Thursday, May 29, 2008

Up We Go

I'm wobbling on the brink of self-pity and despair today, so I will try to climb out of the pit I have created for myself (but I like it! It's so comfy!) one clawed toe at a time. Sunlight is always useful in the treatment of darkness, right?

I confess my Fusty Blob does indeed feel fusty of late. Not many posts. No pictures. No neat graphics or fun music. No anything that the "cool" people would want to read. Wah!!!!!!! (That's the wail of the perpetual outsider . . . )

I am, however--oof!--almost entirely above ground now. Let me just scrape away some of this mud from between my toes and give my claws a quick polish with this nice, green leaf--and voila! Here I am, squinting and ready to blob, fusty or not.

I've been thinking lately about the difference between a good book and a really good book. I have fairly recently read two new young adult novels. I am not naming them because I don't want to cause any kind of disappointment or disgruntlement for the authors, should they read this post (doubtful, but still . . .) I am an author myself and know how painful negative words can be.

Both books were well-written. One of them I liked well enough, but the other one I loved. What's the difference?

My own likes and dislikes, of course, and maybe that is all there is to it. It is always a shock to see a book praised that simply doesn't speak to you at all. And the opposite, of course, is true as well--a book disparaged or dismissed that you thought was a great, delicious piece of frosted cake.

I like, for instance, beauty of language. Many books are well written but leave me flat, because for me the rhythm and intensity of language just isn't there.

I also like to be transported somewhere by a book--flung into a life and a story that isn't my own, falling madly in love with the characters.

I suppose the book I liked but did not love just did not get me there. Or rather, it started that way--I was excited!--but it seemed to stumble slightly in the middle, as if both the rhythm of its language and the completeness of its transformation were off. I got distracted, you see, losing interest, and I think that is why.

It will, however, undoubtedly serve others well. In the end an opinion is just an opinion belonging to the person who gave it. My words won't make any book sink or swim, though of course there are others whose words will.

The book I loved? Dark and gritty in many ways, it was nonetheless a delicious, heady brew I quaffed as fast as I could. Beautifully written, with a story that yanked me right out of my life and into another, keeping me there to the end. Were there weaknesses? Probably--most books have some. But I never noticed and didn't care.

All this is obvious, though, isn't it? Likes and dislikes, as individual as each individual reader. So I offer no new or especially interesting thoughts about good vs. really good, but I am happy to have a reason to be out of the pit, blinking at the sun.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

'Til Death Do Us Part

My sister and I very recently made a first stab at clearing out the storage unit that has held our mother's paintings for the last five years--ever since she went into assisted living and was divested of her home. I think I have said previously that my mother was a gifted amateur painter, working with oils and water colors. I have always believed she could have painted professionally, if she had elected to apply herself hard and go that way without regret, without looking back, but she didn't. Too much tradition in the way, too much doubt, too many children, too much homemaking, too many problems. And so little belief in herself that she let her paintings mould away in the basement, piled next to the washing machine.

In truth, she had many stinkers. My sister and I threw a lot out, a painful but necessary step to gain control over what was worth keeping. I should say that most of her very best stuff, the pictures I am proud to show anyone, had already been weeded out long ago, and hang today in her children's homes. Still, though, my sister and I came across ones that tugged us back to our childhood, paintings that hung on her walls for years, that are as much a part of our collective memory as she is.

We still have a lot of work to do, but the experience was a shock to me. It is painful to see what happens to an artist's work when she dies, when there is no longer a place for it in the world. When someone else says, "This one is a failure." Or worse, the person saying it has no deep and personal love for the artist. That, thankfully, was not our plight, but it makes me wonder about my own work--the novels and poems that, in all honesty, no one will care about when I die. I see you have to care about it ferociously yourself, while you are still alive, and not wait for death in the hope that someone will be kind afterward.

I am not sure I can do that. I, too, struggle endlessly with belief in myself as an artist, with belief in my own work. I am not sure I can be that ferocious.

ROAR!!!!!! There. A fragile but first step.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Run For Your Life!

I love cheesy grade-B disaster movies. The kind with improbable disasters (a volcano erupting in downtown Los Angeles! An instant ice age in New York City!) where you know in the first five minutes who will survive and who won't. The handsome hero will make it, of course, along with his girlfriend/wife, estranged girlfriend/wife, ex-girlfriend/wife. Though usually not the girlfriend and wife together, just the Princess one who can feel the pea. Sometimes the temporary girlfriend-who-won't-make-it courageously sends the hero back to his true love. In more recent movies, the hero's kid might play the part of the girlfriend/wife, in the sense of being the one the hero rescues. And African-Americans in featured roles now stand a better chance of not being the first ones to get squished, burned, drowned, or vaporized. So, things are looking up for several new groups of people in the disaster field, which has to be encouraging.

I think I like disaster movies because life itself--or rather, being alive--is often just such a disaster, as we leap across suddenly widened cracks in the earth or navigate a tidal wave six stories high or divert magma away from the orphanage. Excuse me, I mean as we wreck the car or get a really bad hair cut or just try to not be so damned depressed all the time. But the real reason life is a disaster is not because of the things that happen, but because no one survives. Ever. It's just so much more pleasant to watch cheesy falsehoods with handsome heroes and happy endings.

In the same way, being a writer provides me with my own private disaster-insurance plan. It's my story, people--I'm writing it and nobody dies, okay?

So pop me some popcorn and turn on the flick!