Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ever Feel Like This?

backwards and forwards with my heart hanging out

where was I/where was I (now at last I know)
This is what happens when I listen to too much Let it Die and it's almost, but not quite storming, and I'm nostalgic for being 22 when I'm only 27. Sorry. (Not sorry.)

I feel it all (I feel it all)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Plotting an Escape

Why am I so afraid sometimes? And why, when I'm most afraid, does my spirit seem to surge, rise up, and observe the whole planet from above? ...Tears of love? Do I really want to escape with her not just from this town and the heat but from what the future holds for us, from mediocrity and absurdity?...
I'm a nervous wreck. I feel like weeping and throwing punches...but my face remains unchanged. I scarcely move a muscle, though inside I'm falling apart.
—from The Third Reich: Part 1, by Roberto Bolaño, published in The Paris Review

Six Books, Stacked.

Used to be, I’d come home
your oxygen cord leading the trail
to where I’d find you,
curled up with a book,
dog at your feet or on your lap.

You’d greet me,
a familiar, “Al?”
coming from the other room.
I’d follow the trail
and there you’d be,
pulling the reading glasses off
& readjusting the cord in your nose.

Used to be, I was your daughter.
You knew me.

It was almost time.
But you’d never admit it,
stubborn woman.
Instead, you tried to read
every book at once.
I felt it, though you tried
to hide it:

a panic, a fear—
what if you couldn’t read them first?

Six books, stacked, all with bookmarks.

The last day I saw you,
really saw you,
talked to you in your hospital room
here in Chicago,

I gave you one last gift.
Two books, one a silly romance,
one I was reading for class.
And you smiled at me and said,
“I can’t wait to read them.”

But you never got to read those books.
Six books, stacked, all with bookmarks,
next to your empty chair.
My books, our books, were there.
So was Les Miserables
and others,
but I can’t remember the others,
and it kills me.

What if there weren’t actually six books even in the pile?

Some years later,
after your stack of books was gone,
by the time I no longer
looked for that oxygen cord
each time I walked in the door,
I picked up one of the books I gave you.
Opened it, and read
my inscription to my mother.

With a jolt, I saw
the handwriting of
my teenage self.
I barely even knew it.

It was the saddest feeling.
as sad as seeing your bookmark
still in place
as sad as every time I tried
to read Les Mis
and couldn’t,
as sad as accepting
I’d never see you again.

Today I wondered
if you would still know me:

I am no longer a teenager.
Nothing is the same.
Not even my handwriting.

But then,
curled up on the couch
with my New Yorker,
and a stack of books
(because I can never read
just one at a time),
a cat by my side,

I realized
You’ve been here all along.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Skip Town with Nico Muhly

My cubicle mate just introduced me to his "favorite person on the Internet," composer Nico Muhly.

The introduction led me to this amazingness. It's so frantic. Frantic, and fantastic:

Skip Town from Banner Gwin on Vimeo.

Also, I absolutely love the design of Nico Muhly's site. I want to steal it. Or, I'll just use Blogger templates for the rest of my days. Either way.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Now I'm Going Crazy (I Didn't Mean It)

This song makes me want to write a love letter.

And maybe cry.

Where in the hell is my Mayer Hawthorne album? Why isn't all my music in my iTunes library when I NEED IT?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Poetry Slam Tuesdays: Taped to the Wall of My Cell

Today's (multimedia!) poetry slam comes courtesy of my brother Jay, who sent me this poem by the prison poet, Etheridge Knight. Not sure if "prison poet" is really the proper term here, but Knight wrote a book of poetry while serving an eight-year stint in the Indiana State Prison, so if not proper, it's at least accurate.

For all you poetry slam traditionalists, read the full poem here.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Writing Experiment Concludes (With a Little More Joyce)

Well, it's been 10(ish) days, and the experiment has come to its final moment. The final post!

I'm kind of sad, to be honest. Sure, maybe y'all are sick of reading the words "the experiment" and equally sick of all my pontificating on the CRAFT, and DEDICATION, and WORK ETHIC, and shiiiat. But it's been a good 10(ish) days.

It was harder than I expected. I don't feel like I completely succeeded, as there was a day or two here and there where I didn't post, or I'd be highly productive one day and then feel completely spent the next.

But I guess that's why it was an experiment. Now I want to try another one, and see how I do. I'm not sure what that would be, exactly, but I'm open to suggestions.

