Sisyphus


It’s been a hard month at Fernham. I was so excited to turn in the first submission of Mrs. Dalloway in January. Making the revisions in May, however, was less exciting. Still, I thought we were moving closer to proof stage. I worked around the clock, as hard as I know how, sure that I was making progress toward a book. Now, it turns out that what I’ve done has to go to the series editors one more time and then to the Advisory Board. The goal posts haven’t just moved, they have receded from sight. I’m not sure why I didn’t understand the process, but it’s considerably lengthier and more involved than with my first book.

The good news is that the series editors tell me that what they’ve seen is good.

The good news, for you, is that this will make for a better book.

The bad news is that I am beyond done with thinking about this project. The bloom is off the rose, the flowers have wilted, and I’m ready to quit. On top of everything else, the editors are also asking me to excise all my Americanisms. Not knowing what those are, I’ve asked them, with all due respect, to do it themselves.

In the end, this is probably only a two-month delay, but I’m so discouraged that it feels like this book is never going to be done. Sometimes, unfortunately, the scholar’s life is even less than it’s cracked up to be.

Cura: A new journal of art and action



Late last spring, a group of Fordham students got together with Sarah Gambito, our Director of Creative Writing. They were frustrated that all the work they were doing on the student literary journal resulted in a pretty little booklet that sat in stacks on the radiators of our building, ignored. How could they convey their passion for art and their desire to change the world in ways that would touch other people?

Lots of brainstorming, conversations, coding, and a few visits to Zuccotti Park later, and Cura is the result. I’ve been tweeting about this for a while, but I haven’t written about it here.

Cura is going to be an online magazine, available on Kindle and with a number (how many? we’re not sure yet) of print editions. Four times a year, we’ll publish a prompt, each one related to the theme, and select the best art—fiction, poetry, photography, or any new media that can be displayed on a website—we get in response. The students write the prompt and they’re also writing the Muse, the blog that riffs on that prompt.

Our theme is Home.

Our first prompt is “What does your white picket fence keep out? And what has slipped in?”

Our first deadline is October 17th.

But that’s not all. We are committed to art and action and with the theme of home we’ll be hosting some fundraising events to benefit Covenant House, a nonprofit that benefits homeless youth. Any money we make from sales of the print journal will go to Covenant House, too.

We are so excited about this! I am super proud to play a small role as a faculty advisor. I hope that you’ll pass the call for submissions to all your friends, that you’ll submit your work, and that you’ll come back at the end of the month and read what we’ve put together.

The wig


I love this idea of la perruque, from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life:
La perruque is the worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer. It differs from pilfering in that nothing of material value is stolen. It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job. La perruque may be as simple a matter as a secretary’s writing a love letter on ‘company time’ or as complex as a cabinetmaker’s ‘borrowing’ a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room. (25)
The book is wonderful, too, and I’m glad to have read it. I learned a lot. But I copied this passage out over a week ago to share with you and something's been making this post really hard to write. At first, I thought it was so exciting an idea: the notion of this kind of mild pilfering we all do at work. Then, too, since the advent of the internet, how much more must go on. Everyone I know pops onto a blog or facebook for fun at work. And I thought, too, of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, whose entire conceit is une perruque: the speaker, Pompey, is writing a novel on yellow paper so as not to confuse it with the white and blue paper she uses, in the same typewriter, for her secretarial work.

But, I must say, that quotation is bugging me. Something as small as a love letter or as big as a manly piece of furniture. Really? De Certeau is actually better on gender issues than most of these high flown theorists, but I get bored of pointing out all the unconscious hierarchies being perpetuated all the time everywhere.

Being a feminist is a full-time contact sport, people.

The need to call out all these theorists, all the time, saying “good idea, but you really haven’t thought through the implications for women…” makes me long to write a book that is, from its conception through its execution, feminist to the core.

Pearls & Power, 2

My post from last week on the signification of pearls in literature and a dustup on the Woolf listserv has been nominated for a prize for arts & lit blogging over at 3 Quarks Daily.

Voting ends tomorrow. Vote for me!!!

