Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Life Less Ordinary

The title begs the question: Less ordinary than what?

Does it mean being a Senator or a Congressperson? Does it mean being a celebrity or a best-selling author? Does it mean being a Captain of Industry or a Titan of Finance? Or, might it just mean holding more fast to one’s dreams than most of us do? Might it mean being willing to risk the scorn and/or ridicule of one’s peers, one’s family, one’s friends, to go after what it is you really want?

Last Sunday evening, the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” pretty much swept the Oscars. Best Picture, Best Director, and a bunch of other awards. Danny Boyle was the director. So, I decided to look into Danny Boyle’s previous movies on Netflix to see what I could see. “Trainspotting,” saw it. Liked it, but I’m kind of tired of watching movies about heroin addicts. Then I came across “A Life Less Ordinary.” It sounded intriguing. Starring Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz, with Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo as co-stars. I rented it. It also features strong performances by Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci, Dan Hedaya, and Tony Shalhoub, along with some delightful smaller parts by Judith Ivey and Maury Chaykin.

My wife Gloria and I watched the film earlier this evening, and to say that it was absolutely delightful is an understatement. But, I’m not really interested in reviewing the film here – I’m interested in exploring what “a life less ordinary” might really, actually mean.

Again, I bump against the question: Less ordinary than what?

Perhaps less ordinary than what we are programmed to desire: a good job, a nice house, a family with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. Perhaps it’s less ordinary than summers on the Cape or the Vineyard or the Keys and the sports car that no one ever drives because we wouldn’t want it to be ruined in case of an accident, now, would we? Perhaps it’s less ordinary than the PTA and the Lions Club and the Country Club and the teas after church on a Sunday morning.

But, it interests me. What defines a life less ordinary? Following our bliss? (As Joseph Campbell famously advised us all to do.) Daring to try something new? Something unexpected? Something risky or dangerous or worse?

I think it might be singing one’s own song. Or, as Henry David Thoreau put it, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.” Isn’t it funny that in the pop cultural sphere this quote has been transposed or transfigured to become something along the lines of one who “marches to the beat of a different drummer?” Thoreau writes of one who “loses pace with his companions,” not one who is marching.

I think many of us – perhaps most – live a life less ordinary. We might think we are living ordinary lives, but what is ordinary? What does it really mean? For some, ordinary is working eighty hours a week for nine months a year – this group of people might include high school teachers and video editors of network television shows. Are they ordinary? Others might gig on Saturday nights at grungy bars in the northern suburbs and then don a suit and tie for their week of work at an accounting firm in the Loop. Are they ordinary? Are you ordinary if you’ve written a song, a poem, a sonata? And, what if you’ve written these things, but no one has ever heard or read them? Well then, you MUST be ordinary, right? Let’s not forget that “The Confederacy of Dunces” was published posthumously, eleven years after John Kennedy Toole killed himself. Was he ordinary?

Are you? Am I?

Ignatius J. Reilly may have been a slob, but he was also one hell of a compelling character. And both he, and his creator lived a life less ordinary indeed.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Writer's Block and Tackle

Robert Olen Butler, the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer, asserts (and, I’m paraphrasing here) that writer’s block is something that only thoughtful and likely very good writers suffer. He says that the Stephen Kings and John Grishams of the world do not suffer writer’s block because they are turning out work that comes merely from the head, not from a deeper, more unconscious (and therefore – at least he implies – more trustworthy and valuable) place. The dream space, he calls it.

Well, given my experiences of today, I must be a very thoughtful and likely very good writer indeed. At least, if Mr. Butler is correct in his assertion.

Today I began two different stories. The same thing happened with both of them. I’d developed a character, given her or him a deep yearning of one sort or another, and then – SPLAT!! Wall. What would the obstacle or obstacles be? How would they work to overcome those obstacles? What, in the end, would be their fate? (I know, I know, I need to let the characters tell me what their fate will be. I do, sometimes.) Everything I thought of seemed, well, trite, hackneyed, overdone, already explored.

I seemed to become overwhelmed – and, ultimately, short-circuited – by my ability to choose any fate for these characters. (This is a syndrome that my poet friend, Katerina, refers to as agoraphobia. An apt term, I think.) I could invent a horrible car accident or the murder of a previously close friend or the unexpected death of a parent. But which one of these? Which one would be most perfectly attenuated to the particular yearning such that my work would (to use Robert Olen Butler’s words again) thrum, thrum, thrum, with nary a twang?

I decided to stop for a bit. Did some cleaning. Organizing. Taking care of those pesky piles of special coupons, too many literary magazines to count, books to-be-read and recently read. I filed things away, cleaned the kitchen table, took the dogs for a longer walk than usual, despite the slippery sidewalks and the biting, cold wind that February in Chicago often delivers. I considered doing my laundry, but decided against it. It can wait until early next week and maybe it’ll be a little warmer then.

