Held in reserve: Visiting the vets, c. 2011.

In my hometown, the less there is to discuss, the more impassioned the discussions. This is true at gas stations, in school parking lots, in hair salons, in every place where people huddle and clot except the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

At the V.A. Hospital, words are held in reserve, marshaled for unknown future action.

We visit the vets to honor them. We pronounce each name aloud as if part of a liturgy.  We sing songs, play piano pieces, and attend to geographic details in their personal histories.  We intend to offer hope, although the vessel which bears hope is usually nothing more gilded than a story, a vignette from outside the handsome red colonial brick walls.

*

When we arrive, the administrator’s smile chloroforms us.

“There will be two separate holiday performances for two separate groups of vets,” she drones.  

I try to speak, joke— I didn’t realize the demand for carols was so high.

“No, it’s not a logistical issue.” The administrator assures me they have all the space they need. The bad joke rolls like a penny across the glossed floor.

The caroling needs to be divided because the recent vets refuse to share a room with the Vietnam and Korea vets. That is all she can tell me. Words are held in reserve, held back like reserve troops, not wasted on minor explanations. I imagine a massive aluminum tank bubbling with abandoned verbs, the gradual condensation of past tense.

*

Since our visit is divided according to wars, I begin to mark off each carol as a particular battle. Each song one breath closer to victory. There are no losses in our vocal battles because we have nothing to lose whereas they have already lost the things they hoped not to lose. Independence sounds abstract but aches like a concrete pillar pinning a foot in place.

My son performs a piece he composed especially for the vets. The piece is named “V.A. Vets’ Carol”.

A ward asks if he can’t play “Carol of the Bells” instead, since most vets prefer familiar, popular tunes to personal ones. There is so little we can offer these men and women that does not feel intrusive or privileged.

Be polite, I remind the kids between carols.

It is unclear whether I am referring to the sudden jumping jacks or the burgeoning impulse, the ongoing spontaneous impoliteness, that burning flame of childhood that runs and bumps and jumps and finds occasional release in a string of why why why whys. I worry their actions might be misinterpreted.

Neuroscience studies have shown social anxiety to be an entombment within first person— an inability to adequately hear or see other human beings. Jokingly, a researcher said the cure for this anxiety-induced lack of empathy might be as simple as good manners. The researcher was kidding but the truth isn’t funny.

The truth is a web of over-taut nerves which threaten to snap. I fear that my words will cause harm; that my nouns will turn against me; that my children will sell me to the hospital administrators. Selling information, after all, is as natural to them as withholding has become to me.

I don’t remember being innocent enough that my words caused unintentional hurt. My empathy deficit widens to include my children alongside the silent, smiling veterans.

*

Thank you for….—and I’m not sure how to finish after making eye contact and realizing the man cannot see me. He is blind. I am a voice drifting through the room to thank him for his service and this phrase suddenly feels vulgar and ominous. I am a conventional arrangement of meaningless platitudes floating past. I am a hallucination. Mostly, I am so very very sorry.

Ten feet away, my son chatters about heirloom seeds with an elderly female in a wheelchair, her silver hair bobbed into a sleek helmet. She is beautiful. She is resilient tomato stalks pummeled by southern rain. She is still standing— despite the wheelchair.

The heart stutters, bats its wings against a closed window, when I overhear the words protest and pacifist coming from Max’s lips.

It is over. The moment has arrived. I will be unmasked as the traitor who carried cardboard signs with the words Not In My Name painted in black tempera. Every eye in the room will turn to erase me.

A nurse will speak firmly when she asks me to leave.

The firmness in her voice will be thick and unyielding as a druid oak root.

Veterans will rise from their chairs and raise their fists in anger and fury.

I shoo the hummingbird in my heart away, tell it to settle down. Slurp soda water. But the drum in my head leaves me deaf.

The vet who resembles Ursula K. LeGuin motions to me, “Come here”. Here it comes. Finally. My son flaps his hands and continues speaking.

I smile, my name is Alina.

The surface of the heart is silent but the not in my name by now marches to its own underground drumbeat. As it always has. As it will continue.

“Your son says you’ve had a rough year,” she says hoarsely, a soft grin easing the corner of her lips upwards, a genuine expression of a school teacher’s retired sympathy. She is not what I expected. A fellow-veteran of American female-ness. A rebel, I imagine, to have served in the military so long ago—back before females were officially acknowledged.

“WWII,” she explains. “I was telling your son about flying old aircraft. He said you were a feminist.”

