Friendship, Favors, and Toxic Influence

The summer before my junior year of college, I was in therapy. Again. I was seeing this counselor for a number of reasons, and the help I received was incredible, but the thing I remember most is the only time she ever interrupted me. I’d been telling her about a person I knew from my freshman dorm, and I said, “I have this friend–well, he’s not really a friend–” She stopped me to ask: “If you two aren’t friends anymore, why do you still call him one? I was surprised because I’d never thought of my relationship to that person having ended, even though I never saw him anymore and we hadn’t spoken in two years at that point. I mean, I sometimes refer to complete strangers on Tumblr as my “friend,” so it’s safe to say my definition of the word is a bit warped.

I’m coming up on the one year “anniversary” of my leaving Virginia and moving to South Dakota. In this past year, I’ve thought a lot about what friendship actually means to me. Do I like this person, or do I just like things about them? Do I not really like them, but like that they care about me? Do I like how liking them makes me feel about my own emotional capacities (because sometimes I worry I’m slightly sociopathic)? The truth is, I am still working on it. But I’ve made a lot of progress, and I’m proud of that. I’ve become better at recognizing when a friendship sours, when an attachment withers. And I’ve become better about leaving.

I only have one friend from middle/high school. I think I actively stay in touch with, at most, four people from college. And now I’m making new friends in grad school, but I can tell that only a couple will last. How many of these people have I already had my last conversation with?

A turning point was reached today. I saw on Facebook that a person I was very close with in college was upset that she didn’t win a photo contest held by our alumni association. I wasn’t surprised by my complete lack of sympathy, because the first time I’d heard from her in over a year was when she messaged me to tell me (not ask me) to get people to vote for her photo. She only reached out because she wanted me to do something for her. And now, reading her post where she rails against the contest result (her cat photo had the most likes, but the alumni association specifically stated it was a contest for dog photos), I realized that if I still lived in Virginia, still had an active presence and entanglement in this person’s life, I would be upset, too. But I don’t. So I’m not. Honestly, I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. Maybe I just didn’t get why her participation was so important to begin with. Maybe I just don’t have the energy today.
Or maybe, just maybe, we aren’t friends anymore.

My brain immediately jumped to: “Well, I love M and I love her cat, so I should be irked, I guess.” I felt ashamed that I didn’t care about this person being upset, ashamed that I called my mom to vent about it and ended up laughing and saying, “It’s literally the stupidest thing.” Once the guilt of my initial reaction wore off, I realized something. I don’t love her. I may love the way I remember her, but she’s a totally different person now. I do not know her, and we are not friends. I suddenly felt relieved.

There are so many instances in popular culture that depict friendship as something that must last forever. Some of these depictions are ones that are dangerously codependent and frightfully unhealthy. Someone that is important to you today will not be important to you forever, and coming to terms with that is the most valuable emotional step a person can make. We hold on to toxic people who only reach out when it benefits them, who don’t really care about us, who actually may not even like us anymore but feel obligated to hold on to us too, because we are constantly told that for a friendship to be great and legitimate, it has to last. Be unbreakable. Be permanent and unchanging, even when the individuals change. This static perception of friendship is dangerous. Our attachments need room to be nuanced, to be fluid, and yes, even to be broken off.


Revised Summer Stack: Scrappy Little Nobody

There’s a few memoirs in my revised stack, and for good reason. I love memoirs. Can’t get enough of ’em. I had a three-day lull in my reading, so I willed myself (with great fucking effort) to get back in the saddle. I turned off my computer (which meant turning off Netflix in the middle of my Dexter binge-watch, and that was by far the most daunting part of the whole thing), made myself a snack, and then curled up in my bed with Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick. I did not move from that spot for the five hours it took to read.

(The speed-reading in which one might see me engaged during the academic year is reserved exclusively for my coursework. I’m surprisingly capable of enjoying a leisurely pace when I’m reading literally anything else.)

A majority of my staying in one place was, of course, an incredible amount of willpower to not. put. down. another. damn. book, but also the fact that I didn’t want to put down Kendrick’s book. I’ve often found it quite easy to make distinctions between things I enjoy about a book and things I appreciate about a book — there is a difference, and it’s as simple as saying that just because I can appreciate what an author is doing (as a writer) does not mean I enjoy what the author is doing (as a reader). But with Scrappy Little Nobody, those demarcations weren’t as easy to set in my mind. The Venn Diagram of things I appreciated and things I enjoyed was almost just a circle.