Edited to add that I made the seminfinalist round! Hooray! Thanks so much for voting. Now, 3 Quarks Daily will send the top 8 or so on for judging.

AROHO Retreat for a Disabled Woman Writer

Thanks to the very generous donations of many, the A Room of Her Own Foundation--a very Woolfian nonprofit--has a fellowship, honoring my friend the writer and disability activist Kenny Fries, to fund a disabled woman writer's attendance at a retreat.

If you are or know a disabled woman writer, please encourage her to apply!

Deadline for Kenny Fries Fellowship for a disabled woman writer to attend the A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) Retreat this summer is March 1. For more info click here.

A Room of Her Own Foundation: Kenny Fries Scholarship

If you would like to support a woman writer with disabilities or if you ARE (or know) such a woman whose writing would benefit from a retreat, here is a great opportunity:

In honor of my friend, the writer and disabilities advocate Kenny Fries' 50th birthday, A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) is sponsoring a scholarship for a disabled writer who without financial support could not attend the AROHO 2011 Retreat for Women Writers. Kenny will choose the recipient in an open application process.

AROHO is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that champions women writers. The suggested donation is $45. But any amount, even $5 or $10, will help us come closer to a fully funded scholarship. Donations to AROHO are tax-deductible. You can give online by choosing "Kenny Fries Scholarship" from the drop-down menu here, which will take you to PayPal. If you prefer you can mail a check to AROHO, PO Box 778, Placitas, NM 87043, mentioning that the check is for the Kenny Fries Scholarship for a Writer with a Disability.

Good quotation for one of my books

Woolf copied these lovely lines from Wordsworth into her notebook while she was writing Mrs. Dalloway:
The matter that detains us now may seem,  
To many, neither dignified enough 
Nor arduous, yet will not be scorned by them, 
Who, looking inward, have observed the ties 
That bind the perishable hours of life 
Each to the other, & curious props 
By which the World of memory & thought 
Exists and is sustained. 
--Wordsworth, The Prelude, 7:458-65
Under the quotation, she simply wrote “Good quotation for one of my books.”

I find everything about this deeply moving.

Throughout Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa thinks about the justification of life, of her life. Is her party too ordinary to merit attention—her own, Lady Bruton’s, Woolf’s, ours as readers? Or are “the perishable hours of life” precisely where we should attend, instead of only focusing on dignity and challenge? Of course, Woolf comes down on the side of Clarissa’s worth, but so strongly feminist has been the critical echo of Woolf’s point since 1925 that I find myself surprised—and delighted—to remember that such a respect for ordinariness is not only a feminist concern. Furthermore, Woolf herself recognized in Wordsworth the impulse to honor inward looking and the perishable.

Finally, I am charmed by the inartfulness of her note to herself. There is no “Perhaps, one day I shall use this as an epigraph,” just a straightforward (and to my ear, weirdly American sounding) note to self “Good quotation for one of my books.” She read the lines, recognized her project in them, and thought “yep, that’s me.” 

Mrs. Dalloway at 85

[Here is the homeless op-ed I mentioned yesterday.]

Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway was published on May 14, 1925. It takes place on a single day in June, 1923, and follows the lives of two Londoners who never meet: Clarissa Dalloway, a society hostess, and Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran who commits suicide. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus are connected through shared thoughts and through plot: Septimus’ doctor arrives late to Clarissa’s party, delivering news of the young man’s death.

You might not notice it at first, but Mrs Dalloway is an anti-war novel. Woolf was a lifelong pacifist and all of her sympathies are with the veteran, Septimus. Furthermore, Woolf herself suffered from occasional but severe bouts of mental illness, and knew, too well, the cruelty and inefficacy of early-twentieth-century mental health care. One of the novel’s key insights is that war has ongoing effects, years after its conclusion, on both veterans and civilians. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa thinks “in the middle of my party, here's death,” Woolf means us to hear more than just the shallow concern of a hostess; she also means us to hear Clarissa’s empathy.

If this were the book’s only lesson—that war is bad, that its damage spreads beyond the battlefield—we might all agree and congratulate ourselves that we now do slightly better by our veterans than we did a century ago.

Mrs. Dalloway has a much harder lesson to teach us, however. In contrast to Clarissa, two young women in the book take a more sanguine attitude to war. There we can find a lesson about how civilians are complicit in encouraging a culture of war. First, Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth passes a street band and the march she hears bring her thoughts immediately to war and death. Elizabeth imagines a deathbed scene in which an attendant opens the window, lets the music in, and a dying person finds consolation in the “triumphing” march. Elizabeth’s meditation comes just pages before Septimus’s death: there, we see him struggle to open a window to leap to his death. There is no music; there is no consolation.

Elizabeth’s naivete retains some charm even as it gives us pause. By contrast, Woolf makes Septimus’ teacher complicit in his death. Miss Isabel Pole “lecturing in the Waterloo Road upon Shakespeare,” as Woolf herself had done as a young woman, encourages Septimus in his ambitions, “Was he not like Keats? she asked … and lit in him such a fire as burns only once in a lifetime.” Here, Woolf depicts something much more dangerous than a crush, for in encouraging Septimus to admire Keats and read Antony and Cleopatra, she is encouraging him towards martyrdom.

When Virginia Stephen taught at a working men’s college, she, too, had an enthusiastic young student to whom she taught Keats. But a 1907 letter describing the scene, is all jest and avoidance: “I can tell you the first sentence of my lecture: ‘The poet Keats died when he was 25: and he wrote all his works before that.’ Indeed—how very interesting, Miss Stephen.” Mocking her inane remark—and her students’ bland acceptance of it—the young Virginia refuses an authoritative voice.

Where Woolf eschewed authority, her character seeks it, down to her very name: Isabel, so queenly, and Pole, so erect. And Miss Pole’s teaching has the desired effect: it creates of Septimus a young patriot, “one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” The fire that she has lit in him conflates poetry and a crush on a teacher with England itself. When Septimus returns from the war, traumatized and unable to feel, literature has turned to poison, and all he can think is “How Shakespeare loathed humanity.”

Mrs. Dalloway shows that music and literature can as easily be brought into the service of violence as of peace. The lessons Elizabeth and Isabel Pole draw—and teach—about music and literature feed the culture of war. However, the lesson Woolf asks us to draw, is far different: in a world at war, as animals full of violent impulses, we must refuse to be complicit in encouraging young people to martyr themselves. In 2010, as the United States continues to fight two wars and as each season brings us a new young person, inspired to do violence in the hope of martyrdom, we would do well to reread Mrs. Dalloway, and look again at what we teach and how it can work on behalf of peace.

Anatomy of a Rejection Letter

I don’t really mind the phrase “due to the volume of submissions” as apology for rejecting a submission without comment. The phrase that trips me up is “Several of us have read it.”

At first, I feel a slight glimmer of hope: it was good enough for the intern to pass on to her boss. Then, dejection: two interns read it and neither one liked it. Then I go round and round, trying to imagine their process. Who is this “us” and how many of us are interns, how many editors?

Then, we move to the next level, in which I realize, alas, that “several of us have read it” is probably not a special phrase for a level two rejection, but just a gentle way of saying that they really did read it. (I always, in my desire to protect my ego, that there is some harsher boilerplate rejection letter and that what I’m reading is the one for the special rejects, the ones who have permission to try again.)

In any case, I have written a really nice editorial, which, I anticipate, is about to be rejected for the second time. I will post it here when its timeliness expires or I’ve gotten tired of trying.

Dreary May Day in the Wertheim

Usually, I have to head home by 4:30, but once I week I work a bit later.

As luck would have it, today is that day and it’s a dreary one. My work on Mrs. Dalloway is inching forward, but I feel uninspired. And the same must be true of my fellow scholars here in my study room at the New York Public Library: several have left earlier than usual and a few are taking longer lunches than they typically do. One scholar sat amidst books and four gum wrappers. Anything to stay alert. After a crowded few days, it’s quiet here.

So we were all surprised by a knock on the door. One young woman answered and there was Jay Barksdale, our librarian, carrying a tray with a pot of tea and a dozen cups: “Tea time!”

We all laughed nervously in this silent, silent place, Jay left, I poured, and we’re back to work.

The Wertheim Study

“I’ve made us a cup of tea.”

Can there be any nicer sentence in English? When you meet someone for the first time, how lovely to already have that person caring for you.

When I knew I had a research leave coming up, I applied for one of those very amazingly fancy New York Public Library Fellowships. I didn’t get one; I didn’t expect to. But I did root around the website and found that, much less competitive than a fellowship were the two study rooms, the Allen (for people with book contracts) and the Wertheim (for scholars). I asked if I could have a space and was put on the waitlist.

Then, in February, I got notice that a space would come open on March 1. Could I fill out a form and come in for a chat?

I was nervous, but Jay Barksdale, the wonderful librarian in charge, put me at ease immediately with the aforementioned cup of tea in a real china cup with saucer. Really, the point of the meeting was just to make sure that I knew the rules and the procedures, but how many times nicer to learn about all of that with a cup of tea in hand.

What are the rules? I have a special electronic key card, but the room is open whenever the library is. There are special call slips for the Wertheim, too. Many, many people have access to the room—and, more to the point, the shelf where I can keep—yes, keep—any books that I need to use for my project, though the room really only comfortably seats about 15 at a time at its 3 wonderful long tables. And, to my immense narcissistic pleasure, I was asked if I would be willing to speak to, say, the New York Times, should they have an urgent need for a specialist. (Urgent needs for Mrs. Dalloway specialists being rare, I am not expecting a call.)

The Wertheim and Allen rooms run a series of lectures by the scholars at work there at the Mid-Manhattan Library (catty-corner from the big NYPL) many evenings at 6:30. Here is one upcoming event. And you can become a fan of the rooms  on facebook, which is a good way to learn about upcoming and recently past lectures.

I cannot describe to you how much of a difference this space, full of silent scholars (when people sneeze, no one even says bless you!) hard at work on projects. But the light posting here since March 1 is perhaps the best indicator of the fact that I’m not just “writing” in quotes, I’m writing.

One more cool thing: the room was established by author and scholar Barbara Tuchman. Isn’t that awesome?

Here is the official description:
To assist researchers making intensive use of the general research collections for a prescribed period of time, The New York Public Library has made available the Wertheim Study.  Established in 1963 by author and scholar Barbara Tuchman in honor of her father, Maurice Wertheim, publisher of “The Nation” and a founder of The Theatre Guild, the Study serves individuals engaged in research projects requiring extensive consultation of research materials related to the humanities and social sciences, preliminary to the preparation of a publication, report, or other research project. 

Happy Birthday, Dr. King

In honor of the Martin Luther King Holiday, I wanted to remind you of Charles Johnson’s wonderful short story, “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” from the collection of the same name. Here’s how Z. Z. Packer summarized it in her 2005 review of the collection:
In this story King stays up working on an overdue sermon, and when he looks into the refrigerator for a late-night snack he finds ''bright yellow slices of pineapple from Hawaii, truffles from England . . . a half-eaten Mexican tortilla . . . German sauerkraut and schnitzel right beside Tibetan rice . . . macaroni, spaghetti and ravioli favored by Italians.'' Struck by how something as basic and elemental as food can represent the interconnectivity of life, King basks in this revelation only to be brought to earth by his loving wife.
My husband and I had the privilege of hearing Johnson read this story at a conference in Seattle a few years back. It was fantastic.


Enjoy the day and honor the legacy of Dr. King.

Two Contests: Fiction & Nonfiction

Michelle Herman (whose memoir in essays, The Middle of Everything, I really admired) writes that there is a new deadline—January 31--for The Journal’s nonfiction prize. Here is the info:
Please, if you write nonfiction, send us something! New deadline: January 31, 2010.
Annual William Allen Creative Nonfiction Prize
(A competition that honors William Allen, the founding editor of The Journal)
$500 and publication of the winning essay in The JournalAll styles, subject matter, forms welcome. New deadline for postmark of mss is January 31. All mss will be considered for publication. An entry fee of $10 should accompany each manuscript (make checks payable to The Journal). Max word count is 6500 words. Include an SASE.
Send submission & entry fee to:   

Nonfiction Prize
The Journal 
Department of English
The Ohio State University
164 West 17th Avenue
Columbus, Ohio 43210

Alison Weaver, of H.O.W. Journal (of which I’m on the board), writes of their fiction contest (that deadline is a generously distant May 15)—judged by Susan Minot.