Did she use the f-word? What is familiar for us— a word still forbidden.

She isn’t going to confront me. Her name is Margot. She’s happy to make my acquaintance. She believes we have something in common.

I don’t know if she got the whole story.

“I told her about your tinnitus, mom.” Max leans against my arm, confident, the ghost of Howard Zinn between us.

Margot nods, her squint resembling the fruit in a bowl of cereal. “I’ve had tinnitus since my thirties. Other mothers didn’t understand. It made me feel lonely. And different.”

Does it ever go away? I want to pretend I didn’t ask. To erase my silly question and the silly flower-skirted face of me.

Margot shakes her head. “Tinnitus lasts longer than most marriages these days. It’s a very faithful friend.”

We have tinnitus in common. But the other mothers could never understand—they weren’t vets were they?

Mar-got. I tender her name like a tiny mollusk still attached at the center, a fragile mystery I can’t bear to break.

“They weren’t vets…” That smile again. Only now do I notice her hand trembling. The expression on her face, nonplussed, says they’d been trembling all along.

“Are you a vet?” She asks in earnest. Her face is a tapestry, a splendid map, and I am only just now beginning to read it.

“No, I’m not a veteran. I’ve never experienced war. Or combat.” I fight so many colors of shame.

Margot’s face lights up. “Oh, you’re a veteran, alright. Your son says you homeschool. And that you have tinnitus. And that you’ve brought that kids with you. To protests.”

The moment has arrived— brighter, more blinding than I could have imagined.

My son had told Margot about my involvement in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. About the protests against war. And Margot is still smiling without a hint of anything hidden below the surface. Looking at me as if she’s not afraid to read the whole story.

Her eyes honor me.

The honor of her eyes is relentless.

She honors me with her eyes until the word changes colors and honor becomes a word that has everything to do with seeing one another outside our social anxieties and comfortable scripts. On this trembling, quake-prone ground, a child’s earnest impulse is the true one. Looking back, I can’t see anything else.

10 writing inspirations in case thanksgiving dulls your pen.

  1. Jean Luc Godard’s film, Masculin Feminin (see trailer above)

  2. The song, “Visions of Johanna,” by Bob Dylan on repeat.

  3. A sexual superstition you’ve heard or experienced (i.e. women can’t get pregnant if they’re on top). And why. And all the rest.

  4. That time you did or did not try Ecstasy.

  5. A moment in which you felt a slight gap between yourself and the world.

  6. Rilke’s belief “in the possibility of love in a climate of death.” And how that looks.

  7. The fact that Karl Marx’s favorite virtue in women was weakness while his favorite virtue in men was strength. Using this as the basis for a dialogue between Marx and Jenny von Westphalen, his wife.

  8. That moment when Jenny Laura Marx and Paul Lafargue committed suicide together.

  9. Something in response to Nelly Sach’s one line poem: “But silence is where the victims dwell.” 

  10. A poem or story for which the secret, unrevealed epigraph might be Sigmund Freud’s 1915 statement: "Our own death is indeed, unimaginable, and whenever we make the attempt to imagine it we can perceive that we really survive as spectators."

Reading a poem from the new manuscript.

Grateful to my middles grill for taking this fancy video… and to Art Town in Birmingham for providing a space for readings and art.

P.S. I am SO HUNGRY to read and share these poems. Please email me at rainscented@gmail.com if you’re looking for readers and strange Romanian-Alabamians for your event or attic.

On the line between autobiography and fiction.

In her 1652 literary salon, Madeleine de Scudery introduced the word “roman a clef” to describe a genre of writing that is autobiography overlaid with fiction. Now also called by various names including auto-fiction, nonfiction novel, autobiographical novel, etc.

“So ask me again now—what is autobiographical about my novel—and I will talk about fidelity to emotional effect and contextual variance. About level shifts and category shifts and the impossibility of exact equivalencies. I might discuss the translatability of the source material and then take you through the reconstruction of sound or image or structure. I will mention how inner becomes outer, how sometimes all you can do is convey meaning or form but not both. I will talk about the tension in word choice and metaphor, the gift of plenty and the risk of nuance. I will invite you to wend with me, to wander through the words. Because I am always in the work and outside of it. I am and am not the story.”

- Michelle Bailait-Jones, “On the Impossibility of Locating the Line Between Fiction and Non” (LitHub)

Example of nonfiction novel: Amitava Kumar’s Immigrant, Montana.
Multiple epigraphs, pictures, footnotes (academic and digressive), references to pop culture, explications of literary theory. Stories structured by associative leaps and hops from digression to digression. Dedicated to Teju Cole, whose style inspired it.

