Guest post by: Molly McCloskey
Author of Circles Around the Sun, Molly McCloskey appears at the Wordstock Festival on Sunday, October 9 at 4pm on the Wieden+Kennedy Stage.
My book was inspired, shaped, informed by letters – odd, because I’ve never been a fan of the epistolary novel. But I was writing non-fiction, and maybe that was the difference. In 2005 my mother presented me with a trove of family letters going back five decades. Most were between herself and her mother, detailed missives of family life that alluded to the social, political and cultural changes through which the wider world was passing. A number of the letters concerned my eldest brother, Mike, born in 1950, the first of my parents’ six children. There were also letters written by Mike himself at various ages – some perfectly lucid and full of youthful optimism; others rambling, incoherent and sometimes strangely beautiful; the more recent muted, medicated, wistful.
I was four years old when Mike left home for Duke. A young man of exceptional promise, Mike had won an academic scholarship. For the next four years, I didn’t see much of my brother. In 1972, when I was eight years old, our family moved from North Carolina to Oregon. It was there, a few months later, that Mike was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, an illness from which he has never recovered.
Throughout the 1970s, Mike was in and of the hospital. Sometimes he took off and hitched across the country, journeys that invariably ended in disorientation and homelessness. At home, he was often a figure of gloom: bizarre, unintentionally intimidating. He would sit in the family room saying nonsensical things, or laughing for no apparent reason.
By the 1980s, the more florid phase of the illness had passed, and Mike had settled in Oregon in a residential care facility. In the decades since, he has grown withdrawn, his personality muted, his capacity for emotional expression virtually non-existent.
For me, the last of my parents’ six children, that young man of exceptional promise was relegated to the unknowable past. As an adult, I found myself in a vague sort of mourning -a shadowing sadness that felt paradoxical, for I was grieving the loss of someone I could not quite remember, someone who is still alive and yet who is not, in any normal sense of the word, knowable. Schizophrenia, because of its effects on brain function, emotional expression and the capacity for meaningful communication, tends to make personal relationships difficult or impossible.
By the time I moved to Ireland in 1989, at the age of twenty-four, I had resigned myself to this state of unknowing. And then I read the letters. I began to see then who Mike had been. I saw the accomplishments, the honours, the school records set on the basketball court. I saw the celebrations, the plans, the values and opinions. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty, he’d had three serious girlfriends – intelligent, clever, independent young women who loved him for his wry humour, his underlying goodness, his beautiful eyes. He was a seeker and an explorer – hiking in the Rocky Mountains, practicing Kundalini yoga, studying for his degree in psychology. What I saw in the letters was a personality expressing itself, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to bring the two distinct halves of Mike’s life into a single story, to find the person I had been mourning, to come as close to him as it was possible to come.
I began to track down and talk to people who had known Mike well when he was younger. I travelled more often to Oregon, and spent time alone with Mike, as I hadn’t since I was ten years old. (Mike hasn’t read the book – he doesn’t read anymore – but he responded positively whenever we spoke about it.) What others told me, and what Mike himself revealed, seemed to confirm something I had long suspected: that had he not become ill, we might well have been simpatico. I felt a sense of loss then that was more personal, less abstract, than anything I’d felt before. I also became acquainted with a different kind of sadness. I had seen my parents suffering as a result of Mike’s illness; I had felt my own grief. But in coming to know better who my brother had been, I saw at closer range the enormity of his own loss.
A lot of passages from the letters my mother gave me found their way into the book. There is one in particular, from my grandmother, that encapsulates the impulse behind my wanting to write it. It was from 1976, following my parents’ divorce, when my grandmother was hoping that my mother would leave Oregon and bring her two teenagers to live with her and my grandfather in New Jersey: Whenever you are happy then we are the same. When you are sad so are we.The years pass so quickly and everyone takes to the road. At least here you should feel at home having spent all your summers here . . . This is all a message of Love. Do not worry. Come home.
What I wanted was to bring my brother home. I recall the desire clearly. I could do no such thing, of course, and I knew it. The most I could do was to tell his story, to place it alongside my own, to know him in the only way that seemed possible.
For more about Molly McCloskey and her novel go to www.mollymccloskey.com
Guest post by: Steve Almond
Author of God Bless America, Steve Almond appears at the Wordstock Festival on Saturday, October 8 at 11am on the Wordstock Community Stage, and Sunday, October 9 at 11am on the Wordstock Community Stage and 5pm on the National Endowment for the Arts Stage. He is also leading two workshops, Radical Disclosure (or Can I Really Write That About My Mother-in-Law?) on Saturday, October 8 at 1:30pm and How to Write HOT Sex Scenes Without Even Blushing! on Saturday, October 8 at 3pm. On top of all that, He is appearing at the 7th Live Wire! wordstock extravaganza on Saturday, October 8 at 8pm at the Aladdin Theater.
So I just got done reading Nicholson Baker’s new book, House of Holes. It’s filthy. Not “literary filthy,” but filthy filthy. As in, sex parts. As in, money shots. Baker has a history with the blue stuff, but this is the first time he’s totally unchained his id. It’s diverting enough as a read that I nearly missed my bus stop finishing up one sloppy scene.
I’m a big fan of anyone who writes about sex. Especially when it’s someone like Baker, who seems to recognize the cosmic absurdity of sex.
Still, I found the book kind of dispiriting.
And here’s why: because it’s not really about sex. It’s about sex as imagined by a socially progressive heterosexual male. The participants are all horny and well-endowed and mostly liberated from shame. They conduct themselves a lot like porn stars.
The problem being that the world is full of porn already. What the world lacks, and what literature ought to be providing, is a sense of what sex is actually like – in all its brutal emotional complexities.
