A couple weeks back I decided I was going on a “Westerns” binge — reading everything I could find from my shelves and a trip to the library that fits a very loose definition of the Western. Cowboys, unscrupulous ranch owners, and the images of settler women on a vast plain on one side of the aisle, and Native American consciousness, folklore, and generational drama on the other. I decided that Civil War stories should be included, too.
The Last Kind Words Saloon
“Comically subversive,” the words Joyce Carol Oates used in a review of The Last Kind Words Saloon, has it right. This was enjoyable and made me laugh out loud several times. The friendship between Wyatt and Doc is rich and lovely, and more space is given to the women’s voices than in your typical Western. McMurtry says in the beginning of the book that the “characters are afloat in time; their legends and their lives in history rarely match,” and that he has chosen to go with legend instead of truth. This holds true through most of the book; McMurtry plays with the tropes and ideas of the West even while acknowledging that the West is coming to the end of its time. And yet, on the other hand, the stories are more real (and at times more anticlimactic or anti-dramatic) than a legend would be. It’s like he sat down with a big collage of well-known stories and said “okay, what if these were real people instead of story people?” and then infused them with what he could imagine would be their unique foibles. It’s like he’s taken two steps from real history to story to his own reality. It’s not about accuracy to history, it’s about creating a world where the reader can see herself jumping right on into the scene.
The Good Lord Bird
We don’t really read picaresque novels anymore. Most of us suffer through Huck Finn and that’s it (although you could argue that the first half of To Kill a Mockingbird fits the bill, too). Picaresque is a term of structure: a novel consisting of several small incidents strung together, usually run by a troublemaker or maverick character who has adventures and travels around. It also implies a certain style, a “folk” consciousness, and a comic informality. No heavy consequences seem to be levied, even though some of the episodes may end in death and destruction. It’s not a very contemporary form.
So I guess it’s not surprising that I kept waiting for this story to “go somewhere” — the weakness of the picaresque form is that the story keeps moving on to the next mini-narrative instead of really gaining momentum and making a big show. I’m not used to it at all. I think I probably could have put up with it for 250 pages, but not for over 400. Just got tired of reading and stopped.
The story is about John Brown’s militia going on raids in the late 1850s in Kansas and Missouri. As a fictional look at John Brown, it’s very interesting how his character is drawn. The strength of the book is in the main character, Onion / Henrietta / Henry, who is a young black boy disguised as a girl (because John Brown thinks he’s a girl). Onion has to navigate the restrictions of gender and the dangers of his race, all while getting swept up in a cause that he’s rather ambivalent about. He’s not one for social revolution; in Onion’s view, slavery was a lot easier to deal with and he never got hungry. Maybe I’ll consider finishing the second half of the book after I’ve gotten to dig in to a few more.
News of the World
I’m just starting this one, and I’m in love so far. Captain Kidd is two things at once: the grizzled thrice-over veteran who lives on the outskirts of society, who wanders without a home, AND a highly educated, superflously literate man whose vocabulary and way of thinking drift over into Jiles’s writing style. It’s a quest story, like many adventure tales, this time with the task of returning a young girl who had been captured by the Kiowa tribe to her aunt and uncle in San Antonio. I’m so entranced by the hazy beauty of memory that surrounds Kidd as he looks back on his long life and on to his next adventure. I can’t wait to keep reading.
What are your favorite Westerns? Got any recommendations for me?
A beginning of the school year ritual: each year I write or revise a letter introducing myself to my students, and I require the students to do the same. For AP Lang, we specifically focus on writing identity, and I ask students to tell me who they are as writers. Here’s mine, slightly changed from last year:
Before I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be a writer. And before that, I was a reader. For me, those three things are rock-paper-scissors; one or the other tends to come out on top and at times cuts or crushes the others, but in a game of three rounds you can bet I’ll throw my best version of each. When I teach writing, I know that my students need to read great writing, and I base a lot of my knowledge about writing in what I have read and loved. But I also think about the practice and process of writing that I go through and what experiences of mine might be helpful to younger people who are learning how to write.
