Wednesday, May 21, 2014

memory, or this moment, and a camera

I have found and am wearing my overalls from the early 2000s. Loungewear. Summerwear. Feeling like I am still a graduate student. The early 2000s, the early years of creative optimism. The dog relocates sleeping spots, it was thunderstorming just earlier, she's less pestering about a walk, we'll get to it. I am working on focusing myself. Into and out of writing-block. Project-block-due-to-overwhelming nature of too many projects simultaneously. And another new idea. The goal is to focus on one project at a time. The reality is the opposite. Collections of sub-par writing. But I read published collections of sub-par writing all of the time. Or maybe I don't read the whole collections, when it is not great work. Moving work around, revising, deciding. Taking pieces out, putting pieces in. Breaking larger projects into smaller ones. Different submission requirements. How to focus the collections in particular ways and develop further. It is spring. It is not raining like it was forecast just yesterday. I want to write essays like Diane Ackerman:

My infant years might have happened in an aquarium, so silent and full of mixing shapes were they. How strange that a time filled with my own endless wailings, gurglings, and the soothing coos and baby talk of my mother should remain in my memory as a thick, silent dream in which clearer than any sound was the blond varnish on my crib, whose pale streaky gloss I knew like a birthmark, as it was for so many months of my life. (from "In the Memory Mines")

Or like William Vollman, who uses the camera obscura as metaphor and prop for thinking of his own place in the world as journalist, father, and citizen in a complex contemporary culture...

Upon the shallow curved bowl within the camera obscura, the gray sea began to turn. It had been turning before, but until my pupils dilated I saw nothing but darkness. A circular railing protected me from falling into this living picture of organized daylight projected into that concavity. Came the Cliff House, out of focus because it was too near. I might have seen two lovers wandering hand in hand into the Musee Mecanique.

The lens whirls over a map of Afghanistan. We see points of light. These mark the sites where our cruise missiles have struck. Whom did we kill and why? No matter--the lens must move on. What do our new enemies say about us in their capital? Well, we can imagine--or more likely, we can't imaging--and it's time to move on.

Here is Kabul at night: headlights, lanterns within wheeled fruit stands, people in buses packed tightly together like the inmates of mass graves, turbaned Talibs sauntering down the street, lords of all they survey, everything dark and dim, then just dark with snow falling. Women in blue and black burqas are walking home. I hear the rattle of handcarts, and now it's darker and darker. My lens moves on. Have I "understood" Afghanistan? Not by a long shot. But at least I saw it. I didn't just watch it on CNN.

 This essay was originally published in Forbes ASAP, a shoot-off publication focused on writing about technology and digital culture, and that stopped publishing in the early 2000s. I am surprised that this was published there, its formal creativity and non-linear narrative--one might say hybrid--structure. And reprinted in a Best American Essays (2001) which I have, somehow, specifically because it is edited by Kathleen Norris, a prose writer with thoughtful poetic sensibilities. But as a series it is also mainstream in how work is chosen generally from  well-known, mainstream publications (New Yorker, American Scholar, Georgia Review, Harper's...).

I am reading the call for submissions of innovative nonfiction manuscripts at Graywolf Press, which has published a number of books that I love. But I wonder what they mean by innovation in form? and work that pushes the boundaries of literary nonfiction? Eula Bliss's No Man's Land is an amazing merging of cultural critique and personal essay. But does it transgress formal boundaries? It is not like Lia Purpua's On Looking or the hybrid essays so well outside the conventional in D'Agata's edited The Next American Essay. But Vollman's essay was published in Forbes ASAP, not a venue for the innovative in form. Or innovative form is what is unexpected, that grabs you and holds on, the starts with language and then brings you in deeper.

My focusing project thus continues to be multi-directional. To practice innovating prose in quality, writerly ways, and to continue to revise and re-imagine these various collections of work and decide what to do with them. Mostly I feel like all I do is practice, or revise as some kind of practice which doesn't usually feel like it is making the writing stronger. How does one do the writing, and keep it moving in a direction that seems fulfilling?

Lia Purpua:

I shall begin with the chests of drowned men, bound with ropes and diesel-slicked. Their ears sludge-filled. Their legs mud-smeared. Asleep below deck when a freighter hit and the river rose inside their tug. Their lashes white with river silt.