Monday, May 3, 2010

Contradictions (A writing exercise)

1. I teach my students to approach essay writing as simply following a formula: your idea + primary textual evidence + MLA citation + your analysis + secondary textual evidence + MLA citation + your analysis (not all in one sentence, of course) but I cannot do basic math. Math traumatized me throughout school. Numbers freak me out; even looking at a calendar for too long gives me a headache.

2. I spent most of my first 18 years playing tennis. I’ve spent most of the last 18 years not playing tennis. I still love it, and I do miss it, I just don't go out of my way to play.

3. I haven’t eaten meat, fish or chicken in 24 years. I’m very particular about what food I consume; I don’t eat oily, fattening foods (except high quality French fries once in a while); I always order salad dressing on the side, and usually just use olive oil; I never use butter; I don’t drink soda and I only drink 100% juice. However, I see absolutely nothing wrong with drinking a glass of wine (or two) every night of every week of every year; I sometimes eat half a bag of Baked Ruffles by accident; if there were a gelato shop near my apartment, I would eat gelato every day; I really like (good) beer; I often eat 3 Peppermint Patties on my way to brush my teeth and go to bed.

4. I am fairly OCD about certain things—Purell-ing my hands if I have to touch a subway pole or heavily-trafficked doorknob; not leaving the house without lip stuff (or gum or tissues); keeping important documents in a fireproof safe; remembering friends’ birthdays—and kind of gross (for lack of a better term, though I am not frat-boy-gross) about other things—I wash jeans maybe once a month; I am six months beyond needing new bras and I can’t even admit how long it’s been since I mopped the floor in my apartment (I sweep every day, but I HATE mopping).

5. I have no problem speaking to a classroom full of students on the first day of school, and I love reading my work in front of an audience—I barely feel nervous—but the thought of attending a cocktail party alone—chatting, schmoozing—makes me nauseated.

6. I spent nine summers (the best summers of my life) at sleep away camp. Last summer, I was at a friend’s house in suburban New York, enjoying the starry evening, and a frog crossed my path. I almost pissed myself.

7. I like knowing exactly where I’m going yet I have a very poor sense of direction. The only place I can identify north or south is the Hamptons, because the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

8. I went skydiving for a friend’s 30th birthday—I jumped out of a plane from 13 miles in the sky—but a hot, crowded subway car that stops in a dark tunnel gives me heart palpitations.

9. I like feeling in control but I have absolutely no self-control; if you put a bowl of M&Ms, a glass of wine or a (very light) cigarette in front of me, I will eat, drink and smoke them.

10. I cannot live without music. I love music. I need music. And I am totally tone deaf—I literally cannot sing.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Shadow of the Day

I heard this song on the radio this morning and can't stop listening to it. I have no feelings about the video, but the song deeply affects me--it's the soundtrack to the last two weeks of my life.

Shadow of the Day by Linkin Park

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Grief is dark and heavy.
And unbearable.
One hour I am angry at the pointlessness, the next hour I am engulfed in pain.
And paralyzed. Grief is not conducive to writing, or even re-writing.
Maybe it is what I am writing. Maybe it is because I cannot focus.
Or maybe it is that I am feeling, processing, mourning,
not repressing or suppressing.
Which is good. I guess.
This is where I am right now.
"This too shall pass..."

Brian was 28 years old, my student for nearly 3 years. He loved learning, loved analyzing, loved writing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson Jr.
12/24/81 - 3/13/10
I saw him every day, and I will miss him every day.

Monday, March 15, 2010

In Honor of Lost Potential

My favorite student died over the weekend. His name was Brian Johnson. I know I’m not supposed to admit to having a favorite student, but Brian was an extraordinary student, and a kind, generous man. I met him in my Introduction to Literature class two years ago; he and his best friend Michael were the anchors in the class, meaning I could consistently count on them to discuss the assigned readings. Brian’s analytical skills were terrific; he just needed to learn the literary vocabulary with which to discuss his ideas. He possessed natural writing skills; he just needed someone to infuse him with confidence, and teach him how to use the literature itself to prove his ideas. In the middle of the semester, the apartment building in which he lived with his “Pops” burned down. He came to see me the next day, worried his assignment would be late because his textbooks had been destroyed. Most students would use this as an excuse to not hand in assignments, but Brian merely asked for an extra week so he could read the assigned short stories in the library. When I handed him a new textbook and dictionary, he was thrilled, and I knew he was a man who not only cherished his education but also truly enjoyed reading and learning about literature.

