by the way, chose the written word as the means by which to disseminate His message. You don't have to be the loudest or the flashiest to assert yourself. You simply have to thoughtfully put pen to paper; this is, after all, what every man & every woman whose work we'll read was compelled to do.

Look at how obsessed I am with Hemingway, all because he chose to write. He is long gone, but his words are here. His words are now (& you're going to be reading them soon). If you think Hemingway was just a sad sack who drank too much & was a loser in love, consider the impact of Paul's writings. Yes, that Paul. Consider the impact of Martin Luther's words, of Thomas Jefferson's words, before you dismiss the power of the written word. 

I want you to develop the habit of writing because it will serve you well the rest of your life. Yes, I want to fine-tune your grammar. I want you to know how to beautifully execute a semicolon; beyond that, however, I want to empower you to express yourself in writing. You may not, at your young age, bear the burdens Hemingway did, but decades after you leave high school, you may find yourself faced with the unimaginable. Maybe your child is sick. Maybe you lost your spouse. Maybe you lost your parent. Maybe you are happy as a lark & searching for a way to express to your wife or husband or kids how much you love them, a permanent, tangible way to pour yourself out to them.  

One day, when you're thirty-five & out taking a walk & you see a solitary feather peppered with fresh rain drops & stop to take a picture of (& consider writing a poem about) the lonesome, lost feather, then you will be thankful for those who forced the craft of writing on you.

So in advance I say, You're welcome.


No comments:

Post a Comment