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Odd Words July 28, 2010

Posted by The Typist in Odd Words, Toulouse Street.

“This is not the quiet tap of civilized literature; this is the loud raw truth of life.”
— Valentine Pierce

You thought I was going to forget to post, didn’t you. Sure you did. Hey, I’ve hardly posted anything but this listing for weeks but life has been busy, too busy for July in this city where you can almost see the swells passing through the humid air. The Counting House doubles as the Mad House, my mother is getting better but the last few weeks have been a nasty combination of roller coaster and carney fun house and I can feel the chilli dogs rising in my gorge at every twist and turn.

And just because You Can Never Have Too Much Fun I’ve been working with Sam Jasper on a book project. The announcement goes out this weekend so I won’t go into too much detail until next week. Just keep the night of Thursday, Aug. 26. It’s an exciting concept. People who have read the manuscript love it. And it’s a lot of fucking work, especially if you’re typesetting it yourself. Still, it will all be worth it in the end.

The project involves some very personal writing by 20 contributors. In reading some emotionally raw (but very well written) words from the months after 8-29, and in the back and forth with contributors, I have had a lot of occasion to think about nakedness in creative non-fiction and in poetry. I encouraged a contributor to stick with what was originally submitted instead of a much revised version because what we wanted was that immediacy, that nakedness. I worried if that was unfair in a way because I was asking her to reveal more than I do here. In the end we accepted the revision, and it’s good. Its not quite as visceral as the original but its good. Was it fair to push this person further than I push myself? Was I projecting my own desires onto their work? This is my first project as an editor and you find yourself asking a lot of question like this.

So, what are the limits? TheRumpus.Net isn’t just an excellent source of lazy links for worn out bloggers but concerns itself with this topic a great deal, as editor Stephen Elliot writes very nakedly about his personal life in his own work, and his contributors frequently return to this subject. What are the limits, I ask myself time and again. I agonized for almost a week before I posted Hospital. My mother was almost improving by the time I hit the publish button so perhaps it was even dishonest. Some people might think so but I don’t. Dishonesty is the mortal sin if you’re going to write from your own life. It was a snapshot of where I was in time a week and a half ago and a very personal one at that. Fortunately my mother doesn’t read things on the Internet, or she’d probably be mortified. (Think of another word. Quick. Can’t. Too tired. Never mind.)

There is an interesting quote in this piece (cribbed from The Rump; so sue me, its the Internet) but I’m not going to reproduce it here. If you haven’t wandered back to Google for whatever it was you were looking for in the first place, if you’re still reading this, then go read this. I think the money quote will jump out when you read it.

I am careful about what I post here, probably too careful. But I have a job, and unless you know me and I’ve told you where I work you probably can’t suss out what The Counting House is. I have a family, and I think sometimes my children read this although my wife doesn’t. There are limits once you’ve made certain life choices, limits that hold back what you can publish and what gets tucked away and what gets written in your head but never put down. You can’t be dishonest–I’ve said that–but sometimes you have to be disingenuous, to couch things carefully or work around omissions.

I’m a tremendous fan of Stephen Elliot and just devoured Jim Carroll’s Forced Entries twice through, and both men write about as nakedly out of their own life as anyone can. I can promise you I will never describe what happens if I have an abscess and it bursts not because it’s repulsive but because I may never be able to write about my mostly uninteresting life as powerfully as Carroll does about his in that book, may never make you care about the person behind this screen in the way Carroll does for himself, to make that grotesque moment perfect and cathartic for both the subject/author and the reader.

Some of my favorite books are to some extent about the author moving through the landscape. Bernard Moitessier’s The Long Way comes to mind, in which case it is the author moving through the sea scape. Unless you’re a sailing nut or a serious student of environmental writing, you have probably not heard of Moitessier or his books. This one is about his participation in the first solo around-the-world race, a race he never finished. This isn’t the heroic literature of the sea or arctic exploration (topics that fascinate me) but a book about his experience of the ocean, of his own journey of self-discovery, a book that succeeds so compellingly that you are fascinated by his account of being becalmed and feeding sea birds.

And that’s what I do here, or try to. I started out trying to write about New Orleans (and sometimes succeed) but often end up writing about myself in the landscape. It is a formula that seems to work for me, to accomplish my goal because landscape without character and event is a subject for painters. It was probably inevitable that I would end up in these posts as much as the city does, because most of what I have written for the last five years, here and on Wet Bank Guide, was not about New Orleans in a sense that would sell to the National Geographic or Southern Living, but about the experience of New Orleans, specifically my experience.

The quote at the top of this post is from one of our contributors to the book, will in fact appear with the dedication if I can convince Sam of the idea before we go to press. I like that quote (which is all of the bio Pierce submitted) because it summarizes our book so well, and also what goes on here on Toulouse Street. “This is not the quiet tap of civilized literature; this is the loud raw truth of life.” It is not, however, the whole story. I am neither Moitessier nor Carroll. My life is not that fascinating, and there are limits. The subject need not be eccentric or a genius or otherwise exceptional for highly personal writing to be interesting. The secret, I believe, is to get the “loud raw truth of life out.” I don’t quite get there in this space. The secret to the whole story is hidden somewhere in that link above, and until and unless I cross that boundary this will never be the whole story.

And in the end it is, after all, just a blog. I’m shocked that you’ve read this far, really. Both of you.

It’s been a slow week for somebody if not for me, and the coming week promises more of the same as the listing are thin, but here’s what it is.

Join us for a night of local poetry focusing on conservation of our treasured Lousisiana widlife and wetlands during these troubling times.

*The Language of Conservation is an initiative of Poets House in partnership with the Audubon Nature Institute, the New Orleans Public Library and a consortium of zoos and libraries nationwide. It is made possible by a National Leadership Grant for the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

§ On Sunday August 1 at The Maple Leaf Poet Laurie Williams reads from her work, followed by an open mike.

§ Authors and photographers including Elizabeth Kleinveld, Tom Varisco and John Biguenet, sign the photo and essay book Before During After, at 6 p.m. Saturday July 31, Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St.

§ August 26th. Watch this space. Save the date. You won’t be disappointed.


1. Marco - July 29, 2010

Ah, the raw unfiltered truth. Can one be totally truthful given that we try to describe what is happening internally? Subject and object are the same. We have no Archimedean vantage point.
I have written things that have pissed people off. I really should have altered the names more to appear less recognizable. In the case of my family, I did not make any attempt to disguise names. But it’s done. I took down a post about an acquaintance friend, but I felt that I had to write about it because, well, I had to.
On the suss, I sometimes receive a letter in the mail from Fargo. Hmm? I know you can’t comment here about that.


2. sam - July 31, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic for a long time. Chose use of a pen name to give the family plausible deniability, which could be a cop out in itself, but Twain, Voltaire and a multitude of others didn’t think so. A dear friend, the one in fact who pushed me to submit a piece a few years ago, said one night, “You’ll be awesome when you stop editing yourself.” I keep remembering that and hope to get better at the “stop editing yourself” thing. Although it’s really scary in some ways as one has to accept the consequences of that. It’s not the writing of it that’s difficult, it’s the willingness to accept the fallout.


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