October’s here, so that means pumpkins. Front page of the Plain Dealer: Jerry Rose from Geauga County has grown a 1,344 1/2 pound pumpkin, winning the annual Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers competition. It measures 15 feet around, and weighs the same as a cow. As usually happens in these competitions, Rose won a ludicrous amount of money, and the pumpkin’s being shipped off to a Chicago hotel to be carved into a giganzo jack-o’-lantern. (Giant fruit can gain you fortune and fame: my dad’s buddy grew a giant, and sold it to a Six Flags in Fiesta, Texas for a patriotic pumpkin carving competition. He ended up getting all these fan letters from a 4th grade class in Mexico, prodding him for tips. He’s written an article on growing pumpkins in your very own garden.)
My interest? Growing up in Circleville, Ohio, home to the Greatest Free Show on Earth: The Circleville Pumpkin Show. Something that has to be seen to be believed, this year the festival hits on the 19th-22nd. The lady and I have been debating attendence–though my first inclination is to avoid it like the plague, the editor of Ohio Magazine told me he might be interested in a “Letter From…” piece for next October’s issue (these mags plan way far ahead.) So who knows? We might be in for a dispatch…in the meantime, check out the Miss Pumpkin Show contestants from my senior year in high school. Yowsa.
Just got done talking to Suzanne at Mac’s Backs, and it turns out there’s a totally awesome reading coming Tuesday, November 7th, with Dan Chaon, Kelly Link, and Maureen McHugh. Dan Chaon teaches at Oberlin and lives right here in Cleveland Heights. I read his story “The Bees” in the McSweeney’s Thrilling Tales anthology, back in undergrad, and Brandon, Meghan and I saw him read a couple of months ago at the Joseph-Beth over on Cedar Road with the McSweeney’s crew. I’m currently reading his two latest books, AMONG THE MISSING and YOU REMIND ME OF ME; both are great. Toni from my writing group worked with Kelly Link and said she was super-awesome, so I picked up her book, MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS. (Her first book, STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN, is available for free download, here.) Link is also the editor of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, put out by Small Beer Press, which, along with Link’s book, published Maureen McHugh‘s new book, MOTHERS AND OTHER MONSTERS. McHugh has a blog, Hodgkin’s and Me, about her battles with lymphoma. The only thing I’ve read of hers is a story called “Wicked,” which I liked very much. Should be a great, great time.
Outside the OceanView Community United Methodist Church, the message board asks: WHO ARE THE MEEK?
The meek are either working construction or hanging out in the shadows of Palm Beach: the bus boys on break outside the cuban restaurant, the valet checking his cell phone, or the lost, local skater boys watching the tourist girls from the shade of a park restroom overhang. (Historical fact of interest: West Palm Beach was founded in 1894 as a community to house the servants of the hotels over on Palm Beach island.)
You wonder if you’ll ever get a chance to shack up in a town like this. Your best bet is to join the Romanians and get into a nine-month hotel management program, waiting tables at one of these Old Folks Homes. On your day off, you could traipse down Highway 1 and hit the duck pond, where the deformed ducks chase you around for bread. Visit Burt Reynolds park and the Burt Reynolds (and Friends) Museum. Put a fiver through the barbed wire fence around the Turtle Museum and try to bribe the curator to open up for a few minutes on Monday.
Pass PGA National and remember to call your dad and ask him how he did in the annual amputee golf tournament. He’ll say, “Did pretty good with four guys who only had six legs between them.” Don’t forget Christmas is coming, and stop at the Pro Shop.
For a real peek of Florida, check out the Grassy Waters Nature Preserve. After walking around in this beautiful swamp, the lizzards and grasshoppers scuttling at your feet, (disappointment: no alligators) with the dull roar of the highway in the background, it hits you: Florida began inhospitable to humans, and fifteen bazillion tons of concrete later, remains so.
On the way home at the draw bridge, the landscapers, delivery trucks and the rest of the 9-5 Joes wait and wait, while Jocko the Republican sails his yacht out to port. And Jocko thinks, “Well, the world stops on my very whim, therefore, I own the world, so why not steal an election and loot the country and send the sons of the schmucks up on the bridge to war?”
The meek shall inherit thy costs.
Welcome to JebWorld, USA: land of concrete, swamp, and palm trees! For maximum enjoyment of your fall vacation, we suggest the following:
Fly the Continental Geriatric Flight #1446 in from Cleveland, OH. Your life vests are located under your seat, and expired last month. (No matter–if the plane crashes on an island in the middle of the swamp, the elderly demographic will make for a poor network drama.) For your in-flight entertainment, Continental has provided SkyMall catalogs containing page upon page of worthless junk (our favorites: an inflatable hot tub, and a dress shirt with chunks of fabric cut from the collar to “show off that expensive tie”) and the latest Box Office Flop.
At the Palm Beach airport, you’ll be greeted with parque floors and a fleet of wheelchairs. Why not stop at the gift shop and buy a set of golf clubs? Take it all out to the shuttle on a baggage cart tagged YANKEE EXPRESS with permanent marker.
At a busy railroad intersection, Burt Reynolds might give your Grandma the bird. (Burt Reynolds drives a white Cadillac and smokes a cigar while driving.)
For accomodations, stay at a Retirement Community nicer than any hotel you’ve ever been in. Take a stroll on the grounds and follow the alligators from pond to pond: you might see a small dog get eaten. On your way back to the room, admire the ceramic pet replicas that guard the hallways.
For dinner, you can’t beat the Cuban food. It’s paradise on a plate. Try the fried grouper, black beans and rice, and sweet plantains:
If you’re headed to bed and your room’s by the dance hall, you might want some earplugs: those square dancing classes can get pretty rowdy.
