Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On process, tribes, and good intentions

Talented writer friend Emily Choate, who is also a Chapter 16 colleague, invited me to take part in a short survey about my writing process. For the record, I'm not certain I have anything you could reasonably call a writing process. I write the way mushrooms grow—in sudden, unpredictable surges under gloomy conditions. Still, I am honored to be asked to this party, and it did me good to give these questions some thought. Thanks, Emily! I'll be tagging some other friends shortly, and I'll add the links here when their posts are up. [UPDATE: Nashville writer Claire Gibson shares thoughts about her novel-in-progress here.]

What am I working on?

The main project occupying me at the moment is a novel, one I've been working on sporadically for a long time. I finally finished a draft of it last year, and I have sworn to complete a revision before this year is out. We'll see. In spite of its long gestation, it's a slender thing, a story about a young woman's grief. There are several absent and/or unsatisfactory mothers in it, and considerable drinking.

I've begun a second novel, which calls to me when the first one has tried my patience too much. It's set in 1910 and concerns a lynching. Don't wanna say more—I'm superstitious. I've also been working on a couple of short stories, and I've got a little memoir piece that I hope to spin into something longer.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don't know. Why should it? I mean, I don't have a hook, a theory, or an aesthetic ax to grind. My work is character driven, and if I do my job right my characters are peculiarly and unmistakably themselves. I hope you'd never confuse them with any of your other fictional acquaintances. I'm in sympathy with Frank O'Connor, who said, "I can’t imagine anything better in the world than people. A novel is about people, it’s written for people, and the moment it starts getting so intellectual that it gets beyond the range of people and reduces them to academic formulae, I’m not interested in it any longer."

Why do I write what I do?

First of all, see above. People interest me, so I write about them. I suppose what interests me most about people is the perennial conflict between the individual and the tribe. We all belong to tribes of one kind or another, and most of us have a very complicated relationship with our tribes. Just about everything I've ever written or considered writing has had that relationship as a central concern.

As to why tribes are my obsession, I suspect it has everything to do with growing up in a small Tennessee town and knowing from an early age that it could never really be my home, even though I loved it. I was exiled from my tribe at the moment I realized I had one. Some of that is just down to temperament—all writers feel exiled—but it also had to do with some truly awful things about my particular tribe.

How does my writing process work?

I wish I could give a nice, straightforward answer to this question, but my writing process is haphazard and mostly left to the mercy of mood and circumstance. No doubt that's why it takes me so damn long to get anything done. I usually do the initial work on my fiction late at night, often when I'm half asleep. Then I try to make sense of it when I'm awake. I tend to work in binges, despite my good intentions to be disciplined and daily about it.

The stories that seem to pan out for me are the ones that arrive in reverse. I envision the end, or something close to the end, and I write my way to it. In other words, I know where I'm going, but I don't know why, and I have only a vague idea of how to get there. I like to think all the answers are encoded in that first/last image, but sometimes it winds up being a very difficult code to break.

The more sensible course of beginning at the beginning hardly ever works for me. I have had to say goodbye to more promising first pages than I care to remember.

Enfant écrivant (A Girl Writing), Henriette Browne, c.1860-1880

Sunday, July 27, 2014

"I had love once..."

I had love once in the palm of my hand.
See the lines there.
                                      How we played
its game, are playing now
in the bounds of white and heartless fields.

Fall down on my head, love,
drench my flesh in the streams
                                of fine sprays. Like
                                       French perfume
so that I light up as
                                     mountain glorys
and I am showered by the scent
                          of the finished line.

~ From "A Poem for Painters" by John Wieners

Untitled, Ismael Nery (1900-1934)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"to kiss you with kisses of so great a number..."

You ask, how many kisses of yours, Lesbia, may be enough and to spare for me. As the countless Libyan sands which strew asafoetida-bearing Cyrene between the oracle of sweltering Jove and the sacred tomb of ancient Battus, or as the many stars, when night is silent, look upon the furtive loves of mortals; to kiss you with kisses of so great a number is enough and to spare for passion-driven Catullus: so many that prying eyes may not avail to number, nor ill tongues to bewitch.

Poem 7 from The Carmina of Gaius Valerius Catullus, translation by Leonard C. Smithers, 1894.

Drawing by Mihály Zichy (1827–1906)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The one that got away, sort of

So, here we have hard evidence that I don't always get the shot I want. The truth is that I almost never get the shot I want. I get shots I like pretty often, but they're hardly ever exactly what I had in mind. Sometimes, as in this case, they are not remotely what I had in mind, but I like them all the more for that. I love this one. It strikes me as symbolic of the creative process generally: You get an idea, you try to realize it, and then you watch as it goes irretrievably wrong. Once you get through mourning, you salvage what you can and present it as your "work."If you're lucky, you get praise and maybe even some cash. What a racket.

Here are a few famous quotes about photography that I've always liked. All of them seem to be contradicted in some degree by the photograph above:

"To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power." ~ Susan Sontag

"In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible." ~ Edward Steichen

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know” ~ Diane Arbus

Photo ©2014 Maria Browning

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Listening with the whole body..."

No longer speaking
Listening with the whole body
And with every drop of blood
Overtaken by silence

But this same silence is become speech
With the speed of darkness.

~ Muriel Rukeyser, from "The Speed of Darkness"

The Embrace, Egon Schiele, 1917

It's so noisy

Do you ever feel that your ears and eyes are just too big? That they take in too much of the world at once? Sometimes it's a pleasure to be hyper-aware, but other times it's a poisonous distraction. When there are storms inside — creative storms, storms of grief or joy — the noisy whirlwind outside becomes intolerable. That's my state at the moment. I can't bear the noise. I feel quite sad. It's not a desolate sadness; on the contrary, I think it's more like the fertile sadness Rilke described so well. And it needs a certain amount of quiet to blossom. So I'm going to seek more quiet for a while. I won't be so visible out there in the virtual world, but I will be here, chez BitterGrace. I welcome visitors. Just leave the noise outside.

The only sadnesses that are dangerous and unhealthy are the ones that we carry around in public in order to drown them out with the noise; like diseases that are treated superficially and foolishly, they just withdraw and after a short interval break out again all the more terribly; and gather inside us and are life, are life that is unlived, rejected, lost, life that we can die of. If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing. ~ Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

Photo by Maria Browning ©2014

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


I'm a terrible housekeeper, but every now and then the urge to live like a civilized human being will come over me and I'll spend most of a day scrubbing and dusting. I never feel like I've accomplished much at the end of it, though. My house is old and hasn't been significantly refurbished in more than 20 years. Time and my slovenly ways, not to mention a steady succession of pets, have created an ineradicable griminess. Once the cleaning binge is over, I always wind up looking around and thinking, "Well, at least it smells clean in here." And then I always think about my Great-Grandmother Bullard.

We called her Mammy, and she was nearly 90 by the time I knew her. I remember a frail, sharp-faced little woman with a long mane of white hair she kept pulled into a ponytail. She was blind and held court in her bedroom like the Empress Dowager. Whenever the family would gather at my great-aunt's house, where Mammy lived, the kids would be sent in to her room, one or two at a time, to say hello. She'd pat us on the head and give us money. I can still see her fumbling with her old leather coin purse while Bella, her hired companion, hovered nearby.

By all accounts, Mammy had not always been the sweet creature I recall. Her children and even her grandchildren remember her as vain, hot-tempered, and bossy. Not unlovable, mind you, but not the easiest woman to deal with. And she didn't like housework any more than I do. She had six kids, four of them daughters, and as soon as they were big enough to wield a mop, the girls were expected to take care of all the drudgery. My grandmother used to tell me about the day my great-grandfather decided this was not the way it ought to be. The house was in particular disarray one morning, and before he left for work he told Mammy that he expected her to clean it up. "I don't want you making those girls do it. I want YOU to do it." The day went by and, true to character, Mammy didn't turn her hand to do anything. When my great-grandfather's return was imminent, she sent my grandmother and her sister off to the dimestore to buy a bottle of cheap perfume, which she proceeded to spray all over the house. "All right then," she said, "that oughta satisfy him."

