Posts tagged Lance Olsen
Inventory of the Tea House Woman

Yesterday, I reminded myself of my working deadlines: by the end of July, finish the next draft of Fit Into Me so that in August I can begin Beauty. I also wrote yesterday about how Ron Carlson says that his "credo is: just follow, approach the unknown with simple knowns, stay in the physical world, figure what could be earned by what has gone before." Or, take stock of what you have, what you've already written, and see it through. And so today, perhaps more for myself than for you who may be reading this, I present, here, my existing inventory of the tea house woman: 

In 2011, when she first came into focus, she was simply a character I called "the teacher." (To read, just print and fold.) A lot has changed since then, but a few details remain: the bathtub, the DVD-delivery boy, the teacher's love of dance. 

For the next year or so, I began amassing a stockpile of images that could help me envision who she was. Originally, my only reason for being on Pinterest was to create boards of her life. For instance: here are snapshots of her childhood; and here are her teen years; this is what the tea house woman loves most; this is what she dreams about and this is what she plans to one day give herself; here is the tea house's yard; here are the tea house's daily tea parties; this is what Christmas looks like at the tea house; here are some of the tea house woman's favorite things; this is the level of attention to applies to her life and work; here is the nursery at the tea house and here are some of the children; and here are some of the dresses that her friends from WTMA and Desire have made. In all the years since beginning these Pinterest boards, I have only added more and more images. At some point, I had collected so many images that I gave up my original constraint-based idea of integrating every single image/prompt into her life story, but now that I'm thinking deeply about "seeing it through" and working with what I have, I'm re-inspired to spend some time with these so I can think about how to use at least some of them.

In Feb 2012, I was asking some serious questions about what I thought I knew about her. I suppose I was taking stock of the material I had written about her, hoping to figure out more about who she was and what she wanted. Re-reading that post now, I got all the feels from this particular 'graph: "I tell you I have loved the teacher since Philadelphia, where I discovered her and first began to tell her story. I was a different woman there. So much has changed. So much time has passed. And now — why now? — she reaches for me across time and distance, asking me to do this thing, to find the rest of her story and tell it."

In March 2012, I decided that instead of a junior high teacher, she should be a kindergarten teacher. I think I've pretty much scrapped that idea, though. I really don't see her now as someone who would braid a flower for anyone. 

In January 2013, I was still thinking about her — but none of what I wrote about her here really applies anymore. The most significant difference is that instead of envisioning this actress to play her in a movie, I see this one or this one instead. 

In April 2014, a little over a year later, I had my first real breakthrough. She would no longer be a teacher, kindergarten or otherwise. Instead, I realized that the character as I knew her could be applied to the character of the tea house woman who had appeared first in We Take Me Apart as bride-to-be and then as widow in Desire: A Haunting. I wrote brand new pages for and about her, understanding finally that this character had the right to tell her own story — the right to exist in the center rather than in the margins of other women's stories. Soon, I had fragments toward the beginning of a short manuscript entirely devoted to her.  

In November 2014, I wrote about the difference (as I thought of it then) between experimental and innovative fiction. In that post, I seemed to be having some sort of existential crisis about the tea house woman and my creation of her. 

In July 2015 — after returning home from YWW (then known as YWC) — I revisited those fragments, added new fragments, and interspersed them throughout a collection of essays, most of which were adapted from earlier blog posts (that have since been removed from this site). It was then that I began to see how the title of the book, Fit Into Me, meant fitting the tea house woman's story into my own (or was it mine into hers?). Today, I believe her story is the center and that mine, in the margins, serves hers. It was at this point, though, that I realized I had a full-length nonfiction/memoir manuscript instead of a shorty story-in-fragments. 

But the manuscript was missing something. So that same month, I wrote a new essay that brought all the pieces together. This new essay, titled "Why I Write," is currently the Preface of Fit Into Me. The earliest draft of this essay was published here, and the first line is now: "Because I am an orphan."

In August 2015, after she had read the entire manuscript, Amy Minton responded with this single, perfect question: "How did you write an autobiography in which one can name very few facts about you but KNOW you?" 

Lance also responded: "Fit into Me . . . strikes me in the end as a text of orphans: about an orphan, of course, but also about orphaned-ness as a state of being, and an orphan text made up of other (always-already orphaned) texts deliberately orphaned from their 'original' context and yet loved as only an un-nuclear family can be loved, and loved as polymorphous lovers — the whole written as a confession that knows confessions exist as simply one more genre among others, which is to say as lyric (and, to a certain degree, even ludic) criticism. . . . I enjoy even more how tender, lonely, smart, hurt, stunning, and stunningly self-examined (which somehow my auto-correct just gave back to me as “self-exiled,” which I absolutely adore) Fit into Me is, how it embraces in-betweenness as a way of moving through the world, which, of course, can always only be just one more text, if a text that can sometimes feel like everything."

In January 2016, I submitted it to the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. 

