Resolution redux

Like a kajillion others out there on the planet, I sat down today thinking about New Year’s resolutions: the (in)famous list of things we optimistically hammer out about what we will or won’t do in the coming new year and then give up on around, oh, the Ides of March.

Pretty straightforward, these resolutions, right? A little self-reflection, a little existential freak out (2014! What in the?!?!) and then blam — I dash off my Top 10, and I’m on my way to finally reading Moby Dick and saving pennies for a trip to Italy and dusting the top of the refrigerator.  Easy peasy — until I looked up resolution in my handy-dandy (if rudimentary) computer New Oxford American Dictionary, an old habit when I’m pondering what to write. Guess what I found in that little can of worms? 12 different meanings. 12! Like the months of the year! Coincidence? Yes, but stay with me.

Oh, Language. I’ve lived all the way to 2014 without really thinking about all of the meanings of resolution. How rarely do I think beyond the first meaning, a firm decision to do or not to do something, only occasionally making it to the second, the action of solving a problem.  Of course, the word is connected strongly to narrative, too: traditionally, a plot’s resolution comes after the climax and denouement. Yet how surprising and lovely to see the expansiveness of one compact word, including connections to poetry (prosody: the substitution of two short syllables for one long one), music (the passing of a discord into a concord during the course of changing harmony), medicine (the disappearance of inflammation, or of any other symptom or condition), and photography/video (the degree of detail visible in a photographic or television image).

My favorite new understanding of the word, though, relates to its etymology: from Latin resolutio(n-), from resolvere ‘loosen, release.’  How strange that the root (a verb) creates a sense of letting go, but the most common sense of the noun connotes desiring control, of grabbing hold or wrestling with — a firm decision to do or not to do something.

In writing, my own usage usually relates only to the latter sense. I often resolve to write X number of words per week. I determine to finish drafts, to sit my butt in the chair for Y hours. I try to be adamant in my belief that my writing matters, even if there are no safe or easy outcomes. Some more synonyms for resolute: firm, unswerving, unwavering, steadfast, staunch, stalwart, unfaltering, unhesitating, persistent, indefatigable, tenacious, strong-willed, unshakable; stubborn, dogged, obstinate, obdurate, inflexible, intransigent, implacable, unyielding, unrelenting; spirited, brave, bold, courageous, plucky, indomitable; informal gutsy, gutty, spunky, feisty; formal pertinacious.

Oh yes, those senses of resolution are absolutely necessary in this writing life, where we get knocked around more than we get a hand up. We must be implacable, unyielding, gutsy, unswerving: we must square our shoulders in the face of rejection and envy and disappointment and blocks. We must keep working, keep on, keep on.

And yet: I love that early root, the sense of loosening or release, perhaps because my doggedness also can be a hindrance: I often find myself, in my writing especially, trying to fix or control things, to wrangle some cohesion amid the unsettling, unpredictable chaos of creation. But creation needs chaos; our writing needs to be released or looseneduntied, freed, unfettered, unleashed — from our intransigent grip. We need to remember to let go.

So, this year I will make but one resolution: to try to embrace those wonderfully contradictory states of resolve. To be both unrelenting and unfettered, unwavering and untied, unyielding and unleashed.

Wishing everyone a joyous, creative 2014,


Thanks for reading (and give books!)

Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life–wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?

That oft-quoted passage from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is taped to my office door. It’s what came to mind as I sat down today to write about what I’m grateful for, because I figured that would be a wildly original thing to do on Thanksgiving morning (wink wink nudge nudge). Now, my gratitude goes first, in heaping, belt-busting proportions—appropriate for today, no?—to the people in my life: the family and friends without whom this world would be impossible to navigate and comprehend. I could write and write and write and never get to the bottom of what I owe to them for the love, support, trust, and boundless joy they have given to me over the years. Then I am grateful for shelter, for health, for employment; the list, and its attendant worry and guilt for those who do not have these, has already begun to spiral in my mind. So before I head to the kitchen to devil some eggs and peel apples and get casserol-y with it, I thought I’d narrow down this post and give thanks for one thing: reading.

Mom likes to tell the story of how I surprised her by reading a note aloud when I was around 3 or 4 years old. Startled, she said, “I didn’t know you could read,” and I shrugged my tot shoulders and said, “Yeah.” In some ways, that’s how reading still feels to me: like something I have always known how to do. Yet it also stands out as one of the saving graces of my life, the act to which I have turned again and again to find solace, to escape, to expand and enrich my mind. Reading has become simultaneously the most ordinary and the most wildly magic habit of my life.

My parents read to me from a very early age. Some of my earliest memories are about those stories and the little stiff Golden Books themselves; the Poky Little Puppy stands out the most. Once I could read on my own, I never stopped. In memory I clump together favorites: Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Ralph Mouse books, and then everything Judy Blume wrote. Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphins. In high school, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. At the same time, I also loved the Modesty Blaise spy thrillers. And the habit continued, broadened, deepened. Nowadays, I tend to favor fiction, both novels and short stories, but I am also a fan of poetry, narrative nonfiction, and graphic narratives. A good story for me often has many qualities, but I am most drawn to those that have deeply complex, original characters in whom I am absolutely invested. As I often tell my creative writing students, “Come on, break my heart.” I want to feel something at the end, to recognize a change, to glimpse some aspect of the human condition. If I’m weeping at 3 a.m. when I finally close the cover, success! I also like dark humor, mesmerizing language, and experimental voices. I’m still a sucker for a good mystery.

I have no doubt that my life is different because I became a reader. It’s absolutely tied to my writing experience. The first time I tried to write a short story, an embarrassing foray full of clever witticisms and capital-S Symbolism, my instructor nonetheless praised it (bless her). I remember her comment: Have you written fiction before? The answer was heck no, but guess what I had done? Read. Story after story after story, whose rhythms and shapes I had absorbed so fully that I could intuit my way from beginning to end. This habit is essential for writers. What I know now is that I should be reading twice as much as I am.

Beyond the writing, though, the reason I am most grateful to reading is because of how it has taught me to see once I pull my face out of the book. What Lamott says about how an author makes us pay attention: yes. Reading champions the imagination and induces escape but it is also interactive. When we read a writer’s description, we translate the words into images that spring forth onto our mental screens– the wonderful mind’s eye. We see the characters; they become ours. We puzzle out plot cues, and we look for more. We worry for characters enmeshed in those plots. We recognize their flaws and we follow and believe in them nonetheless. We are not passive; we are active participants in the world of the story.

For me, that work of reading translates once we look up and find ourselves in this world. We are not passive; we are active. We take our lessons of reading and apply them. We learn to read our circumstances. We try to read others, scrutinizing the small details for meaning. We puzzle and wonder and worry, and this kind of reading, I am convinced, makes our lives richer.

In the midst of this holiday season, if you partake in the shopping frenzy, I urge you to give books. To everyone. Start at the baby shower. Birthdays. Give to schools that need them. Any day, well into adulthood. Get ’em at indie stores; pass ’em along used. My in-laws, now in their 70s, give me such hope in this respect: Now that they have more time, they have turned to books, reading the stories on the page from which famous movies have come.

Read to your kids. Get kids reading. Volunteer at after-school programs. Be goofy and wild in your passion for it, really mean it. I still read aloud—to college students. And you better believe their eyes still light up.

I’m grateful that mine still do, too.

Wishing everyone love, peace, warmth, shelter, health, and good cheer.


First things first

Holy smokes. Did someone slip me a mickey? One day, I was typing about Halloween and now there’s a Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree in my living room.

Poor old blog. Amid these scurrying, overloaded days, it’s always the last one picked, the scrawny four-eyes left on the fence during Dodgeball at recess.

I sit here, half-awake, staring at the boxes that I need to take to the p.o. I am thinking of the syllabi I need to write, of job travels and duties that will eat away my break, of the imminent arrival of house guests, of lint balls under the futon, of gifts we can’t afford, of the folks who have no gifts, of wanting to kick congressmen and Wall Street in the collective breadbasket, of laundry and grocery stores and the obscenity of shopping malls. I feel like an insect, stung through the thorax, spun and swaddled in the white fibrous web of  exhaustion and trivialities and first-world guilt, left to flail on the dirty siding and decompose into a papery husk of myself.

Good heavens. And to think, I started out wanting to write about gratitude.

Please forgive my self-indulgence. It’s been a rough few months (and for whom hasn’t it?).

As I sit here, trying to get a little quiet, I am listening for the writing part of me. That desire that sustains me, even as I trudge forward without it. Right now, it’s hard to hear its heartbeat.

But I also remember this well-known quote from Joyce Carol Oates, which she gave in an interview with The Paris Review: “I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so.”

I love that last bit: “or appears to do so.” Even if we’re fooling ourselves — making believe that we are making change — that’s still something. And perhaps, at some point, through that very act of writing, it will become making belief instead. Which I guess is why I finally sat down here first, before the day took over. To make-believe that I am a writer. To make myself believe.

I will leave this woe-is-me tale on a funnier, random note: I was at a conference, having a grand old time with a dear friend making fun of hipster haircuts, when Joyce Carol Oates walked into the area where we were sitting. She looks exactly as she does in her photos. We all saw her and pretended not to; I’m sure there was a frenzy of Twittering. Oates, wrapped in an elaborate green shawl, then waltzed … straight into the hotel gift shop. I caught glances with another woman sitting nearby. Without missing a beat, she tilted her head, flipped her wrist, and said: “As one does.”

Wishing everyone a joyous, creative holiday season.

ps I will get to that gratitude. It’s there, I promise.