Saturday Jan. 16, 2016

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Surviving Love

I work hard at managing, grateful
and spare. I try to forgive all trespasses
and give thanks for the desert. Rejoice
in being alive here in my simple world.
Each evening I walk for an hour, paying
attention to real things. The plover
sweeping at my face to get me away from
its ground nest. An ant carrying the wing
of a butterfly like a flag in the wind.
A grasshopper eating a dead grasshopper.
The antelope close up, just staring at me.
Back in the house, I lie down in the heat
for a nap, realizing forgiveness is hard
for the wounded. Near the border,
between this country and the next one.

“Surviving Love” by Linda Gregg from In the Middle Distance. © Graywolf Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist, essayist, and cultural critic Susan Sontag (books by this author), born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City (1933). She grew up in Tucson and Los Angeles. She was a voracious reader from the age of three, and the first book she remembered being thrilled by was Madame Curie, which she read when she was six. She remembered lying in bed as a child and gazing at her bookcase: “It was like looking at my 50 friends. A book was like stepping through a mirror. I could go somewhere else. Each one was a door to a whole kingdom.”

She graduated from high school when she was 15, went to the University of California at Berkeley for a semester, and then transferred to the University of Chicago. It was there, during her sophomore year, that she met Philip Rieff, a 28-year-old sociology instructor. They were married 10 days after they met, and had a son, David, in 1952. “I was lucky enough to have a child and be married when I was very young,” Sontag once said. “I did it, and now I don’t have to do it anymore.” They moved to Boston after Sontag graduated; she went to Harvard and earned two master’s degrees: one in English and one in philosophy. She also studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne. She and Rieff divorced in 1958, and the next year she moved to New York with “$70, two suitcases, and a seven year old.”

When she was 26, she met William Phillips, one of the founding editors of Partisan Review, at a cocktail party. She asked him how she might write for the journal, and he said, “All you have to do is ask.” She replied, “I’m asking.” She began to write provocative essays on culture, both high and low. She made her first mark as a cultural critic with an essay she wrote for Partisan Review in 1964. It was called “Notes on Camp,” and she dedicated it to Oscar Wilde. It was a direct challenge to the cultural establishment. From the essay: “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” She discussed what made something “campy,” why camp is a phenomenon, what separates camp from just plain bad, and why camp should be taken seriously. She wrote: “The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.”

It’s the birthday of American poet and memoirist Mary Karr (books by this author), born in Groves, Texas (1955). Groves was a swampy, East Texas oil-refining town, and Karr’s parents were heavy drinkers. Her mother was emotionally unstable and volatile, once trying to kill Karr with a butcher knife, but she was also an artist and an intellectual and made sure there were plenty of books in the house. It was in stories and poems that Karr found refuge. In grade school, she memorized poems by E.E. Cummings and Robert Frost.

When she was a little girl, Karr wrote in her journal, “I am not very successful as a little girl. I will probably be a mess.” After barely making it through high school, she hitchhiked to California with stoned surfers and then traveled with punk bands, eventually landing in Minnesota and attending Macalester College. She won a grant for her poetry and used the money to go to England, where she discovered Chaucer and Wordsworth, and bought Seamus Heaney a beer. He liked her spunk and encouraged her to keep writing.

Karr published two collections, Abacus (1987) and The Devil’s Tour (1993), before hitting pay dirt with her first memoir, The Liars’ Club (1995), which hit the New York Times best-seller list and jump-started the memoir craze of the 1990s. She’d decided, on a whim, to write about her tumultuous childhood: she was teaching, but newly divorced, and without much money, scavenging discarded furniture to sell at garage sales. It took her two years of writing on the weekends, when her son was away with his father, but she finally finished the book, though not without some emotional toll. She says: “It’s difficult to accept what your psyche or history dooms you to write, what Faulkner would call your ‘postage stamp of reality.’ Young writers often mistakenly choose a certain vein or style based on who they want to be, unconsciously trying to blot out who they actually are.”

Five years after The Liars’ Club, she published another memoir, Cherry, (2000), which detailed her sexual and intellectual awakenings as a young woman. Karr was never worried about not having enough material for a second memoir, saying, “I’m just somebody who scratches and picks and worries the bone of things over and over.”

Karr’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Poetry. She still writes poetry, but memoir is her life, now. She says: “Working on a poem is like cheating on your husband. It’s what I really want to do but they won’t pay me for it.”

Her third memoir, Lit (2009), is about her descent into alcoholism and the conversion to Catholicism that helped her get sober. It was her most difficult book to write. She rewrote it twice and threw out 1,200 finished pages before starting over. She wore out the “delete” button on her computer and sobbed in frustration, calling her friend, the writer Don DeLillo, for advice. He sent a postcard that said, “Write or Die.” Karr responded with her own postcard. It said, “Write and Die.” She worried that writing about her spiritual conversion would turn off her ardent fans, who’d grown used to her raucous tales and bawdy style. She said, “Talking about spiritual activity to a secular audience is like doing card tricks on the radio.” Lit was her third best-seller in a row.

Karr’s latest book is The Art of Memoir (2015), a style guide to the genre.

On writing memoir, she says: “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. It’s the person who wonders who makes the best memoirist. The person who isn’t a good memoirist is the person who’s very confident.”

Book One of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes was published on this date in 1605. It’s considered to be the first modern novel. It’s about a middle-aged landowner from a village in La Mancha who stays awake at night reading books about chivalry, forgets to eat and sleep, insanely believes the tales to be true, and sets off on a skinny nag in a heroic quest to resurrect old-fashioned chivalry and heroism in the modern world.

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