I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to write about today. Marco and I spent all afternoon at the bookstore, me reading, him drawing, and of course I got all these "brilliant" (ha, ha), fleeting ideas at the strangest times. Like when I'm waiting in line for the bathroom, for instance. Those ideas are still floating around in my brain, somewhere, but for now, I wanted to keep the focus on writing, in general. So I thought I'd bring it full circle with some words of wisdom from Ms. Joyce Carol Oates, once again.

The following is excerpted from her 1976 interview with The Paris Review (all emphasis is mine):


Do you find emotional stability is necessary in order to write? Or can you get to work whatever your state of mind? Is your mood reflected in what you write? How do you describe that perfect state in which you can write from early morning into the afternoon?


One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I've found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so. Joyce said of the underlying structure of Ulysses—the Odyssean parallel and parody—that he really didn't care whether it was plausible so long as it served as a bridge to get his “soldiers” across. Once they were across, what does it matter if the bridge collapses? One might say the same thing about the use of one's self as a means for the writing to get written. Once the soldiers are across the stream . . .


Do you enjoy writing?


I do enjoy writing, yes. A great deal. And I feel somewhat at a loss, aimless and foolishly sentimental, and disconnected, when I've finished one work and haven't yet become absorbed in another. All of us who write, work out of a conviction that we are participating in some sort of communal activity. Whether my role is writing, or reading and responding, might not be very important. I take seriously Flaubert's statement that we must love one another in our art as the mystics love one another in God. By honoring one another's creation we honor something that deeply connects us all, and goes beyond us.

Of course, writing is only one activity out of a vast number of activities that constitute our lives. It seems to be the one that some of us have concentrated on, as if we were fated for it. Since I have a great deal of faith in the processes and the wisdom of the unconscious, and have learned from experience to take lightly the judgments of the ego and its inevitable doubts, I never find myself constrained to answer such questions. Life is energy, and energy is creativity. And even when we as individuals pass on, the energy is retained in the work of art, locked in it and awaiting release if only someone will take the time and the care to unlock it.

I particularly love what she says about how "the activity of writing changes everything"—because I agree with her. It does. Like the other night, when all I wanted to do was either go to sleep or watch another episode of Weeds, but instead I picked up my laptop and just wrote. I wrote as my eyes burned staring at the screen and the battery level on my Macbook flashed to red.

If nothing else, by trying out this little writing experiment, I was finally able to remember that feeling, that eyes burning from staring at the screen, adrenaline rush, that creative energy, that fucking feeling, that I can put words on a page and they can mean something, and that I can use "one's self as a means for the writing to get written."

Friday, June 17, 2011

Take 9: Mental Health Break

This little experiment has proven to be quite interesting (err, for me, at least). I've been thinking a lot about the actual act of writing, about discipline, about believing in my own abilities, and not making excuses for not working hard at a craft.

But I'm going to have to be real for a minute. If I don't step out of my brain a little bit and just relax, I'm going to go insane. Okay, maybe not insane, but let's just say I'm so deep in thought lately about writing, and life, and being motivated, that my head is starting to hurt. My social interactions are getting more awkward than usual. (I know, I didn't think it was possible either!)

Last Friday, in a post not directly for the experiment, I wrote this essay that I'm actually really proud of, and I think was directly inspired by all this writing. But today, all I can think of right now is everything I need to accomplish in a span of about three hours. I'm not inspired. I am stressed. 

But this actually brings up a relative point:

I think part of writing, or other creative endeavors, is also learning that sometimes (particularly when you've actually earned it), you have to give yourself a little mental health break. 

It's Friday. I have a party to go to tonight, and I still need a dress. I'm taking that mental health break now. But before I go...

I'm wondering, all of you creative types that I'm hoping and pretending are reading my blog:

When do you allow yourself a mental health break? How do you self-assess how hard you've worked, or how much you've accomplished? 

I hope that this doesn't end up being a rhetorical question! I really do want to know. I'm actually serious about this self-discipline bizness. Comment, why don't you. I double dare you.

The Writing Experiment, Take 8: An Obligation, A Habit, A Necessity

I have a confession to make:

I didn’t want to write today.

In fact, the only reason I’m doing so now is because I can’t stop thinking, You said you were going to do this, Alison. Fucking follow through with something for once in your life.

But then I started rationalizing making excuses. I’m tired. It was a long day. I’m tired. I wanna watch another episode of Weeds. I’m tired.

And then I remembered my big, bold statement on, what was that? Day 3? About excuses?