Brian was a Psychology major, but I persuaded him to take my 20th Century American Fiction class in the fall of 2008. By October, he had become a double major, in Psychology and English. At the end of that semester, he wrote a publishable research paper on Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. As he tackled subsequent upper-level Psychology and Literature courses, his desire to learn increased, as did his grades. He often stopped by my office to show me a paper he was working on—with pride I realized his writing skills had improved to the point that he could share his knowledge with other students.

In the fall of 2009, I hired Brian as a Peer Tutor as well as a Work Study Student for the English Department. I saw him every day. He called me “Miss.” On Mondays, he asked about my weekend. He talked to me about his son, who lived with him every weekend. He laughingly told me how he had been convinced by an infomercial to buy the “Your Baby Can Read” DVDs; he figured it wasn’t too early to show his son the importance of words. He loved movies—we laughed about the fact that he and Michael were probably the only two people who traveled from the South Bronx to the Upper East Side in order to see Woody Allen’s new movie. He also loved reading. Faulkner and Poe elicited his enthusiasm—I think because they reveal the darker side of human nature, which stimulated Brian’s thoughts as connected to both psychology and literature. Oftentimes Brian stopped by my office, smiling his sweet smile, to show me a book he’d found at The Strand—the novelty of inexpensive books, used but in perfect condition, never wore off for him.

Brian had been thriving as a Peer Tutor, and in my Insane Characters in Literature course this semester, his intellectual curiosity and academic confidence were apparent not only to me but also the other students. Last week, Brian asked me about graduate programs, and together we looked online at grad programs that would incorporate his love for literature with his interest in psychology. He was thinking about teaching, or counseling in a school setting. I was looking forward to writing an amazing letter of recommendation for him.

On Saturday, Brian was alone in a room and had a seizure, and he died. To say his life was “full of promise,” or that he had a “bright future ahead of him,” is a gross understatement. Brian didn’t command attention when he walked into a room, but you knew he was there. He possessed a quiet dignity. His subtle optimism and thoughtful generosity affected the lives of those around him, especially mine. Brian was the type of student who made teaching exciting and worthwhile, and I can’t bear the thought of teaching on Thursday nights without him sitting beside me. I have been an English professor for the past ten years—no student has earned my respect and affection the way Brian did. I guess my grief will eventually subside, but I won’t stop mourning him. The world was a better place with Brian Johnson in it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

It's No Coincidence

"If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels," wrote Tennessee Williams.

What comes first, the creativity or the darkness? Do artists create because they need to exorcise their demons, or is it their very creations that lead to the darkness? This conundrum continues to come up in the class I'm teaching this semester, Insane Characters in Literature (many of the characters/literature were created by authors who suffered from mental illness). The number of artists, especially writers, who were/are
drinkers or drug users is extremely high, and can't be a coincidence. The number of artists, especially
writers, who have committed suicide or suffered from some type of mental illness is off the charts, so to speak. No other career loses so many people to suicide.

What comes first, the emotional pain or the creativity?

Monday, February 22, 2010

March 18 Drunken Careening Writers

I've been invited to read from my second novel at NYC's most literary bar, KGB Bar*. It's an honor to participate in the fantastic literary series Drunken Careening Writers, and I hope you'll come hear me read from my new novel!

March 18, 2010
85 East 4th Street, NYC, 10003
(near the corner of 2nd Avenue)
7-9 PM

*Named best literary venue in New York City by New York Magazine and the Village Voice.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why? circa 2004

I was looking for a document on my hard drive and found this; it's old, from 2004. It was an assignment in a Theories of Teaching course in my MA in Lit program, something about writing a narrative of our lives. Anyway, it's about writing, and about me, so I figured I'd share it on my blog.


