Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bringing Out The Buried ...

At the best of times, I don't sleep well. Last night was one of those longer "twisting, turning, mind-racing endurance tests in the dark" kind of nights. Lately, I'm writing, and thinking about writing, like someone possessed. All too often in the deep of night, imagining myself inspired, I feel the need to get up and write down whatever phrase, plot twist, or quirky character trait has come to mind. I'm just so afraid I'll forget it all by morning! Thankfully, the saner voice, the "everything in moderation" and "Jesus, just go to sleep" voice is winning the stay put/get up battle. Thus far. I think if I start getting up in the middle of the night to write, my husband will tie me to our bed with thick ropes and sailors' knots, and not in a good way.

Speaking of writing and forgetting and not being able to sleep, I came home last night from the second session of Matthew Clark Davison's Writing Lab feeling wired as a lab rat on amphetamines (check out this amazing man/writer/instructor!) Thus I couldn't resist checking my emails for responses to a recent flurry of short story submissions. Oh who am I kidding? Even if I'd felt exhauted, had walked from one end of the city to the other to get home, cold, hungry, and footsore, I still would have dragged myself up all our stairs and checked my emails, because that's just how I am. Besides, I reasoned, one never knows when opportunity and good news might visit, right? Some editor somewhere might work late into the night responding to writers, an editor just as obsessed, possessed and sleep-depived as me, right? But alas nothing, zip, nada. Ah, well, I suppose no response is better than rejection. Hope remains, and meanwhile I get to continue to check my inbox an average of thirty times per hour which delights, entertains, and rewards me no end :-) As Howard Junker, Zyzzyva, writes on his rejection slips "onward!"

So, last night, lured to my writer's dungeon with its blinking PC in the corner by a shameless addiction to my email, I couldn't help but also write because, well again, that's just me. I returned to the exercise I'd started in Matthew's lab, an unexpected piece I'd written in such a rush that I had to rewrite the scrawl during the second writing break just to be able to read it aloud to my fellow writers. Recently, I read a poem by Lynda Hull about a red velvet jacket--maybe that's what inspired me, because despite the unlikliest of writing prompts (war, misremembering, recovered memories, and the overt and subtle versions of violence, all inspired by Ari Folman's much-hailed movie, Waltz With Bashir) I found myself writing about a mother and daughter and a black velvet skirt.

What most kept me awake last night was my surprise at where I started off from in the exercise and where I ended up. I began the piece with the daughter remembering herself as a young teen and her delight and gratitude when her mother gave-in to her pleading and bought her the much-wanted black velvet skirt. However, I ended the piece with the narrator revealing that the daughter's memories were flawed and the mother's gift of the black velvet skirt wasn't an act of kindness, but of manipulation. I don't know if I'll do any more with this piece. My sense for now is that it's not so much what I wrote that's worth keeping, but what I got out of writing it: a powerful reminder that with writing you never know where it's going to take you, or what it's going to pull out of you. That's what's so exciting (and scary) about art. That's why I can't help but keep doing it.

Now go outside. It's pretty out there. It's always nice and pretty out there if we just choose to see it that way. And just as soon as you can, go see Doubt or The Reader or Waltz with Bashir or any one of the great movies playing right now.

I went to see The Reader on Monday night and thought my heart would break. It definitely cracked.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Little gifts along the way .....

Inauguration Day began so well. I kept my daughters home late from school so we could watch the Inauguration together. We sat sprawled on the couch, a knot of bony arms and legs in pajamas, and--despite my better judgment at nine o'clock in the morning--munched on salty popcorn. Above our crunching, the music, fanfare, and Obama's speech moved the three of us to tears. My youngest, aged six, said that she wished our family could be the four Obamas! They're making history, I told her, there's nothing stopping any of us from also dreaming big and doing great things, that's how we get to be just like them. She smiled, from the roots of her hair right down to her milky-white toes. She believed me.

Walking the beach alone a little later in the morning, though, my mood dimmed, souring right along with the popcorn aftertaste. Despite yet another glorious day in San Francisco and the comfort the beach always gives me, I felt uneasy. For the first time I experienced the enormity of Barack Obama's achievement not in its usual inspirational and hopeful sense, but in an oppressive way. Despite the sunshine and warm sand under my feet, I felt cold. I decided I needed to temper what I'd told my daughter, and the sooner the better, emphasize to her and her sister that some of us were history makers, the stuff of great things, and some of us were everyday people going about everyday things and that we were all vital and valid just so long as we did our best, nourished our hopes and dreams, however "small," and in all things acted with love.

