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Monday, January 14, 2013

Quick Thoughts: Diary Details.

When I read my own journals from several years ago, the parts I like most are the daily details: what I was reading, what I ate for dinner, what came in the mail, and what I bought at the grocery store. These are also the kinds of details that are fascinating in historical diaries. So I remind myself to record details that may seem mundane because someday, I or someone else in the future may love those tiny discoveries.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Best Supporting Moments: The Envelope at the Mall

I was eight. I remember being on plane next to my dad on our way to his parents' house for Christmas. He was telling me that he'd bought tickets to a musical for Mom as a Christmas gift. I asked about the story. He said he thought it was something about a crazy guy who lives in the attic at the Opera House. It sounded fantastic.

I couldn't stop thinking about it, and Dad didn't know enough to satisfy my curiosity. Luckily, my grandparents, who had already introduced the thrilling world of musicals to me through videos from Carousel to Gigi, had seen the show and had the soundtrack. They even had a souvenir program with gorgeous photos, which they later gave to me.

Grandpa let me use his Discman, pretty new and fancy at the time. I remember spending most of that trip in a wing back chair in the quiet formal living room, listening to the two CDs over and over and studying the booklet with the libretto.

I think I knew then that I had a darkness in me, an oppressive sadness and terror, something that my parents couldn't understand or even really see, something that would probably leave me isolated forever. Phantom gave external shape to that, made it more okay, made me wonder if it was or could be what Phantom, many years later in Love Never Dies, would call "the beauty underneath," and that maybe, unlike him, I would find someone who could look directly at that and love me anyway.

I wasn't conscious of all that at the time of course; in fact, it wasn't until a year or two ago that I realized that I had always identified not with Christine but with Erik (apart from the murderous tendencies, literal deformities, and extreme genius). But I knew that this was vital, likely one of the most important and impacting discoveries of my life. By the time we went home, I knew every note and every word.

Grandpa ensured that I had always had a Walkman, usually a freebie with Radio Shack or Circuit City purchases. He soon took me to actually buy one, asking the salesperson for a sturdier model. I remember Grandpa's saying, "Oh, no, she doesn't abuse it. She just plays it until it breaks." I don't remember exactly how I ended up with the soundtrack--just the highlights on tape. Maybe Nanna and Grandpa had a tape for the car and gave it to me. In any case, my life could continue.

I remember the night Mom and Dad went to the play. I was sick with jealous sadness but trying so hard to be happy for them, for the life-altering experience they were about to have. I think one or both of them had said something about it being too scary for me to see anyway, and I knew that tickets cost more than I could fathom. Somehow, though, I knew that they would not appreciate the wonder the way I would. As my mother put me to bed that night, I said, "Please--tomorrow, tell me everything, everything."

The details she remembered weren't sufficient to fulfill my hopes, but in my parents' compassion, they had bought me a souvenir program with a white cover. Oh. I lost it at some point later--a heartbreak I feel even now.

We were at the mall, probably Hickory Hollow in Nashville. I think I remember a rush of after-Christmas sales. Dad disappeared for a while. I was melancholy. I remember the sudden cold and dark as we entered the parking deck to find our car and go home. Dad held something out: a slim envelope with advertisements on it. I was confused. I opened the envelope and saw block letters on purple and white. Eventually, the letters came together, and I understood.

Two tickets. My daddy was taking me to see Phantom. I don't know if I could even speak, but I remember the sensation of my ribs cracking open and my heart trying to shoot up to the top of the deck. Wonder of wonders, something I never expected.

And it did change my life. It opened wide a new world of music and musicals. But Phantom has kept my heart for almost twenty years. About a month ago, I had finally started on a second medication (which required me to stop nursing earlier than I wished) to help me through a returning and worsening depression that was pressing my face harder and harder into the ground. I didn't know if the medicine or my own efforts were working. But then, I suddenly started listening to, looking at photos from, pondering, researching, and talking about Phantom and its sequel Love Never Dies again, as I hadn't done actively for years. And I realized that yes, I was getting better. An essential part of myself, a soaring shade of my soul, which my parents and grandparents made possible through some strange intuitive understanding (no, they didn't understand, but they knew) and mercy, had returned to me.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Today's Literature.

I wrote this for the introductory discussion in the current American literature class I'm teaching:

When I studied creative writing as a graduate student, I realized how important contemporary literature was and what a complex range of work was available to me. I spent a year reading dozens of books of contemporary poetry. I realized that in order to be a successful poet, I had to understand how poetry has changed from the rhyming sonnets I read in high school. I've also focused on contemporary novels, short stories, and memoirs, watching new releases in bookstores, at the library, and through magazines. I used to scoff at the idea of current novels, and contemporary poetry confused me. But now I realize how important contemporary literature is for me both as a writer and as a contemporary person. It helps me understand who I am and the world in which I become myself.

Of course, I feel my inadequacy in keeping up with contemporary literature, certainly in reading it but also just in knowing about it. I have a box full of lists of authors and book titles I've noted, and many magazines with book reviews await me. But I try to be aware. Working in bookstores during and immediately after graduate school helped me with this: I saw books coming in constantly, and I touched hundreds of them every day.

I wanted to teach this class in order to to show this to students who may, like me, not know how wide and delightful the range of contemporary literature can be or who think they don't like reading because their experience is too narrow via the dreaded high school English reading lists. I will be reading these totally new essays, stories, and poems along with you, discovering them and expanded myself as a reader, lifelong learner, and writer.

Why I Write.

I wrote this for the introductory discussion in the creative writing class I'm teaching:

Writing, along with reading, is what I anticipate and hope for each day. I work hard through the day in order to earn time with my journal. Journaling is one of my greatest joys, and I use it to capture other beauties and details in my life. I use it to explore ideas, questions, and plans and to practice detailed description. Like drawing, this also forces me to pay close attention.

I love the satisfied, chest-opening feeling after I've finished a story or poem, even if it's not very good. I love the freedom and racing sense when I push through inertia and start a story or poem despite the fact that I have no idea what to write. The characters, images, and narrative always come as if by magic.

I surround myself with the tools of writing: colorful notebooks, journals, and pens; bottled ink; books. These comfort me, push me, and remind me who I am.

I've been writing stories since I was five, writing poems since I was fourteen, and keeping a journal since I was fifteen. I dedicated myself to four years of focused study on creative writing and literature in college after finishing my core classes.

When I read, I evolve as a writer. When I eat a great meal, travel, observe a beautiful art work (painting, photo, garden, craft...), have a deep conversation, or see a stranger who seems likely to be a fascinating character, I store all of this, consciously or not, for my writing life.