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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

The Point of the Women's March

The Point of the Women's March? This seems to be a question, so I'd like to answer it personally:

I marched in the first women's NYC movement in 1970 and vividly remember red-faced men on the sidelines screaming, "Get back in the kitchen where you belong." It was scary. I was 19 and was there because two "older" women at the company where I was an intern ordered me to come with them. Many of us were angry, but only in correlation to how scared we were.

When I marched on 1/21/17, it was an epiphany, an ecstatic event. I learned that everything had indeed changed for the better. I was not scared; I was elated. Police wore pink hats, smiled, and were helpful. The crowds were humongous and peaceful. The world joined this march. It was not merely a march to protest Trump's misogyny. It was not merely to fight for women's equal pay, right to determine what our bodies will and will not do, or any other single issue.  Read More 
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May We All Remain Shocked!

Thousands of us gathered at today's massive #WritersResist #LouderTogether demonstration at the 42nd Street NY Public Library. The purpose: to send a message as only a mob of angry writers can to Donald Trump that we will not stand for any incursion or threats to our First Amendment right to free expression and a free press. The afternoon was stunning with stories. Highlights:

(1) When founder of the movement Erin Belieu recounted the night she was making dinner for her excited teenage son who wants to be a historian and Trump came on the TV imitating the disabled reporter—whose disability is similar to her son's . . . and his reaction to seeing this.

(2) PEN America president Andrew Solomon's story of hearing from another writer whose country had become fascist. "You're shocked now," the man said, "but you'll be surprised at how little you react six months from now." And Solomon's vow to "Remain shocked!"

And (3) Rosanne Cash's reading of Leonard Cohen's lyrics to "Democracy" (1992):
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Fierce Love

I've been posting and processing my reactions to this election through a fictional character, Zelda McFigg, the protagonist of my novel The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, on Facebook—writing letters to Zelda and her answers. Writing through a surrogate frees me, but yesterday's post felt more like a conversation between my true self and me:

Dear Zelda,
I'm so sad. I watched President Obama's last press conference and he seemed resigned to what's about to happen. I wanted fury. I wanted something to change our direction and save us from the abyss of unbridled lies and hate.
Sincerely,
Dismayed

Dear Sad Child,
Ah, the desire for Superman—somebody to magically swoop in and make everything all right. Don't you realize, it is this same desire that invited what and who is entering? There is no Superman. There is no magic. But if you really listened to what Obama said, you may have heard the source of real change, real power, real safety: It is up to each of us to individually hold to what's dear to us. Having made all these mistakes and having suffered the rather severe consequences, I have learned there is only one dear thing: a fierce, maybe even furious, Love.
Yours sincerely,
Zelda McFigg


What is Fierce Love?

I've been contemplating this, and the descriptors come like river water:

Fierce Love is grounded in the knowing that kindness, compassion, and basic goodness are more important than I am. But the energy of Fierce Love is like a raging fire—unstoppable.

Fierce Love has respect for others—people, animals, plants, our planet—recognizing that all have worth. So the intent of Fierce Love fire is not vengeful; it is not hate-based or in any way disrespectful. But it is aligned with values that are more important than even the person through whom it is flowing.

Therefore Fierce-Loving people have already surrendered their lives to this energy.
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Our Revolution—Education, not Blame

It's been decades since I've faced racial and ethnic hatred up close, but when these things happen, they scar you. Hence, my fear at the proliferation of swastikas following our 2016 presidential election. I don't like feeling this kind of fear, and education helps lower my heart rate as I stay engaged. I read Bernie Sanders's Our Revolution because I needed educating, and if that is your goal, this is the book—whether you are a Bernie true believer, a Clinton supporter, or a Trump voter whose motivation was to take a sledge hammer to a system that is not working and is ignoring millions of people.

The first section of this book is a methodical educational walk through recent politics—absolutely excellent, clear-eyed, and optimistic (particularly the Burlington story which comes near the beginning of the book), no matter who you voted for! If you can ignore your particular biases, you will receive an education in oligarchy, which has been the direction of U.S. politics for a long, long time—whoever has money gets their way.

The political power of the oligarchs goes well beyond their campaign contributions and ability to influence elections. As a result of their ownership of media, think tanks, university chairs, and political front groups, they influence American public opinion and domestic and foreign policy in ways that few realize. (190)


The second section of this book is a manifesto about what exists now and how to create something else for all of us who want fairness, the ability to make a living, safety, and acknowledgement. There is a lot of detail, heavy facts—so much knowledge that I wondered how Sanders can contain it without having his head explode as mine kept threatening to do. But education is not easy. And it can be pretty scary to learn the why and how of oligarchy. At times, I felt panicked and overwhelmed. But I would rather feel those things than not know. There are reasons behind Sanders's campaign talking points about the top 2% owning all the wealth being a bad idea, about why raising the minimum wage is a good thing and how it can be done, and the section on reforming Wall Street is an alarming "Paul Revere"-type equal-opportunity indictment of Democrats and Republicans that left me gasping. Read More 

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A Call to My Ancestors

I am calling on my Ashkenazi ancestors for support. Literally—please hug me! I need your resilience. You, who migrated from East Africa to Central and Eastern Europe. You who originate from the early indigenous tribes of this region.

