How I Learned to Start Driving (and Writing)

I took so long to learn how to drive. Eight years. “Learn” is perhaps the wrong word, because I spent many of those years strenuously avoiding addressing the issue out loud, or else expending equally vigorous effort into making my inability to drive a charming and integral feature of my personality. I have avoided many things I am frightened of in this way. I was a writer. Someone like me couldn’t drive a motorised vehicle, obviously; it would chip into the time I needed to ride a horse around my hilly and varied mental landscape. What was I, an accountant? A businesswoman in an office with some kinds of scanners? It got so at one point I freely drew equivalencies between the ability to drive and collusion with The Man. But even as I compared people with licenses to BP executives, I pined. I wanted to be able to do it so badly. I was just so scared, and so terrible. I was not good at any of it, but starting was the real problem. Starting on the flat, starting on a hill. Starting on a busy road where the idea was that the enraged hooting of the people behind would spur me into competence. Starting in an empty parking lot next to the dump, where the idea was that the rows of abandoned washing machines and rotting office chairs would make me see that I had all the time in the world. I just couldn’t do it. My heart would start beating in my ears so fast I became deaf. My legs wouldn’t work, and it was a good thing they didn’t, because if they did then what I would do is get out the car and run round and round in panicked circles until I fell to the floor exhausted. I tried, though. I tried to start for six months, while driving instructor Hester patted my shoulder as I cried and told me that she knew it was hard, but that she knew I could do it, and that I needed to do it because it had been Too Long, now, and adults need to know how to drive. What if their boyfriends are choking on a piece of fruit and they need to get to hospital pronto? What if someone cracks their head open at the beach? Or someone gets bitten by a snake and we sit there waiting for the ambulance and watching the poison make its way up from their bitten leg to their heart, and it’s all because I can’t start a car? It just made me cry even more.  I didn’t want to hear from well-meaning driving instructor Hester that it was hard but necessary. I wanted to hear that it was easy, and so fun, and like being in Wacky Races every day. No one ever said this to me, not in eight years, not even when I eventually pulled myself together and got a license and found out that driving is so easy, and so fun, and exactly like being in what I remember of the cartoon show Wacky Races, where everyone just zooms around and has a wonderful time. If only someone had told me. I have had a car now for five years and every day I drive up and down hills with the cruel proud smile of a Roman emperor on my face. I am still intimately acquainted with the feeling of dread panic that accompanies Not Knowing How to Start, though. I get it every time I have to write something that I suspect someone other than my mom might read, or something that I think is important, or honestly just any time at all. It’s never the actual writing itself, which is always okay when I get going. It’s the starting, and the prospect of starting, and the thinking about how I will have to think about starting, that makes me want to vomit and die on the floor for a long time. But a person can’t just die on the floor for their whole week, and so I have developed ways to cope. Over the years, I have compiled a list of writers who are the literary equivalent of an instructor patting me on the shoulder and promising me that the process is nothing but a complete riot from start to finish. I read them before I have to start, and it reassures me to an unbelievable degree. Sometimes specific essays or poems or profiles, sometimes a certain paragraph from a novel, other times the whole book. This is just off the top of my head, but for a while now I have relied on the following: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s profile on Bunny Wailer, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” the second third of A Brief History of Seven Killings, George Saunders’s “Victory Lap,” Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (all of it, but especially the bits about Beli), Masande Ntshanga’s “Space," Miriam Toews’s Irma Voth, Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” the first section of Derek Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” the ending of Lucky Jim (the whole thing, but especially “As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome Face”), the very end of Blood Meridian. Most recently: Molly Young’s profile on Amanda Chantal Bacon, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy. Always: Denis Johnson. I have never figured out how a Denis Johnson story works, what the trick is, or if the trick even exists. I don’t know why I think about “Two Men” once a day, at least, or why every single time I go into a hospital I am just about overcome with the desire to relay the plot of “Emergency” to whoever is in the lift with me. I do know, though, that whenever I read him, I feel that the problem of starting is not really a problem at all. Just start. Just be Denis Johnson and make it seem like you tipped forward a bit in your seat and the whole story just fell out of your brain and onto the page. Just get going. It’s not that I want to write like these people, or that I could even hope to try. It’s that they make me feel better, in the way that reading, say, Franz Kafka, does not. Kafka, whose every word assures me that writing is a terrible torment, and that it kills you off early. Kafka, febrile, writhing and twisting about in a chair that he purchased precisely because it was uncomfortable, his leaden fingers gripping his slightly broken fountain pen. The pen is made out of iron and holding it makes his fingers smell like the railings of a cold bus. The room is icy. I understand how Kafka’s agony would make a certain class of stoical person feel better about her own writing-related tortures. I am not one of these people. I need to be buoyed. I have no idea whether any of the writers on my list actually find the process to be enjoyable or not, but I read what they have written and I believe in my heart that they are having the time of their lives. They are driving up and down hills very fast, and their favorite song is playing on the radio. They have no trouble starting at all. Image Credit: Wikimedia