Kailash uses two voices to tell his story. There is his older self, speaking from twenty years’ distance with the help of his journals and notebooks, and then there is his guiltier, younger self. That’s the voice that the newly arrived, inauthentic-feeling Kailash uses to address an imaginary judge who wants to kick him out of the country. 

- Joanna Biggs, “Erotic Exploration in Immigrant, Montana” (New Yorker)

Kumar explains early and forcefully why these subjects—geopolitics and sex; geography and desire; history and lust—should share pages. In an enormously funny yet simultaneously dark recurring device recalling Roth’s Portnoy addressing his psychiatrist, Kailash speaks to an imagined immigration judge whom he pictures adjudicating both his status in America and his libidinous proclivities. Sex, Kailash tells us, is the “crucial part of humanity denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK…you look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid.”

-Sanjena Sathian, “Geopolitics and Sex, Geography and Desire: On Amitava Kumar’s ‘Immigrant, Montana’" (The Millions)

Teju Cole: “To be a writer in exile is a great thing. But what is exile now, when everyone goes and comes freely?” 

Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti practice an auto-fiction in which the book turns in to the self while Alice Sebold and Teju Cole write novels that turn to the world.

The difference between fiction and memoir may be the difference—when it comes to meaning, that recyclable plastic thing we crave in our lives, and without which we become despondent and ultimately inert—between metaphor and referential mania. They say the truth shall set you free, but it seems rather to be the case that fiction, or, Stories About Fake People, who can be understood by means of the empathic engine of metaphor to be yourself, shall free you from that intolerable freedom we call meaninglessness. 

- Rebecca Wolff, “Our Sense of Truth” (Lithub)

Phillip Roth’s view of selfhood as perpetual performance with a character in a book being only one variant of that enormous possibility.

“People constantly change their story… we are writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time, contradictory but mutually entangling stories that, however subtly or grossly falsified, constitute our hold on reality and are the closest thing we have to truth.”

- William Gass quoting Phillip Roth, “Deciding to Do the Impossible” (New York Times)

Tim Parks on Leo Tolstoy’s use of life for fiction. After Anna Karenina, Tolstoy chose the performance of goodness and sainthood over the writing of fiction, which felt to him like an indulgence. His relationship with Sonya, his wife, and their thirteen children, kept him rooted in the flesh and the material. Then in 1887, Tolstoy returned to fiction to write The Kreutzer Sonata (my personal favorite novella), in which protagonist holds his views on abstinence and material world and kills his wife in a fit of rage when he discovers she is having an affair with the violin teacher. Six years later, Sonya fell involve with her younger piano teacher but Tolstoy did not kill her. It’s not clear whether he wrote the script for the affair or predicted it. A character is not a steady state so much as a tension between various poles and forces. The problem is being anyone at all.

“Let’s offer this formulation: a certain kind of writer, for whom the day-to-day performance of self—the interaction of personality with the world—is complex and conflicted, invents multiple fictional selves who deal with the same predicament in different ways. Rather than establishing any ultimate truth about identity, such a writer explores possibilities that might be dangerous or incompatible in real life. In short, the writing becomes an extension of the living.”

- Tim Parks, “How Best to Read Auto-Fiction” (New York Review of Books

In “Corn Maze,” Pam Houston talks about the blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction.  When she toured for her first fiction collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, the question she was asked most often was how much of this really happened to her? She answered honestly: “A lot of it.” 

Houston maintains that truth can never be an absolute. The instability of truth automatically locates creative nonfiction between genres.

“When it was decided (When was that again, and by whom?) that we were all supposed to choose between fiction and nonfiction, what was not taken into account was that for some of us truth can never be an absolute, that there can (at best) be only less true and more true and sometimes those two collapse inside each other like a Turducken. Given the failure of memory. Given the failure of language to mean. Given metaphor. Given metonymy. Given the ever-shifting junction of code and context. Given the twenty-five people who saw the same car accident. Given our denial. Given our longings. // Who cares really if she hung herself or slit her wrists when what really matters is that James Frey is secretly afraid that he’s the one who killed her.”

The line of acceptable imagining in blurry. Houston gives example of three Italian kayakers which she loosely invented for an essay which the editor removed because they weren’t “real” in the sense of being verifiable. Maybe they were Spanish. On the other hand, the same editor added a fog to create atmosphere. 

