Royalties

If you're lucky enough to get money from your writing, what should you do with it? Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight, Moon, has, to me, the best answer ever. In 1935, she sold her first book, When the Wind Blew:

“When the check for her royalty advance came in the mail soon afterward, Margaret cashed it immediately. Horse-drawn flower carts were still a familiar sight in the Village; fresh from the bank, Margaret hailed a cart, told the vendor that she wanted to buy everything he had, and directed him to her front door, where the entire cartload was deposited. She decorated her apartment, then called her friends over for a party”

From Awakened by the Moon, Leonard Marcus, 1992.

The Gods Laughed

Last week was spring break, but it wasn’t much of a vacation. In fact, I spent the second weekend of the break commuting, somewhat frantically, to the ACLA (the American Comparative Literature Association) meeting at NYU. I was frantic because my seminar met at 8:30 AM Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and, those first two days, my husband was out of town at another meeting.

But, I got a ride into the city on Saturday and Sunday and, though I lay awake worrying about logistics, I comforted myself with the thought that I’m not as nuts as Robin Schulte describes herself as being in Overwhelmed, a book I’m reading since I complained of it (being overwhelmed) on facebook. I was even beginning to think that I was doing it. I am scholar-mom, hear me roar!

Then came the seminar. Organized by two of my graduate students—one of whom has moved on to greener pastures—it was a delight. There were twelve papers on neglected women writers and the twelve of us sat there, for two hours every morning, talking about our specific writers and the theory and practice of recovering women. I gave a paper on Gertrude Stein (not forgotten) and Goodnight Moon (also not forgotten), talking about how few people think of Margaret Wise Brown as a writer because she wrote for people who can’t read. Virginia Woolf was hardly mentioned at all. That, in itself was a stunning, magical delight for me.

And, by the end of the conference I felt like I can do this! I can move forward with my writing! My ideas are good! I even let myself think these kind thoughts about myself for a while, let myself feel the possibility and the power.

Then, came Monday. The gods must have heard my burp of confidence, because I had a 2-hour conversation with my general editor at Cambridge about all the things I need to do still before Mrs. Dalloway can move forward. All correct; all good ideas; all smart; all do-able in the next two or three weeks. Not one of them do I want to do; though I will do them all.

That was just the amuse-bouche. On Tuesday, my slow Mac at work became my inaccessible Mac. Instead of checking my email, I was reformatting an external hard drive to make it mac-compatible so I could back up my files so IT could reformat the whole machine. I met with two plagiarists. I got a text from the cleaning lady to say "I"m at your house. Where is the key?" I got a call from my daughter to say that her braces had come loose and there was a wire hanging loose in her mouth. Could I come home and take her to the orthodontist?

I do not, at the moment, feel like I can do it all.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

 

 

An Audience of One

I’m on a Janet Malcolm binge lately. My friend in London gave me Forty One False Starts and I read much of it. Then, I read with the shock and slightly embarrassed pleasure of recognition her profile of Eileen Fisher in a recent New Yorker. Finally, then, in preparation for teaching Stein the other week, I read her Two Lives, a total pleasure (as I knew it would be).

But, as much as Malcolm herself, whose prose I’m studying and admiring,  one of the greatest pleasures of her book was this quotation from Stein, a brilliant and inspiring quotation about the importance, for any artists, of having one person, just one person, who understands what you’re doing.

It is a very strange feeling when one is loving a clock that is to every one of your class of living an ugly and a foolish one and one really likes such a thing and likes it very much and liking it is a serious thing, or one likes a colored handkerchief that is very gay and every one of your kind of living thinks it a very ugly or a foolish thing and thinks you like it because it is a funny thing to like and you like it with a serious feeling… or you write a book and while you write it you are ashamed for every one must think you a silly or a crazy one and yet you write it and you are ashamed, you know you will be laughed at or pitied by every one and you have a queer feeling and you are not very certain and you go on writing. Then some one says yes to it…and then never again can you have completely such a feeling of being afraid and ashamed. (Stein, qtd. Malcolm 157)

Stein wrote this shortly after beginning her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, the someone who “says yes” to Stein going on writing.

I shared it with my students this fall—I’m teaching at Juilliard, so all my students are young artists—and they nodded in recognition. Such a beautiful, beautiful reminder of how much we need, and how little.

 

Heroines, All We Know

Heroines are pretty much all I think about these days, if they are not all I know. It’s all modernist women all the time here. And, when I’m not thinking about my introduction to the upcoming special issue of mfs Modern Fiction Studies (forthcoming: Summer, 2013; topic? Women’s Writing, the New Modernism, and Feminist Theory. In other words, fasten your seatbelts!), I’m teaching Woolf. So, it’s a lot a lot of thinking about, reading about, writing about, and reading modern women writers.

For all the work of a quarter century on Woolf (with more Woolf projects to come, no doubt), my passion right now is to shine that light on other women writers. I dream about a book that would profile multiple modern women writers who are not Woolf. Happily, for my reading life, there are two super exciting new books that do just that (and, happily for me, neither is a book I could have written). Community bookstore hosted Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines, in conversation with Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know, for an event last week. It really was one of the coolest book events I’ve been to in a long time. I left just aglow with the sense that, for all the other ills in the world, I could still find a pocket of brilliant women who worked hard in support of other women. That still fills me with hope.

I took to Twitter a few months ago to ask about favorite recent feminist theory and a couple people recommended Zambreno’s book, a meditation on modernist wives with a dollop of Woolf. I haven’t finished the book and I find it brilliant, exasperating, thrilling and crazy. I hope to write more about it separately, but the little fragments of what happened to Zelda Fitzgerald, bumping up against Valerie Eliot and Zambreno’s own frustrations as a “trailing spouse” in the rural Midwest (oh, we have lived that nightmare here, gentle reader) are provocative in the best way. Not since The Pink Guitar have I read a mixed genre feminist text with so much interest (and, it must be said, exasperation).

When I learned that she’d be appearing with Lisa Cohen at Community Bookstore, I jumped at the chance, secured childcare and flew (via the MTA)  to Brooklyn. Zambreno was charming and interesting, but Cohen blew my mind: she is clearly a brilliant woman and a beautiful writer for she presented some of the key feminist theoretical ideas of the moment in clear but uncompromising terms. Most notably, her remarks focused on Esther Murphy, one of the three lives of bourgeois lesbians at the heart of All We Know, and Murphy’s inability to complete a book in her lifetime. How do we understand this failure? Cohen’s work fits right in to much recent theoretical work on failure as a queer art, on failure as resistance to socially constructed (straight, white, bourgeois) ideas of happiness, but in a book that one yearns to read for pleasure, not for a theoretical workout. I was so thrilled by the intellectual energy of what Cohen was reading that I whispered to my friend that I wanted to rush up and just give her a big hug of gratitude.

So imagine my sheepish delight to learn that we had been in grad school together! The narcissism of my youth, which prevented me from knowing a brilliant peer because I was too deep in my own worries, aside, this only made that sense of the power of brilliant women all the better.

To see, in the audience of thirty, several friends. To be introduced to new people through them, to learn, from a new friend that she went to college with—and loves—my amazing yoga teacher. All of this is a big thing that is right with the world right now.

I am still reading the books. Both continue to amaze and impress. More soon, I’m sure. Both books have lots of well-deserved press. I've tried to sprinkle links throughout the post--click away!