In July 2016, Graywolf editors wrote to say it had been shortlisted. At that time, I was submerged in historical texts, preparing for exams, but a week or two after Graywolf's email when I blogged my notes about Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ConfessionsI was already beginning to think about the next iteration of Fit and what would need to go in it. 

For basically the next two years, I did little else but study for exams (destroying relationships with friends and family, because that's what happens when you turn off your phone for two years and ignore all emails from addresses without at the end). I taught my semester-length courses but then came home and studied. I read probably 10-12 hours a day, and blogged about what I read as frequently as possible. I knew that time was mine and I believe I spent it well. Those two years were the pinnacle of my intellectual development thus far, and I am now doing everything in my power to give myself this next year as well — to keep reading (although admittedly not at that same pace) and to write as much as possible. (Here's a log of all the books I've read so far in 2018 — mostly poetry collections by writers of color, published in the last two years.)

A few months ago, in March 2018, I submitted a nonfiction fellowship proposal for Fit.

After reading the sample I submitted, Melanie wrote: "At its heart, Fit into Me is passionately autobiographical: an orphaned Asian child adopted by older Russian Orthodox American parents now faces a second abandonment as she contemplates her parents’ mortality. The work is composed almost entirely in spare, elegant, lyric lines, and this challenging poetic strategy enhances the sense of the speaker’s restraint, her desire to somehow contain grief through form, to avoid or at least delay the devastating wave of fear threatening to whelm her at every moment. The vast white space on every page seems to signify this inchoate despair: for every line that appears, ten are left unspoken. In this way, the piece also evokes an awareness of existential sorrow, the sense that we are all ultimately alone, all confronting the confusion and terror of our limited lives in fragile bodies. Despite very different circumstances, the reader may begin to feel the speaker’s wild imaginings as part of her own psychic environment. Again, the white space — with all its openness, all its possibilities — invites the reader to contribute to the telling, to pause and breathe long enough to begin dreaming her own stories, to become a collaborator and a performer, to mediate loss by participating in the delightfully pleasurable process of playful invention." (The "wild imaginings" she's referring to are the fragments of the tea house woman's story that interrupt and take over my own.)

So that's where I was — that's everything that I knew about the tea house woman, about this book, which I described in that proposal as follows: "I imagine Fit Into Me as an experiment in the possibilities of regeneration through reparative writing, a memoir-in-fragments that emerges and swells through a series of intense, nonlinear, often mysterious scenes composed in prose tercets (inside of which fits a novella titled “Fit Into Me” (inside of which fits a sonnet sequence (inside of all of which fit literary quotations about the pleasures of reading and writing, of sex and love and desire)))." This is everything that was living inside me as I returned again last month, for the first time in a long time, to the manuscript just one day after my semester wrapped, when I tried (and failed) to figure out "pine torch" and immediately LOL'd and gave up on "pine torch" and left it for another day. 

A week ago, after returning home from YWW — again inspired to get back to work — I shared that I was ready and it was finally time to dive back into this manuscript once and for all. 

The next day, I dug deep, I saw it through, and I finally figured out what to do with "pine torch." 

Which brings this blog post full circle. Yesterday, I reminded myself of my working deadlines: by the end of July, finish the next draft of Fit Into Me so that in August I can push forward with Beauty. 

Why are project proposals so hard to write?

My dissertation proposal took about a year to write, although, to be fair, it wasn't a yearlong sustained effort. More like: over the course of a year, I intermittently asked various advisors for editorial guidance — Lance Olsen, Melanie Rae Thon, Scott Black, Richard Preiss, and Andy Franta who spoke on behalf of the entire graduate committee — and as their suggestions and concerns and questions came back to me I incorporated little bits here and little bits there until finally, one day, I was done. 

I've been working on another proposal, though, for Fit Into Me for like three years and it just won't come together. I've wisely ditched the first draft — never to be submitted, never to be seen by human eyes again (one hopes, at least)! So then last week during spring break, I attempted to force the second and the radically different third drafts into submission, but they're not right and today is the day I admit, finally, that I know it and have known it all along. So today is also the day I start over, again, using whatever tiny shreds of phrases and sentences I have that might yet be salvageable.

Wouldn't it be great if proposals just came together like wildflower bouquets and we could hold them out to the people who need them and say, "Here! Aren't they beautiful?" but instead, here I am trying to figure out what I'm doing wrong by talking about how it's all so very wrong, and all I really know is that I am the loser of this dumb drama and despite this I have to go away now and try again. (I thought I'd blog at least, to jog the typing muscles, and write 20 lines, but counting this line I only got to nine. Let's call it ten.)

The Royal Ball: A Site of Female Protagonists' Psychosocial Development

Madame Lafayette's The Princess of Cleves, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina each features a fairy tale-esque ball. I've been wanting to write something about them but haven't known where to begin. After watching the 2012 movie adaptation of Anna Karenina, though, that desire became a sort of compulsion. The entire movie is choreographed intricately, every single scene, but it's the ball that steals the literal show for me. (If for no other reason than because, at some point very soon, I'm going to have to turn to my slow-to-develop line of inquiry about bodies, embodiment, and movement and spatiality, as I've yet to really contemplate how my outside-the-English-department committee member, and DGS of the university's Modern Dance Department, fits into all these things. But Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's update of the historical waltz, while staying true to some things, like palms not touching, makes more use of the upper body for cinematic and dramatic effects. Again, Lance's question dies hard: "How do we write the contemporary and not just retell the stories of our past?") 

Anyway, here goes nothing:

In all three novels, the occasion of the ball instigates major evolutions in the psychosocial development of the female protagonists.

Lafayette's ball most closely resembles the royal balls of fairy tales, but in her novel the Princess of Cleves only meets the object of her affections; and, as we know, she will spend the entire novel not acting on her feelings, harboring them secretly at first but then not-so-secretly after confessing them to her husband. The princess's psychology is easy enough to read. Her mother's dying wish was that her daughter would not yield to temptation and become a fallen woman. Out of guilt, the princess dutifully honors her mother's memory. Likewise, her emotionally devastated and miserable husband's dying wish was that she would not yield to temptation and injure his memory. So even after his death, when she's free to love whomever she pleases, guilt and duty again keep her from marrying her prince (in this case a duke). Lafayette further dramatizes the princess's act of self-denial by including a scene in which her uncle makes clear he approves of their union, and goes out of his way to arrange a secret meeting place for them where they can do anything they like, wink wink. But no, in Lafayette's romantic court drama, the ball (as we expect it to) allows the romantic hero and heroine to fall in love at first sight; but Lafayette unexpectedly subverts the fairy tale and romance novel traditions by (not simply denying them their happy ending but) damning them to live miserably and unhappily ever after. 

Unlike the Princess of Cleves, Emma Bovary doesn't meet a fairy tale prince at the ball. Her desires, however, like the princess's, become clearer to her. She wants the fancy life. She doesn't want to be a country bumpkin. She wants to find a prince worth falling for. She doesn't want her boring, unambitious nonentity of a husband who doesn't mind being a country bumpkin and who thinks she's the cutest country bumpkin of all.  By bringing Emma so close to the romantic cliche, so close she touched it, ate and drank from it, danced without her husband in it, slept the night in it, Flaubert plays a cruel trick: now that Emma's had a taste of the finer life, she knows what she's missing. (Remember how she had wanted a romantic, lamp-lit wedding at midnight, and how her father dismissed the notion without even stopping to consider it. The ball delivers on that sentiment in a way that her provincial wedding didn't even come close to.) To my knowledge, no fairy tale ever stopped in the middle of the ball for the heroine to admire the tablecloths and subsequently fall in love with things. Flaubert's ball, like Lafayette's, subversively denies us our romantic love and happily-ever-after expectations. 

If Emma's life had been the Princess of Cleves', no doubt she would have screwed her dead mother's and husband's wishes and lived happily ever after with the man of her dreams. In a grand, secret gesture that Emma would have loved beyond compare, the duke even wears the princess's colors during a jousting tournament. This is the kind of stuff Emma died for. (Lafayette, it should be noted, also subverts this scene by making the tournament a historical reenactment, no more realistic to the jousters than a Renaissance Fair is to us. The participants are simply playing parts, and they are supposed to be enjoying themselves, both indulging in and poking fun at the old romantic tradition. And Lafayette surprises us again, by accidentally stabbing the king in the eye with the splinter of another jouster's lance. He dies.) 

Anna Karenina is more complicated — in basically every way. Tolstoy lets us into the minds of all the lead players in the drama. We see how actions aren't, for lack of a better word, linear. Instead, when Anna dances with Vronsky, we know why she does and how she feels about it. We know how Vronsky feels about it. We know how Kitty feels about it, how her mother feels about it, and how her father feels differently. We know how society members attending the ball feel about it. And we readers have no idea how we're supposed to feel about it because without a single character to follow or latch on to, our attentions and affections are divided and conflicted. We sympathize with Anna, who is acting on her desires, but we also sympathize with Kitty who has been devastated and whose entire worldview has been shattered. It is from Kitty's point of view, too, that we first saw Anna at the ball and, through her eyes, admired Anna's black velvet gown and her radiant beauty. Anna's betrayal and Vronsky's failure will haunt Kitty for much of the novel, and in those scenes where we continue to see the world from her point of view her pain is ours. We are also let into a secret that nobody knows. After the ball, the narrator reveals to us from a distance that the ambitious and career-minded Vronsky had never considered the idea of marrying anyone, so the thought of proposing to Kitty would have never even crossed his mind. (Later, when he turns down a promotion to stay in the city, near Anna, he becomes a much more complicated character, too.) Even without Anna stealing the show at the ball, Kitty would have ended up rejected and confused. So the ball is the site of Kitty's dashed expectations (which is not how a ball is supposed to go for any princess), and it is the site of Anna's first indulgence in forbidden love/passion (which is not how a ball is supposed to go for a married woman), and it is the site of Vronsky's first successful physical interaction with Anna (which is what balls were made for, probably, but in this case it is also the beginning of the downward spiral of his life and career).