Wordlove: Paris Review at the Hammer

Last week I went to a Hammer Reading followed by a Q&A with the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein, and the editor of The Paris Review Daily, Sadie Stein. My overarching feeling as I sat there was, “These people are so articulate and have such wide vocabularies – I need to surround myself with more people like this!”

One of my favorite parts of the discussion was when an audience member asked the panel, “Where did your love of words begin? Or when did you first know/discover your passion for literature?”

Wordlove [wurd·luhv] n. a deep and enduring amorous emotion for collections of letters, or, an infatuation with grammar, spelling, story-telling, and all things word-related. (Kidding, I just made all that up. But you get the idea.)

Sadie had a mother with a certain discerning ban on any books she found too vulgar, and hence as a child Stein used to sneak off in bookstores to read Once Upon A Potty. (I used to love this book, in all its red, square, flowered, graphic glory.) The prohibition of some books only instilled in Stein a deeper love for all of them. The editors, though they have the same last name, are actually not related; Lorin joked, “We’re not siblings, but I believe we had the same mother.” Mona Simpson, by comparison, said she grew up reading all manner of “vulgar” books, and her love of words grew just the same.

As for me, two salient memories stick out in my mind: a certain bedtime story my father used to tell and the moment I learned to read.

My early wordlove was instilled, I think, by being read to every night before bed. My father, an architect, and a writer himself, used to read to my little sister and me, and also used to tell us stories he made up on the spot. Always, always, I wanted more. Another, I would plead, tell us another. Tell us a long one. Ok, he would say. “Once upon a time, there was a long, long, long, long, long snake. The end.”

And then – the moment I learned to read. There was actually an instant where everything clicked. I was in my aunt’s living room, with my grandmother, and she held the “I Can Read” book while I cried in frustration. How I hated that little boy in the book in his stupid red-and-white striped shirt! I tried, I cried, I tried and cried some more. My grandmother, with astounding patience, coaxed me back to the book, and I tried again. And miraculously, the letters came together, made sense, I could recognize and pronounce words, and I could read. I was voracious after that. Read Jurrassic Park in elementary school, things like that. Unlike other parents, who struggled to get their kids to read, my mom mandated that for every “fun” book I read, I had to read a classic. I scoured the shelves for something that looked of minor interest. Rose In Bloom promised young love, but this is Louisa May Alcott, who wrote about times when holding hands couldn’t be done without a chaperone. Luckily my mother’s mandate didn’t hinder my passion for words, and of course I began to write as much as I read (and you know where that went).

Sadie said that she does not want to see books treated as rare artifacts, like things held in museums, or treated with extreme caution. She loves the ubiquitous, almost disposable nature of books, and hopes this doesn’t change – she treats hers horribly, she admitted, throwing them into her purses, eating with them, bending covers and staining pages.

I, too, love eating and reading, and am guilty of staining many a page. I hope for my books to be read, stained, dog-eared – loved. Of course I have to write them first. So yes, I’ve officially decided that while my writers group does NaNoWriMo, I am participating in my own NaNoEdMo. Fifty hours in the month of November. This Thursday it begins! I’m filled with the usual: excitement and trepidation. Will I be able to do this? Is it crazy to try? There were several books I had intended to read before beginning the revision, which I have not read. I had also hoped to go through everybody’s notes in eager detail. Perhaps write an outline. My mentor suggested setting down a list of changes to make. I have three days to prepare… I’m stressed out all ready.

The Writer, Long Emerged

Last month I went to see a reading at the HammerMichael Chabon, Pulitzer winner and best-selling author, was reading from his most recently published novel, Telegraph Avenue.

At the following Q&A, led by Mona Simpson (an accomplished author herself), Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman (note: also a best-selling author) discussed the writers’ life and process, their lives together, raising children, editing each other’s work, their differing writing habits and reading tastes. This, I think, is one of the moments young writers fantasize about – being on stage, among other successful writers, with an audience clinging to your spoken words as well as your written ones – this is one of those moments where you know you’ve emerged.

