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Often, when writing about painful or traumatic events, I find myself weeping. But, after a while, I feel better.  Is there a science behind this?  Yes, actually, there is.

I found a post by the American Psychological Association that claims writing about trauma may reduce your stress, boost your mood, and your immunity.  So, if you are writing about some painful topics, take heart, and know that even if it doesn’t feel good at the moment, this may be better than therapy.

Here’s a link to the APA article:

http://www.apa.org/research/action/writing.aspx

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Three non-fiction books and one short story collection is not necessarily a great mix.  I think the proportions are a little off, though, in truth, the short story collection reads like actual stories taken directly my childhood.  I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and Lorrie Moore’s collection Self Help reads exactly as the title suggests:  a manual for your childhood and early adulthood.  I love it, painful and uncomfortable as it is.

I just finished reading Alan Cumming’s memoir  Not My Father’s Son.  The title suggests some paternal issues, but it’s so much more than that.  There are many revelations in this book (none of which I will spoil here) and to a sensitive soul such as Alan, they prove difficult to navigate.  Cumming’s journey begins with the TV show “Who do you think you are?” — a show that searches out your roots, your genealogical secrets.  There are dual stories running throughout the book, as well as dual timelines:  the present (2010, during which he is filming the TV show) and chapters of “Then” which flash back to his childhood.  Cumming’s father was a brute of a man, abusive to his family in multiple heartbreaking ways.

What sets this memoir apart, in a spate of celebrity memoirs, is that Cummings is incredibly insightful; he has a strong sense of self. He is articulate without being self serving. Yes, he is emotional, but who wouldn’t be in the midst of the family revelations and drama he weathers? At an early age, Alan decides he will not feel shame about himself; this, to me, is in large part why he stays so strong.

Cummings writes short, descriptive episodes, writing dual stories about the present (which was 2010) and his childhood (only titled Then). There are some delightful photos throughout, and candid revelations. A quick, interesting read.

Two other outstanding books I’ve read recently: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Both incredibly smart, talented writers who put together two brilliant essay collections. (See also what Cheryl Strayed had to say in the New York Times regarding the “golden age for women essayists– why do we need a qualifier?)

Next, a return to fiction.  Can’t decide between Tartt’s A Secret History or Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay.  Any thoughts?

This has been my life the past few weeks. I’m reading two books right now that I highly recommend: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, and Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming. Non-fiction is my genre of choice for reading and writing, though it can take a toll on me. Though light-hearted at times, both of these books touch on some difficult subjects.
I’ve also been submitting some non-fiction essays and hope to hear back soon. Or I’ll be wailing about rejection. Either way, I’ll report the results here!

I’ve just discovered the site Skillshare– a place where you can learn (or teach!) about any subject from photography to writing to cooking.  There are two levels of membership:  one is free, and you can choose to take free classes or pay a fee for classes that are not free.  The second is a 9.95 monthly fee and all the classes are free. 

I joined after seeing Susan Orlean tweet about a class she’s teaching on Creative Nonfiction.  Sold! As a staff writer at The New Yorker, and publisher of nonfiction titles such as The Orchid Thief, she is the perfect person to teach creative nonfiction.  This is probably my favorite genre, both as a reader and a writer.  

I just began the class but am super excited.  Squeee! 

When having a bad day, what narrative runs through your mind? What do you tell yourself to get through difficult times?

Joan Didion said that “We tell ourselves stories to survive.” What story do you tell?

It’s like 95 degrees out today, so I’m taking advantage of that by staying inside and writing.

My first short story for my 9 year old nephew was a hit; I’m told he’s working on sketches now. The deal was that I’d write the text and he would do the illustrations. So while he works on that, I’m working on the next story for him to illustrate.

This could turn into a fun little series!

First of all, let me say that I unabashedly loved Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.  Cleverly written, great film.  I also confess that I loved the film version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  It’s tough to write about the tragedy of 9/11 and not delve into cliche, or let the novel become overwrought.  I actually liked the novel, for the most part, right up until the end.  Damn, do I have a problem with endings.  This particular ending is no exception.