Still, I couldn't shake the downward spiral, turn it around. My mood crashed right along with the white waves. And then it hit me. There's plenty in life that stops us from dreaming big and doing great things. We can't and don't all "make it." That's more truthful than the pat phrase I'd fed my daughter earlier. And then another insight, a matchstick struck in the dark: I felt sad and frustrated because realizing my own long-held dream still seemed so far out of reach.

I want to write fiction, both short stories and novels, to widespread critical acclaim. There, I've admitted it. I need to feel validated and successful as a writer, know that my work and my life have meaning. Thus far, the act of writing itself has not proved enough.

And then something else remarkable happened, and all in the same day too. I started a private writing workshop last night, and met some wonderful fellow writers and a truly inspirational instructor. At one point in the evening, the instructor spoke about how writing made him a better human being, allowing him understand others better and feel more compassion toward them. His wisdom felt like a gift. Writing did make me a better person. Through its daily practice, I was growing both as a writer and as a person. I did understand and love others more. Not just others either, but also myself. That was something I could get behind, feel good about, and celebrate. That truth alone allowed me feel more successful, less confused and anxious about whether or not I was living up to my full potential, doing the right thing with my life.

I still have my dreams and ambitions, but I can sit a little easier with the now of where I am as a writer, knowing that it's not pointless, not totally self-indulgent, not without meaning. In the end, it has to be about the journey, not the destination. I was familiar with that truism already, I've just never felt so close to actually understanding, appreciating, and realizing it. Getting published doesn't make me a successful writer, living and writing with my heart wide open does.

Isn't it the unstoppable spirit in the face of our obstacles, tragedies, and disappointments in life that makes us truly great? That thought buoys me. Just as in memorable fiction, it's not what happens us in life so much as what we do about what happens us that really matters.

I'd never have imagined it possible given my state of mind while walking the beach yesterday afternoon, but Inauguration Day ended just as it began: oh so well.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Imagine the sound of teeth gnashing ...

Really, they couldn't find anywhere else to dump their Christmas tree with its metal nails and great big ugly green plastic base? This isn't the only tree littering Ocean Beach right now. There are several. I just couldn't bear to photograph them all.

As my yoga instructor said earlier this morning about our "issues and tissues": we just have to let them go. I'll let this go, just as soon as I'm done with this post. But, come on, we can do better, can't we?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A morning walk ...

This morning I dropped my daughters to school and drove straight to Ocean Beach. Can I tell you how much I love the beach? I can't, because even words have their limits. But I'll try.

No matter the weather, sunny or gray, the moment I reach the point in the sand dunes where I can see the white crests of the waves, my spirits lift. I stop, arrested. The sheer beauty of the sky, strand, and ocean holds me stock-still. My mind, like a camera, drinks in the image. I want to take the ocean with me when I leave, and look on it again whenever I need to. That mental picture is my reminder of the majesty of this world and of my capacity for joy.

The ocean makes me feel small, a speck in the universe. I'm reminded not to take myself or anything else so seriously. Everything is fleeting.

The ocean makes me feel happy, incredibly happy. I can't look on it, listen to it, or fan my toes through it without smiling.

The ocean makes me feel grateful. Grateful not just for my glorious surroundings, but for so much in my life. I'm truly blessed, and all too often I have a hard time remembering that. The ocean whispers right into my heart: give thanks.

Today, do something magical for yourself. Go for a walk in nature, breathe big, and look around you. I mean really breathe and really look. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In Bruges: Goofy or Grotesque?

So Colin Farrell won best actor for In Bruges. I had predicted as much. Or at least that his inky, expressive eyebrows' performance alone in this movie was Oscar-worthy. I’m happy for my compatriot, Colin, and disappointed for my other fellow compatriot, Brendan Gleeson. Mr. Gleeson, a fine actor, has never gotten the recognition he deserves.

I didn’t watch the Golden Globes (it’s a choice between TV or writing for me and masochist that I am I prefer to show up for my writing), but have it on good authority that Colin’s acceptance speech was cringeable (yes I can make up words, that’s the beauty of a blog.) But best actor for a comedy, really?

In Bruges centers on Ray (Brendan Gleeson) and Ken (Colin Farrell), two quirky, witty, Irish hit men. When Ken botches his first contract-murder in London, he and Ray are ordered by their crime boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to flee England. Harry sends them to the medieval city of Bruges, Belgium. There, they are to lie low and await his further instruction.

For those who haven’t yet seen the movie, I won’t give too much away, but suffice to say that I felt shocked by the nature of the botched murder hit. Once that part of the plot is revealed, the movie begins in earnest, entering the black, absurdist comedy genre of such highly acclaimed movies as Snatch, Pulp Fiction, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. With every plot twist, In Bruges dives deeper into the macabre: foul language, drug and alcohol abuse, savage violence, and inhuman cruelty don’t give these characters too much pause.

