Emotions, Fiction, random thoughts, Writing

Some Thoughts About Empty Icons

I’m looking out my window at a few yellow leaves that cling to bedraggled branches. I’m wearing a thick jacket because I have no income and I have to save heating costs so I can afford to eat. My hands are numb with cold as I revise my stack of short stories and write this post. “Cyber Monday” has thankfully passed as the feeding frenzy ensues toward a fiscal freefall. For me, a smart phone is out of the question.I am nearly finished reading a used copy of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, which is an ode to impermanence.

A glop of anger sloshes perpetually around and bumps against my insides about countless things like the $165 billion in food that Americans waste every year, like the loss of entire species like caribou, salmon, lions, elephants. Like the willful denial of the earth’s climate change. Like the…Someone stop me from banging on for hours here. Thank you.

Why am I writing all this on a blog that aspires to explore the experience of writing fiction? I think it has to do with memory and image which are at the heart of all fiction. Unfortunately for the planet they also comprise the heart of American advertising and manufactured scarcity (although not much, including scarcity, is manufactured here any more) which yields consumption. The quickest way to the American wallet is through image and memory.

The image of Twinkies is all about romance and image and memory (nostalgia for a non-existent past), an American icon like dad driving on a family vacation, like a refrigerator filled with food, like a writer bent over a typewriter. The name “Hostess” (which began in the 1930s) is so kitschy 1950s, and the blond Twinkies oozing cream from their centers so suggestive, and the empty calories so a part of so many people’s empty childhoods. Like so many acquired brands (Nabisco, for example) that discontinued nostalgia and its products that you can’t buy now at any price.

There is something so fragile, so sadly transient about image and memory. The Hostess Brand, like so many other things, is in liquidation at this writing. It is the end of an era and there are no images or memories for an end-run. It is over. Finished. Yet memory and longing outlive us all.


I Will Not Be Eating Turkey Today

Through their stories, fiction writers can either perpetuate myths or they can debunk them.

Today is what Americans call Thanksgiving. The cold cases in the supermarkets have been stuffed with brined turkeys, all neatly packaged and bar coded, all week. But today I will not be eating turkey. My soul aches when I see homeless people who are brought out to eat a charity feast once a year. I will not be commemorating a myth that is largely false.

I am of European ancestry, but today I am steeping myself in the Native American story. Not the fictionalized one in doctored history books served up in schools and infused in the collective story of white denial, but from the great people themselves. I am listening to Red Thunder, Robbie Robertson, and other amazing musicians who bring tears to my eyes and stretch my heart out to a different horizon. I am listening to accounts of genocide that has gone on for hundreds of years, not only on American shores, but in nations all over the planet.

I am listening to stories of the forced sterilization of women, of the removal of children from their parents to live in the homes of white people who strip them of their cultures, their spiritual traditions, themselves. I am listening to stories of how alcohol causes diabetes in Native Americans; how dealers, sometimes Indian dealers, sell dangerous drugs on reservations. I’m talking dangerous drugs, not the ones given to us by Mother Nature to expand our spirit. (See: “We Live to Survive: One Week with Lakota“–around 14:00 the video shows groups of inebriated residents from Pine Ridge; around 21:00 we learn about “huffing alley;” if this isn’t the degradation of native spirit, I don’t know what is.)

Several years before the government made such ceremonies illegal, I was privileged to take part in an all-night peyote ceremony. I had no introduction. I had no idea what to expect. I helped to prepare the medicine. I tried to be inconspicuous, ignorant as I was (and still am). When night fell I sat in the tipi circle with an open mind and let what come. The experience was life-changing. I got a taste of how removed I am from myself, from the earth, from truth. I was overwhelmed by my own blindness, how lost, how  stone-like my heart. Yet the young man who sat next to me the entire ceremony showed me how not to be afraid by himself not being afraid. Let it flow. Everything in its moment and everything as it comes, he seemed to be saying, without a word. It was truly a humbling experience, to learn how limited I am, yet how life flows through me as it does everything else, an eternal river, an eternal road, yearning like everyone else to go home.

Expansive, sacred peyote and the naked moon, stars falling down through the opening above as our spirits rose.

Your people lost a great one, Russel Means (who went to the other side one month ago today).

I will  not be eating turkey today.

Fiction, Writing

Memory vs. Facts (plus nature’s call while browsing)

Just this morning I was re-reading some entries in an old notebook from back in 2002. As a writer the idea of memory has intrigued me for some time. In one entry I wrote “Memory is overrated. It’s severely flawed, so what’s the point of it? How can we begin to understand reality if memory keeps getting in the way?” That entry reminded me (i.e., I remembered ✓) of a quote I recently found but don’t remember (✓) where: “The only difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”

Memory is maddeningly subjective and infinitely malleable. As in asking someone to identify a perpetrator in a lineup. Or to recall (✓) events on Thursday, November 6, 1986. Some people can do a very convincing job. But no two will recall (✓) the events in exactly the same way. I only recently learned the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. The former is “an account of any part of the author’s life, delivered in any order, while the latter relates all of the notable events of the author’s life, typically in chronological order.” [quote from here]. Certainly some people’s memories are more reliable than others, but there is so much room for embellishment and gap-filling that both memoir and autobiography tread a thin line that distinguish them from fiction.

Transformation–taking the raw materials of your life, making small and large changes to turn what you know into fictional material. Transformation gives you power over events–life is disorganized, here you impose order; protects you–no one knows who he is; provides new insights by trying to see it from the point of view of your characters, not the people you knew; gives you power over your story. ~ Kit Reed

Another entry in this same notebook involved a visit to an old childhood hangout: Bart’s Books of Ojai, which calls itself as the world’s greatest outdoor bookstore. What does “greatest” mean? Best? Largest? Either way, it has (since the 1990′s) become a required destination for the upscale bibleoholic. Anyway, here is some of what I wrote:

For some reason bookstores are the best laxative on the planet. I wouldn’t dare go to a bookstore that did not provide a public restroom (I think bookstore owners understand this, hence you will probably never find a bookstore without a public restroom). There you are browsing the titles with your head bent to one side for hours (people always know what you’ve been up to because when you step out of the bookstore your ear still meets your shoulder for awhile). You see a hundreds of books on thousands of subjects. You pull this one then that one. You move to a different section. Something jars your memory (✓). A title. An author’s name. Some list you left at home with a name on it. Some idea, some story, some image.

Pretty soon you realize it’s time to find the restroom. You high-tail it to the sign with the appropriate gender word on the door and hurry to do your business. It never fails (same as reading on the john), annoying as it is because it interrupted the flow of that day’s quest. You finish, wash your hands and leave passing a line of others who also had the same urge. Life presents such oddities. Bart’s has one unisex restroom. To get to it you have to sidle through a long aisle stuffed with travel books. 

Yesterday I was in Bart’s. That place is older than dirt. It looks a tad seedy, yet comfy, Bohemian, with a garden courtyard between two old houses and surrounded by a fence of bookshelves.  The place is open to the elements, protected only by large umbrellas. A labyrinth of nooks and crannies filled with mouldering books. Trees grow in the middle of aisles. One of the buildings houses art prints and art books. The other features collectors’ editions with a separate room just for cookbooks. No one hassles you. You can wander in there for hours and days. You could get lost and sleep over night in there and no one would know. Most of the books have minimal value, but sometimes you can find a gem. I found a first English edition of Spengler’s The Decline of the West for $30. I was browsing the travel books as I waited to use the john (I had put off using it too long).  I could hear someone in there rustling around. This person was taking forever. My bladder was having none of it. I imagined its face to be the very one in Munch’s “The Scream.” Continue reading