Ian Fleming and Eric Ambler do it Better: How to Paint a Villain

I love the James Bond movies so it’s only natural that I’d love the books, but reading the books was always one of those things that fell to the bottom of my “to do eventually (but actually never)” list. Continue reading “Ian Fleming and Eric Ambler do it Better: How to Paint a Villain”

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What is Good Writing? Evan S. Connell’s "Mrs. Bridge"

This semester, I signed up for a class called “Thickening the Plot,” taught by a petite funny lady with short, grey-blonde hair and round glasses. When she smiles, her eyes get small and you can see her gums, which my mother tells me is a sign of a person not to be trusted. But I think for this professor, I’ll make an exception.

I heard her speak at orientation. She was one of three women who were assigned to speak to the non-fiction students, and she was the most humorous and open. She sat comfortably in her chair, leaning slightly back with her legs loosely crossed in comparison to the other two women, who were writers too, but I think less well known. They sat more primly, hands clasped in their laps and a nervous look on their faces as though they hoped they wouldn’t be called on. It’s always funny to me when professors act like elementary school students. Sometimes on campus I see a professor eating alone, or walking somewhere with their heads bent low or absorbed in something on their phones, hoping I think, not to be recognized or approached. In class, they come alive. They turn on. But this professor, of the short graying hair and the round glasses, is always on. She was not my professor then, but at orientation she strode to the podium to welcome us in a clear but slightly warbly voice, and cracked a few non-funded MFA jokes (something about Columbia being expensive, but worth it…she hopes). Those of us who were feeling awkward or on the verge of dozing off awoke, relieved to be laughing and charmed by this slight woman, dressed rather mannishly in slacks and sensible brown shoes, and whose voice and manner of speaking indicated that in fact, she had a steely writer’s core and strong opinions. 
I immediately thought: “I don’t know what she’s teaching but I want to be in her class.” I wasn’t the only one. I furtively pulled out my phone and emailed the course administrator while the professor spoke, noticing from my peripheral vision several other students doing the same thing. A while later I received an unsurprising response: “Her class has a pretty long waiting list, but I’ll see what I can do.” 
I took matters into my own hands and showed up on the first day of her class along with a half dozen of other hopefuls. We crowded into the small, sparsely furnished seminar classroom, with tables arranged to sit fifteen comfortably but were now meant for twenty, and waited as she called roll of the lucky twenty students that had the good sense to sign up early. Then she turned to those of us who weren’t on the roll.
“I can’t promise anything,” she said, “But it looks like we’ll fit.”
I looked around the room. There were about eight of us seated alongside the walls, removed from tables which could only seat twenty. It was a fire hazard, but yes, we did fit. 
A week later I was on the roll, and already immersed in the reading list.  
The professor it turns out, is much stricter than her easy manner suggests. She dislikes it when we leave the room to use the restroom, which for me and my unfortunate pea-sized bladder, is an issue. There is a possibility I will end the semester with a kidney infection. She also dislikes it when we eat because most of the packaged foods (granola bars, chips, sandwich wrappers) students prefer are wrapped in a noisy materials like that hybrid aluminum cellophane. It is too noisy and disruptive. This is also a problem because I like eating. Especially in class. But her ears are quite sensitive, and she’s asked me twice now, to put my granola bar away (I forget because we only have class once a week, so it hasn’t been ingrained yet. My almost Pavlovian response to sitting down in class is to take out a granola bar). But I am working on being sensitive to that.

She has an iphone, an unexpected gadget for a woman who put her phone number down on the syllabus. 

“I really prefer you call me,” she said, “anytime between nine and nine. It’s just so much faster.” 
Her students, raised on email, instant and text messaging, looked at her curiously. 
I’m not saying the class is a disappointment. I didn’t sign up for a comedy show, after all, but nor did I sign up to hear my classmates expound on the novels we are reading. But that’s a seminar for you. The takeaway, I suppose, is the professor’s taste, revealed in her carefully curated reading list. I can’t quantify the monetary value of a good reading list because there is none, or if there is, it won’t become apparent until many years down the line, when I sell some ten thousand words for a few hundred dollars, (if I’m lucky), or recall it during a thoughtful afternoon lull, contemplating the profundity of the life I’m living and how near or far it is to/from the life I thought I would live, et cetera, et cetera. That sort of thing. It is, if I were to label generously, a foundation of sorts – a slow, cooking type of education that just happens to cost as much as an MBA. 
Apart from Ian McEwan, I did not recognize any of the other authors on the list. The subjects range from homeless people to farming to Lyndon Johnson to lesbianism (a graphic novel!). Each book represents a different approach/technique to plot development, something non-fiction writers struggle with because much of the time, we don’t know how things are going to unfold or end. Now, three weeks in, we’ve arrived at Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, a novel about a lonely woman and her family, which despite its dull cover directed at prim, repressed women of a certain age, will probably be one of my favorites this year. 
Anyway. Other people do it better, and I am lucky to be learning, both in person and on paper, from such people: 
From the first vignette of Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell: 
1. Love and Marriage 

Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did. 

Now and then while she was growing up the idea came to her that she could get along very nicely without a husband, and, to the distress of her mother and father, this idea prevailed for a number of years after her education had been completed. But there came a summer evening and a young lawyer named Walter Bridge: very tall and dignified, red-haired, with a grimly determined, intelligent face, and rather stoop-shouldered so that even when he stood erect his coat hung lower in the front than in the back. She had known him for several years without finding him remarkable in any way, but on this summer evening, on the front porch of her parents’ home, she toyed with a sprig of mint and looked at him attentively while pretending to listen to what he said. He was telling her that he intended to become rich and successful, and that one day he would take his wife -“whenever I finally decide to marry” he said, for he was not yet ready to commit himself – one day he would take his wife on a tour of Europe. 

Edward Hopper Summer Evening  1947 Oil on Canvas, Private Collection

A few months after her father died she married Walter Bridge and moved with him to Kansas City, where he had decided to establish a practice. 
All seemed well. The days passed, and the weeks, and the months, more swiftly than in childhood, and she felt no trepidation, except for certain moments in the depth of the night when, as she and her new husband lay drowsily clutching each other for reassurance, anticipating the dawn, the day, and another night which might prove them both immortal, Mrs. Bridge found herself wide awake. During this moments, resting in her husband’s arms, she would stare at the ceiling, or at his face, which sleep robbed of strength, with an uneasy expression, as though she saw or heard some intimation of the great years ahead. 

She was not certain what she wanted from life, or what to expect from it, for she had seen so little of it, but she was sure that in some way – because she willed it to be so – her wants and her expectations were the same. 

For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when he fell asleep. Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was when she awoke more frequently, and looked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men, doubtful of the future, until at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire. Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep. 

This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not. 

Because Other People Do it Better (Writing about New York Edition): Adam Gopnik

Very Highbrow New York

In my personal statements for certain schools, I’m asked to list authors who’ve influenced me – and even though I’m afraid of the admissions people reading my list and then reading my writing sample and saying, “Well here’s a shameless imitator,” I have to be honest. Influences are influences, and of the many essayists I read and love (David Sedaris, Betsy Lerner, Joan Didion, Joseph Epstein, et. al.), Adam Gopnik stands out above the rest.  Continue reading “Because Other People Do it Better (Writing about New York Edition): Adam Gopnik”

Sunday Afternoon Blather

I’m always thinking about writing, but lately, not writing much. I start and stop, start and stop. Stop. And. Stop.

I get into the swing of things – concentrate on not making dumb mistakes at work, which makes me a little sad to see how much brain power it takes. I often wonder how thinly I’m slicing my attention-span, and realize that even when I have down time, my mind is spread over so many things that I can’t even read an entire article in the NY Times without having to blink and ask myself, “Did I absorb any of that?” 
I can blame the internet. Twitter. Before, I didn’t understand its draws until I slowly started to follow more and more people, who also give me a complex with how much content they can churn out even there. It’s like, “Oh great. All these other greater, better Tweeters…” I am now suffering writer’s block on the 140-character level. 
Hopefully what I believe is true and not just a little lie I tell myself to prevent the one morning and find that my soul’s been crushed (okay, that’s as little dramatic), but I tell myself that I’m collecting stories. One day, everything I see, smell and hear will come pouring out of me in not just one but many great works. In this day and age, I’m not even sure I’m talking about paper and books – perhaps just the next great blog entry, waiting to be circulated, reblogged, retweeted, liked. 
A few months ago I reached out to the assistant before me for some question I hope she had the answer to. The question itself wasn’t important – I finally had an excuse to cyber tap her on the shoulder and say, “Hey, why didn’t you stay?” 
The answer is obvious, to anyone who’s been in this position, but at the same time I am in this position and I am still here, and willing to stay too, at least for a while. 
She replied, “I had a great time there. Your boss is really cool to work for and I made a lot of great friends. The atmosphere was good, but I didn’t want to stay somewhere just because I was “comfortable.” 
Her reply was gracious, considering some of her ex-workers were not exactly kind to her legacy, but it made me think. She went on to say that she was actually pursuing her dream career in marketing and that she was looking forward to getting her MBA at UCLA. To her, those were the markers of personal success – finding herself in her chosen field, getting the requisite degree to add another 20-30K to her salary, and hopefully, a few years down the line, the ability to look back and say, “I’ve done what I wanted to do.”