Scrappy Little Nobody has an interesting structure for a performer’s memoir. What I’ve found is that a lot of performer memoirs are organized on a very A-to-B-to-C progression of their careers, with light sprinkling of personal insights to fill the gaps between professional developments. (The most glaring exception to this, in my reading experience, being the previously-posted-about Odd Birds by Ian Harding.) In Kendrick’s book, the first few chapters were almost exactly that, but as the writing progressed, I began picking up on some interesting play with a non-linear narrative flow. Though a lot of the “early life” things were structured around her auditions and her jobs, once Scrappy Little Nobody reached the point at which Kendrick went off into the world on her own (from Maine to L. A., without a car), the text was organized more as a collection of short essays and musings focused on a selection of topics. Thematic, rather than strictly chronological. The essays within each thematic section (ranging from relationships to publicity, to fashion, to friendship) were arranged chronologically when it benefitted the Main Point, which was often a perspectival shift. In the section on boys, we start with the childhood crushes, to the early romantic relationships, to exploring sex, to her current view on it all.

There were two other things I found particularly enticing about Kendrick’s book (besides her vocal clarity and comedic timing) were her use of footnotes, and the presence of a small section at the very end that was designed as book club questions. As the inevitable hour in which I must get serious (more serious?) about my thesis draws ever nearer, I’ve begun to accumulate (from more contemporary nonfiction) stylistic choices with which I want to experiment. I’ve tried to implement footnotes in a similar way to what Kendrick has done here — not in a research-based, citational way, which is obviously the traditional and most widely-accepted use of footnotes, but to use them in a way that adds additional information while maintaining a tonal consistency with the regular text. I’ve tried my hand at this before, to some measure of success (at least I think my professor liked it???), and Kendrick’s footnote usage gives me hope that it can be done, and done well.

What I appreciated and enjoyed about the “reading group questions” in the back of the book was that it kind of poked at the fact that a lot of these books in the contemporary nonfiction/celebrity memoir genre are often book club selections — and it was another opportunity for Kendrick’s humor to shine. Many (read: all) of the questions were hilarious, and ridiculous, and even a bit absurd. It was a solid fourth-wall break, and closing with a section that steers the book into this kind of meta territory is an intriguing choice. I’d need to sleep on it to say anything more insightful about it. Don’t worry. It’ll come.

I have no idea what from my list I’m going to read next. If it’s not Ronda Rousey’s My Fight / Your Fight, then it’ll probably be Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. I know. Wildly different options, those. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that my taste in books has become what some might consider to be disturbingly eclectic.



Revised Summer Stack: Odd Birds

I am trash for celebrity memoir. Specifically memoirs written by performers. As a human with a performing background of my own, I’ve long been drawn to similar individuals, those whose method of storytelling is achieved by their personal physicality in a given space. My preoccupation with performer memoirs began in 10th grade (or maybe it was 11th?) when I read Kristin Chenoweth’s A Little Bit Wicked. Chenoweth, for those who might not know, originated the role of Galinda in Stephen Schwartz’s hit musical Wicked, which is a minor character elaboration for Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. My mom and I would rock the fuck out to the soundtrack, so when I realized that Chenoweth had a memoir published, I had to get it. And read it. Immediately.

And thus my fascination with memoir began. I’ve read a lot in these few short years since Chenoweth’s, and as I gradually shifted away from performing to almost exclusively being a writer, I started thinking about my own work with memoir. I’d done a few short CNF pieces during my undergrad years, and I’ve recently written some larger, longer CNF pieces in graduate school. And, now that I’ve figured out what my MA thesis will entail (a lot of CNF), I’ve begun to examine how I want to write my life. What do I want to emulate from the many, many memoirs I’ve read? What do I want to avoid as though it were a plague? Most importantly: how do I want to frame this story?

My favorite memoirs all have successful frames. Their organizing principles are quite clear. For Chenoweth’s, it was structured around performance history. For Ronda Rousey’s My Fight / Your Fight, it was her sports history, segueing cleanly from childhood classes, to her Olympic debut, to her entry in the UFC (I’m leaving a lot of personal-life stuff out, but you get the idea). All of the personal stories about love, loss, conflict, etc. were grounded in very clean progressions of their career. They ping-pong eloquently between the professional and the personal.

But Ian Harding’s Odd Birds is framed quite differently. Knowing of Harding from his work on the television show Pretty Little Liars, in which he plays one of the series’ most divisive characters, I expected his life-writing debut to be centered largely on PLL. I was anticipating lots of behind-the-scenes details and conversations with castmates – not quite like a tell-all, but maybe something close to it. What I found instead was a refreshingly non-linear collection of anecdotes and short essays, the organizing principle of which was not performing, but birding.

Birding, y’all.

Harding is a birder.

