Category Archives: Essay

That’s Me In The Corner

That’s me in the spotlight small print.
I’ll be reading.
If you’re in the neighborhood, please come by to hold my hand listen. I’ll appreciate it. And I hear there will be wine. Lots of wine.

Peninsula Literary Series Presents
A Reading

Friday, January 27, 2012 — 7:00 p.m.
At Gallery House, 320 South California Avenue, Palo Alto
@ Birch Street, through Printer’s Inc. Cafe

Featuring: Brittany Perham, Casey FitzSimons,
and guest artist Wendy Fitzgerald

And presenting guest readers:
Teri Carter, Virginia Bellis, Jessica Hahn, and Richard Lawson

Authors will have books for sale at the reading. Donations of $5-10 gratefully accepted.

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About Featured Authors Casey FitzSimons and Brittany Perham 

Casey FitzSimons’ poetry appears in print and online in The Newport Review, Hobo Camp Review, EarthSpeak, The Prose-Poem Project, flashquake, Leveler, and others. She has been a finalist in the River Styx and Writecorner Press poetry competitions. She has collected her works annually in chapbooks, most recently No Longer Any Need (2011) and Altering the Lay of Land (2010). Casey taught art in San Francisco for many years, publishing her studio drawing book, Serious Drawing, with Prentice Hall, and reviewing many exhibitions for Artweek. She has a master’s degree in Fine Arts from San Jose State University.

Brittany Perham is the author of “The Curiosities” (Parlor Press 2012). Her recent work may be found in Southern Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, Lo-Ball, Linebreak, and elsewhere. She is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University, where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow from 2009-2011. She is a founding member of the word/music project Nonstop Beautiful Ladies and she lives in San Francisco.

If It’s Good Enough For George

In the February issue of Vanity Fair, my pal George gives his answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire.  Would you be surprised to learn his most treasured possession is a pen and a piece of paper?  That his hero of fiction is Atticus Finch?  That the thing he’d most like to change about himself would be to read more books?

Not a snarky answer in the bunch.  My George is all grown up.  And I admit he got me in the gut with his answer to “what would you change about your family?” when he said:  I’d make them young again.

He also surprised me.  His favorite writers are Mark Twain (I’d never have guess that one) and Paddy Chayefsky (who I had to Google).  Turns out Paddy is a playwright, screenwriter, and novelist; and the only person to have earned 3 solo Academy Awards for Best Screenplay.  Paddy is a much respected and renowned American dramatist.

Paddy Chayefsky.  I love making these kinds of discoveries.

Now, of course, I can’t resist asking you a few questions.  Who knows what I might learn.  And I’ll play if you will.

_________

Favorite Writers and why (I’m limiting myself to 4, because you know this list could be looooooong):

William Styron — what style, not a wasted word in the place, with long flowing complex sentences I could read over and over again.

Joan Didion — particularly for her nonfiction, a structural genius who writes what she wants and doesn’t worry about what she’s not supposed to do.

Mary Karr — raw poetry in prose, most recognizable nonfiction voice in town.

Larry McMurtry — brilliant epic storyteller, creator of unusual and conflicted characters who drive seamless plots.

__________

Best last paragraph of a book:

Jane Smiley’s A THOUSAND ACRES
“And when I remember that world, I remember my dead young self, who left me something, too, which is her canning jar of poisoned sausage and the ability it confers, of remembering what you can’t imagine.  I can’t say that I forgive my father, but now I can imagine what he chose never to remember — the goad of an unthinkable urge, pricking him, pressing him, wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self that must have seemed, when he wandered around the house at night after working and drinking, like the very darkness.  This is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all the others.”

___________

Favorite Writer You’ve Seen Speak in Person:  

Dorothy Allison.  Couldn’t take my eyes off of her.  She read a little, but spent most of her time on stage just talking like a real person, seemingly off-the-cuff, not a note in sight, about her writing and reading life.  Her remarks were like listening to a great poet put their everyday life into a regular conversation.  About a year later, I saw her perform her famous (which I didn’t know at the time) monologue, Frog Fucking, at AWP in front of hundreds of people.  It was shocking and hilarious and devastating, and the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.

___________

Your turn ….

Joan’s Voice

I read Joan Didion’s latest book in one day, pretty much in one sitting.  Once I started there was no way to stop.  Very much like THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING in form, the rhythms and repetitions in this new release will make you feel like you’ve fallen into a gently swirling eddy.  An interesting analogy considering she’s writing about grief and loss.

I’ve always been bothered by critics who dislike her voice, her stance as an outsider looking in on her experience.  They complain there’s not enough of her in the story, that she’s too remote and cold and distant; that, for an essayist, she doesn’t give nearly enough.  I would argue this slight remoteness of voice is what draws me into the narrative.  It’s magnetic.  I believe her.  I trust her.  I’m invested in what she has to say because I feel the friction in her voice.  In her last 2 books, for example, she’s writing about her grief and emotions and failings and pains without falling into a soupy mush of sentimentality.  And at the same time I can feel her resistance to revealing so much about herself.  This tension is what makes it work.

Many a memoir writer could take a lesson from Joan Didion.

What did I like most about BLUE NIGHTS?  It’s rumination on guilt-infused grief.  Many reviewers have focused on the constant repetition and the narrative shift: that the story opens with Quintana at its center, but ends with Joan’s contemplation of her own aging.  I see something completely different.  This is, simply, a story of mothers and daughters.  It opens with Joan’s focus on her maternal guilt; her worry that she was never a good enough mother, that somehow, in putting her career first, she left Quintana too often alone and uncared for.  It ends with Quintana’s guilt that she, in her early death, will leave her frail and aging mother alone and uncared for.  And time runs out before either of them has the chance to get it right.

I’ve read as much press as I can find on BLUE NIGHTS.  Here are the only 2 not to miss:

 

From The Washington Post

Nathan Heller’s article in The New York Times Magazine.  Heller doesn’t merely review the book, choosing instead to discuss the paradoxes in Joan’s writing style.  “To readers who admire her work, she is a journalist of rare candor and style, a writer who unflinchingly peels back the smooth surface of public narrative and the skin of her own psyche, opening both to scrutiny and giving magazine writing a lambent glamour in the process. In the eyes of less enthusiastic readers, she’s a histrionic prose artist, striking poses of stylish despair in precious, incantatory sentences and drawing ominous conclusions from a Ouija board of ironic detail.” 

And NPR’s Fresh Air interview with Joan Didion.  I encourage you to listen.  Listen to this voice for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.

(If you don’t have time for either, there’s a very good short interview here, at The Washington Post.)

Sometimes You Gotta Dance

Writers.  My people.  You know how most of the time we’re all by our lonesome, waiting with a bulldozer’s patience for our best ideas to flow through and out, all smooth-like?  How accustomed we are to the time alone, thinking, stewing, churning so we can get exactly what’s driving us insane sparkling in our imaginations onto paper?

And you know how, sometimes, we writers get the rare chance to stand up and read those best ideas?  Out loud, in front of other humans, on the spot-lit stage, like the shiny-happy-people?

Well, come January, I will be shiny and happy.  While nothing terrifies me more than a quiet audience, hands in laps, waiting for me to speak words into a microphone, I’m honored to have been invited to read at an upcoming literary and art showing.  I’ll do you proud.

Maybe I’ll watch this video a few times to get up my courage.  I figure I’m the horse in her stall, though I deeply long to be the ostrich towards the end.  Who do you long to be?

The Art of Fielding

As much as I try to avoid the big hype books (until the hype is long dead, at least), I’ve made an exception for the current literary darling.

I first heard of THE ART OF FIELDING when, late on a Friday night, AmyG directed me to an article in the latest Vanity Fair she called “writer porn.”  And jesus people, who among us can pass up writer porn?