Okay, okay, I told myself. I’ll turn on my computer and write something. Then you know what my lazy ass did? I thought, I’ll just find something I wrote before, and post it!

ha, ha! I am SO clever!

Or, not.

While I was looking through my old stuff, trying to get some inspiration looking for something to pass off as today’s writing, I noticed a pretty consistent theme. Take a wild fucking guess at this theme.

A whole lot of introductions, with no conclusions.

I seem to be full of ideas. These ideas last for about, oh, a paragraph or two, and then most of the time they trail off. I do this the most with short stories. Partly because I’m of two minds about my “talents” as a fiction writer. In fact, I was just thinking about this today: I’m not sure if I’m any good at writing fiction. And for once, I’m not trying to be self-deprecating. I’m actually just trying to be honest. Which leads me to the question(s):

Where do you draw the line between being honest with yourself, and giving up? How do you recognize when you’re doing one or the other?

In lieu of actually answering those questions, instead I’m going to play a little show and tell. Or something. Here are a couple of my beginnings with no end.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Take 7: What I Meant to Say

That last year I watched the sun set while you sang songs backed by a beautiful orchestra; that every time I hear "The Story" I get teary eyed; that I feel at home no matter where I am when I listen to your music; that once, I put "Someday Never Comes" on a mix for a friend and it said exactly what I wanted to, but couldn't; that seeing you in concert makes me think about my mother so much, it is both unbearable and wonderful all at once—

But that would have been crazy, so instead, when I met Brandi Carlile, my face turned beet red as she shook my hand and I heard myself say:

"I'm such a huge fan."

Then Ray LaMontagne took the stage, and aside from some mumbled "thank you's" in between songs, he spoke to the crowd only once, to tell us to "turn around and look at the moon" because it really was "quite lovely"—and it was. And as the big yellow moon rose up behind us, he sang this song:

In that moment, everything felt okay, and I no longer cared that I couldn't say all the things I wanted to say to Brandi, or that I can never seem to say everything I want to say when it counts the most, because the music said it all.

It's Day 7 in The Writing Experiment, and after driving back to Chicago in the rain, then sitting in rush hour traffic for two hours, all I really wanted to do was curl up in a ball and pass out. But because I'm experimenting with this little thing called discipline, instead, I went to the gym. And then I wrote this. Now I curl up in a ball and pass out.

In Short, No. 6: A Long, Winding Sentence (Again)

I'm in bed back home in Indiana, in my old bedroom that's no longer my room but still sorta feels like my room, after seeing a great show tonight in Indianapolis (Brandi Carlile & Ray LaMontagne, but more on that tomorrow, I promise.)

I'm sleepy, and it's technically Wednesday already, but dammit! I refuse to miss another day in my writing experiment, and since I haven't gone to bed yet it still counts. I'm in the mood to write another long, winding sentence inspired by the "things that stand out clear as pictures in our head."

When I first tried my man E.B. White's little experiment, it was about a year ago, and I was here in this same room. Funny how everything can change so drastically in one year in so many ways, and in many other ways nothing changes at all.

So if, right now, I were to once again, write about the things that really interested me in the past week, those things that “stand out clear as pictures in our head,” I'd probably discuss: the way I get so caught up in my own brain as I walk to and from work, sometimes I wonder if maybe I'm talking to myself out loud, and not actually just in my head, and every other pedestrian on the street hears my innermost thoughts; Brandi Carlile's suspenders; how my daydreams vary from thoughts of vinyl to a book deal to finally figuring out myself and everyone around me to owning Wonder Woman lipstick; and how I am in a passionate, but possibly unilateral, love/hate relationship with the city of Chicago, and how I only allow myself to admit that when I spend a night back in Indiana.

What a horrible, wonderful sentence that was to write. And now I feel both horrible and wonderful. Good night, good luck, whatever.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Poetry Slam Tuesdays: Using All Our Words

My friend Mike sent me this poem last week—a bit of inspiration as I embarked on my writing experiment—and I am in love with it. Enjoy.

The Quiet World
By Jeffrey McDaniel

In an effort to get people to look
into each other's eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn't respond,
I know she's used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.

Do you write poems? Do you read poems? How about you send me one, and maybe it'll be on the next poetry slam! NEAT! Email me at or get in touch on the Tweeter.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Experiment, No. 5: Gaining Some Perspective

Every day on my walk from the train to my office building, it never fails to jar me as I pass a different homeless person on each corner—sometimes two at a corner—holding up a makeshift cardboard sign, jingling a plastic cup of change, or even worse, just sleeping on the street as people walk past.