Some of my favorite chapters were ones in which Harding (and occasionally a friend or two) would go out on a long hike somewhere in California in search of new birds to look at. I enjoyed them not only for what revelations Harding experienced during the trips, but how birding quickly became the connective tissue for his personal and professional stories. His oldest passion links his life together in a beautiful way, a way in which that passion reveals truths about his profession, and helps him navigate and understand his place in the world. Perhaps my favorite of those truths is that, as Harding puts it, finding work as an actor is often a lot like trying to locate something new as a birder. Sometimes you think what you’re seeing is a condor – rare, elusive, once-in-a-lifetime – but it’s really just a turkey vulture – surprisingly similar to the rare thing at first glance, but it’s more common than you might think.

Similarly, Harding writes that on the condor trip, he learned that sometimes you get very caught up in what you did not see, what did not work out, that you miss taking stock of all the cool things you did see on that journey. You lose sight of the things that did work out. Harding might not have seen the condor on that particular hike, but he writes that he did see at least five kinds of birds he’d never seen before. Which, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty amazing.

I think the non-linear structure works well for Odd Birds, because Harding isn’t as invested in the point-A-to-point-B style that a lot of other performer memoirs fall into. His writing is more about the big moments, the lessons learned, etc. When you ask someone, in a real conversation, to tell you about the defining moments of their life, they don’t disclose them in a nice and tidy chronological order. You get the things that immediately stand out to the person. The things that matter most, perhaps in no particular order. Information is delivered when it is most pertinent, when it can have the biggest impact. It’s a bit like what Harding writes about bird books. In the front, you see pictures of an albatross or a shearwater, “birds most people never lay eyes on” (251). These bird books are not in order of oldest-to-newest, or smallest-to-largest, but are instead frontloaded with rarity. Big, amazing, spectacularly uncommon birds.

To me, that’s what I want my life-writing to be like. I want to share the impactful stuff, and I want to do so in a way that is unburdened by day-to-day, A-to-B connectivity. I want it to be scrambled up and colorful, Funfetti-style, because that’s what the parts of life worth writing about truly are, I think. It’s a mixtape without skip-songs. It’s a bird book with the albatross right up front.

Revised Summer Stack: everyone’s an aliebn when ur an aliebn too

I have never encountered a book quite like Jomny Sun’s latest work. I picked it up from the Sioux Falls Barnes and Noble for two reasons: (1) I follow Jomny on Twitter, and I think he says good things; (2) Lin-Manuel Miranda’s endorsement of the book is on the back cover…and so is Patton Oswalt’s and Joss Whedon’s. I spent about thirty minutes wandering around the B&N stacks before giving up and asking an employee, who looked only mildly frustrated when I disclosed the title of what I was searching for. (“What was the rest of it? When You’re An Alie…bn?” “Yeah, but it’s u-r. ur.”) I got the last copy the store had in stock – way to go, Jomny! – and immediately went home and read.

It felt like it took me longer to find the book in the store than it did for me to sit down and read it (and then spend a little bit of time crying over it). You see, it felt that way for a couple of reasons, the first being that the book is illustrated, so the pages (panels?) actually go by rather quickly. The second is that once I got a few pages/panels in, I did not want to put the damn thing down. I was hooked. Then I was shook. It’s rare for me to find a book that pulls me in that fast and that intensely. (The only other one I can think of off the top of my head was Woolf’s The Waves.)

Warning: here be spoilers.

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Summer Stack Update

It’s no longer happening – at least, not in the way I originally planned for it to. The thing is, it’s not that I don’t want to read those things I piled up for myself. I do. If I had my way, I would read every damn book I saw. But, as Lemony Snicket once said, “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read.” And this has been my problem. I’d been going through most of my higher education at full speed ahead, with little regard for my own mental, physical, and emotional health. All those bad habits finally caught up with me, because this summer was the first time in a long time that I didn’t absolutely have to be working. It was the first time I wasn’t taking a full load of summer classes, or working several jobs at once. I had time to just…sit. Seemed great in theory. Not so great in practice. I ended up just kind of stewing in all of the bad habits I’d spent years building up, and I was so run down that I slept for almost fifteen consecutive hours because I had zero energy. And it was then, after waking up from what I’m pretty sure was a small coma, that I decided I didn’t just want to make a change – I needed to.

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Summer Stack: A Lover’s Discourse

I’m almost two weeks behind on the reading schedule I set for myself because I got really caught up with this one. But listen: every “extra” day spent with Barthes was totally worth it. I initially was most interested in how A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments is constructed as a text. Y’know, the container, the form, more so than the actual content and ideas communicated by it. Lover’s Discourse is precisely what its title says: fragmentary. In my work on my creative thesis, I am preoccupied by these kinds of fragmentary and/or hypertext-inclusive books – such as the “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas” chapter in Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, and Barthes’ Mourning Diary – in which the reader is able to construct a unique experience of the story from a pool of numerous potential stories. Where you don’t have to necessarily read the whole thing in order, or even read the whole thing at all, maybe just sticking to the entries that you find particularly captivating.

