The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

January 6, 2015

On Literary Ambition North and South — or Why My Cat is Smarter than I am

I write this on the Feast of Epiphany, having had an epiphany at 3 am, while my cat, very sensibly, is curled up in a basket of my clean socks in my bedroom, sleeping.

The greater genius is purring on the lap of the great author,

The greater genius is purring on the lap of the great author,

My epiphany: I am eating my heart out.

My other epiphany: I can read all the Eudora Welty I want to read.  It won’t make me think like a Southern lady when it comes to my personal ambitions.  This lady wrote brilliant, redolent fiction, made a dent in the American language with her words.  She said, “To write honestly and with all our power is the least we can do, and the most.”

That is awfully modest of her.  She was somewhat reclusive.  Me — I write still because at some level, I want to be a rock star at it.

I knew from the time I was young that I was okay looking but nobody’s casting choice for Bay Watch.  I could get invited to parties in Paris where there were supermodels present, but i was the funny one, not the cute one.  I was unlikely to invent something to replace the automobile, to find a sustainable energy source, to form a company that could dominate Wall Street, or to marry a viscount.  But i could write fairly well, and with some practice, and a slew of self-promotional stunts (like this blog), I figured I could make some kind of a name for myself.

Pray for me.  I have issues.  I have always had issues.

“I am called to write,” I still tell myself.  Because I am called, why am i not yet a household word?  Why is there furor over somebody’s twerking and not over my writing?

Furthermore, I cut my teeth in Manhattan, the island of the elevator pitch, the self-promoting capital of the universe, where ladylike modesty is a cover for some kind of Stepford wifery or a sign of mental illness.  Everybody, everybody — even the hot dog vendor and the man sweeping the floor in the barbershop — blows his own horn.  To brag is to breathe.  As a result, it is only the already phenomenally successful people who affect an air of modesty.  This way, people hate them less for winning at the game we are all playing.

But in the South, blowing one’s own horn is considered rude.  Star athletes only half-manage it.  The proper gesture is to look down at one’s toes, then look up, and shrug while saying something like, “Well, I do my best.”

The first time I went to a literary reading in the South, it was the author’s first novel, and he was in a room of unpublished people.  He shook our hands one by one and inquired of us who we were and what we did, then began his reading with an apology, saying he was sorry to interrupt our getting to know one another so he could share a few pages of his work.

Apologize?  Getting to know us?  That’s lunacy to the New York writer!

A possible, maybe typical, stance of a New York writer at a public reading of her first published novel looks like this:

“Good evening.  I congratulate you all on being discerning enough to understand the great occasion of my first novel, and you are ahead of the curve in hipness, better than your neighbors, for realizing my impending greatness.  Without any more delay, let me dazzle you with my prose.”

And yes — that IS why half the people in the audience came to the reading — to feel hipper than the people in the apartment next door.  That is the commerce of status in New York.

The South resists such a commerce.  Perhaps it is like the lack of snooty wine shops, the intolerance of the maitre d with an attitude at a trendy restaurant.  Perhaps it is a sense that if words matter, they matter without authorial rank.

I have adapted to this sensibility, taking cues from Bill Clinton, who when campaigning thanked everyone in the room where he was stumping, to the greatest degree possible on an individual basis, before beginning his speech.  I may seem stuck up to you.  However, I can promise you I am infinitely less stuck up than I would be in New York, where my jaw-dropping self-assurance and swagger would make (and once actually did make) Rudolph Giuliani shut his mouth.  The South has not made me a Harper Lee recluse of a writer, but it has made me understand that I was inadvertently offensive when I was just acting like writers do below Fourteenth Street and above the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island.

But another writer I know, wholly deserving of recognition, both brilliant and beautiful, gracious and personable, just got a moment of fame, and I am jealous.  I have sunk to the level of dissipation that makes me paraphrase a passage from the screen play for the movie The Interview: I am sitting at home, sulking, eating a peanut butter and jealous sandwich.  I have been swimming off the coast of Coney Island, and I have gotten stung by a jealous fish.  I am looking lady Bey in the eye, and I am singing to her, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jealous.”