My grandmother, who was as meek as her mother was fiery, would put her hands on her hips and mimic her mother's smug look when she delivered that line. She loved this story. I love it, too, even though I wonder whether it ever happened. I have a sneaking suspicion my grandmother read it or saw it in a movie and adopted it as her own. Who could blame her? It's almost too good to be true, especially from the kids' point of view. Escape from chores and the entertainment of watching the adults try to get the best of each other? Anyone who has ever been a child has got to love that.

Whether it's true or not, the perfumista in me is delighted by the idea of perfume as a weapon of female defiance.* My grandmother never said what the perfume was, and I never thought to ask, but I've always imagined it as Blue Waltz, which was the dimestore perfume of my childhood. Amazingly enough, you can still buy Blue Waltz — it's cheap as dirt, and still comes in a little heart-shaped bottle. I don't know what the current stuff is like, but I have a bottle that's about a dozen years old, and honestly, it's not bad at all. I'm wearing it as I type this, and the scent that's wafting up to me is very similar to Canoe, with maybe a tad more spice. People spend boatloads of money on stuff that isn't half this pleasant. I'd spray it around my house any time.

*Speaking of the subversive possibilities of perfume, Barbara Herman, author of the terrific vintage perfume guide Scent & Subversion, is currently raising funds to create a new fragrance with some of that wild, retro spirit we love and miss. There are a just a few more days to contribute to her Indiegogo campaign. Check out this interview for more info on the project. I've chipped in, and I hope you'll consider doing the same. This is going to be an amazing perfume.

Room in a Dutch House, Pieter Janssens Elinga, c.1670

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"To be good..."

"To be good, according to the vulgar standard of goodness, is obviously quite easy. It merely requires a certain amount of sordid terror, a certain lack of imaginative thought, and a certain low passion for middle-class respectability." 

~ Oscar Wilde*

*From The Critic as Artist

Nudes, Paul Delvaux, 1946

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"and we dead stand undefended everywhere"

My drive home from Nashville takes me past a lot of churches, and this evening as I watched them flicker by I got to thinking about being a little girl in church myself, listening to preachers present Bible stories as lessons for sinners, every narrative wrangled into instructive service. There was no room for ambiguity in the religion I knew. Every tale had a good guy and a bad guy, and there was never any confusion about who deserved sympathy. But I was confused, always. I loved the stories and I tried hard to see them the way I was supposed to. I just couldn't. I liked the troublemakers and the losers — Eve, Cain, Esau, Lot's wife, even Judas — and from the time I was very small I felt a mixture of shame and resentment about that: What's wrong with me that I can't understand things properly? Why does there have to be a proper way of understanding? I was baffled by many things about church when I was a child, but nothing troubled me more than the feeling that I was in some way too stupid or too corrupt to root unreservedly for the star on God's team.

I was still brooding about my morally bewildered young self when I got home, and that sent me to a poem I loved early on, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which in turn led me to James Wright's "At the Executed Murderer's Grave." I never think about one of those poems without thinking of the other. I've spent most of my Saturday night pondering sin and death with Wilde and Wright. Somehow that feels more sustaining than church ever did. The stanzas below are from Wright.

I pity myself, because a man is dead.
If Belmont County killed him, what of me?   
His victims never loved him. Why should we?   
And yet, nobody had to kill him either.   
It does no good to woo the grass, to veil
The quicklime hole of a man’s defeat and shame.   
Nature-lovers are gone. To hell with them.   
I kick the clods away, and speak my name.

This grave’s gash festers. Maybe it will heal,   
When all are caught with what they had to do   
In fear of love, when every man stands still   
By the last sea,
And the princes of the sea come down
To lay away their robes, to judge the earth
And its dead, and we dead stand undefended everywhere,   
And my bodies—father and child and unskilled criminal—
Ridiculously kneel to bare my scars,   
My sneaking crimes, to God’s unpitying stars.

*The girl in the photograph is 11-year-old Ellen Woodman, who was sentenced to seven days hard labor for stealing in Newcastle, England, c.1870-1873. Image from Wikimedia Commons 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A few thoughts on loneliness

"...nothing helps loneliness. I mean–you either feed off of it, or it feeds off you."