AmyG was right.  If you haven’t read this long and detailed piece about how THE ART OF FIELDING came to be, stop reading this post and get ye straight to the magazine and read Keith Gessen’s phenomenal essay.  (in the print magazine only, sorry)  I’ve never read a better, more detailed and intriguing drama about how a book was written, re-written, discovered, agented, edited, negotiated, sold, marketed and, finally, set out into the world.

The writer, Chad Harbach, is also a co-founder and editor of N+1, one of my favorite lit mags.  Here’s an 8 minute review on NPR’s All Things Considered.  Chad wrote this book long-hand; he says he finds writing on the screen paralyzing.  There’s a thought.  He’s got me thinking, this Chad Harbach character, thinking about baseball and expectations and writing and success and MOBY-DICK and tragedy and secrets and long sagas and the art of great story telling.

Who wants to read this with me?  

War College

A few of us on our first day at the War College, at the front door of the Commandant's house.

In 2009, I spent a week at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA.

Isn’t that where you’d expect to find most California liberals?

The War College is where high-ranking officers spend a year getting their Masters in Strategic Studies.  To say my time there was an eye-opener would be a supreme understatement.  I arrived with my preconceived opinions and prejudices, my anger at George W. Bush, the Media, and the Conservative Company Line; I left a week later with a more open mind and 30 new friends.

You can read my essay about the experience here, on-line in War, Literature, and the Arts, out this week.

Here’s an excerpt:

____________

By the time the War College did, in fact, pick me to spend the first week of June at Carlisle Barracks, President Obama had been in office four months and I had backed off from discussing anything political with anyone.  “Wish me luck,” I said to my husband as he dropped me at the airport. “Maybe I should just wear a big Miss America banner that reads Liberal Female from California Goes to off to War College and get it over with. God, I hope they don’t hate me. What if I’m the only woman in a roomful of right-wing Army brass, alpha males?”

He said, “It’s the military. Who do you think is going to be there?”

________

I wasn’t used to the lightening-round way these people said exactly – exactly – what they thought without any politically-correct filtering, but also without coming across as defensive or self-righteous. It took me awhile to settle in. As the afternoon wore on we agreed and disagreed, agreed to disagree, raised our voices, threw our arms in the air, banged our hands on the table, and shoved our chairs back in protest. But unlike the personal attacks I’d grown so weary of recently, we did it all without the rolling eyes or the dismissive, off-handed smirk. We even laughed.

It was that first afternoon, in a roomful of strangers, when I remembered that arguing controversial topics could be civil. We listened. We made our points. We considered opposing ideals. It reminded me of being on a high school debate team where you’ve practiced how to clearly state your views and how to listen to your opposition without fuming over. This felt like that. And this was fun.

Your Words on Other Pages

This week I received galley proofs for a 20 page political essay, printed out the pages and started blue-penning the thing.

I wrote the story a year ago — about an experience that occurred a year before that, a few months into the Obama presidency — and now here it is and I’m running my eyes across phrases and a story I barely recognize.  Did I really write this?  Are the scenes out of order?  This opening is not the right opening.  Does this story, two years on, even matter anymore?  I’m itching to rewrite the whole damned thing.

I want to rewrite it, but of course I can’t.  I’m just the fixer.  My words, my story, don’t belong to me anymore.

What happens when you see your thoughts on paper, months or years later?

Redivide Me

I have an essay in the latest issue of Redivider, out this week.

It’s about relocating from Minnesota to California, about being a serial mover, but also about moving on.

Here’s a little snippet of “Dog Days of Winter.”

 

______________

 

Even Lea looks perplexed. "What's with all these boxes?"

Only then, sitting there on the floor, waiting for the thumping in my chest to subside, did the light finally flicker on:  my goodbyes were catching up to me.