I’ve been to other readings where I’ve shown up right before it’s supposed to start, gone in, and found a seat a few rows from the front. At this event, I arrived half an hour early to stand at the back of the box office line, which was shorter even than the entrance line. I ended up getting in, so to speak – aside from the main room, where you get to share breathing air with these literary adepts, there is a second room for the overflow of eager listeners, where you watch the goings on of the adjacent room projected on a slide screen. (I heard that for the Lakers’ major away games, they sold tickets at astronomical prices for fans to come to the Staples Center and watch the game on huge television screens. And they sold out. Being in the slide room was like that, I imagine – not the same as actually being there, but almost as good, and still surrounded by the energy of fellow fans.)

I was surprised by the couple’s ease, by the way they sounded like real people. They joked, laughed, swore. Ayelet had a head cold. Just like everyone else, they have to figure out who’s doing the cooking and how the kids are getting looked after while the parents need creative space. (They take turns, I understand, getting away to just write.) No minor feat, to make a living as a novelist. Let alone to raise a successful household, when both parents are creative writers.

I think about my own future and how badly I want to be able to make a living purely with my fiction. How my boyfriend is also an artist. How you have to create a dance with each other, to support each other and each person’s respective passions. For the last seven months while I participated in an incredibly consuming leadership program, my boyfriend was the one who cooked for me when I got home starving at midnight, who worked extra on the days when I couldn’t, who told me I could do it when I thought I couldn’t. Now, with my program complete, my boyfriend is completing his degree in an intensive animation program, and it is my turn to do the extra dishes, remind him to go to bed early, and tell him that he can do it.

It is hard enough to be an artist alone. It is harder, sometimes, to be two artists together, and sometimes having an artist partner makes it easier. Becoming two successful artists together, long-emerged artists, now that’s a trick. Watching Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, I wanted to point and say, I know, I know, they are rare. How often does this happen? But see, it’s possible! It is!

Hammer Reading

 Last week, I went to see a reading with a fellow writer friend, at his invitation, at the Hammer Museum. It just happened to be Aimee Bender (I just finished reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake a couple weeks ago). The other reader was Etgar Keret. I hadn’t heard of him but he turned out to be quite entertaining. He is from Israel and apparently revolutionized literature there. The two of them played off each other well, particularly during the Q&A section.

            Keret explained his impact on the literature in Israel somewhat like this:
            The written word has not changed in Israel in thousands of years. Authors who write in English worry about seeing their book up on a shelf next to Shakespeare. Israel’s authors worry about seeing their book next to the Bible. (Also, as I learned while in Israel, anything with Hebrew writing on it does not get thrown away, rather archived or buried.) Yet, while the written word has carried through, the spoken language has changed. It is common in Israel, when saying something like “see you later,” to say, “Tov yalla bye.” This phrase is a combination of three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English. (Tov meaning “good,” yalla meaning “come on” or “hurry up.”) Keret incorporated Hebrew slang into his writing, which was unheard of, and caused quite a reaction in the Israeli community.
            This was an incredible story, especially since I recently went to Israel, but mostly because this is so different from writing in English. When studying creative writing I have always been told to get the dialogue as close to what people actually say as possible. A common writing exercise is to go to a public place and just listen to people, recording it all down, because this informs the veracity of the writing.
            Not to mention their reading selections were fabulous.

Reading at the Hammer

When a friend invited me to a reading at the Hammer Museum, I expected a function with the sparse décor and hushed tones typical of the venue. So I was surprised to find bass pounding through the Museum courtyard and “Hammer” projected with fuchsia lights across the back wall. I haven’t been to that many readings, but I gather they don’t typically have a turnout of 250+ eager listeners.

            This reading was also the release party for a literary journal, The Rattling Wall. The event featured 11 authors, including my former professor Lou Matthews. The journal is funded by PEN Center USA, and the Emerging Voice who is a member of my LA writers’ group also has his work published in the journal.

            It was quite the shindig. I enjoyed meeting new people and seeing familiar faces. With 11 readers I expected my attention to wane, but each was unique and engaging (some more than others, of course). It’s nice to know the literary community of LA can throw a party.