How to Quit, and Why

Last year I read Middlemarch, a novel by George Eliot. It was my second attempt at reading this book, my first successful. The first time I tried to tackle Middlemarch, about three years ago, I quit at about 700 of 1000 pages in. Maybe it was the Dickensian digressions into nineteenth century British politics; maybe it was the glacially incremental forward motion of the three major love stories, two of which are unhappy; maybe it was the umpteenth passage employing that old chestnut, the quadruple negative—whatever it was, I didn’t like it, probably because I didn’t get it, which is not a way I’m used to feeling around books.

I didn’t even try to get it. It didn’t help that my first attempt at Middlemarch came at a time in my life when I was drinking a lot—too much—and words like “Rector” and “Whig” really don’t go well with a hangover. Drinking is a diet for the mind, and I was burning brain cells at a high rate. I think part of the reason I was trying to read Middlemarch then was because I wanted to inject some semblance of intellectual activity back into my life—wanted to return to some former, less weary version of myself who went to the library, not the bar, every weekend.

So some of success my second time around with the book had to do with the fact that I no longer regularly drink hard liquor, and that I had already struggled through two-thirds of the narrative (though that didn’t stop me from heading over to Shmoop at the end of nearly every chapter to read a bullet-pointed synopsis of exactly what just happened and why it mattered). But why had I been compelled to pick it up again in the first place?

I am the kind of person who feels obligated to read the classics (this is a syndrome known as FEMGu: Former English Major Guilt). I’ve read that Middlemarch is considered by many authors to be maybe the best novel ever—perfect in its sprawling imperfections, real and uneven in the manner of its human life, rather than the form of its literary forebears. And yet still undeniably a novel, with its strong narrative voice, its heartbreaking dialogue, its somewhat Gothic plot twists and coincidences, its call-and-response with those literary forebears.

You don’t, however, see me scrambling to read Ulysses. My interest in Middlemarch mostly has to do with the fact that it’s one of the only regularly cited “best ever” novels written by a woman. The lives of authors fascinate me nearly as much as their works do—particularly the lives of nineteenth century female authors, who did the very thing I dream of doing, in a world that gave them one thousand more reasons not to. I wonder what it would be like to write in a drawing room, with a dip pen, in a corset and a petticoat, at the expense of one’s “work,” that is, sewing and needlepoint. I wonder how gender affects what we choose to write, how the push and pull of the normative life expected of a woman might influence her creative decisions—what to write, when to write, how to write, if to write. I wonder how different technologies—ball point, typewriters, computers, electricity—change the act of writing. I wonder about the nineteenth century world in general: about its innocence, its scientific discovery, its vast societal changes, its unawareness of its hurtling along toward its extinction. I wonder how texts written by the sheltered, second-class gender of that world could manage to last and speak to women in this one. How could one write something like that, is what I want to know.

Around the same time I gave up on Middlemarch, I gave up on a novel I had been writing for six or seven years. My novel was terrible. The worst. The final resting place of bad metaphor: “her focus as un-pin-downable and far off as a turkey vulture circling in a high blue sky”; “her exuberant youth seemed to waft everywhere around her like a perfume.” When I began the novel, I was determined not to write about myself. I consciously rejected that cardinal rule of authorship: write what you know. I fancied myself a disrupter of conventional wisdom who would upend a long tradition of navel-gazing debut novels produced by the American MFA farm system. I imagined chuckling with Terri Gross.

I ended up writing hundreds of pages about things I don’t know anything about (old age, being a mother, being a widow, growing up in the south) and it showed. Thus I spent seven years of my life teaching myself, the hard way, something that everyone already knew and had tried to tell me. Good writing always rings with truth, and, at least for the novice, the way to get fiction to ring with truth is to mine your own experience and emotions. No one is interested in reading the ham-fisted byproduct of your principled stand against perceived narcissism, and no one beyond your friends and family will ever know that your novel is loosely or even very autobiographical—until you get famous, which won’t ever happen unless your novel rings with truth.

Now, for better, more intelligent, or more practiced authors than I, writing beyond the circle of your firsthand experience is absolutely possible. Middlemarch is the ne plus ultra of multiple perspectives. Eliot’s pen convincingly inhabits the minds of both genders; teenagers, new mothers, bachelors, the elderly and the dying; multiple industries, including medicine, politics, religion, law, art, railroads, surveying, and horseracing; and every class, from the wealthiest frock-coated landowner down to coarse Mrs. Dollop, proprietor of the Tankard pub in Slaughter Lane.