I feel frustrated as people walk past them, not seeming to care in the slightest, but then I have to take a deep breath and realize that I'm not doing anything different most of the time. What am I supposed to do? I feel helpless, walking past, thinking that even if I gave each one of them $1, or even $5, that's not going to do much at all.

My buddy, the man on the milk crate, isn't as consistently in his same spot now that it's warmed up outside. Sometimes, he's gone for a solid week, and I worry and wonder where he is, and if he's okay. But he always comes back. He was looking pretty rough for awhile, and then disappeared for a week or so. I had started thinking he was gone for good, but then one evening after work, he was back, sitting on his milk crate. It took me a second to realize it was him—it was the first time I'd seen him without a hat, and he'd shaved his head and had some "new" shoes that looked about two sizes too small.

Where'd he get his head shaved? How'd he get those shoes? How does he survive? 

I think that maybe, I don't want to know the answers to all those questions. Today he was nowhere to be found. There was a different man sitting on his milk crate, which happens sometimes. The first time I noticed this, I got a little riled up, wondering if someone had stolen my "friend's" seat. But he was back on it the next day. Maybe they take shifts. I have no idea.

There were some new people out today.  A young couple sat holding a sign with a picture of a baby taped to it: "Please. We R Homeless n Hungry. Help us Feed Our Baby."

I almost walked into traffic as I turned back to look at that sign. And I hate to admit it, but it wasn't out of a pang of sympathy right then, it was a shot of skepticism. A series of different, much less kind questions popped to mind.

Where's this baby? If someone's watching the baby, wouldn't that same person help them eat? Do they even have a baby? Are they addicts?

I didn't give the couple money. I didn't give any one money today. I haven't, in fact, even helped out the man on the milk crate with some spare change lately.

Monday Mix Tapes: 90s Nostalgia, It Seems

This is happening:

I've been on an all-afternoon binge of Smashing Pumpkins videos. How could I have forgotten the amazingness that was this:

We'll crucify the insincere tonight!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Writing Experiment, No. 4: Embracing the Writer Within

I was looking for some inspiration for my 4th post in my 10-part writing experiment, and bless you, New Yorker, you gave it to me. (Do you think when my New Yorker subscription runs out, I’ll have nothing to write?)

What great timing for my favorite issue of the year to be sitting patiently in my mailbox waiting for me! It’s the Summer Fiction issue! New Yorker geeks everywhere, rejoice!

And of course, it’s packed with big name writers: Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Diaz, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jhumpa Lahiri, to name a few. Not surprisingly, it was Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri’s personal essay, “Trading Stories,” that inspired this post. Lahiri happens to be one of my favorite authors—her novel, The Namesake, and two short story collections, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, are some of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

In this essay, she writes about her love of reading and writing, but more specifically, about her journey to becoming a writer. For anyone not familiar with Lahiri, I think The Atlantic interviewer Isaac Chotiner describes her well, naming her “the acclaimed chronicler of the Bengali-immigrant experience”:

Both of her previous books—Interpreter of Maladies (a 2000 story collection that earned her the Pulitzer Prize), and The Namesake, a 2003 novel that later took shape as a popular film— explored the cultural dissonances experienced by immigrants caught between the culture of their Indian birthplace and the unfamiliar ways of their adopted home. In Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of eight short stories, Lahiri continues to explore this theme, this time with a focus on the lives of second-generation immigrants who must navigate both the traditional values of their immigrant parents and the mainstream American values of their peers.

It makes sense that the sort of “cultural dissonances” she writes of in her fiction also played a huge role in Lahiri’s journey to becoming a writer. In her essay, she writes about her parents, “For though they had created me, and reared me, and lived with me day after day, I knew I was a stranger to them, an American child. In spite of our closeness, I feared that I was alien.”

Many of Lahiri’s characters also have these types of fears toward, and relationships with, their parents. What I’ve found most beautiful and fascinating as I’ve read her works, though, is how this is coupled with powerful moments of her characters understanding and feeling close with their parents. While the cultural dissonance she often describes is specific to the Bengali-immigrant experience, I think the parent-child relationships are also completely universal. I think it’s fair to say that the very definition of “dissonance”— “a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements”—sums up the teenager-parent dynamic. (Not that all of her characters are teens, but you get what I’m saying.)

It’s both astounding and a relief to me that a writer of Lahiri’s caliber has also experienced the same kind of self-doubt I grapple with in life, and particularly, with my writing. She discusses her deep love of books as a child, writing:

In life, especially as a young girl, I was afraid to participate in social activities. I worried about what others might make of me, how they might judge. But when I read I was free of this worry.

While Lahiri says that as an adolescent, she used writing as a vehicle to make friends and connect with others, later, she somewhat rejected the writer in her— “Though the compulsion to invent stories remained, self-doubt began to undermine it”—and instead, she focused on practicing music, performing in plays, and then later, decided she wanted to be a journalist (while also studying literature in college). Sounds familiar! I also “channelled my energy” into studying journalism and English lit. Yet still, as a student, and even now, more often than I’d like to admit, I feel intimidated by the act of writing. Lahiri writes:

At twenty-one, the writer in me was like a fly in the room—alive but insignificant, aimless, something that unsettled me whenever I grew aware of it, and which, for the most part, left me alone. I was not at a stage where I needed to worry about rejection from others. My insecurity was systemic, and preemptive, insuring that, before anyone else had the opportunity, I had already rejected myself.

Luckily, she quit rejecting herself, and embraced the writing.

Insecurity will get you. It’s terrifying to put yourself out there, whether it’s in life, or on the page. I think that, in life, in writing, whatever, it’s the moments when you embrace that fear and just fucking go for it, that the most beautiful things can happen. Like Lahiri writes, “writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do...Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’”

Friday, June 10, 2011

Creating a Self

It's been years since I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but after reading reviews of Manning Marable's recent biography on Malcolm, I'm itching to read both Marable's book and reread Alex Haley's classic.

When I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was 19, fresh from my first year at college, which had included two semesters of African American lit. We had read excerpts from the autobiography, and after a school year immersed in fascinating, fantastic writing by some timeless authors—Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B DuBois, and Gwedolyn Brooks, to name a handful—I was hugely geeked out and excited to read more about Malcolm X.

Nothing like some "light" summer reading: Much of my reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X took place on a hotel balcony at Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina. My dad and I, in what now seems like a mildly crazy moment of mourning and nostalgia, had decided to take the trip, just the two of us, that summer. It was the first summer after my mom had died, and I was living back at home with Dad during my break from school. Things were rough. Often, I felt like my dad and I were tiptoeing around each other at home, not quite sure how to communicate with each other, unsure of how to navigate our grief together, simply not quite sure about anything, really. At least, that's how I felt. I can't speak for him, but I do like to think we were in it together.

So off we went to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. It was where our family had spent every summer vacation of my childhood. I remember vividly one of the last years there, I was in my awkward prepubescent stage—I wore a bikini for the first time, and although my boobs had yet to make their grand appearance, it was the first year that, as my mom and I combed the beach looking for seashells on long walks, I noticed attention from the opposite sex. It was a startling and revelatory moment, and my mom loved pointing it out and teasing me any time it happened. Back in the safety of our beach chairs, I hid behind my books and worried endlessly about my bushy eyebrows and mustache as my mom curled her toes contentedly in the sand next to me.

Although our family trips to Wrightsville Beach held countless other memories than just those "Mom" specific ones, being back there with my dad, still feeling so fresh from losing her, those were the only ones I could think of. I tried to put on a brave face and not show him how painful it was to be there, at the same place, even the same hotel, where so many happy times had taken place. I thought of my mom sitting in her flowered robe and matching pajamas on the hotel balcony, of how she always managed to find the prettiest shells when we walked along the beach, and of how the one time, she got so furious with my dad on the way there when he wouldn't stop as soon she wanted so we could go pee.

Ultimately, it was a time in my life when I felt lost. I wasn't sure how to navigate a life where I no longer had a mother. Although I was at least aware enough to realize how lucky I was to have my dad, I'd never really felt close to him in the same way I had toward my mother. She and I had developed this special bond that felt like a secret, of sorts—no one else was allowed in. So I sat on the hotel balcony and read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the complete opposite of the notion of "beach" reading. (Of course, I also read Summer Sisters, by Judy Blume, for the millionth time that trip. It is quintessential beach reading. And life reading. Go read it.)

While I sat on the balcony and read, my dad was just inside, reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. I have no idea why I remember the book he was reading, but I do remember feeling, as we read, together but apart, a comforted, soothing feeling. Maybe it was the late afternoon sun and the sound of the waves, but I like to think it was because in a way, Mom was there with us, reading.

In Brief, No. 3: Excuses, Excuses

Remember when I was going to write something every day for 10 days, got really excited, wrote two in one day, and then wrote nothing yesterday?


The lame excuse I already used once this morning: "I mean, I wrote two in one day, so, it's like, still technically Day 3, so I'm not really behind."

Shut up, Alison.

When did I get so great at making excuses? I'm sure my dad would love to answer that question. I've probably been making excuses to get out of things since I learned how to speak. It's pretty silly.

Excuses that ran through my mind last night and this morning:
1. I'm not sure what I want to write about right now.
2. Hungry.
3. Sleepy.
4. But I can do it later!

Basically, I am an infant.

When I went on the Google just now and typed my favorite word, "excuses," I found this article, "How to Kill Your Excuses"—it's brief, and it's really all common sense, so why don't I stop being an infant and actually use some common sense? Once, someone told me, "You're such a smart girl, but sometimes you act like you have no common sense."

Ouch. But in retrospect, a valid point. Thank you, person who shall remain nameless. Like this article says, I'm ready to kill my excuses "like the miserable maggots they are."

It also linked to this video. Next time I make an excuse for something, I'm going to think about this:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Experiment, Part Deux: ‘In My Sauvignon Fierce, Freaking Out’

Let me preface this by saying: I was so excited and inspired by the feedback from my first post in the "experiment" that I couldn't wait until tomorrow to do the second one. But mostly because I got a completely unexpected text from my cousin Micaela—I never knew she'd read anything I'd ever written!—that made me want to write for a week straight. If you're reading: Thank you, cousin.

As I start this, my second post in “The Writing Experiment” files, I’m already thinking to myself, Christ, Al, you’re so predictable. Yep, I started by writing about a female writer who inspired me, and now I’m launching into a post fueled by The National lyrics.

Whatever. It’s happening.

So maybe you’ve stumbled upon this blog before. If so, then you’ve picked up on my obsession with a certain band, and a certain songwriter. Ahem. In fact, the song I’m about to talk about, I’ve already posted a video to, not so long ago. IN FACT, I’ve actually already written an essay inspired by this song. Lucky for you, I didn’t post it here. Instead, three of my unlucky friends received it in their email inboxes, because it was something I didn’t feel like sharing with the Interwebs.

This is the song. It’s called, “Baby, We’ll Be Fine.” Some lyrics:

"All night I lay on my pillow and pray
For my boss to stop me in the hallway
Lay my head on his shoulder and say
Son, I've been hearing good things

I wake up without warning and go flying around the house
In my sauvignon fierce, freaking out
Take a forty-five minute shower and kiss the mirror
And say, look at me
Baby, we'll be fine
All we gotta do is be brave and be kind

I put on an argyle sweater and put on a smile
I don't know how to do this
I'm so sorry for everything"

This past fall, I saw The National for the first time in Indianapolis. My anticipation to this show was akin to anticipation over my first sexual experience. Seriously. I have never been as excited about a concert as I was about this one. And if you know me, that is a big statement to make, because I get really fucking excited about concerts. I was so excited about this concert, as a matter of fact, that I listened to The National even more than usual (which basically means I exclusively listened to The National for a solid week), and the day of the concert, I was ready to go, pacing around the house three solid hours before the show started. (As it turned out, it was a good thing I had gotten ready early, because I left my ticket at my dad’s house and ended up driving an unnecessary hour and a half just to make it to the show on time.)

The good news is, the concert was a much better time than … Yeah.

Back to the song, and away from uncomfortable comparisons. One reason I love this particular song so much is how it affects me in so many different ways, on so many levels. Overall, I’m always a sucker for a song with some sad, desperate longing for something that’s just outside of your grasp, but you feel like it shouldn’t be: “All night I lay on my pillow and pray/For my boss to stop me in the hallway.” Then that feeling is coupled with the hope, that stubborn hope that, you know what? Baby, we’ll be fine!

I love the sense of longing, coupled with this frantic, anxious behavior. He’s “flying around the house,” but then taking a ridiculously long shower, followed by a pep talk in front of the mirror. This behavior is me, in a nut shell. I don’t mind admitting it.

I sensed this sort of anxiety and heightened excitement—but also a little bit of a “Fuck it, I’m just gonna do what I do” attitude— the two times I’ve seen The National. Matt Berninger alternates between screaming in the mic, just really fucking killing it, to pacing around in circles, looking down, and clutching his wine glass. The second time I saw them, this past Easter in Chicago, during one song (I forget which! Shit!) he fucked up a line and the mic stand fell.

Standing in the packed crowd, surrounded by people who pretty clearly were mostly there to see Arcade Fire, I actually felt scared at that moment. I wanted to run up to the stage and say, “Matt! It’s okay!” Not that he would have cared. He retaliated by taking several huge gulps out of his wine, picking up the mic, and screaming, just screaming, the rest of the song.

Allllllll riiiiight, Matt, I get it.

I have a tendency to apologize, a lot. I say “I’m sorry” almost as much as I cry about shit. And I cry, a lot. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I’m so damn intense about everything. Maybe I have a desperate longing for something that is a little out of my grasp. Maybe I just want my boss to stop me in the hallway and say, “We’ve been hearing good things!”

But the good news is, like Matt Berninger and the rest of The National (I’d like to think), I also have this hope, this stubborn hope, that baby, we’ll be fine.

All we’ve gotta do is be brave, and be kind.

The Experiment, Take 1: In Which Joyce Teaches Me to Prioritize

I've been reading The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973-1982 the last couple of days, and the majority of the time I'm reading it I catch myself nodding my head, in awe of her genius and insight. (I caught myself doing this head nodding yesterday as I was reading on the train during rush hour. Something tells me the lady who was staring confusedly at me wasn't in awe of my genius and insight.)

Nothing better than reading the journal of a hugely productive, successful contemporary author (and teacher! how does she find the time?!) to give me a much needed kick in the ass to start writing again.

An excerpt from her November 15, 1974 entry (all emphasis mine):

Balance between private, personal fulfillment (marriage, friendship, work at the University) and 'public' life, the commitment to writing. The artist must find an environment, a pattern of living, that will protect his or her energies: the art must be cultivated, must be given priority... 
Goethe: 'People go on shooting at me when I am already miles out of range.' 
Some of us are never in range: never totally represented by any work of art... Is this a strategy? No. One does not choose one's nature, though perhaps the habits, the adaptations of one's nature are freely chosen.
Ok, first off: Joyce! My God! This is the kind of journal entry I DREAM someone might stumble across in one of my journals when I'm dead. Instead, they'd probably find some sad bastard song lyrics and shitty poetry about boys. That said, I think this was one of the parts where I was nodding, wide-eyed on the train, as I read.

Every day I fight this inner battle, struggling to find the balance she mentions. Typically, my struggle ends up with me talking a lot about writing, and then getting distracted by everything else. Like, the sun shining. My cat Layla sneezing. Texting my friends. Falling asleep. It's ridiculous. Basically, I haven't prioritized my art. The writing.

Although Oates is clearly a writer with an incredible natural gift, it's evident that she also struggles with the notion of whether writing really is easy, or if it is a daunting task to overcome. Discussing her work on a novel, she writes:

Or am I wrong, have I always been wrong, should I perhaps have said nothing at all rather than give the impression that writing is 'easy'? For in a sense it is easy, it is utterly natural. When it isn't easy, it probably isn't much good. At the same time it is not easy at all, because it requires constant thinking, worrying, puzzling, arranging and rearranging. The organization of mountains of material. I must have 500 pages for Part II alone; which must be drastically condensed; and who is going to do this, except 'I,' in the most conscious, calculating sense of the word? One part of the personality has had its freedom, its flowing sprinting exhilarating freedom, and now another, more somber consciousness must take over....But I've circumnavigated this task for days, while thinking miserably and guiltily of the fact that it must be done: and who will do it?
I felt such relief reading this. I thought, Joyce Carol Oates gets me! Even the writing genius feels this way!

Look: here's my problem. I'm obsessed with the rush I get from writing—"its flowing sprinting exhilarating freedom"—and I'm scared to death of the rest. "The constant thinking, worrying, puzzling, arranging and rearranging." I'll write and write, loving how all the words, the sentences, the thoughts, just start flowing from my brain and appear on my screen. But then, once it comes to all that thinking and editing and rewriting and planning ... well, sometimes my brain simply shuts down.

I'm going to try to keep my brain open to all of it. And I'm starting by prioritizing my writing. After all, it's my one love that just doesn't seem to quit.

Wish me luck.

In Which I Embark on an Experiment

Hey Groupies!

Don't be scared. It's not THAT kind of experiment. What does that even mean? I really don't know.

Anyway! The experiment. The experiment!

It's kind of a crazy notion, considering how bleak the Rainbow Chronicles have been looking all of 2011. Only an average of seven posts a month? How pathetic.

I am going to write something every day for the next 10 days. And I am going to post it. And you are going to read it. And then you're going to pay me. (Just kidding. But if you want to pay me, that's fine. I accept cash, but Layla and Mufasa prefer money order.)

I'm looking at it as sort of a jump-start exercise routine for my writing brain. I've gotten so caught up writing Groupons all day long that my other writing has suffered. My blog, once a finely toned bicep, has turned to flab. Ugggh. See? I can't even think of a fucking metaphor.

And now that I have told you all about this experiment, you can scold me, via the Interwebs, if I don't follow through.

Cool? Cool.

I'm glad we had this talk, Blogger.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Searching for Lauren

A young woman walks alone at 4 a.m. She’s barefoot, perhaps with heels in hand, heading back to her apartment.

Have you ever seen this young woman? Have you ever been this young woman?

I know I have.

Indiana University student Lauren Spierer has been missing since Friday morning at approximately 4 a.m. When last seen, the 20-year-old sophomore was wearing long, back stretch pants, a white shirt, and no shoes, by the intersection of 11th and College, an intersection so familiar to me I get a mental image as soon as I hear or read it.

The picture accompanying the news stories I’ve been reading shows a pretty, tan blonde with a confident smile. Based on what I’ve read, she was at Kilroy’s Sports Bar and later, a house party. Her keys were found, but despite search efforts—which includes an impressive social networking effort—she’s still missing.

Any time I read a story about a missing young woman, my heart lurches in an incredibly specific way and I feel a sick sort of worry in my stomach. But in this instance, it feels even more shocking. It’s hard not to think: That could have been me.

Spierer was heading home to Smallwood apartments, a locale that I actually became more familiar with after I graduated from IU and was working for the university. My boyfriend at the time lived in Smallwood. (I often felt ridiculous, out of place, and/or annoyed walking in Smallwood, but that’s a story for another day.) As a student, Smallwood was not my haunt, if you will, but if you say “Smallwood,” to an IU student, he or she knows immediately where and what you’re talking about—it was one of the nicest and often coveted apartment locations around campus. So many times, heading out from Smallwood, we walked to the nearby bars and stumbled back at the late hours of the morning. Yes, nine times out of 10 I was with my boyfriend, or a group of friends, but even if you swear to yourself, “I’ll never walk home by myself late at night,” well, shit happens.

You’d think, you’d hope, that in a college town like Bloomington, a young woman—or man—should be able to safely walk home no matter what time of night or day. Maybe Spierer lost her friends at the party. Maybe she’d gotten in a fight with a friend or boyfriend and decided to head back alone. Maybe she was drunk and it didn’t cross her mind that it might be dangerous to walk home alone. Maybe she was sober and it didn’t cross her mind. Who knows. And who cares! Finding her is what matters now.

When I think, That could have been me, it is with a huge feeling of sadness for Spierer, her family, and her friends. Because it could have been any one. Even though as a student and a young staff member at the university, nine times out of 10, I never walked alone late at night, I keep thinking, maybe this was Spierer’s one out of 10 occurrence.

Poetry Slam Tuesdays: Cubicle Craze

Welcome to the Cubicle
Back to back
For hours
In this weird space
No windows or doors
Can't even sneeze in private
typing, typing, typing

Wonder if you knew
That if you turned around
At the right moment
You might catch my life on the screen
Maybe see me trying not to fall into the monitor

Back to back
For hours
Push your chair too far & run over a foot
Majority of my waking hours
Staring into a corner and a monitor

There's a wall of Post-its
And a phone that might be a prop
A printout of Prince
LOLs and Purell and Scotch tape and Pez

This is the cubicle.

How's the back of my head today?

And for poetic relief, a poem by Joyce Carol Oates!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Monday Mix Tapes: I Get Lost in My Mind

Tonight, if the Chicago weather doesn't fucking blow it, I'm going to see Iron & Wine at Millennium Park. FOR FREE.

I hope it doesn't rain, and I hope this happens, and I hope I don't cry in front of everyone if and when it does:

Also, The Head and the Heart will be playing! I wasn't familiar with them until about 10 minutes ago, but they seem lovely. Don't you agree?