In Bruges gave me pause. I’d go so far as to say the movie disturbed me. These characters are having way too much fun doing the unthinkable. There’s a numbing coupling of humor and savage violence in this movie that concerns me. What does it say about human nature that all too many of us find the graphic violence and inhumanity depicted in this movie to be funny and entertaining? Even glamorous and glorified? How deadened have we gotten as a people?

Yet In Bruges has continued to stay with me months after I first saw it. How can that be? How can a movie about several heinous, murderous characters (Ray, Ken, and Harry in particular) have had such an impact? How can I feel sympathy for these deplorable characters? While watching, I even went so far as to root for Ken and Ray, hoping that they’d escape consequences for their crimes and thrive in the world? Perhaps that’s part of this movie’s genius.
Martin McDonagh wrote and directed In Bruges. His brilliance here, admittedly, is that he managed to portray very human, deeply flawed, and despicable characters with several redeemable qualities. Amazingly, these characters are all somehow sympathetic. The main characters feel love and pity for each other, and we in turn feel pity for them. Ray has a love of books, history, and culture, of his murdered wife and Ken. Ken likewise loves Ray like a father, is haunted by his slaying of an innocent, and worries he’s not good enough to win over his love interest, ChloĆ«, or even to live.

These main characters have their own value systems and set of moral codes--however skewed--and are driven to right wrongs. Ray in particular believes in Ken’s ability to change and to redeem himself. He believes in Ken’s worth, that he can somehow make good on an unconscionable crime and give back to humanity. I’m not so sure. But still, incredibly, Mr. McDonagh makes me root for Ken right up to the movie’s end.

Again, I think both Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell have done the best work of their careers in this movie. But honestly I’m not so concerned with either actor or Mr. McDonagh. I’m far more focused on you and me, the everyday audiences that these movies are written for. Mr. McDonagh, and all too many gifted writers like him, seems to believe that to entertain us there’s got to be the full spectacle of gratuitous sex, death, inhumanity, and graphic violence paraded across the screen. Is that true? I’d like to think not. Frankly, I’d like to believe that the majority of us are far more humane than that.

I love that this movie is imaginative and strange, that it made me think and feel deeply. However, I believe that really great stories, in movie form or otherwise, have to be more than gory, shocking, and peppered with clever dialogue. There’s got to be a healthier, more powerful way to provide meaningful and provocative works. Works that make us think, feel, and react. Works that might even change us for the better. The alternative—that stories have to shock us in the most graphic, primal ways or they won’t hold our attention--is just too depressing.

Why compared to this stuff, my work reads Mary Poppinish!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What's in a name?

Iona Rohan is not my given name. Iona is a relatively new pen name that I'm having an on-off relationship with, and Rohan is my husband's last name.

I was christened Ethel Celine Catherine McDonnell. At confirmation, good Irish Catholic that I was, I picked the name Mary. Hence, until very recently, my name was Ethel Celine Catherine Mary McDonnell. With the exception of "Catherine" and "McDonnell" I have never liked my other names. What's a girl to do? At seveval junctures over the years, I've toyed with legally changing "Ethel." I just don't feel like an "Ethel." With rare exception, most everyone tells me I'm not an "Ethel." What is an "Ethel" you ask? I think almost everyone would agree that the name "Ethel" conjures a stereotypical image of someone older, uptight, stuck-up, and matronly. Help!!!

We live once, and life is all too short, so why stick with a name I don't like and never wanted? Right? Not exactly.

What would I change my name to? How to narrow down the choices? How do I tell people--my husband, daughters, parents, siblings, and friends whom I've known forever and even those I haven't known for quite so long--that my entire life I was Ethel, but today I am .....

So I reached a compromise with myself. I'd take a pen name. How exciting, I imagined, how liberating. But again what pen name? Something Irish, I decided. I contemplated "Ashling" and "Alanna" and "Riona" and countless others. Surprisingly quickly, Iona surfaced as a strong possibity. I had attended Iona Elementary School in Ireland and had, overall, very good memories of my time there. It was during those years that my love of reading and writing were first nurtured and encouraged by my teachers. Iona is also believed to be the island where the Book of Kells was conceived and gotten underway. No small thing to be named after the home of arguably one of the most famous books in the world! The name felt more and more right.