Eliot, I have come to find out, was a huge champion of empathy. She believed in the power of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. She believed that engaging in this act on the individual level would subtly improve the entire world, and that this was one of the most important functions of fiction: to give us the opportunity to adopt new ways of seeing. And she certainly had the intellectual capabilities to go there in her own writing (although some of her portraits are distinctly less empathetic than others; the homely humble governess is dealt a much better hand than the beautiful blonde coquette, which is fine by me). You know who else talked a lot about the importance of empathy to fiction, and fiction to empathy? David Foster Wallace, whose novels work to sprawl and encompass multitudes in exactly the same way that Eliot’s do. Infinite Jest may in fact be the Middlemarch of the twentieth century.

Giving up on my own novel was incredibly liberating. I decided to give up on it after reading a pull quote in a woman’s magazine, in an article about small business owners. The proud proprietor of a wreath-making company described how she had failed in an earlier career. The pull quote read, “If you try hard at something for a long time, and it still doesn’t work, it may be time to let that go.” That was all it took. That was all I needed to hear. I was raised in an era of quitters never win, and I needed permission to give up. Quitters may not win that game, but sometimes they get to move on to something way more fulfilling.

I was also raised in the era of the individual trophy, of you can do anything if you put your mind to it, and it was a strange thing indeed to realize my own limitations. To accept that I may not in fact be intelligent enough to write the kind of fiction I want to write, or that at the very least I am at the base camp of my skill level, with decades of hard work ahead of me. It feels so good, in the end, to be humbled. I think this too is why I went back to Middlemarch: I found myself suddenly much more tolerant of studying at the feet of a master.

And when I finally finished reading it, I understood at last what Virginia Woolf famously said about Middlemarch: it is a novel for “grown-up people.” Not only because reading it takes patience and a willingness to explore foreign perspectives. Above all, reading Middlemarch requires a familiarity with failure. At its core it’s a book about longing, the adjusting of expectations, the downsizing of dreams. All of its main characters are keening and pining and reaching for something more—an aspiration, a calling, a “purpose-driven life,” in the modern parlance—and almost all of them fail or fall short.

And so it turns out, books can also have empathy for us.

Advertisements

The Quarterback Bangability Index

Though I’ve never really concerned myself with understanding the particulars of the game, I can honestly say I love to watch football.  I like the sounds of football: the curt shouts, the knocking about of helmets, the referee whistles, the stadium roars.  I like the stories of football: because there are so few games per team per season, every matchup has great potential for drama.  I like the psychology of football: the way an offense can be forced to pass when it wants to run, or run when it wants to pass; the suicidal expressions of kickers who’ve just missed a potentially game-winning field goal; the Roman-gladiator-victorious-style celebrations after sacks, interceptions, touchdowns.

But you know what I best about football, better than all these things combined?

The pure, unadulterated man-candy.

Continue reading

that for which I am thankful

Just a note of warning: this post is really long and boring and scant on celebrity references.  Proceed if you dare.

Thanksgiving is a lovely, really lovely, holiday, isn’t it?  At least in thought, if not in action.  There’s nothing too lovely about being stuck on a tarmac at Laguardia for three hours and missing your connecting flight to Detroit where you will spend the remainder of the long, very long, weekend with various and sundry members of your extended family, including your stultifyingly boring cousing Kori who wants you two to “hit the great Black Friday sales at the Oakcreek Bridgewood Mills Mall, especially the one  at Boscovs, ooh and at Fredrick’s of Hollywood so I can get something special to wear for me and the hubs’ two-and-a-half-year anniversary” (although as far as you can tell, the “hubs”, i.e. your cousin-in-law Kurt the accountant, hasn’t looked in Kori’s general direction since the NFL lockout ended) and your great-uncle Herbert who smells like urine.  But in principle, Thanksgiving is an entire day given wholly over to thanking people for stuff.  Continue reading

Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire as answered by the cast members of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Adrienne: Being buried alive and then breaking out of my coffin and scratching my way to the surface of the earth. Like that scene in Kill Bill. Can’t you just feel the splinters in your knuckles, the dirt under your fingernails? God that scene makes me hard.

Continue reading

pop culture sonnets

1.

Britney, our national nighthawk, dulcet

Songbird of the dark: your melodies pump

On Red Bull wings, video body wet

With oil, while in backs of bars, we dry hump.

 

Sometimes we recall your salad days: your

Pigtails, promise rings, sports bras.  E-mail my

Heart, you warbled in twang on your mall tour,

In fact innocent, not knowing, that by

 

And by, you would dance down roads of madness,

In a diamond jumpsuit, with snakes, slaves, strange

Toxic lovers, your face full of sadness.

You shaved your head, swung umbrellas, deranged.

 

Confess: your loneliness was killing you,

Our little bird with the pink dice tattoo.

 

 

2.

Up goes a collective national sigh:

Oh Kim, must we see your face everywhere?

We wait for sweet release, our last goodbye,

We tire of your drama, your lips, your hair,

 

Your hips, your eyes– they repeat on newsstands

As if reflected in funhouse mirrors.

Your makeup Van Gogh-thick, your wedding band

Ring Pop-big, a Pigpen-swirl of rumors

 

Surrounds you. An American Marie

Antoinette for these recessionary

Times, beware!  Ryan says, Let them watch E!

But a Reign of Terror approaches thee—

 

Off with her head, cable customers vote,

Making guillotines out of their remotes.

 

 

3.

I swoon for Laguna Beach, paradise

Found: Pacific vistas, infinity

Pools, caramelized highlights so precise

Hairstylists must be part divinity.

 

Kristin Cavallari is its Venus,

Her hoarse laugh and monotone inflections

Somehow bewitching to ev’ry penis:

She surfs the sea; they all get erections.

 

High school bitch priestess wielding her power,

Ruling her heaven with a shearling boot,

Her stretch palanquin rented by the hour—

The limo, her throne, her prince, always cute.

 

Then graduating, she moves to L.A.,

Where The Hills will take her power away.

The Last Great American Prejudice

Recently I was watching “Fashion Police” on E! because, well, because it was on.  As you may know, I love fashion, and celebrities, and stupid punny jokes like those often made on Sex and the City (For example: “Lawrence of my labia.” It’s like you want to laugh, and kill yourself, all at once.)  So you would think that I would love Fashion Police, which is a nexus, a sort of Constantinople, if you will, of all these things.  And yet– I hate Fashion Police.  Of course, there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to television.  I judge you if you watch Jersey Shore– yet I have watched Road Rules-Real World Challenges religiously for years.  All the Real Housewives franchises are inane hour-long anti-plastic-surgery PSAs– except for the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which I adore.  Watching RHOBH is like watching a collagen arms race from behind a two-way mirror.  Dancing with the Stars is criminally boring– but America’s Best Dance Crew is innovative and inspiring.  It is possible I like ABDC mostly because I’ve been a Mario Lopez fan ever since my first Zack and Slater gangbang fantasy occurred back in the 90s.  I mean, who can resist this confection of stonewash and silk:

Nice happy trails, boys. Continue reading

And now for something even more superficial

Here at Turkey Curry Buffet HQ we are instituting some changes.  (TCB HQ is located in the ball pool of my local Chic-Fil-A’s Kidz Fun Zone, in case you were wondering.)  Firstly, I am going to try to publish at least one blog post a week (maybe more!).  A forced uptick in quantity may result in a decrease in quality, because usually I just write a post when graced by the muses with some sort of specific topic idea (my muses are Miss Piggy, Winona Ryder in the shoplifting video, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s nether abdominals (yes, just yes) in case you were wondering) but who are we kidding?  All ye who enter here have obviously abandoned all hope of intellectual or literary “quality” in the first place.  Continue reading

pessimism vs. optimism

Things that make me feel 28 years old:

1. Twitter. #whatthefuck does @ll this shit (RT, FF, DM, bit.ly) mean? And what on earth can you possibly say in less than 140 characters (including spaces)?  Especially when half of them are smiley faces?

2. Drugs.  When I was 13 I could name you every kind of drug you could do. This is not because I was one of the cool “bad kids” from an After-School Special, like these two, for example:

but rather because of forced participation in three or four years of D.A.R.E! To Keep Kids Off Drugs classes administered by MacGruff the Crime Dog.  (Who, as an aside, I am pretty sure I considered one of my best friends for a large part of fourth grade.  I have always been REALLY COOL.)  But lately I keep hearing people reference drugs I’ve never heard of.  Molly? Roxy? Dexy? Isn’t this the lineup for Jem and the Holograms?  (P.S.: If the Farrah-Fawcett-haired demigod from the above picture had been tempting high school me (overweight, bushy-browed, corduroy-wearing high school me) with a pinky nail of angel dust, you know my shit would have been sniffing it up like a Sunflowers ad in Seventeen magazine.)  (D.A.R.E.: surprisingly not that effective!)

3. Hemlines.  I mean, I am all about miniskirts, and when I am 45 you will probably still be able to find me in line at Forever 21 (no, this sheer leopard-print top is not for my daughter), but have you SEEN the hemlines of the skirts girls are wearing these days?  Often on my way home from work, usually after midnight, I drive by a strip of college bars.  And each night, as I wait at this or that stoplight, I watch girls blithely crisscrossing the pavement, noses buried in the blue glow of a text, in Clydesdale platforms and skirts so short they’re basically crotchless panties.  (These are the same girls that didn’t understand my Jem and the Holograms Halloween costume last year.)  If you set one pinky-toe down in any part of Saudia Arabia in one of those things you’d be instantly shot and set on fire.  Or in any Catholic school, for that matter.  I mean, call me old-fashioned, but I have thighs that touch together.  Whatever happened to the below-the-fingertips rule of hemlines?  These skirts barely make it past your labia before they give out.

4. Speaking of college kids, the fact that when I I.D. someone at work, they have to be born before this date in 1990.  NINETEEN NINETY, people.  In 1990 I had already outgrown my mom’s shoe size.  I had already had my first crush– on this blonde kid in Miss Sipp’s class who I think got expelled for carrying a bowie knife to school.  (We were already carrying bowie knives to school!) I had already decided that when I grew up I was going to be the blonde girl from Can’t Buy Me Love.  I had already committed my first act of theft (I stole a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy– why I remember this, I don’t know, but it was some kind of car with a Tiny Toons character in it– from Devon Russell’s desk) and consequently had already learned about “guilt” (I stayed up half the night, unable to sleep, and furtively returned it to said desk the next day).  Meanwhile these fucks were still sleeping in hospital bassinets.  So no.  No, you may not have another amaretto sour, Kaitlyn.  And pull down your skirt, for God’s sake.

5. Willow Smith.  But on the other hand, wouldn’t you rather have your childhood of mom setting you and your brother down inside a giant carboard box with two fistfuls of markers when she need a few hours of “quiet time” and getting excited about hand-me-downs from your out-of-state cousins and furtively sneaking in to Boys on the Side at the mall movie theater and eating an entire bag of Warheads while reading Madeline L’Engle books on the secret hill behind your brother’s Little League field than… hers?  Who wants to appear on The Today Show as a 10 year old?  Only assholes, that’s who.  If 10 year old me (shy, clumsy, buck-toothed, giant-footed ten year old me) had been forced to appear on The Today Show, I would’ve gone on stage and immediately urinated myself.

6. Side tattoos.  When I see someone on the beach with a tattoo like this:

I just shake my head and think, Oh, shug. You’re going to be so fat one day.

7. The ever-increasing intensity of my hangovers.  I swear to God, they’re so bad sometimes I hear the noise from Contact inside my head.

Things that make me feel 28 years young (this segment brought to you by Activi-AAA):

1. Live band karaoke.

2. Being able to buy WHATEVER KIND OF CEREAL I WANT at the grocery store.  No, the novelty has still not worn off, mom.

2a. Getting whatever toppings I want on my ridiculously oversized ice cream sundae.

3. Getting the for-grown-ups jokes in Pixar movies.

4. Miniskirts! I love them.

5. When someone tells me they’re 23, I always immediately think of how happy I am not to be 23 anymore.

5a. The realization that I am actually kind of excited to turn thirty (we’ll see what I’m saying this time next year, though).

6. The fact that I still secretly fantasize about getting a tattoo.

7. The fact that my dad still swears there is a Santa Claus.

Lies I’ve Told

1. “Oh wow– you got another tattoo.  Yeah, I love it!  It’s so cool.”

2. “Mom, I’m coughing because I just got over a cold.  No, you know I quit smoking months ago.”

3. “I can’t afford it.  I mean, I have a savings account– duh— but obviously I don’t want to dip into that.” (The first sentence is true.)

4. “Yeah, no, for sure, I definitely don’t want to be in a relationship either.  I am just not ready to settle down with, like, you know, just ONE person!  That’s crazy!”  Let me tell you something right now.  I will never, ever say this again.  For the rest of my life.  Or at least not until after my first divorce.  I never thought I’d be one of those women who uses the phrase “I’m too old for this” but GUESS WHAT.  I’M TOO FUCKING OLD FOR THIS SHIT.   And this is coming from someone who is, in fact, somewhat of a commitmentphobe.  I haven’t had a legit boyfriend since college.  (When I tell people this, they look at me like maybe I secretly have AIDS.  Are you looking at your computer monitor as if it secretly has AIDS?  Dick.)  I am terrified of heartbreak.  I leap willfully into the laps of men I know– whether through their reputation or my instinct– will never become my boyfriend because then I know that at least I will never have to go through a breakup with them.  I’d rather mess around with you casually and get hurt in many small ways, than actually be truly intimate with you and run the risk of eventually being hurt in one major way.*  And I am a total cocktease.  I will flirt with you like crazy and then scamper away at the first intimations of penile insertion.  I am scared of letting my sex number get too high.  I am scared of getting pregnant (what this has to do with having a boyfriend is rather vague, as modern technology has made NOT getting pregnant really quite easy, but I thought I’d throw it in for good measure).  I watch all my friends getting engaged and married and buying homes and having babies and making families and I think to myself, Am I crazy?  Well, yes.  Being afraid is a waste of time.  I’m also scared of flying and if I never got on an airplane again, I’d miss out on some of the best parts of life.

But I guess another part of it is that I’m also pretty weird.  I think sometimes I am Camilla, and I just haven’t met my Gonzo yet.  And I think if I did see Gonzo from across a crowded room, and time stopped and “Dance At The Gym” from West Side Story started playing, I would probably say Fuck it and twirl my multilayered mambo skirt right on board the love-plane.  HOWEVER: if, once on board, Gonzo turned to me and said “Camilla, I don’t want to be in a relationship right now” I hope to God that I would, at long last, have the balls to say “Okay. Goodbye.”  First of all, if he doesn’t want to be in a relationship with you, he’s probably not your Gonzo.  I’m all for taking things slow, but please.  We all know when we’re absolutely batshit crazy about someone (and I sometimes think men feel these things even more deeply than women do): you don’t ever want to let them go.  And sometimes you know someone’s not your Gonzo and you just keep fucking around with them anyway.  And sometimes you think someone IS your Gonzo, and they just don’t feel the same way.  I never thought I’d be one of those people who says “That’s just the way life is” but you know what?  That’s just the way life is.  Rejection sucks hard, but continuing to dick around with Gonzo after he’s directly informed you that he’s not “ready” for a relationship, thereby indirectly informing you that he’s not, in fact, batshit crazy about you, is not ever going to make you feel better.  Of course, if I had followed all this advice for the past decade, I would’ve missed out on so much fun.  So, who I am to tell you not to make like Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally?:photo“He just spent $120 dollars on a new nightgown for his wife.  I don’t think he’s ever gonna leave her.”

5. “Can I have five packets of honey mustard?  I promise, they’re not all for me.” Said with a knowing smile and a “my friends– who sent me on this run to Bojangles; I would never come here just for me— sure are crazy” shake of the head.  I never lie to the kid in the Chic-fil-A drive-through, though.  There’s just something so fresh-scrubbed and gee-darn about the high schoolers that work at Chic-fil-A that I can’t even bullshit them.   I just look little Beaver Cleaver straight in the eye and say “Six packets of Chic-fil-A Sauce please.”**  Even though I know after he hands them to me he’s really thinking “My pleasure… fatty.”  I believe that S. Truett Cathy puts just the tiniest pinch of heroin in every packet of Chic-fil-A Sauce to keep the DeKalb County housewives nice and docile.  And coming back for more.  Can’t you just picture the little children strapped in the backseats of Land Rovers, lustily protesting, “But Moo–ooo–oom, I wanna eat at the Whole Foods salad bar!  Awww, no!  Not Chic-fil-A again!” while Mom silently pilots the SUV past the waving cow into the parking lot, wearing a look of grim lockjawed determination normally seen only on the faces of meth addicts navigating the streets of Detroit in winter in search of a fix and a VCR to dismantle, one bead of sweat trickling down from beneath the shimmering blonde lowlights at her temple.  Chic-fil-A Sauce is more addictive than cigarettes that give you an orgasm.  And thank God no one’s invented those yet.

*I apologize for my use of the word “intimate.” Usage of sex words that end in “y”– intimacy, panty, titty– should be avoided at all costs.

**I still can’t get over the name “Beaver Cleaver”.  Surely the creators of Leave It To Beaver knew what they were setting up when they chose their protagonist’s name, much in the same way that Disney animators knew what they were setting up when they drew King Triton’s castle?