The ginkgo leaves

On fall and feeling like you're falling.

All the leaves fell over night like a blanket to warm the cars and the sidewalks and the streets. It got too cold too fast, and so the leaves fell too soon. Some were still green. In the morning they were still falling slowly, accumulating down the hill. Every time I see a ginkgo leaf, I remember how I didn’t notice that my neighborhood was full of them until three years after I moved here, after I met a girl with one of them tattooed on her rib cage, which she showed me in a bar one February night lifting her sweater up to the bra line. After that, I saw those fan shaped leaves everywhere because they had a name. I knew them.

On Wednesday morning, the streets were yellow and green, the leaves accumulating quickly. A friend found one in her stroller and handed it to her baby who pulled his small hand from the sleeping bag all babies have this time of year to spin it around. Later, after I returned back to my warm apartment, a leaf fell out of my hood and onto the floor.

The leaves were leaving even then. I knew they were taking them; I saw them do it. There were many workers on the streets of my neighborhood dressed in a color that could have been autumnal if it weren’t so aggressive. They were raking the leaves on the asphalt into a tall, long line – not a pile to jump in, not a circle, but a speed bump that ran next to the parked cars. A big truck with a trunk that extended from the back drove very slowly a couple of streets over. It sucked up the leaves into its belly so that only a few stragglers remained.

By this afternoon, they will be gone.

It would have taken weeks for them to decompose on their own. They had fallen too early. They would have clogged up the gutters and muddied up the streets. They had no purpose but beauty, but the remnant of what they used to be, and that alone was not worth very much. An imposition.

This is the part of a good essay where I’m supposed to pivot this beautiful moment and sad underbelly to being about something else entirely. That’s what we do, as writers: we take disparate experiences and we connect them together. It is my job to show you how my brain works, to invite you to travel with me from the leaves through my mind and into something else that is happening, to find a new way into something I want to talk about that maybe will convince you to come with me on this journey and to care.

I haven’t been writing very much since I quit my job two weeks ago. It feels like I quit a full year ago, the days have gone so slowly. I have an essay due at the end of the week, and I’m struggling to finish it. I am trying to be better to myself this time than I was in the wake of my last work trauma. I am trying to not throw myself into work and to allow myself to process what happened slowly. But how do you process something like this? How do you learn to move on from yet another signal that the industry you love is maybe doomed forever? ItHow do you recognize that so many things about the country and the world are systemically broken, and get up in the morning and write a story that probably won’t help any of these things?

It is hard to name this period of grief and frustration, and harder still to recognize that it is here again, that staying in journalism guarantees it will come.

There’s a metaphor somewhere in the leaves being sucked up by the vacuum of efficiency. There’s something to say about giving yourself time and learning to sit with a hard transition and not sweeping yourself into stacks and hurdling forward as efficiently as possible, but I can’t quite get there this week. I’m trying to ease myself back into the work, into reality, into the uncomfortable space between believing that what we do for work does not define or give us value as humans, and truly loving the job that I get to do, even when it treats me poorly.

As I told subscribers a couple of weeks ago, the content about books is currently on hold for this month while I decompress and try to regain the stability in my brain. It will be back. I have many good books to tell you about. Thank you for being patient with me.

BIG BOOK NEWS!

I'm writing a book!

As promised to subscribers last week, I have some big, exciting news to share. I’M WRITING A BOOK. A couple of weeks ago, my brilliant agent and I sold my debut novel to Harper Collins. It has been almost impossible for me to keep this secret, as I have no ability to keep secrets really at all.

I’ve been writing this book for a little over two years now. I used it to process through a lot of things I needed to process, but mainly I used it as a place to be more risky in my work: to take chances, and try new forms, and not get bogged down in the idea that writing can be only a job sometimes and not an art.

There’s nothing to do now with this. I have to do another edit and then it will take another year to get every duck in line for publications, but imminently, I will have a book. It feels exciting and terrifying and fake. The process of getting to this point has been exhausting, and I’m sure at some point I will write about that for subscribers, but for today (for this week) I’m trying to only luxuriate in this rare happiness.

Happy Friday!

K

Stop reading only new novels

If you don't know your history, you can't surpass it

I’m reading a couple of books right now that are fine. They are entertaining. They are not the best books I have ever read. And yet when I read reviews of them they were heralded as “brilliant” as “groundbreaking” as “innovative.” Now, we are all smart enough here to know that there is really only so much that you can do with the written word and that most things have been tried already. But I do like a weird chance. I appreciate a ballsy decision. ((I just read Comemadre by Roque Larraquy (2018) which was strange and fun and exciting))

Often these books aren’t innovative, though. They aren’t doing anything new. They are good and sometimes great, but this narrative is one built of a lack of interaction with our own (American) and our global history. It’s a narrow perception of where our work fits.

Friend of the newsletter and brilliant literary critic and reporter Madeleine Schwartz had a good tweet the other day, which sent me into a rage spiral with how correct it is:

Being an idiot who cannot communicate through only one form of media, I immediately texted her. THIS, I wanted to scream while running around with a print out of it and shoving it into people’s faces. Madeleine, being an actual literary critic and well-versed in the history of literary criticism, directed me to an excellent article by Elif Batuman from The London Review of Books, which you can read here. The article has a flashy title (“Get a Real Degree: Down with Creative Writing), but a few interesting points that I just thought would be fun to draw back out for you all here. It was written in September 2010.

The ideal of self-expression also explains the programme’s privileging of ‘fiction’: where ‘non-fiction’ is burdened by factual content, and ‘literature’ is burdened by a canon of classics, ‘fiction’ is taken to be a pure vessel for inner content. As if the self were a ready-made content, and as if the wish to become a writer – a complicated, strange wish, never fully explored 

AND

Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

Mostly, what I am trying to say is that technical proficiency isn’t enough. Writing a tight story isn’t enough, and it never has been. What makes a book (or any piece of art) pop and resonate and matter isn’t whether or not it is perfectly paced and perfectly copy-edited and filled with perfect analogies. A novel can be a formula. Plenty of them are, but that doesn’t make it good.

What’s worse to me, though, is this mass of people who have only read modern fiction thinking that they are the first to do something simply because they have only read books written in the last 20 years. People were writing novels from the perspective of tea pots in the late 1800s. Nothing under the sun is new.

The problem, Batuman argues, isn’t that MFA programs exist or even that they work to create expertly rendered works, but that they do not encourage writers to place themselves in a greater cannon of the work they want to make. This past year, reading books by American women from the 19th and early and mid 20th centuries has opened my eyes to how narrow my understanding not only of women’s contribution to our literary history but of what exactly our literary history contains. What we are taught from the archives are the same kind of stories by the same kind of men with the same kind of tones, but that isn’t all there is. There is so much more.

Read an old book next! Read something out of print!

Last Friday, I recommended some novels by a writer I love who almost got forgotten in the 80s. I’ll be writing more about some of my favorite old books in the coming weeks. In the meantime, let me know if you have a book that you love that is too old to be popular! I would love to read it.

xo

K


Some other stuff I wrote this week if you’re craving more:

-I love this new video game where you get to be a terrible goose all the time

-They closed the ballpark where I grew up, and I am sad.

[[Image is: Lilli reading at the Butler house in Giverny by Theodore Earl Butler]]

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