I write because words are my link to the world…I write because words are illuminating and enlightening…I write because I love to read…I write because a blank page doesn’t scare me…I write because I never made a decision to write—it’s just what I need to do…I write because I have always written, and I will always write…I write because I want to write every day, at the times I choose, for the reasons I choose…I write because I want to support myself by selling novels and short stories…I write because I want to spend my days writing, revising, editing and revising again…I write non-fiction because I have ideas and opinions I want to share with others…I write fiction because I witness stories that need to be told…I write because I crave time; time to talk with friends—mostly writers—about the world, our worlds, and the words we write…I write because I want time to workshop with peers I respect and admire…I write because I want time to read and see movies and drive aimlessly, all of which help me generate ideas…I write because I want time to travel…I write because I want time to hear other writers read their work…I write because I need time to browse through bookstores…I write because it is how I process information, and trauma, and life in general…I write because it allows me to create reality…I write because I express myself best with the written word…

I write because in the eighth grade I learned grammar, and I fell for the logistics and structure of perfect mechanics…I write because in ninth grade I read A Separate Peace and The Great Gatsby…I write because in tenth grade I read Catcher in the Rye…I write because in eleventh grade I took a creative writing class, and realized words were my way out…I write because in eleventh grade I read Macbeth and The Scarlet Letter…I write because in twelfth grade I read Rebecca and Beowulf and The Cherry Orchard...I write because freshman year I read The Sun Also Rises…I write because sophomore year I read Gulliver’s Travels and On The Road…I write because junior year I read O’ Pioneers…I write because senior year I read Wise Blood…

I write because Ernest Hemingway showed me that “simple” is in the eye of the beholder; that often, writing less is actually writing more; and landscape is everything…I write because Edith Wharton showed me the inherent splendor in continuing a metaphor; in punishing and then rewarding a protagonist; and that the old adage “write what you know” can be a path to perfection…I write because F. Scott Fitzgerald proved to me that inserting your heart and soul in your work can be worthwhile…I write because when Edna Pontellier dies in my hands, I feel complete…I write because I don’t know if Young Goodman Brown dreamed in the woods or not…I write because when Hamlet asks “To be or not to be?”, my stomach tightens…I write because I have no idea what happens in The Magus yet I still love it…I write because after I finish Fathers and Sons I am speechless…I write because I cannot fathom creating an unreliable narrator as powerful as in The Good Soldier...

I write because in my twenties I realized it was my way in…I write because the web of words keeps me afloat…I write because there is nothing quite as satisfactory as a seamless transition…I write because I think in paragraphs…I write because I love using semi-colons…I write because I can’t sing…I write because the first time I saw my own byline it felt right…I write because I still love seeing my work in print…I write because winning contests increases my confidence… I write because rejection forces me to try harder…I write because I love to edit and perfect my pieces…I write because a pen fits in my hand….I write because my fingers love the keyboard…I write because words bump around in my dreams…I write because words are my religion and books are sacred…I write because every once in a while I assemble a perfect sentence, and I am addicted to the feeling that washes over me when I complete the puzzle…I write because I cannot help it…I write because of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Bob Dylan…I write because communicating is everything…I write because what my characters have to say is important…I write because my soul demands it…I write because sometimes words come uninvited…I write because I can spend a whole day debating between two adjectives…I write because I enjoy losing an hour while I decide on comma placement…I write because I can spell, I can organize and I can surprise…I write because if a day ends without my words hitting a page, I feel incomplete.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Additional Ideas for Insane Characters in Literature

[This is a list of novels and short stories I considered but decided against teaching. In some cases, the reason was as simple as length; I'd rather teach 3 different pices of literature than spend 3 weeks reading/discussing a really long novel, such as Don Quixote.]

I'm sure there are many other novels and stories I should have considered. Feel free to comment and add your ideas so I can improve my syllabus for the future. The only caveat is the literature must be fiction.

Closer to Fine – Meri Weiss
American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
The Painted Bird – Jerry Kosinski
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy O’Toole
Don Quixote – Cervantes
She’s Come Undone – Wally Lamb
Valis – Philip K. Dick
Crime and Punishment – Fyoder Dostoevsky
Notes from the Underground – Fyoder Dostoevsky
“The Hour of the Dead” - Fyoder Dostoevsky –
“The Fall of the House of Usher” - Edgar Allen Poe
Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
Villette - Charlotte Bronte
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca
A Streetcar Named Desire - Tennessee Williams
Misery - Stephen King
Margaret Atwood – Surfacing
Found on the Street- Patricia Highsmith
Postcards from the Edge – Carrie Fisher
The Magus – John Fowles
The Collector – John Fowles
The Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka
100 Days of Sodom – Marquis de Sade

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Light

27 Days until the Academy Awards.

Despite the fact that it's freezing out, I pondered spring several times this weekend. It seems as if the light is starting to change, just ever so slightly; the early mornings are brighter, and the sun is lingering just a little later each day. On Friday at about 5:30, it was still light out. Spring is waiting.