Last week I attended the AWP Conference here in Chicago. (AWP stands for “Association of Writers & Writing Programs.” I am a member by virtue of my matriculation in Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program.) The best part of the conference was seeing several of my Spalding colleagues – students and staff alike, as well as my good friend Andrew, who recently completed his MFA in Writing at Columbia College. The second best part of the conference was the book fair, where writers and editors of magazines and presses alike could appraise one another, dance about, and rub elbows. It was all, in the end, rather overwhelming. So many panel discussions, so many booths to try to visit at the book fair, and so so so many people!! Who knew there were so many writers in the world? One had to take care not to let it become depressing.

One of the panels I attended featured the aforementioned Robert Olen Butler, whose book From Where You Dream, I recently read. He has some very interesting ideas and speaks passionately about the central role of “yearning” in the creation of fiction. He is also, however, quite dogmatic and prescriptive that his is the one and only way to successfully write fiction. (If you are curious as to my response to this sort of certainty, please refer to the initial entry of this blog, posted yesterday afternoon.) Why must his be the only approach that is right or real or legitimate? Why can’t it just be a very useful, helpful, or good approach? I’m glad I heard his talk and I found several of his anecdotes very amusing, but… really! The one, true way to write fiction? Give me a break.

That said, he has a Pulitzer and I am struggling with today’s writer’s block and composing this blog entry. Maybe he’s right after all.

New blog, Change template

My mother mentioned in an email that the white type against a black background was/is difficult to read - and I think she's absolutely right! So I have changed the template. I hope this is more pleasing, easier to read, aesthetically... uh, er, better. 

(I recently finished watching Oliver Stone's film "W" so the uhs and ers are just teeming in my head now.) 

The movie? Only okay. Josh Brolin did a masterful job, but there was too much caricature. Too many cheap shots against a man for whom I have little to no sympathy. Richard Dreyfuss was delicious as Cheney, Jeffery Wright apt as Colin Powell, and James Cromwell perfect as "Poppy" Bush, but, really, do we need to be so darned literal in the casting choices? Where is the imagination? Frankly, I think the movie would have been a heck of a lot better if more was fictionalized. Like what Shakespeare did. He did pretty well at that, didn't he? 

You could have a son whose powerful father is disappointed in him and he rises to the highest level of power and fucks things up big-time because he is seeking the approval of his father. Okay? This is what happened. But, the likenesses, etc. are irrelevant, in fact, distracting. This story is mythic, gothic, any other -ic you might wish to apply. Just my late night ramblings on "W." 

Off to bed and ready for another day. (Oh, and the weathermen lied. Snow DID accumulate this evening. I shoveled it.) Ahhh, winter. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Embracing Ambiguity

A friend of mine has a new blog called Lost Glove Found. Another couple of friends - Katerina and Andrew most especially - have been encouraging me to start a blog.

So here I am. At the beginning of a journey of unknown duration, no destination in mind.

Would somebody please tell Roland Burris that the time for him to go has come? I know, The Chicago Tribune called on him to resign today. Good for them. I also sent an email to Senator (barely) Burris's office today asking him to resign.

I'm tired of Chicago and Illinois politics making us look like jerks to the rest of the world. Sure, some of us are jerks in this town, but not everyone.

Anyone who has met my wife can tell you without fear of exaggeration that she is not even remotely jerk-like. Don't take my word for it. Ask anyone who's met her. It's true.

It's snowing again this afternoon but at least the weather folks are saying there is little chance of significant accumulation today. We've had far too much snow in Chicago already this winter. But, enough about that - I certainly have no wish to make this blog simply a vessel for my whining or complaining about the snow. (What some don't know is that the spring, summer, and autumn seasons here in Chicago are so glorious that living through winter makes it all worth it. That is, the year's that we have an autumn this is the case. Last year, we went from 70 degrees on the glorious Election Day to minus fifteen a few days later.)

Some Things I'll Share Before I Close:
  1. There's a very nifty online literary magazine called Public-Republic ( I encourage you to visit. They've published some of my recent writing.
  2. I am relieved beyond my ability to express in words that the long eight years of "W" have come to an end.
  3. I am thrilled that Barack Obama and his family are in the white house!
  4. I am currently pursuing (that's precisely the right word - it feels, at times, like I'm chasing it down, running at top speed, lungs aching, breath short, feet beating on the pavement, wind rushing by my face) an MFA in Writing with Spalding University's Brief-Residency Program. I recommend it highly for anyone considering an MFA in Writing.
  5. I am grateful beyond measure for the writing community into which I've become immersed through Spalding.
  6. I don't see the dentist as frequently as I should, but have begun to work on rectifying that. Next visit, next Wednesday. Honest. Made the appointment earlier today.
  7. I am mistrustful of organized religion, but deeply respectful of spiritual people.
  8. I distrust anyone who says they know the one, best, most surefire way to accomplish something. (See above.)
  9. I embrace ambiguity even as it causes me no end of grief. Sometimes.
  10. I'm learning not to title work until it's already been written. And read aloud. At least once.
  11. Let me be clear: Ambiguity in writing is not something I embrace. I think writing should be as specific, detailed, nuanced, subtle, thriving, moving, and alive. Ambiguity in life, it seems to me, is unavoidable.
If you are still here, thanks so much for reading.