Tag Archives: friends

Pink Houses, Yellow Wallpaper, and Green Lights: Your Guess Is as Good as Mine

(I apologize to any and all English teachers in advance. I really do love you.)

Last night we had dinner with a lovely group of people I haven’t seen in ages. Our conversation bounced from funny work stories and weddings to physics and Breaking Bad, took a strange detour into dirty Shakespeare jokes before coming back around to the terrible things teachers do to their students (several of us are teachers). After relaying a couple stories about eating in front of kids and not giving a crap, somehow, we ended up back at Shakespeare.

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that Shakespeare meant for the ghost of Hamlet’s father to be real,” said the one English teacher in attendance. I wanted to bring out that the uncertainty of Hamlet’s sanity (arguably one of the major themes of the play) puts even the existence of the ghost into doubt, since the ghost is what triggers his host of erratic behavior. However, I felt it unwise to argue with an English teacher.

My husband though is not so skittish. He recalled his experience in high school reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees as one long argument with his teacher. One major point of contention: the color of the famous pink house. She posed the question to the class, “Why did the author choose to make the house pink?” My husband, revealing himself as maybe not a literary scholar but certainly a budding skeptic, replied, “Because she wanted to add some descriptive detail and pink is very descriptive.”

BZZZZ! WRONG ANSWER! While many things in literature are up for interpretation, according to your garden variety English teacher, symbols are DEFINITELY NOT ONE OF THEM. Disagree with this sentiment and prepare yourself to do battle.

Following the relaying of this anecdote, my physics teacher friend piped up with three little words: “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Everyone groaned. 

“I don’t see why it had to mean anything more than her going crazy!” she said. “Because she was definitely going crazy.”

“Well it has to mean something. It’s called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ for Pete’s sake!”

It definitely means something. I’ve just come to the conclusion, after years of reading and years of writing, that authors (and especially English teachers), have no business telling us what that something is.

Let me make one point clear: I’m a big fan of symbols. What I’m not a fan of is being dogmatic about them.

Oh sure, there has to be limits. I’m not calling for Anarchy in the UK Lit:

“The green light represents the color of dollar bills, therefore symbolizing Gatsby placing money above his aspirations of true love!”

“M. Night used the color red to symbolize life because red is the color of blood which is the essence of life!”

“Dorothy’s Kansas was black and white because Oz was real and Kansas was the dream world! It’s the Matrix with Munchkins, baby!”

(Okay all these are American examples sorry I failed at extending my comic metaphor.)

Maybe the author intends a certain interpretation. Maybe the entire work is constructed around that interpretation. But I’m going to be so bold as to say that’s her interpretation, and she has no business imposing that upon her readers, beyond the words she’s written in the book. Sure, it’s her book, I’ll grant her that, but that doesn’t give her the right to be dogmatic. If that was her goal, she would have become an English teacher, or included a decoder ring and handy glossary of literary definitions telling us exactly what her crap’s about. Instead, she spent 100k words getting us to think about what her crap’s about. If she could have said it in any less, she wouldn’t have written a novel. She would have written a term paper.

It’s like any work of art. I can stand in front of the wall that is Guernica in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and know the history behind the painting, know what Guernica is and what Picasso had painted about, but what I bring to my viewing is entirely my own. Maybe I can’t look at it and say it’s about any old thing (like making breakfast or slaying giants), but no one can tell me my reaction to it is wrong if I view it in complete honesty (and I stood in front of that thing for half an hour with tears dripping down my cheeks).

The best part is, you don’t have to know a thing about the Spanish Civil War to have an honest reaction. Some things are universal while some things are intensely personal. Often, the two overlap.

I say all this not because I’ve had battles with many an English teacher, but because I’ve noticed symbols cropping up in my own writing, completely without my bidding. I understand how fragile they are. Once I seize on one, try to pin it down, nurture it and extend it throughout the rest of the work, more often than not it disappears.

Symbols aren’t deliberate. They’re fungus, sprouting from the very makeup of the work, from the fertile ground of the subconscious. As the writer I can have a hunch about what it means, but anything more tends to kill the mystery and smacks of mental and emotional shoehorning. I try not to tell my reader how to feel or what to think. I trust her to be able to do that herself.