However, Iona McDonnell didn't ring quite right enough. I felt strongly about keeping my maiden name of "McDonnell" as homage to my family and country of origin. Around the same time, however, as my husband grieved loss after loss of family members and close friends who left this world all too soon, I realized how deeply I loved him and how much I was finally ready to claim his last name (we have been together eighteen years, after all, and are the proud parents of two wonderful daughters). Thus I decided to use my first two initials and Rohan: E.C. Rohan (it didn't seem like such a big leap from Ethel as Iona did). That phase didn't last too long. I imagined interviews and readings in my future where people were addressing me as E.C. and it made me cringe. So I reverted to Iona and decided on Iona Rohan. I loved the name, and most importantly, started to enjoy some small successes in the last couple of months where four of my short stories were accepted by online literary magazines. I felt like my stars had aligned at last and it all centered on my new, chosen name.

I liked "Iona Rohan" so much I lay awake at night rehearsing how I'd break it to my nearest and dearest, and even my furthest, that I would like to fully, legally, and ever after until death did us part take the name "Iona Rohan." I wanted to fully own it. I wanted to be "me" at last. That's when it hit me. I had never felt myself. Throughout my life, for a myriad of reasons, I have never felt allowed to be my true self. I had never fully embraced not just what my name was, but who I was. The quandry thickened.

In the end, I found I couldn't bring myself to ask people to call me "Iona." It would just be too complicated and weird, I fretted. A fellow writer, Mimi O'Connor, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting for the first time over the Holidays, assured me that people would support the name change, and those who didn't? Who needed them? I wasn't so sure, and my resolve quickly flagged. Again, I returned to the earlier compromise of remaining "Ethel" in my everyday life, and using "Iona" for my writing. Great, right? Not exactly.

As my short stories appeared online under "Iona Rohan" I was seized with more doubts. It felt terrifying for me to read my fiction post-publication! I had put myself out there, naked. Nothing made me panic so much as when someone asked me for the links to read my work. I think that's because I felt they wouldn't be able to put who they knew as "Ethel" with the writer "Iona." At times like that I wished I was writing under a totally invented name, one that no one would remotely recognize me by. I began to think that if I were anonymous I would be truly "free" to write whatever it was I needed to write, without apology. Should I change my name again? Start over, anew, and run away from Iona Rohan and those published stories that I suddenly felt afraid to own?

More, the Ethel/Iona dichotomy gave me a dogged sense of "fracture." I all too soon realized that going by two names only further compounded my struggles with "who am I really?" and "why don't I have the courage to be fully myself and own my work?" I knew dabbling in any more name changing would, ultimately, be damaging for me.

But I was still stuck with the name/identity issues. I wasn't just dealing with two names. I was dealing with identity issues: Irish and American, writer and "regular person," wife and mom, and on and on and on.

What most rankled me was why couldn't I fully own my work under whatever name and say with pride to everyone and anyone "yeah, I wrote that?" Was I writing under "Iona" because I liked the name so much, or because I, "Ethel," wanted to hide behind it? Both. So I'm back to asking myself why do I feel like I'm constantly hiding as a person? I'm playing the role of wife, mom, and good citizen while needing to feel safe and anonymous and, well, "ordinary." But I'm also inescapably, agonizingly, and gratefully a writer, a writer who writes raw, brave, and unflinchingly honest stories. That's when I had another realization. I am most honest in my work, not in my life. I was back to wanting to be fully "Iona Rohan" because that name and identity felt most true to who I am. But wait ....

In my life and work, I want to bring more light into the world. Yet my stories, particularly those recent works under "Iona Rohan", tend toward the dark. How do I reconcile that? It's the dark in those stories that I don't want to own. I'm not a dark person, but I do have my demons and they are most alive in my stories. Is the truth in those dark stories the light I can bring to the world? I don't know. Not yet, at least. I do know that I will be most happy, most at peace, when I can at last fully claim my name, my work, and my true identity as my own and stand up tall and proud and say to the world with confidence and gratitude: this is me. This is who I am and this is what I do. Will that metamorphosis begin or end with the name I finally decide on? Again, I don't know yet.

I do know that currently my mother is in the advanced stages of Alzheimers. She is frail, pneumonic, horribly thin, and a shell of her former self: vacant. My mother and I have always had a very complicated relationship, but despite our shared pain and suffering, our truth is that we love each other very much. I don't need her to recognize me again or for her to be able to speak again to know that that is and always has been the way between us. Long before the onset of Alzheimers, my mother suffered. From her eyesight to her mental health, she was stripped of so much. Now Alzhimers has fully erased her.

My mother gave me the name Ethel because she liked it and, bless her, considered it her gift to me. After everything she's been through, after all we've been through together, how can I now take my name away from her? My dilemma deepens .....

What's in a name? So much.