My internal clock definitely senses spring. It's been just under a year since I moved into my apartment in the neighborhood I now know and love. The novelty of living in a vibrant, interesting, safe neighborhood hasn't worn off, and when I walk from the subway to my apartment, no matter what time it is or what type of day I've had, I remind myself how lucky I am. I love my building, my apartment, my street, my proximity to almost every other neighborhood; I love my easy commute to work, to visit friends and family, to Grand Central, to movie theaters, to all NYC offers.

I live among artists (mostly musicians), professors, students and families. There is, quite literally, music in the air; I hear beautiful classical music played by professional, near-professional and professional-in-training musicians all the time, both inside and outside.

The parks near my apartment are currently quiet and gray, but I know in just a few months they'll become green and welcoming again, and I'll tote my beach chair outside and plop down in the grass to read, write, listen to music in the sun. I re-embraced my independence in these parks last spring and summer, sitting in my low-slung beach chair for hours, doing what I love most (reading, writing, listen to music in the sun), righting my sense of self and remembering how much I value time alone, time in my head, time on the periphery, observing and writing and soaking up life.

I miss the heat of the sun, and I do hate the cold weather, the layers of clothing, the short days. But I know the winter is necessary, and this winter especially. It's a season of stillness, of comprehension, of contemplation, all of which lead to inspiration. Dinner and wine, a warm apartment with good friends--in the winter, it becomes an art form, a cozy path to stimulating, entertaining conversations riddled with laughter, which leads to inspiration. Movies, plays and music lead to inspiration. Self-reflection, whether nonchalant or astounding, eventually leads to inspiration.

It would be easy for me to use winter as an excuse to shut down, shut off, shut out the connections that inspire and electrify my writing, my life. I don't believe in standing still; progressive connections, internal and external, mark our lives. Disconnecting seems antithetical to the greater purpose, and certainly to the novel I'm working on. My winter is dedicated to re-directing, replenishing, renewing...I can already see the changes in my light.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It Begins...

The countdown, that is. To my favorite day of the year: The Academy Awards.

32 days.

I have a few more movies to see before I comment on the nominations, but two quick thoughts before I return to a formidable stack of ungraded essays:

* I understand the rationale behind the new ten Best Picture nomination system, but it's overkill. Way too many movies. And with a trip to the movies averaging at 12 bucks per person (without snacks!), I don't see ten Best Picture nominations pushing people into theaters.

* On what planet does Penelope Cruz do anything (especially act!) better than Julianne Moore? Oy.

Don't forget! March 18th! I'm reading from my novel-in-progress at KGB Bar, 7 PM, as part of the amazing literary series called "Drunken! Careening! Writers!"

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Short but Long Days

I haven't worked on my novel-in-progress in 2 weeks. Life gets in the way sometimes; I hope to get back to work this week. I did finalize my Spring 2010 syllabus for my class Insane Characters in Literature. Here is the reading list (not in order of appearance), for anyone who is interested:

A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Being There by Jerry Kosinski
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Short Stories to be Provided:
Excerpts from “Madwoman in the Attic” (essay)
“The Yellow Wall-paper” by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe
“Rappaccini’s Daughter & “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
“The Battler” by Ernest Hemingway
“The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick
“The Heroine” & “The Terrapin” by Patricia Highsmith

Films to be Discussed (viewed in class):
Heavenly Creatures directed by Peter Jackson
The Silence of the Lambs directed by Jonathan Demme

Sunday, January 3, 2010

It's 2010...

...and I know you want to read my thoughts on the many movies I've seen lately. Check back soon for movie reviews and the reason I haven't (and won't) posted the short story I wrote recently.

I may also use this venue (and/or FB) to brainstorm the syllabus for the new class I'm teaching in a few weeks, Insane Characters in Literature. I've chosen which novels and stories to teach, but am undecided as to how to group them, i.e., chronology in which to teach. More on this soon.

Happy New Year to the few and dedicated readers of my blog. Much health and happiness in 2010. And remember, "The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely." - Carl Jung