I came across those words last week while working on an article about Charles Wright, the new U.S. poet laureate. Wright said them years ago in offhand response to a rather silly interview question, but they struck a chord with me that has echoed for days now. I understand the ineluctability of loneliness, and lord knows I get the part about loneliness eating you up. But what does it mean to feed off of loneliness?

Loneliness pushes you into a state of uncertainty, silence, self-absorption. It's hard to know anything while dwelling in loneliness. The world is remote, and there's nothing to trust. A terrible sense of voicelessness takes over. Expression begins to seem worthless when there is no hope of response, no promise of communion. You're left looking deeper and deeper within, slowly but surely reaching the void at the center of everything you believe you are.

And yet...the writer in me nods in intuitive understanding of the nourishing, illuminating power of loneliness: Yes, of course. Embraced, loneliness can be a kind of magic potion that cures glibness and dissolves ego. It can offer a glimpse of the utter fragility we share with every living thing. It has something of the exquisite extremity of being in love.

Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Look, how tiny down there,
look: the last village of words and, higher,
(but how tiny) still one last
farmhouse of feeling. Can you see it?
Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Stoneground
under your hands. Even here, though,
something can bloom; on a silent cliff-edge
an unknowing plant blooms, singing, into the air.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Silêncio, Odilon Redon, 1900

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Here's to flaming summer

Flaming summer
charms the earth with its own fluting
~ Sappho*

* From "Cicada", translated by Willis Barnstone.

Archipelago Flower, Anders Zorn, 1916

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

One Sentence Perfume Review: Most Precious, Evyan (vintage)

A pampered child at the moment she discovers her lady toy

Notes from The Perfumed Court: Tarragon, heliotrope, anise oil, lemon, lily of the valley, ylang ylang, jasmine, orange flower, gardenia, rose, tonka, coumarin

Danae, Alexandre Jacques Chantron, 1891

The story of Danae

Just FYI: Feministing's Pocket Guide to Vaginal Euphemisms

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A summer book or two

I have been letting the blog languish for ages now, and I think it's about time that ended. I'll have a new post — a real post by yours truly, I mean, not just a poem & pic — up as soon as possible. Meanwhile, here are links to a few of my recent reviews and interviews, in case you're in search of a summer book or two.

For the 'fume heads, there's Barbara Herman's Scent & Subversion, a gorgeous, witty, sexy guide to the world of vintage perfumery.

If you love short stories, check out my interview with Madison Smartt Bell about his collection, Zig Zag Wanderer, recently out from the innovative Concord Free Press. Bell is one of our best writers, and his short fiction is not to be missed.

Speaking of short stories, no one has ever written them better than Elizabeth Spencer, and her new collection, Starting Over, is as fine as any she has published. Spencer, at age 92, was the recipient of this year's Rea Award — well-deserved and long overdue.

Amy Greene's new novel, Long Man, is simply a wonderful read. Greene is an awesomely talented writer, and this second book from her left me looking forward to a third.

Finally, I've been telling everyone who will listen about Patrick O'Keeffe's novel, The Visitors. The story is moving and the writing is exquisite. If you love real, grown-up fiction, this is your book.

 Marie-Madeleine au désert, Emmanuel Benner, 1886

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"A flower blooms there"

Press my breasts,
Part the veil of mystery,
A flower blooms there,
Crimson and fragrant.

~Yosano Akiko

from Love Poems from the Japanese

Katsushika Hokusai, c.1814

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"In the sunny Spring of March and April..."

In the sunny Spring of March and April,
When water and grass are the same color,
I met a young man dallying along the road,
I'm sorry I didn't meet him earlier.

In the sunny Spring of March and April
When water and grass are the same color,
I reach up and pick the flowers from the vines.
Their perfume is like my lover's breath.

Four, now five years, I have expected you.
During this long wait my love
Has turned to sorrow.
I wish we could go away, back to some lonely place,
Where I could give my body
Completely to your embraces.

~ Mêng Chu, 3rd century
translated by Kenneth Rexroth

Black Aphrodite with Landscape Painting, James Van Der Zee, 1936