Thursday, September 06, 2012

Big Audio Bibliophile

When I was out for my walk today, as I took this photo on the left, I was thinking of all the little changes that life offers. Not the big ones, but the little funny ones that seep into your bloodstream and become part of you before you're even aware of it, the smallest revolutions of the mind and the body. One of the many things that has altered over the past two years of my new vagabond life, is that I read almost 150% more than I did when I lived and worked in New York. I always read poetry, sometimes more than 5 books of poems a week, and I always read my favorite poetry books over and over again, nightly even, but now that I've journeyed to the outskirts, I've fallen in love with the long form again, the fiction books, the memoirs, the mysteries, the fantasies, all of it. 

Not only do I have a book that I read by my bed, but I also have a book that I'm listening to. When I take the dog for a walk into our neighbor's tree farm (Thanks, Tom!), or when I'm driving through town, or when I'm cleaning, doing the dishes, making dinner, and so on, there is very often an audio book playing in my headphones or through the speaker. My best friends back in the city like to tease me about this. I'll say, "I read this great book!", to which they'll reply, "You READ it? Or you LISTENED to it?" They want to make sure that I'm aware of the distinction, that I don't go around saying I read two novels a week, when in fact I've listened to one novel, and read the other. I understand their concern, and I very much appreciate the difference. They are each entirely independent visceral experiences. However, that doesn't discount the incredible pleasure I get from listening to a well-written unabridged novel, with a gorgeous, layered story, read by a talented multi-dimensional narrator. 

It started when I had to pack up my apartment for my sub-letter (sigh, and now the apartment is no longer mine). I had a month to go through everything I had accumulated over the twelve years I lived in Brooklyn. Papers, cocktail napkins with poems and lists, pictures, and so many shoes. So so so many shoes. A woman I worked with connected me with her friend who worked for a large publishing house. She, very very sweetly, sent me a dozen or so audio books that she had laying around the office in order to congratulate me on my decision to write full time. (Supportive strangers? I could not, I repeat, could not, live without them.) In the bunch was Jonathan Franzen's, Freedom. All 24 hours and 14 minutes of it. Read by David LeDoux. It kept me company during the sorting and the filing and the terrible throwing away. I was hooked.

I have always loved being read to. When I was little my dad would read stories and make up stories for us before we went to bed, my mom read to us all the time, and my stepdad read books to us with such talent and enthusiasm that sometimes we'd be too wound up by the story to go to bed. Oh Ramona & Beezus, Oh Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, let them go on forever. Sometimes, I think it's why I've always liked to attend poetry readings and fiction readings, so that I could hear someone reading out loud. But have you ever been to a reading where the author doesn't get it right. You think, "Wow, that's your own work, and you're not doing it justice!" I have. Now, imagine if the author reads in such a voice that the story unfolds so beautifully and smoothly that an entire eight hour drive could go by in the blink of an eye. That's how I feel about audio books.  

Of all the great new habits I've developed in my new outlaw-style of living, listening to audio books might be in the top five. It gives me more "reading time," and it deepens my appreciation for old classics I've already read. It allows me explore other genres that I might otherwise ignore, because they might be an enjoyable road trip book, or because I know the narrator is going to be good. Seriously. Who doesn't want to hear Neil Gaiman reading, Neverwhere? (I can hear him saying, "Richard Mayhew" right now.)

I know that there are people who listen to audio books because they are visually impaired, or recovering from illness, or who have trouble with the written word because of disabilities, but I would suggest that even if you are perfectly happy to read a good book in its original, beautifully designed hard cover edition, you might also want to listen to a good book, too, when you get a chance. If the narrator is solid, the power of the story will come through, if the writing is beautiful, the writing will be read to bring out the full complexity of its music. If it's read by the author, you'll get insight on not only that persons weird extraordinary brain, but also the way he or she hears things like dialogue and rhythm. Sometimes, I've read the hard copy AND listened to the audio version just so I can really focus on what the author is doing, it's an extraordinary experience. The Sun Also Rises read by William Hurt, is wonderful. Ever want to revisit Virginia Woolf's, To the Lighthouse? This is a good new way to do it.

Perhaps, and I'm not ashamed to admit this though I probably should be, I also love listening to books because sometimes my brain is just too damned loud. Don't get me wrong, I love a quiet space; that's the place I write from. I love the meditative dark that I have inside me when a real self-aware silence comes. But sometimes, when I've had  to clean out the basement or pack up an apartment, my nutty, sometimes torturous thoughts come at me so hard and fast and furious, that it's nice to be guided into someone else's story, someone else's epic imagination. In the last couple months I listened to both Dark Places, and Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and, though they are both deeply disturbing, they were also incredibly well written and fiercely truthful. Cheryl Strayed's, Wild just graced my ear buds last week and it made me want to hike a million miles. Simply put, in these two years I've developed a new addiction, yet another delicious way to surround myself with words. And that sounds pretty good to me.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Work: Two Years Later

It was almost two years ago to the day that I quit my sweet cushy job as the Creative Services Director for a national travel magazine in New York City. At the time, I had saved up enough money to live on for a year (or at least I hoped it would be enough for a year given the fact that I'd be paying little or no rent for a small apartment gifted to me by friends in Sonoma), and had big dreams of writing a novel, finishing the novel, publishing said novel, and then perhaps returning to New York City where I would go back to making a nice living, wearing pretty yellow heels, and working on poetry. Aren't dreams funny? Aren't they adorable? 