According to an analysis of my DNA, I know that you were solo thinkers who, while others were procreating like rabbits, set about figuring out how to domesticate seeds and feed everyone. You must have been strong. Very strong and focused and confident to ignore the rabble and stay with your task—although, obviously, some of you procreated or I wouldn't be here.

When I was young, all I saw was a lineage of craziness that I disowned.

At age 65, living in turbulent times, I feel your music. There are many musicians and artistic people who came before me. There are Russian Jews who survived the pogroms and settled in an unknown land. There are intellectuals who, although they may not have been so good at people skills, revered knowledge and wisdom that is no doubt a legacy I enjoy.

I call on you to embrace me. Read More 

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Different Seasons by Stephen King

Masterful writing and storytelling.

I've stayed away from Stephen King's books because I do not like being scared and I was under the impression that he wrote horror. He does. But in this book of four novellas, the horror is rooted in the normal human being's shadow (to use Jung's nomenclature). And the fact that it is exposed and played out through such exquisite writing makes it all the more horrifying. And the beauty of the writing makes the ugliness more ugly and also tolerable.

Sometimes a writer who is writing for a deep personal reason (and not all writers do) will expose his motivation. For me, King's M.O. came in this quote from the novella called Apt Pupil about an all-American sociopathic boy who gets involved with a Nazi, living incognito, in his small town:

The things that happened in those camps still have power enough to make the stomach flutter with nausea. . . . maybe there is something about what the Germans did that exercises a deadly fascination over us—something that opens the catacombs of the imagination. Maybe part of our dread and horror comes from a secret knowledge that under the right—or wrong—set of circumstances, we ourselves would be willing to build such places and staff them. Black serendipity. Maybe we know that under the right set of circumstances the things that live in the catacombs would be glad to crawl out. (250)

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3 Riveting Naked-People Novels by Herman Koch

In an NPR interview, the internationally best-selling Dutch author Herman Koch was asked about reader reaction to his first English-translated novel, The Dinner, a disturbing story about people doing despicable things and enabling their children to get away with horrifying crimes. In reply, Koch said, "It goes from people saying, 'Well, this seemed a nice man in the beginning, but in the end he is not,' to put it mildly. And there is another part of the readers who say, 'Finally, a character in a book who actually does what we are all thinking.' This is the other extreme. Sometimes I noticed that in southern countries, they see it more like a social criticism. And in Holland and in northern countries, they see it more as the storyline, or the actual question of: How far would you go to protect the ones you love?" I live in the USA, which I guess qualifies as a southern country, and I certainly fall into the latter category.

Herman Koch has remarkable writer's gifts: X-ray vision for the hidden thoughts and inner workings of everyone from an old man to a teenage girl, perfect pitch for dialogue, and such command of structure and plot that my persnickety editor's mind disappears and I read with a fan's full abandon, confident that I can give myself totally to the unfolding story. Here are three briefs about his novels:

Dear Mr. M
The plot of Koch's newest book (Hogarth, Sept. 6, 2016) is complex with so many subtle turns and such heart-pounding tension in the last hundred pages that I literally could not put it down. Suffice it to say there are a group of school kids in Holland. There is a teacher. There is a writer. And they all weave together in a kind of murder mystery—but ignore what I just said because this is not a typical mystery. It's not a typical anything. It is an exposition of the inner workings of humans at their worst and a bleak philosophical treatise about good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, the nobility of action vs. inaction, the vicissitudes of power to create balance, loss of innocence and the nature of existence that is so well done that, even though my own philosophy about the final nature-of-life topic is quite different, having just finished reading, all I can do is bounce from couch to computer, yelling "Yay! Bravo!" The book is riveting, entertaining, and magnificently rendered.

In Dear Mr. M, an anonymous letter writer says to the author (M) he is stalking that M has a kind of obscene expression: "You're not looking at the reader, no, you're challenging him to look at you—to keep looking at you. It's like one of those contests to see who'll avert their eyes first; a contest the reader always loses." I suspect Herman Koch, too, does this. Not once during his virtual gaze that permeates the story does he blink. But neither did I. I was too enthralled, drawn by an ineffable magnetic force into his meticulously honest creation exposing how we really are.  Read More 
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Longing for Literary Fame?

More than thirty years ago I experienced my "15 minutes" when I played a naked lesbian in John Sayles's movie Lianna. Until that event, I thought of fame as a means to finding more work, but if I'm honest, I also thought I would enjoy the attention. The movie opened just a few blocks from my home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, so I was constantly jarred out of my anonymous New Yorker's walking fugue by people noticing me—either as they exited the movie theater, which sighting caused them to shake their heads with disbelief, certain that they were hallucinating, or when they passed me on the sidewalk or stood on line behind me, whereupon they'd loudly ask whoever was near, "What is she doing here?" as if I were an inanimate, or at least deaf, object. It was not fun, and it escalated to really not fun because, like most unemployed actors, I was doing temp jobs to make money; suddenly this "me as an object" phenomenon was interfering with my comfort at work. My private-nobody-else's business became the focus of subtle or not-so-subtle probing: was I or wasn't I (a lesbian)? And, for reasons I've never understood, my answer (no) seemed to cause a lot of people confusion or distress.