As such, my writing about Lover’s Discourse will be a bit fragmentary as well. I usually write in the books I read, but since I borrowed this from a professor (who generously let me borrow many, many books this past spring), I made notes on separate sheets of paper, jotting down certain lines I wanted to think about a little more, and some lines that I just thought were beautiful. Occasionally I even note my professor’s notes (as he writes in his books, too) – “H writes: ‘What does this mean?’ Perhaps…” – and extrapolate my own line of thought from there.

And we’re on our way.

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Summer Stack: A Man Called Ove

Ove is the sort of man who checks the status of all things by giving them a good kick.

Yesterday, I was catching up with one of my professors, and he asked me what I thought of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. I responded: “I’d forgotten how nice it is to read a book that isn’t challenging.” At the time of that assessment of the novel, I was still about 75 pages from the end. Having finished the book last night, I can safely say that I stand by my answer. Ove was an easy read, and a welcome break from the mental aerobics I’ve done this past semester reading Woolf, Lawrence, performance theory, narrative theory…which is not to say that Backman’s book is better or worse than any of that. It was different. And difference can be good (refreshing, even) when it arrives at the most opportune moment.

My cousin, from whom I borrowed Ove, told me that the ending would make me cry. I was skeptical. I vacillate between not giving even half a shit about anything or anyone one day, and caring entirely too much about everything and everyone the next. The possibility of me crying at the end of the book would really depend on what kind of day I was having when I finished it. But I cried, y’all. I cried like a baby. A hungry, angry baby.

I thought the structure of Backman’s novel was quite effective, as was his economical use of dialogue. There wasn’t a lot of speech in quotes, but when it happened, it did a damn good job, particularly during the scenes in which Ove communicates with Sonja, his wife, before we learn that she passed away. When it’s revealed that all of the one-sided conversations Ove has with Sonja are actually him speaking aloud, alone in front of her grave, it works. (I cried there, too. And again when he rescues a “Cat Annoyance” and brings it to Sonja’s grave with him; he gets emotional and the Cat Annoyance pushes its face into Ove’s knee – goodness gracious. I was WEAK.)

Backman provides for the reader little bits of information that are expanded upon in the repetition of the same kinds of scenes. We seem to learn about Ove at the same slow pace as his new neighbor, Parvaneh, does – although we get quite a bit more than she does, and she mainly figures him out on her own. Quite perceptive, that one. That being said, I had a hard time staying invested in Ove’s story. His past was easy for me to attach to and feel for – he was orphaned and became perhaps too self-reliant, then he fell into such a beautiful love with a phenomenal woman whose death brought Ove’s life to a complete halt. But Ove’s present action was where I ran into trouble.

An old fiction-writing style guide I have tells me that you never give a character a serious “hang-up” without giving him a chance to get over it. Ove in the present has a lot of serious hang-ups, and much of his getting-over-it does not happen until the last hundred pages or so. (Here I must note that the novel stands at 337 pages.) And even then, I’m not sure I buy into his growth. It happens so slowly until those final chapters, and then it rushes together in an instant. For me, it didn’t feel like he actually changed and opened himself up to Parvaneh’s family and other people in the community (Jimmy, etc.). It seemed more like he let them all run roughshod into his life because he eventually figured he couldn’t stop them from doing so. Ove couldn’t make them go away, so he allowed them to infiltrate his carefully-ordered world. It benefitted them, sure, but I’m doubtful that it benefitted Ove enough to fully overcome his “hang-up.”

Growth. That’s what it was all about. Ove believed that men were what they did, not what they said. This echoes a Terry Goodkind quote I adore: “Mind what people do, not what they say, for deeds will often betray a lie.” Therein lies the explanation of why Ove is so disdainful of just about everyone and everything in the ‘modern’ world – it’s full of people saying things, but not so full of people doing things and fighting for things. So when I finished the novel and thought about what Ove did, and the things for which he fought, his growth is packed into those final chapters before he dies.

The ending, with all its beautiful prose and effective organization, felt almost too neatly tied up. Ove grew because, for the novel to end satisfactorily, he had to, at least a little. But, I suppose, a little is better than nothing at all.

It was nice to read something purely for pleasure. I mean, I find all my reading to be pleasurable, but by “reading for pleasure” I mean that I read something that was not selected for me. I wasn’t assigned this, nor did I have to write anything about this. (I’m doing these posts to synthesize my thoughts and keep my brain working over the summer.) I enjoyed Ove very much, despite my uncertainties expressed here. I was moved by it emotionally, as a reader, and also stylistically as a creative writer.

Sometimes you come into a book thinking, “Ah, yes, a break from learning,” and it ends up teaching you something anyway. Funny how that happens.

Next up on the Summer Stack is Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Expect to see something for that around Wednesday next.