Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fact v. Fiction

“What is history? How can we ever know?” These were the only two sentences that I wrote on piece of lined notebook paper and mailed to my first college advisor in the middle of my summer internship. I wrote them when I lost faith. Shortly afterwards I abandoned my History major and decided to study Comparative Literature.

Antioch's main building.
I spent my first year and a half of college at Antioch College in Yellowsprings, Ohio. My advisor and all-around hero was one of the two history professors, Bob Fogarty. From him I learned that I was a big fat sucker for anything that was written in a book. For our Introduction to History class, the theme was California. We read everything from dry history text books, to first person accounts, watched films, read novels, looked at visual art, all while trying to keep an eye out for what the heck “history” was. The point was that people, just like us students, lived in every time period, and through all of this material we could get a glimpse of what their lives had been like, but we could never KNOW. The point was that people, just like us, wrote these books and accounts. And the point was that people, just like us, are fallible, can misremember, and sometimes outright lie, all while claiming to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Just because someone bothered to print it in black and white didn’t make it any more true.

The Smithsonian "Castle"
The following summer I interned at the National Museum of American History in DC in the Division of Cultural History. I did odd jobs for David Shayt, one of the most outrageously wonderful people I’ve ever worked with. He brought me in to do object research for the 9/11 one year retrospective. When that finished, I wrote teeny tiny accession numbers on Julia Child’s kitchen utensils, did photographic research for a traveling exhibit on the history of the lunch pail, and organized the silly putty/crayon collection. I loved the museum. But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me that I had been working for weeks and weeks on Julia Child’s kitchen. What was the point of that? Yeah it was fun, it would draw museum visitors in, it would educate about the cultural shift in middle class eating habits, but what the hell was it doing in The Museum of American History? What was being left out because Julia Child had taken its spot?

Why do we choose the things we choose for inclusion in our historical institutions and narratives?

I was much happier when I stopped trying to be a history student and switched over to literature. Literature, stories, myths, fiction, all felt SO much more true to me. Fiction knows it’s fiction and good fiction, great fiction, is fiction that feels true, emotionally, psychologically, and visually.

Which is maybe why I can’t seem to bring myself to care about whether or not a non-fiction book is totally factual. I don’t think any book can be totally factual, especially not one that is told by a person about their own experience. They’re all stories, stories that are constructed by people to be told to other people. What’s left out, the way things are worded and recalled, is all strung together to create a certain effect.

My senior year of college, the year I took my first writing workshop, was the year of the James Frey hoopla. Andrew and I talked about this the other night and he thinks it was a big deal because Frey had been successful and people like to get mad if someone gained their success in dishonest ways. Oprah’s outrage was shocking to me. What he wrote about may’ve not been totally true for him, but it was probably true to human experience. I just don’t get it.

Which is probably why it’s a good thing I’m a fiction writer.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Blogging About Twitter

Although I started my twitter account a mere four days ago, I’m already feeling like a convert.

To begin with, while I’ve been a long time fan of both blogging and facebook, I swore up and down that Twitter was: stupid, pointless, exactly like facebook, and something that I would NEVER use.

Two things made me change my mind:

  1. When my Uncle Ray joined Facebook, his daughter left a note on his page that read “dad, you’re so late in the game on facebook – everyone’s on twitter now. jeeze!”
  2. I’m currently listening to the audiobook version of Franzen’s Freedom. There is a scene in which a college-age daughter is arguing with her father’s assistant. The assistant insists that she’s a young person and understands young people just as well, she’s 27 (my age) for god’s sake! But the daughter insists that there is a whole world of difference in her understanding of technology and the assistant’s, that the assistant didn’t grow up with cell phones and doesn’t understand that young people barely even email anymore.
Now, neither of these things made me sit up and say, “oooh, I need to communicate with the young people, sign me up for Twitter!” What they did do was make me realize that I was being mule-headed. I was being a bit of an old fart. Why was I being all snooty about Twitter? I enjoy reading the daily compilation of twitter posts that Jezebel puts up every day, so why didn’t I have my own Twitter account.

So I got one.

And now, I’m a little bit obsessed with the posting format. Twitter famously only allows 140 characters in every post (which includes spaces). I knew this. What I didn’t know was that there is a countdown in the lower right-hand corner of the posting box. The numbers race down and often I’m at 60, and then 40, and then  -3 characters before I even get halfway out of the gate. So then I go back and try and find places where I can condense, lose the unnecessary words. I don’t like abbreviations or internet speak (WTF, TOFL, FTW), so instead I’m playing with punctuation and word choice.