I stopped acting long ago and have been a professional writer and editor for the last couple of decades. In today's cultural and literary climate, writers are encouraged to become popular in order to sell books. Even if we aren't selfie junkies, we are supposed to post on social media, "engage" with our audience if we are lucky enough to have one, or develop an audience by interacting. We should do so while being mindful that nobody likes to be "sold to," so experts advise to post 90 percent social content and only 10 percent about our books. The message is: Become famous by being nice, publicly interested in other people (the private stuff doesn't matter), supportive, and above all else, authentic—so that people (who hopefully love what we write) feel that they know the real us and will want to reciprocate by buying, talking about, and being eager to read our next books.

If this process is not natural to us (and I would wager few writers find this natural), we can combat it with fantasies: if I just write something popular, if maybe a famous person loves it and talks it up, then I won't have to do any of this, and fame will come, and I can sell more books and live happily ever after.

[Read the rest of the article on Lithub]










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3 Literary Novels that Reinvent Language

For years I’ve been told that my writing is “not safe.” I take this as a compliment. But it’s also the cause for problems: How does an agent sell such work? How can one communicate about it to readers? After much teeth gnashing, my literary agent finally figured out how to place my work in a genre: “You don’t sound like anyone else,” she pronounced. That was my genre—not like anyone else. “Yes,” I said ecstatically. “Yes, and that’s my favorite kind of book to read: writers with original voices.”

Who but Alice Walker could have ever written The Color Purple? John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide in despair and whose mother finally published A Confederacy of Dunces, was one of a kind. And more recently Emma Donoghue’s Room, which is written in a child’s language all its own, was such a hit it has been turned into a popular Hollywood movie. But, except for the rare writer who achieves fame with something out of left field (Haruki Murakami, for instance) and becomes his own "brand," these books are not the rule. Most popular books fit into a standard genre: women’s fiction, young adult, mystery, etc. I like these books too, but the books I love, the ones that get inside me and change me, are those that are written, and had to be written, by writers who used their original voices. Here are three such books:

The Summer That Melted Everything (St. Martin’s Press, July 26, 2016) by Tiffany McDaniel

Imagine the best Southern writers of many eras, plus a serving of a script by Shirley Jackson produced in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, with a touch of futuristic Kurt Vonnegut seasoning, all cooked with an imagination that belongs only to Tiffany McDaniel.

The setting is the fictional small town of Breathed, Ohio, during the abnormally hot summer of 1984. The story is told by a man called Fielding Bliss (son of the town’s prosecutor, Autopsy Bliss)—from his point of view in a future none of us have yet lived.

At Autopsy’s invitation, because he cannot live with being certain and wrong, he invites the devil to Breathed; surely the devil will be someone he is certain about and right. A boy shows up claiming to be the devil. And all hell breaks loose.

This is a poetic parable about how, in fear, driven by our herd instinct, in the high heat of unexamined beliefs, we humans easily and instantly allow common sense to be melted away. It is about our species—beings who have not been accepted as they are, disappointed in themselves, similarly rejecting themselves and then others. Paradise Lost. (Each chapter begins with an epigraph from the Milton poem.)

This book has an epic quality. The writing is unusual. Is life an ongoing tragedy? This story is one to live with and contemplate. And the mystery of how a debut book can be this mature is solved in this interview; it's the "fifth or sixth" book McDaniel has written! Read More 
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Reflections on “Hold Still” by Sally Mann

Earthy, fierce, sensual, and elegant—that is the nature of this person, the gorgeous writing, and also, it seems, the nature of the American South, as expressed by photographer Sally Mann in her stunning autobiography. Just like the cover which shows a child “holding still” mid-jump, surrounded by sky, the writing manages to simultaneously move and hold you.

Sally Mann and I are the same age, we occupied the same territory for a time (same class at Bennington), but I don’t recall knowing her. If I did meet her, I’m sure I took one look at the ferocious expression in her eyes—illustrated in some of the many photographs in this book and acknowledged by her—and I would have given her a wide berth. She describes herself as a “feral child.” Funny, because I’ve used the same words to describe myself at that time. But where she was fearless, I was afraid of anything and everything. Where she moved forward with jet propulsion, I free fell. But I think now we would be friends.

She is honest, self-aware, and naked about her personality proclivities:

“. . . I have always been susceptible to some form of opportunistic sorrow—of the deepest, most soul-wrenching, step-off-the-cliff variety.” (203)

In a world filled with people (and media) who move seamlessly from true grief to exaggerated, self-feeding “opportunistic sorrow,” I think this is the first time I’ve ever read it admitted and so well named, and it made me cheer.  Read More 

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