Having lost a father at a rather young age myself, I can certainly relate to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  My father didn’t die in a national tragedy, but his death was still a mystery, still painful, still left me with questions.  There are lots of sons without fathers in the novel, and one grandfather without a son.  The women don’t seem to play much more than supporting roles here.  The main issue is the relationships between the fathers and the sons.  This theme takes the attention off of the 9/11 tragedy, which is good.  But you also have the Holocaust in the background, and a grandfather who doesn’t speak.  So the tragedy is everywhere, inescapable.

[Spoiler alert]  The narrator and protagonist, Oskar Schell, has a strong voice.  He’s an interesting kid, full of post 9/11 paranoia and phobias.  But his last act, that of digging up his father’s empty grave, struck me as all wrong.  Why would he do such a thing?  Why would his mother allow him to do it?  I find it implausible.  And just a bit pointless.  Everyone knows the casket is empty, so what is the point?

The last line of the novel is ambiguous;  normally this would delight me.  In this case, not so much.  “We would have been safe” (Foer, 2005). Safe from what?  Who?  Is he referring to the terrorists?  Or the thousands of other ways in which we, as humans, are not ‘safe’?  This notion of safety is not unfamiliar to me; I myself have a dozen or so phobias about being in a safe place.  I think my issue with this ending is that we all have different definitions of what we believe will keep us safe, or what constitutes that feeling of safety.  Certainly this definition has changed since 9/11.  Certainly, we have become a police state due to issues of safety.  Is it just the loss of his father that makes him feel less safe?  When he says “We” is he just referring to his family, or all of us?

I have to say, that although I didn’t like this novel as much, I do appreciate Foer’s style and editing choices.  Choosing multiple narrators and letters and some stream of consciousness works style-wise.  The so-called visual writing (photographs of doorknobs and people falling) is not so appealing; one wonders what the point is of that as well.  Regardless, I love that he pushes the boundaries of style, even if it doesn’t always work.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. New York:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005.  Print.

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories 2 might be small in size, and its stories might be short lengthwise (just two pages long), but these stories are long on imagination and possibility.

I like this book better than the first; the collaborative effort seems more cohesive, the stories more fantastic, the drawings more tender. Stories we invent in order to live in this world.

The genre of the short-short story (or micro-fiction) is so appealing; in our overly busy and technology heavy lives, we need tiny escapes from the madness. That is just what this collaborative effort does: gives us a break from the madness. In short-short form. Who has time for long reads these days, anyway?

I highly recommend this book along with Volume I. Volume III is already in the works, so if you’re a writer/artist looking for a great project to work on, check out the link. And get to RECording.

Tiny Stories II

In late 2009, in response to a Twitter message, I joined something called Bite-Size Edits.  The idea was that writers would upload stories and other contributors would make editing suggestions, which the writer would then accept or reject.  Hitrecord.org goes just a bit further.

Where Bite-Size Edits was more editing help, hitrecord.org is full-on collaboration– and not just text, but audio/visual files too.  Any kind of art is welcome– drawings, recordings, words.  But, as they warn you when you create an account, anything (including your profile pic, so think carefully!) is up for grabs.  Anything can be edited and re-submitted.  In fact, this is the whole point.

I am lucky enough to be on the list of book reviewers for a major publisher & therefore got a review copy of the latest from the hitrecord collaboration, The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories.  It is indeed filled with tiny stories (some only six words) and whimsical illustrations for each.   The Tiny stories are reminiscent of the short-short story or the six-word memoir:  short, concise, and often laced with humor and wit.  Often poetic and sometimes dark, these tiny stories are just plain endearing.  I dare you to read this book and not laugh or nod in happy agreement at some point.

I was worried, as I read through the book, where all the writers & artists were listed?  At the end, there is a list of contributors and their record numbers.  Your records, I found out later, are your contributions.  Intrigued by the list of usernames and record numbers, I looked up hitrecord.org on the web.