I’d come down with a flu, lost my voice.  In the last couple of weeks I’d had lunch or drinks or dinner with this friend or that — neighbors, tennis partners, college peers, book club — for my big send-off to the west coast.  No matter what we said, all good intentions and kind words aside, I knew, even as I offered my last hug and wave, I’d never see most of them again.  These farewell tours were exhausting.  I envied my brothers and my family – those who’d never left the place of their birth – in this.  What would it be like, I wondered, to forever be surrounded by the people you liked or loved?  To never even change your zip code?  To return, time and again, to the house you grew up in, park in the same spot, sit in the same chair, talk about the same old things?  In a more practical sense, what would it be like to see the same doctor or dentist, year over year?  To pay taxes in the same state every April 15?  To send your children to the school you went to.

Sitting there, voiceless, on the closet floor with my dog, I realized I couldn’t even bring myself to go see Ned, my homeopathic doctor, who would surely have had some simple remedy to soothe my throat and help me regain my lost voice.  No, I couldn’t even see Ned.  I was that tapped out.  I could not bear to say goodbye to one more person.

How do you feel when you move on?

Christmas Comes on April 25

2010 Australian Open: The first time I saw Roger Federer in person.

Talk about your stories and your books — it’s an old fashioned Merry Christmas here in Carter Library.  This morning, Lyra pointed me towards a David Foster Wallace essay on Roger Federer.  I believe her instructions were, “you must stop what you’re doing and read it right now.”  I did.  She was right.  Check out this little blurb:

“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.  The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

Reading it also made me miss DFW.  What a loss.  I could never get going with his fiction, but his essays were (are) a treat.  His collection, CONSIDER THE LOBSTER, remains my favorite book of essays (anybody’s essays).

Then the mail came with its usual bills and junk, but also –finally — with Alexandra Styron’s READING MY FATHER.  I’ve been watching the mailbox like a school kid for 5 days wondering where is it.  I have a friend coming into town this afternoon and she’s staying with us through Thursday, so I doubt I’ll get much reading done, but I’ll be looking forward to the few pages I can sneak in each night before sleep zaps me.

And if that wasn’t enough, the special mail delivery flung a big brown box onto the steps with some first editions we’d ordered, including gifts for a few of my favorite professors.  I can’t wait to drop those off next week at the university, the best thank you’s I could think of for those few who made my grad school experience fun.  The fact remains:  there’s nothing quite like having teachers who love to teach.  Thank you Sam, Bob, and John — I already miss you and your classes.

Merry Christmas everybody …

Let’s Be Frank

If there’s anything better than watching an artist at work, or a an athlete at play, I’m not sure what it is.  These are my joys.  If you have 7 minutes, check out this video of Frank Sinatra singing It Was A Very Good Year in the studio, with his (and his producer’s) side commentary.  This has always been my favorite Sinatra song.

And speaking of Frank, if you’ve never read Gay Talese’s essay from Vanity Fair (April 1966, the same year this song won a Grammy), give yourself a treat.  Talese was sent to do this interview, but Frank had a cold and wouldn’t talk to him.  So Talese tailed him, shadowed him, took notes.  For days.  The interview that never was turned out to be one of the best essays of the century.

If you have even the slightest fear of writing nonfiction, this will help to cure it.  The essay itself is off-the charts fabulous, but the rhythms of the writing — the shifting of perspectives, the complexity of emotions it evokes, the smooth movement through time — is a writing lesson.  I’ve read it no less than 10 times and I still want to read it again.

Here’s an excerpt:

Sinatra had been working in a film that he now disliked, could not wait to finish; he was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the twenty-year-old Mia Farrow, who was not in sight tonight; he was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendship with Mafia leaders; he was worried about his starring role in an hour-long NBC show entitled Sinatra — A Man and His Music, which would require that he sing eighteen songs with a voice that at this particular moment, just a few nights before the taping was to begin, was weak and sore and uncertain. Sinatra was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.

Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel — only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.