Sunday, January 13, 2019

glamorous decay

One summer in the mid-90's, I spent the entire three months reading Faulkner and Hemingway in front of a fan to keep cool. In a fiction workshop the previous semester, the instructor, who was a rude mansplainy alumni dude had set these two up as dichotomies--you were either a Faulkner or a Hemingway and your style was either short, brisk and to the point, or long and rambling.  About midway through the semester, he decided that I was definitely more Faulkner-like and said that I would make a far better poet than a fiction writer.  I was annoyed at the time, but I wish I could say he was wrong.  My exploits in fiction, from what I remember,  were mostly loosely structured stories conveyed by long rambling beautiful sentences you would get entirely lost in and lose track of the plot.  Sort of like a poem.

That summer I set out to see what he was talking about. It was ungodly hot and occasionally the power at my parents' house would fail and you'd find me outside on the deck with a candle for light, spread out on a sheet as dusk came around, headphones blasting Mazzy Star in my ears still reading to escape the heat inside the house. While I find Hemingway highly problematic, I was less exacting in those years, so I read A Moveable Feast at least twice--and longed to be in that "Paris in the twenties" world. So very different from my 90's midwestern world, which did not seem ripe for offering much in the ways of culture or interest.   Sure, there were my classes--where I was studying writers and taking workshops--and there were near weekly trips to the Barnes & Noble with my sister, where we would load up on all the midlist cast-off bargain books.  There were plays--those I participated and worked on for the college and in the community.  There was a tiny professional theatre long since closed downtown and yearly Shakespeare at the community college we attended in the fall.  But it all felt very short of scratching the itch that reading something like Hemingway forged.  I wanted more.

Last week, I stumbled upon this Lit Hub piece and giggled at it's accuracy (as someone who feels my literary expectations were forged by Hemingway and his ilk, and as someone who loves the aesthetics, if not the prices, of Anthropologie.) I used to get the catalog proper, but now settle for occasionally browsing their instagram.  While I can neither afford, nor fit into their clothes, there is still something appealing about the visuals, but it never occurred to me that this desire for a certain picturesque could have it's roots in my interpretation of what that "writing lifestyle" looks like. Perhaps the only familiar counterpoint to the modernists might be my beloved Sylvia, who also forged in my head a certain sort of literary life, but hers was mired first in college and Oxford and then in her country house, and then tragically ending in the Yeats apartment.  This world was filled with writing and babies and romantic treachery, but in many ways was a continuation of that Hemingway legacy, which no doubt formed her as much as it forms writers today.  This was probably also true of the Beats, and perhaps even moreso since they were mostly men, bent on that certain spirit of boho heroism ala Hemingway.

And if we ourselves have interalized that ideal literary life as writers--culture has done so tenfold--movies, television( see Lives of the Poets )  Even recently I was watching that delightfully creepy series YOU, where the female lead is a poetry MFA student, and things like that always seem, at best, like a slightly askew reflection of what being a writer is actually like. In this case a little more believable (the struggle to balance a social life with creative life, imposter syndrome, always money problems). But still a little off in its depiction of how "fame" in the lit world works.

Indeed, if the culture at large were asked to imagine a poet, they would not see most of us with our day jobs and our piles of unvanquished laundry but moreso the traveling flaneuse, who never had to work to earn money, but somehow it was always available. Who had long, winding days to sleep til the afternoon and then bang away at a typewriter til night, when we would then hang out at readings and bars and carouse with other writers until dawn.  We wouldn't have children, or electric bills, or anything getting in the way of our brilliance.  And yet, I don't think I've ever met the sort of writer, even the highly successful ones who actually earn money from writing, whose life would even begin to approach the one the world would imagine for us. Ditto on the general assumptions made about writers, poets especially,  My favorite being the highschool acquaintance I ran into at a wedding about a decade later who,  when he found out I was a poet, jokingly asked "Why? Are you depressed?" Or the ex who read my first book and asked if I had ever contemplated suicide (seriously, the fever almanac is not that dark, honey)

Nevertheless, the fantasy, while untenable, is still a beautiful one. I guess I'm totally okay if you like to picture me roaming about the house all day, bottle of tequila in hand waiting for inspiration to strike.  I do have plenty of peeling plaster (my apartment needs a paint job stat) and more than a few flowing, whsipy sundresses worthy of an Anthropologie catalog...But more often my writing happens lately in a flurry of moments while I'm waiting for books to print in the studio, scrolling idly through instagram,  and sucking my iced latte through a straw.

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