After perusing the website for oh, say, 30 seconds, I immediately created an account on hitrecord.org.  As a writer, I have often collaborated with others.  It’s not always been pretty:  in grad school, my memoir class professor hooked me (a self-proclaimed atheist with a very sarcastic tongue) up with a young, religious and straight-as-an-arrow editor to work on a chapbook.  In my memoir, I talk about smoking weed and cursing god.  I don’t think my editor appreciated it.  As a result, the collaboration didn’t work too well.  But this type of collaboration– on the nets, and in a way anonymous– might just work.  It might work out just fine.

Any ‘record’ you post to the site– be it text, audio, visual, or any combination of these– is a record that can be downloaded and edited and changed by any other member.  It’s really freaking exciting to know that someone out there– someone you don’t know– can take something you started and turn it into something else entirely.  Open-source, creative, collaborative.  I love it.

And The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories is the result of such collaborations between 83 members.  And they all get to share in the profits:  on the hitrecord.org site, it states explicitly the percentages shared with contributors.  It’s a pretty good deal.  And the book is simply charming.  Really.

Some of my favorite Tiny Stories in the book are the darkly humored ones (the egg who optimistically follows the orange off the kitchen counter)  or the ones that reflect something much deeper about our lives (the person who doesn’t get dressed anymore because they ‘don’t feel like it’).

These are the whimsical, witty, dark and delightful stories that make up our lives. This is the first volume of Tiny Stories, and I hear the 2nd volume is in the works. I can’t wait.

PS:  here’s a link to the Tiny Stories video made by Joseph Gordon-Levitt:  Watch Here.

The title of my blog “searching for an afflated orgasm of the heart” comes from the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest. It has taken me many, many months to finish this novel, but it was worth it. There is genius on every single page.

There is comedy; there is tragedy. There is knowledge, precision. Not only can DFW craft a perfect sentence, his wealth of knowledge on multiple subjects is amazing. And as much as I enjoyed reading about tennis and wheelchair assassins, it is his writing on depression and isolation that really floors me.

The first chapter of Infinite Jest is actually the last. “Year of Glad” is, to me, by far the most brilliant and telling chapter.  This is the one chapter in the book which I have read & reread.  “Year of Glad” introduces us to Hal as he is at the end of the novel:  inside he believes he is perfectly normal and sane; on the outside, those around him cannot understand his words, nor can they decipher his behavior.  “I am in here”  he keeps saying to them; they only react with horror.  Hal is very much isolated in his own mind.  His ability to communicate has all but disappeared.

I am in here. I can’t say how many times I’ve thought that to myself.  Trying to communicate what’s in your head to someone who can’t understand you is frustrating, and a bit scary.  We never really know what has happened to Hal;  the only clue is a clump of mold he ate as a child.

Every character in Infinite Jest has some sort of flaw, be it visible or of the character type.  But it’s the fun that DFW makes of us as humans that’s the real joke:  our addictions and our shallowness.  Our love of acronyms and of money.  The absolute ridiculousness of the things we deem as “entertainment.”

DFW’s powers of description came through best when describing certain emotional states; he was able to describe depression and anxiety in a way that only those who have suffered through them can.  He knows, among a gazillion other things, what these things feel and look like and how they are treated.  There are at least 4 suicides in the novel, one being a main character that we never see, as he has already suicided before the novel begins.  He knows all about AA and related programs.  He even added a few groups for those with deformities, U.H.I.D. for example.  We do love a good exclusive group, don’t we?

This is not a short read, nor is it always an easy one.  There are multiple story lines, all meeting at some point; there are extensive footnotes, totaling nearly 100 pages.  There are words you will have to look up; there are tennis facts you will have to take at his word.  But you will read every sentence with joy, and wish to god DFW was still around and still writing.

 

 

PS:  here is my review on Powell’s Daily Dose:  http://www.powells.com/Comments/View/Jennifer%20Hensley

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