I hate myself for being jealous.  Instead of being jealous, I should be winning.  I should be world-frigging-wide.  I should be beating you at breathing.  i should have groupies.  But I am sitting on my bed in the middle of the night, typing this.  Pray for me.  I have issues, big issues.  I make you look perfectly sane.

I moan to myself, “But I am CALLED to this!  Why has my career not been one Michael Jackson moon walk at the Motown Music Awards after another?”

And it is now, on cue, that my cat comes and curls up in my lap, purring.  She is so much better adjusted to her existence than I am to mine.  She is called to be a cat.  She is called to chase things like grasshoppers and the occasional bird.  She is called to stretch on the sunny spot on the floor.  Yet, she has no ambition to be the best birder on the block.  She is content to lie on the thighs of her neurotic mistress.  She will eventually go downstairs and drink from the toilet if she gets bored.  Right now, though, it is enough to rub her face against my leg, to flex her claws gently so she does not hurt me.  Why can’t i be more like her?  What kind of adulation do I think I might get?  I was a disappointment to my parents.  Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature would be awesome, but i would still have other issues.  Pray for me.

The only comfort I have this evening is that I am quite a lot like one Southern writer, a man so ambitious that he wrote much of his Southern literature up North — Mark Twain.  He made up that funny name for himself because it was more rock-star-ish than Samuel Clemens, which, let’s admit, is kind of blah as names go, kind of gaze-downward, foot-shuffling, aw-shucksing.  But “Mark Twain” is something a steamboat pilot shouts.  He was wildly ambitious, albeit in a rather discreet, Connecticut sort of way, too ambitious for a Southern man to comfortably be known to be by his neighbors down South.

Perhaps if I wore a white suit and bolo tie… Perhaps if I changed the spelling of “Babson” to “Baubson” like Faulkner changed his Falkner.  I found a picture of Twain with a pet cat.  I dare say that little cat on his lap was at greater peace than the man who imagined Tom Sawyer conning the neighborhood boys into whitewashing his fence.  I am looking around here for things to whitewash now.

This woman could write without needing to make a spectacle of herself.

This woman could write without needing to make a spectacle of herself.

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March 27, 2010

Yoknapatawpha County — a dispatch from fictional Mississippi

straight out of the pages of Faulkner

“…he knew it was almost dawn, the night almost over. He could tell that from the whippoorwills. They were everywhere now among the dark trees below him, constant and inflectioned and ceaseless, so that, as the instant for giving over to the day birds drew nearer and nearer, there was no interval at all between them. He got up. He was a little stiff, but walking would cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun. He went on down the hill, toward the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds called unceasing – the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back.” — William Faulkner

I arrived yesterday morning in Yoknapatawpha County, not the real county, Lafayette County, where for 100 miles south of Oxford, Mississippi, there are farms, rolled bales of hay, horses, cows, but in Faulkner’s fictional county, where surely Faulkner is not mocked, for that which a man soweth, he shall also reap.

I drove through the farm country, thinking of  the grittiness of agriculture, the struggle between good and evil, for there is right in this county, and there is wrong in this county.  It is dawn now, and the sounds of the birds are overwhelming.

I have made the most wonderful discovery about Southern writers.

I used to think that there was something uniquely lyrical about the South that lent itself readily to discussions of mendacity and blight, of tragic love and closeted yearnings.  I used to think that the diphthongs and cadence of Southern parlance was naturally more musical than the staccato of Brooklyn’s “Yo”s.  I was wrong.

The beautiful thing I have discovered is that Faulkner, Williams, Welty, O’Connor, Mitchell, Walker, Gurganus, and all the others are all up to the same shenanigans as I was up to in New York — it just sounds different.