But here’s what I think happened here in America. I think the Europeans who settled this country were religious zealots, with a deeply repressed sense of their own bodies, and the needs of those bodies. And this caused all kind of humiliation to accompany the natural compulsions of their bodies. And thus, they sought to create a new, privately held, mostly imagined breed of sexual conduct, one in which the man was always powerful and the woman was always submissive and both of them were eager and empty of doubt.
As inevitably happens in America, the folks in marketing saw how popular this new fantasy form of sex was, and ran with it. And now virtually every product in our vast late-capitalist gift catalogue comes dipped in a shiny varnish of porn.
To my way of thinking, this pornification of the culture, should make writers that much more determined to correct the record, to write about the sex we’re actually having, as opposed to the sex we wish we were having. (I apologize to those of you who already are having the sex you wish you were having. I am speaking to the rest of America, the vast and silent majority of yearners.)
Am I advocating that authors write about sex merely for my entertainment? Yeah, I guess I am. But I also want them to write more about sex because our feelings about sex constitute a huge part of our lives: our desires, our wishes, our dreams, our shame, our regrets. All these emotions are centrally located in our sexual interactions.
Let me put it this way: I am often asked – thanks to all the smut in my books – why I write about sex so much. And I always want to say, What are you, crazy? I don’t write about sex half as much as I think about it!
I also always want to ask my literary comrades why they don’t write about sex. Again, I’m not advocating undressing your characters for the purposes of titillation. I’m suggesting undressing your characters because that’s one of the times where they become the most real. The idea is to lay them bare psychologically.
Think about it: when is sex not emotionally interesting? Never. The answer is never. Even boring sex is charged with a bruising disappointment. (If you don’t believe me, read Stephen Elliot’s My Girlfriend Comes to the City to Beat Me Up.) One of the most thrilling passages in all of literature concerns a woman struggle to climax (hint: it’s in Mary Gordon’s Spending.) Even good old Hemingway writes a humdinger of a sex scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
It is my own didactic and totally ridiculous view that American writers have a sacred duty to write about sex, and to do so in a way that cuts beneath the slick XXX fantasies we’ve vomited unto the world.
We’ve spent far too much of our national history hiding from the ruthless and tender things that happen to our hearts when our bodies are unleashed.
The time has come to correct the record, one brave citizen at time.
Who’s with me?
Here’s where Steve Almond says you can find more info
On Web: www.stevenalmond.com
On FaceDork: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Steve-Almond/105908579252
Guest post by: Ismet Prcic
Author of Shards, Ismet Prcic appears at the Wordstock Festival on Saturday, October 8 at 1pm on the McMenamins Stage.
I wrote Shards because people kept telling me to do it. Not the book that’s now being published mind you, but its precursor, a story about how I escaped the war and came to America. This is how it all started. I was twenty, living in a bachelor pad with my best friend Eric and he would take me around to meet his family, friends, to meet strangers at parties. And every time he would simply push me into the middle of a room and say: “This guy is from Bosnia. He survived the war and shit.” He would then go and suck on a Becks in some corner while strangers swarmed around me, asking for a story. Not that I hated it. I’m a theater dork. I would put on this Izzy persona and go nuts working the room.
But what I noticed was that, over time, I had started to exaggerate. My story became more and more dramatic, my role in it more and more heroic, and these strangers — who didn’t know what a wuss I am in real life — believed me. I asked myself what the hell is the difference between story and this so-called reality. Perhaps, reality is just a story that people believe or agree on.
Enter another complication. Having told this new story so many times I started to believe it myself. Gradually I became unsure what was true. The line of demarcation between my memories and the stories based on those memories was turning more and more transparent.
It got to be very creepy. I had been telling people that I was attacked by an Alsatian when I was a kid and that was the reason why I was so deathly scared of dogs. At a party, someone’s dog would sneak into the house from the backyard and I would freak out, climb the stairs into the attic, tearing through people and things in the process. Sudden barking would cause me to flash back, led to panic attacks. Then, on one of my annual sabbaticals to Bosnia, a family member would tell a nice story of how our late cousin Garo was attacked by an Alsatian. Whoa, whoa, wait a minute! If it wasn’t me who was attacked then what the hell was I flashing back to? Wherefrom this paranoia?
This landed me on a therapist’s settee and I have consequently rationalized that, due to PTSD, I was probably flashing back on all the loud sounds, not just sudden barking. It turns out memory is unreliable, particularly when you experience a prolonged traumatic event in your life. Our lives are stories we tell first ourselves, then to the others, stories we constantly edit in order to fit them into larger and larger communal narratives. Shards is my personal attempt to capture the volatility of “reality” perceived by a shattered mind and make these abstractions visceral.
I’m cool with dogs now as long as they keep their silly little faces outside of nipping distance.
NEA did a feature on Ismet that you can see at http://www.nea.gov/features/writers/writersCMS/writer.php?id=10_23. Or you can check out Ismet’s own site: http://www.ismetprcic.com/index.html
One of Wordstock’s themes this year is history, and one of the ways we have decided to celebrate history at this year’s festival is by creating a collection of literary and cultural artifacts that faithfully document this moment in Portland’s culture. With the help of our friends at the Dill Pickle Club, we’re creating a Time Capsule.
The purpose of this project is to take a snapshot of Portland’s literary and cultural communities by documenting the changes happening in our city’s artistic landscape. We want to celebrate the cultural work often forgotten by “official history”: Read more »
This installment concludes Wordstock’s serialization of Part One of Only Milo, the new novel by Barry Smith. Barry Smith appears at the Festival on Sunday, October 10, at 11am on the Wordstock Stage.
At the time of my interrogation, I didn’t know
Christina had already spilled the beans.
We’d been kept apart throughout the day. I thought
maybe they thought maybe Christina was involved in
Read more »