Books I Have Not Read

Right now I am home for the first weekend in a very long time, so I am cleaning up and clearing out. It seems I do this all the time and yet there is no change in the amount of objects floating around my apartment, overused or underused.   We've all experienced this (see: George Carlin) but I have a particular problem that I think some of my comrades might understand. I have,  in my studio apartment, at least a few hundred books that I have not read. I bought or borrowed them all in moments of good intention.  These are books that I want to read; books that should be read. They look good.  Here is a random sample of books I have here but have not read.

  • Biographies of Ghengis Khan (two, actually), Edith Wharton, Edgar Allan Poe, and Chick Austin
  • The last couple books of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series
  • The collected stories of Amy Hempel, John Cheever, Leonard Michaels, Isaac Babel, Anton Chekhov, and H.P. Lovecraft
  • Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Tristam Shandy, Don Quixote, The Aeneid, The Sun Also Rises
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Krik? Krack!, Song of Solomon, The Savage Detectives
  • Historical accounts of the Dust Bowl, the colonization of Africa, generations of Chinese women, pop music, Lewis and Clark, US Prisons, and Wilderness and the American Mind
  • You don't even want to know about the poetry.
  • And you REALLY don't want to know how many works by and about Mark Twain I bought in the throes of new-nerd-job ecstasy and haven't felt like hunkering down and reading after 40 hours of talking about Sam per week.
  • Workbooks to learn Spanish, Chinese, and how to use my Nikon D50.
  • The magazines!  Oh, the magazines.  Damn you, Granta; damn you, American Scholar; damn you, Georgia Review.  I love and hate you for coming without warning.

I am pathetic.  I essentially have an entire library in here and I continue to acquire more books. There's a heavy emphasis of late nineteenth century (European and American) and essays  (almost all of which I've read, thank goodness) but otherwise: I have a lot to learn that I have already committed myself to studying. This apartment is a record of everything I want to know but have no time to study. If someone would only donate food to me for a year, I think I could conceivably quit my jobs, read about a book a day, and catch up with my intentions.  Any takers?

Anyway, just as soon as I finish Inkheart, The Little Friend, I Know This Much is True, The Quiet American, One Ring Circus, and the style issue of the New Yorker, I guess I'll start with Genghis and work forwards in time.

How do you people with more than one room even keep a head on your shoulders?

- Julia

P.S. The movies from China and the Netflix queue will be year two.  Couch buddies welcome.

List Anxiety

I am alone at a Bed & Breakfast in Westbrook, Connecticut.  I am supposed to be writing. In fact, I have cranked out some draft material of a new essay, but I have a confession to make: just the simple fact of writing it is kind of cheating on myself.  If published, the essay/article will help me with another one of my jobs. I'm not sure if this is a conflict of interest or just plain multitasking. It's been a long time since I've been alone and unscheduled for more than 24 hours. Lately, even my free time has taken on a rather rigorous quality, and I've turned into the sort of person who says to her other half first thing in the morning: "so what's the plan for the day?" instead of just letting it happen. Well, this is a day I just have to let happen. I'm not getting lonely (I think I could spend a month alone without feeling true desperation to hang out with another person) but I am freaking out about being productive and proving it.

When Greg drove away after dropping me off I promised pages: either twenty good ones or thirty passable ones. For a single weekend, that's a lot, but I'm a very fast writer and my every waking moment is supposed to be words on paper. Like I said, I've got some down, but the panic is starting to take over.

Fortunately/unfortunately, I brought along my September to-do list which has fifty-two items that I've ordered myself to complete by October 1st. I confess here and now that I have spent some of my day gloriously completing tasks and crossing them off with an almost carnal pleasure. One of the tasks is "maintain blog," and that's what I'm doing writing here now. Others I have crossed off today include writing a press release, scheduling my essay submissions for the month, planning my other writing retreats, and beginning the aforementioned piece of writing.

Listing has become almost an obsessive tic for me, a way to measure my achievements in incremental, quantifiable form. I like to make lists for whole months and carry around those lists until they look like they've been through the battle that is my attempt to juggle all of my obligations. But, overcome by the pleasure of the list, I opened up a document from June 2009 that listed my big goals for June 2009- 201o.  It is depressing:

"By my 27th birthday I would like to have:

  1. Eliminated credit card debt entirely; gotten ahead in grad school payments; saved $2,000 for permanent savings; have $1,000 buffer zone in checking account.
  2. Maintained goal weight & toned up.
  3. No longer worry about messiness at all.
  4. Published 5 pieces of writing & have 5 on the burner.
  5. A birthday party with friends to celebrate all of these goals."

I will tell you, dear readers, that I accomplished absolutely zero of those goals. I did pay off my credit card and get ahead in my grad school payments but I did not save anything. I am way less physically fit than I was in 2009. I am still messy (although someone improved). I published one little thing and everything else has been on the burner so long it's stuck to the pot. For my birthday I don't even remember what I did. The planner is unrevealing.

However, the list does not reflect the unexpected things I did since 2009 (when, after all, I hadn't begun at any of my current jobs): became a publicist and marketer, attended an academic conference, founded an improv group, won this fellowship, created this blog, etc.  And it certainly doesn't reflect the unlistable things that bring me actual joy: swimming and sitting around having beers with new friends and reading and rescuing kittens and trying new jobs.  I suppose anything listable is too predictable for me to love as much as unlistable things.