I always tell my students that “if you write, you’re a writer,” and I truly believe that what grants us the identity of writing is the practice of writing. “Practice” means a few things here: first, it’s just doing it. It’s the repeated and habitual flexing of the muscles we use in our craft. I write almost every day now. Second meaning of “practice”– just like practicing a sport or an instrument or any skill, we get better by trying to do it better, and trying over and over again. So when I say I am a writer, I don’t mean that I have arrived at some point of mastery or gotten a trophy, I mean that I am trying my very best to get better at writing by practicing it over and over.
An individual practice is defined by how we do it. I usually write by hand in a notebook, in pen, with messy cross-outs and arrows to show what order things go in. I like to write in coffeeshops and libraries, on porches or park benches, at any time of the day or night. I stare off into space or make funny faces when I write because thoughts are trickling through my head and forming stubbornly obtuse ice dams that I need to break through. Sometimes I write all at once in a big rush, and the first draft is pretty much how it stays. This happens most often with poetry. But sometimes I will chip away at an idea for an essay over time, keeping a list of fragments, writing the same section over and over again, or having long conversations with friends about my ideas that eventually make it down onto paper.
I have been writing frequently this summer, with a few finished pieces that I’m happy with, and some beginnings of things that I’m excited to continue. Current works in progress include: A poem called “Love Song for Lawrence of Arabia,” a sonnet, “In 50 Years, on Your Porch,” two short stories, one featuring my friend Sam Holliday as a 1940s spymaster, the other about a guy who goes through a breakup and literally learns to fly. I also want to write something about a horrific jaguar rampage that happened at a New Orleans zoo this summer, but I haven’t yet found a form that captures the drama and horror of the actual event.
Finding time and energy to write can be a challenge, but I have a gift in my career. My job requires a constant engagement with literary texts. I keep up with book news. I follow authors and read their blogs. I get to read amazing student writing which teaches me a lot about individuality and voice; in critiquing students’ work I get to learn about pitfalls of writing and places where things get stuck. During the school year I write comments on papers, notes to other teachers, emails to parents, detailed plans for my lessons, “plots” for the semester, and discussion questions. This year, I am especially lucky to have you, my AP Language and Composition class, because I intend to write alongside you.
This letter is supposed to be about me, but I’d like to write about you for a second. You are about to embark on a course of study that will be strenuous and at times perilous, but (I hope) ultimately valuable and enjoyable. You will be challenged in this class. You’ll probably fill an entire notebook with writing. You might feel that you’re not good enough. You are. You also need to look around and realize that everyone in the room is going to struggle.
I am aware that this letter may distress you. You may not be used to teachers acknowledging that we’re still learning or that we’re at the starting point of something. You may be wondering if you’ll get through this class alive and how you’ll do on the AP test. I assure you– I am indeed an expert in reading, in analyzing text, in academic writing, and in teaching. I’m a connoisseur of literature and a sommelier of language. I’m critical and crafty and cranky about precision and quality. I am also pretty good at having fun, and being real, and making people feel welcome, so I hope you’ll enjoy that as well. I do think it’s worth acknowledging, though, that writing is so personal and so hard and so magical that no one ever really masters it. No one is ever done learning how to write. Some people are a lot further along the road than you or I, but for every writer, there is always more practice to be done, more strength to uncover.
I so look forward to learning more about you and diving into our study of writing and language.
part of an essay in progress about how we view our lives….I’m thinking about how air is so easy to see through and move through that we are always looking ahead toward our goals. But water– water is immersive experience, and if we tried to swim through life, maybe we could be more present in the moments around us.
the importance of breathing is that it’s molecular.
Our bodies are porous and admit toxins of all colors, but breathing is what we choose to bring in. Like water, we imbibe air to sustain and purify our every inch. Think about a square inch of your body: how much blood, how much oxygen, how much nitrogen, how much water? We are but fragile things. Delicate ratios.
In air, breathing is plentiful, easy, mindless. In water, it becomes a primary concern. Like in winter, but louder, we see our breath, we hold it like a petal we are slowly crushing, we struggle upward for it.