H.O.W. Journal is hosting its first short story contest to be judged by acclaimed author Susan Minot.Guidelines:
The contest is open to all writers and all themes. The word limit is 12,000. We do consider unpublished novel excerpts if they feel like complete stories. It's fine to submit more than one story. Manuscripts should be submitted with a cover note listing the author's name, address, phone number, and email; names should not appear on the stories themselves. All submissions should be clearly typed manuscripts, double-spaced on 8 1/2 x 11 inch white paper, one side only. Submissions will not be returned. No simultaneous or previously published work.
Awards:

  • 1st Place - $1000 and publication in H.O.W. Journal
  • 2nd Place - $300 and publication in H.O.W. Journal
  • 3rd Place - $100 and publication in H.O.W. Journal


Reading Fee per story: $20.00
Send your submissions and reading fee (a check payable to H.O.W. Journal) to:
H.O.W. Journal
 -- Short Story Contest
12 Desbrosses Street

New York, NY, 10013 
Submissions must be received in the H.O.W. offices by May 15th, 2010. We look forward to reading your stories!
Both have entry fees ($10 & $20, respectively), so submit with care. But sometimes a contest is just the motivator one needs. Good luck!

L’Esprit du Salle de Bain


I don’t really suffer from l’esprit du l’escalier: I’m not witty enough, don’t go out enough, to find myself agonizing over the devastatingly apt bon mot I should have uttered.

My problem comes not at the end of a social evening but in the transition from the morning shower to the day. In my shower, I imagine the clever blog posts I’ll compose, the quickly dashed off letter of recommendation, the lyrically satirical short story, the thoughtful and surprising essay. Then, I get upstairs, clean but hair uncombed (I really do hate to brush my fine, tangly hair, so I postpone as long as possible), check facebook and call it good enough. It's l'esprit du salle de bain: a momentary feeling of great creative power that, confronted with the fact of a sink full of dirty glassware and a living room strewn with dollies, dissipates as quickly as the steam on the bathroom mirror.

When I was in high school, one of my parents said to me “Anne, your [father? Mother?] and I think that you’re basically lazy.” They don’t remember it and I think that’s because it was said only once, in a very specific situation, in response to a moment of underachieving from me. Teenagers are exasperating and I was a teenager at the time. They certainly never treated me like a lazy person. But oh, how my superego feasts on this phrase, wandering between the prick of ambition and the siren song of procrastination.

How to Write a Fan Letter

I’m taking some notes on Woolf’s letters. I find her recommending Thomas Hardy’s poems to an old friend in December, and then, in January, writing to Hardy himself, thanking him for his poems and for all his books.

Hardy was born in 1840; Woolf, in 1882. In 1915, she had written only one novel and many, many reviews. So, she approaches him very much as a young writer approaching an elder. The letter is brief and gracious: she has a clear pretext (Satires of Circumstance [1914] includes a poem to her father, Leslie Stephen [1832-1904]), but it’s the last line that I love:
I write only to satisfy a very old desire, and not to trouble you to reply.
So graceful and grateful. That’s a real fan letter.

For interruptions there will always be….

As I sit in our plain little rented house on the river’s edge, I have in my head this image of an English country cottage, a Cotswolds thatched cottage, with rambling roses and a swinging gate. I imagine it full of bowls of oranges, jars of gingerbread, and the possibility of endless mornings of writing.

But the thought soon sickens me: it starts seeming like some of those crafty mommy blogs that I mostly read for schadenfreude, full of Martha Stewart-y tight extreme close-ups of the perfect peach, the porcelain mug of green tea.