A few years ago, I made a promise to myself: No Regrets. As a writer, this is of paramount importance. Every “mistake,” every “detour” is a story. It was around the time I was enrolling at Berkeley, filled with anxiety for the coming semester, wondering if I could still hack it as a college student at a big university. A masochist, I logged onto Facebook and saw the graduation postings and congratulations of my old roommates at NYU – they had stuck it through and were now best college girlfriends. I examined their bright eyes, their similar outfits and mused about their plans after graduation. I wondered. Had I stayed, would my face have been in those photographs, stuck close to theirs with a giant, triumphant grin? (Probably not, as they were whiter than white, from Texas and Connecticut).

I let my imagination go – I imagined making arrangements for my mom and brother to attend the graduation (my father doesn’t do these things) and picking which restaurants to take them too and filling them in on my recent interviews… what would I have majored in? I could picture all the fun stuff no problem, but the key components I had trouble filling in – it was like watching a movie with poorly developed characters and no plot. I backed away then, realizing I couldn’t imagine a whole other life for myself because I was very solidly and happily (if not somewhat anxiously) planted in the one I was living.

So. No Regrets. I said it out loud and pushed forward. 

“The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” 
                                                                      -Edgar Allan Poe 

Because Milan Kundera Does It Better: "The Hitchhiking Game"

From Milan Kundera’s short story “The Hitchhiking Game,” in that book I’m reading right now. A crazy creepy sad love story – you know it will end badly because he doesn’t bother to name his characters. Remember that movie “Closer” with the most menacing Clive Owen, sexual Julia Roberts, spineless Jude Law and saddest Natalie Portman you’ve ever seen? The story is kind of like that. I recommend it, but not if you’re in a relationship.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt like this:

“She always blushed in advance at the idea that she was going to blush. She longed to feel free and easy about her body, the way most of the women around her did. She had even invented a special course in self-persuasion: she would repeat to herself that at birth every human being received on out of millions of available bodies, as one would receive an allotted room out of millions of rooms in an enormous hotel; that consequently the body was fortuitous and impersonal, only a ready-made, borrowed thing. She would repeat this to herself in different ways, but she could never manage to feel it. This mind-body dualism was alien to her. She was too much at one with her body; that is why she always felt such anxiety about it.

Rene Magritte The Rape, 1934

“She experienced this same anxiety even in her relations with the young man, whom she had known for a year and with whom she was happy, perhaps because he never separated her body from her soul, and she could live with him wholly. In this unity there was happiness, but it is not far from happiness to suspicion, and the girl was full of suspicions…She wanted him to be completely hers and herself to be completely his, but it often seemed to her that the more she tried to give him everything, the more she denied him something: the very thing that a light and superficial love or a flirtation gives a person. It worried her that she was not able to combine seriousness with lightheartedness.”

Rene Magritte The Lovers, 1928

C.S. Lewis Gives Good Advice

From a new favorite website: www.brainpickings.org

Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do (2) Things we’ve gotto do (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don’t like because other people read them. Things you ought to do are things like doing one’s school work or being nice to people. Things one has got to do are things like dressing and undressing, or household shopping. Things one likes doing — but of course I don’t know what you like. Perhaps you’ll write and tell me one day.
Nearly a decade later, in a letter dated July 18, 1957, Lewis revisit the subject of duty’s false deities with another little girl, Joan:
perfect man wd. never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (or own loves, tastes, habits etc) can do the journey on their own!