In water, breathing is an intensely sought break from intensity. It is a moment of self-care more intimate than any other. It is the only life we can find.
the importance of breathing
is that it fills and fullfills, sustains, tames: we take deep breaths to calm ourselves. It lets us pause the moment and imbibe time. Yet we breathe while every other moment is ocurring, so it’s not a forced, separated break. We can allow time to move in a way we choose (for once) by breathing low and long, devoting attention to what the body usually does without us asking. A breath is a set of parentheses around time, ours to employ at will and as needed.
the importance of breathing is that it’s instinctual. I can hear the wail of a newly loosed infant, emergent from the womb in which it swam, complacent, warm, stunned by silence. Suddenly it ruptures into air. Breath is everywhere, cold, to be grabbed, sucked in eagerly.
And once we stop breathing, we’re gone. First to last breath. Desperate clutching at life to gentle loosening of hands. Last breaths like melodies, like white flags, like sinking deeper into water and no longer looking at the surface. When we stop breathing, we curl into ourselves, fetal and petaled into bloomy curls. Then we sink.
This is a good kind of tired.
Today was my first day of the Rhode Island Writing Project’s Open Air Institute, and (as we say in New England) it was wicked hot. The theme this year is farming, and we started off our day thinking about growth and how it can bring both renewal and destruction. Cases in point: the industrial wasteland of an empty lot that will soon be transformed into a new center for local food distribution. And on the other side of history, the legacy in Rhode Island of imperialism, colonialism, industrialism… the building of agricultural empires that grew millionaires on the backs of laborers.
We visited two ‘urban’ farms– one nestled in the middle of the South side of Providence, one sprawled across 22 acres in Cranston, just a hop down from where I teach. In each, I noticed the mix between organic growth and messiness vs. human attempts to reign in plants with fences and relegating life to rows. The work is done with a respect for the land, and with a deep expertise for how cycles of growth work and how they can be harvested for human work. I wrote about the goodness of the labor:
Projects whose genesis was in the hands of those who still tend them now bloom. The people who have learned this life now further strengthen their story and eke profit and good nutrients out of land by pure work.
And now I find that passion does reside in tradition, and in history. But it is by adaptation and fresh labor that tradition functions. Something as ancient as farming can be replanted and re-imagined as something new. These fields are earned and aimed for, not inherited.
We got to experience that labor in a small way– we picked beans all spread out in a row, ripping up the plants and plucking the green beans to toss them gently into buckets, avoiding the insidious Mexican bean beetles, who glow bright yellow as larvae. Several of them, I am sorry to report, met their end squashed over my fingers. I emerged covered in dirt, but with my brain cleansed by the magic of repetitive physical movement. Like weeding or walking or weaving, the motions of picking the beans worked like meditation for me as I focused my attention on making my hands do the work.
Our facilitators, Jason and Taylor, suggested that as we walked around Southside Community Land Trust, we should take ‘snapshots’ – fifteen one-line fragments that could become found poetry, or branch off into other pieces of writing. I’m looking at my snapshots now, but resisting the urge to tinker with them….. I want to see if they happen to connect to other writing that sprouts up in the next two days.
At the beginning of the day, I wrote about community. And that is the absolute beauty of participating in these 3 days– I suddenly feel so welcomed, valued, and seen. I have been searching so hard for community and feel like I’m very much a part of something good.
Is there a way that covering ground can bring us closer to each other? If spreading out in a vast sequence of homesteads and plots of land created us as one people, is that good news for those of us who are far from home? Or those trying to start a movement, to make political change, to make a network of laboreres of thinkers of voters? Or for those of us growing classes of kids…..
In creating that settlement for growth, I’ve become a gardener in a nation of gardeners. What unites our little plantations isn’t space or even using the same water, but instead the very act of gardening.
And I think every person who wants to be a farmer once wanted to be tended to: raised and watered and sunned and fertilized as a young growing thing.
The farms we visited:
Southside Community Land Trust