In any case, I find that, in the end, I like life with a wider angle. Sitting here with a box of Dora Band-aids, a couple quarters from my husband’s pocket, my watch, a white rock, some crumbs, a bent paperclip, all on a very loud oilcloth tablecloth (huge yellow sunflowers on a blue background): Martha Stewart would need an army to fashion this into something redolent of the charms of a month in a rented house by the River.

Maybe I have to learn to dislike the fantasy of a cell, of a life apart and uninterrupted. It’s not that I don’t need time to write without children around: I do, and that’s why we hire a sitter for the mornings. It’s just that, since I am blessed with children and the desire to write, I need to strike a richer balance. That’s a banal insight, worthy of the mommy blogs themselves, but a little rougher around the edges.

Not about Virginia Woolf: Fiction Conference at Fordham University


The Mercantile Library is so awesome! I cannot exaggerate how much fun I had leading one of their reading groups this spring. I love teaching, but there is something really special about a non-credit class, with a bunch of adults who give up an evening just to come together and talk about a novel.

And, as all blog readers know, there is nothing more awesome than Beatrice’s own Ron Hogan.

So, when then Merc asked me if I could get Fordham to co-sponsor the Mercantile Library Center For Fiction’s Writer’s Conference, I said YES!

Now, I’m emerging from my pre-Woolf Conference flurry to encourage you to register for the conference and spread the word.

Ron has put together an amazing day of information and advice for writers. PLUS for the registration fee of $200, you also get a month of studio space at the Mercantile Library. Who is speaking? Well, the fabulous Lauren Cerand of luxlotus, Toure himself, Ben Greenman, whose been getting such amazing publicity for his funky new book. Also: the funny and wise Jennifer Weiner. And Sara Nelson, former editor Publisher’s Weekly. And the dry and intelligent Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull. And Sigrid Nunez, who wrote a book about Leonard Woolf’s marmoset (among other things). In short, in a single day, you have the chance to hear from novelists, publishers, publishing insiders, and publicists.

All of this is happening at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, my home base: 113 W 60th, just one block west of Columbus Circle. Register today and pass it on! It’s going to be great.

Rivals and Orphans: H.O.W. Launch Party, 5/13

Last summer, I wrote an essay on rivalry. It's one of those things that came out in a couple days and was good enough, in the draft to actually polish up and make into an essay. In the fall, I had coffee with my friend Natasha. What should I do with the essay?

Well, we're actually looking for nonfiction for the next issue of H.O.W....

And there you have it: the journal launch party is next week. The journal is out. If you're in the city, come on down to the Bowery Poetry Club & celebrate. If not, you can buy a copy of the issue online: it's very pretty, features a new Susan Minot short story, really interesting visual art & much more.

Here are the details:

H.O.W. Journal Issue 4 Launch Party & FUNdraiser

A reading by the legendary Eileen Myles and the hilarious Sam Lipsyte.
A performance by Drug Rug - groove to sweet rock and roll, and pure bluesy chaos.
A silent auction with luxurious items at crazy discounts!
(DVF dress! Fancy dinners! Art!)

And just by showing up you will be supporting the work of emerging artists and writers, keeping a small non profit journal alive in a dark dismal time, AND HELPING ORPHANS WORLDWIDE.

ALL this good stuff for the low low price of $15 (or $20 dollars at the door)

COME OVER!

May 13, 2009
7-9:30pm
Bowery Poetry Club
380 Bowery, (between Houston and Bleecker)
BUY TICKETS NOW FOR $15
www.howjournal.com/spring
Or $20 at the door!


H.O.W. Journal publishes a mix of prominent writers and artists alongside new talents with an effort to raise money and awareness for the 15 million children worldwide that have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS. We publish fiction, nonfiction, poetry and visual art.

More E.B. White

In my head, I have a thoughtful but somewhat scathing critique of the deficiencies of last week's event.

On my desk, I have more work to do than hours in the day.

Plus, I've been sitting in my workout clothes for 3 hours.

In the absence of a proper post, I lead you to GalleyCat, where you can see a video of me talking about E.B. White.