Twitter provides the perfect format for editing a sentence down to the essentials. I’m tempted to type every sentence from my novel into the twitter post box just to watch the countdown and then remove the fat. It’s like a minimalist’s dream tool. The only problem, is that a novel needs sentences longer, sometimes much longer, than 140 characters.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Getting Out of Juy Duty

Every morning a group of fire fighters, or volunteer fire fighters, (I’ve never actually read their badges) gets together at the same coffee shop I do. This morning I happened to overhear part of their conversation.

“The best way to get out of it is to say that everybody’s guilty.”
“Yeah, and the gorier you get, the better.”
“I’m living proof! It worked for me.”

I HATE hearing people talk about getting out of jury duty. Especially after I served on a jury this spring. I know that I’m a dorky rule follower, but nothing gets my civic-duty-goat like people talking about how to get out of jury duty. The jury I sat on was for a man accused of seven counts of child rape and molestation. It was one of the most emotionally brutal experiences of my life. But still. Both the victim and the defendant deserved a jury of thoughtful people, people willing to listen and do their best to find the truth of the matter. Luckily, that was the jury they got, and by the end of the week I was proud to have served with those twelve other people, and honored to have spent two days deliberating with truly caring and thoughtful people.

What is so important that this man in the coffee shop should try and weasel his way out? He’s going to miss his morning coffee with his bros? Sitting at a desk all day? He’d still get home for dinner and his TV shows.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Iron Giants

On my way into work yesterday morning I spotted the Coastguard Icebreaker Healy cruising into Juneau with a tugboat escort. I really like icebreakers. Actually, I really like working boats of any kind. Seeing a working boat makes me feel like a little boy seeing a fire engine and I’m not sure why. I can’t help it. I’ll go down to the docks to get a close look, walk the length of the boat, and if they’re offering tours, I’ll go on board. I get giddy with excitement, wide-eyed with awe. It’s a mystery to me how a big piece of metal floating in water can affect me this way, but it does.

The Healy looks like an office building going for a ride in a gigantic office-building-sized red row-boat. The main structure of the Healy, the office building part, has a few sparse rows of tiny square windows. It is not a boat meant to go fast or divert air in any elegant way. Could that be why I like them so much? The lack of pretense in working boats? The Healy certainly makes no attempts to be anything other than a boat that can smash its way through ice as efficiently as possible.

The Glacier
Last fall I crewed a couple of ferry runs on a 140 foot WWII era landing craft called The Glacier. Our run was Juneau – Hoonah – Tennakee – Hoonah – Juneau and we carried only vehicles, no passengers. From a distance, if unloaded, The Glacier looks like an upside-down Vietnamese hat, with a sloping stern and the sharp angle of the drop bow. The bulk of the boat is deck space which we could load up with 7 cars and a back-hoe. The cabin is on the stern and contains a large kitchen, a dining area, three bunkrooms, and the wheelhouse. We were crewing in 8 hour shifts with two three person crews. Each week we alternated the shifts and the cooking duties.

I’d never been on the water at night before, and The Glacier was a dark boat. On the 11pm – 7am shift we sat in the wheel house with all of the lights out and the radar turned down low in an attempt to keep our night vision. Every hour I’d walk around to check the vehicles, make sure everything was looking good, and try and wake myself with the fresh air. The broad flat bow of The Glacier made it feel like we were a wall trying to force our way forward, so we rarely went faster than 8 knots (9.2 MPH).

On my second or third run the captain I was crewing with showed me his favorite spot on the boat. It was about four in the morning and I was having problems keeping my eyes open. He took me out the side door and around to the back of the wheelhouse. He told me to lean against the exhaust stacks. It was a cool night with the feeling of prenatal rain in the air. The water was calm and while there was a breeze, it wasn’t enough to kick up more than a light chop. Jerry went back to the wheelhouse and I stood watching the water break around us. The exhaust stack’s warm metal seeped into my back and the crisp breeze chilled my face. Along the edges of our wake phosphoresces glowed faintly, a dim answer to the pattern of moonlight streaking the mountains and water farther out.

There was a period of time that I seriously considered becoming an able bodied seaman, looked up schools, certifications, job postings. But like most of the other irons I put in the fire, that one eventually got pulled out and propped in some corner, soon forgotten. Who knows?  Maybe someday.