Despite having truly believed that I would be doing this all alone, having given up (I'm not being dramatic), on finding any viable partners in New York, or perhaps anywhere, the exact opposite turned out to be true. Five months before I left on my self-imposed writers exile to the valley I grew up in, I fell in love. He had been a friend for years and then, well, suddenly it seemed ridiculous that we hadn't been together the whole previous 6 years we had known each other. It quickly became clear that my journey to discover my inner fiction writer in silent isolation was going to transform into an entirely different kind of journey. 

Instead of spending all my time in California, I spent a lot of time in Kentucky, where my mister was working in the horse racing industry, having left New York City to follow his own vagabond dreams. Instead of locking myself in my cabin on the mountain, I now leave my office door open in our apartment (an old tobacco weigh station) in bluegrass country, so that our dog can come and go, and we can occasionally holler words of support back and forth down the hallway. Instead of shunning all my worldly possessions like some inconceivable monk of the written word, I started building a household. Instead of returning to our much-loved New York, we both decided we were marvelously contented (and a great deal more at peace) out here in the awesome nowheres. Instead of planning my life alone (and not unhappily alone mind you), we are planning a life together. All the obvious "what nexts" you might expect from a couple that fell in love in their mid-thirties and decided to runaway from the city where they made good livings are swarming around us like insistent needy bees. Instead of staying put in my little place of isolation and only writing my inner world, I've traveled extensively, verging on one big trip a month, including poetry tours that sent me all over the midwest and the northeast. In fact, I've traveled more in these two years than I did when I worked for a travel magazine.

And still despite all of these wonderfully unexpected things, a draft of the novel did come, and then another, and now I think we're on the fifth (though it could be 15, it's terribly hard to say what you should count as a draft or a rewrite). And a new book of poems is slowly forming, as well as new essays. All this is being done while I am supporting myself for the most part with freelance work as a writer, copywriter, speaker, etc.. It's been a good two years of being a gypsy, and a great two years of being a gypsy with my male-gypsy counterpart. 

But what I'm constantly shocked by, is the sheer mountainous work of it all. This may come as a surprise. As someone who has worked for magazines, and has written three book of poems, why would I be shocked that writing full time is a lot of work, to quote a good writer friend, a "shit ton of work"? The truth is, the pure self-discipline of it, the lock yourself in your room for hours of it, the don't hate yourself for getting it wrong of it, the if I have to throw this all away I will die of it, the if you don't tell me it's good I will kill you of it, all of that part of it, the pure emotional mess and wreck and wow of it was, and is, new to me. And it's terrifying.  For as long as I've been an artist, I have never experienced the pure, brutally intense work of day to day fiction writing. It's bring you to your knees humbling. 

Still, while you're crouched at the foot of the giant hairy fiction beast, ready to cut your heart out and give up, you still have to find a way to love yourself, to say, "Oh baby, you're doing great at this. It took so and so (insert many fiction writer friends' names here) ten years to write a novel, and he/she went to Iowa!" You still have to find away to go into your dark safe (and not so safe) place and keep creating, to love the mangy thing you've created and keep nursing it until it's healthy, despite its nasty tendency to bite. 

The other surprising thing to me, (you hear mothers and fathers say this about childbirth), is that people do this all the time. People are doing it right now. Look, that person right over there is writing a novel. And that person is writing a memoir because their life is way more interesting than yours. It's happening everywhere. Oddly enough, I find that extremely comforting. Look, he's doing it too! I'm not so crazy! I had lunch with my friend, the poet, Adam Clay last week and told him that despite all the evidence to the contrary, "I really believe that I can keep making a living as a writer." To which, he smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and went off to his job as an awesome professor because that's what smart writers do. 

In truth though, I am slowly becoming a smart writer too. And the past two years has made me even smarter. I'm smarter because I'm humbler. I'm no longer saying things like, "Oh yeah, I'm going to go write like an awesome novel and like, be back in the city in a year when I'm done." You don't take a year off to write a novel. Sometimes, you have to change your whole life to write what you love, the way you want to write it. Sometimes, you have to scrape by and let money troubles and insecurity and instability and anxiety in to your life and lie down with those poisonous pests and hug them because they're part of this fantastic choice you made. It's a lot like falling in love. Sometimes, you have change all your plans to make room for the best, biggest, messiest, sweetest unknown plan of all...your one lucky real life.