What they do — and what New York writers do — is that they already have a story in their hearts, perhaps not quite consciously, but it’s there.  They then glean, to use a particularly Faulknerian verb, from their surroundings the necessary sustenance for this narrative.  “Barn Burning,” from which the above quote is taken, would be a very different story indeed in the hands of a lesser writer.  It would be different indeed were it not told in an agrarian paradigm, but “Barn Burning” could be “Arson in Staten Island.”  It could be, “Rive Gauche Vandalism.”  It’s not — Faulkner found his idiom in the rolling hills near the Yalobusha River.  He found a way to have his Lot walk away from his exploding Sodom without a wife into the darkness, trusting in the Right.  He borrowed from ancient stories but wrote his own close to home.

Perhaps I will write another blog entry about historical Faulkner.  I am headed to the University of Mississippi — a transfer to a better school with a program more suited to me.  Ole Miss is in Faulkner’s home town, and the English department, naturally, is filled with his greatest fans.  It is worth noting that only a few Americans have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Faulkner was among them.

However, creating a mausoleum to Faulkner is not necessary for a contemporary writer.  I have his secret — let me share it with you:

You see, we all live  in Yoknapatawpha County, a Yoknapatawpha of our own making.  Our stories play out in the Avalons of our own minds. We are all living in our own Brigadoons.  Visiting Faulkner’s country has not nearly half the utility for me as a writer of exploring my own undiscovered and undocumented territories.  We could stand in the same corn field, Faulkner and I, and we would see different landscapes.  He has already finished his writing.  It is up to me to complete mine.

For years, I wrote about the women and men I met in New York City, or more precisely, I took my inspiration from the women and men I met in New York and wrote about people of my own imagining.  The city in my poems is not quite visitable; it is a place of the mind, not of the intersection of “walk” and “don’t walk.”

My style of crop as a writer

Now that I’m in Mississippi, the land will yield up to me a similar harvest.  After all, that which a woman soweth, she shall also reap, and the ground in Mississippi, with its pungent mud, its worms, its hot coagulation, is fertile ground.  I have my own stories to tell.  They are not Faulkner’s stories but my own.  All that remains to see is whether I have the richness of voice with which to enchant my interlocutors.  I am fertilizing the mud with the words of those  who have sat on this land for generations.  However, I sense I am no Steinbeck, finding her metaphors in the grape harvest.  I am an immigrant.  My words are more like hanging wisteria — a flowering weed that wraps itself around a tree and puts off gorgeous blooms with the most lovely perfume known to anyone.  I am not planted deep but hanging over this land, and my perspective is bound to stay aerial.

That said, I am here for the duration.  Weed killers and tree surgeons won’t remove me.  It would be better for the residents of Yoknapatawpha County to simply  resign themselves to enjoy my fragrance and to admire the blooms that flower from my embracing bowers.

December 6, 2009

Packing

In this picture, note her balletic foot position and her determined expression.

No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper…” — Isaiah 54:17

Watch out, New York — I am packing.

I am loading up boxes, I admit, rather than loading my Winchester rifle,  but a woman could do worse for a role model than plucky show-girl-with-a-gun Annie Oakley.  She was a pioneer in her field, if not a true Western pioneer.  She — well, she aimed high.  Sorry, I just couldn’t resist the pun.

Even putting her picture on my blog feels like a delicious rebellion against the values with which I was raised.  My mother is turning over in her grave.

I was not raised with what Jerry Fallwell would have called family values, but my family had values.  My parents were earnest on several topics — they supported civil rights, they opposed, without protesting, the Vietnam War, and they thought guns should not be privately owned.

Although my parents were not hippies, they sent me and my brother to a school run by hippies, to a socially conscious day camp, and there were certain family rules.  My cousin Doug, for instance, could upset his mother by saying loudly he wanted to be a policeman when he grew up, because after all cops were all fascists.  My mother would not allow me to own a baton because I was supposed to be in the game, not the sidelines.  And my mother made my brother write a conscientious objection letter when he was in Elementary School so he could get out of any future draft by demonstrating he was against violence and guns.  The idea that I might own a gun ever– even if it was used, say, to free draft dodgers from jail — that would make me a family pariah, in my mother’s way of thinking.

I was always on the edge — one step away from pariah purdah — for things like my spiky leather punk bracelets and spiky hair, for any number of artistic expressions not in keeping with the family party line, for resisting attending yet more Joan Baez concerts — we tended to go to three per year, more often than we saw grandparents, and finally, what made me utterly untouchable — I became a Christian.

Gun ownership would have launched an Amish shunning from the group, but that ship has sailed.

My fiance, concerned for my safety on my new job, which will involve teaching night classes and driving home alone late at night, said, “Hon, when you’re down here, I think we’d better think about getting you a firearm.”

I was at once shocked and utterly tantalized.  A gun is either the final step toward family excommunication or the first step toward my eventual red neck perdition, a perdition about which some of my New York cohort are already taking bets, I’ll warrant.  I think the odds are running in that pool toward my turning Daisy Ducal in less than three years, perhaps, because of my age, with nether-cheeks covered, but nonetheless, with an overly broad smile and derriere, leaning over a table with two long-necks in hand in some honky tonk, a gun rack in my truck.

Not known for my half-measures, I say bring it on.  I’m too intellectual for that picture, and I’m frankly more likely to turn into Eudora Welty than Daisy Duke, but guns — I am curious yellow.  I am pro-Second Amendment, pro-gun control bi-curious about guns.

When I was living as a club kid in Paris (and not yet saved), I once made out in a restaurant hallway with a man I had met earlier that evening.  He was packing.  I discovered mid-kiss the heavy steel handle tucked in the small of his back, and I found myself grabbing him tighter, kissing him harder.  I took him home that evening.  Living in a city as a young woman, not even old enough to order a drink in America, with no family on the entire continent, felt dangerous, and having a guy in my apartment who could shoot at the door if something went down — it didn’t matter that the firearm was illegal and that I had no known enemies — felt like the safest thing I could do.   I did not fall in love with him, this international man of mystery, but I did find myself passionately entangled.  I imagined him enacting all my unladylike rages, personifying the angry part of me.  It never once occurred to me that I should own a gun personally.  My mother had told me that women who own firearms find themselves overpowered by their attackers and find the weapon meant for their protection used against them.  I didn’t mind the overpowered part, not with my sexy, gun-toting man, but the weapon — would it always be pointed the other way?  And I was so angry — angry at unfairness I would later come to understand as feminist issues — I had already been attacked and excluded from things boys took for granted — could I trust myself not to go postal?

I joined the women’s movement, wrote speeches and organized demonstrations for them — I also did stand-up comedy.  I had a whole routine about Thelma and Louise blocking a Senate hearing and demanding an apology at gunpoint from the committee.  I found legitimate outlets for my decidedly unladylike anger — there’s nothing like screaming at the White House and doing what they said we could never do.  I largely forgot about guns until I saw this:

Some mother-daughter time

Understand I don’t agree with Ms. Palin about anything, but here was this marvelous image of a woman doing something we were surely told we could never do, although any honest historian will tell us that women have had to pick up guns and use them since the beginning of this country to defend and to feed their families.  I began to wonder — where are these moose-hunting women congregating?  Not Manhattan, I can  tell you that much.  Could I fill up a flask with some Jack Daniels, find a lonesome mountainside with them, and could we get buzzed, laughing softly as we crouched in the snow, fire off a few, and bag a buck?  Could I in my wildest dreams convince three other city-dwelling amateurs like me — think of it as a bridge party — to rent a SUV in some remote location, borrow some rifles, and try to get some venison?

Understand I’ve never had a problem with the morality of hunting anything one eats or wears, endangered species excepted, of course.  I’m roasting a chicken as I type this blog, and while I’m delighted it wasn’t my responsibility to kill it, I assume that as an eater of meat, I am just as liable for that Chicken’s blood-spattered execution as if I had bitten its neck at some PLO terrorist training camp.  Hence, hunting seems natural and right to me.

