Sunday, December 7, 2008

Book Proposals and First Snow.

After a mellow and enjoyable evening with K and C in Astoria last night, I stepped out of their building at midnight to find that it had snowed. A thin crust of white lay on the roof and bed of my truck. By the time I reached the BQE it was gone; a shiny reflection in the orange light of flashing road signs warning of wet surfaces.

Yesterday was a good day. I had scratched out about 3000 words on the first draft of my book proposal, maybe 1200 of which were worth keeping. As K said, "That's a typical ratio, two to one." It was the thinking about the book that I had found so rewarding, the explanation of the project I have been monastically steeped in(another K insight) for the past year. I now have a much clearer idea of what I want it to be - and the discovery of this has taken me to some unanticipated readings. I've left behind the feel-good best sellers like Three Cups of Tea and Eat, Pray, Love and the less-selling chick travel books like A Journey of One's Own and Spriral Jetta.

My friend J wrote to me in August, "...I see (would see) it as an achievememnt if you got beyond 'good story' which means of course you would have to forfeit the big payout in Reader's Digest?!" I had been writing to him with so much self- and project- deprecation, relying on the quality of the material to keep me going("Well, it's a good thing the material is so good..."), that I forgot - or failed to articulate - my clear expectations for the book.

The books above, in my estimation, will not stand. Eat, Pray, Love has been on the NY Times best seller list for 96 weeks; Three Cups of Tea for 95. And yet, if you are one of the 12 people in the US who has not read them (beware your Christmas stocking!)they are both semi-interesting exercises in naval-gazing. (TCT was actually written by someone other than the angelic hero, Greg Mortenson which means a whole lot of gazing at someone else's naval.) You won't find anything deeper than the bland feel-good chattiness of say, an Oprah book club. Oh dear, EPL's Elizabeth Gilbert mentions masturbation and sex! but she does so in an easy and funny way that even my Aunt, living in Lancaster and attending church every Sunday, didn't find offensive. In other words, the writing in both is dishonest (and/or naive or unengaged) and flat. They're easy books that make middle-aged women feel like the world is a sweet place to be. Short chapters help too.

Don't get me wrong, finding yourself is important! Doing good things is good. And I would surely love to write a book that rides the best seller list for 90 weeks (I can dream!). But more importantly, I want this book, my book, to stand: To say something important about not just travel or child abuse or palliative care or victimization or death, but about living. I want it to live, shiny and bright and honest. Not pretty pink.

Someone I'm having a tiff with - ok, I'll come clean, my sister - recently emailed me her "personal philosophy" of "peace and love." I have no idea what "peace" and "love" mean in the complicated world we've got, a world that is sadly oversimplified by writers like Gilbert and Mortenson. We're commonly told that a good deed will save mankind, that treating others as we wish to be treated will bring about peace, that we must love others as we love ourselves. This is all new-agey, pseudo-Christian clap trap of the sort that we have been gobbling up from the self-help, corporate marketing spoon-feeders for ages. Tell it to a woman in Eastern Congo who has been systematically raped and see what it will get you. (Yes, I just demonstrated my bad attitude which is, as far as I can tell, the source of the tiff. Don't leave me alone with your houseguests!)

The world is relative, I know. My father's death from cancer doesn't compare to war in the Congo or the Holocaust, while for me it was horrible. But the world - and daily life - certainly doesn't demonstrate the peace and love that one would expect from watching Katie Couric cancer specials.

I want my book to be about living: not as we should live, but as we do live.

So I've left behind the books that I first approached when starting this project. If I am writing a travel memoir, I thought I should be reading Naipaul and Thoreaux. I've since left them behind to spout off into their bloated egotism or poor politics (really must get my hands on the new Naipaul bio by French!).

These days I'm reading some of the women who have been doing the heavy lifting for a while: the journalists who have been reporting on how we live for decades: Didion, Ehrenreich. In Welcome to Cancerland, Ehrenreich shreds the pink, feel-good culture of breast cancer patients, debunking it as a cult that fails to hold those responsible for breast cancer accountable, that fails to ask the necessary and difficult questions of the disease and its "industry".

When I get to the 10th chapter of my book about Rwanda and the necessary discussion of the aid industry in Africa, I know I can count on Ehrenreich to keep me free of sentimentality.

Other recent sources for me? Sophocles' Antigone. If you remember, her father, Oedipus, married her/his mother after killing his own father. He is banished from Thebes and his two sons kill each other in a duel for the throne. Eteocles is given an honorable burial while Creon, the new king, refuses to allow Polyneices to be buried. Antigone defies Creon's order and is, despite the pleas of Teiresias, the great seer, and the chorus of Theban elders ("Grief teaches the steadiest minds to waver.") sentenced to die. As the preface to my edition states, "Creon's lot is sad. Antigone's tragic."

Last night I read a lecture given by the Israeli writer, David Grossman, author of See Under: LOVE. The lecture discusses, among other things, how he came to write the book after discovering the work of Bruno Schulz. Grossman says:

Because reading Schulz's stories gave me the feeling that in general we experience our lives mainly as they disappear from us - when we are old, when we lose our bodily force, when we lose family members and close friends. And then we say to ourselves, well, there was something here once and now it's gone. And the heart stops for a moment, alas. We've captured this just when it's lost to us.

About Israel, the Shoah, and victimization:

And when history suggests to us the rare opportunity to stop merely surviving, and to begin to live our life by making use of the enormous military power that we have gathered, and to use it to create a political solution that is strong and generous - we are unable to do this with the initiative and courage required. We prefer vacillation, which ultimately brings us back to the life that isn't life, but just surviving from catastrophe to catastrophe. Surviving, in its paradoxical way, is likely to expose us, in fact, to the danger of death.