With Nothing Except Your Life

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Rest in peace, Abbey Lincoln.  The jazz singer and civil-rights force passed away last Saturday; NPR ran a tribute that includes cuts from her music and great clips from two past interviews; you can read and/or listen here.  Lincoln has interesting things to say about artistic integrity and (heads-up, mujeres) about her own transformation from sexy supper-club commodity to "warrior woman."

Moving into a semester of teaching memoir-writing to graduate students, I was particularly grateful for what Lincoln said about art and claiming the right to one's own voice:

. . . "Oh, why don't you--why don't you shut up?"  I think I've had that said to me more than anything else over the years when I was younger.  "You talk too much."  You know?  "Don't rock the boat."  Even though they're miserable--people are miserable--they'll tell you this.  But you're not supposed to say anything about it.

So when I discovered that there was the world of the artist, it saved my life, because I could strive to be individual and as best as I could be.  I didn't have to have money.   I didn't have to have anything except my life.

And I went for that.  And I'm glad I did.

Amen.  Writers, artists, everyone:  go for it, and be glad.

I recently reread the three memoirs that my graduate workshop will be analyzing for craft strategies--Alice Sebold's Lucky, Rigoberto Gonz├ílez's Butterfly Boy, and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss--and was knocked out all over again by their power.  I picked books that deal well with really hard, hard material--intimate, tricky stuff like trauma, family, loss, shame, sex--because that's so much harder to handle, for us as writers, than, oh, I don't know, cooking or traveling or learning to tango, all of which are fun and interesting and can take you to deep and difficult places but don't necessarily do so.  I learn best from urgent, crucial, driven writing that sticks close to the bone, "words that," to quote Kay Boyle, "must somehow be said." 

And it's the how in somehow that we'll be analyzing in the workshop this fall.  How does Sebold handle moments she can't fully remember, signaling to readers her lack of specific recall without breaking the flow of the scene?  How does Gonz├ílez use a real, literal journey to its fullest, richest advantage as an organizing structure?  How does he handle shifts in time smoothly and clearly?  How does he use descriptive language to suggest resonances between different characters, and how does he work on the page to be fair to the other people in his life?  How does Harrison select details that function as object correlatives for the emotional story that's taking place? 

Can you tell I love these brave and brilliant books?  Getting to talk about this stuff with smart, talented, eager people for three hours every week--and then talk about the students' own work!--is a gift.  For a dayjob, it's definitely pretty great.

In that regard, ladies and gents, I'm happy to say that THE DESIRE PROJECTS is finally off my desk.  408 pages of obsessively polished prose that publishing houses may or may not find desirable went into the mail to my agent on Friday--which is a great relief, since classes start on Monday.  (When I have to say what I did last summer--and last summer, and the one before that--I'm just going to point mutely to that fat stack of paper.)

The draft came super-fast:  on April 1, 2008, I had 22 pages of notes that I'd been dinking around on for about a year, just this and that, sketches toward an outline.  By June 10, I had 364 pages.  Since then, it's been revision, revision, revision.  Expand, cut, edit, polish.  Repeat.

And now it's that beautiful feeling, when the manuscript is out of my hands and out in the world.  My agent and I haven't decided yet which publishers it will go to, but I'll be posting full reports here as the process unfolds this fall.  (I'll try to keep my woes in check when those rejection letters arrive, but consider yourselves forewarned.)

Adding to the cheerful chaos of back-to-school preparations, Greyby arrives tonight (from California--by Greyhound) and will be here with us until early September (when he leaves for Massachusetts--by Greyhound; don't ask, it's a carbon-emissions thing), so the rest of my Saturday will be devoted to cleaning, laundering linens, and hanging shiny gold papel picado all around the room where he'll sleep.   The Handsome Husband is out stocking up on vegan cookies and other sundries Grey likes.  Hurray! 

Ahhh.  Family.  The good kind.  My two very favorite people in the world, right here with me, together for ten days.  Forgive me if I look a little dreamy.


Cindy Author Profile Page said:

Hi Joy,

I'm baaaaacccckkkkkk...after a long absence (due to finishing that MFA thing.) I wanted to say hi here and thank you for this entry. I loved Lucky as you may recall, and now I want to read the other two memoirs you've mentioned while following your questions/prompts as a guide for learning! Thank you.

And best of luck on THE DESIRE PROJECTS. I will keep my fingers crossed for you and look forward to your updates on that and so many other topics.

Good to be back here reading your blog!

August 26, 2010 10:31 PM

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