Keynote Speech, April 2005, Miami University Undergraduate Research Forum
A few weeks ago, I was emailed a list of four questions that would serve as good starting points for this talk. I thought they were good questions and worth answering, so I’m going to answer them. But on the email I’ve scratched out the word “research” and inserted the word “writing,” because even though I consider writing to BE a type of research, I don’t consider myself primarily to be a researcher—I consider myself a writer.
So here goes:
Question number one: Why did I pursue undergraduate
The short answer is that my sophomore year at Miami I took an introduction to creative writing workshop taught by Mr. Steven Bauer (who happens to be sitting with us today), and I liked it so much that I took another and then another. I became so enamored with writing fiction that I said, “this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
The long answer is that it’s probably in my genetic makeup to create fiction. I come from a long line of obsessive, neurotic, and depressive people—all traits that come standard with your off-the-lot writer. Kurt Vonnegut writes that we writers aren’t hallucinators or crazy people, “we are [just] overwhelmingly depressed, and are descended from those who, psychologically speaking, spent more time than anyone in his or her right mind would want to spend in gloom.”
There are, of course, a few perks: getting funded to see the world and write about it is one.
But why anyone would want to doom himself to a life of sitting in a quiet room alone with a laptop, tearing his hair out, neglecting his girlfriend, and getting pasty from lack of natural sunlight is still beyond me.
So, I’ll move on to question number two: What has
research writing meant to me personally?
It always puzzles me when my “academic” friends act as though I spend my days finger-painting in the corner while they save humanity, because I think fiction writing is, at its core, a lot like any other kind of research or academic discipline: it begins with a question, or questions, about the world. And lets face it: our answers are all lacking in some way or the other. To me, fiction writing just seems to be the best way to explore my own questions.
What shapes us? What makes us who we are? Is it our families? Is it our geographical place? Is it the chemicals swirling around in our bodies? How can the people who share our blood hurt us so bad? How can we turn around and hurt them back? How can something be so funny and yet be so sad? Is this it?
I don’t write because I have the answers to these questions, I write because I’m looking for them. As the short fiction writer and satirist George Saunders says, “So many people in the world seem so sure of themselves. So there is much to be done by those of us who are sure of nothing, and wish to export this feeling.”
Writers are an ambivalent lot—which is why we can simultaneously come up with sympathetic protagonists and empathetic villains. We don’t know what to think. We think it after we’ve written it.
Question number three: What insights have I gained from my
My ambivalence about life, and the consequential inspiration for most of my work, comes from my upbringing in rural, small-town Ohio—a place that I love (for its traditions, its countryside, and sometimes quiet ways of living), and a place that I hate (for its claustrophobic ignorance, racism, homophobia, and religious hypocrisy). In high school, I wanted nothing more than to escape from Circleville. I would’ve settled for being abducted by a UFO, but I got lucky and ended up at Miami instead.
Miami has been really good to me: they’ve sent me to Chicago, New York, Florence, Italy, Cambridge, England—and the further away from home I’ve been, the more I’ve felt compelled to write about it. An artist is always an outsider—you have to be outside of something to observe it. James Joyce left Dublin to write ULYSSES, Dostoevsky left St. Petersburg to write CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. Exile has long been a part of the writer’s experience.
I believe that undergraduate education is itself a form of self-imposed exile. If a writer chooses to write about his native place, undergraduate can be a time to distance himself from his material, to let it grow and mutate in his mind, and become ripe for the fictional plucking.
I’ve heard it said that liberal education is a way to fit our autobiography into the context of the larger world. That sounds about right. For me, my liberal education has been about learning fit my autobiography into fictional characters who don’t much resemble me, but who explore a world with similar challenges as my own.
So, for the final question: How do I wish to utilize my
research writing in the future?
This country is facing dark times–a surge of stupidity, bullying, and obnoxious aggression fueled by intolerance and bigotry. As a culture, we need to be able to get inside the lives and skins and minds of other people. Good fiction presents every character as a fully developed human being—someone with a story. We hear on TV that a Marine’s been blown up in the desert, there’s a brief flicker of remorse in our guts, but then we flip the channel and see if AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL is on. On the other hand, we read Tim O’Brien’s THE THINGS THEY CARRIED or CATCH-22 or SLAUGHTER-HOUSE-FIVE, and enter the lives and hopes and dreams and stories of these soldiers, and we want to take to the streets to bring them back home.
FICTION MAKES US FEEL.
We need good fiction more than ever.
Miami recognizes this, and they’ve been amazingly supportive of my writing. Through scholarships, grants, and programs like University Summer Scholars, I’ve been able to learn my craft and perform it to the utmost of my abilities free from monetary stress. I think of myself as a living testament to Miami’s dedication to question-asking of all shapes and forms. I wouldn’t be the writer I am or that I’m going to become, without the wonderful resources of this institution.
So for the future: I’m going to sit in that lonely room every morning and crank out the pages. If the gods are willing, I’ll see you in the bookstore.
Clyde Haberman from the NYTimes interviewed a bunch of MacArthur Genius Fellows about cell phones, Ipods, and other gadgetry disconnecting us from physical reality, and this is what Jonathan Lethem had to say:
“Nonconnectivity becomes a commodity, something to cherish….You won’t hear different, particularly from novelists. You need so much ruminative time to build these elaborate alternate realities. Every novelist is running away from the telephone. Has been for 100 years.”
Not me. If anything, I run towards them. I see a crazy woman walking down the sidewalk wielding a cell phone? That’s the one I follow. She’s bound to say something nutty. Just the sort of thing that might spark a story.
My rule: save the Ipod for the car. On foot, follow the cell phones.
New fancyness: leave comments, search, etc.
Here’s an illustration from my new story: