Wednesday, October 11, 2017

From Whence You Came

My father recently asked me a question that I have sometimes mulled over privately, but which I never expected to have to answer for realsies, given my level of absolute non-fame: do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

First, some background. Some of you know that while I was born in North Carolina, I was raised in Michigan, yet I have also spent the bulk of my adult life living and working primarily in the South (specifically, North Carolina and Louisiana). As a result, I've often--sometimes inadvertently--been immersed in the world of Southern literature or Southern writers. However, I've also spent a great deal of time around New England (particularly Boston) writers because of my grad school experiences.

Also, there is some debate about what constitutes Southern literature, because there is much debate about what actually constitutes the South. The Line isn't always the most effective way of answering this, because there are many out there who will swear to you that Kentucky, Virginia, and even North Carolina aren't really Southern states. Then there is the issue of Maryland, which is tricky because it is now Northern in character but historically was considered Southern.

So how do we categorize someone like Edgar Allan Poe? Personally, I don't consider him to be a Southern writer, but I suspect that he would categorize himself that way, given the opportunity. Meanwhile, I absolutely consider Mark Twain to be a Southern writer, although he spent most of his life in Missouri, Connecticut, and various Northern cities (with stops in California).

As far as that goes, who do we consider to be American writers? Sylvia Plath provides a good example for this question: undeniably American (born, raised, and partly educated in Massachusetts) and influenced in part by other Boston Writers (such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton), yet entrenched in British life (studying and living out the most prolific part of her career in England) and surrounded by English and Irish writers (Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney) while still communing with other expatriates (like WS Merwin). Most people would probably categorize her as American, although there is also a case to be made for her as an English writer.

A similar debate can be had about Gertrude Stein, another famous expat. She was American by birth but dwelled in France for much of her life. If anything, I would think the best designation for her is international, as she spent her time moving in artistic circles populated by people from many countries, including America (Ernest Hemingway), France (Henri Matisse), and Spain (Pablo Picasso), among others.

My basic response about my own situation was, "I don't think anyone has ever accused me of being a Southern writer, and I hope they never do." This has nothing to do with my opinion of Southern literature, which I appreciate and sometimes even love (here's looking at you, Faulkner). Rather, it has to do with my perception of myself as well as my priorities and my style. I would categorize myself as a Michigan writer, and a proud one.

What other people call me is, ultimately, their business, I suppose, but I feel like I would be vocal about this one thing, were I in a position to do so, because I do have strong feelings about it. But on the other hand, it's nice just to be called a writer at all, even if I sometimes have trouble giving myself that designation (in spite of my enormous ego and repeated declarations on this blog). 

-Cate-

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Homebodies

Awhile back, Dad and I went to hear a panel discussion/reading by authors from the anthology And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017. It was a good time, and if any of the authors happen to come through your town, I recommend hearing what they have to say if you are at all interested in the UP or Michigan writing in general.

During the event, one of the authors mentioned that he is always eager to get back to Detroit; he appears to have arrived at a point in his life where he wants to be back in HIS PLACE, which I absolutely understand. Later that night, Dad asked me about this, and I realized something I've never really considered before: homebodiness can take two distinct forms.

The first, of course, is homebodiness of the house, or what we think of as the classic homebody--in other words, someone who enjoys being in their home, would rather stay in than go out, and enjoys solitude. I am this type of homebody at least 80 percent of the time.

The other variety is homebodiness of place--in other words, someone who wants to spend their time in their neighborhood or city (or, I suppose, even specific other places, like a theater or library). The author mentioned above is of the second type.

When I consider it, I'm surprised by the number of people I know who could be categorized as homebodies. But the more I think, the more I realize it's probably a lasting effect of our tribal past: staying in the same location because we know it's familiar and safe.

This isn't a criticism at all; I think it's very beneficial to have a connection to your surroundings, as you can be an effective guide to visitors or transplants, are more likely to keep your dollars in your area and thereby support its economic development, and build a stronger personal community for yourself.

So yes: I am all for homebodiness of place!

-Cate-

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORDS THAT ARE COMIN' OUTTA MY MOUTH

I found myself in an interesting position at work the other day, and by "interesting," I mean "frustrating." A woman shanghaied me into demonstrating multiple iterations of the same product, and in the course of this, she asked me a question that made clear how skeptical she was of my expertise. Although I outwardly answered her in the politest way I could, in my head, I went, "The fuck you just say to me?"

And that right there is the thing I want to focus on today. Not the customer's demands, but the response I had and how it is reflective of the difference between a writer's personal life and their recorded words.

Let's parse this out. "The fuck you just say to me" is hardly a correct sentence; if you replace the missing words, it reads, "What the fuck did you just say to me?" I've discussed my Midwestern dialect before on this blog, and it's something of which I've become increasingly aware over the years, particularly after spending approximately a third of my life living in the South. My speech patterns differ from those of the people by whom I've often been surrounded, and on occasion, they have called me out on it, which is fine. 

What I've been more self-conscious about, however, is the disparity between the way I speak and the way I write. Any time I have a meeting or an interview, I start to freeze up partway through, because I know I could respond to questions or make my own points far more coherently on the page, and my anxiety kicks into overdrive, thereby further garbling my speech. I hate this aspect of my personality, and I do try to rein it in, but it's tough. 

In a perfect world, I would have the ability to speak clearly and elegantly at all times, but that's simply not the case, and I suppose it's a flaw I have to accept in myself. Also, I feel like this is a common theme among writers, at least based on conversations I've had with my compatriots and live readings or discussions I've seen throughout the years.

This being a far from perfect world, however, I have to work toward filtering myself better at the outset, and at thinking more quickly so I can form those beautiful sentences I want to utter. Another self-improvement project, then, but at least a (reasonably) worthy one. This way, everyone will someday be able to understand the words that are coming out of my mouth.

-Cate-

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Workflow

Working retail is weird sometimes. 

For example: I'm employed by a company that sometimes has to destroy merchandise. Legally, I understand the rationale, and so I'm not opposed to it. Morally, however, it's more complicated than that.

And the sheer amount of money flowing through stores can be astounding, especially during a time when there has been massive flooding in both North America and Asia, civil rights abuses, and actual Nazis marching in the streets. Sometimes it feels frivolous to me, given the awful things happening here and abroad. This will only increase as we approach the holidays.

But there are other, much better things, as well. You can bond with complete strangers over a sale when you realize you both love a certain product, and I often tell bad jokes at the register with impunity; customers may roll their eyes, but they also sometimes chuckle, and that's good enough for me.

And I love the people-watching aspect of the whole retail enterprise. It's great for a writer, because you can lift tiny aspects from interesting clients and insert them into your own characters, or even use ridiculous excerpts overheard in the store for dialogue later on. This is the part about selling that I enjoy most (considering that I'm such a hardcore introvert, it's difficult for me to enjoy the enterprise at all.)

Yes, retail sucks sometimes. But as with everything else, you have to find that silver lining and run with it if you want to survive. Just some advice from an unwilling shopgirl.

-Cate-

PS YA GIRL IS (not even remotely) FAMOUS (in a strictly local sense).

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Pleased to Meet Me?

"Who am I? Where am I? Why am I?"

These questions were often rhetorically posed to me by one of my former supervisors, who asked them with a dazed look on his face meant to mock the undergraduate students who were seemingly unable to comprehend their coursework or lives. On the one hand, he was onto something, as we didn't always encounter the brightest minds of our times. On the other, "Who am I" is a question as old as humanity, one we often struggle to answer for ourselves, let alone for other people.

Walt Whitman declared that "I am large, I contain multitudes." Here, then, is a man who acknowledges that he is not a single thing but is comprised of many personae, from a patriot ("O Captain! My Captain!") to the ghost of his childhood self ("Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking") to a lover  ("We Two Boys Together Clinging") to an unabashed voyeur ("Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"). Being Whitman, though, he was completely willing to expose all of his inner selves to the world, because he loved us and wanted to share everything.

For the rest of us, it's not always that easy. Sharing our authentic feelings and showing our true colors can be intimidating, especially for introverts. When it comes to writing, though, I find it easier to be open and honest. Yet a dilemma remains: how best to present myself? Or, put another way, what voice am I meant to use here?

Dinty W. Moore puts it best:

Although the personal essay is a form of nonfiction, and thus the self you bring to your essay should be an honest representation of who you are, we are in fact made of many selves: our happy self, our sad self, our indignant self, our skeptical self, our optimistic self, our worried self, our demanding self, our rascally self and on and on and on. But in truth, if we attempt to bring all of these selves to every essay that we write, we run the risk of seeming so uncertain, so indecisive, that we merely confuse the reader.

Here, he's specifically discussing personal essays and memoirs, but I think it can apply to any form of writing, particularly poetry, and even fiction: if you simply take this advice and apply it to a first-person narrator, you will be able to construct a character with a consistent voice throughout your novel or story. 

For my part, I've never spent much time thinking about my blogging persona. Perhaps I have a  singular attitude that comes naturally to me depending on the topic I'm discussing: passionate, skeptical, excited, literary, and so on. When it comes to writing essays, however, things are different. I struggle to make myself coherent. The form somehow affects me, puts more pressure on me, whether it should or not.

So I'm going to take the advice Moore lays out elsewhere in his piece and examine my motivations and the things I'm trying to convey when writing essays so I can share myself more effectively with the reader. After all, a writer is nothing without an audience, and garbling your message can drive readers away.

-Cate-

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Summer Book Report

Last year, I wrote a post about how I spent my summer vacation. While I'm taking a slightly different approach this year, I'd still like to report back to everyone on my literary-centric activities.

- Several months ago, I joined the Book of the Month Club, even though I don't need more books or even anyone suggesting titles to me. But on the other hand, their curated selections allow you to take a step back from the bookstore, which is a crazy thing for me to say, since I adore bookstores, but I recognize the value of this for people who maybe don't have time for shopping but still want to get at least one novel in from time to time. Definitely check out any deals they have, because sometimes you'll be able to get an extra book (or a tote!) for free.

- In July, I visited both locations of The Island Bookstore: Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island, MI. Both have good selections of Michigan titles, and the island location is surprisingly well-stocked with both books and gifts, considering their small retail space and the fact that the rest of the street is lined mainly with souvenir shops and fudge makers. 

- Also in July, I made return trips to both McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, MI, and Schuler Books in Lansing, MI.

- And once more in July: the first annual Detroit Festival of Books was held in the Eastern Market. The event featured local authors and booksellers, and the turnout seemed to be good. While there, I picked up a title from The Porcupine's Quill, whose cover stock was absolutely gorgeous.

- In August, Dad and I went to Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI to see a panel discussion about  the new anthology And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017, which was a good time. Sue Harrison, M.L. Liebler, Phillip Sterling, and Keith Taylor were on the panel, and I appreciate their answers to a question I posed after the reading! (For an interview with Keith Taylor, check out the Brilliant Books website!)

- As a side note, Bookriot has released a list of the best bookstores in every state, and--whaddaya know--Brilliant Books, Literati, and McLean & Eakin are all represented in the Michigan section!

- Through my mother's generosity, I was able to enroll in an online course offered through GrubStreet, the popular Boston writing center. Six Weeks, Six Essays was taught by Grace Talusan, whose prompts, resources, and feedback were great. Although their summer courses are almost over, the center's online offerings for the fall are already listed on the site, so check that out if you'd like to brush up on your creative writing skills but don't want to go back to school.

- As you may have noticed, I actually took some time to blog this summer! Wow, what a concept: keeping up with my own project for once? Never saw that coming, tbh.

- If you haven't seen it yet: I wrote a(n almost) 2,500-word essay here on the blog about Sylvia Plath that is messy and ridiculous and fraught, but it felt good to write something approaching critical territory again. It's rare for me to engage in (nearly) academic composition, but it seemed like the thing to do at that particular moment, so there you have it.

- And to wrap things up, here's a cautionary tale: when I first moved home, the majority of my books were still packed up, so I ran over to the local Barnes & Noble to grab a couple of titles to tide me over. While browsing, I decided I needed more Chuck Klosterman in my life (which is perpetually true), and I bought a copy of I Wear the Black Hat to satisfy myself. I read it, and it was good, and I set it aside to be shelved later. Two or three days after that, I was looking for something in a box and found the book, but I couldn't remember having left it there. Lo and behold, I later saw the book on the bookshelf in my room. 

Yes, kids, I made the mistake all serious readers have made at least once in their lives: I bought a copy of this particular tome sometime in the past (I suspect it was last summer), forgot I had it, and then bought a new copy later. This is, I think, the second time I've faced such a dilemma, and I fully expect it to happen again in the future. #failcatefail

-Cate-

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

FOMO

When I was an adolescent, I was desperately uncool. (I like how I'm saying this as though I've become super-hip and popular in the intervening years. EL OH EL NOPE.) As a result, I always came to fads late. My Tamagotchi was probably one of the last ever sold. I skipped the Furby altogether, and I'm glad I did, because those things are scary. One particularly bitchy classmate made fun of me in the third grade because I still played with Barbies. This is how it went back then.


Today, I'm no better at keeping up with trends, but in a different, more adult way. Gone are the times when I was late to the party; instead, I'm skeptical of the party itself. The hyper-manicured eyebrow? I don't get it at all and refuse to participate. "Festival style" baffles me, both because of its appropriative aspects and because I don't see the appeal of things like Bonnaroo and Burning Man. Reality television in the vein of the Real Housewives franchise holds no interest for me.

This might sound surprising coming from someone who claims to be a devotée of popular culture, and in a way, it is. When it comes to pop culture, I lean more nerdy, more literature-centric, more critical (in the evaluative sense), so I walk a different path, ignoring the things that don't speak to me in favor of topics that spark my curiosity.

As a child, I wanted to fit in badly enough that even something as inane as pogs seemed essential to my life; unfortunately, by the time I arrived at the station, the train had departed and I was left trying to catch the caboose. Now, I'm less susceptible to that impulse, although I do still occasionally seek opportunities to be accepted into the so-called "cool kids" group. That's only human, I think.


Perhaps as I continue to age, I'll worry less and less about that cutting edge. It usually turns out to be ineffectual, anyway, or lacks historical or philosophical resonance. The exception to this may prove to be something like the Kardashian family; if that turns out to be the case, I'll eat my words. For now, though, I'll continue to wonder what I might be missing when I don't consume a given type of media. 

Here's hoping I'm not missing anything at all.

-Cate-

Images via here and here.