Her novel of 144 chapters does not purport to be nonfiction. And yet, as the James Frey scandal blew up, Pam Houston revisited her naming strategies.

“In past books I have used Millie, Lucy, and Rae. For the sake of sentence rhythm, I was leaning towards something with one syllable, but it would also be convenient to the book if the replacement name meant something as embarrassing as what the name “Pamela” means: which is all honey. I had considered Melinda, which on some sites means honey and could be shortened to Mel. I had considered Samantha which means listener, and could be shortened to Sam.  But in the car with the elk in the pasture and the snow on the road and Jeff Tweedy in my ears I was all of a sudden very angry at whoever it was who put all that pressure on Oprah Winfrey. This book was in danger of missing the whole point of itself if my name were not Pam in it. If my name were not Pam in it, who was the organizing consciousness behind these 144 tiny miraculous coincident unrelated things?”

In naming characters for fiction, the conventions don’t always make sense. You can write fiction that resembles a real person more than the nonfiction that names them and proceeds carefully. 

“Speaking only for myself, now, I cannot see any way that my subsequent well-being depends on whether or not, or how much, you believe what I am telling you—that is to say—on the difference (if there is any) between 82 and 100 percent true. My well-being (when and if it exists) resides in the gaps language leaves between myself and the corn maze, myself and the Las Vegas junkies, myself and the elk chest-deep in snow. It is there, in that white space of language’s limitation that I am allowed to touch everything, and it is in those moments of touching everything, that I am some version of free.”

Her writing tends to avoid didactic statements because she feels like she can’t speak for everyone.

“I have never felt comfortable speaking for anyone except myself. Maybe I had been socialized not to make declarative statements. Maybe I thought you had to be fifty before you knew anything about the world. Maybe I was afraid of misrepresenting someone I thought I understood but didn’t. Maybe I was afraid of acting hypocritically. Maybe I have always believed it is more honest, more direct, and ultimately more powerful, to tell a story, one concrete and particular detail at a time.”

And finally, in loose sum, a writing prompt of sorts from Alexander Chee’s essay, “The Writing Life,” found in How to Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays:

“The writer Lorrie Moore calls the feeling I felt that day ‘the consolations of the mask,’ where you make a place that doesn’t exist in your own life for the life your life has no room for, the exiles of your memory.” 

Lia Purpura on the writer's journal plus a writing exercise inspired by David Shields.

A Journal and a Notepad

Lia Purpura recommends carrying an intermediary little pad as a catch-all that you can transcribe into your journal at the end of the day.

Found journals include the artifacts of daily life, the to-do lists, the odd objects, the sudden observations.

Review your journals for “patterns of thought” or “patterns of image.” Note recurrences and memories that keep begging to be addressed. Set tasks or writing habits for yourself in the journal. For example, “I’ll look out this window every morning for 3 months and record what I see.” Note the patterns that emerge in a single day of your life. How do these patterns juxtapose against the rhythms? What patterns emerge in a week? What obstacles continue to arise that thwart you?

Writing Prompt

David Shields describes “appropriation art” as “when you steal but make a point of stealing, because by changing the context you change the connotations.” How is this true? How does it apply to fashion? Give a few examples of writers and artists that create appropriation art.

"S M" by Alice Walker.

I tell you, Chickadee
I am afraid of people
who cannot cry
Tears left unshed
turn to poison
in the ducts
Ask the next soldier you see
enjoying a massacre
if this is not so.

People who do not cry
are victims
of soul mutilation
paid for in Marlboros
and trucks,

Resist.

Violence does not work
except for the man
who pays your salary
Who knows
if you could still weep
you would not take the job.

On kissing.

Sometimes it’s terrible.

Then there are times when you kiss your way to heaven until your lips ache and you realize the guy you’ve been drooling with is named Dwight. Which adds a different dimension to the kisses and makes you wonder about his mother, who is suddenly present in the kiss, inserting herself between your lips and his, altering the fullness, the swelling ardors. Dwight? What the fuck? Oh God.

On not wanting to be your BFF.

I can’t whistle or remember the really cute hopscotch rhymes. My mom doesn’t buy soda. We don’t even have cable. I’m not allowed to play with Barbies, shave my legs, or get a perm. You can seriously do better. 

On my husband’s sleep habits.

He doesn’t need any. Even if he did need habits, he would fall asleep too quickly to remember them. He has a steady regimen of sleep accidents, coincidences, and uncanny events. But not habits. No habits ever.