My city girlfriends smiled at my request that we form a hunting party, and while they thought it was an awfully good joke, full of spirit, they had no more real interest in going out in the woods with a shotgun than they did in chasing a bat out of an attic.  Besides, coupled with my small-p-pentacostal leanings and my unframed, square-shaped glasses I used to have, I was suspiciously Palinesque and might have caused a stir in certain circles had I not had a leftist literary track record.

I still want to go hunting,  at least for the drinking part of the hunting.

However, my fiance wants to get me a gun to protect me from attackers, not to get dinner.   One of my colleagues asked me if I could ever shoot someone.  In self-defense, I could.  However, I am not convinced — yet — that a gun would really protect me.

One time in Paris, shortly before I met the man who was packing, I was walking home in spindly high heels at 4 am — something I loved to do.  Paris is largely a safe city, and the streets are only really empty then but for the fishmongers pouring ice into their cases and the occasional couple kissing against a wall.  I loved to feel I was alone in all the beautiful architecture, to hear the water lapping against the quais as I crossed the Seine on the Pont des Arts.  I loved the smell of bread baking as I passed small bakeries.  However, one night, I was walking home in my clubbing dress, covered in sequins, my absurd heels, my hair sweaty from too much dancing, and a man started to follow me down the Boulevard Saint Michel.  I took note of him, heard him cursing under his breath, and as I turned down narrower and narrower streets toward my apartment, he still followed me more and more closely.  I lived on a block where there were only old people, no cops, and I realized that if I ignored him, he would likely follow me up to my apartment door and hurt me.  He was stammering insults about bitches and whores.  He seemed twitchy, such as I could hear him behind me.

I decided that I would risk confronting him before he cornered me.

I turned and walked forcefully up to him, shouting, “You!  Stop following me!  Why are you bothering me?”

The guy, who was even more twitchy to the view than I had imagined while listening to him, pulled out a knife.

“You looked at me funny!”  He mumbled as he unbuttoned his clothes.

He clearly had intended to corner me and rape me, possibly to slit my throat.

I took two steps back, and even though my heart was pounding, I changed my tone to a conversational and utterly calm one.

“You know,” I said with an actual smile on my face, “a girl could get the wrong impression from you.  I mean, here you are following me, and I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

How would I hurt him — with a heel to the eye?  with a spiky bracelet to the nuts?  I had no game.

“I don’t want to have to hurt you,” I repeated authoritatively — where this air of confidence came from, I had no idea, “but you need to leave me alone.”

Twitchy man looked confused.  He had counted on my fear — maybe that was the thrill.

“You shouldn’t look at people funny like that!” He shouted, sounding frightened himself, “do you need me to cut you up to teach you a lesson?”

As calmly as a mother talking to a baby in a crib, although my eyeballs were pulsating from the adrenaline, I intoned, “No.  I don’t need to be taught a lesson.  Here’s what’s going to happen.  I am going to walk that way, and you are going to turn around in the opposite direction and leave me alone, because I don’t want to have to hurt you, because if I have to hurt you, I will.”

I started down a steep cobblestone street backwards in stillettos.

“Here I go.  Don’t make me hurt you.  I’m going now.”

I walked about twenty yards backwards downhill, and then I turned around walking calmly but more quickly.   I did not hear footsteps, but I wanted to know if he had followed me.   I turned to see where he was.

“What did I tell you?  Do I need to cut you up?”

“No,” I repeated calmly, “I’m going now.”

When I turned the corner, I ran home.

Horrified as I was, I realized that if I held a hairbrush with enough attitude in a shadowy place, an attacker would think it was a nuclear weapon.

So do I need a gun?  I haven’t decided.  I like the idea of shooting a tin can, of being competent with a piece of cold steel, of defying yet another stereotype.  I am of two minds on the subject, and anyway, I don’t have to decide today.  Today I’m only packing one way, the way with the cardboard boxes, the way that might include chasing a bat out of my attic apartment, although that’s more the cat’s job than mine.  I have so much to pack, so much baggage from the past, I am tempted to blow it away.

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