The Knitting Circle, Goodreads, and My Grammy

From 2012.  Still true.  In the intervening time, I’ve done some of things Grammy did. I understand more.  I understand better. 

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I got this in my inbox today.

Of all the social media services I use, Goodreads is the one I clearly use  least.

I finished those last 46 pages in 2009.  In August of that year, I started my first fiction workshop at The New School, taught by Kitting Circle author Ann Hood.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact Ann had on our class.  She’s an amazing teacher, graceful and assertive in the kind of measures that let you know you have work to do, and that she believes you can do it.  The cadre of writers I met in that setting will say the same thing.  Those peers became friends in the course of Ann’s workshop, and those friendships were strengthened over the course of the next two years.

In the last 1020 days, I have, indeed, finished reading The Knitting Circle.  I’ve studied under Ben Taylor, James Lasdun, Robert Antoni, and Jeff Allen. I’ve worked alongside amazing emerging talent and have been blessed to call these people friends. I can’t say enough about what each of these people have given me or what their influence means to me.  I know I can finish what I’ve started because of the experiences I’ve had which each of them.

In May, I’ll celebrate the one-year anniversary of my MFA.  By then, I will have completed a draft of the novel I started halfway trough that program.  My grandmother, a key inspiration for that work, passed away this week. One of many great things you learn from Bob Antoni and Ben Taylor is that grandmothers are the keepers of our stories.  Theirs is the language of home.  Through Grammy, I’m connected to worlds I’d never begin to understand otherwise.  Grandmothers are emissaries from history, bridges between eras, nurturers of the present, caretakers of the future.

Whatever Ann and James and Bob and James and Jeff taught me, Grammy taught me first. She bought me books and encyclopedias, told me stories from her family on the farm.  She read us Laura Ingalls Wilder. She gave us a vernacular.  She helped run a business and she raised a family.  An extended family.  So much of who we are is simply her.  So much of who I am.

What else can one say?

Storytelling and History

Written in the second or third week of the Fall 2009 fiction seminar taught by Benjamin Taylor in the New School MFA program.

I want to share some thoughts from my prose fiction seminar last week.  These are via our teacher (paraphrased, some phrases quoted) with some extended, rambling reflections following the asterisks below.

Art as a human pursuit is 35,000 years old.  Agriculture is 10,000.  That means that 25,ooo years before we got the idea to put seeds in the ground and grow things, we were making art.  Specifically, cave painting and pottery started 35,000 years ago, but storytelling is much, much older.

Storytelling did not emerge from a need for passtime, but to explain things.  That is, to “perform the most urgent function.”   Stories were told to cope with unanswerable questions “on the frontier between culture and nature.”

“Literature is about trouble.”  There is no end to storytelling because there is no end to trouble.

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The hypothetical end of literature has made me think this week of the old hoped-for “end of history” that was supposed to occur after the West won the defining ideological battle of the last century.  Or, you know, the workers’ paradise that was to be realized when class struggle ceased and there was nothing else to drive the dialectic.  Instead, of course, new ideological struggles emerged, full-grown, and old ones smolder but aren’t out.  There is no end to history or literature until there is an end to trouble, however you define it.  Very literally, Yogi Berra was right.  It ain’t over till it’s over.

Those of you with eschatological concerns can, of course, consider whether there will be storytelling in the eschaton.  Can you imagine life without it? Where there is no weeping or gnashing of teeth, will all of our stories be boring? Or self-congratulatory?  On some level, storytelling seems essential to any sustained worthwhile activity I can imagine.  Christian theology says, after all, that God is Logos, and I understand Logos as dialectic and story.  I hope for the eschaton (not the bloody, violent scary one; the just one where everything that’s been lost is restored) but I don’t always believe in it.   What are we to do without our troubles?  Our ambitions? Our insecurities or petty prides?

I’m in Kempton, PA today with the Kittatinny Ridge blue in front of me and the Hawk Mountain Preserve and between us alfalfa, I think, and maybe switchgrass.  It is sunny but cool enough for sweaters and jeans, not cold.  I am with people who are interested in sustainability and justice and environmental responsibility and I think that if the eschaton could be like a just day in Berks County in September then perhaps I would still have good stories and worthwhile ambitions even without trouble.

I’m tempted to say that we mark time by trouble, and that where there is no trouble, there is no time and so it makes sense that we speak of eternity as timeless.  But we also mark time by good things.  First dates, first kisses.  Births of children.  I can’t really believe in a detached timelessness where nothing new happens as something worth looking to.   A just day in the fields, in the mountains, is nice, but so is the evening, the moon, the few degrees cooler and the idea that we do it again. I like being human. I don’t know that I’d want to be more than that, but being that forever might be okay.