That being said (and here is where I add another disclaimer), we all owe a great deal to English teachers. Good ones show you how to approach literary criticism on your own terms, show you how to have a dialogue with the text, and open up new worlds of critical thinking and reflection. Without English teachers, I’d probably still be reading Illustrated Classics.

Possibly easier to read than the original.

(I promise I’m getting to that post about taking “Show, don’t tell” too seriously. The ideas are mostly there but need a good stitching together with a healthy dose of narrative logic. I swear, if tell myself I’m going to produce something my brain rebels and goes on hiatus. I’m reminded of the famous Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” I’d never make it as a freelancer. Even traditionally published novelist is looking unlikely.)

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Personal Archive: “How to Lose a Friend”

(Note: I wrote this essay a couple years ago for English 101. See this post for background info. All photos are from our trip and taken by me.)

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She followed me all over that island.

From the moment we stepped off the plane, I went and she followed. When we arrived at Euston Station and stood before the map of Technicolor spaghetti that’s the London Underground, I pointed and she followed. From Manchester to Ilford, from Beddgelert to Edinburgh, I got the directions, copied the confirmation numbers, reserved the rooms and read the maps.

Maybe she couldn’t do it herself. Maybe she didn’t want to. But for the first time in our lives, she was completely willing to let me take the lead, and with that sort of trust, how could I refuse? With every step I heard her voice just behind me, the fall of her feet and the straps of her backpack clinking. So it’s strange to me, looking back on a friendship three years dead, that it was on that trip I started to lose her.

No two people can be exactly alike, much as they’d like to think they are. Even in our childhood it was evident Emma and I didn’t share certain interests. A love of art, language, music and beauty: the obvious things were the things we bonded over. Things you can feel with your hands and hear with your ears. We painted together, watched movies and made clothing, played guitar and obsessed about the Beatles, all at shared levels of enthusiasm. But when I wondered out loud what the songs were about, or what the artists were feeling when they applied paint to the canvases we both loved so much, she would laugh and ask why I bothered with those kinds of things. As much as I tried, I couldn’t give her an answer. I just did. I saw things that were not there, thought about things that didn’t exist–not anywhere outside my own head.

However, that was beginning to change. With a lot of work and a little bit of magic, I was learning to make them exist, for real, in the world we both inhabited. That’s what I was trying to do with my story about Dinas Emrys.

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As we were planning our month-long tour of the UK, I made one thing clear: I wanted to go to Wales. Not just any part of Wales. Snowdonia, specifically the village of Beddgelert. I wanted to climb Dinas Emrys and take pictures of the ruins while I was on the same continent. It was my only stipulation.

You can find it easily; a mere stone’s throw from the A498, you don’t even have to get out of your car to get a picture of it. A rocky hilltop with a shaggy pelt of bushes and scrub running along its back, Dinas Emrys embodied everything I was struggling to express with my writing: rich history, hidden treasure, a tapestry of folklore and actual ruins you could visit, touch, feel and experience. Here at last was a physical link between the world of my imagination and the world everyone else inhabited. There was no way we could pass up an opportunity to visit.

Honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised with the way it turned out. Hiking for miles up to your knees in mud, following a meandering course up an obscure hilltop it’s technically illegal to climb, all to take some pictures of a pile of rocks isn’t high on many people’s list of things to do before they die. Maybe I was expecting too much out of her. Maybe I was just hoping for a little bit more.

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“I’m gonna go back to the room and watch TV for a while,” she told me over scrambled eggs and oatmeal in the bed and breakfast dining room. A dark-haired family in the corner spoke softly in Welsh, their words sounding like a limerick over the tinkling of forks and spoons.

“But. . . I thought we were going to Dinas Emrys today.”

She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Again? We went yesterday.”

“We just went by and took pictures. Today I want to climb to the top.”

I have lovely pictures of us that day: her standing by a stone shed almost completely covered in moss and lichen; her in front of the lake; another one of her in front of the lake; and the obligatory me as a speck in a field, with my mountain as the backdrop. That entire trip, the only pictures of me are the ones I coaxed her to hold my camera and take. If she didn’t come, who would take my picture at the top?

“You can go,” she said, her voice taking a sharp turn up. “But I wanna stay in the room this morning.”

Our room had been a deal, but that’s the extent of its praise. We slept in the attic, with the only view of the windswept countryside being straight up, through the skylight.

“Emma, this is why we came to Wales. I have to climb that mountain.”

“Then climb it.”

“I don’t wanna go by myself.”

I should have mentioned the movie premier in London I endured for her, the press of people twenty-deep against my back, a man dressed as a pirate nearly knocking me down when the stars passed within autograph reach. My camera held those pictures too, and she’d looked at them every day since.

I should have mentioned it, but all I could think about was being alone, for the first time, in the wilderness of a country that wasn’t mine.

“Please, Emma. Come with me.”

“I told you, I don’t want to go. It’s going to rain and I’m tired and we went out yesterday. My shoes are still wet and I have a blister. We’ve been travelling for weeks and all I wanna do is lie around and watch TV and do nothing!”

The family in the corner stopped talking. I looked down at my eggs, half finished and cold on my plate.

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I climbed it, of course. This wouldn’t be much of a story if I didn’t. The pictures are a swirl of green moss, black earth and grey sky. I sat on the ruins of the 11th-century keep and thought about characters that would never come to life, a story that would die in my mind. I wiped the rain from my lens and started down the mountain, imagining–as always–I heard the footsteps that did not follow.

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Our Secret Worlds and Facing Reality

Near Dinas Emrys, Wales, one of my secret worlds. Photo by me.

We writers live in a secret world.

It’s evident from our faces, which go blank at inappropriate moments, our eyes searching for something we can use to scribble down a line. It’s evident from our obsession with subjects that wouldn’t interest most people past a Wikipedia stub, and it’s evident from the massive gap that appears between our world and our attempts to ground it in reality. All artists, I believe, live in such a world, and all art (from the Latin word for craftsmanship) is an attempt to bring those worlds into fruition.

When I was younger, brimming with an entire universe of secret worlds, I thought this set me apart from everyone else. After all, none of my friends had characters banging on the inside of their skulls and threatening death and dismemberment unless they hurried up and finished the dang book. (True story. Please don’t call the mental health police.)

In fact, outside the online community, where it seems everyone and their illiterate cousin is writing a book, you many never once run into another writer in the wild–and if you do, you’ll most likely be too buttoned-up for either of you to know it.

But that’s okay, because everyone has a secret world. We writers just have this overwhelming drive, like all other artists, to share ours with others. And for some reason, we think this makes us special, when all it does is isolate us from those who cannot help but fail to “get it.”

Because that’s the thing about secret worlds. They’re intensely personal, the sum of all our life’s experiences, and how can we possibly hope to properly articulate that? Sometimes I envy all those people who are content to simply occupy their secret worlds, never once feeling the urge to share it with others. It would certainly make relationships a whole lot less complicated.

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I have a piece of personal writing planned for an upcoming post, but first I wanted to write about the ability writing has to isolate us from the rest of the world–because that piece clearly illustrates how I let that happen. And there’s the key: I let it happen. I made the choice to go where my friend could not hope to follow, then held it against her to the point of souring our relationship.

The truth is no one can follow us into our secret worlds, not even other writers. That’s why we put so many hours in front of a keyboard or holding a pen: we desperately want to communicate our worlds in ways others can understand. Without others, we’re alone.

The title of my personal piece is “How To Lose A Friend,” and I wrote it a couple of years ago during a particularly low point of my life. Naturally, in trying to make sense of it, I blamed it on someone else (which is so easy to do when you’re no longer speaking). Even though I’m happy to report we’ve patched things up, having both gone through the painful process of growing up and experiencing life’s uncertainties, I feel compelled to share this piece because I think it’s a mindset we writers fall into so easily: Us and Them. Us, the great misunderstood, and Them, the uncultured cretins.

(What’s particularly interesting about it, I think, is the friend I lost happens to be an artist herself, and a rather good one. Make of that what you will.)

I’ve taken the liberty of changing her name, not because I’m afraid someone might recognize her, but because in the end, it wasn’t really about her. It was about my narrow-minded selfishness. I chose to isolate myself within my world, and I paid the price most bitterly. I can only hope that I don’t make the same mistake again.

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