The Right Book at the Right Time

For well over a year people have been trying to make me read A Little Life. I will not. I believe them when they say that it’s good, and that they loved it, and what an epically harrowing experience the whole thing is. Still. Can’t do it. Don’t want to. Don’t even know why I don’t want to. Just don’t. This would not be any kind of an issue, were it not for the fact that people keep trying to set me up with it. They want me to read it so badly! They are adamant in their belief that it is the book for me. My resolve is only hardening. I have about me the look of a person who will never read A Little Life. The look of a person at peace with herself. I know what will happen though. At some unspecified point in the future, I will walk past A Little Life on my bookshelf and I will stop, because it will suddenly be the right time. I have come to recognize the feeling. It will be a terrible and perfect marriage of my weird mood and this undoubtedly weird book. I’ll start to read and I will be immediately gripped, instantly crazy about it. I will try force people to read it and when they say they don’t want to, I will say that they are wrong. It always happens like this, with the right book at the right time. The only thing I can compare it to is falling abruptly in love with someone you have been distantly aware of for years. You have seen the point of them in general, but nothing more. They were just there, going about their lives, greeting you politely at parties. They seemed nice, in a remote sort of way. Then something happens, there is an audible click, and there they suddenly are, in front of you, ready to be adored in all their weirdness. Their personality seems to have been engineered in a lab to please you. It’s awful, because you think at once about what a close thing it was, and how hideously perilous love is in general. They had been under your nose this whole while. What if you had missed them? What were you thinking, overlooking them? It’s no good berating yourself about time wasted, though. It’s not that you had overlooked this person, it’s that you weren’t ready for them. You needed a few bitter experiences under your belt first -- one or two awful break-ups, a few incidents where you see your own flaws with searing clarity, some moments of pure, high boredom. It’s only now that you are prepared, that you can see them properly. It happened to me first like this with Middlemarch. If you spend any length of time in an English department, you will be obliged to have an opinion on Middlemarch, whether or not you have read it. My opinion, for many years, was that I hated the very idea of it. Everything I read about it got right on my nerves, beginning with Dorothea. I couldn’t understand why people seemed to love her so much, so Spartan and always reading a boring book. I took her very personally. Why always Dorothea? I did not like the sound of Lydgate either, or think that I could mind very much about a vaguely thwarted country doctor. The historical backdrop did not strike me as very interesting (I still don’t really know or care what a rotten borough is), and it didn’t have any good wars. It also seemed too long, and by all accounts there weren’t a lot of parties. My whole soul shied away. People kept telling me to read it. My mother, especially, who knows me better than anyone. Read it, she kept saying, and you’ll understand. I couldn’t and I couldn’t, for about six years, and then one day I could. Some things had happened. I had broken some people’s hearts, and I had had mine broken in return. I had gone through a period of severe underemployment, related directly to my inability to pull myself together. I had realized that existing in the world with other people meant understanding that we were not the same as each other, and that we were all just trying our deeply inadequate best. I had realized, further, that knowing this is not the same thing as being able to do anything about it. What I am saying is that I was finally ready to listen to what Middlemarch had to tell me. I just picked it up, like it was no big deal, like I hadn’t spent years and years resisting it, and I was done for. That first time reading it, I kept looking around like Jesus, will you please get a load of this? Does everyone know that Middlemarch exists and that you can go ahead and read it just whenever you please? I couldn’t believe how good it was, how much I felt that it was speaking directly to me. This is of course a definitive feature of the novel -- the narrator’s inclusive, confiding address to the reader. I felt that it had been written for me, that it was mine. Again, this is the same thing as falling in love very hard, with all the egotism behind the outlandish notion that a) the person was put on this earth for you, and b) they are objectively the best person to ever exist in the sorry history of the human race. Love! What would we do without it? I couldn’t talk about anything else for weeks. I found a way to bring it up in all kinds of situations, to tilt the angle of my conversation so that it flowed straight back to Middlemarch. It is amazing how many reasons one can find to bring up the pier glass bit, for instance, or to talk about what a nice man Caleb Garth is. He really is very nice, and we should all strive to be more like him. I developed my own understanding of the novel’s co-ordinates, my own greatest hits collection. I still, for example, don’t really care about Dorothea. She is not my scene, in the same way that Jane Eyre is not my scene. Too severe. I still also don’t care about Lydgate, although I can feel that changing. Better to say that I don’t care about Lydgate yet. Fred Vincy, though, my God. I cared about him a lot from day one. It is not an exaggeration to say that Fred Vincy changed my life. Middlemarch’s narrator has been accused of being overly partial to Fred, the implication being that he is not all that wonderful or deserving of the narrator’s time and attention. This accusation is false and I resent it. He is selfish and frivolous, yes, and almost unmatchedly entitled, but he is also a person capable of being redeemed by love. He is good not because of anything intrinsically fine in his character, but because of who he chooses to care about most. I mean, he is okay, but the reason he is good is because he wants to be good enough for Mary Garth. We do not speak of him enough. Fred Vincy: good humoured, a tiny bit silly, a tiny bit too interested in fun. Fred Vincy: the man responsible for me finally getting a grip. I was enduring, as I said, a period of underemployment that was only and entirely my fault. I was trying to be good but I just couldn’t. Is it enough to say that I was 25? Everyone around me was working, and getting on with things, taking their lunch breaks and being responsible for their