But I still will make the lists, and I will still finish them. And you will note that "maintain blog" has tricked me into writing quite a bit more, on this writing weekend, than I have in previous posts.  Good job, list.

- Julia

Roughing It

The last time I wrote (a lifetime ago by all accounts; by one specific seasonal account: since then I've been swimming in Walden Pond twice, swimming at midnight in Nyantic, swimming at the edge of a holly forest, and swimming in an unusually warm Cape Cod Atlantic), I was hoping to deliver a lecture on "Wit" at the Twain/Tolstoy symposium in Boston. Against my expectations, my proposal was accepted and I am delivering that lecture on Saturday morning.  I'm nervous.  This is a coming-out party for an academic life; this is a transition from student to scholar.  I'm particularly worried about my own fallibility: what if everything I say is wrong? What if my research is wonky and my conclusions overeager?  This room full of experts will be the test of my thinking and of my education.

Now I'm sitting at my desk rifling through the books I'd like to take along with me, and I just re-opened Roughing It, one of Twain's travel accounts.  He wrote it as a moneymaker in the early 1870s and I haven't had the time to read it all the way through yet.  However, the Prefatory is amazing:

"This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation.  It is a record of  several years of variegated vagabondizing, and its object is rather to help the resting reader while away an idle hour rather than afflict him with metaphysics, or goad him with science.   Still, there is information in the volume. . . . Yes, take it all around, there is quite a good deal of information in the book.  I regret this very much; but really it could not be helped: information appears out of me naturally, like the precious ottar of roses out of the otter.  Sometimes it has seemed to me that I would give worlds if I could retain my facts; but it cannot be.  The more I caulk up the sources, and the tighter I get, the more I leak wisdom.  Therefore, I can claim indulgence at the hands of the reader, not justification."  -- The Author.

When I read this I remember that my concerns about truth, memory, accuracy, exaggeration, scholarship, and reputation have all been shared by the writer I am honoring.  Sam was our nation's Great Exaggerator; I will try not to exaggerate but if I do I will be in good company.

In improv we always talk about the audience: their needs, their expectations, their hopes, their sense of humor, not ours.  I will lecture as Twain would have lectured: for my audience.

Looks like I have some rewriting to do.

The hawks and the pussycats

There are some kittens I'm planning to catch.  The five of them live with their mother on the hillside between The Mark Twain House and its accompanying museum, acting out an idyllic cat life in the bushes and sleeping in a green drainpipe. I have caught kittens before, in my previous life in the South Bronx.  I caught them then to bind myself closer to my friends there and to the community-- well, actually, I would have caught them no matter what, but at the time there was something incredibly special about picking up these small sickly creatures, seemingly born out of the toxic rubble of our neighborhood, and placing them amongst the things I'd collected over the course of my life, and letting the kittens mess everything up.  They ruined things, those kittens.  Plants and books and furniture and evenings.  At the time I was unemployed and I spent hours lying on my stomach on the ground waiting for them to be a little less wild and come one inch closer.  After a while my very good friends adopted them and they all live together now.  It was one of the greatest times of my life, hanging out with those cats and an essay about them to get into graduate school.

Later I did it again, beginning with a tiny black kitten so small that he looked like an underfed bat.  He slept on my pillow and hung out for a few days in my tshirt drawer (by his own choice).  His brother joined us, wounded and shy, and now they both live very happy lives in suburban New Jersey.

So, back to the Twain kittens.  Of course I want to save them.  There are hawks on the property.  But it's more than that-- I want to be a person who saves things, who keeps things alive beyond a writer's legacy.  I want the kittens to remind me of what it was like to be alone in an apartment, not knowing where you or they were going, not caring what was ruined as long as their safety was preserved.

Time after time after time

I am currently doing one of those very mundane things that writers have to do every now and again:  looking at my planner and scheduling in when to write. I adore being busy-- it gives me a rich life and so many writing subjects, too.  But sometimes all this business gets in the way of actually processing my thoughts and ideas and writing them down.  For example, on Tuesday, I got up early, wrote a press release, went to a string of meetings for my second job as a publicist for a theater company, booked it to the Twain House, went back to Hartford at 5:30 to have a drink with a friend who needs support, went to a 3 hour improv rehearsal, got home and passed out.  Wednesday was 6 AM exercising, Mark Twain House & then seeing the play of Tom Sawyer at Hartford Stage, and Thursday I stayed late to run a book club and then booked it to another improv rehearsal.  Tonight I'm seeing another friend's play and having dinner with another friend.  Tomorrow I'm seeing yet ANOTHER play and Sunday I'm performing in a mother's day improv show.

When the hell am I supposed to be privately creative instead of publicly?

One result of all this insane running around is that work has become a kind of haven.  I actually do a ton of writing and thinking about writing for both of my jobs.  I write letters to editors, pitch longer pieces, review biographies, and brainstorm new stuff.  There isn't too much time for quiet thinking but at least I'm engaging a lively part of my brain.

Now, though, I have this fellowship and I have promised that I will use the money to isolate myself and write.  Ha.  Next weekend: 6 hour hike, poetry slam, 2 improv shows; the following my sister's graduation; the following my cousin's wedding; the following my college reunion; the following a huge Twain event I'm running; the following visiting friends; the following an improv festival; the following July 4th.

So here I vow:  I will still write. I will still make the time.  Beginning tomorrow, Saturday, at 6 AM.  And I feel great about that.