Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fact and/or Fiction

Remember that old fifth grade writing journal? Yeah, well it wasn't all opinion essays and seasonal poetry and Thoreauean pursuits. Oh, no. My young mind really stretched her legs in the free fiction assignments. Evidently these were not subjected to the normal litany of grammatical corrections. Sweet, sweet creative licence! Freed from the constraints of sane punctuation and responsible spelling choices, I filled pages and pages...

Ah, hello big, loopy pen(cil)menship, you old friend.
Fiction honorable mentions: the best and the worst:

"An Untitled Story set in the 'beautiful mountains of Lur'":
Here is an adventure tale about "friendship, bravery, and their rewards," starring a young, big-dreaming peacock named Farel, and his friends Skipper the otter, pheasant Spring, and badger Starling on a quest to prove themselves by rescuing a young foxed named Reese from the evil clutches of the local wood witch, an "ugly, dirty beast with red eyes and a crown of bones" named Velga. Along the way they help Potter, a frustrated bear cub retrieve a beehive, then devise a keen rescue plan clearly influenced by the Dorothy-rescue-scene in Wizard of Oz. Upon escaping, the friends run "all day and into the next without stopping or ever looking back". Naturally, a very annoyed Velga catches up eventually, but is ultimately thwarted by Potter's gang of bears, returning that earlier favor with the honey. And so one hand washes the other. The story veers into Just-So territory at the end, when the brave companions are rewarded with gifts like "a lovely white stripe down the back," "sharp white teeth," silky fur, sharp claws, yadda yadda, and, for Farel, "incredibly wonderful looking tail feathers that spread out. Annnnd a sharp beak." If that doesn't describe a modern-day peacock I don't know what does. Incidentally, my teacher asked that I read this little gem out loud to the class, though I have no recollection if I ever did, as I would have likely blocked out such a public-speaking event if I managed not to faint in the first place.

"Stone into Gold"
A heart-warming, if not cliched, tale about Draken the alchemist and his (male) apprentice Sarise. I have since wondered if there is a Johnny Cash-like song playing on the radio stations of Lur entitled Boy Named Sarise. Yeah, super manly. Anyway, naturally the pair's objective is to get paid, and it seems Sarise keeps messing up the secret gold-making recipe by adding too many drops of the golden frog's spit. The story features typical teen angst: " least there is something I can do," Sarise mumbles as he goes falconing for dinner, probably kicking a dandelion on his way out the door. When the boy returns in triumph with "three scrawny rabbits and a few field mice," there are culinary delights to be had: "While Sarise was out, Draken collected an assortment of magic herbs. (Though they were not truly magic, he had nicknamed them that because when mixed with oil, then rubbed on to meat it gave an irresistible flavor that tasted as if a magic spell had been cast on it.)" Move over Wolfgang, we've got herbed-oil on field mouse! Prepare to have your tiny mind blown. And because I liked a success story, you can rest assured that by the end young Sarise was clutching a small lump of gold in a victorious hand.

"The Eclipse"
A cautionary tale about the dangers of dabbling with drugs. DRUGS! I think this may have been my singular attempt at a genre other than fantasy. Alright, I co-wrote this story with my best friend Annie at the height of the anti-drug-barrage that was shoved down every elementary and middle schooler's throat in the 80s/90s cusp years. I confess that this particular story is not in my writing journal as I believe we wrote it in Annie's book, but I felt the need to mention it nonetheless. A group of friends try to stage an intervention when one of them finds "bags of drugs, including cocaine!" in her now ornery and despondent friend's locker. The reader will find herself on the edge of her seat as we ratchet up the suspense. Alas, the tale remains unfinished. Perhaps things just got too real.

"A Night's Howl"
The classic eleven page, two part saga about a pack of wolves, heavily influenced by my obsession with the wolf-riding-badass-forest-elves featured in my favorite comic book, Elfquest. Part one is a daring tale of rescue and vengeance. An evil human tribe has captured, and are on the verge of sacrificing, Quickpaw when his girlfriend and pack-mates storm in to save him. "The wolves caught the humans by surprise. Silk-ear let out a thundering howl and slayed two of the men in a fury." In the end they save Quickpaw amidst a bloodbath and conveniently take him to the pack's healer. When he is well enough to be reprimanded, the chief lectures him on the dangers of hunting alone. Strangely, the story then veers with an inexplicable "two months later" segue into a totally different plot line. A romance. 

Wendy and Richard Pini, we salute you!
"She had perky and aware ears, lovely, large eyes, a silky tail, and a graceful paws. She was slim, but muscular." Woo! Hot stuff! The unexpected romance between orphaned loner Moondancer and pack Lothario, Starjumper ignites the page as it brightly, if not painfully, illuminates my young brain's deepest desires. Naturally there is a bit of confusion amidst the hunting, pack introductions, and "festival of the seasons" dance invitation, but all ends well as the pair ultimately become life-mates, (canid equivalent of married with babies). ''...Since the two were both fascinated by the sky, especially the stars, they spent most nights on a large hill together, star-gazing..." I mean, they were named Starjumper and Moondancer.

I then essentially re-told nearly the same story with elf characters, in what I now clearly see as straight-up fanfic, though at the time I had no idea such a thing existed. Here again we witness the first encounter between orphaned loner Stardrop (who had been living in a cave with her wolf friend for God knows how long) and pack Lothario, Skywise. Ahem. Here's some soul-bearing: What you have to understand is that for several years (and arguably yet today) I wanted to be a wolf-riding, bow-shooting, leather-wearing, tree-climbing, human-killing, telepathic, sexy forest elf. I'd stop at the comic shop on the way home from school and stare lovingly at the Elfquest books on the shelf, almost afraid to touch them until I'd saved up the twenty dollars to bring the latest one home with me. Because these elves had only four fingers, I would actually tape my pinky under my hand to see what I would like with elf hands. I spent hours sketching out my intended outfits made of soft, tanned hides. I mean, I had it bad. Stargazing bachelor Skywise is an actual character in Elquest, and in the great fantasyland of my young mind, I wanted to be the object of his affection. Namely, a beautiful, mysterious, elf named Stardrop. I needed to create a story to arrange their introductions, and so I did.

My sappy yet earnest story ends with a to be continued... and reading it again, so many years later, I couldn't help but wonder what those crazy elves were up to these days. Because you know, I actually do miss them. And in the end, that is the great power of fiction. Whether you're reading it or writing it, it allows you to suspend your disbelief, flex your imagination, slip into the skin of a wolf, or peacock, or unfortunately named apprentice. In paging through this old writing journal its like I am actually witnessing my personality form. Though I was a cautious and shy kid, I think I must have felt fairly fearless when writing. I didn't worry what anyone else thought, I wrote for myself, freely. It opened my mind up. Rediscovering this has been a gift. Okay, a slightly embarrassing one.

Monday, September 24, 2012

No Cornhuskers Here

My review in the September/October issue of Orion magazine.

By Lacy Johnson
University of Iowa Press, 2012.
$19.95, 139 pages.

Cornhusker. Cletus. Hillbilly. Honky. Redneck. White Trash. “We are not that,” says Lacy Johnson’s unconventional memoir Trespasses, which documents how race, gender, and class shape collective identity
in the rural Midwest. The book reads as a family diary might — a braided series of poignant vignettes woven together with the thread of place. Johnson’s tone, technique, and voice vary with each microchapter
as she shuffles between subjects, jumping back and forth in time, momentarily pausing to shine a light here or there between three generations and two families. Her prose is languid and poetic, half memory, half dream. If the book had a soundtrack it would be one of rural ambiance — cicadas, lawn mowers, tractors flexing in mud, the soft whir of a metal fan, the creak of a floorboard underfoot.
        Johnson wants to tell us the story of her family, a people who’ve spent the last 180 years in a single small Missouri county; but during a series of family interviews she finds at a certain point that “the facts got in the way of the truth.” Getting answers was difficult. “The silence can’t be broken. Or it can be broken, but not by asking questions. Not by asking them again in a different way. Not by telling stories about galvanized tubs, or blackberries growing wild along the fence line, or a bridge in the forest made entirely of fallen trees.” And so rather than merely chronicle, Johnson begins to shape-shift. By inhabiting the lives of her parents and grandparents, she lives into their experiences, trying to make sense of the impact a single day or moment can have on a family’s memory.
         Johnson speaks to being marginalized as a poor, rural, white person — a “marked, racial, and degraded form of whiteness”— white trash. Growing up, Johnson wore homemade clothing. She knew she was poor, but she didn’t think of her family as being trashy in any way. Readers will agree. The people she depicts are hardworking, resourceful, and often unknowingly poetic. (Poetic too, that her roots are deep in Missouri, a state struck by its own identity crisis when the Civil War literally split it in two.) But Johnson’s own view was, and to a large extent still is, inconsistent with how others saw her. Even after earning a PhD and losing her accent, Johnson still struggles with determining who she is and where she belongs when a woman in the checkout line “who could be [her] grandmother” eyes her tattoos and pregnant belly, and mutters trash under her breath. Johnson wrote this book to help reconcile her own identity, for herself and for her children.
        “You know, we can never start with a blank slate,” her new (and first) black friend confesses. “You and I can never start from scratch.” She is of course referring to a racial barrier, but Trespasses itself is a testament to how that statement is truly universal. The author has internalized her own genetic memory, childhood, and socioeconomic mark just as her parents have before her, just as the reader has, and all instincts and judgments are in part informed by this collective memory. No one ever truly gets a clean slate. You’d best make sense of where you came from. Johnson knows this, and succeeds.
                                                                                                                                        — Kathleen Yale

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mo Chuisle

May his pursuit of happiness never end

   This Sky   

   where we live
   is no place to lose your wings
   So love, love


It has been a really long week.
Without going into too many personal details, I'll just say that it began with a wedding of some dear friends, and ended with my uncle's unexpected funeral. And from the highest joy to the deepest sorrow, I have been surrounded, literally swarmed, engulfed, and enveloped by the warm, steady, murmuring, kinetic, complicated embrace that is family--both the given and the chosen. With never more than an hour to myself, I have spent the week encamped in various hotel rooms and yards, in various states, laughing, drinking, dancing, sharing, holding, grieving, weeping, remembering, and loving with these beautiful people.

This morning, alone again after so many goodbyes, through the buzz and bustle of more airports, I kept thinking I heard the voices of my family in the crowd. At first this was unnerving, in my under-caffeinated haze of utter exhaustion, but eventually those lingering echoes became a comfort--as if I were a child again, falling asleep to the sound of laughter in another room, carried into another place by the security of those murmurs and the certainty of unconditional love.

All this is to say, in your heart or in your arms, hold them close, your kin and kindred. 
Life is short, but it can be so, so good.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Content A, Mechanics C

Yep, here she is. Check it, there is even
 a unicorn on the cover. Wide-ruled, baby.
Content A, Mechanics C was pretty much the standard grade subtitle to all my early middle school writing assignments. Coming from Mrs. Boschulte and her perfectly coiffed shoulder-curl hairdo, this meant I had good style, but sucked at spelling and punctuation. Huh. I was recently reminded of this fact when I uncovered my fifth-grade creative writing  notebook, in all its big, penciled cursive glory. Given that this was a legit class notebook, and I have been spared the horrors of revisiting my personal hide-under-the-mattress journal of said pre-adolescence, I thought I'd share some of the gestalt of young Katie. Weirdly, it seems I remain eerily the same...only now I get to do and think half of this stuff professionally. Okay, semi-professionally, like a casual Friday. I don't know if that means my soul settled early on, or that I'm just boring.

Non-fiction honorable mentions:

"What I am Thankful For" (Thanksgiving pre-game warm-up)
Poetic Highlights:
"I am thankful for the stars and the moon and the joy that rainbows and sunsets bring. I am thankful for the smell of autumn, for a burning fire, and for snow-covered trees. I say thank you for my dreams..."

"It's Not Just a Monster Anymore" (an essay about personal fear)
Choice highlights:
"Now I am more afraid of things like war and nuclear missiles and powerful yet evil leaders (like Saddam Hussein.) I also fear poverty and pollution. Endangered animals are always on my mind, along with the destruction of the environment, ozone layer, ocean, etc..."

"Proud to be Fit" (in preparation for a visit from Arnold Schwarzenegger)
Highlights include:
"Exercise should be an important part of our lives, especially for over-weight people. If you are planning to start skiing, stretching, biking, dancing, swimming, jogging, walking, or aerobics, here's some advice. Start slow, don't over-work yourself at first, it can really give you a muscle ache."

High point:
"The leaves have beautiful colors, their loveliness matches the dusty painted sunsets. Autumn feels cozy and comfortable, the earth seems so peaceful, like a baby sleeping in a bed or like a downy owlet."

The Main Event. This is my eleven-year-old self vibrating at her true frequency.
An essay about New Year's Resolutions (with footnotes):

"In the past I have not made a New Year's resolution, but this year something came up*, (I was asked to write some resolutions of mine.) So here they are.

First I resolve to spend more quality time with my family. I believe that families and love from families are one of the greatest treasures on earth. Therefore I will extend my relationship with my family further.**

I will make it a point to take my interests and desires more seriously, such as spending time alone and letting  my mind ponder in silence. Learning, thinking, and imaging about animals, stars, the ocean, trees, flowers, nature, unicorns, elves, trolls, etc... Do more quiet and relaxing things like for an example, reading a book under a tree in the cool shade.*** I intend to absorb wildlife and its' ways silently.

I intend to begin to write more, and sketch pictures, then hopefully begin to write a book. In the time I'm writing the book I will be open to more ideas.**** I shall study things that might prove useful topics in my book: animals, elves, unicorns, trolls, fairies, sprites, magic and such things.

Those are my resolutions. Now just one question remains. Will I keep them? Well I'll tell you I will try with all my might!"

* It is as if even then I was rolling my eyes at the assignment. 

** One might wonder what other things my fifth-grade self might have been doing other than mostly hanging out with family. My favorite part about this paragraph is when I move past the greeting card propaganda and consciously decide to renew the familial contract for another year.

*** Isn't this fantastic? I want to ponder. Alone. In silence. And when I've had my fill of that, I'll move on to more relaxing things, like book-reading in the shade, birdwatching, and knitting a death shroud. It sounds like I am planning on moving into a nursing home. Still, this is when I most love the young me. I want to hang out with this kid, stalk the local deer, pick berries, count stars and get weird.

**** Really, I am totally open to any ideas you might have on troll genealogy, functional elf fashion, animal behavior, the physics of fairy flight, what exactly did happen to the unicorns. And such things.

But you know, all joking aside, that final question still remains, and it is kind of like the ghost of journal past is poking me in the ribs. Hard. She still needs to be reminded and encouraged to take her interests and desires more seriously sometimes. And it is both validating and unnerving how similar my resolutions today are to those written two decades ago. Well, minus the trolls.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Luis Alberto Urrea is Totally Rad

Click here for my latest review in High Country News.

Luis Alberto Urrea is, among other things, Orion's newest columnist, and Queen of America is his follow-up to the most excellent The Hummingbird's Daughter.

Preview his chops:

 “For she knew no connections but the most ethereal. She had learned that life on earth was a dream, and not always a good one, and that the morning would come and she would awaken into death and she would be among her lost ones and the deer of the flower home and she would wonder what had happened to her and why it had happened. And she knew that God would never answer her.”

Then read both books. And then get lunch. 

“He drooled like a dog when the chiles rellenos were searing on the flame, their caustic smoke announcing them to the world, their fat bellies gurgling with yellow cheese as they wore their egg-batter coats into the frying pan.” 

Hunting Season is Upon Us