little sisters, and I was just...not. Fred Vincy and I, messing everything up, with our self-absorption and our quiet belief that other people would sort things out for us. It was at about age 25 that I realized, to my horror and distress, that no one was going to come riding in and fix my life for me. The injustice of this only enervated me further. It was bad, and then I read Middlemarch. Chapter 25, and the bit where Fred comes over to tell Mary Garth that he has landed her father in debt, a debt which he knows Caleb Garth will find nearly impossible to pay. Mary looks at him with first alarm, and then, worse, dismissal. He asks him to forgive her and she asks him what difference her forgiveness would make, given that it would not alleviate a single one of his fuck-ups. He says, infuriatingly, that he is “so miserable, Mary -- if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me." A great man for missing the point. He says, panicked, that he is “going now”, and that “I shall never speak to you about anything again.” I read all this with the particular kind of mounting alarm that comes with being recognized. Not even recognized: accused. I knew this particular movie so well, and had starred in it too many times. And then, Mary says, “How can you bear to be so contemptible, when others are working and striving, and there are so many things to be done -- how can you bear to be fit for nothing in the world that is useful?” That’s all she says, and that’s all it took. It was as if George Eliot had reached into my brain and jiggled it around a bit. It seems like a small thing, but it really wasn’t, because how could we bear it? We were better than that, surely? It was the thing I was finally ready to hear, after years of Vincy-ing around. The change did not come overnight, not for Fred Vincy or for me. He goes away from that meeting with Mary still needing to spend many pages getting over himself. I needed a few more months before I was ready, too. But I swear to God it was the seed for us both. Fred Vincy was made better by Mary Garth; I was made better by Middlemarch. He spends most of the novel getting to a point where he is good enough for her, and good enough even to love her properly. I spent half my twenties getting to the point where I was grown up enough to receive the medicine Middlemarch was determined to administer. I’ve had this with other books since. Blood Meridian was a good one. It sat on my shelf for years, giving me no good reason to read it. Friends had loved it, but it sounded ridiculous, mostly, and over the top, all that stuff about "he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself.” Come on. It seemed rude, also, to entirely disregard humor as a mechanism. And then, I went through a period where I don’t remember smiling for about two months. Some bad stuff happened, some massively over-the-top stuff, and the funny or ironic side of things remained obscured. I felt extremely dramatic, as ancient as the hills, and do you know what is a good book for a mood like that? Why, Blood Meridian. I devoured it, reading long sections about scalping out loud. I have the last lines of the novel pinned above my desk, now, the bit about the judge dancing and saying that he will never die, and I look at them every day. He is a great favorite, the judge. That ending: so scary, so serious and devoid of irony, and so fine with that approach. It knocked me out then, and it knocks me out today. I needed a book that confirmed my sense that things were bad, and getting worse, and while this may sound counter-intuitive, it did make me feel better. I wish I was reading it right now. I think about Toadvine’s ear necklace all the time. Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters got me for the opposite reasons. It is often dismissed as quaint, and it is, a bit. It is small, and focused on small things. Not grand in any sense except that it is in love with the world. I had read it once before, and liked it fine, and then I fell in love in that way which does not confine itself to the person but spills out onto everything and everyone. I chose a strange moment to feel this way, because the world at that time was presenting itself as an objectively unlovable place. Almost everyone I knew was focusing on the bigger picture, and was being made desperately unhappy by this. I was happy, though, because I was in love, and I badly needed a book which would tell me that it was fine to focus on small things, to see the whole universe in one car journey, one disastrous wedding, one drink. The world can only be kept at bay for so long, but inside the car, with Buddy Glass narrating, it felt briefly okay. Some books you know you will love straight away, and other books you need to sit on for a while. You need to coexist with the book for some time, resenting it, maybe, assuring yourself that it is not for you. Rolling your eyes when it comes up in conversation etc. Saying oh PLEASE when it’s mentioned. Talking about it at dinner parties in a way that is actually a bit strange. Are you sure you’re not in love with the book? You are certainly talking about it a lot, for someone who says that they hate it and they wished no one had ever read it. Are you sure you don’t, at least, have a bit of a crush on the book? Hmm? You and the book, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Admit it. You secretly love the book and you know it. Image: Wikipedia

Clothes in Books and Ways to go Wrong

I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M -- a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?” Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling. I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything -- a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic. Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.” This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled? The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here. 1. Outfits that don’t sound real Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me. One last example, from The Rings of Saturn:  “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good -- it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague. 2. Outfits that make too much of a point Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her. Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine ... put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class:  “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look...She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots ... She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans. Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing. There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive -- just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right. Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia